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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.

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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.

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From Kampala to Kimilili

The blazing Sun assaulted my Celtic skin as I stood in a queue in a Kampala bus station. Slowly, slowly my fellow passengers divested themselves of the many bags, boxes and suitcases that accompanied them on their travels. As each was loaded into the bowels of the coach, its owner was given a numbered ticket and I wondered whether I had made a mistake.

Carrying a small fortune in camera equipment on a journey I’d never made before, I’d bought two tickets, one for me and one for the gear, hoping to minimise the risk of losing it in transit. Now, as I observed the unexpected security measures, I thought I’d wasted my money. It was to turn out, however, to be a fortuitous decision indeed.

I was on my way to Kenya to make a film for a woman, Becky, who I’d only met once before, about a hospital, Dreamland, that I knew even less about. Now I was about to board the only bus I could find that went anywhere near my destination. I had ruled out taking a matatu (minbus taxi) to the border because of the quantity of kit I was carrying.

Having checked at the ticket office, and at the check-in desk, that I would be able to get off the bus at Bungoma, and that it would stop at Jinja for me to pick up a package from my son and daughter-in-law, I boarded the coach thinking that everything was under control. Fortunately the Kenyan lady sitting in the row in front of me knew otherwise.

As I manoeuvred my kit into the window seat, she set about discovering what I, the only mzungu on board, was doing on this coach.

“Where are you going?” “Why?” “Who are you seeing?” “Is she your girlfriend?”

In response to the last of these I said, “No! She’s married. [Pause] And so am I. [Slightly shorter pause] And not to each other.”

“So she is your girlfriend!” she riposted with a cheeky grin on her face.

I knew I was beaten.

The conversation, however, did have its benefits. She made sure that the driver knew to stop in Jinja (this would not have happened otherwise, in spite of the office’s assurances to the contrary).

At an unusually prompt 3pm, the bus set off and wound its way through Kampala’s back streets in an effort to avoid the city’s traffic jams. These had been made worse by the apparently random road closures that happened to prevent opposition rallies in the run-up to the country’s recent presidential elections. I realised that this was going to be a long journey.

As we approached Jinja, I rang my son to let him know where we were so that he could get to the bus stop before us. By now the heavens had opened and it was raining in a way that you normally only see on film or TV. As we pulled in to the stop my son and daughter-in-law, who were very wet indeed, greeted me and handed over the package of reusable sanitary towels. Emily and Calum are based in the town and run Irise International, an NGO working to find a sustainable solution to menstrual health management in East Africa, hence the pads that I was taking for an orphanage in Kenya.

The bus continued eastwards and I tried to work out which border crossing we would use. On the one hand, Malaba (the red pin on the map) seemed the most logical, it was on a major road all the way to Eldoret, the coach’s first scheduled stop. Any point on the road from Malaba onwards could be reached by Becky, so this would suit me best too. On the other hand, this had been the only bus that I could find running on my route (others do too, but their agents denied it when I rang them up!!), and I had been told by some that it used the more southerly Busia crossing but nobody seemed certain.

Soon darkness fell and I gave up trying to work out where we were on my hand-drawn map.

As it turned out we did go to the Busia border post. Not knowing where I was, I followed the rest of the passengers through Emigration and then down the road into Immigration. As the only traveller requiring a visa for Kenya, it took me longer to be processed than the rest and by the time I emerged none of the others were anywhere in sight. Neither was the bus.

Not sure what to do, I started walking further into Kenya, my 20kg camera bag digging into my shoulder and bouncing off my hip. [Note to self: buy a rucksack before the next trip]

Some 500 metres down the road I found the bus, locked and empty, or at least I thought it was my coach. I stood there, alone, for about twenty minutes, growing more and more anxious, before a border guard came and checked the vehicle. As the lights were turned on I saw the rest of my equipment and could confirm, at last, that I had been waiting outside the correct vehicle.

My solitary vigil continued for some time. Then, slowly, my fellow passengers emerged from the surrounding gloom, carrying hot, cooked food for the rest of the journey. So that’s where they’d been, the local take-away!

Shortly after the border we turned left and headed north up a narrow road. This wasn’t on my hand-drawn map. Never mind. I had been assured that the bus would pass through Bungoma, which was close enough to Kimilili for Becky to be able to pick me up.

This part of the journey was tortuously slow. Every village, and there were a lot of villages, had built a series of enormous speed humps designed to rip the sump off any vehicle, no matter how large.

After an hour or so, our progress ground to a halt as we hit a traffic jam. Not to be stopped by this, our driver joined other vehicles in driving up the wrong side of the road until they too came to a halt. At this point he decided to test his off-road skills and we bumped and skidded along the verge at a perilous angle until we found the source of the jam.

A sugar lorry had overturned and shed its load across the road and surrounding countryside. There was no way through and it didn’t look as if this was going to be sorted out any time soon.

I rang Becky and tried to explain where I was. Another passenger had told me that we were just outside Bungoma, was there any chance that she could find me? Apparently my description matched two different roads so I tried to explain all the turns we had taken since the border. This still didn’t help but she said she’d try the nearest first and then, if necessary, the other.

While I was waiting for her, my fellow passengers kept getting on and off the coach, I assumed, to try and find out what was happening. How wrong I was.

Finally Becky rang back to say that she was the other side of the stricken lorry. I picked up my things, grateful that I hadn’t loaded them into the luggage compartment, told the Kenyan lady to let the driver know that I wasn’t coming back and then … tripped, falling headfirst down the stairwell. As I pushed myself back up the steps, I struggled to get back on my feet because the floor of the bus was moving. It was then that I realised that my fellow passengers had been helping themselves to sugar cane and it now covered the aisle of the bus. I had lost my footing on the cylindrical canes.

After circumventing the unfortunate truck, the hazards of an African verge, and the unwelcome attention of some of the locals, I found Becky and her driver a couple of hundred metres down the road. The rest of the journey was uneventful and I reached Dreamland shortly after midnight.

After a successful three days filming, I used private hire taxis for the return journey.

You can find out why the hospital’s called Dreamland by watching the film I made there. Warning: It contains some scenes in an operating theatre that some viewers might find difficult to view.

Dreamland Mission Hospital from Alan Smith on Vimeo.