Monday, 20 February 2012

The cats come out to play at Mashatu

We knew the rest of our stay at Mashatu would find it difficult to live up to the first mornings drive, but it did a very good job of keeping us entertained none the less! Each morning we would set out about 15 minutes before the sun rose, painting the beautiful landscape in gold and red. Each afternoon, after drinks and snacks we would go on a slightly less productive drive, stopping for sundowners, followed by an evening of dodging the plethora of bugs which seemed to aim for mouths and noses. I always find morning drives the most exciting, as you wake filled with the expectation of a new day, and with no idea what could have happened during the night. As the vehicle turns each corner, I get a little jolt of excitement, anticipating something interesting to be just ahead. And sometimes it is.

Hyena in the Devil Thorns

The second morning got off to quite a slow start, with not much about. We went to the edge of the concession looking for lions, but finding none we stopped to have some coffee and a leg stretch. After coffee, it often feels as though the best part of the drive is over, but in this case it was just beginning.

Shortly after coffee our guide found us the diminutive Pearl Spotted owlet sitting in a huge Mashatu tree. I was almost giddy with excitement, as this was only my second opportunity to photograph one, the first having resulted in zero images and quite a sulky face. I was quick this time, and managed quite volley of shots before the bird flew into a less desirable position. Not my best, but certainly my first, images of my favourite African owl.

We drove on, with me now feeling like the drive had been mightily successful when we came to a sudden stop at another large Mashatu tree. There were a couple of bones beneath it, but they were old and whitened by the sun. Around the opposite side were a few fresh spindly impala lamb legs, but without any meat on them, and therefore unlikely to still have the leopard that had killed them in attendance. Then, after another lap of the tree Moolman spotted them- not just one, but two leopards lounging high in the canopy, quite relaxed and well camouflaged and out of view.

I LOVE the eyes of leopards

 It then became a game of reverse, go forward, reverse as I tried to find an angle that allowed a relatively clear shot.

One of the leopards, a youngster, got up and began harassing the other, looking for attention. She was clearly bored, and proceeded to explore the whole tree, making for some very entertaining viewing.

 I had seen these leopard half a year ago when I had been on a photographic safari in Mashatu, and how they had grown! We spent a good 40 minutes watching them, until they eventually exited the tree and disappeared across the plain.

One of the cubs when she was small

The mother posing in the crook of a Mashatu Tree

My favourite image from the morning

Now, it had been a very successful morning, and was time to head back for some breakfast. We did try to, but about a kilometer away spotted yet another leopard lounging in a dry riverbed! This leopard began to hunt, unsuccessfully, until it walked under a small tree which had ANOTHER leopard in it! This was another of the youngsters I had seen before, and seemed to have been sharing a meal with the young male we had just seen. We followed as they walked along the bank, right up until the point they walked into a lioness and had to make a hasty retreat up another tree. Yes, I do realise this sounds a bit fictional, but its all real. The lioness had an impala kill which it seemed she had stolen from the leopards the previous night.

Surprisingly, there was nothing else to see on our way back...

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Summer in Mashatu

Large wild mushroom at sunset

I was recently invited to spend five nights in Mashatu at one of their private camps - Rock Camp. A work associate of my dad's has time share at Rock Camp, and so very generously took us along for their trip!

The heading 'Summer in Mashatu' might seem to be misleading when you see the images I took over the six days I was there, because the grass was very very short, as short as during my previous stay in June last year, and there was hardly any water around. The bush is therefore DRY! This is a positive for game viewing, as animals are much easier to follow, although may be a problem later on in the year if the rain doesn't arrive soon. In any case, our stay there provided us with beautiful weather, not too hot, not too cold, a good tan and plenty of very enjoyable cat sightings.

Anyone who has stayed at Mashatu will know that unless the Limpopo River is quite low, the only way across it is by cable car - a small cage on a pulley system that transports everything you bring across the river. It's quite a bit of fun, standing suspended over the wide swiftly flowing river, trying to spot crocodiles as you go, and hoping your camera equipment makes it unharmed to the opposite bank. At Rock Camp, you self cater - and we had an amazing caterer in the form of Roberts Wife, Tanya, who surprised us at every meal with something new. The most memorable of these in my opinion was a garlic bread that had been filled with sliced beef fillet such that the fillet was infused with delicious garlic flavour, and the bread with that of rare meat. Another memorable meal was a huge prawn braai - done over the coals in the Boma - and enough to make us all feel stuffed by the end of it!

Mashatu has provided me with a few rather exciting lion sightings. Usually lions are quite inanimate: sleeping, perhaps licking themselves or yawning. Our first morning we found a large pride of lions in a great open clearing, resting on the red-orange soil. Before long a few of the youngsters spotted a steenbok, wandering unawares into the clearing. All of a sudden they were in stalk mode, silently moving one paw at a time in the direction of the buck. As they were spotted, the steenbok shot off, lions in hot pursuit, but without any real chance of success with such a large initial gap between them.

This burst of energy did however wake the other youngsters up, and four of them traipsed off to attack a tree and each other. One by one they would throw themselves at the small tree, grabbing a branch with a paw and falling down, still clinging to it. The next lion would then land atop the first, a small scuffle ensuing, before they both jumped up and set off after one another, tails raised and paws at the ready. After a while they tired of attacking the tree, and went to rejoin the rest of the pride, but not before posing on a fallen tree for photos.

One of the other lions had taken an interest in a bush, which was evidently good for climbing on. He would jump onto it, balancing precariously before his weight got to much and the bush dumped him on the ground. He would then start the process again. This game caught on very quickly, and soon there were four lions all climbing onto the bush and being dumped unceremoniously onto the hard ground. The young males are around two years old, and as such wont be able to remain with the pride much longer due to pressure from their father. While we were there he decided he had had enough of the rowdy behavior of his one son, and walked up to him purposefully. Then he attacked, a spitting, swirly, angry flurry of claws and paws. The youngster defended himself, snarling and smacking at his father, claws extended. All too soon it was over, and the youngster lay growling while the dad scent marked a few bushes and lay down again. Within ten minutes it was back to playing attack the bush. Quite an exciting morning! And it wasn't even over yet...

Nothing quite like an accommodating tree

Father and son

After some much needed coffee and chocolate cookies, we set off for the second half of our drive. It wasn't long before we found a young male leopard resting in the shade in a dry riverbed. The riverbeds are one of the best features of Mashatu game viewing, often providing a backdrop to some or other leopard sighting, or to a herd of thirsty elephant. We had been on our way to one of the more popular spots for elephant to drink when our guide had spotted the leopard. The sand is a beautiful colour, full of iron oxides or something equally lovely to look at. We sat watching this male as he relaxed, completely unconcerned by our presence. A few impala were grazing in the distance, which he kept an eye on as he yawned and rolled about. Next thing we knew a small township dog trotted down the opposite bank of the river, making a bee line for us. My heart began to pump, the last thing I would want to hear is a little dog being killed. I say hear as I think the sound of a yelping dog would be too much for me, being a serious dog lover myself. Without thinking I began calling the dog, clicking my fingers and shouting 'Here boy...'. One of the other people with us also began calling the dog. Her husband, Bruce, couldn't believe the two of us - and logically wondered what on earth we planned on doing if we succeded in getting the dog's attention. The leopard was now on high alert, motionless and crouched, ready to pounce. It would certainly not allow us to just pick up its next meal and drive off with it!

Noticing the dog

Ready to pounce

Fortunately the dog (Snoepie as he was later christened) ignored us, and trotted past the vehicle to within a couple of metres of the leopard, without noticing it. As it passed the leopard, the cat sprang into action, launching itself at Snoepie and connecting with the dogs back legs. I sat still, the poor little dog was going to die and there was nothing we could do. As the leopards claws connected with Snoepie, he turned and barked blue murder at the leopard, who was now sporting a look of serious surprise on its face. Within second the leopard was up a nearby (and very small) tree, and the dog stood howling blue murder at the terrified cat. We could NOT believe our eyes - this was one hell of a surprise. Snoepie, satsified that the cat had learnt a lesson, now trotted off (presumably to find some lions who needed to be taught a lesson or two). It was certainly not your average morning in the bush!

We ended the morning off somewhat quietly, watching a few elephant slaking their thirst. Rather uneventfully (in comparison) some of the elephant stumbled upon a lioness, trumpeting loudly until she retreated up the river bank (this within a few hundred metres of Snoepie and the leopard). It was one of those mornings: unrepeatable, amazing and unforgetable. A real highlight of bush viewing, and one of the reasons why it's so exciting- you just never know whats around the corner.

Elephant calf charging down to bank

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Kruger: The final chapter

It was with some great sadness that I found myself enjoying the last few days of my Kruger stay. It's always a surprise how quickly time seems to have gone when you get to the end of a trip, although looking back, some of the memories feel so far away. What a trip it has been! Not only because I was alone for the most part, but because I could relax as I drove, appreciating smaller things without the rush of knowing you only have a few days to find your photographic targets.

The two images below are of a Yellow Billed hornbill whose nest I found. Hornbill females are coaxed into the hollowed out tree trunk, and they pull out their feathers to make a soft lining for the eggs. The male then seals the female and eggs inside, so that no predators can get to them, and he becomes responsible for feeding them until he unseals the nest chamber. This means that he is constantly flying back and forth carrying food to his new family!

One of my last three nights was spent with a friend's parents who were also staying at Satara. We braaied and chatted well into the night, and I only fell asleep somewhere around 12.30am. Being that there were only two full days left, we woke at 4am, tired, slightly hungover and yet not wanting to miss a moment out in the park. Shortly after leaving camp we came across a pride of lions in the road, 1 male, 4 females and 2 cubs. Being first on the scene we were able to set the 'stopping distance' a respectable way off, and watched them for nearly half an hour before someone decided they should push forward, eventually forcing the lions off the road into the bushes. Our last morning the same lions were again seen, but this time the cars who arrived first drove straight up onto them, causing the male to panic and run wildly away, the cubs in hot pursuit. We left then.

We had some beautiful light, some very good lion sightings, and even a leopard. While watching one pride of lions, a male and female walked up to the only small car in sight, which had just arrived on the scene, and began to peer through the back window of it. I could not believe my eyes! I think I would have been pleased to have it happen to me, but the person in the little car did not look very impressed when we drove past him afterwards.

We were also fortunate enough to come across a new born Wildbeest calf. It was still wet, with afterbirth on it and the mother, and we must have missed the birth by about 5 minutes, as the baby was still learning to stand. It was quite exciting though, watching it taking its tentative first steps, trying to suckle and learning that it could run (even if not in the direction it intended)

My final day in the park, I wished for a leopard in a tree. Not having been specific enough in my wish, Kruger provided a leopard in a tree, just not the right tree for photography :) lesson learnt!

When we did leave the park, I felt sad, tired and excited for sushi and a duvet, and to see my dog. Sushi is one of those things I cannot help but crave, given a week without it. And there is nothing better than a soft duvet on a bed, even if it is wet from a certain Golden Retriever who likes to dry himself off on it after a swim.

I think that the six weeks in the park were the best thing I could have done, as it gave me time to think, time to relax, time to try and improve my photography. Hopefully one day I will be able to call some great wilderness area home, but until then at least I have my travels!

Two young waterbuck testing their strength at sunset

Dwarf Mongoose at home

Vulture at sunrise