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Tracking in Ngala

Full tummies.

Full tummies.

Our final morning drive at River Lodge was incredible. We saw all Big 5 without even trying – I think they were coming to bid us farewell. As a final bonus the herd of elephants we’ve been following around actually walked across our camp while we were having breakfast.

We had two new experiences today – seeing a Pride of Lions and their cubs with a recently killed Water Buffalo and a young Leopard (8 months?) treed by the aforementioned pack of Wild Dogs. Both were amazing and we could’ve watched for hours. The devouring of the Water Buffalo was not too pleasant to look at (so I will spare you the photos), but the cubs were darling. There were also several lionesses as well as some young males (maybe 2-3 years old) about ready to be cast out from the Pride. They were so amazing to see, we all were able to ignore the really unpleasant, putrid smell from the rotting carcass.

Now we are waiting for our plane to Ngala.

Ngala means Lion in Shangaan and this is where we learned about Glamping (super-luxurious camping).

We had some crazy confusion with our flight leaving Exeter ~ somehow, someone decided we should leave the Lodge at 9 AM. Fortunately, the manager prevailed and we were able to leave as planned at midday. Typical of bush flight schedules, they thought the incoming flight would be early and decided to race to the airstrip to be on time for the new arrivals . . . so, we had what our driver coined a “Ferrari Safari.” And it was crazy – about 100 degrees and driving as fast as humanly possible, in an open vehicle, on unpaved roads through the Sabi Sands. It might be the riskiest thing we have actually done on this trip. But we arrived in one piece and had a nice 15 minute flight with the same young pilot as our flight into Ngala.

The airstrip in Ngala in about a half hour away from the tented camp, and our Ranger Rob was at the strip to meet us. The terrain here is more open, seems flatter and is sandier in color. There also seems to be more green trees and no burned areas.

Ngala borders Kruger National Park, and our camp (with just six permanent tented rooms) is very laid back with much more flexible time schedules and is also more focused on tracking. A lot more time here is spent waiting and watching – often, we have learned, with great rewards.

Since we have seen the “Magnificent 7” (the previously mentioned “Big 5” plus Wild Dogs and Cheetah), we are also more relaxed about our game viewing.

The Ambiance

Oh yeah – let me not forget to describe the facilities here – at &Beyond’s Ngala Private Game Reserve it is very elegant/upscale, permanently tented suites with full power, A/C, no windows-just screens open to the elements and, of course incredible gourmet meals. My husband has said (and I quote) “I have nothing to complain about the food here – it is really good.”  Quite an endorsement from a very basic eater.

It still gets quite cold here at night; they put down shades, draw the drapes and provide wonderful bedding with dual control electric blankets. We also have an outdoor, secluded shower in addition to the indoor bath with freestanding tub. This is why one recent guest called it “glamping” – a term that describes it perfectly.

We haven’t seen too many Americans on this trip, Brits, Aussies, Germans, Spanish, Chileans, Irish and more. We are currently riding around with some folks from Perth who are lots of fun.

Since Ngala means Lion – we did search and find two on our first drive. We watched them sleep for a long time, wake up for 20 seconds of mating and back to sleep. . . . this male is a beautiful specimen with an incredible mane. He is so perfect because he apparently runs from most adversarial situations and is hanging around with one female instead of the usual pack of males. The staff does not know where the female has come from and are mystified by his behavior.

The hit of this drive, for us, was seeing the Hyaena den with three pups sleeping and looking around outside!

The night sounds are amazing as the temps drop into the 40s and many animals move around – we heard Lions roar, an Elephant trumpet, Monkeys play and many more sounds I am happy not to be able to ID.

Sabi Sands: Elephant Walk

Leading the pack.

Leading the pack.

This morning’s game drive was incredible! We actually were going to look for Wild Dogs, when we got diverted by some other interesting finds. We were also keeping our eyes peeled for Elephants, since we had passed up some previous opportunities during our big cat tracking.

We soon found ourselves in the midst of a substantial herd of females and babies, Fred counted 30. We had passed the big males close by – the size contrast was unbelievable – from the humongous bull to the tiniest baby (under 6 months). It was a truly magical experience and my husband has dubbed it his favorite of the day.

My favorite was, however, still to come. We got word of a mother Leopard, with two cubs, which were finishing off a recent Impala kill. We found them and watched for quite awhile from no more than 10 feet away. The cubs are 6 months old and are her first litter – they were adorable and playful – I could’ve watched all day.

But we moved on and saw a lake full of Hippos and incredibly a little while later, two Lions mating. The male Lion in this twosome is a sort of bad actor around here, recently returning to the pride after a two year hiatus. Because he was away, he has killed all the cubs in the pride, because they were not his. Nature at work – not always nice to think about.

We actually skipped our break in order to get around all these incredible sights – but the staff was positioned just prior to our return with special smoothies and fruit as a breakfast appetizer.

From the Lodge, we also see animals – today a Hippo (out of the water), yesterday a Giraffe, not to mention the Warthogs that surrounded the pool yesterday.

Dog Day Afternoon.  Even though we saw many animals, our afternoon drive had one goal – to find the elusive and endangered Wild Dogs (also called Painted Dogs). There is one known pack of 10 and they have recently been spotted in the area after a long absence. We did find them – sleeping in the sand and reeds of a dry riverbed. Although mangy-looking in pictures, they really do have wonderfully random markings to keep them well-camouflaged in the bush. This pack has four surviving cute pups (of 6) that were alert and ready to roll. We got to see a little typical dog-revelry with them jumping around and greeting one another – kind of like locker-room antics before a big game.

It’s absolutely amazing that you can be so close to the animals here and they are undisturbed and don’t run away. It can also be very intimidating at times with the larger animals and predators.

Into Africa: The Best of Sabi Sands

A male Cheetah surveys the burned out landscape.

A male Cheetah surveys the burned out landscape.

The schedule is: up at 5:30, coffee & tea at 6, then off for your first drive (and it is quite chilly for the first hour or so). Back around 9:30 – 10 for breakfast then time for resting, napping, reading or blogging. Lunch at 3 and then off again from 4-7. Dinner and drinks follow.

The scenery is amazing here – from the air it just looks brown, but on the ground you see the colors; greens and golds as well as multi-hued flowers. Much of the landscape is the color of lions and it is incredible to learn an animal can be right in front of you and so successfully camouflaged you don’t see it.

We were off again looking for Leopards this morning . . . we could hear them so close by. A young female was pursuing a male, very interested in mating. The females will try to engage as many males as possible, to eventually protect their cubs. A male will not attack a cub of a female he has mated. Today, this male was just not interested. We had a very lively and entertaining trek through the bush and riverbeds, up and down, back and forth, ducking the thorny (1-3″ long spikes) branches of small trees and bushes along the way. But we were rewarded with sightings of both Leopards!

We had a very fruitful morning, seeing the largest male Giraffe we have ever seen, a herd of Burchell’s Zebra, Wildebeest, Kudu, Waterbuck, Vervet Monkeys, and Antelope. We also spent some time watching a group of Water Buffalo, the big males and their nearby harem, not six feet away from us, clearly unconcerned with our presence.

We opted to go on a bush walk after the drive. By then the day was quite warm. Our Ranger carried a 375 caliber rifle and taught us about tracks, plants, how to ID various types of dung, etc. Fortunately, the walk back to the Lodge and our breakfast was uneventful.

Cheetah!

Our afternoon drive took us to the far southern reaches of our camp’s boundary to search for Cheetah . . . and our efforts paid off as we spotted him on top of a termite mound. He caught the scent of a nearby lone Impala and proceeded to casually stroll in that direction, occasionally flattening his ears and getting lower to the ground. Since this was in some of the recently burned area as well as a relatively flat landscape, he was very easy to follow. The unsuspecting Impala finally got the gist of things, sounding some loud cries of distress and moving a bit farther away. The Cheetah eventually tired of the game and sauntered off.

We also spent some time watching Rhinos at a water hole. Impalas and other ungulates are everywhere. I haven’t really explained how the air is here – it does get warm, but this time of year we have very low humidity and often a nice breeze, making the shade a wonderful spot to be (where I am now, sitting on our deck). The air is fresh and clean and occasionally, you pick up the slightly sweet scent of a fresh pile of dung or a faint smokiness from the recent burns.

After stopping for our “comfort break” on a hill overlooking a mountain range and another glorious sunset, we made the long journey back to the Lodge. Upon arrival we were greeted with a champagne cocktail. Dinner was a lovely candlelit setting in the main lodge where we enjoyed incredible grilled prawns and roasted pork along with our South African Shiraz.

After an amazing 24 hours in the bush – we have seen the ”Big 5″: Lion ~ Rhino ~ Water Buffalo ~ Leopard & Elephant.

Sabi Sands: The Lion Sleeps Tonight

A sleeping Lion.

A sleeping Lion.

The day begins early ~ good practice for the next 2 weeks of early safari drives. . . We were picked up for the 2 hour drive to Cape Town airport, and this time drove along the coastal route which was very similar to driving the California coast, dramatic and beautiful. We flew to Kruger Mpumalanga Airport and took a small 6-seater plane to Ulsaba (which is Sir Richard Branson’s airstrip). Along the way we dropped off a South African travel agent at another strip, and then flew very low the last 15 minutes – allowing both of us to see elephant herds from the air.  Our final destination: South Africa’s legendary Sabi Sands Game Reserve near Kruger National Park.

Once at the & Beyond Exeter River Lodge, we sat under a huge Sausage Tree for a wonderful lunch and then departed for our first drive at 4. The experience was everything, and more, that I ever imagined. Riding in the open safari rover is similar to riding in the Everglades in a swamp buggy – but without the mud (this time of year).

Minutes into the drive, we stopped and gave ample room to a six foot Black Mamba – Africa’s deadliest snake, to finish crossing the road. Our Ranger gave it a wide berth, since it can rise up to 2/3 of its length, before striking. A bite will kill within 15 minutes. It was a rare and exciting sighting.

Several weeks ago a control burn in the area became out of control and all the surrounding camps had to get together to fight the fire. Apparently, control burns are used regularly to preserve and regenerate the 160,000 acre Sabi Sand Game Reserve (adjacent to the 5 million acre Kruger National Park). In any case, we found ourselves tracking a leopard through part of the burned area. The downside of this being vehicles are not supposed to drive on newly burned terrain.

Our Ranger, Craig, got special permission for one vehicle to enter and off we went. When they say you drive through the bush –they are not kidding – you venture wayyyy off-road. In the meantime our tracker, Martin, is off after the elusive Leopard (who could be heard making its throaty rumble not far away). We ended up finding some White Rhino, Baboons, Monkeys, Dwarf Monkeys, Impala, a solitary Water Buffalo and a variety of beautiful birds; but abandoned our Leopard hunt for another day.

Along the way we stopped for a “sundowner” cocktail and bathroom break (yes, in the bush) and to photograph the beautiful sunset. Darkness came quickly and the weather got dramatically cooler. Eventually Martin found a beautiful sleeping male Lion! We had been hearing him roar for awhile. Amazingly, he also roared, while resting (and we got that on video).

Back at the Lodge, we were met by singing and dancing staff members, along with some warm soup as a starter for our upcoming dinner. Dinner and drinks were served in the Boma (a communal dining area) around a fire (and I promise you,even a picky eater will like the food here).

BTW – the Exeter River Lodge is beautiful and photos actually do not do it justice. Our suite is amazing.