Feb 152015

Yes, yes, I’m quite behind in posting. I know.

It happens.

We are currently in Phase 2 of our three-phase Africa experience.

  • Phase 1: House/Pet sitting
  • Phase 2: Drive and camp through Botswana and Namibia, mostly Namibia
  • Phase 3: House/Pet sitting

We’ve been reporting almost-weekly day trips from our base in Maun during Phase 1, and we have three more such trips on the books, just not yet on the blog. Because Phase 2 is an endless series of day trips, I think we’ll do something different to share those; I’m not sure what, exactly. For now, though, let’s wrap up the last three Safari Self-Drives from Phase 1.

This next day trip was the longest of the lot: Our goal was Deception Valley in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR). It was a four-hour drive just to get there.

Prior to coming to Africa, we read Cry of the Kalahari, by Mark and Delia Owens. Mike’s had the book forEVer, and we finally got around to reading it. It’s the story of the couple’s years living in a remote camp as they researched brown hyenas and then lions and other animals.

Mark and Delia graduated from college and wanted to do wildlife research in remote Africa. They didn’t wait for permission or direction from powers that be; rather, they found a hole in current research and set out to fill it. They put everything they had into it, from finances to blood, sweat, and tears. Eventually, they got the grants and support they needed, and they did valuable work.

After that, the story doesn’t go so well, but you’ll have to find out about that on your own. I’m sticking with the happy, romantic Bush story here. That was our motivation to visit this destination: We wanted to see where Mark and Delia’s stories took place. That’s all. What more does anyone need?

To get to CKGR, we headed out toward Nxai Pan, but at the veterinary fence where the government attempts to stop hoof-and-mouth disease, we took a sand track south. The track follows the fence for miles and miles and endless miles. It was very slow going for us gentle drivers, but, for once, I was the one who took the brunt of the sun. Ah, isn’t it interesting how “brunt” anagrams into “burnt”? It’s the hottest I’ve been here in sunny, tropical Africa.

The sand track along the veterinary fence.

The sand track along the veterinary fence.

The long drive along the fence would no doubt be considered dull by many people. We, however, enjoyed it. For starters, we’re used to long drives: Alaska’s a big state, and it’s a two-hour drive “into town” from our house. And then there’s the experience of the long, hot drive to hammer home the size and temperature of Africa. Mark and Delia talk about the drive from Maun to Deception Valley. Our experience wasn’t the same as theirs, but we have some sense of the distance, the terrain, and the temperature.

We didn’t see a lot of wildlife, but we saw some birds.

Kori Bustard

Kori Bustard

Pale Chanting Goshawk

Pale Chanting Goshawk

And we saw a group of kudu that didn’t bolt at first sight of us. In fact, they seemed to hold their poses for us.

Kudu, Central Kalahari Game Reserve

Kudu, Central Kalahari Game Reserve

I got to zoom in on their faces and make note of their giant, furry ears, their spectacles, the triangles under their noses, and their little white goatees.

Kudu Face , Central Kalahari Game Reserve

Kudu, up close

The Kalahari is a desert. It was dry, dry, dry compared to Maun. The tracks were part sand and part that clay-like substance that gets goopy when wet. Mike has been watching videos of people driving in ridiculous puddles in CKGR—or, more accurately, watching people extract themselves from ridiculous puddles after becoming stuck.

Deception Valley, Central Kalahari Game Reserve

Deception Valley, Central Kalahari Game Reserve (Click to see larger pic.)

No, thank you. We won’t be doing that. Since this is the rainy season, we’re not expecting to go back to CKGR this time around.

After checking in and talking with the rangers (who seemed to think we were nuts for doing this as a day trip—go figure), we planned to drive a loop around Leopard and Sunday pans. It turned out to be longer than we expected, but we’d made arrangements for that with folks at home and had no need to hurry.

Our first mammal sighting in Deception Valley was a small canine. At first, we thought it might be a bat-eared fox because it was small, but upon closer inspection, we saw it was a jackal. As we watched it, a second jackal just up and appeared out of the ground. Then another. Hey! This was a jackal den! Four jackal kits (or whatever they’re called) popped out of ground and trotted away. The adults were nowhere to be seen.

Young black-backed jackals at their den, Central Kalahari Game Reserve

Young black-backed jackals at their den.

We also saw a good many springbok and gemsbok, all tucked under shrubs and trees, hanging out in the shade.

Did I mention it was hot? I mean, really hot.

Springbok, Central Kalahari Game Reserve

Pushmepullyou Springbok, Central Kalahari Game Reserve

Gemsbok, Central Kalahari Game Reserve

Gemsbok (remember, pronounce that G like an H).

Even though the trip was taking longer than we expected, we ventured out on a couple of side tracks leading to stands of trees. One such side track gave us a nice view out over Leopard Pan. As we rounded the circle at the end of the track, something dead leaf-colored caught my eye just before we pulled up by a large shrub. Maybe it was a branch with brown leaves on the ground, maybe it was something else.

Mike was more interested in scoping out the pan, so we took a few moments to glass over the wide plain. Bustards. Bustards everywhere.

We continued on. As we moved past the shrub, I looked for the brown color that had caught my eye.

Lionesses, Central Kalahari Game Reserve

Lionesses, Central Kalahari Game Reserve

Yee-ha! Two lionesses lay stretched out in the cool green grass under big shade trees. For a couple of minutes they acknowledged our presence by picking up their heads and looking around. And that was it.

Lionesses, Central Kalahari Game Reserve

People? What people?

First one plunked back down, then soon after the second followed. When we re-started the car to leave, neither bothered to look up.

Lionesses, Central Kalahari Game Reserve

What a day.

Jan 252015

It was Saturday. The phone rang. It was someone I had met only a couple of days earlier while visiting our neighbor. “Would you like to go flying over the Delta?” he asked.

I’m sure there was a moment of silence as I processed the question.

I think I managed to filter my initial response of “Are you flipping insane? That’s not a question! Who doesn’t want to go flying over the Delta?” because he didn’t hang up.

This crazy, wonderful offer came from Brian, a friend and business partner of the homeowner. When I got my wits about me, we arranged for Mike to meet him at 4:00 that day, and I would go up in the morning.

“Oh, it’s a two seater,” I said, guessing why we wouldn’t all go together.

“Yes. It’s a gyrocopter.”

I sketched a mental picture of what this might be based on “copter,” and then I Googled it. Turns out it’s this.

Brian and his yellow gyrocopter

Brian and his gyrocopter.

As I flew in it I thought of two things: Rub-a-dub-dub, three men in a tub and Wynken, Blynken, and Nod sailed off in a wooden shoe. Both of those had to have been bigger because there wasn’t room for the candlestick maker or Nod in this one.

Oh, I also thought of this: There are maybe a handful of days when one could fly such a thing in Alaska. Brrrrr! Too bad because the fresh air is wonderful for those of us prone to motion sickness.

The gyrocopter doesn’t take off vertically like a helicopter; it takes off with a running start, like a small fixed-wing plane.

Leaving the airport, we had a bird’s-eye view of Maun.

Bird's-eye view of homes in Maun, Botswana.

Bird’s-eye view of homes in Maun, Botswana.

The town is bigger than it seems. It has about 60,000 residents (I think), but they’re spread out over a fairly wide area. There are no skyscrapers, maybe nothing higher than a two-story building.

Rural homes outside Maun, Botswana.

Rural homes outside Maun, Botswana.

Most homes are fenced, in town and out. That’s something I noticed when first flying into Maun from Johannesburg. The fences aren’t always substantial enough to keep the likes of an elephant out, but they apparently do their job, as does our garden fence at home, which couldn’t stop a determined moose.

The next three pictures are wide-angle shots of the Okavango Delta. They look best when viewed at a larger size, so I’ve uploaded large images here. If you click on them, you’ll get the big image, but you’ll have to click your back button to return here. All the photos are Mike’s—except the one of Mike, which Brian took. I didn’t even take a camera with me; looking at or through a camera while flying will do me in.

Okay, go. The next three pics are clickable for larger views.

Tree islands amongst pools of water.

The Okavango Delta in January, when it’s not flooded. Click me!

The Okavango Delta is an inland river delta. The water that reaches the Delta evaporates or transpires; it does not flow into any ocean.

Though this is the rainy season, the Delta is dry; that is, it’s not flooded. During July and August, the Delta floods, and the flooding draws animals.

So . . . rainy season now, but no flooding until July or August, long after the rainy season is over. See a disconnect?

Well, there isn’t one. It’s not local rainfall that causes the Delta to flood: It’s the Okavango River coming down from Angola, collecting water from lots of rivers and a wide area of rainfall. It takes several months for the water to collect and flow down to the Delta. See? It makes perfect sense.

A palm-tree island in the Okavango Delta.

A palm-tree island in the Okavango Delta. Click me!

We don’t see a ton of palm trees in town, but there are a good many in the Delta. I’ve never seen it flooded, but as I looked around, I figured the grassy, open places are under water, and the trees are on little islands. In places, the water, apparently, is only a few feet deep, no problem for the animals to walk through.

A ribbon of water through the Okavango Delta.

A ribbon of water through the Okavango Delta. Click me!

Ribbons of water wind through the Delta even when it’s “dry.”

A herd of buffalo in the Okavango Delta.

A herd of buffalo in the Okavango Delta.

I thought I heard Brian say the gyrocopter was flying at about 600 feet. From that altitude we could still see animals. While I didn’t stand much chance of distinguishing an impala from a springbok from a lechwe, I was able to distinguish buffalo, perhaps because of their color. Brian, of course, knew what was what.

Because of the wind, this kind of flying isn’t conducive to conversation. We left the microphones off, unless one of us had something to ask or say. I was pretty quiet, which might have made Brian think I was ill when, really, I felt great—I loved being out in the open air and didn’t feel even a twinge of disorientation or nausea—and I was in awe.

To better convey that experience to you, I’m going to shut up now and let you enjoy the ride. If you want, you can hum the music from Out of Africa. I did.

A herd of wildebeest in the Okavango Delta.

A herd of wildebeest.

Three giraffes in the Okavango Delta, Botswana.

Giraffes in the Delta.

One hippo racing into the water to join several others.

Dashing into the hippo pool.

Hippos grazing in a grassy field beside a river.

Swamp sausages grazing.

A herd of elephants in the Okavango Delta

A herd of elephants.

Elephants walking in single file through the Okavango Delta.

An Elephant parade!

Baby elephant follows mama through water in the Okavango Delta.

Follow Mama, little elephant.

Cars and people gathered on a river.

Locals recreate on a river near Maun, Botswana.

People swimming and boating in a river near Maun, Botswana.

Never mind the hippos and crocs.

Maun International Airport

Maun International Airport

Mike in the backseat of the gyrocopter.

Big guy, little aircraft.

This is the way to fly!

To Brian, who has flown here during many flood seasons, there were “no animals” out there. To these two Alaskans, there were a ton.

Jan 202015

Having been turned around by a puddle-lake on the road to North Gate at Moremi Game Reserve, and subsequently learning that the “water” sign pointing to a sand track really means “This is the detour around the water” not “This is the way to water,” we had another go at getting to the north part of Moremi, which borders the south part of Chobe National Park.

In trying to get farther afield, we again traveled slightly faster than our usual creeping search-for-interesting-things speed. As we neared the puddle-lake, Mike noticed a truck speeding up behind us. We slowed down to let it around, happy to make it our unwitting guide. It had been dry, so we didn’t expect puddles, but who knew: Beyond that point there may be dragons.

The detour track was fine for driving, but it was longer than we anticipated, so it was nice to have the truck going the same way. We never worried that we had gone astray. Despite the distance we traveled, we returned to the main sand road just on the other side of the puddle-lake.

This, now, was new territory, so it was time to slow down and pay attention.

The first surprise was a darker-than-usual giraffe.

Giraffe with brown spots.

Look how dark it is!

That photo is through the spotted windshield. The giraffe didn’t stick around.

As we photographed the giraffe, we noted movement farther ahead alongside the road. Hmmm…what was that?

Baboon sitting in green grass and brush, looking pretty.

Chacma baboon. A female, I think.

A baboon! Our first First (first-time sighting) of the day—or do we count the dark giraffe? Yes, I think we do. Our second animal, and our second First. The quantity and variety of species in Africa blows Alaska out of the water. There seems to be no end of Firsts.

Baby baboon silhouetted in a tree.

Baby baboons climb a tree, and no one’s worried about them. Kudos to you if you can find the second baboon on the tree.

Oh, wow, look at the babies climbing the tree!

As we watched the one, two, and—oh, there’s another one—three . . . wait, on the tree, four, five, six, seven, eight . . . and over there, two grooming . . .

Baboons. Lots of baboons. Playing, grooming, eating, sitting, walking, climbing.

Baboons. Lots of baboons. Playing, grooming, eating, sitting, walking, climbing.

Scads of chacma baboons. A whole troop, or congress, or tribe, depending on who you want to believe. I think the whole group-naming thing has gone off the deep end, anyway. Bunches of baboons works for me.

Male baboon standing in greenery.

Male chacma baboon.

We sat and watched and photographed for a long time. They were just doing their things: some grooming—picking bugs off of companions, some playing, some eating, some staring off into space or watching the wind blow, some attempting to mate, some climbing and running and jumping.

Baby baboon rides on adult's back.

Mama, I’m too tired to walk.

Some lazy babies begging rides.

A whole passel of baboons strolling down the road.

Movin’ out.

And the whole bunch movin’ out. They kept coming and coming and coming.

Thank goodness they moved on or we might have had to stay there all day.

Somehow, we managed to get a decent picture of this gal, even though she was on her way somewhere.

It's called "blue wildebeest," but it's not terribly blue.

Blue Wildebeest

A wildebeest should face the camera for photos as this one is doing. The head profile is odd. It’s convex like a bull terrier instead of the more common concave shape. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Next up in the animal parade . . .

Male, young, and female ostriches.

Ostrich rooster, chick, and hen.

An ostrich family. There was a second chick, but it was so far to the left that to include it in the picture meant these guys would be much smaller than they are with the brave little adventurer cropped out.

Our guide book says the ostrich call is a roar. I hope we get to hear that someday!

Then there we were, crossing the Bridge on the River Khwai.

The truck starting to head across the bridge.

Crossing the Bridge on the River Khwai

Hmmm. That’s not how I remember it from the movie.

Small bridge going over small river.

Bridge on the River Khwai

Shortly after the bridge, we came to a cut line that was to be our road back to and along the Khwai River. We learned about this cut line from the home owner, and since the Tracks4Africa GPS card arrived, we were confident we were in the right place.

Single-lane sand track.

Our road to the Khwai River.

Hooray for GPSes! I think that’s going to be very handy.

It’s been dry, so there were no puddles on the sand road, and the sand wasn’t deep. It was a lovely, stress-free road. It took us right to the Khwai River and this:

Several hippos submerged in a not-very-big river.

Hippo ‘hood.

HIPPOS! Squeeeeeeee! “I want a hippopotamus for Christmas…” and I got them!

There were maybe twenty of them, all in this pool that appeared to be the river equivalent of a plastic kiddie pool. They sounded like whales and porpoises as they expelled the water from their noses when they surfaced.

Hippo with head cocked looking out from the water.

Hey, baby, what’s a human like you doing in a place like this?

Now, hippos have a bad reputation. They’re said to be grumpy and belligerent. One friend here has a horror story about being in a boat that was capsized, righted, and capsized again by an angry hippo. He actually saw the hippo’s teeth underwater as it threw a mighty chomp his way.

Hippo with mouth open.

Say, “Ahhh.” I know there are more than two teeth in there.

They’re also fast despite their portly shape and impressive size, fast in the water and fast on land.

I confess I felt a little nervous being so close to them—the road took us right by them—but while caution is always wise, in hindsight, I think our vehicle would keep us safe even if one were bonkers enough to attack it. Next time, I’ll try to relax. Of course there will be a next time, right?

Hippo eating grass along the Khwai River

Swamp sausage!

Mostly they were in the water, but a couple were grazing on land. From here on out, hippos on land will be referred to as “swamp sausages.”

At the same time we watched the hippos, we spotted a couple of other animals on the other side of the river.

Female waterbuck along the Khwai River.

Female waterbuck along the Khwai River.

One was a female waterbuck. Yes, a waterbuck. Why it’s not a waterbok is beyond me. Everything’s a bok here: Steenbok, springbok, gemsbok. Waterbok seems like a no-brainer. Did someone just want to buck tradition?

Male waterbuck along Khwai River.

Male waterbuck along Khwai River.

A bit later, we found a couple of males and some more females. I began to notice something besides their fuzzy necks: Their noses are all a distinctive shape.

The waterbuck nose is distinctively heart-shaped.

Waterbuck nose: I heart it!

It’s really not an unusual shape for such noses, but the coloring really makes the heart shape stand out, don’t you think? Cool!

The other animal across the river was this:

Black and white stork with red bill that has a yellow "saddle" at the base.

Saddlebilled Stork

Storks are automatically cool because of their size. This one tops the list with its red and yellow color combo. But wait . . . what’s that? Is the red and yellow just duct tape? Seriously, the yellow flaps above and below the base of the bill look like Post-It notes stuck onto it. Points off for lame workmanship. But they all have it. Did they all call each other this morning? Points added for efforts to coordinate.

Crazy storks.

We wanted to keep going and going on this fantabulous road along the river, but we were on a schedule. We stopped for lunch at a second pool with about six hippos, a kingfisher, and a couple more storks, and then we turned around.

On the way out, we came upon this guy:

Bull elephant spraying himself with water.

Up his nose is a rubber hose. Really.

He bathed in water, and then he bathed in mud.

I was kinda nervous—no, there was no “kinda” about it—because we were only about twenty feet away from him, less than that at the end when he wandered off. The road took us right up beside him. Thankfully, there were some shrubs and a tree between us, and he wasn’t too bothered by our nearness. In fact, he didn’t seem bothered at all. He didn’t glance back as he wandered away or pay us any nevermind. I might have heard him humming the tune from The Jungle Book.

We visited the first hippo pool briefly on our way back. Most of the hippos seemed to be napping: one sausage was snoozing on the bank with just his or her belly and back feet in the water; two others were grazing on shore.

We had one final lovely sighting on the way home.

Warthog with grass in its mouth.

Pretty warthog.

A handsome specimen, no? The Fabio of warthogs.

Besides the truck that led us around the puddle-lake detour, we didn’t see another car all day, except as we neared town. Not one other car. It’s as though we have Africa all to ourselves. How lucky can we get? We are grateful.

Jan 132015

Again we took the plunge and committed to visiting the Moremi Game Reserve by booking ahead at the Wildlife Office here in town. According to at least one of our guide books, this may not be strictly necessary at Moremi. We’ll figure that out some other time, though. Or not.

Again we had several firsts, including our first disappointment.

Elephant skin smooshed and pulled

This is what you can do with a close-up of elephant skin and Photoshop. It’s useful for breaking up a giant wall of text.

Continue reading »

Jan 082015

All right. It’s time to actually go into a park or reserve, despite our tremendous success futzing about outside them.

The park system is not like it is in the US where you can drive to a park whenever you please, pay the entrance fee at the Visitor Center or drop it in a box, and be on your way. Here, entrance fees are handled at a central location in Maun, and the office isn’t open 24/7. In other words, you have to plan, which requires a commitment. These are not our strong suits.

But we did it. The office closes at 4:30 p.m. (which is 16:30 here). We got there at 4:00 to make a day-trip reservation for Nxai Pan National Park for the following morning.

Now, about the name “Nxai Pan.” It is commonly pronounced “Nigh Pan,” which rhymes with “sky man,” but that x isn’t really silent. Nor is it pronounced like a z, or ks, or any other sound familiar to my American ears. It’s a click, part of the Khoisan languages. I don’t know how it’s done, exactly, but it’s fun to try, so give it a shot.

We had a goal to get to the park early, so on the way we didn’t search for wildlife the way we would normally. However, our eyes were open, and some things can’t be missed. This black-backed jackal, for instance.

Black-backed jackal.

Black-backed jackal.

Continue reading »

For the Birds

 Posted by  Africa, Travel
Jan 052015

Africa’s Big Game will always be the Big Hit, but Africa’s big and little birds are nothing short of spectacular. Since I posted the first bird list, we’ve added the following:

  • Barn owl
  • Black-collared barbet
  • African darter
African darter and pied kingfishers

African darter drying out and two pied kingfishers hunting.

We see darters and kingfishers and loads of other birds on the river by the house. Continue reading »