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7 Weeks in Kruger: Big Cat-tastic!

Updated: Jan 3, 2019

On some game drives, you set out excited for the wildlife opportunities ahead but it, well, just doesn’t deliver. It’s nature after all so there are no guarantees.

Sometimes, though, a few hours on the road will absolutely blow you away with incredible sighting after incredible sighting. Travelling between Olifants and Satara Rest Camps I was treated to a classic game drive.

In 5-hours I was able to view 26 lions, 6 cheetahs, a leopard, 5 spotted hyenas, 3 different species of eagle and a number of other herbivores including elephant, buffalo, zebra and giraffe. Unbelievable stuff, although some of the sightings were tinged with sadness too…

Lions vs cheetahs

Moving south of the Olifants River and emerging from the sea of mopane veld to the north, the first thing I noticed was the significant densities of herbivores lining the road. This is always a good sign as the predators will follow, and wow did they!

The first big cat sighting was a group of five adolescent cheetahs. They will become increasingly independent as they reach adulthood but for now are working in a coalition, hunting together, sharing food and protecting each other. The five were lying around but all intently watching something further ahead. One by one they got up and moved closer to whatever had their attention too.

I took a gamble and drove forward to see what they were transfixed with, only to find a pride of 12 lions on a kill just the other side of some bush just 50m away. Most of the lions plus the kill were obscured or mostly out of sight in the Ngotso riverbed, so it didn’t offer a great view but my heart rate kicked up at the prospect of what might unfold here.

There were also several spotted hyena and three black-backed jackals hassling the lions and hanging around for a free meal so the tensions amongst the lions was high.

The best immediate viewing was the cheetahs, so I backed up and got into a good position. Within just a couple of minutes, the furthest forward of the cheetah suddenly raised her head sharply, got up and started walking rapidly away from the lions but looking back over her shoulder, never breaking eye contact with whatever was approaching.

Then I saw why - a huge lioness came storming out of the bush at full speed after the cheetahs. All five of them were up and into sprints in a flash. The lioness was serious too - she wasn’t just jogging after them but was at full speed and would have taken one if she had the pace to run them down.

All six big cats sprinted across the road in front of my vehicle. Incredibly, the lioness chased the cheetahs the best part of a kilometre across the open the savannah, only returning when the threat was gone and heavily salivating as though she really thought she might have a chance of catching one, although to no avail on this occasion.

Getting photos of the whole event from a stationary car was all but impossible, especially as these cats were all speeding at over 40kmph, but I hope the photos I did get share something of the intensity of the experience - my heart was seriously pounding throughout!

You can actually see the expression of concern and fear on the cheetah's face in some of the images and this lioness carried all the authority of the matriarch of the pride too.

Nature is brutal

After spending some time trying to view some of the pride, I headed further south and quickly encountered another pride of 10 lions on kill.

This was a sad story. Reports from the prior afternoon indicated a female zebra was in significant difficulty during labour close to the road. The morning revealed that she and her unborn foal had been an easy target for the lions. In just a few hours they had eaten most of the carcass. The view was obstructed by bush and so the photos were not worth sharing, but the tale highlights the frequent brutality of life in the wild.

Yet the lions are not immortal nor impervious to disaster themselves. Further on I found two more male lions in a dry riverbed. They were brothers, operating in coalition but without a pride. Take a look at the photos - one of the lions has a badly broken front left leg. He is unable to put any weight on it and is desperately thin and close to starvation.

His immune system is also starting to fail as infected cuts and parasitic ticks leave his hide and face in a very poor state. His brother is much healthier and clearly still able to hunt and feed, but the coalition 'arrangement' does not appear to extend to bringing food back for the injured party.

There is no way to know how the injury happened - potentially fighting another lion, during an attempted kill or just a freak accident. Either way, nature is often brutal and this lion is not long for this world.

Note the jaw bone with the huge incisors is from a hippo. It has been there for a while and was not killed by these two lions.

Continuing, another distant male cheetah added yet another big cat to the sightings list for the morning before a very special experience on the route back to the camp.

Touching distance from a leopard

A female leopard was approaching a raised section of road and I was able to calm myself and steady the hands to get a couple of pictures.

Unfortunately there was a drainage culvert under the road and she appeared to have entered that for shelter from the searing heat - it was midday and 40C+ by now - and out of sight from us safari-goers.

Myself, Julien from Julien Regamey Wildlife Photography and another vehicle decided to stake it out to see she if re-emerged - and wow were we rewarded for our patience!

After 20-minutes she reappeared before climbing up the slope and across the road right in front of my vehicle. At one point she was within touching distance out of my window - which was wide open!

I love that even though she was confident enough to stride between us, you can she is keeping her eye on me throughout too!

Honestly, the photos aren’t great - the brilliant sun was beating down from overhead, the heat distortion from even just a couple of metres away leaves the images seriously lacking sharpness and I was actually too close to get her in a single shot as she passed - but what an incredible experience!

Leopard cub...?

I didn’t go out that afternoon because sometimes you just know it is not going to get any better, so basking in the amazing sightings with a cold beer and good food in the Olifants restaurant was the order of the day!

It give did me time to come up with an idea for the next day though. The female leopard was heading towards the S147 road - perhaps there might be a leopard cub waiting her return over there……. Until the next blog post! ;-)

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Natalie Broome
Natalie Broome
Nov 29, 2018

Sounds like another incredible day - amazing you managed to get so close to a leopard too!

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