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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

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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

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Idube Game Reserve

Our drive from Johannesburg had taken longer than expected, mainly due to roadworks on the N4 but, at 3pm, we still arrived at Idube Lodge in good time for the afternoon game drive. To our surprise lunch was still being served. Game lodges work to a different timetable from the rest of the world.

Idube, which is Shangaan (the local language) for Zebra, is one of the smaller reserves that make up Sabi Sands Wildtuin in South Africa. Like all the reserves we visited, Idube only caters for a small number of guests, giving it an intimate atmosphere. The staff there were the friendliest that we came across on our trip. The other reserves had friendly staff too but Idube’s somehow made us feel more at home. Some meals were eaten with guests and guides alike sharing a long table on the lawn and this helped engender the family atmosphere.

After lunch we were shown to our rooms, past a small herd of nyala grazing on the lawn, to find our bags were already there. As I unpacked my camera and lenses and prepared them for our first game dive, I listened to monkeys scampering over the roof of our chalet. It was good to be back in Africa.

The room had a huge double bed and there was plenty of space for charging all the electronic equipment we travel with these days. The only drawback I could find was that the wi-fi was only available in the buildings surrounding reception, a minor quibble.

At 4 o’clock we headed towards the game vehicles and met Matt, our guide, and Lonnet, his tracker. Recent rains meant that animals were quite widely dispersed but Matt and Lonnet found plenty of game to keep us interested: nyala, impala, waterbuck and steenbok, for example.

Following lions while at Idube

Following lions while at Idube

As we drove Matt was radioing other guides about what was around. Animal names were always in the vernacular, a code we would have to learn if we wanted to find out what was going on. For some reason I already knew that ingwe is Shangaan for leopard, the animal I most wanted to see, so I was listening out for this.

On our seven hour drive to Sabi we had tried to count the number of wild, uncollared leopards we had seen in more than a score of visits to game parks over the years. We decided the number was nine. That’s not a bad average, considering how well camouflaged these felids are. Nevertheless, I was hoping to improve on those figures by the end of the trip.

Our journey through the bush was interrupted as, suddenly, Matt stopped the Landrover, U-turned and headed back the way we had come. It was obvious that he knew where something was but what was it? Matt wasn’t saying. Before long he brought the vehicle to a halt, alongside another vehicle, in the middle of a crash of white rhinos.

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Even the baby filled my frame

For the first time in my life I realised that it was possible to have too much lens on your camera! I was using my 100-400mm lens and it was impossible to get the entire body of any of the pachyderms in my shots, not even the baby! I didn’t want to waste time changing lenses so I grabbed a few close-ups before using my mobile phone for the wide shots. After that drive, I always had a wideangle lens on my other camera body, ready for occasions such as this.

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The only way to get four rhinos in one image was to use my phone

Four rhinos made up the main group and there was a male that stood apart from them who was showing interest in the others, or at least interest in a member of the group. When I asked Matt if someone had radioed this in, he said no but he had spotted the other vehicle.

I later discovered that guides are not allowed to radio in the location of rhinos because, in the past, poachers have used this information to help them find the animals too. I was also told that it is illegal to post geo-tagged mobile phone photos. I haven’t been able to find out if this is true but I turned off my tagging anyway. It is all too easy to give away the exact location of these ancient creatures. More than a thousand rhinos were killed by poachers in South Africa last year.

They've survived 50 million years, will they die out in our lifetime?

They’ve survived 50 million years, will they die out in our lifetime?

I had posted one of my phone photos on Instagram before I knew this. Fortunately when I checked the image I found that it didn’t have any geographical data on it – possibly because I had only just woken the phone up and it hadn’t had time to lock on to the satellites before I took the picture (all the others I took at that time did have the location embedded in them, so I was lucky not to have posted any of them). I am writing here, 3 weeks after the event, hoping that enough time has passed and that the location is sufficiently vague that I won’t further endanger these beautiful creatures that, although they have been around for more than 50 million years (according to BBC Earth), may not be around for much longer because of mankind’s misplaced desire for their horn.

If the game drive had ended then, I would have been more than satisfied, but the best had been kept until the end. After stopping for a sundowner and watching the Sun set on this idyllic place, we set off using a spotlight to see if we could spot any off the night life. After a while another vehicle came towards us and their guide said “enjoy” as they passed. I was still tired from the lack of sleep on my flight over and wasn’t thinking straight, otherwise I would have picked up on this. As it was I continued in blissful ignorance for another ten seconds or so, until I spotted, silhouetted in the light of a second vehicle, a leopard walking towards us.

Torchwood in the torchlight

Torchwood in the torchlight

I picked up my camera, hurriedly adjusted my settings in the dark and then started shooting as the beautiful cat walked towards us and then along the side of our vehicle. He was so close I could have stroked him. As Matt turned our vehicle around to follow the felid, I rushed to review my photos, convinced that I had got the perfect shot. To my horror, I saw black frame after black frame. They were all seriously underexposed. I was, to put it mildly, very annoyed. I had blown the perfect photographic opportunity.

I had a few more chances to photograph Torchwood, the male leopard, as he rooted around an old termite mound looking for the warthogs that sometimes sleep there. None of the shots were particularly exciting so I’ll just have to go back and try to capture that perfect shot again, someday.

Shooting in RAW meant that when I got back to camp I was able to salvage a couple of photos through the magic of Photoshop. They will never win any prizes but they will remind me of the beautiful leopard that got away and of the importance of preparing my settings for night photography before it is too dark to see what I am doing.

The following morning we came across three orphaned sub-adult lions, two sisters and their brother. Their mother had been killed before they were fully independent but she had obviously taught them some hunting skills because they had managed to survive without her. Their hunting technique was a bit hit and miss and so the siblings were quite skinny.

The orphans

The orphans

We were told the youngsters had stumbled across an interesting method of capturing prey. They were operating in the very west of Sabi Sands, right by the boundary fence and had discovered that chasing prey into the high-voltage cables was an effective way to catch them. Apparently even lions like ready cooked food!

On the afternoon drive that day, we came across a large herd of cape buffalo, heading for the nearby waterhole. The hippos that were already there seemed unphased by the numbers coming to disturb their peace. There was the odd yawn, as they showed off their teeth as a warning to the intruders, but no obvious aggression.

The hippos kept well away from the buffalos

The hippos kept well away from the buffalos

The poor little blacksmith’s lapwings, which are ground dwelling birds, complained in vain, however, as the buffalos rampaged towards the water, trampling and destroying everything in their path, including the birds’ nests, as they went.

Later that night we were last on the scene, once again, at another leopard sighting. Sabi Sands has strict rules about the number of vehicles that can be at a sighting at any one time. It was now becoming clear that Matt’s tactic was to be the last to any sighting (unless, of course, he found it first). That way his guests could enjoy it for as long as they liked because no-one else was waiting to have their turn.

This time it was still daylight when we arrived at the location to find the two-year-old female resting on the side of a termite mound. She was panting quite heavily. We were told that this was a sign that she had eaten recently because the increased oxygen in her blood aided digestion.

As the light continued to fade I had time to set up my camera properly and to use a flash when it became necessary. This time I was happy with the photos that I took.

The leopard tucks into an impala

The leopard tucks into an impala

For three quarters of an hour we watched her as initially she lay there and then as she moved round the termite mound back to the impala that she had killed earlier. When the time came to return to the lodge for dinner, Matt apologised that we had missed our sundowners. Nobody complained.

Our final game drive at Idube was special too. Our desire to see a leopard in a tree was satisfied and improved by the presence of a rhino nearby. That sighting ended when the cat descended and moved away from the road into the very private Singita reserve, where we couldn’t follow.

Ironically shortly after that we came across another Singita vehicle at another leopard sighting. This time the leopard was on land that Matt could traverse and the Singita vehicle had to stay on the road while we manoeuvred round the bushes until we were right beside her. It was amazing just how close these animals let the vehicles get.

Just checking!

Just checking!

As we watched the female, she raised her head long enough to check that the two approaching rhino weren’t going to be a problem before relaxing again. She panted quietly because she, too, had fed recently. Two leopard and rhino sightings in one day. I was beginning to wonder if the two species came together regularly in Sabi Sands.

We had increased the number of leopards we had seen by almost 50% in just two days. It was a fitting end to the first part of our adventures in Sabi.

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Blundering into Sabi Sands …

… and ending up having an amazing time

This is the decision making process for a 10 day, last minute holiday over Easter.

What type of holiday?: Safari. That was easy. Safaris are unpredictable. Animals are unpredictable. Sightings are unpredictable. Just our sort of holiday.

Where do we go?: Safaris are expensive so somewhere with a weak currency? The Eurozone? It’s not noted for its safaris so somewhere else? South Africa? The Rand was falling against Sterling at the time of booking, so South Africa it was.

How not to choose your destination: Pick a place based on photographs on Instagram. We wanted to have a reasonably good chance of seeing cats. Mrs Footprints wanted cheetahs and I wanted leopards. Ross Couper takes stunning photos of leopards (sorry Mrs F!). He’s based at Singita, Sabi Sands. Let’s go there. Google the lodge. Discover it’s two lodges. Can’t find a price. Alarm bells start ringing. Google Sabi Sands. First hit is sabi-sands.com. They have a price for Singita, the cheapest suite is 22,379ZAR (> £1000/$1500) per person per night. Gulp! I thought South Africa was meant to be cheap! Singita is Shangaan for “place of miracles”, it would take a miracle to be able to afford to visit there!

Have a cup of tea.

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Sabi Sands is famous for offering close encounters with leopards

Start again now that I have calmed down.

sabi-sands.com is an agent’s website covering twenty-one different reserves or lodges and, very usefully, it has dollar signs beside each lodge. Singita had the most so I looked for those with the least.

Having picked a lodge that I like the look of, I emailed the agent and asked about availability and I also asked whether it was sensible to stay in one place for the whole time or whether I should move around.

After a few days they replied. My chosen lodge could only take us for two nights but two other lodges could take us for four nights each. In this rather ill-informed, haphazard way our holiday came together.

It was a fantastic holiday, and I will be writing about various aspects of it over the coming weeks, but there are a few things that I know now that it would have been useful to know before I made the booking.

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Hippos cooling off in a dam

Sabi Sands Wildtuin shares a border with the Kruger National Park to the west and Manyeleti Game Reserve to the north. These borders are unfenced so game can cross from one area to another. Game vehicles, on the other hand, can’t.

It is made up of many private reserves, yet the biggest reserve inside the boundary fence, Mala Mala, is not part of Sabi Sands.

Some of these reserves are private and don’t allow game vehicles from any of the other reserves to enter. Others group together and share full or limited traversing rights. There are pros and cons to each arrangement.

The welfare of the animals has a high priority at Sabi Sands so it has a maximum three vehicles per sighting rule. Depending on what’s happening the number can be reduced to two or even one.

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A maximum of 3 vehicles are allowed at any sighting

By limiting traversing rights, large reserves ensure that fewer vehicles are able to come to a sighting and so their guests can enjoy the animals for longer. On the other hand, when a number of reserves work together they potentially increase the number of sightings that are made. More vehicles covering an area mean that there’s more chance of finding that elusive animal. On finding a notable animal (with the exception of rhinos) the guides radio the location to the others in the group.

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So that the location of rhinos is not given away to poachers, sitings are not radioed in, making these the hardest animals to find

After the maximum number of vehicles are at the sighting, others have to join the queue and wait their turn. Those at the location need to move on after a reasonable time to let others have their opportunity. (It is a bit like being in an aircraft in a holding pattern, waiting to land at a busy airport and then clearing the runway.) Once we were aware that this was happening, it was fascinating watching the different approaches that different guides took to the queuing system. All of them found plenty of other things to look at while waiting their turn, so you could be totally unaware that you were in a queue at all, especially if you couldn’t hear the radio traffic.

The booking agent had ensured that we ended up in reserves that were part of three different groups. As a result, we covered a large part of Sabi Sands during our time there.

We started with two nights at Idube Game Reserve, located in the west of the park, south of the Sand River. We then moved about 20km to Elephant Plains Game Lodge. At least that was the distance as the crow flies, by road it was ten times further and we had to leave the park and re-enter by another gate, doubling our park fees in the process. Those traversing rights meant that we couldn’t cross the land between the two lodges, although our little Toyota might have had other problems getting there too.

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Our car is unlikely to have been able to cross the Sand River, even if it had been permitted

Elephant Plains is north of the river. After three nights there, we moved on to our final stop, Cheetah Plains Private Game Reserve which borders the Kruger and Mala Mala.

In spite of not knowing how Sabi Sands operates, we had a fantastic time and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the lodges and our guides to anyone who wants to go there. Recent rains resulted in the game being well dispersed. This meant that there were times that we were driving around seeing nothing but these were more than compensated for by the times when we did see something. Vehicles are allowed to go off the roads in the reserve, which result in some very close encounters indeed. There were times when I needed to shoot with a wide-angle rather than telephoto lens. At no time did we feel that we were being rushed from one sighting to the next, nor did we feel that the guides were notching up the big five (lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and buffalo) for us, although we did see all five many times.

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We got very close indeed to some of the animals

Did we see cats? Yes – 11 different lions, 17 different leopards (including 3 cubs) and 2 cheetahs (multiple times). (Not that we were counting!) We also had fascinating encounters with wild dogs, hyenas and many other species.

Was it worth going? Definitely. Would we go back? Definitely.

What more is there to say? A whole lot more. Watch out for more blogs.

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We’ll finish with a photo of a cheetah to keep Mrs Footprints happy!