Africa 2018-19

The Waterhole Wait: Giraffe vs. Lions

The Daily Dozen

Twelve carefully curated photos of Day 6 in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.

Our game drive today is from the Rooiputs campground to Mata-Mata and back. The KTP is a bit like Denali NP in Alaska in that despite being a huge park, roads are few.

Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park Map

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

A Nocturnal Creature Captured in the Light

Once again, our early departure pays off with a good long look at a distant porcupine still hunting in the cool morning in a little valley on the dune. You can see what we saw below or over at YouTube. (0:41)

Notice how it blends in with the grass when it stands still.

Apparently, we have two different kinds of porcupines here: a small, all-brown one with shorter hair and quills, and the big one with the super-sized striped quills and long mohawk. In case you didn’t notice, this is the big one with quills so long they clatter together audibly as the porcupine moves. Although, you won’t hear that in the video; we’re way too far away—which makes it all the funnier that the poor thing panics and gallops away when it discovers us.

Being the animal-sign hunter that I am, I’m always on the lookout for shed quills, which are modified hairs, so they fall out regularly. The dropped quills stand out beautifully against the red sand, and they make nice bun holders for long hair, or perhaps decorations for dried-flower arrangements, or, or, or . . . .

Chirping Cheetahs, Batman!

Down in the Auob River valley, we came upon our first parked car. Mike quickly noticed a cheetah walking across the pan. It strolled past a meerkat colony, scattering the residents and sending them down their myriad burrow entrances. Only a sentinel remained, erect and watchful.

The cheetah walked straight to a large shade tree and performed “down dog” to get a good sniff of the trunk. He went to another tree and did the same. I’m not sure what the message was on those trees, probably something about getting together later, but our fellow was moved to call out with a message of his own.

Cheetah Chat

Cheetahs have a number of vocalizations in their arsenal. They purr rather than roar like the bigger cats. Purring and roaring are mutually exclusive because they require different vocal hardware.

Another cheetah vocalization is called a “chirrup.” It’s a bird-like call that carries several hundred meters and is used when excited, meeting members of one’s own group, or when mothers want to call scattered young. I would guess this cheetah is chirruping. He chirruped and chirruped, looking around. Then he walked and chirruped. Then he laid down and chirruped.

If you’ve got 25 seconds you can watch here—or over on YouTube.

The meerkats watched the cheetah. When it laid down, several popped up and joined the sentinel. When the cheetah shifted or moved in any way, they dove back down into their holes.

After waiting and chirruping and getting no response, the cheetah continued down the river pan and across the road. We tagged along until he wandered up and over a dune, chirruping all the way.

Of Mice and Eagles . . . and Tortoises and Hares

We are still seeing lots of mice, and we’ve also seen several hares. I love that we’re seeing so many small mammals.

Road signs tell us to watch out for tortoises, and today we finally saw our first tortoise, a small one, making a beeline for shade.

And we found another Martial eagle, this time sitting on a high tree branch and—honest-to-jackal, I’m not making this up—contemplating its belly and feet. We’re pretty sure it’s the same young and/or daft Martial eagle we saw previously. Not only is it behaving similarly, it’s in the same area.

More Cheetahs

Two different cheetahs appeared, walking down from a dune toward us into the Auob River valley. This mama and good-sized cub wanted shade, and they chose a wide-canopied tree right by the road, where several trucks were parked, watching them approach.

How I adore habituated animals! They paid the trucks no mind, even though we blocked much of the view of the pan.

As the shade moved around the tree, the pair moved with it. When re-settling, the cub plopped down right against Mama’s belly, snuggled like a spoon in a drawer. It purred loud enough I could hear it and rolled into Mama, nuzzling her head and neck.

I think he also told her a joke because they both wound up laughing:

Mother and cub cheetah, laughing, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber, Jen Funk Weber

Mama cheetah and cub, laughing. Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

Other visitors got their fill and moved on, until we were the only gawkers left. We crept into the cherry parking spot right beside them.

How close are the cheetahs, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber, Jen Funk Weber

How close are the cheetahs? Right beside the truck. Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

Soon, Mama decided it was time to carry on. She got up, walked past our open windows, and skirted around behind the truck. The cub sat up and watched. As Mama disappeared behind the truck, he looked in the windows at me and Barb. Barb was inclined to roll up her window, but I got nothing but calm vibes, and I reveled in the moment of a wild animal taking notice of us. It, too, skirted around the back side of the truck and followed Mama out across the pan.

Young cheetah closeup, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber, Jen Funk Weber

Young cheetah closeup, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

Who’s Craig Lockhart?

The Person

A truck with self-driving safariers pulled up to tell us that they’d found lions under a tree at the Craig Lockhart waterhole.

First of all, who’s Craig Lockhart? I would guess he was an early settler, maybe one of the farmers given land here in exchange for keeping a waterhole up and running in good order. But maybe not.

So far, all I’ve read is this: In 1914, a Scotsman named Rodger Jackson was hired by the government to survey and mark farms. Apparently, he named the waterholes, too. Maybe Craig Lockhart is simply Rodger Jackson’s friend. Feel free to make up your own story.

Second of all, I know it’s what people do—share their wildlife sightings—but, as always, I have mixed feelings about this. I’d rather discover animals on my own, but if it’s something I’m likely to miss, then I’d rather know about it and be able to look for it.

The Waterhole

The Craig Lockhart waterhole was next, and sure enough, we found five lions lounging in a pile under a tree: two lionesses and three male teens. Two of the teens licked, licked, licked each other’s pink faces, suggesting the night’s hunt had been successful.

Lion brothers licking faces, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber, Jen Funk Weber

Lion brothers licking faces, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

On a sweltering day such as this, lions are pretty boring, lying and panting in the shade. So we carried on to Mata-Mata where we got gas and drinking water. On the way back, we decided to have lunch with the lions. That meant having peanut butter and honey sandwiches and whatever else we had in the backseat, as waterholes are not get-out-of-your-car places. That said, park maintenance workers were out of their truck fiddling with a pump or something not all that far from these lions. So quit worrying, mother.

Lunching with Lions

While we ate and watched, Mama Lion got up from the shade and walked down to the waterhole for a long drink.

Lioness heading to waterhole, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber, Jen Funk Weber

Lioness heading to waterhole, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

Two of the adolescents followed, and they drank shoulder to shoulder.

Lioness and two teen male cubs drink at waterhole, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber, Jen Funk Weber

Lioness and two teen male cubs drink at waterhole, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

None of them hesitated on the way to the waterhole, no cautious looking about, no waffling on whether to go or not. That, friends, is lion privilege. I don’t know if they make up 1% of the savanna population, but I do know they are the only species that freely trek to and drink from a waterhole and lie down and sleep at their leisure.

Lions return to shade after drinking, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber, Jen Funk Weber

Lions return to shade after drinking, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

The three hydrated lions returned to the shade in reverse order. The shade had shifted significantly, so Mama made the move to the opposite side of the tree. The adolescents followed.

Resting “In Contact”

Auntie remained where she was until the sun found her and made direct contact. When she moved to join the family, she flopped (and I mean lazily dropping) on top of one of her nephews. They shared a quick nuzzle before Auntie rolled off and settled on the ground, still touching the cub she is helping to raise. The natural history books call this lying “in contact.” It’s part of the social system that keeps prides together, but I wonder at the evolution of that ritual because it’s so ding-dong hot here. Surely they’d be cooler and more comfortable if they spread out. On the other hand, it allows a group to share the tiniest bit of shade, but still.

Obviously, it works, but I wonder how often a lion thinks, “Ohmydog, it’s hot. Get off me!”

Other Characters in the Show

The mascot jackal hung about along with two thirsty gemsboks who considered risking their lives for a drink but decided against it. No surprise there.

And then a giraffe strolled over a dune and into the scene. It was not one of the five bulls we’ve seen before, but it was a bull, and it was all alone.

At first, he seemed to detect the lions and choose to go the opposite way, but then he didn’t. He lingered and watched. He approached the waterhole warily. And he watched. Did he see the lions? Smell them? Both?

Did he wonder why all the cars were parked here and all the cameras were pointed at the shade tree?

Giraffe discovers lions at waterhole, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber, Jen Funk Weber

Giraffe discovers lions at waterhole, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Jen Funk Weber

The giraffe studied the several vehicles parked quietly in the shade, maybe 100 feet from the waterhole. Was he as concerned about the vehicles as the lions? I wish these crazy animals would answer my questions!

Giraffe approaches waterhole with lions nearby, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber, Jen Funk Weber

Giraffe approaches waterhole with lions nearby, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

This giraffe has been around the block pan a few times; his ossicones are especially bald, so aged and well-used. I suspect he also knows a thing or two about lions, given the scars on his neck, rump, and legs. His neck is lumpy and crooked, to boot. It was easy to imagine him standing up to a lion, but five of them?

Battle-scarred giraffe, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber, Jen Funk Weber

Battle-scarred giraffe, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

What’s a Thirsty Giraffe to Do?

The giraffe stood and watched. He waited and watched. He stepped closer and watched. The minute hand on my watch moved faster and farther than this thirsty, two-story-tall animal.

Eventually, the giraffe wound up right next to the waterhole. He even lowered his head toward it, but, as we all know, that’s not enough for a giraffe to get a drink without a very tall glass. He must commit to drinking and splay his legs so his mouth can reach the ground. That is a vulnerable position to assume with lions a hop, skip, and pounce away.

The bull circled the waterhole, round and round, alternately watching the cars and the lions.

Ninety minutes after he first arrived, he took the plunge . . . or, more accurately, he stepped his front legs wide apart, leaned down, curled his top lip, and plunged his mouth into the thirst-quenching water.

I wanted to cheer, but after all that effort—the giraffe’s effort to make a decision and my effort to sit still and quiet for an hour and a half—I wanted the rewards for both of us: a good long drink for him, and a good long look at a giraffe drinking for me.

Lone giraffe drinking while lions watch, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber, Jen Funk Weber

Lone giraffe drinking while lions watch, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

The Payoff

He drank and drank, sucking water, not lapping. He lifted his head and snapped his chin upward to shake off dripping water, then he licked and licked his rubbery bristled lips with his long purple tongue.

Now all clean and dry, he lowered his head again for a second guzzle.

After his second drink, the bull gracefully jumped his front feet together, regaining his impressive 18-foot height.

Then something spooked him. He startled, jumped, and ran a few paces. But then he deemed whatever it was a false alarm. (I swear I did not cheer. Not a peep.) He returned to the waterhole.

Meanwhile . . .

Meanwhile, the lions remained mostly unmoving, panting in the shade. I can imagine a single giraffe being a temptation, as a group their size could probably take him down, but there would be risk involved. More risk than from, say, a small springbok or a peaceful, Quaker-like gemsbok. And, of course, the lions were still pink from having just eaten the previous night.

Oh, and it was hot.

The lack of interest from the lions allowed the giraffe to take up his funny drinking pose three more times, getting a good, long, hard-earned drink. How much water do you suppose he consumed?

Want to see some of what we saw? You can, right here. I won’t lie: I love this video! Watch our intrepid giraffe here or over on YouTube. (2:00)

Remember how three of the lions here got their drink? They just walked on down and helped themselves. They didn’t spend ninety minutes hemming and hawing and wondering if they’d survive the experience. They are the only animals in the park that can do that. Lion privilege.

The Campground Shuffle

We moved to site #5 at the Rooiputs campground because our permit says we must. Rule followers, that’s us.

It’s the worst of the six sites, with no flat place to set up the tents, deep sand for more difficult driving and walking, and a dilapidated A-frame that is far from the most viable tent site. The site is farther away from the ablutions than the other sites, too.

In fact, the multi-party group in site 6 seemed to be under the impression the shared ablutions were their own, private ablutions. However, the six sites are served by three ablution blocks, one block between each pair of sites. Our neighbors, who had only arrived that day while we were out, had tents, tables, and trucks set up beside the ablutions and in one of the two roads that led to our inferior site.

Barb and I did our dishes in the sink at the block to stake our joint claim. The neighbors were unfazed.

A Silver Lining

Site #5 has one good thing to recommend it: There seems to be a waterhole in the gully over the back berm.

On one hand, camping at a waterhole seems kind of crazy (i.e., irresponsible, stupid, inviting trouble), like setting up a tent on a bear trail. On the other hand, yippee! I want to stay up all night and see if any night creepers come in for a drink. We finagled our truck into a not-too-terribly-crooked position on the berm and set up our chairs beside it so we could see down into the gully.

When we shined our light into the dark around that waterhole, we found two sets of eyes shining back. One set belonged to a cape fox, the other to . . . (cue dramatic music) a brown hyena. Wa-hoooo!

New Species Alert: Brown Hyena!

Actually, it took a long time and repeated looks for me to conclude it was a brown hyena and not an aardwolf. Barb and Mike were convinced much sooner. I’d have been happy with either. Eventually it came far enough out of the brush that I feel good about making that ID. That’s a new species for all of us, said to be “strictly nocturnal.” It’s the animal that Mark and Delia Owens studied, which we read about in Cry of the Kalahari.*

I’m growing fonder of our shabby campsite.

Unfortunately, we have no pictures of the brown hyena. We are not set up for night photography.

* Heads up! Affiliate link. I may get a tiny commission if you make a purchase from Amazon after clicking that link.

9 replies »

  1. My little girl goes out wandering about with cheetahs and lions, and she says, “..quit worrying Mother.” Could any request be more futile?

  2. You have hit cheetah bonanza! I am particularly thrilled to have seen the video of the giraffe drinking. I have a special affection for giraffes. Always have.