Folktale of the Marula tree

Legend has it that the Marula Tree is a revered tree in African jungle.

An interesting story as narrated by Nick. In the olden days every house had a marula tree, and if not the houses, the village had a tree. If a family member was leaving home to pursue a job or new venture in the city, the bag would be placed under the marula tree by the grand parent or an elder and the family would offer prayers for the wellbeing and safety of the traveling member. And also that the he or she be successful in their endeavours.

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Marula Tree | Kruger, South Africa

When the city dweller returned, the bags again would be placed under the tree and prayers would be offered. After seeking blessings and thanking the revered one for keeping their family member safe, the family would invite all the near and dear to their home and serve them liquor brewed from the marula fruit. The festivities which included song and dance would continue into the wee hours of the morning. Such is the significance of the marula tree.

While it is revered by the the natives, the leaves and fruits are relished by elephants, baboons and other herbivores. Rumour has it that elephants have even gotten intoxicated feeding on fermented marula fruit which is also used to make liquor. Witessing an elephant standing under the marula tree and feeding on it leaves while out on a bush walk only made the folk tale sweeter.

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Elephant and the Marula Tree | Kruger, South Africa

The only regret during my sojourm in Kruger is that I didn’t try the famous Amurula liqueur which of course is made primarily with the marula fruit. Well, that is left for another time. Maybe try the local marula brew too ūüôā

In search of the Shaheen

On a beautiful afternoon, we ascended to ‘shaheen point’. Mahesh, Avinash and I were doing a trip after a long time. A short walk through tea bushes and we reached our vantage point i.e. a cliff with beautiful landscape around it. Dusky Craig Martins and Swallows hovered around us but none wanted to give their wings a break and perch on the ground for us.

We laid our cameras on the ground and soaked in the fresh air, soft sun and beautiful scenery. The falcons are usually seen on that rock, Sivalingam Anna mentioned. We looked across to another hill and saw a couple of rock protrusions. That is quite a distance away, I thought! We shall go across to that hill once we sight the falcon. Activity typically happens after 4.00 PM, Sivalingam added to his previous statement.

Thus began the waiting! Since the martins and the swallows wouldn’t give us an opportunity to shoot, we pulled out our phones and made pics of the the landscape. We added a few selfies too! There was excitement momentarily, when Sivalingam heard the falcons and pointed in their direction. Far across the hills, a tiny speck was flying and it was gone before I could see it.

Little after 4 PM, Mahesh pointed towards a rock. There is something on it, he said. Sivalingam looked through his binoculars and confirmed, Shaheen Falcon! The picture below is shot with a 600 mm lens and will give you an idea of how far we were.

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Shaheen Rock | Shaheen Falcon, Nilgiris, Tamil Nadu, India

The next thing I know, the four of us moved swiftly across to the opposite hill, walked again through tea bushes, a couple of culverts and loose soil. As soon as the falcon was within our sights, we relaxed the pace and slowly moved to a safe distance before we set up our cameras.

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Poser | Shaheen Falcon, Nilgiris, Tamil Nadu, India

The falcon, aware of of our presence sat unflinchingly and posed as we made images.

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A beauty | Shaheen Falcon, Nilgiris, Tamil Nadu

A closer look of this mid-sized raptor.

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Powerful Talons | Shaheen Falcon, Nilgiris, Tamil Nadu, India

The entire sighting must have lasted about 20-30 minutes and towards the end, another falcon swooped down and our friend on the rock finally took to his wings and soared into the skies.

The best part: I was seeing this species for the first time. A day which started with the search of the Kashmir Flycatcher, ended with an incredible sighting of the very beautiful Shaheen Falcon!

Thanks to the unrelenting efforts of Sivalingam Anna, birding and wildlife enthusiasts have the pleasure of seeing and making images of such species.

Walk the African bush

We are going to walk the bush where the Big 5 roam, so listen carefully to my instructions because it could be dangerous.” These words of Nick (Nicholas) I remember very distinctly. And not just me, the entire group who joined the bush walk, remember!

While Nick was giving us this briefing, we heard the familiar sound of loading guns and snapping the barrel back in place. We turned around to see Andrew getting geared up before the bush walk began. Now this felt like we were venturing into a dangerous war zone. Time for further instructions.

  • Do not talk while on the walk! (definitely no talking, don’t want guns pointing in the direction of noisy people)
  • Andrew and I will lead, rest of you follow closely and in a tight line (as long as the person in front of me has no body odour)
  • If anyone of you wants to attract our attention, whistle or tap on the side of your thigh. Do not shout! (that is going to be difficult, we are used to shouting aloud). Even if you want to tie your shoe lace…everyone looked at their shoes and promptly bent to check and retie their laces. Hilarious! (don’t want to lose a shoe or trip on a lace while a buffalo is close on your heels)

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    Guides and Gunmen | Bush Walk, Kruger National Park, South Africa

Once the briefing was done, Nick pointed out to an elephant grazing at a distance, we are going to get a closer view, he said. Though referred to as gentle giants, the huge African elephant didn’t appear so gentle when walking towards it on foot. Trusting Nick and Andrew, we set off on our walk.

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Off on our Bush Walk | Kruger National Park, South Africa

Not approaching the elephant directly, we reached a vantage point and Nick motioned us to stop. No sudden movements, he said. Nick went on to explain that we had approached the elephant with the wind blowing toward us hence the elephant was oblivious to our presence. Had the wind been blowing from our direction towards the elephant, he would been alerted after smelling our presence. It could have led to two things, either the elephant would move away or walk in the direction of the scent. Since none of that happened, I clicked a few pictures and soon we were continuing our walk.

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Grazing peacefully | Elephant – Bush Walk, Kruger National Park, South Africa

Nick handed over the reins to Andy and we proceeded further. Stopping at a small waterhole, Andy and Nick went on to explain how a small puddle caused by an elephant foot gradually evolves into a larger waterhole. First an elephant foot creates a puddle, a warthog comes along and sits in it and wallows, making it bigger, then come a few buffalo who do the same and the waterhole becomes larger, as water collects over a season, the process repeats with the elephants, warthog, buffalo and other wildlife. All this explained beautifully by Andy and Nick.

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Making of a waterhole | Bush Walk, Kruger National Park, South Africa

As we proceeded, Andy stopped to explain marks on trees too. Some by lions and leopards, others by buffalo and elephants. A few trees essential for the herbivores were shown and a brief explanation was offered.

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Marks on a Tree | Bush Walk, Kruger National Park, South Africa

An uneventful walk (in terms of encounters, thankfully we did not come across agitated elephants or angry buffalos) was coming to an end. Nick and Andy motioned us to stop and dropped a bomb on us “do any one of you have an idea which direction our jeep is parked?” All of us were stumped and proceeded to point in all directions. That is when both explained why it is extremely important to have some idea of the direction in case one gets lost or beat a hasty retreat. My only recollection of the jeep is in the picture below. Hahahaha!

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Andy, Jeep and I | Bush Walk, Kruger National Park, South Africa

Back at the jeep, Andy and Nick answered our questions patiently.  A few pictures with an elephant in the background and thereafter back to the lodge for a glass of beer.

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Gunmen guides with the bushwalker friends | Kruger, South Africa
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The gunmen guides, new friends from Kruger and I | Kruger, South Africa

Despite having done many walks and hikes in my backyard (Forest Hills, Mudumalai, India), this one was very informative, enjoyable and definitely ‘a walk to remember’!

 

Winged wonders of Kruger

The three days of safaris in Kruger were not enough to soak in the wide variety of birds that reside in the park. While it was challenging to photograph most birds on the game drives, the Imbali Safari Lodge had a few regulars that put on a show.

I finished breakfast and decided to stick around near the outdoor dining area by the poolside. A movement in the bushes above the pool caught my attention. A colorful crested head popped out. Crested Barbet! Following the movement of this bird, I managed this one.

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Crested Barbet ~ Imbali Safari Lodge | Kruger National Park, South Africa

The very pretty Lilac-breasted Roller is a widespread species in the African continent. It was lovely to sight so many during the game drives. This individual posed patiently against the backdrop of clouds and a blue sky.

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Another commonly seen roller was the European Roller. Though it is pale in comparison to the Lilac-breasted Roller, I was quite happy to make a few images. Roller_European_SJK8436

Can you imagine a bird thats called Go-away Bird? As funny as it may sound, this species is actually called Grey Go-away Bird or Grey Lourie. Despite being wide-spread, this was the only sighting where the birds patiently sat for pictures.

Lorie_Grey_SJK8516Walking on the track, we bumped into an interesting looking birdie. The guide identified it as a Black-bellied Bustard/Kohraan. Skittish initially, the birdie eventually stopped and gave me a few frames. Korhaan_Black_Bellied_SJK8632

Three vultures sat on a dry tree and scanned the horizon presenting a perfect setting for a silhouette. Vulture_Silhouette_SJK8499

A Southern Ground Hornbill takes off as if to announce the end of the wonderful three days in Kruger which had a mix of many birds and wildlife. Hornbill_Southern_Ground_Sil_SJK7588

These are only few of the birds that I could shoot but the sightings were limited to these frames. Plenty of birds around but only if they sat stable for a few seconds for the images I wanted to make. Can’t wait to go back to Kruger for a longer period and meet the variety of winged wonders that beautiful park has to offer.

All images made with Nikon D850 + 200-400 VR

Long necks, tall legs

The dusty safari track seemed never-ending to the naked eye. While it was always the impala crossing from one side of the road to another, it was pleasant surprise to see the tallest animal of the African bush block our path and watch us with curiosity. A minute later,  the second one joined and together they crossed the track. Giraffe_SJK8348

As we moved ahead, we spotted a herd of giraffe on our left. Counting upto five individuals, only two were out in the open. The rest of the herd hidden behind the tall tree and only their heads gave away!

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Two individuals however, stood motionless looking across the road. Sensing some predator movement, we scanned the area but it didn’t bear any fruit.

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Leaving the herd, we moved ahead and later in the evening came across a tusker enjoying a mud bath. That post is for another day.

Images made with Nikon D850 + 200-400 VR

An evening with Lions

We hadn’t had the opportunity to see big cats yet on our evening game drive. As the sun was setting, a voice cracked in the radio. A couple of lions have been spotted, announced Bradley. Confirming the location of the sighting, we drove to the spot where the lions were sighted.

Sitting amidst the green grass which provided great camouflage, sat two lions with absolutely no care in the world. They are a pride of seven brothers, said Bradley. Two here, maybe we would get lucky and see the rest too…wishful thinking!

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Watchful Eyes | African Lion, Kruger National Park

As the last rays of light shone upon us, the lions got up and started moving. Continuously, roaring as they walked, calling out to the rest of the pride.

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A King’s Pose | African Lion, Kruger National Park

This young male, stopped in his tracks and looked at us with curious eyes. A personal favorite because of the engaging expression!

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Curious Eyes| African Lion, Kruger National Park

We stayed till the lions were completely out of sight and made our way back towards the safari lodge. A welcome sundowner in the ‘bush bar’ courtesy Bradley, was all about the ‘band of brothers’ we just sighted.

All images made with Nikon D850 + 200-400 VR 

 

Lurking scavenger & predator

While the African wild dogs were enjoying their meal (presumably an impala kill), a suspicious movement away from the pack, caught our attention. Slowly walking out of the bush and revealing itself was a spotted hyena!

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Lurking | Spotted Hyena ~ Kruger National Park, South Africa

Known to scavenge not only on scraps but also to chase away the hunter from its kill, the spotted hyena is quite an unrelenting animal especially when there’s a bunch of them. But here the odds were against the hyena! A single hyena didn’t stand a chance against a pack of wild dogs.

By now the wild dogs were aware of a sly hyena doing the rounds. Two or three dogs kept the hyena at bay while the others went about their meal. Anticipating some action, I kept track of the hyena’s movement. Gathering some courage, the hyena finally moved towards the feeding pack. The moment the hyena crossed the comfort line, a warning was given by the dogs.

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Walking back disappointed | Spotted Hyena ~ Kruger National Park, South Africa

Not wanting to risk injuries, the hyena opted for a hasty retreat. If only the hyena had more companions, if only!

Images shot with Nikon D850 + 200-400 VR

Painters on a prowl

I have often been told, Kruger National Park is the best place to see the African Wild Dog (also known as African Painted Dog or African Hunting Dog). Now that I was finally in Kruger for three days, I directed all my questions to our guide, Bradley.

How often do you see Wild Dogs? I asked. We see them maybe once in a week, he replied. But they have not been spotted in recent times, he added. My heart sank, hearing the last few words. More than the Big 5, this was the endangered species I was longing to see.

On a morning game drive, I decided to take the seat next to Bradley. That move would later prove to be a favourable one. We took a new route that morning which went past another camp called Hamilton Tented Camp. As we drove past the camp and down a slope toward a dry river bed, a swift movement on the right side caught my eye.

Wild Dog! The vehicle had barely come to a stop, and as I whipped out the camera and took a few pictures… Poof! The dog was gone.

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In a hurry | African Wild Dog, Kruger National Park, South Africa

My joy for that brief moment knew no bounds! I was ecstatic seeing an African Wild Dog. The wild dogs are rarer than the leopard, exclaimed Bradley, as he turned the jeep around. Driving ahead, we spotted a congress of baboon who seemed quite relaxed and unaware that one of the finest hunters in the wild was in the midst.

Leaving the baboons, we must have moved barely a few hundred yards, when we saw three wild dogs standing on the safari track. Not sure if they were a shy pack, I took pictures as we slowly made our way towards them.

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Three’s a team | African Wild Dog, Kruger National Park, South Africa

One bold individual stood his ground as we got closer. Urging Bradley to stop at a safe distance, I made a portrait of this fine looking specimen. I must admit, I always thought these dogs to be ugly! Now, I take my words back!

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African Wild Dog, Kruger National Park, South Africa

We were in for more surprises! There were four more individuals in the pack. They had made a kill nearby. One dog had a piece of meat while another made away with a leg piece. Presumably an impala that had been hunted.

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Mouthful | African Wild Dog, Kruger National Park, South Africa

As we were the only vehicle around, the wild dogs got comfortable and one curious dog came sniffing close to my door.

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Too close Eh! | African Wild Dog, Kruger National Park, South Africa

Just when all of us including Bradley were rejoicing one of the best sightings of wild dogs in recent times, we had a a surprise visitor!

The story is for another day! Stay tuned for next week’s post.

All images shot with Nikon D850 + 200-400 VR 

 

Hornbills of Kruger

Southern Ground Hornbill was one of the birds high up on my wish list soon after Kruger plans materialised. Having seen it earlier in Masai Mara a few years ago, the regret of not being able to make any images of this endangered species was was heavy on my mind.

Well into the second half of our maiden drive in Kruger, as the breeze got cooler and the evening light turning everything to gold, we spotted a few black objects on the track as we turned around a bend. A group of ground hornbills were on a stroll!

Seeing our jeep approaching, the hornbills scattered and we were left with only one standing on the track. As the hornbill slowly made it across the track, I made images of the biggest hornbill species in the world.

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Southern Ground Hornbill | Kruger National Park, South Africa

While one hornbill moved away, majority of the group decided to stick by a termite mound. I had the good fortune of taking a picture of a juvenile hornbill too.

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Southern Ground Hornbill (juvenile) | Kruger National Park, South Africa

Other species of hornbills spread across Kruger National Park are the Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill and Red-billed Hornbill. Despite seeing them all over during the game drives, they are difficult subjects to shoot. They flew away as soon as the jeep approached them.

A co-operative southern yellow-billed hornbill was gracious enough to stay put on a branch while I attempted to make images.

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Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill | Kruger National Park, South Africa

The more skittish red-billed hornbill was quite a challenge! Despite all my attempts, I managed a decent record of this species.

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Red-billed Hornbill | Kruger National Park, South Africa

Thus having covered the majestic southern ground hornbill, the pretty yellow-billed and red-billed hornbills, I have managed to get over the deep-seated regrets from the past trip to Kenya.

All images made with Nikon D850 + 200-400 VR 

The Drifter | Kruger

Like a drifter I was born to walk alone…

I’m reminded of those lines from the famous classic rock number by Whitesnake called Here I go again. The line was apt for this elephant who was the largest Tusker I laid my eyes upon, while in Kruger National Park.

It must have been only a few minutes into the game drive As we came near an open patch of grass, we spotted this tusker coming out of the bushes. It is always a treat to watch elephants walk- the lazy gait, barely any noise, flapping their ears, trunk up in the air sometimes to catch a scent. Slowly, he made his way towards a tree right beside the road.

So close was he to the vehicle, only a camera phone could get the entire elephant in the frame. Quickly switching to a 50mm lens, I managed to shoot a couple of interesting perspectives.


Once he was done munching, the drifter decided to move along. He walked past our vehicle at his own pace, crossed the safari track and walked back into the bushes…probably saying to himself ‘here I go again’!

Shot details: Pic 2&3 shot with Nikon D850 + 50mm 1.8 lens. Pic 1 with Nikon D850 + 200-400 VR. 

Fight another day

The jeep stopped and Bradley pointed towards a herd of Impala. They are everywhere, he exclaimed! While everyone else was looking at the impala, my eyes as usual were on the lookout. A slight movement in a bush caught my attention.

“Bradley, I think I saw some movement in the bushes”, I called out. He backed up the jeep to a halt, I pointed in the direction of the movement. A small head popped out and peered at us. Ah! Thats a mongoose! The mongoose came out supporting itself on the branch of a thin tree and posed for a brief moment.

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With lovely evening light falling on it, the mongoose looked radiant. What is it doing up a tree, I wondered?

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After a brief pose, the mongoose swiftly went up the tree, and as I tried to track it with the camera, I saw band like thing wrapped around the branch. There’s a snake on the tree, I let out a soft cry! Bradley was back in action with this binoculars, it is a Boomslang, a very venomous snake, he said!

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No wonder the mongoose was up a tree! It was up for a fight with the Boomslang! The mongoose tried attacking the snake and after a few attempts, gave up and swiftly disembarked the tree. Although it was not possible to capture the action on camera, it was exciting to see this brief encounter of mongoose and snake.

Having seen something like this only once earlier (a stripe-necked mongoose hunting a snake in Bandipur Tiger Reserve), witnessing moments like these make a safari experience even more special and memorable.

Sojourn in Kruger 

We boarded a 30-seater aircraft from Johannesburg and before one could settle in the plane, the pilot announced our descent onto Skukuza. As I got out out of the plane, I was struck by the beauty of the Skukuza airport.

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Welcome to Skukuza

Designed more like a safari lodge, the beauty of the arrivals section surprised me. Handcrafted lampshades hung from the ceiling and end to end prints of Zebra adorned the walls of counters.

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Airport or Safari Lodge?

Even the departure lounge was designed like a cafe.

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Cafe Departure

It felt surreal. Unable to contain my excitement and while still standing in awe, like most first-time visitors, I took multiple pictures on phone.

At the exit of the tiny airport,  I came across a life size statue of the critically endangered Rhino.

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Prime spot | Airport Black Rhino

Beautifully sculpted, it occupies prime space at the  entrance of the airport and also signifies what the Rhino means to the people of South Africa and especially in Kruger.

After a quick exchange of pleasantries with the driver, we set off to what was going to be home for the next three days i.e. Imbali Safari Lodge. A journey of almost three hours, we were slightly behind schedule as we had landed in Skukuza after half hour delay. We had to make it to camp on time, else, we would miss the evening game drive.

Elephants, hornbills, hundreds of impala and a Cape Buffalo (who only showed his butt) were seen along the road as we drove to Imbali. Half way into the journey, the tired eyes finally shut and I took a much needed nap. The crackle of the radio woke me up. We were finally nearing our lodge. Minutes later we entered the driveway of the reception. Already quarter past four, I quickly chugged the welcome drink, fixed camera and lens, got introduced to my guide; Bradley, two lovely couples (who would also be part of the  wonderful experience) and was off for the evening ride.

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Typical scene of an evening game drive

No sooner had we left the lodge, we were greeted by a huge Tusker and his two companions.

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Marching into the frame

The huge male in the above image came so close to our vehicle, we were literally within touching distance from him.

In the two hours of safari, we saw numerous birds, plenty of impala, a herd of kudu, elephants, mongoose chasing a boomslang snake, a group of southern ground hornbill (highlight of the evening), even had a flat tyre and finally two lions. And this was just the start!

Three days and 6 game drives, stay tuned for the the Kruger series!

Shot details: All images made with an iPhone