A trip to South Africa
It was with trepidation that I flew to South Africa last month amid reports of the region’s worst period of drought for forty years, potentially devastating for people and wildlife alike.
However, in the preceding fortnight a storm system had deluged eastern South Africa bringing a temporary respite. Consequently, for a few days the sun hardly shone and the high altitude Drakensberg grasslands appeared rather like parts of Wharfedale although with the added attraction of antelopes such as blesbok and mountain reedbuck. Yorkshire foxes were here replaced by side-striped jackals and short-eared owls by darker marsh owls, hunting by day for winged termites emerging after the rains.
Continuing eastwards, recent conditions in the flat savannahs of Kruger National Park had apparently been desert-like with empty dams and waterholes. Nature’s recuperative powers were demonstrated by the rapid greening of the landscape after the rain with grasses sprouting and acacias in leaf. Filling waterholes were being rapidly repopulated as waterbirds moved back. They included water thick-knees,similar to our stone curlews, lily trotters (pictured) using their huge feet to cross the emerging water vegetation and a variety of ducks and geese.
Most of the big mammals had survived the drought surprisingly unscathed and we were charmed by prehistoric rhinos and herds of elephants. However, there had been many casualties among the hippo population for they need a unique combination of water in which to shelter by day and grass on which to graze and the surrounds of the drying waterholes had inevitably been overgrazed.
Predators and scavengers by contrast had done well. One flourishing pride of two dozen lions containing four adult males gorged on two dead mammals. By the following day the remains were being squabbled over by five species of vulture while black-backed jackals darted in for scraps.
For me the most dramatic memories of Kruger came from night drives that revealed a different nocturnal world, including a leopard as well as smaller predators such as genets, civets and African wild cat. Best of all was a pack of African wild dogs, one of the continent’s rarest hunters. What I suspected was the dominant male approached and eye-balled us for several minutes backed by a dozen of his kin, a hair-raising sight when seen at five yards from an open-sided vehicle.
Back home in Otley things are somewhat more mundane although, stepping into the nocturnal wilderness of our garden recently to survey the newts in the ponds, I encountered the equivalent of the porcupine I had seen spotlit in Kruger, a hedgehog with spines similarly raised to deter predators.