Right, as I have already said, third time round, think this one is definitely happening as I am sat in Amsterdam Schipol airport waiting for my flight to Johannesburg. In approximately two hours I will be taking off for South Africa where I shall be staying for the next three months; two months counting scorpions, and one month hiking and whale watching!
I had a brief layover in Amsterdam, which, for those who know me well, was absolute hell on earth! I did manage to meet a few interesting characters; the owner of the Babylon, which shall always be my first port of call am I ever to return; Dave the English 75-year old, (“Do not get ill, do not go to hospital, they want your 200 dollars folks…”); and of course the troupe of English boys returning to the dorm at 5am. At least that made me nice and early for my morning flight!
It’s been a long time coming for some adventure like this, with not much more than myself getting in the way of progress, but now this plane is above the Alpes and it would seem that there really isn’t much turning back from this point. The water is a hell of a long way down and I have a healthy fear of sharks! No cage dives for me, so if your waiting for that footage or image etc, don’t bother. Saying this, I am also not that keen on the idea of scorpion stings, will be keeping that good 90mm 1:1 mag between us!
I’m now about two hours from my final destination and meeting the Scoutpansberg Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation (SCBC) to start this research project. I am maybe a little apprehensive as to what the other people on the project will be like, but my experiences with the people in this country as I arrived have been so positive that I’m finding it harder and harder to worry. That being said, I think the last four weeks travelling the garden route, and Cape Town, will probably be the more dangerous point, so let’s not get too lulled just yet.
I think that’s going to have to do it for this little intro post, I know it’s not quite the ‘I am LJH Eastley’ epic from last time but hopefully it will interest a few of you to keep up to date.
I know I said at the start of all this that these posts would be slightly sporadic but this is getting a bit ridiculous. Half the time there is no internet, so uploads are not at all possible, and the other half, what internet there is is so damn slow google is a pain to open. I know I shouldn’t be complaining, I am living out a bit of my dream being here and very much enjoying being off the grid, but when i’m constantly getting messages from people wanting blog updates it does get a little frustrating. I have the updates, I have the photos, I just cant get them to you guys!
I apologize for my somewhat grumpy tone above, had been a long and tiring week when I first wrote this.
These last ten days we have been at a site on Mt. La Juma, the highest peak in South Africa. The start of the week was a little crappy for me, as I mentioned in the last post I was suffering the effects of tick bite fever , as well as the strong meds to get over it, which left me pretty low on energy. Luckily this was all clear by Tuesday and I woke up Wednesday morning feeling like I had a new lease of life, one of those occasions where I really didn’t appreciate how crap I felt till I felt good again.
It has been an incredibly productive ten days on the mountain, we have been blessed with quite good weather nearly everyday and the one day that was poor we drove down off the mountain to the game reserve at Nimeng. If you have been following my Instagram you will have seen that I have added quite a few individuals to my species list including a number of new lizards, tortoises, snakes and geckos. I have also seen a few species of mammals, and I know a lot of you want to see more of this kind of animal, its just not what i’m focusing on at the moment. I will endeavor to have the telephoto lens on a bit more to make snapping them possible, most of the time i’m walking around with the macro lens on which makes shooting anything at distance a bit of a hassle.
This week has also included the last two individuals of the small five for me to see. Most of you have probably heard of the Big Five which are the five most dangerous animals to hunt on foot in South Africa (Black Rhino, Lion, Leopard, Buffalo and Elephant), the small five are their not so dangerous counter-parts. The Rhino beetle, the Ant Lion, the Leopard tortoise, the Buffalo weaver and the Elephant shrew. As you can see below so far I have only managed to photograph the beetle and the tortoise but hopefully by the end of this trip I will have snaps of all five.
I think throughout the week we have gained maybe 400 records, averaging about 50 a day which really is a lot. There have been a few points where it was almost impossible to keep up with the various individuals running about and the finds being called out. I cant complain though, as this simply meant we had a huge amount to then photograph. We have also been mucking around with slightly more staged photos, often dropping a few flowers into the background to try and break it up a bit. Still not 100% on some of the results but when it works it does look quite good. I am saved most of the time by the fact that using a macro lens gives you a quite small frame, so when the others are getting various things in the background I am usually only getting the subject.
Jordy has also been accompanying us most days this week, he is based at Mt La Juma completing research for his bachelors but has been struggling with getting enough data and records. I think after this week he now has more than enough! Its been cool to work with him, even if between him and Ryan (Canada) they make me feel a little old. He has a real passion for what he is doing and is very knowledgeable about the birds out here. I believe I’m right in saying his Dad is a twitcher who has traveled a lot of Africa, and Jordy has been lucky enough to accompany him on a few of his trips. The mountain is actually the site for a lot of students completing various bits of research, mainly for BSc’s but also some Masters, and so it has been nice to meet quite a few new people, nearly all of them Dutch, and hear about the various projects that are going on (or are supposed to be going on, not the most diligent bunch).
The mountain itself is a beautiful place, and comprises many different types of habitat that when you walk through its astonishing how quickly it changes from one type to the next. We only summited once, on Wednesday, but I think when we return in a couple of weeks I will try to go up a few times. Its only 1,747m and so isn’t really a difficult ascent at all but it provides some stunning views from the top across the Soutpansberg.
The day at Nimeng, mentioned earlier, was also quite interesting. As it was our first proper day in the field there we didn’t really know where to start looking, and our four hour walk through the bush turned up a few species but not as much as hoped for. It did however give us the information of where to start next time. We actually finished the day, in the last 45 minutes of sunlight, going through their extensive trash heap of scrap metal etc., and this turned up more species than we had seen all day. So on our next visit we plan to dedicate a good few hours to going over this with a fine toothed comb, it is perfect habitat for reptiles providing lots of cover and basking spots and we are sure to find a good few snakes and lizards. There is a 4-5 metre-long female python known to be living there somewhere that I and everyone else would love to see!
I have had a lot more success with the butterflies, my favorite subjects to shoot, this week and so I will end this post with a few of the shots I have managed to get. Many have still evaded me but there are a few very good feeding locations for them here, and next time I shall concentrate some of my spare time around these locations to try and get more.
Novice (Amauris ochlea)
African migrant (Catopsilia florella) Female
African migrant (Catopsilia florella) Female
African migrant (Catopsilia florella) Female and Male on the wing.
Red Tail moth (Hypopyra capensis)
Green-veined Charaxes (Charaxes candiope)
Foxy Charaxes (Charaxes jasius)
As always thank you for taking the time to read, I hope you are still enjoying it all. Please comment, follow the blog and follow my Insta (@lovettleo) to keep up with all thats going on. Also thank you to Zoe, she makes most of this a bit more reader friendly from my somewhat garbled musings.
My apologies, this post has been typed up on my laptop since last Sunday, and I have been trying to upload some photos to be featured in it, but the internet speeds here just won’t allow me to do it. Instead of making you all wait any longer, I have decided to just post it as it is with a promise that I will edit it in the coming weeks when I can include more. In the meantime, check our my Instagram (@lovettleo) for some of my recent posts, featuring shots from the last two weeks. Thanks for understanding, and enjoy!
It would seem given the amount of time between this and the last post I should have an awful lot to regale you all with, off the top of my head however I am struggling.
We left Gorro lodge Monday 1st May, having had a pretty successful week, both in terms of the species we were hunting, and the big game which we were not. I am looking forward to returning again soon, due to both the biodiversity and the small luxuries (Colbert lighting the donkey boiler at 5am so there is always hot water, Praise Him!)
Sadly, whilst we were at Gorro the orphan bush baby that Ryan and Melissa had been fostering went missing, it is our hope that he simply left and is now living as he should, he was certainly big and strong enough to do so. It is more my belief, however, that he was predated upon, as we had a very windy night on the Thursday and this is when he failed to return. Then again, I have always been a pessimist so don’t pay me too much heed here.
Here are some of my shots from the last few days at Gorro, including the lizards and geckoes which I don’t believe I have posted at all yet.
After leaving Gorro we returned briefly to Medike to drop off all our kit to free up space in the car and then set off to town to get some supplies for the coming week and pick up a new recruit. Ryan II, as he shall be referred to for the moment, is from Ontario, Canada, from a small town way up north not too far from the banks of Lake Superior. When I say small we are talking roughly 2,000 people small, pretty sure most villages in the UK outdo this, although correct me if i’m wrong. He has quickly fit in to the group, stays quite quiet most of the time but has a real passion for snakes and is obviously quite clued up about a few different species. Another keen photographer, he has been very interested in a lot of my macro work as this is something he really wants to practice and has given me a few tips mainly around astro-photography, which is something I have never attempted till we got out here. Pics will follow I hope but I need quite a bit more practice in this area for the time being.
The first few days back at Medike we took a little slowly to try and accommodate for Ryan II’s insane amount of time spent traveling (two 9 hour flights with a 16 hour layover in Ethiopia to split them followed by a 7 hour bus journey). We walked up the railway track to a bushman painting site which was very cool to see, although it has unfortunately been plagued with quite a bit of graffiti over the years. The track was also a massive hotspot for lizards and even a species of sandsnake, although the latter, as you will see, managed to remain somewhat elusive.
The following morning we actually spent skinning a 2m long snouted cobra that was found in the road dead but relatively undamaged. I wish I had images to show you of the process but i’m sure most of you will understand that I was far more eager to get my hands dirty than stand back with the camera at this point. I actually dissected the animal first, (seems Ryan I is not too keen on guts,) and I managed to have a nice look inside to identify the various organs and located a parasitic nematode in the stomach which Ryan shall pass on to one of the prof’s he knows who is studying them at the moment. For those of you who are interested the snakes lungs had been turned to puree by the car tyre so it would have been a very quick death. I will post some photos of the skin once it is all dried out as the scales are really quite beautiful to behold (I promise!)
Towards the end of the week I actually had to abandon the group as I was feeling pretty awful, intense headaches and some joint pain. By Friday morning the lymph-node on the left hand side of my groin had also swollen nicely and so was causing some discomfort. Luckily Melissa already had a doctor’s appointment booked for that day so I went with her and managed to be seen fairly quickly and diagnosed even quicker, Tick Bite Fever. Thankfully, a relatively quick fix with a course of antibiotics, although they are very potent and give me a bit of a kicking themselves. Fingers crossed, come tomorrow, Monday the 8th, I should be back on form as I really have no wish to miss out on any more. I already feel I am running out of new images to show people, as in the last five days I have probably only taken 25. Bring back the 200 a day average please!
The final thing I will say today is just to answer a few of the questions I have received. Firstly the scorpions will eat basically anything they can overpower, all types of insects and some of the biggest ones will take down small amphibians and mammals if they stray too close. Most are quite active hunters and you will see them at night scuttling around looking for prey items. As to how we locate them, most of my time in the field is spent lifting and turning over rocks to find them hiding from the sun beneath, however we also do some night work scanning with a UV light to pick up their glow. The UV technique is very useful for the arboreal species (the ones that live in trees) which are almost impossible to see during the day, plus its far easier on the back and hands!
Okay, so it seems I have contradicted myself since the beginning of this post, and have gone on a little here. However, the pain endured to get this post written and posted, given the AWFUL internet here, may mean I have to keep you waiting a little while for the next one. Regardless, please keep reading this blog, and checking out my instagram (@lovettleo), as I really love and appreciate the support!
First things first, I need to say thank you for all of the feedback I have been getting for both the blog and a few of my photos, it really helps! As I mentioned in the last upload I have really been enjoying living ‘off the grid’ and not being tied to my phone or computer. Unfortunately that doesn’t exactly tie in with keeping this blog up to date, or sorting through my photos. I find myself taking 200 a day, and usually managing to go through about 40 of them before I collapse into bed each night, so there is somewhat of a backlog already. I dread to think where I will be by the time I get back to the UK, possibly with a new external hard drive in tow.
Gorro lodge, where I have been since Monday, has been an awesome place for study sites. I didn’t really appreciate when I signed up for this that we would be working on game reserves such as this one, which effectively means you get a free safari experience as you work. So far we have seen Kudu, Eland, Rock Springers, Giraffes, Cape Mountain Zebra (which are both rare and in completely the wrong location here, but take that up with the original owner) and then last night on the way home a Porcupine just crossing the road!
As it turns out a lot of the surrounding area is covered with these reserves, to cater for the hunting industry, which is colossal out here. It was actually something I was very interested in doing whilst I was out here as it is the beginning of the hunting season, but after speaking to quite a few of the workers I have decided against it. The hunting scene in South Africa, sadly, is known for big groups of very rich men getting absolutely hammered all day and night and essentially putting a hole in anything that moves near them. No care for the ideas of conservation through hunting, or respect for the animals, they just want trophy prizes. Thankfully, when you are smashed you tend to make a huge amount of noise walking trough the bush, so I am told a lot of them go home empty handed!
Conservation is of course the main reason for the SCBC and the research we are carrying out, informing people of what is here in the Soutpansberg, and the habitat types that are important to allow various species to continue. My own personal reasons and contributions revolve around the photography of a lot of the subjects we are finding and that is what I mainly want to use this post for, in order to get a few more of my images out there.
So lets start with the Scorpions, so far we have found roughly 10 species across the two different study sites, Medike and Gorro, ranging from “I will put you in hospital if I get the chance” to “sure, you can pick me up, I don’t really care”. Of course we have been using the latin binomials but they seem a little less fun.
This guy is one of the trip to the hospital variety, I found him under a rock and then watched him catch, sting and eat this centipede. You can see he has a thick tail, that gives it its classification, and small pincers. It uses these to hold prey still just long enough to give it a sting and then sits back and waits.
Then of course there are the reptiles! Im not personally concentrating on these whilst out here but they are forming a key part of both Ryan and Melissa’s research, so if they are seen they still have to be logged. They also provide some very nice photo opportunities, although they are not the easiest subjects, often not wanting to hang around for more than a second. I’m convinced that the geckos have an innate ability to sense the depression of a shutter button and flee instantly, and butterflies may also share this trait! Still, if you try to shoot 100 you have to get a few / Ryan seems to have some hypnotic ability with the lizards and geckos.
Sadly this puff adder did not want to hang around and pose, we had disturbed him basking and he was in no mood to be social. I managed to get off a few shots as he was making his escape and was pleased to find the head was in beautiful focus here.
Spending their time hidden amongst the rocks these buggers are almost impossible to spot. This individual was the one mentioned in the last post that Ryan and Melissa had captive and so we were able to get some good shots when releasing.
I’m going to leave it there for now rather than turn this into a small essay. I will try to get another post up soon, even though I have put a few more photos in this one there are hundreds more. We leave on Monday however so I cannot promise anything for a while.
Now for the bit to make you cringe. If you have enjoyed the blog so far please share it around! Tell your friends and family and get them to have a look. I’m pretty useless at the self promotion side of things so any help will be greatly appreciated!
I think I can say I am settled a bit now. I have been here with the SCBC, Soutpansberg Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation, for five days now and I feel like I am getting into the swing of things. Of those five days, three have been in the field and I can already say my spotting and identification skills are rapidly improving. It seems three years out of any kind of field work really puts you back a bit. This is even more evident next to Ryan and Melissa, who run the project and have been doing so for the last three years, who seem to both be able to spot 2cm-long geckos whilst driving at 50mph down the highway! I’m not sure I’m ever going to quite get to that stage but then again they have been living in the bush for four years…
There is a good reason for the sporadic nature of these posts: I am living in the bush. No electricity, no running water no phone signal, at least that’s how it is here at Medike in the Stone Cottage. Some of the sites we will be working at are much better provisioned, Gorro, where we travel tomorrow, is meant to have everything as they invested in a huge solar farm two years back and so now WiFi and even washing machines are available. That’s why I am typing this now in anticipation of being able to get it published tomorrow evening at some point, although a very long Skype conversation with Zoe might be slightly more likely.
Living this cut off from the world is incredibly refreshing. I know you’re all rolling your eyes, but the lack of artificial light makes such a difference to day to day life. Reading by the warm glow of a paraffin lamp is a pleasure in itself, and the lack of blue light emitted from phones and laptops means sleep comes easily. There are of course a few drawbacks, washing clothes by hand isn’t too bad but then when it rains the same day you realise how wonderful tumble dryers are! This was what I realised today, and because of the shitty weather I managed to melt a large hole in one of my hiking socks whilst trying to dry it on the donkey boiler.
In terms of the scorpions, (the reason I am here), we have found quite a few. I am slowly getting to know the names of species and identifying features, and have been able to get some really nice photos of them (although in five days I have taken roughly 700 images so I would be embarrassed if I hadn’t managed to geta few in focus…) I have also seen a huge amount of other wildlife; antelope, warthogs, wildebeest, lizards, spiders, butterfly’s, solifuges (camel spiders) and of course the most exciting, the snakes!
Early on my second day out in the field flipping rocks for scorps, I stood up from checking a rock and looked up to find myself eyeballing a 2.5m Black Mamba maybe 3m away from me. He was pissed I had disturbed him basking and so started to hood! Let me tell you, that WAKES YOU UP! I have also seen a vine snake, a herald snake, a green water snake and a horned adder, although this last one is captive in a jar so maybe doesn’t count, but does mean I can guarantee some good snaps in a few days! For the meantime hopefully this will tide you all over for a bit.
Safe to say after all of this I find myself pretty shattered every day, and so, as now, I usually end up heading to bed by about 9pm, GAP YAHHHHHH!
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