Named after former US air-force bomber and later chairman of the Rand Mines Group, Charles Engelhard, the dam is a long stretch of water on the Letaba River that has some of the best birding in Kruger. It is surrounded by three different habitats – the rocky Lebombo range to the east, the surrounding mopaneveld and the riverine bush on the river banks.
The confluence of the Makhadzi watercourse and the Letaba River is the site of the original ranger’s picket in the area established by Leonard Henry Ledeboer in 1920. Ledeboer served as Letaba ranger between 1920 and 1929. At that stage, the area was called Hatlani, after a chief who had lived there. Ledeboer eventually moved his house to the northern banks of the Letaba, opposite the site of the present-day rest camp. He called his outpost Mondzweni, which, in Shangaan, means “at the leadwood tree”.
Waterbuck are a common sight along the Letaba River, particularly where there are pockets of marshland. True to their name, these large, stoutly built antelope with distinctive white circles on their rumps, are never far from water. Natural history artist Charles Asterley Maberley observed that waterbuck may submerge themselves in water when fleeing predators, with only their nostrils protruding above the water.
Lion are particularly fond of waterbuck, which have a strong scent, similar to the smell of turpentine. Other animals usually seen along the S62 include elephant, buffalo, impala and steenbok. Unlike most other antelope, the steenbok female is generally larger than the male.
The Magnificent Seven
Elephants have traditionally been hunted for their ivory, so those animals with great tusks have been prime targets for poachers and hunters. Kruger is famous for seven elephants with record size tusks that have become part of the Park’s folklore. The term “Magnificent Seven” was coined by former Kruger head Tol Pienaar who borrowed the name from the 1960 Hollywood western of the same name.
The biggest tusks ever recorded are from an elephant shot on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro in East Africa.
One tusk weighed more than 100kg.
- Mafunyane (The Irritable One), pictured above - whose perfectly matched tusks, each weighting 55,1kg, scraped the ground as he walked. Mafunyane had a fist-sized hole on the top of his head which was either from an old gunshot wound or a fight with another elephant, and this healed injury may have accounted for his bad temper. He occupied the Pafuri district and died of natural causes in 1984;
- João (named after the famous Portuguese ivory hunter João Albasini) had a left tusk of about 55kg and a right one of about 45kg before they broke off in 1984. He was frequently seen in the Shingwedzi area and survived an attack by poachers in 1982. Park authorities treated his AK-47 wounds, which appeared to have healed completely. He is believed to have died in 2000, but his body was never recovered;
- Kambaku (“Big Elephant”) had a left tusk of 63,6kg and a right one of 64kg. He appeared to have the widest territory and was seen between Satara and Crocodile Bridge. He eventually was put down by rangers in 1985, after being shot and crippled by an irate farmer whose fields he’d strayed into outside the Park in the Crocodile River area;
- Ndlulamithi (“Taller than Trees”), had a left tusk weighing 64,6kg and a right one of 57,2kg, and occupied the area around Shingwedzi. He died of old age in 1985;
- Dzombo (named after the Dzombo River near Shingwedzi where he roamed), had a left tusk weighing 55,5kg and a right tusk of 56,8kg. He was shot by poachers in 1983, but his tusks were recovered;
- Shawu (named after the Shawu River near Shingwedzi, which was his territory) had the longest tusks so far recorded in the Park (the left being 3,17m and the right being 3,06m), although they were not the heaviest (52,6kg and 50,8kg respectively). He died in 1982, possibly of complications from an old gunshot wound inflicted by poachers;
- Shingwedzi (named after the camp where he was often seen) had a left tusk weighing 58kg and a right tusk of 47,2kg. He died of natural causes in 1981, and was found in the Shingwedzi River bed on his front knees with his tusks embedded in the sand.
There are two exceptionally good summer birding spots on the northern side of the dam – the Matambeni bird hide and the dam wall look-out spot. Among the Engelhard birds are all the herons, a variety of plovers, stilts, bee-eaters and storks and rarer species like the black heron and collared pratincole. Hippos and crocs are Engelhard residents, and there are usually elephant, waterbuck, impala and buffalo in and around the riverine bush surrounding the dam.
Engelhard viewpoint is halfway up Longwe Mountain (480m), the highest point in the Lebombo north of the Letaba River. Longwe takes its name from the Shangaan for a bag for carrying fruit, probably because of its bulky appearance. In the past Shangaan speakers referred to the entire Lebombo mountain range as the Longwe. The viewsite isn’t positioned high enough up the ridge to be really rewarding.
Letaba River Loop (S47)
The Letaba River Loop north-west of Letaba Camp follows the river for 19km to Mingerhout Dam before cutting back southwards through the mopaneveld. In the spartan north, the best way to view game is to follow the rivers. Most herbivores don’t stray much more than six kilometres from water, so the chances of interesting sightings are far greater along the Letaba than in the broad swathe of mopaneveld to the north.
The S47 winds between the edge of the mopaneveld and the well-established gallery forests of sycamore figs, tambotis and sausage trees that line the wide, sandy Letaba river bed. There are usually impala along the road and the browsers most often seen are elephant and kudu. There are usually waterbuck in the river bed.
Mingerhout Dam is a long, wide finger of water on the Letaba alongside an attractive, low range of well-wooded sandstone koppies. The dam wall is more than half-a-kilometre wide and the dam stretches several kilometres upstream. Hatlani (291m) is the highest of the koppies that mark the watershed between the Letaba and Tsendze rivers. Note how the bush around the koppies is a diverse, lush tangle of species typical of sandveld vegetation.
Compare it to the somewhat mono-dimensional mopaneveld a few hundred metres away. Mingerhout is a recommended winter game-viewing spot because it is a permanent water hole in a region where water is scarce in the dry season. There are usually crocs and hippos above the dam wall. Herds of animals usually come to the water from mid-morning until mid-afternoon when predators are at their least active.
Martial eagles are among the heaviest flying birds in the world, weighing up to six kilograms and with a wingspan of two metres. They are found throughout Kruger and are particularly partial to leguaans as well as young antelope, mongooses and smaller birds.
The S47 south of Mingerhout is a dull drive. The tree mopane soon gives way to scrub mopane. There is rarely much animal activity along this road, nor on the S131, which is an alternative route back to Phalaborwa Gate.
The Letaba area is known for good owl sightings. Verreaux’s eagle-owl and the pearl-spotted owlet are often seen on the roads in the area. Owls are regarded with suspicion in many traditional African cultures, as they are seen as the purveyors of evil. Nonetheless they are prized as ingredients for muthi because of their perceived wisdom, hunting skills and remarkable eyesight.