Monday, May 24, 2010

The Lion, The Ditch and The Warthog

Nothing gives you a squirt of adrenalin like a close encounter with a lion. Its a visceral thing and must come from something buried deep in our DNA, something that harks back to a time before early humanity departed the great plains of East Africa - a time when ancient mankind spent his days hunting and gathering and waiting for McDonalds to open.

One morning while driving in Tanzania's Serengeti we encountered a large male lion laying in some long grass next to a drainage ditch. He regarded us with a sort of arrogant boredom, his massive head resting on his front paws, the breeze tugging at his impressive mane. He knew that we were no threat and that we weren't lunch, at least as long as we remained inside the vehicle.

We sat there watching him watching us for a few minutes and then we noticed a female warthog approaching. Now some people think they're ugly things (usually people who haven't looked in the mirror themselves lately), but I think they're very cute. I love the way they raise their spindly tails like car radio aerials and trot off when they're alarmed.

Now this particular warthog looked a little confused. From her angle of approach she couldn't yet see the lion, but she could evidently smell that something wasn't quite right because she stopped dead in her tracks and then abruptly changed direction, trotting towards some reeds which grew in the water in the drainage ditch. She was twenty-five metres from the lion when he saw her. We could see that he was interested, but wasn't convinced that he'd be able to catch her. He stood and stretched lazily and sauntered over to the reeds into which the warthog had by now disappeared.

Suddenly the warthog saw the lion and panicked (understandably). She leapt into some deeper water and started swimming. However, she made the fatal error of swimming too close to a low stone bridge that crossed the ditch. Suddenly in a terrifying display of explosive speed and power, the lion saw her break the cover of the reeds and charged onto the bridge kicking up great clouds of dust with his massive paws and emitting deep guttural grunts.

Then he simply reached down from the bridge and plucked the squealing, 40kg warthog from the water with one paw. In a second his jaws were clamped on her throat and two minutes later the warthog was dead and being dragged under the cover of a tree to be hidden from the telescopic sight of patrolling vultures.

We sat in the vehicle, a little stunned and light-headed, our hearts pounding. Watching a kill does that to you. I always find myself torn between wanting the predator to get its meal (Heaven knows its hard enough for them.) and wanting the victim to escape.

Now I must apologise. For the next three weeks there will be no new blogs. I'll be camping in Botswana. I know. It's a tough assignment, but someone has to do it. My next blog will appear on Friday 25 June. At least I should have plenty to talk about.

Meanwhile I thought I'd let you in on a little story told to me by one of the guides at Impodimo Lodge in the Madikwe Game Reserve, South Africa.

Two Kruger game rangers had been given the the unenviable job of tracking down an injured lion. Before the left they were checking through their equipment.

Rifle - check.
Ammo - check.
Radio - check
Water - check.
Running shoes...............

"Running shoes?" Exclaimed the other ranger. "What do you want running shoes for? There's no way you'll be able to outrun a lion."

"I don't need to outrun the lion," grinned the first ranger. "I just need to outrun you."

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Africa's Steamy Armpit

Arriving in Lome (pronounced Lowmay) on a moonless May night on a flight from northern Europe is a bit of a shock. It’s the sort of shock you would get if somebody crept up behind you and threw a hot, wet towel over your head. To say that Lome humid is like saying the Simpson Desert sometimes gets a little warm.

Lome is the capital city of Togo, a tiny sliver of a country wedged uncomfortably in West Africa’s steamy armpit between Ghana and Benin. I was there to join a Guerba Adventures Trans Sahara expedition across the Sahel and Sahara Desert to Tunis via Timbuktu. In a moment of youthful insanity I’d booked the trip for the hottest time of the year because I wanted to experience that part of Africa at its most extreme, but more of that in a later blog.

For now I was just relieved to be met by David, our guide who ushered me out of the teeming airport terminal to the specially modified four ton Bedford truck in which we would be making the journey along with thirteen other paying passengers who had already arrived and hopefully were occupying themselves back at the campsite by cooking my dinner.

There’s an old saying – “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” However, in this case it began with David having to round up several locals because our truck was blocked in by two battered Renault Fours, one six inches from the front bumper, the other six inches from the rear. Twenty minutes later, dripping with sweat and uttering profanities we’d bounced the Renaults far enough to allow David to Squeeze the big Bedford out.

The camp for that first night was set up on Lome beach and once I’d arrived and met my fellow travelers I discovered that they had indeed made my dinner and the woman who handed me my steaming plate of vegetable curry was my wife, though neither of us yet knew it.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Only Food Runs

“Hey, donkey! Get off my land. I’m an ogre.” Bernard’s Shrek impression was flawless, right down to the Scottish accent. It did however come as a bit of a surprise. Not just because Bernard was a Zulu, but also because he was leading us on a rhino walk through a private game concession in the Kruger National Park at the time. He was our guide at Plains Camp and took care of the day to day running of that particular facility. It had just four large, luxurious tents, a dining tent and a lounge tent filled with Edwardian memorabilia. As the name suggests, it is situated on the edge of a plain where one can sit in the lounge, resting your glass of single malt on the arm of the chair while watching a herd of elephants trundling across the open grassland.

Bernard also leads walks into the bush, ably assisted by Ozzie – another, altogether rounder Zulu. The whole operation is called “Rhino Walking Safaris”. Each morning we’d leave camp, Bernard leading the way and Ozzie bringing up the rear, both armed with very serious looking rifles. In Bernard’s pre-walk safety instructions he explains. “I don’t shoot the animals, but if you see a lion and you run I will shoot you.” Of course he’s right – in this part of the world only food runs and being shot would be more humane than being chased down and consumed by a large feline.

And so we walked. The quieter moments were punctuated by Bernard’s Shrek impressions. “Shrek,” he explained, “is my four year old daughter’s favourite movie.” However, I had the distinct impression that it was really his. I could imagine his little girl groaning when Bernard pulled out the Shrek DVD for the umpteenth time. “Oh Jeez Dad. Please, not Shrek again! Why can’t we watch Saving Private Ryan or something?”

In any case, despite Bernard’s eccentricity we found our rhino – a female white rhino. With enormous care and professionalism Bernard and Ozzie guided us to a spot behind a large fallen tree, not ten metres from the huge animal which continued to graze contentedly, seemingly unaware of our presence. Photos taken we backed quietly away and continued our walk, Ozzie rolling his eyes and pointing to his head with a circular motion of his finger whenever Bernard burst into Shrek mode.

Later that evening we sat around a blazing fire looking for shooting stars and listening to the cackling of a clan of hyenas just beyond the firelight. It was a romantic moment. I reached over and squeezed my wife's hand. Then, from somewhere out there in the darkness - "Hey Donkey! Get off my land..........."

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Thursday, May 13, 2010

Leopards Galore

There is a little known private game reserve called Mashatu. It lies just inside Botswana, across the Limpopo River which forms the border with South Africa in that part of the world. It is the place to see leopards, particularly in September and October when statistically you have a 94% chance of seeing these usually elusive big cats. The reserve is owned and run by Rattray Reserves who also run the more famous Mala Mala Lodge in the Sabi Sands area adjacent to the Kruger National Park, and here’s the good news. It’s a mere fraction of what you would pay for a night at Mala Mala, Sabi Sabi, Singita or Londolozi – better known “leopard viewing” lodges.

The reserve is a massive twenty five thousand hectares, and the best thing of all is that there are only 2 lodges – the main camp and the tented camp, that’s a maximum of forty eight guests total in the two camps, even if they’re full. That’s two guests per thousand hectares, no wonder you hardly ever see another vehicle on the game drives. You don’t even have to share your leopard sighting.

One gets to Mashatu either by driving 6 hours from Johannesburg or by flying to Polokwane and then taking a road transfer from there to the Pont Drift border crossing. Or you could hire a car and drive yourself, often a cheaper option, even if you don’t use the car for the few days you spend at Mashatu. From Polokwane it’s a two hour drive on an excellent road to Pont Drift. There the south African/Botswana border formalities are efficient and friendly, especially by African standards. You leave your vehicle (if you’ve hired one) in a secure compound on the South African side and you’re then met on the Botswana side by a driver from Mashatu.

In the dry season you simply drive across the dry Limpopo River bed, but in the wet, when the river is flowing deep and fast you and your luggage are loaded into a small cable car and are winched across the river. A couple of years ago they had to tighten the cables because they sagged so much that the passengers in the cable car were getting their feet wet. It’s all good fun, and part of the adventure. Anyway, there’s also an airstrip at Mashatu so you could always fly in, but where’s the fun in that?

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Thursday, May 6, 2010

Khaki Fever

I really admire African game rangers. Having said that I should reassure my wife that I have not come down with Khaki fever – an unfortunate affliction which makes game lodge guests (mostly female, but not exclusively) fall headlong in love with their guide. It doesn’t matter that the object of their affection resembles the favourite in a Quasimodo look-alike contest or that he has the personality of a clam. As long as he’s wearing khaki, can recite the gestation period of a warthog, ( 160-170 days for those of you who are interested) and can instantly recognise the dung of a giraffe. (It’s surprisingly small by the way.) Jealous? Me? No, I’m always this attractive shade of green.

In truth these guides are an admirable breed, well trained, professional and totally dedicated to educating their guests about the wildlife and its habitat. They certainly don’t do the job for the money. Actually they have to put up with quite a lot. For example at many lodges if their guests want to stay up drinking at the bar until 4.30am the ranger has to stay with them to escort them back to their accommodation and ensure that some unfortunate leopard doesn’t die of alcohol poisoning when it eats one of them. Then there are the stupid questions. “Which animals get mad when you take their photo?” was one that I heard. And “Do those tiny rhinos (she meant warthogs) breed with the really big ones?”

I recently stayed at a lodge in the Madikwe Game Reserve in South Africa. Here there was a direct telephone link between the guest rooms and their guide’s quarters. My guide Andre was telling me that he’d once escorted a guest back to his room after one of the afore mentioned drinking sessions and had just climbed into his own bed when he received a call from his inebriated guest. “I’ve just pulled my curtains back to look out and there’s a leopard staring at me.” The caller said.
“Is it outside?” Asked Andre thinking that it was a figment of the guests alcohol addled imagination.
“I think so.” Said the caller.
“Well, look again and if you’re sure it’s outside draw the curtains and go to bed.” The next morning, out of interest Andre checked around the guest’s room and sure enough found several large, fresh pug marks in the sandy soil.

All I’m saying is be nice to your guide or ranger, they really do know their stuff and if you listen to them they’ll turn a good safari into a fantastic, life changing experience. Oh, and tip them well.

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