Part 2: Kruger Park Walking Safari & Timbavati Reserve

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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