Botswana – A ton of trouble!

The one animal that is so cranky and bloody minded and will charge anyone or anything including a jeep is the Cape Buffalo and is a member of the so-called “Big Five” group of animals, together with the elephant, rhino, lion and leopard. These massive animals are the black terrors of the bush and every creature is afraid of them, including lions. They are powerfully built with massive bodies and short legs. Their horns grow from a central protuberance “boss” over the front of their skulls and culminate in a pair of deadly curving knife sharp horns.

The bulls can weigh up to 800 kgs, have larger heads and heavier horns than the females and are certainly more aggressive and cantankerous. The bigger they are the meaner and crazier they become.

The Cape Buffalo congregate in large herds of 200 – 300 and graze eight – ten hours a day while travelling. The bulls are positioned on the outside of the herd and the females and calves are protected in the middle. Some herds can reach 1,000 – 2,000 beasts.

When under attack by the big cats, the herd will fend off the attackers en masse; hence the cats treat them very warily and with great respect. They are like a stream train when charging and are single-minded in the outcome and will reach speeds of 50 kph.

Away from the large herds, you can see small groups of bachelor males, which the locals call “Dagger Boys”. In other words they are “grumpy old men”. They have disassociated themselves from the main herd as they have become weary of the constant travel and challenges by the younger more virile males. Dagger Boys are to be avoided. They have no patience and are quick to anger and will charge without any signal of irritation or intent.

Africa is a land of great contrasts. When you are out in the bush the animals are the centre of focus and command your attention. The land is pristine with no sign of man’s footsteps or any sense that anyone has been there before you. However, once you return to “civilisation” the pristine quality of the land and air is quickly put into contrast with the degradation of urban life. You are overwhelmed by the poverty, dirt, pollution and disease everywhere.

The local people mostly live in poor conditions, small houses built of mud brick and thatch or a more modern version, concrete blocks with corrugated iron roofs. These one or two room structures are surrounded by a patch of bare dusty earth. Cooking is done over an open fire outside the houses and water is collected from a communal well. In the towns there might be electricity and running cold water and incongruously, you will see satellite dishes attached to a very impoverished building. Africans are football mad and will spend every waking moment watching TV – either football or the soaps.

However impoverished the living conditions are I have great respect for the African people; their love of the land, their warm welcome, their determination to make the best of their situation, and their determination to overcome the daunting task of improving the standard of education and life in Africa.

Categories: Animals, Botswana, Cape Buffalo, Lions, Photography, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Botswana – Big Cats – Lions, Leopards and Cheetahs

During an early morning game drive we are delighted to come across three cheetahs, a mother and two grown daughters, who are out scouting for a meal. These elegant and graceful cats are poetry in motion. They are long legged, with a small head and a very lithe body that is covered in black spots on a soft golden background and a white tummy. They have a long tail which stabilises them when they are flat out during a chase. Their faces are distinct; with black tear stains that run down either side of their nose from their large alert eyes.

Cheetahs lead a solitary life. The females are accompanied by their cubs for up to 18 months. They typically hunt in the day and will stalk prey such as small antelope and other small mammals and birds. They sight their prey, stalk it and when they are within a striking distance, they run their prey to ground, sometimes over a distance of 600 metres and reaching speeds of 90 kph.

The cheetah is described as graceful, but the leopard is best described as ferocious. The most secretive and elusive of the large carnivores, the leopard is also the most shrewd. Pound for pound, it is the strongest climber of the large cats and capable of killing prey larger than itself.

We found a solitary leopard who had the ambitious task of claiming a carcass of large elephant for his own. He determinedly circled the carcass to see off any other interlopers. He would then retire to a nearby tree to keep watch and see off any other scavengers.

Sitting in the fork of the tree he is a handsome and elegant specimen. More gold in colour than the cheetah and with his spots forming rosettes over his coat, his tail is shorter and banded with black rings. Usually he hunts at night and after the kill he will haul his prize into a tree to secure it from other scavengers such as hyenas and lions who may take the opportunity to steal the kill from him.

By the third day he has lost the battle to keep the elephant for himself and the carcass had become a windfall to a pack of hyenas, a variety of vultures and marabou storks. These storks are sometimes called the “Undertaker Bird” due to their shape from behind: cloak-like wings and back, skinny white legs, and sometimes a large white mass of “hair.” They are certainly ugly, but amazingly reaching a height of 152 cm (60 in) and a weight of 9 kg (20 lb) with a wingspan of 3.7 m (12ft).

Everyone who comes on safari has lions on their watch list. We were not disappointed as we had our first sighting of lions on day three. Two young males were making their way purposefully across the savannah. They were not yet mature enough to be sporting the impressive black manes of large mature lions. These boys were living dangerously as they had intruded on the home territory of a resident pride. They were not to be deterred from their quest and were keen to find some new females who they could call their own.

While we were watching these two males, along came a lone female and it was evident that she was attracted to the younger of the two boys. However, the older of the two tried to impress upon her that he was the better choice. After much roaring, snarling and paw swatting, each of the three lions retreated to the comfort of a nearby tree to contemplate the situation in solitude. This standoff continued for about an hour, during which time, one or other the males would saunter over to the female and try his luck with her. These “beauty contests” were routinely rebuffed by the female who showed absolute indifference and a certain amount of aggression.

It was intriguing to watch their silent communication; tails moved in a series of patterns from slow waving to agitated twitching. There was a great deal of posturing, yawning and baring of enormous fangs. Finally, after a persistent charm offensive, the larger male had made some ground in wooing the female. She allowed him to mate with her but this appeared to be only a dress rehearsal for the real thing. When they finally get serious, they will mate about four times an hour over two – three days.

The lion is the most impressive cat and is the largest of the African carnivores. They are perfectly camouflaged for the grassy landscape as their coat is a pale tawny colour with white bellies. Their tail has a large black tuft at the tip. This king of beasts, weighs around 190 kgs and is the only predator of the dangerous Cape Buffalo and will take other large mammals such as a zebra and wildebeest and occasionally try his luck with hippos, giraffe and young elephants.

Unlike other cats they live in a pride with a dominant male, several females and cubs.

It is hard to spot a lion as they spend 20 hours of the day asleep and are most active at night and at dawn. The pride usually consists of three to six closely related females and their cubs. They are attended by one to six related adult males who have access to the pride’s females. However there are often savage fights to drive out these males by the dominant male.

The females are the hunters for the pride, and when successful, the male is the first to feed and their females and the cubs feed on what is left over.

During the afternoon game drives, as the sun sets, we stop for the traditional ritual of “sundowners”. This safari ritual has been carried out in Africa since white man arrived in pith helmets and armed with a gun and a bottle of gin. We stop at a tranquil spot with a clear view of the surrounding area to make sure that there are no predators in the nearby bush, a table is set up and drinks are poured. We then turn our attention to the glory of the African sunset – the most beautiful in the world! The sun increases in size as it nears the horizon and as it drops through the heat haze the colour changes to a dazzling shimmering gold with rays of red and orange streaking the deep blue and purple sky. This giant glowing orb sinks quickly below the horizon and nightfall descends on the landscape. There is an immediate chill in the air and a carpet of stars dot the sky as the night blackens. The heat of the day evaporates and coolness covers the land.

At this time there is an exchange of shifts in the Delta’s wildlife, the beasts and birds of the day find their beds and roosts for night and the animals and birds of the night stir. As we drive back to camp, we spot eyes in the night reflecting in the headlights. Sometimes the chase is on to follow these eyes in the night. It could be lion hunting, or other nocturnal critters looking for their next feed. Such amazing creatures such as honey badgers: they are notorious for their strength, ferocity and toughness. They have been known to savagely and fearlessly attack almost any kind of animal when escape is impossible, reportedly even repelling much larger predators such as lions. Bee stings, porcupine quills, and animal bites rarely penetrate their thick skin.

Back home in our tent we have a welcome hot shower and then, repair to the bar for pre-dinner drinks, a fantastic meal and finally nightcaps around the camp fire telling tales of the exciting discoveries of the day. Then we drop off to sleep with the sounds of the African bush loudly serenading us.

Categories: Animals, Botswana, Cape Buffalo, Cheetahs, Elephants, Leopards, Lions, Photography, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Botswana – Safari Adventures, Okavango Delta – Part 2

The Okavango Delta is a vast inland delta in the Kalahari Desert that drains each year into a swamp covering up to 1500 sq km. In January – February the rains that fall in Angola drain 1200km into the Delta, which means that for the next few months there is abundant ground water and vegetation that attracts wild life and thousands of birds. The Delta is a unique landscape in all of Africa and varies from vast grass savannahs, dry sandy desert, wooded areas, low-lying islands (that twice yearly become isolated refuges for many animals during the flooding), vast marshes, channels and lagoons.

Our camp, Sandibe, is perched on the edge of one of these vast lagoons that is filled with papyrus and reeds. The sleeping quarters at the camp consists of eight thatched cottages with canvas sides where large insect screened windows catch any breeze. Attached to the tent is an “en suite” bathroom which is an open air (complete with monkeys and geckos – actually the monkeys really have a taste for soap). The room is well furnished with a really comfortable queen sized bed which I find hard to leave on those chilly mornings when the sun has not crested the horizon.

Just a few minutes walk from your tent along a sandy path is the main “building”. This large, open sided space houses the bar (well used when you come home after a game drive hot and parched), the dining area and several squishy lounges and comfy chairs where you can sit and let the wildlife pass you by. No animal is deterred from venturing close by. Elephants freely stroll through the camp, knocking over the fence around the swimming pool, but are careful to manoeuvre gently and gracefully around the outdoor furniture without ever knocking over a chair.

Our arrival is heralded by a chorus of African women singing a welcome song and providing cold towels, used to refresh faces and hands which are now covered in fine Kalahari dust.

Our host, Kate, gives us the camp overview and instructions that will be consistently reinforced no matter where we are in Africa: don’t go outside your tent at night, wait to be escorted to the main building before dawn and after dusk, stand still if you are on the path and an elephant is close by, don’t run if you see a lion or leopard in camp (running means prey and you could be the next meal), use the mosquito net and insect repellent liberally every day, don’t leave anything outside your tent because the hyenas will eat it or the baboons and monkeys will be wearing it.

We easily adapt to the pattern of camp life: wakeup call at our tent is 5:30am, collection for breakfast at 6am, into the jeep for the morning game drive at 6:30am and ready to see the sunrise at 7am. Usually there is a stop at a picturesque bush location around mid-morning for a coffee/tea and a “wee” stop at a location that is free from man-eaters and other potential dangers. I am reassured that the guide will scout out the bush toilet to ensure that there are no nasty surprises lurking in the foliage or behind the anthill.

Late morning we return to camp for lunch and a very welcome cold beer to wash away some of the Kalahari sand that is in our throats. Following lunch it is time to return to the tent for a siesta, take a dip in the pool or sit on your veranda and enjoy the quiet (apart from the grunting, snorting and bellowing of the hippos) and watch the passing parade of wildlife and the birds that dart about in the trees.

At 3pm we gather for a cup of tea before heading out for the afternoon/evening game drive. Our guide, Gee is full of information and quickly becomes our new friend. We exchange jokes and share stories of our different homelands, customs and cultures.

Gee is in his mid-40’s with a wife and three daughters. They live in Maun, a 4 – 5 hour drive over incredibly rough, sandy roads. Usually he works for two months and then gets two weeks off where he returns to the family. His aspiration is to retire from guiding when he is 50 and grow vegetables on a plot of land that he has bought outside Maun. To supplement this, he will take private guiding jobs. His knowledge of trees and plants and the animals and birds of the Delta seems limitless and he recounts many amazing stories and opens our eyes to the secrets of what is the African bush.

As we drive through this vast open land Gee is able to recollect every bush, tree, anthill, swamp and stream as though these landmarks are indelibly printed on his mind like a road map. As we drive along, bouncing over rutted, pot holed roads or sandy dredges where the wheels sink up to the axles, he is forever examining the horizon, peering behind every tree, bush and blade of grass to point out some animal or bird that is so well camouflaged that it takes us a few minutes to focus on where his finger is pointing.

Next blog we discover the big cats…

Categories: Animals, Cape Buffalo, Elephants, Hippos, Leopards, Lions, Photography, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Botswana – The Okavango Delta – Part 1

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The Okavango Delta, Botswana
After rendezvousing in Johannesburg with my friends from Australia, we spent a night in a hotel that was distinctly reminiscent of Las Vegas in the 70’s. Funnily enough it was attached to the casino as well. The next morning dawned and everybody was in a high state of excitement – we are going on safari! Next stop Maun, Botswana.

The Maun International Airport is a small, makeshift building that contains Customs and Immigration and Departures and Arrivals as all airports do. However in this instance, it is difficult to tell who is coming and who is going, who the officials are, and who the passengers are. A mass of humanity from all corners of the globe huddle in this small overcrowded room. The place is teeming with people of all colours and ethnic backgrounds and countries of origin – with one united purpose – to find a plane. Somehow out of this chaos we find our onward connection.

We transit through the next security checkpoint and as usual, my metal knees (due to knee replacements) set off the metal detector. When I look up, the three male security guards look back at me in bewilderment and then at the machine and each other in surprise. I can read the looks on their faces and imagine what is going through their minds… “what the hell are we to do now? Pat down this woman? Ignore the metal detector? or, Call a supervisor?” They choose the path of least resistance, all looking at me with big smiles and say quietly under their breath…“ Please just move on”. I look into their eyes and I can see they mean … “please just go away and we will pretend that this never happened”. Gladly I move on and they turn their attention to the mass of people pressing to get through the gate.

At last, we make our way across the sweltering tarmac to our plane – a single-engined 12 seater. As the engine revs up, the body of the plane starts to shake, the engines whine, people grip onto their seat belts and we are off. The excitement mounts knowing we are off into the Okavango Delta and the African bush where wonderful and exciting adventures await us.

The 40-minute flight passes quickly as we fly over vast plains and lightly wooded ridges. Everywhere looks deserted. The vegetation is sparse and many trees are devoid of leaf and the ground is bare of grass. Occasionally there is a glimmering pool of water or a swamp with tracks leading to it from all directions. The shout goes up as we spot our first animals – elephants, giraffes and hippos dot the landscape. This is a foretaste of the amazing and exotic wildlife that we will see in the ensuing days.

The plane slowly descends from 10,000 feet and the bush airstrip below is a ribbon of bleached white earth studded with huge clods of elephant dung. The pilot buzzes the strip a couple of times to make sure that there is no game that can wander onto the strip when he is touching down. Flying into elephant poo is one thing, but a whole elephant in the propellers would certainly cause a mess on the windscreen.

We are met by our guide for the next three days – Gee. His big smile greets us and we are warmly welcomed in a truly hospitable African way. The hour long trip to camp takes us through dry savannah grassland which is punctuated by Camel Thorn, which is the stereotypical African tree. It has that signature umbrella shape with thick green foliage where the animals seek the cool shade in the heat of the day. It is a welcome variation against a dry, golden landscape of parched grass.

Occasionally we cross swamps and streams where the water from the last rainy season. The Okavango Delta has two faces: dry and wet. The “dry” winter officially runs from May to October; and the “wet” summer from November to April. These oases of cool water are a respite from the ever increasing heat of the day. Many animals inhabit these pools permanently, whilst others make their way to them twice a day to quench their thirst. These pools and swamps are the lifeblood and beating heart of the Delta.

The thirstiest of animals is the elephant. When really thirsty, they drink up to 120 litres a day. Apart from drinking water, they love the pools to bath in and to create mud baths where they spray themselves with a muddy slurry which acts as protection from biting insects and the sun. The elephants are majestic and amazing creatures and we are delighted to see so many of them and to study their habits and family life at such close quarters.

Did you know:-
• elephants are right or left handed? They use the tusk of their preferred side as a tool for digging, foraging and investigating potential sources of food
• the cows and calves form a cohesive group and spend their days and nights together. When bull calves reach their teenage years and become a nuisance in the group, they are chased out and join a bachelor group
• the soles of the elephant’s feet are padded and allow for silent movement
• they eat 150 kgs a day of vegetation; mostly grass and only 40’% of this is assimilated, hence the enormous piles of elephant poo everywhere. They excrete up to 100 kgs of dung per day
• the cows gestate for 22 months – the calves are 120 kg when born and are weaned at 3 – 8 years. Just before the next calf is born
• they live to 60 years
• they feed up to 18 hours a day and when sleeping they stand or lie down. The bulls with large heads and heavy tusks will often lie down beside a termite mound and use it as a pillow
• their trunk is like an arm with fingers and it is so dextrous that it can pick up a single seed and it is strong enough to uproot trees
• as their chewing teeth wear away, they are replaced from behind by a series of six in each jaw.

Categories: Animals, Botswana, Elephants, Hippos, Leopards, Lions, Photography, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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