South Africa 2021

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Once again while randomly looking at the sanparks website I saw availability at Urikaruus in Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. Our December 2018 trip was solely because I got 5 nights in a row at Urikaruus; this time I could get 9 nights in a row in June 2021 (it was 2 September 2020 when I found the bookings). I added in some other nights, then a few more when I booked airfare, and ended up with:

2-3 June Twee Rivieren

4-7 June Nossob riverfront chalet

8-9 Kielekrankie

10-13 Urikaruus cabin

14-18 Urikaruus Honeymoon chalet

19 June Twee Rivieren

With the Covid19 pandemic ongoing travel from the United States to South Africa was not as easy as normal. I ended up booking international flights in January 2021 on Virgin Atlantic connecting in London. But that was contingent on England allowing flights from South Africa as of 17 May. As that looked more and more unlikely I cancelled those flights in April. Delta still was not resuming their direct flights from the US east coast to Johannesburg, and there was conflicting information on if connecting through Amsterdam was allowed for US citizens. So like many others I ended up on Qatar Airways. It also became a solo trip at that point as my husband chose to skip this one. I was fully vaccinated in March 2021 so I just had to test negative before both international flights, and the airports (LAX and JNB) offered the tests. I booked flights just before prices returned to normal, and got first class seats for a great price. I rented a Toyota Fortuner from Kalahari 4x4, the extra height was really needed this time with the long grasses from a good rainy season. I also like that Pieter includes a storage container, cooler, and large jug of water with the rental. Shopping at Pick N Pay and the drive to Twee Rivieren (TR) went smoothly and I arrived at the park at 1:30 pm. I dropped off my bags and headed out for a first drive. All the usuals greeted me – red hartebeest, oryx, springbok, pale chanting goshawk (PCG), black shouldered kite (BSK), and black backed jackal (BBJ). It’s always interesting to watch the jackals roving around.

On June 3 I did a long loop drive, up the Auob, over the upper dune road, and back to TR. My timing was just off all day, missing out on cheetah, lion, and leopard sightings by a few minutes. I had my first glimpse of the large herd of springbok, over 200 animals slowly moving north in the Auob. The birds and antelope entertained me, and I saw my only slender mongoose of the entire trip. There were many more pygmy falcons than in previous visits, and the lanner falcons were common as well.

June 4th started with more oryx and BBJ, and then my first cat, a cheetah on the dune near Kij Kij. It was a male known as Amare, who has a messed up eye. While watching him another visitor mentioned more cheetah 15 km down the road so off I went, finding Corinne and her 3 cubs. I have seen Corinne and her sister Hanri on all 4 of my visits to KTP, starting in 2013. Returning north Amare was still on the dune, and then I was off to Nossob. I booked a sunset drive that evening, and saw my first bat eared fox (BEF) family, which were quite common this trip. The guide pointed out spotted eagle owls and nests of barn owls and white faced scops owls. I was lucky to be in chalet 11, right next to the waterhole, so I never even visited the hide – I had about the same view while on my balcony. I learned how noisy barn owls are as they regularly sat on #11 at night. At 8 pm that evening a wildcat visited the waterhole.

On the morning of 5 June I was sitting up in bed under the covers (it was near freezing out) when a large shape approached the waterhole at 6:30 am. It was a leopard! A young female known as Nonisa. I headed north in the morning, finding leopard tracks near Kwang and hanging out there for an hour watching the birds, BBJ, wildebeest, and springbok. A juvenile Gabar goshawk was entertaining. There were lots of mice all over the park with the tall grasses. Heading back south I did the Marie se Draai loop to check on the owl nests, then asked some people why they were sitting next to a tree. Turns out Nonisa had killed a kori bustard and was in the grass under the tree. So I hung out there for nearly an hour before she made an appearance. She sat in the tree briefly then took off after a springbok coming up the riverbed. Unsuccessful, she returned to the same branch and was annoyed at a pair of crows overhead. Many many photos later I gave up my prime spot when she took a nap. In the evening I headed south again but she had moved on (after placing the remains of her kill in the tree).

On June 6th I planned a long day, driving up to Union’s End and back. Only one car was in front of me, so when we came across two female and one male lion north of Kwang we all had a decent view despite the tall banks and vegetation. Next up an ostrich family and BBJ caught my eye, and then south of Polentswa two young lion cubs were lying in the road. They ran off quickly but I got a few shots through the grass. The roads were a bit corrugated but got better after Polentswa. Many more birds were seen including 2 of the only 3 lilac breasted rollers of the trip. All the way up at Union’s End I caught up with 3 other vehicles, there was a male lion lying in the shade of a tree way off to the east. I signed the log book, my 4th visit there. My only snake sighting of the trip was a mole snake while returning south. The lions near Kwang were now mating so I spent an hour there with many other visitors.

Lion parade number 1, 7 June 2021. Most visitors were having trouble finding lions but I was a lion magnet. It was all about timing. On the 7th I wanted to go up to Polentswa again looking for the cubs. There were many BEF families out, including one pile whose morning nap was interrupted by a BBJ. I had 3 young adult male lions south of Kwang, crossing the main road on a “no entry” road and disappearing, then the mating pair, then tracks of cubs near yesterday’s sighting. I didn’t want the car behind me to pass so I went around the corner and there were the track makers, Mom and 3 10-12 week old cubs. We followed them at lion pace past the campground road, picking up one more car heading south who had to reverse over a km to stay with the parade. We all headed down the road to the waterhole and watched mom drink for a long time as the cubs got restless and started playing. Only one other car joined us before mom took the cubs towards the campground and disappeared. Heading back south two bateleur eagles were at Cubitjie Quap waterhole. After a midday break I went south in the evening, with a great male kudu sighting. That night the waterhole was busy - BEF, BBJ, wildcat, and 4 spotted hyena. Clouds came in overnight, with distant lightning.

8 June, the morning sunset was pretty, and I had to learn how to use the windshield wipers, and saw a rainbow. Rain brings out the tortoises so everyone had to drive carefully to avoid them crossing the road. I went all the way to TR and then headed up the Auob to check in at Kielekrankie. I found some cars at a bush south of Auchterlonie, waiting on a leopard to wake up from a nap, he had a kill in a tree nearby. A nice Russian lady name Alisa told me that cheetah Hanri and her cubs were just north of there so I zoomed up there to see them, returning to get a glimpse of Botshelo the leopard before I had to leave.

It was a pretty sunset, and I woke to a very foggy morning on 9 June. Luckily from Kielekrankie it was only 15 minutes to the kill, and Botshelo was feeding in the tree. When a second car arrived 15 minutes later he left and went over the ridge. I followed the cheetah’s tracks north, and then some leopard tracks, but eventually headed over the lower dune road, and it was sunny up there and on the Nossob side. Corinne and her cubs were on a kill north of Rooiputs, far from the road and in tall grass.

10 June was also foggy on the Auob in the morning. I made a quick run over to Melkvlei in search of a young leopard that often hung out there, but was never lucky to see her. I was excited to be checking in at Urikaruus. Heading north from the lower dune road, I came across many cars watching Hanri and cubs on a springbok kill south of Rooibrak waterhole. I checked in and then returned in the evening to the cheetahs, entertained by one cub chasing after a BBJ in the area. 5 giraffe were at Urikaruus waterhole when I returned at gate closing time.

11 June I headed straight to the cheetahs and was rewarded with cub playtime, chasing each other through the grass and playing on a calcrete ridge. A swallow tailed bee eater posed for me, and more giraffe and a martial eagle and young oryx. I even saw an adult male eland, not common in this part of the park. For my evening drive I was entertained by meerkats, BBJ, oryx, and giraffe. The resident cape fox and a brown hyena visited the waterhole that night.

12 June started slow, with posing swallow tailed bee eaters and meerkat. I ran into Wilmari who is a moderator of the Cheetahs of the Kgalagadi facebook group and we chatted, and her brother found Hanri for us up on a ridge. Following them up to Kamqua picnic site we came across people who had seen Botshelo the leopard under a tree in the tall grass. As I thought he might lay there a while I headed north, only seeing some very flat male lions by 13th borehole. During my afternoon break at Urikaruus the large herd of springbok finally made it that far north, and a locust landed on me - then a yellow billed hornbill killed it right in front of me. Good bird! I then heard that Botshelo had crossed the road and stumbled across an oryx carcass – probably too large for him to have killed it. But he certainly took advantage and started feeding on it. I went there in the evening and watched him from 5:25 to 5:45 pm, good to be staying at Urikaruus. After a pretty sunset it was a quiet evening.

I headed to the carcass the morning of the 13th, Botshelo was just leaving to lay under a tree. Many cars stayed there during the day hoping to see a leopard but I decided to just return in the evening. I headed up to Mata Mata to refuel and saw a baby giraffe, martial eagle, BBJ, birds, and drinking giraffe. In the evening Botshelo was already feeding at 4:55 pm and left the carcass at 5:25 pm, which worked out well because I saw a young male cheetah while driving back to Urikaruus. The cheetah project had no record of him so they let me name him, I picked Tokoloshe. Google that for the meaning…

The morning of the 14th there was no sign of Botshelo at the carcass but two spotted hyena and a brown hyena were there. I continued south for owl, meerkat, BEF, and bird sightings. After a break, I headed south, and Botshelo was feeding at 4:55 pm. A brown hyena was also in the area and they had a short interaction.

The morning of the 15th I only saw the two spotted hyena at the carcass, which was greatly reduced in size. I decided to try going north again, with a gymnogene (African harrier hawk) at 13th borehole, giraffe, and then cheetah on the red dune opposite 14th borehole, 3 males known as the musketeers. It was a cooler day so after a short break I headed south and Botshelo was feeding at 1:30 pm. By 2 pm he had went to lay down after the brown hyena chased him off from his first resting spot. I went back north but no sign of the cheetah, just a booted eagle and more BEF.

The 16th had a beautiful sunrise. A drive north just found a playful BBJ family and more birds. Nothing at the site of the carcass anymore! Just some butterflies. My only agama lizard of the trip greeted me in the afternoon. A quiet day overall.

The 17th had a great start, with hovering BSK, then a cheetah near Kamqua waterhole. This was a 5 year male known as Jewel. More of the usuals entertained me. After a nice long break I went north, there were quite a few cars at 14th borehole but I went on and got the large giraffe herd (18 of them) at Dalkeith waterhole. Returning south I pulled in at 14th and a male lion popped his head out the of grass. There were two of them, but they never got active before I had to leave. Pulling in to camp right at 6, the resident cape fox “Charley” posed for me. A cheetah walked by at 6:30 and then just before 7 pm two female lion and a tiny cub were at the waterhole. They stayed in the area for nearly an hour.

The 18th started with another sighting of Jewel the cheetah. He sniffed every large tree in the area but didn’t mark any of them, a sign of a nonterritorial (“wandering”) male cheetah. Heading south some cars alerted me to Hanri and cubs up on a ridgeline. After sitting with them for an hour (mostly alone, answering many people who asked what I was looking at) they moved into the riverbed. The cars played hopscotch as we followed her along. A lone springbok to the north caught her attention, but she was also eyeing one on the ridge behind me, which she ended up going for. The cubs crossed the road looking for her, I never found out if it was a successful hunt. After that, my highlight of the evening was driving past some chirping birds in a tree and realizing they were alarm calling. I hoped for a snake but a pearl spotted owlet is what had them going. So I saw all 5 common owl species in the park.

The 19th was moving day, my last full day in the park. Two other cars headed south with me, soon finding the tracks of a male lion also going south. Near the old carcass site they were joined by the tracks of what looked like the two female lions and the tiny cub. I took a quick look up the upper dune road but you can’t track there. The other two cars headed that way, too bad for them. I continued south following the lion tracks until lion parade #2 started, just me, 2 big males, and the two females and cub. I carefully passed the males, the dominant one repassed me and I got great interaction of him with the cub and females. The submissive male didn’t want to get near his brother with the females around it seemed, he was beat up a bit. I followed them for some time, eventually they laid in the road or next to it. Around then two cars came up behind me so I weaved my way through the lions on the road so they had a good view. As more cars arrived the lions moved further into the grass so I left. Birds mostly after that, especially on the lower dune road. Approaching Rooiputs waterhole there were two wildebeest running, I wondered if I would see why. Well yes, a lioness was walking up to the waterhole. It was another short sighting. After chatting with Alisa at Samvoelung and catching up I checked in at TR for my last night. A run up to Melkvlei had no leopard again, just a hyena at sunset on the way home. Some yellow mongoose hung around my chalet.

The 20th I had time for a run up to Melkvlei and back but it was a super quiet morning, not even any BEF or BBJ in sight! I head back to Upington to fly to JNB, take my covid test, and spend the night at the City Lodge before my long flights home the next day.

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