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South Africa wildlife IX: Ceres and Sutherland

Just before Christmas, Dave spent a week working at one of the big telescopes at Sutherland, 400km from Cape Town. I decided to take a road trip to meet him out there and bring him home for Christmas. I thought you might like to see more of the South African landscape and wildlife, so I documented what I could for you to enjoy too!

The drive was lovely and I saw some amazing animals along the way – baboons, pelicans, blue cranes, lizards, and various birds of prey and brightly-coloured songbirds – but it’s not easy to take photos of moving targets while driving! By the time I’d stopped the car (when I could), the wildlife had run or flown away. In fact, the only animal I managed to photograph en route was a slow-moving baby tortoise…  But the scenery is pretty spectacular too, and I did get some nice wildlife pics once I reached the observatory.

Sutherland, Ceres and Cape Town

This doesn’t look like a massive road trip on the scale of the size of the whole country, but it goes through farmland, mountains, and semi-desert, and both the scenery and weather change completely as you go.

Leaving Cape Town and heading east takes you into the Cape Winelands region (if you’ve enjoyed any South African wine, it probably hails from here!) Nestled between mountains in the middle of the winelands, the Ceres valley has the perfect climate for fruit-growing, and I decided to make a pit-stop there. Although it added another hour or so to my journey, it was well worth it: there’s a short but wonderful cherry season here in December, and going cherry picking has become one of my favourite annual traditions.

Continuing north-east, the Cape Winelands gives way to the Karoo – a vast, harsh, semi-desert landscape, and the largest ecosystem in South Africa. The trees disappear and are replaced by low scrubby bushes and aloes that can survive the hot, dry climate. It’s huge and empty and you can drive for an hour without seeing another car.

The astronomical observatory is located on a hilltop in the middle of a nature reserve near the small town of Sutherland. It has spectacular views of the landscape (as well as the night sky!) and it was wonderfully peaceful to wander around with my camera while the astronomers slept – they work all night and sleep all morning – and try to capture the surrounding wildlife.

Okay, enough talking, let’s look at my photos:

I hope the peace and tranquility of my trip has come across in my photos – having all this stunning natural beauty on my doorstep is the absolute best thing about living in Africa.

PS – I’m now enjoying the last week of our relaxing summer staycation. We’ve been visiting national parks and nature reserves, so I may just have another wildlife photoblog post for you soon, before I get back to the crochet posts…

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Sea Turtle Conservation at the Two Oceans Aquarium

A couple of weeks ago, Dave and I had the privilege of going on a behind-the-scenes tour of the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town. We’ve been members of the aquarium since we moved to South Africa, as it’s not only one of the top tourist attractions in Cape Town, but also plays a valuable role in marine conservation, research and education.

It was fascinating to see what it takes to keep a large aquarium running smoothly and regulate the conditions in each tank to keep all the animals healthy and happy! We also got to see the massive new exhibit – currently under construction – with its ambitious size and walk-through tunnel, it’s going to be spectacular when it’s complete.

But the most exciting part for me was getting to see some of the sea turtle rescue work the aquarium has been doing behind the scenes.

PlanetJune Sea Turtle crochet patterns

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of sea turtles – designing my big AquaAmi Sea Turtle pattern wasn’t enough for me, and I added the Baby Sea Turtle Collection last year. So you may be able to imagine what a thrill it was for me to be eye to eye with Bob, a gorgeous green sea turtle. But it’s even more special when you know the story that led to this being possible…

Bob’s Story

Cape Town is located in cold ocean waters, but close to the warm Indian Ocean and the warm currents coming down from the north. Every year, many sea turtle hatchlings and a few larger turtles are swept up on Cape Town’s beaches, cold, weak, and sometimes badly injured. Without help, they couldn’t survive.

Bob, the green sea turtle I’m enjoying a special moment with in the photo below, appears to be happy, energetic, and almost ready to return to the ocean. But he’s had a harrowing journey to reach this point.

me and Bob!

Bob the turtle was brought into the aquarium last November in terrible condition. His shell was fractured, and he couldn’t dive (hence the name ‘Bob’, as he could only bob on the surface of the water). Poor Bob developed a brain infection that caused him to go blind, and eventually it was discovered that he’d also eaten some balloons and other plastic debris – mistaking them for his jellyfish food as they floated in the sea – and the plastic had become stuck in his guts.

After many months of intensive care including a CT scan and daily tube feeding (read all about it on the aquarium’s blog), Bob’s injuries are all healing and his eyesight has returned. As you can see from my photos, he looks healthy and happy, and he should be able to be released back into the wild in due course!

It’s a very happy ending to such a horrible story, and it’s a testament to the staff and on-site vet at the aquarium whose efforts have made Bob’s recovery possible.

Help Save Sea Turtles

The Two Oceans Aquarium has rescued over 200 stranded and injured sea turtles this year alone, including many loggerheads, some greens, hawksbills, and even an olive ridley. The aquarium is the only local facility equipped to house and care for them.

All 7 species of sea turtle are endangered, so this conservation work the aquarium is doing has a critical purpose: to rehabilitate the turtle hatchlings and injured larger turtles so they can be released back into the wild in warmer waters and given a second chance at a life in the wild.

Caring for these turtles takes time and money, and I’d like to ask you to consider making a contribution to the Two Oceans Aquarium conservation fund, so the aquarium can continue to do such valuable work in ensuring that there will continue to be beautiful sea turtles swimming in our oceans in the future.

Note: The current South African economic crisis actually works in our favour here (at least something good can come out of it!) as a few dollars will go a long way here at the moment. It takes R500 to pay for the care and eventual release of a single sea turtle hatchling, but at current exchange rates, that’s only about $36 (or £24), so even a small donation will make a big difference (the minimum donation amount of R25 would cost you less than $2)!

I’d love it if you’d consider joining me in supporting this very worthy cause. Click here to send your donation – 100% of the funds will be used for conservation.

If you leave a comment to say you’ve donated, I’ll reply to thank you personally, but, either way, I, the tireless staff at the Two Oceans Aquarium, and all the baby sea turtles send you our thanks!

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South Africa wildlife VIII: Safari!

We’ve lived in South Africa for over 4 years, and still hadn’t been on a safari… Until last week, that is!

We planned to go to the Kruger National Park (one of the best places in the world to see wild African wildlife) this year, but my recovery after the knee surgery has taken a lot longer than expected, and I’m not up to being quite that adventurous just yet, so we’ve to start small(er) and work our way up to Kruger. There are smaller private game reserves that are much closer to home. We decided to visit the closest one, Aquila, for a day trip, as it’s just a 2 hour drive from Cape Town into the wilds of the Karoo.

Game reserves are nothing like ‘safari parks’ you may have visited elsewhere in the world, which are just open-plan zoos where you can drive your car through the animals’ enclosures. A game reserve is a wild area protected for conservation, where the animals (‘game’) can live wild and free in their natural environment, but safe from hunters and land development. There are no roads, only tracks, and the game drives are conducted by experienced rangers to keep everyone safe – these are true wild animals, and could be dangerous if not treated with respect.

African Elephants on safari
My favourite photo from the safari: these elephants walked right past our vehicle!

We headed out for our game drive in the 10,000 hectare reserve in an open-sided 4×4 safari vehicle driven by our ranger and guide. The Karoo is a stunning natural environment, and we saw zebra, hippopotamus, wildebeest, buffalo, white rhinoceros, lions, giraffe, springbok, eland, and of course elephants! It was an absolutely amazing experience and quite emotional for me (especially seeing wild rhinos and knowing how prevalent the poaching problem is and that these animals could be killed for their horns, despite everything that’s being done to try to stop the poachers).

Photo Gallery

I’m trying something new with my photos this time – I’ve installed a new photo gallery so you can see much larger versions of my photos. This page should load quickly with thumbnails of all the pictures (below) to give you a taste, so I can include more photos without slowing down the site. If you click any photo, the gallery will open and let you see them all super-sized – much larger than my previous photos (like the elephants above, which you can also see larger, as part of the gallery below).

I really hope you enjoy the larger photos; if you like the new gallery feature, please do let me know. (I’d like to update my previous wildlife posts with larger versions over time, if you’d appreciate seeing them too?)

This trip was an unbelievable experience, and (although of course photos don’t convey how it feels to have the privilege of getting close to some of the most amazing animals in the world, living wild and uncaged) I’m glad I can share a glimpse of it with you.

I hope this will be the first of many safaris for me in the coming years; there are lots of other private game reserves to visit, and I’m still hoping to get to Kruger one day.

Please let me know if you’ve enjoyed my photos (and the new gallery)…

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South Africa wildlife VII: Durban

Last weekend, I took the opportunity to travel with Dave, as he had an astronomy conference in Durban, on the other side of the country. South Africa is so huge that it takes 2 hours to fly from coast to coast, from Cape Town to Durban. We stayed at Umhlanga Rocks, a resort village just north of the city of Durban.


Cape Town is on the cold Atlantic Ocean, and Durban is on the warm Indian Ocean, so the climate is quite different. We’re in the middle of winter at the moment, and it can get pretty cold in Cape Town, but this is Durban’s weather:


Not a horrible place to come for a winter weekend break! And waking up to this gorgeous sunrise over the ocean was quite nice too…


While Dave was working, I walked along the promenade by the beach and hunted for wildlife. It’s amazing what you can find, when you really look. What’s that on the roof of that hotel?


It’s a monkey!


Vervet monkeys are common in Durban. We saw some from the car as we were leaving the airport, but I couldn’t stop on the highway to take photos, so I was secretly hoping I’d be able to spot one when I had my camera ready. I got lucky with this thoughtful-looking windswept monkey – doesn’t his fur look soft?


I also spotted lots of birds that I recognised as being related to ones I know from Cape Town, but different regional varieties. I had to look them all up when I got home, like this stunning Spectacled Weaver:


And this happy little guy is an African Pied Wagtail:


A sunbathing skink:


A handsome Dark-Capped Bulbul (the Cape Bulbuls I see in my garden have white rings around their eyes):


And Common Mynas, which I didn’t expect to see in South Africa!


I was amazed to spot this wild bee hive half-hidden beneath the leaves of an aloe:


And very happy to see my first Speckled Mousebird (it’s hard to see in the photo, but its long tail feathers extend right down to the bottom left of the picture):


But possibly best of all was when I spotted a pod of dolphins, swimming together in the sea!


Although my photos don’t really capture the magic, it was just beautiful to watch as they came up to the surface and dipped under again as they swam…


It was a lovely, if very short, getaway. My knee held up to a lot of walking, and didn’t hurt at all provided I stayed on flat, paved surfaces. So I’m definitely not up to hiking just yet, but I think I’m ready to cautiously resume my quest for wildlife. 🙂

And I’m also consciously working to improve my wildlife photography skills – I don’t know if you can tell that from these photos, but I’m trying! I’ll only ever be an enthusiastic amateur in this area, and there’s a lot of luck involved in wildlife photography, but I’m happy that I managed to capture almost everything I saw last weekend in a fairly pleasing portrait. I think I’ll keep improving with more practice and trying to be more aware of lighting, surroundings, etc.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my little window into some of the wildlife on the east coast of South Africa!

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South Africa wildlife VI: the magic of water

It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to sit comfortably at my computer and edit wildlife photos, so I’m easing back into things with an update of some of the everyday (but still special!) wildlife in my own garden here in Cape Town.

Today I’d like to show you the power of water for attracting and photographing wildlife. Giving garden birds a supply of fresh water for drinking and bathing is obviously very important during the hot dry summer months, but keeping the bird bath full year-round helps attract a wide variety of birds to my garden:

The local meeting place: laughing doves, a common starling and a Cape sparrow enjoying a drink and a bathe together.

Photo op! Olive thrushes, like most birds (except doves) have to raise their heads to swallow water, so it’s the perfect moment to snap a photo.

And sometimes things get slightly ridiculous – this hadeda ibis is a) not a garden bird and b) far too large to bathe in my birdbath… but he didn’t care!

I also have a nectar (sugar water) feeder to attract sunbirds – the African equivalent of hummingbirds, and just as pretty.

The female southern double-collared sunbird has brown plumage, but she’s still tiny, fast, and gorgeous!

The male looks very similar to a male hummingbird, in stunning jewel tones.

But it’s not just sunbirds who appreciate the nectar (and fight over it)…

Cape weaver enjoying a sweet treat.

Male sunbird (left) and Cape white-eye (right) having a shouting contest.

Southern masked weaver has a drink while Cape bulbul demands his turn.

And water doesn’t just attract birds to the garden – by happy accident, I discovered a few weeks ago that if you put a wet branch or leaf in front of a Cape Dwarf Chameleon, it’ll lick the water off it:


So now, every time I find a chameleon, I offer him a drop of water on a leaf…

Ooh, a wet leaf… 


So much fun! (And much easier than trying to catch grasshoppers to feed to them…)

I had another happy discovery this weekend. I’m trying to make a wildlife area at the bottom of the garden, but my new indigenous plants need some extra water to help them get settled in, so I turned on the sprinkler and sat outside for a while….

wildlife enjoying water in my garden
Just sprinkling the garden…

Almost immediately, over a dozen Cape White-Eyes flew in and started hopping from branch to branch under the spray of the sprinkler, fluffing up their feathers, preening, shaking, and enjoying a good shower:

Fluffy white-eyes!

Luckily I have a good zoom on my new camera, as white-eyes are tiny and these were down at the very bottom of the garden, but I managed to get a little video for you to enjoy:

For the best experience, play the video at Full 1080p HD quality and fullscreen it.

Aren’t they sweet?

I hope you enjoyed another glimpse into my local wildlife – I’ll have more to share with you once I’ve had a chance to go through the past few months of photos. 🙂

And if you’d like to encourage more wildlife into your own garden, I suggest adding a bird bath, a pond, or a water feature – it really works!

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    June Gilbank

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