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Limpopo-Lipadi, February 2012


RedLeopard

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RedLeopard

I've been prodded by GW so better get this trip report out before details fade :-)

 

PART 1

 

Christmas was quiet at home and emails alerted me to some great looking flight deals so by the time New Year arrived we'd booked a fortnight's trip back to Limpopo-Lipadi in Botswana. This time we decided to self-drive there rather than get a transfer so we also booked a night near OR Tambo to recover after the overnight flight before attempting the long drive north the next day. So on arrival we picked up the car and drove the 5 minutes to the Protea OR Tambo that sits on the opposite side of the R21 from the airport. The room was lovely - we'd somehow been allocated a special Valentine's offer without knowing it, so the place was covered in rose petals with free bubbly chilling in the sink :-)

 

After a comfortable night we made an early start, hitting the road by 8am. First stop was Mokopane for some last minute shopping for bits of food before we headed on towards the border at Martin's Drift. Then it was the final stretch along tarred roads through rural Botswana before we arrived at the reserve late in the afternoon. We quickly unpacked and settled in with a sundowners on the riverbank listening to the calls of the woodland kingfisher and the rushing water flowing past. The next morning we started with a loop out across the Southern Plains which were covered in greenery, a vast contrast from the normal, barren appearance we are used to on September trips. They were dotted with wildebeeste and zebra while European bee-eaters and red-breasted swallows filled the sky above. The drive back to camp saw a mozambique spitting cobra slithering across the track in front of us.

 

That afternoon we had a sit at Mogorosi waterhole but with there being abundant water across the reserve it was pretty quiet, just a few impala and other herbivores along with the birds - especially some noisy red-billed buffalo-weavers building nests above the hide. At 5.45am the next morning we left the lodge and headed north, quickly finding fresh leopard tracks just across the sand road. Despite following them for some time and ending up at the nearest waterhole there was no sign of the animal that left them, but from the size it would have seemed to be a female. Later that morning we found out that one of the management team had seen a very relaxed leopard on the side of the road, close to the location where we picked up the tracks, about half an hour later and some other visitors watched it rolling around on its back in full view soon after that. It had apparently doubled back from the direction the tracks were taking us! Instead we meandered across to one of my favourite parts of the reserve and enjoyed the birdlife along a dry riverline.

 

We came across plenty of impala creches along the drive, many 50-strong and more. Plus there was another snake, looking a lot like a black mamba, in pretty much the same spot as the cobra the previous day!

 

In the afternoon Tips was guiding us and we turned up a less-used trail that parallels a sloot not far from camp. We'd not been going long when Tips pulled up, reversed back and pointed out the leopard resting under a bush just yards from the track. It was a great spot and hard to see even when you knew where it was. I grabbed a few photos to hopefully allow a later identification as we've started a project to log every individual leopard on the reserve and compile a set of photo IDs for them. Studying the images back at camp later on the larger laptop screen we managed to positively identify the male we'd seen, who has grown up a lot since the first image taken a year or so ago and is now a rather big guy! We spent about 15 minutes sat quietly watching him watching us before he decided more privacy was required and wandered off into thicker bushes.

 

The rest of the afternoon brought lots of "general game" including zebra, wildebeeste, impala, kudu, waterbuck, and gemsbok as well as jackals and a chameleon nearer camp.

 

The following morning saw us atop Oppie Koppie admiring the views to distant horizons with Lipadi Hill rising in the middle of the reserve and the sparkling ribbon of the Limpopo to the south.

 

We had also started seeing plenty of leopard tortoises all over the place - something you really have to watch for on the roads as they easily blend in as just another rock. Driving yourself you really begin to appreciate how skilled the guides are at spotting things while also staying on the track, avoiding rocks, tortoises and other obstructions and dodging overhanging branches along the way. We had left the trail-camera out at Zanzibar Dam the previous night and back at camp downloaded images of plenty of kudu, eland, giraffe and impala as well as brown hyena and the wild dogs all drinking on one overnight stint

 

That evening a wonderful Hunter's moon rose over Tholo Dam to accompany a cold beer and snacks. The afternoon had brought bat-eared foxes on the plains, with an ostrich family, and a large grasshopper that hitchhiked with us for a little while.

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twaffle

Loving this, makes me wish for the peace and quiet there. Great photos.

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Super LEEDS

Very nice.

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RedLeopard

Thank you... on with the report :-)

 

PART 2

 

The next morning a wonderful sight of dozens and dozens of European bee-eaters roosting in a group of dead trees was the first thing to greet us as the sun rose.

 

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Then we found a dead zebra, or perhaps more correctly we saw the bouncing vultures on the ground that indicated the dead zebra. A stop revealed a very fresh carcass (not much smell) albeit very eaten! The legs and head were intact enough for us to see there were no obvious signs of a cat kill and the ground around revealed only a few hyena tracks - not enough to suggest they were responsible and none of the dogs (even if they would take on a small adult zebra). So perhaps this one had died of disease (although it otherwise appeared healthy (well, as healthy as a carcass can!) or maybe snake bite?

 

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We left the vultures to get back to their clean up operation and moved on to find a good group of eland at Mogorosi and a bunch of guineafowl alarming at something unseen (perhaps the owner of the fresh leopard tracks we saw there). The way back saw us rescuing another small tortoise from the track before someone drove over it.

 

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That afternoon, walking back from the office, I had a close encounter with a chameleon that was crossing the open ground in front of me. However in the few seconds it took me to open the laptop (the only photo option was to use the built-in webcam) it had completely disappeared. The thing was 8 inches long, bright white and crossing red sand with very sparse grasses. Just how did it vanish so quickly?! Amazing things!

 

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Sunset was spent at Rock Plate Pan, a large expanse of flat rocks that push through the soil and whose hollows hold pools of water in the wet season. The rocks were toasty from the heat of the sun as it set on the horizon.

 

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The next day brought a cheetah track, but alas no cheetah. Perhaps it had been what the guineafowl were alarming at at Phofu Dam as we passed through? A couple of bat-eared foxes were exploring the plains too.

 

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Later in the morning Lucky called us on the radio to say the trail camera was "not in a good position" and sure enough on arrival at Mbusi where we'd left it the night before it was pointing up at the sky with the elastic strap hanging loose, bits of broken buckle on the sand and other plastic parts missing entirely. Good job I have built an aluminium box to contain the camera and fitted a cable lock to hold it in place as the pictures eventually revealed a brown hyena had decided to have a go at around 5am! Despite that the 800+ images collected on that single night showed huge eland numbers drinking, both spotted and brown hyena visiting, the latter species more than once, and a leopard passing by the waterhole.

 

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Rainbirder

A very entertaining read with great images!!!

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twaffle

I love reading this.

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Lovely read!

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Atravelynn

Great report. All those tortoises, you'll have to change your name to RedLeopardTortoise.

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RedLeopard

Thanks again for the responses, on with the story

 

PART 3

 

Until this point we hadn't seen a trace of the wild dogs that roam Limpopo-Lipadi, it was presumed that they were hunting up in the northern reaches of the reserve, but all that was about to change. Bumbling along one morning we could hear an animated radio exchange between Tips and Lucky and a third man but all in Setswana. A few moments later Lucky called me up and relayed the details - he was back at camp but had remembered we were out on a drive and thought to pick up the radio and inform us of what was going on which was much appreciated. It turned out that the guy patrolling the fence (looking for damaged sections, warthog holes and signs of unwanted incursions) had come across the pack on a kill. As luck would have it we weren't far away and soon were turning onto the fenceline track in the area described. The fence guy waved from a spot ahead and we pulled up next to him.

 

He indicated that the dogs had been eating right next to the track but had dragged the kill into the bush when he approached and indicated the rough direction. All was quiet around and as we've tracked the dogs on foot a number of times before we decided to walk in a little way and see what we could see. We'd only gone about 20m when, rounding a mound, we could hear the unmistakeable cracks and pops of carnivores feeding on a carcass accompanied by the odd squeaky chattering the dogs make when excited or bonding. Looking through the bush just 5m in front of us we caught sight of the dogs, just flickering shadows through the dense foliage in front of us.

 

Then they saw us.

 

With a few barks and growls the pack ran deeper into the bush and out of sight, quickly followed by Helen saying "Are you sure this is safe?" :-)

 

We walked back to the road where Tips was arriving with other guests and inspected the tracks approaching the fence. It was clear that the impala ram had been chased into the fence by the dogs who seem, like other predators, to have learned to use this obstacle to help them hunt. Tips led us back into the bush but despite his excellent tracking along the game trails we lost the pack although seemingly they had turned north. Tips decided to go north along the fence to see if he could locate them so we agreed to go the opposite way round that block. After a few turns we hadn't seen any sign of the pack crossing the road, suggesting that they would still be in the same block, or perhaps further east. Thinking back to our encounter last autumn I guessed that after a kill they would most likely head towards some water, so we peeled off and aimed for Mogorosi.

 

Shortly up the track we came upon the large rock plate where we'd had sundowners a few days before and amazingly scattered all across it was the entire pack of 13 dogs. I'd forgotten there was water there, but was right that this had been their plan. Shutting off the engine we radioed Tips and settled back to watch the young dogs at play whilst the adults looked on with tired disinterest from the shady margins. The pups seem to have boundless energy - constantly playing, mock fighting, jumping in the water and so on. But eventually after half an hour or so even they succumbed to the rising heat and disappeared into denser woodland, which was our cue to head back to the lodge for some shade ourselves.

 

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In the afternoon we decided to aim to end up back at the rock plate around sunset to see if the dogs had stayed there all day and be able to watch them before they set off on an evening hunt.

 

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Our predictions were spot on but our timing seemed to be a bit off as no sooner had we driven onto the rocks then the dogs stood up and filed out down the track south! Pleased to have seen them and with the scene vacant we decided it would be ok to stretch our legs while we quenched our thirst but were surprised when no sooner had we put our boots on the ground the dogs filed back in! They were in a very curious state and came right over to the landcruiser, sniffing and bobbing their heads, ears on full alert as they checked us out. Then, seemingly happy with our presence, they went back to playing in the little pools of rainwater that have collected in the dips and hollows of the rock.

 

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One of things that is often difficult with wildlife photography is your position in relation to the subject. Birds are generally well above you, meaning a strange angle to shoot at, however mammals are most often below you - especially when in a safari vehicle. This can result in a dark, heavy look in their eyes caused by the shadows apparent when taking pictures at that angle. So keen to try and remedy that problem and with no one else to disrupt I thought I'd take the chance to try out some low-level shooting in the last of the light. Unfortunately it was quite dull by that time and the rock plate is hemmed in by woodland, which adds to the gloom a little. This meant a higher ISO and slower shutter speed than I would have liked and has impacted a bit on the final image quality. But the lumpy rocks were perfect as a location, as parked at the edge the dogs were actually higher than I was (once prostrate on the floor!).

 

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So, snapping away I had Lucky and Helen acting as lookouts to make sure none of the dogs tried to sneak up behind me! What I wasn't anticipating though was how interested they would be in me. As soon as they saw me lie down their heads dipped into a stalking posture and they made their way closer. If I stood up they lost interest and moved off, but as soon as I resumed they would come back. I let them come about 7-8m away before I'd stand up - I knew that morning's impala wouldn't have gone far between 13 of them ;-)

 

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Finally the light became too dull to continue and the dogs did leave, presumably to hunt for dinner, which is exactly what we did too.

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Just superb shots. Thanks for sharing these.

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twaffle

Some of the nicest wild dog photos I've seen in a long time. Great location.

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RedLeopard

Thanks for the compliments on the photos, it was a really great couple of encounters with the dogs and lovely to have the chance to experiment a bit with the photography. The final instalment follows...

 

PART 4

 

By now River Camp had started to fill up so we had some company on a number of our drives. It was a great opportunity to properly meet some fellow shareholders and enjoy the reserve together.

 

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A trip up to the northern plains on a cloudy morning revealed a whole bunch of zebra and wildebeeste as well as a secretarybird striding across the grassland whilst being watched by a jackal.

 

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Late one morning we were alerted to a fresh set of drag marks near one of the waterholes and exploring on foot with Lucky eventually followed the leopard's trail to a patch of bushes around a small copse. Under one of them was a partially eaten young impala but the site was too far from the track for a stake out. In the afternoon we braved the scorching temperatures (mid-40s in the shade) to try and get across to Kirkia and Macs at a time when the elephants may be visiting to drink. Their presence in that area had been confirmed by trail camera images from the recent days and the direction of tracks picked up elsewhere.

 

However arriving at Macs we found we'd just missed them - there were puddled splashes of water around the trough still wet despite the roasting surface, the water was muddied and they'd even given the trail camera some attention, pushing it backwards. After repositioning the camera we opted to join them in a late afternoon drink until the other vehicle called in that they'd run into a bull a few kilometres south. With them proving pretty elusive we thought it worth a go and packed up quickly, but unfortunately by the time we neared the location it had melted into the gathering gloom of twilight. Evening stopping to listen intently only revealed a chorus of monotonous larks finishing up the day.

 

But the long drive back to camp wasn't entirely uneventful with a great encounter with a spotted hyena at Magermans. As we approached we all saw the tell-tall reflection of eyes in the spotlight at the same time, and all saw them dip down as if the animal ducked. Pulling around the final bushes between us and the waterhole revealed the hyena as it lolloped away into the bushes. But it was obviously keen to drink as soon it came back out, stood at the side of the road watching us, then crossed back to the pool. We followed and it was relaxed enough to drink briefly while we took pictures under the yellowish glow of the spotlight.

 

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Hyenas are still pretty shy at the reserve, presumably a legacy from cattle farming days when no doubt they weren't favourites. But year by year you can see the gradual change in all the animals' temperaments and tolerance of encounters with humans and game drive vehicles. My feeling is that the creatures with the quickest turnover, eg impala, seemed to calm down first - perhaps because new generations make up the bulk of the population quite rapidly and as each one grows up with vehicles they see it as something normal and react less. Those with slower cycles, like zebra, have taken longer, but 4 years down the line from my first visit they are visibly less bothered. When once you would only have seen some striped rear ends disappearing in a cloud of red dust, now the are happy to stand and watch so long as you keep a reasonable distance. The hyenas are the next stage and for years we never even saw one at all. Now there are brown and spotted hyena wherever you put a trail camera, the roads are thick with their tracks every morning, browns are seen reasonably regularly even in late afternoon. The spotted hyenas still seem to keep mostly nocturnal hours, but are willing to stay around when you see them.

 

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Along the rest of the way back the sky got better and better. A satellite passed overhead and the Milky Way put on an amazing display as thousands upon thousands of stars becoming visible almost in stages. We also say a dozen or more springhares, instantly recognisable in the spotlight as they bounce off.

 

The final days saw a couple of shared dinners with everyone in camp at the central facility, with delicious food and great company, plus a later drive after one of them. Not leaving until 8pm we thought we may see more nighttime creatures but the bush was still fairly quiet. Temperatures were still in the 30s so perhaps it was still too hot for most? Either way there were good groups of herbivores clustered in open areas to try and give themselves a chance of spotting approaching predators. We came across a number of owls and even a pair of porcupines running down the track in front of us.

 

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The stars were again a stunning backdrop to it all but the best bit was an encounter with two young aardwolves foraging at the roadside as we looked on - a real treat!

 

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One thing I found helpful for night drive shots this time was setting the exposure compensation to minus a stop (obviously also cranking up the ISO as high as possible and opening the aperture as wide as it would go). This not only helped shorten the shutter speed (meaning better chances of a sharp image) but also helped avoid the burnt out highlights you often seem to get when dealing with spot-lit scenes where the tonal range is too broad for the camera sensor to deal with. Just have to remember to set it back the next morning!

 

Then, all too soon, it was time to pack up bags and the trunk, load up the car and being the long drive back to the airport and towards home. We're already missing the spot by the river, watching kingfishers flit past, the sound of cuckoos in the trees against the background of the rushing waters, all under a bright blue sky.

 

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But processing photos and editing video keeps the memories alive for a bit longer and helps bring the next trip closer.

 

Thanks for reading :-)

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Game Warden

Super aardwolf: great photography and reportage - now who isn't going to the ST LL GTG (!) later this year and why not?

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twaffle

I'm not sure why, but I enjoyed this trip report as much as any I've read recently. There didn't seem to be any effort to impress us with the exclusive camp, exclusive area (how few tourists) and the number and quality of predator sightings. Refreshing. Now, if I can just remember to do that for my next trip, or even if and when I finish my current report. :o

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pault

Excellent read. Some great sightings and you nailed them all very nicely. Looks like a lovely place.

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Great pictures and report.

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Sangeeta

An extremely enjoyable read, RedLeopard. Thank you for taking the time to do this for us. I was so looking forward to seeing LL with my own eyes this summer and was saving your report as a special pre-trip treat. But doesn't look like that is happening this year at least :(

 

Does LL do animal counts every year inside the reserve? If so, do you have numbers you could share with us?

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RedLeopard

Glad you all enjoyed :-)

 

Sangeeta: we haven't had a game count at the reserve for a few years now. There were plans for one last September but the permissions from the authorities didn't come through in time and the bush had started to green up. I'm sure its on the agenda for this year though. The herbivore populations are certainly growing though - we were seeing groups of 80+ wildebeeste at a time last September and herds of impala 50-100 strong where you'd get several herds at a waterhole in a morning. Eland and zebra are definitely on the up too based on the number of young we saw.

 

Predators are even harder but I was chatting to the vet when I was there in February and he recalled an old game count where they spotted five leopards from the air (a big number). A couple of us are also co-ordinating a project to try and create photo IDs for all the leopards. Just using the images we've been sent we have at least 12 individuals clearly identified, which when you consider all the images come from the SW quadrant of the reserve suggests the total population may be very high. Females are also under-represented in our sample so far.

 

 

Magnus

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Sangeeta

Good to hear that the numbers look healthy. Please do report back when you do conduct the game count, Magnus.

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