After two years, I returned to my favourite country. This time however, I would not only stay in one location, I would travel the country to witness as much wildlife as possible, and to participate in more scientifically meaningful projects. I would venture to both the Western Cape and the Limpopo / Mpuma-Langa regions.
Me (in grey shirt) with some Siyafunda rangers and volunteers in Makalali Private Game Reserve
This is what my itinerary looked like:
The trip was very diverse. I contacted several organisations and met many people working in the ecotourism business and the academic world. The contacts I had from 2016 proved very useful in getting about in the Western Cape region. I enjoyed the overwhelming hospitality of some people in particular (massive thanks to Els Vermeulen (PhD, Director Mammal Research Institute Whale Unit, University of Pretoria) and her husband Kevin Ovenstone, Jerome Josephs and Ashleigh Olsen). I also want to thank all the organisations (White Shark Projects, SASC, Sea Search, Siyafunda) I worked with for all the opportunities and unforgettable hands-on experiences they provided.
Me holding a pyjama shark for tagging in the harbour of Hermanus
The first week was spent in a familiar place; Kleinbaai. Coming back in this tiny village gave me goosebumps. It was just the same as when I left it. Even the crew members were all still there! And, I even got to sleep in the very same bed as two years back. What are the odds?
The Main Street of Kleinbaai (Geelbekstraat)
Western Cape flora
The typical mornings again - sun rising at 5 am!
Early cage dive
Blurry photo underwater, but do you see what's coming?
Photo taken for identification work for the South African Shark Conservancy Center
Data collection for White Shark Projects (ecotourism operator)
A week goes by fast. I was lucky enough to have a lot of sea days. I could sometimes even go twice a day, supporting the crew and the clients during the boat trips. It was very nice to chat with Grant the skipper at times, trying to grasp how shark sightings are evolving over the years. He said that shark encounters have become more scarce over the years, although this is highly dependent on factors like weather, season, water temperature and the presence of killer whales. Killer whales are the top predators in these waters, not the sharks. When they are present, white sharks usually stay away and this can lead to weeks of no shark sightings, which is a significant issue for shark tour operators. White sharks get attacked by organised pods of killer whales and their giant livers are specifically targeted. Stranded shark carcasses are usually intact, but the liver has been meticulously removed.
After the 1st week of volunteering at White Shark Projects, Jerome Josephs one of my friends who works there drove me to Hermanus to stay and work with SASC, a great research focused NGO based in Walker Bay that has advanced experience with several sharks species and a passionate founder (Meaghen McCord).
Since their volunteer house is close to the coastline, I was finding myself going there regularly and painting the scenery.
I was very fortunate that in the week I worked with SASC, there was a lot of field work planned. I participated in some amazing activities like a white shark photo-identification trip, BRUV (Baited Remote Underwater Videos) deployment to measure species diversity and abundance & how this is affected by bait types, pyjama shark tagging in the harbour, etc. During the BRUV deployment, me and two other guys were basically sitting in a tiny boat for hours waiting to pick up the underwater cameras. During this activity, we saw fur seals next to the boat, as well as breaching humpback whales literally meters away!! Insane experience.
During these two weeks I was also working for Sea Search and Whalefish co-founder Dr. Els Vermeulen, a marine mammal biologist based in Hermanus who needed assistance with compiling a comprehensive humpback dolphin photo catalogue for the Sousa project they were conducting in the area. I thoroughly enjoyed her and her husband Kevin's hospitality during my work. They are such kind people!
Hermanus neighbourhood (I think this was Onrus)
In the last days before I left for Limpopo / Mpuma-Langa in the Northeast of South Africa, I decided to book an AirBnb in Simons Town and go on an Albatross pelagic trip with Trevor Hardaker. Not only did I have amazing food and field sketching experiences there, I also happened to stay at a fellow wildlife artist's house (Ashleigh Olsen, please check out her social media https://www.instagram.com/ashleigh_olsen_art/ & website http://www.ashleigholsen.com) and had extremely stunning albatross encounters.
Simons Town is beautiful. It lies at the peak of the Cape Peninsula with stunning views over False Bay. I highly recommend visiting it. Walking up the hills in the neighbourhoods around sunset is a unique experience. Simons Town houses South Africa's largest military naval base and is quite impressive. I tried to avoid Boulder's Beach since it is very touristic, but did succeed in sketching some Jackass Penguins around the area.
The pelagic trip I did there gave us multiple humpback whale encounters, tons of sea birds and three different albatross species (Shy, Black-browed and Indian yellow-nosed). We even bumped into a sun fish!
Shy Albatross ad
Black Browed Albatross ad
After this 3 day pitstop I took a domestic flight to my next and last destination; Makalali Private Game Reserve to help out with monitoring wildlife populations around the park. I was exceptionally stoked about this part of my journey since it had been over 8 years that I found myself in the African savannah. I visited Ruaha NP in Tanzania in 2010 for an internship and ended up hopelessly hooked.
Makalali Game Reserve itself is situated near Hoedspruit (South Africa), a few hours away from Kruger NP, and has a size of roughly 212 square kilometers. The park is fenced and privately owned by multiple stakeholders working together to manage both the businesses, the land and the wildlife within. Some owners do not appreciate the presence of certain species (like elephants) and will act by installing (illegal) fences on their property. In addition, like any other place there, the park is facing challenges with poachers that are active in the area.
The park has many iconic wildlife species like elephants, cheetahs, leopards, serval, genets, lions, wild dogs, aardvarks, rhinos, giraffes, hippos, hyenas, etc. and is known for having one of the longest running elephant contraception program in Africa. The area is littered with abandoned mines which are being rehabilitated. I recommend visiting in the winter months when temperatures are good and malaria risk is very low.
Cheetah female in her boma before being released in the park
During my landing in Hoedspruit, I remember seeing elephants and warthogs crossing the beginning of the airstrip! I waited for a while at the tiny airport in the middle of the Bushveld until the people of Siyafunda would pick me up. There was actually a Dutch guy working as a ranger who welcomed us, so it was nice to speak in my own language and getting into deeper wildlife conversations sometimes.
Plains zebra (subspecies: Burchell's zebra)
There's three types of accommodation in Makalali. Safari lodging for tourists, base camp houses and tented camps for conservation volunteers of Siyafunda. I stayed at the base camp most of the time while spending the last days in the more rustic tented camp. Each campsite has its own unique experience. The base camp has the bedroom, office and kitchen buildings and a ranger car park & garage whilst the tented camp is just tents and a wooden platform positioned around a central fireplace. Staying here is for those people who really want to be surrounded by wildlife (e.g., you could find a lion pride near your tent in the morning!). An experienced ranger is always present at the campsite to keep an eye out. Most of the time this was Derek Smith, a really nice American who is an experienced park ranger (I think all rangers had FGASA certificates with some of them having additional field experts certification, there was also one Italian ranger being trained, and he was very good at foot safaris!).
Our duties as volunteers were to support the park rangers with monitoring their wildlife populations (both predators and prey species), mapping them out in GIS and excel files, clearing the park roads after tree felling by elephants, checking on water hole status, assisting wildlife veterinaries, etc. The data we collected are effectively used by organisations like Panthera and the Rhino Protection Trust. Rangers did a great job at informing us about the park's goals, the partnerships and why the conservation work is relevant.
A female cheetah is darted and sat-tagged by an experienced wildlife vet that we assisted.
It was very interesting to see how hands-on conservation work happens in South Africa. During wildlife vet interventions for example, the wellbeing of the animal was seen as a top priority and everybody that wasn't directly involved in a procedure was kept at a safe distance and given clear instructions. At some point we assisted in lifting the cheetah into a car to bring her to her new home in the park. She would be one of several cheetahs to be released in the park in the near future.
Grey Heron in the evening sun
We had some incredible wildlife experiences over the two intense weeks there, many on which I cannot really elaborate due to safety precautions for the animals (poaching is unfortunately still a massive issue, even in private parks). Let's say it's well worth visiting if you're passionate about African fauna and flora.
One of the alpha male lions in the park - Kalahari (?) I think his name was
Incredible sunsets and sun downers are a certainty!
One evening, our car was waiting next to a water hole when I think three elephants herds merged and walked past to drink. There were at least 60 elephants surrounding the place. It was a thrill to see and hear them communicate with their low pitched rumbling sounds.
They were so close in fact that I could feel the airflow from their flapping ears blowing in my face. They were watching us with their dark brown eyes and I kept wondering what went on in their minds. Unreal encounter!
Kudu (female), the males were very large!
A large herd of disease-free buffalos was also present in a more protected area of the park until as part of a breeding project. It was quite interesting to see how the park managed introductions of new species like these. The use of bomas (temporary enclosures in the park) is widely accepted as a technique to acclimatise wildlife to new habitats (both medically and behaviourally).
Other noteworthy experiences during our monitoring drives were the observation of a serval hunting in the torch lights at dusk (!), seeing lions during a foot safari, and observing over 100 native bird species. I was lucky that the dutch ranger was a bird enthusiast like me, and we would sometimes end up taking the car out to go birdwatching. It was during these drives I learnt many things about the park management and governance.
Blyde River Canyon, the second largest canyon in Africa.
One of the most remarkable bird observations I had was seeing both male and female Narina Trogon during our visit to Blyde River Canyon. There was a walking path leading up to a waterfall in the forest that was known to have a resident couple, but they were not often observed. Luck was on our side, since both individuals were secretly stalking us through the canopy, only showing every now and then. This was the only photo I could get!
My overall experience with Siyafunda and Makalali PGR was very positive. The rangers were always sharing tons of terrain and wildlife knowledge, the involvement was genuine and you get hands-on experience with the park management. There is a high variety of wildlife present in the area, but it feels sometimes like Africa is being managed a little too much.
The sad truth is that in many cases, it is the only 'viable' option to protect endangered species. In places where land is not privately owned, there is typically a lot of human wildlife conflict with farmers or pastoralists, poachers and urban areas. By working together, private reserves hope to partly reinstall the low veld biome to its former glory. Alternative solutions like community involvement into conservation strategies benefit not only the natural environment but also local economies, and should be regarded with high importance as well.
I had an amazing experience with South Africa and would go back in an instance!
See ya later, Detlef