River Walk

Badgers, Badgers, Badgers, where are you? I decided to take to investigating things along the Save River. This river is huge and along the Sango section is about a kilometre wide. It’s made up of several channels with islands of dense vegetation in between. A sandy river, which I love. And it’s perennial, but only with one or two channels flowing all year. I left Joanie parked under the dense shade of a Natal Mahogany. The riverine vegetation here is almost impenetrable and the only way through to the river is along a game path. Preferably an elephant one. I found a path leading into the ‘jungle’. It looked pretty closed in, but was used by elephants, so it had to be good for me. The path was overhung with Flame thorn, (Acacia ataxacantha, which is loaded with stout hooked thorns.) that seem impenetrable. But when the ellies have been through the thorns hook into their flanks and get ripped away from the main plant, leaving the branches smooth and so making access relatively painless. Those thorns don’t bother the ellies. In places I had to crouch low to get under some of the branches, branches that elephants just barge through. The path zig-zagged through the dense undergrowth eventually coming out at the river bank. It was a couple of meters high here, but the elephant traffic had gorged out a slope to the sandy river. I tumbled down the soft sand onto the river bed. The sand here was more coarse. Animal tracks littered the whole river, a lot of them not distinguishable, just depressions in the sand. Elephant and buffalo stood out. Both of these beasts would not be good to bump into in the dense vegetation, but out here on the open sands I felt safe. This channel was about a hundred meters wide. Flowing only in a narrow stream about a meter wide, the water meandered from this side to that, back and forth. The water was shallow, only a couple of inches deep, and cool and fresh on my bare feet. No chance of crocs in these shallows. I headed upstream enjoying the sand flowing between my toes. I felt totally wild and free. Sandy African rivers are an absolute delight to me and whenever I can I will walk and rest on their sandy bottoms. The island to my east had tall grasses growing up its bank, with game paths leading into the dense vegetation of figs, mahogany’s, nyala-berry’s, Acacia albidas. An elephant trumpeted not too far away. A little further north another channel came in from the east. I followed it to a little pool up against the island bank. The water was dark and deep. Who was lurking in there, although I didn’t see any croc tracks around. I climbed the steep bank with it’s creamy soft sand that felt like something you wanted to bottle. Three Mahogany trees stood together providing dense shade. The soft sand below them was disturbed by elephants that had taken advantage of the shade too.
Ant-lion tracks criss-crossed the soft sand as they moved around before burrowing their funnel-shaped traps. This sand was perfect for these guys as any insect walking along the crest of the funnel would quickly fall to the bottom where the ant-lions lay lurking with their pincers ready to grab anybody battling to escape their trap. I heard an elephant feeding close by but the foliage was too dense to see anything. There were lots of little paths leading through it but too dangerous to be caught in those thickets. I found a clearing further north and to the south saw an elephant standing under a Mahogany collecting the soft sand in his trunk and tossing it over his back. I could just imagine how cool and soothing it was. There was a gentle breeze from the north, which must have wafted in his direction, as he suddenly took off south, thankfully, crashing through the bushes as if they didn’t exist. A second elephant, that I hadn’t seen, disappeared behind him. They were gone, my moment with them ever so brief. I carried on north up the riverbed. In places in the sand, holes had been dug by elephants, always looking for the cleanest, coolest water, water that had filtered through layers and layers of sand and wasn’t exposed to the hot sun. Fresh buffalo dung patties plastered the edge of flowing water. Now my dilemma, besides not seeing any sign of badgers, the western bank was choked with fig bushes. Several game paths went through it, but the buffalo dung was fresh. Were they still lurking in the thickets? I took the path least used, watching my every step, searching the bush ahead. The path joined and crossed others. A Grey Lourie alarmed at me. Would that start a stampede? Eventually I came out into the open on the vehicle track. No buffalo. All was good…


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…


My Leopard friend

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.


KiKi takes on the weather

14th June 2019
With the moon on the bulge there was lots of light around but soon the little puffs of cloud arrived from the south east. Then more and more. The moon was still holding its own and managing to shine through. But before long the wind had picked up the cloud had moved in and a slight drizzle was putting a real dampner on things. I took cover for the night under a Nyala berry. The weather was here to stay. By dawn I was covered in frass from all the caterpillars in the tree.
Cutting my loses I headed home to be greeted by my precious little monkey…


KiKi gets to capture a giraffe

10th June 2019
For the last few days we’ve been following guys from the Giraffe Conservation Foundation https://giraffeconservation.org/ attaching satellite transmitters to 14 giraffe here on Sango. This is no easy task as giraffe being so tall and big are extremely tough to handle.
The operation starts at dawn. The ground crew is mobilised and move into the area where they hope to be catching that day. This is a crew of about 10 hard, fit guys who are trained to do this very operation. They’re armed only with a couple of ropes to take on the worlds tallest mammal. The chopper then takes to the air with a very experienced pilot and riding shotgun with him is the guy who will dart the giraffe from the air. They locate a giraffe that is suitable for their needs of capturing all the necessary data. Swooping low over tree tops they duck and dive after the giraffe which is swerving this way and that. It’s tough flying, not only to stay with the animal but keeping the shooter lined up in a position to get a dart into the giraffe. He might be lined up but the giraffe is now at full gallop, its body moving all the time. Not an easy shot. Bang and the dart hits its target. At the same time the chopper backs off and ascends into the sky. The ground crew are alerted. They’re now racing to get to the exact location. They have 6 to 8minutes to get there before the drug takes full effect. The chopper keeps a visual on the giraffe herding it gently towards any open area in the vicinity. The bush here is fairly open savannah, with lots of low scrub and the odd Acacia or Sickle-bush thicket. The vehicle has visual of the giraffe, which is now running almost in slow motion, the drug is kicking in. They have to get around to the front of the giraffe. She runs through a thicket, the vehicle has to detour. More wasted time. As they round the thicket the giraffe sees them and changes tack. The Land Cruiser is spewing dirt as the wheels gain traction before becoming airborne again, only to come back down to earth with a thud. Those men on the back are hanging on for dear life, putting all their trust in their driver. They manage to pass the giraffe, come to an instant stop. Like a well oiled machine all men erupt off the vehicle chasing after the animal. The 2 sprinters are up front with their rope. One hangs back as the other risking his life, sprints past the front of the giraffe. The rope is now high on the animals chest as the men take up their positions. It’s like a tug-of-war, except the rope isn’t straight, the giraffe now having formed the apex. The men are being dragged along like puppy dogs, but they hold on. They can’t dig in their heels, they have to move around behind the giraffe. The 2 ends of the rope cross. The giraffe becomes tangled and trips over its own legs. All part of the plan. And then she falls, her head falling from way up there hits the grounds with a thud. The rope is immediately forgotten about as all the men dive onto her head and neck. If they can keep her head down she won’t be able to get up. For a brief moment her legs flail in the dust filled air. A blindfold is wrapped around her head and she settles down. Other members of the team arrive. 2 holes are drilled in her ossicone (horn), she struggles briefly but the men on her neck sit tight. The satellite transmitter is attached with 2 bolts. While this is happening a vet is monitoring the giraffe’s pulse and breathing. Others are taking measurements and a DNA sample is taken. All is done. The giraffe has been down less than 8minutes. Everybody moves back leaving a couple of men on the giraffes’ head. The blindfold is removed giving the giraffe a little time to adjust to its surroundings. The 2 men jump back. The giraffe now realising it is free, reels its neck around, gains momentum and in one fluid movement is back on its feet running off wild and free. Another precision operation and another giraffe that will provide invaluable information on the plight of these animals. In this area giraffe populations are doing well, but in other parts of Africa some giraffe species numbers are declining dramatically. Hopefully the information gained from these satellite transmitters will help in gaining a better understanding of giraffe biology and what is necessary to make sure we save all those we can.
Obviously for KiKi it was her first giraffe capture and her favourite toy is Gerry. She was clearly loving the experience feeling a real giraffe mommy. One very happy, and lucky little KiK’s.


KiKi gets to see her first lion

06th June 2019
How surreal. I was in camp last night and up before 3 am going through the edit on my current hyaena film. Of course I was deep in my sleeping bag sitting at my desk watching footage of hyaenas and lions, when real lions roared on the track passing camp. I removed the headphones to be sure it wasn’t coming from my screen. Tempted as I was to follow I also had to get this other work done. AND it was warmer staying in my sleeping bag. The night had gone quiet. Other lions roared quite a way north and I expected ‘my’ lions to respond. It stayed quiet for a while and then I heard the screams. Those unmistakable screams of a zebra in distress. It was like a high pitched drawn out scream and then quiet. Several baboons alarmed on hearing the zebra in distress. Then another brief scream. Out of my sleeping bag I boarded Joanie, jumping into another sleeping bag. I knew it wasn’t far to go. I crossed the track past our camp driving into the short Umbrella-thorn Acacias. At times thickets of them blocked my path but it was easy enough to go around them. A jackal ran off to the south. I stopped to listen. There was growling, squabbling over a carcass to my west. More jackals, then I found the lions. 8 of them feeding on a young zebra. Although with lions it can’t really be called feeding as the fighting is intense and at times the smaller and younger animals go hungry. The adult male seemed convinced I was about to steal his dinner. He stared me down, his tail swishing crazily from side to side growling his obscenities at me. Realising the others were feeding away frantically while he was preoccupied with me, he soon resumed to his feast. I left the real lions to return to the ones on my computer screen. So surreal.
KiKi was awake at dawn. Saskia bundled her into piles of clothes and we bundled into sleeping bags back in search of the lions. These would be KiKi’s first lions! She had her own little toy lion Leo and knew what sound he was supposed to make, but now it was for real. Saskia was driving and KiKi was with me deep in my sleeping bag riding on the camera box. It was now light, which takes the guessing game out of things one can’t see in the dark. For the lions it seemed to mean the same thing. They had lost their courage of the dark and as we approached, bolted, one of the young males leaving with the remains of the carcass. KiKi was unimpressed trying to see what we were getting so excited about as the lions disappeared into the savannah. She was more impressed with all the jackal rushing around picking up scraps. We tried to follow after the lions but they weren’t having any of it.
Already loaded with our tea basket we headed east along the boundary. There wasn’t much to see along the straight road in mopane country. Saskia brings KiKi out here most mornings. We got to the mounds of sand, the wild dog den. No sign of anybody, but they had left their ‘calling cards’ all over the place. We continued on east and there in the distance were shapes running towards us. The dogs were on their way back from the hunt. They always seem to be competing with each other to see who can get home first to feed the mother and pups. We stopped as one by one they came running towards us, ducked into the bush for a few meters and then back on the track behind us racing for home. We raced after them getting to the den when the screaming started. The alpha female, when begging for food makes this screaming high pitched sound as she gets the adults to regurgitate food for her. Still no sign of the puppies. They must be at least a couple of weeks old now so will soon be out. Not even 5minutes after the packs’ arrival at the den and all was quiet and still again. The alpha female well fed and the rest of the pack resting after a successful hunt. It was tea time…