October 14, 2006

South AfricaThis morning we didn’t get up until 6 am, when the watch alarm went off. Today was our last day in the park, so we wanted to get an early start. We had the usual for breakfast, packed up the car, and were on our way by 7 am. Yesterday we had heard there was a hippo carcass about 20 kilometres north of Olifants with two male lions involved, but we couldn’t quite remember which road it was next to. We could choose the main H1 road or the minor S93 road, so we picked the S93.

Apparently the mopane trees turn green later in summer after the rains start, but for now they were dry and brown as we drove north. There were numerous sandy side roads that you could drive down to be closer to the Letaba River, and on some of them we did spot some interesting birds and animals. And now that we thought about it, the fact that the road followed the river meant that we had picked the right road to have a hippo carcass next to it.

After a while we noticed several vultures circling above, so we knew we were near. There was a little viewpoint there which already contained two cars, so we pulled in and parked. Sure enough, there it was… no lions in sight, but a large hippo carcass splattered with vulture droppings and about 25 vultures contending for it. There were Cape and White-backed Vultures and a couple of the big Lappet-faced Vultures with their pink heads. It was interesting watching the vultures; although there was a bit of posturing, they would generally take turns pecking at the carcass. We stayed and watched for a while, until the wind direction changed and sent us a disgusting rotting-hippo smell.

We continued along the road by the Letaba River, first the S93 then the S44 and then the S46, until it reached the main H1 road which led onto the bridge over the river. Here we could again get out of the car, and we saw a herd of elephants including a baby that must have been less than a year old. The older animals were very protective of it and it was always surrounded by at least three bigger elephants.

It was still fairly early, so instead of going into Letaba Rest Camp, we decided to follow the S62 road along the north side of the river. We stopped for about an hour at the Matambeni bird hide, which looked over a part of the river filled with—what else?—hippos. It was fun watching them; two of them were play-fighting and one kept wagging its tail very rapidly, causing the water to froth. And there were also many elephants in the papyrus reeds on the other side, and a variety of herons including a single distant flamingo.

At the end of that road we had a quick look from the viewpoint up the hill, and a quick look at the Englehart Dam, then headed straight back to Letaba for lunch, as by now we were quite hungry. In the camp we had a look through the “Magnificent Seven” museum, which commemorates seven of the largest elephants ever found in the park and their huge tusks. We didn’t feel like making sandwiches for lunch again, so we went to the cafeteria and both had beef burgers with chips and orange juice to drink. The total bill was R79.60.

We were running out of time, so once we left Letaba Camp we set a steady pace along the H-9 road towards Phalaborwa Gate. We saw a herd of Cape buffalo in the bush near the camp, and from time to time the odd elephant. On one of the koppies there was the Masorini archaeological site, where they were investigating people who specialized in smelting iron several hundred years ago. There was a little museum there and a replica village, and the park attendant took us on a 15-minute tour of that. He did a good job of the tour, but we didn’t have any small change so we didn’t give him a tip. We were not sure whether you should tip people in SANParks uniforms, but we still felt bad about not tipping.

The last item on our agenda was the Sable bird hide, which was on an 8-kilometre loop road. There was not much there except some elephants; four of them were having a good time playing in the mud and water. We soon left and continued around the loop. But not far from the hide we came upon two very large elephants right on the road. The one closer to us was eating the vegetation by the road, but when it heard the car it started walking towards it, flapping its ears. This is an aggressive act, and since it outweighed our rental car by a considerable amount we quickly turned around. It continued walking towards the car, so we went the long way around the loop back to the main road. Wildlife always has the right of way in Kruger Park!

At the Phalaborwa gate we were surprised to find that the guards wanted our park permit back, so we had to dig it out of the pack it had been buried in for the last six days. They also wanted to look in the trunk of the car, and we passed that inspection. Outside the gate was the real world again. We could drive 80 or 100 km/h again, which seemed dauntingly fast after Kruger’s 50 km/h limit. But soon it seemed normal and we were bombing down the R40 towards Hoedspruit, through private game reserves and mango plantations. From Hoedspruit we followed a very good set of instructions along some minor roads to our home for the next two nights, Trackers Mountain Inn.

Rosemary opened the gate to let the car through, and we started up the driveway. This was a steep single-lane dirt track which shortly became two even steeper strips of concrete, finally leading to a house with a grassy lawn. We were met by Julienne, one of the owners and she gave us the key to the “honeymoon” rondavel, named Valley View. It was a bit farther along the road, and she suggested we should walk there and decide whether we wanted to drive the car there. The road looked very rough and we decided not to take a chance with the rental car. But the actual distance from the house to the rondavel wasn’t that far, so we organized everything and managed to carry it there in one trip.

There was indeed a spectacular view over the agricultural fields in the valley, and the end of the Blyde River Canyon, and the steep rocky mountains surrounding it, and the sun was starting to set so the lighting on the mountains was really good. But the electricity was not working, so we inquired about that back up at the house. It turned out that all the circuit breakers were in the “off” position, which was easily fixed. We made a cup of tea and sat outside in the dusk drinking it. Suddenly a nightjar wobbled right in front of us, flapped about for a couple of seconds, then flew away. We were both totally surprised. Paul got out the bird book and decided it must have been a Fiery-necked Nightjar.

For dinner tonight we used up most of the remaining vegetables; Knorr’s lemon butter sauce goes very well with stir-fried potatoes and vegetables. Tomorrow we would have to restock our supplies. By this time there were so many flying insects hitting our windows, we decided to close the curtains and turn off the outside lights so they wouldn’t be attracted so much. There were all kinds of insects, and we especially noticed some big black beetles about 2 or 3 centimetres in diameter.

We were supposed to wash our dishes in the outside sink, but there was no way we were going out there, so we did the dishes in the little inside sink. For some reason we hadn’t been given a dish towel, so we dried them with one of the bath towels instead. Both of us suspected that the rondeval had not been used since the previous autumn.

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