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First safari report: Mashatu, Phinda and Londolozi


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Long time lurker to gather ideas to help planning our first safari. Now we finally plunged into it, it is time to report our first safari (actually first African trip) experience. Our itinerary is as follows:


- Johannesburg: 2 nights to recover jet lag (and taking Soweto tour)

- Mashatu: 2 nights at Tent Camp, and 1 night at Main Camp (due to availability)

- Cape Town: 5 nights

- Phinda: 3 nights at Forest Lodge

- Londolozi: 4 nights at Founder Camp


We took the trip in early September, 2016. I will post the trip report in installments.

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== Mashatu ==


Although just across the border, Mashatu feels quite remote. It is a great introduction to African bush. We saw plenty of game on the way from airfield to our camp, before our first game drive.


Mashatu only has 3 out of the big five, but the quality of the big 3 viewing is excellent. There are large herds of elephants, with babies and playful youngsters. The ranger informed us the herds are actually smaller than usual because of the severe drought.




The first sight of lion in wild is always exciting, but it is the cubs that steal the show.





Before getting to Mashatu, we met many people in Johannesburg at the end of their trip. Most of them have seen big four but not the elusive leopard. It is incredible that in 3 days (6 game drives), we had 5 separate leopard sightings.


Leopard resting in the dry river.



Leopard posing on the river bank.



Leopard in the tree.



Leopard attacking eagle nest and feasting on eagle chicks. Even our ranger was stunned. It was a first for him.



Giraffe is not native to Mashatu. It was restocked years ago along with wild dog and red hartebeest. Well wild dogs roamed away within a year. Red hartebeest was apparently not lion smart, and soon wiped out by lions. Giraffe fared much better. Perhaps Mashatu lions have not figured out those tall creatures are viable prey.



In general, antelopes are hard to photograph as their instinct is to flee when approached. It is good that this eland took a look back at us. We did not see eland elsewhere.



It is dry season, and the waterhole behind the camp provided many photo opportunities.



Some people are dreadful of sharing vehicle with ardent birder. Our experience is the opposite. This white-fronted bee-eater is exquisite.



Overall, we are extremely happy that we chose Mashatu for our first safari.


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Just a note on the photos:


I am modestly enthusiastic about photography, using SLR camera only when traveling. Never attempted wildlife photo before. This is the first time I tried (1) telephoto lens (Nikon 70-300) bought for this trip; (2) back button focus; (3) shooting in raw.


I used a DX camera that gives me some reach. Majority of the photos were taken at the long end of 70-300 lens. I shot with raw + basic jpeg, and plan to do some post-processing when I find time. The uploaded photos are as captured (the jpeg version), with no cropping, and no post-processing.

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Lion cubs, a leopard raiding a fish eagle nest and you've only visited the first of 3 very highly renowned areas on your first safari...

Not bloody bad at all!

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Glad you have decided to add your TR here. :)


I have not been to Mashatu but have spent some time in the Tuli block and it certainly delivers on elephants. Nice shot of the youngster under Mum.


Leopard and lions with cubs!; what a good start to your safari. The leopard raiding the eagle nest is fascinating.

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The attack on eagle nest was actually our very first leopard sighting (btw I believe it is martial eagle). We did not realize how privileged we were until we sat at the dinner table that night. That was when the ranger told us it was the first for him after 9 years at Mashatu. Leopards spend a lot of time in the tree. Surprised that it was not common.


Lions do sleep a lot, but the cubs are full of energy. I do want to clarify that lion cubs were present later when we visited Phinda and Londolozi, but the grass was taller and it was more difficult to view. In contrast it was very dry at Mashatu. The cubs were playing practically in the open.

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== Cape Town ==


Cape Town is not a wild life destination. Nevertheless we had some very good wild life sightings on the cape peninsula day trip. By then I already switched to my regular (16-85mm) lens. No close-up, but it is not a loss. The background is so dramatic that it would be a pity to get blurred.


Baboon on the beach.



Ostrich on the beach.



African penguins at Boulders Beach.


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Welcome to Safaritalk, and very glad you are sharing your trip with us.


Very cool Leopards, by the look of your photos they look very relaxed. Raiding Eagle´s nests definitely is something very special. The Lion cubs and little Ellies are very cute. Interesting about the Red Hartebeest being so easy prey for the Lions, do you know where they were brought from?

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No I did not know where the red hartebeest was brought from, presumably somewhere lion is less a threat.

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== Phinda ==


Phinda has an interesting history. It was created on degraded farmland in the early 90s. Animals were restocked, including big 5, plus cheetah that is rare elsewhere. It is fenced to prevent predators from getting into conflict with surrounding farming communities. It may not be wild enough for safari purists, but we enjoyed it very much. The wildlife is abundant, and guiding excellent. As a bonus, the landscape remains green even in the middle of the dry season.


On our very first game drive, we set out to look for cheetah. It did not go as planned as we soon spotted a pair of rare black rhino. The black rhino is more aggressive than white rhino. As we were watching, one of them got very close to our vehicle to investigate.



The ranger had radioed about the black rhino sighting. In about 10 minutes, another vehicle arrived. We were still absorbed by the rhinos, when we heard a voice from radio “watch your back”. It was then we noticed 3 fully grown lionesses using our vehicle as cover to sneak up on rhinos. Lions are awesome hunters and can move silently. This photo was taken at the wide end of my 70-300 lens. It was that close.



Two rhinos facing off three lionesses in military formation. I could only include the lead lion and lead rhino, even when I zoomed out to the wide end. Wish I had another camera with wide-angle lens. Actually an iPhone will do, but we did not have time to think. The drama was soon over as both sides came to reason and backed off. It was our only sighting of black rhino on this trip, an extraordinary one.



Next morning we officially completed big 5. It is hard to believe we saw buffalo last.



Phinda is renowned for cheetah. We were not disappointed with three sightings. Moreover on each occasion, we were the first ones on site as it was our ranger / tracker who found them. Our vehicle was the only one around on two sightings, and only one vehicle joined us on third sighting after 15 minutes. It was such a privilege to view these elegant creatures without crowd.


We were surprised to see this single cheetah not far (downwind) from a big pride of lions. The ranger informed us that she was a young mother, with cubs hidden nearby. You can sense the anxiety on her face. It did turn out well as another vehicle saw the family reunited the next day.



A different cheetah family. The cub was shy and refused to look at us, until it felt safe in the grass.





Cheetah on the move.



Leopard sighting is rare at Phinda. We saw it only once on a night drive.



One guest requested to see elephant. At the time, elephants were in the southern part of the reserve. It was a long game drive but we were rewarded with a herd of elephants in verdant environment.



We drove by a hyena den. To our delight, cubs were playing outside.



Nyala bulls fighting for dominance.



One thing we like Phinda (and Londolozi as well) is that the tracker play an active role in spotting animals. At Mashatu, the tracker sit in the back seat. From what we could perceive, the tracker contributed little in wildlife sporting. It is hard to say whether this is due to seating arrangement or relative inexperience of the tracker. At Phinda, the tracker was clearly the big part of our success. He would from time to time get off the vehicle to study footprint, and his opinion was always respected by the ranger.


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Welcome @@foggy27 and thanks for your Trip report.

Must say you have had awesome sightings on your first African adventure, well done. The Black Rhino's and lion stand off ......wow just wow.

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Thanks. We are extremely satisfied with Mashatu and Phinda. It would be a huge success even if we do not see anything new at the renowned Lodonlozi. But we all know more is coming...

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@@foggy27 thanks for your recent update on Mashatu, one of my favourite camps which is also very reliable for quality leopard sightings. The nest-raiding leopard would have been an amazing sight.


I was pleased that you included the baboon and ostrich-on-sea sightings as I have always found the open sea backdrop to wildlife viewing very unusual.


Seems like Phinda delivered for you.

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== Londolozi ==


By the time we arrived at Londolozi, we already had quality viewing of major species including the big five and cheetah, thanks to superb guiding at Mashatu and Phinda. When we were picked up at Londolozi airfield, the ranger asked us what was on our wish list. The only request we could think of was to surprise us, and he delivered day after day.


Actually we never saw a hippo prior to Londolozi. It is hard for us to tell but we were told that hippo was struggling due to the severe drought.



It is the middle of the dry season, and the water holes attract all kind of animals.





Londolozi is justifiably famous for leopard viewing. We had multiple sightings of leopards, both in and out of the tree.





This male leopard chased away a female leopard from a duiker kill, and devoured it. It is hard to see the duiker carcass in the tree, but we can clearly hear the sound of bone crunching.



It is mighty impressive when predators are on the move.




We actually witnessed a single lioness stalking zebra. She started charging a little too early from a little too far, and the zebra got away. Our ranger parked the vehicle at a respectful distance, and it was too dark that I just put the camera away.


It is difficult to imagine the massive buffalo as vulnerable prey, but they are hunted by lions.



This big male lion was guarding a buffalo kill. It is not a pretty sight, just part of the raw nature.



Now the baby elephant is a much more pleasant sight.



This baby rhino is very cute.



The baby rhino may be eye candy to us, but just a meal (or snack) in the eyes of lions. These two young lions were quietly moving towards it behind cover.



Fortunately the wind was blowing in the right direction. The rhino picked up the scent of predators and ran away. It was a textbook example of mother placing herself between danger and her baby.



A disappointed lion emerged from bush, watching the potential meal getting away.



As the top predator, lion only fears human (more precisely human with gun). This lion was showing off his rare triumph over rifle. Before anyone gets alarmed, nobody was harmed. A ranger lost his rifle bag a couple of weeks earlier. The theory was that it got dragged off the camp by baboon, and ended up as lion’s trophy.



Londolozi certainly delivered. In addition to fabulous wildlife, it offers an extra dimension of history. During our 4-day stay, the ranger, tracker, and staff shared many fascinating stories from its 90-year history, about animals, conservation projects, and above all, people. It is this extra dimension that makes our first safari experience even more compelling.



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~ @@foggy27


What a terrific first trip report!

Thank you so much for uploading such nice images.

Your comments bring alive what was a delightful safari.

A lion and rhino? WOW! What an image!

Your leopard sightings are superb.

Your trip report enhances Mashatu, Phinda and Londolozi.

Tom K.

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Welcome to Safaritalk. What a wonderful trip you had. You get us hooked with baby elephants and lion cubs and follow it up with so many beautiful photos. I really enjoyed it - thank you for posting.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Indeed welcome.


You really had some tremendous and unusual sightings!

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Fabulous report! My first safari also included Londolozi and Phinda so you brought back great memories. Thank you for sharing and welcome!

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  • 3 weeks later...

Thanks for the kind words and encouragements from everyone. This is a great forum and we learned a lot while we were in lurking mode. It is only fair to give back by sharing our very limited experience.


Some random thoughts from a safari newbie’s perspective:


- Planning: The destination choice is overwhelming for first-timers, compounded by complex transportation options. We procrastinated over a couple of years for the “once in a lifetime trip”. Finally we picked this (mostly) South Africa itinerary because (1) proximity to first-world medical facility; and (2) attractive exchange rate. A good TA is invaluable in sorting out options.

- Transportation: We asked our TA to prioritize (1) NOT to miss a game drive; and (2) avoid long road transfer. She came up with the great idea of flying to Cape Town (arriving late) after morning drive at Mashatu, and flying from Cape Town (leaving very early) to join afternoon drive at Phinda. We were prepared to overnight in JNB between Phinda and Sabi Sands as the charter flight is very expensive. The TA again came through as there are enough people to fill a 10-seat plane, which brings down the cost significantly.

- Packing: This is the first time we pay close attention to packing. Following the TA’s suggestion, we were pleasantly surprised that our luggage was well under the weight limit. We did not really need anything that we did not carry. More impressively everything we packed actually got used, other than the diarrhea pills.

- Guiding: Guiding at all three reserves are superb. It is probably a good idea to share your wish (if you know how to articulate it) discreetly with the rangers in advance, although they would ask anyway. At Londolozi, we told our ranger we enjoyed out sightings of baby animal. When we saw the baby rhino, he stayed a little longer than he normal would and we were rewarded with lion stalking baby rhino. On the other hand we did observe our ranger under-performing on one occasion when one vocal guest voiced his wish and everyone knew what the ranger was looking for. Not every professional can perform like Usain Bolt under pressure.

- Photography: It took a while to get used to low light, and moving subject. We had many poor images on day 1 (photographer’s fault, of course). Overall I was happy with what we got out of the minimal set of equipment (Nikon DX body, and 70-300 lens). There are always times I wish for more reach, but a second body with wider angle would also be very useful.

- Food: Food is uniformly good and plentiful. The only complaint is that we are too well fed. Towards the end, we developed food fatigue, and the generosity is almost a negative. We are of the generation brought up not to waste food on the plate, but that needs to be re-examined.

- Cities: Cape Town is a beautiful destination in its own right. Jo’burg is more intense, but fine for us. It is always fun to eat out in restaurants patronized by local residents (admitted the wealthier segment of the population). Otherwise our contact with locals would be limited to those working in the safari business.

- Future safari: We hope it was not a “once in a lifetime trip”. Now more confident, we are ready to dive a little deeper in our next adventure, perhaps the migration season 2018 in Kenya.


More on our overall impression of the 3 safari camps later…

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  • 4 weeks later...

Our impression on Mashatu:


Mashatu is our first stop and we really had no idea what to expect. We were very happy with our experience here.


The fellow guests are all experienced safari goers. Everyone was excited that we chose Mashatu for our very first game drive, and eager to share their own story of first game drive.


The dining is communal, and we enjoyed conversation among guests who shared their safari stories. I just wished that we engaged our rangers more at the dinner table.


Although the camp is fairly full, we did not experience crowded vehicle. Out of a total of 6 game drives, we shared the vehicle with only one other couple 5 times. On the other drive, we had an additional passenger: a bush pilot.


Wildlife variety and density are excellent. The absence of rhino, buffalo, and cheetah is easily compensated by adorable lion cubs, superior leopard viewing, and large herd of elephants. The other mammals we saw includes a very old hyena, black backed jackal (Mashatu only), giraffe, zebra, eland (Mashatu only), kudu, wildebeest, klipspringer (Mashatu only), bushbuck (Mashatu only), steenbok, impala and warthog.


We know little about birds, but enjoyed what we saw. It was fun to watch the white-fronted bee-eaters. The huge flock of quelea was also quite impressive.


The night drive after sundowner was not very productive, although we did see an owl and had a quick glance of a bush pig.


It does take a while to get used to photograph moving subjects. Mashatu has an on-site hide facing a waterhole. I found it very helpful in practicing photography. In general, preys are more skittish than predators, of course.


Finally a few more photos taken at Mashatu. Not the best images but they bring good memory to us.


Beautiful scenery.



Our first African sunrise.



The upside down moon (for us from northern hemisphere) on our first sundowner.



Elephant parade.



A rare mix of species. Interesting how much larger eland is compared to impala.



We never saw a bushbuck on game drives and the ranger told us it was shy. Well we found one resting in the shade next to our tent. That was our day 1 on safari and we were not good at identifying animals. At the time I thought it was yet another impala, till I got home and looked at the photos closely. We are very excited to realize (after the fact) that we saw another specie.


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What a successful first safari - multiple leopard and black rhino sightings (and a few penguins thrown in for good measure)! I particularly enjoyed the lounging leopard on the dry riverbed in post #2 and the elephant crossing the river in post #14. BTW, which lodge did you stay at in Phinda?

Edited by PT123
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@@foggy27 I'm of course delighted that you so enjoyed your first safari. I see that you got the Africa bug already,and can't wait until your next safari. I hope to meet you in Nairobi. I love all of your photos,especially the one of a lion carrying a rifle case in it's mouth.

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@@foggy27 I'm so late to this report, and only because I'm stealing time out from my work desk to quickly glance through your TR.


I'm glad you shared the TR - what a doubly great experience to not only see the elusive leopard but to see it raiding an eagle's nest! that's so uncommon. and I like that pix of the leopard rolling/resting on the sands - which is also rather unusual than the typical leopard on a tree branch.


the rhino=lion interaction is a wow - incredible that the lions were hiding behind your vehicle to stalk the rhinos. and love all the baby pictures too.


do you know which pride the two young male lions in Londolozi belong to? there is a huge upheaval in that concession and i'm curious if those two were formerly with the Tsalala pride.

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  • 3 weeks later...

great reading, great pictures! That 70-300 (the vr one) i remember as a good lightweight lens, takes good pictures!

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Sorry for being away from the forum to deal with real life event. Thanks for the kind words and encouragements.


@@PT123, we stayed at the Phinda Forest Lodge. It is in the northern part of the reserve, convenient for accessing cheetah habitat. I will find time to provide a little more detail on our Phinda experience.


@@Kitsafari, I do not know which pride of lion at Londolozi. The ranger may have mentioned it, but it was unfamiliar to me at the time. I signed up for their blog only after we got home to learn the individual leopards and lion prides.

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