It is every tourist’s dream to happen upon a lion when they visit one of our many national parks. There was a frisson of excitement when a passing motorist told us of a lion a few kilometers ahead of us. “You should hear it roaring”, he said with a smile. That is unusual, I thought as we continued along the narrow dirt road and eagerly scanned the tawny grass. Indeed, we could hear it roaring moments before we were able to spot it lying in the open grassland.

He is an old lion; the scars on his face and the teeth missing between his canines are evidence of this. Despite the heat of the day, this old lion was simply lying down in the grass and roaring – to the delight of the occupants of the two vehicles parked on the road, watching him. After some time he rose to his feet and began walking across the veld.

His body is covered in scars, some in the shape of slashes while others look as though the wounds had been much larger. His face is criss-crossed with scars. As he walked, we got the opportunity to see the size of his enormous front paws.

He was heading for the scanty shade cast by a scrubby thorn bush. Once there, he flopped down, looked around for a few minutes then lay flat – almost ‘disappearing’ into the grass.

The following day we came across a young lion resting just below the level of the road in the shade. Look at his smooth face and wind-blown mane.

He was content. He didn’t mind the excited whispers or the clicking of cameras. From his position on the side of the hill he was king of all he could survey … the youngster eyeing his future, while somewhere down in the valley below the older lion was waiting for the end of his.

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One cannot do any serious bird watching while in the company of those for whom animals are the most interesting. Here then is a sample of the birds I saw in passing whilst in the Mountain Zebra National Park. This Streaky-headed Seedeater (Crithagra gularis) was perched in a tree outside the communal kitchen in the rest camp. There were many of them all over the park:

Apart from seeds, they eat fruit, flowers, buds, nectar and insects. A similar diet is followed by the White-browed Sparrow-Weaver (Plocepasser mahali). The rest camp is awash with these birds and their untidy grass nests are evident everywhere in the park:

Having heard its melodious calls for two mornings in a row without seeing one, I felt privileged when this Cape Robin-Chat (Cossypha caffra) posed for me on a low branch outside the administration building. These birds eat insects, fruit and small vertebrates.

It is less easy to identify birds while driving. Could this be a Sabota Lark (Calendulauda sabota) posing on a termite mound?

There is no mistaking the Helmeted Guineafowl (Numida meleagris). These iconic birds grace any landscape as flocks of them pick their way through the veld looking for bulbs, roots, seeds and invertebrates.

This Ant-eating Chat (Myrmecocichla formicivora) was easy to identify too.

Given how little water there is at the moment, it was a bonus coming across a Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus) looking for insects, worms, tadpoles, or even small fish at the edge of a dam.

Lastly, this Common Ostrich (Struthio camelus) showed no interest in posing for a photograph – he clearly had better things to do!

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Whichever way you look at them Black Wildebeest (Connochaetes gnou) do not look like well-proportioned creatures. For a start, their heads seem to be too heavy and are covered with a shaggy fringe – see the tuft of stiff black hair on the top of the muzzle, the black beard and long fringe running underneath the neck all the way to the forelegs; their curving horns are close together at the base then curve outward, inward and slightly backward; their legs look delicate in relation to the rest of their bodies; most look as though the bones on their rumps are sticking out – unlike the sleekness of zebras or the well filled-out look of buffalo – and so, to my mind they look rather sad as if they were put together out of left overs.

It is when they raise their heads that one can appreciate their erect mane and long whitish tail – the latter has caused them to be known as White-tailed Gnu in some quarters.

Black Wildebeest are endemic to this country and prefer open grassland, where the vision is good. Herds of them roam these plains, with dominant bulls remaining in an area to defend their territory even once the others have moved on.

Regular readers will know that I derive a lot of satisfaction from finding out the derivation of the scientific names of plants, animals and birds. In the case of the Black Wildebeest, Connochaetes comes from the Greek word kónnos, which means ‘beard’, and gnou is an onomatopoeic Khoi-khoi word to describe the honking call these animals make, which is described as ge-nu.

It is amusing to watch the behaviour of Black Wildebeest when they feel threatened for they tend to gallop around in a circle or stand with their forelegs on the ground whilst kicking with their hind legs. They quickly run forward for a distance then stop to turn and look back to where they came from. To our eyes, this behaviour appears to be rather clown-like!

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On each of the three days we camped at Mountain Zebra National Park we were entertained by a special visitor, other than the delightful presence of a number of birds of course. The first was what is commonly known in South Africa as a Shongololo. This popular name for a millipede is derived from the Xhosa and Zulu word ‘ukushonga’ which means ‘to roll up’ – which is what the shongololo does when disturbed in order to protect its vulnerable underside. They are fascinating to watch for as they walk, their legs move in a synchronised, wave-like motion. There were actually a whole lot of them, in various shades and sizes, all over the rest camp area and crossing the roads through the park. One had to watch out to avoid stepping on them at times!

Apart from the many ordinary looking ants that were around, there were particularly large ones, such as this one, that seemed to be on their own. I was struck both by its size and its colouring, but am stumped about its identification.

While being careful not to touch it or feed it, we were enchanted by the Striped Mouse that often appeared from behind a rock near our tent to scamper across to see what it could find to eat. It was easily scared off by birds and, on more than one occasion, was deliberately chased away by a White-browed Sparrow Weaver.


GROUND LILY (Ammocharis coranica)

My first introduction to this very pretty, though in this case rather weather-worn, flower was in the garden surrounding the reception building at the Mountain Zebra National Park.

This Ground Lily – also known as Karoo Lily, Berglelie or Seeroogblom – must have looked beautiful in its prime, I thought, and it was a pity that we had missed that. In fact, I was to discover that this summer-flowering bulb blooms from about September to March and was fortunate to see several more blooming in the veld.

Ammocharis coranica is a perennial bulb that grows in summer rainfall areas where its habitat is characterised by lengthy dry periods and severe droughts. The leaves usually lie flat on the surface of the soil and the rounded inflorescence of pink or reddish pink, trumpet-shaped, sweetly scented flowers protrudes above ground after the leaves have appeared.

The genus name is derived from the Latin ammo, meaning ‘sand’ and charis, meaning ‘grace’, referring to the locality where the plants occur, as well as the beauty of the plant. The species name coranica is derived from the Korana Bushmen tribe, which used to live in the dry areas this plant inhabits. The profusion of beautiful deep pink, sweetly-scented flowers attract night-flying moths, which serve as pollinators.

Two interesting sources to consult should you wish to find out more:

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This Vervet Monkey was an unwelcome visitor while we were setting up camp. It leapt down from the trees overhead and made straight for the trailer as I opened its lid. Fortunately all the food was still safely enclosed in covered plastic crates. This action demonstrates how clever these creatures are. I chased it away and kept an eye on it until it moved off to find a more interesting campsite to investigate.

Monkeys are everywhere, so one has to be very careful to keep food out of sight and stored in secure containers. Here one is waiting right next to the tent, ready to pounce on anything that has been left unattended.

It is so much more fulfilling to see them in their natural habitat.

This is when you can watch the interactions between family members and truly appreciate the open affection and care shown by mothers towards their babies; the fun of youngsters playing together; and the curiosity they have for us matched by ours for them.

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The appearance of this youngster startled us as much as the noisy presence of our vehicle must have given it a start: we had stopped along the road to have a closer look at something else, when this gangly creature emerged from the measly shadow of a scrubby bush and wobbled away from the road through the short yellow grass. A single Springbok lamb is born after a gestation period of about 25 weeks and is usually hidden for the first two days after birth as they make easy prey for eagles and jackals as well as small cat species. This one couldn’t have been many days older than that.

It turned to look at us curiously.

The following day we came across a young Springbok (Antidorcas marsupialis) a little older than the first. This one was confidently grazing a little distance from its mother and looked both curious and alert. Lambs start grazing by two weeks of age are weaned after about four weeks.

In due course the lambs join a ‘nursery’ of others of a similar age that graze in fairly close proximity to the adults.