Cat House

Nancy Vandermey, Author
South Africa Trip May 01

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Yes, for the third year in a row I went to South Africa! I had actually planned to do an Earthwatch trip to Argentina this year, and was about to book it, when LouAnn called about a return to Africa. I had met her on last year's trip. This time it would just be the two of us, with the itinerary being whatever we wanted - which sounded great to me! And thanks to our friend Jeremy at Far & Wild Safaris, the price was even reasonable (a good dollar-to-rand exchange rate helped too). Not only were we going new places, but we went at a different time of year - May, which is fall down there, whereas both of my previous trips were around September.

This year I gave myself a 14 hour layover in London to break up the flight and go explore. The zoo I work at is sending an Amur leopard to the London zoo, so I visited there and met with their keepers. I also rode the Millennium Wheel and wandered through one of my favorite parts of London, Camden Town market.

Arriving in Jo'burg, we again spent one night at the Somerset Guest House to recuperate. We had dinner with Liam and Neil, local boys that LouAnn knew. In the morning we flew to Phinda, a scenic 90 minute flight in a small plane. Rock Lodge, where we had so much fun last year, was ready for us with two great game drives. We saw a family of cheetahs right off, a mom and 3 one year old cubs. They were walking down the road and went right past us, then entered the tall grass and laid down. We also saw the usual assortment of wildebeest, warthog, zebra, giraffe, nyala, and the ubiquitous impala. It was rutting season for the impala, with the males making a loud piglike grunt to announce his presence to the ladies. At the sundowner drink stop, LouAnn was introduced to an evil alcoholic substance called Cane. I stuck to my usual Savannah Cider. All the other lodge guests joined us for a loud party that night. The next morning, I found my shoes (under the lounge table) and jacket (in the rangers' quarters) and we were off. Our ranger Russell and tracker Sebo went into the bush looking for lion, and quickly were growled at BY the lions hiding in a thicket. We could glimpse the 3 cubs with Mom through the branches - it was the first time these 2 to 2.5 month old cubs were seen! it was fun listening to them mew and play. The mom's 2 year old daughter and son (photo above) came out in the open for a bit as well.

We were picked up by Jeremy for the drive to Kosi Forest Lodge, up on the border with Mozambique. We went canoeing on the river and saw crocodile, vervet monkeys, an African finfoot duck, juvenile palm nut vulture, giant kingfisher, wooly necked stork, korhaan, martial eagle, and 20+ trumpeter hornbills. This area is known for its Raffia Palm forest. The fronds of this palm are super long - this native fisherman's raft and pole are made of them! This lodge has individual tented rooms and reed enclosed open baths, and provides great food as well. That night we saw a family of greater thick-tailed bushbabies, which we had only heard before. The next day we took a trip to Black Rock beach to go snorkeling. The drive there includes several spots where you drive through a river - fairly deep in places! The snorkeling was great, lots of fish and a large leopard ray. We saw wild date palms and learned how to harvest the sap to make "wine", something also done with illala palms. I found footprints from an African wild cat outside our cottage!

The next morning we took the "scenic" route south, along unmarked sandy 2-tracks, which eventually led to a town before we ran out of gas. We drove through a coastal forest reserve around Lake Sibayi, seeing pied kingfisher, cormorants, African monarchs, the rare samango monkey, and several monitor lizards (photo above). After lunch, we went through Memorial Gate into Hluhluwe/Umfolozi Park and saw lots of great scenery and wildlife - white rhino, buffalo, wildebeest, warthog, zebra, giraffe, nyala, and the ubiquitous impala (still rutting). We checked in at Mpila and headed to Mndindini Base Camp, where Jeremy dropped us off. We were going on the Wilderness Trail, a 3 day 4 night hike into the wilderness area of Umfolozi - an area with no roads at all, and no human development. We met our fellow hikers (a South African couple and 3 Austrians) and our ranger San-Mari (the only female ranger in the park) and field rangers Enok and Cipho. We could hear hippos and hyenas that night, and watched buffalo cross the White Umfolozi river in front of camp the next morning. Then we were off to Nqabemeni bush camp for 2 nights. We only had to carry our lunches and day packs, donkeys carried everything else for us. We stopped at many beautiful overlooks along the river, spending time just scanning the bush and continuously finding more animals hiding in plain sight - crocodiles, buffalo, nyala, lanner falcons, tawny eagle, and of course impala. We also walked very close to many large spiders such as golden orb and bark spiders. From other overlooks, we also saw elephant and rhino and bushbuck (which I didn't know barked, so at first I thought I had found wild dog!) The bush camp was better than I expected - large tents, a bush shower, and a cook who also washed our dishes. definitely not roughing it! That night there was a torrential thunderstorm, which we had to run out in to get our tent flaps down. Good thing that didn't happen while we were hiking. In the morning we hiked up a hill with historical importance from when Shaka ruled the Zulus. From a lookout up there Cipho alerted us to a cat WAY far away, which he thought was a leopard, but after some debate we decided was a lioness. It's amazing he saw it at all. There must have been a kill in a nearby thicket, as vultures circled and came in for a landing. This was across the river from us, which was too high for us to cross. We also saw two huge bull elephants with radio collars on them - these old males were transported here from Kruger Park to impose some order on the younger males in the park. We hiked down the other side of the hill and saw giraffe, kudu, and waterbuck. Then, a bush growled at us from about 15 meters away! It was at least one lion, and not happy to have us there. So we backed a way as a group. We found both lion and leopard tracks in this area, as well as more warthog, nyala, a green tree snakes, sunbirds, and lots of impala. The last morning we hiked towards the road to be picked up and came across a black rhino wallowing in the mud. These highly endangered animals can be very dangerous to humans on foot, and would likely have charged us if he knew we were there. But, we were quiet, and downwind of him. It was unusual to not see any white rhino the 3 days we were hiking, as they're very common in this park. But, we saw them while driving in the park. The last night, we had yummy impala steaks for dinner (we had had impala meat sauce spaghetti and impala stew earlier).

The next day was a longish driving day - Jeremy picked us up at 7 am, amazing the others in the group that he was on time (he spent the night in the park, he didn't drive up from Durban that morning). On the way on through Hluhluwe we saw more white rhino, zebra, zebra foals, and impala. To get to Kruger we went through the country of Swaziland - at the border we had to stop, go through South African customs & immigration, drive 10 feet, then go through Swaziland customs & immigration, and reverse the process on the other side! It was a slow, but we got to see some different countryside - lots of cane fields, local homesites, and far off a cave thought to have the oldest remains of homo sapiens in the world.

We entered Kruger National Park through the Crocodile Bridge gate and had 3 hours to get to our camp at Berg-En-Dal, so we took a sand road and had enough time to stop and observe Burchell's starlings, lilac breasted rollers (photo above), gray louries, yellow billed hornbills, francolins, hammerkops, giraffe, and an elephant herd with 2 young ones in the thickets. We also saw many chains of caterpillars crossing the road, which we later found out were called processionary worms. Jeremy had to swerve over the road to avoid squishing them. After a dinner at camp including roast eland, I heard a strange squeaky mewing noise from up in a tree outside our cabins. I couldn't find anything with my flashlight, so I got Jeremy and LouAnn to help - it was a young lesser bushbaby! This tiny primate leaped from tree to tree like a big flea. Later that night we heard it crying like a baby, which is how they get their name.

Gates were open at 6 am, and we passed 2 cars on the road to be in the lead - important for when you come around a corner and there's a lioness in the road! There were 3 lionesses with bloody faces, obviously having just eaten something. After crossing the road into the tall grass, a big head popped up - this large male lion had been laying there all along. We saw a beautiful bateleur eagle on a treetop, then 3 male lions crossed the road, also having just eaten, given the size of their bellies! They were very affectionate with each other, posed, then laid down in the shade to nap. We also saw marabou storks, a saddlebill stork, steenbok, and hippos. After lunch at Skukuza, we found 2 wild dogs in the thickets right next to the road. They were difficult to see, but as they're so rare it was a treat to see them at all. Our other great sighting in Kruger was a bull elephant on an island in the river with a crocodile at the tip of the island. We watched as the elephant ate its way closer to the croc, and finally the croc woke up and slithered off.

On to my last stop - Mala Mala private game reserve. West of Kruger in the region where the Sabie and Sand rivers cross, there are several private reserves which have no fences between them & each other or with Kruger. This area has the highest known density of leopards in Africa. I wanted to go to Mala Mala because I knew about them through the internet. A live webcam, LeopardCam, had followed one of their leopards for 2 years, and Mala Mala gives sightings updates on their web site regularly, so I was familiar with what we might see there. They don't give the cats names, just call them by where they live, and I've used those designations below. I took more photos in the next 3 days than in the previous 10 days combined! We started out with a tour of the grounds - a nice room with bathtub overlooking the Sand river, had lunch, met our ranger Grant, then out for our first of 6 game drives. We immediately found a large male elephant in the riverbed - he charged towards us a few times, but was just bluffing. We watched him throw sand on his back, and eat reeds. We saw bushbuck, common duiker, gray duiker, and a little sparrowhawk caught a butterfly in front of us. Then we came around a corner and there were lions laying in the road. A lot of lions - 15 altogether in the area, 6 lionesses of the Eyrefield pride with 4 West Street males. And, 5 cubs! Three younger cubs, maybe 8-10 weeks, and two slightly older cubs. That morning was the first time they were seen, and they were amazingly relaxed around the vehicles. The moms ignored the vehicles. Everyone was busy feasting on a adult buffalo killed the night before. One of the moms took the cubs down to a waterhole and let them suckle. Next we drove on and found a herd of buffalo, maybe 400-500 animals! And finally, we saw 2 six month old leopard cubs. Mom (the White Cloth female) had left them while she went off to hunt, so the cubs slept and played while she was gone.

Dinner was outside in the boma, we had ostrich Wellington. All the other guests were also Americans, except a honeymooning Philippine couple who had both lived in America previously. On the morning drive, we looked for leopards up near main camp, but found only hippos and baboons. We saw a neat little antelope called a klipspringer up on the rocks. One of the other rangers had been luckier though, and as they're all in radio contact we got to go see - Tjololo! Yes, this leopard has a name. He's also known as the Rock Drift male. This is the guy who was the star of LeopardCam and will be the star of a National Geographic article and TV show in October. I was very happy to see him myself, and get some great photos as he posed (left) & marked his territory. He's VERY relaxed around land rovers. On our way back to camp, we drove by the buffalo kill, and surprisingly found the mother lions with SIX cubs - where had the other young one been last night??? We also found 7 male giraffe close to camp.

Two new couples arrived, one from the UK and one from Denmark. We headed out again, and found a herd of 15-20 elephant that had several youngsters, including a 1 month old baby - so adorable! My favorite though was the 5-6 month old youngster who thought he/she was pretty tough and charged at our vehicle - ooh, scary! We also saw a group of white rhino nearby. Next we drove south to a giraffe kill another ranger had just found. It was a few days old and already smelly. 2 lionesses were at the carcasses (female giraffe plus fetus), part of the Windmill Pride. We drive around a clump of trees to find the other lioness and a male lion also nearby, and suddenly looked to our left and saw a young male leopard standing there! This was one of the sons of the Paradise Valley female, a 2 year old male and son of Tjololo. Obviously attracted to the smell of the kill, he tried to sneak in 3 times and each time the youngest lioness chased him. Twice he went up a tree (top photo). When he jumped down the second time, we ended up in the middle between the two cats and I thought one or the other might jump in the vehicle! A hyena nearby was smarter than the young leopard and didn't come as close to the kill.

On our fourth drive the next morning, we finally saw cheetah, and BOY did we see cheetah! We found a mother with two 18 month old daughters. All were thin, and looking to hunt. One heard of impala were alerted by the cubs playing. Then the cubs sat on a small hill while Mom sneaked toward more impala. But, again the cubs ruined the hunt - but, Mom went for it anyway, from 80-90 yards away! Our landrover and another gave chase at 60+ mph over bumpy ground - we got to watch the entire chase, Mom almost getting the young impala, Mom giving up and getting chased by wildebeest, then the cubs taking up the chase and making the kill! It took Mom so long to amble over the cubs were almost dine with the small carcass by the time she got there. An immature bateleur eagle watched from a tree, but there weren't any scraps.

Next we went to meet Kim Wolhunter, the cinematographer on LeopardCam and the upcoming TV show about Tjololo. he's studying ground hornbills now. We learned that the nickname for the rangers is "jeep jockeys" and that they get in trouble for calling the animals by names - for instance another male leopard is officially "the large male with the short tail", NOT the "Short Tailed Monster". After that we went back to the giraffe carcass - the male lion was nearby, the 3 lionesses were all on the fetus' carcass, and guess who was still there? The young male leopard. His belly didn't look too thin, so maybe he snuck in for a snack during the night. We drove on and saw more processionary worms, a millipede, golden orb spider, and a rare sighting - a honey badger.

In the evening, we saw a purple roller, more klipspringer, and 2 more cheetah (20 month old sisters recently abandoned by their mom). After a sundown drink break we found two of the Mlowathi male lions, roaring loudly enough to shake the vehicle. The older blond-maned male entertained us, then we followed the younger sparse-maned male down the road until he happened upon a leopard with an impala kill in the grass next to the road. He jumped on the carcass and stole it, almost catching the leopard in the process - we just saw a flash of leopard running off, but the rangers think it was one of the newly abandoned 2 year old daughters of the Ngoboswan female. After one last great dinner, where we filled out our sightings board for the day, it was time for my last game drive the next morning. After so many great drives at Mala Mala, how could this one provide a new thrill? How about with mating leopards! On the banks of the Sand River we heard & then found the Ngoboswan female with the son of the Short Tailed Monster. This male is too young to be keen on mating yet but he tried. Making a new path out of that thicket, a chameleon dropped in the vehicle with us. We also followed lion tracks down the road and found 5 sleepy lions - 2 females from the Eyrefield pride with 3 West Street males. We saw a huge male warthog, male and female kudu, colorful birds like little bee eater and white fronted bee eater, an even more colorful butterfly called a yellow pansy, a pied kingfisher trying to swallow a big fish, and then went back to the open area where we saw the cheetahs yesterday. We watched the wildebeest, kudu, impala, zebra, and baboon for a while, then saw the family of 3 cheetahs again. Still thin after such a small meal, they thought about hunting but were quickly seen by everyone. They heading into the taller grass hoping to flush something out, but no luck while we were there. It was time to leave - I had a flight to catch, while LouAnn was staying on and going back to Kruger. On the way to the airstrip at Skukuza we saw a bateleur that had just killed a puff adder, more kudu, and my last glimpse of impala. I'll miss them. I can't believe that in 3 days at Mala Mala I saw 22 lions, 7 leopards, and 5 cheetah!