Home sweet home

We’re back in London! Although the animal life is less exotic, it’s still plenty cute.  Here’s how Otto greets us when he comes home from daycare:

Otto’s home! from Grimbil on Vimeo.

Now that the Africa adventure is over, we’ll be switching gears to focus on our upcoming renovations. So, if you want to hear about scaffolding and paint colors, stay tuned!

Table Mountain

Aka, “leg day.”

When you go to Cape Town, everyone tells you to make sure you visit Table Mountain as soon as you get a sunny day. Our first 2 days it was either too cloudy at the top of the mountain or too windy, so the cable cars were closed. How windy, you ask? The Cape Town Cycle Tour (the world’s largest timed cycle race) had to be cancelled because people were literally being blown off their bikes at the starting line.

So when it was bright and clear on Tuesday and we saw paragliders circling the top, we changed our plans and headed on up. The view from the top is fantastic.

First thing we did: abseil. That guy in the pic above is part of Abseil Africa, and he’s sitting about where we started our adventure rappelling down the face of the mountain. Did I mention we were over a kilometre up?

We survived the 112 meter abseil down, high fived, then hiked back up. Definitely time for a celebratory drink, once my hands stopped shaking!

At the top we also met some of the local wildlife: rock hyraxes (aka dassies). It was nice to see something besides the baboons which were all over Cape Point. According to Wikipedia, dassies are most closely related to the elephant and the sea cow. Clearly:

That’s the Cape of Good Hope far off in the distance. Then it was time to take the cable car back down. Small problem: the cable car wasn’t working. Our options were to wait in the hot sun with no idea how long the car would take, or hike down for about an hour and a half. So we chose to hike.

We took the Platteklip Gorge route as recommended by the staff at the top. It’s the most direct path, well marked, and is essentially a 3km-long roughly hewn staircase. A very steep 3km staircase. I was glad to be wearing my hiking boots and have a camelback full of water and snacks. Did I mention more people die on Table Mountain than on Mt Everest each year? We tried not to focus on that and just enjoyed the scenery.

2 hours later we made it to the road and were thankful to call an Uber back to our hotel. What a day!

Between 2 oceans

After our 3 nights in Makalali, we headed off to Cape Town. Cape Town is at the top of the Cape peninsula, with the Atlantic Ocean to the west and the Indian Ocean to the east. We spent a day driving the 2 coasts. 

First stop: Boulders Beach on the Indian Ocean side. This beach is home to one of the largest populations of African penguins. 

Fun fact: they used to be called the jackass penguin because they bray like donkeys. You can literally walk among them as they lay there sunning themselves. 

After lunch, it was off to the Cape of Good Hope, where the 2 oceans meet. These baboons have a fabulous view of the Cape:

We hiked between Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope, starting at the Cape Point lighthouse. 

As you might imagine, the hike along the cliffs was quite windy. Thankfully the wind was blowing towards the land rather than threatening to blow us off the cliffs and into the sea. Grimbil rated the wind as not as bad as the Isle of Skye, but almost as strong as the Cliffs of Mohr. Still, we made it!

A more typical bull

Remember Steve the super-chilled out elephant? Well, while we were in Makalali we met a more typical musth-y bull. 

We saw him several times over our 3 days. The first time he was still pretty relaxed and just kept eating. The only way we knew he was in musth was the distinct smell. 

The next time we saw him, still no big deal. Loderick explained that the rest of the elephants were in the south of the reserve, so unless this bull started walking he was going to stay lonely. 

But the third time we saw him he was starting to get cranky. He was eating some trees and then huffed with his trunk, did a 180, and then glared at us. And then started walking straight towards our vehicle. 

Loderick simply backed out of the way and all was well, but it was definitely a different experience than watching Steve. 

When a bull gets fully into musth he actually starts to swagger, leaning side to side as he walks and draping his trunk over his tusks. This bull wasn’t quite there yet but give him a few days and he’ll be full on. 

Food chain

Kaizer and Loderick tracked down a pride of 10 lions that were enjoying a post-meal snooze. They perked up when we arrived.

That’s a subadult male in front. His mane is still growing in, he’s about 3 or 4 years old. One of the females was prowling around while everyone else lounged. 

The reason? A couple of spotted hyena were circling the lions’ kill. The lioness eventually settled down for a nap, which meant the hyenas could grab a snack. 

When I was hanging out with the hyena specialist at Phinda, I asked if hyenas are predators or scavengers. He very pointedly said they are hunters who are willing to scavenge. These two were definitely up for scavenging. While keeping an eye out for lions. 

And then the jackals showed up to finish the carcass. I’m always surprised at how small and cute jackals are. I couldn’t get a good pic on my phone but here’s one from the interwebs, with a lion for scale:

Pretty cool to see the food chain in action!

Giraffe spitting

Last night at dinner our guide, Loderick, challenged Grimbil to a game of giraffe spitting. We weren’t sure if he was joking. Turns out he wasn’t. 

You’re probably wondering how one spits a giraffe. Turns out it’s the giraffe scat that one spits. As herbivores, it’s completely safe to handle giraffe poop. Case in point:

Loderick kindly went first to show us how it’s done. You pop the scat in your mouth, take a running start, and then fire away. 

Grimbil’s turn. Evidently the wind up is key. Ready, aim…


If you look at the top left in the pic above you can see the “giraffe” flying. We have the feeling Loderick was holding back and politely allowed Grimbil to win (though Grimbil did get good distance). Either way, to the victor goes the spoils. Loderick made this bracelet as a prize:

Mane event

We’ve been trying to see some lions in Makalali but they had proven elusive. Thankfully we’ve had some awesome rhino and elephant sightings in the meantime. 

But the lions made it worth the wait (and an awesome first lion sighting for Grimbil). It’s only the second time I’ve seen a full adult male. Check out the mane:

He was with a female from another pride (very Romeo and Juliet), and our guide said they are a breeding pair. 

They make a lovely couple. 

After a while they seemed to get bored/annoyed with our paparazzi act. They definitely looked like they were over the attention:

Eventually they got up and looked for some privacy. Still, an awesome sighting!

On the other side

Now that my time at Phinda is finished, I’m switching gears and experiencing South Africa as a tourist. Even better, Grimbil has arrived to join in the fun. 

As you can see from the pic above, one of the perks of being a guest rather than a volunteer is a definite upgrade in accommodation. 

We are staying at Garonga Safari Camp in the Greater Makalali Reserve. Makalali is quite similar to Phinda. They are both managed, private reserves (as opposed to open national parks like Kruger). They are about the same size and have mostly the same animals. Makalali even has a monitoring and volunteer program like what I was doing at Phinda.

The difference for me (apart from the swankiness) is although my time is more limited to see things, as guests we get priority at sightings. That definitely appeals to my inner princess. 

Case in point: remember that leopard sighting I had at Phinda? Today we saw a leopard and this time I had a front row seat. 

This leopard was incredibly chill and came straight up to the vehicle. Usually most leopard sightings are more like this (just the tail):

Perhaps Grimbil is good luck!

Darting my last cheetah

It’s fitting that Mike the  vet darted cats on my first and last days at Phinda. 

A while ago this female cheetah was seen with what we thought were burn marks on her legs. 

Meg sent a photo to the vet and it turns out the cheetah has mange. So we’ve been trying to find her again in order to treat her. A ranger finally got a good view of her, so we joined him and called Mike the vet. An hour later Mike was on the scene with his trusty dart gun. 

Whenever an animal is darted, they run a bit. You’d be startled too if someone shot you in the derrière. You can see the dart in the left side of the cheetah’s rump. 

The darts used for cheetah have a dissolving needle so they fall out on their own. 

Next we tracked the cheetah to where it went down, thankfully in the shade. Because the meds slow their breathing, you always have to worry about darted animals overheating. Given how bad this cat’s mange was, I was happy we didn’t have to move her to a shadier spot. If you look at her legs you can see why the Zulu name for this is “the burning sickness”:

Mike injected her with medicine and then gave her the reversing agent for the tranquilliser. We settled in to wait for her to get up. She was pretty woozy but eventually got back on her feet. She should only need that single dose of meds, but the monitoring team will be keeping an eye on her for a while. 

And with that, my time at Phinda was over! I was sad to leave, but looking forward to vacation with Grimbil at another reserve. 

New arrivals

Break out the cigars, there has been a birth at Phinda! 

We’ve been closely monitoring the lions of Mountain pride in order to gather data for a lion researcher who is coming to visit. So we knew one of the 2 adult females was pregnant. We also learned that the yearling cubs like to climb trees. 

Then one day nobody could find the pride. The rangers and our team spent 2 days trying to find them. Finally one morning tracks were found leading up a hillside. We drove to the other side of the hill to see if tracks came back down, leaving a ranger and tracker on foot to follow the tracks up. 

We couldn’t find tracks leading down, so we went back to see how the other group got on. We met them back at their vehicle and noticed they looked rather flushed and sweaty. Turns out they found a lioness in the rocks at the top of the hill. She “revved” them, i.e. rumbled at them in a very clear “get the heck out of here” way, so they beat a quick retreat. This is her sister but still, imagine getting “revved” by this:

She has split off from the rest of the pride, which is typical when a lioness gives birth. So between that and her aggressive reaction, the theory is she is denning in the rocks at the top of the hill, and gave birth sometime in the last 2 days. She’ll keep the cubs in the den for a month. The area will be off limits to all humans until she brings the cubs out. Exciting news!