Tarkuni Tswalu Kalahari - Spoilt For Wildlife - John Yerbury

John Yerbury

16 May 2016

day one - Spoilt for Wildlife

I always find extraordinary, Africa’s huge scope of unique locations and wildlife. When you have been on as many safaris as my family has, you wrongly start to believe that the landscapes of this continent can be pretty similar. While the behaviour of wildlife is always capable of surprising, even dumbfounding those viewing it, the location itself often takes a back seat. My parents and I had never been to the Kalahari and were expecting a typical desert scene with the fauna being elusive and spread thinly over a vast landscape. So on arrival, we were appropriately amazed by the quantity of wildlife we saw just on the drive to the camp alone. Having landed on the airstrip, you are met and greeted by your private guide and tracker in a shady shelter which social weavers have built an enormous nest into the roof and rafters. This was quite an experience as we enjoyed some light refreshments while the small hectic birds went on with their busy lives a mere metre above our heads. The social weaver nests are a common sight in the Kalahari, but they are never a tedious sight! Often you will come across trees that have lost huge branches or even split entirely down the middle due to the sheer weight of the nest being built in it. This doesn’t deter the birds though which lead lives dominated by nest maintenance. There is one nest in the reserve known to be over a 100 years old, kept going by generations of social weavers.

As we set off towards the camp, our guide did the usual check, asking if there was anything we especially wanted to see. We gave our usual response that we would be happy seeing any of the wildlife, but if possible we would love to see a cheetah. This was our main reason for coming here. Although we have visited locations where these iconic cats can be found, we had never been fortunate enough to see them. Thankfully this was about to change as we were in what must be one of the best locations for cheetah sightings!

After seeing a large variety of antelope including the rare and very striking sable antelope, we arrived at our home for the next 3 days. Tswalu is South Africa’s largest private game reserve spread over 110,000 hectares. We would be staying at the Tarkuni Lodge, a luxurious and exclusive experience with excellent food, a refreshing pool and air-con in the rooms which provided respite during the heat of the day. The heat can be stifling here. The average temperature while we were there was 42 degrees Celsius and it can sometimes even reach 50 degrees! It is for this reason that the drives only take place in the early morning and late afternoon when the air is cooler and more comfortable. This does lead to a very relaxed kind of Spanish lifestyle; getting up early in the morning and then having a siesta during the heat of the day, within your air-conditioned room. Of course, during the winter, it is very different, both in terms of the temperature and the fauna you can see. Apparently the aardvarks are so abundant at that time of year, you need to watch your step!

The lodge has its own waterhole right outside the front which is constantly visited by the thirsty local wildlife which you can enjoy with your own drink while comfortably seated on one of the couches or armchairs. There is very little threat of dangerous predators turning up to this waterhole due to how the reserve is arranged. A fence separates the lions from the wild dogs and cheetahs to avoid any conflict between these species, but also to protect the prey from overhunting by spreading out the predators. Lions do not like competition for their food and will usually take any chance they can to remove the other predators, so this is a good thing from the point of view of the cheetahs and wild dogs. Tarkuni Lodge is located within the part with the cheetahs and wild dogs which are relatively safe animals to be around. So you can fall asleep by the pool, as my dad did, without any concern of waking up with a lion pawing at you. There are two leopards known to be in that part of the reserve, but it is very unlikely you would come across either of them. Having said that though, we saw the male on our second night!

For our first full game drive, our guide Johan said we would try and find a local cheetah family which hadn’t been seen in a few days so nothing was guaranteed. 

Fifteen minutes later, we were parked by a waterhole 20 yards from four cheetahs; a mother with three almost fully grown cubs

After having a very long drink, the family of felines settled by the waterhole for some grooming and napping, effectively blocking off the water to any other animals. A warthog turned up and either out of stupidity or thirsty desperation, could not decide whether to chance getting a drink or not. It kept disappearing into some bushes and then approaching from a different direction, trying to find a safer angle. One of the cheetah cubs seemed fed up with the constant interruption of snorting, grunting and scrambling trotters and eventually let out a short and curt growl as the warthog came in close, causing it to literally fall over itself in a mad dash to escape. We spent close to two hours with the cheetahs before having to tear ourselves away to have a sundowner. For our first day we had already seen one of our most sought after sightings, so to say we were happy would be an understatement! Our sundowner was then followed by a supper in the bush, atop a grassy sand dune with 270 degree views going all the way to the horizon. As night fell and we ate by candlelight, there were electrical storms brewing way off in the distance and seemingly all around us, providing a truly extraordinary light show; an all-natural fireworks display!

Day 2 – A Dog Day Afternoon

The next day we had our first early rise at four and by 4:40 we had set off, this time searching for the resident pack of wild dogs. Between the expert trackers that work in the reserve constantly following the wildlife throughout the day and the soft sand everywhere facilitating lingering paw prints, the guides always have a good idea of where certain animals are. As we drove down a wide road, Johan said to keep our eyes peeled. The dogs were last seen in this area the previous night and their tracks suggested they hadn’t gone far, with fresh paw prints being here and there along the road. Suddenly a large male kudu burst out of the bushes to the right with 7 or 8 dogs in tow, running across the front of us before disappearing into the undergrowth on the left. The dogs did not follow it which surprised us, but we were told that while the dogs often hunt the female kudus, they very rarely go after the larger males equipped with long deadly antlers. The brief chase we had just witnessed was just a show of the dogs’ excitability. The pack didn’t have any success in their hunt and settled down in the shade of some trees as the heat of the day grew more prominent. 

As we started to head back to the lodge, the tracker Ben had Johan stop the car. He had seen some very fresh cheetah tracks and we decided to extend the drive a bit to try and find them. A short distance on we came across two fully grown male cheetahs; brothers that had formed a partnership to improve their chances at hunting. This is quite common amongst cheetahs which makes their collective noun very apt; a coalition of cheetahs! The brothers had bloody muzzles and full bellies, clear signs of a successful morning. They too were looking for a suitably shady spot to rest and soon we had lost sight of them in some thick undergrowth.

As we prepared to set off on our afternoon drive, Johan came to us with a choice. Would we like to see wild dogs, lions, cheetahs or meerkats? Whichever one we chose, we were guaranteed to see them! Never on all the safaris we have been on have we been presented with a choice such as that, for obvious reasons. The trackers had been following these animals all day and so knew precisely their whereabouts. After some debate, we decided to go for the wild dogs. As they eat daily and had been unsuccessful catching anything that morning, we reasoned there would be a good chance of seeing them hunting. After a little searching, we found them close to a building used as housing for the numerous researchers that work in the reserve. The dogs had come across a couple of deceased warthogs that had probably passed from dehydration and judging from the smell emanating from them, they had been dead a while. A few of the dogs were still tucking in to these morsels, but the majority of them, mainly the younger ones, were far more interested in a green tarpaulin they had found by the near building. In typical doggy fashion, they were soon pulling and tugging on it, eventually wrenching it free and having a good gnaw on the spoils. A little while later, three warthogs showed up. The dogs’ antics were taking place around an almost dried up waterhole, so again we got to see warthogs trying to drink next to predators. 

Two of the smaller warthogs didn’t hang around very long. They took one look at the dogs eating the remains of one of their comrades and then at the dogs playing with what must have seemed to be an enormous green skin and promptly scarpered. The remaining warthog and the largest was more confident, moving right into the midst of the dogs to get a drink. Soon though, he seemed to regret this brash decision. The older, more experienced dogs were lying down, viewing the scene with mild interest. They will not usually go for a fully grown warthog as their tusks can be very dangerous and they are actually very fast animals. This particular warthog would have seemed very confident as well; a very good tactic to deter predators. Only prey runs! So only two young dogs were looking at the intruder with intent. As the warthog was backing away from one of them, it tripped over a rock and collapsed. In its struggle to get back on its feet, the warthog clearly showed its frail condition, probably as a result of dehydration.

Noticing this, all of the dogs started showing interest and began surrounding it. They were still wary however and none of them wanted to make the first move. Everybody was poised with their cameras waiting for the action to start. With the warthog barely able to stand, surely we were going to see the dogs take it on. It was at this moment that two impala showed up at the edge of the clearing. The impala are the wild dogs’ favourite prey. After just one glance, the dogs went haring after the two antelope, leaving behind the world’s luckiest warthog. We caught up with the pack which had again been unsuccessful in their hunt. But having eaten the two warthogs they had found, they seemed content to rest and leave the hunting till the next day. As it was getting late, we moved off to a quiet area for a sundowner.

While sipping on our beers and gin and tonics, the radio in the jeep started giving off the sound of excited voices in Swahili. The guide started conversing with them and then with a big grin on his face said, “They’ve found the male leopard near to the lodge! If we go now, we might see him before he moves off.” This was a very rare sighting in these parts. As I mentioned before, there are only two known leopards residing in the 110,000 hectares of the reserve. So we immediately downed our drinks and quickly set off.

Soon we were parked next to him, hardly believing our luck. We only had 10 minutes before the cat moved away to start his nightly hunt, but it is always special seeing these majestic cats, no matter how brief. We returned to the lodge, extremely satisfied with the day’s events. 

As we sat down for dinner that night, Johan briefly joined us to plan the morning drive for the next day. “Any news for nearby rhinos?” I asked. “We’ll make news!” replied Johan. He seemed very optimistic that we would find a black rhino, so we decided to make that the focus of the next drive. Then jokingly we asked, “what about pangolins?” These must be one of the rarest sightings in Africa. We have had a number of guides in the past who have never seen one, hence our joking attitude. So we very surprised when told that pangolin sightings in this area were relatively common. Current ongoing research on the animals meant that 6 had been tagged with tracking devices and the lady leading the research would observe them every night when they emerged from their burrows. This wasn’t very predictable though, as the pangolins could come out at 22:00 or even as late as 03:00. But we weren’t about to pass up on an opportunity to see one! So we organised to visit the researcher the following night, who would keep Johan posted on when the pangolins emerged.

Day 3 – Mythological Beasts and Where to Find Them

The next morning, we set off in search of rhinos. Along the way, Ben our tracker once again had Johan stop the car. He had seen some fresh tracks from a pangolin! It was amazing to see him following the tracks across the plains going back and forth stopping at points where the pangolin had spent time feeding, before eventually finding the burrow that it had gone into for the day just 5 – 10 minutes beforehand. He said he would return to the burrow just before sunset and wait for it to emerge, to increase our chances of seeing one before the early hours of the morning. This could mean him waiting by a hole for 6 or 7 hours so we did try to tell him not to worry, but he was insistent. He had a serious commitment to the guests! Shortly after setting off again, we had another great sighting. As we passed some bushes, I noticed some small animals appear from behind them. Due to the timing of their emergence, the vehicle had already passed and the very reliable Ben wasn’t within eyesight. I was sat at the back higher up and so had a good line of sight onto the three creatures which at this point, I only knew to be the cubs of a canine, possibly a jackal. In my excitement to tell the others, I didn’t use the appropriate term of cubs. Instead I just blurted out, “puppies!” They turned out to be three bat-eared fox cubs with the mother being just a few metres away, resting in the shade.

The cubs ran to the nearby burrow, poking their heads out to observe us while one of them hid behind its mother providing us with some endearing photos. Too soon, we had to leave the fox family and set off again. The heat of the day was rising and we still hadn’t found a rhino. Usually we would have stayed with the foxes, not knowing how our luck would be. But by this point, our faith in our guide and our tracker was such that we knew they would find a rhino. Ten minutes later, we were parked by two black rhinos; a mother and calf. We couldn’t believe how calm they both were. 

Our past experiences with rhinos have always been at distance, observing the skittish animals peering out at us from behind a bush before running off. This was easily the closest we had ever been to them, facilitating some great photos. We followed them for a while as they fed on the vegetation and then as they both lay down in the shade of a tree, the calf started to suckle. We decided to leave them in peace and made our way to a clearing for some coffee in the company of giraffes, two of which seemed very attached to one another, standing so closely together that they seemed to be a mythological two-headed giraffe.

For our evening drive, we decided to visit the meerkats. The local colony or ‘mob’ of meerkats has been habituated to people, allowing for some extremely close encounters. You constantly need to watch where you are walking as the little critters scamper around your feet in their never ending search for juicy scorpions. I even had to change my camera lens to a wide angle to compensate for our close proximity. The Tswalu Reserve is very close to where Meerkat Manor was filmed and it is easy to understand the success of that show when observing the intricate social structure of the meerkats’ lives. In just 30 minutes we had a good idea of the personalities in the group. Some were more vigilant than others, constantly pausing in their foraging to stand in the classic meerkat pose, displaying a very nervous disposition. Other more greedy members didn’t look around once, being far too consumed with digging up beetles. Then of course, there was lazy meerkat. This one was either lying down or waiting by other members as they dug up food. When the mob was returning to the burrow, the sentry on duty had to wait for lazy meerkat to slowly amble inside a few minutes after everyone else.

As we were getting ready to leave, we found out over the radio that the mother cheetah with three cubs were on the hunt. They had tried to surround a warthog but didn’t follow through and were now patrolling close to a herd of springbok. If we hurried, we might see some action! Nearing the scene, we could see the other two vehicles following the family of cheetahs and between us and them were the springbok. They had no idea of the impending danger and ended up wandering straight into the cats. In the subsequent panic, the mother cheetah picked out the smallest springbok and then showed her tremendous agility and speed.

All I could do was point my camera and hope for one good shot.

In a cloud of dust, the mother caught the small antelope and it was over in a flash. As the cubs came over to inspect their dinner, it became apparent that the springbok was only stunned. The mother was making a practice session of the meal and wanted the cubs to finish the job themselves.

Unfortunately the cubs did not seem to be brimming with hunter’s instinct and their meal was soon running off with the cubs in tow slapping its rump in a half-hearted attempt to bring it back down. Before long the mother was fed up and quickly dispatched the animal to save the cubs from any further embarrassment. Only 1 in 10 cheetah hunts are successful, so we were pretty lucky to have seen that let alone the antics that followed!

That evening we received constant updates on the pangolins. By 23;00, there was still no sign of them coming out, so we went to bed for a short nap, before being woken at 01:00. One of the tagged pangolins was up and soon we met the lead researcher next to something that looked like it had come straight out of Jurassic Park. They are very strange animals and hardly anything is known about them. Walking along on two feet with its front limbs held up, it looked like Mr Burns from the Simpsons. We couldn’t help but feel guilty for poor Ben who had now left his post by the other burrow and joined us, but he seemed happy enough to just be in the presence of this bizarre animal. We returned to the lodge at 03;00, believing the lack of sleep for the night to be absolutely worth it!

Day 4 – A Meerkat Morning

For our final morning, we returned to the meerkats to see them waking up. We were sitting right outside the burrow when the first ones popped their heads out to survey the area for any danger. Lazy meerkat had a quick look before heading back down to bed. The rest of them, always being wary, spent a good 15 minutes looking around before finally starting the morning foraging. After a while, we went to say goodbye to the cheetah family and then back to the lodge.

Every trip must end sadly, but we had more than enough experiences to satiate any appetite for wildlife viewing.

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