This first month of this year’s trails season heralded a great number of sightings, even with the current condition of the concession described as unusually overgrown for this time of year. Many of the guests have commented that is has been a “life-changing experience.”
Notable sightings this month have come in the form of elephant bulls, buffalo breeding herds and lone bulls, as well as a few short but special leopard sightings. We didn’t always notice the mighty bulk of the elephant bull from a distance; with the very thick vegetation, it was the sounds rather than the actual visual that gave away their position. On more than one occasion we returned to the vehicle after a walk only to be blocked by an inquisitive bull, lazily feeding or dust-bathing right next to the vehicle. On each occasion this has provided great photographic opportunities once we were safely back at the vehicle, with hot coffee and rusks!
We had a number of classic experiences with buffalo bulls; true to form, solid in their nature, unmoving until given enough room. One such bull we have seen no less than five times and on one occasion near Hutwini Gorge he gave us a few heart-racing moments. We were returning to our vehicle when we spotted him ambling along towards us, head down, without the slightest concern. With the temperature rising he was most likely headed to wallow in the nearby pan. Together with my guests – a honeymoon couple – we moved behind a fallen tree. The bull stopped, head up, and stared straight in my direction. I froze, sure that he had seen me. He then dropped his head again and continued lazily, towards us on a path that looked like it would take him past us about 20 m away. The wind was blowing across us though and as soon as he caught our scent he turned toward us, head up, nose glistening in the sunshine. With everyone safely behind the tree stump we stood and watched him before he continued his lazy walk to the pan.
My favourite sighting of the month was with the same honeymoon couple. We were watching a herd of buffalo from about 200 metres away, near the airstrip, and then decided to use the good available cover to mask our approach and get a bit closer. As we neared their position the herd – still oblivious to our presence – started to move off south-east toward a pan that we had recently passed. I decided to try our luck and go back and wait by the pan. We walked back and found a front row seat on a perfect fallen leadwood, with good cover between us and the herd. The energy of the herd built behind the croton thicket, until slowly, one, then two tentatively emerged, looking around in all directions before the herd finally emerged to drink. The herd was a large one and after about half an hour more animals had emerged and began to move around toward our position, after which we retreated without being seen – only to bump into two big elephant bulls on the way out.
A similarly exciting sighting occurred on a walk during which we were investigating an area north of camp where I believe a female leopard has been keeping her two 6-7 month-old cubs. After skirting a large buffalo breeding herd, I stopped to brief the two guests on the possibility of a leopard sighting and ran through the procedures again. About two minutes later, we had come through some croton, and were coming up a small basalt incline, when a female leopard jumped up from the long grass onto a fallen umbrella thorn about 30 metres directly in front of us. We all immediately froze, with everyone getting a short but fantastic visual, before the cat leaped off and disappeared into the long grass again. We moved back, recollected our thoughts, and left the area. What was very memorable was the relaxed nature of the leopard: she showed no signs of aggression and must be used to seeing people on foot, a good sign for things to come.
In summary … for our 30 walks covering 93 hours this past month we had a total of 42 encounters with elephant (5 bulls, 2 breeding herds), buffalo (11 bulls, 12 breeding herds) and leopard (3).