Situated in the heart of the mopaneveld on the transition zone between granite and basalt, Mopani Camp offers commanding views over Pioneer Dam, where skeletal trees protrude from the water. A sundowner on the wooden deck overlooking the dam is a highly recommended experience. There are several baobabs in and around the camp and the Mopani swimming pool has probably saved many an overcooked soul after a hot summer day's game driving.
Mopani Camp Explorer Options
Nshawu/Tropic of Capricorn Loop (S50, S143, S144, H1-6) 44km; grassland drive on dust roads, best done early in the morning; often good birding along Nshawu watercourse but animal sightings are itinerant; allow 2,5 hours to and from Mopani Camp
Mooiplaas (H1-6) 26km from Mopani Camp to Confluence and back; riverine bush and mopaneveld; stop at Mooiplaas for a braai (allow 3 hours, including a stop)
Stapelkop Dam (S146) 38km dust road to and from Mopani Camp; wild drive through mixed mopane woodland; not many animals but a wonderful sense of isolation (allow 3 hours with 30 minutes at the dam)
Mopani has become an oasis in the dry mopaneveld since Pioneer Dam was built in the 1980s. The vegetation and birdlife have been radically altered by the introduction of a permanent water source in the north. One of the consequences has been the introduction of new species, including the collared (redwing) pratincole, which is now a regular at Mopani and Letaba, not having been recorded in Kruger before 1980.
During the construction of Mopani Camp, a lion attack nearly led to the death of ranger Kobus Botha. Botha and other rangers had been called by contract workers who had found a lioness in a building trench. The lioness retreated to a patch of long grass and hid, despite the rangers' efforts to flush her out. Then, without warning, it leapt out of cover and pulled Botha to the ground. Ranger William Ndobe remembers Botha screaming: "Shoot, shoot, shoot!" in a variety of African languages as he tried to fight the lioness off with his hands.
Ndobe waited until he had a clear bead on the animal and pulled the trigger, killing the lioness with one shot through the head. Botha was pulled out from beneath the dead animal and airlifted to hospital, where he recovered from his wounds. Ndobe was decorated for his bravery.
Mopani has all the facilities of the large SANParks camps, including a restaurant, shop, and petrol station. The camp offers game drives and guided walks, which should be booked at reception when checking in.
The roads around Mopani Camp are not known for great sightings as the grazing in this part of Kruger is not very palatable. The dominant animals are elephant – which feed on the mopane – and buffalo, which literally have the constitution of an ox and can digest the coarse grasses. Choice sightings in the area are the rare roan and tsessebe antelope, which occur in small herds, sticking to the thicker mopane woodlands.
In the Mopani area, look out for:
Southern carmine bee-eater
Mooiplaas Picnic Spot, 5km south of Mopani Camp, is a shady refreshment stop where cold drinks and firewood can be purchased and gas braais are available for hire. There are clean toilet facilities.
The most interesting sightings are most likely to be on the H1-6 south of Mooiplaas, where the road tracks the Tsendze River. There are a series of loop roads off the main road, the best being the drive to the Confluence, a viewpoint over a woodland gully and streambed.
Lion are often active in the area late in the day, preparing for their night-time hunt in the riverine bush. Buffalo and waterbuck are their most favoured prey in this part of Kruger.
The Nshawu Road (S50)
This road and and Tropic of Capricorn Loop (S143) are also good options. The grazing in these areas is sweeter than the mixed woodland to the west of the camp and, consequently, the chances of seeing game are far better. A recommended day trip from Mopani Camp is to take the Nshawu road north-east to the Lebombo (S50), crossing the Tropic of Capricorn near Shilowa Mountain (382m) and stopping at the lookout point at Shibavantsengele, a few kilometres further on.
It is not very high, but gives one a good view across the basaltic mopaneveld plains, which stand in stark geological contrast to the pink, stony rhyolite forming the Lebombo. The nearby crossing through the Lebombo into Mozambique was an ancient elephant highway and a route used by ivory hunters in the 19th and early 20th centuries. A cave once used to store ivory has been discovered in the vicinity.
Just north of Mopani is Bowker's Kop, which has some magnificent baobabs on its slope. On one of these baobabs is carved the name of 19th-century hunter Miles Robert Bowker, whose party camped nearby in 1888. Among his fellow hunters were Fred and Harry Barber – distant relatives of co-author Brett Hilton-Barber.
This intrepid group of adventurers used to undertake lengthy elephant hunting safaris from their Eastern Cape base right through northern Kruger into Mozambique and possibly as far as the Congo. The town of Barberton is named after the Barber brothers who discovered a gold reef near the site of the town in 1884, precipitating the first major gold rush in South Africa.
There is a water hole on the side of the road opposite Bowker's Kop where the Bowker and Barber hunters probably camped. There are sometimes sable antelope reported in the vicinity.
Just south of Mopani, at Shipandani, there is an overnight camping facility. Sited at the foot of a small hill, Shipandani was the original site of the area ranger's house. The house was washed away in the 2000 floods and has since been replaced by a bird hide, which can be hired for overnight camping through Mopani Camp. The hide overlooks a narrow pool on the Tsendze River.
Stapelkop Dam is a 40-km round trip that is more interesting for birders than for those in search of animals. The S146 is a dirt road through the mixed mopane woodland, which does not support large numbers of game. The dam is an open expanse of water near a cluster of small granite hills. Just below the dam is the grave site of a 19th-century pioneer hunter, known only as Joubert. Joubert was an elephant hunter who supplied Albasini's trading network with ivory.
The circumstances of his death are not known.
Shongololo Loop (S142)
This road heads north-west past Frazersrus Water Hole into the heart of the north-western mopaneveld. The road dips over a number of dry watercourses but there is usually little action in this generally featureless landscape, except perhaps at Ntomeni Pan which is almost on the Tropic of Capricorn.
The S142 follows the Shongololo watercourse which, in turn, feeds into the Tsendze. Besides elephant sightings, this is not usually a good road for game viewing, and is recommended more for its wildness and sense of isolation.