Londolozi

A few weeks ago, my husband Luke and I were treated to four nights at Londolozi as a belated wedding present from my uncle, John Varty (JV), who also happens to be one of the founders of this world class nature reserve. Luke and I stayed with JV in his newly built private house and, shortly after arriving, our accommodation was surrounded by a small herd of elephants! “They used to drink out of the swimming pool at my other house,” JV told us, as we gaped through the windows at our magnificent pachyderm visitors. “This new pool is so full of chemicals that they don’t do that anymore, which is a pity,” he added, indicating the sparkling blue pool just outside.

JV went on to inform us that his previous Londolozi abode had been demolished recently because it was (literally) falling apart. He added, with a touch of pride, that the roof had been home to at least three black mambas, and the basement had housed a large colony of bats. “Best part about that,” said JV, “is that there were never any mosquitoes! Now they’re everywhere.”

But despite bathing in Tabard every morning and afternoon, the next couple of days at Londolozi were absolutely magical.

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Among many other beautiful sightings, we were lucky enough to see a warthog with her piglets, two male giraffes having a go at each-other, a tailless lioness with her nieces and nephews, and, of course, lots, and LOTS, of leopards! (But more of that further down.)

At one point, we spent a few hours waiting with a bold little leopard cub while her mother was away on a hunt. We watched with bated breath as she stalked and pounced at an unsuspecting squirrel. Fortunately for the rodent, he managed to escape up a tree, and from the safety of the high branches he promptly began squeaking obscenities (I’m assuming) at the aspiring huntress.

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We also spotted this hyena wading through the water with a grey heron and a trio of spoonbills:

One morning, we followed a small pack of wiry wild dogs as they chased down an impala. Although their pace was a measured trot to begin with, they rapidly accelerated once they identified a suitable target. After strategically dividing the herd, the dogs disappeared into thick bush. We lost them for about 25 minutes, and, by the time we found them again (aided by dozens of circling vultures) all that was left of their catch was a single, polished bone. Wild dogs are notoriously fast sprinters and feeders! (And, unfortunately, my camera and photography skills were no match!)

Another surprise was witnessing an interaction between a mother leopard and an adult bull buffalo. We had spent the afternoon with the female leopard and her cubs, and had observed them feeding on a recently caught impala lamb. At one point, the leopard picked up the carcass, carried it to the opposite side of the den site, and called her cubs with a sequence of short, low barking sounds. The mewling cubs came bumbling over the rocks to join her, their eyes bleary and their fluffy coats far too big for them.

After finishing the remains of the lamb, the leopard family climbed onto a large boulder for a spot of evening grooming and nuzzling.

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Luke and I grew anxious for the cats when a small group of very large buffaloes moved into the area. We watched the four of them – three adult bulls and a yearling – approach from further up the dry river bed where the leopardess had made her den. JV told us that the recent drought had pressured several buffaloes into leaving their herds in search of good grazing. Many of the animals had died – too weak to escape predators or, in some cases, to pull themselves out of the thick mud surrounding their watering holes.

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Fortunately, the two leopard cubs scampered up the slope of the river bank and safely out of harm’s way. The mother leopard was also uninterested in dealing with hungry, agitated herbivores six times her size, and so climbed onto some big rocks where the buffaloes, with their clumsy hooves, couldn’t reach her.

Needless to say, Luke and I had a marvelous time with JV at Londolozi. We are immensely fortunate to have visited and experienced one of the world’s few remaining wild paradises, and we are so glad that places like this still exist.

Some food for thought: as we charge towards 2017, I’m feeling more and more sure that ecotourism is one of the only viable safeguards against the next global mass extinction, which looms ominously on the smoggy horizon. One of the challenges we face at home is making nature reserves and sanctuaries more accessible to the majority of South Africans, and not just the privileged white elite. Until human greed and inequality can be addressed adequately, the future of wild spaces all over the world, and many plant and animal species, remains uncertain.

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