Safari Camp Stories: Can you feel the love tonight?

I like to think of the Lion King as one of the great nature documentaries of all time. Admittedly there are a few things that Disney missed the mark on (I’m not sure I will ever forgive the damage they did to the reputation of the fabulous spotted hyena) but there are some scenes that truly transport the watcher to the magic of Africa. Add in a romantic soundtrack by the one and only Elton John and boy oh boy have you got something special! Getting to live in the real life version of the Lion King on a daily basis is a true privilege and it is difficult to explain to someone who has not been on a safari before just what the magic is. Having said that working as a guide definitely has its drawbacks. Our concept of a “normal day” is quite far removed from general society. We become almost inhumanely early risers because that is when the animals are roaming and the birds most active; and we develop an odd, possibly unhealthy, interest (read obsession) in seeing things feeding, killing or mating! A powerful combination to be sure.

In the general pattern of ground hog day you might not have realised that Valentine’s Day is fast approaching us, and with all that is going on in the world you might be scratching your head as to how to celebrate it this year. In the bush we are not restricted to seeing romance on just one day of the year and so I want to share with you some of my favourite examples of love being all around us and of course some unusual gift ideas taken straight from the animal kingdom!

A long and happy relationship is no mean feat, it takes a combination of a whole host of factors aside from merely attraction and one of the most important factors has got to be patience! On a safari you are given wonderful examples on how to show patience, when spending time with animals and their young. Some of the most memorable sightings are when you see young lion cubs turning their attention to the dominant males in the pride. From a lion cub’s perspective an adult’s tail seems to have been designed to be the perfect toy! Now if you are the owner of the tail this is less than ideal, a lion cub might have smaller teeth than you but they can still hurt. I find it incredible to watch when young cubs sneak up and tackle the big males in the pride. On average an adult male lion weighs between 190 and 250 kilograms (that is approximately 4,000 Ferrero Rocher chocolates, or petals from about 125,000 red roses in case you were wondering), and when properly motivated they can use this muscle to take down a buffalo bull or engage in a deadly battle with a rival male. However, when they are being harassed by their cubs they display a sort of resigned or exasperated tolerance, demonstrating astonishing gentleness towards them.

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Watch this wonderful sequence where a lion cub tests its parents’ patience to the max! ©Sophie Barrett

You see this patience beautifully displayed between rhino females and their calves as well. Rhinos are surprisingly social and where their numbers are high enough they will often be seen associating with one another, if you are able to spend time with them you soon discover that they have preferred individuals that they “hang out” with. However, when a female is about to give birth to a calf she chases all of her companions away so that she can dedicate all of her time and attention to keeping the little one safe. Rhino calves form incredibly strong bonds with their mothers and will frequently “talk” to them. This is a special thing to witness although you might do a double take to check that it was a rhino that made the noise that you heard. When communicating with each other rhino calves make sounds that could be mistaken for underwater recordings of dolphins or whales! Calves will make these sounds for a number of reasons, more often than not they are demanding milk but sometimes they make them when they are seeking reassurance, comfort or even when they want to play! I remember a wonderful sighting on a hot morning when we found a female white rhino trying to rest in a mud wallow and her boisterous calf was having none of it! The calf started by making plaintive calls to its mother and when these didn’t produce the desired effect she converted her mother’s stomach into a trampoline, in one of the most relatable reactions the female rhino’s only response was a long-suffering sigh! I suspect several of our readers who have spent the various lockdowns with their young children may well relate to the experience!

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The bond between a rhino mother and calf is incredibly strong, spending time with them gives you an insight into their complex personalities and reveals perhaps startling similarities with our own relationships. ©Sophie Barrett

Wild dogs can boast of one of the most complex societies in the mammal kingdom. Scientists have identified at least 11 classes and 18 subclasses of vocal communications alone that the dogs use to communicate with one another. In such a group you might expect life to be chaotic but the society is carefully organised. The pack is ruled by an alpha pair, this pair form a monogamous bond (and as we know bonding for life is often no picnic) and are usually the only dogs in the pack to have puppies but the care of the puppies is then rotated amongst the rest of the pack. With the beta pair taking a very active role in the early days and the “child-minding” then rotated amongst the rest of the pack as the pups age. Fascinatingly one of the vocal cues that wild dogs use triggers a regurgitation reaction in the other adults making sure that the adult who stays with the pups won’t go hungry. Amazingly wild dogs have been known to use these calls and reactions to care for pack members who might be sick or injured. This unusual species has found a system to allow parents to have time to themselves and to ensure that the family is well-cared for – definitely key factors for a happy “married” life!

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Finding love in this intricate society is no mean feat but luckily these complex mammals are up to the task! ©Sophie Barrett

Love comes in all forms and for me it is evident in few species to the same extent as it is with elephants. Elephants conduct themselves with absolute majesty (until, of course, they encounter water and then the regality quickly turns to childlike joy), so it comes as a surprise to many that elephant cows who are in oestrous (ready to mate) have been known to flirt! The coquettish female raises her head and looks over her shoulder until she catches the eye of the bull in musth and once she is sure he has noticed her she runs off so that he follows – a sure fire way to win his attention!

For animals that boast sufficient strength to bring low trees that have stood tall for decades, elephants move with a quiet grace and interact with one another with a tenderness that is humbling to see. When elephants encounter friends or family that they have not seen for some time there is great excitement; trumpeting and rumbling abounds, but my favourite ceremony amongst elephants is where they use physical contact to greet, to welcome, and to reassure. When a new calf is introduced to the herd they all gather round the tiny newcomer and, with gentleness that seems impossible for an animal that contains such strength, they rumble greetings and touch the new baby with their trunks welcoming them to the family. As elephants age you see a similar ceremony playing out when they want to check up on friends and family members. Spending time with a herd of elephants or even a group of bull elephants it is not uncommon to see one or other inserting the tip of their trunk into another’s mouth. This is a show of trust and a way to share your current emotional state, various studies also suggest that this is the elephant equivalent of a reassuring hug! If an elephant makes a trumpet of distress you will see the whole herd come running to protect and reassure the distressed individual. To see the speed with which these gentle giants rally round to comfort a loved one cannot help but bring a smile to your face and inspire the lucky onlooker to make sure their nearest and dearest feel the same depth of love in their lives.

Elephant Herd, Big 5

Few animals have so much to teach us about love as these gentle giants ©Sophie Barrett

So nature has some great lessons for us in terms of how to manage the joys and hurdles of raising young but what about reaching that stage in the first place? It must be a universal law that before you can work out how to build a life with your partner you need to work out how to win them over in the first place, and something that transcends species lines is the giving of gifts! This year I think it is clear that we will need to “think outside the box” for ways to show our loved ones the depth of our feelings and I have curated some of the more unusual gifts that are offered in the animal kingdom. First up are one of my all-time favourite “safari celebrities” – the humble dung beetle. There are approximately 5,000 species of dung beetle across the world so I’m going to speak in very generalist terms. The preferred nuptial gift or courtship gift that is presented by many male dung beetles to their lucky ladies is a perfectly formed sphere of dung! The dung provides the female with nutrients and a mode of transport (talk about the gift that keeps on giving!), for many species when the courting is successful the female will attach herself to the side of the dung ball whilst the male rolls it to a carefully selected location (usually running over the female numerous times in the process). When the happy couple arrive the female will lay eggs inside the ball and then bury it so that the larvae will hatch inside a ready-made food source – pretty nifty! Disclaimer: running over the lady you are hoping to woo with any form of gift will not necessarily achieve the desired result.

True romance – a Copper Dung Beetle industriously rolling its ball (and mate)! ©Sophie Barrett

Ok, I can see that it could be difficult, and potentially unhygienic, to charm your partner with a ball of dung so instead why don’t we look to the family of the weaver birds for inspiration. Many of these species (including the red-headed weaver, the southern masked weaver, and the village weaver to name but a few) have a fascinating technique to win over a mate. The female will be attracted by the quality of the male’s weaving. The male carefully selects the ideal nest location, taking into account proximity to food and water, anti-predatory advantages and, of course, the view. He then painstakingly creates a nest either by an intricate process of weaving together blades of grass or, in the case of the red-headed weaver, petioles (the stalks that attach leaves to plants)! At the end of the construction process he admires his work and displays to catch the attention of a female. If a certain amount of time passes and no females demonstrate an interest the male will tear down his wonderful creation and start again from scratch – the location is so perfect it can only be his craftsmanship that is failing to win over a female!

All good things come in threes so by rights I should give you a third option, but this time I am going to cheat! Humans have often taken inspiration from nature when making their romantic declarations (much in the same way that we have been exploring together in this blog) but rather than try to imitate the behaviours that they observed they instead used natures gifts to show the depth of their feelings. Often what draws human attention is something as simple as a flash of bright colour and there are few birds as colourful as the stunning lilac-breasted roller. As a result the roller has long been at the heart (if you pardon the pun) of romantic traditions in many cultures across South Africa. In the Zulu culture feathers of the Roller were used to test a couple’s compatibility for marriage. A chain would be made using the feathers and the couple would be tied to one another using the chain, if they were able to keep the chain in-tact it showed that they would do well working together and the marriage was agreed. However, if the chain broke, they were not compatible as a team and the marriage would be forbidden. In the Venda culture the feathers are not used to test compatibility but to declare that a successful match has been made – a wedding ring would be made from the tail feathers of the roller with the idea that the striking blue colour would stain the couples’ fingers even if the ring itself fell off so the world would still know that they were spoken for.

It is possible that even after all of these ideas you are still struggling to decide what to give to your partner for Valentine’s Day this year. Dung is certainly an acquired taste; showing love through the quality of your craftsmanship is all well and good until you are terrible with your hands; and maybe you are not ready to make a proposal (or maybe you have already done so)! If this is the case then do not fear, we have a final fail-safe option for you, why not book in for a stay with us? All you need to do is to get yourself (and your partner) here, then you can let us worry about all the romance; simply settle in and get ready for a safari of dreams, enjoy a change of pace and watch the sunrise and the sunset in the company of your loved one! (Click here to see our latest offers and special rates).

However you choose to celebrate it the Garonga Team wishes you all a very happy Valentines!

No two sunsets are the same but each one is infused with an undeniable romance! ©Sophie Barrett