Wow, what can I say - highlight of the trip! We spent 3 days in the park working our way from the north to the south-west area of the park. It was interesting to see the difference in the types of vegetation and the animals we saw as we travelled through the different areas. It is the end of the dry season still in South Africa, so the land seemed very barren, just dead looking scrub land in the north. On our first day travelling round we saw no water. All the rivers and watering holes were dry, but still marked out by much greener trees than the surrounding area. We got very excited at our first sighting of a giraffe, who merrily wondered accross the road in front of us, little knowing that this would be a regular occurance during our 3 days in the park! One upside to being there in the dry season was that we were able to see further into the vegetation and spot the animals a bit easier. The north of the park didn't have as many people around as we were expecting either, we could easily drive for over an hour and not see another vehicle. As well as the giraffes we saw, other highlights of the first day were seeing a group of 3 female elephants with their ~year old offspring (we learnt that if an elephant calf can walk underneath its mum then it's under a year old), and a herd of buffalo.
After a night in Shinwedzi camp we headed south in search of water! I was up and about at 4.45am ready to make the most of an animal spotting day! We found a perminant river a little way south which we followed for a while. Spotted a young crocodile lying on the bank and saw another, larger crocodile a bit further down too. As we drove further south the vegetation changed and at one point we came across some grasslands with several groups of animals all grazing together - zebras, kudus, impalas, buffalo and wilderbeast. Also saw some vultures down on the ground, though we couldn't see what they were interested in, and a giraffe in the distance. Later that morning we came across the highlight of that day - three male lions having a leisurely dinner of buffalo! They were really close to the road and I'm sure they were showing off their spoils to us humans. They had 3 buffalo on the ground, so plenty of food - the lionesses had done well. A couple of vultures were nearby looking hopeful, but the lions didn't' want to share! Got there fairly soon after they'd been spotted so had a good viewing spot before everyone else in their cars turned up.
After lunch in Letaba camp, where we were entertained by lots of birds, tree squirrels (like the ones in the UK but with thinner tails) and impalas, we headed down towards Olifants camp where we were stayiing that night, driving along Olifants river. this was one of the fullest rivers we'd seen so far, though I'm sure it only had a tiny bit of it's water capacity flowing through it. In this river we got our first sighting of hippos, we also saw increasing numbers of elephants. Got to the camp in the early afternoon in time to go out for an afternoon walk with a couple of park rangers (and their rifles!). Was great to be able to get out of the car and walk in amongst the animals. Our main guide was really interesting and just seemed to know everything about the flora and fauna in the park. We saw some tracks and learnt how to tell which direction an elephant is travelling in even though their prints are round - back of print is usually deeper and you can see more detail, can also sometimes see front toenail print in soft ground. Back footprint is more of an oval shape and usually lands on top of front footprint, unless the animal is travelling at faster than normal walking pace. Elephants can't actually run, they just walk very quickly! Also learnt that if an animal by a river is startled it will usually run perpendicularly away from the river, rather than directly away from us, so they don't fell like they're being trapped by the river. Saw this happen when an impala ran away out of the bushes behind us. We started seeing lots of elephants and had to back away from one as he was coming up a channel from the bank and we'd have been blocking his escape route if he'd seen us. Further along we heard lots of small birds, including 'goaway' birds, being very vocal so we started looking for the bird of prey they were warning off. Instead we saw a black mamba snake slithering very fast down a tree close by - the deadlies snake in the world! Not quite the most venomous, but classed as most dangerous by experts when factoring in its nature and the fact it's the fastest moving snake - could keep pace with a human running. Also on the walk we saw hippos in the water, they were quite funny bobbing up and down. Saw lots more elephants - large groups of females with their young. One of these groups was blocking our way back across the river to where our vehicle was parked. We had to wait while the rangers watched the situation to be able to tell when it'd be safe to walk past. Back at the vehicle we had one more adventure in store before heading back - a flat tyre. the poor rangers had to change it in the dark, under the watchful eyes of both tourists and elephants.
Back at the camp I had a quick chance to rest and put on slightly warmer clothes and then I headed out on a night drive. The guides were great at spotting the animals, using searchlights to find reflections from eyes. We saw several nocternal animals, including genets, civet and springhares, as well as a lioness, hippos, elephants (with a calf that was only a couple of days old), a wild cat, some antelopes, a chameleon and a big red roman spider running across the road! This is the only spider which doesn't build a nest - we'd seen hundreds of spider nests on the trees when we'd been driving around in the daytime. Eventually got to bed at 11.30pm - a very long day.
A few hours later and I was up at 4am ready for our last day on the park. We got to the reception at 4.45am as Suz wanted to try and get on a mountain biking trip and I was going to go on a guided game drive. As nobody who'd prebooked the cycle trip had turned up though it had been cancelled, so we headed back to our bungalow for a leisurely breakfast overlooking Olifants river. Set off in the car, again heading south, in the search of more animals. There were definite areas where we saw more of particular types of animals which was interesting - giraffes up north, elephants in the middle around olifants and zebras down south. Our first mafor spot of the day was on the bridge going over olifants river, where we spotted a couple of baboons, which soon became a large group of baboons! Lots of the females had babies which was very cute. Other new spots of the day were warthogs, monkeys and rhinos. We were also lucky enough to see some lions and linesses walking along by a river. We made our way to one of the south west gates towards the end of the day, having covered a lot of the park north to south. On the last road before we reached the gate we spotted 2 more rhinos, one either side of the road. One mock charged the other, which was funny, and then ran along in the direction of the road behind us. I put the car in reverse and Suz got a great 'high speed chase' video. Then it was time to leave the park, which was really sad, but I came away with lots of memories and over 500 photos! Check the photo gallery for a selection of the photos