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Swimming Elephants

Published on Jabulani Safari.

Dominant bull, Sebakwe tussles with a new visitor to the dam, with his tusks and trunk fully engaged.

Swimming Trunks

The cool still dam in our wilderness is quickly disturbed by the hurry and scurry of elephant feet heading into it with speed. Some of the elephants stay on the muddy edge of the water while many walk right in. They head in deeper and deeper until soon up to their tusks with water. Sebakwe, the dominant bull, quickly finds a broken tree branch to pick up with his trunk and splash and thrash about like a gladiator in the ring. Sebakwe loves the water, but he isn’t alone in this.

Elephants don’t just drink water, they use it for evaporative cooling, they play in it, wallow in it, bond in it, and swim across it in cases of rivers to get to greener pastures.

They are strong and natural swimmers (unlike humans, who need to learn to swim) and recent studies have even suggested that elephants may have an aquatic ancestry and that the trunk may have developed for snorkelling. Science has revealed that they used to live partially in water – back in the age of an ancient elephant ancestor called Moeritherium, which spent most of its time in rivers and swamps.

Fishan, Bubi, Timisa, Limpopo, Zindoga, Mambo and Jabulani are the big swimmers in the Jabulani herd, along with Sebakwe, but all African elephants enjoy frequent swims, splashes or drinks when water is available. They are the only mammals that can remain submerged deep below the water’s surface while snorkelling.

Limpopo plays on the back of another elephant during the herd’s afternoon splash.

Because of their natural ability to float and a trunk which acts as a snorkel, they can swim for hours without stopping. Their massive bodies help them to float with ease and rest when they wish, but elephants can also walk along the bottom of the dam or river when it’s shallow enough, with their trunks out for breathing.

In addition to the help from their long proboscis, their lungs are uniquely adapted to deal with the pressure changes caused by snorkelling – or when inhaling large volumes of water into the trunk before drinking or spraying it onto the skin.

Their trunks are phenomenal for many reasons but while watching them beside the coolness of a dam, drinking from the banks, you can see how they use these strong organs to suck up and hold water (up to around 12 litres), which they pour into their mouths to swallow. With their incredible olfactory skills, the trunks can also identify water sources from a great distance away, scents they can commit to their long-term memory.

The strength and dexterity of the trunk is put to the test.

Watching the Jabulani herd splash and bob in a dam, while we park close by their waterworks… it’s one of the most remarkable of sights that either silences our guests with awe or spurs a lot of excited questioning. These great gentle giants, so large and majestic as they saunter across the green bush suddenly look no different (alright, a little different) to you or us, homo sapiens, when at the beach on a toasty day. It’s comforting, refreshing, joyful and totally energising, sinking into a cool ocean or dam.

Taking a bubble bath, elephant style…
Sebakwe tries new moves with his dance partner.

The herd bulls get a little extra energised from time to time and take to playful sparring in or beside the water, whether it’s the young bulls, Mambo and Zindoga, or Mambo taking on Sebakwe. This tussling is a show and sussing out of one another’s strength, often with water splashing this way and that between the gently boisterous shoves and pushes.

Elephants’ caring and fiercely protective nature as a herd can also be seen at the waterhole. With little albino calf, Khanyisa joining the Jabulani herd now for swims during their days out in the reserve, some of the elephants will always rally around her, keeping her close and well-monitored to ensure that she doesn’t drown or get into trouble. Whether around the muddy edges or in the deep (which is obviously much deeper for her little legs than those tree trunk legs of the great Sebakwe), they are always only a foot or trunk away from nudging her to safety.

Observing the herd in the waterhole is a great teacher of elephant behaviour, from the elephants’ first dash to the dam to the last muddy rub up and down against a tree on the way out. Witnessing the playing, bonding, bathing, learning, sparring, breathing, spraying, splashing, submerging and drinking, you also realise how important water is in the lives of elephants, in the lives of us all.

Through the Eyes of an African Elephant

As published on Jabulani >

When an African elephant is born, it is completely blind…

It relies on its other senses to navigate its strange new world from between its herd’s legs. As its eyesight develops, allowing it to seek out delicious soft green shoots and ripe Amarula fruit, and ‘keep an eye’ on other calves, the eyes remain small – relative to its size; it is, after all, the largest living land animal. They provide only moderate vision.

Even with its tiny eyes, it remains one of the world’s most intelligent animals – described by Aristotle as “the animal that surpasses all others in wit and mind.” How it navigates its world and creates its complex inner life is through their sense of touch, hearing and smell, senses that humans have become much less adept at in comparison.

In the dry season in the wild, elephants travel vast distances to track down new sources of water and food, but they are far more likely to smell or hear the water than to see it. Originally they roamed as far as the eye could see… and adapted to various habitats from semi-desert to savanna grassland and primary forest areas.

Being cathemeral (active in the night as well as the day), their eyes adapted to see in the dark.

This has enabled them to forage and travel out of the heat of the African sun. But as a result, their day-time vision is sacrificed. They can actually see better in the shade than in the full sunlight of the open savanna. Interestingly, forest or shade-adapted elephants sport a rounder pupil as a result.

They may not have superb depth perception, on account of the placement of their eyes on the sides of their heads, but they are able to spot those left-field trunks and branches coming at them during dam frolics.

When it comes to elephant eyes, their lashes and lids are particularly useful, helping with the animals’ “walk through” rather than “walk around” attitude to all that gets in their way.

As Lawrence Anthony wrote in The Elephant Whisperer…

“Elephants operate on a steadfast principle that all other life forms must give way to them, and as far as they were concerned, foreign tourists at a sit-down dinner around a swimming pool were no different than a troop of baboons at a swimming hole.”

Their long eyelashes and a third eyelid (or nictitating membrane) that sweeps horizontally are nature’s way of keeping mud, dust and other debris out of the reddish-brown eyes of a careless pachyderm. When that doesn’t work, there is always that wonderful trunk, with its dexterous two ‘fingers’ at the tip that can wipe away stray grass and dust from its eyes.

As with all terrestrial mammals, elephants’ eyes are kept lubricated and protected by “tears” – lubrication creating distinctive streaks from the elephants’ eyes. These streaks have given rise to the somewhat romantic notion that elephants cry, when in fact they really do just have a little something in their eyes. Most mammals have tear ducts, but due to their semi-aquatic past, elephants have lost theirs.

Still, we can understand a matriarch getting a tad misty-eyed watching her calf playing sweetly in the mud.

If you’ve ever wondered about the white ring around the iris of some elephants’ eyes as they mature, the answer is something similar to the age-ring humans can develop as they age, called arcus lipoides. Luckily, it doesn’t affect their vision in the slightest.

Next time you’re eye to eye with an elephant, remember that it’s contemplating you with much more than those beady little soul-windows. Consider, for instance, what those curious trunks are up to…

Buffy the Lion Slayer

Published for Jabulani. Read the post here >

The Unexpected Camaraderie of the African Buffalo

We’ve all had an itch we couldn’t scratch…

Perhaps, desperately, when battling a tickle on your nose or foot, when your hands are tucked away under a cloak at the hairdressers, or wrapped around heavy shopping bags, while walking to the car. Twitch your nose or shake your toes all you like, the itch just gets more tenacious. Didn’t you ever wish for that third arm, a tail, or personal assistant maybe?

The African buffalo has just that – a flock of assistants, named oxpeckers. These clever little birds spend their days in all the inaccessible places that even a tail can’t reach, cleaning and combing and picking. They clean the wax out of the buffalo’s ears and peck on ticks and other parasites. They clean wounds and even scar tissue. They also act as an early warning system and hiss at approaching danger. How delightful it would be to have our own oxpecker!

Buffalo the Lion Slayer

Lions are the only serious predators for buffalo over a year old… But this isn’t taken lying down. Buffalo have been known to attack sleeping lions and then to seek out and kill the pride’s lion cubs. Whether they do this as revenge for past lion predation or to eliminate future threats is uncertain. What is certain is that when attacked, the African buffalo will retaliate.

It is said that elephants never forget and that African buffalo never forgive.

It is this trait that has led to their inclusion in the Big Five. Buffalo have a fearsome reputation that has been achieved through the sheer bloody-mindedness of large bulls. Weighing in at up to 800 kilograms, with hide up to 5 cm thick and horns with a span of up to 130 cm, they are not easy targets.

A herd, gang or obstinacy of buffalo can vary in size from fifty to over a thousand. The basic herd consists of sub-herds of high-ranking males, females and their calves, old or invalid animals and young males. The young males break away to form bachelor herds in the dry season, but rejoin the herd in the wet season to mate with females. The males have a dominance hierarchy based on fighting ability and when the older bulls can no longer compete with the younger and more aggressive bulls they leave the herd.

The dagha boys

As these large males age, they lose the hair on their bodies and without this protection are more susceptible to biting insects and sun damage. The solution is wallowing in the mud at their favourite waterhole, as this both soothes and protects their skin. This behaviour has lead to these older, mud-slathered bulls being called ‘dagha boys‘. This comes from from the isiZulu and isiXhosa word, udaka (clay, mud), referring to the mud and dung mixture used in traditional building.

Meanwhile back at Jabulani, mud-packs and spa treatments are being enjoyed.

These ageing, balding and sexually-frustrated buffalo are very unhappy with the hand life has dealt them. Their antisocial behaviour is the reason that the buffalo has been called “The Black Death” by big-game hunters. They are known to attack without warning or provocation with hoof and horn. Interestingly, most of their battles are with humans (big-game hunters), lions (their main predator) and elephants (in competition for similar grazing) and possibly they can be forgiven for these transgressions?

The rest of the herd is extremely gregarious.

They have a complicated social structure revolving around those that are the strongest, fittest and most likely to breed successfully. The benefit of higher rank within the herd is that it allows the more dominant members to feed at the front and centre, where the best grazing is found. Being in the centre provides more protection from predators who prey around the edges of the herd.

The buffalo is a wonderful example of the benefits of camaraderie.

Always willing to lend a hand, hoof or horn when a fellow buffalo is in danger, they themselves prosper under the care of the oxpeckers. Protection is afforded to the entire herd by the size and formidable prowess of the bulls. Buffalo help others too, as their grazing opens the vegetation in their habitat for other species that graze with the herd or follow in their wake, such as zebra and wildebeest.

So maybe, next time you’re in need of an extra hand, you’ll think of the African buffalo.


A Creep of Tortoises

A Blog for Jabulani. Read the post here >

“Oh, a very useful philosophical animal, your average tortoise. Outrunning metaphorical arrows, beating hares in races… very handy.” – Terry Pratchett

Strategy, that’s what’s needed. In order to be there at the end of the race, you need a strategy. To be a participant in the race of life requires a well-conceived plan. And so the tortoise grew a shell.

Of course, in that amazing, fun, random and seemingly experimental way that nature has, tortoise shells come in a multitude of shapes, colours, patterns and sizes. Some have flaps and hinges and some are made in a 3D printer.

South Africa, and in particular the Cape Province, has the richest diversity of tortoises in the world. In our reserve at Jabulani and in the Great Kruger Park region, it’s mostly leopard tortoise that we encounter, as well as some hinged tortoises and the cape and serrated Terrapins (freshwater tortoises).

The leopard tortoise is a member of the not-as-famous Little Five…

They are so-named because of their rosette-patterned shells. Unique to tortoises, they enjoy a cooling swim and because of the shape of their shell, they are the only tortoise that can lift their heads above water. Leopard tortoises have evolved to consume flora specific to their local ecosystem but they spice this up by gnawing on old bones or eating hyena faeces, as this provides valuable, shell-building calcium.

As with elephants, sometimes being bigger is the advantage you’re looking for. The largest tortoise in the world, weighing over 400 kilograms, resides on the Galapagos Islands (the Galápagos giant tortoise). The largest mainland tortoise is the African spurred tortoise, which grows to roughly 100 kilograms and is found in the Sahara desert region. During the hottest periods, they avoid the heat by burrowing up to 15 metres underground and entering a zen-like state, called aestivation. that is similar to hibernation.

Another trick to survival is avoiding detection, which the speckled Cape Tortoise, the smallest tortoise in the world, has mastered. This little reptile calls the Namaqualand area in the Cape Province of South Africa home. They measure between 6 and 10 centimetres in length and are known locally as a padlopers – Afrikaans for “one that walks the path”.

When it comes to increasing their chances of survival in life, tortoises have different ways of climbing to the top of their particular social hierarchies. The Galapagos tortoise asserts its dominance in a ‘head-raising’ competition. Lifting themselves as high as possible on their legs they stretch their heads skywards. The 400-kilogram critter that gets its head the highest, wins.

Forsaking this relatively peaceful method of displaying their superpower, the Angulate tortoise has a special bony projection that it uses to tip over its rivals. Tortoises that land on their shells with feet in the air can generally right themselves, but if unsuccessful, this will end in the death of the tortoise. The Angulate tortoise is reasonably common and is found along the south-western coast of South Africa and is present on both Table Mountain and Robben Island.

Tortoises certainly know what they’re doing, having existed for over 55 million years, as part of a species that is considered to include the oldest land animals in the world.

They take it slow, they persevere, they adapt, but they’re not immune to the threats of the world.

The collection, captivity, donation, selling, import and export of tortoises is illegal under the Nature Conservation Ordination Act. The Geometric Tortoise is one of the rarest land tortoises in the world and is protected under international law prohibiting international trade in the species. Habitat destruction and fragmentation took the Geometric tortoise to the brink of extinction in the 1960s when the last known Cape Town population died out. Fortunately, in 1972 a new population was discovered and it is estimated that between 2000 and 3000 geometric tortoises exist today. Recently land was purchased for a geometric tortoise preserve in the upper Breede Valley of western South Africa.

A lot of work is being done to ensure that this animal will still be with us when our race is run, and they certainly have a right to be there at the end. It seems that 3D printed tortoises are the next step in the battle.

Desert biologist, Tim Shields the co-founder of Hardshell Labs, noticed that ravens were attacking baby tortoises in the California desert. His concept of confusing the ravens with inexpensive, realistic and easily-made 3D printed tortoise replicas strewn across the desert is underway and it is now proposed as a solution to a similar problem with South Africa’s endangered Geometric tortoise. Baboons and mongooses prey on young tortoises as well as digging for the buried eggs. 3D printed replacement shells are also being used on fire-damaged tortoises.

Tortoises have many special adaptations and characteristics that make them fascinating to identify out in the wild but they could also do with us letting them remain wild, safe and protected.

My Chemical Romance

Written for Jabulani, published here: The Silent Language of Elephants & Other Animals ~ The Jacobson Organ

Making Sense of Elephants

We’ve always known that elephants relied on their Big 5 senses of taste, sight, hearing, smell and touch in different ways – senses that are essential to everyday animal life, that complement one another and help them to track down fresh new grass and leaves to munch on. Senses that are used in search of ripe marulas and underground water in the dry season, that are vital in the all-important struggle to remain safe from predators, to hear the give-away rustle and detect that invisible lion in a wind-carried warning.

But these animals have a sixth sense too…

One that is used in those most important of pursuits – love, romance and procreation. Animals communicate through chemical or olfactory methods, such as through pheromones. Chemicals that provide information and deliver several messages, pheromones are released in various bodily fluids, such as sweat, urine, secretions from elephant’s temporal glands and in dung. To decipher these messages, however, a special organ is needed – the Jacobson organ, also known as the vomeronasal organ.

The Jacobson’s organ is a patch of sensory cells in the main nasal chamber and detects heavy moisture-borne odour particles. One of the ways an animal can expose the organ to a scent or pheromone is to open its mouth and curl back its upper lip while inhaling through the mouth, thereby capturing the airborne chemicals – an action called the flehmen response, resembling, somewhat, the peanut-butter-stuck-to-the-roof-of-your-mouth grimace. This weird grimace, displayed by animals as diverse as giraffes and the family cat, is required to engage an extra sense that does so much more than warn of nearby smelly predators.

The science of it…

To insert chemically active samples into the ducts of the vomeronasal organ to process the chemical messages, the elephant moisturises the trunk tip with nasal mucus, and mixes it with the urine or other body secretions. Then the tip of the trunk is placed in the mouth to contact the mucus-filled opening of the vomeronasal duct in the upper part of the mouth. This duct leads to the vomeronasal organ where the nerve endings are located allowing the sensing of the chemicals (pheromones) contained in the solution.

Snakes collect chemicals in the air too and transfer them to their vomeronasal organ by way of their flicking two-pronged tongues. Zebras flare their lips, exposing their teeth in a grin that raises an image of trips to the dentist. Lions do it while displaying their toothy weapons and breathing in a heady mix of urine and oestrus-signalling hormones.

As for elephants, a male may collect giveaway secretions from the pheromone-rich urine of females using his trunk. He will then place his trunk into his mouth, up to that clever little organ mechanism, to collect information, such as the readiness of the female to consummate their relationship. The entire existence, reproduction and survival of the elephant species is dependent on this ability to read the signals.

Picking up on pheromones in this way – through the Jacobson organ – also helps young elephants to instantly recognise their mothers and enables elephants to communicate by putting their trunks into each other’s mouths. If you’ve ever seen elephants in this display, now you know what they’re up to.

We can only guess as to the content of the chemical messages that animals pass between themselves…

We watch them, and listen, and try to discern all that we can. Through time and research, we’re better able to create an idea of the secret languages of not only elephants but all animals in the African wilderness. While we don’t have our own sixth sense (primates do not seem to have a working vomeronasal organ, although vestigial remnants show that we did once), we have our own ability to ponder, imagine, feel and construct the puzzle, piece by piece, signal by signal.

“Love is in the air, everywhere I look around. Love is in the air, every sight and every sound.” – John Paul Young

The Songs of the Zambezi ~ Royal Chundu

So proud to be part of this sensational Zambezi music video collaboration! Read more about this New Project by Royal Chundu & EC Bling here > and read our post, from Royal Chundu below.

A Royal Chundu music video collaboration ~ “Zambezi” by local Zambian musician, Eric Choonga, aka EC Bling.

As part of our hopes and purpose to create a platform for local artists and other local producers and suppliers through Royal Chundu, we bring you another talented Zambezi resident, our own lodge security guard and longtime music-maker… Eric Choonga aka EC Bling!

Eric lives in the Malambo village right next to the lodge on the banks of the Zambezi River. He’s been singing since he was a child. In fact his grandmother tells of how the family used to tell him to be quiet when he was younger. He was just always singing. Natural talent and passion like that can never be erased. It lives inside the artist for life.

Eric acknowledges that music is not traditionally seen as a serious, good or even possible career in Zambia, as he says he’s been told many times, so he balances his musical dabbling in songs and songwriting, with work as a security guard at Royal Chundu, to support himself and his family.

We were so inspired by a few old tracks that he sent us, and songs we’ve heard him humming quietly behind the scenes when no one’s looking, that we set up a collaboration with Eric, or rather his musician name and alter ego, EC Bling, to create a music video for a special song he wrote and recorded just for us. The producer on the track is a man who goes by the name of Happy, and the studio used is Passion Records in Livingstone.

The song is called, Zambezi, and in the lyrics are the rhythms of the great river, the scenes played out beside it, on it, because of it…

The shooting of our very first music video with Eric and the videography team at Etched Space (Austen Johnston and Mitch Terry) were some of our most memorable days on the river!

Thank you to Eric for sharing your music with us, for sharing the spirit and rhythms of the Zambezi with the world, and to everyone on our riverbank who helped in the making of this collaborative new music video, with Etched Space ~ including local seamstress Aggie Kalota who created Eric’s shirt in a matter of minutes, guide Misheck who helped prepare the scenes and ferry the crew to and from locations and Eric’s extended family in the Malambo village for being generous and outgoing extras!

We hope you enjoy the song and video ~ a true labour of love, local love!

A Few Behind-the Scenes Photos

Soccer and Hopscotch with the kids and Eric’s extended family in the Malambo village,

EC Bling, singing about the Zambezi, on the Zambezi, to the Zambezi…

Sheltering from a sudden downpour in the Malambo Village, between shots.

Eric proudly serenading the Zambezi on a quiet evening to ourselves.

The life-giving rains falling down over us.

Team Etched Space working magic, Eric giving each take everything he has!

Eric’s growing fan club… and his other role as security guard at Royal Chundu


Tangled Up in Blue ~ Fish Eagles

The only thing I knew how to do
Was to keep on keepin’ on
Like a bird that flew
Tangled up in blue.
– Bob Dylan

The scientific classification of the African fish eagle, Haliaeetus vocifer, gives a clue to its nature. Derived from the ancient Greek words hali, “at sea” and aetos, “eagle”  and vocifer, which refers to the vociferous call of this African eagle. It was named by the French naturalist François Levaillant, who called it ‘the vociferous one’

The mighty African fish eagle is a star of stage and screen, its film-star good looks giving it an air of superiority, its regal bearing leading us to fall head-over-heels. Its singing voice is known throughout the world, the haunting screech that lingers in both the endless African sky and, somehow, in our souls. Once heard it remains trapped in our memories, a lonely plaintive wail that resounds across Africa. Our shivering spine and erect hairs are a reminder of a long past time when we were the hunted. A primeval memory stirred by a call that has been described as ‘The sound of Africa’.

The preferred diet of the African fish eagle is, unsurprisingly, often found swimming just below the surface of the Zambezi River while the fish eagle suns itself nearby on the branch of some tall riverine tree. The swoop-and-grab is an aerial manoeuvre perfected by this feathered fisher, so much so that they are regularly finished ‘fishing’ for the day by mid-morning. The quintessential image of a fish eagle with talons outstretched has graced the covers of many magazines and is as much a part of Africa’s visual repertoire as Kilimanjaro and giant tuskers.

The African fish eagle has a well-formulated hunting plan, observe from the high ground, swoop dramatically, grab dextrously and return to your nest with a family-sized fishy breakfast. Life has a way of spoiling a plan and every now and then the fish is too large to be plucked from its watery home and so a backup plan is called for. The first option is to fly just above the water and to drag, or plane, the fish to the shore and to devour it on the river bank. Occasionally the size of the fish is both too tempting to ignore and too large to lift so swimming the butterfly stroke is called for – an overarm (wing) swimming style that enables this most resolute of birds to get his catch to shore. When it comes to ensuring that the brood is well-nourished they are willing to forsake the graceful aerial manoeuvres for a completely uneagle-like swim.

“For my own part, I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen the representative of our country. He is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his living honestly.” ~ Benjamin Franklin

The African fish eagle and the American bald eagle are closely related, with the only significant differences being their home continents and their calls. They do, however, share a dark side.

Known as kleptoparasites, fish eagles save the time and energy of the hunt by resorting to bullying other hard-working birds, such as saddle-billed storks, goliath herons or even other smaller raptors. In times of scarcity, or when having to feed the family, African fish eagles will turn their talents and talons to stealing the catch of any unwary fisher. They are also willing to forsake their piscivorous diet for any number of vertebrates. They feed on baby crocodiles, lizards and frogs, and may even carry off mammalian prey, such as hyraxes and monkeys. They are not above relieving locals of their chickens and will even feast on flamingo and other water birds if there is nothing else available.On the romantic front, the African fish eagle displays far better morals, they are monogamous and mate for life, they generally do not migrate and so can remain in the same area for many years. Their large nests are built from sticks and branches, usually in the fork of a large strong tree, and are re-used year after year. Each year the existing nests are spruced up with new materials placed on the old, resulting in some of the largest bird nests in the world. In the breeding season, the female eagle incubates up to 4 eggs for roughly 45 days while the male eagle hunts, swindles and steals their next meal.

The African fish eagle is a territorial bird and although juveniles are happy to congregate away from the adults, breeding pairs are willing to protect their fishing grounds with hooked razor-sharp beaks and powerful talons. In behaviour that seems to be unique to eagles, talon clasping and mid-air cartwheeling are used in both courtship rituals as well as in territorial battles. Young eagles practice this art, eagle lovers ‘hold hands’ and warring rivals have been known to fall to their deaths, unwilling to be the first to let go.

The African fish eagle is symbolic of different things to different peoples and different cultures, the embodiment of power, a noble aristocrat of the African continent. For me, it is simply a bird that doesn’t know when to give up.

Lessons in Starry Skies

Published here for Royal Chundu >

“A still more glorious dawn awaits, not a sunrise but a galaxy-rise, a morning filled with 400 billion suns, the rising of the milky way.” ~ Carl Sagan

There is nothing quite like gawking up at the dark African sky to put us in our place. It’s when we realise not only how little we are and how little we know, but that what we know is not true. The stars in our African sky appear to twinkle, but they don’t. They appear to form meaningful patterns, but they don’t. They look as though we could reach out and touch them. And yet…

It’s all about light. Light is made up of individual particles called photons that journey in waves from the sun to our Earth in 8 minutes and 20 seconds. Light from our next closest star, Proxima Centauri would take roughly 4.22 light-years to reach Earth. What we see when we stare up at stars is what they were light-years ago. We are looking back in time, oblivious to the irony that the best place to look for light is in the darkest night.

In his book, ‘Stargazing for Dummies’, Steve Owens points out that we have been finding patterns in random dots of light in the night sky for thousands of years. Pareidolia is our human tendency to see faces in clouds and rocks, to see, for instance, a scorpion in a group of stars. There are 88 officially recognised constellations that include all manner of gods, animals, birds, a coalsack and the signs of the Zodiac. Smaller collections of stars aren’t ignored, the Southern Cross is officially an asterism and belongs to the constellation of Crux. Finding patterns and naming them apparently helped us avoid predators back in our past.

Searching for the Big Five near the Centre of Africa

The Astronomical Society of Southern Africa considers the Celestial Big Five to include the Southern Pleiades (an open cluster), the Omega Centauri (a globular cluster), the Coalsack (a dark nebula), the Eta Carinae (a bright nebula) and the Milky Way Galaxy. To ‘bag’ this big 5, the bright city lights need to be left behind. On our remote riverbank, the dark night sky reveals more stars than we can take in.

Regardless of where on Earth you lay your head, the Milky Way is a part of your sky, a galaxy that is estimated to contain between 100 and 400 billion stars and more than 100 billion planets. A galaxy in which our lonely planet, in our obscure solar system, is an insignificant speck. A galaxy that is itself one of 100 billion galaxies in the universe and perhaps more importantly a galaxy that photographs really, really well.

On our Zambezi, we stare up at the sky in a part of the world that hasn’t changed much in the last 50 000 years or so and we feel small and completely connected and awestruck. We bathe in the twinkling photons and feel their comfort.

For as long as there has been animal life on Earth the stars have supplied a means of navigation.

While most stars are valued more for beauty than function, the North Star and the Southern Cross have been used for night time navigation for hundreds of years. The Southern Cross is too far south to be viewed in the northern hemisphere so, if you’re new to our side of the Equator, it’s a good idea to learn how it works just in case you’re feeling lost or can’t find your way to your bed under the stars. It’s probably best to ask a guide to point it out, as the False Cross makes things tricky and has led many a confused sailor onto a rocky coast, back in the day.

Many birds use celestial navigation for their migrations and the humble dung beetle has been shown to use the Milky Way as a guide to rolling its meal in the right direction. It is, perhaps, the only animal known to orient itself using a galaxy.

Early Africans measured time, kept abreast of seasonal changes and navigated by the stars. When early humans left Africa to populate the globe they were probably guided by the stars. When they sat around a campfire after a hard day of hunting and gathering they told stories and built rich folklore around the stars as they attempted to make sense of the largest of all mysteries.

The sky is a solid dome of blue-black rock, resting on the Earth and the stars are holes in this rocky arch. The Milky Way was created by a girl of the ancient race who, in a tantrum, scooped ash and roots from the cooking fire and flung them into the sky making a glowing path which guided night travellers.

Later the Khoikhoi used the Pleiades to forecast the start of the rainy season. The Maasai referred to Orion’s Belt as “Three Old Men Pursued by Lonesome Widows”. A lazy man had his glowing head cut off and thrown into the sky to become the moon and still later we stand here, taking in new lessons from the twinkling photons.

How Do You Build a Nest? One Strand at a Time…

Blog published for Royal Chundu here >

Resting, Digesting & Weaver Nesting

From around November to April, the European and North African migratory birds are back on the Zambezi and the river’s resident birds get all dressed up in their breeding plumage. During this time, it is nesting season and the weaver-birds get right to plying their trade.

When it comes to feathering their own nests, the male southern masked weavers simply don’t. They’re adept at the basics: a secure fixing, a waterproof roof and an entrance that keeps intruders where they belong, but the fluffy bits are up to the Missus.

Location, location, location

Nests are often positioned on out-of-reach branch tips or water-surrounded reeds to ensure that raiders, in search of eggs or hatchlings, go unrewarded. Kivu Boomslang, African harrier hawks and vervet monkeys are among the trouble-makers and so the spot chosen by the male weaver will be one of the prerequisites that inform the females’ willingness to move in.

Attracting the female requires a combination of finding the best available site, skillful weaving, hanging from the bottom of the nest and fluttering your wings while wearing your nuptial plumage and a good singing voice.

Being polygamous, the male southern masked weavers have plenty of time to perfect this skill, as they can have up to 12 breeding spouses, who take on the responsibility for the incubation and feeding of the next generation.

The Sneaky Habits of Strangers

Once the female approves of the male’s nest, she will line it with soft grass and even-softer feathers and then lay between two and four eggs inside of varying colours and patterns. Eggs can be bluish or whitish, plain or marked, with fine or large spots and blotches that prevent any stranger’s “contribution” from going unnoticed. A stranger such as the Diederik cuckoo – one of many brood parasites that lays a single egg in an available weaver nest. In order to ‘blend in,’ they attempt to match colours, but should the egg be recognised, the nest-owner will eject it. The cuckoo-finch (also known as the parasitic or cuckoo weaver), is also fond of laying its eggs in the nests of other weaver-birds, trying to clandestinely shift her motherly duties…

A Community of Weavers

The International Ornithological Congress recognises 117  species of weaver-birds, with by far the majority residing in sub-Saharan Africa. Some weavers live solitary lives deep in Equatorial forests, but most are far more gregarious. There are those that build simple nests and there are those whose complex nests house whole communities, like the sociable weaver of the Kalahari Desert in Botswana and Namibia. This weaver builds communal nests that can weigh up to a ton. Some you can see today are over a century old.

The village weaver lives in colonies of up to as 150 nests with as many as a hundred nests in a single tree. Like many weavers, including the southern masked weavers, their nests have an opening at the bottom to make life difficult for predators. The village weaver is so named because of its liking for breeding near villages, towns and even hotels, possibly because this affords them protection from predators less keen on associating with humans.

The red-billed quelea (also known as the red-billed weaver) has been reported nesting in colonies covering several square miles of trees and harbouring millions of birds. They are regarded as the world’s most abundant undomesticated bird with post-breeding population estimates of 1.5 billion individuals. Sadly, you can have too much of a good thing and they are regarded as pests due to their raids on domesticated grains.

Attempts have been made to reduce their populations using firebombs and sprayed poisons, but these have been unsuccessful. They are caught and eaten in their millions in many African countries, but the quantities are regarded as ‘insignificant’.

Curious Nests

The white-browed sparrow-weaver has a nest that has been described as ‘a ball of straw caught in the branches’ and they are unusual in the weaver building code in that they have an escape route, a second opening to be used in the event of attack.

Weaver-birds are considered to be the only birds that can tie a knot. Some of them create woven masterpieces that would hold their own in any art installation, some create homes that have entrance-halls and some, a veranda. The sociable weavers gather in a colony and make a giant bale of straw at the top of a tree and manage to maintain it for a hundred years.

Most of the weavers do all of this while happily singing at the top of their voices. No matter how many times their prospective mate refuses to accept the proffered nest, no matter how often they are forced to break down their unsuccessful attempt and to begin again, they simply turn up the volume and get back to the task of nest-building, strand by strand.

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