E is for ‘Enthusiasm.’ Or rather, ‘Enthusiasm!!’

  

  
The sightings we had on tonight’s safari were some of the best I’ve had in a long time. They were downright kudutastic! It began with the giant bull elephant standing next to the road dismantling a sickle bush as only an elephant can. He was followed by the HAPPIEST RHINO I’VE EVER SEEN, rolling about in a fresh mud wallow (it was raining – a lot). Just twenty minutes into the drive, I never expected it could get even better. But wait! Further down the road, a flash of red streaked through the rain from the tamboti thicket on our right. Narina Trogon! It posed next to the road, making for the best sighting of this elusive bird that I’ve ever had. Not done yet, we also had a herd of damp elephants crossing the road just a few feet away and soon after, two stunning male lions who broke my weeks long ‘lion drought.’ End it all with a pale Walhberg’s Eagle scaring the socks off a group of Senegal lapwings. Pretty amazing, huh?

But here’s the kicker. It’s not great sightings that make a great game drive. What makes a great game drive is the magic happening inside the car. The vibe. How everyone reacts to the natural miracles happening all around them . The enthusiasm. Enthusiasm!

Let’s go back to the start. That first elephant. He was huge. We were practically in his shadow. You can imagine how excited I was.

“Guys!” I whispered as loudly as I dared, “Isn’t he fantastic! This is the elephant that likes to come up to the lodge and cause a little chaos every now and then. You can see how happy he is just by looking at his swishy tail and…”

That’s when I noticed that no one was listening. At all. Everyone was talking amongst themselves and not about the elephant. Indeed, no one was even looking at the elephant! Rather they were looking down at cameras, phones or out the other side of the car. And I was thankful for them, because what they were doing was better than the one guest who was simply giving me a death stare. Awkward.

I tried to continue. “…and just watch the way he’s using his trunk to…”

I looked up again. No change. No vibe. No nothing. I spoke louder.

… He’s using his trunk to strip the bark from…”

*Phone* *Camera* *Conversation about airconditioning units* *Vacant death stare*

“He strips the bark to get down to the sunglasses popcorn typewriter. Shall we move on?” And we did.

The rhino down the road wasn’t much different.

“Oh my goodness you guys! That’s the happiest rhino I’ve ever seen! He’s been waiting for the mud bath for months! It’s just so dry here and…”

And I couldn’t hear myself speak. Because everyone else was speaking louder. And again, no one was looking at the rhino. Death stare? You betcha.

“… and, and well, now he’s having a mudbath. Ginger pancake. Shall we move on?

My absolute glee at the Narina Trogon was met with silence. My original death starer was joined by five new ones. I still couldn’t help myself and had launched into a speech about the trogon’s beauty and rarity, but trailed off mid-way. “Um…shall we moved on?”

But it didn’t get me down. I was on fire. The elephants, the trogon, the rain. I was loving every minute of this safari, and I was determined to spread that love around. Fix the vibe. Each new interpretation was delivered with increasing enthusiasm. But even the lions couldn’t muster any enthusiasm in these guests. With the exception of one, who’d never seen a lion before, the rest simply acted disinterested. I don’t know if they even glanced in the lion’s direction in the ten minutes we were parked. More death stares. Ouch.

It wasn’t all silence though. While we were watching a kudu, one of my guests announced that it wasn’t a kudu. It was.

A guide’s job isn’t always easy and tonight proved that. Enthusiasm on safari is borne of a number of factors and not all of them come together nicely when we need them do. Expectations certainly play a big part (I told you to leave them behind!). And as much as I like to think that guests always feed off our passion and excitement, it’s just not how it works all the time.

But it’s how I’ll work all the time.

When my guests are a little difficult, the best I can do is be me. And me is enthusiastic. Naturally. Yep, I get excited about senegal lapwings and the weird noises they make; go a little crazy for that cloud that looks like a tube of toothpaste; look that kudu right in the eye and have a private giggle about how big its ears are; marvel at the elephant next to me.

Why all the enthusiasm? Because. Because I’m all too aware that there will be a time when that elephant ten feet away is the last one I’ll ever see. And I don’t know when that’ll be. If that isn’t enough on its own, then just consider that every single moment of a safari no matter what’s happening, is finite, unique, brilliant, special and certainly never to be repeated. The wild is an endlessly amazing place and that’s something to be enthusiastic about!

  
Tonight’s safari sightings:

Elephant

White Rhino

Giraffe

Wildegnu

Lion

Narina Trogon

Nyala

Buffalo

Kudu

Grey Duiker

Impala

Senegal Lapwing

Wattled Lapwing

Walhberg’s Eagle (the pale, pretty morph)

 

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How many sea turtle e-newsletters can one person sign up for? Many.

 

the beach of many turtles…


Note:  I wrote this one a few days ago.  It’s just been waiting for an internet connection.  Last night I as playing darts at home, not turtle tracking. Anyway…

So remember yesterday how I was going on and on about ghost crabs? How ghost crabs were my new favourite thing in the world? How I encouraged everyone reading this to go out and there and ‘find your ghost crab;’ ie find something you’d never considered before and fall in love with it?

Well, last night I found my ghost crab. And it was a sea turtle. Yep, that’s right. Ghost crabs are, like, SO yesterday.

When I arrived at Thonga Beach Lodge a couple of days ago, I’d actually forgotten that one of the things that draws so many visitors here and indeed to this whole stretch of remote Northern Natal coast at this time of the year, is sea turtles. Unlike a lot of the people who come here, a ‘turtle tour’ has never been on my bucket list. I’ve never seen a tour advertised and thought, ‘oh my goodness, I need to do that.’ I’ve always known about sea turtles, but like tigers and pandas and sloths, they’re just so unfamiliar to me. I’d never seen them, never stayed up at night thinking about them, never wanted to join any sort of sea turtle club or get sea turtle e-newsletters. Sea turtles just weren’t ‘on my radar.’

So it’s quite by accident that I ended up on a ‘turtle tour’ last night. After a delicious dinner of ostrich fillet, espresso creme brulee and a rather large tequila based cocktail, my lovely dinner companions and I were escorted down to the beach where a Land Cruiser stood waiting for us. Before we’d even climbed aboard, the night had already been made for me. The milky way splashed above our heads, the waves were breaking next to us, the ghost crabs were scuttling about, the tequila. I didn’t even need turtles. And as a safari guide, I knew I couldn’t go into any sort of wild experience with expectations. So I dropped them. And just loved instead.

We started out driving to the south for a few kilometers, but reached the end of the concession without any sign of turtle activity, so we turned around. As we drove across the smooth beach, hundreds and hundreds of ghost crabs crossed our path. Some rushing towards us, some rushing away and some just standing in our path waving their little pinchers defiantly in our general direction. I admired their spirit.

When we reached the lodge again, I figured that was the turtle tour over. We went, we didn’t see, end of tour. Not so! Our guide seemed more determined than ever to find us some turtles and he sped past the lodge. Not more than a hundred meters past the lodge’s beach deck, he spied some fresh turtle tracks. We ground to a halt in the deep sand and jumped off excitedly. Sadly, we’d missed the hatchling turtles emerging from their nest and running to the sea. Looking at the tracks, it seemed that many of the turtles had made it, but with all those ghost crabs around, some of them wouldn’t have reached their destination. I immediately fell out of love with ghost crabs. I had no idea they just hung around turtle nests waiting for the poor little dudes to hatch and then it was all ‘surprise, we’re here to eat you…’

 

hatchling leatherback turtle


Following the tracks backwards up the dune, we located the nest and found one ‘straggler.’ A little loggerhead turtle, one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen in real life, struggling to free himself of the nest. He tried hard, but it seems he just wasn’t strong enough to lift his head, let alone pull himself down to the surf. My heart broke when we had to let nature take his course and leave him to the crabs. Less than one in a hundred hatchling turtles survives. He wasn’t going to be the one. As I climbed back onto the Land Cruiser, I had tears in my eyes. ‘Turtle tracking really sucks,’ I thought to myself. But I had to come to grips with the reality. Each turtle has so many babies (sometimes more than 1000 in a season), precisely because it’s so darn hard for them to take to the sea. If they managed to hatch at all, and climb out of the nest, they’re met by ghost crabs, or honey badgers, or mongooses or if they hatch during the day, they have to deal with hoards of birds as well. The few that make the short journey across the sand have to contend with all the fishes who swarm in anticipation of a turtle dinner. And that’s all in the first 10 minutes of hatching! If you survive all of those obstacles and make it to open water, you’re still in open water. And there are a million other predators there (including other turtles) who’ll see to it that only a teeny, tiny percentage of hatchlings will ever get to grow up and live out the near-century long lifespans they’re capable of.

Back to turtle tracking. We left our doomed loggerhead in search of others. And a few minutes north, our guide suddenly came to a stop and turned off the lights. ‘You can get down,’ he offered. And we got down to find ourselves surrounded by countless baby loggerhead turtles flapping about in every direction. They were everywhere! And you know what wasn’t everywhere? Ghost crabs. By some miracle, this nest hadn’t attracted any ghost crabs. Yet. Fresh from my leatherback heartbreak, I was determined to see each and every one of these turtles make it to the sea. We all were. We stood at the edge of the ocean, where the water just lapped at the sand and waited.

There were so many turtles that we just had to stand still for fear of standing on one. And when we stood still, they came to us. Clumsy turtles bumping into ankles and walking over toes. I fell in love. After all, I had a giant spot in my heart that the ghost crabs had recently vacated. My heart was ready for turtles. Waves would come and take buckets of turtles at a time. Some were totally shocked at the sensation and just kind of went limp and rolled around in the foam, while others just got it right away and surfed out to sea like little flipper-laden pros. And over the course of half an hour, they were all gone into the deep, black ocean. Maybe one will survive to come back to this beach one day and lay her eggs, but it’ll be long after I’m dead. That was really something to think about.

 

touched by a loggerhead hatchling

I wanted to give the turtles all kinds of advice for this new world they’ve entered because it’s no longer the place that’s nourished their ancestors for the last few hundred million years.

“Be careful what you eat,” I whispered to the last one. “Taste the jellyfish before you swallow it. There’s this new thing called plastic… and watch out for big, scary fishing nets… and be careful where you come up for air… and…”  And I felt so helpless. Here we were in the midst of one of earth’s most ancient animals and we’d really screwed it all up for them.

A lot of the ‘wildlife tourism’ in South Africa is based on the idea that in order to want to conserve something, you need to make some sort of physical connection with it. It’s said that you need to touch a cheetah, trek with the gorillas, feed a vulture, come eye to eye with a great white shark or be kissed by an elephant. Being ‘kissed’ an elephant isn’t just un-ethical, it’s super gross. Don’t do it. Anyway, the places who offer any kind of animal interactions justify what they’re doing as being vital to the conservation process; let someone touch something and they’ll start caring about it.

Until last night, I thought this was all a bit rubbish, really. Not much more than an excuse. But now I see it. Now I’ve touched it. Now I’ve fallen in love with it. Now i’ve already signed up for turtle newsletters and bought turtle books. Now I look at plastic on the beach in a whole new light. Now I care. Now my soul’s on fire for sea turtles. And now I want to conserve. I don’t just want to conserve, I will conserve. I’ll make that effort, I’ll learn about what I can do (and share it here). I’ll spread the word, I’ll send people on turtle tours. I’ll come back and see them again. Many times. Life’s not actually the same as it was yesterday. My few short days on the beach have been an eye opener. And a heart opener. The ocean is a whole new world and one I’m about to learn a lot more about… Love.

 

I tried to recreate the experience with the chocolate on my pillow. I still ate it.  Because tequila.

 

Safari guiding essentials: the spotlight

 

Celia the Spotlight

I’ve got a new toy! And I’m really looking forward to testing it out. Any guide will tell you about the constant struggles they have with spotlights on their safaris. It’s like war. Us vs. Them. And they almost always win and leave us in the dark. Literally.

It’s like they’re determined to not work. They have many tactics they employ to meet this end.

Their cords get broken and need to be re-attached, their bulbs or switches break and need to be replaced. Only to break again almost immediately. Then the red filters go missing. Like, who would want to steal a red filter? But at the last lodge I worked at, it happened ALL THE TIME. There’s someone living near Pilanesburg game reserve with a giant box full of little plastic red filters (um, R475 a pop to replace) that they just don’t know what to do with. How about just not stealing them in the first place? It’s some great conspiracy between the theives and the spotlights themselves. 

But sometimes (rarely) the problem isn’t the spotlight. Where I am now, the lodge is pretty unique in having a set of good quality, near flawless spotlights; but in this never ending war, the vehicle fuses simply can’t always cope with all that awesomeness. There’s got to be a trade off. The spotlights make it that way.

All of these faults wouldn’t be much  bother if they happened occasionally, but in my years and years of guiding I’ve found these nightly spotlight problems to happen all the time. On a near-daily basis. It’s stressful! Darn you, spotlights. Darn you all.

And I hope I’ve eliminated that stress with my new investment:

Meet Celia; a lovely new LED, cordless, rechargeable spotlight. Love, joy and bliss.

Celia will find me animals. And she’s under my full control. She won’t break. And she’ll be locked up in my room where she can’t be influenced by other, naughtier spotlights.

Celia’s coming out with me tonight on game drive and I’ll give a full review at some point in the future once she’s been given a real workout in tough conditions.

Until then, what do you guys think about spotlights on safari? I’ve been surprised but happy to have had a few sets of guests in the past months who have requested that we don’t use one, because it isn’t fair to the animals. It really got me thinking again about safari ethics. Thoughts? Nocturnal animals: light ’em up or just let them be?

 

The red filter: one stupidly expensive peice of plastic. But totally necessary for ethical up-close animal viewing at night…

 

August 11: August Wind is Windy

It was another really cold Kalahari night! The day had been ridiculously windy and while I usually shake my fists at the wind (“Grrrrr go away wind…”) it serves an important function. So I let it be. This time.

By the time it gets to August in the Kalahari, it’s very dry indeed. The winds always come at this time of year and they help to spread about all the grass seed that’s been floating around.  And the winds get Tumbleweed on the move, and no sighting beats a genuine Tumbleweed bouncing down the road on a cold morning!

I’m recycling photos here, but this is a Tumbleweed flower from back in the days before they all dried up, broke off at the base, curled up into big balls and started bouncing around the dunes. Beautiful much?

One of my favourite Kalahari relationships is between Bushman Grass and Driedoring bushes. When the winds come, they super-fluffy Bushman Grass is often caught by the super-catchy Three-Thorn bushes. When the rains come, it means the bushman grass grows close by the bushes.  In turn, both these plants help to stabilize the sand and yet more things can grow and more little paws can burrow. Love.

Another recycled photo (red face), but this is a Three Thorn Bush (Driedoring), probably one of the Kalahari’s most important little plants, stabilizing the dunes and providing food and shelter for lots of little things.

It’s also these crazy winds that shaped the dunes over time to the relatively fixed position they’re in today. So wind is excusable in the Kalahari.

The wind may have kept some of the animals tucked up under bushes for the sunset drive, and we saw noticeably less than we’d expect to see. But with endless things to talk about, it was a fantastic drive.

Sunset Drive Sightings:

African Wild Cat
Eland
Sprinhare
Gemsbok
Springbok
Wildebeest
Steenbok
Ostrich
Tawny Eagle
Spotted Eagle Owl

By the night drive, the wind had subsided a little and more nocturnal goodies came out to play!

The drive began with a Spotted Hyena right by the vehicle. We’ve been seeing them frequently the last week, which has been very exciting. This particular one was eyeing up a nervous herd of Eland across the road. Their fears were founded as 7% of Spotted Hyena kills in this part of the Kalahari are said to be Eland calves.

I noticed in this particular herd what I love most about eland herds. The size differences! Unlike other Kalahari antelopes who seem to come in fixed sizes of small and large, you often find the full range of sizes in one Eland herd, from XS to XXXL! And when an Eland is XXXL it’s really XXXL. A full grown male can be larger than a Buffalo, weighing in at more than 800kgs. In the past week we’ve been lucky to see a number of these monster eland close to camp.

An absolutely wonderful drive to end my time in this park. Love Kalahari!

A lovely poignant image. Love Kalahari 🙂

Night Drive Sightings:

Spotted Hyena
Small Spotted Genet
African Wild Cat
Eland
Cape Fox
Bat eared Fox
Black Backed Jackal
Springhare
Dikkop
Gemsbok
Springbok
Wildebeest
Spotted Eagle Owl

August 7-9: The Camera-Less Days…

I haven’t actually taken any photos for days now…

…So here’s a random photo I took months and months ago when everything was still warm and the plants were all green and alive. Good times.

Rainbow Buggie

August 7: How to be Really Warm on a Really Cold Game Drive

While the rest of South Africa advertised to the rest of South Africa that they’d had some degree of snowfall today, the Kalahari froze. We didn’t get snow. It just froze. Earlier in the day I said goodbye to my special little Kalahari house and moved to a whole new one. I was delighted to find a cozy corner of the new garden shielded from the icy wind and bathed in hot hot sunlight.  So proud was I of my little patch of summer that I sat there and allowed myself to cook for very many hours.

The resulting sunburn on my face meant that while my poor guests froze tonight, I was very hot. So hot that I spent much of the drive fantasizing about putting my face into a bowl of snow. If only we had snow. But we didn’t.

Sunset Drive Sightings:

Eland
African Wild Cat
Springhare
Scrubhare
Steenbok
Springbok
Wildebeest
Gemsbok
Giant Eagle Owl
Spotted Eagle Owl
Kori Bustard
Dikkop
Gabar Goshawk
Pale Chanting Goshawk
Red Necked Falcon
Tawny Eagle

August 8: Welcome to LOGFAAN

So much positive energy flowing tonight! Guiding people on safari is a two-way thing. A game drive can only be as good as a guests attitude. The people I took out on this evening’s sunset drive would have made it magical if we’d seen nothing more than 23 specks of dust and a Camel Thorn pod.

But good things often come to good people and our sightings tonight were wonderful. We managed to see ‘Oscar’ the leopard again, but he was far far away. This didn’t matter to my guests, who’d seen their very first leopard. And with that, they joined the exclusive ‘LOGFAAN’ society reserved only for those who’ve see a leopard-on-ground-far-away-at-night.

While pulled over watching the stars, we got talking about Men in Black (the movie, not some people wearing black) and there’s a cat in the movie with a entire universe contained in its collar. But it’s entirely plausible. We and everything we know could be stuck in a cat’s collar. Love.

Sunset Drive Sightings:

Porcupine
Leopard
Eland
Jackal
Cape Fox
Bat Eared Fox
African Wild Cat
Scrub Hare
Springhare
Wildebeest
Springbok
Gemsbok
Spotted Eagle Owl
Giant Eagle Owl

August 9: Springhares Might be Robots

It was a night for the little things… and there were so many of them… including two separate Polecat sightings!

Sunset Drive Sightings:

Polecat
Small Spotted Genet
Eland
African Wild Cat
Cape Fox
Bat Eared Fox
Black Backed Jackal
Steenbok
Springbok
Springhare
Scrubhare
Wildebeest
Ostrich
Gemsbok
Pale Chanting Goshawk
Giant Eagle Owl
Spotted Eagle Owl

The night drive was considerably colder and after the first half and hour, we saw nothing but Springhares. Springhares don’t seem to be affected by the cold. I have many theories for this, but i’m leaning towards the one where all springhares are actually little robots. Have you ever noticed how there’s never anything going on behind a Springhare’s eyes? Robots. Must be. I’ll look into it.

Night Drive Sightings:

Spotted Hyena
Cape Fox
Springhare
Springbok
Spotted Eagle Owl
Gemsbok

August 4: “AAAAAAAAARDWOOOOOOOLF!” *deep breath* “AAAAAAAARDWOOOOOLF!”

I try as often as possible to tell people on my drives that aardwolf’s eat 300,000 termites each night. Because I never see aardwolfs, I have to find other ways to sneak in the little fact I love so dearly…

…“Bat Eared Foxes eat termites, but not as many as an Aarwolf does! An aardwolf eats 300,000 in one night”…

… “See this Brown Hyena? It’s kind of like a big Aardwolf, except it’s not at all and Brown Hyenas don’t eat termites, but Aardwolfs will eat 300,000 in one night!”

…“The African Wild Cat has distinctive stripes on it’s legs. You know what else is stripey? An Aardwolf. And Aardwolfs will eat 300,000 termites in one night!”…

Tonight, I got to tell my guests that “Aardwolfs will eat 300,000 termites in one night!”, except this time, an actual Aardwolf heard me say it. Cool? Very.

The drive hadn’t gone tremendously well to that point. While we’d seen a huge variety of nocturnal goodies (see epic list below), we’d also driven far afield in search of lions who weren’t there and my guests had disagreed with me at a Wild Cat sighting, insisting it was rather a leopard. They’re still convinced.

As I was starting to let my mind wander to the peanut butter cookies in my kitchen, I casually glanced to my right. And there was an aardwolf. Right there. Just meters from the truck, and staring back at me with a face i’ve only ever seen in mammal books.

I won’t go into my exact reaction. It involved a lot of gasping and squeaking. I told my guests that this was my first ever Aarwolf sighting and that they were lucky enough to see one of Africa’s lesser-seen safari stars. And of course I told them about the 300,000 termites. There were smiles all around, but I suspect they were more in response to my reaction, which progressed from gasping and squeaking to hand clapping and jumping up and down in my seat as the reality of the situation sunk in.

Seeing something new is always such a rush. Technically speaking, i’ve had two aardwolf sightings before this one. My most recent was by the side of the road as the truck I was in sped by at 140km/h, leaving me thinking, “goodness me, was that an aardwolf?”. My first sighting was on my field guiding course. I remember feeling like my life was complete, that I could die now that i’d seen an aardwolf. Perhaps a tad dramatic, but the feeling was indescribable. Only when we got back to camp did our photos prove the ‘aardwolf’ was in fact a Bat Eared Fox. But never mind, i’d still had the experience of seeing an aardwolf.

So tonight was extra special. You never even hear about aardwolf sightings in this part of the Kalahari. Everyone knows they’re here, but they’re a little like pangolins and black-footed cats– kind of mythical.

An unforgettable night.

Did I photograph tonight’s aardwolf? Noooo… but I do have a grainy 3 second video of a blurry blob moving up a sand dune. I did photograph this Spotted Hyena half an hour later, another animal I hardly ever get to see in the Kalahari.

Sunset Drive Sightings:

Aardwolf
Spotted Hyena
Eland
Small Spotted Genet
African WIld Cat
Cape Fox
Bat Eared Fox
Black Backed Jackal
Springhare
Scrubhare
Steenbok
Springbok
Wildbeest
Gemsbok
Ostrich
Verreaux’s Eagle Owl
Spotted Eagle Owl
Tawny Eagle
Pale Chanting Goshawk
Kori Bustard

The night drive was rather more sedate with less squeaking and hand clapping. The highlight of the drive was a Spotted Hyena just as we came in through the gate. Love that feeling of hopping back into the truck after locking the gate behind me, only to find that a large predator had been watching all along.

Night Drive Sightings:

Spotted Hyena
Eland
African Wild Cat
Bat Eared Fox
Cape Fox
Black Backed Jackal
Springhare
Scrubhare
Steenbok
Gemsbok
Spotted Eagle Owl

July 18: The Super-Jackals are Making Shoes Now…

Before the night drive, the camp was buzzing with news of four cheetahs who’d just tried to bring down a wildebeest at the hide.  Later when I went down to see if they were still around, the hide was packed, but no cheetahs. I decided to walk along the perimeter fence to see if I could find them elsewhere. And it worked! Their presence given away by a Tawny Eagle rudely staring directly at them. The four cheetahs were perched on a dune crest.  It’s always so fun to have great sightings right in camp!

Tonight there was a night drive and it started with one guest getting a glimpse of one of the  four cheetahs just outside the camp’s gate. The tracks in the road confirmed what she saw. But of ten people on the drive, just one can add ‘cheetah’ to their list.

Tonight we were tracking lions all over the place. Over the course of the night we followed six different sets of tracks- all of which were extra crispy and fresh.  I love the feeling of following fresh tracks!

Have I ever mentioned how smart Jackals are? They’re smart. They’ve even been coined ‘Super-Jackals’ by the farming community because of their ability to avoid traps and problem solve. And I think that the jackals have started walking around wearing little ‘lion shoes’ to throw us all off. Despite all of the tracks, there were no lions anywhere. But lots of jackals.

Sightings:

Cheetah (for one of us)
Brown Hyena
Eland
African Wild Cat
Gemsbok
Springbok
Wildbeest
Springhare
Bat Eared Fox
Black Backed Jackal
Cape Fox
Spotted Eagle Owl
Barn Owl