I expected it to be bad, but it was more intense than that. And louder. They sound like goats, but worse. And the smell? Ugh.
Cape Cross: The Current Colony
One of our stops on the Namibian coast was Cape Cross, named for the cross erected there in 1486 in honour of King John I of Portugal by Diego Cao, the first European to set foot there.
But what people really come to see at Cape Cross is the massive breeding colony of Cape Fur Seals. There are currently almost 100,000 seals at Cape Cross, making it one of the largest (and smelliest) colonies in all of Southern Africa.
The Breeding Cycle
The colony is made up of only adult females and their pups; the bulls only come around for the mating season. When the females are about three years old, they are mature enough to breed, which they do shortly after the arrival of the males.
The bulls will mate with each cow in their harem (5-25 females), and she will quickly become pregnant. The ova will start development after three months (ultimately giving those few months to rest). Most pups are born between late November and early December within a 34 day period . The bulls, on land at the time, will mate with each cow within a week of her giving birth.
Did you catch that timeline? The female gives birth in November, gets pregnant in December, the ova starts to develop in March, and then she gives birth again in November, ultimately making her pregnant almost all year for the rest of her life.
Risks and Dangers
(WARNING: If you don’t like the sight of dead animals, skip the photo below).
The Cape Cross seals are vulnerable to two main predators, the black-backed jackal and the brown hyena, who stalk at night. However, the mortality rate is partially high because of “trampling by other seals, drowning and abandonment.”
Alternatively, the mom and pup might be separated during a stampede, or she may be killed while at sea. We couldn’t fathom all the little skulls lying around the area, until we realized that they were of the newborn pups, likely picked clean by the vulturous seagulls that were around.
Life at Cape Cross
The seals at Cape Cross have the whole coastline there to themselves. Most lie around on the sand, sunbathing, quite a few right underneath the boardwalk designed to let visitors get a better view. Others sit on the rocks closer to the water, where they’re constantly drenched by the waves and more in the midst of the action, fighting and playing.
The third group is largely devoted to the water, frolicking in the giant waves. Besides sharks, which there aren’t many of here, the seals don’t have much to fear in the water, and are most agile and most protected there.
When the seals get out of the water, which is an art form in itself, they are immediately honking, calling, crying, looking for their mother, their group. It is a constant noise. Some of the seals sound like goats, others like fat men coughing up their lungs, others like menacing lions snarling and growling, all in a cacophony of horror movie sounds.
Why you should visit
Visiting the colony at Cape Cross really presented an opportunity to watch the seals in their environment. Because of the sheer number of them, it was unlike anything possible at the zoo; here we were able to see their natural behaviours, the natural parts of the life cycle, play out.
It was actually remarkable to focus on a small group and watch them interact or ignore one another, decide to feed, or decide to walk away. We could’ve stayed there and watched them for hours.
MORENO:After visiting Twyfelfontein, we had allotted another day to visit some nearby sites, but bumping into Jan and Jessica, a German couple we met in Sossusvlei, we were convinced that by passing up on some of these sites we wouldn’t be missing much.
We still planned to drive to Namibia’s highest peak, Brandberg, to find camp, but after being asked about our plans by a game driver on the road, we were persuaded to call it a day and find somewhere to sleep nearby.
We followed him to Aabadi Camp where desert elephants had just been spotted. We drove the Landy right down into a sandy riverbed in the direction of the elephants’ last known whereabouts. The sand got deeper and softer and my tire pressure was too high for it while my confidence in sand still somewhat low. So I decided to turn back before getting stuck.
Back in Jo’burg, James had warned us about the power and danger that elephants can present. “The elephant is a sexual animal: if it decides it doesn’t like you, you’re f*#%ed.” He told us about elephants driving their tusks through the metal bodies of safari jeeps and even knocking over SUV’s and stomping on them. With those ideas in my head, I was happy to head back to the camp’s bar for a beer.
To Walk or Rove
The game driver was still there and asked if we saw the elephants, and I reported that we had not gone that far in the Land Rover for fear of getting stuck but might go on foot. He warned us definitely not to go on foot, but assured us that we had the right vehicle and to just drop the tire pressure to between 1-2 bar (an unfamiliar unit of measure for me) and “go for it.”
“If you find you’re getting stuck,” he added, “Drop it into low range and go for it. If you get into more trouble, lock the diff and go for it.” And then he added, “But, if you still get stuck, you’re f*#%ed. Wait for me in my Land Cruiser.”
Even as a new Land Rover owner, my ears burned at the thought of being rescued by a Toyota. I said that we would go back and give it a try. “You’re going on foot aren’t you?” he asked. It’s as if he could read the hesitation on my face. I denied the accusation and he smiled knowing that we were not going in the Landy.
So we grabbed a camera and lens and set out on foot over red boulders on the side of the river in search of the beasts, making sure to stay out of the dry riverbed. We were alone and at some point began to feel like there might be any number of predatory cats lurking behind a rock waiting to pounce on us delicious pieces of Canadian bacon. We ventured a bit further and then the fears disappeared when we I spotted a smallish, if you can ever say small when refering to an animal of its’ size, elephant.
We spied them, growing in numbers, from the safety of the rocks for about fifteen minutes before feeling brave and curious enough to climb down and track the herd as it moved along, feeding as it went.
Walking with Elephants
The walk was magical. We weren’t in our vehicle like in Pilanesburg where we first saw elephants. There was no noisy diesel motor or air conditioner blowing or windows in the way. It was just us and about twenty giants…and Jan and Jessica who we just sighted scrambling over the rocks coming to our position (we just keep finding eachother).
Together and in silence we moved along the bank of the riverbed in the direction of the herd, hiding behind trees, careful not to get too close, and keen to keep an eye on the one that would occasionally take notice of our presence and grunt.
Eventually we followed the elephants back to our camp, but now it was getting harder to keep track of not only all the elephants but also Kat’s whereabouts as all were spreading out.
KAT (interjection): At this point, we were very close to them, and the bank was pretty much level with the ground. I was no longer comfortable with following Moreno, but as the elephants were right there, a few meters in front of us, I didn’t want to speak above a whisper and catch their attention. Moreno did not hear or see me go around the bush on the safe side, slowly making my way to a bush further away where Jan and Jessica had joined the rest of the camp in taking photos of the passing elephants from a safe distance.
As I rounded the bush, I immediately noticed an elephant further off in the river bed but with a very direct view of me. The camp audience looked to me. So did the elephant. I felt so exposed, I didn’t want to move, and was sure that once trampled I’d be a statistic case of ‘tourist that was stupid enough to be in the open with an elephant.’ I proceeded to slowly make my way behind a flimsy tree surrounded by sparse bushes, about ten meters away from the bank. I could see the rest of the camp people another 15 meters off from me, but didn’t feel safe to walk there just yet.
MORENO: I had a good idea of where the mean one was. One elephant in particular was the only one to take notice of us and its demeanor was obviously not to be our friend. This elephant was always a ways off to the rear. I had moved closer to the edge of the riverbed and then right in front of me I noticed one behind a bush. Not more than five meters distance and some thin, leafy elephant food separated us.
My immediate reaction was shock that this five ton creature could be so close without making a sound. You would think something so large would move about with loud, thundering steps, like the T-Rex in Jurassic Park, but they can be remarkably quiet. So I stood motionless, but the elephant moved around the bush to reach more clumps of leaves and then made eye contact with me.
I was told they have poor vision. Perhaps they do but with me standing there in my jet black shirt against a light background and only a car length away it was obvious that it would see me. Yet I remained still, praying I was wrong and simultaniously in awe of this up close experience with such a massive and intelligent mammal. Then in my stillness, with its eyes locked on mine, it scoffs, flaps its ears and takes a few aggressive steps in my direction.
KAT: I have no idea where Moreno is, but have everyone else in my view and all of a sudden, as one, they all give out a low panicked “Oooh.” And shuffle away another few meters. I know instinctively Moreno’s pissing off an elephant but can’t see anything just yet.
MORENO: My internal “Oh shit” meter is off the charts. I take three slow steps backwards, and then it charges at me. Just as I turn away to begin my sprint I hear the unmistakable sound of it trumpeting and its footsteps now pounding much louder than my heart.
KAT: And all I hear is a trumpet sound and then the very quick pitter patter of feet somewhere to my left. *facepalm*
MORENO: I run about 50 meters checking over my shoulder to see it still coming, but it does eventually stop after about 15 meters. It’s only when I stop (even further away) that I see that Kat is not where I thought she was, but instead hiding behind a shrub with the elephant standing quite close to her now.
KAT: It’s silent. I manage to peer through some of the shurbbery and sure enough see an elephant face, bright white tusks, facing up past me towards where the footsteps have gone. Luckily, I don’t actually realize how close it is to me. I know it can’t see me because I’m smartly wearing my blendy safari shirt but I’m terrified of it hearing me crouched there, angry that I’m hiding. I look behind me. The toilet is about twenty meters away, but the walls are made of wooden sticks that even if I would make a run for it, the elephant could trample.
We had just watched Jurassic Park and all I could think was, Oh I am not going down in a toilet stall. I considered making a break for the rest of the camp people, but I couldn’t see them anymore. I did manage to be consious of the fact that they could probably see me and that I probably looked ridiculous, so while stuck for what seemed like ever hiding behind this flimsy tree, terrified the elephant would come after me if I made a run for it, I also attempted to look completely in my element and nonchalant.
Unfortunately, looking for an escape route, I lost my view of the elephant, and when I turned back, couldn’t see it any longer. Panic set in. Could I just not see it any more or was it slowly making its way in my direction, ever so quietly like I knew it was capable without me knowing? Visions of elephant popping out from behind the tree flooded my brain and I decided to go around the other way to get a better view.
MORENO: I didn’t want to shout to Kat, but I could see that she didn’t have a clear site of where the elephant was and wouldn’t know how close danger was. After a few attempts of hissing and arm waving, further agrivating the beast which maintained its staredown with me, I got her attention when she finally turned around. I signalled her to stay low and move back to keep the shrub between her and the elephant.
KAT: I was relieved to see Moreno, and glad he could guide me somehow, but after telling me to stay down, he just stood there and smiled. I frantically threw my arms in the air, signalling “Now what??” But he just stood there. I looked back on the other side and saw moving elephants, so assumed the path was clear and made my way to Moreno.
MORENO: Our signals got crossed and she started towards me, but it was at the same moment that the elephant turned and made off in the opposite direction. It didn’t see her. All were safe, just left with an adrenaline overload and pounding chests.
The sun was already high in the sky when we started the drive. We had no way to get into the Kgalagadi Transfrontier National Park at sunrise, and now just had to hope there was an animal or two resting under shade where we could see it.
As luck would have it, two cars pass us, each telling us there’s lions under a tree some 20 kilometers in the opposite direction. A third one mentions a cheetah, moving from shade to shade with her two cubs a few kilometers past that.
We drive through the undulating expanse of small red sand hills, green brush, dry yellow grass, the white gravel cutting across it into the horizon. We later come to realize that no animals are ever visible on this part of the road, besides a mole digging up the red dirt right where everyone drives over it. Like clockwork, every few hours, a new mound of red dirt is formed, and then promptly flattened by tire tracks, before eventually erupting again.
We don’t know why. Perhaps it is too open here. Perhaps there is no where to hide, too far from water? We don’t know.
Eventually we reach the crest of the main hill and start the descent down, watching the dry landscape of the Kalahari stretch out in front of us. We can see cars up ahead – there is something to look at over there – and immediately spot the herds: wildebeest, springbok, gemsbok, coming over the next hill, standing awkwardly in the field, crowding around the waterhole.
Their movements are hesitant – they do not look like they are a threat to one another and yet they proceed among themselves with caution. They stand fiercely still. A quick step, step. And then they stand still again, staring off into the distance, focused, unmoving, yet skittish.
It wasn’t until we drove to where the other cars were parked that we realized a mere two hundred meters from the waterhole was the tree where the two lions were sleeping.
Animals in the wild are something else. They are more immense, more terrifying than you could ever hope them to be in a zoo. The lions, lazy in the heat, were lying on the dirt on their sides under the shade of the acacia. We waited a few minutes for the shade to move, hoping it would prompt the lion to move, stand up, show himself, but when the sun hit his leg, he merely rolled onto his back, paws in the air like a kitten, and stayed that way beside his still flopped over companion. Even from this distance, a hundred meters, maybe less, I could see how massive they were. Do we have different lions in Canadian zoos? I wondered. Because I’m never really impressed there. Here, I was quickly terrified at the thought of their presence.
We went a few kilometers further, but the cheetah must have been long gone. The afternoon heat was already beating down on us, and like the animals, we quickly escaped to find shade.
Our early morning drive is similarly eventful. A lone red hartebeest, a few hornbills, an elusive black-backed jackal.
Another lion, another ton of muscle, lazying under the shade of a tree. When too many cars turn up, he stands, and saunters slowly away from us, up the dry grassy hill, out of view, and out of human access.
It was hot. It was damn hot, the hottest it’s been in 21 years here at the park, it’s rumoured. The winds start. We don’t know where to turn. It’s too hot to stay in, too windy to stay out. The cloud cover comes within half an hour and is a blessing for the rest of the day.
We drive out for the sundown, hoping to see more and see…nothing. The gemsbok and the springbok, despite their colours, their odd masquerade-like markings, are just not exciting in their large numbers, aren’t considered ‘sighted.’
Nevertheless, with nothing else in sight, we park where a herd of the gemsbok and wildebeest are grazing on both sides of the road to watch them in silence for a while. Eventually, with no one else around, they go back to grazing, go about their lives, though still eyeing us suspiciously every once in a while. A zoo does not have the ability to show you animals going about their daily lives.
One by one, the gemsbok slowly cross the road into the large field. There is maybe ten of them, and I spot it immediately. Their focus. They all stare in one direction. More gemsbok cross over to them, but they too fall into line, face the same direction. They advance by a step, and then stop. They stare, a focused, rigid stare. It could only mean one thing – a predator – but as I looked into the field to where they were looking, I couldn’t see a thing in the knee-high grass.
The gemsbok advance another step. Stop. Stare. Step. And then abruptly rush in the opposite direction, spooked, but only for a few meters. They turn back around and stare. Step. Stop. Stare. Spook, turn and flee, but only for a few meters. We turn the car around to get a better view. And there it is: a dark spot moving in the grass. Cheetah! Invisible from where I was looking off into the distance, the cheetah was only a few meters in front of the gemsbok, her two dark cubs following nearby.
She gracefully made her way through the grass, occasionally turning to glance at her cubs, at the gemsbok so intently keeping an eye on her and like a tentative army, following her step by step. She would never attack them for food, she was too thin, too petite, but must have given them a scare if she thought they were getting too close.
And so she made her way across the plain with them not letting her out of their sight. A diva, impervious to the crowd of cars that was slowly congregating around her – our cheetah – she lay down in the middle of the gravel in front of us, her loose skin almost folding into the ground, her two cubs playfully tumbling around her.
She stayed that way, posing, for only a minute before another car approached and she swiftly stood and walked off and up the hill on the other side. Her two cubs played another second before they realized she had left, trusting they’d be fine, and they too followed up the hill.
Attentively, like the rest of the onlookers, the gemsbok stood on the field at the edge of the gravel, staring after her until she disappeared over the peak.
“Oh! I thought they were real!” I squealed when we entered the Pilanesberg National Park through the Manyane gate late on a Friday night. In front of us on the lawn were dark deer-like silhouettes littered across the lawn – lawn ornaments, I guessed. And then one of them looked up. “Oh! They ARE real!”
And so began our first wildlife sightings at Pilanesberg. The impala ended up being all over the camp, and by the time we saw a rabbit hop across the street, it was like a scene out of Bambi.
In the morning, we woke up to our third animal sighting – the baboon, which seemed to have replaced the impala. They were everywhere! Running around, knocking over garbage bins (there were animal proof bins, but many of these were either broken or inadequately closed), being chased from tent sites by people waving chairs to thwart them off from stealing bread. A ranger finally came and shooed them away and back over the fence into the actual park, though many of them just went around and behind him and right back to the garbage they were dealing with in the first place.
The Manyane campsite where we were staying is situated right at the entrance of the park, so it took us about 3 minutes to get to the park gates. The park is big and has a lot of different routes to take. Where do you choose?? We were such amateurs at this. Everyone else seemed so determined, flying off in different directions. Did they know something we don’t?
Luckily, within the first ten minutes we saw the Greater Kudu, a large horned antelope. Man, it was huge!
After that, there were zebra in the distance, and eventually we saw giraffe, and a herd of elephants. We were shocked at how well all of them blended in, like the zebra, though there was nothing specifically black and white around them!
And even the three ton elephants walking on the hill! We were one of a few cars to park on the road and watch them for a while as they slowly made their way down a hill on our right, over the plain, and eventually crossing the road in front of some of the cars.
One of the elephants stopped in the middle, as if to act as a crossing guard as the other ones passed behind it, but he eventually turned and faced us! The cars directly in front of must’ve had quite a scare because we immediately saw their reverse lights turn on. The elephant didn’t come any closer and once the herd finished crossing, they all disappeared down the valley on our left.
Pilanesberg has a couple of “hideaways” which are covered bungalow shelters that you can look out onto the water to secretly spy on animals, but it was a bit disappointing – you could get a much better view of the hippoes and the animals on the lake by driving right up to them on the other side, and not from the hideaway.
By then it was mid-afternoon and being in the car in the sun was unbearable, so we called it a day, and went to relax at camp instead.
The next morning we managed to get into the park shortly after it opened and took a road that was filled (read: three or four) with rhinos! The hideaway got us a good spot to look at them, but like the day before, we managed to get closer in the car than there.
And of course, warthogs! The ugly little pigs are actually quite adorable, especially when their tails point towards the sky like an arrow when they run.
So in the end, we only did two drives, which was a lot less than we wanted but it was a good first try, and, while we didn’t see any cats, we were pretty pleased with what we saw.