Posts Tagged With: okavango

Namibia – Gin and Tonic With The Lions

The white saltpans of Etosha National Park in the central north of Namibia are vast. The saltpans stretch over 20,000 sq km. Etosha means “great white place” and was once a super-lake. Today, it is dry, flat and hot with very few rivers and creeks which only run during the rainy season. At that time, as the saltpan fills, thousands upon thousands of water and wading birds migrate to it. There are also many man-made waterholes which surround the enormous saltpan that stretches as far as the eye can see. The most amazing of all the animals that congregate around the waterholes are the Etosha elephants. These wonderfully huge creatures are intriguing to watch as they come to the waterholes to drink and “bathe” themselves in the white mud which then turns them into huge ghost-like creatures.

The elephants happily share the waterhole with a variety of animals including many antelope and zebra. However the elephants seem to have an intense dislike for ostriches. One young male elephant takes this enmity to an extreme – every time an ostrich approaches the waterhole, the elephant sucks up a trunk full of water and gives the ostriches a good hose down. The ostriches reply to this indignity with much fluffing of feathers, flapping wings, shaking of tails and stomping of feet while retreating to a safe distance to wait for another opportunity to approach the waterhole when this rambunctious elephant had his back turned.

Waterholes are often places where old and sick animals come to die. The heat of the plains and the rough, rocky ground are hard on old feet and the grass is often dry and brittle. These weary animals make their way to a waterhole in the hope of sweet, soft grass and the coolness of the water. It is interesting to observe this cycle of life as it turns a full 360 degrees. Eventually, these aged, sick or wounded animals become the life giving meals to a whole range of other animals from the big cats, to the scavengers like jackals and hyenas, and of course the vultures, storks and buzzards circling in the sky that will their descent onto the carcass.

On my last game drive in Ongava, my guide Bono suggested that we visit a distant waterhole with the hope that we would see the resident pride of lions which we had tracked in the morning. On arrival at the waterhole in the late afternoon we saw at a short distance, in the thick bush that surrounded the waterhole, a number of giraffe nervously approaching the waterhole. They were cautiously eyeing the open ground around the waterhole as this is a very dangerous place for any unwary animals. Sure enough, there was a huge male lion and lioness lying in the grass metres from the waterhole. The giraffes, pushed by thirst, approached the waterhole but the sense of self preservation made them reconsider and they retired back into the thick scrub to wait for a safer time to drink.

We sat there quietly for some minutes and out from the long, thick grass emerged another lioness and followed by six cubs around eight weeks old. They made their way to the water’s edge and, one-by-one they lined up and started lapping the water. As if this sight wasn’t wonderful enough, another three females with older cubs around six months approached with a huge male sporting a magnificent, thick black mane. They all clustered around the waterhole and drank freely and loudly.

I was amazed how the sound of their lapping carried to where we were sitting some 10 metres away. The lapping of all those thirsty tongues was like the sound of many small hands softly clapping. They continued to drink for quite a while until their thirst was completely sated, as this would have to last them through the night while they hunted.

As each of the lions took their fill, they lay down beside the waterhole and relaxed or grabbed forty winks while the younger cubs played. The cubs spent their time wrestling with each other or sneaking up on the lionesses to grab their tails, bite their hind legs, or crawl over their mother if she was lying down and grab a quick drink of milk. The lionesses were patient up to a point, but if the wrestling became too vigorous, she would get up and go over and give the cubs a soft hit with her paw to quieten them down.

The least patient of all in the pride were the large males. One had removed himself from the group and was keeping close company with a female and discouraged interaction with the cubs. The other male was quietly lying by the water, and every now and then, a cub would approach and try to engage him in some fun. This was quickly rebuffed by a deep growl, a quick flick of his tail or a swat of his huge paw. Everyone seemed to know that these big boys were serious and not into games with the kids.

Sundownders are part of the ritual in the African bush; as the sun set, Bono prepared our gins and tonics. We then sat in the Land Rover with our drinks and watched this magnificent family of 20 lions play, relax and communicate with each other. They were completely uninhibited by us and walked up to the Land Rover and around us to investigate noises in the bush with sharp eyes and keen ears.

My heart skipped a beat and I looked to Bono for reassurance when a very large and fit female approached the jeep and stared at us through the windscreen for five minutes. She was only one leap away from joining us in the front seat. Satisfied that we did not pose a threat, she ambled off to join her sisters and cubs.

Much of this playacting by the cubs is in preparation for hunting. The cubs stalk each other and then pounce on their brother or sister and try to wrestle them to the ground. When they are old enough to follow their mothers into the bush for a real hunt, the adult females will bring to the ground a small quarry so they learn how to kill it by choking it around the neck. Then it will be their turn to try their skill at stalking and bringing down their own prey. There will be many lost opportunities along the way, but eventually, they will take their place as part of this finely tuned hunting machine.

It was a wonderful opportunity to watch and study the lions as such close quarters. Their social and familial bonds are very strong and totally cohesive if the pride stays intact. This is the responsibility of the alpha males in the pride, they need to protect their home range and spend much time proclaiming their ownership by marking their territory, sending out loud calls to warn off any intruders and protecting the females from any threat.

The younger adult males will be pushed out of the pride by the alpha males. These young males will then form a coalition by themselves or join up with other solitary males and become a bachelor group. They wander the bush looking for other prides that they may be able to join, or as they mature, they will try to challenge the resident alpha males. If victorious, the young lion will take the place as alpha male in the pride. These fights are vicious and often deadly.

When a young male is victorious, he will lay down the law to all the females and, if there are cubs in the pride, he will kill them. The females will then come into heat and he can then mate with them immediately to ensure that his genes are carried onto the next generation.

It was a very moving, but nerve wracking experience, sitting in the African wilderness with a huge pride of lions moving about only feet away. They are intelligent, strong, socially organised and formidable. These magnificent animals are indeed king of the African bush!

Categories: Animals, Botswana, Elephants, Giraffe, Lions, Namibia, Photography, Travel, Uncategorized, Zambia, Zebra | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Namibia – Action at The Waterhole

Next stop is Ongava Camp just outside Etosha National Park in Northern Namibia. Ongava is set in 33,000 sq hectares of dry savannah grassland with large areas of mopane forests intersected by rocky volcanic crags, rugged forested hills and a myriad of dry creek beds. It is a thirsty, dusty landscape and the occasional waterholes are dry but patiently waiting for the next rainy season. During spring temperatures are in the mid 30’s and unbelievably 45 – 50 in summer. In summer it is just hot, hot, hot day and night!

My guide for three days is Bono, a very handsome man around 30 years old, with a quiet and respectful manner but with a quick turn of wit and a devilish sense of humour. I am fortunate to spend these days in his company learning so much about the African bush, the wonderful and unique animals, his life history and his future aspirations plus the challenges that face the people of Namibia.

The accommodation at Ongava is in 12 large comfortable tents with en suite bathrooms with open air showers (definitely not recommended for use after dark or before down as you may be bathing with a lion, a hyena or a leopard). The open air dining and bar area sits at the base of a dolomite hill and fronts onto a very busy waterhole where a procession of animals come day and night to quench their thirst.

The journey home to my tent each night is an edgy experience. I am accompanied by Rio who is the camp sharp-shooter and his trusty rifle as you never know what predator you may meet during your trek back to the safety of your tent.  We make our way from the main lodge to my tent which is the second to last tent in camp (more time for that hungry lion to size me up as his next meal). Rio is in the lead with rifle gripped in one hand and torch in the other. He walks slowly while shining the torch around the surrounding bush and trees as we make our way through the dark. The hot breath on his neck was not that of a lion bearing down on him but me only centimetres from his back gripping onto his arm for reassurance. Why is it always at times like these that nervous chatter turns to the weather?

The waterhole in front of the camp attracts numerous animals day and night. These include impalas and gazelle with their delicate fine legs and beautiful big eyes set in their pretty faces. They remind me of ballerinas “en pointe”. Their graceful movements and agility is remarkable as they prance and jump skittishly about. Bigger antelope such as the kudu are ever watchful and anxious, the males with their magnificent horns that spiral upwards of a metre. There are also the fantastic oryx with their black masked faces and horns that are straight black sabres pointing directly skywards for a metre. Hartebeest with deep red-brown coats and curved short horns. Zebras pushing and shoving each other like kids in a sweet shop trying to be first to the counter. Their shimmering coats of black and white stripes make it difficult to tell the number of individuals in the herd. Their markings “en masse” appropriately give credence to the collective noun for zebras which is “a dazzle”. And dazzle they do!

Then comes the graceful and so impossibly tall giraffe – they carefully splay their front legs apart so their heads can reach the water. I am amazed that such a tall and large beast can be so graceful. They have a slow and rhythmic walk and when running the break into a smooth canter.
Did you know that:
• they have a black tongue which is 18 inches long
• they are rarely heard but can moo, hiss, roar and whistle to communicate with one another
• giraffes have the longest tail of any land mammal – up to 8 feet long, including the tuft at the end
• ancient Romans and Greeks thought that the giraffe was a mix between a camel and a leopard. This is where their scientific genus name of “camelopardalis” comes from
• their heart is 2 feet long and weighs about 25 pounds and pumps about 16 gallons of blood/minute
• mother giraffes form a type of day-care for their young. One of the females in the herd will stay behind and baby sits all of the youngsters while the rest of the females go out foraging for food
• despite its extreme length, the giraffe’s neck is actually too short to reach the ground. As a result, it has to awkwardly spread its front legs or kneel on its front legs in order to reach the ground to drink water
• it is the tallest animal in the world – males stand 16-18 feet
• females use their hooves as weapons only to defend their young. They are strong enough to kill a lion, which is the giraffe’s only real predator
• they can gallop 31-37 miles per hour
• males are known as bulls and  females are known as cows
• giraffes rest standing up and only sleep 5 minutes at a time. When sleeping, the giraffe generally lies on the ground, tucking its front legs under itself, then curls its neck back and rests its head on its rump
• they spend between 16 and 20 hours a day feeding.

The waterhole is a dangerous place – this is where all the animals gather, the strong and the weak, the old and the young. Here is a great opportunity for the predators to strike and get a quick meal. Everyone is on guard and often sentries are appointed as lookouts, ears and tails twitch and there is much nervous shuffling of hooves but the need for water far out ways the fear of predators.

At night, there were some special visitors – a small group of white rhinos came to drink. There is a mother and baby who is around three years old and is already two thirds her size. They silently appear out of the darkness like silent grey ghosts. Their huge bodies and large square heads swinging low as they walk, their bulk is in stark contrast to their soft footed and silent approach.

Categories: Animals, Botswana, Elephants, Giraffe, Leopards, Lions, Namibia, Oryx, Photography, Travel, Uncategorized, White Rhino, Zebra | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Oryx of Namibia – Beauty, Power and Grace

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In the southwest of Namibia, there is a narrow strip along the coast called Sossuslei. Here you will encounter the famous giant red dunes stretching as far as the eye can see. The wind has carved wonderful contours, ridges, gullies and spines into them. Behind the dunes are flat valleys sparsely covered in grass the colour of pale yellow gold. These plains are intersected occasionally with dry creek beds, where groves of small trees add a welcome ribbon of green to the landscape. In the distance, the stark rocky hills and mountains rise up steeply from the valley floor. They make a striking contrast to the grassy plains and are dramatically coloured in hues of black, blue, red and purple to create a rich palette.

This area is in the Namib Desert and is part of the 50,000 sq km Namib Nauluft National Park. This “sand sea” was formed when the ephemeral Tsauchab River was blocked by sand and now the dunes stretch for 400 km along the coast. To the west along the coast there is a cold current that runs the length coast, bringing cooler winds and a little moisture and the escarpment that runs parallel to the coast is some 100 km inland.

Kulala Wilderness Reserve is 40,000 hectares in area and home to oryx, ostrich, springbok and some small carnivores where occasionally, cheetah and leopards can be sighted. It is a dry place with a very low rainfall of less than 4 inches or 100 mls a year. Amazingly the animals have adopted to these harsh conditions and have developed many unique and ingenious survival mechanisms.

The climate is hot and dry in summer and cold and dry in winter. What little rain there is, will make the many ephemeral rivers and creeks run and this is a boon to many animals who are near death from thirst by this time, such as the magnificent oryx. They trek each day, or every second day, to the nearest source of water which can be hours away from the grass plains where they eat what little grass is left at the end of the dry season.

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The oryx are strikingly beautiful antelope and have developed some unique physiological changes to cope with the heat and lack of water. The blood that circulates from the heart to the body is then sent to their muzzle of their nose where it is cooled. This cooled blood is then circulated to their brain. Also, they do not urinate very often and have a specially adapted muscle in their anus that extracts moisture from their faeces before they defecate.

They live in herds and the newborn calves are able to run with the herd immediately after birth. Both males and females possess permanent horns and are of equal length. The horns are narrow, and straight and are lethal — the oryx has been known to kill lions with them. The horns also make the animals a prized game trophy, which has led to the near-extinction of the two northern species.

The social system of the oryx is unusual, in that non-territorial males live in mixed groups with females, or with females and their young. Groups are composed of 10 to 40 males and females of all ages and both sexes.

The dominance hierarchy among oryx is based on age and size. As they grow, calves test one another in what look like games, though in reality are tests of strength. As the hierarchy becomes established, the need to fight is reduced. Ritual displays replace actual contact, except when evenly matched individuals may have to fight to establish their rank. Along with lateral displays, oryx perform a slow, prancing walk and sometimes break into a gallop. When several males are making these displays, they may clash horns.

Herd composition in the wild constantly changes according to need. Oryx wanting to drink, for example, form a group to go to water, or females with young form a group that moves more slowly. The result is a social system that allows for individual needs but retains the advantage of group living. Oryx range widely over a large area, but their keen sense of smell alerts them to rain in the area, so that groups quickly assemble, often in herds of 200 or more, to feed on new growth.

Categories: Animals, Cheetahs, Leopards, Namibia, Oryx, Photography, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Namibia – A Story of Hope

Agnes is a 23 years old Namibian born in an isolated village in the north east of the country. I had the pleasure to spend a few days at Desert Rhino Camp in northern Namibia and here I met Agnes – a very modern African woman. Agnes has embraced the modern age and the opportunities that are now on offer to the new generation of liberated females of Namibia. This trend to modernity is a rarity here in Africa where the tribal norms are prevalent and strongly reinforced by custom, tradition, and tribal law.

Agnes tells me that she was a safari guide for three and a half years before being promoted to the role of Camp Manager. The notion of a female guide set the cat amongst the pigeons with her male colleagues. Guiding in their book is very much a man’s job. Surely, a girl can’t know the difference between an elephant and a lion? But Agnes laughed off the resistance, and quickly learned her craft, including changing flat tyres on the jeep, fixing starter motors out in the bush and using a wide variety of skills and bush craft to ensure her guests were safe and sound while in her care.

Her aspirations reached new heights with her promotion from Guide to Camp Manager. She is undertaking a degree in Environmental Law from a South African University and is now approaching her final year. She is hopeful that the safari company will offer her a role in their Environmental Department on completion of her degree.

However, her modern outlook and attitudes are tempered by her tribal roots. Every time she returns to her village, a two day journey away from camp, her parents quickly denounce all her modern ideas and practices. They remain traditional and uphold the African way of life as far as the role of a woman, marriage, family relationships and children are concerned.

When I asked Agnes if she has any siblings she said shyly replied “yes 13”. This number, even for Africa is considered a large family. She said that her father “had been a very busy man”. Apparently, nine of her siblings are from nine partners. Agnes and four other siblings are from the union of her mother and father. Amazingly, in her village the traditional custom of strong familial bonds means that all siblings born outside the current marriage are collected from the other partners and then raised by the wife. Consequently, Agnes’s mother has raised 5 of her own children and nine step children.

Her parents are forever badgering her to marry. They are perplexed why she, at age 23, should still be single. Her father is often proposing possible suitors to her, such as suggesting that she marry one of his friends who was 52 years old. She said, “Daddy have you lost your sight and your mind? I want to marry for love”. This sentiment left her father perplexed. He believes that companionship and finding a woman to look after him are more important, than the so-called notion of “love”.

A chink of light from the modern world has crept into Agnes’s family. When Agnes returns home she takes a large bucket of KFC chicken pieces, apples and oranges. This feast is quickly devoured during the first day and everyone is happy and appreciates Agnes and her modern food. However, the next day when all the food is gone, old habits and traditional values reappear, and Agnes’ parents revert to telling her what is wrong with her life and that her values as a modern single girl don’t bring them any happiness or grandchildren.

As a joke on a later visit to the village and the family, Agnes took home a photo on her phone of an Asian gentleman that she had met at Rhino Desert Camp. Arriving at the village, after the bucket of KFC was consumed, her parents like a broken record, asked her about her marriage prospects. She replied with a broad smile, that she had found a wonderful man and she wanted to marry him very soon. She showed her parents the photo, to which, her father proclaimed that he had been taken seriously ill and needed his blood pressure pills. He then took to his bed for the rest of the day. From his sick bed he would look at Agnes with baleful eyes, moan loudly, roll over and face the wall in a state of depression.

Western values and marital fidelity are not practised with much rigour or enthusiasm amongst most people of Namibia. People live together and have many children out of wedlock to multiple partners. The children inevitably end up being reared by the grandparents. However, if a couple decided to marry it is a rigorous, drawn out and expensive affair. Firstly, a man with daughters is considered to be very lucky because at the time of the marriage, a dowry has to be paid to her family by the bridegroom’s family. This is often four cows, or is in the case of town people, the equal price of such. This price can vary upwards if the bride’s parents are not convinced that the potential groom is a suitable match or that there may have been some earlier indiscretions or wrong doings in the groom’s past.

Even though Agnes expresses modern ideals and appreciates that her gender has achieved a level of liberation, she confesses to me wistfully, gazing out on to the Namibian landscape, if she could meet a good man, have a baby and live in the bush, she would be in heaven.

Life for Agnes is a paradox, and no doubt, one that she will be in a constant battle with. My hope for her is that she will achieve her intellectual potential and career ambitions, as well as, find a good man who she loves and rather than being forced into a marriage where she will be a slave to him and their children and have to live with the consequences of his inevitable infidelities.

Being a modern and liberated woman in Africa is a struggle however, many women believe that the fight for equality and self determination is valuable. Go Girls!!!

Categories: Black Rhino, Botswana, Elephants, Language, Lions, Namibia, Photography, Travel, Uncategorized, Zambia | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Namibia’s Hidden Treasure – Black Rhino

I am on my way to see the elusive black rhino of Namibia.

My flight from the Southern Namib Desert is in a small 6 seater plane. My two fellow passengers are Americans – the chap is interested in everything and happy to chat and ask questions as we fly over the amazing scenery. However, his wife sat tensely, gripping the edge of her seat, and quietly under her breath, muttering requests to God to get us down quickly, and preferably on an airstrip.

The route to Desert Rhino Camp in Northern Namibia traversed a huge sea of red sand dunes, approximately 35 kilometres wide. As far as the eye can see is sand, sand and more sand. On reaching the Atlantic Ocean, we headed north along the Skeleton Coast, which is famous for the hundreds of ship wrecks, sea lion colonies and deserted mining camps. As we flew over these sights I wondered about the foolhardy individuals who tried to eke out a living in this God forsaken landscape with promises of unimaginable wealth. They lived with sand from horizon to horizon, not a tree or a blade of grass to be seen, constant wind and the threat of starvation or dying from thirst were daily reminders of the inhospitality and harshness of the landscape. All that is left of this human folly is an abandoned train line and some flimsy wrecks of houses and mine workings.

Finally, after three hours of bouncing around in a little plane I land at Desert Rhino Camp, which is about 35 kilometres inland from the coast. Desert Rhino Camp is to the south of the Kunene region in Namibia. This area covers 450,000 hectares and is made up of rolling, rocky hills, flat-topped mountains and other geometrically shaped outcrops that graphically punctuate the skyline. This area is called Samaraland, named after the indigenous Sama people.

I am collected from the plane by Raymond, my guide for the next three days. A new experience awaits me as we drive to the camp, which is a 45 minute trip from the airstrip. We set off in the Land Rover, and in the first 5 minutes my bones are rattling, my teeth are chattering, and I am gripping on for dear life as we bounce, crash, rattle and roll over tracks that appear to be impassable by vehicle. After 45 minutes of this, we arrive at Desert Rhino Camp and I am met by my host Agnes, with a welcome drink and a cold towel to wipe off a thick layer of dust.

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The stony landscape is a challenge to modern machinery. The Land Rover spends 90% of its time in four-wheel drive as we negotiate rough tracks comprised of boulders, stones, gravel and sand. Bouncing along over these terrains, the guides have christened the experience “the African massage” where every muscle gets a work out – particularly your bottom. There are occasional river and creek beds where permanent springs release a trickle of water for the desert adapted inhabitants. The most amazing of these are the elephants and black rhinos.

The camp is situated in a wide valley. The tented accommodation is comfortably airy with artful African touches in the decor. The dining and sitting area is a large open tent giving great views of the surrounding area and the mountains beyond.
This conservancy is well known and praised for its work in protecting and fostering a large population of desert adapted black rhino. I was lucky enough to see these on my second day. However, the journey was long, hot and arduous over incredibly rough terrain.

When the call came over the two-way that the trackers had found these elusive creatures, our guide revved up the Land Rover and we took off at rally car speed. After 15 mins of bone rattling driving and sweaty palms, we arrived on the scene to find a mother and baby (2 years old) on the hillside about 200 metres away. We were lucky to have a 15 min viewing before they ambled off over the crest of the hill.

At Desert Rhino Camp there is a permanent patrol of rhino conservation officers, who leave HQ at dawn every day, and somehow within the 450 sq kilometers they’re able to track and find rhinos. Their role is to record where the rhinos are, what the rhinos are grazing on, the spread of their home range (as they are solitary animals and establish their own domain) and their general condition. They photograph them and complete a visual checklist, which is then sent off to Headquarters where all this information is put into a centralised database.

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The trackers are an interesting group of men. Denzil, Marten and Danziggy, spend weeks out in the field away from their families and have a variety of backgrounds and experiences but they are united by a common bond to preserve the safety of the rhinos, unlike their neighbours to the south. South Africa is losing a rhino a week to systematic poaching and it is believe that this is the result of corruption at the senior government level.

Danziggy tells me that his grandfather was a poacher when finally, after many years, the law caught up with him and he was thrown into jail. While in jail, he was approached by a lady who was starting a rhino conservation programme. She visited all the jails and in a deal with the Namibian government, paid them to release all the poachers into her care. She then employed them and skilfully utilizing knowledge to look for rhinos and to track their movements so she could educate the locals and lobby government to do more regarding their protection.

Danziggy was only a boy when this happened and sadly his Grandfather died only few years later. His Grandfather had nominated Danziggy as his successor and so he was offered a job when he was only 13 yrs old. He was taken out of school and lived in the bush where he spent time with the trackers observing their craft. He quickly adopted their passion for the rhino. His mind was made up; he chose to take the job as a conservation officer and not complete his education. Following his Grandfather’s example was more important to him.

What is a Black Rhino:
• An adult black rhinoceros stands 132–180 cm (52–71 in) high at the shoulder
• An adult typically weighs from 800 to 1,400 kg (1,800 to 3,100 lb)
• Two horns on the skull are made of keratin with the larger front horn typically 50 cm (20 in) long, exceptionally up to 140 cm (55 in).
• The longest known black rhinoceros horn measured nearly 1.5 m (4.9 ft) in length
• For most of the 20th century the continental black rhino was the most numerous of all rhino species. Around 1900 there were probably several hundred thousand living in Africa. During the latter half of the 20th century their numbers were severely reduced from an estimated 70,000 in the late 1960s to only 10,000 to 15,000 in 1981. In the early 1990s the number dipped below 2,500, and in 2004 it was reported that only 2,410 black rhinos remained.
• The black rhinoceros had been pushed to the brink of extinction by illegal poaching for their horn
• A major market for rhino horn has historically been in the Arab nations to make ornately carved handles for ceremonial daggers called jambiyas. Demand for these exploded in the 1970s causing the black rhinoceros population to decline 96% between 1970 and 1992.
• The horn is also used in traditional Chinese medicine, and is said by herbalists, to be able to revive comatose patients, cure fevers, and aid male sexual stamina and fertility
• Black rhinos has a reputation for being extremely aggressive, charge readily at perceived threats and have even been observed to charge tree trunks and termite mounds
• They will fight each other, and have the highest rates of mortal combat recorded for any mammal: about 50% of males and 30% of females die from combat-related injuries
• The black rhinoceros is a herbivorous browser that eats leafy plants, branches, shoots, thorny wood bushes, and fruit

Categories: Black Rhino, Botswana, Elephants, Lions, Namibia, Travel, Uncategorized, Zambia | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Botswana – Wild Dogs and Elephants Galore

Chobe National Park, in northern Botswana, and in particular The Savuti Channel and the Savuti Marsh, have the largest elephant population, numbering upwards of 50,000. We are anticipating seeing many of these wonderful and majestic creatures over the next few days.

After a short flight from the Okovango Delta, we arrive at the bush strip in the Savuti Channel. We are met by our guide for the next three days – Gee! We quickly christen him Gee 2 (as we already had a guide named Gee in the Delta). He is an amiable young man with a good sense of humour who often pulls our leg with a few misleading “facts” or bit of teasing.

Savuti is very dry and very, very, very sandy. There are long flat vistas that are bone dry and sparsely vegetated with dry grass, bushes and stunted trees which have been devastated by the herds of elephants passing through. The plains are interspersed with round granite hills that punctuate the skyline and give some relief to the otherwise featureless landscape.

Occasionally, we travel through dense scrub and stunted mopane forests, which the elephants love. Their voracious appetite, is graphically seen, by the swathes of trees that have been pushed over and then carefully stripped of any leaves.

The Savuti Marsh area, 10,878 km² large, constitutes the western stretch of the park. The Savuti Marsh is the relic of a large inland lake whose water supply was cut a long time ago by tectonic movements. Nowadays the marsh is fed by the erratic Savuti Channel, which dries up for long periods then curiously flows again, a consequence of continuing tectonic activity in the area.

It is currently flowing and in January 2010 reached the Savuti Marsh for the first time since 1982. The region is also covered with extensive savannahs and rolling grasslands, which makes wildlife particularly dynamic in this section of the park. As it is the dry season, the variety of animals include; warthogs, kudus, impalas, zebras, wildebeests and above all elephants. Along the stream and pools in the marsh there is rich variety of birdlife – some 450 species in the whole park. Packs of lions, hyenas, zebras – or more rarely cheetahs – are visible as well. This region is indeed reputed for its annual migration of zebras and predators.

Our camp is situated in a hillside and overlooks the Savuti Channel and has a “lawn” with a man-made waterhole beside the river. The elephants come to this waterhole daily, and particularly at sunset, when they come in after feeding out in the parched savannah. They come by in their tens and twenties and when the waterhole is full, others stand on the edge of the river and others rest on the “lawn” to wait for their turn at the waterhole. This is a magnificent sight but there is a significant draw back – it stinks! There is so much elephant poo & pee that the air is fetid and pungent, so much so, that it takes your breath away.

One of the rarest animals in Africa is the African Wild Dog and here in the Savuti Marsh we were lucky enough to sight a pack of three African Wild Dogs. These are distinctive looking creatures: lean, long bodied, large head with powerful jaws (the strongest bite of any canine) and very large erect ears. They have an unusually “painted” coat, which is a mixture of brown, red, black and greys all splodged together like an abstract painting. They are notoriously shy and their numbers are significantly limited.

Our trio had just made a kill of a baby kudu antelope and had gorged themselves into a stupor and were wearing this off while lying on cool green grass beside a pool in a large marshland. They were very much at ease but you could see that even though they looked asleep – their ears were registering every sound and assessing the need for action – fight or flight.

The African Wild Dog is an endangered species due to habitat loss and predator control killing. They range over very large territories, and are strongly affected by competition with larger carnivores that rely on the same prey base, particularly the lion and the Spotted Hyena. While the adult wild dogs can usually outrun the larger predators, lions often will kill as many wild dogs and cubs as they can but do not eat them. One-on-one the hyena is much more powerful than the wild dog but a large group of wild dogs can successfully chase off a small number of hyenas because of their teamwork and social organisation.

Apart from some rare and exciting sightings of birds and animals, we were treated to a very exciting sun downer experience. Gee 2 took us for a long afternoon drive and as the sun started to set, we crested a small rise and there before us was a splendid surprise – a grove of magnificent African Baobab trees. There are 6 species of baobab trees in the world – one in Africa, one in Australia and four in Madagascar.

These ancient and amazing looking trees reach heights of 5 to 30 m (16 to 98 ft) and have trunk diameters of 7 to 11 m (23 to 36 ft). An African baobab specimen in Limpopo Province, South Africa, often considered the largest example alive had a circumference of 47 m (154 ft). Its diameter is estimated at about 15.9 m (52 ft). Some baobabs are reputed to be many thousands of years old but this is hard to verify, as the wood does not produce annual growth rings. But they certainly look prehistoric and are sometimes called the upside down tree as the bare branches certainly look as though they are the roots of the tree.

As with anything so unusual, many myths and legends surround baobab tree:
• The Baobab tree fell from the sky that’s why it is upside down
• When God made the world, he gave each animal a tree. The Baobab was given to the hyena who threw it down in disgust with the tree landing upside down resulting in its impressive shape
• If you pick the flower of the baobab you will be eaten by a lion
• If you drink water in which a Baobab’s seeds have been soaked you will be safe from a crocodile attack.

Next blog – Zambia and a safari on the mighty Zambezi river….

Categories: Animals, Botswana, Elephants, Photography, Travel, Uncategorized, Wild Dogs | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Zambia – Hippos and other things that go bump in the night!

On leaving the salubrious surrounds and 5 star accommodation of the Royal Livingstone Hotel overlooking the rapids of the Zambezi River and Victoria Falls, we were keen to get back to the bush. After 2 days of civilization we were hankering for the wide-open spaces and the daily adventures of spotting animals and other exciting events that occur in the African wilderness.

We flew out from the Victoria Falls airport on a small 20-seater plane bound for Lusaka in Zambia. The flight challenged the most flight-hardened stomach, as the plane lurched and rolled through turbulent air currents. This had many passengers reaching for the little bags in the seat pocket. Somewhat green about the gills, we finally touched down and made our way to a small bush plane that was to carry us to the Jeki airstrip on the Lower Zambezi River.

Our initial confidence in the pilot and plane was somewhat diminished when we arrived at the plane sitting on the airstrip and found the pilot banging a window back into place and also noticing that a good part of the door mechanism was held together with gaffer tape. Gulp!!

We managed to shoehorn ourselves into the cramped twin-engine eight seater, with the window finally in place and door somewhat secured behind us, we commenced to taxi to the runway. As the engines revved up, the noise was deafening and the vibration had everyone’s teeth chattering. After taxing for 5 mins, the pilot announced that he was not happy with one of the engines and was returning to the hangar for maintenance. We, and the luggage were offloaded and after a 30 minute wait a solution was sorted out. The decision to change planes was made and we transferred to a larger and speedier plane as the afternoon light was slipping away and nightfall was only a couple of hours away. This meant that landing on a bush strip would be impossible after sunset.

We left civilization behind us as the townships below gave way to farmland, and then in turn, the farmland gave way to wide-open spaces dotted with small isolated villages of round thatched huts and wooden fences. After the plane crossed the rugged and sparsely vegetated highlands we dropped over the escarpment and there spread out before us, was the panoramic view of the Lower Zambezi Valley. The mighty Zambezi River in places was up to a kilometre wide; punctuated by grassy islands, reed beds and sand bars. However, we knew that more exciting and dangerous things lurked in the river. As the plane began its descent, we spotted crocodiles lolling on the sandbars catching the last rays of the day, and in the river, large pods of hippos were submerged in the deeper water.

While circling Jeki airstrip checking the surrounding bush for any animals that could wander onto the strip, we spotted our guide and jeep waiting to take us on a 10 minute trip to the high-speed boat for a 60 minute ride upriver to Sausage Tree Camp which will be home for the next four nights.

The boat rounded the river bend and there hugging the banks was Sausage Tree Camp. Overlooking the river was an open sided dining area with a large wooden terrace with a central fire pit, where in the evenings everyone would congregate to share stories of their great African adventures. Tall tales and true!

Our homes for the next 4 nights were comfortable thatched huts with walls made of reed canes, large doors opened onto a wooden veranda overlooking the river and the resident hippos. The bathroom was “en suite” which in Africa means that your bathroom comes complete with geckos, lizards, monkeys, insects (some the size of small birds) and anything else that can fly, climb or walk its way into it. The bathroom had a wonderful view of the river, which could be enjoyed from all vantage points, including sitting on the toilet.

My “butler”, was a charming, shy young man who is married with a little baby girl – Isabella- whose picture he very proudly showed me on his phone. He seemed to materialise at any time of day or night. In the morning before dawn, there would be a discrete “knock knock” at the door and he would slip into the room to deliver a morning cup of tea. In the evening, he would be waiting at your door to escort you to and from dinner, while walking along the paths he would cast his flashlight into the surrounding undergrowth to make sure that no intruders were lurking there. During the day, when we were out on safari, he would prepare the room and bathroom and make sure that the laundry was done and all was ready for our return. He was very caring and professional and would be a credit to any five-star establishment.

Sausage Tree Camp is unfenced and therefore open to all animals so we were unable to roam at night and before dawn and needed to be accompanied to and from the rooms and jeeps. This was an important precaution as the resident hippo “Dexter” was very happy roaming about in the night and many elephants made themselves at home as well, day and night. It is not unusual to see furry, large toothed carnivores roam around as well, so these precautions were not over rated.

Dexter does not venture very far from his pool in the river in front of the camp. It appears that his attachment to this spot is because he is the son of a resident female hippo that used to bring him there when he was very small. Sadly she no longer around, and it seems that Dexter has taken up residence at the camp. He spends his days in the water in front of the camp and occasionally he will make landfall on one of the immediate islands to graze during the day. At night he is a constant visitor around and about and you can hear him grunting as grazes at night.

Our camp routine was quickly established: early morning “knock knock” call, a quick breakfast, onto the jeep for a game drive or other activities such as fishing, walking safaris, canoeing or boating, home for lunch and a much needed thirst quenching beer, the usual afternoon siesta, afternoon tea, afternoon game drive, sun-downers, home for dinner, and then fall into bed to the sounds of the night.

The African nightly chorus can be deafening. When all the members of the choir are in full voice there are frogs whose croaks vary from bell-like tinkling to a deep throated bass rasp. The sound builds in strength and volume until it feels like the air will split and then inexplicably they will all stop and silence descends on the river. There are a myriad of crickets whose sawing sound comes and goes in waves of sound. The hippos splash, snort and grump about in the water before making their way onto land at night to graze. Some nights, sleep is interrupted by the deep barking cough of male lions proclaiming their territory to any likely intruders. This can be heard from many kilometres away and is a terrifying noise if it is close by. In the marshes you can hear the elephants foraging for water-lily roots, which they thrash about in the water to remove the mud before gorging themselves.

During our stay we were treated to a special lunch. We were taken by boat out onto the Zambezi River and beached on a sandbar in six inches of water. What a surprise – we were delighted to find the lunch table set up under a canopy, set with pristine glassware and cutlery. We were treated to a delicious BBQ lunch washed down with Pimms while enjoying the unique experience of the Zambezi river rushing through our feet. The thought of crocodiles and hippos joining the lunch table did cross my mind but I am sure that our hosts had this under control.

Next post – Namibia. A different Africa with amazing scenery, huge skies and wonderful people.

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

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

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