Chaper 4 - General observations and conclusion
We spent our first two nights in KNP at Letaba. This was our first visit to Letaba. Although it is still rated very high by the forum members as far as favourite main camps are concerned, we’ve got a somewhat neutral feeling about it. Service levels were reasonable (nothing spectacular, but also nothing horrendous to mention), although the cleaning staff was the friendliest we have experienced on the whole trip (except for Talamati).
We asked for specific bungalows beforehand (put in three options) and despite receiving written confirmation that our request will be adhered to, we did not get any of the requested options. Our bungalow was very far from the riverbed and to call it “river view” is IMHO very misleading. Tried as we might, we could not get a different one. Be that as it may, this was not a major train smash for us and we were richly rewarded with a few very special bird sightings, courtesy of some kind of “berry-carrying tree” right in front of our bungalow. The impala lilies also added some refreshing colour to the camp. (see photo).
We did however enjoy all the roads around Letaba very much, despite not spotting anything “serious” from an animal perspective. This was firstly because there was less traffic around but more importantly because we did not see one single jeep jockey in that area. It is also worth mentioning our guide on the night drive at Letaba, namely Kenny. This guide was truly awesome and really proved once again that you don’t need to show them lions / leopards on a night drive to still make it a huge success for the tourists.
We also spent a memorable 2 hours or so at the Matambeni Bird Hide in the presence of, amongst many other birds, 4 very active fish eagles. If only I was better photographer, I could have had that famous shot of the fish eagle taking the fish out of the water – see my attempt below, unfortunately about 2 seconds after he got the fish and also too far away.
Our next two nights were spent at Satara, which now has got to be our favourite main camp. Although all the perimeter view bungalows are in my view very nice, one or two are particularly well situated and we were very fortunate in getting our first choice bungalow (with special thanks to Gordon Ramsden), which by an element of luck just happened to be one of these well-situated units. (I’ll post more details on this in the Satara / best bungalow topics later). We spent many relaxing hours in front of our bungalow right next to the fence. (see photo).
Once again, service levels were good and, except for maybe the S100, the roads were still reasonably quite and (yippeeeee!) still without any of them dreaded jeep jockeys. According to the website, Satara is particularly noted for the big cats and we can surely testify to this as well. Whenever we approached the sightings board, somebody was telling someone about some lion sighting close to camp and for the first time ever and contrary to what we normally we, we actually drove to lion sightings based on the sightings board and what people told us (and actually still found the lions there).
The one major disappointment at Satara however has got to be the night drive (which is ironic, because our previous night drive from Satara was excellent). Our guide (“Nomad?”) was pathetic, to say the least. Even though we’ve had excellent night drives at Letaba and Talamati, I personally don’t think night drives are worth the money, given the risk you take. It has IMHO become too much of a gamble what kind of guide you’re going to get on a specific night drive and we’ve already decided that in future, if we can afford it at all, Asterix and I will much rather try to go on one walk, instead of on two or even three drives.
As mentioned before, it was with a sense of trepidation that we approached Talamati, where we stayed on nights 5 and 6, given some of the negative comments on the forum relating to service levels and the baboon problems. We arrived at about 11:45 and decided to try our luck to check in early, as there was no-one else at reception and it was only 15 minutes till 12:00. When Ramontsho Ramfolo initially indicated that he could not check us in and asked us to please just give him a few minutes, when there was seemingly nothing going on at reception, we thought here goes…..
But we were badly mistaken - we walked over to the hide and was just about to sit down to enjoy the zebras having a drink, when Ramontsho walked over to us from reception and told us that he’s ready for us now. We checked in about 10 minutes early and from then onwards Ramontsho was “just the man”. The next time we bumped into him, he actually greeted me on my name - now I now Talamati is only a small bushveld camp with only a few residents, but its something small like this that impressed us even more. He later on also tried his best, with the help of Chester (the guide doing the drives from Talamati) to point us in the right direction to find the sable, once he realised that we were seriously looking for these elusive animals (unfortunately without any luck).
One more story that’s maybe worth mentioning: sometimes I get the impression that some of the staff in Kruger (especially the ones on the “administrative” side) is not all that enthusiastic about the wildlife in Kruger. Not so Ramontsho – during our second afternoon there was some commotion at the waterhole (baboons went crazy, everyone thought something major was going down) - Ramontsho was the first to race out of the office at reception to join us in the hide to see what’s cooking…we found this attitude very refreshing.
Speaking about baboons, a lot has been said about the baboon problems at Talamati and it is indeed a problem, but at least we received ample warning and very clear instructions on how to address the problems by Ramontsho when we booked in already and also received confirmation that Sanparks is addressing the problem (I’ll rather not mention the details). Personally, we did not have any problems with the baboons during our two days there, although they were ever present.
On arrival at our house (number 11), we were once again met by two very friendly attendants (sorry, I forgot their names). They also explained the “baboon protocol” in detail and after a very interesting chat about the camp and the animal hotspots we eventually entered the coolness of our house – it was like an oasis in the desert. The units at Talamati do not have aircons, only fans. However, our house stayed very cool all throughout the day (on that particular day temperatures rose to 37 degrees outside) and the veranda is awesome (see photo).
I personally think Talamati could be a very pleasant camp to stay at, even during high summer. Some of furniture in the house is however in need of replacement. As mentioned before in chapter 2, our night drive from Talamati was also a highlight (in fact, this was the best night drive we’ve ever been on) courtesy of Chester. Even got dropped off right at our house after the drive.
Our last three nights were spent at Lower-Sabie which has, as always, not been disappointing as a camp, despite the fact that its been busy (as can be expected). That view from the river-view bungalows towards the Sabie river, with the ever-present hippos/elephants/giraffes/etc. doing there thing in the river resembles Kruger to us. Nothing special to mention service wise (which in itself is a good thing) – everything went smoothly, we once again got the units we requested (next to each other, staying with the in-laws here) and the service staff was very efficient and friendly. Unfortunately, the Lower-Sabie area brought with it the jeep-jockeys and the traffic (see further below for more on this).
They are busy rebuilding the river-view bungalows at Lower-Sabie. Some of the units (the ones closest to the restaurant) are already finished. They’ve now added kitchens (with microwave ovens, galore) to the units, which is really great. Looks really nice, although I can only imagine they’re going to charge you a stiff price to stay in one of those (if you’re in the first place lucky enough to get a river view bungalow). Oh, and one final thing on Lower-Sabie, looks like Mark has been around, because the sightings board there was in an excellent condition and deserves special mentioning.
Traffic (and of course those jeep jockeys)
All in all we do not have too much to complain about traffic wise. We had a great time at Letaba, Satara and especially Talamati for our first six days traffic wise – no jeep jockeys around, no serious incidents of speeding (expect for two vehicles from Thompsons travelling way in excess of 50km/h on the S126 on 15 September 2006 towards Satara, but they were not carrying any people) and none of the special animals sightings in these areas were really crowded (except for maybe a few smaller incidents on the S100).
However, all of that changed once we got nearer to Lower-Sabie. As much as we love this part of the park and as prolific as our animal sightings have been this time around in the Lower-Sabie area, we’re seriously contemplating venturing not further south than Satara during future visits (although we’ll maybe try to replace Lower-Sabie with Biyamiti, if its available). At one stage Asterix pulled the car to a stop on the left hand side of the Lower-Sabie bridge to take a photo of a Pied Kingfisher on the rail on the right side of the bride – however, an oncoming truck of Vusa would have nothing of this Kingfisher. Unless the driver was fast asleep behind his wheel, he must have seen Asterix’s attempt to get a photo of the Pied Kingfisher on his side of the bridge. This did not bother him one bit, because without even slowing down, he whizzed by (between us and the kingfisher). Needles to say, the kingfisher was gone.
We bumped into this same driver later that day at the Lower-Sabie restaurant where he was bragging with his buddies about just how close he managed to get his truck to some lions… (and nope, I’m not posting this because I’m
at his lion sighting). I’ve also referred to our unfortunate encounter with another jeep jockey at our (possible) black rhino sighting (see chapter 2). I did not get the details of his company.
However, it was not only the jeep jockeys causing trouble here. Traffic in the Lower-Sabie region was in general not good. It is maybe worth mentioning that we stayed at Lower-Sabie over a weekend, so that obviously played a role in the number of vehicles on the roads (and the kinds of visitors to the parks as well
). I’ll rather not say more on this, for fear of getting into trouble).
Oh, and one more thing – visitors to the park are generally not overly friendly and IMHO it also gets worse as you’re making your way south. We made a point of it to give oncoming drivers a friendly wave (although I must admit we did this less and less as the traffic got more and more) – I would guess about 10% of the drivers waved back at us. Either people have just become extremely unfriendly, or maybe it is just my face…
New on the market!!! - Scientific and proven method not to miss the special sightings!!!
All in all we’ve travelled a massive 5500km’s in total on this trip, of which only about 900km was travelled within KNP (on average about 100km’s per day in the park). Was it all worth it you may ask? Well, is there such a thing as a LIT, I respond? If you want to measure the “success” of your trip by the number of special sightings (which is obviously not the way to go about, but which is in the end IMHO the reason why 99% of all people go to KNP), this has been, both from a birding and from an animal perspective, by far our most “successful” trip ever.
We have, as beginners, added 67 birds to our list (now on 187, identified a few more since posting chapter 3 of my report and still counting). We have, as during our previous trip, also made our own sightings board (and I promise, this time we did not steal any pins from the sightings boards) – see photo.
We made our own “top ten” list before we left – that is the 10 animals we decided we want to track our sightings of, and included only these animals on our board. In the end, we managed to see 8 of the 10. So what is the secret of our “success”. Well, it has been said all along on this forum that the only way to be sure to see something special is to be “at the right place at the right time”, which basically equates to “you need luck and lots of it”.
However, I’ve come up with a very scientific (although-yet-unproven-and-I’m-sure-it-will-remain-unproven- but-it-nevertheless-makes-for-interesting-reading) method of improving your chances of spotting the animals. Based on scientifically proven statistical data assembled during our recent trip, my conclusion is that you need to “work” for your sightings by travelling a specific number of kilometres before you can expect to see something special (
yep, this time not them Romans but Obelix has gone crazy, but try to stay with me).
Based on the data assembled during our recent trip, and having travelled about 900 kilometres in total in the park, we had to travel the following number of kilometres for each of the separate animal sightings as mentioned on our sightings board:
Leopards (5 separate sightings) = 180 km / leopard sighting
Lions (9 separate sightings) = 100 km per / sighting
White Rhinos (16 separate sightings) = 56 km / rhino sighting
Buffaloes (9 separate sightings) = 100 km / buffalo sighting
Elephants (29 separate sightings) = 31 km / elephant sighting
Black Rhinos (1 sighting???) = 900 km / black rhino sighting
Wild dogs (1 sighting) = 900 km / wild dog sighting
Hyena (7 sightings) = 128 km / hyena sighting
Sable (0 sightings) = still counting
Cheetah (0 sightings) = still counting
So, unless you’ve walked-the-walk don’t come crying about not seeing something special (so to take the wild dogs as an example, unless you’ve travelled 900 kilometres in the park on a specific trip, don’t expect to see them wild dogs in the park). (
Of course, this statistic does not tell the whole truth. It would be useless to get into your car and race from point A to point B at 50km’s per hour just to get the first 180 kilometres below the belt in order to get to your first leopard sighting. In the end, we think the secret (if there is such a thing) lies in travelling slowly (and in becoming bird watchers – believe us, that works!!!)… As you would have noticed, we only averaged about 100 kilometres per day in total. [And if you believe all of this nonsense I’ve just written about how to see what and where, I assume you also believe that there’s no lions to be found on the S100 as well]
And that concludes this trip report. We have really decided to go full out during this trip to KNP. We stayed for longer than we normally do and than we really could afford to, as it was likely going to be our last trip to KNP for a while. In the end, it was all worth it and we now have memories that will stay with us for the rest of our lives.
The highlight of our trip, if we have to pick one, has got to be encountering lions on foot during our morning walk at Satara (see chapter 1) – luckily we listened to the advice of the forum members and took our video camera with, as we now have our own “Blair Witch” type of video recording of this experience (we watched the DVD we put together over the weekend and for the first time realised that our guide actually at first warned us to “hide in the bushes” when we first spotted the lions – those comments, together with the footage of the “chaos” breaking loose after that, is priceless to us).
But in the end the whole Kruger experience was still the ultimate highlight…from that very first moment we drove through Phalaborwa gate when we started looking around in excitement for our very first bird/animal …. until that very last hopeful stare down the fence at Phabeni gate as we were about to exit over the bridge, just in case there was still something to be seen before we leave the park for good. We can only hope to return someday. I’m signing off with one last picture of our final sunset at Sunset dam on our last night in KNP.