Malelane to Skukuza via Afsaal (H3)
The tar road from Malelane to Afsaal (H3) passes the landmark Tlhalabye Hill (630m), crosses the Matjulu River and climbs through the edge of the south-western foothills into the rolling woodlands of south-central Kruger.
The first part of the drive is especially good for raptors. The road drops from the Malelane mountain bushveld into the mixed knob-thorn and bushwillow woodlands of the Mhlambane catchment area where the landscape opens up.
The white rhino is an H3 speciality, although they are more likely to be seen in the woodlands along the road than at Renoster Pan off the H3 along the Mhlambane creek.
The old transport riders who originally used Afsaal as their regular camp on the road to Delagoa Bay were shrewd observers of the bush. They would have noticed that it sits strategically next to a strip of sweet grazing that attracts a variety of antelope all the year round, providing some of the best hunting on the road to Crocodile Bridge.
The old leadwoods around the nearby Josekhulu Drift still bear the marks of their target practice.
There is a geological reason why the hunters of the 19th-century found such a reliable supply of venison for their pots here. Afsaal sits on a great horn of gabbro which curves across south-western Kruger from Lukimbi Concession along the Voortrekker Road past Ship Mountain into the upper Biyamiti catchment area and then almost to Phabeni. Unlike the granite around it, the gabbro supports nutritious grazing.
This sweetveld finger into the sourveld ensures there is almost always some animal activity around Afsaal at its junction with the Voortrekker Road (H2-2). There are almost guaranteed sightings around here of zebra, wildebeest and impala and there are often hyaena and wild dog in the vicinity. Among the more unusual animals to look out for here are Lichtenstein’s hartebeest, the southern reedbuck and caracal.
There are hyraxes from the fossil record that are almost the size of a rhinoceros and these large, now extinct relatives, may help to explain why the dassie still possesses an unusually long gestation period (approximately eight months) for such a small animal.
Afsaal is a convenient day-time stop-off. It has a shaded picnic spot with a well-stocked shop, fast-food outlet and braai facility. Keep an eye out on the bush while you’re braaing – in early 2007 a group of tourists at Afsaal got the fright of their lives when a leopard leapt out of the bush, snatched a large steak off their braai, and disappeared into the bush alongside the stream bed.
Thick clusters of red ivory (Berchemia zeyheri) around the picnic site are dwarfed by an enormous jackal-berry tree astride an ancient termite mound, which is home to a tame colony of dwarf mongooses. According to mammal expert Heike Schutze, mongooses have a close association with hornbills, which act as sentries for the little mammals, calling if there is danger.
She has noticed that mongooses are often reluctant to leave their burrows in the morning until hornbills arrive. The red ivory has an attractive red flower that attracts lots of birds during summer. The berries are a local delicacy. Traditional healers say a good cure for a headache is to smoke the roots of red ivory after crushing them into a powder.
Afsaal to Skukuza (H3)
The area around Afsaal is one of the best places in southern Kruger to see lions. Scan the flatter boulders of the Makhoutlwanini Koppies just north of the picnic site on the tar road to Skukuza (H3). Lions are sometimes seen standing on the boulders studying the surrounding savanna, or resting in the shady, long grass beneath the trees of this broken woodland.
North of Afsaal, the road descends into the woodlands of the Biyamiti basin, winding through dense riverine woodland in the flood plains near Jock’s Camp. During the dry season animal life becomes more concentrated along the watercourse, whereas in wetter times the game disperses more widely over the veld. In summer, there are often active feeding parties of hornbills within the clusters of magic guarri in the mixed bushwillow woodlands. They are most active around the guarris when small purple berries are produced in summer.
Jock Safari Lodge is a private camp located on the edge of an attractive flood plain between the Biyamiti River and the Mitomeni watercourse. The 6 000-ha concession straddles the Biyamiti watercourse, which is a magnet for animals and birds so there is usually good game viewing all year round.
Named after the legendary terrier, Jock in Jock of the Bushveld, the luxury private camp has 12 units, each with its own tsala (private deck) and plunge pool, overlooking the river beds.
There is a statue near reception of Jock fighting a sable antelope. A number of the original 19th-century transport wagons are parked under the groves of tall jackal-berries, weeping boer-beans, Cape ash and Natal mahoganies. A huge old jackal-berry dominates the main entertainment area of Jock’s.
The outside deck and bar are designed around the tree, which appears to be over 400 years old. From the deck, there is a good lookout over the river, grasslands and knob-thorn woodlands mixed with magic guarri and black monkey orange (Strychnos madagascariensis) trees.
Although the black monkey orange can be poisonous to humans, it is readily eaten by browsers such as kudu, elephant, baboons and even eland. Rhinos can sometimes be seen from the entertainment area. There are lots of magic gaurris and combretum species here and, in summer, the landscape is punctuated by the flowering of the distinctive pink Swazi lily.
A prominent cluster of boulders can be seen across the Biyamiti stream bed from the entertainment deck – at its base is an ancient rock art site that appears to have been a nomadic hunting camp occupied over a long period of time. The lodge offers a guided walk to the koppie which, according to San beliefs, has potent spiritual energy.
The San were the last Stone-Age people, living in small nomadic groups following migrating animal herds. Their hunter-gatherer ways remained virtually unchanged for over 10 000 years until the arrival of Bantu-speaking pastoralists from the north. There is a curious plate-sized hole in the boulders near Jock’s camp which is believed to have been ground out by successive generations of San.
The hole appears to have been fashioned over hundreds – if not thousands – of years, possibly by shamans connecting to the spirit world. Among the artifacts found here are pottery shards, remains of red ochre and white ash (created by burning the shells of giant land snails)
North of the Biyamiti valley, the landscape opens up into stretches of grassland savanna which are a favourite grazing ground for zebra. Mahlambdube Water Hole – zebra pan – was probably used as a campsite by Carolus Trichardt who opened up the Delagoa Bay route in 1845. Look out for waterbuck along the Kwaggaspan wetland before the Renosterkoppies turn-off.
Just north of the Renosterkoppies turn-off (S112) the H3 joins the Napi Road (H1-1), the main road between Skukuza and Pretoriuskop. From here northwards, thorn thickets replace the mixed woodlands. The giant granite dome of Mathekenyane, just off the H1-1, is one of a series of inselbergs that run from west to east across the lowveld floor. It is a perfect vantage point for the whole of southern Kruger and is particularly dramatic in spring when the knob-thorn woodlands below are in full yellow flower.
To the west are the clearly identifiable koppies of Legogote, Ship Mountain and Pretoriuskop, with the escarpment rising behind them; to the south-east lies the prominent huddle of the Malelane mountains, while the clearly visible Lebombo ridge marks the eastern horizon and the border with Mozambique.
The thorn thickets become very dense along the H1-1 as one gets closer to Skukuza, which means that game viewing in summer can be frustrating because of poor visibility through the bush. Tree size increases and the animal life gets busier the closer one is to the water.