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.

Advertisements

Crocodiles: The Hot Sex Edition

We saw a crocodile on game drive this morning! Isn’t that fun? We don’t see them often, so it’s a pretty big deal.

  
But did you know…

… That temperature determines a crocodile’s sex? Yep, the temperature that the crocodile’s eggs sit at in the nest will determine if those hatchlings are little boy crocodiles or little girl crocodiles.

It’s called ‘temperature dependent sex determination.’ Or TSD. It’s a reptile thing.

It’s been shown that boys (‘crocomales’) incubate within a really tiny temperature range; between 31.7 and 34.5 degrees C. Any colder than that, and you’ve got girls. Any hotter and you’ve also got girls.

It means that within a single nest you’ll have a cool female:male:female sex ratio.

Conclusion: girl crocodiles are hotter. But colder. But hotter.

I drew an exquisite diagram showing exactly how this process works.

 

artistic genius. i take all the credit for this.

 
Hoofnote: As is TSD wasn’t enough to make crocodiles interesting, you should also know that crocodiles are the only animal in South Africa that see humans as natural prey. When they eat us, it’s fair game.

This morning’s game drive sightings:

Crocodile

Zebra

Giraffe

White rhino

Elephant 

Nyala 

Buffalo 

Impala

Woolly necked stork

Gorgeous bush shrike

Black backed puffback

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.

 

An Accidental Indian Ocean Sunrise…

So this morning, I got up deliciously early with one objective in mind. I wanted to go and chase (and photograph, maybe) ghost crabs. I didn’t know what a ghost crab was until I arrived here at Thonga Beach Lodge on the pristine northern KZN coast yesterday. I’d heard the name, but not met the crustacean in person. And I’m in love. Madly, wildly, crazy in love. I’m sure there’ll be more about ghost crabs to come in future posts.

Every time I tried to photograph one, they quickly tunneled themselves deep into the sand or caught the next wave and vanished. Probably because they knew I didn’t really want to photograph them; I wanted to hug them and squeeze them and love them forever. Smart crabs.

Anyway, the best I could do was this:

 

ghost crab… legs

 
What I wanted to do, was this:

ghost crab… legs

 And I accidentally glanced up while chasing crabs, and saw this:

sunrise over the Indian Ocean…

There’s nothing quite like discovering something new that gives you boundless joy. What’s your ghost crab? Go find it today. Love.
 

Coffee with Milk, Sugar and a LION CHARGE

 

same viewpoint, very different day

 It was a Sunday morning. Last Sunday morning to be exact. And a confession… I wasn’t actually enjoying my game drive. My guests were on their last drive of their two night safari with me and the pressure was on. For the past couple of days, we’d seen scarcely more than a giraffe and half of my guests had given up hope of a ‘big-ticket sighting’ and had opted rather to stay in bed that morning. It happens.

But the guests who’d come on that final safari wanted lions. Nothing else would do. Not even the whole pack of wild dogs we’d found scattered across the road in front of us.

“Are those dingos?” asked one of my guests.

“Definitely not!” was my reply. Every guide can relate to the ‘wild dog problem.’ As guides, we get pretty darn excited when we’re lucky enough to stumble across a pack of wild dogs. They’re Africa’s rarest predator (bar the Ethiopian wolf, but those live super far away) as well as Africa’s most successful hunter. They catch nearly 80% of the animals they chase, which can’t even be compared to the lion’s paltry 30%. Wild dogs take things to the extreme; their intelligence is unsurpassed, as is their body odour. Their pack structure is unique among the big predators, with only the alpha male and female in a pack being allowed to breed. Who raises those privileged puppies? Everyone.

So what’s the ‘problem’ with wild dogs? The problem is that even after you’ve explained all of these magnificent things to your guests, they still don’t care. I’ve had very few sightings with international guests where those guests haven’t asked to leave. And Sunday was no exception.

“We want you to go,” came the request from the back, just as the dogs were beginning to psych themselves up for an early morning hunt.

“Um… are you sure?” I asked.

“Yes,” they laughed. They actually laughed. Like the joke was on me. Silly guide, stopping to watch dingos…

Very reluctantly, I pulled away. I’d been on my way to a lion sighting that had been called in just up the road from the dogs. Other guides I’d passed had reported that while there were lions there, they were really, really far away. But still, they were lions, and I needed lions.

As I pulled into the viewpoint, I did indeed see the lions, but my usual enthusiasm had waned somewhat. I kept wondering what the wild dogs were up to. What they were chasing, what the puppies were playing with, what cool noises they were all making.

As I unlatched the door and freed my guests, I casually mentioned that there were lions down in the riverbed and encouraged them to go and join the crowd that had gathered on foot at the viewpoint to watch specks of lions through their binoculars. I stayed back to make the coffee. And to grumble to myself about my seemingly ungrateful guests.

‘Grumble grumble grumble… hope they’re happy now… grumble grumble… got their lions… grumble.’

By the time I’d made and neatly lined up five coffees (OCD conquers all), the crowd had dissipated, making their way back to their cars and leaving. My guests sauntered back as well. As I handed out the coffees, Mr. Wild-Dogs-Are-Boring came up to me.

“How were the lions?” I asked.

“They were okay,” he said, “but what I really liked the most today, was those wild dogs. They were a treat for us. I can see why you like them so much.  Thanks for showing  them to us.”

I’m the sort of girl who’s won over easily. I also forgive pretty quickly. Say the right thing and I’m a friend for life. The situation turned around instantly.

‘What fabulous, sweet guests!’ I thought to myself. And I really meant it. See? Easy.

“Let’s go see those lions again,” I offered with a smile. Coffee cups in hand, we strolled back over to the viewpoint, all of us together. But the lions had gone. No doubt, gone off into the reeds, not to be seen again that day.

“Oh well, we got to see them nicely,” I said with a shrug of my shoulders. I took a few steps closer to the edge to have one last scan for the lions, when a million things suddenly happened all at once.

…guests screamed

…I turned to look at guests

…they’re running away

…a coffee cup hits the ground

…a hat flies into the air

…I see a flash of brown fur

…for some reason I think ‘babboon’

…dust showers my legs

…baboon is running straight at me

…does it want my coffee?

…there’s no way I’m giving it my new Stanley mug

…its growling at me

…CRAP

…it’s a lion

…It’s a LION

…instinctively turn away

…CRAP

…It’s a lion charge

…can’t run from a lion charge

…muscle memory kicks in

…”STOP RUNNING!” I shout at my guests

…I stand still

…instinctively go to chamber a round in my rifle

…CRAP

…I’m holding a coffee mug

…lion is less than two meters away

…growling

…dust

…fur

…guests still running

…”STAND STILL! NOW!” I scream

When I say those things happened all at once, I really mean it. The thoughts all came in a nanosecond. I suppose that’s what everyone means when they talk about how a lion charge gives you ‘tunnel-vision.’ Or maybe that’s not what it was at all.

So all of that happened instantly, but everything else that followed took FOREVER. We weren’t done yet…

…hands into air

…show my hands to the lion

…step back

…take another step back

…keep showing her those hands, like it’ll help somehow

…”We’re cool, this is cool,” I say to the lion

…the car is SO far away

…CRAP

…the car is SO SO far away

…”STOP RUNNING!” I scream again

…guests ran, so they’re already at the car

…lions hold ground

…I’m scanning everywhere for more

…she can’t be alone

…watches every baby step I take to the car

…The car is SO SO far away

Eventually I get to the car and stand dumbfounded at the door, the lion has followed me but she’s now 20 m away, with her head poking out from behind a bush.

“GO GO GO!” My guests are shouting at me.

Calmly, I tell them that we’re safe now. They’re on the car, we’re all out of danger, but they’re still panicking.

“JUST ****‘ing GO!”

I survey the scene. Lion. Between us and her, are a coffee cup and a rather nice hat. My coffee setup is still on the truck’s tailgate. With both eyes on the lion, I climb down and quickly pack away our coffee and snacks. We’d have to sacrifice the hat and wayward cup. The guests protested the whole time.

“LEAVE IT! JUST GO!”

Once I’m back in the drivers seat, still staring at the lion, I radioed the closest guide to tell her what happened. I probably didn’t need to, but then after an emergency, you really feel like you should do something. Anything. At least she could warn others to not get out of their cars at the lookout. And she did. Like a champion.

My guests were finished. Klaar. They wanted out. No more safari for them.

“Back to the lodge, NOW.”

“Are you sure?” I asked for the second time that morning.

“YES! GO!”

At that point, we were more than an hour away from the lodge. I used the long drive to debrief the guests and try and make light of what was actually a pretty traumatizing event. It worked. Thankfully. By the time we got back to the lodge, we all had a huge new repertoire of inside jokes and anecdotes.

I’m still trying to process the whole thing. It’s three days later and this morning we had coffee again (different guests) at the same spot. I could still see the lion’s skid tracks, where she’d stopped just short of me. What I’d estimated as 2 meters on the day, was actually even closer. After visiting that viewpoint so many times in the past, the whole place looked oddly different with this new memory strewn across it.

Lots of lessons were learned on Sunday. I’ll definitely be less complacent at drinks stops in the future. But I do love how all of those simulated lion charges that we have to practice before we can walk in the bush, really paid off. My muscle memory kicked in big time when I needed it. What scared me, was the lion charge itself. It had happened from such close quarters, with absolutely no warning. She also charged from down a steep hill, up towards us, which isn’t ‘typical’ either. Nor did she turn and flee when it was all over. Really just goes to show that anything can happen out here. But hey, we’re all still here and I think I’m a better safari guide for it.

 

not the lion, but one of her pride-mates, so it counts

 
Hoofnote: Actually, let’s not play with nanoseconds. Do you know what a ‘nanosecond is?’ A nanosecond is to a second, what a second is to 32 YEARS. All that stuff that took place in a single moment, actually happened over billions of nanoseconds. Love.

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…