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.