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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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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!