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July 2004

This Month:
• A report on the "Sardineless" Sardine Run along South Africa's KwaZulu-Natal coastline.
Wilderness Safaris and Mombo Camp receive honors from Travel & Leisure magazine.
Kwando Safaris game reports for July 2004.

South Africa Camps
The Sardineless Sardine Run                Jump to Rocktail Bay Lodge
by Conrad Hennig

One of South Africa's most unknown, yet spectacular events take place within a scant window of opportunity every June and July.  International marine experts, authors and natural history film makers have described it as the marine equivalent of the spectacle of east Africa's Great Migration; as "the Serengeti of the Sea".  We are talking, somewhat surprisingly, of the "Sardine Run" which South Africans have been taking for granted all these years!  As a child spending every school holiday at the KwaZulu-Natal coast, I fondly remember the frenzy that ensued when the silver shoals splatter up on shore, and everyone with anything resembling a container shoveled up the bounty.  We managed to scoop up fish in shopping baskets and sold the precious bounty for ice cream pocket money.  We even listened to the local radio station that let us know which beaches were rife with "sardine fever".  Recently, though, rumors of "sardine run" conjure up different reactions.  What has the fuss been all about?  

As children and adults alike, we were watching the spectacle from the wrong side of the shore.  The terrestrial side.  In all honesty, except for the frenzy of the beach haggling, it was not all that spectacular from that side.  However, when one hits the surf and heads out to the big shoals offshore, that is when all hell breaks loose!  "Jumping jaws"; sharks leaping clean out of the ocean, super pods of predatory dolphins that take hours to pass, hundreds of seals following the bounty from the Cape's frigid waters and thousands and thousands of Gannets pelting down from above is all in a days' "game drive" with a difference.  And if this were not enough, the run coincides with Humpback (and other) whales migrating from Antarctica to warmer waters near Madagascar to calve.  The sea around the Wild Coast of the Eastern Cape literally explodes with life.  

If there is anyone who knows the most about the run, it has to be husband and wife team of Peter and Stefania Lamberti of Aquaviaion.  Together with Doug Perrine, one of the world's leading underwater photographers, they have managed to find the best footage of this extraordinary event.  Peter has been filing the run for over a decade and is seriously passionate about what an asset the sardine run is for South Africa.

The zenith of observation is referred to as a "bait ball".  It can be described as a super-concentrated shoal of fish forced to the surface by herding dolphins and sharks.  The fish have no means of escape and this "herding" is one of the only documented accounts in the world where dolphins and sharks work co-operatively.  It is a complete feeding maelstrom, and the Lamberti's and Perrine's incredible footage has been screened on the National Geographic Channel and BBC's award-winning Blue Planet series.  The culmination for the Lamberti's has been the release of their one-hour documentary "The Greatest Shoal on Earth".  

The problem with the sardine run is the complete unpredictability thereof.  Over the last few years the sardines have been on cue and almost predictable.  2003 was a different year altogether, in that a single bait ball was observed in the 7 weeks between mid June and mid July.  Not one sardine was seen on the northern Wild Coast!  Lots of grumbling was heard by the operators, the filmmakers and the tourists.  Just as bush theories abound around campfires about game whereabouts, I heard many explanations as to what was happening with the sardines. The most plausible was that a thermocline was preventing the sardines from surfacing- and that the sea temperature needed to drop below 20 C.  We were diving in 23 C water, even at 30m.  You could often see the oil on the surface, and even smell the sardines, but they had literally done a Houdini- disappearing act on us.  Not even the microlights, circling above, spotted any activity.  

However, more sinister reasoning beckons: could it be that foreign and illegal trawlers are scooping up masses of the shoals at night? The main shipping channel is situated not far offshore and many ships were spotted on our daily quest to find the sardines. Maybe the South African navy, with its swanky new Corvettes, should be used to monitor what is going on.  Possibly the government should do something legislatively to protect areas such as the Wild Coast and further northwards, Aliwal Shoal.  Both are worthy of World Heritage status.

The sea was alive in palpable anticipation of the imminent arrival of the fish shoals. The viewing we had on the 5 days at Mkambati was completely amazing.  We were in a true cetacean and shark fest, with no fewer than 6 cetaceans seen and an extraordinary 6 shark species in a single dive!  In a single day of being out on the ocean, we saw 30 Humpback whales (Megaptera novaengliae).  Other species seen included Minke Whales (Baelaenoptera bonaerensis), Southern Right Whales (Eubalaena australis) Common Bottlenose Dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) Pan-tropical Spotted Dolphins (Stenella attenuata) and Long-beaked Common Dolphins (Dolphinus capensis).  

The coastline is also incredibly rugged, yet scenic, with waterfalls plunging 200m straight into the sea and gnarled headlands jutting daringly into the Indian Ocean.  We were alongside one of these headlands about one kilometer off shore, taking in the magnificent scenery, when the shout "…..dolphins!!!" was heard.  Imagine this: we followed a school of approximately 1000 Common Dolphins for three hours.  They were so interested in us, playing with the boats, jumping clear out of the water; we even managed to snorkel with them, but they were so fast that it was like silver and yellow bullets whisking past us.  The Common Dolphin is actually not common and one hardly ever comes across individuals, rather they seem to school in huge numbers, and Peter and his film crew have seen super shoals of up to 30 000 dolphins following the sardines northwards.  Interestingly, the species has recently been split into two distinct species, and a further split is being debated.  We were also lucky enough to see Pan Tropical Spotted Dolphins (Stenella attenuata) and they gave us an incredible aerial display, jumping clear out of the water on numerous occasions.  To observe, and be able to photograph, a breaching Humpback Whale close to one's boat must rate as one of the highlights of my life.

The SCUBA diving is also spectacular.  I know of no other place on Earth where at least six species of shark are seen in a single dive!  Off the Mtentu River mouth, we dived for 25 minutes and observed Black-tip Reef, Zambezi, Ragged Tooth (Grey Nurse) one of the Hammerhead species, Black-fin and most interestingly Bronze Whalers, or Copper Sharks.  This last-mentioned shark is shown in textbooks to be fairly aggressive, yet rare.  They actually follow the sardine run northwards, but after the run, they do a U-turn and return to the frigid waters of the Western Cape. To dive off Mkambati without sardines being around is somewhat unnerving because you know that all the predators are waiting in limbo, with empty stomachs, watching you go by…

2003 will go down as a year where the sardines did not show themselves. However, on one occasion, the run produced a bait ball that will go into history as the best of the last decade.  Doug and Peter filmed, photographed and were awe-struck for a full 5 hours of predator / prey interaction in visibility of over 15 meters.  The corundum was almost too much to bear.  Peter commented that he could not have envisaged what so much adrenalin could do to one's body.  For five hours, the sardines were trapped by the surface, constantly herded and devoured by a never-ending mass of sharks, seals, dolphins, and gannets.

The Wild Coast of the Eastern Cape and the south coast of KwaZulu-Natal is where all the action takes place.  The government hopes that especially in the impoverished Wild Coast area many more tourists and filmmakers will visit the area, creating jobs, securing infrastructure and alleviating poverty.  Mkambati Game Reserve has finally gone out to tender and two privately owned companies have jointly won the concessions.  Wilderness Safaris has been awarded the "northern" section, and Mantis has won the southern section of the park. The developments are well underway, and both facilities open in 2004.

If the marine side does not draw visitors, there is plenty of action on the landside.  Where else in the world do you see herds of Eland, Zebra, Bontebok and Reedbuck with crashing breakers of the Indian Ocean as a backdrop?  The area is also a botanists' nirvana, with endemics in every nook and cranny.  The rehabilitation and enlarging of the park is also a priority for the concessionaires, and much behind-the-scenes negotiation is underway.  What a hidden asset has suddenly been stumbled on off South Africa's coast!  It has always been there though, but South Africans never really looked deeper than collecting and haggling sardines on shore. With the advent of incredible footage such as that of Perrine's and the Lamberti's, that is all about to change…

For more information, please contact: Conrad Hennig (conradh@wilderness.co.za) at Wilderness Safaris: 011 807 1800, Peter Lamberti (peter@aquavision.co.za) of Aquavision at 011 807 4900.


Botswana Camps
Wilderness Safaris / Mombo Camp take honors               Jump to Mombo Camp
The USA’s Travel & Leisure magazine, the largest selling travel magazine in the world has just released their 2004 World's Best rankings. This year’s results, which identify the cream of the crop in travel around the globe, name Wilderness Safaris as the second best tour operator worldwide. In addition, the company’s renowned Mombo Camp in Botswana was ranked twelfth best in the world, in the Overall Hotels category. With only nine rooms, Mombo is the smallest “hotel” acclaimed by the prestigious list.
To quote Travel & Leisure, “For the past nine years we've been asking the most sophisticated, passionate travelers we know—Travel & Leisure readers — to help us define excellence in travel by rating their recent experiences at hotels, on cruise lines, with outfitters, and more. This year's results are based on 425,105 evaluations, making these our most comprehensive (and competitive) awards to date.”

Wilderness Safaris was the only non-American company included in Travel & Leisure’s list of Top 20 Tour Operators and Safari Outfitters, who were judged according to the following criteria: staff/guides, itineraries/destinations, activities, accommodations, food and value. This is excellent news for Wilderness Safaris and of course Mombo Camp, who are delighted to have been recognized at this level and will continue to focus on creating journeys that change people’s lives.

• Wilderness Safaris was awarded the 2003 ASTA Environmental Award at the ASTA World Travel Congress. The ASTA (American Society of Travel Agents) Industry Awards recognise outstanding achievements in the preservation and protection of the environment, particularly as it relates to sensible tourism.
• Wilderness Safaris was also the first recipient of the World Legacy Award for Nature Travel, presented by National Geographic Traveler and Conservation International.


Kwando Safari Camps Update - July 2004
Kwara camp                Jump to Kwara Camp
• 1 sighting of a cheetah hunting but no kill
• A number of sightings of 3 different leopards
• 5 lionesses and 2 male lions on the hunt and marking territory
• 4 or 5 elephant bulls feeding around the camp
• Heronry active with egrets, marabou and yellow-billed storks and herons
• Good nocturnal sightings of hyenas and other smaller game including
jackal, genets and serval.

Lagoon camp                Jump to Lagoon Camp
• Guests were privileged to have the first sighting of the wild dog puppies early last week. There are 8 puppies in total – all jet-black
• The lagoon pride has been hunting prolifically and killed 1 giraffe, 2 buffalo calves and 1 adult buffalo cow – all in 10 days. They were joined by another lioness and 2 cubs bringing the total to 5 adult females, 2 sub-adult and 7 cubs between 2 and 6 months
• Elephants in small numbers due to water-filled pans keeping them west in the mopane woodland.
• Good buffalo numbers
• regular sightings of African wild cat, also aardvark, aardwolf, genets, civet and Serval
• One sighting of a caracal killing a scrub-hare

Lebala camp                Jump to Lebala Camp
• Very good general game – up to 100 zebra and 30-40 giraffe in a herd as well as impala, tsessebe, roan, sable and letchwe
• Few sightings of lions (= good general game) - pride of 7 seen –part of the pride of 14 that split up.
• Scattered breeding herds of Elephants – mostly in small numbers – water to the west in the Mopane
• All the buffalo sighted in the north towards Lagoon Camp
• Numerous sightings (every day) of 3 different leopards including 1 relaxed adult male.
• Trips to view the wild dog den occurring daily
• Another sighting (Lagoon also had one) of a caracal killing a springhare.
• Temperatures have been quite cold with frost experienced on 2 mornings

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