Posted by: Tommy | December 27, 2010

The Northern Park

After our 2 nights at Lower Sabie, we ventured into the northern area of Kruger.  One of the hazards of traveling long term like we are is that you can’t ever plan anything 100%.  You always have to balance time spent planning with time spent enjoying, as any research done for next week comes at the expense of this week’s destination.  If we were going to Kruger again (and we certainly hope to in a couple of years), we would probably skip the northern park.  Unfortunately, we figured that out AFTER we had already booked the there.

We spent the first two nights at Lataba, a medium-sized camp that was about a 5 hour drive from Lower Sabie.  Anna was tired of driving 10-12 hours per day, so we decided to depart from what had been our normal safari schedule and spend more time relaxing than looking for animals.  We slept in, drove about 3 hours and stopped and had lunch at Oliphants, a wonderful camp set high above a river where we saw hippo, elephant and impala come to drink.  We played some cards, drank a few beers and read for a while.  We spent about 4 hours hanging out, just enjoying the weather and the view, before setting off at 4 o’clock to do the last 2 hours of the drive.

The reason I said in the opening paragraph that we probably would not have stayed in the northern part of the park if we’d had time to properly research is that it is a known fact in Kruger that there are significantly fewer animals there.  The brush is denser, so the prey animals tend to stick to the south.  And the predators stick to where the prey is.

This held true for the rest of our visit, so there’s not a ton to write about.  We could (and usually did) drive for hours at a time seeing nothing more interesting than impala (a little like seeing cows on the side of the road in Texas – so numerous that they become just part of the scenery).  A few highlights from our last 3 safari days:

– Watching a field of zebra through the binoculars and trying to figure out what the large, black blob walking among them was.  It had three long pink legs and no head.  And feathers.  Weird.  Then the head pops up and we realize we’re seeing a wild ostrich for the first time.

– For some reason, the northern part of the park has a lot more baby animals than the southern part.  We saw a newborn giraffe that still had it’s umbilical cord.  We saw a ton of tiny zebra.  And at some point I startled an incredibly new impala, who tried to make a break for it on his wobbly, stick-like legs.  His body started to go forward but he couldn’t control his legs, so they just kind of tapped in place, until his body went too far out and he teetered over in slow motion, face-planting on the asphalt.  He jumped up and sped away, no harm done.  But it was funny.

– The most exciting sighting of the northern park happened while Anna was sleeping-in (something she decided she’d do after we didn’t see anything on the first morning drive in the north).  We had been looking in almost every large tree, carefully scanning the branches for lounging leopards.  We hadn’t seen a single leopard, but we’d seen plenty of branches that looked like leopards, leaf clusters that looked like leopards and occasionally some bark patterns that looked like leopards.  So when I saw the leopard, calmly watching me drive by, sitting pretty openly on a low branch right by the road, I thought I was mistaken again.  But as I continued to stare, the head took shape.  I didn’t want to take my eyes off of it, in case it ran away.  But I also couldn’t stop the car without looking, so I rolled right by the tree and had to   crane my neck backwards to look at it with binoculars through the back window.  I was able to watch him for 5 or 6 minutes, alone, before a large diesel truck drove up and scared him off.

Leopard in a tree

– We took a night drive, led by a park ranger.  It’s the only way to view some of the nocturnal animals.  The park gates close at 6:30 and the fine for being late ranges from $80- $210.  Even if you’re willing to pay the fine for the chance to watch the cats at night (lions, leopard and many of the smaller cats prefer hunting at night) the rangers patrol the roads and force you off the roads at dark to prevent animals getting hit by cars.  On the night drives, the safari truck is equipped with three mobile spotlights which are given to the guests on the drive.  You use the lights to scan the trees and the bush, looking for the reflective glow of eyes in the darkness.  We found a giant hippo, out of water and eating in the short grass near the road.  The ranger spotted a small-spotted genet (a small cat, looked like a bobcat).  And I spotted a leopard.  It had its back to me, facing away so the eyes didn’t glow, but I saw the yellow and black spotted fur and called for the truck to stop.  By the time we stopped and reversed the truck, the leopard was heading into the bush.  We got a quick glimpse and then he was gone.

After 2 nights at Lataba and 1 night camping in Shingwedzi (an even more remote camp, even further north, where we saw even fewer animals) we exited the park and returned to Nelspruit.  After returning the rental car (and explaining “the cowsitting” to a bewildered (and possibly skeptical) Thrifty agent) we headed for the bus stop, equipped with a bus ticket to Maputo, Mozambique.


  1. It is hard to imagine seeing a leopard. Like the lion, I think I would have been excited but really, really scared. It seems so weird to me to drive through a park and see these amazing animals. Sounds like the way to go to me, in a safari tent of course, rather than pitching my own.

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