Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Rain, Cats, Frogs and Christmas at Exeter!

I was so over-excited as I left Kruger on the 23rd of December, a feeling I have never before felt - but that's because this time I was off to fetch my dad and brother for a trip to Exeter River Lodge, in the Sabi Sands, for Christmas. True to form I got a bit lost, as the Phalaborwa area is abysmally signposted, but I made my way eventually on to the R40, direction Nelspruit. Not long after I had left Kruger, I got a call to say that the plane from Cape Town was to be delayed at least three hours, as it was broken, and a new part needed to be flown down from Johannesburg. Oh well… at least this would give me a chance to drop in at Landrover to check why the brake pad light was on. Three hours, and four new brake pads which should never have been worn through but somehow were and I arrived at the airport just in the nick of time, with two hours to spare. It's always a great start to a trip, missing the first drive due to a delayed flight! It had also begun to rain, and the roads leading to the Sabi Sands Shaws gate were waterlogged! When we did get there, we were treated to the warm friendly smiles, and welcome drinks which the &Beyond group is so adept at providing, and all was well. I had some people to talk to, dinner was ready, and that night I slept deeply, curled up under a fluffy duvet, the sound of rain pattering down all around.

Flapjacks in the bush, made by our awesome Chef, Dave. 

The following morning dawned, shall we say, damp. The few hours of drive which we diligently and eagerly managed ensured that I was completely waterlogged, my hands wrinkled as though after a long bath. There was not an inch of my clothing which was dry, but I was happy, in beautiful surroundings, and welcomed back to the lodge with Amarula and Hot Chocolate, how could anyone complain?

That afternoon, the skies had cleared slightly, so I managed to remain dry, but game viewing was none the less quite slow. The whole trip seemed as though it would be ‘slow’ relative to the usual spark of the Sands. In amoungst the slowness however, some serious greatness emerged. On the rainy morning drive, we did some serious frogging - I mean ranger (Mark) and tracker (Jack) flying off the vehicle after frogs, and bringing them to the waterlogged people for a better view. There were Bullfrogs, Rain frogs, Banded Rubber frogs with bright red stripes across their black bodies. There were ‘Plat-Anna’s’, a very flat frog, and others which we watched although could not identify. It was actually great fun, and something different from the norm to see the frogs lining the roads which had turned into streams in some places, fast flowing rivers in others. That first day the Sands received 92mm of rain. That afternoon we saw two of the Mapogo Male lions, the first lions two of the other guests had ever seen. 

Grooming on the termite mound

Paddy Paws

The morning after the rain it was again cloudy, but, spirits high, we started tracking a female leopard Hlangisa. She is the leopard I first saw as a tiny cub, high up in a tree over two years ago. Now fully independent, and beautiful, we were very keen to see her. Three hours of tracking, and still nothing. The tracks had led us back and forth- typical of a leopard whose name means ‘Playful’ in Shangaan, the local language.  It was time to give up, and we stopped to enjoy coffee and talk about the bush. After coffee, and five minutes of driving, there she was. Hlangisa, atop a termite mound, next to the road we had driven, waiting for us, surprised it had taken so long for us to catch up. Everyone else had already headed back to their respective lodges, so we were able to view her uninterrupted as she posed on the mound, groomed herself, walked about and eventually settled in a tree, scanning for prey. What a magnificent reward for the time spent! She has filled out quite a bit since I last saw her in April, and is looked far more mature in my opinion.

Hlangisa was to become the theme of the trip. We saw no other leopard in four days, but we did see her three times, all excellent sighting, enjoyed alone, and for as long as we wanted, with no other vehicles to push us out of the sighting. 

The beautiful Hlangisa posing

Other highlights were seeing the two Mapogo with a buffalo kill, too full to feed, but also too full to lie down in their usual pose. We viewed two young Ottawa Pride males, sons of the Mapogos but who appeared to have been in some sort of fight with their fathers, as they had a few cuts and were soaking wet, as though they had landed in a dam to escape the onslaught. We managed to view the Shimungwe pride, and their four cubs of various ages, although true to form, these did indeed sleep! 

Makulu Mapogo- still gojng strong at 13 or so

That night, we bore witness to quite a spectacle. After such a high volume of rain, the termite mounds exploded. Here, unlike what I saw in Kruger, the Fungus termites, the ones which build the huge mounds, were released onto their mounds, where soldier ants gathered to protect them before their maiden flight. Their large bodies attached to larger wings, preparing for flight. At one mound, each termite that took off was systematically zapped by a barn swallow, as it attemted to leave. We could see each tiny kill happen, as all that was needed was to keep a sharp eye on each termite. Even a blind person could have understood what was happening around them, as each time a swallow grabbed a termite, there was a very audible ‘click’ as his beak collided with it, and he flew off. At some mounds there were no birds, and the termites took off in swarms, the sound of brittle wings fluttering in the cool, crisp air. That night I am sure there were some well fed frogs, birds and small mammals…

Termite Explosion

Foam- Nest Tree Frogs laying their eggs inside a white foam which hardens until the tadpoles are ready to drop

Flap- Neck Chamelion crossing

On one drive we saw a White Rhino calf which was at most a week old, very tiny, and nervous, hiding underneath its mother. We also saw a large calf pushing against a bull Rhino, to keep it away from his mother - very cute and rather surprising considering the size difference! Elephant and large buffalo herds were around in great numbers, and waw general game such as giraffe, Wildebeest (surprisingly for the Western Sector of the Sands) and impala. 

To celebrate Christmas (the main reason for the timing of this short break) there was a tree, covered in lights in the main area. Christmas eve we had Christmas Crackers and Cocktails with dinner, Christmas day, an incredible Ginger-Bread-Man cake, Pumpkin pie and Mince pies. The food was in steady supply, and all delicious! It made a real change from two minute noodles or steak which I had become used to…

As a result of the overcast weather, we did a walk one morning, to see the area on foot, and get a better view of the smaller things such as tracks and insects. I felt like I was part of a troupe of baboons, as four of us walked around, hunched over sticking long grasses down the nests of Baboon Spiders to provoke a reaction. We did the same to Lion Ants, and had a lot of fun- it was one of the best bush walks I have been on.

The amazing Gingerbread- Mad- House
The final sunset drive, after viewing the lion pride, and a few Gin and Dry Lemons, we went into a sighting of Hlangisa. No one else was interested, and we were left alone with her. At first she was grooming, walked here and there alert as always. Then she spotted a herd of impala, and as the sky darkened, she began to hunt them. It was wonderful to see her belly crawl on the road, to hear the impala moving about, hear them spot her and begin to snort. We sat with her as she waited patiently for them to relax, and as she again attempted to gain some ground, stealthy under the cover of darkness.  She didn’t manage to kill one that night, but it was a wonderful precursor to the final morning drive.

Our last day dawned overcast, I was sad as I was again to be alone, and, as all of the guests on our vehicle were leaving, we put in our last minute requests. Hyena featured strongly on the list, as the other guests had never seen them. Not being a trackable animal, we didn’t hold out much hope, until one appeared standing curiously in the road ahead of us. We viewed it with excitement, at having ticked off the wish list's main item so early in the morning! Then we heard the whoops coming from a short way away - the hyena did too, and loped off, in a hurry. We took a road which seemed to go into the correct area and found a lioness, her face bloody from a recent meal, standing and watching as her carcass was stolen by a pack of seven hyena. They were excited, tails up, whooping and whining, and she moved slowly off. Still within a kilometer of the lodge, everyone was very happy! 

It was then leopard tracking time, and after leaving the trackers to go off on foot, we got stuck in the mud just after they called in to say they had seen the leopard, but it had run off. The car which was to pull us out of the mud also became stuck, and so a third vehicle lent a hand. Now out of the mud, we were informed that it was a very skittish young male, who would be difficult to view. Instead, we went and set up coffee on a small clearing, our last for that Exeter trip.

Hlangisa was our last sighting. All other vehicles had left the area when we arrived with her, and she had a treat in store for us. After some aimless wandering around, changing direction and listening to everything around her she suddenly stood stock still, her tail twitching at high speed, as she began to lift her back paws up and down excitedly. She did this on the spot for what felt like ages, before all of a sudden jumping into the air and pouncing, then chasing a tiny impala lamb which had been hiding in the tall grass. She grabbed the lamb by the neck and it bleated, legs kicking, as she slowly bit into the soft cartilage, crushing the wind pipe.  She was so close to us, holding her prize in her mouth, watching us and listening for the sound of another predator  which ma have heard the calls. When she dropped the lamb, it gave a few last futile kicks with its tiny legs before lying still. It was really really special, watching this leopard over the four days, seeing her going about her daily rituals, hunting and finally, 12 hours later, making a kill right infront of our vehicle.

Even when it rains, Exeter can surely deliver!!!

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