We often have guests who come to Cheetah Plains to view the prolific game, but for most people this trip is a one-off bucket list experience. However, occasionally we have guests who become part of the family, visiting multiple times and getting to know the animals as well as the staff. One such family is Craig, Tracey and Mika Neil.
They visit annually and are well versed in the bush, with Mika even having aspirations to become a field guide in the future. Being frequent visitors, they have seen most of the large carnivores that inhabit the Sabi Sand Game Reserve, but wild dogs have eluded them time and time again. And sadly this trip was no exception. But all was not lost because Mika was able to tick one thing off the top of her wish list, which was to see a leopard ascending a tree.
Craig Nell recounts the experience:
“This was not our first visit so we knew what to expect, but we still had a wish list of sightings not yet seen. Cheetah were on this list, and seeing a leopard up a tree was a high priority for our daughter. Xivula teased us for two days with an impala kill but kept her feet firmly on the ground. Finally in the late evening she raised her kill up a tree to avoid the unwanted attention of a waiting hyena. Unfortunately she lost this to the older leopard, Karula who we also found up a large jackalberry tree!
Over the course of our stay, the lions were ever present on the safaris, and the Matimbas, Styx, Breakaway Styx, Torchwood and Nkuhuma prides were all spotted.
We saw the Torchwood pride just miss a buffalo hunt, but we were incredibly fortunate to be able to witness their communication and tactics while sitting in the darkness. There were tense moments as we sat in silence to listen to the action – the soft calling of the lions to each other, the snort and stamp of alert buffalo, a growl, a rustle of branches. The minutes stretched with anticipation, and the occasional flick of the spotlight on the hunters showed a totally different side to the sleeping lions that we had watched less than an hour before. With a rumble of hooves it was over; the buffalos disappeared and the pride remained hungry.
Their purpose and strength as we watched them reform as a group and head to rest before their next attempt was fascinating.
Later on we located two of the Styx male lions sleeping off a meal before moving down to a riverbed to wait out the heat of the day. One of them has the funkiest mane any of us have seen – he must have a personal stylist.
The next day, lion calls filled the bush and we saw two of the Styx pride moving quickly through the scrub. The two Matimba males then came into sight, covered in blood and strutting their stuff. Their calls were guttural and constant, as was their marking of everything stationary in their territory. We had just missed a significant contact between males of the different prides – and the Matimbas definitely came out on top.
Following them was exhilarating; the sounds were visceral, their power unquestionable and it is the most intense and moving experience we have had in the bush. Not a single animal in the area was in any doubt as to whose land they were on. And that included us. It is suspected that the two Styx males we saw were on the other side of the fight, and we wondered if the pretty boy we had seen the day before would still be so pretty or even if he will be seen again.
Being a breakaway from the Styx pride was good for the two lionesses and the three cubs as they are now under the protection of the Matimbas. When we saw them in a riverbed the following day, the cubs put on a great show.
Running through the sand, chasing tails, mewling and play fighting with each other, it was a graphic contrast to the previous day’s events and what their future will hold as adults.
We then came across the Nkuhuma pride after they had drunk their fill at a dam and were walking back to rest and digest their recent kill. With bellies bulging they were in no mood to move again and so they settled down for a quiet day.”
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