(Canon EOS 70D, 100mm, 1/160sec, f/5.6, ISO-400)

From a view to a kill (with apologies to Ian Fleming)

Warning: This post contains images of the aftermath of a lion kill

It had been an iffy game drive. You know the sort – lots of drive and not a lot of game.

It was our last evening at Cheetah Plains in the Sabi Sands Wildtuin. For three days we had had some of the most incredible encounters with wildlife and Andrew, our guide, was hoping for more of the same that night. The animals, however, had other plans.

We had seen a solitary bull impala, an ostrich in the distance and some elephants having a dust-bath as the Sun sank below the horizon.

Elephants having a dust bath at sunset (Canon EOS 70D, 115mm, 1/200sec, f/4.5, ISO-400)

Elephants having a dust bath at sunset (Canon EOS 70D, 115mm, 1/200sec, f/4.5, ISO-400)

As Andrew drove around trying to find animals we just found the odd one scattered here and there: the tail end of a group of elephants leaving Sydney’s Dam; a zebra with a young foal; a couple of waterbucks.

A zebra and her foal, taken after sunset (Canon EOS 70D, 235mm, 1/400sec, f/5, ISO-10000)

A zebra and her foal, taken after sunset (Canon EOS 70D, 235mm, 1/400sec, f/5, ISO-10000)

Eventually Andrew appeared to admit defeat and headed off down a track to a suitable spot for our sundowners.

Defeat, however, is not a word in Andrew’s vocabulary. Even as we drove along, chasing the rapidly retreating orange sky, he was scanning the radio frequencies for any indication of a sighting. Suddenly he halted and asked us if we minded missing out on our sundowners. There were some lions heading into an area where we had traversing rights. He couldn’t guarantee that they would keep on coming but we could head over to the boundary and wait for them. Lions or a G&T? – there was no contest.

Ten minutes later we stopped at the side of the main road south from the Gowrie gate.

Within minutes the last lingerings of the light had succumbed to the deep black of an African night. We waited in the dark, straining to hear any sound that might indicate the presence of the predators.

How Andrew picked his parking spot, I’ll never know but, some 15 minutes later, we found ourselves in the right place at the right time. The first indication that something was about to happen was the soft purring of a Toyota engine – not the cat sound that we were waiting for but its precursor. Then, we spotted the orange glow of a spotlight flicking around the vegetation. Finally, Andrew whispered, “There they are!” My Western eyes couldn’t cope with the dark as well as his, so I saw nothing until he swung his spotlight onto the lead cat.

Our first sight of the Nkuhuma Pride, caught in Andrew's spotlight (Canon EOS 70D, 100mm, 1/15sec, f/4.5, ISO-12800)

Our first sight of the Nkuhuma Pride, caught in Andrew’s spotlight (Canon EOS 70D, 100mm, 1/15sec, f/4.5, ISO-12800)

There were five lionesses in all, the Nkuhuma pride. They each walked silently in front of our vehicle and crossed the road heading towards Sydney’s Dam. Andrew’s instincts earlier on that afternoon had been right, it was just his timing that had been off.

The pride came within the range of my flashgun (Canon EOS 70D, 100mm, 1/160sec, f/5.6, ISO-400)

The pride came within the range of my flashgun (Canon EOS 70D, 100mm, 1/160sec, f/5.6, ISO-400)

As the Land Cruiser from Elephant Plains turned away, we took over the escort duties. To me, they just looked like they were out for a walk but Andrew knew otherwise.

Andrew's positioning had been perfect, the pride crossed the road right in front of the vehicle (Canon EOS 70D, 100mm, 1/160sec, f/5.6, ISO-400)

Andrew’s positioning had been perfect, the pride crossed the road right in front of the vehicle (Canon EOS 70D, 100mm, 1/160sec, f/5.6, ISO-400)

He told us that he thought they were hunting and that they would probably go after the herd of impala that were grazing just below the dam. Driving around the pride, he took us to a position overlooking the impala and turned off his engine and lights.

Turning off the lights was essential if we were not going to influence the outcome of the hunt – we didn’t want to give either species an advantage. Sitting in the vehicle on a dark, moonless night, we could hear the impalas chomping on the grass but we couldn’t see them. Neither could we see the lions. For all we knew, they could have walked past us and on into the depths of the night.

Everyone in the vehicle was silent as we waited for events to unfold.

Suddenly there was a sound like distant thunder as more than a hundred tiny hooves pounded into the dusty soil. Then … nothing. Total silence. Nothing moved.

With the spotlight back on we could see what was happening (Canon EOS 70D, 100mm, 1/30sec, f/4.5, ISO-12800)

With the spotlight back on we could see what was happening (Canon EOS 70D, 100mm, 1/30sec, f/4.5, ISO-12800)

Andrew had just started to say that he thought the lions had blown their chance when we saw a female impala sprint in our direction. She was followed closely by a lioness. When the hunter stumbled on the uneven ground, it looked like this particular impala was going to live to graze another day. Just then two more lionesses sprinted in from our right. There was the briefest of squeaks from the impala and then the hunt was over.

The antelope was shredded in seconds as the hungry lios tore into their meal (Canon EOS 70D, 100mm, 1/160sec, f/5.6, ISO-400)

The antelope was shredded in seconds as the hungry lios tore into their meal (Canon EOS 70D, 100mm, 1/160sec, f/5.6, ISO-400)

Within seconds the five lionesses had shredded the unfortunate antelope.

The lions shared the kill without any bickering (Canon EOS 70D, 250mm, 1/160sec, f/5.6, ISO-400)

The lions shared the kill without any bickering (Canon EOS 70D, 250mm, 1/160sec, f/5.6, ISO-400)

In more than 30 years of safaris I had never seen one animal kill another (apart from on TV) and I hadn’t been sure how I would react when I saw my first kill. In the event I found it exhilarating. I know that an animal had just lost its life but, in doing so, it had extended the lives of five other animals. It is how nature works. Until it died, the impala had had a good life. Much better, I suspect, than the animals whose meat I eat on a daily basis.

What happened next was totally unexpected.

As the lions were enjoying their meal, the air filled with a strange sound that was a cross between a scream and a cackle. It was unlike anything that I have ever heard before. At least seven hyenas had arrived and they wanted their piece of the action.

One of the hyenas can be seen in the background as the lions carry on eating (Canon EOS 70D, 100mm, 1/160sec, f/5.6, ISO-400)

One of the hyenas can be seen in the background as the lions carry on eating (Canon EOS 70D, 100mm, 1/160sec, f/5.6, ISO-400)

They circled the lions, coming ever closer. Their calls assaulted our senses. They penetrated deep within our bodies and they left a memory that few of us there that night will ever forget.

The hyenas’ cries seemed to increase the speed with which the lions ate. Only when one of them crossed some invisible line did one of the cats break off from its meal long enough to chase the pack back before resuming feeding again.

Having chased the hyenas they returned to their meal (Canon EOS 70D, 360mm, 1/160sec, f/5.6, ISO-400)

Having chased the hyenas they returned to their meal (Canon EOS 70D, 360mm, 1/160sec, f/5.6, ISO-400)

After a while we left the lionesses to finish their meal in peace as, our hearts still pounding, we headed back to camp for ours.

It was a fitting last night for a trip that had exceeded our expectations.

That game drive illustrates how important a good guide is to making a holiday memorable. Andrew Khosa’s persistence in trying to find a good sighting and his knowledge of the animals, and their behaviour, enabled us to have this memorable experience. Undoubtedly, he is one of the best guides that we have ever had. Thank you Andrew.

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Cheetah Plains Private Game Reserve

Cheetah Plains turned out to be our favourite place in spite of our negative first impressions, mainly caused by reasons outside their control. For example, our “luxury room” was the smallest yet most expensive of the trip. When we raised this issue with the management we discovered that we had been overcharged (by 30%!) by the agents. We did get the money back.

Also, our first game drive was disappointing. The vehicle was full and as a result it was virtually impossible to take photos without getting a head or an arm or a hat or a camera in shot. This was exacerbated by the fact that the seating in the Cheetah Plains vehicle was the least raked of all the vehicles we travelled in.

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It’s difficult enough to take photos with 8 in a vehicle but it’s much harder with 10

The next morning we went out with a different driver, Andrew, and I have written about that drive on the Cheetah Plains website. Andrew is a superb guide who played a major part in turning around our views about the reserve.

Elephant Plains had traversing rights over most of the north-west of the park and now we were in a reserve that could cover much of the north-east. This meant that we saw some of the same animals during our stay at both lodges because they could move freely between areas. The elephants that I mentioned in the Cheetah Plains blog were the same ones that had the tiny baby that I mentioned in my blog about Elephant Plains. Also, we met the Birmingham Coalition of male lions again during our stay there.

Elephants drink more than 250 litres of water a day

Elephants drink more than 250 litres of water a day

Cheetah Plains was where we first saw the eponymous cats, so the reserve lived up to its name. They spent a lot of time lying around on Cheetah Plains Pan, giving us the opportunity to observe them at our leisure.

On our first afternoon with Andrew we came across a female leopard walking through the bush. Andrew knew that she had a cub so he followed her in the hope that she would lead us to them. She took her time walking slowly, stopping occasionally to drink. Unfortunately we had to abandon our pursuit when we had to return to the lodge for dinner.

The female leopard pauses for a drink

As darkness falls the female leopard pauses for a drink

The quality of the meals at Cheetah Plains was outstanding, especially the dinners served around the fire, outside the main lodge building. The food was so good and plentiful that we didn’t feel deprived that they only served two meals a day, brunch and dinner, with a light snack before the afternoon game drive.

On our second morning, Andrew drove us to see the cheetahs again. We found them before the Sun rose and we were able to enjoy watching them as the first rays touched their fur, giving then a deep golden sheen.

Two males bathing in the golden light of dawn

Two male cheetahs bathing in the golden light of dawn

After leaving them we drove past a mob of dwarf mongooses and stopped to observe their antics around their den. This animal is very common in the reserve but they move very quickly and I hadn’t been able to take a decent photo of them. At this den they were very tolerant of our presence and I was able to take quite a few shots.

Dwarf mongooses at their den

Dwarf mongooses at their den

We were on our way to meet Tingana, a male leopard that was hiding under a bush, feasting on a warthog. He was very tolerant of the vehicle and allowed Andrew to manoeuvre into a position where we could get a clear view of him. Once his hunger had been sated, he moved into the open and gave us a good show as he groomed himself. When we returned to find him on our afternoon drive, he had only moved a few metres to the other side of a pool of water.

Tingana feasting on a warthog

Tingana feasting on a warthog

That afternoon gave us our last sighting of the Birminghams as a group, although their number was now down to four. They lay there doing not very much so we didn’t spend a lot of time with them. That night we went to sleep to the sound of their roars.

4 of the Birmingham Coalition resting

4 of the Birmingham Coalition resting

By the time morning came the Coalition had broken up and dispersed. We found one of them lying on a rock, warming himself in the early morning heat. Before the Sun rose too far, he started calling out to his relatives. The deep call of the cat reverberated through my body, adding to the wonderful experience of watching this majestic beast. When there was no reply, he got up and strolled off the rock and onto the surrounding grassland, allowing us to follow him for a while.

The lone Birmingham male calling out to the rest of the Coalition

The lone Birmingham male calling out to the rest of the Coalition

Earlier that morning, we had been driving, looking for wildlife, when Andrew drew our attention to the alarm calls of a troop of monkeys. We drove around trying to find the predator that had bothered them. After an unsuccessful search, I asked him to stop so that I could photograph some ground hornbills in a tree. Mrs Footprints, who wasn’t so easily distracted, kept scanning the area until she spotted a movement under a fallen tree trunk. I was a tiny leopard cub. As we drove up to its hiding place, it realised the mistake it had made in not staying where its mother had put it and scarpered back into the scrub. We drove around trying to see if we could find the den or the mother but we were unsuccessful. It had been a brief but rewarding encounter.

The leopard cub regretting having come out of hiding

The leopard cub regretting having come out of hiding

Our morning’s viewing finished with a small herd of elephants and a group of nyala. We had never come across this beautiful antelope before coming to Sabi Sands but it is plentiful in the reserve. Elephants and smaller game dominated our viewing on the afternoon game drive too, until we met the Nkuhuma pride and observed their kill, late that evening. You can read more about that encounter here.

Beautifully marked nyalas

Beautifully marked nyalas

The highlight of our final morning was an all too brief encounter with Shadow and her cubs. The leopard had been hiding her cubs in a drainpipe under one of the main roads since we had been at Elephant Plains. Unfortunately when Shadow wasn’t around the location was closed because vehicles often attract hyenas and nobody wanted to jeopardise her cubs. When she was around there were a lot of vehicles wanting to see her because the den was in an area with open access (see my first blog about Sabi which explains traversing rights and the number of vehicles permitted at a sighting).

We had been in the queue several times, only to be disappointed because Shadow left the den before our turn. On that final morning, Andrew heard that she was at the den and there weren’t any vehicles there. We rushed to the location. Unfortunately, just as we arrived Shadow decided to depart and so the location had to be closed again. I was able to grab a couple of photos of the cubs while Andrew radioed in the fact that the location was closed to other guides. Then we turned round and left them in peace.

One of Shadow's cubs calling for its mother

One of Shadow’s cubs calling for its mother

It was a fitting, if frustrating end, to our time at Sabi Sands. The reserve had lived up to its reputation of providing good, close encounters with leopards. It is definitely somewhere I want to return to again and again.