Tag Archives: africa

There’s more to safari holidays than the Big 5

Everybody who goes on a safari holiday wants to see the Big 5: Lions, leopards, elephants, buffalo and Rhino. They are the glamorous animals, the exciting ones. They are actually based on the five animals that big game hunters wanted to shoot in order to have the most spectacular trophies to return home with and the animals that were the most dangerous to stalk. (The hippo would probably qualified for this claim, but was probably too big to stuff…)

Now that the only shooting done is with a camera, there are plenty of other animals that are just as exciting and interesting to watch as the Big 5. For a start, there are over 70 types of antelope in Africa, ranging from the tiny Dik Dik to the Giant Eland. Each lives in a different way, evolved for the landscape and conditions in which it lives.

The Dik Dik for example has its own small territory it jealously protects from rivals. Once it finds its mate it is for life – once one of them dies it is very unusual for then to breed again. They are also perfectly adapted to their conditions.You never see a Dik Dik drink as it gains all the moisture it needs from the vegetation it eats – it would be too dangerous for such a small animals to visit waterholes during the dry season.

Other antelopes live in herds. Impala live in various ways. There are large herds of 5-100 females and young who are protected and guarded by one dominant male. The other males all live in a bachelor herd, the strongest occasionally trying to drive off the dominant male from the herd and get the females for himself. You also solitary individuals who often tag onto groups of other animals. These are often ex-dominant males who have been driven off and often don’t live much longer. The task of guarding and mating with a large herd of females wears them out after a few months and they never really recover, safe in the knowledge that their job is done and their DNA is successfully passed on.

One of the greatest spectacles in African wildlife also has nothing to do with the Big 5. The Great Migration is a constant search by over

1 million wildebeests for new grazing. It happens all year, moving through the Ngorongoro Highlands and Serengeti plains in Tanzania before arriving in the Masai Mara area of Kenya in

July to September. This is the most famous time, as these huge herds of animals try to cross the Mara river still swollen by the long rains of April to June. The fast flowing water is not the only danger. Crocodiles lie in wait in the muddy waters, looking for a young, injured or stray animals to attack and drag down to its death.

There are plenty of iconic animals also to see. What could be more African that a zebra? See them in a herd and work out which ones are the most closely related, according to their stripe patterns. (They are never identical but close relatives have similar, just as you get a family resemblance in humans.)

Watch giraffes grazing and try to catch them when they have to stoop for a drink, front legs splayed to get low enough. It turns one of Africa’s most graceful creatures into a clumsy looking creation. Look out for warthogs, one of the more amusing animals. When alarmed their small tails go bolt upright like radio antennae as they run off. They always stop after a short distance, reputably because they are not the brightest and have already forgotten what they are running from.

Listen to hyenas crunch their way through huge bones, look out for jackals sneaking quietly around scavenging food and the vast array of eagles, vultures and buzzards always circling and looking for a prospective meal. When you come to a river, look for hippos keeping cool in the waters, their young often grouped together to one side playing games of dare as they stalk geese and other small birds. Watch cheetahs lounge on old, eroded termite mounds, looking out over the grasslands for any game that gets too close. Watch in wonder as this sleek animal stalks its game, eyes fixed on its potential target.

As well as all these and many other animals, there are the birds, the  reptiles, the flora and the amazing landscapes that make Africa what it is.  So when you head out on safari, of course look for the large animals but don’t forget the little ones too.

Up close and personal on Safari

Robert Ferguson, a Director of Real Africa, remembers the occasions on safari he’s got more than he bargained for.

When presenting slideshows or giving talks, I’m often asked what’s the scariest thing that’s ever happened to me on safari. It’s a tricky question. I’ve never been frightened when out game-driving, not in the “O my god, I’m going to die” sort of way. Having been lucky enough to have done a fair amount of game-viewing ( a definite perk of the job) while running Real Africa, I have however been in several situations that have got the adrenalin pumping.

The first was when I was visiting a private reserve in the south of Swaziland. It specialised in the protection of rhino, specifically the rarer and more aggressive black rhino. I was out with the reserve founder and owner, a grizzled old Africa hand who’d worked in conservation for many years. We were doing the early morning patrol of the electric perimeter fence checking for any damage from poachers during the night. Cresting a small ridge we spotted a rhino standing beside the track we were following. We stopped. The rhino got up on his toes and stood staring at us. We sat for 30 seconds or so looking at each other. We started our engine, my companion confidently telling me that after this show of bluff the rhino would turn on his heels and retreat into the thick bush. We edged closer and it didn’t look to me as if it had much thought of retreat.

Its horn came straight through the panel of my door

We were about 15 metres away when it charged. How such a large and prehistoric creature went from stationary to fast so quickly was unbelievable, and before I could catch my breath it hit the well loved and well used Landover we were in. Just my luck, it was my side. Its horn came straight through the panel of my door, sticking into the foot well in front of my legs. It lifted its head and us with it, both wheels on my side off the ground as it tried to push us sideways. When we didn’t move, it retreated backwards, pulling its horn clear as it prepared another thrust but before it had a chance we were slammed into reverse and careering backwards up the track at a filling-shaking speed. It chased us for 50 metres or so until it and we lost sight of each other in the dust.

I returned to the reserve a couple of years later and was pleased to see my passenger door mounted over the fireplace, the puncture hole and rip in the metal looking very dramatic. Frightening? No. It happened so quickly and was over before I could think.

If you see a Rhino, climb a tree..

I thought of this incident a few years later when I was doing a walk in The Royal Chitwan National Park in Nepal. With a population of Asian Rhino we were informed my our guide that should we be spotted by one we should keep completely still as their eye sight is poor and they detect movement as much as form. Should they charged we were advised to climb a tree. I looked around at the tall scrub all around, spotting only a single solitary tree that stood a chance of taking my 13 stones without snapping like a twig. I looked around the group, most of whom were eyeing the same tree with a determined stare. If push came to shove, I decided, I’d take my chances with the rhino.

The snakes were standing taller than me, and I’m 6’3..

On another occasion I was checking out camps and lodges in Botswana. I’d arrived at a camp deep in the marshes around the Okavango Delta and was heading out for a game walk with two local guides. It was a great walk, elephant waded in the waters eating the lush grasses that grew there, antelope and other grazers watch unperturbed as we walked quietly by. They one of the guides spotted something in front of us that looked very strange. It was about my height, 6 feet or so, black and seemed to gently sway from side to side. We cautiously moved a little closer, to perhaps 50 metres or so, until one of the guides realised what it was. It was a Black Mamba snake. Or rather it was two Black Mambas engaged it a very beautiful mating ritual.

Standing on their tails they were facing each other and gently undulating from side to side, mirroring each other as they entwined their necks. Amazing though it was the thought in my mind was that if they were standing 6 feet into the air and yet still had enough of their bodies on the ground to keep them stable during such a dance, how big were they? My guides obviously had the same thought as we quietly and gently beat a retreat away from them.

The warthog loved crisps and tried his best to get as many as he could.

The closest encounter I’ve ever had with an animal on foot was a warthog. Doesn’t sound scary, despite their incredibly ugly faces including some mean looking tusks. It was at a lodge in South Africa that had a tame warthog living under the raised floor of their restaurant and bar. It was a big boar and very partial to crisps and other bar snacks which it tried to make you drop by startling you when it thought you were not expecting it and were poised to put a bar snack in your mouth.

Meeting a hippo at night

More dangerous was a face to face encounter with a hippo one evening while walking from my tent to the dining room in a mobile camp in the Masai Mara. Hippos, as most people know, are the biggest killers of humans in Africa, due to their nocturnal wanderings in search of grazing bringing them in contact with people going about their lives. Luckily for me he was 20 metres away and heading across the path not along it. I did however beat a hasty retreat to my room and wait, as I’d been instructed, for my Masai Guide to come and fetch me. tI wasn’t a marketing stunt after all, the Masai guides were actually there to assist and protect, not to make it seem more real and look good in the photos. Lesson learnt. I now always wait for my guide at night.

The elephant sniffed her face, no more than 5 cm away from her nose..

As regards the big cat – lions, leopards and cheetah, I’ve never had any real incidents. A cheetah once sat on my vehicles bonnet but that was an amazing experience, not a scary one. I once got sprayed in lion urine by a lion marking his territory on the front wheel and being a bad shot. Again, not scary only rather smelly. When game viewing with my family in the Cape provinces of South Africa an elephant came right up to our open vehicle and stopped, raised its trunk and sniffing my eight year old daughter, its trunk a few centimetres from her face. But it was a young female and she was interested in her rather than aggressive. My daughter loved it and still talks about it five years later.

I’ve been incredibly lucky in the amount of time I’ve got to spend in the wild with the animals of Africa, and I still get the buzz of excitement when I see lion or leopard or even a dikdik or zebra. Adrenalin yes. Excitement, of course. Fear? Never. Honest.

By Robert Ferguson

VIDEO: Lions attacking a buffalo in the Ngorongoro Crater

This video was taken by one of our Tanzanian Guides Hashim on a recent visit to the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania. It was early morning, near to where the road from the Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge emerges onto the floor of the crater. In it, a large pride of lions have caught a male buffalo. Look at how the male lion has its mouth clamped over the buffalo’s mouth, trying to suffocate it, while the lionesses hang onto it from behind to prevent it from escaping or from attacking the exposed lion.

It took 20 minutes for the buffalo to finally collapse and die, leaving a large meal for this large and obviously hungry pride of lions.

Autumn Weather Report from around Africa

If you are already dreaming about escaping autumn and winter for sunnier climes then this might just be of assistance to you. Temperatures in Africa vary quite a bit as does the rainfall so it is important to know when is the best time of year to travel before you book.

Right now in Cape Town it’s spring and the flowers are blooming on the fynbos.  The temperature today is a wonderfully hot 28 degrees and it is the perfect time for whale watching as both mating and birthing are happening just off the shores. You may get the chance to see a mother and calf whale and you are highly likely to see dolphin pods playing in the surf.  Cape Town is a coastal city so the temperature does vary quite a bit but most of the year it is pretty pleasant with hot summers and warm spring and autumns. The winters can be cool and damp but not bitterly cold. Johannesburg and the area to the north such as the Kruger National Park are nearer to the Equator and therefore are warmer and have less seasonal variety in temperature. At the moment the temperature is a pleasant 25 degrees centigrade.

In Botswana it is is the tail end of the cool, dry season. Temperatures and humidity are starting to build up over the autumn and winter is the hot, wet season in Bots. Right now temperatures are around 30c during the day and 20c at night and it is dry. The rainfall over the winter months will flood the Okavango Delta by next spring and create the unique natural environment that Botswana is for famous for.

In Malawi it is 27c average daytime temp and 12c at nighttime.  Again temperatures will rise as will the rainfall as Malawi heads into the warmer, wetter winter months.

In Namibia it is currently a hot 33c max during the day time. The dry summer is coming to an end and the rainfall levels will start to rise for the wet season over the winter months. The Namib Desert will still be sporting its famous sand dunes at Sossusvlei no matter what the weather!

In Kenya and Tanzania it is currently 25c in Nairobi and sunny with mild overnight temps.  During our summer months it is dry but cold on safari and you must dress warmly for those early morning game drives. However the summer and early autumn are the best time to view the annual migration as the animals are on the move in search of better grazing.  In Zanzibar it is a hot 30c as it should be for those enjoying some time on the spectacular beaches of this exotic Spice Island.

In Mozambique it is around 30c during the day and 20c at nighttime. The temperatures tend to remain the same throughout the year but sometimes reaching highs of  35c. Our summer months are the dry months and our winter (Nov – March) is the wetter season. Exploring the stunning archipelago is best done in the drier months – not least because travel is done by light aircraft and small speedboat.

In Uganda this week it is 27 C during the day and 20 c at night time making it nice and hot. This near to the Equator the temperature rarely changes unless you are up in the Highlands gorilla trekking where it can be cold at night and cooler during the day. It also tends to have quite high rainfall which is great for the rainforest and its inhabitants – but visitors should be prepared and properly kitted out.

In Zambia it is a hot 35 degrees during the day and around 20 at night time. Again it is the start of the hot, wet, winter season (Nov – Mar) and the rainfall and temps are starting to build. The water levels at Victoria Falls will be very low now and will need sometime to build back up. Going over the winter months is the best time to see the Falls. If you go in late spring/early summer the Falls can be in full spate and surrounded by a spray mist so dense you can’t always see it!

Spotlight on the Drakensberg Mountains South Africa

The Drakensberg Mountains are found in the province of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. This stunningly picturesque region is a 200-kilometre-long mountainous  UNESCO world heritage site.

The Zulu people named it ‘Ukhahlamba’, the Barrier of Spears, and the Dutch pioneers called it the Dragon Mountain’, hence the name Drakensberg, and both names are very appropriate for the awe inspiring craggy peaks and beautiful mountain landscapes. This area has been home to mankind for a very, very long time with thousands of rock and cave paintings by the early San people (also known as Bushmen). In fact the history of the area is so important that it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in December 2000 in order to protect and preserve its cultural and natural heritage.

The scenery is truly epic in the Drakensberg Mountains and it is a popular destination with tourists to South Africa. It is an area that combines well with a safari in the Kruger and makes for a great self-drive itinerary. Combining sheer natural beauty with a wealth of biological diversity, this enormous 243,000 hectare mountainous region provides a great contrast to other parts of South Africa and offers a unique atmosphere for the visitor. The mountains tower above the surrounding African bush, with slopes lined with lush forests, deep valleys, stark cliffs and cascading waterfalls.  The line of mountains creates a massive barrier which separates KwaZulu-Natal from the neighbouring Kingdom of Lesotho. The only road access to the Drakensberg is via the Sani Pass, which at the top, boasts the highest pub in Africa, where you can enjoy a drink at 3,000 metres above sea level!

There are lots of activities to choose from whilst staying and visiting the Drakensberg Mountains. The bravest can tackle sheer rock or ice- climbing or even the adrenaline rush provided by abseiling, white water rafting or taking a helicopter ride to view the Drakensberg mountains from above. Others might prefer hiking through the stunning scenery with plenty of trails and routes to choose from. There are gentle strolls exploring the lower slopes or you can explore further on a two day camping hikes up in the higher peaks for the hardier souls. The flora and fauna of the region are not to be missed with 290 species of birds, 48 species of mammals, and many rare varieties of plant life found in this national park.

The scenic highlights that should not be missed off any itinerary include Cathedral Peak, the Giant’s Castle, Champagne Castle or Peak (3248m), the Amphitheatre, and Tugela Falls which cascades down 5 separate drops to form  the second highest waterfall in the world. The area was also home to the Boer War between the Dutch Voertrekkers and the British and the wars between the native Zulus and the European Settlers. Many of the battle sites can be visited today.

The area is divided up into four valleys, beginning with the Champagne Valley in the Central Berg, through the Cathedral Peak and Didima Valley, then the Royal Natal National Park and Amphitheatre Valley, and finally the Middledale Pass Valley in the Northern Berg. Each of the four valleys has its own kind of beauty and character; all have magnificent mountain views. Accommodation can be found across the region ranging from luxury mountain resorts to small, cosy family run hotels and lodges.