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

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The Dark Side of Safaris

6 04 2009

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Oy you, lion…you distract them and I’ll grab the boiled eggs…” (Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania)

 

African parks are inherently dangerous, and that’s not just the abundance of flammable khaki polyester and suspiciously tacky safari hats. Sartorial inelegance aside, it’s the close proximity of wild and dangerous animals that’s obviously part of the great appeal for many visitors.

 

Even before arrival, travellers are warned of the dangers that lurk in the wild places. With rare exceptions, it’s never permitted to get out of vehicles in national parks. Private lodges tell guests not to leave their rooms until ‘collected’ by an armed guide the next morning. Tented camps give visitors bells to call spear-toting askaris to escort them around after dark…and overland trips just advise their clients to run really quickly. But is all that precaution and fear actually warranted or is it just to give visitors a greater sense of adventure?

 

Like much of life, activities in Africa fall into three categories: generally safe, outlandishly dangerous and calculatedly risky. Most safaris qualify as safe with the occasional dash of calculated risk and perhaps the odd – but always memorable – soupcon of unanticipated downright danger. In a world of snakes and crocodiles, predators and pachyderms, attack sometimes comes from the least expected of places, however.

 

Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater is truly one of the natural Wonders of the World. A massive volcanic crater, it offers visitors a self-contained Garden of Eden with forests, lakes and abundant wildlife. A half-day game drive often provides more wildlife viewing than several days in most other parks, and all set against the spectacular backdrop of the crater walls. Once your Landcruiser has made its precarious way down, you’re told not to venture outside except at one picnic spot. When you start spotting rhinos, elephants and prides of lions, you understand why.

 

The picnic site is a picturesque spot thoughtfully equipped with tables. Vehicles gather, visitors stretch their legs, and lunches packed earlier in the day are retrieved. At first, everyone’s a little edgy realising there’s nothing separating them from the game they’d previously been watching and photographing. But gradually, they relax and nibble.

 

It’s when you relax that you are at your most vulnerable.

 

The first attack came moments after the sandwiches were unwrapped. There was a scream from the other side of the clearing and everyone jumped to their feet, expecting to see a victim dragged into the tall grass. Someone was faintly whimpering and holding their head. The commotion died down. Shortly afterwards there was a second, louder scream, and a man was seen diving for a safari van. A ripple of fear ran through the panicked picnickers.

 

The third scream sent the Pringles flying. Clearly, we were under attack by an as-yet unidentified menace. And then the sky darkened and our enemy revealed itself.

 

The black kite loomed menacingly out of the blue sky, talons extended, sharp beak gleaming in the sun. It swooped down before arcing skyward just inches above our ducking heads. Again and again the large birds of prey descended attempting to steal bananas, sandwiches, Twiglets and Twinkies. A guide raced around shouting for food to be hidden and heads kept down. Gaggles of tourists dashed for minivans all the while dive-bombed by hungry wheeling and soaring raptors.

 

“Beware!” the guide shouted, “They’ve been known to slice open scalps with their beaks,” he explained as he leapt for cover beneath a picnic bench.

 

The big birds continued their attack. Some visitors threw their sandwiches away like offerings to the Gods, while others fought the good fight and continued to eat, grabbing a bite in between each air raid. It was like being besieged by seagulls…only armed with machetes and hedge-clippers!

 

Once the food was gone, the birds disappeared into thin air as quickly as they’d arrived, although eagle-eyes claimed they were seen lurking in tree tops eagerly awaiting the arrival of the next bounty of boiled eggs and unwary picnickers.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan





The Wee Hours

17 03 2009

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“Do car headlights usually growl?”                           (Masai Mara, Kenya)

 

When people head on their first safari, pangolins and honey badgers rarely top their ‘Wish List’, but once in the bush, it’s funny how priorities change.

 

Any major game park should provide sightings of giraffe, elephant, hippo and probably lion. Cheetah and rhino are more elusive, and leopard are downright tricky, but it’s possible to see the Big Five on your first safari…plus a lot more if you’re lucky. And once you’ve seen the classics, your thrill of the hunt expands to cubs, kills…and the rare and unusual. Like honey badgers and pangolins: creatures you had probably never heard of until you actually fell asleep to the sound of yapping jackals and braying zebras.

 

There are many creatures in Africa that are hard to find either because they’re rare – like wild dogs – or nocturnal – like servals and brown hyenas.

 

Despite their silly laughs, hyenas are actually amongst Africa’s most efficient predators. They are capable of bringing down prey considerably larger than themselves and can hold their own against lions. Fortunately, they rarely attack able-bodied or mobile humans – which is hard to remember if ever you’ve had to chase them away from your campfire wielding nothing more than sticks, stones and false bravado…or heard them circling your tent at night while snuffling and cackling…or been followed to the long-drop by their glowing eyes…. or seen them grinding bones into powder with their powerful jaws…or…  But I digress.

 

Spotted hyena are common, but brown hyena are rarely glimpsed. Although just as capable as their cousins, brown hyena are smaller and shaggier – as if they were having a bad hair day due to an excess of styling mousse and a strong wind…and have rather dapper striped legs. Because hardly anyone ever sees them and perhaps due to their notoriety as nature’s fashion faux pas, I really wanted to. Forget elephants and lions…I craved the peculiar.

 

Early morning and late afternoon game drives had yielded nothing. Yes, we saw an enormous black-maned lion devouring the remains of a zebra, a huge herd of elephant with spectacular tusks, two giraffes banging necks and a pair of cheetahs on a hunt…but who hasn’t?! We thought we had success during a night drive when something moved beyond the scope of our powerful lamp. We carefully tracked it only to discover a jackal with disappointingly good fashion sense.

 

Back at camp, we climbed into our sleeping bags and listened to the whoops and laughs of hyena – hyena that I just knew were brown and laughing at me.

 

That night I learned that ‘wee hours’ are so named because they are when nature calls. I reluctantly zipped my fleece, stepped from my tent and headed for the bushes. After sweeping my torch like a light sabre I was satisfied that I was alone and got down to business. Sat on my haunches, I periodically scanned the surrounding darkness with my penlight. All was good, until I detected movement to my right. The flashlight was turned on and directed to the noise. And there, at long last, was my brown hyena.

 

His hair was a magnificent mop of disarrayed elegance. His eyes glowed in the beam of light. He was perfect, except that in the darkness I couldn’t make out his striped stockings. The only other disappointment was that I didn’t have my camera…and my trousers were around my ankles. It was then I realised I was a not particularly able-bodied or mobile human. In other words, I was hyena num-nums. I waved my miniature flashlight vigorously, but it had no effect. With the torch held in my mouth and nature’s call suddenly gone, I hurriedly re-dressed and dashed for my tent.

 

Safely back inside I decided that in future I would instead long to see safe things like butterflies, baby bunnies and hamsters.

 

 

Photo and post by:  Simon Vaughan

 

 

 

 

 

 





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





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