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Leopard Hills, Sabi Sands, South Africa — October, 2015


Tom Kellie

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Tom Kellie

“There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged


to find the ways in which you yourself have altered”.


~ Nelson Mandela




A Fresh Perspective




~ After highly satisfying safaris in Kenya in January, May and July, 2015, I looked forward to returning in early October so as to have once again viewed Kenyan wildlife in all four seasons, as I did in 2014. However, it was not to be. Commercial machinations tied up all available tickets for westbound flights from Beijing which might otherwise have connected to flights to Nairobi. After considerable wrangling over several days, it became clear that an October visit to Kenya wouldn’t be feasible within the brief Chinese National Day vacation period. Frustrated and downcast, there would be no reunion with Anthony and Maggie Gitau of Bigmac Africa Safaris who had arranged such superb wildlife photography safaris over the past few years. It also meant no return to the Emakoko by Nairobi National Park where I’d enjoyed the hospitality of Anton and Emma Childs, Rachel Davis, and talented guide @@Peter Muigai. who shares my pleasure in bird and animal photography. As there was no workaround to reach Kenya, it seemed that I’d be in my apartment reading, writing my unfinished trip report, and longing to be back on safari in Africa, savoring starlight, animal sounds and bird songs.


Sitting at my desk rather crestfallen, Hong Kong came to mind. Several hours flying-time south of Beijing, Hong Kong’s international airport is a gateway to many parts of the world. After checking, I found that while there were no seats available on flights to Nairobi or other East African gateways, there was a long-haul 13-hour flight to Johannesburg, South Africa. Nearly one year ago, months before finding and joining Safaritalk, I’d read a comment on a nature photography Web site about a photo of a leopard named ‘Torchwood’ in Sabi Sands, South Africa, to the effect that Sabi Sands reliably yielded high quality leopard sightings. What had stuck in my memory was the name of the safari lodge, Leopard Hills. After joining Safaritalk I’d read a trip report with beautiful bird and wildlife photos by @@Tdgraves, describing game drives while she was a guest at Leopard Hills. Like a swift needle and thread through a string of pearls, I found myself linking all of this together, wondering if there was any vacancy at Leopard Hills during the first week of October. Contacting newly married Mrs. Alyssa Taylor of Leopard Hills Reservations in Johannesburg, I learned that four nights were available. While I’d have preferred a longer stay, the prospect of a 5 day, 4 night visit was sufficiently appealing that a reservation was made, including roundtrip flights from OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg to Leopard Hills on the Fedair shuttle.


Although I have no credit card, my very kind long-time friend generously pre-paid the lodging and air tickets. After reimbursing his bank account everything was settled, as the nature of Leopard Hills is that everything is included. As a single traveler, I appreciated that there was no single supplement assessed by Leopard Hills. No other special preparations were needed, beyond the usual safari packing. The flights were on Dragonair between Beijing and Hong Kong and on South African Air between Hong Kong and Johannesburg. There was a long enough layover in Hong Kong for a dinner at the Spaghetti House outlet in the airport, a long-time favorite of mine. I was to find out that Dragonair flights are exceptionally comfortable, with fine meals in Economy Class, including Häagen-Dazs ice cream. There was uncertainty as to what size baggage might be accepted on the Fedair shuttle flights, therefore I left my largest safari lens at home. It turns out that I needn’t have been so concerned about it. The Sony RX1 R full-frame camera, the EOS 1D X, the Zeiss Makro-Planar T* 50mm f/2 ZE lens, the Zeiss Apo-Sonnar T* 135mm f/2 ZE telephoto lens and the EF 400mm f/5.6L super-telephoto ‘BIF’ lens were the camera gear taken on the trip. As is my custom, I brought several Montblanc fountain pens to write the daily safari diary and assorted notes. The Montblanc 149 Bespoke EEF nib fountain pen performs well in all conditions.


The safari turned out to be a joy from start to finish, without any untoward incidents or factors. A highlight was being greeted upon arrival in Johannesburg by Safaritalk member and gifted bird and star photographer @@Peter Connan. His kindness in stopping by the Fedair Terminal set the positive tone of the entire visit to South Africa, including both the safari itself and the subsequent return to Johannesburg. A major typhoon had struck Hong Kong, which resulted in my return flight being delayed for many hours, which I learned upon checking in. I found OR Tambo to be a congenial location to visit. As @@COSMIC RHINO had noted the bookstores available in the airport, I sought them, buying both maps and books for future reference. I also stopped by a Timberland shoe store, buying my first new pair of shoes in years — I typically re-sole and repair — as my shoe size isn’t generally available in Beijing. A lovely Japanese lady seated beside me in the waiting area was returning after a one month safari in Botswana and Zambia. She compared wildlife photos with me offering gracious encouragement. Although I missed lovely Kenya, the October trip opened my awareness to South Africa’s charms such that one week after returning I booked a 9 day, 8 night return visit in late January, 2016.


While by no means comprehensive, this trip report shares my impressions of the landscape and wildlife of Leopard Hills in Sabi Sands, South Africa. It was my 10th safari in Africa. Unlike the prior safaris, this was one venue in one location without any long-distance drives between lodges, camps, parks or reserves. I had no expectations, per se, when I arrived in South Africa, aside from a general interest in observing any evidence of the advent of springtime. Everything I experienced was fresh, although it sometimes was comparable to safaris in Kenya. Before proceeding with the trip report it should be noted that the late Nancy Money, @@graceland, had strongly encouraged me to visit Leopard Hills, expressing an interest in reading my impressions of it. After her untimely passing, it was noted that she’d once commented that she’d have liked to someday return as a lilac-breasted roller. While I never observed any rollers during the game drives in Leopard Hills, a remarkable fact is that I saw a lilac-breasted roller near the lodge when arriving from the airstrip, and again on the day of departure in the same general location. Finally, a very special thanks to @@Tdgraves whose encouragement concerning visiting Sabi Sands was decisive.
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Lunch on the terrace sounded great to me, Four courses washed down with rosé. Close by the waterhole, what did I see? A giraffe striding – what a day! Place Setting with Rosé

“There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered”. ~ Nelson Mandela A Fresh Perspective ~ After h

We spot two hornbills perched together, Who dance, prance and spread their wings. Waltzing without losing a feather, What portents their action brings! Southern Yellow-billed Ho

Posted Images

Tom Kellie

Another safari adventure begins,

With fresh route and destination,
No concern over who loses or who wins,
It's simply a fun vacation.

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Terminal 3 in Beijing

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CA 6517 to Hong Kong

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Awaiting Passengers

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To the Gates

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At Your Service

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In a Tree Planter

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Boarding Passes

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Dragonair from Beijing to Hong Kong

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Peter Connan

@@Tom Kellie, I am locked in to this report, which I have been eagerly awaiting!

 

Yippee!

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Tom Kellie

In Hong Kong Airport once again,


Minestrone and lasagna, ice water, too.


Each time I'm here, no matter when,


No lack of activity, or things to do.




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Ice Water



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The Spaghetti House



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Minestrone



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Lasagna



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Honey Lemon Tea for the Flight



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Hong Kong Airport Concourse Lighting



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A Single Carry-on Bag – That's All





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Tom Kellie

A safari that begins with a friendly chat,


The joy of our first-ever meeting.


Peter's smile, like a South African welcome mat,


Why that's the very finest greeting.




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South African Welcome!



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Peter Connan



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Fedair Reception



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Nothing to Declare



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Newly Arrived in South Africa



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Peter Connan and Tom Kellie





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Reserving my seat in the front row, right beside Peter !

 

@@Tom Kellie, we might just share the same airport in January; I am arriving on Jan 30th from Istanbul and departing on Jan 31st to Upington!! Same as You also myself (and my wife) are looking forward to meet and greet @@Peter Connan.

 

It looks like my days till departure will be much shorter now, as your TR will surely be another excellent and educational one :) .

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Tom Kellie

What passenger wouldn't feel at ease,


In surroundings so lovely and gracious?


May I have another juice? Yes, please!


Fedair's terminal – comfy and spacious.




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Decorative Basketry



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White Against Brown



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Fresh Juices



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Geometric Lampshade



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Careful Craftsmanship



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Destination LPH



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Aircraft Being Serviced



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Parked Aircraft



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Contrasting Technology



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Federal Air



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Lettering Shadow



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My First South African Rhino



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Scabiosa Blooms



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Exploring New Horizons



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Inside the Cabin





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Tdgraves

I'm not sure that @@Peter Connan will find being compared to a door mat a compliment - it certainly isn't from where I'm from

 

I'm so glad you enjoyed it, I was nervous as I had set your expectations sky high!

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Tom Kellie

Flying northeast, far above the Lowveld,


Farms and rivers below far-ranging,


From aircraft windows small towns are beheld,


Landscape and clouds constantly changing.




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Cultivated Land in Red & Green



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View Towards Mozambique



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Encroaching Urbanization



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Dry Watercourse



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Shifting Thoroughfare



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Smoothly Curved Track



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Jagged Path



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Flowing Water



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Passing Over Outcroppings



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Ulusaba on the Right Hilltop





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Tom Kellie

Ulusaba's airstrip our destination,


Guides greet guests with smiles and handshakes,


Driving to the lodge with high expectation,


On safari – my heart awakes!




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On the Ground



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Welcome to Ulusaba



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Ulusaba Safari Vehicles



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On the Drive from the Airstrip



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First Glimpse — Leopard Hills Lobby





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Tom Kellie

Lunch on the terrace sounded great to me,


Four courses washed down with rosé.


Close by the waterhole, what did I see?


A giraffe striding – what a day!




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Place Setting with Rosé



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Potato-Leek Soup & Slashes of Balsamic Vinegar



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Salad to Order



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Hake with Baked Potato



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Coconut Ice Cream



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Lunch Table View — Giraffe and Jackalberry Trees





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Atravelynn

"As a single traveler, I appreciated that there was no single supplement assessed by Leopard Hills." If the multi-colored balls in the tree planter had not gotten my attention, this line certainly did.

 

So you are a poet! Rhyming is much harder than county haiku syllables. You are in for a challenge, which you are up to no doubt. Looking forward to the rest of the verses. You are getting clever making day rhyme with that accent ague. I want that coconut ice cream. Hopefully more rhinos to come. You even managed a mini GTG!

 

Your creativity in photos and verse knows no bounds!

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Kitsafari

hmm i've got to try out the spaghetti house the next time i go through HK International Airport (which will be soon in February).

 

Leopard Hills lodge look enticing already. coconut ice cream! yum. and a giraffe to grace your lunch. how much better can it get than that?

 

well i can't wait to hear the best bits you are keeping us in suspense for, Tom.

 

Hi there @@Peter Connan! Lovely pic of you both. FedAir was a cocoon of calm in the airport.

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Peter Connan

Thanks @@Kitsafari, this was a true joint effort.

 

My tripod, Tom's camera and a FedAir staff member to press the button!

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Super LEEDS

Look forward to hearing your thoughts on SA safaris over Kenya. Look forward to more of this report too!

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Tom Kellie

@@Tom Kellie, I am locked in to this report, which I have been eagerly awaiting!

 

~ @@Peter Connan

 

Thank you so much, my friend!

It was your friendly welcome in Kempton Park which set the tone for the entire safari.

BTW: I haven't forgotten what you mentioned about the birds at the Bonaero Park Dam.

Tom K.

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Tom Kellie

Reserving my seat in the front row, right beside Peter !

 

@@Tom Kellie, we might just share the same airport in January; I am arriving on Jan 30th from Istanbul and departing on Jan 31st to Upington!! Same as You also myself (and my wife) are looking forward to meet and greet @@Peter Connan.

 

It looks like my days till departure will be much shorter now, as your TR will surely be another excellent and educational one :) .

 

~ @@xelas

 

When an experienced wildlife photographer of your caliber is so encouraging it means a lot.

I'm delighted that you'll also be in southern Africa in late January, 2016.

Thank you for letting me know.

Tom K.

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Tom Kellie

I'm not sure that @@Peter Connan will find being compared to a door mat a compliment - it certainly isn't from where I'm from

 

I'm so glad you enjoyed it, I was nervous as I had set your expectations sky high!

 

~ @@Tdgraves

 

I'll forever be in your debt for providing enough sound evidence to persuade me to visit South Africa, which I would have otherwise probably not considered.

The challenge now is to prepare a trip report which does justice to the game drives and hospitality of Leopard Hills.

You'll be familiar with this or that in my posts. I hope that they'll be satisfactory.

Tom K.

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Tom Kellie

"As a single traveler, I appreciated that there was no single supplement assessed by Leopard Hills." If the multi-colored balls in the tree planter had not gotten my attention, this line certainly did.

 

So you are a poet! Rhyming is much harder than county haiku syllables. You are in for a challenge, which you are up to no doubt. Looking forward to the rest of the verses. You are getting clever making day rhyme with that accent ague. I want that coconut ice cream. Hopefully more rhinos to come. You even managed a mini GTG!

 

Your creativity in photos and verse knows no bounds!

 

~ @@Atravelynn

 

The ‘no single supplement’ policy clinched the deal. It's also why 7 weeks from today I'll return.

This trip report is a self-imposed limitation, to consider the succession of events from a different perspective.

The coconut ice cream was superb — made on the premises that morning, no less.

There will be more rhinos, including one spotted by yours truly.

Meeting @@Peter Connan in the arrival GTG was the best feature of the entire safari. His genial welcome set everything right, for which I'm indebted to him.

Thank you so much for your support. Your haikus set the bar high, thus it will be necessary to call upon the Muses for inspiration.

Tom K.

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Tom Kellie

hmm i've got to try out the spaghetti house the next time i go through HK International Airport (which will be soon in February).

 

Leopard Hills lodge look enticing already. coconut ice cream! yum. and a giraffe to grace your lunch. how much better can it get than that?

 

well i can't wait to hear the best bits you are keeping us in suspense for, Tom.

 

Hi there @@Peter Connan! Lovely pic of you both. FedAir was a cocoon of calm in the airport.

 

~ @@Kitsafari

 

I strongly recommend Spaghetti House.

Every meal there has exceeded all expectations, which may account for the chain's enduring popularity in Hong Kong.

You said it! The FedAir passenger lounge was pure pleasure, what with gardens, sofas, ample food and drink.

Coconut ice cream and a giraffe were the beginning of a delightful stay. More to write and post!

Thank you for your kind words.

Tom K.

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Tom Kellie

Look forward to hearing your thoughts on SA safaris over Kenya. Look forward to more of this report too!

 

~ @@Super LEEDS

 

Thank you so much for your interest and kind support.

Further into the trip report I'll compare the two, as you've requested.

Tom K.

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Tom Kellie

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Leopard Hills – Private Game Reserve




~ Leopard Hills is a private game reserve in Mpumalanga Province — formerly the Eastern Transvaal — South Africa. It’s one of a number of well-known privately operated lodges within the Sabi Sand Game Reserve, to the west and adjacent to the unfenced border with Kruger National Park. Its 10,000 hectares of lowveld savanna habitat is subtropical, having agreements for traversing rights with neighboring game reserves. The lodge is situated on a rocky outcrop overlooking the largely dry Mabrak river with a natural waterhole beyond. A forest consisting of jackalberry trees and others is below, with easy viewing of passing wildlife from the terrace where breakfast and lunch are served. During my stay I observed Bushbuck, Nyala, Warthogs, Impala, and Giraffe from the terrace, not to mention the occasional raiding parties of cheeky Vervet Monkeys. The most striking terrace breakfast sighting was a cheetah which rested for many minutes, viewable through my telephoto lens and through the telescope available on the terrace.




There are a number of options for reaching Leopard Hills, which include self-driving, pickup from regional airports in Nelspruit, Hoedspruit or from O.R. Tambo Airport which serves Greater Johannesburg. I opted to fly from O.R. Tambo Airport on the Federal Air (Fedair) shuttle, which made a single stop at Londolezi before continuing on to the Ulusaba airstrip, which also serves arriving Leopard Hills guests. After a five-minute drive from the airstrip, the lodge is nestled in verdant greenery. The cheerful front office staff, Bridget and Zelda, and the Assistant Manager, Heinrich, greeted us with cool towels, and a refreshing lime drink served in glasses which rock on a rounded base yet didn’t spill their contents. One signed a waiver, was given a general introduction to the layout and schedule and was then escorted to the luxury suite. In my case, Heinrich took me to Suite #7, which is one of the three suites facing into the bush, the other five being view suites looking over the waterhole and into the distance. I’d requested such a lower level suite due to the possibility of wildlife observation nearby, which did occur. The introduction was more than complete, with jokes and a strong sense of warm hospitality extended.


In the suite every imaginable need had been anticipated. A commodious bed with a pillow menu, desk and chair, sofa, large closets, abundant high-quality lighting, Nespresso machine, a very well-stocked refrigerator, including a bottle of champagne, a hammock, comfortable chaises and a dining table outside on the deck. The bathroom facilities rate as exceptional, with both indoor and outdoor showers, a large tub, heated towel racks and well-lighted mirrors. The premium amenities were useful, as I’d brought very little to limit the carry-on weight during flights. The pièce de résistance was a plunge pool with stones surrounding it. After the mocking jibes I’ve made about plunge pools in Safaritalk posts, I must candidly admit that I used mine at every opportunity, typically before and after lunch. The cool clean water was a joy, especially with raptors and swallows overhead. One afternoon a small family herd of elephant tarried near the pool, browsing on foliage. The smallest and hence youngest elephant I’ve ever observed remained close to its mother as I watched from the plunge pool. On the day of my departure a Chiromantis xerampelina, Grey Treefrog, rested on the window frame above the plunge pool, my location of choice when not on game drives.


Throughout one’s stay at Leopard Hills there are small surprises left in one’s suite. A safari cap, a safari bag, luggage tags and local animal stories offered as printed bedtime stories appeared on the bed. The refrigerator is very generously supplied with premium beverages, which are promptly replaced when used, as the housekeeping staff is top-notch. I requested fresh fruit, thus a platter of strawberries, grapes, tangerines and pineapple was brought to my refrigerator. As everything is included, no extra charges appeared when I settled my bill on departure. Although I didn’t use the Nespresso machine, it would have supplied hot water for the selection of premium teas available. I enjoy going to bed by candlelight, thus the three candles by the door were the final light that I saw each night. The sherry in my room and in the lodge library is superb, such that I sampled it throughout my stay. The glass-fronted suite is guaranteed to be completely private, which my own experience confirmed. Dare I note that I brought a bathing suit to wear in the plunge pool but in reality it remained dry throughout my stay.


It would be an understatement to describe the dining as above average fare. Every meal made one feel spoiled for choice, yet not excessively so. Chef Hendry and his kitchen staff work wonders with locally supplied ingredients, with vegetarian options standard. Dining room manager Sam is the soul of joviality and his partner, Admire, the barman, were warm and welcoming at every meal. They convinced me to try the house cocktail, Steelworks, with fresh passionfruit, which hooked me. For two days I had a bottle of South African Pinot Noir, from the cellar, which was superb. The various other wines were consistently excellent. Desserts made on the premises elicited praise from the other guests, although I opted for the South African cheese plate after a couple of meals. Every other evening dinner was served in the boma, with meat cooked over flame. Guests generally sat with their ranger. I was beckoned to a stone circle where an ultra-violet light was pointed to reveal glowing scorpoins hidden in crevices. They were the first scorpions I’d ever seen.


Most other guests were from Australia, as well as from the United Kingdom, Canada, India and the United States. They included sheep station owners, the parents of a film actor, fashion designers, physicians, and retired media executives. Most were safari veterans, with a sizable percentage returning guests to Leopard Hills. To my surprise, the majority were non-photographers, enjoying the game drives and lodge amenities without any compulsion to focus lenses and push shutter buttons. When I asked them to rate Leopard Hills with comparable establishments in South Africa and elsewhere, they all highly praised it for the consistent quality of the hospitality, the cuisine and the superb game drive sightings. I made a point of gently but clearly bringing up Safaritalk, but sensed that they generally had limited interest in exchanging views about wildlife sightings or conservation, preferring to enjoy the experience as a pleasant pastime in retirement or late career.



*******************************************************************************


I neglected to mention that another lens which I brought to South Africa was the EF 200mm f/2.8L II telephoto lens. It’s reliability, rapid focussing ability, and capacity to photograph larger mammals at a typical safari distance were demonstrated on several game drives as well as around the lodge grounds. It’s easily one of my favorite lenses, as the results are satisfactory in most settings, including reduced luminosity. It’s an especially appropriate lens for Leopard Hills where going off-track yields close-range photo opportunities.


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Tom Kellie

A mabuya, a lizard, a skink?


Are the colors somewhat misleading?


It's a reptile, but whaddya think?


It sees me and thinks about feeding?




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Trachylepis margaritifera



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I Spy



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Another Pattern





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"Dare I note that I brought a bathing suit to wear in the plunge pool but in reality it remained dry throughout my stay." - the water was too cold in the plunge pool ;-)) ??

The above description of the Leopard Hills Lodge is both poetic and full of useful informations.

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Tom Kellie

What fierce forms these plants have taken,


Thorny-edged, formidable and blood-spattered,


All gentleness they've forsaken.


Lovingkindness to these plants never mattered.




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Killing Frenzy



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The Aliens Are Here!




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