Friday, 26 February 2016

Botswana Safari #2 - The Wild Life Cruising Continues

Valentine's Day - These Lovers Were Celebrating
This is Part 2 of our Botswana safari adventure ... if you missed Part 1 you can read it here.

At this point I have to say that WE DID ask the park ranger at the north gate of Moremi Reserve about predators, and he said, quote, "No Lions, but maybe some hyena chasing antelope through the camp in the evenings". OK... so just an hour later I read on the national park incident log board that two lions were in the camp ground four days ago. Later we learned that the hippopotamus also come through the camp each night, and we heard them clearly close by. So, ignore what the local people say, and be prepared. 

At around 8:30pm that evening we both froze in our camp chairs as a very large predator stalked silently past our camp fire, just a meter from our camp table and maybe five meters from us.  Hyena.  Big hyena. Like a Shetland pony on steroids, but with a large wolf's head.  Beautifully spotted shaggy fur, her (the females are larger) shoulder was a foot higher than our camp table. The head was of course much higher again.  Silently gob-smacked is a good way to describe our reaction. A magnificent predator right at our dinner table. Thank god she didn't stay.

So we quickly moved our chairs closer to the truck (hyenas can work in packs), put more wood on the fire, poured a last glass of wine, gulp, and went to bed. This place is amazing. Sorry no photos of that incident ...

Next morning we talked to the resident ranger about the hyena and he said they have never been a real problem. "though sometimes they do come too close".  "How close?" we asked. "Oh well, sometimes they might walk up and sniff you ... best you don't move, just sit still" he said.  OK, we get the picture.

We found the hyena foot prints all around the camp fire the next morning, plus a deep set of rear prints where she probably sat and watched us for a while.  Smart critter, she sat on the other side of the fire, shielded by some bushes.  Read on for our progress into the Okavango Delta ...
Serious Necking Is What They Were Doing



Overnight we heard wild dogs and hyena, while the baboons and monkeys were strangely quiet.  In the morning we packed up camp and headed further east into the Okavango Delta.  

Here the Okavango River flows down from the mountains of Angola in the north and spreads out into a network of smaller rivers, lakes, swaps and streams, over several hundred kilometers. The waters bring life to this edge of the Kalahari desert, and support wildlife in incredible concentrations.  In June 2014 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A Black Backed Jackal - Very Beautiful But Very Shy

That day we watched a bull elephant angrily chasing ducks around the edge of "his" pond.  They were obviously spoiling his concentration on the female that was with him. We heard him trumpeting from some way off, then watched across a clearing for a few minutes before he set off towards us, ears flapping, head swiveling and lots of foot stamping and trumpeting. Those ducks really had him upset!

Discretion called for an immediate departure, but right then a large female elephant walked out of the bush right in front of us.  Always a master of understatement, Ley said "You better get ready to go backwards", but I was already in reverse gear and had changed the gearbox into high range. Just in time the female moved off the track in front of us and we accelerated past her rear end as it disappeared into the scrub.

Amazingly, the great Okavango River never reaches the ocean. An enormous percentage of the water is lost to evaporation, while the rest eventually soaks into the sand and soil of northern Botswana in the myriad ponds, streams and swamps.

The Sausage Tree - Don't "Become Late"
By late afternoon we were at the eastern extremity of the "dry" land, another 120km of mud, ditches, sand and clay pans, most of it in second gear, so much mud.

We eventually arrived at Third Bridge Camp, though all three bridges were out, so we detoured across the river beds to get there. In the camp there were seven sites spread out around the edge of the lagoon, with a shared ablution block.  We initially setup under the shade of a huge tree, before I spotted the fruit hanging from it.  This was the "Sausage Tree", called "Moporoto" in the local Setswana language.

It's a type of Jacaranda that has great pendulous hanging fruit that look like enormous sausages, but are much harder and heavier.  Local people don't camp under these, "in case they become late".  In other words, this fruit can kill you if it drops off the tree at the wrong time. Not wanting to become "The Late Neil Langford" I moved the truck another few feet before setting up the camp.

At this point our fuel was down to one quarter of a tank, and we were watching it closely. We hadn't seen a gas station since the previous Saturday in Kasane, and we had another 120km of bad tracks and 50km of bitumen to go before we could buy fuel in Maun.  So our two jerry cans of spare fuel went into the tank that afternoon.

Another Okavango Delta Visitor 

Next morning we woke early, having shared the evening with a Canadian couple who had been overland traveling for several months. We had booked a boat trip onto the delta waters with them, starting at 7:30am.

This Fellow Was A Breakfast Visitor To Our Camp
So around 7:00am we were cleaning up after breakfast, Ley was making a sat phone call to her mother, when another large Hyena casually cantered into our camp and stopped about 2 meters from Ley, with a little growl.

Ley backed up towards the truck and the Hyena proceeded to sniff around our fire site, including where we'd thrown the dish water, just in case we'd left any morsels for him.

Then he gave us a little grin and cantered off towards our Canadian friend's camp. So we yelled a warning to them and they were able to stand back and watch. Hyena's really do canter - like a giraffe gait, with that same fore and aft rocking motion.

Eric, our local river guide, arrived on time at 7:25.  Stepping out of his truck he said "So you had a visitor...I can see the tracks". As at the other camp he wasn't too fussed - more pleased for us really. This time we managed a photo, as the camera was close by.

Our boat trip on the delta lasted two hours, running fast in a tough aluminum swamp boat.  We saw small crocodile, many elephant and numerous bird species.  

Watching from the boat you can safely get quite close to the elephants, who seemed content to continue feeding.

Strangely, there were not many hippo around, though in a way that's a good thing, as the channel was narrow and shallow in many places, with the long grasses brushing our faces as we slid by.  I wouldn't want to see a hippo in such tight quarters.

After the boat trip we packed up camp and drove on towards Maun, gateway town for the tourism on the delta. This involved 55km of the usual sand, mud and clay pan tracks, to reach  the south gate of the Moremi Wildlife Reserve.  

Then the road "improved", becoming a corrugated dirt road that badly needed grading, for over 50 teeth-rattling kilometers. The final 60km into Maun was on bitumen - what a joy.  We refueled and provisioned in Maun before driving 30km to the private Drifters Maun riverside camp site for the evening.

At the Drifters camp we were made very welcome - Drifters run escorted safaris out of Johannesburg - a two day road trip to the camp in Maun, then a four day circular safari in the Okavango Delta region in four wheel drive trucks. They come back into the Maun camp for a bit of luxury before the final drive back to Johannesburg. We had that luxury for a night, camped on a magnificent river in a garden setting, complete with swimming pool, bar and restaurant. We'd earned it! 

Number One thrill of the day was going back to the managers residence after dinner (mind the snakes he says), to meet his house pet - a tiny Lesser Bush Baby (Galago Maholi). Big eyes, big ears, perfectly formed human-like hands and an incredibly long tail. The body and head were maybe 14cm long, while the tail was probably 20cm.

This stunning little creature jumped from somewhere onto its owner's shoulder as we walked into the house. After introductions it jumped to Ley, then to my neck, wrapping its tail and body in close. It licked and kissed both of us on the lips (!) and then started flitting from one to another in a happy game. A beautiful and placid creature, perfectly domesticated, and it keeps the bugs down in the house!

But who taught it to tounge-kiss like that?

Next morning we departed Drifters camp, after about 6 days and 600km of sandy tracks, clay and muddy bogs.  We stayed on bitumen for a full day, covering another 600km back to our starting point at Kasane, in just seven hours. Our plan was to revisit the beautiful Chobe National Park, for the final few days of our safari.

The highway drive back to Kasane was marked by a lack of traffic but a lot of wildlife - zebra, elephant, wart hog, even giraffe loping along on the road fringe beside us. The most significant sights were the rolled, wrecked and burned truck and bus carcasses - the wild game plays havoc with the commercial traffic at night, and we saw wrecks every half hour or so.

Entering the Chobe Reserve again we could slow down at last, and were immediately surrounded by wildlife.  Lions were our main interest, and we searched until our eyes were sore, but after 50km we retired back to Ihaha Camp and setup in our favourite elevated spot alongside the river.

The Beautiful Chobe River Camp Site

Just before the camp we had paused for a large breeding herd of elephant - all females, babies and juveniles.  They were headed for the river, and to our delight they came out of the bush onto the river flats only 500 meters from us.  The sun set, dinner was cleared away and we realised they were moving toward us.  So we sat in our own private (though unprotected) theater seats while some of the herd grazed the river bank and played in the moonlight right in front of us - just 40 meters away.

We had a camp fire burning, so they were aware of us, but so long as we sat still they were quite happy. Young males were head butting and play fighting close to the water, and nursery cows stayed with the really young babies as they fed. This went on for two hours, before they slowly moved away and we realised we had just been gifted with some magic memories.

Camps in other countries put electric fences, steel and glass between the wildlife and the visitors. In Botswana, you define your own experiences... 
 
Elephants Moving Towards Our Camp Along The River Bank

After the wonder of the elephants feeding next to us, we were ready for a quiet day. But that was not to be - around 11:00am the camp maintenance guys said they saw lions down the track and offered to guide us there. So we packed up camp rapidly and followed them 5km down tracks and trails, ending up close to the scrub but on the clear land that runs along the river.

Here were four or five female lions, lolling around in the shade under a large tree.  One lay on it's back, paws in the air, being licked clean by another.  They kept an eye on us, and from about 25 meters we sat for an hour and watched them do - well, nothing really. Which is what we would expect for that time of day - it was dammed hot.

The interesting fact about this group was that the biggest female was wearing a tracking collar - I bet she hated that. Eventually we backed off and headed back to our riverside camp, not realising we would see this same group the next day, under more interesting circumstances.

OK, so it's still Valentine's Day.

Back at camp the Vervet Monkeys are their usual cheeky selves, but the older male is game enough to settle down closer to us, and to show us his unique physical attributes.

Who else could have blue balls on Valentines Day ? 

That night the elephants staged an encore performance, feeding within 25 meters of us for an hour or so after nightfall.  Later in the night we heard hippos around us, and lions calling in the distance. 

Next morning, as Ley cooked up a major breakfast of eggs and toast and tomatoes, we saw hippos move past in the river, a hawk and an eagle hovering around our clearing and a pack of Vervet monkeys. This is the same group that lives in the tree next to us.  While I was at the shower block they staged a raid on Ley, with several distracting her while one stole our breakfast banana off the table.  Cheeky little devils. 

My Favourite Eagle - If Only I Could Train Him To Chase The Vervet Monkeys...
But not as cheeky as the baboons - yesterday morning they raided our camp while we were in bed.  Fortunately we'd left nothing around. Frustrated, they proceeded to dance all over our table, the truck bonnet and cabin etc. This is going in while we are watching from inside the tent.  They climb onto the wing mirrors and look at them selves, then just for fun they try to break the mirror off.  They'll take anything that moves.

This was now our last day on safari. After striking our camp fairly early (groan) we explored the Chobe park trails that are very rarely traveled.

Most of the day was spent in first and second gear in gluggy sand, and we stopped often to clear fallen trees from the track.

By lunchtime we'd seen over 400 elephant, more than 200 in one large breeding herd, which was challenging to work through. Enjoying the wildlife, we were really looking for big cats, which are damn elusive. By mid afternoon we were kind of despondent, when a passing local guide mentioned a pride of lions sitting with a recent kill.  

The location he described was on our way back to Kasane, so we re-jigged our route and set off for the lions. We were not first of the scene, and had to work our way past several guided tourist groups to get close. Leaving the truck, we walked to a higher vantage point and had a clear view down to the river bank, where about eight lions were feeding on a young elephant carcass - among them our large female with the tracking collar.

While the photography is reasonable, this subject matter is hardly suitable for breakfast, so we won't take you any closer...

That night we returned to a private camp on the river, 10km out of Kasane. Our wedding anniversary was celebrated with a camp fire, gin and tonics, then a fine bottle of red wine over dinner.  Next morning we handed over the truck and flew back to Cape Town. 

Fact is, Ley and I had a sensational time in Botswana - gracious, friendly people and a very beautiful country. We'd go back in a flash.

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