Sabi Sand 2022: Day 3 of 7
It was the beginning of a new day for us in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve, and also the beginning of a new month.
By now, we were well into the rhythm of safari life at Elephant Plains Game Lodge, with another early rise being par for the course. I find that by the third day of a safari, one is settled into the routine, and familiar with the itinerary, people and surroundings.
The weather had changed overnight, with some persistent rain falling. Mario had been keeping a close eye on the weather, and we knew that it was going to be wet for a few days.
We headed from our rondavel to the main building for a quick coffee before we boarded the 4WD for our second morning drive. It was decidedly miserable. We had prepared the camera gear with rain covers, and we donned ponchos to keep our clothes dry.
The 4WDs are open-sided and open-topped, which means that when it rains, everything, and everyone, gets wet.
Despite the unappealing weather, we were going out anyway. It was going to be wet and uncomfortable. It was going to be a challenge to photograph in the rain, with protection of the gear being on our minds. That aside, out we went, as a bad day of game driving would still be better than a good day in the office!
Day two had been very exciting, with two sightings of African wild dogs and three sightings of Tiyani leopardess. Could our third day be any better? With the inclement weather, I was not so sure.
When on safari, every drive, and every day must be treated as its own entity. It is best to go out without any expectations, and it is best not to assume anything, as the African bush is full of surprises.
Gabe decided to head south for this morning's drive. Shortly into the drive after spotting some impalas, we encountered a breeding herd of elephants. We had to stop while they crossed the road in front of us. That is my kind of traffic jam. It was raining quite solidly, and the elephants were enjoying it. Us, not so much.
Soon enough, we continued on, swinging by the hyena den only a few minutes from the lodge. We spotted one of the hyenas but did not stop for photography.
A short time later, we encountered some male nyalas in the bush on the side of the road just south of Silvan Safari. I wanted to photograph them, so we stopped.
Many people visit Africa in order to see the 'Big Five' (buffalo, elephant, leopard, lion and rhino), or more specifically, the big cats. Sabi Sand Wildtuin is well known for its population of leopards, and it is the best place in the world in which to see one.
However, I love to photograph the antelopes of Africa. We are definitely cat people, and we love all kinds of cats; but there is so much more to the African wilderness than just the cats. My view is that antelopes are very under-rated, and very photogenic; so when the opportunity presents itself, I tend to take it.
I am glad that I did take this opportunity, as I was able to photograph an impressive male nyala in the persistent rain.
I like the fact that the raindrops can be seen in this image. The nyala did not mind it, but it was becoming less comfortable for us.
We continued on, spotting a waterbuck, hippo, female kudu and greater blue-eared starling at various points, but it was decided that this game drive would be shortened, as the weather was miserable, and not much was happening. Gabe headed back to the lodge, where we could dry off and have a bit more downtime before breakfast.
So far, it had not been a great start due to the rain, but I had landed one pleasing image. The day was not over yet, as we still had the afternoon drive.
Later in the morning while we were at breakfast, a herd of elephants — possibly the same herd that we had encountered a few hours earlier — had arrived in the open area across the dry Manyeleti riverbed due east of the lodge. The deck and dining hall offers a fine view of this beautiful part of the reserve, and we were all treated to a sighting of elephants, during which one elephant was trying to help a calf up a steep bank.
A few of us had ventured outside onto the pool deck. We had all made the mistake of taking our camera gear back to the rondavels, but I wanted to photograph this great spectacle in the distance in front of us, so I ran back to our rondavel to grab my gear. Unfortunately, the good part of the show was over by the time I returned, so I did not capture the images that I had wanted.
Lesson learned: keep the cameras nearby!
After some time spent back at the lodge, soon enough it was time to head out to the 4WD to meet Gabe and Colbert for afternoon drive.
The inclement weather had continued in patches throughout the day, but by the time we headed out into the bush again, the rain had stopped for a while.
Gabe headed north-east, and we passed Gowrie Gate on our way to the northern part of the reserve.
About half-way between Gowrie Gate and Jacana Private Game Lodge, we spotted a few giraffes grazing in the lush vegetation. Naturally, I wanted to photograph them, so we stopped for a few minutes while I snapped away.
This was the first of only three sightings of giraffes during our seven-day safari in Sabi Sand Wildtuin, and giraffes are magnificent creatures which deserve to be photographed, as there is very little that is more quintessentially African than a giraffe.
Soon enough, we continued on. At one point, Gabe stoped the 4WD. Colbert had spotted tracks that indicated recent lion activity. Gabe and Colbert disembarked and headed into the bush, looking for lions (as one does). They must have been gone for a good 15 or 20 minutes, and we had no idea where they were; but they eventually returned, without having found the lions.
After that, we headed towards Jacana Private Game Lodge, where we found a large, single-tusked elephant bull on the large patch of open savannah on the north-eastern side of the lodge.
Early into the sighting, the elephant was very close, and decided to drink from a small watering hole just outside the lodge.
He was joined by a smaller elephant, who in this image is extending his trunk as if to say "me too".
The elephant bull started to move south-east, so we wanted to position ourselves for more photography.
Despite the open area, photographing this elephant was challenging, as he was constantly moving, and before we knew it, he was too large to fit within the frame of our lenses! Gabe had to constantly race ahead so that we could gain enough distance and the right position and angle for the elephant to walk towards us and be suitably sized within the frame.
By now the weather had deteriorated, and it was drizzling. It made for some very atmospheric conditions, and within a short time Gabe had positioned the 4WD so that the elephant was walking towards us with darker trees in the distance behind him.
This is an impressive elephant. It is a shame that he has lost one tusk, which perhaps may have been the result of a fight with another bull.
Throughout the afternoon drive, we had brief sightings of many species of wildlife, including impalas, kudus, elephants, a steenbok, Egyptian geese, blue wildebeest, waterbucks, a southern ground hornbill, dwarf mongooses, hippos out of the water, a Wahlberg's eagle, a lilac-breasted roller, a warthog, a grey duiker, a pearl-spotted owlette and a hyena.
It was quite a rich drive in terms of the variety of fauna.
We eventually started heading south, and found ourselves west of the Arathusa Safari Lodge Airstrip. We had no idea of what we were about to see.
By this time, it was neatly 6:30pm, and darkness was intensifying.
We had arrived at a leopard sighting! Several vehicles were already on the scene, as a resident female leopard called Makhomsava had been located.
The name Makhomsava means "mother Earth" in the Shangaan dialect of the Tsonga language. She was the second unique leopard that we had encountered, and so far, we had experienced leopard sightings on three consecutive days.
As it was fairly dark, the trackers were using spotlights to provide visibility of Makhomsava. I captured this image of her walking along a clearing:
It was a euphoric experience to see a leopard, and seeing one is always the highlight of an African safari. What makes any leopard sighting special is the elusive nature of these incredible big cats. When they do not want to be found, they generally succeed.
While leopards are known for their ability to climb trees and hoist up a carcass of its own weight, leopards spend most of their time on the ground. In four trips to Africa, most of the leopards that we have seen were not in trees (of course, some were).
Literally a minute after I captured this image, all of a sudden, there was a mighty commotion. Makhomsava sprinted ten metres into the bush, confusing everyone on the site as the trackers frantically tried to shine a light on her. High-pitched screams echoed throughout the night, simultaneously terrifying and exciting everyone.
Makhomsava had caught and killed a large scrub hare right in front of us!
To even capture an image of her at this time was going to be a tough gig, but by sheer luck I managed to photograph her with the now-deceased scrub hare in her mouth.
A mere one minute and 21 seconds had elapsed between our first images of Makhomsava and the utterly intense experience of witnessing this leopard making a kill. Of course, we did not see the kill, but we heard it and we saw the result.
The excitement and drama was far from over, however, for a hyena was already on the scene before Makhomsava had caught the scrub hare, and she needed to protect her kill from the intimidating and dangerous hyena, which would have easily relieved Makhomsava of her meal.
We knew what was going to happen, and we captured it.
Makhomsava scrambled up a nearby tree with her kill, narrowly avoiding the excited hyena.
The excitement was intense, and the only thing louder than the sounds of the African bush at night was the sounds of camera shutters in rapid-fire mode.
I had photographed a leopard, in a tree, with a kill in her mouth. This stuff happens in split seconds. In this image, Makhomsava was in a lower bough, but very soon thereafter, she climbed higher into the safety of the tree.
For the next twenty minutes or more, we watched, and heard, Makhomsava devouring her meal. She plucked the scrub hare's fur, and then proceeded to eat the hare in its entirety, head first!
Here is a view of Makhomsava as she paused momentarily during her meal time.
This was intense and special. There is no predicting this kind of action. The guides from Elephant Plains and surrounding lodges knew of Makhomsava's presence, but nobody could have predicted what would happen, and we were privileged to witness one of the most exciting moments in the African bush story.
It was a first-time experience for us.
After Makhomsava had consumed her meal, she cautiously peeked around a trunk in order to survey her surroundings and determine whether it was safe to descend. I was able to capture a view of her intense expression.
What an incredible sighting. It had so far been the most exciting experience that we had ever encountered in Africa. Moments like this happen often, but they are witnessed, and photographed, far less frequently. We were privileged to have witnessed it and recorded it. Even writing about this experience now is exciting and emotional.
What a game drive! It is hard to believe what we had experienced. We unfortunately had to leave the scene and head back to the lodge, but along the way, there was more drama.
Gabe had found a solitary elder male lion, who was very thin and weak, and who was apparently injured. He was in the open, and was in very bad shape. We knew that this once-powerful male lion was rapidly reaching the end of his life, and that he may not have seen daybreak.
Our mood of excitement and elation suddenly was overshadowed by sadness. Thinking about this lion even now is hard, as his demise was certain. I hope that he went peacefully, as he was extremely vulnerable and could not have fought to defend himself, or escape from any other predators.
It was with mixed emotion that we returned to the lodge for drinks and dinner.
What an intense day it had been, on both ends of the emotional spectrum. We got to witness high moments and low moments of nature, not only in one day, but in one drive.
Stay tuned for our adventures on day four, which was rich with amazing sightings and some rewarding photography.
Published on Sunday, 18 December, 2022.
- Previous: Sabi Sand 2022: Day 2 of 7
- Next: Sabi Sand 2022: Day 4 of 7