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Island hopping in the Okavango Delta

February 23, 2011 Leave a comment

"Cruise" control takes on a new meaning in the Delta.

Game drives in the Delta are not like those on the grasslands of the Serengeti or Kruger National Park. We are in a wetland here and we have to get from island to island. There are no bridges or ferries. The solution is the Land Rover which can cross just about everything from marshy land, small forests and one-meter-deep water (or boat). It amazes me how much hardship these “workhorses of the African safari industry” can take.

Getting from A to B, Delta-style.

As we head off to Chief’s Island from Xigera Camp, I’m amused to see that Barobi, our guide, is shoeless. I soon discover why. After we have crossed one of these meter-deep channels, he opens the door of the jeep to let the water out – the floor of the jeep is covered in about 20 centimeters of water. Going through these channels is not for the faint-hearted as you see the water rising up and up and over the bonnet and wonder how much deeper it’s going to get. The thoughts of getting stuck halfway through is not a pleasant thought! But these camp guides are well trained and know exactly what they are doing so you need to sit back, relax and let them do their job.

Back on dry land, something stinks. It’s a hippo. I learn something new today: apparently you can smell a hippo before you see it because these guys stink even though they spend half the day under water. “This one seems to be a little late getting into the water” says Barobi. I look at my watch, it’s 10.00.

We bump along “the main road to Maun” which is a dirt track and a real bone rattler. (Maun is the “capital” of the Delta, and one of its main gateways.) We’re getting what Botswanan-born Lindi calls “an African massage”.

King of the bush: it's a lion's life.

Chief’s Island is well worth the journey. The two male lions we watch for almost an hour are magnificent. They are brothers and, apparently the family ties are strong. “These two brothers are very close. They lick each other’s wounds and take care of each other,” says Barobi. There’s also a lioness but no sign of her, although I wonder if she’s closer than we realize.

Whether you're more into birds, cats, deer or plants ... the Okavango Delta has something for everyone.

If you are into bird watching, Xigera is paradise. If you’re not, you’ll still enjoy watching them, and you need to keep your fingers crossed that you won’t end up in a jeep with some “bird fanatics”. We’re on serious business looking for the lions on Chief’s Island but some of our companions seem more excited about spotting a bee-eater or fish eagle, or, to make my blood pressure rise a few more notches, a “sausage” tree which is probably one of the most common trees in Southern Africa. You will spot these “bird loving” people easily – they have huge binoculars, carry a birdwatching book from the camp and will exclaim “Oh is that the African doo-diddley-doo bird” when they hear a bird at least 100 meters away. You meet some characters on safari in Africa- people from all parts of the planet and all walks of life. That’s what keeps it interesting. You talk to people you would probably never cross paths with back home. Although, saying that I didn’t really understand why a couple at Tubu Tree Camp were so upset that they had only seen leopards and no zebras, usually zebras are the most common animal you can see in Africa, but you’ll be hard pushed to get close-ups of leopards!

Coffee time! Little did we know the two lions were only 100 meters away.

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Rainy Vs dry season in the Okavango Delta

February 20, 2011 Leave a comment

The African safari "workhorse" (the Land Rover) can take a lot. Even bonnet-high water is a piece of cake.

The Okavango Delta has two faces: dry and wet. The “dry” winter officially runs from May to October; and the “wet” summer from November to April, but, in recent years, this is also becoming less predictable.

Soon this road network will disappear under water, during the "flood" season.

The Delta looks completely different during the two seasons – during the wet season many areas turn from swampy grasslands to mini-lakes and visitor activities move from the Land Rover to motor boats. I visited in January, at the peak of the “wet” season, enjoying the hot, sunny and humid summer days and with the occasional thunderstorms at midday and in the evenings. If you want to have a bit of both “wet” and “dry” in January – Tubu Tree Camp, with its large grassland areas, is a great base for Land Rover safaris and wildlife viewing (especially leopards); follow up with a few days at the water-based Xigera Campto experience the other side of the Delta.

A hyena was here. It's much easier to view the wildlife in the "dry" season.

Sitting on my balcony at Tubu Tree, looking at the zebras and wildebeest grazing on the “lawn” in front of the camp, I find it hard to believe that in just over a month, this area will begin to flood and turn into a mini-lake. In August it will start to dry up again. Later we see some photos of the Land Rovers “swimming” along the road to the nearby airstrip. During the flood season 80% of the dirt road network surrounding the camp turns into waterways. The Land Rovers, the main mode of transport, are well able to handle water up to the bonnet but there’ll be fewer stops to view the game as the engine will cut out if the jeep stops moving. If a jeep gets stuck, as can happen occasionally, the camp has two tractors offering a “rescue” service. “It’s not a true delta safari unless you get stuck in or break down. This doesn’t happen often but remember this is the bush and anything can happen,” Justin, the camp manager, tells us. It’s all part of the adventure and that’s what a trip to Africa should be about.

Whether it's wet or dry, these grumpy water-lovers will always be around!

Dry or wet?
So, should you visit the Delta in the wet or dry season? There are pros and cons for both. In the dry season the Delta is transformed into a patchwork quilt of shimmering grasslands and small waterways. This is the best time for Land Rover-based game drives as there are plenty of herbivores (zebras, wildebeest, buffalos, impalas etc) around and it’s also much easier to spot, and get close to, lions and leopards. Many of these animals are not year-round residents. As their grasslands fill up with water, they move on to other areas in search of food before returning again in the dry season. Those that stay in the flooded Delta will have to adapt if they are to survive. Like the animals have adapted to the harsh habitat in the deserts of Namibia, so too has the Okavango wildlife. Even the cats, who notoriously hate water, swim from island to island in search of their prey.

On the other hand, in the rainy season, the Delta really turns into a massive 15,000-square-kilometer floodplain dotted with little islands and lagoons. Visitor activities tend to be more water-based, such as the popular dug-out canoe (mokoro) ride. You’re more likely to see elephants and hippos frolicking around in the water, and the red lechwe antelope, but it will be harder to find the cats. “One camp manager [in another camp] even had a resident croc living in the water under his tent during flood season,” laughs Tubu Tree Camp manager Jacky. So whether you go in dry or wet season, you’re guaranteed plenty of unique experiences. And, if you visit in dry season, you’ll probably want to go back in wet season too, or vice versa.

Dodging the occasional thunderstorm in the "wet" season.

A “normal” day in the Okavango Delta

February 18, 2011 1 comment

Rush hour on the airstrip. A group of impalas hang out on the sandy runway.

Ask any person what they want to see on their game drive, and 90% will most likely answer “the cats”. “You have to remember that when you go home you won’t see an impala or zebra, apart from in a zoo, maybe,” points out Justin Stevens, one of the camp managers at Tubu Tree.

Getting close up and personal with Tubu Tree's "local" leopards.

But going on safari is about much more than seeing the cats, it’s about experiencing the bugs at dinner, seeing the birdlife, sitting around a campfire listing to the bush noises, having a sundowner under a Marula tree watching an African sunset. But most of all, it’s about enjoying being at one with Mother Nature without the hassle and curses of modern day life – cellphones, internet, Facebook, traffic jams, office politics, stress and daily agendas. Every day in the bush animals fight for survival, for food, to protect their young. They have much more important things to worry about than about how they look in the mirror, having the latest car or iPhone, following a rigid daily routine that’s about as flexible as an iron rod, or about what people think of them.

A safari is so much more than seeing animals, it's also about experiencing "moments" like its magnificent sunsets.

Of course, every person on safari in Africa wants to see the “Big Five” – that’s the lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino – and tick them off their list.  On this trip to Africa, I learned there’s also an “Ugly Five” (the unattractive hyena, vulture, wildebeest, warthog and marabou) and the “Secret Seven”, a mainly nocturnal collection of the serval, African wild cat, porcupine, civet, spotted genet, pangolin and aardvark.

If you’ve got a leopard obsession, Tubu Tree Camp, on the Jao Concession, in Okavango, has one of the best leopard populations around. According to Johnny Mowanji, our guide, ten “non-shy” leopards have already been identified in the camp’s vicinity, making it one of the best places for leopard viewing, but this can change.“We’ve seen territorial battles and leopards are always coming and going,” he says. On the down side, because there are so many leopards, there are less lions. There was a pride of lions in the concession but as they had recently had cubs they were keeping a low profile.

No hyenas under our tent today, just this perky baboon.

According to the two camp managers, no day at Tubu Tree is ever the same. They have been “held hostage” in their tent for an hour and a half while two lions mated outside their door. And it’s not uncommon for leopards to drink out of the bird bowl at the foot of the reception area. The staff take it all in their stride but do confess to being “a little scared when lions come into the camp.” Interestingly, the Botswanans are terrified of geckos, who they believe have evil eyes, like snakes. These harmless fly- and spider-eating creatures often end up dead in the staff quarters.

By my second day in the bush, I’m confident enough to hop in and out of the truck. Johnny has assured us that as long as we stay close to the jeep or tent we are not part of the food chain. They don’t associate a jeep or tent with food, but wander around in the dark when the predators are hunting and then you might find it’s a different story.

Setting up the Bush Brunch. Visitors welcome!

After our morning game drive, we’re surprised by a “Bush Brunch”, set up under a fig tree close to the camp. The staff have laid a tablecloth and buffet and are enthusiastically frying sausages and omelettes. Well, I think, if the animals haven’t already heard the pots and pans and the banging as the table and chairs are put in place, surely, they’ll be interested in our bacon and eggs. By the time we’re finished, an hour later, we haven’t had a single four-legged visitors.

Anyone for bacon and eggs?

I’m still amazed by the lack of animal attacks on tourists in Botswana and the “non-aggressive” nature of the animals compared to their counterparts in Kenya and South Africa, for example. “It’s all about respecting the animals,” we are told several times at the camp.

A two or three-night stay per camp in the Okvango Delta is perfect. Two, from my experience at Tubu Tree, was too short as we were so busy with our game drives and activities that we didn’t have time to just hang out at the camp and relax. I would have loved a day to sit by the cute little pool, reading a book … but most importantly, instead of going out to look for the animals, to sit back and let them come to visit us in the camp.

The quaint pool area at Tubu Tree Camp, perfectly positioned for relaxed game view spotting.

If Tubu Tree Camp is not wild enough for you, there is a “hideaway” about a 10-minute drive away from the camp. It’s basically a few wooden steps leading up a tree trunk to a wooden platform. Many people book it in the search of adventure but chicken out when they see it.

 

 

 

 

It's your choice at Tubu: this super-comfortable tent ...

 

 

 

... or this adventurous "hideaway", 10 minutes from the camp?

“Camping” in the Okavango Delta

February 17, 2011 Leave a comment

Can you spot Tubu Tree Camp?

There are small intimate camps and then there are really small intimate camps. Tubu Tree, built in 2002, with just five tents fits into the latter category. Each tent is slightly raised off the ground but there are no fences around the camp, no guard standing at the gate with a gun to ward off unwelcome guests … it’s simply a camp right bang in the middle of the bush. Just like we have the right to visit their land, the animals also have full rights to enter our camp. It’s exciting but also a bit nerve-wracking … at least it is still daylight.

Nicki, the lady who recently came face to face with a leopard in the camp’s main toilet, leads us to our tent which is just 20 meters from the restaurant. We get a different kind of welcome reception from a troop of baboons which are having fun bouncing on our rooftop,  Unlike the aggressive, non-people-shy apes we met in Cape Town and Victoria Falls, these guys are scared of us and run away when we clap our hands. Try doing that to their African neighbors and you’d probably end up with a black eye or nasty bite.

We have a few hours to admire our tent before meeting Jacky Collett-Stevens and Justin Stevens, the husband and wife camp management team, at 4 pm for snacks and heading out on our first game drive in the Okavango Delta. “Being on safari in Okavango, means more than just spotting animals, it’s also a food safari,” says Justin, referring to the never-ending supply of delicious home-made food we are treated to over the coming days.

There's no need to leave the camp to see animals, they'll come to you in the camp, like this pair.

Our first game drive with our private guide Johnny Mowanji, is one to remember. We’re just 50 meters down the camp’s driveway when we meet a herd of elephants on their way into the camp.

Family ties. A "resident" brother and sister less than 15 minutes from the camp.

After that, we are treated to a close-up of one of Africa’s most elusive animals – two leopards, a brother and sister, on the ground and later follow them up into a tree. Johnny knows both of them personally. “They’re almost two years old and soon the brother will head off leaving the sister alone with the mother to share the territory while he must find his own one,” he tells us. Even though he’s seen them hundreds of times, he’s still eager to get the best shots on his camera to show his kids back home.

And here's Mamma leopard, not far away...

Twenty minutes later we spot the mother, walking stealthily along the airstrip eyeing up a few impalas. “She’s on her way towards the camp,” Johnny says matter-of-factly. I wonder if she will be waiting for us on the large tree outside our tent.

Happy Hour. Time for a sundowner in the bush.

The sun’s starting to set and Johnny asks if we are ready for a sundowner. We assume he means back at the camp but he stops the jeep in the middle of the bush close to the airstrip, hops out, sets up a portable table complete with tablecloth on the bonnet of the Land Rover and pours us a Gin & Tonic. At first I am reluctant to climb out of the jeep– warnings from South Africa and Kenya “Do not climb out of the jeep, these are wild animals not pets” – ring in my ears. In the end, lured by the Gin & Tonic, I scamper down, keeping a wary eye out for “non-pets” but after a few minutes relax, feeling safe in the company of our confident guide.

We head back to Tubu Tree and enjoy an Amarula at the camp’s simple but stunning bar – which is a sausage tree trunk under a Marula tree. The other three guests – a Russian family – join us for dinner which is excellent – a soup for starters, followed by beef and local veggies and chocolate cake and custard to finish up with. There’s no a la carte menu, but if you don’t like what’s being served they will do their best to find you something else. They’ve had some “interesting” guests over the years, including a guest who wanted 100 grams of walnuts with her breakfast every morning; which they managed to organize. The customer, or guest, really is king in this camp.

Tonight, there is a thunderstorm hovering overhead and the humidity is high. There are a crazy amount of kamikaze bugs flying around my head and skydiving into my soup. “Add some pepper so you don’t see them,” jokes Jacky. To this day, I’m still not sure how many I swallowed but for sure it added some extra protein to my soup.

View of the bar at nightfall ... "regulars" can include hyenas, leopards and baboons.

After dinner, we light the campfire. I get nervous … I am sitting on the ground level with no fence whatsoever between me and the local wildlife. The camp staff have a “bear banger” – a pen-like gadget which lets off a bang if released to scare off animals (we’re told they have never used them) – but no AK47 or pistol. To make matters even better, even if the animals can’t smell us, we’re nicely illuminated by the flames from the fire so they can’t really miss us. Johnny flashes his torch into the bush and we realize we’re not alone – a herd of 50 wildebeest are right next to us, quietly grazing. Then there is a sudden pounding of feet and two massive hyenas run past us, not more than 10 meters away. They don’t pay any attention to us – they’re out hunting and we’re not part of their dinner menu. They’re more interested in the wildebeest close by. Still I can’t help but think of the stories the Maasai told us in Kenya – of hyenas stealing babies and young children at night from their huts. According to Jacky and Justin, the hyenas are “shy”. “They’re probably headed for the kitchen,” Jacky says. “We have to keep the door locked as they tried to chew their way in once or twice, but only when there’s nobody there as they’re shy.” Hmm, try telling that to the Maasai guys in Kenya!

In the company of the calm staff, I feel brave and relaxed and enjoy the “bush” stories. “The animals here at Tubu are more scared of you than you are of them,” says Justin.

But when we are back alone in our tent, the mind starts to race, paranoia starts to kick in and you imagine you see things lurking in the shadows. Apparently, the large tree right in front of our tree is a favorite perch for leopards. Once the guide has led you to your tent at night time, you need to stay there until they come back to pick you up at 5.30 am. And there is no phone to call reception, just a horn which is strictly only to be used for medical emergencies. “It’s not to use in case you see a gecko, spider or snake or if you have a lion or leopard outside your door,” we were warned. I wonder what happens if there is a medical emergency. Both camp managers are certified in first-aid and if need be they can organize a plane. In such a far-flung place where wild animals lurk around every corner, I am curious what was the worst emergency they had during their two years at the camp. “One tall guest walked into a tree and knocked himself out,” says Jacky.

The first night I hardly slept at all, not because there was a lot of activity outside our tent, but due to the sheer excitement of the whole experience. The second night, however, was a much busier one – a male lion roared not far away, most likely marking his territory, leopards called to each other and three hyenas “camped” under our floorboards.

From waterfalls to safaris

February 13, 2011 5 comments

Africa's "Four Corners"

From Victoria Falls, it’s surprisingly easy to get around to the neighboring countries so it makes a good base to start out on your Southern African adventure, or to finish off with. (If you choose to end your trip in Victoria Falls, it will probably strike you as a metropole if you’ve spent a few days out in the bush!)

Despite its political instability and shattered economy, Zimbabwe still has some good safari spots but you’ll need to move away from Victoria Falls to see the Big Five (lion, leopard, rhino, buffalo and elephant). Some say that the country’s wildlife has suffered from the poor shape of the economy which has led to increased poaching and more animals “emigrating” to the neighboring countries. However, it’s difficult to measure this and it depends who you talk to.

Hwange National Park is Zimbabwe’s largest with 14,600 square kilometres of sandveld, forests (including teak), grasslands and saltpans, and, according to some tourists we met, is “awesome” (no need to guess where they were from!).

No internet, no cellphones, no traffic jams, no stress ... lost in the wilderness at Davison's Camp.

Wilderness Safaris has three luxurious eco-friendly camps in Hwange – Davison’s Camp, (named after the park’s founder and its first warden Ted Davison) is one of the best with its nine tents overlooking a waterhole. The six-tented and solar-powered Little Makalolo Camp offers great guided walking tours even though its concession boasts a healthy population of predators like lions, cheetahs, leopards and wild dogs. Makalola Plains Camp, slightly raised on teak platforms has a small bunker hide by the waterhole so you can watch animals drinking close-up. What’s nice with Wilderness is that even if their rates might seem pricey at a first glance, it’s worth every penny of it for the service and quality, and, most importantly you won’t be disappointed with the experience. It’s also nice to know that some of the hard-earned dollars you spend at Wilderness camps are reinvested in local projects, part of the company’s focus on sustainable and eco-friendly tourism. It’s refreshing in today’s money-hungry, commercial-driven society to know that some companies don’t just talk about their dedication to the environment and their “green” best practices to make it look good on paper, but actually proactively do something about it. In Hwange alone, Wilderness support the local anti-poaching, water supply and white rhino reintroduction projects.

A common road sign on the Victoria Falls-Kasane main road.

If you want to get a Botswana stamp on your passport, then the famous Chobe National Park, renowned for its large elephant population, is within an hour’s drive of Victoria Falls. It is considered to have one of the best concentrations of game in Africa, right up there alongside the likes of the Serengeti; it was also Botswana’s first national park. The road connection is good and the Kazangula customs post hassle-free. Visas for Botswana are free and are given at the border. Apparently the Botswanans are paranoid about foot and mouth disease as we have to walk across a manky wet mat to cross the border, while the trucks have to drive through murky-colored water. I wonder if this dirty water isn’t more dangerous than the slight risk of spreading foot and mouth disease.

This border crossing is an important trade route as there are lots of trucks lined up doing their paperwork – some nice sparkling Volvo ones from South Africa, a few MAN diesel ones from Namibia and a handful of battered rusty ones from Zimbabwe. This reminds me that Kasane is close to Africa’s “Four Corners” – the point where four countries meet – Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and Zambia. It’s also a gateway to the Chobe National Park.

Kasane is also – along with Maun – one of the gateways to Botswana’s Okavango Delta where we, like other safari-hungry tourists, will board a small plane bound for the swamps of the delta.

Beckie, our chirpy and entertaining Zimbabwean driver, picks us up amazingly punctually at 7.45 a.m. at our hotel in Victoria Falls … too punctual as we expected a 7.45 pick up in Africa would give us about 15 more minutes to finish off our breakfast.

And here's the proof that there is "heavy" traffic along the way.

On the road to Kasane, which runs through a national park, we see quite a few local animals, including a male elephant in must sauntering along the roadside. At one point Beckie pulls over and picks up a chameleon which runs up his arm. “African people,” he laughs, “are afraid of chameleons as they think they bite.” Not this one.

Gecko's don't bite, contrary to African superstitions.

Hiding in the ditches at the side of the road are hornbills, or “oversized turkeys” he calls them, referring to their black and red neck plume. “We associate them [hornbills] with the rains. If you see them, it’s going to rain or get cold”. We almost crush a dung beetle rolling his massive ball of dung across the road and a troop of baboons who insist on sitting in the middle of the road. “In the morning they like to sit on the road to avoid the morning dew on the grass,” Beckie tells us, before we say goodbye to him at the border to Botswana.

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