Our adventure to Africa: Three years in the making Maybe it was because it took three years for this trip to finally happen (due to a little global changing event: COVID-19) or the fact that we hadn’t traveled in 3 years, but I was very nervous and anxious about this trip. For the longest time and even just months before the trip, I had doubts it would even happen. I finally accepted and allowed myself to get excited about it a few months before we were set to leave. My main worry was that so much could go wrong (getting Covid, taxi doesn’t show up, missed connection, etc). One of those worries came true. The day of our flight I received a text saying our flight to Amsterdam was delayed and we’d need to rebook our flights. However, the only options they provided was to rebook the same flights for the following day, which would cut off a day in Cape Town and lessen our buffer for things to go wrong. Instead of rebooking online at home like Delta wanted us to do, we headed to the airport where they checked us in without asking if we would like to rebook. I guess their tech didn’t recognize that we’d have no time to connect in Amsterdam, which would effectively strand us there. We didn’t really understand the full implications either I suppose. We didn’t want to risk missing the safari by putting more faith in the next day’s flight. So we took the delayed flight to Amsterdam and arrived just as the plane to Cape Town was pulling away from the gate. The situation at the airport was chaotic - the ongoing staffing shortages led to delays and long queues (which was why our plane was late). Delta effectively dropped the problem (us without a flight) into KLM ‘s hands. Overworked as they were, the KLM staff were very kind, and we were rebooked through Dubai. The extra leg would add 7 hours of flight time, but we’d arrive in Cape Town 12 hours sooner than we would have if Delta rebooked us on the following day’s flights. The flights to Dubai and Cape Town were full, and we were stuck in the last section of the planes due to the last minute bookings. It was uncomfortable and crowded, but we made it to Cape Town with luggage in tow. The nice thing about arriving during daylight hours was that airport stores were open and there were plenty of drivers willing to take us to where we needed to go. We bought a data plan for South Africa and got to our AirBNB with the help of Eric, one of the persistent cab drivers who took us when we weren’t able to hail an Uber driver because we couldn’t get a signal at the airport.
Camps Bay and Table Mountain, Cape Town, South Africa
We arrived early in the afternoon to our cute studio, which overlooked Camps Bay and had a peek-a-boo view of Lions Head, part of Table Mountain. The little studio was set in a dense urban garden, which added to the charm. After cleaning up from the flights, we took an Uber to the Table Mountain cable car, which we rode to the top. It was the only way we’d get there in the little time we had in Cape Town. The cable car climbed 1000 meters up the steep mountainside of exposed rock and low scrub. The floor of the cable car rotated giving all riders 360 degree views through the glass windows and open doors. At the top, we strolled the easy trail through the unique flora and gorgeous viewpoints of Cape Town, Robinson Island, the Atlantic Ocean, and the rest of Table Mountain to the south. The unique fynbos scrub was dotted with white, purple, and yellow blossoms of unrecognizable (to me) plants. We were delighted by the clouds of the large Alpine and African Black Swifts that would occasionally buzz over our heads and cut through the blue sky. Beautiful Orange-breasted Sunbirds called a top the brush and a Cape Robin-chat sang from the dense fynbos. After enjoying the new environment and amazing views, we rode the cable car back down the mountain in the evening and walked down the road from the cable cars. Even more unfamiliar flowers were blooming at the lower elevation. Cape White-eyes and Cape Sugarbirds foraged in the scrub, and a flock of Helmeted Guineafowl walked along the road. We reached the lower trailhead parking lot in the waning light and attempted to hail an Uber, which wasn’t working out. One of the many local joggers noticed our distress and offered us the ride back to Camps Bay where he was headed anyway. We graciously accepted and took him up on his generosity. South Africans, we soon came to realize, were super friendly and helpful. For dinner, we ate at one of the fancy seafood restaurants along the touristy Camps Bay beachfront. The food in South Africa was largely European-based, but it was good, and it was nice to dine with the open sea breeze.
We retired back at the quaint studio, thankfully for a night's sleep laying horizontally.
Cape Peninsula tour, South Africa My stomach still hadn’t acclimated to the time zone and awoke with a grumble at the dark hour of 5 AM. It didn’t help that my head was pounding from the lack of sleep and the stress of travel the 2 days before. I lay in the dark listening to the unfamiliar calls of the dawn chorus, which I was pretty certain were the common (junk) birds of Cape Town suburbia. They were still wonderful and magical to listen to.
For the day, we had a guide to take us around the Cape Peninsula. Before the tour, we spent the morning wandering Camps Bay Beach - watching the gulls, terns, cormorants, African Oystercatchers, Hadada Ibis, and a small colony of rock hyrax. We returned to our studio to find Chris, our guide, waiting for us in the driveway. We quickly packed our day gear and headed down the Cape Peninsula. Chris was a veteran guide, leading tours of the area for the past 25 years. He provided a wealth of information about the area along with general knowledge of natural history, and had a fun personality and interesting viewpoints. He wasn’t a bird guide, but we saw a few good birds along the way. We entered the Cape Peninsula National Park and drove down the narrow, windy, coastal highway. A large pod of common dolphins cruised the deep blue waters, heading to the bay, and Cape fur seals hauled out on small rocky islands. At the Cape Point National Park, we spotted bontebok and ostrich grazing in the soft ground of the fynbos. Colorful pincushion proteas and icicle plants bloomed among the dense scrub. The flora along the coast was absolutely stunning. At Cape Point, we rode the funicular up to the lighthouse where we looked into False Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. A fur seal dove in the aqua clear waters along the shore of the rocky cliffs. Cape Cormorants nested in the cliff crevices, and a Rock Kestrel patrolled the steep hillsides. In the distance, we could see eland sitting in the soft sand and a small group of ostrich also taking a break in the day's heat. After walking back down from the lighthouse, we visited the south-western most point of Africa. A group of Common Ostrich were grazing on the beach, creating an unusual sighting of ostriches and the salty ocean. A baby ostrich must have wandered too far from its parents and was slowly trailing a group of subadults.
We continued the Cape Peninsula tour with a stop at Boulder Beach where we had lunch at a seafood restaurant, which overlooked a small white sand beach and protected bay. On the large boulders, I noticed penguin shapes and first thought they must be statues because they didn’t seem to move. But it turned out sometimes sunbathing penguins don’t move much, and we enjoyed our first sightings of the African Penguins also known as the jackass penguin for their loud obnoxious calls. After lunch, we went to the penguin colony to walk the boardwalk and view the sandy beach of adults and many fuzzy chicks. Penguins swam in the waters, coming ashore in groups. The young fuzzy chicks huddled together in small depressions, trying to stay cool. In the nearby scrub, a pair of Red-faced Mousebirds briefly stopped in, while a Cape Bulbul fed on some berries. The tour continued up the bay with surfers catching waves along the stretches of white sand beaches. A shark watcher sat in a roadside booth looking out for any signs. We returned to the studio in the evening and had dinner overlooking Camps Bay Beach as the sun disappeared behind thick clouds. Street vendors hawked their wares to the tourists, and a family of performers sang across the street. After packing for our next leg of the journey that would start early the following morning, we slept in peaceful quiet.
Flight to Kasane (Chobe riverfront), Botswana After a poor night's sleep and getting up to catch the flight, I was pretty dead tired in the morning. It didn’t help that the timing of South Africa’s electrical load sharing happened right when we were getting ready. We picked our way through the darkness, hoping that we weren’t leaving anything behind. Chris took us to the Cape Town airport, where we got checked in and through security pretty quickly. After a relatively short flight (only 2 hours), we were in the Johannesburg airport - it felt like the airport was stuffed into a gigantic mall. Flashy, new stores lined every hallway and the gates were slipped in between business, almost as if they were apologetic to be there.
Before the flight, we met up with our safari companions - Delsa and Charles. I had met Delsa during jury duty in the summer of 2019. She was looking for a third person to round out a bird photography safari that she was arranging for fall of 2020. I asked if she wouldn’t mind a fourth person and plans were set until everything fell apart in 2020. But we kept in touch over the years and were happy that plans finally came together for 2022. After everything, it was good to finally see them on African soil. I had started to feel ill, shortly before we met up with them, but thought it was just being tired and dealing with the stress of 36 hours of air travel. On the shuttle to the plane on the tarmac, I felt faint and ill enough to attract the attention of nearly all the other passengers. It might have been the stress, heat, and diesel exhaust, but it was too much for my body. When the flight attendant took one look at me, I was worried she was going to kick me off the plane. But after the administrations from Tor and a fellow veterinarian passenger, they managed to get color and life back into me as we touched down in Kasane, Botswana. By the time we reached the lodge, I was feeling and looking a lot better. All the stress took a toll on my digestive tract, however and it took another couple of days for it to recover. Despite all my ailments, it didn’t stop me from enjoying our time in Kasane at the Bakwena Lodge along the Chobe riverfront.
Bakwena Lodge, Botswana
Over the next 4 days and 3 nights, we were spoiled by the lodge staff with luxury rooms, delicious and plentiful meals, while enjoying the wonderful and amazing wildlife along the Chobe River. The staff at the lodge seemed genuinely happy to accommodate us. Everytime we left the lodge to go to the park and upon returning, the women would holler loudly and wish us well. When returning from each safari outing, fresh moist towels were offered to wipe off the day's dust. Each circular thatch roofed hut had a plush king sized bed with indoor and outdoor showers. A covered deck furnished with chairs were great for viewing the riverfront or tree tops. Every evening, they turned down the bed and lowered the mosquito netting (which wasn’t necessary but added to the ambiance). Meals were served in an open thatch roof dining area. For breakfast was juice, coffee, tea, toast, fruit, yogurt, cereal, and muffins or pancakes. Lunch was a light meal of fresh salads and a protein like chicken kofta, egg quiche, or fish cakes. At 3PM (right before leaving for the afternoon safari), high tea was iced tea and bit size savory and sweet pastries. Dinner was a more elaborate affair of appetizer, a meat or vegetarian main course, and dessert. While on safari, we were also treated to rooibos tea or coffee with biscuits in the morning. On the evening safari, we enjoyed sundowners of gin and tonics, wine or beer along with snacks. Needless to say we were never hungry! The grounds were well groomed yet teeming with bird and wildlife. A herd of bushbuck freely roamed the grounds. The lodge owner built the lodge around them, and they stayed - recognizing it as a safe haven. Now the bushbuck are quite habituated to humans. And are easy to see on a daily basis. Many birds are found in the bush, along the riverfront reeds, and at the dining halls seed and fruit feeders. Village and Golden Weaver, Hartlaub’s Babblers, Southern Cordonbleus, and Brown Firefinch visited the feeders. White-browed Coucal and Red-faced Cisticola foraged in the reedy riverbanks. The beautiful African Paradise-Flycatcher and Collared Sunbird flitted around the palms and forest undergrowth. At night, the large fruit bats fed on the figs, dropping the seeds after devouring the fruit.
Chobe National Park, Botswana The safaris into the bush of Chobe National Park was, of course, the main reason for being here. Our guide for our stay at the Bakwena Lodge was Den, a local Botswanaian, who was knowledgeable about the wildlife and most flashy birds and a great spotter. Den led us on morning and evening safaris into the National Park on the south side of the Chobe River by modified Land Rover or onto the Chobe River by boat. As this was our first time in Africa, everything was new and exciting. Getting to the park from the lodge was interesting - if a little surreal. We traveled on the main 2-lane paved highway past gas stations, the airport, business, and the car dealership to get there. Yes, there were also farms and small houses, but it wasn’t exactly the setting to expect when enroute to see hippos, lions, and elephants. It was made a little odder when we’d see Marabou Storks descending en masse to the landfill, strikingly beautiful Lilac-breasted Rollers perched on the powerlines, and Warthogs rooting around roadside. After a brief 15 minute drive down the highway (with regular passenger cars passing us all along the way), we entered the park through the main gate - a thatched roofed gate house where Den, self-driving tourists, and all guides had to check in. From the gate house, we drove the network of red dusty roads through the Kalahari desert scanning the grasses, under scrubs, and trees for wildlife with all roads leading down to the Chobe riverfront. The riverfront was an expanse of open close cropped green and golden grassy plains channeled by smaller arms of the river. We weren’t the only safari vehicle in the national park as there were many lodges in Kasane. The guides all communicate with each other through the radio. Big sightings such as lions and leopards were broadcast over the airwaves so all the guides could rush their tourists to the sighting. And rush we did when on our first safari there was report of 3 lionesses lounging riverside. The afternoon started at a very slow leisurely pace since every roller, kudu, impala, owlet, and spurfowl was new. When the lion report came in, Den rushed us down to the riverfront past our first elephant sighting. In the waning light, we saw the 3 lioness lounging on the riverbank with no intention of moving (as was typical of lions when they weren’t hunting, which is only 5% of the time). And so marked the beginning of our safari adventures -
a blurred photo with poor composition and lighting of the first elephant we saw. Although this picture is horrible in so many ways, I like it because of the meaning it holds behind it. It is an appropriate symbol of the following days and evenings on safari in Botswana. We were on the go, cameras on the ready, and hardly the time to absorb details since there was always so much else to see - all of it new and exciting, of course. This trip would be so different from others that we’ve been on, not just in environment or wildlife, but also in pace and method. Our time was spent mostly on our butts, moving at a fast pace through acacia, grasslands, marshes, papyrus reeds, sand, salt pans, wetlands, and the drying desert in the seat of a Land Rover, while constantly scanning for movement of animals and birds. Travel is always by car (or boat) because walking through the bush is dangerous. This became the hardest difference in safari travel. Normally, I like going slow, on foot, looking and listening, watching and absorbing. Vehicle travel precludes a lot if not all of these aspects. The diesel engine is loud, if it’s not idling then the fridge that contains our drinks in the car is humming away constantly. Walking around at night was prohibited (for good reason). Even within the grounds of Bakwena Lodge, the staff escorted us the 50 yards from our hut to the dining hall. (Night hikes in the Amazon rainforests were some of my favorite memories.) However, to see all the wonderful wildlife of Botswana, vehicle travel is the only way. Land Rover and boat travel in the Chobe National Park riverfront included many highlights over the next couple of days. These included:
Mud bathing elephants. Large elephants would stirrup mud with their front legs, then slurp up the mud in their trunks and throw it on their sides and backs. Baby elephants would be small enough to roll in the mud - both being adorably and dirty at once.
A surprising number of baby elephants, which were only 1-2 weeks old. They were still young enough, they couldn’t figure out where mom’s nipple was - in the front or back? The enthusiasm and delight of a young elephant rolling in water under its mom’s feet. A race to see the reported leopard in a tree. We arrived to 4 other safari cars parked and angled toward a dense tangle of branches. We saw the leopard through a small window into the obstructing branches. It climbed out of the tree and started walking through the bush. When Den saw this, he immediately put the Rover into action and maneuvered around the other cars while they all began pursuit of the moving leopard. We were among the first to move in parallel with the leopard as it crossed the red Kalahari sands. Den got the car perfectly positioned when the leopard walked out into the open and crossed the road in front of us. The cars that were behind us pulled into the bushes trying to give their tourists a view. The accumulative commotion of the cars running over bushes startled the (up until then) calm leopard, which picked up its pace and trotted into the cover of dense brush. For our first leopard sighting, it was an amazing and thrilling view. Floating in the Chobe River, we watched the lechwe run and chase over the open plains. These wetland specialties have narrow legs and shorter front legs to help them run and out maneuver predators in the water. Den’s obvious enthusiasm and love of the wildlife of Chobe made all of these sightings more enjoyable. After just 3 full days on the riverfront and the wonderful Bakwena Lodge, it was time to move onto the next leg of the adventure - to the Okavango Delta.