Paws for Thought

by Goliath Safaris • 25 August 2011

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News from Goliath Safaris July/August 2011

A crisp and clear Mana winter's evening is so still that you can sometimes hear the night fall.

Unlike in summer, when at the end of the day the sun wearily lays itself down on the horizon; in winter it rushes to put itself to bed. One minute it's a giant red orb just above the mountains across the river, the next it has disappeared, taking with it the remaining warmth of the day. The vanishing of the sun leaves only one sensible option for those of us who lack feathers or fur - a quick dash back to camp to settle down in front of man's greatest discovery to date, the campfire. Not only do the flames provide us with much welcomed warmth, they also slow down our minds and prioritize our thoughts and in so doing reignite and re-enchant our souls. Dancing flames outclass any cinema or television when it comes to entertainment, and glowing embers are certainly more inviting than any psychotherapist when it comes to getting us to share our thoughts and views. A fireside chat with oneself or significant others can solve or resolve any problem known to mankind and has been doing so for hundreds of thousands of years.

Huddled thus around the fire, listen for the low lion's roar in the distance, the raspy leopard's cough behind the tents and the intermittent grunts and grumbles of co-habiting hippo and water-birds in the river below. Now and again a reed frog tinkles in competition with the ice cubes in your glass; your heart is warm, your drink is cold and the world is a wonderful place. You are on a Mana safari.
The 2011 safari season in Mana has been a bit of a paradox. In the early months, a flooding Zambezi river had managed to deflect our attention from the fact that there had been very little rainfall during summer. The nitrogen-fixing indigofera which usually supplements the meagre grass on the floodplain has hardly made a showing this year. This is great news for us as it makes for easy walking and viewing on the floodplain, but it's less happy news for the impala that nibble the leaves and the elephant who chew the stalks. The albidas are slow in coming into flower and pod, but Stretch who is older than most of the trees, assures us that they'll start producing soon. We are all holding thumbs as they are the lifeblood of the floodplain towards the end of the season when any form of foliage is scarce.

Most of the trees and shrubs now have a winters look about them and as always at this time of the year the baobabs, sans foliage, reign supreme on the drive or flight into the Park. They stand firm and handsome, sometimes coppery, sometimes steel-blue giants on a dry and leafless landscape. Their heavy boughs twist and twirl and offer up their stubby, stunted digits almost in thanksgiving for their greatness. Their trunks are gnarled and battle-scarred, having endured decades of being stripped and torn apart by passing elephant herds. However they quickly regenerate from within and long after the great tuskers and their grandchildren have passed on, these same trees will still stand stately and strong on the valley floor, majestic in their natural nakedness.

The shaving brush combretums have already started flowering and the wooden pears are in full pod. A favourite of ours, they've certainly outdone themselves this year in their showing in the Jesse on the new Mashuma Pan road. Their bare branches are laden with hanging fruit.

In tune with the changing of the seasons, the animals have all come out to play on cue this year and very few guests have left without a lion, wild dog and elephant moment safely tucked under their arm. Mana will never be the same again without our beloved old elephant Slot, but JP, Boswell and Big Vic are doing their best to fill his giant shoes.

Collectively, they've given our guests a trunkful of special moments to treasure. Only Boswell and Fred Astaire seem bothered enough, or able to get up on their back legs regularly. Their younger askaris follow them along and wait dutifully to munch at the left over Albida hors d'oeuvres that they manage to pull down. J.D continues to live up to his namesake and regularly behaves as a juvenile delinquent, recently seen standing atop a termite mound, all four legs together, gazing over the floodplain as though on sentry duty. He loves an audience, and although he is too old to be an attending askari, he is too young to be a gentle giant yet. Nevertheless he is one of the characters of Mana who will hopefully in the future become one of the legends too.

On the carnivore front, it's hard to tell who is perched on top of the mound at the moment. Both wild dog packs are denning down, the Chiruwe pack with ten adults to it and the Ellis Robbins gang still numbering well over twenty. Their pups should be free-ranging before long and we all wait with bated breath to see how many have survived, Stretch always taking great care not to approach or disturb the den.

The Ellis Robins adults have been on an impala killing-fest of late; early one morning they killed three of the ill-fated antelopes within minutes and metres of each other. Barely ten minutes later there were only bones and skin left for the hyaena and vultures to squabble over. The baboons, already stressed by the dryness of the season picked quickly through the stomach contents.

The Chiruwe pack is a much smaller group which has increased slightly in number this year. As with all wild dogs, its the females who migrate and look for fresher pastures and so the pack may at present or in future have a new alpha female. As a pack they love Sapi Pan for a mid-morning or afternoon siesta. Afternoon naps are generally pre-hunt and the mid-morning ones are often an apres to an unsuccessful hunt. Obviously if the hunt is a success, they rush back to the den to regurgitate for the pups. On our most recent safari they lay around at the edge of the pan and didn't as much as look up at us or the zebra that passed within metres of them.

The lions have been less predictable in their behaviour and the four Spice Girls are hunting further and further away now that the cubs are over a year old. Six of the cubs have survived and when they and their mothers team up with their Backstreet Boy fathers, they show signs of once again becoming a pride to be proud of.

Some of the cubs have the same rounded ears as those of their mothers and so may find it hard to ever have that fierce lioness look about them. They can only ever look cute and cuddly with that teddy bear look but an eland or buffalo kill to squabble over soon dispels any myths about their temperaments.

Granny's daughter has once again not been as successful in raising her cubs. With only her very aged mother to help her feed and protect growing cubs, it is never going to be a viable option for her to continue on her solitary path. She has chosen not to stick with the Spice Girls but to stay with her mother who clearly cannot keep up with the big pride. We anxiously look out for the two of them each day and are continually amazed at Granny's stoicism and good health, despite being well over twelve years of age.

With all this talk of the big and bold females of the animal kingdom, it would be remiss of us to not mention the elegant antelope ewes and cows. They're so often classed as common but they are anything but. Look closely and you'll see the impala ewe as the ballerina of the park, the elegant eland cow as the doyenne of society and the poised kudu cow as the beauty queen. Throw in a shy bushbuck or nyala cow  and you have all the softer traits of the female gender covered. Collectively they may not take motherhood as seriously as their bigger counterparts on the floodplain do, but theirs is a precarious position in the food chain and any strong bond with their offspring would mean continual heartbreak for them. Keeping themselves alive and fed is hard enough and they certainly are not as equipped as a lioness or elephant cow to keep their young safe. Ever vigilant, they know nothing of relaxation or rest. Yet to watch them is for us one of the most relaxing of all pastimes. They exude gentleness and serenity and infuse us with calm.

Birding wise we've had a twitching feast of late. A recent evening's meal was interrupted by the sighting of a Pearl-spotted owlet perched in the branch just above the dining table and a few hours later a deep boom from a fallen tree on the river's edge gave away the position of a pair of Pels fishing owls. What a privilege to have our dinner watched over by three owls. And if that wasn't enough, the following evening a Scops owl flew in and sat above Stretch as he cooked our steaks on the braai/barbeque.

The first of the carmines have flown in and it won't be long before their exhausted migratory counterparts join them for a few months of fun in the sun. August is a great month for birders as all the migrants arrive, many in time to join the feathered masses that mop up the last of the hapless catfish caught in the mud of the dried up pans. As an antidote to all the muddiness below, the skies above are filled with colourful bee-eaters as they snatch up the fresh flush of insects that announce the arrival of summer.

And on that salutary note to the arrival of summer and to the specialness of Mana Pools, we'd like to leave you with two of our last and most abiding images of Mana's beloved Slot. As always thank you to David Fettes for these images. Slot was as dear to him as he was to us and perhaps David has the biggest catalogue of images of Slot's life in Mana.

We stand up and salute the Slotman. He enriched our lives beyond measure and was one of Stretch's closest friends.

Goliath Safaris   July/August 2011

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