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Winter Sun Worshippers

Even mongooses love sunbathing
When you think of an African safari you can’t help but think of the heat. Out here in the South African Lowveld, however, winter mornings and evenings can be bitterly chilly.

On one such morning, just as the sun was rising and the air was warming up, my guests and I noticed movement on a tall dead tree. Naturally, we stopped to have a good look with our binoculars.

It was a band of dwarf mongooses scrambling up and down the tree, searching for the best spot in the sun. These adorable little creatures had just emerged from their cosy den in an old termite mound at the base of the tree, and their antics in the bare branches above were their way of warming up after a freezing night for a day of hunting for insects, eggs, and lizards.

These beady-eyed, sociable creatures are cute and entertaining at the best of times, but on this morning as we sat curled up in the vehicle much as they were in the tree, we couldn’t tear ourselves away from their cuddling, grooming, and tumbling play.

Smiling, we left this little band of sun worshippers to their sun-loving ways.

Written by: Mark Burns
Kapama Karula

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Treatments with a view

Kapama Wellness CentreA trip to Kapama Wellness Centre is all about being pampered, and since the centre overlooks serene, sweeping bushveld and a large dam, this often happens in the presence of hippos and elephants.

Hippos love water, but we think they especially love showing off to their audience at Kapama Wellness Centre. The resident hippos grunt, groan, roar and wheeze throughout the day, sometimes opening their mouths wide and baring their teeth in a territorial display before striking the water, creating a big splash. Days would seem very quiet without them, so these displays always make us therapists smile during treatments.

Truly spectacular is the sight of elephants at play, especially in the water or in the mud at the edge of the dam. A herd visited a couple of weeks ago and we watched as one elephant disappeared completely under the water before resurfacing again and showering its body with water from its trunk.

Hippos and elephants aren’t the only animals passing through the centre. Occasionally, a couple of naughty nyala sneak in to nibble on our succulents. It’s difficult to chase such beautiful animals away, especially when they’re so clearly enjoying the moist fleshiness that’s hard to come by in winter months. Instead, we gather the guests and enjoy watching these gentle antelope together.

Our most unusual visitor so far wasn’t quite as welcome as the others. Not long ago, our assistant manager, Lalene van Zyl, heard something drop from the roof right behind her. When she turned and stared into the dazed eyes of a snake, she broke all land-speed records in her rush to leave the room. After catching her breath and steeling herself for whatever she might find, she crept back in and found a non-deadly (and quite beautiful) spotted bush snake and a lizard lying on the floor. The snake hasn’t been seen since, so we can only assume he was as traumatized as she was. Thank goodness it wasn’t Kinty or one of our other non-snake loving ladies at reception that day – we’d have lost their magic hands for good!

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Big cat fight

Some cats just don’t like to share

In Kapama, we’re lucky to have a couple of relaxed resident leopards that carry on about their business as if we’re not there. One such leopard, a female, was recently spotted enjoying a hard-earned impala kill with her two cubs, high up in a tree and out of reach from the hyenas lurking below. Leopards with kills often stick around for a few days, so the morning after this incredible sighting we decided to head off early with the hope of spending more time with them.

Bleary-eyed, wrapped up in all manner of jackets, blankets, scarves, and gloves, and clutching hot water bottles to fend off the crisp winter chill, we set off into the pre-dawn darkness. As we approached the huge jackal-berry tree where the previous night’s show had taken place, we scanned, but didn’t immediately spot her. If it weren’t for Freeman, my tracker, and his well-honed leopard spotting skills, we might have missed her.

“Over there.” He pointed, casually. We turned as she melted into view against a backdrop of exposed granite rock. We approached slowly, trying to get the morning sun behind us to maximize the golden light that makes wildlife photography so rewarding at this time of the year.

But something was clearly not right.  She was moving away from the jackal-berry tree, but kept glancing back, and as she got closer we noticed that she was injured. The small laceration on her stomach area didn’t seem to slow her down, but she wasn’t as fit and healthy when we had left her the previous night. Why was she injured? Where were the cubs? And why did she keep looking behind her?

All three questions were answered with the sudden appearance of a very large male leopard with bloodstained jaws. He had obviously stolen her kill and she was injured in her attempt to protect her cubs.

As the leopardess moved away, calling softly for her unseen cubs, he stalked out from behind the jackal-berry tree, scuffing the ground with his hind legs and spraying to mark his territory. As if she’d had enough of him, she bolted past the vehicle and disappeared down into a dry riverbed. Not 15 meters away from our vehicle, the large male growled angrily as he watched her leave.

Over a warming coffee stop in a patch of sunlight, we mulled over what we had just seen and tried not to worry about the missing cubs. Sometimes, the most incredible and memorable sightings are those tinged with sadness, but we all agreed that it’s generally best to trust nature’s way and to be thankful for the opportunity to witness it.

Written by: Garry Bruce
Kapama Southern Camp

Note: The cubs are still alive and well and are well on their way to being as relaxed as their mother.

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The cheetah that didn’t run

An unexpected kill

Cheetah dragging young waterbuck kill

Cheetah dragging young waterbuck kill

The African bushveld isn’t always like you see it on television. Lion prides don’t always have a big male accompanying them, leopards aren’t always in trees, and cheetahs don’t always outrun their prey across vast, open plains.

Open grasslands are ideal hunting grounds for cheetahs, so we were happy but not surprised to find a solitary female on a particularly open section of the reserve on our morning drive. We followed her as she walked along the thickets that bordered the open area, and when she paused for a few seconds as if she’d heard something we prepared ourselves for a possible chase.

But she surprised us by moving into the thickets.

We thought we’d lost her, that she was moving into deep shade to sleep, but we quickly discovered that she had other plans. Soon after she disappeared, a female waterbuck bolted out of the thickets, voicing her alarm with a series of unhappy snorts, and from the dense undergrowth came a quick and unexpected ‘mehh’ sound.

Cheetah with young waterbuck kill

Cheetah with young waterbuck kill

It was then that I suspected a cheetah kill, because the sheep-like sound is a typical distress call made by prey animals after having been captured. I maneuvered around the thickets on the off chance that the cheetah had come out on the other side, then sat and waited for barely five minutes before she reappeared, dragging the carcass of a young waterbuck calf past my vehicle and into the open, under a tree, where she could feed comfortably while keeping an eye out for danger. She fed quickly and warily – cheetahs, being smaller, weaker and unable to hoist their prey into trees, are especially vulnerable to other large predators – and the hopeless waterbuck mother wandered away to rejoin her herd.

The best sightings are often tinged with sadness, but this unexpected cheetah kill was a great way to end our morning safari.

Written by: Riaan Botha
Kapama River Lodge

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