Africa 2018-19

Polentswa to Union’s End, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (KTP)

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?”

6 replies »

  1. What a feast, a day in the kalahari! Thanks Jen, Mike , and Barbara.

    I remember reading cry of the the kalahari in my 20s? And being mesmerized by the stories.
    I still enjoy a day of wandering parks and observing animals, birds, the nature of our world. Exquisite

  2. Just one continuous “wow.” Thanks Jen and Mike! BTW, I’ve never heard of/read the book Cry of the Kalahari that Joanie mentioned. Looked it up and will have to read it! I’ve told Jen that she and Mike should do a travel book. 🙂

  3. Joanie and Linda, we read “Cry of the Kalahari” before our first trip to Africa. And I remember seeing the authors talking about their adventures on Johnny Carson many years ago and thinking “that’d be cool to do”. And now we’re kinda, sorta doing it, in our own small way. We even visited the area of their camp on a day trip our first time here. It’s about a 5 hour drive from where we are right now. And the homeowner (and now our friend, Mark) here is mentioned briefly in the book. He was a bush pilot back then and would occasionally fly the Owens around. Small world!

  4. A great read as usual Jen.
    Say hi to Mike. Tell him JJ won the blue ribbon for obedience at the dog show this week

  5. Way to go JJ! I’m not surprised. I was very impressed with the limited routine you showed us at Allen’s last summer.