Friday, 4 December 2009

01st & 02nd December – Absolutely Incredible – Sohebele River in Flood and WHITE LIONS!!!

The bush doesn’t work in calendar months as we do in the ‘real world’, but it is amazing how often great things happen on the 1st day of a new month. What happened on the 1st of December will stay with me for a long time, and it must rank as my most memorable sighting of my last three years in the bush!

The rain started around 01h00 and after an brief downpour it stopped, but at around 4h30 on Tuesday morning, it started again. The rain gauge read 18mm when I woke p at 5h30, and after early morning coffee, my guests and I decided to take a rain-check, and we just relaxed at camp for the morning. By about 8h00 the rain gauge was up to 50mm (it later ended on 57mm)! There was water everywhere around the camp, but it dried soon after the rain stopped, and my guests and I headed out for drive just after 10hoo.

I had immediately heard that Mbali dam was overflowing, and the Peru dam too was beginning to overflow; this was great news for us, but in a way expected considering the nights rainfall. Giyani had taken his Java guests on drive and had been sitting at Confluence crossing watching the Machaton river flow into the Nhlarulumi, and a while later when he returned, the Nhlarulumi itself was flowing strongly from Makulu dam side. Giyani told me that he was heading towards Moeniejag crossing on western cutline to show his guests the Sohebele river flowing (its great to refer to them as rivers, and not riverbeds!), but I told him that he was dreaming if he expected to see water in the Sohebele river so far north, and that if he wanted to check, he would have to go to our southern boundary and see if the water was coming in to Scholtz Big Dam. My thinking was that with only 60mm of rain in the area, there was no chance of both Shcoltz big dam and Repair dam filling up, and with the thirsty sands of the Sohebele river having had no water in them for almost five years, Giyani was simply wasting his time going to check Sohebele dam…it was for this reason that I simply refused to believe him when he told me that Sohebele dam was 100% full and overflowing strongly towards the empty Argyle dam! I incessantly told him that it was not possible that he was sitting watching a full Sohebele dam, and that he must be joking. Within a minute I had reached a high point on Western cutline and looked to the west and I just could not believe what I was seeing…Sohebele dam was full of water!

I immediately made my way to broken dam and had to pick up my jaw (one of those literal jaw-dropping experiences!) when I saw the water gushing along the Sohebele River, but that was nothing compared to the smile on face as I drove along the eastern bank and listened to the chorus of happy frogs that were calling away in their new watery haven. I arrived on the eastern side of the dam wall, overlooking an expanse of water that I could not even imagine in my most vivid dreams; just yesterday this area had been an expanse of grass that I was chuffed was green – now today there was just water everywhere! Sadly my guests had not seen Sohebele dam in its bone-dry state, but being from Australia (and working in the water industry) they had a better understanding of the transformation that had just taken place than most European guests would have (based on their naturally wetter climate), yet I don’t think that they fully appreciated what they were looking at! For the last three years I would always ask my tracker what this dam would look like with water in it; how far back would it extend? How long before the hippos move in? How long does the water last? Well now I needn’t ask him these questions anymore, as I was sitting watching something that I had told my guests would not happen for another three to four years, and once again I was happy to be wrong!

We left Sohebele dam and made our way back north to the nearby Argyle dam, the last dam that needed to be overflowing before the dam in front of Motswari would fill up. It is a large dam, and probably one of the largest in the Timbavati (I would guess that at full capacity, Vyboom dam is the largest) and requires a good deal of water to fill up, but slowly and surely the water was flowing in, and as we watched the water rose slowly. In so doing, many small islands were created, and we were alarmed to see some impala trapped on them. At first we watched from Lover’s Leap (totally transformed now there is water beneath it!) as two impala rams ran around frantically as their small island got even smaller, but luckily they both decided to make a run for it and got across the strongly flowing river. At Argyle dam, another herd of impala’s faced the same predicament, and while contemplating what we could do to get them to run across the water, they did it of their own accord and bounded through the water to the safety of the dry eastern bank!

Through the jubilation of seeing water in the Sohebele River once again, a shadow of reality started to creep in. We slowly realised that with the all the rivers now flowing so strongly, our access to most of the reserve had been cut off. We still had access out of the reserve across a low level bridge on the Timbavati Access road…well we would have had that not flooded too! Godfrey was on the opposite side of the river and had to wait until about 18h00 before he could get back to the other side! Some of the other lodges that were wedged between the two rivers had no way of getting their guests in or out! We were fortunate in that we had no new guests arriving on Tuesday, and so could stress a lot less than most!

After the excitement of the floods, we decided to carry on with the drive and see if we could actually find any animals in this water-inundated paradise. Fortunately there was one guaranteed sighting near Java; a dead giraffe. I headed down south, not seeing much besides some bewildered impala, and a kudu. We arrived at Java (taking a bit longer considering our river crossings were closed, and after sinking knee-deep into the water, I decided that my Land Rover would not make it across!) and went to the giraffe carcass that was now starting to smell, but it didn’t bother us much as the giraffe now had company; the four Sohebele lions! These youngsters had stumbled across the carcass at some point in the night and had set about feeding on what they could find that the maggots had yet to get. Despite their size, I often wonder how much meat is easily accessible on a giraffe, as with thick skin and large bones, there always appears to be more food for the predators than there is.

The lions were looking in a reasonable condition (by their standards anyway), with the sickly male looking the thinnest, but they were fine, and happy to have found a free meal. They did look a bit apprehensive, and would often look around nervously, as if they were mischievous kids doing something they shouldn’t be doing, but perhaps they thought that this giraffe belonged to someone else. This didn’t stop them, and we spent an enjoyable 40 minutes or so watching the four lions feeding, with a bit of fighting when one encroached on the others space; the little female got clouted when she got too close to one of the males, but she found another spot and continued to feed.

It was great to see them getting some food again, although this meant that the poor vultures now had to wait a bit longer before they get a chance to feed! We went and had a look at the Machaton River which was very audible from the giraffe carcass, and saw that it was still flowing strongly. As we were in the area, we popped in to see the hyena den near Java airstrip, but only found the mother hyena sleeping 30m from the den as a flock of guineafowl ran about near the drainage line; a small drainage line that was carrying a fair bit of water it must be said!

We headed home, back past the dams, and saw that Argyle dam was about 1/3 full now. We came across a small family of warthogs, as well as a giraffe sleeping on the airstrip. At the start of the drive we had found two giraffes near Argyle dam and had walked on foot to see them.

After a quick lunch, I headed out with my guests again for an evening drive. We went to have a look at the Nhlarulumi and I was impressed to see the force it was flowing at! The water pouring over Vyboom dam wall was something that I had not seen for several years, and to see Vyboom dam so full again was just magical! The lack of water we had been seeing in that dam over the last few months was a bit alarming, but seeing it overflowing made me forget all about the dry times!

With Peru dam overflowing, and Vyboom dam full, that meant now that there was water all the way to Concrete crossing, and so much in fact that the crossing was flooded and could not even be seen under all of the water, effectively closing the crossing!
Carrying on with the drive, we decided to make use of our reduced traversing area and went back down to Java to have a look at the hyena den and the lions. We were approaching Java airstrip when I got another pleasant surprise, as there were two birds that I didn’t expect to see again (I have seen this species only once before). One could possibly expect to see some strange birds after a big storm, when the strong winds might blow them off course, but that generally only happens to birds that fly. Ostriches don’t fly! To my surprise there were two ostriches standing on our airstrip! Although common in the southern Kruger Park where there is more suitable grassland habitat, in the northern Timbavati, things are not ideal for ostriches, and it is extremely rare to see them this far north, and as a matter of fact, it was only the third time in the last three years that ostriches had been seen in our area! They were understandably a bit nervous of us and trotted of as we approached, and they ran straight towards the hyena den, so we followed for a while as they ran along the track, but they soon disappeared. At the den, the mother hyena was still sleeping in the same spot, and there was no sign of the cubs. We were going to wait for them when I was informed that Argyle male leopard had been found back in the north, lying in the middle of Piva Plains, close to Argyle dam. It was a long way to go with our limited crossing points, but we decided to try our luck anyway, and skip on the Sohebele lions for the afternoon. As we got back to Java airstrip, the two ostriches were wandering around once again, so we viewed them at a distance before heading back north.

En route, we found a herd of male giraffes along with five zebras that were feeding alongside each other as the sun broke through the lifting clouds at the end of a memorable day. We left them and then found another giraffe, but pushed on hoping to get to the leopard before he was lost walking along the western bank of the Sohebele River towards Sohebele dam. Herald had found a small herd of buffalo on Sohebele plains, but I skipped on them and arrived at the nearby Piva Plains to find the beautiful male leopard walking along the riverbank amongst the thick vegetation. It was a patchy sighting, but we kept up for a while until he vanished. We then got him again as he was walking to the east across Sohebele dam wall, clearly not knowing that he would be unable to cross to the eastern side due to the volume of water still pushing into the dam; this was clearly as new of an experience for the Argyle male as it was for us! I was very hesitant to cross the dam wall, as there was a lot of debris and logs that had gathered from the flood, and I wisely chose not to push my luck and we had to watch as the leopard disappeared to the east. We had once distant visual of him, and waited on the western side hoping he would come back, but it was not to be, so we headed back to camp for a nice meal and bottle of wine (some Meerlust Rubicon that I promised I would open with Lianne from the film crew – she had a bottle of Moet en Chandon champagne after her first sighitng - when I got to see her white lions for the first time, but as it was the last night we would be together, I thought I might as well drink it anyway!).

Wednesday morning arrived, but sadly Argyle dam had not overflowed and our Motswari dam had not received any water, but there is still a good chance it will happen soon. I was getting ready to go back to Johannesburg with Lianne when one of our maintenance team came to tell me that Herald wanted me to know that there were some white lions in the south. I wasn’t sure if this was joke or a case of ‘broken telephone’, so I immediately radioed Herald and he confirmed to me that there were white lions in our area! This was almost too good to be true, and after a bit of shuffling of arrangements, I went out with a few of the staff to go and see this for myself before I had to head back to Johannesburg. I headed straight down south, not even paying too much attention to the ostrich that we spotted again, and soon I was standing by to go into the sighting that I had been waiting to see since I first came to the Timbavati 25 years ago!

The pride of lions had been found early in the morning on a giraffe kill, right on the eastern boundary of the southern section, south of Double Highway. We believe them to be a long lost pride known as the Mayumbuya Pride that used to frequent our Scholtz and Borneo properties, but now reside in the non-traversable Mananga and Ceylon sections of the reserve (there are no commercial lodges in that area, and the properties just used by the private land owners). We had been hearing for some time about there being white lions that frequent the area south of Scholtz, and whenever we heard of lions near Scholtz camp, I get excited hoping that it is this pride. From the reports, there are apparently two adult white lions in the pride; one male and one female, but no concrete proof of this. Going in to this sighting, I wasn’t too sure what to expect, but found seven lions in the area; three adult lionesses – all of which were tawny in colour, and one of which was feeding on the large carcass, and then four cubs of about 9-10 months old, of which two were tawny, and two were WHITE! I was sitting looking at two wild white lions!!! It was incredible, after a long absence from our land, some white lions had eventually returned and were doing very well from what we could see!

Truth be told, I was probably expecting them to be a bit whiter, but with all the mud and blood from the feeding, they were looking a bit dirty and this took away some of their whiteness, but there is absolutely no question about it; these were real white lions!

Now the white lions are not albino’s, but rather get their odd colouration from a recessive gene that shows up from time to time in the lion populations of the Kruger Park. The Timbavati is not the only place where white lions occur, but it is the place where they were first studied and described back in the 1970’s but Chris McBride, and he produced the book entitled The White Lions of the Timbavati that put our reserve on the world map. Other reports then started filtering through of white lions in the Tshokwane area of the Kruger, but the highest recorded prevalence of the gene is found, without a doubt, in the Timbavati lions. Through the 1970’s to the early 1990’s, there were several white lions that became famous in the area, Whitey no doubt being the most recent star as she led her pride around our area in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. She died of old age, but in her time had several white lion cubs that died of various natural causes, and despite their unusual and disadvantaged appearance, still lived natural lives and faced the same dangers that any young lion cub would. After Whitey’s demise, and that of her cubs by 1992, there was a glut in the white lion population of the Timbavati, and beside the occasional unconfirmed report of white lions being seen, nothing concrete came to the fore, not until May 2006 when two white lion cubs were born to the tawny females of the Jacaranda pride on the property to the north of Motswari. Sadly no further sightings were had of these two news-making cubs (they made front page news on some of the national papers!), but we were thrilled to know that the genes were still around.

A few months later, the one tawny lioness of the Machaton pride (the first white lions seen were born to this pride!) gave birth to a white lion cub along the banks of the Zebenine river in the far south of our traversing area, but that cub too never made it out of hiding and was seemingly abandoned by its mother. Things were then quiet until this year, 2009, when several confirmed sightings of white lion cubs started to come; firstly there were some white lion cubs born to the Giraffe Farm Pride, some distance south of our traversing, but close to the Timbavati gate – the white lion was sadly killed though by an intruding male lion and hope there was lost for a brief period until another white cub was born to this pride four or five months ago, and we heard reports of the southern lodges seeing this cub, although the pride was slightly nervous and didn’t hang around long.

The next confirmed pride with white cubs was our very own Timbavati pride in the north. While the pride had got a territory that encompasses our lodge, the presence of the Mahlathini male lions has pushed this pride to the northern reaches of their own territory, and as a result, they spend most of their time 6-7km north of our boundary. The two white lion cubs must now be 7 months old and doing very well; Lianne has been seeing them every couple of weeks and watching them grow up – she says they are real fighters, and it shows, as the only cubs to have died from that litter are two tawny coloured cubs.

Unconfirmed reports originated from deep in the Umbabat of another lioness with two white lion cubs, but as we so seldom traverse that area, we have not been able to confirm this. And then there were the persistent rumours coming out of Mananga of their white lions, and after months of hearing about it, we finally, on the 2nd December, got to see them on our land for the first time in probably 17 years! It was an extremely special sighting for me, albeit a brief one, as I still had to get back to Johannesburg! Regardless, I got to spend about 10 minutes with the pride, but for the next three or four days, all the guests that visit the lodge will be in for a treat as the pride are anchored to the area with a large meal! We just hope that the Timbavati males or Machaton pride don’t pitch up and chase the white lions away, as the kill has taken place in Machaton territory. The usual threat, the Mahlathini males, are currently far north on a buffalo kill, so wont pose a problem (although worryingly, they are spending more and more time in the area occupied by the Timbavati pride and their white cubs, and the males would kill these cubs given the chance!).

I left the pride of lions, one female feeding while the cubs and other lionesses rested nearby, ruing the fact that I was going to be missing out on some special sightings over the next few days, but that is the luck of the draw, and I am just extremely grateful that I at least got to see them before I went on leave!

And with that, I am off for a few days, so will catch up on the sightings and what happened with the white lions next week!

Keep Well

Chad Cocking
Motswari Guide

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