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Tswalu Kalahari and Phinda: August/September 2015


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@@Alexander33 - Your report brings back memories from 2006 when we visited Phinda - my fondest memory from that visit, is when we did a drive with the Leopard research team and tracking Leopard at night in absolutely freezing conditions......

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At last, the encounter we were all waiting for! Very interesting behaviour, and very well photographed.


As each off-road foray does some damage to the environment, I assume they are merely limiting this damage by excluding off-roading in certain situations?

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Love the Rhino scene, how unusual. I asked in Solio if the two species would ever interact, and was also told there - no, never. You captured something very special. :) Phinda looks great, wonderful cat sightings, and well done on Duiker and Suni, not easy to get good shots of these, and yours are excellent. I know that feeling when guide and tracker wander off, had that in Kwara, and was starting to wonder about how to drive this monster of a jeep offroad. :)

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Your report brings back memories from 2006 when we visited Phinda - my fondest memory from that visit, is when we did a drive with the Leopard research team and tracking Leopard at night in absolutely freezing conditions......




I can well see how that would be a lasting memory. What a wonderful opportunity. The dense vegetation there would make that quite a challenge!


On the subject of leopards at Phinda: On one drive, we went to see if we could find a female leopard with an impala kill, which had been reported earlier that morning. We had to off-road through very dense brush. We didn’t find the leopardess, but we did find the impala kill – still fairly fresh and on the ground.


I mentioned to our guide that I found it unusual for a leopard to leave its kill on the ground, as those we had seen before had all been stashed in trees. He replied that at Phinda, the leopards typically do not feel a need to drag their kills up into trees, because there is not a high density of competing predators there. I found this curious, as we did see both spotted hyena and side-striped jackal, although not in great numbers. Do you recall if anything like that came up when you were there?


Freezing conditions – you must have been there in July or August? (Although those fronts coming up from the Cape can surprise you at other times as well).

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At last, the encounter we were all waiting for!


@@Peter Connan


Yes. Hope it wasn't too much of a letdown....! Thanks for your kind comments.

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I think the reason there is no off-roading for white rhino is that they are more common.


As each off-road foray does some damage to the environment, I assume they are merely limiting this damage by excluding off-roading in certain situations?


Both plausible explanations, and my first guess was a combination of the two. No off-roading for white rhino because it's not worth the damage to the land. The main reason for my asking, though, is that it seems like we off-roaded for everything else, including lions, which we came across more often than white rhino. So, I was just wondering if white rhino had been singled out for some reason? Will give me a good excuse to get back in touch with the good folks at Phinda....

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Yes, in August ..... I think it was a cold front of some kind.

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After lunch we bid farewell to our wonderful vehicle mates, who were moving on to the next stage of their trip. And so it was that, quite unexpectedly, we had the vehicle to ourselves for the afternoon drive. With no one else’s itinerary to consider, this left us free to pursue our own personal interests. And my interest was cheetahs. So we headed off that afternoon back toward the South with the hope that we could find the three male cheetah siblings again. With their plans for wildebeest schnitzel* foiled the previous evening, maybe they’d be on the move for a kill this evening. (*Wildebeest schnitzel was an actual dish on the lunch menu at Tswalu. I liked it so much I ordered it twice.)


The other vehicle from our lodge had spent the morning searching for the brothers without success. They had, however, found lions, and it therefore was possible that the cheetahs had accordingly left the area altogether. We decided to give it a chance.


As it turned out, the three siblings were nowhere to be found. However, we received a report that a female and her five cubs were in an area even further south, so we went to investigate. Whereas the North of Phinda is largely sandy, the South is punctuated with red soil. One can almost discern the “border” between the two areas, as the softly bumpy ride that one experiences in the North becomes increasingly jerky and jarring in the South. We were amiably proceeding in this “crossover” landscape, with dappled sunlight piercing the canopy, when Mr. T.’s voice shattered the silence: “Stop!”


Dylan brought the vehicle to a screeching halt and, out of instinctive, good habit, intuitively shifted it into Reverse. “No! Don’t back up! Don’t back up!” Mr. T. commanded, holding up a hand as he stood on the seat to investigate the rear.

What in the world? And then we saw it, too. An African rock python had been on the verge of crossing the road to our left and was now slithering along its edge, evidently as shaken by the encounter as we were.







The snake lost no opportunity to retreat into the protection of the vegetation, and although we could see its tail, discerning where its head was increasingly became difficult. I was rather startled at the thought that a snake this big could, with such effective camouflage, so easily and quickly disappear into the background.







Mr. T. estimated that the snake was over 3 meters long and that it appeared to be on the verge of shedding. Evidently, it had only recently come out of hibernation, as both Dylan and Mr. T. felt that the snake appeared to be rather thin (!). I can only say if that’s “thin,” I don’t want to know what “fat” looks like. (Actually, that’s a lie. Although I am by no means a snake person, I had always wanted to see a python, so I was quite excited by this sighting).


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We left the python in peace, and continued on, and as the glow of the afternoon began to reach the peak of its golden hue, we came into a more open area.





There, on top of a termite mound in that classic cheetah pose, was Mom, sitting with her back to us, surrounded by her five young cubs. We circled the mound to get the sun behind us, but as we came around, Mom looked off to the right and quickly made her way through the grass.






The cubs hesitated, and then tentatively followed her for a short distance, then stopped, as if intuitively they knew better than to go any further. The cubs were adorable, and separated from Mom, one could really get a sense of how vulnerable they are when left on their own.







Meanwhile, Mom stealthily made her way through the grass, stopping periodically, slouching low, and staring intently ahead. We then saw her apparent target. Two male kudus, peacefully grazing on the grass near the edge of a more dense area.


This was going to be interesting. (Because we didn’t want there to be any possibility that we could interfere with the kill, we stayed behind with the cubs. Mom continued to move further and further away. All we could do was to observe the scene through our binoculars, so my narrative here will have to suffice.)


I, with my limited experience, have never seen a kill, but my immediate conclusion here was that Mom was about to bite off more than she could chew. With five hungry youngsters, she certainly needed for her efforts to produce an ample result, but a kudu bull?


She certainly got close, but as she sized him up, I suppose she came to the same conclusion that we had. She crouched, but advanced no further. After some minutes, the kudus finally noticed her, and they quickly headed toward the exit. Whatever the reason behind the aborted kill, Mom wasted no time in returning to the mound and shaking off the stress she had endured during the episode.





If the cubs were disappointed with no dinner on the table, they certainly didn’t show it. They were just thrilled that Mom was back!









She came across as an excellent mother, patiently tolerating the playful swipes of her cubs and the small bit of bedlam they were creating all around her. But she never let down her guard. Always on the lookout, both for danger and opportunity, she remained completely alert.























Finally, the cubs got the message that Mom was in no mood to play, and so they went off on their own to continue the fun and games. It was interesting to see the dynamics between the cubs; two of them were definitely more reticent than their three more gregarious siblings.





























We stayed with the family until we lost our light. Our parting view as the sun’s last meek rays came through was of Mom, fighting off sleep, ever watchful and protective over her charges.









With that, we proceeded on to sundowners, and another memorable day at Phinda came to a close.






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First Michael now you, Peter, with fantastic cheetah shots! Looks like I will need to stick to the birds ^_^ !

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Wow - fantastic cheetah encounter - so well photographed

The cubs do look so vulnerable - and so beautiful.

They are so cute - and excellent that you could stay with them as you wanted

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@@Alexander33 - Your report brings back memories from 2006 when we visited Phinda - my fondest memory from that visit, is when we did a drive with the Leopard research team and tracking Leopard at night in absolutely freezing conditions......

As I recall there were not that many fond memories for you Hari, at Phinda. I am more of a fan of the place, I believe.

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What a magnificent sighting! If you had seen nothing else at all that one sighting would have made your safari great!

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Nothing is cuter than Cheetah cubs - what a wonderful sighting, and great shots of it. Taking on a Kudu bull would be over-ambitious indeed (though I remember reading about the "Steroid Boys" in Mombo who did just that, but that was a coalition, I think.) I think it´s really endearing when one has the opportunity to watch familiy life for an extendted time period, and it´s very true that cubs can display very different personality traits, often there seems to be at least one very shy and one very bold one at least.


Very cool sighting of the Python, too.

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Really great rhino sequence. Not a letdown at all!

Interesting to read about the different social atmospheres at different camps/lodges. I imagine it could be hard to pinpoint exactly what lends that impression. I always enjoy meeting other guests too, but I think your wildlife experience itself would trump that!


The cheetahs are great...you mention that the mom is ceaselessly alert...not an easy task with all of those little ones, to say the least.


@@Kitsafari So sorry to hear of your loss, which I carelessly did not notice on my first pass through the previous pages. I hope your others are on the mend.

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What fantastic photo's and a great read. Thanks so much for this trip report.

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I think you know that birds are a much more difficult subject for photography, but thank you for your kind words anyway. As to the birds, stay posted.....




@@Peter Connan





Thank you for your comments. Your interest is helping me keep going at this task!

Edited by Alexander33
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I mentioned earlier that Phinda has seven distinct ecosystems, and I was anxious to see some of the diversity in the landscape. Therefore, the following morning we decided to head up into the foothills of the Lebombo Mountains that creep into the Reserve. Here, the plant life is noticeably different than below, with more deciduous trees. The weather started out overcast and a bit chilly, and we really didn’t see that much: some old dagga boys and a glimpse of Mountain Reedbuck. But the drive was enjoyable and the views over the surrounding valleys below were spectacular.


















Morning coffee break overlooking the valley.












As we came down from the mountains, the weather started to clear, so we made our way to one of the waterholes, always a good strategy when a drive is going slow.


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The North sector has few water sources, so we could always count on finding something near the waterhole closest to our lodge, elephants, giraffes and zebras in particular.








A small breeding herd walks down the road toward the waterhole.





Watching a giraffe drink water is like watching a small miracle.









I thought these two baby giraffes were twins, but Dylan insisted that more likely were just hanging out together while their mothers foraged nearby. He was right -- of course!


















Water monitor -- our first. I wish we could have gotten closer.





Impala was the primary prey species, unlike at Tswalu, where springbok reigned.





And where there is prey, there are predators. One morning, close to the waterhole, we found the North Pride again, and the male and his lady friend that we had met earlier in our stay had now joined up with the rest of the group. Reunited at last!





























Of course, aside from an occasional yawn or swipe of the paw, they mainly were just snoozing – again! With all that sleep, surely they had to get restless every now and then, no?



Another goal of mine while at Phinda was much smaller in scale: the pink-throated twinspot. The name alone captured my imagination long before we had left home. This bird, with its fanciful pink coloration improbably combined with white polka-dots on a black field on either side of its breast, is endemic to the coastal areas of southeastern South Africa and Mozambique. It was high on my must-see list, and we found a pair (a male and female) at the waterhole one morning.


These photographs are atrocious, and my math skills aren’t good enough to calculate the massive degree to which they’ve been cropped, but at least I have evidence that I saw this target!









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Speaking of birds, the birdlife at Phinda was, as you might expect, completely different from that at Tswalu.


This male purple-crested turaco was the first to greet us as we stepped up onto the deck of our cabin. I felt bad for the lovely manager who was trying to orient us to the place, because I immediately dropped my bags and just started taking photographs. But can you blame me for being distracted?










Joining him was a Neergard’s sunbird, endemic to only a small area of southeastern South Africa. (Both guides at Vlei confirmed it as a Neergard’s, on the basis of its bill – shorter than most sunbirds – but the Marico sunbird is very similar).





The females get the short end of the stick where plumage is concerned.





Before, I had only seen the helmeted guinea fowl, but cresteds held sway at Phinda. (I love those James Brown “hairdos”).





One morning, a brown snake-eagle joined us during our coffee break.





We’ve always loved hornbills. They look like something Dr. Seuss would have come up with. At Phinda, we saw our first crowned hornbills.





We saw black-eyed bulbuls, yellow-bellied greenbuls and speckled mousebirds on a daily basis.









A wooly-necked stork that we found near the waterhole was irked at us for interrupting its delicious repast of long-dead hippopotamus.





And then, of course, there are the ones that got away and for which either bad photos or, in some cases, my memory will simply have to suffice, e.g., the skittish saddle-billed stork; the fish eagle and the martial eagles that were too far away; the brown kingfisher that refused to interrupt his flight across the road in order to pose for us; the paradise flycatcher that just wouldn’t sit still.


This saddle-billed stork had no intention of letting us get close.





This African fish eagle was on an inaccessible side of a waterhole (far away!), busy eating something with a furry tail.





Yellow-billed kites are migratory and were just arriving in the area. They chose a chilly, overcast morning to make their first appearance.





Before we left, @@Atravelynn was kind enough to share with me her Top Ten list of birds at Phinda. I only managed five of them, but was happy nonetheless.


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Oh well, you have scratched also birds from my "to shot" list :( . Now, should I stop reading all those fabulous trip reports or only sunsets and start skies will remain ... :huh: ?!

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Absolutely adore those Turaco shots, fantastic! How close was it?

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Good thing you brake for snakes. You captured the bedlam brilliantly. Not easy to get 5 bouncing cubs in one frame. Interesting that in one encounter personalities became evident.

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Oh well, you have scratched also birds from my "to shot" list :( . Now, should I stop reading all those fabulous trip reports or only sunsets and start skies will remain ... :huh: ?!




Don’t even try that with me! I’ve seen your work, and my request that you and your wife give me a photography lesson still holds.


Besides, this was just a practice run. The real test will be in Costa Rica!

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