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Lovely Lower Sabie

The Kruger National Park has attracted local and international visitors for generations. In the following few issues, Kruger lovers Anton and Natasha Schutte share their favourite rest camps. This month they visit Lower Sabie in the south of the park.

The ‘mighty’ Sabie River is not exactly how one would nowadays describe this river, which originates near Lydenburg high on the escarpment of the Drakensberg. It is, however, one of the most biodiverse rivers in South Africa and traverses the Kruger National Park.

When the Voortrekkers had to brave this river, perhaps in flood, they chose to name it after the Tsonga word Ulusaba – which loosely translates to “the fearsome river”. It later became Saba and then Sabie River. The name Sabie is an Afrikaans word from the original siSwati word sabisa, which means “to be careful”. It was always believed that this was in reference to the many crocodiles in some parts of the river, but, according to Hans Bronman, the name refers to the slippery nature of the rocks in the river.

The mild winter temperatures mean that the Lower Sabie rest camp, which is named after the river, in the heart of the south of the game reserve, is busy during school holidays and long weekends. Despite this, it is one of those camps that lure you back time and time again, and it is undoubtedly one of our favourites.

The camp is located on the banks of the Sabie River, and during high summer the river is usually in full flood, creating a birdwatcher’s paradise. Several species can be spotted right in the camp. The Woodland kingfishers, inter-African migrants with their blue feathers, red beaks and unmistakable “Jimptrrrrrrrrrr” call, make their appearance in November; Beeeaters nest in the banks of the riverbed and Goliath herons search for frogs in the reeds.

For those hot summer days, when the mercury can quickly rise to 40, the pool area offers a great spot to cool down, and you often spot Groundscraper thrush and White-browed scrub robins from the pool. The Cape robin-chat that greets visitors at reception, and small animal species like Blueheaded southern rock agamas (bloukop koggelmanders), tree squirrels and nightingales can be seen everywhere in the camp.

But it is at dusk, when the big Kahuna and his flock of baboons return to camp to settle in the giant fig tree in the corner for the night, that this camp comes to its full glory. It is as if the river is transformed into a stage when a cacophony of night sounds fills the air. If you take your flashlight for a stroll through the camp at night you will probably spot rare owl species, with the characteristic sound of the African Scops owl and the haunting weeping of the Verreaux’s Eagle-owl in your ears. Hyenas patrol the camp fence with their laugh often echoing through the valley – pure Africa!

A bevy of biomes

This camp and surrounding areas consist of a wide variety of biomes, including the Knoppies and Maroela savanna, which grows on basalt soil, and the Sabie and Crocodile thickets on granite. The peculiar sausage trees and massive Sycamore fig trees, which can be up to 800 years old, cast a shadow over the river bank. The thornveld of the surrounding parts consists mainly of the Vachellia species, which is just the new name for Acacia.

The bright yellow blossoms of the Knobthorn trees create a beautiful contrast to the somewhat dull winter landscapes. Their flowers are edible and taste like a type of nectarine, but beware of bugs hiding inside! This tree is a lifeline for many birds and the host tree for the larva of the Charaxes Phaeus, or Demon emperor butterfly. Delagoa thorn trees, named after the famous Angolan botanist Friedrich Welwitsch, can also be seen here. There are also sickle bush and Buffalo thorn trees which attract herds of plains game. The latter’s bark contains tannins with fungicidal properties. Legend has it that it can be used to heal wounds and sores, and, apparently, this tree is also an indicator of groundwater. With luck and patience, you may even spot black rhino in this thorn field.

Lower Sabie is a beautiful family camp with a large variety of accommodation options, ranging from campsites to chalets and safari tents. The latter is a very popular choice and can sometimes be booked up to a year in advance. You can choose between tents with a river or a bushveld view. They have beautiful decks, and you will be forgiven if you opt to sit right there for hours, viewing game heading down to the river to drink. The tents sleep two people and have an en-suite bathroom, aircon and braai facilities. As I am writing this, I cannot help but recall a stay a few years ago. A loud noise on the deck woke us, and still half asleep, we thought it was probably a baboon. Still groggy with sleep, Anton opened the door to come face to face with a hyena! I am not sure who got the biggest fright, but the hyena took off in a hurry, dropping our little cast iron pot that he had clamped in his jaw. I am not a big fan of Lower Sabie’s campsite, though. The 33 stands are relatively small and situated right in the middle of the camp, with no views. Rather opt for the chalets, which have stunning views of the river. These sleep up to four people and are equipped with a bathroom, small kitchenette, stoep and braai facilities.

At reception, visitors can book game drives and early morning nature walks. The field guides are very knowledgeable, and you will always learn something new about this piece of the African bush. Lower Sabie also offers bush braais, which are a unique treat. You are transported to a surrounding area, and upon arrival, lanterns and open fires delight guests who can indulge in some unique dishes under the stars. It’s certainly a romantic idea if you’re celebrating a special anniversary in the Kruger (hint, hint!).

The Mugg & Bean restaurant in the camp must have one of the most exquisite river views and offers a comprehensive menu. It certainly is a beautiful sundowner spot! There is also a big shop where you can stock up on daily necessities and anything else you may have forgotten at home. However, there is no ATM facility, so be sure to bring cash for wood and ice. Just before you exit the camp, you will find a fuel station – this is quite convenient as there are many roads to explore around Lower Sabie.

Explore the area

There are three main roads around the camp. One of the busiest is the tarred H4-2 that comes from Crocodile Bridge. This road is a popular game-viewing area and offers everything from owls to leopards, lions, cheetahs, white rhinos, and large herds of buffalo and elephants. It is not unheard of to spot the Big Five in a morning drive! During one of our visits to Lower Sabie, we spotted four leopards at different times in the vicinity of the camp. This is undoubtedly Big Cat country, with prides of lions lazing on the riverbanks waiting for their prey. It does get very busy here, so be prepared for traffic jams at the best sightings and add extra time to your outings to avoid being caught off-guard and arriving late at the gate.

The S28 is a beautiful road traversing open grassland, and you will soon be able to enjoy the Nthadanyathi bird hide (currently under construction) which is located about 11km from Lower Sabie. Large pods of hippos and many weaver birds nest here. The Mlondozi picnic area – about 17km from Lower Sabie on the S29 – is one of the smallest in the area but worth a stop. It offers a stunning view of the Mlondozi Dam and your’e likely to see baboons, leopards and large herds of elephant, especially when the water becomes scarce during the dry season.

Another picnic area with large shade trees is Nkuhlu, about 20km from Lower Sabie on the H4-1 tar road. Pack a picnic basket and take full advantage of your visit here – the birdwatching is incredible so remember the binos! The S79 is a short but busy dirt road just before you reach the Nkhuhlu picnic area and offers a good view of the Sabie River. It attracts large herds of buffalo and elephant in the winter months, and, of course, the cats are always close by. It is a quiet road, and if you spend time here, you will be treated to some memorable sightings. With some luck, you may be able to see the Lesser moorhen on the N’watimhiri road (S21) during the summer months. This is a rare waterbird, often eluding many birdwatchers.

It is rather shy and prefers to stay camouflaged in reed beds in flooded areas. The chances are good that you will hear this moorhen call with a hollow “do-do-do-do” before you see him.

Wonderful watering holes

Another popular watering hole is Sunset Dam, which needs no introduction. It is only 1km from the camp and is the perfect place to end or start the day. Rare bird species are often seen here, and bird watchers come from far to see plovers in this vicinity. Photographers favour this spot since it’s right next to the road, so you don’t need long lenses to capture something special.

Many other waterbirds can be spotted here as well as a myriad of small bird species such as the Dark-capped yellow warbler and Blue waxbill that frolic in the scrub near the dam, while Little Egrets hitch a ride on the backs of hippos. This is also one of the most dangerous dams in the Kruger – during one visit, we counted 75 crocodiles all around the edge! Another well-known stop, “Duke’s Waterhole”, can be reached on the S28 and S137. It was named after Duke, one of the big elephant bulls that made the area its home. He is known as the king of the Kruger Tuskers, a title he took from Shawu. Duke’s left tusk measured 321cm and the right one 293cm, a combined 140kg of ivory! He died at the age of 55, making him one of Kruger’s oldest elephants. His carcass was found on 1 October 2011 at Makambenispruit road near Crocodile Bridge. He was named after the ranger Thomas Duke who worked at Lower Sabie between 1903 and 1923. If you’ve had the privilege of photographing this majestic elephant or seeing it in all its glory, you’ll know what I’m talking about – his tusks just missed the ground.

During the winter months, one of the most beautiful scenes takes place on the north side of Lower Sabie when large herds of zebra and wildebeest graze against a barren, dusty background, ensuring some exquisite nature photography. The biomes change again on the H10 tar road, and Klipspringer can often be spotted, balancing on their hooves like elegant ballerinas against the rocky area.

The Lebombo Naboom (Lebombo Euphorbia), a relatively rare but very poisonous tree that can grow up to 10m high, also grows in the region. The milky sap can cause blindness if it gets into your eye. The Nkumbe lookout point on the H10 tar road is well worth a stop for one of the most beautiful views in the reserve. Use your wide lens to capture this picturesque landscape, which features those Lebombo Naboom trees. Lower Sabie is a true gem in the south of the National Kruger National Park, and if you do not visit during busy times, you can enjoy the beautiful scenes in your own time and imprint them in your memory forever. Truly a special place where every sunrise and sunset leaves one in awe.

*Natasha and Anton Schutte own and manage Sunset Adventure Travels, which specialises in tours within southern Africa, but also as far as Uganda. They offer guided Kruger tours from their base in Marloth Park.

CONTACT: +27 83 381 096 | natasha@sunsetadventuretravels.co.za | www.sunsetadventuretravels.co.za

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