Porcupine is one of the most interesting night animals to come across while out in the bush. Although, we don’t get to see them for very long as their first instinct is to dart out of sight and few African safari goers get to see them at all. Many people are aware that the Porcupine is a mammal, but little know that is part of the rodent family, such as beavers, rats and mice.
The Porcupine is the largest rodent in Southern Africa and is the prickliest of all the rodents. Its scientific name refers to “Quill pig.” There are more than 24 different species of Porcupines across the world, and they all have needle-like quills. The purpose of these quills is to give their enemy a fair warning that they are no easy meal.
There is an African Myth that says that the Porcupine can shoot its quills at its enemy. This is not true, but the quills do easily detach when touched. The quills are modified hair and can be regrown once they are lost. The quill itself has a very sharp tip with overlapping scales which makes it very difficult to remove when they are stuck in an animal’s skin. A single porcupine can have up to 30,000 quills! Some quills are as long as 50 cm.
They can weigh between 18 and 30 kg and reach a length of 90 cm. Now that is a very big rodent! Porcupines are active at night spend this time foraging for food. They are mostly vegetarian, using their strong sharp claws to get to roots. Their diet also exists of bulbs, fallen fruit such as the Marula, and will sometime gnaw on the bark of the Tamboti Tree. The debarking of the trees plays an important role in the ecosystem, preventing the development of a denser environment.
They use their strong claws to dig a burrow which they will utilize to sleep in during the day. The digging of the burrow is vitally important, not only does it provide shelter for the animal to sleep in, but the digging of the burrow forms the shelter for other animals like the Warthog. Because the warthog has no claws it is not able to dig the burrow, so they rely on the Porcupine to dig the burrow for them. With warthog being a diurnal animal and the Porcupine being a nocturnal animal, these animals often share the “apartment”, and as the sun rises or sets the other housemate moves out and starts their day.
At River Lodge, there is a resident Porcupine that often comes around to the “BOMA” area during dinner time. One evening when my guests and I were having dinner we heard a rustle in the bushes…What might that be?
I got up to investigate and came across this quilled fella! We could see how long some of the quills were and how relaxed it was with our presence. After getting some photos of him he decided that his visit has come to an end and that it was time to go and look for some food somewhere else.
Story by: River Lodge Ranger – Lisa-Mari Lutze
330g castor sugar
40g gelatin leaves
680g castor sugar
450g glucose syrup
1 Tbls vanilla paste
For the caramel
In heavy base saucepan melt the sugar on low heat
Add butter & cream, leave on the stove until all the sugar dissolves
For the marshmallow
Bloom the gelatin leaves in ice cold water
Melt the gelatin over a double bath
Pour the gelatin in an electric mixer
Combine sugar, glucose, honey, water & vanilla paste in a saucepan and cook to 122 degrees Celsius
Take off the heat and cool to 100 degrees Celsius
Add the sugar mix to the gelatin and mix a high speed for 7 minutes
Fold in 150g of caramel sauce
Spread into an oven tray lined with silicon paper and well oiled
Allow to set over night
Dust the marshmallow with a mixture of equal quantities of icing sugar and corn flour
The second treat is shortbread – perfect with your morning coffee or tea.
Why not give this a try.
450g soft salted butter
225g castor sugar
Preheat the oven @ 170 degrees Celsius
Mix the dry ingredients together
Using an electric mixer beat the butter and sugar for a minute
Add your dry ingredients and mix form a dough
Roll the dough in between two baking sheets and rest in the fridge for 30 minutes
Cut in small squares
Place I a baking tray
Sprinkle the biscuits with sugar
Bake @ 170 degrees Celsius for 12 min
Recipe by Karula Executive Chef Makhi
Life at the lodge is always a beehive of activity and out in the Mara, Mother Nature’s work is always ongoing.
Every now and again though, human intervention helps her along the way.
Several fires have been lit across the grasslands, both here in the Mara and further out in neighboring Serengeti.
Though jarring to see, this process will ensure the growth of fresh greenery in about two weeks – just in time for the hungry hordes of wildebeest we’re expecting.
The shorter grass also offers an advantage to the smaller members of the Mara family, like the yellow-throated sandgrouse, which is now able to move along with fewer hindrances.
It’s a double-edged sword though – the shorter foliage also makes prey far easier to spot for adept hunters like this young, African wildcat. Though it looks remarkably like a regular house cat, some of its most distinguishing features include two dark rings encircling its front legs and striped hind legs.
As the weeks go by, the Park continues to open up more as previously flooded areas start to dry out. But we still have the occasional shower and this helps maintain a flourishing bounty of lilies in the pools of water along the various drainage lines.
Probably the only animal I feel works harder at being vigilant than the impala, is the topi – they perpetually scan the horizon for predators with an intensity like no other.
But the impala does come in at a pretty close second. These impala were so focused on a threat approaching from one direction that they nearly missed another coming from the other side – but luckily for them, one spotted the approaching lion in time.
When you’re an apex predator, you don’t really work as hard as everyone else, but just because you’re the new hot shot in town and you’ve got gorgeous different-colored eyes, doesn’t mean the takeover will be easy.
This, as Kibogoyo (from the Bila Shaka coalition) soon discovered when he tried to impress the ladies of the Mugoro Pride.
We continue to see more and more lion, with the pride and territory dynamics changing in exciting ways. The Rekero Breakaway pride made an appearance after a two-year hiatus. A mother flanked by her three-year-old offspring, potentially progeny of the Musketeer Coalition.
The incredible male, thought to be the son of the most famous of the Musketeers, Scar, had a serious injury to his hind leg, quite possibly the result of a buffalo encounter.
Rumors abound that Scar himself could be in the Triangle – it’s quite thrilling to know that we could spot him on one of our drives. But having his son around is certainly nothing to complain about.
Despite all the activity, there are still beacons of rest and self-care in the Mara. The hippos who love to huddle as they snooze.
And the Mara crocodile, who refuse to budge for anything less than a meal of a hapless zebra or wildebeest attempting to cross the river.
This Week One Year Ago:
This time last year, Short Tail was one of the dominant males in the area around Angama. He hasn’t been seen in several weeks and with the arrival of new coalitions in the Triangle, it is likely that his reign is over.
Over 1.5 billion children have been impacted by school closures worldwide due to the current crisis. Among those who have faced disruption to their education through movement restrictions are my siblings.
That had been the case until recently, when I received an email from David Risher, the founder and CEO of Worldreader, a non-profit organisation which promotes digital literacy with operations in Kenya, Ghana, Spain, the UK and India.
He informed me of Keep Children Reading, a rapid-response campaign providing free digital books. Seeing that the health crisis has morphed into a learning crisis, Worldreader introduced the BookSmart remote learning app.
It carries digital books on a variety of subjects and themes, all available free of charge. It is designed for use on basic cellphones with a 2G internet connection. Parents are capitalizing on this to read aloud to their children.
Caregivers and teachers in India, the Middle East and Latin America are already harnessing this technology to bridge the learning gap. I have previously partnered with the Angama Foundation in programs to shore up a reading culture in the Mara. As such, I took up the challenge as soon as I became aware of this opportunity.
My own library is active and is stocked frequently with new downloads. So I started to share the app with my friends and neighbors. This has created a network of virtual libraries. As it is, I have sent it to 20 families in my community. I aim to reach more than 100 more.
Whether it’s holiday time or you are giving your kids a wonderful safari treat, you always want to keep them engaged.
Sometimes, leveraging distance learning means ensuring high return rates once schools reopen. Even more so for vulnerable children, especially girls. For instance, there was a notable spike in teenage pregnancies in Liberia following a compulsory eight-month holiday in the wake of the 2014 Ebola outbreak.
That said, staying safe and healthy with our families is our first priority. Stay at home now to travel tomorrow.
Note from the Editor:
Joel is a Journalist, Economist and Author based in the Mara. He began writing the moment he began to read. He is passionate about creating reading spaces and loves to dance with words.
With South Africa moving from level 4 to level 3 on the 1st June, safari adventures are still not available yet, but Kapama Private Game Reserve decided to use this time as productively as possible, and commenced with the next phase of the Kapama River Lodge refurbishment project on 1st June.
To ensure our valued guests receive the best quality, service and value, Kapama has always maintained a regular refurbishment plan to keep up to date with global luxury trends and standards. This includes accommodation, facilities and features. This has been to maintain the incredibly high standard for which Kapama is renowned.
This next phase of refurbishment will include the lounge and pool deck which will be completed by July 2020. The upgrading of the 2 Royal suites as well as 33 of the standard suites into deluxe suites will be completed by 15th December. Guests can be assured there will be no interruption and no compromise on quality, luxury, value for money and more importantly the Kapama promise, during the refurbishment phase.
After the very successful addition of the 1st phase which included the new River Lodge reception area, game drive access bays, cocktail bar and pool, revealed on 1st November 2018, Kapama remains confident that this next phase for River Lodge will only heighten the luxurious feel of the 5-star establishment.
Each week, updates will be circulated with video and photos showing how the project is progressing.
The African bush, in the early morning, holds something beyond the crisp air and radiant sunrises. There is something else, and it is this ‘something else’ that captivates me the most. It is that feeling of mystery and surprise. You never know what the morning may bring and no matter how hard you and your tracker try to find something, if it doesn’t want to be found, it won’t.
For months my tracker and I had been searching for a female leopard and her newborn spotted fuzz ball. This elusive creature had evaded us by lying, walking, sleeping and eating in all the wrong places, at all the wrong times. I was desperate to have the privilege of meeting mother and daughter before the youngster stepped out of cub hood. Every morning and afternoon as I left for my game drive, I had a secret hope that perhaps today would be the day. Perhaps today we would find the tracks which would lead us to this secretive leopardess and her cub.
Little did we know that today would be the day. This morning the story was perfectly written and all we had to do was listen…
Not long after leaving the lodge, a call came over the radio that this female had been found in a large Marula tree with a warthog kill and her cub was nearby. I could barely contain my excitement and enthusiasm. With the biggest grin, I turned to my guests and told them that today was the day! As we made our way to the sighting our excitement was tangible. We were all on the edge of our seats, unable to voice our hopes, let alone really think them.
As we came around the corner, there silhouetted in a big Marula tree, was the leopardess with her kill slung across a branch.
Our eyes quickly noted her elegance but just as quickly we found ourselves scanning the area for her cub. I couldn’t see it anywhere. My eyes skimmed the base of the surrounding trees and there nestled at the base of a very flimsy Russet Bushwillow tree lounged a large hyena. It watched us as we drove a little closer. My heart was in my mouth. Where was this little spotted animal… and then the bush above the hyena juddered a little and, grabbing my binoculars, I spied a little spotted animal perched in the branches beautifully camouflaged, its eyes wide and wondering. This was the first leopard cub I had ever laid eyes on and I could barely contain my excitement. Every little detail was there, although somewhat hidden behind bits of scraggly bush, but perfect detail nonetheless.
We all sat there. The mother leopard seemed highly unperturbed by the hyena’s presence lying in ambush below her daughter. She appeared more concerned in finding the best position to be close to her kill and being as comfortable as possible. She kept having to rearrange her limbs in a new and intriguing manner. We sat there in awe, noting their velvet spotted coats, perfect whiskers, and the beautiful necklace of black pearls so attractively displayed around the mature neckline of the old female. As we sat there, the hyena lifted its head, raised its leering grin into the air, sniffed, and then hauled itself up off the ground somewhat unenthusiastically.
We anxiously watched with bated breath as the hyena gave us, the mother leopard, and then the little cub, who was precariously balanced at the top of her tree, a withering look before sauntering away into the bush obviously tired of waiting. We didn’t have to wait long for the elegantly spotted cat to gracefully disembark from the large Marula tree, calling out to her cub.
The cub looked at her mother as if to say, “You have got to be crazy.” Her mother reassuringly called her, encouraging her to become untangled from the little Bushwillow. Eventually, one leg at a time, the cub cautiously picked her way through the miss-match of branches, until at last, she was on firm ground.
She gave a little call and then bounded over to her mother. She rubbed herself against her mother’s warm coat, nestling under her chin, she wound her tail round her neck and begrudgingly allowed her mother to groom her.
After a few minutes, the two got up and set off through the bush. The female leopard walked on ahead while her little cub picked her way through the long grass, scooting round boulders and trotting to keep up. They paraded through the grass until they got to a smooth dust road winding through the bush. Mother and daughter walked down the road, side by side, their padded feet barely leaving a trace of their presence behind them. We followed them, always making sure to give them plenty of space. The cub’s mother was at ease and in her element. The little cub, however, would regularly turn and give us a quizzical look before dashing off into the grass on the side of the road only to reappear a few moments later back beside her mother as if nothing had happened.
We stopped a little way away from them and watched as the spotted mother sniffed the air and then turned decisively off into the thick bush. The little one hesitated briefly, giving us one last side long glance, before scurrying off after her mother. We sat there and watched as their rosettes disappeared into the brown grass, until, quite frankly, we had no idea where they had gone.
It was a morning that we would never forget. As we made our way back to the lodge, this fluffy little girl with wide inquisitive, cautious eyes, fresh little whiskers and a soft curious little nose would forever be etched in my mind. Every little detail of this little character who belonged to the little white tipped tail that dodged its way through the long grass would remain in my memory forever…
BLOG BY RUTH BERNING (BUSH LODGE RANGER)
Before leaving Africa’s famous Mara, the rain had left its mark across the Reserve, making game drives near impossible – at least not without risk of getting stuck in a muddy hole. Happily, the rains seem to be moving on and it has been fantastic to enjoy sunnier days out in the park.
Dawn in the Mara continues to amaze, even more so now that they are unencumbered by heavy clouds and, as always, the early morning sunrays paint everything in a soft golden hue.
My first drive since returning felt like a lap of honor – and it gave me the chance to catch up with some familiar favorites.
Hyenas and jackals continue to patrol the Triangle’s main roads, often darting off as we drive by, only to re-emerge shortly thereafter. Ground hornbills, thankfully, are far less skittish and impossibly photogenic.
It was a delight to reconnect with the new additions to elephant herds and to see how these tiny babies have grown into giants (relatively speaking) in what feels like no time at all.
Speaking of new additions – it’s been wonderful to discover lion prides that I haven’t seen before. Lions always make me laugh at how quickly they can go from fearsome beasts to sleepy house cats in the blink of an eye.
And of course, a week in the Mara Triangle wouldn’t be complete without a few bird sightings. This too has been a mix of the familiar, such as the Egyptian goose, with the new. I finally spotted both the black-bellied and the white-bellied bustard on the same drive.
Quite possibly the most exciting find for me was the presence of a few wildebeest. Soon we will be drowning in them.
The migration is still some distance away in Tanzania but these individuals herald the coming spectacle, the setting of which is the Mara River, and I can hardly wait.
The first one is Macadamia & Cranberry Nougat. Did you know that the word nougat comes from Romance language Occitan pan nogat – pronounced as [ˈpa nuˈɣat], seemingly from Latin pains nucatus meaning – NUT BREAD
Whip up a batch and enjoy!
Macadamia & Cranberry Nougat
70g egg whites
30g castor sugar
120g glucose syrup
1tsp vanilla paste
50g cocoa butter
300g macadamia nuts
2 rice papers
Keep the nuts and the cranberries on a warm area
Combine 380g sugar, glucose, water and vanilla paste and cook the to 155 degrees Celsius
While the sugar mixture is cooking melt the cocoa butter and start cooking the honey to 120 degrees Celsius
Whisk the egg whites in an electric mixer and add the 30g castor sugar to form a soft meringue
When the honey reaches 120 degrees add to the meringue and whisking at high speed
When the sugar mixture reaches 155 degrees add to the meringue mixture whipping on high speed for 3 minutes
Add the cocoa butter, the mixture will separate and carry on mixing until the mixture comes together
Fold in the nuts and cranberries
Pour the mixture on the rice paper use a rubber spatula to spread the mixture, place the second rice paper on top
The second turndown treat is Macroons. Traditionally, macarons (French) is said to have been introduced in France by the Italian chef of queen Catherine De Medici during the Renaissance.
Why not give this delectable dessert a try.
240g egg whites
100g castor sugar
230g ground almonds
420g icing sugar
Mix the icing sugar and ground almonds
Blend with a stick blender until the mixture becomes fine
Whisk the egg whites using an electric mixer to soft peak
Add sugar and mix to medium peak
Fold in the almond mixture to the meringue mixture
Add your colouring and fold it
Transfer the mixture to piping with a number 9 straight nozzle
Pipe the mixture into a tray lined with a silicon paper
Allow to rest for 45 minutes
Bake @ 150 degrees Celsius for 15 minutes
No game reserve in the world can claim such a devoted and extensive community of photographers and filmmakers as the Maasai Mara, and since 2018, the Angama Foundation’s Greatest Maasai Mara Photographer of the Year initiative has connected them with conservation initiatives who actively work to protect it, raising important funds for conservation in the process.
To date, the Greatest Maasai Mara Photographer of the Year competition has seen thousands of entries from professional and amateur photographers alike, and it has been immensely rewarding enjoying these entries from photographers from all walks of life, who have managed to capture almost every wildlife scene imaginable.
Last year we hosted a series of exhibitions across the globe bringing a handful of these images into people’s living rooms, and so we are delighted to continue to connect the competition’s extraordinary gallery of photographs with the global community of wildlife photography enthusiasts through the launch of online auctions; offering anyone, anywhere, the opportunity to own a beautiful piece of the Maasai Mara.
With the proceeds being shared between the competition’s boots-on-the-ground conservation partners, and the photographers themselves, buyers can be assured that their funds will be used to protect the reserve. Given the downturn in tourism, there has never been a more important time for media to play a role in protecting the Mara, and all of the livelihoods that depend on it.
These auctions are an exciting step for the Angama Foundation, as they provide an alternative funding model to ensure continuity in its work and that of its conservation partners.
The first images on sale from the 8th of June are a selection of finalists from the competition, and include shots from Kenyans James Nampaso & Gurcharan Roopra, as well as well-known international photographers such as Anup Shah, Trai Anfield, Ketan Khambatta, Paolo Torchio & Harman Singh Heer.
Following these, there will be auctions of iconic Mara landscapes, river crossings, duels between predator and prey, black-and-white shots, portraits, you name it – perhaps even auctions from the hard-working judges, some of whom will be familiar to regular readers of this blog and who so generously give of their time to this endeavor. If you’ve ever longed for a beautiful print from the Maasai Mara in your home, at the office or as a gift, please don’t hesitate to support this wonderful initiative – now shipping worldwide!
For more information about The Greatest Maasai Mara, to enter the competition or buy a print from the auction, please visit: thegreatestmaasaimara.com. Entries for the competition are still open through 31st October, 2020, with US$10,000 in cash and a five-night safari for two at Angama Mara on offer for the winner. Photographs must have been taken in the Maasai Mara within the preceding 12 months.
Where do people who work in the Mara go for Safari holiday? Well, the other side of the Mara of course. The Mara ecosystem is so varied and huge, that to really stay connected with it in its entirety, you need to regularly visit all four corners of this Kenyan paradise. This week, I headed across the southern part of the Mara, and then north up into the Naboisho Conservancy. The Maasai Mara, as a whole, is truly remarkable. Enjoy This Week At Angama – and slightly further afield too.
At the base of the escarpment, below Angama Mara, things are becoming rather complicated in terms of lion dynamics. Long grass has resulted in a temporarily reduced prey base for the apex predators and so they are having to take more risks in their search for food. Here, the sole lioness from the relatively undocumented Swamp Lion Pride is seen together with her two grown-up cubs. They have strayed out of their normal territory.
Just out of frame to the left, sat this indomitable lioness, the lead figure of the Angama Pride. If looks could kill. The morning light hits her coat, illuminating her in gold, and intimidating the lioness with the youngsters. They turned and ran back towards their home along the Mara River.
The Bila Shaka (Six-Pack) males are spending more time in the Triangle. On this occasion, one of the members wouldn’t take no for an answer and followed this Mugoro lioness for hours.
It’s not just the lion dynamics that are agitated. Look closely and you will see that these two hyena are feeding on the remnants of another hyena, presumably a member of a rival clan.
Gentle, soft and ethereal – the Mara wakes up, revealing low lying mist. What hidden secrets will she reveal today?
I decided to take a few days holiday and went to go and visit some friends who are based in Naboisho Conservancy towards the north-east of the Mara. About 50km away, as the crow flies, the journey by road took about three-and-a-half hours. But along the way we had a few distractions; such as this gorgeous lioness near Black Rock.
Upon arriving into Naboisho we were met by a juvenile martial eagle in the midst of trying to attack a small herd of Thomson’s gazelle. She, or he, was too fast for me to capture any action shots, however, as it dived into the herd claws outstretched.
No matter where in the Mara you are, the sunsets are unforgettable.
Last week I wrote about the single wildebeest currently in the Mara Triangle. Naboisho forms part of a much less known, and smaller migration, known as the Loita Migration. The wildebeest are already here, although in significantly smaller numbers than what we are expecting with the Great Migration.
We were treated to some fantastic cheetah action – what amazing luck. On this drive, a pregnant female managed to successfully chase down a young impala. What a thrill to watch, and a treat to photograph.
Here she was moments before the kill, picking up her pace, eyes set on the target.
The next day we managed to see a different cheetah and also watch her make a kill; this time a Thomson’s gazelle.
She had three young cubs, in the region of three to four months old, and after a long wait we were rewarded with a precious sighting of the mother and cubs feeding, and then cleaning and playing.
In the last light of the day, a lioness contemplates turning on beast-mode. She hunted a lone topi, before opting against the chase, instead returning to her sister for some cuddles. [f 5.6, 1/200, ISO 800, -0.67]
Whilst I was away from Angama Mara, guides Douglas and Robert had ample opportunity to practise their photography. Together, we are working to enhance their photographic skills and so it brings me great pleasure to show you a small selection of the images they took while I was away.
This Week Two Years Ago
Two years ago, some Swedish friends came to stay with us at Angama Mara. We had some fantastic sightings, the most memorable, and unusual of which was a male lion perched right at the top of this Sausage Tree along the Tanzanian border.
In addition to the recommendation from the WHO and the SA Government with regards to Social distancing, Sanitization, Screening and medical Support Services, another key factor that South Africa’s Kapama Private Game Reserve has focused our attention on, is our valued and dedicated staff.
With the expected shortage of face masks, the Kapama management team that remained at Kapama during the Nationwide lockdown have thrown their hearts and souls into a wonderful initiative.
An idea came about to manufacture our masks for the 500+ staff members and their families that Kapama employs every month. The majority of these employees come from local communities. The material used was from the high-quality linen from the 4 Kapama Lodges that has been replaced over the past couple of years. (not sure if that makes sense.)
Each mask consists of 3 layers of fabric and in between each layer is a special membrane filter that’s waterproof as well as breathable, preventing droplets from getting through. Whenever our management team has a few moments they each take turns cutting, sewing, threading elastic to complete as many masks as they can. Each mask will be sanitized through steaming and vacuum packed in bundles of 10 to eliminate any other form of contamination.
We are going to continue with the masks and help as many people as possible. We have enough linen to make thousands and if we can extend the capacity, we aim to distribute to the larger community around Kapama.
Currently, the management team has been able to make over 500 masks. We have already kitted out our anti-poaching unit and all members of our security team and staff that remained on Kapama. Within the next week or two, Kapama will be in a position to produce an additional 200 masks.
Once South Africa moves into level three on 1st June, our team will be in a better position to begin distributing a small number to local Communities.
In addition to the manufacturing of mask for staff, Kapama has also sponsored a significant amount of old linen to Hlokomela – an NGO that Kapama has been involved with for a long time. Hlokomela is an award-winning HIV and AIDS educational and treatment programme targeting workers, including foreign migrants, in the agriculture, nature conservation and tourism sectors in The Greater Kruger.
Hlokomela has needed to produce a large number of masks for the plantation and Orchard workers who are picking oranges in and around the community. Part of their income development projects initiatives is the sewing project. The donated linen has gone a long way to assist them in their sewing project and ensuring the workers are appropriately equipped and remain safe following the SA Government and WHO regulations. To learn more about Hlokomela and the incredible work they do
As our World and South Africa slowly begins to adjust to what has been coined the “new normal”, if we all stand together and do our part, we will come through this stronger than ever. Kapama Private Game Reserve eagerly awaits your visit when you are ready to travel once more.
What is it you love about being in the African bush? Is it the wildlife? The wide open spaces? The feeling that you are back in the place you belong? The glittering night sky? The sunrises and sunsets that seem unmatched anywhere else in the world?
For me, it’s all of those things – but the magic I find most difficult to describe or capture is the way an African safari awakens your senses.
Louise Monsey – Wilderness Safaris Botswana Guide Trainer
As guides, we learn to tune back in to our senses, especially that sixth sense that most of us have learned to ignore, in a world where your senses are often assaulted by too much information, or should I say, information of the unnatural kind.
When you sleep under the stars, there is no hum from the refrigerator or the TV on standby, no artificial lights to impact your sleep… and I even breathe more easily in the fresh air, not cooped up by walls or windows.
My morning safari often begins to take shape in the middle of the night, as I am stirred from sleep by that most evocative of African sounds… the call of the lion. I will never forget hearing my first lion in the wild. I sat bolt upright in bed, every hair on my body standing on end and a tense excitement surging through my veins. It doesn’t matter how long I have been guiding or how many lions I have heard since, I still feel that same nervous excitement. Every. Single. Time. I think it awakens a primal fear in us all. You may never have heard that sound in your life before but your primal self knows. Your ancestors feared that sound and I believe it has been passed down in your genes. Your instincts are still strong.
I try to establish in my sleepy slumber the direction the lions are calling from, and my subconscious seems to track how close the calls get and where they are headed. The wolf-like wails of the black-backed jackals also throng the African night.
As I walk to meet my guests, I’m already checking for tracks. As my guests arrive for morning coffee we hear the lions call again and we grab some of those freshly baked muffins and brewed coffee as takeaways. As I hurry my guests onto the car, the excitement and anticipation grows as we try to beat the sunrise, knowing this is the best time to catch predators on the move. The eerie, low, whooping call of the spotted hyena adds to our excitement.
I breathe in the fresh, crisp air and smell the aromatic wild sage as we drive out of camp; I feel the cool morning wind on my face and count my lucky stars that I get to do this every day.
As we watch the sun appear from the horizon, I stop and switch off the car so that we can just watch. It always amazes me how quickly the sun rises and that no one sunrise is the same.
Tracks are easiest to see in the early morning light and I read the freshness of each track by the morning dew, any disturbance in the track and the presence or absence of other tracks on top.
If we’re lucky, we find those lion tracks and our search continues…
The early morning call of the francolin or spurfowl encourages a contented smile and I may later rely on their alarm calls to alert me to the presence of that lion.
I ask the guests to open their ears to the sounds of the bush; often it is difficult for people from busy cities to single out the sounds and calls when they are used to zoning out to so many noises, and I explain that we use alarm calls to inform us of where predators might be.
Then suddenly a baboon barks loudly and I scan around; a large male is sitting at the top of a sycamore fig tree, which looks bright yellow in the early morning light, and on further inspection I see he is looking east into the river. Then a francolin alarm calls and vervet monkeys start going crazy further east. I tell the guests to keep their eyes peeled in the direction of the calls and suddenly there she is – the exquisite beauty of a leopardess padding silently through the sandy riverbed. We would never have seen her if it had not been for other animals alerting us to her presence. Her rosette spots blend beautifully into the riverine vegetation to camouflage her perfectly from all but the most vigilant eyes, and she makes our morning, vocalizing with the classic ‘see-saw’ cough. This leopard is not hunting but advertising her territorial boundaries to other females.
We set off for a closer look and photo opportunities of the leopard, and even though we lose visual for a while, we find her again through the alarm calls of impala and a tree squirrel this time – and the distinct smell of ‘popcorn’. Yes, you read that right, a leopard’s scent-marking smells (to some noses at least) quite a lot like popcorn. It takes a while to pay attention to the smells too… to open your nose along with your ears.
Now a smell you can never forget is if your guide mistakenly drives through the scat of a lion: it is something no guide ever does on purpose, as the smell is really quite repulsive.
As my guests and I are laughing about my rookie error I stop to show them some scratch marks on a tree; as we piece the puzzle together we decide that due to the height of the marks, their size and distance between claws they were likely made by a leopard like the one we had seen earlier; but both leopard and lion will mark their territories in this way, and leopards will leave scratch marks when climbing into and out of trees.
We drive in silence once again, appreciating the beauty of the dawn chorus and feeling grateful that we woke so early to be a part of a morning that we could have missed if we were lying in bed. I consider identifying some of the birds for the guests but we have such a human tendency to have to name and classify everything, that I let them just listen in wonder to the African morning. I do this with stars at night too and whilst sitting watching elephants. Some moments are too magnificent for words and would be spoiled by them. I even encourage my guests to sometimes put their cameras and binoculars down and just see through their eyes rather than through a lens. To be mindfully in the present moment is as important, if not more so, than that perfect photograph – and those are the memories that will last forever.
We’re back on the tracks of the lions now, two large males, when we hear a kudu bark. ‘Kudu never lie’ so we drive in the direction of the alarm call, and as we gaze in the same direction as the stunningly beautiful kudu bull, there they are in the golden, relentless African sun. Two huge, black-maned Kalahari lions, and we wonder if this morning could have been any more perfect.