Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Zululand, December 2010

I recently accompanied two clients on a 5-day tour, visiting the Hluhluwe uMfolozi Park, Mkuze and St. Lucia. Now there is only one reason that I am posting this blog, and that is that I have some photographs to go with it. (I do not normally take my camera on tour during the summer months – it is too hot to be carting equipment around, and when I am hot I am uncomfortable and I lose my enthusiasm for photography), but on this trip I made an exception. Why? Well, some of the time was to be spent in Mkuze, and I know how productive the hides here can be, plus the fact that they have recently released wild dogs into this park, so who knows, maybe I would get some decent photos of these most endangered of predators… but this was not to be, but more of this later.

We arrive at the Hluhluwe/Umfolozi Park at about lunch-time and head up to Hilltop Camp to enjoy lunch and then check in. We seat ourselves outside and I hear a faint sound of leather slapping against leather. Upon cautious inspection I see a bull elephant just outside the restaurant perimeter, enjoying a drink from the kitchens’ water run-off. (The slapping of leather was his ears flapping against his body). It was not a good idea to take the clients for a closer look, as there is no barrier between the elephant and us, so I take them inside the restaurant and look down on this animal from above. He is so close that were one so inclined, you could almost leap out the window and onto his very broad back, but we don’t do this! This was certainly a good introduction to the park and the clients were hoping for more.

That evening they went on a night drive, and reported that they had seen one elephant in the distance and quite a few rhino, but nothing more exciting than this. Unfortunately this seems to be par for the course in this park, as many people come back from a night drive without having seen any sign of the big cats, which is what the night drive is mostly about. (As an aside, why is it that the night drives in the Hluhluwe/Umfolozi Park are so much more expensive than the drives in the Kruger Park? The drives in the Hluhluwe/Umfolozi Park are 40% more expensive than Kruger, and the quality of drives in the Kruger Park are way better. Kruger has more roads, more comfortable vehicles, generally better sightings, etc. On this presumption, Hluhluwe should be less, not more expensive).

The next morning I took the clients out at 05:00, and the first animal we encountered was an elephant. This was a big bull, in full musth, and walking in the middle of the road towards us. He was not overtly aggressive, but he made it quite plain that he had right of way, and would not get off the road. Every now and then he would feed on the trees and bushes lining the side of the road, and just when I deemed it safe to sneak past him, he asserted his right to the middle of the road. This little game went on for about half an hour, until he eventually found a tree about ten metres from the road and I was able to continue my journey.

We went along to the Seme area of the park and it was at the Seme turn around point where we saw two lionesses, very well hidden in the long grass and bush. I asked the clients to be patient, as they would move, sooner or later. The sun was up, and the temperature was warming minute by minute. About ten minutes later the one lioness did get up, stretched and sauntered toward the road and the direction of our vehicle, soon to be followed by the other. Luckily for the clients, the lions were on their side of the vehicle so they could get some good photos of them. I on the other hand had to be content with a “grab-shot”, which is not ideal, but then, I was the guide, not the client, it’s not about me! Both lionesses disappeared into the bush near the waterhole and we continued our journey. We duly returned to Hilltop Camp for breakfast and proudly marked our elephant and lion sightings on the sightings map board.

After breakfast we continued on another drive and saw only general game. It was by this time quite warm, with the outside temperature showing 36ยบ C. This drive produced zebra, nyala, impala, and many giraffe. At about 14:00 the weather changed dramatically and became very overcast and windy. When we left on our afternoon drive a light drizzle had started to fall, and a few flashes of lightning were visible. I decided to head south on the main road, as far as time would allow, and then return on that road again. On the way back it was already starting to get quite dark when we saw another lion, again in long grass. This was a youngish male, and he was calling. No great roars, just an almost apologetic call to contact the rest of his pride maybe? We watched for a while, but it was dark and I decided to move on. About 300 metres further down the road we came upon another young male lion, heading in the direction of the first one, and on the road - obviously the call had worked. I took a photo or two of the second lion, with a very high ISO of 3200 and the on-camera pop-up flash – the results speak for themselves, but I had to have evidence of a lion!

The following morning on an early drive on the Gontshi Loop we stopped to look at some buffalo on the side of the road. In the distance on the road up ahead I saw movement and realized that this may be lions, so off I went. It was lions, in fact eight of them, but alas; they were shy and soon disappeared into the long grass without a photo being taken - these were four females with four sub-adult cubs. For the Hluhluwe/Umfolozi Park, it is quite unusual to have three different lion sightings in two days, all in the Hluhluwe area but in different parts thereof. Had this been the Kruger Park, it would not have excited me as much, as one may sometimes have as many as four different lion sightings in a day, but for the Hluhluwe/Umfolzi Park, very unusual. My client indicated that he would dine out on these lion sightings for quite some time. That same drive we were entertained by a troop of baboons, so quite a busy morning and well worth the early start. The remainder of the day provided nothing more exciting than general game, and that afternoon we headed for the Ghost Mountain Inn in Mkuze. What a lovely hotel, thoroughly good food, offered as a choice of starters, mains and desserts and well received by our clients.

Now the next morning was what I had hoped would be the highlight of the trip, the Mkuze Game Reserve. En route to the Kumasinga Hide we saw plenty of impala with their young and some zebras, but we did not want to waste too much time, hoping to have an abundance of wildlife sightings at the hide. Upon arrival I noted that the water here was plentiful, both at the hide and generally in pools and pans throughout the park. We settled in, cameras at the ready, to commence photographing to our hearts content. One and a half hours later we had photographed a solitary wart hog that had come down for a wallow. Other than this wart hog, there were also common birds, laughing doves, black capped bul-buls, blue waxbills and some striped swallows. That was it – one and a half hours for this! We decided to go on a drive and look for the animals. All other hides, other than Kumasinga, were closed to the public, and this included the two on Nsumo Pan. Was this because of high water levels or plain disrepair, I’ll never know? On the drive we again saw many impala with their young, some zebra and some nyala, and that was that, so we left for St. Lucia, hoping for more on the Eastern Shores.

However, we were again disappointed. The Eastern Shores produced many kudu, some zebra, waterbuck, bush buck, a white rhino and samango monkeys. Wait a minute: “again disappointed”? No, this was actually a good 3-hour drive. My client was certain that he had seen a cat-like animal dart across the road. Unfortunately I was looking behind me at some open spaces, hoping to spot elusive game, whilst driving (…please don’t try this at home) so had not seen it. His description was for me that it was one of two things, either a young or female leopard, or a serval. However, the grass was so long that the animal had disappeared, so I could not confirm anything. Don’t worry, we spent some time here trying to find this animal, which, had it been a serval or leopard, are both supremely successful in hiding themselves.

One the boat cruise on the lake the following morning, many hippo were seen, some crocodiles, varied and many forms of bird life, so in short, another normal day on the lake.

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