Sand & More Sand
We had a long day of varied travel today: mokoro, helicopter, small plane, and finally truck. Once at the Kasane airport we met a couple from New Zealand who joined us for the rest of our adventure.
One thing about Chobe – it is very sandy and driving around is like being on an ATV. This is different than our other excursions; Chobe is a national park and vehicles must stay on the “roads” (generally sand). There are also more vehicles than we have ever seen; it’s reminiscent of our visit years ago to Yellowstone.
In Chobe we are doing something I doubt any of our friends would try – we are going to stay in a mobile camp – & Beyond’s Chobe Under Canvas. Having always read about the “Hemingway-style” safari experience, I wanted to be sure we tried it all. But we were going to have a lot of excitement prior to arriving at camp.
First, we drove through the park and eventually stopped at a shady area along the Chobe River for an unexpected picnic lunch. Then, along with our fellow camp-mates and Ranger Peace, we took a boat trip on the river. It was beautiful and an incredible green contrast to the surrounding brown and beige sandy terrain. We had two particularly amazing experiences; the first seeing so many hippos in and out of the water.
Then, incredibly we saw a herd of elephants cross the water to an island – and then, we could not believe our luck, they crossed again, to the other bank. They were a breeding herd of females and kids – with one really tiny one. They use their trucks as snorkels and the little one bobbed up and down! If I could post the video from here I would – it’s an amazingly special sight to see.
Finally as the sun went down we reached the camp. They were waiting for recharged batteries for the lights in the tents (and the truck had broken down) so we didn’t get to organize before dinner. Drinks were with the other 8 guests around a campfire and dinner was with crystal, linen and china by lantern light. Although we were told Lions roared during the night – I heard nothing and slept like a log.
It isn’t getting any easier to get up and hit the ground running so early in the morning . . . we were back up with the promise of going back out in the boat.
We took a lovely ride on this cool morning to a nearby island for a nature walk and lesson. Disho taught us about tracking, identifying animal poop, setting traps for animals and many local hunting customs. Being with Disho is like having an anthropologist with us – he is amazing. Before we knew it two hours had passed and it was time to get back to the boat. Once on, we headed back to the fish camp for our promised breakfast. We were not disappointed by these incredible generous and hospitable people who had prepared boiled fish for us. The fish (ours was Tilapia) which was served along with an incredible fish broth, was delicious. Mu husband and I shared a fish – which we ate in local custom – with no utensils, just our fingers.
Amazingly, this group had a generator which provided a small amount of light, a radio and power for several freezers used for the fish they caught (generally with nets). Other fish was being smoked, using an old metal bed frame.
Our afternoon adventure included a trip on a local mokoro. We drove to our launch site and observed wildlife along the way including a herd of about 200 Water Buffalo. Mokoro are canoe-style boats that were traditionally wood, but are now made of fiberglass to help protect the environment.
We cruised down the Matsibe Channel, sitting at water level, gliding through reeds watching the incredible African sunset. With a full moon rising on the other side, we agreed it was incredible ending to our time in the Delta. Then we landed and were greeted by the Lodge staff with wines and a variety of goodies. Just when you think they can’t come up with anything else – they throw one more surprise your way.
Tonight at dinner I tasted Impala – it’s not for me – once again, they are just too cute.
Now, to prepare for our departure to an “under canvas” camp, we are off to sleep al fresco in our second story open-air loft (all made up for us complete with mosquito netting). We’ll see how long we last up there; the Hyaenas have been making some noise tonight and a bunch of Monkeys seem to be waiting for us, playing in the trees.
PS – we did not last too long outside. Bats seem to love me and a couple came in just after we were settled. Of course there were lots of sounds, but the final blow was a very loud thud with no “voice” sounds . . . My husband speculated it might be a leopard and that was enough for me.
So, back in our room, finally asleep, I am awakened by something moving through the leaves and figuring it’s a Hyaena, go look outside seeing nothing. Minutes later a very large Elephant is right outside our screened walls! Seemed like just a few feet from the end of the bed. Later we had Hippos also outside the room. Hard to get back to sleep after all that . . .
Our Ranger Disho and Tracker Palo are both from the area and a wealth of colorful stories and demonstrations (soccer with elephant dung, spitting contests with Jackalberry pits). This morning with an incredible sunrise, we headed out for another drive. We saw many animals including the beautiful and rare Roan Antelope as well as the locally common Tsessebe.
Our big drama for the entire day, however, was when a young bull Elephant stomped his feet, flapped his hears and came towards us in a very threatening manner. I have to say it was both thrilling and frightening. The group included mothers and their young (with one just a few weeks old) and the young bull was really out of place with them and creating a lot of nervousness as they rushed to catch up with the rest of their herd. That little elephant was the cutest thing ever!
We stopped for a morning break along the water’s edge, and the next thing we know the guys are cooking another amazing bush-breakfast for us. For this one, they were totally contained and did it all themselves. Then they laid out picnic blankets on an overturned mokoro (traditional wooden canoe) for our special waterfront seats.
While Wildebeest and Warthogs were running around we learned about the “Uglies” – the 5 ugliest African animals: Marabou Stork, Baboon, Warthog, Wildebeest & Hyaena (I notice we are spelling this the British way).
Our second bit of trouble occurred when we got stuck in some deep mud; but the guys knew just what to do and had us on our way again soon.
Fishing in the Delta
This afternoon we went out in the boat for the first time – it was beautiful. We wove in and out of the grasses and reeds, spotting many beautiful birds along the way.
We were on a Hippo-hunt and after finding several who surfaced very briefly to make threatening noises for our benefit, we finally did find one big boy hiding in the reeds. He was really shy and to escape us, took off out of the water and on land moving really quickly. It was exciting, but we all would’ve liked to see him stay around a little longer.
Eventually we found ourselves within sight of an encampment of local fisherman. As previously mentioned Disho and Palo are part of a local tribe – it’s called the Hambukushu and is the largest of the five tribes that inhabit the Delta. These fishermen were from the tribe and we were welcomed very warmly. We learned how they catch (with government permit) and prepare fish. We also tried some Jackalberry fruit with its 4-5 pits. We were invited to return in the morning for a fish breakfast.
Being suitably inspired by our visit we decided to fish. Using only lures, you cast and quickly reel in the line. I was the only one that struck out with this catch and release endeavor.
We reluctantly packed up the gear and headed back to Camp.
Back at the Lodge – I discovered a bottle of Jack and tasted Springbok for the first time (it was good), even though this was not my dinner choice – they are too cute.
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!
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.