Monday, 30 November 2009

23rd & 24th November – No Longer Raining Cats and Dogs!

…but we certainly wish it would! The last two days have been extremely frustrating for us due to the lack of lions at the moment; the end of Wednesday concluded the fifth consecutive day without any recorded sightings of lions – the longest period of “lionless” viewing I have experienced in almost three years!
Monday morning saw us starting off the drive with three giraffes near the airstrip before we headed west in the hope of finding some signs of our lions returning to the area. En route, we did make a stop off at Kuhanya female leopard to see what she was up to and found lying near the kill, but we had no sooner arrived when she got up and moved to the kill to commence her feeding yet again! It is quite miraculous that she has managed to keep the kill for so long without needing to take it up a tree to avoid the hyenas. There is not a great deal of meat left on the carcass, but the leopard was feeding on it for a good part of the morning.
A small herd of buffalos was found in the west, slowly heading towards Voël dam, so I headed into that area and waited for them to come and drink, being the predictable animals they are. The herd approached as I had anticipated, but then simply walked past the water, over the dam wall and started to feed on the green grass on the other side! It was not a very big herd of buffalo, with probably only 60-70 individuals in it.
I headed down to Nkombi pan for some coffee, but sadly found no signs of any rhino, so I proceeded up to Makulu dam, finding another four buffalo bulls along the way. There was not a great deal of game about, but we saw some kudu, waterbuck, several hippos and a nice large crocodile at the dam, and then came across two elephant bulls pushing over some knobthorn trees on the banks of the Nhlarulumi, at Elephant Crossing. Herald had also found a small baby impala hanging in a marula tree near Mbali dam, but I went to check on it a bit later in the morning and found no sign of the leopard that had put it there; the leopard had not even taken a single bite out of it, so we headed for home.
In the afternoon, I decided to go and check on the baby impala kill again, but found that it was still untouched and the leopard had clearly not returned, so I didn’t bother spending much time around the area. I headed down to Vielmeter hoping to find some different leopards, but came across an old drag mark from a hyena dragging a carcass, and realised that the hyena would be dragging the kill back to the new den site, so asked my tracker to follow up on foot. It was not easy after the rain, and the fact that the hyena would lift the whole kill off the ground at times didn’t make it any easier, but Petros kept trying. I carried on and saw some baboons, more impala, a couple of giraffe, waterbuck and a small group of zebras in the area, and I was just about to call Petros to tell him to leave the tracks if he was struggling when he told me that he had found the new hyena den site!

I met him on the road and he guided me into the area of the den, a large termite mound alongside a drainage line just south of Java airstrip. At first we could only see one adult hyena lying 30m from the den, and then we moved around to the eastern side and found the mother hyena and her two cubs playing around outside the den! We spent the next half an hour watching these extremely cute characters as they played with a piece of left-over impala and annoying mom and aunty hyena! It is great to know that we again have some good hyena sightings lined up for the next while!
After a great sunset overlooking the vast African bush and the distant Drakensberg mountains, I went to check on the baby impala kill, but for the third time found it unmoved, so I gave up on seeing that leopard and headed back to camp, but not before stopping for a special ‘bush braai’ where the guests enjoyed a dinner in the bush. The only other noteworthy sightings of the afternoon were a breeding herd of elephants that Herald found, but they were some distance from the road in an area that was still too wet to go off-roading after, so they were left on their own. Then Andrew had a sighting of Kuhanya female leopard, but not at the spot she had bee for the last few days, instead she had gone for a drink at Peru dam and found the carcass of a dead impala on the eastern bank, she dragged it under a large weeping boer-bean tree, but didn’t actually eat anything, instead she just lay and rested nearby.
Tuesday morning started off with us going to check on a large impala carcass that Kuhanya had found, but she was not there, nor had she actually eaten anything, so we left the area and went to try the western sector hoping to find any signs of lions, but none were forthcoming. Andrew drove past the area of Kuhanya female leopards previous kill and found her wandering around in the open not too far away, so he followed her as she made her way back to the kill site where there were still a few bones lying around, but she didn’t do much and went and rested in the shade of a low bush a bit further north. After finding a few herds of impala, a small zebra herd and some waterbuck grazing together, as well as a pair of entertaining guineafowl running after each other, I went to have a look at Kuhanya, and found her resting in the same area. She was extremely fat after four days of feeding and slowly moved to an even shadier spot before settling down for the morning, so we left her to it.
Besides that the morning was quiet, no elephants were around, and although we saw some kudu and bushbuck, even the general game was a bit quiet. Some of the smaller animals did draw our attention, with more tortoises and terrapins being found out and about, as well as some vultures sitting in a dead tree waiting to go and feed on yet another dead impala.
That ended my two-week stint of driving, and I didn’t drive guests in the afternoon, instead I went out with the film-crew to see if we could have any luck finding the white lions that they are filming, and ended up traversing the land a few kilometres north of Motswari; it was nice to see some different areas that I had never seen before. Although we went looking for white lions, the only white thing we found was a lone white rhino bull! He was relaxed and sauntered off into the bush and we left him. There was a small breeding herd of elephants around, and a few elephant bulls, but sadly the lions eluded us; although the film crew had found another pride of five lions in the morning that they have been hanging around for the last while; it sounds like a young pride and it will be interesting to see if they ever venture further south onto our land now that there is a large gap left from the demise of the Sohebele pride. Interesting times ahead we hope…but as long as we get to see some lions, any lions, soon!

Friday, 27 November 2009

21st & 22nd November – It’s Still Raining!

The rain that had been falling for two days straight continued into Saturday, and by Saturday morning the guests had realised that staying in a nice warm bed was preferable to get soaked in the bush, so they all spoilt themselves by staying in camp for the morning, and we did not conduct any game drives.

The rain eventually relented its ceaseless pitter-pattering around 11am, and some of the guests decided to go out for a midday drive while the weather was better. Despite the fact that the rain had stopped, the bush was still soaked, and that limited any off road driving for the afternoon. Kuhanya female leopard still had her impala kill west of Klipdrift crossing, but when we drove past, she was not at the carcass, so we carried on with the drive. It was extremely quiet on the drive, even the impala were scarce, but maybe that had something to do with the fact that they were all dropping dead! During the course of the afternoon, no fewer than six impalas were found dead or dying throughout the reserve for no apparent reason. The cause must be closely tied in with the unseasonably cold weather, along with three days of soaking rains that put extra pressure on the survival abilities of the older and weaker individual impalas. Most of the dead impalas were females, probably under added strain of their almost completed pregnancies, but even the male impalas were dying. The long dry winter might have contributed to weakening some of the impala population to a small degree, and this cold spell before the fresh nutritious grass arrived to replenish their strength, might have just been too much for some; the predators and scavengers are going to be only too delighted though (hopefully the struggling Sohebele sub adult lions can find a few of these dead impalas)!

The afternoon remained reasonably quiet due to the lack of vehicles out, and the cold weather, but it was an absolute delight to drive around and see water everywhere around the reserve! Almost all of the small drainage lines that normally go unnoticed had water running in them, and these slowly fed to the bigger tributaries of the Nhlarulumi riverbed, which in turn started flowing late on Saturday afternoon. The main tributaries in the north of the Timbavati are the Nyosi River, which was flowing gently into the thirsty sands of the Nhlarulumi, and the Machaton River. I had gone past Entrance dam and went to cross the dry Machaton riverbed, only to find its 10m breadth gushing with water! I crossed over the stream to Back 9’s and carried on along the riverbeds course towards the large Sycamore fig tree growing in the middle of the riverbed a few hundred meters from the crossing, and found a herd of giraffes feeding in the area. I then suddenly noticed something odd; the Machaton riverbed on my left hand side was bone-dry! Four hundred meters upstream, it was flowing bank-to-bank, but here it was dry? I waited for a few minutes for the water, but it never arrived, so I left the area very puzzled! I can only assume that I had crossed the riverbed seconds after the river had come flooding down, and that the thirsty sands were drinking the water as fast as it was coming in.

I went to check on the southern hyena den, and we found no tracks for the hyena cubs after the rain, so we are pretty sure that they have either moved den sites yet again, or perhaps something has happened to the cubs? We will have to hope for a lucky break if we are to find the new site and continue to enjoy our good hyena viewing as we have done over the last couple of months.

The tortoises and their aquatic cousins, the terrapins, were revelling the rain, and showed themselves along the roads, making the most of the abundance of water while it lasts. There were a few more giraffe and kudus around, as well as some relaxed baby impalas that had already found their feet. A female rhino and her sub-adult calf were found east of Lily Pan, but as their was no off-road driving, the only way to view them was to walk in on foot, so Andrew headed over to view them, and I decided to pass, and slowly headed back to camp before the next bout of rain arrived; it was clearly visible on the horizon.

I was going to go and check up on Kuhanya on my way back to camp, and as I headed into the area I passed some zebra, a group of three elephant bulls, and the highlight of my afternoon, a new-born baby impala, less than an hour old! It had been cleaned by its mother, but it was still trying to find its feet with much difficulty; but I suppose being cooped up in mom’s womb for 6.5 months will have that effect on you!!! We watched the little impala stumbling around very unsteadily on its feet, and hoping that no opportunistic predators were wandering around close by!

Luckily for the impala, the closest leopard (200m away) was busy enjoying a meal already, and we left the baby impala to go and see Kuhanya female leopard as she fed on her impala kill. She had moved the kill under a small Jackalberry tree, and while it provided excellent cover for her, it did not help us out for our photos! We spent some time watching her feeding on the kill, and once the rain had skirted past us, we headed for camp. There were another three elephants feeding west of Madash dam, and Elliot had earlier seen a group of four elephant bulls near Lily Pan. Another interesting sighting was that of a large elephant bull lying flat on the ground having a sleep in the late afternoon! While it is not unheard of, it is quite uncommon to see a large elephant sleeping flat on his side, especially during the day! More often, they would rest against a termite mound or a large tree, or even just sleep while standing. The fact that this elephant had been radioed in sleeping an hour before I arrived in the area, and that he was still flat on the ground when I arrived made us wonder if he really was sleeping, or if he too had died? I was too wise to go walking up to the thing in case he was just sleeping, so I threw a stick into a bush about 30m away from him, and in a flash he was on his feet; so much for them struggling to get to their feet from a lying position!!! He stood up, and then ambled off as if nothing had happened; it was a first for me!

Sunday morning was a nice and sunny one, and it made a change; maybe that’s why all the impalas were dropping dead (another eight were found today)– they were shocked to see the sun! Jokes aside, another couple of impalas were found dead during the morning drive, but the predators had not been to feed on any of the impalas that we had found yesterday; there are no doubt dozens more scattered all over bush that we have not found.

I headed south, hoping to find some leopards, but didn’t have much luck in general. There were a few impala, a distant herd of elephant near the hyena den (which I triple checked to make sure they were gone for good, and they definitely have left the den), and a family of giraffes. While watching the giraffes, I heard a leopard calling in the direction of Makulu dam, but had no luck in finding any tracks (Giyani later found tracks for a male leopard near Tamboti pan, presumably the same individual I heard calling).

We found some tracks for Nkateko leopardess, but the ground was so hard after the rain that we could hardly see the tracks on the road, and picking up anything off the road was all but impossible; tracks for two rhinos a bit further down the road proved easier to track, and we followed them to Elephant dam where we stopped for a coffee with a male giraffe and some impala. After coffee we were going to carry on tracking the rhinos, but heard that they had just been found next to the Timbavati Access Rd and they crossed into Klaserie, so we gave up.

I was going to go and view a small breeding herd of buffalo that had been for a drink at Nkombi pan when I was informed about a large tortoise near Makulu dam, and I was intrigued about the way that the guide who found it was going on about it on the radio; I was not far away, so I headed to the area. The one male impala that died yesterday had been dragged by something into the Nhlarulumi riverbed and was being fed on by the vultures; my tracker and I went to investigate, but found no signs of any predators in the area. So onwards to the tortoise, and it was worth the change of mind! It was the biggest leopard tortoise I have ever seen! Now I have always told guests that they can grow up to 40kg, but that is extremely rare, even in captivity. Most of the leopard tortoises we see probably weigh in at 2-3kg, and maybe 7-8kg at most. This individual must easily have been between 20—25kg! She was huge, and dwarfed the poor male tortoise that was trying to mount her. The shell was impressively large, with upward turning shields on the rear that have clearly come with a great age.

Being a tortoise, she was in no great hurry and hung around for some time, allowing several game drive vehicles to come and see her; I found it funny that more people responded to this leopard tortoise than the real leopard back in the north! The hippos were at Makulu dam, and enjoying the inflow of water from the Nhlarulumi river, as they were gathered around Mvubu platform, and at least seven hippos were present in the dam; three more than normal!

I did make a response to Kuhanya female leopard who was relocated with her kill in the same place as she had been for the last few days; and surprising as she has still not hoisted the kill up a tree, and clearly no hyenas have been past the area and found her meal! There was a large elephant bull feeding a few hundred meters away from the sighting, and Kuhanya herself was once again actively feeding on the carcass, even though it was now late in the morning, and starting to heat up.
Herald and I got a new group of guests today, and we had a fair start to their trip. I checked around Vyboom dam, and found some waterbuck females, a ncie male waterbuck a bit further along, the omnipresent impalas (although no babies), and three giraffes on our airstrip at the start of the drive. We made our way towards Kuhanya leopardess and her impala kill, but spent some time admiring a huge Nile Crocodile at Concrete Crossing! Kuhanya was feeding when Herald arrived to view her, but soon moved down into the adjacent drainage line and lay in the open getting irritated by the flies as she lay there! It was good for us, as she rolled about swotting at them occasionally, but that was the only action we saw of her and her fat belly!

Elliot had found two male white rhinos at Voël dam, the same two individuals from the south that had ventured some distance north from their usual haunts. They were reasonably relaxed this afternoon, and are definitely improving with each sighting. I had a brief sighting of a small breeding herd of buffalo crossing into the Timbavati from the Klaserie, and Herald also saw some elephant bulls in the area, but we didn’t spend too long with them as the rhino’s were our main objective. The two rhinos were milling around the Mopane trees at southern end of the dam’s ‘flood plain’ (a dam which is once again containing some water at long last!) and grazed a bit on the new grass growing along the drainage line.

After a sundowner at the dam, we headed home, and tried to check the Timbavati Access road, hoping that it would bring out some lions to sleep on its dry surface, especially as the Mahlathini males had been heard roaring in that area in the morning, but sadly it was not to be, and our dry spell of lions continues. We can only hope that the next few days bring some better luck on that front.