Tag Archives: wildlife

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

Up Close and Personal with a Cheetah on Safari

On one of my trips to South Africa I had the wonderful opportunity to get up close and personal with a cheetah. As I stroked the magnificent animal I had time to reflect on what an amazing experience it is to be able to touch and communicate with a wild creature normally only seen from the window of a safari vehicle. It is something I will never forget and something I will be proud to tell my grandchildren. The sad truth is that by the time my grandchildren are born there may well be no more cheetah left in the wild as their numbers are diminishing rapidly.

At the Cango Wildlife Park in South Africa their aim is to promote awareness of the dangers facing these wild animals and to inspire people to do something about it. Their method is to operate “Natural Encounters” where you can meet amazing creatures and physically inter-react with them. The well being and welfare of the animals is their main concern and they operate on a very careful and sensitive basis with hand–reared animals that are born in captivity and used to human contact. The hope is that encounters with these magnificent creatures will encourage compassion and support in the plight that these species face. Once you have come into close contact with them it is impossible not to be moved by them and to genuinely want to help. Personally I find the big cats are some of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring species on the planet and my visit with the cheetahs inspired me to get involved with the WWF and their various sponsorship programmes that work towards protecting endangered big cats.

The Cango Wildlife Park breeds cheetah and tigers as part of their programme to promote and fund the conservation of cheetah and other endangered species through captive breeding, research and public awareness.

Highly specialised, the cheetah is the fastest land animal on earth, achieving an incredible top speed of 120 kms per hour. Unfortunately this very skill which is used for hunting has placed the cheetah in direct conflict with man. In order to achieve these high speeds, the cheetah requires open flat land – the same land that farmers require for agriculture. This loss of habitat, linked to low reproductive success caused by poor gene diversity, has reduced cheetah numbers to less than 10,000 worldwide. The cheetah is on the endangered animals list and a huge effort is needed to try and protect and build the breeding stock of this amazing hunter.

The Cheetah Preservation Foundation operated by the team at the Cango Wildlife Park was founded in 1988, with the principal aim of ensuring the survival of the cheetah and other endangered species, as well as educating visitors about the plight of the these animals. The Cheetah Preservation Foundation also gives visitors the opportunity to become pro-active in the conservation of endangered species, by joining as members and thereby contributing financially to our various conservation projects. With public involvement and contributions the Cheetah Preservation Foundation was able to save many cheetahs, increase breeding stock across both national parks and in zoos worldwide, and also contribute to various other wildlife programmes in across South Africa, Kenya, Australia, Nigeria, Namibia and New Zealand. They work with other species such as tigers, African wild dogs (one of the most endangered species in the world), lions and crocodiles.

Enjoy the safari “Big 5” but remember the little things as well

South Africa has tried to go one better by introducing the “Big 7” in their Cape Provinces. This included the main five and adds Great White Sharks and Whales, giving the list a more nautical feel. Just like the original 5 however it still concentrates on big, powerful and deadly, a throw-back to when the creatures were being stalked as worthy trophies.

They’re all breath-taking and well worth seeing. But there are many other creatures that are just as fun to see, even if not so big and bad. Here’s another “5” that we think’s well worth looking out for, even if your friends and family may not be so impressed with the photos upon your return.

The Little 5

Dik dik
These tiny antelope look as if they are young fawns even when fully grown, ensuring that everybody always wants to “bring one home”. Big doleful eyes, trembling with nervous energy and twitching nose always checking for danger makes them hard to see but worth the effort.

Warthog
Boy, these are ugly! A wild pig, resembling a boar, they live below the ground in burrows emerging when they think the coast is clear to forage for just about anything. When alarmed they run away with their tails bolt upright like a radio antenna.

Meerkats
Found in Southern Africa, these busy creatures are a type of mongoose and live in large communities. They too live in extensive burrows and will set one or two sentries as the rest forage for food.  When disturbed they stand on their back legs to get a better look, their heads often twitching in time.

Rock Hyrax
These small creatures, about the size of a large rabbit, look like a cross between a beaver and a guinea pig. As the name suggest they live on rocks and crags, using
cracks  and caves in the rock as home. Their agility is impressive, displaying a sure-footedness that keeps them seemingly glued to the rock face. They are also, rather surprisingly, the closest living relative to the elephant.

Vervet monkeys
OK, they are common and a pest, but as someone from the UK I really enjoy watching these creatures playing in the gardens of a lodge or camp in the late afternoon. They just seem to be having so much fun. Having said that, if they come after my crisps or peanuts they are off the list…

As well as the Big and Little 5’s there are also many other animals, birds and reptiles to enjoy while on safari. Giraffe, zebra and hippo’s are all synonymous with African safari and nearly always seen. Cheetah grace the plains, hyena and jackal follow the lions. Its not about seeing one particular animal or another, its seeing and experiencing the whole that makes a safari such an experience. But don’t forget the little ones..

Where have all the Lions gone?

Most people know that the Rhino is on the edge of extinction. They have read about the decline in elephant populations and how the leopard has been hunted until its numbers are dangerously low. What people do not realise is that the Lion had also faced a drastic decline over the last 50 years. Since the 1960’s the African population has dropped from over 200,000 to less than 20,000.

Helping handA UK based charity – LionAid – is starting a campaign this March to raise awareness of their plight and to raise funds for the research that will help us better understand them and help in the efforts to maintain and grow their population. A series of gatherings have been organised around the UK in most major cities at which iconic statues of lions with be symbolically covered for the day, highlighting their vanishing from the wild. Full details can be found at their website, and should you be unable to attend there is also other information there of how you might support this cause.

Tips and advice for photography on safari

A good picture: Composition, Colour, Class!
A good picture: Composition, Colour, Class!

Everybody who goes on our safari holidays brings a camera with them. Watching animals in the real wilderness is a most memorable experience, and understandably people want a take away a memory of this. A few years ago trying to get good photos was not easy. Trying to change a film roll in the back of a bouncy and dusty safari vehicle was tricky, and to get close-up shots of some of the more elusive animals, such as leopards and jackals, meant carrying a telephoto lens with you that looked like the Hubble telescope.

Things have changed. With the advent of digital photography most people can get some good photos. With a large digital memory you can blast off hundreds of frames, safe in the knowledge that the bad ones can be deleted and on a law of averages, some will be good. Even the smallest cameras have zooms, some of them so powerful that you can pick out a facial expression of an animal or a particularly attractive flower from the comfort of your vehicle.

Wrong end
Wrong end

All our drive-in safaris in East Africa are based in private vehicles. This means that not only do you get to stop whenever you want; you also never have to leave breakfast early to claim one of the few window seats. You and your party (even if there are just two of you) will have all the windows to yourselves, and uninterrupted use of the large roof hatch. Of course this will not make you a good photographer, but at least you won’t have the back of somebodies head to contend with as well.

We get send quite a few photos sent to us by our clients – several on our site are ones that they have kindly provided for us. We also occasionally get a professional photographer who supplies us with some exceptional work. John Hickey-Fry has been with us now on 4 trips and we are pleased to show you his work by following the links below. Have a look and take some tips on how to do it.

Hickey-Fry Photography

Wildlife Photography

Africa

Thanks for the photos John and we are all delighted that we finally got you to see a cheetah!