(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

sabi sands 2016 _ 321

Hippos

Meet the third deadliest animal in Africa (after humans and the mosquito), although you wouldn’t think so from the photo above. The humble hippopotamus may not look as fierce as a lion but it has a formidable armoury of teeth which it will display when it feels threatened – the hippo “yawn” beloved by photographers.

The hippos "yawn" is really a warning

The hippos “yawn” is really a warning

Most deaths are thought to occur, however, when people, using hippo tracks to collect water from rivers, startle the animal and are then trampled to death as it makes its escape.

They may be most comfortable in water but they can run on land and anything in the way is trampled underfoot

They may be most comfortable in water but they can run on land and anything in the way is trampled underfoot

We didn’t see many of this particular pachyderm during our time at the Sabi Sands. The rains were late this year and there hadn’t been enough to fill the dams, so most of the hippos had lived up to the “potamus” part of their name and returned to the rivers.

There was a clear gap between the buffalo and hippos, a sign of mutual respect

There was a clear gap between the buffalo and hippos, a sign of mutual respect

A "down the throat" shot

A “down the throat” shot

Following a herd of Cape buffalo to a waterhole one day did lead us to this pod (an alternative collective name is a “bloat”) of hippos.

Observing buffalo and hippos at a waterhole

Observing buffalo and hippos at a waterhole

Although some members of the pod showed concern at the intrusion (of the buffalo, not us), one remained totally unconcerned and continued its snooze, resting its huge head on the back of a smaller hippo – one river horse riding another.

"Anywhere I lay my head, boys, I will call my home" - Tom Waits

“Anywhere I lay my head, boys, I will call my home” – Tom Waits

sabi sands 2016 _ 172

Surviving against the odds

During our stay at Idube Lodge in the Sabi Sands Wildlife Reserve, we came across these three sub-adult lions. Their mother had been killed before she had a chance to teach them fully how to hunt.

Mrs Footprints getting some shots of the siblings

Mrs Footprints getting some shots of the siblings

Two of the siblings look for somewhere to rest

Two of the siblings look for somewhere to rest

The third preferred to keep its distance

The third preferred to keep its distance

Obviously they had learnt some skills because they were surviving without her. Some days before our arrival the trio, two females and a male, had managed to bring down a buffalo.

Drinking from a puddle

Drinking from a puddle

Even when drinking they were never fully relaxed

Even when drinking they were never fully relaxed

When we saw them the siblings were quite skinny and in need of another meal.

Just checking out what's going on

Just checking out what’s going on

Nothing much apparently

Nothing much apparently

Just having a wash

Just having a wash

Lions have rough tongues

Lions have rough tongues

If you can't beat them join them

If you can’t beat them join them

I might as well have a wash too!

I might as well have a wash too!

Not having learnt to hunt properly, these cats have developed their own hunting techniques. One of these involves chasing prey into the nearby boundary fence.

They operate close to the boundary fence

They operate close to the boundary fence

That looks tasty

That looks tasty

By operating on the periphery of the reserve, the three lions have reduced their chances of coming into conflict with other lions. With the Birmingham Coalition (more details about this group in a previous post) operating nearby, however, their future is not secure. The young male, in particular, is likely to be chased away by larger males and is unlikely to survive on his own.

Looking into an uncertain future

Looking into an uncertain future

The Flehmen response helps the lions to "sniff" the air and find out what other animals are around

The Flehmen response helps the lions to “sniff” the air and find out what other animals are around (this includes those that threaten them as well as those that might provide a possible meal and, when they’re older, a sexual partner)

They may be the king of beasts but it is a tough life being a lion.

Keeping a look-out

Keeping a look-out

Just keeping an eye on us

Just keeping an eye on us

Tired after a long night

Tired after a long night

sabi sands 2016 _ 1388

Baby elephant

During our time in the Sabi Sands game reserves, we were fortunate to spend time with a large(ish) heard of elephants containing around 30 individuals, including several young calves. In this post I’m going to concentrate on the youngest member of the herd.

Baby elephants are very cute

Baby elephants are very cute

When a herd moves it does so as a group, keeping the young in the middle. Even when they are browsing, a mother will normally keep her body between her calf and any perceived threat. A threat that seemed to include our vehicle. Obtaining an unobstructed view of the baby proved to be quite a challenge.

Obtaining an unobstructed view of the calf was quite a challenge

Obtaining an unobstructed view of the calf was quite a challenge

Protecting the calf

Protecting her calf

A rare unobstructed view

A rare unobstructed view

 

I was fortunate to get a clear shot of the calf on a number of occasions during my time with them.

One of the few unobstructed views of the calf

One of the few unobstructed views of the calf

Let’s hope this little one goes on to live a long life, free from the threat of poachers and human greed.

Trying to copy its mother

Trying to copy its mother

This method of feeding proves easier

This method of feeding proves easier

The mother kept her body between the calf and us - a healthy fear of humans is probably a good idea

The mother kept her body between the calf and us – a healthy fear of humans is probably a good idea if elephants are to survive

It looks like the calf has been told off by its mother

It looks like the calf has been told off by its mother

It walked with all the grace of an inebriated toddler

It walked with all the grace of an inebriated toddler

One day I'll grow into my skin

One day I’ll grow into my skin

 

Wearing mum's tail as a wig

Wearing mum’s tail as a wig

Taking a shortcut under mum

Taking a shortcut under mum

Protected by the herd

Protected by the herd once more

 

sabi sands 2016 _ 506

Wild dogs

The African wild dog (a.k.a. painted dog/painted wolf) is one of the most critically endangered mammals, so it is always a thrill to spend time with them. As they can move tens of kilometres a day, finding them is often a matter of luck.

They're always alert

They’re always alert

During our stay at Elephant Plains, in the Sabi Sands Wildtuin, we were fortunate to see a pack of 11 dogs on two occasions.

They're always alert

They’re always alert

Neither time was particularly good from a photographic point of view. One of the drawbacks of us trying to keep costs down is that we end up in lodges that have to keep their costs down too. This is fair enough, I’m not complaining, if I want a more personal experience then I have to pay the operators enough to enable them to provide that service.

To start with we had to look at them through the bushes they were resting under

To start with we had to look at them through the bushes they were resting under

One way to keep costs down is to fill the game vehicles up, they hold a maximum of 10 people plus the driver. Unfortunately, this makes photography more difficult. Even though the guides try their best to ensure that everyone has a good view, there are inevitably times when you are sitting on the opposite side of the vehicle to the action. Our first wild dog sighting was one such time.

They didn't make it easy to take photos of them

They didn’t make it easy to take photos of them

Sleeping in the bushes

Sleeping in the bushes

Initially, none of us had a particularly good view as the dogs were lying under some bushes and it was particularly difficult to get a clear view of them. When we were able to move, it was into a position that suited me. My happiness about this was short lived because the dogs got up and walked to the other side. I ended up shooting through gaps in the bodies of my fellow guests. As they moved around trying to get the best angle, they inevitably moved into my shot just as I pressed the shutter (a close examination at some of the images in this post will reveal blurred parts of bodies in the foreground of the shots).

Shooting between bodies in low light was a challenge

Shooting between bodies in low light was a challenge

In spite of this, and the encroaching darkness, I was able to get some shots that I was happy with.

Spot the underdog

Spot the underdog

Keeping watch

Keeping watch

The next morning we met the pack again. Initially they were milling around, defecating and sniffing each other’s genitals, as dogs do. It wasn’t long, however, before they picked up the scent of something much more interesting, a herd of impalas.

Dogs doing what dogs do

Dogs doing what dogs do

Within seconds, and without any obvious signal, the dogs had spread out and started running in their own unique way. Their long legs mean that they tend to lollop until they are up to full speed.

They are happy to walk around game vehicles

They are happy to walk around game vehicles

Our attempts to follow the pack failed miserably. These canines are capable of speeds of up to 45 miles per hour (70kph) and their was no way to follow them through the bush at that speed.

Seconds after this shot was taken, the dogs were running flat out, in full chase mode

Seconds after this shot was taken, the dogs were running flat out, in full chase mode

Our guide did try to get in front of them though, by speeding along the dirt roads. It was a thrilling ride with cameras and people bouncing in all directions. We arrived at the point where he expected to find the dogs, just in time to see the stragglers saunter by. And that was the last we saw of any of the members of the pack.

A quick glance at us and then this straggler followed the rest of the pack into the bush

A quick glance at us and then this straggler followed the rest of the pack into the bush

sabi sands 2016 _ 2970

White rhinos of Sabi Sands

Rhinos may be one of the iconic Big 5* but sightings are becoming harder to come by. My early safari experiences with rhinoceri were in East Africa where the temperamental black rhino still rains supreme, even though, due to poaching, they have suffered a catastrophic decline in numbers.

Rhinos are one of the Big 5 game animals sought after by hunters and photographers alike

Rhinos are one of the Big 5 game animals sought after by hunters and photographers alike

I remember making a special trip in 1985 to Meru National Park to see, what were then, Kenya’s only white rhinos. Even then the northern white rhinoceros was all but extinct. The 5 or 6 rhino that we saw, which had been translocated there from South Africa, were all southern white rhinos – a different subspecies.

Enjoying a good wallow

Enjoying a good wallow

These animals were under guard 24 hours a day. As a result they weren’t afraid of humans. We were allowed to walk with them and pat them as they grazed. They were just like a small herd of cows. Just 3 years later they were all dead. Killed by poachers along with the brave men who guarded them.

On the road to extinction?

On the road to extinction?

I remembered this encounter when we came across five white rhinos on our first game drive in Sabi Sands. Four of them made up the main group and the fifth animal, a male, was grazing a short distance away.

A mother and her calf graze together in Sabi Sands

A mother and her calf graze together in Sabi Sands

This particular group of the pachyderms seemed to be happy to continue feeding around our vehicles. Others that we met merely tolerated our presence and would move away from the vehicles if they had a chance. A healthy fear of humans may help these animals to survive a little longer although, in the end, nothing can protect them from a poacher’s bullet.

Some of the animals preferred to keep their distance from us

Some of the animals preferred to keep their distance from us

The rhinos in Sabi seemed to be much bigger than the ones I remember from Kenya but that may just be my failing memory. Adult males can reach a height of 1.85m (6 feet) and weigh up to 1.7 tonnes. Some of the animals we saw were close to that size. It was awe-inspiring!

The wide lip of a white rhino helps it to graze

The wide lip of a white rhino helps it to graze

All the rhinos that we found in the park were white ones. They came in a variety of colours depending on what they have been rolling in, so the name is a misnomer. The “white” comes from a mis-anglicisation of the Afrikaan’s word “weit” which means wide and describes the difference between the square mouth of the white rhino and the more pointed lip of the black. This adaptation helps the white rhinos to feed as they mainly eat grass, the only rhino to do so. (It’s black cousin uses its more pointed lip when it browses for leaves from bushes.)

The white is the only sub-species of rhino that grazes

The white is the only sub-species of rhino that grazes

The southern white rhinoceros may not look quite as prehistoric as its Asian cousins but they can all trace their ancestry back 5 million years.

They have been around for 5 million years but can they survive the next few?

They have been around for 5 million years but can they survive the next few?

The white is the most populous of the rhino species left on Earth but there was a time, at the end of the 19th Century, when it was thought to have been hunted to extinction. In 1895, however, a small population of fewer than 100 individuals was discovered in Kwazulu-Natal. The 20,000 or so wild white rhinos that exist today are their descendants. Unfortunately, in spite of this conservation success story, the species is under threat once more, due to the current epidemic of poaching.

The white rhino is a conservation success story

The white rhino is a conservation success story

Poaching has been fuelled by an increase in demand from countries like Vietnam, where people use the horn as a status symbol (of their new-found wealth) or believe it has medicinal properties. Only when all humankind realises that rhino horn is no different to their fingernails and that it will not cure cancer or impotency, or whatever miracle use that has been attributed to it, will there be a chance of reducing demand. Let’s hope that realisation happens before it is too late for this iconic species.

Does this calf have a future?

Does this calf have a future?

Many of the facts included in this blog were obtained from the WWF website.

* The Big 5 (African elephant, rhino, Cape buffalo, lion and leopard) were originally the five animals that hunters most wanted to kill on safari. Now, they are often the animals that tourists most want to see.

sabi sands 2016 _ 1307

Much misunderstood

Hyenas get a bad press. Perhaps it’s because they look like they’ve been designed by a dysfunctional committee. Or maybe it’s their (false) reputation for being cowardly and timid or the (true) fact that they will steal food from cuddly looking big cats. Perhaps it’s their link to witchcraft and other supernatural activity, or their reputation for stealing children and killing livestock. Maybe it’s the way they look, resembling a child’s early attempts at drawing a dog.

Hyenas may look like they've been designed by a disfunctional committee

Hyenas may look like they’ve been designed by a disfunctional committee

It’s about time that Africa’s most populous large predator received some good PR.

Cubs are born with their eyes open

Cubs are born with their eyes open

I first fell in love with the spotted hyena in 1985, while staying in Amboseli National Park in Kenya. We were staying in some cheap bandas within the park, where we talked to our neighbours who were primate researchers. They told us the location of a hyena den in the middle of nowhere.

Hyenas often used disused termite mounds as dens

Hyenas often used disused termite mounds as dens

Following their instructions, we aligned our Isuzu Trooper with a couple of trees and drove out into the middle of a dried up lake-bed. Nothing was visible in front of us and we wondered if we would find the den. Finally we spotted a small hole in the ground, turned our engine off and freewheeled up to it, as instructed, and waited silently.

A juvenile hyena in an entrance of the den

A juvenile hyena in an entrance of the den

After about 10 minutes a nose appeared at the hole, sniffed the air and emerged. It was attached to a juvenile spotted hyena. Soon the whole den emptied out onto the sand. We spent hours watching them play all around us. They only disappeared, briefly, when a van full of noisy tourists came to find out what we were looking at. On seeing nothing they turned away and peace returned and the hyenas reappeared and carried on as before.

Juveniles practice their hunting skills

Juveniles practice their hunting skills

They had an intricate family structure. Given the similarity in age of many of the young hyenas, they were obviously the children of more than one female. The sub-adults looked after the younger cubs and took their turn in keeping them under control.

Sub-adults keep an eye on the younger cubs

Sub-adults keep an eye on the younger cubs

Since then hyenas have been on my wish list every time I go on safari. One of the books that inspired my love of Africa and its wildlife was Cry of the Kalahari by Mark and Delia Owens. Their adventures with brown hyena made me really want to see that animal. Regrettably, to this day, I’ve only ever seen them in the distance.

An adult hyena

An adult hyena

I had to wait more than 30 years before I was able to visit a hyena den again. This time, because there were other people in the vehicle, I could only spend a short time with them. Or, to be exact, two short times with them. On the first occasion, before sunrise one morning, a tiny cub and some juveniles ran around the Land Cruiser. On the second, slightly later in the morning, we arrived at the den in an old termite mound in Sabi Sands, to find a solitary juvenile waiting at one of the entrances for the clan’s adults to return from their night’s hunting.

A juvenile waits for the adults to return

A juvenile waits for the adults to return

We had seen the adults earlier when they had chased a leopard up a tree and spoiled her attempts to hunt some impala. As soon as they returned to the den, the younger ones came out to greet them and play with each other. I challenge anyone to watch interactions like this and still dislike hyenas.

The cub carries a stone out of the den

The cub carries a stone out of the den

Some fact about hyenas

  • They are neither cats nor dogs but, in spite of looking more like a dog, they belong to the same sub-order of carnivores as cats but have their own classification within that group. (The simplified taxonomy is Animalia  Chordata Mammalia Carnivora Feliformia Hyaenidae.)
  • Female hyenas appear to have a penis, which makes it difficult to tell the sexes apart; the external appearance of their genitals is similar to that of the males.
  • Females are larger than the males.
  • Large numbers of hyenas live in clans that are controlled by the females.
Hyenas are inquisitive animals

Hyenas are inquisitive animals

  • In spite of their lolloping walk, hyenas are fast runners and can cover large distances when they are hunting.
  • They can run at up to 60km/h (37mph).
  • Hyenas, in spite of their reputation as scavengers, may kill up to 95% of the animals they eat.
  • Their digestive system allows them to extract nutrients from skin and bones. Only hair, horns and hooves cannot be fully digested and are regurgitated as pellets.
  • They nurse their young for longer than most carnivores, probably because they often hunt and find food far from the den.
A subadult keeps an eye on the younger members of the clan

A subadult keeps an eye on the younger members of the clan

  • It is true that hyenas start eating their prey while it is still alive. They kill an animal by disembowelling it and some people think that this leads to a faster death than the suffocation method used by other predators. I have my doubts but I have never seen a hyena kill, so cannot justify this.
  • A hyena’s hearing is so good that it can hear another predator eating 10km (6 miles) away.
  • The hyena’s “laugh” is a means of communication. In the case of a lion kill that I witnessed, the hyenas may have been calling for reinforcements from the den to help them drive the lions off the kill. The calls certainly didn’t intimidate the lions, if that was their intention.
Hyenas call for reinforcements at a lion kill?

Hyenas call for reinforcements at a lion kill?

Hyenas can extract nutrients from skin and bone

Hyenas can extract nutrients from skin and bone

Every part of the kudu is eaten

Every part of the kudu is eaten

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

 

 

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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.