The Don, The Otter and I had noticed that the further north we moved from Skukuza, the more the terrain around us was changing, which made sighting wildlife difficult. Our lack of big sightings whilst at Tamboti were testament to this. At Skukuza and the surrounding areas, we had been faced with a combination of river thickets and open tree savanna’s which made easy any spotting, stopping and investigations, however north of these areas, the terrain had turned to new growth mopane shrub veld. The shrubs were so dense that we couldn’t see further than 5 metres in. As frustrating as it may have been, we were determined to make some great sightings and our spirits were as high as could be.
We clambered into the car at Tamboti at 06h30 and made our way to the gate. We were still busy settling into our various positions in the car when of a sudden – and to the fright of both The Otter and I – The Don yelled out “LION!” and pointed to our right. Sitting on the deck of our tent earlier that morning, sipping on coffee, we had heard a couple of lions roaring at the growing light from across the banks of the Timbavati River and had in all likelihood just bumped into those same lions. To our amazement, two females made their way out of the brush and across the road a mere 5 metres before us. They were in no hurry and kept looking over their shoulders as if waiting for something. We followed their gaze in the hope of spotting a male but saw nothing. It was a special moment and exactly what we needed to lift our spirits. Within a few minutes, the lionesses had blended into the bush and were gone. We smiled and thanked our lucky stars as we pushed on.
The Don was still keen to spot his Senegal Lapwing, which nested in the area, and we crawled along the road with our eyes alert. We spotted the odd ‘Tog here and there and even picked out a Black-backed Jackal, but to the disappointment of us all, saw no Lapwings of the Senegal sort.
We planned to have lunch at Olifants but were in no rush. We stopped at as many lookouts as we could to take in as much as we can. Although we never spoke about it, we all knew that our time in the park was drawing to a close and that we should savour what moments we had in the bush before we shipped back to the city.
One lookout in particular was memorable thanks to an incident with a Yellow-billed Hornbill, which we had affectionately renamed a ‘Zazu’. We stopped and got at a magnificent lookout which sat high above the Timbavati River and overlooked the bush below. With our binocs, we scanned each and every bush and tree with the hope of spotting anything. Buffalo and Hippo were well spotted by The Otter. At some point I noticed a Zazu eying me out a few feet away and kneeled down to offer him my palm. He edged a few paces forward but wasn’t convinced. I backed off to our car and grabbed a couple Nik Naks to offer him and although the Park strictly forbids the feeding of animals, I felt that a Nik Nak or two wouldn’t do any harm to a bird. By this time The Don and The Otter had cottoned onto what I had in mind and were eagerly observing what was transpiring. I knelt down again and offered my open palm with the Nik Naks in full view, to the Zazu. He edged closer all the while eying me out. He edged even closer. Eyed me out and moved within a few centimetres. I couldn’t believe that I was about to feed a wild bird from my hand. The Zazu had other plans however as he wasn’t interested in the Nik Naks I was offering him but had rather taken a liking to the fingers on the end of my palm. Before I knew it, the little bugger had nipped one of my fingers to the glee of The Don and The Otter behind me. I couldn’t help but smile.
We moved on and soon arrived at Satara where we grabbed a quick coffee. We jumped back into the car and made for Olifants. The trip passed without too many incidents although at one stage we stopped on a bridge which crossed the Olifants River. We were allowed to get out on the bridge and spent thirty minutes looking up and down the river through our binocs, trying to spot something. We saw Hippo, Crocs and Waterbuck. The sun was on our backs and the memory is a pleasant one.
Just past the bridge, we turned right off the main road towards Olifants. We had noticed a group of vultures circling in the distance and wondered whether we would be treated to a feeding of sorts. We rounded a bend in the road to see many vultures flying in and out of the brush which prompted us to pull over and investigate. As mentioned before, the brush was dense and we struggled to get a good sight of what was being eaten and what was eating it. We were able to sight the carcass, however not identify anything, although at one stage, The Otter said he’d seen a Hyaena and another Jackal. We spent close to 45 minutes edging forwards and then backwards in trying to get a better sighting but could not find the perfect spot. Despite the lack of clear sight, it was an exciting moment for us.
Olifants was awesome. The camp sits high above the river and allows for endless viewing of the animals which meandered below. Again, we spotted Hippo, Croc and Water Buck. I imagined that the camp must have been alive with wildlife in the early mornings and evenings when the heat of the day had subsided.
Shortly after leaving Olifants we bumped into the biggest Bull Elephant which had seen during our trip. He was a sight to behold and was basically chilling on the road. His tusks were long and he stood proud beside as we gazed on.
With the memory of the bull Elephant in our minds we arrived at Letaba. Whilst The Don checked us in, I had a look at the sightings board and noted that Cheetah and Wild Dog had been sighted north of the camp that day. These were the last two animals which we were hoping to spot and time was running thin. We had a beer and watched the sun set over the Letaba River whilst reminiscing about the days activities. Despite not having spotted too much, we all understood that the time spent together was as meaningful to us as spotting game was. The Don mentioned that the following day he wanted to find a lookout point to chill at for a few hours to observe the comings and goings of the various animals and mentioned that The Otter and I were welcome to join but under no obligation to. I retired to bed shortly afterwards.
We rose early as both The Otter and I had agreed to join The Don on his chilling mission. We had decided to find a spot somewhere on the Letaba River Road which was a dirt road loop, just north of the camp. Again, luck was on our side a we exited the camp with an immediate Hyaena spotting. The beast was on a mission somewhere as it crossed the road before us. I had my reservations as to whether getting onto a dirt road was such a good idea, considering our past experiences but kept my thoughts to myself as we turned left off the main drag onto the Letaba River Road.
To cut a long story short, the choice was a bad one and besides spending 15 minutes observing a proud Tawny Eagle sitting atop a dead tree, we saw nothing and were back at Letaba within an hour. The Don and The Otter had decided to rather find a chill spot somewhere just off the tar road and not a dirt one. I had lost my appetite for viewing and developed one for food and had requested that I be dropped off at the camp gates. I wanted to put my feet up and read my book and had enough of the car experience.
I and just put my things down when both The Otter and The Don walked into our bungalow. They had found that my idea was far more agreeable than theirs and had decided to join me in my day of chilling. And that we did. The afternoon lazed by as we read our books, searched the camp for birds and had a nap. I could feel my soul sigh in relief.
That evening we went for one last drive. The day of rest had been great but we unanimously agreed that one last drive was a must before we exited the park the following day. We made our way slowly towards Engelhard Dam, which lies north-east of Letaba. It was a relaxing drive although at some stages of the road, it felt like The Otter – who was driving – had somewhere to be as he took the dirt corners at serious speeds. As we pulled into the lookout at the dam, we spotted a large Buffalo staring before us at the water’s edge. He was very proud and eyed us out as we crept past him. We turned back towards Letaba, content.
I had wanted to spot a Malachite Kingfisher the whole trip and at every opportunity, had focused my binocs on the reeds which lined the various rivers we crossed. We’d spotted Pied Kingfishers, Woodland Kingfishers, Brown Hooded Kingfishers and even a couple Giant Kingfishers but had yet to spot the Malachite. On the return trip to Letaba that evening, we stopped at a small stream, as was our tradition, to search up and down the riverbed in the hopes of spotting game. Sitting on a reed, not 5 metres away from us, was a beautiful Malachite Kingfisher. The sun was in the perfect position, relative to the Malachite and his colours seems to ‘pop’. We spent every second we were afforded, marvelling at the Malachite, until he zipped off down the riverbed. We high-fived each other and continued on our way.
After watching the sun set over the Letaba River again, we had a quick braai and spoke briefly about the trip before The Don called it a night. I felt at peace that evening. The Otter and I took our beers and went in search of Bush Babies in the camp. We strolled around , sipping on our brews, with our torches fixed to the trees for an hour or so before we too called it a night.
The next morning we rose early, packed our car for one last time and made the slow drive towards the Palaborwa Gate. We spotted a family of Hyaena on the side of the road where an extremely inquisitive cub walked up to us to sniff the vehicle. We pushed on and made the gate by 12h00.
It was surreal leaving the Park. Like moving through time zones. Suddenly technology worked and the dream which we had lived lay behind us. Life became real again as a flood of messages, emails and updates came streaming to all of our phones. We all understood that this was the way of the world we lived in and for a brief period, we had managed to remove ourselves from it. For six memorable day we had existed on bush time and bush time alone. Although we never got to see any Cheetah or Wild Dog, we had ticked off the Big Five and were both proud and honoured to have done so. Spotting animals was naturally part of the trip, but spending time with a father and a brother was far more important. It was a truly wonderful trip.
You stay classy,