Stalking Cats and Injured Lions

We found her in the tall grasses, moaning and crying out to her pride. She was injured and alone after the previous night’s hunt. She called again, but we heard no response. She endured our stares and the clicks of our cameras before slowly rising and moving to another place in the grass. We could see the gash on her left hind leg from the cape buffalo’s horn and noted how often she licked her lips.

We visited her twice that day, sad to see she hadn’t moved, wondering if she’d make it. Our ranger told us she was 14 years old and near the end of her life span (African lions live 13 to 25 years). That night we heard her cries answered by others, and when we encountered the lions on a game drive the next morning, there she was, moving slowly, but walking, following the other lions in her pride, her children (two female lions) and grandchildren (eight male cubs).

In the back of the open land rover, I watched the stalking cats and trotting cubs, obviously on the prowl, a herd of cape buffalo nearby. We drove quickly through the bush, trying to stay ahead of the lions, through acacia thorns and branches, and straight down a steep bank full of sticks, bushes, briars, thorns, and trees to the dry river bed. As we reached the sandy bottom, holding on tight as we twisted and turned, leaning the opposite way, we got stuck. Our wheels spun as we saw the lions chasing a buffalo and heard the kill. We sat tight in the vehicle, not daring to get out of the truck with lions so nearby.

After being pulled out of the sand by another land rover, we caught up to the cubs and their grandmother and photographed them hanging out, waiting for a signal from the two lionesses who’d made the kill. A few hundred feet away, we found the hunters at the beginning of their meal. We parked and sat still, except for the movement of our cameras, watching as the lions and later the cubs, tore open the belly of a young cape buffalo only a few feet away. We listened to the sounds of their teeth chewing through the hide and smelled the fermenting contents of the victim’s stomach. The lions ignored us, used to the dark green trucks and the silhouette of the people inside.

“Uh-oh,” one of the women in our vehicle said as the grandmother lion began walking straight toward us. But Moses, our ranger, wasn’t worried. “She’s just looking for shade,” he said. And, sure enough, she lay down in the shade our truck provided, only inches from the truck and the people in it.

We left her and the others, still enjoying their meal, and headed back to the water hole near the lodge reaching it just before a large herd of cape buffalo arrived and wallowed in the water, looking for a drink.

Videos on this post by Tommy Taft on trip taken in August 2011.

Sleeping in a Tree House

It was dark, so dark that we couldn’t see anything beyond the truck’s headlights, only the faint outlines of the dam and Umlani’s tree house, our home for the night.

The moon had not yet risen, and the stars were not yet bright. Hendrick stopped the truck and scoped out the area first before he would let us out. He climbed up the tree house ladder and shone his big flashlight around the tree and the platform. When all was clear, he warned us, “Don’t leave the tree house. If you do, and a lion or a leopard is nearby, something bad could happen.” Hendrick’s tone was serious; he did not smile or joke. Equipping us with a radio and spot lamp, he waited while we climbed up the steep ladder; the girls to the first floor, boys to the second. Then he left, and the night was silent.

I sat on the wooden platform and listened and strained to see as my son pointed the spot light around the dam. Nothing but a flash of white. A bird on the water’s edge. I was scared of what I could not see or hear. Only hours earlier, in daylight and with a guide, we’d seen elephants at this very dam and lions not too far away. And rhinos, too, and cape buffalo and hyena. At least a half a mile from the lodge, we were out in the bush, in the Timbavati National Reserve in South Africa.

The moon rose, and we listened to the lions calling to each other across the bush, interrupted only by birds. I peered intently but could only see trees and bushes shadowed against the sky and the land. After an hour or so of watching and listening to the night’s blackness, we settled down to sleep on mattresses with sheets and comforters and pillows all enclosed in white mosquito netting. Or rather everyone else slept and slept well. I awoke at 1:30 a.m. and listened and peered through the tree house boards at the sky. I crawled out from under the netting and sat on the wooden floor but only for a moment, before I crept back to the false security of my enclosed bed.

Two hours later I awoke again, this time determined not to miss a sound or a sight. Wrapping myself in a blanket, I sat outside my bed and watched and listened. Not seeing anything and hearing only the piercing calls of the birds, I wished then that our guide was with us, to identify the sounds of the night. I listened and reveled in the experience, my eyes wide open.

When I woke my sleeping family just before sunrise, my daughter said in surprise, “We made it!” The four of us watched the bush reappear in the rising sun’s light, eventually hearing the sounds of the truck coming to pick us up.

Moses, our ranger called up to us, “Hurry, the lions are nearby.” We grabbed our things and scurried down the ladder, eager to begin another safari.

Trip taken in August  2011.

Lions at Night

Back from another game drive, I warmed my hands on a mug of tea. Others were drinking wine; the kids, hot chocolate. We sat around a fire in a boma or enclosure, waiting for dinner to be served at the game lodge.

Conversation was interrupted as the land rovers returned. The lions were on the hunt. Would we mind being late for dinner? Adrenaline rushing, I left my drink behind, ran to the trucks and hopped on the one in front. I covered my lap with a wool blanket as others clambered aboard with me. As we drove away, I saw the rest of my family in the truck behind.

The drive was fast and brief, the lions were near the rangers’ camp. We stopped short, and as our driver, Ginger, shone the spotlight around the bush, we saw only the hunt’s aftermath, a hyena hanging out; a lion licking its paws, bloody from the cape buffalo who got away; a few cubs playfully running in the dark.

Our hearts pounding, we returned to the lodge, wishing for more, but happy with the thrill. As I jumped off the truck and began walking into the boma, I was stopped. Rhinos were spotted in camp while we were gone. I needed a chaperone and a flashlight.

Escorted to our hut, we grabbed what we needed then headed back for dinner, hearing the sounds of hyenas on our way. Exhilarated, we sat on benches around big tables, sharing food and wine with guests from Australia and London and locals who work at the lodge. Laughter and stories were easy that night, and we slept well, ready for another day of adventure on safari.

Photos on this post by Tommy Taft on trip taken in August 2011.

Rhinos in South Africa

Our first guided game drive in the Timbavati Game Reserve in South Africa was one of the most exciting, heart-pounding, white-knuckle adventures I’ve been on. More exhilarating than a roller coaster ride, our ranger took us off road and into the bush. We drove over and through thorn covered acacia trees, ducking our heads or leaning to one side to avoid being scratched. We held on to the bar in front of us as we were bumped and jostled. We were hunting rhinos, one of the “big five,” the most sought after animals of Africa.

When the ranger asked us if we wanted to track the rhinos on foot, I said, “Yes!”  We walked then drove again, spotting the rhinos and driving crazily to catch them from the front instead of from behind. Then back in the land rover, driving quickly, turning sharply, ducking and searching, the adults skittish with one of their babies nearby.

The ranger stopped the truck, and we watched; no talking, just listening and taking photos of their broad dark grey backsides with an occasional profile, amazed by the proximity of these prehistoric animals.

“Did you kill any rhinos?” My friend back in the U.S. asked me, a twinkle in his eye. “No,” I replied. “But we shot a lot, and we have the photos to prove it.”

To learn about the current status of rhinos in South Africa, read the article “Rhino Wars” in the March 2012 issue of “National Geographic” or listen to an interview with the author, Peter Gwin here.  To read about or listen to Namibia’s approach to saving wildlife and communal conservancies, click here.

Trip taken in August 2011.

Elephants!

Elephants! Big and grey with small eyes and long eyelashes, wrinkled skin and large ears, trunks swaying, they drank the water and ate the bushes, the young ones playing with each other, the even younger ones nursing or following their moms.

We were on a game drive, searching for the Big Five. We’d found one.

I sat still, my eyes big, watching these powerful animals lumber toward us, grazing the side of our game vehicle, unthreatened, unthreatening, except for the mock charge by one of the young elephants who seemed to scare only himself.

Gluten Free on Safari

When I made reservations to stay at Umlani Bush Camp in South Africa, I told them my daughter had celiac disease and was on a gluten-free diet. “Not a problem,” I was told. “We’ve had several guests who eat gluten free.” So I relaxed a bit, knowing that Umlani was one of our last stops at the end of a 4-week trip.

Arriving at Umlani just in time for lunch, I was apprehensive, wondering what she would eat for the next 3 days. The light lunch was anything but: butternut squash and sweet potato soup with fresh bread, salad, pasta with sundried tomatoes, chicken and artichoke hearts in a creamy sauce, and cheese and chutney for dessert. The soup was gluten free but not the bread and not the pasta. Then the owner appeared with a small dish of gluten-free pasta made just for her.

Before the animal game drives, while everyone congregated in the boma for wheat rusks and coffee, my daughter drank the hot chocolate (after verifying that it was gluten free) and skipped the rusks or brought her own, bought in a supermarket near Kruger National Park.

At breakfast, she ate eggs, tomato, bacon, and fresh fruit and gluten-free muffins baked especially for her. When lunch included spring rolls for the rest of us, the chef cooked the spring roll ingredients in eggs and served it without the skin. When lunch included lasagna, a gluten-free potato version was offered instead. Sundowners (a stop for a cocktail in the bush as the sun was setting) included potato chips and biltong (which she avoided, just in case) and Appletisers or Grapetisers for the kids.

Dinners included pork on skewers with pineapple and apricots, vegetables and potatoes and salad; impala stew with veggies, polenta and salad, strawberries and cream for dessert; and chicken (made without bread crumbs for the gluten-free eaters), risotto, veggies and salad.

Eating gluten free was easy and delicious at Umlani. At no time did my daughter feel deprived. At no time did she feel nauseous or sick. Instead, she ate well like the rest of us, and maybe even gained a little weight.

Trip taken 2011.

Where Is the Man on the Moon?

At the end of a quiet road in Hobart, Tazmania, I waited outside the phone booth while my friend called home thousands of miles away. The night was dark except for the moon and as I gazed up, I wondered what was missing. The moon was full and round and bright, but it looked different. There was no face. The man on the moon was gone.

“You don’t have a man on the moon!” my friend and I exclaimed, breathless and incredulous. “Oh yes, we do!” the hostel’s caretaker replied, laughing. Though we tried to describe the different moon we see in the Northern Hemisphere, his tone was placating, like those of the other Aussie guests in the hostel.

Since that trip to Australia, I’ve wondered if my friend and I imagined the different moon we described. Now many years later in South Africa, the moon was full, and it was time to find out.

My family and I scanned the sky, straining our eyes while searching for constellations and shooting stars. While others oohed and awed at meteors moving across the Milky Way, I focused on the moon.

From the deck of the lodge, I watched as the moon rose above the savannah, a yellow orange orb twinkling in the dark sky. Just as I remembered, there was no face; no eyes, no nose and no open mouth. I pointed to the moon. “There is no man on the moon,” I said to the Australians and South Africans around me. They laughed, but I knew what they didn’t. Just south of the equator, where Orion and the Southern Cross punctuate the sky, but the Big Dipper and the Northern Star are nowhere to be found, the moon looks different. In South Africa, the moon has no face. There is no man on the moon.

Unfortunately, none of us took any photos of the full moon. The photo below was taken by Tommy Taft 2 weeks before on the Wild Coast of South Africa.

Monkeys vs. Squirrels

Brown and gray and furry, they grasp small things with their human-like hands, stopping on their haunches to chew. They’re cute and resourceful, nimble and mischievous and in almost everyone’s backyards. In the U.S. we have squirrels and raccoons, but in South Africa they have monkeys and baboons.

When we visited Cape Point and Cape Vidal, we saw evidence of the nuisances they have become: signs posted, “Beware of baboons” and “Don’t feed the monkeys.” We watched a woman feeding the monkeys in St. Lucia and took photographs of their innocent looking faces in the trees.

In Durban, we discovered how much more trouble these animals can be. As our friend and host drove home one afternoon, she noticed several monkeys carrying food as they loped along her driveway. Inside, the kitchen was a mess. A bowl of fruit was eaten, bread and cookies left on the counter nibbled, stolen, or devoured. Her son was home sick, a window was left open, the house was too quiet and the monkeys, ever the opportunists, jumped in. When was the last time you had a squirrel in your house?

In Kruger National Park, we were warned. Garbage can lids were held together with rubber bands and signs were posted, but scattered garbage was everywhere, indicating the park rangers’ ploys were not working. Yet we were still surprised at the aggressive behavior of these “cute” animals. While enjoying breakfast on the deck of our tent cabin one morning, a monkey appeared on the railing ready to pounce on our food. We yelled, and he hissed with bold animosity. We scurried inside the tent and heard his feet running along the canvas roof.

We met Australians a few days later who reminisced about the cute squirrels they’d seen while visiting the States. The cuteness level seems to increase with the unknown, the unusual versus the usual, the uniqueness versus the common.

Though fighting with squirrels can become quite a sport, as bird lovers try to outsmart the squirrels from stealing food from their bird feeders, and raccoons may raid a garbage can, visiting the monkeys helped me appreciate my neighbors back home.

Soweto Gospel Choir in Boston

Six months ago we were in South Africa, and two weeks ago we were there again, as we watched and listened to the Soweto Gospel Choir in Boston’s Symphony Hall on February 12.

The New England audience was staid at first, barely swaying or tapping to the beat as the choir sang and moved in brightly colored costumes to the syncopation of two djembe drums at stage left. Their voices blended and melded as the 15 or so men and women sang traditional African songs as well as more contemporary American spirituals including, “Shosholoza,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “Many Rivers to Cross,” and “Swing Low.”

By the middle of the second act, the almost full house was rid of any inhibitions and the audience was standing, clapping and waving their arms as the dancers jumped, flipped and kicked, the drummers beated, the singers crooned and trilled, the choir harmonized.  As the music slowed, the audience swayed to the sensual sounds and lyrics of “Arms of an Angel,” a performance which inspired its own standing ovation.

With a tribute to Miriam Makeba, the choir ended the second act with “Pata Pata” bringing the audience to their feet, its clapping ceasing only when the drums and the melodies began again for two encores.

Since the Soweto Gospel Choir was formed in 2002 to celebrate inspirational African gospel music, the group has won three Grammy awards for their albums “Blessed” and “African Spirit” and for Best Movie Song “Down to Earth,” from the movie “Wall-E,” a collaboration with Peter Gabriel. The choir has performed all over the world for various dignitaries and with many leading performers.

Photo from artpropelled.blogspot.com.

Adventures in Lesotho

Do you know what country has the highest minimum elevation in the world? You’re thinking Nepal, right? Or China. Maybe Afghanistan, Argentina or Chile? But high in the mountains, surrounded and landlocked by the country of South Africa, is the answer. The small country of Lesotho (pronounced “Li-soo-too”) is the only country in the world with a minimum elevation above 1000 meters. With a low point of 4530 feet, most of Lesotho’s land is above 6000 feet.

We spent only 2 days in Lesotho, a country with just under 2 million people, about a quarter of whom have AIDS, and a land of 11,720 square miles, slightly smaller than the U.S. state of Maryland. Skiing, hiking, camping, dramatic views, harrowing car rides and pony treks, round huts, friendly and very poor people, donkeys and mountains: Lesotho offers a variety of excitement for the adventuresome traveler.

There is so much of the country we didn’t see, and there are so many places I wanted to go but didn’t. So for those of you who have more time and interest or whose travel plans allow a variation off the beaten track, here are the places we didn’t go. If you go, please let me know, so I can travel again to this beautiful country and live vicariously through your adventures.

  • Experience traditional Besotho life at Malelea Lodge and Pony Trekking Centre, a backpackers lodge in Western Lesotho.
  • Hike and bathe in river pools in Ts’ehlanyane National Park and stay at Maliba Mountain Lodge.
  • Visit Semonkong Lodge and you can hike to the mighty Maletsunyane Falls, where water plummets 186 meters in one of the highest single dropping waterfalls in Africa.
  • Drive the treacherous, dramatic and beautiful Sani Pass and visit the highest pub in Africa at the Sani Top Chalet.
  • Hike southern Africa’s highest peak, Thabana-Ntlenyana (3482m).
  • Go skiing in Lesotho at AfriSki Resort .
  • Experience a rural stay in the Northern mountains of Lesotho at Mamohase Rural Stay B&B.

Trip taken August 2011.