Winter in the Sabi Sands

This diary entry took place at Cheetah Plains Camp, Sabi Sands Game Reserve

There is something tangible and very unique about visiting Africa’s savannahs in winter. A different set of sounds, experiences and smells awaits visitors. For me, setting out on safari on a crisp winter’s morning with excited anticipation of what the game drive will hold, will always remain thrilling.

South Africa’s Sabi Sands Game Reserve (comprising 55,000 hectares) is a well-known wildlife destination and a good spot for any winter safari fix. On a recent trip to this reserve I visited the north-eastern sector of the reserve based at the newly-renovated Cheetah Plains Camp.

What an incredible stay it was. Over our 3-night escape we enjoyed some first-class mammal and bird sightings. Each day, a different complement of wildlife characters challenged our various senses and filled our camera memory cards. While we did enjoy a leopard sighting over our stay, lions dominated the cat front. We saw one of the adult Matimba males, the Kahuma females with their three cubs and the Stix pride females and their cubs. Bordering the unfenced western section of the Kruger National Park animals can freely wander between the two conservation areas, significantly increasing the natural roaming areas available to them. Herds of elephant and Cape buffalo moved through the area and general game was also well represented with good numbers of southern giraffe, greater kudu, common waterbuck, grey duiker, steenbok, plains zebra, blue wildebeest, common warthog and impala. Territorial middens of white rhinoceros were also encountered, and although we missed these threatened giants over our stay they are frequently seen. Some of the waterholes also had pods of hippo trying to get into another African day after a chilly night.

The setting of Cheetah Plains Camp could not be better to be in total touch with nature. Surrounded by a natural waterhole, a drainage line with riverine vegetation and an open plain, the camp was abuzz with wildlife activity day and night. Bushbuck and nyala found refuge in the thickets around camp and various game species including kudu and waterbuck came to drink at the waterhole. Lions made a kill very close to camp one evening making it hard for staff to get to their accommodation. The birding was equally good with ‘camp residents’ including brown-hooded kingfisher, a pair of African barred owlets, Kurrichane thrush, the endemic white-throated robin-chat, Marico and scarlet-chested sunbirds taking advantage of flowering aloes, the dazzling orange-breasted bushshrike, African green pigeon, grey tit-flycatcher, black-headed oriole and yellow-breasted apalis to mention a few.

Throughout this section of the reserve the birding was very good with 106 species recorded over our stay; a very good tally considering time of year and the absence of migratory species that would bolster this count by a dramatic margin in the summer months. A phenomenal sighting was that of a male white-breasted cuckooshrike, a rare visitor to South Africa as any field guide would attest. Indeed, this was only my second sighting of this species in South Africa in all my years of birding! Shelley’s Francolin (with their characteristic ‘I’ll drink your beer call’) was another good find as were four pied avocets (very unusual record for Greater Kruger National Park), African cuckoo hawk, shikra, red-crested korhaan, Senegal lapwing, brown-headed parrot, greater blue-eared starling and yellow-bellied eremomela. In mixed terminalia-combretum woodland which blankets most of this part of the Sabi Sands, bird parties included the likes of black-crowned tchagra, grey penduline-tit, southern black tit, long-billed crombec, chinspot batis, southern white-crowned shrike, brubru, black-backed puffback and red-headed weaver. While we were watching the Kahuma female lions and their cubs, a pair of gabar goshawks caused havoc amongst a flock of white-crested helmetshrikes. One of these raptors was the all-black melanistic form which ultimately caught one of the helmetshrikes. We had just witnessed a kill in the avian world…

Our early drives always included an obligatory mid-morning stop for a leg-stretch, welcome hot chocolate and a ‘soul-search session’ as one gazes out over seemingly endless Sabi Sands vistas. A visit to Cheetah Plains from where the camp draws its name did not produce any sightings of this graceful feline but one could definitely appreciate why these cats would often frequent this large grassy expanse.

For keen photographers, Cheetah Plains offers a specialist photographic safari vehicle. Kitted with customised swivel seats and unparalleled movement from hydraulic control arms on which to mount your telephoto lens, this vehicle allows four photographers to get into the perfect position for that winning shot. And enough wildlife subjects for photography there certainly are at Cheetah Plains. Looking forward to putting this vehicle to the test in future trips!

Other predator species were varied and included side-striped and black-backed jackals, large spotted genet, slender mongoose and dwarf mongoose. Spotted hyaena were also around – their presence betrayed by fresh tracks everywhere and characteristic whooping calls after dark. Another female leopard also walked right through camp one evening, her tracks daintily parading along the footpath connecting the rooms.

Some of the best private game lodges in South Africa are found in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve which offers the chance of easily seeing the rather clichéd ‘Big 5’ (lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant and rhino) and a myriad other exciting mammal, bird and smaller life. Cheetah Plains Camp is an excellent choice for exploring this exciting reserve. ‘Befriending’ the Cheetah Plains Facebook page on our return home I read that lions were seen shortly after our stay trying to hunt buffalo as well as a pack of wild dogs. The Sabi Sands wildlife continued their performance for guests.

blog comments powered by Disqus