Tuesday, April 15, 2008

WILD PRIDE:Thrilling Safari in the South African Bush

During the evening game drive on day two of my African safari, Jonas, our tracker, leads us to a magnificent pride of lions making their way through the bush. We stop to observe and, to my surprise and delight, the lions approach us. But my excitement soon turns to apprehension when Kevin, our ranger, slowly turns around and, with a very concerned expression on his face, cautions us, "No sudden moves… this pride is very wild." The lion is known as the "King of African Carnivores," and will claim prey at any time, whether hungry or not, if presented with an easy opportunity. And I suddenly feel like very easy prey, sitting in an open air Land Rover with no roof or sides. The wild animals in this South African nature reserve are familiar with the safari vehicles and most likely will not show aggression toward them. However, they are not used to people, and, while they generally do not see humans as prey, may perceive sudden moves or loud noises as a threat warranting an attack.

As the pride proceeds closer and closer still, I recall one of Kevin's comments on a previous and more distant lion encounter the day before, "If you get out [of the Land Rover] right now, you're as good as dead. They'll be all over you." I freeze as one lioness, her glowing eyes steadily fixed upon us in an intimidating stare, prowls to within 3 feet of our Land Rover and then continues on around the back of the vehicle, momentarily out of sight. A silent stillness takes hold of our small group. Excited and alarmed, I hold my breath. My heart's hard and hurried pulse resonates throughout my body. In the next moment the lioness reappears on the other side of our Land Rover and, to my great relief, continues on her way. I am left to watch in speechless awe as the pride trails off into the evening's gathering darkness.

This was truly one of the most amazing experiences of my life. But it was only one of the countless thrilling moments during my safari in Thornybush Nature Preserve . adjacent to South Africa's world famous Kruger National Park People from around the globe travel to this region of the South African bushveld to experience the "Big Five", lion, leopard, elephant, rhino, and buffalo, roaming the open savanna - not to mention creatures such as giraffe, zebra, wildebeest, hyena, baboons, impala, and hundreds bird species.

After a flight from Cape Town to Hoedspruit's Eastgate Airport and a short twenty-minute taxi ride, I arrived at Thornybush in the mid-afternoon with plenty of time to get settled and rest up for the evening safari. The deck of my very private thatched-roof cabin suite overlooked the Monwana River bed, which was bone dry at the time. "Monwana" means to dig for water - an appropriate name for this non-perennial river that flows only when good rains occur. For some time I relaxed on the deck, basking in the sun, observing four or five Steenbok antelope, several birds, and a group of Vervet monkeys in a nearby tree. I was later entertained when, after returning inside to prepare for the evening safari, these same monkeys had come down from their tree and were sitting on my deck observing me!

Evening Safari, Four of the Big Five

At 4:30, well rested and excited for my first safari drive, I met up with the other guests sharing my Land Rover, as well as Jonas, our tracker, and Kevin, our ranger. After brief introductions we were off! Jonas sat in a small seat attached to the hood of the vehicle and tracked animals by looking for recent footprints and other evidence that animals leave behind. Speaking in Fanagalo, a Zulu-based pidgin with English and Afrikaans components, Jonas and Kevin continually conferred with each other, sharing observations, opinions and hunches.

With Jonas and Kevin to guide the way, we were off to an excellent start. Only a couple of minutes into our drive we encountered two giraffe mingling in the trees, heads high in the upper branches. And this was just the beginning of an eventful evening. Driving on, we came upon Steenbok antelope, kudu, two herds of impala, and then three elephants roaming through the bush. These were followed by two white rhinos, a pride of lions, and a solitary male leopard. In all, we encountered four of the Big Five during our very first safari drive! Upon our return to the main lodge, Kevin told us that we were quite lucky to see four of the Big Five in our first drive. But I think Jonas and Kevin's animal tracking experience and skill had something to do with our "luck."

Kevin studied nature conservation at Pretoria Technical College, and both Kevin and Jonas are certified by the Field Guides Association of Southern Africa (FGASA). FGASA is a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting "professional guiding based on a strong ethical well-informed, safety-conscious approach." There are four levels of FGASA certification for trackers and rangers with corresponding experience requirements and exams. These exams are very difficult, and many fail on their first try. Each tracker certification level requires a certain amount of tracking experience and a passing evaluation on the corresponding practical exam, which covers the knowledge and skills considered essential to track animals and identify the spoor of animals. Jonas has completed his level 2 certification. Each ranger certification level also requires a certain amount of experience and a passing evaluation on a practical exam as well as a written exam. Kevin has also completed his level 2 certification and is going for level 3 certification.

After our evening safari, and a spot of sherry at the main lodge, Kevin, with his Musgrave .375 in hand, provided each of us with an armed escort back to our suites. The Thornybush camp is not game fenced. As such, wild animals wander through the lodge grounds from time to time, particularly at night. Once darkness falls on the camp, guests are not allowed to roam the grounds without an armed ranger by their side. For our safety, Kevin also escorted us from our suites to dinner, and then back to our suites after dinner.

Leopard Tracking in the Bush

Only five minutes into the following morning's safari Jonas spotted three leopards, a mother and her two offspring. Finding the leopard is perhaps one of the more exciting events on a Thornybush safari, as they are so elusive and difficult to track. So, it was very exciting to come upon this mother and her cubs. We slowly pursued them down a dry riverbed, following at some distance so as not to disturb them or scare them off. The cubs, one female one male, were about 13 months old. Their mother would soon lose her maternal instinct and stop hunting for them, forcing the cubs to go out on their own. Leopards travel alone, not in a pride like lions, which makes them all the more difficult to track. These leopards leapt off into the bush after only a few moments. But what an exciting few moments it was!

We spent the better part of the morning unsuccessfully tracking these leopards, which involved some rather adventurous off-road driving through the bush, and several stops for Jonas and Kevin to get out of the Land Rover and examine the leopards' spoor. Finally, Kevin convinced a grudging Jonas to give up the search and move on.

Much of my next two days at Thornybush were filled with such Big Five excitement and suspense, tracking and then finally coming within five feet of the elusive leopard, sitting amidst a herd of 10 elephants that were too close for my telephoto lens to capture, watching a herd of 100 Cape buffalo wallow in the mud, observing a mother and baby white rhino quenching their thirst at a small water hole, and, of course, intimate encounters with lions! I experienced all of this and observed zebra, giraffe, wildebeest, and so many more - too many to name.

Safari Vehicles and the Bush

Safaris take place at dawn and dusk, sometimes on foot but most often in open Land Rovers. These specifically modified four-wheel drive vehicles have no roof or sides so as to allow for maximum visibility, and are able to traverse the rough terrain of the bush - and Kevin certainly did traverse through some rough terrain! At first, I was a little surprised and concerned with the manner and frequency with which rangers drive these vehicles off the established dirt roads and into grassy areas, plowing over bushes and small trees. However, after some questioning I learned that the rangers are educated in the various types of flora, the fagility of such flora, and whether they are endangered. With this knowledge, rangers are careful to avoid traversing ecologically sensitive areas, particularly after a rain.

Thornybush Habitat and Mission

Thornybush covers over 100 square kilometers of pristine African bushveld. Its habitat is best described as predominantly savannah grassland areas with both deciduous and evergreen trees. One of the oldest game lodges in South Africa, Thornybush has operated commercially since the late 1960's. The nature preserve's mission is not only to provide an unrivalled safari experience, but to do so by adhering to principles of sustainable conservation, wildlife education, and the empowerment of employees and neighboring communities.

When to Go

I visited Thornybush in September, springtime in the Southern Hemisphere. Winters in Southern Africa (May through July) mean very little rain. The bush is still dry and thin in September, which makes for a fairly sparse and colorless landscape, but good visibility for wildlife viewing. Limited water resources during the winter and spring also means much wildlife activity is centered around water holes, making the Big Five easier to track. The September climate is mild and comfortable, with temperatures ranging from approximately 50º to 80º Fahrenheit. In all, if you are coming to South Africa to see the Big Five, September is an excellent time to visit Thornybush. However, if you are a birder looking for the best chance to see the over 250 species of birds to be found in this area, you might prefer to visit during the summer months (October through March), the optimal time to view various migrant species. The rainy season is during summer, which is generally humid and hot. The winter months are cooler.

No matter what time of year they visit, guests at South Africa's Thornybush Nature Preserve are certain to see some of the most amazing wildlife on the face of the earth and enjoy an experience of a lifetime.


Undiscovered Ecotourism Paradise

Ah, yes - snorkeling in crystal clear Caribbean waters, catching glimpses of toucans and howler monkeys while hiking through luxuriant tropical rainforest, immersing yourself in Latin American cultures - an ecotourist's dream. Think I'm talking about Costa Rica? Think again. Think Venezuela.

From its Caribbean coastline, to the tropical Amazon rainforest, to the vast savannas of Los Llanos, to the great Andes mountains, Venezuela is one of the world's most ecologically rich and diverse ecotourism destinations. The beauty of Venezuela's nine biogeographical regions and more than 25 different ecosystems is accented by its warm and hospitable people. Christopher Columbus described this land as "Paradise on Earth," and modern day ecotourists and adventure travelers who explore Venezuela agree. But Venezuela is, as of yet, largely undiscovered as an ecotourism destination. So, while those ecotourists who do visit Venezuela marvel at its natural wonders such as Angel Falls, the world's tallest, they are equally amazed by how few of their fellow nature lovers have discovered this natural paradise.

Venezuela boasts over 40 national parks and natural monuments. Approximately 15% of its national territory is protected land. Its awe-inspiring beauty, varied ecology and diverse wildlife make Venezuela a natural destination for a multitude of ecotourism activities such birding, hiking, scuba diving, and nature and wildlife viewing, just to name a few. The ecotourism opportunities rival, if not exceed, popular ecotourism destinations such as Costa Rica. But unlike Costa Rica, until very recently the Venezuelan government has not actively promoted Venezuela as an ecotourism destination. As such, Venezuela has remained a largely unexplored ecotourism paradise. But Venezuelan ecotourism pioneers, such as Paul Stanley, co-founder and President of Angel-Eco Tours, Inc., hope this is about to change.

Stanley and Angel-Eco Tours have allied with fellow Venezuelan ecotourism companies Hékura Consultores, C.A. and MarkCom Eventos, C.A. to organize EXPOECOTURISMO 2002 , the very first ecotourism exhibition and trade show to be held in Venezuela. The two-day event, to be held in Caracas September 10 - 11, 2002, will showcase the country's major states with lectures, presentations, cultural shows and video presentations. EXPOECOTURISMO 2002, aimed at national and international audiences, will highlight ecotourism businesses and products that are currently available throughout Venezuela.

More than 40 businesses, NGO's, foundations, and government agencies will participate in the conference. Dignitaries and featured presenters include the Commercial Attache to the US Embassy in Caracas, the Director of Bolivar Tourism, and representatives from the World Tourism Organization.

"We are extremely pleased that thus far, the conference has been so well received - in fact it is a breath of fresh air," says Stanley. "After all, this is the International Year of Ecotourism and Venezuela has such incredible biodiversity in its 43 national parks and some of the most beautiful, natural surroundings seen anywhere in the world."

Stanley and the EXPOECOTURISMO 2002 organizers hope that the event "will create an international awareness of the importance of ecotourism and other conservation initiatives currently being conducted in Venezuela."

Stanley and his co-founder and Director of Operations, Antonio Pestana, founded Angel-Eco Tours in May 2000 with a mission to promote tourism to Venezuela that would help preserve Venezuela's natural wonders, many of which are threatened by the pressures of population and economic growth. Rather than follow the formula of other countries that have promoted mass tourism that often threatens or destroys the environment, Stanley and Pestana set out to develop and promote sustainable ecotourism that would benefit the people of Venezuela as well as preserve Venezuela's flora and fauna. Since its founding, Angel-Eco Tours has been a leader in promoting ecotourism in Venezuela.

Angel-Eco Tours offers several planned itineraries and can customize just about any kind of ecotour in Venezuela. Current offerings include sailing, scuba diving, snorkeling, wind surfing and visits to lobster farms and a turtle preservation project in Los Roques, Venezuela's Caribbean national park; a wildlife adventure trip in the Andes and Los Llanos; a river cruise and birdwatching trip in the exotic jungle of the Orinoco Delta; and, their most touted trip, hiking through Canaima National Park to the majestic Angel Falls.

Angel-Eco Tours travelers stay in local communities, enjoy indigenous cuisine, and intimately interact with the native tribes of Venezuela such as the Pemon and Warao Indians. Members of these tribes serve as guides and share with ecotourists their deep knowledge of the plants, flowers, birds and other wildlife of Venezuela, as well as their native myths and legends. The quality and friendliness of these guides are consistently acclaimed in client testimonials.

Clients also rave about the natural wonders of Venezuela, echoing Christopher Columbus' declaration that this land truly is paradise on earth. Stanley and Pestana's clients are among the few ecotourists to have discovered this paradise. As one recent Angel-Eco Tours client remarked, "Is this Venezuela? Yes, the world's best kept secret! For now!" But Stanley, Pestana and their fellow EXPECOTURISMO 2002 organizers hope not for long.

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