The landscape, dominated by knob-thorn acacia and marula trees, is generally flat and more featureless than other areas of the south, but it is good for game because of the rich grazing associated with the basalt corridor. Nhlowa is the Shangaan word for fresh marula juice, which may be a reference to the harvesting of fruit from the marula trees of the area before the Park was proclaimed.
This is a very open landscape because of the underlying geology of the area, which is basalt. Because basalt is relatively water-impervious, the pans here hold water long after the rains have gone, providing reliable drinking water well into winter. The basalt also supports fertile soils that produce sweet grazing. For these reasons, the S28 has a good reputation for game viewing. There are large herds of impala, zebra and wildebeest in these open grasslands.
One also has a better than average chance of seeing cheetah in this area. The S28 is probably the best road in Kruger for white rhino, which are often seen at the S137 turn-off to Duke's Water Hole.
The Nhlowa Road is one of the Kruger's top birding drives because of the proximity of the Crocodile River and the Lebombo range. The plains support big grassland birds like ostriches, bustards and korhaans and there are usually birds of prey circling overhead. Look out for the black-chested snake-eagle from Nthandanyathi Bird Hide and Nhlanganzwani Dam. This raptor circles over the koppies scanning the rocks for reptiles, which are its main diet. It will swoop on a snake and then devour it in mid-air.
Nthandanyathi (Zulu for "the buffalo's water hole") and Nhlanganzwani (derived from the Zulu words for reed beds) are on the faultline between the basaltic grassland and the stone-covered rhyolitic koppies, providing a stark contrast between the different geologies, and a chance to see some of the more arid-orientated vegetation like the euphorbias. In summer, vleis form along the foot of the Lebombo creating a huge marshland that is excellent for birding.
The Mpanamana Concession is tucked away in the south-eastern corner of Kruger on the edge of the Lebombo overlooking the Crocodile River valley close to Komatipoort and the Mozambique border. The 15 000-hectare private concession has diverse habitats – thorn thickets, flat open grasslands with shrub acacia, dense riverine bush, pockets of marshland along the base of the rugged foothills and a rich variety of woodland trees on the Lebombo itself.
Above: Shishangeni Luxury Safari Lodge
It also gets double the amount of rain that Crocodile Bridge gets, even though they are barely 10km apart.
This habitat diversity means one is likely to see a lot of different animals in the concession. The variety of animals attracts all the big carnivores – lion, cheetah, leopard, hyaena and wild dogs. The riverine bush and koppies in the concession are ideal habitat for leopards which are a Mpanamana speciality, particularly in winter. Lodge rangers once witnessed a pack of 13 wild dogs chase a leopard into a tree near Mpanamana Dam. The side-striped jackal, civet and honey badger are regularly seen on night drives.
Mpanamana Dam is the biggest dam in south-eastern Kruger. It was built in 1957 to provide a permanent water source for buffalo and other grazers. During the crippling drought of the sixties Life Magazine ran a series of photographs of two rangers rescuing an impala that had become stuck in the mud at Mpanamana Dam. There are two very large buffalo herds in the area and there are frequent elephant sightings, particularly in summer when the marulas are in fruit. In winter, the elephants move into the Lebombo where they browse on the kiaats.
There are three camps in Mpanamana, the main being Shishangeni Private Lodge which has 20 chalets, each with its own game-viewing deck at tree canopy height looking out over a watercourse that runs into the Crocodile River. The main lodge area has a large lounge and intimate bar and dining area and can take small conferences. Shishangeni caters for children of all ages with childcare facilities and entertainment. Game drives and specialised birding walks can be arranged with the lodge staff.
The concession has two small, secluded bush camps. Shawu is a luxury tented camp with five units overlooking Mpanamana Dam, some five kilometres from the main lodge. There is a wild dog den close to the camp and there are often cheetah sightings in the vicinity. Shonga is the other bush camp – it has five luxury tents.
There are several good game drives within a short distance of Lower Sabie, and the chances are good of seeing the Big Five over a couple of days in this area. Several picturesque water holes are close to the camp. A particularly good one for photography is Sunset Dam (off the H4–1), because one can get close to the water's edge and, despite its name, there is a fairly consistent movement of game throughout the day. Duke's Water Hole (S137) is also a good game-spotting site, where a large pride of lions is often seen, and there are sometimes sightings of cheetah and wild dogs.
The area offers excellent birding because of the watercourse, riverine bush and the nearby Lebombo. At Nthandanyathi (on the S28) there is a bird hide and a chance to get out of the car while, four kilometres south, there is the large Nhlanganzwani Dam. There is a designated day visitor area at Lower Sabie.
During the Anglo-Boer War, an irregular commando of men was employed by the British to defend Komatipoort against the Boers. The main motivator behind the force was the colourful Colonel Ludwig Steinacker, dubbed the "Bushveld Bismark".
What he lacked in height – he stood just over five foot (1,5m) tall – he made up for in appearance, wearing a brash uniform of his own design with a huge sword and a carefully cultivated, enormous moustache.
More of a hindrance than a help to the British, Steinacker's Horse consisted of about 300 English-speaking lowveld residents who were paid 10 shillings a day plus pickles, fresh milk and whisky (which was thought to keep malaria at bay). Based at Sabie Bridge, Steinacker's Horse was tasked with defending the Selati Line but appeared to have spent most of their time hunting and drinking.
After the war, Steinacker attempted to keep his unit going, but an unfortunate attempt to take part in the coronation parade in London of King Edward VII led to his being stripped of his command. He briefly returned to Komatipoort before attempting to farm cotton near Pilgrim's Rest. There he lost everything, including his mind. He was arrested by police for planning to murder a former colleague but committed suicide by poisoning himself as he was taken into custody.