In my work as a wildlife film maker I have had the good fortune to visit some of the planet’s premier wild places. In 2001 I researched areas in southern Africa that would be suitable for a film project I was developing that followed a family of meerkats. In the film I wanted to show the process of habituation required to be able to follow the family at close quarters in order to reveal subtle details of their daily life.
After a great deal of research I visited the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Van Zylsrus research centre and an enormous private reserve called Tswalu.
Each location held its magic and each had a cast of wild players that would lend itself to the project. In the end, for a variety of reasons, I settled on Tswalu as the most suitable spot and there I spent almost a year habituating and filming a wonderful family of Meerkats.
The film was aired on the BBC in the Natural World series as Meerkats - Part of the Team and in the USA as Meerkats Unmasked on Animal Planet.
So, when putting together the itinerary for a very special Safari it was these experiences I referred to as inspiration.
The South Africa trip in July 2019 was a safari with a difference. I wanted to target species which rarely make the headlines but which, none the less, have astonishing charisma. Some of their magic aura comes as a result of their reputation for being rare, elusive, or both.
Among such species I included Honey Badger (or Ratel), Caracal, African Wildcat, Aardwolf, Aardvark and, the holy grail of African Safaris, the Pangolin!
Seeing any of these species on a trip is a real red letter day. Many folk have travelled to the African continent many times and never set eyes on any of them – least of all the Pangolin. My own contact with such species was rare and limited despite the huge amount of time I had spent in their range and habitat – but I did have some thoughts on how best I could maximise our chances of some very special viewings.
I felt, however, that I would have to explore two different areas for the best chance of seeing the widest range of these gold star species.
I chose to run the trip in July – winter in the south of Africa. It was during the winter months in the past that I had had most contact with many of these creatures. This was for a number of reasons. Many termites that are nocturnal in the heat of summer are much more active by day in the winter. And many of these creatures are termite feeders. Furthermore, the colder nights put some warmth loving animals off a midnight foray and the cooler days encourage otherwise heat shy animals to venture forth in daylight.
So it was, in July 2019, I was joined by four guests in search of the near mythical creatures of the African continent.
After our international flights we started our safari in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park which straddles South Africa and Botswana. Our accommodation was in fact just over the (invisible) border into Botswana, the remote T’a,Shebube Rooiputs Lodge
These simple but comfortable tented cabins are in the heart of the action and that was the reason I chose these as our base.
Together with our local driver / guide, I planned early and late game drives with a view to targeting the less common species, but of course the chance of encountering more prolific and regularly seen species was very much a part of each day.
Our game drives were slow and methodical, carefully checking the trees and desert scrub for our target species and before long we were rewarded! This area I the best I know for views of African Wildcat and we soon discovered one resting on the low branch of a tree.
It may look like a tabby cat, and for good reason – domestic cats all derive from this species in their dim and distant path of domestication – but this is the real deal; a small but feisty wild predator.
The next ‘small’ cat to catch my eye was another real thrill. Caracals are largely nocturnal, solitary and secretive. We were fortunate enough to get some excellent views, at first distant and ultimately very close of these elegant felines.
More of the regulars followed over the coming days, with cracking views of lion, including a mating pair, lots of black backed jackals and a host of herbivores that eke a living from the desert landscape.
But perhaps the highlight of this part of the trip was, for me and my guests, tremendous views of Honey Badgers....
Honey Badgers, or Ratels as they are also known, have a reputation for being one of the most powerful and aggressive of all African mammals pound for pound. They have been known to successfully face up to leopards and even lions.
We had the great good fortune to watch one hunting tree rats. Whilst the badger scaled the trees it was closely shadowed by a small group of chanting goshawks that were looking to snatch any rats that tried to make a dash for it as the badger broke in to their nests.
Towards the end of our stay in the Kgalagadi we encountered another badger, very close to the track, that was killing and eating a large tortoise.
A fairly grizzly encounter to be sure, but one had to admire the tenacity and shear brute strength of the honey badger as it worked its way in to its meal.
After four days in the Kgalagadi we made our way to the little airstrip which was just over the border of the park back in to South Africa (necessitating an official escort across the border!) On the way to the strip we suffered the one and only puncture we had during the whole stay which was a minor hiccup- or so I thought at first...
Having fitted the spare, we resumed our drive to the strip only to see our wheel overtake us and career across the desert towards a very surprised herd of wildebeest. Clearly the wheel nuts had not been properly secured after fitting the spare! Fortunately, the exposed wheel drum didn’t suffer any damage and I was able to retrieve the spare from the bush, and re fit it with nuts borrowed from each of the three other wheels. Luckily we had allowed a fair margin for our flight time and we made it to the strip in time.
Our next port of call was Tswalu Game Reserve. I know Tswalu very well from my time spent there with the meerkats in 2002. In fact, before I worked there and during my earlier stay, the meerkats were not considered worthy of a game viewing experience by the then guides and ranger staff.
Before I left the reserve in 2002 I trained some of the guides in the techniques of habituation so that they could take guests on foot for a unique close contact experience with these charming wild animals. I’m delighted to say that they have been doing so ever since.
Our accommodation in Tswalu was the elegant and magnificently run Tarkuni Lodge, where my four guests and I would be wonderfully hosted during the coming four nights.
Tswalu delivered everything I had hoped it would and much more besides.
We had tremendous views of some real African icons, including spending time following a pack of wild dogs on foot.
And as for the elusive creatures…? Boom!! What a few days we had!!
After careful searching and great assistance from the Tswalu staff we had first class views of both Aardwolf and Aardvark in broad daylight.
We followed the latter on foot, taking care to ensure we remained downwind and kept a low profile. It was especially thrilling to see the ant-eater chats following the aardvark around, making the most of any termite excavations created by this extraordinary animal.
We couldn’t visit Tswalu without trying to spend time with meerkats, and they didn’t disappoint. My guests had foraging meerkats literally around their ankles.
With so many fabulous mammals to enjoy the birds can sometimes take a back seat but I make a point of stopping to admire the avian life at every opportunity.
Some excellent birds were seen including pygmy falcon, pale chanting goshawk and tawny eagle, all of which were very confiding allowing brilliant views.
Despite our focus to find the smaller, more elusive mammals we didn't skimp on contact with the big predators. We spent time with a coalition of two male cheetah and came across a lion pride consuming a kill they had made in the small hours of the morning.
But what about that holy grail; the hardest of all African mammals to see - the Pangolin?
Well - BOOM again! After a tip off gratefully received from another guide, we were able to follow on foot and spend time with this most remarkable of creatures. At times it came to within just a few metres, with its extraordinary walking style of rising up onto its hind legs.
Despite the focus of attention always being on wildlife watching encounters I try to mix up the experience for my guests with lots of surprise bush breakfasts and supper under the stars, as well as rounding off each day with sundowners when possible, and we certainly had our fair share of these on this trip.
It was hard to leave the comfort of Tarkuni Loge and the magic of the desert landscape when each of us had to return to our homes, but I think all agreed that it had indeed been a very different safari that was packed with fulfilled ambitions and many wild surprises.