A few days ago I spent an hour at the Causeway. For those of you unaware of what the Causeway is, it is a concrete structure built across the Sand River that leads to the northern sector of the reserve. It is one of three major crossing points over the river, and the one that is passable for the longest when the river starts to swell with the summer rains.
The Causeway is full of life. Guides know this and guests who have visited Londolozi know it too. There are two major channels of the Sand River that flow under or over the causeway depending on the water level. Each of these channels are a suitable depth and have enough space to accommodate the third largest land mammal in the world: the hippopotamus. These animals are usually the major point of interest at the causeway. During the day, it is nearly guaranteed to find them resting in the water because family units set up and guard territories in the pools.
But it is not only the hippos that inhabit this section of river. Crocodiles and monitor lizards can be seen hunting in and around the pools or sunning themselves on the rocks and embankments. Elephants often walk over the crossing as they move through the river system feeding on the reeds and palms that grow in the water-dense soils, and splash themselves with water to cool down. Antelope species such as bushbuck, nyala and kudu favour the dense thickets of the river system and on the odd occasion one may find a group of buffalo bulls hanging about in the reeds close by.
Probably the most intriguing draw factor about the causeway is the birds. There is a myriad bird species one can find in this area; from weavers flying over our heads in all directions collecting nesting materials or foraging for food, hamerkops and numerous species of heron fishing along the rocks aside the causeway, storks, plovers, sandpipers, crakes and jacanas, to kingfishers and fish eagles, the causeway is bursting with bird life!
Knowing all this from past experience, I woke up early one morning before the sunrise and made my way down to this spot, just to watch the usual bustle of activity but to my bitter disappointment virtually nothing was happening! I had seen one crocodile and a number of sleeping hippo but pretty much nothing else. Although happy to see those animals, I was hoping for a spectacle along the lines of fish eagles swooping down to seize fish out of the water, pied kingfishers hovering with heads dead still and lightning fast wing beats, hippos tussling with one another, or crocodiles slowly swimming along and snapping at any movement near their snouts. I was not satisfied. But I told myself, to be patient, because maybe the scene would come alive soon.
Londolozi game vehicle driving across the Sand River surrounded by greenery
After about half an hour it all started to unfold. The birds started to get active, flying around and chasing each other in displays of dominance or displaying to reaffirm bonds between pairs. Some of the hippos started to irritate each other and a couple of young males started chasing each other around the pool. Flocks of yellow-billed storks flew over in a staggered line like fighter jets and came to land in a tall leadwood tree. Black crakes called out their bubbly sounds to one another as they moved through the tall reeds, and to my utmost joy a pair of pied kingfishers flew over, stopped a distance away from the vehicle and started hovering above the water in search of fish, just as I had imagined it.
These are some of the moments I shared over that hour I spent there:
I followed the tracks of this crocodile for a while on the road approaching the Causeway. At first I thought the tracks were created at some point during the night and that the crocodile had long since returned to the water. However, as I swung around a corner I saw it slowly meandering its way to the river. As the ancient predator saw me it looked backwards, picked up its heavy body, and took off down towards the water. As it was heaving itself away I had just enough time to whip out my camera and get a photograph of a different perspective – the heavily armoured tail!
This lone hippo bull was chased into the river channel by another bull. The two young males proceeded to chase one another around for a short while after I left them. Here he directs an intimidating glare at the vehicle. Hippos are one of the most powerful and dangerous animals in the bush and deserve respect and space. However, feeling more comfortable in the water than out of it, hippos are safe for us to view from the land rover overlooking the waterholes in which they spend their days.
This grey heron found a comfortable place to stand and do some fishing: a hippo’s back! Grey herons are seen doing this because the hippo dung (which floats around the bodies of the hippos in their pools) attracts various species of fish. The heron, like many predatory species, is clearly an opportunist. The hippo remains unperturbed, moving around in its pool as the heron surfs its back.
The marabou storks were a real highlight of the hour. These great birds are not commonly seen at the Causeway; the yellow-billed stork frequents the area much more than the other species of stork. However, on this morning, I was treated to more than ten marabou storks flying above me, showing off their almost three meter wingspan, and chasing each other off their perches in displays of dominance. Due to their bald head and neck, wrinkled and somewhat scruffy appearance, they take on the position of ‘old man’ in the bird kingdom!
This young hippo, surrounded by others in the most populous hippo pool, opens its mouth to give intruders a glimpse of the weapons it will develop in the coming years. Adult hippos possess a set of extremely large and sharp incisors and will ‘yawn’ to show them off to any opposition, be it another hippo or an animal of a different species. Hippos are fiercly protective over their family groups.
An adult hippo fires an glance in my direction!
This grey heron was without a partner and flew over to a pair of other herons to challenge the male (quite half-heartedly I must say). He was met with aggressive squawking from both the male and female in the pair and of course did not succeed in chasing the male or acquiring the female. He flew off in the opposite direction. The photograph grabs me because it displays the incredible flowing movement of the heron’s wing and the curvature of the heron’s neck as it flies over reeds and palms of the river.
Much like the marabou storks that morning, there were also many wonderfully striking behaviours displayed by the grey herons!
As I was leaving , a bright yellow object in my peripheral view caught my attention. It was a southern yellow-billed hornbill flying in to land. Unconcerned by my presence, the hornbill concerned itself rather with a tiny insect it had seen from a distance away. If you look closely between the top and bottom bills you will see the insect about to be swallowed.
The first hornbill was then joined by a second. . This iconic African bird has a peculiar and unique look about it. The hornbill, much like the hippos before, glanced over at me with a look a grandfather gives to a misbehaving grandson. Even though the hornbill looks somewhat grumpy, various African tribes believe that this bird was the bringer of joy and laughter. They believed this because the bird very seldom looks down, it is often seen looking skyward at the positive aspects of life!