We were in the Timbavati Game Reserve, spellbound, watching Rockfig Jr., cameras clicking away, the leopard with the aquamarine eyes, nonchalantly gnaw on her impala kill.
We were 15 feet from where she lay with her prize, yet she behaved as if we weren’t there. Her glossy coat and white underbelly stood out against the looming twilight. Her canines, long and fierce, picked at the flesh but not before she methodically licked off the fur in the area she found most tantalizing.
We hoped she would hoist her kill into the tree a few feet away—what a great image that would be—and we composed our shots to allow for her to jump into the frame. She never did. Instead, she rolled and twisted in the grass, stretching with pleasure like my feline at home after a good meal.
She went from ferocious predator to adorable kitty in a nanosecond.
I was literally shaking with excitement. Well, maybe not from excitement. I was freezing in the unseasonably cold June winter that was blowing through South Africa. I had no idea winters could be so chilly? (Note to self, do better research) Thankfully, for a few hours each day it warmed up to t-shirt weather, but at night and in the early morning….yikes!
The Timbavati Game Reserve
Unlike the vast wide-open landscapes seen in movies such as Out of Africa and associated with the Masai Mara or the Serengeti, Timbavati has a haunting, rugged beauty filled with sandy terrain, thick grasses, and thorny acacia.
It’s more challenging to view and photograph wildlife than in the Mara, and throughout our stay, we often went for extended periods without seeing a single animal. (I must note that this is the risk one faces on any safari. Zebra and lions don’t appear on cue. One day animals may be everywhere, the next day, not so much. Part of the fun is the exploration). When we did have an encounter, however, we were rarely disappointed.
Quality not quantity—right?
I was on a small photographic safari led by Wild Eye, a South African based company that specializes in excursions that cater to the photography enthusiast and hosted by professional wildlife photographers who, in part, offer instruction if you want it, and I did.
Our fearless leader was Marlon du Toit, an exceptional photographer whose images lean toward the romantic. Marlon spent years in the bush honing his expertise while guiding at Singita, one of the world’s most luxurious lodges.
Timbavati Game Reserve: Game Drive Diaries
We stayed at the Umlani Bushcamp, a very cute but modest accommodation. (See more about Umlani below.)
Our days began before sunrise. Each morning as we waited for our little group to assemble sitting by the fire in the camp’s boma (a fenced in meeting place). We sipped cups of hot coffee, tea or hot chocolate (my fave), and ate freshly baked muffins or some other sweet treat the camp had prepared.
By 6:00 am we were on our way: seven guests, Marlon, our guide/driver and tracker, and our gear that included multiple camera bodies and lenses, monopods and camera bags, plus blankets and hot water bottles to keep us toasty. (At times I envied sardines…)
One morning, we heard a coalition of lions (males that live and hunt together) had killed a buffalo on a property near Umlani. Though the land was private, the owner agreed to let us view the scene and what a sight it was. Three male lions were lounging near a large buffalo flayed from the ribcage down, one lion still chewing on the remains.
Two days later, we found the lions again. The buffalo was a mere skeleton save for muscle and random pieces of meat. Surprisingly, the lions had dragged the immense beast nearly 200 yards from its earlier spot to rest next to a very small watering hole—a large puddle really—under a tree.
Added to the mix were two female lions that were anxious to eat but had the males to contend with. Even though they had full bellies the boys didn’t want to share with the ladies and one lion had a more amorous objective. After trailing one female at top speed, we later heard him roaring triumphantly in an “I got my woman!” kind of way from somewhere in the bush.
As if in a scene from The Birds, large vultures covered the limbs of a nearby dead tree. When the lions ventured from the corpse they’d swoop in, fighting each other for a tender morsel before a lion would inevitably chase them away. There was so much going on at once it was nearly impossible to keep up with it all. It was fabulous. In the words of my South African friends, “It was a proper sighting!”
The Baby Den
On several occasions, we stopped by a hyena den only to find it quiet, its inhabitants seemingly gone. One morning, however, when we arrived as a female was returning from who knows where.
At that same moment, a cub deep within the lair began to call to her with a high-pitched whine and within seconds pups of varying ages seemed to come out of the woodwork. Older babies, maybe six months old) ran up from a trail behind us while weeks-old pups emerged from the den. All of them ran around with their little bums wagging. They were so cute, I wanted to jump out of the jeep and hug them until they popped.
You can hear what the hyenas sound like in the video below. It was filmed in extremely low light so forgive the quality of the footage.
With the seemingly never-ending updates about elephant poaching, it’s with awe and fear that I greet each new elephant in Africa. Awe because I think elephants are extraordinary animals and fear because I can’t help but wonder if the magnificent creature in front of me will fall victim to the slaughter.
In Timbavati, and later on an Amboseli safari in Kenya, I had the great pleasure of seeing a few “Big Tuskers,” referring to the mighty elephants that have grown those iconic extra-long tusks seen in magazines like National Geographic. Unfortunately, due to poaching, there just aren’t many of them left. It’s tragic.
Our Timbavati big tusker was ENORMOUS. The sheer width of his trunk between each tusk spanned at least four feet. He was in musth and anxious to capture the attention of a small herd of females when we found him.
With hormones raging, bulls in musth can be aggressive but while this guy came pretty close to our vehicle (mainly because the uninterested cow kept trotting in our direction as if to distract him with our presence), he never showed us anything more than mild curiosity.
We watched him a day later matter-of-factly knock down a tree for a few luscious mouthfuls of leaves and then moved his big body onward. Frankly, I think he was just showing off.
One animal in ample numbers in the Timbavati was the cape buffalo. A large herd resting next to a watering hole one glorious, sun-drenched afternoon provided us with a great photographic opportunity. Two bulls engaged in an hour-long, horn wrestle session.
The match wasn’t particularly aggressive, just two lumbering frames using their weight to push the other back off its feet or its opponent’s face into the ground, in a slow-motion game of dominance. Their persistence did give us ample time to play around with our settings, light and motion. While my experimentation wasn’t particularly successful, I learned a lot and later in Amboseli I had better results.
At night after our afternoon game drive, we practiced a common safari tradition called a “sun-downer.” We’d park near a scenic watering hole or clearing to watch the sun set and have a little “puza” (a.k.a drink). Afterwards, at Umlani, the fire would be raging when we arrived and we’d sit and swap stories about the day’s sightings with the camp’s other guests.
After dinner, the yawns would begin and I’d head for bed, grabbing hot water bottles on the way to help fight the chill. Buffalos grazing in camp one evening blocked the paths leading to my room, but after a half hour they’d moved on and the Umlani staff announced the “All clear.”
The next morning I woke to leopard tracks—not to mention porcupine and a genet as well—in the sand outside my door. I know that some people might find that scary but I couldn’t have been more thrilled.
Umlani Bush Camp, Timbavati Game Reserve
Umlani Bushcamp, an all-inclusive, quaint and comfortable lodge that caters to families and small groups. Tucked within towering trees and thick bushes, the rooms were simple, circular thatched roof and reed-walled rondavels built in the style of the local Shangaan tribe architecture.
(For more luxury camps check out the following links. Molori Safari Lodge, also in South Africa, Duba Explorers Camp, Selinda Explorers Camp in Botswana, or Desert Rhino and Serra Cafema in Namibia. )
My room (#4) was spare but perfectly agreeable and without electricity or heat. At night it was lit by oil lamps that gave off a warm romantic glow I rather enjoyed.
A swinging door led to my open-air, en-suite bathroom and shower which I imagine is delightful in warmer weather but since I was there during a particularly frigid winter—I could see my breath—it proved a bit challenging in the early morning and evening. Though I have to admit, if you need to wake up early, and we did, putting your bum on a freezing toilet is a brilliant strategy.
The wall separating the bathroom from the main room was half the height of the towering thatched roof overhead, effectively making the entire space open-air. If you’re going to stay there during the winter you’ll want to be prepared. I wore two to three layers of clothing to bed each night depending on the temperature. One evening it was so cold I wore my jeans and a hat to sleep!
The camp provided a very thick, heavy blanket (however, when I requested a second I was told that there wasn’t an extra available), and hot water bottles which are very cozy until 3:00 am when they lose their heat. Half of our nights at Umlani the bedding was perfectly sufficient but when it was unseasonably cold it was less than fun.
(Tip: I found that if I put the clothes I planned to wear the next morning in bed with me, they were body temperature in the morning. Everyday I changed under my blankets—it took a little practice but it was worth it believe me. Emerging from my warm bed fully clothed made it easier to face the brisk morning air.
Located in a shaded area at the top of a hill, #4 overlooked a small naturally landscaped pool and the wide dry river bed next to where the camp was based. Across the river bed and up a steep hill was a watering hole that was at eye-level with Umlani’s guest lounge and lunch deck. Elephants, buffalo and impala were seen visiting the watering hole during our stay and it was always exciting.
There was an open-air dining area and boma (a fenced in meeting place) where we spent a lot of our time sitting by the fire before and after our game drives. A small curio shop with the only electricity in camp was a regular destination for our group and where we charged our computers, smart phones and camera batteries.
The Umlani Team
The camp’s staff couldn’t have been nicer. Tembe, who greeted us upon our arrival, was incredibly sweet and had a radiant smile. Morné, the camp’s manager, was always available to answer questions about Umlani and the animals in the surrounding area which made for interesting conversation. Everyone, in fact, was delightful.
Breakfast was straightforward and served in the dining area immediately after we returned from our morning game drive which took place from 6am-10am, depending on our sightings and travel time. Cereals, fresh fruit, yogurt, granola and toast were staples. Hot options were limited: eggs either scrambled, fried, poached or boiled. Sides of sausage, bacon, beans, mushrooms or tomatoes would rotate depending on the day.
By the third day we all knew the egg choices by heart and our waitress knew we knew but she dutifully recited the list day in and day out like a trooper. It became a joke between us and she would invariably giggle as soon as she got to our table, prompting our laughter as well.
I ate the same thing everyday: Yogurt with granola, scrambled eggs piled high on a piece of toast topped off with a little Tabasco, and a can of Diet Coke. Yum! (Seriously, I looked forward to it.)
Lunch was served at 1pm on the main deck overlooking the river bed and announced with a hearty drum solo by one of the staff. It too was an uncomplicated affair with mixed bean salads, and other dishes. To be honest, I stuffed myself at breakfast and rarely ate lunch, so I’m not sure what all the choices were, opting to sit in the curio shop to deal with a computer and Lightroom issue that plagued me for most of the trip, or take advantage of the warmer afternoon temperatures to snag a shower.
Dinnertime was my favorite. While enjoying drinks by the fire, Goodness, the camp’s chef, would appear after a hearty drum roll and say, “Good evening. My name is Goodness. I am a chef. Tonight we have…” and she would proudly describe the night’s meal. Goodness would end every menu with “…and fresh brrrrrread rolls,” pronounced with a masterful roll of the tongue. The others in the group preferred her lamb with mint sauce, but I loved her beef fillet with roasted potatoes, mixed vegetables and green salad. All in all the food was quite good.
Inside the dining area the tables were beautifully decorated with table-top arrangements that changed nightly featuring napkin origami mixed with fresh greens. The oil lamps lit the dark room like a restaurant frequented by lovers conducting torrid affairs. It was great.
For those who weren’t dead on their feet by 9pm—our days began before sunrise—a return to the adjacent boma and the fire was the ticket. I always went to my room to ready my gear for the next day and grab a quick read.
Animals visited the camp regularly including a friendly nyala—a gorgeous antelope—that found the leaves outside my room particularly gratifying and three bull elephants that made themselves at home at the watering hole. Buffalos meandered through the camp on night, blocking the path to some of our rooms which kept us in the boma until they moved. Another morning we found leopard, genet and porcupine tracks in the sand outside my door.
(Tip: I prefer open camps, but for those who may want animals to keep their distance, there are plenty of fenced camps available throughout Africa.)
On our final evening, the group gathered in the boma and the Umlani team treated us to a wonderful Shandaan dance to say farewell.
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