Alan Murphy
Australia AU

Alan is a travel writer and author of over 20 Lonely Planet guidebooks, including the guides to Southern Africa and Zambia & Malawi.

Category: Alan Murphy's Column

This week, Alan looks at the ins and outs of spotting wildlife. Some people seem to have no trouble zeroing in on distant wildlife. Others struggle to see a rampant buffalo herd bearing down on them.

I just love wildlife watching. On a recent trip in Kruger National Park I spotted two small possums in a tree about 100 metres from the car. My two companions were astonished, ‘how did you see them?’ Actually they thought it was a fluke – but it wasn’t, good spotting is a skill and it takes practice. (Ok, maybe it was a little lucky...)

I am always in admiration of guides who spot things long before most other people. But rangers, they are simply amazing, and are attuned to the bush in ways most of us are not. They are using all of their senses to detect wildlife hidden in the bush. Most of us just use our eyes.

Slow it Down
The first thing you need is patience...and plenty of it. Most folk not very successful at wildlife spotting, that I’ve met, are impatient by nature. You need to slow it down, remember you’re on holiday...unless you’re a travel writer...

Spotting is tiring...how can that be? Medically, I’m not sure – but it is! Concentrating on landscapes and looking for movement takes its toll. To stay fresh and alert venture out in short bursts – I’d recommend two to two and a half hours at a go. When your eyes are tired, you will miss stuff.

Waterholes are your best friend. Especially in places like Etosha in Namibia, which has a dry climate for much of the year. All kinds of wildlife gather around waterholes or at least make frequent trips. It’s definitely the best place to spot animals during the day. But it requires...patience...

Sweeping the landscape
The key to looking at landscapes in a bid to spot wildlife is to ‘sweep’. Cast your eyes from left to right, and back again going over the same ground and slightly newer ground with each sweep: start either in the distance and work your way back towards your position or vice versa. The sweeps should be slow and either with/without binoculars depending on the territory.

You’re looking for shapes, anything you pick up that doesn’t look part of the landscape. Ie, an oddly shaped tree or a rock that doesn’t look quite right. Closer inspection will often reveal an animal. Look carefully around trees giving shade from the baking sun.

You’ll have plenty of misses – rocks, bushes and trees that are just that. But as your eyes become attuned to the landscape, so your success rate will climb. It takes, oh yes...once again...patience.

And really it’s patience with a bit of technique, and waterhole commitment that separates the wannabees from the pros. And if you’re looking for a challenge, see if you can spot something before your guide on a guided walk/drive. Now that’s a good feeling...

Don’t be fooled though, there’s a good dose of luck thrown in as well. I met a French couple in Kruger who had seen a leopard a few feet away from their car, 10 minutes, after entering the park for the first time. Now that is flukey! Not jealous at all...

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