KRUGER CHRONICLES-Shingwedzi Rest Camp

The Capital of the North

It is unclear where the name Shingwedzi comes from, but the local people believe it is named after Tsonga people who used to live in the area. Shingwedzi is believed to be a combination of ‘Shing-za-goli’ (the name of the leader in the group) and ‘Njwetse’, which describes the sound you hear when iron is rubbed together.

In the heart of lush mopane veld, this is prime elephant country. During the 1970’s and -80’s, most of the Kruger’s so-called tuskers – thus named because of their enormous teeth and widely known as the Magnificent Seven – came from this region. One of these elephants, aptly named Shingwedzi, died close to the camp in 1981. The old man’s heart gave out at the ripe age of 65. His ivory tusks weighed 47kg and 58kg each, with a length of 207cm and 264cm. Interestingly, this pair of tusks were still some of the ‘smaller’ ones among this elite group of elephant bulls, with some tusks weighing as much as 64.4kg each! The tusks of all members of the Magnificent Seven can be seen in the museum in Letaba rest camp.

The region is known for massive herds of elephants and buffaloes (they run up to 1 000 strong in this area), so the Shingwedzi rest camp is one of the busiest in the national park. Regardless, it is a beautiful camp, overgrown with river plants and large trees along the Shingwedzi riverbank. You will also find shade under beautiful old Transvaal mustard, fig, weeping boer bean, thorn and massive sausage trees. As you move from the camp and away from the river, the beautiful mopani field will greet you – always a welcome sight for city sleekers. Winter months are the best time for wildlife watching, especially when the river is low, and many animals visit the small streams in the riverbed.

Another highlight is the rich bird life in the area, and you will easily be able to tick a few new ones off your list – especially if you are not afraid of the summer heat! This area is picturesque in summer, especially when the great Shingwedzi River comes down. Owls such as the Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl settle in the large jungle-like trees, while a variety of storks and Sentinel Rock Thrushes enjoy the riverbed. The call of the African Fish Eagle and an orchestra of owl calls bring you back to what matters – simplicity and nature.

The Kanniedood dam lookout is the perfect place for the mysterious Pel’s Fishing Owl, and with a lot of patience and even more luck, bird watchers have spotted this elusive owl here, although the Fish Eagle preys on them. Enjoy your first cuppa Joe of the day on the stoep in front of the restaurant, where the Red-headed Finches nest. In breeding time, it is probably the only orange on earth that trumps the sunrise. My family says I’m colourblind because it’s red… but let’s leave that for another day!

Indescribable experience

I’d much rather tell you about one of my favourite Shingwedzi moments. In February 2023, we woke up to chatter on all the bird-watching groups and platforms. A rare bird had arrived about 3km from Shingwedzi, and we simply had to go. This bird has been seen many times in Southern Africa but has never stayed long enough to twitch – as the birdwatching community calls it.

As usual, we lost all sense of responsibility and jumped in the car to twitch the White-throated Bee-eater. We read somewhere that this ‘twitching’ action refers to your body movement when jumping into your car much faster than usual and then speeding to the spot while holding thumbs that the bird will still be there by the time you arrive. According to the so-called experts, it’s something that mostly men do, and mostly out of budget… Who would ever believe that?

Anyway, we arrived at Shingwedzi in the late afternoon and immediately headed for the area where the bird was last seen. Obviously, we were not the only birders there and soon heard from the others that the bird was last seen at around lunchtime. A bit deflated, we took our positions and started searching. After about three hours of combing the area, we gave up, as we had to reach the gate before six o’clock. Before dawn the next day, we were back at it – sitting on the bridge again, waiting in suspense… for other park visitors, it must have been a bizarre scene to behold. The bridge on the H1-7 started to resemble Witkoppen in Johannesburg. Even more twitchers descended on the area, hoping to tick this baby off! Some people drove – through the night – from as far as Johannesburg and the Cape!

After about eight hours of sitting still and staring at trees, which by now all looked the same, a safari vehicle passed by. The guide informed us that they saw the bird earlier, which did not win him any fans in this intense twitching atmosphere. However, just before the safari vehicle disappeared over the horizon, the guide suddenly turned back, and all the guests waved in our direction as if greeting someone immigrating to Australia. Pandemonium erupts! It’s just screeching tyres and binoculars thrown in between the windshield and dashboard as we all rushed down the safari vehicle… and true as Bob – there they were! A swarm of about six to seven White-throated Bee-eaters (Merops albicollis).

The bird books and guides describe the species as a slender and rare vagrant with a distinctive black and white striped head, black chest band and blue-green back. An intra-African migrant in semi-arid and more humid savannas in Northern Africa, with scattered sightings in Southern Africa. But do you think these little buggers would sit still long enough for a half decent photograph?

Not that a photo could capture the moment anyway. It’s hard to describe the excitement… the rest of humanity will probably never understand! We console ourselves that our sometimes-insane obsession with new birds is an evolution from homosapiens to homo-deus!

THE CAMP

The medium-sized Shingwedzi rest camp has plenty of space and offers many accommodation options, including camping, chalets, budget cabins and, for larger groups, the Rentmeester guesthouse. The campsite has 50 stands with power points, braai areas and communal ablution and cooking facilities. A maximum of six people per stand is allowed, and if you get one of the prime spots along the fence, you will often see hyenas coming to scavenge for bits and pieces (NEVER feed them!) and, every so often, a lone elephant-bull or dagga boy (the term used to describe old and usually solitary buffalo bulls who have been forced out of the heard by younger bulls). The large shop is well-stocked if you have forgotten something, or the children fancy an ice cream. The restaurant area has been under construction for some time now but is still operational.

The camp is large enough for a lovely afternoon walk and teems with bird species while several small antelope are curiously browsing around the camp. The swimming pool is a welcome escape in the summer months when the mercury can rise to 40°C – so don’t forget your bathing suit! Several hiking routes – under the guidance of competent guides – will get your heart pumping and bring you a completely different experience of this beautiful environment. Both day walking routes and the four-day Mphongolo Backpacking Trail – which starts and ends at Shingwedzi – can be booked at the camp or on SANParks’ website. The Mphongolo is a relatively easy hike, but you carry your tent, food and water. On this route, elephants walk right by you and drink from the same waterhole you dug for water. The route is only offered during the winter months.

One of our favourite driving routes in the area is the idyllic 21km Vyeboom route, which stretches past the Kanniedood dam. Crocodiles, hippos, elephants and leopards are regularly spotted here. The bird shelter on the S50 – certainly one of our favourite roads in the Kruger – is an absolute must. Strategically located on the banks of the Shingwedzi River, one can get lost here for hours and forget about the world.

On the west side of the camp, the S52 dirt road meanders towards Redrocks, also worth a stop. When there, look out for the timid Sharpe’s grysbok. At the far end of the road are the Silwervis and Rooibosrant dams, which boast several drive-in options. Giant water lilies make this the perfect spot for many water birds. Also, make time for a visit to the Tshanga lookout point just before the Bateleur camp turns off. Extremely isolated from the rest of society, you will feel the Kruger’s silence  here. Bateleur camp lies on the west side of the Redrocks trail, and that part of the road is only open to guests to the camp.

Babalala picnic area is the perfect place to kick off your shoes and enjoy breakfast or lunch, while the Boyela and N’warithlangari waterholes on the way back to camp via the H1-7 tarmac are also worth a stop. The S56 is the Mphongolo River route and has a little less traffic, and the Lamont watering hole is also a good place to stop for a quick coffee break. If you decide to explore the H1-6 tarmac, be on the lookout for the rare Roan antelope.

CONTACT: +27 83 381 0964

natasha@sunsetadventuretravel.co.za

www.sunsetadventuretravel.co.za

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