buffalo

Dagga Boy*

buff and cigar 1

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

buff and sausage

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.

sausages

The sausages.

buff and sausage 2

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.

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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.

elephants and hippos

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.