(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.

sabi sands 2016 _ 2643 by Alan Smith.

Two leopards

A few weeks ago I posted some photos of a leopard called Quarantine that I saw while staying at Cheetah Plains. Today, I thought I’d post some photos of two more of the leopards that we saw during our 4 days there. The first one was a female called Inkanyeni and the other was a large male called Tingana (which means “shy” in the Shangaan language).

sabi sands 2016 _ 2311 by Alan Smith.

Inkanyeni sits by a small puddle

sabi sands 2016 _ 2319 by Alan Smith.

She was quite a poser

We first saw Inkanyeni just before sunset and Andrew, our guide, thought that she might be returning to her cubs, which were known to be in the area.

sabi sands 2016 _ 2321 by Alan Smith.

Is this drinkable?

sabi sands 2016 _ 2305 by Alan Smith.

It’s better than nothing

She appeared to be more interested in finding some water to drink. Having taken a few sips from a very small puddle she moved on past another game viewing vehicle, showing just how small she is, before lying down close to where we had parked. Like most of the animals in the Sabi Sands reserve, she was totally unfazed by the presence of vehicles.

sabi sands 2016 _ 2325 by Alan Smith.

This photo shows just how small she is

sabi sands 2016 _ 2341 by Alan Smith.

She was unperturbed by the presence of vehicles

 

A little later she found a bigger puddle to help sate her thirst.

sabi sands 2016 _ 2337 by Alan Smith.

That’s a better sized puddle

We spent quite a bit of time with Inkanyeni and it was well after sunset when we left her to return to the lodge.

sabi sands 2016 _ 2346 by Alan Smith.

It was well after sunset by the time we left her

The next morning we met Tingana. He appears to be the new dominant male in the area and we found him feasting on a warthog that, Andrew thought, he had probably stolen from another cat.

sabi sands 2016 _ 2573 by Alan Smith.

MINE!!!

sabi sands 2016 _ 2634 by Alan Smith.

Tingana definitely likes pork

The carcass was under a bush and photographing him tearing into the still recognisable warthog proved to be challenging.

sabi sands 2016 _ 2590 by Alan Smith.

He stops eating briefly, giving us a view of his lightly blood-stained face (a sign that the warthog hadn’t been freshly killed)

sabi sands 2016 _ 2580 by Alan Smith.

He wasn’t the only thing enjoying the feast, it was covered in flies

Andrew manoeuvred us into a good position so that we could see Tingana at work. Even so, the harsh sunlight and the dappled shade still made photography difficult.

sabi sands 2016 _ 2636 by Alan Smith.

Using his paw to help steady the carcass

After a while the felid, his appetite sated, moved away from the remains of the hog and started to clean himself. All cats use a similar technique for their ablutions and Tingana was no exception.

The clean-up starts (Canon EOS 70D, 400mm, 1/160sec, f/8, ISO-400)

The clean-up starts (Canon EOS 70D, 400mm, 1/160sec, f/8, ISO-400)

Cats clean themselves the same way all over the World (Canon EOS 70D, 210mm, 1/400sec, f/8, ISO-400)

Cats clean themselves the same way all over the World (Canon EOS 70D, 210mm, 1/400sec, f/8, ISO-400)

Freshly cleaned, the large male demonstrated that he is anything but shy.

\

\”Shy\” is a misnomer (Canon EOS 70D, 300mm, 1/125sec, f/8, ISO-400)

sabi sands 2016 _ 2627 by Alan Smith.

Tingana’s tail end this tale

Leopards look good in black and white too

An audience with a leopard

Ever since I saw my first leopard, standing with her two cubs on a sandbar in the middle of a river in Samburu National Park in Kenya, it has been the animal I most want to see on safari. Long ago, I learnt that leopard sightings are on their terms. They are so well camouflaged that they can be invisible, even when they are only metres away, and will only show themselves if they want to be seen.

Quarantine surveys his territory

Quarantine surveys his territory

Sabi Sands in South Africa has a reputation for providing close encounters with this magnificent beast. This was one of the reasons I wanted to visit the reserve.

On guard duty

On guard duty

Right from our first game drive, Sabi didn’t disappoint. I got closer to leopards than I have ever been in my life. Not even in zoos do you get within touching distance.

Checking us out

Checking us out

Nothing, however, had prepared me for my encounter with Quarantine, a 3-year-old male with his own Facebook page. He granted Mrs Footprints and me a one-hour-long audience with him at the end of March.

Such a poser!

Such a poser!

We were on our first game drive with Cheetah Plains guide, Andrew Khosa, when he told us that he was taking us to a sighting of a leopard in a tree. Unfortunately Quarantine had descended from that tree by the time we reached him.

Posing on the road

Posing on the road

We stopped as soon as we saw him, as he was walking slowly towards us. He paused in front of the Land Cruiser to take a good look at us before moving into thick bush. We thought that was it. It was a typical leopard encounter; just long enough to grab a few shots before the cat disappears.

Just checking another leopard hasn't invaded his territory

Just checking another leopard hasn’t invaded his territory

A short time later, Andrew told us that he’d heard that Quarantine had emerged from the bush, so we went to find him again.

A spine-tingling look

A spine-tingling look

He was still walking slowly through his territory when we caught up with him. Clearly, he was looking for another tree to climb. When he found a suitable one he climbed it in a couple of bounds.

Will this one do?

Will this one do?

Andrew was able to position us directly beneath the tree so that we had a clear view and could get good photos.

We stopped directly below him

We stopped directly below him

As we watched, Quarantine surveyed his territory. It was hard to tell whether he was looking for his next meal or just checking that there weren’t any other leopards invading his territory. Either way, he was happy to stay there until after our time with him was up.

Looking for trouble?

Looking for trouble?

I love photographing leopards. I think they are particularly photogenic and work well in black and white too. Quarantine was the perfect model, adopting a range of poses including looking straight into my lens – a spine-tingling moment.

Having a leopard look straight down your lens is electrifying

Having a leopard look straight down your lens is electrifying

Thank you, Quarantine, for allowing us into your presence. It’s an experience I’ll never forget.

Looking for his next meal?

Looking for his next meal?

 

Lord of all he surveys

Lord of all he surveys