Monday, 29 August 2011

West Coast Magic

I am just back from a short weekend break in the West Coast National Park. I stayed in the Duinepos chalets, a community run project  inside the park, and they were really delightful. There were even heaters and an inside fire pre filled with wood! Have a look at if you are interested in spending a night or two in the park. The chalets are also reasonably priced, in particular if there are 4 of you. The weather was pretty cold most of the weekend, and when we went to the hide early morning before the sun rose, the path felt wet under foot. When we walked back in the light, we could see the reason sparkling before us- there was a good layer of shiny, glittery ice all along the raised platform, with shoe prints clearly showing our earlier path.

One of the main reasons to go to this park at this time of year is that the Postberg Reserve inside the park is open for flower viewing. It only opens for 2 months, and I believe the display this year is pretty good! I know nothing about photographing flowers, or landscapes, so I was really just there to have a look, and to hopefully spot a caracal (I had been told this was my best chance.) The flowers were lovely to see, covering large areas in white, yellow and orange, with herds of Eland ranging from 20- 60 individuals strolling through them. We also saw Wildebeest, Springbok, Blesbok and my first Black Harrier soaring over the dunes. One of the highlights was seeing bat- eared fox listening for insects in the flowers, and I will hopefully pop up there later this week sometime to have another look for them.

My favourite part of the whole weekend was that I got to spend an hour in close proximity to caracal!! This is something that has never happened, except at a wildlife rescue centre where I got to play with 3 kittens which tore my hands to shreds! I was over the moon. The first caracal was very relaxed, and walked along the road, up and down the dunes until some people got out their cars. There are no signs prohibiting this, and common sense is apparently not strong with some (it of course had the effect of scaring the cat away). We waited until they had driven on and then the cat came out again and resumed its stroll. The second time this happened we left. On the way back from the Postberg Reserve, we again saw a very relaxed cat . This cat actually stalked a few birds and came within metres of our car! It was very very exciting to say the least, and is another reason I will be back there soon! The third cat was skittish, and we didn't get to view it well so we decided to leave it in peace.

During the weekend we also saw a snake, and some whales, along with various sea birds and flamingoes. A kestrel near the hide was so relaxed that it allowed me within about half a metre of it before taking to the skies. From the park you can see Table Mountain, so it's not so far from Cape Town as to prohibit a day trip. I look forward to going back, and hopefully seeing some more of those elusive tuft- eared cats.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Hide and Go seek : Finland and the bears

Anyone who has flown into Helsinki will know it’s not a particularly large city. It’s also surrounded by forest on all sides, forest as far as the eye can see (…except when the eye is looking at a lake. ) There are 188 000 lakes in Finland, which is a lot of lake. Although even this is not quite as impressive as knowing that 66% of the country is covered by beautiful green forests: forests full of spruce and pine trees, birds, butterflies, moose, reindeer and bears (among others). This is my kind of country, green and natural, where wildlife is allowed to survive relatively undisturbed in natural tracts of land, without fences. I wouldn’t have expected any of you to know these two wonderful facts, as until I climbed into the second (much smaller) propeller plane in Helsinki for my flight to Kajaani, I didn’t either. 

When the din of the propellers finally died down, and I felt safe enough to gaze out the window, all I could see below the odd cloud cover was forest, lake, forest, and lake. It was magical, so much green. Our drive from the airport took just under two, hours, and when I wasn’t sleeping from exhaustion brought on by far insufficient sleep in the Arctic, I just stared out the window while our driver, and the owner of the lodge, Ari, told us about the bears. That was of course the sole reason for our trip to Finland, the chance to watch the European Brown Bears as they go about their business from the safety of a photographic hide.

The lodge itself was set deep in the Taiga forest and was homely and family run. It is on the shore of a small lake, surrounded by trees, and about 2 kilometers from the Russian border. That first evening we basically collapsed into bed straight after dinner, dead to the world. The following day, we decided to take a walk to the border. I don’t think we got there, and I’m not entirely sure we headed in the correct direction, but we did enjoy spending some time in the forest, listening to the birds, watching butterflies and searching for berries.

Me with my anti-mosquito blanket...

That afternoon, we met our host at 4pm for dinner and an introduction to the hides. The hides are situated on the edge of a small lake, in a marsh, surrounded by (obviously) forest. The bears are very shy animals, as they are still hunted in Finland and Russia, although the border area is almost a ‘safe haven’ for them. In Finland at least, permits are very expensive, and not many fins can afford one. Then we started the march to the hide. I say ‘march’, as our guide was on a serious mission. Its just under a kilometer, and we must have covered that distance in max 10 minutes. We were fortunate to have amazing weather, but this also means it was hot. 28 degrees hot most days. Marching as we were up and down little forest paths when the air is muggy and you’re carrying a good 20 kg’s of camera equipment certainly didn’t help us keep cool! One problem with having the Arctic trip right before was that I had basically packed 2 t-shirts. In future, I would take a few more, especially in July during the Finnish summer!

The hides are about 1.7 metres wide, and 1.5 metres long. That included space for bunk beds, and there is  no toilet to speak of, just a bucket with a seat and lid (- a good reason not to need the loo!) The first night we were so hot, it took forever to cool down, mostly because we hadn’t been prepared. By the third night we had wet towels with us, and it was pleasant. You can choose your hides each night, depending on the view you want, and then you cannot leave between 5.30pm and 7am the following morning, for obvious reasons.

Some of the bird life around the lake

We had barely been in the hide for half an hour when our first bear arrived. There are scraps of Salmon hidden under logs for the bears, from the nearby salmon farm. This encourages them to visit the site as part of their nightly foraging. I was over the moon excited to see him, in his shaggy brown coat on the opposite side of the lake. Some gulls scared him off though, and I was worried that would be it for the evening. How wrong was I! 

A younger bear with a beautiful coat

This bear is a well known 24 year old Male

We had around 15 visits that first night, by what I imagine was 5 or 6 individuals. One came to within around 3 meters of the hide, so close we could almost feel his breath! Of course, I had just stuck my head out of one of the 4 lens holes when this happened. and was obliviously day dreaming away when a sharp pat on the back brought me back to reality, and to quite a surprise with the bear staring at me chewing some salmon. They are really beautiful creatures, with very flat faces and huge rear ends. When they run, their whole body shakes from side to side, and they look very comical. Their eyes are a rich brown colour, and the younger ones have incredibly sleek coats of a rich hue. It was quite something to have them so close.

The bear 3 metres from my protruding head

About 3 metres from the hide

The gulls can make the bears nervous

That evening I slept about 2 hours, from 12-2pm. It is light enough to see the whole night through, although in the midnight hours it’s a strange blue light, and there was quite often mist rising off the lake. When I woke, and my dad went to sleep, he had barely laid down when a Wolverine appeared from the forest and ran around the lake. A while later, he ran back again, and a different individual appeared an hour or so later. We were also fortunate enough to see a lone wolf, as he moved between the trees. Wolves are very endangered in Europe, and this was really special for us. He was a large silver male, almost ghostly in the mist.

The following morning after breakfast and a shower I passed out for a good 5 hours. One thing you learn quickly in the Arctic is to sleep whenever there is time, and to sleep well in the daylight. I out this to good use in Finland, and slept like a baby all day long until we woke to visit the hides again in the afternoon.

It was really quite an experience staying in the hides. They were small, hot and uncomfortable, but the sightings were like magic. To be able to watch wild brown bears in their environment, completely undisturbed was really special, and I will definitely be doing another few trips to see them. I believe April has far fewer numbers, but there is a good chance of seeing them in the snow. September is supposed to be great for the autumnal colours and the cold misty mornings. At the very least I would like to experience these two seasons with the bears, and maybe see a mother with cubs, or a bear climbing a tree. Either way, bears have certainly stolen part of my heart, and I dream about seeing them again soon. 

I should however warn that the mosquitos are giant, and tenacious. If you spray the anti- mosquito cream on them, they still don’t get deterred. I have proof in the form of 20 odd giant bites on my shoulders and elbows. Still, that’s hardly too high a price to pay for the opportunity to see a bear in the wild!!!

Brown bear at Sunset, Hide 1

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Cats and Flamingoes at Halali

Our final three nights in Etosha were spent at Halali Restcamp, a camp situated more or less in the middle of the tourist area of the park. It is an area that is considerably different form Okaukuejo and Namutoni in that there are hills, and Mopani bush all around the camp. Once you break through the Mopani, you enter huge plains on either side, stretching as far as the eye can see, and the pan. The pan was the biggest surprise of all on this trip, as I mentioned in a previous post, as it was full of water.

Halali is known for its leopard sightings, and is the best part of the park to see this elusive cat, as the vegetation allows it to maintain its secretive lifestyle. We unfortunately did not see this cat this year in Etosha, but the other cats certainly showed themselves (finally!) around Halali. Each day here, we had numerous lion sightings, some good, some sleeping under bushes. The plains toward Okaukuejo are home to three waterholes, all in close proximity to each other, and on the edge of the pan. The lions live there. Everyday there were a couple sleeping inside the same clump of bushes. Every day the zebra herds came down in their hundreds to drink, under the watchful eye of these cats. We never saw them make a kill, but we did see them hunting, spreading out around the increasingly nervous herds on our last drive. We waited as long as earthly possible until we had to push on. If we had stayed, undoubtedly we would have got our kill, but it would have been a few hours in the making, time we didn’t have.

We also saw lions in the roads close to camp on two occasions. Both times they were hunting, fanning out then coming together until we lost them from view. The one was a group of three females, and the other a pride of 8 adults, who looked very menacing. We also saw a small group playing Goas, early on our last morning in the park.

Near Halali we had our first cheetah sightings of the trip, two different sightings of a female and cub. It was nice to see these cats, although I didn’t waste any hard drive space on the photo’s as they were very skittish and in the long grass. It was while watching the first of these that we noticed a strange colour in the pan. We looked and looked, and then dismissed it as our imagination. Our eyes were struggling enough to believe the quantity of water, yet alone comprehend the colour we could see. The following day we took a drive to the ‘pan lookout’ where before we had posed for a touristy shot on the edge of the endless white pan. When we arrived there, two things were immediately evident. One, there was no way we would be driving to the pan lookout, as it was covered in mud, tracks of cars who had got stuck, and water. And two, the colour we had been seeing was indeed pink, and did in fact belong to feathers of flamingoes! The flamingoes were amassed along the edges of the pan, strutting their stuff and ‘croaking’ loudly. The sound flamingoes make is strange, loud and Im not sure what it is called, hence ‘croaking’…
Sadly, we could not get close enough to them for decent pictures, but it was great to see the pan covered in pink like that. It was also totally unexpected as I had been under the impression January was the time for flamingoes!

The waterhole at Halali is not quite as productive as that of Okaukeujo, but it does well in its own right. It is on top of a hill, and has plenty of seating and a small, wooden roof for when it rains.  One looks down on the animals as they come to drink, and we saw quite a few hyena as well as black rhino on most evenings. It was bitterly cold though, and I struggled to stick it our for more than 2 hours before my hands had frozen closed and I was shaking uncontrollably. Dinner in the restaurant was not up to standard with Okaukuejo, although it was alright. The lunches were great though! They even had burgers which I can assure you went down a treat after toasted sarmies and two minute noodles or nothing.

Any one who decides to visit Halali should know that it’s a great place to spot a honey badger. All you need is a good ear, and some patience. The badgers have taken to raiding the bins there frequently, so basically you just need to sit and listen for a clang, and then run outside with a torch! The best place to be is in a campsite, but I was in a chalet on account of the cold which was keeping me sniffling, and I needed to get better before the Arctic! (poor excuse perhaps, but true…) My badger knocked over the bin outside our room on the second night, and I jumped up ever so quickly, fussed about for a spotlight and charged after him (leaving the camera behind like a fool). I followed him at a run as he marched off, disappointed that our bin had rewarded him so poorly. Badgers move fast when they are on a mission, I can attest to that. This little guy bunched up his muscles and jogged off, following his nose to the next bin, and the next. They don’t mess around either, tip the bin with one jump, head inside, quick investigation and off they go, either empty mouthed, or with a prized treat hanging from their jaws. What characters! Although I should warn you that if you get in their way they can be rather aggressive, so do give them some space! I eventually had to leave mine as he wandered into the staff area, but I was happy.

Leaving Etosha was sad, as I’m not sure when I’ll be back. Hopefully sooner rather than later, as it’s a magical park. The wildlife viewing is superb, the light is beautiful and in summer the storms and clouds are spectacular! There can be no favourite season, they are all good (except maybe February and  march when game is very spread out and its HOT.) If you haven’t been yet, do try and go. If possible avoid the South African school holidays, and you may even find you have the roads to yourself! I look forward to my next visit, whenever it may be…