Monthly Archives: September 2016

Part 2:  KRUGER PARK WALKING SAFARI & TIMBAVATI RESERVE

Over the next week or so, our group enjoyed all the facets of the Kruger Park experience:  staying in a tented lodge inside the park with twice daily game drives both during the day and evening, getting out into the bush on an authentic walking safari and relaxing at a luxury safari lodge in the Timbavati Reserve to end up the trip.

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Rhino Post Camp, Kruger Park

On the morning of September 23 we dropped off our Bidvest rental car and made our way to the check-in point for the SA Airlink flight direct from Cape Town to Skukuza.  I had been apprehensive about the weight of my carry-on luggage but no one ever asked about the weight of my small backpack and camera lens bag.  One of the members of our traveling party had to pay about $10.00 excess luggage charge for exceeding the weight limit of 20kg per item on the checked bags.

About 2 hours later we arrived at Skukuza’s neat, compact airport.  The main building consists of a lodge-like thatched building; it makes a good first impression.  Unfortunately it took about 30 minutes or so to get our luggage and to complete a few formalities before we could set off to our first safari camp:  Rhino Post.

Rhino Post is a casual, friendly lodge with 8 rooms, strung out along a mostly dry riverbed in the southern part of Kruger Park, adjacent to the Sabi Sand Reserve.

Over the course of two days at Rhino Post I experienced much of what I had enjoyed here a few years ago [insert link to trip report]:  a convivial, relaxed atmosphere, a high degree of personalized service and wonderful meals.

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The rooms are spread out to the left (#6,7, & 8) and right (#1, 2, 3, 4 & 5) of the separate dining room and bar/lounge structures.  Each room has good lighting, one or two beds with a mosquito net, a bath and ‘outdoor’ shower, lots of hot and cold water on demand and a separate toilet.  They are equipped with plug points for charging batteries, a small safe and the front door has a lock and key.  There is a phone which can be used to call anywhere.  The calling procedure is tricky as it is not easy to detect a dial tone.  There is no air-conditioning or WIFI in the room.  Each room also has a small verandah separated from the room itself by a sliding glass partition which can be left open and with a screen to keep out unwelcome visitors such as baboons.

It is not unusual to see wildlife in and around the camp.  On the second night there the phone in my room rang.  Its chirp-like ring tone is  not totally out of place in the bush setting.  ‘There is a leopard at the waterhole’ a young lady announced.  Not the kind of message you get on your phone frequently…  Even though I was in mid-shower I made my way to the water hole as quickly as I could to observe the leopard slaking its thirst from a small artificially maintained water source right in front of the bar, on the other side of the dry riverbed.

The previous night we had observed the same leopard drinking and causing quite a commotion among a troop of baboons whose alarm call rang loudly through camp.

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Other Rhino Post camp followers include some Spotted Hyenas who are drawn to the kitchen, a very confiding young bushbuck female and a group of 8 old buffalo bulls.

We had first seen the buffalo on our arrival when they were milling about the water hole, seemingly not in any hurry to finish up what they had been doing previously. Which seemed to be standing around and thinking about drinking more water.

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The game drives out of Rhino Post camp were mixed in terms of number and quality of sightings.  On our first afternoon outing with guide Marius (competent and friendly) we had a superb lion sighting when two beautiful adult males lion in their prime walked right by our vehicle in the early evening light.  They were practically close enough to touch and we could hear their big padded paws lightly thump the tarmac.  It was spellbinding and all of us – first time visitors and veterans of the bush alike – realized that this was a special treat not likely to be experienced again soon or ever.

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The next morning we had a similar experience but this time with a female leopard.  We were on our way to the main road – and still inside the Rhino Post concession – when Marius noted the leopard peering out from behind a large anthill.

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For the next 40 minutes or so we watched as the leopard moved closer to our vehicle and eventually walked right in front of us, providing us with some great views in near perfect light.  For what seemed like a very long time the leopard had some impala in its sights, seemingly intent on stalking and hunting one of them.  In the end that did not happen but we had ample opportunity to watch the scene unfold.  The sighting ended being one of the best of all on our safari.

The remainder of the game drives out of Rhino Post delivered some nice views of general plains game including giraffe, kudu, a couple of wildebeest, lots of impala and a smattering of other smaller species such as steenbok, grey duiker, warthog, some mongooses and squirrels.  Plus plenty of colorful birds, of course.

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On an afternoon drive on the famous road between Skukuza and Lower Sabie Camp, we had another lion sighting, this time a single female lying mostly obscured in the Sabi Riverbed.

The quality and presentation of the food at Rhino Post were impeccable and could hardly be improved.  We were individually consulted on our choices for dinner, with two options of starters, main courses and desserts.  There were no bad choices with presentation and taste being spot on for every item:  a perfectly grilled fillet of salmon one evening or some expertly cooked fillet of gemsbok.  Vegetables and other sides were done just so, and every breakfast was stellar with an array of cereals, bread, cheese, fresh fruit, cold meats and eggs to order.

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Rhino Walking Safari – Plains Camp

By midday on Sept 25, we were en route to Isibindi’s Plains Camp for a 3-night Rhino Walking Safari.  A stay at Plains Camp can be booked either by itself or ideally in combination with a stay at Rhino Post.

Plains Camp is located along the Motlumi River, about 3 miles from Rhino Post, on the edge of a large open plain with an artificially maintained water hole a distance away and across from the camp.  There are only four tents, tucked away into a thicket and barely visible to each other, with a small but well-located and attractive dining room and lounge a short walk away.  The small pool was popular with all of us.

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Over the course of the 3 nights there, we observed a variety of wildlife in and around the open area and down to the water hole:  several herds of elephant, particularly in the afternoons, zebra pretty much all the time, baboons and a few giraffe.

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All of this is a bonus because the main activity at Plains Camp is walking.  Which we did to the order of 5 walks in total over the course 4 days (3 nights).

Our guide Bernard Mhlanga typified the word ebullient and he was in every way full of spirit, bursting with enthusiasm and energy and actively looking for something exciting all the time.

If anything a few of our outings went on an hour or so longer than we had anticipated or might have preferred, but better to err on the side of too much than too little.

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One of the highlights of the Kruger Park experience was a sleep-out at a remote platform structure, about a 3-hour walk away from Plains Camp.  We spent the night relatively comfortably in sleeping bags on mattresses in 4 separate small rooms, elevated well above the surrounding bush.  Dinner was a traditional South African ‘braai’ or barbecue, with various types of meat (lamb chops & beef) and a beef & pork sausage (boerewors) grilled right in front of us over the coals.  Together with some salads and other side dishes as well as ‘pap’ – the local version of polenta – it made for a nice change and an interesting experience.  It doesn’t get a whole lot more authentic than this!

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Bernard and his tracker and walking assistant Albino were competent, friendly and professional at all times and I think the group as a whole felt quite safe and mostly relaxed out on the various walks.

 

The Rhino Experience

We had hoped to see various kind of big game on foot but it didn’t work out that way.  What we did see was plenty of white rhino.  There were many of them around, sometimes solitary ones but mostly small groups of two to four or so.

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Several times we got to within 20 meters or less of these behemoths, and not having been as close to rhino on foot for many years, the experience rekindled my fascination with these gentle, practically defenseless survivors from what seem to be prehistoric times.

It was nothing short of exhilarating to get so close to the white rhinos while they were watching us and trying to detect our position and intent.  Despite being very close, the situation was well controlled and Bernard was ready at a moment’s notice to intercede should one of the rhinos decide to charge.

I managed to take some of my best ever rhino photographs, and did not have to use a long telephoto lens.  A 70-200mm zoom lens with a 1.7 converter did the trick.

Being able to get so close to the rhino on foot of course illustrates their immense vulnerability to attack by poachers.  They are a total paradox.  In their natural environment they reign supreme and have practically no enemies or predators.  In today’s world where they are the target of ruthless poachers armed with high-powered rifles, they are almost totally defenseless and on an accelerated path towards extinction as a viable species in the wild, in our lifetime.

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So standing there and looking at those magnificent beasts fills one with a sense of wonder and nostalgia for the way things used to be, full well realizing that it can never be the same again.  Without effective and costly protective measures and without the buffer of visitors, vehicles, camps, guides, scouts and other personnel moving through and around the area constantly, these animals are doomed.

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So what can you do?  Definitely go there and see them.  Spend a few days at Plains Camp, walk into rhino and you’ll be accomplishing several things at once.  Primarily of course you will experience an authentic wildlife experience rivaled by very few, anywhere in Africa.  Staring down a white rhino which weighs around 5,000 pounds (2.5 tons) or more, is a thrilling experience when there is just a bush or some low shrubs between you and it. More than that you will be contributing to the well-being and future of not only the rhinos of the Kruger Park but to its other big game species as well, including elephants and the big cats.

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Simbavati Hilltop Camp

Our last few days on safari were spent in style at Simbavati Hilltop Camp, a luxury tented camp built on a small koppie (hillock), with very pleasant views over the Lowveld bush.

The pavilion-style luxury tents were massive, with a total of 8 air-conditioned ‘tents’ spread out in village style, and combined by wooden walkways.  Each suite consists of two individual tents – one for the main bedroom with a separate bathroom linked by an open area with an outdoor ‘shower for two’.  The separate bathroom has an indoor shower and tub.  The units are placed in such a manner that privacy is guaranteed.

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To be sure, there are lots of steps at various points along the walkways, so this property may not be suitable for persons with limited mobility.

Simbavati Hilltop has an exceptionally nice pool and we spent several hours there, enjoying the cool refreshing water and the relaxing ambience.  Meals and refreshments were as good as anything we’ve experienced on safari before:  fresh, expertly prepared and presented and always plenty of choices and options.  Special dietary needs such as gluten-free or vegetarian catered for as well.

While we enjoyed some good game sightings at Simbavati Hilltop over the course of the 2 full days there on balance the game-viewing could have been better and we were certainly expecting more, as it was in the middle of the prime game-viewing time of the year.  Unfortunately the area was right in the middle of a severe drought which clearly affected the amount of plains game.  For example we saw very few giraffes, which are ordinarily quite common in the area.  I had twice visited the Timbavati Reserve before and enjoyed much better game-viewing with multiple leopard sightings, African Painted Dogs, even white lions.

Even so we enjoyed many excellent sightings including the following:

 

An active hyena den with youngsters of various ages:

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Several good-sized herds of buffalo moving around the area:

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There were small groups of elephants spread throughout:

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Amongst the antelope the kudu really stood out:

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And of course no Africa trip is complete without a lion sighting:

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High resolution photos available at Flickr!

Skip to Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6

Part 4 – Matusadona National Park

Matusadona National Park which lies between the Ume River and Sanyati Gorge along the shore of Zimbabwe’s massive Lake Kariba is not one of the country’s most-visited reserves, at least not by international tourists.  It should be.  It is unquestionably beautiful with almost too many visual elements competing for attention.  A golf course-like expanse of yellow-green panicum grass  along the lake-shore.   Acres of thick jesse and mopane bush just behind that.  The shimmering surface of Lake Kariba itself.  And of course the jagged Matuzviadonha mountains which dominate the skyline.    Put it together, add wildlife such as elephants or buffalo in the foreground and you have a natural masterpiece which is gorgeously lit usually twice a day, every day, at sunrise and sunset.

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Doing nothing at a safari camp in Matusadona is ok.  If all you want to do is sit in a comfortable lounger and take in the view and enjoy the balmy climate, nobody will mind.  They might offer you a cup of french-pressed coffee or a gin & tonic, depending on whether it is early or late.  If your camp of choice is any good, there will be a sparkling pool likely just meters away, for a quick splash if it gets a little too warm for your liking.  And at night – if you are lucky – a lake breeze will agitate the surface of Lake Kariba, creating the best white noise of all, the sound of waves crashing on the shore.

Relaxing at swimming pool at Changa Camp

Relaxing at swimming pool at Changa Camp

Most people come to Lake Kariba and to Matusadona expecting to do stuff.  They won’t be disappointed.   Almost as many things as you can see, you can do.  Being on the edge of the lake clearly boating is the most obvious of these and taking a boat cruise on the lake is a pleasant and relaxing activity.  It is often planned for the late afternoon to best enjoy the views of the sun setting over the water.  All you have to do is watch, drink in hand.  With snacks on the side.

View over Lake Kariba from Changa lounge

View over Lake Kariba from Changa lounge

One step up from that would be to mix in some fishing for either bream or the elusive but highly sought-after Tiger Fish, Africa’s top freshwater fighting fish.  A Tiger weighing in at 10 pounds and up is a trophy fish – something to talk about.  But of course this is catch and release, no animals harmed in the process.  Mostly it’s the person with the fishing rod in hand which gets his or her pride dented as Tigerfish will get rid of a spoon or an artificial fly almost 8 times out of 10.  If a Tiger doesn’t strip or break the line, it will jump clear of the water surface while shaking its head violently, in the process usually dislodging whatever it had bitten down on.

Changa fishing

Changa fishing

For the keen photographers, a couple of game drives along the Matusadona lake shore will deliver some of the best elephant photography they may ever experience.  Matusadona has lots of elephants and they show themselves off to their best effect when feeding on the nutritious panicum grass along the lake in the late afternoons.  This is your opportunity for that once in a lifetime ‘screen saver’ shot with a perfectly lit herd of elephants in front of a multi-layered, colorful background including grass, lake, mountain and sky.  It does not get any better or easier than this.

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The Matusadona elephants are totally relaxed and will feed right around a stationary vehicle; even females with very small babies show absolutely no fear or signs or agitation.  You won’t need a very long lens as they will get very close!  The Matusadona elephants are on average slightly smaller in stature than most other African elephants but many of them have long, elegant tusks.  Their hides are a deep golden brown color, caused by their close association with the Lake Kariba mud.   Other than elephants you may be pointing your lens at zebra, impala (capture them jumping!), buffalo, a variety of colorful birds including several large birds of prey, bee-eaters and kingfishers.

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On my third visit to the area over the last 10 years, the three things that are essential to any good safari magically happened.  I found the right camp, went at a good time of the year and was fortunate to have a superb guide.  I had returned to the area for a third time to check out a new property – Changa – and to see if we could finally start to include Lake Kariba in more of our clients’ Zimbabwe trips.  Our two previous visits to the area were enjoyable but not compelling to the point where I wanted to tell the whole world to go there.  This time around, the overall experience was fantastic and yes – Matusadona should be high on everybody’s list of places to see and things to do in Zimbabwe.

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Changa Safari Camp is a relatively small (10-room) tented property close to Fothergill Island, right on the edge of Lake Kariba and with post-card views in every direction and from every room.  Flying in from Hwange we landed at nearby Fothergill Island airstrip and it was a brief 15 to maybe 20-minute drive from there to the camp.  When Lake Kariba has more water  the trip may be done by boat which would make it even more special.

Sundowner outing from Changa Camp

Sundowner outing from Changa Camp

The rooms at Changa are comfortable but not overly luxurious; my standard room had a king size bed with 2 overhead fans, adequate but not exceptionally good lighting, plenty of shelf space to unpack clothing and other stuff.  A bonus:  an outdoor bath and a terrific front verandah with a hammock.  On the minus side, the towels can do with an upgrade.

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Room at Changa Camp

On my first afternoon at Changa I joined three other guests and our very competent guide on a pontoon boat outing on Lake Kariba.  With the lake being as low as it was at the time – about 33% of full capacity – there were stark black ‘tree skeletons’ all along the edges of the lake, lending a slightly eerie edge to what would otherwise be a fairly innocuous outing.  Seeing the massive dead Lead-wood tree stumps sticking several meters out of the water, prominently edged against the blue sky, inevitably makes one think about doing a similar boat trip when the lake is full.  I will never be able to go flat-out in a motorboat on Lake Kariba in future, without remembering those sharp dead tree limbs reaching up from below.  As it turned out the only excitement of the trip was what we could generate mentally as the fishing itself was a bust with just a few ‘rubbish fish’ (Squeakers) being landed.  It’s not always like that; fishing is unpredictable and all you have to do is try again.  Plus it gets better later in the year when it becomes warmer, from September onward.

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The following morning I was up early at 5:45A for a 2-hour foot safari.  From camp, I drove out about 15 minutes or so with Bruce Cronje, a Zimbabwe professional guide.  Bruce is an impressive young man, seemingly always totally in control, and clearly fearless.  I felt very confident walking with him, even in terrain where unpredictable animals such as solitary buffalo bulls may be encountered.  It ended up being a pleasant walk mostly through mopane scrub, through a couple of dry creek beds and eventually out onto the open floodplain, currently very extensive due to the low level of Lake Kariba.  From a distance, we saw some elephants emerging from the edge of the tree-line, and a bit later found ourselves very much in their midst, by this time back in the vehicle.  I was particularly impressed by a hefty elephant bull with massive tusks, seemingly fixated on one of the females and doggedly following her around.  The rest of the breeding herd peacefully passed around us, barely taking notice of the two of us in the open vehicle. It was an exhilarating experience.

Zimbabwe professional guide Bruce Cronje

Zimbabwe professional guide Bruce Cronje

Later that day we were alerted to the fact that a pride of lion was present in the Changa Camp area.  The Matusadona Lion Research Project monitors the movement of collared lions in the area and passes on the information on an informal basis to the Changa guides.  This does not mean that the lions are just out there to be seen.  Far from it – as we soon discovered.  Upon hearing the news of the lions being around, a few of us grabbed our cameras and binoculars and jumped into a vehicle with Bruce.  Even getting close to the GPS coordinates of the spot where the lions had last been recorded, proved to be a mission.  Had I been driving, we would not have made it one quarter of the way there.  The track was barely passable and in fact we did get momentarily stuck but was able to free the vehicle with a bit of effort.

A Matusadona lion

A Matusadona lion

Having reached a spot where we could drive no further, we got out of the car and the three of us followed Bruce on foot, in search of lions.  Walking into lions is high on my personal bucket list, having tried to do so several times previously, without success.  I was hoping mightily that this outing would end differently.  Just knowing that lions are actually around or had been recorded in an area recently, adds a lot of excitement and even some apprehension to walking in dense bush.  Your every sense is in hyper-mode; your breathing rate and heartbeat are elevated and your adrenaline is starting to pump in anticipation of what might happen, good or bad.  Just like earlier that day I was more relaxed that I probably should have been,  simply because we had a ZimbabweProfessional Guide leading us.  Ultimately the outing failed because the lions had already moved out of the area, even before we got there.  This became clear later in the day when we picked up their tracks somewhere else.  It would have been great to find the lions but I can’t say that I was disappointed.  Just being there in a situation where a pride of lions might be right around the next bush, was enough.  For an hour or so I thought about nothing else but coming face to face with a lion – or more than one – in a situation where I would be decidedly vulnerable.  I would have had to face a potentially dangerous animal in its own habitat, on foot.  Control my fear, refrain from giving in to instinct and running away.  Listen to and follow the instructions of the guide.  It was good practice for the next time when the lions might actually be there.

Our late afternoon game drive along the tree-line and eventually out onto the floodplain or lake shore, was one my best in several years. The light was fantastic and the backdrop was beautifully layered, creating a canvas so good that the framing became almost irrelevant.  This is where you close the aperture in your lens to f8 or smaller and try to impart as much of the depth of the scene as you can.  Of course no matter your level of photographic skills no photo or video can recreate the scene or come close to the impact of being there.  One after another, several small breeding herds of elephants slowly made their way from the lake towards the treeline, crossing this huge open expanse of grass, with the water and the mountains behind them.  They were not walking purposefully as elephants often do.  They were feeding on the panicum grass, lingering here and there, the prehensile tips of their trunks seeking out a bite-size tuft of grass, dislodging it with a twisting and plucking motion, raising it up to their mouths and repeat.

Meanwhile a very young elephant calf was prominent in the herd, clearly reveling in the experience of being out there in this land of plenty.  The baby was being visibly pampered by other members of the group who would put their trunks lightly on it, pay obvious attention to it, and subtly but clearly protect it from threats seen and unseen.

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For serious photographers, I would put Matusadona high on the list of Zimbabwean areas to visit.  Even on a relatively short stay you will be practically assured of getting some of your best ever elephant photographs.  The only other African destination where elephants can be photographed as effectively and strikingly as at Matusadona is Amboseli, in Kenya.  The elephant experience alone makes it worthwhile traveling to Matusadona National Park and I will definitely recommend it for inclusion in any longer Zimbabweitinerary.  Ideally of course one should include Hwange, Victoria Falls, Matusadona (Lake Kariba) and Mana Pools.

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Matusadona is also a ‘must visit’ park for birders.  The park  has an extraordinarily diverse range of habitats which of course attract and sustain a wide variety of birds.  At Matusadona you’ll see lots of birds around and over the lake such as African Fish Eagles, various kingfishers, terns, ducks and wading birds, plus of course the species which favor the grasslands (plovers, coursers, pipits, lapwings, guinea-fowl etc.) and the huge variety of birds which favor the thick bush and wooded areas including several birds of prey.

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In summary, Matusadona National Park is a much under-rated national park with a unique (for Zimbabwe) mix of grassy lake-front, bush and mountains and an above-average range of activities including boating, fishing, game drives, excellent walking & hiking  opportunities, superior bird-watching and a near-perfect setting for photography, particularly of elephants.  Having visited several different properties in the Matusadona area over the last several years Changa Camp delivered the best overall experience by far.  In terms of location and guiding – the two most important factors predicting the success of a safari – it is definitely tops.  Add to that comfortable rooms, delicious food and great all-round hospitality and friendliness and you have a winner!

Continue to Part 5, Mana Pools

Sunset at Changa Camp

Sunset at Changa Camp

 


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