My wife Liz and I arrived at Londolozi Varty Camp in mid-February for an oft-delayed, bucket list 20th wedding anniversary trip originally planned before the pandemic hit. We arrived with high expectations, not least of all because we were travelling with Greg du Toit, one of the World’s leading wildlife photographers.
We quickly met up with Melvin and Milton, our ranger and tracker respectively, and discussed our goals for the four-day, eight-drive trip – essentially big cats, big cat cubs, and, more specifically and totally unrealistically, a leopard cub. We set the bar very high, including, of course, all of the Big 5…
Our expectations were expertly managed by Melvin in an instant. The recent rains had been unprecedented in volume, leaving a large part of the reserve inaccessible, and no leopard cubs had been seen of late in the area available to explore. On the plus side, there were a number of known lionesses with cubs in abundance that we could potentially be lucky enough to see…
The first evening drive was a gentle but enjoyable start – a really good sighting of two lionesses relaxing by the airstrip, likely from the Nkuhuma Pride, and, in darkness towards the end of the drive, a leopard sighting (possibly the Three Rivers Female) followed by elephants and a rhino. Simply put, four of the Big 5 without requiring too much additional effort.
The next morning focused on leopards, including glorious sightings of both the Ntomi Male, freckle-eyed and resting by a waterhole, and the Three Rivers Female, lying serenely on a huge termite mound. Spectacular!
A single cub of the Ximungwe Female's second litter. Initially rather skittish but is very relaxed now. Birth mark in his left eye.
Forced into early independence as her mother was killed by the Southern Avoca Males.
As if the leopard sightings in the morning weren’t good enough for one day, the afternoon drive took it to another level. The dynamic duo that are Melvin and Milton followed the tracks of a lioness to an obscure location overlooking some very thick vegetation. Despite reaching for the binoculars and searching for some time, nothing was apparent until Milton suggested looking at a fallen tree trunk – and there they were!
Four beautiful lion cubs hiding in a very well-obscured den waiting for their mother to arrive for feeding. These cubs were very young, likely no more than five or six weeks old, and were just visible in the gloom through dense foliage. We stayed and watched for some time before a sound off to our right announced the return of the mother lioness. Photography became secondary as we all watched and listened in awe as the cubs reacted to the calling and the lioness climbed down the slope to be met by the delighted four – incredible!
Eventually, Melvin insisted that we move away to allow others to share the viewing and we had driven no more than 15 minutes when we came across another exciting sight – what we believed to be some of the Ntsevu Pride, including a magnificent male, out in the open with another four slightly older and very playful cubs. Watching the interaction between the cubs and the male was another highlight from a fantastic day in the bush.
We awoke early the next morning thinking we’d peaked – how could we possibly top what we had already seen? But as we met with Greg, Melvin and Milton at the Land Rover there was a huge sense of anticipation created by the unmistakable sounds of a lion/hyena encounter that was obviously very nearby. We were the first car out of the camp and arrived at the airstrip to absolute mayhem!
Initially, nine lions from the Styx Pride and 16 hyenas were actively facing off as the lions gorged on a zebra carcass that had recently been taken down on the runway. The noise was indescribable, the action frenetic and it was difficult to know which way to look. To confuse the situation further, the two Nkuhuma Lionesses from our first drive were trying to get in on the feast, much to the displeasure of the Styx crew! The whole scene only lacked David Attenborough’s commentary for completeness and we sat for more than two hours enjoying the chaotic, sensory overload that developed directly in front of us.
That evening we drove out still in a state of shock – what could possibly top or even come close to matching what we had already seen? We threw the gauntlet down to Melvin and Milton which, as always, they took in good spirits. Who knew? Our third set of lion cubs of the week was waiting for us as we drove to another den, making a total of 12 different lion cubs for the trip so far. Cuter than ever and highly inquisitive, the mother and cubs allowed us some beautiful shots through the long grass and bushes.
Our next stop involved the Three Rivers Young Male as the last golden light of day highlighted his gloriously rosetted fur. A perfect day.
One of two cubs to survive, the sister lost at five months. Still dependent on his mother, but is growing into an impressive young male.
On the third morning (had we really seen so much in this short a time?) we came across the Ximungwe Female, resting beautifully on a termite mound. We were also lucky enough to hear her calling and, to everyone’s surprise, she was briefly reunited with her now independent son, the Ntomi Male.
Having been viewed by vehicles from an early age, this leopard is supremely relaxed around Land Rovers.
At least as the last evening approached we had time to draw our breadth. There had been rumours of a leopard den (the Nhlanguleni Female’s) that had yet to be located and, with our prompting, Melvin and Milton took up the challenge. We drove more in hope than expectation to where M&M had known her to keep a den previously. After driving around for a while we literally stumbled across her in the long grass in front of some rocks and our collective hearts missed a beat! We sat for a while as the light began to fade before deciding to move on to see something else while we still had some light.
That something else was another great lion sighting, including, in the very last of the usable light, one of the lionesses drinking while the others, clearly post-feast, lazed in the background.
And so the next morning came and, sadly, our last drive was upon us. Whatever we would see, or not see, today, it had been an incredible trip and we had already been mesmerised by the magic of Londolozi – in no small part down to the incredible skills and engaging personalities of Melvin and Milton. But, there was more to come…
We set off bright and early at 5:15am, heading straight to where we had seen the Nhlanguleni Female the night before. To our absolute delight, she was in the exact same place – this had to be the den, surely?
We sat with ever-increasing expectations as the light came up. And then a movement in the rocks. Had I just seen a very small cub jump from an opening into the undergrowth? The atmosphere was electric and a few minutes later we were all rewarded with a somewhat obscured sighting of the cub climbing over its mother in the long grass. Not so much a great photo opportunity, but the most amazing sight we had ever seen on safari. We knew that this was a ‘one in a million’ sighting and, furthermore, we knew that we had been the first to locate this den and the first to see the Nhlanguleni Female’s new cub. The skittish cub ran back behind the rocks and we sat for a while in silence before Melvin suggested moving on. The cub was probably sleeping after feeding and was unlikely to reappear before we had to set off for the airport…
Initially skittish she spent a lot of time in the Sand River, now relaxed she makes up the majority of leopard viewing west of camp.
Liz and I hesitated – what Melvin said made sense but we really didn’t want to go. We held back a while and to our intense delight, the cub reappeared in style. Not obscured by the long grass, but on full show climbing on the rocks as if posing for our cameras!
We didn’t know if it ever gets better than this, and to be honest, we didn’t really care! The rarity of our sighting was further brought home to us as we later witnessed the other rangers high-fiving Melvin and Milton in congratulations – even they were excited by this one!
We had challenged M&M on each drive to top the incredible sightings that we had seen and they managed it every time, right up until the most special sighting of all on our last drive. We had seen all of the Big 5; five different adult leopards; countless lions; 12 different lion cubs; and, most incredibly, a very young, previously unseen leopard cub. On top of this, Greg was fantastic company and had been patiently teaching us how to get the most out of our cameras and sharing some essential post-processing skills in the Photo Studio between drives.
We could not have asked for more and were totally captivated by the location, the camp and the friendly service from one and all (special mentions for Scott, Hannah and Cute). Most of all, spending time with the incredible M&M, including at a delicious Boma for dinner and listening to their astonishing safari stories, was something we will treasure forever.
Thank you, Londolozi, and see you again soon!
Filed under Cubs General Nature Guests Leopards Lions Photography Safari experience Wildlife
What beautiful pictures. I love the pictures of all the cubs.
What a beautiful manifestation! Sounds like it was an absolute dream. Happy anniversary!
amazing series. so many cubs!!!
You were Blessed, not only with fantastic guides but the opportunities of all the wonderful animals you were able to see! I can only see in pictures!
What a wonderful safari . Thanks for sharing your great photos.
What an amazing experience – Milton and Melvin did it again! You’ve made us excited about our upcoming visit all over again!
Sounds like the most perfect trip!
Simon you were so privileged to travel with Greg the renowned photographer and getting tips for getting the best out of your camera’s. The foto’s that were taken are absolutely stunning. M&M were excellent in getting you to the places were all the photos were taken. That leopard cub is so precious and the lion cubs are so cute.
Sounds like a fabulous visit and how fortunate you were to order up seeing big and small cats, and actually viewing them during your four days. Your images will serve as lifetime memories as well as those special moments at Londolozi, both in and out of camp.
Definitely increases our anticipation level for our August adventure.
You got unique moments, the lion cubs posed and smiled for you! As well as the most beautiful leopards like the Three River Female and the Ntomi male. Fantastic
Wow, what gorgeous photos! You were incredibly fortunate to have so many wonderful sightings, especially over just 4 nights. I’m especially jealous of the lion and hyena stand-off on the airstrip, as to witness an interaction like that is so rare – I’ve spent about 75 nights in Londolozi since 2010, and I’ve never seen anything like that!
I knew the name Greg du Toit rang a bell, and I’ve just been looking again at his elephant photo that won Wildlife Photographer of the Year in 2013. We go to the exhibition at the Natural History Museum in London most years. (I also love his lion in the grass photo, which was highly commended another year.)