Jan 222019
 

Morning temp: 62°F
Noon: 90°F
High: 99°F

Funk & Weber Game Drives

Driving hours in the park are sunrise to sunset. Here in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (KTP) that is interpreted as 5:30 AM to 7:30 PM. We left the Polentswa campground right around 5:30 and didn’t return until just before 7:30. We had breakfast, lunch, and snacks in the truck or at designated rest areas where you’re allowed to get out of your vehicle. These designated areas are not fenced, and signs alert you that you’re getting out at your own risk. I tend to call “Here kitty, kitty, kitty!” when I step out of the truck, if there are no other people around. It’s a joke. I’m making a bit of human noise to avoid surprising anything, and I’m consciously looking around to prevent a close encounter, an African twist on Alaskan bear safety.

Did you do the math? 5:30 AM to 7:30 PM is a 14-hour game drive. Most lodge game drives are about 3 hours, I think. If you wonder why we see so many animals on our outings, this is a big part of the reason. Searching for and watching wildlife may be my favorite thing in the world to do, so an all-day game drive is a joy to me, but it’s not for everyone.

Other contributing factors are driving very slowly, having some experience and skill at spotting wildlife, and looking really hard. Mike actually calculated his driving speed at one point, and it worked out to 3.5 miles per hour. We’re not always moving that slowly, but you get the idea. We can actually roll along at a slow crawl while idling in first gear, sort of a de facto cruise control. Go figure.

All three of us (Mike’s sister, Barb, is here, too) have been spotting wildlife for years, and we don’t hesitate to call out “stop!” so we can take a closer look at something that catches our eye. We spot a lot of rocks, logs, and trash as well as animals. If one person wants to look something up in a book or take more photos, the other two are likely peering through binoculars to see what else might be out there.

The Daily Dozen

A Slightly Different Landscape

While we saw some ant hills (or termite mounds) yesterday on the drive in, we saw loads more today. They were not especially tall mounds, but they were numerous, and oddly uniform when taken all together, like grippy rubber nubbins on work gloves.

Ant hills in Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

Ant hills in Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

Ant hills excite me. Really.

For starters, I’m still waiting to see a cheetah in the wild, and I would love to see a cheetah standing on an ant hill, scoping out the menu. No, I don’t want much.

In addition, abundant ants mean possible ant eaters, like aardvarks, pangolins, aardwolves, and brown hyenas. Unfortunately, those are all strictly nocturnal, and we’re not allowed to drive—not even 3.5 miles per hour!—in the park at night. But maybe we can catch one heading home late at 5:30 one morning, right?

Who’s Resting or Nesting There?

A large burrow in the sand, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

A large burrow in the sand, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

This giant burrow entrance excites me in the same way. Is there an aardvark in there? A pangolin? Has a warthog moved in? Foxes?

Honestly, I’d love to send a quiet and polite little robotic camera in to find out, but that’s not legal. And I don’t have one.

Abundant Rodents

For some reason, maybe because of the sand, burrows are abundant. Most are small, but giant ones are plentiful, too. Tiny mice and shrews dart across the road ahead of us, and when we stop for some larger animal, I often see mice or rats or gerbils dashing between shrubs and into holes. This place is rich in rodents, which means abundant food for some predators.

Whistling rat, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

Whistling rat, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

I think this is a whistling rat. Initially, I rejected the “rat” designation because of the short, rounded nose and the fact that wild gerbils live here, too. A whistling rat photo in our Official Information Guide, however, looks an awful lot like this, so I’ll go with whistling rat.

As we watched the rat, a striped mouse puttered around a neighboring shrub.

Reptiles, Too

A ground agama on a stick, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

A ground agama on a stick, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

And then there are reptiles, which also burrow—and also provide food for many creatures. There aren’t enough blue animals in the world. This is a ground agama; although, we mostly see them splayed across branches like this one, sunning themselves, so shouldn’t they be called “shrub agamas”?

A Whodunnit Mystery

Bateleur adult and young, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

Bateleur adult and young, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

This is a bateleur (short-tailed eagle) and (we think) one of its two offspring. They were feasting on a mostly uneaten springbok. You don’t get a feasting photo because ewww, gross, and because you get plenty of those bloody photos. Rather, you get this bateleur with its head cocked, looking funny. Isn’t that bald, red face pretty? Do you suppose it got that face for telling bald-red-faced lies?

Now, how did these three eagles come to possess a dead springbok? They can’t kill a springbok on their own. Can they? But if another animal killed it, why didn’t that animal eat any of it? And where was that animal?

We weren’t the only ones to wonder. A South African father and his two sons stopped us on the road and asked if we’d seen what killed the springbok.

With the bateleur making that face, I imagine it saying, “What do you mean I couldn’t possibly have killed that thing? Are you calling me a bald-red-faced liar?”

I guess I am.

Wildebeests on Parade

Wildebeest parade, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

Wildebeest parade, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

So many herd animals. We’re not used to such numbers, and I cannot fathom how this environment supports them all. Where’s the food?! It takes acres of Alaska’s comparatively abundant vegetation to support far fewer animals. I don’t get it.

Used to be the Park Namesake

If you read yesterday’s post, you know the KTP used to be two separate parks, both with the word “gemsbok” in its name. (Say “hemsbok.”)

Well, here’s a gemsbok.

Gemsbok, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

Gemsbok, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

Gemsbok are my favorite antelopes for many reasons. Besides being beautiful, as you can see, they are exceptionally hardy, able to survive extreme heat without permanent water—bring on the tsamma melons that grow wild in the desert. We often see them alone, and I admire and respect animals that can appreciate solitude.

As much as I love gemsbok, we have a hard time photographing them head on, as they usually walk or run away the instant they see us coming or taking interest. I’m not exaggerating. They are extreme avoiders. This is their number one strategy for evading predators and staying alive. Our animal behavior book says gemsbok rarely, if ever, fight when caught by a predator. If they can’t avoid the situation, they are goners.

They are the Quaker antelope.

Yet another reason they top my list of favorite antelope.

One Less Quaker Antelope in the World

First, we saw a single lioness snoozing in the shade, attended by a couple of vehicles.

Farther down the road was a second lioness and what we thought were two adolescent cubs. These three were still active: red-faced, gnawing and tugging on a carcass in the brush. A couple of vehicles attended this group, too, preventing us from getting a good look.

Still farther down the road was a third lioness.

We didn’t have far to go before running out of road at Union’s End, so we continued on, thinking we’d give these folks some time and then have another look ourselves.

On the way back, Lioness #3 was where we’d left her, but now she had a cub with her, nuzzling and licking. Gotta clean up those red faces and paws, don’t you know.

Two lions still gnawed and tugged on the kill, and now we were the only car at the site, so we had our pick of views.

Lions eating a gemsbok, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

Lions eating a gemsbok, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

While we watched, the adult finished her meal and wandered over to the nuzzling and licking mama and cub under the trees across the road. To get there, she walked right to us and skirted around the back of the truck. A big cat walking right at us, looking at us, calmly acknowledging our presence, is a special experience.

The second lion remained on the kill. We could finally tell it was an adolescent male. That adorable curl on the top of his head and the scruff around his neck are the beginnings of a mane. Shortly, he was joined by another female, maybe his sibling.

Young male lion eating gemsbok, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

Young male lion eating gemsbok, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

You can make out the head of the gemsbok in the above picture. The white chin is pointing up and to the left, closest to the lion. The tongue sticks out between the chin and top jaw. The white face mask becomes clear when you get the head oriented properly. Another Quaker bites the dust. That’s a decent meal for half-a-dozen lions.

The lion was gnawing into the neck, making the gemsbok’s mouth open and close and the tongue move. What can you imagine the gemsbok saying? Really. Tell us in the comments what that gemsbok might have to say.

I’ll bet that gemsbok tongue is good eating.

The Patient Mascot

Jackal waiting patiently for lion crumbs, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

Jackal waiting patiently for lion crumbs, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

And the jackal waits patiently to clean up after the celebration is over and the team leaves, happy to have the scraps and leftovers. Do you see both the jackal and the lion?

Surprise!

As we watched the lions eating, a dust devil snuck up on us. All of our windows were open. (Did you see the high temperature at the top of the post?) Sand, bits of grass, and tiny burr seeds swirled through the truck, coating everything—seats, gear, us—and sticking to the felt ceiling. We raced to put the windows up, but it was too late by the time we knew what was going on.

The thermal conditions here must be just right for dust devils because we saw several most afternoons.

Apples Falling from Trees

Ostriches are like gemsbok in being especially suited to this harsh environment, and in walking or running away if we show any interest in them. They crack me up with their leotards, tutus, and rubber necks. It’s not any less funny to see the mini-mes looking and behaving similarly.

We usually see ostrich pairs with multiple chicks, but this was a pair with a single chick. I’m guessing this means only one has survived. Life is tough out here.

Ostrich adult and chick, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

Ostrich adult and chick, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

New Species Alert!

We saw these early in the day, but I’m presenting them last because they were the highlight.

Upon first seeing them, we thought they were canines, two adults and one young. Jackals? Bat-eared foxes? Something else?

After watching, sharing binoculars, and getting a better look, we got extra excited. Cape foxes! None of us had ever seen Cape foxes.

Cape foxes, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

Cape foxes, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

The silvery back was one tell. Most of the jackals we saw had black backs. The lack of eye mask was another tell. Bat-eared foxes had eye masks. The poofy duster of a tail was another tell. Jackals have skinny, not-nearly-so-pretty tails.

Our red foxes in Alaska have white tips on their tails. Cape foxes have black tips on their tails.

The adults lounged in the morning sun while the temp was still cool, ready for a day of rest in the den or some other shade after a night of hunting. The kit, on the other hand, jumped and darted at insects around the den entrance, playful and raring to go.

“Bedtime? Already? Five more minutes?”

“Four more minutes?”

Jan 202019
 

And we’re back! I don’t think we’ll ever tire of visiting wild Africa, namely national parks in Namibia, Botswana, and now South Africa. Someday, I hope we’ll get to other parts of the continent, but I’m nowhere near finished with these. Our first stop this year was the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in the Kalahari Desert, a new place for us.

A Bit of History

The “transfrontier” part of the name refers to the fact that the park extends across the border of Botswana and South Africa, combining two adjoining parks: the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park in South Africa and the Gemsbok National Park in Botswana.

Can you guess what antelope is prevalent here? Go ahead, guess.

Locals pushed to designate the area as a park to conserve the wildlife. The wildlife is here because of man-made boreholes put in to sustain troops during WWI when South Africa was expected to invade South West Africa (now Namibia) in this region. The invasion did not take place here, and after the war, authorities subdivided the land and gave it to farmers in exchange for keeping the boreholes in good repair.

Unfortunately, it turns out the Kalahari Desert doesn’t make great farmland. On the other hand, the boreholes are a boon to wildlife.

Camping in the Park

South Africa and Botswana enacted this joint venture in 1999, but different campgrounds continue to be regulated and run by the different countries. In general, South Africa tends their campgrounds, providing power and functioning ablution blocks, gas, wi-fi, and a store with essentials. The campgrounds are fenced to keep predators out. Botswana campgrounds, on the other hand, are not tended, have no power, wi-fi, or other services; although, most have showers and sinks with running water, a wonderful thing in this parched environment. Oh . . . and Botswana’s campgrounds are not fenced. Lions are free to share your tent if they choose to do so. Of course, you’re free to tell them “no,” but good luck with that.

You can stay in Botswana campgrounds and purchase gas and sundries from the South African facilities. And if you stay in the more remote Botswana campgrounds, you’re supposed to check in and out at the South African campground office so someone knows you’re out there.

We spent 10 nights in the park at Botswana campgrounds. (It was supposed to be 11 nights, but we were delayed in Windhoek because of British Airways’ abominable customer service in Johannesburg. This is our first and last flight with British Airways.)

The Daily Dozen – Day 01

Twelve photos carefully curated from the day, which was really just a half day. We signed out of Namibia and entered the Transfrontier Park at Mata-Mata. We lowered the air pressure in our tires as requested, got gas and our handy-dandy Official Information Guide, and drove the sandy road to Botswana’s Polentswa campground.

High temp: 104°F (we have a thermometer in the truck this year)
9 PM: 86°F

Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park Map

Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park Map, from the Official Information Guide put out by South African National Parks

The two main roads in this park follow dry river beds, aka ephemeral rivers. The Auob River extends along the route from Mata-Mata to Twee Rivieren. Rumor has it the river floods every 100 years; although, part of it runs every 11 years or so. The Nossob River, which stretches from Union’s End to Two Rivers, floods every 50 years. You can see the path of the river beds by the green trees that grow there, and perhaps by the grazing and browsing herd animals that somehow nibble a living off the patchy, dry, barely there vegetation.

Between and around these river beds are fossilized sand dunes. They’re old sand dunes that don’t shift and change anymore, and because they are stable, shrubs and grasses have taken hold, creating what is called the “duneveld.” Few animals spend time in the duneveld, but some wander through it.

We journeyed today from Mata-Mata, to Kamqua, to Dikbaardskolk, to Polentswa campground, rolling into the campground just before curfew and dark. This is what took us so long:

Lilac-breasted Roller

Lilac-breasted roller, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

Lilac-breasted roller, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

How fun to be greeted by one of my favorite colorful birds, the lilac-breasted roller. We see these quite often here, but that doesn’t make them less special or spectacular.

Giraffe and Springbok

Giraffe and springboks, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

Giraffe and springboks, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

Multi-species mingling. Mixed herds. Savanna smorgasbord. Whatever we call it, this epitomizes Africa for me; it neatly demonstrates the abundance and variety of wildlife. Plus, these are two of my favorite animals. (Yes, I have many favorites.)

Name that Antelope!

Hartebeest silhouette, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

Name that antelope! Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

“I’d recognize that silhouette anywhere!” (Say “silly-ow-et.”)

Can you name that antelope? I sure can. That is a red hartebeest.

Now, can you identify that quote?

The King and His Entourage

There’s no welcome like a royal welcome . . . from the King of beasts.

Male lion, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

Male lion, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

This guy enjoyed a loooooong, leisurely drink at a waterhole. Unlike other animals, he didn’t stop every so often to look around. He just lapped, and lapped, and lapped to his thirst’s content. He looked nicely healthy, but then we noticed a slight limp as he walked.

Following a short but safe distance behind was the King’s entourage.

Jackal drinking at waterhole, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

Jackal drinking at waterhole, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

We often see jackals trailing lions. Bold ones might dash in and steal morsels if the lions are busy or distracted, but mostly they seem to wait patiently for the crumbs left behind. I’ve come to think of them as mascots, hoping their lion team will make a successful kill, always optimistic and enthusiastic, but generally disdained by those they cheer for.

Unlike the lion, this jackal frequently stopped drinking to have a look around.

And then . . .

So, we were driving along our pleasant sand road—a road that likely would have made me and Mike nervous on our first trip to Africa—starting to calculate how far we had to go and how much time we had to get there. You’re not supposed to drive in the park after sunset, and here the period between sunset and full-on dark is the length of a sneeze. We’d never been here before, and we didn’t exactly know where the campground was. Also, we were to check in at the South African campground office at Nossob, and we didn’t know how late someone would be there.

But it was still fairly early, so we figured we had some watching/dawdling time.

Good thing, because we saw several cars parked just ahead. You know what that means.

Surprise, surprise, they were at a waterhole. We pulled in to join them.

Two lionesses and three cubs snoozed, stretched out in the shade, as they tend to do all day long, rendering that waterhole useless to other animals. These were the youngest cubs I had ever seen.

One ornery cub gnawed on and tugged at a sibling that ignored the nuisance. The runt of the three nuzzled mama and tried to nurse.

Lion cub nursing, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

Lion cub nursing, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

All of them panted heavily. It was hot.

After a while, Auntie got up and moved out to a different shady spot on the road, literally lying in the vehicle tracks on the road. Mama followed soon after, leaving just the three cubs there where we continued to watch them.

Time ticked on and away, and we thought we should make tracks ourselves.

Easier said than done. Auntie, Mama, and a third lioness had the road good and blocked.

Mike squeaked around with two tires up on the sandy berm along the road and the other two mere inches from paws and tails. “Am I good?” he asked, as I hung my head out the window to see. “Good.”

The lions didn’t even open their eyes. As we crawled past, I noticed a hartebeest carcass dragged into the shade under a tree.

Lioness with cub, sleeping, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

Lioness with cub, sleeping, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

We checked in at Nossob, got Rand (South African money) and gas, and continued north, the road noticeably less traveled.

The Highlight of the Day: Bat-eared Foxes

To date, Mike and I have only seen bat-eared foxes in truck headlights during night drives. The views were relatively brief; the foxes were hunting and thus moving; and some of the views were rather distant.

Bat-eared fox, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

Bat-eared fox, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

Here it was daylight, and this guy/gal stood relatively still. See the beautiful, fluffy fox tail.

Bat-eared fox pair, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

Bat-eared fox pair, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

And not just one, but a pair. Check out those bat ears. Sometimes they’re up, looking fairly normal, and sometimes they’re flat like comical Yoda ears.

Are you noting the superhero eye masks?

Bat-eared fox family, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

Bat-eared fox family, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

Oh, and not just a pair, but a whole family! In all, three adults and five kits.

Bat-eared fox kit in den, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

Bat-eared fox kit in den, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

Wouldn’t you love to see inside that den?

What a view, eh? And such a pretty, seldom-heard-of animal.

The First Night

As I said, we rolled into the campground just before curfew and dark, slightly anxious about ever finding it, given the poor signage. Sure, we had our map and GPS. They didn’t help. We still weren’t sure we were where we were supposed to be until we saw the A-frames at the campsites. That meant setting up camp and making dinner in the very brief twilight and dark. Three campsites at the Polentswa Campground. No other campers. No fences.

Shine that light around, will you? See any eyes shining back at you?

SNAKE!

 Posted by  Africa 2017, Travel
Feb 162018
 

Then

Before I came to Botswana three years ago, one of my biggest concerns was snakes. I wondered if I’d feel comfortable just walking around the yard and garden. It turned out I was, even walking in flip-flops and barefoot.

For starters, Pip, the dog, dependably alerted us to any and all garden interlopers, those with two legs, four legs, wings, or none of the above. Add to that the fact that we saw precisely zero snakes in the yard week after week, and, yeah, I romped around freely.

Pip, sadly, is no longer with us.

Now

Today, Missy and Mister, the young dogs in the house, began playing on the deck beside the pool. Nothing unusual there. But then I noticed that while they were lunging and prancing, as they often do, they weren’t lunging and prancing at each other. They were focused instead on something below the bottom step of the veranda.

I got up to investigate, curious but not concerned.

SNAKE!

Cape cobra, young female, Maun, Botswana

SNAKE!

It was small, but the head and hood were up.

COBRA!

Preparedness

We’d been warned about spitting cobras. All the animals, save these two young ones, have had venom in the eyes and know a thing or two about snakes. Was this a spitting cobra? I had no idea. There are other kinds. All the same, I kept my distance and averted my face. Cobras can spit venom as far as three meters.

I ordered the dogs to “leave it” and come to me. Thankfully, with just a little firmness and/or persuasion, they did. Bandit, the cat, on the other hand, walked off the other way. I secured the dogs in the bedroom and alerted Mike, who just the other day commented on not seeing snakes in the yard.

We have a rubber tool like a short whip—a sjambok—that can kill a snake, but it’s probably not even a meter long, so you’d have to be awfully close to the reptile to do it. That’s a bit closer than I want to be to most snakes, but this thing was tiny enough that I actually thought we could handle it. But who wants to kill anything if you don’t have to? Certainly not Ali and Mark, the home owners.

Mark, the Nephew

In addition to having instructions about spitting cobras, we are also armed with a phone number for Ali’s nephew, Mark (not to be confused with homeowner Mark), who loves snakes and is willing to come rescue one, if he’s not out being a pilot or saving rhinos or doing something else interesting and useful. We got lucky. He was home and able to come right away.

Mike kept an eye on the cobra and I kept an eye on Mike while we waited for Mark. As soon as things calmed down, the wee snake put her hood down and slithered off. Not wanting a cobra wandering around the yard, Mike corralled it, preventing it from fully escaping.

So the snake opted for an upward path and slithered toward a nearby short tree . . . under which Bandit sat. Ack! I called for him to come to me, and I used my watch-out, hurry-up voice, but the stubborn cat just looked at me, bored and unconcerned. I didn’t want to lunge for him because I didn’t want to get that close to the cobra and because that would look to the cobra like I was lunging at it, possibly putting it on the defensive, or worse, the offensive. I remained as still as Bandit, and the the cobra slithered on by, not a foot away from the cat, and continued a short way up the trunk. Bandit got up and walked away.

The snake was still on the tree trunk when Mark arrived, and he smoothly and delicately grabbed the snake with his snake grabber. Cue the New Age music. Mark proceeded to gently lay the snake on the ground. It didn’t rear its head up or put up its hood. Everyone was calm and slow and quiet.

Except me, of course. My heart raced, and I wanted to prance and lunge as the dogs had done, but I didn’t.

Kneeling beside the snake, Mark pressed a skinny, insubstantial twig down, just behind the cobra’s head, and walked his fingers slowly up the stick to the cobra’s neck. Then he swapped his finger for the twig, and gently picked up the snake, which wrapped its tail around Mark’s wrist as though holding his hand. She appeared perfectly calm. I imagined her saying, “Thank goodness you arrived! These people don’t speak snake. How can you be in Africa and not speak snake?”

Mark Flatt with young cape cobra

Yeah. It was really that big!

Hey, I said it was small. Actually, it’s about 14 inches long. And it’s a young female. And it’s not a spitting cobra but a “highly venomous” cape cobra, which grows to be about five feet long. That wee thing could seriously hurt or even kill us and/or the dogs.

ZOIKS!

The guidebook also says it “readily bites.” I am so relieved the dogs escaped unharmed.

Mark slid the cobra into a pillowcase and tied the top in a knot. He will drive her out into the Bush to live happily ever after, away from people.

So, after about four total months or so living on this property, counting three years ago and this year, we saw our first snake in the yard. Exciting, eh? The story should end here, right?

Well, guess what: It doesn’t.

The Story Continues

The dogs and I were doing our before-dinner walk around the garden. The young ones were racing ahead as the old one and I cut a corner. My eyes were fairly glued to the ground as we walked, noting every stick and seedpod. When my eyes screamed at my brain, snake!, my brain thought it was a joke or a signal that had taken a detour through my imagination.

I stepped a wee bit closer, shielding my face with my hands, and looked harder. Told you so, brain, it’s a snake!

The young dogs were oblivious, but the old dog, Gib, who doesn’t move quickly anymore, was right by my side, determined to take the shortest way back to dinner, which was straight over the snake.

Once again, my fervent gestures (Gib is deaf) persuaded the dog to come to me, and we went around the snake. I whistled for the youngsters, who came obediently, as there was nothing curious competing for their attention, and all the dogs were contained, out of harm’s way.

“Mike, you won’t believe it, but there’s another snake in the yard.”

I called Mark again but got no answer . . . and no voicemail. A message after the series of rings said something like I had a bad number, but the voice was accented, and I didn’t fully understand the words. I dialed another two times, hoping to leave a message, but always getting the same result.

The snake was surprisingly mellow. In fact, we wondered if it was dead, but it moved slightly when poked with a stick. We decided we might be able to get it into a pillowcase ourselves, even without a grabber. I watched the snake as Mike rounded up a pillowcase and the sjambok. I suggested we put the pillowcase in a trash can or bucket, so no one was holding it while we dropped the snake in. The snake waited patiently while Mike rounded up a trash can.

On the third try, Mike had the snake balanced well enough on the sjambok to get it into the pillowcase. Now who wants to touch the pillowcase and tie the top in a knot? Neither one of us, but I picked it up and Mike gingerly tied the knot. We draped the pillowcase over the edge of a large trash can and put the lid on top, pinning the knot so the snake and pillowcase dangled over the edge on the inside of the can.

The phone rang. It was Mark. “I see I missed three calls from you.”

Ahem. Nice, patient guy, Mark.

I told him about our second snake, describing it as about 18 inches (46 cm) long, solid gray-black, small head. I said we had it snugly ensconced in a pillowcase for the night, and he promised to pick it up in the morning.

I swore I wasn’t going outside anymore today, but, of course, the dogs had to go out before bed, so I lied. I took the brightest flashlight we had for the night stroll, and stayed out only as long as it took Gib to take care of business.

In the morning, Mark opened the pillowcase for a peek at the new specimen. Only now did we attempt to get a photo, and it was a pretty lame attempt. Sorry, you get proof of a second snake, but no good look.

Purple-glossed snake, Maun, Botswana

The second snake of the day

Purple-glossed snake, closer

Same #2 snake, closer

On first glance, Mark wasn’t sure if this beauty was a harmless purple-glossed snake or its dangerous lookalike, a burrowing asp, which has long fangs and painful venom and cannot be held safely behind the head. Looking closely at the head scales, he thought it most likely the purple-glossed snake. My guidebook says the purple fellow is slow and rarely bites. He was certainly slow last night. (I don’t actually know it was a he. We didn’t look.)

Can That Please Be All?

And now the story ends.

With luck, we won’t have any more snakes in the yard, but you can bet I’ll be looking. And probably wearing sneakers instead of flip-flops.

Feb 102018
 

Once again, we are visiting Africa during the “off season,” generally my preferred season to travel anywhere. It is summer here, and hot! We’re talking 110-degrees Fahrenheit and even higher. We’re talking walk-into-the-shower-fully-clothed-and-walk-out-soaking-wet hot, provided you’re lucky enough to have a shower.

It’s also the rainy season. We recently got 2.5 inches of rain in less than an hour, a real downpour. That means grasses grow and trees leaf out, and all that greenery obscures views of animals. Puddles and waterholes pool up all over so that animals no longer congregate around permanent waterholes. They’re spread out, harder to find.

But the abundant water (or more abundant, anyway) and ample green food also means babies. The off season here is the birthing season, and that presents some special viewing opportunities. Mind you, many species hide their babies in burrows and brush when they are born, away from predators and even the rest of the herd, so finding them can be a challenge.

Babies with Different Coloration

Babies’ coats often differ from those of adults so they are better camouflaged while they are most vulnerable.

Banded mongoose pup, Africa

Banded mongoose adult and pup

I imagine something that small is pretty hard to find, anyway.

Gemsbok baby, Africa

Gemsbok young

Young gemsbok have to earn their letterman sweaters. Not sure what I’m talking about? Stay tuned!

Hartebeest baby, Africa

Hartebeest baby

I see they are born with those crazy forehead shelves on which the horns sit.

Impala baby, Africa

Impala baby

Gives new meaning to “rubbernecking.”

Wildebeest baby, Africa

Wildebeest or gnu baby

They are at their most handsome right now.

Jackal pup, Africa

Jackal pup

But they get their adult coloration fast!

Springbok lamb or fawn, Africa

Springbok lamb or fawn

Those magic, superhero ears! “I can fly; I know I can!”

Kudu baby, Africa

Kudu baby

Adult Look-alikes

Some babies look like small versions of the adults.

Rock hyrax pup, Africa

Rock hyrax pup

Those old-man eyebrows!

Zebra foal, Africa

Zebra foal

A bit fuzzier than adults, but colored the same.

Hippo baby, Africa

Hippo baby

Ohmygosh, they come out as sausages; it’s not something they grow into!

Giraffe calf, Africa

Giraffe calf

Half a giraffe, sort of.

Elephant calf, Africa

Elephant calf

What a baby elephant can’t do is control its trunk very well. For instance, most have to learn to drink with it. When they’re young, they drink with their mouths.

Adolescents

Some young stay with their mothers for several years, until they are quite large and adult-looking. Would you believe this guy is still in Mom’s care?

Black rhino young, Africa

Black rhino young

Funny and Adorable

Warthog piglet, Africa

Warthog piglet

Babies with muttonchops crack me up!

Baboon baby, Africa

Chacma baboon baby

Vervet monkey baby, Africa

Vervet monkey baby

Baboons and monkeys tie for the goofiest babies, both in looks and behavior.

Nurseries

I call this an impala nursery, but, technically, it’s called a “creche.” Impala, springbok, and other herd animals will gather their young in groups so mothers can take turns wandering off to eat. The wee ones learn the social rules of being in a herd, and adolescents and adults linger nearby to supervise and keep a lookout.

Impala creche, Chobe National Park, Botswana

Impala creche

How often do you think a tired adult tells a misbehaving youth, “I think I smell a lion”?

A Newborn!

My favorite baby sighting of all: a newborn springbok. This brand-spanking new springbok still looks wet, darkly colored, has its umbilical cord dangling, and is wobbly on its spindly legs. Mom still shows signs of recently given birth on her hind end, and she’s ravenous, eating, eating, eating.

Newborn springbok, Okaukuejo, Etosha National Park, Namibia

Newborn springbok

They’re alone in the middle of a wide, open plain. No lions in sight. May the odds be in your favor, little one.

Feb 082018
 

More wonderful animal signs.

Little known fact: The original manuscript of Been There, Done That: Reading Animal Signs included a running joke that I envisioned on every other spread. The joke was a literal take on the idea of “animal signs,” where the animals would have printed signs like road signs, business signs, etc. in addition to their signs in nature. For instance, where the book talks about snowshoe hares and how they strip the bark off willows in winter, the literal twist would be a barber pole and shop sign (or whatever the illustrator invented) advertising “hare cuts.”

Well, here’s another take on “animal signs” in Botswana and Namibia.

Most Popular Animal Signs

The ones we saw most often, and three of my faves. As you scroll, name those silhouettes.

Elephant, animal sign in southern Africa

Kudu, animal sign in southern Africa

Warthog, animal sign in southern Africa

Can you identify them all?

Elephant, kudu, and warthog. I love the twisty horns on the kudu, very accurate, and I love the way the tusks on the warthog are depicted and the bicycle-flag tail, also accurate.

Twofer Sign

They like this animal so much, they made two signs for it. Recognize it?

Gemsbok, animal sign in southern Africa

Gemsbok, oryx, animal sign in southern Africa

If you said “oryx,” give yourself a point. If you said “gemsbok,” give yourself a point. If you pronounced “gemsbok” HEMS-bok, give yourself an extra point.

Gemsbok, an animal so nice they drew it twice.

Specialized Signs

I wish we had seen these all over, the way we did the above signs, but we didn’t. They may be out there in a few places, or they may have been special ordered for the private reserve where we saw them.

Can you name that silhouette?

Cheetah, animal sign in southern Africa

Leopard, animal sign in southern Africa

Steenbok, animal sign in southern Africa

Cheetah, leopard, and steenbok.

They Can’t All Be Winners

And then there were these. Not quite up to snuff, if you ask me.

zebra, animal sign

giraffe, animal sign

The zebra is tolerable but too cartoony compared to the others, and the spots ruin the giraffe. Anyone got a black Sharpie? Let’s color those in. I suppose it’s better than this, though:

Umm . . . what?!

Hyena, animal sign

That looks like a zombie mouse head on . . . what? . . . a canine body with too-long legs and a dislocated shoulder?

My best guess is that it’s supposed to be a hyena based on the rounded ears, little potbelly, and tail. It lacks that distinctive sloping back, which seems like a no-brainer.

Any other guesses? Maybe it really is a zombie mouse.

Animal Signs at Namib-Naukluft

Namib-Naukluft animal signs

In the Namib-Naukluft desert, park personnel warn you to beware of chameleons, ostriches, and gemsbok.

As the picture indicates, the ostriches we saw were generally running, but they were running away from us and posed no danger. Does anyone else think this looks like the Roadrunner?

Thank goodness we never encountered a chameleon. When we were here three years ago, one tried to bite Mike’s hiking boot. Vicious creatures, chameleons.

Lay-bye Animal Sign

Here in Botswana and Namibia, some roads have things called “lay-byes.” I am not making up the spelling.

Lay-bye sign

At home, we’d call them pullouts or rest areas.

Sometimes they have shaded tables and trash cans. I’ve never seen one with an outhouse or bathroom, though.

lay-bye warning

The blue, black, and white are the colors of the Botswana flag. Many trash cans and tables are painted these same colors in Namibia where flag colors are blue, green, and red. Go figure.

Some lay-byes have signs like this:

lay-bye warning, close

And it’s a good warning. We’ve seen elephants and giraffes very near lay-byes.

Most Frustrating Sign

We’ll be saying “geen toegang” forevermore, not pronounced correctly, of course. It’s Afrikaans, I think, for “nya-nya, you can’t go here, and here is where we keep the most exciting animals, behaviors, and interactions,” or simply “No Entry.”

Geen Toegang, No Entry sign

Another Favorite of Mine

And, finally, here’s one I wish we’d seen often, but we didn’t.

No fences, animal sign

Private game reserves are fenced. Ranches are fenced. Namibia has a lot of fences. We saw a bunch of dead wild animals that had been caught in fences.

I am not a fan of some fences.

What’s your favorite animal sign?

Feb 072018
 
White-backed and lappet-faced vultures

“Unless you include some decent photos of us in this post, I’m out of here,” said the vulture who wasn’t at Mahango or Etosha.

An Animal-Sign Mytery

Animal signs are one of my things, whether I’m at home or traveling. I wrote a book about them. Of course I’m looking for animal signs here in Africa; Mike is, too.

In some cases, spotting an animal sign can be more fun than spotting an animal because signs present a puzzle or mystery. An animal sign presents a story we have to figure out; an animal presents a story we can watch unfold. As much as I enjoy watching a wildlife story happen, I think it can be more fun to puzzle one out from clues.

The Clue that Starts it All

While driving on the dry, sandy, wooded side of the Mahango Park, we happened upon this clue:

White-backed vultures in tree at Mahango, Bwabwata National Park, Namibia

A clue!

See the clue?

It’s a tree full of vultures, white-backed vultures, I believe.

White-backed vultures in tree at Mahango, Bwabwata National Park, Namibia

The clue, closer

Know what mystery this presents?

The Theory

It wasn’t time to roost for the evening, so they weren’t hunkering down for the night. Vultures are scavengers, and I believed there was something dead nearby. My first thought—and hope, I guess—was that a predator made a kill nearby, and maybe that predator was still around. Spotting a predator is somewhat rare, which makes it special. (Dear herbivores, I love seeing you, too.)

We looked and looked, moving the car forward and back, watching all around for movement.

We saw nothing. The vultures weren’t budging, so they weren’t yet being permitted near the thing. Something had to be present to prevent them from feasting.

We waited. We watched. We slowly rolled along the road.

Another Clue

And then Mike caught it: movement.

This guy . . . or gal:

Yellow-billed kite, Mahango area, Bwabwata National Park, Namibia

Yellow-billed kite

It dove behind some brush, then returned here.

Does anyone else think it’s crazy that a single kite can fend off a passel of vultures? Come on, vultures, you can take him! Get together. Organize!

We focused in on the brush and could just make out a large, smooth, black-ish lump. We didn’t bother taking a picture because you wouldn’t be able to see anything. My brain leaped to “hippo,” but the terrain was all wrong for a hippo, and we were too far from the river. That couldn’t be right.

Oh, to be able to get out of the truck for a closer look! We were not supposed to; it’s against Park rules. We are, mostly, rule followers, but it was also really brushy, and there could be cats, lions or leopards, in the brush. Or a grumpy herbivore. Black rhino? Or a terrified antelope with pointy horns and sharp hooves. Ya never know!

The Final Clue and Conclusion

We continued farther along the sand road until we looked back on the lumpy, brushy area. Here, on the other side of the tallest brush, we had a slightly better view, just enough to see part of the horns and conclude it was a cape buffalo, still largely intact, and thus probably not the victim of a predator. We also picked up the reeking stench. Gah! It was vulture time, for sure. Clean-up on aisle 6!

We returned the following day, and the lump was flattened. The scavengers worked fast! We also saw live buffalo in the area.

Cape buffalo, Mahango area, Bwabwata National Park, Namibia

Female and male buffalo specimens

And thus concluded our mystery. We solved it, starting with the vulture clue. It took some doing: patience, searching, thinking, guessing.

More Vulture-sign Stories

It wasn’t the first time vultures led us to a story. Thanks to vultures in Etosha National Park, we discovered four jackals eating a dead springbok one day, and hyenas and jackals eating a zebra the next.

Vulture sign in Etosha National Park, Namibia

A bunch of vultures is a sign

That’s just a few of the many vultures on the scene. They were far away. The dead animal and diners were visible only with the help of binoculars, patience, and some experience, but the stories were there, and we enjoyed figuring them out.

Without the vultures getting our attention, we never would have stopped, zoomed in, and seen what was happening. We would have driven right by, as some people did, even while we sat there.

Hyenas and jackal eating zebra kill, Etosha National Park, Namibia

Left to right: jackal, hyena, dead zebra, hyena. Look closely!

Now, if I told you I made this oil painting of one of the dining jackals and two hovering vultures, you’d be at least a little impressed, right? Heck, I would be!

Jackal and vultures, Etosha National Park, Namibia

An oil painting or a really bad photo?

But the truth is, it’s a really bad photo, zooming in with the digital zoom. I only wish I’d painted this.

How about some better shots of our heroes, the vultures?

Lappet-faced vulture

Lappet-faced vulture, good ol’ F222

White-backed vulture

White-backed vulture

Though our Mahango vulture-sign story didn’t have the exciting and dramatic conclusion we hoped for, it was fun and satisfying. The more mundane endings such as this enhance the exciting ones.

And there have been exciting ones. Stay tuned!

Have you ever solved an animal-sign mystery? Tell me about it!