Entabeni Photo Safari: Lions and Lenses in Limpopo

A pride of lions begins the day at Entabeni

If you had asked me last week to give one good reason to wake before dawn on a Saturday and a Sunday, I would have told you to go away and let me sleep. Ask me to give you one good reason today and I’ll give you five: one lion, three lionesses and a lion cub. That’s because this weekend I went on a couple of early morning game drives as part of a photo safari in the Entabeni Game Reserve.

Two professional photographers from Africa Photographic Travel and Nikon South Africa led a group of twelve students into the field and shared some tips and tricks for shooting wildlife as part of a hands-on photography seminar. It was fantastic.

I am, by all accounts, a hobbyist photographer. I have a nice camera, by normal standards, but I knew going into the weekend that it is not the kind of camera (or lens, particularly) that works well for capturing wildlife, and certainly not for über-closeup or action shots. I was at peace with that until I saw some of the equipment a few of the other students brought: high-end digital SLRs, lenses the size of tractor axles, multiple tripods, hard-sided rolling camera cases, the whole works. Lens envy.

Our accommodation and classroom was at the Wildside Safari Camp, one of Entabeni’s five lodges within its 22,000 hectares (about 85 square miles) of territory, which is primarily reclaimed farmland. Entabeni is nestled in the Waterberg Mountains about 3 hours drive north of Pretoria in Limpopo Province. In fact, the word Entabeni actually means “the place of the mountain” in the local language. Even in the “dead of winter” when the trees are bare and the colors muted, the mountainous backdrop bestowed breathtaking beauty.

Once we got out into the bush in those open vehicles, my lens envy subsided. It was just great to be outside in the relative middle of nowhere looking for animals and enjoying the sights and sounds of nature.

While Entabeni is in Big Five country, and the reserve does have lions, elephant, buffalo, rhino and leopard, we only found the lions and rhino. Still, there were plenty of other mammals and birds to see, as well as some amazing landscapes.

One of the highlights of our time out in the reserve was following a partial pride of lions as they woke early one morning to hunt for breakfast. They stalked along the road at one point, and eventually found themselves looking directly at a lone wildebeest off in the distance. The wildebeest was oblivious to the lions and they knew it. Without a sound, one of the females darted off along the right flank to make a wide circle around the unsuspecting wildebeest, while the other females and the male crouched in the tall grass. Following the adults’ lead, the cub crouched low, instinctively waiting to pounce.

As the wildebeest slowly clomped around a bend in the road it spotted the tiny cub, who, while crouching like a big boy, was lying in the middle of the road. The wildebeest froze. Realizing the situation, it broke to its left, directly towards the lioness on the flank. We watched from the truck, hearts racing as it seemed certain that the wildebeest was doomed. We wanted to see the kill. We didn’t want to see the kill. We…

…did not see the kill. There was no kill. The lone female had apparently not yet made it into position, so the wildebeest galloped off safely. The lions seemed dejected, but soon swaggered off in search of the next unwary creature. We drove on.

That may have been the most dramatic moment, but there were so many other encounters worth noting, like the two male cheetahs frolicking in the grass, the mother rhino and her calf, a lion cub yawning while hiding in a shrub, and meeting up with the same pride of lions after dark. But, with their thousands of words, I will let the pictures tell the stories.

For those of you who don’t want to spend time with the 36 shots posted on Flickr, below are the (very subjective) “Top 10.”

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Groenkloof Nature Reserve

On Sunday afternoon, Jenny and I drove over to the Groenkloof Nature Reserve, a game sanctuary established by President Paul Kruger in 1895. Since we live on the University of Pretoria Groenkloof Campus, the reserve is quite literally within sight from our flat. Crazy close.

Veld, trees & sky

We paid our R50 ($7) and parked, and decided to tackle the 4.0 km White Trail, one of three marked paths within the reserve. The first 40 minutes of our walk was dominated by guinea fowl — there was a cluster of about 20 birds on the trail in front of us, and each time we got near them they simply scooted further along the trail. The scenery itself was beautiful, though, and sections of the trail seemed very “African bush,” even though we were still technically in the city.

As we crested a hill, we came upon a thicket of tall grass and stones, almost like an island between the walking trail and the nearby mountain bike paths. Walking past the coppice, Jenny commented that “If I were an animal, I’d be hiding in there.” Sure enough, as we turned around to laugh about it, a half-dozen springbok stalked out of the brush. Seeing us, however, they turned right back around and hid. Like Jenny would, if she were an animal.

We managed to spot several more buck (or bok) on the White Trail, including some young male and female kudu and a herd of impala. The impala dashed away through the bush before I could snap a single photo.

Soon, the White Trail connected with a section of the Red Trail, so we broke off in search of more game. Up another hill and through the brush, we saw the silhouettes of yet more buck, but when they scattered further up the koppie, our eyes followed them far enough to see a couple of giants: one male and one female giraffe. We just stood and observed them from a distance for a few moments, then ventured off the trail into the scrub for a closer look.

Female giraffe

Both animals were wary of us as we slowly tracked up the hill. We would stop after every few steps to give them a chance to get used to us. Finally, I got within about 15-20 feet of the female as she grazed from a tall feeder. Jenny took a seat on the ground a few yards behind me. The male eventually sauntered over to the female, keeping me in his peripheral vision. I thought he might become protective, but I think he was just curious. After a few more minutes of agape amazement, we moved on.

Rounding a corner, we crossed another bike path and noticed a wider road off to the side. For some reason, my eyes followed the curve of the road and spotted movement just beyond the bend. It was a small herd of zebra — several adults and a couple of babies. Awesome. Once again, we left the marked trail and walked through the grass to see if we could get a better view.

Zebra

A male on the outside of the herd, closest to our approach, noticed us right away. He was cautious, perhaps even a bit skittish, but he didn’t run away. Moving slowly, we again found ourselves within just a few feet of the animals, close enough to snap some decent shots, I think. It’s definitely the closest we’ve been to such creatures outside a zoo. Granted, these animals have become accustomed to hikers and bikers, but it was something special.

Continuing on the Red Trail, we spotted more kudu, more impala and several more bikers. Consulting our watches, and the map, we decided it might be best to turn around and head for the car instead of pushing on any further. Besides, they let the lions out of their cages at sundown. Or, at least that’s what I told Jenny. Guess she’d better hide. Like an animal.

More photos from Groenkloof Nature Reserve are available on Flickr.