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Walking the Big Five

Edited by Keri Harvey

As rangers, we encounter Africa’s most feared animals – known as the Big Five – on a daily basis. Game drives are all about experiencing wildlife from a vehicle. The excitement, fear, anxiety and respect exceed the expectations of guests, regardless of their country of origin – but this, in turn, is superseded by tracking one of the Big Five on foot. Saying it’s exciting is a huge understatement.

The first rule of the bush walk is never to run. This doesn’t sound like much, until reality strikes. I recently went on a bush walk with eager guests who wanted to experience wildlife at ground level. As a trail guide, nothing gives me more pleasure than to share this excitement with guests. We left Buffalo Camp just after breakfast, and took a short drive to where we would start our walk.

About 20 minutes into the drive, I saw very fresh tracks of one of the bush’s giants – a fully grown white rhino. We stopped to look, and after checking the wind direction we decided to follow these tracks.

I repeated the safety guidelines for the walk before we started following the rhino tracks. Walking through the savannah/woodland, the guests realised it was not all that easy, with many thorn trees and tiny pepper ticks to scratch and irritate the legs. After 20 minutes of tracking the giant animal, we found a fresh rhino midden. Everybody felt even more excited and anxious, and were determined to continue.

Walking the Big Five

Walking the Big Five

White rhinos are aggressive when they feel cornered, but they are relaxed when they have an escape route and don’t see or smell intruders. We proceeded cautiously and carefully, without speaking or stepping noisily. Suddenly, I signalled for everyone to stop, and whispered: “Sleeping rhino.” The massive animal was about 20 metres (60 feet) away from us, sleeping under a tree.

With the breeze in our favour, the animal didn’t smell us. We took plenty of photos of the majestic beast, until the wind shifted and the rhino smelled us. From total relaxation and sleep, he was instantly alert and on his feet in a split second. We immediately got up and circled around to have the wind back in our favour, and the animal settled down again.

We spent about 30 minutes appreciating the majesty and wonder of this enormous animal before deciding it was time to move on. As we left, the wind shifted again and the rhino was back on his feet and fully alert. Sometimes, the expressions on guests’ faces while on a bush walk remain in my memory forever. That day was one such time.

Rhino are very curious, and will advance upon intruders because their eyesight is extremely poor. They simply want to understand what the intruder is and whether it presents a threat. We stood up silently and backed away from the rhino before continuing on our bush walk – I believe you shouldn’t disturb wildlife, and should rather appreciate them and leave them as you found them.

Written by Joe van Rensburg, ranger at Buffalo Camp

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The glossy mob

Edited by Keri Harvey

Snakes are always a hot topic of discussion among guests and visitors to Kapama. They mostly want to know what types of snakes inhabit southern Africa, which are venomous, and whether they occur around the lodges. As guides, we love seeing these beautiful creatures – either from afar or up close – and snake sightings always make for riveting conversation around the fire at night.

I recently hosted a group of guests with diverse and refreshing interests. During their stay, we ticked their bucket lists of animals and birds, but one determined gentleman still wanted to see a snake.

That’s not a usual request, but it had my full attention. So, whenever we saw snake tracks on our games drives, we stopped to see the direction and type of snake that had passed. Yet, every game drive ended without any snake sightings. I could see how passionate this gentleman was about snakes – and even more so when I told him they were more difficult to find than leopards.

On our last morning drive, as we slowly returned to the lodge, I turned up a less-travelled road where a leopard had been spotted just days earlier. Feeling hopeful, we drove slowly past the dam, checking thoroughly. There was nothing – not even a paw print. So, we turned to head homewards.

Starling mobbing a black mamba

Starling mobbing a black mamba

Then tracker Alfie Mashale spotted a snake track. He looked at me with excitement, but said nothing. We knew it was close by, from the shrill alarm calls of some Cape glossy starlings (Lamprotornis nitens) behind us. As I reversed the vehicle, we spotted the birds mobbing something in an old leadwood tree – something long, dark grey and very shiny in the morning sun.

We immediately knew what was happening – the starlings were defending their brood from a predator. A black mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis) had climbed the dead tree and found the baby starlings nestled in a hole. The birds were simply reacting instinctively by mobbing the snake. (Mobbing in animals is anti-predator behaviour, occurring when individuals of a certain species work together to attack or harass a predator, usually to protect their young.)

The guests were awestruck by the hysterical birds mobbing the snake. The spectacle was just amazing to observe and photograph. We watched the natural drama unfold for about 20 minutes, before the snake disappeared into the hole and stayed there. The adult starlings calmed down after that. It seemed they realised they had lost their chicks to the mamba. It was incredible to witness, but certainly a little sad at the same time.

In reality, this is the way nature operates, and the guests all agreed it was an awesome way to conclude their safari experience. The gentleman interested in snakes was quiet all the way back to the lodge. Once there, he said it had been one of the most fantastic experiences of his lifetime. Not only did he see a deadly black mamba, but he witnessed an unusual mobbing scene, too. In the bush, we need to expect the unexpected – that we know for sure.

Written by Angie Seeber, ranger at River Lodge

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Life dawns for an elephant

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.

Elephant calf at Kapama

Elephant calf at Kapama

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

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Silent procession of marchers

Processionary worms

Processionary worms

Recently, an American family of four were my guests at Kapama Karula. Their two daughters were aged six and 10 years old, and when I asked who had special interests, I was told that Chloe, the six-year-old, loved caterpillars. She loved them so much that whenever she found a worm or caterpillar, she would name it.

I told her about processionary worms, but that they were more active in summer and the rainy season. I promised I’d do my best to find some worms for her to see while we were out on game drive. It was a beautiful warm afternoon in the bush when I spotted a hairy chain on the ground. The worms were going, well, who knows where – but they were all going together, joined in a single line head to tail. It’s really an unusual sight.

Processionary worms

Processionary worms

Chloe couldn’t wait to get out of the vehicle to take a closer look at these interesting creatures. Before long, we were all on our hands and knees looking at the long line of worms and taking photos. Colly Mohlabine even had to pose next to the worms, so that Chloe could prove to her friends back home that this happened on a real safari. I think Chloe would definitely have chosen to see the caterpillars long before the Big Five, and I don’t think a line of caterpillars has ever been showered with so much attention.

These creatures are actually the caterpillars of the processionary moth, a very gregarious species that lives in community on food plants. Whenever they need to move to another tree, the worms join together head to tail and move in procession – like a thick silk thread. The procession can be metres long, and is thought to be a defence mechanism, because the line of worms looks more like a snake or stick. Predators such as birds are less keen to attack such an imposing line of caterpillars. So the principle of ‘safety in numbers’ works for caterpillars too, not only herds of wildlife.

Written and photographed by Collen Mokoena, Kapama Karula ranger
Edited by Keri Harvey

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