REFLECTIONS 3

I lunched with a friend yesterday, who showed me a lovely oil painting of a scene from the Kruger National Park she had recently received as a gift. It is a place we both enjoy visiting and so, as I marvelled at the reflections on the river we were dining next to, I thought about some of the many river scenes I have enjoyed in the Bushveld.

Here are three of them:

Darters in the Olifants River

Darters

A Saddle-billed Stork in the Kruger National Park


A lone elephant at a waterhole in the Kruger National Park

elephant

KRUGER NATIONAL PARK – SATARA (2)

KRUGER NATIONAL PARK – SATARA (2)

Birding is an adventure around almost every corner in the Kruger National Park – even though the rain initially put a dampener on this activity. One’s experience starts in the camp on rising: a variety of birds from Redbilled Buffalo Weavers and Crested Barbets to Grey Louries and Great Sparrows – as well as starlings and Arrow-marked Babblers – scratched around in the leaf debris of the trees we were camping next to. From the first morning I was made very aware of the new world of birds that awaited me.

crested barbet

Cape Glossy Starlings abound, attracting one to their presence by their beautiful blue metallic sheen and bright orange eyes. One cheeky bird alighted on the counter of the camp kitchen and stole a slice of sausage from my pan while I was cooking! Burchell’s Starlings are reasonably easy to recognise from their longer tails, while I found the Greater Blue-eared Starlings more difficult to recognise in the field.

capeglossystarling

Spurfowl are abundant too, especially on the road early in the mornings and towards sunset. Swainson’s Spurfowl and Natal Spurfowl seemed to be the most common – several of the latter wandered around Satara Camp too – although we also saw Crested Francolin from time to time.

Natal spurfowl

What a delight to find Brown-headed Parrots feeding on the long pods of the Long-tail Cassia tree right next to our tent!

Brownheaded parrot

It is always interesting to see familiar ‘garden birds’ in a game reserve and there were plenty of Laughing Doves and Cape Turtle Doves around. Although I saw Namaqua Doves once, it is the African Mourning Dove that was dominant in the camp and at the various picnic spots where we stopped. Its melodious call became familiar to us during the week we were in Satara.

African Mourning Dove

Of course the Lilac-breasted Rollers are magnificent looking birds. They are eye-catching, both when sporting their beautiful blue feathers in flight and when perched conspicuously on the top of bushes and old tree stumps. Their presence brightened up any drive.

lilac-breasted roller

The Purple Rollers are beautiful to look at too.

purple roller

What I find interesting is that in our home garden, the Burchell’s Coucals are heard far more often than they are seen, preferring to skulk around in the thick foliage. Here they are commonly seen flying across the short amber grass to perch in low bushes, often right next to the road! These birds have a special place in my heart, for many years ago we raised a fledgling that had fallen out of a nest and broken its leg. In the then Eastern Transvaal, where I grew up, Burchell’s Coucals were commonly referred to as ‘rain birds’ for their calls were a welcome sound during periods of prolonged heat and drought: many people believed this presaged the coming of rain.

Burchell's coucal

A spectacular surprise awaited us in a dip where the S100 road crosses the N’wanetsi River. A mecca of birds were in and near the water: Saddle-billed Storks, Marabou Storks, Spoonbills, Egyptian Geese, Hamerkops, a Pied Kingfisher, Goliath heron, Blacksmith Plovers, a Great Egret, Woolly-necked Storks, Fish Eagles, a Black-headed Heron, Common Ringed Plovers, Common Moorhen, a Little Bittern, Yellow-billed Storks and a Squacco Heron all in one place!

saddlebilled stork

This was a magical place to park for a while in order to watch the mating rituals of the Yellow-billed Storks and the efficiency with which the Pied Kingfisher and the Hamerkops speared their prey.

yellow-billed storks

While this feast for the eyes was going on at water level, another fantastic spectacle was unfolding in the tall riverine trees: a pair of African Hawk Eagles flew about in impressive mating displays while – we presume – a juvenile remained perched in the top of one of the enormous trees lining the river bank.

African Hawk Eagle

It was equally exciting to watch the flight of those magnificent, iconic birds, the African Fish Eagles as they swooped down from their high perches or circled above us. Their call is a distinctive and thrilling one.

African Fish Eagle
The area around Satara afforded us the opportunity to see interesting and beautiful birds such as the Bronze-winged Coursers right next to the road.

Bronzewinged Courser

Another was a Golden-tailed Woodpecker working its way through an old log near a waterhole. Southern White-crowned Shrikes would appear from nowhere – usually in a most difficult spot (such as against the sun) for photographs.

Golden-tailed Woodpecker

 

southern white-crowned shrike

Generally speaking, I have found the photographic field guide, Birds of Southern Africa by Ian Sinclair and Peter Ryan, a useful companion to my trusty and well-thumbed Roberts’ Bird Guide. The Magpie Shrike is a good example of a bird easily identified in flight when the distinctive white patterns in their wings (as illustrated in Roberts’) are clearly visible. Seeing one perched on a branch with the white back showing was puzzling at first – that is where the photographic evidence came up trumps!

Magpie Shrike

There is always something to see in the KNP!

KRUGER NATIONAL PARK – SATARA (1)

KRUGER NATIONAL PARK – SATARA (1)

Three years ago we enjoyed the two days spent camping in the Satara camp so much that this time we booked to stay there for a whole week. The game viewing in that area is excellent with a variety of drives to choose from and a bonus is that the bird life within the camp is prolific. Then we had a Scops Owl roosting in a tree right next to our tent – this time there was a resident African wild cat, but more of that later. It is a complete change from urban living and sheer bliss listening to the whoop of hyena and the chorus of the high-pitched eerie calls of black-backed jackals at night, not far from the perimeter fence.

SONY DSC

A terrific thunderstorm broke the intense heat of our first night in Satara: sheet lightning, thunder and rain accompanied by strong wind that buffeted our tent until the early hours of the morning. The rain continued intermittently for several days after that, leaving everything from tents to birds looking sodden. The African wild cat I mentioned earlier briefly sought shelter from the rain under a trailer net to our campsite, where it leisurely cleaned itself before disappearing. It appeared sitting under our truck a few days later – this time possibly seeking shelter from the sun – then settled into a clump of bushes next to our tent. It must have made this part of the camp its home, for we later saw it lying comfortably in the dust unperturbed by the human activity around it.

africanwildcat

We saw large herds of both elephant and buffalo soon after entering the Kruger National Park through the Orpen Gate. As the elephants here have a reputation for being more aggressive and temperamental than the ones we are more familiar with in the Addo Elephant National Park – not that we witnessed any evidence of this – we nonetheless kept our distance from them and the engine running. A few days later we watched a herd of about fifty elephants gather at Nsemani Dam on the Orpen road – they are fascinating creatures to observe.

Several groups of them seemed to merge and separate in a prolonged ceremony of greeting: youngsters tussled with each other while small babies kept close to their respective mothers in that mass of enormous legs and swaying trunks. One group eventually parted from the rest and were quickly absorbed by the surrounding bush. The others edged along the dam to drink and it wasn’t long before a number of them had waded right into the water to drink and splash about.

A sudden loud trumpeting from the matriarch caused all the elephants to leave the water obediently and in a hurry to stand on the bank – bar one that had got stuck in the thick gooey mud. My heart lodged in my mouth while the hapless elephant tried lifting first one foot and then the other without success. Its companions remained silent and watchful; some had even turned away from the distressful spectacle.

At last the elephant turned around about 90 degrees and tried again. First it managed to free the front legs, then, scrabbling for a foothold in the knee-deep mud, it pulled one back foot free. To my immense relief it broke free shortly afterwards and made for the bank. At that point the waiting elephants moved off while the now freed elephant struck off on its own on a path parallel to the herd.

elephantstuckinmud

Unsurprisingly, impala were the first animals we spotted on entering the park. These mixed-feeders were described by the guide on a later night-drive as “the McDonalds of the park” as they provide food for most of the large carnivores. They are beautiful animals to watch closely, being rufous-fawn in colour with white underparts and delicate markings. It is the rutting season now and we often observed the dominant male chasing after his chosen female – snorting loudly , while she lead him a merry dance by running in circles through the veld with him in hot pursuit. The ferocious sound of that snorting reminded us of a night, many years ago, when we were stranded in the veld in Botswana and – not having heard it before – were concerned that the noise we were hearing came from something that might decide to eat us!

impala

On one occasion we watched several female waterbuck lying in the grass chewing the cud while the male gave them the once-over. Each obediently rose in turn when sniffed by the male and lay down again.

waterbuck

The most affectionate and amorous mating display was performed by a pair of giraffe: they seemed to caress each other by rubbing their heads up and down the neck of the other; they wound their necks around each other; put their heads close together; and even looked as though they were nuzzling in a kiss…

giraffe1

giraffe2

Nsemani Dam proved to be a wonderful place for watching hippos: blowing water in sprays from their nostrils; making their characteristic grunting sounds; squaring up to each other with their mouths open – South Africans of a certain generation will always associate that wide-mothed pose with an advertisement for Chomp chocolates. Hippos are so interesting out of the water too, when one can see how large and cumbersome looking they are. Several had small calves in tow. Like baby elephants, these look cuddly and so ‘touchable’!

hippos

Game viewing was good, even during the inclement weather. Once we saw a lioness followed by six cubs cross the road and on another occasion spent nearly two hours watching five sated lions sleeping off their meals from the night before. Every movement they made, from lifting a head or drinking water, seemed an effort for they would flop down again or roll over, stretching languidly and relax once more.

lions

Although signs in Satara Camp warn visitors to watch out for honey badgers (more commonly known as ratels in South Africa), we never came across them there. Early one morning though, we saw three of them trotting through the damp grass not far from the camp. It was a privilege too to spot two black rhinos close to the road – not for long though as they soon moved through the bush and out of sight. So much game viewing depends on the luck of being in the right place at the right time.

After the rain of the first few days, it was wonderful to experience the sunshine again and to witness some glorious sunsets.

satarasunset

GREAT FISH RIVER NATURE RESERVE REVISITED

GREAT FISH RIVER NATURE RESERVE REVISITED

This weekend saw us revisiting the Great Fish River Nature Reserve on a darkly overcast day. The maximum of 18°C felt much colder, thanks to the stiff, chilly breeze that blew across the landscape. We again entered and left through the Kamadolo Gate. This time though the guard on duty told us the gate actually closes at 6 p.m. – a whole hour later than on our previous visit. Methinks that fellow wanted to leave early as he knew we were the last visitors!

SONY DSC

We enjoyed travelling along the narrow, twisting dirt road – naturally expecting and hoping for a surprise around every corner.Sections of the road are in a very poor state of repair. In places though, gabions have been constructed to prevent erosion – particularly where water would otherwise flow across the road.

gabion

I mentioned last time (see GREAT FISH RIVER NATURE RESERVE 10th February 2015) what a harsh environment this can be. These bones at the side of the road seem to epitomise this.

bones

Death was evident in the insect world too.

beetle

Less than two weeks later, the countryside looks greener and ‘softer’ and lavender-coloured cross berry (Grewia occidentallis) blooms are evident all over the area we drove through. Some of the shrubs have been cut back through browsing into compact forms, while others are still lanky and creep upwards through clumps of other thick bushes.

crossberry
Open areas are now carpeted with a wide variety of indigenous flowers, all beautiful in their own right, yet spectacular when seen en masse.

kdf1

I have not yet been able to identify them all, nonetheless these are a sample of some of the flowers we could see growing close to the road.

kdf2

kdf3

kdf4

kdf5

kdf6

kdf7

Three species of flower I recognise are the Common Gazania (Gazania krebsiana), which seem to thrive in harsh environments and often brighten the edges of the tarred roads in this region. I have not had much luck growing them in my garden though.

commongazania

The Bladder Hibiscus (Hibiscus trionum) is another beautiful flower I look forward to seeing in the veld.

kdhibiscus

Then there is the Plumbago auriculata, which is rampant in my garden – requiring regular pruning lest it takes over everything in its wake. This one is blooming unusually close to the ground – probably as a result of grazing. This goes to show how persistent nature can be to thrive against adversity.

kdplumbago

The only animals we saw this time round were Red Hartebeest. I think this new fashion of breeding them in different colours, such as gold or black, is a pity for they look wonderful in the sartorial splendour they are meant to be in.

Sredhartebeest

We walked quietly down the winding reed-fenced path towards the bird hide.

hidepath

The area next to the hide, facing away from the water, was covered with an enormous complex of golden-threaded spider webs. Two of these spiders held sway in different sections of this mass and looked ready to devour anything lurking within their domain.

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This time the water was shallower and the surface was dominated by a large flock of Yellow-billed Ducks.

ybduck

The dark, windy, chilly conditions – as well as the time constraint – did not lend themselves to good bird watching. My list is thus as modest as it was last time:
Barn swallow
Boubou shrike
Cape glossy starling
Cape turtle dove
Egyptian goose
Fiscal shrike
Fork-tailed Drongo
Laughing dove
Lesser kestrel
Little grebe
Ostrich
Redwinged starling
Sombre bulbul
Speckled mousebird
Yellow-billed duck.

THE SPRINGBOK

THE SPRINGBOK

Think of the South African national rugby team and the Springbok / Springbuck (Antidorca marsupialis) literally springs to mind. The emblem of that leaping antelope is synonymous with the green and gold and is proudly displayed on the shirts, jackets, blankets or beanies worn by loyal supporters of the team.

The Springbok also happens to be the national animal of South Africa. Its name is derived from the early Dutch, and later Afrikaans, description of this antelope’s ability to jump in a most magnificent fashion. While this is not commonly seen behaviour, and one would need to observe the animals for some time, the Springbok have the ability to walk stiff-legged for a few paces and then jump into the air with an arched back. Significantly, they lift a skin flap on their rump which reveals long white hairs underneath the tail.

This activity, known as pronking, is wonderful to behold. Pronking is an Afrikaans term for showing off and the aforementioned skin flap is responsible for the marsupialis in the scientific name of the Springbok. The animals do this both to ward off predators and when trying to attract a mate – truly showing off their prowess in that respect!

It is also wonderful to watch several of these animals leaping over low bushes and other obstacles in their path as they run from perceived danger. Apparently, they have been listed among the top ten fastest land animals in the world – over what distance, I cannot tell.

Springbok are easily recognised by their cinnamon upper bodies separated from their white underparts by a broad dark brown stripe running along their flanks. A thinner brown stripe colours their white heads and starts just above their eyes and ends at the upper lip. Their colouring and glossy coats make them a joy to see in the open veld – especially when the animals have gathered in a herd.

SONY DSC

We saw large herds of Springbok in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, where they frequented the dry river beds especially. They are well adapted to such harsh, dry conditions for they can get by without ready access to drinking water, getting enough moisture from the grass and various leaves that they eat. It is nonetheless magnificent seeing herds of them edging an open pan and being reflected in the water as they drink their fill.

springbok4

More recently, we enjoyed seeing them in the Mountain Zebra National Park near Cradock.

springbuckmzp

As a footnote, I am pleased to report that the Lesser Striped Swallows have resumed the laborious process of rebuilding their nest in the same spot as the other one that fell down (See THE HOUSE THE SWALLOWS BUILT).

THE CALL OF HOME

THE CALL OF HOME

John exhaled slowly, lowered his camera and thoughtfully watched the large herd of elephants. His patience had been rewarded at last: the herd had gradually moved towards the road and parted, giving him an opportunity to photograph the enormous bull sporting a magnificent pair of tusks. He watched the darkening clouds blot out the late afternoon sun and accelerated slightly as he headed towards the rest camp: a beer would taste good while he got a small braai fire going and downloaded his photographs to his laptop.

Frith glanced anxiously up at the darkening sky too and quickened her step along with the rest of the party on a guided walk through the forested area of the game park. Their guide, with a rifle slung across his back, jovially assured them they would be back at the camp long before any rain fell. Unconvinced, given the rising wind that susurrated through the trees, the group walked on in silence, stopping only when their guide pointed out interesting trees, birds, fungi or insects along the way. Frith listened to their footsteps crunch on the gravelly path and reflected on the play of the late afternoon light on their surroundings whenever the clouds parted for a moment. A mug of tea would taste good after this exercise, she thought wistfully as she popped a peppermint into her dry mouth.

Having showered and changed into fresh clothes, Frith approached her pale blue domed tent with a sense of satisfaction even though she hadn’t met anyone particularly interesting on the walk. She appeared to have been the only obviously unattached person in the group, yet the experience of walking in the forest and seeing so many interesting things had left her feeling fulfilled. Despite of the threat of rain, she was already looking forward to her early morning drive through the grasslands. Frith ran her eye over the map of the game reserve while sipping her scalding tea.

That evening, John flicked through the collection of photographs on his laptop: birds were a lot more demanding to capture effectively than the elephants had been, he reflected. He paused to admire the photograph of the lithe, powerful yet elegant leopard he had taken early the previous morning. On a whim, he e-mailed it to his friend Michael who had been based in Switzerland for the past two years. “Worth coming home for?” John smiled as he pressed the send button: that picture was worth sharing and he knew Michael would appreciate the combination of luck and good photography.

He joined the scheduled guided walk along the river bank the following morning, more for the company than the experience, he realised, allowing the general chatter of his companions to wash over him. The large Melissa dressed in strong hiking boots, black jeans and the requisite beige hooded jacket was proving difficult to shake off. He wasn’t looking for her kind of company! John picked up his pace and moved towards the front of the group strung out along the sinuous path next to the sluggish river.

Frith looked at the photographs on her camera while eating the salad of chopped apple, cheese and nuts she had made for her picnic lunch. Earlier that morning she had marvelled at the way the golden grasslands seemed to wrinkle into the hills and changed colour according to the sunshine and the clouds. She had come across several attractive wild flowers along the way, but found them difficult to photograph well from the confines of her car. She pressed the delete button several times: she had to be ruthless if she was to build a worthwhile collection of photographs. The close-up shot of a zebra made her smile for it had seemed at the time as if the zebra had deliberately posed for her before joining the rest of the herd grazing a little distance from the road.

She looked up as a private game-viewing vehicle drew up near her at the communal picnic site. Several tourists tumbled out and immediately made for the ablution block behind her, while their guide hauled a large wicker basket to the wooden table close by. The tourists tucked into their lunch with gusto; all seemed to be foreign and most spoke English with some difficulty on the few occasions when they addressed their guide directly.

“I wonder if he ever feels lonely in a situation like this,” Frith thought idly as she listened to the on-going chatter through the thorny hedge that separated the picnic sites.

As night fell, a chorus of frogs started up along the river bank. John listened to them as he walked towards the fence edging the camping area to where he had earlier seen a wooden bench overlooking a sandbank fringed with tall reeds. When he looked up a while later, he wondered if it was only in his imagination that the stars seemed to shine more brightly in the rain-washed sky after the brief shower shortly before sunset.

Frith was also listening to the frogs while sitting in the dark outside her tent and watching the thin clouds drift lazily across the moon, still low in the sky. She could hear the faint calls of black-backed jackals in the distance and wondered what kills would take place while she was sleeping. She shivered in the rising breeze and acknowledged the loneliness that enveloped her with an increasingly heavy mantle with each passing day: she had not had a meaningful conversation with anyone for days.

The next day, John sat alone on a rock at a viewing site at the top of a kopje in the morning sunshine. “Look there!” he heard someone say excitedly. Following the direction of the various pointing arms around him, he managed to pick out a rhinoceros in the veld way below them. Scanning the wide open vista, he could see no sign of any roads nearby and so shifted into a more comfortable position from which to watch the animal from a distance. These days is was a privilege seeing these increasingly endangered animals.

Several visitors came and went during the course of the morning; few stayed for more than ten minutes at a time as most seemed restless and eager to get on with seeing what other game could be spotted before lunch. The exception had been a young woman whose dark hair blew around her face while she sat patiently in the dappled shade of a nearby shrub. She appeared to be held spellbound by the undulating landscape stretching away from them and was clearly focused on the rhino too.

Having covertly watched her closely for over an hour, John was about to approach her when an elderly man in a pale golf shirt stretched across his pot belly sidled up to him with “Anything worth seeing here?” It was a question John had answered several times over the past two hours. He pointed to the rhino, now half obscured by the shade of an acacia tree well below them. While doing so, he noticed the young woman smiling at him sympathetically as she picked up her binoculars and notebook before making her way to her vehicle parked next to the rustic wooden fence posts.

Afterwards, John found that even close views of eland standing in the tall yellow grass failed to elicit much interest. Instead he concentrated on scanning other tourist vehicles, hoping to catch sight the compact silver car he had seen the woman drive away in. The only distinctive thing about it, that he could remember, was a sticker of an aloe on the passenger side of the windscreen.

Frith photographed silhouettes of interesting shaped trees against the setting sun, then she glanced at her watch, terrified as always that she would arrive after the rest camp gate had closed. A feeling of relief surged through her as she joined a gathering convoy of vehicles following the bend of the river. Soon the bird hide built on stilts came into view, reassuring her that there was more than enough time to return.

Now that she felt more relaxed, Frith allowed herself to ponder about ‘the Rhino Man’. He had appeared to be so self-contained, so patient, and spoke in such a pleasant manner to those who had approached him that she had found herself covertly watching him more often than she had intended. What was his background? Why was he so obviously on his own?

“She obviously appreciates nature,” John mused as he drew up next to his tent. He had listened to other tourists talking about leopard sightings while he was purchasing bacon and beer at the camp shop. He knew it was almost impossible to predict their movements; he was fortunate to have bagged such a clear photograph of one on this trip. With his attention focused on producing a supper good enough to make up for his missed lunch, he failed to notice the dark-haired young woman scanning a poster of frogs outside the shop as he hurried back to his tent.

Frith was packing the last of her camping kit into the back of her car two days later when she heard a voice exclaim behind her. “You can’t be leaving now; I’ve just found you!”

The Rhino Man, wearing a hat and holding a pair of binoculars in his hand, approached her with a broad grin on his face. “I’ve been searching for you for days and you’ve been under my nose all this time!”

“How have I been under your nose?” Frith couldn’t help smiling in response.

“You have been camping only a few hundred metres away from me!” He rubbed the aloe sticker on her windscreen. “This is the give-away.” He stretched out his hand. “John Andrews,” he said warmly.

“Frith Ferguson.” They eyed at each other awkwardly for a moment before John pointed to his 4×4 truck parked nearby.

“I see we are from the same province at least,” he said, smiling. “Have you far to travel? I was planning to do a stint of bird watching in the hide before leaving. Would you have time to join me for a while?”

Frith watched the river water flow below them and noted little eddies appearing on the surface now and then; nothing dramatic, but enough movement to catch the eye. Her bird list had expanded considerably while in John’s company. She smiled contentedly, feeling the choking mantle dissolving as she listened to John’s voice next to her. They planned to meet up at the Golden Gate Highlands National Park in April to do some trail running. In between now and then, however, there would be several weekends of bird watching in some local haunts.

“A few hundred metres away,” John laughed softly, photographing her with his cell phone. “I travel half way across the country to meet someone who lives only three streets away from me!”

Frith smiled while packing away her camera. “The call of home remains strong and I must return.” She pulled a face. “It’s back to work for me on Monday. At least meeting you will make the memory of this holiday last longer.”

“There is still so much to discover.” John looked at her earnestly. “Have you ever considered putting together a portfolio of those insect photographs of yours?”

“What, like rhino beetles and stick insects?” Frith laughed out loud. “With you, anything is possible!”

“Kayaking?”

“Perhaps.”

“We could make a good team then.” He shouldered his camera bag. “Let’s drive home together.”

FATE OF THE FLESHY SPIDER

FATE OF THE FLESHY SPIDER

I enjoyed my early morning coffee in the company of white browed sparrow weavers, red winged starlings, red eyed bulbuls, Cape turtle doves, red eyed doves, rock pigeons (yes, I know they’re called speckled pigeons now), laughing doves and pied starlings picking over the area where we’d had supper the previous evening. Not a crumb was missed.

Sadly, it was time to leave the Mountain Zebra National Park. Reluctantly, I began pulling the plastic storage containers from the tent to resort and pack them. As I was doing so, I noticed a large, fleshy-looking spider tucked under the rim of one of them.

spideronthebox

It didn’t move and so I tipped the container on its side in order to photograph this torpid creature: first in the shade and then in the sunlight. It barely budged (which suited me, I have to admit).

Wishing to photograph it in a more natural setting, I flicked it to the ground. There it blended in so well that I had to note carefully where it was in order not to squash it inadvertently while I got on with the packing.

While I was busy, some pied starlings moved in to sweep the ground of any other tasty morsels that may have floated down while I emptied the containers. To my immense surprise – and shock in a way, for I had had a brief relationship with it – one of them pounced on the spider and made short work of eating it!

spiderinbeak