Africa 2018-19

Rare Sightings (to Us) in Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park

The Daily Dozen, Day 5, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park

A dozen carefully curated photos from our fifth day in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. Mike culled the hundreds of photos down to 40, and then I had to select the 12 from there.

I couldn’t do it. I wound up taking extra time to squish three photos into one so I could stick to my self-imposed limit of 12. I have to dig in and sometimes fight to hold Mike to that limit, so I can hardly allow myself to go over.

Rooftop Tents

For our previous tours through Botswana and Namibia, we borrowed camping gear from our friends, Mark and Ali, including a large ground tent.

This year, we started our tour in Windhoek, Namibia, and so rented camping gear along with our truck. That means we have the ubiquitous rooftop tents, which means breaking down tents before heading out every morning and setting them up again at night, even when we return to the same campsite.

Rooftop tents, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo NOT by Mike Weber. Huh. Fancy that.

Rooftop tents, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo NOT by Mike Weber. Huh. Fancy that.

Now, there’s a reason rooftop tents are ubiquitous, maybe several reasons; although, I can think of two just now:

1. They are quick and easy to set up.
2. Some people feel and believe they are safer, camping on top of a vehicle rather than on the ground where elephants and lions walk.

Mike and Barb are sold on the idea, too, but I’m not. (Mike says he’ll share his opinions on rooftop tents in the comments.)

It’s true they’re faster to set up than a ground tent—except when the ground tent is already set up! Then they are not.

And what if you come back to the campsite midday so everyone can shower, and you want to lie down for a snooze or just stretch out and read? We never bothered to set up the tents for brief midday periods, which meant snoozing/reading in camp chairs or the truck. That’s no good. I missed having cots—aka “stretchers”— or pads and being able to stretch out easily of an afternoon.

As for feeling or being safer, I simply don’t feel it or believe it. Do you think an elephant can’t reach the rooftop tent or a lion can’t jump up to the hood of the truck? Really?

Whether the tent is on the ground or on the truck, there’s still just a little layer of fabric between you and the animals outside.

Nope, I prefer a larger ground tent and anytime-access to a comfy horizontal position.

And then there is at least one down side to rooftop tents that everyone agrees upon: the close proximity of multiple tents which means all sounds and movement are heard and felt by everyone. When one person snores, sneezes, or rolls over, everyone hears and feels it.

But that’s what we’re dealing with, and they’re not awful. I wasn’t sure they’d be big enough, but they are surprisingly roomy.

We’ve mastered the setup/breakdown system. We’re so quick now, we had time to spare this morning before we could legally leave the campground. Alas, we are rule followers.

Early Morning Predators

Our 5:30 AM departure paid off again with a glimpse of a nighttime predator not yet hunkered down for the day.

African wildcat, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photos by Mike Weber

It’s a 3-for-1 photo deal! African wildcat, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photos by Mike Weber

See what I did here? None of these pics is going to win a Nat Geo photo contest, but they all contain something I want to remember and share.

Do you know what these are?

African wildcats. This animal is the genetic beginning of all domestic cats, from odd-looking hairless cats to cross-eyed, blue-eyed Siamese to long-haired beauties pictured eating out of crystal goblets on expensive catfood cans. They all came from this.

Most people want to see the Big Cats—lions, leopards, and cheetahs—but it’s harder and more rare to find the medium and small cats, so this is exciting.

What makes it super exciting is the kitten! Mike and I saw our first two wildcats last year on night drives, but this is our first kitten. The bottom left photo shows a hint of the camouflaging spots kittens are born with.

Now, there is great variety in the appearance of wildcats, but the gray tiger kitty look is perhaps most common. One thing they all (or most, and all four we’ve seen) seem to have are black arm bands, which you can see on both of the smaller photos.

We spied these two in some dense shrubs where they will presumably hunker down for the day. Maybe there’s a den in there, but we saw no sign of one.

Juvenile Martial Eagle

This fellow puzzled us in two ways.

Juvenile martial eagle, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

Juvenile martial eagle, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

First, we couldn’t decide if this was an adult Wahlberg’s eagle or a juvenile Martial eagle. We only recently convinced ourselves it’s the latter.

Second, its behavior was strange. Were it an adult, I’d be forced to call it daft. Since I now know it was a juvenile, I can sort of dismiss the odd behavior and believe it was just exploring its environment and learning. Maybe.

For starters, it was on the ground right beside the road. When we pulled up just a few feet away, it barely noticed and didn’t care at all. That’s not normal.

It seemed to have something trapped beneath the shrub branches it stood on. It pecked at and between the branches, so I figured it was killing and/or eating something.

Nope. Not eating. Just pecking at the branches.

That went on for some time. When he finally abandoned the shrub, he stomped on other plants, pecked at the sand, and picked up a stick. Oh, maybe it was looking for nest material.

Nope. Not looking for nest material. It never flew away with anything, just dropped the different objects it picked up.

It picked up a rock in its beak, turned it around, pecked at it.

That’s it. It stayed busy not noticing or caring about us, standing on things, pecking at things, and picking things up.

How is this bird alive still? I felt sorry for it.

We left it curiously exploring.

The Flat Tires Begin

As we pulled away from the daft eagle, a fellow self-driver pulled up beside us to say that our back, left tire was flat.


We pulled onto a side road to deal with it. I guess the rule about not getting out of the vehicle doesn’t apply when a tire is flat. If it does, then the rule about curfew won’t apply later.

The back left tire was indeed flat, and the front left tire was becoming flat.

We had two spares, but we also had a compressor. Since these appeared to be slow leaks, we opted to try the compressor and see if that would get us back to the campsite.

Africa is hard on tires, but African tires are exceptionally tough, and we’ve been on good roads or sand only. There’s no good reason for flat tires yet.

The compressor worked, and both tires held air. We returned to the campground for lunch, and Mike changed both tires. Barb and I found a pinhole leak in the front tire but nothing at all in the back tire. Go figure. We’ll get them fixed at some point. Mike has a tire-repair kit, too, and is quite good at it if the need should arise. Frankly, he hates doing it, but he’s a tire-changing pro.

Nope, not wasting a precious photo on a flat tire. Use your imagination.


Giraffe, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

Giraffe, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

We saw what appeared to be the same five bull giraffes we saw yesterday. We’re not covering a lot of distance on our drives. These long-legged animals can cover similar distances easily.

They didn’t do anything interesting; they just are interesting.

And I like this photo.

This is one reason I squeezed three African wildcat photos together.

Secretary Birds

You know we’re seeing lots of ostriches and kori bustards. Well, we’re also seeing lots of secretary birds. In fact, none of us has ever seen so many. Or so many so close. Or so many so close so active. These birds make the “favorite things” list.

Secretary bird, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

Secretary bird, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

How delightful is this bird, I ask you?

The naked orange skin around the eye and the yellow bill fulfill my requirement for color to be noticed and fully appreciated. It’s not much, I’ll grant you, but it’s enough, particularly when combined with short pantaloons on very long, skinny, pink legs, and . . .

Secretary bird head feathers, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

Secretary bird head feathers, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

. . . fluttery head fringe!

The extra-long tail feathers are almost superfluous.

If appearances aren’t enough for you, they’re also endemic to Africa, and they can walk 20–30 km per day. And by “walk,” I mean stride purposefully while hunting. What do they hunt and eat? According to one book, “anything they can overpower,” including insects, reptiles, birds, and small mammals. What we see, and what I find very entertaining, is the birds walking along and suddenly stamping one foot. They’re stamping to kill prey so they can eat it. Walk-walk-walk, stamp! Chomp. Sometimes a stamp-stamp-stamp is required.

They are monogamous; both parents care for the young . . . what’s not to like?

Their size, perhaps, if you’re a wildebeest. Secretary birds can be over four feet tall, which is the height of an adult wildebeest at the shoulder. They can see eye-to-eye, even when they don’t.

Wildebeests vs. Secretary Birds

Wildebeest and secretary bird, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

Wildebeest and secretary bird, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

Two wildebeests lumbered over to the Kij Kij waterhole while a pair of secretary birds lingered there, occasionally scooping mouthfuls from the pool, but mostly walking around it. The birds neither gave up the waterhole nor invited the wildebeests to share. The gnus politely waited and waited, as wary as the four or five jackals roaming in the vicinity. Gnus afraid of secretary birds? We laughed, which I’m sure didn’t help the wildebeests’ mood. They stood in the sun, growing ever more thirsty and irritable.

Eventually, after a good long time, one wildebeest had had enough. It snorted and charged. The birds wisely gave way, and the wildebeests enjoyed a drink.

The secretary birds sometimes waded while they drank, as did the wildebeests. Do you suppose the birds thought “hmm, this water tastes like wildebeest feet,” and the widebeests thought, “hmm, this water tastes like secretary bird feet”?

High-headed Hartebeest

High-headed red hartebeest, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

High-headed red hartebeest, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

I’ve heard of high-handed, but high-headed? What’s up with that?

Look at that haretbeest’s forehead. Most horns and antlers on animals begin right on the forehead. The hartebeests have a fur-covered forehead shelf on which their horns sit. I think that looks strange.

Gemsbok Details

One of the many things I like about gemsbok is that both sexes have the long, ringed horns. Males’ horns tend to be shorter and fatter. Can you guess the sexes of the four adults in the photo below based on the horns?

Gemsbok with young, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

Gemsbok with young, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

I think the back left gemsbok is male and the rest are female.

Did you note the little one?

Most animals keep their babies hidden for a time after birth, sometimes in dens, sometimes in brush, sometimes just away from the crowd. As a result, we rarely see the youngest animals. We see gemsbok young less often than most other species.

This is our first one this year. It’s early in the calving season.

Baby gemsbok, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

Baby gemsbok, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

Pula Effects

If you haven’t seen it, you’ve probably at least heard rumors of it: When it rains in the desert, flowers spring forth.

Well, we’ve had a bit of rain, or “pula” in the Setswana language.

As yet unidentified desert flower, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

As yet unidentified desert flower, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

Boy, do these stand out against the sand. I wish I knew what they were, but we don’t have a great plant book, and we can’t find it in the books we have.

If you know what this is, please share in the comments.

The Ghost Herd

The day ended with a bit of serendipity.

“There are supposed to be eland here,” Mike said, “a lot of them.” He mentioned seeing a photo on one of our park books that shows a giant herd of eland.

Eland are the largest of Africa’s antelopes. They get to be over 5 feet tall at the shoulder and males can weigh over a ton. They’re huge and should have a hard time hiding, but we’ve seen few of them during previous visits. They are shy and elusive. But a huge herd? How does a huge herd hide?

Not long after mentioning them, just before we reached our campground for the evening, Mike looked over to the right and saw this:

Eland herd, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

Eland herd, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

Did he summon them? Or did serendipity strike again?

There were many more in the herd than you see in the photo. One of our books says they gather in herds up to 50, but that aggregations of thousands occur in the northern Kalahari. Hey! We’re in the Kalahari!

The herd was just starting to cross the road in front of us, and it freaked when it noticed us. Some made a run for it, while those farther back turned around and disappeared over the little ridge you see in the photo. The thundering herd scared a jackal that was trotting beside us.

We had a little time before curfew and were just outside our campground, so we hung around to see if any would return if we remained still and quiet.

The ones that had crossed the road did indeed return, some distance from us, to rejoin those over the ridge. All except one, that is. One eland couldn’t pluck up the courage to cross back over with us in sight, so we headed back to camp. I hope s/he made it back to the group.

A Baker’s Dozen

“All right, all right! Here’s your African wildcat kitten picture, Mike.”

I try to make the daily photo limit a rule, but Mike insists it’s a guideline.

“Hey, when I get a rare picture of a rare animal during a short-lived life phase, it’s going in!”

African wildcat kitten, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

“What do you mean I don’t make the cut?” African wildcat kitten, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, photo by Mike Weber

Obviously, I don’t disagree.

7 replies »

  1. Another great installment. Love the Gemsbok, stunning antelope. We were thrilled to see caracal, serval and civet and gennet (of course the last two arent cats) but we missed the wild cats. Would’ve been nice to see the og cat.

  2. So…about those rooftop tents. I think Jen came down a little hard on them and I’m here to offer a bit of a rebuttal. First of all, I agree with the one glaring drawback; being on top of a somewhat bouncy truck means you feel all the slightest movements of others up there with you. That’s mostly when you’re settling in or getting up, though, so it’s really not that bad. As far as snores or sneezes, well, you’d hear those in a ground tent, too, so that’s a wash.

    It’s also true that it’s a little inconvenient having to pack up the tents every time you want to drive somewhere. That might be especially galling for someone staying in one place for a long time. But we moved campsites frequently, and would have been packing up a ground tent almost as often as the rooftops. And as Jen admitted, the rooftop tents are super easy and quick to set up/take down. By the end of the trip, we could do the 2 tents in about 5 minutes, total. So, yeah, you lose 10 minutes out of your day, but, c’mon…it’s 10 minutes.

    I think there’s no doubt that people feel safer in a rooftop. Whether they really are or not, well, Jen thinks no, but I think yes. An elephant stumbles into your truck at night and you’ve got a rude awakening. He stumbles into your ground tent and you’re a pancake. Sure, lions could jump onto the hood of the truck and reach the tent (more about that in an upcoming episode), but those are extra steps he has to take, giving you extra time to get away. Bottom line though, you’re probably pretty safe in both kinds of tents.

    As far as mid-day napping, I got a kick out of that. We NEVER do that, even when we have a ground tent. For one thing, we’re almost never back in camp during the middle of the day, and for another, it’s too darn hot to lay in a tent then!

    So, to sum up for you future Africa campers, when choosing a tent, Jen says go ground, I prefer the rooftop. Happy camping!

  3. Thanks, Doug. The wildlife is pretty great over here, isn’t it? We’ll have to get together sometime and compare notes. We’ve yet to see Serval or Civet, but those nocturnal critters are hard to come by. We’ve been a little lucky with the Wild Cats. And we’ve actually got a genet w/kittens living at the house where we’re currently staying. BTW, what’s an “og cat”?

  4. Another gift of a morning read and a meander through your reality. Thank you, Jen and Mike and Barb. The uniqueness of the animals is astounding. I find myself wondering abound the big views, the expanses of terrain.
    And am called to reread cry of the Kalahari, unless you recommend another book.