Archive for the ‘South Africa’ Tag

Elephants are too Awesome to Lose Forever   2 comments

Driving in Botswana has its particular hazards.

Driving in Botswana has its particular hazards.

This is a rare type of post for me.  I think that, sometimes, predictions of a species’ demise are exaggerated.  Why is extinction always (reflexively?) ascribed to humans when natural forces often play the most important role?  But what is happening to the elephant is personal for me.  A little over a year ago I spent 3 months in southern Africa.  I saw plenty of elephants, and observed their behavior sometimes for hours at a time.  Elephants once roamed across Africa, but now they are largely limited to a few sanctuaries: the national parks.

A bull African elephant (Loxodonta africana) in Botswana's Okavango Delta begins a short charge, just to make sure we are paying attention.

A bull African elephant in Botswana’s Okavango Delta bluff-charges, just to make sure we’re paying attention.

But even in the parks elephants are under constant attack.  They have always been poached of course, but recently the slaughter has increased in intensity.  There are several factors at work here.  The most important is the increasing price for ivory in SE Asia.  For example, the Philippines is a big consumer of ivory where it is shaped into religious icons.  Talk about a sad irony!  The unusually hard ivory of the forest elephant of western Africa is particularly prized.

Ivory where it belongs, attached to an African elephant (Loxodonta africana) in Botswana's Okavango Delta.

Ivory where it belongs, attached to an African elephant in Botswana’s Okavango Delta.

A large African elephant (Loxodonta africana) shows off his prehensile trunk at a waterhole in Namibia's Etosha National Park.

A large African elephant, fresh from a mudbath, shows off his prehensile trunk at a waterhole in Namibia’s Etosha National Park.

Now since these parks are poorly patrolled, and because they aren’t very far from hotbeds of Islamic extremism such as Mali, the slaughter is on a massive scale.  Parties of men, equipped with high-powered weapons and often flown in by helicopter, have been recently wiping out whole herds: mothers with their babies included.  I can’t bring myself to post pictures of the dead elephants; it’s just too upsetting.  You can easily find them on the web.

An apparent assignation between two African elephants (Loxodonta africana) beneath a tree on the banks of the Chobe River, Botswana.

An apparent assignation between two African elephants beneath a tree on the banks of the Chobe River, Botswana.

It’s all done for money of course.  The sight of these butchered elephants hits most people like a punch in the gut.  At this pace, we will lose the forest elephant very soon.  The larger African elephants of eastern and southern Africa are also being poached in record numbers.  Complicating all this is that countries like Kenya are hoarding their ivory, collected from legal culling operations.  That just drives up the price of course.  Even parks like Kruger in South Africa are losing elephants (and rhinos).  I visited this park and was very impressed by the high, electrified fence encircling the huge park.  But this doesn’t stop poachers.

A partial screen of grasses allows a close approach to a grazing African elephant (Loxodonta africana) in Botswana's Okavango Delta.

A partial screen of grasses allows a close approach to a grazing African elephant in Botswana’s Okavango Delta.

Given the amount of corruption in Africa, I believe that ivory smuggling is very difficult to stop.  I also believe that convincing people to stop buying ivory, while very worthwhile, will never make a difference in time to save the species.  I believe strongly that a two-pronged approach is necessary.  First, attempt to lower the price by forcing Kenya and other countries with abundant localized populations in their parks to continue culling the herds and releasing that ivory on the market.  The second step, which is most important, is to use high tech weaponry to kill every single poacher in these teams.

A large bull African elephant challenges any intruder to his piece of the Okavango Delta in Botswana.

A large bull African elephant challenges any intruder to his piece of the Okavango Delta in Botswana.

We should use armed drones (which are being brought home as the U.S. gets out of their ill-thought-out conflicts) to go after these criminals.  After a time, and in conjunction with satellite surveillance, we should be able to get them before they do their dirty business.  We should get them coming out if we fail to get them going in.  I think, despite the potential of a big payout, that knowing they have a better than even chance of dying during the attempt will keep potential poachers from signing up.

An African elephant blocks the main channel in the Okavango River in Botswana.

An African elephant blocks the main channel in the Okavango River in Botswana.

It’s important to kill every single person involved in a poaching attempt.  If we approach this like we approached the war in Iraq, we should be able to make these better than even odds a reality.  I strongly believe that funding for this should come from the U.S. and Britain, along with a few other countries, big donors and even NGOs.  Money from western governments should come directly out of the aid budget for Africa (so it does not add to the deficit).

An African elephant (Loxodonta africana) reaches into the trees for succulent fruit, on the Chobe River bank in Botswana.

An African elephant reaches into the trees for succulent fruit, on the Chobe River bank in Botswana.

I have seen firsthand how intelligent, how caring, and how incredibly awesome these creatures are.  I really want to help save elephants, as well as rhinos.  If I can make that happen, you will see me blogging from Africa in the future.  I do not want to see these magnificent beings disappear forever.  I really don’t.

A large female African elephant shades her baby from the hot direct sun during the hottest days of the year in Botswana's Chobe National Park.

A large female African elephant shades her baby from the hot direct sun during the hottest days of the year in Botswana’s Chobe National Park.

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Cape Town, South Africa   9 comments

A beautiful summer evening in Cape Town, and an illuminated Table Mountain looms over the city. View from Signal Hill.

Cape Town, South Africa is one of the few cities in this world that I have always wanted to visit.  I’m not a city person, but I do like those which have a scenic location or have an energy or layered history behind them (Istanbul springs to mind).  Cape Town falls into the former category, but was still not in my plan on this first visit to Africa.  I’m not sure why I changed my mind, but after a week camping in Kruger National Park, I found a long weekend in Cape Town, staying in a nice room by the seaside, was just what I needed at that point in a long trip.

Tidepools along the shoreline near Cape Town South Africa.

I flew into Cape Town from Jo’burg, but instead of checking in right away, I steered my rental car up towards Table Mountain.  I took a nice walk near its base, starting in neighborhoods perched on the steep hillside.  I followed a path upwards to a viewpoint of the city, with the blue sparkling southern sea stretching out before me.  From here, it looked like a fairly compact, easy to navigate city, and that’s what it turned out to be.

Fog often rolls in here, and when I arrived it seemed to be doing battle with the sun.  I would enter a fog bank, the temperature would drop 20 degrees Farenheit, and I would shiver.  Then I would break out into warm sunshine.  Ultimately, as I discovered next morning when I walked out of my small hotel in the Sea Point area, the sunshine happily won the battle.  It was a gorgeous summer day, and since it was a Saturday, locals were out in force enjoying it.

I walked along the beautiful promenade that extends for a few  miles along the rocky coastline.  Runners, walkers, a few roller bladers and bicyclists were full of smiles, mirroring the bright blue water.  Small beaches dot the coast, and it is very easy to access rocky tidepools as well (image left).

After hours of wandering and exploring the coast, I took the car and headed south down the western side of the peninsula that extends south to the Cape of Good Hope.  I wanted to find a great spot to photograph the sunset, and hoped to find one of the shipwrecks that this coast is known for.  I stumbled on a very popular beach at Houte Bay, and did some serious people-watching (image below).  The locals were a mixture of white and black, and I watched carefully for any of their interactions.

Beach at Houte Bay on a busy summer Saturday. The highlands of Table Mtn Natl. Park rise in the background.

I had noticed in South Africa that the two races do not mix unless they have to.  I am sure there are those who dispute this, but I regard these folks as exceptions to the rule, this latter-day apartheid.  I am not saying you won’t find some of this at home in America.  I’m simply giving my impression of the separation that remains a barrier to this country’s truly putting its past behind it.

Aside from the people, Cape fur seals were riding the waves in their pursuit of fish, and birds swarmed above them in a frenzy.  The image below I grabbed with my 70-200 f/4, since I had neglected to bring my 400mm.  I consider myself a competent body surfer, but these seals were showing me how it’s really done.  I waded into the water, but it was a very cool sea.  In fact, the entire Cape Town area was reminding me of my home coastline in Oregon: rocky, tidepools, cold sea, the parallels were stacking up.

The entire area is a playground for those with a good job and income.  But there are also black townships (Nyanga & others) in the area where the poverty hits you in the face.  I got lost once and ended up driving through one.  I wanted to stop for pictures, but without a guide I thought better of it.  You can drive all the way down to the actual Cape, but this requires the whole day to avoid rushing.  I skipped this, but see it as a reason to go back.  By the way, the Cape of Good Hope is not the southernmost tip of Africa, it is the southwestern-most.  To the east lies the southernmost tip of the continent, at Agulhas.

Cape fur seals surf the waves in pursuit of fish at Hout Bay near Cape Town, South Africa.

I stopped on the way back to Cape Town near a point of rugged coast at Camps Bay.  The view was incredible.  As my eyes wandered upward to the Twelve Apostles, peaks making up a big chunk of Table Mountain National Park, I thought of some history I had read of.  In the early days, when a trading post was being established here, lion, leopard, and other wildlife roamed the hills.  No longer; the land is relatively empty of wildlife.  The well-to-do build houses where large predators once hunted.  It is rather sad.  But the same cannot be said of the sea, which teems with fish, marine mammals, and the famous great white sharks of South Africa.  It is possible to book a scuba dive trip here where you enter a shark cage and are lowered into baited waters.  I scrambled down from the road and came upon a wreck lying just offshore.  I was able to get a decent shot looking north up the coast, the Twelve Apostles on the right (image below).

A wreck lies just offshore, near the Twelve Apostles south of Cape Town, South Africa.

Fossil mammal quarry at Langebaanweg, north of Cape Town, South Africa.

On my last day I drove north into the emptiness of the West Coast National Park.  It is easy to get out into the countryside in South Africa.  Roads are decent and if you can survive the very high average speeds that motorists travel, it won’t take much time to put many miles between you and civilization.  I stopped at a fossil quarry called Langebaanweg, which lies not far from the R27 via a signed turnoff to the right.  It only takes a couple hours to get here from Cape Town, so it is perfect for a day trip.  Long deserted beaches of the western Cape, part of the National Park, are easily accessible as well.

The fossil site, which documents the immediate predecessors of today’s African menagerie (such as giraffes with much shorter necks than today), is fascinating and not touristy at all.  There is a friendly tour of the fossil quarry, along with a small museum and restaurant, but everything is very much low-key.  With my background in geology, the staff were interested in talking with me about the fascinating connections with the related mammal fossils of Oregon’s John Day country.  This is just the sort of off-beat travel destination I love, where people are happy to get a few visitors, and who aren’t so busy processing hoards of tourists to spend time with you.  It can make the experience a much more personal one.

Cape Town is a place where I could happily live.  The environment is a clean one, with a nice balance of the city and outdoor life (like Portland, Oregon where I live).  My last night there, I drove up onto Signal Hill, where because of the gorgeous summer weather many locals were gathering as the sun went down.  We were all there to enjoy the stunning view of the city, the sea, and the illuminated face of nearby Table Mountain.

As the dusk deepened and “blue hour” approached (blue hour is that short time of deep blue skies just before total darkness, a time photographers love), I set up my tripod for a long exposure.  The top image in this post was the result.  I can feel the soft breeze when I look at this picture, and sense the southern Atlantic far below.  I was to leave South Africa for Namibia the next morning, and this time on Signal Hill, this picture, was really my way of saying: ‘Bye-bye South Africa, it’s been fun.  I’ll be back!

Kruger National Park, South Africa   Leave a comment

A lion in Kruger National Park pauses just as the sun breaks the horizon & lights his profile.

 

My Africa series continues with South Africa.  This is the country I first flew into, landing in Johannesburg (Jo’burg) only to immediately get lost driving my rental car through the sorts of neighborhoods where the world’s highest carjacking rates are.  There I was actually stopping to ask groups of young men on the street for directions.  Since I am writing this, you know I survived.  I had planned to visit Kruger, one of the world’s most famous National Parks, straightaway.  But instead I spent two months in Zambia, Malawi, Botswana & Zimbabwe.  Now, with some experience under my belt, I returned to Jo’burg and prepared to head to Kruger.

A baboon in Kruger National Park, South Africa, has an expressive face.

I had arranged for reservations in the park, ahead of time, through the Park’s website.  At Kruger Park’s camps, one has the choice of a nice but simple room or chalet, and a campsite.  For the former, reservations are necessary.  For the latter, it is not strictly necessary during the quieter periods.   I visited during a slower period, but still found plenty of other people, especially compared to some of the parks I had already been to (Kafue, Nyika, Hwange).  With this park, it is very wise to not visit during a busy period, which includes the height of summer (their winter) in July/August, nearly all of December, and other holiday weeks besides.  Check South Africa’s school and government holiday schedule on the web.

Many tourists fly in to the airport near the Park where they are picked up for their stay at one of the private lodges in Kruger or one of its satellite reserves (Sabi Sands, etc.).  But I am firmly in the budget traveler category, so I rented a car at Jo’burg airport, piled my stuff inside (including my well-used pup tent) and headed out.  Note that Kruger’s roads are generally excellent and do not require a 4×4.  A simple sedan will do, and they are relatively cheap.  Also note that drivers in South Africa do not like to travel at less than 90 mph unless they are forced to.  Be prepared to put the pedal to the metal or get good at pulling aside to let them pass.

After spending the night at a little B&B in Malelane just outside the southern gate of the same name.  Although I was told I needed reservations before I showed up at the gate, the truth is you can get the staff at the entrance to set you up at a camp if you arrive with few plans.  Just make sure, once again, that it’s not during a holiday period.  I drove right into the park, took the first turn toward the west, a well-graded gravel road, and began right away to see animals.  I saw a baby giraffe, a white rhino with her baby (image below), elephant and more.  I was stunned at the diversity.  Another thing I didn’t expect was the beauty and diversity of Kruger’s landscapes.  The southwestern corner, around the excellent Berg en Dal Camp, is hilly and rocky, with gorgeous landscapes.

 

Boomslangs are highly venomous snakes native to southern Africa, here emerging from a tree in Kruger National park.

I continued to explore the southern part of Kruger over the next 6 days.  I stayed at Skukuza, Lower Sabie & Satara Camps, plus visited Oliphants.  I liked Skukuza (for animals) and Berg en Dal the best.  I wished I would have stayed at Oliphants – it is perched spectacularly on a high hill.  Satara is a nice big camp as well.  Lower Sabie really squeezes their campers in.  I rose very early every morning, and was out on a game drive by 5 a.m. at latest.  One morning, from Lower Sabie Camp, I was the first car out when they opened the gate.  Shortly a few vehicles started following me (I go slower than most), so I impulsively turned onto an empty road.  Nobody else followed, and I kept going as the dim dusk light gradually improved.

Then I saw something in the road ahead.  It looked at first like small boulders lying there, but there were no cliffs around – flat as a pancake in fact.  As I got closer I realized I was looking at a dozen or so lions just lying in the road, all females and youngsters.  I stopped a hundred meters from them, but they had heard me.  A big female was the first to rise, quite reluctantly, with a lot of stretching and yawning.  She then took a long pee, forming a lake on the pavement.  The others slowly followed, the babies very cute as they yawned.  I drew closer.  The sun was breaking the horizon, but I was unable to get the photos I really wanted, as they were rapidly melting back into the bush.  Now I turned and noticed a couple other cars had showed up.  Beyond them, I saw a big male sauntering down the road.

I waited and he passed within a few feet of me, pausing briefly as the sun cleared the horizon and cast a golden light on him.  He gazed at me briefly, then continued his slow pursuit of his pride.  He was majestic, and I a nice portrait of him (above).  Note that these photographs are available for licensing via download, or purchase as framed or matted prints.  If you click on one of the images, it will usually take you to my website, where you can make a purchase.  If you click an image that does not take you to my site, you are welcome to download that image for personal use only.  Thanks very much for your respect and interest.

 

Near Skukuza Camp, there are several kopjes, which are large rocky outcrops that stand up above the surrounding bush.  One such kopje was the site of my first leopard sighting in Africa, and it was special.  I was alone at the base of the rocks as dusk deepened.  I was really pushing it, since at Kruger it is illegal to be outside the camps after sunset.  It was the type of environment where you cannot help but think of leopards: plenty of rocky hiding places amongst the large granite monoliths.  I was just about to give up and race back before they closed the camp gate when a leopard just trotted up the dirt road.  I watched as he gracefully probed the forest near the road for prey, his long tail waving in the air above him.  He was the most gorgeous animal I had ever seen.  My picture was not the best, because of low light, but it means a lot to me.

A leopard stalks the bushveld in the early evening at Kruger National Park, South Africa.

 

A lioness stalks impala (who are unaware of her) in Kruger National Park, South Africa.

This spot became my lucky kopje.  Next morning early, I was once again alone, very near where I had spotted the leopard the previous night, when I felt a strong urge to stop and wait.  As I backed into position near an opening in the bush, a lioness abruptly rose from right beside the dirt road, only a few meters from me.  I had passed without noticing her crouching there.  Lions blend in so well with the tan grass of the bush.  She proceeded to stalk some impala who were clustered in trees just below us.  I watched for a good 40 minutes until a couple other cars showed up.  As I pulled away, I was happy that my normal routine of late-sleeping night-owl had been turned on its head in Africa.  The early bird gets the wildlife sightings.

I saw much more at Kruger, all of the Big Five several times over.  (The Big Five are Elephant, Buffalo, Lion, Rhino, and Leopard.)  But those experiences at the kopje were probably the most memorable.  I also took a night drive, which I highly recommend.  Guides working at Kruger are extremely professional and good at what they do.  You are not allowed to do night drives on your own, and lions, wild dog, and other animals are much more active at night.  They often use the roadways as trails at night.  Many other animals (such as the honey badger and civet) you will only see at night.  Later, near the southern part of the park on a dirt road, I saw the rare black rhino, two in fact.

These are MUCH less common than white rhinos, and the two species’ behavior differences are much greater than their physical ones.  If you are charged by a rhino, it will most likely be a black rhino.  One of the pair I saw, in fact, made as to approach me, trotting a few paces before just staring at me.  Later, as I lay on the road (illegally – you are not supposed to get out of your vehicle at Kruger), trying to photograph a dung beetle busily rolling his dung ball, I looked up to see my friend the rhino, this time alone.  As he walked down the road toward my vehicle, I walked (quickly, trying not to run) toward him to beat him to my car.  I made it with room to spare, but he had definitely caught my scent.

 

I crossed out of Kruger on a bridge over the Crocodile River, after a memorable week in this beautiful park.  On my way to Swaziland (the “kingdom within a country”), I stopped on the bridge and watched (what else?) a large croc  basking on some rocks below.  I recalled being told by experienced Africa travelers that Kruger was too touristy and developed a park to be worth a visit.  You will definitely see more cars and other tourists in Kruger than you will in, say, Kafue N.P. in Zambia.  But Kruger’s beautiful landscapes, its diversity of wildlife, and its sheer size (I only saw a fraction of the park in one week) make it a very worthwhile destination.  And to seal the deal, it offers all of this at a relatively cheap price.  Take the dirt roads, get up very early, nap in the afternoon, and stay out until the gates close.  You will see all of the African wildlife of your dreams, from big and mean loners (below) to cute families (bottom).

A black rhino approaches for a closer look in South Africa’s Kruger National park.

A family of vervet monkeys stick together in Kruger National Park, South Africa.

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