Safari South Africa: Quest For Feathers and Felines in Northern Kruger National Park

C. Fraser Claire

Exploring Kruger National Park - From Mopane and Tsendze Rustic Camp to Shingwedzi and Sirheni and Punda Maria in the Far North of South Africa

Exploring Kruger National Park into its Jungle Book Northernmost Parts: Overlooking the Rest of the African Continent

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Buffalo Near Mopane Rest Camp, Kruger National Park, by The Safari Store

Mopani and Tsendze Rustic Camp

We know Tsendze Rustic Camp well - our work-from-the-bush location for over a month. Every day, we would game drive into Mopane Camp for mobile signal and, by night, we would take in the peace among the mopani trees at this rustic satellite camp. It’s a camp that’s easy to – from the lovely camp attendant, Elina, with her owl knowledge and gorgeous smile to the bend in the road on game drive routes.

The luxury of extended time means the luxury of pausing for the little things – the call of the Woodland Kingfisher late in the year, the almost comical sight of the Kori Bustard in flight, the glimpse of mottled owlet feathers, Ground Hornbills flying onto the great boughs of baobab trees, and a Yellow-Billed Hornbill feeding its mate through a hole in its sealed nest.

By the same token, the big things could make a day. We watched hundreds of buffalo sweep through the area and saw lions and cubs next to the river on our way into work one day. On an afternoon drive, in the white haze of summer heat, we were alone with mating lions too focused on each other to move out of the beating heat of the sun.

On a later family camping trip, we saw cheetah stalk and hunt warthog, using the reservoir walls for cover and lionesses so big they could win a prize for size. We were outrun by ostriches – fast feather dusters – startled by the cars. We ground to a halt on noticing a leopard lying like a big-city statue on a termite mound and fell asleep to the sound of roaring lions on many nights.

The patternless behaviour of wildlife and birds punctuated the rhythm of our days. Work, game drive, campfire, repeat. →

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Cheetah Near Tsendze Rustic Camp, Kruger National Park, by The Safari Store

Spots and Stripes
The afternoon heat was intense as a pair of cheetahs gave us a lesson in patience. From relaxing in the shade to the stealth of the stalk and, finally, the chase, the world's fastest land mammal puts on a show no matter what they're up to.

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Shipandani Overnight Hide, Kruger National Park, by The Safari Store

Sable and Shipandani Hide

If you’re ever given the opportunity to sleep in a hide, take it! This is part of the Kruger offering in this section of the park, with daytime hides transformed into exclusive overnight stays. The boards on the walls are unlocked and released to become bed frames and very comfortable beds, mosquito nets are strung up, and it’s just you and the view until the gates open in the morning.

In the afternoon, a bag of linen, hurricane lamps, and a wooden box of cutlery and crockery arrives. The boma is unlocked, with a firepit and barbecue facilities. As the light recedes, the sound of cars on the main road peters out until the hide is surrounded by darkness, human silence, and almost trance-like night sounds. At Shipandani, we watched the waterhole until the last light of day and then settled around the fire, shining our torches over the fence to see hippo grazing and hyena starting the night’s patrol.

We left the hide shutters down when we went to bed that night (all the better to see the starlight) and I woke up the next morning feeling like I’d had a night out in the open in the bush – with a safety net. There was no time to lie about, however – the first game drivers were on their way and the cycles of Kruger begin again. →

Giraffe Near Mopani Rest Camp, Kruger National Park, by The Safari Store

No Tall Order
No matter what you're hoping to see on a Kruger safari, every sighting is a chance to observe beautiful African wildlife.

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Shingwedzi and Sirheni

While we were staying at Tsendze, we would use the weekends to take long day drives to Shingwedzi. The subtle changes to the landscape give way to deep rich, red soil and riverine trees and bush. From my first visit there, something inside of me breathes a whispered, internal “Leopard” as we drive those roads. And, on one early morning drive, leopard indeed – up a leafless tree with an impala kill.

It turns out there is something else my restless, internal game driver voice should have been saying: “Bat Hawk”. Apparently, the area is a great place to spot these elusive birds – and my game drives have been more focused on the boughs of trees than what lies beneath them ever since. One day…

There are fewer game drive loops in the immediate vicinity of the camp compared to other camps, but I have a far wilder feeling up here. Into the mopane gauntlet we go, meeting the disdainful gaze of many a dakha boy – gnarled boss and mud-encrusted hide almost a hologram against the butterfly-shaped leaves and mottled trunks of this hardy plant.

Over the bridge and along the river, we got glimpses into the (mostly) dry riverbed through occasional gaps in the trees. There, melting into the sand, two male lions dozed away the heat of the afternoon in a patch of shade. It took eagle eyes to spot them and lion-loving patience to watch them through binoculars for any tail twitch. As the crowd grew around our gap in the bush, they rolled, rose, and watched us through dozy eyes. →

Lioness at Frasersrus, Kruger National Park, by The Safari Store

We met the disdainful gaze of many a dakha boy – gnarled boss and mud-encrusted hide almost a hologram against the butterfly-shaped leaves and mottled trunks of hardy mopani.
Buffalo Near Shingwedzi Rest Camp, Kruger National Park, by The Safari Store

The Point Of It All
Like male lions, dakha boys carry quiet stories of war-like lives on their bodies. Often, they also carry colourful, tick-picking companions too.

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Leopard Near Tsendze Rustic Camp, Kruger National Park, by The Safari Store

As we drove away, one set of fiery eyes were replaced with another. Up in the trees, the feeling of being watched made me look upward and a Pearl-Spotted Owlet observed our passing, turning its head to reveal the ‘false eyes’ at the back of its head at the last minute.

The slower pace doesn’t mean any less excitement. We made our way through thick mopane to have a look at Sirheni Camp. We had heard from fellow campers that it was their favourite camp in the park for the feeling of remoteness – something we understood well after finding it tucked away in its own very special pocket of bush – a place unlikely to be visited by many curious game drivers or day trippers.

In camp, we heard from the lovely cleaning staff that a resident leopard at Shingwedzi kept everyone humble to the wildness of the place. The sky threw up incredible bold colours of light as the sun retreated – until the light of fires took over. This has become one of my favourite camps for its feeling – thatched bungalows that give one an idea of what it must have felt like to visit the camp decades ago. →

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Punda Maria area, Kruger National Park, by The Safari Store

True North
The feeling of the northernmost parts of Kruger National Park is different. Palms, riparian forest, and the promise of transfrontier feelings as you reach South Africa's borders all give the area its own unique appeal.

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Punda Maria and Crooks Corner

The most northern camp is at Punda Maria. The drive there is heady with mystique – a stone’s throw from South Africa’s neighbours, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, separated only by natural markers – the river. Crooks Corner is an historical site at the corner where the Limpopo and Luvuvhu Rivers meet – a no man’s land where unsavoury characters crossed international borders when fleeing the law.

Whether the history interests you or not, the views from this point are magnificent – open far into the distance to the curve in the river. A whole lot of north lies beyond this northern part of South Africa and this is a great place to take in the fact with a cup of coffee and a pair of binoculars.

My first visit to the area around Punda Maria gave the place a Jungle Book feeling I haven’t been able to shake. Red river walls, rapids rolling with slit-eyed crocodiles of all sizes, parasols of Sheperd’s Bush sheltering antelope, and great trees telling a story of time through their vast scale.

It is an area that seems to grow in wildness on the return. Going back in the summertime, the rainy season had turned the hillsides into lush, green forest that made me feel like I could be in Uganda or Rwanda. Really, they are proof of continental continuity rather than comparison – precious wild pockets in an evolving Africa. The cumulus forms of the canopies stretched to dramatic red rock faces in places and, as we moved through this landscape, we encountered red-stained elephants on the move and at rest who observed us with blood-red eyes through wire-brush eyelashes. →

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Crooks Corner, Kruger National Park, by The Safari Store

Elephant Near Punda Maria Rest Camp, Kruger National Park, by The Safari Store

Wire Brush Eyelashes
A green season safari to northern Kruger National Park meant we saw elephants in their element - sometimes close enough to appreciate the slightly red mud crust, crease, and coarseness of this incredible species.

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Owlet Near Shingwedzi Rest Camp, Kruger National Park, by The Safari Store

We saw buffalo submerged in mud wallows, serenely seeing out the heat of the day – and it was hard not to think of sauna gossip as they chewed the cud through almost heat-fatigued half-closed eyes. While the pace seemed slowed on the ground, a Martial Eagle upset the skies, with brave Fork-Tailed Drongos defending the realm. With birding parties of both the human and avian variety around, our eyes were drawn to the faintest hint of wing movement in thickets and trees – searching for new and exciting species.

From our very comfortable safari tent at Punda Maria, we watched the clouds grow in candyfloss skies, bringing sky-shattering lightning after dark. When it comes to Kruger’s compass points, true north has a unique magnetism. Driving south to north in Kruger National Park is an evolution of experience – quick checklist sightings and busy camps in the south give way to quieter, more intimate days in the north. As a first-time self-driver, you could begin your adventure in the south and emerge well-versed in the north over the course of a few weeks. Whoever you are, however you want to experience a Kruger safari, to traverse the park is to colour within the map’s outlines with action, undulation, and the beauty of African bushveld. →

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Elephants Near Mopani Rest Camp, Kruger National Park, by The Safari Store

High Horizons
A line of elephants attracted to a waterhole lifts the horizon for a time. There's no grey area - lifted trunks, plumes of dust, and the gentle rhythm of fanned ears is an addictive aria for nature lovers.

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Leopard Near Shingswedzi Rest Camp, Kruger National Park, by The Safari Store

Bough Down
Watching a leopard navigate the capillaried branches of this tree almost seems to defy the laws of physics at times - a top-storey meal that takes some fancy footwork.

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Kori Bustard Near Tsendze Rustic Camp, Kruger National Park, by The Safari Store

Nature Showing Off
The Kori Bustard is the world's heaviest flying bird. The males get the attention of females by inflating their necks and dancing - great, feathered flirts.

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Zebras in Kruger National Park by The Safari Store

When Everything Lines Up
Prepare to be dazzled. The diversity of landscapes means no two sightings will ever be the same.

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Lioness in Kruger National Park by The Safari Store

Leave No Stone Unturned
Every now and then, a scene wills you to take a second look - and the reward is a line of lions hidden in plain sight.

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