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03-31-2011: Kruger Park, Sabi Sand, South Africa, Chitwa Chitwa Lodge

Southern Sky Adventures: 03-31-2011: Kruger Park, Sabi Sand, South Africa, Chitwa Chitwa Lodge

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Spent the last two nights at Chitwa Chitwa Camp in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve adjoining Kruger Park. The reserve is well known for its prolific game viewing, especially leopard, and it did not disappoint.

Upon exiting the Timbavati via our own vehicle, the map we had offered a couple of conventional routes or the options for a couple of shortcuts. Despite having a low clearance car, I elected to take the shortcut over the dirt roads of South Africa. A few dips and turns later and about 2 hours after departure, we were at the gate of the Sabi Sand. Never can tell when one will get a good surprise in this part of the world. A local black female stepped out from the guard house. She was decked out in some tight, tan khakis and some pumps that might have her fit in quite well in a club in Atlanta. Here she was miles and miles from the closest clothing store, herds of elephant and prides of lion in her midst, and she was sporting a look that said Saturday night Midtown written all over it. I dress like Paul Bunyan for a cocktail party and our local gate attendant in the Kruger Park looks ready to compete on Dancing with the Stars.

Another 5-6 miles into the last leg of our journey I was ready to pull into the lodge and kick up my feet when there in the distance on the road appeared the most unlikely member of our convoy  —  a leopard. At first I figured it must be something different – a warthog, an impala – anything but a leopard. The Sabi Sand is well known for its leopard sightings but this revelation is a bit over and above the possible.  I took a few extra looks just to make sure I was seeing a leopard and commenced to get my camera equipment out as quickly as possible. Ole Murphy’s law kicked in again when I looked in the backseat and realized my camera and video recorder were in the trunk. A little heart beat skipped as I considered my options. Protocol called for me to not leave my vehicle under any circumstances but calculated risk called for me to get to the trunk immediately. I scrapped the protocol and eased myself out the door very slowly as the leopard continued to walk about 30 yards ahead of me. Big no no, here and I knew it but I kept my eyes sighted on the cat and moved slowly. Just as we are told on game drives, once the silhouette of the vehicle is broken, the animal’s attention will change quickly and this fact was proven. I got the door open about half way when all of a sudden the leopard stopped walking, looked over its shoulder in a fixed stare riveted right on me. Despite being in an uncomfortable position, I froze. The animal continued to stand motionless and his gaze affixed. After about 60 seconds, he turned and continued to walk back on the road. In the interim I managed to get my bag out of the trunk and quickly assemble my camera.

A combination of excitement and panic kicked in as I expected the leopard to disappear into the high grass at anytime. As unfortunate I was in the equipment being in the trunk I was rewarded with some good luck when the leopard simply continued to amble down the road. I drove a bit closer and a bit closer, all the while running the video camera and driving at a rate to close the gap. After a couple minutes I sat even with the cat, he seemingly unperturbed by my presence. His gait never changed, only occasionally peering to his left to give me the once over. Eventually, we were but about 5 feet from the leopard. He allowed us access to his private world for another couple minutes before he wandered into to the dense bush off to the right. As I appeared to see him, thinking he was lost, I came across his last stare directed right at us through the tall grass. While we fidgeted and squirmed to find the leopard one last time, once we picked up his steely gaze, I realized he had been watching us for a few minutes with ease. As I have been told, a leopard is only seen if it wants to be seen. There is no sneaking up on a leopard. He confirmed this truth and then left us.

Needless to say, the last 2 miles to Chitwa Chitwa blew by in a blur. Pulling up to the camp, we were met by the camp manager, Shannon, and the head ranger, Tristan. Shannon gave us the introduction to the property in her office but we then were ushered around the corner to gain the full view and what a layout it was. The entrance to the lodge was designed in such a way, now that I think about it just now, that lent itself to having the curtain come up to a stage production. Laid out in the near distance sat a lake, created by a dam to the left. The dam wall was hardly of notice and appeared quite natural. The

main area of the lodge was vast and incorporated  a viewing deck as big as I have ever seen. Hard to get such a water source and massive unobstructed game viewing area in one spot.

The room itself left nothing to be desired. Private plunge pool overlooking the lake, large poster king size bed, indoor and outdoor shower, bathroom the size of a garage and a sitting area, complete with iPod player and fridge and fireplace.

We were introduced to our game ranger, Andries, and his tracker, Patrick, as well as the accompanying couple on our vehicle, Jo and Chris Crombie from just outside Southampton, England. Not but a few minutes after we pulled out of the lodge, we ran into 4 elephants, the mother on one side of the road and three younger ones on the other side. Andries identified the three on the left all as offspring to the mother. Staggered in age, they ranged from about 14 to 8 to but about 2 months in age. The mother was quite relaxed but we could tell the others wanted to cross the road, unsure about the obstruction, us, in its path. Interesting to note was the attention lauded upon the baby by its older siblings. They both protected it by placing it between the two of them and also both elders nudged and stoked it with

their trunks. The little guy eventually calmed and spent a bit of time extending its trunk in our direction. Elephants of this size do not yet know how to utilize their trunks so watching them attempt to understand the appendage is of good entertainment. Not too often do we get to view multiple elephant siblings alone with a very small baby. The group finally managed to gain the gumption to cross the road and join their mother. They all 4 then wandered off and disappeared quicker than animals of this size and color should be able to do.

As the sun began its descent, the light reached a point that makes for good picture taking. Zebra are hard to shoot, regardless of the light, in my opinion. Their stripes look to be just right for getting enough angles right to get a few good photos but it just does not work out so well for me. As the sun began its fall one zebra sat high up on a dam wall, offering full viewing. The light seemed to work much better on this occasion. I’ll have to see if we can get a good shot out of the mix.

The sundowners offered us a chance to get to know Chris and Jo. My inclination is to ask a few more questions than the regular guy. In asking what Chris did for work he simply replied, “Retail”. Such a basic answer told me he was either a cashier or the CEO. Turns out the latter guess was correct as his company was just sold to a private equity group. Chris started when he was 22 years old when the chain, Hobby Craft, had but one store. He became CEO and the company eventually grew to 50 outlets in 16 years. They had been married for 7 years and were taking their anniversary trip back to South Africa. As the next two days unfolded, Chris and Jo and us got along quite well. They were of good company. Later we learned that Chris had started her own business selling dolls online. I took a look at the website and from the appearance of it and her discussions on the subject, I believe her business to be of success, too.

After packing up the tables and glasses we used during our sundowners, Andries took us but for a another 10 minute drive until we crossed into a large opening where laid out in front of us were 3 mature rhinos. Often weighing in at 3 tons, these animals look like tanks really. The two horns on their noses are impressive, the larger one sometimes reaching lengths of more than 3 feet in length. Their skin has folds in it so thick that when I have seen a dead rhino in the wild, the scavengers can feed upon and digest the entire carcass except the skin and the bones. The skin is so think even the hyena have a very difficult time biting through it. Their footprints appear more like the outline of a small tire, they are so big. Turns out we were looking at two males and one female rhino, the younger and larger male running some cover on the female. At one point, the older male made the mistake of getting too close to the bigger male and a small fight ensued resulting in the challenger being dismissed in but a few seconds. The younger male was content allowing the older male to forage with them, but he was not amenable to the older male getting too close to his female.

We did not get too far down the road until we ran into a big warthog. These guys might well be the creative basis for some of the less attractive alien species in a Hollywood film. Four prominent warts rest on the sides of the head and two tusks protrude from the lower jaw upward. The tusks looks to be too big for the animal’s head, making for an ever more intimidating stance as he started us from but 6 feet away. Part of the benefit of seeing the animals is such a reserve is to enjoy the intimacy of close proximity. These animals are simply not concerned about presence as long as we remain in the vehicle. After about 15 minutes the warthog went on about his way into the bush.

As dusk settled in upon us we were preparing for the final hour of our drive being enjoyed in the dark but with a spotlight to help us see the animals. A call then came into Andries on his radio that another leopard had been sighted nearby. Given the sun was falling, we made haste to get to the sighting as quickly as possible. The resulting speed meant a little extra jostling in the back seat but by the time we arrived the ever so slight readjusting of our spines was worth it as there laid out in the grass but 6 feet from the road was a large, healthy male. Seeing these animals so close is an impressive and rewarding experience. One can appreciate the finer details of

what brings these creatures to the top of the list when guests are asked what they would like to see. As I mentioned prior, the leopard is most difficult to spot given its solitary existence and it nocturnal habits. We are here in a reserve the size of a county in the US but have now been privy to see two leopards in but a few hours. Additional to note is the size of the animal’s head. From a distance this cat looks like something which a large man might very well be able to defend himself from but at this distance it is confirmed that no man would stand a chance against this predator, despite his weight of but about 180 pounds. Andries eventually drove us to within 3 feet of the leopard practically running over its tail but the leopard never moved an inch. Simply amazing to see how close we can get to the animals while we are in the vehicle.

Dusk turned quickly to night and we began the drive back to the lodge. Patrick, the spotter who sat on the front hood of the car, worked the floodlight from the left to right, scanning the trees and open fields. Game is hard to spot at night for the untrained eye and I have been quite poor at this task. These guys are the exception and soon thereafter Patrick proved himself worthy when he motioned for Andries to stop the vehicle. He shined the light into the tree and motioned for us to take a closer look. We still could not see anything other than leaves and limbs. He then got out of the vehicle and walked over to about a shoulder height branch and gently laid out his finger upon which a chameleon, the size of his thumb, walked out and onto his arm.  He brought it over to us for closer inspection. The little guy seemed not too perturbed and simple walked right up Andries’ arm and then onto his head. These pictures proved to be some of the best of the day and night. Andries let us all take the chameleon into our hands and he proceeded to do exactly the same thing in walking up and onto our arms. All in all, a very interesting and rewarding experience.  Children would have loved the interaction with the chameleon.

We arrived back into the lodge at about 7PM, retired to the room, showered and then enjoyed a fine, table clothed dinner of kudu flank steak. Shannon joined me for dinner as Amy decided to go to bed early. Shannon proved an interesting story herself in having started out as a banker in Johannesburg but after a few years of the corporate world, shunned the briefcase and high heels and exchanged them for serving as the manager for luxury accommodation in the heart of the bush in South Africa.

Wednesday morning wake up call came at 5:30AM, followed by tea and coffee on the deck. There we met another couple in camp, Leo and his wife, Mila, from, what was told to me was Russia. I had given them a wide berth when they arrived at the afternoon game drive the day prior as I was under the impression they did not speak English. Turns out I was wrong and once I introduced myself to Leo and asked where he was from he informed me that his hometown was Las Vegas. Turns out he and Mila moved there 15 years ago from their home country of Lithuania. Leo is a neurosurgeon and they proved to be good company during our afternoon exchange. Then, off again to the afternoon game drive.

Perhaps  it should come as no surprise by now, but 15 minutes after leaving the lodge we pulled into the area which served as the landing strip for private planes and there in the middle of the field was another leopard. So, now we are at 3 leopards in about 18 hours. Such numbers can only be enjoyed in the Sabi Sand, I believe. This particular leopard was again unfazed by both our presence and that of another game viewing vehicle facing us. The leopard stood in between the two vehicles and oddly enough a lone wildebeest stood just beyond the other vehicle. Most often such prey and predator species will not be in such close proximity but I knew from prior trips that the wildebeest, in an open area such as this airport landing strip, will prefer to keep the predator within easy sight so as to remove the risk of being surprised. Without the element of stealth, most predators will not attack. So, we watched this benign game of cat and mouse unfold for the ensuing 15 minutes with the wildebeest letting out an occasional alarm call, yet there were no other wildebeest nearby to hear it. Eventually, cat and prey went to their neutral corners and we moved on once the leopard disappeared.

Further down the road we came upon a female giraffe and her calf, only 2-3 months old.  I was a little surprised at the age Andries assigned to the offspring as the baby giraffe probably stood at close to 10 feet tall. Given they are about 6 feet at birth and Andries told us they grow about 2 centimeters a day, the math probably adds up. The knobs on top of the baby giraffes head were especially full with thick black hair. The females have hair on the knobs and the males do not. This process is the simplest means by which to determine the sex of the animal.

By this time our conversations with Chris and Jo were expanding into all sorts of subject matter. They were proving to be good companions during these game drives. In these such lengthy drives and intimate quarters, one cannot over emphasize the importance of the camaraderie within the vehicle.

There certainly was no shortage of plains game species here in the Sabi Sand as impala, kudu and a good number of waterbuck showed up in big numbers. A proliferation of birdlife was laid out for us each day. Hard to describe the colors on the birds here. From the lilac breasted roller’s rainbow of colors to the brightly colored starlings to the yellow horn bill, the myriad of colors and species is never ending. Chris was interested in birds so we stopped and enjoyed them all while he snapped photos through his Canon telephoto lenses. The eagles and hawks in this part of the world are numerous and with Chris’ camera he was able to both zoom in from great distance as well as catch them in mid flight, wings unfurled. His pictures were quite stunning.

Another tea and coffee break was followed by a swing through another open field where a herd of some 15 elephant sat before us, all lazily going about their feeding. We pulled ever closer and then sat just in the center such that the herd was around us in all directions. A real added bonus was the fact that again,

there were babies in the group. Two looked to be quite young, perhaps one was 2-3 months old and the other maybe a year or two.  As the little ones sat off amusing themselves at a small mud hole, one of the mid sizes females, perhaps 20 – 25 years of age, meandered over to pay us a bit closer inspection. She approached Patrick at the front bumper, raising her trunk and taking in our scent. She would raise and lower her appendage, eventually getting to within touching distance. She never evoked any fear in our group, in fact, she may well have been a calming influence. Her intentions were ones of investigation and not alarms. We spent the ensuing 30 minutes within the herd until they moved off and continued to feed.

As we spent some time thereafter having Chris snap a variety of bird shots, we found ourselves in a rather relaxed, leisurely drive. Having someone so interested in birds can be a healthy addition to the usual safari rider who may be in never ending search of the more well known creatures of these parts.

Another call came into Andries and he then told us there had been an additional leopard sighting. Wow, now a 4th leopard to view and we had not yet been here for 48 hours. This spot is certainly well known  for the leopard viewing and it did not disappoint.

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