Motswari Part 3

Well, I had intended to try and keep you all entertained with daily dispatches from our time here in the African bush.  However, the gruelling schedule of 7 hours in the Defender each day and 3 solid meals (plus snacks) to eat it’s hard to get back to sitting and recalling all we’ve seen and done.

Every 3.5 hour game drive is jammed with so much to see and learn, it’s hard to unpack it all and try to remember the details.  Plus, we have been joined by a gang of family and we now number 15 people so our days are joyously filled with game viewing and years of catch up combined. Not to mention celebrating Auntie T’s birthday!

I’ll try and recall the highlights.  Most who recount their African safari experience will always discuss their run-ins with the Big Five; Elephant, Leopard, Lion, Rhino and Buffalo.  We were very lucky to encounter all of them including the most elusive, the Leopard. Amazingly, it was on our drive in from the airport.  We have since, with great luck spotted leopard at least four more times.  In fact on one morning drive we were stopped in a dry riverbed to get a better look at a Wooly Neck Stork up in a tree (note: bird watching in the bush is phenomenal).  After a few minutes of chatting about the bird and its usual practices, the Little Kid and our Tracker both casually notified us that there was a leopard sitting next to the Defender watching us! I half expected him to whip out his phone and snap a photo.  We hadn’t even noticed Ntima sitting there looking at us as if to say “Hello, most elusive member of the Big Five over here!  Wake-up humans!”  (That would be a pretty funny TikTok.) If I didn’t know better I might have thought he was hunting us!  You may remember that Ntima is the local alpha male and he is a very large and beautiful cat.  Byron, our guide radioed in to his colleagues giving out coordinates so they could come see.  Before anyone else arrived Ntima decided he was bored and off he went.  We managed to track him across to the other bank of the river until he disappeared into the thick bush obviously on the hunt for his next meal.  This is life in the bush.  You never know what you might see.

A little later on the same drive, we caught wind that one of the local Lion prides was hanging out on the side of the road enjoying a snooze while the cubs were suckling.  We arrived to see some very irritated Lionesses with some greedy little cubs all jockeying for positions to suckle.  Clearly the cubs now have teeth because there was a lot of growling and biting from the moms when the cubs got too rambunctious at the teets.  We had seen this pride the day before, snoozing in the sun on some rocks in another area of the dry river bed.  They had clearly been feeding the night before because they were good and fat and still had some blood stains on their faces.  Today, after a little overnight digestion, it was interesting to see them all a little hungrier and grumpier and mobile rather than in their food comas.  We wondered where the big male was.  He didn’t seem to be around either day.  But while repositioning to get a better view of the grumpy moms and cubs our tracker spotted Limp Bizkit across the road hiding in the grass.

Limp Bizkit has a dislocated hip and walks with a limp, but he is the Alpha of two prides of lions.  He is a BIG lion with a beautiful and ample mane.  His head is huge and he is formidable.  I didn’t quite realize it until we encountered the Birmingham Breakaways.

Who are the Birmingham Breakaways?  Well I’m glad you asked. They are not a rock band and they are not a rival to the Sharks or the Jets. As we were heading out on one of our late afternoon drives, Byron explained that we were headed in search of a new group of lions in the area.  They had been spotted about an hour south of where we were in the Timbavati and we were setting out to track them down.  The six brothers hail from the same pride located in the Birmingham area of the Greater Kruger National Park. At around 3-4 years old, young males head out on their own and prepare for the upcoming battles they would face as they fight to win their own prides some day.  These 6 lions are strong and fierce.  Big and imposing and full of testosterone, they have united to hunt together.  The Birmingham pride territory is located in the South of the Greater Kruger near the Sabi Sands. They have migrated northwards into the Timbavati and were beginning to wreak havoc.  Byron was keen to track them down so we could have a look.  (Note: in this part of South Africa, the Greater Kruger National Park comprises the largest open reserve for game in the country.  It’s roughly the size of the UK and quite recently, Mozambique has opened a mirror reserve on their side of the border adjacent to the eastern edge of the Park.  On the western edge there are several private reserves from Phalaborwa down to Sabi Sabi.  There are no fences between any of these reserves so the animals flow freely from reserve to reserve and across country borders.  It’s only the people who have restricted movement).

We drove for about an hour and then spent a good 90 minutes searching the thick bush for any sign of the lions.  Finally we decided to pack in the search and enjoy sundowners over-looking a dry river crossing. After our drinks break, we turned tail and headed back to camp only slightly disappointed that the Birmingham Breakaways had eluded us.  We saw plenty of other great things in the meantime, so who could complain.

The next morning at 6:30am, we met a very excited Byron who told us that the Birmingham boys had been found!  Just 150 metres from our sundowners location, the boys had taken down a water buffalo at around one in the morning.  A local ranger down there heard the incredible noise that 6 male lions make while hunting and killing a buffalo and headed out in the middle of the night to find them.  He sent Byron the coordinates and we were off to check them out.

By the time we arrived the buffalo had been disemboweled; a lung, entrails and stomach contents put to the side.  Three quarters of the buffalo had been eaten with the hide and ribs licked clean on the hind end.  Four of the boys were fast asleep in the sunshine, digesting the first course of their meal.  Two of the boys were still dining, one of them with his whole head inside the poor buffalo.  We watched them for a while, taking their turns snacking on the beast.  We were very close, the smell of the buffalo and its internal organs spread about the kill site was horrendous.  After a while, the Defenders were arriving and lining up behind us for their chance to have a look.  So off we went back to camp for breakfast. Somehow we still had an appetite for yet another delicious Motswari meal. And no, buffalo was not on the menu.

Two of the six Birmingham Breakaways snacking on a buffalo

That afternoon, after the family arrived from Cape Town we thought it was only fair that we return to the kill site so they could also catch a glimpse of the now notorious Birmingham Breakaways.  High-tailing it down on the sand roads, we were grateful to arrive at the kill site, only to see that the buffalo had been re-located several metres and had been flipped over several times.  A second lung had been located – obviously not palatable to the Boys – and the animal was now missing its cheeks and lower jaw.  The eyes and skull with its massive horns still in place.  However, judging by how contorted the body was it was clear that there wasn’t much left inside the hide with only the ribs left to maintain the original shape of the animal.  The lions were still taking turns snacking and napping and the hyenas were circling, observing from a safe distance waiting for their reservation at Chez Water Buffalo.

We snuck in quite close to the boys, safe in the open top Defender watching them go about the business of taking turns at the buffet.  One of the bigger boys came quite close to my side of the vehicle to lay for a nap.  His head was big, his mane a little fluffier than the others.  Perhaps he’s a little older?  For sure, he’s a little stronger.  Watching him, he looked straight into my eyes.  Without a word of a lie.  I know that the lion’s vision isn’t great in this situation.  He can see the vehicle, but he can’t differentiate me from the car BUT he was looking me right in the eye.  Completely intimidated, I couldn’t maintain the eye contact.  Everyone told me not to look away, the minute I did he jumped up and all I could think was the next jump was at me.  He didn’t but I was done.  Luckily he was too full to want a bite of this middle aged woman. Bye Birmingham Breakaways, you win.  I’m out!

With my heart still beating out of my chest, we very gratefully had to leave the kill site and make room for the vehicles circling behind us.  You see, a kill site is no different than Heathrow on a busy day.  I was glad that we had now all seen the Boys and we were good.  If you happen to see a Timbavati Water Buffalo, you might want to give them a heads up to avoid the Southern section for a little while.

Back to Limp Bizkit.  On our second visit with him following the intimidating visit with the largest of the Birmingham Breakaways, I realized just how much bigger he is than the adolescents.  And I was glad he had a limp.

Nharu aka Limp Bizkit having a chill post meal or shag, he doesn’t do much else

In addition to the lion and leopard sightings, we also spotted about 17 different rhinos, including one group of 6 animals.  Incredible to see especially since the white rhino are an endangered species.  The rhino were fascinating to observe and didn’t really seem to care too much about us and the Defender we were in.  Hearing many stories of rhinos charging vehicles, we were happy that our encounters were much more passive.

Rounding out the Big Five are the elephants and the water buffalo.  Elephants are plentiful in the Greater Kruger National Park and the current census has the population at around 13,000.  Only 18 years ago, the number was almost half.  They are flourishing here, but the concern is the balance to the ecosystem as elephants need to eat a lot and one of their favourite foods are tree roots and nutrient rich cambium layers under tree barks.  Their eating often ends in the destruction of the tree.  We watched a large bull push a 10+ metre tree down with its front foot just to get at the roots.  Water buffalo usually travel in very elusive large herds of 500+ animals.  It’s amazing that you can see evidence of the large herd passing through, grazed grasses down to stubs and lots of poop, and never see the herd.  We did encounter a handful of bulls travelling in pairs and of course the single carcass with the Birmingham Breakaways, but I have to say that I was glad not to run into the herd with that many ornery 400kg sized buffalo.  When they threaten to charge, they follow through.  Not something you want to tangle with.

A lot of emphasis is put on the Big Five, and for good reason.  These are formidable predators and/ or very large animals.  But inside the Greater Kruger there is just so much to see; giraffe, hippos, crocodile, hyena, jackal, baboons, zebra, wildebeest, ostrich, honey badgers, buck of all sizes, insects big and small, birds of every shape and colouring, plant life and so much more.  A game drive can be filled with thrilling moments and totally peaceful zen-like quiet.  It’s easy to disconnect with the modern world and just fall into the routine of communing with nature.  The sunsets are as breathtaking here as they are from any shoreline, the air so clear, the colours so vibrant.  The southern constellations and the Milky Way are so easy to see with the naked eye as the skies are so dark.

I try to rationalize how the bush can bring me as much joy as the busy streets of Paris.  I’m just as happy in both places.

Loving it!

When I remember our time in the Timbavati at Motswari, I will fondly recall the wonderful people we met here.  The Shangaan-Tsonga people that keep all the wheels rolling in camp are incredible.  They were very kind to share their song, dance and drumming including the Little Kid in the performance on our last night.  We fell in love with the sweet and kind folks at Motswari.  There were some tears shed when it was time to say goodbye.

As I’m catching up on my blog posts, I’m writing this from the couch at home in Vancouver and I can say that it feels like it was a dream when we were in the African bushveldt, keeping company with the animals and our wonderful new friends.

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