To be a tracker takes patience, it takes skill and above all else it takes passion.
People from all over the world descend on Southern African for many things, from Cape Town and their flat rock to Johannesburg for its vibrant culture and history and everywhere in between. However the main reason people come here is for its wildlife. For its abundant and gorgeous wildlife.
What most people don't realize is just how those rare and endangered animals are found. Que the professional tracker. These men ( I am yet to meet a lady tracker but I am sure they exist) come from years of dedication and generations of knowledge handed down to them by their ancestors before them. A skilled often honed and perfected as Shepard's. And finally being fully utilized by safari lodges all over Africa.
I am not shy in saying that most of what I have learned about animal behavior and of course track and sign has come from these legends of the bush. My first tracker, Edde, taught me to be calm and collected in the face of charging elephants. He also taught me African wisdom in all departments of nature, from local belief to indigenous use. This proved invaluable to me as a 21 year old white guide, whose teachings were mostly scientific fact
My current tracker Jack aka Dugga Boy has taught me so much over the 18 months that I have been with him. He has taught me how to trail many animals, how to think like one of these gorgeous beasts, how to respect them and most of all he has taught how to not give up. I have witnessed this man track a single lioness for over 5 hours across our entire traversing, I have witnessed him tracking through the bush right past our coffee stop with guests, not even stopping for a bottle of water in the hot African summer. He has found many animals that tourists take for granted. He has found leopard dens after hours of tracking, he has found lions on a whim and he has helped me and my guests see many things from lions to rhinos on foot. His passion and dedication to the job is unheard of. When asked if he would like to do anything else with his life, he simply responded "No, I love the bush, I love the animals." He has taught me what hard work is. There has been no shortage from Dugga Boy in the line of African wisdom either, constantly teaching me what he knows about the bush and all its wonders as well as animal behavior.
These men are responsible for so much of the wonderful game we see. They go about their work quietly and patiently and are always ready to put their own safety on the line in order for people to witness the true beauties of Africa.
The Art of Tracking is exactly that.
At this moment in time rhino conservation if of up-most importance. Sadly these gorgeous and gentle beasts are being slaughtered in their thousands every year due to a massive miss conception that their prized horn offers a range of medical benefits to man.
Due to this ever mounting pressure being placed on this already strained population, conservation efforts have ramped up hugely. Vets and conservationists are making use of a number of tactics in order to stem the tide of losses. Of course anti poaching and boots on the ground are incredibly important but the work that these vets and conservationists are doing across the country is also vastly important.
One of the ways that awareness is being created is by inviting international tourists from commercial lodges to get involved with notching, whereby the animals ears are notched in a certain pattern in order to give the animal an identity. During this process the animals also undergo a number of tests and checks and lastly the sought after horn is micro chipped in an effort to track the horn across the globe should one of these stunning animals be murdered.
When I got the call from my friend and colleague Scotch about a brand new baby giraffe about to take his first steps I immediately turned around and starting heading that way. I had some photography guests with me and well this sounded like a great scene to capture.
We would soon find ourselves observing and photographing one of the most memorable sightings of my career! The day was not kind to us in terms of photography, the sun kept poking through but for the most part we had massive changes in light to deal with between every frame taken. Couple this with the fact that due to the sensitivity of the sighting we were not able to drive around the gorgeous mother and calf and onto the side of the better light. However upon arriving at the scene, photography issues faded and all that began to matter was what was happening right in front of us.
When we got to the location the youngster was already on his feet although swaying from side to side. His mother was amazing and I could easily tell that this wasn't her first child, she had done this before. She would gently nudge him to help him keep balance every time he looked like he was about to fall over. She carefully licked and cleaned him as he stood looking around with half open eyes at the new world that was around him.
It was the most amazing thing to watch and we sat for well over 45 minutes and just watched as this new little creature took in the views around him. Eventually he made his way, on very shaky legs, underneath his mother where he began to suckle for the first time.
Welcome to a brand new world my little friend, may it be kind to you.
When you work in the African bush day in and day out, you notice very quickly that mother nature is one harsh reality. We often see injured, weak or sick animals and for an animal lover such as myself this is never easy. Of course we get over it by telling ourselves "that's nature". And indeed it is.
The photo above is the last image I ever took of this young male and at the time I had no idea that it would be. However I knew that it was coming at some point. When I first arrived in the Timbavati he was a two year old gorgeous young lion. He had a pride around him and two loving sisters that would prove their worth time and time again. However as lion politics would have it, his pride was dismantled almost over night when two young nomadic males moved into their territory and proceeded to drive the original pride male off, kill his mother and force his two aunts to flee to a new area. It didn't stop there and sadly this youngster sustained a major injury to his leg during the event. After this we didn't see him for weeks, we would see his sisters on occasion but never him. Until one day I responded to a young male lion sighting. Upon getting there my heart sunk, there he lay basically skin and bone and in the direct sunlight on a hot day, something very strange for a lion to do. It was a sad sighting and I was convinced he wouldn't make it through the night. This was a hard thing to explain to my guests. However later that day I heard that two females had joined him out of the blue, his sisters had returned for him! Later that night the girls made a kill and the next morning we went to have a look and this is when I took the photo "Survivals Eye" which can be found in my portfolio. I have never seen a lion eat like I saw him eat that day. After this his sisters never left his side and we began to notice that his leg was recovering and he started putting proper pressure on it again, we started to get hopeful. Sadly A few weeks passed without seeing him or his sisters and when eventually they were seen again, his leg looked worse than ever. Over the next 8 months he struggled with it, all the while his sisters were keeping him feed and waiting patiently for him to catch up when they moved as well as keeping themselves off the radar as far as other lions were concerned. His leg slowly began to shrivel as he lost all muscle tone and we began to realise that his death was inevitable. He did start putting pressure on it once again a few weeks ago and I even saw him run, although slowly, at one point.
He was killed last week on the southern property of Taiwane, as finally the two older males caught up to him and finished what they started. In truth I never lost hope for him and I really enjoyed seeing him when we did. He was a gorgeous lion. However this is the nature of the African bush. A silver lining is now that his sisters do not have to keep themselves hidden and moving, they have begun to settle and roar in the east of the Tanda Tula property and already other males are starting to move in. Sometimes the birth of a new pride requires the death of an old one.
A decent water source is a hotly contested resource in the great African wilderness amongst all animals, however theses contests are fought hardest by those that rely entirely on them.
Hippos have a very sensitive and hairless skin that requires large amounts of moisture throughout the hot African day. Only venturing out from the watery safety after sunset to feed. Hippos are also fiercely territorial and males are not often willing to share a good water source with one another. This of course leads to some pretty spectacular displays of power.
On a hot February morning my guests and I were in search of a herd of elephants that we had been tracking for some time. It was getting hot and so I thought it would be a good idea to stop for a cup of coffee and a leg stretch on a nearby dam wall. There is often a hippo in this dam and so it is a good place to stop, have a cup of coffee and watch, a usually sleepy yet sceptical hippo peering out of the water. This coffee break was to be a fair bit different to others.
As I drove up onto the dam wall I noticed that instead of just one hippo there were two. At this point they both seemed to be pretty relaxed within the water not 3 meters from each other. I turned the vehicle off and was about to get out of the vehicle when suddenly the water exploded!
What followed was an amazing sighting of two African titans going to war with each other. Needless to say we did not get out for coffee but rather we sat and watched this all unfold for over one and a half hours. All of us, guests, myself and even my tracker were transfixed and the thought of elephants became a distant blur.
Time after time the hippos would launch themselves at each other. This gave me ample time to get my settings right and really get into an awesome wildlife “photo shoot”, something that doesn’t happen very often.
The energy coming out of the two hippos was incredible and relentless. After an hour neither showed any sign of giving up. Eventually though things did begin to calm down as the two beasts began to lose steam but still advancing at each other every once in awhile.
The sun was beginning to beat down on us and we reluctantly made the decision to leave the dam and head for the cover of a shady breakfast. Later that day on afternoon game drive I heard over the radio that the hippos were still at it although with what sounded like far less valour. The next morning we went to have another look, we needed closure.
I was pleased to see that the original male was still there and the other was gone. A successful defence of his water hole was complete. Where the intruder went, I am not sure.
The Makuleke Concession... In my opinion the most beautiful and inspiring 24 000 hectares in South Africa. There is a certain feeling one gets when you are in the wild, well if you care for it at least, it is all consuming, it is powerful, it is beautiful. There is no place that I have yet found that gives me this feeling in a stronger way than this area nestled between the Kruger National Park, Zimbabwe and Mozambique.
Myself and my gorgeous better half, Brittany, recently booked a 7 day birding in the bush course through Ecotraining. I had luckily been to this camp on a couple of occasions and I had always told her of the wander and beauty of the concession. Maybe I even rubbed it in every once in while. So when the chance came for us to book this course we jumped at it (We had previously wanted to use this time to travel to Thailand but when it came to it we felt we made the much better choice). Makuleke is a mecca for birders the world over. I recall once atlasing with the great Bruce Lawson and getting 104 bird species (by call and sight) within an hour of walking into the majestic fever tree forest! It is a place I find hard to describe. Imagine a place of immense heat, gorgeous open flood plains, deep secretive gorges, ridges in the backdrop, of course the fever tree forest, a labyrinth of pale green fever trees, Ann Trees, Creepers, Fig trees and the odd hidden pan of water spanning some 8km in length, and finally the mighty Limpopo River, the boarder in the north and east. It is a place you have to see for yourself. There is no "buts" and "ifs" just go - you will thank me. Our 7 days consisted of either walking or game driving around the area twice a day with lectures and talks during the day and well birding, birding to the max. I want to say sadly but it is no sad fact that Makuleke has received more than its annual rainfall over the last couple of months but this has made it, for the moment, one hell of a place to walk. The grass is long, very long. The fever tree forest is impenetrable due to 6 foot high grass and the flood plains are muddy marshes (all the better for testing those new hiking boots). The green is stunning and it comes in every shade you can imagine. The place is alive on every level, it is teaming. In the past I have only ever seen Makuleke in the sate it is usually in, dry, bare and gorgeous. It was a shock to see the change! None the less it was an absolutely magical experience, one we will not soon forget. I even used the opportunity, on the banks of the Limpopo river, looking across into Zimbabwe to get down on one knee and ask my amazingly gorgeous and wonderful lady to marry me. The silly woman said yes for some reason! We will be back Makuleke, until next time, I will miss you deeply.
The beauty of the "Open System" rings true. I have spent most of my career working on fenced private game reserves and I have thoroughly enjoyed each one of them. However I know find myself working in the Greater Kruger National Park - one of the largest, protected wilderness areas in the world. Spanning some 44 000 square kilometers - it is a dream come true!
This is a system designed to give animals choice and natural space to roam freely and nothing brings this into the limelight as much as natural disasters. As you may know this area is currently going through one hell of drought. It has been interesting to note the movement in and out of our traversing area of different species as they begin to move, in order to find food and water elsewhere. They seem to go south and east. However recently we have begun to get rains, good rains, flooding rains in some areas. And with this animals have begun to go back to their usual "home range". I have seen how over the last 12 months the buffalo population has decreased due to massive amounts of predation and starvation. I have also seen how the zebra and wildebeest population has changed negatively in orders of magnitude. I have seen herd after herd of elephants passing by my vehicle in dead straight lines - heading east. And now I have seen, amazingly the return of these animals. Suddenly I am seeing herds of zebra and wildebeest all over and on occasion mega herds coming together. I am seeing elephants coming back into the area in mass and then leaving again right after the rains for periods of around 2-3 days - this I cannot explain. I have seen buffalo coming back together in order to reestablish their thunderous gorgeous herds. I have seen rhinos on the brink of starvation and now eating to their hearts content. I have seen beautiful triumphs and sad deaths. I have seen nature at its finest - this for me is the most special thing in the world to observe. Those that survived are alive and well once more. The Greater Kruger National Park is alive and well once more...
Currently the lowveld area of South Africa or better known as the Kruger National Park area, is experiencing one of the worst droughts to hit the area in possibly the last 25 years!
Of course there has been some rain and currently the bush is alive and green but we are still waiting for the drought to officially break. Nowhere near enough rain has fallen for us to claim this. However much of the damage has been done already. We have found numerous carcasses around the bush, some have been found without any sign of predation but most have been the result of lions. No other species has felt this as badly as the buffalo population in the Timbavati. On one occasion myself and my tracker found a dead buffalo and upon close insepction we found tracks for 2 lioness around it. The strange thing was that hardly any of it had been eaten and the lions were gone. Around 50 meters away we found another buffalo carcass with nothing eaten at all and to round it all off a further 50m away lay another one, however this one still had 2 lioness lying around it. Once again they had hardly had a bite and whats more is they left the area all together later that day. This was just one afternoon. Many other scenes of this nature have been found over the last few months. It would seem as if the lions were just killing on demand. We amounted this to the fact that due to the drought the buffalo were so weak and ill that instead of being their usual deadly selves they were quickly turning into something the lions could dispatch without much effort. This went hand in hand with the fact that they most probably didn't taste very good due to the lack of vegetation to feed on and so the lions where seemingly of the mind set of not bothering to eat very much of one kill as it was very easy to just kill another. It has been a very interesting time to witness the behavior of predators. Even the hyenas have had to much to eat recently and some carcasses have gone completely unattended by mammalian carnivors. It is thus completely true that the only type of animals to truly flurish during a drought are those of carnivorous inclinations. Currently there is enough vegetation in the environment to support those that are still alive and the buffalo are looking for more deadly again however if the bush does not start getting some good rain soon, I fear the cycle will only continue to repeat itself. Very interesting times.
Many people have told me throughout my life that there is more to life, there is a spiritual side. I have had many close friends tell me I need to do yoga, meditate and eat well. They have told me many times that this is the answer to everything especially happiness. I do not disagree but...
I have always had a sense of wander for the world, for the natural world. Since I was a young boy I have known what is that I want to do. I am still not sure exactly how to do it but I know what it is. I want to change the world. I want to change your idea on nature and the way you view it. I want to change just about everyones idea on how to treat the world and how to feel for animals and nature. Plainly put I want to save nature but in order to do that there needs to be a fundamental change in the way people perceive it. No, I don't want to save nature for your kids to see or my kids or any generation there after. I want to save nature for the sake of saving nature. Everything has a right to life just like every human does. It's a funny thing being a nature lover, for one I feel incredibly blessed to have this drive to do what ever I can but on the other hand it weighs me down as I just do not know where to start or how. Its such a big task and sadly I have to concede to the fact that I can't change everything but how do I choose which avenue to take, how do I decide which area to target. There will always be something left behind. The wilderness and nature is my life, I am attached. When I am in nature I feel whole. I do not need yoga or meditation or any other "spiritual" awakening. My awakening has happend, it happened ages ago. I wish I could make you feel this too. There is nothing more "in the moment" than being in nature and feeling the wind, smelling the fresh air, closing yours eyes and just listening or looking out over an incredible view. It is always so right and it leads me everytime to the thought of "what it the point?" but at the same time I feel like I know the point when I am in these spaces. We need to take a step back as a species and as individuals and realise that the point we are all looking for is here and now and the best way to feel it and understand it is by taking a step out of your door or rather your comfort zone, that saying about comfort zones, the magical one... It is true and there is no better place to find that magic than in the wilderness. Natue is the one "god" we should all be praising but it is also the thing we are all hell bent on destroying the fastest.
Black Mamba's are awe inspiring creatures. They carry a legendary reputation. I have had many dealings with these gorgeous snakes throughout my career, most have been peaceful sightings but there are a few times that stick out in my memory.
As summer returns to full swing the chance of seeing a Black Mamba greatly increases. It is a relatively common sight to see one crossing the road as the day begins to warm up and contrary to popular belief they are not always trying to kill you. There have however, as I say, been a few situations where these dealings have not been so peaceful. You see they have this incredible ability to stand up with only 25% of their body mass remaining on the floor while the other 75% is held up by a haunting corkscrew action - this is done in order to both look dominating as well as to position their heads in a position that will allow them to strike at your chest or face. They have stood up in front of my vehicle twice in the past, which of course induces a blood chilling feeling, luckily though this is nothing that a swift reverse can't remedy. I am sure I have reversed away from Black Mamba's faster than elephants! Talking about elephants, sure they can be scary, they like us can have a bad day and they like us can take that out on something around them. However it is always pretty easy to know which way to go to safely get away from them BUT when a Black Mamba stands up next to your door, not more than half a meter from your face as you are casually driving along on game drive slowing down to park for your morning coffee your reaction might not be as simple as you think. This happened to me early on in my career and I will forever remember it and it will forever ensure that I have a deep respect for the serpent. I remember crunching gears, I remember my tracker shouting "fugga Boot!", I remember the goose bumps. In that moment I had no idea how to react, should I go forward? Should I reverse? When an animal that can kill you in 45 minutes looks you in the eye you just sort of freeze. I did manage to go a little backwards and luckily the snake did drop from it's height and slither away but my lesson was learnt. Everything in nature deserves respect but never take a peaceful elephant (or Black Mamba) sighting for granted.