Turning west off the Nshawu Road onto the Capricorn Loop almost immediately alerts you to the fact that you have entered unusual terrain. As at the Mooiplaas Waterhole, you suddenly find yourself on a grassy plain, only this one is much larger than the one at Mooiplaas. This second island of savanna in a sea of mopane is so distinctive that it is sometimes referred to as Little Serengeti.
We have often seen bull elephants here where the mopane gives way to the grass and we assume that they are making their way back from the Nshawu Marsh area. In the photos below, the Lebombo Mountains (which are really a range of hills) can be seen in the background. They lie to the east and are therefore behind us as we travel along the Capricorn Loop towards the Tihongonyeni Waterhole, which is halfway along the Loop, about 8 km from the Nshawu turn-off. (For some reason we find it impossible to remember the name of this waterhole so we always refer to it as Little Serengeti.)
On the opposite side of the road we once saw a herd of tsessebe (and a few wildebeest). This is almost certainly the same herd that provided us with such beautiful photos at the Nshawu dam, which is but a few kilometres behind us. As in the photos above, those below clearly show how the mopane gives way to grass.
We continue along the Capricorn Loop heading north-west, with the grassy plain stretching out on both sides of the road. It is along here that we have had several sightings of secretary birds (possibly the same pair), though mostly frustratingly too far away for good photos. The one seen here was the exception. They are always in pairs and are quite fascinating to watch as they stride about, fearlessly tackling any hapless reptile they come across. We once saw one near Satara with a very long (and very dead) snake dangling from its beak.
As we approach the waterhole, we cast a glance to the right where we see the grassy plain stretching to the north and north east. In the photo, the Lebombo Hills, the border between the Park and Mozambique, can still be seen.
Excepting for the grass, the plain is quite bare and there are none of the acacias and marulas which are so typical of the true savanna areas. All that can be seen are a few straggling mopane shrubs.
We look to the left and see the familiar sight of a windmill and reservoir. We have arrived at last at Tihongonyeni, which is situated directly on the Tropic of Capricorn and is not far from the western edge of the grassy plain.
The following series of six photos was taken on the same occasion in March. As can be seen, rains had been plentiful. There is a long, water-filled depression or ditch stretching out in front of the reservoir, from the right to far on the left. On this particular day, Little Serengeti certainly lived up to its name!
The first time we ever visited this waterhole, there was a scattered skeleton of an elephant in the foreground.
On the occasion of our first visit, we were also thrilled to find a large herd of eland there. They had finished drinking at the trough and were slowly heading back to where they had, presumably, come from. I am inclined to think that this is the same herd we saw on the Nshawu Marsh some six months later.
The social structure is fluid, and you may find same-sex herds as well as mixed herds.
One February, there were White Stork gatherings all over the Park but this was the largest we were to see. The day was oven hot and the heat waves distorted the photos giving them the appearance of impressionist paintings. There were hundreds of storks scattered about and it was difficult to capture them all, so, once again, the photos do not do justice to the remarkable sight.
The grey line stretching from left to right in the lower half of the photo is the trough.
The most common sighting here is definitely the zebra and we have often found large herds here, and of course, where there are zebras, there are sure to be wildebeest. Ostriches are usually here in abundance too.
That rainy day provided quite an array of drenched animals and birds at Tihongonyeni!
The most interesting was the Black-backed Jackal. These foxlike animals are rather shy and seldom stand long enough for the eager photographer. This one, though, arrived while we were parked there and was so interested in what was going on at the waterhole that he took no further notice of us than one glance at the Isuzu. He crossed the road and was still sniffing around when we finally left.
One October, we were staying at Letaba and made a quick visit to the Mopani area. (This was the morning when we saw the Side-striped Jackal at Mooiplaas, and the reedbuck and eland on Nshawu.) When we reached Tihongonyeni, we were quite surprised that there were no zebra to be seen, nor, for that matter anything else. And then we saw why. Just to the left of the trough, gathered near a scrubby mopane bush, were four lions! A productive morning indeed!
This was the first and only time that we have seen any sign of cats here. We are always on the lookout for cheetah, which we know are in this area as we had seen them at Bowkerskop, which, as the crow flies, is less than 10 km to the south-west, but have had no luck in that regard.
One of the pairs of lions was a mating pair. Unfortunately, we could not linger too long, and after half an hour reluctantly took our leave. It would have been interesting to see what happened later in the day when the herds arrived for their daily drink of water.
Our most exciting sighting, however, came on the same day when we saw the gathering of storks. We had spent some time there trying to capture the amazing mix of storks, ostriches, zebra, wildebeest and the two elephants which arrived while we were sitting there. Eventually we decided to leave, and as Barry reversed our Isuzu, what do we see but a herd of Roan Antelope behind us! Of all the antelope, I find the Roan the most unusual. (Of the large antelope, they have also, just by the way, together with Sable, been the hardest to find.)
They have a most comical appearance, with painted faces, for all the world as though they are wearing clown masks, and the longest, donkey-like ears of all the antelope.
They had not been at the waterhole and yet they were walking away! After a minute or so they turned round to look at us and then they walked off to the side. Then they stopped and looked at us again. Dither, dither, dither. They clearly wanted to get to the water but just as clearly they were not happy with our presence.
We decided to drive off and then come back a short while later. When we returned they had crossed the road, but at quite a distance to the left of the waterhole and were now edging their way round, just in front of the mopane.
In the photo to the left, the “mask” can be clearly seen.
The heatwaves, the sharp light and the distance were not helpful with regard to photos but, once again, we did not complain. This was our best sighting of roan and we were positively elated!
Unlike the Eland, Roan Antelope herds have a very strict social structure. The herds have a dominant territorial bull with several cows - and there will also be one or more dominant cows. Chief Cow decides on herd movement, while the other dominant cows stay on the edges of the herd with Chief Bull bringing up the rear. Bachelors leave the herd when they mature and congregate together. If you see a Roan on its own it is probably a bull without a territory.
But, what has, without a doubt, been my favourite sighting here almost escaped our notice.
This was two days after our eland sighting. There was no sign of eland but there were literally hundreds of zebra widely spread out in the vicinity of the waterhole. We moved away from the waterhole to try and capture the size of the zebra herd and parked some distance away, right at the edge of the road. We were still snapping away when I noticed that a small bird kept swooping down next to the car. I did not recognise it and did not have my bird book with me. While I was taking a closer look at it, I saw that there were actually two of them hopping about in the grass, and then, to my absolute delight, I realised that it was a pair and they were feeding their babies in a nest on the ground!
Amazing! How do they manage to raise their babies without them being crushed underfoot by all the animals milling around. And what about predators? And do elephants take care not to step on the nests? The mind boggles!
And what a job it was to take photos! I had to lean out of the window and the direct sunshine then prevented me from seeing what was on the viewfinder. So I took a gazillion photos, aiming the camera in the direction of the nest and just hoping that some of them would come out okay. Strangely enough, quite a few came out really well.
When we got back to camp, I made a beeline for my birdbook. They turned out to be Stonechats
Although we have had great sightings here, I must warn would-be travellers that they have been rather inconsistent. The best times seem to be in the drier months and towards midday. Our early morning visits have usually disappointed us. (The exception being when we saw the lions.)
We now continue our journey along the second half of the Capricorn Loop. Other than the odd elephant and plenty of bee-eaters in the summer months, we have usually not seen anything worthwhile on this section of the Loop. Then, one March, because there had been such good rains, we decided to visit the pan called N’wambu which is on the corner where the Capricorn Loop turns onto the S144. And were we glad we did!
The S144, which takes us back to the main road (H1-6), has mostly been unkind to us, but we did once have a wonderful surprise as we turned onto it - a roadblock of titanic proportions!
They were none to pleased to see us and some of the bigger ones eyed us with obvious displeasure. We stopped some distance away, switched off the Isuzu and waited until they finally decided to move on. It was a wonderful sight and in amongst the crowd were a number of small elephants, and one very tiny one, no doubt the reason for their giving us the lazy eye!