buffalo

Grabbed at Chitake

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General views of the Chitake springs

We returned to the Chitake springs in the Zambezi valley exactly three years since our first visit [1]. This time we went alone, my wife and I and, luckily again, we managed to secure the very sought after Campsite 1 (we booked it one year ahead of time!).

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Aware of the “fun nights” that you spend in this amazing place, we prepared ourselves for any eventuality taking our “heavy duty” tent and planned to park our car near one of its entrances as our emergency exit, following the advice of our son, a bit worried about the “oldies” being alone in the wilderness!

The Chitake river with its springs is one of the wildest areas left in Southern Africa. There are only two campsites open to the public (although we learnt that a third campsite can be booked at Nyamepi in Mana Pools). There is also a campsite for tour operators near Chitake 1. This arrangement ensures that you are unlikely to see many people around! In addition, most of the exploring is done on foot so no much driving needed either.

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The fact that water seeps from the ground on a daily basis supports a population of game animals that dwell nearby. There are numerous buffalo, zebra, greater kudu and impala that in turn feed predators such as painted dogs, hyenas, leopards and lions. In addition there is a substantial elephant presence that files daily along the dry riverbed towards the water source.

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Buffalo at Chitake.

Campsite 1 is about two metres from the usually dry river bed and to be there waiting for “events” is an unforgettable experience that not all are prepared to take. We have camped all our lives and taken precautions in Kenya and other “open” camping places.

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The access to the river from Chitake 1.

We did not feel endangered and we knew that the only possible cause of problems would be the lions that were present in the area and we know that they respect tents. Our main concern was about the time you spend at camp in the dark as the camp is surrounded by thick bush. In particular nocturnal physiological needs were a worry as we needed to reach our long drop a few metres away!

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Our possible nocturnal target…

We arrived in the afternoon and spent some time to locate our camp in a spot as safe as we thought possible within the camping area.

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Considering the camping options.

As we had food already prepared, we were in for an early night. We set up our camera trap to “see” what was lurking in the dark around us and went to sleep. The night passed off rather calmly at camp although we heard the elephants walking nearby on the way to the water and the hyenas calling early during the night. We were probably tired and sleep came easily.

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The camp. The car was kept near the tent exit.

We were up early the following morning and all appeared well. We checked the camera trap and confirmed that there was life around our camp.

After that we decided to have breakfast prior to a short game drive as there are not many roads around the area. Then we noted that our 5-litre water container had disappeared! It was one of these supermarket transparent bottles that we had as a back-up in addition to the 40lts we had brought as Chitake does not offer any.

Although we searched the surrounding area, we failed to find the bottle! We could only speculate on the possible culprits. We discarded human interference, as thieves would steal more valuable stuff from the camp. We rejected the baboons as they do not move at night. That left us with the hyenas as the possible culprits. We heard them and saw their footprints at camp. In addition, we had had encounters with them earlier in Kenya and they can get very cheeky! We decided that the latter were likely to be the culprits but the enigma remains.

Our short morning drive took us to a bunch of vultures feeding on the remains of an impala that had clearly been killed earlier that morning. About twenty White-backed were scuffling for the few remaining meaty bits while a couple of Lappet-faced waited for their time to tackle sinews, tendons and the like.

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The rest of the day remained peaceful, contemplating the various animals coming down to drink at the springs from our camp chairs located at the riverbed that -luckily had good shade. While there we were assaulted by tabanids and tsetse flies so we needed to use large amounts of repellent and still we got hammered!

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My wife contemplating the springs from the shady riverbed.

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Tsetse and other biting flies collected from the floor of the car.

Hundreds of impala came to drink in the morning and they were joined by small groups of greater kudu and zebra. When we saw a large dust cloud rising behind the gorge where the springs are, we knew that the buffalo had arrived and they were soon at the springs satiating their thirst. Quite a sight!

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A herd of impala in the distance (the shadow at the back that looks like a predator is in fact a baboon)

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After the dust settle we could see the buffalo drinking.

As usual the day went fast and it was soon time to prepare for the evening. We were encouraged by the relative quietness of the earlier night and hoped to sleep well.

We were mistaken…

There were some early indications of trouble when, as soon as it was dark, several hyenas started to call from different places along the river. When we heard them laughing we knew that they had become excited for some reason, probably a kill although we were in no condition to discover the cause!

From the tent we started hearing elephant movement. We spotted several family groups walking rather nervously and trumpeting frequently showing that they were also nervous. As it was getting late we retired to our tent. I went to sleep soon afterwards as I have a reputation to live up to!

The next thing I remember was that something grabbed my ankle and it was shaking and pulling me! For the few hundredths of a second (or less, I do not know) that it takes to move from being sleep to some kind of alertness I thought I was a goner and that the dreaded time of being taken by a wild beast had finally come. My wife’s voice brought me back to reality: “There is a leopard there!” I muttered “Where?” thinking that it was inside the tent and taking me! I then realized that she was responsible for holding my foot on her third attempt at waking me up!

The picture soon became clear. With one hand she was keeping the torch light on the leopard through the tent window while, with her free hand, she had been shaking me for a while to alert me about the leopard sighting!

I must admit that it took me a while to recover from the severe fright and once I made sure that all my organs were functioning as expected -including my eyes- I looked where I supposed to and stared at the disappearing leopard’s eyes on the riverbed, a few metres away.

My rude awakening took place after 3 am and we were still awake listening to the sounds of the wild after an hour. I then learnt that my wife had not slept much as the leopard(s) had been calling every once in a while and she had been trying to locate them on the riverbed (from the tent of course!). In addition there were some noisy little mice digging under the tent that she tried to fend off by hitting them through the canvas as well as hearing the monotonous calls of the Fiery-necked Nightjar (Caprimulgus pectoralis) in the distance. This bird is capable of up to 110 repetitions of its call believed to say “Good Lord, deliver us” before stopping![2].

The following morning, as expected, we were not up early. After a leisurely branch we did spend time examining the abundant spoor at the riverbed but we did not detect any signs of a kill. We confirmed that the leopard(s), as my wife mentioned, had walked up and downstream. We also found plenty of hyena and painted dog spoor as well as lots of new signs of elephant over their “highway” to and from the springs.

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Checking for activity and spoor at the dry river bed after the long night!

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Elephant footprints next to the Bushsnob’s Croc.

 

The camera trap pictures showed hyenas as well as several elephants walking during the night.

Later on, while exploring the area by car, we found a group of five hyenas resting under a shade. The same as us they were suffering from sleep deprivation as they were clearly some of the culprits of the noisy night resting!

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We spent the rest of the day exploring the river bed on foot and luckily, it appeared that all animals -including us- were drained from the previous night as the last night we spent at Chitake was peaceful and my wife recovered her lost sleep while I did my usual trick of instantly dozing off.

 

[1] See https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/09/23/chitake/

[2] Roberts VII Multimedia Birds of Southern Africa. iPhone and iPad Edition. Version 2.4. Southern African Birding.

 

 

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Nairobi National Park (1981-8)

In the eighties, when we [1] lived in Kenya, many people regarded the Nairobi National Park (NNP) as a large zoo next to Nairobi. I must admit that for a while I belonged to this group. I did not think that to see the Jomo Kenyatta Conference Centre (the tallest building then) from the park was a nice sight.

After a couple of years, again Paul, luckily convinced me of its value and I realized what a great privilege it was to have such a large area of wilderness a few minutes drive from our houses! So, following his advice, we bought a one-year pass to the park. The pass was stuck on our Land Rover windscreen and it enabled the car (and its occupants) to visit the NPP as many times as we wished!

It soon became one of our favourite places to visit! We also brought lots of people [2] there. Often we would collect our guests from the airport and drive through the park (in through the East Gate and out through the Main Gate). During the drive across the East African plains guests had a chance of encountering a number of interesting animals only hours after arrival.

Except for elephants, the park would offer all other animals that you wished to see in Africa. As far as I recall, although we saw a Serval cat we never spotted a single leopard there over the many years we stayed in Kenya. However, there was much compensation, as you will see.

As mentioned earlier in this blog [3] it was the first “field visit” I did with my late former boss Matt. In addition to visiting it with Paul, we also went there very often with Luis, another good safari companion from Argentina with a passion for bird photography. With him we also shared a few rather late (some very late!) departures from the park after having overstayed watching some interesting event! I must add that the rangers were very kind to us and finally accepted our obvious excuses such as an engine malfunction or a puncture! We never slept inside the park!

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My first kill as seen it in the NNP when I first went there with my former boss, the late Matt.

Normally, the best predator-prey interactions start taking place when you are told to leave the place so, overstaying was the only way that we were capable of watching lion hunting while the light faded and eventually night fell. Although it often got too late to watch the complete act, we were lucky to see some interesting things. Excuses related to engine malfunction and punctures worked for a few times. However, as the rangers started to know us, they tolerated our tardiness!

Luckily, there were also interesting happenings during daytime. It was at NNP that we had our first encounters with black rhinos that were not hard to find once we learnt where their favourite browsing spots were.

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The now rare black rhino as seen in Amboseli National Park.

Late mornings were also interesting as the resident cheetahs would be looking for their favourite prey, the Thomson’s Gazelles. With patience, we were privileged to observe them hunting at speed in front of our eyes!

There is nothing like visiting a place frequently to get a good idea of where the potential for action was.

Hippo Pools was not only attractive due to the resident hippo and the sightings of the rare African Finfoot (Podica senegalensis) but also because you could leave your vehicle and walk along the river, although this exposed you to some close encounters with naughty Vervet Monkeys and Baboons. Although now it seems funny, I still vividly recall my first visit when stupidly (to be mild with myself) I was carrying some bananas as snacks and, after no more than two steps a rather large baboon surprised me and easily took all the bananas before I could even feel scared of the surprise assault by my primate cousin.

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Often we enjoyed a few picnics at the main viewpoint followed by short siestas overlooking the Leopard cliffs or the Athi River towards the South of the park. As it was hot, often the windows or sliding door of the kombi would be open. This was the usual procedure until I stopped. It happened one day that my wife was not reading in the front of the car as usual but she was watching the leopard cliffs some distance away from the car.

That day I did not wake up normally but something interfered with my slumber. On guard, I stayed quiet but I could hear noises inside the car and smell something strong! Immediately I realized that a few baboons surrounded me! The moment I moved and shouted at them, mayhem followed! They all tried to get out through the open window at the same time with the consequence that I witnessed a short baboon exit jam! Eventually, after a lot of jumping, screaming and scratching they escaped but not before leaving behind the consequences of their fright… and some of my money went into a good car wash!

In two instances we saw lions hunting warthogs. The first one was as soon as we entered the park through the East Gate. A lioness was clearly hunting on the road and as she started scurrying we saw a warthog running for its life a few metres ahead. We stopped to watch as the lioness was closing in on the fast running hog. The moment the lioness was about to grab it she tripped and fell heavily on her back while a very scared warthog disappeared in the tall grass! As events unfolded too fast for me, I only managed a bad picture of the lioness after she sat on her haunches to see the warthog run away!

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A bad picture of the lioness looking at the warthog after her fall.

The second time the warthog was not lucky and, from the main viewpoint, we watched a lioness stalk its prey near the small dam. She caught it and killed it fast and then she left it so we managed to get quite close and -through the binoculars and camera zooms- see the teeth holes she made on the animal’s neck. Before the hyenas could find the warthog she returned with her two young cubs.

Another, more personal, encounter with a lioness took place under very different circumstances. At the time we lived in Tigoni, about 35km away from Nairobi and, as my wife worked in the city, everyday after work I came from Muguga to collect her to go back to Tigoni. The day in question there was an important donor reception at Duduville, the International Centre for Insect Physiology and Ecology HQ located in Kasarani. It was clearly too far to go back home to change our clothes, get back for the function and home again at night so I hatched a clever plan: after picking up my wife we would drive to the NNP to kill time and change into our formal clothes there.

As planned, we entered the park in late afternoon and we stopped in a discreet area to proceed with our clothes change. While my wife was dressing up in the car, I got out to change my trousers! In the process I moved a short distance from the car with such bad luck that I walked straight towards a lioness that was resting -possibly sleeping-  under the cover of a bush!

We shared the shock of the encounter. Seeing me attempting to fit in my trousers, the lioness took off and it was out of sight in a flash while I, holding my trousers as well as I could, managed to get into the kombi. “What are you doing?” said my wife that, focussing on her make up by means of the rear view mirror, had missed my critical encounter. “Lion” was all I could gasp while trying to recover from the scare. This was the first and last attempt at changing clothes in the NNP.

Among the herbivores, the giraffes were unique as they browsed on the various acacia species present and a number of hourglass trees confirmed their presence.

However, it was the buffalo that were very interesting. I believe that there was one herd of buffalo and the first time we found it we noted that they not only were very tolerant of vehicles but also very curious. Their curiosity reminded me of our steers back in Uruguay. We soon learnt that if we stopped the car and waited they would come very close to inspect our car. Although they never touched it they did smell it and spend quite some time very close to us.

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This was repeated every time we saw them and it enabled me to observe them at close quarters. During the dry season they carried very heavy tick infestations of the Zebra ticks (Rhipicephalus pulchellus) and the poor creatures used the whistling thorn bushes in an effort to dislodge them.

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A close-up to show you the ticks on the margin of the years and eyes of this female buffalo. No wonder they were rubbing against thorn bushes!

So, naturally, whenever we saw the buffalo we did our “buffalo trick” and waited for them to surround us without thinking much. So little we thought about it that when two lady friends from Uruguay came to visit for their first time in Africa, we took them to the NNP after the airport and that time -luckily- we found the buffalo. As a couple of hundred of these rather large and fierce-looking animals started to approach us, nervousness increased and comments started to flow. “What are they doing?”; “Julio, they keep coming”; “This is not dangerous?” and others until they openly showed their alarm and started charging me with “attempted murder”! To their relief, after a short while, I started the engine and the herd moved calmly away while we left them, taking with us two very agitated friends! Many years later they still remembered the experience as one of the most exciting they have ever had in their lives!

Several birds nested in the park and migratory storks and kestrels would visit on their way to their final destinations. Apart from Crowned cranes and Ostriches at least a pair of Secretary Birds, my favourite bird of prey, nested at the NNP. These birds -nowadays quite rare- had built a basic twig platform on a rather low bush. Their location enabled us to see their fledglings being fed and to follow their progress until they were eventually able to join their parents criss-crossing the savannah areas of the park in search for snakes and other prey.

Two rather unlikely finds have remained in my mind up to today. The first one was the sighting of a large carcass on a small hill. Nothing unusual about finding animal remains in a National Park you may rightly think. I would agree with you fully except that the dead animal did not match any of the park wild inhabitants! The remaining hide was uniformly brown with some long hairs. Luckily, despite its decay, the examination of the remaining bones revealed that it was a horse!

At first I tried to convince myself that it was impossible but the find could only be an adult horse! Only later I realized that I had veterinary colleagues that kept riding or polo horses in residential areas bordering the park and, the same way that lions often got out of the park and caused problems for the residents there, I am convinced that a horse somehow entered the park and it was killed.

The second encounter was mentioned in my earlier blog [4]. We came to an area the size of a tennis court looked as if it had been ploughed. Curious we continued driving and scared a couple of lionesses. As things were getting interesting we continued and almost bumped into two massive dead male buffalo. The first thought was that they were killed by lightening but it was the wrong season for this! Again, looking more carefully they were facing each other and, although already decomposed, the position of their horns indicated that they were locked!

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We then not only understood the earth scars but started to speculate on the cause of death. The most likely scenario was that they got exhausted from fighting and succumbed to stress combined to lack of water and then the lions found them and took advantage of the situation to fill their bellies! We will never be sure of what happened but it had all the signs of a mighty struggle.

So, these are the few anecdotes I recall from our amazing time we spent at this great place.

 

[1] Every time I reminisce (when we …) about our African past I remember that once I heard that people like us belonged to the “whenwe” tribe. Looking for this now, I learnt that the name was given to the more nostalgic members of the 1980’s arrivals from the then Rhodesia to South Africa. See: https://newint.org/features/1986/01/05/briefly

[2] Apart from friends I did this trick with donors visiting our projects.  I still believe that this “introduction” to the country improved our funding!

[3] Kenya: The Beginnings (https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/03/08/bush-flying/).

[4] Locking of horns (https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2014/10/08/locking-of-horns/).

 

 

 

 

 

Dagga Boy*

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We came across this lone male Buffalo (Syncerus caffer) who seemed to be about to light a large cigar!

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It was in fact working its way through a sausage, the fruit of the aptly named Sausage tree (Kigelia africana). This tree provides game with food during the dry season at Mana Pools National Park.

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The sausages.

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Almost done!

Our first encounter with buffalo while camping at Nyamepi Camp site was worrying: four large male buffalo were between the toilets and us! We held our needs in check for as long as we could but the buffalo would not budge so we braved the trip! We need not have worried as they ignored us completely as we walked past. They were totally focused on devouring the flowers of the Sausage tree that they also relish.

 

* I tried to be clever here! A “Dagga Boy” is an old Buffalo bull that have been kicked out of the herd and spends all day wallowing in mud. “Dagga” means mud in Zulu. In addition, “Dagga” also means Cannabis, hence the play with words.

The unseen painted dog

We arrived at Mana Pools National Park (Mana Pools) at about 15:00 hours after a six hour drive from Harare. Just before the turn off to get into the final stretch of rough dirt road, we stopped at the edge of the escarpment to take in the hazy view of the Zambezi valley below, always a beautiful sight, and one that is full of anticipated adventure. The view was even hazier than usual, as this is the season of bush fires that add a blue tint to the horizon.

The view of the Zambezi valley from the main road.

The view of the Zambezi valley from the main road.

The stop to contemplate the view had to be brief as we still had about two hours of driving to get to the park. As soon as we started the escarpment’s steep descent we came across a queue of lorries parked on both sides of the road. The normal sightings involve slow moving lorries either struggling uphill or burning brakes downhill, so this kind of mass convergence was not normal. We drove through the narrow “lorry tunnel” very slowly, passing around 60 lorries before we came to the reason for the queue. An unfortunate driver had lost control of his truck while going downhill and crashed at full speed against a rocky bend. The accident was recent as the rescue of the occupants’ was taking place as we passed by. This was a stark reminder of the dangers associated with driving.

The turn off into the rough road leading to Mana Pools came as a relief after witnessing such a mishap. We drove on and, after 80 km of dirt road; we arrived at Mana Pools, a UNESCO World Heritage site of similar standing to the Great Barrier Reef, the Tower of London or Yellowstone National Park. The recent book “Mana Pools” by Gregg Robinson presents excellent pictures and describes the park in great detail. What more can I say not being a poet but rather a humble veterinarian!

The road to Mana Pools.

The road to Mana Pools.

Mana Pools is a place of unique natural beauty. The Zambezi River, with its hilly background, forms its northern border and the area to the South is a flat wooded expanse where earlier river meanderings have left a number of separate pools that give the park its name. This is where game abounds and, because of the nature of their habitat they can be spotted at a distance, similar to the East African parks.

The Mana woodlands in the afternoon.

The Mana Pools woodlands in the afternoon.

In addition to its magnificent and ancient trees and its abundant wildlife, Mana Pools is -I believe- the only national park in Africa where you can leave your car and walk on your own despite there being dangerous animals at large. We know of two prides of lions and a pack of painted dogs that live in the area, not to mention numerous hyenas, several buffalo herds, many elephants, the occasional leopard, crocodiles and hippos, among others.

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Hippos and elephants sharing the grazing area in the banks of the Zambezi River.

You may be surprised at this unusual and seemingly dangerous freedom but it works well due to a combination of animal tolerance and human caution. So, you are able to leave your metal cage and walk around freely! However, we must never forget that the animals we see around us are wild and as such, require the utmost respect and caution from us. Walking away from the protection of your car demands extreme prudence at all times, along with being aware of your surroundings, the direction of the wind, where you place your feet along with being able to read other important signs and, most importantly: to remember where you parked your vehicle!

The beauty of leaving your car.

The beauty of leaving your car.

We found lions on our first day, ten minutes after leaving our lodge! There were two: a young male and an adult female. They were just visible in the bush, near Chisasiko pool. We stopped the car and joined other people already there having their morning coffee while watching the lions, a rather unique experience! The opinions were divided on whether they had or would hunt. To us they looked alert as if looking for prey but it was difficult to guesstimate!

Lion paw marks on the dusty road.

Lion paw marks on the dusty road before they entered the bush.

While the lion conversation was going on, a new vehicle arrived. It was a group of tourists with a professional guide in his late fifties, known to some of the people present. As usual, the excited crowd informed him of the lions’ location. What followed next was as unexpected as it was shocking! He, followed by his unknowing clients and another staff member with a gun, walked straight towards the lions, doing exactly what you must not do! What happened next was as predictable as it was unnecessary: the lions moved off! The group then turned back and left!

The ... pool, where the lions were.

The Chisasiko pool, where the lions were.

“He is after a fat tip from his clients” was my angry and rather loud comment and then I heard my wife’s lapidary “poor man, it is sad that at his age he has to do this to get some extra money!” The latter was followed by another remark from a lady in the group “he left it a bit late!” Anyway, seeing that the situation had been modified by human folly beyond immediate recovery, we pushed on with the idea of coming back later as we knew that, despite the interference, the lions would remain in the area.

However, finding lions only ten minutes into your safari changes the situation as you become somehow “dependent” on what they will do next! Afterwards, while driving you wonder if they are hunting, moving or whether other lions have joined them (which means you could miss something unique!). We also made a mental note of their proximity to our lodge!

During our stay we were rewarded by nice sightings of buffalo, eland, greater kudu, waterbuck and zebra among others. We also saw a trio of fish eagles engaged in a loud territorial dispute and a proud saddle bill stork mother with her two grown offspring, although no male was around.

The saddle bill storks.

The two young saddle bill storks (left) and their mother. A hamerkop and a baboon complete the picture.

We did see the lions a few more times in the general area of the Chisasiko pool, but they did not hunt and on the final day they moved off towards the mouth of the Mana river, probably stalking a buffalo herd that resides in that area. We also spotted a pair of Selous mongooses and two side striped jackals (Canis adustus). Our general impression was that the park has a good animal population.

We also attempted to visit a new water hole, recommended by a friend as a good place for a “sundowner”. Equipped with the right ingredients for such occasions, we drove following a path that was clearly a firebreak with the anticipation of reaching a quiet place where animals would come to drink. Unfortunately, after driving about 10 km we came to a wide sand river with very broken and steep banks. There were very recent and deep wheel marks in the sand showing that someone else had tried to find the waterhole and got severely trapped in the deep sand. The story was reinforced by the warm ashes of the campfire they had lit while spending the night by the car! We decided not to risk the crossing!

The river was a lovely place to have a drink anyway. We also enjoyed a nice walk on the dry riverbed framed by rather high cliffs made of red soil, where trumpeter hornbills feeding on wild figs could be seen. We will come back next time for another attempt at crossing the river.

Walking by the red cliffs in the sandy river bed.

Walking by the red cliffs in the sandy river

Elephants were numerous throughout the park. Young animals were in abundance. We also saw a number of adult tuskers. The latter do not carry heavy tusks of the type we saw in Kruger and described in my earlier post.

All feed on pods!

A small group with a young one. Note the Apple ring acacia pods on the ground.

Although I will focus on the Mana trees in one of the next accounts, one tree is a major protagonist in Mana: the Apple-ring Acacia (Faidherbia albida). It is the main tree of the Mana riverine plain forest and it produces a spiral shaped pod eaten by most herbivores in the park and it constitutes a valuable source of food in the dry season.

The elephants are very fond of these pods and at this time of the year they can be seen feeding on them all the time, wherever the trees are. To watch this activity is rather engrossing so we stopped often to watch them as they pick them up from the floor using their trunks as vacuum cleaners! However, as usual, the best are difficult to get! The tastier pods are those still high up in the trees!

Pod collecting at full stretch.

Pod collecting at full stretch.

Aware of this, elephants will go to great efforts to reach them and, with patience; you may be able to watch them doing it. This was, fortunately, our case as we came across several pod-eaters that stopped at nothing to get these treats!

During the second day of our stay we found a particular tusker that “agreed” to put on a show for us. He was dealing with a rather tall tree, so he stretched to the highest possible extent in order to reach the place in a wild circus-like act, and brought down branches full of pods. After finishing them and unable to get any more, he changed tactics by leaning his head against the tree trunk and proceeding to head-butt it vigorously, which provoked a “pod rain” that it subsequently picked up from the floor.

Shaking the tree.

Shaking the tree.

As the tusker moved off in search of other tasty trees we also moved off, still looking for elephants. As we were driving slowly, we were overtaken by another vehicle that, we found parked by the road after a while. We stopped and asked its sole occupant if he had seen the lions. “Not today” he replied, “I have been here for three days and only saw them the first day” he added. We volunteered what we knew about the current lions’ location and asked “Any painted dogs*?” as we knew that these carnivores are often seen in Mana.

We could not believe his reply: “Do you mean other dogs apart from the one that we just saw crossing the road in front of your car?” “Are you serious?, we did not see anything!” my wife’s response came immediately. The reply came: “OK then, apart from the one I saw and you didn’t?” he said, clearly enjoying the moment and with a nice touch of humour. “We did not see it!” we confessed rather sheepishly, as it seemed unbelievable to us that this could have happened. He then added “I see them often as I am part of a painted dog conservation project that works here!”. Our embarrassment was somehow lessened as he had a “trained eye” for dogs!

Talking to him we learnt that the dogs are present in Mana around the “Mucheni” area and that the one he saw (and we didn’t!) was probably a male of a new pair that had just come from the Rukomechi area. We also learnt that the alpha male of the local Mana pack was missing and, although there could be several reasons for his absence, it is possible that it has died. We thanked him for the information but, despite it, we failed to see them during our safari. Our only consolation was that, although we did not see one, it was in the same place at the same time as us!!!

As a last attempt to save face, I tell you that we had seen painted dogs on a previous occasion in Mana Pools. We were on a game drive with my daughter/Editor when we spotted a pack on the road. There were about 16 dogs and they were moving rather fast. Taking advantage of the freedom of Mana Pools we parked the car in a hurry and followed them on foot, together with a group of tourists.  It was very exciting as they caught an impala just before we got to them and they were feeding on it. Regrettably, the scene was interrupted by my loud talking -being a bushsnob- and the weird noise my camera made every time I switch it on! The picture below was taken at that time.

A couple of the wild dogs seen during an earlier visit.

Wild dogs seen during an earlier visit.

 

* Lycaon pictus is commonly referred to as African wild, cape or hunting dog and African painted dog, among other names. I use "Painted dogs" as this is the name used by the project in Zimbabwe.

Gonarezhou National Park Safari Diary. Day 2

Jackals are intelligent animals, often overshadowed by larger predators. This one was very relaxed but did not miss detail!

Jackals are intelligent animals, often overshadowed by larger predators. This one was very relaxed but did not miss detail!

27/7/14 – The Day of the Jackal

The 27th dawned unusually overcast. No lions roared last night and if they did, they went unheard as the Harare-Mabalauta drive knocked us out and we only managed to leave the bed at about 07:30 hs, not a really early start for a game drive! However, being the sole occupants of the camp spares you from being criticized by any snob colleagues… So, without any pressure we went off after a coffee.

A herd of buffalo were finishing their morning drink and heading back to the bush to feed. The sighting of buffalo never fails to transmit a feeling of things wild and tough. Although cattle-like in their herd behavior, they are reputed to be among the most dangerous bush animals. I have heard and read many stories of people finding themselves in trouble when they come across the lone males that have been chased off from the herd. A colleague, while tending tsetse traps, was chased and treed by one; once up the tree, luckily, the buffalo went away. However, very often they are alleged to hang around waiting for the “victim” to fall asleep and drop so that they can trample or gore them. The problem my friend faced after the buffalo left was climbing down a very thorny tree that he only noticed after his adrenaline level went back to normal.

We had not driven 50 metres from the camp gate when we came across some rather large and familiar paw marks on the sandy track. The lions were very close to camp and we felt bad for sleeping deeply as they must have roared well! There was at least one animal and it had walked towards the camp and its pen gate, over our yesterday’s tire marks. It looked as if it had gone down to the river for a drink. We set off with recharged enthusiasm following the watercourse and its incredible vistas.

Lions had walked on the sand, close to the entrance of the rest camp.

Lions had walked on the sand, close to the entrance of the rest camp.

After about two kilometres we were surprised to find five jackals. One of them looked pregnant. Four slowly moved off but one remained all the time lying down, relaxing and returning our stare from time to time, its ears moving in all directions as not to miss anything. If they had a kill or were coming from one, we could not tell.

This jackal looked pregnant.

This jackal looked pregnant.

We continued on our way and saw lots of impala and some greater kudu. Although there were signs of elephant all over, we did not see any. As our earlier experiences in the park showed, it is difficult to see elephants here as they are wary of humans and tend to move at night. The sign found at Mankonde Pool encapsulates the situation clearly. It is located inside a tower of about five metres high. It says:

mankonde pools sign small

Walking around various view points, taking in the views, and walking in the dry river bed accompanied by serious stone collecting and birding took quite a bit of our time. While walking we saw hyena tracks, both footprints and the whitest spoor I have ever seen. We also saw leopard prints and what we thought were wild dog paw marks as well. All spoor looked rather fresh and we kept looking around in case the owners were still nearby and hungry!

Elephant spoor was all around us during our walks in the river beds.

Elephant spoor was all around us during our walks in the river beds.

 

Hyena dung turns white after a while because of its high calcium content. This one was very white!

Hyena dung turns white after a while because of its high calcium content. This one was very white!

We visited Muwatonga and Rossi pools. We confirmed that the former still remains our favourite spot. There, you can sit on a comfortable natural rock balcony about four to five metres from the river and take in the view. At this spot the river runs gently through rocks and wide deep pools of crystal clear water are formed. Here the crocodiles cannot hide. They are either basking in the sun or -still clearly visible- under water. The water transparency also allows you to follow shoals of tilapia of various sizes cruising slowly or just basking themselves while the fast streamlined tigerfish dart by in groups of three or four.

With its crystal clear water, Muwatonga pools are our favourite.

With its crystal clear water, Muwatonga pools are our favourite.

The frequent splashes heard and seen indicated that this is far from a peaceful pond but rather one where mistakes are paid for with loss of life. It is not rare, after a commotion is herd, to see a crocodile gulping down a fish outside the water only to submerge again when he is done. The sight is another reminder of the danger of crocodiles and the need to walk at a good distance from the water’s edge.

Crocodiles in Gonarezhou are also partial to quelea-eating. It works like this: like its insect colleague the locust, the quelea birds live in flocks that sometimes form “swarms” of many thousands flying in coordination pretty much like the starlings in the European skies. When they need to drink they land on the branches overhanging the river. As they keep landing, the birds that landed first have a quick drink and fly away to avoid being pushed under water by the sheer weight of those coming behind them that subsequently take their place. The branches get more and more crowded as more birds land, to quench their thirst.

While the birds accumulate, the crocodiles, knowing this phenomenon and remembering what they did yesterday, converge under water towards the key areas. Then, all of a sudden, the water explodes and a crocodile jumps out of the water shutting its mouth on the branch. Then for a second or two, it hangs there and then keeping its mouth firmly shut, it slowly slides gently down the branch, leaving no trace of birds or tree leaves. It then lands in the water and swallows its mouthful of prey, together with the green salad. This activity goes on for as long as the birds come to drink and, despite taking place every day, the birds still keep coming back in huge numbers, no doubt driven by thirst and short memories!

Aiming for the Malipati end of the park we continued our trip. On the way, the bird chorus suddenly got louder, giving the impression of a synthesizer being used (very similar to the “Cher effect’ in her Believe song!). We had just entered an area of cellphone signal and WhatsApp was doing its best to deliver accumulated messages to my wife’ telephone.

The road offered a few challenges.

The road offered a few challenges.

The drive ended at the bridge over the Mwenezi at the Malipati entry point. It was Sunday afternoon and some young women were relaxing and fishing under the bridge using porcupine quills as floats. The latter were working well as, after asking the usual “any luck?” question, they produced a couple of nice tilapia that I am sure ended up at their table that night. They were family of the National Parks staff posted at Malipati.

This tree will probably not be here for long.

This tree will probably not be here for long.

After a full day in the bush and with fresh memories of the wonderful river views, we slowly returned to camp. Oh yes, I forgot to mention that the right back tire was flatter but I think it was because of all the stones collected! After our shower failure of the night before, we took our revenge. Few things compare to a bush shower coming from a Tanganyika boiler and this time was no exception.

The bat came back to our chalet. This time it landed inside our empty bath, unable to climb its slippery sides and, again, it needed our assistance to fly off into the night.

 

Kruger National Park Report

Nothing much to report on the journey from Louis Trichardt to the Kruger National Park (Kruger). On arrival at Punda Maria gate, a helicopter flying overhead brought home the reality of Kruger these days when special measures to curb rhino poaching are being taken. Despite this, a few hundreds have been killed this year. Let’s hope that the Park will get on top of the situation. Kruger is the last rhino (both black and white) stronghold left in the world.

Roads are good and we were in Sirheni Bushveld Camp with time to spare. The camp is small with no electricity but this time we knew about it beforehand! After spending a quiet night and enjoying the peace of the place, it was time to continue our trip. We left for Shimuwini Bushveld Camp where we had a great time on a previous trip with friends. There was more water this time so the animals were less concentrated in the riverine area. However, the hippos were still there and the birdlife good as usual.

In the morning we planned to do a drive along the Letaba river near the camp and to continue to a point where the river crosses the road, as it is an open expanse which apart from being beautiful, allows one to see far and spot interesting things. On the way there we could see a number of cars parked on both sides of the road in the distance indicating an interesting find.

When confronted with these situations in the Kruger, the bushsnob has a “car rule” to predict the situation and take appropriate action. It is as follows:

 

       CAR NUMBER            REASON

ACTION

1 (often parked sideways or in the middle of the road) birdwatcher Check bird being watched
1 (well parked, usually a small saloon or city SUV) first time visitors watching any animal they come across Drive past with eyes closed or looking the other way
2-5 (any type) buffalo, giraffe, zebra, etc. Check as it may be interesting and cars tend to depart after a few minutes
5-10 (any type) elephant, rhino Same as above
<10 (any type) lion kill, leopard Avoid the area by taking any available and legal measure and return at lunchtime or late afternoon
Sizeable queue or large number leopard kill, Parks or Police check point Check with binoculars, if Police present, continue, otherwise as above and return at lunchtime or late afternoon

In this particular instance there were more than 10 vehicles and lion kill “or above” was diagnosed. We joined the queue and, from where we were, we could see a buffalo carcass and at least one lion resting under the bushes. We were keen to see the kill as we knew that to bring a buffalo down normally takes the combined efforts of several lions. We waited patiently for the cars ahead of us to move -maintaining “strict bush etiquette”- but, as there was no movement we decided to move on to the rest of the park which was consequently less crowded!

Our idea was rewarded when we came to a Letaba tributary where buffalo were going down to the riverbed. On arrival there may have been one hundred animals but they were still coming down. After about 20 minutes there were what I estimate to have been over one thousand and the number kept increasing for a few minutes. It was one of the largest herds we have seen.

A large herd of buffalo while moving on the river bed.

A large herd of buffalo while moving on the river bed.

Part of the herd while drinking.

Part of the herd while drinking.

Although rather bovine in their behaviour, buffalo transmit a sense of wildness and power that, to me, no other herbivore does. Although I have not yet seen them confronting lions, I have seen them in close proximity while helping a friend to dart them for his research and they were dangerous!

This buffalo was having a comfortable "siesta" while the oxpeckers did their job!

This buffalo was having a comfortable “siesta” while the oxpeckers did their job!

Seeing buffalo always brings back the story of a colleague working on tsetse flies in Kenya. One day he was checking his tsetse traps in the Nguruman escarpment and a lone male suddenly charged him from nowhere, forcing him up a tree to save himself. He was lucky on two accounts: there was a “climbable” tree nearby and the buffalo did not wait for him to fall down in order to trample him to death. It was a hairy moment and what was most interesting was that he said that the rush of adrenalin allowed him to climb and stay up in the tree without problem despite not being the fittest guy in Kenya. What was really tough was getting back down, as the tree was very thorny!

Later in the morning we hoped to see the kill again on our way back to camp but, unbelievably, there were still a lot of cars so we just had a look while driving by and not much had changed. We decided not to bother and try again in the evening as the proximity of our camp would enable us to stay just a bit longer than the others… By the time we were ready to return to the kill the famous tire had totally deflated… Not being part of the Ferrari F1 team, it took us a few laps to change the wheel and we were late! We still left as we estimated we had about 15 min of watching time!

We got to the kill and there were still cars! “Do not worry, none of the cars belong to our camp so they must leave by 17:00 hs to get back in time for the gate closing time of 17:30 hs”. We waited and waited and no one was moving by 17.20 hrs! The usual “these people know something we do not” was pronounced by one of us and we decided to re-check the gate closing times again and it clearly said “July: 17.30 hs” and then we realized that it was 1 August and closing time was now 18:00 hs. By the time we realized this, cars had started to depart and we did get our 20 minutes or so of “only the lions and us” where some observation took place and pictures were taken!

The young lion feeding on the buffalo.

The young lion feeding on the buffalo.

A closer view of the lion feeding.

A closer view of the lion feeding.

What did we see? The carcass was half eaten and one youngish male was inside it tearing pieces off. Another male was resting under the shade, together with 3 lionesses and 2 cubs. One of the lionesses looked uncomfortable and decided to go for a walk towards the river, surely to drink and soon a second one followed her. A few vultures were waiting patiently up in a nearby tree. And then it was also time for us to abandon the spot to get to our camp in good time.

One of the lionesses with a full belly on her way to the river.

At dusk, one of the lionesses -with a full belly- decided to go to the nearby river for a drink.

The following morning, en route to Letaba, the only carcass visitors were vultures and no lions were seen. Yes, you guessed right ours was the only car so we parked it sideways blocking the road and watched the birds!

Only the vultures remained the following morning.

Only the vultures remained the following morning.