Arse end of Africa

August 20, 2008 - Cairo, Egypt

No matter what country you've set foot in, if you're in Africa, it's all about the animals (at least when it's not about the culture, traditions or history...).

Two months of traveling through much of southern and eastern Africa has resulted in a lot of amazing wildlife experiences - and a lot of bum shots. It appears that the animals often want to show us their best side, especially if you stumble across them in a large orange truck with sometimes-squeaky brakes.

Zebras are known for turning their backsides to the camera, with many postcards even featuring such angles (mind you, if my butt looked that good in white, I'd probably do the same). And no one's going to argue with a hippo or elephant, they can do whatever they like. In fact, the baby elephants in the David Sheldrick elephant orphanage in Nairobi, Kenya, have a habit of reversing into the crowd so they can have their botties patted.

Luckily, there were many times when the animals were quite happy to just continue about life and let us go snap-happy. I've been fortunate to visit a multitude of national parks and reserves, so here's my summation of Africa's amazing wildlife, from antelopes to zebras.

A quick drive down the coast from Cape Town and it's impossible to miss the penguins. A bit larger than fairy penguins in Australia, there's about 6000 of them waddling around on the beach near Simon's Town. I was particularly impressed with the carpark signs that warned people to check underneath their vehicles before departing. Further down the cape in the Aquhlas National Park there were ostriches, including a male who decided to stop traffic by crossing the road in pursuit, no doubt, of one of his ladies. Somehow I missed the baboons that manage to cause such trouble in the cape carparks and local restaurant, where they can apparently open the door and help themselves...

Traveling over South Africa's north-western border and into Namibia, we entered one of my favourite animal coutries. Just north of Swakopmund it's worth stopping by Seal Colony, where thousands of seals frolick in the waves near shore while many others work on their suntan.

My favourite national park is Etosha. Apparently the third largest in the world and the largest when it was originally proclaimed, this is where I saw my first lion, elephant, buffalo and black rhino (there are leopards in the park but I had to settle for four of the 'big five' African animals). We had stopped the truck to observe an ostrich when one of the eagle-eyed guys on the tour asked for the binoculars and to every's surprise, he identified a lion walking towards us from several hundred metres away. So we sat and edged the truck forward as the lion continued walking, not breaking his momentum, until he walked straight in front of our truck, giving a little turn of his head and half a roar. He owned the park and nothing was going to stop him doing whatever he wanted.

Three man-made waterholes constantly full of water and two under spotlight at night are one of the reasons why wildlife viewing in Etosha is so good. Although the waterholes may be manufactured, it's up to the animals where they go and when they drink, but if you sit for a little while, you're guaranteed of a show worthy of any David Attenborough documentary. At the one time, I saw a wildebeest come down for a drink at the Okaukuejo waterhole, while there were scores of zebras and impalas (type of antelope). At night, a pack of jackals surrounded a lone impala and wore it down - I left before the likely end. Another time, a black rhino took on anything in its way, including a white rhino and elephant. I also felt very priviledged to see a family of elephants, including several babies, quench their thirst and have a bathe at the Namutoni waterhole.

The beauty of the Okavango Delta in Botswana is unsurpassable. I loved the Napo River in the Amazon Basin in Ecuador, but the Okavango is even better. It's hard to beat sitting back and slowly sliding across the waterways as a poler expertly steers the makoro (dug-out canoe, with the newer models made of fibreglass but painted to resemble their traditional counterparts). The polers job is never underestimated, especially when they know how to navigate the river system and avoid the many hippos. We came across several groups of hippos in the swampy marshland, and being at their eye level is quite an experience, bettered only by hearing them walk through your campsite while you lay in bed - but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Next on the journey was Chobe National Park, where I spent two visits courtesy of a rerouting decision because we couldn't go into Zimbabwe. Both morning game drives provided memorable lion experiences; we were the first on the track when a pride of lions walked towards us one day, and the second time we saw several lions chilling out in the tall grass. It was particularly worthwhile seeing them in their own element. The sunset cruises in Chobe were just as fruitful, with many elephants, hippos, crocodiles and birdlife.

Chobe is near the town of Kasane, which borders Zambia, Zimbabwe and Namibia. We jumpped on a ferry to cross the river into Zambia, and later that day took another sunset cruise on the mighty Zambezi. Hippos were again the main attraction, including one that mooned us all (it stood up in the water, showed us it's sizeable rear end, wagged it's little tail, then sat back in the water).

Back into Botswana, the Nata Bird Sanctuary in the Makgadikgadi Salt Pan is home to thousands of flamingoes at some time during the year, unfortunately, we only saw a few, but I can imagine that at the right time of the year, it would be a spectacle.

South Africa's premier national park, Kruger, was also a little disappointing because we only spotted three of the 'big five', but the other wildlife made up for the main show being on holiday. Giraffes fighting and a white rhino mock-charging the open-sidded 4x4 were all part of the fun. We also stopped off at the waterhole where the 'battle of kruger' was shot and its footage made famous on u-tube with more than 32 million viewings and counting.

Spotting zebras with eucalyptus trees in the background was quite sureal on a morning walk through the Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary in Swaziland. I was also rather amused by the family of warthogs that decided to warm their behinds on a campfire (considering pumbas apparently taste quite delicious, this could have been tempting fate).

Taking some time out from the game drives, my friends Ali and Dario accompanied me to the Rhino and Lion Nature Reserve near their hometown of Johannesburg. This was an opportunity to play with white and brown lion cubs, jaguars (yes, they're native to South America, not Africa) and a cheetah. Although a little cheesy, it was a wonderful chance to actually touch these magnificent creatures, and I had the claw marks to prove it!

Heading north, one of the most exhilarating hours of my year of travel was spent with the Hirwa family of mountain gorillas in Rwanda's Parc National des Volcans. The hands on these amazing animals are so human-like, they're mesmerising. The hike up through the jungle took abut 90 minutes and we were greeted by trackers who had been keeping an eye on the gorilla family's movements. I could have watched the gorillas all day if I'd been allowed, it was a simply magical experience to get within about a metre of a silverback and his enclave of women and babies (you're not supposed to go within seven metres of the gorillas, but they often come closer once you've stopped walking and there's no space or time for you to back away to the designated distance). We saw the silverback eating; the mothers walking through the jungle with their babies clinging to their backs; and a very quick x-rated display between the silverback male and the newest female member of the group. If you ever get the chance to see these magnificent creatures, take the opportunity, it is more than worth the somewhat expensive gorilla permit.

Crossing into Uganda, we spent two nights in the Queen Elizabeth National Park, where four of the big five reside (no rhinos in this park). However, it's the hippos that make this park famous. Cruising along the Kazinga Channel there were hippos everywhere, and at night, at least one decided to return the favour and cruise on through our campsite! Hippos often walk five or six kilometres at night to feed, so it was no surprise that our riverside campsite was visited, but I'm still not sure what my foot touched on the other side of the tent - a hippo or a warthog... we'd seen a family of warthogs around, but it felt rather large...

On to Kenya, where the endangered rothschild giraffes roamed Lake Nukuru National Park and pink flamingoes fed lazily on the water. This was the start of an amazing week of wildlife. We got up close and personal to lots of giraffes and zebras at Lake Naivasha and then the fun began when we visited the Masai Mara Reserve. Thousands of wildebeest and zebras were on the move during their annual migration from the Serengetti, and I was lucky to watch it in a hot air balloon. On the ground, we saw several lions, including one who decided to take advantage of the shade provided by another tour truck! We also saw a mother cheetah with her three cubs. She was tucking into a reed buck that she had just killed, and a baby cheetah was trying to copy his mother's feeding habits. And except for the poor buck, this was the perfect end to two months of wildlife spotting in Africa.


2 Comments

Nicole:
September 2, 2008
Hi Katie,

It sounds like you had a fab animal experience and in some cases very up close and personal. Just great aint it! Very pleased to hear that a decision was made not to visit Zim and I am sure Botswana appreciated your visit more!
Cheers
Nicole
denise otkin:
November 9, 2008
I love your stories about the wildlife in Africa I have always loved big cats and it would be amazing to see them in their elements! I haven't been able to get your site for awhile I am so happy to follow it again! Denise in Wisconsin USA
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