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Safari at Madikwe, November 2012

We took a three-day trip to the Madikwe Game Reserve, one of South Africa's larger game reserves, a few hours from Pretoria.

And this was my birthday trip from Heidi: thank you sweetie!

Also see photos from Pilanesberg safari taken a few weeks later. Pilanesberg had a slightly higher animal density, but at Madikwe having a guide along meant that we had a clue what we were looking at and where to go.

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Madikwe Game Reserve is a 3-4 hour drive from Pretoria. It's right next to the Botswana border (capital city Gaborone).
This was Finn's high point on the drive out. That is one huge truck!!! And yes, mining is big, so there are a lot of these trucks around.

This was not far from the Marikana mine, where 40-some miners were killed by the police during a strike last summer.

The whole area is around 700 square km. This is most of the park here; you can see the Botswana border to the north. Our lodge is marked at the center. We took six different game drives around the park... not all mapped out here but you get the idea. For scale, the map is about 80 km across -- it's a big area, and South Africa's #5 game park in terms of size.
Our guide Andre! He was awesome. We went out for a drive with him in the 11-seat Land Cruiser just after we showed up.
On our first drive out. This is 'Friday,' the white rhino.
Astrid is looking for the rhino.

There were two rhinos poached for their horns just before we got there, plus another killed on New Year's Day, 2013. Rhino poaching here is really huge and awful.

Jackals! There's a whole family of them that live beneath bushes by the airstrip. (No, we didn't fly in.)
Jackal! I think this is the mom.
They eat bugs, worms, mice, that kind of thing. Not rhinos.
Madikwe was a massive cattle ranch up until the late 1970's. Many remnants of that remain, including fences, concrete feed troughs, and non-native poky plants like this one, which apparently the cows didn't mind.

Like several other large game parks in South Africa, this was on native land, until the locals sold it off (some willingly, some unwillingly) and were relocated. The idea is that those people are now employed at the park. Most of the animals are the same species as the native ones, but these were all trucked in, in a massive game-relocation effort called Operation Phoenix... 8000 animals brought in over seven years! In general this is regarded as highly successful. It is similar to (but slightly larger than) Operation Genesis, at the nearby Pilanesberg park.

Note that South Africa's Kruger National Park is an exception -- it's been a protected area for > 100 years, and the animals are for the most part native.

Fog in the morning. Land Cruiser! Madikwe is set up such that you are required to go with a guide. Nearly everyone who goes into the park stays at one of the dozen small lodges within it.
Lion tracks!!! It had rained overnight, and we saw these in the morning mud.

Typically we got up at 5 AM for the first drive, had a snack out, and were back around 9 or 10. Then we'd have some breakfast and lunch, and go out and do something kid-friendly with Andre, before going out on a longer drive around 4, staying out til dark.

Giraffe! They're pretty common, but still awesome.
Horn bills!
Starling! Yes, in the US, starling are one of many unremarkable LBBs (little brown birds). But the South African starlings are cool!.

It turns out that both South African and American populations were introduced from Europe; the American story is the more entertaining:

After two failed attempts, about 60 Common Starlings were released in 1890 into New York's Central Park by Eugene Schieffelin. He was president of the American Acclimatization Society which tried to introduce every bird species mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare into North America. About the same date, the Portland Song Bird Club released 35 pairs of Starlings in Portland, Oregon. These birds became established but disappeared around 1902. Starlings reappeared in the Pacific Northwest in the mid-1940s and these birds were probably descendants of the 1890 Central Park introduction. The original 60 birds have since swelled in number to 150 million, occupying an area extending from southern Canada and Alaska to Central America.
Grey-headed (?) Kingfishers.
Check it out! It's a lilac-breasted roller bird! These are a particularly famous South African bird. Each of the colors apparently comes from a different mineral in its diet. (I'm considering boosting my cobalt intake so as to have luscious wingtips too!)
Morning coffee break! Piper has discovered a fondness for dried mangos. We had Andre entirely to ourselves for three days -- it was a low season at the park.
I'm not a big coffee drinker but the bush coffee in metal cups was distinctly excellent.
Also check out the bottle of Amarula there... South Africa's big beverage export, at least if you exclude the products of SABMiller (Coors, Miller, Molson, etc -- all South African-owned these days.) Amarula is like Bailey's, but fruit-flavored from a tree of the same name. We saw one, but the fruits weren't in season.
Monitor lizard! And it loves elephant poop.
Speaking of elephant poop... these are nightshade mushrooms. At least that's what I thought... doing some research, I think it must be something else since nightshades are a plant that looks like a tomato, and that's definitely not this. No matter what, Andre says they are super-poisonous.
Banded Mongoose!
Umm... moments ago, there was a huge leopard here!!! Seriously. This is a termite mound, which are all over the place. This termite mound is about 3 meters from the road, and there was a nice black and yellow leopard resting in front of it, so beautifully. I grabbed the camera, and by then it saw us and decided to slink off..

Leopards are definitely rare (and they like to hide once you see them)... no one else staying at the lodge had seen one that week.

Not to be outdone, we spent a few minutes looking for it in the brush. We saw it a few times fleetingly until we managed to catch a view of it here. It's hidden very deep and you'd never see it without looking for it. But it sees us, for sure.
And why was the leopard staying in this area with us, rather than running away? A strategic find by Andre in the tree explains it: check out those legs and bloody ribcage! This is an impala that the leopard has killed, probably in the last few hours. He dragged its body into the tree for safety, then left it there. A day later when we came back, all evidence was gone.
I might not have gotten the camera up in time... but Piper was quick with the pencil.
Andre reports his sighting on the radio.

"We like to share things with the other guides. Like, 'There's a Nkwe just south of the dam, chasing a few nice Serolobotlhoko.' We do it in Tswana. If you did it in English, everyone in the Land Rover would be like "Did you hear that -- there's lions!! Lions!! Go! Go! Go!" But you know... if those lions are there now, they'll be there in 8 hours. They're not going anywhere on a day like this."

Later in the day, we come back to the lion prints we'd spied in the morning. The mud has dried, and Andre has the plaster-of-paris to make some cat-casts.
A few hours later, we come back to pick up the dried casts. Check out that big kitty!
Back at the lodge, a cute little pool.
Piper with her safari notebook.
Astrid hangs out at the lodge. She and Finner stayed with a sitter during most of the morning and evening drives, though they came along during mid-day ones.
Astrid love the lodge!!
Open-air dining room at the lodge.
And walking to our hut. Guided escort required, due to scorpions, elephants, black mambas, etc.
Anyone see the elephant here? Piper claimed that she saw a tree wiggling about a half mile away. We drove closer, and sure enough... elephant on the cliff!
This was not the only elephant we saw, but it was the coolest angle... seen from underneath.
The elephant was making a real mess of the trees.
Later on, a few elephants at a watering hole (which is actually an irrigation pipe leftover from cattle farming, but they don't mind the difference).
And another elephant!

Andre: "I'll make you an offer. If you have a place for an elephant, I'll give it to you. Free! And I'll even throw in transport. And any game park in South Africa would give you the same offer, I promise you. I love them, but they are so destructive."

"The elephant population is a lot smaller than it used to be, that is for sure. But the population that we have now -- 20,000 in South Africa, many more elsewhere -- is extremely stable. It is not dropping any more."

"Now, rhinos are a completely different story. We have a very small number of them -- about 10,000 here -- and they are getting killed *so quickly*. Rhinos and elephants breed at about the same rate, but elephants are a lot better at taking care of their young, so the baby rhinos, a lot of them die. So that population is dropping terribly. There are about 16,000 rhinos left in the world... most of those are in South Africa, and over 600 were killed by poachers last year."

Driving back, we came across a herd of elephants, very near where the solitary elephant-on-hill was earlier.

Madikwe is free-ranging, but there is still a good amount of 'active game management' that is done there.

"Sometimes we'll have a bull elephant who tries to charge the cars, other animals, anything that moves out there. He's just so aggressive. So we will actually take a Land Cruiser out there, and let it charge us. Come on! And then I'll charge it back. And after that... the elephant never charges again."

One morning we woke up to hard rain. Nearly everyone stayed inside. But Heidi said we would go, and we did!
There were fewer animals outside, but also fewer people.
At one point during the morning, we were apparently the only people outside in the whole park!.
Check out that quality 'Made in Botswana' poncho! Not a label you see much in the US, but they know how to make them good in Botswana.
Lots of rain!
Wet elephant! And muddy too: you can see that on one of its tusks.
And another one! They use the tusks to poke around for roots.
Another wet elephant. I like this pic.

Andre: "What do I think about elephants? Are they endangered? You'll read about the fact that there are in fact many thousands per year that are killed for their tusks. It's true, and it's awful. As a result of this, the game parks in South Africa are completely full."

"We have a healthy capacity here for about 500 elephants. Right now we're up to 990. I don't know what we'll do if we get more. It's what every game park fears."

"Of any creatures on Earth, elephants are the #2 most destructive of their environment, after people. If you have a herd of elephants walk through an area, it's hard not to see it: trees are ripped up, bushes uprooted, all the vegetation is stripped. They do so much damage. Part of it is consumption, and part is just that they are intentionally destructive."

Madikwe is an open-range park, meaning that the animals can go wherever they want to. (There was a lot of fresh elephant poop near our lodge, from one of the not-infrequent times when the electric fence is not working.)

Here are two cheetah cubs which are about to be introduced. They are right now in a fenced enclosure, a few hundred meters on a side, where they're equilibrating. They were to be released about a month later.

Heading down to an areas reported with lions...
And here they are! They're just hanging out. According to a nice informational panel I remember from the National Zoo in DC, lions spend something like 80% of their time sleeping, 1% of their time roaring, and the rest hanging out. We didn't hear these roaring, but we did hear some others ones which we were trying to chase down earlier in the week. They sounded close to me, though Andre told me they were probably 2-3 miles away.
Oh, and rolling on their backs too! Nice cat!
Not much action happening. This was a group of maybe 6 lions. Heidi remembers more of their family story than I do, so she can fill you in on their personal details.
Birds nests (??), with comparably small birds.
Driving back this evening, we managed to hit a lot of rain. But it wasn't only rain: we were also being hit by literally thousands of termites! They all hatched simultaneously... triggered by the rain?

Here, we're driving on the airstrip.

A lightning bolt silhouettes the sky as we drive back!
After hatching, the termites fly, and most of them lose their wings within hours. So there were piles of wings underneath lights and blown into corners of the lodge... literally all over the place. A few still had their wings in the morning.
As per Andre's advice, they're fine eating. "Rip the wings off and pop them... they taste just like buttered peaches. Ambrosia." And truth be told, they weren't bad at all. You could definitely get filled up on them without much difficulty. I found them much more enjoyable than my previous live-bug-eating experience, which was stink bugs (jumiles) in Taxco, Mexico, sold on the streets in little plastic baggies.
Tasty tasty! I love the pokies.
Another morning! It's hard to deny the allure of a foot-long millipede. "That one's probably been around for 40 years. We're not going to run over it." (And no eating it, either.)
And dung beetles! Holy cow, they were my favorites.
Not sure if these are fighting or collaborating. I think its the latter, because there is a lot of dung here -- enough for everybody.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the claims that dung beetles can navigate by the Milky Way. I'm not totally convinced by the data, although I admit that my skepticism is mostly due to what seems to be so implausible. Are their eyes even big enough to get a good SNR on the Milky Way?? Their eyes are a lot smaller than an iPhone camera, and even that can't get much of a shot of the Milky Way.

More bugs! Andre catches a butterfly for Finn. Finn and Astro didn't go out on the early morning / late night game drives, but they often went out on activities with Andre during the afternoon. Note the bullets to defend himself against any threatening insects... the Land Cruiser always has a big rifle.
Check out those eyes!
And this crazy insect too! It's like a grasshoper, but this thing's weight is measured in ounces (and is > 1). Very gorgeous, too.
Mosquito!! Madikwe is not a heavy malaria zone though (unlike Kruger).
Ant! We were driving along and Andre found this one on Piper's leg! "I've never seen that one before -- I'm going to take it back and ID it."
A big beetle eating a millipede, as the ant considers digging in too.
Check out that beetle-on-millipede action!
The lodge was pretty nice. I mean, the food was quite tasty, but it was also nice that there were neat, interesting bugs flying around that no one wanted to kill. And the insects were always different: once it was moths (here), the next night it was termites. (And a black mamba for lunch one time.) The staff didn't make a big deal about them, and there were no fly swatters bug-zappers running.... thank you!
A nice scenic tree for a late-afternoon break. We saw a hyena here, in the bushes toward the front! Well, Andre did. And Heidi. I was too far away, taking pics of Land Cruisers, apparently.
And taking pics of weird Tim Burton trees. So much cooler than a hyena, right?
Here's a giraffe.
And a giraffe bird!

Actually it's an oxpecker, but we didn't see any oxes.

Flat tire. Pretty common, I understand.

Andre: "A few weeks ago we were picking up a group from the airstrip. There was a black mamba on the ground next to the vehicle... and then there wasn't one, so guess where it had gone? Well, none of them wanted to look for it, so that was my job. We unloaded everyone into a different vehicle, and eventually I found the mamba, tucked under the wheel well. You talk to it nicely, and eventually it'll come out."

Wild dogs! These were awesome. If you say 'wild dog,' I picture some random mutt. But these were painted all sorts of funky patterns. I guess that's why they're called 'Painted Wild Dogs.'
They are beautiful, but they're also really solid carnivores. The herd here was probably 20 dogs. They are just finishing up a wildebeest that they killed earlier in the morning.

Also, some wild dogs ate a kid recently at the Pittsburgh zoo.

Wildebeest is pretty much down to the horns and feet.
Note the pinkish fur on that dog... all blood!
An obligatory zebra...
I can't keep straight my springbok, impala, hartebeest, gemsbok, and nyala. Piper tells me that duh, these are waterbuck. OK!
Termite mounts on termite mounds! They do these little piles to build up little 'dams' around each hole in the mound, to prevent them from getting waterlogged.
And a baboon on a termite mound!
Cute baboon.
Almost time to cruise back to Pretoria...
"Point to the white rhino, everyone!"

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Henry Throop

Last modified Mon Feb 25 16:27:29 2013