The Rimutaka Bike Trail

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Another year another bike challenge in New Zealand

This year the choice was the Rimutaka Rail Trail. After months of research, bookings and reading blogs about the ride – eleven hearty souls set off from Auckland on different days and stages to meet up at the Top 10 Holiday park Petone on Sunday 3rd March 2019

Day 1: Petone to Orongorongo Beach. The GROUP: L – R John H, John P, Bob, Marcia, Des, Chris, Lorraine, Helen, Heather & David

It is a long drive from Auckland to Petone so several members opted for an overnight break at various places. Our little group of three,  Marcia, Chris and I, decided we would stay in Taihape – why I have no idea but it seemed as good as any place to stop. We booked in at the Aspen Court motel who were very customer focused and prior to our visit sent us a ‘how to find us’ and ‘what to see’ in Taihape. The motel was comfortable, clean and suitable to our needs. It was also an easy walk to the town – 10 minutes. We had a lovely meal at the “Le Cafe Telephonique” near the centre of town.

On the way to Petone the following day we stopped for lunch at “The Long Beach cafe” in Waikanae and then on to Petone to catch up with Dave from “Everyone’s Adventure” who was taking care of our bag transfers and our shuttle requirements. Two of our team were hiring E-bikes  from his company. In our group of eleven, five people were riding E-bikes and the rest ordinary mountain/hybrid bikes. Dave was also going to advise us as to which way we would ride the Petone to Orongorongo beach via Pencarrow – it was very much wind dependant, and he would shuttle us and our bikes either to Orongorongo beach to start from there or pick us up after our ride from there.

Day ONE – 33.5 + 5kms: Petone Top 10 Holiday Park to Orongorongo Beach carpark plus an extra 5km return ride to Turakirae Scientific Reserve and the seal colony.

We woke to a beautiful sunny day in Petone – everyone was out early fiddling with their bikes ensuring tyres were pumped, saddles were the right height, batteries charged and plenty of food and drink tucked away in pannier bags.
Dave from Everyone’s Adventure, arrived at 9am with E-bikes and maps. He suggested we should ride from Petone to Orongorongo beach as the wind would be behind us and he would pick us up from Orongorongo Beach at 16:30.
He took Chris & Helen, who had hired the e-bike, though their paces and took us through the cycle route telling us to keep the sea on our right and stay as close to it as possible. He also suggested we have coffee before we get to “The Bike Shed” beyond Eastbourne as that is the last place on this route for food and drink.
Armed with our maps eleven riders set off from Petone Top 10 negotiating a very busy roundabout and turning into Waione St to the Hutt River bridge where we joined the Hutt River cycle trail turning left towards Marine Drive. Safely across the roundabout and onto the bike path we relaxed. However, there were several areas where we had to ride along the busy roads and on footpaths before we got to Eastbourne where we stopped for coffee.

Looking along the beach from Eastbourne pier
Marcia & Chris heading out of Eastbourne after coffee
My E-bike on Eastbourne pier
On the way to Eastbourne

We passed Seaview, Point Howard, Sorrento Bay, Lowry Bay, York bay, Mahina Bay, Sunshine bay and Days bay with its boatshed and on to Eastbourne – 9.6km where we heeded the advice give and stopped for coffee.

Energised by coffee we headed towards Pencarrow stopping at the ‘Wahine Memorial’. This is a memorial represented by one of the restored masts from the Wahine – it’s foremast – and is situated on the beachfront south of Eastbourne. A plaque remembers the 51 people who died on the day, most of them died along the Eastbourne/Pencarrow coastline where we were riding  – a somber thought.

Wahine’s Foremast Memorial
Another view of the Wahine Memorial

Next we passed Dave working in ‘The Bike Shed’ on Muritai Road – one of the last bastions of civilisation before starting on the isolated part of the track.` This is where the beautiful scenery started, the trail was isolated, scenic and safe – and we loved it, what a way to go.
We rode through what was the old Burdan’s gate (where one once had to lift the bike over) but now has a ‘bike squeeze barrier’ built in 2018 which makes life easier especially for us E-bikers with our heavy bikes. We were now riding on the gravel road which was very smooth and easy to ride on and also very flat!

The wild coastline

The coastline, on our right, was wild and very exposed which is why you need to have the wind behind you to enjoy the ride. We met some cyclists coming the other way and they were all rugged up and looked very weary fighting the wind all the way. The coastline is infamous for fierce southerly storms that whips the surf onto the coastline and the huge swells from the Cook Strait which can push boats/ferries onto the rocks.

About 2km along the Pencarrow coast road, east of Lake Kohangatera, the remains of the small steamer “Paiaka” lies beside the road. The ship was wrecked on 9th July 1906. The SS Paiaka was built 1881 and sank in Fitzroy Bay between Pencarrow and Baring Heads, just outside of Wellington Harbour. It was salvaged in 1987 and brought ashore to its present position to become a memorial to commemorate the lives and ships lost along this coastline. Luckily there were only 2 people on the boat when it sank during a north/north-westerly hurricane but they survived.

Wreck of SS Paiaka

On this wild and rugged coast between Eastbourne and Baring Head there have been at least 40 shipwrecks recorded – most have disappeared. Having just passed the Wahine memorial and then the SS Paiaka it was a strong reminder of what a perilous harbour entrance Wellington has and how cruel the Barrett Reef can be, it was on this reef that the Wahine met its demise in April 1968. The sinking of this Lyttelton–Wellington ferry was New Zealand’s worst modern maritime disaster. 51 people died that day, another one a few weeks later and years later (1990’s) another victim succumbed to injuries sustained in the disaster.

We rode along happily enjoying the spectacular views across the harbour to Wellington city central which had a huge cruise ship berthed in the harbour, and we also enjoyed glimpses of the outline of the South Island across the Cook Strait. Of course such beauty along the route demands lots of photo stops including one where several mountain goats were happily eating the vegetation from the steep hills alongside the track.

Upper & Lower Pencarrow lighthouses
Helen & Lorraine checking out lower Pencarrow lighthouse
Close up of Lower Pencarrow lighthouse

About 9km from Burdan’s gate we stopped at a steep track that leads up to the old Pencarrow lighthouse, and continues on to Lake Kohangapiripiri. There are two fresh water lakes – Lake Kohangatera & Kohangapiripiri collectively called the Pencarrow lakes and were created by an earthquake which separated them from the sea.

Because we did not know what was ahead on today’s ride we were reluctant to take the time to climb up to the lighthouse, however, two from the group climbed, on foot, up the steep slope to the top affording them a spectacular view. The rest of us cycled on to the lower lighthouse or second Pencarrow lighthouse at sea level. This lighthouse was built in 1906 because the old lighthouse on the hill was often shrouded in clouds!

A little history of the lighthouse from a Hutt Valley brochure:

“The iron lighthouse structure was cast in sections at Woodside Iron Works in the West Midlands. The 480 pieces were transported to New Zealand and assembled on site. The lamp was lit for the first time on New Year’s Day 1859 – making the record books as the first permanent lighthouse to be built in New Zealand. It beamed its cautionary message for 76 years until it was replaced by an automated light at Baring Head to the east. Pencarrow’s first keeper was Englishwoman Mary Jane Bennett, to this day New Zealand’s only woman lighthouse keeper. A widow, whose husband had drowned in the surf below, she and her children lived on this wild and isolated cliff top, tending the light, until 1865. The little daughter of a later keeper is buried here, her grave surrounded by a white picket fence”

Riding towards The ‘white boat’ our next marker!
Bush is always green very high up!

Our next hurdle was to identify an old white boat by the shore where the road divides. Straight ahead on a very rough road to the Bearing Head lighthouse. Dave told us we must turn left at this white boat so that we would end up at Orongorongo beach car park which was our meeting point for our transport home. We waited for all the group to arrive just in case someone did not see the white boat – which I must admit was hard to miss!! After a long slow steep climb up we stopped at the top to look back over the Cook Strait and of course – a photoshoot!

Our marker – ‘The White Boat’! This meant we had to turn left up hill
Helen & Marcia arriving at the ‘White Boat’
If you look closely you will see riders tackling the hill!

After struggling up the hill the views back over Cook Strait were amazing, time for a break and a photo shoot.  Next we crossed some private land and made our way downhill all the way to the Wainuiomata river.

View from the top
Des makes it! Phew!!
John H decides he would prefer to walk!
Marcia & Chris makes easy work of it on their E-bikes!

After riding across the bridge, however, our trail was blocked by a huge solid iron gate that was firmly bolted. Those of us with heavy e-bikes looked at the gate with horror – how could we possible lift them over this huge tall gate?

Luck was on our side as we spotted a Hutt Valley ranger working in East Harbour Regional Park a few hundred meters away and went and implored her to help us – did she have a key and could she unlock the gate please??? . She was most obliging and came with key in hand and within minutes the insurmountable large gate swung opened. She informed us that we were very lucky she had been there as the gate is always locked. She did say they were going to install a bike squeeze barrier in the near future but we were very disappointed that Dave had not warned us about the gate.

On the road to Orongorongo Beach
On the road to Orongorongo Beach

 

Safely through the gate and feeling totally indebted to the ranger we flew down the tar sealed road to the Orongorongo beach car park where we met the fierce wind howling in from the shore for the first time that day. We found some shelter behind rocks on the other side of the Orongorongo River where we sat watching some local fishermen catch their dinner while we had our lunch.

Orongorongo Beach – car park across the river and our group huddled behind the rocks sheltering from the wind
View out to sea
Lunch time!
A lone fisherman on the beach
Chris, Marcia, Lorraine & John P enjoying their lunch
Helen & David in serious conversation!
John H & Heather discussing politics!

Dave had told us about the seal colony about 2.5km further on in the Turakirae Scientific Reserve. The majority of the group decided to ride to the seal colony and the rest opted to stay and snooze in the sun! The track to the seal colony was much rougher than we had experienced all day and we finally arrived at the reserve but soon realised we could not ride our bikes any further so headed off to the seal colony on shanks’ pony. It was a relatively short walk but seemed to take forever as we battled against the wind all the way. It made me grateful that we had not had to battle the wind the whole day on our bikes! When we arrived at the large rocky outcrop it was not very clear where the seals were so we all headed off in different directions. Finally with the aid of binoculars we spotted several fur seals on some off-shore rocks – they were not easy to see with the naked eye.

Dave and his van arrived at 16:30 to take us back to Top 10 in Petone. Wine, nibbles and beer was consumed and some pizzas ordered which were less than wonderful but we did not really care as we had a most fantastic bike ride and what scenery…..

Day 2: – 30km: Petone Top 10 holiday park to Kiwi Holiday Park near Harcourt Park, Upper Hutt

Day-2-Petone Top 10 Holiday Park to Wellington Kiwi Holiday Park in Harcourt Park

Today, we said good bye to our cars for three days. They were safely tucked away in the Top 10 ‘lock up’ costing $5 per day if you book ahead, $10 if you don’t book ahead. We also had to do a little repacking to comply with the required weight of 15kg per bag as the bags were being transported from place to place over next three days by Dave from ‘Everyone’s Adventure’.
After several false starts – where’s my bag?, where are my car keys? my pump? my torch? my lunch? my drink? – we were off. We left all bags in the foyer for Dave to collect – but there did seem to be a few more than eleven bags???

Some of the group ready for off on 2nd day. L-R: John P, David, Helen, Lorraine, Marcia, Chris, Bob & Heather
Waiting for group to come on track under the road

Another clear blue sky as we headed to the dreaded roundabout again but this time, instead of turning left at the bridge, as we did yesterday, we took the right turn onto the track under the road and headed along the Hutt River keeping it on our left!

Two minutes after we started riding I spotted several Royal Spoonbills very close to shore – definitely a photo stop.

Beautiful Creatures – Royal Spoonbills by the side of the Hutt River Bike Trail

The path called the Hutt River Bike Trail was smooth and flat for a while and then suddenly there was heavy gravel and a steep uphill which took the early riders by surprise and we had our first ‘incident’ of the day when a rider was separated from his bike but thankfully it was not serious.

More birds along the river

Keeping the Hutt river on our left we passed several busy industrial areas on our right riding through Strand Park, under Railway Ave road and past the Lower Hutt War Memorial Library arriving at Avalon Park where were were joined by another cyclist. ….a friend of Heather and Bob’s who lives in Wellington and came to join us for the day. By this time we were keen for coffee so stopped to ask a few locals where we could get a cuppa – ‘best place closest to the track was probably the Caltex station at Stokes Valley’! So on we went aiming for that destination – and they were right it was a good coffee!

Coffee time at Caltex station, Stokes Valley. L-R: John P, John H, David & Helen
More coffee takers!

The signposting was excellent along most of the track but we found it a little confusing when we reached Totara park Road where there were two signs for the Rimutaka Trail – one up and over the bridge and one straight on. I rode over the bridge to confirm that we needed to keep the Hutt river on our left until we reached Harcourt park and our home for the night – Wellington Kiwi Holiday Park (also known as Harcourt’s Holiday park). We sat on the banks of the Hutt river and ate our lunch while waiting for the group to catch up. There had been another wee incident with another rider who scratched his leg going through a cement stile but again all was well.

Having ascertained that we did need to keep the river on our left we rode the last few km to our destination. It seems that the Hutt River Trail and the Rimutaka become one from Totara Park Road up to Birchville which probably caused the confusion with the signposting. Once we arrived at Harcourt Park we asked direction to our accommodation from a local walker and were told to take the road – all very straight forward but we later discovered a better and shorter route through Harcourt’s Park!

Which way to the Kiwi Holiday Park?

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It was a relatively easy day’s ride and we arrived at Kiwi Holiday Park at about 2pm. What a little oasis it turned out to be. Set in lush wooded area with bouts of magical birdcalls followed by silence. Our bags had all been safely delivered – our only issue was food as there was little available in the immediate area and we had no cars so most settled for fish and chips from the local which was pretty basic. We all loved this little friendly holiday park with all facilities you could possibly need. Had there been a nice little restaurant close by it would have been perfect!

Day 3 – This was the big one! Kiwi Holiday park, Upper Hut to Waiorongomai Station through the Rimutaka Incline!  – 48.8km, Grade 3-4

Day-3-Over-the-Rimutakas.

Another beautiful morning and we were all ready for off at 08:30. This was our BIG day! Everyone had plenty of food and drink for the day as there were no food sources on todays’ route!

Just about ready for off!

We headed back into Harcourt park and followed the Rimutaka trail signs. We left the trail after about 3-4kms and rode on a quiet country road through Te Marua and along the Maymorn Road to Maymorn station which was a non event! We were past it before we realised what it was! We then headed through a gate and up a steep sharp incline for about 200 meters then we had a very steady uphill incline to the summit 19km away.

Our first tunnel was just about 500m beyond Maymorn – the Mangaroa tunnel 253m long built in 1877. We were all armed with torches but really did not need them for this one.

Chris exiting the Mangaroa Tunnel – did not need torches
Marcia coming out of Mangaroa tunnel
You can see daylight through the tunnel
Checking everyone got through the tunnel!

3-4 km later we turned right into Incline Road (a quiet sealed road) and followed the signs to the ‘pinch’ gates. We were quite close to Hwy 2 in parts of this road. We came to Kaitoke car park and were warned about a rifle range close by. There is also an information board and many more dotted all along this trail. We saw nor heard anything from the rifle range as we zoomed past it.
A few km along we came to Pakuratahi tunnel, 73m long and built in 1876. We could see the end of the tunnel before we entered the beginning!

Pakuratahi tunnel

19km from Maymorn we arrived at the summit, the sun was shining but there was a keen wind. This was our agreed lunch spot and we enjoyed a half hour, eating drinking and chatting and reading all the information boards about the amazing incline railway gradient. This is a beautiful picnic area with lovely views and areas to walk around. There is a wooden shelter from the wind and some old rusty remnants from the old Fell locomotives that worked hard on the Incline for 77 years! There are also toilets here.

Summit shelter – 348m above sea level!
Lunch at the Summit
Enjoying the break at the summit
John P & Des enjoying lunch in the shelter. Behind them are the information boards with the history of the Fell locomotives
Rusty remnants of the Fell engines that once rode the Rimutaka Incline
The Summit tunnel!

Refreshed and rested we headed down the incline – taking care as we rode through the gravel patches. Our first hurdle was the Summit tunnel built in 1877 and 584m long – we definitely needed our touch for this one! The gradient of 1:15 used for the Fell locomotives starts part way through the long 584m Summit tunnel, built in 1877.

We stopped at a look out just off the track on our way down. What a beautiful view – it looked way over the green forests and we also spotted our next tunnel amongst the greenery less than a km away. It was the Siberia tunnel built in 1878 and is 108m long.

View from lookout – the Siberia tunnel is in centre of picture
Bob enjoying the view
Chris enjoying the view

 

Our biggest challenge of the day came after the Siberia tunnel when we approached Siberia gully which had once been a large sweeping embankment but was washed away in 1967. This left a very steep rough gravel & rock descent down to the stream and then a very steep ascent on the other side. For the E-bikers what lay ahead appeared to be a monstrous climb especially trying to push a 25kg bike up a nearly vertical slope filled with rocks and gravel. Thankfully everyone helped each other and we all made it safely to top. At one stage I was taking one step up and two back down and if I tried to use my throttle my bike reared up like a wild stallion!

Siberia Gully and what is left of the embankment. The steep decent down to the gully and incline out of the gully was strewn with rocks and coarse gravel. – BLOODY SIBERIAN GULLY!!!!

 

Onwards and downwards to our next tunnel enjoying the views and the downhill as we rode. Tunnel 5 – Prices tunnel built in 1875/6 and is 98m long! A few km along we finally came to Cross Creek Station. which has a historic site where there once was and still has the remains of a locomotive depot and a turntable. Once this little area had a school, library and several homes.

Smoother trail nearing Cross Creek
The old Cross Creek station. Just about 100 meters along is the old locomotive holding yards and turn-tables.

This was not the end of the track, in fact the trail becomes quite narrow and undulating and we needed to focus on the trail as there were several slips along the track and not enough room for more than one bike but with relief we met nobody coming the other way and all arrived at Cross Creek carpark where we read on an information board that this was the end of our Incline adventure.

Pleased to have finished the Rimutaka Incline! L-R: Bob, Heather, Marcia, Louise & JohnP
We have done it!!!
Lucy & Lorraine pointing to the obvious!

But we still had 16.4km to our accommodation at Waiorongomai Station so we turned right and rode along a main tar sealed road. We thoroughly enjoyed riding on the tar seal after so much gravel and revved up our e-bikes!! We rode alongside Lake Wairarapa for many kms. As we got close to Waiorongomai station we came to a beautiful little church on the left side of the road called All Saints Anglican Church which was built in 1927 by the descendants of Charles & Elizabeth Matthews who started farming Waiorongomai station in 1850. It was built as an ecumenical church to service everyone, but the running of it became too hard for the Matthews family so the Anglican church took over. The family however are still very involved and spend a lot of their time trying to keep the grounds and church up to scratch. It is clearly in need of TLC but the cost is prohibitive for both church and family.

What a beautiful setting for this lovely church – All Saints Anglican Church, Waiorongomai.
History of the church
Sign outside church
Inside!

We finally arrived at our very clearly marked destination. We had booked two cottages within the station which have been specially refurbished for bikers like ourselves who only stay one night. Our cottages were Burling & Ratanui cottage. Karla, our host came around to check that we had everything we needed and spent some time talking about their part of farm life as the sixth generation of the Matthews family.

The cottages were beautiful and were surrounded by fields full of sheep. There were kunekune pigs just along the way. We all agreed it was paradise. Everything we wanted was there in our cottages and we had arranged to have dinner there and breakfast so we all joined forces in the large cottage Ratanui. There was plenty of room for all 11 around the table so we chatted, drank wine and ate and chatted about the days’ events – mostly about our efforts to get up out from that ‘bloody’ Siberian gully!

Burlings Accommodation
Sunset and the sheep!

Surrounded by the sound and smells of the Wairarapa and a beautiful sunset we all headed off to our rooms for a good nights sleep!

Day 4 – Waiorongomai Station to Lake Ferry Hotel – 37.4kms

Day-4-Waioringomai-Station-to-Lake-Ferry Hotel

We woke to cloudy skies – the first sign of rain since we started our trip. Karla informed us that the weather forecast indicated rain which would increase tomorrow. Based on the threatening clouds and the weather forecast we decided to head off after a hearty breakfast. Having taken our food scraps to the Kunekune pigs who showed absolutely no interest in them, we headed off to Lake Ferry.

A kunekune pig – not from Waiorongomai!

It was pretty well sign posted except for the main junction where we met the Martinborough Road. So one of our groups waited to point everyone in the right direction and by this time it was drizzling steadily and phone service was ‘iffy’ so we could not rely on that for communication.

Rain clouds and countryside!
Lower valley Garage…… dont know when it last saw a car!

It was an easy pleasant ride (despite the light rain) but we had been warned that there was no cafe along todays’ route. So you can imagine our absolute delight when we saw a coffee banner waving in the wind about 7 km on the Martinborough side of Lake Ferry. What a lovely surprise and what a gem it turned out to be! Called ‘The Land Girls’, it had coffee, gifts, delicious food and lots of character – what more could we want? News spread along the group very quickly and suddenly everyone was gathered there to have coffee and sustenance in the tiny settlement of Pirinoa. If you could not get what you wanted in the cafe the the shop across the road sold just about everything.

The Land Girls Cafe – our oasis!!
Helen & David happy after their coffee
Joined by Des & John H

The rain began to clear as we left the cafe and we were able to take in the beauty of the countryside. The sun came out as we got close to Lake Ferry which we were pleased about.  We arrived there a little too early for check in but our bags had arrived and the staff were very helpful and happy for us to take our bags to our rooms which was a big bonus. This is a very old hotel so we all shared the ablution block which was clean with several showers and toilets. Our rooms were pretty sparse but we had a bed and a shed for our bikes and there was a pub for drinks and food! We had pre-booked our group for dinner at 6:30 pm- just in case they were busy.

Another lovely church on route
Burnside Presbyterian Church
The sun really did come out!

The settlement of Lake Ferry is between the shores of Lake Onoke and Palliser bay. This is a very old region of NZ dating back to the 12th century! Farming started in 1844 and in 1850 a ferry service was established across Lake Onoke. The story goes that the ferryman needed extra income and so he opened Lake Ferry hotel in 1851.

After unpacking and sorting our bikes, the sky was blue and the wind was pretty strong, but we decided to brave the wind and go for a walk down to to the beach. We saw a few people fishing and also saw a vehicle stuck in the soft sand with lots of people trying to push it out. Alas, it was going no where and the local tractor was out on another job so the family (on holiday from Australia) had to wait for a tow-truck from Martinborough! They waited in the hotel enjoying some food and drink. I believe they finally got their vehicle out close to midnight!

Lake Ferry Hotel
View towards Cape Palliser
Beach close to Lake Ferry Hotel where truck got bogged
Lake Onoke
Clouds gathering threateningly!

After a few close encounters with some cockroaches in the shower we enjoyed some fantastic whitebait fritters and wine and had the hotel to ourselves after 9pm.

Day 5 – Lake Ferry Hotel to to the Claremont Motel, Martinborough – 35kms

Day-5-Lake-Ferry-to-Martinborough

The rain started during the night and did not ease during breakfast but we had to get 11 bikes and 11 people to Martinborough by 14:30 to get a lift back to Petone to collect our cars so there was nothing for it but to get on our bikes!! We ensured everyone knew the way – it was very straight forward but was also on a main road that could be a little busy so care was needed. We all set off at different stages and some chose to stop at the Land Girls cafe again for coffee but i decided I was wet and miserable so kept going. There was nothing for it but ‘head down and bum up and go’ on the e-bike. I was within a few kms from Martinborough when an ambulance with flashing lights passed and I thought to my self – I do hope that is not for one of us……… but when Marcia caught up to me she told me it was indeed for one of us. Chris had come off her electric bike and hurt her shoulder. She was taken by ambulance to Masterton where they discovered she had fractured her humerus. Poor Chris – what an end to her biking holiday. While the rest of us went wine tasting in Martinborough she was in a collar & cuff sling and taking painkillers! Not an ideal way to end a holiday.

Martinborough – 3 days!

We had three nights in Martinborough, visiting the vey pretty Greytown in the heart of the Wairarapa, which was a great hit with everyone. In 2017 it won New Zealand’s most beautiful small town award!

Greytown
Greytown

On our second to last night we ended with a dinner at Pinocchio Restaurant, Martinborough – great food and wonderful ambience. When we arrived we discovered we were sitting outside and it was a chilly evening and we did not come dressed for outside dining! But we were supplied with warm blankets which cause lots of laughter and fun!

Great meal at Pinocchios’
In our blankets! : L-R: John H, Bob, David, Lucy, Lorraine, Des, John P, Helen, Heather, Louise & Peter. Great night had by all
Heather & her friend Louise who joined us on two of our rides and again in Martinborough for the weekend.

On the last day we went wine tasting at “On Giant’s Shoulders” & “Brodie Estate” and enjoyed both very much. On Giant’s Shoulders is a very old vineyard with a young owner just setting up for wine tasting and can only do it privately until he gets a licence. Brodie’s Estate has a new owner and the Brodie wine is still been sold until it runs out!

Grapes in vineyard “On Giant’s Shoulders”
Tasting room – “On Giant’s Shoulders”

 

We then cycled to Brodie’s Estate

Greeted by the Brodies’ – cousins of Helen
Helen & David – serious discussion!!
Owner Ann Brodie
Owner James Brodie
Wine is a serious topic – Peter, Helen, David & Bob!
James – telling us about the wines!
Cousins – Helen & Ann

Despite Chris’s accident everyone loved the bike ride and of course the beautiful countryside – a glorious part of New Zealand.

Kruger National Park – a 21 day amazing adventure

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Kruger National Park: 1st camp – Letaba, 2nd camp – Shingwedzi. 3rd camp – Olifants, 4th camp – Satara, 5th camp – Orpen, 6th camp – Skukuza and 7th camp Lower Sabie.

A life time dream was about to be fulfilled as we winged our way over the antarctic ice in a Qantas 747 on the way to Kruger National park via Johannesburg, South Africa.  Twenty-one days in Kruger watching wild animals doing their thing in their natural surroundings!!! Bring it on!

We had an overnight stop close to the airport in Joburg as there was only one flight each day up to Phalaborwa where we intended to enter Kruger park.  Also it would give us a chance to get over ‘jet lag’.  We were picked up from the airport by our accommodation and delivered back to the airport the following morning to catch the daily plane to Phalaborwa.  We also planned a one night stay in Phalaborwa to pick up our hire car, to shop and to further recover from mild jet lag.

Phalaborwa Gate into Kruger Park

 

Phalaborwa Airport

 

Rules & Regulations

Phalaborwa or Kruger airport was a delight – tiny, no waiting in line, unusual toilets and animal sculptures everywhere. you just knew you were close to Kruger National Park.

Our guest house – Llama Guest House  in Essenhout street was central and close to supermarkets and the Kruger gate.  It was very clean & comfortable and included a complimentary bottle of good South African red wine and a fruit basket. The owner was a lovely lady who had lived in Madagascar for many years and moved to Phalaborwa several years ago to avoid unrest but is disillusioned with SA, feeling it is going the same way.  Only in the country two days and already  we had many warnings about keeping our purses and ourselves safe.  We would have to get used to bars on doors and windows and gates with hook wire on top.  We ended the day with a wonderful meal at the Buffalo Restaurant down town. 

It is hard to get a clear idea of what the camps and shops in Kruger are like even from extensive google research. Months before we left I joined a Facebook site called ‘ SANParks – Kruger National Park’. The planning for our trip started about nine months before we hoped to depart. 

We needed to book the camps sites even before we booked flights so we could travel the park in an organised way. The planning was helped immensely by a book I ordered called – Tinkers Kruger Park Guide & Map .  It took three weeks to get here but was really worth the wait.  It had really detailed maps, photographs of wildlife, birds, camp information, the Do’s & Dont’s of Kruger and suggested itineraries.

We booked the campsites on https://www.sanparks.org/parks/kruger  The site is easy enough to navigate but does take a while to get used to.  You cannot just book one camp site if you have a set itinerary in mind – you need to make sure ALL the other campsites are available for your required  dates and hope by the time you get back to booking them they are still available!  The camp sites fill up very quickly especially the rondavels with ensuite.  You cannot choose a specific one as that is sorted when you arrive at the camp and you cannot check into the camp until 2pm.

Our rondavel at Olifants

 

Mastering the Braai

Not knowing what to expect in the camp shops we stocked up on food and drinks.  And because we knew some camp accommodation did not have basic eating utensils we bought all the essentials to survive – thermos, insulated mugs, plates, knives, forks & spoons plus a chilly bin to keep food in.  I can now confirm that the shops sell most things including a variety of boerewors which must contain at least 90 percent meat in flavours such as garlic, cheese, impala, kudu, lamb etc……  There was not a huge variety of other types of meat.

With our car at the ready and food packed into chilly bins we set forth through the Kruger Gate after a good nights sleep!  The excitement was palpable….what would we see first?  We stopped at the office to go through all the paperwork before we were allowed to drive through the gate.  The young woman behind the counter was less than friendly but we did not care as we were on our way to our amazing adventure.

Not a great pic but the only honey badger we saw!

The very first thing we saw after going through the gates was a honey badger which we discovered later was not a very popular animal in Kruger because of its bad habits and fearsome reputation! But not many people see them as they tend to be nocturnal.  I was not quick enough to get a good photo – I had not got my gear at the ready. One of the best tips for my long lens was to bring a beanbag to rest it on the window.  It worked a treat!

Next we saw lots of Impalas – male, female and young.  They are such curious creatures – not afraid to stare you out.  We were driving very slowly – 20 km per hour. One can drive at 50 km per hour on tar seal and 40 kms on dirt roads. We really had no clue where we should be looking or which area we were likely to see any animals.  It was fun just driving along anticipating……. Suddenly there was a large herd of zebras in front of us on the road.  Every zebra has unique markings – just like our fingerprints.

Early morning at a waterhole
male impala with oxpecker bird!
Impala everywhere
Can stroll or run out on road

 Suddenly we saw some elephants on the road ahead and one large elephant started walking towards us.  Because it was our first elephant encounter we were pretty nervous so we drove slowly past well over to the other side of the road!

Strolling across the road!
Suddenly out of the bushes!

Elephant crossing the road in front of our car!

There were many beautifully coloured birds that we would get very familiar with during our three weeks but we could not name them just yet!  Passing by some water holes we were surprised to see so many dry but learned later that Kruger was very close to declaring a drought in August 2018.

We entered through Phalaborwa gate at 9am and arrived at LETABA Camp at 1pm having driven just 50kms. We were booked in for three nights but were too early for the check in time so went to the cafe and had a coffee and some lunch.  We were pleasantly surprised by the quality of both coffee and food – having had no idea what to expect.

Our rondavel was number 49 – circled in black!

Our rondavel was really quaint – it is a traditional circular African dwelling with a conical thatched roof, two single beds, toilet and shower and a well equipped kitchen.  However, we had to ensure we did not leave any food in sight as the baboons and vervet monkeys would grab and run.  In fact we learned that they could open the fridges easily and as we travelled through the different campsite each had a different way of coping with these naughty monkeys!

Vervet Monkey nicknamed ‘Blue Balls’
This is why they are nicknamed “Blue Balls”
Looking so innocent!
Breastfeeding baboon style!
Watch out for those teeth on the innocent vervet monkeys!!
Sitting happily in the middle of the road!
Where are those fleas?
More teeth – baboon this time!
Co cute but also so clever!
Baboons – mum and baby
Who needs a baby sling?

We sat in the restaurant for a few hours with coffee and drinks gazing at the amazing view over the planes and the Letaba river.  We watched waterbucks grazing and hippos slowly making their way down to the river for their evening frolic in the water.  Amongst the waterbuck were two silver-backed jackals, several Kudu and the odd egret or two drinking from the river.

Sausage fruit – Baboons can eat the sausage fruit . … but unripe fruit is poisonous, especially to humans. Many animals love the sausage tree flower
The warning not to park under this tree as the fruit is very heavy and will cause damage to your car

 

Our rondavel had a braai outside – a uniquely South African cooking tradition and one I hoped to master over the three weeks!  In fact everywhere we stayed we had a braai outside the accommodation just for us. At 6pm when the gates of the campsite were closed for the day we watched flame after flame light up the night sky as everyone lit their braai in readiness for their evening meal.  I watched my neighbours light theirs’ and asked lots of questions until I felt I could master it the following night.  I did notice it seemed to be the domain of the men. A SA friend on Facebook commented that her husband was most impressed with my efforts!!

After a really good nights sleep we were at the gate at 0615 with our drinks, rusks (not baby rusks, they are also like cardboard but some have nuts or fruit in them) and our flask with boiling water, some fruit and some sandwiches for lunch.  Gates open at 0600 and we were by no means the first out!

The first animal we saw was a very innocent looking spotted hyena looking as though he’d had a good night. Next, high on a branch we spotted a martial eagle – we only knew the name because a man stopped to see what we were looking at and informed us.  We learned very quickly that this was what everyone did – if you see a car stopped – stop and ask!

Hyena looking very content!
Spotted hyena & cub

Mother & baby hyena

We drove along by the Letaba river and saw some giraffe and kudu . We then turned into a dirt road and suddenly I looked over at my friend driving and could only see a mass of cream and brown ‘squares’ through the window – a massive giraffe was standing in the side of the road nibbling on the trees and we were so close we could have opened the window and touched it!  We got a fright but we soon got over it when we spotted several giraffe a few meters further on strolling across the road, we sat for ages just admiring the beautiful gentle elegant beasts eating from the tall trees and strolling slowly across the road.

Baby giraffe only few days old
Mother & Baby
So cute
Drinking at waterhole
Learning the skill of neck fighting!
Family of three checking us out!
This give you an idea of the size of a few day old giraffe
This bending down to drink is hard work!
Neck play fighting
Family heading for the waterhole

                                                                            

We stopped at one of the many bird-hides dotted around Kruger, most are situated by rivers. Some hides had plenty of water and were full of life others were dry and deserted. The whole of Kruger was pretty dry and they were close to declaring a drought when we were there. The Matambeni bird-hide  was full of life – large crocodiles, several hippos making honking noises, birds coming and going, kudu wandering down to the water and then an elephant walked right beside the hide down to the water and spent an hour eating and drinking – what a wonderful sight! We could not take our eyes off his beautiful long eyelashes (can be up to 12 cms long!). We also learned that elephants eat and drink between 16- 22 out of the 24 hours of the day and only sleep for up to two hours!!

We drove along the S62 on a very bumpy road to the Longwe Lookout – a sensational view over to the Lebombo Mountains and to Limpopo National Park and the Letaba river.

View down the Letaba river from the Letaba restaurant – way in the distance the hippos are come down for the evening swim!

There are not many places one can safely get out of your car in Kruger – several rest areas, some  picnic areas and the campsites of course but always at your own risk according to the signs!  But we were able to get out between yellow lines on the bridge over the Letaba river close to the campsite (again at our own risk of course!).  There were several water fowl including Egyptian geese, egrets and herons in the river and people told us about a leopard that had killed an impala the day before and had come back earlier to drag it away and hide it in a secure place, possibly up a tree as they can climb easily not like many of the other animals.  Later in our trip we spotted one dead impala hanging over a branch by it’s hind legs a couple of meters up a tree close to a main road – it was a pretty impressive that it was dragged up there by a leopard as it was a big impala!

There is also plenty of life within the campsite in the evenings when lots of small impala, bushbucks, monkeys, squirrels and even warthogs come out to play.

Warthog
Bushbuck at campsite

Our second night at Letaba we attempted a braai having armed ourselves with firelighters, wood and matches from the shop and of course the inevitable boerewors sausage!  We cooked corn and potatoes in tinfoil and cooked the boerewors on the braai grill once it had burned down for over an hour until the embers were glowing red then it cooked very quickly. 

We met our first large herd/gang of buffalo on our second day on one of the dirt roads south of Letaba – we first spotted them down by the river and saw several stare us out as we sat in our car taking photos. Finally we moved down the road and then saw a herd of over 100 buffalo cross the road just where we had been parked – that was what the stare from them was about!

Buffalo down by the river

Herd of buffalo crossing the road in front of us – could have been well in excess of 100!

After three nights at Letaba we headed north for three nights at Shingwedzi calling in at Mopani for coffee on the way.

Number 47 – circled in black!

 Today we were very lucky with our sightings – helmeted guinea fowl, large family of baboons, waterbucks, crocodiles, hippos, another buffalo herd, herd of zebra, lots of impala, huge herd of elephants of all ages, some wildebeest and very large birds – the secretary bird (a very ugly looking creature but with a certain poise) and a kori bustard.

We were told that one usually sees wildebeest with zebra and the reason for this is – if attacked the zebra can run faster than the wildebeest so the wildebeest become the prey! But the wildebeest also has a good reason to hang with the zebras – their stripes mesmerise and distract the hunter!

We stopped at the bridge over the Letaba river again and while out of the car a family of about 40 baboons came towards us with a mind to cross the bridge – luckily they crossed to the opposite side from us and went past us – mums carrying babies on their backs and under their bellies with dad bringing up the rear hunting all the little ones ahead of him.

Most days we would pack our lunch and our flasks with the intention of finding a waterhole to sit and enjoy the animals come and go.  Things change so quickly at waterholes – one minute there is a herd of elephants, then come the giraffes or the water buffalo or impala.   Many people came and went while we sat there for a few hours, they did not stay long enough to see who came next!

At the Middelvlei waterhole there were lots of struggles and skirmishes between a herd of zebra and a herd of buffalo, the buffalo were the more aggressive and seem to regard themselves top of this particular pecking order. When they were done they wandered off leaving the zebras in peace. Every waterhole was different and exciting – you did not know what would arrive there next.  And they come from all directions – you might even see a large elephant come by the back of your car, thankfully they are just interested in getting a drink or playing in the mud or swimming using their trunks as snorkels to breathe. 

I just love watching the baby elephants play and try to do everything mum and the rest of the herd do!
Locking their trunks: young elephants lock trunks, like humans might hold hands. Also when engaging in courtship behaviour, elephant couples engage in friendly trunk wrestling and entwine their trunks together.

It is wonderful to watch the herds all playing together and the tiny elephants learning how to drink water through their trunk.  If they cannot manage it they just put their mouth down an drink that way!  An elephant can drink up to 14 litres of water in one go through their trunk!!  Usually the elephants are top of the pecking order at most waterholes but one day we saw eight white rhinos drinking surrounded by lots of impalas and then a herd of elephants approached but were halted by some aggression from the rhinos and eventually they turned and left.  One guide called William explained that each breed of animal respects the other so the elephants were happy to step back and wait for the rhinos to finish.  At other waterholes we saw elephants chase giraffe and zebras away while they drank, swam and generally messed about! 

Some water holes were all dried up but there were several big round cement tanks (beside some of the dried up waterholes) that contained water – man-made for times of drought.  At these tanks the elephants put one foot on a cement block to reach into the tanks.  the baby elephants just run around the tank trying desperately to get their trunks to reach into the tank!  We saw some great challenges at some waterholes – young elephants chasing zebra, and a young elephant (short tusks – not fully grown) was playing with the water at a waterhole that had little water to spare – he was just squirting it everywhere and not letting anyone else share it!

Over the period of three weeks we saw lots of antelopes: hundreds of impalas male & female, big and small. Bushbucks often hung around the camp sites but we also saw them in the bush.  The Kudu, whose horns are the symbol of South African parks because of their magnificence and shape were fairly common! The horns can grow up to 1.8 meters long and are spiral, curving around and around to a final six spirals when fully grown, they usually reach their full length when Kudu is about 6 years of age.

Mature male kudu. The kudu’s horns are the symbol of South African Parks!
Mature male Kudu with six curves in horns (and oxpecker birds)
Male & female Kudu at waterhole
Female Kudu
This is the bronze sculpture at Skukuza camp site. Sadly once locked like this it is almost impossible to free themselves

The  steenbok are beautiful little antelopes, they move in pairs and graze together in open areas but graze separately in bush for safety.  If they sense danger they lie down and flatten their ears (they have very big ears) so they look like a stone! They measure 40-50cms in height.

Female steenbok
Male steenbok

As we were driving along from Shingwedzi to Letaba we spotted some klipspringers on rocks close to the road – they have very coarse rough hair which helps them survive in their rocky habitat. They are such cute little creatures but very timid.

Klipspringer(means ‘rock jumper’) on rocks – his natural habitat. His coarse hair is blown by the wind and is white underneath. He is also very small – about 50-60 cm height

Waterbuck were everywhere where there was water and tsessebe roamed around in the bush sometimes mixing with zebra & wildebeest.  The latter we saw a lot of, especially running with the zebra herds.

Waterbuck on Crocodile River
Waterbuck is easily identified by the white circle on their rump!
Another antelope – the tsessebe
Tsessebe
Tsessebe

We were lucky enough to spot a roan antelope in the distance when up near Shingwedzi but not close enough to get a good photo. We also saw nyala, duiker and many wildebeest

Common duiker
Nyala
Nyala
Wildebeest/Gnu
Herd of Wildebeest
Zebra & wildebeest sharing the waterhole
Wildebeest, zebra & elephant at waterhole

It was a 110 kms from Letaba to Shingwedzi so we stopped at Mopani, about half way for coffee and a break. Everyone drives slowly and stops whenever anyone else is stopped – asking “what can you see?” or stopping to let herds of elephants, zebra, giraffe or buffalo pass.  We enjoyed a cup of coffee at the Mopani Camp and also the view out over the Pioneer Dam.   Just  past Mopani we crossed the Tropic of Capricorn and then came across a traffic jam which meant that something very interesting was happening.  We managed to get ourselves into a good position and saw a carcass of an elephant with about 100 vultures feeding from it.  There were several different types of vultures sharing the carcass with three spotted hyenas and two black-backed jackals.  We learned later that the elephant had died of natural causes and this was the scavengers natural way of cleaning up the park!

Vultures, Black-backed jackal & spotted hyena cleaning up the elephant carcass
Two hyenas
There were about 70-80 vultures either eating or sitting around waiting for the next course

Having left Letaba we arrived at Shingwedzi at about 15:30.  Shingwedzi, our second campsite, was a lovely campsite right beside the Shingwedzi river that flows into Mozambique and the Limpopo National park.  As this was as north as we were staying we decided that we would drive north the following day toward the most northerly campsite – Punda  Maria – on the main H1-7.  We often took little loop roads off the main roads as they were quiet and sometime there were more animals to be seen. Along the Mphongolo loop (S56) we came across a water hole with about 20 hippos, lots of crocodiles and many birds – the regal African fish eagle was perched high on a tree overlooking the action at the waterhole. 

Oxpecker birds sitting on top of the hippos

Hippos grazing
Hippos playing and making lots of noise
Hippopotamuses playing – third largest mammal and showing their teeth!
We counted about 25 hippos at this spot! They are most vulnerable in drought as they depend hugely on water. Hippos are most active at night, when they forage for food, they eat mostly grass – and can eat up to 35kg. They can hold their breath for up to FIVE minutes under water

There was a large herd of buffalo drinking alongside a herd of elephants – coexisting amicably. A large herd of zebra had just left the hole before the buffalo arrived – not sure whether they were finished drinking or had been driven away but thats life in Kruger.  While we sat in our car mesmerised by all the animals at the waterhole – suddenly a large grey elephant strolled up behind our car and -whew- she and her herd following walked straight past and down to the waterhole.  As we drove around Shingwedzi we were sad to see many of the river beds and waterholes dry.  Even the bird-hide Kanniedood hide near the Kanniedood Dam was deserted but we did find some waterholes with water further along the S50

Elephant & buffalo sharing drinking rights at a waterhole

Baby elephant enjoying the mud – it protects his skin from sunburn!
Leaning into the mud!
Baby learning how to drink from his trunk – takes up to two years to get the hang of it. If he cannot get his trunk to work he just bends down and drinks through his mouth.
After a good old roll in the mud

Herd lead away from the waterhole by the matriarch. Baby is never far from mum’s side

Each campsite is different – all the camps except Orpen had a restaurant and all that we stayed at had shops.  Each camp had a ‘Sightings Board’ which the rangers fill in with coloured buttons that represent each animal.  The only animal whose position is never identified is the rhino because of the poaching which unfortunately still happens in Kruger.  These boards can be useful as a guide to where you could possible see a specific animal.  The best way to know where animals are is to talk with people who have just come back to the camp site from a days adventure.

Each of the ‘big five’ have their specific colour on the board but the sightings of rhino are not recorded

Most of the restaurants serve good food and drinks and usually have a lovely view out over the river or plains.  They also have laundry facilities, some have pools and one or two have ‘day spas’ where you can get rejuvenated for your next adventure!  We made use of the spa in Skukuza – we had been on the road for 16 days so were ready for a break and it was so very enjoyable!  Skukuza camp was the biggest in Kruger and had every facility one needed.  Orpen on the other hand was small and intimate and right beside a waterhole where you could swim in their swimming pool and watch the elephants stroll to the waterhole!

Each day was more exciting that the last and each day became a day of – ‘Elephants’ or ‘Giraffes’ or ‘lions’ depending on how many we saw.

Our first view of lions was six days into our time in the park.  We stopped where a few cars had stopped along the road and one driver pointed to where the lions were – they were a long way away but we could see them through binoculars – we saw three lionesses and several cubs, one of the people there told us there were 11 cubs altogether but we only saw a few. .  The lionesses tend to gather in groups when their cubs are young so they can share caring and killing food for the cubs.

On the S50 road we came to Dipene Outpost, where an old cement bath was used for several years  from 1938 as a foot-bath to disinfect  illegal immigrants coming across the border from Mozambique with the aim to curb a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak.  We then drove on to the bird-hide at Nyawutsi where we spotted a beautiful fish eagle!  On the way home we nearly ran over about a dozen banded mongoose crossing the road!

Dipene Outpost
The old cement bath (1938) that illegal immigrants had to dip their feet in before entering South Africa.

Our third camp site was Olifants for three nights – 141 kms (our longest drive within the park) so we took our time driving there and again spent some time watching the scavengers continue to clean up the elephant carcass we had seen three days earlier.  The carcass was much cleaner and there were less vultures around but several black-backed jackals and a few spotted hyena were still enjoying their find.

The smallest of the camp sites we stayed at – had swimming pool and waterhole just outside the fence where elephants visited regularly.
Our rondavel & view!
Sunrise from our rondavel in Olifants

Along this route we saw a few magnificent baobab trees, one or two were devastated probably by elephants trying to get water from them.  The elephants use the tree for shelter, food from fruit and water in times of drought by ripping the bark away and drinking the stored water.  They also use it as a scratching pad!!

Baobab tree
Baobab tree often scarred from elephants trying to get moisture from the tree.

We had booked a river walk at Olifants so we were up and ready for off at 8am. We had two local guides Moira & Dennis who carried rifles.  We drove in a safari vehicle to the river where they loaded their guns and were very forceful about what we could and could not do!.  Single file, no stopping unless they do. Keep up with the person in front…….  They were pretty knowledgable and explained about different types of animal dung – shape size and texture. Elephants have a very poor digestive system so their dung is full of fibre and thorns from the trees they consume.  People are warned not to drive over elephant dung or you may get a puncture!!! I won’t go into detail of all the other dung we learned about!  They showed us a hippo’s skull from the previous drought and said that they are very vulnerable in drought as they depend so much on water. We noticed two large herds of elephants come down to the river on the other side from us but when they started to come over to our side the guides quickly gathered us together and set off back to the truck.  They told us later that we were on one of the paths that the elephants often take.  The whole event lasted three hours from pick up to drop off.  We did enjoy it but it really was a little bit of an non-event!

Our river walk
Our ranger Moira and her loaded gun!
Dennis

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Herd of elephants heading down to the river
The herd of elephants crossing to our side. Our guides quickly moved us on!
Swimming close and keeping a closer eye on us!

Our feathered friends in Kruger were numerous so armed with a good pair of binoculars and Kruger National Park Map book with its drawings/photos of 238 bird species we were able to name/identify quite a few.  Mind you, we did need photos as well so we could peruse the pictures in an attempt to identify them.  In truth we probably managed to identify only about 50 birds.  The very ugly secretary bird, kori bustard, the lilac crested roller, storks of every description, the goliath heron, many species of starlings and the aptly named “Go away bird” plus many many more including the common southern yellow-billed hornbill nicknamed the ’banana bird’.   My favourite was the beautiful lilac crested roller especially when they spread their wings in flight and reveal exquisite teal coloured wings!

Lilac-breasted roller
Black-shouldered kite
Crested barbet
Southern ground hornbill
Yellow-billed stork
yellow-billed storks
African fish-eagle
Grey Heron
Juvenile Bateleur
Juvenile Bateleur in flight
Goliath heron
Red-billed hornbill
Southern yellow-billed hornbill – ‘banana bird’
Greater blue-eared starling – they are everywhere!
Bateleur
Southern ground hornbill – parent & juvenile
Saddle-billed stork
Kori bustard
Kori bustard
Secretary Bird
African hoopoe
Southern Black flycatcher
Immature Martial Eagle
Egyptian geese

Secretary Bird

Satara was our fourth camp site and we had booked for two nights – we had hoped to stay three but there was not one available space for the third night so we opted for two night in Orpen following our stay in Satara.  Olifants to Satara was a short 54 kms so we took our time and found several waterholes and decided this was the ‘day of the giraffe’ as several herds came and went at one waterhole. They shared the waterhole with a family of about 30 baboons.  We loved to watch the giraffe bending down to drink – they look so graceful and so awkward at the same time!  We also were lucky enough to see several young male giraffes using their necks to fight – it was only a play fight but when a female is involved it can be very serious  if she is the only female in the area.  Their necks are surprisingly strong despite only having 7 vertebrae.  They go “neck and neck” into a fight and usually strike the rump, the legs or the underbelly and the victor get the woman!

Our accommodation was down in circle A

After leaving Olifants we drove to the ’N’wamanzi lookout’ just a about 5 kms from Satara.  The view was amazing and there were about a dozen vervet monkeys sitting very innocently in the trees.  We opened our window just to take some photos but kept a very close eye on the monkeys.  Soon after another couple arrived in their range rover, the man got out to take some photographs leaving his car door open……. and then his partner also got out and left her door open….remember these monkeys look very innocent!!!!  But they are not.  As quick as a flash they were into their car grabbing what they could and came away bearing food and fruit when the couple ran to the car and chased them out.  The couple  laughed about it but I dont think they will leave their car door open again!  One unusual aspect of these monkeys ais that they have ‘blue balls’ and their nickname is just that!  The bluer the scrotum the higher they rank in their group !!!!

View from N’wamanzi lookout
View from N’wamanzi lookout with Vervet monkeys sitting on the tree
Kanniedood Dam

We also had a ‘cheetah day’ it was so exciting. First we saw one laze in the long grass, get up wander around and drop back down again. What magnificent creatures they are.  Later we spied three younger cheetahs sitting together under tree.  Suddenly one sat up with his ears pricked and got up and sank down to a crawling, hunting preying position having spotted an impala in an open area a few hundred meters away.  His two mates also sat up but headed off in a slightly different direction.  You could imagine their plan – cheetah 1 will drive the impala around into the paws of cheetah 2 & 3 and that is exactly what he did.  We did not see the final kill but it looked pretty fatal for the impala.

Relaxing under a tree
Cheetah checking us out
Something stirs his interest
He is onto it! – a lone impala

Orpen was our fifth camp and we stayed two nights.  It is a very small but intimate camp with shop and swimming pool and a great waterhole just outside the fence.  We swam in the pool and watched several elephants come and go. We then drove 145kms from Orpen to Skukuza where we were booked for four nights and our full day safari with Legend safaris. 

The smallest campsite – quiet with swimming pool and waterhole outside the fence

There was a lot to see on the drive from Orpen to Skukuza including a huge Kudu that ran straight out from the bush and leaped right over the 4WD vehicle in front of us.  It was both terrifying  and exciting at the same time, but luckily neither car, man or beast were injured.  We were within 10kms of Skukuza when we spotted two rangers carrying guns and decided we would stop and ask if we could take a photo. 

The two rangers we gave a lift to

They were happy to oblige but they also had a request – would we give them a ride to their camp a few kilometres this side of Skukuza – they had been walking for hours in the heat of the day???   We were a little hesitant as our back seat of the car  was full of food, photographic equipment and other stuff but we managed to move things about to fit them in.  They were very pleasant young men, one spoke English to us but the other said little except ‘ thank you’.  We dropped them at the road up to their camp, about 4-5 kms before Skukuza camp.

A very large and busy campsite. Lots of schools and locals come in for a day trip and are educated on the ways of Kruger and its animals

Skukuza which was by far the biggest and busiest  camp we had stayed at in Kruger.  We had also booked our one and only full day safari with Legend Safaris who operate from outside the park – very good reviews on Trip Advisor.  They were really helpful when we asked if we could change our day  – “no problem, let me get back to you” said Shaheen, from Legend Safaris. Our safari began at 0600 in front of reception at Skukuza camp.  There were only two of us and William, our guide, arrived promptly so we were on our way by 06:15. It turns out that William Hlatshwayo was the very first black African guide in Kruger forty years previously, Has since formed his own Tour company called Crowned Eagle Tour & Safaris.  He was also a private game guide to Nelson Mandela when he visited game parks and tells the story that Mandela said one day to him – all countries should be like zebras – where black ,white and coloured all live in harmony.   Every country should be a ‘ZEBRA’ country!

Zebra in Kruger National Park
Zebra in Kruger National Park
Zebra in Kruger National Park
Zebra in Kruger National Park
Zebra – pull me-push me
Zebra, wildebeest and buffalo have a few skirmishes at waterhole
Its OK I will wait!

William turned out to be worth his weight in gold, the sun rose as we left the campsite.  All rangers and guides have ‘walkie talkies’ and communicate about sightings, so within half an hour of driving William picked up that there was a leopard a few kilometres away and took off in that direction stopping briefly at a waterhole to admire some white rhinos.  He managed to position his truck in just the right spot so we could see the leopard clearly.  He was sitting down when we arrived he then stood and moved around eventually crossing the road right in front of us and dropped down in a sitting position again.  It was an amazing view from the high safari truck, (an aside – the one mistake we made was to hire a small car and not a high vehicle with good visibility.)

Our first sight of this beautiful creature – the leopard!

Our next stop was at a waterhole I mentioned earlier where there were eight white rhinos drinking and the elephants came down to the hole but they stood back and retreated as there were so many rhinos there.  This was a new experience as up until now the elephants has always dominated at the waterholes!  William explained it was about numbers and respect amongst the larger animals – whoever gets there first and has the most in their group gets to finish!  We then stopped beside the road to see three lionesses in the long grass. 

Elephants standing back until Rhinos finished drinking!
Mother & young rhino
Rhino dont mind sharing with impala!

William then drove us up to Mathekenyane  lookout – a 360 degree view over the plains – with Mozambique only 8 kms away! We saw a ‘tower’ of about 30 giraffes big and small strolling and eating down near the road we had come up. Having seen all the giraffes from above, William drove us down the hill and here we saw several young males neck fighting again. William assured us it was just play but also it ensures they know how to do it when needed.

Close to where the giraffes were we saw two tiny steenbok – male and female grazing together in the open plains.  We learned that snake eagles and bateleur eagles are not true eagles as they have no hair on the lower part of their legs so snakes can not grab and hold them down.  William then drove us a long way down a very rough corrugated road and informed us  as we rattled along that we were now having an ‘African Massage’!  He took us to a waterhole with lots of elephants and giraffe drinking and we sat and watched them all in silence for a long time. 

We had told William earlier that the one thing we would ‘love’ to encounter was a pride of lions just wandering along the road towards us.  It was getting late so we headed home and OMG we came around the corner and there coming towards us was a pride of 12 lions!  One large male ‘daddy’ and 11 cubs about one year old – a mix of male and female

This beautiful face gazing up at us in our jeep! So very close! Our guide said this boy was just under a year old!
This was our ‘WOW’ moment – our first sight of this pride
The leader of the pride – the proud dad!

 We were just stunned and could say little but OMG, wow, wow and more wows.  They just sauntered along the road and flopped down on the tar-seal right beside our truck – I could have reached down and patted them.  They were so close that I could not use my Canon 100-400 lens!! I had to revert to my smaller camera.  We were overwhelmed by it all and just kept saying ‘wow’ ‘amazing’ ‘OMG’.  We had to pinch ourselves to make sure we were not dreaming.  William told us that this same pride often wanders down the road H4-1 in the afternoon.  They kept getting up and flopping back down again and looked very undernourished, the young males were just beginning to show signs of growing a mane.  What memories and what a truly amazing day.  It would be hard to top that experience.  It is truly etched into my memory! 

After four nights in Skukuza we headed to Lower Sabie for two nights and on one of these nights we went for a organised ‘night ride’.  We saw several animals fleetingly, porcupine, hyena, two scops owl, spotted eagle owl, giraffe, civet and genet.  It was a little bit of a let down as one had to hold the spotlight for the two hours and try to spot anything moving. I decided I was not good at this and so missed out on few things. I felt the driver and the co-driver’s hearts were not in the drive.

View of Lower Sabie campsite from the causeway

We enjoyed Lower Sabie and especially the ‘sunset pool’ very close to the camp where the bird life was fantastic and varied and the large pool was lined by over 16+ crocodiles.  We spotted a heron hitching a ride on the back of a hippo and two yellow-billed storks fighting. 

Some of the Hamerkop nests
Sunset lake just beside Lower Sabie camp site -teeming with life

In several of the waterholes and pools there were dozens of Hamerkop nests in the trees in the middle of the water, this African bird’s nest is a massive, roofed structure set up in the fork of these trees. It takes about 8 weeks and 10,000 twigs to build, and is lined with mud for water-proofing and insulation.  The male and female build them together – it is a huge effort but they don’t just stop with one, they often build up to four nests a year!

Several of the many crocodiles we saw!

One large crocodile

We were very sad to leave Kruger but on our way out to Crocodile Bridge Gate we passed 11 lionesses and lions stretched out on cement steps looking very sated following a kill. 

A pride of lions resting after a kill
Pretty relaxed !

The cement steps were below a dam wall and they lay there with their legs up in the air totally relaxed just like cats!

Sunset on Kruger
Celebrating 21 wonderful days in Kruger
Last night at Crocodile Lodge outside Crocodile gate – beside Crocodile river.
Sun going down on Kruger National park

We had booked two night at Crocodile Safari Lodge just outside the gates so we sat on our deck, looking back over to Kruger, a glass of wine in our hands, reminiscing.  Magical!!

 

 

Zebra – in Kruger National Park

1. Zebra in Kruger National Park

2. Zebra in Kruger National Park

3. Zebra in Kruger National Park

4. Zebra in Kruger National Park

Zebra in Kruger National Park

5. Zebra in Kruger National Park

6. Zebra in Kruger National Park

7. Zebra in Kruger National Park

8. Zebra in Kruger National Park

9. Zebra in Kruger National Park

10. Zebra in Kruger National Park

11. Zebra in Kruger National Park