Photo: Wild Dog… deep in thought

Just look into those eyes… I wonder what it’s thinking? Deep, existential stuff, no doubt… Maybe it understands that it’s one of the very last of its kind. 


But whatever it’s thinking, it’s probably thinking about a heck of a lot more than its buddy below is. I think this one’s a bit special. I’ve always got love for the underdogs.


Hoofnote: Only a tiny fraction of wild dogs will ever be lucky enough to breed and pass on their genes. Only the alpha males and females are worthy of the privilege. Something I understand far too well. Love.

Words to safari by… The Gorgeous Bush Shrike.

  
“Be gorgeous” (EXTREMELY IMPORTANT)

“Be bush-shrikey” (A little less important. Don’t go off and research all the things that bush shrikes do.)

Love, Safariosophy 

A Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Bushwalk in Photos…

Sometimes you don’t really need words…

Or at least not that many.

 

gorgeous little fungus

 

got a thing for fungi

 

pure beauty

 

when palms make you feel small

 

just sit

 

or lie down

 

but always looks up

 

let new spaces tak e your breath away

 

touch the fungus gall – i love fungi too much

 

let colours take you away

 

do a tamboti sunset

 

peer into a scorpion hole

 

let the mozzies eat. theyre hungry too. love.

 

 

but dont touch these ones. ouch.

 

and the next morning do it all again. with rhinos. theres one there. honest.

 

When Good Safaris Go Bad…

 

the sun will rise…

 
I’ve gone wild for the fabulous guests I’ve had this past month.  Like, really wild.  They’ve been awesome and are probably some of the best I’ve had. Tick bite fever aside, I’ve been on a pretty big high this last month. But as I’ve learned, safaris can’t always be cookies and fairy lights all the time.  They should be though, right?

Well, the safari I’ve just concluded proves that safaris can suck. Not only can they suck, but they can be hurtful and downright abusive too. From the outset, my last safari was miserable. It stayed that way throughout and finally culminated in the senseless deaths of countless caterpillars. I won’t go into details, but it made me question everything we do as guides. Are the ecological benefits of what we do, really enough to justify the damage we cause? Because sometimes I think they aren’t.  How much environmental harm is done just so that somebody who doesn’t want to be there can photograph the back of a buffalo’s head with a camera phone?

Is our ecological impact really worth it?

I’ve turned to ‘friends in the know’ these past days and put the same question to them. And the general consensus seems to be that as safari guides we’re the lesser of many evils. Unintentionally, we cause damage and harm to the animals and environments we love every time we lead a safari. But if we weren’t there, then who would be? Another less ethically-minded guide? Or worse, no guide at all? Or even worse, people intent on destroying our wild? Because it could happen.  All too easily. It’s something I’ll be left thinking about for a long time to come.

That safari is over (thank goodness!) and I’ve donated the income I’ve made during this awful safari to the Lepidopterists Society of Africa, who do brilliant work in butterfly conservation. You can find them at http://www.lepsoc.org.za. Take something vile and turn it into the most beautiful thing possible. Dirty money, transformed into butterflies. Yeah, that works for me 🙂

  
So let’s end this on a lighthearted note. I’m always looking for a positive, so the following is a list of actual things I did to cope with my bad safari, as it was happening…

Top 5: Guide’s Guide to Surviving a Bad Safari

1. Pick it Up: Keep tabs on every time a bad guest does something to upset you. For each instance, stop and pick up a piece of garbage from the roadside. Use their negativity to clean up the environment. Win!

2. Drinking games! Carry a flask of hot chocolate. Every time they shout ‘STOP!’ take a swig. Double it up when they shout STOP when you’re already stopped. With the engine off. I’ve had so much hot chocolate in the last 48 hours that my teeth feel like they’re disintegrating.

3. Breathe: It’s what we do best. Zone out. Meditate on each breath.  Notice the infinite colours your eyes are picking up at every given moment. At least until someone shouts ‘STOP!’

4. Thought Experiments: Imagine you can confiscate each of their cameras. What would you do with them? Because I’d donate them to science. Have you ever wondered how close you can get a Canon lens to an active volcano before the glass shatters? I certainly have. Or what depth can you sink a Nikon body to the bottom of the ocean before the pressure is just too much and it collapses in on itself?  I wonder… And really, how does a Samsung bridge camera cope in zero-gravity? Why not send it on a space mission and find out?  NASA’s next launch happens to be in just a couple of days, on March 22nd.  I even looked it up.  That’s how serious I was.

5.  Good old medicinal uses:  Start talking about the medicinal uses of trees. All the trees. The guests aren’t listening anyway, and it’s great practice. “So those trees that are obscuring the nyala you’re attempting to photograph with futility, are Magic Guarris. You can use them to treat constipation… diarrhoea… yep, not sure how that works either… abdominal pain… convulsions… toothache… leprosy…” See how far you get before someone shouts “JUST GO!”

Until the next safari, LOVE.

we’re all equals here…

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)

 

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.

 

Am Reading… Between The Tides, In Search of Sea Turtles by George Hughes

 

beautiful book…

 
I’m so in love with this book! After my trip to the beach, I fell madly in love with all things sea turtle. In an attempt to learn more, I scoured the internet for for any great looking books, but couldn’t find any! Then as I was checking out of Thonga Beach Lodge, I found this little gem tucked away in a dark corner of the gift shop. How lucky!

George Hughes is a frequent visitor to Thonga and I hope to catch up with him one day.

Can’t wait to love my way through this book.

More on sea turtles to come very soon at Safariosophy, once I’ve been further endowed with some of Hughes’ wisdom and knowledge (and once I have time to get down to some serious writing.)

Love.

it’s even signed – how cool!