Sometimes it’s just quiet. One of those days when the bush decides to have a day off where they can all chill and the prey animals can destress hopefully knowing they won’t be eaten. Well so it seemed last night. I did follow up on some impala alarm calls and a jackal shouting in the same area but came up empty handed. The herds of impala where in their usual areas. The giraffe mainly south of the river where they seem to nursery their young. Wildbeest scattered around and a few zebra. Some eland were in the tall riverine having come to feed on Nyala berries. Kudu were along the river bank. I heard elephants in the mopane to the north. Lions, leopards and hyaenas were quiet as the new moon disappeared early below the horizon. Quiet as it was, it’s always just bliss being out there.
2nd August 2019
Things are warming up fast here and I’m loving it! A warm wind came in from the east late in the afternoon. Even after dark I was still dressed in shorts and not even in my sleeping bag. Bliss. The mopane woodland consisted of tall slim trees as if planted for timber. There was very little undergrowth, so visibility was great. Compared to down on the alluvial soils around the river, there’s quite a bit of grass up here in the north. A big herd of impala were dwarfed in the woodland. As I drove past something spooked them and they ran straight towards me. I scanned around with my spotlight and not far north of them were some other eyes. I left the track heading east. It was easy going, no fallen trees stumps. The elephants haven’t got hold of these trees yet. A small drainage line ran north/south. Lining the drainage line were Raisin bushes and small sickle bushes, which provided cover for the eyes I was following, now moving south along the drainage line. A gap in the bush and I saw her, a leopard hunting the impala. Not far behind her, another pair of eyes. Her youngster nearly a year old. They both stopped in the drainage line, looking south where the impala had been. After a while the mother had a change of plan. She turned back north and her little one followed. Maybe they were going to approach the impala from another side. I followed along the edge of the drainage line, seeing them now and again. It was getting rocky. Just to our east was a huge flat topped mountain where all these rocks had come from. The cats then moved east and I was snookered. I waited a while in the woodland. What little sound there might have been was muffled by the wind and the stars had disappeared with a complete cover of clouds having moved in, keeping it extra warm. It was late in the night when I snuggled up under a Nyala berry tree. I was woken by a rumble just to my right. An elephant. I couldn’t see it but could hear it shuffling along. That sound like someone shuffling around the house in slippers. Amazingly quiet for such a huge beast. It was coming closer. I didn’t want to use my light as that might spook it or challenge it. It was moving round the front of Joanie. As it got in front of me I saw his silhouette against the now clear starry sky. He was about 10m away. Too close for me to do anything. I decided to lie back and just enjoy the time with him. He was picking up Nyala berries in his trunk and eating them. He knew I was there but kept coming closer and closer reaching with his trunk under Joanie to get to some berries. He was right next to me and could easily have reached out and touched me. Every now and then I’d see a little flash of starlight on his tusks. They weren’t big. Slowly he carried on round the tree picking up berries and soon continued on to the next tree. How very special to be able to spend just that brief moment with this huge gentle giant! I took a detour on my way home to see how the wild dogs are doing. When I got there the puppies were all out lying snuggled together in the sun. They’re now about 3months old, in their cute phase and will probably be leaving the den soon…
Driving with the orange glow of sunset was behind me, I was approaching a number of Nyala berry tree skeletons with an array of vultures. Had they come to bed here for the night, or was there more? I stopped a little further on and busied myself with getting dressed for the night. Well of course I was dressed already, but this was readying myself for the cold. For some reason it always seems to take forever, but then I do have time on my side. I had stopped near the area where I saw the leopard yesterday. A young Nyala berry tree stood guard over the track in front to my right. Further to my right, south, the bush got thicker going into the dense riverine along the river. To my left was fairly open savannah with medium sized Acacias. I was just pulling my overall on when peering from behind the Nyala berry a big male giraffe had come to watch my antics. He too obviously had time on his hands. He was a handsome dark brute, his ossicones appearing to touch the evening star way up there, while he stood absolutely motionless staring down at me. My insignificant little self down under. Just then a leopard grunted behind him. The giraffe didn’t change a beat and continued to look down at me. The grunt was slow and deep. Most likely a male. It sounded too old to be my friend. I continued to get dressed. Yes it takes time… A couple of minutes later, a much more refined grunt behind me. A female or my little friend. Finally dressed I headed back west in the direction of the ‘female’. I drove through a patch of soft sand, deposited from the cyclone, and among some small Acacias, I saw her crouched low. She wasn’t happy to see me. Keeping her body as low to the ground as possible she turned on herself and disappeared behind a bush.
Appearing the other side she shuffled quickly across the track and disappeared into the dense undergrowth. Not being able to follow her I drove on a little down the track and stopped to listen. A Scops owl was calling from a tall Acacia. Eventually, with all quiet, I decided to try and photograph the vulture silhouettes against the stars. Heading back on the track I’d come along I was shining my spotlight from side to side. It was very open to my north. To the south, young Acacias blocked my view. Then through a clearing I saw some eyes. I took the gap, the Acacias doing a good job of scratching Joanie. Ahead of me was that donga (gully) from the cyclone and on the other side were 2 leopards! The male had joined up with the female. He was chilled but she immediately ducked into the donga. He didn’t lose time, followed her into the donga, and I just had to sit there and listen to them mating. A most awesome sound! A short while later she left the donga using every little bush she could to conceal herself, sneaking across in front of me until she reached an Acacia tree.
She pulled up behind the tree trunk, then peaked around to see me. We watched each other for a while as she kept peering over to her mate. Having satisfied her curiosity and realising I wasn’t a threat she walked normally into the dense riverine following after the male. I tried to follow, keeping to the southern edge of the donga. Eyes to the west. But it wasn’t them. A civet lay close to the ground, somehow believing it was concealed. I drove closer and closer and it stayed put. Eventually I was out the car photographing it, until after some time it got up and sauntered off into the bush…
The lions were roaring to the south but I couldn’t work out how far it was, especially as they’d woken me from my nap. The riverine vegetation between me and them was no doubt cutting off their calls, so they were hopefully closer than they sounded. I crossed the river south through the dense Croton and out onto the savannah where I stopped to listen. That sexy tiny slither of a moon was just above the eastern horizon. Dawn would be here soon. It was still and chilly. A Scops owl chirped to the east and another responded to the south. Their little chirp, so repetitive and with perfect timing between each call, and yet still it adds that extra soothing peace to the night. Not to be out done, a Pearl-spotted owl started up right next to me, it’s calling rising higher and higher and finishing off with a long drawn out whistle. Such a typical sound of our bushveld. This called was answered by another 2 Pearl-spotted owls calling to the west. I felt like I was witnessing an owl sing off. The Scops’s kept going and the Pearl-spotted’s seemed to be rising their pitches higher and higher. As the orange of dawn crept in on the eastern horizon so the owls went quiet. The lions didn’t entertain me again. Ground Hornbills were now thundering their calls down the river. Just then a Jackal was mob calling north of the river, where I was earlier. I had crossed the river, through the riverine and was crossing the huge gully formed by the cyclone. That gully where I’d filmed my leopard friend some time ago. I crossed the gully and there he was again, stalking around a small acacia. It was day and he was a little nervous. I switched off. He came out from behind his bush and walked, his body slung low, almost imagining he was invisible to me. He crossed into the gully, out the other side and headed off into the forest. I presumed he was the reason for the jackal going crazy. But then the jackal started up again, still further north. It was open savannah. The jackal wasn’t far away and continued to shout as I approached. Not wanting to scare him, I moved around him to the east, as I kept looking west with the light in my favour. I was watching him intently as Joanie eased along and then… CRASH!!! Both front wheels landed smack bang into a hole and Joanie came to a grinding halt. My knees slammed into the dashboard. An old warthog burrow was the culprit. Thankfully with the work I’d done on Joanie last week, she held out strong and no damage was visible. With a bit of low range 4×4-ing I was soon out of their. The jackal not concerned with my problems continued to shout. Another jackal arrived from the east. They greeted with the first jackal rolling on its back submissively. Soon another jackal arrived. They all rummaged around the area for a few minutes, the 2 new arrivals also seemingly wondering what all the performance was about. Off they went north and didn’t return. What all the shouting was about was a mystery. I think maybe my leopard friend had slunk off without him seeing and he continued to shout anyway…
It was nearly a week ago now when I heard many extra rattles coming from Joanie. I pulled up on a clear sandy bar where I could crawl around in the clean soft sand and do a good investigation of the underneath of Joanie. It wasn’t long and I found several rattles with some steel pipes from the bull-bar broken. A closer look revealed a seriously broken chassis. The cross member in front was broken cleanly off on both sides. All just years and years of metal fatigue and of course with a little rough driving thrown in… I took it easy back to camp and then the long process started.
I stripped her right down and rebuilt the front part of the chassis. 5 days!!!! later and she’s better than new.
Leopards were mating again last night. In the same area I’ve had them before. This time we were down in the tall open riverine where, right now there is no under-storey. The ground cover on the alluvial soils is all but non-existent. The dry season is really upon us, and we’ve still got 4 months before the rains. The stars seemed extra bright with no sign of the moon until the early hours. The mating sounds came from the south. I followed the Southern Cross as it peeped just above the tree tops. It was easy going and I only had to divert slightly off my direction for the odd fallen tree. I stopped to listen again. It was quiet and still down there. Only a few crickets chirped and some impala, still in rut mode, roared off in the west. Then a leopard grunted to my north. I had somehow missed them. I picked up on a track and headed north and was crossing the river to the east when I saw her sitting proud on island in the river. I couldn’t get there, but managed to go round onto the opposite bank and watch her from there. She was sitting proud looking around and then like water slunk off down the bank and disappeared. Was she off to find a secluded spot to be with her mate? They were quiet for the rest of the night and it was only at dawn as I left the area that I got brief glimpse of the male as he melted away yet again…
16th July 2019
I was mid-stride on my way out for the night, had crossed the river and stopped to get some scarf-age around my neck as the chill became real. Reaching down to get my scarf I noticed an empty opening. That special gap where my flask with my smoothie lives. I’d left supper and breakfast at home! Back home I went. And probably just as well cos coming out later I happened upon these elephant bulls drinking. Water was being pumped in to the pan and they were taking turns to be sure to get to the freshest water as it arrived. Actually they don’t really take turns. The dominant bull there at the time keeps it all to himself. When another more dominant bull arrived he just barged in, no queueing. If you’re the boss you drink first. And it’s amazing how fussy these guys are wanting clean water. Some of them will wait their turn, half an hour or more. 6 bulls came to drink which kept me busy for about an hour. A long way off a kudu had been repeatedly barking down towards the river. The track took me most of the way there. The kudu had stopped barking but I kept following my pointer star, north off the track in tall riverine vegetation. The understory was pretty open. I straddled a log, but must have mis-judged the straddle and my wheel caught it shooting it up into the engine. It didn’t sound good. I reversed and found my steering was tight. On examining the damage, thankfully Joanie was fine and the stump had just missed the sump, but the tie rod was properly bent. Eventually managing to remove the stump I was on the way again but with the tie-rod bent, the steering was everywhere and I had to call it quits for the night and limped back to camp.
25th June 2019
I think it’s pretty fair to say that most people who go on safari would love to see a kill. Lion, leopard, cheetah, hyaena or wild dog kill. Or better still, all of them. An African Wild Cat in an epic struggle with its prey just doesn’t make the grade and have the awe of a lion killing. But in reality the struggle is no less real. It was very early morning. No sign of the hopefully approaching dawn. Thankfully that part of life is always a given. For most of us dawn WILL come. But not for this little fella. My spotlight was scanning as I drove. To the right, a small pair of eyes close to the ground. I would pick them up again as I rounded the small Shepherds bush. Just then the screaming started. I thought I’d startled a bunch of birds in the bush. It got louder and louder and more intense. As I moved past the bush I saw those eyes again, jumping around frantically. An African Wild Cat had just caught a Banded Mongoose and that’s what all the screaming was about. The mongoose fought hard tossing the cat this way and that, but the cat held fast with a strangle hold desperately trying to keep the mongoose’s sharp teeth out of the foray. They have serious teeth and a serious bite to go with it. One bite and the mongoose could snap the cats’ leg. To my right was a huge tree stump, a Nyala berry, from which the panic alarm calls of the rest of the troop emanated. There was nothing they could do. This little guy was on his own. The cat held fast. It had to subdue its prey before the real work of suffocating could begin. The cat was about 3 times the size of the mongoose and eventually the mongoose tired and slowly the screaming subsided. It was all over except for one final struggle. It had lasted nearly 10minutes, longer than most lion and leopard kills. The mongooses mouth was wide open showing its teeth as the cat held tight on its throat. This brought back memories of a lion killing one of my hyaenas. The visuals were very much the same, just on a different scale. But the struggle was just as epic. With the mongoose dead the cat, still holding it by the throat dragged it off between its legs. That same classic move we see with lions and leopards as they drag their prey. The cat disappeared into a thicket, no doubt to enjoy its meal.
The only other animal I’ve heard make so much noise in its struggle for life, is a warthog when being killed by lion or leopard. But why was this mongoose out at night? They’re diurnal animals. On several occasions I’ve seen them out at night, but only here on Sango.
22nd June 2019
The sun had set but it was still light. That evening light of purple and orange hues, were perfectly reflected in the water of the pan, the sunset colours broken only by the reflected shapes of 5 elephant bulls drinking. They stood peacefully slowly sucking up litres of water at a time and carefully depositing them deep into their mouths, careful not to spill any of this liquid gold. Some elephants are having to dig in the dry sandy riverbeds for water, these guys have it easy, for now. The dry season has only just started, with at least another 5 months to go before the rains. Keeping the peace and reflecting the mood around the pan, as one, the bulls moved off almost without any sound, even their huge footsteps treading silently on mother earth. In the fading light I wanted to check on the vultures from the morning. The tree skeletons stood dark and proud against the now maroon sky, but they were bare. Not a vulture to be seen. Obviously that huge carcass I had imagined was just that…
At dawn I went to check on the badger hole. A few buffalo had been through and churned up the sand around the bush, but otherwise there was no sign. Taking my chances I went into the thicket. It was fairly open inside with lots of leaf litter. There were several holes too, but all had spider webs. So they hadn’t been used recently. There was no evidence of anything. I was now seriously beginning to question my tracking skills.
It was still early when I arrived at the wild dog den. Adults lay around in the sun warming themselves. They all looked lean. Definitely hadn’t hunted this morning. It was some time later that one stirred. Got up shaking her head, that typical sound of huge flapping ears. She greeted another. They were both up, walking shoulder to shoulder with their heads low they moved past the mopane trees to the light red sandy mound. They were whimpering. There was more movement in the woodland. More dogs, their heads held low, began to approach. Digging at the entrance of the sandy mound one of the dogs was whimpering frantically and carried on digging. Then they erupted, tiny puppies! Not even 3 weeks old. The adults were all over them. All wanting to ‘eat’ the cutest little things. Their coats are still just black and white, the brown will start appearing soon. Puppies were being picked up, nuzzled, pushed around. Everyone wanting to meet and greet them. It was frantic for a few minutes. Then mom arrived and the puppies dropped into the burrow. No doubt milkies on offer. The adults resumed their places in the sun…
18th June 2019
I had just come through the riverine woodland and was crossing the hard furrowed ground from the cyclone, a little drainage line running parallel to the river, and there was a pair of eyes close to the ground. Engaging 1st gear low range, Joanie eased over the hard ground, into a gully and out again. The eyes were just ahead staring at me. It was a leopard, which appeared to be lying at the entrance of a burrow. As I moved closer, it lowered itself into the burrow. I was now super excited. Was this a female with tiny cubs underground? I didn’t want to disturb her, but of course I also wanted to see the cubs. Joanie sat tight in silence. The moon was full. I didn’t need my light. A young Nyala berry tree cast a long shadow down another gully in front of me where a couple of Acacia bushes were lying flattened to the ground weighed down with debris from the floods. The leopard relaxed and came out the hole to lie at the entrance. It was so chilled. Surely the cubs must come out soon. I put a light on and with my binoculars scanned the hole and then I saw, it wasn’t a female but the young male leopard I had a few days ago on that impala carcass. It wasn’t long and curiousity got the better of him. In a half stalk he started circling Joanie. It was amazing to watch just in the light of the moon. A leopard grunted a long way south, he looked up briefly and continue to suss me out. He kept using the little flattened Acacias as cover until he’d gone the whole way round, then headed west in one of the gullies. I followed along the top and every now and then he’d pop his head over the top to see my progress. The gully ended a couple of hundred meters on. Before jumping out he gave me a long curious stare, then gracefully jumped out and I followed him as he ambled along the edge of the woodland sniffing here and there. Then up into a Rain tree and slouched on the horizontal stem. That classic leopard pose. I couldn’t believe it. Here as a totally wild leopard that had never been followed by a vehicle before and he was just chilling in the tree 20m away. Then suddenly ‘awake’ again, like flowing water he left the tree. Impala ahead, to the north. He didn’t seem to notice the giraffe to the east and they ran on seeing him. Startled he scooted up a nearby Nyala berry. With the giraffe gone, the impala still there, he continued to approach. He had lots of cover from the Sida forbes growing all around, only the top of his back sticking out. It was a small herd of females with one male that kept herding them. The leopard was now 50m off. He waited. Maybe they’d be herded towards him. Slowly they drifted away. Again he approached and waited. Some of the impala were feeding. I could hear elephants feeding in the mopane a few hundred meters away and a pair of Three-banded Coursers were calling to each other. Otherwise the night was quiet. Very different from the last full moon when there was hardly a minutes silence through the night with impala roaring in every direction during the rut. The impala were now walking straight towards him. He was flat, only the tips of his ears visible. His body started to squirm like any cat ready to pounce. Then a female broke the ranks to get away from the male. The others followed and off they ran west, away from the leopard. He trotted after them past an old ‘skeleton’ of a huge fallen over Nyala berry tree, but was suddenly distracted. A Dwarf Mongoose had broken cover from the tree. He was after it. But of course it had another escape hole and disappeared. He continued to search for the others, all now shouting their alarms. Just a big kitty playing mouse games. They soon ended and we headed east. He was still amazingly relaxed in my presence and almost went about his business as if I didn’t exist. A fallen over Leadwood branch got lots of attention. No doubt another leopard had marked there. Then on to a clump of Crocodile Bark trees. Not easy to climb but up he went into the upper branches. I thought he might have had an old kill up there. Nothing. I stopped on the edge of the overhanging branches and watched his antics. Down the tree and up the tree. He climbed along the branch straight towards me and lay there peering down at me no more than 3m away. We had a long chat. Thankfully he listened to my wise words… Because then he left the tree and came right up to my door and sat down about 2m away. I was watching him in the moonlight and couldn’t see his eyes, but knew he was watching mine. I smiled, closed and opened my eyes being sure to look relaxed and not threatening. For ages we watched each other. With a one small leap he could be in the car. I continued to talk to him with my eyes. It looked like he might just jump aboard, just to see what Joanie was all about. Eventually, with no more to say, he turned, gave the tree another sniff and headed south. He had several more hunting attempts after impala. Maybe the moon was blowing his cover. I’d been following him for nearly 5hrs when we were back where we’d started. He crossed the gullies and continued on south into the dense riverine. Did he know I couldn’t follow? No doubt we will again be spending another night together sometime.
16th June 2019
HAPPY FATHER’S DAY to the 2 Legends in my life. Sadly they both died when I was 5. My dad’s dad, Harry Wolhuter as the first game ranger in the Kruger National Park, is well known to many for his legendary feat of killing an adult male lion armed only with a knife after it had pulled him from his horse. His book ‘Memories of a Game Ranger’ is a fascinating read of life back then.
I had little time to get to know my dad Henry and have had to live my life hearing from friends about him. At the time of his death, aged 44, he was already Head Ranger in the Kruger National Park. I have few memories of him, but I do remember the day we went to a wild dog den. I don’t remember much about the den or anything, but I do remember the smell of the puppies in the back of the Land Rover. We had taken puppies from a den to be sent to a zoo. I think it was one of the first times this had been tried. All other ‘memories’ I have of him are from friends who always sang his praises as an incredible bush person who loved the scouts he worked with and spoke their language as one of them. He was totally in tune with wild Africa and nothing scared him. When you lose your dad at such a young age, you aren’t aware of what you are losing and you can’t remember much about him. Whenever I meet people who remember him, I’m always asking about his character, but the one thing they could never tell me was how he spoke. It was the year 2000, when the son of Colonel James Stevenson-Hamilton, the first warden of Kruger who had employed my grandfather, his son also James, called me up in White River, “Come on over, I’ve got something for you.” I went to their farm Gibraltar, outside White River. The farm I remember from my days as a kid where his mother, Hilda, had taught us little boys how to do pottery. We were useless at it but is sure was fun slinging mud onto that pottery wheel. I sat down with James and his wife Jennifer and he pulled out an old, yes I mean old, Uher tape recorder. Remember those reel to reel recorders. We huddled around it and listened to a recording made in 1957 on the same recorder the recording was made. First was Harry telling h