The Main Sabie River Road (H4-1)
The Sabie River Road from Skukuza to Lower Sabie (H4-1) tracks the Sabie River through mixed thornveld into the open grasslands of the south-east. It is both a beautiful drive and a good game route as the riverine bush, nutritious thornveld browsing and sweetveld grazing attract a wide variety of herbivores which, in turn, attract the predators.
The chances of seeing lions, leopards, hyaenas and their kills are as good on the H4-1 as anywhere else in Kruger. The Sabie riverine forest supports a large population of leopards, probably because of the high density of impala in the area. Studies by Michael Mills and Paul Funston indicate there are almost 100 impala per square kilometre in this part of the Park.
The H4-1 can be something of a mixed blessing, however. On the one hand, the area teems with wildlife because of the sweet grazing and permanent water, but, on the other, it is probably the busiest road in the Park and good sightings quickly attract a lot of vehicles, which can compromise the quality of the game viewing.
The first 12km from Skukuza offers many vantage points over the Sabie River, which has undergone a radical change because of the 2000 floods. The raging floodwaters washed away many of the big old sycamore fig trees that lined the river, and the course of the central river channel shifted, changing the location of sandbanks and reedbeds. Some scientists argue that these floods brought about the most rapid changes to an ecosystem since the Park’s inception.
Colonel James Stevenson-Hamilton
The success of Kruger as one of the world’s leading game reserves is due mainly to the man who actually made it happen. Scottish-born James Stevenson-Hamilton (1867–1957) was the man tasked with transforming Paul Kruger’s vision of an African Eden into a viable game reserve.
This tough and doughty soldier and adventurer took up his post in 1902 shortly after the Anglo-Boer War, and was instructed to preserve what little wildlife there was in what was then the Sabi Game Reserve. He took on the challenge with grit and enthusiasm, with one of his first jobs being to persuade tribes-people living in the Park to move out in exchange for not paying tax for one year. He also took on the vested interests of settler farmers and landowners who regarded the Park either as winter grazing or hunting grounds.
The major was also given responsibility for policing the Shingwedzi Reserve which was seen as a lost cause because of hunting and lawlessness However, his persistence paid off and his efforts were rewarded with the consolidation in 1926 of the Sabi and Shingwedzi reserves into a single Park.
Known for his perseverance and obstinacy, Stevenson-Hamilton devoted his life to Kruger, deciding only to get married at the age of 63 once his obligations as a game ranger had been met. He and his wife, Hilda, had three children. He died peacefully at the age of 90 and his ashes were scattered at one of his favourite places in the Park – Shirimantanga Hill just south of Skukuza.
Stop on one of the river loops overlooking the Sabie and consider this: during the average dry season, the Sabie flows at a rate of between three and five cubic metres a second, which increases to 15 to 20 cubic metres a second for the average wet season. Before the February 2000 floods, there were four times that the Sabie burst its banks and registered a flow of between 600 and 700 cubic metres a second.
The February 2000 floods were 10 times more intense than any of these floods with the flow measured at 6 000 cubic metres a second at Skukuza and 7 450 cubic metres a second at Lower Sabie! The last time a flood of such magnitude was experienced was in 1925. At the other end of the scale, during the drought of 1992 the Sabie stopped flowing altogether!
One of the consequences of the flood has been a change in the birdlife along the river. The sycamore figs were an important source of food for many bird species and there has been a noticeable short-term decline in birding activity along this stretch of the Sabie. Nonetheless, there are still many raptors cruising the Sabie. Look out in particular for Wahlberg’s eagle (which nests along the river), the martial eagle and the bateleur. The high-level bridge over the Sabie River just east of its confluence with the Sand is a good birding spot.
The Lower Sabie Road to Nkuhlu has some of the most beautiful trees in southern Kruger. There are several places along this road that invite one to stop and watch. Nkuhlu Picnic Site is a good braai or refreshment halt with terraced views over the river. There is a gift and convenience shop and fast-food outlet at Nkuhlu.
South of Nkuhlu, the thorn thickets are gradually replaced by lightly wooded grassland with good views over the river and the surrounding plains.
The Salitje Road (S30)
An excellent early-morning drive is the Salitje Road (S30), accessed off the H12 just north of the low-level bridge over the Sabie. There are often hyaena and lion sightings on this road, which was named after a Shangaan chief who ruled the area before the Park was proclaimed. The S30 skirts the northern banks of the Sabie River before rolling through mixed woodlands into the eastern grassland plains.
There are fewer vantage points over the Sabie River than there are on the H4-1 but, along the way, there are some wonderful quiet pools surrounded by tall riverine trees. Kudu and duiker browse along the forest fringes and impala feed in the more open grassland.
Mafotini Water Hole is on the edge of the eastern grasslands. The water hole takes its name from a nearby footpath used by refugees and illegal immigrants from Mozambique. The path was often used during the 1970s and 1980s by people fleeing the civil war in Mozambique.
Rangers frequently patrolled the path and arrested many Mozambicans who had decided to brave the Kruger bush in a bid to get a better life in South Africa. Mafotini was Shangaan slang for “Fourteen”, referring to the law which provided for 14 days of detention for illegal immigrants before they were sent back across the border. The path was primarily used at night to avoid detection, and many refugees lost their lives in lion attacks during this time.
East of Mafotini Water Hole the landscape opens up into the basalt grasslands. The long ridge of Muntshe mountain stands above the grasslands. From Mafotini one has a number of options. To the north the Old Tshokwane Road (S128) takes one through the open grasslands to Nkumbe lookout point in the Lebombo.
This drive is recommended for the big herds of grazers one is likely to see along the road as well as the dramatic views from Nkumbe over the plains. The S129 east of Mafotini is an excellent birding drive, taking one to the vleis at the foot of Muntshe hill and Mlondozi Dam on the edge of the Lebombo.
South of Mafotini the S128 takes one through the sweet grasslands to Lower Sabie. This was one of the first roads to be built in the old Sabi Game Reserve and was the main road between Lower Sabie and Tshokwane. This is a good game drive, particularly in late summer when the veld still has water in the numerous pans that form along the basalt.
There are usually large herds of zebra in the grasslands around Lower Sabie. Zebras may look harmless but they are impressively aggressive under the right circumstances. They are known for their fearsome ability to kick – a trait that lions are apparently wary of, but their most dangerous weapon, according to legendary Kruger ranger Harry Wolhuter, is their teeth.
Zebra are not purely passive creatures. Wolhuter personally witnessed a herd of zebras attacking a pack of wild dogs in the 1920s. The zebras surprised the wild dogs that had been stalking them by turning on them and charging with their teeth bared. The wild dogs sensibly beat a hasty retreat.