Friday, 29 April 2011

Leopards, leopards and wild dog puppies at Exeter

I wasn't able to do live posts the next few days at Dulini, as the connection was very slow, and we spent so much time in the sun that I was pretty tired! It was an amazing few days though. Each drive we managed to see at least one leopard, and overall in our stay I believe we saw 8 individual leopards, and had a total of 17 sightings. I am going to post pictures, most of which speak for themselves, and a few of my favorite sightings from the trip.

Metsi Female

Kashane male leopard 

Mashiyambanje Male leopard

Mashiyambanje male leopard
Metsi female and son

Hlaba Nkunzi scent marking

Last month when I was at Dulini we saw the daughter of Hlaba Nkunzi, and she gave us quite a charge. Subsequently she was killed by the Xindzele Male, most likely because she was too young to mate with him, and had a run in with him. This trip her mother had come into Oestrus, which is basically the period when she is able to conceive. She had sought out the Xindzele Male and was trying to convince him to mate with her. We were fortunate enough to witness the beginning of this process, as she spent the morning  trying to entice him. He was having none of it though, and was constantly growling at her, no matter what she did. She would purr, and roll around on her back, parading in front of him, and he would lie in the grass growling at her in displeasure. At one point she walked right up to him, and he sprung up and began to slap her around. It was very exciting to watch, but all happened so quickly I wasn't even slightly ready to capture it! It was impressive to realise how quickly there cats can move, In the below picture my shutter speed was greater that 1/400th of a second, yet all parts of the leopard were in motion. It is also nice to see the size difference between the male and female, which is vast. 

A blur of spots

Hlaba Nkunzi vs Xindzele

Unfortunately over the next couple of days the two leopards got separated as Hlaba Nkunzi crossed into the Hippo Dam females territory and was chased around a bit. The Xindzele male also had an intruder in his territory, the Babalas Male, a young male leopard, and spent a good portion of two days scent marking and calling loudly to signify his dominance and territory. All of this did however make for some active viewing! At least the leopards weren't sleeping in bushes...

Xindzele Scent Marking

Xindzele after testing the air.

Babalas Male considering jumping the fence

Nervous Babalas Male

The most special sighting of the trip for me took the form of wild dog puppies. Most drives we would stop off at the wild dog den site, although quite often we would only find a couple of the adults resting up at the den. The dynamic was a strange one, as both the Alpha and Beta female had given birth in separate mounds. No pups had been seen at the Beta mound at all, and as is often the case, the Alpha female will decide if the other pups will live.  The alpha female had been seen a few times at the beta den site, and it seemed as though she was perhaps stopping the other female from suckling. There is no way to know until the pups emerge, so there is always hope. 

One afternoon we left the lodge early and made our way to the main den site. On arrival we could hear a loud chorus of pups who had obviously come out of the den site for the first time properly, although they were out of site around the far side of the mound. They were crying just like normal puppies do, and the parents could be seen fussing around the moving grass. After sitting hopefully for around 20 minutes, we were rewarded with something very exciting! One of the pups came tumbling down the side of the den into the grass and we got to see the little two week old black body with its spotted legs! It was the most exciting moment. The alpha male then picked it up ever so gently and carried it back up the mound and placed it in the entrance to the den. We saw two puppies that afternoon, and that was enough. It was very special to see, and something we are unlikely to experience again. It was only the second time they had been seen, the first was shortly after they were born. What a treat! Anyone in the area in the next few weeks is sure to have some incredible sightings, I'm quite sad I won't be there though!!

Two week old puppy at the den site.

On our last afternoon drive, we again managed to see the Cheetah which sometimes visits the area. He had come onto the property and was resting up on a termite mound (one of two favorite spots of his I am told). So, it was another cat to check off the list. It was a huge mound, and he really had a great vantage point from atop it. 

While watching him we could elephant and rhino in the background! The caracal also put in another appearance late one night. He was calmly sitting in a small clearing, completely unconcerned by the presence of the vehicle, very unusual!

One of the funnier sightings was that of a rhino 'humping'. We actually called another ranger to the sighting, it was so funny. This rhino had been scratching himself on a termite mound (or hump...) He then proceeded to 'scratch the spot' over and over again. Each time he did so, he would take a break to lick the mound before resuming his business. The whole vehicle was in absolute hysterics!

 Flick between these two photo's for an olden day version of a movie.

The last time we were in Dulini we had spent a fair amount of time looking for the Ximungwe pride lionesses who had recently given birth, but had been unsuccessful. This time we had sighting of both sets of cubs, the first around 4 months, and the other around 6 months.

Cub in river bed late evening

Ximungwe pride younger cubs

The cubs were an absolute delight, chasing each other up the river bed, paws struggling in the soft and wet sand. They were having a rough time of it, as the mother had begun to wean them and wasn't letting them suckle, which produced countless cries and begging sounds. The older set were on a kudu kill with their mother, and we arrived early morning as the condensation from the ground was rising around them, and evaporating of their fur. Their breath was also condensing as its warmth met the cold air around us. 

Larger Ximungwe pride cub early morning

We also saw the remaining three Mapogo male lions on a number of occasions. The most memorable of these was watching them roar from about two metres away, their calls filling the air, and echoing off branches and banks in the distance. Such a powerful sound, one of the really impressive sounds of nature that fill one with awe. It was a wonderful trip, from the rangers to the lodge to the wildlife. The weather even played its part for the most, and I turned a number of shades browner, the sun baking my skin and the earth. What a relaxing Easter weekend, with not too much sleep, far too much food, and 17 or so leopard sightings. Not too shabby!!

Mapogo under spotlight

Hlaba Nkunzi

Evening patrol

Xindzele rolling in dung

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Dulini Day 1:Metsi Female and the Dogs

I am at Dulini lodge again, and it is as awesome as ever! I'm here with my dad, Dan and Greg for 5 nights, over the Easter long weekend. Everything is still very green, altho the grass has begun to die down a little. Our ranger and tracker team is Craig and Eric, as it was last month, and the welcome we had back to the lodge was fantastic!

For the duration of our stay we have a vehicle to ourselves, which is obviously super as we are able to better decide which sightings to be a part of, and can have a more interactive experience. Its also awesome for photography, as we can maneuver the vehicle into suitable positions. Drive 1: We left the lodge and went straight to the wild dog den. None of the puppies are out yet, but we were hoping to maybe catch a glimpse of one. Both the Alpha female and another have given birth, in two separate den sites, both of which are on Exeter property. At the first den, there was no one at home. The second den had the mother, who didn't hang around too long before going down the hole in a huge termite mound where she had given birth, so we left her to tend to her babies.

A lot of the drive was spent just appreciating being back in the bush. Then all of a sudden the bush exploded into life. Our first leopard then came onto the scene in the form of Tlangisa, the daughter of Mambirri, who was relaxing atop a termite mound. We sat with her for a while until she and us eventually moved off to allow another vehicle to view her.


 We were then called into a sighting of the Metsi female leopard, a leopard I have never viewed before. She was walking down the road toward some clearings. As we arrived on the scene we could see 2 rhino in the road behind her. She headed onto the clearings just as a wild dog appeared up ahead. Both sat down staring at each other, neither wanting to risk injury. While this was happening, another 2 dogs appeared behind our vehicle, jumping around at the area she had been scent- marking in. When they spotted her, they ran at her, and she launched herself gracefully into a nearby tree. The dogs then spent the next while jumping around the base of the tree, while she settled in for the wait. While this was happening the 2 Rhino came trundling into the scene to find out what was happening! They eventually chased the wild dog away, and bumbled off.

By now, a drinks break was in order to celebrate the first drives success! We stopped in the middle of the road to enjoy some Chili biltong and a Gin and Dry lemon. Not too far off we could hear 3 lions roaring in Unison, one of the most evocative sounds of the African bush. It was lovely to stand in the dark, drink in hand, and listen to them proclaim their territory. Naturally, after drinks we made our way to them, and spend a while watching as they relaxed on the road. One of the male gave us a beautiful and powerful serenade, the other snored.

Dinner was served next to a glowing fire place, and when we finally headed off to our extremely comfortable beds we were all wed fed and happy.

This morning it was still quite overcast when we left at 5:45am on our drive. Our first stop was naturally the den site, where a couple of adults were relaxing. No pups in sight though, so we left them to themselves. Next up, we got to view the Kashane male leopard. He is pretty large, with a very big head and neck. As we arrived the previous vehicle with him lost him in some very thick bush. It proved quite a challenge to find him, and when we eventually did, it was an even greater challenge to follow him. The car really got put through its paces, pushing over trees, and driving over holes and mounds. It the sands the off road driving is controlled, and the only species which can be driven over are those that suffocate areas, or appear due to past over grazing before the reserve was proclaimed. When he went into the drainage line, we thought he was lost, but he decided to show himself on the flats, and we were finally able to view him properly. His eyes are very lightly colored and pretty. He is an impressive male though!

A pair of wild dog had been found on the same clearing as yesterday, so we headed there and watch them jumping around agitatedly while hunting. They were quite a distance off though, so no pictures were forth coming. On the way to them, we saw the Metsi female leopard again in the road, but didn't stop. The wild dogs obviously got a hold of her scent though, because after a while they took off in her direction and again tree'd the poor leopard!

We stayed with her for a while after they ran off, and watched her relaxing in a tree, quite safe. She is a very beautiful leopard, with such a seductive tail. I have always found leopards to the most seductive cats, with their mannerisms and their attitude. We left her and were looking for a place for a coffee break when we heard there was a Caracal just around the metaphorical corner! A caracal?? That certainly had to be viewed!! This individual was so ridiculously relaxed that we actually spent a good 20 minutes with it before it moved off! Unfortunately there is still a lot of tall grass, but despite this we had an excellent view. The past 2 drives had really delivered!!

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Satan and the cheetah cubs- Kalahari part 2

We had booked three nights in a camp we had never visited before, called Grootkolk. Grootkolk is in the far north of the South African side of the Kgalagadi National Park, only about 28 kilometers from Unions End. We were incredibly excited to be spending time in this area, as not much is as exhilarating as driving roads you have never driven before. We arrived at around 3 pm and were welcomed by Marius, the camp assistant, to GK. It turned out that we would be the only ones in camp that night, and for the following two days only one other car would be joining. This was an absolute treat! As I have said before, the beauty of the wilderness camps is that there are only four huts, and so in the morning you have a lot of time alone on the road. But with only two of us, it meant that any sighting could be easily shared and enjoyed!

After unpacking we only had a couple of hours until sunset, so we set off north to see what we could find. The drive seemed to be going very slowly, mostly because we were exhausted from a full day of staring into the sun as we drove. We turned around at the Unions End waterhole, and headed back to camp. All of a sudden, there it was next to the road- a beautiful Kalahari Leopard! Finally! We have only seen one once before, but it was such a brief sighting, so we were very excited. Unfortunately though, the leopard was heading away from the road, hunting a herd of springbok and wildebeest.


 A little way behind the main herd was a young wildebeest which had a broken leg. Its one of the saddest sights ever, the little one calling and calling and trying to walk knowing his only chance of survival is to keep up with the others. We were sure he would end up as this sleek cats dinner, but the cat seemed not to have noticed him. After about 30 minuted we had completely lost sight of the leopard in the grass, and we had 25 minutes to get back to camp, 25 minutes away. Amazingly, we actually saw the calf with the broken leg the following day, still with the herd. Sadly he is sure to be killed eventually, as the Kalahari is very unforgiving of weakness.

The sun set a beautiful pink colour that night, only a few clouds in the sky, all lined with red, as we 'hurried' (40km per hour) back to camp. About 500 meters from the camp turn off we came across a lioness sitting in the road, peering over the bushes and watching a wildebeest about 20 meters away. Another potential kill, and still we had no time! As we skirted slowly past the lioness, I looked back and saw 3 smaller faces sitting in a row concealed in the bushes, staring back at me.We fell asleep that night listening to the sounds of barking gecko's and a nervous herd of wildebeest trying to work up the courage to have a drink at the Grootkolk waterhole.

The morning drive was slow again, and the only interesting sighting was a puffadder making his way across the road. The colours of this snake make it one of the most beautiful in my opinion. That said, I never want to encounter one unless I'm safely tucked away in a vehicle.

The long grass

We did however get to visit Unions End, the place where Botswana, Namibia and South Africa meet. We filled in our names and a comment in the visitors book, and then turned around. The afternoon drive was, however, very different! We took a slow drive south, to Kannaguass waterhole, which had become more like Kannaguass lake. The whole road was full of water, and the waterhole held so little in comparison, that I'm it was not being used. We did however see a pretty ferocious fight between two Gemsbok, the one nearly being pushed over by the other. Those horns could do some serious damage I am sure! We also saw a Cheetah in the distance, and waited for an age for him to come and drink, but as he never did, we turned around and headed north.

That was a very good decision! Near Geinab waterhole, we saw a lot of vultures gathered in a few trees. Always a promising sign. Having a scan, we saw a female cheetah on a springbok kill. And what was that behind her? Two Cubs? They were so cute! They looked to be around 4 or 5 months old, and very fluffy. This is where we spent the rest of the afternoon, of course, where else would we rather be?

The cubs were feeding and the mother was resting, as the kill seemed very fresh and it takes a while for her to be able to eat properly after such a chase. There were also two jackals hanging around. The cubs were not impressed at all by this, and would frequently snarl and make little growl like sounds at the Jackal. Surrounded by tiny white flowers the cubs looked so beautiful and innocent.

 The one cub, presumably a male as he seemed a lot more dominant that the other, decided he was going to have a little stand off with the jackal. He made his way over to them, growling as he went. When the jackal didn't run, he put his front paws on a small twig to make himself look bigger! It was very comical and a delight to watch.

King of the Castle

 As evening drew nearer, the mother Cheetah had had enough of the Jackal and began to stalk the one. When she took off after it, the jackal most likely only escaped with his life because the sounds of killing him would have alerted to many other predators, and she needed to protect the kill and cubs. It was beautiful to watch her at full tilt chasing down the jackal until she had her paw on his tail at which point she let him be. The braver cub followed her slowly as if to say 'watch out, thats what my mummy can do, and I can do the same!'. (my interpretation, but seemed pretty accurate at the time...)


It was the perfect way to spend the afternoon and we only left when it got so late that we had to in order to make it to the gate on time.

Last rays of sunlight

The following day was our last full day at Grootkolk. It started off well though, with a lovely male lion roaring a little way off the road. We sat and listened to him and the sun rose painting everything around us in an orange glow. We called this lion Satan. If any of you has read 'Cry of the Kalahari' by Mark and Delia Owens, you will recognise the eyes of this lion from the front cover picture of Satan, one of the males they studied. If you have not read this book- do. It is so well written, it makes you want to give up this life, and live one more like theirs, studying a place as beautiful as the Central Kalahari. It is very emotive, and I highly recommend it. You will see why else he reminds me of Satan further on.

Further up the road we found a lioness, but she was slowly moving away so we left for  Unions End waterhole where we planned to sit a while and wait for the Sandgrouse to come and drink. Shortly after arriving there, we poured ourselves a good cup of Iced coffee we had made the night before, and I nearly shouted out in surprise. Coming through the long grass toward us was the beautiful bobbing head of a brown hyena. He was completely unafraid of us, and continued to make his way right up to the waters edge where he quenched his thirst for a good ten minutes. Those that know me well, know I have such a  soft spot for brown hyena. I think they are absolutely beautiful, with their stripy legs and shaggy coats. For me, this was as good as it could be.

After he left, back the way he had come, I was literally shaking with excitement! The sandgrouse too did eventually come, but not in huge numbers as we had hoped.

After that start to the morning we were happy to return to camp for an early lunch and a little snooze before the afternoon drive. Lunch/ Breakfast was my speciality- Pan Pizza. It was discovered on a difficult and hot camping trip to Namibia a couple of years ago with Dan and Romy, and had remained with us to this day. Often in the bush, the one thing I really crave is pizza. This certainly fills the hole, plus its easy enough to make!

The afternoon drive brought us a new bird, the Melanistic Gabar Goshawk who was flitting about the road. We could ID him as in the morning we had been discussing birds of prey, their Afrikaans names and the differences between Gosawks, Falcons and Kestrels, using the Sasol Bird guide as exactly that, a guide. Dan had noticed the Gabar in the book specifically, and had been wondering how on earth one would identify it as a Gabar Goshawk as opposed to some other black bird. Well, now he knew!

Not far on we saw a sight that gave me the same thrill as seeing an animal for the first time. It is often so unexpected and yet is such an incredible feeling, being 'thrilled' by nature. It's moments like these where I feel I am on Safari for the first time again, seeing everything through new eyes. It was a male leopard who slowly crept across the road and disappeared behind a bush, lying down in on the other side. Doesn't sound that great, does it? But this leopard was the hugest leopard I have ever seen. I actually had to do a double take and check he had spots. He was easily the size of a lioness, with a huge brute- like head, and giant body. I immediately got the adrenalin shakes, something I don't get too often. He was at least 40% bigger than any other male I have seen, even the large Sabi Sands ones such as Tjellehanga Male. He was huge! That night after a very memorable sunset we headed back into camp for some steak and potato's and to listen to the sounds of nature all around us. It's awesome how much there is to hear when there are no other sounds around to spoil it. I fell asleep smiling to myself, that leopard was HUGE!
Sunrise at Grootkolk

Our last morning at GK we woke up extra early and packed up the car before eating some Milo cereal and heading out. Just outside camp we stopped to admire the sunrise as it rose behind some clouds. Then we turned north and drove straight into Satan. He was lying next to the road with two female lions, one who had a porcupine quill stuck in her jaw. He looked at us with those eyes, full of displeasure. The females were indifferent to us, and continued grooming themselves in the road. Both jumped up all of a sudden and began to stalk, eventually having to give up when the wildebeest saw them and alarmed call.

Satan then crossed the road and lay down again, but not like a normal lion, who looks half asleep. Satan lay down, back legs under his body in the pounce position, facing us, eyes alert and tail slowly twitching from side to side. We had not parked near to him at all, and he had moved, not us. But this male lion was still wild, and uninfluenced by people, which was a real treat. Only downside was that we could not relax either. That black tip of the tail flicking was a definite warning, so we needed to stay alert. We backed off slightly, but this in no way changed his behaviour.

A few hours later, and the sun was now getting hot and the lionesses moved to within a meter of our car and lay down. The only other vehicle in camp had left by now, so we were parked at an angle across the road, which has high banks, so we couldn't move without disturbing them. We therefore decided to stay put, as they had come to us, and were not showing any interest in us. They were actually sleeping. Then Satan came over, eyes full of fury and lay down within two meters of the car. This was a different story, and we closed the windows just in case. Never have I seen a lion so alert in all my life. Even when he lay flat down, if you looked through the binoculars you could see his eyes wide, staring right back at you. After a while we decided it would be better to leave them in peace, plus we needed to get to Gharagab!