Archive for June, 2008

June 12 – Moremi Game Reserve

Thursday, June 12th, 2008

Awakened during the night by the sound of hyenas screeching through the camp. It is a bit disconcerting — those are BIG canids! Grant reminded us to be very very careful about leaving the tents during the night. He showed us the tracks where the hyenas had been hiding when Fred and I did our last walk down to the ablution area after dark. (The ablution area is very very basic here at Moremi: working toilets and showers just barely big enough to get clean in. Fred had the right idea, to wear swim trunks etc. down to take a shower and actually change back here in the tent. Dumb me ended up trying to change there and keep things dry at the same time: not an easy task!)

Up just at daybreak (sun not even really visible on the horizon, just a red line showing where it will be). Vervet monkeys kept trying to steal parts of meals (and managed to escape with a tomato!). Probably not much fun for the camp staff, but a lot of fun for us tourists for whom this is all so very new.

Lilac-breasted roller

Lilac-breasted roller

Two game drives today here in Moremi. This morning it was misty at first and the meadows were full of lechwe standing in the mist. Then, for the most part, it was birds birds and more birds.  Saddlebilled stork, plover, black harrier, Burchell’s coucal (who was Burchell anyway? ah… a botanist), a fish eagle that stayed in place long enough for us to make a whole photographic study of it, jacana, hammerkop, ground hornbill and more. I never thought of myself as any kind of a birder before this trip — even told Grant I wasn’t one — but he’s making sure I see the interesting birds and sparking my interest anyway. One in particular, the lilac-breasted roller — national bird of Botswana — is simply the most beautiful thing I may ever have seen.

harrier

Marsh harrier

eagle

Fish eagle

coucal

Burchell

jacana

Lesser jacana

Hammerkop

Hammerkop

vervet monkey

vervet monkey

Also saw wildebeest, hippos, elephants (including with a young one) and, finally, a vervet monkey that stood still long enough for me to get a good solid photo.

This afternoon’s drive we were around water a lot so we saw the white-faced whistling duck (I didn’t really hear it whistle, though), the pygmy goose and more. We also saw a bird that Fred insists on called the “pterodactyl bird” and so I am NEVER going to remember its name without writing it down (it is, for now and forever, officially christened the “pterodactyl bird” in our family!) — the Kori bustard. And we saw a goofy looking critter than looks, at a distance, something like a moose in its head structure called the tsessebe.

ducks

White-faced ducks

bustard

Kori bustard

And though we looked and looked and looked, and found all kinds of tracks, we still didn’t see any BIG cats. That’s in capital letters because we sure did see a cat: a cat that actually looks like it could be lolling around in anybody’s living room. Called the African wildcat, it’s a gorgeous and very aggressive small cat that can (and often does) interbreed with the domestic cat, so it’s listed as endangered in a lot of areas.

African wildcat

African wildcat

So… dogs yesterday, the wildcat today, maybe BIG cats tomorrow! That is, if we can get any sleep. Grant had to go tell off the noisy bunch at the nearby campsite to get ‘em to pipe down. Their excuse: “But we’ve come so far!” Grant, shepherding around the pair of us, who’d come 8000 miles, was not impressed.

June 11 – to campsite in Moremi Game Reserve

Wednesday, June 11th, 2008

In camp in at the Khwai campsite in the Moremi Game Reserve waiting for dinner to be served. Flew back into Maun this morning, hooked up with Grant Craig of Papadi Safaris at the airport. Because of the cold front, he decided to switch to a closed vehicle (openings in the roof for photos) and I for one am grateful. It is COLD in those open vehicles! Did some shopping for snacks and drinks (including plenty of bottled water) and set off.

The road from Maun to Moremi begins as a paved road. Then it turns into gravel. Finally it turns into sand. And it isn’t supposed to get any better until we get into Kasane at the end of the trip! Oh the roads of Botswana are a joy…

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Grant has brought along a camp assistant (I will butcher the spelling of even the short forms of names, I’m sure…) called Nami for short and another field guide who he wants to work with him in the future named Likan. So there are three of them, and two of us! Amazing…

Nami, Likan & Grant

Nami, Likan & Grant

We are not 15 minutes down the road before we feel entirely comfortable with Grant and his crew. Grant is, I think, a little younger than I am (early 50s, perhaps), quiet-spoken with a wickedly dry sense of humor. He’s obviously a perfectionist, wants things done right the first time around, and makes you feel thoroughly confident that he knows what he’s about. Likan is very quiet but with a ready smile and an easy way about him. Nami is even more quiet than Likan, but gets things done. Nice group. And even before we got into the reserve we saw elephant and giraffe and some more lion tracks. (Eventually, we are going to HAVE to see lions. At least I hope so!)

Once we arrived at the campsite, the team disconnected the trailer and took down our gear, then Grant took Fred and I off for the first game drive of this mobile safari. Here in the reserve we have seen impala, which Grant calls “moneybacks” (“we call them moneybacks because if you don’t see them, you get your money back”), red lechwe, young male kudu, zebras, pelicans, storks, guinea fowl, young fish eagle, francolins.

stork

Saddlebilled stork

lechwe

red lechwe

kudu

Young kudu

Grant took us out to a location that is frankly gorgeous to take sunset shots, and unless I am very wrong, there are going to be some terrific shots in that group.

Moremi sunset

Moremi sunset

We started back to camp and then — just at dusk when we were really late for getting back (the camps have hours for the gates to be open) — we saw a truly amazing sight: Fred spotted and we stopped and watched a large pack of wild dogs who had just taken down and were in the process of devouring a red lechwe stag. The light wasn’t good enough for photos but I got a little bit of video from the S5 where you can at least see what’s going on.

Wild dog are so rare, it was just astonishing to see them. They yelp as well as bark and demolished the lechwe in minutes (the pack was 12 dogs or more — hard to count with the lighting being so bad). (Note: we found out later that people travel for long distances just to have a chance to see these wild dogs — and we got ‘em the first night out. And with a kill! Not bad!)

There are hyena and baboon tracks throughout the campsite so it’ll be interesting to see what we find by morning, but there’s a noisy bunch at a nearby campsite so it may not be all that much.

June 10 – Okavango Delta

Tuesday, June 10th, 2008

Up early, and a momentary terrifying scare when I thought I’d lost the power cord to the Hyperdrive. It would have meant taking only as many pictures as could fit on the SD cards I have with me. I know that 28Gb sounds like a lot of space, but I’m shooting in RAW, each photo takes about 24Mb of space, so a 4Gb card holds only about 200 photos. For the most part, I’m shooting with a new camera that I’m not entirely comfortable with (Canon 450D XSi) and a rented lens that I’m not entirely comfortable with (though it’s gorgeous in what it can do — Canon 100-400L), so I do NOT want to be limited. Fortunately, I found the cord — right where I’d put it for safekeeping…

Nice breakfast, back onto a small plane with George and off to Maun again.

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There was only one hitch: our safari operator was not there to meet us. The driver brought us over to the office for Gunn’s Camp where a nice lady took Grant’s name and phone number, went inside, came back five minutes later with a white face and said they’d made a terrible mistake. Turns out we WERE supposed to have three nights, not two. She offered to have us flown back out with the night at the main (upscale) camp rather than the bush camp, where drinks are included in the tab. Let’s see here… two extra small plane rides, an upscale camp for the night, and free booze. Somehow we didn’t see this as much of a problem.

So we were flown black out to the camp.

But this time we stayed at the upscale main camp: beds, en suite toilet & shower, laundry service and more. Nice gesture by the camp and a lovely end to a totally lovely experience (including tea at 3:30, another bush walk, then sundowners (otherwise known as evening drinks!) and dinner).

One scary moment in our last mokoro ride of the day: our poler did a quick reverse and back out of the channel and then had each of us stand up to see a hippo in the channel not far away. Hippos are so incredibly dangerous to folks in these small boats… Ulp…

Despite that, it’s impossible really to describe the peace of a mokoro ride:

or the peace of the delta itself…

Lilypad in Okavango Delta

Lilypad in Okavango Delta

June 9 – Okavango Delta

Monday, June 9th, 2008
Ribs

Ribs, mokoro poler

Up at dawn this morning for a light breakfast and then a mokoro ride over to and a 3-1/2 hour game walk on Chief’s Island. Our mokoro poler and guide, Mr. Ribs, knows his stuff but it is a little disconcerting to be walking around a wild game area with a guide who has nothing more to protect us than a walking stick…

We saw red lechwe, impala, blue wildebeest, zebras, a whole troop of baboons, warthogs, a fish eagle, a whole bunch of marabou storks, a red-billed hornbill, a saddle-billed stork and a journey of giraffes. Walked forever down trails covered with elephant tracks and/or elephant dung looking for elephants and didn’t find any. (We saw them this afternoon from the deck instead!)

zebras

zebras

storks

Marabou storks

tracks

elephant tracks

elephants

elephants

Saw lion tracks and a bush with lion hair on it, hyena poop and a buffalo skull but none of the live beasts. Ribs told us to stand our ground with lions, climb the nearest tree with buffalo and run a zigzag pattern downwind from an elephant. (Gulp…)

Gunn’s Camp is fun — basic amenities but that’s really what I wanted, to get some feel for the real Africa. It’s a little scary alone in a dark tent at night, or going into a toilet that has to have a half-door to keep the warthogs out, but it is headed in the direction of the Real Thing. And it’s a very good feeling to know that Fred is screaming distance away…

Went out by mokoro to a hippo pool this afternoon. It was excellent, not so much for the hippos (which are very dangerous to these boats so you don’t go very close!), but for the elephants! Two of them were in the marsh and crossed right about the same time we poled through. Unbelievable to be so close and in such a vulnerable position. It really brings it home what it means to be out there with wild game…

Good dinner and good talk with the South African group staying in the camp, and off tomorrow back to Maun.

June 8 – Okavango Delta

Sunday, June 8th, 2008

(written 6/9, 1:20 p.m.)

We’re sitting on the deck at Gunn’s Bush Camp on the Boro River in the Okavango Delta in Botswana, sipping sodas and watching elephants cross the marsh in the distance… Sigh… it’s a rough life.

Arriving in Maun

Arriving in Maun

Fred and I left Johannesburg for Botswana yesterday. No problem with the Air Botswana flight to Maun — the camera backpack (Lowepro Fastpack 250) fit easily in the overhead and nobody bothered to weigh anything. The Maun airport is very small with a single line for passport control and another for customs. We left our big bags in the Moremi Air office at the airport, and then George, the Air Moremi pilot, flew us on a single engine aircraft up to the Delta. I managed to get some video en route and particularly of the landing — George said it was a little hairy because of some warthogs on the runway!

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We were greeted by the Bush Camp operator, Craig, and immediately had a bit of confusion. He said we were there for two nights; I thought we were there for three. The paperwork is back in Maun with the rest of our luggage… Craig said he’d check it and later confirmed it was two nights. Not what I remember, but… that’ll teach me not to bring the paperwork.

Mokoro

Mokoro

We then were introduced to our mokoro poler (mokoro = singular, mekoro = plural, for what are now fiberglass canoe-type boats propelled by a single operator using a pole in the marshes of the Delta) who gave us a ride over to the camp by mokoro. We dropped our stuff off in our tents and went off for another mokoro ride before dinner. At dinner we socialized with a large group of South Africans on a safari of their own which appears to track our itinerary in large measure. After dinner we all sat around the fire talking, then watching a genet raid the kitchen and a scops owl fly in and out of the trees. Had a long discussion with Craig and his brother-in-law Jeremy, both Zimbabwean ex-pats, about the wisdom of staying in Zimbabwe (as opposed to Zambia) for the Victoria Falls part of our trip. We’re getting two very different views from blacks and whites. Blacks uniformly say not to stay in Zimbabwe, that it’s too dangerous; whites uniformly say we’ll be fine in the tourist areas because the regime has a great need for the hard dollars tourists bring in. Will have to discuss this with Grant…

Then one last trip to the “ablution block” (shower/toilet area) before bed. This is a funny set-up: open to the sky, reed half-doors (to keep the warthogs out), but plenty of hot water etc. I’m not sure what I was expecting but this is just fine. We were told to be make sure we used the facilities before we slept and to be very wary of leaving the tents after we retire (hippos may come up into the camp after dark)…

There were wild night noises — birds, frogs, crickets, hippos splashing up into camp and warthogs squealing very loudly (the camp operator, Craig, says they were either fighting each other or being attacked by a leopard!). Slept reasonably well despite being on a bed roll in a tent on a wooden platform some 18-24″ from the marsh. However, I won’t turn down Craig’s offer of a second mat to add to the bed roll.

June 7 – Johannesburg & Lion Park

Saturday, June 7th, 2008
sunrise

sunrise

It took us all a while to get organized and moving this morning so we had very little margin for error in getting from the lodge to the airport at Richards Bay. So we were all just a tad concerned when we hit some road construction en route and sat there and sat there and sat there for the longest time. It was definitely a bit hairy until we finally got to the airport and found that the plane had been delayed as well.

Another razzle-dazzle with the birth and marriage certificates, another boarding pass and another flight back to Johannesburg where we left the luggage and went out as quickly as possible to the Lion Park there. It was a lot of fun — we saw several kinds of new critters (different kinds of bok, black wildebeest, spotted hyena, black back jackal) and lots of lions, to Evan’s great delight (FINALLY the big cats!). We even got to pet and play with some lion cubs, though not for very long. VERY cool. We also got to see other cats (leopard, cheetahs) and feed a giraffe (though Gina didn’t seem quite as happy about the idea as the rest of us).

cubs

Gina Dana & cubs

cub

Evan & cub

cub

Judy & cub

lion

white lion

giraffe

Evan Gina & giraffe

A quieter dinner, knowing this would be our last meal together. Fred arrives late tonight; Evan, Gina and Dana have a sunrise balloon trip scheduled; and Fred and I will be off to Botswana before they return. I’m really sorry that the week is coming to an end. It’s been such fun to spend more time with Evan and Gina, and Gina’s cousin Dana has been the best roommate you could ever ask for.

I just hope the next part of the trip will be as interesting as this part and, most importantly, as different from this part as I am hoping. That’s sure what I’ve asked for (and I hope this isn’t one of those “be careful what you ask for; you might get it!” things!).

June 6 – St. Lucia – fishing and estuary cruise

Friday, June 6th, 2008

(written Sat 6/7 6:45 p.m.)

sunrise at Indian Ocean

sunrise at Indian Ocean

Yesterday was a long long day. Since I’m the designated waker-upper (remind me NOT to be the one with the one working travel alarm next time!), I had to get up at 4:10 a.m. to roust everyone out at 4:15 to ride 1-1/2 hours in the dark and cold to St. Lucia, board a small boat on a trailer at a gas station, drive out to the Indian Ocean in the morning chill, get dumped on the sand and pushed into the water (by a tractor!). No launch ramps for these folks!

boat

boat

tractor

pushed out

The boat was fairly small and the seas were fairly rough, so we were all very glad by the end of the trip that Evan had the foresight to bring transderm scopalamine patches for us all. The fisher-folks all got some good catches though, and the sun made at least an effort to warm up the air (everyone keeps talking about the unseasonable cold front — sigh…).

Gina

Gina

Dana

Dana

Evan

Evan

And then there was the beaching of the boat. We were headed in at a good rate of speed, sightseeing and paying very little attention to things and all of us, I think, expecting eventually to come to some sort of jetty or boat launch ramp. Then all of a sudden the captain revved up the throttle and I realized that we were very quickly running out of water. I was the only one who noticed; everyone else was just kind of stunned when he ran the boat, literally at full throttle, over the waves onto the beach in a barely controlled crash. Since I couldn’t move quite fast enough carrying 20 or more pounds of camera gear, I can now honestly say that I got my feet wet in the Indian Ocean.

Afterwards we took a very nice quiet boat ride along the estuary and saw hippos, crocodiles, all kinds of birds and a truly lovely sunset.

heron

grey heron

crocodile

crocodile

heron

goliath heron

hippos

hippos

Just in time for another long drive back to the lodge where, once again, we had impala but no warthog!

June 5 – Hluhluwe Imfolozi National Park

Thursday, June 5th, 2008

(written Sat 6/7 6:45 p.m.)

We’ve had such long days that I’ve been falling into bed without even picking up a pen. I’m also the designated alarm clock for this team so I’m up first and so I’m POOPED by day’s end.

Thursday we were hoping to see some big cats — lions!! — so we went to the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi National Park (pronounced Shlu-shlu’-wee Im-foh-loh’-zee) for the day. Well, not the whole day: folks wanted to do some shopping first so we got a bit of a late start and that cut into our cat-tracking time. The location itself couldn’t be more beautiful — rolling hills and deep river valleys. We saw some really cool things: a baby puff adder, a troop of baboons, an entire crash of rhino (one with the biggest horn imaginable), blue wildebeest and a little bushbuck doe who surprised us all by making a sound exactly like the bark of a dog. Plus the usual assortment of elephants, giraffes, zebras, nyalas and impalas and, of course, warthogs (who are now, the general consensus decrees, cute — but I’d still like to see how they taste).

adder

puff adder

rhino

white rhino

wildebeest

wildebeest

bushbuck

bushbuck doe

No cats, and it was just unbelievably cold driving back for more than an hour in the dark at high speeds in an open vehicle. Even hooded jackets and blankets didn’t make a dent in the cold.

cold

cold

cold

very cold

June 4 – Tembe Elephant Park

Wednesday, June 4th, 2008

My eyes are full of elephants. Oh, we saw other neat things as well — waterbuck at the first hide, bushbuck at the second, a spotted eagle owl and a genet on the way back — but oh… oh… my eyes are full of elephants.

We spent the day at the Tembe Elephant Park with a different field guide, an older quieter man. I was a bit annoyed during part of the drive because I just couldn’t hear what he was saying. I forgave him everything for what came later.

Five big bulls at the first hide, one big one at the second… The guide kept teasing Gina about the pronunciation of “giraffe” (“There are no giraffes in Africa, only girahffes…”). He also cleared up a misunderstanding as to what a group of giraffes is called. We kept understanding our Afrikaaner guide to say the herd was a “jennie” — turns out what he was saying was “journey.” A journey of giraffes, a dazzle of zebra, a clash of rhino.

elephant

elephant

elephant

elephant dust bath

elephants

elephants

waterbucks

waterbucks

The hides were great places to sit and watch the animals; the weather would clear then cloud up then clear and we stayed and watched and watched.

And then, when the skies darkened and threatened rain and it was clearly time to leave, the guide decided to take one last detour onto the East Swamp Road. A family of warthogs ran out from the culvert and we were watching them. That’s when we heard the guide say in a quiet voice: “Look up. Oh, look up, now…” And there, coming towards us, were elephants. Big elephants, small elephants, babies and grizzled elders. A bull. Cows. Elephants… so many elephants. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 18-20 in a breeding herd. We watched and watched as they drank at a waterhole; we watched as they walked off into the forest. Then the guide said, “Let’s see if we can find them on the road.” And he did. They crossed in front of us and behind us… and each of them, big or small, vanished from sight only a few feet into the brush.

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Elephants. Amazing creatures.

On the long ride back to the lodge (in a closed vehicle so not cold this time!), the guide pulled off the road, backed the vehicle up and shined the headlights into the trees so we could see a spotted eagle owl (huge). He also pointed out a genet as it ran across the road and disappeared trailing its long banded tail into the bush.

But, sigh… no warthog at dinner tonight either.

June 3 – Zulu Nyala and Emdoneni Cat Rehabilitation Centre

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2008

11 am

Back from the morning game drive and sharing a cup of coffee with Evan on the veranda. As he says, “it’s a tough life…”

Nyala at pool

Nyala at pool

The day began with nyala and vervet monkeys by the pool and just beyond the trees. On the game drive we saw many giraffes including two young ones, a whole mess of warthogs with their young, three male kudu and two females hidden in the bush, an entire bachelor herd of impala, a hippo that scared Gina when it suddenly moved, lots of nyala and a mixed herd of impala and nyala at a watering hole with vervet monkeys in the trees. (Deuced hard to get good photos of the silly beasts, though — they move quickly.)

nyala

nyala stag

kudu

male kudu

giraffes

giraffes

impala

impala stag

The mornings are very misty in the hills and it is cold. South Africa is certainly greener and less dusty than I had expected. But COLD on early morning and late afternoon drives in that open vehicle.

11:25 p.m.

I petted a cheetah that was in the process of drinking chicken blood this afternoon, plus a serval that was chowing down on a chicken carcass. Everyone had a chance to pet the serval but the cheetah only allows himself to be petted as long as the blood supply holds out in the bucket. The guide said that would allow 5-6 people to pet him; I practically elbowed little old ladies out of the way to make sure I’d be in that group. Sigh…

Cheetah

Cheetah

Our afternoon trip to the Cat Rehabilitation Centre at the Emdoneni Lodge & Game Farm was a great treat for all of us. We saw four serval, three cheetah (including the one male who allows himself to be petted), four or five caracal (including one who literally leaps off the fence into the air to catch the chicken carcass thrown to him) and a number of yowling African wildcats (small like house cats but wild and very aggressive).

The tour was just at dusk so we could watch the animals being fed, so no game drive tonight: dark and cold on the way back to the lodge. Got some photos but not so many in the failing light. Switched to video and got some interesting footage.

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The jumping caracal:

The African wildcat:

More impala at dinner tonight. We keep asking for warthog. (They’re so ugly that they’re beginning to grow on us.