The first reaction I get from most of the people I told my December holidays were spent visiting the Kgalagadi Transfrontier National Park (KTP for further reference) was “Where’s that?”. My response for ease of reference was “Near Upington, on the border of Botswana and Namibia – that pointy sticking out bit.” Still most would only recognise it slightly better. The most common response I got as a follow up was “It’s hot there!” For good reason though. Most South Africans my age are most likely to recognise Upington, from the daily weather reports our parents forced us to watch growing up, as one of the hottest places in the country almost through all the seasons. Durban would be setting record highs at 36 degrees Celsius and Upington would be “Hold my beer” at 45 degrees. Upington, Lephalale and Skukuza would always be closer to the sun than the rest of South Africa. So maybe visiting at the height of summer was madness. But it was madness I had set in motion 3 years before and has to see through.
It is amazing that most of us can look back and pin-point the turning points in our lives that may have lead us to where we are now, yet at the time we didn’t realise that we were on the cusp of something amazing. I was reminded the other day on exactly one such moment by facebook and it got me thinking about all that it has lead to since. In August 2015 I decided on a whim to make a drive to the Pilanesberg National Park. I can’t remember the exact reasoning but it was around the public holiday long weekend and for whatever reason I had not gone down to Durban so it must have been pure whim that made me drive the 180km to get there.
It was my first visit to the park and I had no idea what to expect or what to do and to be honest I cannot for the life of me remember how much of the day went. What I do remember is stopping in the late afternoon at Mankwe dam to walk out to the bird hide to see what all the fuss was about. And after sitting around for a few minutes there was a little bit of commotion as a pied kingfisher came up to a dead tree right in front of the hide and proudly sat down with his catch. Not being big into birds at the time I did not know what happens next, but the seasoned photographers and birders did and quickly turned their attention to the kingfisher. The bird then started beating the fish about quite rapidly and violently to descale and tenderise the fresh catch before tossing the little meal around to position it and swallow it whole.
I was shooting with my 550D and 70-300mm Ultrasonic lens, which to that point had served me extremely well. But on that afternoon I found myself struggling. The 550D’s frame rate is about 5 frames per second which was decent enough to catch some of the action but missed half of it. The afternoon sunlight was rather harsh and I think even today I would struggle to deal with it. But the combination conditions and equipment limitations (at least in my head anyway) left me wanting to get better. And I think this is where my transformative journey in nature and in particular birding began.
I went back to the park in December 2015 with a new 7D mkii camera body and a second hand 300mmF4LIS lens that I purchased in September and October respectively. And that was my first introduction to some of the beautiful bird species to be seen in the park, including the white fronted bee-eaters and lesser striped swallows. The photography improved and I also got one of my favourite pictures in the park shot from the Rathlogo hide of 4 zebras having a drink. I also went with Tannie Wilma and Oom Hans which in itself was a great experience and possibly the inspiration to do the big year of birding I attempted in the course of 2016.
Up close to juvenile white fronted bee eater
Yellow billed kite (i think)
My favourite zebra image
Through 2016 I did not make many a turn past the Pilanesberg. The park, which played a big role in inspiring the big year of birding as well as the Sanparks challenge I am currently completing, unfortunately took a back seat as I went trekking through the rest of our beautiful country. However I did manage one visit if I recall correctly and spent a nice afternoon at Mankwe dam again shooting a very young baby elephant and it’s protective family.
This year I have been to the park 4 times and each one was special in it’s own rights. The first trip in march for my birthday yielded a pair of cheetah walking through the long grass after the good summer rains. I was actually shooting a ruffous-naped lark when a couple saw me and directed me to follow them as they had been following the cheetahs for a while and they would come of the grass soon. And sure enough, no sooner than I had turned around, the cheetahs emerged casually walking through the long late summer’s grass. I don’t think I made the most of the opportunity but I chalked that down to excitement more than anything else.
Rufous naped lark
Emerging from the long grass
The best shot I got…
Can hardly see the second cheetah
I then decided in early June to join Heinrich Neumeyer, the leopard whisperer of the Pilanesberg to try to track at least one leopard down. In the end we did see a leopard on the safari, late in the afternoon when the light was too bad for decent photographs. But we also saw the big five in one day, elephants, rhinos, lions and buffalos to-ing and fro-ing in the early morning light and the late leopard.
I hired a lens to shoot with on the day and fortunately, as it turns out, left my 1.4x extender on the back of it. Heinrich and Gerrie tracked extender down for me so just to make sure I got it back safely I went back to the park a month later, the first weekend of July and went for my second tour with Heinrich. This time around we got got to see not one leopard but 5 and they were all in full daylight, offering some superb opportunities to photograph the notoriously elusive cats. Before the trip in early July I had seen a total of 3 leopards. Two in the dark and one briefly on safari in 2013 when I visited Kapama with Maja. So to see 5 in a day was extraordinary to say the least! I still managed to mess it up though and cut of the tail of one of the leopards crossing the road. Heinrich has promised to find me more leopards the next trip though because he owes me one…
The latest in the string of Pilanesberg adventures was on Women’s day last week. I decided to make a day trip because the holiday being a Wednesday was ideal for a one day sojourn. And I decided to invite a few friends along so we had a full car of photographers. I lead the expedition, given my love for the park, so this was the inaugural Pluckan Pilanesberg Tour (PPT). And while we didn’t get to see any of the big cats and the elephants somehow managed to elude us, it was all in all a great day. Well I think anyway. I did manage to seen two new bird species and photograph one (secretary bird below) and got some half decent rhino shots. Oh and we also saw a brown hyena which is the only hyena species in the park but were cut off just at the most inopportune time. As I said, Heinrich owes me one! I think the last trip made me realise that sharing the experience can bring its own rewards. So the park keeps inspiring me in different ways, mostly to get better with each return trip. And I shall be back sooner than I know it (possibly even by the end of this month) so the next edition of PPT is coming soon!
Winter came early in South Africa this year. Or maybe the warmer winter last time around made us forget that it does actually get cold here in the southern tip of the continent. For 9 months of the year perhaps, we are a very out door oriented nation. Actually no its 12 months of the year. But for 9 months of the year the weather allows it and for 3 months of the year its questionable to say the least. So when we decided to go camping in Clarens, in the foot hills of the Maloti mountains at the end of May we didn’t actually give a second thought to the weather and what being outside exposed to the elements would actually entail. A boys weekend camping in the Golden Gate National Park and rafting down the Ash River sounded boss when we thought of it in January. In the middle of summer. When it was still warm and we could feel our fingers.
For me the decision was doubly easy. The Golden Gate National Park is on the list of Sanparks operated national parks that I am busy ticking off in my 3 year challenge to visit all of them. So it would be park number 10 of 21 and I would be half way through the challenge, half way through the time I have allowed myself. A no brainer really. I had been to the park previously so knew that more than anything it was about the landscapes that I would see as the animals are pretty scarce. And not doing it alone would be a bonus for a change. And the landscapes didn’t disappoint!
Grass and the sunset
Maloti Mountain foothills
The Brandwag Buttress
View from the Glen Reenen camp site, early in the morning
The foothills of the northern Maloti mountains, the same mountain range that extends into Lesotho, are quite stunning, with different shades of yellow and red and pink standing out. The BrandWag (I think this translates to fireman) Buttress is probably the most striking and stands as a sentinel at the entrance to the Glen Reenen Rest Camp that we camped at. The clear winter air gave my photos a beautiful crisp look in the late afternoon sun. But it also meant the temperature remained crisp most of the day as well and once the sun set that crispness turned into coldness very quickly.
Ok maybe I exaggerate a little bit. It was cold in the last week of May when we visited the national park. But two weeks earlier the first major cold front of winter swept through the interior of South Africa and actually dropped snow in the mountains of the park. Snow in the first week in May was probably early but luckily when we got there it was dry. So it was cold yes, but it could have been much worse I think. The first night (Friday night) was a bit of a shock to the system though. We got there after dark and the weather seemed pleasant enough as we pitched the tent and set about making camp. However as the night went on it became increasingly colder and colder. The time passed though with great conversation around the campfire until it was time to tuck into the sleeping bag with an extra blanket.
The second night was better though, even though the temperature got low enough for frost to settle on the outside of the tent. A large part of it was because the day was filled with adrenaline, white water rafting on the Ash River. It is ironic that sometimes questioning your own mortality makes you feel the most alive. This is most probably the reason so many people jump off bridges and out of planes. Only jumping off bridges and out of planes is drier and probably warmer. The rafting started off dry enough, with a paddle on the out on the still water of the dam at the outlet of the Ash River. But once we were over the dam wall it began to get interesting. We were soaked by the first rapid. Then we had a little time to dry off just enough to feel warm again before being soaked by the next set of rapids. By the time we got to half way we had all questioned our mortality as well as our sanity a few times I’m sure.
The motley crew!
Being retrieved after my foolish dip!
But eventually we got to a section of calmer river where the guide said people would normally swim in the summer. When the water was warmer. And it wasn’t two days before the winter closed season began. We were soaked already though. So how much colder could it be right? I found out that it could have been near death colder. I back flipped (or flopped actually) into the dark water of the Ash River and almost immediately regretted it. My body almost immediately tensed up and I sank below the water in slow motion. Like in the movies when anyone falls into the water, the world went semi-mute and the dappled light filtered through. I felt I should not have been sinking so much, especially with a life jacket on. I should have been floating. But I kept falling backwards, shouting inside my own head. Then suddenly I was up at the surface again, half shocked at what I had done and more than half frozen. But fully alive and kicking! Like I said, somehow questioning your mortality makes you feel more alive sometimes!
Overall a great adventure, camping in freezing cold, rafting down through 7 rapids with a great bunch of guys, braaing, campfires and great conversation. And a few terrific shots to boot! Number 10 of my Sanparks Challenge done, 11 more to go!
Do you remember when you were still in school, one of the first things you’d have to do upon your return after either the summer or winter breaks was to write a composition on “My vacation”. Mine were pretty much standard for most of my primary schooling, mostly because summer and winter holidays were almost always spent at my grandfather’s house. Or as we liked to call it, the farm. And we mostly did the same things, no single activity stands out now but collectively the best years of my childhood. So I wrote the same thing with increasing complexity for pretty much all of my primary schooling career.
How could that have even happened you may ask! I know its may be hard to believe the title of this post but I can assure you that it really did happen. Actually it happens all the time to me. Falling in love is a regular occurrence. How anyone would get through a week, or even a few days in a row without falling in love actually escapes me. It would be hard, after all, keeping up a blog called Passion Fruit if I didn’t already have many loves and if I didn’t occasionally fell in love all over again.
I have always had the very bad habit of constantly procrastinating. Mostly because I seem to have a very poor attention span. Its not that I don’t want to do what I am supposed to do, but more that there’s always something new and exciting that needs to be explored or investigated, a new distraction that is waiting to happen. John Legend sings about a favourite distraction; I think my favourite thing to be is distracted. So growing up and growing old I have thought up many many plans, but have a tendency not to see them through.
A couple years ago however I began to adopt the Nike approach though. Whenever I come up with a new idea I mull it over in my head for a little while and then eventually tell myself its time to just do it. This blog is, in fact, a prime example of that because, as I have previously stated, I was meaning to do it for a while and eventually had to tell myself, Pranesh, enough, just get it started. It works mostly, because I’m not one for meticulous planning either (add that to my growing list of vices). I should be, as a process engineer. But am I have just never been well enough organised to get myself organised. Continue reading “When nature calls!”→
I must be honest (would a liar tell you he was lying though), my first trip to the Kruger National Park was not as well thought out as it should have been. It was at the end of 2006 when 3 of my friends, my brother and I decided to take a trip. We would leave Friday after work, drive there, spend Saturday in the park and then return on Sunday. And so self catering accommodation was booked, supplies procured and The Tazz (my first car, a maroon Toyota Tazz so legendary that it is simply known as The Tazz) packed and we were ready. Or so we thought anyway. Continue reading “The Kruger National Park”→