Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Rain, Cats, Frogs and Christmas at Exeter!

I was so over-excited as I left Kruger on the 23rd of December, a feeling I have never before felt - but that's because this time I was off to fetch my dad and brother for a trip to Exeter River Lodge, in the Sabi Sands, for Christmas. True to form I got a bit lost, as the Phalaborwa area is abysmally signposted, but I made my way eventually on to the R40, direction Nelspruit. Not long after I had left Kruger, I got a call to say that the plane from Cape Town was to be delayed at least three hours, as it was broken, and a new part needed to be flown down from Johannesburg. Oh well… at least this would give me a chance to drop in at Landrover to check why the brake pad light was on. Three hours, and four new brake pads which should never have been worn through but somehow were and I arrived at the airport just in the nick of time, with two hours to spare. It's always a great start to a trip, missing the first drive due to a delayed flight! It had also begun to rain, and the roads leading to the Sabi Sands Shaws gate were waterlogged! When we did get there, we were treated to the warm friendly smiles, and welcome drinks which the &Beyond group is so adept at providing, and all was well. I had some people to talk to, dinner was ready, and that night I slept deeply, curled up under a fluffy duvet, the sound of rain pattering down all around.

Flapjacks in the bush, made by our awesome Chef, Dave. 

The following morning dawned, shall we say, damp. The few hours of drive which we diligently and eagerly managed ensured that I was completely waterlogged, my hands wrinkled as though after a long bath. There was not an inch of my clothing which was dry, but I was happy, in beautiful surroundings, and welcomed back to the lodge with Amarula and Hot Chocolate, how could anyone complain?

That afternoon, the skies had cleared slightly, so I managed to remain dry, but game viewing was none the less quite slow. The whole trip seemed as though it would be ‘slow’ relative to the usual spark of the Sands. In amoungst the slowness however, some serious greatness emerged. On the rainy morning drive, we did some serious frogging - I mean ranger (Mark) and tracker (Jack) flying off the vehicle after frogs, and bringing them to the waterlogged people for a better view. There were Bullfrogs, Rain frogs, Banded Rubber frogs with bright red stripes across their black bodies. There were ‘Plat-Anna’s’, a very flat frog, and others which we watched although could not identify. It was actually great fun, and something different from the norm to see the frogs lining the roads which had turned into streams in some places, fast flowing rivers in others. That first day the Sands received 92mm of rain. That afternoon we saw two of the Mapogo Male lions, the first lions two of the other guests had ever seen. 

Grooming on the termite mound

Paddy Paws

The morning after the rain it was again cloudy, but, spirits high, we started tracking a female leopard Hlangisa. She is the leopard I first saw as a tiny cub, high up in a tree over two years ago. Now fully independent, and beautiful, we were very keen to see her. Three hours of tracking, and still nothing. The tracks had led us back and forth- typical of a leopard whose name means ‘Playful’ in Shangaan, the local language.  It was time to give up, and we stopped to enjoy coffee and talk about the bush. After coffee, and five minutes of driving, there she was. Hlangisa, atop a termite mound, next to the road we had driven, waiting for us, surprised it had taken so long for us to catch up. Everyone else had already headed back to their respective lodges, so we were able to view her uninterrupted as she posed on the mound, groomed herself, walked about and eventually settled in a tree, scanning for prey. What a magnificent reward for the time spent! She has filled out quite a bit since I last saw her in April, and is looked far more mature in my opinion.

Hlangisa was to become the theme of the trip. We saw no other leopard in four days, but we did see her three times, all excellent sighting, enjoyed alone, and for as long as we wanted, with no other vehicles to push us out of the sighting. 

The beautiful Hlangisa posing

Other highlights were seeing the two Mapogo with a buffalo kill, too full to feed, but also too full to lie down in their usual pose. We viewed two young Ottawa Pride males, sons of the Mapogos but who appeared to have been in some sort of fight with their fathers, as they had a few cuts and were soaking wet, as though they had landed in a dam to escape the onslaught. We managed to view the Shimungwe pride, and their four cubs of various ages, although true to form, these did indeed sleep! 

Makulu Mapogo- still gojng strong at 13 or so

That night, we bore witness to quite a spectacle. After such a high volume of rain, the termite mounds exploded. Here, unlike what I saw in Kruger, the Fungus termites, the ones which build the huge mounds, were released onto their mounds, where soldier ants gathered to protect them before their maiden flight. Their large bodies attached to larger wings, preparing for flight. At one mound, each termite that took off was systematically zapped by a barn swallow, as it attemted to leave. We could see each tiny kill happen, as all that was needed was to keep a sharp eye on each termite. Even a blind person could have understood what was happening around them, as each time a swallow grabbed a termite, there was a very audible ‘click’ as his beak collided with it, and he flew off. At some mounds there were no birds, and the termites took off in swarms, the sound of brittle wings fluttering in the cool, crisp air. That night I am sure there were some well fed frogs, birds and small mammals…

Termite Explosion

Foam- Nest Tree Frogs laying their eggs inside a white foam which hardens until the tadpoles are ready to drop

Flap- Neck Chamelion crossing

On one drive we saw a White Rhino calf which was at most a week old, very tiny, and nervous, hiding underneath its mother. We also saw a large calf pushing against a bull Rhino, to keep it away from his mother - very cute and rather surprising considering the size difference! Elephant and large buffalo herds were around in great numbers, and waw general game such as giraffe, Wildebeest (surprisingly for the Western Sector of the Sands) and impala. 

To celebrate Christmas (the main reason for the timing of this short break) there was a tree, covered in lights in the main area. Christmas eve we had Christmas Crackers and Cocktails with dinner, Christmas day, an incredible Ginger-Bread-Man cake, Pumpkin pie and Mince pies. The food was in steady supply, and all delicious! It made a real change from two minute noodles or steak which I had become used to…

As a result of the overcast weather, we did a walk one morning, to see the area on foot, and get a better view of the smaller things such as tracks and insects. I felt like I was part of a troupe of baboons, as four of us walked around, hunched over sticking long grasses down the nests of Baboon Spiders to provoke a reaction. We did the same to Lion Ants, and had a lot of fun- it was one of the best bush walks I have been on.

The amazing Gingerbread- Mad- House
The final sunset drive, after viewing the lion pride, and a few Gin and Dry Lemons, we went into a sighting of Hlangisa. No one else was interested, and we were left alone with her. At first she was grooming, walked here and there alert as always. Then she spotted a herd of impala, and as the sky darkened, she began to hunt them. It was wonderful to see her belly crawl on the road, to hear the impala moving about, hear them spot her and begin to snort. We sat with her as she waited patiently for them to relax, and as she again attempted to gain some ground, stealthy under the cover of darkness.  She didn’t manage to kill one that night, but it was a wonderful precursor to the final morning drive.

Our last day dawned overcast, I was sad as I was again to be alone, and, as all of the guests on our vehicle were leaving, we put in our last minute requests. Hyena featured strongly on the list, as the other guests had never seen them. Not being a trackable animal, we didn’t hold out much hope, until one appeared standing curiously in the road ahead of us. We viewed it with excitement, at having ticked off the wish list's main item so early in the morning! Then we heard the whoops coming from a short way away - the hyena did too, and loped off, in a hurry. We took a road which seemed to go into the correct area and found a lioness, her face bloody from a recent meal, standing and watching as her carcass was stolen by a pack of seven hyena. They were excited, tails up, whooping and whining, and she moved slowly off. Still within a kilometer of the lodge, everyone was very happy! 

It was then leopard tracking time, and after leaving the trackers to go off on foot, we got stuck in the mud just after they called in to say they had seen the leopard, but it had run off. The car which was to pull us out of the mud also became stuck, and so a third vehicle lent a hand. Now out of the mud, we were informed that it was a very skittish young male, who would be difficult to view. Instead, we went and set up coffee on a small clearing, our last for that Exeter trip.

Hlangisa was our last sighting. All other vehicles had left the area when we arrived with her, and she had a treat in store for us. After some aimless wandering around, changing direction and listening to everything around her she suddenly stood stock still, her tail twitching at high speed, as she began to lift her back paws up and down excitedly. She did this on the spot for what felt like ages, before all of a sudden jumping into the air and pouncing, then chasing a tiny impala lamb which had been hiding in the tall grass. She grabbed the lamb by the neck and it bleated, legs kicking, as she slowly bit into the soft cartilage, crushing the wind pipe.  She was so close to us, holding her prize in her mouth, watching us and listening for the sound of another predator  which ma have heard the calls. When she dropped the lamb, it gave a few last futile kicks with its tiny legs before lying still. It was really really special, watching this leopard over the four days, seeing her going about her daily rituals, hunting and finally, 12 hours later, making a kill right infront of our vehicle.

Even when it rains, Exeter can surely deliver!!!

Friday, 23 December 2011

Quiet days at the river

I spent a relatively quiet few days up at Shingwedzi, followed by a night at Letaba before I was to fetch my family at the airport. I did not take nearly as many photos as usual, nor did I really photograph any cats, although I did see leopard, lions and an African Wild Cat. This morning I did however get to photograph a leopard on my way out of the park. She was a beautiful female who moved from side to side of the road using the drainage lines underneath, much to my surprise.

Shingwedzi area has fantastic birding, and I saw Parrots, Broad-Billed Rollers, Bee eaters, Vultures, copious eagles and Woodlands kingfisher in abundance, as well as Fish Eagles, but these were mostly beyond the reach of my lens. I was also tired, so I did get some extra sleep (after a morning drive, of course).  The weather was scorching, easily 40 some days!

Kingfisher waking up - looks far better than I do!

Buffalo herds were everywhere, large herds upwards of 200 animals plodded about, moo-ing like so many cattle as they walked. There were also large herds of elephant, and pods of hippo in the river and Kanniedood dam.

I wound my way along the river loops, stopping to listen as the birds called to one another, or to watch an impala chewing some grass. Some monkeys entertained me for a while, and it was enjoyable. I did miss photographing cats though, as I do love them, but I guess there have to be some quiet times so that you can appreciate the good ones! The highlight of these drives was for me seeing my first Roan Antelopes, stately animals, in a herd of 12. They were drinking at a waterhole, before moving off over the dry bush, into the sunlight and away.

Impala early morning

First rays of light!

Enjoying the last rays of sun

Now, I am off to the Sabi Sands for a few days with my family for Christmas. That is if their plane ever leaves Cape Town, already having been delayed over 3 hours as a part had to be flown down from Johannesburg. Oh well!! To be fair, the delay is not too bad for me, as I have to sit at Land Rover anyway, again having some different brake pads replaced. Oh the joys! At least there is great tasting coffee and an air-conditioned board room for me!

Sharpe's Grysbok

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Why bushveld summers rock! Kruger cont...

The woodlands and the fly

The past few days have been very quiet on the cat front, but have provided me with some wonderful reasons as to why, despite this, I absolutely love summer here in the bush.

New Romance

Two days ago, the day began at 2am for me when a huge crack of light shot me straight up in my bed. It was pouring with rain outside, thunder periodically bellowing, and to say I was nervous would be an understatement. Fortunately I was so tired that I did fall asleep again, and when I woke at 4am to make coffee for the drive, the thunder had stopped. Shortly after leaving the gate however, the heavens again opened, and it rained so hard I could barely see where I was going. Highly unlikely many cats would be about in this weather, but one of the reasons I love summer in the bushveld is the rain. When it rains like this, and soaks the earth, saturating every donga and gully, and creating new streams on every side. When the rain stops, everything springs to life. The earth smells beautiful and damp, the birds begin to call, and young animals race around, reveling in the water and the sun as it peeks out from behind the clouds. I did find a  pack of hyena who were arguing over an old Wildebeest skeleton as the rain stopped. They were very nervous, and kept moving along the road, looking over their shoulders. 

Hyena with the 'prize' in motion

A new marsh formed by the storm

The usually shy bushbuck

Another bad spell for the frogs!

Preening hoopoo

Young waterbuck at sunset

Playful zebras after the rain

"and then..." said the demented zebra to the terrified oxpecker.

In summer, the bush comes alive with bird song. The Woodlands Kingfishers arrive, and begin their shrill calls, and displaying their wings at every other kingfisher they see. These little birds are a delight to watch, and the past few days I got a couple of opportunities to photograph them in good light. I have never really spent the best light on birds, but this time I did, enjoying watching their movement, and the colours of their wings.

One unmistakable bird, at any time of the year, is the Spurfowl. These birds are always heard, their unmelodious calls giving you a fright as you disturb them while driving. In the early morning they love to sit high on dead trees, welcoming the morning. They do the same before storms. They can be used to alert yourself to the presence of a predator when you hear their alarm calls, however they are quite unreliable, as they alarm at many things - you know what they say about a bird brain.

Another call that makes me think of summer is that of the Red Crested Khorhaan. They have a distinctive call, and it can be heard throughout the bush as you drive, a sort of whistle, interspersed with clicks. I found one standing on a termite mound and calling for all the world (really just me and any potential lady friends) to see. They open their beaks as wide as possible, and stick their tongues up, making them quite photogenic especially in good light

The arrival of the huge flocks of queleas also signals the arrival of summer. And their wing beats as thousands of them take off and land as one can be heard from quite a distance, as can their chattering calls. What amazes me most is how none of them appear to collide in their frantic flight. Birds are really a mystery!

After the heavy rains of two days ago, the termite mounds began erupting, with hundreds of potential queens sent out into the world on flimsy wings which only last for a short flight. The idea is that they are released when the ground has been softened by the rain, and, finding a mate, burrow into the ground and attempt to start a colony of their own. One landed in my car, a fat queen, never to fulfill her destiny. The birds cannot resist this feast, their plump bodies a nutrious fatty meal. All along the road sides, Go- Away- Birds, Eagles, Hawks, Spurfowl, Mongooses, Monkeys and others gathered to pick up the floundering termites. I had to drive quite carefully to avoid a massacre! Every day on the S100 road, I have seen a very skittish Brown Hooded Kingfisher who disappears the second I stop my car. With this feast, he couldn’t resist returning time and again to the road to gorge himself, so I finally managed to tie him down for long enough to take a shot! I had actually driven to the area I had seen him in on purpose, in the hope that he would oblige me.

Baboon looking FAR too human for my liking.

Yesterday I witnessed something extremely special, which I have never before seen. The rains and the onset of summer signal the arrival of all the summer babies. The past three weeks, I have seen numerous new faces, Impala calves, Steenbok calves, Giraffe babies and more recently the Wildbeest began to arrive. Yesterday I was privileged enough to watch one arrive.

The babies legs began slowly emerged from behind the Wildebees mother, covered in slime and there they stopped, as she heaved away, changing position, kneeling, lying flat, all the while her stomach muscles clenching as she tried to get the calf out. The rest of the small herd were quite curious, often nuzzling her, or sniffing at the unborn calfs feet. When the baby was about half way out, she turned around, so I could only watch the heaving and her facial expression before I saw a tiny head slip out, and stare in bewilderment at the world around it. The harsh midday sun must have been quite a shock to eyes which had never before seen light.  Another calf which had been lying next to the birthing mother stared at it, unsure as to whether it had been there before, and with that the baby wildbeest met the first other member of his family.  He sat blinking for a few minutes, covered in slime and dirt before trying to lift himself onto wobbly legs. Knowing how long it takes a human child to gain any control of their TWO legs, it is amazing that this calf gained any control of his FOUR! He fell forward with the first attemp, backwards with the second, The third try he managed to walk a few steps before one of the stick- like legs gave way and he again collapsed to the ground. His mother nuzzled him gently, encouraging him, as the other calf stared on. 

Hello bright world

A few minutes of trying and he had finally gained some control, and although he was clearly top heavy, he could attempt to follow his mother. Well, more accurately who he thought was his mother - a young male wildebeest who was rather confused by the sudden ‘affection’ of the calf. His actual mother trailed behind him, affectionately nibbling his bum, trying to clean off the afterbirth and get his attention. A few more falls, and nudges and he worked out who his real mother was and began to suckle. It was pure magic, so very special and although the photo’s cannot do any justice to the moment, as the light was harsh, other wildebeest kept walking in the way, and my hands were shaking, still, they represent one of the most precious moments ever. Soon the calf was walking around, more or less at ease, as his mother paced back and forth, presumably encouraging him to move and strengthen his legs for the trials of life which wait for no man (or beast). He will need lots of strength and a little luck to survive, but God certainly gave him the best opportunity, being born so fully developed, into a herd, with an almost immediate ability to run!

Tentative legs

A gentle nudge in the right direction

I can (almost) walk!

These reasons and many more are why I love summer in the bush. Yes, viewing may be easier in winter, and photography may be better with fewer intruding grasses or leaves, but in the summertime the bush comes alive.

Impala near Shingwedzi, my new home

Self portrait for those of you that have forgotten what I look like :) 

A coucal with his newly- hatched termite