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Planning a Quality East African Safari

Monday, 9 May 2011 06:39 by BillGiven

Photo of Hyenas on a night drive
Photo of Hyenas during a night drive on the Big Cat Safari
©Bill Given

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In my early safari days, Kenya and the Masai Mara was not appealing as I'd heard stories and seen photos of huge numbers of vehicles at a sighting, to the point where it prevented the behavior of the animals. I subsequently have learned the ways to take advantage of the unrivaled animal concentrations of Tanzania and Kenya but yet avoid crowds and have stellar wilderness for surrounds.

My Big Cat group trip was a huge measuring stick to see how well I have mastered these principles as four members of the group had a whopping 60 or so safaris between them but of that mighty number only one person had done a safari in East Africa and that was just a single visit many years ago. Like me, these folks are aficionados of enjoying their wildlife in pristine wilderness and unencumbered by other vehicles and thus confined their annual visits to Botswana, Zambia and Namibia. In the end all confessed to being overwhelmed by the classic East Africa safari that we did, surprised by the quality of the guiding as well as the staggering numbers of animals and the immense landscapes that we often had all to ourselves.

East Africa Safari Philosophy

Photo of leopard cub in a tree
Photo of a leopard cub in a tree on the Big Cat Safari
©Bill Given

One core philosophy I have for East Africa is you don't have to do the circuit. The Serengeti and the Masai Mara have unrivaled quantities of game and thus that's the region I like to concentrate on. Most itineraries run from park to park, following the crowds and then have only 2 or 3 nights in the prime areas.

For the deep wildlife enthusiast, especially photographers, it can make sense to concentrate in the best wildlife area. Thus for our trip we flew right to the Serengeti. Instead of splitting time between a number of parks, I divided our time between three prime locations in Tanzania's portion of the Serengeti ecosystem. With the game drives between those locations we covered the majority of prime territory for the season. Then we flew to the Mara region which is really just the northern extent of the same Serengeti system but was a very different and complementary environment to the parts of the Serengeti we experienced. The safari was 10 nights in total (half stayed on for a 11th) but every single day was within a prime wildlife area.

Mobile Camps

Utilizing a mobile camp is a terrific way to have large swaths of the Serengeti to yourself. It requires a party of 4 to make the costs approximate the excellent seasonal camps but what could be better than having your own classic safari camp for just your party that moves locations with you and allows you access to campsites that are far away from anyone else.

We had a mobile in two different locations and they served different purposes. The first was in the heart of the Serengeti, the enchanting Moru Kopjes, where there was some vehicle traffic around but because they all had to sleep somewhere away from our area we would have it all to ourselves early and late in the day - the prime hours.

Our second camp was out on the Eastern plains and from the time we exited the Naabi Hill Gate we would not see another vehicle for close to 2 days, providing us with an amazing exclusivity with only the company of thousands of animals and a local Massai boma, home to the elder in charge of our spectacularly private campsite at Nasera Rock.

Avoiding Crowds in the Masai Mara

Photo of Cheetah Siblings Taken During the Big Cat Safari
Photo of Cheetah Siblings Taken During the Big Cat Safari
©Bill Given

In the Masai Mara Reserve the crowding can be downright scary and definitely not the quality that I like to deliver on safaris. However, in recent years the creation of low density tourism conservancies adjacent to the Mara Reserve has provided the ideal opportunity for those who value the quality of having exclusive wildlife viewing.

Utilizing these areas it is absolutely possible to experience the splendor of the Mara quantities of animals and its exquisite landscapes but have your game viewing largely to yourself, all the while supporting an outstanding conservation initiative.

Mara Plains Camp, Offbeat Mara Camp

The Olare Orok Conservancy has been particularly productive for me with Mara Plains Camp. The neighboring Mara North Conservancy is excellent and I particularly like Offbeat Mara Camp as it has the ideal position within that Conservancy and is one of the best value safari camps anywhere in Africa. Now an additional conservancy, Naboisho is going to offer a similarly high quality experience. Within the conservancies you can off road and night drive making it a very similar quality experience to what is found in Southern Africa.

We Were Able to Avoid Situations Like These...

I stayed on for extra nights at Mara Plains and as we had to enter the Mara Reserve to drop guests at the airstrip we went for a quick look for one of the Big Cat Diary (TV series) leopards named Olive and her six month old cub who are normally nearby. Sure enough we found them instantly, with a paparazzi like horde of vehicles lined up to view them. Vehicles constantly arrived and departed but the total number fluctuated between 25 and 30. We felt like we could not even breathe as the wind rocked a tree back and forth with this little cub holding on for life and not confident to descend to his mother as the carloads of humans gawked at him. After a brief visit off we went and tried to forget what would have been a highlight sighting in many other locations but would be a lowlight for this safari.

Flip forward half a day to my final game drive at Mara Plains. We come across a pride of six lions feasting on a zebra. We share the sighting only with hyenas and jackals that look to run off with a piece of the meal whenever they can get away with it. It is the pinnacle safari experience, seeing magnificent species displaying their natural behaviors and interacting with one another as if we do not exist. This trip was a resounding demonstration that such glorious safari quality can be achieved in East Africa's popular areas, it just has to be planned with care.

Photos from just the Mara Plains portion of the safari are here.

Top 5 Places to Find Leopards on Safari

Wednesday, 19 November 2008 11:35 by BillGiven

Lounging Leopard on safari - Leopard are plentiful but somtimes hard to find

Leopards are in high demand for safari-goers but are sometimes difficult to find.

Leopards are a common species, thought to number in the hundreds of thousands (rough estimate of 350,000 in sub-Saharan Africa) and yet they are usually one of the most difficult to find safari sightings.  While lions and cheetah are often conspicuous the leopard is stealth, the master of cover.

Good safari planning can help greatly increase your odds to finding these stunning cats.  Consider the following factors:

• Include areas of habituation.  In established safari areas animals become accustomed to game drive vehicles and eventually remain relaxed around them.  In some areas leopards remain shy and flee quickly, in other areas they will lay around and even hunt in close proximity to a vehicle.
• Night drives.  Leopards are generally nocturnal and thus having night drive opportunities increases the chance to find them as well as to observe more activity as opposed to just lounging in a tree.
• Off road driving.  Leopards usually spend their daytime up in mature trees or on the ground in thick cover.  If your drives are limited to roads you may not be able to investigate promising areas or you will often spot them in trees from far away but not be able to approach for a better view.
• Tracking.  Due to their stealth nature and habit to conceal in cover, active tracking is the best way to find that a leopard is in the area and worth investing time to try and locate.  This must be used in tandem with off road driving so when a track is spotted that the trail of spoor (tracks) can be followed wherever it goes by your tracker and guide.  Sometimes monkeys or baboons may make warning calls that alert to the presence of a leopard as well.  Having a guide/tracker team that can actively pursue clues is important.    
• Dry season advantage.  Leopards may be spotted anytime of year but when the leaves are off the trees and the grass had died back it can be much easier to spot a leopard that might have been concealed at a different time of year.

Leopard Tracking at Deception Valley Lodge

Deception Valley Lodge has bushmen trackers of phenomenal skill.  Here the team of !Xhase and Adriaan following the trail of a leopard.  The result, !Xhase tracked until we found a beautiful young leopard stalking a warthog.

Leopard Hunting while next to a vehicle

Some habituated leopards are comfortable hunting in the presence of the vehicle. 

5 Great Places to Find Leopards

1.  Sabi Sand Game Reserve, South Africa.  It is unusual that one place can ever be considered beyond doubt the best safari location for any factor, but when it comes to leopards the Sabi Sand is without a doubt the most reliable location for quality viewing.  Here the densities of individual leopards are incredible and they have been heavily habituated for many generations over the last thirty years.  Virtually any lodge in the Sabi Sand (see my Planning Guide to the Sabi Sand) can have very good leopard viewing.  The absolute ideal area is Londolozi, which had the first camps in the area that habituated leopards.  Londolozi is best because there is an incredible concentration of leopards as well as highly skilled trackers.  In 2006 Londolozi guides recorded a staggering 128 individual leopards.  Currently they see 18 different habituated individuals on a regular basis.  The Londolozi staff includes 4 trackers who have earned the credential of Master Tracker, considering there are only 16 Master Trackers in all of South Africa that is exceptional.  From a practical tourism perspective another strength of Londolozi is they have five different camps to choose from offering a wide range of styles and pricing at Varty Camp, Pioneer Camp, Founders Camp, Tree Camp, and Granite Suites.  

2. South Luangwa National Park, Zambia.  The key here is night drives.  The vast riverine habitat is ideal leading to a high density of leopards.  They may be found in the day but once its dark and the cats get active the spotlights find them frequently making this park one of the best areas for sighting leopards.

3.  Talek River Area, Masai Mara Reserve, Kenya.  Relaxed leopards are a frequent sighting inside of the Mara along the Talek River in proximity to Mara Intrepids, Mara Explorer, and Rekero Tented Camp as well as a few others.  That would be the knock on this area, it can be heavily trafficked with many vehicles swarming to a good leopard sighting but there is no denying the oft found heavily habituated leopards, some of whom are regulars on BBC’s Big Cat Diary.

Leopard Lounging in a tree

The quintessential sighting for many safari goers is the leopard lounging in the tree.

4. Northern Botswana.  Within the Okavango Delta and Kwando-Linyanti Region there is lots of good leopard habitat and locally where leopards become habituated sightings can be excellent.  Moremi Game Reserve would probably be the local hotspot with the private Mombo Camp having gained particular fame for excellent leopard sightings, including the stars of ‘Eye of the Leopard’ filmed by Dereck and Beverly Joubert.  Within private concessions off road driving, night driving and the exclusivity of no vehicle crowding makes Botswana the ideal place for viewing once a leopard is located.

5. Seronera, Serengeti National Park, Tanzania.  Seronera merits mention because leopards are spotted almost daily here but it is a crowded part of the park and vehicles are restricted to the road.  I sat with over 20 vehicles double parked along the road based on just the rumor of a leopard in the grass that apparently was never really there.  Even in the less crowded Ndutu area a leopard in a tree drew 12 vehicles.  Thus, while this area is good for having sightings they tend to be of a lower quality than the other areas mentioned.

Special Mention – Deception Valley Lodge, Kalahari Desert, Botswana

This would be a surprising location for leopards to some but leopards are extremely versatile and can make a good living in areas of the Kalahari that have sufficient cover.  On Deception Valley Lodge’s private concession area there is thought to be eight leopards.  This area lacks big trees so leopards are mostly confined to the ground but there is thick scrub cover that leopards conceal into.  The excitement here is the tracking element as bushmen trackers, the ultimate masters of this ancient art find and follow spoor often leading to very relaxed leopards on ground level.  The dry season due to lack of leaves of the shrubs is much better for observing leopards at this location.