Battle at Kruger – The Best Travel Video Ever

4 05 2009


Anyone who’s watched National Geographic documentaries would be forgiven for thinking that Africa is just one big soap opera of sex and violence. Turn left to spy a leopard devouring an impala in a tree, turn right to see an elephant giving birth to twins, while straight ahead a pride of lions is engaged with a clan of insurgent hyenas. While it’s usually quite easy to see some pretty stunning wildlife in most game parks, the reality is that those spectacular Discovery Channel scenes are likely the result of months and months of intense effort and hard work. However, travellers sometimes do even better than the pros!


One of the most moving sights I saw was a confrontation between a herd of elephant and a pride of lions over the carcass of a dead elephant (Adventure Zone – July 29, 2008). It was the sort of scene that wildlife documentary makers spend years attempting to catch without luck. I’ve seen a giraffe giving birth, lions and buffalo mating (not with each other: Africa is still a bit too old-fashioned for that) and rhino, lion and elephant sharing the same floodlit waterhole at the same time. However, I’ve also spent 4 hours driving around and around the Masai Mara and quite literally seen nothing more than a hand-full of zebra and one or time indeterminate antelopes known colloquially as ‘brown-jobbers’.


The bottom line is that whether you’re in the jungles of the Amazon or Borneo, the plains of East Africa or on Hollywood Boulevard, there’s no guarantee you’ll see anything…but with a good guide, plenty of patience and a lot of luck, you might just be like the guy who filmed the following video.


I am a wildlife documentary junkie and feel as though I’ve seen every one ever made, but this 8 minute home video from a Kruger safari is arguably the most dramatic and incredible film I have ever seen. The camera is a bit jerky and not always focused, there’s no stirring music or famous actor narrating but it’s as gripping as anything I have ever seen elsewhere – and it was shot by a regular traveler like you and me, with a hand-held digital video camera and a whole lot of luck.


It’s a long video but keep watching right until the end…this is awesome stuff. If I sound overly excited, I am. To paraphrase Billy Bob Thornton, I’m a bit of a hump-backed geek when it comes to these things. So, enjoy…and then empty the penny jar and book that trip to Africa you’ve always dreamed of.




Post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009


Safari A-Z: N is for Night Game Drive

29 09 2008

Things that go bump in the night.                        (Etosha, Namibia)

There is a quiet and intermittent ticking coming from the cooling engine. Everyone sits silently in the open-backed vehicle, mouths open, listening intently for any noise from the surrounding bush. Hands swat at mosquitoes while eyes strain for the slightest movement as they slowly grow accustomed to the engulfing darkness. From the right, there is a low rolling rumble, a deep breath and a heavy rustle. The guide gestures with his hand.  We can see nothing. He turns on a hand-held spotlight, and there, no more than 30 metres away, a herd of elephant drifts almost silently past us.


It’s not possible to do night game drives everywhere in Africa. Many parks restrict movement after dark in an attempt to curtail the activities of poachers. But where they are available, they are amongst the greatest and most unique wildlife experiences.


During early morning or late afternoon, it is rare to have a disappointing game drive in any park in east or southern Africa. Even the drive from a park gate to a lodge or campsite usually rewards with giraffe, antelope, zebra or elephant. Night game drives are different, however, and it is not unusual to return from several hours of searching having seen almost nothing. While it is much more difficult to find the Big Five than during the day, there’s a much greater likelihood of finding some of the lesser-known nocturnal species that the vast majority of visitors will never see. Things like honey badgers, anteaters, porcupine or certain wildcats. But any encounter at all at night takes on a magical quality that makes it truly unforgettable.


Close to the equator, darkness comes in the early evening and the intense heat of the day quickly evaporates leaving a biting chill. The best night game drives take place in open-backed or open-sided vehicles with nothing providing separation or protection from the mysteries of the night. The driver and guide scan the bush with a powerful hand-held spotlight, hoping to catch a hint of movement or the reflection of a pair of eyes. Sometimes, the vehicle is just stopped, the engine turned off, and you just sit in the bush and take in all the sounds.


Sitting amid a pride of lions and listening to them grinding into the bones of a kill is a daunting experience that sends rippling chills down one’s spine even in broad daylight. But at night, when you can only see the lions that are in the spotlight yet can hear them all around you and know there is nothing to stop them from leaping into the open vehicle except habit, that terror is taken to primeval levels.


But not all is dark at night. African hares bound through the long grass ahead of the headlights, their comically-long ears and enormous feet evoking smiles. Heads dart towards movement in hopes of a leopard, only to find a small nightjar flitting through the bushes, while the notoriously-shy shaggy brown hyena watches warily before loping off into the darkness like Bigfoot on all-fours.


Taking photographs on night game drives is very difficult, but then that is what daylight is for! Night game drives provide you with a unique opportunity to not so much see the wildlife you’ve travelled so far for, but to sense them, feel them and hear them.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

Travel Words of Wisdom – No. 8

9 09 2008

“There’s never a zebra crossing when you need one.”         (Amboseli, Kenya)

“Some roads aren’t meant to be travelled alone”




Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

The Circle of Life

28 07 2008

Etosha 2


My first trip to the cinema was to see “Charlie the Lonesome Cougar”, which was not about an aggressive middle-aged woman named Charlotte and her club-hopping antics, but rather a Disney film about a mountain lion. It was enjoyable, but I would have rather been with most other 5 year olds watching “Bedknobs and Broomsticks”. However, it is possible that my first cinematic foray whetted an appetite that still rumbles to this day.


I really do enjoy nature documentaries. I’m not terribly fond of hour-long studies of the mating rituals of the microscopic mites that live on the end of my eyelashes, but I will opt for a wildlife film over the biography of an unknown actor whose on-screen career highlight was holding the door for Tom Cruise.


While in school, I dreamed of being a nature photographer. I romantically imagined myself living under canvas, risking life and limb lying in wait for days and shooting hundreds of breathtaking images.  When, years later, I made my first trip to Africa, I came close to my dream, albeit only briefly and never in any particular danger.


The great game parks of Africa provide the majority of visitors with their own National Geographic moments. A visit to any major reserve almost guarantees elephants and giraffes and a good chance of lions. In addition, most people have at least one lucky encounter and spy a cheetah, a leopard or possibly a kill. But some experiences transcend even those and make even the professionals jealous.


We were on a late afternoon game drive in Nambia`s Etosha National Park and came across an elephant carcass. Our guide estimated the giant beast had died recently and likely of natural causes. Jackals and vultures were investigating. In reverence we watched until darkness and then returned to our campsite. That was when the debate began.


The following day was scheduled for an early start and a long drive. Half our group wanted to get up even earlier and return to the elephant, whilst the rest wanted a lie-in. Splitting the group and making everyone happy wasn’t an option and so the arguments began. If people were opposed to returning out of sadness, I would have been more understanding. But their opposition was entirely due to their desire for an extra hour’s sleep. My intolerance rose and I soon led the elephant chorus. After all, we had plenty of time to sleep when the trip was over.


Amid much acrimony, the ‘elephant people’ finally won, and we all awoke in the pitch dark, broke camp and headed on our game drive. The ‘sleepers’ were clearly longing for it to be a fruitless journey so they could vent bitter satisfaction. There was stony silence during the short trip.


As we approached the carcass someone whispered “lions”, and all heads – including those of the ‘sleepers’ turned forward. Two large lions were using every single ounce of their impressive strength to feed on the carcass. Their muscular bodies strained at the immense weight as they worked together to manipulate the body to their advantage. The display of power was awe inspiring and terrifying at the same time. Then, mid-struggle, their noses turned to the air and they abruptly stopped. They glanced to their right and stood off, watching the bush intently.


An elephant suddenly charged into view. With trunk raised it trumpeted loudly and raced towards the lions. Other elephants followed and the lions backed away into the shade. Satisfied that the predators had left, the herd gathered around and warily smelled the air. One by one, each elephant came forward towards the carcass. They stood beside their young comrade who had lived barely longer than its own gestation, raised one leg bent at the knee and then slowly moved their trunk over the body. We watched in rapt silence.

Etosha 1


The ritual lasted for several minutes until all the older elephants had visited the youngster. Then, with one final angry mock charge towards the lions,they trumpeted again and charged back into the bush.


We started the engine, and in silence drove away as well.


You see many things on safari. You may laugh, squirm, or even cry, but no one on that truck – not even the ‘sleepers’ – will ever forget that incredible experience in Etosha National Park.


Photos and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008


5 06 2008


What’s that lion’ in the bushes? – Chobe, Botswana

Humans are rarely satisfied. No sooner has our dinner arrived at a posh restaurant, than we’re busy ogling the food at the next table. We’re happy with our first 28” colour television only until we’ve seen the 44” flat screen that’s on sale down the road. And one week spent on a palm-fringed sun-soaked white sand beach with colourful little drinks is absolutely perfect…until we’ve met the couple who are there for two weeks.


Safaris in Africa are much the same – unless you’re only doing it to one-up your annoying next-door neighbour who spent a week braving the perils of Disney’s Animal Kingdom (not that there’s anything wrong with that!).


You finally see your first elephant. The thrill is almost as massive as the beast itself. You’re bowled-over by it’s immense size, the roughness of its hide, and the silence and grace with which it moves despite its enormous weight. You are drawn in by its huge soulful eyes and captivated by the deft manipulation of its trunk. You are mesmerised by its low gurgles and breaths, could spend the entire day watching it and regard the experience as one of the greatest of your entire life.


But moments later you want more.


You want a young calf. You want a gigantic bull elephant with huge tusks. You want a family. You want hundreds in a loose herd, traipsing across the savannah or bathing in a river. In other words, your life-fulfilling event of just moments earlier has suddenly failed to satisfy and you simply want…more!


I must somewhat ashamedly confess to a similar experience with lions. I still vividly remember seeing my first lion…two, actually:  a young brother and sister in Samburu National Reserve in Kenya, lounging away the midday heat in the park’s semi-desert by reclining in the shade. It was incredibly exciting. My first pride of lions was in the Masai Mara, and my first gigantic male lion with a classic black mane was in Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater. All were incredible. In fact, every lion sighting I have ever had has left me completely satisfied…so why did I want to see one savour a poor little semi-defenceless warthog in Chobe, Botswana?


An eagle-eye among us had spied the lion hidden deep in a bush. She was sprawled in a lifeless stupor, her face barely visible. We watched her for a moment until someone mentioned that a warthog was coming. We all turned to look. The little Pumba was merrily trotting along, tail ramrod straight like the pole in a bumper-car, seemingly not a care in the world. He was also heading directly for the lion.


Our initial reaction was one of fear for the poor little thing…but a darkness soon descended over our group and replaced concern with a vicious and brutal bloodlust that consumed us all…even the rampant vegetarians who had spent the previous week avoiding stepping on the grass! We watched with undisguised and unabashed hunger. The warthog continued along, an accident just waiting to happen. The lion raised its head and watched intently. The distance between the two shortened. Our breath quickened, we were willing carnage just lusting for the warthog to become a platter of sausages, ham and bacon. Soon the gap had disappeared…and the warthog was past the trouble. The lion sank back down. Although as easy as opening the door to a pizza delivery boy, it was clearly too much effort for the lion.


The little warthog had no idea how close it had come to being a light afternoon snack. In a nutshell, that little encounter had been life in Africa.


We settled back down and our game drive continued. The wanton savagery that had united us minutes earlier had suddenly divided us like an iron curtain. We avoided eye contact and remained silent, each held deep in our shame. We had seen each other in our true light and it wasn’t pretty.


The uncomfortable silence continued until we saw a kettle of vultures circling near the river.


“Cool,” someone shouted. “Perhaps there’s a kill!” and we were all back on our feet enthusiastically cheering our driver onwards in the hope of some real blood-strewn horror.



Photo and post by:  Simon Vaughan © 2008