Lions, Leopards, and Cheetah, Oh My!

Vumbura Plains delivered on the big cats in a big way. Not only did we get to see the lion family with the buffalo carcass on a daily basis, but we saw several leopards, a couple of cheetah, and other lions, including some that were hunting. It was a big cat fest as far as we were concerned, and we realized just how lucky we were when we met an American man stationed in Gabarone, Botswana, who had been on safari numerous times, and still had never seen a leopard, despite his fervent wish to do so.

One of our leopard sightings was a beautiful female lounging in a tree. The light was decent for once, at least until she turned the other way! After watching her for a bit we got to see her climb down the tree and go hide in the bushes. An approaching troupe of baboons was the cause. You would think a leopard in a tree would not have reason to fear a few baboons, but in reality, she was in grave danger as they could easily have overcome her. Baboons can be fierce aggressors and a lone leopard is wise to seek cover. Here are some photos of that gorgeous lady.

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One of my favorite photos from the whole trip.

One of my favorite photos from the whole trip.

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On the way down.

On the way down.

Peaking out from her hideaway.

Peaking out from her hideaway.

We also came across two cheetah brothers who were having a siesta on a termite mound. We watched as they stretched and moved off through the grass to a different termite mound in search of more shade. Though they looked very relaxed, it was clear they were keeping a keen eye on their surroundings.

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Shade was the order of the day.

Shade was the order of the day.

Me and my cheetah friends!

Me and my cheetah friends!

There were, of course, other wonderful things to see besides the big cats. We had a lovely experience in a watery plain watching as two male kudu made their way towards us. With the engine off, we sat in silence, listening to the splash, splash of their steps and admiring the reflections of these magnificent beasts in the water. It was very peaceful.

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Another favorite photo.

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Another time, while out on the western edge of the concession that is used by Vumbura Plains, we had just spotted a secretary bird, which I was trying to photograph, when a sable antelope dashed out from behind a bush and ran away. I missed the secretary bird, but just managed to catch the sable. They are very rare so I was quite pleased to see one, even if only briefly!

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Here is a smattering of other lovely creatures we saw while at Vumbura Plains.

Mongoose living in a termite mound behind our tent.

Banded mongoose living in a termite mound behind our tent.

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A bachelor herd of impala.

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A bateleur

A bateleur

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A vervet monkey

A yellow-billed kite

A yellow-billed kite

Crocodile amongst the flowers.

Crocodile amongst the flowers.

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Cape buffalo

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Red-billed oxpecker

Red-billed oxpecker

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One morning after transferring our English companions to another vehicle so they could go to the airstrip, we had Ben all to ourselves. He had heard there were some lions who had been following a herd of buffalo for some time, so we went in search of them. First we found the very large herd of buffalo who were accompanied by many birds taking advantage of the bugs stirred up by their passage. Then we found the lions. There were three of them perched on a termite mound keeping an eye on the herd, or more likely the older male stragglers.

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As we sat and watched them, a couple of older male buffalo got closer and closer. Ben told us that if the lions took off in pursuit, we should be ready to hold on tight as he would try to follow. Not long after, the lions got up and started off into the long grass. It was hard to believe the buffalo weren’t aware of their presence as they were so close. We saw them spread out and slink through the grass, incredibly well camouflaged.

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The males watch as the female closes in.

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Finally, it all happened in a flash. The lions charged, the buffalo took off, and so did we. That was a wild ride! – two hands on the roll bars and big grins on our faces. The lions missed and the buffalo lived to graze another day, but it was very exciting to see first hand.

After the chase.

After the chase.

The next day we came upon yet another male lion waiting out the heat under the shade of a tree. He was a splendid sight and posed quite obligingly.

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Next time I will share some photos of the incredible elephants we saw and heard and other fun things from our time at Vumbura Plains. Until then, be well and thanks for reading.

Travel Day

The next morning it had turned rainy and we went out for one last drive before we left. We went to see a Hyena den and saw a couple of pups, but because it was actively raining, we cut the drive short. This worked out well for us as we had more time to relax and pack up in preparation for our day of travel.

After a relaxed morning we were picked up by Johnny from Sable Tours to drive us to the airport in Hoedspruit, about an hour or so away. Johnny was very friendly and chatty and we had a good time discussing our respective cultures. We heard about when The A-Team was a popular tv show, along with Knight Rider. We remembered these shows as well from our youth. Johnny said that where he grew up, everyone knew when The A-Team was on, and if the only television was 6 miles away, they would make the journey to see it and be sure to get there on time.

We arrived at the Eastgate Airport, which serves the town of Hoedspruit, in plenty of time for our flight to Johannesburg. When we checked in they offered to check our bags all the way through to Port Elizabeth. At the time it sounded like a good idea, but later we realized that was a mistake. It was a small airport but the services were more than adequate with a café, restrooms and a gift shop. The security check of our carry-on baggage was more perfunctory than we are used to, but we had no complaints. Unfortunately the time for our flight came and went with no sign of a plane or any announcements. I'm not sure if they even had a PA system but I suppose they must have. There were plenty of other people waiting for the flight so we definitely weren't alone. At last there was some action on the runway and a plane arrived. By this time it was at least an hour late and I was beginning to think about our connection in Johannesburg with a bit of concern. Our plan in Johannesburg was to go out of the Domestic terminal to retrieve our stored luggage from the International terminal next door and return for our onward flight to Port Elizabeth. Originally we had two hours to accomplish this, which probably would have been plenty of time. However on the way to Jo'burg we realized we were only going to have about twenty or thirty minutes and that was going to pose a problem. We really didn't want to leave the bags in Jo'burg as we aren't returning there until the very end of our trip, and we didn't want the PE flight to think we just hadn't shown up, so we weren't sure what to do first. I asked the flight attendant on our plane what she recommended we do and she got some details and spoke to the captain. Though they tried to sort it out, we were told to speak with the agent when we got off the plane.

This was the sort of disembarkation where you descend the stairs and then get on a bus to go to the terminal. Clearly there was some fast action happening to try to get some of our passengers to their onward connections in time since the plane was so late. We explained our situation to the agent and she took us under her wing. Tshepo Lekwape, who works in Domestic Arrivals for South African Airways Express, was a godsend. What ensued was an hour or so of hair raising, sweat inducing, nail biting racing through the airport from place to place led by the ever-smiling, energetic, and expert problem solving Tshepo. Her first idea was to send me to the gate for our Port Elizabeth flight while she took Michael to get our bags and check them onwards. She felt we would have a better chance of holding the plane if I was there. This almost worked, but we just didn't have enough time. If we had not checked our other bags through to PE, Michael would not have had to pay for our stored bags to be checked (two separate lines to wait in), which would have saved some time. However that was water under the bridge. When they arrived at the gate the flight had already closed and they were removing our checked bags from the plane. Instead of abandoning us and telling us to go see the South African Airways people, whose plane we had missed and which was a different airline technically from South African Express for whom she worked, Tshepo took us backward through the crew security checkpoint and to the customer service manager for her airline. She explained our situation and pleaded our case. Part of the problem was that the next available flight was on South African Express, which had delivered us late to Jo'burg, but the flight we had missed was South African Airways, and their next flight wasn't until the next morning. I could tell she was working hard to convince the manager to help us. In the end she succeeded and off we went to the check-in to check our bags and exchange our tickets for the next flight on South African Express to PE. We were fortunate that our tickets were flexible or this would not have been possible. I can only thank Tanya, my agent, for that, as I had no idea of the tickets' status. That was not the end though. Our new flight was already starting to board and we had the issue of the bags that had been removed from the flight we missed. Back again we went, ushered through the crew security point by the intrepid Tshepo. She led us to the South African Airways baggage desk and convinced the attendant to find our bags and have them sent over to the new flight. Then it was a race to get to the gate and onto the plane, hoping that our bags would follow. When Tshepo finally handed us over to the boarding agent we thanked her profusely, gave her some money for her efforts, and asked her to write down her name so we could tell the airline what a good job she had done. Really it was extraordinary. In the States, we would have been dumped on our own almost immediately. At every turn, she encountered resistance and agents who were not too thrilled to do what she asked. However, she was persistent and persuasive and successful every time. We can only count ourselves lucky to have landed in her lap.

The flight to PE was uneventful. It turned out the bags sent over from the missed flight did not make it onto our plane. However, there was another flight coming in later in the evening and the baggage agent assured us they were on it and would be delivered in the morning to our B & B. This was just fine with us. We found our rental car and made our way to the Bayside Guest House, driving on the left side of the road in the dark. Needless to say we collapsed into bed that night thoroughly thrashed by the day's events, but thankful for our good fortune and the friendly people of South Africa.

 

 

On the Trail of the Elusive Leopard – part 2

While were watching him snooze, a large and very pregnant female hyena appeared nearby. She had a younger hyena in tow as well. She was probably thinking that the leopard might have a kill nearby that she could steal. As she got closer, he decided to move away and jumped up with a growl, walked over to a nearby tree and climbed up to a branch.

Pregnant hyena

Young hyena

On the move

…more to come.