EARTH DAY IN ADDO

What better place to celebrate Earth Day than to spend time away from a built-up environment: we chose to visit the nearby Addo Elephant National Park. Some visitors had close-up views of lions, spotted hyenas and even a black rhino. We didn’t draw that card, but observed a number of interesting things nonetheless.

It is the rutting season for kudu. Large herds of kudu does accompanied by one or two males appeared in several sections of the park we drove through, especially around Rooidam. Our attention was drawn to a loud hollow-sounding ‘thunking’ noise close to the road: two kudu bulls were sparring; kicking up dust as they locked horns and pushed each other this way and that.

What magnificent horns they sported. This is the victor of that encounter.

The heat drew herds of elephant to the bigger waterholes. We watched a group of four adults and two youngsters approach the small Marion Baree waterhole. They sprayed themselves with water on arrival.

They then moved to the mud hole next door, where the elephants scooped up balls of thick mud to throw over their backs.

By then the water in the concrete-lined dam had settled so a few drank before watching patiently as a youngster claimed the shallow dam for its own fun.

One has to watch out for dung beetles crossing the road at this time of the year.

Zebras with their painted faces did not disappoint.

Several came to quench their thirst at Domkrag.

A large flock of Pied Starlings came to join them.

A Karoo Scrub Robin came to investigate.

An inquisitive Egyptian Goose approached our vehicle at Hapoor.

Several Fork-tailed Drongos kept an eye on us at the Rest Camp water hole.

As did some Cape Glossy Starlings, looking magnificent in the late afternoon sunlight.

My bird list for the day:

Redwinged Starling
Barthroated Apalis
Fiscal Shrike
Speckled Mousebird
Southern Boubou
Common Moorhen
Redbilled Teal
Backsmith Plover
Redknobbed Coot
Spurwing Goose
Karoo Scrub Robin
Pied Crow
Common Ringed Plover
Egyptian Goose
South African Shelduck
Bokmakierie
Black Crow
Cape Sparrow
Greater Doublecollared Sunbird
Cape Turtle Dove
Cape Robin
Sombre Bulbul
Southern Black Korhaan
Helmeted Guineafowl
Crowned Plover
Pale Chanting Goshawk
Cape Wagtail
Grey heron
Forktailed Drongo
Cape Glossy Starling
Laughing Dove

KGALAGADI TRANSFRONTIER PARK

The yearning is swelling within to make another long trek to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park: to experience the space, the silence, the starlit skies you can almost touch, and the complete lack of connectivity with cell phones and the internet.

It can be hot and dry; the wind can whip up clouds of desert sand; it can also be icy cold. It is a remote place that has crept into my heart and tugs at me every so often. Here are some examples of why this is one of the places I love to visit:

Gemsbok are endemic to this arid region – they are such regal animals.

Springbuck appear in large herds, reminiscent of what it must have been like before senseless European hunters bagged as many as they could in the name of fun.

Spotted hyenas help clean the veld of bones and so help prevent the spread of diseases.

Blue wildebeest gather around the small, concrete-lined waterholes and seek the shade of scrawny trees during the hottest part of the day.

What a privilege it is to see a ratel / honey badger out in the open like this.

Then, of course, everyone keeps a sharp eye out for lions!

AFRICAN BUFFALO

The very name Addo Elephant National Park conjures up images of elephants and that is what most visitors expect to see when they arrive. While it is true that on some visits we have literally seen over a hundred elephants, there have been times when we have been fortunate to see the odd one here and there – and even times when not a single elephant has made an appearance!

One has to be patient though and simply driving around the park from one water hole to another is not likely to yield the best results. Be prepared to wait and keep your mind open for other possibilities. I find that African Buffalo (Syncerus caffer) – also known as Cape Buffalo – are worth watching, whether you come across a single one or a herd.

Occasionally we have been fortunate enough to observe a buffalo encountering an elephant at a waterhole.

Or cooling off in one on its own.

These bulk grazers bear interestingly shaped horns with those of the males being characterised by a heavy boss.

Their heavy-set bodies and thick legs carry no particular markings, yet I find their faces are fascinating to observe.

THE KRUGER NATIONAL PARK

We do not go there nearly often enough, yet the Kruger National Park remains one of my favourite holiday destinations in South Africa. From where we live now, it requires a two or three day drive to get there, depending on the state of the roads at the time. Given the ever-increasing price of fuel, it is also an expensive trip to undertake. This means that when we do go, we try to spend close on three weeks there at a time.

I grew up within such easy reach of the Kruger National Park that we could go in for day trips. Sometimes we would visit as a family or I would accompany friends. The primary school I attended was good about taking us there too – usually to play softball or tennis matches against pupils from the primary school in Skukuza. Such trips would include an overnight stay in dormitories, when we would routinely be frightened by Spotted Hyenas knocking the lids off the metal dustbins outside.

Spotted Hyena

There is such a wide variety of game, interesting insects, and birds to see in the Kruger Park that visitors have no reason to be bored. Nonetheless, many visitors tend to feel dissatisfied unless they have seen at least one lion (preferably at a kill), cheetah and a leopard (particularly elusive creatures).

Lion

Leopard

Of course they are interesting to see, although I do not think it is worth sitting in a traffic jam for hours in the hope of glimpsing part of one through the tangle of vehicles. There is so much more to explore like the scenery of open veld, riverine trees, the rivers and rocky outcrops that are not only lovely to look at, but which might harbour all sorts of surprises – such as a Pearl-spotted Owlet!

Pearlspotted owlet

A sense of peace descends on me as I become attuned to the natural surroundings in which we can admire the simple beauty of an Impala:

Impala

The grace and elegance of Giraffe:

Giraffe

The majesty of Elephants:

Elephant

Or be taken aback by the Golden Orb Spiders along a path:

Goldenorbspider

One might even be fortunate enough to come across the endangered Ground Hornbills picking their way through the veld.

Ground Hornbill

I associate the Kruger National Park with diversity, contrasts and constant surprises. It is good to take a break from driving every now and then to spend the best part of a day parked at a waterhole, sitting in a bird hide, or exploring the rest camp. From the dawn chorus of birds to the roar of lions at night, there is always something interesting happening in the Kruger Park. It is a place I always leave with a heavy heart and a vow to return as soon as I can!

sunset

CHRISTMAS IN ADDO

We decided to break with tradition this year and spent Christmas Day in the Addo Elephant National Park – as did hundreds of others! A long queue of vehicles developed outside the Matyholweni (meaning ‘in the bush’ in Xhosa) Gate at the southern entrance to the Park. Some people donned Christmas hats and there was an atmosphere of cheer as visitors in a festive mood greeted each other in passing. Jack’s Picnic Site was so chockful of people at noon that several families simply enjoyed a picnic lunch in the scant shade of their vehicles. Vehicles were parked as far back as the turnoff to the chalets when we reached the Main Rest Camp. The picnic site there too was filled to the brim with people braaiing or having a picnic in whatever shade they could find. Fortunately, we had booked for the 2 p.m. Christmas dinner at the Cattle Baron.

The weather was gloriously clear and a pleasantly warm 23°C when we arrived mid-morning. By three o’clock in the afternoon though the temperature had soared to 40°C and a strong wind had begun to whip up the dust, so thick in places that it was often difficult to see very far.

dusty Addo

This is a good time of the year to see the Spekboom (Portulacaria afra) in bloom and we were not disappointed. The clusters of small, star-shaped, dusky pink flowers created a wonderful display from close to the ground to the trees that had somehow managed to grow tall without being eaten by elephants.

spekboom

There was an abundance of the latter: we were spoiled with magnificent sightings of hundreds of elephants, mostly near the waterholes of Hapoor and at the Main Rest Camp. In the image below you can see a fraction of one herd moving away from the water. Note the paths that have been made through the bush.

Addo elephants

Other elephants were at smaller waterholes and allowed us very close-up views of them.

Zebras are such photogenic creatures that it is very difficult to pick out one image from the many photographs I took of them.

zebra

Given the heat and the prolonged drought, it was very sad to see this mangy black-backed jackal making its way through the dry grass. This disease is caused by mites (Sarcoptes scabiei) burrowing into the skin to complete their lifecycle. The condition may become chronic and eventually leads to the death of the animal in the wild.

mangy blackbacked jackal

On a much more cheerful note, we saw this very attractive mountain tortoise next to the road as we were heading home at the end of an interesting Christmas Day.

mountain tortoise

My bird list is:

Black Crow
Black Harrier
Black Sunbird
Black-headed Heron
Blacksmith Plover
Bokmakierie
Boubou
Cape Glossy Starling
Cape Wagtail
Cape White-eye
Crowned Plover
Egyptian Goose
Fiscal Shrike
Fork-tailed Drongo
Hadeda Ibis
Helmeted Guineafowl
Lesser-striped Swallow
Ostrich
Pied Starling
Red-billed Teal
Red-knobbed Coot
Sombre Bulbul
South African Shelduck
Speckled Mousebird
Stanley’s Bustard

TORTOISES AT ADDO

Not to be outdone by the Cape buffalo, leopard tortoises were also out in force during our recent visit to the Addo Elephant National Park. These tortoises (Stigmochelys pardalis) are often called mountain tortoises from directly translating the Afrikaans name for them, bergskilpad. They grow to be the largest tortoises in South Africa, which makes the mature ones easy to spot in the veld – if they are around.

The first one we saw was in the vicinity of the Lismore Waterhole, seemingly unperturbed by the presence of so many elephants. Although we watched it closely for some time, marvelling at its size, the wise look in its eyes and the good condition of its carapace, it was only once I was studying its image on my computer that I noticed the tick on it!

leopard tortoise

Apparently it is not uncommon to find tortoises in the wild that are infested with ticks in the soft skin of their necks and upper limbs. Notice its well-developed back legs and the pigeon-toed front legs. The row of small nails helps the tortoise to manoeuvre over rocks and to walk at speed. You would be surprised to see how quickly these tortoises can move through the veld!

Another lone tortoise appeared near the road on our way to the Hapoor Waterhole.

leopard tortoise

This is not unusual for they tend to be loners except for during the mating season. That is when the males follow females for some distance and then butt them into submission. We couldn’t help wondering if this is what was happening near Ghwarrie. We watched these two pushing each other for about ten minutes – and they had been at it before we arrived. It could equally have been an example of competitor ramming, especially as these ones were head-to-head.

leopard tortoises

leopard tortoises

leopard tortoises

By the end of our trip we had lost count of the number of leopard tortoises we had seen – some striding ahead purposefully, others munching grass contentedly, and yet others ambling across the road with the confidence of knowing that they have right of way.

We spotted one angulate tortoise and it was not waiting around for any touristy shots. Instead, it was walking as fast as its legs could carry it across the road to where it could hide in the dry grass.

angulate tortoise