[singlepic id=295 w=320 h=240 float=right]Lions are next on the agenda they were simply everywhere! Walking over our pan, walking down our roads or just sitting under a Shepard tree chilling. Why were they here – answer is they were after the Eland on the hunting farm that runs next to the park boundary. Let me explain; during Nov/Dec and Jan we had an Eland migration in the park. They come down from Botswana and head South East as part of their historic trek for water. Only thing is man has put up fences so they can’t get to their old summer feeding and water areas so they remain in the park drinking at all the park waterholes and gorging themselves on the vegetation here. Many of the parks waterholes were drunk dry causing great difficulty for the other animals that have become dependent on these waterholes. Enter the Lion – they chase them up against the fences as the Eland is easy prey, slow but big a kind of giant McDonalds on hooves. The Eland try to jump the fences but don’t do a good job of it so they end up breaking them down and then enter the game farms. Parks board come along, repair the fences leaving the Eland on one side and the Lions on the other = not happy lions! So the moment they find a Bat Eared Fox hole under the fence or a place where they can jump over they are through and hunting Eland again. Now the down side to all of this is man and his greed again. These are hunting farms they have acquired maybe 100 eland free of charge but become very possessive of this newly acquired bounty and heaven help any lion that wants to eat this bounty. The farmers get up to R10, 000.00 an Eland from hunters. The parks board are told in no uncertain terms that they must come and remove their lion or a stray bullet may hit a lion. Totally illegal of course to shoot a lion. Nice thing !Xaus Lodge has a Land cruiser bakkie ideal for loading naughty darted lions![singlepic id=294 w=320 h=240 float=right]
Early one morning I receive a radio call from Stephen Smith the park manager asking if I won’t join him as they need another bakkie to load 3 lions that they had darted. Needless to say I was out the door like Jack Flash and on my way to encounter my first close up with lions. I really was excited as all my life I have dreamed of working close to nature and with rangers and guides and here it was all happening – manager of !Xaus Lodge with the added perk of working close with SANP’s on their Lion project and Lion behavioural skills! [singlepic id=296 w=320 h=240 float=right]At the time this all happened we had a Netherlands based tour operator staying with us – Treesma. She joined me and off we went (my assistant was very grumpy at this! – she would get her turn). We met the SAP guys and sure enough there they were darted and on the floor – two large males and a mature female. They were duly loaded, we got the lady and off we set for Twee Rivierin’s lion enclosure. Now this is a fenced enclosure with a “real” working electric fence not like the one that runs the boundary of the park. The idea is to teach the lions not to go near a fence because if they do they will get shocked and that’s not nice. I am told it works but there are two brothers that spend most of their life in this enclosure because they just don’t learn. After 3 weeks of rehab the lions are let free in various areas in the park in the hope they will stay away from fences – well not “Vetkat” and his brother, when they get released, the brother heads east to the fences and goats of Botswana and Vet Kat heads past !Xaus Lodge and crosses the Western fence for Eland.
Back to our journey to Twee Rivierin’s lion boma – the idea on this trip is that the vet follows and every 15 minutes we stop to see the drugs are still having the desired effect on the lions. We are bombing along deep in conversation with the back window wide open and a drugged lioness stretched out in the back, I turn to Treesma and ask her to slide the window shut as our lady really does need to change her perfume – suddenly in dawns on Treesma that this is all for real with a fully grown lioness about 30 centimetres from the back window well then the talking really started. I could not keep up! We arrived at the park boma gate, a ranger gets out opening the gate and one of the males in the bakkie in front of us decides to sit up and have a look around – I don’t think anyone breathed until the vet had sorted the matter out! I return to the lodge with Treesma a very happy chappie!
Next morning Stephen is back on the radio – 8 more lions are over the fence – can we assist once again Richard or Jack Flash is out the door this time taking my assistant with me – now here is a big mistake we take no water with us – the time 8am, we return to the lodge at 6.45pm not having had a thing to drink – not clever Jack Flash!
We meet SANParks at a gate and the convoy of vehicles heads in to the bush. Stephen is already out there with his trackers tracking. Suddenly the radio crackles, GPS co-ordinates are given and we set off following the SANP vet and the state vet. There is no road we just head straight through the bush up, down and around dunes. Eventually we all meet up, dart guns are loaded and the hunt begins – what fun 8 lions became 13 for the day. Four cubs are part of the catch, so cute but with paws larger than my hand. They sound like a V12 engine when they come screaming out of the bush in a charge. One of the edgiest moments was when we were loading one of the lionesses on to the canvas lift stretcher. I am on one side with a SANP ranger and two SANP rangers on the other side. We start to lift the ± 180 kilos of dead weight when she suddenly lifts her head looks at me and growls – well we were all Jack Flashes! One of the other females who we thought was out like a light was approached by the vet; he goes down on his haunches to take a look, and she stands up growls and walks away. Needless to say she got another dart in her butt! Sadly I had to leave the show at 6pm to head back to the lodge. A total of 30 naughty lions were darted in the month of April 2013 all on the wrong side of the fence and all looking for Mc Elands. Each dart costs R900.00 and some lions require 3, so not a cheap exercise. It really is mind blowing to be close up to these top predators. Whilst all this was happening we were sighting lions on every drive from the lodge. They came in waves and towards the end of May, things went dead.
April came to a close with nothing to match the lion darting. May dawns and our bookings are looking good. For a few days we are really pumping, so just before this I shoot down to Upington to get some essentials for repairs and one of my senior guides takes one of our game drive vehicles in to Upington to have the canvas roof and sides replaced.[singlepic id=297 w=320 h=240 float=right]
We have had some very interesting guests in – photographers and journalists from Country Life, Leisure Wheels, overseas publishers. Ladies who could write a book on birds without any help – all has gone well and I have learnt a lot from the photographers. I always make a point of asking things I don’t understand on my camera and get more than enough help.
The night skies are fast becoming a passion and we have had some guests in who know the night sky’s like the back of their hand and have taught me a lot. Every morning I am treated to the most beautiful sunrises and then hectic days are all calmed with an equally beautiful sunset. I do think April and May are the nicest months in the park.
Nola (my assistant) takes leave in June and I am left holding the fort. We have a wedding in July, Barry our FD is a minister and the minister for the wedding and Nola has planned her return to coincide with me picking them both up at the airport on the same day. It’s good to have my assistant back and the team is complete again. A day before the wedding I shoot out to pick up the bride and her Mom and a trailer which is full of all the wedding stuff. The bride and Mom are delightful but when we get back to the lodge they find they have not loaded their trailer so another trip is made by one of my guides and all is sorted.[singlepic id=299 w=320 h=240 float=right]
The big day arrives and I am a little nervous as I have proposed a menu which is a little complex – salmon terrines etc. Nola and Cas, who I will tell you about later, take up the “front of house”. A wedding planner sorts out the tables and I am in the kitchen with Ellen my head cook and Beatrice our staff cook. The bride walks down our boardwalk with her dad – she looked beautiful and the wedding went off without a hitch. Thank you to a very dedicated staff and some casual staff. Eventually we get to bed at about 1am. The guests stay another night and we had a lovely “game” BBQ – the climax to this day was that the Stormers whipped the Blue Bulls – I was happy. The bridal couple stayed another night and as luck would have it they had the lodge to themselves and I cooked for them. We received great praise from the couple and they promise to be back. A weary !Xaus Lodge team had an early night after their departure.[singlepic id=301 w=320 h=240 float=right]
Part of my contract with the lodge is that I can guide for Masihambe Afrika a New Zealand tour operator with whom I have built up a good working relationship. My first tour was due to start on the 15th July and I will be doing two back to back tours and will be away for 47 days from the lodge. At the time of agreeing to the tours the lodge was not busy. Suddenly bookings roll in and we are looking at an occupancy of over 65% which is of huge concern to Nola and I. How will they cope if things go wrong – the biggest fear is a technical breakdown of a pump or machine – enter Cas Groot! I must say he is great at organising.[singlepic id=300 w=320 h=240 float=right]
Cas is a good friend and was my “across the road” neighbour when I still owned Montagu Vines Guesthouse. He speaks 8 languages and is a cultural guide and has guided all his life. I chatted to him about my predicament and as he was “between tours” he offered to give a helping hand. He also wanted to get some experience at lodge management so this would be an ideal opportunity. He duly arrived on the 30th July and shadowed me until Nola arrived and my departure. Little did he know it would be a “baptism of fire”! Nola would not have managed without his support and they did an outstanding job running the lodge in my absence I could not have asked for a better team. In my absence they had everything thrown at them – a high occupancy, a collapse of a septic tank, our vehicle that had a blow out and overturned, staff that could not see eye to eye with each other. Under some trying conditions they kept the ship on course and the flag flying.
I was kept in the picture on all the major problems and I am happy to say “Ossie” the osmosis machine did not misbehave. I felt a bit of a stranger when I got back as Nola and Cas had settled in to a good routine and that included having a glass of red wine and a Muscadel each night. Cas will become a permanent part of the team “in season” and has left to go and visit his Mom in the Netherlands. Nola has taken her well-earned 10 day break.
Well to all of you that read this letter I will conclude on that happy note – until later, take care and love to you all.
Dune 91, Kgalagardi National Park