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Blog

Walking up to a Leopard

Date

29 Jan

Posted By

Alex
It’s not uncommon for people to live in Africa for many years, without ever seeing a leopard. They’re relentlessly cautious, have the patience of …well, a large cat, and can melt into the background right in front of your eyes. But in my experience, even a leopard can be caught napping. Going through an old diary of mine from the Selous, I find an entry for a walk on 20th July ’97; “…crept up to leopard and watched from 35 yards…out in the open and completely at ease.” Unsurprisingly I remember this day pretty clearly. In this part of the Selous, the Rufiji River comes out of a steep-sided rocky gorge and spills into a mile wide sandy area. Here it divides into a series of islands and channels, many of which are dry, or partially dry, in July. These sandy channels make for excellent walking. Wild melons grow in abundance, acacia trees with fat, nutritious seedpods crowd the riverbanks, and fresh water flows continuously below the surface of the sand. With these ingredients, elephant are virtually guaranteed. Arriving by boat, we began walking, barefoot, with the wind in our faces and the sun behind us. Almost immediately, we noticed a shape about ¼ mile ahead of us on the riverbed. More through force of habit than any real conviction, I checked it with the binoculars. And for once, it wasn’t a log, but the head of a leopard. And at that point we had an exceptional bit of luck as the leopard, which hadn’t seen us, chose to lie down flat. He happened to be at a point where the riverbed dropped quite sharply, so was out of sight. Walking silently in sand with bare feet is actually quite easy to do, but none of us really expected the leopard still to be there when we crept up close. But I can still remember the jolt of excitement when we were able to see over the drop in the riverbed. And there he was. We were close enough to watch easily without binoculars while he rolled around on the ground playing with his tale like a large house cat. It was only after a few full minutes - on one particularly large roll - that he noticed the humans watching him. To say he looked mortified is a gross understatement. To the creature that invented creeping up on things, to BE crept up on is beyond humiliating. The look he gave us as he shot into the bushes – a mixture of rage and profound embarrassment - made me feel just slightly ashamed.
  

Under the Stars

Date

22 Jan

Posted By

Alex

Whenever I manage to get a clear view of the night sky, I find there’s something deeply emotive about staring into the inky depths of the firmament. To lose one’s self among the constellations and feel that fleeting sense of perspective - “I am merely a dot” - is a wonderfully grounding experience. At such times, it’s hard to think of convincing reasons why our difference to the rest of the animal kingdom is anything but superficial. So you might think that to contemplate these things in a context where you are demonstrably only a very small (and edible) part of the prolific animal life would be nothing short of terrifying. And yet if I had to choose a single experience of Africa – my desert island choice – I would forego game drives, I’d even let you keep walks. For me, the choice would be an easy one - to spend the night out under the stars. Take away all the frills (well, actually let's not be too hasty, leave the hot shower, cool box of ice, wonderful food and ideally someone to prepare it) and give me a couple of lanterns and a bedroll and let nature provide the rest. As a guide in the {Selous} Game Reserve in Tanzania, I was lucky enough to lead walking safaris backed up with fly camps at night. Camp was usually pitched on a dry sand river bed, and we’d aim to arrive on foot as the sun went down. The last few hundred metres was usually on sand, so we’d kick off our shoes and go barefoot, silently. The combination of the feel of the cool sand on your feet, the caramelly smell of the evening air and the inimitable stillness of the dusk is something that I will never forget. Compared to a noisy clattering arrival by Land Rover, It felt like quietly slipping into a pool without making a ripple – as opposed to hurling yourself in with a mighty splash.

  

The centre of attention

Date

16 Jan

Posted By

Alex

Watching animals in the wild from close range is breathtaking, but just occasionally, you're aware of an additional dimension - something about their behaviour that’s decidedly odd. It takes a while to recognize what it is, but eventually the penny drops. You realise that the animal has absolutely no idea you’re there. And as a result, everything about it is entirely relaxed, like an actor backstage. When you go into the bush, no matter how hard you try, it’s difficult not to end up the unwitting centre of attention. Man has a bad track record, so in a vehicle everything stops and looks, and on foot, many of the bird calls one hears are alarm calls. Everything from Egyptian geese to mouse birds forming a bow wave of warnings that radiate through the bush ahead of you. But there are times, when, either through expert guiding, or just sheer fluke, you get it just right. One bizarre occasion I won’t forget was on a walk in the Selous Game Reserve. Crossing a wide open plain with no cover at all, we saw two large Greater Kudu bulls emerge from the bushes 200 yards away and come towards us. They were wandering along slowly, looking bored – off duty - and coming towards us on the same narrow game trail that we were standing on. With absolutely nowhere to conceal ourselves, we resorted to the child’s logic of “if I hide my face, I can’t be seen.” There were three of us and we simply crouched down a few metres to the side of the trail, keeping absolutely still. The Kudu sauntered along, getting closer and closer. There was no way that we wouldn’t be seen. But, for who knows what reason, they just didn’t notice us. They ended up walking, still on the game trail, within about 15 metres of us - close enough to hear the crunch of their hooves, and almost close enough to smell. And all the while we were crouched, like a group of 5 year olds in plain view. They walked past us and within a minute, away into bushes the far side. It was nothing more than that, nothing was eaten, killed or even chased. But for a surreal moment we had got under the skin of the wild and made ourselves invisible. It may not sound like much, but it was unforgetable. To me, this is what it’s all about and it’s what we mean by Natural High.

  

Deafening Silence

Date

09 Jan

Posted By

Alex

The English language is full of clichés, but occasionally a glib sounding phrase strikes a resonant chord. Standing on the seemingly endless expanse of the Makgadikgadi Pans in Botswana’s Northern Kalahari, it quickly became clear to me that a "deafening silence” is more than just a figure of speech. The pans are vast, covering 16,000 square kilometres, and are mainly made of bright white soda, dotted with the occasional black stone. The effect of this monochrome world, combined with the silence that fills your ears like a thick liquid, is one of partial sensory deprivation. It’s strange, but also cleansing; for once your head is free of the unsolicited noise that creates an almost permanent backdrop to our modern lives. The Makgadikgadi salt pans are the last remnants of a super-lake that once covered the entirety of what is now Botswana – the sediment remaining after an enormous puddle dries out in the sun. This part of Africa is riven by rifts and faults, so while a river rising in modern day Angola used once to simply transit through Botswana on it’s way to the East Coast, a fault along the Kalahari-Zimbabwe fault line to the east created a dam that blocked the rivers exit and created the inland lake. Further tectonic activity along the Thamalakani fault caused the area to the north west to drop. This sealed off the inlet and the die was cast. With considerable panache two staggering and unique environments were created at once - as the lake gradually dried out the pans were left and, at the same time, somewhat niftily, the Okavango Delta was created to the west. Makgadikgadi is an extraordinary place to visit and a habitat of immense extremes. During the dry season it initially appears utterly devoid of life, but, take a spoonful of the soil from the pans, put it in a glass of water and in short order the dormant desert adapted organisms will be wide awake and having themselves a party. Come the rains the place erupts into life and the area is host to an extraordinary and yet relatively little known migration of similar scale to the Serengeti Mara migration. Plains game floods out of the west and into the pans to gorge themselves on the new grass. But in truth, if you’re like me, it’s really not the animals that you’ll remember so much as the intense and elemental nature of the pans themselves. It’s like spending a day on the moon.