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 Post subject: Arks' KNP Adventures: September 2007
Unread postPosted: Sat Nov 10, 2007 3:03 am 
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My original plans for this RSA trip did not include a KNP visit. Rather, I was planning a relaxed trip just to the Cape and Kgalagadi. Then I won the 2006 Emerging Tuskers Competition and everything changed. Somehow, I had to find a way to add KNP to my plans. Since my boss was most generously letting me take off for two months, I could hardly ask for even more time, so I had to manage to fit KNP around my existing plans. This was achieved by eliminating my planned first week in the Cape and heading instead straight to KNP.


31 August - Phalaborwa - Shimuwini
I arrived at Phalaborwa after 40+ hours in transit, my plan being to have several days to recover from the jetlag before my Emerging Tuskers Competition prize adventure, scheduled for 5 September. This was possible because even after such a lengthy time in transit — which I definitely do not recommend — I knew that it would be easy for me to make my way from the Phalaborwa airport to the Spar and wine shop that are right at the intersection where the airport road meets the road to Phalaborwa Gate. This was familiar territory!

However, the new, still-under-construction Phalaborwa Gate was quite unfamiliar. Even so, I was quickly checked in and on my way to Shimuwini. Many thanks to our own WildSteve and Angela Payne at Infinity for their help with getting my WildCard renewed so that I only had to get it "updated" at the gate. Because I knew how jetlagged I'd be, I was concerned about this, but there were no problems.

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The 62km drive to Shimuwini was pleasant and fairly uneventful. The park is very dry at this time of year, certainly drier than on any of my previous visits, and it took awhile for me to get used to the overall monochromatic, somewhat bleached tones of the landscape. Tired as I was, I didn't linger long even at interesting sightings where in other circumstances, I might have stayed longer. I knew that what I needed most was to get to camp and get to sleep.

This was my second visit to Shimuwini, which I chose (together with Tamboti, my next R&R stop) as an ideal camp for recovering from my jetlag. I was given unit #12, my first choice, which is both quite private and quite close to the fence and river. I quickly unpacked the neccessities and was fast asleep soon after I arrived, well before dark, no better lullaby than birdsong and the Shimuwini hippo serenade.

sightings
H9: nothing
S131: Cape turtle dove, impala, giraffe, whitebacked vulture on nest, forktailed drongo, crested francolin, Natal francolin
H14: elephants, grey hornbill, Egyptian geese, hippos
S141: impala, dagga boys, Natal francolin, elephants, giraffe

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Last edited by arks on Sat Jan 02, 2010 5:16 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Unread postPosted: Sat Nov 10, 2007 7:40 am 
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Hi Arks! Great start to the report! :thumbs_up: Lovely ellie pics! :clap: Looking forward to the rest! :D


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Unread postPosted: Sat Nov 10, 2007 3:21 pm 
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Thanks for all the encouraging comments :wink: :D Will try to get the next installment up later today — it's only 08h20 where I live and my eyes aren't yet quite open! Time for mucho :lotsocoffee:

@wanderw: That ellie was having such a lovely wallow in that mud (it's an unnamed waterhole quite close to the Shimuwini turnoff) and despite being beyond tired, I couldn't resist staying a while and enjoying his antics.


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Unread postPosted: Sun Nov 11, 2007 6:18 am 
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Thanks for the further comments and enthusiasm. The next installment follows!

1 September - Shimuwini - Phalaborwa - Letaba - Shimuwini
Despite a reasonable first night of sleep, I was still extremely tired and had planned to have a very quiet first day. However, I had to return to Phalaborwa airport because when I had changed cars the day before — because the one I'd originally been given didn't have electric windows, which I consider essential in a game reserve, especially since I'm traveling alone! — I inadvertently left my jacket(s) on the back seat of the first car. I got to the airport before the Avis staff (no cell signal at Shimuwini meant that I couldn't phone ahead), but enjoyed the airport's prolific birdlife whilst I waited. Phalaborwa must be one of the loveliest airports in South Africa, certainly of those I've seen; it has a real bush feel, a great way to start a KNP visit!

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After this detour, I headed to Letaba, both in the hope that I might be extra lucky and see "my" ellie, Bidzane, again, and to see whether the new tuskers had been added to the Current Tuskers display in the Elephant Hall. While I didn't find Bidzane, I did spend some time with another potential emerging tusker where the dry riverbed of the Nhlanganini crosses the NE end of the S69. It was very pleasant to sit quietly, with my engine off, at this river crossing, with ellies calmly browsing on both sides of the road -- well aware of my presence, but not in the least bothered, even when on occasion another vehicle came along. It's indicative of how many elephants there are in the park that many people now appear to stop only briefly, if at all, for elephants — unless it's an especially large group or the ellie(s) are blocking the road — rather the same as with the ubiquitous impala.

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I was thrilled to find that both Bidzane and Tsotsi had been added to the Current Tusker display (I will add a photo of Bidzane's plaque once I receive permission from Kirsty, as hers is far better than mine!), but sorry that I'd missed Kirsty, who had apparently put up the new information just that morning. However, I had a most pleasant conversation with Ted, the HR on duty at the Elephant Hall, before heading to the takeaway for a much-needed — and delish — egg and bacon sarnie.

By then the jet lag was catching up to me again, so I soon headed back to Shimuwini, for another early night. This evening, however, I managed to braai, as I knew that I really needed to eat properly, and stayed awake long enough to enjoy one of Shimuwini's special features — the magical Shimuwini fireflies. My newly purchased "Freda Ashton headlamp" added greatly to the overall ambience, since I could braai, eat, and even write a bit in my journal — as well as enjoy the night sky and the fireflies! — without turning on the bright porch lights. Thanks, Freda! :clap: :dance: :clap:

sightings
in camp: pied wagtail, hippo, brownheaded parrots, yellowbilled hornbill
S141: crested francolin, dagga boys, BBJ, Cape turtle dove,
H14: nothing
H9: impala, longtailed shrike, elephant, lilacbreasted roller, kudu bulls, hippo
S69: longtailed shrike, potential tusker with 6-8 others
H1-6: Egyptian geese, impala, arrowmarked babbler, Cape glossy starling, elephant, helmeted guineafowl
S95: impala, baboons, ellie
H1-6: impala, baboons, waterbuck, elephant bull, buffalo
S131: nothing
S133: Swainson's francolin
H14: Egyptian geese, hippo, impala
S141: impala
in camp: resident grey duiker (Shine), fish eagle

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Rather a strange sighting, this hippo was sound asleep (it was breathing), on this small loop off the H9, and so far as I know, quite far from any water ...
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Last edited by arks on Sat Jan 02, 2010 5:30 pm, edited 2 times in total.

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Unread postPosted: Sun Nov 11, 2007 11:30 am 
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Great start, arks! :popcorn:

I'm intrigued by the photo of the hippo. Do you think it was looking for new pool, because its old one had dried out, or because it had been kicked out by the dominant bull? They can wander a long way when they're looking for a new home.

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Unread postPosted: Sun Nov 11, 2007 3:07 pm 
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restio wrote:
I'm intrigued by the photo of the hippo. Do you think it was looking for new pool, because its old one had dried out, or because it had been kicked out by the dominant bull? They can wander a long way when they're looking for a new home.

I have no ideas about the hippo, restio, except that I thought it was very odd — at first I'd thought it would be a rhino, so was very surprised that it was a hippo. Beyond that, it was quite far from any water I know about — at least 15kms from the Letaba. Looking more closely at my map, I see that it was about halfway between the Letaba and the Nhlanganini Dam ... no idea whether that dam was dry, don't know if you can see it from the H9, I didn't notice it, and I was extremely jetlagged. Definitely odd, tho.


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Unread postPosted: Sun Nov 11, 2007 4:29 pm 
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Thanx again Arks! :D A very strange hippo sighting indeed! The drought has been severe so maybe he/she was heading for the letaba, or had to forage much further for grazing? Hope it survived!

Looking forward to more! :D (Remind me never to take a drive with you in Kruger - engine off among the Kruger ellies! :shock: :wink: )


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Unread postPosted: Sun Nov 11, 2007 7:57 pm 
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wanderw wrote:
(Remind me never to take a drive with you in Kruger - engine off among the Kruger ellies! :shock: :wink: )

While I know it's partly a matter of personal comfort, ellies are really very gentle, peaceable creatures and very tolerant of the humans observing them. I've found that judging my distance — and letting the ellie(s) approach me if they choose — has given me some fabulous experiences, particularly my final meeting with "my" ellie, Bidzane, on 13 May 2006, when he chose to come within 3 metres of my car.

Of course bolshie bulls in musht almost "require" that you keep your engine running, and you do have to be a bit cautious with a breeding herd, especially if you can't see all the group, but I've also been told that ellies find the sounds of idling engines quite irritating. I think it's a matter of assessing each individual situation and knowing what the potential risks are, but I've had some magical ellie experiences because I allow myself to sit quietly with them. Also, of course, you can hear much more of the sounds of them eating and other ellie sounds when your engine is turned off.

I will admit that I have also had the occassional dicey/scary situation. These have sometimes been caused by others, as for example a car pulling up behind me while I was watching a breeding herd, angling itself accross the road (blocking me totally) and switching off. That is endangering someone else and when the group's matriarch took exception to finding her group "surrounded" by cars, I had nowhere to go. Fortunately, nothing dire ensued, and when I later encountered the people who had been blocking me, I explained to them why you must never block another car at an ellie sighting — especially a breeding herd. They really had NO idea that they had done anything dangerous, they just wanted to get some nice pix :roll:

On another occassion I was on the narrow, winding track that leads through the mopani at the far end (other end from where the hide is) of Sable Dam. A small family herd had been drinking and was now moving through the meadow area to my right, a reasonable distance away, so I had turned off my engine. Then two of the adolescents moved towards me quite quickly and some of the others also became very "aware" of my car. These two teenagers definitely wanted me to know that they were in charge, making lots of threatening movements and noise. My problem was that they were blocking my way forward and reversing was next to impossible. Fortunately, as this was my scariest experience to date with ellies, as the two teenagers moved a bit to my left, I was able to shoot forward and get well away, all the way to the edge of the dam. The ellies continued to trumpet and "protest" as they moved off through the mopani away from the dam, and I waited until I had heard no further ellie sounds for at least 15 minutes before I ventured back down the narrow, winding track to the road. Again, I am only taking risks that endanger myself, so it's a personal choice, and apart from this one experience, I've never felt seriously in danger. The situation where another car blocked me was a bit different, because in that case I no longer had full control of my situation vis-a-vis the ellies.


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Unread postPosted: Fri Nov 23, 2007 3:08 am 
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2 September - Shimuwini - Letaba - Tamboti
Today I woke feeling far more rested, having braaied and eaten properly the previous night — steak, broccoli, rice and Nederburg Stein (which I can't get in the USA, so I drink lots of it while I can!) — before settling in for a really good sleep. Although I had rather a long drive ahead, I lingered in camp, enjoying the interesting birds and "bonding" with Shine, who allowed me to scratch her ears and topnot. Chalet #12 has a lovely location, quite close to the fence and the river, but also quite private; it was definitely the perfect spot for recovering from my long journey and it was hard to tear myself away. Shimuwini is a place where it can be very rewarding to spend time in the camp, as there is often activity along — and in — the river, and the camp's birdlife is prolific, so having time to really wander, exploring trees and shrubs, is sure to be interesting. It's a camp I'll definite return to — and stay longer!

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Eventually I finished packing up the car to head for Tamboti, with a very brief stop at Letaba to take pix of the Current Tuskers display, as in my jetlagged state, I'd neglected to do so yesterday. (See the Emerging Tuskers Competition thread for photos of Bidzane's plaque.)

Edit on 2 Jan 2010: Since my detailed report of my experiences as winner of the 2006 Emerging Tuskers Competition has sadly disappeared from the forum, I add the photo of the plaque here:

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En route, the Letaba low level bridge brought me the chance of my first good pix of a pied kingfisher. I didn't see much else until I reached the Olifants high level bridge, where I spent over an hour enjoying the activities of some hippo and several groups of elephant, despite the nonstop Sunday midday traffic on the bridge. Happily, there was still some water flowing in the Olifants, but I was again struck by how very dry the park was — definitely a new experience for me. Once I got a bit used to it, I found these almost monochromatic dry winter colours quite beautiful.

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The Timbavati Road (S39) is a favourite of mine, because even when there are few sightings, I find the scenery very satisfying. Today I saw a great variety of birds and some general game and then just before Ratelpan, encountered a few cars (no more than 6 or 7 at most, and for most of the time only 3 or 4) watching what were clearly a mating pair of lions — although they showed no signs of actually mating. When I arrived, they were fairly out in the open and quite close to the road (at most 15 metres from the road), mostly studiously ignoring this noisy "audience" and staring off into the nearby Timbavati riverbed. Eventually they began moving a bit behind some shrubbery, where they were less visible to our prying eyes, and finally they disappeared literally into a large, thick bush. However, before disappearing, the male decided to scentmark a bush and was only 4-5 metres away from me (great video, but no stills). I waited a bit, but they clearly were not going to emerge from the thicket, and I still had quite a long way to go, plus I was again beginning to feel extremely tired.

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The rest of the drive to Tamboti was uneventful — not much can top a close-up view of lions! — and it was wonderful to come "home" to tent #40, with a welcoming committee of dwarf mongoose to greet me on the road leading to the tents. My final sighting for this eventful day was a beautiful male bushbuck crossing the riverbed. Since I had seen very few bushbuck on my recent KNP visits, this was a special treat -- although by the end of this visit, I had seen more bushbuck that I've ever seen before.

sightings
in camp: fish eagle, ?pipit?, groundscraper thrush, grey lourie, Egyptian geese, Cape turtle doves, Natal francolin, pied wagtail, crested barbet, yellowbilled hornbill, LBJs, redbilled hornbill, Cape glossy starling
S141: great egret, African spoonbill, several lone elephant bulls, yellowbilled hornbill, Natal francolin, forktailed drongo, dagga boys
H14: pied kingfisher, blacksmith plover, pied wagtail, Egyptian geese
S133: ?brown snake eagle, LBJs
S131: ellie, lilacbreasted roller
H1-5: lilacbreasted roller, Bataleur, lone female kudu, impala, breeding herd(s) of elephant, hippo, grey heron, little swifts, crocodiles, yellowbilled storks, BBJ
H1-4: impala, LBR, forktailed drongo, slender mongoose
S39: impala, giraffe, zebra, redbilled hornbill, grey louries, LBR, Cape glossy starling, yellowbilled hornbill, crested francolin, steenbok, baboons, wildebeest, fish eagle, waterbuck, whitecrowned shrike, mating pair of lions, arrowmarked babbler, juvenile whitebacked vulture, Burchell's starling, redbilled oxpecker
H7: longtailed shrike, waterbuck, impala, elephant family, crested francolin, grey lourie, Burchell's starling
Tamboti road: zebra, helmeted guineafowl, Swainson's francolin
in camp: dwarf mongoose, bushbuck

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Last edited by arks on Sat Jan 09, 2010 10:41 pm, edited 4 times in total.

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Unread postPosted: Sat Nov 24, 2007 2:42 am 
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Shimuwini really is a specially lovely camp, not for everyone, as I don't find the area very game-rich, but the camp itself is great for birding and the dam makes it very peaceful — except of course when the hippo are serenading, but that's a different kind of special and wonderful.

:redface: And I've forgotten (for two years now! :redface: ) to mention one of Shimuwini's most special features, the Shimuwini fireflies! 8) I've never noticed fireflies in any other KNP camp, but Shimuwini has them in abundance, dancing in the trees along the river. Starlight, firelight and fireflies — Shimuwini magic!! :dance:


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Unread postPosted: Wed Nov 28, 2007 3:51 am 
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3 September - Tamboti - Satara - Tamboti
Despite being quite tired and still feeling the effects of jetlag — I had been too tired to eat much after my long day yesterday and hadn't slept very well — so I awoke tired and hungry. Since it was chilly, damp and overcast, I decided to head to Satara for breakfast, as definitely the warmest place to be would be in my car! As I approached Tamboti's gate, I heard a loud whirring and glimpsed a flash of green and gold down the track that runs along the fence just inside the gate — the SANParks helicopter!! The very helicopter that I was to be flying in only two days hence! I turned down the track (which was not marked no entry 8)) and was apparently unnoticed as I snapped a few pix. (See the Emerging Tuskers Competition thread for the photos of the SANParks chopper.)

Edit on 2 Jan 2010: Since my detailed report of my experiences as winner of the 2006 Emerging Tuskers Competition has sadly disappeared from the forum, I add the photos of the SANParks helicopter here:

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Other sightings en route to Satara were few, altho I did have a fleeting glimpse of what I think was my first pearlspotted owl, and then a longer sighting of a very large raptor high in a tree at the S106 turnoff. I'd thought at the time that anything that large must be a juvenile martial eagle, but once I looked closely at my photos, I knew my ID was wrong. My guess is now juvenile steppe eagle, but I await confirmation from the bird forum experts!

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Edit: This raptor had now been definitively IDed as a tawny eagle.

After an excellent breakfast of poached eggs on toast and coffee, I spent some time attempting to photograph some of Satara's camp birds — always a challenge. I had better luck with a collection of birds I found on one of the loops off the S100, where I finally got a few reasonably good photos of an emeraldspotted wood dove, one of my favourite birds, and one that I've always found very hard to photograph. I've only once ever seen a cat (a lion, very far away) on the fabled S100, but this trip it delighted me with lots of close encounters with giraffe, another of my favourite animals — I just can't resist giraffe!

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I returned to camp fairly early, both because I needed to send SMSs to those involved with my Emerging Tusker Competition prize day, and just to enjoy the tranquility of Tamboti and tent #40. One of the things I've always loved about my time in the bush is the complete disconnect with the outside world. When I first visited KNP in the 1980s, this was the norm, and I found that very little of importance happened during the weeks that I chose to be cut off from the outside world. Now, despite cell reception and all the rest, I choose to maintain that disconnect from the outside world as much as possible — except of course for checking the Red Sox standings! — altho I'm also very amused by the encroachment of technology into the bush. This afternoon I was recharging phone and batteries and downloading photos onto my marvelous new ultralite laptop, but that's my limit — no news, no calls, no SMSs unless absolutely necessary.

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rear view of Tamboti tent 40
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bedroom of tent #40
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kitchen and deck with #39 in the distance
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front view of tent 40
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Tonight I had no neighbors in tent #39 and the relative silence — just late afternoon birds followed by all the night sounds — made for a very special evening of alone-ness with nature. I now have a headlamp (thanks, Freda, great idea!), so keep the outside lights off as much as possible in order to enjoy the night sky with just firelight from the braai. I also often have a fire even when I don't braai — firelight and starlight just add to that bush feeling. On this particular night, starlight, firelight, Nederburg Stein and the illusion of being totally alone in the bush — Tamboti perfection!

sightings
in camp: Natal francolin, banded mongoose, baboons, SANParks helicopter
Tamboti road: kudu, giraffe
H7: giraffe, whitebacked vulture, Cape turtle doves, longtailed shrike, pearlspotted owl, grey lourie
S106: ?steppe eagle?, impala, grey lourie, steenbok, yellowbilled hornbill
H7: slender mongoose, wildebeest, male ostrich, buffalo, lilacbreasted roller, elephant, saddlebilled stork, impala, marabou stork
Satara: zebra, impala, greater blue-eared glossy starling, masked weaver, redbilled weaver, Cape glossy starling hoopoe, LBJs, yellowbilled hornbill, greyheaded sparrow, blackcollared barbet
H1-4: zebra, impala, steenbok
S100: longtailed shrike, lilacbreasted roller, glossy starling, yellowbilled hornbill, wildebeest, giraffe, waterbuck, goldenbreasted bunting, crested barbet, grey lourie, doves, impala, elephant, kudu, zebra, emeraldspotted wood dove, Cape turtle dove, redbilled hornbill, Natal robin, tree squirrel, LBJs
S41: impala, giraffe, waterbuck, kudu, Egyptian geese, African jacana, LBR, longtailed shrike, grey lourie
H6: impala, warthogs, zebra, wildebeest, saddlebilled stork, longtailed shrike, LBR, baboons
H1-3: giraffe, impala, fish eagle
H7: zebra, impala, hippo, bull elephant, baboons, starlings, waterbuck, lilacbreasted roller, longtailed shrike, crested francolin, slender mongoose, tree squirrels, warthogs, forktailed drongo
Tamboti road: giraffe

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I'd not noticed before that redbilled hornbills have the same amazing eyes and eyelashes as ground hornbills!
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Last edited by arks on Sat Jan 09, 2010 10:39 pm, edited 4 times in total.

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Unread postPosted: Wed Nov 28, 2007 5:15 am 
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Sincerely Arks, Thank you. Those of you who are fortunate enough to visit Sa must be the eyes and ears of us who will never be able to experience the sights and sounds in person.

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Unread postPosted: Thu Nov 29, 2007 3:24 am 
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Thanks edgy1, Senyetse, aboon and Pumbaa. The next installment is in the works. For a "preview", click here.

edgy1 wrote:
Sincerely Arks, Thank you. Those of you who are fortunate enough to visit Sa must be the eyes and ears of us who will never be able to experience the sights and sounds in person.

Never say never, edgy1, anything is possible — just look at CC! 8)


Last edited by arks on Sat Jan 09, 2010 10:36 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Unread postPosted: Sat Dec 01, 2007 3:48 am 
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4 September - Tamboti - Skukuza
A lovely, bright Tamboti morning, and I was able to linger as long as possible, as it's quite a short drive to Skukuza! Lots of busy Natal francolin this morning — yesterday morning I'd also had a glimpse of my first even banded mongoose as the francolins were chasing it under the fence! Eventually, I packed up the car, said a reluctant "au revoir" — I will be back!!! — to tent #40, and headed out.

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Sunrise at Tamboti
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Timbavati riverbed viewed from Tent 40

Sightings were uneventful until I turned south on the S36, when I heard the now-familiar whirring and soon spotted the SANParks helicopter. What a thrill to know that tomorrow it would be me up there, flying over Kruger and counting ellies. It was interesting to watch the chopper's apparently random flight pattern (which is not random at all, of course, but more about that in tomorrow's report!), and very difficult to try to catch and film it with the video camera — and as I concentrated on video for this, I have no still pix of the chopper in the air. I think that pix of the chopper in the air would have been even more of a challenge that trying to photograph birds in flight!

I took to S126 — a favourite and scenic road, although I saw nothing special along it this day, save for a few more glimpses of the SANParks chopper — and headed south again on the H1-3. Kumana Dam was a shock as it was reduced to a bit of mud — really totally dry! Happily, Mazithi Dam had quite a bit of water and I spent some time watching a delightful small family of ellies disporting themselves.

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Kumana Dam

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Since I had plenty of time, I took a detour to Orpen Dam, because I don't think I'd been there before. Its water was also quite low, so I'll need to visit again one day, but there was a beautiful goliath heron fishing, and in the car park I spotted a shy whitethroated robin — a new tick for me!

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whitethroated robin

Just after crossing the H12 low level bridge and turning west onto the H4-1, I had a very distressing experience. I (and several other cars) had stopped to watch a group of ellies with several quite small ones that were approaching from the river and hesitantly, cautiously crossing the road. As two small ellies were about to cross, a Nissan sedan, followed by a large SUV towing a trailer (I gleaned these details from careful study of my video) raced past, barely missing the small ellies. People who are this impatient — and both stress and endanger the animals — have absolutely NO business in a national park. The poor little ellies were terrified. :twisted: :roll: :twisted:

The speeding that I witnessed along this stretch of road is the worst I've ever encountered in KNP. Further along, when I'd stopped because kudu were crossing the road, another large SUV followed by a BMW sedan raced past me — and the kudu, almost but not quite grazing them — clearly both aware of and indifferent to both the kudus' presence and their right to have right of way in Kruger. I was so shaken by these horrible experiences that I pulled into a loop overlooking the river for some time just to calm myself. I'd no chance of noting license plate numbers of these speeding vehicles and I'm sure that "a big silver SUV" would not be sufficient to nail these b*st*rds. However, I do wonder why this stretch of road is not patrolled by SANParks traffic wardens?

I arrived at Skukuza in the early afternoon and was delighted to be booked in by Tholapi Ngoyama, the lady who had been so calming and helpful last year when I was stranded at Skukuza after my hired car died. It was great to see Tholapi again! My prize included two nights accommodation and when I'd first booked, the luxury riverside bungalow was all that had been available, so I decided to pay the different between this and the "standard" accommodation price and try accommodation which I'd not normally be able to afford. To be honest, I wasn't at all impressed with this "luxury" accommodation, which I feel is very overpriced for what it is. Mine was one of the three units (#207) to the west of the restaurant and takeaway and among other things, it is so close to that public area that people are constantly walking through the so-called "private" riverfront area, even tho a fence blocks access to the restaurant area. People either then find the access point away from the river or just climb carefully around the end of the fence!

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The unit itself has what is a slightly larger and nicer bathroom than the standard rondavels, a double bed, two small armchairs which are, I assume, meant as comfortable seating from which to watch the unit's TV :roll: The kitchen is outside and one "feature" that I really disliked is the braai that is set into the wall. I often have a fire even when I don't braai and like to have my fire where I can watch it while enjoying the night sky and whatever view there way be. In any case, it was a good thing I had no plans to braai at Skukuza (altho I did have a fire my last night as I had a lot of leftover wood and charcoal), as the entire time that I was there, the "guts" of this fancy braai contraption were disassembled and leaning up against the little wall that fronts the stoep.

Anyway, once settled, I sent SMSs to Kirsty, Raymond and Ian, letting them know that I had arrived. I then decided to head to the nursery, but it was closed by the time I got there. Instead I strolled along the wetlands walkway, which starts from the nursery carpark, but with the park being so dry, I saw very few birds. However, I did enjoy the glimpse I had of the Skukuza Golf Club's warthog "greenskeepers" :wink: Heading back, I stopped at Lake Panic, where there wasn't much happening — just the resident darter and hippo, plus a grey heron and a great egret. I think I had been spoiled by my dawn visit in 2006, when the place was teeming with birdlife, and this late afternoon visit was somewhat disappointing.

The SMS chime of my phone as I was leaving Lake Panic alerted me that I could expect my hosts to arrive to meet me at around 18h00, so I headed back to camp to prepare for their visit. Raymond and Rene arrived first, shortly followed by Kirsty, and eventually Ian, who'd had an extra-long day in the air, joined us. It was a treat to finally meet those who had dreamed up the Emerging Tuskers Competition. I was briefed about what to expect next day and warned that many people don't tolerate the movement of flying in a helicopter well — as it is very different from fixed wing flying, even in a small aircraft. In my past experiences at sea, I had learned the hard way that while I had never been seasick on a larger vessel, small yachts are different, so I took Ian's warning seriously and made sure that I stuck to very bland food — tea, toast and jam for breakfast, and egg mayonnaise sandwiches for my lunch next day. Hardest, given my excited anticipation of the upcoming adventure, was getting to sleep!!!

sightings
in camp: Natal francolin
Tamboti road: dwarf mongoose, zebra, wildebeest, grey lourie
H7: zebra, impala, giraffe, bushbuck, waterbuck, kudu
S36: giraffe, zebra, longtailed shrike, LBR, SANParks helicopter
S126: Swainson's francolin, tree squirrel, Burchell's starling, impala, zebra, giraffe, warthogs, baboons, lilacbreasted roller, LBJs, redbilled quelea, SANParks helicopter
H1-3: giraffe, longtailed shrike, bataleur, brown snake eagle, impala, hyena, dagga boy, waterbuck, zebra, saddlebilled stork, crocodile, blacksmith plover, hippo, hooded vulture, elephant family group, yellowbilled oxpecker, whitebacked vulture
S35: nothing
S32: impala, kudu, nyala
Orpen dam: Goliath heron, baboons, whitethroated robin
H10: nothing
H1-2: impala, zebra, ground hornbill
H12: elephants
H4-1: family group of elephants, vervet monkeys, bushbuck, impala, kudu, hadeda ibis
H11: impala, ground hornbill
Lake Panic/Nursery road: bushbuck, nyala, steenbok, warthog "greenskeepers"
Lake Panic: darter, hippo, grey heron, great egret
H11: impala

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Last edited by arks on Sat Jan 02, 2010 9:43 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Unread postPosted: Mon Dec 03, 2007 3:41 am 
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Senior Virtual Ranger
Senior Virtual Ranger
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Joined: Sun Mar 20, 2005 5:53 pm
Posts: 3758
Location: Cambridge, MA (and home from home in Darling, WC)
Thanks, Freda and wanderw, for your "creative" comments, as well as to christo, WAC, UKbadger and Elsa for your kind remarks. Now, on to the prize adventure day!

5 September - in the air over KNP (mostly) north of Tshokwane

My day started with a very clear, if brief, glimpse of a hyena on my stoep at around 04h00. I later discovered that the clever critter had managed to open my fridge and make off with some broccoli and some croissants — neither of which it cared for as it left its booty on the lawn.

Ian collected me at 07h30 and we were off to the Skukuza Airport, when I was introduced to the day's crew (see the Emerging Tuskers Competition thread for more photos):

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(from left to right): Boy-Boy (Assistant to Themba Zungu - surname not known), Vincent Smith (from Rhino Walking Safaris), Obert Mathebula (veteran ground crew), Ian Whyte, Arks, Johan Baloyi (ground crew), Themba Zungu (helicopter engineer), Charles Thomson (pilot).
Photo taken by Kirsty Redman with Arks' camera

We were soon off, flying north along the border between KNP and the Sabi Sand reserve. We were tasked with counting elephant, buffalo and rhino in a sector north of Tshokwane and west (I think; I wish I had a copy of Ian's map that shows the census sectors!) of the H1-3, and stretching almost as far north as Orpen. We were also to count these animals in the Manyeleti Game Reserve. The first animals we spotted were a fairly large group of buffalo, which we guesstimated at approximately 350. I quickly discovered that spotting "large" mammals from the air isn't at all easy — and that I wasn't nearly so sharp-eyed as Ian, Charles and Vince.

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I also discovered that I absolutely adored flying in the helicopter, especially the way it can tilt so dramatically. Unfortunately none of my photos — not even the video — really captures that amazing sensation!! I later learned that Ian's biggest worry about taking me with on the census was that I would get airsick! Turns out that the amount of flying time for a capture and collaring, which was the planned prize, is only roughly an hour in total, whereas with the census, you're in the air from 07h30 until 16h00 or even later, with only two brief stops on the ground for refueling.

While I had no ill effects, Vince wasn't so lucky, although his malaise was likely more due to something he'd eaten than to the flying as he'd flown in a chopper before, and within the first hour, we had to the return him to Skukuza. Vince departed, heading to the Skukuza doctor, and Ian had the difficult task of finding a last-minute substitute, since it's necessary to have four pairs of eyes to effectively spot — and I'd be the first to admit that my eyes weren't much help. Charles, who is quite new to this work, was amazing, I thought, and of course Ian has probably more experience than anyone with doing the KNP census.

Whilst awaiting the arrival of our new crew member, I explored the hanger and surrounding area a bit, and observed the engineering crew working on the alternate SANParks helicopter — both the choppers and the pilots alternate days for this demanding work. We then joined for a most welcome mug of coffee and Ian, who is also a birder of note, IDed the small bird that I'd spotted in the tree outside the window as my first chinspot batis! When Steve Oosthaizen, our new crew member, arrived, I recognised the ranger who had been my after hours escort in 2006 when my hired car had died — and had found us a female leopard marking her territory along the H4-1. Given that I know very few KNP staffers, it was quite an unexpected treat to meet up with Steve again!

The rest of the day proceeded according to plan and most of the time, despite Ian's guidance, I had absolutely no idea where we were. What had appeared to me when I saw the chopper from the ground to be an apparently random flight pattern actually follows the watercourses within the day's appointed sector very precisely. Although census personnel are being encouraged to use the CyberTracker technology, it is actually quite unsuited to this work. The PDA screen can only display a very small portion of the map of the area being covered, too small to show accurately which animals have already been counted and which have not. Therefore, Ian continues to work with a fairly large-scale paper map detailing all the watercourses, on which he can very accurately plot how many animals are seen (and counted) at a given spot. Thus, as the chopper makes repeated passes along sometimes parallel watercourses, Ian knows with total confidence that those elephants that we are now seeing on our left were already counted on the earlier pass, when they were on our right.

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One of my quandaries as I prepared for this day had been: What do I wear in a helicopter? My usual costume in KNP is a sundress, which I thought would likely be inappropriate for climbing in and out of a helicopter. Then by a lucky chance, I saw a pair of bert's zip-off trousers in a shop — problem solved. And while I'd been warned that it could get very hot in the chopper, I was never uncomfortable — although I noted that Ian flies with his door open — much easier to spot the animals that way too, I'd guess, with the wider view.

Much as I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and learned much, the long day becomes after a time extremely tiring and even rather boring. A lot of the time, when you're searching hard and not seeing any animals, the view over the vast expanse of dry, monochromatic parkland is both monotonous and soporific. But each sighting is exciting, and the technique for accurately counting the ellies is particularly exhilarating. As I said, we only estimated the numbers of buffalo we saw, as more precise counts are no longer considered necessary. And the very small groups of rhino — I think the most that we saw together was six — were easy to count. However, the count of the ellies needed to be absolutely precise, and elephants make that very difficult because the smaller ones hide both behind and under the larger ones. Therefore, the technique for achieving an accurate count is to twist and turn and fly down almost to treetop level, which causes the ellies to disperse enough for the smaller ones to be seen. It's tricky and exhilarating — and the ellies obviously don't like it much. (I unfortunately don't have any still pix that illustrate this treetop flying, only video.)

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Apart from those mammals that we were counting, we saw lots else of interest from the air, and because our refueling point was a spot that I later realised was quite close to Mondzweni waterhole, we made several passes over Talamati — the only spot I could ID definitively (and I wasn't 100% sure of that on our first approach, as I found the whole day totally disorienting). It was also interesting to see the profusion of communities all along the western border of the Manyeleti Game Reserve, where there is a considerable poaching problem. We flew over other concession camps both in Manyeleti and in KNP proper, but I never had a very clear idea of which ones they were — or where I was. However, where I was really didn't matter, as I was having a sublime time!! One highlight early on was seeing many baobab trees that can't be seen from the public roads, including several considerably farther south that the so-called "southernmost baobab". Another highlight towards the end of our day was sighting a pride of lions at a waterhole — which waterhole I have absolutely no idea. But the day's major highlight was shortly after our second refueling and snack stop, when we came upon a group of (I think) a dozen sable — WoW!! One female wore a collar and she definitely knew precisely what a helicopter meant and wasn't having anything to do with us. This was only my second ever sighting of sable and absolutely magical to see them so clearly and from the air!!

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Some census days are longer than others because no matter what happens, the crew must cover the entire sector assigned for that day. Despite our hour delay due to Vince's illness and whilst awaiting Steve's arrival, we were back on the ground at Skukuza shortly after 16h30. It had been an utterly unforgettable day! From the beginning, I'd felt that the opportunity to spend the day with Ian Whyte was a major part of the prize, and both he and the whole day's experience more than lived up to my not inconsiderable expectations. I know that participating in an elephant capture and collaring would be more "dramatic" — Ian says that there's nothing to match the experience of being able to be so close to a wild (tho sedated) elephant, to feel its rough and wrinkly skin and be awed by its size — but I was entirely happy with my alternative choice of participating in the census. Both are activities that few will have the opportunity to experience, and I will re-live and cherish this day all my life.

Ian returned me to my Skukuza rondavel and stayed on a for a bit, chatting and answering more of my endless questions, while we enjoyed the riverview and a glass of wine. I had a good look at Ian's large-scale paper map with all his detailed notations of which and how many (including where possible how many young) animals had been seen where. Of course I now wish I'd had the sense to ask to take some photos of this map, but I was simply far too "high" on the day's experiences. Ian was very interested to see my ultralite Sony Vaio, which he thinks might work for displaying and recording data on electronic census maps, because it's just that much larger than the CyberTracker, whilst being at the same time very light weight and highly portable. I wish that I could remember more details of what was a fascinating and wide-ranging conversation, but I was on such an emotional high that my memories are a bit of a blur.

After Ian left, I made myself a big fire in the strange braai, turned out the lights, and enjoyed the stars, the moon and the river — still far too wired to get to sleep or even to think about packing my bags, since I'd be heading to White River next day, en route to Upington, Augrabies and Kgalagadi. Shortly after I'd settled, Kirsty arrived, eager to hear all about my day, and we chatted for quite some time, as I was also interested to learn a bit about the work Kirsty does with People and Conservation. Although she is usually based at Letaba, during this period Kirsty was working with a special schools program funded by Pick ‘n Pay that was bringing school groups into the park for several days, taking the students out into the park on game drives and also holding workshops in camp. I think we visitors don't fully appreciate how much more there is to KNP and SANParks than just the tourism side. I was lucky to have this opportunity to meet Ian, Kirsty, Raymond and Rene, as well as all the crew involved with the census, and to learn a bit more about other aspects of KNP and SANParks. As I threw the last of my wood on the fire, I had lots to be thankful for and lots to mull over.

sightings
because of the disorienting effect of flying, I can't be precise about where I saw what

buffalo, elephants, white rhino, vultures - flying in the sky with us, I found it really cool to be flying with the vultures, kudu, giraffe, impala, waterbuck, sable, lion


Last edited by arks on Sat Jan 09, 2010 10:32 pm, edited 3 times in total.

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