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  • Writer's pictureGabby Sykora

Magical Shingwedzi - The S56

‘Let’s go down the Mphongolo Loop (better known to most, as the S56 – near Shingwedzi) again, I feel lucky!’ I said. Luca agreed, and off we went, but tackling it from the opposite direction. As we drove North toward Babalala on the H1-7, we came across a herd of buffalo close to the road. Upon our approach, one said buffalo came onto the road with intent. It was as if he were an officer demanding to see our license before we were allowed to continue. We pulled up next to him, and dad casually took out his license and showed him. He appeared satisfied. He progressed to make eye contact with each member in the vehicle and then as if, satisfied once more, casually moved to the side and allowed us to slink past. If ever there was a perfect anthropomorphism moment, it was then.

Buffalo on H1-7

Continuing along the main road, we stop suddenly when Luca shouts “Wait, stop! Please go back” Is it another lifer? I really hope so!! At this point, I was on 18 lifers for the trip and was hoping to make it a solid 20. Not a lifer, but nonetheless we managed to find 7 Verreaux's Eagle Owls in one day, most of them on the S56!

Verreaux's Eagle Owl on the S56

Entering the S56 from the northern entrance, meant the sun was still beating down from the West, but with the clouds building, the stifling heat had abated for the day. Dad pulled into Babalala picnic area and said to Luca, “Right, your turn to drive for a bit.” A quick shuffle about to get everyone back in and armed with their cameras and binoc’s and we were off. Dad occasionally testing Luca’s skills, meant it was quite slow going but it paid off as just as we rounded the bend, not far from the Sirheni junction, we came across a pride of Lion.

Some of the younger pride members were very interested in the herd of buffalo that was fast approaching from the left. A few anxious moments passed, we could hear the herd of buffalo and see the lions but it was as if the wind changed in that second as all of a sudden, the buffalo became quiet (clearly having moved off) and the lions lost interest. Back to resting with the adults, who had clearly thought it was a waste of time from the start and hadn’t moved, the young ones had failed their mission (or perhaps more a dream).

Lions on the S56

We continued to meander along, taking all the little loops, stopping to take in the beauty of numerous elephants digging in the dry beds in the hope of finding water. As we approached yet another bend, we all heard monkeys alarm calling from the trees just ahead. Luca stopped off to the right of the road, affording us a view of the riverbed below, however, that was completely unnecessary as, as if he was popping out to us to say Hi, a young male leopard appeared from the bushes, right next to the car, panic ensued in the vehicle as he was now passing us and Luca needed to pull forward to be able to reverse as there was a huge tree in our way.

A learner driver with 2 over excited ladies in the vehicle must have been ever so daunting. Luca managed and we reversed back slowly, allowing for the leopard to remain completely relaxed, going about his business. He dropped down the bank slightly and we thought we may have had the best of him but without warning he came back up and settled on an anthill tucked under the shade of a shrub. What a moment!! This magnificent male staring into the lens of my camera as if saying, take your shots, I’m all yours.

"Lippie" the young male leopard on the S56

As with most sightings in the larger reserves, there is always that ONE, who no matter how hard you try to avoid, will find your sighting and spoil it for you. On this occasion it was the over excited Colt Bakkie driver who could not get a clear enough view and progressed to literally drive in to the said bush where the leopard was lying. Leopard fleeing, we reflected on the time we did have with him – alone, and continued back to camp feeling exceptionally privileged to have had such a lucky encounter. It’ll be one driving lesson that Luca will never forget either...


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