Hennie van Heerden's Wildlife Diary

April 7, 2012

Marakissa River Camp – The Gambia

A light fog still touches the water of the Marakissa River and the orangepink promise of yet another sunny day is glowing behind the palm trees when we step into our canoe that morning. When we push off from the bank a Pied Kingfisher plunges into the water right next to us in search for breakfast and we nearly jump out of our skin when a Purple Heron crashes out of its hiding with a loud shriek and decides to head for (even) quieter grounds.

With only the occasional splash of the paddle audible we float on the smooth surface of the river while nature awakes around us. An elegant Great White Egret steps with almost royal dignity through the shallow water near the bank and  bright green Ring-necked Parakeets shoot through the air. We hold our breath but keep our cameras ready when a Blue-breasted Kingfisher some 5 m next to the canoe, peers intently into the water; will it take a dive? But no, decisively he turns his splendid bright-blue back to us. A little further Little Bee-eaters greet each other enthusiastically and a Grey Kestrel checks out a hole in a dead Palm tree to see if it makes for a suitable nest. An enchanting sound high in the sky turns our attention to a huge flock of Whistling Ducks flying over in perfect v-formation.

Our cameras rattle constantly; we aren’t making much progress as we stop every 5 minutes when another feathered color-palette makes an appearance in front of our lenses. The faint Allāhu akbar from a distant mosque intensifies the magic of the silence even more. When around 9 the sun gains in strength we turn the canoe around and try our best to paddle straight back as not to keep Adama Hermse, owner of Marakissa River Camp, waiting with breakfast too long. Not that we are doing a great job in doing so as the temptation to take one more picture of those beautifully posing Long-tailed Glossy Starlings or the chattering Bearded Barbets is simply irresistible. But finally, somewhat embarrassed for being way too late, we reach the little jetty of Marakissa River Camp.

Our concern is unnecessary because Adama is waiting bright and cheerful for us, clapping her hands and chanting “Welcome back, welcome back!”, followed by her charismatic laugh. The smell of freshly cooked omelet reaches our noses and suddenly we feel how hungry we are after that gorgeous canoe-trip. Which is good because Adama’s meal portions are legendary. The Dutch background of her husband Joop is evident in the many varieties of jams, ‘hagelslag’ (typically Dutch granulated chocolate) and the delicious home-made peanut butter.

After breakfast we relax in the shadow of the thatched terrace in the garden and have a look at our photographical catch of the day. However, we don’t get much chance to do so as Joop and Adama have turned their garden into a true bird’s paradise.  Especially in this dry season when the water in the river has turned brackish, birds come to quench their thirst and wash their feathers from salt in the many small ponds and drinking spots scattered all over the garden. Brightly colored guests fly off and on; bright red Firefinches, icy-blue Cordon Blue Waxbills, startling yellow Weaver birds. We don’t dare to even breathe when a splendid Violet Turacu shows himself and a Blue-Bellied Roller flies in to take a bath. Completely breathtaking are the petite but outrageously pretty Beautiful Sunbirds that drink the nectar from the flowers’ calyxes.

By 4 o’clock we step into the canoe again. We are in luck because Joop has offered to accompany us. He knows the creeks of Marakissa as no other and even offers to do the paddling so we can concentrate entirely on photographing. As close as 20m from the jetty a surprise is waiting for us; an (in our eyes) huge Nile Crocodile is taking a sun bath on the bank of the river. Carefully Joop steers the canoe towards the impressive animal, meanwhile marveling about the fact that this is a first for him too, in all of his 20 years in Gambia! Usually you only get a glimps of this reptile, if you are lucky, and needless to say that swimming in the Marakissa River is not recommended. When “Schnappy”, as we lovingly call this beauty, gives off a warning sign by menacingly opening his impressive jaws, we quickly obey and remove ourselves  to a more respectfull distance. Message understood!

When it really becomes too dark to photograph we return to camp, where candles and little parafine lamps are meanwhile lit to offer us a warm welcome. Joop starts up the generator for us to charge our camera batteries and to load our valuable booty onto our computers. Enthusiastically Joop and Adama peer over our shoulders while we do so. Immediately after that has been done, the generator is switched off and the camp once again lies in serene silence. While crickets, frogs, owls and other night-birds take care of the background concert we eat the usual fantastic meal Adama has prepared for us by candle light. An hour later in our also by candles illuminated little roundhouse, just before our eyelids lose the battle against gravity, we hear how an African Scops Owl takes in his position on the roof beams of our hut…

December 2, 2010

Buffalo Bash

 Soon after we left in the morning we ran into a group of Baboons. Usually, in Mala Mala, these animals are pretty skittish as they are being chased away from the camps to avoid that they become ‘too friendly’. So when they see rangers or ranger’s vehicles, they associate it with a lot of noise and danger.
But today they had other things on their mind. When we found the troup, this female seemed to have seen something hilarious.  When a big male decided to ‘join in the fun’ she was still smiling 🙂

As we went on we had a big surprise coming….
We found a leopard; a female one and on top of that a new one: The Dudley Female. But she was not alone!! I was absolutely thrilled to find also her son in her company. The encounter was brief as they soon went off into the thickets, but still it was a lovely sighting. Played around with Black and White and I must say, although I’m really a color loving  person, that I’m kind of pleased with the result.

We stumbled upon lions, elephants and huge flocks of Wattled Starlings. They are so pretty in their breeding plumage! But the absolute highlight of the day happened in the afternoon. Dean steered the vehicle to the river bank and just stopped there. There wasn’t much to see, but we could hear a rumble in the air. A cloud of dust was quickly approaching just over the hill from where we stood. Soon a few buffalos came in sight. They went straight for the river to drink. Behind them more buffalos followed, and more… and more. Soon an endless stream of black bodies gulfed over the hill towards the water. We found ourselves surrounded by hundreds of animals all heading straight towards us. What a sight!! They were in the company of dozens of Red-Billed Oxpeckers. What an amazing sight!! The mass of moving bodies was endless.

 They drank,  played and bathed in the water and stayed there for the good part of an hour. Until one of them stood up and went back over the hill again. Soon a couple of others followed. And more and more. Within minutes the whole herd was moving up that hill again, all following the leader. 10 minutes later, the field was empty again as if nothing had ever happened there. What an amazing sight!!

December 1, 2010

Band of Brothers

After 3 weeks of travelling alone today was the day that Hans would arrive!!!! I could hardly wait for the plane to arrive. Of course it had been fantastic so far but especially on safari it’s so nice to share all of the wonderful sightings with each other. He would be arriving in the early afternoon, so of course I went out on game drive first in the morning. But I had to be back in Main Camp fairly early as I still had to pack everything as I would move to Rattray’s Camp to spend another 2 weeks there together with Hans. And in my case, it’s not so much the luggage that takes a lot of time to pack; It’s more fitting all the photographical gear back into it’s carry-on case 🙂

The day started brilliantly by finding the Matshipiri Female leopard high up in a tree. She is the mother of Pretty Boy or “The Italian” as I call him. So far we saw him a couple of times, but she had been invisible up till now. What a glorious sighting to start a day with!!
All kinds of Eagles were pretty active too and the Lilac Breasted Roller sure made a nice graphic picture on his branch.

I just couldn’t waint until it was time for Hans to arrive so I was ready on the deck way too soon. The transfer to Rattray’s went smoothly as was the ‘handing over’ to ranger Dean whom we got to know last year.  And it was a very big thrill to meet all my friends again. Alan the Barman, galant as ever, was waiting for me with the nicely chilled Chardonnay I like so much…. How’s that for a welcome!
A little before 2 we went to the airstrip and like clockwork the plane came in….
The man sure knows how to make an entrance.. 🙂

Of course we went on gamedrive that afternoon! And what a treat we had! I’ve mentioned before that Cheetah are a rare species in Mala Mala. The beautiful cats are more at home in the vast plains of the Serengeti than in the more densely populated South African parks and there had been years that I hadn’t seen one at all during my visits. We had been looking for them on the northern boundary for days already but other than a glimpse of only one, we hadn’t been lucky.

Until today…
When we arrived at the boundary there were 2 vehicles standing in the middle of the plain there….. And then we saw them.
The four brothers were together, watching a tiny newborn Wildebeest baby some 500 meters further on. They never lost sight of it while they crept closer and closer. Step by step, with endless patience. We came in on the right of them but the light of the setting sun was not in our favour. Dean quickly turned the wheel and got us to the left of them. Perfect Light!! And on top of that, the brothers chose that moment to line up absolutely perfect!!!! I’ve never in my life seen a more beautiful sighting of Cheetah than this. I didn’t know what to shoot first of last and ended up by just letting the camera rattle 🙂 I am SO happy with these shots!! The magnificent cats got up, crept closer to the Wildebeest baby and went down again. Surely a sighting I’ll never forget!

We stayed with them until it was completely dark, but not without getting treated to a most beautiful sunset. What a fantastic day!!

November 30, 2010

The dogs are out!!

Filed under: 2010,November — Hennie van Heerden @ 5:35 am
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When I woke up it seemed like a glorious dry and sunny day.  All night lions had been roaring all around camp, so I was brimming to go out and find them, certainly after yesterday. But the first thing we found was a rather disturbing discovery… A stray dog!! Now in many areas a stray dog is nothing to worry about and part of every day life, but in an African Game reserve, it’s something to raise high alarm. Not only is it a predatory threat to many animals but it may carry something much more dangerous; rabies! South Africa still suffers highly from this disease, thousands of people get infected and each year dozens of people still die from it; let alone the number of animals that suffer from it. A bite from this stray could have a devastating effect on the wildlife within the reserve.  Any responsible person just can’t take that risk!
This seemed to be a poacher’s dog (as I was told). His ears were clipped in a strange way.. I could have chosen not to mention it here, but it is part of every day life in a game reserve in South Africa and I think we, as guests, have to respect that.  Mala Mala does all it can to ban rabies from their territory and took part in a huge and costly vaccination program against rabies just last year and it has the right, no, even the duty, to protect all the animals (and people) on their premises as good as they can.
We stayed with the dog, which pretty much behaved like a proper Wild Dog, starting an endless seemingly effortless trot, stopping here and there to see if there was something to hunt, until the head ranger arrived…

Still, despite the fact that I totally understand and agree, we were a little shook-up when we went on our way.
But… as so often is the case.. pretty soon something happened to change our moods completely.

Wild Dogs!
The same hunting pack, consisting of 7 dogs were on the premises! Same as a week ago, all signs went on red… 🙂
We tried to get to the scene as quickly as possible and found the pack heading for the river. It is just impossible to describe the feeling of seeing those magnificent animals. Their energy, their social interaction, their playfulness, it is mindblowing to watch!

We followed the pack until we reached the river. The pack seemed quite anxious to cross; understandable as there are many dangers like crocs and hippos. And there seemed to be something in the water that kept them from crossing. They trotted up and down the bank but didn’t dare to get into the water.
At a certain moment, we had to make way for other vehicles according to Mala Mala’s strict 3 cars maximum policy. But Matt had a brainwave; you could almost see the flashing light bulb above his head :-). He quickly turned the car and we crossed the river a bit further on. We circled around until we were on the opposite bank of the river where the dogs were still trying to cross, facing us directly. What a wonderful sight!!  In the end, the dogs decided against crossing and moved on. But thanks to Matt, it sure was a memorable sighting!! Rangers like this make all the difference….

After breakfast, Matt suggested to go out again as we would have new guests arriving in the afternoon (and so the chance to stop at the ‘little things’ or spend time with a bird for instance, would be limited). Although it may sound a little weird, we had a great time watching a tiny little newborn Impala getting the hang of sanitary breaks, mimicking his mother in everything she did. When mam peed, the baby did too, nearly falling over on wobbly legs; when she poo’d, the baby did too, completely toppling over 🙂 Too cute and funny!
We found the old Styx pride lioness up north resting and spent some time with a beautiful male Waterbuck, having a quiet little siesta.
A herd of Elephants was slowly making its way through the bush. Every time I’m amazed how a herd of dozens of massive elephants can move in such a silent way..

Just after lunch the new guests arrived and everyone was just brimming with enthusiasm to go out, right after tea, hoping of course for another sighting of the dogs. But first there was another surprise in store!

Not long after we went out, we stumbled upon the Kikilezi Female and her daughter, both together. Mom had made a kill; a baby impala but they didn’t seem in a particular hurry to eat it. Not surprising given the number of kill she made over tha past few days. In stead the baby used it as practice material;

 “killing it’ over and over again. It was jumping up and down, snarling at it, growling, throwing it in the air and practicing different ways of the ‘killer-bite”. Everytime it had mastered a new tactics, it proudly showed it to mom, who was resting in the shade nearby, keeping an eye out for the many possible dangers around. What a sight!!!!

And as always, when a day is so full of the most beautiful sightings, it wan’t over yet. When the sun was about to go down, we received a call on the radio; The dogs were back!!! And apparently they had hunted succesfully because when we arrived, they were all lying around, covered in blood from top to toe and helping eachother with the cleaning of the fur. Hyenas were surrounding the pack, hoping for scraps, but were ferociously kept at bay by the pack of dogs. We stayed with the dogs for a while while it got dark. When we drove back to camp we were just talking about how incredible the day had been. It was at that moment that the lovely Tamboti Female Leopard topped off the day by her appearance.  On the move, hunting, it was impossible to get a decent shot of her, but I kind of like the motion blur in the shot below, when she was walking in front of us, with the headlights of the other car on the scene as backlight. What a day!!!!!

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