Montusi

The vast Drakensberg in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa stretches around 150kms along the escarpment and Lesotho border. It can be divided into four sections – Bergville and the northern Drakensberg; Winterton and the central Drakensberg; Himeville, Underberg and the southern Drakensberg and East Griqualand and Umzimkhulu.

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity…” ~John Muir

This post is the first of two sharing some of the images and scenes we were privileged to see in mid-May. We were fortunate to visit Montusi mountain lodge for a long weekend break. It is a family lodge situated in the northern Drakensberg in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. The lodge is located in the lower berg in full view of the amphitheatre with the Royal Natal National park just below it. This is one of the most iconic parts of the Drakensberg. This must be one of the most striking cliff faces in the world as this amphitheatre is over 5 kilometres wide and has cliffs of around 1220 metres in height.

From the valley floor to the highest point in the amphitheatre it is over 1830 metres. The highest point of the amphitheatre is 3050 metres above sea level. The grandeur of this scene is mesmerising and creates a sense of longevity and permanence.

The Royal Natal National Park is situated on the south African side of the Drakensberg escarpment with the Golden Gate national park to the north near Clarens, and the Giants Castle Game Reserve  in the central and southern Drakensberg. This Royal Natal National Park in KwaZulu-Natal located at the base of the amphithreatre is incredibly scenic and perfect for photography. It offers the towering peaks, the majestic amphitheatre and rolling high altitude grasslands, the Tugela Falls and picturesque foothills. Each aspect changes with the seasons and time of day creating wonderful photographic opportunities. UKhalamba means the barrier of spears in Zulu language. When viewed from the higher reaches the peaks often protrude above the clouds. These jagged peaks look like spears, a barrier of spears.

“No matter how sophisticated you may be, a large granite mountain cannot be denied – it speaks in silence to the very core of your being” ~Ansel Adams

At the Montusi Mountain lodge we found many sunbirds. There were numerous large clusters of  candelabra aloes, many of which were in flower. The nectar in these aloe flowers is a powerful magnet for the nectar feeders in the area.

One of the surprises at Montusi was to find so many candelabra aloe (Aloe arborescens ) clusters. These are large multi-headed sprawling succulents. This aloe’s flowers are arranged in an inflorescence called a raceme. The flowers progressively open from the bottom upwards.

The male Malachite sunbird is highly territorial and chases off any visiting sunbirds. It cannot chase off weavers, blackeyed bulbuls or Gurney Sugarbirds. In the breeding season, the male Malachite has iridescent metallic green plumage and is stunningly beautiful. Outside the breeding season the male loses its iridescent green plumage on its body.

On the smaller candelabra aloes, we found many Greater double-collared sunbirds. They appear to be less territorial but are also prone to chasing each around.

Although able to hover for short periods, most of the time the Malachite and Greater double-collared sunbirds tend to perch to feed .

The Greater double-collared sunbird is more often seen than its southern or lesser double-collared cousin. The two collars comprise a thin iridescent metallic blue-collar above and a broad scarlet collar below extending onto its belly.

The greater double-collared sunbird has a cousin, the southern or lesser collared sunbird which has a similar two coloured collar but the scarlet collar is much thinner. The lesser double-collared sunbird is found in over lapping geographic areas with the greater double-collared, but tends to be more often seen in the coastal and Cape regions. 

In the sunbird family, the females are not nearly as glamorous as the males and usually have plumage which is brown and dull yellow in colour.

This greater double-collared sunbird was perched on a candelabra aloe raceme which had not yet begun to bloom.

The fact that the aloe’s raceme opens over an extended period provides sustenance for these nectar feeders for an extended period in late autumn and early winter when many other plants not longer provide food.

“If you cannot fly then run, if you cannot run then walk, if you cannot walk the crawl but whatever you do keep moving forward.”~ Martin Luther King Jr

The male Malachite sunbird has a stunning vibrant metallic green plumage with blackish-green primary and secondary wing feathers. This male Malachite sunbird was guarding his territory. Malachites can be found from Ethiopia to the Cape.

This male Malachite sunbird is moulting and losing his breeding plumage. The non-breeding plumage on its upper parts and belly are a yellow and greyish-brown while the wings retain their metallic green colouring.

The Malachite sunbird is nectivorous feeding mainly on nectar though we watched them catching small flying insects when possible.

This sunbird is found mainly in cool montane and coastal scrub.

“Keep close to Nature’s heart…and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” ~John Muir

In the grasslands below the mountain lodge there are babbling mountain streams where the water is icey cold but crystal clear.

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Being late autumn, many of the aloe racemes had not fully opened and provided good sentry posts.

“May your dreams be larger than mountains and may you have the courage to scale their summits.” ~ Harley King

There is colour and beauty to be found wherever you look.

The weather was mostly sunny, but this huge mountain range stirs up the clouds adding more photographic interest. It was warmer than we expected as we were hoping for some snow, but there was nothing not even on the mountain peaks.

“Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters, and teach some of us more than we could ever learn from books.” ~ John Lubbock

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be,

Have fun,

Mike

A canyon of moods

In March this year, Helen and I went to Blyde River Canyon in the Mpumalanga province of South Africa to join a landscape workshop hosted by Mark Dumbleton, who is one of the top landscape photographers in South Africa.

“We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm, and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.” ~ Jawaharial Nehru

The Blyde river canyon is situated on the escarpment at the eastern end of the Drakensberg mountain range. This canyon is in the Blyde river nature reserve which is around 16 kilometres in length. This is the second largest canyon in South Africa after the Fish River canyon. It may be the largest “green” canyon in the world due to its lush vegetation and is one of the great natural wonders of Africa.

“You don’t take a photograph, you make it.” ~Ansel Adams

The canyon is spectacular and ideal for landscape photography. What makes it even more special is that the relief of the geography stirs up the weather which can cast many variations of light and mood over the canyon.

The weather forecast was for overcast weather and rain for four of the five days of the workshop. One aspect I really enjoyed was learning to shoot landscapes in all-weather conditions. Landscape photography relies on raking advantage of any weather conditions and playing with perspective and composition.

“Photography takes an instant out of time, altering life by holding it still.” ~ Dorothea Lange

The Blyde River Canyon is known for its huge and round buttresses, popularly known as the ‘Three Rondavels’, the Swadini buttress and its Blyde dam.

The first morning it was dark, very overcast and pouring with rain. We climbed down into position on the of the canyon wall but had to wait it out with our camera bags under our ponchos for about an hour in the semi-dark. The sun never managed to shine through the thick cloud but it gave us opportunities to photograph our subject revealing its many moods.

The clouds and mist swirled through the canyon so there were opportunities photograph the canyon with some parts exposed and others disguised. On the left hand side of the next image is the great Swadini buttress in the distance just below the clouds. This vast buttress comprises harder quartzite which forms the vertical cliffs, while softer shale’s have eroded to form the talus, or sloping sections which are now covered with vegetation. Capping the escarpment is a layer of hard, black reef quartzite.

“There is only you and your camera. The limitations in your photography are in yourself, for what we see is what we are.” ~ Ernst Haas

One dramatic geological feature of the area is the “Three Rondavels”. They are huge pinnacles of rock rising above the canyon. The tops of these pinnacles are shaped like traditional beehive huts, with sloping walls and domed summits comprising quartzite and shale.

Looking north-east on a moody, overcast afternoon. Landscape photography is about experimentation. This image was taken using a 70-200mm zoom lens to change the perspective by magnifying the background.  It also showed the enormous quartzite cliff faces.

“A good photograph is knowing where to stand.” ~ Ansel Adams

I mostly used a 24-70mm lens but of course with the wide-angle you needed to get close to the edge of the canyon wall to alter the balance of foreground and background in the image. The next image shows minimal foreground, a moderate portion of middle ground and  vast vistas of background. To give you an idea of the steepness the top of the canyon wall, Mark, in his red jacket, was standing down on a rock promontory overlooking the canyon. It was around 800 metres from that point to the bottom of the valley.

“Don’t shoot what it looks like. Shoot what it feels like.” ~ David Alan Harvey

At last the sun came out to play. Given the dramatic relief of the area it became a game of playing with shadows. In the afternoon we wandered to our preferred lookout but the late afternoon shadows cast large areas of the middle ground. The clouds also cast shadows so it was also about looking and waiting for clouds to cast shadows in the right areas to emphasise the dramatic landscape.

One of the photographers in the workshop, Peter Guthrie, in a zen mood contemplating the universe from a commanding perspective.

Looking east across the dam towards the “Three Rondavels” in the middle ground and Mariepskop in the distance behind them. I included some of the foreground to give a greater sense of the steepness and depth of the canyon walls. 

“My life is shaped by the urgent need to wander and my camera is my passport.” ~ Steve McCurry

To mix up our shooting, Mark took us down below the Forever Resort to wander along some trails and streams to find different subjects. The next image was in a forest where a small stream cascaded into a pool of crystal clear water. It was relatively dark because the sky was very overcast. It was dead quiet and exquisitely beautiful.

Changing the perspective a little by moving a few steps downstream. There were six photographers so it was quite tricky to get an image without a fellow photographer in it given we were using wide-angle lenses.

Downstream from the waterfall was this small stream lined with trees. We saw an African Finfoot swimming and fishing in this stream. They are very shy birds and it quickly moved into the undergrowth next to the stream and out of sight so I could not get a shot.

On our last day the sun came out to play.  The interplay of light and shadows on the dramatic relief of the canyon created some interesting new ways to look at the scene.

“Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or bring storms, but to add colour to my sunset sky.” ~ Rabindranath Tagore

Another image of Mark standing at the edge of a protruding rock face. Over the edge of that rock was almost straight down to the valley floor

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You can see just how much the mood and look of the canyon changed in the late afternoon sun with clouds adding to the shaping of the image.

Thank you Mark Dumbleton for a really interesting workshop. I learnt new smart techniques for establishing the hyperfocal length to get maximum depth of field. I learnt how valuable “live view” can be. I also learnt that there can be some incredible opportunities to photograph the chosen landscape no matter what the weather throws at you. It just takes a particular cloud formation or mist swirling in the valley or an interesting shaft of light to break through the clouds to alter the mood and presentation of the subject. Our editing session in Lightroom was helpful and you also pushed me to get started in photoshop for which I thank you.

“A camera sees only a limited range of light and dark, and colour. The photographer chooses the subject, the perspective and the balance.  The skilful combination of the two creates a photograph.” ~ Mike Haworth

Explore, seek to understand,marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.

Have fun,

Mike

In and beyond Kichwa Tembo

This is the last post from our Masai Mara trip with CNP Safaris in February. This is a period which is between the “small and big rains”, the latter coming in late March and April. The easiest way to get to the Mara is to fly by charter plane from Wilson airport in Nairobi . It is about a 45 minute flight. One lands on a gravel airstrip which is about a kilometre from the camp. If you are lucky there will be pride of lions lying under a tree near landing strip. You are also likely to be greeted by buffalo, zebra, eland, and Thompson’s gazelle. The next image is a view for the camp while driving from the airstrip.

“The life you have led doesn’t need to be the only life you have.” – Anna Quindlen

The Kichwa Tembo camp is sited on the edge of a riverine forest. It is cooler and there is rich birdlife in the forest.

The reception looking east toward the dining area and towards the pool.

Our tents were at the south end of the camp. From the front of the tent, the view beyond the electric fence was into thick elephant grass along the river. At night you could hear buffalo in the grass, hippos in the river and lions roaring. 

Travel and change of place impart new vigour to the mind.” ~ Seneca

The inside of the tent was comfortable and perfect for our needs as we were out and about for most of the day. There was quite a voltage drop at the perimeter of the camp which complicated charging our camera and computer equipment. Nevertheless when you flop into bed at night, turn off the lights and just listen, you will hear a very busy nocturnal natural world outside. It is a wonderful feeling and even though it takes a night or so to adjust, by the last night you will waft to sleep comforted by all the bush sounds around you.

Above the bar area was an open air lounge. This was the view from that lounge looking down onto the boma where the Masai do their ceremonial dance around the fire at night. The pool looks out onto a large plain which stretches down to the Mara river. From the pool you can see everything from elephants, buffalo, zebra, giraffe and sometimes even lions during the day.

In the lounge above the bar is where we did some of our image editing and discussed the days sightings.

Looking out from the bar towards the boma and pool. This is a place of many stories and even taller tales are told. Discussions became animated over a few beers with faces illuminated by the light of the fire from the boma.

Signs of yesteryear travels.

At the start of each day we normally gathered at the dining area for a cup of coffee and a rusk with the aim to be out of the camp by 5h30. It took us about 45 minutes on the terribly rutted gravel road running on the outside of the reserve to get to the Mara North section. It was a very bumpy ride which was affectionately called an “African massage”. The aim was always to get the Masira gate by around 6h30. It was still dark at that time and once through the park gate we would start looking for the lion prides. Early morning was when the hot air balloons got going. Every morning we would see up to five hot air balloons drifting through the cool early Mara sunrise.

“And then there is the most dangerous risk of all — the risk of spending your life not doing what you want on the bet you can buy yourself the freedom to do it later.” ~ Randy Komisar

The guides from camps in the Mara North had radio contact and would tell each other where the predators were. This image was a guide taking his guests to see the latest predator sighting.

At lunch time we would stop in the “greenheart” forest next to the meandering Mara river. There were hippos and crocodiles in the river and in the afternoons the Olive baboons would scale down the steep river bank for a drink of water and to play.

This is CNP Safari’s specialised photographic vehicle. It can accommodate five photographers with long lenses on a customised camera support system with swiveling chairs which give the photographer wide views and an ability to photograph from both sides of the vehicle.

Late in the afternoon below the Oloololo escarpment, this was the view looking onto the Masai Mara plains.

Dawn in the Mara North section with a soft warm morning light backlighting a few zebra.

“Wherever you go, go with all your heart!” ~ Confucius

There were times at a predator sighting when there could be as many as 15 vehicles. It did not seem to bother the lions.

There were other times when we were the only ones at a lion sighting. This was a new coalition of four young male lions who looked to be moving into the area for a pride take over.

Lou Coetzer, our guide and professional photographer, and the owner of CNP Safaris, taking a few images of his guests in the specialised vehicle during a coffee break.

“The mediocre mentor tells. The good mentor explains. The superior mentor demonstrates. The greatest mentor inspires.” ~Lucia Ballas Traynor

Two nomads struggling in the heat late in the morning. There were no trees nearby to lie under so they chose the next best thing,  a large pool of water in a drainage gully.

Another image looking to the east as the sun was rising behind the horizon in the Mara North.

“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” ~ Martin Buber

Two of my long-standing photo buddies, Duncan Blackburn and Les Penfold receiving some welcome mid-morning coffee from our guide and driver Akatch. Both are excellent and experienced wildlife photographers. While we were waiting for action at a sighting we would chat sharing camera settings, and we had many interesting discussions about life and the universe, sprinkled with wicked humour. 

A journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles.” -Tim Cahill

Late in the morning when the sun had risen quite high, the lion pride would seek the shade offered by a balanite tree. Usually one lioness would keep watch while the others slept.

A very peaceful scene of elephants enjoying themselves in the “greenheart” forest. They would eventually move out of the forest  and make their way towards the swamp around midday.

February is a superb month for predator photography. The herds have passed so the predators have to work harder to feed themselves. There is still plenty of game and birdlife on the plains. This time of the year offers fewer vehicles and the grass is low so photography on the plains is much cleaner. 

“Be fearless in the pursuit of what sets your soul on fire.” ~ Jennifer Lee

A special thank you to Lou Coetzer and CNP Safaris for a wonderful photographic safari. We were privileged to have some exceptional wildlife photographic opportunities. This is one of the most remarkable and productive photographic destinations I have been privileged to wander through.

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.

Have fun,

Mike

 

Private: Mara cameos

This post shows a few cameos of sights seen in the Masai Mara in February 2018.

“Learn to see – accustoming the eye to calm, to patience, to letting-things-come-to-it; learning to defer judgement, to encircle and encompass the question on all sides.” ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

Quiet family time, these cameos never last long.

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This baby Olive baboon was running up and down the trunk of a fallen tree having great fun.

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“In every walk with nature one receives far more than one seeks.” ~ John Muir

A lone male cheetah with a full belly after having fed well earlier taking advantage of the limited shade from an adjacent bush. This was just the other side of “double crossing”. 20180214-_D818757

Not much of a view from there! 

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“Think outside, no box required.” ~ Unknown

One of about thirteen hyaena cubs playing at last light around the den above the marsh.

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Competition starts very early in a hyaena’s life.

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“There are no rules for good photographs. there are only good photographs.” ~ Ansel Adams

Our lunch spot in the “greenheart” forest looking west over the Mara river.

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Early morning and a troop of Olive baboons were on the move to their feeding ground.

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Thankfully this was the cub’s father, just grumpy.

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A small herd of impala were jumping across a drainage line. The fawns and females were more wary of the water in the drainage line than the male.

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An old anthill was home to a family of banded mongooses. The family ventured out in the late afternoon to forage for insects.  

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A very young zebra foal cavorting for the sheer joy of it. 

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“Photograph what you see, for you see the world uniquely. Rules are mostly just teaching techniques and are in fact just guidelines. If you let what you see shine through in your images, your unique path will reveal new ways of seeing.” ~ Mike Haworth

Having had their early morning drink these cubs were making their way to their mothers who were nearby. 20180217-_D819179

A very busy Greenshank feeding in the pool where the lion pride had been drinking, half an hour before.

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One cub decided not to walk back to its mother but rather to lie in the warm sun and watch all the activity around the pool of water, and us.

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“Taking pictures is savouring life intensely every hundredth of a second.” ~ Mark Riboud

Finders keepers is difficult to sustain when bigger cousins want to play.

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An inquisitive elephant calf starting to master his trunk and trying to smell us.

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At Kichwa Tembo camp, we had just finished a morning drive and were getting off our photographic vehicle when the staff shouted “mamba”. At a quick glance it looked like a mamba due to its colour, but it was a forest cobra identified by it thicker body and stumpy snout, knowledge courtesy Andrew van den Broek the guide trainer at & Beyond.

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“A life without a cause is a life without effect.” ~ Barbabella

A little motherly care and attention which the cub seemed to be enjoying.

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Bright eyed and alert to everything around it.

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A blonde morph tawny eagle cruising the grass plains looking for something to scavenge.

No need for a saddle and bridle just hold onto mum’s hair.

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A mischievous Olive baboon baby playing with something it had found on the ground.

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No man has the right to dictate what other men should perceive, create or produce, but all should be encouraged to reveal themselves, their perceptions and emotions, and to build confidence in the creative spirit.”~ Ansel Adams

Young males still in the pride but not getting anywhere near the kill until the adult males had fed.

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Relaxed but alert lionesses warming up on small rock outcrop.

Playful elephant calves.

“If we wait for the moment when everything, absolutely everything is ready, we shall never begin.” ~ Ivan Turgenev

Rim lighting on two young hyaenas first thing in the morning.

A peaceful and serene scene as a family herd of elephants emerge from the “greenheart” forest down near the Mara river.

“Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and storms their energy. While cares will drop off like autumn leaves.” – John Muir

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.

Have fun,

Mike

Giants wandering the Mara

Masai Mara Ecosystem has been classified among the ‘Seven Wonders of the World’ due to the spectacular great migration when over 1 million wildebeest and more than hundred thousand zebra cross the Mara River coming from the Serengeti to the Masai Mara in search of water and greener pastures.

The Mara is known for its wildebeest migration and predators. It is less known for its pachyderms, unlike Amboseli. In 2015, the Tanzanian government reported that the country’s elephant population had collapsed from 110,000 in 2009 to 43,330 by mid-2015, due to extensive poaching. The good news is that while elephants are being decimated in Tanzania, elephant numbers are recovering in Kenya. 

Elephants are seen all around the Masai Mara and Mara North reserves. This was a scene near the Serengeti border with the Masai Mara, looking west across vast grass plains towards the Oloololo Escarpment. A small group of bull elephants were slowly making their way down the hill and feeding on their way.

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While travelling around the Mara North we came across many breeding herds with a number of youngsters in the herds. In the mornings, when it was cooler the elephant calves were much more playful and mischievous. The little bulls were very bold until they realised that had run some distance away from their mothers. The youngsters often chased birds or anything they found in the grass.

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This particular breeding herd had three calves which were all slightly different in age but had a great time playing among themselves.

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The calves seemed to be quite affectionate toward each other. This still meant they pushed each other around but at other times they appeared, what I would interpret, to be affectionate.

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In this group, two of the three calves had part of their tails missing. We could only presume that hyaenas had attacked them at some stage, but that they survived the ordeal without a “tail to tell”.

Two the calves with part of their tails missing making a trunk call. It is interesting to see that even at this early stage of development their trunks are quite prehensile. It will take a young elephant a few years to master its trunk with dexterity.

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As the calf grows and gains experience, it progressively learns what it can do with its trunk (similar to the way a human baby learns how to walk). The young calf will, in time, comprehend that its trunk can be used as an extra hand.

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A little old man getting up after falling and he had no “tail to tell”!!

This small breeding herd of elephant was moving away from the “greenheart ” forest down to the Mara river around midday to feed in the marsh close by.

Many elephant seem to enjoy the “greenheart” forest in the early and mid-mornings but by midday  wandered into the grasslands or swamp area, perhaps for a change of diet.

An elephant cow normally gives birth to only one calf at a time. New-borns may consume just over 11 litres of milk a day, which is taken in with their mouth as they have little control of their trunks.  The new-born calf usually has to stretch to reach it mother’s nipple. Within the first three months of birth, a young calf’s food intake is typically provided solely by the mother. Up to two years, the calf is nutritionally dependent on the mother. After two years of age, the mother shifts the emphasis toward independent feeding, though mother’s milk remains an important part of a calf’s diet. Young calves commence weaning from the first year of life until the tenth year of life.

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As the calf grows it can easily reach its mother’s breast and continues to suckle with its mouth lifting the trunk out-of-the-way. The mothers are very patient but when they feel their calf has had enough or there is a threat, then she will just walk away and the youngster will have to wait until she stops to feed again.

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The next image shows a small section of the marsh where many elephants from the “greenheart” forest walked to feed on the succulent grasses. This was also the heart of the lion “marsh” pride’s territory where the pride females usually retreated to give birth to their cubs.

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The more you take note of elephant behaviour the more fascinating they become and the more sentient and intelligent you realise they are. Elephants feel emotions as joy, anger, grief and compassion. According to an article in Elephants Forever on elephant intelligence, the insight and intelligence of the elephant is evident in their ability to mourn their dead. This behaviour has only previously been noted in humans. In fact, recently deceased elephants receive a burial ceremony, while those who are already reduced to a skeleton are still paid respect by passing herds. The burial ceremony is marked by deep rumblings while the dead body is touched and caressed by the herd members’ trunks.

Elephants have the ability to play and display a sense of humour, they can mimic sounds and are able to use tools or implements to achieve a task and have problem solving abilities. Their intelligence is also manifested in the elephant’s ability to self-medicate.

“We also have to understand that there are things we cannot understand. Elephants possess qualities and abilities well beyond the means of science to decipher. Elephants cannot repair a computer, but they do have communications, physical and metaphysical abilities that would make Bill Gates’ mouth drop open. In some very important ways they are ahead of us.” ~ Lawrence Anthony

An elephant’s memory is known to be exceptional. One remarkable, but sad, story really emphasised this point. The “Elephant Whisperer”, Lawrence Anthony died on 2nd of  March 2012. Two days after his passing, wild elephants showed up at his home led by two large matriarchs. Separate wild herds arrived to pay their respects. A total of 31 elephants walked an estimated more than 110 miles to get to his South African house. A year later on the 4th of March 2013, the elephants returned to pay their respects and the following year on the 4th of March 2014, the elephants returned again to pay their respects.

Those witnessing the elephant’s arrival were in awe of this spectacle not only because of the supreme intelligence and precise timing that these elephants sensed about Lawrence’s passing, but also because of the profound memory and emotion the beloved animals evoked in such an organised way. Lawrence’s wife, Francoise, was especially touched, knowing that the elephants had not been to their house prior to that day for over six months! Many believed that the elephants wanted to pay their deepest respects and appreciation for having saved their lives. They stayed for two days and two nights,  and on the third morning they left and went back into the bush.

In 1969, Iain Douglas-Hamilton, a veteran conservationist and founder of Save the Elephants, undertook the earliest attempt at a continent-wide census using aerial counts and questionnaires. That survey estimated 1.3 million elephants, a disputed figure in conservation circles. A decade later experts suggested that the figure was down to about 600,000, highlighting a poaching crisis.

National Geographic reported in 2016 that the findings of the Great Elephant Census showed 352,271 remained in Africa. At that point, yearly loss—overwhelmingly from poaching—was estimated at 8 percent equivalent to about 27,000 elephants slaughtered a year. The forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) being more threatened than the savanna elephants (Loxodonta africana).  A ratio above 8 percent generally means a population is declining, and continent-wide the carcass ratio turned out to be nearly 12 percent. The killing continues and the countries with the greatest declines were Tanzania and Mozambique, with a combined loss of 73,000 elephants to poaching in just five years with Angola showing a similar trend. 

The news is not all bad, the latest wildlife census of five ecosystems with the elephant population in Kenya is estimated at 15,316 in 2018 compared to 14,411 in 2012, according to the Kenyan Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

“Education is essential for a better understanding of man’s relationship with nature and the animal kingdom, and a greater respect and appreciation for conservation efforts.” ~ Lawrence Anthony

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.

Have fun,

Mike

Endangered in the Mara

We were privileged to see not only one, but three rare and critically endangered black rhinos, the east African sub-species. If that was not enough, the adults were mating –  much to the confusion of the sub-adult.

No one in the world needs a rhino horn, but a rhino” ~ Rachel Carson

According to the Rhino Resource Centre, the African Rhino Specialist Group recommends the distinction of four subspecies which ignores the recently extinct subspecies.

  • The South-central Black Rhino (Diceros bicornis minor) is the most numerous of all Black Rhino subspecies.
  • The South-western Black Rhino (Diceros bicornis bicornis) is better adapted to dry climates and occurs in the arid savannas. The main difference with the others subspecies is the large and straight horn.
  • The East African Black Rhino (Diceros bicornis michaeli) prefers highland forest and savanna habitat. It also has a longer, leaner, and curved horn and it’s skin is more grooved.
  • The West African Black Rhino (Diceros bicornis longipes) is the rarest and most endangered subspecies, with only 10 surviving in 2003. But on July 8, 2006 the subspecies was declared to be extinct.

The taxonomy of the subspecies of the black rhino remains unresolved and needs further study.

The earth was made for all beings not just human beings!

As we were driving around on our last morning, our guide Akatch pointed out black rhinos in the distance. It was still early, before 7h00. What makes this sighting more unusual is that black rhinos tend to be much more solitary than their white rhino cousins.

With great excitement we drove closer. We found an amorous bull with a receptive female black rhino and her sub-adult youngster. The youngster was complicating the affair. As the female started to walk forward the bull had to try to keep up on his back legs.

A black rhino bulls can weigh up to 1.2 tonnes with the female being around two thirds smaller. This species is noticeably smaller than the White Rhino. It addition it has a very different mouth structure. The black rhino has a pointed prehensile top lip which it uses to strip vegetation off trees and bushes, while the white rhino has a square wide lips which it uses effectively to graze on the grass. The posture of the two species of rhino is also different with the  black rhino usually holding its head high. The black rhino also has rounded more trumpet shaped ears. Both African rhino species have poor eye sight but acute hearing and smelling senses.

During courtship behaviour, males butt females with their horns. Mating can be quite a violent and protracted event.

” Know that the same spark of life that is within you, is within all our animal friends, the desire to live is the same within all of us…” Rai Aren

Usually, the male would follow the female around and place his head on her hind quarters signalling that he wanted to mount her. She would then stop and he would place  his front legs on her back.

This youngster kept approaching its mother for comfort and clearly did not know what was going on….

I was amazed to see this female black rhino cope with this large bull placing a considerable weight on her back. She did not appear to even flinch. This was one tough female!

“There’s no point bleating about the future of pandas, polar bears and tigers when we’re not addressing the one single factor that’s putting more pressure on the ecosystem than any other — namely the ever-increasing size of the world’s population.” ~ Chris Packham

The whole morning was unusual and I found it strange that black rhinos, which are browsers, were in the open grasslands in the early morning. When we got back to camp later for breakfast I asked Andrew van den Broek, an &Beyond’s guide trainer based at Kichwa at that time, who has vast knowledge of the bush and animal and bird behaviour about this encounter. He indicated that the black rhino venture out into the open to browse on the small tree saplings in the grass. They retreat into the cool of the treed areas after 9h00 once the morning temperature gets too hot.

The female kept walking away and her youngster followed, so too did the amorous bull who was still very interested in her.

A mating pair can stay together for two to three days, sometimes even weeks. They mate several times a day and copulation usually lasts for about half an hour. Once fertilised , the female has a gestation period of around 16 months.

The bull caught up with the female repeatedly and placed his head on her flanks. Judging from the large scar on his right side, it looked like he had been gored sometime before.

Black rhino have two horns. The front horn is longer than the back one. According to the Save the Rhino organisation, both grow continuously from the skin at their base throughout their life.  Rhinos from different areas can have horns of different shapes ,and sizes can also vary. The shape of the horn also differs between sexes: with males tending to have thicker horns, and the females often longer and thinner ones.

The bull must have had an extremely strong neck because he would place his head on her backside and lift his front legs off the ground in an attempt to mount her.

Once up, the bull would stand firmly with his front legs on her back. Again the youngster was getting in the way. The female was ready and receptive and waited for the male to get his act together, but I guess the youngster was proving too much of a distraction.

According to the Black Rhino Husbandry website, the normal body temperature of a black rhino ranges from 34.5 oC to 37.5 oC. The pulse is 30 to 40 beats per minute, and respirations are six to twelve breaths per minute (Fowler and Miller, 2003).

The bull was so distracted by the youngster that he moved around to the female’s left side putting half of his weight on the left side of her back. The youngster eventually gave up and just lay next to its mother.

“Living wild species are like a library of books still unread. Our heedless destruction of them is akin to burning that library without ever having read its books.” ~ John Dingell

When I saw this image it really typified that a woman’s work is never done. Here she has a large bull with his front legs on her back trying to mate with her. She has her calf trying to suckle and if that was not enough, she had two red-billed oxpeckers on her face, with one up her nostril.

The female black rhino appeared to be in excellent condition with her horn intact – hopefully for the rest of her life.

“We take habitat away from wild animals and then kill them for invading ‘our’ space.”
~ Patrick Edwards

After a while the female crossed the road in front of us with her calf behind her, leaving the male behind. Black rhino calves stay with their mother for 2-4 years before being rejected, usually when the female is ready to calve again.

Red and yellow-billed ox-peckers are often seen moving all over the rhinos body and face. The rhinos tolerate these oxpeckers because they remove ticks and clean parasites from open wounds and sores. These birds also help the rhino by raising the alarm if there is any danger approaching.

 

The female black rhino and her calf eventually wandered off to the tree line where they disappeared out of sight.

According to the International Rhino Foundation, during the last century, the black rhino has suffered the most drastic decline in total numbers of all rhino species. Between 1970 and 1992, the population of this species decreased by 96%. In 1970, it was estimated that there were approximately 65,000 black rhinos in Africa – but, by 1993, there were only 2,300 surviving in the wild. The black rhino population is recovering and increasing very slowly, but the poaching threat remains great.

“If we human beings learn to see the intricacies that bind one part of a natural system to another and then to us, we will no longer argue about the importance of wilderness protection, or over the question of saving endangered species, or how human communities must base their economic futures – not on short-term exploitation – but on long-term, sustainable development. “ ~ Gaylord Nelson

There are five remaining species of rhinoceros left in existence today. The other six known species have become extinct due to various reasons, but mainly because of hunting and poaching.

“Right now, in the amazing moment that to us counts as the present, we are deciding, without quite meaning to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will forever be closed. No other creature has ever managed this and it will, unfortunately, be our most enduring legacy.” ~ Elizabeth Kolbert

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.

Have fun,

Mike

Hooves on Mara North

So much attention is given to the predators in the Masai Mara, but there is so much more to see and experience. Often the more we see the less we notice. This seems to be true of the herbivores which wander the grass plains of the Mara. Yes the migration is one of the natural wonders of the world but there is an in between time when there is much magic on the plains for those to care to look.

“The most important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when contemplating the mysteries of enternity, of life, of the marvellous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day.” ~ Albert Einstein

I am always fascinated to see Zebras wading chest deep into water in the Mara. I have seen the same thing in the Serengeti.  Given the terrifying experience they have crossing the Mara and Grumeti rivers, I would have thought they would have been conditioned to be afraid to walk deep into any water.  Not so, they seemed to really enjoy it, apart from which the cleanest water is in the middle as it has not been muddied by many feet.

There were quite a few occasions while we were wandering around Mara North that it was cloudy which cooled things down. It was at these times when the youngsters were at their most energetic. A zebra foal cavorting for the sheer joy of it!

“Sometimes you just have to jump in a mud puddle because it’s there. Never get so old that you forget about having fun.”  ~ Tom Giaquinto

Zebra foals chasing each other around an ant hill. With all the danger around these youngster still were carefree enough to play with the simplest of props.

Fortunately in the Mara North, we did not encounter many tsetse flies. They look like horse flies but have a stinging bite and are not easily killed. I am not sure whether it was from insect bites, but this mare decided it was time for a back scratch and powder. Oh, and she looked to be really enjoying the beauty treatment.

A peaceful scene of a small group of zebras, with a few members drinking and others grazing on the lush green grass next to the water in a drainage line.

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”Sun Tzu

A small herd of zebra nonchalantly wander past a large male lion lying in the shade of a shepherd tree. This male had hurt his right leg, so was no threat to the passing zebra parade, and they knew it.

Just down from where we found the two young lion nomads panting in the heat out in the open next to a pool of water, we saw a few zebra. This mare must have produced a foal just days before. It was still very small and very unsure of the big wide world around it. Its mother’s tail seemed to offer some sort of comfort but it really highlighted its vulnerability.

Further on that day, we found a large herd of eland. They were grazing in the open grassland.  We saw three large males among many females. This was one of them. The males start to take on a greyish colour as they get older. This male’s dewlap (that large flap of skin under his neck) acts as a radiator helping to cool him down in open grasslands. The older males also take on a fringe on their forehead.

The next images shows the view looking across the plain towards the Oloololo escarpment with Thompson’s gazelle grazing in the foreground and the herd of eland wandering away behind them.

“Stand your ground, have a tough hide, keep moving on. Cherish wide open spaces. Have a strong spirit, roam wild and free.  Let the chips fall where they may.” ~ IIan Shamir

One day we decided to stay on the Masai Mara reserve side of the Mara river and wandered down to the inselbergs near the Serengeti border. As we travelled closer to the Oloololo escarpment we found a large herd of buffalo grazing in the open grasslands. This was one of the periphery bulls guarding the herd’s flank. Slit eyes saying what on earth  do you want!

The herd was spread out behind him. Needless to say, the whole herd looked up and watched carefully to see whether we were a threat or not.

Close to the Kichwa Tembo camp we found a small group of Coke’s hartebeest. There are not many of them in the Mara so this was an unusual find. There are eight subspecies of hartebeest of which Coke’s is the one found in Kenya and the northern Serengeti.

“Ah, youth! It was a beautiful night…
The moon was out of orbit. The stars were awry.
But everything else was exactly as it should have been.”
~ Roman Payne

Coke’s hartebeest, or kongoni, are selective grazers with browsing making up just less than 4% of their diet. A young Coke’s hartebeest squares off against an adult topi. The competition was short-lived with the youngster backing down.

I think topis are one of the most under-rated and least talked about antelope in the Mara and Serengeti. A topi resembles a hartebeest. It has an elongated head but has a darker  reddish-brown colouration with dark purple patches on their upper legs. Both sexes look similar, though males are larger. A topi’s horns sweep up and back whereas a hartebeest’s sweep out to the side before kinking back. The topi has a distinct hump at the base of the neck. This may be to enable additional tendons to be attached at the shoulder to give greater strength to power its fast front legs. Topis are of capable of reaching speeds of 70 to 80 kilometres per hour.

“We have more to learn from animals than animals have to learn from us.” ~ Anthony Douglas Williams

Topis can often be seen standing on top of an anthill presumably to see what is around it but also to be noticed by any passing females. If a topi is staring intently in one particular direction, it often signals it has seen something of consequence such as a predator.

During the breeding season, a territorial bull can be recognised by his erect posture, with his head held high and high-stepping front leg movement. While on the move, topis have a habit of bobbing their heads but I am not sure why they do that.

The topi has one of the most variable social and mating systems of all the antelopes. Its social system can vary from a small resident herd to huge migratory aggregations. In low density areas, the males tend to have large territories while others congregate in breeding arenas, or leks.

Topi’s seem to prefer open grasslands and savanna areas. Where the density of topi is low a male’s territory can be quite large and can include up to 10 females.

Where a breeding arena has been established there are many ritualistic fights to display dominance. Both males and female fight. The males for dominance and the females to keep other females out of the breeding territory and compete with each other for the dominant males. Not sure how you see your opponent if your head in on the ground….

Competition between rival males consists primarily of posturing and ritualistic sparring with the horns. Like wildebeest, topis fight on their front leg knees. They lunge forward and drop onto their knees and crash their horns together. It is mostly about dominance and pushing to establish the strongest and most dominant in the contact.

In a lek, as many as 100 males may have territories clustered together. The most dominant males occupy the centre of the lek, and the less dominant occupy the periphery.  Males mark their territories with urine and dung. On the plains when the migration is underway, these leks tend to be temporary, otherwise the males risk getting left behind. The males rejoin the migration but re-establish a territorial network when the herd stops again on its migratory route.

Females come into estrous for only one day of the year and seek out favoured males. The female seemed to be the only one relaxed about the situation.

The youngster did not know what was happening to its mother and just stayed close despite all the mating encounters.

There are two main types of gazelle on the Mara and Serengeti plains, the smaller Thomspon’s gazelle and the larger Grant’s gazelle. This was a female Grant’s gazelle reassuring her calf.

The Grant’s gazelle is noticeably larger than the Thompson’s gazelle and the white on the back of the hind legs reaches to above the tail.

The Thompson’s gazelle is much smaller than the Grants and has a dark brown stripe long its flank and the white behind its back legs which does not go above its tail.

There are not as many impala on the plains as you are likely to see in southern Africa but the males have noticeably larger horns. We came across a small breeding herd grazing along a drainage line. The male causally walked through the water filled gully but the females and calves jumped over the gully, obviously fearful of what was in the water.

A female impala taking off to jump across the drainage line gully.

Every lunchtime, when we were on the Mara North side of the Mara river, we retreated into the shade of the “greenheart” forest next to the meandering Mara river.  We often found elephants and giraffe wandering through the forest.

It was a beautiful place with a restful and serene vista. A giraffe’s coat pattern differs for each individual. Each sub-species has a broadly different pattern colour and shape which varies according to region. The pattern of the coat improves camouflage in the different habitats. Giraffes have exceptional eyesight and also are believed to communicate through subsonic vocalizations, though this has  to be scientifically proven. Scientist have discovered that giraffes hum. In a study published in 2015 in the journal BioMed Central, researchers recorded over 940 hours of sounds from giraffes at three zoos over an eight-year period. Beyond the occasional snort or grunt, the researchers recorded humming sounds that the giraffes made only at night.

The Masai giraffe’s spots are more jagged than the other sub-species. The males generally have darker spots than the females and those spots darken with age. The dominant male has the darkest spots of all.

“As you stop and look more carefully, your journey of discovery begins. Intriguing questions arise and your physical and intellectual wanderings begin to unveil their answers. The more you learn the more fascinating your subject becomes…” ~ Mike Haworth

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.

Have fun,

Mike