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.
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.
This could actually be titled “Sighting of the Year” instead. I was on a day trip into the Kruger National Park, with a wonderful couple from Canada, taking in the birds and wildlife on a late November day as my final foray into the Kruger for the year of 2013. I picked Justene and Christo up at Skukuza Rest Camp, where they were staying, and decided to head down towards Pretoriuskop Rest Camp for some birding. I chose the Pretoriuskop area because the broadleaf woodland habitat holds a few birds which are not often seen in the other parts of the southern Kruger. The vegetation type is known as Pretoroiuskop Sourveld, and is characterised by dense woodland and tall stands of thatching grass, which make a great environment for the birds but which is not ideal for the grazing animals. Animal density is therefore relatively low, and this is not the best place in which to see big game. Indeed, if you were after cats specifically you’d be wiser to concentrate your efforts on the Skukuza / Lower Sabie region. Anyway, we started off with a wonderful Spotted Hyena sighting not far out of Skukuza, with two adults and two tiny pups at a den in a concrete drainage pipe under the road. We then birded our way to Lake Panic, where we had a productive session in the hide, before making our way to the nursery for a cup of coffee and some snacks. With a quick stop at the golf club we bagged the Broad-billed Roller, which was perched exactly as predicted in the big dead tree in the middle of the waterhole in front of the club house, before heading on towards Pretoriuskop for some lunch. I then decided to take the loop road around Shabeni, the massive granite dome located north-west of the camp. We were spotting birds as we came to the base of the koppie when suddenly Justene burst out with that wonderful word – “Leopard!!!!” “Where?” I answered, as it was in my blind spot where the windscreen and the driver’s window meet. “There, on the rock!” she answered, and sure enough, there she was, a small female Leopard lying on a rock under a large Fig Tree. She was incredibly cooperative, we were the only people there for the first ten minutes or so, and we must have spent nearly half an hour watching her before she got up, crossed the road in front of us and disappeared into the bush. This was not an everyday sighting. Far from it in fact, as you can go through a whole year without having one quite as good as this. And that’s the irony – despite all your skill at spotting, your knowledge of animal behaviour, your knowledge of the park, your planning, time and effort, it’s often just lady luck who has the final say.
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.