The iMfolozi Reserve in South Africa has played a major part in keeping both the White and much rarer Black rhinos from being poached into extinction , and we were fortunate to see both on foot. As we drove through iMfolozi and other reserves we encountered huge quantities of both elephant and rhino leavings (bull white rhinos maintain dung middens, many in the road that can take on epic proportions – see pic). Our little VW Polo navigated these African land mines day after day, so we dubbed her The Dungmaster.
South Africa is a great first experience for Africa. You can see big game in abundance, the infrastructure is excellent and it has incredible diversity. But, Botswana is still basically a wild place with no fenced reserves or protected campsites. This means that when you’re camping as we are doing, you can wake up with anything in your campsite from lions to elephants. After nearly 4,000 miles we turned in The Dungmaster and met up with our guide and friend Ant Washford (africanadventuresafaris.com), who is an old hand at both camping and traveling in the Botswana bush. On the second point, virtually all travel is 4WD, and I mean REALLY 4WD, and that means digging yourself out of the sands of the Kalahari on occasion, but it is so, so worth it. The Kalahari, though called a desert, actually receives too much rainfall (more than 10″) to formally qualify for that title. But being the ancient sandy bottom a shallow sea, standing water sites are few and far between because it all percolates rapidly into the sand. To say the Kalahari is huge (bigger than Ireland) and remote is an understatement, but its beauty is magical. Dominated by lightly forested ancient dunes interspersed with ancient lake pans, the Kalahari has surprisingly abundant wildlife, particularly in the dry season, and that is right now. Lions, elephant, many species of antelope including the large and spectacular gemsbock are regularly seen by us. Some highlights included watching desert lions (the males are huge and have amazing black manes in the Kalahari) on a kudu kill from 50 feet away, massive bull desert elephants lumbering to water sources, herds of gemsbock, lions calling and responding near our camp at night and much more. We traveled to the heart of the Central Kalahari Reserve and other areas, with hundreds of kilometers of driving…4WD….actually swimming thru the soft sand in our Toyota Hilux was more like it. Camping is limited to just a few sites, with simple pit toilets. At night, the sky of the southern hemisphere blazes with the milky way and the Magellanic Clouds (only visable in the southern hemisphere) and the Southern Cross. Silence is complete, and then punctuated by lion’s territorial and location calls: UUHHHH….UHHHHHHH…HUH….HUH..HUH… Let me tell you, that call at close quarters gets you in touch with your inner prey item, but it is magic!
THE OKOVANGO DELTA
The Okovango River is the only large river in the world which does not ultimately reach the ocean. Arising in the highlands of Angola, it forms a huge delta in northern Botswana where the entire river eventually trickles into the sands of the Kalahari. Within the maze of channels in the Okovango Delta is some of the most abundant wildlife in Africa, and is also home of the Bayei band of the Bushmen, people who have lived in the Kalahari for 80,000 years. In the Moremi reserve, we parked the truck and loaded camping gear into mokoros – dugout canoes – and with the help of Bayei watermen poled our way (the Okovango is too shallow to paddle) to a large island, following channels kept open by the nocturnal travels of hippos and camped for several days, spending our time admiring the incredible wildlife and tracking skills of both our Bayei hosts and Ant Washford. At night we listened to Ant’s 20 plus years of amazing stories living and working in the South African bush (we’ll relay some when we see you) and shared cultures with our Bayei hosts.
CHOBE NATIONAL PARK –
In the northwest corner where Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Zambia meet is Chobe National Park (soon to be joined as a transfrontier park with similar huge reserves in Zimbabwe, Namibia and Zambia) where a great migration of large animals occurs each year as the dry season advances – from the grazing areas of Savuti and Moremi in the south to the Chobe River and its permanent water in the North. We camped our way north, and had one incredible experience after another. Here’s one. We were camping on the banks of the Chobe admiring yet another fantastic African Sunset and cooking on an open fire as we always do. It was nearly dark when Jane pointed over my shoulder to a herd of more than thirty elephants lumbering at a quick pace down to the river…and DIRECTLY THROUGH OUR CAMP. This is where you’re glad you’re with an old hand like Ant Washford, who calmly picked up a knife and fork, and gently started to tap them together, making a tink-tink-tink sound. At about 30 feet, the lead cow stopped, listening, then smelling. Ant then quietly spoke to the elephants, letting them know humans were in front of them. They then simply detoured about 20 feet around our camp, then quietly began to feed on the green grass on the other side not 30 feet in front of us. All was fine until Ant stood up to check the food on the fire and moved a bit too quickly in the near dark. This provoked a charge from one of the cows at very close range. Ant then quickly picked up his camp chair and held it over his head, Jane, and then I followed suit and the cow turned on her heels and called it off. Elephants don’t see well at night and Chobe is famous for mega prides of lions that have perfected the art of elephant hunting. The cow almost certainly just saw quick motion of something the size of a lion, and our actions let her know it wasn’t, and that was that. I have video of this amazing event, which I’ll show when we’re together.