Living and working in the heart of the African bush is a privilege shared by only a few. It’s been my privilege for 14 years – 9 as a field guide before becoming Southern Camp’s lodge manager – long enough to occasionally feel as though I’ve seen it all. There are times, however, when Mother Nature stops me in my tracks with something so amazing that I can’t help but wonder, in all my years of living out here, how much of the magic happening all around me I’ve actually seen.
One of these halting moments happened just two evenings ago, right on my doorstep.
I was spending the evening relaxing at home when an annoying squeaking sound had me frowning up at the ceiling fan spinning over my head. To my relief, I realised that the noise was actually coming from the big old knob thorn tree just outside my front door. Naturally, I grabbed a flashlight and my camera and went to investigate.
Shining up into the branches, I was amazed to see that the odd screeching sound was coming from a very distraught lesser bushbaby. These little, wide-eyed primates are long-time residents in the trees around camp, so it surprised me to hear this particular, unrecognisable distress call. I decided to hang around and keep searching for whatever was causing him so much discomfort.
It took me a while to find the troublemaker, but when I did I immediately understood the bushbaby’s distress. High up in the tree lay an African rock python, waiting for the bushbaby to move into striking range. I couldn’t see its head, but its distinctive markings made it easy to identify. It’s not at all strange to find pythons in trees, and younger ones often venture up in search of nesting birds and bats – and bushbabies, apparently. Although clearly a juvenile, at almost 2 metres long it was no small threat to the tiny bushbaby. I had never witnessed a lesser bushbaby interacting with a snake before, but now I know that strange, whining distress call that brings to mind dodgy ceiling fans translates to a very particular fear.
In the manner of so many prey animals, the lesser bushbaby kept his eyes on the python while shouting out his agitated warning into the night. For almost an hour, I stood outside in the dark watching him leap back and forth between the branches, just out of reach of a killing strike, wondering if it could be a clever tactic to loosen the snake’s grip on the branches so it might fall.
Another 30 minutes or so later, the bushbaby gave up and moved off somewhere safer, and not long after, the hungry python wound its way further up into the tree in search of an easier dinner.
The evening’s entertainment over, I went back inside and thanked my lucky stars for the wonders of the African bush that, even after 14 years, still manage to astound me.
And for the fact that I’m not a bushbaby.
Lodge Manager – Southern Camp
We have all seen the breath taking events that unfold on TV when we watch channels like Discovery and National Geographic. Inevitably we come into the industry of Guiding and every day you wake hoping to see something similar to show your guests. It takes the film makers that produce these documentaries years and years of time and money to eventually get that perfect shot or perfect opportunity for some awesome footage.
My four guests Bob, Janet, Georgine and Kevin spent three nights with us, we had our share of big 5 sightings and we were having a blast. On our second night out we decided to go and have a look around the Hyena den at Rooibok Dam to see if they were out. We sat there for about fifteen minutes and two cubs popped their heads out of the den. The adults were not visible but we could hear them vocalising in the bushes not too far away from the den. I radioed the lodge to let them know we were going to be late for dinner as we had quite some activity around the den when the parents eventually emerged from the thickets. Spending twenty to twenty five minutes with the whole clan interacting and vocalizing, going through different greeting rituals and all sorts of behaviour you don’t get to see very often, had my guests stunned.
We eventually left the den at about 7:45 PM which is quite late considering we were all the way in the North Western corner of the property. Driving over the Dam wall still talking to my guests about how lucky we were seeing all that interaction, my tracker Raezert Mthambini indicated to me that he can see eyes in the road up ahead. Four sub-adult male lions ranging from 1 year to 2 and a half years old came walking down the road straight toward the Hyena den. The oldest one of the four was on a mission and nothing was going to stand in his way of getting to those Hyenas.
People spend their lives trying to get their timing right to see what was about to unfold right in front of our eyes, on the dam wall of Rooibok Dam stood 11 adult Hyenas and the four Lions were walking straight toward them. The oldest Lion was intent on showing these Hyenas who was boss. He started scraping himself on a thorn bush trying to get his scent in the air and also urinated on the ground scraping his back paws through the urine to as if to tell the Hyenas that this area belongs to him. The Hyenas had their tails in the air and the most amazing sounds were coming from them again trying to intimidate the Lions. We were right in the midst of a full on standoff. I told my guests that our dinner will be very late, as we were not going anywhere. Three of the lions went down to the water to have a drink but the oldest of the four had his sights on the Hyenas and was adamant on teaching them a lesson.
After their drink the other three realised it was getting serious as the other male started growling and showing a lot of aggression toward the Hyenas. Everything went silent at exactly the right time, the oldest male Lion charged toward the Hyenas and they all scattered in different directions over the dam wall. We approached the dam wall slowly and stood on it waiting patiently to see what happened next. The Lion came back onto the dam wall and continued his territorial “marking” giving soft growls in between. It took the Hyenas about 5 minutes to regain courage and step back out onto the dam wall and this time the Lion wasted no time and gave another full on charge scattering the Hyenas again.
This happened about four times and we lost sight of the Lions and Hyenas. My guests asked me if that was that and I told them that I thought it was the end, and all of a sudden a loud growl came from the thick bush right next to the vehicle, the Hyenas had got hold of the youngest of the four lions, words cannot describe the noise that either the lion or the hyenas were making but to say the least it was very unpleasant.
Hearing this noise obviously the older males responded and a big fight occurred in the bush next to us, unfortunately it was too thick and dark so all we could do was sit and listen, not that we were complaining. Everything went silent again and all four Lions came out of the thickets, one was a bit injured but it didn’t look serious, they all lay on the dam wall looking back at us and putting the battle to an end with the Lions winning this round.
In my life I have never thought I would have the privilege to see a sighting like that unfold in front of my eyes… I am BLESSED to say the least!
Head Ranger Southern Camp
While driving back to the lodge at the end of a great afternoon game drive we came across a spotted eagle owl sitting in the road. We stopped to enjoy the presence of this wise old owl.
We noticed that she was holding something in her talons and on closer inspection saw see that she had a dung beetle in her grasp. She held it down and did not seem very interested in her prize. All of a sudden she hopped into the air leaving the beetle behind and flew to the other side of the road where we could see some movement on the road.
As we continued watching her we saw that she was dancing around a large scorpion, trying to get the scorpion into a position that would suit her. The whole time the scorpion kept up its defence by lashing out with its tail, trying to sting the owl. This didn’t deter the owl as she pounced on the body of the scorpion and in a flash had bitten the sting off the tail of the scorpion, rendering it harmless.
How wise of the owl as now the spotted eagle owl could take her time and just stood on the scorpion for a few moments before picking it up in her beak and swallowing it alive.
She proceeded to spread her wings and fly off into the night.
With the Murphy family as my guests on the game drive vehicle, we were making our way to an area south of Southern Camp. I knew there were three lions in the area, but I clearly told the Murphys that while they may see lions, leopards were elusive and they were definitely not guaranteed of seeing them. My words weren’t cold when we spotted a female leopard lying down in the open, relaxed as could be.
Somehow, I instinctively knew she was not alone. Shortly after we spotted her, the leopard got up and crouched into a stalking position. But there was no prey in sight. What she was actually doing was cautiously making her way out of the area, as she was intruding on lion territory. She knew it and a resident lioness also knew the leopard was about – and wanted her out of her domain. If the leopard didn’t leave of her own accord, she’d be forcefully chased out.
When leopards feel threatened by another predator, they will either try and make their way out of the area or find a tree to climb for safety – out of the reach of lions. This exact scenario played out the very next morning on our game drive.
Not long into our drive, we came upon a male leopard up a tree. He was not there willingly either – the lions lying around the base of the tree had clearly chased him up as he was a threat to their territory. In the same way, leopards often drag their kills into trees to keep them out of the reach of opportunistic lions and hyenas. But today’s sighting was different, and there was no kill in sight. It was simply a territorial battle.
Sometimes, finding the unexpected is just plain luck – and, of course, being in the right place at the right time. Finding leopards is never easy because they are solitary and elusive; finding them two days in a row is something special; and witnessing a silent territorial tug of war is an extremely rare sighting indeed. Something unforgettable for us all.
Story: Adolph Niemand – ranger at Southern Camp
Photos: Lily Murphy
Edited by Keri Harvey