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Although maribou storks are fascinating in terms of their ecological niche, they are the sort of animals that you strongly suspect that only a mother could love!
Firstly, they are Africa's largest stork, and in stark contrast to the willowy profile of their more elegant cousins, they have a decidedly muscular build and disproportionately large, inlamed-looking bald heads with whispey Bobby Charlton 'comb over' feathers. Combined with their hunched wing profile and skulking gait, they have the morose air of a Victorian undertaker, and that's even before we get to the charming fact that they defaecate on their legs to keep them cool ...
Nonetheless, they are fantastically successful birds, and at a time when most larger species are struggling for survival, their numbers are stable, and even growing in certain areas. The key is in their opportunistic nature as scavengers, where they will happily make their own kills or scavenge off kills made by others (where they rank just below vultures in the pecking order). They certainly don't lack in assertion when they lay into the scrum for the scraps that are on offer around a kill and - perhaps more importantly - they aren't above scavenging from waste dumps and have become characteristic residents of landfills throughout Africa.
These particular maribous roost on trees around the vulture restaurant by the entrance to the Moholoholo animal rehabilitation centre so that they are well positioned for any titbits that might be on offer ...
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Where to start? Well, for fear of eulogising from the outset, in my opinion, night drives are the single most exciting and atmospheric experience that you can have in the bush! At night, the bush comes alive, as many species are nocturnal, and you get to see a different range of animals to the buck (antelope) species that you usually see during daytime. Night is also when the carnivores and scavangers become active: and not just the big cats such as leopard and lion, but also (to my mind) the more interesting smaller carnivores such as civet, genet and bushbabies. It's also a fantastic opportunity to discover the wonder of nocturnal birds such as owls and nightjars, and - if you're really lucky and have been exceptionally well behaved in several previous incarnations - you may even get to see the twin holy grails of night drives: the aardvark and the pangolin. But more about these elusive critters later ...
Let's start with the basics. I do not know of a single park or reserve in Southern Africa that will allow you to drive unaccompanied at night, so if you do a night drive, it will have to be under the supervision of a guide (who may or may not also function as the driver). This is primarily a safety consideration - both for visitors and for the animals - but makes a huge amount of sense regardless of that, as trained professional know what they're looking for in the dark, and you don't.
Game spotting in daylight is something that you get the hang of pretty quickly, and most visitors only need a day or so to 'get their eye in'. However, spotting animals after dark is a whole different ball game, and usually relies on spotting 'eye shine' (the torch light that is reflected back from the animal's retina). I've spent a lot of time in the bush over a period of more than 20 years, and still can't get the hang of it, so it's an indication of how skilled these game rangers are!
The beauty (and the bane) of night drives is that nothing is guaranteed. Unlike daylight drives - where you have to be exceptionally unfortunate not to see at least more common herbivores such as zebra, impala and wildbeest, at night, you are guaranteed nothing. Part of this is that your field of vision is so much more limited - tens rather than hundreds of metres - and also because we are diurnal creatures, and our senses are more attuned to daylight than moonlight. As a result, everything you see is a bonus, and because your senses are not overloaded with the sheer number of animals that you are likely to see on an early morning or later afternoon drive, you tend to appreciate individual sightings more. And part of it is the element of surprise, as things tend to leap into your field of vision without warning, rather than slowly emerging.
Photography at night is tricky, especially if it's something that you're not used to. I am pretty proud of this photo, but I have to admit that it is the best of a series of maybe a dozen: this is where digital photography comes in its own, as you can snap away with gay abandon, limited only by the size of your photo chip, so take more (rather than less) photos and - provided that you have a relatively static subject - feel free to experiment with a range of settings until you've decided what best fits the circumstances.
And, if you see very little, then the thrill of driving through the dark bush is quite wonderful just in its own right. Game viewing vehicles are generally open to the elements, which means that you feel very much at one with your environment, its smells, sounds ... and the weather. So dress warmly and bring an extra jumper, even if the day's been warm - things cool down quickly after the sun goes down, and all reputable tour guides will provide a pile of warm blankets that you can cuddle into.
Finally, back to those pesky nocturnal insectivores. After quarter of a century of trying, I have yet to see an aardvark and have only ever seen a dead pangolin (who was sadly electrocuted when he tried to burrow under an electric fence), so it's a VERY sore subject and the whereabouts of Mummy's Aardvark is a standing family joke ...
Moholoholo Animal Rehab Centre is a 'must do' for anyone with the slightest interest in animals who's travelling through the Hoedspruit area.
Moholo (as we know it) was established by Brian Jones, a passionate conservationist who will quite happily admit that he gets on better with animals than people (and certainly doesn't suffer fools gladly). Brian is a former game ranger who is perhaps most famous for 'mating' with a crowned eagle, Queen (the local equivalent of the harpy eagle, and every bit as deadly) and helped her build a nest by passing twigs from his mouth to her beak - suicidal for all but Brian.
The centre takes in injured wildlife, and also runs a captive breeding programme for species such as the serval (a strange looking mid-sized wild cat with disproportionately long legs that make it look as if it's on stilts). Animals that have been rehabilitated are re-released into the wild if possible (many into the surrounding reserve), and those which cannot be released are kept for breeding and/or educational purposes. One of our daughter's earliest memories is of Tinkerbell (whom she called "Tinkerhippo") the orphan hippo that was raised in the centre, released into the reserve and was eventually found a mate (Peter, of course) with whom she had a calf before she died a couple of years ago.
The centre opens daily and runs guided tours that run for about an hour (sometimes longer depending on how busy they are). What you see is largely dependent on what poor critters have recently suffered a misfortune, and we think that it is particularly interesting, as you often get to see smaller or more cryptic animals that you seldom see in game reserves. You are guaranteed to see the animals that cannot be released (such as several species of raptor - including bataleur, crowned eagle and various types of vulture - and some of the lesser-seen cats such as serval and carucal). They also have resident cheetah, wild dog, leopard and some unfortunate lions that have been confiscated from abusive homes and circuses.
For us, the stars are always the honey badgers - our daughter first tussled with Stoffel when she was less than 2 - and we can never get enough of these engaging, opportunistically exploitative, escapologist bundles ofd determination and attitude. It's also worth asking what's been admitted to the hospital - in the past, we have helped with treating honey badgers and injured baby baboons (although that has only been possible when there were very few visitors)
You are allowed in the cages with some animals, and it is possible to have a vulture sit on your arm, which is quite a thrill! We have also held bushbabies, stroked baby cheetahs and carucal and frolicked with warthog piglets - as you might imagine, the kids absolutely adore it (as do their equally animal-crazy parents)!
If possible, try to avoid weekends and school holidays when the place becomes very popular.
Also see my tip on the Moholoholo Forest camp, which gets my vote for the best value bush camp in the country! If you are staying there, then entrance to the rehab centre is included in the tariff.
Moholo hosts game ranger courses which may appeal to people wanting to develop a deeper understanding of the bush. It also runs an intern programme where volunteers from across the world come to work at the centre as willing slave labour - this is a clever ploy, as it provides free (and usually motivated labour) and also serves as a much needed revenue stream. Many of the volunteers are gap year students, and they seem to love it, despite getting worked to death. Certainly it would be an ideal option for bolshy teenagers with any interest in wildlife, and quite a smart exercise in parental damage control, as the centre is at some distance from the nearest town (especially as they have very limited access to transport), and anyway, after a day of hard labour, they should be too exhausted to get up to much!
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This unseemly spectacle is a snapshot of what happens at Moholoholo's 'vulture restaurant' after they have put out some carrion: in this case, some rather unappetising remains of a warthog roadkill.
The resultant scrum is unbelievable. Large whitebacked vultures which have been perching expectantly in neighbouring trees swoop down and lead the charge, with cheeky little hooded vultures darting in and out to snatch their share of the pickings. Funereal looking maribou storks muscle in to grab morsels and jackals snipe from the fringes, trying to dodge flailing beaks and claws. In the fracas, vultures end up standing on each others' wings, backs or even heads and squabble noisily over what's on offer, sometimes getting so caught up in their personal scuffles that the food over which they are fighting is stolen from right under their beaks.
As things die down and the larger birds have eaten their fill, they withdraw and line up on the ground as a squadron, facing into the prevailing wind in preparation for take off. Meanwhile, the smaller scavangers - including warthog, ravens and crows - move in to complete the clean up.
This spectacle happens most afternoons, and could keep you spellbound for half an hour. It sounds much more gory than it is, and if you're interested in animal behaviour, animal hierarchies and, pretty well, anything at all to do with animals, then don't miss this!
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The Big Five and large game are all well and good, but for me, one of the immense charms of time spent in the bush is that you get the opportunity to appreciate all aspects of nature, large and small, rare and commonplace.
Whether it's the gecko that lurks behind your curtain rail or the dung beetle rolling his enormous and impressvely spherical ball of excrement across the path, there's always something to see. An added advantage of developing an interest in the bird, reptile and insect life is that it is often active in the heat of the day, when the large mammals have sensibly retreated into the shade and out of view.
One of the best ways to experience the vegetation and 'smaller stuff' (including footprints and dung, which are collectively known as 'spoor') is to take a guided game walk. This is an entirely different experience to taking a game drive, as you are free from the confines of a vehicle, and get to experience the bush from the animals' viewpoint. An experienced game ranger will point out and explain heaps of fascinating stuff that you would simply have walked by without giving it a second glance and will also ensure that your safety is not compromised (very important in reserves where there are predators and large animals such as rhino, elephant and buffalo).
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This photo is a response to a common query on the Africa fora concerning whether young children can enjoy game spotting or safaris.
We are lucky enough to live in a country which offers a wealth of affordable and accessible game spotting opportunities, and our kids have accompanied us to game reserves since they were babies. Our experience - and that of our friends - is that if a kid is old enough to enjoy a zoo, then they'll appreciate wildlife in its natural habitat, although they are different experiences.
However, the decision whether to take small children to game parks/on safari is not quite as straightforward as just whether they'll be interested or not, so here are a few points to consider before you commit.
Firstly, if you are coming from overseas, the long flight (particularly if it is across multiple time zones) may be more disruptive and unsettling for your child than what you plan to do once you arrive. Only you know how your child is likely to react, but my advice would be to take your child on a kid-friendly trip (for example, a beach holiday) involving a similar travel time before you commit to a safari.
Secondly, many safari destinations (particularly those in upmarket private reserves such as Sabi Sands or in premium destinations such as the Okavango of Botswana or much of East Africa) pride themselves on their exclusivity. Couples looking for a romantic honeymoon or tourists who have saved for years for a safari experience are unlikely to take kindly to their experience being impinged on by fractious babies or hyperactive toddlers, so exercise caution in your choice of lodge/resort and make sure that the one you select is child friendly. Quite apart from not spoiling your own experience due to concern that your little darling might disturb the peace, you will also find that child friendly lodges tend to attract other families in a similar situation, which means that your children will probably have someone to play with.
Lastly, lodges tend to have a fairly rigid programme to accommodate game drives, walks and meals, which may not necessarily fit with your child's routine. Thus, it is far more sensible to choose the option that generations of Southern African families have opted for, and book self catering accommodation. This gives you the flexibility to cook what you want, when you want, as well as being a much more budget-friendly option. Virtually all South African game parks and nature reserves offer fully equipped self catering accommodation, so all you have to bring with you is food, drink and some basic equipment (for example, it's always wise to travel with towels, tea towels and washing up equipment unless you have confirmed in advance that the accommodation provides these).
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This photo was taken in an ornamental water feature by the Moholoholo guest lounge. The white foam is tree frog spawn, which the clever female frog lays above water so that when her tadoples hatch, they drop straight down into their element!
The Blyde River Dam is located at the base of the Swadini buttress which forms the divide between the Highveld (the inland plateau that extends over much of inland South Africa) and the Lowveld (the flat plain which slopes gently towards the coast).
Most visitors to this scenic part of Mpumulanga (formerly the Eastern Transvaal) will visit the iconic Three Rondavels viewpoint over the Blyde River Dam. However, it is a pity that few take the time and effort to appreciate the view from the bottom up.
The Blyde River Dam is located within a nature reserve and offers many hiking opportunities, including overnight guided hikes. It is also possible to take boat trips across the Dam to the spectacular tufa (limestone) waterfalls, arrange canoeing, rock-climbing or abseiling activities (see website below for more details on tour operators).
There are game in the reserve - hippo and crocodile in the dam, a variety of buck, baboons, monkeys and dassies on the escarpment, but because of the variety of habitats in the reserve (lake, riverine forest, cliff) perhaps the major drawcard here is the wonderful and varied birdlife.
There is a parking area and an information centre at the end of the road, although I must caution that this is seldom open when I visit (maybe because I'm usually there on a weekend?). However, there is nowhere to buy refreshments, so make sure you bring your own provisions - particularly water, as it can get very hot.
The shangaan cultural village, Cheetah breeding project for endangered species, different water falls, Eco Caves, Tufa water falls in the Blydepoort Gorge, Pilgrim’s rest an old town dated back in to the late 1800’s when there were gold found. Elephant safaris can also be arranged in the Kapama Game Reserve.
Here is sum the activities that you can do while you are in Hoedspruit.
1. Boat Cruses on the Blyde dam
2. Blyde River Canyon Hiking Trail activities
3. Elephant-Back Safaris
4. Hoedspruit Cheetah Project
5. Feather Leaf Trails
6. Jessica’s Place
7. Moholoholo Animal Rehab Center
8. Otters Den River Rafting
9. Otters Den Hot Air Ballooning
10. Paintball Games Aventura Swadini
11. Khamai Reptile Park
12. Trackers Guided Walks
13. Bombyx Mori Silk Farm
14. Game Drives And Walks