Even Stevenson-Hamilton believed that this vast stretch of mopaneveld was so wild that it was not fit for humans. That sense of isolation is still evident today and is one of the main attractions of northern Kruger.
In the Shingwedzi area look out for:
- African rock python
- Spotted hyaena
- Saddle-billed stork
- Bennett's woodpecker
- Collared palm-thrush
- African fish-eagle
- Eurasian golden oriole
The Shingwedzi flood plains have been shaped by millions of years of flooding and deep layers of rich soil have been deposited on the underlying basalts. These support the huge riverine trees that Shingwedzi is famed for – the Natal mahoganies, ebony jackal-berries, weeping boer-beans and sausage trees.
The flood plains have good grazing, which means the area is rich with game compared to the surrounding mopaneveld. The riverine bush has elephant, buffalo, nyala, kudu, duiker, monkeys and baboons and the shy Sharpe's grysbok. The main predators of the Shingwedzi flood plains are leopard, lion and hyaena. Packs of wild dogs are occasionally spotted around Shingwedzi Camp. The grasslands north of Babalala picnic site are reputed to be the best place in northern Kruger for seeing cheetah.
Shingwedzi is also renowned for its birding, particularly in summer when thousands of migrant birds arrive from central Africa and Eurasia. There are many water-bird nesting sites along the river, particularly around Kanniedood Dam.
The flood plains around Shingwedzi are among the best places in Kruger to see most of the rarer large antelope – the roan and sable, the tsessebe, eland and Lichtenstein's hartebeest.
Kanniedood (Afrikaans for "cannot die") Dam lies south-east of Shingwedzi Camp on the S50 and is one of the best drives of northern Kruger, as it follows the Shingwedzi River. The road has 10 loops off it, each of which should be driven along slowly, as there are remarkable bird and animal sightings to be had.
The rare saddle-billed stork and other water birds are plentiful, while browsers such as nyala, bushbuck and kudu are regular inhabitants of the riverine forest here. Elephant, too, are common. It was in this area that Shingwedzi, one of the "Magnificent Seven", was found dead. He was discovered perched on his knees with his tusks stuck deep into the river sand. Baboon are plentiful and one may see lion and leopard in the vicinity.
The atmosphere of Shingwedzi reflects the rugged dryness of the north. Mopane trees dominate the large camp, which is situated close to the confluence of three major rivers – the Shingwedzi itself, the Mphongolo and the Madzemba. Shingwedzi, Shangaan for "the circle of iron", was built in 1933, and the original huts form the inner circle of the camp.K
Shingwedzi has a swimming pool, petrol station, shop, restaurant, ATM and emergency breakdown service. There is a designated day visitors' area with a swimming pool and braai facilities.
The camp offers stunning views over the river and surrounding alluvial flood plains that are home to some of the biggest elephants in Kruger. Many of the Magnificent Seven elephants were Shingwedzi regulars and some of the new big tuskers can be seen in the river beds from the deck outside the camp restaurant.
In the 1930s and 1940s, before Shingwedzi was properly fenced, elephants used to wander right into the camp, much to the delight and consternation of those early tourists. In the 1940s, one large, bad-tempered bull was shot inside the camp after it had acted aggressively towards staff on several previous occasions. In that instance, there was no loss of human life.
However, one can never be complacent in an area where there are wild animals. A case in point was the 1992 tragedy in which a ranger was taken by a desperate leopard that climbed in through the open window of his guard house. Thomas Rihlamfu was a gate guard at Shingwedzi and, although diligent when walking outside, he assumed he was safe in the hut next to the main entrance gate.
His movements appear to have been studied by an emaciated leopard which chose its moment to catch him unawares as he dozed inside his hut. His partly eaten body was found next to his bed one morning by the school bus driver who wondered why the gate wasn't open. The driver ran to find section head Louis Olivier – who had previously been decorated for saving a fellow ranger from a crocodile attack on the Sabie River.
Olivier saw the open window, realised what had happened and ran out into the bush outside the gate. The leopard was right there in the grass. Olivier dispatched it with a shot. Like many of the other riverside camps, Shingwedzi has a continual parade of game along the river banks, even when the river dries up in winter. There are large herds of buffalo in the area and they drink daily in front of the camp when water is available.
One of the pleasures of staying at Shingwedzi is that there is usually animal activity close to the camp along the river past Kanniedood Dam (S50), which should be done at dawn or dusk, or preferably both. When the river flows, it acts as a magnet for water birds, which makes Shingwedzi one of the top summer birding spots in South Africa. There is a hide at Kanniedood but the birding is probably better along the river, as there is an interesting mix of woodland and water birds.
In 1936 at Shingwedzi Camp ornithologist Leonard Gill discovered the first collared palm-thrush found in South Africa. The bird, which is considered a Mozambique resident, has since established itself at the camp, which is also noted for sightings of unusual raptors such as the Eurasian hobby and the bat hawk.
There is a bird hide further down the S50 at Nyawutsi, where one may get out of one's vehicle and watch over a small dam on the edge of the Ntshivana River, which divides the grasslands from the Lebombo. The continuation of this road takes one into the Tropic of Capricorn Loop.
Shingwedzi Camp Explorer Options
(All distances are from Shingwedzi back to the camp):
- Mphongolo Loop (S56 and H1-7) (72km;
- 3,5 hours) tar and dust road through ancient Kruger forests and mopane shrubveld; lots of elephant and buffalo; often lion sightings;
- Kanniedood Dam (S143, S50) (20km; 1 hour): dust road along the Shingwedzi River; brilliant birding, lots of browsers in riverine bush; good sunset or sunrise drive;
- Red Rocks Loop (S52) (72km; 3,5 hours)
- dust and tar roads along Shingwedzi alluvial flood plains; good bush drive with itinerant game viewing.
Red Rocks Loop (S52)
The Red Rocks Loop (S52) follows the Shingwedzi River upstream into the mopane woodlands. It can also be accessed via the main road to Mopani (H1-6) which runs parallel to the road on the southern bank of the Shingwedzi. Both routes pass through robust riverine forest.
This was the area frequented by two of Kruger's Magnificent Seven tuskers – João and Shawu. The Red Rocks get-out point is a beautiful place. Here, the Shingwedzi River crosses a band of Gubyane sandstone, and water erosion has created a series of potholes pitted in the smooth, reddish stone. Famed lowveld prospector, the American "Texas Bill" Lusk used to pan for gold regularly here between 1916 and 1920.
In the 1940s, the chairman of Kruger's Board of Trustees, Alfred Trollip and the Secretary, H Van Graan, had a close shave with a lion at Red Rocks. They were part of a small party that had been taken by an unarmed ranger down to the river bed when they heard a short, grunting noise behind them.
They turned around to find a lioness staring at them from the edge of the bush about 50m away. The chairman noted the lioness's tail twitching from side to side before heeding the whispered suggestion that the party move quietly and purposefully back up to their cars. When they reached the safety of their vehicles, the ranger observed through binoculars that there was another lion, as well as three lionesses hidden in the bush close to where they had walked.
It would have been one of life's supreme ironies if the Kruger trustees had ended up inside the lions they were committed to protecting!
The Red Rocks route ends at the Tshanga get-out point, unless one is going to Bateleur Camp on the edge of the Shingomane Dam. Tshanga is a very private spot set among large boulders. It offers sweeping views over the Tshanga River and the mopaneveld to the south-east. In Shangaan, tshanga means "cattle enclosure" and refers to old stone walls discovered near the site which are evidence of African Iron-Age human habitation in northern Kruger.