Like many of Africa’s finest wilderness areas, when you first arrive at the Pontdrft border-post (between South Africa and Botswana), and you take a drive through the Mopane-veld on your way to camp, you think to yourself “Does anything live out here”? Mashatu is a true wilderness and as such, she does not flaunt her inhabitants, but rather she reveals her diversity subtly and serendipitously. On our recent C4 Mashatu workshop, the Tuli Block of Botswana decided to reveal to us one of the most rewarding wildlife sightings I have ever had:
Upon arriving, we heard rumours that a mother leopard (with three young cubs) had killed an impala deep within a Croton thicket and we went in search of both her and her cubs. We soon found the kill with one cub high up a tree, but the mother was not there? Its amazing how the cub instinctively knew to stay aloft, out of harm’s way, in mom’s absence! We finally tracked the mother down and found her walking through the Crotons calling for her missing two cubs. By the end of the first evening, she had not located her boys and we feared the worst (especially our French guest Lisa). The following morning however, we went back to the kill site and we were delighted to find the mother with all three cubs at the site. The cubs are now around 6 months old and once mom makes a kill, she always has to go and fetch them. The problem is, that her two teenage boys are now gallivanting on their own in her absence, instead of staying put like good little boys! I could not help but feel sorry for mom who not only has to provide meals but also then has to track down her two delinquent sons.
The kill was on the floor and one of the young male cubs was attacking the dead impala. Being still young, the cub was still more interested in playing with his food than actually eating it. It was incredible to watch the young cub practicing the ‘death hold’ on the carcass, whereby he tried to clamp his small mouth over the impala’s jugular. It was also interesting to see that even though the cubs are still young, their fiercely independent spirit is already ingrained, as only one cub would feed at a time!
The young boy cub’s sister slowly approached the prey as he walked off decidedly impressed with himself, after perfecting his strangling technique. His sister is almost half his size and as soon as she approached the kill, which was close to where we were parked, the mother walked over and gave us the beady eye. This means that this mother knows her offspring individually and she also knows that her young girl needs extra protection. The more time I spend with leopards, the more I respect them!
The mother leopard had already attacked one hyena and wanting to avoid problems, she decided to hoist the prey up a tree and right in front of us! Seeing her strength and agility was a spectacular highlight. Once the kill was in the tree the cubs took turns at playing with it AGAIN. The dangling antelope’s head was used as a punching bag until the kill became unbalanced and just as it was about to plummet to the ground, the mother would run over and grab the impala with tooth and claw. She had been up all night looking for her cubs and now she was having to stand guard, to ensure the cubs never dropped dinner to the hyenas! While we were parked under the tree watching this spectacle, one of the cubs ran down the trunk and stopped to pause and stare at us. My 200 – 400mm lens has a MFD (minimal focal distance) of two metres and when my lens would no longer focus, I looked up and the cub was almost in our laps! Such moments cannot even be photographed and it was undoubtedly the closest that I have ever been to a leopard cub. The mother was not perturbed by the cub’s close proximity to us, which means that she saw our presence as not being a threat, which I was particularly pleased about.
One of the young cubs came running down the tree within touching distance.
We went back to the same location in the evening and we continued shooting with delight as the cubs continued to play with the carcass while a hyena stood at the base salivating! After dinner was finally complete, she groomed the cubs which was a joy to watch. We must have spent over four solid hours watching and enjoying photographing a wild leopard family, carrying out their delightful existence. I fear that all our full memory cards combined (and there are many), will not do this wonderful experience justice!
While the above sighting was undoubtedly the highlight of the workshop for me, another highlight was teaching Michael and Kevin to photograph star trails while Lynette sat eating popcorn watching us crazy photographers go about our work, as if she was watching an Imax at the cinema! Seeing Mike’s and Kev’s faces when they reviewed their images was priceless! Another highlight at Mashatu is always the wonderful elephant sightings! The Tuli Block is a safe haven for the elephants in southern Botswana and even the breeding herds are wonderfully relaxed. Parking our 4x4 and having an entire herd of these mammoth beasts walk past in perfect silence is an experience of a lifetime! Another highlight came on our last morning as we watched a lioness hunt impala and warthog!
I first visited the Tuli Block a decade ago and I have been back to this unique and mysterious corner of Botswana many times since. This enchanting and ancient land with its giant Mashatu trees and ghostlike herds of Eland is no doubt one of my favourite places in Africa!
A special thank you to Mike, Lisa, Willy, Willem, Kev, Michael and Lynette for sharing this wonderful experience with me.
(Our workshops for 2011 are unfortunately finished but be sure to book your spot for next year to avoid disappointment.)
Even after an entire day of playing with the dangling carcass this young cub still looks up at his mother playfully.