It is that time of the year again when I get to scour through my photos, relive the past year and try and decide which images I not only like the most but those which best encapsulate 2022. Following on from two tough years it feels like this really was the year that made the greatest leap to returning to “normal”, with a large upturn in the number of guests coming to visit South Africa again and the Timbavati. With things still ramping up, Tanda Tula opted to use this as an opportunity to rebirth our home, Tanda Tula Safari Camp.
Early in 2022 we packed up everything from Safari Camp and headed 10 miles down the road to launch Tanda Tula Plains Camp. This became our temporary home for the remainder of 2022 (as well as the first quarter of 2023). This move was a big one for us but with the same dedicated team, the same ethos and delicious food, and of course the same incredible wildlife experiences, we were able to welcome guests and give them a taste of Tanda Tula, even if it was in a different style and different location. This change in location to the western side of our concession did bring us into contact with several new faces and landscapes, and as the months have moved along, we have grown quite attached to our temporary home.
Regarding the past year, it can definitely be called the year of the lions, with no fewer than 93 different individuals being seen within our concession over the past twelve months (Mayambula Pride – 24, Giraffe Pride – 23, Sark Breakaway Pride – 10, River Pride – 8, Avoca Breakaways – 4, Birmingham Breakaway males – 6, Vuyela males – 5, Skorro males – 2, Hercules & Sumatra males – 2, Black Dam males – 2, Giraffe & Monwana males – 2, Birmingham young males – 2, Birmingham young males (including the white male) – 2, Guernsey male -1. It has been by far the best lion viewing I have experienced in the Timbavati during my entire time here, and things are looking positive for the populations over the coming years.
Having said that, with the five Vuyela males and six Birmingham Breakaways spending more and more time in our area, there is the constant threat that their presence could mess with the balance that has emerged over the year. Both of our large prides have two big males looking after them and they haven’t yet had any serious encounters with the larger coalitions…but that might surely must come soon. The River Pride are without a male, so it would be in their interest to find a strong coalition to sire new cubs with them next year as their three young males approach two years old and go off on their own. The Sark Breakaways were an enigma for most of the year but began making their presence well-known as the year ended. We even got a visit from a young male white lion from the Birmingham pride. It will be interesting to see how things unfold over the coming months, but for now we can just revel in the fact that we have been extremely fortunate to enjoy some great lion sightings over the past twelve months. Yet despite their presence and dominance in our sightings, as you will see from the images below, the year offered so much more than just lions.
So, grab a cup of coffee (or a G&T, we don’t judge), sit back, and enjoy a little recap of 2022.
If memory serves correctly, last year’s review began with an image titled “lion sunset”; yet despite the number of lions this year, it was this incredible sunset that stands out for me. In fact, the first few months of the year provided some incredibly vibrant sunsets; so much so that I even questioned whether it was just me noticing how good the sunsets had been in the first half of the year. Turns out it wasn’t just me, and it was in fact due to a widespread phenomenon resulting from the Hunga Tonga volcanic eruption in mid-January. As the largest explosion since Krakatoa 139 years earlier, it spewed an enormous amount of particulate matter high up into the atmosphere that contributed to the scattering of light for months following the eruption. With a sunset like this, all I needed was an obliging subject, and I got it with this giraffe.
It was only when I started going through my images that I realised just how many photographs I have taken of cats drinking this year. Not that I am complaining, as there is something quite mesmerising about watching a large felid lapping water; on this occasion I had made the long trip east in the hope of finding the Mayambula Pride and their young cubs. Fortunately, the trip was well worth it when we came across the pride on the move and followed them to a small pan where they went to quench their thirst.
As the year moved on, the trips to the east to see the Mayambula Pride began to diminish. One major reason was that as the cubs grew up, the pride was more mobile and thus more difficult to locate. Equally important though was the fact that the Giraffe Pride’s cubs had also grown up enough to begin moving with the pride, and as a result began spending more time around Plains Camp. Sunset Dam became one of their favoured spots, and it was always quite a sight to see members of the pride lined up there for a drink.
One of my highlights for the year was watching our little African wild cat, Nova, grow up. He had to make some big adjustments moving from Safari Camp to Plains Camp, but he slowly adapted to his new life and bravely went exploring into the darkness. On occasions, he stayed away for anywhere from three to five days before suddenly arriving back on our couch.
Sunset female was a spotted beauty that I had probably only seen half a dozen times in my first four years at Tanda Tula, but with Plains Camp being closer to her territory, she was one cat I was looking forward to spending more time with. Despite being closer to her, she often felt equally elusive! She is an active leopard, but seldom walks with any predictable pattern and zigzags her way around her territory making her almost impossible to track. One afternoon, after being located she promptly got lost in a drainage line in the heart of her territory. We were driving around hoping to get lucky when a flock of guineafowl suddenly erupted from the thickets next to us, and Sunset soon emerged with a prize in her mouth. She soon settled to feed, occasionally popping out of the long grass with a face full of feathers.
We all held on to a mild optimism that we would get to see Thumbela’s 2020 cub grow up into a gorgeous, relaxed young male after he showed some promise as a cub. Sadly, as the months went by, we saw less and less of him, and without regular exposure to vehicles, he became shyer. One exception to this trend was one afternoon around Machaton Dam when his uber-skittish father (the Pale-Eyed male) was not only uncharacteristically relaxed whilst eating Thumbela’s impala kill, but Thumbela’s son was also pleasingly comfortable and confident in our presence. This made for quite a scene as we had three grown leopards all around the dam. Even if he isn’t the most relaxed, he is still one beautiful boy.
If it wasn’t photos of lions drinking, then it was of dogs. I particularly like this one of a relaxed jackal drinking next to our vehicle due to the rich colours. With the open plains around Plains Camp, we got to see some regular jackal viewing over the year. Sadly, the pair that lived right in front of the camp didn’t have the best luck – one of them got mange, and the other ended up being caught by Savannah female leopard not far from camp.
I guess I am including this photo more because I began attempting to photograph birds in flight this year. This was not done because of a sudden interest in birds, but rather because I got a new camera with a wonderfully advanced auto-focus system that made tracking subjects far easier, and thus photographs like this became a possibility for me. That being said, I still send loads to the recycle bin.
For those of you that followed the blogs over the year, you will recall that I got to spend an entire month in Kenya’s Maasai Mara. I went over to do a stint as a photographer in residence at one of the camps within a private conservancy adjacent to the national reserve and had an absolute blast. The wide-open plains allowed me to focus more on animals in their environment, and when combined with dramatic skies made for some magical moments. But, it was still so special to return to the Timbavati after a wonderful East African experience.
With the number of wildebeest on the plains below Plains Camp, who needs the Maasai Mara anyway? Okay, okay, the two are not comparable, but it has been a treat to have such an abundance (relatively speaking) of plains game on our doorstep. This was particularly enjoyable in the middle of winter when we could get out before sunrise and capture some silhouettes of the game on the plains, such as this small herd of wildebeest with their oxpecker friends.
For those not so enamoured at the thought of waking up before sunrise, the sunsets over the plains were equally special, especially with the Drakensberg Mountains as a backdrop. Throw in a herd of zebras and a giraffe calf, and you have something quite special. There were so many giraffes this year, especially the calves. The surrounding Knobthorn woodlands meant that there was a constant presence of these gentle giants in the area, but with the area also acting as a calving ground for giraffes, we also had a near-permanent presence of giraffe calves waltzing around on the plains.
With the number of wildebeest on the plains, I was determined to see a birth this summer. Wildebeest offers the best chance of seeing this magical moment as mothers give birth within the herd and usually do so in the open. On this particular morning, we were searching for wild dogs that had been in front of camp during coffee when Glen pointed out a newborn calf. As calves are usually on their feet within five minutes of being born, and this one hadn’t even attempted its first step, I can only imagine that we must have missed the actual birth by a mere minute or two. Still, to be present and watch a baby taking its first steps was a privilege I won’t forget in a hurry.
He is the most relaxed male in our area and one of the biggest too. I had the privilege of watching him grow up from a cub and got to see him occasionally when driving from Safari Camp, but it was good to be closer to the heart of Ntsongwaan’s territory whilst living at Plains Camp. Sadly, it didn’t result in as many sightings of this impressive male as I would have liked, but when he did grace us with his presence, it was always well worth the wait.
Well, maybe not a dinosaur, but a prehistoric of note. Although all rhinos are special these days, what made this individual stand out was the fact that he has a blue eye instead of the typical brown eyes of his kin.
For the first several months of our time at Plains Camp, we were absolutely spoilt by the fact that we had a very active hyena on our doorstep; almost literally. The clan in the area made use of a couple of old termite mounds on the perimeter of Plains Camp and could be seen visiting the camp waterhole daily. We watched no fewer than eight cubs grow up in the mounds until one appeared to have been killed by lions; although we only saw other hyenas eating the young individual in front of camp one morning. Regardless, after that incident, the clan moved the den off the property, and we suddenly realised just how blessed we had been to have these ever-entertaining creatures on demand.
No, not a spotless leopard, but rather one of the Mayambula cubs thinking she was a leopard. Turns out that the young lions of the Giraffe Pride are even more at home in trees, and we often saw the youngsters ascending small trees as the pride moved around.
A young member of the Giraffe pride gets stuck into a zebra kill not far from Plains Camp. Despite being very successful hunters and doing a great job in raising their 17 cubs, we would seldom see this pride of 23 on any kills. As you can imagine, with so many mouths to feed, even large meals like zebras and wildebeest do not last very long; unless the pride caught something in the early hours of the morning, they were usually done with their meals by the time we would find them.
One thing we began to appreciate about having to head to the eastern part of our concession over the year was simply how lucky we are to live and work in this vast, expansive system. Looking out to the east, the gently undulating hills disappear into the distance, and although we can see for literal miles and miles, we still cannot see far enough to see into the adjoining Kruger National Park.
There were a few moments when I thought that this might be the last time I saw the blue-eyed Thumbela; just as she walked around east of Safari Camp with the sun setting on the scene, it felt as though the sun was setting on her 13 years in the Timbavati. An open wound that refused to heal on her front-left leg and a waistline that was getting smaller and smaller; things didn’t look good. Yet, even in her difficult times, she was a creature of beauty – our golden girl.
Although far from a great photo, it is one of the more unique ones I captured this year. Unique not only for what it showcased but also for what I saw leading up to that moment. Cheetah sightings had promised so much when we moved to Plains Camp – the open plains were ideal for cheetah, and we looked forward to many sightings. Nine months have passed since we moved, and our solitary cheetah sighting on the property was some way from the plains! We can blame the hyenas for that, I am sure. Fortunately, the open areas east of Safari Camp were far more active with cheetah sightings, especially of the two territorial males in the area. I headed off to see them late one morning and got well rewarded for our travel efforts when we watched the two males successfully catch a warthog. We weren’t the only ones racing off to find the source of the squeal, and a hyena soon joined the brothers and began sharing in the spoils. This carried on until there was no longer room for three predators around the carcass and the hyena chased these light-weight cats off.
It was a year that saw us witness a good number of kills; leopards taking warthogs, lions taking impalas, and with the number of wild dog sightings we enjoyed, it is no surprise that we got to see a few memorable moments with these strikingly marked predators. With the arrival of the impala lambing season, the wild dogs took full advantage of the abundance of easy meals and quickly finished off this unfortunate lamb as we watched them hunting on the plains a couple of weeks back.
The bush is all about balance, and despite the loss of life on the plains, we also got to see the arrival of new life there too – and not just the wildebeest calves. One morning the activity of a herd of elephants drew me into a thicket just off of the plains close to Plains Camp, and we were greeted with the sight of a brand-new baby elephant still trying to find its feet. This little calf still had some placenta hanging off his back and could not have been much more than half an hour old and was still drawing the attention of the whole herd!
Considering how many cubs we had around this year – and how much I love them – I am a little surprised that they didn’t feature more prominently in my selections. That being said, it wouldn’t be a selection of my favourites if it didn’t have at least some playful cubs such as these two Giraffe pride cubs.
Just as I was getting ready to write Thumbela off, she suddenly made a welcome resurgence. A new wound on her right forelimb came and went, and eventually, after over five months, the large open wound on her left leg was beginning to look better. More importantly, though, she was looking healthier, and more muscular and suddenly I went from getting ready to write an obituary for her to now looking forward to getting back to Safari Camp to spend more time in her presence.
As confident as I might be now about Thumbela being around for a little longer, the fact of the matter is, she is now 13 years old, and no doubt only has a couple of years left in her. With the loss of Marula and Nthombi over the past couple of years, it has been tough for us. Both N’weti and Marula Jnr are nothing but peripheral figures for us these days, so we are in desperate need of some new blood. Fortunately, Nyeleti has done another fantastic job of raising her cubs and is presently sitting with two 14-month-old daughters. Although they spend the majority of their time within our concession (as well as the concession to the north), these two youngsters are still far from confident with the vehicles when away from their mother. However, they should begin to grow with confidence as they become more independent, and we are placing a huge amount of hope in the fact that they will end up settling in the areas adjacent to their mother, and not vanish off into some wilderness area never to be seen again. Nyeleti has a very large territory, and there is more than enough space for these two girls to slot into and make their own; so, in 2023, our fingers will remain tightly crossed in the hope that they not only grow in confidence but also find a home around our home so that we can enjoy their company for many years to come.
And that is my selection of images to sum up 2022. As always, we trust that you enjoyed not only this selection but also all of the images and stories that we have shared with you over the past twelve months.
Thank you to all of you that could and did travel, and especially to those that came to join us at Plains Camp whilst we are busy writing up a whole new chapter in the Tanda Tula story. We are all incredibly excited about what is to come with the new Safari Camp in 2023! We are opening on the 1st of May, and although we may be opening in new buildings (that will provide you with incredible comfort and an unforgettable experience), you rest assured that the people and heart that are at the core of Tanda Tula will be there to welcome you all back. We have shown this to all of you that visited us this year and look forward to sharing in our excitement and love of this special place once again next year.
That brings us to a close for the 2022 blog posts. We will be back again in early January, but until then, stay safe and safe travels, and all the best for a love-filled and blessed festive season, and a happy and healthy new year.
See you in 2023!
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