Posted by: tim ellis | July 20, 2016

Svalbard – Wednesday 20th July 2016 – Nordkapp

Sami Camp

We wake up to a bright sunny day in the harbour of Skarsvag, the northernmost fishing village in Europe. We ferry ashore in the Zodiacs, for what we are told will be the only dry landing of the voyage. Then a trip by bus, to a Sami camp, where we meet Lars, his mother Anna, and their Reindeer. (Lars has two rules. First, don’t touch the Reindeer, as she is shy. Second, don’t touch Anna, as she is also shy!). The camp offers us a chance to see the traditional costumes, shelters, reindeer and gift shop of the inhabitants of Northern Scandinavia.


From here we continue to Nordkapp itself, where in addition to the large Globe which we could see from the ship on our approach yesterday, there are a couple of other monuments, and a visitor’s centre. The Centre contains a museum, film shows, the northernmost chapel in Europe, the “Kings View” (which just looks out onto the ocean) and, of course, a gift shop (which we have to wait to open). It is quite windy up there, and 3-4 o colder than down in the harbour (9 oC rather than 12-13 oC)

Children of the Earth

This same wind makes for much choppier seas when we set sail over lunch, and the boat soon gets quite rocky added to which the skies cloud over and there is quite a bit of spray. I am coping well with this, until I move, at which time I start to feel queasy and retreat to bed. Spool, stays out much longer than I do, but feels no better, and is finally forced indoors too. We both skip dinner – apparently only 18 people actually made it!

Posted by: tim ellis | July 19, 2016

Svalbard – Tuesday 19th July 2016 – Hammerfest

Hammerfest Harbour

We encounter some quite choppy seas overnight. I am fine but Spook copes less well. Morning finds us at anchor in a sheltered bay off Hammerfest (Which despite the name is not a Heavy Metal music festival, but a small town made good from oil) which gives him time to recover. We are here as one of the expedition team was taken ill in the night and has gone to be checked out at the hospital (she does not manage to recover in time to rejoin the ship). It also gives the sole person whose suitcase did not make it to Tromso chance to replace a few essentials

The weather is sunny and 9 oC though a bit breezy at the front of the ship. Breakfast is followed by a chance to explore the ship (it’s not always obvious how to get from one bit of deck to another) before the expedition briefing. Hannah, the expedition leader assures us her zoology degree studying parasites in mountain gorillas has left her perfectly equipped for the job (her 17 years of experience is just a bonus!)

Following on from the briefings we have a “boots and parka” exchange – despite everyone having requested the correct size, the items left in peoples’ cabins appear to be somewhat random – Spook and I have a Medium and a Small parka – which neither describes nor fits either of us. We finally set sail shortly before lunch heading for Nordkapp, via the Northernmost Gannet Colony (or it was, before the Gannets started to reach Bear Island last year) where we will take a Zodiac Cruise.


We eat our lunch on the deck – which proves to be a good move when we spot 3 dolphins (probably White Beaked Dolphins?) They only made a fleeting appearance, though so have gone again before we can get photos.

We see Gannets, Puffins, Razorbills and Guillemots as we approach the launch point, then a low rock with nesting Cormorant. I think I spot a Seal in the water near this rock. Once we are in the Zodiacs and able to approach closer it becomes very apparent that there are several here – both Grey and Harbour Seal, all very inquisitive as to what we are doing in their bit of sea! We leave them and head for the main Island, where there also Shag and Kittiwakes, along with a White Tailed Sea Eagle, which after a bit of observation turns out to be several White Tailed Eagles.


Once back on board we sail around both the very impressive Nordkapp, and the slightly less impressive spit of land that actually sticks out about 1400m further North, making it the true “Northern-most point of Europe”. We make our anchorage just in time for the Captain’s welcome cocktails and Dinner.

Posted by: tim ellis | July 18, 2016

Svalbard – Monday 18th July 2016 – Tromso


Despite hitting a virtual standstill almost as soon as we get on the M6 (a sulphuric acid spillage) we manage to get to Heathrow not long after our 8:30 target. The self-service check-in is not very co-operative, but fortunately there is a Noble Caledonian rep who is on hand to help. Apparently we have the last two seats (not together).

Security delays cost Spook his toothpaste and shampoo, and mean the flight is already boarding when we get to the gate. Despite this it end s up taking off half an hour late, although it makes up most of the time during the flight.

We have to collect our bags, clear customs and re-check in at Oslo. There is a self-service bag drop, which scans my bag, then does nothing and reverts back from English to Norwegian. Trying to scan it again just leads to an Error message “Bag already scanned – go to manual Check In” – More Queueing! (At least we avoided the apparently common error of thinking “Remove all old tags” referred to the one applied at Heathrow.

This time it is me who is held up in security, as they decide they want to scan the cameras separately from the rest of the hand luggage. Once that is done, we go in search of food – given that this is (a) Norway and (b) an airport the fact that 2 burger & chips and 2 coffees comes to around £45 is probably not as surprising as it might be!

I am sat by a window again (and next to the same couple) for the flight to Tromso – this time I am prepared and keep my camera to hand rather than just my phone. Of course this time my window overlooks the wing!

The weather in Oslo was good – not so much in Tromso where it is damp and drizzly when we get on the bus to cross the island to the ship. (The route is via tunnel so big it even has a roundabout in it – which the bus goes round one and a half times, just to confuse us!) It is dry when we board, but raining again when we do the emergency drill and lifejacket issue.

Tromso Harbour//

Although it is still light (well we are above the Arctic Circle) we decide as it approaches 11:00 pm we should turn in, ready for whatever tomorrow may bring, especially as Colin, one of the guides we were talking to advises us to ignore anything on the itinerary after breakfast, as it is all subject to change depending on conditions and wildlife. The aim is to see as much as possible, even if that means waking people up at 2:00 am if they spot a Polar Bear.

Posted by: tim ellis | September 24, 2015

South Africa’s Rare Mammals – Thursday 24th September 2015

Spotted Hyaena

A later breakfast this morning interrupted by the sighting of three Spotted Hyaena down at the waterhole in the salt pan. I am talking to Richard and Toby outside the office when we hear more Hyaena close to the camp – as we head off to see where they are, they race towards us right up by the chalets, then down towards the pan where they have a right set to, leaving one with a bleeding ear.

Secretary Bird//

Excitement over, we pack up and head back over the dunes for the final time to pick up our minibus and drive back to the gates and our second stay at the Kgalagadi lodge. Our current species count is 48 mammals, and our trip back, while encompassing Lions, Wildcat and Jackal alongside assorted prey species, does not yield any new ones. (Although we do have some nice Secretary Birds as a new bird species). Our last chance is tonight’s night drive, from the main gate, where Toby says we have a reasonably good chance of Genet and Brown Hyaena.


There are four other people (who are staying in the National Park) on the drive. As we set off we see the familiar Springhare, Cape Fox and Bat-Eared Fox. We also see three different owls – Barn Owl, White Faced Owl and Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl, but the Genets and Hyaenas are obviously hiding in a different part of the Kalahari. That is, until we are about 100 metres from the gate when we suddenly spot a Brown Hyaena in the bushes – the light reflecting off his eyes giving him away – as we watch he comes out into the open.

Brown Hyaena//

Posted by: tim ellis | September 23, 2015

South Africa’s Rare Mammals – Wednesday 23rd September 2015

Spotted Hyaena//

An early breakfast this morning as we have a “full days drive” in the river bed – so back over the 96 dunes we go, bouncing the breakfast down, and spotting something like 10-12 Kori Bustards on the way. (The first we’ve seen on the trip).

Honey Badger (Ratel)//

We stop for a loo break at the rest point where we were picked up on Monday, and then push on further North up the river bed, coming across a group of Spotted Hyaena resting right by the road, and as a second new species, while we have stopped to look at some birds we spot a Honey Badger behind us! (It just goes to prove you really do need eyes in the back of your head when looking for wildlife.) Some creatures we have previously seen at night are also in evidence – both Cape and Bat-eared foxes on the ground, and a couple of Wildcats sleeping in trees.

We return back to the pick up point for a picnic lunch. It is now very hot and we are offered the option of returning to camp now and going out again, closer to the lodge, later. We ask if that can be another night drive, and Andre and Melissa say yes, so that’s what we do.

South African Wildcat//

We update the trip checklist before dinner, only for the Cape Serotin Bats to emerge as soon as we put them away! The night drive is very pleasant, with Cape Fox, Springhare and Cape Hare. The most exciting part though is a particularly bumpy dune that Andre has to accelerate into, leaving us wondering how Melissa managed to stay on the spotters seat which is mounted on the front bumper.

Bat-eared Fox//

Posted by: tim ellis | September 22, 2015

South Africa’s Rare Mammals – Tuesday 22nd September 2015


A 6AM wake up call for coffee and rusks, followed by a brief drive out and a walk back to camp, led by Melissa and her fellow guide Andre – We have an excellent start, seeing both Bat-eared and Cape Fox before we’ve even got out of the vehicle. Along the way our guides point out various plants, and explain how the bushmen used them for food, or medicine, or other purposes, along with signs of wildlife (tracks, burrows, etc.) including a porcupine hole that is big enough for Andre to stand up in! We arrive back for breakfast, after which it is time for another walk, this time to the bushman craft village, hidden by a rise a short distance from the camp. As we descend towards the salt pan, Melissa and Andre spot lion tracks – more than one animal, they suggest, and quite fresh. It looks like they came down to the waterhole in the pan, and then went back up past the village. (The crafters do not sleep in the village, because of the potential danger from wild animals. They have accommodation in the staff quarters for their time here). The crafters are sat around a fire engaged in preparing beads for necklaces and bracelets from ostrich egg, porcupine quills and camel-thorn seeds, as well as using pyrography to burn pictures onto pieces of bone. They have several examples of their work for sale at what appear to be very reasonable prices and we all acquire souvenirs.

Yellow Mongoose//

We walk back, stopping to look at the lodges “resident” Yellow Mongoose, and are then free until lunch at 1, and a “sundowner” trip at 5 – or at least that’s the plan, but the guides discover where the lions whose tracks we saw earlier are resting up, so we have a mid-morning unscheduled drive to see them. A group of seven lions, probably all young males who have been ejected from a pride by a new alpha male. (Although Melissa thinks she saw more tracks leading away from the lions across the road, so they may be waiting while fully adult lions have gone hunting?)


Following an afternoon of leisure we reconvene at 5 for our sundowner trip. I head up early to get a coffee, only to discover Neville and Mary had the same idea and have just used the last of the hot water. More is on its way but seems to take an age to arrive – still I manage a quick cup before heading off.


We see mostly Steenbok until we approach the lions from the other side – they have moved a little, and it isn’t so easy to be certain that all seven are there. We watch for a few minutes, then leave them to move a couple of dunes away to a crest from where we can see the camp (and, in the opposite direction, if they stand up, the lions) for drinks and snacks while watching the sun go down, returning past a Bateleurs Eagle sitting in a tree.

Posted by: tim ellis | September 21, 2015

South Africa’s Rare Mammals – Monday 21st September 2015


A certain amount of confusion at breakfast this morning when Neville and Mary ask for poached eggs but were brought hard boiled ones. It turns out the chef isn’t sure what poached eggs are, but Toby explains, and gets the hard boiled ones added our packed lunch, so it all turns out well.

We haven’t even left the lodge when we spot a Four Striped Grass Mouse close to the track, and once back in the National Park, we are soon able to add Black Backed Jackal to the list, as well as more sightings of Whistling Rats, Ground Squirrels, Gemsbok and Springbok – including a very young Springbok lamb, still quite wobbly on his feet. Staying with the very young, we see a Spike Heeled Lark with a nest on the ground about a metre and a half from the road with two hungry chicks.

Spike Heeled Lark//

We also see two different Owls – Spotted Eagle Owl, (which we’ve seen before) and Verreaux’s Eagle Owl (which we haven’t) – and three different Eagles – Martial (two different ones at rest), a Bateleurs (which lands briefly at a waterhole, but takes off again almost immediately) and a Tawny, soaring above us.

Gemsbok (Oryx)//

While we are eating lunch, we hear reports of a couple of cheetah further down the road, but try as we might we can’t find them before meeting up with the !Xaus lodge vehicle for our transfer 30 km and 96 dunes away from the “main road”. Once there we are met by Richard, the lodge manager, who gives us a quick orientation briefing over a glass of wine, and introduces us to Claudine ‘The only Guinea Fowl in the Kalahari’. Apparently she blew in on a storm a few years previously and was identified as a male, christened “Claude” and has lived here ever since, only revealing herself to be female earlier this year when she laid an egg!

Our guide for our stay is Melissa, as she tries to tell us the program, the wind picks up again, forcing us to retreat indoors – this also means dinner tonight will be in the dining room rather than out on the balcony.

After dinner we go for a night drive, finding Wild Cat, Bat-eared Foxes and Black Backed Jackal – along with a Barking Gecko and a large Scorpion.

Black Backed Jackal//

Posted by: tim ellis | September 20, 2015

South Africa’s Rare Mammals – Sunday 20th September 2015

Vervet Monkey

It seems cloudier and cooler today, with more wind. It has obviously comfused one of the Rock Hyrax around camp, as we spot it up a tree! As we leave the camp there are both Baboons and Vervet Monkeys beside the road.


When we reach Uppington, we persuade Toby we should have a coffee stop, so we call in to McDonalds to get drinks we can consume “on the go” – Toby is happy to pay for these, especially when they tell him “Old people get free coffee”, so he only ends up paying for 2.

The view from my window

It stays cool, and the wind picks up as we head North, with a lot of sand in the air, making visibility poor. According to Toby’s itinerary, (but not ours) we are due a night safari tonight. We decide in view of the weather we’d rather skip that in favour of a (shortish) afternoon drive in our own vehicle. After lunch in a lodge largely decorated with Ostrich eggs, we arrive at our own lodge for tonight, just outside the gates of the National Park. It looks quite forbidding from the outside, but the rooms are excellent (and later on dinner is also of a very high standard).

Brants's Whistling Rat

After dropping off our stuff we head up into the National Park – there is even more paperwork than normal as the park crosses the national border and is shared with Botswana. The wind (and sandstorm) has abated, so we are able to add Brants’s Whistling Rat to our Mammal list, and Black Mole Snake and Karasburg Tree Skink to our reptile list, along with Giant Millipede to the invertebrates, and a number of birds including the Crimson Breasted Shrike and the Mariko Flycatcher.

Giant Millipede

Posted by: tim ellis | September 19, 2015

South Africa’s Rare Mammals – Saturday 19th September 2015

Augrabies Flat Lizard//

The restaurant doesn’t open for breakfast until 7:15, so the plan is to take a walk back up to the falls to look for the Augrabies Flat Lizard. This is somewhat curtailed by the lack of water in the chalets. I have just enough to flush the loo and lather soap over my hands, but not enough to rinse it off again! However I still manage a quick trip up, and am just about to give up when I spot a tail twitch in the corner of a large rock by the side of the path – success! Looping back towards breakfast I also manage to catch a Pale Wing Starling with wings akimbo displaying the pale patches that give it the name.

The Orange River//

We set off in the bus, with early sightings of Baboons, Vervet Monkeys and a lot of runners, as there is some sort of race going on in the park. (Toby says they also do this in the Kruger, where, no doubt the presence of the Lions encourages the competitors not to dawdle). We visit a couple of viewpoints which overlook the Orange river, where we find more Augrabies Flat Lizards and are able to look down on a Fish Eagle while incorporating a coffee stop. We are hoping to find Mountain Zebra here (It’s the only place they can be found in South Africa) but without success – we do see giraffe, which we hadn’t seen before on the trip, although they are a long way off. Much closer, and therefore more exciting, are the Namaqua Sandgrouse, including one couple with a chick.

Namaqua Sandgrouse//

Back to camp for an early dinner (5:00 pm) as we have a night drive booked at 7:00 pm. Since this a national park trip, we aren’t sure how many participants there will be, so we turn up early to ensure good seats, It turns out to be just the four of us, with a driver/guide called Richard. We tell him we are interested in small mammals but not to ignore any leopards he might find. The first few sightings are quite brief as the animals disappear as soon as they are spotted (including an Eagle Owl which flies away from it’s roadside perch. Margaret and I are on the right side of the vehicle and manage to see it, Neville and Mary are not so lucky). As we progress things become a little more co-operative, if not always close enough to make photography viable. However we see much closer Giraffes than earlier, some Scrub Hare and Red Rock Rabbits (another first for the trip, as are the Klipspringer) and, finally some Mountain Zebra – a long way off and well hidden against the trees, but visible with binoculars. Richard rounds off the trip with some Astronomy and local geology.


Posted by: tim ellis | September 18, 2015

South Africa’s Rare Mammals – Friday 18th September 2015


A long drive to Uppington, where Toby discovers the restaurant he planned for us to have lunch in has closed down since he was here last! A quick drive around town finds a restautrant/bar called Dros at a shopping mall. It is apparently a well-established name and indeed the food turns out to not be dross at all – and in plentiful portions. My kingklip and chips also includes rice, while Neville shares his pizza with all who wish to partake, and still has some left over.


We have asked Toby if we can get some fresh fruit, so he pops to the supermarket while we have coffee and returns laden with apples, oranges and bananas

Rock Hyrax

From Uppington it is another hour and a half to the Augrabies Falls National Park, where we are staying in some very smart chalets. We stroll down to the falls before dinner to look at the Dassies basking in the last of the sun before dusk. Then, after a meal of Springbok Stroganoff we go looking (unsuccessfully) for scorpions by the light of Toby’s UV torch.

Augrabies Falls

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