A guest post by Bill Nestor w/photos by Herb and Cathy Vinnicombe, and Flo Nestor
The long journey to N’tsiri, a 10,000-acre private reserve bordering Kruger National Park was well worth the effort. Following a 14-hour flight to Johannesburg, we boarded a prop plane to Hoedspruit. The agriculturally orientated small town in Limpopo province presented itself like a last outpost settlement for travelers and country homeowners before entering the bush. It was there that Flo and I stocked up on provisions with our hosts before the hour drive to their home in N’tsiri. I was immediately transformed to a mellow state of mind upon arrival at this paradise in nature, no doubt inspired by an elephant ambling along the dry river bed adjacent to the house.
Observing wildlife and exploring habitats was our focus in and around N’tsiri during our time in the sparsely populated bush veld (bush-felt), a woodland ecoregion of sub-Saharan South Africa that typifies the natural landscape. It is dominant and pervasive in much of this northernmost province, parts of Botswana and neighboring Zimbabwe. The bush veld at these locations consists of shrubby and thorny vegetation, grassland, some savanna, and a number of watering holes providing a variety of habitats for plants and animals. The iconic, protected Leadwood tree (Combretum imberbe), a coarse grained, deciduous, hardwood impermeable to termites grows to 60+ feet. These trees can live for several hundred years and remain standing sturdy for another eighty or more. The imposing, leafless skeletons dot the skyline as silhouettes rising above vegetation across the landscape while providing favored perches for many avian species, especially birds of prey.
N’tsiri and surrounding areas offered a rich, diverse environment. Each day we roamed in search of wildlife at dawn, midday and dusk with Cathy and Herb in the comfort of their custom-built, open-air, canvas-topped, 4WD vehicle that provided classic safari adventures. Locally referred to as a game drive, it is one of the most popular ways to see a variety of animals throughout Africa.
As amateur naturalists, Cathy and Herb’s identification and knowledge of the regional flora, fauna and ecology was impressive. Their teenage granddaughters, Madeleine and Alexandra, arrived the second week and joined us on daily game drives. Their keen eyesight and exuberance were welcomed additions leading to many sightings of butterflies, grasshoppers, army ants, and other diurnal, crepuscular, and nocturnal fauna. The excursions, including some adjacent to Kruger National Park’s western boundary, took us on a myriad of meandering dirt roads through upland and lowland habitats offering bucolic views and vistas.
N’tsiri, Ndlopfu, and Ingwelala are private reserves within the Umbabat Nature Reserve. The bush veld, natural and man-made water collection areas, and seasonal dry river beds attract a rich variety of wildlife including the elephant, buffalo, zebra, wildebeest, kudu, impala, and others. These in turn attract predators: hyena, lion, leopard, wild dog, and an occasional cheetah. Umbabat, Timbavati, and Klaserie are a part of the Associated Private Nature Reserves’ 445,000 contiguous acres. Kruger National Park covers 7,523 square miles in the provinces of Limpopo and Mpumalanga in northeastern South Africa. It extends 220 miles north to south and 40 miles east to west. With the addition of the private game reserves, the region is known as the Greater Kruger ecosystem. All are committed to conservation and enabling a free flow of animals over fenceless boundaries. The 5.4 million combined acres of Greater Kruger, Mozambique’s Limpopo National Park, Zimbabwe’s Gonarezhou National Park form the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park.
Our weeks in the bush covered but a fraction of this vast preserved and protected expanse. Nevertheless, each day we excitedly anticipated the numerous sightings, displays and observations in the bush, on dirt roads and the one paved road to and from Hoedspruit. We observed the 60 species of birds and 28 species of mammals.
During a pre-dinner game drive with ranger Vicky and Shangaan and tracker Albert at Kings Camp, a nearby luxury lodge in Timbavati, our group of six was treated to a sampling of African wildlife highlighted by a special drama in nature. Albert was in alert mode as he scanned the terrain from his tracker chair braced outside and above the front, left fender of the slow moving, open-air Land Rover. After watching a nyala amble across the road, a springhare scamper into the low shrubs, and a skittish steenbok bounce away; we came upon two lion sisters lounging on the grass in the waning afternoon hours. Gangly but graceful giraffes were sighted munching on treetops at along the sandy roads. A variety of colorful avian species caught our attention. Among them were the Southern Carmine Bee-eater, European Roller, Lilac-breasted Roller, Woodland Kingfisher, Green Woodhoopoe, and Swainson’s Spurfowl. There were also a few soaring and perching birds of prey: Bateleur, Black-breasted Snake-Eagle, Brown Snake-Eagle, and Whalberg’s Eagle. All were lovely sightings and served as a stellar prelude of what was to come.
Half an hour after Albert left his chair to track on foot, he returned to the vehicle and directed our eyes to a solitary, male leopard sitting under the cover of low brush. He was less than 30 feet away, head up and gazing directly at us. We were awestruck by the sighting. The leopard perked up as his twitching ears suddenly captured the muted but distinct approaching sounds. In a flash, he was up the trunk of a large Marula tree to a crotch of branches 40 feet overhead. Hanging there intact was a young kudu kill he had taken earlier in the day. It wasn’t long before the source of the forewarning noises–a mix of whoops, grunts, low growls and whines–that precipitated the leopard’s quick flight to the tree came into view. A pair of spotted hyena slinked forward and took position at the base of the tree while keeping an eye on the leopard overhead. We sat mesmerized for an hour or more as the leopard fed on his kill. The only interruption in his feast was to shift the carcass to a more secure spot. Dropping tufts of fur and Marula fruit appeared to be taunting gestures towards the hyenas who were emitting a variety of guttural sounds while waiting impatiently for meat scraps to drop.
What we watched play out was not uncommon. The hyena is the most abundant large carnivore in many ecosystems and the second largest carnivore in Africa, only the lion is larger. Their keen senses of sight, hearing and smell enable them to efficiently hunt live prey and effectively detect carrion from afar. They play a vital role in helping maintain the balance of ecosystems through their specialized feeding habits. Hyenas are gregarious and notably opportunistic scavengers and the worst kleptoparasites found in the bush, readily taking away leopard and lion kills. The aggressive thieves often travel in a cackle, presenting themselves as formidable foes. The leopard’s climbing superiority has influenced their prey catching strategy and preference of tall tree habitats for safety, feeding and rest.
That evening at Kings Camp, we were seated for dinner amid the quintessential elegance of safari ambiance. The gourmet menu included starters of Caprese salad or Sauté Prawns with Avocado and Smoked Paprika. Entrees offered were Grilled Kudu with Wilted Spinach, Crispy Potato Balls and Black Cherry Vinaigrette; Pan-Fried Sea Bass with Soft Polenta, Wilted Cabbage and Smoked Salmon Mousse; or Wild Mushroom Gnocchi. Coconut and Lime Panna Cotta, a Seasonal Fruit Platter, or Cheese Board topped off the meal. The warm and gracious hospitality of the staff and the delicious servings brought closure to another fun-filled, adventurous day.
Throughout our time in the African bush, we were often treated to captivating encounters. Some were more impressive than others, but all kept our attention and senses laser focused. We observed a variety of interesting and unique interactions, as well as adaptations that demonstrated the pure brilliance, beauty and struggles within the natural world. Immersion into such a vast natural expanse of wilderness connected us enchantingly to the essence of this journey. Our creature comforts were more than sufficient in our hosts’ comfortable, spacious off-the-grid, solar powered home that was regularly visited by indigenous wildlife.
We did see the big five: African Lion, African Elephant, Cape Buffalo, African Leopard and White Rhinoceros; referred to as such for being the most difficult animals in Africa to hunt on foot. We also saw most of the little five: Red-billed Buffalo Weaver (Bubalornis niger); Leopard Tortoise (Stigmochelys pardalis); Antlion (Myrmeleontidae); and Rhinoceros Beetle (Scarabaeidae); but did not see the seldom seen Elephant Shrew (Macroscelididae). The attractive Elegant Grasshopper (Zonocerus elegans), intricate creations of Golden Silk Orb-weaver Spider (Nephila) and Grey Foam-nest Tree Frog (Chiromantis xerampelina), and entertaining behaviors of dung beetles (Scarabaeinae) and army ants (Dorylinae) added to our discoveries and attractions.
Some encounters were particularly special and remain indelibly imprinted in my mind: following a breeding herd of elephants for miles over varied terrain that included water play with their young; viewing a sounder of common warthogs frolicking at the airstrip; shadowing a pack of wild dogs sauntering along the blacktop during their two day trek before returning down the road in a single file; observing the behaviors of newborn, adolescent and adult spotted hyenas at their den; watching the spectacular performance of a male Red-crested Bustard during his mating ritual aerial display; witnessing 13,000 pound elephants and 18 foot tall giraffes instantly disappear from sight into tree and scrub vegetation; discovering white rhinoceros resting near a small mud/water hole motionless for long periods; trailing small herds of massive Cape buffalo as they ambled into the shade to stand at resting; peering through binoculars at hippopotamuses playfully submerging while blowing water on each other, and frequently observing differentiated herds of impala grouped by age and sex to facilitate functionality.
The perambulation in South Africa was a journey I’d been preparing for all my life. I relished virtually every second of this wildlife adventure and exploration that far surpassed my expectations.
Bill Nestor explores the world to discover and write about travel, nature, food, golf, and lifestyles.