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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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