The guy behind the lens

Monday, July 29, 2013

On Safari!- Part 1

Earlier this month, I had the great pleasure to spend two weeks in South Africa on a dual purpose trip. The first half was spent in Johannesburg exploring my long time interest in the anthropology of early pre-humans with Professor Lee R. Berger and his team at the University of the Witwatersrand This is the group that discovered and is describing the species Australopithecus sediba.  
Karabo Skull (A.sediba)
The Karabo Skull - Australopithecus sediba
Holding the Taung Child skull - A dream come true! 

The second half of the trip was spent on the unfenced western edge of Kruger National Park at the Ngala Safari Lodge. The five nights spent there were truly magical, and I will be sharing the images and videos of that experience here on the Blue Lion Blog.
Steenbok (Raphicerus campestris)
Steenbok (Raphicerus campestris)

If you've never been on safari, your day starts early when you awakened for the morning game drive at 5:15 am.  You get dressed warmly (July in South Africa is winter) and meet your ranger & tracker for a quick cup of coffee/tea and a biscuit (cookie) before you load up the Land Cruiser by 5:45 am. You spend the next four hours tracking whatever game may be available as your ranger and tracker follow up on clues on the dirt tracks or information shared on radio by other members of the ranger team in their vehicles. 

The afternoon game drive is similar and starts at 3:00 pm. You drive for 4 hours with the last hour being in the dark as you use a red spotlight to pick up the eye reflections of nocturnal animals for observation. The daylight animals (diurnal) were not spotlighted to keep them from the temporary blindness caused by a bright light in the dark.

I arrived in the afternoon so this first post reflects an afternoon drive. Our first sighting was a welcome sight for me as it is my favorite bird in the world! It was a Lilac Breasted Roller (Coracias caudatus), which perches on visible branches to hunt for its prey of large insects and small lizards and mammals. Its stunning colors are a wonder to me as a North American, but the “LBRs” are quite common in South Africa. They are also the national bird of neighboring Botswana.

The second sighting was a breeding herd of Cape Buffalo (Syncerus caffer) as they gathered close to the sandy riverbed of the Timbavati River. These members of Africa’s “Big Five” (The five most dangerous animals to hunt on foot as determined by early European hunters -- Buffalo, Lion, Rhino, Leopard, and Elephant) are impressive, but have no sense of humor as they always seem to look at you as if you owe them money! I guess I’d have that disposition if I were being hunted regularly!

Another common bird resident is the Yellow Billed Hornbill (Tockus leucomelas). Like the LBRs I mentioned before, these birds have a truly exotic feel for me as a North American.

Yellow-Billed Hornbill (Tockus leucomelas)

The highlight of our first game drive developed as we headed to follow up on some African Wild Dog (Lycaon pictus) tracks – I was aware that Wild Dogs were the second most endangered African carnivore after the Ethiopian Wolf, but I confess I did not have a great innate appreciation of them. However getting to see them in person changed that! Their teamwork and unique personalities were a revelation to me. Before encountering the dogs, we came across a single Spotted Hyena (Crocuta crocuta) resting under a tree.
Hyena Yawn

After leaving the Hyena, we were alerted by the sound of the wild dogs in full voice about 15 minutes later and discovered they had killed an impala, but then lost it to four hyenas (including the one above). After they chased the hyenas away, they were able to savor the final scraps of their original kill. My next blog post will feature my video of this encounter.

African Wild Dogs (Lycaon pictus)

After we left the wild dogs and headed back toward camp and dinner, we  drove in the dry Timbavati River bed for a bit and discovered the largest Owl in Africa – the Verreaux’s Eagle Owl (Bubo lacteus) in a tree above the dry river waiting on a meal to wander by.

Verreaux's Eagle-Owl (Bubo lacteus)

Overall, I could not have asked for a better first game drive back in South Africa. Throughout my trip, my game ranger, Fin Lawlor and tracker Jimmy proved themselves supremely adept at finding every animal I hoped to see – given that Ngala is not fenced in, there is no certainty that you will see any particular animal as they may move back and forth to neighboring properties.


Kay L. Davies said...

Fabulous photos, John. I saw the one of the Wild Dogs on Facebook.
I agree with you about the Lilac Breasted Roller. A blogging friend in Africa often posts photos of them and I want SO much to see one.
However, I truly envy the anthropology part of your trip. Olduvai Gorge has been on my bucket list for years, but now I'm beginning to think I'll never make it to Africa. But I might surprise myself.
So happy for you and your adventures.

Unknown said...

Partying with Professor Lee R. Berger -- that is too cool! I'm so envious and glad that your trip went so swimmingly. I'd never seen an image of the African Wild Dog before -- those things are just incredible! What an amazing photograph!

As always, I'm greatly impressed and can't wait to hear more about your adventures (not to mention see all the photographs that go along with them!)


Toad Hollow Photography said...

Terrific post, John, full of top drawer photography! These are definitely animals we'll never see up here in Canada, so having a chance to join you on your grand adventure like this is very exciting for us. I really can't wait to see more!

Huldra said...

I wanna go too!
What a beautiful series. Thank you so much for sharing :)

Unknown said...

Many Thanks for your kind words and for sharing this post on your recent LightStalking review. I am as always greatly honored!

Unknown said...

It's very much my pleasure! Now that I am back from a 10 day backpacking trip I am working on the next posting! Keep your eyes on this space!