The Sabi Sands area has long been a favorite of ours for a rewarding safari experience. The reserve stretches along the edge of the Greater Kruger National Park and is teeming with wildlife. Because the animals move freely between the reserve and Kruger, this is the perfect place to see the Big Five – lion, leopard, cape buffalo, elephant, rhinoceros and, with a little luck, the Super Seven – adding cheetah and wild dogs. Our home for this trip is one of the National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World, Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge, beautifully situated within 15,000 acres (6,000 hectares) of exclusive conservation land. The winter dry season is especially rewarding for safari in this region as foliage becomes less abundant and animals tend to be more concentrated around waterholes. Plus, the lions look even more impressive against the golden backdrop of the bush.
Game drives at Sabi Sabi are in open air vehicles, allowing guests to fully enjoy the sights and sounds of the bush. We are often asked about the safety of these vehicles around wild animals. We have been inches away from lions, leopard and cheetah as they walked by our vehicles without giving us a second thought. The vehicles don’t compete for their food source and are not considered a threat. As long as you obey the rules—stay inside the vehicle and respectfully observe the bush, and don’t do other things like standing or making noise to draw attention to yourself, this is a safe way to get up close and personal with the wildlife.
There are over 300 bird species in the Sabi Sands area, making it a superb birding destination. Our ranger was able to identify virtually any bird in the area by sight or sound and always had his bird book handy to give us a closer look and additional information. We enjoyed the colorful plumage of the lilac-breasted roller. They are usually found perched in trees and on branches looking to spot insects, lizards, rodents and other small prey. I put together this composite image to show the beautiful colors both sitting and flying.
A male cheetah was spotted one morning resting near a termite mound and several vehicles had stopped to view him and take pictures. We joined the sighting just as the other vehicles were leaving for breakfast. As we enjoyed the viewing, our ranger told us that cheetah have a hunting success rate of about 50%. Unfortunately, they also have about a 50% chance of losing their kill to a competing predator. That is why a cheetah will often be seen quickly gulping down its food. About 10 minutes after we arrived, the cheetah got up and started to walk. We followed him through open areas and thick brush, up and down hills and over rocky terrain for about 3 hours. As he moved through the territory, he climbed on trees, rocks and termite mounds looking for predators and prey and offering up great photographic opportunities. By the time he sat down to rest again, we had covered over 12km and had dozens of great photos.
The typical safari schedule at a private game reserve is: wake up with the sunrise, enjoy coffee or tea and a light snack, head out on game drive, return to the lodge later in the morning for a hot breakfast and relax for several hours, head back out on game drive in the afternoon after lunch, have a sundowner drink while out in the bush, and return to the lodge as it gets dark for dinner. Each traveler has their preferences, and we prefer to spend the entire day in the bush and usually head out earlier and return later than most vehicles. Since we usually don’t make it back for breakfast or lunch, we make arrangements with the lodge to pack something delicious to go. However, missing a meal at Earth Lodge is a difficult decision because they pride themselves on a premier culinary experience, and they truly do not disappoint. On a slow game day we made it back to the lodge for lunch and had some of the best oxtail stew I have ever tasted. We intended to have lunch the next day, but got caught up in an extended sighting with a male cheetah. Our ranger radioed the lodge and, much to our surprise, they set up this picnic for us in the bush. We spent an hour on the rocks enjoying a great meal listening to our tracker, Petro’s, life story. It was the perfect safari experience.
Predators are so prolific in the Sabi Sands area because of the abundance of prey. Game drives will take you past dazzles of zebra and herds of impala, kudu and wildebeest. We spent part of an afternoon in an open area watching these groups graze and interact. I’ve always liked the unique coloring of the greater kudu. Their large ears are very sensitive to noise, helping them stay aware of predators. When they sense danger, they will stand perfectly still and attempt to blend into the background.
There are many dedicated people behind the scenes at a lodge who work together to provide their guests with a great safari experience. We want to thank all of the staff at Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge who made our stay such an enjoyable one.
Our tracker sighted this male lion and his brother before sunrise. We stayed with them as the morning sun illuminated their eyes and the bush began to wake up with sights and sounds. After an hour of great light, we moved on and other vehicles pulled in to enjoy the majesty of these lions. The rest of the day was an epic safari experience, with sightings of all of the Big 5 and a stunning and unexpected drive along with a wandering cheetah. At the end of the day, we returned to the location of the lions to find that they had remained in the same spot all day.
There are over 300 bird species in the Sabi Sands area, making it a superb birding destination. Our ranger was able to identify virtually any bird in the area by sight or sound and always had his bird book handy to give us a closer look and additional information. We enjoyed the colorful plumage of the lilac-breasted roller. They are usually found perched in trees and on branches looking to spot insects, lizards, rodents and other small prey.
The predators are so prolific in the Sabi Sands area because of the abundance of prey. Game drives will take you past dazzles of zebra and herds of impala, kudu and wildebeest. We spent part of an afternoon in an open area watching these groups graze and interact. As we observed a young zebra, our guide told us that zebra foals are able to stand and walk shortly after birth, an important skill given all of the predators around. Since there was so much movement in the area, we took some shots using a slow shutter speed, moving the camera with the animals and blurring the background.
Our day was one of those epic safari experiences, with sightings of all of the Big 5 and a stunning and unexpected drive along with a wandering cheetah. At the end of the day, we returned to the location of the lions to find that they had remained in the same spot all day. We took the opportunity for some night photography before heading back to the lodge for a truly extraordinary dinner. Only a lion can look this fierce while yawning.
One would think that if there is an elephant nearby, surely you would be able to see it. When you see them standing right next to your vehicle, you realize they put the “big” in Big 5. They make thunderous noise when breaking tree branches in their search for food. But there were also times when we would see an elephant walk into the bush and completely disappear—though we knew they were just meters away, we could no longer see or hear them. This large elephant was just off of the road, standing in a creek bed when we drove by. We needed to backtrack to get a quick view before he moved into the thick brush.
The sundowner is a tradition that dates back to classic safaris in the early 20th century when elegant cocktails were served as the African sky transitioned from day to night. Each evening we’d find a perfect spot, get out of the vehicle, stretch our legs and enjoy a nice glass of wine while watching the sun drop below the horizon. Sometimes, nature has a way of changing plans. On this night, we stopped to watch a giraffe chewing on some leaves as the sun was getting lower in the sky. The changing light provided a great backdrop for a silhouette of this gentle giant.
Of all of the Big 5, the rhinoceros is the most endangered. We were very happy to see a healthy population of white rhino around Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge including several young calves. These young rhino will probably never meet their fathers, but will stay with their mothers for several years until they are ready to go out on their own. The active anti-poaching efforts in this area were impressive. As you sit beside these magnificent creatures, it is incomprehensible that people are still killing them for their horns.
While they may look sedate, the cape buffalo is considered one of the most dangerous animals in the bush, earning its inclusion into the Big 5. When attacked, the buffalo will often gather in mobs and become aggressive rather than defensive. Large herds of buffalo are often accompanied by the red-billed oxpecker. This bird spends most of its life on hosts like the buffalo. In addition to feeding on insects, scar tissue and even dandruff of the buffalo, they are protected from predators while in the relative safety of the large animals. While predators have been known to be alerted to a herd of buffalo by hearing the sounds of oxpeckers, the birds also act as watchmen, giving a rattling alarm call as predators approach. The oxpecker in this image was quite chatty, even with no predators in the area.
Leopards are solitary animals, except when they are mating or with offspring, making them much more difficult to find in the bush. Trackers will search for any trace of animals, including tracks, scat, drag marks—and will also listen for audible clues. Often, it is the alarm calls of squirrels or monkeys that will lead you in the direction of the big cat. Our tracker helped us find this young male leopard early in the morning and we were able to ride along as he cruised through his territory, scent marking rocks and trees along the way. When stalking prey, the leopard’s back foot will land on the print of its front, a process called registering. We would see this leopard in stalking mode later on, but for now he looked simply majestic among the foliage.
The safari experience in private concessions like Sabi Sabi is enhanced by the skilled rangers and trackers who guide each drive. Our tracker Petro sat in his seat out in front of the vehicle constantly scanning for signs of wildlife. He could spot things in the distance that we could barely see in our binoculars. On several occasions, he would motion to stop the vehicle to get out and examine an animal track on the road. He could instantly tell you what type of animal it was, where it was heading and how long ago it passed through. The art of tracking and following an animal is both mystical and fascinating to experience– sights, sounds and smells allow the expert tracker to locate a solitary leopard in a vast wilderness. We initially found this leopard after following tracks that lead us into thick brush at the side of a riverbed--and then headed towards the alarm calls of vervet monkeys about 50 meters away.
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