Game Drive in the Southern Mopaneveld. Around Olifants, Letaba Area

Leopard at dawn. Albert Froneman
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The area around Letaba has long been a site of human habitation. Archaeologists believe that some of the first Bantu-speaking people moving into southern Africa settled along the Letaba River from about 400 AD.


They were metalworkers, farmers and traders who gradually displaced the nomadic San hunter-gatherers, incorporating them into their social structures or forcing them to more marginal areas. Over the next 1000 years, successive waves of Bantu speakers migrated down the east African seaboard into southern Africa.

In Kruger the main centres of occupation were along the Letaba, Limpopo and Sabie Rivers where there was a steady supply of game and water. Archaeologists believe that population numbers in Kruger varied according to climatic conditions and probably peaked at around 15 000 during the first millennium.

Generally the area was marginal in terms of the cultural development of the subcontinent. Nonetheless, these communities had an impact on the landscape that was dramatically different to that of the hunter-gatherers. The pastoralists augmented their farming initiatives with hunting, often using fire and game pits to capture animals.

Ilala Palm. Les Berger Palm Trees in Kruger
There are two main kinds of palm trees in Kruger ? the wild date palm (Phoenix reclinata) and the lala (Ilala) palm (Hyphaene natalensis) - at right. The wild date palm is more common in the south of the Park on the banks of rivers and spruits.
Primates and birds enjoy the clusters of yellow-brown fruit, while elephants eat the leaves and stems. The lala palm does well on the basaltic corridor, and is more abundant in the north, and there are some fine examples of these trees around Letaba and Shingwedzi camps.
The fibre of both palms was traditionally used by Shangaan speakers for making mats and ropes and a fine alcoholic beverage can be brewed from the sap.

Letaba camp stands in a landscape of mopane shrubveld, based on basalt. Surrounding the camp, there are extensive mixed grass plains with a prevalence of apple-leaf trees among the mopane. Taller trees are restricted to the drainage lines and riverine forests where there are wonderful leadwoods, tambotis and nyala trees. The grazing is sweeter on the lower countours of plains.

Green-backed heron. Nigel DennistIn the Letaba area, look out for:
Animals
Bushbuck
Elephant
Leopard
Waterbuck
Vervet monkey

Birds Verreaux's eagle-owl
Green-backed heron (right)
Brown-hooded kingfisher
Red-headed weaver
Kurrichane thrush

The Letaba and Olifants areas have high elephant populations. In the past, there have been serious cross-border attempts at ivory poaching in this area. The worst period was towards the end of the civil war in Mozambique, between 1981 and 1983, when park authorities and poachers were engaged in a low-intensity war.

Renamo rebels and the Mozambique government troops they were fighting both indulged in poaching as a sideline, infiltrating the Park through the Lebombo mountains and using automatic weapons to hunt elephant.
The discovery of a number of elephant carcasses at Shintomeneni, north of the Letaba River, marked the start of the two-year battle between the Park and poachers. In 1981 alone, 180 Kruger elephants were shot by poachers between the Letaba and Shingwedzi Rivers. This prompted a military-style response from the Kruger, which then began training its rangers in counter-insurgency warfare.
One of the first engagements between rangers and poachers during this ?mini-war? was on a tributary of the Letaba River near Engelhard Dam. Rangers Ben Lamprecht and Ben Pretorius set up an ambush near a cache of ivory they found near the stream, and confronted the poachers when they arrived to collect their loot.

The poachers ignored calls to drop their weapons and a shoot-out ensued. One of the poachers was shot dead and the others fled, giving Park staff a badly needed psychological victory. The stream where the gunfight took place was named Voorsitspruit (Afrikaans for ?Ambush Stream?).

Several other shoot-outs took place over the next 18 months and a number of arrests were made (including several Park staff who had been working with poachers). The aggressive reaction to poaching initially contained the problem and then overcame it. By 1984, elephant poaching had been reduced to almost zero and the ?mini-war? was over.
The pendulum has now swung in the opposite direction, with the current elephant over-population raising the spectre of offically-sanctioned culling.

Elephant Museum. Brett Hilton-BarberLetaba
Letaba, which means ?river of sand? in Sotho, is one of Kruger's most pleasant camps. Set on a broad bend of the Letaba River near its confluence with the Nhlanganini Stream, the camp has wonderful views from the restaurant and recreation areas over the sandy river beds where elephant and buffalo regularly come to drink.
The riverine bush around the camp stands in stark contrast to the sometimes monotonous mopaneveld of the north. The camp has tall, shady trees, extensive lawns and a tame herd of bushbuck that wander nonchalantly between the rondavels. Letaba is known for its owls, in particular the African scops owl which calls regularly at night near the restaurant.
Waterbuck are common along the Letaba River. They are the most water-dependent of antelope and their daily dependency on drinking makes them particularly vulnerable to lion. Letaba can bake in summer and get uncomfortably humid, but it does have very cool river views from the walkway and restaurant area. Elephant are a regular sighting along the river, and a visit to the camp's Elephant Museum is highly recommended for an insight into Kruger's ?Magnificent Seven? and the emerging new generation of big tuskers.
Movie star Lee Marvin stayed at Letaba camp in 1975 for the filming of Wilbur Smith's ?Shout at the Devil?. Ranger Bruce Bryden, who was a stunt man in the movie, recalled that Marvin didn?t really have to act much to be convincing in his role as a hard-drinking American hunter, as he was a naturally wild man who was 'sloshed most of the time?.
Marvin and fellow actor Roger Moore set up a long-running poker game at Letaba, trading chips for R10 a piece, drinking Grand Mousseaux, smoking Cuban Hoyo de Monterrey cigars and listening to the sounds of the bush at night. No wonder Hollywood loves Africa.
Facilities include an ATM machine. Letaba is a good camp for kids in that the Elephant Museum has interesting displays and wildlife films are shown regularly.

Kruger's Famous Elephants

The Magnificent Seven cemented Kruger's reputation as having some of the biggest tuskers in the world.
However, the biggest tusks on any elephant found in the Park were not on any of the Magnificent Seven but were those of Mandleve, (which means ?ear?, as he had a distinctive notch in one of his ears).
His tusks, each 2,71m long, weighed 69kg and 73,5kg respectively.
Mandleve, who frequented the Skukuza area and was often seen near Kruger Gate, died a natural death in 1993, aged about 56 years old.

There are three other tuskers that have become living legends: Duke, who frequents Duke's Water Hole area near Lower Sabie, Tshilonde, who lives in the Shingwedzi area, and Tshokwane, who is sometimes seen near the picnic site of the same name. Tshokwane's tusks have, unfortunately, broken off and have never been found.
Right: The Irritable One - Mafunyane



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