Sabi Sand 2022: Day 2 of 7

After a very exciting first day in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve (its official name is Sabi Sand Wildtuin), day two had arrived, and it would be our first full day in the African bushveld for this trip.  We had no idea what awaited us, which always makes for an adventure.

Unusually when we travel from east to west, we experienced jet lag.  I woke at perhaps 3:40am, and I was wide-awake.  It was still dark, and the wonderful sounds of the African bush were right outside our door.

At Elephant Plains Game Lodge, the guides wake up guests at 5am for a 5:30am departure on the morning game drive.  I was ready well before wake-up call, and when the time came, we headed to the main building for a morning coffee and brief chat with the guides before continuing outside to the 4WD.

Morning drive on day two was to be full of many species of wildlife, as we would discover.  We were ready to go, eagerly anticipating the adventure ahead.

Gabe headed north-east of the lodge, towards Gowrie Gate.  Along the way, we spotted some squirrels, a spotted hyena, a greater blue-eared starling and some ducks before we encountered a breeding elephant herd on the Simbambili Cutline.

It is always great to see elephants in the wild.  Apart from their status as the largest land animals in Africa, they are remarkable creatures, and they often come confrontingly close to safari vehicles.

For this trip I had brought my Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS USM lens, as I knew from experience in both South Africa and Kenya that the 300mm focal length, plus the 420mm and 600mm focal lengths enabled by my telephoto extenders, would cover me well.

In the Maasai Mara, which is a vast open savannah, longer focal lengths are necessary; but in areas such as the Sabi Sand Game Reserve, shorter focal lengths are often more suitable.

However, sometimes even 300mm is too long!  When a large elephant is only eight metres away, that focal length is rather useless for capturing the magnificence of the creature.  Instead, it is necessary to be creative, and go for the rich details and textures that are very much in one's face when looking through a 300mm lens.

Here is an image I captured of one of the grazing elephants, which shows the rich textures and patterns

Image: Eye of the Elephant

Eye of the Elephant

This is a semi-abstract image; but there is no mistaking what is the subject.

We only spent five or six minutes with the elephants before we headed off.  I suspect that Gabe was up to something.  It was only early into the trip, but I was able to figure out when he had a plan, as he would have known what had been spotted and roughly (or even specifically) where it was.

The next sighting was to be a first-time experience, and a very special sighting indeed.

Gabe headed east-south-east to Tree House Dam, where we encountered the Ottawa Sand Pack of African wild dogs!

This was our fourth trip to Africa in ten years, and we had never seen African wild dogs in the wild, until now.  It was day two and our first morning drive, and we had already been treated to a special sighting of a critically endangered species of wildlife.

There are perhaps only two or three hundred African wild dogs in South Africa, and we were seeing them with our own eyes.  Many people will never see African wild dogs in their lifetime, and yet the privilege was bestowed upon us.

Image: Ottawa Sand Pack

Ottawa Sand Pack

At the time of this sighting, the Ottawa Sand Pack was eight-strong, having recently lost the alpha female.

When we encountered the dogs, they were very active and playful, and were running all over the place.  In the chaos, I captured one of the dogs drinking from Tree House Dam.

There was also a spotted hyena on the scene.  Hyenas often follow other apex predators in the hope of scoring a meal, as they intimidate other predators and steal their meals.  The lone hyena was no threat to the dogs, however.

We had been at the scene for no more than 15 minutes, when suddenly, the dogs decided to move.

African wild dogs can cover a lot of ground in a short time, and they have a high amount of stamina.

We had to move well ahead of them and wait for them to come to us, which they eventually did, trotting down one of the dirt roads in the reserve.

The dogs were heading west, and Gabe was determined to position us ahead of the pack so that we could observe and photograph the dogs on approach.  We stopped at the junction of Main Gowrie Road and Flockfield Road.

As I was to learn, photographing African wild dogs is very difficult, as they tend to be very active, and congregate close to each other.  Isolating a single dog takes time and patience, but I was fortunate to capture a clean image of one of the pack's members, awaiting the arrival of the other dogs at the scene.

Image: Waiting for the Pack

Waiting for the Pack

A few minutes later, Gabe headed north along Flockfield Road in pursuit of the dogs, which had once again decided to move on.  One of the dogs was resting on the side of the road, so we stopped, and I captured this image of an otherwise busy dog at rest:

Image: African Wild Dog of the Ottawa Sand Pack

African Wild Dog of the Ottawa Sand Pack

Soon enough, it was time for us to depart and find a place for a coffee break.  We continued north, passing along Gowrie Gate, and continuing further north to the dam outside Jacana Private Game Lodge.

In that relatively short drive, we encountered many species of wildlife.  We did not stop, but the species we spotted consisted of zebra, Cape buffalo, a red-billed buffalo weaver, lesser masked weavers in nests and an impala sitting in the grass.

Incidentally, this brief sighting of a herd of Cape buffalo was the only sighting of these large bovines that we would encounter.  We did not stop for photography.

During our coffee stop at Jacana Dam (in which we spotted, but did not photograph, a hippo), we were treated to one of Africa's smaller creatures: a dung beetle, which provided for some entertainment as we sipped on hot chocolate and coffee with a snack.

On this particular morning, the sky was quite overcast, which made for ideal photography conditions, as the lighting was very flat and even, and there were no harsh, bright highlights or deep shadows.  It is very easy to photograph wildlife in this sort of light, and the wildlife itself can be more present, not needing to shelter under thickets in order to avoid the hot sun.

It was time to head south towards the lodge for a brief rest followed by breakfast.  Along the way, we again encountered numerous species of wildlife, including a grey heron, yellow-billed stork, Wahlberg's eagle, side-striped jackal, Tiyani leopardess (for the second time in less than two days) and Bateleur eagle.

In between game drives, there is plenty of time for rest and leisure.  As it is my ritual, I downloaded all of the images from the cameras and backed them up to the external hard disk.

On safari, I always like to keep at least three copies of everything, and I try to avoid erasing the cameras' flash cards unless necessary.  In that case, I have two copies, and when we travel, the backup hard disk is carried separately from my laptop.

In between game drives, there is a lot of time.  Breakfast at the lodge is served from 8:30am and lunch is served at 2pm.  There is also the opportunity for a bushwalk after breakfast.  The afternoon game drive commences at 4pm.

As became our custom, we met Gabe at 3:50pm, boarded the 4WD and set off into the bush again, for what was now our second afternoon game drive.

We headed north of the lodge's airstrip, towards Simbambili Game Lodge, spotting a yellow-billed hornbill.  We had barely been in the vehicle for a few minutes when suddenly, "leopard!" was yelled.  Gabe brought the vehicle to a stop and backed up twenty metres.

We had driven right past Tiyani!  She was casually sitting five metres from the road.

On this drive, I was shooting with the Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x.  This lens is not mine, but belongs to Mario.  It is his go-to lens these days, and having shot with it before, I was keen to use it again.

I am a fan of prime lenses, and I do not own any zoom lenses, but this lens is exceptional, and as it turned out, it was very handy when a leopard was very close, as indeed Tiyani was.  I was able to use the 200mm focal length at the wide end, which was perfect for framing this image:

Image: Laying Low

Laying Low

We had now seen Tiyani three times: twice in as many days, and twice in one day.  She had so far proven herself to be a prominent character in Sabi Sand Wildtuin.

At the scene, Gabe noticed a small scrub hare.  Somehow, Tiyani had not noticed it!  If she had noticed it, she may have tried to kill it, as leopards are very opportunistic and will take any potential offer of a meal.

Soon enough, Tiyani yawned and moved on.  We followed her through the bush, and in total ended up spending around 40 minutes with her before we departed further into the game drive, seeing an impala and a cute hyena.

Just when we could not imagine the drive getting any better, we encountered the Ottawa Sand Pack of African wild dogs again!  That was the second encounter in one day.

This time, a very interesting situation presented itself, as there were three hyenas on the scene, and there was some unusual interaction taking place.

The hyenas and the dogs were in close quarters with each other, taking semi-playful bites into the air towards each other, as if to both assert their dominance, but perhaps also bond.  It was unusual and captivating.

Photographically, it was not a great sighting for me, but I did record video footage of this strange interaction, and it was one of those sightings which was simply great to see.

Soon enough it was time to head for a sundowner (a ritual on any safari in a private game reserve), so Gabe brought us to a small dam west of the southern end of the lodge's private airstrip, along the way to which we spotted some zebras.

Yet another surprise was in store for us: another sighting of Tiyani!  By now, it was dark and Colbert was flashing the spotlight on Tiyani so that we could capture images as she rested under a thicket.  Again for me, it was not a great photographic experience, but seeing a leopard is always spectacular.

After less than ten minutes with Tiyani, who we had seen three times on this day, and twice in the same drive, we headed a short distance back to the lodge for a drink and dinner.

Day two had come to a conclusion with two very special sightings of African wild dogs and three great sightings of Tiyani, one of the star leopards of Sabi Sand Wildtuin.

Stay tuned for our adventures on day three, which was to present us with one of the most amazing and unforgettable sightings that we have witnessed in Africa in ten years.

Published on Sunday, 11 December, 2022.