Thursday, February 10, 2011

Panthera pardus

There are multiple reasons for going on holiday; getting away from the weather, the house, the neighbors, the job, etc. or to enjoy going to the beach, the vacation house, a favorite place, view animals, an exotic location, a new and wild experience, etc.

In this particular case we had left extremely hot weather, left all the jobs and volunteer work behind, flown to Durban, driven to the animal reserves (think national park areas), and spent time self-driving ourselves around viewing birds, flowers, scenery, and wild animals. I’m thinking that there is something in the wild adrenalin rush when you are the prey.

This segment of our adventure began in the Ithala Game Reserve. We began each day with our schedule flexible, depending on Zane’s need for naps. When all seemed clear we loaded up into the rental (unfortunately not 4WD) and headed out for a 3-hour trip. The route we turned into was not marked as requiring 4WD, but it should have been.

I’ve used this picture in a previous segment but it is worth another look. Due to the amount of rain this year the waterfalls were spectacular, the grass was tall and the animals were well hidden. We took a lot of bird and flower photos.

We got about halfway into our loop down a narrow, one way dirt track when we found a dam / waterhole with a turn-around. Resting in the center of the area was a nice little herd of impala. They weren’t entirely pleased to see us. They had staked out a spot where they were safe with a clear line of sight in all directions and were reluctant to be chased away. Many of them were dozing.

We stopped and took all the pictures we wanted, and then drove slowly around them to head out and continue our drive.

And then the *%$# hit the fan. Kurt said, “There’s a leopard!” The adrenalin kicked in as we all said “Where?” He was stalking our herd of impala, looking for dinner.

It still amazes me that he spotted the cat. This photo, taken with all of the zoom I could get out of my 12X lens, shows a well-magnified view of what Kurt spotted. The leopard was lurking in a gully when we arrived on the scene and spoiled his stalk.

He* looked at us, looked at his dinner, and then disappeared…

…only to reappear a bit further to the right, behind a bit of grass.

He sprinted left to right across an open area – then disappeared. Becky, with Zane in mind, said “Let’s get out of here.” Kurt and I, basically macho, bloodthirsty, primitive, hunter-types wanted to stay to the end but were outvoted.

The unintended result of our driving away was we actually herded most of the impalas down the road, away from the hungry leopard. A few impala stopped along the way for that extra bite of grass. Only the leopard knows if he cornered an impala, but some of us were very sorry to think that we might have deprived the leopard of his dinner. The rest of us were very happy to have saved an impala. I’ll leave it to you to decide who was on which side.


* Sexing a leopard – you can step up and check it out yourself, or you can ask at the park headquarters.

The Galagos Adventure

Following our three nights in Hluhluwe, it was time to go back on the road. By this time we had learned that Road Warrior Zane did not have infinite patience for being imprisoned in a car seat, so we planned a rest stop at a Wimpy’s. While Zane, Betsy and I were enjoying a healthy  snack, Becky and Kurt went off to visit the local town. They returned with some basics: pineapples, whiskey, Amarula and some mangos (a key part of this adventure).

We arrived at the Itala Game Reserve and checked into our cabin, rejecting the first choice and opting into the second. The normal signs were posted: “Keep your doors and windows shut – the monkeys and baboons enjoy human food”, and “Stay inside after dark – rhinos wander through the camp”. They didn’t mention the monitor lizard and the snake I encountered on a path to the camp store. I digress.

Some of the windows had wire panels covering them, allowing us to keep them open for the breeze while keeping the vervet monkeys and the baboons at bay. The cool evening breezes are welcome despite the few mosquitoes that blow in. Remember that this area is identified as one with possible malaria. Zane had a mozzie net; Betsy and I used a plug-in repellent, Becky and Kurt used blankets and stick repellents.

When we got up the next morning it was to the news that we had been raided during the night. Kurt had cleaned it up so he related the story of finding some of our bananas and mangos had been taken, eaten, with bits of peels strewn on the floor along with small animal droppings. We suspected very young vervet monkeys even though it would have been unusual for them to be afield at night. The alternative suspects would have been bush babies but we had heard none calling the previous evening and so ruled them out.

We operated on that assumption until we checked with the reception desk. They finally mentioned that other guests had experienced similar raids and the culprits were Galagos, bush babies, a small primate. They are cute, but can be troublesome. That evening, when Becky began setting out our dinner, she let out a shout to chase the bold little critters away from the dinner table. “It was sitting on the bench, paws on the table, looking at me like I was the problem.”

We finished our meal, watching over our shoulders. The mangos weren’t that great so we decided to sacrifice a few in the name of photography, placing them in strategic location for good photos. You can see the results in Kurt’s photos.

Inspecting the area in the light of day convinced us that we probably should not repeat the mango feast. There were bits of peel, seeds, and droppings everywhere. We cleaned up, primarily because it was a problem for Zane crawling around and putting things into his mouth. Another good reason was to avoid being reprimanded by the camp personnel for feeding the animals.

That night our dinner included some gooseberries. These are not the gooseberries you may be familiar with in the States. They are yellow, larger, and much sweeter. We had let them age a bit too much so there were leftovers. Kurt took them out to the porch and tossed them, strategically, into areas we could observe from inside. Minutes didn’t pass until we saw a grey streak pass the door. We stood and watched the gooseberries disappear.

Curiously, one of the bush babies climbed straight up the wall to the rafters of the roof as if being pursued. I walked over to another window and saw what I thought was a ring-tailed bush baby nosing at the path where Kurt had tossed some berries. It moved into the light and I called for Becky to come and see. It was clearly not a bush baby. She immediately identified it as a genet, a small carnivore. We never got a picture of the genet so I’ve included a picture from the web. They do not normally prey on bush babies but the disappearance of every one for the balance of the night said something. There were still gooseberries on the path the next morning.


Tuesday, February 8, 2011

HluHluwe 2011

I want to close the chapter on Hluhluwe-Imfolozi by including some chosen photos of our finds while in the camp and on game drives. Zane showed an amazing amount of interest in the animals. As I’ve said before, he is a sponge.

We didn’t discriminate in our photography. Birds, insects, flowers, primates as well as the game animals.

Here’s an industrious waste worker, a dung beetle, cleaning up after a rhino.
Sorry about the focus on the scorpion. It was small and very lethal so I rushed the photo before disposing of the insect.

Not all of the primates were in the veld; some were in the pool. This was Zane’s first swimming pool. We had taken him to the beach a couple of weeks ago and he remembered the fun of the water. He couldn’t contain his excitement and was squealing, pointing, bouncing and generally having one heck of a good time. Yes, he was (initially) covered in sun block.

Two of the Big 5



Our Black Kite

Wart Hogs

And, one more Zane picture. It was a good time.


Friday, February 4, 2011

When Eagles Fly

February, 2011

Dear Friends and Family,

As I sit down to write this morning, it is hard to know where to begin this story. guess we should begin when I received a phone call from Becky last fall asking us if we would like to go the tent bush camp Mpila within Hluhluwe-Imfolozi nature reserve. When I read the write-up, it said, “Be sure to protect your small children. Hyaenas will steal the meat off your braai.”

Wanting to protect Zane (who is now 11 months old) and not knowing if he would be walking, or crawling, or opening zippers, Floyd and I opted out of that one for Zane’s first safari experience. We decided instead to stay at Hilltop camp in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi, a place we had been to before, where you stay in cottages and where there is a fence around the camp so most predators are locked out. We did however share the space with bush buck, vervets, baboons, spiders, geckos and other small creatures.

All was well. We had settled in. In the morning, we would look out and see the bush buck and her twins feeding in the dense foliage in front of the cottage.
Vervets with sad eyes watched from the trees then gracefully moved through the branches. Baboons raced across the clearing screeching as they went.

After the morning safari, time spent looking for rhino and other animals, we would go back to the cottage so Zane could take a nap. After nap, it was time to sit out on the deck and look for animals in the valley below. In the quiet time, Floyd would sit out there watching for a rare, beautiful blue bird with red wings, a purple-crested turaco. He was trying to get a picture of it as it flitted from tree to tree (never did) to prove that it really did exist in that environment.

On our second afternoon there, he and Kurt were sitting out trying to get that picture when a large raptor circled overhead. It circled and circled and circled.
It would go away a bit and then come back and circle some more, floating over the deck. The guys were madly taking its picture.

I (Betsy) came out to look, then Becky brought Zane out and sat on the deck floor so he too could watch the bird. And it circled some more.

We lost sight of it for a little while when all of a sudden, winds flapping and talons flared, it whooshed by Becky and Zane’s heads… to pick up prawn crisps out of a bowl on the table. It scared us all and reminded us that raptors in Africa can kill small primates. Prehistorically, the Taung child (an early human ancestor) was killed by either a Martial or Black eagle but then the Taung child at three years old was very small, the size of a three year old chimp.

From that moment on, we all watched the skies with renewed vigor whenever we were out hiking. Who would have thought...

Love to all from South Africa,

Betsy and Floyd

PS. Here is a picture of a crisp thrown in the air and the bird, later identified as a black kite. Floyd and Kurt spent the entire afternoon trying to lure it back down so they could get another picture, and finally did…the one directly above.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Parks

Toward the end of January, the Rogers, Betsy and Floyd, and the Ackermann’s, Becky, Kurt, and Zane, departed Cape Town for Durban to enjoy a brief holiday. We spent three nights in each of the two parks described below and a final night in Durban before returning to the relative cool and dry climate of Cape Town.

Zane made friends wherever he went. Here, tired as he was, he entertained and was soothed by an Indian family during the flight. “Passing the baby” is expected and widely practiced.

At the King Shaka airport in Durban we rented a car, drove toward town to stock up on groceries and wine, and then hit the road to an area just south of Swaziland; Hluhluwe-Imfolozi reserve. We do the self-catering thing by choice as our meals are healthier and better. It also allows us to be more flexible when touring remote regions.

Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park

The thatched roof cottage on the left is where we stayed for three nights at Hilltop camp in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi. Notice the game fence at the bottom left. It keeps some of the animals at bay. Vervets, baboons and bush buck among others have free reign within the camp. We’ll have more later on the animals and our adventures, bur first some background.

Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park is set in the heart of Zululand. It is the oldest game reserve in Africa, a place where Zulu kings such as Dingiswayo and Shaka hunted and put in place the first conservation laws, where today the "big five" of African legend stalk the verdant savannah. Established in 1895, game viewing is the prime attraction. Viewing hides overlook waterholes enabling visitors to see animals at close range.

As the home of Operation Rhino in the 1950s and 60s, the Park became world renowned for its white rhino conservation. Other areas of focus for which Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park is famed include wilderness trails which originated in Imfolozi in the 1950s and its renowned Game Capture unit recently upgraded into the Centenary Capture Centre, a bench mark for animal capture and sustainable utilization throughout Africa. The Park covers some 96 000 ha and contains an immense diversity of fauna and flora. Hluhluwe is characterized by hilly topography, and this northern section of the park is noted for its wide variety of both bird and animal life. Apart from game-viewing drives, there are two self-guided auto trails which provide information on both the management and natural history of the reserve. Guided walks are also available, particularly rewarding in the early morning and late afternoon.

Hluhluwe Imfolozi is one of South Africa's most popular game parks affording visitors fascinating wildlife encounters. The wide range of plant life in the park gives rise to a diversity of mammals, birdlife, reptiles and amphibians. The BIG FIVE - lion, rhino (back & white) elephant, buffalo and leopard are all to be seen in the park, as well as a variety of other species, including cheetah, wild dog and giraffe. It is also one of the best places in the world to see nyala.

When uncontrolled hunting brought many game species to the brink of local extinction, Hluhluwe and Imfolozi were set aside as protected areas for game in 1895. Through good conservation practices and the world famous project "Operation Rhino", the white rhino population was brought back from extinction in this park. Numbering less than 20 animals in 1900 they now number in excess of 10 000 worldwide, though poaching is becoming a huge problem, especially in Kruger Park which shares a border with Mozambique. Rhino horn is more precious than gold. Still KZN Wildlife boasts one of the best conservation teams in the world, and enjoys international acclaim for its conservation efforts, not least in the Hluhluwe Imfolozi Park.

Ithala Game Reserve

This magnificent reserve, tumbling from the heights of the Ngotshe Mountains a thousand meters down into a deep valley, carved over the eons by the Phongolo River revealing the world's oldest rock formations, is a game viewers paradise. Situated in the rugged, mountainous thornveld of northern KwaZulu-Natal, the reserve's multitude of habitats hosts a spectacular array of wildlife species. Its scenic beauty aside, Ithala's most characteristic feature is perhaps its’ astonishing geological diversity. Some of the oldest rock formations in the world are found here, dating back 3,000 million years. With a topographic profile varying from 400m above sea level in the north to 1,450m near Louwsberg in the south, Ithala's terrain extends over lowveld and densely vegetated riverine valleys to high-lying grassland plateaus, ridges and cliff faces. The area now proclaimed as Ithala has been occupied by man for thousands of years and there are many sites littered with stone-age spear and axe heads dating back some 20,000 years. There has even been a middle Stone Age tool discovered by archaeologists which pushes the date back to anything up to 200,000 years. More recently, in the last few hundred years, with the advent of the Nguni people, iron smelting took place in Ithala and there are a number of smelting sites adjacent to deposits of banded ironstone, which was crushed to provide the iron ore. Ithala has provided the setting for many historic events, from Shaka's reign and those of successive Zulu kings, to a number of gold mining enterprises in the early years of the 20th Century. Ithala has an excellent auto trail to facilitate visitor's game viewing, and a notated guide booklet is available in the shop at Ntshondwe, Ithala's superbly designed, multi-award winning camp.

Now that we have the history of the area out of the way, stay tuned for more on our adventures.

Betsy and Floyd