Tribute to the Sabi Sand Game Reserve

Posted on June 29, 2010

I was very fortunate to guide 6 and a half years at Leopard Hills in the legendary Sabi Sand Game Reserve this it, my tribute to the one of the greatest wildlife reserves on earth.

On a hot summers morning in December 2003 I left the Kruger National Park and headed south for an interview which would change my life and guiding career forever. For any guide this is it, the pinnacle in ones career an opportunity to guide in the world famous Sabi Sand Game Reserve.

Stories about leopards walking right past your game viewing vehicle, sitting among lions hunting at night and working at an “uber” luxurious lodge is something any guide dreams off.

I started working at Leopard Hills as a young 22 year old after guiding in the Waterberg, the Madikwe Game Reserve and at a private concession in the Kruger Park, but what I was about to experience I never thought was humanly possible, I lived your and my dream every day.

On a cold winters morning Ryan (our ex-head ranger) and I stopped our vehicles at reception getting ready for another morning safari in the Sabi Sands. As we were about to head upstairs to meet our guests for a cup of hot coffee the reception phone rang. I answered it and from the other side a very excited guest said “please come to my room right now” In the back of my mind I wasn‘t quite sure what to expect, but on arrival I saw something that morning that I will remember for the rest of my life and it puts everything you hear about the leopards of the Sabi Sands in perspective. The guest waited at the door and upon entering his room, his wife pulled back the curtain and there it was, 2 approximately 3 month old leopard cubs lying on the pool loungers. Instinctively the cubs knew we were bad news and jumped down walked up to the window and snarled.

Many visitors to Leopard Hills in the past have had the opportunity to see the legendary Makwela female leopard in action. Over the last 6 and a half years I have spent thousands of hours viewing and photographing various individual leopards but none came close to the awe of watching Makwela. Highlights include seeing her sneaking meters behind my vehicle (while having a drinks break) using our presence and noise to hunt; to watching her out smart 3 spotted hyenas and reclaim her kill, she was without a doubt the queen.

My last ever sighting of Makwela (which means “one of high places” in the local Shangaan language) was late one afternoon close to camp. My tracker and friend Abraham Sibuyi spotted her walking along the road and shortly after joining her on her afternoon patrol she spotted a small herd of impala feeding about 30 meters away. She started to stalk, crawling forward inch by inch, in absolute silence. After about half an hour she was only a meter away from her prey and in one swift move she leapt through the air and caught the impala. For once I decided not to pick up my camera. I watched her eye to eye, holding the impala in her mouth it was an experience hard to describe in words.

Late one morning I was following 2 leopards mating when they disappeared into the thick reeds of the Sand River. My tracker of that time the late Ben Masinga kept on encouraging me to go deeper and deeper into the thick wall of reeds. As per normal (in my first couple of months here that is) I got “bogged” down so badly and the reeds were so thick, that even though the leopards were mating less than 2 meters from us nobody could even see a rosette. I radioed Duncan to come to my rescue and accompanied by the “Wolf Pack” he arrived shortly after. Ben being one of the most hardcore individuals I have ever met jumped off his tracker seat and hooked the snap-strap onto Duncan’s vehicle and after much pulling Duncan managed to pull me out.

Lions hunting, sleeping, stalking and playing were some of the great sightings I have witnessed in my time at Leopard Hills. I watched the Ximungwe Pride grow from 5 lionesses and one male to a huge pride of 21 lions and saw them being reduced back to 5 adults due to the harshness of surviving in Africa. The Mapogo male lion coalition moved into the Western sector about 4 years ago and changed lion viewing in the Sabi Sands forever.

They have killed and eaten rival male lions that only the paws were left, caught young hippo’s and a rhino calf and fought between each other that after the battle they couldn‘t walk due to the cuts and scars.

But it was the first morning that we ever saw them that stood out above all the other sightings. Paddy Hagelthorn from Savanna and I were watching the 6 males standing on the southern bank of the Sand River roaring so loud that our vehicles were shaking. In the distance we could hear the territorial male at that time, a rogue male with the name Gwarri Bush, running down to the river roaring back at the intruders. As he came crashing through the riverine forest he saw the 6 males standing on the opposite bank, he turn around and disappeared as quickly as he arrived. That night the coalition crossed the river, killed the territorial male and proclaimed the Western Sector of the Sabi Sands as their own.


On an afternoon safari my guests (2 gentleman that have played a little cricket in their lives, called Ian Botham and David Gower) and I found a female cheetah and her 2 sub-adult cubs hunting on a vast open clearing. The female spotted a herd of impala and within seconds ran after them at 120kmph; with a swift clip to the impala’s back leg she successfully caught a large female. As we approach her she was standing over her prize panting heavily and accompanying her was a single cub. The second cub was nowhere to be seen but a couple of minute’s later mom, brother and the 3 of us could not believe our eyes. The second sub-adult cub caught a young impala lamb and did everything perfectly except given the impala its “coup de grace”. Every time he went for the throat the lamb would call non-stop and the youngster would jump back. Mom walked over and with a quick clip behind the ear sorted out the youngster. After a couple of tries the youngster eventually put the lamb out of its misery and the 3 cheetahs fed off their meal.

Wild Dog
I once foolishly decided to jump out of my vehicle, radio in hand and run behind a pack of 8 Wild Dogs we lost going down the banks of the Day One River. I stopped to rethink my strategy and as I looked up, there they were “the pack” looking at me as if they wanted to say here we are, follow us. I ran back to my guests as fast as I could and shortly after rejoined the pack on their morning hunt. They came cross an impala carcass, the dogs were quick to get stuck into their free meal when suddenly a rustle above them made them stop. As I looked up a female leopard came running down the tree and with a single leap landed right in the middle of the dogs. The leopard had killed the impala and stashed it under a thick bush before the wild dogs found it and was now on a mission to chase away the “scavengers”. The dogs ran away regrouped and chased the leopard back into a tree, as soon as the leopard was high enough and posed no threat the dogs carried on eating. Minutes later the leopard jumped down again and with a single movement grabbed a piece of meat and hoisted it back up the tree. Many guests have asked me over the years what was my most memorable sighting, this was it!!!!!

Elephant, Rhino and Buffalo



Not only did the predators offer great and memorable sightings but the pachyderms (thick-skinned animals) also provided many great memories.

I saw rhinos mating (twice), a procedure that can last up to an hour and a half. Three times I watched a herd of Cape buffalos fight off a pride of hungry lions- this was three separate occasions. But the one sighting that stood out above all else is hearing my colleague Wesley from Ulusaba describing the birth of an elephant step for step for almost 15 minutes over the radio.

To all the guests I guided over the last 6 and a half years it was an absolute blast.

To Duncan, Louise and the rest of the staff working at Leopard Hills thanks for the memories and friendships and last but not least to my fellow guides and trackers (past and present) it was an honour gentleman I salute you.

26 thoughts on “Tribute to the Sabi Sand Game Reserve

  1. Marius,
    Alles van die beste!
    Ek weet jy sal suksesvol wees in alles wat jy aanpak!
    Om nou jou woorde te vat: I salute you!

  2. Marius Coetzee – great tribute you have shared with us all so let me be the first to say you were an asset to Leopard Hills and a great friend that we had the privilege to be guided on one of our many Leopard Hills trips! You will be remembered for lots of great moments in the Goddard and Strydom family and we wish you all the very best in your future career. Keep doing what you do best – life is too short not to! Later Broer – Michelle

  3. wow, a life time of memories crammed into 6 years…very special times, but i am sure even more special things are waiting for you down your new path…

    all the best with the next chapter in your life, and looking forward to seeing many more of your images published all over the world for those of us that are less fortunate than you to see and share in your passion..

    all the best mate!



  4. Hi Marius – what a tribute – some fantastic times! I have taken away some wonderful memories myself from our stay at Leopard Hills thanks thanks to yourself, Abraham and the crew. Wishing you all the best in your new adventure and Thankyou for sharing your great moments. Mara & Dave Halcomb (from Australia)

  5. Hi Marius,
    we wish you a great and successful future! It was a great pleasure to meet you at Leopard Hills and an adventurous time with wonderful memories.
    We’ll keep on observing your web-side !

    Best regards from Germany
    Jutta and Helmut

  6. Dear Marius,

    Amazing time we share and spent with you during our too short trip at Leopard Hills in last April.It was an exceptionnal experience and we are sure to come back, unfortunately without your drive and passion. It’s right you were an asset.Gabrielle and I wish you all the best in your new challenge of life. Beno?t and Gabrielle / HI-TEC Sports France

  7. Dear Marius,

    Our days at Leopard Hills were made so much richer by the time we spent with you. Excitment in the first few momnets of our first game drive watching a Black Mamba kill and eat a Scrappy to entertaining stories around the dinner table made for an unforgetable experience.
    We wish you every happiness and success in the future. It was a privalidge spending time with you.

    All the best,
    Sky and Charlie Hinnant CT, USA

  8. Congratulations on completing a wonderful chapter of your life !!! I am excited to read about the future chapters…

  9. Marius…tho I have never had the great pleasure of joining you, or any other for that matter, on Game Drive…your photographs, and your words, have crossed continents and taken me there often.

    The very best of luck to you, Marius, and I look forward to images of your next adventures.


  10. maruis,
    what a beautifull tribute you have written to leopard hills.what a legend of a guide are are,and have been to all who have had the absolute privleedge of being guided by you.
    thanks for the memories.
    all of our family wish you the very best.
    the roxy richards family

  11. maruis,
    what a beautifull tribute you have written to leopard hills.what a legend of a guide are are,and have been to all who have had the absolute privleedge of being guided by you.
    thanks for the memories.
    all of our family wish you the very best.
    the roxy richards family

  12. Marius…
    While you apparently got past getting "bogged" down, your tenacity for doing WHATEVER it took to find the best view of whatever you were tracking was amazing….I’m sure those little trees have recovered nicely!
    Leopard Hills and all the guests who have accompanied you on safari have been enriched by your talents.
    We wish you and Vanessa the very best in all your future endeavors and memory making journeys!
    South Africa will always be a special place for us!
    Susan and Lou Matusiak
    Carefree, AZ

  13. Thank you to a very special guide.

    Your photo talent is beyond anything I could ever hope for.

    I was glad you could find the animals so I could get a picture.

    You will be missed

  14. Marius,

    "Gwarri Bush" I actually can’t stop hlekaring!!!
    I will certainly not forget the time we spent working together. I can only wish you the very best for your exciting forthcoming venture. If there is one thing that I am absolutely certain of, its that you WILL succeed. I know this because I have seen you do it before!

    Catch you later, you legend you!

    Your mate,

  15. Marius, I found it difficult to walk away from Leopard Hills after just a few days… I have no doubt that you leave there with a heavy heart, that matches the the magnitude of your fond memories. The animals are spectacular, nobody can deny that, but the staff are all just as memorable.
    I wish you all the best in your future endeavours, and will welcome you for a braai while your next chapter is spent frequently in my home town.

    While on the outside of Leopard Hills, you will read the rangers reports by Duncan, Gary etc, and maybe then you will get a sense of how much we appreciate the stories and photos that give us a momentary escape from the concrete jungle and a glimpse into splendour that Sabi Sands has to offer. Thank you for an amazing drive up there, and all the stories and pictures that bring the dynamics of the area right into our living rooms.

    Take care, hope to see you soon.

  16. Soo sad to say good bye! I will always keep you and Vanessa in my mind as a part of Leopard Hills. Beautiful tribute, wow Marius, you leave a big empty space on this weblog. Monthly Rangers Reports, exiting stories straight from the bush and of course stunning photos, legendary art pieces! I wish you both fantastic adventures in your new destination ? good luck! Who knows, maybe our paths will cross again one day ? never say never:-)

  17. Maruiu

    All the above best wishes and salutes say it all. Cheers and best wishes to you and Vanessa!!!
    Joy, Camarillo, CA

  18. Marius: Thank you for all the good times. We will miss seeing you but realize this is something you have dreamed about. I won’t say good bye because we will meet again some where. Joan and Arnold

  19. Marius: Thank you for all the good times. We will miss seeing you but realize this is something you have dreamed about. I won’t say good bye because we will meet again some where. Joan and Arnold

  20. Marius, what can we say. You arrived as a young "wet behind the ears" Ranger, and there were times right at the beginning when Louise, Ryan and I were worried we had made a mistake taking you on too early in your career, but boy did you prove us wrong. Not only did you grow in confidence, you rose to new heights, beyond our expectations, and we thank you and Vanessa for being such a big part of of our lives for so many years.

    We wish you well, and you will succeed because you have the "right attitude" towards an Industry and a calling we have made our lives, people like you seldom come along, and we are privileged to have been apart of it for so long.

    As the famous song goes, you can always check out, but you can never leave………..Leopard Hills salutes you, thanks for the memories, they will always remain. From Louise, myself and all of the Team at leopard Hills, go well, go safe and see you in the Bush again real soon.

  21. Hi Marius. I’m sure you don’t remember us, but you were our guide for two wonderful days in the summer of 2005. You guided us to wonderful sightings, including our first leopard that walked right behind our vehicle. And the nights in the boma drinking Amarula for the first time while telling risque stories in front of our 12 year old son, Sam, were priceless. I’m sorry to hear that you are leaving Leopard Hills, but I’m sure you must have left for a great opportunity, so we wish you all the best in your next endeavor.

  22. Mari we Preciate you and the Panel Vanel!!Alles van die beste Champ.We salute you for just the Amazing People you and Van Are.
    God Bless

  23. We are only sorry we didn’t make it back in time to go on safari with you – your photography & experiences are amazing. Best of luck to you on your new adventures!

  24. We are only sorry we didn’t make it back in time to go on safari with you – your photography & experiences are amazing. Best of luck to you on your new adventures!

  25. Hey marie biscuit, Great having worked alongside you over the years, your enthusiasm, passion and humour shall be missed. I as all who have connected with you know you will succeed at your new and exciting venture.I look forward to our Central African Republic trip in November. I will leave you with some wise words, " Don’t be dismayed at good-byes. A farewell is necessary before you can meet again and meeting again after a moment or a lifetime is certain for those who are friends" Richard Bach

    Rock on brother
    Karl and the Ulusaba team

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *