Sunday, October 26, 2008

Botswana Safari

2008-10-16 - Thursday - Johannesburg to Livingston

I transfer to Johannesburg Airport this morning and store my larger bag at the airport, since there are baggage size restrictions on the small aircraft being used to between the safari camps. My flight on Zambian Airways from Johannesburg to Livingston, Zambia is uneventful. I met Victor, our Botswana guide for the next twelve days on Safari. I also met Ernst, the one other person taking this safari. Jacob is our driver and guide while we are in Zambia, since Victor is not licensed to guide in Zambia.

First stop is Victoria Falls. The Zambian side of the falls does not have much water flowing since it is the dry season, but the sight is spectacular non-the-less. We also have some good views down the gorge toward the Zimbabwe side of the falls, which still have full water flow. We then drive to Shackeltons Lodge, located right on the Zambezi River. My guest cottage overlooks a beautiful river vista. We are the only guests, so we are treated royally.

2008-10-17 - Shackeltons to Lynanti Camp

After leaving Shackeltons, we leave Jacob and Zambia, crossing the Zambezi River in a private launch to Botswana. We take a river boat cruise on the Chobe River. There are numerous wildlife to see including hippos elephants and buffalo, and we have a light lunch while cruising around. We then transfer to new Land Cruiser and start the long five hour drive to Lynanti Camp – our first safari camp. The roads are rough and we are constantly fighting our way through the Kalahari sand, which as I learn is everywhere in Botswana, not just where the neat line on the map is drawn. Despite the rough roads, we saw Giraffes, Water buffalo, Warthogs, Zebras and Lions along the way.

2008-10-18 - Lynanti Camp

This camp is in a part of the Okavango Delta which is only seasonally flooded, so it is very dry. It is a very rich wildlife area. On the safaris, we see two male lions and a female, lots of elephants, which even wander though the camp on occasion, so we have to be careful! The highlight of the safaris from this camp has to be seeing some Wild Dogs: 7 pups and 6 adults. There are only 2,000 wild dogs left in Botswana.

Our tents are only a few metres from the shore of the spillway channel, so there are wildlife right at our doorstep. We are not allowed to leave our tents or walk to our tents without an escort. I hear lots of hippos and birds in the swamp at night, and had a special treat one morning as a herd of elephants walked in front of my tent, ambling along the shore eating as they go.

Camp Routine at most camps include an early wakeup (5-5:30am), with coffee and a light breakfast before leaving for the main safari of the day. Taking advantage of the cooler morning temperatures is important if you don’t want to fry out there in the 37-40 degree Celsius afternoon heat! We have a tea break mid-morning under the shade of a tree, with tea/coffee/drinks served from the Land Cruiser. Returning to camp around noon, we have lunch, and then it is siesta time until 5pm or so. This is the time of day to stick to the tents, which are setup in shady spots. A second shorter safari happens late in the afternoon until about 7pm. After a shower, a few drinks are in order around the campfire before having dinner.

All this is coordinated between the guide and the camp staff using VHF radio. The camp staff are always waiting with cold face cloths upon our return to camp, so we can wipe off the dust and freshen up a bit. The camp food is excellent and wholesome, and the drinks are included in the tariff.

2008-10-20 - Lynanti Camp to Lechewe Island Camp

It rained for 20 minutes last night, but there are only a few splatters visible in the sand this morning. We say our goodbye’s to the camp staff this morning and then drive along the delta to the airstrip. The closest airstrip was built in the delta and is now flooded, so we have to drive to an alternate airport, which takes a couple of hours over the rough roads. We stop for morning tea and lunch along the way. Our flight is delayed an hour, so we have to spend the time waiting in the afternoon heat before our departure in 7-seater Cessna.

2008-10-21 - Lechewe Island Camp

The channel in front of this camp has more water in it, so we get to do some canoe safaris. They are not as productive as vehicle safaris, since the animals are further away. The animals don’t normally perceive the vehicle as a threat. We all must stay in the vehicle, but since there are only two of us, this works very well. We can change sides as required for viewing (or to avoid the hot sun), and we can spread out our gear as required. Both Ernst and I have many opportunities for viewing and photographing wildlife, and Victor is very accommodating by manoeuvring the Land Cruiser at just the angles and positions we ask for.

We also do a couple of walking safaris from this camp. Being on foot with wild animals about is more dangerous than being in a vehicle, so Victor packs a rifle and we walk single file and stay close. Walking safaris are also less productive, since the animals are generally afraid of humans. The notable exception is elephants, which present a real danger to us. We avoid them, keeping some distance away, observing with binoculars only. There are few photo opportunities for big game on walking safaris, but it is an ideal time to see smaller animals, birds, insects, and vegetation. Seeing big game tracks in the sand and learning how the guides track animals is also very interesting.

We see Kudus (big antelope with colourful heads and big ears) bounding across the spillway, and also spot our first Leopard in a clearing (from the vehicle). We observe an old female elephant feeding in a clearing alone because she can't keep up with the herd. She is near death, since she has no molars left to properly digest her food, and her ribs are showing. A sad sight, but this is part of life.

I also do some observing of the night sky from this camp, since I’m now caught up on my sleep. The Large Magellanic Cloud and Small Magellanic Cloud are both easy to spot with the unaided eye. The Milky Way is spectacular, however this is the wrong time of year to view the Eta Carina Nebula from this location 10 degrees south of the equator. I showed Ernst the Southern Cross just before dawn one morning, which was a goal of his, so we do sidewalk astronomy wherever the opportunity presents itself!

2008-10-23 - Lechewe Island Camp to Xigera Camp

Our noon flight to Xigera goes without a hitch, and then we are transported by motor boat to the camp. This camp is located on an island in the permanently flooded area of the Okavango Delta. Our boat ride turns out to be a thrilling high speed affair. Since the water is so shallow in the channels, the driver has to gun it to get through the shallows. I’ll have some video of this ride when I get a chance to post it.

2008-10-24 - Xigera Camp

Mokoros (dug out canoes) are used for some of our safaris from this camp, as we explore (at slower speed) the channels and wildlife to be found in them. Birds and frogs are the main game we see, although Impala and Red Lechwe (a different looking Impala-like animal) running through the shallow waterways. We spot some fresh alligator tracks on shore and hear hippopotamus only 30m away from our mokoru (they are quite dangerous because of their size and bad attitude. We also go on walking tours from this camp, spotting elephants feeding in the distance, as well as Kudus and Impala feeding on the savannah in the centre of the island.

2008-10-25 - Xigera Camp - Johannesburg

My last day returning from this camp back to Johannesburg was mult-modal: motor boat to the local Xigera airstrip, small aircraft to Maun, Bostwana, turbo-prop airliner to Windhoek, Namibia, and then Boeing 737-500 to Johannesburg. We encountered thunderstorms between Windhoek and Johannesburg, so it was a bumpy flight.

2008-10-26 - Johannesburg

I will meet my new tour group this evening in the lobby of the hotel I'm currently staying in. It is a striking contrast to have elephants parade past my tent flap a few days ago, and just this afternoon I wandered over to the nearest mall and bought a few sundry things from this huge drug store while staying in a cosmopolitan city such as Johannesburg. Africa is a study in contrasts!

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