Southern Red- and Yellow-billed Hornbills are the avian clowns of the African bushveld. Their proud posture suggests that, as far as they are concerned, their large beaks are no laughing matter. However, it’s difficult not to be amused by them, especially when they hop along on the ground cocking their cumbersome heads to look at things. When you get a full-on stare from a hornbill’s piercing yellow eyes it can appear quite accusing, sometimes even slightly crazed. Their bizarreness is part of their charm, and their undulating flight, long eyelashes and striking colouring are distinctive and lovely.
Pied Kingfishers are one of the most recognisable birds in southern Africa. They have a wide range which includes both freshwater and saltwater biospheres. They sometimes form a symbiotic relationship with the Cape Clawless Otter, hunting the fish the otters disturb. These striking kingfishers are often seen hovering in one position above the water while they scan for fish. They can be found throughout much of Africa, in parts of the Middle East, and in southern Asia as far as China.
The strong markings and warm orange colours on these crag lizards suggest that they're in their full breeding colours. The pseudocordylus family, also known as girdled lizards, can be found from the northern Drakensberg to the Cape Fold Mountains. Crag lizards are rock-dwellers, so they are often seen basking on rocky outcrops like this one.
Denham’s Bustard is also known as Stanley’s Bustard. It was initially named after the English naturalist Edward Smith-Stanley, but now takes the name of English explorer Major Dixon Denham. Both of these gents were born a long way from this bustard’s preferred habitat in Africa’s grasslands. This bird’s broad, strong-looking neck plays an important role in its courtship rituals. It puffs up its tail and neck feathers in order to appear larger and struts about to impress females. Denham’s Bustard is unfortunately listed as near-threatened.
This Malachite Kingfisher’s vivid red beak seems menacingly sharp as it scans for prey. It predominantly eats frogs, crabs and insects. This sublimely colourful bird is fairly secretive, often flying away as soon as you disturb it, but its flashing electric blue wings luckily make it fairly easy to keep track of. This kingfisher is named for its turquoise and black barred crest which, from a distance, appears to be a vibrant greenish-blue.
It is no surprise that Secretarybirds are endemic to Africa. Their astonishing flared crests and hunting skills convey something of the hardiness of an African warrior. These birds are genetically closest to hawks and eagles, but they are unique in looks and behaviour. They are terrestrial hunters and their long limbs are specially adapted to striding through the savannah, flushing prey out of hiding and plucking it from the ground. They are known to kill and eat snakes, including venomous ones, but they subsist on a wide range of other prey, including other reptiles, rodents, crabs, birds and eggs.
Reptiles are not generally the most beloved creatures in the world - unless you include dinosaurs, which seem to delight most people. Of all living lizards, chameleons are probably closest to garnering widespread affection - because of their weirdly goggling eyes, long, lightning-quick tongues, and their fascinating ability to change colour. This is probably a Cape dwarf chameleon, which is endemic to the Western Cape and mostly restricted to Cape Town, where it particularly enjoys suburban gardens, occasionally ending up at the mercy of cats and Fiscal Shrikes.
Little Bee-Eaters keeping their beady eyes open for flying meals. These little birds dart out from their perches and scoop bees, hornets or hornets out of the air. They remove the stings before eating them by bashing the insects on a hard surface. Little bee-eaters nest in tunnels in sandy banks – they especially like aardvark holes - but unlike many other bee-eaters they do not nest in colonies. This is the smallest of the African bee-eaters, but definitely not the rarest – there are estimated to be between 60 to 80 million of these birds resident in Africa!
A young male Reedbuck wades through a swamped grassland. Reedbuck are found in swamps, grassland, vleis and reed beds. They have silky, woolly coats which can range in colour from light grey to greyish brown. The black glandular patches beneath their ears are a particularly distinctive feature. The reedbuck is mostly diurnal. When frightened it will freeze, and if it flees, it does so with a peculiar rocking motion and will frequently stop and look back.
The White Stork is often seen on newborn-baby cards – it is the one responsible for infant distribution. It may seem puzzling to trust a bird with such a sharp bill to look after tender-skinned children, but they do seem to have lovely gentle eyes. Storks appear in the myths of many cultures, on many continents, and are often associated with fertility, fidelity and family values. The image of the stork carrying a baby is now so culturally-entrenched that it even appears in some hospitals as a symbol for the obstetrics unit.
The White-throated Swallow can often be seen perching on posts or stumps in dams, wetlands and lakes. They tend to hawk prey over water using their aerial agility to catch flying insects on the wing. These swallows are found almost throughout southern Africa, as far up as the southern DRC. They stay close to rivers, streams and dams in grasslands and, like many swallow species, they nest under overhangs – building mud nests on human-made structures such as bridges and dam walls.
We celebrated our 35th wedding Anniversary this year so when I contacted Rory Loader from Cable and Grain, this was my brief: Please find us a special place in the bush to celebrate, where we will be spoilt, enjoy really good food, have an outside shower, a swimming pool would be a real bonus as we both love water, but most importantly, whilst we understand there is no guarantee, we would really like to see wild dog and a leopard!!
And he delivered... We were welcomed by a group of fabulous people who staff the Simbavati Hilltop Lodge, a recently completed lodge in the Timbavati area. Unlike the more traditional thatched, well-settled African design, this lodge seems to “float” on the hilltop, light and airy with a very sensitive footprint on the earth. The rim-flow pool overlooks the riverbed below and the distant mountains and we spent time every evening watching the moon rise over the rim of our wine glasses while soaking in the pool. Truly magical. Another special moment was the traditional African massage we experienced. Don’t miss it!
The tented rooms are luxurious in every sense including aircon and fans and roll up, zippered windows which we immediately opened so we could hear the sounds of the bush... very close by. There are no permanent walls in the entire lodge and access to the tented rooms are by way of raised boardwalks and guests are accompanied by a guard as they return to their rooms at night, just in case, as this is an unfenced lodge and animals roam freely.
Hot beverages and homemade cookies greeted us as we assembled before sunrise to go on our game drives with Nelson, our ranger for the duration of our stay, and Shaddy, the best tracker in the business! Breakfast, lunch and dinner under the stars or around the boma – every meal was beautifully presented, fresh veggies and salads with plenty of homemade breads and muffins, cakes and biscuits... I know they cater for all diets... but mine failed within minutes of tasting that delicious grilled fillet and fresh salad followed by a “deadly” delicious chocolate mousse.
And the game viewing? On the first morning, we spent a long time with a family of hyena at their lair in an abandoned termite mound... I think my totem animal might just be a female hyena! We came across a pride of female lions with their cubs playing and relaxing - almost disguised in the sand of the dry river bed. Talk about photographic moments!
More hyenas spotted that evening, lying in the mud at the edge of the dam and in another dam, 4 rhinos and a buffalo cooling off. Yes, the highlight was that we saw our leopard, up close, as he stalked 2 impala and although we did not actually see the pack of wild dog it was a thrilling “hunt”, with high levels of excitement as we followed their tracks through the bush... maybe next time.
One thing we are going home with that I hadn’t mention in my brief to Rory is memories. I’m going home with precious memories of a very special time, spent with my very special husband, in a very special place.
Thank you Rory for making it happen for us.
Crowned Lapwings are a familiar sight throughout Southern Africa. They are often seen standing or darting vigilantly across the ground, calling noisily. They nest in freshly cut or burnt grass, scraping a little hollow in the earth in which to lay their tiny speckled eggs. The nests seem very vulnerable and, where cars are concerned, they are. Many a lapwing nest has bitten the dust under the tires of intrepid explorers. However, these striking and plucky little birds are fiercely protective of their nests and often dive-bomb people and animals that walk too close to them.
Two mongooses stand in the erect posture so typical of these furry little beasts. Grassland is one of the preferred habitats of the yellow mongoose. They can also be found in open semi-arid scrubland in most southern African countries. A family group of mongooses is centred around a breeding pair, and the rest of the clan submit to daily anointment with the alpha male’s gland secretions.
A Spur-winged Goose wanders in a field of summer flowers. This magnificent goose is easily recognisable because of its rather ugly red facial wattles and its exquisite, iridescent wing feathers. This one is likely to be male because of the extent of his wattles and the pronounced knob on his forehead. Spur-winged Geese have variable amounts of white on their faces, throats, bellies and wings. The negligible white marking on this bird’s face are an indication that it probably hails from the more southerly populations of Spur-winged Geese.
This baby bat-eared fox looks newborn, but he’s actually just rather wet. This little one might have as many as five siblings and, interestingly, he is predominantly cared for by his father, not his mother. After the cubs are weaned off their mother’s milk, male Bat-Eared Fox fathers take over the role of grooming and tending to their young.