A safari in August or September feeds the soul of any intrepid traveller but it’s October that captivates the heart of the real bush-nut. It’s a month that reveals nature at it’s best and also at it’s worst. Stripped bare by temperatures of 50 degrees C and winds of equal force, Mother Earth now lays her weary southern self down, exhausted, exposed and just plain worn out. Not a blade of grass covers her, not a drop of moisture falls upon her and every breath of her air burns. Worn down by a long and dry winter and a brutally hot prelude to the rains, she has nothing left to offer to those who live off of and on her. Sapped of all her resources she can do little else but provide her arid canvas as a backdrop to the fight for the survival of the fittest. And what a Darwinian battle it is; one that only the toughest will survive. It’s heart-breaking yet captivating, cruel yet necessary and it happens every year, some years more harsh than others. In human terms it’s brutal but in the animal kingdom it’s all part of a cycle.
We always knew that the lack of rains last season would bring the carnivores to the top of the pile in Mana this year but in our wildest dreams we could never have guessed at some of the scenes that we would witness in October. Scenes of stark brutality and cruelty and yet at the same time of incredible spirit, resilience and dignity. Those who witnessed them truly had front row seats at the theatre that is Mother Nature in Mana.
The lions definitely had pride of place at the carnivore carnival. The Nyamepi Pride is, for the first time in many years, very stable and secure. The continued presence of the Backstreet Boys has ensured that the six cubs of the Spice Girls have all reached sub-adulthood. With four males amongst them, who knows what the next few years will bring but at the moment a pride of four adult lionesses, two big males and six sub-adults is a very healthy one. Towards the end of the season they were killing at least a buffalo a day, some days more as the females endeavoured to hone the hunting and killing skills of the cubs. It wasn’t always pleasant to witness as the victims were often buffalo calves terribly weakened by hunger, thirst and the over- bearing heat, but the buffalo cows like any earth mothers always put up a fight for their young. However if the male lions were present the deal would always be sealed in favour of the cats. Some days we’d see the lionesses and cubs take on an old dagga bull and then eventually give up the fight, the lionesses too exhausted to follow it through and the old buffalo bull too stubborn to surrender.
The presence of the Backstreet Boys always ensured the success of a hunt but theirs was a never-ending mission this season as they also had Granny and her daughter to take care of. Often they’d secure a kill for both sets of their floodplain girls and then move off for a few days to help fed the cubs of the four elusive lionesses of Kanga. Despite all of this killing they also found plenty of time for loving, having to mate with all of the females in their territory, Granny included! As a mating session involves copulation every fifteen minutes over a period of many hours or days, one would not blame the males for looking exhausted most of the time.
Although Granny’s was no doubt a false oestrus to keep the boys compliant, it still made us older girls smile. Down to only one tooth in her mouth to speak of, she’s still the grand old mother of the floodplain and as always we salute her.
We too salute the Backstreet Boys, they’ve been a formidable and constant duo on the floodplain for the past few years and sadly it won’t be long before their days will be numbered as younger males mature, move in and take over. It’s all part of the cycle and the wheel keeps turning.
Whilst the lions were busy hogging the lime-light, the wild-dogs certainly never spent much time in the shadows. The Ellis Robbins Gang numbered a very healthy twenty-seven when we left the valley having successfully raised nine of the eleven pups that left the den and the smaller Sapi pack kept it’s numbers at a constant nine. As a pack, the Ellis Robbins Gang provided us with some of the most fascinating moments of the season. We often watched in delight as they frolicked about in shallow pans of water or on the edge of the river after successful impala hunts. Fired up by the success of a plan coming together, they’d regroup in the shallow waters to cool down and slake their thirsts. With their nimble footing, the pups leapt and pranced about, chasing their tails and those of their siblings whilst the old dog-eared adults watched on benevolently, and humoured any antics that came close by. The rest of the day would be spent lying up, dozing and trying to replenish their energy reserves required for the dusk hunt. Their hunts were always easy, their prey weakened by the elements and so intent on foraging for food that they had little mental energy left for vigilance or caution. This however did not negate the fact that the dogs still had to summon up the energy twice a day to reach speeds of up to 50km/h and relentlessly run down their prey in temperatures that should only happen in an oven.
We were witness to many hunts and kills but our favourite moment of the season was watching the pack evict two big female hyaenas from a puddle of water that they fancied freshening up in. The interaction took nearly half an hour as the hyaenas backed up under the exposed root system of an overhanging tree and tried to sit out the assault. However the characteristic incessant harassing by the dogs that often makes a sensible baboon leap from the safety of a tree, had the same effect on the wily hyaenas. It was always a numbers game and eventually the two females tucked their tails firmly between their legs and made a dash for it with the dogs in hot pursuit. Having seen off one of their most mortal foes, the dogs smugly returned to the putrid puddle with a swagger in their step. Wild-dogs may be one of the smaller predators of the food-chain but when it comes to teamwork, efficiency and looking out for each other, they’re the kings. We raise our caps to them this year, to the alpha pairs, to the main hunting caucus, to the old floppy-eared adults and to the cheeky pups.
Amongst the carnivores, leopards are the hardest to spot. This season was better than most for sightings of the elusive cats, although our resident male whose territory encompasses the camp, proved to be pretty hard to find during the day. His throaty, rasping coughs were always part of the night-time chorus but by day he snuck up into the cover and dappled shade of the Mahoganies and Kigelias. Silent as the night during the day, we only ever caught glimpses of him after the sun set or before it rose. He always made sure to leave teasing tracks through camp at night and half-eaten kills in the Albida behind tent One as part of his mind games with Stretch. The lion may be the physical king of the beasts but it’s the leopard that will always be the cerebrally superior. With all of his senses very well developed, in particular his eyesight and hearing, you’re always going to have to be up very early in the morning to outwit or outsmart him.
The female on the floodplain upstream topped her male in the sightings game. With a cub that was only just fresh out of the egg, she enthralled the guests and surprised Stretch on our last safari as she led the little feline from tree to tree in broad daylight. Not much bigger than a large mongoose, the cub deftly clambered up the vertical tree trunks behind his mother and found his own spot of dappled shade to lie up in. He’ll stay close to her for a year and we hold thumbs that when we get back next year, he’ll have survived the wet season so that he can join the ranks of the healthy albeit hidden leopard population of Mana.
The greatest sadness of this season was the loss of the old elephant bulls Slot and then J.P. They were the oldest inhabitants of the floodplain and so their absence is strongly felt both by the animals and we humans who revere them. Big Vic and Boswell, Grumpy, Curly and Fred are still around and we pray that their age, wisdom and wariness will keep them within the safety of the National Park confines in the off-season. Boswell and Fred spent most of the season on their back legs as they are the only ones who are still able to reach up to the tree-tops. With the Albida pod crop at an all-time low, they had many friends as they reached up and tore down the higher branches packed with pods and succulent green leaves. No matter how many times you witness it, the sight of four or five tonnes of elephantine mass being supported by two relatively small back legs is always going to be an awe-inspiring one. It requires immense strength, agility and perfect harmony of motion. It’s specific to the bulls of Mana, whose taste for the protein-packed pods have driven them to this evolutionary action, and we are so privileged to be part of a generation that gets to witness this.
Speaking of being privileged we were very fortunate to have a few specials on the birding front later in the season. We were stunned by skimmers and spinetails, captivated by carmines and Collared palm thrushes and watched over by owls as small as the Pearl-spotted and as large as the Pels. Storks as pretty as the Saddle-bill and as ugly as the Marabou were common sightings but as always brought an air of serenity to any scene. At dawn, the heuglins woke us up gently and at night we fell asleep to the sound of the Egyptian geese still squabbling. All in all, our feathers were permanently fluffed up and souls totally satiated with bird-sound.
And so as the sun sets to rise on a new year we would like to thank you all for your support this season. We all had the season of a life-time and we feel that next year will be just as good if not better. As we write to you, the first rains have fallen on the floodplain, the union of fresh water and dry soil releasing the inimitable Scent of Africa. The first tendrils of grass, fed by carcass nutrients will soon push through, providing essential fodder for the first lambs, foals and calves of the season. The new cubs, pups and baby primates will soon be tottering around in amongst them and so the cycle of nature begins all over again. The weak and old will not have survived the dry but they leave behind an over-subscribed space at nature’s table for the young, fit and strong. We are indeed the luckiest people on earth to be able to witness this annual spectacle.
And speaking of spectacles, we’d like to end off by sending you special holiday greetings from representatives of the youngest and oldest inhabitants of the floodplain.
Stretch continues to be a source of inspiration for and amusement to the younger members of the plain’s primate population. Many thanks too to Dave Fettes for stepping in to help him with a moment of loneliness and bush-fever.
In closing, Stretch and I and all of the Goliath team would like to wish you a wonderfully festive season. As our gift to you, we send you the scent of a Mopani fire, the cry of a fish-eagle and the twinkle of an elephant’s eye all wrapped up in the arms of an old albida.
Take special care of those special to you and may all your dreams come true in Twenty-twelve.