Wednesday, 31 July 2013

31.07.2013 First Kruger safari, part 2: Phalaborwa and Tingala Lodge

(Read part 1 here. Click on photos to enlarge and view gallery)

During my planning for this week long trip to the Kruger I had completely failed to understand the website (the official website for booking accommodation inside the parks). The website has since been explained to me (you must register first to see availability, the link is very well hidden here). Alas when I first tried to book on the sanparks website, it seemed everything was booked and so I had settled for a lodge just outside the town of Phalaborwa instead.

The Tingala Lodge is a lovely laid back kind of place with a distinct make-yourself-at-home kind of vibe. It is about 20 minutes' drive from the gate to the Kruger (most of that distance on dirt roads) and set in its own conservancy which has all kinds of small wildlife such as wild pigs, guinea fowl, impala and duiker as well as a small gang of young male elephants who we could hear charging through the trees at night. The lodge is a 6 bedroomed house with an open kitchen, dining tables outside overlooking the bush and a big fire where everyone kicked back and relaxed at night - it felt like staying over at a friend's house and I can imagine this would be the perfect place to rent out with a group of friends and family. Tingala is run by a young couple who are both crazy about nature. The wife (a Brit expat) is an animal scientist by trade whilst the husband (South African) works as a safari guide in the park. They both know a lot about the area and were full of interesting facts about South African wildlife.

We spent our nights at Tingala cooking up meat and veggies on the braai before settling in around the fire with marshmallows and possibly one too many glasses of wine. We scanned the night skies picking out the constellations and gazing at the milky way before the huge red moon would rise (apparently it is red because of the wood smoke pollution). Being up in Limpopo province the temperature was perfect to sit outside in a jumper and relax, whilst the days were noticeably warmer than down south or up on the Highveld. In summer the area gets incredibly hot though and mosquitoes can be a nuisance. The area is malarial so it's worth being careful not to get bitten too much if you can help it.

Safari top trumps

In the Phalaborwa area we saw many of the same animals which we had seen previously in the park, but with the luxury of time we were able to explore further and admire more of Kruger's physical beauty. There are two camps in this area: the Letaba Camp and the Olifants Camp. Both are inviting small camps located on spectacular river outcrops. I would recommend the Olifants camp in particular as the view of the river was incredible, the camp felt small and intimate and the area around it was teeming with game.

The Olifants river, or as I like to think of it Hippo river

We came frustratingly close to finally seeing a leopard shortly after entering the park. Spotting some bush 'action' we parked up for a while to sit and watch as a huge herd of buffalo arrived to drink at a waterhole. Then, according to someone we later met whilst having coffee at the rest camp (who goes down as probably one of the most annoying people you can ever meet on a safari), just 10 minutes after we left the most giant leopard appeared on the road right beside the parking space and just sat there posing for photos. And, that's how it goes with safari, it's all luck.

John's mum whilst browsing the pictures of the giant leopard, carried on the conversation with 'well, we saw some beautiful zebras crossing the road with a sweet baby zebra….'. No, sorry John's mum, sadly zebra does definitely not trump leopard.

very sweet baby zebra

Night safari

Myself and John were really desperately keen to go on a night safari and so on our last night we booked an official SAN Parks drive for 400Rand each at the gate. The night drive set off at 16:00 and was supposed to return at 19:30, although to our joy the tour went on all the way until 20:15 as we spotted more animals on the way back to the gate.

I cannot recommend a night drive highly enough. Enjoying the sunset out in the middle of the park is an amazing experience and whilst out by yourselves at night (there was only one other vehicle setting off from the gate that night) you really start to feel the bush come alive. Our charismatic driver David parked up by a dry river bed so we could enjoy the sunset and watch as a large herd of elephants trundled off into the bush in a cloud of dust. We had our sundowners and took photos whilst listening to the strange and unsettling nearby crunching, crashing and growling sounds. I would have been devastated if David had ever needed to use his gun to protect us, but boy, I would not have had the confidence to be sitting out there at night without it.

sundowner stop off and another amazing African sky

On our long drive with our eyes peeled for action, we spotted again many elephants, different kinds of hares, klipspringers, chameleons (how David could see them from so far off whilst driving is a miracle), buffalos, a porcupine (crossing the road it seemed as if it was on wheels, legs are not at all visible) and rarely for this part of the park a large herd of wildebeest going round in circles (wildebeest without a doubt are the stupidest animals in the bush).

The way to spot animals in the dark is to look for the light of your lamp reflecting off their eyes. The eyes of vegetarian animals like antelope and wildebeest will appear greenish- yellow or even blue, whereas carnivores' eyes are more usually red or orange. During our drive David spotted some red eyes crossing the road in his headlamps. We zoomed up to search for this lion/leopard/hyena/wild dog. After careful scanning of the bush with our lamps, hearts beating, all wondering who would be first to spot the tail, the spots, the teeth….we found it. The elusive and difficult to track African Wild Cat.

African wild cats look just like regular domesticated cats except meaner and leaner and are apparently quite unusual to spot on a safari. However, when all is said and done, wild cat also does not trump leopard.

We also learnt a bit about the history of the area on our drive. For example when the first fences were built tens of thousands of wildebeest died. Wildebeest are migratory animals and this particular grouping were trying to head for the mountains. They reached the fence and just stopped there not knowing what to do and eventually starved to death in their thousands.

It was also cool to hear about the people living in this area before it was decided to fence it off to create a nature preserve (these people were displaced into other parts of Limpopo around 150 years ago). One of the local tribes had their village based around a large rocky koppie (hill) just a few kilometres from the Phalaborwa gate. It is visible for miles and is now overrun with baboons whose sillouttes looked amazing against the dusky sky .It is said that the chief of the tribe would sit right up at the top of the koppie on a kind of natural rock chair with a big stick surveying the land. Looking at this rock and thinking of the chief with his big stick looking out over the animal kingdom…seems to me I know where they got the inspiration for the big rock in the Lion King.

Lion King rock

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