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Do Look Up - a return to the Timbavati, November 2022


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A belated trip report for a safari that was also belated.


The original plan was for my son (who lives in Australia) and myself to head to the Timbavati in April 2020. As we all know Covid stopped all travel and when we tried to rearrange dates for October of the same year we were again frustrated by travel restrictions. The original cancellation was followed by a long fight with Singapore Airlines to get Matt's airfare returned and we never heard again from South African Airways about our domestic tickets. I elected to leave our deposit with the lodge and Kambaku were extremely flexible in allowing me to delay rebooking until mid-2022. 

It wasn't possible for Matt to come over and we decided that my wife would accompany me even though safari isn't really an interest of hers. we a were able to use some of our large stash of airmiles to book business class returns between London and Johannesburg with British Airways and chose to use Federal Air for our trip to and from Hoedspruit - although expensive it seemed the least unstable option at that point the main SA airlines all seeming to be going through restructuring or even bankruptcy. 

We stayed for 5 nights at Kambaku and had a private evehicle for half of our stay (that had been part of the original booking). Everything went smoothly and much was seen - a lot of it involving wildlife that seemed to prefer being in trees.







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Our overnight flight from London was uneventful and we were met at the aircraft gate by a fast track service that I had used on a couple of trips before Covid. It was soon clear that this was completely unnecessary as Johannesburg airport was eerily quiet and there were no queues at any stage. Unfortunately there was no sign of the Fed Air rep at arrivals so we made our way to their office in the bus station and waited for 15 minutes before someone turned up. This reflected our booking experience with Fed Air who kept changing schedules and even the destination airstrip much to the frustration of both us and Kambaku who were trying to sort transfers from the plane to the lodge. In the end we did fly into the public airport at Hoedspruit as usual and had a pleasant flight after an hour in the Fed Air lounge.

A minibus transferred us to the lodge where we were met by some old friends (although the head ranger has unfortunately moved on to a non-guiding job elsewhere as bills had to be paid). The lodge was looking in very good order and we learnt that they had spent a good deal of lockdown time repairing and renewing.

It was obviously still very quiet everywhere we went and the lodge was never more than half full during our stay - I'm pleased to say that looking at their website they seem almost completely full for this November however.


We were treated to lunch and then unpacked with a few minutes spent sorting out my cameras. As usual I took two bodies and two lenses. The main workhorse was my Nikon Z9 partnered with a 100-400 Nikon lens and 1.4 T/C giving me 140-560mm and lots of ability to crop from the 45 megapixel files. The second camera was a Z6ii with a 24-70 lens attached although that didn't get used much. One disadvantage to the Z9 setup I use is that the maximum aperture is f/8 but the Z9 is generally well mannered with high ISO and Topaz Denoise works wonders when it isn't. The 100-400 also has a short minimum focus distance and can do a passable imitation of a macro lens when needed


We set out on our first evening drive and our first sighting was (as would frequently be the case) up in a tree. As far as I can work out I think this is a fairly pale Tawny Eagle but would welcome confirmation or correction:




Edited by pomkiwi
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It’s a pale morph Wahlberg’s eagle @pomkiwi

our first flight back to SA after COVID was similar, although Heathrow was also eerily quiet (jan 22). I liked parking close to immigration in OR Tambo!

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Back in the Groove


The afternoon was cloudy but dry. After our first eagle we stopped for a small bachelor group of buffalo one of whom was happy to pose for a portrait:






Then some more tree life:








A solitary male elephant was untroubled by our presence:




Even the nyala and waterbuck were relaxed:






We then arrived for our turn with a pride of lions just as some were stirring:








Quite a few of the pride of 20+ were having a lie in:




However they soon started to wake and re-establish the family onds:






Fairly soon they decided to move off:






We were able to get to a position to watch one drinking (just):




However this position was luckily just below a small rise over which some more member of the pride were arriving:






Some of the adolescents decided to climb a small tree but unfortunately this was against what was left of the light:




It was clear that lions should really leave tree climbing to leopards as the process of getting down was tentative, slow and clumsy:




After this we elected not to try and follow the pride through the bush but instead found some water and enjoyed a late sundowner:




All in all a good return to safari after three years away.


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The Black Lions of the Timbavati?


Day 2 started clear and then sunny. Leaving the lodge the initial interest was in the trees:






We then had moments of excitement and disappointment only seconds apart:






For nearly two days both we (and I think even more so our guide) worried that this would be our leopard sighting for the week.


On our way in from the airport we had seen an old and very lame buffalo just off the road. We all agreed that he was in trouble if any lions bumped into him. Just how much trouble soon became clear:




This was not the same pride as the previous evening with fewer sub-adults and a number of much younger cubs. One of the two males was keeping control but all of the lions were filthy:




The cubs were looking for ways in:



Our views were limited and other vehicles had arrived to share the sighting. I asked if we could move over to the top of the adjacent dam as some of the pride had moved away in that direction. A couple of the young adults were settling down, although pretty dirty they didn't appear to be particularly full:




The cubs however seemed to auditioning as black bowling balls:



The cubs went down for a drink but frustratingly the light was very harsh and we could not get down to a positon for any reflection photos:






This seemed to be a good moment to move off and we found a spot for morning coffee with reason to elevate our glance:




Other occupants of the coffee spot that could have proved reason to look up disappointly stayed on the ground:





We continued on with encounters with a mongoose family and confiding steenbok:






I nearly managed a leopard reflection shot but was again disappointed:




A lilac breasted roller took off without rolling:






The drive finished with another dragonfly this time hanging off of the sunshade cable at the lodge and causing us to look up again:




Edited by pomkiwi
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Cleaner Lions


We returned to the buffalo kill at the start of our afternoon drive - the only vehicle to do so. A few of the lions were picking at the remains, mainly the younger cubs being watched over by a couple of the young adults:










The bulk of the pride were sleeping it off under some trees on top of the dam:




We were in a slightly better position to catch a reflection while the lioness was drinking (but still no way of getting head on):




As the light became golden one of the males woke and offered a lovely portrait opportunity:




The first reason to look up on this drive was to follow a marabou stork at takeoff:




We then had a gentle time finding some zebra and a hyena :






As the sun set we were with a small family group of elephants but I couldn't get the shot I wanted:






That night after dinner we transferred to a 2 story hide by a waterhole that had been converted to allow a luxury sleepout. As it turned out the night became quite stormy with brisk winds and lots of lightening but fortunately no rain. Before that happened we were treated with lovely views of a full moon.




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Day 3 - A Gentle Start


We were collected from the hide at around 6am and headed off on a gentle drive.There was a glimpse of sun as we rounded the corner to a family gropu of rhinos:




We had little option but to turn around as they appeared settled:



Usually I've found waterbuck to be quite skittish but this individual was relaxed:



Close to one of the dams there were weaver birds (southern masked I think) hard at work:







As well as a distant woodland kingfisher:



A kudu was looking up and feeding from the bushes:



We were initially able to look down at the giraffes as they were in a shallow valley but soon returned to the more usual situation of looking up:






The zebras were active although the cause wasn't obvious and they settled quickly:





A small batchelor group of buffalo managed to look suitably threatening.



Although it was quiet there had been reports of lions in the vicinity so we decided to wait for a little while before heading back to the lodge. A good decision as it turned out.

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Zebras, Lions and not Much Else


We sat with the zebras for a while and played at being creative:








Our ranger had been tipped off that a couple of male lions were on the move and we headed back down the road and waited. Ten minutes later one appeared:





He was followed by his brother who promptly sat down:



Fairly quickly they appeared to pick up the secnt of the zebras and moved purposely though the bush:







They both settled a couple of minutes before the zebras came into sight but it seemed pretty clear the hiding places were not very effective:





One of the lions quickly seemed to get bored and started a half charge:



The zebras scattered and stopped and looked a little sheepish:



The fun was clearly over and we headed back to the lodge for breakfast. 


The afternoon drive was as quiet as any I've had.



We looked up for the bee-eater:



A large monitor summed up the mood:



Even the previous days lions were still sleeping off their feed and the cubs were not in playing mood:




We headed for home and nobody was mentioning leopards.

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Lovely images and story!

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  • 5 weeks later...

Many lovely images @pomkiwiI love the way the zebra cooperated!  The weavers must have been mesmerizing as well!


Too bad the lions didn't have some patience.

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  • 1 month later...

The Search Continues

Apologies for the delay in continuing with this report but life has got in the way (mainly grandparenting duties).



The next morning dawned grey and damp and stayed that way although it didn't often rain (for which we were grateful). It was clear that the leopards were still elusive and we headed to the hyena den for some time with the youngsters as they came out to explore.








We found a small family group of elephants with suitably cute youngsters:






Then back to the lions. A few of the adults were at least moving:




One pair seemed on the verge of developing their relationship further:






Unfortunately she lost interest and headed away to sleep. One of the other males came back to the pride where the cubs were fast asleep and keeping their toys safe:






After lunch we returned to the lion pride as no word had come in of anything else going on.  They were still resting but showing signs of waking with a lot of mutual grooming:








Not too much else apart from some giraffes in the drizzle but then a smile from our ranger and purpose to his driving. We drove for about 20 minutes and arrived on the edge of a steep river bank. after a lot of bashing through the bush we finally got a view of what was in the tree almost directly above us:







Not a great view but after some patient repositioning the cub sat up and made eye contact:




We had been told that the other cub was just ahead and although also on a tree had chosen one directly below us on at the bottom of a near vertical drop:




This youngster was less relaxed and let her displeasure at our arrival be known;




We managed to reverse up and then down another slope a few yards away where their mother was fast asleep:




She was directly below the tree where the first cub was resting:




By now it was getting dark and time to head away. It took a good 10 minutes to get out from the river bank. On the way back we came across the lion pride (again) but they were on the road with vehicles around in near darkness so no useful pictures were taken. After sundowners with a visibly relaxed guiding team we came across one more tree dweller:




Apologies for the picture quality but the ISO here is 22.6k (searchlight only - no flash)

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What a wonderful leopard sighting! The hyenas are very cute too 😁

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A Wet Morning


The next day dawned grey and damp with periods of unpleasantly heavy rain. As we headed out an upward glance was rewarded by this roller:




We spent a good while sitting with this family of elephant as again it seemed quiet but it was entertaining watching the youngster interacting with it's mother:






Leaving we came across 3 warthogs who very unusually didn't turn tail and run away!




Eventually we returned to the leopard and her two cubs (after almost every other vehicle in the reserve it seemed). The cubs were nowhere to be seen ansd presumably were lying low on Mum's instructions.


She seemed pretty fed up with the rain which at times got quite heavy.




She lay down for a bit but didn't seem comfortable in the wet and soon got up again:






She then went for a prowl around but didn't seem that committed and I don't think saw anything of interest






She then sat for a while and tried to dry herself (if she was as wet us us this would not have been successful):






At this point we left her in peace and headed back for breakfast. Later that morning the sun came out and a few dragonflies visited the pool area, this one is a male red veined dropwing I think:



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Some really great sightings and beautiful pictures so far @pomkiwi!

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  • 3 weeks later...

Lovely Leopard photos especially, enjoying this!

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  • 2 weeks later...

Excellent sightings and photos.Thank you for posting 

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lovely shots of the cubs. glad you found them at last!

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  • 2 months later...

Looking After the Leopards


Late morning at the lodge continued wet at times but with lovely sunny spells:




In the afternoon my wife decided to stay and explore the spa which left only two of us on the drive. It was suggested that we head off to the edge of the traversing area, about an hour away, as there was a leopard and cub that came and went across the boundary. We readily agreed as it seemed otherwise quiet.

We passed a hippo who looked at us suspiciously:



A rhino appears more threatening than it was in reality - the joy of using a long lens!



A vulture appeared to be trying to dry out up in a tree:



After an uneventful 40 minutes we arrived in the area where the leopards often traversed. In one of those moments of luck we saw movement in the bush close by with an young leopard walking away.:



I'm sure if we'd been a minute later we'd have seen nothing. We followed and watched the cub watching us:



It quickly settled down and we then saw the mother lying further back:



Both leopards were panting as they were very full. They were happy lying there and we took advantage of the opportunity to get some portraits of the cub. It was clear they had eaten very recently;






It turned out that there were no other safari vehicles in this area of the reserve. The lodges operate a system of 'handing over' sightings which meant that we were obliged to sit with our leopards until another vehicle arrived. It was with a sense of duty and great hardship that we resigned ourselves to having to spend another 40 minutes in complete peace with the pair :D.

A little later the adult got up and moved away into the bush.





We stayed with the cub until it moved. By the time we had driven around the track to catch up the cub had jumped up into a convenient tree and settled quickly:






Mum was already there although it seemed impossible she could be comfortable:




They both seemed more settled in the tree and we sat with them for 20 minutes:




Eventually we heard the sound of another vehicle and with a last backward glance left for our long drive home:




The drive back was uneventful and we heard later that the pair had descended the tree and crossed the boundary into a neighbouring property where they couldn't be followed within an hour of our departure. A lovely and lucky afternoon.

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Awwww gorgeous leopard shots.  

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Peter Connan

Wonderful Leopard sighting!

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  • 4 weeks later...

A very informative trip report. Your leopard sightings were abundant, the pictures fantastic.

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