Just two nights with Jess at Hilltop camp. This time the luxury of ‘breakfast included’ in the restaurant, while for dinner we grilled big juicy steaks both nights.
Dad, you’re not taking photos of impalas, are you?! Jess likes to keep moving, looking for the Big Five and teases her friends who want to take pics of things she’s seen before! Yes, Jess, I like their bums and I like the different sizes, three Moms, a teenager, a pre-teen and a toddler. Hmph!
Omigawd! You seriously stopped for a butterfly!? she teases next. Don’t worry, it’s all a game.
No, better! It’s actually a Starred Robin! I said excitedly.
A frosty silence descended.
‘DO YOU KNOW I’M THE CHAIRMAN OF THE HERMANUS BIRD CLUB?’ came the imperious question.
That’s very nice, I said without taking my binocs off the robin, But that doesn’t make a robin a shrike. Look at its beak.
A classic attempt at eminence over evidence. Whattahoot!
We moved on, back to our bush camp near Lake St Lucia. Things were uncomfortable, as Jess and I were actually their guests, and mine host’s ego was wounded.
That night I aimed my tiny little 22X Kowa spotting scope at the full moon, setting the tripod low so the kids could get a lovely look.
Again I felt the ambient temperature drop drastically. There were mutterings by Ma, sending The Chairman of the Hermanus Bird Club scuttling off to his son’s bungalow and emerging twice with two large wooden boxes and one small one. A huge tripod emerged from one of them. Unfolded, it resembled the Eiffel tower. From the other box a white tube like an Apollo rocket. The Professional Celestial Telescope! After much assembling and urgent furtive instructions the fussing codgers and the favourite son start searching for the moon. Hey! It’s not easy to find with those bazookas. You move it a millimetre right and you’ve got Jupiter; a millimetre left and its Mars. Go too far down it’s Uranus. Eventually the moon is located and focused on. Ma, Pa and favourite son step back satisfied, and invite the kids to look at THIS telescope. A real one. A chair has to be found for them to stand on.
Oh, I much prefer that one, says the grandkid and then Jessica agrees, and then the other grandkid says Yes, That one’s much better, POINTING AT MY TINY KOWA! It’s a social disaster! Their own grandkids betraying them in their moment of triumph!
I hastily step up to their scope and say Ooh! Aah! and Wow! Magnificent! Powerful! What else? All you can see is white. It’s focused on an insignificant bath mat-sized area of the moon. Whereas with mine you can see the whole moon the size of a dinner plate, this one you could see a dinner plate on the moon. Except there’s no dinner plate to see. Mine shows mountains and craters, this monster shows white.
Cast a pall on the evening it did. Gloom descended. Some went to bed early after some muttered explanation of how the better telescope WAS actually much better.
Hilarious, if a bit stressful at the time for a polite person.
A quick one-night trip to Hluhluwe saw very good birding but Jess was disappointed as the animals were in hiding, possibly due to the big fire which burnt the first day and through the night.
She’s spoilt, though, as she still saw twelve species, all good close-up views including an elephant where she immediately said ‘Reverse Dad, we’re too close!’ and a crocodile, a monitor lizard and a grass lizard – seen below on the tar road, trying to escape the fire. They can hardly move if not in grass, with their tiny little legs. I picked it up and placed on grass and it immediately whizzed away, ‘swimming’ in the grass.
Can you spot the leaf caterpillar who’s trapped in the leaf and is trying to call for help but can’t spell?
The little Canon camera did its secret video thing, recording in the background while you’re taking snapshots. It’s weird, but I quite like it:
The biggest surprise sighting this trip was probly the sight of me braai’ing. I left catering to Jess and she bought some really weird stuff: Charcoal, firelighters, matches and lamb chops. What could I do? I braai’d.
One sane and sober adult and three girls. Yikes! Man, they were full of nonsense. And rude!? Ha! Ha! We played ‘I Spy’ and you can imagine what they were guessing for B and P and F and all. We laughed till the tears ran. I reminded them of the days we played with Tommy. Whenever A came up he would immediately say ‘anus’ and Aitch would say “Tom!’
The only animal that came close to us in the park caused Jess to burst into tears ‘Dad! Reverse!’ and so we didn’t get what would have been frame-filling shots of a calm, peaceful elephant.
Luckily the camera did its surprise unknown video trick. I’m growing to like it! It records video without you knowing it while you’re focusing on taking stills.
While making lunch the girls spotted this tiny larva moving with his house on his back. The cone-shaped shelter was 10mm long and about 1mm diameter. He was like a hermit crab or a caddisfly larva, but on dry land:
At a pit-stop on the N2 highway on the way there I saw a lovely mushroom trail across the lawn. Is it along a termite track, I wonder?
Lydia of London is what we called Jessie’s room-mate on her field guide course. It’s a year later now and Lydia is back in SA doing her Masters thesis on vultures and people (including sangomas and the muti trade).
So the girls decided to get together before Lydia heads off back to London. We spent a lovely day in the reserve, not uneventful! In fact we saw eight stand-offs: Three avian, where pairs of red-capped robin-chats, cameroptera and bulbuls chased and challenged each other; three mammalian, where two bull rhinos, two bull buffalo and two bull giraffes sorted each other out; and one inter-species where a chameleon huffed at Lydia as she rescued it from becoming road-kill.
The eighth was a Fraught Rhino vs a Ford Ranger:
This old bull had been pummelled and bullied and gored by a bigger younger bull who marched him backwards for a couple hundred metres then took him into the bush where we couldn’t see them but could hear the grunting change to squealing, ending in this guy emerging bleeding. We then got between him and the aggressive one and I decided I’d better get past. Upon which this poor fella tucked his horn down and feinted at the vehicle, missing us by inches. I think Lydia of London did frown at me somewhat.
On a more peaceful note, Jess made us a lovely lunch, we saw a finfoot in the river, and we organised a dozen vultures to do a special flypast for Lydia of London!
We also saw a rhino named Frank:
(Couldn’t resist! Got a pic of an ele with egrets with that caption on whatsapp and thought of this picture).
I know it may seem boring and Tom definitely voices that opinion strongly but we went to Hluhluwe again – and he came along, a rare event nowadays. What swung him was the restaurant food. We debated as a family and decided to stay in the cheaper rondawels, but to eat at the buffet. Tom also slept in both mornings as we went on our 6am game drives, so all-in-all he quite enjoyed the chilled vibe and the grub.
Leaving home was interesting. We left at 5am . .
. . and then again at 8am with a changed tyre plus a repaired spare. It’s a tedious story.
Saw the usual stuff – plus these:
As I spotted the first one crossing the road I thought Bibron’s Blind Snake! Not for any good reason, but it was the first thing that came to mind. I’ve always wanted to see a Blind Snake. Then I thought beaked snake, snouted snake, some underground snake! What were they? I’ve asked Nick Evans, maybe he’ll enlighten me. Length: About from my wrist to my elbow. Say 300-350mm.
Back at the camp the buffet was a big hit. The only gripe Tom had was “Dad, they’re playing Tobias’ music in the dining room!” Yeah, Tom, I’m relieved they’re not playing gangsta rap! After breakfast one morning we went outside where a huge round auntie and a huger rounder uncle filled a couple of deckchairs. As we gazed over the hills we heard them: She: Are you hungry? He: Not really; maybe peckish; She: Yeah, let’s get breakfast; and they heaved their huge bodies out of the deckchairs and waddled in. Hey, the breakfast was good! Full cooked brekker chased with muffins, scones, jam, toast and loads of good coffee.
Nick has replied at last: They’re not snakes at all! They are Giant Legless Skinks, Acontias plumbeus – family Scincidae. So we had a SkinkyDay, not a snaky day. Up to 450mm long, they eat worms, crickets and sometimes frogs. They bear live young and can have up to fourteen at a time. Skinks, of course are completely harmless to humans. The lighter one looks like it did the lizard trick of dropping its tail and regrowing a new one.
Big creatures we saw elephant, buffalo, five white rhino, one croc, one lion, and kept looking for more as the kids were keen. Suited me, as there are always birds to see.
We also saw about eight slender mongoose, one little band of banded mongoose, two leguaans (water monitor lizards), a number of mice at the sides of the road (after grass seed?), samango and vervet monkeys, red duiker, bushbuck, nyala, impala, kudu, zebra, including one that had lots of brown who would have been wanted by the Quagga Project.
My best bird sighting was a falcon skimming low in front of us heading towards a line of trees along a stream, then shooting up and over some bushes to ambush a dove. It pursued it helter-skelter but then another falcon seemed to interfere and the dove managed to get away. Just then Jess piped up: “Gee! You certainly get excited about birds!” I hadn’t realised I’d been shouting. Hmph! I said, That was better than any attempted lion kill!
Here’s Nick Evans‘ pic of a Bibron’s Blind Snake – quite different:
We spent a few hours in Hluhluwe Game Reserve on my first visit to Jess on her course. We got in for free using our new Rhino Card. For ages now we have battled to see eles in KZN parks. In fact in Mkhuze last year I offered the kids a reward if they spotted fresh ele poo!! Not even the live animals themselves! Nothing.
As always Jess was the spotter: “Dad! Elephants! Stop!” She does NOT want to get close, so we stopped a good 200m away and watched as 30 eles of all sizes sauntered past on a road across a streambed from where we were parked. In another first, I was without my binocs! The last time that happened was 2003. I only had my spares that live in the car, not my proper Zeiss’. Can’t believe what getting ancient does to one.
Then “Dad, there are more” – and then more. And more. They were all headed for the Hluhluwe river so we found an overlook on a bend and watched and counted.
We counted 150 eles! Our ele drought has been broken. One teenage ele took exception to the presence of the warthogs, rushing them, shaking his ears. They basically ignored him, scampering away at the last minute and trotting straight back to their positions in defiance of him.
On the way out a lone ele ran out of the bush across the road right in front of us, making it 151.
Greg Seibert was an exchange student to Harrismith back in 1972. He mailed me in 2014 to say his brother Jeff was coming to SA for work in Port Elizabeth. He’s with General Motors. I said get him up to KZN and we can go to a game reserve. Short notice, so I booked Hluhluwe.
Greg thought he may join us but it didn’t happen. Very sadly.
I wrote to friends after: Hared off at short notice to Hluhluwe-Mfolosi park. Harrismith’s 1972 Rotary exchange student contacted me to say his brother was in SA. He works for General Motors and I spose he was checking to see if they still sell Chevs in this neck of the woods. He’s from just outside Detroit, Michigan.
Mfolosi was dry and Hluhluwe was burnt, the logs still smouldering from a fire that burnt about half the park. Lots to see in the line of big grey animals plus antelope and painted dogs. Lots of birds, too.