Landscapes, Soils & Heterogeneity in the Kruger National Park

Visitors who have spent any significant time in the Kruger National Park and traversed its roads to any great length would undoubtedly have marveled at the broad expanses of grassland, the closed in thorn thickets, the flat plains with the sudden occurrences of koppies contrasting with the rolling hills both north and south and the mountainous areas around Malelane. They would have marveled at the changes in vegetation, bird life and animal densities within short distances and relatively small areas. These visitors I feel sure would have tried to make sense of these changes and so many variable only to give up and just enjoy the variety.

It’s the heterogeneity that makes the Kruger so fascinating, so different such a feast for the eyes, ears and other senses. The Kruger is an extremely heterogeneic region and is why it is so rich in flora and fauna. It is the reason why scenes change so frequently, suddenly and in hard to describe ways. It is why in some areas Wildebees abound and yet in others you will hardly see a single one.

Gertenbach Landscapes Map

What’s a Kruger Landscape?

By Landscape is meant the following (reference Gertenbach): “A landscape is an area with a special geomorphology macroclimate, soil and vegetation pattern and associated fauna.”

Gertenbach has identified and classified 35 of these landscapes which still form the basis for describing the heterogeneity within the Kruger. These are shown in the map. 

Links to Individual Landscape Descriptions

Lowveld Sourveld Landscape Pretoriuskop | Gertenbach Landscape 1 ... This landscape is located in the south-western corner of the KNP in the vicinity of Pretoriuskop and covers approximately 530km/2 (2.8 percent of the KNP), Archain granite and gneiss form the underlying material of this area and results in an undulating landscape with distinct uplands and bottomlands. Rocky granite koppies and deep incisions forming seasonal spruits are characteristic.

Malelane Mountain Bushveld | Gertenbach Landscapes 2 ... This landscape is located in the extreme south-western corner of the KNP and includes all the mountains of the Malelane and Stolznek areas. Geologically, archain granite and rock formation of the Swaziland System form the underlying material of this area. Mountains such as Sithungwane and Newu consist of granite, while Khandizwe, Tlhalabye and Mathili are made up of Swaziland rock formation.

Combretum collinum (Bushwillow) &C. zeyheri (Large-fruited Bushwillow) Woodland Gertenbach Landscapes 3 ... This landscape is situated along the upper course of the Mbyamide River in the central southern district between the Sabie and Crocodile Rivers. It covers approximately 540 km/2 which represents 2,8 percent of the KNP. The underlying granite and gneiss is deeply weathered resulting in a undulating landscape with distinct uplands and bottomlands.

Thickets of the Sabie and Crocodile Rivers Gertenbach Landscapes 4 ... As the name indicates this landscape consists of the low lying areas along the two rivers and is underlain by archian granite and gneiss intersected by dolerite intrusions. The landscape is horseshoe-shaped, starting at the Sabie River with the Mtshawuspruit as the western boundary, along the Sabie eastwards to Lubyelubye.

Mixed Bushwillow Species Woodlands | Combretum, Puple Pod, Silver Terminalia sericea Gertenbach Landscapes 5 ... This landscape is discontinuous due to the fact that it consists of two areas which are separated by Landscape 4 viz, the thickets of the Sabie and Crocodile Rivers. One portion of this landscape occurs in the southern district and the remainder forms the south western part of the Central District as far north as the Orpen / Timbavati area.

Combretum Bushwillow & Colophospermum mopane Woodland | Timbavati Gertenbach Landscapes 6 ... This landscape is located in the triangle formed by the Olifants River, Timbavati River and the western boundary of the KNP. The substratum is mainly granite and gneiss intersected by numerous intrusions of dolerite. This landscape is also intersected by a large gabbro-body which is classified as a separate landscape (Landscape 19). Amphibolite from the Swaziland System occur extensively throughout this landscape (Schutte 1982) and have an important influence on the soil and vegetation.
Gertenbach Landscapes 7 ... This landscape includes the direct drainage area adjoining the Olifants River, from the western boundary of the KNP to approximately the sandstone koppies at Shiswayini. To the north it extends to about the Letaba / Phalaborwa powerline and southwards to the northern boundary of the neighbouring area of Peru.

Gertenbach Landscapes 8 ... This landscape occupies the largest portion of the watershed between the Olifants and Letaba Rivers. It is high lying (between 350 and 450 metres) and the underlying material consists mainly of granite and gneiss. Isolated plugs of syenite from the Phalaborwa Ignious Complex have penetrated into the granite to form koppies of which Masorini, Shishwani, Shikumbu, Shivulani and Vodogwa are the most outstanding.

Gertenbach Landscapes 9 ... The parent material underlying this landscape is mainly amphibolite from the Swaziland System and to a lesser degree granite and gneiss mixed with weathered material from gabbro and dolerite (Shutte 1974). It is a relatively flat landscape in comparison with the adjacent undulating terrain on granite. This area is situated north of the old Letaba / Phalaborwa tourist road and south of the Letaba River, excluding the direct southerly drainage to the Letaba River.

Gertenbach Landscapes 10 ... This landscape includes the whole western drainage to the Letaba and Klein Letaba Rivers. It occupies 700 km/2 or 3.6 percent of the KNP and is comparable to Landscape 7 viz. Olifants River Rugged Veld. The slopes are relatively steep and there are quite a few prominent koppies viz. Ngodzi, Kaleka, Milavamhisi, Munamungwe and Byashishi koppies.

Gertenbach Landscapes 11 ... This landscape forms the high lying area between the Letaba and Shingwedzi Rivers on the western side of the KNP. North of the Shingwedzi the landscape is discontinuous with sub-sections right up to the Mphongolo River. This landscape is undulating granite terrain with distinct uplands and bottomlands. Amphibolite from the Swaziland System occurs fairly regularly and the remainder of the landscape is intersected by numerous dolerite instrusions.

Gertenbach Landscapes 12 ... The major portion of the area between the Bububu and Mphongolo Rivers consists of this landscape. A sub-section of this landscape also occurs further south towards the western boundary of the KNP in the vicinity of Timatoro. It extends northwards up to the Waterberg Sandstone. The underlying geological formations are undifferentiated metamorphic rock and amphibolite from the Swaziland System, as well as granite and gneiss.

Gertenbach Landscapes 13 ... Geologically the KNP can roughly be divided into granite and gneiss in the western half and basalt in the eastern half (Shutte 1974, 1982). Karoo sediments occur where the granite and basalt make contact and this forms a strip that extends from north to south throughout the KNP.

Gertenbach Landscapes 14 ... his landscape lies between the Nwaswitsontso and Swenispruits, east of the main tourist road to the north. It is a relatively small landscape that occupies approximately 164 mk/2 or 0.8 percent of the KNP. Coetzee (1983) describes this landscape under the name “Tropical Semi-arid Lowveld on Karoo Sediment Anticline”

Gertenbach Landscapes 15 ... Mopane shows in 2 distinct forms in different parts of the Kruger … shrub form seems to dominate while the forest or tree Mopane areas are much less dominant. If this has ever puzzled you here’s the answer.

Gertenbach Landscapes 16 ... Sandstone rocks are those formed by the successive accumulation of sediments mainly of sand and other small particles. Typically this happens in old lakes into which these sediments are washed from rivers feeding the lakes. The lakes eventually dry out.

Gertenbach Landscapes 17 ... In my opinion this large region is probably the best in the whole Kruger National Park if you want to see large herds, wide varieties of animals including the Big 5. This landscape extends from the Crocodile River in the south to just north of Satara with the Lebombo Mountains as the eastern and the Karoo sediments as the western boundary. It is one of the largest landscapes and occupies 1411 km/2 or 7.2 percent of the KNP.

Gertenbach Landscapes 18 ... The basalts in the vicinity of the watershed between the Olifants and Nwanedzi Rivers north of Satara contain a lot of amygdales and olivine and decompose to form dark coloured soils. The area is reasonably flat to concave, high lying plains and is drained by the Mtomeni, Mapetane and Gudzane spruits, Shitsalaleni is a well known pan in this area.

Gertenbach Landscapes 19 ... Gabbro is a coarse grained igneous or volcanic rock with composition similar to basalt. Very good examples (rocky koppies) can be seen in the Kruger National Park between Phalaborwa and Letaba and close to Pretoriuskop.
Gertenbach Landscapes 20 ... This shrub veld is ideal habitat for wildebeest and zebra. These species were mainly responsible for overgrazing in this area in the past. Impala are less common but kudu and giraffe are plentiful. The area is preferred to a lesser extent by buffalo and elephant, but carnivores such as lion and hyaena are abundant.

Gertenbach Landscapes 21 ... This part of the Kuger described as Gertenbach Landscape 21 is used in a large part by the guided Olifants Trail

Gertenbach Landscapes 22 ... Buffalo and zebra are probably the most important game species in this landscape, but impala, waterbuck, kudu, giraffe and elephant bulls are well represented. Wildebeest are not very common. The role played by hippos in the utilization of this landscape must not be underestimated. Large numbers of these animals occur along the rivers and they graze intensively.

Gertenbach Landscapes 23 ... This landscape extending northwards from the Timbavati River, is intersected by the Olifants and Letaba Rivers, broadens to include the plains of tsende and Dzombo, is again intersected by the Shingwedzi River and extends further north to Klopperfontein.

Gertenbach Landscapes 24 ... The landscape forms a narrow intermittent strip from the Timbavati River to Phonda hillocks west of Shingwedzi. It is a continuation of the gabbro intrusion that also forms the underlying material of Landscape 19. The terrain of this landscape is flat to slightly undulating and is higher situated than the surrounding granite (+/- 350 metres).

Gertenbach Landscapes 25 ... The basalt slopes towards the Levubu River are physiologically dry as a result of the steep slopes and shallow calcareous soils. The terrain is strongly undulating and is comparable to the slopes of the Olifants, Letaba and Shingwedzi Rivers (Landscapes 7, 10, 21 and 22).

Gertenbach Landscapes 26 ... This mopane-shrubveld occurs as two isolated areas in the far north of the KNP. One area is situated on the eastern boundary of the KNP North of the Nwambia Sandveld and the other along the western boundary on the watershed between the Limpopo and the Levubu Rivers.

Gertenbach Landscapes 27 ... Where the white sand of quaternary origin mixes with the gravel and basalt, a landscape occurs that is reasonably flat and the altitude varies between 230 and 475 metres. This area is located north-east of Shingwedzi and is drained by the Hlamalala, Nwaswitsumbe and Nkulumbeni spruits. The landscape covers 329 km/2 or 1.9 percent of the KNP.

Gertenbach Landscapes 28 ... As the name indicates, this landscape occurs on the banks of the Limpopo and Levubu Rivers. The underlying material of this area is alluvium that has been deposited over the years on the floodplains along the rivers. This is a low lying landscape with a flat to concave topography. The altitude varies between 200 and 250 metres.

Gertenbach Landscapes 29 ... The Lebombo Mountains on the eastern side of the KNP form a physiographical unit of its own. Because of climatological reasons this range of mountains is divided into two landscapes. The area between the Crocodile River and Pumbe pan will be dealt with in this landscape. It is an undulating terrain with north/south running ridges and bottomlands

Gertenbach Landscapes 30 ... Quaternary sand from the Cretaceous period occurs extensively in the Lebombo Mountains in Mozambique. Only a small extension of this landscape occurs in the KNP in the vicinity of Pumbe, northeast of Satara.

Gertenbach Landscapes 31 ... This landscape is the extention of Landscape 29 on the rhyolites of the Lebombo Mountains. There is, never the less, good motivation as to why it is classified as a separate landscape, as will be seen from the descriptions of the climate and vegetation composition. This area extends from Pumbe sandveld northwards to the Shingwedzi River with Singomeni as a detached unit further north.

Gertenbach Landscapes 32 ... After the formation of the Malvernia System was completed (Shutte 1974), there was a period of dry desert-like conditions under which sand was deposited. The colour of this sand is either red or yellow and can be present up to a depth of 30 metres.

Gertenbach Landscapes 33 ... This landscape occurs as isolated spots between the Shingwedzi River and Punda Maria in the northwest of the KNP. The underlying material is classified by Schutte (1974) as andesite and tuff of the Waterberg System in the northern sub –regions, and schist and banded ironstone, amphibolite and undifferentiated metamorphic formations of the Swaziland System in the southern sub-regions.

Gertenbach Landscapes 34 ... Sandstone of the Waterberg System occurs extensively in the north –western portion of the KNP around Punda Maria. It is a dissected landscape with mountains and bottomlands.

Gertenbach Landscapes 35 ... This landscape occurs along the lower Shingwedzi, Bububu, Mphongolo and Phungwane Rivers. As a result of the alluvium deposited on the banks of the above-mentioned rivers over the years, floodplains have developed that are periodically under water.

The Kruger is complex and after years of study is still largely little understood (and hence difficult to manage … witness the Elephant culling debate and the broad variety of views) because of the heterogeneous compexity within other highly complex systems.
The underlying base for trying to understand these complexities better lies in a thorough understanding of the Landscapes within the Kruger.
With this in mind we have recreated, with the permisssion of SANParks, an important report first published in “Koedoe number 26, pages 9 to 121 in 1983. The report is entitled “LANDSCAPES OF THE KRUGER NATIONAL PARK” by W.P.D. Gertenbach, Dept. of Research and Information, Private Bag X402, Skukuza. Up to now, to the best of my knowledge, it has not been available online except as a hard-to-find image pdf type of file.
It is a fascinating report, but like the Kruger itself, again difficult for the non-specialist to truly understand. It needs to be read and re-read. For those who want to try to get a better feel for why the Kruger is so great I recommend reading sections of this report a bit at a time … digest it in chunks. Read Gertenbach’s introduction here.
Read the sections concerning the areas you intend to visit next time and see if you can correlate what is written with what your eyes, and ears tell you.
Let me try and get you started … that’s all I can do with my own limited understanding.

In these Gertenbach Landscape descriptions you’ll come across different types of soil names mentioned frequently (such as Glenrosa or Estcourt). Soil by itself is also complex so below I’ve extracted a description of the 12 underlying soil groups along with their underlying characteristics in brackets and the forms the soil types take.
The reference used is “Soils of South Africa, Systematics and Environmental Significance” in draft format.
You can read the descriptions of each type in the referenced publication.

Soil group (Identifying characteristic) Soil forms
1 Organic (Organic O) Champagne
2 Humic (Humic A) Kranskop Magwa Inanda Lusiki Sweetwater Nomanci
3 Vertic (Vertic A) Rensburg Arcadia
4 Melanic (Melanic A) Willowbrook Bonheim Steendal Immerpan Mayo Milkwood Inhoek
5 Silicic (Dorbank B) Garies Oudtshoorn Trawal Knersvlakte
6 Calcic (Soft carbonate B or hard carbonate B) Molopo Askham Kimberley Plooysburg Etosha Gamoep Addo Prieska Brandvlei Coega
7 Duplex (Pedocutanic B or prismacutanic B) Estcourt Klapmuts Sterkspruit Sepane Valsrivier Swartland
8 Podzolic (Podzol B) Tsitsikamma Lamotte Concordia Houwhoek Jonkersberg Witfontein Pinegrove Groenkop
9 Plinthic (Soft plinthic B or hard plinthic B) Longlands Wasbank Westleigh Dresden Avalon Glencoe Bainsvlei
10 Oxidic (Red apedal B, yellow-brown apedal B or red structured B) Pinedene Griffin Clovelly Bloemdal Hutton Shortlands
11 Hydromorphic (E or G) Kroonstad Katspruit Constantia Vilafontes Kinkelbos Cartref Fernwood
12 Inceptic Tukulu Oakleaf Montagu Augrabies Dundee Namib Glenrosa Mispah Witbank