Safari Highlights: 10-13 July 2018

Visiting the Thornybush Game Reserve was a first time experience for me and one which I’ve been looking into for a few months before we made this trip. The area as a whole was not unfamiliar to me, because like the Sabi Sands and the Timbavati, where I’ve either worked or hosted Photo Safaris at, Thornybush forms part of the Greater Kruger region as well. 

This trip was also a first for my parents and sister in that they have never experienced a private guided safari in South Africa before. Up until this trip, they only experienced safaris in the Kruger National Park, in most cases doing self-drives and the occasional morning or night drive accompanied by a guide (which cannot really be classified as a private guided safari). Thornybush has a number of camps/lodges within the reserve, and I’ve been looking at visiting a camp called Tangala Safari Camp for quite some time. So that’s where we booked our stay for three nights. 

After checking in and getting orientated with the camp, we set out for our first safari with our guide Kyle Lewin. He soon informed us that there was a male leopard on a kill not far from camp, so we decided to head straight into that direction. But when we got there, the impala kill up a tree was only to be seen and no leopard. So we decided to continue with the safari and return later to check if the leopard comes back to feed. 

Not long after our ‘dangling impala’ sighting, we bumped into our first Big 5 animal. A Buffalo!

Cape Buffalo
A 'Dagga Boy' having a good scratch.
Dark Chanting Goshawk
Dark Chanting Goshawk.
African Elephant
Captured just at the right time as some light struck the elephant cow's eye.
African Elephant
Another side-lit elephant cow as she feeds.
Lion Sunset
Our guide Kyle enjoying the view of a pride of lions and the sunset. The lions were sleeping with full bellies after killing and feeding on a giraffe calf.
Lion Giraffe Kill
Giraffe leg 'take-away'.
Lion
Once in a while one of the lions would get up briefly for a quick scan before going back to sleep.
Lion
A large male was sleeping alone about 20 metres away from the rest of the pride.
Leopard
We finally got to see the male leopard responsible for the impala kill.
Leopard Impala Kill
Digging into his dinner!
Plains Zebra
Even though this zebra was in thick bush, the morning light coupled with a bit mist offered a great scene.
White Rhinoceros
An impressive White Rhino bull.

A great feature of Tangala Safari Camp, and one the main reasons I booked at this particular place, is the waterhole situated in front of the camp. It has a beautiful backdrop of the Drakensberg Mountains and you can photograph animals coming to drink at eye level depending where the animal is and how you position yourself. This meant that during downtime (between safaris), when most people are resting in their rooms or swimming, photographers can focus on getting some unique shots of the animals as they come down to drink. The only issue is that during this time of the day the light is harsh, creating some unwanted shadows on the subjects and way too much contrast. 

Cape Buffalo
I got really low to try getting the most intimidating shot possible as this lone bull made his way to the waterhole.
South African Giraffe
Giraffes were definitely the highlight species at the waterhole during our stay. Their drinking habits are always a joy to watch and photograph.
Hippopotamus
A lone hippo claiming an entire dam as his own.

After getting a call on the radio about a Spotted Hyena den site close by, we made our way to the area to see if we would get lucky in seeing the cubs outside of the burrow. Not long after we got there, 4 tiny cubs emerged from their den to greet us.

Spotted Hyaena
Four cubs huddles up together with the two adults.

The light began to fade fast, and a breeding herd of elephants that were feeding close by either heard the hyenas or had smelt them, and they soon approached the den site. The elephants were not very pleased and made their presence known, eventually chasing off one of the adults and sending all four cubs back into their burrow. That was also our cue to leave the sighting. 

Spotted Eagle Owl
Spotted Eagle Owl.
Lion
We came across the cubs of the pride we had seen during our first game drive. This time around they were left alone by the adults as they had gone off to hunt.
Lion
The youngest cub of the pride.

I’ve had a few Black Rhino sightings in the past, most of which were during my guiding career at Sabi Sabi. But those sightings were very brief, where in most cases the rhino would run as soon as it had heard the vehicle. At times they would also mock charge and then run away. But when we were on our way to view a black rhino and her calf that were spotted here at Thornybush, Kyle told us that these two were relatively relaxed towards vehicles.

When we got into the sighting, we had noticed that both rhinos were slightly nervous. We soon noticed that the nervousness was due to tension between the mother and calf. As we watched from a distance, the mother was seen trying to chase off the calf, and with the calf moving behind some thick bushes, it was virtually impossible to get a decent photograph of it. 

After a few minutes of tension, the mother eventually began to rest under a tree as the calf watched from a distance. 

Black Rhinoceros
Black rhino cow resting.

While the cow was resting, we noticed that she was very uneasy, moving about while she lay down and just could not get into a comfortable position. This baffled both Kyle and myself at the time, as she was not displaying aggressive behaviour towards the calf or the vehicle as she laid down.

She soon got up and we noticed why there was tension initially between her and her calf, and why she was moving about when she laid down. She was about to give birth! 

Black Rhinoceros Birth
Our first glimpse of the amniotic sac.
Black Rhinoceros Birth
The cow surprisingly came into the open and did not mind the vehicle.

We soon left the sighting as we did not want to put any unnecessary pressure on the mother as she was giving birth. This was a stressful time for both the mother and her older calf that was close by. We later received news that she had given birth to a male! 

After a crazy morning drive and breakfast, I prepared myself for another waterhole stack out session until our afternoon drive. The light was a bit better than the previous day due to a bit of cloud cover, providing some decent diffused light for the first part of the morning before the clouds began to fade away by the afternoon.

Hippopotamus
The resident hippo making his way back to the waterhole. It was unusual to see him returning back to the water so late in the morning.
Blue Wildebeest
Not my favourite subject to photograph, but in this case the low angle and decent backdrop worked well with this Blue Wildebeest.
Impala
An adult impala accompanied by a younger male making their way to the waterhole.
Nyala
Nyalas were a common sight around the camp and gave ample opportunities to photograph them as they came down to drink.
Common Warthog
Warthogs were also a common sight at the waterhole.
South African Giraffe
A wide-angle shot as a giraffe makes its way to the water.
South African Giraffe
The light was harsh by this point, but it did not stop me from photographing the giraffe as it quenched its thirst.
Common Warthog and South African Giraffe
When the giraffe decided to leave, some warthogs decided to make their way for a drink.
African Elephant
Elephant calves always provide ample entertainment and photographic opportunities.
Spotted Hyaena
Our second visit to the hyena den site. This time with much better light and a lot more activity from the cubs.
Spotted Hyaena
Only 2 of the 4 cubs provided entertainment this time around. But it was enough for me to take about 700 photos of them as they played and suckled.
Leopard
After our sundowners, we entered a sighting where a dominant male leopard was on a scent marking mission.
Leopard
He did not stop moving and was moving through some very dense vegetation throughout the sighting. This has to be the only decent shot that I managed to take of him.
Lion
Not long after the leopard sighting we bumped into a small pride of lions that were resting on the road. But as soon as we got there they moved off into thick bush.
Red-billed Oxpecker and Cape Buffalo
The next morning brought about our first sighting of a breeding herd of buffalos. I on the other hand was more excited to photograph the Red-billed Oxpeckers in some golden light.
Red-billed Oxpecker and Cape Buffalo
Some buffalo bulls had an entire party of oxpeckers hanging around on them.
Wild Dog
Our last 'big' sighting at Thornybush was a small pack of wild dogs. They had just finished feeding off an impala when we saw them.
Wild Dog
Staring at a bachelor herd of buffalos walking close by.

Although I went into this trip expecting the cat sightings to steal the show, the black rhino about to give birth was definitely my highlight and I don’t think I’ll ever get to witness something like that again. Photographically speaking, the highlight was the hyena den site. I’ve seen Spotted Hyenas at their den sites quite a few times, but none came close to the interaction that this trip’s sightings brought along, and during the second visit to the den site we had amazing golden light. Overall our safari to Thornybush was a major success and I can now tick it off as another Greater Kruger reserve that I’ve experienced. Just a few more to go! 

Pravir Patel

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