Saturday, 14 May 2011

Kruger & Timbavati.

Kruger Park and Timbavati in 3 days

Kruger is truly one of the most amazing wildlife destinations!
In a period of 72 hours, Frank and I managed to see an inordinate amount of animals and spectacular scenery to our hearts content.
Starting off with a short drive from Eastgate airport, where Frank landed, we entered the Park at Orpen Gate and headed east to Satara where we stayed in a bungalow for 2 nights. During our drive in we noticed the greenery and muddy wallows which is very unseasonal due to the late rains we have had in early May. Still there were lots of wildebeest, zebra, warthog, impala, kudu and giraffe en route to Nsemani Dam where a pod of hippo greeted us. After checking in we took a leisurely drive along the famed “predator road”, the S100, following the Nwanetsi River eastwards to the Lebombo Mountains which forms the border between SA and Mozambique. At Gudzani Dam we noticed a bunch of vultures in a dead leadwood tree and scanned the area but to no avail.

Only the next morning early did we discover the 3 male lions who brought down a buffalo bull 3 days earlier. They were basking in the morning winter sun when suddenly they responded to a grunt emanating from further north of where they were. With a brisk trot they headed off and we leap-frogged ahead of them only to witness as they met up with yet another male! This coalition was 4-strong and they were in their prime. An impressive sight indeed!
The amount of waterbuck, zebra and wildebeest, giraffe and impala etc around the Satara region is astounding! We also found a nice herd of buffalo one morning where they were all laying down in the tall grass waiting for the sun to thaw them after a cold night.
A tiny Pearl-spotted Owlet  perched atop a stick in the dawn hours of the morning as it utilised these hours to hunt before settling in for the day. We had great luck in having an ele bull drifting past allowing for a stark silhouette against the rising sun, a short while later there was also a large square-lipped rhino bull patrolling his territory and grasing on the lush grasses along the Timbavati River. Both these pachyderms were very relaxed and in great physical condition. It certainly looks like this winter won’t be too tough on the animals as the amount of good quality fodder available is staggering. 

More lion activity! There were 2 males and 3 females resting up in the shade of a Knobthorn Acacia on a hot afternoon. All seemed fine until one of the lionesses got up and flirted with a male who then mated with her. Usually mating occurs separate from the group and only one pair is involved. Flopping down in the heat, they promptly fell asleep again and left us a bit confused... Later another female did the same with the other male...puzzling. Discussion drifted towards the “normal” behaviour and before we could come to some sort of conclusion, the 3rd female flirted with the first male and then in an instant the second male leapt to his feet and trotted in stiff-leggedly with a high and threatening posture! The lioness scampered away cowering and the male growlingly asserted his superiority! The first lioness also submitted straightaway indicating that there was a huge amount of tension amongst the males and females. I ventured a guess that these males are probably recent victors in a territorial take-over and are now asserting their dominance over the females in an aggressive way. The lionesses, in a bid to keep the larger stronger males happy, are allowing for copulation whilst ensuring their own safety. In time, 2 to 3 months, when these males prove to be worthy pride-males and provide a secure environment for the lionesses to bear young in, the females will ovulate and fall pregnant with their offspring. It is however rather disturbing to witness the initial forceful sexual subjugation of the females...

On a much lighter note, once we got to the Timbavati at Tanda Tula Tented Camp, the first sighting we managed to get to was that of a female leopard and her almost 12-month old son. After killing, and feeding on, an impala ram (this time of year the mating season starts and the males are too preoccupied to be vigilant) they sought shade and a breeze high up in a Marula tree. The Marula tree is also the bearer of the fruit which produces Amarula Liqueur. 

As we departed the sighting, one of the other vehicles tracked down the pack of 7 Wilddogs which had been frequenting the area in the past weeks! We just managed to reach them before it got too dark and saw the last tidbits being consumed of yet another male impala. We were lucky enough to find them again the next morning...

After an amazing nights’ sleep in a very comfortable bed and a hearty cup of coffee enjoyed on the verandah, we headed out again for our last drive before the short safari came to an end. We tracked the Machatan Pride for a while and finally heard one of the males roaring quite close to us! After a short search we found 3 lionesses, 2 males and 4 cubs. They were in a river bed and provided some entertaining moments before heading off after a herd of buffalo.

The sightings were fantastic, the weather perfect and the company engaging. The sense of achievement at the end of the day when reviewing images, discussing sightings and behaviour whilst enjoying an adult beverage around the fire, makes for memorable times and a thirst for more...
Enjoy every moment of every day!
See you out there.
Marius Swart.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Ruaha National Park, Southern Tanzania Jan 2011.

Ramblings from Ruaha
January 2011
A very warm welcome to the first newsletter for 2011 and may it be a fabulous year for all!
Where to start? It has certainly been an incredible month here in Ruaha, despite the rains still holding back and only falling enough to give us hope...
An incredible revelation was finding spoor (tracks) of an animal I would not have expected, especially where we did. About halfway between the Mdonya and Mwagusi Rivers, both still dry, on a road running past Kimilamatonge Hill we discovered these spoor which can only belong to a Cape Clawless Otter! The webbed 5 toed feet are characteristic but made for some confusing minutes while processing through all the spoor to continuously arrive at the same surprising conclusion. This young ele bull gingerly explored this palm trunk with his own trunk. Often bulls in musth (male sexual cycle) rub the temporal gland (gland between eye and ear) secretions onto trees and he was possibly smelling the scent left by an older bull. Another first for me was seeing this beautiful lillie popping up all over the place. After enquiring from a friend the identity was revealed as Cryptostephanus haemanthoides which doesn’t have a common name and is also endemic to Tanzania and Kenya. 
Early mornings here is absolutely breathtaking due to the presence of clouds and make getting up predawn worth while! 
One morning after a stunning sunrise, we heard a lion roaring just North of the Mwagusi River and drove there to investigate. Upon reaching the spot where we estimated the lion to be, we bumped into 3 cheetah! They were making their way down towards the river and headed off into the bush where we couldn’t follow. Deciding to continue a short distance further we turned around at a big baobab and started back when we suddenly found the male lion which we heard earlier, and he was right on the trail of the cheetah! 
Sniffing the ground exactly where they walked he followed their every pace and started closing in! Now all predators will dispose of others as they compete for the same resource and obviously lion are much larger than cheetah. We promptly heard impala snorting in alarm, probably from seeing the cheetah, and the lion responded with immediate action trotting off towards the calls. Due to the restriction of not being allowed off-road in a National Park, we just listened for a bit and then drove around to the river to see if we could find them again but to no avail...the outcome will remain a mystery.
Besides all the exciting sightings of charismatic animals, which Ruaha is great at providing, there are some amazing small or abstract sights too. With the rains some of the amphibians have become quite active and one morning after hearing the calls around a pan, Festo and I scoured the grasses and found this Bubbling Kassina frog hiding under a knoll. A particular Tamarind tree provided some amusement with this “wood”-pecker or goose-like structure left behind where eles broke off a branch... Also just before entering camp, we often find a Spotted Eagle-owl and now there is a youngster hanging around.
With so much going on here in Ruaha, we spend a lot of time out and little in camp itself. Early mornings, picnic lunches and a cool-box with refreshments usually sees us through till sunset. There are some very picturesque spots to have our picnics and allows for a nice leg-stretch. Some days even granite boulders suffice as chairs and tables...
Due to all the insects around, we have seen a few flapped-necked chameleons but this hatchling is the smallest I have ever seen. No more than 2 inches long he would have gone unseen if not for dropping onto the bonnet of the vehicle from where we returned him to the bush. One morning we decided to explore an area I have not been in before due to various reasons and what a pleasant surprise! Really beautiful landscapes with huge Acacia trees, loads of baobabs, open plains and muddy pans. As we started descending the escarpment towards the Ruaha River, we found fresh spoor of a pride of about 6 lion heading the same direction. Driving slowly to keep an eye on where the spoor might veer off the road, we continued for about 1km before they did. After a quick investigation, we surmised that they must have taken a shortcut down to the river and made our way to where we would expect them to be. “There they are!”. All six of them laying along the river bank and being harassed by a troop of yellow baboons! Sometimes the baboons would venture precariously close the edge of trees and the lions only to then rush back up the branches shouting abuse when chased!
Massive flocks of Open-billed as well as Abdim, Yellow-billed and White Storks have been circling overhead and descending on the pools of water and open grassy plains to take advantage of the bounty which the green season produces. These flocks are spectacular to see at sunset and just listening to the wind passing through the feathers in their wings when they pass overhead is amazing. The highly toxic Flame Lillie have also popped up in the recent weeks and added incredible colour to the fold. There are few things as mesmerising as watching a full moon rise in the wilderness! We waited for a while for it to clear the cloud bank on the horizon but it was well worth it...
Primates are always entertaining to observe and the constant power struggles on display amongst the ranks of the males can sometimes be quite vocal and physical. This high-ranking male asserted his status by posing conspicuously and shouting obscenities at all and sundry. We also had the privilege of finding this young leopardess under the shade of a baobab during the heat of the day. As we stopped, she remained which was surprising at such proximity. We suddenly noticed a cub, maybe 8-10 months old slinking away in the background and then it became clear. She stayed put to draw attention to herself whilst her cub made for safety and once there, she then slowly slipped away too. A rare sight. 
Ele bulls, like the baboons, are very engaged in intimidation games and this one particular bull along the upper Mwagusi gave us a good adrenaline rush with his antics.
Sphecid wasps were also quite busy on these blossoms one afternoon and we also spotted this spider floating on a leaf in a pool, some spiders actually use the water’s surface tension and the fine hair on their legs to be able to exploit this niche. Swallow-tailed bee-eaters are not a common sight at all but there is a pair which we constantly find on our camp-road and we saw this one catching and eating a giant dragonfly, their agility is staggering to be able to take airborne insects like these.
One early afternoon we found a pair of lion, we deduced that the lioness was a bit bushed hence she was lion down...pardon the puns... Just down-stream from the dozing lion, we encountered a big group of eles drinking from the wells they dug in the Mwagusi River, some of them pushing and shoving and others just relaxing. The elevated vantage point made a perfect spot to enjoy the sight from and enjoy our sundowner is great!

Just below camp on the edge of the upper Mwagusi, we discovered 3 lionesses and 3 cubs on a giraffe kill. There were quite a few vultures in attendance awaiting their turn.
The lioness below was very circumspect about their passing close overhead.
Whilst spending time there, we noticed a small herd of ele feeding their way towards the kill and it had promise to result in something exciting...and it did!
As the eles approached closer we could see the lions becoming increasingly restless and concerned. Then with an all mighty rumble which reverberated through our chest-cavities in resonance, the eles smelt the lions and grouped together to protect the calves. With a few loud trumpets and shuffles they rushed in on the carcass, sending the now fleeing lion into a flurry. As the eles reached the giraffe, they suddenly halted and bunched together even closer. They stood there looking on, sniffing the air, rumbling. And then they almost pushed the calves to the fore to “witness” a dead giraffe...obviously anthropomorphism is frowned upon in the scientific world but sometimes it is so blatantly visible that one wonders... Often we think we know...but do we...?
After departing from the carcass, the eles circled around us with caution and then gathered behind the vehicle close to the lions where they stood for another 10min before heading off into the riparian forest.
Fork-tailed Drongos are irascible, arrogant and uber-agile little birds which love to harass birds of prey like this largest of raptors, the Martial Eagle. With ease they out-maneuver them and deliver annoying pecks and blows... The Pretty Lady flowers have also emerged and attracted some African Bees with enticing colours, nectar and pollen.
Cheetah sightings have been plentiful this month and the contrasting colours of lush green grass, the yellows and black of the cheetah with a splash of purple provided by the a wild ginger blossom was particularly striking. The Grey Crowned Cranes were also doing their elaborate courtship dances to the appreciation of all in the vicinity, even a group of zebra...
With the rivers not flowing properly yet, the hippos are still under a lot of pressure as far as space is concerned and often males fight furiously and wounds inflicted result in injuries which may eventually be fatal. This was the case along the Ruaha River and we discovered this dead hippo being appreciated by one of the prides in the region. Even the cubs were climbing atop to ensure their share is had.
Commodores and Pansy butterflies are related and are fairly common but this specific Commodore specimen is a stunner which I have not seen before.
As you can see that even after 19 years of guiding there are still firsts around every corner!
Please come and join me in a quest to experience as much as possible and learn to appreciate everything encountered on every day and on every drive or walk.
Ruaha and for that matter Africa is waiting to share her bounty with you...
Yours in Nature.
Marius Swart.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Ruaha National Park, Southern Tanzania.

Ramblings from Ruaha
December 2010

It is fantastic to be in Ruaha again, especially as I get to be here for the emerald season!
Having taken over from Steve who spent the best months of the dry season observing some extraordinary sightings, I can already see change in the bush due to the first, albeit later than usual rains. Stunning colours late afternoon along the Mwagusi with rain falling over the Escarpment was our first introduction to precipitation. 
Although the rains are later than previous years, the plants and insects reacted violently to the nourishing moisture which triggered growth and emergence.

Some incredibly beautiful Weevils and Long-horn Beetles have erupted as well as an astronomical amount of Giant-African Bullfrogs! With all the insects and amphibians around, the birds have arrived in droves with massive flocks of Marabou, Yellow-billed and Abdim Storks as well as numerous Steppe Eagles to utilise the bounty.
As per usual however the lion sightings remained amazing and we even had two spectacular leopard sightings! This large male spent 2 days consuming an Impala he killed and provided us with great photo opportunities.
Lesser kudu is a special in Ruaha and regular sightings around camp has been very welcome. The diminutive Kirk’s Dik-dik is also often seen and always prompts a response of “Oh how cute”. With rain filling puddles everywhere, tadpoles are growing fast and already the calls of frogs at night is deafening.
The rising moon last week made for an awesome sight and made a typical backdrop for the roaring lions and whooping hyaena. An interesting side-effect of the rains has been the reduced sightings of elephant in the usual places due to water being available everywhere, allowing them to disperse and feed in areas previously too dry to reach. With the cessation of rains for 10 days however, things dried out again and the eles are back at the wells they dig in the dry riverbeds. The birds also feverishly building nests like this Paradise Flycatcher in camp.
There has been quite a bit of mating amongst the lions and we were treated to some very private moments on a few occasions. If the females conceives now, we should have a new set of cubs arriving just as the season draws to a this space...The warthogs on the other hand have all just given birth and the piglets are just too damn entertaining!
Obviously with the rains, we have had other side-effects, like getting stuck. This will become a regular occurrence as the season gets wetter. Fortunately we are well versed in dealing with these situations but Simon and Heather were enthusiastic enough to help collect wood and rocks...thanks.
Little Bee-eaters have had a field-day with all the butterflies erupting after the rains and they are truly amazing aerial acrobats!
We stopped for a bush breakfast close to the confluence of the Ruaha and Mwagusi where we were interrupted by 2 ele bulls walking around, shaking palm trees to drop the fruit which they love. Giraffe feature quite often on the lion’s menu, this bull however managed to escape with more interest shown by the cubs than the two expert lionesses. One of the 4 males from the Kipungi Pride allowed us to get quite close and personal with him one late afternoon, I took artistic liberty to emphasise the most indelible feature of a lion if seen at proximity...
All the greenery has caused the tortoises to become very active and we found this male desperately following a female, he didn’t seem shy at all and we surmised that he has definitely come out of his shell... Oh yes, did I mention that as sense of humour is as important as a pair of binos? 
Yesterday afternoon there was a short but spectacular storm which came from the East and swept across the Mwagusi Valley. Here are some images of the event...and oh yes, we got soaked to the bone! It was an incredible experience though and highly recommended.
Looking forward to seeing you out here and sharing the brilliant colours, smell, sounds, sensations of wind and rain and joyous occasion of LIFE in Ruaha with you...

Yours in Nature.
Marius Swart.