Safari

Accounts on trips done, safari preparations, sand driving, mud driving, tips and travel-related issues.

Bad lions

Sometimes, because of the amount of work I had, we could not travel far during weekends and even when going to a place relatively near, our arrival would get delayed. Short safaris of this kind included lakes Naivasha, Nakuru and Bogoria, Amboseli and the Aberdares. We had visited the Aberdares National Park on day trips earlier but these had only given us a very superficial view of the park. This time we planned to spend one night camping and to explore the park a bit more. Unfortunately I had work to do and we could not leave before lunchtime.

Reading our Kenya guide [1] had prepared us for what we would face and I quote: “Steeper, starker and with denser rainforest, the Aberdares (save for the South and North Kinangop) were less settled and farmed than Mount Kenya. For this reason too, they sheltered Mau Mau strongholds, kept flora and fauna intact… and so warranted preclusion as a 228 square-mile National Park in 1950.” Hoping that all the Mau Mau had gone by the time we arrived, we got some charcoal and fresh plums from the roadside vendors near Limuru and went on.

We drove on tarmac towards lake Naivasha and turned eastwards just in front of the Longonot volcano. More from our guide: “Rainfall -80 inches p.a.- makes the steep tracks often impassable… if rain or mist waylays you en route, do not despair: the ‘black cotton’ may spin your car uncontrollably but is seldom deep. So rather than dodge the wheelruts… grit your teeth and stay in them, hard in second gear. They will keep you moving roughly frontwards and, even when waterlogged, should not bog you down.” I enjoyed the author’s sense of humour and thought on the power of our kombi’s engine!

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The Aberdares mountains from afar.

By the time we reached South Kinangop it began to rain and things started to get tricky. All the guide had said was true to the point that turning around would have been a risky manoeuvre! So, as usual, aware that our kombi had a good clearance, we decided to continue and skidded along for the remaining distance until, rather late, we managed to arrive at the gate. I think it was the Matubio gate but I am not sure. Despite our tardy arrival, the ranger let us entered. He probably saw the car’s mud and our look of desperation and thought that we could do with a altruistic welcome!

He mentioned that there was a campsite nearby that we could occupy so we paid and went on, following his directions, hoping to find the campsite soon. We were still driving in the dark after 20 minutes so we realized that we had missed the recommended campsite. Luckily, the rain had stopped but the way was still slippery and slow. We pushed on looking for a suitable spot where to pitch our small tent (at that time we had purchased a second hand mountain tent that although suitable for this occasion, it left us rather “exposed” to the potential night visitors!).

Eventually we found a flat moor and decided that it would do. I started to manoeuvre the kombi careful, avoiding getting into the mud as much as possible until I considered it to be on level ground. I was about to leave the car when I heard a loud “Stop!” coming from my wife. I looked up and, in the headlights of the car, there were about 8 adult lions watching us. They looked rather huge and very white considering the heavy rain we had experienced. As they were also dry, it was clear that they had come out from their rainproof shelter very recently. They started to walk towards us, not the usual behaviour from lions, we thought!

There were four adults and four almost full-grown individuals. The latter were the ones showing the greater interest on us! “We better move off”, my wife said firmly and, almost before she finished her sentence, I was reversing the car, hoping that we were not on soggy ground. We managed to put some distance from the lions and they stopped coming so I turned around and we departed. We drove a few more km until we considered that we were sufficiently far from the lions and then we held a short discussion regarding our camping options. It went something like this: do you want to sleep in a tent?” I said. “No” was my wife reply. Another short family discussion leading to an immediate agreement!

I removed the back seat of the kombi and put it outside while my wife was heating up some pre-prepared food we had brought as we normally did to make our camping lives easier. We dined sitting at the floor of the car and, when we were ready to sleep, we placed our mattresses on the floor. The place looked almost comfortable! While the rain started again we got into our sleeping bags and dozed off almost immediately. I briefly thought about being bogged down the following morning but I was too tired to care and convinced myself -easily- that that would be tomorrow’s problem, and I was gone.

The cold woke me up after midnight! It was a chill that was coming from my back so I started to assess the situation when realized that my wife was also awake. “Did you hear the lions?” she asked. “I would have done if my teeth would not shatter so much” I replied. Then they roared again so near that I was amazed with myself at not having heard them earlier! I felt well as we were better better sheltered than we would have been inside our small tent! But our metal cage was incredibly cold! Eventually, we managed to stick some carton and newspapers between the metal floor and our backs and this, plus putting on all suitable clothes made the trick and soon the roaring faded and I woke up well after dawn, unusually without the need of a night visit to the toilet!

The rain not only had stopped but the sun was shining. A good look at the surrounding grassland did not reveal any lions so we could perform our postponed bodily functions, re-assembled the car seat and have a much needed breakfast under the sun. We felt well and decided to look for the lions now that there was good lighting. We drove backwards and forwards for a while but failed to see anything. Disappointed we decided to explore the park further and enjoyed its beautiful vistas and amazing waterfalls and rivers.

Soon it was time to start our return and, as usual, wishing that we could remain longer, we started our return. We had driven a few km when, as usual, my wife spotted something walking in the same direction we were driving. The animal was about 100m in front of us. We checked it with the binoculars and it was a black cat, smaller than a leopard! We drove slowly on and got a good view before it veered into the bush and disappeared. Its size and shape gave it away as a black caracal, an unusual sight.

We knew that melanistic animals did occur in the Kenya highlands and we had seen black Augurd buzzards earlier during the day.

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A melanistic Augurd buzzard in the Aberdares.

We had also heard about black leopards that were sometimes spotted there but the caracal was special!

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The only snapshot possible of the Black serval just before it disappeared.

Our Kenya guide, however, added some light to the find: “Besides golden cat, bongo and Giant forest hog, the Aberdares’ rarities are Black leopard, Black serval and Black genet… Spotted lions remain unquestionably a legend”. The guide did not mention whether “huge white lions” were also mythical as we were sure that the ones we found the night before were unspotted and real!

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A normal serval cat at Nairobi National Park.

Our trip back was dominated by the conversation about the lions and the Black serval. We enjoyed the good weather and we got to our house in Tigoni in good time. Days later, consulting other wildlife enthusiasts, we learnt that a number of “problem lions” that killed livestock had been relocated to the Aberdares and that this had sparked quite a degree of controversy as it made walking in the park a dangerous activity now. To make matters worse, it was believed that these lions were less wary of people than their “wild” relatives and were not afraid of approaching humans!

We were of course unaware of this bit of rather important information at the time of our visit and lucky we saw them before they found us! During late visits we spotted the lions again and they did not look as white and huge as the first time.

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Later we saw the warning signs.

[1] Tomkinson, M. (1981). Kenya, a holiday guide. Ernest Benn Ltd, London. 144p.

The Kombi falls

I will be unfair if I would not say a few words about our VW Kombi. It seems that these days these vehicles still attract quite a lot of attention among car lovers. Although I never saw it in this light at the time we had it, they dominated the minibus market and most of the Kenya safari companies used them. Then VW came up with a new model that was not as good for rough roads as their back doors became undone and needed to be welded to keep them shut! Very soon afterwards the Japanese minibuses replaced them.

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A young-looking Bushsnob posing with the kombi after driving through a muddy Maasai Mara Game Reserve.

The Kombi had, like any vehicle, good and bad features. My first concern was safety, as I had never driven a car with the engine at the back and I felt rather vulnerable in case of an accident, particularly the way driving in Kenya was in those days! I also needed to fit seat belts, surprisingly absent in a UN vehicle! Its lack of 4WD was another rather serious drawback and I recall several instances of getting stuck in places that a 4WD would not even have skidded!

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My wife (red shirt) and our friend Aurora resting after pushing the kombi out of the sand at Naivasha. July 1982.

One particularly bad instance was at Amboseli National Park when, trying to approach the swamp to get a better view of an elephant, we ended up into soft black cotton soil. This kind of mud sticks to your wheels filling their threads so your tyres soon become smooth! Fed-up of fruitlessly attempting to get the car unstuck I placed our BBQ grid under one of the wheels to see if I could get some better grip. It was good and bad. We got out of the spot but the grid got somehow ejected with such force into the thicket surrounding the swamp that we never found it again and had to cook our chicken on a stick that night!

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Stuck again! This time on a rainy day at Tsavo West National Park. My wife -with the raincoat- and Paul lifting and digging to place the spare under the wheel to get some grip.

It also had the rare ability of losing traction and stopping while driving slowly over a gully or when crossing a culvert diagonally as its chassis somehow would get twisted leaving one wheel in the air spinning hopelessly! In order for the car to move again it needed the assistance of one passenger to stand on the back fender and sometimes to jump in order for the offending wheel to grip and the car to move. While this was not a great problem, imagine doing it on a ditch full of muddy water!

Snapping the clutch cable was another “Kombi special”. As you can imagine, this cable needed to transmit my left foot’s instructions for quite a distance before it reached its destination so it was a weak feature and one that left us stranded. Luckily only once. Eventually, apart from learning to fit a new cable and carrying a spare, I learnt to operate without the clutch thanks to Joseph, one of the Muguga herdsmen that taught me how to start it and drive it without a clutch! I would engage second gear and then start the engine. The car will shudder, shake and jump forward until it got going. After a while you could change gears upwards if you knew the right speed. Changing downwards was not easy so stalling at stop signs was unavoidable! Although not a long-term solution, it would get you back home or to the mechanic.

On the side of its virtues, it had great ground clearance, a reliable engine that never had a problem despite its mileage and, being two of us, it also had lots of space to carry supplies and materials for my work as well as to take all of our gear on safari (and that is a lot and increasing!). Removing the second seat we could sleep inside if the circumstances so demanded. Its sliding door made for great game watching; particularly driving around lakes (with the door facing the lakeshore, of course) enabled superb birding.

I drove the car intensely between Tigoni, Nairobi and Muguga during the week and all over Kenya during the weekends. That particular morning I had come to Ranjini´s house to bring her some vegetables that I got for her in the Limuru market, close to Tigoni. The clutch cable had snapped while entering her house but then there was worse to come…

Ranjini worked as a scientist with the then Overseas Development Administration (now the Department for International Development of the British Government attached to the Kenya Agriculture Research Institute (KARI) in Muguga where she also lived. We had met while sharing accommodation at Muguga House, KARI´s visitors hostel [1].

“Clutchless” I crawled into her garden and did a jerk-stop. Although I carried a spare cable and I woud have been able to fix it then, it was not a short exercise as its calibration took a while and I needed to get back home. Further, we had plans to travel far in a couple of days so it needed proper fixing. So, having given Ranjini her shopping I assured her that I would be fine and left her rather worried by means of another jerk-start departure.

With my mind focussed on keeping the car going I forgot to fasten my seatbelt, an essential precaution when driving in Kenya. I was going very slowly down Ranjini’ s driveway when I decided to buckle up. I had never noticed that particular pine tree but I am sure that it had been there for many years and not moved much so it was not the guilty party! Neither had I seen its protuberant roots reaching towards the driveway. I still did not that day, I only felt them!

Everybody know that buckling up in movement is not recommended. It requires a few seconds of focusing your mind on the belt as well as some handless driving. A lot can happen over those few seconds. I remember feeling the left wheel rising over the roots and, as I tried to break, the car shuddered, stalled and stopped. However, in a bewildering feat, it gradually started to tilt towards mi side. My surprise quickly turned to panic and then resignation: the car was falling on me in slow motion.

My immediate thought was to try to stop it by sticking my hands through the window but -luckily for me- events happened faster than my thoughts and a thump followed by a shower of spanners, driving licence, car book, nuts and bolts and all things that one carries in a car’s shelf fell on me! The Kombi was now securely resting on its right side and only the door separated me from the ground that I could touch as my window was down.

It was an upset Bushsnob that emerged through the passenger’s window! Once outside I could contemplate my sublimely stupid achievement and promised myself never to try the seat belt trick while driving again. To say that I was also embarrassed when I walked back to Ranjini’s house is an understatement. She had just sent me off and closed the front door and I there I was again! I am sure that she thought I had forgotten something. When I told her what had happened, her expression changed dramatically! “Are you all right?” she asked with genuine concern. I told her that I was fine and invited her to come and have a look at my masterpiece!

We walked to the beginning of the driveway and we had a clear vision of the Kombi peacefully resting on its side! She gasped and while she recovered, I asked her if Njuguna, her gardener, was around. She immediately called him. He came and joined the unbelieving crowd expressing his regrets.

“Njuguna, please give me a hand to put it up again” I said estimating that most of the weight should be on the underside and therefore not too difficult to bring the car back to its normal position. Looking somehow doubtful he came along. Although I did not look at Ranjini, I am sure that her expression had changed to amusement! I could not blame her.

The effort required to put the car upright again was easier than I thought and the car bounced on its wheels as it got upright again. Apart from a broken side mirror and a few small dents and scratches on the side, the car was in good condition and driveable. I thanked Njuguna, said farewell to Ranjini, buckled-up, jerk-started it and drove off, still upset at my stupidity.

It was only weeks after the event, after I had replaced the mirror and got the dents painted that I could see the funny side of this rather freakish accident that even today I find rather incredible. I regret not having a picture of the car and the faces of my rescuers when they saw it to show it to you. It was all memorable and -in retrospect- quite funny!

 

[1] See: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/03/10/kenya-muguga1/

 

 

 

Camping in Africa. Kenya (Spotted cat)

During one of the trips to the Transmara, while camping next to the Mara River, I had the surprise visit of the Manager of the Mara Buffalo Camp. As this had never happened before, I prepared to hear that I was not allowed to camp near the camp anymore so we stopped setting up our camp and went to meet him. I was wrong. He was a friendly Swiss that came to give me some good news.

He explained that at a rocky outcrop nearby there was a female leopard with two cubs that, unusually for East Africa in general and the Maasai Mara in particular, was very relaxed and let you watch her and her cubs without getting scared by human presence. He even offered to take us there at that precise moment if interested as he was taking a friend with him  for that purpose. We instantly forgot what we were doing, jumped on the car and followed him!

After driving towards the reserve, we arrived to a rocky gorge where there was a cave high in the rocks where, to our great surprise we found a small leopard cub resting at the entrance. He said that the mother may have been hunting or, perhaps, sleeping inside, together with the other absent cub. We could not believe our luck and after waiting for a while we thanked our Swiss benefactor profusely and left him in contemplation as we still needed to set up camp, cook and rest to continue with our journey the following day.

The leopard and her cubs became an added attraction to our frequent journeys to the Transmara and we found her again a few times during subsequent trips until one day she disappeared. For a few weeks we did not know what happened to her until, again by chance, found her again later, together with Jonathan Scott. The now well known photographer, film maker and book publisher was not that well known then as he was starting his rather successful stay at the Maasai Mara.

Jonathan was watching a female leopard with young cubs with all his equipment on the ready as the cubs played and the mother rested up a rocky outcrop. We learnt that it was the same female and after that encounter we saw her a few more times. The trick was to find  Jonathan’s green car  when driving through the general area where the leopard dwelled! It was clearly easier than looking for her!

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Relaxing…

I still recall one day when we found the leopard family in a very playful mood up and down a beautiful fig tree. It was such fun to watch them at play that I only stopped taking pictures the moment I ran out of film! I was really excited and very pleased with the pictures I had taken, although in those days you needed to wait until they were developed to see the results.

Before leaving, we approached Jonathan who we had met also at Kichwa Tembo Camp earlier and, feeling pleased with myself, I made a comment on how great what was taking place was and mentioned that I had taken lots of pictures as it was a fantastic opportunity. Jonathan listened to me and then gave me a reply that I have had in my mind since then: “I have not taken any pictures because the light is wrong”.

My heart sunk and I left crestfallen and in disbelief. When back in Nairobi the moment of truth of the pictures came I must confess that Jonathan had been right. Although some pictures were “rescuable”, the majority showed cat silhouettes against the sky! Later on, when I got Jonathan’s books I realized what he meant that day as the quality of his work is frankly superb!

As for us, despite our poor pictures, the memories remain and they at least serve the purpose to bring these back and to stimulate me to write posts such as this one!

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Surprised in the open.

Spot the beast 19

Back to Africa for a while while I develop another story from “Out of Africa”. Poor internet connection and farm work… are attempting against my productivity.

This is not a difficult “Spot the Beast” but I thought it is a nice situation to challenge your power of observation. I would be worried if you cannot find it within the first 10 seconds…

Here it is:

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I hope you agree with me that she was not only beautiful but well placed to see what was happening!

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A few more pictures of her:

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Super moms

This post has been adapted from the Spanish original that appeared in the magazine Muy Interesante. I am grateful to the magazine for publishing the article and those readers interested in it can find it @ http://www.muyinteresante.es/naturaleza/fotos/vida-y-curiosidades-de-los-guepardos

After writing “A chase”[1]. late last year, I did research on cheetahs and found some useful information that I used to prepare “Super moms” and later I realized that I had forgotten that I had written “A chase” earlier! So now, I think that the present post follows it nicely as it offers what I hope is interesting facts on the cheetah, one of the most beautiful animals on this earth.

The vast majority of cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) live in Southern and Eastern Africa and also in some parts of Iran.

MAP OF CHEETAH DISTRIBUTION

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Areas with high (red), medium (brown) and low (pale brown) population density. In pink is its original range. Map credit: Attribution: By Al Pereira puis traduit par Deliryc64 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

It is one of the great cats although it has unique characteristics that place it in its own genus describing that its claws are semi-retractile unlike other felids that can retract them totally. While the latter use their claws to climb trees and tear flesh, cheetahs’ have a grip function to favour their acceleration, similar to the sprinters’ shoes.

foto-1Young cheetah in the Nairobi National Park, Kenya.

Although its taxonomic location is being reviewed at the moment, its closest relatives are the puma (Puma concolor) and the jaguarundi (Puma yagouaroundi). These three species together form the Puma lineage, one of eight that make up the Felidae family.

Since its discovery in 1775 by von Schreber the population of cheetahs has declined dramatically to the present situation. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that there are 6,700 adult and young animals distributed in 29 sub-populations and it is classified as a vulnerable species.

The cheetah needs large tracts of land and is currently heavily threatened by the loss of habitat due to the advance of the agricultural and industrial frontier. In addition, unlike the leopard (Panthera pardus) that can adapt to live close to people, the cheetah, a timid animal, is unable to do so.

 

Its relative docility and tolerance to humans has contributed significantly to its decline. Apart from being hunted as trophies, since the time of ancient Egypt, four thousand years ago, they were captured and kept as pets. This custom is still maintained today as they are displayed as status symbols and used for hunting in several countries. The consequence of this is that these animals have disappeared from much of their habitat.

In addition, these animals are very vulnerable in the wild because of the way they obtain their food. Cheetahs use their great speed to hunt but to be effective they need open spaces and excellent visibility since a false step can mean an injury that may condemn them to hunger since they are too timid to steal prey from other animals.

Female hunting springboks in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.

The hunting of their prey, medium-sized gazelles, begins with their stalking until they reach a distance of between one and three hundred meters. From that moment a real “life race” between hunter and prey starts. After three leaps the cheetah is already about 45kph and during the chase it can reach over 110kph in short stretches. This makes it the fastest mammal on earth as we all learn at school but also one that enjoys an exquisite elegance of movement.

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Resting after hunting and strangling a Thomson gazelle in Amboseli National Park, Kenya. See the teeth marks on the gazelle’s neck.

When it reaches the prey it makes it makes it trips it and, after it falls down it chokes it and kills it quite fast. The cheetah, usually exhausted after the chase needs to catch its breath and it only starts feeding after a while that can be as short as five or as long as fifty minutes. At that time it is common for other larger predators to steal its prey. Knowing that this can occur at any time, the cheetah eats fast and much, starting with the muscular hindquarters and it is able to eat up to 10kg of meat from a sitting.

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Eating a Thomson’s Gazelle.

The “public” life of the cheetah not only exposes them to losing their prey because of the interference of irresponsible tourists that, eager to obtain a better picture, interfere with their hunt but they can also lose one to two quarries every ten to stronger predators and, in some places, losses can reach up to fifty percent.

Cheetahs breed throughout the year and females ovulate when they have sexual contact with the male. For this reason their pups may be from different fathers boosting genetic diversity, an important factor in shrinking animal populations.

They gestate for almost three months and between three and five cubs are born, although in rare cases up to eight offspring have been observed. It is easy to imagine that for an animal that relies on speed to eat, being pregnant adds another complication to its life.

Cheetahs, especially females with cubs need to hunt almost daily and they are constantly monitoring their surroundings from a vantage point that can be a termite hill, a tree[2] and even a car!

This behavior not only allows them to detect possible prey but also prevent attacks on their offspring by lions, leopards and hyenas that would not hesitate to kill them. Failure to hunt either due to natural shortages or human interference may also mean that the cubs would starve.

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Four cheetah cubs with prey. National Park of Nairobi, Kenya.

Fortunately for the species, there are females that manage to breed the vast majority of their cubs and these are known as “super mothers.” Some even raise the cubs of other females! These super moms are not only successful hunters who manage to kill prey on a daily basis but that also know how to protect their offspring from predators.

One of these females called “Eleanor” is well known in the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania for having raised 10% of all the cheetahs that today live in the South of that huge park. This finding is one of the important achievements of the Serengeti Cheetah Project, led by researcher Sarah Durant[3].

 

[1] See: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2017/02/02/a-chase/

[2] For a rather extreme example see: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2014/06/30/tree-cheetahs-2/

[3] For interesting information on the subject see: http://www.tanzaniacarnivores.org/

A chase

It was driving from the Kalahari Tented Camp on the Auob River bed that we found a cheetah and her four cubs resting under the shade of a tree a long way off, at the edge of the dunes. An impossible find except for a detail: my wife was with me this time and she spotted them! As we had not had a good sighting of cheetah for quite a while, we stayed with them waiting for some action.

We watched them as they moved from the dunes to the actual dry riverbed, the mother always watchful while the cubs were engaged in a never-ending game of chasing and grabbing each other, already graceful and enjoyable to watch.

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After a while, they got under a large tree and they decided to have a rest. Well the mother rested while the youngsters continued with their shenanigans. It was getting rather hot.

When we were considering a return to the coolness of our bungalow we saw, at about one hundred metres downriver a herd of about fifty springbok. They were slowly walking towards one of the waterholes located perhaps two hundred metres up river. We realized that they would need to walk in front of the cheetah so we abandoned our parting idea.

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By the time we looked back to the cats, the mother had already spotted the gazelle and she was already alert while the cubs were flat on the ground. Obviously, their playing had been suspended by mom’s orders!

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As the springbok got closer we saw the female cheetah crouch and her muscles tense so we knew that an attack was being prepared. The cubs were still invisible! “When is she going to go for them?” I thought while I readied the camera but, most importantly, my eyes to watch what was about to take place.

The springbok were still about fifty metres from the cheetah but, at that point, she started running towards the herd scattering gazelles in all directions. Although she did a beautiful sprint through open ground in front of us, she failed. After a while she walked back towards her waiting cubs that broke their cover to greet her, even when she was “empty-jawed”. I thought that the cheetah charged way too early but, who am I to judge a cheetah charge?

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After the dust settled, we saw that the cheetah had split the herd. The lucky ones could continue their disturbed journey towards the water. The unlucky that stayed on the other side stopped for a while and then, reluctantly turned around and slowly retraced their steps. They will need to wait until the cheetah moved off to resume their quest.

The five cheetahs returned to the shade and they were still there when we finally left them after a few fine hours of fine wildlife watching. The following morning, while driving to our next camp, we saw them again, not far off, their black and slender silhouettes against the early morning sky.

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Spot the beast 17

As easy as it is beautiful. This “beast” was seen cruising on the grass looking for prey.

DSCN8015 copy.jpgFrankly, I thought it would be easier to spot!

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However, here it is the creature for you, a harmless Spotted bush snake (Philothamnus semivariegatus) seen at Hippo Pools Wilderness camp by the Mazowe river in the Umfurudzi Park of Zimbabwe.

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These snakes are harmless and very beautiful!

The wait

Entering the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (KTP) we were given instructions on how to manage the place. Technically, we should drive at a maximum speed of 50 kph and deflate our tyres to 1.5 BAR to better navigate the severe corrugations. We were also advised to wait for the animals at the waterholes rather than drive long distances over this very dry park.

In fact, despite my initial doubt, was useful because of the way the park is. On the South African side, the KTP has two basic roads: one follows the Auob[1] dry river and the other one the Nossob[2] dry river in a North to South fashion.[3] The rivers and the roads that accompany them meet at Twee Rivieren where the main camp of the park is located.

The dry riverbeds were not the expected sand rivers we see elsewhere but rather wide grassy valleys beyond which is the -inaccessible- Kalahari. Water for the animals is provided by waterholes that were sunk by the (Union of) South Africa to provide their troops with water in case South Africa wanted to use the area to invade South West Africa (Namibia). The waterholes are at roughly ten km intervals and most animals congregate around them.

Wherever you stay, you tend to drive a lot over the same stretches of roads to go and come back to camp every day so the recommendation of “sitting and waiting” at waterholes made sense. In some you have a constant parade of herbivores such as gemsbok, wildebeest and springbok as well as large number of birds such as various pigeons, sand grouse, sociable weavers and quelea. Jackals were the main predators we saw.

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At other waterholes we waited long spells for something to happen to no avail. After a while of looking at an empty place I got bored and I could not help thinking that surely the animals were at the next hole! After waiting a bit longer, this line of thought became a conviction and my unrest grew to such a point that my wife needed to coerce me to stay using her strongest argument: “I am not cooking tonight”.

After our stay in Nossob camp, on our way to Twee Rivieren, we stopped at yet another empty waterhole. As we had seen nothing in the previous two we had visited, we were looking carefully at the surrounding area as well as to the actual water hole. I was the first to see it and, surprised, said “look, a hyena coming”.

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My “hyena”…

My wife looked and, as usual but rather excitedly, she corrected me “it is a leopard” almost at the same time that I realized my error.

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dscn0009-copydscn0004-copydscn9998-copyA leopard it was! A large male, that walked passed us and, arriving at the water it crouched to drink to placate its thirst. After a few minutes it walked off, marking a few key spots as it went slowly up the bushy riverbank. We followed it and saw it on and off as it walked up the dunes until we did not see it anymore.

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The leopard withdrawal followed closely by gemsbok.

At that precise time a car arrived to join us. When they asked what we were watching and we told them that a male leopard had just moved off from the water three minutes ago, they were stunned and I did not blame them and I did not dare to show them our pictures either!

The leopard fleeting visit not only helped us to consider the KTP a great place but also further justified the waiting strategy at the waterholes. It also stressed the fact that a few minutes can make a huge difference and there is no amount of planning and organizing that can replace your good luck!

 

[1] Meaning bitter water.

[2] Meaning dark clay.

[3] The Auob last flowed in 1974 and the Nossob in 1964.

Easy pickings

Last September, after a few early morning drives at the Kalahari Transfrontier Park, we took it easy for a couple of days, visiting the waterholes late in the mornings and afternoons. The day before our departure from our last camp, Twee Rivieren, I suggested to go for an early drive but my wife preferred to continue relaxing so I went on my own. It was a bad idea as, somehow, the whole camp shared this thought and the only road out of the camp was a dust cloud, despite the 50kph speed limit.

Aware that the morning had not started as I dreamt, I drove slowly until I found a waterhole to stay and wait for the travelers to quiet down as it usually happens. I stopped after about 20km at the Rooiputs waterhole. I was alone there and, as expected, soon the traffic died down and I could enjoy some dustless tranquility.

Apart from a few gemsbok staying a couple of hundred metres from the water and a lone jackal that was clearly mice-hunting in the dunes at the back, the waterhole had been completely taken over by birds. I spotted a good number of Namaqua sandgrouse on the ground and decided to take a few pictures of them.

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The trees around the water were laden with small birds, mainly red-billed queleas, sociable weavers and red headed finches among others.

There were also a great number of laughing doves and ring-necked doves. The latter were in such numbers that it was like a curtain of moving birds that often obscured the water source as they flew in and out.

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Hundreds of doves were “queuing” on the nearby trees to get to the water. Most of the time the available water was literally covered with birds and every now and then an explosion of birds flying in all directions followed a perceived threat. Often these were false alarms and the scared birds returned to drink immediately.

It was following one of these bird explosions that I saw a tawny eagle in the midst of the doves. When I spotted the eagle it had already caught a dove and it soon landed to eat it. “This is incredibly easy”, I thought and decided to stay there and wait for more action. When it finished eating it flew away but I was sure that it would come for more. It did.

Unexpectedly, the eagle did not return at great speed, just flew above the doves, lost altitude and then it entered the “dove cloud” and, almost effortlessly, grabbed another dove with its talons and landed to pluck it and eat it!

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It all happened too fast for me and I only managed to take pictures of the raptor feeding about twenty metres from me. After eating, the eagle flew away again and landed on top of a nearby tree followed by a large retinue of small birds busy mobbing it.

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I continued watching the birds’ drinking dynamics when, after about ten minutes, the eagle (or another one?) repeated the operation and, again, caught another dove! After its third dove, the eagle flew to the same tree and then I saw a second eagle. Further inspection revealed that the clever eagles were nesting about fifty metres away, taking advantage of the easy pickings that the waterhole offered them!

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As they only need to fly a few hundred metres a day to get a full crop and feed their fledglings, I started wondering -like with the Scottish pigeons of my earlier post-about eagle obesity!

Luckily, my fears were dispelled as the next time one came for another pigeon it looked really mean and I did not detect any accumulation of fat round its waist!

 

Another draught victim?

Staying at Satara Rest Camp, following the advice of our Kruger National Park guidebook, we opted to drive along the Timbavati River hoping that there still was some water left and the animals were drinking there. We also had the white lions in mind! We drove to the picnic site but it was almost totally dry so we decided to carry on along the river.

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We did not!

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Driving along the Timvabati River.

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The carapace of a Leopard tortoise highlights the dryness of the Kruger.

Eventually we found some large pools that still had water and, as expected, several animal species were congregated there. We spent some time observing their interaction until it was time to return to our camp.

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On the way back we spotted a dead elephant. Although the sight was pitiful, we were already “death-conditioned” after witnessing several dead and dying hippos earlier on along the Lower Sabie River[1]. The animal was laying in an odd position that seemed to indicate a sudden collapse.

We could see that the elephant had some small tusks and, planning on reporting the find to the KNP authorities, we took the GPS coordinates. We looked at it through our binoculars and could not observe any breathing movement. Before we moved on, we noted that there were a couple of other elephants nearby and, aware that elephants have a special attitude when confronted with a dead mate, we decided to stay and observe their reaction.

We were somehow surprised when they just walked passed it without even looking at it! Sooner, our surprise became shock when, suddenly, the dead elephant moved an ear and resuscitated. Eventually, it stood up, stretched and started to feed totally unconcerned.

It was a case of “death by deep siesta”, something we had earlier observed with humans after a heavy lunch in tropical South America.

 

[1] https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2016/10/03/hippo-drama/