Wednesday, December 28, 2011

LONDOLOZI TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE


The fine water droplets gently caress my skin. I am ensconced in a waterproof envelope and my gear is buried in layers of waterproofing. I pull my hat down over my hair as we set off with dawn breaking on the horizon. Barely 100 meters outside the camp we stop at the waterhole. On a dead tree in the centre of the small dam are two Pied Kingfishers desperately feeding a screeching juvenile. In the background a Giant Kingfisher is also searching for its breakfast and off to one side a little Malachite Kingfisher flits to and fro. In the water we can see a small Crocodile patrolling his territory while a Hippo keeps surfacing with a short spray and snort before disappearing again. Sadly, the light is really so bad the best trade off is to simply sit back and enjoy the spectacle.
Our next encounter is with a young male Hippo heading determinedly towards a very small mud pool. He approaches the pool and with a hefty slump he falls into the mud. It would seem that he has been ousted from another mudpond and is now sulking in this much lesser desired pool. As he sinks into the muddy water his skin is coated in mud and he glares disdainfully at us. We spy a Rhino in the distance and head off to see if we can get a good shot or two in the challenging light.
Lions, however, are on the menu for today. Every inch of exposed sand is inspected for signs of recent activity. Fresher paw marks show up here and there and as we search we park next to a small waterhole. The rangers and trackers of various vehicles are scouring the bush. Suddenly, from behind some dense bush there is a rustle and as we turn our heads following the sounds a behemoth of the bush emerges. His short tusks belie his age. He pads gently towards the water to quench his thirst. His sinuous trunk dips down towards the water and then curls back into his mouth. Once sated he moves slowly off. However, he has decided to return the favour and he ambles on over to investigate us. The rangers and trackers jump back in the vehicles as the huge form limbers ever closer. We are given the evil eye as he squares off against our vehicle. A few flaps of the ears and he turns away. These are close encounters of the African kind.
The radio crackles and we move off in search of more adventure. Our next sighting is of a Lion pride with cubs. This is the The Tsalala Pride who has their own story of bravery, courage and steely determination.
We sit and contemplate in awe and wonderment at two Lionesses that have lost their tails to Hyenas and one cub that has survived against the odds.  This is just one of the stories that make the magic of Africa so mysteriously spellbinding.
In the twinkling of an eye we are chasing a pack of Wild Dogs just over the ridge. A Leopard is “treed” by the pack. We head off after the Wild Dogs and as we negotiate the rough terrain a loud crash from the back of the vehicle indicates the loss of our cooler boxes. We hesitate only a moment as the pack is on the hunt. Nature intervenes as the Dogs move into thick bush. A quick discussion ensues but we know that a Wild Dog kill is lightening fast and if you are not right there at the right moment it is all over in a matter of minutes. We head off back to the Leopard. It is not too long before we get confirmation of the kill and once more we are faced with the decision of whether to move or not. We decide to sit tight.
Perhaps only twenty minutes has elapsed before the Dogs reappear still hungry. One of the younger dogs has the head of the Impala firmly in his jaws. None of the others is able to pry it loose. We move closer for a better view but it is not long before the Dogs disappear down into the reeds of the river bed.



We return to the Leopard.  She slowly descends from the tree and moves to a termite mound to survey the veldt. She moves off  and we retrieve our cooler boxes and head off to yet another sighting. The Majingilane Coalition is resting but still hungry. I fire a few shots before we have to head off yet again, this time to a sighting of a Wildebeest trying to calve.


Before us we are witness to a tragedy of life in the wild. The Wildebeest is lying prostrate and the calf appears stuck. Her unblinking panic stricken eyes roll desperately as she pants and heaves. Eerily, she does not make a single audible sound. When we look up we are poignantly aware that the circle of life is playing itself out before our very eyes. The vultures are already gathering in the trees around her and it would seem that her fate is sealed.
We head back to the Lodge. It is only 11h00. We seem to have been in the bush forever and it is hard to believe that in only four and a half hours we have seen so much.







Friday, December 16, 2011

LONDOLOZI - PHOTOGRAPHIC NIRVANA


It is raining. The rhythmic thud of the windscreen wipers across the dripping glass, are a sharp reminder that I am heading into yet another, soggy weekend. The tyres cut into the water on the tar sending a rooster spray into the air. Once we hit Nelspruit and leave the escarpment behind us, the rain will magically dissipate, and there will only be hot dry Lowveld air. Ha ha, of course, as Nelspruit emerges from the gloom of mist and rain it is confirmation that I am in for another WET safari. By now I am well prepared with wet gear protection so I refuse to feel discouraged. Photography with no light is by now no longer such a big challenge. I have had many opportunities in 2011 to adjust to this. However, I am in Africa, aren’t I?

The excitement of spending a weekend at Londolozi in the Sabi Sands Reserve however is not dampened by any amount of rain. I am on my way to Star in My Own Safari – a competition run by the Safari Interactive Magazine in conjunction with Londolozi.

Finally, the soothing sounds of sand beneath the wheels of the car and there is no rain however the clouds stay threateningly close. I can, of course, wax lyrical here about Londolozi as a destination but I will spare everyone my effusiveness and suffice it to say that it must certainly rank with the World’s Best.

I soon find myself standing beside THE PHOTOGRAPHIC VEHICLE. As I am now a “Star” I find myself, very uncomfortably in front of, instead of behind, a camera. After many stops, starts, repeats and blahs I get to investigate THE VEHICLE. Only two swivel seats, nifty gadgets such as a beanbag in the right place, a padded floor so that I can kneel down or even lie down and get the shot. I am in photographic heaven.
Investigation over, I am comfortably seated in my armchair, my gear is stowed and the Landrover (yes, it’s a Landrover) fires up and we head out North of the Lodge. We cross the river and start scouting around for a Lion and Lioness seen together earlier that day. I spot something in the bush and after some discussion we go to investigate. And there they are. Not fifteen minutes into the drive and we have our first sighting. We hardly spend any time at all with these two when the call comes and we are off again.
Back down South and the Majingilane boys (a coalition of four male lions) are on the move. However, only three of the clan are together. Some manoeuvring of the vehicle and I am down at floor level clicking away with trio of huge and hungry Lions walking straight into my lens. Lighting aside, what more can I ask? 

Then the magic starts weaving its spell around us. After some discussion between Rangers and Trackers it appears that they are of the opinion that these three boys are going to cross the river. For the uninformed, a cat does not like water. And Lions are no exception. They will only cross the river when they have no other option open to them. It is the first time (according to our Ranger Jess) that this may be captured on camera. Some quick about turns and engines blazing we head for the river and position ourselves on the opposite bank.
Suddenly there they are. I hold my breath, my heartbeat increases ever so slightly. The three survey the veld and move softly down to the water. The tangible tension in the waiting vehicles can be cut with a knife and you can almost hear the silent encouragement from all for the crossing to happen. Each of the three takes a quick drink of water from the stream and then, it starts.
The first Lion gingerly dips his paw into the water and it involuntarily flicks up a spray. One or two more flicks and he is on his way. Everyone is silent and all that can be heard are the sounds of the camera shutters furiously clicking away. The other two Lions follow soon after wading up to their stomachs through the water, determinedly on a mission. They have moved past and we all look at each other, grinning and know that we have witnessed something spectacular.

The event now over, we follow the three Lions up the bank. There is a small clearing on the banks of the river and the Lions move silently forward. Suddenly there is a desperate howl and the three Lions launch into action. The unmistakable cry comes from a young Hyena who is pounced on by two of the Lions. It takes us less than 30 seconds to get around a tree but already two of the boys have the Hyena firmly by the throat and the hind legs. It is over quickly and one of the group starts feeding on the kill. The other two move along and do not seem interested in the kill. We follow.
A little way away the two settle down to wait for their brother and when he does not appear we are treated to a call of the wild. There is nothing quite like feeling the vibration of the sounds of a lion’s roar travelling through your body. This is the essence of Africa. It is an experience that cannot be conveyed through any other medium than when you find yourself sitting next to a Lion in the bush and you are privileged to hear it. A definite gooseflesh moment.
My decision is made, when I die, God is going to send me back to the African Bush with a Camera and a Landrover, as this must truly be heaven. 

Thursday, December 1, 2011

MEERKATS OF THE MAKGADIGADI PANS (Suricate – Suricata suricatta).


Early morning warm-up.

It is 5.30am and the sun is edging its way onto the Eastern horizon of the Makgadigadi Pans. We do not have far to drive. Just a couple of kilometres from Jack’s Camp is a group of habituated Meerkats, the reason for the trip to Makgadigadi.
Family Bonding time.
Extravagantly indulgent, this trip is costing an arm and a leg, but is a 25th Wedding Anniversary celebration and therefore cost can be (relatively speaking that is) ignored.
Slow start on a warm day.
Finding a Meerkat in the wilds of Africa, or more specifically, Southern Africa is not an easy task when time is limited and expectations are high. Certainly there are Meerkats spread all over the Western climes of Southern Africa but the crucial factor determining a trip dedicated to them is that they should at least sit still long enough to be photographed and not be hightailing it off in the opposite direction at the approach of a vehicle.
The grasslands are waiting.
Each time I explore for a new experience the dilemma of my impact on the intended target has to be considered. Habituation of wild animals is a hot topic with the decision of when exactly is habituation taming and when is it not. It is the dilemma facing all wild animals today. The more they see humans the more habituated they become and therefore lose at least some of their hunting instincts with regard to people inside vehicles. This habituation process makes animals so much more vulnerable to poachers and takes away from the true wilderness experience. In the Makgadigadi Pans they have their own version of habituation and they seem to have found the tenuous balance between conservation and human invasion.
Ooooh, its so difficult to get up in the mornings.
There is a minder for each little group of Meerkats. This in itself deters harassment of the animal as well as keeping tabs on the group so that guests to the area are able to easily access the group. The minder has a bicycle and he spends his days simply moving with the group as it forages for food. He will be there when they emerge from the burrow and he will only leave once they have disappeared underground for the night. Tomorrow morning he will return to start the whole process again. For someone who has limited time and has travelled only to see the Meerkats, as I have, this is very advantageous.
Gotta clean the doorway!
It is therefore, with great excitement that I alight the vehicle outside of the burrow to follow this first group on its foraging expedition. Scorpions are being excavated from the ground and being crunched up deliciously. Whoever knew there were quite so many scorpions around? A fat green frog bites the dust as an adult does the catching and then hands over the prize to a diminutive sibling.  It is not a pretty sight. In fact, if this were amplified it would be far more revolting than any of the Lion or Cheetah kills that I have witnessed. Gore, blood and guts of note accompany the frenzied feeding.
Yummy frog for din-dins!
As each new catch is accomplished I have to gingerly step around so as not to look as though I am a hungry, marauding intruder. The lucky recipient of a tasty morsel instantly turns his or her back on me and vigorously defends the meal from me.  To make things even more difficult from a photographic point of view the group is foraging in an area that is covered in a very spiny grass that stands almost as high as they are. I finally give up as I realise the burn I feel on the back of my neck is the sun beating down informing me that it’s time for breakfast..
Dung beetle bites the dust.
Bumping along the dusty track the following day we visit another group that is foraging along the road and I am able to get down to the level of a Meerkat without being impaled by the very spiny leaves of the grass. It is great that I am not bound to a vehicle where I have to sit and look for the best angle or have the poor Ranger move the vehicle every few minutes because the animals have moved on. The fading sunset puts an end to my euphoria as the group heads off to their burrow.
Gee, this is hard work looking for food.
It is our last day and I am determined to be sitting outside the burrow when the Meerkats emerge this morning. I am awake even before the wake-up call and we briskly head for the vehicle. Gentle rays of sunshine are painting the landscape and at the burrow there is no sign of the Meerkats as yet. A quick recce of the burrow reveals the entrances to be on the western side and I sit down and wait just metres away. I do not have long to wait before the first pert little face emerges cautiously from an entrance. The sharp little button eyes survey the landscape and determine the risks, then with a judicious approach the little furry creature sits down on the edge of the excavated burrow allowing the sun to warm his tummy.
Scrumptious scorpion a'la carte.
One by one each member of the family emerges and an orgy of scratching, nibbling and preening ensues. The sun is now above the horizon and after the family bonding session the group head off for the grasslands to forage for breakfast. Dung beetles are dug up in their encasements only to be broken open and devoured in a flash. Scorpions are brought up from under the earth with a gnashing of teeth, a spattering of innards and a crunching of keratin and the scorpion is no more. Another frog hits the dust – it is a feast to behold. Accompanying this is the constant call from the baby Meerkats as they follow their minder.
Peeing the Meerkat way.
Indeed it is a special privilege to be able to move among these captivating creatures without them regarding me as a threat to their existence and I reluctantly leave them to their foraging. They will forever be a part of the magic of the African Landscape.
I'm so good looking!









Monday, November 28, 2011

MAKGADIGADI PANS - SCORCHED AFRICA

The blast of hot air hits me as I step off the plane onto the runway at Maun Airport. It is November and the African sun makes no compromise. Instinctively I pick up the pace and head for the Airport Buildings, but once inside, there is little relief. The air is thin on oxygen and breathing is a laborious affair. Eventually I make it through customs along with my bags and ironically, simply through another door, I am back where I started out, on the burning runway. This time though, in a smaller plane heading East towards the Makgadigadi Pans.

Below, the earth looks scorched and barren. Viewed from the air the skeletal trees show no signs of life and an air of desolation accompanies the relentless sun. Fifty minutes later the Cessna 206 drops from the sky down to a seemingly deserted airstrip while the wind plays havoc with the landing. The air is now even thinner and hotter as we bump our way towards the camp.

Stepping into the Mess Tent at Jack’s Camp one can be forgiven for imagining yourself in a weird kind of time warp that takes you back 100 years or so. It is simply charming, but the heat jades the view and all I can think of is a shower – briskly cold and refreshing – weird pictures start forming in my mind of beer advertisements where the condensation on the glass drips alluringly.


Things are casual at Jack’s Camp and after a brief introduction accompanied by a cold iced tea and cool towel we head off towards our tent. The walk seems interminable with the sun doing its very best to blister any exposed skin. Bags are deftly unpacked and the shower that follows in quick succession is not as cold as I would like. The bed beckons and I desperately try to get some shuteye before the evening’s entertainment.

Finally around 4pm the air starts cooling down and we make our way back towards the mess tent. More iced tea – Arnold Palmer they call the half lemonade and half iced tea mix – goes down smoothly and Super, our 6ft 6in guide, gives us a lowdown on the evening’s activities.

For the first time on Safari we are not heading out in the Game Drive Vehicle but we are taken to a spot on the edge of the Pans and we are faced with a line of Quad Bikes. The introduction is brief and each of us has our heads wrapped in a Kikoi to protect us from the fine sands of the Makgadigadi Pans. Then it is onto the Bikes and away we go. Wind whipping through my hair I find this experience to be a lot more exciting than I had imagined. The endlessness of the pans stretch out before us. The peaceful feeling of the wildnerness settles in as we gaze upon kilometre after kilometre of nothingness.

Finally we stop, literally in the middle of nowhere. It’s time for the obligatory G & T that is synonomous with all true African Safaris. I know I cannot leave this wilderness without trying to capture just a little something of the desolation and infinity. As I roll around on the floor of the pan trying to get the best viewpoint of a bewitching sunset Super calls out – Elephant!!

Bizarrely, there in the distance, all on its own, an elephant is making its way across the pan. Great speculation ensues about why a young bull elephant of around 8 years old would be wandering out on his own, in the Pan. Elephants are normally a gregarious bunch and the young bulls, once evicted from the breeding herd, will join up with other young bulls and under the guidance of an older male be taught the ways of the world. Back to our young elephant, he is making good time across the Pan and we set off after him to see what he is up to.

Super informs us that this is a very rare sighting. In his 21 years at Jack’s camp this is only his third sighting of an elephant on the Pan, as it would appear that they move by night. Eerily, this boy, on his own, looks as though he is pursuing something and we can only surmise that he has been left behind and is now hotfooting it behind the herd that must have moved through the area earlier.

Then it is back to camp under cover of darkness for more G & T’s and some nosh before retiring to bed in our decadently ornate tent.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

SOUTH LUANGWA - TO FEEL LIKE AN EXPLORER..........

One of the greatest reasons for travel is to explore the new and undiscovered. However, of course today, there are very few completely undiscovered facts about our world but that does not take away the excitement of seeing something for the first time.

 Armed with the Field Guide to the Larger Mammals of Africa by Chris & Tilde Stuart research is an essential part of the Safari Experience. A quick glance through the pages and the years ahead seem hopelessly inadequate for one to catch a quick glimpse of all of Africa’s rarer species. So it is a race against time.

South Luangwa is no slouch when it comes to providing the avid explorer with a different view and something else to see,  it was, therefore, with great anticipation that we boarded the plane at OR Tambo International and headed North.

It is of course, one thing to know about the animals and an entirely different thing to get a good photograph without knowing too much about the specific animal’s behavioural patterns. Here’s where a Ranger/Guide comes in really handy. The trip we undertook was with C4 Images represented by Isak Pretorius and we stayed at the amazing Sanctuary Chichele Presidential Lodge (chichele apparently means salt for those into trivia). To digress slightly here – the Lodge is to be recommended for anyone visiting South Luangwa. Great attention to detail, superb service and food. The nature guides of the South of the continent of Africa have taken bush knowledge to the nth degree. Very few questions go unanswered and no mis/disinformation is dished out. There is very little that you ask that they won’t do and they go out of their way to ensure your safety and security.

Armed with THE BOOK we struck out into the bush looking for some great new captures. Despite some rainy weather at the beginning we still managed to capture some different animals.
Firstly, there were some variations on old themes. We first observed how very small the elephants in this area are. Compared to the behemoths of the South the elephants in South Luangwa looked dainty by comparison and we certainly had some great moments. The chap featured below decided that he was going to flex his muscles at us and even came and tapped our vehicle with his tusk to prove his point.

The Guinea Fowl of the Luangwa are also a much brighter bunch. The blue cheeks appear so much more blue. It would be interesting to know whether this phenomenon is an actual pigment variation or whether the colour appears more brilliant due to a change in light quality.
Another variation to the theme is the Zebra. In Zambia on the banks of the Luangwa River we find the Crawshay’s Zebra whose claim to fame is an absence of shadowing stripes. The clever book reveals that Africa is home to three different species of Zebra and the Plains Zebra which is resident in South Luangwa is of the genus Crawshayi which is one of five variations. Who’d have thought that a pair of pyjamas can come in so many variations?
The Giraffe is another not so common creature. Under normal circumstances one view a Giraffe as a Giraffe but no, there are differences here too. The Giraffe comes in 8 different variations and the genus found in South Luangwa is the Thornicrofts version whose particular feature appears to be a very bumpy head. On our last morning we caught a couple browsing amongst some delicious flowering trees and we were privy to some wonderful tongue displays.
The Baboon appears to be a confusing race. THE BOOK reveals that the Baboon of South Luangwa is a Savanna Baboon in a yellow version. These agile and fleetfooted creatures appear to be a lot smaller than those in the South of the continent and certainly don’t appear half as threatening.
The Puku, an antelope with a darling little heart-shaped nose and a relaxed attitude is one of the specialities of the region. In the early morning when the sunlight dances off the blades of grass, a Puku provides copious amounts of fodder for the enthusiastic photographer.
As in many other Reserves that we have had the privilege to visit there are multitudes of birds. But, as mentioned before, I am not a birding photographer. In fact, I think I have made the conscious decision to only take photographs of sedentary birds. The special birds we managed to capture as firsts are the Carmine Bee-eater, the Red-necked Spurfowl and the African Grey Hornbill.
As with many of the places that we have visited on the continent of Africa, it is a place you should return to again and again for it has the potential to surprise and delight while still offering a sense of the African Wilderness.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

DAYBREAK ON THE BANKS OF THE LUANGWA RIVER

Its early morning, the sun has not yet emerged and the stars are still gently flickering in the distance. Soon the inky skies softly turn Titian and expectantly we wait for that glorious break when the fireball emerges above the horizon. Today we wait in vain. A dense blanket obscures those wondrous rays and we are left with a soft subdued light that struggles to light the banks of the Luangwa River.

Our destination is a dead Buffalo and a Lion pride. The headlamps of the vehicle throw harsh bands of light across the macabre scene where one life has been sacrificed for the benefit of others. The remains of the Buffalo exude a putrid stench that wafts in the air while the primary beneficiaries of this feast lie close by with their bellies distended by a night of gorging. Three heads turn instantly towards the noise of the vehicle as we approach and their disquieting glares remind us that we are in their domain.
As we throw a spotlight over the scene we see the growing number of vultures dropping from the skies to wait. They are patient and sit in a frozen tabloid their eyes focused on the prize. Imperceptibly they start to edge closer and closer all the while watching for the reaction from their feline foes. It is an uneasy truce and they need to test the ground before they are able to advance.
Finally, one lone pioneer makes it onto the recumbent heap that such a short while ago was a living breathing deadly beast. The piercing blue eyes and sharp hooked beak start investigating the remains. In a single hop talons anchor the winged creature to the dead skin still masking the skeleton. Suddenly, despite the flashing yellow eyes of the lioness, still lying only a few feet away, more vultures move in. The sharp hissing and beating of wings heralds the beginning of the end of the feast.
Not far off will be the other scavengers, the Striped Hyena, the Jackal, the Whiteback Vulture and the Lappet-faced Vulture will soon appear to demolish the remains and the cycle will be complete.