Montusi -part2

To some, the Drakensberg creates images of dragons, to others the jagged basalt pinnacles look like a barrier of spears. The Zulus call it Ukhahlamba, the barrier of spears. For me, casting my eyes upon this majestic range is breathtaking and beyond adequate description.

“There is more to life than increasing its speed” ~ Ghandi

The Drakensberg mountain range stretches about 1,000 kilometres from the Blyde River area in Mpumalanga near Kruger Park to the interior of the Eastern Cape, forming the edge of the interior plateau called the Highveld. The mountains and surrounding wilderness area in the foothills have been declared an UNESCO World Heritage Site. This site constitutes some 240,000 hectares under the control of KwaZulu Natal Wildlife. This mountain range provides great biodiversity and is home to an extensive insitu exhibition of Bushman rock art.

“All the good things are wild and free.”~ Unknown

The next image is of Montusi Mountain Lodge, a very comfortable well-appointed family lodge. We spent four wonderful days at this lodge and used it as a base from which to venture to the surrounding  mountain areas.

After breakfast, this was the vista looking out from our suite. That feeling of wide open space enables you to breath deeply and a feeling which soothes your soul.

While the huge vistas allow you to look far, there is much activity right in front of you in the form of sunbirds on the aloes. Malachite and Greater double-collared sunbirds in particular seem to prefer the higher altitudes.

Although it was mid-May, late autumn in South Africa, it was not cold. This male Malachite sunbird was just ruffling his feathers as a sign of relaxation.

“Travelling is like flirting with life. It’s like saying, ‘I would stay and love you, but I have to go; this is my station’.” ~ Lisa St. Aubin de Teran

The huge and dramatic vistas in the Drakensberg are the result of its geology. The geological formation of the Drakensberg has taken place over many hundreds of millions of years. The final stage of which began some 190 million years ago and is still underway. For millions of years, sediment, in the form of layers of clay and sand, were deposited. These layers are known as the Molteno Beds, Red Beds and Cave Sandstone (from bottom to top). These sediment beds were pierced by volcanic Dolerite intrusions. The Dolerite is far harder than the sedimentary layers and so is less prone to erosion. This has resulted in the dramatic sheer cliffs, buttresses and pinnacles which are so characteristic of the Drakensberg.

Gondwanaland began to break up into different continents around 180 million years ago, during the Jurassic period. About 160 million years ago, enormous volcanic activity created major lava flows which covered the sedimentary layers. These lava flows are thought to have originated from the area which is present day Lesotho. Some of these larva flows reached thicknesses of up to 1300 metres and slowly made their way to the present coastline about 200 kilometres to the south-east. These so-called Stormberg Basalts have been eroded over time through wind and weather and form the what is called the High Berg. This process of erosion also accounts for the flat-topped plateaus rather than peaked mountains top of the Drakensberg

“Great things are done when men and mountains meet; This is not done by jostling in the street.” ~ William Blake

The Amphitheatre is not only one of the most spectacular landmarks in the Drakensberg, but also in Southern Africa. It is also relatively accessible from both top and bottom. This area has been preserved as part of the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg Park, which is now known as Royal Natal Nature Reserve. 

The Montusi Mountain Lodge is located opposite the Amphitheatre about 15 kilometres from the sheer rock wall.

The Amphitheatre is characterised by a massive semi-circular wall of basalt with cliff faces over 1,200 metres high in places.  This is a seven kilometre wide semi-circular rugged wall of basalt rock which rises over 1,000 metres from the hilly terrain of the ‘lower berg’. The top of the Amphitheatre is a flat plateau that now forms the watershed of Southern Africa. In 1836, it inspired the French missionaries Arbousset and Dumas to call its highest point the Mont-aux-Sources,  the “Mountain of Sources”. Several rivers originate here, the most famous being the Tugela River. 

“Photograph: a picture painted by the sun without instruction in art.” ~ Ambrose Bierce

Before the first lavas began to flow in the area of the present-day Drakensberg mountain range, the place was part of a shallow depression fed by inland waterways. It was an enormous inland lake. Its waters covered the ancient land mass called Gondwanaland. The sediments carried into the lake were deposited on granite foundations which had formed almost three billion years ago. This super-continent  Gondwanaland included Africa, Australia, New Zealand, South America and Antarctica. 

With a sense of its geological history, we drove into the Royal Natal National Park which is at the foot of the Amphitheatre. it was like driving into a natural museum. The next image was taken around mid-morning just before the Tendele camp car park. The rocky river bed of the Tugela river runs down the left hand side of the image. In the foreground are fans of thatching grass laid out to dry by the local people. They use the thatching grass for roofing material.

“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.” ~Edward Abbey

A short distance from its source on the plateau, the Tugela plunges 850 metres over the edge of the Amphitheatre in five distinct drops, making it the second highest waterfall in the world. Being late autumn there was little water in the Tugela river. It must be impressive when the snow melts on top of the mountains. Over the millennia this river has created a magnificent gorge with numerous waterfalls, caves, shaded forests and rock tunnels. For hundreds of years this wild fertile area was home to the Bushmen and their many rock paintings are testimony to their unobtrusive presence. 

On our last morning, I awoke before sunrise and as the sun rose it cast a magical orange-pink hue over the vast landscape. So many landscape photographers tell you that the light adds that magical touch to wonderful vistas and this was a good example of that truth.

“Life is only a reflection of what we allow ourselves to see.” ~Unknown

Later in the morning the colour of the light had changed completely.

“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

Around the Montusi Mountain Lodge were numerous clusters of candelabra aloes erupting with inflorescences of vivid orange-red flowers. In the mountains where there are flowers, there is nectar, and where there is nectar, there are sunbirds and sugarbirds.

A typical candelabra aloe cluster in the foreground with the Drakensberg in the distance.

On the road out from Montusi you cross numerous mountain streams. This was one, flowing with crystal clear water.

One of our last vistas as we drove out of the northern Drakensberg. Looking at it gives you a sense of peace and permanence.

“When you look at these mountains it is like looking at the stars. When you look at stars you are looking at unfathomable distances, when you look at the mountains you are looking at unfathomable history. These are dimensions and forces beyond our fathom. Both are spellbinding and humbling.” ~ Mike Haworth

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

Have fun,

Mike

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-civilised 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. It 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. Royal Natal National Park in KwaZulu-Natal is 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. UKhahlamba 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 no 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 taking 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 the Blyde dam.

The first morning it was dark, very overcast and pouring with rain. We climbed down into position on 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 to 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 has 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 from the top of the canyon wall, Mark, in his red jacket, was standing (below) 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 a small stream lined with trees. We saw an African Finfoot swimming and fishing in the 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.  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 particular 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