In my last post, I mentioned that one of Lost Lagoon’s four remaining Mute Swans had been killed by a river otter. These furry fellows can be found in Lost Lagoon, but also like to hang out wherever there’s fish. Sometimes, that brings them to the beach in English Bay
Which is where I took this photo.
River otters are not the same as sea otters, so don’t be confused by the fact that they can be found near the ocean. They go wherever the fish are, so if that means they hang out on the beach, so be it.
Sea otters, I’ve been told, are not found in the Salish Sea. They live on the west coast of Vancouver Island or along BC’s northern coast. One clue, apparently, to tell the two types of otters apart: river otters almost never swim on their backs, while sea otters often do.
My Canada 150 series would not be complete without a post about Canada’s oldest national park. But since every single one of my previous posts on Banff consists of a photo of a mountain, I’d thought I’d mix it up this time. (Otherwise you might get the idea that the only thing to see in Banff National Park are mountains.)
There’s wildlife, too!
Of course, say “wildlife” and “Banff” in the same sentence and most people will start listing off which of the Big Five — deer, elk, moose, bear, and wolf — they’ve seen. The big animals do deserve the attention they get, but it is often the little animals, which are far easier to get up close and personal with, that lead to the best photo ops.
Like this Columbian Ground Squirrel.
We Albertans call these gophers. They live in underground burrows and spend much of the year hibernating. As far as rodents go, they’re kinda big — typically about a foot in length.
I took this photo last summer.
It first dawned on me that people from outside our country had some wildly out-of-date notions about Canada on my first ever trip to Europe. It happened when one of my Dutch cousins began asking questions about what life in Canada was like.
“And the cowboys,” she said. “You have lots of cowboys, right?”
I hesitated. I was acutely aware that I was about to burst her fantasy bubble.
“Uh, some,” I said. “You mostly see them at the rodeos.” I think an awkward attempt to explain what happens at rodeos followed ― awkward because I had never actually been to a rodeo. I quickly changed the subject.
Then again, if you are a couple of Italian tourists visiting Calgary during Stampede Week ― like the ones I met standing beside me at the parade ― it’s easy to go home and think Canada is all about the cowboys.
I suppose there are worse stereotypes out there.
The Calgary Stampede (also known as The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth) finished up just a week ago. I went this year for my first time ever ― and had a blast.
First held in 1912, the Stampede became an annual event in 1923. These days, the rodeo attracts competitors from all over North and South America.
The Treaty 7 First Nations have been an integral part of the Stampede since its beginnings.
In addition to the parade (which starts the Stampede off with a bang), the rodeo, and the chuckwagon races, there are lots of animals to see.
There’s also a midway, and lots and lots of live music. And pancakes.
And, every year, the Indian Village.
If you’re feeling underdressed, don’t worry. There are plenty of places where you can get your proper Stampede attire. For a price.
The Calgary Stampede celebrates Alberta’s history, but also its present. Ranching is big business in Alberta ― half of the country’s beef is raised here.
I’ve lost touch with those Dutch cousins of mine, so I don’t know if they ever made it to Canada. But if they did, I sure hope they got to see a cowboy or three.
Oops. That took a bit longer than I anticipated. But, yes, all good things eventually come to their end, and I, too, have come to the end of this series on my safari in the Kalahari.
And so, to close it out, here’s one last photo, this time of the setting African sun.
One reason why I was so enamoured with lions on my Kalahari safari is because they really are just really, really big cats. I live with two (much smaller) cats, so I should know.
Another animal that reminded me of my cats is the yellow mongoose. I entertained myself one evening at camp taking photos of these fellows. Yellow mongoose are about the size of a kitten, and have just about as much personality. They never stop moving. Not for a second.
This is a cheetah. It’s not the best of photos, but I thought I should include it in my Kalahari series because apparently I was pretty lucky to see a cheetah on my first ever safari. We came across this one on our fifth day out, and my German safari companion was ecstatic. It was the first cheetah she’d seen in all her years of going on safari.
There were actually two cheetahs under this tree, but one lay down in the grass just as we spotted them, so it’s not visible in the photo. (Which made me wonder, then: exactly how many animals had we not seen over the previous four days because of the tall grass?)
Two bits of trivia about the cheetah: its coat is covered with nearly 2000 black spots. And it can sprint at a speed of 100 kilometres an hour, making it the fastest mammal on land.
And now … what you’ve all been waiting for. (At least, I sure have!) I’m talking about what most people think of when you say you’ve been on safari; I’m talking about meeting the King of the Beasts.
As excited as I was about seeing lions on our Kalahari safari, I had fully prepared myself for the eventuality that I might not see a single one. I mean, it’s not like going to the zoo. What you see in the wild is (ahem) wildly dependent on a wide variety of factors, not the least of which is a whole lot of luck.
But! It turns out we were lucky and on only our second morning out, we saw our first lion. Here he is.
It was my turn in the very back of the car, which meant, although I had a great view of the fellow, I had to take my photos through a window that did not open. Even so, I was beyond thrilled.
It took us a while to spot the guy. We had stopped by the side of the road to look at a herd of gemsbok. Several minutes went by, and then one of our German safari companions spoke up. “There is a lion in the grass directly in front of us about 20 metres,” was all she said, but I’ll never forget the tone of her voice: calm and quiet and tense, all at the same time.
That’s when I realized what sharp eyes she had. The rest of us had been too focused on the gemsbok to notice what was right under our noses. We stayed where we were, keeping our voices low because the car windows were open. Every so often Mr. King of the Beasts would lift up his head ― to let the gemsbok behind him know he’s still there, our guide told us.
That was lion # 1. Little did I know he would be only the first of many.
On the morning of our third day, I was eating my breakfast and enjoying the view from the shelter of our unfenced campsite. Off to my right, in the distance, I noticed some sandy-coloured rocks. To myself, I thought, “The biggest rock kinda looks like a lion.” I imagined a pair of eyes, but dismissed the idea as too much wishful thinking, and didn’t say anything to the others. This rock was maybe 100 metres from where I was standing.
A few minutes later, my friend and I were in our tent, packing up our stuff as we were moving camp that day, when I heard our guide yell, “Lipid!” (At least, that’s what I heard.) But my friend understood.
“Leopard!” she said, and we both raced out of the tent. I pretty much tripped over my own two feet, and then wasted more time running for my cameras, which were over by the shelter in the exact opposite direction from where everybody else was running. By the time I looked over to where our guide was, all I saw was him pointing. I didn’t see any of the cats, but he had seen four lions and a leopard.
And that’s when the penny dropped. I ran back to where I had seen the “rock” earlier. It was gone! I told everyone, and some of the group were a bit disgusted with me for not sharing what I’d seen (honestly, it was so far away it was really hard to know what I was looking at), but they were soon over it. I endured quite a bit of teasing for the rest of the day about how I didn’t know the difference between a rock and a lion. Later, it dawned on me that the lion had been watching me just as carefully as I had been squinting at her. She had stood sooooo still that she really did look like a rock. Except for, you know, those eyes.
After all that excitement, we went looking for their tracks in the road. They were … big.
On our fourth day, we saw what I’m calling lion # 3. She was lying beside the road, sleeping. Eventually she sat up and struck a lovely pose for me.
On our fifth day, our guide noticed lion tracks by the side of the road. We drove on slowly, all of us looking carefully in the meadows beside the road.
And then, there they were, three of them in the distance (lions # 4, 5, and 6).
Here are a few more shots taken with my zoom lens.
On our last day of the safari, we hit bonanza in terms of lion-sightings: eight in total. The first two were too far away for photographs. I was the first to spot this one (lion # 9), which is a considerable accomplishment considering the company I was in. (I took this photo with my zoom lens. The lion was maybe 200 to 250 metres away from us, and to the naked eye, she was no bigger than a large cat.) Our guide said this lion and the previous two were getting ready for a hunt — he could tell by the way they had positioned themselves on the edge of the dune.
And then we came across a family: lions # 10 to 14. Here’s dad …
… and here’s several shots of mom and the three cubs (one cub is off camera).
The most thrilling night of our safari was one of the nights we were camped in an unfenced campsite (which we did twice, both times on the Botswana side of the park) and we listened to the lions roar. Every hour or so we’d hear them, and they were getting closer and closer as the evening went on. I didn’t quite get the goosebumps you read about people experiencing when they first hear a lion roar in the wild, but it was probably the most thrilling experience of my camping life.
That night, around 3:30 a.m., my friend had to get up. This meant waking up our guide and waiting for him to say it was OK for her to leave our tent. He didn’t wake up when she called out his name a few times (although she woke up the Germans — which we heard all about the next morning), so I suggested she shine her flashlight on the SUV where our guide was sleeping.
“Is there a problem?” came his South African–accented voice, eventually. My friend told him what she needed, and he opened the door of the SUV and jumped down to the ground in his bare feet. (This, after he’d warned us every single night after the sun went down that we could not wander through camp wearing sandals or flip flops because of the scorpions.) He slowly shone his flashlight across the meadow beside our campsite.
After a long minute, he finally said, “It’s OK.” My friend scrambled out of the tent, did her business, and returned to our tent, after which the entire camp could finally go back to sleep.
The next morning when I got up, our guide told me that he had woken up every hour to take a look around because he was hearing lots of animals in the grassy plain we were camped next to. I never thought to ask if the animal sounds woke him up, or whether he simply had a good internal alarm clock. At any rate, I was glad to learn our guide was taking our safety seriously.
I hesitate to say that my Kalahari safari wouldn’t have been as extraordinary an experience without seeing 14 lions ― because the safari really was, as a whole, so much more than the extraordinary sum of so many extraordinary parts ― but I will say this: you should all put seeing lions in the African wild right at the top of your bucket list.
The top, people.
And moving right along from the “boks,” we come to the “beests.” In the Kalahari, we saw blue wildebeest and red hartebeest. These too are antelopes, although the blue wildebeest (above) looks awfully cow-like to me.
You can tell them apart because the blue wildebeest (also known as the gnu) has a bluish tinge, and its horns are shaped like parentheses (once an editor …). The red hartebeest has a reddish tinge, and its horns are shaped like backwards question marks (… always an editor). The red hartebeest is smaller than a gemsbok, but larger than the springbok, while the blue wildebeest is the largest of them all.
Often we came across a solitary blue wildebeest with a herd of gemsbok, but usually the wildebeest live together in herds. Their range is throughout southern and eastern Africa.
Standing about a metre and a half at the shoulder, the wildebeest runs at speeds up to 80 kilometres per hour. It can survive in the Kalahari because it gets enough water from eating melons, roots, and tubers.
We saw a lot of wildebeest calves as well.
And hartebeest calves.
The red hartebeest is found mostly in southwestern Africa, and it too can get all the water it needs from eating melons and tubers.
It has excellent hearing and sense of smell, but poor eyesight. To get away from its predators, the red hartebeest runs in a zigzag pattern as fast as 55 kilometres per hour.
Besides the springbok, there were a couple other “boks” we encountered on our Kalahari safari: the gemsbok and the steenbok.
The gemsbok is almost twice as large as the springbok, but they run at a comparatively much slower speed (a sluggish 60 kilometres per hour). Like the springbok, they live in herds. Their colouring is striking: mostly light brown, but with a black and white face and black and white legs. The other striking feature about the gemsbok is its horns. They are loooooooong (almost a metre) and straight. Both males and females have horns, although the female’s are slightly longer and thinner.
The great thing for the safari photographer is how the gemsbok love having their photo taken. They always struck a nice pose for me.
The steenbok, in contrast, were much harder to photograph as they bounded away as soon as they saw our car. They are a small antelope, measuring about a half metre at the shoulder. Only the males have horns. The steenbok live alone or in pairs.
The first animal we came upon after entering Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park were the springbok, and we were to see many, many, many (!) of them over the course of our week. The springbok is the national animal of South Africa. (Even the South African national rugby team ― the Springboks ― is named after the animal.)
These small antelope live on the dry grasslands of northwest South Africa, Namibia, and Botswana.
They’re not big animals ― less than a metre high at the shoulders ― but they can run as fast as 88 kilometres per hour.
Both males and females have horns. Fawns are usually born in the spring (October and November).
Often one springbok would be standing all on its own, some distance from the rest of the herd. Our guide said they were the look-out.
In the mid-afternoon heat, the animals squeeze together under a tree to take advantage of the shade.
Springbok comes from the Afrikaans words for “jump” (spring) and “antelope” (bok). When nervous or alarmed, the hairs underneath the tail stand up in a fan shape. The springbok can leap about two metres straight up into the air ― this is called pronging. We saw this for ourselves on the last day of our safari.
As we were driving, we saw a fawn that had become separated from its mother. The fawn was in the road ahead of us, and the mother was in the meadow, pronging up and down (literally bouncing: boing! boing! boing!) trying to find her fawn. Finally, the fawn hopped over the side of the road back into the meadow, and the two were united. We all cheered (and some of us even teared up at the happy reunion).
Of all the species of antelope we met on our Kalahari safari, the springbok was my favourite.