Monday, March 28

It's not just about the big animals......



When leaving camp before sunrise on those lovely fresh mornings that only a lowveld summer can produce, who can forget the dew spangled cobwebs sparkling in the early morning light, strung across the game paths, suspended from the tiniest twigs, softening the thorny outlines of the acacia bush, turning the new day briefly into a fairy wonderland.





The smell of fresh animal dung is also at its strongest in early morning, attracting dung beetles of all sizes and colours from afar. It seems that every recently-used rhino dung midden is heaving from the activity of hidden beetles. Dung beetles are rolling their dung balls in all directions whilst the air is full of more beetles flying in to this cornucopia of dung beetle delight. Even in areas where the extra large dung piles are missing, these versatile cleaners of the bush can make do with giraffe and smaller antelope dung pellets.


As the day warms up, those delicately-fierce, winged predators, the dragon flies dart in and out on the periphery of our vision. Almost impossible to capture on camera they zig and they zag over the water, in the deep green dimness of the trees and out again into the hot sunlight. Shimmering in a multitude of primary colours, they delight the senses.



Now, as this wet season draws to a close and the summer-visiting birds return to their northern breeding grounds, the nights cool and the ground bakes harder, the insects, spiders and other creepy crawlies seem to disappear almost over night.

It is a reminder that the bush is withdrawing into its dry season torpor, and it will be many months before we can once again enjoy the beautiful and colourful wealth of our small wild life.

Thursday, March 10

Encounters with the Spotted hyaena (Crocuta crocuta)

At sunrise, on my way out of Kruger last week, a female hyaena walked down the road towards me with the remains of an impala carcase in her mouth. She was obviously still a nursing mother and was possibly returning to the den with some supplementary food for the cubs.

This great sighting triggered a string of memories on the spotted hyaena and how little I have spoken of this amazing animal so far.


In my early days of camping in the bush, in Zimbabwe, the spotted hyaena was one of the creatures most held in fear and revulsion, basically the stuff of nightmares.

Stories, both true and apocryphal, abound of unwary campers who have hands, feet, faces bitten off while in their sleep. Cooler boxes, pots and pans left outside, are chewed to unusable wreckage by those incredibly strong jaws. And, of course, the hyaena is generally seen as a cowardly, despicable and at the same time, vicious creature.

on wildebeest kill, Sabi Sand
I remember very well my first close up encounter with the “spotty”. Sitting next to the camp fire, one very black night at Mana Pools on the banks of the Zambezi River, two pale, but distinctive shapes suddenly appeared on the edge of the fire light. Without really thinking about it too much I leapt out of my chair and ran at these nightmarish creatures, shouting out loudly, “voetsak! voetsak!”.  Thankfully, they retreated back into the darkness, and I felt quite proud of myself, especially after the two English girls who with me expressed their amazement and admiration! Nevertheless, I was definitely relieved when my good friend Louis returned from the ablution block to add a bit more heft to our party and when I retired to bed later that evening I made double sure that my tent was securely zipped up! I vaguely recall that I spent some time deciding whether it was better to sleep with my feet or my head closest to the zip!

patrolling territory, Kruger NP

On another trip, this time to a remote, private bush camp in Hwange Game Reserve, we had been listening to hyaena calling most of the evening, and several members of the party had been competing in telling the most horrific hyaena stories. As in Mana Pools, our camp was unfenced and the paths to our little cabins were unlit and meandered in some places through quite thick bush. When I eventually dragged myself away from the illusory safety of the camp fire, I was pretty scared of the darkness and my torch did nothing to bolster my courage. Just before reaching my cabin door an owl went “whoo-whoo, whoo-whoo” in the bushes beside me……… well I flew through that door in a fair imitation of a “rugby try-scoring dive”  and it took at least 15 minutes before my heart rate returned to normal and I could laugh at myself! I’m not sure if that owl had ever been mistaken for a hyaena before.

Now, quite a few years later on, and after many more encounters with the “spotty”, mostly from the safety of a game viewing vehicle I must admit, my unreasoning fear of this incredible animal has been replaced by admiration, awe and respect for the amazing predator it truly is.

In the Kruger National Park, we occasionally get excellent sightings of hyaena due to their practice of using man-made infrastructure, road culverts, as den sites. As a result they become very used to motor vehicles and can lie quite calmly on the nice warm roadside despite vehicles getting very close. As they use these dens to raise their cubs we can sometimes get really close to the youngsters, which is a real bonus.

As you can see from the photos, hyaena cubs are really very “cute”. They keep their thick black fur until about 3 months old, before starting to grow into their adult coat.





As they get older, juvenile hyaena’s have the most luxuriant long fur, but this gradually shortens,  gets coarser and over their lifespan they can become quite “threadbare” especially on their heads and necks. At this stage one can almost understand why some people think that they are ugly.

The Spotted Hyaena plays a critical role in the ecosystem of the African bush. I have often been asked why there are not more animal carcases / skeletons scattered around, and of course the answer is the hyaena! With their incredibly strong neck and jaw muscles, huge teeth and heavy-duty stomach acids they efficiently clean up the bush of rotting dead animals and recycle them back into the environment. And of course, they are not just scavengers. When they are the predominant large predator in an area they have to hunt and they are supreme hunters. As with lion, they dominate the nightscape.

Which is why, as much as I now consider them to be beautiful and grossly misunderstood animals, I am still wary and take precautions when staying in unfenced wilderness areas at night! This time however it is with respect and understanding of their fitting place in our world, and not just because of all the scare stories!

Thursday, March 3

A hot summer afternoon

After a gap of almost 3 months I got back to Kruger National Park last Thursday. My drive down was “empty” i.e. no clients, so with no pressing time commitments I decided to enter the Park in the south and take a leisurely game drive north to Skukuza, keeping to the dirt roads most of the way.

At this time of the year the weather is glorious with deep blue summer skies scattered with white puffy clouds, hot, hot sun tempered by cooling breezes, the long, green-gold grasses shimmying on the roadsides. After the good rains this year the vegetation is thick and verdant, a dramatic change from the scorched, bare earth and blackened twigs of the winter fires.

Looking south to the hills across the Crocodile River


Having entered the park during the heat of the early afternoon I was not expecting to see too much animal life so spent a little while trying to photograph impala shading themselves under the magic guarri of the Crocodile River plains. No matter how common they are, I find it difficult to take really good photos of them. This is mostly because they are so confused by any vehicle actually stopping for them that as soon as you switch the engine off they turn their backs and move away from you – great for butt shots!!

Once I turned away from the river and started heading north this huge elephant bull burst out ahead of me and headed straight down the road towards me. He was too covered in mud for me to see any of the visual signs of musth but he was so big and so purposeful on that road that I decided to take no chances and started reversing!

Well…… I must have reversed for almost 2 kilometres, stopping a couple of times to take photos. I was in no rush and knew that there were a couple of road junctions coming up behind me so I was hopeful that I wouldn’t have to turn around and retrace my route. One of the game viewing vehicles behind the elephant (the one in the picture) was not so patient and after revving his engine a few times he succeed in driving the old boy slightly off the road so he could overtake him. Really!!!!

The animals in Kruger are supposed to have right of way and that guide just gave all of us a bad reputation!

If he had had the patience to wait for another 15 minutes the elephant did move off at the next road junction and we were all able to carry on with our drives – all the more richer for such a wonderful sighting.

The rest of my drive was just as good......

The giraffes ruminating in the shade of a roadside tree, a large rhino and almost grown calf close to the road, and then after my camera battery died on me I spent a fascinating 15 minutes watching Dwarf Mongoose relaxing on the shady sand of the road around me.

 I was back in Kruger, and it felt as if no time had passed at all since my last trip here………..