Southern Africa March 2011
PART 1: INTRODUCTION AND SKELETON COAST, NAMIBIA
My March 2011 inspection trip to Namibia and Botswana was really good and very productive; I always learn a ton of new stuff, even when I revisit the same spots. I have been traveling to Botswana and Namibia for more than 20 years now, but it really never gets old, in fact it gets to be more fun and more exciting all the time!
This was my 4th recent Green Season trip to the area and I return every time with renewed enthusiasm for travel to Southern Africa in their summer months from December through March. Absolutely the best value for money, lots of wildlife with many young animals around, birds in breeding plumage and not too many other visitors (unless you include Cape Town!). Yes it can get hot sometimes and there is a chance of an occasional thunderstorm or two but these negatives are more than off-set by the gorgeous sunsets, ideal photographic conditions (check out my photographs on the link below) and the reduced costs of international air tickets.
The 4-night Skeleton Coast Safari in Namibia with Kathleen was amazing; the area is simply otherworldly. Stunning natural beauty, awesome geological formations, plenty of desert-adapted wildlife, a trip into the interior where we visited a small Himba village, and walking in real quicksand – the Skeleton Coast has all of that and much more.
I had an interesting time at Doro Nawas in Damaraland with very worthwhile outings to the San rock engraving site & the petrified forest but hardly any game there this time of the year. From there I went on to Desert Rhino Camp where I was extremely lucky with a cheetah and two different lion sightings, and fortunately black rhino on foot, albeit after several hours of tracking them. This is a superb camp which I would recommend for anyone visiting Namibia.
Then it was on to Botswana. At Kalahari Plains Camp I experienced an eye-popping San interpretive walk, and the game-viewing was most impressive with hundreds of oryx & springbok & beautiful black-maned lions. The best camp of the entire trip was definitely Tubu Tree where we had more than just one leopard hanging from trees, a hyena taking away a kill from a leopard right in front of us and lions wading through deep water. With lots of other game around, often with four or five species of mammals to be seen at the same time.
Selinda was no slouch either with a near perfect cheetah sighting which – after several hours of hanging around – resulted in us witnessing a kill. Patience really paid off! Good general game too, and a large pride of lions on arrival at Lebala airstrip.
I left a couple of the best sightings for the last camp on the trip which was Dumatau, where our guide Ron found a pack of seven wild dogs & mating leopards to boot. I thoroughly enjoyed a mokoro outing and a boat trip with some fishing on a tributary of the Khwai River at Wilderness Safaris’ new Banoka camp. Also had my best views ever of an African wild cat not too far from camp, and there were quite a few elephants to be seen even though the mopane forest was quite dense.
I marveled at our guide James’ intimate knowledge of the area and the wildlife at Duba Plains, which should be renamed Duba Marsh as the vehicles were swimming all the time. Lots of lions everywhere, climbing onto all kinds of things including woodpiles and termite hills.
Having spent a few days in Paris en route, our Africa trip started with a meet and greet at the vastly improved ORTI Airport in Johannesburg. Over the course of the last few years and specifically in preparation for the 2010 Soccer World Cup, the airport has been transformed into a modern, convenient facility which any city can be proud of. The variety of shops and services compare favorably with many much larger airports including Charles de Gaulle in Paris. However, prices are high and watch your bags: two young women had a bag with their passports stolen at one of the restaurants at a table which is known (by the criminals) not to have security video camera coverage. This was inside the security area, so stay alert and keep your bags close. From ORTI we were driven to the Saxon Hotel for the night. The hotel was private and secluded with spacious, luxuriously appointed rooms, with a constant internet connection (laptop provided) and a very advanced lighting system with a ‘one touch’ switch which controls all the lights in the room. In short I would say the room was as good as any I’ve seen in Africa or anywhere else.
The best experience at The Saxon was definitely the dinner; we opted for the vegetarian options including butternut blini and roasted corn soup as starters followed by asparagus tartreuse and a lentil terrine. Side dishes included sweet corn strudel and glazed carrot. The young sommelier was excellent, introducing us to a superb Waterkloof Circumstance Sauvignon Blanc 2010 as well as a Buitenverwachting Sauvignon Blanc. It was likely one of the best dinners Kathleen and I had enjoyed in Africa, ever.
Skeleton Coast Safari, Namibia Windhoek
Early the next morning, after an excellent but rushed breakfast in the room, we headed back to ORTI for an SAA flight to Windhoek. The flight was uneventful. As always, it is a long transfer (nearly 40 miles) from WDH International Airport to town, so we were happy to eventually reach our comfortable room at the Hotel Heinitzburg, in a suburb a few minutes from downtown Windhoek. The best feature of the Heinitzburg is definitely the expansive terrace, with fantastic views over the city at night during dinner.
The room at the Heinitzburg was fine but nothing special, with a weird closet door which sometimes obscured the television screen. On the night, it was just as well because we were seeing raw footage of the awful disaster in Japan, with a giant tsunami wave sweeping away cars and buildings as if they were mere toys. Little were we to know what the real impact of this catastrophe would be; for the next 14 days or so we were pretty much cut off from news sources and would only much later learn about the nuclear plant disaster.
Dinner at the Heinitzburg was interesting and excellent; we enjoyed an Uiterwyk from 1993; a wine which I had first bought at the winery near Paarl from the owner himself, in the mid 1980’s. Dinner was very pleasant with a special starter – a seasonal wild mushroom with corn curry soup. Main course consisted of a trio of crepes; mushrooms, vegetables and aubergine.
Skeleton Coast Safari
After breakfast at the Heinitzburg (no soy milk but good selection of breads), we were off by Cessna Caravan to the Skeleton Coast National Park. I sat staring out over the passing landscape for practically the entire duration of the flight. It is just an amazing and constantly changing stream of landscapes, totally fascinating. Due to fog near the coast, we had to land at Purros from where we drove about 2 hrs to the Skeleton Coast camp, including some game-viewing time, spotting desert adapted elephant, giraffe, springbok and suricates. After literally years of looking forward to the day, I was finally at the Skeleton Coast safari camp.
Over the next few days, everything I had imagined about this very special place would materialize. The desolate coastline, fascinating rock formations, colorful red lava and yellow sandstone patterns, desert-adapted life-forms, the living “fossil” tree (Welwitschia Mirabilis), a visit to a settlement of the nomadic Himba people and a breathtaking range of panoramic vistas. And much more such as towering ‘clay castles’ of the Huarusib River – a unique form of wind and water erosion – barchan dunes, a huge seal colony, and real quicksand.
March 2011 was one of the wettest late summer months in Namibia in decades. Much of what we saw on the Skeleton Coast National Park itself and outside of its boundaries may not be seen again in years, or even decades. It was literally a sea of green: Skeleton Coast Camp itself had had nearly an inch of rain just the night before we arrived there. In one of the driest deserts in the world, there was water everywhere. At the time we did not realize the full implication of what all this water would do to the area. We just enjoyed there being practically no dust.
On 13 March the idea was to set off early on the long drive to the northern part of the reserve – Cape Frio – but some lion tracks changed the plans. For the first time in months, lion tracks had been seen near the Skeleton Coast Camp landing strip. This was interesting in more ways than one. It was unusual for this small desert pride of lions to venture this far out of their usual home range. Also it was interesting and just slightly unsettling on a personal level because Kathleen and I had planned to do some running in the area later that day. Despite having left clear paw prints in the wet desert sand, every effort to locate the lions proved to be unsuccessful. They had apparently walked into some hills where none of the vehicles could get close to them and not surprisingly none of the guides were too keen to follow the tracks on foot. These lions had previously had quite a bit of human contact and not all good, so walking into them would not have been a great idea. Tragically this pride would later be killed by eating a purposefully poisoned animal carcass.
Having abandoned the search for the lions, we headed out in a northerly direction through a series of barchans dunes. The scenery was quite magical but due to heavy fog in the area I was not able to get any useful photographs. We did manage to capture images of some desert-adapted lifeforms including a tenebrionid beetle (aka toktokkie), shovel-nosed lizard and webfooted gecko.
At long last we reached the Cape Frio area where we enjoyed a very pleasant lunch break close to a rocky outcrop within view of the large seal colony which is the main attraction of the area. Fellow traveller Craig – from New York City – took a dip in the cold Atlantic Ocean waves while the rest of us relaxed by just taking in the awesome views. After lunch we walked up to the seal colony; it was fascinating to see how unconcerned the young seals were with our presence. We might literally have touched them if we cared to. Some of the bigger bulls were much more wary but of course we snapped a few pics of them. They were massive compared with the females and really look more like walruses than seals. We had no luck spotting a brown hyena, which was one of the major disappointments of the trip. These elusive mostly nocturnal mammals are regularly seen in the area. There were several black-backed jackals lurking just beyond some of the dunes. Other than great white sharks the jackals and brown hyena are the seals’ most common predators.
The next day – our second full day in the area – we set off on a full day drive towards the interior, leaving the Skeleton Coast National Park. The day was memorable for several good bird sightings including Ludwig’s Bustard, Longbilled Lark, Gray’s Lark, Pale Chanting Goshawk, African Hoopoe, Purple Roller, Scimitarbill, Great Spotted Cuckoo, Tawny Eagle, Steppe Buzzard, a Martial Eagle and several others.
This morning we drove through some of the most spectacular areas of any we would see on the trip. There are few sights quite as imposing a wide gravel-bottomed valley with sharp rocky outcrops to the left and right. Elsewhere in the world scenes such as these may draw tourists by the hundreds, not to mention film makers, developers and hotel chains. Here on the edge of Namibia’s Skeleton Coast park, there was nobody else to be seen. Just our solitary vehicle, a lonely road and a massive empty sky.
By mid-morning we had reached a vast open area which might charitably be described as a field, but it was really more of a sandy, gravelly plain. Oddly this most inhospitable stretch of land is home to dozens if not hundreds of the rare and unique Welwitchia Mirabilis, a true living fossil. These monotypical plants can live for as long as 1,000 to even 2,000 years. The separate male and female plants have only two leaves which continue to grow for as long as it lives.
Around mid-day we reached a couple of small Himba village in the Onyuva plains, within the Orupembe Conservancy. The villages were tiny; at the first one a young woman in traditional dress peered out at us and then disappeared back into the hut not to be seen again. At the second one we stopped and got out of the vehicle; approaching a couple of huts and other structures where two Himba women and four young children were happy to make our acquaintance. With the help of our guide the conversation soon turned to family; the women – who were in their twenties and who both have had several kids – were astonished to hear that we had been married for nearly 30 years but that we had only two boys. Who was going to look after us when we became old and feeble? I could but smile. Materially the Himba – at least the ones in this area – were doing quite well and they were the owners of significant numbers of cattle. Somehow though, they had not yet bridged the gap towards ‘modern’ society: there was no sign of any modern convenience to be seen. No clean water, no plumbing, no stoves, no electricity, none of the things which we associate with daily life. The kids – some of whom were barely clothed – were playing literally in the dirt, their dusty faces warily breaking out into half-smiles but only when goaded by their mothers.
Having politely declined the Himbas’ offer to share some food (‘thanks but we already had lunch…’), we returned to camp in a pensive mood, mulling over the hardships and joy of this type of a pastoral existence. Who were we to say that the Himba have nothing or that they are lacking in basic comfort? Not having lived anywhere else of course their perception of comfort is quite unlike ours. Abundance to them is having a ready supply of corn meal and some wind-dried meat strung out in the trees right outside their huts. Their worst nightmare? Probably a regimented life in an urban setting completely removed from nature, a 9 to 5 office job and food which comes in cans, boxes and bottles.
The following day – March 15 – we took it easy. After breakfast we drove to a gorge off the Hoarusib River, where we observed some impressive examples of the typical Skeleton Coast ‘clay castles’. These are fascinating geological formations where huge mounds of clay are in a continuous process of being weathered and eroded by water and wind. Leaving the vehicle behind, we walked a semi-circular route down the gorge towards the Hoarusib and then back to the car. All along, both left and right, we were looking up at some amazingly intricate examples of slow-motion erosion. At one or other time in the distant past, the Hoarusib mouth must have been blocked resulting in massive fine particle sand being deposit along the river and its tributaries at a time of heavy desert and inland rainfall.
Then conditions reverted to ‘normal’ which means practically no rainfall or rarely more than an inch or so per year. The meagre flow of the Hoarusib itself plus what little moisture falls from the skies resulted in these narrow gorges forming over probably thousands of years, with impressive striations, cavities and overhangs, often resembling conventional architectural design, hence the ‘castle’ designation. Scrambling along the sandy and sometimes rocky surfaces, I was struck by the thought that literally only a handful of people had ever trodden these paths. The entire area is closed to public access and over the years very few people had ever laid their eyes on this spectacle. Just a few decades ago it was considered an impossible feat to drive into the Skeleton Coast due to the near-complete absence of passable roads and other infrastructure.
From there, we travelled through an equally impressive moon landscape towards the coast. Ordinarily the area would be bone dry but due to the recent abundant rainfall, we witnessed a small lake which was formed when the water was trapped in the desert. About half an hour or so later, we reached the mouth of the Hoarusib River, to our left. Again the heavy recent rainfall made it impossible to drive across the mouth; apparently someone else had recently lost a vehicle there in the mud. We were not about to try a similar stunt. Turning south, we then travelled a relatively short distance to Rocky Point, a well-known fishing spot. Water conditions were not ideal (too much sediment in the water) but Craig and I pulled out a bunch of small, pesky catfish. Craig managed to land a nice kob (kabeljou) was was prepared for dinner later that day. Rocky Point and its nearby airstrip played a central role in the saga of the sinking of the Dunedin Star – and the subsequent rescue missions – which played itself out in this area in 1942.
That night we were treated to a farewell barbecue meal with beef, sausage and the local version of polenta, together with a very spicy tomato soup. Yet another delicious meal! Several of the camp staff members performed an interesting song and dance routine. The next morning we said farewell to a very special place by taking a leisurely walk along the dry – or at least damp – Huanib riverbed, and then we boarded a flight for Doro Nawas which would be our next stop.
Our visit to the Skeleton Coast National Park was nothing short of otherworldly: the senses are constantly stimulated by new and unusual sights and experiences. It is certainly the most fascinating and unusual place I have ever seen.
PART 2: DORO NAWAS, DESERT RHINO CAMP AND KALAHARI PLAINS CAMP
When approached by road, Doro Nawas Camp makes quite a visual statement: this large dark edifice, looking very much like a part of a ‘burnt mountain’, literally looms over the valley in which it is located. Upon closer inspection, it is less daunting than what one’s first impression may have presaged. In fact it has a very effective design, and is quite appealing from the inside, if not out.
The large rooms are very well-equipped with showers, separate bathroom & toilet, and outside showers. The rooms also have adequate if not outstanding lighting. Beds can be rolled outside for a night out under the stars. I considered doing that on my second night there but thought not, as the reading light does not roll along… At the time I was reading a fascinating Afrikaans novel by Marita Van der Vyver.
Our afternoon activity was an outing to Twyfelfontein rock engravings, nowadays a World Heritage site. I had previously visited the site many years ago. Upon looking at the several thousand year old engravings again, I was just as captivated as I was the first time. Who were these unknown artists and did they have any idea that their modest efforts to illustrate and educate and to impart a sense of life and movement would endure into near perpetuity? What spurred them on to put chisel to stone? Likely the same creative urge that spurred on painters and sculptors through the ages. Twyfelfontein is definitely worth a visit for guests staying at Doro Nawas.
The following morning Craig and I took a nature drive with our guide Pieter. We drove through a spectacularly beautiful environment, but there was preciously little in the way of game, just a few springbok and gemsbok here and there, and a few new bird species for our bird list.
We did enjoy a delightful lunch of young potatoes, a fresh garden salad, and thin ribbon pasta stuffed into a butternut squash ‘cup’. Really flavorful and light. That afternoon I opted to forego an activity as I needed to catch up on some overdue e-mail replies, which took up a good couple of hours. Fortunately Doro Nawas had just recently installed a free internet connection, with a laptop at the disposal of lodge guests. Had the lodge been full, I would likely have had more competition for the service. As it was, there were only three other guests around, and they were all on an activity so I pretty much had the place to myself.
After breakfast the next morning (March 18), Pieter drove me to the Petrified Forest, about 50 minutes one-way from Doro Nawas. It was definitely worth the trip. The scenery along the way was pretty impressive, as was the superb examples of calcified trees in this National Heritage site. A guide escorted me to several petrified trees, one of which was approximately 30 meters tall. The trees were deposited here as a result of a cataclysmic natural disaster, a flood of truly gigantic proportions which occurred towards the end of the glacier/wet stage of Namibia, about 270 million years ago. Due to the overpowering size and force of the flood, the trees were literally snapped off at the base and carried here from far away, only to be buried almost instantaneously under metres of sand and silt deposit. Over the millennia the organic matter was replaced with quartzite. As time passed other events including glacier formation and natural water and wind formation scraped away the layer of dirt covering the trees, once again exposing them to the surface. It is uncanny to see the resemblance to an actual tree right down to year rings and broken off branches.
Back at the lodge I took a few photographs and caught up on e-mail, then took a relatively short flight to Desert Rhino Camp. I fell in love with this camp – which I will be sure to revisit soon – almost immediately. There was just something ‘right’ about the style of the tents, the main area and it definitely did not hurt to see plenty of game on the drive between the air strip and the camp.
The afternoon ‘nature drive’ at Desert Rhino turned into a superb game drive because we came across three lionesses in pursuit of a lame oryx. Had the lions realized the extent of the oryx’ lower-leg injury, which rendered it practically immobile, they would likely have pressed their attack and closed in right away. Instead they chose to break off and to return to the woodland, probably planning to ambush the unfortunate antelope later that night.
On the 19th of March we were up very early for our great Black Rhino expedition. This takes the form of a 4-wheel drive vehicle with guides attached to the Save the Rhino Trust leaving camp even earlier, to find signs and tracks of black rhino by checking specific water holes or other known rhino haunts. Once they have located and closed in on the rhino, they radio back to base and call in the vehicle with the Desert Rhino Camp. If the guests are lucky, this all happens by late morning or so. If they are not, as was the case with us, the search and pursuit of the black rhino can take many hours.
It was not until well after lunch, around 2:00P, that our posse of guides located a mother and young adult rhino. We bounced our way – the paths are extremely rough – to the valley where they had been located. Approaching slowly and quietly we stopped about a half mile or so from the rhino and then left the vehicle, approaching the rhino on foot. It was relatively open terrain with just some large deciduous shrubs providing cover as we slowly approached the rhino from downwind, walking more or less parallel to the cantankerous behemoths. We were firmly instructed to keep quiet and that no questions would be entertained on the walk. When we were within about 170 meters of the rhino, the Save the Rhino guide called halt and we took the opportunity to take some photographs and marvel at seeing these highly endangered creatures on their terms, in their terrain. And what a spectacle it was. There they were, unaware of our presence but sensing that all was not quite well. Sniffing the clean desert air, looking this way and that, turning around and around yet unable to locate any imminent danger. Which is the way we left them as we drove off, casting a couple of backward glances as the rhinos slowly blended into the surprisingly lush green verbiage covering this usually rocky terrain.
Over a late lunch one of the Save the Rhino guides spoke to us about the plight of the desert rhino and the role of SRT in protecting and monitoring them. It was eye-opening to learn that these animals had come back from the brink of local extension – due to heavy poaching – to being relatively common although very sparsely distributed.
By March 20 I was in the Deception Valley area of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve at Kalahari Plains Camp. The CKGR is home to the legendary Kalahari black-maned lion as well as some of the world’s best cheetah viewing. On our very first game drive later that day we spotted several of these impressive lions as they walked across the open plains; we later also experienced fascinating interaction with some young Kalahari lions who were very interested in our vehicle, and actually ran behind us for a while as we pulled off. We never did see any cheetah but conditions were definitely good for them.
Kalahari Plains consist of 10 en-suite canvas units with a sleep-out above each from which to enjoy moonlit or star-studded nights. The main area consists of a lounge and dining area with an inviting swimming pool and deck area. The tents and main area are all raised off the ground to catch the breeze and take in the sweeping, spacious views across the Kalahari. Solar power provides all the electricity and hot water in the camp – making Kalahari Plains a 100% solar-powered camp – and innovative insulated canvas walls and roof keep the temperatures inside the units comfortable.
Thanks to the diversity of habitats, healthy game populations move through the area and are present to a greater or lesser degree all year round, but with the advent of the summer rains (end of November to April) the desert truly comes to life. Short grasses sprout in the pan systems and fossil riverbeds, attracting plentiful plains game such as springbok and gemsbok which converge in their hundreds and thousands to graze. I had never seen so many gemsbok anywhere in Africa; there were small and large groups of them everywhere! Likewise springbok in their hundreds. Not as many zebras as I had seen on a previous Green Season trip to the Nxai Pan area. There are no giraffes in this part of the Kalahari.
The next morning we drove all the way to Deception Valley which was interesting – we saw Mark and Delia Owens’ campsite (the co-authors of ‘Cry of the Kalahari’) and enjoyed a picnic lunch in the area. It was quite a long drive from Kalahari Plains Camp and is probably best done as a full day outing.
By far the most interesting part of my stay at Kalahari Plains Camp was an outing with Xhukuri, a San of the Xanakwe tribe. This 2-hour interpretive walk from and back to the camp was nothing less than a revelation. Fellow guests Nancy and Mark and I were introduced to a few elements of traditional San culture in an delightfully entertaining manner. Xhukuri was lively, energetic and had a fantastic sense of humor in additional to carrying a well-stocked bag of San paraphernalia. These included an ostrich egg for water; some tortoise shell jewelry which could also be used for digging and scooping water, and a helmet. He also had a long stick for extracting springhares from their holes. The bag was made from steenbok leather, colored with a local herbal tea. At one stage Xhukuri showed us how to twirl a stick on a rope, producing a rather loud whirling noise which is audible up to 2 kilometres away. We were also told about the construction of the bow and arrow, the type of tree used for its various parts, and learned about a specific type of insect pupa which is harvested for the poison.
Xhukuri said that a young San man had to demonstrate three things to be considered ready for marriage: chase off a lion, make fire from scratch and chase and successfully kill an animal. Demonstrating one of these skills, Xhukuri promptly started a fire, accomplishing this extremely difficult feat in a manner of minutes. We were duly impressed. I would highly recommend this outing for all guests staying at Kalahari Plains Camp.
PART 3: BOTSWANA’S OKAVANGO DELTA AND LINYANTI CONCESSION
Duba Plains Camp
By March 23 I was enjoying the hospitality of the friendly staff and management at Duba Plains, a superb tented camp in the northern part of the Okavango Delta. Kathleen and I had first visited this property about 15 years ago and it remains one of our favorite Okavango Delta camps. The experience at Duba has undergone a complete transformation over the last few years. Visitors from earlier years may remember that buffalo herds used to be located by the pall of dust which they kicked up – not any more! Duba Plains is nowadays a much wetter camp and the vehicles spend a great deal of time ‘swimming’ on game drives.
The camp is still famous for interaction between buffalo and lions, but I would recommend a minimum stay of 3 to 4 nights in order to give oneself a decent chance to see this happening. We did find the Tsaro pride of lions on two occasions, and saw quite a bit of general game as well including some good kudu sightings. However over the course of our 2-night stay we never did find the buffalo herds who had moved into the Paradise area crossing a very deep channel in the process. The best sighting of the lions was early one morning when they were well-positioned around a woodpile, in intermittently good light. Even though there was a little rain falling at the time, it did not hamper the photography. That afternoon a huge electrical storm passed right over the camp, with lightning striking a tree uncomfortably close to camp. Quite the experience!
On March 25 – with our indomitable guide James – we found the lions just as they were crossing the water into an unreachable spot. We turned around, and used a different route through a watery expanse where likely nobody but James could even attempt to find his way. Sure enough, about 20 minutes or so later, we were perfectly positioned just as the female lion and her cubs sloshed by us, wet and bedraggled and shaking their skins just like dogs would do. James’ ability to anticipate and predict the lions’ behavior and movement is nothing short of uncanny. Actually it is remarkable!
A little later on we followed a female lion in a solo attempt to stalk and attack a group of warthog. Lucky for them and disappointingly for us, the warthogs got wind of what was going down and beat a hasty retreat. Even though the attempt was unsuccessful, the stealthy manner in which the lioness stalked her prey, was really spellbinding.
Banoka Bush Camp
From Duba I flew to the new Banoka Bush Camp via Vumbura. En route I saw many camps from the air including Xugana, Kwara, the various Xakanaxa Lagoon camps and also Khwai River Lodge. It was a long drive (about 90 minutes) from the Khwai airstrip to Banoka Bush Camp. When the new Banoka airstrip is complete this will change to a more manageable 15 minutes.
Banoka Bush Camp has a large and rather impressive lounge, bar and dining ara, as well as a pool and spacious deck area overlooking a typical Okavango Delta scene with reeds and riverine vegetation in the background. I liked the rooms as well: very nicely equipped with adequate lighting and plenty of space.
After lunch, we set off on a boating excursion on a tributary of the Khwai River. The river meanders through a very beautiful area and it was totally peaceful with no one else around. I could have just enjoyed the peace and quiet, but there were fish to be caught… It wasn’t long before we hooked a good sized Nembwe and a catfish. The guides were impressed and I was thrilled. Lots of fun. The fish went back in the water and we went back to camp for dinner, which was really special outside on the deck. The only downer was that the Proteas had lost a World Cup Cricket match to Australia.
The following morning I was taken on a mokoro outing. As always, this is one of the most enjoyable activities on an Okavango Delta trip. There is practically no sound to disturb the tranquil ambience of the Delta, no oars slapping – nothing. Just a few bird calls and some Jacanas noisily flapping their wings as they try to put some distance between them and the approaching mokoro. As is usually the case on a mokoro outing, I enjoyed some good photo opportunities particularly of the very colorful and quite striking water lilies, some birds and the painted reed frogs.
The game-viewing in the Banoka area was on the quiet side mostly because the mopane forest was very thick with lush undergrowth after abundant local rainfall. We did see some kudu, impala, elephant, zebra, giraffe and wildebeest and I had one of my best ever sightings of an African wild cat. I would recommend traveling to this area in the dry season only.
Tubu Tree Camp
From Banoka we drove through a very heavy rainstorm to Khwai airstrip for the flight to Tubu Tree Camp. I liked this camp from the moment I set foot in it. The location is unbeatable with the lounge, dining room and bar overlooking a massive floodplain in front of camp. There was almost always something of interest to be seen in front of camp.
The rooms are elevated and built on a large platform several meters above the forest floor which makes them nice and airy. The beds have mosquito nets; the only thing missing was a fan. There were several baboons jumping onto the roof of the tent; as it turned out my room was right below a huge marula tree which the troop of baboons considered to be their territory!
On the first game drive out of Tubu we saw an amazing concentration of wildlife in the area around the airstrip; in fact just half a mile out of camp there were five species of mammals in one spot: baboon, impala, kudu, zebra and bushbuck.
Returning to a spot where she had been seen earlier that day, we re-located a young female leopard who had earlier killed an impala and dragged it into a thorn bush right by the side of the road. Our guide had an inkling that the local pack of hyenas might discover the kill. We took up a location close to the scene and waited for something to happen. We didn’t have to wait long: within 20 minutes or so there it was – a hyena with its head up, sniffing the air and slowly but surely honing in on the scent of the dead impala. The young leopard had to watch helplessly as the hyena started to devour her hard-earned meal. In frustration, she ran towards the hyena which reacted very aggressively, turning onto the leopard very rapidly. The young female just barely managed to escape without injury – she had no chance of prevailing over the hyena with its powerful jaws. Twenty minutes or so later, the hyena had devoured probably half of what remained of the impala, all the while staying dead quiet and not giving away its location to the rest of the hyena clan.
Our game drive from Tubu on 27 March was a winner. After some good views of zebra, kudu and impala we came upon a female leopard in a tree against the sky. At first, it was impossible to get a good photograph of the leopard due to the sky behind getting blown out. This was my first ‘leopard in a tree’ shot opportunity, so needless to say I was not thrilled with the situation! The sighting was great, but the pics totally useless.
Luck was with us on the day however: The leopard climbed down the first tree, moved through the bush while considering making a move on some impala, and then got into a different tree, this time in near perfect light with blue sky and palm trees behind! It posed for the camera for quite a while, adopting some totally relaxed poses with all 4 legs hanging down, and then climbed down and disappeared in the undergrowth. What a morning!
That afternoon we took a boat ride in a spectacularly beautiful area without the usual high reed beds obscuring the view. We moved past several pretty lagoons to a fishing spot, but did not have any luck with them. It was such a beautiful setting that it really didn’t matter: I did some bird-watching, tried to get some photographs of African Fish Eagles in flight (no luck this time!) and just enjoyed the tranquility of the Okavango Delta.
The following day was all about lions. Our guide Kambango Sinimbo found the tracks of a group of four lions – an adult female and three young males – a few kilometers out of camp and successfully tracked them to a spot about 10 meters of the road, where the youngest of the three males had been left behind by his mother. She was likely out hunting.
Acting a lot like lost puppy – or a child for that matter – the young lion kept anxiously staring in the direction towards which its mother had walked. He climbed on a termite mound, only to comically slide off. Then he climbed onto a log pile, looking very forlorn as he stared out into space. Soon enough his mother and two siblings appeared on the scene. In what amounted to a bit of dramatic irony from our viewpoint, the young male lion was looking in a different direction and when he finally turned around, his family members were less than 3 meters from him. If you’ve ever seen a startled pup, you can imagine the look on the young lion’s face. Surprised, joyful, shocked and maybe just a little bit embarrassed to be ‘ambushed’ so easily.
From there, we followed the lions as they walked along the road and through the woodland, creating havoc amongst the impala and other antelope who were snorting and barking loudly, fleeing by the dozen while birds and squirrels joined the party and banded together to create a very effective early warning system. There was not an animal around that did not know of the lions’ approach!
At this stage we drove around to a different vantage spot and as if pre-arranged, the lions picked the exact spot to leave the water, walking right by our car, one by one. I was firing off shots by the dozens and captured some of the best images of the entire trip right there. After taking some photographs of the resident Peter’s Epauletted Fruit bats at the Tubu Camp office, I packed my bags and boarded a Cessna 206 for the flight across the Delta and on to the Selinda area, where I would spend the next two nights at Selinda Camp.
Of all the camps I visited in March, Selinda was definitely my favorite. The camp itself is very impressive with beautiful rooms complete with mosquito nets, complimentary port & sherry and a large bathtub, always a luxury on safari. The main lounge area rivals that of a premier/deluxe camp, with an ethnic touch, shades of Zanzibar décor, some striking lighting and high thatched ceilings. All making for a very pleasant setting – one could easily while away a lazy afternoon here just doing some reading or taking photographs of the myriad of birds in and around camp.
On this particular afternoon I opted for a boat ride as I was all ‘game-driven out’ by then. It was a good choice. I had tons of fun fishing with Moses and Lenti, and managed to get the ‘Selinda Slam’ which is awarded to guests landing a bream, African Pike and Catfish in one outing. I never did get my Selinda cap but no worries, the experience was enough reward.
On Tuesday 29 March I took a short trip by boat with David (co-manager) to see the Hide which is ideal for bush brunches, private candle-lit dinners and for sleepouts from about May every year. The Hide is only about 1 kilometer from camp, but it feels totally remote and isolated, with no lights visible and with gorgeous views from the front of the deck, over the Selinda Spillway.
The food at Selinda was amongst the best of any on the trip. Brunch this morning was delightful, including a hamburger with freshly baked sesame rolls, quinoa salad, an Asian-inspired cabbage salad, bean and nut patties (for the vegan hamburger), fresh green salad, fruit juice and of course eggs to order with bacon, sausage and more…
Then we were off to go and look at Zarafa, a premier camp about 30 minutes or so by boat from Selinda. It was a bit of an ordeal to get there – we had to find our way through some thick reed patches – but definitely worth the trip. Zarafa has very impressive massive rooms , essentially 3 different tents stitched together: it has an old-fashioned 1920’s safari feel complete with safari equipment such as a Canon camera with 100-400 mm lens & premium binoculars in a foot locker.
Our afternoon game drive was uneventful to start. Some giraffe, kudu, impala, zebra, wildebeest – the usual suspects. Then we drove into an area which looked very promising for cheetah and lo & behold during a short stop looking for something else I picked up a cheetah in the binoculars, while scanning the terrain! There they were, a coalition of 3 males: not at all fussed with our presence. We followed them around and watched them settle in, at least for a while, on a large termite mound. Soon enough the light started to fade and we headed back to camp. En route, we were treated to a very enjoyable bush sundowner, with David driving out the drinks and snacks and meeting us there.
March 30 2011 was one of my best days on safari yet in Botswana. We headed out fairly early that morning to see if the cheetah brothers were still around. With the help of some staring giraffe, we soon located them sleeping in a small depression not too far from where we had left them the previous day. We then proceeded to stay with the cheetah from about 0800 until past 1100. It was clear that the cheetah were – at least initially – not in a good position to hunt. There was a lot of open flat terrain between them and their prey species which included impala, young zebra and juvenile wildebeest. So if the cheetah commenced a hunt, the zebra would no doubt bolt and scatter all the other game as well.
As a result the cheetah took their time and it wasn’t until well after 11 that morning that they made their move. First they moved to a different position under a tree, and rested there for quite a while until the zebra had moved out of sight.
Then – as if by unspoken signal – the three cheetahs got up and started walking deliberately towards the line of vegetation where there were several impala visible. Suddenly the cheetah accelerated, the impala scattered and I momentarily lost the big picture, just catching a glimpse of a cheetah wheeling to the left, its tail wildly swinging to the right as it honed in on a fleeing animal temporarily obscured behind a bush.
Moses started up the vehicle and we raced to the scene. Just 20 seconds later we came up on the impala which been taken down. One of the cheetahs had it in a death grip with its jaws clamped around the impala’s throat, suffocating the hapless animal which was no doubt in a state of severe shock, unable to feel pain. Almost simultaneously the other two cheetahs started to feed on the impala which they had by now dragged into cover, so as to avoid being seen by other land predators or from the air by bateleur eagles or vultures.
We watched as the cheetah bit through the skin and fed voraciously on mostly muscle and subcutaneous fat. At first one and then another would act as a sentry of sorts. Interestingly they did not use their paws in the act of feeding; just their jaws, head and neck being in motion.
It was truly an awesome spectacle to behold and to listen to and we spent the better part of 20 minutes watching as they devoured a good chunk of the cheetah, occasionally lifting their bloodstained heads to momentarily stare outwards, before lowering them again and tearing away yet another mouthful. I could see one of the cheetahs considering opening a new spot on the impala’s yet unmarked shoulder. After one or two half-hearted bites he just walked away from the carcass, clearly having reached the point of satiety.
We were getting somewhat peckish ourselves by then, so we left the cheetah in peace and returned to camp for brunch.
Later that afternoon I took a short flight from Selinda to Dumatau where I was met by Grant Woodrow, Managing Director of Wilderness Safaris in Botswana. Since my last brief visit to Dumatau about 6 years previously, the camp had not changed much except that the lounge and dining room had been extended and re-aligned, making it more functional and attractive. The camp is to be relocated to a new spot at Osprey Lagoon, hopefully re-opening by the start of the 2012 season.
On the drive from Chobe airstrip to Dumatau, Grant mentioned to our guide Ron that the only signature Botswana species which I had not seen thus far on my trip, was wild dog. So, he said, ‘Ron better find us some dogs…!’ It didn’ take long. Just after tea we headed out of camp to a spot where the wild dogs had been spotted the previous day. Within 20 minutes or so, I had my first view of what turned out to be a pack of about 7 of these magnificent animals. After negotiating some very rough terrain we stopped on the edge of a small seasonal waterhole where the wild dogs had been resting up and were settling in for the night. I got a few decent photographs and then we drove off to the Savuti Channel (bridge) for sundowners. It was a perfect spot looking out towards Zibadianja Lagoon. There were several hippos active on our left, birds flying overhead and sounds everywhere as a typical late summer Botswana sunset wrapped everything in its distinctive glowing pink sheen.
That evening, I was a guest at a very special bush dinner for all the guests at Dumatau as well as several Wilderness Safaris staff members and some contractors. It was a splendid evening with delicious food (special vegan bean stew for yours truly) and ended with a superb performance of some traditional Botswana songs. I got a little bit ahead of myself though: en route to the bush dinner we were alerted to a sighting of a pair of mating leopards close to Dumatau camp. Within 7 minutes or so, we were within sight of the amorous pair, who performed – in quick succession – three very public couplings within 3 meters of our vehicle, bathed in light. The third attempt seemed to be successful as there was much grunting and snarling involved. It was a bit like having one’s pet in the bedroom, except that this time the roles were reversed and we were the observers. Whatever. Mating leopards? How lucky can you get! A big first for me – the type of wildlife experience which one may only see once in 20 years of going on safari. No photographs I’m afraid. I learnt my lesson and will be taking the B900 flash everywhere in future!
The next morning’s game drive was not quite as amazing but it was very fruitful with several excellent sightings including kudu, a breeding herd of elephant, the first waterbuck of the trip, and curious behavior by a huge baboon troupe. At one point Ron saw a kudu stare at something on the ground and upon closer inspection, this turned out to be a truly massive 4-meter (12 foot!) African Rock Pything, which had clearly just recently swallowed a sizeable prey judging by its bloated midsection. Initially it just remain stationary, totally extended. Then it started to move slowly through the grass, eventually curling up into a coil in some heavy brush.
We stopped off at Kings Pool camp for brunch, where I had a good look at the completely new lounging and dining room areas, which was open to the front and making the most of the oxbow lagoon view. It reminded me a lot of Shumba Camp in the Kafue Region of Zambia. Then it was back to the airstrip for the flight to Maun, back to Johannesburg on Air Botswana and finally boarding a massive new Air France Airbus A-380 for the flight to Paris. I would be back in Houston the following afternoon.