Saturday, 25 June 2011

Game drives through Africa

From eastern to southern Africa, I have enjoyed more game drives than is perhaps normal, if not for one lifetime, then most definitely for one half year.  From the very beginning, I was spoilt by the wildlife we saw and the guides who accompanied us.  As time went on, we actually saw less “impressive” game but learnt a lot more about the lives of the animals & birds themselves, the tracks they leave, the precariousness of their habitats, and the very real risks presented by poachers.

There is much debate about what time of year to visit different game reserves.  For example, many people visiting the Serengeti like to time their trip to coincide with migration - this is the time when many animals are moving great distances to find new sources of food and water and so the likelihood of spotting lots of animals is very high.  Additionally, you can be very successful when water is scarce – the animals will need to travel more often to find food and water.  At other times of year when water is plentiful, you may have to travel further, be prepared to be patient and return from some drives with little to jot down in your notebook.  The advantages of these periods of the year are that you will encounter far fewer people and not be racing other jeeps to get to the reported sighting of a lion or leopard.  If that is the case though, you need a nimble driver who can out-manoeuvre the other jeeps into the choicest spot for your photographic ambitions!

For most first timers, the crucial thing is to spot the big five: lion, leopard, rhino, elephant & buffalo.  Despite visiting towards the end of the rainy season when water was plentiful, on my trip we managed 4 out of the 5 in Kenya on our first day but then had to wait until the Serengeti to add the leopard to the list.  We didn’t just see lions on day one, but mating lions!  Being spoilt so early on, I came to have great expectations of all game drives and had to re-adjust at times and remind myself that we were not viewing these animals in a zoo but in the own natural environment and that we were the intruders.  These fascinating creatures may not always fancy coming out to play on your chosen route!  At all points, you need a good guide with eagle eyes who can spot camouflaged animals whilst driving – a fine skill indeed.

The best times for spotting wildlife are first thing in the morning when the animals are getting up (yes, some of them go to bed just like us!) or late afternoon when they are moving to find their spot to settle for the night.  On any game drive you can end up travelling hundreds of kilometres through national parks, often not spotting much at all for long periods of time.  It’s funny though how that disappears to the back of your mind when a herd of elephant comes storming past you on their way down to the water.  Suddenly, it’s one of your favourite drives!  We also did a couple of game walks although due to the smaller distances travelled and the luck of the draw, we didn’t spot a great deal.  We did come across a hippo that seemed to be seriously considering charging us until our guide cocked his AK47…

We were also lucky to view some different scenes at night.  In Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, we ventured off in our jeep in thermals, fleeces, woolly hats and sleeping bags (ooh, it was chilly!) for a night game drive and rather naughtily woke up some baboons.   We were avenging all the things that the baboons had stolen from us (bananas, sandwiches, suntan cream, our guide’s fancy binoculars).  We also saw a variety of animals who only venture out at night.  At Etosha National Park in Namibia, our campsite was next to a waterhole where viewing platforms and spotlights had been set up.  Sitting there in the cold night air, we had the wonderful sight of a solo rhino coming to drink water and when he had left, a lion and lioness majestically strolled down to the water’s edge.  Afterwards they seemed to be behaving quite cagily and we were convinced that they were looking for a kill.  On the contrary, they were looking for a secluded spot.  We may have lost them from sight (uber-binoculars with great night vision would have come in handy), but there was no mistaking those roars!  After reaching a tally of nine, we decided that they must be done and headed back to the tents.  Oh no, our lions roared all through the night.

Camera and binoculars should be a major focus when considering any trip involving game drives.  It is easy to become very frustrated when the animals are far away – especially when it is your first leopard sighting!  I don’t consider it a proper sighting unless I can get a recognisable photo.  Obviously good position and composition are vital for a photo but having a powerful zoom lens is crucial and can help you get some memorable shots.  My Canon DSLR has a 75-250mm lens but I was always wishing that I had more!  Many of today’s small cameras have very powerful zooms but if you want to be able to blow shots up and frame them, then you will be better off with a camera that has manual settings.  My recommendation would be to get some photography lessons before heading out – my shots improved dramatically after Jésus switched me over to manual settings rather than automatic and I learnt how to adjust the settings based on the light available.  However, sometimes it is just nice to sit and watch the wildlife with the binoculars – you can really see their faces and movements and look right into their eyes.  You are there to observe and learn; not just to be trigger happy.

A topic that came up for discussion more in Southern Africa rather than East Africa was poaching.  Much work has been done to make poaching illegal and the punishments harsh but nevertheless it remains a very serious issue and if things continue as they are then rhinos will soon be extinct.  Rhino horns are a very valuable commodity in the farcical belief that they can make man more potent.  For the poachers, the animal itself is just collateral damage in the search for rhino horn to make their fortune.  Sadly, many of these rhinos live in countries with limited resources (e.g. Zimbabwe) and where many people are desperate.  Rhinos are particularly vulnerable not only due to the market value of their horns but also because mating takes an hour and so population growth amongst a diminishing population does not happen quickly!

Success stories against poaching would be the gorillas in Uganda and Rwanda.  Tracking the gorillas may not be cheap for a foreigner (~$500 in Rwanda for a foreigner, a minimal fee for a local) but the protection programme is now self funding and the gorilla families are expanding.  The threat however remains very real.  Whilst the local community has been educated and become involved via job creation, the site of the gorillas in Rwanda is scarily close to the very unstable Democratic Republic of Congo.  There is a reason we were accompanied by so many AK47s that day.

The one missing thing I had really wanted to see was a kill.  That may sound a little gruesome but I think it is actually quite important to remember that these game parks contain delicate balances of wildlife and that what might look cute and cuddly to me from the safety of my jeep, is actually an important source of food.  If too many animals survive, there is not enough food (be it prey or greenery) and water to go round.  We did see some lions protecting their prey as well as some vultures feasting, and a stripped carcass lying under a tree ready for the hyenas to find that night. 

Nevertheless, I love the protective practices of the different animals.  We were watching some giraffes drinking one day (they bend down in the most hilarious manner) when all of a sudden they all started sprinting away from the waterhole.  An impala had appeared from nowhere sprinting and they had all reacted instantaneously in self defence – it could have been a predator but in reality was just an impala having fun.  As one giraffe drinks, another keeps guard. While drinking, they are very vulnerable to attack.  With elephants, the babies are very vulnerable to attack and so they always travel protected by the group, often within the legs of one of the adults.  I liked the story we heard about the mother of a young elephant who was attacked by a crocodile.  She picked it up with her trunk and threw it far into the river!

So, what was my favourite thing?  Impossible to say…  The lions were majestic but I never bored of seeing elephants, zebras or giraffes.  I love to watch elephants and giraffes eating.  Even when I’d seen hundreds of these animals moving around and chomping away on grass or trees, they could always do something to surprise me and show themselves to us in a new light.  I’ll never forget seeing elephants play fighting as they crossed the road or watching them swim and the teenagers fooling around in the water.  I had seen so many placid zebras and then all of a sudden two were having an argument and one starting chasing the other, racing at incredible speed.  I didn’t see giraffes drink or run until the later part of the trip.  The animals always had some new way to surprise and amuse me.

I’ve been tempted too much now and so I will need to visit more reserves in the future.  It would be nice to focus on one area for a whole week.  You need a fair amount of luck when you only visit certain reserves for one or two days.  You also don’t have time to focus on the geography of the area and actually try to track the animals.

Where did I go and what were the highlights?
Ø  Sunday 3rd April: Lake Nakuru, Kenya – afternoon game drive. 
o   Pelicans, flamingos, water buffalo, zebra, impala, white rhino family, giraffes, mating lions. Baboons at campsite
Ø  Monday 4th April: Lake Nakuru, Kenya – early morning game drive. 
o   Black rhino, buffalo, zebra, giraffe, impala running & jumping
Ø  Thursday 7th April, Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda
o   Chimp tracking
Ø  Friday 8th April: Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda – afternoon boat ride followed by short game drive. 
o   Hippos, birds, crocs, water buffalo.  Solitary elephant
Ø  Saturday 9th April: Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda – early morning game drive. 
o   Lots of elephants
Ø  Monday 11th April: Ruhengeri, Rwanda
o   Gorilla tracking – Sabyinyo family
Ø  Thursday 14th April: Lake Mburo, Uganda - early morning game walk
o   Hippo charging through the swamp – you’d be surprised by the speed
Ø  Tuesday 19th April: Ngorongoro Crater then into Serengeti National Park, Tanzania – all day game drive
o   Buffalo, wildebeest, flamingos, antelopes, zebras, elephants, giraffes, sleeping lions, cheetah (in the distance)
Ø  Wednesday 20th April: Serengeti, Tanzania – early morning game balloon ride followed by game drive.  Afternoon game drive
o   From balloon: large herd of buffalo moving across the plains.  Family of 20 elephants running
o   From jeep: leopard moving around our jeep.  Play fighting elephants, hyenas
Ø  Thursday 21st April: Serengeti, Tanzania – early morning game drive
o   Lion asleep, leopard in a tree
Ø  Saturday 7th May: Matobo National Park, Zimbabwe
o   Rhino bush walk – only tracks, no rhino!
Ø  Sunday 8th May:  Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe - afternoon game drive.  Night time game drive.
o   Elephants, giraffes, baboons, springboks
Ø  Monday 9th May: Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe – early morning game drive
o   Giraffes and zebras, impala
Ø  Friday 13th May: Chobe National Park, Botswana – early morning game drive.  Afternoon game cruise.
o   Large herd of elephant storming down to the water.  Elephants swimming and playing in the river.  Lizard & crocodile.  Ukudu and springboks
Ø  Sunday 15th May: Ovavango Delta, Botswana – afternoon game walk
o   Nothing!
Ø  Monday 16th May: Ovavango Delta, Botswana – morning game walk
o   Waterhog, wildebeest
Ø  Friday 20th May: Etosha National Park, Namibia – afternoon game drive
o   Ukudu, black faced impala
Ø  Saturday 21st May: Etosha National Park, Namibia -  early morning game drive, afternoon game drive, evening by the waterhole
o   Daytime: black rhino, zebras, giraffes, wildebeest, jackals, mongoose, antelopes
o   Nightime: black rhino, lion & lioness

Top twenty photos from East Africa on FB

Top ten photos from Zimbabwe on FB

Top ten Botswana on FB

Top ten Namibia on FB

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