vultures

Gonarezhou National Park Safari Diary. Day 3

The 28th started cloudy again by the time we were up, about 08:00 hs. Footprints interrupted our exit from Swimuwini again. This time there were African Wild Dogs’ footprints. They were inside the grounds of our rest camp, just before the gate! Although we strained our eyes in all directions, we did not see them and moved on. We have often seen these animals in the proximity of humans. In fact, the first pack we ever saw was resting at the football field in Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe.

Today our goal was the Samalema gorge. We traveled in the opposite direction of yesterday, i.e. up river (see Map page for directions). On the way we stopped at Makwakwani picnic site where more open rock pools could be seen. Further towards the gorge we saw the reasons for the lack of electricity and the earlier Chef’s disappointment.

The cut wires.

The cut wires.

We were told by Fungisai, our lady camp attendant, that Samalema gorge was the place where people born with defects would be thrown to their deaths a long time ago. I will try to check this but I must add that it lent an element of drama to our visit and the expectation of a dramatic canyon in my mind.

The first view of Samalema gorge.

The first view of Samalema gorge.

On arrival the place looked like a rocky field with very little water and a total absence of the expected high cliffs from which people could be thrown to certain death to the river below! It felt like an anti-climax. A trunk ladder was placed to bridge the height from the viewing platform to river level so we decided to investigate. As the ladder looked rather rickety, we opted for the wiser, if a bit longer, bush detour that took us there over stony but firm ground

The gorge started to open up as we walked on.

The gorge started to open up as we walked on.

The rocks were predominantly brown and very smooth and, as we approached the river, water-carved formations started to appear that complicated our walk and soon began to be quite hard as we needed to negotiate bolder after bolder. I was relieved when my wife went in front as I still had present in my mind the information about people been thrown into the gorge for being born with deformities and I was wondering if being a snob was one of the criteria to get the “definitive” push! My fears were far from allayed when it started to drizzle, transforming the rocks into soap!

The gorge starting appearing as we walked on.

The beginning of the gorge.

Another view of the gorge.

Another view.

We continued walking and discovered that the river had excavated its way among the rocks and carved the most beautiful arabesques imaginable. There were perfectly rounded pools, bridges, pyramids and sculptures of all kinds, the types that only water can help nature to create. The crystal clear water ran through and formed a number of waterfalls and rapids that added to the overall beauty, contrasting with its sacrificial history!

Some of the rock formations.

Some of the rock formations.

Nature's rock art.

Nature’s rock art.

We did not see many animals there though. A couple of Egyptian geese, Cinnamon-breasted rock buntings, African pied wagtails and Water dikkops were the only visible inhabitants of the rocks. We did not see much fish activity either but saw a terrapin in the distance down river and another very close and very dead.

By the time we got back to the starting point a couple of hours later, we were knackered and needed to rehydrate and have a deserved cup of coffee before going back to the rest camp for a light lunch and a siesta. While walking towards the car we found some animal dung that we could not identify and that I present to you to see if anyone is able to tell me the “creator”.

Unknown spoor at Samalema gorge. The shoe is there for sizing.

Unknown spoor at Samalema gorge. The shoe is there for sizing.

It was on the way back that we came “face to face” with a tusker by the side of the road. None of us expected each other so, before I managed to completely stop the car, the elephant was already crashing into the bush, tail up. It ran for about 50 metres and then it stopped as suddenly as it had started. I was pleased that it decided to run in the opposite direction from us! It remained completely still for about 20 minutes, showing us only its rather wrinkled rear end. Suddenly, the posterior defecated and it slowly moved off. That was it, our only elephant (bottom) sighting, which although a good thing, left us wanting.

The afternoon drive down river was a re-visit to the jackals and we had the magnificent views of two giraffes coming to clench their thirst in the water pools of the sandy riverbed. When it comes to drinking, nothing beats the giraffes in wariness as -neck down- they are very vulnerable. After a long while they finally get to the drinking position after moves worth of a a contortionist!

Giraffes coming to the river bed for a drink.

Giraffes coming to the river bed for a drink.

A bunch of vultures were perched on a dead tree in the middle of the sandy river. They took off after a while and so did we as cooking on the fire waited for us and this takes longer than normal. Although the showers were there for the taking, we declared ourselves clean and, this time bat-free, we fell asleep early and soundly.

The vultures took off when they saw us stop the car.

The vultures took off after a while.

 

Kruger National Park Report

Nothing much to report on the journey from Louis Trichardt to the Kruger National Park (Kruger). On arrival at Punda Maria gate, a helicopter flying overhead brought home the reality of Kruger these days when special measures to curb rhino poaching are being taken. Despite this, a few hundreds have been killed this year. Let’s hope that the Park will get on top of the situation. Kruger is the last rhino (both black and white) stronghold left in the world.

Roads are good and we were in Sirheni Bushveld Camp with time to spare. The camp is small with no electricity but this time we knew about it beforehand! After spending a quiet night and enjoying the peace of the place, it was time to continue our trip. We left for Shimuwini Bushveld Camp where we had a great time on a previous trip with friends. There was more water this time so the animals were less concentrated in the riverine area. However, the hippos were still there and the birdlife good as usual.

In the morning we planned to do a drive along the Letaba river near the camp and to continue to a point where the river crosses the road, as it is an open expanse which apart from being beautiful, allows one to see far and spot interesting things. On the way there we could see a number of cars parked on both sides of the road in the distance indicating an interesting find.

When confronted with these situations in the Kruger, the bushsnob has a “car rule” to predict the situation and take appropriate action. It is as follows:

 

       CAR NUMBER            REASON

ACTION

1 (often parked sideways or in the middle of the road) birdwatcher Check bird being watched
1 (well parked, usually a small saloon or city SUV) first time visitors watching any animal they come across Drive past with eyes closed or looking the other way
2-5 (any type) buffalo, giraffe, zebra, etc. Check as it may be interesting and cars tend to depart after a few minutes
5-10 (any type) elephant, rhino Same as above
<10 (any type) lion kill, leopard Avoid the area by taking any available and legal measure and return at lunchtime or late afternoon
Sizeable queue or large number leopard kill, Parks or Police check point Check with binoculars, if Police present, continue, otherwise as above and return at lunchtime or late afternoon

In this particular instance there were more than 10 vehicles and lion kill “or above” was diagnosed. We joined the queue and, from where we were, we could see a buffalo carcass and at least one lion resting under the bushes. We were keen to see the kill as we knew that to bring a buffalo down normally takes the combined efforts of several lions. We waited patiently for the cars ahead of us to move -maintaining “strict bush etiquette”- but, as there was no movement we decided to move on to the rest of the park which was consequently less crowded!

Our idea was rewarded when we came to a Letaba tributary where buffalo were going down to the riverbed. On arrival there may have been one hundred animals but they were still coming down. After about 20 minutes there were what I estimate to have been over one thousand and the number kept increasing for a few minutes. It was one of the largest herds we have seen.

A large herd of buffalo while moving on the river bed.

A large herd of buffalo while moving on the river bed.

Part of the herd while drinking.

Part of the herd while drinking.

Although rather bovine in their behaviour, buffalo transmit a sense of wildness and power that, to me, no other herbivore does. Although I have not yet seen them confronting lions, I have seen them in close proximity while helping a friend to dart them for his research and they were dangerous!

This buffalo was having a comfortable "siesta" while the oxpeckers did their job!

This buffalo was having a comfortable “siesta” while the oxpeckers did their job!

Seeing buffalo always brings back the story of a colleague working on tsetse flies in Kenya. One day he was checking his tsetse traps in the Nguruman escarpment and a lone male suddenly charged him from nowhere, forcing him up a tree to save himself. He was lucky on two accounts: there was a “climbable” tree nearby and the buffalo did not wait for him to fall down in order to trample him to death. It was a hairy moment and what was most interesting was that he said that the rush of adrenalin allowed him to climb and stay up in the tree without problem despite not being the fittest guy in Kenya. What was really tough was getting back down, as the tree was very thorny!

Later in the morning we hoped to see the kill again on our way back to camp but, unbelievably, there were still a lot of cars so we just had a look while driving by and not much had changed. We decided not to bother and try again in the evening as the proximity of our camp would enable us to stay just a bit longer than the others… By the time we were ready to return to the kill the famous tire had totally deflated… Not being part of the Ferrari F1 team, it took us a few laps to change the wheel and we were late! We still left as we estimated we had about 15 min of watching time!

We got to the kill and there were still cars! “Do not worry, none of the cars belong to our camp so they must leave by 17:00 hs to get back in time for the gate closing time of 17:30 hs”. We waited and waited and no one was moving by 17.20 hrs! The usual “these people know something we do not” was pronounced by one of us and we decided to re-check the gate closing times again and it clearly said “July: 17.30 hs” and then we realized that it was 1 August and closing time was now 18:00 hs. By the time we realized this, cars had started to depart and we did get our 20 minutes or so of “only the lions and us” where some observation took place and pictures were taken!

The young lion feeding on the buffalo.

The young lion feeding on the buffalo.

A closer view of the lion feeding.

A closer view of the lion feeding.

What did we see? The carcass was half eaten and one youngish male was inside it tearing pieces off. Another male was resting under the shade, together with 3 lionesses and 2 cubs. One of the lionesses looked uncomfortable and decided to go for a walk towards the river, surely to drink and soon a second one followed her. A few vultures were waiting patiently up in a nearby tree. And then it was also time for us to abandon the spot to get to our camp in good time.

One of the lionesses with a full belly on her way to the river.

At dusk, one of the lionesses -with a full belly- decided to go to the nearby river for a drink.

The following morning, en route to Letaba, the only carcass visitors were vultures and no lions were seen. Yes, you guessed right ours was the only car so we parked it sideways blocking the road and watched the birds!

Only the vultures remained the following morning.

Only the vultures remained the following morning.