On an early morning game drive out of River Lodge, Lot Makhubele spotted the clear tracks of a male leopard imprinted in the sand road. He slowly climbed down from his high seat at the front of the vehicle and started explaining to guests the difference between male and female leopard tracks. The male leopard’s tracks are bigger and the shape is slightly rounder than that of the female. Male leopards are always solitary so there’s only one set of tracks, whereas there are often cub tracks close to the tracks of female leopards. Guests were amazed that Lot Makhubele could tell the sex of an animal just from its tracks, but he really can.
For about a half an hour we followed the leopard tracks, until he turned off the road and into the bush. It was inaccessible to us in a vehicle, and I was still explaining this to guests when Lot Makhubele spotted a female giraffe staring down at the ground. It may not sound significant at first, but giraffes usually stare fixedly at one place when they have seen a predator. So we were excited at the possibilities.
As we drew nearer, we found a clan of about 10 hyenas lying in the grass staring back at the female giraffe. Then, to our amazement, we saw a baby giraffe lying dead at its mother’s feet. It appeared the young giraffe had died during the previous night, and its mother was protecting its body from the encroaching hyenas. As the hyenas moved closer, the giraffe fended them off. They hung back for a few minutes and began slowing approaching again. And so it went on for at least an hour. The giraffe stood her ground and we eventually left the sighting.
On returning an hour later, the giraffe was still guarding the body of her baby from the hungry hyenas, and it’s possible she had stood there doing this all night before. However, when we returned the next morning, there was no sign of the event. Not a single bone of the baby giraffe or a shred of evidence remained.
Hyenas have a bad reputation, but are essential in the ecosystem and keep the bush clear of carrion. They are unusual and interesting animals, so it’s no surprise there are also plenty of myths and superstitions about them. It was previously thought that hyenas are hermaphrodites, but it turns out they are not. What is true is that female hyenas are heavier than males, more aggressive and socially dominant. Two pups are usually born to a litter and they are born ready for action – with their eyes open and canine teeth developed. So no time is wasted of keeping the bush clear of carcasses.
Story by Clement Kgatla – Ranger at River Lodge
Edited by Keri Harvey
Buffalo Camp is aptly named. On a recent game walk, we set out after breakfast heading for the dam near Buffalo Camp – because buffalo had been spotted there. En route, we saw various different birds and interesting animal tracks, and also heard the buffalo.
We moved in the direction of the sound, and there they were: a herd of about 60 buffalo, calmly drinking water. They had no idea we were watching them, because both the wind and the sun camouflaged us from sight and scent. After taking all the photos we wanted, we left; the buffalo still had no idea we’d been in their midst.
Walking back to camp, I heard vervet monkeys give an alarm call quite close to where we were standing. There was rumour of a predator in the area, so I scanned the bush to see if I could spot one. No luck though, because the grass was long and provided perfect camouflage for them. But the monkeys had spotted it already.
We continued walking back to camp, hopped onto a game-viewing vehicle and headed out to search for what the monkeys had seen. It didn’t take us very long to find the prize. Sitting on top of a termite mound, looking regal, was a young female cheetah. I had never seen her before on the reserve, so this was a special sighting already.
She sat there quite calmly, sniffing the air every so often. That’s what cats do when they’re on the hunt. They can literally smell their next meal. After about 20 minutes, she got up and started walking towards a dry dam nearby. Now out of the long grass and walking down the sand road, the young cheetah continued to sniff the air. Not even a minute later, she lay down in the road. She’d spotted an impala ram about 80 metres away. He was in mortal danger and didn’t even know it. Instead, he continued browsing, tree to tree, believing he was perfectly safe.
The cheetah, crouched low, started stalking the impala and got to 20 metres from him before she was spotted. He ran and she gave chase, running right past our vehicle in the scurry. She ran the impala towards a nearby gully. He slipped and fell. Then quickly got up again. But the cheetah was too quick. She tapped the impala on the back and managed to pull him down. Immediately she went for the throat to suffocate the animal. Very quickly it was all over.
Before starting her meal, the cheetah seemed to pose for photos alongside her prize. Once she’d caught her breath, she was ready to feed. So we left her to enjoy her brunch – and noted another amazing day at the ‘office’.
Written and photographed by Almero Klingenberg – Buffalo Camp
Edited by Keri Harvey
Many guests come on safari with a lot of definite expectations and desires. Of course, as a ranger and guide, I do my best to manage and meet these anticipations. However, it’s especially rewarding for me when a guest returns home and their fondest memory of their time at Kapama is of something completely unexpected. This happened recently to the Bassi family from Brazil.
It was their third and final night at Kapama. Game-viewing the previous few days had been excellent. The family had even fulfilled one of their main hopes of seeing lions feeding on a kill, when we saw a big male lion feasting on a freshly caught wildebeest. The family joked – though were possibly half serious – and asked me how I could ever top that experience before they left for home. That was a challenge for me, because when working with nature, sightings and experiences are unpredictable and beyond anybody’s control.
With this in mind, I gave my guests an option they could never have expected. Knowing they were keen photographers, I came up with a slightly different suggestion. We could do our normal safari, hope the wildlife cooperated and so recreate or even top the previous day’s excitement, or we could take a slow drive down to the river, towards a beautiful open area along the bank – the perfect spot to have a long and relaxed sundowner drink, while photographing the setting sun. The choice was unanimous, and we made our way down to the river.
With camera in one hand and a drink in the other, my guests were so captivated by the surrounding scenery that we decided to wait a little longer for the sun to set and night stars to come out. The night skies in the bush are remarkable and unlike anything many guests from the city have ever seen. Out in the middle of the bush on a moonless night, the skies are alive with thousands of stars. It’s also often the first time guests see the trail of the Milky Way.
Sitting under such magnificent star-spangled skies, we decided to try some photography. Before long, we had some spectacular shots of the night sky, but we continued to photograph the stars for another hour – until roaring lions broke the silence. The lions weren’t far away either.
It was getting quite late, but everyone chose to track the lions rather than head back for dinner. The lions were the perfect final act for the Bassi family’s stay at Kapama. When we did eventually have dinner, one guest commented how that night would stick in his mind for years to come – far longer than seeing his dream of lions feeding on a kill. It’s true that sometimes the unexpected things in life are the best. This was a good example – plus there are some good photographs, too.
Written by Kevin Samuels, River Lodge
Edited by Keri Harvey
Hello my name is Garry. I am a ranger at Kapama Southern Camp and I am an addict. I am addicted to leopard, but I have been clean for three days now. I really want to quit, I do, but I can’t do it alone. I need help.
Everyone has their own vices; mine is just a little different. I need a regular leopard fix. Luckily, I had one just a few days ago, and so did the guests who were with me. Often, leopard sightings are fleeting, but they are always worth it. This time was no different. Just a glimpse, but it was enough.
These fascinating cats are aware of my affliction – I am sure of it – and they tempt and tease me on every game drive, with their perfect paw prints clearly visible on the sand roads on which we drive. It’s almost as if they are sending me the message that they are around, but I need to earn even the briefest glimpse of them. These short moments of sightings just exacerbate my problem, and so my thirst for seeing leopard is never ever satisfied.
This time was different. The morning was a cold one, with the frontal system from the Cape dropping temperatures very low. We had been searching for elephants that seemed to be hiding in the thick bush to escape the cold weather. With no luck seeing them, my tracker, Richard Silinda, and I decided to move to Plan B, which was a stop for hot coffee to warm up.
As I turned off the road and headed towards one of my favourite rest stops, something flashed past the corner of my eye. Instinctively I thought it was a lioness, so I turned onto the road towards her. We all scanned the area where she had crossed but there was no lioness in sight. Then, in an open area and lit by the golden glow of morning sunshine, sat a large male leopard staring right back at us.
Richard glanced back at me and smiled as he said: “Ingwe”, which means leopard in the Shangaan language. But the guests on board had already spotted the magnificent big cat and were frantically searching for their cameras – coffee was long forgotten. For just a few short moments, he stared back at us and then calmly walked back into the bush.
I can only speak for myself, but I am sure all of us felt intoxicated by the beauty of this elusive animal. I shifted the Landcruiser into low range and began to follow him slowly. We are only permitted to leave the track for high-profile species, so we followed him for about 20 minutes – taking care not to get to close or to drive directly behind him. This was a truly exceptional experience, as the leopard was completely relaxed and so showed us a little of his world for a few special minutes.
Written by: Garry Bruce, Ranger at Kapama Southern Camp
Edited by Keri Harvey
It averages three to four metres in length, but can easily grow up to six metres long – that’s the southern African python. It’s massive – but even though it’s South Africa’s biggest snake, it’s very elusive and rarely seen in the wild.
Earlier this year, I was lucky to see an adult python on an evening game drive near Kapama Karula. This was definitely not a common sighting. Even more unusual to see was that the python had caught a young impala, which it was in the process of swallowing.
Contrary to popular belief, pythons don’t kill prey by crushing it, and in fact don’t break any bones in their prey when they constrict it. Pythons usually ambush their prey, latch onto them with powerful curved fangs and then wrap themselves around the prey, causing it to die of cardiac failure.
At the sighting, we watched as the python very slowly swallowed more of the impala. The antelope’s head and half of its body had already been swallowed, leaving only its hind quarters still visible. Guests on the game drive were left speechless, seeing such a huge snake eating an entire impala whole. Next morning when we returned to the same spot, the python was no longer there, and wasn’t seen again.
Two months later, however, during an early morning game drive in the same area, we discovered python remains – quite likely the same python. It’s a mystery how or why the python died, but hyena and leopard are on our list of suspects. This rarely seen snake provided us with two very unusual sightings: one in life and one in death.
Baby animals are always a hit, and watching their different stages of development is fascinating for everyone on a game drive. Cheetah cubs were a recent addition to the Kapama wildlife family, and there was great excitement and anticipation to watch the tiny cubs grow into adult cheetahs. As a ranger and field guide, I was lucky to see them for the first time when they were just a few weeks old.
Cheetah cubs have similar colouring to honey badgers, which serves to deter predators from attacking them – as honey badgers are one of the most vicious animals in the African bush. It was a first for me, to see an adult cheetah being followed tenaciously by what looked like four miniature honey badgers.
One night, the female cheetah took down a sizable impala ram, and it was quite a feast for her and her two remaining cubs. We saw them feeding on the carcass the following day too, but that night hyenas stole their kill and, in the process, killed another one of the cheetah cubs. Now there was just one cub remaining.
The next morning, when we found the cheetah with her only surviving cub, she was calling desperately for the others, and not paying much attention to her only living cub. This was not a good sign at all. While she was mourning her dead cubs, she was neglecting to feed or care for her remaining cub. By the following day, it too was dead.
As a first-time mother, this cheetah didn’t know how to handle so many cubs, and brought them out from cover and into the open too quickly. This is likely one of the reasons why they didn’t survive very long. The African bush brings many surprises, and there are not always happy endings. I am sure, though, that she has learnt important lessons through losing her entire litter of cubs, and this cheetah will be a much more successful mother next time round.
Written by Angie Seeber, River Lodge
Edited by Keri Harvey