Under Our Skin
Birds and Beasts of Sabi Sands

Close Encounters with the Big 5

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A typical day on safari goes like this:

    Wake-up call at 5 am, a light breakfast at 5:30, then out for the morning's game drive by 6 am., about the time the sun is clearing the horizon.

    Back in camp by 10:30-11:00ish for brunch, then mid-day when the sun is hot and the animals aren't moving much neither are we...free time in camp for napping (yes!), pool time, and relaxing.

    High tea (South Africa and Botswana were formerly British colonies, so British tradition is still strong) at 4 pm. with the afternoon/evening game drive 4:30-7:30ish.  The sun sets about 6:30 pm, so we're often driving back to camp in the dark.  Dinner at 8 pm.

 

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At Sabi Sands, we shared our guide Josh and our tracker Vusi with three other travelers from Kirkman's...a newlywed couple from Pennsylvania on their honeymoon, and a seasoned safari-goer from England.

 

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Josh drove us in an open Land Cruiser (amazing vehicles...they can drive right over small trees and through just about anything!)...

 

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...with Vusi sitting on the seat out front, spotting and tracking animals.

Yes, the steering wheel is on the wrong side of the vehicle (British, remember?) and yes, Vusi thought the 60-degree mornings were freezing.

 

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Sometimes Vusi and Josh would get out of the Cruiser and examine the tracks together...

 


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...and sometimes Vusi would set out alone while we drove around for awhile.  No, he was not armed.  There is NO WAY I would EVER do that, considering the vicious animals that lurked everywhere!



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Vusi (and Josh too) were incredibly talented at tracking animals...they knew what had passed through and what direction and how fresh the tracks were.  

I was quite good at identifying human footprints and Land Cruiser tracks....that's about it....

 


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While Josh was an easy talker (a necessity for a guide), Vusi was much more reserved most of the time...but when we asked him about close calls he'd had in the bush he had some fantastic stories to tell!

 

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Of all the animals that are commonly seen, every safari-goer hopes to see the Big 5, so named by big game hunters years ago because they are the 5 most difficult to hunt on foot.

Rhinoceros, cape buffalo, lion, elephant, and leopard.

We were blessed to have very close encounters with all 5 in our 3 days at Sabi Sands!

 

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The reason we chose Sabi Sands in the first place is because we wanted to see rhinoceros.  In all the safaris Kim and I have been on (this makes our 5th trip), we've seen very few rhinos and the ones we have seen have been from a good distance away.  We were told we'd have good opportunities to see rhinos at Sabi Sands, and with these unique animals being highly endangered and in the news so often as victims of poachers, we really wanted to experience them in the wild.

We weren't disappointed.  We saw, up close and personal, 9 different white rhinos in our three days there.  There are a few black rhinos also, but they eluded us this time.

 

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This fella had lost his horn somewhere along the way, probably in a fight, but it was growing back.

 


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You can see this guy has been fighting recently....

 

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And when I say they were close, I mean they were CLOSE!!!

Amazing to me how most of the animals don't mind the vehicles at all...they carry on as if we aren't even there!



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My favorite rhino sighting...we rounded a bend in the road and right there blocking our path was a mama and not-very-old baby!

And when I say "blocking," I mean it.  Ain't nobody goin' nowhere until Mama moves her baby!  Not even a Land Cruiser is a match for an angry mama rhino!

 

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White rhinos graze on grass.  Even though it was super-dry (the rainy season begins in November), this was like hay for them.  Black rhinos, on the other hand, eat leaves and branches of trees, and because of that their lip is shaped differently. 

Unfortunately, we didn't get to see a black rhino to compare.  Guess we'll have to go back!  :)

 


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These little birds are called oxpeckers and they hang out on rhinos, giraffes, and cape buffalo mostly...eating bugs.  This one was cleaning out the rhino's ears!

 

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Number 2 of the Big 5...the cape buffalo.  This one has an oxpecker atop his head!

 

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We did see some large herds of cape buffalo...follow the dust and you'll find them.  Not the most photogenic of African animals, but they sure are mean...

 

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...and always appear to be in a grumpy mood!

Maybe I would be too if I had birds pecking on me all day long....

 

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Number 3 of the Big 5:  lions!

 


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We saw LOTS of lions, mostly sleeping.

 


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Hey big boy!

Look at those scars on his face.  There is a lot of killing of other male lions that goes on in order to maintain his territory, let alone fights with other animals.

Male lions are extremely territorial and continually mark their territory with urine.  Inside their territory they protect and impregnate several prides of females, and they will kill their own male cubs if they have the chance in order to stay on top of the heap.  Until one day, another young lion is stronger and quicker...and, well the story does not end well for the old guy.

 

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Oftentimes two male lion brothers will hang out together and share a territory, like these two males (incredible how camouflaged they are!).  They were hunkering down, keeping watch over a huge herd of elephants passing by.  The only thing that intimidates a lion is an elephant...elephants kill more lions than vice versa.  We sat and watched these lions trying to go unnoticed by the elephants.  Had the elephants spotted them, they would have been chased away.  But this time they managed to elude the elephants' gaze...

 


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Looks like a big, lovable kitty cat, doesn't she?  I dare you to scratch her tummy....

 


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Number 4 of the Big 5:  elephants.

As Kim rightly put it, we saw lots more elephants on our trip than we did people.  Probably twenty times more!

 

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You wouldn't think an elephant could hide, but you'd be surprised how well they blend in with the dried brush and bushes.

 

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And my very favorite of the Big 5:  leopards.

 


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This is the oldest tree in the Sabi Sands reserve, a sycamore fig tree that is 500-600 years old.  Do you see the leopard hanging out in the fork of the tree, just above the spotlight?

Yeah, I'd never have seen it either.  But Josh and Vusi did!

 


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It was already dark when they spotted him.

 


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We saw so many leopards, I lost count.  They are also territorial, so Josh and Vusi know which ones we'd already seen before and which ones are different individuals.  Leopards are loners, except when they are raising cubs.

 

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A funny leopard story....Our first full morning drive, Josh and Vusi were following the tracks of a male leopard headed toward the dry riverbed.  They lost the tracks, so Vusi decided to get off the vehicle and follow them off-road and into the bush while Josh drove on down to the riverbed to take a look.  Josh hopped out of the right side of the Cruiser and was checking the ground, telling us he was looking for leopard prints.  At that very moment, Kim SPOTTED said leopard lying in the grass just on the other side of the jeep!  As Josh paused, Kim said, "Do you mean THAT leopard, Josh?"  A quick glance toward where Kim was pointing and Josh hopped back into the Cruiser pretty darn quickly! 

 

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On closer examination, we could see that this big male leopard had a significant puncture injury on its right hip, as you can see in the photo.  It's a vicious world in the bush!

 


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We followed another leopard as he looked for something to drink...

 

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I just love the way they curl their long tails around!  And look at that fur pattern....

 


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This young female had made an early morning kill and was eating her impala breakfast as we came upon her.

Usually leopards will drag their kills up into a tree for safe-keeping, away from lions and hyenas.  But this girl wasn't quite strong enough to do that yet...she needed to eat part of it to lighten the load.


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Maybe a little gruesome, but it's all about survival out here. 

 


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Amazing to watch God's magnificent creatures in action right outside our Cruiser.

Close encounters of the Big 5.

 

Comments

Deb Arnold

Terry your pictures are absolutely stunning! Enjoyed reading the big 5. I can feel your excitement.

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