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Safari greetings to all our family.

This month we have enjoyed some slightly mixed weather with there being rain around the reserve. This has been pleasant for everyone here including all the wildlife. Waterholes are slowly topping up and puddles and mud wallows decorate the reserve. This makes life a lot easier for the wildlife as they do not need to travel huge distances in order to find a drink. Raptors have still been around and about and on display, along with a family of Southern Ground Hornbills who, as they probe through the growing grass with their long-curved beaks, are finding an abundance of small prey to feed on.

What an amazing game viewing month it has been. It has certainly been dominated by incredible lion sightings with the mother lioness and her cubs being found a few times and providing the most spectacular sightings as they play on the plains of Mabula. The cheetah female and her cubs were also seen resting on Dunhill drive, in what was a rather nostalgic sighting. In fact, it was in this exact area with this very same female and her previous cubs, that I took their pictures. The wild dogs have also been spectacular as usual, providing wonderful sightings for our guests.

Growing up, I’ve always loved nature. I find it so peaceful sitting quietly at places like Elephant dam by the deck, Christmas hill looking at the view over the Waterberg mountains, not forgetting Kai dam and Mvubu dam listening to the fish eagle calling from the sky, nothing beats the sound of the fish eagle. I grew up on a game reserve just in the foothills of Waterberg mountains, although the reserve did not have big 5 including cheetahs and wild dogs. However, the bush was very familiar and provided a very comforting and peaceful space.

Spending three weeks at a time away from city life, was not a big adjustment since I grew up in the bush and only moved to the city for my high school education. When I was away studying for my field guide qualification and things started to get tough, I remembered when my parents always encouraged me to find joy in the little things. Watching creatures here at Mabula, small or big emerge from the surrounding bushes or grasses and crossing the road to their next destination, it is always the most exciting sight for me.

Sometimes it’s only a single elephant bull, other times an entire breeding herd, it can be herd of zebras or pride of lions busy hunting, even cheetah. Those are sightings that truly never get old.

There is also an abundance of warthog piglets, zebra foals and wildebeest calves being born at this time of the year. Like the impala lambs, they are able to run with their mothers, albeit in a wobbly fashion, within a few minutes of being born. Some of the general game also have some new young to show off. These miniature versions of the adults are always a treat.

The painted wolves continue to cover great distances over the reserve. These successful predators have also been seen to take advantage of the abundance of impala lambs. As guides, we are not really supposed to just have one favourite animal but for me, I can’t deny it and not say that one of my favourite animals are wild dogs.

They are one of my favourite animals for many different reasons but one of these reasons is because of their playful behaviour. Whether playing with one another in the pack, chasing each other on land or in water or simply just chasing zebra in circles. These playful animals also enjoy the abundance of water around and take great pleasure in chasing each other through the puddles or utilising small patches of water to cool down in the heat of the day.

This type of playfulness helps strengthen the bonds with each pack member and helps develop their hunting skills. This play also attributes to the high level of endurance that they need to chase down their prey. Wild dogs are very entertaining around water. They often take advantage of a shallow waterhole, puddles, or stream. Firstly, to drink water and secondly to cool down. After a hunt wild dogs will often seek out a puddle of water to lie in to help thermoregulate.

This type of playfulness helps strengthen the bonds with each pack member and helps develop their hunting skills. This play also attributes to the high level of endurance that they need to chase down their prey. Wild dogs are very entertaining around water. They often take advantage of a shallow waterhole, puddles, or stream. Firstly, to drink water and secondly to cool down. After a hunt wild dogs will often seek out a puddle of water to lie in to help thermoregulate.

It was hard to capture it all and to not put emotion into how the wild dogs were feeling but it sparked a feeling of joy and laughter in all of us, some could say it was playful and some could say it’s just necessary for muscle development, fitness, and social bonding or all of the above, who really knows? Soon after they finished chasing each other they found a shady bush which they then rested under for the rest of the day.

It is an amazing time of the year to be on safari, the transformation from the dull tones of the early new growth a couple of weeks ago to a rich emerald green canvas that can now be seen everywhere.

Looking across the Mabula landscape, one of our most iconic animals has to be the giraffe. The long neck, ossicones and elongated muzzle give them a distinct shape when silhouetted against the sunset, with each characteristic providing them with the adaptations required for their feeding.

Their impressive eyelashes are important for ensuring their eyes are protected from the branches surrounding their faces as they feed. Because they show a preference for trees with nasty mechanical protection, in the form of thorns and spines, eyelashes are sensitive to touch and will cause their eyes to close if a branch approaches the eye.

A long dexterous tongue, which has been measured up to 40cm in some of the larger individuals, enables the giraffe to strip the branches of their leaves, leaving the spines and spikes and thorns behind. You can sometimes see where a giraffe has been feeding, as the tips of the branches are bare of leaves.

In some instances, however, they need to be a little more careful, daintily picking the leaves from the branches using their prehensile lips which, together with the tongue, are covered with horny papillae which protects them from all the sharp edges.

The slender muzzle also assists with manoeuvring between the branches to reach the really good stuff.

The one thing which makes these animals unique, above all is their impressive height. Females have been measured to over 4 – 4.5m to the top of the head, which is already incredible to behold, and yet the males clearly tower over them, some reaching heights of up to 5.5m, up to 1m taller. This extends the area where they are capable of browsing to approximately 2m above the browse line. This is a large portion of the foliage of the tree which would otherwise be untouched as it is beyond the reach of the next tallest browser, which in this area would be the Kudu, which stands at just under 1,4m shoulder height.

Difference between male and female, males have not hair on their ossicones while females have. When males get involved in fights called necking they lose their hair causing the ossicones to become balled. Both males and females are born with hair on their ossicones. But it doesn’t stop there, giraffes have a modified atlas-axial joint. This enables the head to be tilted to almost vertical with the spine, which not only extends their reach but also improves their manoeuvrability while feeding. This is seen to be utilised more by males, as they show a preference for feeding high up in the canopy of the trees, whereas females tend to feed at eye-level and below, feeding often on the tops of small, or young trees, as opposed to reaching high up to the foliage of the tall tree, this allows them to be more vigilant, not only for themselves being more vulnerable as they are smaller than males but also if they have young to look out for.

It is so incredible how each animal has adapted to its specific niche. When you delve deeper into the reasons behind the appearance, it becomes clear how important each trait really is for the survival of the species. Giraffe are often on the wish list during someone’s time with us here at Mabula, and it is completely understandable because when you take the time to sit and look at them, you are almost overwhelmed by the fact that an animal like this really exists… you almost have to see it to believe it

Along with the large herd of buffalo, other pachyderms were seen taking full advantage of the full watering-holes. With the temperature soaring well over 30 degrees Celsius during the summer days, these animals need to utilise the watering-holes, not only to quench their thirst, but to cool themselves down by rolling in the mud and water.

The herds of elephants have been great viewing throughout the month, as they too relish the abundance of food around. The welcome rain has created a blanket of greenery that is enjoyed by all. Herds of elephants and obstinacy of buffaloes move constantly throughout the day, feeding as they go, having to consume at least five percent of their body weight every single day!

In nature we never see anything isolated, but everything in connection with something else which is before it, beside it, under it and over it. When conducting a guided bush walk at Mabula, you don’t see the bush around you as in the same way as you would on a safari vehicle. It’s more like reading a book, where all the finer details illustrate how everything around us is connected. From microhabitats within trees that elephants have toppled over, to the ‘bush newspapers’ where a slate of soil provides the details of the previous night’s activities. These age-old markers connect each and every one of us to Mother Nature’s ‘bigger picture’.

This month I had a pleasure of joining one of our senior guides, Ben, on a guided walk. Ben is one of those guides when they get booked on a guided walk they get so exited and look forward to it. He enjoys walks more than any other of the activities we offer here at Mabula. That morning he chose a beautiful area with abundance of wildlife and flora to look forward to. The airy call of the yellow masked weavers, and the sweet smell from the blooming flowers of the sweet thorns welcomed us to the start of our day. We began our walk from fig tree down to mud wallow.

We followed centuries-old pathways carved into the ground by pachyderms stomping their way back and forth from the waterhole and mud wallow. It was along this path that we started to see the first signs of life. A burst of green matter sprayed across a terminalia still fresh, indicating a large hippo bull had come past recently

From mud wallow we went to Main dam to see if we could find anything. And indeed it was our lucky day, we snuck up on some hippos who were enjoying their morning after a long night of feeding. Hippos are the most difficult animals to approach on foot. I am a trails guide also and hava walked them many times, most of the time they have seen me approaching them. However this time walking with Ben they did not even realize that we were there watching them. It was good to be able to sight them doing their normal activity without being disturbed by us.

We were lucky to find crocodiles on the North Eastern side of the dam on the bank warming up on the sun. Crocodile like hippos they rely on water and sun. if it is a cold morning in the water they will stay outside water to warm themselves up and if outside water is too hot they will stay under the water. It is very important when conducting the walk not to apporach a dam that has crocodile less than 30 meters, and we were in a good distance and we could see the crocodiles and enjoy the sighting safely.

When a buffalo or zebra goes down on Mabula, lions, painted dogs and even brown hyenas will soon arrive to fight over the carcass. But what most of us don’t realize is that the same thing happens every time the buffalo, zebra or even elephant drops dung—only it’s beetles battling over the spoils. We came across these two fighting over a ball of dung. In the end one was hanging on while the other one is rolling the ball. On the other hand the other two decided to go solo and not fight, rolled alone without having a competition.

Using scent detectors on their antennae, dung beetles hone in on a pile of faeces and descend en masse. Each beetle then races to tear off a chunk, roll it away, bury it, and devour the droppings before the other dung beetles can steal it for their own. In relation to its size the dung beetle is not only the world’s strongest insect – it’s the world’s strongest animal! When moving balls of dung, a roller can pull a whopping 1,141 times its own bodyweight – that’s the same as a human dragging six full double-decker busses along a road! After spending some time observing life as well as the fauna and flora, we began to feel a sense of belonging and enjoying the bush walk.

We made our way to rain meter plain to find out what it had in store for us. To our surprise we found sable antelopes relaxed and resting, busy ruminating. Sables were re-introduced on the reserve a few years ago, and they have been doing very well so far. Sable antelope, one of Mabula’s most impressive antelopes and a member of the horse antelope tribe, Hippotragini (family Bovidae), so-called because of their compact, powerful build, erect mane, thick necks, and sturdy build. Sable bulls, with their glossy black (sable) coats set off by white underparts, rump, throat, and facial markings and their great scimitar-shaped horns

Females and young are chestnut to sorrel in colour; these pronounced colour differences make the sable antelope one of the most sexually dimorphic species in the bovid family. The sable is a sociable and territorial antelope; herds of females and young numbering up to 70 animals live in large home ranges of 10 to more than 50 square km. Among females, there is a dominant hierarchy based partly on seniority. Herds frequently break up into smaller units of variable composition and may remain separated for long intervals.

When walking in the bush one becomes part of the greater ecosystem and hence is more vulnerable. One’s senses need to be on alert the whole time to the many sounds and signals the bush provides, in order to minimize the chances of a dangerous encounter with one of these large animals

The most significant element of the experience for me was the fact that I was walking on natural paths created by the animals themselves over the months and years, and are used, each day by countless inhabitants of this place, from bushbuck, nyala, kudu and wildebeest to lions, leopards, buffalo and elephant. It is a powerful feeling to place the soles of your walking shoes where iconic African animals have walked so many times before you.

We were reminded over and over again through those hours of walking in silence, with only the natural sounds to listen to, of the privilege we are afforded in living and working out here. Heading back to the lodge after being exposed to the African bush for just over two hours, the urge to return and make a change for the better slowly set it – a change not only for ourselves, but for all living organisms we so greatly impact upon.

Stopping in the early hours of the morning safari is vital, whether it’s for an impala or just to view the sunrise. Stopping can help you as a guide, as it is a chance when one can listen to the sounds of the bush without the drone of the vehicle’s engine. To listen for a lion roar or the territorial call of a leopard that you may be looking for.

No other sighting on the reserve is more magnificent than that of a coalition of adult male lions together. Their bold stature and the unified front they present sends shivers down the spine of every observer, especially that of any potential rivals. To see one male lion is certainly a sight to behold, but what about two or three dominant male lions? Now that is a sight you will never forget. Time spent with male lion coalitions will be moments never forgotten.

To understand why male lions tend to group together, better known as forming male lion coalitions, you need to understand the psyche of the male lion a little better. A male lion’s entire reason for existing is rather simple and comes down to one, single, thing. Reproduce and protect their offspring. Life for a male lion is tough. I’ll say that again.

Every single day in a male lion’s life is tough! For the first 2.5 – 3.5 years of their life they have it relatively easy. They’ll be a part of the pride and due to their size and brute strength, they tend to dominate some key aspects of life in the pride. Male lion cubs are larger and stronger than their female counterparts.

This makes them more assertive at carcasses and they tend to stamp down their dominance whenever food is on offer. Interactions at kill sites are tense and there’s no sharing whatsoever. As they reach the age of 2 they become intolerable around a carcass, to the point that lionesses won’t bother getting involved, even though they would have worked hard to kill the animal for the young males. This is especially true if there’s are two, three or more young males in the pride. They need not work all that hard when hunting prey as they know the adult lionesses and very often, their own sisters, will do much of the hard work for them.

They don’t get away with as much whenever their father is around though. The dominant male or males in the pride will be quick to educate the young energetic males on social manners, firmly putting them in their place and reminding them of their position in the pride. Pride males need to be more aggressive towards these young males. Without that authority figure in the pride the young males will become a force to be reckoned with and when the time comes to leave the pride, there won’t be any dominant lions to assert this message.

Male lions are incredible beings. For me, they represent the ultimate symbols of strength,  dignity and honour. They will fight to the death, no hesitation or concern for self. They give all that they have and that’s inspiring to say the very least.

There is something incredibly special about watching cheetah cubs interact with one another and the speed that they have at such a young age blew me away as they chased each other around a fallen down tree, but what really made it special was how beautiful they were. They still had all their fluff on their backs and feet bigger than their bodies, as if they still need to grow into them.

Watching how their mother would interact with them, groom them and always keeping an eye on them showed me the love that she has for the three cubs. She was always making sure that they were safe, even when they would run off for a few meters she always had an eye on them. If they wondered off too far, she would give a slight contact call and they would come sprinting back to mom without any hesitation.

With any sign of danger, a simple call and they were by her side; if she moved away they were right there with her – the trust that they have in their mother was amazing, they knew that if they were with their mother they were safe, but with that comes great responsibility from the mother.

She now has three extra mouths to feed which is not a simple task and as they grow they will need more food to remain healthy and strong to grow up to become adults and start their own adventure in the wild without the protection of their mother. From what we have witnessed, she is an incredible mother and the three cubs are in great hands.

What I love about the bush is the unexpected surprises. You can spend the whole afternoon driving through the reserve seeing very little, and then something amazing can happen just when you thought the afternoon was lost.

After over 2 hours spent with these incredible animals we sat and watched as they moved off into the distance with no words left to say, just knowing that what we just witnessed was a once in a lifetime experience.

One of my favourites birds is white-faced whistling duck. An intersting part is their distinctive three-note whistle, this is one of the first calls I could imitate when I was a youngster growing up. White-faced whistling ducks casually bob around in Dickinson dam. These birds not only look beautiful but have a melodious, whistling call. Male and female white-faced ducks enjoy paddling at Dickinson dam. The male is larger than female.

Picture yourself watching a sunset, the warmth of the sun’s last rays on your skin, the cold of the first gin and tonic in your hand. One loses track of time. Then as the soft light turns into darkness things start to change. You emerge from your sunset trance and look around. Your vision starts failing you in the semi-darkness

This signals you that we are now entering the nocturnal world. Time for a spotlight to assist our eyes to spot those who roam in the dark and yet they have excellent eye sight to spot and find their prey. The first animal we find was an aardwolf, one of the animals we normaly find during this time, mostly alone. This time it was a different story. There were three, a closer inspection revealed it was a mother and two offsprings. Wow! That was all we could say. If you were an ant or termite, you certainly wouldn’t want to be around when there are three hungry aardwolf (Proteles cristatus) on the prowl. These shy, nocturnal creatures may be small – with adults averaging around 10kgs – but they have an appetite second to none. In fact, a single aardwolf can consume up to 400 000 ants and termites in a single evening, scraping at the nests and using their rough tongues to lick up piles of the hapless insects.

Interestingly, the papillae on the aardwolf’s tongue face backwards, which means it can snag plenty of its favourite morsels before they scurry back underground. Despite feasting predominantly on small insect, the aardwolf has very large canine teeth. Rather than using these to tear up meat, they are primarily a defence mechanism and come in very handy when the aardwolf finds itself under attack.

In addition to having some impressive teeth to flash around, the aardwolf is a very attractive animal with its yellowish-brown fur and striking black stripes along its shoulders, back and hips. They use burrows to shelter and raise their young, and prefer sandy habitats where food is readily available, so spotting one is considered a fairly rare treat by game viewers. If you are going to enjoy such an experience, however, one of the best, and most likely, places to do so is on a night drive through the fantastic Mabula Game Lodge.

When it comes to African predators, they don’t come more beautiful and mysterious than the leopard. This solitary hunter is the strongest of Africa’s big cats and can carry up to three times its own body weight, stashing kills that often weigh more than they do in trees to avoid losing them to scavengers and other predators like lions. We were very lucky to get a sighting of young one on the centre of the reserve at pump house plain. An area where we did not expect to find one. Probably because he is still young and starting to explore the reserve on his own to find a suitable area for him to make his own territory.

Two male impala rams battle it out for the right to mate with the females. It is very intersting to see two male impalas going at each other, it is so serious and severe. I was lucky enough to witness these two males taking on one another at Bottom Whole Owner Plains.

After the other male was tired, he decided to move away from the fight and run away. It’s moments like these that make it easy to find joy in the little things, and in turn be reminded of how fortunate we are to live and work in the most amazing of places.

The festive season has been a month of incredible sightings, much needed rain, and the boom of babies across the reserve. Along with the joy and happiness surrounding the festive period comes the birth of many animals, including impala, wildebeest, zebra, and warthog, to name a few. With over 100mm of rain falling throughout the December period, the bush continues to be transformed into a green oasis.

My encouragement to you for the festive season, is to find joy in the little things. Whether it be watching our social media pages or being here at Mabula, sitting quietly with a cup of coffee in the mornings or noticing new leaves on the trees on your daily commute, find the joy in those moments and in your surroundings. You’ll be surprised as to how much of it can be found in ones daily routine if you simply look for it.

From all of us at Mabula Game Lodge. Thank you for your support over the past year! It has been a year filled with incredible safaris, memorable sightings, important life lessons, and beautiful blessings. Our wishes for you for this Festive season are: To be safe, to spend quality time with your loved ones, to take a much-needed break and come spend time here at Mabula and most importantly is to have fun, no matter what you do!

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. May 2022 exceed all your expectations! We are looking forward to another life-changing year ahead of us! Who knows, maybe we get to meet you in the Mabula african bush soon and sundowner. A place we get to explore and throughout the year we get to see the most amazing sightings, sunrises and sunsets!

Until next time…

From Isaiah Banda & Mabula family.

Safari Greetings

Images courtesy of: Isaiah, Gawie Jordan, Nuria, Frans, Tshepo, Apollo, Andrew, Marguerite, Liam Heighton, Russel, Sam, Sakkie, Steven, and Tiaan.