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South Africa: A Visual Exploration

July 3, 2014

In this Yahoo Travel series we ask photographers to walk us through a place that inspires them. This week takes photographer Susan Portnoy to the Timbavati Game Reserve in South Africa 

Sated, Rockfig Jr. (not the sexiest name for such a beautiful leopard) relaxes in the grass at twilight.

We sat in the jeep spellbound, cameras clicking away, watching Rockfig Jr., the leopard with the aquamarine eyes, nonchalantly gnaw on her impala kill as if we weren’t 15 feet from where she lay with her prize. Her glossy coat and white underbelly stood out against the looming twilight. Her canines, long and fierce, picked at the flesh but not before she methodically licked off the fur in the area she found most tantalizing. We were hoping she would hoist her kill into the tree a few feet away — what a great image that would be — and dutifully we composed our shots to allow for her to jump into the frame. She never did. Instead she rolled and twisted in the grass, stretching with pleasure like my feline at home after a good meal. She went from ferocious predator to adorable in a nanosecond. 

Related: African Safari’s That Offer Close Encounters of a Whole New Kind

Rockfig Jr. dines on her impala kill.

I was so happy to be back. I was finally in the bush again after coveting other people’s travels for months. I was literally shaking with excitement. Well, maybe not from excitement. I was freezing in the unseasonably cold winter that was blowing through South Africa. Who knew winters there could be so chilly? Thankfully, for a few hours each day it warmed up to T-shirt weather, but at night and in the early morning … yikes!

The Setting

For eight days, my home was the Timbavati Game Reserve located about six hours northeast of Johannesburg, adjacent to Kruger National Park. Unlike the vast, wide-open landscapes seen in movies such as “Out of Africa" and associated with the Maasai Mara or the Serengeti, Timbavati has a haunting, rugged beauty filled with sandy terrain, thick grasses, and thorny acacia.

A beautiful, foggy sunrise in the Timbavati

It’s harder to view wildlife there than in the Mara, and throughout our stay we often went for extended periods without seeing a single animal. (I must note that this is the risk one faces on any safari. Zebra and lions don’t appear on cue. One day animals may be everywhere, the next day, not so much. Part of the fun is the exploration.) When we did have an encounter however, we were rarely disappointed. Quality not quantity — right?

Related: A Giraffe Roams Through Kruger National Park in South Africa

Yours truly (back right) and the gang near the end of the trip

I was on a small photographic safari led by Wild Eye, a company based in South Africa, which specializes in excursions that cater to photography enthusiasts and are hosted by professional wildlife photographers, who, in part, offer instruction if you want it, and I did.

Our fearless leader was Marlon du Toit, an exceptional photographer whose images lean toward the romantic. Marlon spent years in the bush honing his expertise while guiding at Singita, one of the world’s most luxurious lodges. We stayed at the Umlani Bushcamp, where our days began before sunrise. Each morning as we waited for our little group to assemble, we sat by the fire in the camp’s boma (a fenced-in meeting place), sipping cups of hot coffee, tea, or hot chocolate (my fave), and ate freshly baked muffins or some other sweet treat the camp had prepared. By 6 a.m. we were on our way: seven guests, Marlon, our guide/driver and tracker, and our gear, which included multiple camera bodies and lenses, monopods and camera bags, plus blankets, and hot water bottles to keep us toasty.

One of four lions pauses over a buffalo kill to lick his lips.

Dining Lions

One morning we heard that a coalition of lions (males that live and hunt together) had killed a buffalo on a property near Umlani. Though the land was private, the owner agreed to let us view the scene, and what a sight it was. Three male lions were lounging near a large buffalo flayed from the ribcage down, another male still chewing on the remains.

Opportunistic vultures pounce as soon as the lions move far enough away from the buffalo carcass.

Two days later we found the lions again. The buffalo was a mere skeleton, save for muscle and random pieces of meat. Surprisingly, the lions had dragged the immense beast nearly 200 yards from its previous spot to rest next to a very small watering hole — a large puddle really — under a tree. Added to the mix were two female lions that were anxious to eat but had the males to contend with. Even though they had full bellies, the boys didn’t seem to want to share with the ladies, and one lion had a more amorous objective. After trailing one female at top speed, we later heard him roaring triumphantly in an, “I got my woman!” kind of way from somewhere in the bush.

A male with amorous intentions trots after a female, leaving his buffalo carcass momentarily to the vultures. 

As if in a scene from “The Birds,” large vultures covered the limbs of a nearby dead tree. When the lions ventured from the corpse, they’d swoop in, fighting each other for a tender morsel before a lion inevitably chased them away. There was so much going on at once it was nearly impossible to keep up with it all. It was fabulous. In the words of my South African friends, “It was a proper sighting!”

The Baby Den

On several occasions, we stopped by a hyena den only to find it still and quiet. Until one morning when we arrived just as a female was returning from who knows where.

Adorable hyena cubs scamper around their den playing with their mother.

At that same moment, a cub from deep within the lair began to call to her with a high-pitched whine, and within seconds cubs of varying ages seemed to come out of the woodwork. Some ran up from a trail behind us, while others emerged from the den. They ran around with their little bums wagging about, and I wanted to jump out of the Jeep and hug them until they popped.

Related: The Cutest Baby Animals You Will See on Safari

Big Tusker

With the seemingly never-ending updates about elephant poaching, it’s with awe and fear that I greet each new elephant in Africa. Awe, because I think elephants are extraordinary animals, and fear, because I can’t help but wonder if the magnificent creature in front of me will fall victim to the slaughter. In Timbavati, and later in the trip when I went to Amboseli in Kenya, I had the great pleasure of seeing a few “Big Tuskers,” referring to the mighty elephants that have grown those iconic extra-long tusks seen in magazines like National Geographic. Unfortunately, due to poaching, there just aren’t many of them left. It’s tragic.

Our Timbavati big tusker was ENORMOUS. The sheer width of his trunk between each tusk spanned at least 4 feet. He was in musth (a sexual aggressive period for young male elephants) and anxious to capture the attention of a small herd of females when we found him. With hormones raging, bulls in musth can be aggressive, but while this guy came pretty close to our vehicle (mainly because the uninterested cow kept trotting in our direction as if to distract him with our presence), he never showed us anything more than mild curiosity.

This “big tusker” made mincemeat of this tree in short order, only to eat a few mouthfuls of leaves and then move on.

We watched him a day or so later matter-of-factly knock down a tree for a few luscious mouthfuls of leaves and then move his big body onward. I think he was just showing off frankly.

(Side note: While in Kenya a few days later, word reached our group that the world-famous Satao, Kenya’s largest elephant, had been poached by a poison dart. His face hacked off and his ivory taken. I have no words. I just pray he didn’t suffer long.)

Related: The Hangover: Africa-Elephants Gone Wild!

Buffalo Wrestling

Buffalo, part of a larger herd, rest on the banks of a large watering hole.

One animal in ample numbers in the Timbavati was the cape buffalo. A large herd resting next to a watering hole one glorious, sun-drenched afternoon provided us with a great photographic opportunity. Two bulls engaged in an hour-long, horn wrestle session.

The match wasn’t particularly aggressive, just two lumbering frames using their weight to push the other back off its feet or its opponent’s face into the ground, in a slow-motion game of dominance. Their persistence did give us ample time to play around with our settings, light, and motion. While my experimentation wasn’t particularly successful, I learned a lot, and later in Amboseli I had better results.

These two buffalo engaged in an hour-long horn wrestle, while the other members of the herd relaxed by a watering hole.

Day’s End

At night after our afternoon game drive, we practiced a common safari tradition called a “sun-downer.” We’d park near a scenic watering hole or clearing to watch the sun set and have a little “puza” (aka a drink). Afterward at Umlani, the fire would be raging when we arrived, and we’d sit and swap stories about the day’s sightings with the camp’s other guests.

Leopard tracks outside my room.

After dinner the yawns would begin, and I’d head for bed, grabbing hot water bottles on the way to help fight the chill. Buffalo grazing in camp one evening blocked the paths leading to my room, but after a half hour they’d moved, and the Umlani staff announced the “All clear.” The next morning, I woke to leopard tracks — not to mention porcupine and a genet as well — in the sand outside my door. I know that some people might find that scary, but I couldn’t have been more thrilled. 

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