Etosha National Park

Being lucky enough to have more time than usual for our visits to South Africa, we added on a trip to Namibia and Botswana. From Cape Town we flew to Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, where we hired a vehicle and headed north to Etosha National Park.  Etosha is dominated by a huge salt pan but has plenty of wildlife in the areas you can access in your vehicle. Our first afternoon travelling from the entrance at Okaukeujo was productive for birds and other animals.

We spent one night at Halali camp and the waterhole at the camp delivered some special sightings, including African Elephants drinking, a Black Rhino and a group of the endemic sub-species of Black-faced Impala.

Halali is a lovely old-fashioned camp with chalets as well as a campsite. It proved a good spot for birding, with a couple of interesting new species added to my list (the Wood-Hoopoe and Hornbill), as well as a few old friends.

On the trip from Halali to Namutoni we had some good elephant sightings (they are so pale, presumably from the dust) and saw quite a bit of other game on the edge of the pan. Conditions were a bit challenging for photography, with bright sun and strong shadows, and the glare from the pan.

Namutoni has changed a bit since I was last there ( a very long time ago) with the accommodation more upmarket (but not in a hugely successful way) and other things, like the old German fort, rather rundown. A drive around Fisher’s Pan was interesting (not the best season for birding, sadly) and we did find a couple of Damara Dik-dik just as we headed back to camp before the evening gate closure.

Being winter, it was quite chilly overnight and we had to waste some time the next morning waiting for the fuel pumps to be able to deliver diesel, so I found a few subjects warming up in the sunshine inside the camp environs. Then farewell to Etosha, until next time (I hope).


Birds of Kruger

White-fronted bee-eater
White-fronted bee-eater

One of my favourite things about Kruger is the amazing variety of birds found in the bushveld; absolute heaven for a self-confessed bird nerd. The interesting perches chosen by the birds add to the photographic potential.

The use of the rolling hide (aka your car) is great for many birds as they are much less wary than they would be of someone on foot. The only hassle is when you come across birds like the spurfowl; often only visible when on the road, they are quite tricky to capture as they are too close and at an odd angle. Here I’ve tried a close-up portrait, with a background layer of the birds disappearing into the long grass.

One disappointment bird-wise was only seeing vultures from a distance; for example, this large group circling, possibly over a kill, well away from the roads.The waterbirds were more cooperative; the Egyptian goose posed beautifully on one leg and the Hamerkop provided some interesting action while trying to land on a vanishing hippo – see one of my previous posts for more on that .

My last two images were taken at places where you can get out of your vehicle. The barbet was playing hard to get, so this was the best I could manage. In contrast, the hornbills are fairly tame and quite easy to photograph at picnic sites.

Antelope antics

Steenbok at sunrise
Steenbok at sunrise

This male steenbok seems to be twisting himself in knots, trying to decide whether to freeze or flee. You can’t really blame him – steenbok are a small antelope and prey for leopards and eagles, among others. I think I’d also be nervous. Looking a lot more relaxed are these impala, the most commonly sighted antelope in Kruger. They even have a flower named after them.

Occasionally impala do decide to do something a bit more interesting, besides getting up your hopes of a predator (by all looking intently in one direction for a while). The males below were having a bit of a territorial dispute in between the thorn bushes.

Watery wildlife

Coy baby hippo
Coy baby hippo

A new discovery for us in Kruger was the hide at Lake Panic, near the Skukuza rest camp. The light wasn’t great when we were there which made bird photography quite tricky but I did manage to capture some of the other aquatic wildlife, like this cute baby hippo and his mother, feeding in the shallows.

Some of the other inhabitants of Lake Panic were a bit more camera-shy, just peeking their eyes out of the water. More entertainment was provided at other waterholes we stopped at, with a yawning hippo seen from the Tshokwane-Satara road and foolhardy birds trying to use a hippo as a perch at Sunset Dam near Lower Sabie.

Elusive Big Five

Leopard on the prowl
Leopard on the prowl

Good sightings of elephant and buffalo quickly knocked two of the Big Five off the list, but the other three proved a bit more elusive. It was mid-week before anyone saw a cat, in the form of a rather distant leopard on the sandbank across the river from Skukuza camp, only seen by some of us who stayed in camp for a break. The next morning three of our group were lucky enough to see the leopard in the main photograph, at much closer quarters. I’m thrilled to have managed some decent images of this cat, as the light was terrible – thank goodness my camera has reasonable high ISO performance. I do love the way she is so camouflaged in the long grass. She was hunting and bolted across the road (terrible pics through the front windscreen) and soon disappeared into the thicker bush on the river edge. I hope she found some breakfast.

We only realised how lucky we had been when we got back to camp for breakfast – we thought some of the others had also seen her but we’d misidentified the car in front of us! At least we all saw the white rhino the previous evening – I’m counting that as part of the Big Five even though strictly speaking I think it is meant to be a black rhino. The term Big Five refers to how dangerous the animals were to hunt on foot, so the black rhino would be more appropriate as they are much grumpier. This rhino didn’t seem very grouchy at all, having a moment with a starling on the road before drifting off into the bush. I just hope it gets to live peacefully and keep its horn – Kruger is not immune from the current rhino poaching epidemic.

Our last tick on the Big Five list was lion – not a very exciting sighting but at least we saw them, on a sandbank next to the river on the way from Skukuza to Lower Sabie. Lazing around as is usual for lions, for all the world as if they were on a summer holiday. If you look carefully at the one on the left, it has a radio-tracking collar around its neck.
Lions at the beach©Jennie Stock – Nature in focus

Monkeying around

Leader of the pack
Leader of the pack

This large male Chacma baboon turned out to be a rather scary problem at the Nkuhlu picnic site in Kruger. I took this picture when he came to see whether we were getting food out of the car (only money and cameras); later when my sister did have food in her hand he ran very aggressively towards her and she ended up having to throw the food at him. Apparently our group was an easy target as it was an all girls expedition (no dominant male!). Baboon troops did seem to be causing lots of hassles at many of the picnic sites in Kruger, always looking for an easy meal. The staff do their best to discourage them – at Tshokwane the weapon of choice was a handy till roll, wielded very accurately.

The youngsters were still fun to watch from the safety of the vehicle. These guys were having a wonderful time chasing each other up and down the tree, just like a bunch of school kids at recess. Fun as the juvenile baboons are, I still prefer Vervet monkeys. I think they remind me of my childhood – growing up in an area where there was still lots of natural bush and troops of monkeys that used to race across the roof, ignoring the dog’s frantic barking.

I love the way they sit with their tails hanging straight down, grooming each other even though they were rather damp from the earlier rain. They have very sweet faces; somewhat misleading as they can be just as much of a pest as the baboons. My niece was keen to adopt the cute young vervet in the picture below, but we persuaded her to make do with a fluffy toy.

Young vervet portrait
Young vervet portrait

Kruger elephants

Elephant swinging trunk in river bed
Elephant swinging trunk in river bed

This young elephant gave us a bit of an uneasy moment when it started shaking its head and trunk. They were quite close and moving towards where we were stopped on the causeway, level with the river bed. Luckily it was just having a bit of a shake. The small herd crossed just in front of the car; quite a memorable experience. I’m really happy to have captured the moment without missing a bit of foot or trunk. After this they were too close for my big lens – sometimes you just have to enjoy the scene and forget about taking photos for a bit. The images below were taken after they had passed the car and were heading back into the bush.

I have decided to abandon the ‘daily diary’ I was doing for my posts. Instead this post is all about the ellies. We were treated to quite a number of elephant sightings in our week in the park – not a problem as they are one of my favourite animals. Often they were at waterholes or in what seemed like dry river beds, digging below the surface to get at the water. They like to play too, chucking mud and water everywhere. This group had a couple of cute babies with them.

Elephants can be quite destructive eaters – not surprisingly, they have huge appetites to match their size. Watching this elephant demolish very unappetizing-looking branches was impressive. They also use their tusks to cause a fair amount of damage to the bark of many trees.

Birds and buffalo

A very pretty Mourning dove in camp at Satara
A very pretty Mourning dove in camp at Satara

Satara is a lovely camp – we all wished for more nights there. What should have been a post-lunch siesta time was spent stalking birds, like this lovely Mourning dove, in front of the rondavels (the round thatched huts typical of Kruger). I wish I managed a better shot of the Green Wood-hoopoes; they were very busy foraging for bugs in gaps in the bark of a tree. The Red-billed buffalo weaver was much more relaxed.

During our late afternoon drive heading north from camp, we came across a huge herd of Cape buffalo. I changed to my wide-angle lens to try and capture a sense of the size of the herd. It probably would have worked better if I could have got out of the car and low down, with one buffalo in the immediate foreground – but I wasn’t going to try that. Buffalo may look a bit like cattle but they aren’t one of the Big Five for nothing! Even this one trying to scratch his head looks a bit dangerous, especially when you look at those horns closely.

We stayed out as late as we could – as ordinary tourists in Kruger you have to be back in camp when the gates close at sunset. Some vultures hanging about in a tree were intriguing but too far away to see if there was something exciting on the ground attracting their attention. I am glad I managed an African sunset shot – not bad for handheld at 250mm.

Vultures settling in a tree at sunset
Vultures settling in a tree at sunset

Misty morning in Kruger

Sleepy spotted hyena on a misty morning
Sleepy spotted hyena on a misty morning

We were all up bright and early on our first morning in the park – except it wasn’t really very bright at all, rather it was misty and quite gloomy for the first couple of hours. Undeterred we set off along a dirt road toward the N’wanetsi picnic site, and were rewarded with a few interesting sightings,such as a small group of sleepy Spotted hyena. Photography was a bit challenging in the light conditions, so I missed getting anything decent of the Ground hornbill group we came across. The spider webs in the mist were fun to capture, and by the time we saw the zebra it was a bit lighter.

A pair of Bateleur eagles made great subjects – such majestic birds (and so easy to identify, unlike many other raptors!). At N’wanetsi, we could get out and stretch our legs, and enjoy the view over a river and towards the Lebombo Mountains. I took the opportunity to stalk a few birds – I’m really happy with the bulbul on the aloe stalk as I could get a lovely soft background by virtue of being high up. Clean backgrounds were not always easy in the park as you are constrained by having to stay in your car most of the time. Of course, getting clean backgrounds behind a giraffe’s head is not so difficult as it is way above most of the vegetation.

The trip back to camp was not too fruitful – the lone wildebeest pretty much sums it up. I did capture one of the ubiquitous Lilac-breasted rollers, illustrating my struggles with busy backgrounds in the process.

Afternoon drive to Satara

Afternoon drink at the waterhole
Family drink at the waterhole

We were very lucky with elephant sightings throughout our trip. I could have spent ages watching this group drinking and splashing about at the waterhole, but we did have to keep going to make Satara before the gates closed.

Catching the hippo yawning at the waterhole was pretty cool, as was this mid-tree squabble between two Tawny eagles (I think?). Never did figure out what the issue was though.

Another ‘Big Five’ species we saw plenty of was buffalo, especially near Satara where the grass must be tasty. The late afternoon light was lovely to work with, as long as the animals were on the right side of the road. A Burchell’s coucal and a pair of male Waterbuck posed very cooperatively.

We made it the camp just in time for sunset.

Satara camp at sunset©Jennie Stock – Nature in focus
Rondavels in Satara at sunset