When we realised that Dad's 80th celebration would be sandwiches at the bowling club, it was time to take things into our own hands. So, even though Dad and Jean had visited in September, we booked them to visit again in February as part of Dad's birthday present.

On Friday, 4 February 2011, Dad celebrated his 80th birthday. He had to wear a badge telling everyone that this was a special day, even when we all went out to lunch at Eastwoods (Peter joined us too). It was lovely sitting on the verandah of the restaurant, eating steak and drinking beer (well some of us any way!).

Saturday brought the true celebrations - in style - with a party including family and extended family and friends. Dad even gave a speech again! And, although he was embarrassed by all the fuss and presents, he really enjoyed himself, as the photographs evidence.

Sunday was a day to recover, and pack, as the next day we were on to the next part of Dad's birthday present - his first ever stay in the Kruger National Park...

KRUGER NATIONAL PARK - 7 - 12 February

After recovering from Dad’s party over the weekend, we drove to Mpumalanga early on Monday morning (7 February). When we got to Orpen Gate, we found that it was merely a means of closing off the park. So, we drove on, not even stopping to take out Terry’s camera equipment. We hadn’t driven much further when we came across a small herd of buffalo, which was very promising given that this was the one member of the big 5 that we hadn’t seen when we took dad in for a day drive in September. We also saw a large flock of wattled starlings. Interesting to Terry & I was the turn off to Ngala Tented Camp.

We then arrived at the Orpen reception, which is set up remotely from the camp. It is beautifully decorated - the bathrooms were prettily done using corrugated metal and galvanised iron for basins. While I was walking back from the bathrooms, I encountered a small snake trying to catch a lizard. By the time everyone else got there they could see the snake, but the lizard had made itself very scarce. At reception, we merely checked in and received a receipt of booking - no monies changed hands, which is something new to us in terms of process.

We then made our way through the boom and into Orpen camp. We stopped to check the map for sightings and were told about a lioness about 50m outside camp. We proceeded there and found another vehicle present. They knew where she was but could not currently see her, which made it difficult for us to even find her. We waited a while, but there was no movement, it was really hot - 30 degrees! - and we still had some driving to do in order to reach Talamati camp. So after some time, lamenting the total lack of breeze, we gave up and moved on.

Within the first kilometre after leaving the camp, we saw wildebeest, impala, 6 large kudu males, a tawny eagle, zebra, a black backed jackal (which we really enjoyed as they are not particularly prolific at the moment) and giraffe. It was amazing - just wall to wall animals.

We encountered another small herd of giraffe, about 6, with one of them lying down - not something we see on a regular basis.

We were blessed with a viewing of a giant kingfisher and this was followed by a herd of elephant crossing the road, with a small calf in tow.

We also saw waterbuck, before finally making our way to the camp reception where we checked in and made a booking for a night drive during our stay. At our cottage, we unpacked and settled in. Lunch was an outside affair with a tree squirrel and 2 natal francolins joining in…

Mon, 7 Feb - pm

We took a short drive that afternoon leaving later than normal. We saw plenty of birds: crested francolin, Swainson’s francolin, double banded sandgrouse and carmine, European and little bee-eaters. We also saw elephant. There was a lone wildebeest and impala at a waterhole too, despite the fact that there had been plenty of rain and water was present everywhere. After about 40 minutes, we turned around and headed back to camp. On our journey back we saw impala and a very large, very dark male giraffe.

Tues, 8 Feb - am

Jean stayed at the cottage in the morning as she was not feeling well, so the rest of us went out for a drive. We decided to take a loop around and then go back to see how Jean was doing. What we had not realised was how long the loop would take. It turned out to be one of the disadvantages of Talamati camp - it wasn’t easy to do short drives and it was a long drive to get to a main road, where given the season and the amount of water, game was more prolific.

So we made our way to the main tar road, taking the shortest route possible, and we saw nothing until we were almost at the intersection. Then we saw a mixed herd of zebra, wildebeest and impala spread out over an open plain. There were also some giraffe on the road. As we progressed on the main road we saw more of these herds. We also saw a bushbuck, a slender mongoose dashing across the road, some wattled starlings with their nests, red billed queleas en masse (there must have been thousands of them), some white backed vultures, tawny eagles, elephants and a couple of sightings of leopard tortoises. On our way back to camp, having turned around on the main road, and driven back the way we came, we spotted our highlight of the drive - a small herd of sable antelope.

After viewing them, we rushed back to camp to fetch Jean. We saw a golden tailed woodpecker and a black headed oriole in camp, near the cottage, and then we made our way with Jean back to the sable in the hope that they would still be there. They were! They had just moved a little deeper into the bush. We then turned back and took an alternative route to take us towards the main road to Tshokwane picnic spot.

While we were still on the dirt road we watched a green snake slither across the road - common opinion was that it was a boomslang. We also encountered a herd of impala, baboons, vervet monkeys, a large buffalo bull and warthog. A Levaillant’s cuckoo also put in an appearance.

Once we got to the main tar road, we were able to enjoy the viewing at a number of dams on the side of the road. At Kumana dam we watched an elephant bull wade into the dam and walk across it.

We were also challenged to a race - a European bee-eater flew alongside the car as if to show that it could fly faster than we were driving!

At Mazithi dam we found hippo, buffalo and rhino (which was the reason we had chosen to drive to Tshokwane, as we weren’t sure that we would see rhino further north). There were also black winged stilts, white-faced ducks, common sandpipers, pied kingfishers, a black-headed heron and red-billed buffalo weavers on the side of the dam or perched in a number of dead trees within the dam.

We arrived at Tshokwane and had some lunch there. Jean went for a toasted bacon and egg sandwich, while the rest of us tried the kudu wors rolls and kudu steak rolls. We rounded our meal off with some king cone ice creams which we ate as we made our long way back to camp - windows up and air-conditioner on as protection against the heat. On the journey back we saw some white backed vultures, elephant at Sweni waterhole, a herd of elephant crossing the road and another lone bull buffalo. We stopped at a dam and here we saw water thick-knees, a dabchick with and entourage of chicks and a grey heron.

We eventually got back to camp by mid-afternoon and settled in to have a rest. Since we were going out on a night drive (which left camp at 20h00), we decided not to do an afternoon drive after our long morning (and afternoon) trip.

Tues, Feb 8 - pm

Our driver/ranger for the night drive was Chester. We were picked up at the cottage and then we picked up the only other visitor from his cottage (he was from Australia, visiting with his parents who did not come on the drive). So we were nicely placed in the vehicle with plenty of space for cameras, etc. The whole drive was a literal owl fest with plenty of sightings of both Verreaux’s eagle owl and the spotted eagle owl. We also saw a number of scrub hares. But there is no doubt about the highlight of the game drive… a male leopard that was spotted by Terry who was in charge of one of the lights. He was just on the side of the road sitting there - it was as though he had stopped for us to drive past and technically we were now in his way! Unfortunately he had an infected eye, but the ranger thought that this would clear up on its own. We followed him forward as he walked around an ant hill and then made his way back to the road. We then backed off a little to give him some space and he crossed the road, making his way deep into the bushes on the other side. Another noteworthy sighting was that of a black-headed oriole sleeping!

As we continued driving out we were charged by a large elephant. There was a huge noise from one side and then the elephant broke through onto the road where he proceeded to chase us for a while. Chester would slow down to check what was happening but the other gentleman in the back seat was fairly keen that we keep moving as the elephant still had his sights on us! The challenging part was that we had to turn around a little later and travel back on the same road. Fortunately the elephant was no longer there.

As well as a number of owls, we also saw a flap-necked chameleon on our journey home. It was a late night for the park, but we all agreed that we had enjoyed our drive, particularly the leopard. Dad couldn’t believe how close we had been and how clearly we could see him.

Wed, Feb 9 - am

We encountered a Wahlberg’s eagle just outside camp, but for the rest of the journey on the gravel road we saw a red-crested korhaan and some female kudu. Just before the main road where the vegetation opened up we again saw impala and wildebeest. There was also a mother warthog with 5 young who started suckling while she continued to just graze, moving whenever she wanted to.

Once on the main road we were thrilled to see some ground hornbill. We also saw a carmine bee-eater hovering, zebra and two bateleur flying over Bobbejaanskranz.

At Nsemane dam there were elephant bathing, hippo, marabou storks (about 10 or more), white-faced ducks, impala coming down to drink and some Egyptian geese with their goslings. 

As we made our way back to the gravel road, we saw vultures - some were roosting, some flying down to the ground and others circling in the sky. We tried very hard to see whether there was something to attract them, but to no avail. Then one of us looked into the road only to find a breeding herd of elephant was crossing in front of us!

Wed, Feb 9 - pm

We agreed to go out for an afternoon drive a little earlier, but this all came to naught as I was stricken by a tummy bug. So we all agreed to go out an hour or so later, but in the end only Dad and Terry went out on the drive. They took a short drive and they saw a small group of 5 buffalo. Otherwise things were very quiet - something that we found was the norm when you were driving on the gravel roads.

Thurs, Feb 10 - am

We took our normal route - the quickest drive to get to a tar road. Along the way the first game we saw was impala, just before the intersection with the tar road. We also saw a flock of guineafowl with chicks. We drove into Orpen and bought some sandwiches at the shop - Terry’s brilliant idea! We then started to drive towards Satara. We saw 2 groups of Egyptian geese- each had about 20 or more birds. They were roaming in the grassland open patches.

On the way to Nsemane dam we saw a herd of impala and wildebeest, another of wildebeest and zebra, giraffe twice and a lovely troop of monkeys. They had lots of babies and we spent some time watching them feeding and playing in the trees.

At Nsemane dam there were marabou storks again. We saw a terrapin on the side of the road in the grass.

As we could not check into Satara before 14h00, we turned onto the H6 and made our way south to do a loop around, returning on the S100. The weather was overcast with some drizzle but the animals were more prolific than they had been around Talamati. We saw warthog, female kudu, groups of zebra, wildebeest and impala and a duiker. 

Not long out of Nwanetsi picnic spot, we saw a martial eagle. This was followed by a flock of guineafowl with a large number of chicks in tow. They were walking on the road, so we were able to observe them for a while. We also encountered a herd of impala lying in the grass on the side of the road, chewing cud. We drove in to enjoy one of the view sites and here we watched the bee-eaters fly in and out of a tree trying to catch insects.

We saw a number of giraffe and zebra and then encountered a herd of zebra with impala and wildebeest resting close by in the shade. At one of the river crossings we saw a black crake wading its way in and out of some reeds. On the other side of the crossing the water appeared to be much deeper, and we saw a crocodile, hippos and a malachite kingfisher. As we pulled across the low water bridge to look at them, the crocodile seemed to be very interested in us and she kept coming closer to us. We eventually realised why - dad spotted a number of her young were sunning themselves on the bank just below where we were parked. It was lovely to see the young crocodiles and it was a first for all of us! While we were watching another youngster came out of the water and then we watched a few of them swim out into the shallows.

From there we made our way to Gudzani dam. We saw more crocodiles, hippos and Egyptian geese and the view of the dam was spectacular. Our trip then took us up to and onto the S100.

Here we saw a large herd of zebra, impala, more large herds of zebra, wildebeest and impala, waterbuck, elephant, a brown snake eagle and buffalo.

We then made our way to Satara despite the fact that we still had some time to kill. The rain had lifted and the sun had come out, and it was just too hot to stay out for more of a game drive. We settled down to have pies and burgers for lunch at the restaurant on the veranda. After visiting the shop and killing only a little more time, we bought ice creams and made our way to the benches on the lawn where we killed time until shortly before 14h00. We were then able to check in and make our way to our cottage where we unpacked and settled in to relax.

Thurs, Feb 10 - pm

Since we had booked another night drive, we did not go out for an afternoon drive. The vehicle was much larger than the one at Talamati. It seated about 23 people, and it was full!

As we headed out we stopped for a mating pair of lions who were stretched out on the main road. We saw buffalo, elephant and then stopped to watch a python cross the road. To our delight we then saw some hyena. We watched them for a short while before making our way forward to meet up with another python crossing the road. We also saw a white-faced scops owl. On our way back to camp we briefly saw the lions again.

Although we saw more animals, we didn’t enjoy this drive as much as the one at Talamati. The driver was focused more on chatting to the two people in front with him and the bulk of the people on the drive were young international tourists. They didn’t know how to use the lights and the driver wasn’t doing any himself. They were also not instructed to not shine on the diurnal animals so we disturbed a number of groups of impala and other animals that could have been hampered by our lights. We just found the whole thing very unprofessional.

Fri, Feb 11 - am

We made an early start and were at the gate waiting before it opened. We found the female lion deep in the grass and were fascinated to watch a francolin that flew into an open patch nearby and strut backwards and forwards near the lion. Luckily for the bird, she just ignored it and continued to rest. The male couldn’t have been far away, but we couldn’t find him.

As we drove the same loop we had the day before (in reverse) we saw waterbuck, white-backed vultures, zebra, Burchell’s coucal and wildebeest. We stopped on one of the river views when we heard some monkeys alarm calling in a tree, but as much as we looked we could not see the leopard that must have been in the area. After a while we gave up and moved on (there was a sighting on the map in the afternoon).

At the low water bridge we were again able to see the young crocodiles. As we moved on we saw a flash of a slender mongoose as it crossed the road ahead of us, some green woodhoopoes and some glimpses of dwarf mongoose, when they lifted their heads to see if we were still there. Then as we watched a female kudu, a youngster popped its head up next to her and watched us curiously.

At one of the water holes, we saw a breeding herd of elephant drinking from the reservoir - or at least, those tall enough to were drinking. While watching them we saw a Namaqua dove fly in. Once we were back on the tar road, we encountered a chameleon that had walked out onto the road. We watched it for a while as it walked out and then turned around and made its way back to the verge.

As the drive progressed, we saw two sightings of buffalo, Burchell’s coucal, giraffe, and zebra. We then came across a large journey of giraffe with many youngsters present. It was lovely to watch them browsing from the trees. The heads of some of the youngsters looked as though they sported pom-pom instead of horns!

We also encountered a really large herd of impala and finally just before camp we came across an elephant having a sand bath. He was really enjoying himself. We noticed that there was a flock of marabou storks circling overhead but it looked as though they were lifting up rather than coming down.

Fri, Feb 11 - pm

Given our early start in the morning, we got back to camp early enough to have a good rest and start out for an earlier afternoon drive. We decided to head north on the main road as we had not driven out that way yet. Just one observation it was hot! The car’s thermometer indicated about 36.5 degrees.

As we made our way north, we encountered a few large herds of zebra. One of the herds included a foal with a largely black face. It was very shy but eventually peeked out to see us. The adults were also very protective of it, so we assume that it was very young. We saw wildebeest resting in the shade of the trees, a steenbok, a secretary bird, a number of swarms of queleas moving about and a kori bustard. The latter had its beak open and appeared to be feeling the heat as much as we were. In the distance, we saw 2 rhino and 2 elephants. We also came across an ostrich with some large chicks, which surprised us as it is not often that we see them in the wild any longer.

We encountered more herds - giraffe and zebra, and zebra, wildebeest and impala. This was one of the nicest things to see on this trip - the large numbers of animals in the herds. At Ngotso dam, we found that the actual dam was almost empty, but we saw another rhino in the distance.

As we turned around and made our way back, we again saw the ostrich, kori bustards (two this time), zebra and the secretary bird. When we saw this, it took off and then landed in the bush/grass on the other side. We also saw a Steppe buzzard on the road and a black shouldered kite in a tree close to the verge. We also saw some marabou storks roosting in dead trees deep in.

We encountered elephant and finally came back to a large herd of zebra that were spread out with the most golden of sunlight reflected on them. It was a beautiful sight. There were some wildebeest deeper in but they did not benefit from the same rays of light.

Sat, Feb 12 - am

Our stay in the park was over, so we packed our bags and the car and then made our way towards Orpen gate fully intending to enjoy our game viewing along the way. Our one regret was that we had not really had a good sighting of lion during the day.

We started with a large herd of impala, followed by wildebeest, zebra, Burchell’s coucal and Wahlberg’s eagle. At the dam we again saw marabou storks, hippos, a grey heron, Egyptian geese, white-faced ducks and water thick-knees. A further way down we saw lots of marabou storks roosting in dead trees on both sides of the road.

Some baboons came out to say their farewells. They were followed by some white-backed vultures, another herd of impala, an elephant and a second one later under a tree. We also had a better sighting of a dwarf mongoose. And then it happened - we came across two lions sitting up a bank on the corner of two roads. It was another breeding pair and we could see them from reasonably close and really clearly. Everyone was delighted! The female was none too subtle in her approaches to the male but he was having none of it and showed complete disinterest, moving away and stretching himself while sniffing a bush.

We saw monkeys and more baboons. Then we saw a brown snake eagle. And then we happened upon a male lion. They were out in full force to see us go home…

We watched an African jacana walking across some lily pads on the side of the road and on our final run to the gate, we saw a tawny eagle, white-backed vultures, wildebeest, impala, zebra, warthogs and a black-backed jackal as a final farewell.

And then we were out of the park and on our way back home…