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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

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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

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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.