Walking the Big Five

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anxiety and respect exceed the expectations of guests, regardless of their country of origin – but this, in turn, is superseded by tracking one of the Big Five on foot.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.

Walking the Big Five

Walking the Big Five

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

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The glossy mob

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.

Starling mobbing a black mamba

Starling mobbing a black mamba

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

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Giraffe stand-off

Hyena in the grass

Hyena in the grass

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

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Rare pangolin encounter

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.

Rare pangolin at Kapama

Rare pangolin at Kapama

“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.

The pangolin rolls into a ball in self-defence

The pangolin rolls into a ball in self-defence

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

 

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Trading cold for a lion kill

I have been a game ranger for six years, and every morning when my alarm clock wakes me I wonder what sightings and surprises the African bush holds for the day. It’s mid-winter, and cold as I gingerly get out of bed to prepare for the morning game drive. I can see the setting moon through a gap between the curtains, and the stars wink at me from a distance. Outside is still dark and completely silent.

As we depart from Buffalo Camp for the morning game drive, I look back to check on my guests sitting on the vehicle. It looks like everyone is wearing every single item of clothing they brought along on safari. They’re bundled up with clothes layered like onions – beanies, scarves, gloves and double-lined jackets. The unspoken belief is that if we persevere through the cold of this winter morning, the African bush must reward us. “Let’s go,” they say enthusiastically, from beneath the blankets, which are the final layer for warmth.

Guests on an early morning game drive through Kapama Private Game Reserve watch in awe as a pride of lions takes down a wildebeest

Guests on an early morning game drive through Kapama Private Game Reserve watch in awe as a pride of lions takes down a wildebeest

It’s not long before my trustworthy tracker, Foster, points out clearly visible lion tracks in the road ahead. There’s not one, not two, but many tracks, and they are all fresh. It seems this pride, like us, was up early and on a mission of their own – despite the cold winter morning temperatures.

Before long, we are rewarded and find a pride of eight lions. They are alert, curious and also cold. Some move cautiously closer to the vehicle, and in their amber eyes I can see they are intrigued by the vehicle’s engine radiating welcome warmth. One lioness in particular seems laser-focused on the vehicle but, an instant later, her whole demeanour changes. Eyes, ears and body are suddenly on high alert. I see a similar and instant change in every single member of this pride, and then I also notice a herd of wildebeest not far away. They seem edgy and unsure of their next move; surely they must sense danger nearby.

A satisfied lioness after eating her share of wildebeest for breakfast

A satisfied lioness after eating her share of wildebeest for breakfast

I soon realise that the vehicle is serving as support in the lions’ plan to ambush the wildebeest, and before long they explode from behind the vehicle in different directions towards the herd. The sudden burst of energy, the swift and agile movement of their limbs and the seemingly choreographed hunt is almost too fast to follow. The guests gasp as the lions charge towards the panicked wildebeest herd.

And then… success for the lions. A wildebeest falls and the lions have breakfast, as the African bushveld starts waking up around us. Our reward, in turn, is an outstanding sighting and an unforgettable experience for each person on the vehicle.

The moral of the story: sometimes your warm and cosy bed is not the best place to be on a cold winter morning in the African bush. Just a little discomfort and cold can yield enormous reward, like witnessing a lion kill.

Written by Joe van Rensburg – Ranger, Buffalo Camp
Edited by Keri Harvey

 

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Looking for giants

Elephants drinking

Elephants drinking

When we left the lodge for the morning game drive on 2 June 2014, elephants were top of mind. We wanted to see the giants of the African bush, and just five minutes into the drive my hopes were raised. I saw a disc-shaped print in the sand. It was the size of a dinner plate. Right next to it lay a pile of dung, still steaming it was so fresh.

I immediately stopped the vehicle, got out and pointed out the footprint to the guests on the game drive. “Do you know what this is?” I asked them with a knowing smile. Answers of “giraffe” and “rhino” came firing back at me, and then finally one guest said it: “Elephants.”

“Yes, yes,” I answered animatedly, “and the dung is so fresh, we can definitely follow the tracks.” A soft cheer came from the back of the vehicle as guests couldn’t contain their excitement. They knew an adventure had just begun.

I thought it wouldn’t take long before we found the elephant herd, but I was very wrong. The elephants were on a mission of their own, searching for another elephant herd in the area. Two-and-a-half hours later and a strong cup of coffee to modify my search plan, and then suddenly we heard a trumpet from deep in the bush.

“What was that?” a guest asked curiously. Tracker Cazwell Mmola answered back: “Elephants. And they are close.” We quickly packed up the coffee picnic and rushed in their direction. An open patch appeared in the bush and there they were: a herd of majestic African elephants, quietly drinking water from a small mud pan. Some guests sighed in relief, others in wonder, and cameras clicked in the excitement of the sighting. We stayed for 20 minutes, soaking up the experience and then left the herd to continue their daily routine.

The American gentleman sitting behind me, tapped me gently on my shoulder and said: “This truly was a morning dedicated to following Africa’s giants.”

Written by Rassie Jacobs, ranger: Kapama River Lodge
Edited by Keri Harvey

 

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