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Small things, babies (and some dogs) - 5 nights at Kambaku River Sands (Timbavati, South Africa) in the summer


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Just returning from a 12 day trip to South Africa with my wife and two friends. We spent 5 nights at Kambaku River Sands in the Timbavati followed by nights in Cape Town either end of 3 nights in the Cederberg Wilderness Reserve – I will write a short separate account of that part.


The Timbavati was generally green with some rains. We saw a lot of small things this year.





 Lots of young animals.




Some interesting avian activity.




Encounters with wild dog on 4 days.





(As well as lions and finally after several years for me, a leopard draped across a tree bough).

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This was my second stay at Kambaku River Sands (there is a report from my first stay in the TR section).  This trip was postponed from last May when a planned journey with my son was postponed at the last minute due to SA/NZ visa issues. The lodge was generous enough to allow me to carry my room booking (and even my 2 day private vehicle reservation) forward at no cost. Friends decided to come along as well and finally my wife decided that a safari linked with some other activities would be a good idea.


We flew with British Airways from London to Johannesburg and after a late issue with Cemair having its planes grounded flew with SA Express from JNB to Hoedspruit and at the end of the safari down to Cape Town. All the travel went smoothly.


My photographic kit was mainly my D500 (Christmas present from my wife) partnered with my Nikon 80-400 lens.  I had a Nikon J1 for wider angle shots and also used my iPhone for a few quick snaps.  After encouragement from @Peter Connan and others I used back button focussing for the first time in anger with a mixture of single spot and group autofocus.  I also used the technique of short (2-3) bursts using continuous high speed rather than single shots as recommended by Steve Perry.  All went well generally with the autofocus generally coping with isolating the subject from the surrounding bush.




I made one major error when with wild dogs on our last day when having used a lower ISO for some portrait shots failed to raise it when they suddenly became active. As a result fewer were usable than I would want (motion blur can only be used as an excuse so often)……


The weather was generally damp and sometimes wet. Dams however were still less than half full. The bush became noticeably greener over the five days we were there. Unfortunately it was overcast for much of the time as the photo of the Marabou stork suggests





Edited by pomkiwi
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Looking forward to this TR @pomkiwi - thanks for preparing it.



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Excellent start, and some useful infos about using D500 (an idea for next Christmas ^_^). I think you will soon find M + AutoISO to be a great settings for wildlife shooting.

Edited by xelas
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@xelas I think you are correct about the M plus auto ISO. I did wonder but in the end figured I was already trying a lot of new settings with a new camera - also in the context of my first sociable (as opposed to solo) safari :D

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Shall we begin?


The day before we arrived it had rained heavily in the afternoon and overnight. So much so that the morning drive had been cancelled and as a result the afternoon drive started an hour early to make up.  The four of us met our companions for the first couple of drives and our slight anxiety about one of them being 88 years old evaporated as we saw her vault into the vehicle and proceed to make accurate, humorous and well judged comments about all sorts.


Our guide JJ was extremely good: knowledgable, very good with people, a wicked sense of humour but very serious as needed. Out tracker Renais was also very competent, although much quieter and the pair worked well as a team.


We did make sure she had the front row and head off into a damp bush – so much so that off-roading was deemed off limits today.  We cruised around enjoying the evocative smell of damp earth whilst splashing through puddles. It remained very dull throughout – no romantic sunset beckoned for us.


There was a dwarf mongoose that posed cooperatively.




JJ spotted a tiny leopard tortoise at the side of the track




A hippo that didn’t really want to know.



An African hoopoe (a first for me).




Finally a trio of giraffe that nearly did something very photogenic



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A small elephant


JJ told us that ten days earlier he had spent six hours watching the birth of an elephant. He located the same small family group – 2 adult females, an older youngster and the baby.



We spent about half an hour sat with them watching the baby alternately being adventurous and then retreating to safety. During this time the elephants moved around us quietly - a big contrast to some of the other groups we met later on.







It was trying to imitate behaviours of the elders although attempting to deal with a branch almost his own length was possibly a little ambitious.





There were attempts to steal some leaves from mum.



It was interesting to see suckling (note how the trunk is moved well out of the way).



Finally with a low rumble from the matriarch taken as a signal, we took our leave.



A lovely peaceful interlude which was such a contrast from the hectic excitement of a chase or kill. We all left feeling very lucky to have been allowed such close contact for such a long time.

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Baby elephants are always cute, but your photos makes them even more so!

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Enjoying your report and good to see they have had rain in the area. Lovely ele photos. We are off back to Shindzela for 5 nights late May, at the moment waiting a little anxiously for our visa to come through after having to travel to Auckland and provide reams of paper, pay $181 each and then wait 3 weeks!!

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Lovely photos, the elephants are very charismatic. Don't know that I've ever seen a leopard tortoise quite that small!


@KiwiGran Is that Taranaki in your photo? Headed there at the end of the year!

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Yes that is Mount Taranaki in my photo, the view from our house. Let us know if you are going to be in our area!

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Peter Connan

While the rain puts a damper on photography it always feels like a great privilege to see the rejuvenation it brings. In these relatively dry areas, it almost seems instant.


Lovely sightings so far!

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@KiwiGran I hope your visa gets sorted, it was your report that alerted me to the issues last year and probably prevented us arriving into Johannesburg with nowhere to go!

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Our second morning dawned grey and damp but at least it wasn’t raining. We were again restricted to road driving (not that there was much reason to do otherwise)


Our first sighting after leaving the lodge was a large male white rhino who looked as enthusiastic as we were with the weather.  JJ suggested that he had probably been busy all night marking out his territory following the rain and was in need of a good sleep.






The local marabou stork also seemed to enter into the mood.




A tawny eagle was alert but not seeing much to interest it.







A squirrel was enjoying breakfast.




All in all another quiet drive but some excitement awaited us after our coffee break.

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The tortoise still has its egg tooth! Very special find! Probably younger than the elephant calf you saw. But very cool pictures of the elephant calf too :)

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Peter Connan

Than ks for pointing that out @ForWildlife


Never even new they had egg teeth, but it is clearly visible in the photo!

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Beautiful photos of the elphants and the rhino! Might that eagle not be a Wahlberg’s Eagle (hint of a crest?). 

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@PeterHG Thank-you - having looked again I believe you are correct - the original higher resolution image also shows round nostrils which would rule out the Tawny if I have read correctly.


This brings me on to a further technical note. I have been uploading the images here from those I have exported from Lightroom at a size close to that displayed on the ST website.  This inevitably reduces the resolution of the images. I mentioned above that I had a new camera for this trip which coupled with the 80-400mm lens smetimes produced images that I was very impressed with in terms of the sheer detail. After some experimentation I will upload images from original sized exports which will display in the report at reduced resolution but if one wishes to see the full size image simply double click on it.  I will attempt to demonstrate this by uploading the two images of the eagle which showed detail of the fine hairs around the beak and the patterns of the feathers when enlarged.






Apologies to all of those who realised this before but I have only just discovered it.

Edited by pomkiwi
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A first enounter with wild dogs


JJ told us that there are thought to be around 350 wild dogs in the greater Kruger. In our short trip we were to encounter a total of 32 - nearly 10% of the population. I'm not totally sure my companions understood how special this was. 



Unfortunately for you dear reader I did.



Expect wild dog overload.



This small pack was made up of 8 individuals. We first found them resting in some well grassed bush which made it difficult to get clear portraits of them.



Every so often they would get up and move on one occasion looking as though they were about to hunt.



Before settling down again.




The impala knew where they were




There was a more serious move along the road.






Altough one decided it was time for a spash in the bath




At this point we left - I was a little disappointed at the time but I think it had something to do with traversing rights and it was possible that we had been allowed to spend time where we possibly shouldn't have been. In any event all the guides we encountered (with one exception) behaved in a very supportive fashion with one another and seemed determined that guests should all get to see what was around wven if that meant being a little copoerative over boundaries.  This was the only sighting we left fairly soon and there will be more daogs to come.

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There is no such thing as a wild dog overload :lol:

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My first proper bush walk


The weather remained overcast but not wet. By this stage we had JJ and Renais to ourselves and it seemed like a good opportunity to request a bush walk. I have done these previously when they were a ramble around the camp perimeter in the heat of the day looking at animal droppings. This promised to be different as we stopped in the bush in the middle of the afternoon drive and JJ and Renais had a chat. Renais then drove off leaving us to move to an arranged meeting point but he also kept an eye out for anything interesting that we might divert to.


JJ loaded up a serious looking rifle (the only weakness we learnt later was it dosen't like to get wet) and after a stern briefing (single file, no talking and ask to stop by clicking fingers), strode off at a brisk pace.



Our first sightings were of a small lizard and a scary looking grasshopper






We saw a few impala and a warthog that disappeared as soon as they saw us.  At one point JJ used a termite mound as a view point and a radio mast.




We had an odd track pointed out to us




Although I'm tempted to start an ST competition it would spoil the narrative and it is in fact the mark made by an elephant's trunk as the animal is walking.


We then heard sounds of branches snapping ahead. JJ motioned us to be even more silent and we crept up to about 30m from a solitary bull elephant.






We were downwind and after standing in awe for a few minutes turned and walked away without him ever knowing we were there.


It was a unique experience for all of us and one that took us some way out of our comfort zones. I now understand the enthiusiasm other have here for walking safaris and really appreciated our opportunity. Needless to say this was not our only excursion on foot as we were addicted :)



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@pomkiwi You will be pleased to know our visas are through so we are all set to go - only 79 days to wait! Glad my report saved you from being in Johannesburg with nowhere to go!! Really enjoying this report.

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Hyenas are cute (honestly)


Once our heart rates had settled we set off to finish our drive. It was fairly quiet (probably too wet for the animals - I've previously dealt with days that are too cold, too hot or too windy for the sensitive inhabitants of the bush). Fortunately JJ had plans to visit the local hyena den.  Thhis confirmed that babies of any species excel at being cute.  Here we spent a relaxed 30 minutes watching a pair of cubs.

Intially they were taking responsibility for lookout duty.



One then decided to try and bully a harmless stick nut ended up frustrated








When that failed it was time to bully mum






Then a bit of a cuddle






As we drove off the youngsters made sure we left




We returned to River Sands for some well earnt beers and a lovely dinner.

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Hyenas are cute ... until they grew up!

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