At Long Last

To say that I haven’t had the best luck with cheetah viewing during my fifteen years in the Timbavati would be a slight understatement. To be fair, the northern part of the reserve where I spent the first decade of my guiding career is not favorable cheetah habitat by any stretch of the imagination (I had been guiding for a year before I saw my first cheetahs, and that involved me taking a long drive down to Tanda Tula Safari Camp to see them). Annoyingly, when I took a year off to go back to Johannesburg to study, a group of three young female cheetahs moved into that area and were seen regularly for several months, but it goes without saying that when I returned at the end of 2010, these three sisters disappeared. For the next few years, I was lucky to get one cheetah sighting a year, but I constantly heard from friends about the more regular cheetah sightings down the southern sections around Tanda Tula. Fast forward to the end of 2018 when I joined the Tanda Tula family, and I was not only excited to explore some new areas, but also to have better luck with my cheetah sightings.

It took almost five months until I heard the radio call that I had been waiting for; “stations, I have located three xinkankana on Shortcut Rd east of Tanda Tula Safari Camp…”, I was miles away, but it wasn’t going to stop me from responding, but my eagerness to respond was soon cut short when the original message was followed by “…but unfortunately they look quite skittish”. I got a brief glimpse of the mother and her two subadult offspring as they moved into some dense bush, but due to their nature, we didn’t follow them off-road. The next morning I got my guests up a little earlier and headed straight to the open areas east of Tanda Tula and found the trio lying in the middle of one of the open areas, but even at some distance the family got up and moved off, and we left them to it, never to be seen again. They were sadly the first of several skittish cheetahs that passed through the area and despite there being more reported sightings than I had experienced in the north, it didn’t help if we couldn’t spend time with the cats. It was a year and one month later – so about the same long, drawn-out intervals as I had experienced in the north – until I heard the word “xinkankanka” (the Xitsonga word for cheetah) on the radio again. This time it was once again in the open areas on Tanda Tula’s eastern sections, and for a change, this time it was a sighting of two very relaxed brothers. Despite their territorial scent marking, the duo didn’t show up in our area for another ten months later (well, they may have visited, but we only got to see them again ten months later). In an eery contrast to their previous visit that had guides popping in to see them from all quarters of the central Timbavati, this time not a single individual responded to our radio call…the reason being we were in the middle of a pandemic, and there wasn’t another human sole anywhere near us. As it turned out, I probably had more cheetah sightings during the first year of the pandemic than I did during my previous thirteen years of guiding in the Timbavati, with not only the two brothers being somewhat regular visitors, but we also had at least eight other cheetahs come through in the year that followed that first covid sighting. My cheetah luck was beginning to change, but the one thing that had eluded me was getting to watch the world’s fastest land mammal in action.

A couple of weeks ago I was driving with some guests that had wanted to see cheetahs when I heard a radio call that these two brothers had been found in one of the open areas of Tanda Tula Safari Camp again. I was in the far west close to Plains Camp, but decided that the trip would be worth it to these elusive cats (they estimate that there are only around 200-250 cheetahs in the Great Kruger Park system); as usual, there was a load of interest from all the guides on the drive, so we bided our time and got into the sighting last. This is not usually a good idea with cats late in the morning when most opt to head off to the land of nod. Fortunately, cheetahs are the most diurnal of the cats, and with the cloudy conditions, I was hoping that we would get to see them somewhat active.

Arriving in the area, my guests were delighted as we got closer and realized that the spotted cats were not leopards, but rather their more slender cousins; it was the exaggerated slenderness of the empty bellies of the brothers that gave them the motivation to be extra active in the still cool conditions of the late morning. After following the pair for some time, our time was coming to begin the long trek home, and I told the guests that we would follow them to the next road and then leave the duo in peace. As we approached the road and were about to drive off, a small family of warthogs popped up just ahead of us. The two cheetahs paused to scan their environment, but it still took a couple of minutes before they spotted the sounder. Usually, warthogs would be too large a target for a cheetah, but as there were a handful of young warthogs in the group, the cheetahs’ interest was piqued and they quickly locked onto the targets and began their version of a stalk. Whilst leopards crouch low and edge as close to their quarry as they can, with the advantage of lightning speed, cheetahs can afford to be a little less delicate in their approach, and simply walk a little slower with their heads lowered, pausing whenever the prey glances in their direction.

When the cheetahs got to within 40m of the warthogs without being seen, the two brothers began trotting towards the hogs at a surprisingly slow pace; they covered a bit of ground before the warthogs realized what was happening and turned and dashed off. Despite their prey fleeing, the cheetahs didn’t suddenly burst forth at full speed but carried on trotting in the direction that the pigs had scurried, and out of view. I thought they had failed, but not wanting to disturb the scene, remained motionless and sat and listened. The next moment the pigs ran through a small gap ahead, and a split second later we saw the blur of spots as the cheetahs sprinted after the warthogs at full speed and we all then knew the chase was on. As much as I wanted to race forward, I knew it could affect the outcome of the hunt, so we all sat with bated breath and waited. There was one more glimpse of the cheetahs before we heard the sound that Glen and I had been waiting for – a muffled squeal with that we knew that they had caught one and immediately drove in the direction of the sound and arrived to find….nothing. We looked around where we heard the sound coming from, but there wasn’t a sign of a warthog or a cheetah, and pointing out a laughing dove was not going to be any consolation. Just as I was starting to doubt what we had heard, a hyena came sprinting into the area. She had heard the sound, and she knew there was some pork on the menu…but where was brunch being served?

After pausing for a brief moment, the hyena shot off in the direction that we had just come from, and although it was not where we thought we had heard the squeal coming from, I realized that I would rather trust the hyena’s senses than my own, so swung the Cruiser around and followed her a short distance to where we soon spotted the cheetahs and their prize. Rather than simply running away at the approach of the hyena, the hungry cats hung onto their warthog whilst the hyena stood around analyzing the situation. Realizing that the cheetahs weren’t going to give up their meal, the hyena decided to invite herself to join the feast and walked up and grabbed a piece of the pig.

With that, the warthog started squealing again – the small jaws of the cheetah had been slow in suffocating the life out of the unfortunate animal. Mercifully, the powerful jaws of the hyena quickly ended what the cheetahs had started, and with the warthog dispatched, the hyena wasted no time in guzzling down the meal from one end while the cheetahs occupied themselves on the other end. It was an incredible scene to witness, and the contrast in approach to these two predators’ feeding habits became immediately apparent; the cheetahs ate quickly on the soft flesh of the rump, but the hyena crunched through anything it could fit in its mouth and the hyenas half of the meal began disappearing in front of our eyes.

It took only a few minutes before the hyena had eaten all it could on its side of her kill and all parties in attendance knew that it wouldn’t be long before the hyena’s tolerance to share the kill was about to come to an end, and when it did the large scavenger simply lunged at the cheetahs and it sent the two cheetahs scampering to safety a few meters away. The hungrier of the brothers made one futile attempt to get back into a feeding position on the carcass but the hyena was having none of it, and a little while later the two brothers moved off a short distance to go and groom themselves and reflect on yet another meal stolen by a pesky hyena. Sadly for the lowest ranking of the big predators, losing kills to hyenas is a way of life and all the brothers could do was rest up before trying their luck on some other unsuspecting prey.

My guests and I were so delighted with what we had just witnessed that we didn’t even notice how late in the morning it was and decided to make our way back to camp for a somewhat delayed breakfast. I cannot confirm for sure, but I do have a suspicion that there might not have been too much bacon ordered by the guests upon their return.

Luckily these two cheetahs continue to pop into our concession on a somewhat regular basis, and I hope that if they continue to move around the area, I won’t have to wait another fifteen years to see my next cheetah kill.

Until next time..