Safari greetings to all our family.

November has presented us with huge fluctuations in temperature as pressure systems clash in the never-ending ebb and flow of seasonal changes. The temperature gauge has passed 30 degrees Celsius already, one day late in November it crept up to 35 degrees Celsius, this prefrontal heat wave was followed by a cool and rainy day of below 25 degrees Celsius.

The variations in temperature translated to diversity in animal behavior. The piping hot days drew a herd of elephant to the water to quench their thirst and cool down in the waters of Mvubu dam. Elephants, like many animals, do not sweat and their substantial surface area is covered in thick hide that bakes in the sun making temperature regulation a challenging feat.

Days that temperatures dropped were accompanied by some welcome sprinkles of rain, just enough to sustain the green flush of grass and leaves since we bid farewell to winter. Even though we didn’t have any significant showers, November produced a respectable 87 mm of rain. Cool rainy days gave predators an opportunity to extend their hunting hours. After rain, the moist ground cover muffles foot falls and erratic wind conditions, cloaks their scent and sounds, making stalking prey an easier task.

On the flip side, our skies are starting to fill up with all sorts of gorgeous bird species – adding a kaleidoscopic splash of colour to our African skies. This annual event brings much excitement to the Mabula Guiding Team as they begin to tick off the new arrivals – each having come on a huge migratory journey back to Africa and Mabula.

Not only does this season bring with it vivid hues from birds who have spent time in the Northern Hemisphere, but it is also a time for nest building. Slowly, precisely, and intricately, bird architecture can be seen in action around the reserve, from cosy weaver’s homes and incredible swallows hanging mud nests to excavated tunnels, and on trees overhanging into the dams. This time of the year also coincides with many birds’ breeding season – resulting in a fascinating plumage transformation – as many male birds step out of their neutral attire and into their striking and impressive formal wear. Good example here on Mabula being Southern Masked Weavers.

We are often asked what animals will I see on safari on Mabula? In fact, I’d go so far as to say it is the most popular question we get from our guests before departing for safari! Guests visit Mabula for its incredible safaris, horse ridings, food, scenery, beautiful accommodation, and landscapes, but more than anything, they come to see wildlife while out on safari.

I still remember seeing my very first dagga bull buffalo after arriving at Mabula on my first safari drive with my guests. He was very intimidating and looked at me like a bank manager. These older male buffalos are known as ‘Dagga Boys’. ‘Dagga’, in Afrikaans, means cannabis or hemp, but is also used as slang by builders (mixture of sand & cement) when busy building calling it dagga.

Dagga boys are easily recognisable with their large horns and ‘big boss’ – the thick centre part between the horns. The older bulls, without the protection of a large herd, rely on attack as their defence and give little to no warning of an impending charge. Therefore, they have gained the reputation of being grumpy old buffalo bulls or dagga bulls.

Buffalo are gregarious and live-in mixed herds often numbering hundreds of individuals. They are not territorial because they are bulk grazers and need to find suitable grazing and water on an ongoing basis. Buffalo consume very coarse material and therefore require as much as twice a day. A buffalo can consume 35 litres of water at a time in a matter of minutes. Buffalo have excellent sense of smell and can use this sense to find food or detect danger and predators nearby.  These incredible animals can also swim and will cross rivers into areas better suited for grazing.

I will be the first to admit that when I find a buffalo walking along a long and winding road, I will look at them and they will look at me and I will then move out of their natural environment and give them what they deserve: Respect.

To look a lion in the eyes, hear the rumbling murmurs of elephant wallowing in mud and to watch the antics of wild dogs (also known as painted wolves) darting in and out of bushes. That is just part of the magic found among the animals of Mabula Game Lodge.

The day becomes complete when your eyes set upon a dazzle of zebras, a tower of giraffes, a confusion of wildebeest or a bloat of hippos. All types of antelope; impala, kudu, nyala, steenbok, eland, and duiker, will keep you guessing until you’re familiar enough not to have to page through your animal identification card. With a bush encyclopaedia (your guide) guiding you through the duration of your stay. Your guide will make sure you don’t need an identification card.

One of the most sought-after and magnificent sightings while in Mabula, lions are quite social, but also spend a lot of time at rest during the day and are most active during early morning and late evening.

These magnificent males were introduced on the reserve earlier this year in April. Since then, they have established their territory and settled in well. However, sometimes they go at each other badly when a lioness is on oestrus. There is currently no dominant one among them. They will fight and the winner will be the one to mate with the female.

One morning while on drive, we came across the pride on Bottom Serengeti going at each other. It was the first time for me and I am sure for my guests also to experience a serious fight among the brothers. They were so loud and shouting at each other. Until one brother runaway with lioness. The two brothers realized that one brother is no longer involved in a fight and busy running away from them with a lioness, they stopped fighting and followed him.

A morning spent with our lion cubs. We left lodge and headed to the eastern side of the reserve at an area called Lake Kyle. Upon entering the area, we were welcomed by with the distant sound of lions roaring in the Dickinson Dam parts of the reserve. An area where the lioness with cubs has been dominant for some time now. With the sun just starting to peek over the horizon, our excitement was starting to build.

We stopped the vehicle to listen again. We were in luck, the calls of more than one lion, synchronised to make the force of the call even louder. On route in that direction, I could see tracks of a single lioness in the road.

Upon closer inspection it was in fact the mother lioness and her two cubs’ tracks, as the young ones followed their mother down the road, occasionally stopping to play with each other.

With experienced and trained eyes, I could deciphered the entire story of what the lions had been doing, from where they were playing and chasing each other, to all the scuff marks from all the rough and tumble amongst them. I also noticed where the mother had stopped to rest. I was able to picture the scene in my head. Wet soil after recent rains made it easy. We continued with a drive direction of Dickinson Dam, where we suspected they might be for an early morning drink.

Just as we were approaching the dam, one of the guests shouted saying, “Guys, guys look there is a lion at the dam.” We saw a male and female drinking water and started moving away after they had their drink. This was a spectacular sighting. We parked the vehicle at a distance and watched anxiously to see if we could see the grass moving in her trail.

This would be a clear indication that the cubs were with her. Just after few minutes she laid down and called her cubs, who came out running from the northern side of the dam from a gully. I think the mother wanted to make sure first that they are safe to come out and join her in an open area next to the dam.

Play is an integral part of lion cubs’ development, whether it be with their siblings or their mother, it is a challenge to resist an opportunity to jump on to one another.

Running ahead in single file in front of their mother straight towards us, as if the cubs knew where they were supposed to be going. Sometimes it is hard to believe that something so small and cute will turn into such an incredibly efficient and effective force.

We were ecstatic as we watched as the lioness lead her two cubs out onto the road where we could experience a beautiful clear view of the cubs. At some stage she would pick up one cub with her mouth to let them rest from walking. This was amazing experience for our guests. Even for myself also. I have been waiting patiently to take a picture of her picking up a cub on her mouth. When this opportunity presented itself, I made sure that I capture one for myself, even though the female was facing a different direction, it felt so good to take that picture.

She stopped momentarily, almost to see if they were all still following, and then proceeded to walk straight down the road away from our direction. There was silence in the vehicle as we watched them bounding down the road in front of their mother, confident in her protection. These cubs have stolen the spotlight on the reserve. Discussion amongst the guides when busy cleaning vehicles at the workshop is all about the cubs, now that we have cheetah cubs born recently on the reserve. All the guides are eager to be the first one to report whether they are males or females. We will see who will be the first one to discover that.

Eventually coming to rest in a dry Dickinson gully close to the dam, the mother tried to sleep while the cubs continued to run amok around her playfully, a few minutes later the mother stood up.

Walking to the direction of the water again with the cubs following her, she began to drink, and the cubs joined for a sip. We followed them as they moved off the road and down towards Kliphuis area.

With dappled light breaking through the canopy of the trees, they had enough shade to move under during the hotter parts of the day. At this point in the day, they were still making the most of the warmth of the morning rays. Cubs of this age aren’t used to walking long distances and tire fairly quickly. She sat down again trying to sleep. We were not too sure how long or how far they had been walking before we found them, but they did appear to be enjoying the rest.

The cubs started playing with one another for well over 15 minutes, stalking and chasing each other. One of the cubs ended up playing with a tail of their mother. These cubs are growing with confidence as each day goes by and it’s incredible to watch. It wasn’t long before they settled down and rested in the comfort of their mother’s care. It was time for a delicious breakfast back at the lodge. We decided to call it a day and went for breakfast. It was a morning well spent with the mother and her cubs.

In the afternoon while waiting at the coffee station, we had a discussion among the guiding team on which area we were all planning to go for the afternoon safari. They all decided to go to the southern and western parts of the reserve to look for elephants and wild dogs. Myself and my guests decided to go back to lions to see if we can find the mother and her cubs doing something different.

On Bottom Serengeti we came across a very hurried male that had been with the female and cubs that morning. It was rather unusual to see him in a hurry like that as if he was sent to deliver a message somewhere. He did not once stop to look at us. His mission was to deliver the message or has been summoned by the king. Both myself and my guests decided we should follow him to where he had been summoned to. It was clear that where he was heading to, there was definitely something very good happening. We followed him for about one kilometre and he arrived at his destination. All the guests could say was “Wow”. He took us straight to where the males had made a zebra kill earlier during the day and might have left the kill to follow a female with cubs instead of eating, and he decided to go back to the carcass.

On arrival at the zebra carcass, he did not waste time, he started eating immediately. While eating he was looking around. This made us keep looking around us. it was a clear sign that his brothers are also on the way to join him. It was not long when he started growling. We saw one of the brothers emerging out of the bushes and stopped at a safe distance to wait his turn to eat.  Although there is no real dominant male currently, however, the one that starts feeding or mating with a female first gains an upper hand and chases the others away.

He ate enough until he was full and decided to leave the carcass to rest a few meters away. This gave one of the brothers a chance to approach and start feeding. Because the other male that brought us to the carcass was already full, he didn’t worry about his brother having his fill, and besides he had had the best meat from the hind quarters of the zebra.

It was amazing to see how meat is taken off the skin and bones. We could see how their different types of teeth and tongue were being used. Incisors, the smallest teeth at the front of the mouth, are used for gripping and tearing meat.

Canines, the four largest teeth (either side of the incisors), and reaching up to 7 centimetres in length, are used to rip skin and tear away meat. Carnassial, the sharpest teeth at the back of the mouth, act like a pair of scissors to cut meat. Lions can open their jaws to up 28 centimetres wide, giving them one of the animal kingdom’s biggest bites. A lion’s paw is very similar to a pet cat’s but much, much bigger. They have five toes on the front paws and four on the back.  Measurements taken from a lion’s paw print can help us guess how old it is and also if it is a male or female.

Also like a pet cat, lions have retractable claws.  This means that their sharp claws can be stretched out and then drawn back inside again under the fur where they are hidden.  They can grow up to 38 millimetres in length and are very strong and sharp.  A fifth toe on the front paw has what is called a dewclaw, which acts like a thumb for holding down prey when eating.

Another highlight of this month was the discovery of the new cheetah cubs. We have been speculating that the female had given birth and was hiding the cubs on the south-eastern part of the reserve. This is the area she has been hiding for the last few weeks and did not leave the area. This family of speedsters have been spending most of their time in the central parts of Mabula, providing guests and guides with plenty of excitement. By sheer luck I had managed to find myself in the right place at the right times in order to witness some of the many trials and tribulations of this mother cheetah and her cubs. Living fairly nomadic lifestyles in large home ranges makes it particularly special to have these magnificent animals on the Mabula reserve.

This is not the first litter of cubs the mother cheetah has given birth to on the reserve. She had offspring before, and we have seen the beautiful sightings they have produced for our guests in the past. These too are already giving us beautiful sightings at this young age. Cheetahs move around in large home ranges due to the fact that they are ranked relatively low on the local predator hierarchy.

As playful as any cat can be, these new born cheetah cubs have been causing a lot of gasps and turning a lot of heads. When it comes to the cat family, the cheetah goes through possibly the biggest physical change from birth to adulthood. From birth the baby cheetahs are extremely “fluffy” and this is said to blend in with the surrounding grassy environment just to conceal them that much better.

The top “white stripe” is to mimic the look of a honey badger. If anything can be said about a honey badger it would be that it is the most fearless of mammals in the African bush. This mimicry is put in place for the protection of the cubs as very few animals would even think about confronting a honey badger due to his immense attitude and short temper. Playing is important for cubs as this helps hone in on their hunting skills.

The leopard tortoise is a member of the Small 5 – and there’s a lot more to know about. During the rainy season in the bush there is a lot of liveliness and activity going about. Whether it is the various species of frogs coming to life in the late afternoons and early evenings with their serene calls from various water sources across the reserve, or a flap-necked chameleon slowly climbing towards the tip of a branch for its resting place; there always tends to be more bustle from the animals at this time. The fresh morning air after an evening of rainfall makes the early morning wake-up call so much more worth it. The bush also looks a lot greener & lusher.

Reptile activity increases based on weather and temperatures, and as the day heats up one can often find these cold-blooded animals such as lizards, skinks and even water monitors basking on the rocks to welcome the warm sun. The roads on the reserve often have quite a bit of water run-off along the sides from good rainfall, and animals will easily make use of this influx of water by having drinks from the small puddles formed at dips in the road.

One such animal is the rather intriguing leopard tortoise. These intriguing reptiles have beautiful shell markings; similar to that of the rosettes of a leopard, and this is where its name is derived from. They mainly feed on plant materials and are quite water dependant. They have a special adaptation on their bodies known as the Bursa sac, which is a storage unit they use to store water in dry times, especially during winter times.

At those times one rarely sees a tortoise as they try and restrict their movement to conserve the water they have, and only use it when they absolutely have to. When attacked by a form of predator the leopard tortoise will excrete, often depleting some of the water in the sac, as a defence mechanism to deter the predator. It is for this reason that it may not be a great idea to pick these little guys up for an extended duration, as they will then feel threatened and excrete their water supply in defence.

As much as their movements are limited in winter times, these tortoises are a lot more active in the rainy season, as now there is an abundance of water all around and they can risk moving longer distances because even if the water storage in the bursa sac gets depleted, they can quickly resupply themselves at a nearby puddle.

As most people know these peculiar looking reptiles are not the fastest in the animal kingdom and move slowly from one point to another as the shells on their backs, which act as a form of hard covering protection, can be quite heavy for them to carry around.

When they move to different areas in the bush, they sometimes expose themselves when walking on the road trying to reach the puddle they are going to resupply from, making them very vulnerable, so in this motion they have to move rather quickly to avoid staying exposed for too long.

As the largest living land animal on earth, elephants are highly intelligent, very strong, and have an extremely unique physique, you can experience these peaceful creatures in a family herd led by the matriarch.

This month they have been active on almost all corners of the reserve, majority of the month they have been hanging around northwest and northeast of the reserve. It has been great spending time with them and learning their behaviour.

Here at Mabula we are fortunate to have regular sightings of Hippo at the different waterholes we have on the reserve, with numbers varying from 2 up to 8, and the occasional sighting at Crocodile Dam and Kai Dam. We are also able to view them in the TPA Dam, which is on the northern side of the Lodge, and Mvubu deck pool, but that is dependent on the level of dam.

Hippos will leave the water after dark where they can feed on land without having to worry about being exposed to the sun for an excessive amount of time. Although they usually feed nearby or only a few kilometres away from water at night, in exceptional cases they can travel up to 15 kilometres away from water to feed before returning. The distance they will travel depends on the availability of food.

It’s that time of year again, the first few impala lambs have led the way, and the rest will follow soon.

The humble impala is probably the most overlooked mammal on safari at Mabula, and understandably so. There are a good healthy population of them. Impalas are plentiful indeed, but this is the very reason one should appreciate the species. Impalas are probably the most well-adapted ungulate in the Mabula Private Game Reserve. They make some very simple adaptions to life to be able to thrive. Impalas are one of the only hooved animals that practice all grooming, they simply groom each other as well as themselves. This removes ectoparasites such as ticks that in turn can carry an array of diseases.

Impalas are selective in their feeding habits utilizing only the most nutrient rich plants species to maintain their condition. They also adapt their feeding habits seasonally. In the summer when grasses are juicy and sweet due to our summer rainfall, the impala predominantly graze. The nutrients yielded from grasses is much higher than leaves meaning good nutrient intake is maximized. Grasses are difficult to digest and the impala have adapted to this, in simple terms, the lining of the gut increases in thickness and surface area and the pH drops slightly to improve efficiency. The nutrient yield still outweighs the extra energy that the digestive track is using and again the impala is ahead of the game.

In winter, as the bush dries out so do the grasses and Impala adapt by starting to browse leaves off the trees and the forbs. Dicots generally have deeper root systems and trees can tap into groundwater which means this browse is available even during the dry season. Leaves are easier to digest and the digestive tract changes to use less energy and make up for a lower nutrient yield from leaves. Now we see, these animals are more than cannon fodder for predators. The core elements to thrive have been covered by the species, they look after themselves well, so parasites and other nasties are kept at a minimum due to a strict hygiene regime.

Their diet is optimized by intelligent feeding habits as well as physiological adaptions, and they stay in shape by moving around all the time to find food and water and, yes, being alert 24/7 so as not to get eaten. The entire herd is always vigilant and skittish, and their senses are well developed so predators are detected, most of the time. If a predator is observed or even smelt, the individuals in the herd will sound an alarm to warn other herd members and let the predator know it has been detected. Due to the impala’s impressive physique, they are very agile and are generally able to leave a detected predator in their dust if there is no element of surprise on the predator’s side.

The impala’s reproduction is also a very streamlined and efficient process. In May when our days start to shorten as we head into winter in Southern Africa the shortening day stimulates a testosterone boost in male impala. This testosterone boost makes for significant behavioural changes referred to as the rut. Males will start becoming territorial driving other males out of the area with head dropping and snorting and running after fleeing intruders.

If males are evenly matched, violent fights may occur, but the lesser males will usually pick life and limb over territory and back off. Dominant males also create territorial beacons by defecating and urinating in middens in the periphery of their territories. These create a boundary of scent and sight that need to be adhered to by lesser males. Even unruly females that dare to stray away from the herd during the rut are also quickly escorted back to the harem.

All this flexing, fighting, posturing, and herding means less time to feed, and more energy used, other males are thus able to oust dominant males from time to time. This ensures that only the best genes are allowed to filter into the next generation of impala. So, you see, it not “just another impala”.

We are thrilled to announce that both Tshepo Loni and Kgaugelo Kekana are now qualified guides. Both of them started with us back in 2019 through Mabula Training Internship. Even with Covid-19 challenges, they worked very hard to complete their FGASA Apprentice Filed Guide NQF 2 which qualifies them to take guests on a safari drive.

Tshepo was born in Bela Bela. He later moved to Olverton, near Radium where he started his educational journey, he completed his grade 12 at Utsane Secondary School in 2013. He holds an end-user computing certificate and he added FGASA Apprentice Field Guide NQF 2, and currently contributing pictures for the newsletter. He originally dreamed of becoming a geography teacher, he felt that the opportunity was too good to refuse and is determined to grow through the ranks at Mabula into a senior position. Tshepo believes in learning and sharing the aspects of nature, the flora and fauna with guests, giving them a different view of nature. “It has been great to be part of Mabula, I’ve learned a lot since being part of the team, and what I love most is the ability to showcase my talent and skills.” He talks about the journey, “it was a tough journey to get here, coming from a humble background my proud mother, who is the lioness in my life, taught me that perseverance is the mother of all success. I plan to keep learning and eventually to attain my Professional Field Guide.”

KG (Kgaugelo) Kekana hails from Mathibela Zebediela in Limpopo originally and completed his grade 12 at Mmashadi Secondary School. KG has a huge passion for learning, he grew up coming to Mabula from young age and fell in love with the fauna and flora. “I never thought I’d see myself as a nature guide, looking back through my history from where I came from. Starting as a waiter to day porter and night porter. I am today – living my dream‼️ I guess dreams do come true. You just have to keep working on your dreams and eventually you’ll get there.” He is thrilled with his achievement. KG’s advice to other young learners is: “Sometimes things take a long time to happen and just keep going and eventually you will succeed”. Both of them would like to extend their gratitute to their mentor Senior Guide Ben Badenhorst, the entire Mabula guiding team and the Mabula family for the giving them this opportunity to study and become qualified as guides. We wish them well on their journey of giving our guests the Mabula Safari Experience and pushing their studies further. Their wish is to compete on Safari Guide of the Year and the Lilizela Toursim Awards. We are proud of you.

That’s all from us this month. We thank you for spending a few moments with us on our reserve, sharing our experiences and joining our safaris, whether being by safari vehicles or on a bushwalk.

Nothing in nature is set in stone, everything varies! And that is what makes it so exciting to go on a safari drive; you just never know what might happen around the next corner. To sum up in one word how we feel about Mabula Game Lodge: Captivated.

Until next time…

From Isaiah Banda & Mabula family.

Images courtesy of: Isaiah, Mike Sticker, Gawie Jordan, Nuria, Frans, Tshepo, Andrew, Marguerite, Liam Heighton, and Tiaan.

Safari Greetings