The radio crackled to life with an exciting message. “Located a mafazi Ingwe with a mala bamba up a ntsinya”, the voice announced. Excitement got the better of us as this was merely our first afternoon out and already we had a chance of seeing a leopard, something at the top of the list for just about all the photographers on board.
Elvis our ranger needed no invitation and off we went in the direction of the leopardess. We eventually arrived at the scene only to find her completely asleep at the base of a large Knob-thorn, Acacia nigrescens. Once a leopard has hoisted its kill up into a tree it feels pretty secure in knowing that the kill is off the ground and that they can almost feed at will. After a little bit of patience she sat up and gave us a beautiful show. She would constantly look up at the impala carcass in the tree, giving us the chance to capture those stunning light-filled eyes of hers. She never did scale to the top of the tree but regardless, it was just amazing to sit and watch her.
She was also a mother of two tiny cubs, perhaps not more than 10 weeks of age.
This was an exceptional start to our Timbavati photo safari.
Rounding a corner we also happened upon one of the largest elephant bulls I have seen in a long time. His tusks were incredible! We stayed with him for a few moments before he decided to give us an uncomfortably close inspection. Elvis wisely decided to move on in search of more accommodating subjects.
As the sun tucked in below the horizon, it took all forms of possible warmth with it. The stunning colours of the lowveld during the winter period is something to be seen, but it sure does come at a price. The cold weather forced us to don all possible layers we had in our possession, and once in camp the only place we really wanted and needed to be was around the warm camp fire. Fortunately it was already in full blaze by the time we returned to camp and it did not take much inviting for us to make full use of it. We must have looked like a school of sardines, sitting as close as possible to those warm embers as our fragile skins allowed.
After a long day of traveling and the excitement on our first afternoon safari, we needed some good nourishment. Goodness, our Shangaan chef, appeared from behind the boma wall at just the right time. She kindly introduced herself and then continued with an introduction of the evenings menu. It sounded superb and tasted even better. A warm cup of coffee after dinner next to the warm fire under the stars of Africa was exactly what was needed. One by one the guests left for their rooms, hot water bottle in hand and ready for a good nights rest.
We were up early and left camp by 06:00am. The sun only peeked over the horizon twenty minutes later. To say that the morning was cold was a slight understatement. It was ridiculous! A cold front had pushed through from the inland and it hit us hard and properly. Some of us looked ready for an Arctic adventure, not for an African safari. Being passionate photographers we dealt with the cold and set our sights on whatever the day would hold.
Four male lions had killed a large buffalo bull through the night. We arrived just in time to capture the first light gently covering the full-bellied lions. One particular male gave us a great photographic opportunity as he sat up, his warm breath igniting the cold air around him. Only one male lion busied himself with the carcass whilst the other three lazed about. We knew we would be able to return to see them again and once they got more lazy we moved off in search of more willing photographic subjects. If you have ever sat watching sleeping lions you will know exactly what I am talking about.
We headed back to the leopardess with her impala kill in the afternoon. We had hoped to find her up the Knob Thorn but still no luck. We did however manage to get her on the move. I am convinced she was moving towards where she kept her cubs. The light was fading fast and we could not keep up with her for that long. It was beautiful, being able to follow closely behind a leopard on the move. Because the cubs were still of young age they needed to be suckled on a regular basis. Her kill was close enough to them for her to move to and fro, making sure they are okay.
Something everyone seemed to look forward to was the evenings sundowners. Fortunately our guide Elvis knew of some pretty cool places to take us to. There’s nothing quite like sipping a ice-cold G&T whilst watching the Africa sky change its colours.
Once back at camp after a chilly evening in the field, proceedings were no different to the night before. Our main objective was to get to that lovely warm fire as fast as humanly possible. We again enjoyed the scrumptious food that Goodness whipped up before retiring to bed.
One thing the Timbavati does not have a shortage of are buffalo. We encountered several herds, some as large as 600 or 700. The winter dust would churn under the large hooves and would often fill the sky all around them. Sometimes you could determine the presence of the herd purely by looking at the dust cloud hanging above them.
We managed to spend quality time with the herds and got great photographic opportunities, especially of the large grumpy bulls. They are especially active in the hours just after sunset and we managed to test the low-light capabilities of our cameras to the limit. There were some absolutely massive bulls within the breeding herds. They would often stand and stare at you for some time before shaking their head in disgust and making off in the opposite direction.
We also returned to the scene where the male lions had killed the buffalo. There were plenty of vultures around but no sign of the carcass or
the four lions. We could see a trail left from where they had dragged the remains of the buffalo, towards the south west of their last position. Almost 300 meters further we managed to find them, this time in the company of a single lioness. They had dragged the little that was left of the buffalo bull all the way to a small waterhole.
The beauty of the bush is that you never know what could happen next. As we sat watching the male lions, another two lionesses appeared from behind the Land Rover. Two of the males were extremely interested in these two ladies and immediately left the carcass to have a closer look. The vultures did not hesitate to make the most of the opportunity and immediately flew in and starting gulping up the last chunks of meat.
The lions would run back to the carcass in order to chase the bewildered vultures to the tree tops. As soon as the lions would turn their backs the vultures would be back and on to the carcass. This went on for some time and provided us with real entertainment. The lions eventually realized that there was very little left for them and duly abandoned the remains.
These interactions are special and not often witnessed by safari-goers. We were very fortunate to have played host to such a wonderful natural spectacle.
Towards the end of the safari we had a great sighting of two buffalo bulls interacting. They often engage in what seems like a playful or friendly form of fighting or bumping heads. This is merely social engagement between various bulls, and also an effective way for the bulls to get to know one another and their associated strengths. At one stage a bull hooked the other by his front leg and did not want to let go. The unfortunate bull eventually managed to free his leg and all ended happy and well.
There was a hyena den close to camp and it was always worth while to pop in there during the early morning hours. We were fortunate to find one of the adult females arriving at the den one morning. She called to the youngsters who almost immediately joined her on the side of the abandoned termite mound. See, if one of the adults are not around the chances are slim of finding young cubs outside of the mound. It is simply too dangerous for them to venture outside without the supervision of an adult.
Soon afterwards another female appeared and she moved one of the smaller cubs to another den site roughly 50meters away. We managed to capture some interesting images from the sighting. The light was beautifully soft and it gave us another chance to put our cameras ISO capabilities to the test.
On our last evening safari, we decided to photograph the beautiful and striking African sky at night. I had spotted a specific tree with this in mind earlier in the week, and knew we simply had to make use of it. The results were stunning and everyone got some great shots. The amount of stars visible to the naked eye is mind-blowing! Our human minds simply can’t fathom the vastness of the universe surrounding us. We often think of ourselves far too highly, when in actual fact our planet is less than a speck of dust in the greater scheme of things.
Any safari experience on this great continent will always leave a lasting imprint within your heart. To play witness to some of these incredible events in the African bush is humbling.
To be allowed to follow a mother leopard en route to where she hides her precious cubs, or to sit and watch 4 massive male lions as they devour their hard-earned kill from the night before is a feeling that can’t be explained, and a privilege that should not be taken for granted.
Marlon du Toit