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.
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.
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!!!!!
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.