(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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Elephant Plains Game Lodge

My first impressions of Elephant Plains weren’t that great. Having arrived after a slow 200km journey from Idube we were quite late for lunch and, apart from one other couple, the only other people in the room were a group of photographers talking loudly about why a particular camera was the only suitable one for wildlife photography. One of them even went on to describe how he bought his gear cheaply in the Middle East and the steps he took to avoid paying taxes on it. It made my blood boil. Fortunately that group left the next day and we had nothing more to do with them.

Once we got away from opinionated, freeloading photographers, we discovered that Elephant Plains was quite nice. It certainly had the largest, most comfortable room that we stayed in at Sabi Sands. I think, relatively speaking, it was the best value for money of the three places we visited. However, we found their practice, at the evening meal, of placing all the guests on the outside of a large circle around the wall of their boma, quite strange. It made it hard to hold a conversation with our fellow guests.

Dawie and Justice at an elephant sighting

Dawie and Justice at an elephant sighting

The game viewing here was exceptional. In the hands of our guide, Dawie, and tracker, Justice, we managed to see the big five and much else besides. We also got into a few scrapes, such as when we picked up a puncture following a leopard through the bush or when the Land Cruiser bucked from side to side as Dawie tried to follow a pack of hunting wild dogs along a sandy river bed.

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

The dogs were a highlight of our time at the lodge. We first met the 11-member pack on our first game drive. They were lying around in the bushes and the best viewing position was already taken by another vehicle. I was sitting on the wrong side of our almost full vehicle (I think 9 out of the 10 guest seats were filled). Photography was difficult due to the number of bodies in the way and the number of branches between the canids and me, so I spent most of the time just enjoying being in their presence.

One of the wild dogs after they started walking around

One of the wild dogs after they started walking around

As dusk approached, the dogs became more active and started walking around the vehicles but it was still difficult to capture a good shot of them.

The following morning we bumped into them again, just as they started to hunt. When hunting, wild dogs can cover large distances very quickly. Our attempts to keep up with them were fruitless. Needless to say I am still waiting for that great photograph of a painted wolf (as they are also known).

The dogs just before they started their hunt

The dogs just before they started their hunt

On the first night, after our puncture, we found another leopard resting on top of an anthill (or anthology as the auto-correct spelling on my phone put it). It was not in a good position for viewing or photography as it was partially obscured by shrubs growing on the mound.

Ten month old cub cowering amongst the vegetation

Ten month old cub cowering amongst the vegetation

I noticed one of the photos appeared to show blue lines in the fluid behind its cornea. This is an optical illusion, the cat was only ten months old and still had some blue colouring in its iris. It was this that was refracted in such a way that it appeared to be in the aqueous humour. The green colouring in the iris reflects light at a different wavelength that refracts less than blue light and so was not picked up by my camera.

Refraction of the light from the blue part of the iris

Refraction of the light from the blue part of the iris

The following evening we came across another, older leopard on a termite mound. This male was finishing off a porcupine and we could just make out its quills amongst the grass in front of him. When a warthog appeared, he got up and gave chase half-heartedly before descending a steep river bank for a drink.

Our best leopard sighting came on our last morning at the lodge. We were heading towards a hyena den when Justice spotted some fresh leopard tracks heading off to our left. I’ve been on many safaris where guides have followed tracks but these have never led to a single successful encounter with any of their creators, so I didn’t hold out much hope.

How wrong I was. Almost immediately we found Tsakini as she walked along a dried-up river bed. She was stalking a herd of impala but they had spotted her and were making warning calls. The female had recently moved into the area which didn’t have a resident leopard. She was about to find out why.

Tsakani perched uncomfortably in her refuge, keeping a wary eye out for the hyenas

Tsakani perched uncomfortably in her refuge, keeping a wary eye out for the hyenas

A large hyena clan had a den nearby. They were alerted to Tsakini’s presence by the impalas’ calls. When they turned up, she bolted straight up a tree and stood precariously on its thin branches as she watched her fellow carnivores encircle it. After a while, the stalemate ended when the hyenas left and she was able to descend and recover by lying watchfully at the base of a tree on the top of the riverbank.

After that excitement, we continued on our way to the hyena den. A juvenile eyed us cautiously from one of the entrances but didn’t come out until the adults returned from their leopard bothering trip. Soon the other young ones came out of the den too and we were able to enjoy watching the antics of this much misunderstood species.

Hyenas have a very caring social structure

Hyenas have a very caring social structure

Elephant Plains lived up to its name and we saw many elephants, including nearly coming between a couple of frisky young bulls and a disinterested cow. Dawie had to rapidly reverse out of their way when it became apparent that they didn’t want us in the way of their pursuit.

Bull on a mission

Bull on a mission

One herd had a tiny baby with them. It was only a few weeks old and its skin, which seemed too big for it, was covered in fine downy hairs. With the exception of the rampaging bulls, the elephants seemed unconcerned by our presence, even though they had a baby with them.

The baby had ill-fitting, down covered skin

The baby had ill-fitting, down covered skin

The lions we saw did what lions do, lie around doing nothing most of the time, regardless of whether they were being observed on not. The Birmingham Coalition were the new big bad boys on the block. Not that you could have told that from our first encounter.

Lions lying around

Lions lying around

The five related males had moved into the area last year and, having chased off the dominant pair that used to rule this part of the world, they started an orgy of death and destruction, killing cubs and any females that got in their way. The purpose of this was to bring the females back into oestrus so that they could sire their own offspring. By the time we met him, the chief architect of this destruction was looking weak and sickly and was having trouble keeping up with the rest of the group. He had no obvious injuries and nobody knew why he was ill. It is all part of the circle of life in the bush.

The weakened destroyer

The weakened destroyer

One of group of animals that are often ignored by many on a wildlife safari are birds. There are many spectacular birds within Sabi Sands. We found an open bill stork on several occasions at one particular waterhole which it sometimes shared with a hippo.

Open bill stork

Open bill stork

We saw all the big five (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo) at Elephant plains. I have written about three of them above but also we disturbed a rhino wallowing in the mud.

Rhino enjoying a good wallow

Rhino enjoying a good wallow

The final member of the group is the easiest to see. Buffalos are everywhere. We enjoyed a sunset with a large herd of them, some of them in a pool which reflected the the sky beautifully.

Buffalo sunset

Buffalo sunset