Sadly Leaving Ngala

During our last drive at Ngala we searched the far reaching corners of the property for Cheetah and Wild Dog tracks. Along the way, we saw Zebra at a huge water hole, as well as some great Hippos and one lonely Croc. We did find Wild Dog tracks – but they had moved very rapidly and left the property before we found them.

Then off to J’burg and the lovely AtholPlace hotel in Sandton. We are just relaxing & resting . . . . tomorrow ~ the Delta!

The Sea of Land.

The Sea of Land.

Water, Water, Everywhere

Up early today for our flight from J’Burg to Maun, Botswana. In Maun, we caught a six-seater even smaller than the last, for our trip to the Kiri airstrip, shorter and unpaved vs. our last landing spot. Usually this time of year small planes can land at the Xudum strip, but since it is currently under water, we took a short helicopter flight the rest of the way. My husband enjoyed being co-pilot for both trips.

The Maun airport is small but managed to be a hive of confusion with basically every visitor connecting to a small plane being told of issues with their luggage. Some were told their bags were too hard, some had too many bags; in our case my bad was deemed too hard on one portion, but Fred’s was perfect. It was all much ado about nothing, since, in every case, passengers proceeded without further delay.

The 20-minute flight from Maun flew under 500 feet over the Okavango Delta and was beautiful. We saw a herd of elephants playing in the water and I spotted a pair of the huge and rare Wattled Crane.

Once the chopper landed we were met and took a 6-passenger motorized skiff to the &Beyond Xudum Lodge, arriving just in time for a lovely lunch.

The Lodge was built as a semi-permanent structure, since the government does not allow any permanent structures to be built in the Delta. They’ve used a lot of retro and recycled material in creative and unusual ways. It’s very eco-chic. The scenery is similar to the Everglades, but with fresher air, lower humidity, friendlier grass and a clear view to the sandy river bottom.

Before you knew it, we were off on another game drive and this time, it really was like being on a swamp buggy ride, as we drove through water and mud during a very bouncy afternoon. When you have game drives you are touring the various islands and higher ground that makes up the Delta area. This past year was the wettest anyone can remember so many areas are still inaccessible by road. We are very remote here and there are no other groups viewing the wildlife. You will find the very occasional fishermen, period. This translates into the fact the animals are not used to being watched and we have the opportunity to observe some different behavior patterns than our prior gaming experiences.

Today we had a thrill when something began chasing a herd of Impala. The herd sounded their verbal warnings and, all together it actually sounded as if shots had been fired. And, those animals can sure run fast. Whatever was in pursuit went into the brush.

We also watched a beautiful journey of Giraffe, Saddlebilled Stork, and on the night drive back to the Lodge watched a Wild Cat hunt (incredibly like a cute house kitty), a well-hidden Genet showing only his long striped tail and Bushbabies hiding in the trees.

Our room at the Lodge is the most remote (about a ¼ mile from the Lodge) and we had a few issues due to Hyaenas chewing through our phone and electrical lines the night prior. As a result, we had no choice but to change rooms. Electricity here is run by generator and phone is merely inter-Lodge. Dinner is a lovely lantern-lit affair, with an open-air kitchen, lounge areas for drinks prior and the usual incredible food. My husband is loving the berry sorbet!

At night, instead of Lions roaring, we heard Hippos from a nearby pool of water.

Ngala: Our Own Cowardly Lion

The Lion Queen?

The Lion Queen?

After an extremely windy night, the temperature stayed about 30 degrees cooler today with breezes all morning. We trekked to the Southern border this afternoon and saw baby Elephants (even nursing), Giraffe, and Zebra. So cute!

We also spent some time watching a leopard, believed to be one we had seen the day prior. Some Leopards are what they describe as “relaxed” and easier to observe. Like with people, it’s a personality issue. . .

Eventually, we turned a corner and there was the staff cooking a fabulous breakfast. Linens, glassware, champagne, yogurt/granola cups each with special nametags for us, and breakfast made to order – it was heaven.

Human Interaction

Back at Camp, my husband and I went to tour the nearby village of Welverdind. It’s a typical village and we visited a school and a day care center. The children were so cute and the seventh graders asked questions about what it is like in Miami. Everyone seemed happy and healthy – but they live in a village with no running water, and this is not unusual.

&Beyond, the company that arranged our trip, does a lot to help the locals, as well as the environment.

It was a moving and emotional experience.

Our afternoon was partly spent doing some incredible tracking of a Lion. It was the same Lion we had previously seen – but now the lioness was gone. He was sort of flushed out of the thicket in which he was lounging, and walked off across the riverbank. It was magical to watch our tracker, Adam find this Lion. He is a man of few words and with nods of his head and slight hand movements would signal Rob where to go. In this case – it was a lot of crashing through thick thorny bushes. We would see the Lion, then he would disappear from view – then Adam would spot a paw print in the sand and off we’d go again. This is the Lion previously described as a “sissy” and a “nancy pants” by Rob; he is powerful, very large and beautiful ~ so we dubbed him the “Lion Queen”.

Ngala: Waiting & Watching

Leopard in a tree

Leopard in a tree

On our first morning drive, Adam our tracker found a Leopard in a tree with its recent kill. She was so camouflaged even our Ranger had trouble spotting her. Adam seems to have some sort of magical tracking powers. Once we got it all sorted out, we watched her for quite a while. It is unbelievable how these animals blend in – a Lion can be 10 feet away, or a Leopard above you and you don’t know they are there.

Later, we went to a small lake that serves as a popular watering hole, found another Leopard (much more visible) in a tree and proceeded to wait for her to make a move on some Impala. She never took her chance, but in the process we watched herds of Impala, a few rambunctious Wildebeest, a family of Warthogs and several Hippos.

We were actually trying to get some photos of an eagle, when in the distance through the trees we started to see large black shapes and dust; first a few, then a few dozen, then a herd of several hundred Water Buffalo arrived on the scene. It was amazing to see them fill the landscape as well as a good part of the lake. The other animals filtered back after the Water Buffalo were settled and the Hippos raised their profile to establish their territory in the center of the lake.

After re-grouping and having another delicious lunch, we headed back out. Besides seeing many more beautiful animals and birds, we left the Land Rover to walk over to a large tree and see a very large, beautiful Python. Rob climbed right up to look for more and came down with some recently-shed snakeskin.

At night coming back we saw the cutest Scops Owl.

Tracking in Ngala

Full tummies.

Full tummies.

Our final morning drive at River Lodge was incredible. We saw all Big 5 without even trying – I think they were coming to bid us farewell. As a final bonus the herd of elephants we’ve been following around actually walked across our camp while we were having breakfast.

We had two new experiences today – seeing a Pride of Lions and their cubs with a recently killed Water Buffalo and a young Leopard (8 months?) treed by the aforementioned pack of Wild Dogs. Both were amazing and we could’ve watched for hours. The devouring of the Water Buffalo was not too pleasant to look at (so I will spare you the photos), but the cubs were darling. There were also several lionesses as well as some young males (maybe 2-3 years old) about ready to be cast out from the Pride. They were so amazing to see, we all were able to ignore the really unpleasant, putrid smell from the rotting carcass.

Now we are waiting for our plane to Ngala.

Ngala means Lion in Shangaan and this is where we learned about Glamping (super-luxurious camping).

We had some crazy confusion with our flight leaving Exeter ~ somehow, someone decided we should leave the Lodge at 9 AM. Fortunately, the manager prevailed and we were able to leave as planned at midday. Typical of bush flight schedules, they thought the incoming flight would be early and decided to race to the airstrip to be on time for the new arrivals . . . so, we had what our driver coined a “Ferrari Safari.” And it was crazy – about 100 degrees and driving as fast as humanly possible, in an open vehicle, on unpaved roads through the Sabi Sands. It might be the riskiest thing we have actually done on this trip. But we arrived in one piece and had a nice 15 minute flight with the same young pilot as our flight into Ngala.

The airstrip in Ngala in about a half hour away from the tented camp, and our Ranger Rob was at the strip to meet us. The terrain here is more open, seems flatter and is sandier in color. There also seems to be more green trees and no burned areas.

Ngala borders Kruger National Park, and our camp (with just six permanent tented rooms) is very laid back with much more flexible time schedules and is also more focused on tracking. A lot more time here is spent waiting and watching – often, we have learned, with great rewards.

Since we have seen the “Magnificent 7” (the previously mentioned “Big 5” plus Wild Dogs and Cheetah), we are also more relaxed about our game viewing.

The Ambiance

Oh yeah – let me not forget to describe the facilities here – at &Beyond’s Ngala Private Game Reserve it is very elegant/upscale, permanently tented suites with full power, A/C, no windows-just screens open to the elements and, of course incredible gourmet meals. My husband has said (and I quote) “I have nothing to complain about the food here – it is really good.”  Quite an endorsement from a very basic eater.

It still gets quite cold here at night; they put down shades, draw the drapes and provide wonderful bedding with dual control electric blankets. We also have an outdoor, secluded shower in addition to the indoor bath with freestanding tub. This is why one recent guest called it “glamping” – a term that describes it perfectly.

We haven’t seen too many Americans on this trip, Brits, Aussies, Germans, Spanish, Chileans, Irish and more. We are currently riding around with some folks from Perth who are lots of fun.

Since Ngala means Lion – we did search and find two on our first drive. We watched them sleep for a long time, wake up for 20 seconds of mating and back to sleep. . . . this male is a beautiful specimen with an incredible mane. He is so perfect because he apparently runs from most adversarial situations and is hanging around with one female instead of the usual pack of males. The staff does not know where the female has come from and are mystified by his behavior.

The hit of this drive, for us, was seeing the Hyaena den with three pups sleeping and looking around outside!

The night sounds are amazing as the temps drop into the 40s and many animals move around – we heard Lions roar, an Elephant trumpet, Monkeys play and many more sounds I am happy not to be able to ID.

Sabi Sands: Elephant Walk

Leading the pack.

Leading the pack.

This morning’s game drive was incredible! We actually were going to look for Wild Dogs, when we got diverted by some other interesting finds. We were also keeping our eyes peeled for Elephants, since we had passed up some previous opportunities during our big cat tracking.

We soon found ourselves in the midst of a substantial herd of females and babies, Fred counted 30. We had passed the big males close by – the size contrast was unbelievable – from the humongous bull to the tiniest baby (under 6 months). It was a truly magical experience and my husband has dubbed it his favorite of the day.

My favorite was, however, still to come. We got word of a mother Leopard, with two cubs, which were finishing off a recent Impala kill. We found them and watched for quite awhile from no more than 10 feet away. The cubs are 6 months old and are her first litter – they were adorable and playful – I could’ve watched all day.

But we moved on and saw a lake full of Hippos and incredibly a little while later, two Lions mating. The male Lion in this twosome is a sort of bad actor around here, recently returning to the pride after a two year hiatus. Because he was away, he has killed all the cubs in the pride, because they were not his. Nature at work – not always nice to think about.

We actually skipped our break in order to get around all these incredible sights – but the staff was positioned just prior to our return with special smoothies and fruit as a breakfast appetizer.

From the Lodge, we also see animals – today a Hippo (out of the water), yesterday a Giraffe, not to mention the Warthogs that surrounded the pool yesterday.

Dog Day Afternoon.  Even though we saw many animals, our afternoon drive had one goal – to find the elusive and endangered Wild Dogs (also called Painted Dogs). There is one known pack of 10 and they have recently been spotted in the area after a long absence. We did find them – sleeping in the sand and reeds of a dry riverbed. Although mangy-looking in pictures, they really do have wonderfully random markings to keep them well-camouflaged in the bush. This pack has four surviving cute pups (of 6) that were alert and ready to roll. We got to see a little typical dog-revelry with them jumping around and greeting one another – kind of like locker-room antics before a big game.

It’s absolutely amazing that you can be so close to the animals here and they are undisturbed and don’t run away. It can also be very intimidating at times with the larger animals and predators.

Into Africa: The Best of Sabi Sands

A male Cheetah surveys the burned out landscape.

A male Cheetah surveys the burned out landscape.

The schedule is: up at 5:30, coffee & tea at 6, then off for your first drive (and it is quite chilly for the first hour or so). Back around 9:30 – 10 for breakfast then time for resting, napping, reading or blogging. Lunch at 3 and then off again from 4-7. Dinner and drinks follow.

The scenery is amazing here – from the air it just looks brown, but on the ground you see the colors; greens and golds as well as multi-hued flowers. Much of the landscape is the color of lions and it is incredible to learn an animal can be right in front of you and so successfully camouflaged you don’t see it.

We were off again looking for Leopards this morning . . . we could hear them so close by. A young female was pursuing a male, very interested in mating. The females will try to engage as many males as possible, to eventually protect their cubs. A male will not attack a cub of a female he has mated. Today, this male was just not interested. We had a very lively and entertaining trek through the bush and riverbeds, up and down, back and forth, ducking the thorny (1-3″ long spikes) branches of small trees and bushes along the way. But we were rewarded with sightings of both Leopards!

We had a very fruitful morning, seeing the largest male Giraffe we have ever seen, a herd of Burchell’s Zebra, Wildebeest, Kudu, Waterbuck, Vervet Monkeys, and Antelope. We also spent some time watching a group of Water Buffalo, the big males and their nearby harem, not six feet away from us, clearly unconcerned with our presence.

We opted to go on a bush walk after the drive. By then the day was quite warm. Our Ranger carried a 375 caliber rifle and taught us about tracks, plants, how to ID various types of dung, etc. Fortunately, the walk back to the Lodge and our breakfast was uneventful.

Cheetah!

Our afternoon drive took us to the far southern reaches of our camp’s boundary to search for Cheetah . . . and our efforts paid off as we spotted him on top of a termite mound. He caught the scent of a nearby lone Impala and proceeded to casually stroll in that direction, occasionally flattening his ears and getting lower to the ground. Since this was in some of the recently burned area as well as a relatively flat landscape, he was very easy to follow. The unsuspecting Impala finally got the gist of things, sounding some loud cries of distress and moving a bit farther away. The Cheetah eventually tired of the game and sauntered off.

We also spent some time watching Rhinos at a water hole. Impalas and other ungulates are everywhere. I haven’t really explained how the air is here – it does get warm, but this time of year we have very low humidity and often a nice breeze, making the shade a wonderful spot to be (where I am now, sitting on our deck). The air is fresh and clean and occasionally, you pick up the slightly sweet scent of a fresh pile of dung or a faint smokiness from the recent burns.

After stopping for our “comfort break” on a hill overlooking a mountain range and another glorious sunset, we made the long journey back to the Lodge. Upon arrival we were greeted with a champagne cocktail. Dinner was a lovely candlelit setting in the main lodge where we enjoyed incredible grilled prawns and roasted pork along with our South African Shiraz.

After an amazing 24 hours in the bush – we have seen the ”Big 5″: Lion ~ Rhino ~ Water Buffalo ~ Leopard & Elephant.

A sleeping Lion.

A sleeping Lion.

The day begins early ~ good practice for the next 2 weeks of early safari drives. . . We were picked up for the 2 hour drive to Cape Town airport, and this time drove along the coastal route which was very similar to driving the California coast, dramatic and beautiful. We flew to Kruger Mpumalanga Airport and took a small 6-seater plane to Ulsaba (which is Sir Richard Branson’s airstrip). Along the way we dropped off a South African travel agent at another strip, and then flew very low the last 15 minutes – allowing both of us to see elephant herds from the air.  Our final destination: South Africa’s legendary Sabi Sands Game Reserve near Kruger National Park.

Once at the & Beyond Exeter River Lodge, we sat under a huge Sausage Tree for a wonderful lunch and then departed for our first drive at 4. The experience was everything, and more, that I ever imagined. Riding in the open safari rover is similar to riding in the Everglades in a swamp buggy – but without the mud (this time of year).

Minutes into the drive, we stopped and gave ample room to a six foot Black Mamba – Africa’s deadliest snake, to finish crossing the road. Our Ranger gave it a wide berth, since it can rise up to 2/3 of its length, before striking. A bite will kill within 15 minutes. It was a rare and exciting sighting.

Several weeks ago a control burn in the area became out of control and all the surrounding camps had to get together to fight the fire. Apparently, control burns are used regularly to preserve and regenerate the 160,000 acre Sabi Sand Game Reserve (adjacent to the 5 million acre Kruger National Park). In any case, we found ourselves tracking a leopard through part of the burned area. The downside of this being vehicles are not supposed to drive on newly burned terrain.

Our Ranger, Craig, got special permission for one vehicle to enter and off we went. When they say you drive through the bush –they are not kidding – you venture wayyyy off-road. In the meantime our tracker, Martin, is off after the elusive Leopard (who could be heard making its throaty rumble not far away). We ended up finding some White Rhino, Baboons, Monkeys, Dwarf Monkeys, Impala, a solitary Water Buffalo and a variety of beautiful birds; but abandoned our Leopard hunt for another day.

Along the way we stopped for a “sundowner” cocktail and bathroom break (yes, in the bush) and to photograph the beautiful sunset. Darkness came quickly and the weather got dramatically cooler. Eventually Martin found a beautiful sleeping male Lion! We had been hearing him roar for awhile. Amazingly, he also roared, while resting (and we got that on video).

Back at the Lodge, we were met by singing and dancing staff members, along with some warm soup as a starter for our upcoming dinner. Dinner and drinks were served in the Boma (a communal dining area) around a fire (and I promise you,even a picky eater will like the food here).

BTW – the Exeter River Lodge is beautiful and photos actually do not do it justice. Our suite is amazing.

Great White Shark viewing, while in the water in Gansbaai, South Africa..

Shark in front!

We Star in Our Own Episode of Shark Week.  While some of you were sleeping soundly, we were up at dawn and ready for our next great adventure – getting in the water with Great White Sharks. I know I speak for both of us when I say, this has been one of the most exciting and incredible experiences we have ever had.

I decided to be among the first group to get in the water ~ just in case I chickened out later.   Although the water was cold, it was tolerable (my biggest problem would turn out to be getting out of the cage). The saltwater in this part of the Atlantic is different – seems less salty and much lighter and more refreshing on your skin.

“Divers” are outfitted with very thick wet suits, boots, hoods, and masks – when a shark is coming in, you simply hold your breath and go under! This works fine, unless you are having trouble breathing in general. To put it mildly, the experience was “breath-taking.” It’s amazing and frightening that when you are in the water you can’t see the sharks until they are right in front of you.

The crew was using chum, tuna heads and a seal board (just like on Shark Week) to lure the big guys in. We were with Marine Dynamics in Gansbaai – on a boat named Shark Fever; they have been featured on several Shark Week programs, as well as a number of Nat Geo and BBC documentaries. Some months of the year, they visit sharks in nearby “Shark Alley”, but this time of year the sharks are in an area called “The Shallows” (about 30’ deep). They were trying to monitor some females they had tagged, but they were elusive today. Our onboard marine biologist said we saw 7 different Great Whites today. With some of the sharks, the differences were quite obvious. For our Canes fans – he also said last year they had 5 interns from the UM program.

We were each probably in the water for about 30 minutes. What I saw suited me just fine – sharks moving gracefully around us, but my husband had some real excitement. A shark got the tuna head (which they are not supposed to get) and was chomping on it with his mouth wide open – basically inches in front of him and one other woman (she was actually screaming underwater). So they got to see the full shark “smile”, with all of rows teeth up close and personal!!!

In summary, every minute was an incredible adrenalin rush – we saw multiple sharks at a time, numerous episodes of them coming head-first out of the water and pretty much solid action for several hours.

Interestingly, you board the boat on land and then are launched into the water. Our group of 20 passengers was a real international crowd and we were the only Americans and probably about twice the age of most on the trip. I have some pretty decent video, but it will take to long to post here, so we will stick with stills for now.

All I have to say is ~ you’ve gotta do this!!!

Once back at Grootbos – we cleaned up and got them to drive us over to Hermanus for a little more whale watching. What a cute town in a breathtaking setting. Lots of cafes, a town “Whale Crier” and outdoor theater built into the ground for sitting and contemplating the whales. We walked on the Cliff Walk and positioned ourselves on a rock outcrop to watch whales for a while. Then it was time for gelato and the ride “home.”

What a day.

It will be an early night since we leave at 6am to head off to the Cape Town airport on our way to the first of four safari camps! It’s anyone’s guess when we will have a connection to post again . . .

Crystal, arrows & china . . .

Crystal, arrows & china . . .

From Cape Town to Grootbos.Today we had a relaxing morning and breakfast at the Cape Grace, bid farewell to the fabulous staff and drove to the coast with our chatty driver from &Beyond, Oliver.

I must digress for a moment and mention the incredible chandeliers throughout the Cape Grace . . . festooned with china, antlers, brass cups, incredible shells and, my favorite, native arrows; I only hope my pictures do them some justice.

OK – back to our journey . . . it was a beautiful drive through farmlands (wheat and apples), rolling hills, and finally, the coast. We also rode alongside some very large pigs for awhile (my husband loves big pigs).

Once at the Forest Lodge at Grootbos, we met with an activity staff member and planned our stay, checked into our beautiful, private suite and enjoyed a nice, back to normal size, lunch. We then took off for a visit to an 80,000 year old cave. Unfortunately for us, the tide was coming in faster than anyone planned. After going down the 185 steps and climbing over some boulders and rocks, it was determined that if we went in we would likely be trapped by the water and not be able to get out for a long while. Since this did not seem like a good option, we went back up the 185 steps and went whale watching!

Walker Bay was full of whales – and some of them were really huge.  All Southern Right Whales, we were enchanted with their antics ~ adults and babies alike. You could hear them spraying water through their blow holes and splashing, hitting the water hard with their pectoral fins.

We have a lovely, very modern suite – set up like an apartment with separate living room, bedroom, two bathrooms and walls of glass windows overlooking the reserve and ocean. Dinner was a lovely multi-course, gourmet experience that included horseradish hummus, lentil & saffron soup, pork, and a white chocolate mousse for dessert. The meal was served with a special starter from the chef, palate cleanser sorbet between courses, and very unusual (but tasty) garnishes and sauces. Even my husband liked his tempura-style salmon and Thai soup.

Now, I am doing anything to avoid thinking about getting so close to Great White Sharks in the morning ~ we leave at 7!

South Africa: The Winelands

In the colorful Bo~Kapp district

In the colorful Bo~Kapp district

We headed off for new adventures today as we took in some key sights in town, including the Castle, Bo-Kaap (Malaysian/Muslim) district & Parliament area. Then we headed off to the Winelands and the historic towns of Dutch-influenced Stellenbosch and French-influenced Franschhoek. We began with a visit to the typically-Dutch estate and winery of Meerlust, in the same family for 8 generations! Afterward, we saw the beautiful, quaint town of Stellenbosch with it’s charming Dutch-gabled architecture, churches, homes and leafy tree-lined streets with flowers blooming and birds singing. Then, off to learn about the great (and famous) South African wine – Pinotage, at the award-winning Kanonkop winery. They get the KFB prize for the best wine of the day.

We’d had enough wine to require heading off to lunch at the lovely, relaxing La Petite Ferme, for an amazing gourmet meal. If you’d dropped us in the spot, I would’ve bet my next trip that we were in Europe ~ based on the ambiance, views and wonderful food.

After walking off some (not enough) of the terrific lunch, we visited the lovely village of Franschhoek and saw enough restaurants and interesting shops to make us regret having to move on so quickly . . . . but, alas, we needed to make it to at least one more winery – and we did: the Rupert & Rothschild facility. We sampled their offerings, including their new olive oil (many of the vignerons here have decided growing olives is compatible with wine), in a lovely garden setting, before making the one hour journey back to Cape Town.

And then, we had to rest . . . .

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