South Africa pt.1 – October 2018

The flight from Heathrow to Johannesburg was 11 hours long. Fortunately we chose an overnight flight so we could sleep through most of it. Unfortunately I didn’t sleep at all. Apart from our neighbouring passenger getting involved in a drunken incident with cabin crew, the flight passed without a hitch, albeit very slowly. On landing at Johannesburg we had to quickly negotiate immigration and baggage all the while fending off over-keen porters trying to ‘help’, in order to catch our connecting flight to Skukuza airport. This flight was much more pleasant, not least because it was so brief and the promise of our destination was so close. Skukuza Airport itself was lovely. Open air waiting room, pond, dragonflies and orioles flitting around… but we had a hire car to pick up. The decision to go for a small Toyota somethingorother was one that I’d come to regret a bit, although to be fair it handled all the punishment we gave it and made it back to the Avis depot without penalties! The weather was warm but not overbearing.

The waiting room at Skukuza airport

Hire car packed with all our stuff and camera finally at the ready, we headed off for the short drive to our first rest camp, still at Skukuza, where we would spend the first couple of nights. Predictably the ten minute drive took considerably longer as we encountered our first wildlife outside of the airport. The first mammal species seen was Impala which will come as no surprise to anyone who knows this part of the world. Laughing Dove was the first bird that I actually pointed my lens at. The short drive involved crossing the Sabie River where we saw Three-banded Plover, Egyptian Goose, Blacksmith Lapwing, Kudu and Helmeted Guineafowl. By the time we reached camp (admittedly with detours!) we’d added Vervet Monkey, Giraffe, the abundant Dark-capped Bulbul, Cape Turtle Dove, Lilac-breasted Roller, Red-billed Oxpecker, African Elephant, Chacma Baboon and more to the list, and been told to ‘go away’ by our first group of Go-away-birds.

Red-billed Oxpeckers on Impala

Skukuza is one of the larger rest camps and like most of the other camps the accommodation is in the form of rondavels – traditional African circular dwellings with a thatched roof. Also in common with most of the other camps, the perimeter is lined with electric fencing to keep out the larger predators. Wandering round the camp produced a variety of bird life – more Dark-capped Bulbuls, numerous metallic blue starlings which would take me a while to get accustomed to the various species, Hammerkop, Yellow-billed Kites, egrets, Hadeda Ibis, African Green Pigeon, along with a variety of lizards, skink, and geckos. As dusk began to arrive we sat to eat on the banks of the Sabie as a Giant Kingfisher sat in a nearby tree while we had more distant views of Pied Kingfisher and Water Thick-knee. Exploring the camp with flashlights in the dark we found a number of individual Acacia Rats in trees at the perimeter, a number of incredibly loud frogs (yet to be ID’d), our one and only Thick-tailed Bushbaby of the trip and a host of spiders and insects, large and small.

The next morning we left the camp at dawn. More African Elephant, Kudu, then African Fishing Eagle which was watching over a lake occupied by a number of Hippopotamus, none of which were going to leave the comfort of the water. Waterbuck and Wildebeest grazed the edges. Leaving the lake we came across our first Lions. They were very distant and often partially obscured by vegetation but it was a pleasure to see them. The photo below was taken at 600mm.

The first distant Lion encounter

On the way back to camp for breakfast we came across Burchell`s Zebra and Steenbok, vultures, canaries and hornbills. The rest of the day was spent trying to cover as much ground as we could and see as much as possible before interrupting for dinner. It was around about now that I realised that the little Toyota was not going to provide the most comfortable ride as I took it down reverberating and bone-rattling dirt tracks. Nevertheless, nothing fell off it, and we were treated to an excellent day of wildlife. Some of the more notable sightings included Nile Crocodile, Hippopotamus, African Elephant, African Buffalo and excellent views of White-fronted Bee-eater and Martial Eagle.

We stopped in at Lower Sabie rest camp for a drink. A herd of elephants and a small troupe of Chacma Baboons were near the river, and closer by birdlife included Rattling Cisticola, European Bee-eater, and closer still up in the thatch above us was a pair of Barn Owls. On the journey back we found some obliging baboons and an equally disobliging White-bellied Sunbird. Then came our next Lion encounter. This time two adults close to the track, lying lazily in the rising temperatures. It was a struggle to get good visibility through the twigs and thorns but I managed a few acceptable photos.

A short drive in the evening after dark resulted in Small Spotted Genet, a very brief African Wildcat, Mohol Bushbaby leaping from one tree trunk to the next, Scrub Hare, Spotted Hyena and the first nightjar of the trip. If I had to guess, I’d say European, but without hearing a call or getting a decent photo, it remains unknown. As we neared the camp, a pair of huge adult male Lions emerged into view at close range. A couple of photos and we left them to it.

Spotted Hyena at night near Skukuza

Another early start in the morning and we headed first to Lake Panic. A Striated (Green-backed) Heron and a pair of Pied Kingfisher were both hunting the waters. I was too pre-occupied to react quickly enough to an African Fish Eagle swooping down. Terrapins, Blacksmith Lapwing, egrets and Kudu were also seen at the lake. We didn’t stay long as we had a long journey to the Oliphants rest camp on the Oliphants River, where we would be staying next. Trying to drive a significant distance is difficult as there are so many distractions on the way. Only 5 minutes had passed when we came across a snoozing Spotted Hyena. Southern White-crowned Shrike, Bataleur, Southern Ground Hornbill, Magpie Shrike and more were seen on the journey to Tshockwane where we took a quick break before heading towards Satara. Before reaching Satara we got a tantalising glimpse one of the mammals I was most keen to see, and one of the less likely – African Wild Dog. It was distant, and it was mostly hidden, but there were at least two dogs and I was chuffed to bits, even if it wasn’t quite the encounter I’d hoped for. Seeing one at all was a result!

African Wild Dog

I didn’t know it then, but only two hours later, this sighting would be almost completely forgotten about…