Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Best Laid Plans etc. – Keith Marallich

Please forgive the title; this was taken from that great Scottish poet, Robert Burns’ poem, “To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough, November, 1785”, (or better known as “Ode to a Mouse” – it is also much easier on the tongue, this shorter title.). This of course means that no matter how well you plan something, always expect the unexpected. What I am referring to is the fact that I had a tour in the offing, to the Kruger National Park, and then onto the Arathusa Safari Lodge in the north of the Sabi Sands Private Game Reserve. I had been corresponding with the clients for some time, probably about two to three months and I was looking forward to this trip – I always get withdrawal symptoms when I don’t get to the game reserves often enough, and the Sabi Sands is simply the cherry on the cake – there is no better game reserve anywhere, in my humble opinion.

Writing this reminds me of one of those famous movie quotes – “The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain”, adapted from that marvellous old 1964 classic musical film, My Fair Lady.
Well, this time the rain wasn’t falling in Spain but mainly in the eastern half of South Africa! I had planned my routes, times and everything else a long time ahead – all in my mind of course, nothing was committed to paper. My planning of course only took good weather into account – we don’t have bad weather and rain in this country, do we? As the time drew nearer for our departure, so I more and more frequently checked the various weather sites for a long-term forecast. On the Thursday before the tour commenced, things started to look bad – on Friday we had reports that the northern section of the Kruger Park was experiencing floods, heavy rain had begun in the area, and rain was forecast for at least the next four days.  

We departed Johannesburg early on the Sunday morning, and the rain was teeming down. Three hundred and seventy five kilometers further, when we stopped at Hazyview for an early lunch, it was, if anything, raining heavier. The wipers of our little mini-bus had been working overtime the whole morning – and then we entered the Kruger Park at the Phabeni Gate, wipers vigorously still doing their job all the time. En route to Skukuza we had hard, torrential rain. Having said that and notwithstanding the weather, we surprisingly did see some animals and in fact, quite a few elephants and other general game, including two white rhino. What I did notice was that every loop road (these are the dirt roads that follow off the main roads) that we passed had been closed by the management of the park – and they only do this if these roads are impassable, which told me that there had been some flooding and we now had some damaged roads in the south of the park as well. 

What was immediately noticeable was the continuous calling of one of our summer visitors, the Woodland kingfisher. The Woodland kingfisher is a small bird with stunningly colourful plumage. It has very bright blue feathers on its back, wing panels and tail, with black shoulders and a white belly. This beautiful bird is an intra-African migrant and can be found from just north of Pretoria, to south of the Sahara desert, migrating up through Africa in the dry season. In South Africa it is most commonly found in Acacia thornveld. Contrary to their names, the majority of kingfishers don't actually fish for their food, with the Woodlands kingfisher forming part of the non-fishing group. Fish are seldom part of the Woodland's diet. It prefers to hunt its prey from low tree branches away from water, swooping down to catch insects on the ground. Whereas the riverine kingfishers tend to nest in burrows in riverbanks, this species nests in abandoned woodpecker or barbet tree holes. During courtship both the male and female can be seen perched on a branch with wings outstretched, displaying their bright colours.  The Woodland kingfisher call is the first welcome signal of the return of the summer, and it is generally the first migrant bird to return. The males can be heard calling constantly as soon as they arrive back into the bushveld, continuing until the end of the breeding season. The call is very distinctive and unmistakable, beginning with one sharp, loud, high note, followed by a repetition of trills which gradually descend, finally fading away – a quite stunning call and a quite stunning bird.

The following morning we awoke to the same rain that we had experienced the previous day and throughout the night. Knowing that all loop roads were closed, I went along the main road alongside the Sabi River for our game drive, to Lower Sabie Camp where we had breakfast. Now some people disparagingly call this road “Eloff  Street” after that very busy road in the centre of Johannesburg. I don’t do that – this is one of the most productive drives in the entire Kruger Park, notwithstanding the fact that it does carry a lot of tourist traffic. On this day it was not quite that busy – maybe most people had opted to stay in the camps because of the rain? We again saw quite a lot of wildlife and in fact had a grumpy elephant bull hold us up on this road for about twenty minutes. After breakfast, wipers still wiping, we headed down to the Crocodile Bridge Gate (I knew that this gate was closed because of the flooding of the Crocodile River and that this road should, because of this, be fairly quite – I was correct!). Not too long into this trip, we saw some three or four lion way off in the distance and the clients were quite excited by this.  I played it cool, but this did not excite me – they were too far off for my liking. About ten kilometres further on from this we had the same story – more lion, also far off.  Once we arrived at Crocodile Bridge we turned around and made our way back to Skukuza on exactly the same route with the same result – more animals and closed loop roads. My clients had a sunset drive booked for that evening, but there was no sunset, the rain was still falling, but much less intense than earlier in the day – and there was even the odd patch of blue sky visible! It is at this time that when the clients are on a sunset drive that I usually spend a few hours on my own at Lake Panic to photograph birds (and anything else that takes my fancy here), but not on this day – the road to Lake Panic was also closed.

The following morning we were to make our way to Arathusa in the north of the Sabi Sands, and it had been my intention to head north in the Kruger Park and exit at Orpen Gate, but this I could not do – Orpen Gate was also still closed due to flooding. But things were looking up – the clouds had disappeared and the sun was out! On route back to Phabeni Gate to exit the park we again saw quite a few animals, including a small pack of wild dogs – one of our most endangered predators and a great honour to see these animals – I was excited!

The last fifteen to twenty kilometers of dirt road from Acornhoek to the northern Sabi Sands was tough going, in fact very tough! My little mini bus was not a 4-wheel drive vehicle and the roads in some parts were almost washed away. To make a long story short, I persevered and eventually arrived at the entrance gate, only to learn that we were one of the first standard vehicles to make it this far since the Friday before and we were now at Tuesday! We duly arrived at Arathusa, checked in and enjoyed a superb lunch. At afternoon tea we met our ranger and tracker and set off on our first game drive in this reserve. The roads here – all dirt roads – were not in a good condition and we learned that we would probably not be able to go off-road. In fact, some of the neighbouring lodges to Arathusa had not gone out at all since Friday! Our game drive vehicle was a Toyota Land Cruiser, and what follows may interest my boss, Jeremy – that afternoon we had to tow a Land Rover game drive vehicle from another lodge out as it had been stuck in some deep mud with their clients on board – our Toyota did not get stuck once…just saying.

I am not going to go through a blow-by-blow account of the four drives that we enjoyed here – they were all good and I don’t really think that my clients had believed me when I told them that we were likely to encounter wildlife, and especially the predators, from close up. They were soon to learn that I had not tried to deceive them! At one point, whist viewing a leopard, I happened to look around and noticed that one of the clients had averted her gaze from the leopard. When I asked her about this later, it transpired that she believed in the “Ostrich syndrome:” – if you can’t see the danger, it does not exist! Some of the sightings that stood out for me were these:

A small pride of lion – about ten metres from our vehicle. Among this group were three young cubs, an older male and a very, very old female. The young male entertained us by vomiting up some grass that he had eaten exactly for this purpose and the oldest female I have ever seen showed us just how worn down here teeth were, due to age – I suspect that she has not long for this earth – she was old.


-          Quite a few side-striped jackals (a family of them in fact) on the Arathusa airstrip. One of the young pups ended up as a leopard’s breakfast the first morning whilst we were there. The leopard had taken the young jackal and had gone into thick bush with this unfortunate youngster, and because of the conditions, we could not go off-road to follow it, so no photographs were taken of this. 

-          A female leopard that had killed a duiker. She was not happy with our presence there and snarled at us to let us know her feelings (this is where the lady averted her eyes) – I learned later on from the clients that they were quite afraid that she would attack! (This is highly unlikely, but not impossible – I was not concerned). She then hoisted the unfortunate duiker into the tree, moved it until she felt that it was wedged in tightly and then she settled down on another branch for a rest. I was hoping for some photos of this, but unfortunately the sun was very low and she was directly between me and the setting sun, making for a tricky photographic situation. Anyway, here are some photos below – I was just thrilled to be able to see this.



 Now with the relatively short space of time for this tour (four nights, two in the Kruger Park and two at Arathusa) and the weather conditions, I was expecting the worst, but I was pleasantly surprised with the quality of sightings we had enjoyed, especially lion and leopard sightings at Arathusa in the Sabi Sands (four sightings of leopard in two days!) and how close we were able to get to the animals, even though we hardly were able to go off road. I have said it before, but it is worth repeating – there can be no better wildlife experience, especially for someone on their first safari to Africa, than the Sabi Sands, and in this regard, Arathusa Safari Lodge is well-priced in this reserve and well worth a visit. 

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