This part of the route starts at the bridge over the Nkulumbeni on the lower right hand corner of the map and ends at the northern turn-off onto the S56 at Babalala - upper left hand corner of the map.
The greater part of this section provides good sightings. The Boyala River passes without fuss under the H1-7 just to the west of the Boyela Waterhole and then flows all along the western side of the H1-7. Animals are therefore constantly crossing the road to get to the water. We have not seen anything noteworthy at Boyela itself (though a cousin of mine has amazing photos of roan and eland together at this waterhole!). However, further south, near the N’warihlangari Waterhole, we had our most spectacular lion sighting ever.
Just after 5:00 am, one January morning, we passed a pan - the ‘P’ seen on the lower right hand corner of the map - shortly after the S53 loop. To our great excitement an extremely well-fed lioness was walking away from the pan. It was then that we noticed two extremely well-fed lions and another lioness lying at the pan. Only one lion was awake but after some time he got up and plonked himself down behind the other one. Sleepy guy woke, blearily observed the world for a few minutes and then they both lay down to sleep off their obviously gargantuan meal.
Watching sleeping lions does not appeal that much to us and we left them, hoping to see them still there on our way back later that morning. Some four hours or so later, just after 9:30 am, we returned, keeping our eyes wide open. We did not have to, though, as we were alerted by the number of cars parked some 50-100 metres before the pan. And what do we find - two lionesses right next to the road beside a bushy thicket! Both were still more or less awake and the lioness at the back (with a tracking collar) was sleepily licking her paw.
There was also a large male lying just behind the lionesses partly inside the thicket, but not much could be seen of him and he was down for the count! As we moved forward though, we realised that right inside the thicket were another two lions and a large number of cubs. We did at least get a shot of one cub which was still conscious! They had obviously settled there for the rest of the day. Because of the number of cars all vying for a good spot, we had to move to give other frustrated game viewers a chance to see too.
We reluctantly left the thicket and as we drove forward we saw another lioness with a cub lying in the lush grass a bit beyond the thicket. Holy Moly! How many were there exactly!
We eventually tore ourselves away. It was after 10 am, the middle of summer and very, very hot. The lions we had seen that morning at the pan were no longer there. They had obviously been part of the same pride at the thicket, and possibly even the very ones we had just seen. We returned to camp, with the firm intention of returning later in the afternoon. After lunch we decided to do a shorter tour of the Mphongolo Loop entering via the S57 at Boyela. This would give us the opportunity to see the lions twice - once on the way to Boyela, and then when coming back onto the H1-7 via the southern entrance of the S56, we could go back the short distance to N’warihlangari.
As we passed the pan, where four elephants were having a mud bath, we saw a lioness followed by a few cubs heading in the direction of the thicket. It was now three in the afternoon. This was surprising. Why was she away from the rest of the pride? Had they been separated from the pride for the morning and were only now joining up with the rest? After all, the first lioness we saw that morning at the pan had been moving in the opposite direction to the thicket. Or had they left the thicket to have a drink at the pan?
A few minutes later we reached the thicket where there were still a number of cars, alerting us to the fact that the pride had not moved. This time we managed to get up closer and we got some good shots of the cubs inside the thicket. It was impossible to say how many there were as it was a real jumble!
But it was obviously still too early. We left for our tour of the S56, hoping that by the time we returned, there would be better photo opportunities. When we returned it was 4:30 pm and the pride had begun to stir. The cubs were no longer in the thicket, but were spread out on the lush grass beyond it with a number of lionesses. They were moving around and the lionesses were sleepily sitting up. Many of the cubs were feeding. What was quite fascinating was that they moved from lioness to lioness. It was obvious that the feeding was indiscriminate and that the lionesses shared their largesse with any thirsty cub, irrespective of whether it was their own.
We did not see any of the males, and it was impossible to get an accurate count because they were spread out amongst bushes. One of the more fanatical game viewers, parked in a car near ours, had been there long enough to count them. The pride consisted of 23 members, cubs included! What a memorable sighting that was! As this was only some 10 km or so south of Boyela, we assume that this was the famous Boyela Pride.
Up to the Boyela Waterhole, this part of the route is rich in sightings of all kinds. The H1-7 itself bears testimony to it by the amount of dung to be found on it. It is clear that many animals of all kinds cross it regularly. The giraffes below were part of a large group with many young ones, such as the fuzzy-eared little one in the photos on the right. This was a very misty, rainy morning. (If you’ve been paying attention you will know that the giraffe in the photo on the left is a mom!)
On a different occasion we had another unusual giraffe sighting along this stretch. A group of twelve, gathered together into two groups, were having a fighting match. The photos below include the first group, consisting of five males who were swaying their necks and whacking each other with great enthusiasm. What it was all about, we could not tell. There were no females in contention that we could see, and surely it would be perhaps two, or three at the most, who would be fighting over a female. But twelve???
It is along this stretch that we have had a number of Eland sightings - quite possibly the same herd each time, and also quite likely to be the one I described in the previous section. On one occasion the whole herd was moving through the mopane scrub on the eastern side of the road and all that could be seen were the backs of the biggest ones. They were moving parallel to the road and we eventually gave up on waiting for them to appear on the road. On another occasion we saw a single one. Whether it was a lone bull, or whether the rest of the herd was somewhere in the bush beyond, we never found out. It is interesting to note that, like Impala, Eland seem to enjoy the company of zebras!
There are nowhere near as many zebras in this part of the Park as there are at Mooiplaas and on the Capricorn Loop in the Mopani district, but you do see them regularly along the open stretches such as found along this route.
Although zebra can appear to be gentle and affectionate with one another, the truth is that they can be extremely vicious and stallions have even been known to attack and kill foals. A fight is something to behold. They bite and kick and can inflict serious damage. The photos below are a good illustration.
Another frequent sighting along this part of the route is that of buffalo. On that same memorable morning when we saw the Boyela lions, and shortly after N’warihlangari, we were forced to stop by a typical Kruger road block.
But the best sighting was on an occasion when we left the Mphongolo Loop via the S57. Right on the corner, was a herd of buffalo spread out in small groups under trees and bushes. Many of them were almost on the edge of the road and we got some fantastic shots. It is possibly the same herd which caused the roadblock.
It is quite easy to distinguish between the cows and the bulls. The bulls’ horns are much heavier and thicker.
It is also very easy to see when you are looking at an old buffalo, The skin is more mottled and lined, they ears are more ragged, the eyelids drooping, and the horns look cracked and porous.
Seeing that we have now reached Boyela, I want to turn west onto the S57 to show you the biggest herd of Impala we have ever seen. Photographs simply cannot do it justice. Part of the herd was walking in front of us, but they were also spread out on both sides of the road.
The herd featured above had several mature rams, so it was probably a combined herd. This friendly cohabitation comes to an abrupt halt during the time of the rut.
Because the Impala is so common, with numbers estimated at more than 150000 in the Park, we tend to be rather dismissive of them. But they are really beautiful animals and the lambs are endearingly cute. Their habits are also very interesting.
In your travels about the Park you will soon notice that Impalas form two kinds of associations: herds and bachelor boys.
A herd consists of a dominant ram, his ewes and their lambs. The male lambs remain in the herd until the age of about two, when they leave. They will then join forces with other bachelors - rams who have not been able to establish a herd, or are not old enough to do so - both for company and for safety. The young ewes remain in the herd.
Much mock fighting takes place in the bachelor groups as the rams test their strength against each other. The photos below show one of these mock fights.
However, these mock fights turn very serious in the season of the rut, mainly in the month of May, when the ewes come into oestrus. The lambs are then born from late November to mid-December, arriving in a flood. This ensures the survival of the species, as the defenceless little lambs are easy prey for a host of carnivores, as can be seen on the right. With so many arriving all at once, there is no danger of their numbers being decimated. (I take no pleasure in seeing the kills. I know predators must eat - I am a meat eater myself - but seeing the prey struggling for its life is not pleasant.)
A dominant male gathers a number of ewes to form his herd and he spends much time keeping them together. The ewes have no sense of loyalty whatsoever and, if the herd is large and consequently spreads out during grazing, they can easily be abducted by a young bachelor wanting to form a herd of his own. The rams therefore have to be very vigilant.
During the time of the rut, a ram that has no herd will challenge one that has, and this is when tremendous fights take place, sometimes with tragic consequences if their horns lock and they cannot get loose.
One-horned rams, such as the one on the right, are also regularly seen, another consequence of fighting during the rut.
The photos below show a serious fight we saw in the southern part of the Park.
The most amazing thing about the rut though, is the unbelievable roaring and snorting which come from the male as he defends his herd of ewes. It is simply incredible and you would never believe that an antelope the size of an Impala can produce a sound worthy of a hippo! If you are interested, the link below will take you to a video recording which should give you an idea.
The constant vigilance required to keep other rams at bay means that a ram will have no time for grazing or sleeping. After a while this takes a toll on his condition and he loses strength, thus enabling a bachelor to take over his herd. He then joins a bachelor group until such time as he has regained condition and is then able to make a challenge for a herd again. This is nature’s way of ensuring the diverse spread of the gene pool.
December is the best month to visit the Park if you want to see the Impala lambs and you may even be so blessed as to witness the birth of a lamb as we did near Lower Sabie. The ewe was partly hidden by thorn bushes, so although we could see what was happening, the vegetation very much got in the way of our photographs. We did not want to move to a better position as she was spooked by our presence and paid more attention to us than she did to helping her lamb out of the amniotic sac.
The lambs are truly exquisite so even though the Park is almost unbearably hot in December, it remains a worthwhile experience to visit at this time to see them.
From what we have seen, it appears the ewes go off on their own to find a secluded spot to give birth. So if you see an ewe on her own with a tiny lamb you can be almost sure that it is a newborn lamb. The photo on the right and the two below were taken just south of Olifants - there were no other Impala in the vicinity and the lamb was still damp.
We return now to the H1-7 for the final stretch - the 5 km between Boyela and Babalala. We have not found this short stretch to be very productive, probably because it is not well-watered. However, do not become impatient and speed up! You never know what surprise Kruger is going to throw at you, even in the unlikeliest of places!