I’ve recently finished guiding a 16-day safari through South Africa’s Kruger National Park and Sabi Sand Game Reserve. This is a great combination, offering what is undoubtedly South Africa’s best and most authentic game viewing. The Kruger is great for scale, landscapes, general game and diversity, while the Sabi Sands is best for up-close big game encounters – a perfect marriage and an itinerary we do often. This time we had 11 days in the Kruger and 4 days at Idube Game Lodge in the Sabi Sands. While Lady Luck seemed to have deserted us in the Kruger (though we are measuring it against a very high bar!), the Sabi Sands was good as usual – 6 different Leopards, all great sightings, as well as some Lions (a bit short of Lions in the Western Sector at the moment) and a great Cheetah sighting, plus all the usual stuff. There was only one photographic opportunity that excited me though…
We were on standby for the two Matimba male Lions who were associating with a single Lioness from the Othawa pride. As Lions were in relatively short supply the line up was quite long, and between being on third standby (only three stations are allowed in the sighting and a maximum of three on standby) and being called in the sun had set and we’d missed our drinks stop. And the Lions had moved off… But sometimes things turn in your favour. They were last seen heading westwards along the northern bank of the Sand River, and we set headed to Second Crossing where they were due to emerge. On arrival at the crossing we found the Lioness resting up on a large granite boulder in the riverbed. Under spotlight the scene was fantastic, and fortunately I had changed to spotlight photography settings before it got dark so was ready to hit the shutter as soon as we came to a standstill. She wasn’t up there long however and soon came down and headed towards a crossing point on the river. Soon enough the male appeared, trailing behind the female. She crossed by jumping over some rocks in an appropriately elegant fashion, hardly wetting her paws in the process. The males however were a lot older, and one in particular was not in very good shape, so hopping elegantly across was not going to happen. The stronger male tested the water in numerous places, hissing and snarling in obvious frustration – boy did he want to follow that female, but why did she make it so difficult? Eventually he decided to cross, wading almost chin deep before emerging on the southern bank. The second male was even more awkward, taking a long time to gain enough courage to cross, face fused in a snarl as he went. We had a good position, our guide Promise from Idube parking us on the southern bank, where we could look back and see them crossing front-on, rather than from the back as the other two vehicles experienced it. All in all a great sighting, with some good results using the standard spotlight photography settings: Manual Mode; High ISO (1600 – 3000, depending on your camera; a wide open shutter; and a speed of between 1/60 and 1/80, depending on the light and conditions (if the whites are too bright you can increase the speed; if the image is a bit dark you can drop the speed, you need to keep it dynamic as the lighting conditions change – the spotlight is constantly moving so no two shots offer the exact same lighting conditions). I was using my back-up camera (Canon EOS 5D Mk1) as my Mk2 is in the repair shop, and the Canon 100-400mm L IS 2 lens. Not the ideal wildlife rig but the image quality is still great! Hope you enjoy the read.
It was the kind of sighting one only hears about, almost too outrageous to believe. Did that really happen? If it did really happen, it always happens to someone else, some really lucky person. This time however, we were the lucky folks. Here’s the summarized account of what happened, recounted by Lawson’s tour leader Leon Marais…
“The day started off cool and damp with a ‘Scottish mist’, and what a day it was to be. We headed off at 05h30 without any expectations on what was to be an almost unbelievable morning. Our guide Mornè heard that a pack of 8 male Wild Dogs had been found and we quickly joined the line up to see them. Soon we caught up with them on the hunt, moving at a fast trot through the bush. At one point a Duiker made a lucky escape, as did a herd of Impala, the dogs’ main prey item. Eventually, after an already spectacular sighting, we left them, allowing another vehicle to take our place, and headed off to a nearby dam for a coffee break. Mornè confirmed over the radio that they were moving in a westerly direction, away from the dam, and we disembarked and Dion, the tracker, began pouring the coffee. Then we noticed a herd of Kudu on the run close by, followed by an Impala ewe tearing across a clearing at a terrific pace with the dogs in hot pursuit. She ran around the inlet of the dam and then launched herself into the water to escape the dogs (at this point we were still standing around the vehicle with dropped jaws). The Impala then paddled into the middle of the dam where the Hippo’s set upon her, one bull even dunking her under the water. The dogs ran around to our side waiting for her to make the shore, with one of the Hippo’s charging out of the water to chase the dogs off. The resident Crocodile then also got involved, probably equally happy to latch on to the Impala or an unfortunate dog. Eventually the Impala made the shore and, with dogs after her she dashed back into the inlet area, where she collapsed into the shallow water. One of the dogs then bounded in and tackled her, but the attentions of the Crocodile convinced the dog to get out of the water fast. On the shore a pair of Waterbuck stormed in, chasing the dogs, and a curious Spotted Hyena arrived on the scene. The wily Impala then went to hide behind a large tree trunk in the water, out of sight of the Crocodile, which had now become the main threat. The dogs eventually, and very reluctantly, decided to give up and slowly made their way out of the area, calling with their mournful ‘hoo-hoo’ goose-bump-inducing call as they went –what a moment!. The Hyena also left the area, and the Impala suddenly made a dash for the shore, emerging somewhat shocked but not visibly injured, a pure miracle indeed. After the action had subsided we resumed our coffee stop (we felt like we needed shots of Whiskey in the coffee to calm down), with a White Rhino coming down to the dam opposite us just to end things off”
Elephant bull walk-past
When on safari in Africa, while you are driving around in either your car or on a game viewing vehicle driven by a guide, the only animal that poses a possible threat is old Loxodonta africana, the African Elephant. On foot it’s a different ball game, where any of the ‘Big Five’ – Lion, Leopard, Cape Buffalo, Rhinoceros and Elephant – can be potentially dangerous, but in a car you are fairly safe. Or in fact probably more like very, very safe, if you consider how many vehicles there are in a place such as the Kruger National Park and how many incidents there are with elephants. You’re probably more likely to be run over by a bus a hundred feet from your front door… Incidents do happen though, and very recently some photos of a big elephant bull turning over a small car in the Kruger have gone viral on the internet. The British couple who were in the car at the time it was put on its roof were not injured seriously but probably had the fright of their lives, and I’m sure will probably never come on a safari again. While this is certainly an eye-opener, one has to realize that most elephants are fairly happy with cars in close proximity and that even if an elephant shows some aggression, the chances that it actually makes any physical contact with the vehicle are fairly small. As I always say, cool, calm and collected is the way to deal with 95% of your elephant encounters, and you just need to know when it’s one of the 5% which requires some kind of reaction from you – either revving your engine, banging on your door, or getting out of there as fast as possible in a worst-case scenario. The Photo of the Day shows a big elephant bull in musth walking very close to the vehicle without showing any kind of displeasure or ‘aggression’. We can tell he’s in musth – the terms for the male’s breeding phase – by the wet insides of the back legs, where he is dribbling a strong smelling secretion from his penis. He also has he ‘weeping’ from the temporal gland behind the eye, but this can also occur in non-musth related situations. The back legs however are diagnostic, and if you were there you would have smelled him as he walked past. So this was an occasion to be more alert to signs of displeasure, but the lack of any negative body language was enough to persuade the guide to just sit tight and let him ease past. And that’s the difference between professional guides and the general public – guides are experienced in handling elephants, while the public may be overly afraid of a young ‘cheeky’ bull, or else oblivious to the signs that a 6-ton bull is about to turn them on their roof. I’m not saying that the public always get it wrong or that guides always get it right, but experience counts.
EOS 5D Mk 1
EF 35 – 350 mm USM L-series