Central Kruger: Leave the crowds behind

The legendary conservationist Ian Player wrote poetically about the significance of crossing African rivers, both in real life and in our dreams. River crossings are symbols of transformation, of the opportunity to begin again, to move forward and leave old ways behind. 

Sometimes, though, what you find on the other side is not what you anticipated. 

When you travel north in the 350km-long Kruger National Park, the clogged roads of tourists fade away in your rear-view mirror and as you cross the Olifants River, you may wonder: am I still in Kruger? For this is the land of 10 billion mopane trees.

Instead of the photogenic savannah and combretum woodland of the south, the land morphs into great swathes of this seemingly monotonous tree that covers most of the central and northern parts of the 20 000 square kilometre protected area.

Gone are the large open spaces of grassland. There is less grazing habitat here, so fewer impala, wildebeest and zebra. But gone too are the tourists which crowd the south.

For days you can see very little, and just as you start wondering where all the wild animals have gone, a leopard emerges from the dappled light filtering through the butterfly-shaped leaves. Then once it has melted back into the bush, you wonder if it was real, or simply an apparition sent by the gods to awaken your sleepy soul.

Also See: How to make the most of Kruger with kids

(Year in the Wild - Scott Ramsay)

One afternoon we saw a dream animal – a young leopard - between Olifants Camp and Letaba Camp. Was it really there? Yes. Our pounding hearts confirmed it, a visceral connection that sparked something inside us that we couldn’t explain. Fear? Admiration? Excitement? All three perhaps.

This is what makes the central part of Kruger so appealing. You have to wait longer, sweat more and look harder, but when you find your animal (or does it find you?), you’re often alone, just the apparition and you, under the dusty sky, surrounded by falling butterfly leaves.

Best Rest Camps

(Year in the Wild - Scott Ramsay)

The large Olifants Camp itself has some of the best views in Kruger, especially cottages 9 to 12, which are perched on the corner of a cliff overlooking the broad river below. Because of the camp’s elevation about 100 metres above the river, it also receives more of a breeze than the surrounds, making it noticeably cooler.

Just south of Olifants is the tiny camp of Balule where six small thatched rondavels and an adjacent campsite offer an authentic Kruger experience. Balule’s basic facilities (no windows in rondavel, shared ablutions and low fence) appeal to Kruger fanatics.

Letaba Camp is a large camp, set alongside the river of the same name and is admired for it’s huge common cluster fig trees and open views of the river. Best huts are D61 to D64, all of which are quiet and close to the river. (Letaba also has one of the best guides in Kruger; a morning walk with John Adamson is highly recommended).

(Year in the Wild - Scott Ramsay)

The new Mugg and Bean restaurants at both Olifants and Letaba may disgruntle some Kruger aficionados, but I think they are great: the food, service and subtletly of branding is spot on.

The views from the big Mopani Camp of the Pioneer Dam are superb, but unfortunately most of the huts have no such vistas. This facebrick-constructed camp is not my favourite, because it lacks a sense of connection to the bush.

Better to try Shimuwini Bush Camp, one of Kruger’s smaller, more intimate offerings: just 15 cottages, at the end of the S141 road which is offlimits to the general public. Best cottages at Shimuwini are 9 to 15, at end of the camp, and close to the river.

Don’t forget the sleep-over hides: Sable Hide looks out onto a big dam near Phalaborwa Gate. There are 8 drop down beds and a braai area. Shipandani Hide just south of Mopani Camp is smaller, and overlooks the Tsendze River. Unfortunately, Shipandani lies alongside a road, so your wild nocturnal sleepover is disturbed by the noise of staff vehicles returning from Mopani Camp, as well as guide vehicles conducting night drives for guests.

Also See: Budget friendly Gauteng family outings

Best Roads

(Year in the Wild - Scott Ramsay)

In central Kruger, it’s best to stick to roads that follow riverine areas, especially in the heat of the day, when the mopane woodland can be oppressive.

The S39 road that runs south from Olifants to the Timbavati Picnic Site is a beautiful drive, with good viewpoints and several pools of hippo.

If you’re staying at Shimuwini, then you’ll have exclusive use of the S141 road that follows the Letaba River. Look out for the resident male leopard here, as well as wild dogs.

Between Letaba and Olifants is the S46, S93 and S44 roads, all of which follow the lower reaches of the Letaba River, and will most probably deliver something interesting.

North of Letaba is the S47 river road, with numerous viewpoints, and not infrequent leopard sightings. The roads around Mopani Camp are less noteworthy, except for the S50 that follows the Nshawu marsh, where large, open grasslands make a refreshing change from the woodland.

Best Viewpoints

(Year in the Wild - Scott Ramsay)

My favourite is Olifants Lookout, north-east of Olifants Camp on the S44 road. Here you have sweeping, elevated views of the river in both directions, and you’re allowed to get out of your car, making it a superb sundowner spot. Also try N’wamanzi Lookout to the west of Olifants on the H1-5, also with fine elevated views of the river, and Mooiplaas Picnic Site, which has a thatched sitting area and braai facilities for picnickers. For a wild, rarely-seen view, drive northeast of Mopani to Shibavantsengele lookout, perched on the edge of the Lebombo Mountains. 

Best Waterholes

(Year in the Wild - Scott Ramsay)

Nhlanganini on the H9 west of Letaba has decent views over a large dam, but my favourite is Mooiplaas waterhole to the east of Mopani Camp. It’s a bankable source of interest, especially in dry season. There is almost always something going on here, and viewing is easy, because of the large, open and mostly overgrazed surround.

Early one morning I watched two lionesses spend several hours lying in tall grass, keenly watching a succession of zebra, wildebeest and tsessebe coming to drink.

By the end of the day, the lionesses were still there, no doubt waiting for dusk to make their killer move.


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