Hennie van Heerden's Wildlife Diary

May 31, 2014

The Battle of the Cuckoos

Filed under: 2014,May — Hennie van Heerden @ 8:19 am
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(I thought it was about time to update the wildlife diary again :-))

I was out very early in the morning a couple of days ago. Already within the first five minutes it turned out to become a good day for photography as the Roe Deer posed perfectly, and Spotted and Pied Flycatchers and a beautiful Bullfinch showed themselves.

For a couple of days already I heard a Cuckoo calling around the house and because of that it wasn’t hard to spot. He was flying up and down between the neighbour’s and our place. Unfortunately it always perched high up a tree but nonetheless I kept on shooting take-offs and landings.
I still had theImageImage calling bird in focus, waiting for yet another take-off, when all of a sudden a second Cuckoo appeared out of nowhere, practically bomb-diving my poor little friend. A fight developed, with the two birds tumbling through the air. Everything happened só fast, the only thing I could do is keep my finger on that shutter and blast away. Within 5 or 6 seconds it was all over leaving me with pounding heart and trembling hands. (apparently the Cuckoo also had a good scare because he didn’t call anymore for another hour or so, only to get back at it with new enthusiasm afterwards 🙂

I couldn’t wait to get back at the house to see if any of them would be sharp and low and behold; they were!! Of course they needed to be cropped but still I’m more then thrilled to have witnessed, ànd captured this unique event!!

Have a lovely weekend everyone!

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April 7, 2012

Marakissa River Camp – The Gambia

A light fog still touches the water of the Marakissa River and the orangepink promise of yet another sunny day is glowing behind the palm trees when we step into our canoe that morning. When we push off from the bank a Pied Kingfisher plunges into the water right next to us in search for breakfast and we nearly jump out of our skin when a Purple Heron crashes out of its hiding with a loud shriek and decides to head for (even) quieter grounds.

With only the occasional splash of the paddle audible we float on the smooth surface of the river while nature awakes around us. An elegant Great White Egret steps with almost royal dignity through the shallow water near the bank and  bright green Ring-necked Parakeets shoot through the air. We hold our breath but keep our cameras ready when a Blue-breasted Kingfisher some 5 m next to the canoe, peers intently into the water; will it take a dive? But no, decisively he turns his splendid bright-blue back to us. A little further Little Bee-eaters greet each other enthusiastically and a Grey Kestrel checks out a hole in a dead Palm tree to see if it makes for a suitable nest. An enchanting sound high in the sky turns our attention to a huge flock of Whistling Ducks flying over in perfect v-formation.

Our cameras rattle constantly; we aren’t making much progress as we stop every 5 minutes when another feathered color-palette makes an appearance in front of our lenses. The faint Allāhu akbar from a distant mosque intensifies the magic of the silence even more. When around 9 the sun gains in strength we turn the canoe around and try our best to paddle straight back as not to keep Adama Hermse, owner of Marakissa River Camp, waiting with breakfast too long. Not that we are doing a great job in doing so as the temptation to take one more picture of those beautifully posing Long-tailed Glossy Starlings or the chattering Bearded Barbets is simply irresistible. But finally, somewhat embarrassed for being way too late, we reach the little jetty of Marakissa River Camp.

Our concern is unnecessary because Adama is waiting bright and cheerful for us, clapping her hands and chanting “Welcome back, welcome back!”, followed by her charismatic laugh. The smell of freshly cooked omelet reaches our noses and suddenly we feel how hungry we are after that gorgeous canoe-trip. Which is good because Adama’s meal portions are legendary. The Dutch background of her husband Joop is evident in the many varieties of jams, ‘hagelslag’ (typically Dutch granulated chocolate) and the delicious home-made peanut butter.

After breakfast we relax in the shadow of the thatched terrace in the garden and have a look at our photographical catch of the day. However, we don’t get much chance to do so as Joop and Adama have turned their garden into a true bird’s paradise.  Especially in this dry season when the water in the river has turned brackish, birds come to quench their thirst and wash their feathers from salt in the many small ponds and drinking spots scattered all over the garden. Brightly colored guests fly off and on; bright red Firefinches, icy-blue Cordon Blue Waxbills, startling yellow Weaver birds. We don’t dare to even breathe when a splendid Violet Turacu shows himself and a Blue-Bellied Roller flies in to take a bath. Completely breathtaking are the petite but outrageously pretty Beautiful Sunbirds that drink the nectar from the flowers’ calyxes.

By 4 o’clock we step into the canoe again. We are in luck because Joop has offered to accompany us. He knows the creeks of Marakissa as no other and even offers to do the paddling so we can concentrate entirely on photographing. As close as 20m from the jetty a surprise is waiting for us; an (in our eyes) huge Nile Crocodile is taking a sun bath on the bank of the river. Carefully Joop steers the canoe towards the impressive animal, meanwhile marveling about the fact that this is a first for him too, in all of his 20 years in Gambia! Usually you only get a glimps of this reptile, if you are lucky, and needless to say that swimming in the Marakissa River is not recommended. When “Schnappy”, as we lovingly call this beauty, gives off a warning sign by menacingly opening his impressive jaws, we quickly obey and remove ourselves  to a more respectfull distance. Message understood!

When it really becomes too dark to photograph we return to camp, where candles and little parafine lamps are meanwhile lit to offer us a warm welcome. Joop starts up the generator for us to charge our camera batteries and to load our valuable booty onto our computers. Enthusiastically Joop and Adama peer over our shoulders while we do so. Immediately after that has been done, the generator is switched off and the camp once again lies in serene silence. While crickets, frogs, owls and other night-birds take care of the background concert we eat the usual fantastic meal Adama has prepared for us by candle light. An hour later in our also by candles illuminated little roundhouse, just before our eyelids lose the battle against gravity, we hear how an African Scops Owl takes in his position on the roof beams of our hut…

March 14, 2012

Close.. But not close enough!

A few days ago I left early in the morning but there wasn’t much going on to photograph. When I was about to give up I passed a meadow where 3 hares where playing.. ehm, well it is spring! .. around. I stopped the car and got out for a low level shot. Right at that time they decided that it was time for a rest.. Tsss..

After a while one of them walked off towards a ditch where it disappeared in the reeds. Moments later I heard a big splash! I looked up just in time to see the hare crawl out on the other side, dripping wet. Guess the ditch was just a little too wide. But I figured that when one would try and jump the ditch, more could follow! So I quickly moved to the ditch and just waited.

It took about half an hour (I had forgotten my coat and 7 degrees in just a sweater nearly made me abandon the whole plan) but sure enough another hare approached the ditch and disappeared in the reeds. When it came out on the water side it hid behind some reed stems so it was impossible to get focus.. Aagh! Until it took 3 leaps towards me to find the shortest way to the other side and jumped!!!

And like his mate, also this time, the ditch turned out to be just a little bit too wide. Hilarious!

I put the whole series together in a sort of sequence. Hope you’ll like it as much as I did.

February 13, 2012

A Day at the Dunes

The “Amsterdamse Waterleiding Duinen”, in short AWD certainly belongs to my favorite Dutch areas for photography. Not only because of the abundant foxes and fallow deer, although I must admit they are the most spectacular inhabitants of this nature reserve, but also because of the magnificent landscapes and the many birds. The AWD has got it all; dunes, forests, water in the form of numerous canals, (AWD provides drinking water for the city of Amsterdam) vast heather and grass fields.

When I entered the reserve last week a thick fog rose from the many canals. The Swans, ducks and geese where hardly visible, but what an atmosphere. Beautiful! Soon the fog blanket evaporated and the area bathed in golden morning light. Can’t help myself but everytime I’m there, I feel happy. The area is so beautiful there is a surprise around every corner, however small sometimes.

It was still very cold, around -10 to -12 C and the AWD was covered in snow. After an hour or so we decided to sit down alongside one of the canals and get some of the tea we brought with us. But as always, when you sit still, nature finds you! The tea was soon forgotten when we discovered dozens of snipes, fouraging on the banks so what other choice did we have than go down in the snow and shoot our heart out! 🙂 Actually, we were so busy crawling up to the Snipes that we hadn’t noticed another visitor who was checking us out from behind a couple of reed stems.. Fox!! And we weren’t at all close to the area where the foxes are known to be approachable. The snow covered bank of the canal made for a perfect setting for this beauty and while the teacup was melting a hole in the snow down we went again on our stomachs. Funny how you don’t feel the cold at such moments at all!

She didn’t stay long but allowed us quite a few shots before she went. When afterwards we turned around to save the meanwhile stonecold tea, we were in for another surprise. Apparently her young was checking on mom what she was up to and meanwhile ‘guarded’ our gear that was, in the haste, scattered all around. Wow.. two foxes in our first hour in the dunes!!

The young fox was quite skittish and didn’t come close which was actually good so I could use the 500mm, a lens I prefer because of the nice blurry backgrounds. Also this one didn’t stay very long but I think I got some wonderful shots, especially with the snowy banks as background.

When the adrenaline of the fox encounters had worn off a bit we got on our way again. Like I said, around every corner there are little surprises. Woodcocks flying off when you practically stand on them (never time enough to capture them!), a Bittern and Whooper Swans flying over, Mergansers, Tufted Ducks, and Kingfishers on the canals.

After another hour we again sat down for the next attempt to get some tea down and yes, you guessed it; another fox paid us a visit 🙂 When some other photographers discovered us, soon she went on her way again but not without our memory cards still buffering!!

Later that day we saw two more foxes but in our hearts we knew that we never would get the setting there like we had had earlier. Sure we shot but the winning photographs of the day were the three earlier foxes! What a glorious day!!

When we slowly made our way back, it’s always quite a hike, we encounter yet one other female fox, an older one. I remember I saw here only once before last year. She completed the score of 6 foxes in one day! Can you imagine that the first couple of times I went to the AWD I couldn’t find even one, despite the 20-odd km I walked, cris-crossing the reserve.

We walked back along the canals with fallow deer as company. A Swan couple swam towards us, like two proud flagships, silently floating by. Can you imagine that I left the reserve with a big smile on my face?!

September 11, 2011

Surprise Party

Yesterday afternoon I was working when I all of a sudden heard a bird calling outside. It sounded all too familiar: Kingfisher! Although we have visiting Kingfishers every now and again it still is a rare guests as we live in a forest area and there are not that many nesting possibilities around. Two years ago, we’ve had a Kingfisher emptying our pond for a week, but since then it still is an exception when I hear or see one.

But this time she had landed on a branch over the pond and started scanning the water for fish. As there are a lot of fish in the pond I knew that it would mean that she was probably going to stay around for a while. The next 10 minutes were frantic. The moment she flew off for a moment I sprinted to the shed, got out my hide, threw it on the terrace that is next to the pond, got a little chair, my tripod, camera. Sprinted off to the neares patch of forest where I knew Hans had been busy cutting off branches. Dragged a huge one to the pond and just hung it just over the water surface. Took a dive in the hide, zipped it up and exhaled again 🙂

It only took a few minutes and there was the familiar sound again. To my great thrill it flew straight at the new branch, right in front of my camera. It took her only a minute before she took a dive into the pond and fished out her first little fish. It was a shame that it was cloudy and already quite late, so the possible shutterspeeds weren’t fast enough to capture her smashing the fish on the branch, but still got some really nice shots.

She kept on fishing and in the first hour she caught herself 5 fish before she landed on a tiny little branch just above the water and started to clean her feathers. By that time I thought I heared the call again but dismissed it as imagination as I didn’t see her call. When I looked back at the pictures I took later on, the surprise was complete when it turned out there were two different ones! Talk about a surprise party!! Both juvenile females. I really hope they’ll return but I haven’t seen them again ever since.

July 4, 2011

On safari in Holland

Last week at the National Park ‘De Veluwezoom’ was fantastic. You know, I’ve heard so often that to see ‘real’ wildlife, you have to go to Africa, or Antarctica, or the Galapagos. But close to home, often you can see so much wildlife that it’s dazzling. But maybe we don’t find it exotic enough. For me, seeing a Roe Deer or a Wild Boar is just as exciting as seeing an Impala or a Warthog. Especially when you’ve waited days to get a clean shot of one of them it’s equally rewarding as being on safari in Africa. Well, at least, almost as rewarding.. 🙂

The last couple of days have been awesome. I love, really love, being out there at the crack of dawn, nobody else, no joggers, no moutain bikers and especially no ‘tour-de-france-wannabees’ yet. (I could fill an entire blog page with my experiences with that group!). Totally quiet. The fun is approaching the animals without disturbing them. I’m getting quite good at that. My poor car is not enjoying rolling down a hill, motor off, heading with a speed of 5 miles/hour, but it works!! But to see the sun creep up the hills, setting the flowering heather ablaze with golden light is fantastic.

The Roe Deer don’t get disturbed but just continue fouraging, the Wild Boar let their young frolick around without heading off, the Doe shows her Fawn without totally panicking. I’ve seen Fox on several occasions but wasn’t able to get a clean shot. But I will, I’m sure.

Yesterday, the Roe Deer Foe who, by now, doesn’t seem to get alarmed by my presence anymore, let me approach her, by now only one, fawn pretty close. Imagine that up until this year I’ve only seen a fawn once, although I’ve been surrounded by Roe Deer all my life! All of a sudden I seem to know how to look, and where to look. Where I used to drive on after seeing a Deer Foe on her own, I now stop the car and wait patiently. Because a Doe on her own in June is likely to have hidden her Fawns somewhere. I can’t help it, but each time I see the head go up when she starts to call with soft high pitched sounds, I secretely smile. Patience gets rewarded every time!

There were two absolute highlights last week. First on monday, to see the Honey Buzzard. It’s a very rare bird of prey in Holland and there aren’t that many photographers that have a shot in their collection. I’ve seen one a couple of times before but had never been able to capture it right.
But this day was different. Although I had woken up an hour too late I still went but indeed all of the wildlife already seemed to have gone in hiding. Until I turned the corner, entering a road that’s overlooking a vast heather field. The light was harsh and shone directly in my face when I saw a shape sitting on a portruding branch. Hawk! I thought by the looks of the grey head and the bright yellow eyes. Exciting as I don’t have a good shot of those birds yet. Yes, dozens of in-flight shots when it’s flying over the meadow behind our house to it’s nest in the corner of the forest, but no ground shots. So I switched off the engine and let the car creep forward, rolling silently down the hill. Just when I was about in ‘shooting’-range, it flew off. Even before I could get a clear shot. Disappointed I sat back, until a shadow fell over the heather; it returned!! Be it one little branch further away. I started shooting although it was quite far away. Much to my surprise, it flew up only to land on top of a shrub closer by!! The harsh light I dreaded worked in my advantage as it shone beautifully through the stretched out wings from behind. When it finally took off altogether, I sat back, and ‘chimped’ through the images on my display and I suddenly realized I was looking, not at a Hawk, but at a beautiful male Honey Buzzard! So I waited around to see if it would be coming back but no such luck. Tried several times during the next days, but I’ve never seen it again (yet). Guess oversleeping made it my lucky day as chances are that I normally would have been out of the park already by that time.

Another highlight occured yesterday, which was my birthday. When I drove my usual circle I saw mom Wild Boar high up the hill. I’ve seen her there before (see upper photo) and I know she has little piglets. But the heather there is really high and usually all you get to see of the little piggies are the tops of their backs, shooting through the heather. But still, you never know, so I stopped and just waited. It took the good part of an hour but the little piglets came closer and closer!! When they were about halfway I suddenly remembered that my camera has a film mode, so I started taping some of the frolicks of the babies. I’m not good at filming but have a look at the video at the bottom of this blog entry. I think it gives a good idea of what I felt, watching those little piglets. Wait for the little white one to come racing through the frame! 🙂

While mom was still foraging, the babies came closer and closer until they were right next to the car! What a wonderful sight!! They started digging for food like tiny little shovels and it was realy too cute to watch them! Hard to imagine that one day these cute little babies will have grown into huge impressive Wild Boars 🙂

I don’t think I could have gotten a better birthday present as spending an hour or so with these little cuties!!

     
 
 

 

June 25, 2011

“Gladiators” in final judging rounds “Wildlife photographer of the Year” 2011!

I’m biting my nails here!!

Just last may I received an email saying that “Gladiators”, the picture of the fighting Dung Beetles I shot last december in South Africa, was through to the final judging rounds for the world’s most prestigious Wildlife photo contest: the election of Veolia Environnement “Wildlife Photographer of the Year” Competition!

Final judging rounds should be in June, so just about now I guess.
Must admit that I’m really excited! And no matter if it wins a prize or not, I feel that being through to the final rounds is a recognition in itself already!

Please keep your fingers crossed for me!!

June 7, 2011

A dream of a day…

Filed under: 2011,June — Hennie van Heerden @ 3:11 pm
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Last sunday I got up at 4.30 and went to the Veluwezoom, a National Park here in the Eastern Part of Holland. By many people this park is considered the baby sister of ‘De Hoge Veluwe’, a much larger neighboring National Park. But although de Hoge Veluwe is unequalled in Red Deer rutting season – the sightings there are awesome – in all other seasons I prefer de Veluwezoom. It’s got beautiful landscapes and it harbors a lot of animals and birds.

So this morning I was at the Park at 5 in the morning. The sky was dark and threatening and you could see a thunderstorm building up. My expectations were not very high when I arrived but still, after 5 minutes I saw Wild Boar in the dark forest, foraging for food. Not a bad start at all, but impossible to capture as it was way too dark, certainly this deep in the forest. But.. I tried anyway and raised ISO to an incredible 3200 which gave me just enough shutterspeed to capture the little piggies. And with that, all has been said as even in my display I could see that it wasn’t much.

But.. on I went and after just some 500m I spotted another Wild Boar, but this time underneath the bushes, next to an open field. I just parked the car in the middle of the road (there wasn’t anyone else crazy enough to visit the park in this weather anyway :-)) and waited. And out she came, but she wasn’t alone!! To my great excitement she had little piglets with her!! So never mind the high iso…. Shoot!!!! They ran up on the open field and I just knew it would be next to impossible to capture the movement in this kind of light. But one (just one) came out alright. Besides the shot, I was really thrilled to see the little family.

Only 500m further I stopped to see if there would be birds around as this was an area where I had seen lots of Yellowhammers and Linnets before. Nope, no such luck but something else drew my attention. A huge Wild Boar was standing in the bushes just alongside from where I had stopped. So sure, I tried to photograph her. Until I saw movement just next to her and a baby Boar showed (for a second) its cute little head. What a surprise!! So far it had been incredible despite the gathering clouds above my head. The storm was building and you could feel the electric tension in the air. Maybe that’s why all the animals were out, foraging while they still could..

My spirits rose as did my expectations. Often, when a day starts right, it will remain right! So off I went with good hopes. A little further down the road a little bird welcomed the day with a song and I stopped to capture it. From the corner of my eye I all of a sudded saw the bushes alongside the road move.. I looked, and out came the cutest little baby fox I had ever seen!! Which isn’t difficult as I’ve never seen one before in my entire life! I thought my heart would stop just there and then. Quickly pointed the camera and started shooting as if my life depended on it. But the baby wasn’t going to pose as after just a second it got up and walked straight towards me. Way too close for the lens…. Frustration!!!!! Well anyway, I got it and no matter the noise in the shot, I’m ever soooo happy with it! As with the experience of finally seeing my first baby fox!

After I sent several text messages (YAAAAYYYYYY, I got a baby fox) the beebs waking up hubby and some shooting buddies (sorry guys! just couldn’t resist!) I went on, my heart still pounding.. It was only a mile further down the road when I spotted a Roe Deer foe, up to her knees in heather and kind of nervously looking around. I again stopped the car and waited.  When I saw why she was so nervous my heart did another summersalt…. A Baby Deer was jumping high over the heather to get to her. It was just a second later that I realized that there were in fact 2 fawns!! God, what a day…
The little ones had spotted me and ran to mamma; all legs and no brains. Mom stood perfectly still and waited for the little fawns to reach her before she led them out into the field. But she was nervously trotting around while the fawns panicked and jumped all over the place. I figured they wanted to cross the road to reach the safer forest, so no matter how dearly I wanted the shots, I moved the car to make way. When I looked back I saw the three of them running off into the forest.. Couldn’t help it but I actually had tears in my eyes…

I continued my drive but my head was brimming.. When a trio of Red Deer came in sight, I just couldn’t believe my luck anymore….

For the past 2 days I’ve been up at 4.30 again to see if I could get a shot of all of this young life again, but nothing. Absolutely nothing. A Deer here and there, but nothing exciting. But I’ll keep on trying!!

December 2, 2010

Buffalo Bash

 Soon after we left in the morning we ran into a group of Baboons. Usually, in Mala Mala, these animals are pretty skittish as they are being chased away from the camps to avoid that they become ‘too friendly’. So when they see rangers or ranger’s vehicles, they associate it with a lot of noise and danger.
But today they had other things on their mind. When we found the troup, this female seemed to have seen something hilarious.  When a big male decided to ‘join in the fun’ she was still smiling 🙂

As we went on we had a big surprise coming….
We found a leopard; a female one and on top of that a new one: The Dudley Female. But she was not alone!! I was absolutely thrilled to find also her son in her company. The encounter was brief as they soon went off into the thickets, but still it was a lovely sighting. Played around with Black and White and I must say, although I’m really a color loving  person, that I’m kind of pleased with the result.

We stumbled upon lions, elephants and huge flocks of Wattled Starlings. They are so pretty in their breeding plumage! But the absolute highlight of the day happened in the afternoon. Dean steered the vehicle to the river bank and just stopped there. There wasn’t much to see, but we could hear a rumble in the air. A cloud of dust was quickly approaching just over the hill from where we stood. Soon a few buffalos came in sight. They went straight for the river to drink. Behind them more buffalos followed, and more… and more. Soon an endless stream of black bodies gulfed over the hill towards the water. We found ourselves surrounded by hundreds of animals all heading straight towards us. What a sight!! They were in the company of dozens of Red-Billed Oxpeckers. What an amazing sight!! The mass of moving bodies was endless.

 They drank,  played and bathed in the water and stayed there for the good part of an hour. Until one of them stood up and went back over the hill again. Soon a couple of others followed. And more and more. Within minutes the whole herd was moving up that hill again, all following the leader. 10 minutes later, the field was empty again as if nothing had ever happened there. What an amazing sight!!

December 1, 2010

Band of Brothers

After 3 weeks of travelling alone today was the day that Hans would arrive!!!! I could hardly wait for the plane to arrive. Of course it had been fantastic so far but especially on safari it’s so nice to share all of the wonderful sightings with each other. He would be arriving in the early afternoon, so of course I went out on game drive first in the morning. But I had to be back in Main Camp fairly early as I still had to pack everything as I would move to Rattray’s Camp to spend another 2 weeks there together with Hans. And in my case, it’s not so much the luggage that takes a lot of time to pack; It’s more fitting all the photographical gear back into it’s carry-on case 🙂

The day started brilliantly by finding the Matshipiri Female leopard high up in a tree. She is the mother of Pretty Boy or “The Italian” as I call him. So far we saw him a couple of times, but she had been invisible up till now. What a glorious sighting to start a day with!!
All kinds of Eagles were pretty active too and the Lilac Breasted Roller sure made a nice graphic picture on his branch.

I just couldn’t waint until it was time for Hans to arrive so I was ready on the deck way too soon. The transfer to Rattray’s went smoothly as was the ‘handing over’ to ranger Dean whom we got to know last year.  And it was a very big thrill to meet all my friends again. Alan the Barman, galant as ever, was waiting for me with the nicely chilled Chardonnay I like so much…. How’s that for a welcome!
A little before 2 we went to the airstrip and like clockwork the plane came in….
The man sure knows how to make an entrance.. 🙂

Of course we went on gamedrive that afternoon! And what a treat we had! I’ve mentioned before that Cheetah are a rare species in Mala Mala. The beautiful cats are more at home in the vast plains of the Serengeti than in the more densely populated South African parks and there had been years that I hadn’t seen one at all during my visits. We had been looking for them on the northern boundary for days already but other than a glimpse of only one, we hadn’t been lucky.

Until today…
When we arrived at the boundary there were 2 vehicles standing in the middle of the plain there….. And then we saw them.
The four brothers were together, watching a tiny newborn Wildebeest baby some 500 meters further on. They never lost sight of it while they crept closer and closer. Step by step, with endless patience. We came in on the right of them but the light of the setting sun was not in our favour. Dean quickly turned the wheel and got us to the left of them. Perfect Light!! And on top of that, the brothers chose that moment to line up absolutely perfect!!!! I’ve never in my life seen a more beautiful sighting of Cheetah than this. I didn’t know what to shoot first of last and ended up by just letting the camera rattle 🙂 I am SO happy with these shots!! The magnificent cats got up, crept closer to the Wildebeest baby and went down again. Surely a sighting I’ll never forget!

We stayed with them until it was completely dark, but not without getting treated to a most beautiful sunset. What a fantastic day!!



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