The roars that shouldn’t scare you
The impala is the most abundant species of antelope seen in the Lowveld, and many things that aren’t rare or unusual, even first-time visitors barely notice them after their first drive. They’re an attractive antelope – elegant with a pretty face, shaded caramel colouring and a striking black ‘M’ on their rumps – but they are by far the most un-photographed animal in the region. In fact, the only time they get much attention at all is during the rut season.
From the end of April and throughout May, impala rams become very territorial, barely eating between mating, fighting and marking. Their hormones go into overload, their necks thicken, their coats darken, and they exude a stong musky smell, but it’s the sounds they make that freeze the uninitiated in their tracks. Many people don’t realise it, but most antelope make sounds. Their alarm calls range from dog-like barks to shrill whistles, and in the case of impala, loud sneeze-like snorts, and for two months of every year, these quiet and unassuming antelope emit a noise much like a donkey bray and lion roar combined with a sneezing fit. It’s like something straight out of Jurassic Park, and no one who hears it for the first time believes that such a small, pretty antelope has the ability to produce such a sound.
I always enjoy the guest reaction when they hear an impala rut for the first time. ‘Is it a lion?’ is usually the first question, or sometimes ‘Is something being killed?’. Some want to run in the opposite direction, especially when they hear it at night, and nobody believes an impala is responsible for the commotion until they’ve seen it with their own eyes.
Written by: Christo de Jager
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
Since many of our guests at Kapama are from outside South Africa and often first time visitors to our gorgeous country, most game drives start off by being about finding the big stuff, like elephants, rhinos, buffaloes, and big cats. Giraffes, zebras and other general game make the list too, so there’s seldom a dull moment, but sometimes you come across something you didn’t even think to hope for.
One morning, after a few very successful drives in which we spent a lot of time with most of the Big Five, we left a particularly good lion sighting and came across one such surprise sighting: three ground hornbills foraging in the road.
Anyone who’s ever come across a ground hornbill will tell you they’re fascinating birds, not just in appearance, but also in their habits. They’re large (nearly 4 kilograms heavy and up to a meter tall), black and heavy looking, with adult birds boasting bright faces and wattles. If you’re lucky enough to see them it’ll probably be when they’re ambling unhurriedly through the bush, rooting out goggas (bugs), rodents, lizards and just about anything that takes their fancy. Up close (they’re sometimes inquisitive enough to approach vehicles) they have large, intelligent yellow eyes, and long dark eyelashes that would give the Kardashian sisters a run for their money. Even if you haven’t seen them, it’s possible you’ve heard their deep, reverberating booming call early in the morning, like a distant lion roaring at the rising sun.
Ground hornbills are critically endangered, mainly because they’re so picky about where they nest – big, natural holes in old trees are hard enough to come by even in protected areas – but also because they have very specific requirements for successful breeding. Every pair mates for life and needs at least one other pair of helpers to help them keep a handle on things, even though only one chick from every brood survives. This chick is dependant on his/her team of caregivers for over two years, which means that even those who find a suitable tree and have responsible helpers can only raise one chick every three years. You might be justified in thinking it serves them right for being so difficult, but perhaps the fact that they’re the only bird species believed to play with their chicks might redeem them.
So every ground hornbill sighting is one to cherish, and whenever I get the chance to share those sightings with guests from home or abroad, I hope they’re if not more, then as memorable as all the big stuff.
Written by: Janri Olivier
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.