After many days of rain, just what the park had needed, we had a break; perfect clear skies and sunshine. There was a gorgeous sunrise, and for much of the day the light was perfect for photography; it’s a shame then that we would be counting buffalo all day. But this is conservation and not a safari; the work needs to be done and that’s the priority.
We started with the first of our bi-daily cheetah boma checks. Today they needed feeding, we met Dane at the boma and he brought with him the skinny carcass of a male impala, hardly any meat on it. The method of feeding is nuanced; drive as close to the electric fence as you can, lift the gutted bleeding carcass above your heads, and launch it over the fence top – watching it crash into a heap on the other side, hopefully not catching and shorting the electrics.
Then we resumed our regular tasks; circling the boma, looking for problems, tracks, digging, escape attempts, checking the electrics with a voltmeter, and filling up the water trough. We waited for a long time just out of sight in hopes that the cheetah might come and eat the food we’d given them. But when we returned they hadn’t touched it. I probably wouldn’t either. These cheetah will have to get used to skinny food. (In the afternoon it was still untouched).
We had coffee and rusks with Dani and Megan near a feeding site and then attempted to count, sex and age a small herd of buffalo; we counted 47 individuals – waiting for the herd to cross in front of us to avoid double counting.
Back at camp the sun was shining, birds were active in the trees and I relaxed outside. Weavers, barbets and cape glossy starlings moved in the trees above me, and with a glass of crisp white wine I watched the day go by. This trip would soon be over and it’d be months before I felt the warm sun like this again.
Dane joined us in the evening with the hope that an extra pair of eyes, and some more expertise, would make the buffalo count easier. We rocked up at a feeding site to find over 100 buffalo; 107 to be precise, but not accurate. In the hot sun, for 2 hours, we attempted to sex and age them; us volunteers managed about 30, Dane and Dani about 40. It was hard work, staring into the low sun, assessing the hairiness of a boss, or the curvature of horns, or the thickness of a hide – the buffalo always moving. Besides us we also watched zebra cavort; young foals pranced about, a herd squabbled. Wildebeest came and went. White rhino bossed the best feeding patches, their young sleeping in the shade.
Babs’s keen eyes spotted a single lonesome buffalo calf. Over the two hours we hadn’t seen it feed, and we couldn’t see its mother. More worrying, it stayed on the floor, and each time it tried to stand it struggled and gave up. Because of the drought many cows have been unable to feed their young, their udders dry up and the calves are abandoned. Sometimes management can step in before that happens, before the calf is too far gone, they can rescue the calf and care for it in a boma; we considered that now. With some rope we’d reverse in, catch the calf, blindfold it, and rush it to the herbivore boma where others already are. But the light was fading now, we needed rope and more hands, and management was already stretched – caring for the existing buffalo, managing feeding sites, feeding the cheetah, etc. Perhaps they’d try another day, we wouldn’t know.
After rain comes bugs, and ZRR was beginning to resemble a scene out of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (perhaps that’s an exaggeration), on the drive back we got pelted with swarms of flying ants, their discarded wings littered the roads. At camp we closed all the windows, and every few seconds a dung beetle would bash into it, craving the lights, millipedes were wandering around all over the floor.
It was while I prepped the sausage and mash that Paweł called us; a spider in his room. A type of tarantula, a baboon spider, was running around under his bed. We caught it in a plastic bowl, releasing it outside. It was then that we stumbled on a large bark scorpion waiting by the door, a wasp attached to its head, parasitising it. Dung beetles flew around us as we ate dinner, then we went on the search for more exciting bugs; a huge moth in the outside corridor, and just as we were about to sleep I found a small brown snake, about half a metre long, resting near the door. Probably a harmless house snake but we kept a respectable distance just in case.
For my penultimate morning, to my disappointment, we weren’t going to track the dogs. Instead it was a late start, 5:30am, and we would be working on the camera traps. It’s also an admin day, which meant no afternoon session.
Two cameras were straightforward; unlocking the camera, changing the SD, changing the batteries, taking a test photo, though they each had their own surprise. The first one disappointed me, an hour earlier, in this exact spot, if we’d left at normal time, we might have seen a brown hyena, in daylight no less – the camera picked it up perfectly. The second surprise came when I opened a camera trap door, behind the camera I found a web, an orb of eggs and a beautiful brown widow spider; I tried not to disturb it when I put the camera back in.
We stopped for coffee at one of the feeding sites; zebra, wildebeest, waterbuck and rhino fed while we gorged on instant coffee and Spar’s own brand rusks.
The third camera was a new one, we met up with Matt from Leopard Mountain and he showed us a spot where they’d seen leopards mating (!). Just around the corner from the road, along a well used game trail we hammered in two new camera posts – amongst the feathery remains of an eaten emerald spotted dove. ZRR are hoping to build up an identikit of the different leopards in the reserve, and this is one of the first steps. A nice side-on image of a leopard walking past would be ideal.
This was my last chance to see a leopard on my 8 week trip. I tried hard, scanning all the trees with my binos, looking for tracks; nothing. I’ll have to come back to see the last of my big 5. 500 hours on the back of a truck in KZN parks and no leopard sighting – this is how hard they are to see here.
It was however nice to see that the river was flowing after all the rain we’d had. It’ll probably flow for a few days and then dry up again. There too was a lovely black and yellow millipede, and a dark-backed weaver bird.
On our way back we stopped beside another feeding site, which had a simply remarkable number of rhino. We counted over 25 individual rhino, all dehorned.