Look at this road:
Apart from the vegetation, there is not a living thing to be seen along the road that passes the Doornhoek Dam in the Mountain Zebra National Park. Now, look at the scrubby bush on the left hand corner and use that small flat stone in front of it as a marker, for – as we were about to turn left – this appeared as if from nowhere:
This Leopard Tortoise – also commonly known as a Mountain Tortoise – carrying the scientific name of Stigmochelys pardalis came ambling towards us. You can see the small flat stone almost behind it now on the left of the image. It stopped for a moment or two and stared at the large obstacle in its path before veering off into the grassy verge. The flat stone is now behind it to the right of the image below:
As you can tell from the specimen below, photographed in the Kruger National Park, it has a high domed carapace. This one is clearly marked with black blotches and spots on a yellow background – an indication that it is still relatively young. Mature adults appear as a nondescript brown once these markings have faded with time.
We come across these tortoises fairly often in the Addo Elephant National Park. This is a particularly attractive specimen.
These hardy tortoises usually eat grass and succulents, although they have been observed gnawing bones and hyena faeces – we choose easier means to get our calcium and essential minerals! I leave you with an apparently cheerful smile from another – showing off its ‘leopard-like’ appearance.
Although these large tortoises are often called Mountain Tortoises (probably as a direct translation of the Afrikaans name, Bergskilpad), it is also called a Leopard Tortoise – which is not surprising when you note its spotted shell. The pardalis part of its scientific name, Stigmochelys pardalis, refers specifically to its spotted shell.
Just for fun, here is a photograph of a leopard.
Leopard tortoises are the largest species of tortoise that occur in southern Africa. They are also the only tortoise that can raise its head or swim as they do not have a nucal shield above the neck. Their heads are moderately large with a hooked upper jaw. As they are toothless, they use their horny beak to sheer through the grass and other plants that they eat.
The high-domed shell provides protection from the heat of the sun. Note its tongue sticking out.
Their rear legs are well developed while the almost paddle-shaped and pigeon-toed front legs with a row of small nails is used to move very fast and easily manoeuvre over rocky terrain – which may also have given rise to its alternate name of Mountain Tortoise.
During the breeding season, males are combative, including actions such as ramming their opposition, butting and occasionally even overturning one another. This victorious one has found his female.
We have been in lock-down for ninety-five days already – despite having moved to Level Three (‘advanced’ Level Three nogal!) that allows more businesses to open, we still cannot visit family and friends nor can we cross provincial borders without a permit – and you require a very good reason to get one of those. National Parks are now open for day visitors, yet the above-mentioned restrictions make visiting the Kruger National Park out of the question. In the spirit of the photograph below, I will look back to share some of the delights of the Addo Elephant National Park which we hope to visit again before much longer.
Naturally, one goes to the Addo Elephant National Park to see elephants – they seldom disappoint. We have seen herds of over a hundred individuals congregating around the Hapoor waterhole; been surprised by single elephants right next to the road; and have enjoyed watching small groups – such as the one these two are part of – at the Domkrag waterhole. Here we are able to get out of our vehicle and look down at these magnificent animals as they go about their daily life.
You might be fortunate enough to come across a Secretary Bird striding through the grasslands. They occur singly and in pairs – it is always worth scanning the veld to see if you can spot another one.
Zebras grace the landscape in Addo – they might occur in small groups or in much larger ones that stretch across the side of a grassy slope. They are always a delight to observe.
I am always pleased to come across the large Mountain tortoises that lumber through the grass or patiently cross rocky areas. This one was taking advantage of a puddle in the road after rain.
Then there are the beautiful Cape Glossy Starlings that brighten the landscape.
By keeping an eye open for more than just animals, you get to enjoy some of the many butterflies too.
The Skukuza area proved to be a little disappointing after the bounty of game we had become accustomed to during our sojourn at Satara Camp. The vegetation is bushier, so the animals are not as easy to see, on some days the temperature peaked at 40°C, and – as happens periodically – perhaps luck was not always on our side. There is more to enjoy about a trip to a game reserve than spotting wild animals though. We revelled in the picturesque rocky outcrops.
On one of them we saw a klipspringer surveying its kingdom.
The multi-hued trees and waterholes, such as Transport Dam, are magnificent to behold.
It was at the bird hide at Lake Panic that I was able to watch a Giant Kingfisher from close quarters.
The Water Thick-knees were easier to see there too as they were so close in comparison to my previous sightings along river banks much further away.
It was on a circular trip from Skukuza to Berg-en-Dal and back that we saw ten white rhinos in different locations.
The waterhole at Berg-en-Dal attracted elephants and blue wildebeest while we were there as well as hosting at least one resident crocodile and several terrapins.
Picnic sites such as Tshokwane and Afsaal make good stopping points when embarking on a long drive. Both of these places appeared to have relatively tame bushbuck on the periphery – as well as the inevitable visits by vervet monkeys and baboons. Bearded woodpeckers announced their presence with their tap-tapping on the bark of trees.
Having grown up in the Lowveld, I enjoyed being amongst trees so familiar from my youth: leadwood, appleleaf, jackalberry, and especially the kiaat trees. Their peculiarly shaped pods fascinated me as a child and the sight of them unlocked many fond memories from that time.
Helmeted Guineafowl and Blue Waxbills are birds that I grew up with.
As I usually struggle to see the African Green Pigeons in the thick foliage of the fig tree in our garden, it was interesting so see them close by and out in the open for a change.
We saw more ground Hornbills in the Skukuza area than had been evident around Satara. The largest group we came across included young ones in various stages of maturity.
Although I have mentioned them before, it was good to see how prolific the Red-billed Oxpeckers were – always clearing their hosts of ticks with no place being too much trouble for them to ‘service’.
Zebras are naturally photogenic. This one sports particularly dark stripes.
Among some of the less common creatures we came across were several mountain tortoises
Large fruit bats hanging from the eaves outside the shop in Skukuza
And the pale geckos that feasted on insects attracted to the lights outside the ablution blocks.
It was at Skukuza that I went on my first night-drive through the Kruger National Park. The spotlights showed up scrub hares, bush babies, a grey duiker and several spotted hyenas. The highlight for most visitors though was seeing three lionesses on a rock dome. They were so sated they could barely move so the multitude of camera flashes worried them not a bit. Having been on the lookout from day one, it was only on our way out of the Park that we eventually spotted a leopard lying in a dry riverbed far below the level of the road. The closely packed vehicles made it impossible to capture it in my viewfinder, so I will cheat by showing one we saw three years ago!
A morning spent at the camp afforded me the opportunity to observe some of the many birds that flitted through the thick foliage hedging our campsite. These included the rather raucous Purple Turaco and the very attractive Red-capped Robin Chat.
How can I leave the Kruger National Park without mentioning either that ubiquitous bird, the Yellow-billed Hornbill or the golden orb spiders!
Just for the record, here is my bird list for April- May:
Acacia Pied Barbet
African Fish Eagle
African Green Pigeon
African Grey Hornbill
African Hawk Eagle
African Mourning Dove
African Yellow White-eye
Bearded Scrub Robin
Brown Snake Eagle
Cape Glossy Starling
Cape Turtle Dove
Common Ringed Plover
Emerald-spotted Wood Dove
Greater Blue-eared Starling
Red-billed Buffalo Weaver
Red-capped Robin Chat
Southern White-crowned Shrike
Spotted Eagle Owl
White-browed Robin Chat
White-browed Scrub Robin