Written by: Alan Smith from www.footprintsinthedust.me
It is impossible to summarise what it’s like to stay at Cheetah Plains in just a few words and pictures, so I will describe a few of the fantastic sightings of animal behaviour we had in just one day out in the bush.
After our safety briefing, Andrew Khosa, our guide, asked what we’d like to see. “Anything,” we replied, explaining that we enjoyed observing the behaviour of animals and birds, and preferred to spend time at each sighting, rather than rushing on and trying to “collect” as many species as possible. “Oh, some cheetahs would be nice too!” we added. Andrew smiled and said that he would see what he could find.
As we drove around, Andrew was constantly on the radio, talking to other guides and finding out what was happening elsewhere. We stopped to photograph a trio of southern yellow-billed hornbills. Although the birds appeared to be the same size, their behaviour indicated that this was a pair with a juvenile offspring.
A little further on we stopped to observe a lilac-breasted roller with an insect in its beak. Bird photography continued as Andrew pointed out, first, a male black-bellied korhaan and then the female. Unlike the roller, whose call is very harsh for such a beautiful bird, these birds have an attractive, penetrating call.
Andrew took us to the site of a kudu kill. As we approached we could see two vultures at the head end and a couple of juvenile hyenas at the other. The vultures took flight on our arrival, leaving both ends to the hyenas.
While we watched and listened to the hyenas crunching through the bones of the unfortunate antelope, Andrew was in conversation with Ephraim in the other Cheetah Plains vehicle. He told us that our fellow guests were with two cheetahs that had moved into the reserve the previous evening from the Kruger National Park. Now we knew why Andrew had smiled at our wish to see these tear-stained felids.
The Sabi Sand has a strict limit on the number of vehicles that can attend any sighting and Andrew had quietly been waiting his turn but, knowing that the animals could choose to return to the Kruger or move into Mala Mala, both of which are out of bounds to Cheetah Plains drivers, he hadn’t told us what he was hoping to show us.
We spent some time with the brothers, watching as they walked, stretched, rubbed against each other and finally lay down together. All too soon, the time came when we had to move on and let the next group enjoy the sighting.
A leopard had been sighted up a tree and, as Andrew radioed in his request to join the queue, we headed slowly over towards the sighting. En route, we surprised both ourselves and an elephant that was hidden behind a termite mound. It was a big mound!
The elephant had a floppy left ear due, Andrew thought, to an injury sustained when it was young. It also had a broken right tusk. We learnt that elephants are right or left handed, like humans, and will have a tusk that they prefer to use for digging, often resulting in damage on that side.
Our turn had come and we pressed on to see the leopard, or rather we tried to but had to pause while a herd of elephants, including a tiny baby, crossed the road in front of us. Once the way was clear, we sped on but were both disappointed, to find that the three-year-old male leopard had descended, and excited, to see that he was walking towards us. Unfortunately he crossed the road and disappeared into thick bush.
Abandoning his attempts to follow the male, Andrew returned to the herd of elephants that were now blocking our route once again. We laughed as we watched one juvenile elephant try to walk over the top of another one that was wallowing in a small waterhole.
The other elephant responded by trying to kick the first one in the face. Given the weight of an elephant’s leg, this action was carried out in slow motion and looked more balletic than aggressive.
While this was going on, Andrew heard that the leopard had emerged from the bush and could be seen once again. As we found Quarantine, it was obvious that he was planning to climb another tree.
Once he was up, we could see that the leopard was using the tree to help him spot his next meal. Andrew manoeuvred the vehicle so that we were almost directly beneath him.
For the briefest of moments, Quarantine looked directly into my eyes. I realised that, had he wanted to, he could easily have dropped into the Land Cruiser and satisfied his hunger. It is amazing to realise that the relationship between top predators, like this, and game vehicles is such that the thought never even entered his head (at least, as far as I could tell).
As we returned to the camp, Andrew apologised that we had missed our morning tea break. We told him that we didn’t care, we had had an amazing morning!
Nothing, however, will top the experience we had on our last night. Andrew had heard that five lionesses were heading towards territory that he was permitted to cover. It was already dark when he parked on the boundary road to wait for them to appear. At first we could hear the sound of a vehicle engine and then we could see the light from a spotlight illuminating the tops of bushes.
Finally, silhouetted in the lights, we caught our first sight of the five lionesses that make up the Nkuhuma Pride.
The other vehicle turned away as the pride left their territory and we took over the escort duties. Andrew suspected that they were interested in a herd of impala that were grazing nearby, close to Sydney’s Dam, so he drove past the pride, parked on the far side of the impala and turned off his lights (so that he would give neither predator nor prey an advantage in the ensuing action).
The moon had yet to rise and our eyes struggled to adjust to the starlight. We could hear the impala chomping on the grass and then the sound of hooves moving at speed and then … silence.
As Andrew was saying that he thought the lions had blown it, we caught sight of a female impala racing towards us with a lioness close behind. The cat stumbled on the uneven ground and it looked as though the impala would live to graze another day. Just then, two lions rushed in from our right. It was a perfect ambush. The impala died almost instantaneously, emitting a brief squeak with her final breath.
As the pride ravenously tore into their meal, we were surrounded by the most incredible noise that I have ever heard. Hyenas were whooping and shrieking and calling at the most penetrating volume. We could only count seven of them but it sounded like there were many, many more. If the cries were intended to intimidate the lions off the kill, they didn’t work. The pride tore into the impala with even more urgency. Only when the hyenas crossed some invisible boundary did one of the lions break off and chase them away. We all agreed, over the sound of our pounding hearts, that we had never experienced anything like this before.
Thank you to Andrew and the staff at Cheetah Plains for giving us such an amazing experience. We will most definitely be back!