Last chance to see?

My big rubber boots are slick with sulphurous, black tundra mud. A thousand or so snow geese are cavorting  noisily a few hundred metres away, their feathers and guano all mingling in the sludge beneath.  I am eye to eye with a 600kg male polar bear.  He’s lying on his belly, four limbs splayed out, rug-like.  I am so close I can hear him breathing and I am able to follow the jagged line of a scar that runs from below his left eye down to just above his nostril. Tiny midges are hovering around his nose and eyes.

He is just 20 metres away. There is very little separating us, bar the odd tuft of grass and a few bits of driftwood…. If he were to stand up, he would be a little over 3 metres tall.

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Mimi leans towards my ear and whispers almost imperceptibly in a broad Idaho accent ,“He looks meaner than a junkyard dog”. I nod in agreement. It’s the scar that does it, I think. But right now, he’s completely chilled and apparently unphased by our presence.  And not showing any junkyard dog-like behaviour. He’s more like a giant sleepy pussy cat really.

I am part of a small group – 8 telephoto lens-wielding lodge guests and our two guides Andy and Albert. Andy is a burly, ginger haired Canadian with over thirty years of guiding to his name. Albert is a ‘First Nations’ Cree, ex-hunter. IMG_9190

I feel safe standing close to Albert. He’s built like a tank and clearly knows these animals and their behaviour. Both guides have loaded guns slung over their shoulders. And a few rocks in their pockets. These, we are told, will be used to bang together to make a noise should the bear become unhappy and make a move towards us.

The midges are starting to really piss our big bear off and he puts both paws over his eyes. He now has that Monday morning look. That or (I think to myself), he’s also had enough of our pesky paparazzi vibe and wants us to shove off and let him sleep.

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We are all standing in a seriously remote wilderness area 250 km southeast of Churchill on the Hudson Bay coastline in Manitoba, Canada.  Our big boy is one of about 1 600 bears in the wider Hudson Bay region. They’re all land-based for now and have been since the big July melt – foraging on the plentiful summer berries. That’s all they have to feed on though and it’s a pretty long wait until the November chill sets in and the bay ices over.  It could be a particularly long wait this year….and the next. And the year after that…

We are all painfully aware of this as we admire our bear….and wonder about his very tenuous future as it’s no secret the Arctic is changing.

We had arrived at the lodge on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Only an hour after flying in in our 10-seater single engine plane, a Black bear cruised right up to the lodge fence and we watched her foraging busily, completely unaware of our presence.

556A0131The lodge is surrounded by a sturdy, tall fence, so we’re on the inside looking out. It’s a truly unique wildlife encounter opportunity – to witness bears in a true wilderness context. We are lucky if they happen to pass by.

A few hours later we are indeed blessed with a polar bear female and her cub. It’s absolutely remarkable to see these creatures so close. It really does render one speechless. In the first two days, we see three mothers and cubs, and a handful of males. They are all in very good condition and, according to Andy, the population is thriving in the Hudson Bay region. So what unfolds before us on Day 4 is unsettling to say the least.

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We are cruising along on our morning drive – out to find bears. We are all seated up high atop what they call a Rhino – a purpose built vehicle, specially designed to withstand the thick slick mud, rocky river crossings and difficult terrain of the Tundra.

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The guides are absolutely brilliant spotters. From literally five or more kilometres away, they spot a bear. This spot was different though. Andy had his binoculars peeled on a very small dot – a speck on a shimmery, hazy horizon. He was unusually quiet. Albert – in the other vehicle also appeared stumped.

The dot was a polar bear cub.

What was immediately unsettling for Andy was that the cub was alone. They are never very far away from their mothers. For two to three years, they stick velcro- like to their mothers. So to see this little guy alone was alarming to say the least.556A0939

We bumped our way over some difficult terrain, inching ever closer and then Andy spotted something even more alarming. There was another bear lying down. He was clearly feeding on something. It was – on closer inspection – a very, very big male. The cub was bleating and circling the male, but never going too close.

The harsh reality of the situation dawned on us all, without having to put words to it. The male was eating the cub’s mother.

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Chances are, the mother would have been confronted by the big male., who may well have been after her cub. A mammoth fight would have ensued, and she would have been badly injured. He would have turned on her, killed her, and was now eating her.

This was nature playing out in all her raw, red, bloody, dangerous attire….and it was utterly shocking.

I have spent enough time in the wilds of Africa and seen enough kills to accept the rawness, the lack of dignity or empathy in the wild. But this was just too much to witness. We sat around and watched the train wreck of a situation for a little too long for my comfort levels, and before long, I began sobbing. I was embarrassed by my reaction in front of the other guests, so tried to stifle my sobs into my thick jacket and scarf but not very successfully.

The little cub did not know where to go, or what to do. In the seven months of his short little life, he had only known a warm teat and a constant presence. Just earlier that morning we had watched a mother and cub pass the lodge – heading in the same direction we were now sitting.

Could it be the same pair we wondered?

The bond had been so precious, so intense. Everything she did, he did. She showed him how to forage and he was attached to her like a limpet.  To see him so lost and hopeless now shredded my heart strings. I think the fact that I was so far away from my own son did little to calm the emotions.

556A1047It was terribly hard not to anthropomorphize the situation and as the guides eventually made a decision to drive away, I could not help look back at the little guy as we retreated…..and watch as he circled the male, bleating quietly.

That night back in the lodge was very difficult. The mood was desperately somber. One guest had to leave the dinner table as I could see she couldn’t control her emotions. The guides were equally stunned by it all, and I could tell they were battling to stay professional, and keep a consistent thread through it all for us paying guests.

Because the lodge is in a conservation area, and because we had come across the situation (as lodge guests). they were compelled to inform the conservation authorities. And that they did, immediately.

“Resources” we were told would arrive at first light the next day. I asked them what they thought the authorities could possibly do in this situation and was told that in all likelihood they would take the cub to a zoo in Winnipeg. The thought horrified me. I wept more.

That night I slept little…my heart broke for the little creature out on his own in the cold, dark night, so close to the big boy who was no doubt still feeding on is mother…

Part of me quietly prayed that wolves or indeed the big male would swiftly take him out – for nature to clean it up, finish it off, put him out of his misery….I could not bear the thought of this little creature being airlifted out of there and confined to a city zoo for the rest of his life – having tasted freedom and wilderness? No. No. NO.

The next morning we drove back to the scene, all of us VERY quiet in the back of the vehicle. Hearts sank as we came over the rise and saw both bears still in fairly close proximity….little cub still calling, circling, looking bewildered….big male now covered in blood and fat and still feeding.

556A0906“Resources” (based a two hour chopper flight away) in Churchill – had asked that the guides take us guests far away from the scene as they dealt with things.

We paid our respects to the little chap, gave them both a wide berth and drove off. Only after having a much closer look at what the male was eating with our binoculars. Yes indeed – paws, fur, and half-eaten carcass of an adult polar bear. It was big mamma alright.  I wept more, and felt quite barren emotionally as we drove off and got on with the day, only returning to the lodge quite a lot later that afternoon.

We had heard and seen the chopper come in from many miles away, but there was little talk of what could have/may have/ should have played out. The guides were quite tight-lipped and I soon picked up that perhaps they did not have the greatest respect for the methods adopted by “Resources”.

When we drove past much later in the day, we found her crumpled and bloody remains. No big male, no cub in sight.

On our return to the lodge, the manager informed us that “Resources” had found the cub had mercifully been “taken out by wolves” (after we had seen him that morning – in broad daylight).

That was all we were told.

My partner and I looked at one another and raised our eyebrows as we made our way back to our bedrooms. Likely story, we both agreed. We suspect, the cub would have been euthanized. My suspicion is that they probably also took out the big male. I could well be wrong on the latter, but I found it very odd that he was not back on the carcass after the chopper had vanished.

What was also a little disconcerting is that significant parts of the carcass (head and paws) had been removed. Research perhaps?

I am not entirely clear why the authorities, or the lodge for that matter felt the need to pull the wool over our eyes, but there we are.

It was an emotional experience all round, and none of us felt the need to probe or delve further and potentially compromise the professional integrity of the lodge staff. They had their reasons – perhaps lodge guests had muddied their name in the past with similarly emotional sightings, who knows…

I guess the really burning question for me was WHY was the male driven to cannibalism? How common is cannibalism in the area? The fact that both guides had never seen anything like it in all their years living here made me decidedly uneasy.

A bit of desktop research and reading a book called “On Thin Ice” by Richard Ellis immediately after the trip brought a few things to the surface for me.

It seems the jury is out on whether this phenomenon is climate change related, and judging by the tone of the literature, it is prone to being sensationalized by the media, but whatever the case, I have a sneaking suspicion it has a human element to it.

There is a 50% mortality rate in cubs in the first year or two, and it is unusual to find a mother with more than one cub at the age when they are ready to be completely weaned. Six out of ten cubs die in their first year – as a result of attacks, starvation, accidents or infanticide.

There has, it seems, been a noticeable increase in occurrences of cannibalism amongst polar bears. This seems to play out when polar bears are deprived of food for an extended period, which is particularly acute due to the delay in the build-up of sea ice as a result of climate change.

In 2009, up to eight males were found eating cubs in the Churchill area in one season. Previously these bears were able to travel the iced-over Hudson Bay to find food, but more recently, with it taking longer to ice over, they had resorted to killing and eating cubs.

Our mum-eater certainly didn’t look emaciated or weak – he was a big, healthy looking animal. So could it just be an opportunistic feed? A fight to the death (over the cub) ended in a free, fat and protein-rich meal?

We will never know. But it was a substantial eye-opener, and it definitely piqued my interest in the management of these magnificent animals, their future and our influence in all this…

More of this in my next blog as I explore the rather unique and positively disturbing approach to human-wildlife conflict in the town of Churchill, where they make use of what they proudly call a “polar bear jail”…

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If you go down to the woods today..

We are cruising down the Atnarko River in a Clackacraft drift boat – a rather bulky, tinny affair. It is, we are told, the best in the business. As we set off and clunk and grind our way over the shallower rapids, I wonder about this assertion.

The regal and appropriately named snow-dusted Mount Stupendous casts her gnarly profile down upon us and the reflections of lush and lofty cotton trees and Douglas Fir wriggle and stretch in the calm pools between the busier rapids.

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While negotiating his way with ease around vast cotton tree stumps and through churning rapids, our 70-something river guide Les Koroluk waxes lyrical about the great run of ‘pink’ or ‘kap’ay’ this year. He rolls off names like ‘chum’, ‘coho’, ‘cutthroat’, ‘sock eye’ and ‘bull trout’ – all with a delightful, and slightly quavering Canadian lilt.

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Vast clutches of gravid females swim urgently upstream, males not too far behind them. The crystal clear water darkens with salmon as they move en masse beneath and alongside us. Occasionally one leaps out of the water and belly-flops back. These remarkable fish face an astounding suite of challenges as they turn their backs on the ocean and make their way upstream.

I notice a few rather ropey looking fish, large white fungus-like growths on their flanks and fins. “Signs of decay”, explains Les, “long before their number’s up, many of them show quite erratic behavior and will flop about. They spawn and they die. Their job is done”.

Despite his advanced years, our guide’s burly arms tweak and tug at the two oars with total confidence. He is clearly well attached to his beaten up old boat – and refuses point blank to guide in the souped-up inflatables favored by his younger guiding colleagues.

We are in the company of a real mountain river man….boiling rapids, feisty fish, charging bears, icy mountains…he’s seen it and done it all. A deep understanding and reverence towards the land and its critters – hairy or scaled – oozes from every pore. He’s a story teller of note.

In the 80’s Les owned and ran a successful guiding company in the Bella Coola valley, where salmon and trout fishing was the main focus. This ultimately gave birth to commercial bear viewing ventures in the British Columbia region of Canada. Les, we find out later, was the brain behind the ‘river drift’ approach to viewing wildlife.

And thus we drift.

We are looking for bears. Big grizzly ones. They have been spotted all week on these drift trips, so we are feeling lucky. Sometimes they are within arm’s reach, we are told. Les tells us about all sorts of bear encounters – ones he has had with clients or on his own. Bears sitting on logs dipping paws into the river, bears mock charging, bears with cubs, big male bears swimming alongside the boat….bears all over the place.

Our rookie excitement mounts with each story and we strain our eyes up and downstream – we would give anything for a hint of hair, a flash of a pointy dark muzzle.

We’re here at the right time. When the salmon start migrating, the bears move up and down the river in a collective feeding frenzy, in a bid to fatten up for winter.

Towards the end of September, as fresh salmon numbers dwindle, the bears become less picky and start gnawing on spawned-out, dead and dying salmon. Very often, the putrid smell of rotting fish is what you will smell before you see a bear deep in the forest, explains Les.

We are in deep wilderness – with no signs of human habitation for many, many miles. The Bella Coola valley cuts through the coastal mountains from the Pacific to the interior plateau. The area has the lowest population density of any habitable area on earth and is one of the few places where ‘natives’ or ‘first nations’ folk outnumber the ‘non-natives’. Because of this, many of the bears that are encountered have not had negative experiences with humans. They are, Les explains, fairly tolerant and allow humans to watch them at pretty close quarters. It’s a balancing act though, he goes on. “There is a degree of trust that one needs to garner from the bears…we have to behave in a certain way that they are able to both tolerate and predict. The guides in the area undergo very specific training and we all adhere to the strict regional and provincial standards.”

I ask about client numbers and whether there is ever a sense of crowding the animal. “That’s very much part of it”, he says “the guide to client-ratios must remain small…we have to almost melt into the background for these bears, for these tours to continue to bear fruit”.

We come to the end of our three hour drift empty handed and a little disappointed. There’s always tomorrow…

The next day we set off with Mad Mike – a 30-something gingery bear of a man who has lived and guided in the area for many years. Mike shares Les’s deep passion for the area, but is also fascinated by the cultural history and tells us some rather alarming tales of how first nations people were mistreated by the Canadian government (enough material for another blog entirely!)

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We follow the ‘Tote road’ – a rough gravel road (used by the early settlers in the late 1800s) that winds its way parallel to the Atnarko River for about 11 kays upstream to the confluence of the Hotnarko River.

We are, of course, looking for bears.

We find a pika (a small hamster-like rodent), a garter snake and many frogs. We watch red-tailed hawks ride the thermals and a juvenile bald eagle swoop between the cottonwood tops. We come across Culturally Modified Trees (CTMs) – cedars that have been stripped of a few sheets of bark to make clothing or hats.

But there are no bears in these deep, dark woods. Not today anyway.

We find more than an enough tantalizing evidence to indicate their presence though. Big piles of fresh bear skat peppered with rose-hip pips; fat, dinner plate sized prints pressed into the mud; a broad, winding urine trail along a stretch of tar road (a male bear, we are told – they don’t stop to wee, they swagger and wee); rubbing trees scarred with deep claw scrapes and even hair embedded in the bark. I pluck a hair out and pocket it for my son back home – knowing how much of a treasure a genuine grizzly hair will be!

These trees talk, says Mike. Well, to a bear anyway. The scent left on the tree will tell the next bear who passed before it, their reproductive status and possibly their mood. Marking is usually done by males during the mating season, but some is done by both genders throughout the year. A bear will always stop at a talking tree and read the news, make its own mark.

Mike tells us that marine-derived nitrogen is found in these trees – even though we are about 100 metres from the nearest river. Indeed it is difficult to find a tree that has not been influenced by salmon! In a single spawning season, one bear will carry up to 700 salmon from the river and leave half behind on the forest floor. “The larger tree growth rings correspond directly with the large salmon runs” explains Mike.

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Remarkable stuff.

Every time we approached the river, we would be warned in hushed tones to quiet down, to be aware. Our guide would go ahead, stop, listen then pick his way through the tall reeds and gingerly check the river banks. Adrenalin levels would soar and I would start to imagine bears crashing out from the dark woods or rising up from day beds, all gnashing teeth and claws.

By now our feet were starting to ache a little, we had hiked the whole morning and into the afternoon. We had lunched on the river bank, taken a dip  in the river and now were really starting to think all these Grizzly encounters were pure fallacy…

On our final river bank check, I glance up and spotted a beautiful, massive golden-tinged Grizzly male sploshing about in the rapids. We watched him for less than a minute before he sunk into the water and vanished around the corner. It was enough to get the juices flowing. I had seen my first real live grizzly in the wild!

The next morning our first trip down to the hide revealed a sow and her cub right up close and munching away at a dead fish she had plucked out of the river. We watched through binocular and camera lenses – hardly able to contain our excitement.

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The bond between mum and cub was profound – he stuck to her like Velcro, and she constantly made sure he had his fair share of the rotting flesh.

The little guy became quite playful at one stage, jumping up and down on his hind legs playing what looked like hide and seek behind a bush. Mike had explained to us that bears often show a human-like sense of humour in their behaviour – signs of being aloof, scared, friendly, goofy and inventive. We saw all this and more in the way these two interacted. Eventually mum and cub ambled off to disappear from sight leaving us all, slack jawed and star struck…

On our last day we went on another drift – again with Les. This time we were rewarded with an excellent sighting of the legendary “Bent Ear”. This big chap had a floppy bottom lip and a battered ear from too many bar brawls and encounters with rival males or even females.

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“That’ll be Bent Ear”, says Les, in his lazy drawl….”he’s fat alright – ‘prolly got a belly full of cubs”, he chortles.

“Cubs?”, I ask, horrified….

“Yip….many sows will give birth to three cubs, but only one’ll make it. They either suffer den death because mum doesn’t have enough milk, or they’ve come across the likes of Bent ear and he’s picked out a cub and gobbled it up in front of his siblings”.

Tough stuff this, but it’s nature – red in tooth and claw and all that.

We watch this magnificent creature for a while. His shiny hippo-like bulk swims for about a kilometre downstream and then he emerges, shakes, glances up at us in our boat and swaggers off up a bank to be swallowed up in the gloom of the woods.

Bewitched by the twitch

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To what lengths would you go to, to see a Horned Screamer? Or a Black-eyed Fairy? How much would you pay to catch a fleeting glimpse of the elusive Lesser-spotted, Long-toed Monklet?  For starters, you would have to head into the depths of the Amazon jungle.  It would not be easy though. You may have to play dead for hours under a blanket of rotten leaves – or scale the buttress roots and perch Attenbrough-like in the canopy.

I refer, of course, to ‘twitching’ – a somewhat derogatory, if not highly appropriate name ascribed to seriously committed bird watchers.  Twitchers hunt in thoroughly intense, often humorless packs, and have been known to go to bed with their monopods.  They are defined by the reflex ticking action upon sighting, or hearing a bird.

Having worked for a few months for a safari company specialising in birding trips in Malawi (in the early 90s), I have been exposed to some obsessive twitchers.  They came on these tours with one goal and one goal only – to see, or hear, as many species as possible in the two weeks available.  As chief cook, bottle-washer and assistant bird-spotter, this was, very often two weeks too long.

At the end of a birding trip, some groups would have successfully clocked up 350 species – and leave satisfied with a ‘been there, done that, got the list, lost-the-T-shirt-in-the-process- attitude’.  Satisfied with another list of what they call “Lifers” (first time spotted), they would head off to the next continent – to hunt down a whole new bunch of unsuspecting feathers.

They would very rarely cast a glance at the world outside their circled vision to marvel at the swirling mists of Mt Mulanje, the frenetic markets of Lilongwe, or the rolling plains of Nyanga.  Instead, time would be spent arguing over Latin names with the guide, or in rabid squabbles over who saw it first.  Every evening, before dinner, they would all huddle together and consolidate their tickings – the name of each bird would be read out and claims made to their sighting.  This was often when there was the greatest derision and least humour.  The dedication was astounding.

I remember one particularly keen group from Australia.  In a staunch effort to catch a glimpse of a highly persecuted White-eared Barbet, they lay on their backs under a tree, binoculars skywards, mouths open, postrate for two hours, in anticipation of a mere flutter, a hint of a feather.  They would quite honestly, have donated organs for a sighting – such was the commitment.  Imagine the atmosphere, when Tony, our guide – borderline comatose and high as a kite at the best of times – ambled back to the party and claimed that he had just had an excellent 3 minute sighting of our feathered friend in another tree up the road while he was having a joint.

The group didn’t talk to him for the rest of the day.

We did have one or two non-twitcher groups.  They were invariably more relaxed and dare I say it – on the same planet.  They were more interested in bartering with the local people in the bustling markets, seeing the exquisite countryside and snorkeling in the Lake than ticking off names on a list.

Their ambivalence toward birds was, for me a breath of fresh air.  One group was especially memorable.  At breakfast one morning in one of the bush camps, one of the punters (clients) – a Cambridge History academic, Charles, asked:

‘Karoline, what is that ghastly bloody bird that wakes me up at the crack of dawn and goes “Knyack, Knyack, Knyack”?’  Many hours were spent going through the options with the rest of the group and a guide-book – debating the possibilities and deciphering the unlikely combinations of beak, body size, colour and tail length, based on vague alcoholic sightings the night before.  What really threw me though, was the “knyack knyack” bit.  Charles eventually called his mystery bird the “Double-breasted Knyack Knyack bird” and he had a rather subversive sketch to prove it.

After a few days later he spotted it, while it was “knyacking”, and it turned out to be a relatively harmless Black-eyed bulbul.  For the rest of the trip, all birds, (feathered and unfeathered), were labeled “Double-breasted Knyack Knyacks”.

As a self-confessed traitor to the twitching fraternity, I am far happier listening to calls and watching behaviour, and I would encourage any aspiring birder to rather enter the world of birding through this door.  They do not, however, make call identification easy for beginners if the descriptions in some of the more Field Guides are anything to go by.  If an over-zealous new birder on the block imitates the written version in an effort to flush a bird from the undergrowth, he or she is guaranteed to send any self-respecting bird into premature migration.

These are some of the offerings:

The Burchells Sandgrouse, if alarmed, utters GUG-GUG-GUG but in flight calls CHOK-LIT CHOK-LIT.

The Yellow-throated Sandgrouse, on the other hand, simply emits a hoarse GOLLI-GOLLI-GOLLI.

The Bar-throated Apalis goes PILLY-PILLY-PILLY, and if that’s not bad enough, your average Little Brown Job (or LBJ) is accused of emitting anything from ZWEET-ZWEET-ZWEET to CHIRRIT, CHIRRIT, TZEEP.

I find calls (and the interpretation thereof) one of the more fascinating aspects of bird watching.  There are calls associated with courtship, flight, alarm, bonding, injury and aggression. Once the connection is made, calls can tell you things about the bush and could help save you from coming face to face with a ravenous predator (or a despondent Australian).

My advice to any birder starting out, is don’t get bewitched by the twitch.  Don’t get bogged down with names, numbers, Latin and lists. Rather find a good waterhole or forest and watch, listen and absorb.  You will learn more this way than in a lifetime of ticking.  Try to fathom the meaning from calls and flight pattern, courtship rituals and nesting strategies.  Only then, if you have to, reach for your guide-book and see what name us humans have given it.  After all, what’s in a name?

It is more important that we come to understand the private lives of birds – the mysteries of navigation, their language and repetoire of song if we are to begin to understand what their very survival depends on.  Without birds to delight us with their colour and song, the world would be a very dull place indeed – even if they are all Double-breasted Knyack Knyacks.

A tide in the affairs of men…

Something deep, primordial, an ancient call

She answered, and left her weightless world

For the uncertainty of the shore.

How heavy the burden of herself became,

the massive shell, the tapered limbs

That scratched and clawed for purchase in the too forgiving sand,

she knew alone,

and alone she bore, amidst the shadowy terrors

Of an alien world seen through eyes already tearing.

A few weeks ago, we were incredibly privileged to spend a week up in Maputaland in the north-eastern corner of KwaZulu-Natal. The region – which nudges up against the border of Mozambique – is relatively unpopulated and the coastline boasts some of the more pristine and undeveloped beaches, dunes and sub-tropical forests in the country. These glorious skeins of golden sand thankfully fall within a protected marine conservation area. For a very good reason…

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Our mission? To seek out and observe nesting turtles – loggerheads and leatherbacks specifically. The area is famous for its healthy nesting turtle population, and the November–January period is peak nesting season. We did not want to join the organised vehicle-based turtle tours which were on offer every night, preferring instead to go on foot and in our own time. In the 6 days we were there, we walked and ran the beaches flat searching for turtle tracks and covering a total of about 100 kilometres. We generally set off later in the evening after 9 pm or first thing in the morning (the alarm was duly set to ping at 3.45 am!)

On days 1 and 2, we returned from our night-time and early-morning forays disappointed.  On Day 3, however, we were rewarded quite spectacularly. We had set off in the early morning gloom. Torchlight was unnecessary as the moon was still quite plump. A little over 600 metres from where we were staying we could make out the riffles and dips of a dark shadowy trail in the distance. We quickened our pace and soon stumbled upon a vast, fresh tractor-like track heading up into the dunes. A quick check beyond to see if there was a return track…no! Heart rates immediately rocketed, as we made our way quietly up the beach. In the distance, up against a sand bank, we could just make out a big moving shadow. Yes – at last!

Being so close to a wild creature this endangered and this magnificent is quite life changing and emotional. One knows that the most respectful thing to do is to keep one’s distance and respect her while she goes about the task of laying and covering her nest. At the same time, there is also an overwhelming desire to get up close and to just feel her energy. I very quietly and carefully stroked her lightly on her back flipper and then placed my hand on her shell – just for a moment. I then stepped back, sunk into the sand, held my breath and watched her.

Sandy strings of mucous clung to her mouth and her eyes seemed to be weeping slightly. In the fading gloom, I watched her mouth open and close occasionally, and listened to her straining rhythmic breathing. Every laboured, rhythmic sweep of her powerful back flippers seemed to take it out of her. She had already delivered her precious clutch into the 80 cm deep, cool sandy womb further up the beach.

From an evening encounter with a laying female later in the week we learned that the soft-shelled eggs are gently dropped into this perfectly excavated hole, her back flippers acting as tunnelling guides. The ping-pong ball sized eggs have a unique mineral structure which prevents breakage on impact with the rest of the clutch. Turtle eggs are said to be so yielding that one could bounce one off a hard surface!

We suspect our female had laid her eggs quite a while before we arrived and had moved away from the actual nest. She was now disguising the site and creating as much diversionary disturbance as possible – digging, spreading, turning and weighing down patches of sand away from the actual eggs. Researchers in the area have watched some leatherbacks spend up to two hours after laying disguising an area of up to 100 m2 in an effort to confuse and deter predators.

I had such a ridiculous desire to look into her eyes and connect at some level…oh to just have a conversation with a creature this wild and mythical! For her to tell me her story, to share her turtle adventures in the big seas, and for me to try and reassure her that every single one of her perfect leathery little progeny would make it into the surf in two month’s time.

And that she too will be ok when she returns to the sea…

What I didn’t want her to know was that of the 1 000 hatchlings that enter the sea, only two reach nesting maturity. But my guess is she’s well aware of that – hence the healthy clutch of 100 or more eggs!

We watched her for over an hour – the sun was inching its way up behind the quivering sea beyond and the clouds were turning pink. We started to become quite concerned that she was still exposed and likely to be out on the beach in broad daylight. Some internal chemistry was telling her to keep confusing all those faceless predators – ones she would never meet.

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We watched her, breathless, perform the rite,

Marveled at her close-lidded patience, her energy,

The thick head that nodded slow acceptance

Of utter exhaustion, the unrelenting will

that rendered her oblivious to all

Save her pearly charges’ burial

We fondled her leathery skin,

Gazed into her eyes admired the thickness of her wrinkled neck,

and thought deeply of the soft expression on her darkened face.

As George Hughes observes in his book Between the tides: ‘There is no room for sentiment ….once the eggs have been laid, they are on their own’. Yet despite this harsh reptilian parenting reality, one cannot help be completely in awe of the degree of dedication and meticulous attention to detail around the nesting process. There are no half measures here, no ‘quick let me just get the job done and head off back to the sea where it’s easier to move…’.

It takes a female 25 years to reach nesting maturity. That is over half my lifetime! After all those years out in the Big Blue, she just knows it’s time to procreate and make the epic journey onto land to usher forth another generation. And she does this up to four times in a single season.

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Eventually our turtle turned her massive bulk around, harrumphed her way over the little sand dune she had created, pointed her beaked face towards the white-tipped waves and started her homeward journey. She seemed to be energised by the downhill stretch, the sight of the waves and the harder sand. She heaved her (possibly) 400kg+ frame down the beach, stopping only occasionally to catch her breath. We watched a wave lick the sandy mucous from her face, another wash the sand off her carapace, and yet another engulf her completely. I swear I saw a hint of a smile just before her head dipped below the final wave.

And then she was gone.

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The deed was done, the sand replaced,

She joined the sea again,

And we waded with her to the edge of our world,

Saw her graceful form retreat into the darkness

In silence, we filled her clumsy tracks,

Erased all trace of what we’d seen,

And dreamed of another cosmic night

When sand shall scatter, and the sea

Shall open up her arms to turtle minions…

I wished her well – out loud, but my words were whisked away from my lips in the early morning breeze. The cynic in me couldn’t help feel a sense of great longing as she disappeared from view. I felt I had lost a friend and there was no way I could or would ever see her again, know where she is or how she would fare.

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I corresponded with George Hughes after this encounter and was delighted to hear that in the 50 years working with these animals he has NEVER encountered a leatherback on the beach in the daylight hours.

Once she had gone, all I could think about were the dangers she faced on her return to the ocean… from all-consuming fishing nets and the horrors of bycatch to the equal horror of long-line fishing….from warming oceans and fickle, schitzo-currents to the ever-growing tsunami of plastic.

A day or two later, while walking along a 1.5 kilometre stretch of beach between Rocktail Bay and Thonga (all prime nesting beach), we managed to collect two large black garbage bags of plastic – all in the space of an hour. Our harvest included ten cigarette lighters, an untold quantity of drinking straws, bottle tops, shoes, bits of plastic crate, fishing rope and plastic bottles. What was perhaps more alarming were the miniscule chips and particles of colourful plastic – bigger items that had become brittle and broken down over the years – becoming one with the sand and shells.

George Hughes agrees that plastic waste is a massive threat to turtles globally. Hatchlings tend to ingest anything that looks edible – these very small plastic pellets for example. Adults have also been known to ingest large sheets of plastic and plastic bags. These block the gut and lead to tragic fatalities. Hughes has come across many examples of plastic ingestion in the five decades working with turtles. In one particularly severe case, he came across an adult leatherback which had been caught in the shark nets off the KZN coast. It died shortly after being brought to the research institute where he was based at the time. When dissected, Hughes’s team unravelled a solid 3 x 4 m sheet of heavy plastic. Frightening stuff.

Sadly the oesophagus is designed in such a way that once an item of plastic has been ingested, there is no way for it to be regurgitated and it has to be swallowed completely. Once lodged in the gut the animal is quite likely to starve to death or suffocate.

On a more positive note, the conservation status of the both loggerhead and leatherbacks has seen dramatic improvement over the past few decades. Protection of nesting females began in 1963 when a paltry 5 nesting females were recorded in the entire 1966 season. The decline was almost certainly caused by the relentless harvesting of eggs. Numbers of nesting females has thankfully grown steadily – up to a remarkable 168 in a single year!

Encounters such as the one I describe here leave one with a heightened sense of personal caring and responsibility for endangered creatures – all over the world. On one of our evening meanderings, we came across one of the lodge vehicles, guests offloaded and surrounding a laying female leatherback. It was great to watch her eggs drop into her meticulously crafted hole, but sharing the experience with several others (too many perhaps for my comfort levels), took away so much of the magic for me. There is a loss of dignity somehow, when guests pose behind the female to get that all essential Facebook shot and I felt that there insufficient respect for her space and need for quiet.

Of course, I realise the importance of the tourism element in the conservation of these extraordinary animals, so it was great to see foreigners and locals alike enjoying the experience. As long as the encounters are carried out sensitively (and married to the excellent data collection and conservation efforts initiated by Hughes), then I am all for it. The more people can experience and treasure such a rare and sacred moment, the more likely they are to feel the visceral need to help secure the future of these magnificent animals and their fragile ocean environment.

Poem extracts from ‘Turtles’ – author unknown

Thanks for F Faralla for the pics.

 

Eagle encounters

Warren, Tim and I spent the most wonderful couple of hours up at the Black Eagle nest site in Silvermine yesterday.

I had heard from Lucia Rodrigues that there had been ‘nest prep’ activity on the go, so I was keen to check it out for myself.

This is one energetic pair! Just three months ago they were encouraging their 2012 offspring to head off into the sunset and make its own way in the world….and here they were very proactively getting their heads and hearts around creating a new little eagle life.

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Within 10 minutes of sitting still on our precipitous rocky perch we were rewarded with our first sighting – on exquisitely silent, powerful wings, the female cruised past us, tucked her wings back and ducked into her nest below. The male followed a little while later. They then did several spectacular, very close aerobatic fly pasts, turning their heads to watch us each time.

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They moved between the nest and a cliff ledge to the far right of us. The female gathered twigs and bits of greenery in her beak and took it to her nest where she then spent time stomping, arranging and earnestly contemplating the layout.

After a long flight together out of sight and off towards Noordhoek, they returned and we watched them land on the same ledge….hop towards one another and start to mate!
It was quite amazing to watch such rare and enormous birds in the act of producing another…

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We left the mountain well after 6 in the evening as the tops of the mountain began to turn pink and the warm pockets of air started to take on the evening chill.
The whole way down we kept exclaiming how lucky we were and how rare a thing we had just been privy to. It really was quite something.

We’ll be watching these extraordinary animals in the coming months with great interest.

a perfect place

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I have just spent a very privileged weekend in the back of beyond, enjoying time playing in the foothills of yet another unique Cape mountain range not too far from the concrete jungle.
‘Home’ was a little two-roomed cottage tucked away, up a dusty road, through a creaking farm gate or three.

Our playground? Beautiful rolling Fynbos and Renosterveld-clad mountains that go on forever. Big wide coffee skies with star sprinkles cradling a massive moon – her deep craters brought alive by a long so-close-you-can-touch-the-surface camera lens.
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We sat on the stoep in the evenings and took it all in. The stillness and the intoxication of being in a place where you cannot hear (or smell) a single ounce of homo-sapien-ness…

Every inch of me craves this kind of silence.

I breathe it in and hold it there, eyes closed….trying to capture it, to mentally bottle it and sip on it when next I find myself in a thrumming, sense-sapping mall, or having to endure the shrieking neighbor-hood kids and barking dogs…

And then the night-jar pipes up with her ‘Good-Lord-Deliver-Us’ and her mate calls back further down the valley and they continue with their heart-wrenching sing-song, until you see and hear a flutter of white and their calls echo further up the kloof. And then they’re gone.

And then the bats start their rustle, shuffle and twitter in the reed ceiling above and then they flit about in a very ordered frenzy, and we feel them rush over our heads and past our faces – almost touching, nanometers away from our noses.
We see a fleeting, perfect silhouette of one against the light – big, beautiful, template-perfect bat wings.

One evening I scan the pinky-orange-tinged mountain with my binoculars as the sun sinks away (reluctantly almost). I am hungry for a blurr of spots, the flick of a dark tipped tail, the whisper of a feline presence. The optimist in me believes that if I scan the mountainside for long enough, I will see a leopard in these mountains.

These are leopard friendly farmers after all.

We don’t see leopard, but we see a big old creaking giant of a leopard tortoise – quite possibly a septuagenarian.
I come across him grazing in the road as I cycle quietly up to him. He grazes so loudly I almost hear him before I see him! He stops, munches a little more with his beaky mouth, casts a lazy look at me and lumbers off, his massive, ancient, knobbly, distorted legs hauling his humpy-lump cargo – back into the bush.
What stories he could tell!

We hike in the foothills one morning… Destination: Waterfall.

Once out of the shaded poplar and oak groves, we hit the sudden intensity and heat of the mountain and begin our ascent…..
The air is heat heavy and deliciously aromatic. The grass is crisp and the ground thirsty and crackled. Thick papery leaves curl and shuffle in the wind, making one glance hastily sideways as you pass – always on the alert for sun-seeking serpents.

red

The red aloes are bountiful – all over the mountain, with their inward-curling apologetic leaves. Delicate pink and green-fringed succulents tough it out with all manner of other glorious plump painted fat plants with spots, dots and splashes and exquisite symmetry.
Tough customers these… they can take all the heat, drought and wind thrown at them. Yet still be so flawless and beautiful.

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We hike for over two hours, every now and again putting on brakes as we descend into the valley and criss-cross a bubbling stream. Each time we cross, we teeter on rocks, slip-slide on logs and hover on leg-scratching dried up flood debris to stop and scoop up great handfuls of pure, sweet, delicious mountain water.

Into our mouths and over our heads. We cannot get enough of it.

We scramble and claw our way up the riverbed and reach our destination at the end of a shaded moist smelling kloof…this must be it?! The path has gone?
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It’s all modest-cool-moss-shrouded-rock with a tall glassy splash of water in the corner and a dark mysterious bewitched little pool at the base. Curly ferns and cool-as-cucumber waving arum lilies… a welcome contrast to the crackle-simmer heat intensity outside.
I dip my toes in the icy pool and opt not to swim…leaving the frigid liquid to the zip-zapping water-boatmen and other dark wriggly creatures within.

On the way back down we come across black-shoe-polish-shine beetles scuttling about between hot rocks and quivering stalks…they’re all going somewhere. For something. Only they know where.

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We stop to watch a large termite colony. Every single team member has a job to do and with military precision, they just get the hell on with it. There is not a second of down time. It’s all feeler-frenzy and ant energy bristling. Massive strips of grass, heavy seeds, five-times-your-body-size-restio stalks….all of it hauled along the rocky pathway into a tiny hole. The optimism and energy is infectious. Where one ant enthusiastically takes on too much and dumps it as it scurries feverishly onwards, another will follow and whip it up and carry it down. No questions asked.

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We watch a Black Eagle pair thermalling high above us. In perfect unison, they tuck their wings back and zoom down to a ridge below us. They holler and tease and take on a pair of uptight Jackal Buzzards who screech and dive-bomb…..and then move back on upwards together.
Un-phased. Unruffled. Effortlessly superior in every way.

Over a late lunch we watch a family of striped field mice scuttle about under the tangled bush beneath our stoep. We sit silent and still and see life unfold in this tiny patch of mountain.

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Birds, mice, lizards – all sensing no movement or threat above, begin to trust, inch closer and just be in their moment.

We watch it all unfold and the stories tell themselves.

It is a perfect place to be.

A few changes

Thought it was time to change my blog header and a few other details herein. These days I really cannot call myself a trail runner – and most certainly not an ultra-distance one. I have traded in my running shoes for a trusty two-wheeled steed and starting to love the freedom, speed and endorphin rush that this brings. I still look at trail runners with huge longing and envy, but know that this is not to be for a good while.

I think I have finally made peace with this fact….but RunningWild can stay as it is for now 🙂

At least I still get to spend vast chunks of time sucking in lungfulls of mountain air, watching the sugarbirds flirting with blushing proteas and taking in some of the most spectacular and unique views in the world from lofty heights.

Onto more sedate and less cardiovascular pursuits…I have been dabbling in coloured pencil work again and yesterday spent about an hour on this juvenile martial eagle. There is plenty of room for improvement (I know) but I am really looking forward to playing with all the marvellous textures and colours (of all the faunal and floral subjects) on this wonderful continent. And how lucky am I to have Fynbos as my chief inspiration and canvass?

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