Monthly Archives: June 2015

Soar with Griffons at eye level

Vulture flying At over two thousand metres above sea level, you can see the dictating membrane of a Cape Griffon slide over its eyes as it glides past you. The bonus is, you have both feet planted firmly on the ground, so you can get a great shot of it too. Cape Griffons, or Cape vultures, are one of South Africa’s most endangered species. They succumb to poisoning (farmers poison carcasses of livestock to kill the predators that killed their stock, and the vultures get killed in this cycle) collisions with power lines, electrocution on power lines, poaching for muthi, and shrinking habitat and range. Vultures on power lines Fortunately, conservationists such as Kerr Wolter at Vulpro are educating farmers, and some forward thinking farmers have changed their methods. Also, Eskom is looking at ways to mitigate vulture deaths on their powerlines. The muthi trade and shrinking range (for carcasses and kills) are still of concern. Now a lot of people still have reservations about vultures and the stigma attached to them, and I must admit, I had some negatives too. That is ,until I saw them spread out those giant two metre wingspans, and make the sky their own. As my interest grew, I discovered that they are fastidiously clean birds. They have to be, after what they eat. They simply can’t afford to spread disease or parasites in and around their home. They preen and clean until they are creamy white and squeaky again. Vult and small chick This is how I met them at their largest colony, in the Kranzberg section of the Waterberg, in Limpopo province, South Africa. Watching them closely over the years, I have never seen one of the six hundred or so breeding pairs here, ever looking dirty, or even ruffled. What also drew me to them is the way they care for their young. Both parents share this task. The male or the female will fly off, often hundreds of kilometres, searching for food, while the other one incubates the egg, or broods the chick. The returning parent regurgitates for the chick (see our video clip) and the two parents grow the chick until it can one day fly off the ledge.

See the video of a young bird trying to land on the ledge near its family – with hilarious  consequences.

Anyway, back to the title of this article. If you want to soar with Griffons, get over to Marakele National Park, in Limpopo Province. There are a number of places to stay, including the National Park accommodation, Griffons Bush Camp, which nestles on the plateau below the cliffs and the colony, or for real luxury, Marataba Lodge, a private lodge. Prices range from R 205  for camping at Bontle campsite in the Park, or R 489 per person sharing, self catering in the stone and thatch cottages of Griffons, inside an exclusive private area of the Park, or from  about R 3,500 per person per night at the five star Marataba Safari Company Lodge. Also in the Park. In full disclosure, I am the founder of Griffons Bush Camp, so I do promote them. However, I have listed a variety of accommodation to suit varying needs and budgets. The important thing is, to get to see the vultures at eye level. To do this, you can self-drive up the winding scenic tar road through the Park, to the very top of the Kranzberg. You are now on the lip of the cliffs above the Griffon colony itself. From the tourist area, you can often see the vultures fly over and past, and some days this will be splendid viewing in itself. However, if you want to get a closer view, and have a great scenic walk and experience, I recommend you book a game drive with the SANParks guide, Sidney Mikosi. Sidney will meet you at the entrance to the Park, and you then hop into the nicely kitted game viewer, and he will take you up the mountain. Once there, he will lead a walk along the cliffs for the best view of the colony, and the vultures. The view is absolutely spectacular, and so are the vultures. Definitely must be on your do list when visiting this beautiful mountainous and wild Park.  

Take a look at the clip with me and Sidney ‘ On top of the World’

All the Big Five – lion, elephant, rhino, buffalo and leopard, are present in the Park, so Sidney is armed. He is also an abundant and enthusiastic source of information about the fauna and flora. I recommend going early in the morning ( around half past five in summer, and half past six am in winter) as the vultures seem to enjoy soaring with the first rays of sun. The vultures often soar really close, and if you’re lucky, you’ll see their golden eyes shining in the early morning sun, and even a slight twist of the neck as they wonder what you’re doing up there. It’s one of the finest things you can do with a morning of your life. © Robert Charles Waldron 2015 All rights reserved     If you’d like to help Cape Griffons, or donate some funds to helping to save them, Kerri Wolter, who runs Vulpro (South Africa’s largest vulture rehabilitation centre, in Magaliesberg, visit the Vulpro site.)



Lioness to cam We were actually making a movie about elephants when it happened. It happened on our first night, actually. My sound recordist who also shared the driving with me, Ellie Mthanda, was on his first wildlife location, far, far, from his hometown of Soweto. We’d already had a great afternoon, as we arrived, filming herds of elephants drinking along the Chobe river, in Chobe National Park, Botswana. Perhaps it was this that caused us to be a tad late arriving to set up camp. We were privileged to be allowed to camp outside the main tourist camp, as we were film crew, and so we pitched just nearby, to be near the ablutions etc.

We were just about done, tent up etc, and it was darker than dusk. Looking behind me along the entry track to the camp site, I saw some dark shapes of animals walking along the path. Impalas I thought, and carried on unpacking, as did Ellie. Our site was just alongside the track, with our tent facing outwards for a view of the beautiful Chobe flowing by. As I turned back to get some more stuff from our Landcruiser, the shapes along the path had got a lot bigger as they drew nearer. It was now so dark I could only make out blobs. Then one of the shapes , just a few metres from the truck, sat down on its haunches. Impalas do not sit down on their haunches. “Get in the truck, Ellie’ I whispered uregently, and he jumped into the passenger seat with me right after him. Luckily, I always plug a spotlight torch into the cigarette lighter when camping in the wild. I clicked the beam on and shone through the window.

There were nine lions spread out along the path, with the foremost lioness sitting, not even looking at us. I said something to Ellie, but he didn’t reply, so I nudged him. Still no response. I looked over at him, and he was out cold, sitting up, in a dead faint. I’ve never seen this before, but I believe it happens. So, I watched the lions pass, and walk on their way towards the tourist camp. After a minute or so, Ellie cam to, and I told him we had to drive in to the tourist camp to warn them about the lions strolling through. I started up, and we drove towards the camp.

The lions were nowhere in sight, but up popped the camp attendant, out of his hut, carrying a rifle, and stopped us.We said hi and he told us his name was Honest. We told him about the lions but he refused to let us go any further. “ You might scare away the guests.” he said. I reckoned the lions would do a better job of that, and tried to persuade him, but to no avail. So we reluctantly went back to our camp site, and as there were no screams and grunts during the night, we thought the lions had probably just slipped through quietly. But they hadn’t. At about four o clock, I heard a rifle shot, and Ellie and I piled into the cruiser and made for the sound. We got to Honest’s hut, and he was standing in front of it, smoking rifle in hand. ‘You okay, Honest? What’s up?” He looked at us, mournfully and to his credit, he lived up to his name. “It is the lion.” he said. We waited. Honest gestured to the toilet, “I was going to the toilet, and the lioness came out of it towards me, so I fired a warning shot into the ground.” ‘Oh” said Ellie and I. “They are gone now.’ He assured us. I was tempted to add a bit about telling the tourists, but bit my lip, and we departed. One of the great things about wild lions – they’re not too interested in us. The whole pride walked leisurely past us the evening before, without even giving us a second glance. If we were buffaloes, we would probably have to wind up the windows. That’s also why none of the tourists were bugged by them. And the lioness in the toilet? I learned about this later, when I went. The toilet is framed but two narrow pressing walls, and I was drawn by a beautiful pattern on the one side of the wall by the toilet bowl.

It was a fine spray of stripes leading away from a central series of blobs. Then I could see clearly what it was. A lioness had drunk from the fresh water in the toilet bowl, and then turned her head in the confined space. Her face, likely covered with dust, and now wet, had pressed against the wall. There was the perfect imprint of her nose and whiskers stamped onto the wall. I chuckled alll the way back to camp. And a tip for Africa visitors. Wild lions are generally far less dangerous than those raised in captivity by humans. Their menu is mainly antelope, and we are not on their menu. In captivity, the natural barrier of respect that has grown between us and them over centuries, has eroded. More captive cats injure or kill tourists than wild ones. And if you go to see the wild ones, you get to see miles of Africa around them, as well as fences. Lion eyes flash Oh, and about Ellie. He grew fantasrtically in his knowledge of wild animals, and about two years later, he was walking back with a trainee in a wild area when he heard a leopard near. He told me when he got back, that he told the trainee (from England) that it was just an antelope, and got him safely back to camp, without any panic.

 A clip from our award winning film ‘Story of the Sands’ the story of two prides of lions in the Kalahari desert, and their tests and triumphs of life, filmed over two years. Next time: Putting yourself in the right place, and waiting…..for the right time.