Encounters of the wild kind

 

When you are coming to Africa, you will find beauty, even in the harshest places. Stunning landscapes, an abundance of fauna and flora and generally friendly people. They say the Swiss invented the watch, but Africa owns the time. Therefore, when you are on holiday here don’t be in a rush, rather bring your “good friends”, patience, small talk and friendliness with you.

There is a saying that Africa wants to kill you. And if one ponders on it, it may be true.  There may be bilharzia in the water. Some water in rivers and lakes is not fit to drink. You may see that the local people drink the water but if you drink it, you surely may get a runny stomach. Mosquitoes breed in standing water. Malaria is carried by mosquitoes and transferred when the mosquitoes drink your blood. Drinking anti-malaria pills will not prevent you from getting malaria but will lessen the symptoms quite a lot. So, cover up your body in the evenings and mornings.

Then there are the carnivores, wild dogs, cheetahs, leopards, hyenas and lions. To be facing the sharp business end of them is very humbling. Elephants, rhinoceros and buffalo can also damage your health of you and/or your vehicle. Crocodiles and hippopotamus too can do grievous bodily harm. Come to think of it, after the little mosquito, the hippo is currently the top killer of human than any other wildlife. Then there are sharks in the sea and some of them swim even up the rivers looking for a quick meal. You may freeze to death in winter as it can get very cold here. Not as cold as in higher latitudes of the earth but I have seen minus 11 Celsius in the Kalahari. Summertime brings serious thunderstorms with hail as big as golf balls, flash floods, lighting and even the odd tornado-like winds. Summer also brings drought, movie-like dust storms and heat, like 50 + Celsius!

Here are some of our encounters with…

Insects

Once, after we just arrived in the Kalahari at the start of another of our wildlife tours, we were greeted that night with moths! Not small ones, but huge ones! They were looking for any moisture they could find, be it your sweat on your body or your nice Gin and Tonic you would like to enjoy the desert sunset with. We had to cover everything we had to keep them out. On a very hot October day at Kubu Island, we had swarms of flies the whole time. It was cat-stuttering hot that day. We drank gin and tonic like it was water and you sweat it out just as quickly. We sat inside the tent to get away from the flies until we could not stand the heat. Outside it is very cooler but then you have to battle the flies again. Was it cooler due to all the wing flapping of the flies? Mmm…

One time in the Moremi we were invaded by millions of small green flying insects that were creeping into every crevice they could find. And if you kill it, they stink! When we had to break camp, it took us a long while to get them out of any possible place they wanted to play stowaways. When we mentioned it to the officials at the gate, he just smiled and said:” It is their time, sir”.

The first time we were besieged by honeybees was one midday we arrived at Sunday Pan, just after 2 pm and it was hot! As soon as we arrived, there were bees everywhere flying around looking for a drink. Nothing deters them away from us, not even a plate full of cooldrink at the side of the campsite. And we were booked to stay there for 3 days! We eventually found that the bee’s nest was in the long drop, which must have been an odd place.  Early the next morning, when it was still dark, we got this bright idea and cover the toilet with a plastic bag before sunrise.  The next two days were bliss! We did tell the park officials of the danger at the campsite when we departed. Still wonder how that honey must have tasted.

In this one, it was very hot and humid next to the Zambezi River where we were camping in Zambia. We were sitting outside the tent while away the time, reading, drinking, talking… Now imagine it is very quiet except for the “racing” passing you. Insects fly past at various speeds and sounds. There are the F1 racers with the high-revving engine whizzing past you. There are the juggernauts with its radial engine, two cylinders misfiring, lumbering by. Some sound like the Star Wars pod racers. In between you have a couple of stop-starts. They fly in, resting or mischievously looking around before flying off again. Quite interesting what boredom can do while you have nothing to do and start to give them names.

Tick fever is when a tick bites you and drinks your blood. Ticks are fond of getting to places you cannot see on your body.  You will rarely feel them crawling up your legs or arms. If you can, get someone to give you a quick look over to ensure you are tickless. If you find one that has not bitten into your flesh, you can just flick the tick off. If it did, smother it with a thick paste like Vaseline, Vicks or grease. It will release as it cannot breathe but do not rip it off. Most of the time, if you rip the body off and the head is still left behind in your skin, you may get infected. Sand tampans in the Kalahari may also be an issue. They stay underground in the tree shades waiting for their prey that search for shelter from the sun. As soon as the tampans smell carbon dioxide they come up out from the sand to bite the beast, drink the blood and leave their offspring as larvae. If the tampans bite humans, it can lead to skin inflammation, fever or lymph inflammation.

Scorpions, those critters that walk with their rifle over their shoulder, can give you quite a nasty and serious sting when you are at the receiving end of it. We often find them when you break camp where they crawled away under the groundsheet. You get quite a fright, especially when it is the big ones as we had one at Spitskuppe in Namibia. You feel a bit sorry for them when they are attacked by the birds and pulled apart. It seems as if the birds there know it and wait around for us to break camp.

There are spiders, small and giant, that can give you a nasty bite. Sometimes they travel with you in their hiding places and only show themselves again when you put up your tent, even if it is three weeks later. We camped in the Cedarberg mountains and three weeks later we camped in the Karoo where we found a Roman spider crawling out of its hiding place. I scooped it up in a plastic container and put it in the nearest bush to hunt. Or to be hunted. In the Kgalagadi in summer, I cannot stress often enough to never walk barefoot at night. One time we were there in December and every night when you walked with a flashlight, we saw the huge red Roman spiders and yellow-tailed scorpions crisscrossing the campground.

Summertime in the Northern Cape, it gets cat-stuttering hot! You don’t sleep, you hover and wait for the morning to get bleary-eyed to work. One night, I felt something lightly cross my ankle which I just shrugged off. But then suddenly, the missus made these unearthly sounds as she felt a huge red Roman running up her leg! We were up in a flash, lights on and bat in hand for this intruder. We looked everywhere but then she shouted that it was behind me. The best jump I ever made! I crossed that double bed in one leap! Man, that thing was huge! It was bigger than my palm.

Snake

Most snakes will try to get away from humans. but if they feel threatened, some snakes may just bite you; others will bite and you may die from some serious poison.  A long time ago, a tourist got bitten by a snake. At the time he did know that and thought it was the underbrush that cut him. The next day, he starts to feel very ill. We all put it down to him being a diabetic.  It was only a week or so later that doctors diagnosed that he was bitten by a puffadder. If he knew it then, he would have stressed, pushing up his bloodstream thereby carrying the poison quicker to his vital organs and would have died. And that is why they say, if a snake bites a person, try to keep calm. Yeah, right! Be sure to identify what species of snake family bit the person to give the proper anti-venom. If you give a patient the wrong anti-venom, then now everyone will be running around in the bush to look for a snake to bite the patient to counter the anti-venom. Snakes like to hide or “snuggle up” in a place where they can get heat, be it the side of the tent or worse, inside your sleeping bag. At one time there was a puffadder lying just inside our front wheel. But I need to put some air into the tyre as we going to hit a tar road soon. So, with a steady hand and one eye on the snake, I could put air in the tyres.

Another time, we just put our tent for a three-day stay at this camp under a huge camelthorn tree, a huge Cape cobra came sweeping in at speed from his hiding place, between our legs and into the camelthorn tree. Which was very concerning. The tree trunk is about a meter and a half away from our setup. Every time it shines its bright yellow jacket anywhere from the tree, trying to go into the branches, the starlings go berserk and try to attack it.  When it shows itself at the bottom of the tree, then every living thing in the area is chasing the snake back. I sometimes felt like Dr. Doolittle, rake in hand, pheasants to the left of me, ground squirrels to the right and starlings dive-bombing it. And all are contributing to their calls, making quite a racket. The snake left in the night, or early morning, of day three. We could see it left in a hurry as it only touched the ground about a meter apart! I don’t mind lizards running around your campsite, but I do have a bit of trouble if a snake slides around one’s feet.

Twice we were chilling on our camp chairs sipping away on some refreshing cold ones when someone would call snake passing through! You sit still as you watch it slither underneath you on its quest for something tasty. Snakes will only strike or bite when they feel threatened.

 

Baboons and Monkeys

Most often you will come across vervet monkeys and baboons. They are very cute to sit and watch in the wild when they are out in the bush. We always spend a long time with them, watching their behaviours and antics. But they too have sharp teeth and may seriously puncture your hide. Thus far we had no run-ins with baboons, yet, but we often hear or see baboons ransacking people’s houses or their open cars.

In the Cape Point area, just south of Cape Town, the baboons will even attack people to steal their drinks and food. So, beware when there are baboons around. Close your cars, your tents or caravans and houses and hide the foodstuffs if you do not want to part with them. Vervet monkeys are cute and fun from afar but when they are eyeing your foodstuffs, then these beautiful monkeys become those bloody monkeys followed by a string of swear words!

At this one camp we were staying in, a monkey stole our bread and a piece of meat. We chased after it but as usual, you don’t get it back. Throwing rocks will not help either but may make you feel better or not. Depends on how a bad rock thrower you are. Underneath the bush this pesky one was sitting, you can see he/she has done this before as there were quite a lot of throwing-sized rocks and braai wood underneath piling up the tree trunk. When they are in your car or tent, do not frighten them off. Try a rather calmer approach to get them off your premises otherwise, you need to clean your vehicle or your adobe from sticky monkey faeces. Yuck!

Choose well when you put up your tent on your campsite. Sometimes we had to learn the hard way or was it rather the soft way? Twice. Do not put up your tent under big trees. It may become a sleeping station for baboons and monkeys for the night. It is no fun waking up to the plop, plop of monkey droppings or the sound of urination on one’s tent! Also, in the Moremi, we often see how the monkeys use the neighbour’s tents as slides or as a trampoline. You chase them away but as soon as you leave, the acrobats are back.

Lion in the camp

Coming to Africa is like opening up a surprise packet. sometimes you get lucky and see and experience a lot. On our first 3 week visit to Botswana; we only saw one lion in our whole trip next to the road. Every morning at five, a korhaan was our alarm clock. We had a black-backed jackal visiting our camp daily. Pheasants and ground squirrels also were regulars around your feet. Since then, we always had some encounters with wildlife. 

My wife and I were always wondering how we would react if we met a lion or two in our camp while we were out and about. One night at Mapaytutlwa, we woke up listening to the roars of lions not too far from our campsite. If I could guess, I would say, about 200 to 300 meters North of us. The next morning, after a nice coffee, we broke camp. But this time we took turns standing guard to keep a lookout for the lions. There was a hyena off in the pan crossing it, followed a while later by a lioness. My wife stood guard while it was my turn to pack my bit. Suddenly she called and said the word, LION! Quick in a flash I stand next to her. Picture the scene, the sun is just rising over the pan, tinting the grass yellow on the side of the campsite. A huge lion, dark maned strolled by on the edge of our campsite, his eyes fixed on the female in the pan. He stopped, his mane bright yellow in the sunrise, looked at us for a second or two, walked off and started to roar! You could actually see it in the thick morning air. And one can feel it! WOW! What an amazing experience! All my hair stood on end like at an airshow when a jet or old radial thundered by. Scared? Not one bit! Only afterwards, when all is back to normal, hindsight kicks in. Yes, he would have won the race to the car. Yes, there could have been another one that may have walked behind us. But what an experience it was!

Another time, early one morning, I woke up in our trailer tent and I wanted to go outside to use the toilet. But, as I was stepping out of the tent, my wife said there were lions approaching. Jumped back into the tent, and totally forgot why I wanted to go outside. Then remembered the camera was in the car! So I jumped out, grabbed the camera and zipped up the tent and back on the bed on top of the trailer. They came towards the tent, 3 dames and one very scruffy old male. Two of the ladies lay down gracefully close to the tent. The third comes closer to investigate, drinking some water out of a bucket which I used to wash my feet the previous night. Thereafter, I suppose she smelled my shoes as she pushed her nose way into the netting of the tent door. Must say, we were lying very still up top, and it was very humbling to look into those yellow eyes that were looking at you with only the netting “stopping” her from entering. Gulp!

Eventually, she left with the other two lionesses, followed by the old male. That male was a sight for sore eyes! Thin, lots of battled scars, porcupine quills stuck in his neck, chest and front legs. Walked with a limp. Shame! We were thinking he followed them hoping to get an easy meal once they caught a prey somewhere.

On yet another tour in August, it was very cold. If you lift your head from your pillow and lie back down, the pillow is like an ice block in that instant. Anyway, we needed to pack up as we had to travel a long way that day. While I was making coffee, the wife noticed a lioness meandering into our campsite. The lioness walked close past our tent and then between ours and our friend’s tent. Unfortunately, her way out was blocked. She turned and walked past my friend’s tent where they were, having a morning cup of coffee with only a camping table between them and the lioness. She then stopped opposite the camp table, as if running through the menu, then decided they were not what she wanted and walked out of the camp. You can guess the flurry of activity soon thereafter as all and sundry are scurrying to drive to the waterhole about 500 meters away.

Elephant

Elephants are normally docile animals except when the bulls are in musk or you are where they want to be. If you inadvertently find yourself between a mother and her calf, you are in trouble. Big trouble in both senses of the word! Even the aunts and sisters will try to maul you. They do like their personal space like any other animal or human being. Don’t get too close to them. But it may not stop them to come into your personal space and investigate what you may have for them. 

We were camping at Nambwa Island in the Zambezi region when the elephants were grazing the island from North to South at night. Closer and closer to our tent they came, breaking branches, chewing them and farting loudly. We sat silently watching the big grey figures getting bigger with each step. They brushed past our tent. One of them must have an itch at its behind for it was scratching it against a tree next to the tent. They did not show any distress or any odd behaviour toward us. Just as we thought they were gone, they turned around and slowly grazed their way back to where they came from. Some of them were rather close to your tent, moonlight shimmering off their grey backs.

In the Moremi, there are these big sausage trees that make strings of nearly purple and green flowers. Every animal gathers in or below the trees to harvest the flowers. Monkeys, baboons and birds in the tree and elephants and various other antelopes are below. Some of the flowers survive the constant harassment and they then produce this huge sausage type of pods. I mean huge! If this hits you from above, you will get some grievous bodily harm. If you have parked your vehicle or tent underneath it, it may suffer when it falls off the tree. And the elephants love them too, so much so that they sometimes move your car to get to the pods.

Last time we camped at Senyati, on the border of Botswana and Zimbabwe. One afternoon we took a stroll to the main complex and an elephant was grazing in the camp. We stopped to admire and want to take a photo or two. But this one would have none of that. How dare you? It swung around without a head shake and stormed towards us. We kept our cool and we split up, wife 90 degrees that way and I the other way. Confused about what to do now, the elephant stopped between us, turned around and amber leisurely back to continue mowing the grass. They do have exceptional senses and can smell fruit, etc. wherever you may have them. Do not take any fruit into areas where elephants are otherwise you or your equipment may come off second best. Often you hear of tourists getting hurt or their tents thrashed as the elephants look for the fruit.

Mice

After the summer rains in the Central Kalahari, there is this huge mouse population explosion.  There are so many that even the owls are walking where they want to be (not really!) When their food supply is getting less, they look at the happy campers and their cars. They have a fondness for new cars because they sometimes eat all the plastic around the electric cables and the windscreen washer water tubes. No one knows really why. The most probable cause is they are after the oily substance that is in the plastic. Every year vehicles need to be rescued there due to these pesky little rodents.

We were there just after the summer rains in March and as we sat down to eat, the rodents ran around and over our feet! We then continuously stamped our feet while having our dinner after two of the diner’s toes were bitten! At night, you hear them scurrying over or around the tent, sliding down the sides, looking for a place to wreak havoc with your foodstuffs. The following night, I put some stale buns in every corner of our campsite. The rodents appear to be happy as we could eat with no pestering mice running over our feet and people making funny sounds.

Jackals, civets and mongooses and wild cat

In the Kalahari, you will find the black-backed jackal. Sly, cute, cunning and intelligent. The sheep farmer’s nightmare! They will often visit your campsite looking for food or even lie about a couple of metres from your fireside, biding their time. As soon as you leave your fire for a while, they will try to steal your meat from the fire. They try their luck with lions, so why would humans be the exception? But sometimes, they will also try to hide between a group of campers. There is this story of a jackal that persistently wants to remain between some tourists and on their last night a leopard rushed in and caught the jackal inside the camp! What an experience and adrenaline rush that would have been for them! Apparently, canines are one of the favourite foods on a leopard’s menu, according to Sir Attenborough.

Civets are slender thieves, beautiful to look at but they are cunning and sly. Once we were in the Cederberg mountains and these cute civets were hovering or lying around our campsite. They looked so cute, but they were just waiting to get an opportunity to steal any foodstuff they could lay their paws on. They nicked a sandwich and later, a piece of meat when we were not giving attention to these sly buggers. That night, they somehow got in the tent and stole a piece of leftover sausage, but they could not get out, making quite a noise as they were running through pots and pans. I opened the tent and shooed them out. The following morning, when we broke camp, I got this ever-present smell of stale Nik Naks. But we did not bring any with us. Eventually, we found where one of the civets marked the side of our tent as their territory, which smelled like stale cheese curlers.

In Savuti, there are these very cute dwarf mongooses. When a pack of them come to your doorstep, front paws over the tent’s entrance and look at you with that puppy dog eyes, you melt! Don’t know how they sense that and in the tent they go, sniffing at any and everything they can find. Luckily we pack our food away so they cannot get to it. Some are too small to get out again and we had to assist. Awww!

Camping at Elephant Sands, we were visited by a banded mongoose. It was trying to get into our tent and camp fridge. We looked around to see where the rest of the pack was as banded mongooses never travel alone. But this one appears to be tame as it does not run away when you touch it. Later the owner’s wife came with another one in her arms to look for the mongoose when we heard the story. They were found abandoned in the veld when they were very young and heavily dehydrated and hungry. They took them in and looked after them. Now they foraged for themselves, but they do love chicken. My wife took one in her arms and started to scratch its belly! Aww, she loved it! The mongoose too.

We were camping with our friends on a farm in the Cederberg. Cats were running around, playing. But this one cat looked different. We just could not decide what breed it is. At sunset, this odd cat climbed into our vehicle. You are on a farm, far from any towns and you want to try to get an odd cat that growls at you way scarier than any normal house cat, out of your car. So, we decided we would leave it alone. As the cat got used to us, we started to stroke it. This one doesn’t purr, it idles, loudly. When it meows, scary movie stuff meow. When we got into our beds, this cat jumped in with us and slept until early in the morning when we let it out, never to be seen again. Only later, that we learn from the farmer’s wife that it is an African wild cat.  It normally stays with them but whenever they have friends at their house it looks for another place to stay.

Birds

When a couple of birds are around you, you feel fine and one with nature. But when thousands of birds surround you, then it is a bit concerning. We arrived at Deception Pan at about noon at the beginning of March. There were hundreds of European swallows everywhere. They were so tired that some do not even fly away when you step over them. Even the jackals are tired of them being always on their dinner plate. As the day passed, thunderstorms were brewing all around us. That evening, we had swarms full of swallows on top of the tent but under the flysheet. My friend did not have any swallows on his tent, so he took a swarm full of swallows to put on his tent under the flysheet. It looked so cute then and we felt somewhat proud that we were saving the swallows from the storm. Well, the next morning, the swallows flew off and our tents looked like small guano pits. Thank you, swallows!

We were camping this time in the Overberg area.  Sunrise, we had coffee and rusks. A couple of spur fowls noticed it and also wanted in on the rusk idea. As we were not quick enough to shake or mess a bit of the rusk on the ground for them to pick, they flew up, one on the shoulder and another on my head on top of the hat. I don’t mind the one on my hat but the one on my shoulder is a bit sharp with its claws. 

One evening at Lesholoago, a flock of guinea fowl flew up in a tree about 200 metres from us to sleep for the night. But early the next morning, still very dark, there was a huge commotion in the guinea fowl tree, suddenly followed by a flurry of birds crashing into or on the tree underneath which we had parked our trailer. We surmised something must have spooked them from their perch. At sunrise, we scouted the area and came to the spot where a leopard was sitting. I suppose it wanted some early guinea fowl snack but the fast food was too fast for it. Come to think of it, can you imagine the fright we would have had if the leopard did decide to get up in this tree and growled next to one’s ear with a screaming bird in its mouth?

Talking about guinea fowl, colourful as they may be, but close up they are less beautiful. They often run ahead of one’s vehicle as if they are like traffic officers who want to calm the traffic down. When you stop, they continue with whatever they are doing, scratching in the ground or harassing an insect or small reptile. When you continue, they run again. It takes a long while for them to decide there is another option before they dive into the bushes next to the road. Maybe it is why they call a flock of guinea fowl, a confusion?

Leopard

I once met a man near Savuti who had spent four years searching for a leopard but never managed to see one. Leopards are very elusive, so seeing one is a rare and fortunate occurrence. When you do spot a leopard, there’s usually a chaotic frenzy in the car, with everyone shouting and getting excited. Cameras come out, fingers point, eyes poke, and people snap away, hoping to capture a good picture. However, leopards don’t stay long, so you’re lucky if you manage to enjoy the experience. 

One night at Mapyatutlwa, we were lucky enough to hear three leopards rasping or sawing in the darkness. One was calling from the other side of the pan, and another was closer, in the pan. But then, a third leopard emerged from behind our camp, sawing into the night. The sound sends a primordial fear through you, making it a thrilling experience. It felt like it lasted for an hour. 

The previous evening, I had tried to take a picture of the moon rising. I tried every camera setting I knew, but I couldn’t get the shot I wanted. Frustrated, I gave up and started making a fire to cook dinner. The following morning, we excitedly jumped into the car to look for a leopard. To our delight, we found a beautiful leopard that showed us its best sides, stretching and posing for us. Again, there was a chaotic frenzy in the car to get the camera and take pictures to our heart’s content. But, the camera settings were still set for moon shots. The pictures turned out very white, with only a few spots visible. Lesson learned. Since then, we’ve managed to get several great pictures of leopards.

Hyena

I am one of the few people who have a special fondness for the hyena. It is an odd animal, neither a dog nor a cat. Misunderstood by a lot of people, they are ugly, they are cowardly they are all the things people deemed evil. Hyenas are generally inquisitive but also very cautious, especially around people. Although they are scavengers and will try to take food away from other predators, they are very successful hunters. Our first encounter was at Moghoto campsite when we shone a flashlight around the campsite, 28 eyes shone back at us, and there they were! Spotted hyenas surrounded the camp by standing, sitting and lying, waiting for us to go to bed. And were they busy through the night! The following morning it was layered with hyena spoor everywhere. It was a good thing we did not leave anything outside, like shoes, braai grid, cooler boxes or anything that they could see or smell and mistake as food.

Another time while everyone went to bed, I was sitting outside in the dark, waiting for them. There was some moonlight, thus I could see them clearly as the hyenas approached the tent. Well, I can tell you this, they are big animals when they are up close. I mean to say, they do fight with lions. Anyway, I thought the better of it and returned to the relative safety of the tent. As soon as I moved, they quickly left, only to come quietly back later, sniffing around, did not find anything of interest and wandered off to the next campsite. I will tell you this, when a spotted hyena starts to whoop close to your living quarters, it is loud!

When you are in the bush, you tend to relax very quickly and let your guard down. We were at Third Bridge for this event. The ablution building was very close to our campsite and one evening, we walked back to our campsite, flashlights on, to look out for any danger on our way, as we usually do. As we entered our campsite, a spotted hyena walked right past me through our camp! We shouted some Afrikaans swearwords, which it may have understood, as it hastily made its way out of our camp.

Brown hyenas are solitary animals as we never saw more than one at a time. You see them mostly at night but did find them in the daytime as well. They also tend to visit one’s campsite and see what they can get. Once in the Kgalagadi, one night one stole a drying cloth which was hanging out to dry. Another time at Lesholoago, I wanted to take some photos of the beautiful sunset over the pan and in the road coming towards me was this brown hyena. I tried to speak to him to stand still and pose for me, which it did. Standing there, looking over a bush, with the sunset rays colouring it beautifully. At the same time, the wife, gin and tonic in hand, walked around a tree further up the road to also experience the sunset and the animals in the pan. As she was standing just off the road, she heard silent footsteps coming towards her. Another brown hyena was walking her way, but it only had eyes for my hyena. But this one was in its prime and looked stunning with its dark brown and goldish gown. My one was a bit more of a shaggy figure. The wife seeing that I did not notice her hyena, then shouted:” Peter, I want my hair coloured like this one!” Only then did I see the ‘intruder’. Mr Prime did not wait for a photo opportunity and ran straight for Mr Shaggy, chasing him/her for whatever reason, off into the sunset.

I only once in my life saw a striped hyena as it bolted from its lair, frightening everyone, on top of Streephoogte Pass in Namibia.

The encounters were plentiful and we can’t wait to have more soon.

We hope you enjoyed our experiences.