When you need to go, you need to go. But it's best not to sound like a baboon* if your journey to the loo after nightfall takes you anywhere near leopards. Christelle Randall feels the advice may well be worth heeding....
Last Monday our group the Bladerunners left Venetia for the Leshaba mountain which lies about three hours north from camp.
We were delayed on our way out of the reserve by a herd of elephants that crossed the road in front of us led by their matriarch. We watched as one by one, about 12 elephants crossed with a few little ones at the end.
Anyone who has read my last couple of posts will know that I have not enjoyed all my encounters with elephants. I was just about to allow myself to start enjoying them again when a little further along we stumbled into a couple of bulls, one of which the reserve calls “Impy”, known for his curiosity and cheekiness, which in my language translates as an even better ability to petrify.
The GVI staffers at the front of the vehicle stopped the car and mentioned that the elephants might feel a bit more unnerved as they weren’t used to this particular engine. When we drive around camp on our game drives we tend to use the Mahindra vehicles and the animals have become accustomed to the engines.
However they apparently get very nervous with any other engine (both lions and elephants) possibly because the culling that went on a little while back was done from a different vehicle. Either way it didn’t do much to calm my nerves. Nor the fact that the elephants are super intelligent so actually enjoy playing this cat and mouse game with the vehicle.
So we had to reverse as quickly as possible to show the elephant he was boss. We were held up for about forty minutes waiting for the elephants to move on. It’s actually quite incredible how much elephant protocol we have to adhere to. They don’t like flashlights, they don’t like certain engines, they don’t like it if you look at them when talking to them and you need to talk to them in a low voice.
It’s almost like preparing for a visit from the blinking Queen.
So we eventually left the reserve and headed up to the mountain which was absolutely beautiful.
The landscape was completely different to Venetia. There were sweeping open plains with lots of game including more antelope, giraffe, Vervet monkeys and lots of rhino (white). The plains were at the bottom of the valley surrounded by the mountain and seemed permanently bathed in a light mist and sun kissed green hue.
There are no lions in the mountain (or elephants!) as they don’t like the vegetation but the main predator here is leopard. If lions are kings of the jungle then leopards are the dark knights.
They are incredibly elusive to the point that some of the GVI staffers at Venetia have never even seen one there even though they are known to be in the reserve. None is collared which makes walking back to the tents at night alone an interesting experience. Leopards are pretty skillful predators. They are nocturnal, climb trees (which makes it easy for them to dodge reserve fences), silent and have been known to remove full grown Alsatians from houses without waking a soul.
It was with this knowledge that I looked forward to the mountain phase. We stayed in the Venda Village which was high up in the mountain and on the edge of a cliff with incredible views. We each had our own hut and after sharing a tent with eight people it was a welcome experience.
Although having said that I still opted to share with my friend Kim. There was no fence around the huts so every night we’d try our best to get our toilet needs out of the way before going to bed.
Neither of us was particularly keen on the idea of getting up in the middle of the night and going to the toilet on our own. I took to clapping loudly to try and deter any potential leopards until Kim told me I sounded like a baboon barking. Given that leopards are especially keen on baboons as prey I quickly opted for a different tactic.
The mountain phase was lovely because it felt like a mini break away from the work at Venetia.
We slept in till 7.30am every morning which after 5am starts felt like a proper lie in and then worked till lunch. Work involved “rock packing” on the first day to limit erosion on the mountain roads, filling our rock dams with sickle bush branches to make it difficult for baboons and rhinos to mess things up. Kim and I got into the job by covering our faces with self styled African war paint, basically road dirt mixed in with water.
After work we would hike back down the mountain. The next day work involved using a panga (machete) and chopping down the sickle bushes that had overgrown along some of the mountain paths. We were given a lesson on how to use the panga in the morning and off we went chopping our hearts away.
Other highlights from the mountain included stumbling into a white rhino and her calf. Rhinos have excellent hearing and smell but can’t see very well. The mother couldn’t quite work out where we were but she eventually relaxed.
The GVI staffer had safely navigated us on to a rocky ridge where the rhino would not be able to move easily. But we sat watching them for nearly 40 minutes and they were only about 20m away. On the last morning we also watched a giraffe come down to our watering hole again about 100 m away and after checking out the surroundings, bent down to drink.
Anyone who has seen a giraffe drink before will know it’s some sight. They have to bend their legs slightly and have to be very careful before doing it as it makes them vulnerable to predators. Suddenly in the distance we saw a baby giraffe come to join the mother. It was so young and could only have been a month old. It looked like a little sea horse tottering in on rickety legs.
This week here has also been pretty cool and I was lucky enough to see African Wild Dog for the first time on Thursday.
When I first came to the reserve we were told that there remained four adult dogs on the reserve with one collared. They were not doing so well here as lions had been killing them off and there were no pups.
In fact African Wild Dog could potentially be prone to extinction in the future. They suffer from a bad reputation due to their killing methods (disembowelling their prey alive) and also suffer from canine distemper. For Venetia they are a really big priority and it’s key to keep the current adult dogs breeding.
We heard the dogs had bred and that there were puppies on the koppe (where their den site is). But a couple of weeks ago the dogs were seen minus the pups which was bad news as the alpha female won’t be ready to mate for another year in which time she could be killed off by lion.
However this week on Thursday I went on a drive with the wild dog specialist and we tracked them in a different koppe.
They were moving den site because they had pups after all! It was so exciting and we’ve counted seven although there is every chance that the litter was bigger to start with. they are adorable – like little puppies with mocha heads and thick black stripes down the front. They have big floppy ears like bats. I spent about an hour watching them from a distance as they played with each other. I also watched the adult dogs perform a ritual known as a “rally” when they greet each other very excitedly like old friends making a yelping noise called “yittering”. It was very sweet.
* Christelle's problems with processing and transmitting her photos forced me back to Picasawab where images are marked "public" but there seems no way of contacting the photographer to confirm that this allows use at blogs...if anyone knows Buddy, please put me in touch.