Letaba Rest Camp is one of my favourites in Kruger National Park - it has a lovely atmosphere, a superb restaurant lookout over the Letaba River and, during my recent stay, offered lots of excellent game drives and sightings.
It's not always easy around this area though. It sits in the heart of the mopane veld, an ecological zone that is dominated by mopane shrubs with a limited cover of sour grasses in between. This landscape doesn't necessarily support high game densities and the mopane shrubs can obscure visibility when in full foliage.
However, at the end of dry season, the local wildlife is forced to the remnants of the Letaba River and the roads give excellent viewpoints over an array of drinking antelope, foraging birds and, if you're lucky, predators stalking prey.
I had some wonderful sightings in the area during my stay. I have featured the spotted hyenas pups in a separate post and today wanted to share some up-close and personal views of other amazing animals.
The Lions of Letaba
A big pride of lions has been stalking prey along the Letaba River for several weeks. Much to my excitement, I was able to locate them on the S95 road that overlooks the river just a few kilometres north of the camp.
Initially it wasn't a great sighting - it was early afternoon, stiflingly hot at 35C+ and the lions seemed well-fed and very inclined to hide in the shade some distance from the road.
Then things improved dramatically. One of the two dominant male brothers in the pride marched across an open area and parked himself in a shady spot under a bush just a few metres from my vehicle, looking straight at me!
This male was absolutely huge. All lions are big but when you're this close to a dominant male, it is incredible to observe the size and power of the jaw and head, the muscle definition in the shoulders and back and the giant paws with their huge claws showing threateningly.
Scroll through this very special gallery and take in this incredible beast:
Such a stunning animal, fully deserving of its respected yet fearsome reputation.
A couple of other (hopefully!) interesting observations that can be seen in these photos:
Firstly, have another look at his eyes and you'll notice that the pupils are tiny. This is because lions are generally active at night and have outstanding vision in the dark to facilitate hunting. In the full brightness of day, with the sun beating down from directly overhead, the pupils reduce to being almost completely shut to protect the lion's extremely light sensitive retina.
Secondly, male lions always have scars on their faces. These will have come from taking down prey or fighting other male lions to achieve dominance. Each scar will have its own story and it would be fascinating if it were somehow possible to know them! This male actually doesn't have as many as many male lions do. He appears a bit younger and is working in coalition with his brother - a fearsome duo that will have brought brawls to a highly aggressive and rapid end.
Klipspringers up close!
I travelled to Matambeni Hide on the S62 road. It overlooks the Letaba River but unfortunately this section of water is currently choked with water hyacinth because the water level is so low that plants are not flowing away. Sightings were therefore limited until, rather incredibly, a family of three klipspringer antelope walked up to within just 2-metres of the hide!
The klipspringer is a rare sighting indeed. I had only ever seen one previously and that was from some distance. It is a highly adapted antelope species that lives in rocky and boulder-strewn terrains. The hooves are rubbery and flexible - much like climbing shoes - and give outstanding grip on the rocks.
I sat with them just a couple of metres away for 20-minutes. They might not feature on the 'must see' lists of many Kruger visitors but for a veteran of these parts this was an incredible privilege! And they are simply beautiful little animals too.
The three were the bold male (with the horns) who had no issue with me being so close, the adult female that you can see in the background of some of the pictures plus a female juvenile (shown more closely in one picture), although she was almost as large as her mum and would be due to strike out on her own pretty soon.
Another Klipspringer adaptation is the fur. This photo allows a close inspection and reveals that the fur is so coarse that it in fact looks like spines.
These spines are hollow and increase the klipspringer's ability to regulate its body temperature. This is a hugely important trait as its common habitat is rocky mountain or desert locations where the daytime temperatures can be punishingly hot before plunging dramatically overnight.
What a wonderful sighting and experience!
The little bee-eater
I've seen loads of bee-eaters in Kruger on this trip - particularly the white-fronted and European bee-eaters which have arrived after migrating from Eurasia to avoid the harsh northern hemisphere winter. They are all beautiful and very busy little birds to observe.
These photos are of a breeding pair of little bee-eaters and, as the name suggests, they are smaller than other species but make up for it with their vivid colours. This one caught a cricket (amazingly picked off mid-jump in the air!) but it was too big to swallow whole, so the bee-eater proceeded to bash the poor insect against its perch until it was very broken and more easily digested.
Although hard to show this bashing process (probably not the technical name for it!) in photos, I caught one image where it reveals just how far the bird's neck is contorted before snapping it back to hit the insect against the branch with a huge amount of force. Sometimes they share prey as well, but not this time and the partner was off to look for its own meal...
So this incredible Kruger adventure continues! Next stop is Olifants and the half-way point in the north-south length of the park and the end of the mopane sea, so please check back in for more blog posts.
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