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
Lions are a favourite request from guests visiting Kapama – and yes, we do have really excellent sightings on the reserve. As we left for a morning game drive recently, guests were excited about what the bush might reveal – but they also really did want to see a lion.
We were driving slowly towards the south-eastern section of the reserve to track a big male lion from where he was seen the previous night. En route, we stopped briefly to soak up the magnificent African sunrise and listen to the inhabitants of the bush wake up. Our experience was rudely interrupted by a powerful roar. It was some distance away, but still very loud.
The guests instantly had big smiles on their faces. Everyone knew it was the roar of a male lion, and in unison they said: “Let’s go and find that male.” We headed to the area where the sound was coming from, and before long found his huge paw prints in the sand. His tracks seemed to go around in circles as we followed them for ages by vehicle. Was he playing hide and seek with us? It sure seemed like it.
After just over an hour, we decided to stop for a coffee break and to resume tracking him afterwards. As we started round two of our coffee and hot chocolate, we noticed lion tracks that were fresh and promising. When we followed these, we came across more lion tracks belonging to other members of the pride.
Our mission seemed fruitless, though, and we needed to turn back to the lodge. Suddenly, tracker Douglas Masinga spotted movement far down the road. It was the male lion – and there were more, too. At last.
Excitedly we edged closer to observe. As we watched, something caught the attention of the lions walking down the road – there were warthogs grazing nearby. The lions showed interest, and I told our guests to be patient and to wait, to see what would happen.
Quickly the lions were in formation to ambush the warthogs. At lightning speed, one of the older and more experienced females ran towards the warthogs and made a kill right in the open – and a mere 20 metres from our vehicle.
Everyone was speechless. All they managed to say was: “Wow, amazing.” And they kept their gaze on the action. It’s rare to see a lion kill, and even more rare to see one so close up. But expert tracking by Douglas and plenty of patience paid off, and an unforgettable memory was made.
By Jeffrey Mmadi – ranger at Buffalo Camp
Edited by Keri Harvey
Edited by Keri Harvey
As rangers, we encounter Africa’s most feared animals – known as the Big Five – on a daily basis. Game drives are all about experiencing wildlife from a vehicle. The excitement, fear, anxiety and respect exceed the expectations of guests, regardless of their country of origin – but this, in turn, is superseded by tracking one of the Big Five on foot. Saying it’s exciting is a huge understatement.
The first rule of the bush walk is never to run. This doesn’t sound like much, until reality strikes. I recently went on a bush walk with eager guests who wanted to experience wildlife at ground level. As a trail guide, nothing gives me more pleasure than to share this excitement with guests. We left Buffalo Camp just after breakfast, and took a short drive to where we would start our walk.
About 20 minutes into the drive, I saw very fresh tracks of one of the bush’s giants – a fully grown white rhino. We stopped to look, and after checking the wind direction we decided to follow these tracks.
I repeated the safety guidelines for the walk before we started following the rhino tracks. Walking through the savannah/woodland, the guests realised it was not all that easy, with many thorn trees and tiny pepper ticks to scratch and irritate the legs. After 20 minutes of tracking the giant animal, we found a fresh rhino midden. Everybody felt even more excited and anxious, and were determined to continue.
White rhinos are aggressive when they feel cornered, but they are relaxed when they have an escape route and don’t see or smell intruders. We proceeded cautiously and carefully, without speaking or stepping noisily. Suddenly, I signalled for everyone to stop, and whispered: “Sleeping rhino.” The massive animal was about 20 metres (60 feet) away from us, sleeping under a tree.
With the breeze in our favour, the animal didn’t smell us. We took plenty of photos of the majestic beast, until the wind shifted and the rhino smelled us. From total relaxation and sleep, he was instantly alert and on his feet in a split second. We immediately got up and circled around to have the wind back in our favour, and the animal settled down again.
We spent about 30 minutes appreciating the majesty and wonder of this enormous animal before deciding it was time to move on. As we left, the wind shifted again and the rhino was back on his feet and fully alert. Sometimes, the expressions on guests’ faces while on a bush walk remain in my memory forever. That day was one such time.
Rhino are very curious, and will advance upon intruders because their eyesight is extremely poor. They simply want to understand what the intruder is and whether it presents a threat. We stood up silently and backed away from the rhino before continuing on our bush walk – I believe you shouldn’t disturb wildlife, and should rather appreciate them and leave them as you found them.
Written by Joe van Rensburg, ranger at Buffalo Camp
Edited by Keri Harvey
Snakes are always a hot topic of discussion among guests and visitors to Kapama. They mostly want to know what types of snakes inhabit southern Africa, which are venomous, and whether they occur around the lodges. As guides, we love seeing these beautiful creatures – either from afar or up close – and snake sightings always make for riveting conversation around the fire at night.
I recently hosted a group of guests with diverse and refreshing interests. During their stay, we ticked their bucket lists of animals and birds, but one determined gentleman still wanted to see a snake.
That’s not a usual request, but it had my full attention. So, whenever we saw snake tracks on our games drives, we stopped to see the direction and type of snake that had passed. Yet, every game drive ended without any snake sightings. I could see how passionate this gentleman was about snakes – and even more so when I told him they were more difficult to find than leopards.
On our last morning drive, as we slowly returned to the lodge, I turned up a less-travelled road where a leopard had been spotted just days earlier. Feeling hopeful, we drove slowly past the dam, checking thoroughly. There was nothing – not even a paw print. So, we turned to head homewards.
Then tracker Alfie Mashale spotted a snake track. He looked at me with excitement, but said nothing. We knew it was close by, from the shrill alarm calls of some Cape glossy starlings (Lamprotornis nitens) behind us. As I reversed the vehicle, we spotted the birds mobbing something in an old leadwood tree – something long, dark grey and very shiny in the morning sun.
We immediately knew what was happening – the starlings were defending their brood from a predator. A black mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis) had climbed the dead tree and found the baby starlings nestled in a hole. The birds were simply reacting instinctively by mobbing the snake. (Mobbing in animals is anti-predator behaviour, occurring when individuals of a certain species work together to attack or harass a predator, usually to protect their young.)
The guests were awestruck by the hysterical birds mobbing the snake. The spectacle was just amazing to observe and photograph. We watched the natural drama unfold for about 20 minutes, before the snake disappeared into the hole and stayed there. The adult starlings calmed down after that. It seemed they realised they had lost their chicks to the mamba. It was incredible to witness, but certainly a little sad at the same time.
In reality, this is the way nature operates, and the guests all agreed it was an awesome way to conclude their safari experience. The gentleman interested in snakes was quiet all the way back to the lodge. Once there, he said it had been one of the most fantastic experiences of his lifetime. Not only did he see a deadly black mamba, but he witnessed an unusual mobbing scene, too. In the bush, we need to expect the unexpected – that we know for sure.
Written by Angie Seeber, ranger at River Lodge
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
It was precisely to the day the middle of winter, and it was freezing. I set out with my trusted tracker, David, for a morning game drive with guests from Germany, Italy and South Africa. Though there were diverse cultures and languages aboard the vehicle, everyone wanted to see “something special”. As a field guide or ranger for five years, I understand that “something special” is interpreted differently by each person.
Quickly, there was consensus that finding the big male lion, Madoda Ngala, would certainly qualify as something special – he is the King of Kapama and extremely elusive. So with great enthusiasm, we set off to where his tracks were last seen. Two hours later, we were still searching, and I was growing doubtful we’d find Madoda Ngala that day.
“Let’s stop for hot chocolate and biscuits,” I said to my guests – but before they could answer, I heard the distinct and frantic alarm call of an impala. It wasn’t far away either. We decided to postpone drinking hot chocolate and investigate the impala distress calls. A pride of five sub-adult lions was the reason for the impala’s alarm – which is a great sighting, but not the “something special” we were after.
Then I noticed that the lions were not the least bit interested in the noisy impala. Their inexperienced hunting skills and the alert impala meant that a kill was unlikely, anyway. Yet the lions were very distracted by something else. One puzzled-looking lion was playing with a ball in the grass. It wasn’t a ball at all, though, but a rolled-up pangolin – one of the rarest and most elusive animals of the African bush.
It’s scientific name is Manis Temminckii, and the small mammal’s body is completely covered by interlocking scales made of keratin. These scales also easily make up 20% of the animal’s weight. This rare and magnificent animal is very seldom seen, and then certainly not in the grasp of a lion.
I can only guess that the pangolin must have come across the lions, and as soon as it detected the possible threat, it rolled itself into a perfectly formed ball, protected by its armour-like scales. This armour is formidable and impenetrable to the lions’ claws and teeth. More than anything, the young lions were intrigued by this bizarre ball of scales, and seemed to be trying to figure out what exactly this animal was.
It wasn’t long before the young lions lost interest and wandered off into the bush, dumbfounded by their morning encounter. The small pangolin had outwitted a pride of five lions, and when they left, it quickly unrolled itself and sauntered off into the nearby bush with the characteristic sound of its scales rubbing against each other, like armour plating in motion.
Neither David nor I could believe this incredible sighting. I quickly explained to my guests that this rare sighting of a pangolin was without doubt the “something special” of the day – but seeing lions play with a pangolin is a sighting so unique it defies description. Most game rangers, after a lifetime in the bush, will never be privileged to see such an encounter between two species. Many will never even see a pangolin. Then it was time for hot chocolate and biscuits – and plenty of excited conversation.
Written by Jeffrey Mmadi – Buffalo Camp Ranger
Edited by Keri Harvey