Ulusaba’s BIG Five – and I’m not talking about animals

http://www.conversanttraveller.com/ulusaba-leopards/
Leopards in South Africa

Licking the chocolate sauce from around his chops and swigging the remnants of his champagne, Hubbie scampered back to our bush vehicle and deposited his bottom in the jump seat up front. This precarious perch was usually occupied by our expert tracker Jimmy, who an hour earlier had the pleasure of a leopard brushing up against his legs. Fancying himself a bit of a bush warrior Hubbie now sat brandishing Jimmy’s machete like an over-enthusiastic boy scout. Enjoying the bewildered looks from the bush-breakfasting khaki-clad clan (we’d clearly not been to the same safari outlet as the other guests!), Hubbie let out his best battle cry… “onwaaaards”…and our ranger Sean did just that.

It had begun as a simple joke, but now faced with the very real challenge of being in the seat of responsibility, Hubbie couldn’t back down and set about the difficult task of finding us something interesting to track. Yet before he could spot so much as a dung beetle the jeep lurched into a bush, giving him an up close and personal foliage experience. Brushing leaves off his otherwise unscathed torso, Hubbie raised an eyebrow at Sean, who just grinned back.

Sorry mate, your wife asked me to!

Before I could get indignant (or wish that I’d thought of it first) Hubbie retorted

It can’t have been her…she would have chosen a bush with thorns on!

Hubbie tries his hand in tracking seat, with mixed results

Hubbie tries his hand in the tracking seat, with mixed results


The phone had rung at precisely 5am and for once I didn’t grumble. We were already up and raring to go on our game drive, not daring to hope for a much-anticipated leopard sighting. Hubbie and I were ending our latest South African adventure in style at Ulusaba in the Sabi Sand Private Game Reserve, supposedly one of the best places on the continent to see these magnificent beasts.

So cool having to wobble across this every morning! By the time we left we were regular Tarzans!

So cool having to wobble across this every morning! By the time we left we were regular Tarzans!

After nimbly negotiating the rope bridges leading to the lodge we were presented with our first breakfast of the day. Reviving coffee and delectable little pastries. We were soon joined by our rangers and the two other English ladies who were sharing our otherwise private vehicle. One of the reasons we chose Ulusaba was the continuity of having the same rangers for the duration of our stay, and we’d struck gold with Sean and Shaun, who with their affable wit (Sean gave Hubbie a run for his money in that department) and incredible knowledge (Shaun had just completed a thesis on mechanisms used by elephants to self-regulate their body temperatures) made it the best and most personally tailored safari experience we’ve ever had! The addition of a modest and courteous Jimmy made it a crack team. All we needed now was a goon of a guest sitting up front thinking he could do just as good a job!

We’d been out less than ten minutes when beady-eyed Jimmy stuck out a hand motioning Sean to stop. He jumped down and pointed out the prints of a large male leopard. And they were fresh. Sean followed the tracks into the bush and on the radio expertly co-ordinated a several-pronged search with other vehicles in the area. Teamwork really works a treat here, giving all guests the best possible viewing opportunities whilst respecting the animals and never overcrowding their space. Vehicles take it in turns to enjoy front row seats at sightings, and the operations were so smooth we never saw more than two other vehicles at any one location.

Ulusaba male leopard, Sabi Sand Reserve, South Africa

Ulusaba male leopard, Sabi Sand Reserve, South Africa

Jimmy’s leopard was spotted soon after, and we spent a very special twenty minutes silently following as it stalked haughtily through the undergrowth in the early morning light. Sean often circled ahead, perfectly anticipating the point where the leopard would emerge, giving us unrivalled photo opportunities. Definitely one of life’s moments.

Ulusaba male leopard, Sabi Sand Reserve, South Africa

Ulusaba male leopard, Sabi Sand Reserve, South Africa

Enchanted, we eventually left the leopard in peace, allowing another vehicle to take our place, and found an open spot to stop and have second breakfast. It turns out bull bars (or should they be rhino bars?) have two uses! This time it was coffee laced with a little something, and a selection of cookies, biltong and other treats. They really know how to eat in this country!

Second breakfast out in the bush

Second breakfast out in the bush

On the road again Sean revealed he was taking us to see something ‘very special’. Thinking nothing could beat our leopard I sat back and enjoyed the elephants, rhino, buffalo, lion, hippos and rare grey hooded kingfisher that made an appearance on the way.

Elephants are like bulldozers, leaving a carnage of broken behind them

Elephants are like bulldozers, leaving trails of broken trees behind them

And then there we were, gazing down at a pack of 16 wild dogs, or painted wolves which I think is far more poetic.

The pack of painted wolves take a dip

The pack of painted wolves take a dip

They are very rare, with only 500 left in the entire Kruger area, and even the guides were clicking away with their cameras and whispering excitedly. This really was a privileged sighting.

Just reminding us who is boss!

Just reminding us who is boss!

Next up was a bush walk, and after a short safety briefing we trooped off in single file, feeling quite confident with the two guides and their guns up front and Jimmy bringing up the rear. The silence was total, broken only by the occasional snapping of twigs or one of the guys teaching us cool bush tricks in hushed tones. Jimmy showed us a tree that could provide both toothbrush and toothpaste, and we discussed with Shaun the likely forensics of a crime scene that had been well and truly lost by an impala (and won by a hyena). We didn’t come across anything weighing several tons or bearing rows of sharp teeth, but it was fascinating to experience the natural simplicity of the terrain and all the little things that get missed whilst driving.

Bush walk at Ulusaba

Bush walk at Ulusaba

Back on board Sean announced there was yet another ‘surprise’ lined up for us, but surely they’d already earned their Brownie points for the day? Hubbies eyes lit up as we spied an outcrop known as King’s Rock up ahead, complete with a chef in all his whites rustling up chocolate pancakes on a portable gas cooker.

Leg stretch at Kings Rock where we had our bush breakfast

Leg stretch at Kings Rock where we had our bush breakfast

Nearby a table laden with strawberries and champagne was surrounded by other guests who had also stopped by. Thus we experienced our third breakfast of the morning, after which hubbie played musical jeep chairs with Jimmy and as a result became acquainted with a tree.

Bush pancakes and champagne - third breakfast!

Bush pancakes and champagne – third breakfast!

Half an hour later he’d spotted nothing more than a few ants so we decided it was time to return to the lodge. And as it turned out, fourth breakfast! We were beginning to wonder if the reserve’s renowned Big 5 referred just as much to breakfasts as it did animals! A vast continental spread awaited us on the terrace deck and mustering superhuman strength we managed a final few morsels before sitting back, utterly stuffed.

4th breakfast back at the lodge

4th breakfast back at the lodge

At this point Sean, Shaun and Jimmy joined us and we spent the next half hour grilling them on their best bush stories. Jimmy won hands down with his tale of being peed on by a scent-marking male lion whilst sitting in the jump seat. On that note out came a cooked fifth breakfast, making the eating habits of Hobbits seem tame by comparison. I would like to say at this point I admitted defeat (it was still only 8.30 a.m.) but never one to turn down a good eggs benedict, in the interests of research I gave it a whirl. Blooming delicious!

The dining terrace overlooking a dried up river bed used as a highway by the wildlife

The dining terrace overlooking a dried up river bed used as a highway by the wildlife

The only thing to do next was retire to bed and sleep off our excesses to make room for lunch, afternoon tea, sundowners, a raid of the complimentary mini-bar, pre-dinner drinks and nibbles, and finally a full on boma braai! Who says going on safari is easy?!

Ulusaba male leopard, Sabi Sand Reserve, South Africa

Ulusaba male leopard, Sabi Sand Reserve, South Africa


Vervet monkeys were frequent visitors to our suite, they even know how to open doors so keep yours locked!

Vervet monkeys were frequent visitors to our suite, they even know how to open doors so keep yours locked!

Species we spotted in 2 days

2 male leopards

1 pack of wild dogs

3 separate lion sightings

Elephants, white rhino, hippos, giraffe, impala, kudu, nyala, waterbuck, steenbok, duiker, zebra, cape buffalo, tree squirrel, monitor lizard, vervet monkey, baboon, baby leopard tortoise, dung beetle,

South African pygmy kingfisher, grey hooded kingfisher, woodland kingfisher, fish eagle

 

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