What a spectacular moment being able to watch the circle of life play out in full swing. Never did I imagine that I would witness a mother cheetah raise her two cubs to adulthood and in turn raise their own cubs.
One early morning game drive I headed up to the northern section of my reserve. Someone had gone ahead of me and I was totally dumbfounded when they called in a mother cheetah with two cubs. I almost thought that I did not hear correctly. Cheetah is not a sighting that I get to enjoy all too often. Luckily I was just around the corner from the sighting and I managed to join in on this special occasion. When I arrived, another surprise was in store. The mother cheetah had managed to take down an impala. Word has it that this mother made her way down from the Thornybush game reserve. She allegedly lost three of her five cubs to predators along her journey. She was left with one male and one female cub. This back story made it even more special as sat and watched two healthy cheetah cubs tucking into their morning meal with great enthusiasm.
Over the next two years I got quick glimpses of the brother and sister duo. During some sightings they were still operating together and after a while they had split up and moved into their solitary lifestyles.
As lockdown 2020 started, big news broke out. The female cheetah (sister) had just given birth to her own set of cubs. For those who know, cheetah cubs are the cutest things alive (check this post to see the cuteness). I wondered whether I would actually have the privilege to see these cubs.
There was one moment during lockdown where I had to pick up one of the safari vehicles from the reserve gate. As I was making my way back to the lodge, I passed two safari vehicles parked on either side of the road. I did not want to disturb any sighting that they may be enjoying. I bypassed them and had a quick glance to see if I could spot what they were viewing. Nothing, so I carried on. As I got back to the lodge I got a message saying that I drove past the cheetah with her two cubs. Imagine my frustration in that moment!
Pass on another year and I finally got my moment to view the circle of life come into play. The female cheetah had managed to raise her litter through the first year. The two cubs, now juveniles, no longer sported their white, honey-badger like coats, but they still carry some of the fluff on the scruff of their necks.
The three streamlined felines moved gracefully through some large grassland clearings. They took their time to scout the lay of the land on top of some termite mounds. After following them for some distance, they settled on one of the mounds.
In the distance a herd of impala stood under the shade of a large Marula tree. Some of them were grazing, some were just scanning the savannah, keeping an eye out for predators. The mother cheetah made the first move. She assumed her stalking position, keeping her head low and in line with her shoulders. She moved with calculated steps, the sun shining sharply behind her. Her two youngsters sat patiently on the termite mound and watched how mom would execute her plan.
One of the youngsters could not contain his excitement and decided to follow in mom’s footsteps. It is always incredible to watch how fully focused these animals are when they lock eyes with their prey. Unfortunately something must have gone wrong. The impala must have picked up the scent of the approaching cheetah and they gave off their typical alarming snorts. The impala moved off and mom took their spot in the shade of the Marula tree.
Mom signaled for the two juveniles to come and join her in the shade and call it a morning for hunting. I sat with these majestic cats for a little while longer and enjoyed thinking back to my first moment seeing the mom as a cub and how she is successfully raising her own litter now.
Favourites will always be favourites. This is especially true when you have watched wildlife survive the elements and battle against the odds since a young age.
I have been fortunate to witness the Othawa male grow up since he was a young, subadult, male lion.
I remember how quickly he developed his mane, from sporting just a few scraggly hairs to developing a full head of hair. One of his greatest challenges was trying to avoid the two Matimba males lions when they entered the area. Being too young to fight and defend himself at that age, his only option was to leave the Othawa pride and start his adult life afresh. One of my last sightings of him leaving was hearing him roar for the first time. It was as if he was saying he is on his way, but he will be back.
There was a period of a number of months where I had no sightings of the Othawa male. He moved deep into neighbouring properties where I could not traverse. All I heard was that after some time he managed to work his charm and join the Mhangene pride as the pride male.
I have had a few encounters with the Mhangene pride before the male joined. They also went through a rough patch where they lost or abandoned a great deal of their youngsters. One thing that I remember since my first encounter with the pride is how large the lionesses are. These ladies were hunting buffalo on their own and I knew that only good things could come from this pride.
After a while it was confirmed that the Othawa male had secured his future and joined up with the formidable Mhangene pride. This combo was destined to be. After tucking into multiple buffalo kills, courtesy of the ladies, the male beefed up and took on his mighty adult stature. When I eventually caught glimpse of this golden boy again, I could not believe his transformation. He looked like a real lion. One straight out of the story books.
Continuing with his successful takeover of the pride, he has subsequently sired a litter of cubs. One of the cubs is doing really well and growing up quickly. I am not entirely sure what happened to the siblings.
It has been an interesting and exciting journey for the Othawa male thus far. I hope to get to spend more time with him as he enters the prime phase of his life and share his journey with all of you.
Some of the first images that may come to mind when one thinks of leopards are elusive, shy, and secretive characters. As much as this may be their very nature, there are some areas where leopards have become accustomed to game viewing vehicles spending time around them.
One of the first mature and relaxed male leopards that I have come across is a male called Ravenscourt. He was born in February 2012 and was sired by Kashane (father) and Ravenscourt female (mother). The first time I got to spend time with this gorgeous boy he was sitting casually at a water hole. Ravenscourt was entering his prime at around six years old. I clearly recall noticing how round his cheeks were, as if he had two tennis balls stuck in there.
His behaviour was completely contrary to the general characteristics of a leopard. He sat confidently, completely unperturbed with our presence. He tolerated us and would hardly even look my way.
Ravenscourt was quickly securing the status of dominant male in the area when we first met. He had three major contenders to deal with namely Dayone, Nyelethi and Torchwood. He managed to overcome these challengers and set clearly defined boundaries for himself. Although he is missing his top left canine tooth, his tall and buff physique puts him at the top of the bushveld fight club.
The territory that Ravenscourt has acquired over the last couple of years has expanded a great deal. He pushes from the Sand River all the way down to the southern boundary of the reserve. This covers an area of approximately 75km2. With this amount of ground to cover, Ravenscourt constantly needs to be on the move. This can make tracking this male leopard a frustrating process. I have witnessed the speed at which he walks and keeping up with him on foot can be exhausting. Loosing track of him for only a brief moment can result in starting the search almost from scratch. One thing I always hope for is a territorial rasp. This is a sure way to get a direction indicator and to get a sense of how far away he is of you.
Being the dominant male leopard certainly has its advantages. Ravenscourt’s territory overlaps various female leopard territories namely Basile, Thlangisa, Khokovela, Kelly Dam and Boulders. As he moves through different sections of his territory, he is bound to bump into some of these females. I have been extremely fortunate to spend time witnessing these leopards perform their mating rituals. As mating can take up to five days, sometimes the females have to keep up with him as he insists on patrolling his vast territory. He has however only sired two successful leopards, Hlambela male and Tisela female.
One of the highlights that I have witnessed with this male was an unexpected yet successful hunt. I found Ravenscourt moving on and off a dusty road while patrolling and marking his territory. He eventually veered off into the bush and I managed to follow him through. All of a sudden he just darted into a thicket. I switched off my vehicle and heard a scuffle happening inside the bushes. A second later Ravenscourt emerged carrying a duiker in his mouth. I could not believe my luck! Witnessing a sighting like this does not happen often. He made sure the coast was clear and then sat down close to where I was stationed and fed on his meal.
With his experience gained over the last few years, he has become a highly successful hunter. I have spent a considerable time with him feeding on impala and warthogs dragged up a tree. Being the size that he is, he will often feed on the ground. I have seen him confidently stand his ground to a hyena until the scavenger moved off.
From time to time I get to face Ravenscourt head on, whether that is in a vehicle or on foot. He has a certain look which he gives that makes you realise how insignificant you are. Yet there is still something so magical about locking eyes with these magnificent animals.
All in all spending time with this male is an absolute pleasure. He will usually provide you with ample time to take in his beauty and watch how he goes about his daily business. He is also a very photogenic leopard and capturing some memorable images of him seems like a piece of cake.
The beauty about heading out on safari is that it is a relatively open ended adventure. You are generally presented with a wide network of roads and different directions in which to roam. How you choose to navigate around the reserves is up to you.
There are many different approaches that you can take when spending your time on safari. Some people love to drive around all day and cover long distances, taking in the vast landscapes of the game reserves, while keeping a keen eye out for animals along the way. Others prefer a slower approach and would rather head off to a quiet water source and wait patiently for animals to come to them.
Both approaches can yield phenomenal game viewing opportunities. The post below highlights some of the fantastic sightings I have witnessed during drives spent along water sources.
Depending on one’s level of patience, there is so much more to look out for along the water sources than only the larger animals. Birding can be a great way to pass some time. Some birds like the Pied Kingfisher and Malachite Kingfisher will often perch on open branches or reeds and dive down at lightning speed hoping to strike at some fish below.
If you scan the reed beds along the water’s edge, you may notice a heron that is standing motionless, gazing at the water waiting to spear a fish or a frog.
If you spend enough time scanning up and down the water system, you may just strike it lucky and get to see some of the more elusive and rare birds like a Squacco Heron or African Finfoot. Sometimes even the smaller and more common species like a Three-banded Plover can provide endless entertainment.
One of the biggest treats to the ‘sit and wait’ strategy is randomly having one of the big cats rock up unexpectedly for a drink. This does not happen as frequently and many factors like time of day and weather conditions, together with some luck, play a large role. One may have to find them moving towards a water source, go ahead of them and wait at the water’s edge and anticipate where they may come down for a drink.
Cats tend to consume a fair amount of water in one go so time spent with them at the water’s edge is a rewarding one and should allow enough time to prepare for a good image. One of my favourite sounds to listen to is the sound of the cats lapping up water, if the distance and conditions allow it. Cats, as with most animals, are extremely wary of heading down to the water. Having their head down and back exposed puts these animals in a vulnerable position. You will often see them looking around with great focus as they quench their thirst.
Sometimes cats do not play along with you and simply go lay down on a rock and take in the scenic waterfront views with you.
When it comes to the larger mammals and water, many of them will use this time to bath themselves or interact among themselves to strengthen the social bonds within the various herds.
Elephants most definitely love the water. Besides drinking up to one hundred odd litres of water a day, they also love to splash themselves to cool down. Sometimes they just seem to make a mess around the water’s edge, because they can.
Whenever I approach water, I quickly scan to see if I can spot a hippo or signs thereof. Not only for safety reasons, but I also find them a pleasure to view. Sometimes you will have to wait a few minutes before they lift their heads out of the water and take a deep breath. The most entertaining part of viewing hippos is hearing their comical grunt like call. To me it sounds as if they are mocking someone who has just told a really boring joke.
There always seems to be some kind of animal making its way down to the water. Sometimes a warthog with its youngster or some antelope like impala or kudu will pop in for a quick drink. Sometimes this lasts ten to fifteen seconds and the animal moves off as if it was never there.
If you head off on a private safari at a private game reserve, you may have the opportunity to alight from the vehicle, if the field guide deems it safe and appropriate to do so. One of my favourite and unexpected moments was hanging around some large boulders along a rivers edge. Between two of the rocks a water monitor emerged. I almost had to look twice as this reptile carried an enormous fish in its mouth. It had to fight off a smaller water monitor in order to keep its prized meal.
Regardless of the time of day or which season you may be enjoying your safari; all animals need to go for a drink at some point. Why not hang around the water’s edge and see what might show up.
There are some leopards that just manage to creep into your heart, no matter what it is that they do, or how it is that they act.
A young female leopard, Tisela, is one of these leopards. Tisela means the patient one or the one who waits. She is finally independent from her mother, Boulders. This feline, together with her brother, Hlambela, had a rough start when their mom sustained a serious injury to one of her legs. It seemed as if Boulders abandoned her litter at around six months old. Usually cubs of this age will struggle to feed themselves. Tisela and Hlambela quickly formed a formidable partnership and managed to learn how to hunt for mongoose. This turned out to be a major success strategy for the two young leopard cubs. Boulders eventually healed from her injury and reunited with Tisela and Hlambela.
The dynamic duo split from Boulders at a fairly early age and the two youngsters formed a little partnership. The siblings kept each other company and formed a mean mongoose hunting party. Unfortunately for Tisela, Hlambela started to grow faster than what she could. He grew taller and stronger and as a result he would bully her off any food that the two managed to gather. The two leopards eventually split and went their separate ways.
Tisela has done phenomenally well to avoid confrontations with some of the more dominant female leopards in the area. She has managed to carve out a small territory that runs parallel to her mom’s current territory. This little wedge has a few prominent water holes and plenty of antelope and smaller creatures for her to survive.
My latest interaction with this gorgeous female was finding her draped over a fallen over tree trunk. Someone had mentioned that Boulders had made a kill and lost it almost immediately to a clan of hyenas. This commotion summoned the curious Tisela. Realising that she would not be able to join in on the feast, she watched from a safe distance and simply relaxed for the remainder of the evening.
I have had the privilege to spend a considerable amount of time with Tisela and Hlambela since they were born around July 2018. Although this little lady can have quite the fighting spirit in her, thanks to her mom Boulders, she often comes across as far too mature for her age. This may be due to the relaxed nature of her father, Ravenscourt. I have only seen Tisela riled up on two occasions. The first was when she was around eight months old and a hyena grabbed one of her mongoose kills. The feisty feline rushed in and grabbed the kill from the hyena without even flinching. She scurried back up a tree with her reclaimed prize, looking down on the hyena who was more than triple her size.
One other time I saw Tisela loaded with energy was during lockdown 2020 when she hopelessly chased after two squirrels stranded up a tree. The startled squirrels literally ran circles around her.
Most of the time, Tisela has a very reserved nature and will casually watch you as you marvel at her beauty. Once she has had enough attention she will simply look away and show her disinterest in you.
Near or far, the sound of male lions roaring is sure to get you well excited for your safari adventure.
The Tumbela male lions have firmly claimed their spot in the western section of the Sabi Sand Game Reserve. The three brothers wasted no time figuring out who might be ruling the area. They quickly swooped in and sniffed out the Othawa lion pride. It has been an exciting few months watching these boys settle in and grow up.
When they arrived, one could only just see the manes of these male lions. Over the last few months they have grown a considerable amount of hair and are quickly showing signs of maturity.
The Tumbela coalition is also highly successful at hunting and they won’t hesitate to take down a buffalo for dinner. A couple of weeks ago, one of the lighter maned brothers had a nasty scuffle with a buffalo. It seems that he has injured one of his legs. For the first couple of weeks he could not apply any pressure to the foot and was seen limping around.
This injury set the individual back slightly. Often the other two Tumbela brothers would walk way ahead of him, as the injured brother struggled to keep up. The lone male would hang back for a few days at a time, sometimes managing to hang around with the Othawa pride. This would at least ensure that he gets a substantial meal.
Not being able to feed as frequently as his siblings has resulted in a slight loss of condition. Although he is taking strain, he does manage to relocate his two brothers after a few days. As time heals all wounds, it looks as if he is starting to pressure on his foot again. His pace is still slow, but he is definitely on the mend.
The Tumbela lions have been mating with the Othawa lionesses over the course of the summer season. There are claims that the younger adult female is pregnant. I eagerly look forward to welcoming new lion cubs to the area.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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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.
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.
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.