My Spotted Friends

Their thundering calls were already booming across the bushveld when the first hint of dawn was on the horizon. I was about to record the Ground Hornbills when a jackal’s mobbing calls had me change plans. Heading east in the open savannah was easy going with the only cover being little Sida bushes. It was only just getting light, visibility was poor when I saw something running across my path ahead. For some reason my brain imagined it to be a kangaroo like animal. Very embarrassed and not having seen one of my special friends for so long, it was a hyaena! She ran off but when I switched Joanie off she stopped, looked around, then got back to sniffing around. As it was getting light I thought she might bolt if I followed, her but not. She was happy to have me follow. We were on the edge of the mopane as she stared north into it. I got out the car wanting to film her silhouette against the dawn light. At first she didn’t see I was out the car, but when she did her curiosity go the better of her and she approached. Yay… I was back in the land of my most special friends. She didn’t come too close and walked by happy I wasn’t a threat. Jackals were going crazy mobbing something to the north-east. She was keen and back in Joanie, I followed her. But she didn’t go straight to the calls, she did a wide circle and then into a thicket of Sickle bush. The worst for punctures. Deep in the thicket was another hyaena tucking into an impala carcass. They both fed frantically as only hyaenas can, swallowing chunks of meat at a time. The jackals were still going crazy but further into the thicket. They weren’t shouting at the hyaenas.
The hyaenas took the carcass deeper into the thicket. I just couldn’t follow. The jackals stopped shouting and came to feed on the scraps left by the hyaenas. There was some intense growling coming from where the hyaenas had gone. They must have stolen the kill from a leopard, which was now trying to retrieve its prize but the hyaenas would no doubt have held tight. Soon it was all over. Well what I could see was all over. It was quiet. The hyaenas had taken the kill and would no doubt have finished it between them. The leopard and jackals would be picking up the scraps. And that’s life. Never easy…

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Hunting with lions

It’s hazy, almost misty, the grass still green on the flat ground where the pan used to be but has now dried up. Herds of Eland and Waterbuck are making the most of the only greenery in this dry dusty landscape. I’ve stopped to type here, the morning still cold and fresh, in the hope that a badger might too decide to hunt frogs and other little things left behind from the wet days of the pan.

It was dark already last night, the moon not up yet and I was cruising my usual areas. A couple of impala alarmed to my right. I was away from the river on higher country. Savannah country with medium sized Acacias dense enough to obstruct my view into the distance, but easy enough to drive through. I left the track heading west and ducking between the Acacias was a female leopard. She had obviously been hunting but was now more concerned with my presence. She avoided me using every bush as cover, but after a while settled down and then lay down in a thicket of Acacia. I could only see the top of her head. This was yet another leopard in the same small area I’ve been concentrating on. There’s a density of these cats here that I’ve never witnessed before. A White-tailed Mongoose came foraging by. The leopard ducked low. The mongoose carried on north and I never saw the leopard again. I don’t know if she followed after the mongoose or disappeared while I was distracted.
I slowly headed north across the river. A jackal was frantically mobbing something not too far away. Arriving in the area the jackal went quiet but then I found what all the consternation was about. A lioness lying next to some Thilacium bushes. She stared at me for a second or two and then relaxed looking around. The bush was quite thick here. Small bush country with a few big Acacias. She yawned. A little while later a 2nd yawn. But before the proverbial 3rd yawn, she was up half walking towards me and past. I turned to follow her and scanning the area picked 2 more pairs of eyes. 2 male lions. They were keeping their distance from her and of course from me. I could see eyes to the south, impala scattered through the bushes. The lioness was now focused advancing at a fast walk. The ground here was bare and hard allowing her to move freely with little sound. She was using the bush as cover moving behind each one until its cover ran out and then behind the next one. She disappeared behind a bush and when I saw her again she was barreling towards the impala, but she was too far to launch an attack and with the moon already peering over the tree tops her cover was quickly blown and the impala took off. The bewilderment on her face at not having caught anything was priceless. But for someone who’s seen this time and again, I wasn’t surprised she’d missed. She obviously wasn’t relying on stealth or an ambush attack. She was running in to cause confusion and have impala running in all directions hoping one would run over her. While standing around in her bewildered state another lioness joined her, rubbing her face along her body as if to say “Don’t worry my dear, there will be another time”.
These girls took me south in the deep riverine. It was fairly open here. A bushbaby jumped easily out the way, bouncing from branch to branch into the higher canopy of an Acacia galpinii. The lions reached the river and walked northwest in the sandy riverbed. I followed up on the bank. A long way behind us the males followed. They would no doubt come rushing in if the girls killed and steal their kill from them. A lion roared several times to the south. The lions I was with kept quiet. Were they on hallowed ground? They crossed the river. I now had to rely on Joanie. The bank I was on was steep, but going down is never really a problem. Would I be able to get out the other side? Joanie worked hard crossing the soft sandy river using her lowest gears to grind her way across. I found an area on the far bank that wasn’t sheer and had a slight slope. Joanie worked her magic, her front wheels instantly grabbing the firmer ground and hoisting us up the bank. On top there was more sand, from the cyclone, where the girls were now resting. I couldn’t see the boys, but they were no doubt fully in control of the whereabouts of the girls. We slept here a couple of hours. Every now and then a baboon coughed from high up in its roost north of us. Was the cooler weather getting the better of him? I dosed off and must have missed the yawns but saw the girls heading north. They crossed back over the river. This time beyond Joanie’s capabilities, the banks sheer on my side and dense Croton on the far bank. We tried going round, but it was a long way and I never did pick up the girls again.
The sun is now high and the waterbuck have returned to graze. And……. no sign of any badgers… ☹

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Bush-pigs join the crowds

5th August 2019
There was cloud in the sky at dawn. That thin blanket of cloud that looks like fish scales. The sun was just about to peep over the Chimanimani mountains. Golden ‘fish scales’ now filled the eastern sky. Slowly they lost their colour and were soon a brilliant white against the deep blue. I was at Mbirikiri pan.

The grasses are still deep green with a few small areas of surface water. The pan is about 150m in diameter, flanked in the east by small Acacias, a few tall Fever trees and a lone Nyala berry. The flat ground of the pan continues to the north and is fairly open with a few small Acacias. The south and west are flanked by several big Nyala berry trees. Sacred Ibis with their long bills were constantly on the move dipping them into the soft muddy shallows searching for any little wetland creature. A lone Great White Egret, far more elegant in its hunting method, stood motionless amongst them staring down potential prey that might be disturbed by the Ibis’s. Several Open-bill Storks were also hunting in the mix. I was suddenly alerted by excited chirping in the Nyala berry next to me. A Pied Kingfisher all happy with himself had caught a dragonfly larva and was busy beating its brains out on the branch, making sure it was properly dead before sending it down the hatch. As it warmed up, it was a very warm morning anyway, baboons came from the south to drink and eat nyala-berries. A herd of impala followed them in, not only to drink but also to score from the berries the baboons dropped out the tree. A small herd of kudu joined the masses for a drink, but didn’t stay long and headed back south. Two impala males, loaded with testosterone, had little interest in berries. They locked horns, pushing and shoving each other around, kicking up dust, while the baboons and other impala just carried on berry hunting seemingly oblivious to their desperate struggle to pummel each other. The wrestling was one-sided and soon the victor chased after his opponent roaring his victory cry as he did. The social in the south went on for quite some time until the baboons moved off west and the impala followed. As if waiting for them to leave, a lone wildebeest came in from the south, drank, then getting down on his knees had his own wrestling match with the mud tossing it around on his horns. There seems to be something very therapeutic about this action. While he was digging away an unexpected family of bush-pigs arrived. They’re nocturnal animals, but I think the sudden warm weather had driven them to the pan after sunrise to wallow. They were so cool to see just chilling on the waters’ edge. One of the youngsters thought he might challenge the wildebeest and approached to within a couple of meters, but when the wildebeest stopped to look at him he bolted. They all soon left disappearing into the bush to the south leaving the Ibis’s and storks to carry in their frantic pursuit of little creatures. It was already late morning and left them too…

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Quiet bliss

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.

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Elephant comes to visit

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…

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Mating leopards

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…

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My leopard friend

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…

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Joanie has a make-over.

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…

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Elephants by the moon

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.

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Epic kill as African Wild cat takes on Banded Mongoose

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.

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