Sabi Sand: Big 5 Photo Tour with Penny Robartes
This new South Africa Photo Tour by ORYX could not have started on a more positive and upbeat note. Out of my small group of four guests, three were return guests with me not having seen the one gentleman since 2019. It was a happy reunion all round, and our new guest was enveloped into the warm and happy atmosphere. A quick flight from Johannesburg’s FedAir hangar to Ulusaba’s airstrip in the famed Sabi Sand Game Reserve, and we were official on safari!
My Sabi Sand: The Big 5 Photo Tour takes place in the western sector of the Sabi Sands at a camp based along the beautiful Sand River. The view from most of the guest rooms look upon sections of the river with wildlife roaming free through the grounds as the camp is not fenced. While it is fine to walk by oneself during the day, at night guests have to be escorted due to the possibility of wildlife encounters. The main deck offers its own view of a section of the Sand River, and we often saw herds of Elephant or a single Elephant bull grazing in the long grasses along the river’s edge. A beautiful space and camp to settle in to for the next week.
Our first afternoon was one that could not have been any better than what it was. We drove to a section of the reserve where a Leopardess was last seen with her two sub-adult cubs; a male and a female. A little bit of off-road driving, some phenomenal tracking by both our local guide Diff and our local guide Rodger, and there the 2 sub-adult were! In the last light of the day, the female lay in long grass as she casually looked at us, at her brother, and at a Hyena lurking around. Not too long, the male came to his sister, brushed up against her and lay close to her. We spent into the evening with these siblings until they found a rock to share and fell asleep.
En route to camp, we found 2 males Lion; the remaining Birmingham male and his son who are a coalition and have recently taken over the Inyati pride. The males were calling in unison as a form of dominance and territorial calling, as well as seeking out the whereabouts of the females. The Birmingham male ended up walking right up to and beside our vehicle, which left my guests hearts thumping at the thrill of the experience!
The following morning we met up with the sibling sub-adult Leopard. Little did we know that we wouldn’t see these two again until our last afternoon/evening on our Sabi Sand Photo Tour! We spent some time with another Lion pride made up of a few sub-adults, Lionesses and a coalition of 2 males. They were full-belied and lying in dappled shade asleep; an activity that takes up most of a Lion’s time. Did you know that Lion sleep and relax for an average of 16 and 20 hours a day? This being said, this is just an average and doesn’t take into account specific individuals, prides, locations etc. Lion are very opportunistic on when they are active and it can be both during the day as well as in the evening and at night, debunking the popular misconception that Lion are nocturnal. This pride, however, were full from feeding and having their mid-morning siesta as they digested the food they consumed and reenergised.
After another successful photographic morning, we had a delicious lunch back at camp and during the siesta hours spent at camp, I worked with each guest privately on constructive image feedback. Our afternoon gave drive began with excitement as so far, our wildlife sightings, scenes and experiences had been more than great!
Our afternoon followed suit. We found another female Leopard reclined in a tree with golden light on her. We had worked hard with another vehicle to locate this female as she had been walking back and forth, around and around in thick, long grass and bushes. Finally our efforts paid off with us being able to spend the golden hours and last light with her. She finally came down from the tree and went hunting into thick bush that we couldn’t follow her though. We were more than happy to bid her goodnight after such a treat spending time with her.
Some Leopard sightings were fast-paced and invigorating that others. One morning, I was leaving my guide room and making my way towards the main deck to meet my guests for pre-game drive, when I heard a noise and scratching sound. Initially I thought it could possibly be a porcupine and on my daily walks to and from my room, I was aware of certain places that animals could potentially hide in or linger. I rounded a corner of a watch room of sorts, right behind the camp’s kitchen, and less than 5 meters away and saw the end half and tail of a Leopard dashing away from me.
Heart beating uncontrollably and in my throat, I couldn’t believe my eyes! I slowly and steadily walked past where I had seen the Leopard (I had to as the staff entrance to the main area is there), but the Leopard was gone. As soon as I saw our local guide and staff members in the kitchen, I alerted them as many of the staff use the same path I just walked. As soon as my guests arrived, we quickly had a cup of coffee & tea and off went in search of my early morning run-in! Instead of finding him however, we came across the large Ravenscourt male, a truly beautiful Leopard, busy patroling and scent-marking his territory. Now, animals walking are faster than you think, even if they look like they are rambling rather than walking with a purpose. This boy could move! We stayed with him as he marked bushes and trees here and there. We saw game paths that he seemed to be walking towards and repositioned a good way in front of him so that we had time to photograph him as he made his way towards us. It was such a divine time, and really wonderful to see a large male Leopard!
We left the Ravenscourt male to allow other vehicles to spend time with him too, and ended up with the female Leopard from the previous night, copulating. The sun was getting quite harsh by this time (around 09h00) but the Leopard were reasonably well exposed without too many contrasting elements on them due to the light. That being said, that was me commenting purely on the photographic quality of the scene. As a animal fanatic however, it was such a special sighting and one that I can count on one hand only! I was so happy for my guests to be witness to a scene that so many people never get to see.
That afternoon we made our way back to the scene of the coupling Leopard, but they were not there and their tracks confirmed that they had indeed moved off. We cam upon the female walking down a road which afforded us some nice photographic opportunities with her, but as she went off road and into a block of seriously thick bushes and trees, we stuck with her for a bit before I called it.
As if we hadn’t seen enough truly special sightings, there were two upcoming sightings for us that will never be forgotten. The first was of a male and female White rhino mating! Yes! You read that right! Our tracker has been working for over 15 years and had never seen this before. Words can’t describe how we all felt being privileged to witnessing the continuation of a species that is under such dire circumstance.
One evening on our way back to camp, we came upon a very relaxed sub-adult Civet eating berries. We spent an amazing amount of time with this little creature as it went about eating; an incredibly special occurrence and sighting as usually these animals are skittish and you do not get to spend time with them like we did!
Another moment my guests will certainly not forget, nor I, is the night were we thought we had left off with the Birmingham male and his one. We were having sundowners (the first time on our whole tour) on our last night when I heard the males roaring. The sun had pretty much set and we had our sundowner drinks not too far from these boys as we knew they were going to get active in the evening. As we pulled up to the scene, both males were still roaring in unison. It is an amazing experience to witness, especially up close, as their roars reverberate through your body and thrum there. It is commanding and so loud. We all sat in silence while some captured video footage while other took spotlight images. When they ended, we moved to where the young male was sitting a few meters away from his father and captured some images of him too. And then we waited. We waited and hoped for another roar in unison.
After quite a while, it happened. They roared. Once they ended, we were all happy to call the evening on this high note and make our way to camp.
With the view of our camp and its lights ahead of us, the only thing separating us was a bridge over the Sand River. Suddenly, a cacophony of excited Hyena calls came flooding in. It was so loud and you could tell there were a number of Hyena!
“Something is happening!” I exclaimed.
“Hold on tight!” replied Diff.
And hold on we did.
We positively zoomed towards the sounds of the Hyena. Reflected in the vehicles lights, we could see streams of Hyena forms running in the dark, heading towards where we too were going. “Over there!” Rodger pointed excitedly. Two Lioness were on an incredibly fresh Impala carcass and their snarling was mixed in with the sounds of the most Hyena I have ever seen. There were bodies everywhere you looked. The Lionesses would take turns to chase the Hyena that came too close away. Finally the only light that broke the darkness was the light on the Lionesses, which made the sounds around us even more intensified as our senses were exploding. This happened for an amazing handful of moments where the Hyena seemed to quieten down and even more off.
That is not where this ended, however.
Entering the light in full run, the 2 male Lions came in bolting at the females, chasing them away into the dark. We saw that the females had ended up splitting up in the commotion as the youngest was running in the direction of our camp, whilst the older female had gone in the other direction. I think it is safe to say that we sat there with jaws dropping, eyes wide, and the most incredible feeling sitting in our souls. We had all seen scenes like this on documentaries before, and now we had witnessed it ourselves, with not another vehicle in sight.
This South African Photo Tour was action-packed, wild, intense and so satisfying. We saw Leopards daily, if not on every game drive. We saw sights and scenes that some don’t even ever think of seeing. The group got along famously and learnt a lot from myself as well as one another. It is certainly one that won’t be forgotten.
To join me next year on my Sabi Sand: The Big 5 Photo Tour 2023, please click here which will take you to the photo tour page on the website. You can email Nicolette too if you would like further information and booking documents.
I look forward to welcoming you on an ORYX Photo Tour with me.
Your Senior Photo Tour Leader and host,