Fernweh. I discovered a word that aptly describes my state of mind. Roughly translated, this German word means “far-sickness”. As opposed to homesickness, fernweh is an aching for far-flung places and a perpetually, insatiable desire to travel and explore. While the world is on hold, I reflect on the amazing opportunities I’ve had to fulfill my lifelong wanderlust. I delight in sharing stories and photos, as it allows me to re-live those travels.
My first overseas journey was spent in an extraordinary year in Africa in 1983 and 1984, working and traveling in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Botswana and Zambia. An African proverb goes something like this: “One who drinks from African waters will return”, and that I did in 2011, armed with an arsenal of digital camera gear. An absence of nearly 30 years, yet Africa never really left me.
Take a break from some of the shenanigans of humans and meet a few of my favorite animals. Enjoy the ride and some scoop on each one. The following photos I took from Hluhlue Umfolozi Game Reserve, Addo Elephant National Park and several smaller game reserves in South Africa.
Let’s start at the top! I enjoy the quirky terms assigned to groups of animals. A tower of giraffes is quite appropriate as it describes the group while stationary, and when they move, they become a journey of giraffes.
On my first trip in 1983, I hitchhiked with Tom through Southern Africa. In Chobe National Park in Botswana, after three sweltering days sitting under a tree, a Land Cruiser pickup rolled to a stop and the affable driver said, “Hop in the back!” We eagerly chucked our backpacks in and held on to the grab rail. We picked up a few other young “strays” along the way from Australia, New Zealand and Sweden.
We lumbered along rutted dirt roads, cheering with delight as we watched journeys of giraffes jauntily loping along, obliviously leaving us in the dust.
• Giraffe moms give birth standing up, quite a feat for our planet’s tallest terrestrial animal
• Their babies can walk within 30 minutes with their new gangly legs
• In Mozambique, overhead power lines have to be at least 39 feet (12 meters) high to permit safe passage of giraffes
• A giraffe’s neck can measure up to 6 feet (2 meters) long, so can their legs
• Their necks contain the same amount of vertebrae as humans (7), however their bones are extremely elongated
• Before mating, the male tastes the urine of the female as he tests her reproductive condition
Our Land Cruiser driver was from Botswana and had recently completed his studies on wildlife and tourism and he was training to be a safari guide. We were quite pleased to be his first “practice” guests. He happily stopped to point out wildlife that we never would have seen, as he eloquently described their behavior and habitat.
• Zebras can recognize each other by their unique striping patterns
• The plains zebra, the most common and widespread of it’s species, appears on the coat of arms of Botswana
• Their coat will dissipate 70% of heat
• Zebras will migrate up to 1800 miles (2900 kilometers) for food
• If a zebra is attacked, it’s family will come to it’s defense circling the wounded zebra and attempt to drive off predators
• It is thought zebras use their stripes as camouflage when they are together in a big group to confuse predators, perhaps like an optical illusion
• Zebras live in small, stable family units, consisting of one stallion, several mares and their offspring
• The zebra is not a picky herbivore, munching on a variety of grasses, leaves and young trees. As a result they can range more widely than many other species
Since hyenas are nocturnal, we were quite lucky to see this beauty in daylight in Hluhlue Umfolozi, where we spent the nights in huts. In Chobe, we slept on the ground with only a thin layer of nylon tent between us and very vocal hyenas, keeping us quite alert!
• Even though hyenas appear to resemble dogs, they have no relation, in fact, they are more genetically related to meerkats and mongoose
• Hyenas have complex communication skills, wailing, howling and the most known – laughter, which can indicate their age and status by the pitch and tone
• Hyenas are extremely intelligent and socially sophisticated
• Female hyenas produce three times more testosterone than males, therefore I females are more muscular, larger and more aggressive than male hyenas
• Hyena societies are matriarchal, even young female cubs rule over the young males
Our guide in training in Chobe, Botswana would drop us at a bush camp each night. Extremely basic, with a place to pitch our tents and a central ablution block with running water and toilets, yet to us, a five star resort couldn’t compare to our experience. One night I woke to a slight noise, looked out the mesh tent screen and made out a large gray shape. Suddenly realizing it was an elephant, I tried to whisper to our friend who was sleeping on the ground next to our tent. Turns out he slept right through the excitement of having that giant foot gingerly step precariously close to his face! I was surprised how stealthy their foot steps can be when they want to.
• Elephant herds are matriarchal, led by an older, experienced female. They have one of the world’s most elaborate and advanced social structures
• Elephants can hear one another’s trumpeting calls up to 5 miles (8 kilometers) away
• Elephants are scared of bees
• African elephants have the best sense of smell in the animal kingdom, they can smell water from 2 miles (3.2 kilometers)
• The African elephant is the largest land animal, the largest on record weighed about 24,000 lbs (10,866 kg) with a height of 13 feet (3.96 meters)
• An adult African elephant requires up to 660 lbs (300 kg) of food and 42 gallons of water (160 liters) a day
•An elephant’s pair of tusks may exceed 440 lbs (200 kg) and they never stop growing
• Elephant brains can weigh as much as 11 lbs (5 kg), more than the brain of any other land animal
• The gestation time of an elephant is 2 years
• An elephant’s trunk has more than 40,000 muscles. In comparison, a human only has 639 muscles total
• An elephant’s skin can be up to 1.5 inches (3.8 centimeters) thick, but is so sensitive, it can feel the smallest insects land. Their skin’s massive wrinkles and cracks store moisture from water and mud baths, to help them stay cool
• African elephants can deposit upwards of 330 lbs (150 kg) of dung and can disperse over 2000 seeds of diverse plants per square 0.6 mile (1 kilometer)
• African people regard the elephant with deep reverence, the Zulu, Tswana and Tsonga names for elephants translate to “the forceful one” or “the unstoppable one”, Indlovu in Zulu
• Female elephants have the longest reproductive anatomy of any land mammal, her vagina is located 4.2 feet (1.3 meters) into her body
• An elephant calf can weigh up to 200 lbs (91 kg) at birth
• Mouse sperm is larger than elephant sperm
• The greater kudu (pictured) and lesser kudu are in the antelope family and have stripes and spots. Male greater kudus have long spiral horns, which can grow as long as 6 feet (1.8 meters) with 2 1/2 graceful twists
• Males occasionally form small bachelor forkls, but usually they are solitary and widely dispersed
• Kudus are highly alert and difficult to approach. When bulls run, they lay their horns back near their shoulders to avoid overhanging branches
• The name kudu is derived from the indigenous Khoikhoi language
• Kudu’s coloration blends with their environment, to help protect them from predators. They are surprisingly quiet as they move through dense bush
• Kudu are known for their jumping skills and can easily clear a tall fence
• Mating season is usually between May and August. Kudus mate only once for 5 to 10 seconds
• Warthogs are member of the swine family, their relations being pigs, boars and hogs
• The “wart” in their name refers to protrusions on the sides of their face, which are a combination of bone and cartilage, which helps protect them when males tend to fight during mating season
• Warthogs often avail themselves of empty dens excavated by aardvarks. Sows let their piglets into the burrows first, they then back in, using their tusks to guard for any intruders
• Warthogs have been observed allowing banded mongoose and vervet monkeys to groom them, removing insects from their hairless hide. Oxpeckers and other bird species will ride along their backs, feeding on tiny creatures
• They have padding on their knees, allowing them comfort in a kneeling position to graze lower grasses
• Warthogs are very strong and smart. They are a rarity in not being endangered because they are skilled at adaptation. They look for food in the morning and early evening, but if they are being hunted by humans, they switch to foraging at night
• Warthogs have tusks on their upper and lower jaws used to defend and fight against predators
• They can go long periods without water, as much as several months during the dry season
• When a boar wants to attract a sow, he does a rhythmic “chant” of grunting sounds
• The flightless ostrich is the world’s largest bird
• Ostriches have no teeth, they swallow pebbles to grind their food, they may have 2 lbs (1 kg) of stones in their belly at any one time
• Their eggs are the largest of any bird, however they are the smallest eggs relative to the size of the bird
• The female incubates the eggs by day, as her light color blends with the sand around the nest, the male takes over at night as his black feathers are hidden in the dark from predators
• The ostrich has the largest eye of any land animal
• A kick from an ostrich’s long, powerful legs can be lethal to a potential predator such as a lion
• Unlike all other living birds, the ostrich secretes urine separately from feces
• Also unique in the bird family, the males have a copulatory organ, which is retractable
• A male ostrich (cock) attracts a female (hen) with his array of alternating wing beats. They perform a mating ritual and the cock excitedly flaps his wings again and start poking the ground with his bill. He clears a nest on the ground with his wing flaps, and the hen runs circles around him with lowered wings, he then winds his head down in a spiral motion. The hen drops to the ground and he will mount her for copulation
• Black and white rhinoceroses are both, in fact, gray
• Their horns are made of keratin – the same protein that forms the the basis of a human’s hair and fingernails
• Rhinoceroses eyesight is poor, however their hearing is acute and they have a keen sense of smell
• Rhinoceroses can often be seen having a mud bath, protecting their skin to keep cool and rid themselves of parasites
• Rhinoceroses produce many different sounds indicating anger, alarm and even when they are content
• Rhinoceroses lack teeth at the front of their mouth, they use their lips to pluck grasses
• They can communicate with other rhinoceroses through their poo; when they smell feces and urine, they can know who is in the area
• When a female rhinoceros comes into heat, the smell of her urine changes
• When a bull rhinoceros approaches the cow in heat, he has a stiff legged gait, dragging his back legs behind him
• The female may chase him off or they may gently spar with their horns. The bull prods her abdomen with his horn. The bull repeatedly mounts her for several hours
Perhaps dung beetles are not the most photographically sought after on safari, however, the more I learned about these little beauties, the more appreciative I am of their recycling abilities.
• Dung beetles are robust little recyclers. These impressive, powerful, hard working insects demonstrate remarkable behaviors as they bring ecological balance to the land by loosening and nourishing the soil, as well as helping to control fly populations
• Tumblebug is one of their nicknames
• Most dung beetles use the excrement of herbivores, which contain partially digested grasses and liquid. They extract the nutritious liquid which is full of microorganisms
• Most dung beetles are strong aviators, with long flight wings folded under hard outer wings. They can travel several miles in search of the perfect poo pile. Their specialized antennae can smell out a whiff of odiferous dung from the air
• Dung beetles can move balls weighing 50 times their own humble weight
• By day, the rollers set off in a straight line, using the sun’s light to stay on a direct heading. By night, they navigate by moonlight or bright stars with their ultra sensitive eyes. They are the only known insect to orient themselves by the glow of the Milky Way, like little nautical land sailors!
• The rollers make dung into round balls, some the size of an orange, used for food storage and breeding. During courtship, the male may offer his girl a large brood ball, if she accepts it, they roll it away together, sometimes she will ride on top. They must hurry before other beetles try to lift it from them. They find soft soil to bury their prize and they mate. The male then leaves to make balls for other females. She stays home and makes a few more brood balls and lays a single egg in each. She then coats and seals the ball with dung, saliva and her own feces and stows them underground. Some mothers stay with the ball, tending to her hatchling grubs and removing their feces, which leads one to wonder: who eats the dung beetle’s dung?
• The tunnelers dig down into a pile and set up their nest. Storing it underground keeps it fresh and away from the competition. One or both parents stay with the larvae until they mature, which could be up to 4 months
• The dwellers make their home on top of the dung. Their larvae slowly grow in dung that is drying out, while the parents harvest the fresh, moist goodies and they raise their hatching grubs in the pile of excrement
• Wildebeest, also knows as gnu, is in the antelope family
• African people hold the wildebeest in high esteem, the Zulu name is nkonkoni, meaning champion or leader
• Annual wildebeest migration is determined by weather conditions. They travel 500 to 1000 miles. Migratory groups consists of 1.5 million wildebeest, accompanied by many thousands of zebras, Thompson’s gazelles and other grazers
• The beginning of mating season, called the rut, is determined by the full moon. Territorial males, however, are constantly prepared to mate. If the cow is harmonious, the bull will repeatedly mate with her about two times per minute
• Females give birth to their calf in the middle of the herd. In a remarkable sisterhood, about 80% of females in the herd give birth within the same two or three weeks
Flashing back to the 80’s, riding along in a mokoro; a dugout wooden canoe, at dawn, being propelled with a long stick, by a young local man, we enjoy the serenity of floating on the Okavango delta waters, in Botswana. The silence was suddenly interrupted by a large splash in front of our canoe. As we rounded the next bend, on the banks of the river, a massive crocodile launched himself into the water. As my heart resumed beating, I fully expected to find myself in the jaws of this great beast. Our guide mentioned that the crocodile was more startled by us, but I silently begged to differ.
• Saltwater crocodiles are the largest reptile and closely related to dinosaurs and birds
• These amphibious reptiles have a complex heart and can change the destination of blood flow, enabling them to stay underwater for long periods
• Crocodiles have a powerful jaw and one of the strongest bite forces in the animal kingdom, yet they cannot chew their food as their jaw doesn’t move sideways. They swallow stones to help crush and digest their food
• Air temperature determines the sex of baby crocodiles. When the female lays her eggs in a nest (as many as 60), if the temperature is cool, most of the newborns will be female, warmer nests will produce mostly males
• Moms can hear their babies inside the eggs before they hatch, she then digs them from the sand and scoops her hatchlings in her large mouth to gingerly transport them to the water
• Crocodiles have 60 to 110 teeth. They can replace each tooth up to 50 times, up to 4,000 teeth in their life
• Crocodiles don’t have sweat glands, to cool off, they keep their mouths wide open, even during sleep when they need to release heat
• Along with some birds and dolphins, crocodiles can sleep with one eye wide open
• When the female accepts the male’s advances, they go through a mating ritual, sometimes for hours, often rubbing each other’s snouts and backs, twisting around, aligning their reproductive parts. Pairs sometimes mate several times over a few days, yet they are not exclusive. A single clutch of eggs often contain genes from several different males
• A lion’s iconic roar can be heard as far away as 5 miles (8 kilometers)
• Female lions do most of the hunting, while the male defends the pride’s territory. Traditionally, he gets to feed first on the fresh kill
• A lion’s pupil is three times as big as a human’s, but they can’t move their eyes side to side very well, so it moves its entire head when it needs to look in a different direction
• Lions have exemplary night vision, at least six times better in the dark than humans. A reflective coating on the back of their eyes helps capture moonlight
• The lion’s tongue is coarse and rough enough to help peel the skin of their prey away from the flesh
• Lion prides are matriarchal, exhibiting communal care for the cubs. Most lionesses in a pride are related and remain in the same pride for life
• A lion may sleep up to 20 hours a day
• Female lions prefer to mate with males that have the longest and darkest mane
• Male lions may mate up to 100 times in two days to ensure that the females of the pride become pregnant. Each mating lasts only a few seconds
At our bush camp in Chobe, we would meet for breakfast and share coffee and stories around our camp stoves. Two aussies hilariously recounted spending a good part of the night being held hostage in the ablution block by a Cape buffalo or it could have been a hippopotamus. Being a very dark night they didn’t feel the need to properly identify their large captor. The animal wouldn’t budge from the doorway and they weren’t about to try to escape until about 0300 when their new friend finally ambled away.
• African buffalo, also known as Cape buffalo is a large bovine found in sub-Saharan Africa. The horns are their distinguishing feature; a continuous bone shield across their head called a “boss”
• African buffalos are well known as one of Africa’s most dangerous animal, especially to humans. When hunted, buffalo have been reported to circle back on their attackers and ambush them
• Herds of thousands have been known to congregate in the Serengeti during rainy season. They are herbivores and spends much of their day grazing
• Bulls detect when a cow is in heat by smelling her genitals and urine
• A female African buffalo in heat gets the attention of bulls that are attempting to mate her by laying their chins on her rump
• Older dominant males in the hierarchy beat off younger bulls with their greater size and experience
• Impalas require water daily, often they visit watering holes during the heat of day, when it’s likely their predators such as lions will be resting
• When a herd of impalas feel threatened, they leap and scatter in different directions to confound the predator
• Impalas are rarely seen solo, female and their young (called creches) form herds up to 100, while males congregate in herds of about 60
• Similar to other antelopes, impalas have acute senses of hearing, sight and smell. They have glands on their heels that contain scents, when released by a high kick of their hind legs, the herd can communicate to stay together
• Impalas are terrific jumpers, when running from predators they jump over obstacles and can leap more than three times their height
• The sex ratio among impala is weighed in favor of females, with twice as many females calves born each year
This gorgeous cat was in a wildlife rehabilitation clinic, soon to be released back to its wild environment. I was fortunate to be able to be so close, yet pretty happy there was a fence. I’ve had the good fortune to witness cheetahs and leopards on exhilarating night drives in game parks.
• Much like a boat rudder, cheetahs use their muscular tails to steer and balance the trajectory of their run, which helps them maneuver swiftly as they run at high speeds chasing prey
• Holding the distinction of being the fastest land animal on earth, their impressive top speed can reach 70 mph ( 113 kph) in just a few seconds
• Cheetahs have between 2,000 and 3,000 spots in their short, coarse fur, providing camouflage when stalking prey
• During a chase for prey, a cheetah can take 150 breaths per minute
• Cheetahs are not designed to be fighters, they eat quickly before they give up their catch if approached by more aggressive animals, such as lions, leopards and hyenas
• Males are often rebuffed on their first attempts at mating. After time, when the female becomes receptive, she invites copulation by crouching in front of a male, he mounts her from behind as he bites her neck. Mating is not as frequent as in other cats
Back aboard that mokoro canoe on the Okavango Delta, after we escaped the teeth of the crocodile, we continued to meander the waterways. Perhaps we veered a bit too close to the shoreside tules, and unbeknownst to us, the territory of a very large, and un-neighborly hippopotamus. The tules suddenly parted, and I found myself staring down the throat of his unbelievably large mouth. My breath went away as I tried to remain calm. I glanced back at our stalwart young boat guide as he propelled us at record speed. Whatever the reason that hippo had for not chomping the canoe in half, I am grateful. Hippopotamuses still remain at the top of my favorites, just don’t mess with their land!
• The closest relative of the hippopotamus are cetaceans such as whales and dolphins!
• The Tswana name for hippopotamus is kubu, meaning “rebelliousness”, they are regarded as a symbol of uncontrollability and unruliness
• Hippopotamuses have a built in set of “goggles”, a clear membrane that helps protect their eyes
• If threatened, the hippopotamus can be extremely aggressive. They are known to be one of the most dangerous African animals to humans
• Hippopotamuses can eat more than 80 lbs (40 kg) of vegetation in one night
• They live in bloats of around 10 to 20 females and one male, each bloat being territorial
• The herd bull hippopotamus marks his territory by splattering dung onto rocks and bushes
• Hippopotamuses maneuver quite gracefully underwater
• The dominant male mates with the female hippopotamus totally submerged.
• Hippopotamuses are the only African land mammal that mate in the water
• Hippopotamus calves are frisky, indulging in play fights and pushing contests
• If the water is too deep a baby hippopotamus can use it’s mom as a raft
Last but certainly not least, who doesn’t love a barrel of monkeys! Flashing back to Chobe National Park, Botswana, under that tree, waiting for a ride, one day we made peanut butter sandwiches. We learned very quickly as we watched our loaf of bread disappear in a flash of fur and cackling, and as we watched the vervet monkey climb high in the tree, his little accomplice bandit squealed with delight at lifting our peanut butter from under our not so watchful eyes. Despite our hunger we couldn’t help but crack up at our foolishness and wished our clever new friends a bon apetit!
• Pictured is the vervet monkey, common to East Africa. Males are slightly larger than females and easily recognized by a turquoise scrotum and red penis
• Grooming is an important part of their day; removing parasites, dirt and other materials from each other
• Vervets spend most of their time in trees, they are highly adaptable and do well in various terrains
• Vervets use a variety of calls and they teach the “language” to their young from an early age
• Vervet monkeys have a social hierarchy system which determines feeding, mating, fighting and friendships
• Baby vervet monkeys are cherished in their society. Infants are of great interest to other young monkeys in the troop. Young females are delighted to groom or hold a new baby
• Being omnivores, vervet monkeys enjoy fruits, leaves and flowers, as well as bird eggs and they snack on insects and bugs. They have been proven to not turn down a freshly made peanut butter sandwich
I hope you have enjoyed the ride, fellow animal lovers. Nearly all the gorgeous animals pictured are under threat daily from loss of habitat, climate crisis and horrendous poachers that mutilate and destroy these magnificent creatures.
Africa changed my perception of the world to a degree that would change me forever. The more I continuously learn, I am always drawn closer to nature and wildlife on land and sea, and strive to find ways to help protect wildlife and their natural environment.
Many wonderful organizations help protect and conserve wildlife, the following links are some that I proudly donate to: African Wildlife Foundation (awf.org), World Wildlife Fund (wwf.org), Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (seashepherd.org) Simply buying and wearing t-shirts and hats from these organizations helps spread the word, a small way to collectively make a big difference.
Special thanks go to Steve and Valda Bromfield and their young daughters, Taryn and Lindsey who showed us the animals they grew up with in Hluhlue Umfolozi and Stephanie and Terry Gersbank for sharing their special slice of Africa with John and me in 2011.
Thank you to the interweb! Informational credits: awf.org, wwf.org, ourplnt.com, africantravelcanvas.com, softschools.com, google.com, wikipedia.com, facts.net, onekindplanet.org, factslides.com, lionworldtravel.com, funfacts.com, factretriever.com, jabulanisafari.com, andbeyond.com, nathab.com, rhulani.com, monkeyworlds.com, africafreak.com, 4elephants.org, kids.sandiegozoo.com, livescience.com, nationalgeographic.com, africa-wildlife-detective.com, brittanica.com, fascinatingafrica,com, smithsonianmag.com, facts.net, mentalfloss.com, factanimal.com, oceana.org
All photos by the author: Lynn Swycaffer Ringseis