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…


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.


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 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…


Lions hunting in riverine forest

5th June 2019
I know just a presence and me driving around the area that I plan to work, all help getting the animals to accept Joanie and me. So a lot of my nights are spent doing just that and at the same time looking for potential action or just potential animals that I can follow to help them realise I mean no harm.
Driving through the riverineI I wasn’t expecting to see their tawny shapes. A lion and 2 lionesses were dwarfed by the huge trees. He was hanging back as the girls moved to my right with purpose. I couldn’t see what had caught their interest. But their gaze didn’t last and the 2 girls rested up under a grove of Nyala-berry trees. I didn’t join them as there was a veil of webs hanging from the trees like puppets on a string, caterpillars descending on their webs to the ground as they headed off to pupate. These caterpillars are pretty harmless but piles of them would know doubt get squashed in my moving around the car and I wasn’t too looking forward to a green lotion on my skin or sleeping bag. The male lion had plonked himself down just where he was when the girls did. About 50m east of them a small pair of eyes was watching the goings on, a genet perched in the fork of a Leadwood tree. Some impala roared to the south. The girls were up heading slowly south. There was baboon chatter in the direction of the impala. They hadn’t seen the lions, but the lions were sure to have their cover blown if they continued and wisely turned back and headed north.

They were moving thorough the huge open woodland of Nyala-berry’s, Leadwoods, Raintrees, Umbrella thorns and Sausage trees. All majestic trees in their own right. There was no cover on the ground and very little leaf litter. The lions could move freely and quietly all spread out. A few Croton bushes and some small Acacias provided them with little cover. A pair of eyes ahead coming towards us. The lions hadn’t seen it. A female leopard was walking straight towards me. Lions and leopard hadn’t seen each other. About 30m apart the leopard saw the lions. You could almost see her eyes widening in shock at what was beaming down on her. She drew her body close to the ground, almost flat and slunk off to the side. She didn’t run away. She wanted to see these brutes pass her by, which they did completely unaware of her presence. Once they’d past she moved on south. 
Plenty of eyes ahead. A herd of impala. We were still in big tree country, fairly open but with scattered bushes. Enough cover for the lions. They were on it. Keeping themselves spread out, they approached. There wasn’t much effort to conceal themselves and try as they did to lower their body’s to the ground, they were no match at mastering the act like the leopard did. There was no tactic in the lions’ hunt. About 30m from their prey they all attacked running blindly into the herd. Their ‘tactic’, if you could call it that, was to cause chaos and have impala running everywhere. If one ran over you, you grabbed it. I lost the lions in the advance. If they had caught an impala there was bound to be lots of growling and fighting over the small carcass. I waited listening. The impala were quiet. Somewhere down there a pair of Giant-eagle Owls were hoot-grunting to each other. It sounded like an interesting conversation. Twenty minutes later and there still wasn’t a peep from the lions. I drove around, but couldn’t find them.


Wild Dogs denning surprise

30th May 2019
Exciting stuff!
Well for me it certainly was. I’d been driving after sunset. The tracks were dry and powdery kicking up piles of dust behind me as I slowly made my along the edge of the riverine vegetation. My spotlight was drifting from side to side in what’s almost become a mechanical movement for me. I scan quite quickly, not looking for actual shapes in the dark but relying totally on animals eyes lighting up and reflecting back to me. A city of lights ahead, a herd of impala, the females all being herded by a single male. The rut is still on but very much coming to an end now. A pair of eyes close together in the top of an Umbrella-thorn. A Genet foraging. Dust up ahead, a herd of wildebeest running into the mopane. Out on the plains like little jewels scattered in the dust, Nightjars. I then took refuge under a Nyala-berry, keeping away from the dew. Tea and a sandwich went down well. Not my traditional meal, which is usually an ice-cold smoothy. Yes even in winter, but today the tea scored huge points and might just be a replacement for a while.
A lion called a long way north. Something to follow up on. I flicked the switch and pressed the button (Joanie threw her key away some time ago) and Joanie fired up. Lights on, spotlight in the hand and I left the shelter of the tree. I’d hardly left when scanning to my right, not too far away was one of my best friends, a hyaena! It looked like a young female. The first one I’ve seen here. Expecting her to bolt I took the main beam off her. She stared at me for a while and then nonchalantly she walked away behind some bushes. She didn’t like me driving after her and loped off into the darkness. I was sooooo chuffed. I love these creatures and she was a lot more chilled than I expected. Her reaction being far better than the lions.
For the rest of the night I was chasing calling lions. At one stage I had 3 lions calling at the same time, all in a different direction from me. Whenever I was just about on top of one of them, they’d go silent.
Frustrated I followed the dawn in with a little fire and a hot cup of tea!
I’ve decided I’m going to spend some time working all day rather than at night. I can spend more time walking and in this cooler weather badgers will be active in the early morning and late afternoon.
So because of this change in shift, I got home and took the family out all afternoon. KiKi was riding shotgun holding onto my tripod arm, Saskia sitting next to me. We took a route new to both of us along the northern boundary. We crossed the sandy river, which up here is still flowing. This is also the only area in the river that reeds are growing, which is strange. Maybe they occur upstream but for the more than 20kms that the river flows through the reserve till where it ends in the Save River, there aren’t any reeds. I love it that way as they can eventually choke a river. The road across the northern side was straight, fairly level stony country with dense bush on both sides. The stony soils gave way to red sandy soils and we now had mopane woodland surrounding us. The sun was fairly low in the sky and shining under the woodland canopy casting pretty light below. There was no marker or change in anything, except one area close to the road the ground had been excavated into 5 or 6 mounds of sand at the base of which each had a hole. Then the colours erupted. We’d woken them. Blacks, whites and browns all mixed in different ratios and patterns, the amazing variety of coats, each African Wild Dog with their very own print. Awake, the dogs all greeted briefly before settling again. They were pretty chilled with our presence, which as brilliant. AND they’re obviously denning. I presume the puppies are still very young and not yet venturing out the den. Unfortunately the mopane they’re denning in is really dense and once they leave to go hunting there is no way of following them, but at least in time, IF they stay there, we’ll be able to see a lot more of them.
It was getting late, the sun was setting, and KiKi was a little grumpy. It was her bath time.
I was on a high. 2 of my besties on one day!
(Look out for my film that premiered in November last year “DOGS IN THE LAND OF LIONS” on PBS in America, and also on other channels around the world.)


Tribute to my mother

28th May 2019
For the many years that I’ve had her, she’s never had a name, which is so wrong when I think how she has stood by me in the toughest of times, she’s been incredibly reliable and she’s as hard as they come. I could have chosen an animal or a local tribal name, but the person my filming car most aptly represents is my mother.
Life was hard on mum but she never complained.
Mum grew up in White River going to school at Fullers, which became Uplands, where I too attended school followed by my daughters. For high school, she attended Rodean in Johannesburg. This involved a 24hr train trip to get there and she only returned home at the end of the term, so didn’t see her parents for months at a time.
Her dad, Clem Merriman (he was one of the first settlers in White River and later brought out a number of retired English military men to join him) died when mom was in her late 30’s.
Living in close proximity to the Kruger National Park it didn’t take long for her to meet my dad. They married and soon had 3 sons. I mean soon. 3 boys in 18months. My older brother and then us twins. Yes I have a twin brother. Pregnant with us mum was having complications and on the verge of death when they performed an emergency C-section. We survived, obviously, and yet again mum pulled through.
Dad died when I was 5yrs old. Mom had to raise 3 little boys on her own. She had nothing and was given 1month in which to leave the Kruger National Park. We moved to White River where we attended Uplands Preparatory School.
In our time in White River mum worked but only half days, always making sure to have time for us. In the little spare time she had, she would make a point of visiting the lonely old folks in town. People who had been friends of her parents. Of course the 3 little boys were always in tow and mum made sure our behaviour and manners were impeccable.
When I was 10, mum decided to send us to St. Johns Preparatory School and then to the College, where dad had attended school.
She always made a point of giving us the best education even though it meant giving up everything for us to be able to do so. In our holidays she would take us back to Kruger to make sure we never lost our love of the bush.
We finished school and she was hit with another really tough stint. She sat at home alone as her 3 boys, her everything in life, went off to the army to do their National Service. We were fighting guerrillas on the Namibian border with Angola. It couldn’t have got any more stressful for her knowing her boys were in the line of fire. Having been in the South African Navy herself, she fully understood what we were up against and what she was in for.
After my 2 years National Service, all I wanted was to go and live with the bushmen. Mum would have none of it and sent me off to University to get a degree.
Of course you didn’t challenge mum, she was tough and had to be with us 3. At times she was hard but always with reason.
She was kind, generous to others, never had eyes for another man and continued to follow in conservation having served as the secretary of the South African Ornithological Society for 12 years before going on to work at the Endangered Wildlife Trust till her retirement.
She was meticulous, punctual and never tired.
Her last 5years were miserable living with Alzheimers and she died at 85.
I thought it then fitting that my 31year old Toyota that has stood by me all these years should be named after my mother. I have spent over 35,000hrs behind the wheel of this machine. Nobody or nothing else has spent so much time with me, except my mother.
So I’ve decided to call her JOANIE.