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AFRICA 2005 TRIP REPORT (3/3) - A RETURN TO KRUGER, SEPTEMBER 2005
By Vandit Kalia
September 2005

This last leg of the trip was not planned. After the Kgalagadi (see part 2), I was scheduled to spend this time on a 7-day walking trip in Mana Pools, Zimbabwe. However, due to several external factors, I ended up missing the trip. Pritha was supposed to fly back for some work, but due to South African Aiways being first on strike, and later using the monsoons in Mumbai as an excuse to display some of least customer-friendly behavior I have ever encountered, she too couldn't make it back on time. We had turned in our Condor, and could only get a small Aveo this time - driving down across the border, we spent an enjoyable week in Moambique and I saw my first whale shark ever. I still had a hole in my calendar from the cancelled Zimbabwe trip ( had planned a few weeks there - I love Zimbabwe: beautiful country, very nice people), and decided to return to Kruger for a couple of weeks again before heading home. Wiser from my experience a few weeks ago, I chose to spend the entire time in the southern part of the park. Luckily, there was enough availability for me to get pretty much all my nights in south, except for a couple of nights in Satara towards the end - I was booked in Lower Sabie, Croc Bridge and Skukuza, with a couple of nights in Satara.

Going into the park, I had a few objectives – I wanted to see wild dogs (a species I still have to encounter in the wild) and I wanted to get some good shots of lions and rhino, neither of which I had shot to satisfaction the first time around. However, I resolved to shoot and enjoy what was available, rather than driving around looking for these subjects - so it probably isn't surprising that it started raining lions on this trip.

   
                 


I had one of my best lion sightings of the trip on the tar road north of Sabie. This area had been quite unproductive in the first trip, due to a recent fire, and I had planned to spend only a little time in this area. However, on my first drive there, early in the morning, I saw a cheetah with 4 cubs – too early in the morning to shoot, but absolutely exciting to watch as the cubs frisked around, oblivious to the tough path that life had ahead for them (the mortality rate for cheetah cubs is staggeringly high - around 70%). I also spotted a couple of rhinos close to the road. Heartened by this, I decided to spend more time exploring this area.

The evening drive produced a couple of distant rhino, a large herd of zebra and suspiciously large numbers of steenbok by the roadside, with hardly any traffic at all. Having got some very good steenbok shots, and the light having faded, I decided to head back to camp early. As I turned a corner while coming down a slope near Mlondozi dam, I saw a solitary lioness walking down the road with her back to me. Easing my foot off the gas pedal, I coasted in behind her, matching her speed but giving her a decent bit of room so as to not spook her. She seemed completely oblivious to me, so I maintained my position, letting the gentle slope of the road keep me going.

Soon the reason for her oblivious attitude became apparent. At one point, a few minutes later, she turned around. Seeing me about 10m behind her, she was so startled that she literally jumped. The thought that she was unaware of me hadn’t even crossed my mind - after all, this was a lioness, an apex predator, with super keen senses capable of hearing the slightest of rustles, and I was in a car with a running engine... go figure.

Typical of all cats, she was very embarrassed at being seen in an undiginified position, and tried to cover up by pretending to look back past me, as if searching for someone. From now on, she didn't deign to notice me, but the message was clear: “it wasn’t you, you know - I was looking for someone else." In the meantime, I was trying my best to not laugh out loud at both her initial reaction and her subsequent attempts to play it cool.

   
                 


After a few more minutes, the lioness settled down on a mound by the side of the road. I parked on the other side, about 4-5m away, waiting to see what she’d do next. I didn't have to wait long.

Suddenly, she went from “relaxed” to “business” mode, dropping into an immobile crouch, fixated on something in the bushes on the other side. Nothing funny about her now. After staring for about fifteen seconds, she pounced into the bushes, and I got to see her target, a spring hare. The hare took off for its life, and after a couple of steps, the lioness realized this wasn't going to work. Hunt unsuccessful, she returned to her post and proceeded to stare at me, as if daring me to laugh. Play face, direct stare - yep, confident, relaxed cat.

After sitting with her a little while longer, I had to take off in order to make it back to the camp on time, but I couldn’t get the grin off my face as I drove. The best thing about this experience was that I had been the only one there for most of the time (2 cars came up in the last few minutes but missed all the action). As icing on the cake, I saw a coalition of 3 cheetah walking by the roadside on my drive back – but by then, the light was so dim I didn’t even bother trying to get a shot.

The next day, I had one of my best sessions ever with rhinos - while I had seen quite a few rhinos on this trip, especially this part of it, there were always obstructions and bushes in the way, preventing me from getting clear shots. This time, the pair of rhinos - one with its horn removed - were browsing in a clearing right by the roadside, and I was able to get excellent shots of these gigantic lumbering beasts.

My good luck with lions continued as well. I finally got to see a pair of lion mating, on S25 near Croc Bridge. Generally, after each mating session, the female turns around and takes a big swat at the male - although there have been instances of more lovey-dovey lionesses merely snarling furiously. These two were the Romeo and Juliet of the lion world, because after mating was complete, she didn't even turn around. They both simply got up and walked away deeper into the bush. On the other side of the road, another lion woke up, stretched lazily, fixed us with a regal eye and promptly dropped back to the grass to nap some more.

   
                 


I also saw 3 lionesses munching on a kill near the Mlondozi area, while a hungry black-backed jackal frantically ran around the periphery, trying to grab a snack. The traffic police pride (see part 1) made an appearance, and I also had a very good session with a group of subadult lions west of Skukuza. A pride of lions on the road between Croc Bridge and Sabie could be seen lazing around on a dry riverbed with remarkable regularity - never saw them with a kill, yet they looked well fed enough, so they must have been ordering takeaway.

I was seeing lions on virtually every drive by now – having been in the park for a while now, I was starting to have a sense of the movement patterns and ranges of some of the prides, which helped me a great deal. However, my luck with leopards was less than stellar. There was a resident leopard a few kilometers from the Sabie camp that I had been trying to spot. I spotted a buck carcass on a tree one day, saw his tail another day and heard impala alarm calls on a third, but the blasted critter remained hidden (although others did have better luck, judging by the number of pins stuck on the sighting board). Also, I ended missed a leopard on a tree on the H4-1 road between Sabie and Skukuza. But because I was so close, I felt that given a day or two, I'd finally wear down the leopards and have a good sighting.

As such, I really was not looking forward to driving all the way up to Satara just for a single - and my last - night. I tried my best to change it, but the southern camps were all full. So feeling slightly grumpy, I headed over. A lioness sighting in H4-1 made me feel a little better. I decided to stop at Silowene dam enroute – I’d seen lots of game there the last time, including a lioness (although I had missed the rest of the pride by half an hour) and lots of elephants. Also, there was a nesting tawny eagle with a fledgeling nearby that I wanted to check out.

This is where things almost got hairy. En route, I had spotted a breeding herd of elephants including a tiny baby, and stopped to watch and shoot. The herd was all around me, and I had adjusted my mirros to keep an eye on one elephant that was behind me and close to the road. However, she seemed unconcerned by my presence, and as the baby soon moved into view, I was focused on shooting and forgot to keep track of her. After a while, I happened to look back, and she was on the road, only a few meters away from the car, trunk and ears flapping in a threat display (or it might have been the end of a mock charge - I couldn't say). Suffice to say, Schumacher couldn’t have gotten the car moving as quickly as I did.

   
                 


Heart still racing, I drove down to the dam and in my excitement, almost missed 2 male lions sitting on the embankment, basking in the sun in broad view. After putting my car in a good position, I settled down to wait, figuring that the cats wouldn't sit in the hot sun for too long. Sure enough, after a while, they went down to have a drink before sauntering across the dam and disappearing into the bushes on the far side. All this was in the open, with no bushes, scrub or trees obstructing the view – and since I had wanted some decent shots of male lions, I was thrilled.

My good luck continued, as a few kilometers away, I came across another male lion, resting in the grass some distance from the road. He was obviously hunkered in for the day and odds of him moving for the next few hours were quite low, so when someone told me of a giraffe killed by lions some distance away, I needed no persuasion to move on.

The kill was right next to Vutomi Dam – the giraffe’s legs actually stuck out onto the dirt road, and cars had driven up onto an embankment to give the lions room and get a better view. When I got to the kill, the carcass was lying unattended – or so it seemed. Soon a lioness rose to view from behind, glowering at all and sundry. After feeding for a bit, she ambled off, and was replaced by another. A little later, a big pride male emerged from behind a bush and, seeing the lioness by the kill, charged her and gave her a good smacking. Satisfied that his dominance was asserted, he started feeding some more – stopping only to charge some presumptuous vultures that were getting too close. Finally, belly stuffed, he walked off, only getting a few meters away before plopping down and falling asleep. The lionesses - one of them with a noticable limp - furtively sneaked up to the kill and started feeding again. As the male magnanimously didn’t stir at this, they slowly gained confidence and before too long, were going all out on the carcass.

All too soon, it was time to go, as I still had almost an hour's worth of driving to do. En route, I spotted a hyena, and closer inspection revealed a hyena den in a roadside culvert, with a couple of very curious sub-adults who were torn between their nervousness of the being out in the open and their curiosity about me. I sat with them as long as I dared, barely squeaking into Satara this time.

   
                 


The next day, my last, I drove back, finally spotting lions on the famous S100 and checking up on the giraffe kill. Continuing onwards on my way to the park gates, I was reflecting on what a good 2 weeks it had been, and thinking wistfully of that missed leopard on a tree – when I came across a traffic jam near the Tshokwane picnic site. Looking around, I spotted what appeared to be a largish shadow in the V of a distant tree. In a flash, out came the binos as I scanned – and indeed, it was a leopard sitting on a branch of a sycamore tree some distance away! What are the odds?

As an icing on the cake, I had the best ribs I’ve ever eaten at the Sports Bar in Komatipoort – a fitting end to an absolutely fantastic trip. Even the Celine Dione Special on the radio (surely there are laws against that kind of stuff!) merely added flavor to the experience, as opposed to causing me to stab at my eardrums with a toothpick.

When I got back, I heard from Mike Scott of Khangela Safaris (with whom I had an absolutely thrilling time in Hwange in 2004, and who was to be my guide for the cancelled Zimbabwe trip) that he had come across denning wild dogs and had spent a few days watching and photographing them.

Well, there's my reason to return the next time I have a decent amount of time off!

 
     

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