South Africa and Botswana - part II
Moremi Game Reserve
Feeling much better after my afflictions during the beginning of travel, I was still hesitant to be flying a tiny plane over the desert during mid-day (thermals). It didn’t stop my excitement to be going into the Okavango Delta - a world renown place for wildlife. The Okavango is the largest delta to not touch saltwater in the world. Every rainy season, water runs down from the Angola highlands and spills across the Kalahari, forming the Okavango Delta. This oasis is a wonder for wildlife - providing a diversity of habitats as well as water in the middle of the desert. The future of the Okavango Delta is uncertain with the threat of the highlands being open up to farming and human influence. The Angola highlands were once safe from humans interference because of war and the many landmines left behind. However, those landmines are being cleared out and agricultural lands are starting to drain the water that would normally run down to the desert. The other major factor that is affecting the Okavango is, of course, climate change. In 2020 and 2021, the delta suffered terribly from drought, which killed masses of wildlife, most noticeably (and reported on) elephants. Perhaps it was for the best that our trip to Botswana was delayed until this year, when the rains returned to normal.
After a farewell song from the Bakwena lodge staff, we said our good-byes to a wonderful place. At the Kasane airport, we loaded onto a 12-passenger prop plane along with several groups of tourists also flying out to the delta. There were 2 stops before our airstrip. From the plane, we got great views of the Chobe River as we took off. Kasane sprawled over the river’s edge, but away from the town, the edge of the river was green with leafed out trees, reeds, and lush grasses. Beyond the river lay a vast expanse of leafless trees pocked with dry brown earth. Animal trails created a mosaic over the landscape as they wind through every habitat but ultimately lead to dry water holes and ones that still held water. In contrast to the mosaic created by animal paths, an occasional wide and straight dirt road bisected the land, providing a direct path from point A to point B. At the mud holes and small ponds, elephants gathered to bathe and drink. As we circled to touch down at our airstrip outside of the Moremi Game Reserve, I could see giraffes, impala, and elephants among the acacia.
Chris Dandridge, our guide through the Okavango Delta for the next 8 days, picked us up at the airstrip. Delsa had gone on a safari with Chris before and made arrangements for him to be our guide on this trip. Chris came from the family of safaris guides and as such really excelled at tracking, spotting, and driving. Plus he had all the knowledge that went with growing up around safari wildlife. While not exactly a bird guide, he did know all of the distinctive and colorful birds - minus the smaller ones that all looked the same (little brown birds) such as the cisticolas and small shorebirds. As a birder first and photographer second (unlike the rest of my traveling companions), I tried my best to behave and not rock the boat. I had to bite my tongue when wanting to look at every LBB in the grass. I knew if we did this we’d hardly get away from camp. And only once, did I make it awkward for everyone in the car when I started arguing with Chris about the id of a small peep. So I think I did pretty well to tame my argumentative side while still having the opportunity to identify some of the smaller birds. :) Plus, we did see A LOT. Not just birds (189 species in the Okavango Delta), but so much wildlife. I’m getting ahead of myself. Going back to our initial landing outside of the Moremi Game Reserve…
At the gate to the reserve, we were welcomed by a pair of Broad-billed Rollers and Yellow-billed Hornbills. Within the reserve, Chris drove the dirt roads to our campsite. Namaqua, Emerald-spotted Wood, Ring-necked, and Red-eyed Doves seemed to relish sitting in the road and flying at the last moment before the Land Rover tires only to land 20 ft down the road to repeat the process again. Red-billed and Swainson’s Spurfowl also played chicken with the safari car and ran away at the last moments. Plains zebras, wildebeest, tsessebe, waterbuck, kudu, warthogs, elephants and impala graze within the same view of each other. It was a sight to behold - it looked exactly as those movies and documentaries we’ve grown up watching!
After a first dazzling trip though the mopane and broadleaf forests, golden savanna dotted with termites mounds and the islands of sausage trees, and wet marshy green grass, we arrived at our campsite for the next 4 nights. Under a canopy of tall trees, three large canvas tents were erected a respectable distance from each other and from the open air dining tent. The canvas tents were spacious (especially compared to the 2-person nylon tent we’re used to) with 2 twin beds, a night stand, and 4 mesh windows. Each tent was equipped with a walled-in, no-roof pit toilet and shower that were attached to the back. The pit toilet was dug deep by the camp staff and a small bucket of dirt was provided to bury our waste as we went. The shower was an open nylon bag with nozzle that the staff would fill with warm water upon request. The nice thing about an open air bathroom is looking at the stars during a shower or finding a thick-toed gecko during a midnight trip to the toilet. In front of the tent was a small awning, which sheltered a table with the wash basins, which were filled with warm water each morning and evening. Chris’s smaller tent was positioned a short distance away, while the “kitchen” and staffs’ tents were spread out behind the large cargo truck, which also acted as a visual and sound barrier from the rest of the camp. The staff of six, who included AB (the right hand) and Lilian (chef) worked hard for the next week to provide us with all the creature comforts we could ask for. The campsite had plenty of space to spread out. There are many other campsites within the reserve, and they were positioned away from each other so that we couldn’t see or hear anyone else from our campsite.
Sleeping out in the bush of the Okavango Delta was an experience. The first night a troupe of Chacma baboons climbed the trees above the camp to sleep for the night. They grunted as they ascended in the evening and settled in the canopy for the night. Before first light, the male’s scream pierced the air giving us all quite the wake up call. The grunts and howls continued as they climbed back down the trees to start their day of foraging together. During the night, we heard other calls from the bush. Lions, hyenas, African Barred Owlet, zebras, cicadas, and numerous other unfamiliar calls peppered the quiet of the desert. Another night at camp, a honey badger was spotted next to our tents. Our reaction differed from the staff: while we were excited to see one in close range, the staff were eager to chase it away. Honey badgers were notorious for their ability and tenacity to raid food stores. I guess they were the raccoon-equivalents in the Kalahari.
Over the next 7 days, our safari routine was to wake up at 5:00-5:30 AM before dawn. Eat breakfast before leaving camp around 6:00-6:15 AM. Chris would drive us through the network of dirt roads looking for animals, while using the radio to listen to chatter from other tour guides. Mid-morning we would stop in the bush for coffee or tea with rusks (think giant sweet crouton that were quite good for dipping in our hot beverages) and vanilla and chocolate biscuits. After a morning in the bush, we would return to camp for lunch, then have a couple hours of free time to nap, catch up on photos/notes, and shower during the heat of the day. In the afternoon around 3:30-4:00 PM, we would head out again for the evening animal viewing and sunset. Generally, we returned to camp around 7PM (dusk) or later. How Chris managed to keep the roads straight in his head was beyond me. Maybe after 20 years of doing it, you learn the landmarks, but there weren’t any street signs and he wasn’t using GPS to guide him. A couple of times we returned after sunset, and Chris was still able to navigate the roads in the waning light. After returning to camp, we would wash up and enjoy gin & tonics with a bowl of chips in front of the firepit. Dinner was served shortly after. By the time we finished dinner, it was around 9:00-9:30PM. By this point, I would feel the day’s activities and excitement set in. The pull of a comfortable bed was too tempting to resist anymore. Then the process would reset to be repeated the following day.
The really great thing about going on safari in the places that we visited (Chobe, Moremi, Khwai), the animals are well-protected (Botswana has a zero-tolerance of poachers) and used to safari cars that they don’t mind the vehicles approaching them (within reason). It was amazing being able to pull up right next to a group of lion cubs without anyone flinching.
Balancing out desert life’s strife, there were also so many heartwarming moments, such as watching lion clubs and their mothers. The young cubs wrestled with and chased each other as their mothers lay in the grass. Dried elephant poop made great toys and mom’s tail flicking did too until she got tired of it. When the cubs got hungry, one mom was willing to let all the cubs suckle even though it was clear not all of them were her own offspring.
One day we heard then found lions mating. The couplings were quick, and from the roaring and baring of teeth, I wondered if either of them wanted to be there. They would copulate throughout the day despite the exhaustion that seemed to overcome them. It’s a day of hard work that would hopefully pay off with new young next year.
One morning, I could tell that Chris was trying to get us somewhere. At first he didn’t tell us where we were headed. Guides don’t always tell their tourists what came over the radio and always refer to the animals in the native African language, so it doesn’t set the tourists up for disappointment if we don’t see it. However, after too many stop requests, Chris told us that there was a report of painted dogs hunting. With that we buttoned up and watched the desert whip by; as a pair of honey badgers ran off in the brush and elephants grazed the mopane. We reached the other 3 safari cars as the painted dogs were watching a small herd of nervous zebras and a male lion in the background. One of the dogs tested the herd and began to chase the zebra, but there must not have been any signs of weakness as the other dogs stood still and didn’t pursue. The dogs ran off into the forest and we tried to keep up with the action. A few dogs stopped to cool off in the water, but we lost the main pack as they ran deeper into the forest. The brief moments we had with the painted dogs were thrilling and worth having to bypass everything along the way.
After what seemed like a full morning’s viewing of the Kalahari wildlife, we reached the Mboma dock, where our boat guide and Chris took us out on a covered motorboat to see the rookeries around the lagoons. We traveled through the narrow channels lined with thick reeds, ferns and water lilies. Elephants grazed next to the channels. Golitiah Herons stood sentinel at the water’s edge, and the colorful Malachite Kingfishers perched in the papyrus. We had been fortunate with the weather so far, but this day it rained. It made travel in the motorboat slightly uncomfortable as the fat drops splattered on us sideways. But it didn’t stop us from enjoying the sights. African Darters dove from branches with a loud splash into the tannin waters. Barn Swallows hawked over the waters, and a group of hippos warrily watched us pass. In one lagoon, Gray Heron, African Sacred Ibis and African Spoonbills nested alongside each other in a tree at the water’s edge.
At a larger lagoon, Yellow-billed and Marabou Storks, and the African Openbill nested within bill's reach of each other in the treetops. Their downy awkward babies perched next to each other on the nest’s edge. The guides spotted a sitatunga grazing in the dense grass of the lagoon. We were fortunate to see this rare, hard to spot, shy antelope. For some reason, a Black Crake was riding on the back of this one.
We saw a great deal of wildlife at Moremi (more than I had room to mention here), but after our 4 night stay, we were going to move on to our next destination - Khwai Community Reserve. Moving day was a big day for the staff. They had to break down, pack up the entire camp, transfer everything to our new site, and set it all up again. Meanwhile, we would take our time on an all-day safari with Chris guiding us through the Okavango Delta.
Khwai Community Reserve
Our trip to the new locale started as any safari outing, except we wouldn’t be returning to the same camp. We made stops to look at a Violet-backed Starling and Meyer’s Parrots. A different group of lionesses and cubs were lounging in the open. After crossing a couple of wooden bridges (of questionable integrity), we left the Moremi Game Reserve and stopped in a mopane forest that was not completely mauled by elephants. Mopane trees that are heavily grazed by elephants were small knotted trunks with a few live branches. The mopane here, however, grew to full height giving us some canopy as we enjoyed our picnic lunch of fried chicken (Lilian was truly an amazing camp chef) and assorted salads. With full bellies, we continued our trip through the mopane, stopping again for a pair of Wattled Cranes, Black-collared Barbet, and a pair of amorous Eurasian Hoopoes. The road widened and we picked up at a greater speed, not having to navigate around potholes and fallen trees. Along this road, Chris pointed out Arnot’s Chat and a Purple Roller among the bare tree branches.
Where Moremi was government operated, Khwai was run by the community, which is a good way for that community to make money. But Chris complained how the managers of the community reserve made decisions that might look good on paper, but not real life if you bothered to ask any of the guides. The campsites were cramped together and fire pits were positioned in the wrong spots within the site.
We could tell there was a difference the moment we got out of the car. Our three tents stood side by side, and all of the staff tents and kitchen area were spaced closer together. Not long after we could hear people in a neighboring campsite talking, then a car alarm went off (seriously, why set a car alarm in the desert?). Despite the closer quarters at the campsite and the campground, we still had all the comforts that AB, Lilian and crew brought with them.
In the light of day, we could see more of the difference between Moremi and Khwai. Moremi was mostly open savanna with grazing impala, zebras, wildebeest, spurfowl, and waterbuck. Interspersed were clusters of sausage trees and acacia with velvet monkeys, masked weavers, and giraffes. An occasional baobob stood above the salt pans. The wetlands and lagoons were full of lechwe, jacana, hippos, and White-faced Whistling-Duck.
While there is definite overlap in the characteristics, Khwai’s most distinctive feature is the nearby Khwai river, which is probably why there’s also a high density of elephants (especially bulls) in the region. The elephants altered the environment: many dead acacia trees stood out in the savanna. Most of the live acacias surrounded the campsites, likely because human activity dissuaded the elephants from hanging around under the trees. A lower population of lions meant more leopard sightings in the area. Khwai also seemed to lack the open plains of ungulates. While the same ungulates lived in both places they remained better hidden in Khwai's dense shrub and trees.
As with Moremi, we kept to the same day schedule of a morning and evening safari. A few of the highlights we enjoyed while at Khwai were:
At the campsite, we heard a pair of Verreaux’s Eagle Owls called during the night. Chris was able to spot them in the top of an acacia during the day.
There was a dead hippo bloated and floating in the river. When we first saw it, the other hippos were pushing against it with their mouths. We weren’t exactly sure why they were doing this. I mused that they were trying to get it out of their lagoon, because it was going to fowl the water for everyone else. The next day the hippo had bloated up even more and was surrounded by crocodiles, which were trying to take bites off of its tough hide. The back end seemed to be the area they were focused on. The last day in Khwai, the hippo caracas was not in the same lagoon, but had floated considerably farther down the river and was even more bloated. One of the legs was missing, but it seemed intact otherwise. It would have been interesting to track the progress of decay for such a large animal.
Afternoon distant thunderstorms threatened to ruin a peaceful sundowner of watching the sunset on the Khwai River. But we remained dry as we watched the hippos surface and the Double-banded Sandgrouse come in for a drink. After the sunset, we drove along the river’s edge spotting many African clawed frogs (Xenopus) and ridge frogs. As we approached camp, a leopard crossed in front of the car, calmly walking only 500 ft from the back of our tents. The staff never saw anything.
Chris dropped us off at the new Maun airport, where we said our many thanks and our goodbyes to Chris and our traveling companions. The Maun airport looked brand new, but there wasn’t anything past security except the toilet and a few vending machines. Outside of the airport were a few trinket shops and eateries, which were within walking distance.
Tor and I were headed back to Cape Town, while Delsa and Charles were headed to their own adventures in Africa. Once back in Cape Town, we picked up our reserved rental car and drove east for our (less than) weeklong road trip along the coast of South Africa. We had decided to add more time to our Africa trip because we were already here and it took a long time to get here. The coast of the Western Cape of South Africa looked interesting because of its unique environment that would be very different from our stay in the Okavango.