This is a bateleur, an unmistakeable African eagle, with distinctive black, red and white colours and a very short tail. My wife took this photo on our South African safari. I’m amazed at how precise the composition is given that the bird was just circling overhead.
These photos were taken at Cape Point, one of the southernmost points of Africa (the actual honour belong to Cape Agulhas several miles to the east). This area is periodically wracked with strong winds and so it was when we visited. Nonetheless, that didn’t stop these kamikaze cormorants from trying to fly among the turbulent waters.
The giraffe was the first species we saw on our South African safari last year (actually the second but, seriously, impala don’t count). Like many of Africa’s large mammals, it moves with remarkable grace for something so large and it disappears behind shrubbery with remarkable ease for something so tall.
These are rock hyraxes or dassies. They may look like guinea pigs, but they’re in an entirely different order of mammals. It’s sometimes said that they are the closest living relatives of elephants. However, some scientists would dispute that sirenians – the manatees and dugongs – are more closely related still, with the hyraxes as a more distant outgroup.
They’re nimble animals, scuttling comfortably across rocky terrain and even climbing trees with relative ease. They can often be spotted basking in the sun to raise their body temperature, not unlike a reptile would. We found this pair in Tsitsikamma National Park.
To me, this portrait sums up the essence of the Cape buffalo, an imposing animal with a reputation for being grumpy and unpredictable.
This is the last animal we saw on our South African safari, and we found it sitting on top of our conditioner. Thank goodness it wasn’t a leopard.
I reckon it’s a foamy nest frog, so named for its tendency to lay its eggs into a nest of foamy bubbles overhanging a body of water. I always thought this species had a darker colour but apparently, they become almost white in bright sunlight. Charming little tyke, isn’t it?
Safaris are all about the big game. But even though elephants, leopards and rhinos (oh my!) fill your lens and retinas on a daily basis, it’s still just as wonderful to watch a squirrel scamper through a tree. This species is known in South Africa simply as a tree squirrel, or Smith’s bush squirrel more broadly. Its golden coat with tinges of rust and green make it a far more handsome creature than the common grey squirrels that run through London’s parks. It lacks none of their characteristic agility either, as the video below will demonstrate. I spent a good half-hour watching this individual scurry about the tree that stood right next to the lodge.
A few years back, I was in a zoo looking at some ostriches. The man standing next to me was imparting knowledge to his children with tremendous pomp and circumstance, telling them about all things ostrich. He noted that despite their comical appearance, they are very powerful birds. So far, so good. He said that they had a powerful kick – also accurate. He said that they have a sharp, retractable claw on each foot that they can use to disembowel lions. No… that’s Velociraptors.
Perhaps I’m being too harsh. Ostriches, being the largest living birds, are formidable indeed and their toe claws are dangerous weapons.We saw these animals at a farm in South Africa where we stayed for a night. They’re a mix of females and young males (who only develop the striking black plumage later on in life).
And these are the incredibly cute chicks, just a few weeks old. They hatch from the largest eggs of any bird, and ostrich farmers make a nice trade in turning the eggs into decorative ornaments. Light fixtures are the most common ones. The holes made by the emerging chicks are just about the right size to sneak a light bulb through, and the shell’s tough enough to carve intricate shapes and patterns onto.
There’s nothing like going on safari, rounding a corner in your open-top jeep and catching a glimpse of your first wild animals. Which will almost certainly be impala. Much camera-clicking, oohing and aahing ensues.
Three days later… you have seen enough impala for a lifetime. They are everywhere. Sometimes, you’ll drive for an hour, see nothing at all, catch a glimpse of movement, hurry towards it only to find yet another herd of impala. You start to resent the impala for not being something more interesting, for deigning to be commonplace when they could be, say, hunting dogs. You start trying to mentally will the impala to head in the direction of the leopard you just drove past mere moments ago.
Which is obviously completely unfair, because common though impala are, they are still strikingly beautiful animals.
Ah, penguins. You just can’t help but smile. These animals are found on Boulders Beach near Cape Town, where they come so close to the erected walkways that you could potentially reach out and grab one (if the mood took you and you were an idiot).
The African penguin (Spheniscus demersus) is part of a genus with four species. The last time I saw one of them, it was off the Galapagos Islands (the Galapagos penguin), and the other two members of the group (the Humboldt and Magellanic penguins) are natives of Patagonia. They’re commonly known as jackass penguins because of their distinct, braying calls.
If you’re wondering why they look so huddled, it’s because the beach was being sandblasted by ridiculously strong winds, as if often the case near Cape Town. We only really managed to get a few photos as a time before having to retreat and gently wipe sand off the lens.
Of all of South Africa’s species of antelope, the kudu is my favourite, mainly because of those elegantly spiralling horns. They adorn the logo of the national parks and several street signs (which promise kudus majestically leaping out across highways, but seldom deliver). And they’re pretty tasty too…
This individual is one of the only adult males we saw. The one in the second photo is a juvenile, and his shorter horns have only begun their first turn. The animals in the bottom two photos are hornless females.
The fact that they’re called antelope suggests a relationship with gazelles, impalas and the like, but kudus are more closely related to cows. They belong to the subfamily Bovinae, which includes domestic cattle and wild cow-like beasts including bison, African buffalo (more on them later), gaur, water buffalo and yak. Other antelopes that belong in this group include the nyala, bongo and the largest of them all – the eland.
It just goes to show the problems with the word “antelope“. The term is used ot describe a collection of hooved, plant-eating animals that don’t form an exclusive evolutionary group. The closest you could get to a definition is “any member of the family Bovidae, except cattle, sheep, buffalo, bison or goats”. As if that wasn’t clumsy enough, the pronghorn antelope of North America isn’t really an antelope at all and belongs to a family all of its own.
More South African photos:
- South African wildlife – Tyson the leopard
- South African wildlife – Wait, that’s not a trunk…
- South African wildlife – Elephant encounter
- South African wildlife – Spotted hyena
- South African wildlife – White rhinoceros
- South African wildlife – Martial eagle
- South African wildlife – Safari the leopard
- Leopards and elephants and rhinos, oh my
This is Tyson, a male leopard and one of the last animals we saw on our South African safari. We only took headshots of him but immediately, you can see that he’s stockier and more powerfully built than Safari, the female leopard that I showed photos of a few weeks back. Tyson, earning his name, probably weighs around 80kg or so.
And yet while we watched, he pulled off a languid stretch that made him look for all the world like a giant house cat – paws outstretched, maw agape and back arched in a graceful curve.
As he walked off, he marked his territory with a scent gland on his rump. I’m told that leopard scent markings smell rather a lot like popcorn, leading our guide to advise us, “If you smell popcorn during the drive, please tell us and stay inside the jeep.”
This is a bull elephant firmly establishing why it is he, and not the lion, who is king of beasts. The elephant’s penis is not only massive but prehensile. As we watched in baffled amusement (and the faintest tinge of inadequacy), he used his penis to prop himself up (as in the photo), swat flies from his side and scratch himself on his stomach. David Attenborough never showed us that…
There’s good reason for elephants to have prehensile penises. It’s hard enough for a six-tonne animal to get into the right position for sex, let alone having to do the rhythmic thrusting that’s required. So he let’s his penis do all the work for him.
You’ll also note the dark stain behind his eye – that’s a leak from his temporal gland. It means that this male was entering musth, the period when their testosterone shoots through the roof and they get incredibly horny and aggressive. We tried to drive round this male and he basically charged us. Tramply doom was averted by our driver who slammed his palm against the car door as hard as he could. The elephant stopped and huffed and puffed. We did our best to not soil ourselves.
This picture gives you an idea of how close he was. After a seemingly infinite standstill, he moved aside, extended his enormous penis and had a wee. It’s amazing how terror can convert into comedy so quickly…
We had numerous elephant sightings on our South Africa trip including a few family groups and a couple of lone males. Seeing them in documentaries or in zoos never quite captures just how big and impressive they are in the flesh, especially when they do things like beat up a tree. Note how this male uses his tusks and trunks to break off branches.
Also note how quiet it is except for the breaking of branches. Elephants may look like lumbering beasts, but their footfalls are dainty and quiet. They are ‘digitigrade’, meaning that they walk on their toes like a cat or a dog. Their heels rest on a spongy cushion that gives their foot its flat, round appearance – they’ve essentially got the world’s largest platform shoes. And that means that walking elephants make precious little noise. You could watch a group disappear behind a bush about 10 metres away and have absolutely no idea that they were there.
Our one and only sighting of the spotted hyena, an animal that is far more beautiful than its reputation might suggest. Hyenas are powerful predators too; as much if not more of their meat comes from their own kills as it does from scavenging.
I know this shot is blurry but I quite like it nonetheless.
A hyena mansion. In Sabi Sands, spotted hyenas make their homes in termite mounds, taking over and enlarging burrows and entrances previously created by aardvarks. They’re sturdy lodgings but not exactly luxurious ones – they are infested with parasites.