The month of July has been overflowing with unforgettable sightings that our guests will cherish for a long time. It seems that, at the moment, the Concession is a hive of predator activity. We are humbled and privileged to share that we have spent time with lions, leopards, wild dogs, and cheetahs on an almost daily basis!
In fact, as you will see below, we’ve been extremely lucky to have encountered several of these predators within less than 4 kilometres (2.5 miles) from each other! This incredible phenomenon is a testament to the unpredictability and breath-taking thrill of our 100-square-kilometre Mluwati Concession inside the incomparable Kruger National Park.
In our July Newsletter, we will take you on the extraordinary “Saturday Morning Safari” that our guides recently experienced. We will also update you on our favourite Mluwati Concession characters! Sit back, relax, and envision yourself back with the soothing sights and sounds of the African bushveld.
SATURDAY MORNING SAFARI ON THE MLUWATI CONCESSION
Leaving the lodge early on a Saturday morning, two very excited people ventured out into the cold morning air in search of whatever we can find. Following the gentle bend of the road winding down from the Imbali Safari Lodge gate, we see six hyenas standing around. Two youngsters are having a pushing and shoving match while an adult female keeps a close eye on what we are doing. They cross through the N’waswitsontso riverbed past Room 1 and head across to the waterhole.
We soon follow suit and “jump across” to the waterhole we are met by the clan at the junction of Imbali Waterhole. The youngsters are wary of us and keep their distance, the largest of the females slowly approaches the vehicle and heads around to the driver’s door where Tristan, our guide, is sitting and recording her. She stops to have a good look. Slow and steady movements as we watch her sniff all the way down the side of the vehicle until she reaches the back. Now, normally, this would mean she would continue past and carry-on walking, but we are not sure why she decided to check out the whole vehicle. Slowly, she passes the back of the vehicle and comes to stand right next to me. You finally get to see how big a female hyena really is. As she stands next to me, my breath hitches, her nose is level with the door—a little intimidating to say the least.
The youngsters come closer as she heads back around the front of the vehicle and down again past Tristan. As they slowly start moving off, the sense of anticipation and even a little adrenalin begins to settle. As we discuss what happened, and how amazing it was the realisation of how big she is, the strength she possesses in—not only her body but in—that sheer bite that she has makes you wonder: all she needed to do was put her front feet onto the boarding step and she would literally be level with your arm. Never underestimate the power of nature, she might just surprise you one day. After being a guide for so long and having Tristan with me, it was just such an astounding experience to be in that moment. The smell of her was beyond words—we had no idea what she had been rolling in, but wow the smell was evil! As we take-in everything, the sun starts to break through the horizon and we slowly head-off to see what else we can find. Listening to the route plans of the other two guides for the morning, we decide to head north towards Nyalungu and onto our western cutline to make our way towards Hamiltons Tented Camp.
Turning on to cutline, ‘we check our perspective sides of the vehicle for any indication of the animals who had moved across or along the road. A little further down, Tristan has indication of large male lion tracks walking south, so we continue in the same direction past two large open plains, which we refer to as Predator Plains. As per the norm on the open areas, there are a few impalas scattered around feeding and a bull blue wildebeest lying in the short grass. The jackals, who are usually residents of the area, have now not been seen for a few months. Continuing, we come across some other tracks – “wild dogs”, says Tristan, as we slowly keep driving south. Sure enough, the soft sand provides the tell-tale signs of a large pack of wild dogs heading in the same direction as us.
As we reach the top of a steady incline in the road, something catches our attention: it is running down the road heading south away from us. We take a look through the binoculars and see the characteristic shape of the longer front legs to the shorter back legs –a single hyena. We increase our pace as we have learnt over time that running hyenas normally mean they have picked up on the scent of something. The hyena cuts off the road and disappears into the long grass in front of us—east in direction. Our sight of her is adverted to the soaring shape of a vulture landing close to the road. As we take in the surroundings, there are vultures all around. The shrill—almost spine-chilling—calls of hyenas fighting draw our attention in the direction of the chaos that was about to unfold.
We reverse back a little way and right in front of us one adult wild dog pops out of a small gully, then the next, then three or four more until the numbers begin to climb up to fifteen, sixteen dogs. They cross out of the Concession into Manyeleti, having eaten their fill, heading towards only what we can think would be their den site to feed the pups. We drive in to where the initial chaos began to find three hyenas standing short distances away from each other. The first one closest to us has what seems to be the remains of an impala leg. The second one is about five metres further east—this one seems to have gotten the raw end of the deal and is trying to consume a section of left-over fur and skin. The third and rather large female hyena is probably about 10 metres away from the rest and she is definitely also eating. We push through closer to her. A couple of minutes later, she picks up her prize—the head and a good length of the spinal column—and runs with it heading further east.
As the bush starts getting a little too thick, we head back to take some images of the various types of vultures sitting in the early morning sunlight waiting for their chance to find whatever is it the can. We are privileged for find several different species of vultures on the Concession—a vital indicator of the health and condition of the ecosystem.
We spend some time with them when, all of a sudden, a noticeable movement draws our attention – it is a young but rather large male lion! We just sat speechless of what we were seeing after a few minutes—the realization of everything that had just happened struck. We turned to follow the lion who had managed to grab the remains of what the larger hyenas had taken. Skittish of the vehicle, the unknown lion kept moving further and further into some really dense bush where he finally stopped to enjoy his steal. After 15 to 20 minutes, we decided to leave him and see what else we could find.
Now I am sure you must be thinking that, by this stage, what more did we need after the morning we had already had? Well, to be honest, we had the same thought until we went about 600 metres further down the road. Rounding the bend we were surprised by a large grey boulder – no, it was a bull rhino! We just could not believe it.
As the bull moved off the road, something further down the road catches my eye: it is a light shape moving. Tristan picks up his binoculars and take a quick look at what it may be. He sits for what seems to be ages, puts his binoculars down and starts laughing. “You not going to believe this”, he says, it is a leopard! We just sit and watch in silence. Checking to see what the rhino bull is doing, we lose sight of the leopard as we push forward to the estimated proximity.
There are days where we see plenty, but there are also those days that are quiet and guides have to concentrate on different things to ensure that our guests continue to have an enriching and fulfilling experience out on safari. I know from 17 years of guiding that this is not an easy accomplishment, and—to be honest—not one person believed our very real tale when we arrived back and told everyone what we had seen in the space of less than four kilometres and just 1hr 30 minutes of driving around.
We will often have guests who arrive here after watching the enchanting wonders of the African bush through documentaries and shows, somewhat expectant of what they will see in the bush. However, we like to demonstrate to our guests that the essence of the African bush is that you never know what you find around each and every corner. You can never be guaranteed that something you see in the morning will be there again in the afternoon— we can never set our watch to anything – the bush and wildlife alike are innately unpredictable. This Concession where I have been privileged to call home is one of the most incredible destinations to witness African wildlife in its purest form—from the smallest of creatures like a leopard tortoise to the largest land mammal on Earth, the African elephant. The only certainty is that, no matter what our guests see during their time with us, they will leave with an everlasting connection to this exceptional wilderness, which—in turn— will wait for them to return to it once again.
This story is written by Julia Keates, a very familiar face to those who have visited Imbali Safari Lodge. Julia has spent nearly a decade on the Mluwati Concession and has personally watched it transform into the bustling hive of extraordinary wildlife sightings over time. The accompanying imagery is also provided by Julia who, in her free time, enjoys working on her photography as well as her passion for arts & crafts.
LIONS OF THE MLUWATI CONCESSION:
The Imbali Pride:
The Imbali Pride has been spending a lot of time down south of our concession, pushing the Talamati Pride further towards the Sabi Sands Game Reserve.
The Talamati Breakaway Pride:
An exciting month with the Talamati girls being on concession again with a large black-maned male. They were seen northwest of the Imbali Staff Village on a buffalo kill.
The Hamiltons Pride:
Three of the females currently have cubs of varying ages. The Pride continues to enjoy the stability of having the dominant males, Blondie and Madala, spending most of their time with the Pride. Interestingly, there have been some really amazing sightings of the Hamiltons Pride all around the concession—including a momentary presence of the Hamiltons girls and their offspring on the plains behind the Imbali boma.
During the initial stages lockdown, we had mentioned the arrival of two unknown male lions who managed to find their way to Hamiltons. This month, on a crisp morning, male lions broke the silence around Imbali waterhole. Our guides rushed out into the cool morning air and followed the sound of the roaring cats. A short distance west of the waterhole lying out in a clearing, the two large males lay watching us as we approached. We immediately recognised them as the same males who we had seen earlier, and it is interesting that they have been around the Concession for an extended period of time without interacting with our resident prides.
We are starting to see the changes in the lion dynamics all over the concession. Several nomadic coalitions are being spotted on a regular basis. As much as we have come to know a lot of the lion prides in the area, mother nature will adjust the balance accordingly and a new era awaits. Will the ageing Madala and Blondie continue to be able to fight these new males off again? Where will the Imbali Pride settle? Keep watching this space for the updates over the next few months!
LEOPARDS OF THE MLUWATI CONCESSION:
The Mluwati Concession is at the brink of chaos when it comes to these rosetted and stunning individuals.
Nkhanye was seen on the bank close to Hamiltons Drift on evening. However, a female lioness with two cubs from the Hamiltons Pride soon appeared, and Nkhanye slowly retreated and disappeared in the opposite direction of the lions.
Now a nomadic male, Wabayisa moves freely around the entire Concession, spending quite a lot of time around Imbali Safari Lodge. One morning, a call on the radio alerted us that there had been a kill in camp—following the crime scene that took place at the main entrance to the lodge, down pathway, and even across the wooden bridge to Room 10. At the base of the sausage tree right in front of Room 10, you could see the kill. At this stage, Wabayisa had already disappeared into the bushes along the outskirts of the lodge. After a short discussion with our Section Ranger, the decision was made to intervene and remove the kill out of the tree to a safer distance away from the lodge. Not long after removing the kill from the tree and dragging it through the bush to leave a scent, Wabayisa appeared a short time afterwards. He claimed his kill, and took it straight up into another tree outside the lodge where guests were able to spend time watching him devour his dinner.
As custodians of this pristine wilderness, we try to not intervene in anything that happens here on the concession. However, when it comes to the areas where there is a direct and immediate threat to our guests, we are required to take action in consultation with our Section Ranger for the wellbeing and safety of both our guests and the wildlife.
There has been a significant increase in the number of unknown leopards on the Concession. Around Hamiltons Tented Camp, there are currently two unknown males that are establishing their territory in the area. There is another unmown male who is active around Imbali and Hoyo Hoyo. There is also a large female who is active around Hoyo Hoyo as well. The sharp increase in the number of active leopards in the area will undoubtedly change the leopard dynamics. It will be interesting to see how Tiyasela and Nkhanye respond to the influx of new males to the area, and whether Wabayisa will continue to remain undetected as he silently moves around the Concession.
WILD DOGS OF THE MLUWATI CONCESSION:
Three packs have been passing through the Concession on a regular basis, including the Pungwe Pack, Imbali Pack, and Leeupan Pack. All dogs appear to be doing well and we cannot wait for the first signs of the pups as they are reaching the age now where they will be moving with the pack and no longer be tied down to the den site. Some really unbelievable sightings have been happening right in front of Imbali.
Wild dogs and hyenas have spent a few mornings fighting over scraps, the hyenas are now permanently moving a short distance behind the pack knowing that the food and nourishment they also need will be provided to them without much effort from their side. The interaction and noises between the snarling, snapping, biting and fighting is incredible, having had two mornings now where the bush is alive with the sounds of hyenas reacting to be bitten and the short jittering noises as the excitement in the pack mounts.
CHEETAH OF THE MLUWATI CONCESSION:
An unsurprisingly quiet month for these elegant cats given the concentration of larger predators in the area. We had one very brief sighting before an unknown cheetah before it crossed out of the Concession.
Elephant and Buffalo:
Big herds of elephants are taking up their positions around the more permanent water sources and waterholes as we move swiftly into the last 3 – 4 months of our dry season. With the vast areas around the Concession being burnt, many of the large herds of buffalo have moved much further north and south of the Concession where both food and water are in close proximity to each other. The dagga boys are being seen frequenting the waterholes in the late afternoons providing good hunting opportunities for the lions in the respective areas. Bull elephants dominate the waterholes blowing water at the impala and zebra who try and come to get water while they are there.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
July 18, 2021, marked the 12th Anniversary of Mandela Day—an annual celebration of the legacy of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela on his day of birth. This year, the milestone was once again contrasted by the stark realities of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. For more than a year now, disadvantaged communities continue to disproportionately endure its effects. In South Africa, the devastating loss of income opportunities, as well as the drying-up of relief mechanisms, have created a food security crisis. The loss of livelihoods has been acutely felt across our industry. According to the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the South African tourism industry generates more than 2.2 million jobs. However, more than 80% of the industry is comprised of small businesses—many of which are on the brink of shutting down as global travel restrictions and national lockdowns cripple the industry’s ability to remain afloat. Nonetheless, in the fitting words of Nelson Mandela, “may your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears”. We, as the Mluwati Concession family, are sanguine about the future. In particular, the following three trends illuminate why we remain steadfast in our confidence about the future of sustainable ecotourism in South Africa as we readjust to a new, post-pandemic normal:
1) Growing Demand for the Physical and Mental Health Benefits of Returning to Nature
2) Innovative Covid-19 Health Protocols and the Vaccination of Our Frontline Workers
3) The Growing Desire to Travel With Purpose
For more information on these trends, and why they increase our optimism about the future of sustainable ecotourism, we invite to read our special Mandela Day Blog!
July is also World Ranger Month, and for this reason we dedicate this newsletter to those who not only share their passion and knowledge for nature, but also to those who risk their lives each and every day to protect our natural environment. We would like to say thank you for all of the hard work and effort that our guides put into their jobs and into caring for the environment. To those who are faced with the enormous task of balancing the scales due to the destruction of natural habitats—we salute you all.
“You have to understand—there is a romance to Africa. You can see a sunset and believe you have witnessed the hand of God. You watch the slow lope of a lioness and forget to breathe. You marvel at the tripod of a giraffe bent to water. In Africa, there are iridescent blues on the wings of birds that you do not see anywhere else in nature. In Africa, in the midday heat, you can see blisters in the atmosphere. When you are in Africa, you feel primordial, rocked in the cradle of the world” – Jodi Picoult, an American Author.
THE GUIDES OF THE MLUWATI CONCESSION