When someone talks about the weather it is often perceived as being boring and mundane but I beg to differ.
Weather can be truly thrilling in its unpredictable wildness. It is ever changing and can be ruthlessly spectacular.
When you come to think about it, weather dictates our lives and can result in success or failure; sometimes even life or death. It is beautiful in its many different moods and phases.
As such Chris is an avid storm chaser and spends a lot of his time analysing different weather forecasts and constantly checking weather updates. In mid-January gale-force South East winds were forecast for Cape Town meaning we would be land bound for the immediate future.
These winds often bring about thunderstorms and heavy rain in the northern part of South Africa and on a whim he checked the forecast for the Kagalagadi National Park in the Northern Cape.
The magic words appeared on his screen: “Severe Thunderstorms” for that coming week.
Since I quite fancy a good storm myself and love being in the bush it didn’t take much to convince me to leave home and head for the Kalahari a mere 36 hours later.
We drove the 1100km from Cape Town imagining huge cumulous nimbus storm clouds and a dark threatening sky illuminated by the uniquely saturated golden Kalahari light, with large herds of springbok and gemsbok in the foreground.
It’s always good to dream right?
We arrived to 44 degrees Celsius and muggy conditions. The Park was bone dry with very little vegetation and the herbivores were struggling. The rain could not come soon enough.
The predators on the other hand were in the pound seats. Springbok, wildebeest and Gemsbok had no choice but to brave a drink at the waterholes and the lions could just camp out here and lie in wait for their meals.
Our visit was timed perfectly, with the very peak of the dry season and the arrival of the first rains.
Before the rain arrived we got to observe how the intense dryness produced certain situations where one’s folly was another’s gain. At just about every waterhole we would just need to look under the closest shady tree or bush and there would be a small pride feeding on a gemsbok or wildebeest carcass. We had 10 lion sightings in a four day period and most were of adult males. The Kalahari is famous for the Black-maned lion gene and I can tell you these males are superbly beautiful, I can’t think of lions in other parts of Africa being better looking than these guys!
I recently read about an interesting lion study taking place in the Kalagadi whereby researches were looking at gender make it. It appears that the number of male lions far outnumber lionesses at the moment. This can happen when lion populations in a general area are healthy and doing well. In times of stress and hardship it has been recorded that female numbers are greater than the males.
I could not find any more recent info but I can tell you that we only saw 5 lionesses but as many as 15 males in just four days.
One early pre-dawn morning we had two magnificent males nonchalantly walking in the road alongside our vehicle whilst on their way to a nearby waterhole. On another occasion we spent a good hour watching two black-maned brothers walking in the middle of the river bed and then as they crested the red dune adjacent to the riverbed. They spent a lot of time scenting and walking along the ridge which gave us the classic Kalahari Dune Lion scene!
Our most memorable lion sighting was of an afternoon spent with three almost full grown brothers. They were just starting to show their black manes and as they were sitting right next to the road it allowed us to observe them very closely.
What struck me the most about these three was the tremendous affection that could be seen between them. They certainly were a true Brotherhood.
When they lay sleeping one was draped over the other and when they woke all three gave each other an amazing greeting.
They emitted low soft grumbling noises and at one point all three were nuzzling heads together in pure delight. This would of course happen at a bad angle and we weren’t able to capture the moment perfectly, but it was still a special sight.
Jackals in Hunting Mode
The intense dryness also provided a most interesting predatory situation between jackal and Namaqua Sandgrouse at a waterhole in the northern part of the Park.
Birds, as much as predators and herbivores need their daily drink and they too are vulnerable to predators when they are forced to drink in one spot.
Each early morning starts with droves of Cape turtle doves that are extremely skittish and fly off with great speed at the smallest hint of an approaching falcon. The falcon comes in so fast it’s difficult to see him and track him. It made me appreciate just how well the doves do to avoid this aerial predator, one of the fastest on earth.
A little later in the morning large flocks of sandgrouse started to make their way to the waterholes. At Cubitjie Quap (the name of this particular waterhole) a few individual jackals have learnt to hunt them as they touch down at the water.
The sandgrouse however were very much aware of the threat they were facing and would never fly in right away and land. They would always do an initial fly-by in what was definitely a jackal scouting mission.
On the two mornings we spent here two young jackals were hunting. They must have been fairly new to the game as they were not successful, but we were fascinated with the different techniques they employed. The first strategy was to lie in wait under a bush and rush at the birds just as they were about to touch down. The second, which I thought was a great display of intelligence, was to hide under the low wall of the waterhole and spring over and give chase.
The third was always towards the end of the morning which consisted of standing on the high part of the waterhole and snapping in desperation at the low flying grouse. Their frustration was certainly obvious!
Even though these two jackals were unsuccessful they were extremely protective of “their waterhole”. A third jackal attempted to participate in the hunting but he was told in no uncertain terms that he was not welcome. We managed to observe some great interaction between two of them, the outsider beating a retreat shortly afterwards.
A short while later Chris spotted a honey badger and its notorious gait emerging through the surrounding bush. The honey badger must be one of nature’s biggest badasses! Sorry for using that terminology but there is nothing better I can think of to describe this animal of immense character and who is brave enough to take on even lions.
As soon as the honey badger approached one of the jackals immediately went to defend the waterhole. It was no match, and although the jackal put up a valiant effort the honey badger, after a few snarls, loped over to the waterhole for its drink.
The morning was so interesting and filled with so many dramatic interactions I couldn’t wait for the next morning to do the same again. But that night the first heavy rains arrived, and this was a complete game changer for everything.
The First Rains
The smell of rain is very distinguishable but for me the smell of the first water droplets hitting the dry parched earth and mixing with the dust is as synonymous as a Black-maned Lion King walking down a riverbed surveying his domain. The smell is so strong it hits you in the back of your nostrils, gets stuck in your throat, and is so over powering it can be difficult to breathe.
It signifies so much…
It rained continuously that first night and we woke up to water laying in the veld and flowing in some places. The rains had begun.
Each night for three nights we had the same heavy constant rain and although we never got the classic Kalahari thunderstorm we were looking for, we had the privilege of watching the change that the first rains bring.
The first obvious change was from seeing a lion under practically every tree to all lions literally vanishing overnight. Their normal prey of gemsbok and wildebeest had migrated to look for new grazing in the dunes and they were no longer dependant on drinking from waterholes.
No matter how much rain fell by late morning most of the big pools of water had dried up; either soaked into the earth or evaporated into the atmosphere. I guess it would still take a lot more rain to fall for the riverbed to become waterlogged.
By the third morning we started noticing the first green shoots of grass appearing in the riverbed, and soon it resembles a carpet of green moss. Where previously we had seen small herds of springbok, much larger herds were now reuniting in the riverbed to feast on the fresh growth.
What we quite liked about all the lions disappearing was that our modus operandi had now changed. Instead of looking for possible action we now focused on what was present; and that was spending time with the springbok.
I loved watching the new foals that were just a few weeks old, and the whole herd with their white behinds fluffed up as they tried to dry their “danger flags”. They are such soft and gentle animals and it was incredibly peaceful just sitting and observing them.
But, the biggest pleasure was knowing that after a great struggle over the previous dry months a new bountiful season had just arrived for them.
Although the lions had left the area of the park we could traverse, the growing herds of springbok meant that another feline predator was now also on the cards.
Over our eight day trip we had 6 cheetah sightings but the highlight was watching a coalition of five cheetahs hunting together.
The springbok would be the victors this time round but from afar and through the binoculars I was enthralled as I watched all five crouched as low as possible, ready to spring in an instant. Even though there was very little movement from them the lead springbok ram must have been tuned into his sixth sense for danger. As he began leading the herd towards the cheetah he stopped for an age accessing the ground ahead. There was no way he could have seen the five cheetah but he still turned around and lead the herd to safety.
The five cheetah followed, using low bushes for cover but by this stage the game was already up.
We sat with the cheetah for four hours and towards the end of our time with them two young springbok practically walked into the five of them.
It’s interesting how the balance of nature works…it seemed like it was going to be so easy for one of the cheetah to be successful but surprisingly after a short chase the springbok gave them the slip.
It was kind of like the Kalahari Thunderstorm we so wanted giving us the slip too! Although we had so much rain, it was all at night and all very tame. It’s not always about the end goal though and we could not have had a better time with all the different animals and interactions we saw.
Its ironic of course that 300km’s from home we got caught in a tremendous thunderstorm that saw two very impressive storm cells coming together. It was mightily impressive.
And so the carrot remains forever dangled in front of us…!