After so many years in the bush, I have noted a tendency to use natural events as place markers for my memories to help me arrange them into some chronological order. Part of this is due to the extreme nature of the events, and the other part is due to the effect that the events have on this part of the Greater Kruger. It was 2012’s massive floods that stood out for the changes that 450mm of rain in 36 hours wrought on the landscape – dams were washed away, riverbeds were re-sculptured, and ancient trees got uprooted as the rivers burst their banks. Following the time of plenty, 2015-16’s severe drought had a massive impact on the animal populations that called the Timbavati their home; buffalo herds crashed as these large herbivores starved to death and moved to the northern Kruger, hyena clans grew in dominance at the expense of other predators, and the wildebeest and zebra populations bounced back. This brings us to 2020, and a year when a microscopic virus changed the world, forever. Reading last year’s ‘year in photos’, seems as though my powers of prediction leave a lot to be desired!
“Whatever happens though in 2020, I am sure that it will be a good one… I won’t count my chickens before they hatch, but the way things are standing with good rains, a new camp in the offering, mating lions and leopards about to have cubs, I can see 2020 shaping up to be another wonderful period at Tanda Tula. Maybe 2020 may be the Year of the Cheetah for me???”
Although, if I look at that statement pragmatically, I did actually get more things right than wrong! Our rains were good, the year was full of lion and leopard cubs, I had more sightings of cheetah this year than I have had in the last five or six years combined, and, if I am selfishly honest, all things considered, for me it was a wonderful period at Tanda Tula. Despite the hardships that have fallen on all – not least those of us in the tourism sector – what this year did allow for was for me to be able to spend most of the year locked down in the Timbavati, and getting to enjoy this incredible paradise with almost no one else around! For those that know me and have been on drive with me, you will know how much I enjoy the solitude that is on offer here in the Timbavati, and little pleases me more than doing a game drive without seeing another vehicle.
What 2020 did make me realise was that whilst I may enjoy the solitude of being the only vehicle out and about, drives are far more pleasant when I have guests sitting in the Land Cruiser with me enjoying the bush, and it was such a treat to welcome some of you folks back in August after five months of not having anyone to share in the joys of Tanda Tula. It was your absence that led to our team starting the Sofa and Solo Safari series in an attempt to help keep you connected not only to the happenings in the lives of the animals, but also with us and our team. It was definitely a different way of doing drives, but something that Luke, Britt, Foreman and I all enjoyed bringing to you! We got so many messages of thanks from our followers explaining what a lifeline this connection with Tanda Tula was for them, but I can be honest and say that our undertakings to bring you these virtual safaris was our lifeline to our guests – an element that I now realise truly makes the Tanda Tula experience so special. Yes, it can’t happen without our amazing staff, Chef Ryan and his teams’ delectable food, and the incredible animals that entertain us on a daily basis, but all of that is for nothing if we cannot share it with you all. So, at the risk of once more proving that my powers of prediction are awful, I can tell you that we are all so excited to welcome back not only our old friends who have stayed with us before, but also to the many new ones that will come and join us in 2021 to experience not only what makes Tanda Tula such a special place, but also to get a glimpse of what life was like before 2020 became the year that none of us will ever forget.
Fortunately, the animals were quite unaware of what was going on in the outside world, and in spending the year locked down in the bush, I was able to get out there and witness what they got up to. Reducing more than 20,000 images to my 20 favourite ones of 2020 is a slightly unfair ask, but it is a challenge I am up to. It goes without saying that there were many images that had to be overlooked in order to keep the selection manageable, and in a week’s time I might opt for 20 different images, but below is a collection of some of my favourite images and the stories behind them. I hope that in time, whilst we may never forget what happened in 2020, that these images will remind me of the positive experiences that I was privileged to live through this year. Global pandemics aside, it really was a truly special year for me, and I will never forget the good fortune that befell me to have been able to spend another year of my life in this paradise; a paradise that became my bubble from what was happening beyond the distant horizons of this special place.
So please, sit back and enjoy my top 20 of 2020, and until next year, have a fabulous festive season and all the best for the year ahead…it can surely only get better!
A lot sooner than expected, but Nthombi surprised as and dropped a litter of cubs in early 2020 at the start of lockdown, and we had a handful of magical sightings of the two cuties as they waited for mom to return to the den site.
Last photo of Nthombi
It was a day that was always going to come, when the old queen of the central Timbavati’s tracks stopped littering the roads within her territory. Based on her condition, we hoped it was still a couple of years away, but sadly at some point in July, Nthombi disappeared (I suspect the lions got her) and sadly, along with her went her cubs’ chance of survival. She was, and will continue to be, sorely missed.
A gorgeous and somewhat rare bird in our area, a Shelly’s francolin calling from his preferred high point.
Mbiri male lion
Such a presence in 2019, but 2020 saw very few visits from these once dominant males; one visit to the River Pride’s territory saw the Nharhu males chasing the Mbiri males all the way back south, and seemingly out of the area for good.
River Pride cubs
Without doubt, the six cubs of the River Pride provided our happiest memories of 2020 – talk about a cuteness overload! With the cubs tied to the den sites for the first few months of lockdown, we got to see them growing on an almost daily basis – a privilege indeed. Sadly, July was not a good month for the pride, and sadly five of the six cubs died in one foul swoop. The cause of their deaths remains unknown, but based on the one cub we saw dying, it was likely some virus that caused their demise.
The holy grail of game viewing, I was fortunate to see two of these odd creatures during 2020 (and two aardvarks too – see, it wasn’t all bad this year). This sighting was the most special as a few of us sat quietly and waited for the creature to uncurl itself and walk off into the bush.
We all got very excited that a pregnant Thumbela was hanging around in the Nhlaralumi close to Tanda Tula Safari Camp, but as expected, when the birth of her cub was imminent, she headed back east and gave birth in the dense thickets the Machaton. It was pure fortunate that I bumped into her one morning as she was returning to her den to move her two-week old cub to a new hiding spot!
Marula Jnr with impala kill
Both Xisiwana and Marula Jnr excelled at the start of 2020; Xisiwana spent a lot of time near Safari Camp, but as the second half of the year dawned, he moved off to a new area and hasn’t been seen since August. Marula Jnr however seems to have established a territory in the west, and as 2020 ticked on, so did her confidence levels, and she is becoming a nicely habituated individual.
As mentioned, 2020 was a considerably better year for my personal cheetah viewing, especially as these two cheetah brothers become someone resident and provided monthly viewing. In addition to these two males, we also had a female cheetah with three cubs, as well as another young male cheetah moving through the area. Hopefully 2021 will be even better for cheetahs!
Wild dogs playing
Two packs of wild dogs provided us with regular, exciting viewing in 2020. The pack of 13 were the most regular visitors, coming through at least once every two weeks, but it was the larger pack of 32 members that provided some of my most memorable viewing. Regardless, it was always a treat to spend time with these endangered carnivores.
Bush Comrades Marathon
Due to the restrictions of lockdown and cancellation of sporting events, a good friend from a neighbouring camp decided to run a 91km ultramarathon through the Timbavati, and to raise money for both the Timbavati’s K9 unit, as well as a local animal rehabilitation centre. I was lucky enough to spend the day following him as he ran and capturing the race on camera.
Another success story, but sadly another leopard that was most evident at the start of 2020 before moving on to greener pastures (well, being forced out by the dominant male, and trying to find a spot where he won’t draw too much attention). His snarl here was directed at Xisiwana male who was trying to score a free meal from Hlangana’s impala kill
It was almost too good to be true, and it was. A relatively relaxed caracal walking around in the day. As I clicked the shot, even the experience master tracker Jack turned around and said, ‘did you get that photo?’. I looked at the photo and as amazing as the subject, setting and light were, I could instantly see that the focus was on the grass and not the cat. It was close, but no cigar…only another 13 years to wait until my next chance.
Goya Rd male leopard – an old friend
This old boy – shoes face tells a thousand stories – was a male I have watched grow up over the years, and he made a couple of surprise appearances around Tanda Tula after being ousted from his territory much further north by younger, stronger genes (interestingly, Nthombi’s son Ntima)
River Pride lioness on giraffe kill
The River Pride were a near constant feature of the central Timbavati through 2020. Their wonderings did take them far and wide, especially after the loss of their five cubs, but they always returned to our area. On this particular occasion they were in the south-western parts of our concession and took down an adult female giraffe; a meal that kept them going for several days.
Having so much time in the reserve, it was always enjoyable to just sit and watch animals go about their business, such as these two necking giraffes.
A late inclusion to the top 20 choice, but I realised that a review of the year wouldn’t be complete without mentioning our strong, dominant male coalition, the Nharhu males. The three boys did well by keeping the intruding Mbiri and Hercules/Sumatra coalitions out of the area and keeping the River Pride safe. Despite losing the five cubs, it was through no fault of their own. Although the limping male’s leg is considerably better than at the start of the year, he still seems like an outsider within the coalition, and these two males are almost always together, with the limping male doing his own thing.
A scene that typifies what an incredible system nature has evolved: an old male giraffe had died and his remains were fed upon by hundreds of vultures, dozens of hyenas, and even the sneaky jackals got their share.