Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Wonderful Wild Dogs

One of the most exciting sightings on any safari would have to be a pack of African wild dogs, also known as painted dogs. To see a pack of these big, black, tan and white, blotchy, rangy canines on the hunt is a spectacular sight.  Twelve months ago I was camping in Botswana's Moremi Games Reserve. It was a bitterly cold morning with a vast, pale blue dome of sky above the trees and a frosting of sparkling ice on my tent. The barking alarm call of an impala alerted us that something may be afoot. Then in one's and twos the graceful antelopes started running past our camp less than a hundred metres away.

Moments later the entire herd was streaming past us, oblivious to our campsite, obviously seriously panicked. Then the African wild dogs appeared through the trees, moving rapidly but still only loping along in a gait that they can keep up all day. They run down their prey over great distances, unlike the big cats they don't usually ambush their prey. They are the most successful hunter, with 80% of their hunts ending in a kill. A single lion has an average hunting success rate of only 15%. If two or more lions hunt together their success rate rises to 30%. Leopards - solitary animals have a success rate of only 10%.

Once the herd of impala and the pack of dogs had passed, we followed in the vehicle, hoping to see a kill. But over the rough ground we couldn't keep up and in any case the dogs split up amongst the trees in pursuit of the antelopes. Nevertheless it was an exciting chase, and such a tremendous privilege to get so close to these magnificent animals. Sadly it is estimated that only between 3000 - 5000 remain in the wild. They suffer from the diseases of domestic dogs transmitted when the two come together and they are persecuted by farmers for killing stock.

They have incredibly powerful jaws, with a bite force quotient measured at 142 - the highest of any animal in the order carnivora. They have 42 teeth, specially adapted for ripping and tearing to allow for a speedy consumption of their prey before larger and more powerful predators can chase them away. Two places where these wonderful animals can be reliably seen are Madikwe Private Game Reserve in South Africa and in Botswana's Okavango Delta, including the Moremi Game Reserve. If you do manage to get a glimpse of the African Wild dog remember to take lots of photos, there's a good chance that they won't be around in the wild for very much longer.      

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Chuckling Elephant

I've just spent two nights at Nguni River Lodge in South Africa's Eastern Cape, about an hour an a half's drive from Port Elizabeth.  I liked the lodge, the staff were friendly, the food good and the rooms luxurious.
Yet there was something missing, and it's hard to put my finger on what it was. I think it may have been the feeling of remoteness that one finds in game reserves like Madikwe. Nguni River Lodge is in a private concession adjacent to Addo Elephant National Park.  While the concession has dangerous animals species like buffalo, elephant and black rhino, it has no large predators which somehow distracts from the game viewing experience. You don't always see predators in other reserves, but knowing that they are there lends a sort of heightened anticipation, a titillating sense of danger.

To see lions one must leave the concession and travel to the national park proper, and the driver steers his four wheel drive open game viewing vehicle through the gates, across a fairly busy road and a railway track onto a nicely sealed road, which then winds past a visitors centre and restaurant. It's all a bit zoo-like. Once you're in the park you share the road with other private vehicles, the drivers of which generally have no idea of how to read the body language of large animals like elephants. They have no concept of an animals comfort zone - when it is happy to tolerate the vehicle and more importantly, when it isn't.

So you share your game viewing with Mr and Mrs Pienaar and their 2.3 kids from Durban. They get impatient with an elephant blocking the road and in trying to creep past, getting too close, disturbing the animal so that it either shuffles off into the bush so that you lose the sighting, or they make it angry enough to turn their Toyota Corolla on to it's roof.  We followed a huge bull with the biggest tusks I've ever seen as he trundled happily along the road. He was in must and dribbled urine copiously down his legs as he walked, yet he was happy to tolerate our presence as long as we stayed about twenty metres behind him. Then as he rounded a corner a brand new, gleaming four wheel drive vehicle appeared in front of him. It was clear that this car had never been driven off-road. The look on the driver and passenger's face was comical. They looked as though they had driven onto a railway line only to become stuck and see a locomotive bearing down on them. All they had to do was to pull over to one side and stop to let the big bull pass.  But they had no intention of getting their new car's wheels dirty by driving onto the gravel shoulder. No, they just reversed, and reversed, and reversed for about a quarter of an hour while we followed the elephant at a respectful distance. Our driver turned to me and said dryly "These guys are going to reverse all the way back to Port Elizabeth." Finally the old bull ambled off the road into the bush, probably chuckling as he went.

Later we found a large male lion making his stately way across the road. We stopped to watch him and he just lay down on the tarmac, enjoying the warmth of the morning sun. Before long a young couple drove up in a minuscule FIAT 500. Their arrival mildly disturbed the lion and he stood and stretched, taking a couple of steps towards the FIAT. At this point the occupants realised that the lion was bigger than their car and tried to scramble to the safety of their back seat - not easy for two people to do simultaneously in a FIAT 500.

All I'm saying is that places like Nguni and Addo are nice places to relax for a couple of days after a few days Garden Route tour or self drive, but my recommendation is that you don't make National Parks including Kruger and Pilanesberg your main game viewing experience in South Africa. Rather spend a little more and spend at least three nights in a "big five" private reserve like Sabi Sands or Madikwe where the only drivers are professional guides and you won't have to share the road with Mr and Mrs Pienaar in their Toyota Corolla.   

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Talk to the Animals

You don't just have to sit in the back of a game viewing vehicle and watch the animals in Africa, you can touch them and interact with them too. Don't get me wrong. I'm not recommending that you leap out of the vehicle, run over to the nearest lioness and give her a big squeeze. Neither am I suggesting that you try to share your morning tea with a spotted hyena.

What you can do though is visit Moholoholo Wild Animal Sanctuary near Kruger National Park in South Africa. On my last visit they had a baby hippo that met you at the entrance gate and followed you around like a dog until he got too hot and tired, at which point he flopped down in the middle of the path and went to sleep. There was also a baby white rhino being cared for by a pair of Aussie volunteers. We were able to stoke him and watch him being fed with an enormous bottle of milk.  You could also have vultures perch on your arm (very heavy), and you could pat a honey badger, which I've always thought would be a little like patting a chainsaw. This one was quite friendly though. The animals they have there vary all the time depending on what has come in and what has been re-released. They rehabilitate wild animals that have been injured or orphaned due to human activity. Go and take a look, it's a great place.

Further north at Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe or Livingstone in Zambia there is the "Lion Encounter." I guarantee you'll love this. You are able to walk through the bush accompanied by two or three lion cubs. You are able to stroke them, pat them and watch them interact with their natural environment. Of course you are escorted by their handlers but the lions are free to wander and do what they want - sniff, climb trees, flop down and sleep etc. You have to do this. It really is magical.

Also at Victoria Falls and Livingstone you can do an Elephant Back Safari. Here you assemble at a bush lodge early in the morning and are introduced to the elephants and their mahouts. Next you climb aboard for a lovely peaceful walk through the African bush with some stunning views of the Zambezi gorge close to the Victoria Falls itself. After your elephant back safari you hand-feed your elephant his or her breakfast before sitting down to your own cooked meal.

Then in Nairobi there is the wonderful Giraffe Centre. A day trip here enables you to see eye to eye with these beautiful creatures. You can feed them too. Watch out for their amazing eighteen inch long blue tongues which seem to have a mind of their own. getting licked by one is like being whipped across the face with a sheet of sandpaper. The Karen Blixen Museum is nearby too so why not visit both - especially if you're a fan of "Out of Africa."