The roars that shouldn’t scare you
The impala is the most abundant species of antelope seen in the Lowveld, and many things that aren’t rare or unusual, even first-time visitors barely notice them after their first drive. They’re an attractive antelope – elegant with a pretty face, shaded caramel colouring and a striking black ‘M’ on their rumps – but they are by far the most un-photographed animal in the region. In fact, the only time they get much attention at all is during the rut season.
From the end of April and throughout May, impala rams become very territorial, barely eating between mating, fighting and marking. Their hormones go into overload, their necks thicken, their coats darken, and they exude a stong musky smell, but it’s the sounds they make that freeze the uninitiated in their tracks. Many people don’t realise it, but most antelope make sounds. Their alarm calls range from dog-like barks to shrill whistles, and in the case of impala, loud sneeze-like snorts, and for two months of every year, these quiet and unassuming antelope emit a noise much like a donkey bray and lion roar combined with a sneezing fit. It’s like something straight out of Jurassic Park, and no one who hears it for the first time believes that such a small, pretty antelope has the ability to produce such a sound.
I always enjoy the guest reaction when they hear an impala rut for the first time. ‘Is it a lion?’ is usually the first question, or sometimes ‘Is something being killed?’. Some want to run in the opposite direction, especially when they hear it at night, and nobody believes an impala is responsible for the commotion until they’ve seen it with their own eyes.
Written by: Christo de Jager
But lions don’t climb trees!
“Fresh lioness tracks” said Colly, my tracker, pointing at the perfect print in the dirt.
Our guests leaned in, listening intently, as he explained how he could tell. “See the size? It’s too big to be a leopard, and too small to be a male lion. And it’s on top of my vehicle tracks, so that means she walked here after our last drive. She must be close.” I smiled at their nodding faces. “Shall we go find her?”
The answer was a unanimous yes, of course, so we set off deeper into the African bushveld in the footsteps of our elusive cat. Before long, the telltale warning ‘sneezes’ of impala and ‘kek-kek-kek’ of vervet monkeys alerted us to the whereabouts of a predator up ahead, so we abandoned the trail and rushed straight for the ruckus.
“There! At the top of that tree!” came a call from the back of the vehicle.
‘Leopard’ was my first thought – after all, lions aren’t often found in the treetops – but then I considered the likelihood of finding a leopard in the exact same neck of the woods as the lioness we’d tracked there. It’s not unheard of, but you’ve got to have a lot of luck on your side, so I stopped the vehicle for a closer look.
Exclamations along the lines of ‘no way’ resounded in chorus from my guests, and if I hadn’t seen it for myself I might have joined in. It’s not that lions can’t climb trees, it’s just that they usually don’t. Unlike leopards, which are like acrobats – lithe and comparatively small – lions are all heavy muscle, like bouncers at a night club, which makes it very difficult for them to haul themselves up and balance. Also, smaller branches can’t hold them, so the top of the canopy is off limits.
Once we’d pulled up closer there was no disputing it though – three big lionesses, playing in a tree. Not only had we found the lioness we were tracking, but we’d caught her doing something very unusual.
Knowing how special it feels to track and find an big cat for the first time, I turned in my seat and wasn’t surprised to find a truck-full of grinning faces and quiet applause.
Written by: Christo De Jager
…that make the trees weep.
Written by: Joe Van Rensburg – Buffalo Camp
Chances are, if you’ve spent any time under certain trees on safari, you’ve felt a fine drizzle on your skin. It’s not the sort of thing that demands immediate attention, but the next time it happens you may want to take a closer look. Somebody’s spitting on you!
The spittle bug (Ptyelus grossus), also known as the rain-tree bug, occurs in bushveld areas right across the southern half of the African continent. They are gregarious in their larval and nymph stages, and at certain times of the year you might find hundreds congregating on a variety of trees and shrubs. They huddle closely together, using their drill-like mouthparts to feed on the cambium layer of their host plant and excreting a protective nest from a combination of the plant’s sap and oxygen. This foamy, processed sap insulates the nest against excessive heat and cold, prevents the larvae from drying out, and resembles spit, hence the name ‘spittle bug’. It accumulates and falls constantly, causing the ‘rain-tree’ phenomenon.
The African wattle and the apple leaf trees are favoured hosts, but spittle bugs may also be found feeding on Acacia trees and many varieties of shrub. So next time you’re under a tree in the bush and you feel a little rain on your skin, it’s more than likely a nest of spittle bugs doing what they do best. But don’t take it personally, they spit on everyone!
Written by: Joe Van Rensburg – Buffalo Camp
Living and working in the heart of the African bush is a privilege shared by only a few. It’s been my privilege for 14 years – 9 as a field guide before becoming Southern Camp’s lodge manager – long enough to occasionally feel as though I’ve seen it all. There are times, however, when Mother Nature stops me in my tracks with something so amazing that I can’t help but wonder, in all my years of living out here, how much of the magic happening all around me I’ve actually seen.
One of these halting moments happened just two evenings ago, right on my doorstep.
I was spending the evening relaxing at home when an annoying squeaking sound had me frowning up at the ceiling fan spinning over my head. To my relief, I realised that the noise was actually coming from the big old knob thorn tree just outside my front door. Naturally, I grabbed a flashlight and my camera and went to investigate.
Shining up into the branches, I was amazed to see that the odd screeching sound was coming from a very distraught lesser bushbaby. These little, wide-eyed primates are long-time residents in the trees around camp, so it surprised me to hear this particular, unrecognisable distress call. I decided to hang around and keep searching for whatever was causing him so much discomfort.
It took me a while to find the troublemaker, but when I did I immediately understood the bushbaby’s distress. High up in the tree lay an African rock python, waiting for the bushbaby to move into striking range. I couldn’t see its head, but its distinctive markings made it easy to identify. It’s not at all strange to find pythons in trees, and younger ones often venture up in search of nesting birds and bats – and bushbabies, apparently. Although clearly a juvenile, at almost 2 metres long it was no small threat to the tiny bushbaby. I had never witnessed a lesser bushbaby interacting with a snake before, but now I know that strange, whining distress call that brings to mind dodgy ceiling fans translates to a very particular fear.
In the manner of so many prey animals, the lesser bushbaby kept his eyes on the python while shouting out his agitated warning into the night. For almost an hour, I stood outside in the dark watching him leap back and forth between the branches, just out of reach of a killing strike, wondering if it could be a clever tactic to loosen the snake’s grip on the branches so it might fall.
Another 30 minutes or so later, the bushbaby gave up and moved off somewhere safer, and not long after, the hungry python wound its way further up into the tree in search of an easier dinner.
The evening’s entertainment over, I went back inside and thanked my lucky stars for the wonders of the African bush that, even after 14 years, still manage to astound me.
And for the fact that I’m not a bushbaby.
Lodge Manager – Southern Camp
We have all seen the breath taking events that unfold on TV when we watch channels like Discovery and National Geographic. Inevitably we come into the industry of Guiding and every day you wake hoping to see something similar to show your guests. It takes the film makers that produce these documentaries years and years of time and money to eventually get that perfect shot or perfect opportunity for some awesome footage.
My four guests Bob, Janet, Georgine and Kevin spent three nights with us, we had our share of big 5 sightings and we were having a blast. On our second night out we decided to go and have a look around the Hyena den at Rooibok Dam to see if they were out. We sat there for about fifteen minutes and two cubs popped their heads out of the den. The adults were not visible but we could hear them vocalising in the bushes not too far away from the den. I radioed the lodge to let them know we were going to be late for dinner as we had quite some activity around the den when the parents eventually emerged from the thickets. Spending twenty to twenty five minutes with the whole clan interacting and vocalizing, going through different greeting rituals and all sorts of behaviour you don’t get to see very often, had my guests stunned.
We eventually left the den at about 7:45 PM which is quite late considering we were all the way in the North Western corner of the property. Driving over the Dam wall still talking to my guests about how lucky we were seeing all that interaction, my tracker Raezert Mthambini indicated to me that he can see eyes in the road up ahead. Four sub-adult male lions ranging from 1 year to 2 and a half years old came walking down the road straight toward the Hyena den. The oldest one of the four was on a mission and nothing was going to stand in his way of getting to those Hyenas.
People spend their lives trying to get their timing right to see what was about to unfold right in front of our eyes, on the dam wall of Rooibok Dam stood 11 adult Hyenas and the four Lions were walking straight toward them. The oldest Lion was intent on showing these Hyenas who was boss. He started scraping himself on a thorn bush trying to get his scent in the air and also urinated on the ground scraping his back paws through the urine to as if to tell the Hyenas that this area belongs to him. The Hyenas had their tails in the air and the most amazing sounds were coming from them again trying to intimidate the Lions. We were right in the midst of a full on standoff. I told my guests that our dinner will be very late, as we were not going anywhere. Three of the lions went down to the water to have a drink but the oldest of the four had his sights on the Hyenas and was adamant on teaching them a lesson.
After their drink the other three realised it was getting serious as the other male started growling and showing a lot of aggression toward the Hyenas. Everything went silent at exactly the right time, the oldest male Lion charged toward the Hyenas and they all scattered in different directions over the dam wall. We approached the dam wall slowly and stood on it waiting patiently to see what happened next. The Lion came back onto the dam wall and continued his territorial “marking” giving soft growls in between. It took the Hyenas about 5 minutes to regain courage and step back out onto the dam wall and this time the Lion wasted no time and gave another full on charge scattering the Hyenas again.
This happened about four times and we lost sight of the Lions and Hyenas. My guests asked me if that was that and I told them that I thought it was the end, and all of a sudden a loud growl came from the thick bush right next to the vehicle, the Hyenas had got hold of the youngest of the four lions, words cannot describe the noise that either the lion or the hyenas were making but to say the least it was very unpleasant.
Hearing this noise obviously the older males responded and a big fight occurred in the bush next to us, unfortunately it was too thick and dark so all we could do was sit and listen, not that we were complaining. Everything went silent again and all four Lions came out of the thickets, one was a bit injured but it didn’t look serious, they all lay on the dam wall looking back at us and putting the battle to an end with the Lions winning this round.
In my life I have never thought I would have the privilege to see a sighting like that unfold in front of my eyes… I am BLESSED to say the least!
Head Ranger Southern Camp
Edited by Keri Harvey
It was when the sun saluted the earth that we started our early morning drive, but stopped soon afterwards to soak up the colours of sunrise close to Southern Camp. As we watched the new day dawn, helmeted guinea fowl darted past, calling: “Such good luck, such good luuuuuck. Good luck!” Or that’s what it sounded like.
We were slowly driving on towards the river when the tracker spotted fresh elephant spoor. But before we could finish chatting about the circular tracks of the animal, we heard the elephant herd nearby. They had gathered on the sandy banks of the Klaserie River, which cuts through Kapama, and the tracker motioned me to keep going in that direction.
As we drew closer, we saw the herd wasn’t on the move. Instead, all the senior cows were standing still and looking at us. We were momentarily confused. Then one younger cow started straining her body and leaned heavily against a jackalberry tree, as if borrowing strength from it. As she turned, a flood of warm fluid burst from her rear, washing and cleansing her flanks while she held her breath. The effort caused her tail to rise and, at that moment, there was a deluge of steaming liquid that accompanied the amniotic sac. It contained four slippery truncated legs, an elongated tubular nose and a rotund little body. The large ears seemed glued to the side of its perfect head, and in a single movement her calf plunged onto the river bank. Cautiously, with her right front foot, the cow touched the motionless calf still cocooned in its birth sack. The calf kicked its tiny feet in response and all the elephants present gathered around to welcome the newborn baby to the world.
As the young mother moved slightly forward, it was an opportunity for us to take rare photos of an elephant calf just a minute old. But the matriarch was unimpressed with us. She drew close to us and shook her head as a sign of her disapproval, so we retreated out of respect and gratitude for witnessing the miracle of new life.
As we moved, a yellow-brown tree squirrel edged out cautiously from between the jackalberry trees. The tiny animal’s long, bushy tail flicked nervously as it searched for seeds from the tree. He picked up a single seed and held it in both front feet, as if praying. It was at the same moment that an African fish eagle also announced his presence in this wilderness theatre and applauded: “God bless them! God bless them! God bless them all!” I don’t believe it wasn’t our imaginations, but an auspicious bushveld welcome for the newborn elephant calf.
Written by: Betheul Sithole, Southern Camp ranger