PASSING SIGNS

We are woken at least half an hour before sunrise every morning by the loud greetings of the Hadeda Ibises that roost in the fig tree overnight. Their droppings are splattered on the ground underneath their perches and I frequently find their feathers dropped all over the garden. Less easy to see are their footprints:

Although we have occasionally seen Vervet Monkeys feeding on the figs, they are not yet common in our town. We are more likely to see them along our roads and in national parks:

Of course one does not only have to rely on the spoor / footprints to indicate the passing of animals and birds. These droppings are a clear indication of a Chacma Baboon:

Moving to the coastline, it is easy to see where a seagull has been walking along the beach:

It is good to keep a close eye on the ground when walking to see what else has passed along the way before you.

 

ROADSIDE PICNIC SITES

Given that the South African road network comprises over 700 000 km and that the distance between major towns can be over 100 km, several roadside picnic spots have been established along the main roads. These provide one with the opportunity to safely pull right off the road in order to take a rest from driving. Most have tables and seats and many have either shady trees specially planted there or wooden structures to provide welcome shade on a hot day. No other facilities are provided except for a receptacle in which to put one’s rubbish. Here is a typical one in the Northern Cape:

I noticed on our recent trip through the Western Cape that long-haul truck drivers make good use of these spots in which to sleep in their cabs for a while before continuing on their journey. Other motorists stop to eat the food they have either packed for their journey (called padkos – road food in this country) or purchased in a town they have passed through. We stopped at this picnic spot outside Aberdeen:

Unfortunately some of these welcome stopping places have been vandalised or left in such a filthy state that one cannot really use them; others have become targets for potential thieves … all of which means that one has to look around very carefully before stopping. I am pleased to say that most offer the safe and welcome respite travellers need.

Apart from the welcome shade on a particularly hot day, we could also enjoy a pleasant view from the table – one of several:

A large truck was parked further ahead from us, the driver fast asleep, so we could enjoy the rest and scenery in peace on our own … or so we thought. A quick movement caught my eye and, after much searching, I found that we were being watched after all:

This lone monkey watched us closely without bothering us at all. Here is another example of a roadside picnic spot we stopped at to change drivers on our way home:

 

VERVET MONKEYS LOOK CUTE UNTIL …

There is something about the appearance and behaviour of vervet monkeys that draws humans like a magnet. After all, look at this mother cradling her baby whilst eating seeds from a pod in the early morning light.

Her baby is fast asleep and the mother looks content. What is there not to love about this creature?

The social interactions of monkeys with each other are fascinating to observe, especially as they peacefully go about finding food, playing and grooming each other in the bush. So much so that one might be forgiven for thinking ‘Oh cute!’ when sighting a family group such as this one sitting on a table in a picnic spot, for their appearance is very endearing.

Take care and be on your guard though: monkeys that have made themselves at home in areas frequented by humans associate them with food and they are intelligent enough to know the vehicles we get out of are a possible source of further rewards. Keep your windows tightly closed!

As you can see below, even the smallest gap will be investigated. Humans are the real problem though for it is as a result of visitors offering them food that these monkeys become to associate, vehicles, tents, chalets and caravans with something to eat. Wildlife is supposed to be left wild, yet so many people cannot resist interfering.

Yes, monkeys are cute to watch but their presence at a picnic site, for example, makes it impossible to enjoy a picnic! While a friend and I stood outside our truck to have a bite to eat [the tables all had monkey ‘squatters’ on them], one monkey detached itself from the group nearby and approached us like a mendicant. My friend retreated to the safety of inside of the truck as the monkey crouched down and began to hiss at me. I could see it was about to jump to get the food I had not readily offered it, so got in and shut the door too. Note that while I might have felt I was about to be attacked, the monkey was probably more focused on the food than on me.

The national parks display signs warning visitors not to feed monkeys or other wildlife. Such visitors are transient and do not have to live with the long term consequences of their behaviour. They ignore the fact that once monkeys have become habituated to us they actually suffer because of our short-sightedness and may end up having to be euthanized once they become a danger to other visitors.

KEEP A LOOKOUT FOR VERVET MONKEYS

They are cute, curious creatures that can provide a lot of pleasure. Vervet monkeys are the primates you are most likely to have very close encounters with in the Mountain Zebra National Park – whether you are camping, caravanning or staying in a chalet.

There is plenty of natural food, such as berries, flowers, leaves and insects, about for them to eat so don’t spoil the relationship by offering them food – no matter how entertaining it might be for you. Of course they will eat it BUT this means that they will hang around the tents, caravans or chalets for more handouts and here is where their relationship with people sours; their presence stops being a delight; and they are regarded as pests. Why? They are quick to take advantage of an open door, window, tent flap or unattended vehicle with anything edible in sight and will whip in and take food, even if you are right there. Some people shout, scream, yell or even throw stones at them – while others laugh at the antics (until it happens to them).

This monkey moves away nonchalantly – and will be back in a tick if there is even the smallest chance of getting hold of the food left out in the open. It is better for all concerned to keep doors, windows or tent flaps closed and to ensure that all food is secure against these roaming monkeys.

The vervet monkeys that roam around the rest camp are interesting to look at.

Yet actually look more splendid sunning themselves out in the veld.

Signs in the rest camp urge people not to feed the monkeys – for their sake and for the sake of other visitors, this is one to adhere to!

 

REDUCING THE LUCK FACTOR

It is not all about the camera you have. Whenever I see beautiful photographs other people have taken of animals, birds, frogs, and insects, I cannot help thinking how fortunate those photographers are to have seen those creatures – let alone photograph them. Yet, when recounting what we have observed in a game reserve, for example, the response is often along the lines of “you’re so lucky!”

Luck does play a role in what we come across in any environment. I often declare that what we see on a game drive is a lucky draw. Is it only that? Of course not: one can reduce the ‘luck factor’ in several ways.

Developing an awareness of one’s environment is one. If you do, then any colour, shape or movement out of the ordinary is bound to attract your attention. This applies to anything from animals to beetles.

There were a number of Vervet Monkeys about. Careful observation drew attention to this one with an incomplete tail.

Patience is a necessary part of observation. One must be prepared to walk or drive slowly enough to pay attention to the environment one is passing through. Likewise, one needs to be willing to watch and wait.

The sun was near setting when this small herd of Zebra approached the waterhole with caution. We waited twenty minutes or more before they finally bent down to drink.

Consider the time of the day. The temperature rises considerably in the middle of the day in South Africa. Wild animals tend to seek the shade during the hottest part of the day, when only “Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun” (Noel Coward). There is likely to be more activity during the early mornings and late afternoons, so these are good times to move through the veld and when the light tends to be better for photography anyway.

I photographed this White-crowned Lapwing while walking through a camp very early one morning.

Engage other visitors in conversation to find out what they have seen and where. While one cannot expect an animal to remain in a particular area for long, you can at least develop an understanding of what might be there.

Waterbuck

A collection of vehicles along a road in a game reserve is a sure sign of something unusual and interesting to see – very often a predator. Be patient instead of trying to muscle in and possibly blocking the view of a visitor who has been waiting there for a long time. Your turn will come. Sometimes it is better to assess the situation, note the spot and to return later.

We would never have spotted this Cheetah had our attention not been drawn to it.

A very simple way of reducing the ‘luck factor’ is by lowering your line of sight. It is surprising how many visitors miss seeing animals close by because they are looking too high! This may be fine for bird watchers, but for animal watchers ground level is best.