Khwezi. The coolest cat on the reserve
Tswalu. He’s pretty cool too.
The last few weeks have really been exceptional. I’ve seen a few things I’ve never seen before – like my first African wildcat, a couple of new snakes, various antelopes displaying and fighting, a new bird – and have had some insanely fortunate drives. Part of that is down to more people than usual being off last week so only three driving staff working, one of which was Kutullo who is heavily involved with our community work so is away two days of the week, meaning Jess and myself did a lot of drives. It was tiring but more drives means more chances to see things and neither of us were complaining. Especially as we both racked up a crazy number of leopard sightings. There really is something special about this reserve and we have to remind ourselves that a lot of people in this kind of job go months between seeing leopards. But despite seeing them so often I definitely never get blase about it, they just have something about them which means they are always special.
One particularly good encounter was all down to patience. Over the course of a drive I had heard several guides reporting audio for mating leopards but they were in thick bush and nobody had seen them. After everyone had left the area I felt we should try our luck so we rolled up and parked, enjoying some close-up buffalo while we waited. Sure enough we heard the noises everyone had been talking about, coming from a small but dense block between the floodplain and the elevated river road. I decided to circle the block and see if anything came up. To our surprise we immediately found one of Tlatlani’s cubs sitting beside the road, so we sat with it until it disappeared into the bushes and continued driving. No luck as we drove around but when we returned to our original spot on the high river road we looked down into a previously empty patch of grass on the floodplain and there was one of our male leopards, Mutumba. I drove back down to the floodplain for a better look and he sat in the open beside the road for a while, before getting up and walking back into the bushes. We were pretty delighted at this point, having had a great visual of two leopards, but then Tlatlani showed herself. She had been in the bushes Mutumba was walking towards and instead of just walking out she leaped/climbed up the sheer clay cliff onto the river road and stood looking down at us for a minute or two. It was an awesome thing to see, and definitely worth sitting around for ages waiting for a lucky moment.
Tlatlani’s cub, currently with the catchy name of ‘Cub 1’
Subzero, relaxing in the dusk
Another boring sunset
Marula, a female leopard I mistook for a termite mound when we found her lying in the road, and so was way too slow getting my camera out
Khwezi eating yet again. She’s a killing machine.
Four rhinos for the price of two
There was one standout drive in the last two weeks, my first ever Big 5 Drive with a couple of amazing sightings. After seeing some buffalo, the lions and a rhino we made our way up north to see if we could spot the elephants as I hadn’t seem them for a while. We found them feeding in an area with a lot of thick bush and I parked up, making sure to leave a gap between the car and the trees beside the road in case they wanted to pass. Sure enough after a while Fumbe, one of the bulls, walked through the gap I’d left. This gave Kari, a volunteer, a slight heart attack because she had never had them so close to the car and the way the ground sloped meant he actually picked up a bit of speed on his approach and sort of… jogged past her. She joked about needing a change of pants.
Then one by one the entire herd did the same thing, with three younger bulls at the end actually jostling each other as they each tried to pass first. I genuinely thought they were going to bump into the car and it was too much for Kari who couldn’t help herself from standing up to move away from them. This immediately got their attention and all of them stopped, lifting their trunks towards her. I spoke some reassuring words, admittedly while trying not to laugh, and she sat back down. The bulls lost interest and carried on and the herd were gone. Even my heart was racing, a pretty standard reaction to the sudden change in perspective that elephants give you, but everyone was laughing and Kari had managed to keep her head enough to get some amazing video, eyes and trunks filling her phone screen.
We were all buzzing after that encounter but the drive had a couple of special things left to offer. Driving through an open area along the river we passed a small group of nyala – a medium-sized antelope – who were behaving slightly strangely so I stopped. The lead female was very tense and stretching her neck down as if smelling something, which turned out to be a 2.5m long rock python. That was pretty cool to see, as was watching the nyala’s reaction. The snake wasn’t big enough to be a threat to the antelope but clearly she was totally confused, intrigued and unsure about this weird thing which she had probably never encountered before, and did a strange dance to get around it.
While watching this we heard a familiar barking sound – the alarm call of a bushbuck or nyala – coming from the other side of the river. Alarm calls are a gift from the bush gods, especially antelope alarm calls because they are much less likely to freak out at their own shadow like squirrels and birds, so if you hear that bark you know there is almost definitely a predator around. The only question is whether you can find it. The river roads never actually go that close to the river, but it just so happens that in this place there is a small loop which goes right to the bank, so I thought I’d better check it. And sure enough we looked down into the riverbed to see Tane, a young male leopard, just chilling on some rocks.
It was a great visual because being in the river he was totally in the open, and we still had daylight to take photos by, and it rounded off our Big 5 for my first ever Big 5 Drive. So needless to say I was very happy. We sat with him for ten minutes until he stood up, had a drink, and then jumped up the river bank on the far side. I shot down to the nearest crossing and found him just sitting on the river road like he was waiting for us. He then started walking into a block, with antelope all around him barking like crazy. A big male waterbuck who was obviously braver than the smaller antelope actually charged him and Tane leaped up into a small tree to get away, before regaining his composure and jumping down. We lost sight of him then, but what a sighting. And what made it even better was no other game drive was in the area, so we had him all to ourselves for the whole time.
As if that wasn’t enough, we found Tsavo – the big male leopard of the south – just chilling next to the road on our drive home. He didn’t hang around long before casually getting up and strolling off, but it was another crazy fortunate encounter.
Nyala females with their young. They are becoming my favourite antelope, as twice now they have led me to a leopard.
Tane, 2 year old male
It hasn’t all been good news with the leopards, and we had a sad day on Tuesday when a tracker found the body of one. It was already fairly decomposed and my colleagues had to ID it using the spot pattern on one of the legs. To the dismay of every driver on the reserve it was identified as Scar, one of the three big males and a firm favourite of most people. He was a very relaxed old dude who was seen a lot and gave some great sightings, and he was huge and impressive.
His body was found at the base of a large tree with puncture wounds in his side. Since then one of the female lions has been seen with new scratches on her face, and she was in that area for one day last week, so we are pretty sure she is responsible. The lions have chased Scar into trees on numerous occasions, it’s what lions do, and this time it seems he was just a bit too slow. It sucks and we will miss him but that’s nature. Wild animals don’t get the luxury of dying peacefully in their sleep.
My last sighting of Scar was two weeks ago when I was on drive by myself. I found him walking in the road and followed him for about twenty minutes. He was totally relaxed as usual and not bothered by me at all and I watched him sniff and scent mark his way along his patrol. At one point he jumped up on his hind legs to rub his cheek against a tree, and later he stalked some zebra (though didn’t go for them, probably because he was already totally fat). It was great to see him in daylight being active, and I am really grateful my last time with him was so good.
It will be interesting now to see what happens with territories of the other males. We have Tanda, Scar’s son, just coming into his prime at 6 years old and who we know has had a few fights with his dad in the past, so we expect he will try to move into Scar’s old patch. But then there’s Tsavo who has a huge territory which used to include Scar’s area, so maybe he will try and claim it as well. Hopefully Tanda is light on his feet because Tsavo is massive and very experienced, so it could be a bad day for Tanda if the two of them come to blows.
The last photo I ever took of Scar. Rest in peace buddy 😦
I’ve had leave this week. I wasn’t planning to do anything because I wanted to save some money, but then my boss suggested a day trip to Kruger and I couldn’t say no. I never regret a visit to Kruger but this one was one of the best I’ve had.
It started out pretty quiet, but with some good bird sightings and a leucistic impala which neither of us had ever seen before. Leucism is like albinism-light, where an animal produces some melanin but far less than usual. So they may not be totally white, but a lot paler than the average for their species, and they still have dark eyes instead of pink. White lions are a good example. The impala we saw looked like she had been standing in a bath full of bleach, as the dark bits were still brown but the usually pale tan bits were white. She looked very cool. The main thing I love about Kruger is that every time I go there I see something I’ve never seen before.
Leucistic impala ewe
For comparison, next to an average impala
Kori bustard, the heaviest flying bird in the world
We saw plenty of elephants, including a pair of bulls play fighting in a wallow, and a trio of male lions who I recognised from a previous visit sleeping snuggled up together at the side of the road. Lots of vultures, a few buffalo, and some rhinos. On our way to the exit we also had a really nice ground hornbill sighting. I love these guys, they are my favourite birds, and I always see them in Kruger so they are a bit of a Kruger icon for me. We saw this group at the side of the road and my boss used his phone to play a ground hornbill call. Their reaction was perfect as the entire family came trotting out into the road to look for the source of this noise. I was really hoping one of the males would answer, as the sound they make is bizarre and I’ve never heard it from a real bird, but I think they were all too confused to respond.
Ground hornbill. They stand 3 – 4 feet tall.
An adult, on the left, compared to a juvenile
The absolute highlight of the visit came right at the end when finally, after a year and however many trips to Kruger, I finally saw wild dogs. I saw them back when I was a volunteer and have been waiting 11 years to see them again, they are always top of my list when I go to Kruger but with only around 500 in the entire park, and the huge distances they travel, it really is all down to luck and being in the right place at the right time that determines if you see them.
We were on the last road heading towards the gate and we stopped because my boss thought he might have seen something off in the bush. So as we were both staring out to the right I heard a sound on my left, and turned to see a wild dog having just run straight past my door and now quickly heading off down the road. I had thought that I would lose my mind with excitement when I finally saw these guys but it took me by such surprise that I just matter-of-factly said “There’s a wild dog.” and then started laughing at how it had come out of nowhere while we were intently staring at what turned out to be a rock.
We started to follow, and my boss matched the dog’s speed as it ran alongside the road, meaning I could get some very cool video of it running beside us. A few hundred metres further along we spotted two cars stopped, and ‘our’ dog loped ahead of us and ran between them to meet up with the rest of its pack, who were just standing around in the middle of the road. That’s about the time when my excitement caught up with me and I lost my mind a little bit at FINALLY getting these dogs.
I couldn’t have asked for a better sighting, either. If we had come across them earlier in the day they would have been sleeping in some shade because it had been a scorcher, but now it was getting dark and cooling down and they were on a mission. We followed them along the road as they hunted which was fascinating to watch. Half the pack would disappear into the bush and the rest would stay trotting along the road. A few minutes later those that had vanished would flush out some prey and chase it towards the others. Each time the antelope would run across the road ahead of us with dogs in pursuit, but every time some of the pack would hang back and stay on the road. I assume these were the older, more experienced dogs who could tell the chase was futile.
They did this two or three times and still hadn’t caught anything. At this point there was only us and one other car in the sighting, the others having left to get to gates before curfew. My boss and I had agreed to take whatever fine they wanted to give us for being late, we weren’t leaving the pack. Wild dog sightings in Kruger can easily accumulate 15 or 20 cars so just having the two vehicles there was pretty incredible. It was getting dark and the whole pack were panting a lot, and we thought they would probably give up soon as they don’t hunt at night. Then we heard the clatter of hooves on rock and saw a big male impala running down from a koppie towards the road, four or five dogs hot on his tail. He ran at full speed towards our car and leaped across the road just a couple of metres in front of the bonnet, and this time every single dog took chase. Within seconds they were gone and there was no sight or sound of any of them. We didn’t hear a kill but I am pretty sure they got that impala, all they had to do was keep it running in the dark until it tripped and they would have been on it.
My boss said it was the best wild dog sighting he’s ever had, and for me it definitely made the year-long wait worth it.
Half an hour spent surrounded by dogs, but low light and the fact that they NEVER STOP MOVING meant this was the best photo I could get.