Live from the Watering Hole

Greetings from the underground hide. I’ve been down here for a couple of hours now, since we finished breakfast following our 5:30am game drive. It’s peaceful, for the most part, except that there are two massive hornets building mud nests on the ceiling and every once in a while some intrepid birds fly in to search for bugs.

The hide itself is situated at a small watering hole on the Kwa Maritane lodge grounds inside Pilanesberg National Park. I am here with my mom and my Mike on a short safari.

We’ve had some pretty nice sightings already, and hope for more tonight and tomorrow morning before we head back to Pretoria. In fact, tomorrow morning I am going to skip the normal game drive to go on a 3-hour bush walk with one of the rangers. I’ll wear my fastest shoes in case we encounter the Alec Baldwin of lions. (Don’t get the reference? Stop reading and go watch Madagascar 1 & 2 right now.)

Anyway, since I’m down here in the bunker, I thought I’d share a little iPhone snap of a wildebeest that just came by for a drink. More, and hopefully better, photos to follow soon.

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Now, time to find a watering hole of my own.

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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.”