Journey through South Western Africa

SWA_3_Table Mountain

The view of Table Mountain from our hotel in Cape Town

After our wonderful trip to East Africa I finally finished editing and sorting my photographs. It made me want to go to Africa again so I mentioned to my son Robin that I would really like to see the Okavango Delta in Botswana. He said “OK, I’m up for it.” And the scene was set

I mentioned the outline of a possible trip to my South African friend, Carel Verhoef, during one of my irregular emails to him and he was off and running with the idea. He is a safari specialist and has a busy life in Kenya and Tanzania, but at the time was living in Cape Town, so it was to Cape Town we went to begin our journey. Carel also began to expand on my idea.  “What about driving up through South Africa, into Namibia and on up to Etosha National Park. If we want we can drive up to the Caprivi Strip and follow the Okavango River into the marshes. Perhaps we can cut out across the desert. We could stop in bush camp sites along the way.”  It sounded just the sort of plan I like, we’d be bound to experience some fascinating places and see incredible wildlife.

Above left – our two Toyota Land Cruisers  /  Above right ‘Setting Off’

The plan was to hire two specially equipped Toyota Double-cab Land Cruisers. These extremely useful vehicles have an aluminium body fitted with a kitchen area and gas stove. One of the vehicles carried a capacious pullout fridge and the other a freezer.  Solar panels were fitted to the roof to generate an emergency supply for both fridge and freezer with a solid state converter to turn battery power into 200 volt power – just in case we didn’t make it to the camping area. It was also useful for charging electronics in general and cameras batteries in particular. The lift up roof became a sleeping tent and on the lower deck a pull out section concealed another bed. Both trucks carried massive long distance fuel tanks and clean fresh water for drinking and cooking.  Chairs and tables folded into special places and ladders and shovels adorned the side panels.

Robin and I travelled to Africa by British Airways on the incredible A380. I’m a lapsed private pilot and love flying, but the A380 is a cut above anything with wings that I have ever travelled in.  We arrived in Cape Town and spent a really busy day picking up the vehicles and getting them loaded and ready, we were bushed (no pun intended) but enjoyed an excellent fish dinner and got to know our other travelling companions.

Carel had arranged to take his annual holiday and planned the trip accordingly and our little party included Carel’s partner Sally, his two daughters Lara and Mila aged 7 and 4 (a never-ending source of delight.) I’d not met them before, but followed their progress from birth by e-mail and telephone. Robin has two daughters, Yasmin and Isla, now teenagers, so we are used to the ways of girls and within a few days Rob and I were granted the title of honorary uncle. Sally, also a travel expert is, by amazing coincidence, the daughter of a Rhodesian policeman (pre Zimbabwe) and a long term friend of one of our friends in the UK, who was also stationed in Rhodesia

Stuart, our other travelling companion had already been granted honorary uncle status and the nickname “Turkish” after a character in a TV series.  He is a professional photographer, who has risked life and limb in some of Africa’s hottest trouble spots. Hailing originally from Essex, he now lives in Dar Es Salam. He and Carel work together on safari plans and design. Stuart proved to be a brilliant travelling companion with a zany sense of humour and his skill and talent with a camera left me full of admiration. Stuart, Carel and Robin are similar in age so I was relegated to my usual grandpa status.

Having been introduced to our travelling companions and the land cruisers, we began our journey through the busy traffic of Cape Town heading for the silence and solitude of the hot dry country that is the western side of South Africa – and towards the trip of a lifetime

Our first Camp Site and Carel, Saly, Lara & Mila at sunset

Journey to East Africa … continued

Left – Leopard – Top right – Oldevai Gorge, bottom right – crocodile 

The Serengeti is perhaps the last place on earth, excluding Antarctica, where nature reigns supreme. Formed during a period of intense seismic upheaval, which occurred at much the same time as the fabulous Ngorongoro Crater was formed, about 3 million years ago, the area was dominated by several volcanoes.

Volcanoes differ one from the other by the intensity of their eruptions, dictated by the consistency and amounts of gas and water vapour in their magma, or lava. There are several types of volcanic eruptions and those that occurred in East Africa were “Plinian” eruptions caused when a gas in the magma, the liquid rock that wells up from the earth’s white hot mantle, is suddenly released and thrown out in minute droplets with incredible force – similar to the effect you get when a bottle of fizzy water is shaken and then opened.  One of the other most common types is the “Hawaiian” eruption when lava flows like white hot treacle forming dense beds of solid rock as they cool.

The event that created the Serengeti was caused by a series of intense Plinian type eruptions hurling dust and ash high into the stratosphere. This vast burden of volcanic ash settled over the plateau below and briefly smothered animal and plant life; but volcanic ash is full of fertility and in the period between eruptions, something in the region of tens of thousands of years, plants and animals recolonized the plateau.

Several millions of years ago a party of Hominids, the primate line of mammals and one of our most distant biped ancestors, walked across a stretch of damp volcanic ash, which hardened in the fierce tropical sun leaving behind a perfect imprint of their footprints – as well as the footprints of a number of the animals that shared this developing landscape.  The ancestors of modern humans are hard to identify, but the footprints found at Laetoli indicate they had come a long way from their tree dwelling primate forebears.



Zebra on the move

The soils of the Serengeti are fertile but thin, in some places less than a metre over the bedrock, but perfect conditions for that master plant coloniser “grass”. Dense grass encourages large populations of grass-eaters, but as the rainfall pattern on the flatlands is somewhat inconsistent the herds of wildebeest, zebra and gazelle soon strip the thin soil bare and have to migrate following the rains and the new growth of grass. The herds digest those parts of the grasses they need and leave behind a liberal supply of droppings; manna from heaven for dung beetles, unwitting experts in the recycling of the herbivores’ leftovers.

One of the fascinating facts about grasses is their ability to resist grazing pressure in the long-term. The foliage above ground can be cleared by grazing and even by fire, but the roots and the growing points beneath the surface of the soil are protected, ready to grow as soon as the rains return; creating a perfect circular migratory cycle for the vast herds of grass eaters and predators such as leopards, lions and hyenas that depend upon the herds for their existence.

Elephants and hippos, giraffe and Thompson’s gazelle all depend upon the annual rain cycle too; and the gathering together of these creatures in astonishing numbers on the Serengeti and along the Mara River makes for the most wonderful wildlife experience. The Crocodiles that lie in wait may have not have had a meal for six months, but now, as the first wildebeest and zebra splash into the turbid flow the crocodiles close their jaw and propel themselves into the river. In spite of their huge size (many exceed 5 metres in length) they are masters of ambush with a lineage that goes back to dinosaur times surviving the great the great extinction 65 million years ago.  Lying on the sunny sandbanks, mouths agape waiting for the next meal, you could be mistaken for thinking they are dinosaurs.

My next trip is to South Western Africa……



Great White Egret

A great deal of speculation has been going on for some time in the scientific and lay media as to the timing and impact of a 2% increase in global temperatures, and this year seems to bear out the possibility that, whether by natural or human intervention, there is a blip in the weather patterns around the British isles and continental Europe.

Human beings, with their relatively short life span, find it hard to imagine that only 18,000 years ago the British Isles were part of an extended European land mass, brought about when the most recent Ice Age locked up a vast amount of water and the world’s oceans were considerably lower than they are today. A polar ice cap several kilometers thick extended as far south as the Midlands The mechanism for this phenomenon is thought to be a change in the earth’s rotation and as a consequence a reduction of the heat output from our sun. During this time there were incredible changes in the natural world with animals and birds in the northern hemisphere adapting to the intense cold periods, some of which lasted for several million years.  The last Ice Age was not one event, but several events interspersed with warm, almost tropical periods. Technically we are currently in one of these warmer periods with another Ice Age in the distant future …  if the pattern holds true.

It was during one of these climatic upheavals that our own species evolved and ever since we have been changing the planet to suit our own needs, especially over the last two or three hundred years.

Great White Egret

The event that brought about this train of thought was a bit of birdwatching at Summer Lees Nature Reserve on  the Nene Valley in Northamptonshire. I had arranged to meet up with a close friend to see what the unusually wet weather had brought in to the flooded gravel workings.  We had just settled down in one of the many hides when a large white bird flew across an area of open water and dropped down behind a reed bed. I only got a glimpse, but was pretty sure that it was a great white egret, confirmed a few minutes later when a little egret flew past.  Both of these birds were rarities in the latter part of the 20th century, but as climate change began to kick in the little egret in particular began to colonize the southern part of England from its stronghold in France.

The little egret is pure white with black legs finished incongruously with yellow feet that look rather like a pair of rubber washing up gloves.   The great white egret, about the same size as our common grey heron, also has black legs, but black feet and in the breeding season the top of the leg takes on a yellowish/red colour.

Like the little egret, the great white egret is a European bird of lakes and marshes.  They have popped up uncommonly from time to time in southern Britain and East Anglia as spring and summer passing visitors to the delight of the twitching fraternity, but during the past 5 years their appearances have become more frequent and they have begun to turn up in late autumn at certain nature reserves and lake sides showing every sign that they are not just visitors, but might fancy staying on; particularly if an egret of the opposite sex should happen to pass by.

I have watched these beautiful birds in various parts of Europe, but only occasionally in Britain.

The bird at summer Lees obligingly decided to walk sedately out of the reeds affording me with a brilliant view and allowing for no doubt as to the species.  Later in the day it was joined by another great white egret, possibly a female as it was a little larger… and the whole point about changes in our bird fauna  due to alterations in the British climate took on quite a different perspective.  Hopefully, like their smaller cousins, they will begin to colonize here. It would be a bonus and one of the unrealized benefits of changes in our weather that might make us more aware of the value of nature

East African Adventure


                                           Robin & Dennis                                             Bull Elephant

One of the joys of my work is the opportunity for travel. My wife is not particularly keen on rough and ready camping, she prefers a little comfort, and I can’t argue with that so when I travel to Africa I usually go with my our Robin.

When I was a small child, living in a tiny hamlet in north Devon, my favourite reading was a pre World War 11 Encyclopaedia Britannica, which I scoured from end to end looking for things about wildlife. Of all the places that caught my attention the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro crater came top of the list. The pictures showed men in safari suits proudly holding a massive rifle beside the dead carcass of some unfortunate creature. It put me off big game hunting, but instilled instead a fervent desire to visit these magical places that seemed only slightly less distant than the far side of the moon.

Life can play amusing tricks and having visited Africa as part of my work as a wildlife broadcaster and writer I developed an abiding affection for the continent, including the beautiful but troubled country of Sierra Leone; but, despite travelling to various African countries I had never been to East Africa until five years ago. A trip to the World Travel market in London to make a programme for local radio about foreign wild life travel, took me to the section on African travel where I met Carel Verhoef, a brilliant naturalist a South African who organises and conducts safaris. It was the beginning of a fascinating long distance friendship, which resulted in us arranging a trip using simple ridge tents, camp beds, a Land Rover and a plan that took us from camp to camp across the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Crater finishing up at a place called Lobo Kope a massive outcrop of rock a billion years old.

Lioness & Cub                                 Ngorongoro Crater

Carel and Robin, about the same age, have a highly developed sense of humour and get on well and both of them look on me as if I’m in my dotage – and they may well be right. We timed our trip to catch part of the mass migration of wildebeest and zebra across the Mara River with the crocodiles, true prehistoric monsters, waiting their opportunity to make short work of the weak and immature… But funnily enough, it was the elephants I liked best. I had never seen truly wild plains elephants before, only glimpsing forest elephants in Sierra Leone.  Like most people my view of elephants had been restricted to the zoo. I live not far from the RZS collect at Whipsnade, perhaps one of the  best collections of its kind, but captive elephants have little opportunity to exhibit the majesty of their wild brethren and after two immense four ton bull elephants walked silently through our camp site as if we did not exist, my perception of them changed completely.

Carel negotiated the typically African roads that led to the place I had so wanted to see since childhood – the world heritage site of the Ngorongoro Crater, a collapsed volcano three million years old, twenty six kilometers long and twenty one kilometers wide. We stopped at a viewpoint high above the crater and I tried to focus my binocular on the floor of the crater below, but my eyes swam with emotion and I couldn’t answer Robin when he said “Well; what do you think of than then Dad?”  It was more awesome than I had ever imagined

Naturally we saw lions and luckily lionesses with cubs; we saw leopards, hosts of gazelles and other herbivores and a bird thought to be the largest and heaviest flying bird, the Kori Bustard, an imperious creature that seemed to be aware of its unique place in avian creation. There are so many aspects of nature in east Africa that it was essential to make another visit and this we did just recently – travelling 6,700 kilometres from South Africa into Namibia and on to Botswana and the Okavango Delta; but more of this next time………………




Bitten off more than he can Chew!

One of the most important birds on the British and European List is great crested grebe; a bird beautifully designed by nature to live and breed, on ponds, lakes and reservoirs.. Brown in colour above and silvery white below with feet set well back on its torpedo-shaped body, it has a long flexible nexk and sharp pointed beak. It is the perfect fishing machine and one that played a vital part in the beginnings of that most famous and influential conservation organisation the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds – better known as the RSPB.

I had the good fortune to begin my working life as a naturalist as a member of the film unit of the RSPB; in those days there were only two of us and I was very much the junior partner – the membership was 10,000 and now it is over one million. The Society began in the Edwardian era when a group of influential ladies became concerned about the fashion in hats, or to be more accurate the feather decorations used by milliners. Hats were becoming ever larger and more extreme, the feathers coming from birds such ass egrets and grebes; even tiny humming birds were being killed for their skins and plumes, often during the breeding season when they are at their most showy. Greed and profit was driving some species to the brink of extinction the great crested grebe being one of them and their numbers crashed under the pressure until only a few pairs remained in the UK.

The story of the RSPB’s foundation and its meteoric growth is available on their website and it is well worth a look.

My fascination with this beautiful, elegant and, happily now more common bird began when, as a voluntary warden at a group of balance reservoirs in Tring, Hertfordshire, I watched them building their nests on floating rafts of water plants anchored to reeds. The striped and dotted black on grey chicks are fed on small fish caught by the adults by diving (making hardly more than a ripple on the water) which brings me to the point of my tale. was out and about with a friend a little earlier in the year looking for early spring damselflies and spotted a female grebe sitting on a nest. Great crested grebes are devoted pairs so I looked around for the male – usually patrolling his territory nearby to keep off intruders.

was soon rewarded by the sight of the male diving for fish. Looked at closely, they appear to fold the water around themselves as they slide beneath the surface submerging, as I said, without barely a ripple.. This is where a pair of good binoculars is invaluable; it;s almost impossible to guess where the grebe is going to surface so a wide angle of view is vital. In this instance the grebe surfaced with some commotion not far from where it had dived, it’s long pointed beak wide open with its catch which appeared to be a large tench.  The photos show that the bird definitely had “eye bigger than its belly” and for the next 10 minutes struggled to swallow the over sized beakful. It began by raising the unweilldy tench, presumably the theory being that gravity would help. .Practice however, showed that the fish was too heavy for the grebe to keep its head high enough. With a huge splash the fish firmly gripped in its beak, bird and fish hit the water and went under for a few seconds… impasse.The grebe kept on trying, but I lot sight of it after it dived again at the edge of the reed bed, so I never saw the outcome.

greatcrested grebe with fish
Great Crested Grebe with large tench by Dennis Furnell

We came back to the same spot about an hour later and there was the male – no sign of the fish and it is extremely hard to tell if a crested grebe is sitting lower in the water !!  Looking again at this exquisite bird with its feather “ear tufts” I am so glad the ladies of the RSPB succeeded in helping to change the fashion for hats decorated with bits of dead birds.

Great crested grebe trying to swallow fish  copyright Dennis furnell
Great crested grebe trying to swallow fish copyright Dennis Furnell

Spring Flowers


Bluebell Wood in the Chilterns
Bluebell Wood in the Chilterns

Gorse in full bloom
Gorse in full bloom

One of the delights of living in the British Isles, particularly England and Wales is the way in which spring surprises us every year with the astonishing beauty of the flowers.

To my mind the bluebell should be the English national flower and at this time of year it appears like magic to carpet the woodland floor with an azure mist that changes in tone from blue to violet depending on the play of light through the almost leafless canopy. Literally millions of stems topped with a drooping head of delicate flowers giving off a wonderful scent.  Happily these days people who take a trip out to see the bluebell woods (many of them found on the Chilterns and Downs) come to look and to photograph and not, as in the past, to dig up the plants and try to grow them in their gardens – usually unsuccessfully for the British bluebell needs the company of friends if it is to continue to delight the eye and the senses.

To my mind a bluebell wood in full glory with the first orange tip butterflies and brimstone butterflies trying to get at the nectar-filled florets is one of the most wonderful sights in nature…. But it is the bumble bee that is the master, or to be correct (the mistress) for all the bumble bees collecting nectar and pollinating flowers are female.

And it’s not only the bluebell that is delighting us at the moment…  Gorse, a leguminous plant and a member of the world wide pea family, is thriving in golden splendour. Like other members of this family it has a property that allows it to grow in the most unpromisingly infertile soil conditions by adopting a specific type of soil bacteria with a capability to take nitrogen from the atmosphere and fix it as soluble nitrogen that the plant can then use as food. In consequence gorse will flower at the most unexpected times of the year, hence one of my favourite old country sayings about wild flowers “There will always be love as long as the Gorse blossoms.” which is encouraging for romantics like me as there are always gorse flowers in bloom somewhere.  Indeed at the moment, on heaths and downland there is a mass of the nectar-rich, snap-dragon-like flowers of golden gorse, to the delight of the early bees.  If you stand downwind from a bank of gorse you can smell the sweetness in the air.

Two Tree Island

Wren-courtesy of Peter Willmott

Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes)

Picture courtesy of Peter Willmott

This week I travelled with friend and fellow natural history photographer, Peter Willmott, to the wilds of the Thames Estuary and the Essex Wildlife Trust’s nature reserve Two Tree Island.  The two majestic elm trees for which the reserve was named were lost to the joint effects of Dutch elm disease and harsh gales and these days the area is covered with a variety of bushes few of which could be described as trees.  The main attraction is the vast expanse of ever changing estuary with its food-rich mud full of shellfish and marine worms, crabs and a rare and precious estuary plant called zostera or sea grass – food for the huge flocks of Brent geese that winter here building up their strength for the long journey north to the Arctic Tundra where they will breed and raise a new generation of their kind.  As the tide ebbs and flows under the gravitational influence of moon and sun thousands of hectares of glistening chocolate-coloured mud opens up to wildlife like a well-stocked supermarket.

In winter the island is home to a variety of wildlife and the mud echoes with the fluting calls of curlew and chirruping tiny waders that run about like clockwork toys picking up tiny scraps of food. Redshank and oyster catchers set up frantic alarm calls seemingly for no other reason than they like to hear the sound of their own voices.  However, Two Tree Island is not just for winter or for wetland birds; the bushes and clumps of blackberry brambles hold myriad songbirds, some of them spring migrants and others that are local residents.

Peter and I were watching the birds from the hide overlooking the lagoon and the antics of pairing avocets sweeping their elegant sail-maker’s needle-like beaks through the water’s surface in unison.  Looking out of a bird hide with modern optics highlights distant events while other, equally important things are going on just in front of you – under your nose. Such a one occurred when a wren, full of the joys of spring and keen on defending its territory, appeared from the bushes in front of the hide, little more than a meter and a half away. Peter had his camera at the ready, but by the time I had focussed mine, the wren, fed up with waiting for me, flew off. Peter’s picture, however, is a classic.

In a week or so the Brent geese will be up and away to their northern breeding grounds, but for the moment, they are still flying in large flocks as the tide turns, filling the air with their barking, chuckling contact calls.



My First Full Blog

Walking with swans
Walking with swans


This is my first full blog, hopefully the first of many and as you can see from my picture I am one of the “grey” generation.  I live in the UK; I’m a writer, photographer, painter and sometime broadcaster specialising in wildlife and the countryside.  I’ve written a number of books and thousands of articles for newspapers and magazines, illustrated with my own photographs and artwork…. Since childhood I’ve been fascinated by our fantastic and beautiful world; by the myriad creatures, plants and landscapes with which we share the planet.

As a working naturalist I’ve had the good fortune to pass on my interest in the natural world to readers, listeners and viewers… And through this blog, I hope to be able to continue to share some of the things I come across, be they exotic or every-day wildlife happenings.

In the UK spring is making itself felt. Native birds like robins, blackbirds hedge-sparrows and titmice are setting up nesting territories and singing.  We are an incredibly fortunate species, we hear birdsong as beautiful natural music and the many different landscapes that we delight is where the majority of wildlife lives. The beautiful dawn chorus is actually a message to birds of the same species either to keep out because this particular territory is taken, or an invitation to a female that the singer will make a good provider and has a territory with food and shelter for the family they can raise together.  Spring birdsong in Britain is nearly always sung by male birds, mostly the females simply issue contact calls.

Nature holds is breath as the vanguard of spring migrants sweep up from the continents of Africa and Asia. The first sand martins and swallows have arrived on the east coast.  These small, seemingly delicate birds have travelled thousands of miles and will search out the sandy cliffs that  provide easy tunnelling for their nests.  The RSPB reserve at Minsmere is often a good place to see them.   Unfortunately for many bird migrants their mind-blowing journey will end on one of the islands in the Mediterranean prey to trappers and shooters who kill them for sport and for the table as they are considered to be culinary delicacies.

As I write the sun is making patterns on the hillside outside my window and spring is in the air – what better time to begin a blog on nature.

Dennis Furnell – now on Kindle!

Despite my advanced years I am now proud to say I am well and truly grasping 21st Century technology with both hands.  After several weeks of intensive learning/training/editing (call it what you will!) we have now been able to launch “Mammals, Reptiles and Amphibians of the British Isles” on Kindle

It can be purchased here for just £5.71 and have it downloaded to either a Kindle or even the Kindle App on your smartphone or tablets.

I’m really proud to have made this first step in publishing in the new world of digital print!

Let me know what you think?