Approximately half way between Letaba and Mopani, we reach a fascinating feature which we generally refer to as the sea of grass. This is the Malopenyana River, which flows south and then turns west into the Tsendze River, which in its turn flows southwards into the Letaba River.
Even at the height of the rainy season we have never seen the Malopenyana with visibly flowing water, yet there are no bushes or trees to be seen on its broad expanse. It is quite clearly a marsh.
On the southern side, flowing downstream, we have not seen many signs of animal life, possibly because the grass provides excellent cover.
Upstream, to the north, however, we have often seen elephants feasting on the abundant grass.
Our most exciting sighting at this spot was in January 2016, when the aforementioned severe drought had reduced the central part of the Park (between Tshokwane and Mopani) to a parched wasteland.
As we came around the bend, there, quite close by, and grazing on the stubble of the marsh, was a small herd of Southern Reedbuck, only the second time we have ever seen them. Their specific grass requirements restrict them to just a few areas in the Park, so they are by no means commonly sighted. (There are only about 300 of them in the entire Park!) As they like tall grass cover and are water dependent, marshy areas are where you will find them. They are found in small family herds consisting of a monogamous pair and their offspring.
(Behind the ram is a close-up of the mystery shrub described in the previous chapter.)
On one occasion, while we were scanning the marsh with our binoculars, a game drive vehicle stopped and the driver told us that there was a cheetah at the Molopenyana Waterhole. Needless to say we scooted off in double quick time!
On the map below you will see that the Malopenyana Waterhole is at a crossroad. (To the west is the S48 known as the Tsendze Loop, which follows the course of the Tsendze River. It is supposed to be haunted by lions. Well, let me assure you that these lions have been notable only for their absence. More about this loop much later.)
To the east is the H15 (one of the aforementioned exceptions to the rule in that it is a dirt road designated with an ‘H’.) It leads to Giriyondo, a borderpost between Mozambique and the Park. The H15 almost immediately crosses the Malopenyana, but before it does so it gives access to the Malopenyana Waterhole on the right. Because of the proximity of the river to the road, the map is slightly deceptive, as the waterhole is between the river and the H1-6.
The Malopenyana Waterhole is but a bare kilometre to the north of the ‘sea of grass’. The ‘P’ (for pan) marks the southern stretch of the ‘sea of grass’.
On the occasion when we were making haste to see the cheetah, my lynx-eyed husband spied it before we even got to the crossroads. It was in the process of killing a young warthog! I know there are people who find the kills fascinating. I am not one of them. I know that predators must eat, but I hate seeing the prey fighting for its life. Anyway, the cheetah didn’t like our presence and disappeared into the bush with the poor little creature hanging limply from its jaws. A few minutes later we turned onto the road to the waterhole and there, some distance away, was a family of warthogs, with three half-grown piglets, staring in the direction the cheetah had taken. We had no doubts as to where the cheetah had found its breakfast!
But other than the cheetah episode, we have not had much luck here. We have seen a few elephants, zebra and warthogs, but not much else. On one occasion, however, there were two cranky-looking old African Buffalo bulls, which had obviously had a wonderful wallow!
North of the crossroads, the main road (H1-6) follows the course of the Malopenyana River, but a slight ridge and trees and shrubs shield it from view. It is along this section that we have had several early morning sightings of Spotted Hyenas. It would appear that once hyenas have established a den, it is permanent. (On the H1-1 down south, between Pretorius Kop and the turn-off to the H3, there are two nursery dens, about 10 km apart, in drainage culverts under the road – a favourite place for a den, it would seem. We have seen them there unfailingly year after year. In fact, we expect to find them there.)
There must be a nursery den here along the Malopenyana route but we have not figured out where it is, though I’m willing to bet it’s a drainage culvert! (They do use old aardvark burrows and caves too, but the most visible to tourists would obviously be the culverts.) On the occasion when the photos below were taken, there was only one adult with a litter of four cubs. We assume she was either the mother or had been left on nursery duty.
Six months later, we saw this same clan, this time with four adults and a number of cubs present. It was very early in the morning with poor visibility. This was at the end of October, just before the first spring rains. In fact, it was that very night that the heavens opened and flooded the guest house we were staying in at Letaba. (There was a substantial hole in the thatch roof.) But that is another story involving many towels (Kruger’s!) and plenty of exercise. It was the most strenuous workout we’ve ever had in the Park!
Adults one and three were sleeping the sleep of the just and did not stir. Adult two was suckling a very small cub, which made only one fleeting appearance – too quick for my camera (though hubby did capture it on video). The half grown cub was very interested and he made a few attempts to suckle too. (At least, that’s what it looked like.) Mama, however, was having none of it! She bared her teeth and half-heartedly lunged at him to warn him off. He took the hint and moved off to join adult four and the other cubs on the road. (Seen below.)
Spotted Hyenas live in clans led by a dominant female. The females, in fact, are slightly bigger than the males! The females remain in the clan for life, but the males leave when they mature.
Although Spotted Hyenas are found throughout the Park, we have never seen any north of the Mopani area. Just as an aside, there have apparently been rare sightings of Brown Hyenas in the northern Park, but closer to the western border. That I would love to see!
We have also had several sightings of Tsessebe along this section of our route. A herd consists of a dominant bull with cows and their young. The non-breeding bulls gather in bachelor groups.This was a lone bull, so he is almost certainly a bachelor. He was most obliging so we were able to get several really good shots.
Compare the luxuriant grass with that in the hyena photos. The rains make a fantastic difference. This photo was taken in January 2017 after the 2016 drought was broken.
Also along this section, a large herd of buffalo is often to be seen. Because of the ridge and the vegetation, and the fact that the herd spreads out, sometimes on both sides of the road, the size of it cannot always be appreciated.
Not much further on is the source of the Malopenyana. Here is the waterhole known as Middelvlei (an Afrikaans word meaning ‘middle marsh’ and pronounced ‘middle-flay’), and it was here that we saw the exact extent of the Malopenyana herd one year, in late spring, just before the summer rains.
Middelvlei has two windmills and a concrete reservoir at the northern end, and then two concrete troughs, the one behind the other, at the southern end.
It was at Middelvlei that we had our first sighting of Eland in the Park. It was a large herd but they were already leaving, and had been drinking from the back trough, which is quite some distance from the road. So, thanks to the dust and resultant glare, the distance and our basic cameras, the photos were so poor that I scrapped them. Which I now regret, of course. A poor photo is better than no photo when you are trying to prove you’ve seen something!
May is a good month at this waterhole. One year we were staying at Mopani and passed it several times, on our way to and from Letaba, and also made extra trips just to sit at the waterhole and enjoy the late afternoon visits by the various animals. We were never disappointed. Here is a small sample of the photos we took in half an hour one afternoon.
From the top and left to right: Yellow-billed Hornbill, Blue Wildebeest, Warthogs, Elephant, Zebra.
Early the next morning, on our way to the Letaba area, all that was there was a group of ostriches. When we passed again in the early afternoon a family of Southern Ground Hornbills was under a bush on the opposite side of the road.
The enlargement is of Mother Hornbill (her pouch has a dark blue patch). Father Hornbill lacks the blue patch while Junior’s pouch is pink. The younger they are, the paler the pouch. We have seen one with a pouch so pale it appeared to be white!
One of the most appealing sights in the Park is that of baby warthogs, but it is seldom that you can get good shots, as they tend to be skittish and dash for cover in grass.
This family was across the road from Middelvlei, a short distance from where we saw the hornbills. This was during the drought and there was precious little grazing for them. They were so busy that we had ample time to get good photos.
It was about a week after we saw the baby warthogs that we saw lions at this waterhole for the first time. They were quite possibly the famous Tsendze lions, which had been so notable for their absence on the Tsendze Loop. (No doubt goofing off along the Malopenyana!) There were three of them, two males and a female. There might well have been others, as the surrounding bush, though thin in foliage, still provided excellent cover. Their rather gaunt appearance was a testament to the fact that they had not fed, and they were apparently exhausted after a fruitless night of hunting. (The poor light was not helpful with regard to photography.)
I was quite horrified at the sight of the painfully thin male lying near the reservoir. It looked for all the world as though he had collapsed and died. Even with the help of binoculars, I could see no sign of breathing.
A woman parked in a car nearby assured us that she had seen them arrive, so I suppose he was alive, though I continued to entertain serious doubts!
The same woman pointed out the female which was lying on the opposite side of the road, right beside it, where we had seen the hornbills three years before. I doubt we would even have noticed her as we were so mesmerised by the sight of the ‘dead’ lion at the reservoir.
She lay with her back to us and in the time we sat there she did not stir, but at least I could see she was breathing! She was also not as gaunt as the lion at the reservoir.
When we first arrived, a second male had been walking away from the waterhole before disappearing into the mopane bush. After tiring of waiting for some signs of life from the other two, we decided to see if we could find him. With luck he would have moved closer to the road. We drove forward at a snail’s pace, peering intently between the mopane, and it was only because I am long-sighted that I spied him lying under a mopane bush. He was far from the road, but he was still awake and was in clear sight. It took quite a while before Barry was able to see him. (He was convinced I was hallucinating.)
Thanks to his zoom, we got a really good shot.
We leave the Middelvlei Waterhole to continue our journey to Mopani.
Blue Wildebeest are frequently to be found here immediately to the north of Middelvlei. Wildebeest are often found in association with giraffe, impala and zebras. The cows and calves form nursery herds, but the herds are open and cows will mate with more than one bull.
We have often noticed two or three bulls forming a bachelor group and it is not unusual to see a lone bull peacefully lying in the shade with no sign of any other company.
And just in case you are wondering if zebras sleep standing up.
At this stage we are still approximately 20 km from Mopani Camp and the H1-6 now follows the course of the Tzendze for much of the way. However, we will leave this stretch of road till much later and head instead for Mopani itself.