The hills are calling

A change is as good as a holiday they say. When that change is better than the holiday that most dream of you know you’ve made a great move.

I find myself in a different part of South Africa yet again. I have recently moved to Leopard Hills Private Game Reserve in the world renowned Sabi Sand Reserve. Within a month of being here I have seen absolutely incredible sightings and experienced many great things.

One experience that certainly stands out is being surrounded by leopards that are completely relaxed in your presence. I witnessed this young male steal a kill from a female leopard while she was stranded in the same tree due to hyenas waiting at the base of that tree.

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Coming across some of the older and more dominant male leopards is also a truly special experience. They exude confidence and power and often allow you in their presence either by resting in front of your vehicle or simply walking alongside it.

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Within my first few evening game drives I have spotted some great owl sightings too.

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There is a great variety of birds around the reserve too which help to round off the overall safari experience.

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With the Sabi Sand Reserve open to Kruger National Park, the elephants move around freely and they are often seen wandering through the grassy plains.

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One of the treats is when the wild dog packs make their way back onto our property. These animals are highly endangered carnivores. It has been over a year since I have had the pleasure to witness these animals.

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Heading out early on drive often presents itself with different views of the animals as with this male lion waking up to the rising sun.

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In and around the lodge you may also find some of the smaller creatures that live in the bush.

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When I get a break and feel like heading off to the more remote areas of the reserve I always seem to find myself gravitating towards this secluded spot along the Sand river.

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From kittens to cubs

I clearly remember the day I approached the corner of a little rocky outcrop. Standing proudly on one of the rocks was a cheetah. Not just any cheetah. A mother with four overly excited newly born cubs ready to take on the world.

That was 6 months ago and I’ve watched how these little cubs have grown into beautiful, elegant and playful sub-adult felines. Up to now three of the cubs have survived the harsh realities of the African bush.

Some of my favourite moments spent with them are during feeding time. Their mother has become a highly skilled hunter and she has provided endless meals for them. I simply adore how they tuck into their meals with such gusto while mom lays one side, patiently waiting for them to finish their share.

One thing that stands out from their growth spurts is how long their little legs have become. They no longer resemble the little balls of fluff from 6 months ago. They now run around on long, lanky legs which will eventually aid them in attaining their notorious running speeds.

Each one has already started developing interesting little personalities. Curiosity still gets the better of them and often they will come closer to investigate who and what you are. I can’t help but gaze into their beautiful, bright brown eyes.

After running around and jumping all over one another they will move aside and spend some time on their own. Often I will find them gazing into space, seemingly deep in thought or perhaps just tuning into their environment.

It has been incredible to surround myself with these little bundles of joy. I really hope that nature affords me the opportunity to witness some more of their shenanigans in times to come.

The last laugh

It’s no laughing matter when you find yourself in the clutches of one of nature’s wisest predators.

I see many guests out on safari and a lot of them dream about witnessing a kill. I was lucky enough to witness such an occasion.

Spending enough time out in the bush will trigger an appreciation for the smaller creatures and often overlooked sightings. The kill I refer to is not by one of the sought after big cats or canine species. What I witnessed was a kill from one of the nocturnal species operating opportunistically during the day.

I took a drive along a very scenic river line. As I cleared a thicket along the winding river bend, something struck my eye. Positioned in a large Jackalberry tree I saw an owl. A Verreaux’s Eagle Owl at that. This is South Africa’s largest owl species. Besides its grand stature, it is easily recognizable by its pink eyelids.

I not only saw one owl, but two. I marveled at the sighting before I saw what the one owl was up to. In its claws lay a lifeless Laughing Dove. It had fallen victim to this highly skillful hunter.

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The magnificent owl proceeded to pluck the feathers from its soon to be meal.  I had positioned myself a fair distance away as to not disturb the bird whilst feeding. I watched how it used its talons and beak with precision, dissecting its meal carefully and devouring the flesh.

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Once the owl had its fair share of this little laughing dove it picked up the carcass and flew off deeper into the shaded tree. It presented its mate with a little gift.

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​At my doorstep

In the bush anything is possible. This could not be further from the truth as I witnessed something incredible at my doorstep.
What started out as a normal day in the bush would most certainly not end as a normal day in the bush. I started my day with a game drive and it was relatively quiet in the veld. I headed out to the area close to where I stay. As I neared the area I saw some Kudu bulls making a run for their lives. I looked around and found some Impala looking anxiously in one direction.

Impala alarm calls filled the air in the direction which the others were staring at. I quickly made my way to the scene. En route I found two male cheetahs calling and quickly making their way towards my accommodation. The two cats led me to the most incredible sight. 

Down on the ground laid another cheetah with an impala ram struggling in its throat. The other two joined in the feast.

This coalition wasted no time in tucking into the freshly killed antelope. They were on high alert, each taking a few seconds to scan the immediate environment for potential predators. 

It was fascinating to watch the efficiency with which they dismantled the carcass and devoured their meal. Within a few minutes most of the flesh had been consumed and they all looked rather satisfied with themselves.

​Moving out

The first rain of the rainy season has arrived and the Lowveld is buzzing with new life.
The air is filled with the frenzied calls of the migratory Woodlands Kingfisher and Red Chested Cuckoo. The leaves cover the trees once again and green grass cover previously barren land.

I have been noticing some constant Black-backed Jackal activity in a certain area while on drive with my guests. I kept wondering what the reason for this was. I had hoped that it might be a den site nearby. 

One morning I headed out on drive again, bypassing the same area where the jackals had been seen so many times before. Out in the open, parading on a fallen tree stump stood two jackal pups. My dreams had come true. It was a den site indeed.

These pups wasted no time investigating their new surrounds, moving outside of the safety of their den. I saw four little ones in total, but these two were by far the most active of the litter. As with most youngsters they were very playful and an air of mischief surrounded them. 

The mother lay patiently nearby watching over her offspring. She looked tired and exhausted. 

I cannot imagine it being an easy task looking after four energetic jackal pups.

Well spotted

Dull grey and brown hues dominate the bush as it nears the end of the dry season. This in turn provides the perfect camouflage for animals in their natural environment.

I treat every day in the bush as a new day and wonder what surprises might unfold.

The morning started off as it typically would. I took some guests out on a safari drive and it felt like a rather productive drive. I made my way down to a lion sighting and before I reached the area something beside the road caught my eye.

With the dry, dead grass still present I had to look twice before I realised what I was witnessing. In the grass, not far from me at all, lay a tiny cub. A cheetah cub at that.

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It was incredibly difficult to contain my excitement and to not make a noise in fear of frightening the cub off. The cub raised itself from hiding and presented itself.

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The cub moved through the grass and I scanned the area for its mother or siblings. Another cub revealed itself.

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Then I spotted the mother cheetah and she had with her another two cubs.

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I looked back at my guests and there were just smiles and tears on their faces. I couldn’t believe how lucky we were to be witnessing this. The mother kept a watchful eye over her litter, but gave them the freedom to explore their new, unfamiliar surroundings.

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The little ones were incredibly curious and investigated a few fallen tree trunks and played with some branches.

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The cubs are still young and fluffy. They all still have their distinctive white fur along their backs. It is said that this is to help deter predators. The white fur on their back resembles that of the fearless and ferocious honey badger.

It was fascinating listening to the myriad of calls the mother used to communicate with her cubs. She would instruct them not to wander too far astray. Being the naughty little cubs that they are, they kept pushing boundaries and came closer towards the vehicle. A sharp chirp or rumble from the mom would instantly make the cubs retreat. Then they would head back on the same path and try and push the boundary even further than before.

Eventually she summoned them all and they left back into the thickets of the bush trailing behind their mother.

Go Birding

“Could you please show us some birds” is not a phrase I hear too often when heading out with guests on safari.

With a country as diverse as South Africa, shouldn’t a day out in nature include a little more than the request to see the Big 5 or the larger mammals? 

With an abundance of protected biodiversity areas and over 900+ species to be found around the country, there are many species to seek out from amateurs to serious enthusiasts alike.

One does not always have to head out to large game reserves to enjoy this growing hobby. A simple stroll through a green area, mountain, riverine or a slow walk along the beach front could spark an interest in birding. You could even start by creating a feeding station and waterhole in your own backyard.

Besides viewing the copious amount of shapes and colours on offer, there are many interesting birding behaviours to be observed. The male Red Crested Korhaan will fly straight into the air and plummet back towards the ground only to open its wings at the last moment to potentially woo a female. The Bearded Woodpecker has a barbed tongue in order to remove larvae from holes in trees. The Green-backed Heron uses insects as lures to catch fish along shallow water edges. Lapwings will feign injured wings in order to distract predators away from its exposed ground nests.

Birding has become relatively easy with the help of technology and apps for your smartphone by helping you to quickly identify birds by shape, distribution & habitat maps and even the recordings of their calls.

I’ve collected a few photos while spending some time at a small waterhole close to home over the last two months.

Many birds can also be enjoyed en route to Big five and other larger mammal sightings.

Even moving around a campsite can allow some time for birding.

The night does not exclude birding activities. I am fortunate to have two African Barred Owlets that roost above my room at night.

With nature conservation awareness growing ever stronger, birding is no longer just a past time activity or hobby for the aged. 

​Coming in strong

Understading animal movements and behaviours can provide you with exceptionally rewarding sightings. This was the case for me this week.
I stumbled on some lionesses and cubs walking hastily down a road towards me. They were still a fair distance away from me. I anticipated their intended direction and headed back to reposition. I decided to position myself off the road, further back and parallel to their movement. As I stood waiting I saw two giraffe standing close to me. One of the lionesses increased her movement to a trot. 

I assumed that she saw the giraffe too. As she approached, a troop of baboons in the trees above saw her and started alarm calling frantically. The giraffe immediately noticed the lioness and ran for cover.

The female failed and ceased the hunt. She continued along the path in the same direction, followed by the rest of the pride.

I followed behind the pride and a little way down the road they side stepped into the bush. I drove further ahead and stopped near an opening in the thicket. Without waiting too long I saw the first female appear through the thicket. The rest followed.

These lions were on a mission and I could see that they were in no way going to stop or change their course. Ahead of me was a large cutline and alongside it was a spacious opening in the thicket. Without a doubt the lions would head for that opening and then cross the cutline to their destination.

I wasted no time and moved well ahead of the felines, anticipating their approach. This minor calculation paid off and sooner than later all the lions emerged from the block and aproached me head on. One by one they walked straight towards me and then veered off at the last moment to continue their journey. 

It was an incredible moment. The feeling felt from watching each lion stare me down before considering their movement past me is beyond words.

Tuck in

Escaping economics, even in the bush, is impossible. Supply and demand will inevitably even itself out especially when lions are involved.

Although waterholes support a great diversity of life forms and act as points where animals congregate, they also serve as easy pickings for predators. This was the case recently when I approached a little waterhole.

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Instead of finding general game drinking water and then casually moving off, I found a lioness moving closer to the water. As I turned the corner I was greeted with an incredible sighting.

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Lions had killed a zebra and had tucked heavily into the carcass. There wasn’t much left by the time I arrived. There were two females and some cubs finishing off the remains of the unsuspecting animal.

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The cubs wasted no time and ensured that they too get their lion’s share of meat. One of the little ones took full advantage of his share (and possibly its siblings share). Its belly was so swollen that rolling over and lazing about in the sun was the only order for the day.

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​A lovers’ embrace

Scaly, leathery and prehistoric is one of many words that one might like to use to describe a reptile. The lowly Water Monitor is no exception to this description.
After spending an exhilarating 6 months in the Lowveld bush preparing to be a ranger, I have finally started working at Karongwe Private Game Reserve. Amongst the innumerable fun filled activities that come with being a ranger, I too enjoy some time off. This is often spent sitting, appreciating the sounds and silence, at a little waterhole close to my camp.

By now I have realised and firmly believe that patience is a virtue.

One afternoon I headed down to my oasis. After not waiting too long, I heard a soft rustle in the bushes that cover the northern waters edge. Out of the coverage a water monitor emerged. 

Not only did she reveal herself, but she also carried with her a passenger. I have not had a lot of experience with these reptiles yet and thought this behavior to be strange. The smaller lizard made a concerted effort not to dismount the larger female as she moved around.

After moving sluggishly for approximately a meter, the female ceased movement. By watching the insistent behaviour of the male, I surmised that they were about to mate. 

The male shifted his position atop his companion. In one swift motion he instinctively whipped her tail sideways with his. What ensued seemed like the makings of a lovers’ embrace. However, judging the relationship carefully it seemed as if all the effort and gusto he had put into the activity was in vein. She simply lay there, counting down the minutes until she could peacefully bask in the sun.

Soon afterwards they dismounted. He proceeded to enjoy a lengthy swim while she continued, not surprisingly, to laze around in the afternoon sun.