Thursday, 24 December 2009

Some of my Memories...

I just thought I would share some of my memories and images with you as I close my account at Motswari. Three years worth of game drives has provided me with countless memories and sightings of some incredible and animals acting in a wild and natural way; some of which i managed to capture on camera, others were only recorded through the camera of my mind, and will live on in my memories. It is hard to single out my best sighting, or even my ten best sightings because every sighting was special in its own unique way.

Some that do stand out that I failed to capture on camera included my solitary sighting of a black rhino one morning when driving through a mopane thicket near the camp, and what took me by surprise was that it was literally the last thing I expected to see anywhere, let alone 2km from camp!!! A guest said what I heard as "hyena", but when I turned to look, I saw a rhino, but something was wrong with this didn't quite look like a 'regular' white rhino, and that is because it wasn't, it was an extremely rare black rhino (some guides have been working in the Timbavati for 12-15 years and haven't seen one!). I was so excited that all i wanted to do was to call everyone to tell them what I had seen, and stupidly did so before taking a single photo! The rhino must have stood still for about 30 seconds before turning and running off into the bush, but we sadly never got to see him again, although another guide in the area got a quick glimpse of him before he disappeared back in the direction of the Kruger Park!

Secondly, I failed to accurately record finding three leopard cubs up a tree 200m from camp one evening after Johannes found a female leopard and then spotted the cubs playing in a tree next to him! They were no more than 2.5 to 3 months old, so we didn't spend long watching them at night, but it just proved that you never know what to expect at Motswari.

The last sighting that I didn't even pick up a camera for was one day when we watched the Sohebele pride of lions (all eight of them back then, including the male) kill an impala in front of Karan's Camp, although they cheated! The impala were walking towards the waterhole for a drink when the lions got up and ran at them, and the impalas turned and ran into the fence surrounding the camp! The lions simply walked up and pulled the impala off the fence, although they too got a shock, quite literally! The male, who had simply been lying there watching suddenly jumped into action, and as the seven other pride members were trying to fight for their share, he waited for a gap, then plunged into the feeding frenzy, whacked the others off the carcass and turned around with this impala hanging from his powerful jaws as if it was a nothing! He then sauntered off and went to feed, leaving the rest of the pride licking their lips and thinking about what could have been!

I could go on and on about the things I missed, but let me rather share some things that I did manage to capture. You can click on the images to open them in a larger window. Enjoy!

This is one of my favourite cub shots, and was taken of one of the Sohebele cubs when she was about six months old. She was resting on a termite mound while her sister and four cousins lay below waiting for their mothers to return (which they later did, and took them to a warthog kill). Sadly this was one of the last times that I got to photograph her, as two weeks later she was eaten by a crocodile at Mbali dam!

When I arrived at Motswari, we only used to see one rhino, and that was the Mtenga-tenga, the most relaxed rhino I have ever seen, and he spent most of his time at Elephant dam. This winters afternoon was no different, and I was on drive with one of the other guides, learning the area when we responded to this sighting, and arrived just as the sun was setting. The rhino obliged by kicking up some dust as he marked his territory and created a great mood for the image which remains one of the few decent rhino photographs I managed to snap up!

The King of the Timbavati; the old Sohebele male, and what a lion he was! This was taken one evening at Tamboti Wallow as he lay there roaring the mightiest roar you could wish to hear in order to proclaim his territory. He was an old lion, but with a powerful roar and massive mane, most other lions tended to leave him alone. He was a beauty!

This was an extremely sad sighting to watch; one of the Sohebele lionesses calling in desperation for her cub that had been killed the day before by a crocodile. She would call the soft contact call and then sit and listen, waiting for a reply...a reply that was not forthcoming. Her ears would prick up and eyes light up every time she thought she heard something, but it was never her cub. The other cubs from the pride would come and rub up against her, but it didn't help, her motherly instinct told her to keep searching for her cub, but after a couple of days she accepted that her cub was no longer and moved off. All of this despite the fact that she had watched the cub get taken as it swam across Mbali dam to get to her on the other side. Fortunately/unfortunately I did not witness the cub being eaten, as that would have been too sad, even for me!

I always worried about this boys physical condition, and when we found him one morning a bit battered after he tried to steal a kill from three lions of the then Timbavati pride, my heart sank. His legs were scratched, wounds on his face, and he just stood there, 15m from the other lions staring at them, showing no fear, just a bit of undue respect. Needless to say, he made a full recovery, and just added to his collection of battle scars, but there was some interesting interaction between the three Timbavati lions and the Sohebele pride that pitched up to join the male, and the prides took turns feeding on the buffalo! Perhaps the Timbavati lions, knowing that they were intruding, tolerated the Sohebele pride, and with so much food to go around, all parties got their fair share of the kill!

To see mating leopards in the wild used to be one of the rarest of all sightings, but with the advent of commercial lodges, and the habituation of leopards to our presence, they have let us into their inner private worlds, and we get to see them do things that just thirty years ago where unheard of! When I arrived at Motswari, Mangadjane/Batman was a very busy leopard, and we would see him mating every couple of weeks with the two main leopards in the area, Mbali and Rockfig. It was the first time I had ever seen mating leopards in the wild, and I treasured every occasion, but sadly never got any great shots of the action. Mangadjane obviously did his job right and managed to impregnate Rockfig, while Mbali moved north and mated with the Argyle male. Both females had cubs, and as a result of raising Nkateko and Kuhanya successfully, didn't come into estrus again while Mangadjane was still alive, so this was actually one of the last times that I got to see leopards mating.

Not so much a special sighting as just a wonderful reminder of what a stunning lion the Sohebele male was. He always looked as though he had just come out of the hairdressers!!!

This young male leopard, the Argyle Young Male, was a semi-relaxed individual that frequented the area around the camp. On my very first drive with Petros (my new tracker at that stage), he managed to spot this leopard sitting up a marula tree with a fresh kudu kill! The next morning when I went to go and see him again, he didn't like our presence and wanted to drag his kill higher in the tree, but he lost his grip and dropped it, and promptly went jumping after the carcass; I luckily anticipated his moves and came out with this series of images. A week or so later, while having lunch on the verandah, this same leopard stalked and caught a baby warthog in full view of the guests during lunch!

A dear old friend, Mangadjane. He was one of the most amazing leopards I have ever had the fortune of viewing, and will never be forgotten. He was a Legend!

This is one of my favourite shots of one of my favourite leopards; Nthombi, but this photo is probably more special to me for the memories it evokes of one amazing drive, and one amazing day - 28th June 2008! The morning had been pretty quiet until Elliot called in a double sighting, the eight Sohebele lions had chased Mangadjane male leopard up a marula tree with a kill, and were now sitting underneath and trying to climb the tree to get at the kill while the leopard had climbed to the leafless upper branches and could do nothing more than wait for the lions to move off, but they didn't have any need to do so, so went to sleep underneath the tree!

I made my way to the area, and then heard that while standing-by for the sighting Godfrey had spotted a young male leopard crossing Java airstrip, so he started following him, and then while following that leopard, they came across Rockfig leopardess, so left the male and followed Rockfig. I arrived and carried on following Rockfig until she eventually arrived at a fresh impala kill she had hidden under a bush over a kilometer from all the other action. I then went to see the lions and Mangadjane, but that sighting only got more interesting in the afternoon.

All the guides raced to go and see the lions and leopard in the early afternoon, but i didn't want to be part of that, so went to spend some time with Nthombi leopardess after she had been found by a guide en route to the lions. After some nice time with her and a sundowner, Godfrey called me to tell me that a white rhino had pitched up at his chosen sundowner spot of Hide Dam, so i went and had a look at Mtenga-tenga before going to see the lions and Mangadjane, but they were not alone! Firstly, we spotted Rockfig walking around about 50m away from the marula tree that was playing stage for this extraordinary scene, and then when we arrived at the marula tree, we were surprised to see that there was now a second leopard in the tree with Mangadjane! The second leopard was a young male we called the Machaton male, and he was feeding on the kill while a clearly exhausted Mangadjane just stood biding his time on the other side of the tree, on some uncomfortable and flimsy branches, not being able to go anywhere as the Sohebele pride of lions were all still sitting underneath the tree waiting for scraps, but they slowly left the area and so did we, leaving one tired Mangadjane dying to get his feet back on the terra firma!!!

This has to be my favourite leopard shot, and it is of Nthombi once again as she lay in a marula tree just after sunset, and we used the spotlight to illuminate the scene, and that allowed for the magical blue background!

Okay, so i have several favourite leopard shots, and this is another! Kuhanya was lying on a fallen stump in a drainage line where she and her mother had a duiker kill. The early morning light was just casting its glow on the 10-month old cat, and she obliged by lying there soaking it up.

This was just unlucky! I had been sitting watching an impala herd at Mvubu crossing for a few minutes, but then moved down to the crossing to watch a male elephant drinking at one of the water puddles not 50m away. While watching the elephant, the very impala herd that we had just been watching burst into a chorus of alarms, and I immediately knew that Mbali was around, but when I turned around, I didn't expect to find her lying on top of a large impala ewe, busy applying the final strangle hold around its throat. Within a couple of minutes the impala was dead and Mbali proceeded to drag it into the cover of some sedge in the riverbed, well out of view of the prying eyes of the scavengers.

Not one of my own photos, but one of my absolute highlights of my stay was the short period in which we had this pack of wild dogs, with their 12 puppies, denning in an area not far from the camp. To spend time with these amazing creatures and to watch the playful little pups was something quite unbelievable!

Even in his old age, the Sohebele male proved that he was still up to it when Johannes watched him take down an impala late one evening after the rest of the Sohebele pride had set up the usual, he didn't bother sharing! I returned to see this sighting on my way home in the evening and was rewarded with one of my most powerful images I managed to take during my time there. The intent look in his eyes and the fresh blood on the face tell the story while the darkness of night cloaks his surroundings and makes his stand out.

Difficult subjects to photograph, but I liked this image of one of the first buffalo's in a large herd approaching a waterhole to quench his thirst in the late evening. One thing i always love about winter is the prevalence of the large breeding herds of buffalo around the area, and they always provide for good sightings as they make their way to and from the various waterholes in the dry season.

After missing out on a chance to see Mbali and her two cubs on Christmas day of 2007, we had to wait until early February before we got our next chance, this after Godfrey found the three leopards wandering around near Mangwa Clearing. I was the first to respond, but only had a brief and difficult sighting of them as they criss-crossed a drainage line. After everyone else had been to see them, I returned, and was absolutely amazed to see what only an hour and a half of vehicle exposure had done to Mbali's cubs! Within less than 90 minutes of their first real exposure to vehicles, Kuhanya had learnt not to fear us and was at total ease with our presence, as was Mbali! She didnt mind her cubs being so close to us, as she knew that we were no harm, and i watched in amazement as Kuhanya proceeded to walk underneath the back of Herald's Land Rover!!! What made this so special was that it was also my first time to ever see leopard cubs in the wild! Sadly the other cub died after about 6 months, but Kuhanya made it to maturity.

More of the wild dog pups from August 2008. The day that they were found was unforgettable! I was preparing for a walk and phoned reception for something, and in the background i could hear the radio crackling with the sound of excitment. I asked what the story was and Caroline told me that Morris had just found wild dogs! I told the guests that the walk could wait and we bundled them onto the Land Rover and went in search of the dogs that we were told had tiny pups with them, but we found nothing! We searched on foot but nothing, and I was just about to get up when Johannes spotted one dog in the bush, and as he drove off road he saw the pups running into a termite mound. I was right behind him, and the joy of realising that we had found their den site was almost tangible! I radioed Andrew to tell him and Morris, and could hear them shouting with joy from several hundred meters away!

We worked out a roster to go and view the dogs, so as to not put too much vehicle pressure on them, and the next afternoon as there was only one game drive out, I went and spennt about two hours with the pups at the den while the adults were out hunting. It was just as you would imagine 12 normal puppies to behave; a lot of mischief, curiousity and playing, adn still remains one of my most memorable afternoons in the bush!

Sleeping lions are not just sleeping lions as i found out on the 23rd December 2008! It was a typical hot summers morning, and i arrived at a sighting of the Sohebele pride at about 07h45, and for the last hour and a half they had done nothing, so I didnt expect much to happen, and was quite excited just to see when one of the lionesses got up to go and have a wee! The next thing they all started looking to the east, and out of the bush came two impalas thundering straight towards the pride that were now readying themselves for this; the one impala spotted them and did an instant U-turn but the 3-week old baby didnt have a chance to stop and ran straight through seven sleeping lions, and using all of the energy it could muster, it kept running and running while the lions chased and chased, and miraculously, the little thig got away!

The lions were then standing around watching their meal disappear, and I turned to say "wow, that was amazing" to my guests when I suddenly heard the unmistakable bellow of death right next to the car, and turned around as all seven lions went diving into a feeding frenzy of note! A second unsuspecting impala had ran smack bang into the lions that werent going to make the same mistake twice! Within a minute, these sleeping lions had transformed into fighting felines as they all fought for a mouthful of their meal! The sights and sounds were great (watch a short video clip, but we were not sure what had caused the chaos in the impalas until a pack of 19 wild dogs was found in the area a bit later in the morning! That afternoon we followed the wild dogs on a successful hunt and were with them when they caught a duiker (, so tow kills in one day was something to remember!

This is Nkateko, and it was one of the first times that i got to photograph her properly, based primarily on the fact that she was a very nervous cub, and that was because of her mother's aggressive behaviour during the period when Nkateko was a cub. After Rockfig allowed us to get close to her cub (i.e. when she was comfortable), then our hard work began getting Nkateko relaxed, especially when she was on her own. On this day, when she came and lay 3m from my car door, I realised that she had totally accepted us! What also made this special for me was that I was just on a private drive and could spend as long as I wanted taking photos as they suited me, and it is an afternoon that I wont forget in a hurry!

I get used to having some distracting branch or blade of grass 'ruining' my shots, so I just loved this shot to get a clean, green background for a picture perfect portrait!

Another of my favourite images, one of Nkateko up an apple-leaf tree in the late evening using a spotlight to illuminate her. Her mother, Rockfig, was also in the tree, and the five Sohebele lions were sleeping about 50m away, and to top it all off, a hyena was also walking around the immidiate vicinity! It was also great because I was on a drive with my parents and some good friends from the UK.

Okay, strictly speaking, not a Motswari sighting, but still 'our' leopards! This was on an afternoon off from Motswari when I went to join my family for a drive on Ingwelala and we found Argyle Jnr leopardess and her three cubs walking down the road! We spent about 45 minutes with them and almost saw them catch an impala, but i suspect that mom was leading them back to a kill, as she refused to move off the road, simply running ahead if we got too close. They left the road in a drainage line, but as we couldnt drive off road we had to leave them, but i have no doubt the kill was close by. To see four leopards together was quite a sight!

Another afternoon off, and I went and sat with the seven Sohebele lions not too far from the camp. No other game drives came to see them, so I had the entire afternoon with them, and got a memorable image of a line of lions walking straight towards me, before they walked off into the sunset and settled down again!

Wow, an unforgettable afternoon and sighting, and one of the saddest sightings of my stay at Motswari. The seven Sohebele lions were resting at Argyle dam when a large herd of buffalo approached and came and chased them off; they eventually settled on the dam wall and the buffalos backed off. It was great, and we were trting to get the VIP's that had booked out the entire reserve to get here quickly, as this is exactly the sort of thing they wanted to see.

Peace returned as the buffalos backed off, but it was suddenly shattered when the Three Mahlathini male lions came charging in and attacked the pride! Most of the lions dashed off and ran across the large dam wall at full speed, but the male lions caught up to one of the lionesses at the end end knocked her off, and the next moment we could hear them fighting over 500m away on our airstrip! Sadly one lioness against three strong male lions was not fair odds and she didn't stand a chance. She was killed, and that night marked the beginning of the end of the Sohebele pride. It was a bitter pill to swallow, especially as they two Sohebele lionesses had new born cubs hidden just off our property that were abandoned after the one lioness was killed.

The body of the lioness lay on the airstrip for a couple of days, while the scavengers slowly arrived to clean up; first the vultures descended to peck at the carcass in the afternoon, but as noght fell and they left, the stench of death drew in two leopards to come and feed on the lionesses carcass! I was sitting watching the Mahlathini male lions at a buffalo kill several kilometers to the south, but when I was told about these leopards eating the carcass, I raced over and arrived just in time to find one leopard still feeding on the lionesses body. The young Vyboom Dam male soon disappeared into the darkness and the local hyena clan arrived, and we watched as up to eight hyenas disposed of the rest of the carcass. An special end to a special animal...

No sooner had we got over the death of the one Sohebele lioness when I was at another sighting where for the second time in a month a Sohebele lioness was killed, but this time it was a fight over food. The starving Sohebele pride were walking to all corners of the reserve looking for food and trying to avoid the Mahlathini males, but they simply moved from the pot to the fire and ended up in the heart of the territory patrolled by the Timbavati male lions. These male lions had killed a buffalo, but werent in attendence at the carcass, and the Sohebele lions saw this as a chance to get a free meal, but as it turned out, it want free, and it would cost the pride dearly. As three of the lions fed, one of the Timbavati males charged in and sent them running, but one young male was slow to react adn as he pulled out of the carcass, he was face-to-face with an adversay three times his size, but he held his ground, fought back and managed to get away with his life. His sister, the first to run, was not so lucky, and she ran straight into the riverbed and into the second Timbavati male. The next time I saw her, she was lying motionless. Dead. This pride was being witttled away, one-by-one.

One of the last times I got to see Mbali and Kuhanya together before Kuhanya became an independent lady! It was also a dream setting; golden morning light, a stunning large rock in the Nhlarulumi riverbed, and a dark background. I unfortunately could not get closer, but chose to show some of their surroundings to good effect. We spent almost an hour following these two leopards, and revelled in their antics; they played like they used to when Kuhanya was still a cub - it was magic!

Shongile, what a beauty! This stunning little leopard had been kept up the tree all afternoon by a lone Sohebele lioness that was sleeping 40m away! Eventually night fell and she descended the tree silently, and didnt even draw the attention of the lioness until she found a dead fish and started crunching on that, but luckily she went up another tree and the lioness moved off, allowing Shongile to stretch her legs and move off. I spent over two hours with her this evening and captured this shot as she climbed down the tree, looking at us inquisitively. She was the only one of the four leopards around the camp that became very relaxed with the vehicles, but sadly I didnt see her again in the last few months of my stay at Motswari; she moved deeper into Ingwelala, but i still think she might return to our area when she reaches independence in the near future...

A cheetah and her cub; what more needs to be said about this! Not the best image, but they were in some difficult mopane and didnt let us get too close, but at least I got this shot. The most intruiging thing about this sighting was the fact that the mother cheetah had a radio collar attached to her neck, and no one knows where it came from!!! Sadly we never saw these two again...but you never know when or where the next cheetah will pitch up!

This was my first proper leopard kill that I got to witness right in front of me! Mbali had been standing on a termite mound for several minutes scouting for prey, but found nothing, so was walking down the other side when she suddenly dashed into a bush and we heard the screaming that sounded like a scrub hare! It was only when she came out of the bush we saw that she had caught a young steenbok. The scream attracted a hyena that had been following the leopard earlier, but Mbali cleverly used the termite mound as cover and tricked the hyena, and bought herself a bit of time to take the still-kicking steenbok up a marula tree where she could safely kill it and feed without worry. Its never nice watching an animal get killed, but its always exciting to see the predators at work!

This is one of the most bizarre sightings that many of us had seen! We sat watching a fish eagle making a funny alarm call near its nest one day, but couldnt figure out why? I assumed it was for lions, as there were tracks for the Mahlathini males coming into that area, but we didnt pay much attention, and carried on driving past the fish eagle's nest, and then my tracker said "Ingwe!". I turned to look up and this is what i saw, an "ingwe" (local word for leopard) sitting in the fish eagle's nest! It was Shongile, and she had climbed into the nest and killed both the chick and the mother eagle, and had then fallen asleep in the large nest! None of the guides or land owners had seen anything like this before! She spent the whole day in the nest, descending only late in the afternoon after she had finished eating the adult eagle.

Not many people like hyenas, but a short time spent with them at a den site will change your view on them. This is a tender moment between mother and cub, and one of my favourite wild life shots, despite not being technically perfect; sometimes in photography its more about the moment than the technical side of things!

This was another sighting of our Rockfig hyena clan that amazed me. We followed this female hyena dragging the awkward load of a half-eaten impala for over 2km back to the den site. Sadly one of the cubs had died the day before, and the other bigger cub was not in a good way, but this hyena, despite not being the mother of the sickly cub, went to a great effort to bring the kill to the den, dropped it on the dead cub, and then called the remaining youngster out to feed, and stood guard as it struggled to get a meal, even keeping the matriarch hyena and her cubs at bay! It was a sighting that will live with me for long time (and quite a good drive too; Timbavati male lions on a giraffe kill, Mahlathini males on a buffalo kill, and an hour spent with Rockfig Jnr leopardess as she stalked to within 5m of a steenbok but missed the kill!).

Well, its a White Lion. Enough said!!! While it currently seems that we are going to be seeing a lot more of this pride of lions and their two white cubs, it was an experince that words cant adequately describe to see these amazing cats in the wild. Admittedly, my first sighting of them was dissappointing, but that was because they were dirty and full of mud and blood. When they suddenly pitched up for the second time a week later, they were white, just as I had imagined! The fact that they obliged by killing a large warthog while I was following them might have helped make me biased towards them, but they are just so special. My last sighting of them was when I found them thanks to the hyenas at the den site! The lions had killed a baby giraffe, and we would not have found them had the hyena not reacted the way it did when it heard the lions! I sincerely hope that I do get to see these lions again on future visits to Motswari; their arrival was almost enough to make me stay for another year!!!

And last, but by no means least, one of my best sightings at Motswari was the hour and a half that I spent watching Nkateko play with this new born impala. Some one asked me if it had a happy ending. It did, but only for the leopard. It was a sighting I had always wanted to see, and while it is not for the soft-hearted, it was a display of the reality of nature at its best, and I am just grateful that I could capture some of what I witnessed on film to live on with me forever...

And that is that! I hope you enjoy these stories and images. It brought back some great memories, and appreciation for some of the magical things that I witnessed during my time at Motswari, and it is going to be these memories that will make me wish I never left, but also allow me to cherish the time that I did have in the Timbavati; a truely special place!

I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas, and may you all have a prosperous New Year too!


Chad Cocking


  1. A W E S O M E!
    Chad, these are such special memories - thanks for sharing
    All the best for 2010 and your future studies.
    I'll miss your photos here

  2. Hi Chad
    Great memories! Thanks a lot for all the help through the year and really going to miss your blog!
    Hope to see you on ODP.
    Thanks and greetings

  3. will miss you and your blog ! all the very best for your future !

  4. Hi Chad,
    Amazing Memories, Amazing Pictures, well miss your passion for the animals and the breathtaking photos of the animals weve grown to love. All the very best for your future. And for the future of the Blog whomever steps in your shoes...
    Kindest Wishes,
    Karen and Les...

  5. I have been reading your blog since last August and enjoyed it tremendously. My husband, who does not read blogs, did read yours too. I am sorry that you have to go but at the same time I am happy for you to move on with your career. You provided us with hours of reading pleasure. Your photographs are some of the most beautiful I have ever seen. Good luck in your new endeavors.

  6. thank you all very much for the kind words and well wishes! i am so happy to hear that there are people out there that could share in my passion through this blog and that i had an outlet to share all my magic experiences and some of my photos.

    only been in joburg for a month, but missing the bush already!

    grant is on leave at the moment, but hopefully when he returns next week he will have a chance to start blogging and share in the happenings of this wonderful place!

    take care

    Chad Cocking