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.
Sunset Dam is a legendary spot. Many Kruger aficionados will probably state that it’s their favourite waterhole in the whole of the park. It holds a massive population of Hippo’s, despite the fact that the Sabie River is only a few hundred meters away. The river also holds a fair number of these semi-aquatic behemoths, but nothing like the numbers in the dam. Perhaps the lack of flow and more stable water levels in the dam are reason for this, but either way, if you want to see Hippo’s up close and personal, this is THE spot. Not that you’d want to get too personal with a Hippo…
In fact, there are so many here that their dung enriches the water with excessive nutrients, which results in soupy green water due to the algal bloom. In certain cases there can be blooms of extremely toxic algae, which can result in the death of any animal which ingests the algae while drinking. For this reason numerous other dams, such as Siloweni Dam, have been destroyed in recent years.
Sunset Dam is also home to a large number of Nile Crocodiles, ranging from arm-length tiddlers to monsters three or four meters long which probably weigh several hundred kilograms. Indeed, this is one dam you definitely don’t want to end up in.
Birds are also plentiful here. It’s a great place to see White-crowned Lapwing, a river specialist which is restricted to the Sabie, Olifants, Levuvhu and Limpopo Rivers and is regularly seen at the water’s edge where the cars stop. A dead tree in the water is a nesting site for Red-billed Buffalo Weavers, Village Weavers and Lesser-masked Weavers. A scan along the shoreline will turn up Water Thick-Knees at rest, while Giant, Pied and Malachite Kingfishers can also be seen in the vicinity. Yellow-billed Storks are also common here, as is the ubiquitous Grey Heron.
In terms of mammals there are always loads of Impala hanging about, and these are prey for Lions, Leopards, Cheetah, Wild Dog, Spotted Hyena and the reptilian giants in the water of course, while Elephant and Buffalo often arrive during the heat of the day to bathe and wallow.
The great thing about Sunset Dam, besides the birds and wildlife, is that it is located just outside the gates of Lower Sabie Rest Camp, so you can always spend the first and last moments of the day there, and can also pop out quickly during the heat of the day to see what’s happening.
This panoramic shot was taken in July 2013, on a warm winter’s day when the water is considerably colder that the air, meaning that the Hippo’s, around 18 in this group, spend much of the day out on the banks enjoying the sun. Since taking this panorama I’ve learned a bit more about taking panoramas. For great, high-res panoramas set your lens to around 50mm, and, for a horizontal panorama such as this, orientate your lens vertically (in portrait orientation), and take a series of shots overlapping by around 15 – 20% as you pan across the scene, which you can render through something like Photoshop Photomerge. That way you’ll end up with a large panorama with as much detail as possible.