The bush is looking stunning now! The trees and shrubs are in full leaf and the grasses have grown up tall and are presently flowering. The diversity of life is almost at its greatest now that the migrant birds have all arrived and the reptiles, amphibians and small invertebrates have come out of hiding and have been showing themselves. The dark purple clouds have been accentuating the bright emerald-green of the vegetation, turning the concession into a “Garden of Eden”. As the sun drops at day’s end the clouds light up bright golden, like flames burning vividly in the sky, and many of the sunsets have been absolutely spectacular.
Unfortunately, we have not had as much precipitation as we were hoping for and the major portion of the N’wanetsi and Xinkelengane Rivers have not flowed yet and are still dry in many places. At one point we did receive a bit of rain in the area around Xinkwenyana Crossing and this water filled up Dumbana and Puff Adder Pools, but there was not enough water to cause the N’wanetsi to flow beyond the pools. The water level at the weir is therefore still below the wall and the road crossing the river here has not flooded yet. We are hoping that we will still receive more rain next month and that the weir will still flow over the road.
The Sweni River (which passes in front of Sweni Lodge before joining the N’wanetsi River and then flowing out of the concession into Mozambique) has flowed at least three times this summer season and there is therefore, a fair bit of water in the N’wanetsi River east of the confluence with the Sweni. Unfortunately, the Sweni River only flows a short way through the concession. The little bit of rain that we did receive has allowed many of the forbs to come into flower and we have found scattered patches of crinum lilies and sore-eye lilies blooming. The seeding grass has encouraged the return of the red-billed queleas and we have started to see large flocks of these birds gathering in the basalt grasslands. We have noticed that they are flying east to the hills at the end of the day, but have not yet found the locations where they are roosting at night. Due to the lack of any serious rainfall this month the grass has started to change colour again and there are quite a few golden patches amongst the green. There is still very good grazing and browsing for the animals in the concession and the general game sightings have been great. There have been large herds of giraffes, kudus, zebras, wildebeest, impalas and waterbuck seen in the area, particularly in the central and southern areas of the concession. Summer is the time for baby animals and we have seen many cute babies this last month. Although most of the impala ewes gave birth last month there have been a few sightings of “late lambs”. There are also quite a few baby wildebeest in the area. The young calves are quite different in colouration to the adults (the youngsters are a golden caramel hue, whereas the adults are a dark blackish-brown colour). We have also seen quite a few fluffy zebra foals in the area. Game-viewing, in general, has been spectacular this last month.
The Singita Kruger National Park concession is often justifiably referred to as “Lebombo, Land of Lions”. This is definitely lion country and there is no shortage of these impressive creatures here. The vast majority of guests that visit us get to see lions during their stay.
The Shish Pride is possibly the best known pride in the area and is the pride of lions that is famous for having the “white lion”. Unfortunately for us only approximately a quarter of the territory of this pride lies within our concession and, therefore, there is a lot of time that these cats spend outside of our area and we do not see them then. We can go for weeks without seeing these particular lions and then suddenly they return and we see them for a few days before they disappear again. We have not had many sightings of these lions this last month. Towards the beginning of the month they were seen for a day or two in the concession. It appears that the pride has split again. A portion of the pride consisting of eight lions (including two females and the white lion) were found near Puff Adder Pool in the first week of the month. Another portion, consisting of seven lions, were seen at the same time hunting zebras in the northern part of the concession. Both portions then left the area and were not seen for the rest of the month.
On the third of the month we found another pride of lions (consisting of seven lionesses) in the Central Depression. These lions were looking very healthy and due to their relaxed nature the guides are under the impression that these lions may be from a previous split of the Shish Pride. This group of lions were seen a few more times during first half of the month. During the first week of January these lionesses were seen in the company of the three dominant Shish Males near Gudzani Dam (which is still completely dry). It appeared that one of these lionesses may have been coming into heat and the males were very interested in her.
The Dumbana Male is probably the most relaxed leopard that we see regularly. He is a young male who is just becoming an adult now. His mother is known as the Dumbana Female. She is slightly shyer than him, but we have seen her a few times this last month. She was seen towards the end of the month with an impala kill at the base of a leadwood tree near Monzo Fourways. We have seen the young male leopard on at least 12 occasions in January. He tends to like the area just to the north of Lebombo Lodge, along the river or near the small ridges close to the western border. He has taken a liking to cooling himself down on the moist sand inside one of the water-pipes under a road in the rhyolite hills to the north-east of the lodge, and we saw him there on a few occasions this last month. On one occasion we found him stalking buffalos (this sighting is detailed in the “buffalo section” of this journal) and on another occasion we found him with an impala kill that he stashed high up in a leadwood tree.
Towards the beginning of the month a male and a female leopard were seen feeding on an impala kill just north of camp. The male could possibly have been the Dumbana male. The female was unidentified, although she was seen a few times afterwards in the following days in the same area. Towards the middle of the month we started seeing a female leopard in the vicinity of Mbeki’s Crossing, close by to Lebombo Lodge. She was seen almost daily, hunting and resting in the same area for almost a week. It was a great place for her to be as there were puddles of water in the drainage line and lots of impalas around. We watched her stalking impalas and then one morning we found her with an impala kill in a leadwood tree. On another occasion we watched as she came across a spotted hyena that was lying in a puddle in the gulley. She hissed and snarled at the hyena, but then relaxed and lay in the grass only a few meters away from the hyena. The guides have started to refer to this female leopard as the “Lebombo Female”.
We have had a very successful month of cheetah viewing in January. All in all, we have had at least ten recorded sightings of these beautiful cats this last month. Most of these sightings have been in the basalt grasslands in the western side of the concession and in the open plains of the Central Depression, and the majority of the sightings have been of a particular female cheetah and her five youngsters.
Right at the beginning of the month we found this family of cheetahs in the plains, just north of Gumba Crossing and opposite the huge large-leaved rock fig that grows on the rhyolite cliffs of the Lebombo Hills. We had a fabulous sighting of the mother cheetah as she climbed up on dead, fallen trees to look out over the grasslands while her youngsters who were a little bit shy of the vehicles remained below and followed after her as she moved on. The next morning they were seen leaving the concession to the west.
Towards the end of the first week they were found again. This time in the area of Cassia Pan, in the far north-west of the concession. They were drinking water and then lay nearby with full bellies, obviously having eaten something earlier on in the day. They were seen again, in the same area, the next morning. The female was walking steadily, looking for prey, while the youngsters chased each other around and played.
A few days later we found them again on our western boundary road feeding on an impala that the mother had caught. They were not seen the next day, but the day after they were found on the western boundary road again. They were being followed by two hyenas and the cubs hissed and arched their backs as the hyenas approached them. The mother then took the youngsters away and the hyenas, realising that the cats did not have any food that they could steal, headed off in a different direction. The path that the cheetahs took led them into the concession and they were found again just north of Gudzani Dam, where the mother successfully chased down an impala and killed it.
Two days later they were found hunting in the Central Depression area. The mother attempted to chase a male impala, but he got away. The next day the mother and her youngsters were found resting in the grasslands with full bellies as the vultures descended to feed on the scraps of an impala carcass a few hundred metres away.
The Singita Kruger National Park concession is a great place to see these mysterious, misunderstood and often poorly perceived denizens of the darkness. Spotted hyenas are creatures about which numerous superstitions have formed. They are often thought of as the criminals and scavengers of the bush society, stealing from others and they are often associated with the dead. There are stories of hyenas being familiars of bad witches and other stories of their maniacal giggling and laughter echoing in the night as the light of some unfortunate creature’s life is snuffed out. The hyena’s endurance and cunning are legendary, as is their clan loyalty. They are known for their persistence and patience. They are revered by many and yet abhorred by others. Nonetheless, they are very interesting creatures and we are fortunate to see them regularly in the concession.
In January there were at least 35 different sightings of these amazing and intriguing animals.
Due to the rocky, hilly habitat in the eastern half of the concession there are quite a few small caves that can be used as den-sites and we know of at least ten different places that have previously been used by or are presently being used by hyenas as clan dens. One such den-site is under some fallen rocks in the beautiful and picturesque granophyre ridge, surrounded by candelabra trees and with a view stretching out west over the Kruger National Park. It is a stunning location. Another den is in a narrow valley in amongst the hills. The den is in a set of small caves half-way up a cliff face and the entrance to the den mouth overlooks a beautiful jackalberry tree that grows at the edge of a small pool that fills up with water from the summer rains. In the grasslands, far north in the concession, another hyena den-site is in a hole in the ground, probably initially dug by an aardvark, with inter-linking tunnels to various exits – a veritable underground warren. The various clans of hyenas in the concession often move from one den-site in their territory to another and the dens are only active if there are young that are hidden there. At the moment we do not know of any small hyena cubs in any of the dens. There are however a few individuals that are almost old enough and ready to start exploring, wandering and walking the moonlit hyena pathways of their clan’s territory, looking for treasures and opportunities provided by the bush around them.
For most of the month we struggled to find elephants in the concession. Even though there was a drop in numbers of elephant sightings in comparison to previous months at least one of these magnificent creatures was seen almost every day. The green, expansive, lush grasslands near Tshokwane Public Picnic Site, south of our concession, has attracted many elephants and we assume that many other elephants that often move through our concession have headed west into the park, seeking a feast of ripe, fallen marula fruits in the sandy, granitic areas (where these trees are more common than in the eastern half of the Kruger Park). Most of our sightings of elephants this last month have been of lone bulls or small breeding herds. One morning we came across a magnificent male with long tusks in the far north of the concession. He was in musth and was on the move. In the afternoon he was found walking steadily in a southerly direction and the next morning we could see that his tracks led all the way out the southern side of the concession towards the Tshokwane grasslands. He literally walked right across the length of the concession (which is much longer than it is wide), from north to south, in a single day and night. Right at the end of the month there was a sudden change in elephant numbers in the concession and during the last few days there were herds of elephants all over our central and southern areas (to the extent that one guide saw over 150 elephants on a morning drive). It is great to have these magnificent creatures back.
There have not been any large herds of buffalos in the concession this last month. This is probably due to the fact that during December the lions were constantly harassing them when they came into the area. The basalt grasslands to the west of camp are also green and lush and there is a lot of grazing and puddles of water available for them there. We have seen large herds on the H6 public road on some of the transfers from and to the airstrip. We have been fortunate enough, though, to have regular sightings of three big bulls that have been hanging around the area of Euphorbia Crossing and Ostrich Open Area. They have often been seen wallowing in the pans and pools in that area.
The birdlife has been fantastic this last month. We have recorded at least 232 species. The majority of the migrants, both the palearctic (from Europe) and intra-African (from central Africa) migrants, have arrived back for the summer now and the numbers of queleas have increased as the grass has come into seed. The thick grass layer is providing a good place for ground birds such as francolins, spurfowls, harlequin quails, buttonquails and korhaans to nest relatively safely, and we are seeing more and more of them. Many of the migrant raptors, such as the Wahlberg’s and lesser-spotted eagles have returned. The Amur falcons have also arrived and can be seen perched in the dead trees and hawking insects over the grasslands, along with the southern carmine and European bee-eaters. Possibly the sightings highlight of the month was of a golden pipit (Tmetothylacus tenellus) that was seen for a few days, on the H6 public road, when taking guests to or from the airstrip. This stunning, brightly coloured bird has only been seen a handful of times in the country and is a vagrant species that generally occurs in central-east Africa (near Kenya and Ethiopia). Unfortunately, this bird did not hang around for long and only a few guides and guests got to see the rarity.