I was leading a birding tour with some American birders in September and we were staying at Satara Rest Camp. For our full day’s morning program we made our way down to Sweni Waterhole, the Sweni Road being one of my favourite routes in the area. It was very dry and I suspected that the waterhole would draw in a lot of game. Approaching the water we ran into a large herd of Buffalo, all grazing peacefully. We were spotting Yellow-billed Oxpeckers on the bovids when I noticed a number of cars parked at the waterhole. ‘Hey guys’, I said, ‘looks like there’s something a bit more interesting at the waterhole’. So we made our way over and immediately spotted the bright crimson of the open carcass, with a big furry head next to it. Lions on a kill! And there were plenty of Buffalo in the immediate area too, some of which were showing interest in the Lions. I tried to park at the waterhole, but with the other cars and the bushes there was no way to get a view there, so I had to pull back a bit for a broader view of the scene. But the clients were happy and we sat back to watch the action. We could see that the Buffalo were on the offensive, a group of ‘Dagga Boys’ pushing as a group towards the carcass with heads swinging and much snorting. The Lion at the carcass at the time was also growling loudly, hissing and spitting at the Buffalo, determined to finish eating their fallen comrade. But still they came, and eventually he decided to give ground, running straight towards us with a few bulls giving chase. Interestingly, one bull at the carcass hooked horns with it and began tossing it around in anger. My take was that he could still smell the Lions strongly, and anything that smelled of the enemy was a target. At this point a few Black-backed Jackals moved in, one of them seeming to hold off a Buffalo bull on his own, much to the delight of the Americans (though I suspect the Buffalo wasn’t actually too concerned about a weeny Jackal). All the while there was plenty of game looking on, waiting for things to quieten down so they could come and drink. Eventually the Buffalo began to move off, and Lions appeared from all over to finish their spoils – five males in total, quite a potent force indeed (to put it mildly). All in all it was a fantastic sighting, one of my best ever in fact.
It was a day for Lions. After spending over a week birding in the northern parts of South Africa, including some time in the far northern Kruger National Park, we were ready for some big cat action. While the advantage of the far northern Kruger is that it is less busy in terms of tourists, it’s also not quite as good for big cats, and on this trip we only started encountering cats when we hit Satara in the south / central region of the park. On our first morning drive from Satara we encountered a pride of ten Lions at Nsemani Dam, catching them early in the morning while they were still very active (a sighting of Lions doing something is worth ten sightings of Lions sleeping). Later on in the morning we encountered a pride of seven at Sweni waterhole, spending some time with them before heading back to camp for breakfast when our stomachs started protesting the hour. And in fact, while we were having our breakfast they killed a Zebra, showing again that if you have the patience to spend a lot of time with animals such as Lions, you will be rewarded with some action eventually. That afternoon we went down to watch the Lions still feeding on the Zebra, and while we were watching them a Pearl-spotted Owlet zipped in to land on a branch in front of us, carrying a freshly caught Little Swift, just another kill to add to the day’s growing tally. That night Alice and Gerard went on a night drive, and saw a third pride of Lions (which we had seen briefly during the day) feeding on another victim, this time a Blue Wildebeest.
The next morning was the day we were due to leave the park, and to make the most of it we decided to leave camp as the gates opened and make our way to Tshokwane for breakfast, and from there head south to exit at Phabeni Gate. And thus began the three hours of magical game viewing.
Not far south of the camp we saw what looked like a large liver lying next to the road, untouched by scavengers, and a bit further on found a pride of Lions with their two kills from the night – an unfortunate Buffalo cow and her calf. The cow had not been fed on at all, and one or two Lions were chewing on the remains of the calf, the rest of the pride already full-bellied and passed out in patches of growing shade all over the place. After much deliberation we worked out the route of the night drive and surmised that the ‘missing’ liver belonged to the Wildebeest that had been killed by the Lions (which they had seen on the night drive), and this was the same pride which had made a subsequent double kill of Buffalo cow and calf, and were thus too full to even start feeding on the Buffalo cow. Talk about making the most of things!
Moving on we had to sit in a small traffic jam as the Sweni Pride were camped in the road just over the Sweni Bridge, and their position meant that no cars could get past and we basically had to wait until they moved off. But as is the random nature of game viewing, this put us on schedule for a series of wonderful highlights further down the road.
Next up was a large male Leopard walking through an open area a little distance from the road. The beauty of this time of the year is that the areas which were burned during September were by now covered in a carpet of short green grass, which attracts many grazers and makes for excellent visibility. With good binocular views we followed him for a while and then realised he was heading towards another road running perpendicular to the road we were on, and so went up ahead to set up an intercept for closer views. Parking on the slope to allow for maximum visibility we sat and waited in line with his projected path, only to see him pop out a little distance ahead of us at the junction, the sneaky bugger! But he was in no rush and we eased down to get right up next to him as he marked his territory and ambled along on his morning patrol. More than chuffed, we set off after he disappeared into the bush, wondering what we would encounter next. Our thoughts didn’t have too much time to develop however as we came across a female Cheetah and two cubs lying in the road, with no other cars in sight. Soon after we stopped they moved off into some sparse scrub on our right, and a most comical scene unfolded. Mr. Black Backed Jackal came trotting down the road towards us, so nonchalantly that we could picture him whistling a merry tune as he went. This did not go unnoticed by the Cheetahs, and when they saw him veer off the road towards them they set up a 3-point ambush. Straight into the ambush the Jackal trotted, only to look up and see three Cheetahs converging on him at full speed. The cats were just toying with him however, and with his nonchalance gone and a carefree morning put right out of his mind he was last seen disappearing at high speed straight back down the road he had wandered up. And so enthralling was this experience that afterwards we all realised that we had completely forgotten to take photographs of the Jackal chase, instead just enjoying the scene through our binoculars and leaving it burned into our grey matter.
Next up was a lone Spotted Hyena and another Black-backed Jackal (partner of the victim of the Cheetah ‘attack’) scrapping over the remains of a Buffalo kill, with a Hooded Vulture looking on and the rest of the Buffalo herd grazing close by, unperturbed by the scavengers fighting over the remains of one of their brethren. By then it was time for coffee and breakfast at Tshokwane, and a chance to digest the three magical hours we had just experienced. Moving on we had a large White Rhino bull and a herd of Elephants having a bit of an altercation over the rights to a small pool of water, plus numerous other sights, scenes and sounds, before finally and somewhat unwillingly leaving the park via Phabeni Gate. Well, all good things must come to an end, and one thing is for sure: you can never get enough of the Kruger National Park!
Panthera leo, King of the Beasts, right? Well yes, as Africa’s largest mammalian predator, the ‘Lion King’ title is very apt. Yet most times we see them they are looking anything but fierce, earning their other somewhat unofficial title as the laziest of Africa’s animals. They spend up to 18 hours out of a typical 24-hour period resting, and that’s only on average. If they do a double shift on one day it means that on another day they may not do much at all – following the shade of a bush as the sun arcs through the sky may be the sum total of a day’s activity. Sometimes they don’t even stand up to relieve themselves! But when they are seen in action it can be one of the most awe-inspiring safari experiences you’ll ever have. A 220 kilogram male lion on the run with intent to do grievous bodily harm foremost on his mind is a blood-chilling sight indeed…
On the 3rd September 2014 Lawson’s guide Leon Marais and his clients – a family of three – were on a morning drive out of Lower Sabie Rest Camp. This camp is situated on the southern bank of the Sabie River and offers some wonderful scenery and ambiance, not to mention what is arguably the best game viewing in the entire park. They had encountered a clan of Hyena’s near the camp gate as they exited at 06h00, and then checked out the scene at Sunset Dam before heading down to the causeway bridge over the river. With the early morning sun shining from the east, the scene looking westwards towards the camp upriver was sublime – Hippo’s breaking the surface of the water here and there, bird species of many different types just beginning their day, a thin layer of cloud breaking up as the sun warmed the earth… All quiet and peaceful when suddenly a male lion ran across the road in front of them and disappeared into the bush on their left.
Forgetting the tranquil scene they raced ahead and found another three lions lying in the road. These three then got up and followed the first male into the bush, and it was assumed that they were all part of a four male coalition, with the older lion leading the pack. Once they had all disappeared Leon rolled down to the water’s edge to wait and see if they would perhaps come down to drink or something. Sure enough, two minutes later the bigger male appeared, going at quite a pace. He came out onto the road and ran past their vehicle and all the way across the bridge to the other (southern) side, roaring as he went. He was followed by the three younger males, but they stopped on the northern end of the bridge, reluctant to follow the first (at this stage we still though that they were all from the same coalition). The first male then stopped on the southern bank, and continued roaring at full volume, definitely one of the most awesome sounds of the African bush. Suddenly a 5th male appeared on their side, coming out of the bush on the west 20 meters or so from the trio of young males. The sudden change in body language of all four lions indicated that he was not welcome there, and the three set off in pursuit. At this point they made our way to the southern bank to have a look at the first male lion, and he now came back across the bridge, roaring at full tilt as he walked past. When he got to the northern end, he suddenly turned tail and came running back across to the southern end, his body language indicating that he was fleeing from the three younger males, and at this point the penny dropped – they were witnessing a clash between three younger males and two older males, with the latter now in disarray as one was on the southern bank and the other was being chased away from the bridge on the northern bank. The three lions then came back towards the road, and took a rest on top of an embankment next to the road, all visibly quite pleased with themselves for having seen the other males off. Suddenly they stiffened up and shot off back into the bush, presumably to chase off the other male lion once again, who was probably desperate to get across to the southern side to join his team mate. After a while they had still not reappeared, and the first male lion on the southern bank had disappeared towards the camp, and at this point Leon decided to go and try his luck elsewhere. They headed north into the plains with the hope of finding a Cheetah, and when your luck is running it really runs, for they came across a lone hunter an hour or so later as the ‘icing on top of the icing’, as Gordon put it, before returning to camp for breakfast (and the coffee machine was working today, so they were able to have a few cups of the desperately needed stuff, so the morning was very good indeed!). Just another day on safari…
Photo Tip: Servo / Continuous Mode Auto Focus.
When you have an animal running towards you, such as in the case of photos 3 and 4, switch your focus mode to AI Servo in Canon or Continuous in Nikon. This allows you to keep the face of the animal in focus as it closes the distance, without having to regain focus with every centimeter of movement. You just keep the shutter button half way down and the camera keeps it in focus the whole time. I don’t like this more for composing portraits etc, but when an animal is on the move, this is the way to go.
While the big cats – Lion, Leopard and Cheetah – are the most sought after animals on any safari, the Kruger National Park region is home to three smaller species of cat, the Caracal, Serval and African Wild Cat. Caracal is a very scarce, Serval is seen now and then, but if you visit Satara Rest Camp, there are good chances of seeing African Wild Cat. And you don’t even have to go on a night drive to have a chance of seeing this forerunner of the domestic cat. In a classic example of how cats perhaps became domesticated in the first place, one or more African Wild Cats have recently taken up residence within the camp grounds. We’re not quite sure how many there are in the camp, perhaps two at most, but for now we’ll assume that it’s one cat. At first it was really skittish, only venturing in among the huts late at night. Over time, and with people feeding it meat from their braais (the local version of the barbeque) – incidentally feeding of any animal in a National Park is actually prohibited – it has become very used to people and will approach to within a few feet. There are also resident Honey Badgers within the camp, and the great thing about doing your own braais, as opposed to eating in the restaurant, is that you generally see more nocturnal wildlife. But back to the camp cat – the bottom line is that African Wild Cat has gone from an occasional record to close to a guarantee, as long as you are staying at Satara. On this particular occasion the cat came past my hut early in the morning, before the sun was up. Lighting conditions weren’t great and I was hand holding my camera, so I had to bump up the ISO to 1250 to even hope for a sharp shot. Fortunately, one was sharp, a reminder that, if conditions aren’t favourable, you need to take a lot of photos to increase your chances of getting one or two winners.