Safari from my backyard – Part 1

With an adjustment to the “new normal” and a lot of gratitude practices being observed, I would like to share one of the things that I am truly grateful for – My Backyard.

I am in a very fortunate position to be able to call South Africa’s bushveld home. This will be my fifth year living and working in some of the private game reserves that form part of the Greater Kruger National Park structure.

A lot of time has been spent in backyards over the last few months and I wanted to reflect on some of the magical moments that I have experienced from my backyard.

I usually rise before the sun. I will open my backdoor and stand outside, feel the cool morning air and take in the silence. After some time things start coming to life. Some things that I enjoy hearing is a confusion of guinea fowl (one of my favourite collective nouns) chattering away somewhere around camp. Of the smaller animas I would notice first are tree squirrels that dash around my backyard, scrambling for fallen marula fruit or tree seeds that may have dropped to the ground. I may even notice a flash of blue or orange as rainbow skinks whip their colourful tails when they run around hoping to grab some insects on the ground.

Helmeted Guineafowl (Juvenile)
Adult Helmeted Guineafowl

For a few weeks I would have the dominant male leopard, Ravenscourt, march past my room just before my morning alarm would ring. He would walk past my door and give a rasping territorial call at 04:20AM. One morning, at pretty much the same time, I had the biggest surprise of my life. I heard leopard activity in my backyard, but it was not the usual territory call.  This was something else. In my sleepy state I managed to put two and two together. This obscure sound was definitely that of mating leopards. I woke up, jumped up in a flash and ran to my door. As I opened it and peeked outside, I saw two leopards finishing their mating ritual just a few meters away from me. The pair gave me a quick glance and moved off on their usual patrol route.

Mating Leopards
Mating Leopards
Mating Leopards

Nyala and bushbuck are some of the antelope species that frequent my back yard the most. Apart from the grassy section, the bush can get extremely thick in the summer months. These antelope usualy feed on the edge of the tree line. This season we have already received more than our seasonal average.

Female Nyala antelope
Male Bushbuck antelope

A lot of people tell me that living in the bush is far too nerve-wracking or simply just too scary for them. What I have learned is that as long as you know how to read the signs of the bush and always watch your back, you should make it out okay. One afternoon I was busy digging out grass outside our rooms as we were going to put up a small wall and braai area. After clearing out most of the grass I decided to take a quick break. I stood up and had a good stretch. I looked up and saw a monkey sitting on the roof. As I was looking at it I saw the monkey’s face tense up in sheer horror. I immediately turned around to face the bush. Before I could even turn around an impala bolted a few meters away from me. I immediately thought “what on earth is coming behind the impala”. Out of the thicket an African Wild Dog came rushing by. The canine was so focused on the impala and chasing at such a high speed, I doubt the wild dog even caught a glimpse of me. I called it a day, packed away my shovel and went back inside.

African Wild Dog
African Wild Dog

I consider myself extremely lucky to be able to witness and experience all these moments literally outside my room on a fairly regular basis. I will continue this post in a follow up post and share some more moments of my magical backyard safari.

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Journey with Giraffe

One of my favourite moments in the bush is when I take guests out on drive and as we round a bend we are greeted with one of the most graceful and elegant animals in the African bush.

To many people the giraffe is one of the most fascinating animals that one may come across while on safari. It also happens to be one of the most requested animals to see while roaming around the savannas.

Every giraffe has a unique coat pattern just like a fingerprint. I have seen great colour variations ranging from extremely light coloured giraffe to ones that are so dark, they appear black in colour.

One experience that I truly enjoy is finding some giraffe while on bush walk. Giraffe are incredibly inquisitive animals. If you are lucky enough to find some while on a walk, their first reaction will be to stop and stare at you. They want to ascertain whether you are a predator or up to no good. They will stand tall, focusing their full attention on you, ensuring that they do not lose sight of you. If the situation and immediate environment allows for it, I might approach a little closer and then take a seat on the ground. With their curiosity climbing, the giraffe may approach nearer to investigate what you are up to now. Once they are at a comfortable distance from you it feels as if these giants are towering above you.

Of all the collective nouns for animals, giraffe must take the cake for the most creative of the lot. A stationary group of giraffe are called a tower of giraffe. As the group starts walking they are referred to as a journey of giraffe. As soon as they take flight and start to run, they are called a kaleidoscope of giraffe.

I do not think it matters whether it is your first wild giraffe encounter or your hundredth, these animals remain one of the most iconic and keystone animals in the African bush.

Tavangumi on the hunt

Always alert and always prepared, a phrase I would use to sum up most of my leopard encounters.

I often find myself in the company of leopards, watching them casually walking down a gravel road marking their territories or see them resting in the shade, simply minding their own business. Then all of sudden something will grab their attention.

This might happen in many ways. Either another animal will walk within view of the leopard or simply enter the immediate environment totally unaware of the leopard’s presence. Other times the leopard might pick up sounds of nearby impala rutting, a change in the wind presenting the scent of a warthog grazing nearby. Whichever clues are presented, a leopard will often go and investigate.

One morning I was fortunate to spend time with a young male leopard called Tavangumi. As always, he was simply strolling around and seemed to have his bearings fixed on a certain direction.

As he neared a small thicket, something caught his eye. He paused, pointed all his senses in the direction of the movement and focused all his attention on the tree line.

What had he spotted? Was it another predator? Was it a potential meal? Tavangumi approached cautiously, yet swiftly at the same time.

At first I could not see what caught his attention. He would not drop his gaze so I knew it would be worth sticking it out and see what was hidden behind thick green foliage. I eventually got a gap between the leaves and grabbed a glimpse of orange.

The thickets formed little pockets, with gaps just too large to allow the leopard to move stealthily between the trees. Tavangumi made an attempt to stalk ever closer, risking a gap to hone in on his prey.  

All eyes and ears were solely focused on the impala. By now I was sure that the leopard would be successful with his hunt. He was only a couple of pounces away from the antelope. Tavangumi managed to creep up to the closet pocket of trees. He now had no moves left to edge closer to the impala. His options from here were either go big or go home.

Before Tavangumi could even make another decision, the impala caught a whiff of the predator. The impala let out a lively alarm call. Game over for Tavangumi. His position had been discovered and the upper hand was gone.

Tavangumi sat up, revealing his position. The impala kept alarm calling while keeping a watchful eye on the leopard. The leopard got up and moved out of the area. I could nearly see the anguish and frustration written on his face.

The cutest bush season

As the summer rains get heavier and heavier, the bush seems to change on a weekly basis. Each week I notice something that was not there the week before. The air is currently filled with the scent of flowering silver cluster leaf trees. This tree presents a unique yet unpleasant odour similar to that of smelly socks.

Luckily we do not only rely on our sense of smell and we get to enjoy many of our other senses while out on safari. Summer time is very exciting for one big reason. It is the season where many animals have their babies. Sometimes the cuteness is too hard to bear and I would like to share some of these moments.

Within a few days after the first summer rains the bush will burst with greenery. This brings much welcomed relief for many of the grazers and browsers. This also allows the newborns a head start in life.

The larger herbivores like elephants and rhinos have the ability to move large distances and consume large volumes of food. They will often have babies before and after the green season.

Although the various predators do not rely on the green grassy growth, they still take full advantage of this short season. Hunting for food becomes such an easy task. This in turn allows them to bulk up quickly and produce the necessary milk for their cubs or pups that are tucked away in the safety of their various dens.

A Hyena confronts a Cheetah

It is no doubt that I have witnessed countless top-class sightings in the bush. Admittedly, many of these happened without even having to go searching too far. However, there are days when I have to put in a considerable effort to track down what I’m hoping to find.

The best way to track an animal is to head off to the exact spot it was last seen. Animals do not fly, so following the footprints should eventually take you to the new location of the animal. Sometimes this is easier said than done. When an animal walks down a dirt road, providing the road conditions are clear, it will leave very obvious directional tracks. As soon as that animal leaves the road and moves through a thicket or grassland, the whole situation changes. What clues does one look for now?

Sometimes the animal may leave other clues like fresh scat or dung, territorial scent markings, mud from a recent mud bath or potentially a bloody trail if it had been hunting. Sometimes one might get audio from the animal in question or warning calls from other animals that may have spotted a predator.

I spent a late afternoon trying to track down a cheetah that had been left lying next to a road earlier that morning. It was a scorching hot day, so my thoughts were that the feline would not be too far from the last spot. I headed straight to the area. Nothing was to be found. My tracker and I picked up some tracks of where the cheetah had moved around. It seemed as if it was deliberately dancing around to confuse us. Did this mean it had gone hunting during the heat of the day? Had it gone to search for water? Was it chased off by a larger predator?

Sometimes simply knowing the lay of the land and thinking where an animal might head off to next may work in your favour. As the circling tracks were leading us nowhere I took a different approach. I knew that there was a large clearing not far away, just across from a small waterhole. I decided to head off in that direction, hoping for the best.

In the middle of the clearing my tracker spotted something lying in the grass. We approached and with uncontainable smiles we found the cheetah. As we got closer we could see it panting frantically.

This cheetah had indeed made an impala kill during the heat of the day. The feast had already begun. The cheetah took some shade and managed to scan the surrounding clearings while trying to deal with its bulging belly.

The sun was hanging low on the horizon and this meant one thing for the cheetah. A keen eye would need to be kept as nocturnal predators would soon be lurking around. Before I could even finish thinking about whether a hyena would rock up or not, a rather young hyena arrived. It had obviously gone scouting as the temperature dropped. It spotted the cheetah from around fifty meters away. The hyena paused, assessed the situation and decided it was time to feast.

The young hyena rushed in, all guns blazing. The cheetah shot up in a flash, gave a highly disgusted hiss and spent no time lingering around the carcass.

Even though the hyena was still really young, the cheetah knows that one quick bite from the hyena could cause major damage and render it unable to hunt again. The cheetah already had a full belly and decided that the risk was not greater than the reward.

The hungry hyena wasted no time tucking into the impala carcass. Although he went scouting alone, there could be other clan members nearby and they would not hesitate to swoop in and steal an easy meal. I witnessed yet again how efficiently these hyenas are at ripping a carcass to shreds within a matter of a few minutes. The cheetah decided to call it quits all together. He moved out of the area and the hyena managed to feast in peace and quiet.

Spending time with leopards in trees

A question I get asked on a regular basis is “how often do you see leopards in trees”. This made me reflect on all my favourite sightings of leopards in trees and the various scenarios that played out.

There are various reasons why leopards might climb up trees. Some of these factors depend on the amount of predator pressure that the leopards may face. Leopards often get harassed by either hyenas or lions and will seek out a tree to climb if one is nearby.

Depending on the area of the respective leopards, some leopards may simply eat their meals on the ground. If it looks as if another predator is storming in to steal the meal, the leopard could hoist the kill with a swift leap up a sturdy, mature tree.

I remember spending an entire, sweltering hot, afternoon game drive with this leopard enjoying her meal. The sun eventually set and the deepest blue sky developed just before darkness descended, creating a wonderful contrast for this image.

Of all my sightings in the Kruger National Park, this is still my only one of a leopard in a tree with a kill. It was a real treat turning the corner on a lonely dirt road one morning and finding this female tucking into an impala.

This was the first sighting that I had of this youngster.  The mother had made a kill and the young son would growl at mom each time she dare came close to the kill.

Hands down one of the scariest looking male leopards that I have ever come across. This male had deep-set, piercing eyes and a nasty attitude. Just one look from this guy always sent shivers down my spine.

Mothers may leave their cubs in the safety of the tree tops while they are out hunting. The cubs are also more than capable of climbing trees from a very young age.

A young cub would not take its eyes and ears off of a clan of hyenas scurrying about the base of the tree. It seemed to have the deepest fascination in the hyenas below.

One of the most playful leopard cubs that I have spent time with. The cub was resting deep in a heavily foliaged tree. After some time, the cub tip toed along a branch which pointed in my direction and came to investigate what I was doing there.

My favourite female leopard, named Basile, has the worst luck when raising cubs and I was rooting hard for this cub to survive. Of all the identification spot patterns that I have seen, this cub had a unique 1:1 whisker spot pattern. This pattern represents the single spots on the top row of the left and right whisker lines. This was the last sighting that I had of this interesting cub before it too did not make it.

I developed a special love for this cub, the last litter from Basile. I watched Basile enter a small cave at the back of our lodge the evening before this cub was born. She kept the cubs hidden for about two weeks and then moved the cubs right before Christmas, passing by a field camera trap.

Usually when cubs are born we give them a few weeks to acclimatize to their new environment. I was lucky enough to find Basile moving her new litter a few days after this settling in period was over. The cubs posed on the fallen tree and mesmerized me with large, innocent eyes.

When leopards are roaming through their terriorty or actively hunting, one may find them climbing up a tree in order to have a better vantage point.

I remember tracking this leopard for over two hours one winter’s morning. The tracks eventually led my tracker and I in circles. We simply could not put the puzzle together. We were about to give up. My tracker instructed me to collect the vehicle and come back to fetch him. I walked a few paces ahead of him and heard a whistle coming from my tracker. I stopped and looked back at him. He was smiling victoriously while laughing at himself and pointed up at a tree a few meters away from us. Success!

One of the most relaxed and successful female leopards I have come across, scans the area across a thick drainage line, spotting some impala in the distance. She made her way towards the impala. It was nearly impossible to follow her through the thickets, but after much patience I was rewarded with seeing a successful hunt.

A heart breaking moment witnessing this mother leopard lying on this fallen tree calling hopelessly for about an hour for her missing cub. The cub was missing for a week already and I assume that baboons got hold of the cub when mom went out hunting that day.

If there was one leopard that exudes confidence, it would be this beauty. I found her far out of her territorial boundary for a few days. She moved through this new area as if she already owned it. She took a break and rested in this tree. She would scan the surrounding land to see who dare walk through her newly claimed area.

I do not get to spend a lot of time with this female leopard. She has good days and bad days. On bad days she will simply slink away into thick grass when she hears you approach. On a good day, especially when she is up a tree, she will give you all the time in the world. Although it is tricky to get great images of this female, I feel she is the most photogenic of all the female leopards in my area.

Turns out that I have seen a great deal of leopards in trees and I thoroughly enjoyed reflecting on all these magnificent memories.

Birding in Nelspruit Botanical Gardens

There are quite a few natural gems scattered across Nelspruit. On the edge of town one can visit the Lowveld National Botanical Garden. This is a SANBI run botanical garden, showcasing the exquisite fauna and flora that the Lowveld has to offer.

After entering the boom gates the entrance road winds across the Crocodile River by means of a short, one-way bridge. There is a pedestrian pathway along the bridge. Stopping for a few minutes along the bridge and scanning the river may yield some magical surprises. One bird to look out for would be the African Finfoot. I have scanned this river section a good couple of times, but always came off empty handed. On my last visit I finally struck it lucky. I was fortunate to see not one, but two Finfoot together busy having a scuffle in the water.

The terrain and different sections throughout the botanical garden varies considerably. This diversity promotes a rich bird life while walking along the various walkways. There has been some talk about some out-of-range birds coming to visit the area. One of these birds included the Purple-banded Sunbird. This little bird is usually found on the eastern border, moving through to Mozambique. I decided to keep my eyes open for this small, colorful sunbird and after a long search I finally managed to get a glimpse of one singing its heart out along the river.

Studying various bird calls also helps tremendously in trying to locate birds. This is especially true for the more shy birds, who often move around the thickets. The Red-Capped Robin-Chat is one such bird, but their obvious call easily narrows down the search area. I scanned the forest section vigorously and a glimpse of orange quickly caught my eye. I have seen this bird a few times before, but I have not had the opportunity the get some clear images.

After a good stroll through the garden I headed towards the reception. I heard a bird calling in the distance. It was a call I had only recognized by studying the call beforehand. This got me really excited as I had never seen this bird before. I quickly moved in the direction of the insistent call. I scanned the branches of a few tall trees. Then, as if it came to show off, a Scaly-throated Honeyguide landed close by.

It was another successful birding trip through this beautiful local gem and it is quickly becoming one of my favourite spots to get my nature fix.

Tumbela lions find a hippo

Recent reports were given that three young male lions had entered the section north of the Sand River. At first not much information was provided as to whom this new coalition may be, leading to a fair amount of confusion. After a bit of investigation it seems the consensus is that these three young male lions hail as the Tumbela male lions from the Nharu pride in the Manyelethi.

It was really exciting to watch these new male lions slowly push closer and closer towards the river. Would they eventually cross the river? What would happen if they met with the resident Othawa Pride or the Matimba male? These were questions that were asked on a daily basis.

One morning a dead hippo was found stranded along the edge of one of the large dams. It may have lost a territorial battle with the dominant male hippo of that dam.

With such a large carcass lying around in the sun, it is bound to attract some predators. Sure enough, the Tumbela males followed the scent of a fresh carcass in the air and discovered this bush banquet.

In the process, one of the Othawa lionesses made her way to the carcass too. During the feast she was seen mating with at least two of the brothers.

The arrival of these three brothers has caused a divide in the Othawa pride. There was a brief altercation between the Matimba male lion and the new male lions. It is unclear whether there was simply vocalizing and intimidation between the various males or whether a fight took place. The Othawa mother with the sub adult lions moved in a different direction, keeping the youngsters out of harm’s way. The two groups of lions have been circling each other ever since.

The Tumbela brothers have been roaring and advertising their presence almost daily. They have already explored a fair portion of the western section and show no signs of slowing down.

Are hyenas simply misunderstood?

When someone mentions the word “Hyena”, which thoughts and images come to mind? Scavengers, skulking thieves and ugly looking things? How about cute and cuddly, fascinating, curios or even misunderstood creatures?

Whichever side you may take, one thing is for certain. Hyenas, as with most animals, produce adorable babies.

Hyenas will often use large termite mounds as the base for their dens. They are fantastic at digging deep into the ground, but may often utilize previously dug out mounds where aardvark diggings occurred. These structures may be used for multiple seasons or as temporary housing until a more suitable den is found.

I recently stumbled across a hyena sunning itself on top of a termite mound. On closer inspection I noticed some movement from another tiny lifeform. It was a newborn suckling from its mother. Without trying to disturb the two, I used my binoculars to get a better visual. My eyes could not believe how tiny this little one was. It was hands down the youngest hyena I have ever come across. The little one was still struggling to keep its eyes open.

As the babies grow a little older their confidence levels soar and they develop a keen sense of curiosity. It does not take much to grab their attention. If you sit quietly and patiently near an active den, you may find youngster constantly popping their heads out of the ground to see who has come to pay them a visit.

After spending a few weeks inside the safety of their dug out holes, their sense of adventure kicks in. They will slowly start exploring the immediate surrounds of the den. This opens up a whole new world for them and triggers previous underutilized senses, especially their sense of touch and smell. There are so many new textures to become acquainted with. Something as simple as a broken branch or twig can entertain a youngster for quite some time.

As tempting as venturing far and wide may seem, the little ones know that they dare not move too far afield. Danger may strike at any given moment.

Being one of the dominant carnivore species comes with great responsibility. Female hyenas make magnificent mothers. They are highly protective and caring. Besides keeping a constant eye out for lions and watching over the base, they will make time to play with the youngsters which often results in great entertainment. At times mom’s tail becomes a chew toy, whether voluntary or not. During other times mom simply becomes a trampoline while she basks in the warming, morning sun.

If there is one call that is synonymous with the sound of Africa, a sound that quickly shatters the silence of the bush, it has to be the infamous call of a spotted hyena. The cacophony of nervous chuckles and eerie laughs generated by these hyenas will be etched in your memory for ever. It may be enough for you to lie awake at night pondering whether they are indeed skulking scavengers or simply misunderstood creatures.

The Matimba male and Othawa lions hunt a buffalo

There is no doubt that lions are extremely powerful predators. Sometimes it might be hard to fathom just how strong and efficient these animals might be.

I recently had an encounter of a lifetime with a resident lion pride. The Othawa lions and the Matimba male were resting at a large dam. All of a sudden there were three old male buffalo that arrived for a late afternoon drink. The buffalo had absolutely no idea that there were lions just a couple of meters away. They headed down to the water with their backs turned to the lions.

The lions could not believe their luck. Without wasting any time, the females got up from their slumber. The young Othawa lions also got up and started moving together with the females. This was the first time that I have seen the youngster’s even attempt to hunt or join a hunt.

As the lions crouched down and calculated their next move, a large elephant intervened. The elephant gave one big headshake and this immediately made the buffalo look up. One of the buffalo turned around. He almost stood face to face with lion pride.

Adrenaline kicked in and the buffalo ran straight towards the lions. I am not sure who got a bigger fright, the buffalo or the young lions. They all scattered. The buffalo locked onto its target and ran after one of the Othawa females. The rest of the pride ran after it and tried their best to encircle the large buffalo.

It was only at this point that the Matimba male lion realised that his nap had been interrupted. He got up to see what all the fuss was about. It was a little comical to see him just standing there, taking in the whole spectacle. With clearly no end in sight, the Matimba decided to step in and show who is really boss.

There was an initial scuffle and the Matimba managed to grab hold of the buffalo’s back. The buffalo thrashed around wildly, like a scene out of a rodeo show gone wrong. The buffalo managed to break free and dashed towards the dam wall. The pride of lions followed in hot pursuit. By this time the elephant and the other two buffalo had fled the scene.

The lions were able to catch up to the buffalo quickly. This time around, the entire pride jumped in and every member had a role to play. One of the Othawa females managed to grab the buffalo by the mouth and tried to suffocate it. The Matimba male jumped onto the back, trying to break the spine, while the older of the young Othawa males tried to pin the buffalo down from behind. The youngest of the Othawa lions started to dig into the hind legs.

It seems that they had finally managed to get a good grip on their prey. The buffalo gave all it had and managed to fling off the female in the front. He managed to get the tip of his horn into the female, but not causing any major injury.

This was the first time that I had seen the Matimba make any effort or attempt at using his strength and power as a male lion. I had instantly gained new respect for the old male lion. He was not going to give up his hard earned meal.

After a great deal of struggle, the lions managed to successfully take down the buffalo. They spent the next three days feasting along the water’s edge. This ordeal provided a great learning curve for the young Othawa lions and the Matimba male held onto his legacy as a power not to be trifled with.