South Africa Safari – Cape Town

We were all a bit sad to leave the bush behind and return to urban reality. We had seen so many beautiful animals; had so many great experiences; had so much fun! But truth be told, I was tired. Twelve days of bumping around rutted paths in a land rover had taken their toll.

We landed at Cape Town International Airport at about 8 pm and were met by Wayne Donaldson, who would be our host for the next 3 days. Wayne drove us from the airport to our hotel in downtown Cape Town, the Cape Royal. As we drove through Cape Town I was astonished at what a beautiful city it was. It was the complete antithesis of Johannesburg. It practically sparkled it was so clean and pretty. I admit that I knew virtually nothing about Cape Town prior to arriving and was stunned to find this jewel of Africa.

At our hotel we were met by doormen in tails and top hats. The word opulent is insufficient to describe the lobby. One of the door men asked me the name of our group, which I gave to him. Seconds later I was startled by the sound of a loud gong. The door man announced “Ladies and gentlemen, may I present Natural Exposures Photo Tours“, whereupon the entire staff in the lobby broke out in applause. Oh yeah, I knew I was going to like this place.

Click on any image to enlarge it. Hover over an image to view the caption (if any).

Tom Dietrich posing with the doormen at Cape Royale.

Tom Dietrich posing with the doormen at Cape Royale.

We were escorted to our rooms. They were clean, elegant and equipped with everything we could need. Our suite had two bedrooms and even a kitchen. And best of all, Tanya had arranged for a fruit and cheese plate to be delivered to everyone’s room. We devoured it.

Cape Town was originally established in 1652 by the Dutch East India Company. The Dutch used it as a replenishing stop on their way to the far east. Cape Town was the largest city in South Africa until the Witwatersrand Gold Rush of 1886 which resulted in the development of Johannesburg as the largest and most powerful city. Today Cape Town has a population of about 3.74 million people and is the most popular international tourist destination in all of Africa. Its popularity is due to the beautiful weather, spectacular beaches and other natural wonders such as Table Mountain National Park. Our hotel was just across the street from the Cape Town Stadium that was built for the 2010 FIFA Cup Football (soccer) Championships.

Table Mountain creates a bowl that Cape Town rests in and a majestic backdrop to the city. It now boasts the accolade of being one of the “New” 7 Wonders of Nature. The mountain top can be reached by aerial tramway or by hiking and provides spectacular views of the area as well as being host to numerous endangered or protected species of animals and plants.

On our first day in Cape Town we took a drive along the spectacular Chapman’s Peak Drive and saw some of the most incredible coast line imaginable. The water from the Atlantic was crystal blue. We approached the small town of Simon’s Town and the home of the African penguin at Boulders Beach. These funny little guys, also know as jackass penguins, are only about 2 ft tall and weigh 5 to 8 pounds. They arrived at Boulder beach in 1982 and since then the colony has increased to about 3000 individuals. What is amazing is that Boulder Beach is in the middle of a residential area! It was great fun to watch these little creatures waddle about and play in the water.

From Boulder Beach we made the drive down to the Cape of Good Hope. The Cape is not actually the southernmost point on the African continent but it is the most south western point. Cape Point a few miles away is actually the southern most point of land.

, Cape of Good Hope, Mark, Cathy, Cape TownIt was extremely windy but we arrived just in time to see wave after wave of cormorants fly by. Their sleek black bodies standing out strongly against the crashing white surf. We also got close up and personal with the Rock Hyrax. These 9 lb. creatures most closely resemble the guinea pig but aren’t related. In fact, their closest living relative is the African elephant! They were running around everywhere. You had to be careful not to step on one.

As we were about to leave the Cape area Wayne spotted a Bontebok. The Bontebok is an endangered antelope that lives in the area. They were once considered to be a pest and slaughtered until the wild population was reduced to about 17 animals. Fortunately, with their protected status, their population has rebounded.

On our second day in Cape Town we headed for Gansbaai for a morning of whale watching. Gansbaai is noted for its population of Southern Right Whales. It is also the home of shark cage diving! While we were not going to go shark cage diving we were told that we would probably see one of the groups lowering their guests into the bay while the staff of the boat chums the water to attract sharks. But I digress…

The whale watching started off fine. We spotted several Southern Right Whales right away. However, the water was rough with some pretty big swells. That combined with the fact that we were in a pretty small boat made photography difficult as we rocked back and forth. The Southern Right Whale is a kind of gnarly looking whale. Most of the time I couldn’t tell what I was looking at. There were several breeches but Cathy and I observed only one.

Our captain spotted one of the shark diving operations and took us by for a look-see. There in a stainless steel cage, suspended from the side of the ship, were 5 people outfitted with wetsuits and masks. The people would submerge under water  while the staff tried to attract sharks to the cage with lures and chum. And they were definitely succeeding as sharks came swimming right up to the divers.

From shark diving we headed off to an island populated with massive numbers of Cape Fur Seals. There were thousands of them everywhere. It made me think of what it must have been like when settlers first came to America and discovered the seemingly inexhaustible populations of wildlife. Unfortunately, as we have learned (or have we) time and time again, wildlife populations are not inexhaustible.

Wednesday, October 9th was to be our final day in South Africa. We started out with a tour of Table Mountain and then we headed out for a day of wine tasting. In the past 20 years South Africa has made quite a reputation for producing quality wines, and Wayne had lined up visits to two of the best. Our first stop was  Druk My Niet where we toured the wine making facilities and then settled in to try a series of excellent wines. I was especially enamored with the Cabernet Franc.

Our second visit was to Kanonkop, described by those in the know as being the South African equivalent of a Premier Cru. Again we were served a stellar line up of wines while enjoying the relaxed atmosphere.

Our final stop for the day would be at Jordan’s for a late lunch. Jordan Wine Estate and Restaurant in Stellenbosch is renowned for its 6 course lunch and fabulous food. We only had time for two courses (and a visit to the cheese room) but it was superb. Situated on a large estate with a beautiful lake this was a perfect end to our adventures.

We made our way back to Cape Town to pick up our bags and then set off for the airport to catch our flight to London and then back to San Francisco. As we basked in the radiance of the past few days we were jarred back into reality on the drive to the airport. Despite all the progress that has been made in South Africa over the past 20 years, true equality is still an elusive goal, as the shanties on the outskirts of Cape Town demonstrate.

Our visit to South Africa was over but we brought home memories and photos to last a life time. To all of our old and new friends we say thank you for a magnificent expedition.

Daniel Cox, Tom Dietrich, Tanya Cox, Mark & Cathy, Ray & Carole Tinnin, Jim & Lynne Edwards, JoAnn Ziegler, Pat & Ed Nahin

Daniel Cox, Tom Dietrich, Tanya Cox, Mark & Cathy, Ray & Carole Tinnin, Jim & Lynne Edwards, JoAnn Ziegler, Pat & Ed Nahin

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South Africa Safari – Day 12

Humble apologies to my gentle readers. Due to travel to the Midwest, Christmas and a nasty cold I have fallen behind in my postings. However, I’m back with the final day of our South African Safari.

We awoke on this, the 12th, and last day of our safari with both a sense of sorrow and relief. Sorrow because we did not want the experience to end. We had seen so many incredible sights and animals in the past 2 weeks and yet it was time to go home. Home to our own bed and our own wildlife (our 3 cats, Casper, Jasmine and Bosco).

It was an absolutely beautiful morning with golden light. The animals seemed to be energized, everything was moving. We almost immediately passed some rhinos grazing in the field. As always, they were accompanied by oxpeckers. With their bright bill and eyes I never tire of looking at them.

Our ranger headed the land rover toward the river to see if the overstuffed lions we observed the previous day were still there. He was driving at a pretty good clip as we passed a watering hole with a grey heron in it. The light on the pond was incredible. The water looked like liquid gold. We were yelling at our driver to stop but he kept going. We finally got him to stop and back up so that we could get the shot. It was worth it.

Leaving the heron behind we found a spotted hyena, sculking through the tall grass, that clearly had the scent of something. We continued on to the river and sure enough, the lions were still there. Still looking over stuffed and lethargic. It was clear that we would see no action out of this group today so we moved on.

Click on any image to enlarge it. Hover over an image to reveal the caption.

When we left the lions it was still early, about 6:40 am. We sighted a small herd of impala and then some steenbok. Steenboks are really cute but hard to photograph. They are very shy and hide when approached. However today we were lucky. The steenboks chose to hide in the tall golden grasses that lined the road. With the beautiful lighting that we had that morning we got some wonderful shots of steenboks backlit by the morning light and surrounded by the dry golden grass.

We heard via the radio that there were leopards in the area and headed off in the direction of where the reports were coming from. It took about an hour to get there and find the leopards. There were 3 of them, 2 males and 1 female. According to our ranger the female also had one or more cubs although they were hidden. We got there just after the female and one of the males had a fight. Apparently the male was interested in mating and the female was most definitely not interested. In this case the male came out on the loosing end.

The bloodied and beaten male attends to his wounds.

We continued to track and watch the leopards for almost an hour. The other male was also interested in mating but the female continued to show that there would be no fooling around today. It was fascinating to watch the interplay between the male and female and how the female controlled the situation even though she was much smaller than the male suitor.

And thus ended our 12 day safari. We had to head back to camp so that we could catch our flight to Johannesburg. However, our adventure was not quite over yet. From Johannesburg we would fly to Cape Town for a 3 day visit to this jewel of the African coast. During our visit there we would see penguins, fur seals, whales, sharks as well as visit incredible wineries and some of the most beautiful coastline I’ve ever seen. Stay tuned.

Entry to Kings Camp

Entry to Kings Camp

South Africa Safari – Day 11

As we roll out of bed this morning we realize that this is our last full day on safari. Hopefully it will bring lots of exciting new discoveries.

We headed down to the river. Our ranger had heard there were lions there that had made a kill the night before. What a sight. I have never seen a group of lions with such extended bellies in my life. They could barely lie on their stomachs. Most lay on their backs with their feet extended in the air. Needles to say they weren’t very active. Comical but not active. We hung around for about 30 minutes photographing these lethargic beasts before moving on.

Driving around we spot a few zebras. Zebras are among the most beautiful of Africa’s animals. However, they photograph much better on the savanna of Masai Mara that the brush of the lowveld. It doesn’t help that this is the dry season and there is no green to contrast with their beautiful stripes. It does give an idea of how well the zebra’s stripes can serve as camouflage under the right conditions. We were also fortunate to spot a couple of endangered ground hornbills.

We headed over to a large water hole and spotted a hyena, and before we knew it there was a whole pack of them, including a couple of youngsters. We parked the land rover and watched these guys cavort in the water and chase each other for over 30 minutes. The main behavior of the pack seems to be checking out each others genitalia. The hyena is unique in that the female has a pseudo-penis. The female is also slightly larger than the male and they live in a female dominated pack. It was also astonishing the number of vocalizations that these animals made. It was downright noisy.

After the hyenas moved on we joined up with others from our group for our morning bush breakfast. These brief interludes each morning were highly civilized and gave us a chance to get to know our rangers and trackers better. And besides – they make great coffee!

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Ray, Pat, Ed, Tom and Colbert

As we wound our way back to camp we saw a crested francolin, a yellow billed hornbill, a warhog and a Nyala taking a rest in the shade. A pretty good morning overall.

Lunch was a special treat on this day. Our host at King’s Camp, Tristan, is the proud keeper of an African Wildcat. As this was our last lunch at King’s Camp he promised to bring the cat out for us to see. I wasn’t sure what an African Wildcat was but I was looking forward to seeing one. It turns out that the African Wildcat, to my eye, is indistinguishable from a common tabby. And for good reason. The house cat was probably domesticated from the African Wildcat about 9000 years ago in the fertile crescent of the Middle East. If you’d like to know more about what domestic cats have in common with the African Wildcat click here.

The weather was stunning as we left for our afternoon drive. We observed giraffes, including a young giraffe, more zebra and saw how birds can protect their nests by building them inside of a very thorny Acacia tree.

The afternoon, however, belonged to the elephants. We followed a large herd through the trees, brush and river bed for close to an hour. Our ranger, Remember, and our tracker, Elvis, did a good job of keeping us positioned to get some great shots. I never tire of watching these incredible animals.

Once the elephants had finished with us we drove to the river where a large concrete dam had been built years ago to control the flow of the river. There lying on top of the concrete, basking in the golden glow of the setting sun was a beautiful leopard. He seemed completely unconcerned with anything other than having a comfortable nap. As the sun set we could see hippos swimming in the river and shore birds on the river bank. One last surprise awaited us as we exited the area. A scrub hare  was laying by the road, just waiting for us to take its photograph. A lovely way to end an exciting day!

Good News from the African Elephant Summit

It seems that all the conservation news is bad these days. Loss of habitat, climate change, poaching, etc. So occasionally when there is a bit of good news I like to celebrate it. After all, the subtitle for this blog is “Inform and Inspire.” Well we got some good news last week from the African Elephant Summit in Gaborone, Botswana. At the summit meeting governments of states where the illegal ivory trade occurs pledged to take “urgent measures” to try and stop the illegal trade and end poaching.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, or IUCN, “2011 saw the highest levels of poaching and illegal ivory trade in at least 16 years, with around 25,000 elephants killed on the continent, and it says 2012 showed no signs of abating.” Furthermore, “eighteen large scale seizures of more than 40 tons of ivory had been recorded so far this year, which represented the greatest quantity of ivory seized over the last 25 years.”

If not stopped, poaching will reduce elephant herds significantly in the next 10 years.

If not stopped, poaching will reduce elephant herds significantly in the next 10 years.

“Our window of opportunity to tackle the growing illegal ivory trade is closing and if we do not stem the tide, future generations will condemn our unwillingness to act,” Botswana President Ian Khama told the summit.

“Now is the time for Africa and Asia to join forces to protect this universally valued and much needed species,” he said.

The governments in attendance published a list of Urgent Measures to be taken in 2014. This list was agreed upon by key African elephant range states including Gabon, Kenya, Niger and Zambia, ivory transit states such as Vietnam, Philippines and Malaysia, and ivory destination states, including China and Thailand, said the IUCN in a statement.

Probably the most urgent of the 14 measures classifies wildlife trafficking as a “serious crime.” According to the IUCN, this will unlock international law enforcement cooperation provided under the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, including mutual legal assistance, asset seizure and forfeiture, extradition and other tools to hold criminals accountable for wildlife crime. In other words, It won’t just be the Kenya Wildlife Service going up against international criminal cartels.

Will this action by the African Elephant Summit and IUCN put an end to poaching? Of course not. Poverty, greed and corruption, as well as increasing demand from Asia for ivory are strong motivators. But this action inspires hope that the number of needless deaths of elephants will decline. And that will be something to celebrate.

One of the victims of poaching are the baby elephants that are orphaned when their mothers are killed for their ivory. Without the protection of the mother the baby will die or be killed by predators.

One of the victims of poaching are the baby elephants that are orphaned when their mothers are killed for their ivory. Without the protection of the mother the baby will die or be killed by predators.

Side Note: When I was in South Africa in October I was reading an investigative article about the use of powdered rhino horn in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). In this story the investigator made undercover purchases of powdered ivory at traditional ethnic pharmacies and chemists shops in Asia. He then had all the samples tested by DNA sequencing. The result – not a single sample was authentic. Elephants and rhinos are being killed for their ivory and yet what people in Vietnam and China are buying is fake. It would almost be funny if it wasn’t so painful.

Sources:

  1. Urgent deal reached for African elephants, Key states commit to urgent measures to half illegal ivory trade; By Ray Faure, Associated Press – Wed, Dec 4, 2013 12:28 PM EST
  2. African Elephant Summit; Gaborone, Botswana; 2-4 December 2013; Urgent Measures 3 December 2013; https://cmsdata.iucn.org/downloads/african_elephant_summit_final_urgent_measures_3_dec_2013.pdf
  3. Zambia Assents to Secure Elephants; http://www.lusakatimes.com/2013/12/04/zambia-assents-secure-elephants/

South Africa Safari – Pink Pouch

Back on October 31st I wrote about our experiences in Londolozi when our land rover became stuck and our ranger and tracker had to free it. At that time I wrote:

“On the drive back to camp I asked Richard why he didn’t call for help to get out of the wash. His reply was along the lines of what I expected. Apparently there are no consequences to getting stuck at Londolozi, as long as you can free yourself. However, if you have to call for help the leather ammo pouch that each ranger carries on his belt is replaced by a pink ammo pouch for a month!”

It turns out that this is not just a myth that the rangers tell visitors. Last Saturday Mike Sutherland posted the following on the Londolozi blog:

The proud new owner of the Pink Pouch, Mr Byron Serrao. (Photographer not given)

The proud new owner of the Pink Pouch, Mr Byron Serrao. (Photographer not given)

Byron Serrao is only the most recent holder of the Pink Pouch. For more detail about the story behind the pouch check out James Tyrrell’s post from August 13th. 😉

Enjoy!
Mark

South Africa Safari – Day 10

What day 10 lacked in variety it made up for in quantity. One again we started the day by tracking a pride of lions on the hunt. It was clear that they sensed nearby prey but we never figured out what they were after. We stayed with them for over 30 minutes and they stalked through the dry grass before moving on.

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We explored the veldt for about 40 minutes before coming upon a few elephants at a watering hole. Unlike yesterday the light was good and we stopped to watch these magnificent animals.

We moved on but almost immediately came upon the rest of the herd. For a moment we thought we were going to see a scuffle as two males challenged each other. However, the smaller of the males showed good sense and backed down.

We drove ahead of the herd and parked at a second water hole and waited. Within minutes the herd arrived and began to fill up. Along with the herd was one baby elephant. It was so young it had not yet learned how to use its trunk to drink. It was so cute as the baby got down on its knees to drink water directly with its mouth. The adults kept the baby surrounded at all times in what was clearly a protective maneuver. There was lots of other activity around the water as well. There was some pushing and shoving by some of the elephants. Some waded directly into the water while the others remained on the bank. This continued for about 30 minutes. Then the herd reversed course and headed back into the bush.

With the departure of the elephants we resumed our search. We came across a few Cape Buffalo. I must admit that I find these beasts fascinating.

Cape buffalo, King's CampAfter about 50 minutes of exploration we found a leopard hidden in the bush with fresh prey. (An antelope or Impala I think.) We watched as the leopard ripped the fur from the carcass and then tore in to the meat. Despite the grisly scene in front of us you could not help but admire the beauty of this animal.

Our afternoon drive began with more elephants. It was probably part of the same herd that we saw this morning. We grabbed a few shots and moved on.

We decided to see if the leopard from this morning was still there – and she was. She was still working over her prey. A somewhat older cub briefly made an appearance but then quickly disappeared back into the bush.

Mother and cub

Mother and cub

As we drove around we spotted a few rhinos but not much else. Finally, around 5 pm, we came across a pride of lions. They of course were doing what lions do best – rest. We watched them lay about and groom each other. Then slowly they started to show some signs of life, eventually heading over to the water for a drink. By this time the sun was down and it was starting to get dark. (i.e.: some of the following shots were taken at ISO 12800) We left them as they were getting ready for their evening’s adventures.