Sabi Sand 2022: Day 1 of 7

During 2022, we returned to South Africa for the first time in ten years, for what would be our fourth trip to Africa, and our fifth safari.

As we have always done, we teamed up with Mario Moreno of South Cape Images.  For this trip, the destination was the Sabi Sand Game Reserve, which is well known for its leopard population, and as we would discover, its amazing sightings.

After a long flight, we arrived in Johannesburg on the day prior to our safari, and Mario met us at the airport, just as he had done ten years prior.  He had hired a car, and on this occasion, we would stay at a hotel in nearby Boksburg.

After settling in, we headed to the Turn 'n Tender Steakhouse nearby for a nice pre-safari dinner and South African wine.

We had been through this fun ritual before, in which we would catch up and discuss the trip ahead.  As we would discover, there would be so much that was familiar, but so much that was new.

Day one of our safari had arrived, and we headed back to OR Tambo International Airport for a one-hour Federal Airlines flight to the Sabi Sand Game Reserve.

Our flight had only one stop at Singita Lebombo, not far from the Mozambique border, to drop off a honeymooning American couple that I had befriended on the flight, before we headed back west a short flying distance to Arathusa Safari Lodge Airstrip, which was 20 minutes (by 4WD) due-east of our home for the next week: Elephant Plains Game Lodge.

We landed at Arathusa, and were picked up by the man who would be our guide for our seven-day stay: Gabriel (Gabe) Harmer.

Once we unloaded our gear from the Pilatus PC-12, we loaded the gear and ourselves into the 4WD and headed towards the lodge.  While this was not a game drive as such (this 4WD was not a safari vehicle), we did experience numerous sightings as we headed west towards the lodge.

We spotted a nyala, a kudu, impalas, a large breeding herd of elephants, a hippo, two water monitor lizards, a water thick-knee and some zebras.

In the Sabi Sand Game Reserve, wildlife is everywhere, and often it is not necessary to put much effort into finding it.

Once we arrived at the lodge, we checked in, met the wonderful staff who would be with us for the next week, and went to our rondavel to settle in.

Lunch at Elephant Plains Game Lodge is at 2pm, so we had some time to get ourselves ready, before lunch in the dining hall, and our first game drive, which was to depart at 4pm.

The lodge itself is beautiful, set on the dry Manyeleti riverbed, with eastward views into a lush, open area of the Sabi Sand Game Reserve.  It affords views of wildlife, right from the dining hall, outdoor infinity pool and decked area.

Image: View from Elephant Plains Game Lodge

View from Elephant Plains Game Lodge

Shortly before our first game drive was to commence, we headed out to the front of the lodge, where we again met Gabe.  We had our gear ready, and boarded our private 4WD.

Gabe introduced us to Colbert Khoza, our tracker, and then gave us an introduction and explained the rules for safe and rewarding game drives.  With the formalities out of the way, we set off into the bushveld, heading north-north-east of the lodge, where we spent the entire game drive.

Not even fifteen minutes into the drive, we were treated to a special sighting: a Verreaux's eagle-owl.  This is a large owl, which grows up to 66cm in length, and which has the distinctive feature of being the only owl in the world with pink eyelids.

It was special enough to see a Verreaux's eagle-owl, but while he was perched high in a tree within very dense foliage, he was visible to us, and he was sitting perfectly in a small area lit by the sun, which had penetrated the canopy.

This is the image that I captured of the Verreaux's eagle-owl:

Image: Verreaux's Eagle-Owl

Verreaux's Eagle-Owl

This was not an easy image to land, and at the time of capture, I was not sure that it would be an image that I would publish.

The owl was perched very high in a tree, the shade of which was quite dark.  I had to use the 600mm focal length, and even so, it was necessary to crop somewhat.

Given the difficulty of the conditions and the special nature of the sighting with the serendipitous natural lighting of the subject, I think that it was an image worthy of publication, and it was a species of African wildlife which we had never encountered in ten years of visiting the continent.

Our guide Gabe, who has probably forgotten more species of wildlife than we can remember, was very excited to see this Verreaux's eagle-owl.

What was to come next was unexpected.

We left the owl and headed further north-east, briefly spotting a green wood hoopoe, and soon enough arrived at a location at which we encountered the animal for which this area is famous: a leopard!  Here we were, on drive one of day one, and not even an hour into it, we had encountered one of the most elusive species.

The leopard is a young female called Tiyani, who is resident in the territory surrounding the lodge.  She has a sub-adult cub called Laluka, which in the Shangaan dialect of the Tsonga language spoken in Mpumalanga Province, means "to grow in wisdom".

When we encountered her, Tiyani was very active, and was constantly on the move.  It was thought that she might be trying to find a meal for Laluka, so we had our work cut out for us in following her through dense bush, and trying to land a pleasing image in a clean setting.

We had to constantly move around, further enough away from Tiyani, but in the direction in which we anticipated that she would be heading.  More often than not, she did not go where we expected, and turned off in another direction!

Eventually, we landed a good position, and Tiyani stopped, looked around, took a moment, and yawned.  With my camera ready, I fired the shutter like a machine gun, and captured her in full yawn.

Image: Yawn of Tiyani

Yawn of Tiyani

One of the challenges of wildlife photography is to capture an animal doing something interesting, and while a yawn is not the most interesting animal behaviour to witness, it can still make for compelling images.

Soon enough, Tiyani was on the move again, and by extension, so were we.  She was heading east-south-east, and eventually, I was able to capture a clean image of her in semi-profile, set against a smoothly blurred background, and highlighted by the warmth of the late afternoon sun.

Image: Tiyani on a Mission

Tiyani on a Mission

Tiyani was certainly making Gabe and Colbert work hard, and the photography was not easy; but we did land some pleasing images.

Before too long, Tiyani headed a little further south into a clearing, and soon paused in front of a tree, a mere six metres from us.  I rushed to capture a frame-filling image of this beautiful big cat.  Look at the colour of her eyes!

Image: Tiyani


We spent nearly an hour with Tiyani before heading off for a sundowner.  Gabe found a nice, open spot, at which there was a dead tree.  We disembarked from the 4WD to get some circulation happening, and enjoy some wine, snacks and some humorous chatter under the glow of a beautiful sunset.

Image: First Sundowner

First Sundowner

After our sundowner, Gabe started heading back to the lodge.  Along the way, he and Colbert spotted a chameleon in a thicket.  We had seen a chameleon once or twice before, and as was the case then, it was not a great photographic opportunity; but it was great to see one.

After spending barely a minute or two with the chameleon, we headed back to the lodge, along the way spotting a scrub hare (a species later to play a dramatic role) and an owlette, before arriving at around 7pm, which gave us enough time to settle in again before dinner at 8pm.

Our first day in the African bush had been a fantastic start to what would become an intense and rewarding trip.  We had already spotted one of the better-known resident leopards, which is always special, even if the photography is challenging (which it was).  On our last trip, we did not experience a single leopard sighting throughout, so breaking the drought on day one of this trip was a great start.

We had no idea what we would encounter next, but I can say that it was also very special.

Stay tuned for our adventures on day two.

Published on Saturday, 3 December, 2022.