Friday, July 24, 2015

Meet a guide at Rhino River Lodge

The life of a safari lodge ranger is one ruled by adventure, excitement and that little dose of danger that comes with the bush-life package. It sounds exhilarating to any of us with a love for the African wilderness and a hint of khaki-fever.

Rhino River Lodge’s ranger, Kyle Naude, shares a little taste of what it’s like to be a game ranger in KwaZulu Natal’s wild backyard. His love for the bush is contagious and his wildlife photography passion goes hand in hand with the job he loves.

We asked him a few questions about being a game ranger in a Zululand, Big 5 game reserve.

Q1. What led you to your Rhino River Lodge position?

The Zululand Rhino Reserve is a beautiful 23 000ha reserve with a huge amount of diversity within the park. What better place to do what I love doing? I think what drew me to the ranger position at Rhino River Lodge was, the outstanding opportunity for me to further my career in a very special part of South Africa.


Q2. What is a typical day like as a ranger at a Big 5 safari lodge?
A typical day for me usually starts off with a lot of excitement, especially not knowing what is going to happen on a game drive.

However being a ranger is not always a piece of cake and not always about going on game drives. Everyday tends to be a busy day. A lodge always has maintenance that needs to be done, roads that need to be fixed and bush that needs to be cleared; especially when the elephants decide to do some renovations of their own.

Q3. In your position, when are you at your happiest?

I would say I am at my happiest, when on a game drive and I look back and see the smiles of the guests, knowing that they are enjoying an experience of a lifetime.


Q4. Can you tell us about a funny, off the wall, crazy bush moment you’ve experienced?

We were out on an afternoon drive, driving along the river where out of the blue a female cheetah and her five cubs popped out of the bush.

We sat with them for 10 minutes before they moved into the bush, out of site. We drove on to see if we could find some lions, when suddenly we regained a visual of the six cheetahs. We had stopped pretty close to impala which were about three hundred metres away from the cheetah. We could see that the female cheetah was particularly interested in the impala and we sat to wait and see what would happen.

The cheetahs were edging closer and closer and the impala were unaware of what was happening. Eventually after about forty-five minutes the cheetahs were about 30 metres away from the impala. One of the young cubs, with half a tail, proceeded to move around the back of our game viewer, across the road from the impala. Now we had five cheetahs to our left, a large herd of impala in the middle and one cub to our right. After about five minutes sitting in dead silence, everything sprung to life.

The cub to our right started chasing the impala towards the other five cheetahs. Impala were running everywhere, and to my amazement each and every cheetah was chasing their own impala. We did not know where to look because in each direction there was an impala running and a cheetah on its tail. This all lasted for maybe 40 seconds, but unfortunately the cheetahs went hungry this time.

For me it was one of the most amazing sightings, not only to see the chase but to see a female cheetah with five cubs, all in extremely good condition.

Q5. You’re quite the star photographer of the Rhino River Lodge Facebook page. Tell us about your love for wildlife photography?

My love for wildlife photography stems from all the time that I have been privileged enough to have spent in the bush. Simple as that.


Q6: What is your favourite creature or scene to capture in your photography?

To be honest I don’t have a favourite scene or creature. Every day is different. The animals are always doing something different and the bush will always have a different scene to show. For me that’s what makes the photography interesting.


Q7: If you were to be turned into an animal, which would you most like to be and why?

I would like to be changed into an oxpecker, because I would love to sit on a rhino all day and be its personal guard.


Question 8: Select one of the two options and tell us why you chose it: Birds or Beasts?


Birds are, for me, a pretty difficult subject to learn. With so many bird species in South Africa, to study, it’s going to take many years of experience out in the bush to get there, and I look forward to that. I cherish my time in nature.

Post originally published in Africa Geographic

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

A Date with Rhino River Lodge's Wilderness

“I’m on a date with the wilderness!” This is what I kept thinking to myself from each sunrise to sunset during my two night stay at Rhino River Lodge. I was cuddled by mountains that made for the most stunning photo backdrops and defrosted by sunrises and hot chocolates as I patiently watched Mother Nature begin her morning ritual.
Early morning safari with Rhino River Lodge

Yes, it was a weekend long romance that was dictated by the rising and setting of the sun and I adored every millisecond of it. The wildlife also seemed to be on cue with the sun’s rhythm, which made for dramatic and incredibly moving sightings that the universe must have been smiling down upon.
Sunrise over the Zululand Rhino Reserve

Sunrise over the Zululand Rhino Reserve

The morning sun inched its way above the mountains, and as we began to shed our blankets and winter layers the “Ferrari safari game vehicle” came across the first big prize of the day, the beautiful bull elephant that happened to be in musth.

At this point he was amongst the trees, but as he became aware of the game vehicle, he decided to make his presence a bit more known. We were in such awe of this big guy making his way to our cruiser that we didn’t notice his male friend coming from the other direction. Did I just say friend? I meant foe!
Elephant sighting with Rhino River Lodge in the Zululand Rhino Reserve

But before elephant #1 made headway to elephant #2, he decided to give our hearts a reason to skip a beat. He came shockingly close to the backend of our cruiser. So close only his face could be seen when looking back. Our poor photographer tried to snap a quick picture, but because of the close proximity, her camera’s autofocus didn’t manage to do its job.

Our ranger, Kyle, handled the situation with such style and ease and slowly moved the vehicle away to give the elephant bull his space. We then watched from a distance as the elephant in musth decided to battle with his foe for the day.

Two elephants face up on the Zululand Rhino Reserve with Rhino River Lodge

Only a thorny tree stood between the two grey giants. But if you saw the catastrophe of the surroundings, smashed branches and trees uprooted, you could tell a battle had been fought. Heart palpitations aside, it was a wild and wonderful sighting we were lucky to witness.

Large bull elephant in the Zululand Rhino Reserve with Rhino River Lodge

Fast forward to the sunset and re-layering of jersey and blankets. A cheetah greeted our path as the sky transformed into a pretty blend of purple and orange. I was officially convinced Mother Nature and the reserve’s wildlife were on some sort of secret wavelength.

Cheetah sillouehtte at sunset

There he was winding in and out of the bush, as our heads simultaneously weaved with every slight movement the stealthy creature made. All that could be heard was the sniffling of our noses as the nippy weather and colourful skies set the moody scene for our cheetah sighting.

Cheeta sighting at night in the Zululand Rhino Reserve with Rhino River Lodge
We couldn’t believe that this animal, unsurpassed by speed, was so gracefully still and posing for our photography pleasure. The moment was ours and we didn’t have to share it with anybody else, thanks to the exclusivity of the reserve. Fast, fearsome, strong, wild, and oh so private setting to observe the cheetah at dusk.
cheetah photographed on a night drive in the Zululand Rhino Reserve with Rhino River Lodge

My date with Rhino River Lodge’s wilderness and welcomed wildlife was a record breaking 10 out of 10. Not a moment would have been changed, and that’s when you know you’ve found a keeper, or in this case a winning spot in the African bush.

Written by guest, Hilary Gaertner.
Originally published by ThisIsKZN

Outnumbered cheetahs outsmart wild dogs

The scene was set for a three part performance, and the whole extravaganza unravelled like any drama should. The only difference was that this was a real life bushveld sighting, not a film – and popcorn wasn’t included.

On a morning game drive from Rhino River Lodge led by ranger Frances Hannah, the air was crisp against our skin, and the blankets crept up slowly as we sped off in pursuit of Zululand Rhino Reserve’s new addition – the wild dog. The valley was shrouded in a thick cloud of mist; the rising sun was straining through the fog to reach our cold noses and trees stood silhouetted against the light.

view on an early morning game drive
The dogs had been spotted running across the plains but had disappeared into the thick bushveld. By now they could be anywhere. We manoeuvred the cruiser along winding roads, hoping to catch a glimpse of white fur at the end of a tail; our beacon of hope.

Winding the cruiser along the road
On our way up from the river, we heard the warning call of the vervet monkeys. The dogs were new to the reserve, but these monkeys knew the lingo. They were alarm calling from the tops of the trees, singing out to anyone who would listen that danger was near. We swung the cruiser around, and as we neared the river, there they were – all six dogs were scaling down the steep rock face of the mountain, edging towards the dry riverbed.

six wild dogs edging towards dry riverbed
Soft padded paws kicked up sand as they sprinted towards us, excited by the fuss we were making over them. A flurry of patches and big black ears circled our cruiser momentarily and then they were off in all directions. We began reversing but by the time we were over the lip of the river, the dogs had vanished, and the hot pursuit began again!

We swung around and began to climb the mountain slope until we saw a big grey, lumbering roadblock hurtling towards us!

Big grey roadblock
You could smell him before you saw him. His frame blocked out the morning sun as he towered over us, urine gushing out between his back legs, temples shiny with oily secretion and his trunk snaking towards our vehicle, investigating what this foreigner wanted in his wilderness. Once the formalities were over, he continued his hefty walk down to the soft river sand where he started devouring the lush vegetation on the bank’s edge.

The road opened to a wide open plane, and there in the middle stood six wild dogs, circling four sub-adult cheetah. The dogs chattered excitedly amongst each other, their tails erect in the air, white tips saluting the morning sun. This was the classic dogs versus cats scenario, but in the wild.

The cats grouped together with their backs to each other while keeping the dogs at swiping length. Hair stood up on their spotted backs and their teeth glared sharply as the dogs closed in.

Guide Frances explained the reasons behind the intense behaviour, “The wild dog and cheetah interaction was as tense as it was because the wild dogs are still finding their paws and are essentially ‘house shopping’. So when they find themselves in another predator’s territory by chance, they will either turn in the opposite direction or stand strong and face up to them… it all depends on the predators they encounter. They would have run from lions if they were caught in their territory, for example, but they stood their ground when faced with cheetahs.”

Wild dogs close in on cheetahs
Wild dogs each have specific rank within their pack, and as one of the excited smaller dogs at the back rushed forward, the dogs piled onto it to reaffirm the hierarchy. As the dogs battled with their inner politics, the cheetahs seized their chance and retreated to a thorny bush, which they used as a barricade.

six wild dogs
The battle continued between the curtains of bush until the dogs admitted defeat and energetically moved along, bouncing off each other’s adrenalin. We all took a deep breath; the sun was warming our skin and we were elated to have found the dogs in such an eager state!

It was a morning full of action fit for the silver screen that guests were lucky enough to witness.

Blog post originally published on Africa Geographic

Sunday, May 11, 2014

King of the Jungle

Stereotypes are way too simple, you know: black rhino are shy and retiring, the lion is the king of the jungle ... ranger Frances Hannah explains that what you expect is not always what you get.

I was approaching a block of open plane grassland, the male lion and lioness were well hidden in the long grass but I could see the other vehicle on a sighting in the distance.  I was making my way towards the other vehicle when a young black rhino bull stepped out of the thicket to my right and gave us a fantastic sighting, head held high, curious yet timid.  Once he grew bored of our clicking cameras he moved back into the thicket of knob thorns and out of our view, or so we thought!

We carried on towards the lions; the male was sitting in eager anticipation; he clearly was waiting for something from the female that she was not willing to give him.  As we were enthralled in the lion sighting I saw a dark figure come stomping out across the plane.  Mr rhino was not putting up with coming second best and he was making a direct beeline for my vehicle.   I changed gears to reverse, ready to get out quickly if needed, the young bull sniffed the air, he was out of range of the female lioness, but was about to walk straight past the male lion!  My heart was beating as the ground between the rhino and my vehicle grew less and less.  As soon as the bull got whiff of the male it was like a trigger went loose!  The rhino bull turned suddenly to face the lion a mere 20 metres to his left and our majestic male lion became petrified and skulked low into the grass.  The rhino bull gave one grunt and went full charge towards the lion!  The male lion took off like a cat caught eating the pet budgie; the rhino was galloping behind him with no signs of giving up the chase!

The black rhino chased the male lion right out of the grassy planes, over the road and off into the next field where the rhino diverted off up the road.  The male lion gave a few roars and moans, obviously feeling very foolish for being chased by a young rhino bull!  When the male lion returned to his grassy rest spot, his ego bruised and reputation dented; he felt as if he needed to re establish his manhood, so he went up to the female with determination and all he got was a paw to the face and a very unwelcoming growl!   Who did we say was the king of the jungle again??

Friday, February 7, 2014

Meet the cubs ...

Meeting your offspring for the first time can be quite an event – even if you are a lion, as our ranger Frances Hannah explains.

We found the three big brothers slumped lazily by the dam.  It was early morning and the air was still so I didn’t expect much from these lazy lumps of fur. But then one brother stood up suddenly and made a beeline for the river.  I followed at a distance thinking he’d prefer to lie in the soft sand of the dry river as opposed to the hard dam wall where his brothers had hogged all the shade.  Behind me the other two brothers had also become interested and were slowly bringing up the rear.  I reverses off the road slightly to make way and we saw their interest was in the sandy coloured female running down the sloping hill towards us!

She was charged with attitude and gave her first suitor a few paws around the head – there was a bit of a scuffle with snarls and flying tails!  Then a hot pursuit as the lioness trotted off up the road behind us with an eager male lion behind her.  The brother further up the road in front of us didn’t seem perturbed as he continued climbing up the slope.  A second lioness suddenly emerged from the long grass to meet the curious male.  She guided him half way down the slope in perfect view for our cruiser.  She urinated on a patch of grass in front of him and left him to be engrossed with her scent. But where had the lioness darted off to? Did she have a kill? Or something better!!??

The grass was long and I could just make out the lionesses figure as her honeyed colour melted into the background, but then my guests in the back began to get excited in a hushed yet determined whisper they gasped “here she comes, with some small ones!”

There they were: the 10 week old lion cubs that were the hottest property in the park!  The first cubs of our lions, and my very first sighting of them!

Mom gingerly nudged the brown speckled, blue eyed cubs closer towards ‘potential dad no1’. My heart was racing considering how the male would react, would he attack, defend, or destroy?  He was hovered over the females urine patch, still besotted with the smell, when suddenly he looked up and was met with a small bundle of fur that was seated at his paws staring into his large eyes.  The male looked startled and bent down towards the cub with a determined stance.  We all held our breath for this was the moment of truth.  The big male lion sniffed the cub’s head, then threw back his head and gave out amore of a grunt than a roar.  He turned on his back legs and fled the meeting as if dealing with a bad smell.  “Daddy” scampered away, seemingly intimidated by the new kids on the block!

Monday, October 14, 2013

Sometimes it’s the little thing that make all difference.  We’ve been having Bush Dinners every Wednesday and Saturday during October (book now, we still have some vacancies), but planning the occasion meant the girls had to have some serious input.

So we got a bush toilet!  It’s porcelain, it flushes, and guests can enjoy dinner drinks without having to worry about the consequence.

The bush dinners have proved extremely popular. The evening game drive ends in the bed of the uMsunduze River at a natural crossing.  We set out the tables with white linen for a 3-course meal, parking the game drive vehicles as a shield on one side and lighting a bonfire on the other.  With the clear skies of the past few weeks and light from the moon the lantern and candle-lit setting is quite beautiful.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Guests love lions.

They love to look at them, photograph them, and tell everyone how close they got to them.

Guests love lions.  Except possibly the guests from this weekend.  New to game reserves, the couple were happy to have ranger Frances take them reasonably close to a male who was relaxing.  However the male woke up and joined by his brothers came nearer to the game drive vehicle and settled down to call out to the females.

Rangers call it "vocalising".  The guests called it "shattering".  Nothing can really prepare you for the visceral experience of your first lion roar, especially one at close range.  The vehicle vibrates with the powerful resonance and your chest cavity quite simply shakes.

In ranger raptures, Frances turned round from the driver's seat to her guests to enthuse about the quality of the sighting, only to find one quite overcome by the experience.  It was enough, more than enough.

On the guests' request Frances avoided the lions for their remaining drives.

Of course other guests were disappointed they only got to see our boys sleeping, which lions do most of the time (18 to 20 hours a day!!).