Kruger National Park – beasts, Bushbabies and boerewors!

Camping is not for everyone, but it is a cheaper alternative and allowed us the luxury of an extended journey around parts of Southern Africa. As you may know by now, we travelled to many of the National Parks of Kwazulu-Natal, before heading off to Namibia and Zambia via the Kalahari desert. Our last sortie in South Africa, and a place we have returned to many a year, was in Kruger National Park. The size of Wales, Kruger stretches along the border of South Africa and Mozambique and up to Zimbabwe in the north.

Crocodile River, Kruger NP, April 2016.

Crocodile River, Kruger NP, April 2016.

All in all, we’ve met some wonderful down-to-earth people who have now become good friends; conversely, we’ve encountered people who have very different concepts of personal space and will almost camp on your groundsheet in their desire to claim the ‘perfect pitch’ next to the fence – irrespective of how close to your site they are! Camping can be a hot dusty, insect-ridden affair, uncomfortable at times, but equally rewarding at others. Imagine the late afternoon as the sun sets, the shadows lengthen and the heat dissipates, the ice cold beer or wine dripping in condensation and the wilderness stretching away into the distant hills! Aaah the beauty of Africa! Time for another beer – just to quench the thirst and wash away some dust of course!

KT hard at work photographing an Elephant, Kruger NP, April, 2016.

KT hard at work photographing an Elephant, Kruger NP, April, 2016.

Each morning was pregnant with promise, as we left the camp before sunrise. The dawn colours streaking across the sky and soft hues of the pink, peach, orange or yellow sunlight made this our favourite time of day. Searching throughout the “Golden Hour” or two, we would stop for breakfast under a tree, next to a river or at a picnic spot. Fortified with tea, coffee and rusks (or chocolate biscuits if we felt we had earned them!) we would set off for another few hours before the heat of the day drove us back to camp to sit in the pool or lie in the shade until late afternoon. We would rouse ourselves and stash a few “frosties” into our 12V freezer – for the thirst later! Returning just after sunset and it would be Braai-time! A traditional African evening would be spent around the fire cooking, drinking and telling stories. Beer, boerewors and …campfire stories, you could say! (Boerewors is a long flavoursome or spicy sausage usually wound into a spiral and cooked on a fire).

Like our fellow campers, our night-time visitors in the Kruger campsites have been equally varied and interesting, ranging from unobtrusive and very appealing Owls, Genets (both large and small spotted), African Wild Cats and Bushbuck; to raiding and often destructive Jackals, Honey Badgers, Monkeys and Baboons; to the gorgeous big-eyed Bushbabies that look exceptionally cute but also have the gene for a good raiding party! Although as you might imagine, a Bushbaby raid is a more genteel affair than that of a Baboon!

A big old Baobab Tree alongside a dusty road in Africa....

A big old Baobab Tree alongside a dusty road in Africa….

The Jackal eating Karyn’s walking shoes and our cutlery Tupperware container in Etosha was easily surpassed by a little family of Bushbabies. We had been lulled into a false sense of security when camping in Punda Maria (the most northerly campsite in Kruger National Park), as once dusk fell the Baboons and Monkeys disappeared (on their guard as the night-time meant the threat of Leopards was too much for them to ignore). Our guard was therefore down! We had a wonderful barbecue one evening, cooking extra food for the following day. We went to shower, leaving a delicious cheese-filled wors (sausage) wrapped in tinfoil to cool in the evening breeze blowing through the back of our semi-closed-up bakkie. On our return, our empty tinfoil wrapper was on the floor, with no sign of our sausage… Puzzled, we shut everything up and went to bed. We then heard scrabbling around outside. On investigating, some beautiful Bushbabies, with the most gorgeous huge eyes, were in the tree above our bakkie – clearly eager to continue their feast! Lesson learned!!! (We later discovered that it wasn’t only the cheese wors they had found, but our box of savoury biscuits too – with a trail of biscuit crumbs and greasy pawprints left all over the truck as evidenced after the following day’s dusty drive! Luckily our fruit was stored in the front of the bakkie – as this is one of their favourite foods.)

The eye-catching colours of the Flame Lily. Kruger NP.

The eye-catching colours of the Flame Lily. Kruger NP.

The entertaining shenanigans of the campsite helped to compensate somewhat for the very slow and challenging game viewing. Our conclusion is that the 3 or 4 years of drought in South Africa – not to mention the sustained and chronic poaching – have all taken their toll on animal, bird and insect numbers. We knew that the north of the park, where we first based ourselves, generally had fewer animals; however, we did not expect to have whole days during which we saw very little – in spite of 6-10 hours in the car, starting before sunrise each day! Luckily the Elephants sustained us: they provided hours of entertainment, drinking, swimming and playing in the water; mock charging (especially the youngsters with attitude) when we approached too close; and the youngsters learning from the adults in the herd as they copied their behaviours.

The magic of watching Elephants. Magnificent beasts! Kruger NP.

The magic of watching Elephants. Magnificent beasts! Kruger NP.

The huge herds of Buffalo in the north were impressive! We saw herds of 100+ and 200+, as well as ‘dagga boys’ – old males, usually living on their own or in small groups of 2 or 3. They could often be found wallowing in a muddy waterhole, cooling off during the heat of the day. (This results in their colloquial name, as ‘dagga’ is cement: the mud dries to a cement-like consistency before they rub it off against a tree or rock, in an attempt to remove ticks and other parasites.)

The late evening sun and a few hundred Buffalo crossing and kicking up dust. Punda Maria camp, Kruger NP.

The late evening sun and a few hundred Buffalo crossing and kicking up dust. Punda Maria camp, Kruger NP.

We also saw lots of mating animals – we guess that autumn means mating in preparation for spring-time births. Bearing in mind our limited viewing of animals, particularly predators, entertainment was provided by a pair of mating Lions who mated every 15-20 minutes for a 3 day period! (Ouch!) They leave the pride, to disappear somewhere secluded, and then do nothing but mate and sleep for the period while the lioness is in oestrus. You can see the deterioration in their physical condition over this period, as they do not eat at all unless some prey literally walks past them!

Every 15minutes for 3 - 4 days! hardwork being a prospective parent! Shingwedzi Camp, Kruger NP.

Every 15minutes for 3 – 4 days! Hard work being a prospective parent! Shingwedzi Camp, Kruger NP.

One of the African Icons and evocative sounds of the African bush is the African Fish Eagle. Calling in a duet, their cries echo across the rivers and lakes. Just beautiful. We were privileged to see some magnificent Fish Eagles relatively close, as well as a majestic Martial Eagle with a full crop. Their huge yellow eyes piercing and scary-looking!

A large African Fish Eagle, early in the morning watching a photographer! Kruger NP.

A large African Fish Eagle, early in the morning watching a photographer! Kruger NP.

And, after weeks of looking for our favourite birds, finding a very cute Pearl-Spotted Owlet, a Scops Owl, some hunting Lilac-breasted Rollers and a Pied Kingfisher, were all real treats.

A dozy four inch tall Scops Owl hiding in the foliage. Kruger NP,

A dozy four inch tall Scops Owl hiding in the foliage. Kruger NP,

Young animals are always cute! They amaze us by being perfectly formed and ready to run and escape predators within minutes of being born. Young Zebras always seem filled with exuberance and energy… They are innately curious and interested – in spite of the adults’ attempts to shield them from external eyes.

A cute young Zebra being helped to face the camera! Kruger NP.

A cute young Zebra being helped to face the camera! Kruger NP.

Young Elephants are similarly heart-warming: they are protected by the herd and often sheltered from view, but seem keen to assert their independence and thrust themselves into the centre of the herd’s activities. We saw a tiny elephant use his trunk, wrapped around a tree trunk, to give him leverage to hoist himself up the final incline of the steep slope from a river. They are highly intelligent and adept learners. They have a very strong social and family instinct and the whole herd will rally round to help each other, especially a youngster in trouble or under threat.

Baby Hyenas, one of Karyn’s favourites, are very engaging. They are born black, and only develop their spots when they are 2-3 months old, gradually changing from their dark newborn fur (to conceal them in their dens and in the shade of trees) to the more mottled and spotted lighter colours of the adult Hyena.

Very young Spotted Hyena pup, under the watchful eye of mother, aunty or big sister probably. Kruger NP,

Very young Spotted Hyena pup, under the watchful eye of mother, aunty or big sister probably. Kruger NP,

We thought the central and southern areas of the park would provide more prolific game viewing; however, we were sadly wrong! Parts of Kruger, particularly around Satara (traditionally the predator-rich core of the park, because of the plentiful savannah grasslands), looked like a barren desert wasteland. It was really sad to see the stark effects of the sustained drought – particularly as rain won’t fall again until about October (and then only if the drought breaks).

We were, however, thrilled to finally see some White Rhino. These prehistoric-looking behemoths are always a privilege to see, and we were relieved to see that the chronic poaching over the last few years had not led to their total demise.

The great bulk of a White Rhinoceros crossing the road in front of a Landrover Discovery. Only one winner in that competition! Kruger NP.

The great bulk of a White Rhinoceros crossing the road in front of a Landrover Discovery. Only one winner in that competition! Kruger NP.

Other highlights were seeing a pack of Wild Dogs resting under some trees, and seeming to enjoy some playful interactions with one another. All play is learning – whether it’s with another Dog, or with a stick!

The playfulness and social bonding of the Painted (African Wild) Dogs is fascinating and endearing too. Kruger NP.

The playfulness and social bonding of the Painted (African Wild) Dogs is fascinating and endearing too. Kruger NP.

The pressure on water, and rapidly diminishing waterholes, has left Hippos badly affected as the males are very aggressive and will fight – until death if necessary – to stake their claim to their waterhole. We saw several Hippo carcases, and a badly injured Hippo walking to try to find a new waterhole. However, Hippos also provided us with some lighter moments: we enjoyed seeing these Terrapins sunning themselves on a Hippo’s generously sized back!

Making the most of some Hippo islands, terrapins enjoy the sunshine. Kruger NP.

Making the most of some Hippo islands, terrapins enjoy the sunshine. Kruger NP.

Seeing big cats is always a heart-stopping, adrenaline-filled privilege which provides an absolute surge of joy – particularly when you consider the size of the park and how the odds of seeing these majestic animals are so small! We were very blessed to see Lions, Leopards and Cheetahs during this trip.

A huge male Lion on the prowl, striding along the banks of a river, Kruger NP.

A huge male Lion on the prowl, striding along the banks of a river, Kruger NP.

 

The grace and beauty of a Leopard is unsurpassed! Kruger NP.

The grace and beauty of a Leopard is unsurpassed! Kruger NP.

 

The lithe and big-chested Cheetah! Pure speed. Kruger NP.

The lithe and big-chested Cheetah! Pure speed. Kruger NP.

We also encountered a very different smaller animal – a Civet – which neither of us had seen previously. Civets are usually nocturnal, so to see one so clearly was a real treat! They are strange yet strikingly beautiful cats, with almost a combination of Hyena, Cat and Racoon-like features.

An unusual sighting of an African Civet, after breakfast, Kruger NP.

An unusual sighting of an African Civet, after breakfast, Kruger NP.

Our month in Kruger National Park was hard work (yes, we know… we can hear your groans now, as it’s a holiday, not traditional ‘work’!) with early starts and long hours in the car, and many a frustrating day with no or little game to be seen. However, it was also a real privilege to be able to spend an extended period of time in the restorative natural beauty of the bush. In spite of the drought, when we consider the range of magnificent trees, uplifting sunrises, and beautiful and majestic animals and birds we did see, we feel very blessed indeed.

A Brown-hooded Kingfisher, up close and personal. Kruger NP.

A Brown-hooded Kingfisher, up close and personal. Kruger NP.

All our camping kit and our bakkie await us in Africa, tucked away in the shade until we return. Once Africa is in your blood it is very difficult to stay away. We would do it all again, and for longer, and travel further if we could afford it!

Our fantastic year out has almost reached its end, so it’s back to reality for us now… We return briefly to the UK to catch up with family and friends, and then we plan to head to Spain, to see whether we are able to combine some of the elements we’ve enjoyed most this year with forging a new life there: more quality time together, more sunshine, an outdoor and healthier lifestyle, and a better work-life balance.

A magnificent African Sunrise, Kruger NP, South Africa, 2016.

A magnificent African Sunrise, Kruger NP, South Africa, 2016.

Thank you very much for your friendship, support, updates and feedback which have sustained us during our travels. We will keep you updated about our adventures (and the natural beauty, as well as the challenges we face) as we settle in to our new lives in Spain…

Best wishes

 

Richard and Karyn.

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The captivating Kalahari!

Talk about a journey of contrasts!  From the watery north, we ventured south to the Kalahari desert, to Kgalagadi National Park.  This park, which borders Namibia, was one of the first transfrontier parks in the world – it’s an amalgamation of the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park in South Africa, and the Gemsbok National Park in Botswana, and comprises over 3.6 million hectares!

The awesome red dunes of the Kalahari, Kgalagadi NP, 2016.

The awesome red dunes of the Kalahari, Kgalagadi NP, 2016.

The landscape was simply stunning!  Beautiful, sweeping red dunes, intersected by dry river beds: the Nossob, which only flows approximately once every hundred years, and the Auob, which flows approximately once every thirty to fifty years!  The only evidence of the course of these ‘rivers’ was a sliver of green grass in the river bed.  Visiting during the ‘wet season’, we were treated to the emergence of a range of desert flowers – tiny vibrant flowers which provided a visual treat for us and a welcome edible treat for the animals!  (One of the flowers in bloom, Devil’s Claw, is an ancient remedy which is now an internationally recognised supplement, to treat muscular, skeletal and joint conditions.)

The beautiful Devil's Claw flower, Kgalagadi NP, 2016.

The beautiful Devil’s Claw flower, Kgalagadi NP, 2016.

 

The iconic Gemsbok in the flowering dunes of the post-rain Kalahari Desert, Kgalagadi NP, 2016.

The iconic Gemsbok in the flowering dunes of the post-rain Kalahari Desert, Kgalagadi NP, 2016.

Advocates of Kgalagadi love the open vistas of the dunes and river beds, as when you do see animals, your views are unencumbered by the dense bush of other national parks.  And this is indeed true.  Game viewing is tough here, however…  You can spend a whole day in the car and be rewarded with no sightings of any note.  However, when the big cats are out, then they are mostly clearly visible – and a visual treat indeed!  (And the little cats are very cute too!)

Lithe, powerful and elegant: the Cheetah on the lookout for a meal. Kgalagadi NP, 2016

Lithe, powerful and elegant: the Cheetah on the lookout for a meal. Kgalagadi NP, 2016

 

Too cute but still very wary of the bigger cats. They hide away in the trees in the day. African Wild Cat, Kgalagadi NP, 2016.

Too cute but still very wary of the bigger cats. They hide away in the trees in the day. African Wild Cat, Kgalagadi NP, 2016.

Luckily, our interest in birds and the little critters helped with the less productive days.  We saw heaps of tortoises – of all sizes; Sided-striped Mice and Whistling Rats; three stunning bright orange-yellow Cape Cobras, including one invading a Sociable Weavers’ nest; some gorgeous eagle owls; and dozens of elegant Kori Bustards and Northern Black Korhaans.

Whistling Rat pretending he is invisible! Kgalagadi NP, 2016.

Whistling Rat pretending he is invisible! Kgalagadi NP, 2016.

 

Gorgeous, but deadly Cape Cobra. If bitten, we would be dead before admission to the nearest hospital 250kms away! Fascinating. Kgalagadi NP, 2016.

Gorgeous, but deadly Cape Cobra. If bitten, we would be dead before admission to the nearest hospital 250kms away! Fascinating. Kgalagadi NP, 2016.

 

A melee of Springbok. Beautiful, fast and tasty to Cheetah! Kgalagadi NP, 2016.

A melee of Springbok. Beautiful, fast and tasty to Cheetah! Kgalagadi NP, 2016.

And finally, for a more tranquil end to our sojourn in the desert, we spent a wonderful three days camping at Kalahari Trails, just south of the park…  It was here that we experienced the peace, vast open spaces, solitude and beauty of the desert.  Professor Anne Rasa established Kalahari Trails as a sanctuary for Meerkats (or Suricates, of the Mongoose family) and to allow people to explore the desert on foot.  With the freedom to walk across the desert dunes and the vast openness of the night skies, it was indeed a magical way in which to end our desert experience.

Meerkat magic in the early morning sun! Kalahari Desert, 2016.

Meerkat magic in the early morning sun! Kalahari Desert, 2016.

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Namibia’s Watery North

From the dry heat of Etosha National Park we travelled to the north-east ‘strip’ of Namibia (previously known as the Caprivi Strip).  This section of the country juts into Botswana and Zambia, bordering those two countries as well as Zimbabwe.  It’s known as the ‘Four Rivers Route’: the Kavango (which becomes the Okavango in Botswana), Zambezi, Kwando and Chobe rivers all flow through here.

African sunset on the Okavango River in the Caprivi Strip, Namibia, 2016.

African sunset on the Okavango River in the Caprivi Strip, Namibia, 2016.

It was a treat to actually camp next to the Kavango River, and to have a fast-flowing watery world to experience after the absence of water for the previous few months.  We had sundowners each evening (as our throats were still dry from the dust of Etosha!) accompanied by the sounds of hippos cavorting.  The water is at the heart of the community – and changes (height, breadth and flow) with the seasons.  The local people seemed relatively more affluent too, with water to irrigate their crops; using mokoros to fish, for a free food source; and, a real treat, with access to running water for washing, drinking and swimming!  Yes, in spite of the prevalence of crocodiles in the Kavango River, young children delighted in swimming in the river, shrieking with pleasure as they splashed and played.  According to local beliefs, crocodiles are not interested in eating during the summer months when they breed, so it’s safe to swim in the river then!  This belief persists, in spite of evidence to the contrary when so-called ‘rogue crocodiles’ inevitably seize an unsuspecting swimmer each year…

The national parks in the Caprivi Strip are ‘mixed use’…  That means that the local people live on the outskirts of the parks, and are able to use the local resources such as wood, to sell firewood to tourists (beautiful, strong hardwood, which takes ages to burn, making wonderful coals for evening braais – or barbecues) or to craft wooden trinkets to sell (hand-carved souvenir mokoros or wild animals).  With revenue from tourism being directed back into the local communities, the idea is for local people to value the wildlife within the parks, rather than seeing the animals as just another food source.

These parks (Mahango and Buffalo national parks, within the Bwabwato National Park and conservation area) were relatively empty of visitors, so game viewing was a real treat, with undisturbed sightings.  We saw several highlights that were new to us, including Carmine Bee-eaters, Wattled Cranes and Red Lechwe, as well as previous favourites such as majestic Fish Eagles with their haunting cries which are so evocative of the African bush.  We spent hours trying to catch the bee-eaters in flight – with varying degrees of success!  It was fascinating seeing how the game adapted to the presence of water as the river flooded its banks.

Carmine Bee-eater landing after a hunting sortie, Mahango Game Reserve, Namibia, 2016.

Carmine Bee-eater landing after a hunting sortie, Mahango Game Reserve, Namibia, 2016.

 

Elegant and the largest but most endangered of all African Cranes: the Wattled Crane, Mahango, Namibia, 2016.

Elegant and the largest but most endangered of all African Cranes: the Wattled Crane, Mahango, Namibia, 2016.

 

An African icon:  the Fish Eagle, Mahango, Namibia, 2016.

An African icon: the Fish Eagle, Mahango, Namibia, 2016.

 

The real king of the beasts in Mahango, Namibia, 2016.

The real king of the beasts in Mahango, Namibia, 2016.

Buffalo national park had previously been home to 32nd Battalion – a South African Defence Force battalion that had been stationed in Namibia when it was still ‘South West Africa’.  Stories abound of how the soldiers shot plenty game, treating the area as a hunting playground…  Wandering through the ruined remains of their base was an eerie experience, not helped by the fact that we almost became completely mired in deep sand – causing us to face up to a few ghosts of our own as we wondered how long it would be before the next travellers drove past, to help rescue us!  Luckily our bakkie proved more resilient than we had given it credit for, and we managed to extract ourselves without having to call on or wait for help!

Leopard Tortoise at Buffalo Game Reserve, Caprivi, Namibia, 2016.

Leopard Tortoise at Buffalo Game Reserve, Caprivi, Namibia, 2016.

The watery green northeast corner of Namibia was a revelation – and a complete change to the landscape we’d experienced previously.  Apart from the ubiquitous and ever-annoying mosquitoes, we loved it!

Gloriosa superba!

Gloriosa superba!

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North to Namibia!

Elephant in Erindi

Elephant in Erindi

After 3 months in South Africa, it was time to head west, to Namibia, and then north, to Etosha… We set off with great excitement, eager to see the iconic landscapes about which we had heard so much. After 2 mega long days driving, crossing the border (as with many African countries) was typically underwhelming and bureaucratic, but, at last, we were through!

The Namibian landscape is very varied; however the south-eastern part of the country was our least favourite: it’s harsh and quite bleak, with furnace-like heat, miles and miles of white sand and stones, a mostly flat landscape and endlessly straight roads. With the intense heat we experienced the desert mirage: shimmering areas ahead that looked invitingly like water! We also understood the requirement to use your headlights at all times of day – cars with lights are definitely easier to distinguish from formless black shapes in the hazy distance. It’s an attempt to cut the very high death rate on the Namibian roads… Why, we’re unsure, as traffic is scarce indeed! Our guess is speed and boredom, as it’s easy to be less focused when the driving is so easy.

Wide open spaces in Namibia.

Wide open spaces in Namibia.

 

We had a brief stopover at Erindi, a private game reserve north of Windhoek, where we were fortunate to see some very cute bat-eared foxes; a first for both of us! We also experienced a deluge of rain, bringing large bullfrogs out of their holes and heralding (we hope), the end of the drought in Namibia. There was so much rain that roads were washed away; dam walls burst; and our previously sparkling blue swimming pool ended up looking like a muddy waterhole! At least our tent was thoroughly tested – and, we’re pleased to say, it survived. We, however, had several very scary moments on clay-like sections of the muddy roads and trying to traverse the pools of water that had collected across most roads. Rich called on his wet weather driving skills and Heath Robinson-like tactics to clear the deeper pools that blocked our path home on several occasions!

A highlight of our stay in Erindi was seeing elephants up close and watching the wonderfully entertaining antics of the hippos in the waterhole, which formed the central feature of the site. There was a hippo family resident there; it seemed as though the younger hippo was trying to assert himself, so we had much bellowing and open-jawed displays, as he took on his significantly larger mother! Hippos are very aggressive (including towards one another) and are known as one of Africa’s most dangerous animals; fortunately, though, these challenges seemed to be in jest.

Gorgeous little face of the Bat-eared Fox peaking out of the burrow.

Gorgeous little face of the Bat-eared Fox peaking out of the burrow.

 

The rains arrived in central Namibia and the bullfrogs emerged! Huge!

The rains arrived in central Namibia and the bullfrogs emerged! Huge!

 

Cavorting Hippos!

Cavorting Hippos!

And then for the highlight of Etosha… Our excitement mounted as we drove north to this well-renowned Namibian national park: we hypothesised about what we might see and experience; at the same time, keen not to have our expectations raised too high – to avoid any possible disappointment!

Our first camp was Okaukuejo: dry, stony and very busy, as it’s on the main travellers’ overland route through southern Africa. However, the waterhole at Okaukuejo is justifiably famous: it’s the only waterhole for miles, so is a favourite of the animals during the dry season and there is a wide variety of shaded benches from which you can watch the game come to drink and cool off. Floodlights enable night-time viewing too – with just rewards for those willing to stay up late!

The thirsty herd jostling for a drink.

The thirsty herd jostling for a drink.

 

Late at night the lions come down to drink. The males were roaring and the female was getting on with life - and a drink!

Late at night the lions come down to drink. The males were roaring and the female was getting on with life – and a drink!

We also encountered the persistent jackals and ground squirrels who roam the campsite, in search of titbits from visitors. They look very cute, and it’s wonderful to see wild animals up close; the downside is that the naivety of travellers who feed the animals can lead to them being shot as they can become aggressive if they lose their fear of humans. We were vigilant about not leaving food out… However, the jackals ‘won’ one night, as they chewed through the strap of Karyn’s trusty walking sandals!

The game viewing in this middle section of the park is hard work, because of the scarcity of water and food across the vast, seemingly endless plains and the huge dry pan. If patient, though, and willing to drive slowly in order to spot the well-camouflaged birds, reptiles and mammals, there are rewards to be had. It’s just that the days in the car are long, and the rewards are few and far between! The exception is the melee at the waterholes, as animals desperate for water crowd the available space.

An Etosha melee at the waterhole!

An Etosha melee at the waterhole!

Viewing a pride of somnolent lions, resting in the limited midday shade, was a real treat! The cubs were restless and playful; watching their interactions with the adults – especially the regal male – gave us several hours of pleasure. The other viewing that sustained our spirits was the range of birds, especially predators. We had some superb sightings of several birds that were new to us, alongside previously seen favourites.

Ooooh Lions! Always a treat - and some lovely cub action!

Ooooh Lions! Always a treat – and some lovely cub action!

 

One of the most striking birds here - the Crimson Breasted Shrike - posing nicely.

One of the most striking birds here – the Crimson Breasted Shrike – posing nicely.

 

The Greater Kestrel - struggling to find a tree in this vast place - a single tree becomes a hive of activity.

The Greater Kestrel – struggling to find a tree in this vast place – a single tree becomes a hive of activity.

From Okaukuejo we drove west, through Halali Camp, to Namutomi. Halali was a little oasis for a lunchtime stop: we saw our first owl in the park near the waterhole, an ever-so-cute Pearl-spotted owlet which was very tolerant of us photographing him, and a gorgeous chameleon whose exploring got the better of him! He fell off his tree as he tried to move to another branch, turning white as he landed on the white sand below, and then changing back to green as he sought refuge in the next tree.

East of Halali we also passed a flock of flamingos (both greater flamingos and lesser) amassed in a waterhole near the road where they were feeding. Simply stunning!

One of the bushes real beauties - the beermug sized Pearl-spotted Owlet!

One of the bush’s real beauties – the beermug sized Pearl-spotted Owlet!

 

One of the "Slow 5"!

One of the “Slow 5”!

 

Awesome beauty in an arid land!

Awesome beauty in an arid land!

Namutoni Camp was delightful! It was far greener than the other camps (there was actually grass in the campsite, rather than stones and rocks!) and there were several waterholes within a 15 kilometre radius of the camp, which meant that game was far more prolific and our game drives were consequently significantly more rewarding. It was frustrating to drive towards a feature marked as a waterhole on the map, only to find it dried up… However, once we got to know the area, we quickly developed favourite spots where sightings were more-or-less guaranteed.

One of our favourite spots was the Okevi (Groot – or big – and Klein – or small) waterholes. It was here that we first saw a black rhino pair attempting to mate. Well, the male was, but for most of the time the female was having none of it! (Some interesting reflections here for the males of our species… sex seems so much easier for men than the poor rhino male!) This male was clearly highly frustrated: he could smell the female was in oestrus, and she seemed to be keen for him to approach – only to then bellow aggressively and charge towards him, to fend him off. He then beat a hasty retreat to the shade of a nearby tree, before trying again…

An angry female Black Rhino - with a headache chasing off an amorous male!

An angry female Black Rhino – with a headache chasing off an amorous male!

It was also in this area that we saw our first glimpse of a cheetah family: a mother and her two teenage cubs (probably about a year old). They were moving off from the waterhole, into the thick bush, as we approached. We then spent a frustrating couple of hours of our own, trying to second-guess where they were headed! When we finally saw them later they had clearly chosen the path we hadn’t taken, and by then they were mere ‘blobs’ in the middle of the pan as a dust storm obliterated our view.

Two days later our patience was rewarded: we saw the same cheetah family feasting on a recent kill. It was completely absorbing watching them devour an entire springbuck (apart from the innards) while the vultures maintained a respectful distance, waiting for their turn to feed. The interactions between the two cubs and between the mother and her cubs were very tender, as they carefully groomed one another after their feeding frenzy!

The quickest of the lot - the Cheetah family, having a clean-up after devouring a Springbok.

The quickest of the lot – the Cheetah family, having a clean-up after devouring a Springbok.

Another favourite was the Klein Namutomi waterhole. It was here that we regularly saw animals come to drink – and we were also very lucky to see three young male lions resting nearby, and, a real treat, a leopard up a tree!

Wow! One of the greatest prizes in the African bush - a big male Leopard!

Wow! One of the greatest prizes in the African bush – a big male Leopard!

So, for us, Namutomi delivered. We loved our time there and would certainly return again… We are keen to go back after the rainy season, to explore a very different landscape when the pans have water in them. More about that if (or hopefully when) we manage to return!

It’s been an interesting learning experience for both of us spending 24 hours a day together 7 days a week as we’ve both re-learned tolerance and the importance of down-time, good food and some luxuries in-between the long days in the car… The campsite swimming pools have been a god-send; our fan has enabled us to sleep at night (an electric fan, to create wind – not a keen supporter following us!); and our potjie pot has given us much pleasure as we create some magical slow-cooked meals over the coals.

We now head to the Caprivi Strip, from where our next update will hopefully follow, and then further north into Zambia as our adventure continues… We thank you all for your support, as your messages and interest sustain and nurture us, and wish you well as you go about your daily lives and follow your dreams.

Karyn and Richard

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Dramatic but drought stricken – South Africa

South Africa during the spring and summer months is lush, green and full of colour. We hankered after seeing the vibrant colours and verdant bush, especially as the majority of our previous trips have been during the parched winter months. However, this summer has been a very different experience, as most of the country, including KwaZulu Natal where we’ve been based for the last three months, is experiencing severe drought conditions. Dams are empty; animals (both wild and reared) are struggling; water restrictions are in place; and the usually vibrant bush is currently more reminiscent of autumn / winter conditions. Superficially it looks green, as the light rains have caused the grass to turn green and new shoots to grow; however, as farmer friends have commented, this is a ‘green drought’ because beneath the surface flush of colour, the soil is still parched as the much longed-for nurturing rains have not yet soaked the earth.

The colour and beauty of a hot African summer.

The colour and beauty of a hot African summer.

We have visited some of the smaller and lesser known conservation areas in Natal during this visit: Weenen Game Reserve, Lotheni Nature Reserve, uMlalazi Nature Reserve, Ndumo Game Reserve and Ithala Game Reserve – each special in their own way.

Weenen, a small game park of about 5 000 hectares, is known for its Rhino, which successfully breed there, and we were privileged to see several White Rhino in groups (including a mother and her calf). A highlight of our trip to Weenen was experiencing a truly dramatic thunderstorm… The campsite at Weenen is in a relative ‘bowl’, ringed by higher land and hills. The 360 degree lightning show was superb: jagged, regular vertical flashes; more irregular horizontal flashes; and sheet lightning – billowing rolling flashes that lit up the cumulus clouds with soft pinks and yellows, as the storm moved through. We didn’t know which direction to look in as nature presented her awesome, majestic display!

Fantastic sight to still see a White Rhino and calf, Weenen Game Reserve, South Africa.

Fantastic sight to still see a White Rhino and calf, Weenen Game Reserve, South Africa.

Lotheni was fabulous in terms of the vast open spaces and majestic views of the Maloti Drakensberg Mountains, a world heritage site. We also loved the wild Protea bushes that decorate the hills: if you are willing to hike up above 1000 metres, the beautiful and prolific endemic Proteas (South Africa’s national flower) are a real treat! Staying with the Drakensberg theme, we also took a day trip up Sani Pass, the mountain pass leading to Lesotho, home of the Basotho people. The switchback mountain road, only navigable in a 4×4 vehicle, has stunning views with soaring rocky cliffs, rolling mountain slopes and waterfalls and streams all around. The Lesotho border post is at 2865 metres above sea level, with the final 800 metres or so being traversed in the 8 kilometre stretch between the South Africa and Lesotho border posts. Breathtaking!

High up in the Drakensberg Mountains in South Africa the Protea bushes in summer produce these stunning blooms.

High up in the Drakensberg Mountains in South Africa the Protea bushes in summer produce these stunning blooms.

 

The magnificent mountains of the Drakensberg, Lotheni, South Africa.

The magnificent mountains of the Drakensberg, Lotheni, South Africa.

 

The amazing view from the top of Sani Pass, Drakensberg becoming the Maloti Mountains.

The amazing view from the top of Sani Pass, Drakensberg becoming the Maloti Mountains.

 

Sani Pass up and over the Drakensberg Mtns. also boasts these gorgeous Malachite Sunbirds.

Sani Pass up and over the Drakensberg Mtns. also boasts these gorgeous Malachite Sunbirds.

uMlalazi Nature Reserve is situated on the lagoon of the Mlalazi River. The mangrove swamps are home to red-clawed Crabs that each guard their own hole in the sand. A real treat for us was the very pretty and usually extremely shy Red Duiker that inhabited the campsite, seemingly unconcerned about our presence. Raucous Trumpeter Hornbills screeched loudly as they flitted through the trees. The huge sand dunes between the coastal forests of the reserve and the beach stretched our calf muscles and burned our feet as we

Indian Ocean views for ever, uMlalazi Nature Reserve, South Africa.

Indian Ocean views for ever, uMlalazi Nature Reserve, South Africa.

 

In the thick undergrowth on the Indian Ocean coast these shy but beautiful Red Duiker live.

In the thick undergrowth on the Indian Ocean coast these shy but beautiful Red Duiker live.

Ndumo Game Reserve, which borders Mozambique, is renowned for its birdlife: more than 450 species are found in the reserve. The very pretty campsite is unfenced, and we had the bonus of Nyala antelope walking through the camp each evening. With the 45 degree heat, the birds also loved the birdbaths located at regular intervals in the campsite; we were entertained by the birds and insects visiting the cool water. This Brown-hooded Kingfisher had a really vigorous bath and then fiercely guarded his territory from a tree just above the birdbath. Another highlight was finding a Hoopoe nest, and watching the adults tirelessly feeding their young.

Newly washed Brown-hooded Kingfisher, Ndumo Game Reserve, South Africa.

Newly washed Brown-hooded Kingfisher, Ndumo Game Reserve, South Africa.

 

African Hoopoe, with food to feed the chicks, Ndumo, South Africa.

African Hoopoe, with food to feed the chicks, Ndumo, South Africa.

Ndumo’s pans are home to Hippos, Crocodiles, Flamingos, Pelicans, and numerous other waterbirds. We went on several early morning game walks through acacias, sycamore fig and fever trees, accompanied by an armed game ranger who was an expert at identifying birds – both visually and from their calls. He was able to call a Narina Trogan, that came closer towards us to investigate who or what was calling, and we were therefore treated to a view of this stunning bird – a keenly sought ‘lifer’ on many birdwatchers’ lists! In spite of several hours of close looking, however, we were unable to find a Pel’s Fishing Owl – maybe we will have better luck further north!

The effects of the drought were particularly stark at Ndumo… Pans, usually full of water at this time of year, were remarkably low. One game guard, who has worked in the park for 35 years, commented that he has never seen the pans so dry!

Ithala Game Reserve (our final destination on this trip exploring Zululand nature reserves), is one of our favourite game parks. It’s very well managed with staff who are justifiably proud of working in this very picturesque reserve of almost 30 000 hectares. The setting is stunning: the main camp nestles on the slopes of the Ngotshe plateau, below the rocky Ngotshe Mountain, with thatched cottages that integrate seamlessly into the environment. The campsite is very rustic – another open campsite, this time with Impala, Zebra and a Spotted Bush Snake all visiting our camp, and Weaver birds, Violet-backed Starlings and Paradise Flycatchers nesting in trees in the camp. A bilharzia-free river flows past, and the rocky pools provided much pleasure and respite during the heat of the day!

The stunning male Violet-backed Starling, Ithala Game Reserve, South Africa.

The stunning male Violet-backed Starling, Ithala Game Reserve, South Africa.

On an evening game drive we were fortunate to see both White and Black Rhino – with the White Rhino coming very close to our vehicle to investigate the sounds they could hear… We also saw many animals with their young (including Tsessebe, the only population of which in Natal is found at Ithala); the animals seem confident, or maybe hopeful, that the spring rains will eventually arrive!

The cute and attractive Impala twins, South Africa.

The cute and attractive Impala twins, South Africa.

South Africa is a really beautiful and diverse country. Many aspects of life have improved for the local people since Apartheid ended in the 1990s, including access to housing, electricity, water and government pensions. However, life is still tough… The tour guide who took us up Sani Pass explained that the cost for one child to attend his local ‘Model C’ school (a government school, but with extra staffing and resources paid for by the parents / governors, to ensure access to books for all, manageable student:teacher ratios, and class sizes in the region of 30-35) was ZAR 1800 per month. {At the current (exorbitant!) exchange rate of £23:ZAR1 that is approximately £78 per month; however at the more usual exchange rate it is about £100 per month.} This is in the context of an average monthly wage of ZAR 2500.

A gorgeous African Pygmy Kingfisher, Ithala, KZN, South Africa.

A gorgeous African Pygmy Kingfisher, Ithala, KZN, South Africa.

To return to a positive: we experienced a wonderful thunderstorm and heavy rain on New Year’s Day. Hopefully, a prescient start to the New Year – although lots more rain is still needed to break this drought!

We wish you all well and all the best for 2016…

Karyn & Richard

 

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