Saturday, November 28, 2009

Pygmy down!

I ask you, Legion of Fans (LOF), is this not the cutest little thing you have ever seen in your collective lives? Couldn't you, to plagiarise my blogging friend the Crabmommy, just put him on a roll with mustard and eat him?

This is a Pygmy Kingfisher - more about him, and how he found his way to making a nest in our tea towel, shortly.

Apoligies, once again, in the meantime for the lack of blogging activity. As attentive readers would know, I have been hard at work finishing off the structural edits to my top-secret second non-fiction book. More on that in due course. Now I'm back to the comparatively easy job of cranking out another 140,000-word novel. Piece of piss, as we used to say in the army.

Mrs Blog and I have been having many adventures these last couple of weeks, in between edits, so I have no shortage of material to blog about. You'll just have to be patient with me as I get around to writing it (and getting back to my novel, which is foundering around page 135 at the moment). The next few posts have a distinctly conservationist theme to them, so get read to be alternately enraged and moved to tears (of joy, of course).

But back to the small but perfectly formed kingfisher (or fish-kinger as one of our young Zimbabwean friends calls them).

The Pygmy Kingfisher is, I believe, relatively common, but I rarely see them. I've maybe seen two or three in the last fifteen years of travelling around Africa. It's similar in size to the spectacularly colourful Malachite Kingfisher, but the Pygmy is no slouch when it comes to plummage, either. To give you an idea of size, he would fit easily into the palm of a short person's hand.

So, LOF, imagine my surprise when this little fellow landed, literally, at my feet while I was editing away. Unfortunately, he did not stop of his own free will - he flew into a window at the lodge where Mrs B and I were staying at Biyamiti Bushveld Camp, in the Kruger National Park.


And I do mean ouch. For a tiny bird he made an almighty clang as he sped, headlong, straight into the verandah's glassed wall. Mrs Blog came a-running and we rushed to his side. It looked initially, like he was dead on arrival on the tiles.

We knelt down and gently touched him... no movement.

We were heartbroken, LOF. Such a beautiful little bird, and it was a shame that the first time I'd got to see one up close he was, well... dead.

But not so! He raised a tiny wing. We suddenly went into rescue mode.

He opened his little beak, but no sound came out. "He just opened his eyes!" I exclaimed (hence the exclamation mark).

"Not this one," Mrs Blog said. She was looking at the other eye, which remained closed. How, I wondered, if he ever recovered would he fly with one eye? Badly? In zig-zags?

Mrs Blog fetched a clean tea towel, as you do, and we gently scooped Captain Peter "Wrong Way" Peach Fuzz the Pygmy Kingfisher into it (you either get that reference or you do not. This post will be long enough without footnotes).

I'd decided to name him because as we carefully moved Wrong Way to a lounge chair Mrs B informed me that she had heard of people raising injured birds as pets (in fact, now that I think about it, I wrote a book about a guy who did that - called Part of the Pride. The Lion man, Kevin Richardson, started on birds and moved on to lions).

We had some mini visions of Wrong Way accompanying us on our travels in Broomas, perhaps perched atop the camera box or sitting on the dashboard in the tea towel nest that he seemed quite comfortable in.

"This eye's open," Mrs B said.

And so, too, was the one on my side. It's the rainy season now, as I have mentioned, so there were no shortage of bugs around, including many thousands who, like Wrong Way, had sconned themselves on the verandah light the night before. I began scooping these up, so that as Wrong Way regained consciousness we would be able to begin nursing him back to health.

"Beak's opening again," Mrs B said.

Wrong Way sat there for about 15 minutes, lapsing in and out of consciousness. We hovered aorund him, and the maid came, and said, "Shame," before adjourning to sweep up some bugs.

Perhaps it was time for his feeding. With dead grasshopper in hand I knelt by Wrong Way's side and reached out my hand.

And he flew away.

Just like that.

Have a nice day. We did.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

It's raining, it's pouring

But Mr Blog is not snoring. He is working hard on the structural edits for his top-secret second non-fiction book. But he is taking time out of his hectic schedule to show you all some pictures.

He is also posting these pictures because it has been raining for five f@#ing days straight here in the Kruger National Park and I've hardly seen an animal (except for some resident elephents who pop by for a drink most afternoons at the growing puddle of water outside the fence where we're staying, in Biyamiti Bushveld Camp).

Before the rain had set in we'd also seen buffalo and rhino from the safety and comfort of our two-bedroom lodge.

So here, as much for my benefit as yours (to remind me that somewhere out there in all that rain there are, indeed, lots of animals in the kruger park) are some recent pics...

I snapped this handsome old bovine (this one's for you, Dozy) at the Delaporte water hole, not far from Kruger's main rest camp, Skukuza, when the weather was a bit nicer.

And if you think the locale for this lion pic is strangely familiar, you'd be right. It's also at Delaporte. Dedicated and eagle-eyed readers would recognise this puddle as the same one where my recent leopard-drinking picture was taken. Mrs Blog and I have seen four of the Big Five (minus) elephant, at this exact spot at different times over the past few weeks.

Baboons are everywhere in Kruger - in the bush, in the camp, in the garbage bins, and even in the tent (we had a break-in a couple of weeks ago. We are anal about not storing food in the tent, but sometimes a baboon or monkey will break in if they even see something that looks like a food container).
They're ugly things, but their kids are cute when their little and if you spend enough time with them occasionally they'll usually present a half-decent photo opportunity. This leaping lord was part of a big troop or 40 or so that we watched for a while moving along the Sabie River. They're not keen on water and would leap good distances from rock to rock rather than wading thorugh the fast current. Gotcha!

The eye of the tiger... I mean lion. This lady and 13 of her friends and relations were making short work of a buffalo right on the edge of the main road between Pretoriuskop Camp and Skukuza.

And here's the same pride at a different time of day. Light wasnt good (because of the f-ing rain) but I like the look on the cheeky little cub at the lower left. No table manners required.
Mrs Blog did an excellent job on the lions pics, don't you think?
If you've got a fave animal, post a comment if you'd like to see it. Short of Pangolin or Aardvaark I could very well have a picture of it. If I don't I'll go hunting for the big game of your choice, because that's the kind of blogger I am.
(PS: rain has stopped but work continues apace).

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Getaway from here... the lot of you!

I've resurrected my blog at South Africa's Getaway magazine, so scoot on over and have a read here (and leave a comment so it looks like I have millions of readers).

I've written a post about some truly wild and fierce African animals. Warning: contains high level violence and sex scenes.

More pics comning soon - promise.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

1997 Land Rover Defender 300Tdi Low Kms, mint condition, fully equipped safari vehicle.

No, it's not for sale!!! But if that hasn't attracted a few random googling Land Rover fans to the blog then I don't know what will. If you have joined us by mistake, sorry, but please read on.

He’s big, he’s white, he’s cool and he’s loveable… so it’s no wonder our new Land Rover is named after a polar bear.

Legion of Fans (LOF), meet Broomas. Here he is, below, proudly posing with his new roof top tent, awning, and his svelte but camera-shy mummy (complete with trendy new cowgirl hat).

Broom-broom Broomas is named after Brumas, the first polar bear to be born in captivity at the London Zoo, way back in 1949. When she was even shorter than she is now, Mrs Blog used to have a stuffed polar bear, which mother-in-law Blog named after the famous Brumas.

Broomas is a 1997 300Tdi Defender Hard Top, and he goes like the klappers. He cruises nicely at 110kph and I’ve had him up to 120kph. This may not sound all that staggering to you owners of sports cars and Japanese people movers, but believe me, 120kph is about as fast anyone should go in the mobile house brick that is the Land Rover.

Did I mention he also has power steering? This is nice, although the good thing about faithful old Tonka, our other Land Rover, is that when I drive him for extended periods I end up with arms like an East German female shot-putter. Broomas’ steering has resulted in me reverting to type and looking like a 45-year-old man who types for a living.

Such is life.

Before I get any hate mail from Series Land Rover owners, or snarky comments from Doctors Nietske or Kervorkian, let me state for the record that Tonka is alive an (sort of) well, and is definitely here to stay.

Our plan is to keep Tonka in Zimbabwe, where he is registered, and use him for short trips to the bush only. He is getting very old (24 this year) and his plucky little 2.25litre diesel heart is not as plucky as it used to be. His top speed these days is about 70 kph.

But the rest of Africa is waiting for Broomas and we hope to give him many adventures in the years to come (no doubt with some attendant heart ache).

For now, though, he is purring like a singer sewing machine with a turbo. He likes puttering about the Kruger Park at low speeds, yet he also takes the mountainous hills of Mpumalanga in his stride and likes nothing better than to be given his head on the N4, trusty steed/bear that he is.

And now, for the gadgets…

Mrs Blog and I have spent a frankly terrifying amount on camping gadgets in the last couple of weeks while we prepare Broomas to take over the mantle as Africa’s ultimate safari vehicle. So far, we have purchased:

- Easi-awn Rooftop tent (the T-top variety, for those of you who are interested. The T-top provides a nifty overhang to give shelter over the ladder and door, so you don’t get wet when going for a midnight pee in the rain)

- Easi-awn retractable awning. This is like a roller blind with legs. Very quick to erect and stow, though one of the leg stays has a nasty habit of biting my fingers and removing chunks of my flesh

- High-lift jack (no macho safari vehicle is complete without one, even though incorrect use can cost you an eye, a tooth or a life)

- Front-runner roof rack (Broomas came with an old Brakhah aluminium roof rack, but it was frot – which means buggered)

- Two(expensive) tubular steel and canvas Campmor camping chairs

- One (cheap) fold-up guest chair

- Two lightweight aluminium roll-top camping tables (these are brilliant, by the way)

- 52-litre stainless steel National Luna compressor driven fridge. “Think of it as investment in the future…” said the slick salesmen as I wobbled at the knees while handing over my Visa card

- Roof bag, jerry can holders (supplied with Broomas), spade, external gas bottle holder, and esky (cooler box to you South Africans out there).

Of course, we’ve also spent big on the little essentials of camping, such as plates, knives and forks, pots and pans, potato peeler, Tupperware, etc etc etc etc.

As with Tonka one thing we’ve skimped on is storage. I’m not a fan of fitted roller draws or other fancy-schmancy storage devices. Mrs Blog and I go for plastic storage boxes – and cheap ones at that.

Broomas is a work in progress and no doubt the storage configuration will evolve over the years as we get to know him. It’s a mistake, I believe, to spend too much on his innards at this early stage. Our boxes (one for food staples, one for kitchen utensils, one for books, one for computers, and one for the hard-bodied Mrs Blog’s exercise gear) all cost about R70 (AUD$10-ish) each.

Annoyingly, Broomas is fitted with no fewer than three anti-theft devices. He has an alarm, an immobiliser and an anti-hijack cut out device. Just starting him requires a complex series of stalk-docking and button pushing exercises that would put the Kama Sutra or a NASA pre-flight manual to shame.

Pleasingly, he doesn’t drip any oil (yet). I had some worrying moments early on, after collecting Broomas when I would check underneath him and find no oil splodges. Land Rovers are notorious leakers (in fact, they’re just marking their territory), and for a while I wondered whether he had any gear box or engine oil in him at all.

Best of all, Broomas has flow-through airconditioning – the pop-open vents in the front which have sadly (and stupidly) been welded shut on the latest Defenders, and two other critical cooling devices – twin beverage holders on the dashboard.

But bestest of all, Broomas is ours. Mrs Blog and I think of Broomas as our second child, a baby brother to Tonka. Are we mad? Of course. It’s a Land Rover thing.

What do you reckon, LOF? Any ideas on how I can further pimp my camping ride?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Spot the Cheetah - quickly

When you come to Africa, to travel on safari with me on one of the lavish safaris I plan on continuing to lead (as long as my good friends at the Africa Safari Co keep paying my airfares), you will learn the hard way that the cheetah is the most difficult of the larger killing animals to spot.

This due, in my scientific opinion, to three rules, namely:

1. There are not many of them. In the Kruger Park, where Mrs Blog and I are currently residing, there are only about 200.

2. Cheetah, in my experience, tend to be a bit flightly. They seem to be nervy, highly strung creatures, not prone (generally speaking) to hanging around and waiting for you to pull out your camera, remove the lens cap, then remember to turn it on, and

3. I will only ever see something very interesting, such as a cheetah, when I am in a rush to get out of the park, or back to camp before the evening curfew.

There are exceptions to all rules, of course. While there are not many cheetah, there are some who stick to pretty well defined territories, so if you know where to look, you might find one, such as this particularly impressive specimen...

Mrs B and I have seen this fellow so many times (about four, all up - which is a lot in terms of cheetah spotting) that we have given him a name. Spot.

One of the boundaries of Spot's territory is the dirt road that runs between Numbi and Phabeni gates in the south east of Kruger. When we've seen spot he's bee scent marking (poohing and weeing, to you and me) on prominent bits of high ground along the road, such as this tree.

Cheetah don't lounge around in trees (like leopard), but they do like getting up on things to mark their turf, and to scan the surrounding country for meals.

In contravention of rule 2 (see above), Spot is not nervy, flighty or highly strung. He's a big male who is very sure of himself and very unafraid of people in cars. In this respect he's like a lion. He couldn't give a Cheetah's squeak (they do squeak, rather than growl or roar) about tourists. Spot strides down the road like the Leonardo di Caprio of the veldt - king of the world, if you will. He also does OK with the ladies and we have seen him in the company of female, who we christened Dorothy (Dot... get it?).

As to rule 3 (above) Mrs B and I invariably see cool things on the odd occasion that we are in a rush, and that doesn't happen very often.

On the day we last saw spot we were hurrying to Hazyview to pick up Miss T, a former work colleague of Mrs Blog's, who spent a week with us (I must add, here, for the record that Miss T was very low maintenance, and well up for a bit of the old animal spotting, which makes her our ideal type of guest. Plus, she left behind a cool cowgirl hat that Mrs Blog has taken to wearing, so all in all, a good visit).

Yesterday, we were rushing to get out of the park to the nearby town of Nelspruit so I could get an anti-hijack immobiliser thingamebob fitted to our new(ish) Land Rover, Broomas. Broomas already had an alarm and an immobiliser, but that wasn't enough to satisfy the insurance company in the land of the car-jacking.

Of course, we saw a leopard, didn't we... stalking impala just near Malelane Gate, and didn't even have time to get a decent picture.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Winged Wednesday

I know you all come here for the pictures rather than the articles, but how many of you are into birds (the feathered kind, Ali G)?

Here are a few random feathered photos from the trip so far:

These chirpy little fellows are red-billed oxpeckers. I took this pic in the Kruger Park some time in the last couple of weeks. Their job is to pick ticks and other parasites off mammals, such as buffalo (which is what these ones are riding on), rhino, giraffe and other assorted grass eaters. At the same time, they act as an early warning system, chirping to notify the host animal if there's a predator in the area. In Swahili this bird is known as Askari wa Kifaru, which means "guard of the rhino". See, you learn something every day.

And above, we have the Lilac Breasted Roller, which is probably the first bird any visitor to southern Africa gets to know. It's common as muck and gaudy as hell. My kind of bird.

True twitchers might appreciate this chap (or chapess) above. It's a Crowned Hornbill, and it's the first one I've seen in 15 years of touring the dark continent. The yellow billed (of Lion King fame) and red billed hornbills are far more common. I bagged this beauty on a drive from the luxurious Tinga Private Game Lodge recently.

Come on, who can resist a penguin? These cute as a button little Burgess Meredith impersonators live on Boulders Beach, Cape Town, which is, like, the world's smallest national park or something. I visited this colony with the incredibily fortunate and damned-fine people who made up the inaugural Silent Predator Safari tour, in September. You, too, could be snapping penguins and many other creatures great and small with me if you have the guts and the bucks to join me on one of my tours (sign up for the newsletter, top left, if you think you have what it takes...)

And finally, a serene shot of a cormorant, taken from above, at the lighthouse at Cape Point. Let it not be said that I don't take you from one end of Africa to the other (this is the southernmost bit, and some time ago, you may recall I was blogging from Libya, which is up the other end).
MTC (mammals to come. Soon. Promise)

Monday, November 02, 2009

I've gone to the dogs

Big news... I have been appointed as one of the patrons of the Australian-based wildlife charity Painted Dog Conservation Inc!

When I started writing books about Africa I hoped that one day there would be some way I could do something via my writing to help raise awareness (or money) for conservation issues.

After a false start (in which one organisation told me they didn't want me to help them raise money because I wasn't famous enough - ouch), I was contacted out of the blue one day by John and Angela Lemon, who run the Painted Dog Conservation organisation in Western Australia.

John and Ange had read my third book, SAFARI which features a (very attractive) painted dog researcher, Michelle Parker, who is based in Hwange Natioinal Park, Zimbabwe. As it turned out, John and Ange had also been working on dog research and conservation in the same park, and John had been instrumental in building a painted dog interprative centre and refuge just outside Hwange's Main Camp.

Readers with long memories may recall that I've spoken at a couple of John and Ange's fundraisers over the past two years, and auctioned off names in my books to help them raise money. There are a couple of big donors to the cause who feature as characters in my latest book, IVORY.

Painted Dog Conservation Inc supports in-situ painted dog research and conservation projects in Namibia and Zimbabwe.

The interpretive centre, which I visited recently during my trip to Zimbabwe, is quite frankly the best facility of its kind I have ever seen. And I'm not just saying this because I'm now a patron. (I'm standing out the front of the centre in the picture up the top of this post).
The centre provides a wealth of informaiton about the endangered painted dog via the (mostly true) story of one plucky doggy, named Eyespot. Large colourful murals paint the painted dog picture in a way kids (and grown ups) can absorb information, and have their heart strings tugged at the same time.

There's no entrance fee to the centre, though by the time you've heard all of Eyespot's trials and tribulations (delivered in a very warm, and very polished manner by the lady guide) you can't wait to get your wallet out.

Interestingly, and scarily, the entire building (and it's a biggy) is made of mud bricks reinforced by snare wire. Subsistence poachers place snares in the national park to trap small buck, such as Impala, for food, but curious predators (like the dog below) and every other manner of mammal also get ensnared. One of the main activities of the dog conservation project in Hwange is anti-poaching patrols and snare collection.

As well as educating visitors and locals alike, the centre also functions as a refuge for injured or otherwise disadvantaged painted dogs. While I was there visiting the centre was caring for a litter of puppies whose parents had been killed by lions. With other animals these might have been left to die in the wild, but there are so few painted dogs left in Africa (only about 2,500) that these little doggies had to be saved.

Our guide around the enclosures, Xmas, (that's him and me below) told us that once the pups reached a certain age (big but not too big) they should be able to be reintroduced to the wild and adopted by another pack. What nice animals these dogs are.

Now, I'm not sure what a patron is supposed to do, so if you have any ideas, please let me know. For now, it's probably enough that you all click through to the website here and learn a bit more about painted dogs.

I might not know what to do, but I am touched and honoured to have been invited to lend my ongoing support to this very good cause.