I am starting to realise that the frequency of such magical weeks of game viewing is about once every nine years for me. Before you start thinking that this means our game viewing is erratic, the magic factor comes in when the bush (and in this case Jack, our master tracker) deliver exactly what the guests are looking for. And, before you start also thinking that we don’t always deliver what is requested, one has to bear in mind that my guests this week had a stupidly impossible wish list for their visit to the Timbavati.
With our guests being almost exclusively South African at the moment and as a result, generally quite experienced safari-goers, the requests to see uniquely African animals like zebras, giraffes, hippos and the Big 5 are not as frequent as they are for first-time visitors. As guides, we now get asked to find honey badgers, porcupines and other (near) impossible species like serval, pangolin and aardvark. The list for my guests this week was one of those – cheetah, wild dogs, aardvark, pangolin and caracal. Phew! By the end of the week, according to my university standards, Jack and I had achieved a distinction and shown the guests 80 percent of their “requested” animals! We have two days to complete the list, but you will have to check back next week to see if we managed to do it…
The week started off on a good foot. After the first drive, we had ticked off sightings of buffalo bulls, elephants, rhinos and six members of the Giraffe Pride of lions. Having travelled to the western parts of the concession for fear that the River Pride could go walk about again, we needn’t have worried, as Ginger found them whilst we were with the Giraffe Pride. Then, the next morning, we helped track the pride and found all of them together in the east; two pairs of lions were busy mating and the others were resting off their fat-bellies. That evening, they serenaded us with their roars, and the pride remained in the area for much of the rest of the week as the honeymooners continued their business, which provided some great viewing. Later in the week, the trackers found the Giraffe Pride again, in our western sector this time.
After the lions, we heard that Thumbela leopardess had been found north of her den site, and we spent some time with her as she walked around scent-marking her territory. That evening she was found returning to the den but after that, all signs remained elusive. Our next leopard sighting came while we were enjoying the first of the “requested” species: the cheetah. Our trackers had picked up on two male cheetahs again in the south-east. Jack had actually found them the week before, but we didn’t have any guests that morning to enjoy them. This time, however, we managed to get there as the pair got active. As they were walking, they froze close to where an eagle was lying dead in the grass, plucked feathers littering the surrounds. The cheetahs looked intently ahead but we could see nothing and only heard an unidentified sound. The origins of the sounds soon became known as a leopard charged out and picked up its prize (we still have no idea how it caught the African hawk eagle) and walked off, leaving us all in awe of the brief moment of interaction. As much as I wanted to follow the leopard to see which female it was, we decided to follow the cheetahs so that we could help the other guides and guests enjoy these rare, endangered predators.
Following on from a wonderful sighting of some 200 buffalo grazing in an open area, flush with a short green growth of new grass, the only member of the Big 7 missing for my guests were wild dogs and it became our mission for their last morning drive. Having heard reports of a pack moving into the north-western corner of our concession the night before, we headed off in that direction first thing for a check of our access road – always a favourite location for the dogs. Whilst checking the road, another guide picked up on one wild dog running around not far from where we were. It was a very on and off sighting, so we pulled out of the area for a while until things settled down. Then, by the time we got back, our one dog had multiplied into 32 wild dogs! It was our big pack with their ten pups and they fortunately moved from the Klaserie boundary deeper into the Timbavati. It was the chance of seeing this pack of wild dogs again that led my guests to extend their stay by a further five nights – and they weren’t disappointed. We got to spend the next three drives watching not only the pack of 32, but also our smaller pack of 13 dogs who were only a couple of kilometres away. However, the big pack was always going to provide for some excellent viewing and we enjoyed watching them feeding and keeping more than a dozen hyenas away from their two impala kills (a single dog had killed a third impala up the road, but he wasn’t able to keep the bigger scavengers at bay and lost out).
With some great viewing already in the bag, it was time to find the remaining requests: aardvark or pangolin. On a quieter, windy morning Jack pointed out some aardvark tracks, but he wasn’t too excited as they had been disturbed by the wind. Moving a little further down the road, Jack turned around with a smile as there were fresh aardvark tracks in the road! He immediately knew that this meant the burrow was close by. Jack went off tracking whilst we had coffee and he soon returned to say that he had found the burrow and we should come back after dark. Armed with snacks and a desire to sit it out, we parked near the burrow and waited. A herd of elephants kept us company until a pair of enormous, bright white ears appeared in the thermal scope as I kept it focused on the hole. And soon enough, one of the oddest mammals on the planet was standing out in the open having awoken from his day’s sleep! The aardvark went back into the burrow, but knowing he was there and would come out again, we waited as the herd of elephants fed past us in the pale moonlight. Eventually, the aardvark reappeared and gave us a considerably better sighting than I had hoped for. He wasn’t too nervous, but after some wandering around, he kept returning to the burrow. We decided to leave him to it and drove off with some enormous smiles and life-long memories for not only our guests, but also for Jack who has only seen these shy and secretive ant-eating mammals a couple of times in his three decades in the bush. A magical treat indeed!
Unbelievably, the week was not yet done, and the final afternoon saw some new guests joining our drive after one of our existing guests had convinced his sister and her husband to come and visit Tanda Tula Safari Camp for the weekend. Keen to see the large pack of dogs again, we headed to the south west to where we had tracked them down in the morning. When we arrived, we were treated to an incredible sighting of the dogs on another impala kill as a clan of hyenas harassed and eventually managed to steal the spoils from them. The wild dogs retaliated and in order to avoid their biting teeth, the hyenas sought refuge next to our vehicle – talk about having a front row seat to the action. But even that wasn’t the highlight of the drive! After a drink, we were heading home and what should walk onto the road in front of us? A freaking pangolin! Yes, the world’s most trafficked animal, the holy grail for many safari-goers, and the second-last animal on the wish list…a pangolin. To say I was speechless at this literally unfathomable run of good fortune, would be the biggest understatement of my life. One set of guests, Big 5, cheetah, wild dog, aardvark and pangolin. There cannot be many people in the world that have been spoilt quite like that in a single week’s safari? I might just need to ask these guests to buy me some lottery tickets this week, too, as I think the chances of winning are higher than ever. Truly Tanda Tula Magic.
Now I have my fingers crossed that a caracal makes a surprise appearance over the early part of next week… the way things have been going, I wouldn’t put it past Mother Nature to surprise us with another special sighting!
Until next time, take care.
PS For video footage of our incredible pangolin and aardvark sightings (and for proof that it really happened!), please visit our Instagramchannel.