This was to be an ordeal of a sighting. We were one of the first groups to see these pups emerge from the den, and you could see and hear the excitement of the pack, which now comprised 3 generations – adults, last year’s pups and the youngsters. After finishing up their socialization with the new pups, all of the year-old pus and the adults (except for two minders), left the den to go hunting, and at that point we left for our sundowner stop.
The next morning we went back again and the pack was still not back from the hunt, only the two minders were to be seen. On the afternoon drive we popped in and still they weren’t back. By this stage the two minders were visibly distressed. The male minder dog would run off a short distance into the bush, ears perked, only to slink back to the termite mound when it was evident that he hadn’t heard the returning pack. We could see that they were just so eager for the return of their pack, which had been gone 24 hours now. They were probably starving! And we were then starting to get distressed! Wondering if something my have happened to them. We had high hopes to find them back at the den the next morning, but they hadn’t appeared, and we left the lodge with pits in our stomachs. Fortunately a follow up with the guides after we had left gave us the good news, that the pack had returned and all was well. Another great safari experience with Lawson’s Safaris!

Wild Dog pups emerge from the den.

Lawson’s Featured Camp: Polentswa Lodge.

The small lodge concept is done better in Africa than anywhere else, and we are fortunate to have visited a fair few on our tours and travels. This month’s featured lodge is Polentswa, situated deep in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, on the Botswana side of the Nossob River, in one of the remotest parts of Southern Africa.

The accommodation comprises safari tents, set in a row overlooking a vast ephemeral pan and small, artificial waterhole. The tents are situated on raised decks, getting you away from Scorpions and other nasties that roam the sand at night. The camp is unfenced, so predators may move around at night, and we know that first hand from footage recorded on one of our trail cams placed outside the tent on a recent visit.

The dining and communal areas are also set on raised decks, and in the evenings the views from the lounge are just spectacular. The food is basic but wholesome and tasty, and the chef is a miracle worker indeed, considering how far they have to go to get provisions!

There are game drives on offer, though we usually prefer to book on an accommodation-only basis and do the game drives ourselves. Night drives are not allowed even for the lodge guides (as per the rules of the Transfrontier Park), and one has to be off the main tourist road by the allocated closing time (though that means you still have 20 minutes or more of driving in the growing darkness as you make your way to the lodge itself). The only other accommodation anywhere near the lodge is a small, basic camp site, but other than that, this camp is extremely remote, and that’s all part of the appeal.

The best aspect is the location – not far from Polentswa Waterhole, a Lion magnet during the dry season, and you can be one of the first cars there in the morning. And so remote that you really feel like you are in the wilderness. The starscape at night will floor you…

The Lawson’s rating:

Accommodation: 3.5 (basic but clean and comfortable, the only negative is that the tents are placed quite close together, so you can hear pretty much most of what’s going on next door… On future bookings we’ll ask for our groups to be allocated alternate tents, if at all possible).

Communal areas: 4.5 – the views are to die for.

Food: 4 – basic but tasty and wholesome.

Location: 5.

Game Viewing: 5.

Overall: 4.5.

Suitable for: more adventurous travellers.

Recommended length of stay: 3 nights.

Special notes: not recommended in mid-winter, when it can get bitterly cold.

Visit Polentswa on a Lawson’s Custom Safari!

Lawson’s Featured Bird: African Harrier Hawk.

Today we are taking a look at one of the most remarkable and entertaining of African raptors, the African Harrier Hawk (Polyboroides typus). This species is widespread across sub-Saharan Africa, with the very similar Madagascan Harrier Hawk representing the genus in Madagascar. One of the unique features of the bird are the double-jointed knees, enabling the lower legs to bend in multiple planes, giving the bird the ability to access prey items such as geckos, lizards, birds, squirrels etc hiding in cracks, crevices and nests. Watching this bird hunting is quite an experience, and it’s clear at times that it has a degree of problem-solving ability as it works out how to extract something from a hole or crack. Another interesting feature is the ability of the normally yellow facial skin to change to bright scarlet according to mood – as can be seen in the mating pair which were obviously a bit excited! It’s a relatively common species, even occurring as a garden bird in our home town of Nelspruit, South Africa, and easily seen on most regional safaris. Photos by Leon Marais.

A few photos of the African Harrier Hawk in action:

Birds and Birding: An interview with Leon Marais from Lawson’s.

Lawson’s director and guide Leon was recently interviewed by The Safari Store, a virtual one-stop-shop “dedicated to supplying you the best products available for your African safari – and any other Outdoor adventure”.

Read the interview here and then go through to their products page to browse for safari gear to wear on your Lawson’s safari!

Photo trip reports: Namibia 2018, South Africa and Kenya 2019

If you are considering a trip to Africa in the near future, take a look at some of our recent photo trip reports for some inspiration!

Namibia Birding and Wildlife, November 2018
Itinerary included Windhoek, Sossusvlei, Walvis Bay and Swakopmund, Damaraland, Etosha National Park and Erongo Wilderness.

South Africa’s Limpopo Valley and Northern Kruger, January 2019
Itinerary included Polokwane, the Soutpansberg, Mapungubwe National Park, Pafuri, Shingwedzi, Letaba, Satara and Skukuza.

Kenya Birding and Wildlife, April 2019
Itinerary included Samburu, Ol Pejeta, Lake Naivasha and the Masai Mara.


Photo Trip Report: SA Zoo Safari 2018

In May we ran our 9th safari for the South Australian Zoo Volunteers, friends and associates, this time with 18 wonderful participants, a big group by our standards! The itinerary was based on maximizing the safari experience, and to this end we included 11 nights in the Kruger National Park (from Mopani all the way down to Berg-en-Dal, thus covering two thirds of the park) and 4 nights at Idube Game Lodge in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve. This added up to a lot of time out in the field looking for animals!

Kruger National Park:
Conditions in the Kruger were green and reasonably wet (no rain but quite a bit of surface water) for the most part, which added up to tough (but typical for the time of year) game viewing conditions. Although, by the time we left the Kruger, we had on paper seen the Big Five plus Wild Dog and Cheetah, in reality we struggled with the predators a bit – nice Wild Dogs on the first afternoon, and a few Lion sightings in between, but the Leopard component comprised only two brief sightings, and we had only one Cheetah sighting (2/5 visuals). Still, this does not mean that it was not a good experience, for we saw plenty of Elephant and Buffalo, and the White Rhino sightings were particularly good (we got stuck on the wrong side of a crash of 10 Rhino for about half-an-hour on one occasion), and of course we had plenty of plains game and birds etc to keep us occupied. Still, by the time we got to Idube the ‘old hands’ and the guides at least were desperate for some cats…

Idube / Sabi Sand Game Reserve:
Idube didn’t disappoint either: the opening afternoon drive in the pouring rain produced two Leopard sightings, the occupants of one of our three Idube vehicles seeing one Leopard kill a Scrub Hare at very close quarters. By the end of our stay at Idube we had collectively seen around 8 different Leopards, plus some good Lion sightings and, on the final drive, a fine male Cheetah with a fresh Impala kill. 

So all in all it was a great tour, which ran seamlessly from start to finish thanks to solid planning and organisation (and a bit of luck). Thanks to Kevin Folland for organising things on the Australian end, and more importantly getting the 17 participants together – setting up a safari is relatively easy, getting the ‘bums in seats’ is the hard part! Thanks also to all the staff at Idube and to Doug and John of Outdoor Dining for the catering in the Kruger. Here are a few images from this most recent trip, and we look forward to our two SA Zoo Volunteers’ safaris in 2019!

Elephants of northern Kruger.

The Kruger National Park is a massive protected area, measuring some 20 000+ square kilometers in size, roughly. That’s the size of Wales or Israel, just for comparison. The southern third of the park, from about Satara Rest Camp southwards, is generally considered to be the best region in terms of game viewing, especially in terms of the big cats, water availability, road density and habitat diversity all playing a role. In comparison cats can be scarce in the north; going several days without seeing any Lions or Leopards is not unusual by any means. The habitat in the north is also somewhat less diverse, vast swathes of the region north of the Olifants River are dominated by Mopane (Colophospermum mopane), a broad-leaf tree that can become quite large but in many areas the soil quality is such that they remain ‘stunted’, Elephants of course also handicapping them in the vertical realm. But this doesn’t mean ‘the north’ is not appealing. Quite the opposite in fact, the north appeals because there are fewer camps and no major tourist towns outside the park gates, apart from Phalaborwa near Letaba Rest Camp – this means fewer tourists than one finds in the south, giving it a more ‘remote’ feeling. The stunted Mopane veld also makes for unobstructed views in many areas, and horizon to horizon vistas create a sense of ‘epic-ness’ that one doesn’t often get in the south. And another plus for the north is the Elephants. While you do of course get Elephants in the south, and plenty of them, the north is renowned for big tuskers – home ranges of many past and current big tuskers are centered on the Letaba / Mopani region. On a recent visit we had some great views of these behemoths of the north at a couple of water points in the vast Mopane belt of the central / northern region of the park – with very few other tourists around to share it with us. In fact, our sighting of the big tusker N’wendlamuhari  (‘the river that is fierce when in flood’) was entirely private apart from two game scouts on foot patrol in the area.  So, while the south is a must, especially for the first time visitor, the north is not without its appeal by any means. Birding is equally good northwards up to the Punda Maria / Pafuri area, where it gets even better. The bottom line is that any part of Kruger is great, each has its own appeal (and that’s why we include three or more camps, to show off the diversity of this incredible national park), and any day in Kruger is a great day!

Going ‘flashless’ – night drive photography.

Most game lodges operate on the same basic daily program – a very early wake-up, followed by coffee / tea and a morning safari. After breakfast at the lodge there may be the opportunity for a bush walk, followed by down time, lunch, more down time and an afternoon / evening safari which returns to the lodge after dark for dinner. Many people get really excited about night drives, as this is when some smaller nocturnal creatures may be seen, such as Porcupine, African Wild Cat, Genets, Civets and the like; and it’s also when the chances are good for viewing Lions on the move – these sleep-lovers spend the bulk of a 24-hr period sleeping, so 8 / 10 day-time sightings can honestly be described as rather boring, but after dark they are usually more active.  It’s a gamble – some night drives produce nothing more than numerous hits in the face by flying insects attracted to the spotlights, while others can produce some fantastic sightings.

As a guide, a comment often heard as the drive recommences after sundowners is that ‘it’s time to put the cameras and binoculars away’. Or at least fire up the flash on the DSLR… But not so – binoculars are essential at night (as they are at any time on a safari), and flash is not always needed. Really? Well, yes – you will get shots of animals at night using a flash, and sometimes this may be the only way to get a shot, but when the conditions allow, going ‘flashless’ will lend far more mood and atmosphere to your photographs than the broad cold-white light of a flash will. Basic settings for going ‘flashless’ are: Manual Mode; an ISO of around 2000, depending on your camera; and of course a wide-open aperture, as wide as it will go; and a starting shutter speed of around 1/80. A good tip is to get your camera set-up for night shots before it gets too dark – there’s nothing as frustrating as fumbling with dials and buttons in the dark while the action is taking place in front of you.

With your camera set up for night / spotlight photography, and dead-rested as steadily as possible, start off with a few test shots. Check your image – if it’s too bright you can increase your shutter speed and / or drop your ISO a bit. If it’s too dark you can drop your shutter and / or increase your ISO a bit. The lighting conditions will be changing constantly as the tracker moves the spotlight around and the animals themselves move, so one has to keep reviewing to make sure that you are getting the images. At many lodges the guides and trackers are keyed in to this type of photography and will co-ordinate with the crews on other vehicles to allow for back and side lighting with a single spotlight, which can create some fantastically moody images. Hold your breath and shoot like a special-forces sniper and you’re bound to get a few sharp shots.

Here are a few sample night safari images from the Sabi Sand Game Reserve, which is included on our September 2018 ‘Photographing the Predators’ set-departure safari, and one image from Okaukeujo Waterhole in Namibia.

Africa’s luckiest Impala.

It was the kind of sighting one only hears about, almost too outrageous to believe. Did that really happen? If it did really happen, it always happens to someone else, some really lucky person. This time however, we were the lucky folks. Here’s the summarized account of what happened, recounted by Lawson’s tour leader Leon Marais…

“The day started off cool and damp with a ‘Scottish mist’, and what a day it was to be. We headed off at 05h30 without any expectations on what was to be an almost unbelievable morning. Our guide Mornè heard that a pack of 8 male Wild Dogs had been found and we quickly joined the line up to see them. Soon we caught up with them on the hunt, moving at a fast trot through the bush. At one point a Duiker made a lucky escape, as did a herd of Impala, the dogs’ main prey item. Eventually, after an already spectacular sighting, we left them, allowing another vehicle to take our place, and headed off to a nearby dam for a coffee break. Mornè confirmed over the radio that they were moving in a westerly direction, away from the dam, and we disembarked and Dion, the tracker, began pouring the coffee. Then we noticed a herd of Kudu on the run close by, followed by an Impala ewe tearing across a clearing at a terrific pace with the dogs in hot pursuit. She ran around the inlet of the dam and then launched herself into the water to escape the dogs (at this point we were still standing around the vehicle with dropped jaws). The Impala then paddled into the middle of the dam where the Hippo’s set upon her, one bull even dunking her under the water. The dogs ran around to our side waiting for her to make the shore, with one of the Hippo’s charging out of the water to chase the dogs off. The resident Crocodile then also got involved, probably equally happy to latch on to the Impala or an unfortunate dog. Eventually the Impala made the shore and, with dogs after her she dashed back into the inlet area, where she collapsed into the shallow water. One of the dogs then bounded in and tackled her, but the attentions of the Crocodile convinced the dog to get out of the water fast. On the shore a pair of Waterbuck stormed in, chasing the dogs, and a curious Spotted Hyena arrived on the scene. The wily Impala then went to hide behind a large tree trunk in the water, out of sight of the Crocodile, which had now become the main threat. The dogs eventually, and very reluctantly, decided to give up and slowly made their way out of the area, calling with their mournful ‘hoo-hoo’ goose-bump-inducing call as they went –what a moment!. The Hyena also left the area, and the Impala suddenly made a dash for the shore, emerging somewhat shocked but not visibly injured, a pure miracle indeed. After the action had subsided we resumed our coffee stop (we felt like we needed shots of Whiskey in the coffee to calm down), with a White Rhino coming down to the dam opposite us just to end things off”