Aegean Odyssey is heading back to South African shores in 2019, calling at Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Durban and Richard’s Bay, and we have a variety of voyages that offer the chance to get up close with some of Africa’s most remarkable wildlife – as visits to Game Reserve’s and National Parks are offered in several of the ports. In our blog today, Dr David Price-Williams takes us on a journey into the bush, sharing with us some of the history of our planets wildlife and how the different species evolved.

Zebra in South Africa

Did you know that not very long ago there were elephants and rhinos in Britain, as well as lions and other big cats? If we’d been around say a mere 20,000 years ago, which after all is geologically only like last Tuesday, we could have gone game viewing in the Thames Valley and seen not dissimilar animals to the ones we can see today on a game drive in Africa. Actually, we could have done the same thing in California also for that matter, where we would have seen giant sloths, huge sabre-toothed cats and extensive herds of elephant too. It must have been a very different world then, you might think. But off and on it had been like that for the best part of the last two million years! Millennium by millennium vast herds of deer and antelope have inhabited the great plains of North America and Central Europe, living among the pachyderms and giraffes of the northern hemisphere.

This is a period of time we call the Pleistocene, the ‘newest’ geological period, and obviously it’s the nearest to us in age. You might also think of the Pleistocene as the age of the great ice ages, because there have been more than a dozen of them during the last two million years. These are times when massive sheets of ice have crept down from the North Pole over the landmasses of North America and Eurasia. If you’d have been travelling 20,000 years ago up the M1 motorway in Britain or up Route 41 in the Mid-west of America, somewhere near Birmingham, or in the case of the US Appleton Wisconsin, you’d have meet the edge of an ice sheet over one mile high! But south of there, in what was then peri-glacial tundra, that’s where you would have seen these vast herds. Incredible!

Giraffe on the road during safari

So what’s happened to them all? Well, thereby hangs a tale! In fact, they’ve become extinct, yes, but we’re not entirely sure why. Was it overhunting by humans, especially in the US where hunter-gathers had only just arrived? Was it that the Last Ice Age ended so abruptly that these cold climate species couldn’t adapt fast enough, as they had on previous occasions, when cool temperate elephants and other animals had replaced the ice age mammoths and the woolly rhinos, only themselves to be replaced in turn when the next Ice Age came along? We may never know for certain. But the net result is that as far as the northern hemisphere is concerned, 10,000 years ago the Pleistocene came to an end, and we are now in a warm moist phase of Earth climate, the Holocene.

But that’s not entirely true of Africa. In a way, you could say that zoologically Africa is still in the Pleistocene. It still has a broad suite of large and small mammals, heavily pressurized by human population growth, it’s true, but still with us. And where they are found is the African savannah, a biome of grassland with trees. This thorn scrub stretches in an unbroken line down the eastern side of the African continent, from Ethiopia through Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zimbabwe, and Botswana all the way to the Eastern Cape – from the Horn to South Africa – getting on for four thousand miles of uninterrupted ‘Bush’. These impenetrable thorn thickets are what the old diehard colonial surveyors used to mark on their maps as ‘MBA’ – Miles of Bloody Africa!

But this is also TV Africa, with its stereotypical flat-topped thorn trees and open grassy plains. Amazingly it is an ecosystem that has given rise to the greatest density and diversity of large animals in the entire world. That’s why there are so many wild life series about Africa, migrations on the Serengeti plains and all that. More different kinds of animals, and greater herds of them, have evolved in the African savannah than anywhere else on Earth. But, most importantly, this includes our own genus, Homo. We are currently Homo sapiens, the Wise Man, (some would debate that) but it is from Africa’s savannah grassland that all our predecessors came, going back millions of years. This is where we too evolved.

Herd of elephants

When I first came across this piece of information, I was completely bowled over by it. What had happened in the sub-tropical savannah to bring this huge evolution in animal species, including ourselves? That, I have to say, is what I have dedicated my research life to, and if you come on one of the African cruises, I’ll try and explain it in more detail. But one thing is worth thinking about. When you take a game drive in southern Africa, you’re not looking at animals in a zoo. This is where they belong – the elephants, the rhinos, the kudus, impalas, cheetahs and all the rest. As you look at them just think. You have stepped back into the Pleistocene. Isn’t that exciting? Enjoy!

Our Winter 2018/19 cruise season is available to view and book now. Our hand-picked sailings that feature South Africa include: ‘Grand Asia & Southern Africa’. ‘Islands of the Indian Ocean & South Africa’ and ‘South Africa, Namibia & the Skeleton Coast’.