Friday, 16 December 2011

The cats come out to play!

Yesterday turned in to a bit of a cat festival at Satara. The area is known for its cat sightings, and it just proved to be one of those days where a lion lay around every corner. This is not to say they were exceptional sightings necessarily, just multiple sightings. When I left at 4.30am I was about twelfth in the line, and I couldn’t believe how busy it was! About 200 metres out the gate, a stream of cars flowing past, two lions cubs were sitting right next to the road. I have no idea why people race out so quickly, in the dark, when there is no way they can see what is next to the road but they do, and it’s their loss. The cubs were a bit nervous, understandably when confronted by a fast flowing river of cars, and soon wandered off. On the other side of the road, 50 metres off, lay four lionesses.

The chase

I had decided to sit with them, in the hopes of catching some early morning light on them when they hopefully moved off to collect their cubs. The sun never materialized, although it seemed sure to, but I was very glad I had stayed when a huge herd of waterbuck, at least 30 in total, with multiple young came galloping towards them. Never have I seen such a large mammal disappear into the flat, dry earth so quickly and effectively. I could see two of the lionesses, pressed flat against the earth, ears down, eyes fixed on the target. The other two were invisible. A male waterbuck was chasing a couple of youngsters about, unknowingly running within 10 metres of some hungry lions! They waited until almost the entire herd had trotted on by, so close they must have been able to taste the meat, before they sprung the trap. One youngster was the intended target and they set off at full tilt hot on its heels as it ran for its life. The young one kicked up loads of dust, and the lionesses looked sleek and agile, perfected muscles and designed to kill as their feet pounded the earth, limbs outstretched. By some miracle, the youngster, having been chased across the road in front of me, managed to make a turn seconds before capture, and ran past the front of my car again, four lionesses in hot pursuit. In the end he managed to escape, how is beyond me, for I am sure he must have felt their claws closing in on him as he ran. What an escape, and what a start to the morning, my nerves shattered, and adrenalin surging through my body. I drank my coffee to calm down, by which point the lionesses had finished panting, and walked off into the bushes, empty handed.

After this excitement, it was another lion sighting, two young males having a snooze, followed by 2 cheetah, and then another four, all on the S100 which I had virtually to myself after the others had rushed off earlier. Then another couple of lions a short while later, before a massive storm struck, soaking the earth, causing streams to run down the roads, and windscreen wipers to move with a vengeance as giant droplets covered everything. There was thunder all around, and I could hardly see where I was going, a scary drive for someone who finds thunder terrifying! I survived though, and when I wound down my window I was greeted with the fresh smell of wet earth, and the chorus of birds, damp but happy after the downpour.

I ended my morning watching a large number of vultures and a couple of hyenas finishing off a buffalo kill. Most of the vultures sat around, wings outstretched, trying to dry off after the storm. Many gathered in a writhing mass on the carcass, hissing and mewing at each other, nipping feathers and necks with sharp beaks as they fought over the scraps. It was definitely a pleasant morning!

King of the carcass

The afternoon passed relatively uneventfully except for a few more lions, doing nothing too interesting. I had seen a mating pair the previous evening, and these had joined up with the morning hunters just outside Satara, looking in need of a good meal.

This morning dawned soggy and wet, the ground soaked from some form of storm last night which I didn’t even hear through my sleep. The lions were again very near to camp, and I watched them under spotlight briefly before they headed off at a rapid pace after something, crossing the road behind me and disappearing. I was driving the S100 again, virtually all alone, when I came upon a chorus of alarm calls, each more agitated than the last, and a few impala running around this way and that. I craned by neck into the river bed to see what was going on, when to my delight I saw a leopard on the bank, not far from me, carrying a young lamb in her mouth. She walked past the vehicle, paused occasionally to readjust the kill, as she walked. In a complete panic of excitement, I didn’t get the shot I would have liked, but what a sighting! And the (second) best way to start a morning! Not for the impala lamb of course, but certainly for the leopard and me.

After she found her way into a drainage line and became only a smattering of spots, I left her to the queue of eager onlookers hoping to catch a glimpse. I drove on, a big smile on my face, feeling a little frustrated. I am not sure what it was that suddenly filled me with such a sense of wonder, but as I drove, I grinned from ear to ear, appreciating every sound and sight more than I had in a while. Before I knew it, I had one arm out the window, feeling the air as it lifted my hand, imagining being a bird, and what the air must feel like rushing through its feathers. This is not in itself unusual, as I do it fairly often especially if the wind is blowing a lot. What was unusual was that the arm inside the car had now also joined in the fun, flapping away. I looked crazy, I am sure, although there was no one around to tell me so. Then I heard the words “I have magic beans and I can fly” coming out of my mouth as I said them over and over again. I needed sleep. Fortunately I am of the opinion that ‘normal’ people don’t have as much fun as the rest of us, so I’m ok with a little insanity here and there.

This afternoon I drove south, saw a few lions sleeping on the far side of a dam, and then carried on down some badly corrugated gravel road. Ahead of me I spotted a lioness, and behind her another, with five little faces peering out tentatively from behind her. The cubs must have been around 3 months old, beautiful little faces, although perhaps needing a meal! After a while they began to walk down the road, followed by myself and two other vehicles. The little ones would occasionally pause and watch the cars, before hurrying on after their mother on stumpy legs. When they spotted a tortoise innocently crossing the road ahead, they all ran for it, and had a good sniff and paw at the now terrified fully-retreated-into-his-shell-tortoise, before another car drove up too close to them and frightened them off.

I had began to hear thunder in the distance, and for those of you who do not know me well, I am scared like a little child of thunder and lighting. I love it, and I find it beautiful to watch, the sky lighting up with fire, but I am scared, and at night it always keeps me awake. As I drove home, over the right hand side stood clouds that resembled what I imagine the Ross Ice Shelf in the Antarctic to look like on a stormy day, a dark blue forboding shelf, broken by a thin shaft of light before another shelf. Off to the side lay the misty fog of pouring rain, a dense grey ‘noise’ to look at. In front of it, an orange light glowed faintly, punctuated by the odd bolt of lightning thrown done to earth. The same to the right hand side, and me, driving along a little nervously, but in awe of the incredible beauty of nature, in the middle. It really has been one of those days where everything seems so perfect, so beautiful, so powerful. I have loved every second of it! Right before camp, with a minute to go until closing time, I encountered Satara rush hour, every car for miles on end trailing slowly behind a pride of lions who seemed hell bent on staying on the road. It made me laugh a bit, all of us cars, three in a row, pushing onward as the lions made their slow and undisturbed way.

Part of a 300+ herd near Satara

Catching the newly hatched termites as they leave the mound


  1. Another great series again Laura!
    Can i ask you which lenses you use and take with you on your trips?

  2. Awesome series of Photo's Laura, you have the gift of being in the right place at the right time, and it I look at the wonderful range of photo's it's looks like all the time..... perfect.... ;) Timothy

  3. you should keep a duvet in your car for when it thunders:)

  4. By the way, if you scoop up a bowl full of termites, the best way to prepare them is (after washing off the grit and seiving out the wings) to fry them lightly with garlick, some fresh chopped chilles and fish sauce.