Monday, September 20, 2010

Getaway magazine [September 2010]

Wild, wild Shingwedzi
Nowhere is better for those close encounters than Kruger’s northern camp of Shingwedzi. Here the highest proportion of Kruger’s big 5 come out of hiding, with the biggest of the big 5 especially famous here. Now you know why people keep coming back to this camp – by Nick van der Leek

“We won’t stop for lion or leopard, as I’m sure everyone has seen enough of those.” Our Ranger, Matthew, about to take us on a game drive, reminds us how nature has been coming to us here, rather than the other way round. Just north and south of the Shingwedzi camp are some of Kruger’s largest concentrations of big 5 sightings. Vlakteplaas, on the northern side, gets the most, so concentrate your game viewing just north of the camp.

Hide and seek is the name of the game being played out in Nature day in and day out, and it can get a bit slow out there sometimes, looking for animals whose survival depends absolutely on a critter’s ability to remain unseen. The best wild places then are those where abundant animals come to you so you don’t have to go searching for them. But mention Shingwedzi and invariably you’ll hear someone say, “I love that place. We go there often.” And people come back to Shingwedzi for exactly the same reasons the animals do – they know what to expect; and they know they have a good chance of finding what they want.

Shingwedzi, incidentally, is derived from a Tsonga word that refers to the KRRR shriek of metal objects rubbing together. Perhaps it is a nod to the particular density of the regional foliage and animals that evokes this unusual noise, associated perhaps with material ‘closeness’.

Green and Warm

One of the reasons for Shingwedzi’s charm is it’s not the hive of human activity that other camps falling plum on the beaten track are, like Satara and those further south. But it’s more than that. Tanya and I are visiting in July, midwinter, but on this side of the Tropic of Capricorn it’s t-shirt warm, and the increasingly remote surrounds have gone from an autumn bronze, a lovely fiery orange in the rain-washed sunlight, to a brilliant, shining green, teeming with buffalo and elephant. That’s the other thing. Just this northern region of Kruger [as opposed to the far north and Punda] is home to more than half of Kruger’s elephant herds. Elephants are visible virtually every day in the riverine area close to camp and they’re often seen crossing the road. There's also a resident troop of baboons visible rampaging on the river’s sand flats just a kilometre from the camp entrance. These are a favourite food of another resident hunter, the leopard. The tall, dense, leafy surrounds are perfect for these predators.

The landscape is gently undulating bushveld with the occasional outcrop. These infrequent natural turrets sporting huge grey boulders are often home to baboons and some or other historical significance, such as those found at Red Rocks [where there is also a resident lion pride]. Kruger probably hasn’t changed since humans first arrived here. Well, other than a strip of tar and the style of the flashing vehicles sliding along these slim corridors.

We approach from the Phalaborwa Gate due to its proximity to the main highways, and the distance from greater Gauteng. For us the idea is to get into Kruger as soon as we can, but not necessarily to our camp. It’s 131km to Shingwedzi following the H-14 and H 1-6. Another option is Punda Maria Gate further north, but I’d suggest this as a better option for exiting the park than entering. Of course if you’re pressed for time [remember the speed limit inside the park is 50km/h] from Punda it’s half the distance compared to the Phalaborwa route at less than 70km to Shingwedzi. The Phalaborwa option presents a long leisurely road, an option that rewarded us with a mamba, puffadder, hyena and plenty of birds and elephants. The large number of buffaloes we saw almost certainly explains why so many lions are here, and Shingwedzi’s reputation for its record of big 5 sightings.

With the sun having just set, 6km left to Shingwedzi, and just 5 minutes to Gateline [Kruger jargon] we find the road in the distance blocked off by a wall of grey.
About 2km further we are delayed by a pair of ultra sensitive Great Eagle owls [also common to this area] silhouetted against the grey ashes of a cigarette sky. While they’re telescoping towards rustles in the grass, and we have long lenses focused on them, 3 vehicles pass us in quick succession. We set off, watching the time tick over to 5:31pm. This is the common dilemma visitor’s face. Arriving before gates close at faraway camps.

Lion Around

Just around the corner, with around 1km to go we find all three vehicles stopped dead, abreast of each other, and in their headlights, two beautiful lions, a large male and female, standing in the road. We’re on the main H1-6 road. The local ranger, Matthew, later informs me that this is a often seen breeding pair, and that there are three resident prides floating around Shingwedzi with the Babbelane pride being the biggest with 25. In fact southern Kruger has more lions

The female is very relaxed, enjoying the male’s riveted attention, she lounges on the warm tar while the male paces around her, paws her tail, sits, and makes another pass. Finally, one of the vehicles inches forward on the gravel of the right hand verge, and I slide into his slot. The male bristles at this encroachment; the vehicle inches further, and then the male advances with The Look, and the Toyota’s white reverse lights come on, and we’re back where we started. I hover for a moment and try a few moments later down the left verge. As we pass the Toyota the driver says to us, “Not a hell.” I go as far to the left as I can, hover, watch, and then see if they’ll let me pass. The lion lovers are so laid back, they won’t mind me. At about 3 metres the male is up and I hit reverse; next minute the lion is about to run so I stop [they say don’t run away from a lion, does the same apply to driving?], and he abruptly turns and goes back to his fiancé.
“He was right, ‘not a hell’.”
It’s interesting, sitting high off the ground, protected by a powerful capsule of metal and glass, and you have a male lion holding 4 vehicles with fines to pay, at bay. That’s power.
10 minutes later we’re through the gate, none the worse for wear. The lion encounter is a thrilling highlight to close off the day’s game viewing.

Mopane Country

Shingwedzi is nestled right beside the Shingwedzi River in mopane [aka elephant] country, close – but not too close – to the river’s flood level. This really does give visitors that ‘back to nature’ vibe. Unlike Olifants, which is perched high above that magnificent river, and has awesome scenery but is somehow a little detached from the surroundings, Shingwedzi’s camping sites, huts and bungalows conspire to create a community. So it’s kind’ve cozy. The limited use of paving, the tall palms elbowing the tall thatch cottages and the abundance of squirrel filled trees make Shingwedzi the sort of space that you want to braai in and sit around outside. There’s not much of a view, but isn’t that what game drives are for?

The next morning I walk between the camp’s fever trees and palms to note the recent sightings posted at reception. Everything, from leopard, to wild dog, and most of it on a dirt road that starts on the east side of the camp [right behind our bungalow where a Bateleur likes to brood]. So we follow the gravel road [23km along the S50] that skirts the Shingwedzi River. This is one of the best known drives in the whole Park. It has dozens of mini loops to get you closer to the river, and the elephants love this area for its massive trees towering over the verge of the river. It is here that we spot our first crocs, and a bunch of terrapins. Further down we see the bloated carcass of a hippo floating in the middle of the river, with a croc fastening a napkin to his throat before thrashing down some lunch. We also find bigger tuskers in this area, and we’re not surprised to learn that one of Kruger’s largest elephant males, Machichule, haunts this Shingwedzi River area. This Kanniedood Drive takes you south, down as far as the historic Dipeni dipping tank, linking up with the Mashagadzi Waterhole Loop on the S134.

The area around Shingwedzi is lovely and teems with life. It’s 200 metres lower than Punda Maria, so it’s warmer and greener here than just an hour or so further south, but be warned, William, the manager tells me July is usually full every year. During our visit there is a constant [and let’s admit, irritating] stream of vehicles. Although the rest camps offer drives, sometimes, often, you’ll see more from your own vehicle, and you can take it all in at your own pace.

Red Rocks

Another great day time trip is the Red Rocks Loop, across rivers, forest and woodlands along the S52. This route takes you to a number of viewpoints, and the Red Rocks site is just one to recommend. Eons ago the Shingwedzi River eroded a sandstone slab and cyanobacteria took over further decay. Look out for Dwarf Mongoose, vervet monkeys and elephants.

On our night drive the highlight was two Marshall Eagles sleeping in an Apple Leaf and a Bushbaby that most of us didn’t see [what does that tell you?]. We see a lot more here during the morning and late afternoon than after dark. Part of the reason for this is the vegetation is particularly closed and bushy around Shingwedzi. The local ranger, Matthew, says there is a resident pride of 14 lions so you’re virtually assured of seeing these on your visit. Also make sure to visit the Shingwezi Bridge just around the corner from the camp, where you are allowed to alight from your vehicle and take some photos. It was a very popular spot when we were there, and it’s a lovely place for sundowners and a quick social. Another useful spot close to the bridge is labeled ‘Confluence’ and is also worth checking out.

While braaiing under a sky shot through with stars on our last night, and using some locally purchased meat [and it must be mentioned, delicious] in front of our cottage, Tanya and I discuss the setting of the bush and animals at Shingwedzi, taking in some of the highlights of our day. Shingwedzi is so close to nature that in 2000 the restaurant overlooking the river was actually flooded.
“Did you notice how everything seemed to turn green as we crossed the Tropic of Capricorn?” I say.
“It started when we saw that rainbow, and when the sun started to really come out,” Tanya observes. If you’re looking for a pot of gold under a Kruger Park rainbow, you won’t find it. What you will find is a treasure of another sort – wild animals. Lots of them. And you can do far worse than the critters that come to you at Shingwedzi.

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