HI, and welcome to my blog! I am a field guide in a private game reserve in South Africa and below you will find stories and pictures of my amazing job!

December 5, 2010

A Sting in the Tail

As a field guide, it is sometimes easy to fall into the trap of chasing big 5 animals all day long.  To be fair, it is what the majority of people coming through the door want to see, but as a guide it is our job to educate and share knowledge of all the fascinating aspects of the bush, big and small.  However, it is sometimes hard to gather knowledge of these things and that is where working for a proactive company such as Sabi Sabi comes into play.  We are currently experiencing a quiet period at the lodge in preparation for the Christmas rush and that gives us the chance to get external trainers in. 
For the last 3 days we have had the pleasure of entertaining Jonathan Leeming who is a world renound authority on scorpions and other arachnids.  And a hell of a nice guy to boot.  This has meant that we have had the opportunity to have lectures and go out into the bush searching for these little understood perceived menaces.  So, for the last few days we have been on out hands and knees in the bush digging up burrows and turning over rocks in an attempt to gain a better understanding of their habits.

A recently moulted Opistacanthus leavipes that is commonly found between or under rocks in our area

A venomous shiny burrowing scorpion (Opistophthalmus glabrifrons) that we dug out of its hole.  Capable of delivering a painful sting if provoked!

Me holding the (thankfully placid) shiny burrowing scorpion seen above
Turns out we actually only get about 12 species in this area and whilst they all look the same, their habitats are all pretty much diagnostic.  Most of them are actually very placid and we have learnt how to catch and handle them.  It’s fairly uncomfortable to be honest as it goes against everything you hear about.  It’s like allowing a bee or wasp to happily crawl around on you – it’s just not a good idea!!  But once you know the signs, handling even the more venomous ones can be done safely.  Admittedly there are still ones to avoid.  Anything in the Buthidae family is a definite no no.  Some of these guys can put you in hospital with spasms, palpitations and muscle cramps so they are best left alone!
As a general rule of thumb, anything with a thick tail and thin pincers should be given upmost respect and those with big pincers and a small tail and relatively harmless.  They are actually awesome creatures that have been around longer that dinosaurs, over 200,000,000 years longer to be precise!  And with the exception of changing from an aquatic to terrestrial habitat, have experienced relatively little evolution – truly the hallmark of a near perfect organism.  They are found on every continent except Antarctica and can survive in conditions ranging from freezing cold to the sweltering heat of the desert.  Perhaps their most unique and unusual characteristic is that they reflect UV light.  Even more amazing is that in such a technologically advanced world, scientists still have absolutely no idea as to why!?  This means that with my new UV torch, I can find them at night with relative ease!  It’s another great weapon in the arsenal of knowledge I’ve been so fortunate to have learned over the last few years.
All in all it has been a great few days and I haven’t been stung once!  Jonathan is also a bit of a spider guru as well and we found a few notable species including the highly venomous black button (South Africa’s version of the black widow) and violin spider.  I am fascinated by these things – probably borne about due to my irrational fear of them.  Something about the way they scuttle freaks me out!!!  But like the scorpions, they have remained unchanged for millennia.  You still won’t find me touching any but I have got very close and got some good shots!  I’m looking forward to my next guests to arrive so I can share some this new knowledge with them – plus it will freak them out and that’s always fun!!

Close up shot of the eight eyes on this burrowing wolf spider.  Also capable of delivering a painful bite!

Another burrowing wolf spider with its egg sack attached to its spinnerets

A ground dwelling lynx spider easily identified by the long spikes covering its body.  These are assumed to enble it to grasp hold of prey it catches

A tremolo sand frog (Tomopterna cryptotus) that we also found on our bug hunt

November 16, 2010

Life in the Fast Lane

My wonderful fiancé witnessed this story and has asked me to put it into my words on her behalf. ..
Streamlined and elegant, the cheetah strode purposely down the road in front of us.    The late afternoon sun glinting off his eyes, giving them the impression of polished amber; his velvet coat glowing gold in the receding light.  His long legs and slight frame hinting at the explosive power that lay beneath them.  His eyes, perfectly adapted to diurnal hunting, scanned the bush on either side for his next meal.  Driven by the need to find food, and constantly aware of the stronger competition that might take it from him, the cheetah leads one of the harshest lives of Africa’s most revered predators.  Rarely is he able to finish a meal without the interruption of hyena or lion. 
                Today he was hungry.  His beautiful eyes betraying the need to eat as they analaysed every inch of the landscape, searching for potential prey. His sharp vision soon picked out a herd of impala casually grazing close to a waterhole.  Instantly his demeanor changed.  With delicate precision, the cheetah circled his prey.  His deliberate approach borne out a life of missed opportunities and experience; the ability to see but not be seen essential in his success as a species.  Keeping plenty of cover between him and his folly, the cheetah finally settled in the lengthening shadows of a knob thorn to plan his attack.  Between him lay a no-man’s-land of short grass affording no cover.  For some of the larger predators this would be an unassailable obstacle but this would pose no problem for the blistering speed of the cheetah. 
                Like a sniper, trained to observe for hours and wait for the perfect moment, he watched the movements and actions of the impala.  His long thick tail, so important for balance and maneuverability at high speeds, twitching occasionally, the only sign of his growing excitement.  Finally, the trap was set.  Inching forward, low on his belly, the cheetah positioned himself, ready to strike.  Like a coiled spring, toned muscles rippled as they tensed for action.  We waited, breaths held for their release.  We knew we were about to witness something special.  A cheetah in full flight is rarely seen by people in the wild, especially in the thicker savanna vegetation we have at Sabi Sabi.  They have had to develop new hunting strategies to compensate for less room to operate at high speeds but this time, the cheetah had worked the opening that nature had designed it for.
                Without warning, the attack came.  Like a bullet from a gun, the cheetah exploded from his concealed position with acceleration that defies belief.  Faster than the top production cars on the planet, the cheetah hit 60mp/h inside 2 seconds.  A bolt of black and gold streaking across the grass.  A feat of natural engineering doing what natural selection has chosen it for.  The lightweight frame, enlarged nostrils, non retractable claws for grip all working in perfect harmony to propel him towards his target.  The impala saw him coming and fled, they themselves so aware that danger can come from any side at any moment.  For a moment the cheetah looked beaten but then he hit the afterburners…  With so little time to get up to speed, the impala stood no chance with the proximity of the attack.  Legs pumping like pistons, massive strides eating the ground beneath him, the cheetah singled out one of the ewes and employed the classic ankle tap.  The over sized dew claw clipping the back leg and sent the impala stumbling into the turf.  Like a flash, the cheetah was on top of her, strong jaws clamped down on her neck stifling any cries that would alert other predators and cutting off oxygen to the already exhausted impala.
                We watched in awe as the entire event unfolded in front of us in the blink of an eye.   However, we were not the only audience to this performance.  As the cheetah lay beside his prize, panting heavily, trying to get air back to his oxygen-starved limbs, 3 rhinos now approached the spectacle.  With no real predators to worry them, they approached the scene with apparent curiosity, their poor eyesight unable to resolve the situation to their satisfaction.  A sighting is always magnified by having interactions between species.  It lends itself to the bigger picture, rather than just witnessing individual characters go about their business.  Though out gunned and giving away about 2000kgs in body weight, the cheetah stood its ground, ready to defend his kill against these armoured giants.  Nose to nose, with only a metre or so separating them, the cheetah stood resolute over his kill, hissing and spitting at the spectators.  Seemingly perplexed by this fiery little adversary, the rhinos soon moved on no doubt chuckling at the plucky little cat’s defiance.
                With the battle won and his prize defended, the cheetah settled down to a well earned meal.  With relish, his sharp jaws opened the soft flesh of the hind quarters and began to replenish some of the energy expended during the hunt.  But this unbelievable sighting was not over for us yet!  From the tree line skulked the unmistakable figure of a spotted hyena.  The cheetah’s arch nemesis.  We knew instantly that all the hard work would come to an end with the arrival of nature’s principal scavenger.  Quite capable of hunting for themselves, but brilliantly adapted to reap the rewards of others’ labour they cheetah knew that his prize was lost.  Resolutely he stood his ground, trying to get as much nourishment as possible before the inevitable happened.  We know that death and taxes are inevitable, but in the cheetah world, its death and hyenas!  For a moment, we thought that the two would share the spoils but with a look that could kill, the hyena took one bite and casually dragged his plunder away.  The cheetah knew it had met its match and merely watched, before turning away and continuing his unending fight for survival.
                Watching this filled me with so many emotions.  The excitement of witnessing my first ever kill will live long in my memory but the interactions that followed will make this unforgettable.  To see just one of the 3 principle characters in this soap opera would have been special in itself but to see them all was special.  Of course we were rooting for the cheetah.  It is not often we see this fascinating animal and get to marvel at its abilities but also to see its weaknesses first hand.  To possess such blistering speed means sacrificing strength – a point perfectly highlighted in his decision not even to defend his kill against the more powerful hyena.  It is no wonder that experts say that cheetahs would be extinct by now if not for man’s intervention.  The irony is that with the creation of national parks, larger predators have flourished in an arena that favours the strong.  Cheetahs need wide open spaces to utilise their speed and the ability to avoid competition.  Out competed and out muscled by all its adversaries, the cheetah must rely on good fortune and the ability to adapt to its new surroundings.  This takes time, and with such limited numbers left, the question is, do they have enough.

November 6, 2010

Belated Update

The rains have come!   Ok, so we’ve only had one storm but what a storm…  Each year it’s the same and each year I am taken by surprise by the shear force of Mother Nature’s cycles.  6 months of drought had left the veld looking dry and desolate.  Skeletal tree trunks littered the landscape like forgotten gallows.  Grass crunched underfoot as though walking through a giant bowl of dry cornflakes; and the animals were pushed to breaking point in their daily struggle to find food and water.  Oh how one night can change that.  The rain fell with such force that visibility was almost zero.  Roads became waterways as the massive volume of water jostled its way to the lowest points.  Lighting bolts shot from cloud to cloud as the sky was lit up, leaving their images momentarily burned on my retina as I struggled to see the road.  Thunder boomed, echoing all around me and I could not help flinching with each shot, pulling my shoulders up and my neck as far into my (alleged) waterproof as possible, rather like a child does when hiding from an unseen night time monster.  The hope of keeping dry a long lost memory as I negotiated the waterways back to the lodge. 
The first downpour of the season was however welcomed by all, as finally the areas of the reserve ravaged by fire during the winter will be able to transform themselves from lifeless patches of blackened ground into lush blankets of green grasses.  These first drops of nature’s blood will also prompt the trees from their winter torpor and encourage them to break out in a cacophony of greens.  Insects have begun to emerge from their winter hiding places and are already being a nuisance on night drives as they are attracted to the spot lights.  Along with our invertebrate contingent, the migratory birds are returning in their droves.  Their enthusiastic calls echo through the bush from about 4am as breeding rights and territories are established.  Even conducting a conversation over dinner has become an ordeal as we compete with the chorus of frogs jostling for the best acoustics in the lodge water features.  After just one night’s rain, the bush has come alive!
Ok so I may have got carried away a little - the last few days its been 40 degrees in the shade and I have melted like a Mr. Whippy in a microwave but it will be back….
Anyways, enough small talk about the weather.  So, what else has been going on?  We have seen a spate of baby elephants of late.  One was even seen still with afterbirth clinging to its baggy grey skin.  I make no illusions that they are my favourites and any of you who have been on game drive with me can probably attest that I spend more time with them than any other animal.  I find them fascinating to watch, so emotive and intelligent. These little elephants always put a smile on my face – they are so determined to be like Mum and attempt to copy her every move.  Unfortunately, they spend more time stumbling over obstacles in their way as they try to keep up with the herd.  No matter how unstable and uncoordinated they may be, they still find time to try to intimidate the land rovers, approaching purposely with ears outspread, only to lose their nerve and race back to the safety of Mum.  If only they stayed so small and cuddly forever!
The big news within the lion community is the return of two males last seen here a year or so ago.  We think they have come from the Kruger park side and the other night attempted to stake a claim on our property.  Unfortunately for them, they chose to let out their first territorial bellows about 300m from our current dominant male.  He is huge and in his prime, muscles rippling like a lava lamp on a spin dryer!  No sooner had he heard the calls of these trespassers, he tore across the open area between them at an impressive speed and went crashing into the intruders.  We lost sight of him as he crashed through the bushes between them but left no doubt in the beating he handed out as the two interlopers fled in his wake.  Uninjured but beaten, they have been lying low the last few days but have not left the property.  Only time will tell if these pretenders to the throne of Sabi Sabi’s lion pride have what it takes to depose the current king.
The saddest news greeted us mere minutes before the downpour hit us.  An omen perhaps, but as one of our guides rounded the corner, he was met by the sight that we all feared might come.  In the road stood a, before now, unseen male leopard.  Clamped in his powerful jaws and being shaken like a rag doll was one of our resident male leopard cubs.  At 9 months, his chances of survival were improving by the day but sadly, nature had other plans for him.  The likelihood of any predator cubs getting to 1 year old is around 10% so his demise was not unsurprising.  I was unfortunate enough to pull into the sighting as the male began to pluck its prize – leopards being one of the few predators that will eat their own kind.  It was a harsh lesson in the ways of the bush and in natural selection.  Here we sit, surrounded by the glory and beauty of the natural world, but one tends to forget the more unpleasant, but necessary processes that make it all possible.  We have since seen the mother and the other cub alive and well so hopefully she can give all of her attention to ensuring its survival in the months to come. 

With the bad weather and a lack of significant skill, I don’t have any really good photos to share but have tacked on a couple I quite liked.  Will be in touch again soon!

October 25, 2010

Recent Sightings

Mother and cub on their way to a common duiker kill

Curious 9 month old leopard cub next to the land rover

Lioness enjoying early morning sun

Reaffirmation of bonds between sisters

The best way to spend the heat of the day

October 22, 2010

The Great Escape

We left the lodge with the intention of tracking lions this morning.  We soon picked up tracks and began the hunt.  After one and half hours we about to give up and go and view the cheetah which had been found nearby.   We decided to check a waterhole close to us as our search had led us to nothing but dead ends thus far…  With no sign of the lions we were about to head out of the area when we heard the unmistakable sounds of a buffalo in severe distress.  A full grown buffalo weighs nearly 900kgs and has such a formidable set of horns that only one animal could be the cause of its death throws.
We set off through the bush following the bellows.  About 100m in we were rewarded for our morning of hard work with an awesome sight.  In front of us was a bloodied buffalo gallantly fending off 5 lionesses and a male!  Although out numbered, he was not going to taken easily – even with 2 females on his back and rump, he was chasing his attackers through the bush, thrashing his huge horn at his pursuers.  Time after time, the lions were repelled by the power and unrelenting desire to survive of the buffalo.  The lionesses were taking turns slicing into his rump with their teeth, leaving a gaping hole around his tail.  Claw marks peppered his flanks as their paws sought purchase in the tough skin.  The power and surprising agility of the buffalo was able to regularly shake them loose and left them scurrying for safety from the scything horns.  To be caught by the horns could spell disaster for the lions.  Blood stained their jaws and paws as they strove to bring their folly down and apply the death grip to the throat.  The male lion kept attempting to get his jaws locked around the throat of the bull but could not find a strong enough grip faced with such adversity. 
In light of the chaos on the battlefield in front of us, we kept our distance and were unable to get good pictures (though one of my guests got some good ones that I hope to post on here with his permission at a later date).  The buffalo was crashing through the undergrowth in raw panic and we did not want to get in his way!! 

We watched transfixed for about 10 minutes and thought that the buffalo had no chance.  It was just a matter of time.  The lions were visibly tiring though and during their attack, the buffalo saw an opening and took it.  Fueled with adrenaline, the buffalo made a break for it, running through any obstacle in its way, his bloodied rump and tattered tail sharp contrast to the greening bush.  The exhausted lions had nothing left and abandoned the chase.  We were disappointed not to see the kill but were left with a sincere appreciation for the strength of the most formidable of the big 5.  Overgrown cows on steroids they may be but one has to respect their power and resolve – not many animals would survive a 6 vs 1 encounter with fully grown lions! 

October 20, 2010

Martial of the Skies

A fairly quiet morning game drive was made extra special with an amazing sighting of a martial eagle sitting in a marula tree next to the road.  One of our biggest eagles, it stands and impressive 90cms tall, with talons about 2 inches in length!  A aerial predator so powerful that it can kill small antelope.  Rumour has it that if it closed its talons around your hands, its would be strong enough to crush the bones!

Who Says Lions Can't Climb Trees...

Had one of my most amazing sightings at Sabi Sabi to date last night.  Owing to its location I have no pictures to back it up so I will have to try and describe it to you all…
Bush lodge was surrounded by cats last night – we had a male and female lion sleeping next to the waterhole in front of the lodge and a leopard with an impala kill in a tree about 100m away on the open area.  After watching the lions for  10mins and having to field questions about whether they were even real due to the alarming lack of movement we went for a closer look at the leopard.
Illuminated by the spot light, in the branches of a weeping boer bean tree we watched for 10 minutes while the beautiful young male finished off the rib cage and skull of an impala ram.  There is something magical about watching nature’s most beautiful design draped effortlessly over the branch of a tree, especially in the glow of a spotlight – it captures the golden yellow of the velvetine coat and intricate perfect of its markings so well.  The leopard is the true enigma of the African night.  Anyway, enough artistic license…  We are parked about 7 metres from the trunk of the tree with only a narrow gap between us and some impenetrable bush to the side.  The carcass is about 2 days old and beginning to smell somewhat ripe but thankfully the wind is blowing away from us…  However, nothing is forever and very soon the wind changes direction and fills our nostrils with the intoxicating aroma of decay.  Whilst unpleasant for us, this is like ringing the dinner bell for a slumbering lion!
Within seconds, Rondy, my tracker, tells us to look behind us and across the open area, heading straight towards us, is the lion.  An impressive sight backlit by the moon, he trots straight past the vehicle, so close he brushes the side and causes some of my guests to visably shrink into their seats.  The next thing we know, he has scaled the tree with surprising ease, sending the leopard scrambling to the higher branches and to safety.  The lion, now perched in the tree (lacking the grace of the leopard I might add) proceeded to polish off what was left of the impala, crunching bones in the rib cage like toothpicks.  The ease with which he climbed the tree definitely left me with a mental note that scaling a tree if being chased by a lion may not always end well…  We watched entranced at the spectacle, the whole scene punctuated by the soft growling of the leopard high above, obviously irritated having relinquished its kill, but not stupid enough to compete for it.  That in itself is enough to give you goose bumps – the sound is like distant thunder and seems to come from somewhere behind the pit of its stomach!
Eventually the lion starts its somewhat ungainly dismount from the tree – its lack of a lockable wrist bone causing him to almost lose his balance repeatedly.  We then followed him to the open area and sat next to him while he reaffirmed his territorial dominance by calling.  This is a sound that when sat next to him cannot be done justice in words.  One has to experience it first hand and at such close proximity to appreciate it fully.  Those of you that have been lucky enough to witness it with me or on other safaris will know exactly what I mean. 
As we were very late in getting back to the lodge, we left him ambling up the road with the swagger of a champion that has no fear.  The guests and I left feeling humbled and grateful for another awe inspiring evening in the bush

October 18, 2010

Close Encounter of the Feline Kind

This incident happened a few weeks ago but as it was my closest and most perilous encounter to date, I think it deserves to be my first official blog...

As I'm sure some of you are aware (especially those of you that have been to the lodge), walking is an integral part of the bush experience.  For those of you less fortunate people who have not visited a lodge, one of the main attractions is a do a walking safari.  In other words, its just you and bush.  The experience is  worlds apart from the vehicle based safari - no humming of engines, no radio crackling in the background and most importantly, no peace of mind that you're in a land rover capable of outrunning all the dangerous animals tht you encounter!

Most of the times, walks produce no animal sightings and its just a chance to get up close and personal with the bush.  Listen to the orchestra of bird calls, watch the insects go about their busy daily schedule, learn about trees and their medicinal uses etc.  However, there is always the chance that around the next corner, a member of the famed big 5 is awaiting you...  To ensure the safety of our guests, we are trained in approaching, though more often bumping, these animals.  And the only way to do this is practise, and by putting ourselves purposely in harm's way!

Anyway, to the story...  On an afternoon off, myself, Rika (my fioncee), Margueriet (a fellow guide) and Malcolm (our walking encyclopedia and bush mentor) decided to walk to an area where we heard that a male and female lion were seen mating that morning.  The is not a good idea under general circumstances as imagine how you would all feel if 4 people walked in on you whilst you were enjoying...well, lets just say, each other.  However, this is a very real possibility and whilst every situation is different, experience is key.

So, off we go, armed with two rifles, that myself (leading the walk) and Rika are carrying, and a bag of nerves.  The only info we had was that they were close to the road by a 2-track left by an off roading land rover.  I have to admit my heart was pounding the adrenaline was beginning to flow like a beer funnel at a frat party!  Its amazing how acute your senses become when you're placed in a situation like this - your pick up every movement of the grass in the wind, rustlings in the bushes around you become deafening as you strain for a clue to their position.  Within a few minutes we caught a glimpse of the lions lying under a tree about 30 metres from us.  Luckily for us they had not seen us and because our view was limited by the vegetation, we decided to walk in a big loop and check fom the other side.  Thus far, everything had gone according to plan - we had seen the lions and not been seen, and more importantly my boxer shorts were still unsoiled!

We took note of their position under a small clump of trees and made our way to the other side as planned, stopping every 10metres of so to make sure we were not being hunted by 2 animals quite capable of ripping us apart in seconds.  This might be a good time to point out to the safari virgins amoungst you that a male lion can weigh up to 250kgs (I weigh about 80kgs....no fat jokes please!) and can run about 60mph (I cannot run at 60mph...) and lets not forget their teeth and claws (I have 4 fake teeth and bite my fingernails...on paper I'm the slight underdog!).  However, after finishing almost a complete circle around their last known location, finishing in the cover of a similar cluster of trees, we had not seen them.  This led us to the conclusion that they had moved off without our knowing it.  A sensible assumption.

We all started to relax and I, as lead rifle, turned around to Malcolm, and in a normal voice instead of a whisper asked what we should do.  What happened next is a bit of a blur as it all happened in the space of a few seconds, but the expression on his face will be etched into my mind til the day I die.  He froze and his eyes went so wide, his eyelids almost folded themselves over the top of his head.  For a moment I thought he was joking.  Then I turned around...  Looking at me from a distance of about 4 metres were the 2 lions.  The distance is not an exaggeration and I suggest that you all take a moment to pace out 4 metres from where you sit reading this and imagine a male lion standing there in all his maned glory.  Also bare in mind that a fully grown male lion would come up to about my chest with his head raised.! 

Obviously I am writing this so you can probably work out that we survived.  In short, the lions were so fast asleep they had been completely oblivious to our stealthy approach and only woke up when I spoke.  Mercifully, we gave them such a fright that they took one look at us, turned tail and ran.  I would like to put this down to us being an intimidating sight but I can't.  We got very lucky.  I could embelish this with graphic details of bowel movements and screaming like (manly) girls but as I said it all happened so quickly that we didn't even have time to raise the rifle to our shoulders, let alone compute what was happening and what we should do!  The ran about 50 metres away and turned back to watch us and we made a controlled but hasty extraction from the area.

It was a close call but an invaluable lesson to never drop your guard on a walk as you really don't know what is around the next corner.  All it took was for there to be some knee high grass in front of us and we were totally unaware of these mighty cats slumbering in the grass!         

Some Uploaded Photos to Start

The southen pride on the move

Dominant male leopard patrolling his territory

Beautiful elephant bull

Mother and 1 month old rhino drinking at sunset

Dominant male flexing his gums
(I know picture is oversharpened - still playing with new camera!!!)

The Flehman Grimace