Amboseli – a birding paradise-part1

One of the least talked about beauties of Amboseli is its birdlife. This park has swamps, vast wetlands, open grasslands, and tortilla acacia forests. Out of the total land area of the park, 30% is covered by the dominant woodlands. The swamps cover around 10% of the park. The ecosystem spreads across the Kenya-Tanzania border in the wesetern part. It is crowned by the majestic Mount Kilimanjaro which is the world’s highest free standing mountain on its south west side.

“In today’s world, we consume resources at a pace beyond their making which is out of balance with the natural rhythms of the earth. We use resources wantonly beyond our need for our greed. We do not respect all life and seem to believe that our consciousness is the superior form of intelligence. Climate change is teaching humanity humility. We will have to work consciously for generations to right the balance. It will only come through the active understanding of the natural balance” ~ Mike Haworth

White-bellied bustards are often heard before they are seen. This bustard has a characteristic tawny back and white belly. The male has a blue-grey neck, dark facial markings and a pinkish beak. Most of the African bustards have cryptic colouring on their back for camouflage purposes. A pair of these bustards make a far-carrying, goose-like nasal croaking duet with the male calling “ahnghaa-nghaa” and the female replying “eh-e-e-er”, according to Bird of East Africa by Gale and Arlott. Bustards are classified in the same order as cranes. While they are much smaller than cranes they also have long legs and long necks are mainly terrestrial and never perch in trees. They are good fliers when their need arises.

Amboseli has several habitants. The open plain flora, the Acacia woodlands, the rocky thorn bush, the swamps that are dominated by the papyrus and Cyperus. The semi and permanent water catchment areas like swamps have their own distinctive plant species. 

“It is the diversity of life in front of us which makes our eyes dance, our minds race, and our heart sing.” ~ Mike Haworth

Sometimes it is worth slowing down and taking a closer look. Do your self a favour and just watch a cattle egret operating for a while. They are characters and opportunists. Some of them are happy to perch on an elephant’s back and go along for the ride, offering the rider a great perspective and view of the insect life the elephant disturbs as it is feeding.

The late afternoon is warm, still and the grasslands and swamps are bathed in colour. The sky is busy. It is deep blue, with its activity punctuated by lightning bolts and distant downpours. There is a deep sense of order and peace. The greater flamingoes are head down filter feeding. The filter of the Greater Flamingo traps crustaceans, mollusks, and insects an inch or so long. By contrast, the Lesser Flamingo’s dense filter is finer sifting out single-celled plants less than two hundredths of an inch in diameter. 

We come to Amboseli to see Mount Kilimanjaro, to see great tuskers and vast green spaces with big skies. Less appreciated but just as marvelous is the incredible birdlife in Amboseli. The colour and variety of birdlife in this park is is spellbinding.

Most lakes in Amboseli located on the western part of the park are seasonal and fill up during the rainy seasons from March to May and October to December. Large numbers of Flamingos are seen during these wet periods.

Mother and daughter – pink, tall, slender, and excellent flyers. An adult Greater Flamingo has soft pink to whitish-pink plumage in general, though there are moments when it becomes very white in color. Its underwings are coral red, while its flight feathers are coloured black. All flamingoes have the same shaped head but the greater flamingo has a light pink down-curved beak with a black tip. The juvenile Greater Flamingo appears grayish to white when it is born and does not develop its true pink colour until it is several years of age. Its bill also takes a while to develop its full color – it is yellow when the chick is first born.

This bird feeds on mud and will filter out any edible organisms in it. The bill is equipped with a filter system with hair-like structures that allows them to filter food from the water and mud they pick up. Various animals and organisms include shrimps, small fish, crabs, blue-green algae, mollusks, plankton, seeds, and insects. Sometimes, it consumes marsh grasses and decaying leaves. When forging in the algae laden shallow waters these pristine looking filter feeders can look decidedly dirty. They must rinse their heads and necks in clear water because you seldom see really dirty flamingoes.

Yellow-throated spurfowl. One of the things that has intrigued me about birding in Kenya is the variety of birds like spurfowl, barbets, starlings to name just a few. Like all spurfowls the male Yellow-necked spurfowl has large spurs on the back of its legs which it uses for fighting. The degree to which the spur has been worn down is an indicator of age. The next image shows a female Yellow-necked spurfowl because she has no spurs.

A female Ruff. This wader migrates annually from Russia to summer in Africa. The wetlands around the swamps in Amboseli are ideal foraging grounds for these birds. These waders feed on insects on the water surface and their beak is built for probing the mud for invertebrates. The female and the non-breeding male have grey-brown upperparts and mainly white underparts. Thankfully, the Ruff is classified as “least concern” on the IUCN Red List because of the large numbers that breed in Scandinavia and the Arctic.

“If you truly love nature, you will find beauty everywhere.”~ Vincent van Gogh

A secretive African Snipe is not well researched because of its habitat, it prefers wetlands and swamps which are relatively inaccessible and it is crepuscular meaning it is mainly active in the twilight times of the day. It was a lucky sighting to see this individual hiding in the reeds next to the open water of a swamp. These snipe are cryptically coloured which makes them difficult to see in the reeds. During the breeding season male snipes perform dramatic flight displays which consist of steep dives that create an eerie, winnowing sound, which can last as long as 10 seconds. As the display proceeds, the volume of the sound increases steadily. Drumming displays are best seen and heard early in the morning or in the hour before sunset.

A breeding pair of Grey crowned cranes with two chicks. Generally, this crane breeds in the summer season when rain is plentiful to ensure an abundance of food. Like all cranes, the Grey crowned crane is an omnivore eating grass seeds, small seed bearing plants and insects. Grey crowned cranes are plentiful in Amboseli and their familiar “ooh up” can be heard all over the park. I love their spectacular mating displays which involve dancing and jumping with open wings, and the dancing is punctuated with respectful bowing to each other between the dance sequences.

We saw generous numbers of Pied avocets in the open water sections of the several swamps. The next pair of avocet were in a courting display where the female looked to be trying, unsuccessfully to get away from the male. This species of avocet is known to have impressive nuptial displays involving acts of dance, flight and song, If the male is successful, the egg incubation period would be around 22 to 24 days and the eggs would be laid in a nest built of grass and reeds on the ground. The nest is built cooperatively by both male and female.

“Ride the energy of your own spirit.” ~ Gabriella Bach

It was a bright overcast day and we were shooting into the brightness so I converted the images into black and white to suit the colouration of the avocets, though they do have light bluish legs. Surprisingly, these birds are known to live for over 20 years.

I am always intrigued by the shape of their beak. At first glance it does not look effective. Yet they successfully feed mainly on small crustaceans, insect larvae and small fish which they find visually and by by touch. This wader uses its beak like a scythe to forage for food as it wades through shallow water it sweeps its head from side to side much like a spoonbill in search for food in shallow water.

This post is the first of three showing a selection of the birds you are likely to see in Amboseli and we were not especially trying to photograph birds so a dedicated trip to photograph mainly birds in Amboseli would be highly productive.

“Photography is a love affair with life” ~ unknown

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.

Have fun,

Mike

Amboseli elephants

Amboseli National Park is positioned against the backdrop of ice-capped Mount Kilimanjaro offering one of the most iconic images of Africa. This park is just 392 square km located in Kajiado County, in south east Kenya. The park is part of the greater Greater Amboseli ecosystem which includes the Amboseli, Tsavo and Kilimanjaro ecosystems stretching from Mount Kilimanjaro down to the Chyulu Hills in Tsavo.

“To wander over the wildness of Africa is a privilege sought. To sense its spirit is inspirational. To watch its ways brings insight, understanding and acceptance.” – Mike Haworth

Mount Kilimanjaro towers over the park and has a direct influence on its weather and water resources. For photographers the majestic blue mountain back drop with a white snow cap is iconic. The eastern section of the park encompasses part of a large dry lake basin which is usually dry except during the long rains, when in some years it fills with shallow, alkaline water attracting a pink flush of flamingoes. 

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Amboseli has an ample supply of underground water which is filtered through thousands of metres of volcanic rock from Kilimanjaro’s ice cap into two clear water springs in the heart of the park.

The salt marshes in the eastern section of the park, with their intense verdant green, stand out in contrast in the arid and dusty plain of the eastern part of the Park. The Enkongo Narok, Ol Tukai, and Olokeya marshes are the three largest.

The beauty of Amboseli lies in the these iconic scenes of elephants in the foreground and Kili in the background. Scenes that can be viewed from many locations because of the size of Kili and the size of Amboseli.

The elephant population in Amboseli National Park is estimated at around 1600 and this population is one of the few that has been able to live a relatively undisturbed existence in natural conditions. This rare situation is considered to be primarily due to two factors – the presence of researchers and tourists in the park, and the support of the local Maasai people.

The Amboseli Elephant Research Project is the longest-running study of wild elephants ever undertaken (five decades), and is led by Dr Cynthia Moss and her team. While large scale poaching of the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s reduced elephant numbers by a third across the continent, Amboseli mostly escaped the devastation thanks to the dedicated work of research and anti-poaching teams and support from the local Maasai communities.

“Elephants form deep bonds with each other, which last for decades. Elephant survival is strongly affected by access to the social and ecological knowledge which older elephants hold; where to go, what to eat, how to avoid danger.” according to Dr. Cynthia Moss.

We saw many family herds of elephants most of which had youngsters. A sign of a healthy elephant ecology, and the youngster looked carefree which was a good sign.

“We live in an astounding world full of life, movement, patterns and colour. You have a choice embrace it or ignore it!” ~ Mike Haworth

Amboseli and Tsavo’s elephant populations are some of the last genetic repositories of Africa’s great tuskers. The likelihood of seeing some of these great tuskers is good. The tourist guides recommend that from April to June, during the long rains, is not the best time to visit the park. That was not my experience in April 2021. The rains are carried by thunderstorms. The rains can be torrential but are usually over reasonably quickly – the African way!! As the thunderstorms are building, photographers are treated to some of the most wonderfully dramatic deep blue, water laden, cumulonimbus cloud formations which provide a perfect backdrop to the shafts of light and rainbows over the swamps where the elephants are feeding and wallowing.

To see a great tusker is an indescribable experience. Firstly, there are estimated to be only 20 left (thanks mostly to poaching for Asian demand) and secondly they are huge. A “great tusker” is a massive bull elephant with tusks that reach close to the ground. Up until around the age of 20, both male and female African elephants grow at a similar pace. At around 20 the females stop growing, while males continue to grow until around the age of 40, which explains why male great tuskers can be about 80cm taller and two times heavier than fully grown females. An average East African big tusker bull stands at about 3.2m in height at the shoulder and weighs around 6 tonnes. Their tusks can weigh over 50 kg each. The biggest elephant bull ever shot in Africa, which happened in Angola, was around 4 metres tall and weighed about 11 tonnes. Elephant tusks are actually enlarged incisor teeth which first appear when elephants are around two years old and they continue growing throughout their lives. The next images show an elephant bull in musth with his temporal gland streaming and his urine streaming which often colours his hind legs.

Not all leaders of herds are males. In an elephant herd the matriarch is leader. She is usually the oldest and largest female elephant in the herd. Adult male elephants are solitary in nature but may associate with other bulls in small, unstable groups. Males will leave the family unit between 12 and 15 years of age. The adult bulls wander from herd to herd looking for receptive females. While they mix up the gene pool in the process they disturb the family herd dynamics. Some the of herd matriarchs are also particularly large and highly protective so it is not a one way exercise for the bull.

Elephants possess huge emotional intelligence and, across Africa, there are examples of communities and elephant populations living side by side in relationships based on mutual respect. Elephant conservation isn’t purely about monitoring and protecting elephants from poachers, it is about developing new and respectful relationships between humans and elephants.

“Memories and intelligence are portable, something elephants seem to understand very well. Family members are remembered with reverence and gentleness. Survival knowledge is passed on from one generation to the next with generosity of spirit. The oldest are often the wisest and most knowledgeable because they have the greatest sense of context.” ~ Mike Haworth

Elephants are among the most intelligent, socially intricate and emotionally complex non-human species according to legend and research. This intelligence is demonstrated in their remarkable memory, empathy and ability to work as a team. They live a long time and accumulate and retain social and ecological knowledge. They remember the scents and voices of other individuals and migratory routes, special places and retain learned skills for decades.

Explore, seek to understand marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.

Have fun,

Mike

Mount Kilimanjaro – the island in the sky -a view from Amboseli

Apart from the vastness and diverse ecosystems in Amboseli this is one aspect that cannot be ignored, the giant looking down from just across the border in Tanzania, the snow capped Mount Kilimanjaro. It is quite incongruent to be sitting in a game vehicle in the warm equatorial sun in the swamps and grasslands of Amboseli National Park in south east Kenya looking up at the snow capped peak of Mount Kilimanjaro – the sight is breath-taking!

“Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting, So… get on your way!” ~Dr. Seuss

No one knows the origin of the name Kilimanjaro. It may mean “mountain of caravans” (kilima – mountain; jaro caravans), a landmark for caravans seen everywhere from afar.

“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

This mountain is massive and is positioned in south east Tanzania about 205 miles from the equator, along the Tanzanian/Kenyan border.

Africa’s eastern side is scarred by the Great Rift, a fracture zone running from north to south. Along the fault lines lie volcanoes of all sizes, but in Tanzania the biggest dwarfs them all – Mount Kilimanjaro (Kili). It is one of the ‘Seven Summits‘ which comprise the highest mountains on each of the seven continents of the Earth: Everest, Aconcagua, Denali, Kilimanjaro, Elbrus, Mount Vinson and Carstensz Pyramid. Kilimanjaro is not only Africa’s tallest peak, but also the world’s tallest free standing mountain. The summit, named Uhuru Point, is 5,895 meters (19,341 feet) above sea level.

Kili is a dormant volanco, in fact one of three volancoes. Kili is classified as a dormant stratovolcano which is composed of three distinct volcanic cones: Kibo, the highest at 5895metres (19 340 ft), Mawenzi at 5,149 metres (16,893 ft); and Shira, the lowest at 4,005 metres (13,140 ft). Mawenzi and Shira are extinct, while Kibo is considered to be dormant and could erupt again. Uhuru Peak is the highest summit on Kibo’s crater rim and the word Uhuru is Swahili for “Freedom”. This mountain was so named in 1961 when Tanganyika gained its independence from Britain. Tanganyika later joined with the islands of Zanzibar to form Tanzania.

Seeing “Kili” clearly at any time of the day from Amboseli is a chance affair. The weather around Kilimanjaro is influenced by the height of the mountain, which allows the concentrates to influence the equatorial trade winds and the high altitude. Kilimanjaro has daily upslope and nightly downslope winds, a regimen stronger on the southern than the northern side of the mountain. The flatter southern flanks are more extended and affect the atmosphere more strongly. The northern slopes receive much less rainfall than the southern ones.

Kilimanjaro is 40 miles wide, covering an area 50 times the size of Manhattan. Being so big, Kilimanjaro creates its own weather system. The south-east trade winds carry moisture from the Indian ocean and eventually hit “Kili” forcing them upwards. As the air rises it cools and condenses, forming clouds and precipitation. So mid-March through to the end of May is the wet season on Mount Kilimanjaro and its surrounds. 

The rain from Kilimanjaro together with the melting snow waters are vital to the mountain’s varied plant life and the mountain’s immediate surrounds.

“How glorious a greeting the sun gives the mountains!” ~John Muir

There are two dominant influences on the climate in Kenya: the onshore monsoon winds from the Indian Ocean, and its altitude. The winds determine the onset of Kenya’s two rainy seasons, with the hot anti-trade winds or northeast monsoon or kaskazi blowing dry air in from the Persian Gulf from November to March/April and the warm, moist kusi monsoon blowing in from the southeast from April/May to October.

Mount Kilimanjaro was estimated to have developed about 3 million years ago during the formation of the Great Rift Valley. During that period many volcanoes erupted in the Kilimanjaro region. Three distinct volcanoes formed Shira, Mwanzi and Kibo. Shira was the first to become extinct, eventually collapsing and was later covered by debris from the other two volcanoes. Shira was thought to have been 16 000 ft high before its collapsed. Mawenzi followed and a massive explosion broke its eastern rim creating a spectacular gorge. Kibo continued to grow after Mawenzi’s collapse and later the magma pulled back from the central vent and was covered by a cone of ash around the rim. Today, Kibo is considered dormant but not extinct like the other two. “Kili’s” last major eruption was dated at 360 000 years ago with the most recent activity around 200 000 years ago.

The changing size of Kili’s snow cap has been the source of much speculation around the effects of climate change. Some call it “the poster child of global climate change”. Kili’s icecap has shrunk 82% since 1912 and some scientists estimate the glaciers may be completely gone in 50 years. There is much debate about the cause of the reduced snowcap but its is thought to be due to deforestation rather than global warming.

At the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro in southern Kenya, the melting snow off the mountain’s permanent snowcap feeds south into a large wetland called Kimana in Amboseli National Park. Kimana wetland area is approximately 10 square kilometres with other small wetlands along the rivers and the whole area acts as a vital water stop for wildlife migrating between Amboseli and Tsavo National Parks.

The landscape of Amboseli is made up of swamps, grasslands and acacia bushveld and even fever tree forests, but the heart of the park is certainly the swamps which draw in herds of elephant and buffalo, giraffe and zebra, to the water and lush grass in the dry season.

The park is dependent on the water fed by Kili and is critical to the high productivity of the swamps sustaining a vast array of wildlife and contributing to the biodiversity of the ecosystem.

Amboseli like the Tsavo West National Park supports large concentrations of wildlife despite the relatively arid terraines thanks to the nearby volcanic structures. Wildlife is sustained throughout prolonged dry seasons by underground water fed through porous rocks of the volcanic uplands. Swamps on the Amboseli Plains rely on groundwater from the Kilimanjaro massif. Tsavo West is fed by the Mzima Springs with water derived from the Chyulu Hills.

Life is abundant in the grasslands and swamps below Mount Kilimanjaro. The view of this “island in the sky” is breath-taking. I had seen it briefly, somewhat shrouded in clouds, the last time I was in Amboseli in 2018, but this trip we were fortunate to get several opportunities to see this mountain in all its majesty in bright sunshine. Once you wander around the Amboseli National Park you realise how important the melt waters from “Kili’s” snow cap and its weather influences are to the abundance and diversity of wildlife in this wonderful park.

“Dark clouds become heaven’s flowers when kissed by light.” ~ Rabindranath Tagore

There are many wonderful game parks with a range of hills in the background, Mana Pools in Zimbabwe with its high escarpment in the background springs to mind but nothing on the scale of “Kili”.

“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

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.

Have fun,

Mike

Amboseli – the long rains

I had the privilege of visiting Amboseli National Park in south-east Kenya in mid-April this year. This trip was postponed by a year due to the pandemic travel restrictions. Thankfully with the requisite tests and paperwork and guidance from photographic safari operator, Wild Eye, I was able to return to this amazing national park. I first travelled to Amboseli with Wild Eye in 2018 with Andrew Beck and was so impressed, that I wanted to return. The team at Wild Eye were amazing to get all the paperwork sorted out and made the trip as stress free as possible – and a big thank you to Judy van Zyl for that. Our guide was Mike Laubscher who was knowledgeable and fun and a big thank you to him for looking after us and pushing us to try new things photographically.

“Wildness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit.” ~ Edward Abbey

There are two dominant influences on the climate in Kenya: the onshore monsoon winds from the Indian Ocean, and the altitude. The winds determine the onset of Kenya’s two rainy seasons, with the hot northeast monsoon or kaskazi blowing dry air in from the Persian Gulf from November to March/April and the warm, moist kusi monsoon blowing in from the southeast from April/May to October. Despite Covid, April is not considered the high season because of the long rains. Well that might be so for general tourists but not for wildlife photographers. The heavy skies associated with the long rains bring vernal green grasslands and deep dark blue skies as dramatic backgrounds – perfect!!

“Not all who wander are lost.” – JRR Tolkien

Amboseli National Park, was formerly known as the Maasai Amboseli Game Reserve. It is a national park in Kajiado South Constituency in Kajiado County, in south east Kenya. The park is 39,206 hectares (392 km2) in size at the core of an ecosystem that spreads across the Kenya-Tanzania border. It is located just inside the Kenyan side of the Kenya/Tanzania border at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro. The park protects two of the five main swamps in what is a flat open area with several distinct ecosystems. The National Park embodies five main wildlife habitats (open plains, acacia woodland, rocky thorn bush country, swamps and marshland) and covers part of an ancient lake basin, which is dry for most of the year.

There had been a lot of rain before we arrived. The swamps had filled and there were large pans of shallow water which attracted Greater and Lesser Flamingoes by the thousands. With so much water around the flamingoes were spread out and not confined to a few large pans. In the mornings the surface of the pans were dead still reflecting the cloud laden skies.

Adjacent to the swamps were huge tracts of open grasslands which attracted the elephants. Where there were elephants, the Cattle egrets followed. Invariably there were family groups with a few females and several calves foraging on the low bush and grasses. The skies at this time of the year are filled with cumulus clouds providing a dramatic background especially in the afternoons when the cumulonimbus clouds formed creating deep dark blue backgrounds with towers of heavy rain clouds.

With so many elephants on the open grasslands so too were there many Cattle egrets. The elephants disturb the insects in the grass as they are foraging, and the egrets stay close by to take advantage of the insects which have been disturbed.

The grey of the elephants in the verdant green grasslands with deep dark blue skies were beautifully punctuated with splashes of white.

Where there are rain clouds so too were rainbows which added the extra colour and spectacle to a wonderfully peaceful scene.

Mount Kilimanjaro in the background just peeking through the clouds. It is the highest mountain in Africa standing at 5,895 metres above sea level and is snow capped all year round. It is quite incongruent to be sitting sweltering in a game vehicle while looking up to “Kili’s” snow capped peak.

The cloud formations in the “long rains” made a dramatic and colourful background for our wildlife landscapes in Amboseli. This is a place of big open spaces and even bigger dramatic skies which makes the pachyderms look minute in the context.

With all the drama in the skies, the scene in the foreground was tranquil with Greater flamingoes filter feeding before sunset.

I have been wanting to go back to Amboseli since my first trip with Andrew Beck of Wild Eye in 2017. The last trip was in June when it was dry. This trip cast an entirely different complexion on the park.

There is an openness in the park which is to be found in the Kenyan game parks. The long rains created a verdant landscape with dramatic cloud filled skies. There is an abundance of wildlife in Amboseli which of course is more dispersed in the rains because of the abundance of water, but it is full of life.

“The sky above me the earth beneath me and the fire within me.” – Unknown

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.

Have fun,

Mike

Pugmarks, rosettes and stealth

Our trip with WildEye to Sabi Sabi provided ample opportunity to photograph predators. Sabi Sands is known for its density of predators. That said lions are usually flat cats, hyaena are scattered waiting for the call to arms and leopards do not want to be seen.

“The beauty of Africa is not man made, it is nature’s gift to humanity.”
~ Paul Oxton

A few of my own perceptions about leopards were dispelled on our trip. The first was that leopards spend most of their time in trees. They don’t! They spend a lot more time on terra firma than I imagined. Obviously they hunt mostly on the ground and there are the iconic images of them using their powerful forelegs to haul an impala, steenbok, duiker or warthog up into the fork of a tree to be able to feed away from the stealing intentions of hyaenas or lions.

“In art and dream may you proceed with abandon. In life may you proceed with balance and stealth.”~Patti Smith

Leopards walk great distances maintaining their territories. They are either marking the boundaries after a major rain storm or they are hunting or following a potential mate.

Leopards are perfectly camouflaged for their independent, stealthy way of life. When they are walking through the bush they stop often to either smell or listen. There are many giveaway signs in the bush.

One of the aspects of the trip I really enjoyed was the way the guide managed to regularly find leopards by a process of deduction, piecing all the signs in the bush together. Leopards are difficult to see. Without intelligent tracking if you see a leopard it is just happenchance. Often our guide would stop the vehicle and turn the engine off and just listen. Impala have an alarm snort, and many birds have alarm calls. The Crested francolin has a distinctive alarm call so too do starlings. Vervet monkeys, baboons and squirrels all have alarm calls. By listening to the calls in the bush you can piece together what the nature’s media is telling you. On several occasions our guide picked up where a predator was walking by listening to the bird and animal calls. It is an integral part of tracking.

Our guides also knew the territories of the various male and female leopards. In addition they could see in the sand road whether the leopard was male or female and which way it was moving and how old the track was. The reserve is demarcated into blocks by virtue of its sand road network. If the tracks entered a block and exited the block then direction of the leopard’s movement was clear. It the tracks did not exit the block then the conclusion was that the leopard was in the block. Then it became a process of deduction.

The intriguing aspect of this huge male leopard, called “white dam” after the place he was first seen as a cub, is that he was well aware of us and at times would try to hide and blend into the grass and other times just ignored us. He exuded confidence.

“ Mystery creates wonder and wonder is the basis of man’s desire to understand.” ~ Neil Armstrong.

On our third afternoon, the weather was overcast and cold. Our tracker and guide managed to pickup on the tracks of a female leopard they called “Nstumi” which is tsonga word for angel. She was a beautiful female leopard.

“Look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see, and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious.” ~Stephen Hawking

We followed her that afternoon for about two hours. It is only when you spend some time watching these incredible predators walking through the bush do you realise how alert and alive they are to every sight, sound and smell around them. Some signs were intriguing and others a warning.

Ntsumi walked for extended periods through the bush then would find an elevated rocky area or anthill and stop and survey all around her. She stopped to listen and sense what was around her. We humans could learn a thing or too from this angel.

Ntsumi was inquisitive. Exploring everything in her path. It is seldom that animals walk in a straight line, it does not seem to be the way of nature.

Ntsumi could see us on the vehicle. The large 600mm lenses intrigued her. Perhaps it looked like a very large eye.

It was overcast so no sunset and was getting dark while we were watching her lounging on top of the anthill. All of a sudden she got up and walked down off the anthill. At the time it was not apparent why the sudden change. It was only about fifteen minutes later we realised a group of four lions, two males and two females had moved into the area. I don’t know whether she has seen them, heard them or smelt them but we were oblivious until we saw them. The lions could clearly smell her and investigated the anthill she had been lying on and where she had walked. We never saw Ntsumi again that evening.

One of the astounding aspects about “white dam” was the size of his territory and how he moved around it. We found him on our last game drive down in the southern most part of his territory. We found this huge male leopard lying on top of a large anthill in the early morning sun. He lay on top of the anthill for about half an hour just taking in all the sights and sounds and the sun for the first time in five days. He exuded confidence.

After a while he was on the move again. This leopard walked in gullies and in riverbeds. He was out of sight for all but those who were looking for and following him.

It was clear he knew his territory intimately.

One of the things photography is teaching me is to go beyond looking. I am learning there are many deeper levels beyond looking. The first is learning to see. Seeing is a much more intellectual process which requires looking beyond the immediacy of the subject and watching to see patterns which give insight into understanding its behaviour. Seeing is also about context and it often gives clue about upcoming behaviour. This is about understanding what you are looking at and how to anticipate. Then comes the wonder when you realise the incredible innate intelligence these animals have and their awareness and understanding about their environment. Beyond wonder comes gratitude. You realise what a privilege it is to be able to spend time to get a partial insight into the incredible lives of these animals and marvel at their intelligence and adaptation.

“We carry within us, the wonders we seek around us.” ~ Sir Thomas Browne

Photograph is teaching me to see and in so doing opening up a world of wonder which in a time of contemplation creates huge waves of gratitude.

“I believe that curiosity, wonder, and passion are defining qualities of imaginative minds and great teachers; that restlessness and discontent are vital things; that intense experience and suffering instruct us in ways that less intense emotions can never do.” ~ Kay Redfield Jamison

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.

Have fun,

Mike

Dogs in the midst of the cats

We were in Sabi Sands reserve in South Africa in late August 2020, let out of lockdown. It felt just like the end of a long term at boarding school. At last we were again able to travel to our beloved bush places. The bush experience washes away all those urban tensions and allows you to be present in the moment. It is a place where all your senses feel alive.

I was part of a group of avid photographers who spent five days in Sabi Sands hosted by Wild Eye. The weather was heavily overcast and drizzling. for most of the time. It was cold, and once on the game vehicle and moving we got properly wet and the cold turned to freezing. The weather did not matter, we were in the African bush with our cameras to photograph the scenes and the wildlife, and we were determined to work with the light we had.

“Africa is known for her heat, dust and wild things, and she is unpredictable. This journey was damp and cold but speckled with many wild things. The rain brings life to a winter-dried bushveld but territorial boundaries are washed away and new imperatives must be asserted.” ~ Mike Haworth

Sabi Sands has a high density of predators. There are daytime predators like cheetahs and wild dog, and nocturnal predators like lions, hyaenas and leopards. We did not get to see civets and genets at night mainly because the weather was challenging for much of the time. We did get a glimpse of a white-tailed mongoose but it was too far to photograph at night.

The guides on the vehicles were in radio contact with each other communicating the locations of sightings and fresh tracks to each other. The combination of radio contact and tracks meant that we had a high chance of finding those elusive cats.

“The voice of beauty speaks softly; it creeps only into the most fully awakened souls” ~ Nietzsche

On our third day our guide, Greg, got a radio call that a cheetah had been seen next to the Sabi Sabi airfield. In the cold and drizzle, we drove to the airfield to see what we could find. We found a lone sub-adult male cheetah. A family of cheetahs had been seen in this part of the reserve for the previous few days. The family comprised four sub-adult males and their mother.

While we were parked next to the airfield watching this lone male cheetah, a little spell of serendipity presented itself out of the cold overcast early morning. Out of the bush behind us came a pack of wild dogs. They wandered along the edge of the runway for a short while and eventually got sight of the young male cheetah. Numbers count in the bush and so does size. The dogs started trotting toward the cat. This looked like it would turn into an interesting test of speed versus numbers.

All of a sudden, behind the cheetah we were watching, another cheetah dashed off to the left. In an instant, the cheetah we were focused on followed. Within seconds we heard the cry of a duiker as one of the cheetahs caught it. I am not sure how the duiker gave itself away because they are usually nocturnal and it was caught around 8h00 in the morning.

As soon as cry of the duiker was heard, the pack of wild dogs gave chase. Within seconds we were after the dogs and the cats through the bush in the game vehicle. If you need a little loosening up after being in an urban environment for too long, try being shaken up on a game vehicle driving off-road through the bush after wild dogs and cheetahs.

After following the chase for about five minutes, we caught up with the cheetahs and wild dogs. The cheetahs had killed an adult grey duiker.

“Being out on a game vehicle is bewitching. You are out in the open under big skies, the wind in your face. Your imagination is flooding with expectation. Your senses are overflowing with kaleidoscope of scents, sounds and colours.” – Mike Haworth

The grey duiker prefers woodland with plenty of undergrowth and thickets, preferably near water. This vegetation provides food and shelter. This duiker is solitary, except during the mating season. It likes to forage in early mornings and late afternoons until after dark and may linger longer on cool cloudy days, which is probably why it was still out and about when the cheetahs saw it. Much like a steenbok, this small antelope will wait until the last moment before running away. On its way it puts its head down and uses its characteristic jumping and swerving tactics. When not caught by cheetahs, the grey duiker lies down in dense shelter, underneath shrubs or in tall grass during the hottest part of the day to rest.

When we stopped the vehicle, we found the cheetah family, a adult mother and four sub-adult males around the carcass and the wild dogs surrounding them. I was amazed at how quickly the cheetahs had tucked into their meal. With the chattering wild dogs surrounding them it was easy to see why.

Wild dogs have an irregular, mottled coat, with patches of tan, black, brown, white, and yellow fur. Each animal has its own unique coat pattern, and all have lean physiques and big, rounded ears.

The African wild dog is the most endangered large carnivore species in South Africa and the second most endangered in Africa after the Ethiopian wolf. 

The wild dog is the only local canid to have developed a pack system. The pack is led by a monogamous pair and they are usually the only ones to breed. We did not see any youngsters and the dogs were moving around so much I did not notice the alpha female and whether she was still suckling.

“Nothing but breathing the air of Africa, and actually walking through it, can communicate the indescribable sensations.” ~ William Burchell

When we found the cheetahs the wild dogs were all around them making their excited high pitched chattering sounds. Wild dogs seldom bark like a typical dog but often make an excited twittering or chattering sounds. Wild dogs have more kinds of yelp/squeals, whines, moans, growls, and barks in their repertoire than have been reported for other canids.

The wild dogs had scared one of the sub-adult males up a fallen tree trunk. The rest of his siblings were tucking into their breakfast. It is interesting is see the different characters in the same wildlife family group.

The dogs were patient despite being greater in number. Eight dogs and four cheetahs on the ground (with attitude) and the balance was set.

The sub-adult cheetahs held their ground but were nervy and kept looking up to see where the wild dogs were.

Eventually, one of the cheetahs, after having fed well, went over to his brother to give him support. The dogs were jumping up and down wanting the two to come down onto the ground.

Eventually the “treed” cheetah came down the tree with support from his siblings.

“Why is it you can never hope to describe the emotion Africa creates? You are lifted. Out of whatever pit, unbound from whatever tie, released from whatever fear. You are lifted and you see it all from above.” ~ Francesca Marciano

The fourth sub-adult male cheetah climbed down from his “dog box”, but he never got to feed. Shortly afterwards, the other young male feeding on the remains abandoned the carcass leaving the left overs to the wild dogs. In an instant, like vultures, they were all over the carcass. Within seconds the dogs had ripped apart what was left of the carcass and each member pulled away to munch on its own piece of the remains.

The cheetahs also backed away having fed well. A duiker would not sustain the cheetah family for more than a day, and one son was still hungry. One of the wild dogs ran around the back of the anthill to check that the cheetahs had actually backed away.

The cheetah family regrouped a few hundred metres from the kill site. The family sat together and began to lick the blood off each other’s fur.

It was a peaceful scene with a mother and son cleaning the blood off each other after the kill.

This was another example of how adaptable these predators are in the bush. I would never have thought cheetahs would have hunted in their relatively thick bush but they appeared to be quite adept to their surroundings.

“Forget your voice, sing!
Forget your feet, dance!
Forget your life, live!
Forget yourself and be!” 
Kamand Kojouri

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

Have fun,

Mike

Don’t fight the light!

I have recently returned from an unusual trip into the bush. It was unusual for several reasons:

“When you are on the game vehicle at first light, there is a cool breeze in your face and a sense of freshness in the bush. The latent temperature change releases the fragrances of the bush veld. The last whoops of homebound hyaenas and jackals can be heard and male francolin are urgently reasserting their territory. There is a sense of expectation mixed with a deep sense of peace.” – Mike Haworth

It was my first opportunity to get into the bush since South Africa’s lockdown in late March 2020. It was absolutely fantastic to be back in an environment which I find so interesting, full of life and devoid of all the human noise. The wildlife did not miss us one little bit during the “lockdown”!

During the five days we spent in the bush, four and a half days were deeply overcast with drizzle and it was cold – not what we expected at the start of spring in southern Africa.

Our trip was hosted by Wildeye and led by Andrew Beck. This photographic safari company prides itself on teaching its guests to see the world differently. The challenge was set. The light was difficult, the weather rainy and and the temperature cold. The lodge was superb but getting on the open game vehicle in that weather was an altogether different challenge. Once the vehicle was moving, the drizzle turned into driving rain and the cold got freezing, to say nothing of the visibility.

We consider ourselves die hard wildlife photographers, so bad weather was not going to stop us getting out into the bush with our cameras. The big question was whether we would be able to get any photography going with such low light and wet drizzly conditions. I wear glasses which added to the visual challenge.

Several wildlife photographic principles came into play. The first and crucial rule is that you have to get out there to find the opportunities to photograph interesting wildlife scenes, behaviours and interactions. You can not dream about them sitting in front of the fire in the pub at the lodge.

The second rule which was properly reinforced on this trip was – “don’t fight the light, work with it”. In this regard, I have to thank Andrew Beck from Wildeye for living this principle. Are you going to take award winning images in these conditions, possibly but very unlikely? Are you going to get the most photographically from your trip? Absolutely! You will learn about light, its directionality and its colour, and you will work your exposure triangle.

I rate myself a keen wildlife photographer, but on a few occasions when we went out in the afternoon it was overcast, drizzling and cold, I had severe doubts. After an hour or two, wet and cold, I figured the drive in the open game vehicle into the bush was a fool’s errand. Andrew must have done this many times before, so judged the probability of getting something interesting was better than even, and he was right.

What we did not take into account is a couple of factors which were in our favour. Firstly, our full frame sensor cameras can handle high ISOs and low light. Secondly, we could go off road to get into as good a position as possible. Thirdly, the vehicle had hand held spotlights which was our light source in dark conditions.

Lastly, mother nature has an unpredictable way of opening up her universe for those prepared to venture into her world on her terms. She will reveal some of her intimate secrets for those prepared to be patient, and who seek to understand and are prepared to look and listen. Nothing happens in a linear way in the bush, it is too complex, too multi-factored and too dynamic. One afternoon we had been driving in the cold and rain for about two hours seeing very little and the low low was fading, when all of sudden the tracker found fresh pug marks in the sand road. The tracks revealed a large leopard had recently moved across the road. By listening to the sounds of the bush we found a lone male leopard in the dark.

It is an amazing feeling to sit quietly in the dark watching this large male leopard. He was alert, sensing all the scents and sounds on the breeze. As humans, we can only marvel at their sensory awareness – there is so much news in the wind!

The rain stopped. This was a new male leopard in the southern area of Sabi Sabi section. He knew he was in some else’s territory but was hungry and was following a small herd of impala. We watched and followed him for a while and them left him to hunt on his own terms.

The next evening it was still raining and cold. It was dark and we were off road following another large male leopard called “White Dam”. One of the several aspects which amazed me about this incident was while we were banging and crashing with the vehicle trying to follow him off road through the bush but he managed to either hear or see a Grey duiker in the dark and rain. In an instant he dashed off to his right and caught it. How he knew the duiker was 10 to 20 metres off to his right in the dark and rain with us behind him I will never know. The spot light shows the conditions.

“We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.” ~ Plato

For some inexplicable reason this male dragged the grey duiker probably three to four hundred metres from where he caught it. None of us knew why he decided to drag his kill so far when there were plenty of decent sized trees close by. It may have been because he sensed other leopards in the area or the cry of the duiker probably alerted hyaenas and he wanted to get his kill as far from that area as possible.

This male leopard ended up hauling his catch up a Marula tree only to find he could not secure it properly to feed.

After a few attempts to secure his prey in the Marula tree he decided to bring the duiker back down to the ground to feed.

He managed to feed in peace and we left him in the dark to enjoy his hard earned dinner. Just the skill and strength of hauling his prey up a wet Marula tree trunk was an incredible feat, in my estimation.

“Life isn’t just about darkness or light, rather it’s about finding light within the darkness.” ~ Landon Parham

One of my favourite aspects about Sabi Sands reserve is that almost all of the roads are sand. This means there is minimal dust and the road offers a much smoother ride. More importantly, the sand is like the bush newspaper revealing all the activity of the wildlife in that area.

Sabi Sands has latticed network of sand roads which create the boundaries for blocks of virgin bush. The tracks on the sand roads create a map of what has passed, when, and which direction. This is a great help when tracking well camouflaged predators in thick bush. The trackers also listen carefully for squirrel, monkey or bird alarm calls which signal that a predator is in the vicinity. Our guide Greg Henman and tracker Nhlanhla, worked as a team and were an excellent tracking unit. Greg would often stop the vehicle, turn off the engine and just listen. On a few occasions this tactic yielded results which we would probably have never known unless we had just stopped and listened. After living in the city where your senses are overwhelmed by sensory overload, you need a guide who is tuned into the ways of the bush to interpret its the sounds and signs.

“It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.” ~ William Shakespeare

Another aspect which made the trip more enjoyable was that everyone at the Bush Lodge in Sabi Sabi were so pleased to see guests filling up the lodge, with the sound of animated chatter over meals and laughter flowing out of the pub, a place in the evening where long tales are told with great flare and exaggeration.

I have a few more posts to share on this trip to highlight the unique photographic conditions where we saw some unusual interactions between predators.

“My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humour, and some style.” ~ Maya Angelou

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

Have fun,

Mike

Mashatu: mystical Mmamagwa

Mashatu game reserve has a northern western annex. This northern part is along the Motloutse river. It includes the Motloutse lookout, Soloman’s wall and Mmamawaga hill where the remains of the Motloutse ruins can be seen.

“We rush through our days in such stress and intensity, as if we were here to stay and the serious project of the world depended on us. We worry and grow anxious; we magnify trivia until they become important enough to control our lives. Yet all the time, we have forgotten that we are but temporary sojourners on the surface of a strange planet spinning slowly in the infinite night of the cosmos.” ~ John O’Donohue

The Motloutse ruins are situated on top of Mmamagwa hill. There is virtually nothing left of the ruins except a few artifacts scattered in the sand and in crevices. On top of this hill a lone baobab stands like a sentinel looking down from its sandstone footing onto the mopanis and thornveld below .

About two or three kilometres directly north west of Mmamawga hill is Soloman’s wall which is positioned across the Motloutse river. It is a 30 metre wide and 20 m high (above the river bed) vertical basalt dyke. It formed a natural dam wall across the Motloutse river which eventually, through erosion, was breached.

A closer view of the right hand side of the eroded Soloman’s wall as you look down the Motloutse river toward the Limpopo river which flows down to the sea through Mozambique. It is hard to believe but this river can flow bank to bank after good rains which adds significantly to the Limpopo river’s flow.

A closer view of the right hand buttress as you look west. Looking at the size of this natural wall and the flatness of the upriver area, it must have created an impressive dam in days of old which stretched back beyond the Motloutse outlook many kilometres to the north.

“Each of us carries a unique world within our hearts.” ~ John O’Donohue

A view looking back from a ridge next to Soloman’s wall along the road that will take you back to Pont Drift border post on the southern edge of Mashatu. In the distance, on the left hand side of the next image, is a sacred hill which you will pass on the way the Motloutse lookout point. Only the Paramount Chief is allowed on top of this hill. Legend has it that whoever goes up there (other than the Chief) will not come back.

The sandstone hill upon which the sentinel baobab grows was part of the larger Mapungubwe region. The first people in Mapungubwe were early Iron Age settlers who lived there from about 1000 AD to 1300 AD. According to historicans, Mapungubwe was the first state in Southern Africa in the period 1220 to 1300AD. The Kingdom of Mapungubwe which existed in the Limpopo – Shashe basin, one thousand years ago, appears to have been the centre of the largest known kingdom in the African sub-continent. The civilisation thrived as a sophisticated trading center. There is a trail, 1000 years old, linking Vilanculos on the coast of Mozambique with the home of the little golden rhino, Mapungubwe. Artifacts found along the trail suggest the people who lived along this route transacted in gold, iron, ivory, ceramics, cloth and glass beads – from as far away as Arabia, India and China. Gold findings were evidence of early gold smelting. A large amount of artifacts from the royal family were discovered at Mapungubwe in South Africa. The best known of these objects is the golden rhinoceros. The Mouloutse ruins are thought to be the remains of satellite city of the main Mapungubwe city.

“May you experience each day as a sacred gift woven around the heart of wonder.” ~ John O’Donohue

I have never seen animals on Mmamawaga hill but have seen elephants, impala, zebra, baboon and hyena down in the valley at the foot of Mmamagwa, where there is a natural spring. There are droppings of klipspringer and even elephants on top of Mmamawaga, signalling their erstwhile presence. In the rainy season, the water collects between the rocks providing ample water and rich pickings for those animals who dare to venture onto this hill’s crest.

Rhodes baobab, a lone baobab tree which must have had the top part of its trunk broken off when it was much younger. Perhaps there was an exceptionally high wind on top of the hill which did the damage. It is difficult to judge the age of this baobab and it is generally difficult to tell the age of a baobab tree. The reason being that they have a succulent trunk which gets stripped by elephants for water and does not have any clear growth rings, and some of the bigger ones are hollow. These are revered trees which alongside the lion and elephant and are iconic symbols of ancient Africa. Rhodes baobab is thought to be around 1000 years old Its girth is about 20 metres. It is difficult to know how this baobab seeded itself high on this sandstone ridge so many centuries ago. It might have been a bird or even a dung beetle removing its dung ball from elephant’s droppings and rolling it away and burying it in the sandy section where it stands today.

“Many of us have made our world so familiar that we do not see it anymore. An interesting question to ask yourself at night is, What did I really see this day?”~ John O’Donohue

While looking across the ‘Land of the Giants’ from the towering vantage point on Mmamagwa hill, you can see a series of parallel sandstone ridges which stretch from inside the Mapungubwe National Park in South Africa north along the Motloutse river.

While we were having sundowners, we had several visitors. When the sun was up we were visited by common flat lizards and skinks. As it got a little darker, an elephant shrew came out but it was too dark to get decent images of this fleet-footed mouse-like creature. The Elephant shrew is one of Africa’s “little five” (other four are Ant lions, Leopard tortoises, Buffalo weavers and Rhino beetles).

I did manage to get a few images of this Common Flat lizard which is easily identified by its dark green back with light green spots, bluish belly and rust to yellow coloured tail. It is endemic to this area and frequents these rocky outcrops normally feeding on invertebrates but will readily eat the crumbs dropped from our sunset drink snacks. The Flat lizard family are specialised to live on these types of rock outcrops. This group is so-called because of their flattened body shape which helps them fits into crevices in the rocks.

“As I sit under your bough, I am reminded of ‘Grandmother Willow’ and my musings paint with all the colours of the wind. I listen to the singing sandstone cliffs and wonder if I will hear the wolf cry to the blue corn moon.” ~ Mike Haworth with memories of Pocahontas.

Some of the oldest baobabs are estimated to be over a thousand years old. The oldest baobab is thought to be Panke, a sacred giant in Zimbabwe, which is estimated to be between 2 450 and 2 500 years old. Baobabs are called the pachycauls of Africa. These are plants with a disproportionately thick trunk for their height and have relatively few branches. Baobabs are affectionately called the “upside down tree” because when bare of leaves, the spreading branches of a baobab look like its roots sticking up in the air. Africa is home to two of the nine species of baobab. Interestingly, these trees bloom at night and are pollinated by several species of fruit bats. The flowers are large enough to support the bats while they lick up the nectar and do their cross fertilisation work.

“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.”~Abraham Lincoln

On the west side of the trunk of Rhodes baobab, about 1.5 metres off the ground, you can faintly see the initials CJR and ADS carved into the bark. The tree has, over the millennia, thankfully healed and mostly covered up Rhodes’s desecration. CJR are the initials of Cecil John Rhodes and ADS is Antonio de Silva, who was Rhodes’ secretary. The history books show that Rhodes was in the region around 1893 surveying a route for his proposed railway line from Cape Town. Cecil John Rhodes had a dream of building a railway line from the Cape to Cairo. It transpired that the terrain was not suitable and the railway was built from Kimberley to Mahikeng in South Africa and on to Gaborone and Francistown in Botswana and on further north to Bulawayo in Zimbabwe.

“History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamour of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

There is a mystical quietness on top of Mmamagwa. You sense it as soon as you stand on top of the rocks near its sentinel baobab. The enormous vista enables you to see far and wide. One of our favourite times of the day to visit this magical place is in the late afternoon so that we can watch the sunset from its impressive sandstone ridge. I have said it before, but one gets a sense of reverence on top of Mmamagwa hill. I am not sure whether it comes from the quietness and perspective you get from looking down from such a height or whether there is a lingering sense of many souls who have lived here in another time and in another civilisation.

Once we hear the baboons barking in the gloom and hyaenas starting to whoop, we know it is time to descend and come back to earth. It is a tricky descent in the semi-light because you have to clamber over rocks and the bottom section is littered with loose stones.

I gaze down upon your vastness and beauty with serenity. The quietness has a spiritual quality. The faint breeze carries voices from across the millennia. It is a place that humans can visit but could never call their own. History echos around this wild place.” ~ Mike Haworth

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

Have fun, Mike

Mashatu: wandering through Eden

This is my fourth post from our last trip to Mashatu. This is a private game reserve located in the south eastern corner of Botswana at the confluence of South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe. This part of the world undergoes a phenomenal transformation in the wet season, which is from November until April.

“Nature has hidden lessons for mankind underneath its silent saga. The trees teach us to give without discrimination, the seasons proclaim that time keeps changing for the better and the vastness of the sky bears the amount of love we should hold in our hearts for everyone we come across throughout the day.” ~ Sanchita Pandey

We were fortunate to be able to visit one month before the coronavirus lockdown which closed Mashatu game reserve and the country’s borders. By pure chance our timing was perfect. Heavy rains had just stopped and we were visiting before the magical transform was about take place from its dry barren brown into a ‘garden of Eden’ draped in green with carpets of yellow flowers.

“True, the sun and the wind inspire. But rain has an edge. Who, after all, dreams of dancing in dust? Or kissing in the bright sun?  ” ~ Cynthia Barnett  

On our second day, at first light we left camp to go and explore The sun had not yet risen as we drove around the rock outcrop behind our camp. We often hear a leopard coughing from this outcrop before dawn. There is also a hyaena den close to this outcrop, on the opposite side to the camp. This particular morning we saw a kudu bull standing on top of the outcrop. I was quite surprised as any ‘get away’ would be very difficult. There must have been some very tasty bushes on top of this outcrop to attract this browser.

Sure enough not long after we saw the kudu bull we found this female hyaena on her way back to her den after a night of actively searching for food. Judging from her swollen teats, I presume she was suckling her cubs. Her face was still covered in blood so she must have been feeding earlier on a kill somewhere nearby.

As the sun climbed high in the azure Botswana sky we made our way down to the Majale river. There were still large pools of water in the river but it was no longer flowing bank to bank as it had been days earlier. Knowing how dry this part of the world can be in winter, the water in the river is a beautiful sight.

“Petrichor is that pleasant earth scent that accompanies a storm’s first raindrops. Of course rain itself does not smell. This smell actually comes from the moistening of the ground. Petrichor is a combination of fragrant chemical compounds, some of which are organic oils but mostly of which are from actinobacteria.”~Tim Logan

A male Steenbok lying in the semi-shade. This small antelope has large ears which were turned outward suggesting there were other sounds behind it. The ears rotate horizontally on the side of his head to locate the direction of the sound. This little antelope is a browser and survive the dry winter periods with minimal water as he gets his moisture from the vegetation that he eats. These little antelope are territorial and mark their turf on the ground with their defecation and scent mark bushes from the glands below their eyes.

Warm dawn light washes over the mist laden vlei in the south of the game reserve. It was quiet, still and colourful creating the sense that dawn held her breath for just a moment.

A scout came out of his underground labyrinth to see if it was safe for the rest of the family to come out. This male banded mongoose was on guard. Having seen us he decided the family should stay under ground until we left.

“If I have ever seen magic, has been in Africa.”~ John Hemingway

A young male kudu sitting down in the shade around mid-morning just up from the Majale river. His youth was evident in the partial first twist in his horns. He needed to be alert as he was vulnerable among the bushes near the river.

A family of warthogs. The male at the back watching out for his family with the female and her three semi-grown piglets watching us. The piglets had just been suckling when the parents suddenly realised we were watching them. This was a typical warthog family but they can extend to seven piglets. The presence of lion, leopard, hyaena and cheetahs in Mashatu are likely to trim any large warthog family.

When life throws you a rainy day, play in puddles.”~ Pooh Bear

As we were making our way back to camp for brunch, we found this leopard tortoise enjoying a drink from a puddle of rainwater in the middle of the gravel access road. We stopped and watched his character drink his fill and wander back in the bush undisturbed.

This lioness had her cubs nearby but she saw the big lenses staring at her and reciprocated. This has happened many times with a large prime lens. The lioness must have just seen a large eye and was watching it extremely carefully for any sign of a threat. The size of her irises was small responding to the bright sunlight beyond the shade. Her stare was mesmorising and threatening at the same time. Once she had assessed there was no threat she relaxed and gave a soft grunting sound to call her cubs after which she got up and moved with her cubs for a little more peace and quiet, probably away from the stares.

Two young giraffe sticking together away from the parents. The tufts of hair on their ossicones signify their youth. The one on the right is a few months younger than the one on the left. Difficult to tell what sex they are as their leg positions hide the possible penal bump on the belly, if they were boys.

A bat-eared fox in a threatening posture with its fur fluffed out on its back and tail, and its back arched to make it look bigger. These diminutive foxes feed mainly on insects such as termites, scorpions and spiders preferring beetle larvae. They detect the underground larva with their large highly sensitive ears. Once located they use their paws to dig out their meal.

Steenboks are very vulnerable to most species of predators, from caracals, servals, jackals and leopards. Normally a Steenbok will remain dead still and use concealment as the main form of defense but as the last resort will dash away from the threat. This male Steenbok used the last resort option.

Late afternoon – busy day. This large young male baboon was just ‘chilling’ while the rest of the troop where foraging and “chemering” to each other. His reclined posture looked remarkably human-like.

The stillness of the morning was reflected in the mirrored surface of this large pool of water in the Majale river. A time of abundance.

A group of three female eland standing in front of a wide bent in the Majale river on a partly cloudy morning.

The dominant male in the group of eland. His darkening grey pelage indicates his age. Aging adults tend to lose their hair resulting in the overall colour becoming bluish-grey due to the skin reflecting through the coat. A longer tuft of dark blackish-brown hair covers the forehead of adults and is associated with a gland that secretes a strong, scented substance. The colour of this tuft in adult bulls changes to copper red-brown and becomes bushy with age, giving the appearance of a hairy proboscis known as the rostrum according to Deon Furtsenburg of GeoWild Consult. The clicks of his knee tendons were clearly audible as he walked. These clicks are signals to other males of the his size and fighting ability. They sound like castanets and can be heard a hundred metres away.

Ever stealthy, this young female leopard was lying in the cool dappled shade. It took the “eagle-eyes” of our guide Justice to see her lying under the thick green bush.

“Abundance is not something we acquire. It is something we tune into.” ~ Wayne Dyer

This Temmnick’s courser found a patch of soft soil in which to have a dust bath.

This wildebeest bull was vigorously defending this territory when we found him. He was chasing other males away from the females in his territory. He also must have dug his horns into the mud to make himself look bigger. I have seen eland and kudu doing this. It was fascinating to see how hyped up this character was.

Two lion cubs distracted in the midst of their play. Something caught their attention.

As we were driving back to camp after sunset we came across this Mozambique spitting cobra moving down from the rock outcrop toward the road. This cobra is around one metre long when fully grown and is most active at night. This snake’s back is varies in colour from slate to olive or tawny black in colour with some of the scales havimg black-edges. Its underside varies from salmon pink to purple yellowish, and it has black bars across the neck. The ventrals are speckled or edged with brown or black. Ventral scales are the enlarged and transversely elongated scales that extend down the underside of the body from the neck. This cobra is considered one of the most dangerous snakes in Africa. It can spit its venom over three metres and usually at its victim’s eyes. It’s bite causes severe local tissue destruction much like that of a puff adder. Needless to say we just watched this character from a distance.

Sunset over the Majale river. I often find I have to pinch myself when I look at the colour saturated sky. It seems so other worldly. With every evening being so different, I could never grow tired of looking at such beauty.

Wandering around the “garden of Eden” is a humbling experience. The transformation took place without any human intervention. The change was miraculous and reminded me that I have much still to learn from the bush and the community of beings which live in the wild.

“A balmy evening bathed in saturated sunset colours, standing high on the bank above the quietly flowing Majale river. A bitterly cold drink in one hand and spiced cashews in the other. The warmth of friends animated chatter. The sky perfectly reflected off the water’s surface. The musical “queeto-queeto” of the last sandgrouse taking off and making their way home at last light. The male Scops owls starting his “bruuup” calling to his mate on this calm balmy evening. A hint that later that evening the Pearl-spotted owl would start his fluted whistling “tu-tu-tu-tu-tu-tu-tu”. The perfect end to another intriguing day in Africa with an overwhelming sense of gratitude and peace.” ~ Mike Haworth

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

Have fun, Mike

Mashatu: Tawny paws

Summer is not the easiest time for predators in Southern Africa. Having good rains means that there is plenty of water all around and the animals which usually need to come down to the rivers to drink in the dry season, now disperse.

“Stop for a moment. Hold your breath and listen. The breeze carries a distant roar. Instinctively you know it is his place. The roar sends shivers down your spine – a reflex from some deep primal memory. The roar is far way but his message is clear to family and foe.” ~ Mike Haworth

Occasionally, as we are driving along a dry river bed densely lined with trees, we come across a predator either walking in the shade or lying on the cool sand.

The Mashatu logo on the door of a game vehicle. Mashatu is a land of large beings – trees, birds, reptiles and mammals – Mashatu trees, Martial eagles and Kori bustards, African pythons and elephants.

When the game vehicles go out first thing in the morning, the guides usually radio each other to communicate what they have seen either that morning or the evening before. It must have been around 7h30 when our guide, Justice, found the dominant male lion in Mashatu. Often when one group of visitors moves on after having seen the animal, the animal moves on, and the next vehicle needs to a little time searching and tracking to find where it had moved to.

The length of the shadows indicates it was still relatively early in the morning when we found this male lion. The shadow was to the right of the broken bush indicating that it was morning light and he was still lying in the open signalling that, although warm, it was not too hot for him. He was not with his pride so must have been resting while out patrolling his territory. He has had a relatively easy time without too much competition. He banished some of his sons a few years ago and they moved north and west. There has been surprisingly little competition and he has a handsome unscarred face to prove it. The status quo is always fluid so the time for a take over is coming.

The next day we found two females with cubs. Judging from their size they must have been around three to four months old and still sucking. The females, when they are in the mood, are remarkably gentle and attentive.

When your mother bares her teeth like this, even in a yawn, best you know your place. Judging from the condition of her canines she was a relatively young mother. We found her and her cubs around 17h00 in the evening and she was yawning as she was waking up and getting ready to get going. An adult lion’s clock is opposite to ours. They usually sleep during the day when it is hottest and do all their moving and hunting at night when it is cool and they can exploit their competitive advantage to its fullest, their night vision.

Cubs of the same sex often begin life long friendships when they are in the pride. The male cubs friendship group often grows into a coalition after they leave the pride, The females usually stay in the pride and bond for life.

“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”~ Plato

The cubs, of course, do not follow the adults’ pattern and can be very playful during daylight hours. They use each other as sparring partners where they build their coordination and learn to practice some of the moves that they have learnt from watching their mother.

Usually the lionesses are very patient with their cubs and even the other lionesses’ cubs. They can bite and pounce on their mother with little reaction. It is only when they have made their mother’s nipples raw with their sucking and biting do the mothers react firmly. The mother will often get up and walk away from the cubs to get a break.

“Two things define you. Your patience when you have nothing, and your attitude when you have everything.” ~ Unknown

When you spend a little time watching the cubs, it becomes very apparent that they have different personalities. Some are thugs, some are shy and retiring and others are more pensive and like to watch all the action from a distance.

Hide and seek, tripping, tackling sand stalking are all part of the games that cubs play at this age to build strength and coordination and begin to hone some of their hunting skills. Every lion has different skills and this is typically they time the differences start to show.

Lionesses usually have two to three cubs in a litter. She has only four nipples, so any more than four cubs is problematic. The cubs are introduced to meat around three months of age and are unusually weaned after about 10 months of age. Lactating females are prepared to feed any of the cubs in the pride and only chase them away when their nipples are getting too sore.

“Good character is not formed in a week or a month. It is created little by little, day by day. Protracted and patient effort is needed to develop good character.”~ Heraclitus

Cubs grow quickly in their first year. They are able to walk under their mother’s stomach until about two months old and reach just below their mother’s shoulder height by one year old. When looking at these cute little characters, it is hard to accept that around half of them die in their first year and about 80% of youngsters do not make it to adulthood. In Mashatu, the survival rate is higher as there is not the same level of threat from wandering nomad male lions but there are plenty of hyaenas and leopards. It is also not beyond a Martial eagle or a baboon to steal a very small cub.

On our third afternoon in Mashatu, we were out on an afternoon game drive. Justice, our guide, found the two lionesses and their cubs in an open area between two croton groves. It was late afternoon and the light was a rich golden colour. The lion families were lying in the grass in the shade but eventually some of the cubs started wandering toward a small pool of rainwater which was close by. Cubs are always playful even when they are just walking together.

One lioness moved out of the shade of the large trees surrounding this open sand patch and walked down to the pond to drink. What was so impressive about our guide, Justice, was that as soon as the cubs started to move toward the pond he moved the vehicle. With excellent anticipation he moved the vehicle in the opposite direction to everyone else and got us into position with a clear view of the pond such that the direction of the sun illuminated the pond perfectly. We then just sat and waited. Eventually, after about ten minutes, the first lioness walked down to the pond for a drink with the rich golden light bathing her from the front.

There is just no substitute for accurate anticipation of animal behaviour and good light. The anticipation of animal behaviour comes from spending time watching them and slowly learning their ways .

Once the lionesses were drinking at the pond, the cubs inevitably followed. The one lioness on the right hand side objected to one of the cubs biting her haunches. It was a sublime few minutes when all the lions gathered alongside the water’s edge to drink in the rich saturated late afternoon light. These times last a few minutes then they are gone, but the memory lasts long after the light has faded.

We are fortunate to always see lions when we visit Mashatu and usually see cubs of various ages. I never take for granted the privilege of seeing these “tawny paws” given the drastic dwindling of their numbers in Africa. I also value that we see these magnificent predators in the wild, not in some form of human containment.

“Lions were once found on three continents but have since disappeared from 94 percent of their historic range. Now fewer than 25,000 wild lions are estimated to remain in Africa.” ~National Geographic

I am fortunate enough to visit Mashatu twice a year and it seems to me that the lion population is relatively stable. There is plenty of game which also sustains a large population of hyaenas in the game reserve. The dominant male lion has had a long run with his pride, with little competition. The time must be coming that younger males will eventually wander into his territory looking to take over. New males will most probably come from the Zimbabwean side on the east of Mashatu, as the north and west have villages and the south borders on South Africa which is mostly fenced.

“There will be three cats, kin of your kin, with the power of the stars in their paws. They will find a fourth, and the battle between light and dark will be won. A new leader will rise from the shadows of his death, and the clan will survive beyond the memories of his memories. This is how it has always been and always will be.”
~ Erin Hunter

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

Have fun, Mike