Thanda — Week Four

Some nyala at the Hluhluwe-Imfaloza Game Reserve
Some nyala at the Hluhluwe-Imfaloza Game Reserve

This week saw the conclusion of the Photography & Conservation Project at Thanda. This was another amazing week during which I visited two other parks: Lake Jozini and the Hluhluwe-Imfaloza Game Reserve. This first photo is from Hluhluwe (pronounced, improbably enough, as “shloo-SHLOO-wee”). These are a variation of antelope known as nyala. These are all females; mature males retain the vertical stripes but are much darker in color and have very pronounced horns.

Just a few of the over 100 elephant crossing the road at the Hluhluwe-Imfaloza Game Reserve
Just a few of the over 100 elephant crossing the road at the Hluhluwe-Imfaloza Game Reserve

One of the highlights of spending the better part of the day at Hluhluwe was watching our guide, Ian, and one of the other volunteers who participated in this optional trip, track a large herd of elephant. We parked where they figured the herd would appear next, and within a few minutes here they came. Well over a hundred elephants paraded just feet in front of our game truck: pachyderms of all ages and sizes, including the two young ones in this photo. Truly a breathtaking experience.

A baboon family -- including a very young newborn -- at the Hluhluwe-Imfaloza Game Reserve
A baboon family — including a very young newborn — at the Hluhluwe-Imfaloza Game Reserve

Near the end of a day in which we saw countless giraffes, rhinos, zebras, and more we came across a troop of baboons. Now baboons are generally considered pests, creatures capable of great mischief. But then you see a family like this one, with a newborn cutie, and, hey, what’s not to like?

Hippo at Lake Jozini
Hippo at Lake Jozini

Earlier in the week all of the photographers enjoyed a morning trip to nearby Lake Jozini, home to a number of animals, especially elephants and hippos. This was as much as we saw of most of the hippos who liked resting in the calm waters, lifting up every few minutes for a quick look and breath of air before submerging again. Our guide and boat driver kept a sharp look out for the hippos — not only to point them out to us but also to avoid getting too close. Apparently one does NOT want to mix it up with a threatened or grumpy hippo!

On Friday morning we went on a game drive. The weather was cold and the sky filled with dark and threatening clouds. Perfect weather for sleeping in or cozying up to a nice warm fire with a cup of hot chocolate. Not us, however! No, we were in the open-air game trucks by 5:30 am. It became clear fairly quickly, however, that the only creatures foolhardy enough to be out and about on that chilly morning where the idiots in the game trucks. All the wildlife of Thanda, however, wisely chose to stay where they were: protected from a cold, biting breeze and the possibility of rain. We ended our drive early — and shivering.

Later in the morning the weather improved, and some of us headed a few minutes up the road to the Bayete Zulu Elephant Encounter to feed, touch, and otherwise experience three African elephants. I wasn’t sure this was such a great idea for at least two reasons. First, I have heard that African elephants are more aggressive and unpredictable than their Asian cousins. Second, animals that regularly interact with human beings lose some of what makes them “wild” and become unable to survive outside of human contact.

The guide at the Encounter, however, told us the story of these three elephants (an adult male, an adult female, and juvenile). These beautiful creatures had always been around human beings, and when removed from regular human contact they became quite belligerent. In their current environment, however, they are quite docile. It seems that because of how they were raised human interaction is as important for them as it is for any of us.

Getting sprayed with elephant snot at the Bayete Zuly Elephant Encounter
Getting sprayed with elephant snot at the Bayete Zuly Elephant Encounter

Here we see one of the elephants’ caregivers telling Rambo, a three-ton male, to lift his trunk so that Julia (seen on the right) can look inside his mouth and feel his tongue while feeding him with her hand. I was invited to come close so I could photograph the inside of the elephant’s mouth. Now how could I resist THAT opportunity? What I didn’t count on was that Rambo would blow his trunk clean while raising it high, sending out a spray of elephant snot on my and my camera. No damage done, though!

One of the cheetah brothers walking along the road just outside the Ulwazi Lodge, home to the African Impact volunteers
One of the cheetah brothers walking along the road just outside the Ulwazi Lodge, home to the African Impact volunteers

On the way back from the elephants (or “ellies” as they are often called here), we saw the two cheetah brothers who live at Thanda. They were on the road right outside the entrance to the Ulwazi Lodge, my home for the past four weeks. It’s always fun to see cheetahs up close! If you look closely at his right front paw you may be able to see that a cheetah’s feet look more like a dog’s than a cat’s, lacking retractable claws (well, they do have one claw that retracts, but it doesn’t come in contact with the ground).

A rare daytime sighting of a leopard
A rare daytime sighting of a leopard

But we weren’t done with large predator cats. Later that day we spotted this leopard. Leopards are notoriously hard to find, and daytime sightings are pretty rare. This fellow was walking along one of the roads inside the reserve, and were following at a respectful distance. Every once in a while he’d pause, and look back at us. Pretty thrilling, and a completely different experience than seeing one of this beauties in a zoo.

My first close view of a cape buffalo -- one of the "Big 5"
My first close view of a cape buffalo — one of the “Big 5”

I had previously seen some of the cape buffalo at a distance, but on this same drive we saw a small herd of them at rather close quarters. The cape buffalo is considered one of the “Big 5,” a phrase coined by hunters and awarded to the animals that they considered the most dangerous of game. The others are: lions, leopards, rhinos, and elephants. As we also saw a lion that day and an elephant at the conclusion of the drive, I managed to see four of the big five in a single drive. Wow!

Sunset at the Thanda Private Game Reserve
Sunset at the Thanda Private Game Reserve

My four weeks in the photography project have drawn to a close, but my time at Thanda will continue for another two weeks. I will continue on game drives (and a few other activities), but now I’ll be sharing in the work of gather data to support the conservation work here at Thanda. I’ll post more later this week!

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