Up close and personal with lions
It was the 22nd of August 2015 and I can vividly recall how beautiful the hot and cloudless spring afternoon had been. I was manager and host for the evening at Kapama River Lodge, and earlier that afternoon I stood on the boma deck and watched as two young male lions lazily flopped down on a small island in the dry riverbed after drinking from the waterhole. From my vantage point, they seemed as harmless as two big house cats dozing the day away. Little did I know that they were not alone – their whole pride was waiting in the wings for the show to begin.
After dinner, when all the guests were sound asleep, I walked towards reception and suddenly we all heard a very loud and sudden shout. I rushed toward the riverbed and found one of the guides, face to face with a lioness in camp! One glance told me that the whole pride was inside the lodge’s fenced area.
It was a strange combination of feelings that gripped me as the guide backed away and made his way back to safety: I kept my head and instructed the guide to check on all the guests and ensure that they stayed safely in their rooms.
Once our head of security arrived, we discovered what had happened – the pride had chased a giraffe right into the camp fence. The lions had followed the giraffe in and made their kill in darkness.
Our first priority was to get the lions out of the lodge as soon as possible. Our head ranger, Liezel Holmes, and some of her rangers, the reserve manager, head of security and their teams joined us in an effort to move the giraffe carcass back outside the fence line perimeter. The lions were still within the boundaries of the camp, but the hope was that they would follow their kill once we were all out of the way. It took nineteen men to move the giraffe carcass.
The scattered pride eventually returned to feed off their hard-won kill, and for the remainder of the week our guests were treated to some spectacular in-house game viewing. No TV documentary could ever match the feeling of being in camp with a pair of binoculars and a proper camera lens, and what better way of watching a pride of lions feed than from the cool water of the swimming pool or the comfort of a lounger?
Each day we watched the carcass dwindle, and soon it was light enough to drag off to the shade at the dry river’s edge. Four days later, having eaten their fill, the lions abandoned their kill to the hyenas and vultures and by the sixth day there was nothing remaining but a hollowed out skull and a scrap of skin.
The rest, as they say, is history and the 22nd of August 2015 is a day I’ll never forget.
Written By: Thomas Ndobe
Kapama River Lodge
Lazy lions and a little luck (not for the buffalo…)
Kapama Private Game Reserve is vast and its lodges are generously spaced across the property, so wild animals from the reserve frequently come into contact with the camp borders and are spotted by guests and staff. These sightings can be some of the most memorable and exciting for everyone lucky enough to witness them, especially when predators are involved. We recently had one such amazing sighting on the outskirts of Buffalo Camp.
Cape buffaloes love water and can usually be found close to perennial water bodies, wading into the water to cool down in the hot Limpopo climate, so we weren’t surprised when the small waterhole in front of Kapama Buffalo Camp attracted a lone buffalo bull, which lay down in the shallows. At about the same time, Buffalo Camp rangers and their guests followed a pride of lions, two mature females and their five sub-adult offspring, into the area. As they came across the buffalo in the water, everyone prepared for some action.
In an attempt to evade an attack, the buffalo moved deeper into the water. Lions don’t enjoy getting wet, so this was a good plan – at least it would have been had the buffalo been able to wait out the patient pride. Unfortunately (for the buffalo), the entire pride parked off under the trees at the back of the camp, near the staff accommodation, and kept their eyes on their prize. One curious sub-adult male approached the fence to investigate the gathering crowd of staff members watching the show, but eventually lost interest and retreated to the shade. When the worst of the afternoon heat had subsided, they all moved back to the edge of the water to wait out the tired buffalo. Eventually, after many hours of standing in deeper water, the old bull moved back into the shallows to rest, and no sooner had he laid down than one of the lionesses pounced for the kill.
The pride feasted, providing a spectacle and great photographic opportunities for the four days it took to consume the carcass. Incredible moments occur when you’ve got the wild on your doorstep, and this is one we aren’t likely to ever forget.
But lions don’t climb trees!
“Fresh lioness tracks” said Colly, my tracker, pointing at the perfect print in the dirt.
Our guests leaned in, listening intently, as he explained how he could tell. “See the size? It’s too big to be a leopard, and too small to be a male lion. And it’s on top of my vehicle tracks, so that means she walked here after our last drive. She must be close.” I smiled at their nodding faces. “Shall we go find her?”
The answer was a unanimous yes, of course, so we set off deeper into the African bushveld in the footsteps of our elusive cat. Before long, the telltale warning ‘sneezes’ of impala and ‘kek-kek-kek’ of vervet monkeys alerted us to the whereabouts of a predator up ahead, so we abandoned the trail and rushed straight for the ruckus.
“There! At the top of that tree!” came a call from the back of the vehicle.
‘Leopard’ was my first thought – after all, lions aren’t often found in the treetops – but then I considered the likelihood of finding a leopard in the exact same neck of the woods as the lioness we’d tracked there. It’s not unheard of, but you’ve got to have a lot of luck on your side, so I stopped the vehicle for a closer look.
Exclamations along the lines of ‘no way’ resounded in chorus from my guests, and if I hadn’t seen it for myself I might have joined in. It’s not that lions can’t climb trees, it’s just that they usually don’t. Unlike leopards, which are like acrobats – lithe and comparatively small – lions are all heavy muscle, like bouncers at a night club, which makes it very difficult for them to haul themselves up and balance. Also, smaller branches can’t hold them, so the top of the canopy is off limits.
Once we’d pulled up closer there was no disputing it though – three big lionesses, playing in a tree. Not only had we found the lioness we were tracking, but we’d caught her doing something very unusual.
Knowing how special it feels to track and find an big cat for the first time, I turned in my seat and wasn’t surprised to find a truck-full of grinning faces and quiet applause.
Written by: Christo De Jager
Just when you think it couldn’t get any better!
Written by: Liesa Becker
“So, Richard and I might have a little surprise for you”, I told my guests as Richard, my tracker, and I shared a hopeful smile.
It was the last day of March and we had spent our afternoon drive quietly watching impala, zebra and giraffe and discussing interesting trees and their uses. We could have driven to a more productive area, but as we were setting off I heard that Kapama’s latest additions had been spotted: brand new lion cubs! Knowing what a treat this sighting would be for our guests (and ourselves!), Richard and I had opted for the chance to spend some time with them, even if it meant a quiet start to our drive.
As we approached the western side of Mongoose Dam we spotted two lions, part of the Guernsey pride, then as we got closer, two tiny young cubs emerged from behind a termite mound, chasing one another around under the watchful gaze of their mother and sub-adult big brother.
The dynamics of a lion pride are fascinating and the interaction between its members is always entertaining, especially when there are little ones. These playful, three-month-old cubs were more boistrous than ever; endless bundles of energy stalking and pouncing on one another and their unbelievably tolerant big brother. Despite the difference in age and size, he indulged their antics, and even seemed to enjoy the attention. Their mother lay off to one side watching over her offspring and emanating self-satisfaction.
It wasn’t necessary to explain to our guests how fortunate we were and how special this sighting was. It certainly made my personal list of top lion sightings, and as we left to allow other guests a chance to share the experience, I knew that even if we saw nothing all the way home, this would be a most memorable drive.
The smile that that thought generated had barely formed when one of my fellow rangers, Christo, called in a pangolin sighting close by. A pangolin, for those who haven’t heard of them, looks like what you might get if you crossed an armadillo with an anteater, and spotting one is at the top of every ‘bush junkie’s’ wish list. Pulling in beside Christo’s vehicle, I invited the guests to jump off to get a closer look at this shy and elusive creature.
The young pangolin curled up in the road took my breath away. I am pretty sure our guests thought I was close to crazy when they witnessed my reaction, but I couldn’t help but get emotional. Calmly and carefully, I picked it up and he slowly uncurled himself, giving us an oh-so-slight peak. Many who live and work in the bush all their lives have never seen one – I certainly hadn’t – but to hold one was a dream, one I’d never thought to have, come true.
We stopped for drinks a little later, accompanied by a stunner of a sunset, and the thought of how lucky I am to be able to have this amazing job, to see these incredible things and share them with others, brought me close to tears.
I always say and will always continue to say, a game drive ultimately boils down to being in the right place at the right time and for us, this had been a day full of both.
We have all seen the breath taking events that unfold on TV when we watch channels like Discovery and National Geographic. Inevitably we come into the industry of Guiding and every day you wake hoping to see something similar to show your guests. It takes the film makers that produce these documentaries years and years of time and money to eventually get that perfect shot or perfect opportunity for some awesome footage.
My four guests Bob, Janet, Georgine and Kevin spent three nights with us, we had our share of big 5 sightings and we were having a blast. On our second night out we decided to go and have a look around the Hyena den at Rooibok Dam to see if they were out. We sat there for about fifteen minutes and two cubs popped their heads out of the den. The adults were not visible but we could hear them vocalising in the bushes not too far away from the den. I radioed the lodge to let them know we were going to be late for dinner as we had quite some activity around the den when the parents eventually emerged from the thickets. Spending twenty to twenty five minutes with the whole clan interacting and vocalizing, going through different greeting rituals and all sorts of behaviour you don’t get to see very often, had my guests stunned.
We eventually left the den at about 7:45 PM which is quite late considering we were all the way in the North Western corner of the property. Driving over the Dam wall still talking to my guests about how lucky we were seeing all that interaction, my tracker Raezert Mthambini indicated to me that he can see eyes in the road up ahead. Four sub-adult male lions ranging from 1 year to 2 and a half years old came walking down the road straight toward the Hyena den. The oldest one of the four was on a mission and nothing was going to stand in his way of getting to those Hyenas.
People spend their lives trying to get their timing right to see what was about to unfold right in front of our eyes, on the dam wall of Rooibok Dam stood 11 adult Hyenas and the four Lions were walking straight toward them. The oldest Lion was intent on showing these Hyenas who was boss. He started scraping himself on a thorn bush trying to get his scent in the air and also urinated on the ground scraping his back paws through the urine to as if to tell the Hyenas that this area belongs to him. The Hyenas had their tails in the air and the most amazing sounds were coming from them again trying to intimidate the Lions. We were right in the midst of a full on standoff. I told my guests that our dinner will be very late, as we were not going anywhere. Three of the lions went down to the water to have a drink but the oldest of the four had his sights on the Hyenas and was adamant on teaching them a lesson.
After their drink the other three realised it was getting serious as the other male started growling and showing a lot of aggression toward the Hyenas. Everything went silent at exactly the right time, the oldest male Lion charged toward the Hyenas and they all scattered in different directions over the dam wall. We approached the dam wall slowly and stood on it waiting patiently to see what happened next. The Lion came back onto the dam wall and continued his territorial “marking” giving soft growls in between. It took the Hyenas about 5 minutes to regain courage and step back out onto the dam wall and this time the Lion wasted no time and gave another full on charge scattering the Hyenas again.
This happened about four times and we lost sight of the Lions and Hyenas. My guests asked me if that was that and I told them that I thought it was the end, and all of a sudden a loud growl came from the thick bush right next to the vehicle, the Hyenas had got hold of the youngest of the four lions, words cannot describe the noise that either the lion or the hyenas were making but to say the least it was very unpleasant.
Hearing this noise obviously the older males responded and a big fight occurred in the bush next to us, unfortunately it was too thick and dark so all we could do was sit and listen, not that we were complaining. Everything went silent again and all four Lions came out of the thickets, one was a bit injured but it didn’t look serious, they all lay on the dam wall looking back at us and putting the battle to an end with the Lions winning this round.
In my life I have never thought I would have the privilege to see a sighting like that unfold in front of my eyes… I am BLESSED to say the least!
Head Ranger Southern Camp
With the Murphy family as my guests on the game drive vehicle, we were making our way to an area south of Southern Camp. I knew there were three lions in the area, but I clearly told the Murphys that while they may see lions, leopards were elusive and they were definitely not guaranteed of seeing them. My words weren’t cold when we spotted a female leopard lying down in the open, relaxed as could be.
Somehow, I instinctively knew she was not alone. Shortly after we spotted her, the leopard got up and crouched into a stalking position. But there was no prey in sight. What she was actually doing was cautiously making her way out of the area, as she was intruding on lion territory. She knew it and a resident lioness also knew the leopard was about – and wanted her out of her domain. If the leopard didn’t leave of her own accord, she’d be forcefully chased out.
When leopards feel threatened by another predator, they will either try and make their way out of the area or find a tree to climb for safety – out of the reach of lions. This exact scenario played out the very next morning on our game drive.
Not long into our drive, we came upon a male leopard up a tree. He was not there willingly either – the lions lying around the base of the tree had clearly chased him up as he was a threat to their territory. In the same way, leopards often drag their kills into trees to keep them out of the reach of opportunistic lions and hyenas. But today’s sighting was different, and there was no kill in sight. It was simply a territorial battle.
Sometimes, finding the unexpected is just plain luck – and, of course, being in the right place at the right time. Finding leopards is never easy because they are solitary and elusive; finding them two days in a row is something special; and witnessing a silent territorial tug of war is an extremely rare sighting indeed. Something unforgettable for us all.
Story: Adolph Niemand – ranger at Southern Camp
Photos: Lily Murphy
Edited by Keri Harvey