Monday, October 15, 2012

KGALAGADI - CLASH OF THE KALAHARI TITANS


The car shudders and rattles as we pass over each rut in the road and the trailer behind us bumps out of control despite the fact that we are traveling at the prescribed 40km per hour. The road undulates interminably as we make our way from the picnic spot at Dikbaardskolk to the next one almost 50km's away at Kamqua. As we crest yet another dune we reach Vaalpan a descriptively accurate summation of a sandy clearing with a couple of very "vaal" looking water tanks to one side. Scattered about on the pan is a rather large group of Oryx who turn their heads as we gingerly approach trying to minimize the confounded racket that our rattling vehicle is making.


The clearly delineated black and white facial markings of the Oryx bear a striking resemblance to Japanese kabuki dancers making the subject a cinch for a statement photograph. As I search through the small herd for a suitable subject in the correct position there is a loud clack-clack directly in front of me where two bulls have their heads together and their horns intertwined. There is nothing like a little bit of action to get the adrenaline going. I sit up a little bit straighter in my seat, check my camera settings and start shooting.


One of the combatants has one and a half horns. He appears to be older than his rival and his sinewy smaller body strains against his larger opponent. We quickly nickname him Old Halfhorn as we watch the drama unfold. At first it appears to be a light jousting with both animals treading lightly in a parody of a well executed dance.


Then, quite suddenly, the mood changes. The knocking horns ring out loudly into the empty hot air. Muscles strain and the dust billows out under hooves. There are no females in sight and it is not really rutting time. The only assumption we can make is that the fight is about dominance around the waterhole. As we watch spellbound by the effort being expended it is obvious that Old Halfhorn is the dominant male and this is his turf. He is, however, being seriously challenged by this younger male obviously vying for supremacy.


But, at this stage of the game, Old Halfhorn appears to be fit enough to put up a good fight. He gives no quarter and pushes back with equal brute force. The fight shifts to and fro in front of us until finally both animals stand back exhausted.


All seems peaceful at the waterhole once again. The two fighters move towards the water when suddenly a skirmish breaks out between another two Oryx right at the water tanks. With the same steely determination the two new players crouch down and crash their horns and heads together. This fight looks even more serious than the one we have just witnessed with dust being churned up around the combatants as they get to grips with each other. While some of the Oryx remain inscrutable spectators Old Halfhorn decides this is not to be and he joins in the fray. Within seconds he has broken up the skirmish and he sets to routing one of the participants.



The guilty party is chased right off the pan and into the scrubland around the pan. Old Halfhorn, satisfied that he has cleared the area, ambles on back down to the waterhole. However, standing next to the waterhole is his first rival, ready and waiting.


The whole dance starts over again and with horns interlocked the two shift backwards and forwards across the dusty floor of the pan. Finally, we see that Old Halfhorn has drawn blood. His rival's leg has a bright red trickle starting at the knee. This does not end the fight. The two continue to push and strain relentlessly at each other.



It takes about an hour for Old Halfhorn's rival to back away and he is King for another day.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

ETOSHA BABY ELEPHANT RULES THE ROOST


It is our last day in the Etosha National Park today and we decide to only visit our favorite waterholes. After a quick visit to Blesbokfontein waterhole where we are lucky enough to get a black rhino out in the open we head off to Rietfontein, an active waterhole where we are guaranteed some action.

By now I even have a favorite spot to park to get the best shots on offer and we wait. We are not disappointed as wave after wave of elephants pass us by. Finally, the big herd arrives. Today, instead of going around the back of the waterhole they pass close by as there is a group of rambunctious young males splashing around on the far side of the pond. There is nothing more exciting than landing up in the middle of a group of elephants and their close proximity certainly heightens the experience.



The leader of the group today is the matriarch's youngest offspring. As the group quickly move forward with their measured steps the young elephant has difficulty in keeping up. His gargantuan mother moves deliberately forward without stopping and he has to keep running to keep in front. He stops every now and again and scratches the inside of his right hind leg with his left leg. Then he takes off again to catch up.




Suddenly, the youngster swerves in front of his mother and comes to a complete halt. She patiently stops and waits for him. He starts sniffing around in the dust. The matriarch gently nudges him with her trunk trying to push him forward. He doesn't react and she gives him a bit of a boot. The line moves forward once again only to be stopped again a few paces further. This time the little elephant is sniffing at a rock.


He drops to his knees over the white stone and rocks backwards and forwards giving himself a good old scratch. Patiently, the whole line of more than fifty elephants wait. The scratching goes on for quite a while when the mother starts pushing with her trunk again. The little elephant seems reluctant to move away from his rock and he falls over it seemingly hugging it. Gently his mother gives him a bit of a kick in the butt again and he only reacts when she starts moving around him and resumes her measured pace once again.






He jumps up and runs, ears and trunk flapping in the wind and takes his place in the front of the line again as they head towards the water.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

ETOSHA ELEPHANT TANTRUMS


Spend enough time in the bush and soon it will reveal more than just a glimpse of an animal or two, a whole new world waits for those who seek it.The longer periods of time I spend in the bush the more I envy the Game Ranger who gets out to see the animals every day and is afforded much more than just a glimpse. On our trip to Etosha Pan in July one little elephant decided to allow us more than just a cursory glance.


En-route to the Rietfontein waterhole we are stopped dead in our tracks on the busiest route in the reserve by a black rhino with her calf. However, a black rhino normally only affords one a fleeting glimpse and this rhino was no different. She soon crosses the road and the grass folds around the pair as they disappear from sight. We move on and only a matter of a few hundred metres further there is a small breeding herd of elephants right next to the road. A cow and calf are the first to move across onto the road. They pick up the white dust off the road and blow it around before they move over onto the other side.



Suddenly out of the thorny bush another young elephant emerges. He is probably a teenager in elephant terms. He swivels around and glares at us. Then he plants his four feet firmly on the road and his ears flap menacingly. 

As well trained safari-ers we sit tight and don't move. This gets us another glare and then suddenly the ears and the trunk are hoisted and what follows can only be described as the most endearing defence of any piece of turf I have ever witnessed.









In the days to come we meet up with this distinctive little elephant again on several occasions. It appears that he is no more than a very naughty boy. He is one of several young elephants who splash around in the water and exercise their wrestling skills by going head to head kicking up mud and grass. When the call comes from the rest of the herd to move on it is simply ignored. Then, suddenly he will realize that he is all alone. That is when he lifts his trunk up and starts bellowing and running. On one occasion he gets himself caught on the other side of the cars parked around the waterhole. He runs up and down the line of cars trumpeting at his mother who is browsing amongst the trees. Parked cars need to move deftly out of the way to make way for the anxious mother to retrieve her delinquent son.




I predict that this young elephant is going to be a bit of a handful when he reaches maturity.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

ETOSHA …PLACE OF GHOSTS



It's 6.30am Namibian time, the the ominous dark gate blocks our path to getting where we need to go. I anxiously watch the Eastern horizon where the sun is starting to brighten the sky. To pass the time I apply sunblock to my face and lips willing the gatekeeper to appear. Then, just as the first golden orange sliver appears the gate miraculously slides open and after some flashing of papers we are finally on our way. First turn to the right and we hit the white chalky roads of Etosha.



There are few animals to be seen and soon the bush breaks into open plains that are just perfect for a cheetah. But, of course there isn't a cheetah in sight.  First stop is Gemsbokvlakte, a barren waterhole, amidst the white chalk.  We stop in the designated parking area, there is hardly an animal in sight. We're new to this so we decide to wait. Soon enough a few springbok appear and a quick scuffle around the waterhole between two rams sets my shutter off. But, that is all and we move on. A circuitous route via several waterholes and 48 kilometers later we find ourselves at Charitsaub a waterhole that really, really doesn't do much for exciting photography. There is a lion drinking on his own, a young male that looks as though he may have been ousted from a pride. Then, suddenly on the southern horizon a huge shape emerges from the bush. It always intrigues me that although an elephant appears to be walking slowly they cover huge distances in very little time. This is a very big elephant. His sunken head indicates that he has seen many moons pass over Etosha. As he gets nearer his size becomes intimidating, but he is only intent on reaching the water. He dips his trunk into the murky liquid for a few seconds and then laboriously raises his massive trunk towards his mouth. Once his thirst is quenched he steps forward into the water and starts slurping up the water and spraying it over himself. The water is like a large milky fountain and as he sprays the cool liquid over himself he changes color from a light grey to a dirty white. He spends an inordinately long time in the water splashing around making sure that he has covered his whole body with the muddy water. He turns and heads out towards the Pan and as he gets into some thorny bush devoid of any leaves he stops and suddenly his trunk flies up in the air and a cloud of dust surrounds him. We watch, fascinated by this ritual. Then, he trundles on forth towards the Pan and disappears into the distance.




We take to the road again and after a few call-ins at various waterholes where only a few springbok, zebras and gemsbok lurk on the edges of the water we head off to the picnic spot/toilet. For the uninitiated this must be a real shock. I enter the rather smelly circular building and find a pit toilet that is endearingly referred to as a longdrop in our neck of the woods. Frankly I'd rather take a spade and head off into the bush!

The sun starts dipping towards the Western horizon and we head off in the same direction. As we approach Nebrowni waterhole we once again get sight of another two gargantuan edifices. This time I can get in close. We edge nearer and nearer to the elephants as other cars leave the sighting and it is not long before I can take my wide angle lens out of its cover and take some low level shots of these magnificent beasts. 








The end of the day finds us barreling down the road heading towards the exit gate having seen some another of Africa's greats. What a day! As that golden orb slides effortlessly down below the horizon the gate slides closed firmly behind us. Until tomorrow.


Saturday, July 14, 2012

TIGER CANYONS - ASTONISHING ENCOUNTERS


The still air in the vast expanses settles around one so that you feel that if you move you will be interrupting the moment. Stand still long enough and you will become part of the landscape that will exist forever in time. Suddenly, the stillness is interrupted by a low, throaty growl that echoes through the air. Another growl and a hiss follow and then, just as instantaneously, it is gone and the silence, once more, descends around you.

This silence is an element of the African landscape that is so magical, it is the Siren of Africa that calls and those who hear it will constantly travel back to it time after time to immerse their souls in it's bewitching senses.



In the Karoo of Southern Africa the silence of Africa can be acutely felt. It is uninterrupted by the noises of progress and it is here that you can find a very special project that allows you to reflect deeply about the insanity of mankind and the bizarre events that unfold around us on a daily basis.

A thought provoking series of events has taken place centered around a few Tigers, now numbering 14, that are being kept on a conservancy of around 3000 hectares in the Southern Free State. This is a story of one man's vision for a perfect world. A world where animals will not be threatened by the greed of men. John Varty has literally stuck his head in a hornets nest and established a project where he is breeding Tigers to be released into the wild.



I feel my heart pound just that little bit faster as we approach the first Tiger. Surely the most beautiful of the big cats of the world he sits regally on top of a mound surveying the world. We edge a little closer and suddenly we are really close. This is the dominant male in the group. He lazily unfolds his limbs and saunters on over to the vehicle. In a deft little jump he is suddenly on the bonnet and it becomes obvious why the bonnet of the vehicle looks as though some crazed individual with a hammer has pounded it into a concave bowl. The whole vehicle rocks from side to side as the Tiger starts sniffing.

The first impression is that he is trying to determine who is inside the vehicle, but it very quickly becomes obvious that he has something entirely different on his mind. He turns himself around, lifts his tail and sends back a shower of Tiger scent back into the vehicle and all over us. He is ensuring that the scent on this particular vehicle is now only his. Then, with catlike deftness, he settles down on the bonnet to survey the world completely ignoring everyone inside the vehicle.



Our Tiger lessons start here. We are regaled with more information than I thought was ever available about a Tiger and the predicament they find themselves in.  I need to mention here that JV (John Varty) our host, has just come out of hospital after being mauled by Corbett, one of the Tigers of Tiger Canyons. His every move looks rent with pain, yet he still can't dampen the passion from shining through. JV starts the vehicle again and as we inch forward our extra passenger jumps off and lies down on his mound again.

Around another corner we come across a group of younger Tigers. In the group is a rare blue-eyed white Tiger. She is seriously kissing up to her brother. It would appear through the days ahead that the two are a coalition of sorts. They are always seen together and one cannot help but think that she has allied herself to him for a certain amount of protection. We are able to get close enough for some crystal clear portraits and as the light fades on the day the peace of the Karoo settles around us and we head off for our dinner.



The following two days are a Tiger Fest.  We are the only guests visiting Tiger Canyons and as such we can spend as long as we like with whichever Tiger we come across.  We catch Tigers yawning, Tigers drinking water and Tigers swimming. We are even lucky enough to catch the Tigers climbing trees, perching majestically on rocks, and some hunting action. The cherry on the cake comes with some boxing action and a mother and son confrontation.
















At most I had hoped to get a little closer to Tigers to get some good close-up shots but not in a million years did I think that I would come home with a library of images and have accumulated so much knowledge about the behavior and predicament of  Tigers. No matter where we turn in the world, man has caused so much change and most of it is not for the good of the world. I am increasingly in awe of people who give up their lives to try to preserve the little bit that is left of the natural world.