Expect the unexpected! Truer words have never been spoken when it comes to describing a game drive in the bush. These words became so relevant to me one morning a short while ago when I set off from camp in search of the Tsalala Pride, only to change those plans very early on in the drive when the unexpected happened.
Ranger Sandros Sihlangu had announced his intention over the radio that he would be heading towards the open grasslands in the south of the reserve in search of cheetah that morning. It was a very bold call seeing as though cheetah are quite hard to come by in the Sabi Sands and the one particular male cheetah that we sometimes saw in those open areas had not been seen for the past week or so.
I silently wished him good luck in my head and then set about outlining our morning plan to my guests. We had only barely made it out of camp and were winding our way down to cross the river when Sandros’ unmistakable voice came through on the radio saying that he had already found the cheetah that he had set out in search for.
I couldn’t quite fathom what I had just heard for two reasons; firstly, there was no way he could have already made it down to the open areas in the south that quickly, and secondly, he had decided before he had even left the lodge that he would find a cheetah that morning and then did it within 15 minutes of leaving. There were no leads or previous sightings from the day before to go on, it was pure intuition. I guess that’s what you get from almost 30 years of being a game ranger!
It quickly became clear that he wasn’t joking and he had found the cheetah hunting on the banks of the Sand River. I very quickly told him that I was close by and went to go and join him in the sighting. What made it even more special was that by the time we got to him the cheetah had settled in the riverbed that had, at that stage, completely dried up.
The Sand River is definitely not the sort of habitat that one would associate a cheetah with, with its dense riverine vegetation and vast granite boulders to navigate around, but lo and behold right in front of us lay the male cheetah with a fixated gaze on an Nyala browsing in the distance. I was already extremely excited because it was the first time I had seen a cheetah in the river, and with the possibility of a hunt on the cards I couldn’t quite believe my luck.
Not long after arriving, the cheetah got to his feet and began stalking. He made use of the soft river sand and made no noise as he got himself into a position from which he could launch an attack. Before we knew it he exploded into life and within seconds we lost view of both predator and prey. As we sat in tense silence waiting to hear whether or not the hunt was a success, the unmistakable sound of an antelopes distress call became clearly evident and I knew immediately the cheetah had come out on top. The thick sand almost got the better of the Land Rover but after successfully getting ourselves unstuck we rounded a few thickets to discover a very out-of-breath cheetah collecting himself with a young Nyala lying at his feet.
We watched for the next hour as he slowly regained his breath and began to feed on the Nyala with the boulder-strewn riverbed providing an impressive background. We had just witnessed the complete unexpected in a very unique setting and with the river slowly starting to rise there probably won’t be another opportunity like that for a very long time. One thing’s for sure is that the next time Sandros has a hunch, I’m following!