The various regions of Kruger Park differ according to the geology of soil types and rainfall, which dictates what sort of vegetational coverage one can expect to come across. This of course also dictates what variety of game and bird life can be supported there.
© Central grasslands after the rains
This complicated and diverse habitat is restricted to the far north of Kruger - around Punda Maria and west of the tar road to Pafuri, the Luvuvhu and Limpopo river valleys and a pocket along the north-eastern Lebombo.
The sandveld has sandy, well-drained soils supporting a range of vegetation with no particular dominant species.
Characteristic trees of the sandveld include the syringas - white kirkia (Kirkia acuminata) and mountain kirkia (Kirkia wilmsii), pod mahogany (Afzelia quansensis), nyala (Xanthocercis zambesiaca), southern lala-palm (Hyphaene natalensis), fever tree (Acacia xanthophloea) tree mopane (Colophospermum mopane), and, of course, the mighty baobab (Adansonia digitata).
Mopaneveld is the most dominant ecosystem in Kruger, covering over half the Park's surface area. It stretches northwards from the Timbavati and Olifants rivers to the Luvuvhu valley and then in swathes up to the Limpopo.
The mopane tree (Colophospermum mopane) is found in three main forms in Kruger - mopane woodlands (mostly the north-west of the Park) which are generally found on granite and gneiss, mopane shrubveld (mostly the central northern plains and the north-east) which is associated with basalt, and mopane thickets (restricted to the Punda Maria area) which are on ecca shales.
Within the mopaneveld there are other tree species - particularly the bushwillows (Combretum species), knob-thorns (Acacia nigrescens), tambotis (Spirostachys africana) and apple-leaf (Philenoptera violacea) trees and shrubs.
The eastern sweetveld plains that stretch south from the Olifants, through Satara and Tshokwane down to Lower Sabie are archetypal savanna grassland. They are home to large grazing herds and their predators. The broad expanse of savanna has a variety of palatable grasses such as blue buffalo grass (Cenchrus ciliaris), finger grass (Digitaria eriantha) and stinking grass (Bothriochloa radicans). There are large tracts of grassland with stunted knob-thorn acacia (Acacia nigrescens) punctuated by large trees, which are often restricted to the drainage lines.
The most common trees in the central grassland are the knob-thorn, the umbrella acacia (Acacia tortilis), marula (Sclerocarya birrea), ebony jackal-berry (Diospyros mespiliformis) and red bushwillow (Combretum apiculatum).
The open plains have dark, clay soils which are separated from the underpinning basalt by a layer of calcrete. This geology lends itself to water retention, so during the rainy season, vleis and pans form quite quickly along the drainage lines and remain with water well into the dry season.
Mixed Broadleaf Woodland
The mixed broadleaf woodlands dominate large tracts of central western Kruger and the rolling ridges south of Skukuza. The main trees are the bushwillow or combretum species - red bushwillow (Combretum apiculatum), russet bushwillow (Combretum hereroense), large-fruited bushwillow (Combretum zeyheri) and the leadwood (Combretum imberbe) - as well as large marulas (Sclerocarya birrea), magic guarri (Euclea divinorum), pockets of knob-thorn acacia (Acacia nigrescens) and round-leaved bloodwood (Pterocarpus rotundifolius), which is also known as teak.
The mixed woodland landscape is one of low, rolling hills on a geological bed of granite and/or gneiss. The upper contours consist of coarse, sandy soils with mixed grasses, while the footslopes and valleys between these hills consist of clay soils which can support large specimens of tamboti (Spirostachys africana), sycamore fig (Ficus sycomorus) and sausage trees (Kigelia africana).
Within this mixed woodland there are pockets of grazing that sometimes open up into extensive, considerable grasslands, particularly around pans. The sweeter grasses generally are on the lower contours.
Within the mixed broadleaf woodlands and along the Sabie and Crocodile river valleys are extensive thorn thickets. These can be almost impenetrable in some areas and are the favoured habitat of the rare black rhino.
The thorn thickets consist mostly of acacias - particularly Delagoa acacia (Acacia welwitschii) knob-thorn (Acacia nigrescens), scented-pod acacia (Acacia nilotica), umbrella acacia (Acacia tortilis) and brack thorn (Acacia robusta).
Within the thorny tangle of acacias are small-leaved sickle-bush (Dichrostachys cinerea), magic guarri (Euclea divinorum) and buffalo thorn (Ziziphus mucronata). The thorn thickets are usually associated with gabbro or gneiss.
The dry and rugged Lebombo range forms the eastern border of Kruger. The smallish, scattered rocks on the hills are mostly rhyolite which gives them their distinctly pinkish hue. The soils of the Lebombo are shallow and stony, and as this is one of the driest parts of Kruger, it is dominated by drought-resistant plants such as succulents and euphorbias - particularly the deadliest candelabra euphorbia (Euphorbia cooperi) and the naboom (Euphorbia ingens) which both have highly poisonous latex.
White kirkia (kirkia acuminata), thickets of Lebombo ironwood (Androstachys johnsonii) and large-leaved rock figs (Ficus abutilifolia) are found on the hill crests, while the lower slopes have knob-thorn (Acacia nigrescens), raisin bushes (Grewia species), purple-pod cluster-leafs (Terminalia prunioides) and the ubiquitous bushwillow species. Marulas (Sclerocarya birrea) and round-leaved bloodwood (Pterocarpus rotundifolius) mark the transition to the basalt flatlands.
The foothills enjoy the highest rainfall in the Park, and often take the shape of dramatic granite outcrops, particularly around Pretoriuskop in the west and Berg-en-dal and Malelane in the south.
The vegetation is mostly mixed woodland with sour grasses such as fine thatching grass (Hyparrhenia filipendula) and yellow thatching grass (Hyparrhenia dissoluta). Trees particularly associated with the Pretoriuskop area are silver cluster-leaf (Terminalia sericea) and kiaat bloodwood (Pterocarpus angolensis) while the Berg-en-dal area has most of the broadleaf woodland trees such as the bushwillow species and magic guarri (Euclea divinorum).
There are large-leaved rock figs (Ficus abutilifolia) and mountain kirkia (Kirkia wilmsii) among the rocky outcrops. The grazing gets sweeter as the altitude drops and the soils are more claylike in the contour lines where sycamore figs (Ficus sycomorus), tamboti (Spirostachys africana), and ebony jackal-berry (Diospyros mespiliformis) thrive.
There are often rare plant species because of the high rainfall and most of the drives in this habitat offer wonderful views over the lowveld.
Riverine forests are found in varying degrees of intensity along all seven major rivers which bisect Kruger - the Limpopo, the Luvuvhu, the Shingwedzi, Letaba, Olifants, Sabie and Crocodile rivers.
In addition it occurs on the banks of the major perennial rivers such as the Timbavati, the N'waswitsontso and the Biyamiti. The best examples of riverine forest are associated with the alluvial flood plains along the Shingwedzi, Luvuvhu and Limpopo rivers. This is because successive flood dumping has led to deeper soils which are more favourable to forest development.
Trees of the riverine forests include the sycamore fig (Ficus sycomorus), leadwood (Combretum imberbe), ebony jackal-berry (Diospyros mespiliformis), Natal mahogany (Trichilia emetica), tamboti (Spirostachys africana), weeping boer-bean (Schotia brachypetala), apple-leaf (Philenoptera violacea) and nyala (Xanthocercis zambesiaca).