Making the most of the South of Kruger (Part 1)

admin All Authors, Chad Leave a Comment

Like many South Africans, some of my best childhood memories are filled with family holidays in the South of the Kruger National Park. I fondly remember arriving at Numbi gate in my dad’s old Ford bakkie with the wheels of our bicycles, suspended from the tow bar, still spinning from the 5 hour trip from Johannesburg.

I can recall our excitement when we eventually drove through the unmistakable park gates whilst watching a real game ranger standing at attention and giving us his mandatory salute. For a young boy, this didn’t just feel like any old game park, it felt like we were entering Jurassic Park!

1 (4)

Waterbuck

I’ve been traveling to the Kruger National Park for many years and there is just something that keeps all of us captivated and coming back for more each year. Being the most easily accessible, with a variety of great rest camps and boasting a complex road network with arguably the largest concentration of game in the park, it’s no wonder why the southern section is the most popular.

When looking for perfect photo opportunities in any of our national parks, one is restricted to the confines of their vehicle, the demarcated tarred and sand roads and the hides, unless you are willing to spend a bit extra for guided drives and walks. It can be tricky at times to get that magical shot when your subject is just out of reach or tucked away behind a dense wall of grass, shrubs and trees.

It’s not all that bad though!

Knowing which roads to take, which hides to sit at, what areas to stick to and what times of day to head out all play a big role in building up a beautiful wildlife photography portfolio. I’m here to help you achieve this with what I know about the south of Kruger.

1 (9)

Sabie River

Hot tip – Avoid the hottest times of the day when planning your drives, as most animals tend to stick to dense shady spots to escape the heat. You’ll save some gas and keep your sanity.

1 (8)

Hippo

Pretoriouskop rest camp (The golden oldie of the south)

Pretoriouskop is mostly used as a stopover point for people who have travelled from far, and the facilities reflect that. The camp may not have the best accommodation, bathrooms and restaurant, but those who have been visiting for many years will tell you there is more to this time old classic than meets the eye.

The area around Pretoriouskop is a lot less dense than the other sections of Kruger, and boasts some amazing sunrises and sunsets (great for landscape photography enthusiasts). From a photographer’s point of view, this is a huge plus given that there are less woody thickets for your subject to hide away in.

Large grasslands mean that there are a fair amount of herds roaming the area, which in turn means there is a decent concentration of predators as well (mainly leopard, hyena and wild dog).

Keep an eye out for rare antelope like sable, oribi, tsessebe, eland and Lichtenstein’s hartebeest that all enjoy the safety of the open terrain.

1 (10)

Black-bellied Bustard

Best drives:

  • The small network of loop roads (Fayi loop & S8) starting just to the left of the camp have been known for wild dog sightings in the past, lookout for their dens in the rocky outcrops next to the road that are normally occupied throughout the year. Leopard and cheetah have also been seen patrolling the sand roads first thing in the morning.
  • Head along the H2-2 to Afsaal picnic site for lunch, it’s a long drive without any stops in between so plan accordingly. Whilst you stretch your legs, try and find one of the resident scops owls that are regularly seen perched in one of the shady trees scattered around the site. The staff are normally nice enough to locate these tiny guys for you and mark the tree trunk with some sort of tape.
  • One of my favorite short trips is heading up the S7 and back down the S3, stopping at Mestel dam (great for water birds) for a quick look.
  • Head on the H1-1 all the way to up to Skukuza for brunch or a late lunch, stopping at Shithave dam and the famous Transport dam (where ‘The battle of Kruger’ took place). Leopard and lion frequent this road in the cooler hours of the day.
  • If you are driving a 4×4, the rough and rugged Madlabantu Adventure Trail might be up your alley.
[space height=”20″]

Things to look for:

Game

  • Leopard
  • Hyena (seen patrolling the fences at night)
  • Wild dog
  • Rare antelope (sable, oribi, tsessebe, eland and Lichtenstein’s hartebeest)
  • Elephant
  • Dwarf mongoose (look for groups of them darting in and out of the grass on the sides of the sand roads)
  • Waterbuck
[space height=”20″]

Birds

  •  Sunbirds (can be found inside the camp)
  • Purple crested turaco (can be found inside the camp)
  • Brown headed parrot (can be found inside the camp)
  • Scops owl (can be heard all around the camp at night)
  • Wide variety of raptors
  • White-backed vulture
  • Lappet faced vulture
[space height=”20″]

1 (1)

Elephant

Hot tip – As the saying goes, ‘the early bird catches the worm’, sometimes being first out the gates in the morning can get you that once in a lifetime sighting.

1 (11)

Lion cub

Berg-en-dal rest camp (A little bit of everything)

Regarded as Kruger’s ultimate family destination, this camp is very popular and booking needs to be done well in advance during peak season to avoid disappointment.

With a decent view of Matjulu dam from the viewing area, a wide variety of bird species, magnificent trees, two foot trails and some of the best facilities that the park has to offer, you wouldn’t even have to leave the camp gates to get your money’s worth!

1 (3)

European roller

The surrounding terrain is very rocky and dense which may not make a photographer’s life an easier, but don’t let this discourage you as it all adds to the untamed beauty. The area is bursting at the seams with a wide selection of game as well as bird-life, and is regarded as one of the best for leopard sightings.

When driving past rocky outcrops, slow down and scan for shy klipspringers, and who knows, you may even be rewarded with a spotted feline instead (or a spotted feline chewing on a klipspringer… or even better yet, a klipspringer chewing on a spotty! Sounds rediculous, but you never know!).

The abundance of large trees and dark thickets make for some eerie dappled light when cast on your subjects (which is the case most of the time in my experience), getting your focus right can be a bit tricky at times however, given the amount of pesky foliage that has a knack for finding its way into your frame.

1 (2)

Young vervet monkey

Best drives:

  • As the gates open start our drive by heading east onto the S110 sand road and keep your eyes peeled for leopard, porcupine and honey badgers.
  • The lookout point found along the S120 heading north is great for your morning coffee or sun downers. It can provide a breath-taking view of the sun rising or setting over the surrounding mountains.
  • Travel east along the S25 which runs alongside the Crocodile River before turning off at Mlambane Loop to visit the Gardenia hide.
  • The main road (H3) heading up towards Skukuza can be very productive in the early morning or late afternoon, and the Afsaal picnic site is a great place to stretch your legs and enjoy a snack (don’t forget to look for that tape on one of the tree trunks).
  • A slow drive up to Renosterpan waterhole has been a firm favourite of mine, delivering great sightings time and time again. Pack a few snacks so you’re able to kill the engine and hang around for a while, you’ll be amazed to see the amount of game that passes by here throughout the day.
[space height=”20″]

Things to look for:

Game

  • Leopard (you might be lucky enough to find a few tracks around your braai  in the morning)
  • Hyena (seen patrolling the fences at night)
  • Elephant
  • Hippo
  • Large spotted genet (can be seen inside the camp at night)
  • Kudu
  • Klipspringer
[space height=”20″]

Birds

  • Fish eagle
  • Brown headed parrot (can be found inside the camp on occasion)
  • Pearl spotted owlet (seen below)
  • Purple crested turaco (can be found inside the camp)
  • Kingfishers
  • White-backed vulture
  • Cape vulture
[space height=”20″]

1 (6)

Pearl spotted owlet

Hot tip – The longer you stick with your subject, the better photographic opportunities will open up for you. Even something as boring as a herd of impalas can provide some great images if you a patient enough.

Equipment

Here is my recommended gear list travelling to the Kruger National Park.

Necessities

  • General purpose lens (an all in one lens, e.g. 18-200mm, 24-105mm etc. Used for family snaps as well as  landscape  and environmental shots)
  • Telephoto lens (anything above 300mm would be great. A little bit of length comes in handy at Kruger)
  • Beanbag for the window (something to keep the camera steady when needed, I use a homemade beanbag made with rice. It can also be useful when sitting in a hide)
  • Two or three decent size memory cards
[space height=”20″]

If you are using a bridge camera like a Powershot, Finepix, Coolpix, etc. then only the bottom two points should apply to you.

In most cases when travelling with the whole family, bicycles, skottle, tent, etc. – less is more when it comes to photography gear!

Luxuries

  • Second camera body (I keep my second body at my feet with a 70-200mm attached for easy access when I need something a bit wider)
  • Wide angle lens (something in between 14-24mm on a full frame body would be ideal)
  • Super telephoto lens (any piece of good quality long glass with a shallow depth of field will really isolate your subjects and make them pop, i.e. 400mm f4/f2.8, 500mm f4 etc.)
  • Teleconverter (for when that leopard in the tree is just out of reach)
  • Ball/gimbal head with a ground pod or door mount (you can never be too steady when stuck in a vehicle)
  • Reliable tri-pod
  • Laptop or file storage unit to back up your images at the end of each day (once you’ve had a card go bad you’ll never go on holiday without one of the two again)
[space height=”20″]

If you’ve got the boot space because you’ve finally ditched the kids and the job, why not take all the equipment you can!

If you’re a bit strapped for cash however, but would love to take something like a 600mm f4 with you, why not rent it for the week instead at a fraction of the price?

1 (7)

Leopard with an impala kill

I hope that this post will add to your next family trip to Kruger.

Look out for my upcoming write up on Lower Sabie and Crocodile Bridge rest camps along with a few more tips in the next few weeks.

Chad Wright

* * *

Chad’s Links:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *