Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Day 6: Letaba

Saturday 1st August 2009

After the exertions of the previous day, there was no way that Izzi was getting out of bed before 8:00, so Harriet and I wandered down to the Letaba river to watch the sunrise.

After breakfast of bread and marula jam, by which time the sun was well risen, we all set off for a morning's drive south towards Satara. I've included the following pictures to illustrate what happened to the camera which Harriet took with her. Izzi "borrowed" it for much of the time (and took some very good shots with it too). Look out for them in the children's section of the CCC annual exhibition in October!

As always we stopped off at the occasional watering hole to see what was happening (usually nothing, but with the occasional crocodile or hippo). Other highlights of the morning included zebra, wildebeest, open-billed stork (unsure of this one) and vulture (both white headed and lappet-faced).

In all my postings (and comments about how common the pala pala are), I realise that I have forgotten to show a picture of probably the commonest thing we saw in Kruger Park: namely Swainson's francolin. They're about the size of chickens, and there are literally dozens of them running about, squawking happily to themselves. There are several different types of francolin in the park (I've already shown a picture of the crested francolin in a previous post), but after a while we gave up trying to tell the difference; instead they all became known collectively as "Benjamins" (think about it). A phrase which I read in the bird book 10 years ago (the last time I went to Kruger) has stuck with me, and it refers to the Swainson's francolin: flies reluctantly. Seems to say it all!

In the heat of the day most of the animals retired to the shade, so I was reduced to photographing trees - in this case a couple of specimens which had been subjected to the elephant treatment. Being so destructive, it's really no surprise that the number of elephant within the park (and outside it too, for that matter) is causing real concern.

The occasional tree was playing host to some wildlife, however - in this case a giraffe tucking into the uppermost branches of an umbrella thorn (a type of acacia).

Just before lunch we spotted a black speck in the distance, and it turned out to be an ostrich. I took plenty of shots of this wretched bird, but very few are any good. As well as being perpetually on the move, the head provides such a small target for focusing that it's almost impossible to get sharp pictures. The heat haze didn't help either (it was about 12:30).

We had an excellent lunch in the cafeteria at Satara, and much to Izzi's relief I avoided being told off by the rangers on this occasion. Mind you I was on pain of death...

On the way back to Letaba we saw some kudu near a river. Interestingly, the big brave male watched us suspiciously from behind a bush while the females were perfectly happy to come out into the open to take a look.

As the sun went down we were treated to other memorable sightings that afternoon. Firstly we spotted a pair of cori bustard walking through the grass (tall birds, standing at about 1m). This was the first time I'd seen the male and female together, and wanted to take a picture which showed both of them. As luck would have it they eventually walked past us, one behind the other - and, more importantly, in the same focal plane! - meaning that I was able to get both of them sharp.

Later on we spotted something lying in the shade of a tree, although we could easily have missed it given the quality of the camouflage. It turned out to be a hyaena taking an afternoon nap.

The real highlight of the afternoon was seeing a train of elephant approaching the car from the side. The late afternoon light and the apparent symmetry of their movements resulted in an unforgettable spectacle, although we did cause them a bit of a problem by parking at the exact point where they were going to cross the main road. One of the juveniles took exception to this, but otherwise the herd just ambled past quietly behind us.

Before returning to Letaba we made one last detour to the elephant carcass, just in case anything interesting was going on. The site was deserted, though, and on closer inspection it's clear why: there was virtually nothing left to eat! By this time the elephant had been dead for about 5 days...

Friday, 21 August 2009

Day 5: Letaba

Friday 31st July 2009

Izzi was most unimpressed when the alarm went off at 04:45, but despite this we all managed to get up, washed and dressed, and were waiting at the camp headquarters by 05:15 ready for the morning drive. It was pitch dark, of course, so the first part of the drive was looking for nocturnal animals. Not very far from the camp an elephant had died of natural causes a few days previously, and this had become a magnet for carrion feeders. At this time in the morning the carcass had been adopted by a family of hyaena.

As can be seen there wasn't a great deal left of the elephant to scavenge, and it was only later that we remembered observing that the tusks were missing. Presumably they'd been removed by the rangers as soon as the carcass had been discovered in order to avoid temptation for poachers. Much of the time the hyaena were actually inside the elephant's ribcage, and every so often a head or a backside would appear from within!

It wasn't long before the sun was up, so we started to look for other animals (not very successfully, it has to be said). Our driver spotted where a lion had been relatively recently, but that doesn't really count as a sighting! We saw some giraffe and the occasional pala pala pala pala, but otherwise things were pretty quiet.

On the way back our guide stopped by a rather unassuming tree with gnarled bark. On closer inspection it was clear that there was a "cross" marking on the trunk, and apparently this dated from the turn of the last century when this part of Kruger Park was used by traders going to and from Mozambique. The mark in the tree trunk was put there as a way of aiding navigation in the bush.

We all then went back to the camp for a well-earned brunch of bacon, eggs and fried potatoes. Being gluttons for punishment, Harriet and I decided to go out again about 11:30, but Izzi stayed at the rondavel for a snooze. Back at the elephant carcass, the hyaena had been replaced by vultures: mainly white-headed, as shown here, but with the occasional lappet-faced too.

Yet again there was no sign of our feathered friends bursting into song... Speaking of feathered friends, we were lucky enough to watch a pair of African fish eagles flying around. The pictures aren't great, unfortunately, and certainly don't do justice to these magnificent birds.

We were also able to watch a herd of buffalo go down to a watering hole, which was very impressive. They're big animals, and - according to the rangers we spoke to - the most fearless in the park: they refuse to back down, irrespective of their predicament. Needless to say we observed them from a safe distance!

Inevitably we saw lots of elephant (they were becoming almost as common as pala pala by this point) but were still pretty magnificent. I became fascinated by the tail of a rather large bull which was standing quite close to us, busily devouring a tree.

While crossing the Letaba river - a large expanse of sand during the dry season - in the distance we spotted a train of elephant doing the same. Apart from the little ones, they were walking in single file in a rather slow and sedate manner from their feeding area to the side of the river where there was still running water. A breathtaking sight, and the elephant help to give a sense of scale to the river itself.

We also spent quite a bit of time watching some hippo out of the water. Then one decided that it wanted to be in the water, and they all followed suit!

We got back to the camp about 15:00, feeing rather tired by this time. Harriet went back to the rondavel for a lie down, but I went into the elephant museum and then wandered around the camp taking pictures. As always there were vervet monkeys, and Letaba is unusual in that it has a breeding herd of bush buck in the camp. The final picture shows the garden at the camp and one of the rondavels (not ours!).

Harriet and I watched the sun go down over the Letaba river while sipping chilled white wine (it was a tough job, but someone had to do it!) and talking to a couple of displaced white Zimbabwean farmers, now of no fixed abode. I lit a braai as soon as it was dark, and we all crawled into bed very soon after 20:00 - without setting the alarm clock...