Posts Tagged With: kruger national park

South African Adventure #41: Life with Monkeys

baboon bosom buddies

sticking together

I’m skipping my life lessons because today I just want to tell a story. So much has been going on in my life that I need some space from thinking and theorising, and instead I want to relay a day in the life. You can extrapolate any profoundness you may find, or you can just read it for what it is. For me, it is simply a funny memory.

I spend a lot of time with monkeys, and not always by choice. They tend to go where humans are, because humans mean easy access to food. Easy pickings. I don’t blame them. I would opportunistically scour human campsites and lodges for ready-made meals rather than spend days on end picking through dirt and grass, hoping to scrounge up enough calories to get me through to the next day. When the options are between a buttery croissant and a prickly, stubborn pine cone, can you blame them for going for the croissant?

Unlike so many other species out in the bush, monkeys aren’t easily contained by fences and perimeters. They figure out ways to circumvent the electrical wiring, though on occasion one does get caught in the current. Then you hear a scream and a thud as it hits the ground, shakes off the shock, and hurls itself off into the cover of trees.

Monkeys are a challenge mainly because they are clever. Well, and they are naughty. Often both at the same time. You can’t leave anything unattended when a troop is about. Even a single vervet (standing probably less than ½ a meter high) can create a tornado’s worth of damage in minutes.

When I worked in northern Zululand, we had a standing order that you locked the kitchen and kept the windows and doors shut tight whenever you left camp. Eventually we had to up the ante and order mandatory lockdown unless we were actually PRESENT in the kitchen. This after a volunteer left the door unlocked one day and then took off on a game drive to monitor the wild dogs. While I was left behind at camp, I was in my room and nowhere near the kitchen. Less than ten minutes passed before I heard clanking and crashing.

I looked across the lawn to see puffs of white powder billowing out the kitchen door like exploding cumulous clouds. Unsure of what I would find when I got close enough to see inside the doorway, I clapped my hands and yelled as I made my approach. A wave of ghostly shapes came pouring out of the kitchen and into the sunshine. Covered in flour, the barking dervishes shook their coats and scattered in every direction of the compass, leaving a haze of white in their wake.

If I didn’t know any better, I would say the kitchen had been ransacked by a marauding group of starving plunderers. These baboons were clearly on a mission, as though searching for Blackbeard’s treasure and fully convinced it MUST be hidden in the deepest recesses of the cupboards, specifically INSIDE the bags of booty (aka the flour, pasta, coffee, etc). Spaghetti, condiments, bread, fruit (or what was left of it, since they managed to carry off a large portion of the produce; and what they didn’t take they still made sure they tasted), it was strewn about in every direction. Some was even on the ceiling, no small a feat, since the thatched roof was a good 4-5 meters high).

It took two hours to clean it all up.

I was not amused when the volunteer sauntered back into camp, like the king returning to his castle. When I approached him and told him what happened, he shrugged it off, promptly put on his headphones and walked away. For a moment, I admit I secretly hoped a leopard would pop up and carry him off. But it didn’t happen.

Despite their mischievous ways, I still love monkeys. The jury’s out about how I feel about humans on any given day, though…


All rights reserved. ©2016 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: adventure, Africa, Baboon, monkey | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

South African Interlude #1 – Animals I’ve Neglected

Okay, so after two weeks of avoiding the baboons (yes, I actually HAVE been avoiding them as much as I can), I’ve realised I need to get back to some of the other wildlife out here. And there’s so much of it. Considering we haven’t covered the Big Five in depth yet – and that’s what most people want to see when they come here – I’ll begin there, starting with….Trunk and toes Elephants! elephants29

Some notes on Loxondonta africana (also known as ellies) – they live in matriarchal herds, with males splintering off when they hit puberty (somewhere between 7-15 years old) to sow their oats. You will often find bull elephants puttering around in twosomes, an older male mentoring a younger male (and also keeping the younger male in check). In fact, if you come across a solo male, odds are there’s another male somewhere in the area, which is useful to know when you have to drive around blind corners and in dense vegetation.

You’d think you couldn’t possibly miss seeing an elephant, but even a several ton being blends into the bushes in a matter of seconds. However, you certainly won’t miss smelling them, and doubtful you’ll miss hearing them. An elephant, much like a rhino, has a very earthy smell, not surprising since they eat nothing but greenery. They are the largest vegetarians you will come across on this fine planet of ours. And their digestive systems aren’t exactly the most sophisticated, meaning they leave a lot of undigested their food behind in their dung. In fact, when you come across elephant dung that’s been sitting around for a few months, you might be inclined to dismiss it as a hay bale that simply fell off a truck a while back.

Like rhino (who also leave behind piles of undigested goodies), elephant are hindgut fermentors, which means they don’t digest cellulose. When you eat nothing but plants, that means you don’t digest a LOT of what you eat. Rabbits and horses are the same. In fact, some of our hindgut fermentors even practice coprophagia, which means they eat their poop. No joke. But not elephants. They just keep eating and eating. In fact, they eat for about 20 hours a day. According to the African Elephant Specialist Group (, these heavyweights eat somewhere between 100-300kg a day (220-600lbs), and they drink a small river system’s worth of water, somewhere around 200 litres (or 50 gallons) a day. They can drink this all in one sitting as well, which is pretty impressive, considering they could also probably mow down a city immediately afterwards if they got sufficiently pissed off. In fact, a single trunkful measures somewhere in the 4-8 litre category. It would appear that unlike me, who might as well hibernate because I’m so bloated after drinking a measly 1.5 litre bottle of water, elephants could theoretically go out clubbing after one of their slurps and not have a single cramp.

While I’ve fallen in love with many of the sounds of the bush, I have to admit, the elephants make one of my all-time favourites. No, not the trumpeting. While that’s nice to hear when you’re trying to track them, it’s also a little disconcerting when they’re close by and running straight at you, ears flapping madly and eyes burning like little copper fire bolts. Nope, the sound I love is the low-pitched rumbling sound they make, an almost therapeutic baseline that literally reverberates through your body when you’re in close proximity to them. They make a whole range of noises even lower than the rumble, but it’s so low as to be out of our range of hearing, which is pretty common with animals, I’ve found. We miss a LOT of their communication because our ears are simply not as fine-tuned as theirs. In fact, their ears are so fine-tuned, they can hear each other rumbling up to 20 miles away. The rumbles travel is seismic waves, and the elephants can actually hear them with their feet.

Elephants are probably my favourite large animal to sit and watch, mainly because their level of social interaction is fascinating to me. And the little ones are so playful and funny, especially before they’ve mastered the use of their trunks (which takes a few years to get under control, considering there are a few thousand different muscles in there to control). Of course, when you have one appendage that acts as hand, arm, nose, straw and vocalization device, you need it to be a highly developed body part, essentially a well-oiled machine of versatility. So it’s not surprising it takes a while for them to get every part of it to work together. Once they get it down, though, they are capable of lifting items as heavy as 250+kgs (or 600lbs).

On top of that, elephants actually play with each other. They knock each other over, they whack each other with their trunks, they nudge each other and roll over each other. And they shoot water at each other, their trunks a modified version of water pistols. In fact, elephants in water are a joy to watch. You can actually see the change in their behaviour when they encounter a waterhole, even if it’s a small puddle. They LOVE water! And considering the babies can suffer from sunburn, water is also a nice opportunity for them to cool off from the sun’s intense rays.

I had the privilege on many occasions to sit and watch elephants, both in giant herds, in duos and trios, and solo. After a while, you learn to read certain behaviours about them and can get a good sense of when they’re happy, when they’re aggravated and when they mean business. Of course, you are never right 100% of time, which is why they (as well as any other animal) should be respected. Keeping a healthy distance and letting the animal come to you as opposed to you coming to it is always the rule of the day.

Oh, and don’t try to outrun one. They’ll trump you every time. No pun intended.

Learning how to drive a manual transmission is also a joy when elephants are a potential road obstacle. Unlike potholes and tree branches, elephants aren’t easy to avoid, and they move (often towards you) when you try to get by them. My fiance and I almost had to ram a car behind us once when we were driving through Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve and we came upon two bull elephants. (By the way, like cattle, ellies are bulls for males and cows for females.)  The elephants were casually chowing on some trees on the side of the road, minding their own business. We stopped the car and watched, my fiance filming and me just enjoying the moment. Eventually we realised that a pile of cars had lined up behind us. We were blocked in.

The bulls started to tussle, the larger one asserting his dominance as only an elephant can – slapping the crap out of the younger one with his trunk and tusks. The younger one started moving backwards down the road straight for us. And no one in the other cars thought it might be a good idea to reverse. We slowly started moving backwards, hoping the car behind us would get the hint. But nothing. And the elephants were closing fast. They were now both facing us and running straight at our front bumper.

I was getting a little worried, since not only was I new to the whole ‘driving a manual’ thing, I was new to driving around elephants. My fiance waved frantically to the car behind us, signaling them to move. With the gap between us and the now pissed-off elephants closing more quickly than I imagined possible, my fiancé turned to me and said, “Put the car in reverse and just go. If you hit these idiots behind us, they’ll get the hell out of the way.” They finally got the memo and, probably realising that the elephants were now a mere meters away, gunned it out of there.

As a side note, if you are ever driving around elephants, you shouldn’t gun the car. Ever. Not in reverse; not in drive. They will chase you, and for such giants, they’re lightning fast. Better that you try to get out of the way, not run away.  And if you’re going to drive in areas where they roam, do yourself a favour and learn a bit about their behaviour before you do, such as their warning signs. It might save your life. Really. Several tons can do a lot of damage to a car, and even more to you.

Incidentally, I should mention that poaching of elephants has increased significantly in the last decade. Numbers are going down quickly. Once again, it appears ivory is on the menu, and in spades. I hope one day all humans learn to respect our natural resources…which include the rest of the animal kingdom….and prefer those resources intact and alive instead of dead and in pieces on a mantle somewhere, or bedecking someone’s wrist as an ivory bangle.

Okay, off the soapbox now. If you have a hankering for all things elephant, check out some more information at:

Here’s a little gallery of some pachyderms I’ve had the pleasure of meeting in my journeys thus far. Enjoy!

Song for the day: It’s a tie between ‘Baby Elephant Walk’ by Henry Mancini and ‘Nelly the Elephant’ by Toy Dolls

At attention

At attention

shielding baby Bull elephant coming to say hello peanut sniffing the air

Looking out my front door

Looking out my front door

Optical illusion of ellies

Optical illusion of ellies

This is my waterhole!

This is my waterhole!

Just about to fade into the scenery

Just about to fade into the scenery

tying the knot

Sharing a laugh

Sharing a laugh

tapping heads, elephant-style

tapping heads, elephant-style

Little ellie showing who's boss

Little ellie showing who’s boss

Look at how nice they look!

Look at how nice they look!

elephant at the riverside dust bathing

any way you can get it

any way you can get it

Baby close-up

Too many years in the sun with no sunscreen

Too many years in the sun with no sunscreen


All rights reserved. ©2013 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, Animal, Big 5, Bush, Conservation, Education, poaching, South Africa, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

South African Adventure #192 – The Rules of Engagement, and Impala Road Kill

There are two main reasons for the strict rules you see upon entry every time you visit a reserve here (and everywhere else in the world) – safety for you, and safety for the animals. These rules are the lifeline that keeps the vast majority of people who enter this natural world, as well as the animals they’ve come to see, alive. The irony of conservation these days is that we have to pimp out the wildlife in order to preserve it. This means the necessary evil of allowing the people who have never in their life encountered an elephant outside of a television documentary or a local zoo to drive among these creatures in several-ton weapons of mass destruction. There are bound to be bad interactions and casualties.

Newbie people in the bush are akin to true newborns, fresh to a world they don’t understand, and just as vulnerable and useless as a newborn human baby. Sometimes they cry just as much as well.  Without guidance, you’d be amazed at the stupid things they’ll do. I know; I was one of them. Luckily for me and the local wildlife, I managed to avoid damaging my surroundings. Other people aren’t so lucky.

The other day, a man killed seven impala while speeding through Kruger National Park. Seven. In a row. Now, it’s kind of difficult to hit one impala. They’re antelope – they move quickly. This is usually the case when your best defense is to outrun predators.

There are speed limits in the parks here of no more than 50km/hr, which translates to about 27mph. Plus, you’re usually looking for animals specifically so you DON’T hit them, so your speeds aren’t much above a rather feisty idle anyway. To hit something, anything, larger than a frog, not only takes top speeds, it takes barrels of stupidity, irresponsibility, and disrespect for the world around you. This guy took out seven animals IN A ROW! Seven animals that normally outmaneuver cheetah, the fastest land animal alive, no less.

The man did get fined, thankfully, though a paltry amount for the crime. The company he worked for got an even heftier fine, which I’m sure they didn’t appreciate, and probably didn’t help his line of defense when it came to keeping his job. Kruger National Park has banned him from entering the park for five years. He swears he wasn’t speeding, but you cannot possibly hit that many of that type of animal unless you have the pedal to the metal.

Now, speeding aside, the reason you aren’t allowed out of your car when driving through the reserves? What you DON’T see is even more dangerous than what you do. That lovely little bush back there may actually be hiding a rather large black rhino, and if you decide it’s the perfect place to take a wee (yup, that is what everyone, even the big, burly guys, call ‘peeing’ here), you may end up with a horn through your chest, though I’m sure your bladder will definitely empty. Or, again, the pride of lions that is right in front of your face, but you can’t see it because the lions all blend in so well with their surroundings? They will be on you faster than a chicken on speed.  Any sound that you could conceive of possibly emanating from your lips will not do so in time before that little light of yours goes out. Okay, you might get out a grunt when the wind gets knocked out of your lungs. But grunts don’t travel very far as far as sound goes. And like the proverbial tree falling in a forest, no one’s gonna hear you anyway.

As dopey as some of these creatures look when they play, they are smooth operators when it comes to their prey. You are no match for a hungry carnivore or an angry herbivore. Trust me. I have seen them in action. I have seen how a pack of wild dogs will be on top of, kill, and literally devour an entire impala, skin and all, in a matter of minutes. I have seen four lions take down a 400lb animal in less than half an hour, leaving only a skull and a few rib bones behind, just in case they get a hankering for a late-night snack. I have seen hyenas rip through a femur like it’s nothing more than a potato chip. I have heard of little duikers (teeny, adorable antelope that probably come up to my knee) rip open a person’s femoral artery, and have personally seen a bull nyala (another antelope) knock a grown man five feet in the air with minimal effort. What are you going to do, smack them?

Even if you manage to momentarily confuse an animal here, you likely can’t outrun it. We are slow at the best of times in comparison to pretty much any four-footed creature. And speaking of running, this is something you NEVER do in the bush. As soon as you run, they chase. Instinct. Running means you give the predator a reason to chase you. That’s really not a position you want to put yourself in when the animal you’re trying to avoid runs twice as fast, and weighs twice as much, as you. And can clear a fence 15 feet high and climb trees. And has a mouth like a chainsaw. Or try an elephant, whose every step is equal to about ten of yours, who can topple a full-sized tree with a mere twitch of its shoulders, and who can move up and down steep hills as adeptly as a mountain goat, while you clumsily struggle to gain footing and balance.

This, my friend, is the reality – we have nothing on these animals. Even our supposed brain capacity is useless out here. They will take us out before we even have time to process the first thought of what to do. So, I urge you – respect them, respect the rules, and stay alive. Survival is not a right out here – it’s a privilege. Stay in the damn car. And if you’re around baboons, lock the doors and keep the windows closed. I’ve seen a baboon open a car door and get inside, despite protests of the screaming family of humans inside. A packet of chips is too tempting a proposition for a clever primate. We of all creatures should understand that. And I’ve been on the receiving end of a baboon going after a bag of chips in my hand. It’s terrifying.

Many people, particularly tourists, and, evidently, delivery drivers, seem to have no idea what is out there. They have no idea how powerful a baboon is or how vicious. They look at hyenas and think, “Looks a little like a teddy bear. How could that possibly be dangerous?” And yet hyena can chew through solid bone, and often do.

Say a newbie thought it was okay to feed the hyenas and baboons, showing complete disregard for the signs all over the place that read “Do Not Feed the Animals.” Clearly, this person never thinks that by ignoring the warning and doing this they could not only lose an arm, but also that the animals could become acclimated to humans and their food, and thus become a menace to the camps and to anyone on foot. Why a menace from one measly breadcrumb? The animals become used to people, quickly learn to associate them with food, and start attacking to get to food. Then someone gets hurt. And then the animal needs to be shot. Not exactly fair to the animals, is it?

Just as a note, I personally ‘break the rules’ often. I have to get out of the vehicle to move animals off the road and out of danger, or to relocate an injured creature. I have to get out of the car to change tyres, check camera traps, and clear debris. That’s part of my job. Your job is to enjoy nature and to help us all ensure it’s there for generations to come. Please do your part. I promise you I will do mine.

That’s the buzz from the bush for today.

Song choice: Running Down a Dream, by Tom Petty

Check out the link below for more info on the impala story:


All rights reserved. ©2012 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, Animal, Conservation, South Africa, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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