Guide News – March 2023 - Safari Plains Skip to main content

Written by Isaiah Banda

This month although with still had some rainfall, the reserve has had a chance to dry out a bit and the game viewing has been great. With all the moisture around animals don’t have to go too far in search of water to drink, the vegetation and in particular the grasses are thriving, blanketing the landscape in a dense lush hue of green.

Animals of all shapes and sizes have come out of the woodwork and are humming with activity.

Starting with the larger of this month’s highlights, elephants have been giving an abundance of sightings and a few intimate greetings are always amazing to witness. Giraffes, who have a free choice of which bush, shrub, or tree in which to feed, are making the most and likely picking out tall the new shoots bursting through, having their fill in the company of a fling of oxpeckers. Yes, I believe that a ‘fling’ is the collective noun for a group of oxpeckers.

Exploring the North-western parts of the reserve.

One morning I had no guests to take on a safari. Guests were enough for all our guides. I decided to go early morning to see what the reserve has in store for me on that early morning. This time I decided to explore the North-western side of the reserve. This area is not favoured by most animals. Popular areas with a lot of game activity are mostly in the South of the reserve.

My first animal was a zebra herd. Zebra are the most popular animals on the reserve and when you leave for your safari whether, in the morning or afternoon, the first animal that greets you is a zebra. They are doing very well and growing quite fast in numbers even though some of their foals are taken by cheetahs and wild dogs. One of the most iconic and favourite animals seen on a safari here at Mabula must be the giraffe. With their long legs and even longer necks, they make you want to stay with them for a long time without leaving them.

Although giraffe are herbivores and mostly feed on vegetation such as leaves, grass, twigs, fruit, and roots; they also sometimes eat soil and pick up bones to chew them for calcium. Giraffes favour eating the leaves and twigs of Acacia trees. This tree is armed with big, white, sharp thorns to protect its juicy leaves from attackers. Giraffes are not deterred by these thorns, and they use their long manoeuvrable tongues and tough lips to get around them.

Giraffes have long legs; it is not surprising that a giraffe’s neck is too short to reach the ground! As a result, it must inconveniently spread its front legs or kneel to reach the ground for a drink of water, exposing it to the threat of predators. Luckily giraffes get most of the water they need from the plants that they eat so they only drink from watering holes once every few days.

Giraffe has distinctive spotted coats and, just like human fingerprints and zebra stripes, no two giraffes have the exact same pattern or markings. This fact has helped hugely in researching giraffes as they can be individually identified, observed and monitored.

Giraffes need less sleep than any other mammal. Five to 30 minutes in a 24-hour period is sufficient and usually achieved in quick naps or intervals that are sometimes less than a minute. However, if they do not feel threatened, they may sleep for around four hours a day, generally standing up but sometimes they chose to lie down and rest their necks on their bodies.

In fact, giraffes spend most of their lives standing and even give birth standing up. A newborn calf will stand within half an hour of birth and after 10 hours can run alongside its mother and siblings.

One of the most striking things about the giraffe is the way it moves. An adult giraffe can weigh up to 1,100 kg, yet its movement appears almost weightless. The giraffe has two different gaits, the ambling walk and the gallop. In contrast to most ungulates, the giraffe walks by swinging its long legs forward, first both legs on one side of the body and then both legs on the opposite side. This type of walk is called an amble. Other ungulates walk by simultaneously moving the left front and right rear legs and then the right front and left rear legs. The amble has a flowing, rhythmical quality to it and the giraffe’s body and neck swing side-to-side, counterbalancing the one-sided movement of the legs.

Dickshill was on the menu. Before I go looking for any animals I will first head to Dickshill to catch the sunrise. One thing about Dickshill is that it does not disappoint when it comes to sunrise. Sunset is also beautiful, but if I have to choose between the two, I would definitely go with sunrise. The hill was named after one of the guides, by the name Dick, who used to work here many years ago. He loved to drive up from one point to the other for fun, so the hill was named Dickshill.

After enjoying sunrise, a beautiful view and a cup of coffee, it was time for exploring the northern part of the reserve. There is something about this place, when you are here you don’t want to leave. Crocodile dam was the next stop to see what we can find at the dam which is not so popular with crocodiles and hippos, but there is always a first time. I was hoping that the dam will surprise me this time.

Crocodile Dam was very busy. I was so surprised by a number of birds I found on the dam. A big surprise was seeing hippos. Since I have been at Mabula, I can remember, this is the 6th time I have found hippos at this dam, and I have been here for more than 14 years.

Hippos will spend the whole day inside the water in summer and in winter they stay outside for the heat as the water is cold.

Hippos are the most dangerous animals that we normally underestimate. It is not so often that they will charge from the water to anything outside the water. However, if the waterhole is small and they don’t feel safe, then they will charge you to protect themselves. I have seen them mostly during the winter when they are basking in the sun, the moment you approach them with vehicles where they are close to the road they will run straight inside the water where they feel safe.

I sat there for a while entertained by hippos making calls and sounds of the happy birds around the dam. What amazed me was the number of birds I found on the dam, more than ten bird species. It was time to move on as I had so many places to get to with the three hours that I have for the morning.

The next sighting came totally as a surprise. I did not expect them to be in that area. While everyone was looking for elephants on the southern side at Ngorogoro plain where they left them the previous night. I happened to bump into them in the north by the new whole owner road busy sand bathing to cool off.

Elephants can travel a long distance in a short time. Considering the area where they were the previous night, it was indeed a surprise for me to find them in the north. And I knew immediately that I will be enjoying the sighting by myself before the first vehicle arrives, which was 40min away.

Sometimes sightings like this are those I always say I wish I had guests on my vehicle to share it with them. To find a herd of elephants so relaxed and not even concerned about my presence, just carrying on with their daily activity is so special and magical.

Why do elephants enjoy dust baths on hot days? The layer of dust that covers their skin helps to protect the elephants from getting sun damage. Elephants live in conditions where temperatures and UV can be extreme. This is an innovative way of protecting their skin which also helps to keep them cool as temperatures start to climb and also helps to protect them from parasites.

As elephants have minimal hair and sweat glands, they find it difficult to cool off under the harsh sun. The sand not only cools them down, but provides a protective layer on their body to shield them from insect bites. Their skin looks very tough, but it is very sensitive and can get sunburnt.

The bull moved forward to a wild seringa tree and rest his tusk on the fork of the tree and fell asleep. Signs of showing they had a very busy night since they had to eat 300kg to remain healthy.

To cool down even more, elephants will spray mud or water behind their ears. This allows the circulating blood to cool down faster as an elephant can pump all its blood through its ears every 20 minutes. One of the interesting parts is the skin colour of an elephant will change depending on the colour of the mud and sand used on their bodies.

Elephants follow a special routine to keep their skin healthy, they take dust bath with the help of their long flexible trunk. They suck up dust through their trunk then lift it up and blow it out all over their head and back.

It was not long after when they decided they had given me enough of a show and moved off to carry on with their feeding. Probably heading to Nyathi dam which was not far from where they were.

The next area to explore was TPA plain and TPA dam. While approaching the plain known for weddings and bush breakfasts, Shaya Moya; which means wind or breeze, there was some movement and I noticed some giraffes staring in one direction.

Getting closer to them I realized they were staring at wild dogs who were feeding on something they had killed earlier. The carcass was almost finished with only the head remaining, the head of a warthog. This is one of the areas they like to dominate, although they have not made a kill before, this was their first kill in this area.

The pups have grown up very quickly, they are almost as big as the adults, and participate in hunting as well. There is so much we learn every day about these dogs and they have made Mabula their home. With the abundance of prey species we have on the reserve, I am sure they are not thinking of leaving any time soon.

Some members of the family were lying down after a well-deserved meal and some were still feeding on the remaining head of the warthog. For most predators, the prey gets away far more often than it gets caught. But for a pack of wild dogs, at least one in every three attempts is likely to end in success.

They yip and yap, lick, and wag, jump and circle around doing whatever it takes to get each other fired up and ready to go. Even the pups sense the excitement. Then the adults head out in search of an impala or warthogs, or any other such prey.

Once they set their sights on their selected prey, then it is all about teamwork. The hunters are not big, about the size of border collies. But they are smart and they are fast—and each has a crushing bite. By working quickly and closely together, they chase down and surround their prey. Then they close in to make the kill

The kill may seem harsh, but it is necessary for the pack’s survival. Once the excitement dies, several packmates lie together for a cosy and well-earned snooze. Usually, they will find a shady area, but on this particular morning it was not too hot.

While some of them were sleeping and resting some of them were running around playing with each other. It was an entertaining moment. One vehicle joined me on the sighting and they were so happy to see them.

Wild dogs must be one of our favourite animals to work with. Each day starts early, with a frantic greeting ceremony, excited yips, exposed teeth, deferential bowing, and furiously wagging tails. These tell-tale behaviours form the greeting ceremony that marks the beginning of the hunt.

Surprisingly buffalo showed up on the eastern side of TPA dam. In general, buffaloes favour grassland, whether it be open, wooded or bushed. They feed and travel most often during the early morning, evening, and night-time. Buffalo will spend the rest of their time lying in shade, similar to cows in a field, although they likely sleep for only about an hour per day. They are never further than six kilometres from a water source, since they must drink every day.

An explosive snort from a buffalo heralds alarm. This is followed by a nose-up posture oriented at the intruder, who should begin looking for the nearest tree if the buffalo is a lone male. An alarm in a cow-calf herd will bring the others to attention, and those close to the intruder may even move forward, as if to have a better look. If the intruder stands its ground or even advances a few paces, the buffaloes will invariably turn tail with high head tosses, and the entire herd will run off.

The most interesting part about buffaloes is when they are about to move. Cow-calf groups do not appear to have obvious leaders. Decisions on which direction a resting group should move next seem to be taken by a form of voting. During the period of resting and rumination, individual females occasionally stand up, face a particular direction for a few moments and then lie down again.

After a couple of hours, the entire herd will move off in the direction that most buffaloes faced when standing. Voting seems to pay off for the herd, since it appears to take them in the direction of the greatest amount of grass in the area.

The cheetahs did not want to be left behind. I decided to loop around on Tholo road to get to rainmeter plain to see if there was nothing on the plain after the yellow thatching grass was slashed. This plain is famous for great sightings of aardwolf. Rainmeter plain was active with zebras and wildebeest as well as giraffes. Moved over to little rainmeter plain which seemed to be very quiet. And I knew immediately that there might be something special to be found on this quiet plain.

Our cheetah coalition was on the plain. Almost a year that they have been on the reserve and have established themselves very well. I am sure they already know every corner of the reserve. With our resident female having already weaned her cubs and walking by herself, they would want to take every opportunity to mate when she is ready for mating. They took advantage of silver cluster leaves for the day to stay away from the scorching sun.

Cheetahs will generally hunt what their mother taught them to hunt. When they grow up hunting impala, that is the animal they will go for first. When our first coalition arrived on Mabula they came from a reserve that had an abundance of ostriches, I think we still have one ostrich on the reserve which I always refer to as a champion of Mabula, since he managed to outsmart our cheetahs. When they arrived at Mabula they realised that there were plenty of ostriches. With their focus on ostriches, they completely reduced our ostrich population.

The current generation of cheetahs on the reserve hunt impala, zebra, wildebeest and even kudus. This coalition is the first to hunt warthogs on the reserve. With the female focusing on impala, zebra, fowls and subadult wildebeest.

During a typical kill, a cheetah uses its forefeet to knock the running animal off balance, then clamps tightly on to its neck to strangle it. The dead prey is invariably dragged under cover where the cheetah will feed. Females will call their cubs to the kill with a soft, bird-like chirrup.

On our way to the lodge, we found one wildebeest bull in a plain called thutlwa plain, thutlwa means giraffe in our local language. Wildebeest is one of the most popular animals on the reserve where we see them almost everywhere while on safari.

Wildebeests are strictly grazers, preferring sweet, stocky grasses. This grass often grows in areas that have seen recent fire, as tall, coarse brush is burnt, permitting room for new vegetation to grow. Wildebeest will also follow herds of other grazers that eat dry, longer grasses. In addition to grasses, these creatures also eat succulent plants and browse on karoo bushes. They begin grazing soon after sunrise, rest briefly at midday, and continue feeding until sunset. Wildebeest need water almost daily.

Wildebeest are sociable, territorial animals. Females and their young form small herds, their territories frequently overlapping. After about a year, males will leave their herd and enter into a bachelor herd.

At 4 or 5 years old, males will become highly territorial and depart from the bachelor herd. Cow and calf herds typically remain constant; however, when there are many groups clustered close together in an area, cows will often leave their group for another.

Neighbouring bulls will challenge one another when encountering each other at the edges of their territories. They follow a series of ritualized actions: bucking, snorting, pawing at the ground, fighting, and grunting in a deep croaking manner like a frog. The wildebeest will face one another on their knees, foreheads to the ground, ready for combat. The bulls move forward to strike each other, knocking heads and horns, but rarely will become injured. Some scientists speculate that these confrontations spark a rise in hormone levels, as non-territorial bulls in bachelor groups are very serene.

Wildebeest are constantly moving throughout day and night, in search of water and preferred grasses. They tend to migrate in lengthy, single-file columns, traversing long distances at an easy rocking gallop, though they are swift when provoked. Animals such as Thomson’s gazelle, zebra, and even predators will follow the traveling wildebeest. The number of times a herd moves and the number of females in a herd depends on several environmental factors, such as quantity of rainfall or quality of dry season pasture.

After have a great morning it was time to head back to the lodge for breakfast and to focus on my admin work for the day. It is amazing how much you can see on the reserve with just three hours of a safari. You just must be at the right place at the right time. On arrival at the lodge, I found nyala bulls displaying dominancy instead of fighting. We have nyalas inside the lodge area which they have made their home and live among our guests.

At Mabula, we are lucky enough to see a wide variety of mammals, some which are tiny gerbil that we only ever see in a fleeting glimpse flying over the road. I was lucky enough to catch this one on camera when crossing the road in front of me. From my point of view, one of the most amusing species is on the smaller end of the spectrum, the dwarf mongoose. Being the smallest carnivores in Mabula does not hold these ferocious predators back, they will feed on anything they can overpower. Sometimes relying on the collective efforts of the family group, in these efforts, they have been known to bring down and consume snakes, birds, and large lizards. Imagine that, but it just shows you what teamwork can do, no matter how small you are.

As dwarf mongooses roam in search of food this can take them quite a distance from the previous night’s refuge, having a home range that can be up to 1km squared. As a result, they will have many places of refuge within the home range in which they can scurry into or rest for the night. Being such small animals, this is vital, in terms of thermoregulation and safety. These refuges consist of old termite mounds or areas around fallen over trees, or within cavities in a tree.

Dwarf mongooses are seriously impressive animals and live a well-rounded life, take a few minutes to watch these amazing animals going about their business or just catch some sunlight with them to warm yourself up in the morning.

Nyala bulls have a rather strange way of fighting. It looks more like a slow-motion waltz than it does a fight. Two or sometimes three nyala bulls perform a lateral display close to the tennis court. This behaviour can seem rather bizarre if you don’t know the reasons behind it. They circle each other, with their faces trained on the ground but keep a beady eye on their opponent by surreptitiously using their peripheral vision.

They circle each other broad side in a lateral display, attempting to make themselves appear as big as possible. They fluff up their tails and the dorsal manes on their back, whilst arching their heads forward with horns poised. It is in this rather contorted posture that they then deliberately circle one another, slowly high stepping their bright yellow legs as they go. This is often done in the presence of females and in the hope that these potential mating partners will be watching to see who comes out tops.

Typically, the male who loses will drop his mane and wander off to groom or feed in a rather sheepish manner, appearing to have forgotten about the fight altogether. The winner will keep his hair puffed up for a while longer, making sure everyone is sure of who’s boss. It is this male that will then be awarded the mating rights.  The question is why they do this long and involved waltz instead of fighting and just being done with it?

The reason is that should these bulls lock horns, the fight can turn savage and even result in fatalities. Why do this when a peaceful solution, that expends less energy, is available? In fact, prior to the lateral display described above, these bulls may be seen digging at soil or thrashing in bushes with their horns. This bush-thrashing serves as a display to on-lookers of the male’s strength.

Males may also pack mud onto or carry foliage around on their horns as this self-adornment draws attention to and accentuates their horns. These are peaceful intimidation techniques done to deter the opponent before entering into the long and involved lateral display.

Next time on your visit here at Mabula, do yourselves a favour and spend some time watching these entertaining animals. There is much more to them than meets the eye!

As some of you may know, sundowners are a beloved tradition we have here at Mabula Game Lodge. This involves stopping at a scenic spot out on the reserve, Christmas hill, Mvubu dam or even Dickshill, and indulging in delicious drinks and snacks while watching the changing colours of the sunset sky.

This time of day is also the perfect opportunity to capture some incredible photographs of wildlife against the backdrop of a fiery African sunset.

Until next time…
From Isaiah Banda & Mabula family.
Safari Greetings