Altitude varies from 140 metres in the east to 600 metres around Pretoriuskop in the west. In the southwestern corner near Berg-en-dal Camp, Khandzalive, the highest point in the Park, rises to 839 metres.
In its sheltered valleys specimens of trees which are rare elsewhere in Kruger, such as Cape chestnut (Calodendrum capense), white pear (Apodytes dimidiata), coral tree (Erythrina lysistemon), lavender fever-berry (Croton gratissimus) and mountain seringa (Kirkia wilmsii) can be found.
Granite underlies more than 80 per cent of the Southern Region and produces the characteristic rounded koppies such as Shabeni, Shirimantanga and Napi, that punctuate the region. Granite is a course-grained rock that is formed when magma cools slowly beneath the surface, and large quartz crystals comprise 27 per cent of the rock.
Soils formed on granite are sandy in nature and are deficient in the nutrients required by many plants. By way of comparison, the clay soils around Satara Camp contain 10 times as much calcium and 180 times more phosphates than do granite soils.
Most of Kruger's White Rhino occur in the Southern Region. The best sightings are around Pretoriuskop, Mbyamiti River, and south of Lower Sabie. The many ochre-coloured granite outcrops, framed by mountain rock figs (Ficus glumosa), offer an ideal habitat for Klipspringer, Baboon and Leopard, while Rock Hyrax occur in one locality west of Berg-en-dal.
One of the Park's unsolved mysteries is that in the Southern Region rock hyrax are restricted to the Ntlokweni Hills – despite an abundance of suitable habitat throughout the region. This population has remained in the same locality for the past 35 years, failing to colonise adjacent, ideal habitat. This is difficult to explain as rock hyrax also occur north of the Olifants River.
On higher-lying terrain, in the vicinity of Pretoriuskop, a coarse sandy soil containing many quartz particles is formed on weathered granite. As a result, the dominant vegetation is a silver cluster-leaf (Terminalia sericea) sourveld characterised by tall stands of Hyparrhenia spp., a ‘sour grass' that is only palatable to game when it is young or recently burnt.
When, prior to 1923, sheep farmers were granted grazing rights in the area, the veld was burned annually and an open savanna was maintained by fire. As annual rainfall here is high for the Park, averaging 744 millimetres, grass grew profusely and large herds of grazers were drawn to the area.
When Colonel Sandenbergh succeeded James Stevenson-Hamilton in 1946 he immediately banned all controlled veld fires until 1954. In this high-rainfall area much of the vegetation had been held in a subclimax condition by regular fires, and once fires were excluded thatch grass grew into tall stands. Trees were able to grow to a height where fire was no longer a major limiting factor on their growth, and a silver cluster-leaf woodland rapidly replaced the open savanna. Because the leaves of silver cluster-leafs are seldom eaten by browsers, the large herds of Zebra and Wildebeest that had once frequented the area migrated to better pastures.
Despite later policy reversals, the open savanna conditions which once prevailed have never been restored. The network of circular roads around the camp is a legacy from the days when Pretoriuskop offered some of the best game-viewing in Kruger.
While it boasts no large herds of grazers, the Pretoriuskop area provides valuable habitat for the magnificent jet-black Sable Antelope and fawn-coloured Reedbuck, both antelope with specific habitat requirements that include tall grassland and an open woodland.
Since 1986 there has been a considerable and worrying decrease in Sable in Kruger, and this region provides an important habitat for this regal antelope. Reedbuck have also suffered in the past from bush encroachment and a reduction in tall grasslands, and about half of the Kruger population can be found on the vleis that occur along water courses in the Pretoriuskop area.
The majority of the White Rhino found in Kruger Park occur in the Southern Region. The most successful of the eight mammal species re-introduced into Kruger since the 1960s, white rhino were already extinct in the Lowveld by 1896. Between 1961 and 1972 a total of 337 were translocated from Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park in KwaZulu-Natal, and the majority were released in the Southern Region.
White rhino are bulk grazers and are able to utilise grasses that are not highly nutritious. Assisted by an abundant food source, they have responded well to protection and now number more than 2 600, representing the largest population in Africa.
The Pretoriuskop region is also noted for an abundance of trees and some species, such as the large-leaved false-thorn (Albizia versicolor) and Mobola plum (Parinari curatellifolia), occur only on the deep sandy soils found here and in the Far North.
Fine specimens of teak (Pterocarpus angolensis), wild olive (Olea europaea) and Transvaal beech (Faurea saligna) also occur here. Because these trees are rare elsewhere in Kruger, it was at one time policy to protect them by restricting the elephant population in the Southern Region to 900. One species of combretum, the false forest bushwillow (Combretum woodii), is restricted to Ship Mountain.
Near the foot of this hull-shaped mountain, an old wagon trail crossing a stream marks the birthplace of the book 'Jock of the Bushveld', in 1885. The woodlands around Pretoriuskop are home to several bird species that have a limited distribution in the Park. These include ‘middleveld' species such as the black sunbird, yellowfronted tinker barbet and Ayres' cisticola. Other notable bird records for the area include the pennantwinged nightjar, redcollared widow and gorgeous bush shrike.
Combretum Woodlands: Between the high-lying woodlands of Pretoriuskop and the low-lying acacia thickets in the east, the middle slopes comprise the major portion of the Southern Region and are clothed in a dense woodland of combretum and marula trees.
In total, 14 species and subspecies of Combretaceae occur in the Kruger National Park, and of these, the red bushwillow (Combretum apiculatum) is particularly abundant. After the mopane of the semi-arid Northern Region, this is the most common tree in the Kruger Park, and its leaves are browsed by kudu, giraffe and elephant.
Although this woodland does not sustain the concentrations of game found on ‘sweet grasses' underpinned by clay soils, reasonable populations of Giraffe, Zebra, Impala, Kudu, Buffalo, White Rhino and Elephant are present. As wildebeest and zebra – preferred prey species of lion – are found in low numbers in the Southern Region, lion are less common than they are in the Central Region.
This relative scarcity of Lion means that Cheetah and Wild Dog occur in reasonable numbers. A recent survey found that about half of Kruger's 180 cheetah occur in the Southern Region, even though the Central Region offers exceptional habitat for them. Likewise, wild dog are most common in the mountainous terrain near Berg-en-dal, although their favourite prey, impala, concentrate on acacia veld near the Sabie and Crocodile rivers.
Another common predator found in bushwillow woodland is the Leopard, although these superbly camouflaged cats are not often seen. The numerous rocky outcrops, dense foliage and an ample supply of medium-sized mammals make the area ideal for their hunting technique of stalking and ambushing prey. As Leopards are solitary and often store their prey in tree canopies out of the reach of other predators, they are able to survive in a wide variety of habitats.
In recent years several Leopard attacks on staff have been reported in Kruger. One of the most publicised attacks took place on the night of 21 August 1998 on the bridge crossing the Matjulu River near Malelane Camp. Student ranger Charles Swart was guiding 12 visitors on a night drive when he stopped the vehicle on the bridge. Holding his rifle in one hand, Swart was standing a short distance behind the vehicle when the leopard attacked and killed him.
Many seasonal rivers flow across this region and their sandy beds often hold pools of water that attract a wide variety of game. The appealing Mbyamiti is the largest of these rivers and its catchment falls entirely within the Park. Other important water courses in the region include the N'watimhiri, N'waswitshaka, Mtshawu, Mlambabe and Vurhami.
When summer thunderstorms over high-lying country produce sudden downpours, surface water may flow down sandy riverbeds for several weeks. Tall apple-leaf (Lonchocarpus capassa) and jackal-berry (Diospyros mespiliformis) trees line the banks of these water courses, their roots probing deep below the surface to reach the water table, so that even in periods of drought these trees are able to retain their foliage.
Giraffe are little affected by severe drought conditions, and survive by concentrating their feeding patterns along river banks. Other mammals and birds are also drawn to the riverbeds, for a variety of reasons. Fruit-bearing trees such as wild figs and jackal-berries are common here and attract fruit-eating birds. An accumulation of clay along river courses yields sweet grasses, and the presence of trees like the brack thorn (Acacia robusta) and buffalo thorn (Ziziphus mucronata) attracts a variety of browsers.
To the east and north of the bushwillow woodland, along the perennial Sabie and Crocodile rivers, acacia woodland is found on flat land near rivers and sustains an abundance of wildlife. Impala are particularly abundant, and heavily grazed clearings are a common feature of the thorn thickets.
When Stevenson-Hamilton journeyed into the Sabi Game Reserve for the first time in 1902 he came across his first impala herd in this vegetation type near Renosterkoppies, and today 30 per cent of the total population still occurs in the Southern Region.
The Sabi River
When it enters the Park near Phabeni, the Sabie surges over granite outcrops and then, from Skukuza onwards, the river flows more gently, its channels carving islands crowded with matumis (Breonadia salicina) and its banks shaded by enormous sycamore figs (Ficus sycomorus). The Sabie River, and the corridor of riverine bush that grows luxuriantly along its banks, provides essential habitat for a wide diversity of game including Hippo, Bushbuck, Kudu, Waterbuck, Grey Duiker, Vervet Monkey, Baboon, Eelephant, Buffalo, Lion and Leopard.
The 43-kilometre road between Skukuza, the Park's headquarters and its largest camp, and Lower Sabie, one of the most popular and picturesque camps, is the most popular game-viewing road in the whole of Kruger National Park, South Africa.
Hippos play an important role in the ecology of the Sabie River in the Southern Section of Kruger National Park, Mpumalanga, South Africa.
Although the Southern Region comprises one-fifth of the total area of the Park, 43 per cent of all hutted accommodation and four of the nine biggest rest camps are concentrated here, which is a measure of its popularity. At the end of winter herds of game congregate near the Sabie once minor water courses have dried up.
The river is home to approx. 600 Hippo, a large population of Crocodile and the Lowveld largemouth (Serranochromis meridianus), an olive-brown endemic fish weighing up to 1.2 kilograms, that is virtually restricted to the Sabie.The Sabie River is a superb locality for bird-watching, and many species are attracted by the rich habitat provided by permanent water and riverineforest.
River Bird Life
Among the riverine bird species found here that are uncommon elsewhere in the Park are the Purplecrested Lourie, Green Pigeon, African Fish Eagle, African Goshawk, Whitecrowned Plover, Black Duck, Halfcollared Kingfisher, Whitefronted Bee-Eeater, Trumpeter Hornbill, Natal Robin and Bearded Robin.
Green pigeons roost in the tree canopy sustained by the Sabie River. In terms of biodiversity the Sabie is the richest river in the country, but the river has not always been in such pristine condition.
In 1922 Stevenson-Hamilton remarked on the poor state of the Sabie River. Gold mines in its upper reaches were the culprits, and pollution increased to the extent where the river became sterile.
In 1933 a water expert found no evidence of micro-organisms in the river, and boreholes had to be drilled to supply Skukuza with water. The Department of Mining argued that too many jobs were dependent on mining to do anything about this, and it was only after World War II that steps were taken to prevent pollution.