Chapter 53 – Wildlife near Olifants Camp

Our time in Kruger National Park was providing us with wildlife encounters that were closer and more exciting than I could ever have imagined.

Amy Stevens outside bungalow at Olifants Camp. Photo by Austin J Stevens

Amy Stevens outside bungalow at Olifants Camp. Photo by Austin J Stevens

We spent another night in our bungalow at our first stop inside Kruger National Park, Satara camp, and the next morning we re-packed the Suzuki with all our supplies and began the journey to our next stop, Olifants Camp, which was located further north inside the park. When we finally arrived and Austin took me to our bungalow, my breath caught in my throat as I absorbed the phenomenal view from our front steps. Our bungalow was perched on a cliff side overlooking the mighty Olifants River, which churned and roared beneath us as the water rushed around the plateau and on into the distance. Raising my eyes from the river, I saw thousands of kilometres of pristine bushland stretching out to the horizon. It was one of the most spectacular sights I had ever seen, and it was ours to enjoy every time we stepped out of our bungalow. The section of the river directly below the bungalow was home to a family of hippos, and a mother led her young calf out of the water to rest on the far bank as Austin and I watched from above. Whenever the calf strayed too far from its mother, she gave a bellow that brought it trotting back to her side.

After we unpacked and set up our supplies inside the bungalow, we took off in the Suzuki to explore the area around the camp. We had only a short time left before sunset, but there were many different dirt tracks to choose from that followed the winding river and crisscrossed different areas of the bush. We chose a short track that encompassed small tributaries of the Olifants River running inland. The track sloped downwards towards a narrow waterway flowing slowly across the track and pooling on either side. As our vehicle neared the bottom of the incline, a 1.5m crocodile launched itself out of the water on our left and heaved its body towards my car door! The crocodile waited there expectantly, jaws agape, and as we watched in astonishment, eleven turtles swam around the bend and joined the crocodile near the front left tyre of our car, each clambering for a position on the track close to us. One turtle scuttled under our car, and I wound down my window to lean closer to the action. More and more turtles appeared and swam to join the others. The excitable crocodile ignored them and focused its golden eyes on us, raising its body off the ground on its forelegs. Austin and I couldn’t believe what we were seeing, but we soon came to the conclusion that these animals must have been fed by people before, probably on a regular basis considering their instantaneous reaction to our car. I knew what usually happened to potentially dangerous animals that came to associate people with food. Often, they had to be destroyed, and I feared that the crocodile staring at us expectantly would be just such a case. I hated to think what would happen if the crocodile continued to launch himself at passing cars when he was four metres long and weighed hundreds of kilograms! I knew that such a dangerous animal behaving that way would at the very least terrify visitors if it remained in that particular waterway. My only comfort was the thought that this crocodile might go to join the large crocodile population in the Olifants River before it was labelled a ‘problem animal’ through no fault of its own.

Juvenile crocodile with turtles in Kruger National Park. Photo by Austin J Stevens

Juvenile crocodile with turtles in Kruger National Park.
Photo by Austin J Stevens

After Austin had finished taking pictures and we had checked to make sure there were no turtles under the car, we continued on our way. We took a track that looped back towards camp and the bushes closed in around us. Austin and I were still discussing the issue of the overly friendly crocodile when a movement ahead and to the right of our car caught my attention. Focusing on the bushes, I saw a large spotted animal creeping towards the track. Suddenly, my mind caught up with my eyes and I realised we were about to have one of the rarest encounters in the African bush.

‘Stop, stop, stop!’ I exclaimed in sheer excitement. ‘Leopard!’

Austin slowed the Suzuki to a halt just as we drew level with the big cat, which was about to cross the track in front of us but had frozen in mid stride as we approached.

‘There’s a second one!’ Austin whispered incredulously as another leopard appeared behind the first. ‘I think we’ve got a breeding pair.’

Leopard, South Africa. Photo by Austin J Stevens

The powerfully muscled cats were in perfect condition and they trained their luminescent yellow eyes on us as they regarded our vehicle with wary curiosity. The leopard’s coats were golden with beautiful rosettes and black spots covering the entire length of their bodies. Their faces were broad and rounded, with prominent muzzles and a thick tuft of white whiskers on either side of their noses. Their expressions evinced a calculating intelligence in the set of their small ears and the intensity of their gaze. They had stocky, strong legs and long tails.

As we watched, the leopards turned and melted into the bushes towards the rear of our vehicle, and Austin turned the car around and followed them quietly. The leopards wandered some distance through the bushes along the track, with only the occasional appearance of spotted fur between the branches revealing their presence. The two magnificent cats eventually settled in a small clearing in the thicket and rubbed up against each other, nuzzling and purring and making soft rumbling noises. Then they moved further into the bushes and the unmistakeable sounds that accompanied mating reached our ears. Leopards are nocturnal hunters and supremely adept ambush predators. Their preference for dense bush habitats and their secretive dispositions made them extremely elusive and difficult to encounter in the wild. We knew how lucky we were, and watched until we were no longer able to see the leopards before continuing towards camp.

Martial eagle in Kruger National Park. Photo by Austin J Stevens

Martial eagle in Kruger National Park. Photo by Austin J Stevens

About a hundred metres further on we passed underneath a tall, dead tree, its twisted bare branches stretching out over the track. Austin stopped the Suzuki and told me to look at the longest branch above us, and I peered out of the window to see two enormous yellow eyes already staring down at me. They were the eyes of a martial eagle perched directly overhead, one of the most magnificent birds I had ever seen. The eagle’s huge hooked beak gleamed in the last of the daylight and its feathers moved with the slight breeze blowing through the tree. The feathers on the front of its body were white, but its back was dark brown. The eagle’s powerful feet gripped the dead branch and its long talons flexed as the great bird shifted its weight. With the sun about to set, we were forced to leave the martial eagle, which turned its head and followed us with its giant eyes as we drove away.

To be continued in Chapter 54, when insects make settling in at Olifants camp a little difficult…

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