Mara wildebeest crossing

The Wildebeest migration has moved into the Masai Mara. The inbound migration from the Serengeti Park to Masai Mara takes place around June or July. The annual migration includes more than 1.5 million wildebeests, zebra, topis and Thompson’s gazelle The return migration follows around August or September each year but the exact timing depends on the rains.

“Every creature was designed to serve a purpose. Learn from animals for they are there to teach you the way of life. There is a wealth of knowledge that is openly accessible in nature. Our ancestors knew this and embraced the natural cures found in the bosoms of the earth. Their classroom was nature. They studied the lessons to be learned from animals. Much of human behavior can be explained by watching the wild beasts around us. They are constantly teaching us things about ourselves and the way of the universe, but most people are too blind to watch and listen.”
~ Suzy Kassem,

This first image gives a sense of the serene landscape along the Mara river in the Masai Mara. This is one of the crossing points adjacent to Paradise plain. At this point the river makes a wide “S” bend and is a place favoured by hippos and crocodiles alike. The river breaks into gentle rapids just after the bend due to all the rocks in the river bed.

“Don’t think there are no crocodiles because the water is clam.” Malayan Proverb

On this particular morning the crossing started with one intrepid wildebeest while the rest of the herd stood on the bank above watching, probably to see where the crocodiles would emerge.

Not long after the first brave soul made its move, the herd moved down and started to amass at the water’s edge. The problem for the front animals is that pressure builds from the back pushing them into the water.

Once the crossing starts some of the animals panic and take massive jumps into the boiling mass.

The river bed at this point is uneven and deep in some places and relatively shallow in others enabling the terrified wildebeest to jump out of the water.

“Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.” ~ Henry Ford

As the numbers of wildebeest swell there is no longer space on the rock shelf at the edge of the water and more and more animals start to cross from inside the bend which takes them on a course through the rapids.

It is clearly exhausting trying to swim against the current and find purchase on the rocks in the river bed. Wildebeest legs and hooves are certainly not built for swimming.

Again with the pressure and lack of access due to all the animals at the main crossing point, some wildebeest decide to cross the river down below the main crossing point. The water deeper in places and is flowing faster.

“These are the four that are never content: that have never been filled since the dew began- Jacala’s mouth, and the glut of the kite, and the hands of the ape, and the eyes of Man.”
~ Rudyard Kipling

One adult wildebeest was clearly exhausted. It could see the massive crocodile approach it from its left hand side but just stood there. Seeing what was about to happen, the wildebeest close by quickly moved away from the danger zone.

The Nile crocodile grabbed the wildebeest by the head. You can see how big the crocodile was from the size of the wildebeest’s head.

The wide eyes of the wildebeest show how terrified they were. Those who have crossed this river before know what lurks below the surface of the water.

The sheer mass of wildebeest together with the noise and dust make this an unforgettable spectacle. The sheer intent and wide-eyed terror that the crossing entails is spell-binding.

“The time has passed when humankind thought it could selfishly draw on exhaustible resources. We know now the world is not a commodity.”~ Francois Hollande

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

Have fun, Mike

Wildebeest migration revisited

It is that time of the year again when one of the greatest wildlife spectacles on earth arrives in the Masai Mara, in Kenya. The exact timing and the number of migrating wildebeest depend on the quantity of rain and where it has fallen.

“The visual spectacle is indescribable. Every sense is swimming. Your eyes stretch over unimaginable numbers of animals. Dust is everywhere. It is hot. The wildebeest grunts and groans surround you. The tension in the air is palpable as the masses build on the far bank of the Mara river.”~ Mike Haworth

The website Herdtracker indicates that the herds have arrived at the border of the Serengeti and Masai Mara National Park. The herds are travelling north into the Mara Triangle and Mara north where they will feed for about two months before starting to trek south again from October travelling down to Ndutu in the south of Serengeti to calf the frequency of which peaks around February each year.

“Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes deep and permanent, in the ideas of the mind.”~ Miriam Beard

I have included a series of images taken during two wildebeest crossings at the Mara river Figtree crossing a couple of years ago. Around August-September, the wildebeest usually arrive from the Serengeti travelling into the Masai Mara in Kenya and you can see tens of thousands of them coming across the plains and down the hill slopes towards the Mara river.

As the numbers of wildebeest grow they start pushing the front animals towards the edge of the river bank which in some areas is an earthen cliff with drops of five to six metre down to a very steep embankment.

This drop is especially difficult for the calves being so much smaller than the adults. Amazingly, we never saw one animal break a leg coming down such a treacherous drop.

Once down, there is a strong compulsion to follow the others and the wildebeest launch themselves off the steep bank into the deep and fast flowing Mara river.

There is no particular leader in these group crossings, whoever plucks up the courage goes first, be it a calf or an adult bull.

Many of the wildebeest have crossed this river many times and know what danger lurks below the surface. The experienced ones have a really good look to try and locate the crocodiles. The river at this time of the year is normally carrying a lot of sediment making it a muddy brown colour so the wildebeest often cannot not see the crocodiles.

Once the leaders start crossing there is an overwhelming compulsion to follow on mass.

As the numbers of wildebeest crossing the river grows so more and more dust is stirred up and as you can see at times it becomes quite dark.

“We must not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we began and to know it for the first time.”~ Thomas Stearns Eliot

You can imagine the terror. These wildebeest are used to wide open spaces with clear air and all of a sudden they are pushed into an place which is darkened by thick dust. There are other wildebeest diving into the water all around you and you know there are massive Nile crocodiles waiting to ambush you as you cross.

Looking at the thin legs of the wildebeest, it is hard to believe they can swim effectively through the fast flowing Mara river.

“I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”~ Thomas Stearns Eliot

There is a huge advantage to individual animals crossing in a crowd. The chances of an individual being singled out by the crocodiles is substantially lower.

When the crossing begins it is every animal for itself. For most of the calves it would be their first crossing. It is hard to fathom the terror these youngsters must go through in this mad dash.

These adult wildebeest are swimming hard to cross the Mara river but the fast flowing current is pulling them down river. Often this means they end up on the other bank at an unintended spot which is difficult to exit.

This bull had swum half way across the Mara when for some inexplicable reason he stopped and came back to where he started. He was absolutely exhausted and could not walk out of the water back onto dry land despite the threat from crocodiles.

Flying wildebeest – an iconic image of these animals launching themselves terror stricken and panicked into the fast flowing muddy Mara River in the Masai Mara National Reserve.

The wildebeest crossings are truly spectacular both in terms of numbers and intensity. You will be moved by this natural phenomenon. The sheer terror in these animals eyes is clear to see. Terror or not, they have to cross to get to new pastures to feed.

In an article in Sciencedaily in June 2017, it was reported that an average of 6250 animals drown or are trampled crossing the Mara river each year. While this is a huge number, it is small in relation to the average of 1.2 million animals making the crossing during the year. The crossings usually peak along the Mara river in the three months from July to September.

“To those who stay put, the world is but an imaginary place. But to the movers, the makers and the shakers, the world is all around, an endless invitation.”~ Unknown

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

Have fun, Mike

Marievale in May

May is late autumn in South Africa. We took a Sunday morning trip to Marievale to get some bird photography practice and just enjoy all the birdlife at Marievale Bird Sanctuary on the Highveld near Nigel about 75 kilometres south west of Johannesburg.

“Every creature was designed to serve a purpose. Learn from animals for they are there to teach you the way of life. There is a wealth of knowledge that is openly accessible in nature. Our ancestors knew this and embraced the natural cures found in the bosoms of the earth. Their classroom was nature. They studied the lessons to be learned from animals. Much of human behavior can be explained by watching the wild beasts around us. They are constantly teaching us things about ourselves and the way of the universe, but most people are too blind to watch and listen.” ~ Suzy Kassem

Most bird photographers know to get to their destination before sunrise. The Highveld, especially around Marievale, in late autumn and early winter is prone to thick mist which burns off after sunrise. The mist creates a very moody scene and some interesting potential photographic opportunities.

As the sun rises and the mist thins out so the colour starts to change introducing blues from the cloudless sky. It is cold but there is a surprising amount of bird activity at this time of the day.

“When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.” ~ Ansel Adams

The misty atmosphere creates a heavy dew which provides photographers with many opportunities for interesting and unique images. The dry grass in this next image was heavily laden with dew creating delicate detail. Spider webs make particularly attractive dew-laden subjects.

This Hottentot teal was happily swimming around in the frigid water. The water never freezes but the temperature must fall very low. The duck’s feet have no feathers so are fully exposed to the cold water. The remarkable adaptation is that veins and arteries to and from the feet are located close together and act as a heat transfer system. The hot blood carried in the arteries to the feet transfer heat to the cold blood in the veins from the feet. This ensures body heat is not lost unnecessarily through the feet and the heart is not supplied with blood which is icy cold.

Birds retain their body heat by fluffing up their feathers which acts as a insulator. Bird’s body temperatures also drop at night which reduces the temperature differential and therefore heat loss.

Teals are smaller, petite ducks characterised by short necks and short tails. The Hottentot teal is a dabbling duck which upends itself with it tail sticking vertically upwards as its head reaches down to the river bed to feed on aquatic invertebrates such as insects, crustaceans and aquatic vegetation. These teals have a green wing speculum ( a patch of iridescent colour on the secondary wing feathers) and a blue bill with a black/dark brown crown on their head.

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

You will find a variety of herons at Marievale. Although not abundant, you are likely to see a Goliath heron. Invariably you will only see an individual. This is the largest of the African herons. It is a wading bird with slate grey plumage with a chestnut coloured feathers on its head, neck and belly. The chin and throat are white in colour.

The Goliath heron feeds mainly on fish but will also eat frogs, small mammals and reptiles. This heron spears its prey and swallows it whole once it has subdued it. Since the Goliath heron often catches large fish it is regularly subject to kleptoparasitism by fish eagles.

In late autumn, once the mist has burned off the days can be sunny with little wind. There are old gold mine dumps in the background from the mining activties of yesteryear.

In autumn there is plenty of grass seed around which attracts queleas. We do not see the swarms of queleas around Marievale which are often seen in the bushveld or on farmlands because this is predominately a wetland area. The next image is of a male red-billed quelea in flight. It still has its breeding colours. This quelea is a small sparrow like bird of the weaver family. Queleas most often seen feeding and drinking in large flocks which form murmurations.

The Squacco heron is a small heron about 43 centimetres in height weighing around 300 grams. This small heron is uniquely coloured in tawny buff and brown feathers. It has a yellow iris and yellow legs. Its neck and breast have light brown streak and its belly and sides are white. This character was crossing the access road from the Duiker hide to the old bridge. It stooping in the middle of the road to assess what we were doing.

A Burchell’s coucal climbed up to to the higher sections of grass to get into the sun and dry out. The grass was still very wet from the dew. These coucals skulk through the underground looking for prey. This coucal is predatory and a member of the cuckoo family. It is often seen in pairs and can be heard dueting. It is affectionately called the rainbird because is it regularly heard during and after rains.

A male long-tailed widowbird in non breeding plumage. This plumage colouration is in stark contrast to its breeding plumage which is black with long luxuriant tail feathers.This widowbird retains its red-orange shoulder feathers and white trim below the red shoulder. Its beak shape infers that it is a seedeater.

A peaceful scene looking west, from the access road between the Duiker hide and the old bridge across, the wetland to the old mine dumps in the background.

“I believe the world is incomprehensibly beautiful. An endless prospect of magic and wonder.”~ Ansel Adams

To see a black heron is always a treat. This small heron the size of a Squacco heron. Although black in colour it appears slate grey in the sunlight. Its legs are black but it looks like it stepped in a puddle of yellow road paint because its feet are bright yellow.

What makes the black heron unique is its hunting method. Many storks use their wings to cast a shadow on the water which attracts the fish and enables the bird to see into the water more easily. The black heron goes one step further, it lifts both its wings into a umbrella shape with its head underneath its wings. The fish swim into the shade and the heron has a good visual so can catch them easily. This method is called canopy feeding. The black heron is diurnal.

I have not often seen a purple heron at Marievale. This heron is so called because of its purple colouring from a distance. This heron is similar in size to the grey heron and is clearly distinguished by its reddish brown plumage. It also has a more elongated and narrow appearance with a long thin head. Its body shape and size of feet are well adapted for living among the reeds. This heron feeds mainly on fish.

The purple heron is distinctive in flight with its large feet and its distinctively chestnut to orange buff to red buff colouring on the sides of its head and neck. It has a clear black streak which runs from its eye down the side of its neck.

“Cherish the natural world because you are part of its and you depend on it.”~ Sir David Attenborough

You will always see Stonechats when you visit Marievale, they are ubiquitous. This is a female Stonechat perched on top of a dead broken reed. The male was close by but did not pose.

Spoonbills are attracted to Marievale because the water level in the wetland is usually shallow and suits their size. Spoonbills are not abundant but you are likely to see one or two each time you visit this bird sanctuary.

This was an unusual find. A common moorhen with unusual plumage. Two birds you will always see at Marievale are red-knobbed coots and common moorhens. Usually, the adult common moorhen has black body and wing feathers. Its rump is a olive-brown colour and its has white tail feathers. It also has a white stripe down the side of its body and on its shoulders. It has a red facial shield and red bill with a yellow tip. Its legs are yellow but half way up the femur it turns red.

“Nature experiments with life and celebrates diversity.”~ Willis Harman

This particular adult had all white body and wing feathers. Its primary wing feathers looked to be grey and its neck was a blotched black and white. The colouring of its head, front facial shield, bill and legs were the same as a normal common moorhen.

The lesser moorhen is much less common. It looks like a common moorhen though is a lighter black. Its legs are a pinkish colour and its bill and front facial shield are mostly yellow. The top of its facial shield is red but the shield is predominately yellow in colour. The lesser moorhen can be found in the northern part of South Africa, but I have never seen one.

“With our cameras we capture moments which remind us of how extraordinary this world is that we move through.” ~ Mike Haworth

The only bird list I have is the “to find” one.

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

Have fun, Mike

Quivers and canyons

As part of our Rovos Rail trip through Namibia in May 2019 we stopped at Keetmanshoop. This is a small town in the Karas region of southern Namibia. The town was named after Johann Keetman, one of the early traders and benefactor of the town.

“The Rovos rail safari – a journey of discovery through historic and scenic areas of southern Africa from the savannahs of the highveld to the Atlantic Ocean reuniting by rail the republics of South Africa and Namibia.”

The Karas region is semi-arid and receives on average 150mm of rain per annum. In addition to the historic significance of this town, one of the main attractions is the Quiver Tree forest some 14 kilometres north of the town.

This forest is described as a spontaneous forest, a term which refers to the undisturbed development of natural forests where direct and indirect human influences are removed or forbidden.

“Ô, Sunlight! The most precious gold to be found on Earth.” ~ Roman Payne

We spent around an hour and a half walking around the Quiver Tree forest on the Farm Gariganus. This forest was declared a national monument in 1955. The large Aloe dichotoma has a common name Quiver tree. It gets its name from bushman who made quivers from the branches of this aloe as holders for their poisonous arrows.

The Quiver tree is probably the most spectacular aloe species because of its size and sculptural form. Aloe dichotoma or the Quiver tree is a species of aloe indigenous to southern Africa. It is only found in the Northern Cape Richtersveld region and the Namib desert around the South African-Namibian border. This aloe prefers well drained, rocky terain.

“All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree. All these aspirations are directed toward ennobling man’s life, lifting it from the sphere of mere physical existence and leading the individual towards freedom. ” ~ Albert Einstein

The thick succulent leaves of the Quiver Tree grow in a rosette at the end of a long branch. The branches and trunk have a soft fibrous core which can hold a great quantity of water. This aloe has two adaptations to help it cope with the extreme heat. The first is that the branches are thickly covered in a fine white powder to reflect rather than absorb the sun’s rays. Secondly, the leaves are located at the ends of the branch at the top of three tree so as to catch each passing breeze and are farthest from the heat of the ground.

This is a perennial succulent which can grow from three to nine metres in height, and at times even reach 12 metres in height. The bark on the trunk forms beautiful golden brown scales, but the edges of these scales are razor sharp.

The crown of a mature Quiver tree has a rounded canopy composed of a mass of densely grouped repeatedly forked branches. The second part of the latin name of this species is dichotoma. (dichotomous meaning forked). The blue-green leaves are arranged in a rosettes at the end of each terminal forked branch. The inflorescences of tubular bright yellow flowers appear in June and July each year. The flowers produce a lot of nectar, which is a valuable source of food to various birds, and insects such as bees and locusts and even baboons, and so play the an important ecological role in the area.

Large trunks of dead trees are also hollowed out and used as a natural fridge. Water, meat and vegetables can be stored inside it. The fibrous tissue of the trunk has a cooling effect as air passes through it, a so-called natural fridge.

When this aloe grows to around two metres in height, the plant starts to dichotomously branch. The trunk is a massive unbranched central stem which supports dense canopies of forked branches. This stem is fibrous and has no growth rings so this aloe cannot be aged by that means. The way to approximately age a Quiver Tree is to count the number of forks from the main trunk along the longest branches. Each fork is estimated to take about 50 years to develop. This method would measure the age of most of the Quiver Trees at between 150 and 250 years old.

“Any fool can destroy trees. They cannot run away; and if they could, they would still be destroyed,—chased and hunted down as long as fun or a dollar could be got out of their bark hides, branching horns, or magnificent bole backbones. Few that fell trees plant them; nor would planting avail much towards getting back anything like the noble primeval forests. During a man’s life only saplings can be grown, in the place of the old trees—tens of centuries old—that have been destroyed.”~ John Muir

The aloe dichotoma is one of three species of Quiver Tree. The other two species being the Aloe pillansii (Giant quiver tree) and the Aloe ramosissima (Maiden quiver tree).

After a fascinating wander around the Quiver Tree forest we got back on the Rovos rail train at Keetmanshoop and travelled down to Holoog where the train stopped again this time for our afternoon excursion to see the Fish River Canyon which is also located in southern Namibia, equidistant between Windhoek in Namibia and Cape Town in South Africa.

The Fish River canyon consists of an upper canyon, and a lower canyon. The upper canyon is around 550 metres deep and the lower canyon is about 380 metres deep. The canyon is about 160 kilometres long varying in width to a maximum width of 27 kilometres.

“Come, see the north-wind’s masonry, Out of an unseen quarry evermore furnished with tile, the fierce artificer Curves his white bastions with projected roof round every windward stake, or tree, or door. Speeding, the myriad-handed, his wild work. So fanciful, so savage, naught cares he for number or proportion.”~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Fish river flows intermittently along the canyon floor. The water comes from late summer flooding. For the rest of the year, the river becomes a chain of small pools of water.

The Fish River Canyon is considered the second largest canyon in the world after the Grand Canyon in the United States. The oldest rocks of this region existed long before today’s continents were formed by the break-up of the super continent, Gondwana. The basement rocks are around 2.4 billion years old about half the age of the Earth.

Formation of the canyon began around 350 million years ago but the Fish River runs in a bed which is about 1.5 billion years old. Over millions of years, the river has cut into the Namaqualand Metamorphic Complex. The Namaqua Mountains were completely eroded about 650 million years ago leaving a vast plain. Continental rifting created an ocean trough and the plain became the Nama sea. Now it is hard to imagine this area was a sea when you look out of this dry hot desolate area. It took an estimated 100 million years to completely fill the Nama sea with sediment. Over that period heat and pressure transformed the sediments into hard metamorphic rock called the Nama Group comprised mostly of quartzite .

“By the act of observation we have selected a ‘real’ history out of the many realities, and once someone has seen a tree in our world it stays there even when nobody is looking at it.“~ John R. Gribbin

The Fish River Canyon was borne in a tectonic event. A huge block of the Earth’s crust subsided along deep fault lines forming a graben or trench. The graben was the easiest course for the ancient Fish river to follow. It was at this point that erosion took over in the creation of the canyon. The hard quartzite in the Nama group prevented the river from easily cutting into the depths, forcing it to cut sideways instead. Again hard to believe but glaciers flowed along the upper canyon about 300 million years ago carving the canyon down further. It is only once one gets a sense of this phenomenal development process over the last 2.5 billion years does the scenery and geology of this area become even more intriguing.

After an intriguing visit to the Fish River canyon we travelled back to the train waiting at Holoog for us. The next image was taken from the bus window of the sunset with a young Quiver tree in silhouette.

As with so much in nature, if one takes the time to metaphorically dig a little below the surface of what you see, does what you see takes on a whole new meaning. There is always something to see. If it is not animals, it may be birds or reptiles. It maybe unusual flora such as the Quiver trees or vast geological features, such as the Fish River Canyon, which were formed over hundreds of millions of years. Each element has a fascinating story to tell.

“The restlessness and the longing, like the longing that is in the whistle of a faraway train. Except that the longing isn’t really in the whistle—it is in you.” ~ Meindert DeJong

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

Have fun, Mike

Sossusvlei

In May this year Helen and I were fortunate enough to travel from Walvis Bay in Namibia to Pretoria in South Africa by Rovos Rail. The train journey took us from Walvis Bay up to Tsumeb and down to Windhoek then onto Keetmanshoop all in Namibia then on through South Africa to Pretoria. Along the way there were several short tours to interesting places such as Etosha National Park, Sossusvlei, the Quiver Tree Forest in Keetmanshoop and the Fish River Canyon in Namibia and the ‘Big Hole” at Kimberley in South Africa.

“The spirit of man is nomad, his blood bedouin, and love is the aboriginal tracker on the faded desert spoor of his lost self; and so I came to live my life not by conscious plan or prearranged design but as someone following the flight of a bird.” ~ Laurens van der Post

The next sequence of images was taken on our trip to Sossusvlei. The Rovos Rail train stopped at Windhoek station. From there we were taken to Eros private airport in Windhoek to fly by Cessna 210 light aircraft to Sossusvlei.

The flight took around a hour and we flew over stark but fascinating scenery. After we arrived at Geluk airstrip we were taken to Sossusvlei Lodge where we spent the next 24 hours. The next image is from our unit looking out towards the Naukluft mountains.

The Naukluft is proper desert environment and was proclaimed as a protected area in 1979. The temperatures are hot during the day and cool at night. It is extremely dry.

“Desert sunsets when the sun and earth always seem larger, wilder, brighter, more demanding and more silent. Somehow more certain.”~ Victoria Erickson

We took a game drive into the desert on the first afternoon. The colours after the sun has set were sublime and got more saturated for about 20 minutes to half an hour after sunset.

Our Rovos group were “up with the sparrows” and after a cup of coffee and a rusk we got on our game vehicles which were going to take us into the park.

Sossusvlei Lodge is located at the Sesriem entrance gate to the Namib Naukluft Park. It was late autumn in Namibia in May so the sunrise was only around 7h15 which is when the Park gate opened. I was shocked to see about a half kilometre long queue of cars, bakkies ( pickups) and game vehicles lined up waiting to get in the park at 7h00.

The desert may offer stark scenery but it also offers some spectacular colouring in early morning and evenings. Having got through the entrance gate this was the scenery on the drive into the park.

“The desert, when the sun comes up. I couldn’t tell where heaven stopped and the Earth began.” ~ Tom Hanks

We saw almost no game on the way to Deadvlei with the exception of one lone Gemsbok.

Dune 45 is one of the highest on the way to Sossusvlei and is so named because it is 45 kilometres from the Sesriem gate. The word Sesriem is Afrikaans word for six Gemsbok hide strips. The settlers in the area had to join six animal hide strips to form a rope long enough for a bucket to reach the water in the canyon floor.

The Namib Naukluft Park is huge covering around 50,000 square kilometres. It is roughly 500 kilometres long and 150 kilometres wide. Only a small proportion is accessible by visitors.

Camelthorn trees are dotted around the desert. They usually grow along an underground water system. These trees have an extensive tap root system which is known to reach down as far as 60 metres to find water. These trees have adapted to cope with the extremely hot dry days and bitterly cold nights in winter.

“What draws us into the desert is the search for something intimate in the remote.” ~ Edward Abbey

The only moisture in the atmosphere in this area of the park is blown in from the sea almost 120 kilometres west of Sossusvlei.

The Namib is considered the oldest desert in the world and has been around for about 55 million years. For most of that time it has been extremely dry, with most of the moisture that keeps flora and fauna alive coming from fog.

“The desert sharpened the sweet ache of his longing, amplified it, gave shape to it in sere geology and clean slant of light.” ~ Jon Krakauer

The red colour of the dunes comes from minute flecks of rust coloured iron oxide mixed in with the silica of the sand.

We eventually reached out destination which was Deadvlei. This is a unique pan in this desert. Its floor is composed of white-greyish clay, its walls are the moving red dunes and this scene is punctuated by its iconic dead Camelthorn tree trunks.

The pan was formed by the seasonal flooding of the Tsauchab River. This provided enough water for Camelthorn trees to grow. However, the climate changed and the sand dunes progressively encroached on the pan and eventually blocked the Tsauchab river from flowing into the pan.

Our guide told us that Deadvlei had not had any rain since 2011. These shallow gullies in the pan floor show the remains of where water used to flow in the pan before the river was blocked off by the moving dunes and the latest period of no rain. In the background is the sand dune called “big daddy” claimed to be the largest in the world. It is interesting how the dunes reflect a different colour of rust-red to ochre and almost orange depending on the direction of the light.

“In the empire of desert, water is the king and shadow is the queen.” ~ Mehmet Murat ildan

The dead Camelthorn trees are estimated to be 900 years old. Under normal circumstances these trees would have decomposed but the exceptionally dry climate has desiccated them.

Deadvlei is a popular tourist site so trying to get images without people in them takes a degree of patience.

After about an hour wandering around Deadvlei the wind started to blow. While this is a dangerous environment for cameras ( fine sand in the working parts) but it also provides some interesting images.

Playing around with the exposure can create some interesting other-worldly looking images.

Deadvlei offers many wonderful photographic opportunities given the contrast between the dark-shaded tree trunks, bleached-white pans, and the red dunes which seem to polarise the blue sky making its colour deeper and more saturated.

“Listen to the silence. It has much to say.” ~ Rumi

Deadvlei is at least a one kilometre walk through thick sand from the parking area. It can get very hot when the wind is not blowing so you need to take water with you. The wind can blow quite hard which will sand blast you and your photographic kit so you need to take protective measures.

After spending a couple of hours at Deadvlei it was time to head back to camp. The wind was blowing and lifting the fine red sand into the air changing the look and feel of the dunes.

At around lunchtime of that day we climbed back onto our Cessna 210 to fly back to Windhoek. The next three images were taken out of the Cessna’s side window.

A dry sand river bed snaking through the desert. Water must have flowed down this sandy bed in the recent past as there were trees on the banks especially at the bends.

From up on high – interesting shapes and colours.

This soujorn to Sossusvlei was just one of four such excursions along our Rovos rail trip from Walvis Bay on the Namibia coast to Pretoria in South Africa. The trip took nine days. The Classic and Edwardian trains travel with beautiful pre-1940 dining cars. It was a romantic journey enabled us to relive the old days of luxury rail travel with five star service. Excellent cusine was served in the charming Victorian atmosphere of the dining cars and complemented by a selection of fine South African wines.

“Travel is more than seeing something new, it is also about leaving something behind, something that is old. Whether that be your past, your misconceptions, your comfort level or your anxieties. The next time you head down a new path, realise that there is no better time to be the new you” ~ Charles Kosman

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

Have fun, Mike

Marievale in March

March is late summer on the Highveld in South Africa. We visited Marievale, an important bird sanctuary in Gauteng, in March to do some birding and for me to practice my bird photography. Marievale is well known to birders and bird photographers alike.

What makes this area unique is that it is a protected wetland. It is a Ramsar site which is a wetland designated to be of international importance, especially as a waterfowl habitat, under the Ramsar Convention.

What is interesting about this area is that it is a wetland amongst old gold mines. There are mine dumps in the background and although most of the mining activity has now stopped, the water is still polluted by the mining activities of yesteryear. The water pollution does not seem to have unduly affected the wetland vegetation or the birdlife.

“It is well to be up before daybreak, for such habits contribute to health, wealth, and wisdom.” ~ Aristotle

Marievale is just outside Nigel in Gauteng and about 45 minutes drive from Johannesburg. The idea is to get there by sunrise as the bird activity seems to be best for the first few hours after sunrise.

“In that dawn chorus one hears the throb of life itself.” ~ Rachel Carson

Marievale is known for its waterfowl, but all the grasslands around it provide a wonderful habitat for herons and seedeaters.

Cape Shovelers can be found, but not always seen at Marievale. They are dabbling ducks, meaning they swim in shallow water and feed by tipping headfirst into the water to graze on aquatic plants on the bed of the waterway. They also eat lavae and insects when available. This duck is cryptically brown coloured and has a characteristic large spatulate bill and yellow eyes and legs.

You are not likely to go to a wetland or open grassland and not find a lapwing. On this particular trip to Marievale we saw an plethora of blacksmith lapwings. Not just the old pair but hundreds. Lapwings play an important role as alarm systems for other birds and animals. Adult blacksmith lapwings have unmistakable black grey and white markings. You can hear them from afar.

The one thing you can be sure of at Marievale is that you will see a base of familiar wetland birds but there will always be a few interesting characters which pop out of the reeds. One such surprise was this lone juvenile common moorhen.

One of the aspects about bird photography I have found is that you can spend hours trying to get a image of a species of bird that is skittish and always moving around. Then all of a sudden one specimen just stops and provides the perfect photographic opportunity. This juvenile common moorhen knew we there, it could see us, but was not phased by our presence at all. these birds are normally very skittish.

This was a juvenile blacksmith lapwing, one of the hundreds we saw that day. This youngster was resting. Lapwings like storks and herons sit with their legs bent forward from the knee.

I have been to Marievale many times over the past ten years and this was the first time I had seen a South African Shelduck. It looks like a small goose and sounds like a goose. They have very distinctive markings with ruddy colored body feathers and wings strikingly marked with black, white and green. The male has a grey head, and the female has a white face and black crown, nape and neck sides. The only other times I have seen this shelduck has been in the Kalagadigadi and Etosha.

There are numerous black headed herons at Marievale. They occupy the grasslands adjacent to the open water in the marshy areas. These birds are supreme predators capable of eating anything from a frog to a fish, rat, rabbit or terrapin. This black-headed heron had its neck retracted during flight for longitudinal stability.

In March it is still summer in Marievale and this was a red-shouldered or fan-tailed widowbird. It looks like a long tailed widowbird without the long tail. The red-shouldered widowbird does not grow a long tail and it has a pure orange-red shoulder with no white border to its red shoulder. This widowbird prefers swampy areas so Marievale was ideal.

One of the most common plovers in Marievale is the three-ringed plover. This is a very small bird with the characteristics three rings on its collar. It also has distinctive red eye ring.

All plovers and lapwings are in the same family and are all considered wading birds. There are eight South African ‘lapwings’ which are easily identified by their larger size, bold colouring, active habits, and very loud calls. They are often found in grasslands away from water. There are ten Plovers in southern Africa and all are small waders which are found along the edge of water.

The southern red bishop looks like a jewel in the golden grass waving in the breeze. The southern red bishop has a red crown, neck, back, rump and a black belly, chest and face. The southern red bishop is not to be mistaken for a fire-crowned bishop which also has both a red crown but it has a red breast band. The male of this species is hyperactive during breeding season trying to solicit females. As one passes by or comes close he puffs his chest out and fluffs up his back feathers

Marievale is a wetland in amongst disused mine dumps from the surrounding gold mines.

This Levaillant’s Cisticola posed beautifully for a few seconds on the end of a dead reed stem. This little cisticola has a ruddy coloured cap and buff coloured breast and heavily streaked back feathers.

This is one of my favourites, a golden crowned bishop. This male is, like the red bishop, hyperactive when females are anywhere near in breeding season. It flies around like a little golden bumble bee.

Don’t confuse a golden-crowned bishop with a yellow bishop. The latter has an all black head.

“I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

A red-billed teal flying over some open water with reeds in the background.

A male golden crowned bishop in full breeding plumage. He was perched at the top of a dead reed, looking out for passing females.

A yellow billed duck. They are usually seen in pairs. These are also dabbling ducks. It is much bigger than a teal and more the size of a mallard duck.

It has taken me ages to get some decent images of a long-tailed widowbird displaying in flight. On this particular occasion the light was behind me and the widowbird must have been about 30 metres away and its was around 8h00 in the morning

The long-tailed widowbird puts on a spectacular plumage display in flight. The display consists of a slow emphasised wing flaps with its tail between its legs. Its tail comprises around eight or nine long luxuriant black feathers which it fans out. This widowbird has broad black wings with red shoulders underlined by a white stripe.

“This world is but a canvas to our imagination.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

Widowbirds are so called because they are all dressed in black.

These widowbirds are often found communally with bishops and weavers. They are all seedeaters.

The breeding male regularly performs slow display flights low over his territory. The flight displays are aimed at attracting females. Each display comprises slow and erratic wing flapping, while extending and pushing down its long tail feathers between its legs.

The luxurious black tail feathers of a male long-tailed widowbird in breeding plumage must be three times longer than the body of the bird.

“At the heart of art is learning to see.”~ Seth Godin

A long tailed widow bird with a degree of backlighting to illuminate its wing and tail feathers.

A reed cormorant drying itself on a dead reed. Once you look closely they have very attractive colouring on their faces and backs.

A southern red bishop in breeding plumage perched near the top of a dead reed stem on the look out for female and ready to chase away other males in an instant.

We always see a black headed heron on the narrow track from the Duiker hide down to the old Marsh owl hide. I am always impressed by these voracious predators. Herons are carnivorous and the black headed heron seems to be capable of devouring the most surprising mammals, birds and reptiles. It clearly had swallowed something large. Herons just swallow their catch down their flexible esophagus’s and into their loose and stretchable stomachs. They do not have a crop like most birds.

An adult African Purple Swamphen. This bird is part of the rail family. It is a skulker. It is found in swamps and reedbeds. This swamphen has especially large feet which helps it to spread its weight across the reeds making its movement easier. It is also very dexterous with those feet holding stems of water-based plants while stripping the outer layers to feed on the soft inner pith.

The African Purple Gallinule has a new name the African Purple Swamphen. It is a beautifully coloured bird with blue and purple feathers on this head, neck and body. Its back and the top of its wing feathers are an olive green. It has distinctive red bill and frontal shield and pink legs with exceptionally large feet with long toes.

This is a skittish waterfowl and not often seen clearly but for some unknown reason this adult wandered around in the open in front of us for about half an hour. The African Purple Swamphen has white feathers under its tail which it flashes regularly by flicking its tail up.

Wetlands play a vital role in our hydrological systems. It was only in Dr Steve Boyes video “Into the Okavango” that I begun to realise how important these wetlands are in controlling the flow, for storing water like a sponge and clean up the water flowing through them. These wetland areas also provide a vital sanctuary and food for a diverse range of waterfowl, seed-eating birds and numerous insects, reptiles and small mammals.

“For many of us, water simply flows from a faucet, and we think little about it beyond this point of contact. We have lost a sense of respect for the wild river, for the complex workings of a wetland, for the intricate web of life that water supports.” ~ Sandra Postel

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

Have fun, Mike

Odzala’s Mboko- all good things come to an end

Our last day in Odzala-Kokoua National Park. At a civilised time we walked down to breakfast in the main dining/entertaining area of the Mboko camp. It was warm and the morning was lighting up giving us a great view across a section of savanna down towards the Lekoli river. Breakfast was a sumptuous affair and once sated we drove down to the boats to cruise down the river and walk in a few areas of the forest we had not yet seen.

“The purpose of life, after all, is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.”~Eleanor Roosevelt

The light was low down among the trees where the boats were moored. About fifty metres upstream of the boats, were heard an elephant breaking branches.

“The biggest adventure you can take is to live the life of your dreams.”~ Oprah Winfrey

We quietly made our way up the river on foot to get a decent view of this forest elephant bull without disturbing him. After seven days in Odzala you do not get precious about getting wet.

We watched this one tusk forest elephant bull happily feeding undisturbed at the edge of the river. This must have been paradise for him with abundant food, water and protection of the reserve.

After watching the bull elephant for about half an a hour we left him in peace and wandered back down the river to the boats. From there our Odzala guides, Daniella and Adi, took us by boat down the Lekoli river to explore further. The forest was alive with wildlife. This male Forest buffalo heard our boat and looked up to ensure we were just passing.

“One way to get the most out of life is to look upon it as an adventure.”~William Feather

We stopped at one of the small inlets along the river to go walking in some of the drier parts of the forest. There were forest openings, not quite the size of a bai, but do not be fooled, these marshy areas can be problematic if you do not know what you are doing. This next image shows Adi wading through the marshy area which got deep and difficult to get through in places .

Further on in a drier section, the walking was easier and the area opened up into beautiful glades.

It was clear to see that Wild Eye’s Andrew Beck was in his element.

We carried on walking through the open sections along the side of the forest finding these stunning areas with grey parrots calling all around us.

Around lunchtime, much to our surprise, Daniella and Adi produced a picnic lunch on some rocks by the edge of a beautiful open area next to the forest. We spent a happy hour or so relaxing and chatting over lunch. The bird life all around was spectacular with many Grey parrots and different species of hornbills continuously flying past.

After lunch we walked back towards the boat but this time through the long savanna grasses. I am no entomologist but even I was intrigued by the variety of insect life we found on the way. One species of insect that caught my imagination was a stunning rainbow shield bug on some yellow berries on a shrub along side the path.

Along the animal paths there were sprinklings of shrubs with beautiful wild flowers such as this Melastromastrum segregatum.

Verdant vegetation overhanging the river. This looked to be a species of wisteria fighting for light with another tree with beautiful white flowers. There is so much food for the monkeys, parrots and nectar feeders. The forest also provides abundant fruit resources for frugivores such as parrots, hornbills, turacos and barbets.

“People don’t take trips, trips take people.” ~John Steinbeck

Once back in the boat we travelled back upstream towards the Mboko camp. When we drew level with the Lango bai entrance, Adi got a fleeting glimpse of a Forest elephant. He reckoned that we may be able to get into a position where we could see the Forest elephant in the open and get some good images. We went up the Lango tributary as far as we could and it soon got too shallow for the boat so we hopped out and proceeded on foot through water. Adi was 100% right we got to see this bull Forest elephant come into the open.

This bull immediately saw us and was not happy. After walking a few paces he stopped and accessed what we were doing and decided to give us a mock charge. It was just for show as we were not close to him and there was plenty of thick mud between us.

After telling us that he did not want us any closer he backed away and walked through the bush and made his way down river. We walked back to our boat and managed to get some decent images of the bull crossing the Lango tributary.

“There is a language going on out there – the language of the wild. Roars, snorts, trumpets, squeals, whoops and chirps have meaning derived over eons of expression…we have yet to become fluent in the language – and music – of the wild.”~Boyd Norton

Not far from where the bull crossed the Lango tributary there was a feeding frenzy in an adjacent small section of the swamp which attracted Little egrets, Yellow-billed egrets, and a Palm-nut vulture.

“Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them.”~ Aldo Leopold

After the the sighting of the elephant bull, the light was starting to fade as the evening quietly crept in. We celebrated the end of what was a fascinating day sitting in the boat with a sundowner and watched mother nature’s spectacular light show at sunset.

“Man is but part of the community of nature on our blue planet. Our arrogance and ignorance blinds us into thinking we are superior. Humility and inquisitiveness reveals that we have much still to learn about the natural intelligence in our wild community and how to live in harmony with it.”~ Mike Haworth

A special thank you to the team at Odzala for your hospitality and showing us your incredible wild place. To our guide in Odzala, Daniella Kueck thank you for showing us around your vast piece of tropical heaven. Your knowledge and enthusiasm were inspiring. To Andrew Beck from Wild Eye, thank you for putting together an absolutely fascinating trip which turned into an adventure with cameras. Many more to come.

“If you are always trying to be normal you will never know how amazing you can be.”~ Maya Angelou

I am always so impressed by the quality of people, their dedication and clear conceptual approach to building a tourist destination without compromising the wildness and balance of the area. To the Congo Conservation Company and African Parks you are doing wonderful pioneering work in combining conservation, tourism, wildlife research and community integration into what looks to be an effective sustainable model and blueprint for recovering many of our decimated wild areas in Africa. Hats off to you for your great work!!!

https://www.africanparks.org/about-us/our-story

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

Have fun, Mike