The month of January has produced, yet again, an incredible amount of wildlife sightings. From dusk till dawn, day after day, the animals have flourished and are relishing the newly transformed landscapes that the rains have brought. It has been a joy to observe the constant fluctuations of game passing through the various sections of the Reserve from East to West and North to South. We had some incredible rains since the beginning of rain season in August 2021 with a downpour over 700mm, we now have streams running through the reserve.
Often after a long, dry winter, the arrival of the first summer rains bring much delight, not only to the animals but us as well. The rainfall has brought more birdsong for us to listen to, it has filled our dams, and last but not least it has allowed us to smell a plethora of aromas. Picture this, it’s a warm, dry day and we are in the early stages of the rainy season. There is an immense cloud build-up over the Waterberg Mountain Range, and you can see a blanket of rain coming towards you. You can smell it before you see it, can’t you?
That beautiful aroma that one smells when raindrops hit dry earth. That fresh, musky scent fills our nasal passages when raindrops make landfall and bring relief to barren soil or a hot tar road. The rain itself has no scent, it is rather the moistening of the soil that speeds up the breaking down of dead or decaying matter by a group of bacteria, causing a certain compound to be released into the atmosphere that we smell. It is difficult to comprehend the relief that the first rains of the season bring to such desiccated landscapes. After months of little to no rain, all organisms, big and small, come to life with the first downpour. The geosmin is released in aerosol forms that are ejected from the ground when raindrops make contact, these aerosols can be carried vast distances in the wind, hence why we can often smell the rain before feeling it.
The pleasant smell is attributed to a group of actinobacteria, more specifically Streptomyces, which is present all over the ground and in most soils. The earthy odour is known as ‘petrichor’ and it is in fact a result of us smelling an organic molecule, geosmin, which is released as the Streptomyces dies or is consumed by other bacteria.
In short, it becomes aerosolised. As the raindrops hit the ground, tiny little air bubbles trap the geosmin, then shoot up through the raindrop and pop out the top releasing the aerosols into the air. A similar example is watching the bubbles pop off the top of a freshly poured soda or Coca-cola, where you are able to then smell the coke. The wind then carries the aerosols across the land. The odour is especially evident after a prolonged period of dryness and it permeates the air in the early summer months of October and November. So the next time someone asks, “Don’t you just love that smell of the rain coming?” you’ll be able to tell them what it’s all about!
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.
There are youngsters everywhere you look, wildebeest and warthog have mastered their breeding season in order to have their young when food is plentiful, and water is everywhere. We have already seen plenty of impala lambs being born, wildebeest calves and warthog piglets. These animals have employed this strategy so that there is an abundance of young around which, in turn, allows the majority of them to survive and not get preyed upon. They essentially flood the market for the predators. Watching all this life being born around you is seriously an amazing thing to witness because no matter the animal, it is always special to see a baby.
Although the bush is now lush and thick it hasn’t hindered the potential to experience incredible wildlife sightings, if anything we are experience a mini boom. We have been graced by the presence of young male leopard, lioness mother and her cubs, cheetah mother and her cubs, general game, elephants and all the way through to the magnificent Wild dogs. It’s difficult to put a finger on which sightings have been the best over the past month as each experience is unique in its own special way. One thing we can say for sure is that being out in the bush on a day-to-day basis is a rewarding luxury not to be taken for granted. The summer is in full swing rendering all its glory upon us, and nature certainly has delivered. Leopard sighting stood out the best this month on the reserve.
Although male and female leopards are not directly competing for territory, they both play an integral part in each other’s success. Males seek to secure a territory with access to animals in which to hunt and feed on as well as females to mate with and in turn pass on their genes.
Female leopards are also very territorial and are continuously looking to expand or sometimes shift their current territories for a few different reasons. The availability of food is important, but higher on the priority list is the availability of suitable den-sites in order to give birth to their cubs and keep them safe for the first few months of their lives.
Females’ territories and the upbringing of their cubs are hugely affected by the dominant male dynamics. If unstable, the likelihood of the female’s cubs surviving is very slim, as the biggest threats to young leopard cubs are other leopards. A dominant male with a stronghold over a territory will keep rivals out and chase off young nomadic males. With female leopards having much smaller territories, their density is higher, having a few different females all encompassed by one male’s territory.
As the rains continue to nourish the soils of the Mabula, imprints from the wonderful Leopard have been dotted all over the safari vehicle roads and game path. We have been consistently finding these elusive animals on the reserve, especially on the southern side of the reserve. We were very lucky to young male on Mannekamp plain area and very relaxed.
One other thing that has stood out this past month is the frequency of Wild dog sightings. Literally just about every other day they have been seen. They are taking full advantage of the end of the lambing season for the Impala. As we all know Wild dogs are able to consume an entire prey item within minutes the reason being that this allows them to avoid any confrontations with other apex predators and allows the species to flourish out of harm’s way.
Wild dogs are also extremely gregarious animals and provide many special moments to admire while out in the bush. Things constantly change out here with animals fluctuating from one place to the next.
At one stage we had beautiful sighting wild dogs at two boreholes near Soweto house busy interacting with wildebeest. It was amazing to see to see them interacting. I was so surprised to see herd of wildebeest chasing wild dogs, yet wildebeest usually runs away from cheetah, perhaps due to cheetah patterns slightly similar to those of a leopard, animals turn to think of a leopard when they see a cheetah. The Waterberg holds one of the last remaining free-roaming populations of African wild dog in South Africa. As Africa’s second most endangered large predator, it is estimated that there are only 6,600 left in the world. We feel extremely privileged that, by being a safe haven for this species, Mabula can contribute to the species’ protection, and we sincerely hope that these two will stick around for a long time to come.
A baby cheetah is one of the most adorable creatures on earth. Seeing one on wild, grow from young age to grow, learn to hunt, and end up becoming independent from their own parents it is really amazing. With their brown eyes and fluffy mantle, playful and climbing trees, even hiding in bushes. I can’t help but say “awwww!
Mother cheetahs have an extremely tough time protecting their young from predators such as hyenas and lions. It takes a lot of skill to be a good cheetah mom. She cunningly hides her cubs in tall grass or thickets and moves them frequently. Here at Mabula, cheetah mom may need to leave her cubs unattended for few days while she hunts, and they are extremely vulnerable during this time. But by the time they are six weeks old, they are able to stay with her as she moves through the grasslands and thickets.
The mother cheetah will nurse her cubs until they are about three months old, but they start tearing at meat from as young as five or six weeks old. A few weeks later they are fit and strong enough to follow mom when she hunts buck, small mammals and even birds, and start to learn the art for themselves. The cheetah mother will often bring live prey back to her young and teach them how to kill. They start hunting from about eight months and by twelve months are able to make their own kills.
Cheetah mother will normally leave her cubs between 12 and 15 months. Young males may form coalitions that last for life, allowing them to be much more effective hunters and go after larger prey. Females may stay with their male siblings initially but typically disperse a few months later and conceive after they are two years old.
Living and working out in the bush just never gets old, the fact that even when at lodge your normal office day can be flipped on its head continues to amaze me even after spending over 15 years here at Mabula. I have witnessed beautiful sightings and made good memories that will last for a long time for me and my guests.
With festive season well behind us, new year has brought us excellent sighting of the mother lion and her cubs, as they moves through some open vegetation and open plains on a hunt and teaching her cubs on the technics of successful hunt.
Anything can happen and they type of distractions that one has in this environment can only be described as out of the ordinary and not really a distraction but an experience, and more often than not it’s an experience that will stay with you for the rest of your life.
For those of you who came to Mabula after the cubs were born in September you would have noticed the lioness with cubs have been mating with males more often and still do so until now. Many would ask themselves why since she has cubs. Because our males were introduced in April on the reserve, and they are new to our females, they had to take over females. At first there were fights and one lioness had an experience of new males, which made it easy for them to control the males.
One tactic that this female may have employed when mating with Males, is distraction. Females may enter into a state of “pseudo-oestrus” as a diversion tactic. While also beginning the process of confusing paternity. This serves the dual purpose of making males fight against each other for her when she first met them and also can be used to distract males from killing the cubs to bring back to oestrus.
In this state, the females usually won’t become pregnant; this is not a conscious decision on the female’s part but rather a hormonal state induced by circumstance. The result is that any cubs born in the near future may be the progeny of either the invaders or the existing dominant males, and so no matter the outcome, the victor is invested in the raising of those cubs.
Our thick-skinned grey friends have been all over the reserve, not that we are complaining, they are such interesting animals to watch from a social perspective. Especially now after the rain, there is several mud pools around, and as most of us know, elephants love spending time at the “spa” getting themselves all muddy to help cool themselves down and to help with exfoliation.
There is water in abundance and lots of good vegetation on the reserve to keep their bodies and energy levels going, and also some dessert with all the Marula fruits all over. Even though we have had some good sightings, they have also made us work hard for it, with the bush being so lush. We have turned off the safari vehicle several times to sit and listen – for a big animal, elephants move very quietly. Sometimes all you hear is the breaking of a single branch or when they are splashing themselves with mud.
From the early 1900’s the African Buffalo has been regarded as one of the most dangerous animals on the beautiful African continent. African Buffalo has strength to burn and even the lions finds it tremendously tough to hunt these massive beasts. Buffalo are gregarious herbivores, moving over the grassy landscapes of Mabula, picking off the greenest possible pastures to sustain their colossal bodies.
Why are buffalo bulls often seen on their own away from the larger herd?
The two main reasons are, wallowing in mud and a constant supply of soft green grass. Buffalo in a herd are continually moving around. These single or small herds of bulls are usually a little older and the hair on their body starts to deteriorate with age. In order to protect themselves against the sun and parasites that might infest the areas without hair they will roll around in pools of mud. The mud serves as a barrier against the sun and parasites. Soft green grass is usually found in areas with a constant supply of water and these buffalo will move and live in these areas owing to the fact that with age their teeth starts wearing down.
When buffalo move away from the herd and live their solitary lives or amalgamate with other buffalo bulls, they leave the protection of the rest of the herd. By doing this they make themselves susceptible to predation. Therefore they tend to be more on their toes, realising that they might have to fight for their life at any given moment. They have unbelievable power, courage to burn and a frighteningly bad attitude! Any animal that can fight a lion without backing down should be admired.
Another arrival with the summer rains, which I believe to an extent is quite overlooked, is the beautiful array of bushveld wildflowers. The evolved landscape is now, when carefully observed, covered in a dotted ocean of beautiful shapes and colours of the Mabula’s flowers. These delicate flowers will scatter themselves over the rolling hills and flat areas on the reserve right until late February early March
The Morning Glory flower is one of the more common ones here at Mabula. As the name suggests, most morning glory flowers unfurl into full bloom in the early morning. Keep a look out for a few of these during your stay with us throughout the summer months.
The Blood lily will easily catch your eye whilst out on safari. Some grow twice the size of a tennis ball.
Beginning of the year have been the most exciting times in the bush for me. With the rain we received so far, the bush is changing and popping with colour in front of our eyes every day. Watching the landscape turn from its uniform khaki colour into a sea of green is always something to behold and what comes with the sea of green is life in its thousands.
Bird activity during this time of year is seriously special. Migrants have followed the rains and have returned to Mabula. Most of the migrants return because of the huge influx of prey/food that is on offer because of the rain. A large amount of surface water means that many different plant species will be growing and blossoming which means food is plentiful. It also means that tons of insects start to emerge providing food sources for many birds. For me the most noticeable returning birds are all the cuckoos and the Woodland Kingfisher.
Both species travel miles to arrive here because of the amount of food that is on offer while providing ample energy to then breed. Breeding means that these birds will call constantly and for me to hear the call of a Woodland Kingfisher or a Jacobin Cuckoo brings so much joy, there is no greater sound to let you know summer is here.
Dung beetles returned from their time underground where they have been aestivating during the winter to take advantage of all the dung that is on offer. These dedicated insects emerge with the rains in order to feed and more importantly for them to breed. There are about 780 species of dung beetle that we find in Southern Africa that are split into 4 different groups. The main group that catches our eye is the rollers known as the telecoprids. Dung is compacted into a ball and then rolled away for 3 main reasons.
Firstly, a food ball is rolled and stored to sustain the Dung beetle itself during the breeding periods. The second is a nuptial ball that they can attract a mate with and in turn feed on it together. The third and most important is a brood ball where they will lay an egg and bury the ball for the larvae to eat once hatched. Seeing these amazing insects go about their trade is a site to behold as a ball can weigh 50 times more than the beetle itself.
Tortoises, like the dung beetles, tortoises will go into a form of aestivation during the winter months to conserve energy as they are very reliant on the presence of water. Here at Mabula, we have two different types of tortoises. The first and most common is the Leopard Tortoise that we find regularly during the rainy season. Getting its name from its shell resembling the rosettes of a leopard. The second that is seldom seen is the Speke’s Hinged Tortoise, getting its name from its hinged carapace (bottom part of the tortoise’s shell) that allows it to close off its rear end to predators.
Even though Nile crocodiles are not prolific on the reserve, we do have a healthy crocodile population in Mabula, and crocodiles are always spotted on the banks along Mvubu, Ngulubi and Main dams. These beautiful crocodiles, both estimated about 2 meter long and were not too bothered by the safari vehicles approaching for some nice photographs, were seen chilling on the edge of the water at Ngulubi dam and main dam.
Rainy season on Mabula is very special, lightning and thunders, which brings a very special sound to the African bush.
Shortly after the sun rises, the air will often be filled with deep booming notes. So deep and resonating that it can sometimes take a trained ear to tell it apart from the roar of a very distant lion. When it comes to waking up and setting out into the bush early, I find that always gain far more than I initially seek. I still remember this particular morning. It was still and peaceful. We decided to stop in an open Reginald plain where herds of impala were feeding and some were standing, with elephants feeding in the distance. With the vehicle’s engine off, we positioned ourselves up perfectly to listen to the sounds of our surroundings. Especially, any animal alarm calls or perhaps even the cheetah we were searching for.
We sat for a while enjoying the scene. Then suddenly, we heard faint booming notes. The booming sound we heard was the duet between a male and female Southern Ground Hornbill, advertising their territory. The last thing my guests were thinking was that this sound was being made by a bird. On a quiet morning like this one, their call can be heard up to almost 2.5kms away as it rumbles through the bush. With that being said, you’ve got a good chance of hearing them if they are in the area. Southern Ground Hornbills have very large territories, and different family groups will proclaim their territories each morning. This ensures the surrounding groups will be aware of each other’s presence. In order for their call to be the most effective and travel large distances, I’ve seen them perform this booming call mostly from an elevated position. This is to avoid the sound being muffled out by trees or vegetation, helping it to have a further reach.
They create their booming call through the ability to inflate a sack-like chamber in their red wattle that covers their throat. The sound then reverberates through this sack, which enhances it. They also have a special chamber on their upper bill in order to amplify the sound. The male has a larger chamber, and this is why you will often hear the two different pitches in a morning duet, with the male’s being deeper in tone.
They are unmistakable in appearance, standing over a meter high when fully grown and weighing up to 5kg. They are the largest hornbill species in the world. Whether or not they do actually bring the rain or because the rainy season coincides with their breeding season (which is when they are most vocal and territorial), will remain anyone’s guess. Whatever the belief is, these birds carry with them a great sense of veneration. Their call does stir some great imagery and emotion. It is for that reason that they are certainly right up there with my favourite birds found on the reserve.
There is no comparison to being on a safari vehicle, with the open air surrounding you, and hearing the power of a lion’s roar, kudu bull barking or the excitement in the warning call of a vervet monkey, to the stunning vibrato from a Fiery-necked Nightjar, this is nature’s music, and every call you hear is unique – no two are the same, and even when calls are mimicked, there is still a difference. Listening to the natural world will awaken all your senses and instil a sense of belonging and wonder in your heart. And that’s because Mother Nature exists in every crack and crevice of our being.
As South Africans, many of us believe that no sunset is complete without a delicious gin and tonic to accompany it. Watching the sky turn into a kaleidoscope of red, orange and pink is a magnificent sight, and one that deserves a drink that can meet its standard.
Next time you find yourself under a golden African sunset of Mabula, ask your guide for a gin and tonic. It won’t disappoint!
Until next time…
From Isaiah Banda & Mabula family.
Images courtesy of: Isaiah, Nuria, Frans, Tshepo, Apollo, Andrew, Marguerite, Liam Heighton, Hein Nel, Noel Thompson, and Barry Cribb.