Author Archives: chemwalters2012

Journey into the Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho: Katse Dam to Calendonspoort

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Journey into the Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho: Katse Dam to Calendonspoort

After our intriguing buffet breakfast and a heartfelt farewell to our hosts at the Buffalo hotel, we headed through to Thaba Tseka proper. We were grateful to find a petrol station selling diesel just in the town – hadn’t seen any of those en route yet – but there was not much else to hold our attention.

The Thaba Tseka petrol station

After leaving Thaba Tseka we made took the road towards one of the most spectacular spots in Lesotho – Katse Dam. The scenery en route continued to fascinate us. From the rolling valleys beneath the road to the freindly Basothos wrapped up in their blankets. We also had a chance to admire a form of art I had not yet seen – rondawel roof art. I particularly liked the metal rooster.

Typical Lesotho scene

Typical Lesotho scene

Rondawel art

Rondawel art

Katse Dam

A note on terminology: In South Africa “dam” is used to describe both the wall and the the water behind it. Chris, with his British and science background, is more particular and uses the word dam only in reference to the wall. The water is strictly called a resevoir. So, I apologise in advance if I use the word dam in the South African sense and cause any confusion.

Katse Dam, the highest in Africa, was completed in 2009 and is known as the heart of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project. It is a real thing of beauty. It stretches far beyond your line of vision, nestled high in the Maluti mountains. The striking blue water is very captivating and inviting – although I’m sure the water would have been freezing at this time of year!

We took in the view of the dam from the Katse Lodge. They have a lovely balcony with a tremendous view so its a great place to stop for a drink. (The view more than compensating for the rather average cup of coffee.) It is also apparently a lovely place to stay and had they not been fully booked we would definitely have spent the night.

We were disappointed not to have timed our visit better to be able to do the tour of the dam. There is a sweet little visitors center but if you arrive between tours there is not much information. The tour is a self-drive one and all we could do was look down jealously at those better prepared visitors driving their cars into the entrance in the dam wall. The tours are at 9am and 2pm on Mondays – Fridays and 9am and 11am on Saturdays, Sundays and Lesotho public holidays.

The first view

The first view

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Part of the view from the Katse Lodge

A local boy at the dam

A local boy at the dam

Searching for the Lesothosaurus

We left Katse Dam thinking we had seen the best that Lesotho had to offer us in our short trip. Little did we know that, just a little distance from the South African border, we would discover something unbelievable.

We were just outside Hlotse in the Northwest of Lesotho when we saw a tiny sign pointing to a dirt track that said ‘dinosaur footprints’. It was too intriguing to ignore. About 500m down the road we found the reception – a little hut with a very friendly attendant. I can’t remember his name but his enthusiasm for his country and the conservation of the dinorsaur prints will stay with me forever.

The office

The reception

As we set off from reception for our short walk to the prints I must admit I was not very hopeful. What sort of prints would we see in a place like this? Chris was so uninspired he didnt even get out of the car. We dutifully followed down the bank and across to a little stream.

As we got to the spot, our guide started sweeping away some of the water and revealed clear, large and fascinating dinosaur footprints. There were a several different prints and each of the walking patterns of the of the relevant dinosaur was enthusiastically demonstrated to us by our guide – hopping from print to print in a very animated manner. We could then all follow suit and have our turn to pretend to be the dinosaurs. This was a totally unique experience. There were no fences, demarcated areas, signs, people stopping you touching things. Nothing. Just a piece of ancient history for you to enjoy. So different from our other dinosaur footprint experience in Bolivia.

Our guide at the site of the prints

Our guide at the site of the prints

Some prints

Some prints

There are obviously big questions about conservation of these and similar prints around Lesotho. Our guide explained that there is no funding and they do their best with the intake from tourists. The water (and probably the tourist dinosaur re-enactments) are all contributing the the erosion of the prints. Our guide spoke about how they need help diverting the water so that the prints can be protected. It seems like an obvious thing to support but a real dilemma about how he can raise the money. We left a donation and hopefully if you are reading this you will also stop by and show support.

A local boy selling clay animals to dinosaur tourists. My mom  paid R1 for a little cow but one cant help think the children should be making clay dinosaurs.

A local boy selling clay animals to dinosaur tourists. My mom paid R1 for a little cow but one cant help think the children should be making clay dinosaurs.

Our guide proudly showed us this picture of the lesothosaurus.

Our guide proudly showed us this picture of the lesothosaurus.

(Em)

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Culinary Delights of Durban – The Awesome Bunny Chow

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The food of Durban is as diverse as its demographics. However, as the home of one of South Africa’s largest Indian population, it is hard to escape its unique and delicious version of Indian cuisine.

This cuisine is most typically represented by the Bunny Chow. The Bunny Chow is Indian fast food and quite simply it is a bread loaf filled with curry. Historically this dish was a means of serving up food to Indian workers at a time when the laws of the country did not allow them to be served inside certain restaurant.

This great dish has become somewhat of a staple on menus around Durban and it can be found in nicer restaurants like the Hilton Hotel in Durban CBD and the famous Britannia hotel or the delicious fast food chain Some Like it Hot.

Note – best eaten using your fingers and with a big dash of delicious chutney. Imagebig

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Journey into the mountain kingdom of Lesotho: Sani Pass to Thaba Tseka

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Journey into the mountain kingdom of Lesotho: Sani Pass to Thaba Tseka

Ahh Lesotho – home of mountains, goats, mud huts, breathtaking views and possibly the most delightfully weird hotel experience of my life.

Heading up Sani Pass

We started our journey into Lesotho at the base of Sani Pass. After a quick stop at the Himeville hotel for a drink and a flushing toilet (would we find many of these on the road?) we were ready to ascend into the mountain kingdom. You start the drive around 1500m above sea level and finish at the summit (and the Lesotho border post) at 2873m. The road is narrow and windy and steep. It may also be scattered with the odd herd of sheep or goats just for the extra bit of adrenalin. The views along the pass are spectacular. Sadly, the day we drove it there was a heavy and persistent mist which meant no views for us. On the plus side it gave a beautiful eerie atmosphere to the ice alongside the road.

The route up Sani Pass

The route up Sani Pass

Sharing the winding pass with some livestock

Sharing the winding pass with some livestock

Frozen waterfall on the road

Frozen waterfall on the road

We arrived at the top of the pass around mid morning and discovered the friendliest border officials in the world. The border post is nothing more than a little concrete block. Despite the freezing temperatures everything seems to take place outside the office – the border officials they were kind enough to help us fill out forms to save some of our party from even getting out of the car. For those of you who love a souvenier (Em cant help herself, justifying it with a ‘helping the community’ speech) there is a little shop at the border. We didnt see anymore on our journey through Lesotho so we are glad we took the chance to get a novelty hat here.

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The border curio shop

The border curio shop

Just around the corner from the border is a lovely little hotel, the Sani Mountain Lodge. If you have the time, it is definitely worth stopping here for a delicious hot chocolate. This hotel is billed as ‘The Highest Pub in Africa’. I have since read that it is actually the highest licenced pub in southern Africa but it is still great fun to have a photo by the sign (even if mist ruined what we understand is usually a spectacular view). Just a word of warning, there are several day trips up the pass from South Africa so try and have an early hot chocolate/lunch to avoid fighting for service or a table when the crowds move in.

A drink at the top of the world

A drink at the top of the world

Driving across Lesotho is a wonderful experience. The roads are gracefully perched alongisde the mountains, winding around the top of the country. There are beautiful views of valleys, villages and many chances to see the local poeple getting on with their day in their signature blanket attire. Be warned that the driving is slow. Many of the roads are not tarred and even in the best 4×4 expect to spend the whole day on the road. Plan your route carefully to ensure that you get to your destination by nightfall.

A view from the road

A view from the road

Baby lambs (or kids?) on the roadside

Baby lambs (or kids?) on the roadside

Staying in Thaba Tseke

Accomodation in Lesotho is not plentiful. Usually this is not a problem but if you plan to visit over a South African holiday (like we did) it just might be! We planned this trip late but eventually found a website for a lovely looking hotel in Thabe Tseka called the Buffalo Hotel so we made a booking.

When we were approaching Thaba Tseka we saw a sign for Buffalo Hotel so, although a bit earlier than expected, we stopped, hoping this would be the end of the days driving. We were met by very blank faces at reception who had no recollection of a booking anywhere. There was definitely a moment of panic because we knew everything else was fully booked before we left. However, when we asked whether they, by any chance, had a spare room for us we were told that they had no bookings for that night. They were a new hotel and this was their opening night. If we wanted, we could be the first guests.

The Buffalo Hotel

The Buffalo Hotel

The whole experience from there just got stranger and stranger. They were obviously all nervous and trying to do everything as perfectly as possible for us but sometimes it all just seemed a bit bizaar.

Although there were only 5 of us, we were told that dinner would be a buffet. This buffet was driven across from another Buffalo hotel (presumably where we had booked although this was never confirmed?) and served to us on a large plate – mini individual buffets? We sat alone in a large dining room watched closely by the chef who checked constantly that we were happy with the food. The next morning, the chef drove back to our hotel to serve us a large breakfast – again under his watchful eye. I loved the warm beans but the cold french toast and fish fingers were a bit too much for me!

The rooms were lovely, clean and warm and provided us with an excellent stop over. The people were beaming with friendliness and the quirkiness of the whole experience will stay with us for a long time.

My little sister in an empty pink dining room

My little sister in an empty pink dining room

Breakfast with a twist

Breakfast with a twist

(Em)

Planning a 4×4 Trip in Botswana

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Earlier this year, we were made an offer we could not refuse when we were asked if wanted to join a 4×4 trip to Botswana and Namibia.

We had been to Botswana before and knew how incredibly difficult and expensive it can be, particularly if you don’t have the right equipment. If you don’t own your own 4×4 the best (and sometimes only) way to see the country is to join an organised trip. These seem to be run for people with lots of spare dollars or pounds and not for your average traveller! So… this opportunity – to jump in a ready-owned 4×4 and join a planned trip into unexplored Africa – was a definite yes for us!

For any of you wanting to do the same, here are some tips we picked up along the way:

1. Go in a 4×4
If you want the freedom of going anywhere then you will need a 4×4. If you don’t have one you can still see some spectacular parts of the country but be aware that you will be limited. There are 2 main tarred roads in Botswana – one to Maun and one to Chobe. When we first went to Botswana in 2009 we took my Ford Focus and easily made it to both these places. However, once we were there we had to rely on tours to explore the delta and the parks. With your own 4×4 you can seek out new spots and park yourself in a campsite in the middle of a game reserve for as long as you want.

The look on Chris' face says a lot about how he feels about this

2. Take plenty of spare parts and repair kits
Even the hardiest of 4x4s will take a beating on those roads and you do not want to be left stranded in the middle of nowhere trying to get help. We found having a someone with a keen knowledge of fixing cars also helped!

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3. Always have lots and lots of water
Be aware (particularly if you are wanting to stay at campsites within the reserves) that you run a high risk of ending up somewhere with no running water. The best thing to do is to have plenty of water with you at all times. Our trailer had a 50 liter water tank and we also took about 25 liters of bottled water in the car. What you need obviously depends on where you are going and how often you move.

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4. Find out where all the vetinerary check points are

Famously, Botswana is very strict on what you are allowed to take into the country – no meat, no oranges etc etc. However, once you are in the country, you can’t relax as you will be stopped at vetinary checkpoints along your route fairly frequently. These stops are desgined to stop the spread of foot and mouth so you can expect to drive/walk through a pool of some type of solution and to hand over all your meat (and sometimes fruit and veg). In order to avoid having all your supplies confiscated, find out where these are in advance. This will save you a lot of time and money.

Another tip, although raw meat can’t be taken through a checkpoint, they have no problem with you stopping on the side of the road and cooking it before proceeding. We had a very cheerful roadside braai on our way to the Okavango Panhandle.

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A checkpoint between Maun and the Okavango Panhandle

5. Invest in a rooftop tent
This is not an essential but for any of you who have a little bit of a fear of being trampled by elephant in your sleep or dragged out by hungry lions (disclaimer: I have no clue how likely either of these are) then the feeling of safety,  sleeping up above the animals is priceless! We spent many nights lying in bed listening to the hippos chomping and the elephants growling (yes, they do growl!) right next to our tent, able to enjoy it only because we knew we were not underfoot.

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6. Check whether or not you will have to pay park fees to transit through a game reserve.

Reserves are everywhere and sometimes your sat nav will suggest you drive through them en route to your next destination. We drove through one assuming we would not need to pay if we were just transiting – mistake. We ended up on a slow and dusty route through a reserve (with not an animal in sight) only to be hit with pretty steep park fees upon exit and then an extravagant ferry fee to get back onto the main road. If we had just stopped and asked we would have been told about the fees and could have taken the much faster tarred route around the edge of the park.

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Watching the unavoidable ferry between the reserve and the main road

7. Check the rules of each game reserve before you start exploring
Some of the reserves are much stricter than others. So, while you may be able to sit on roof racks and drive off road in the Caprivi, if you try that in Chobe you ill find yourself quickly removed from the Park.

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8. Book ahead!
Some game reserves (Suvuti, Moremi) require proof of booking before they let you into the park. These campsite are small and far between so don’t delay and make the booking with plenty of time to spare. Remember to carry printouts of all your bookings – internet access and cell phone reception are luxuies you won’t find in the African bush.

A map of the campsite - we were 'upgraded' to CK4 and were quite happy with it.

A map of the only campsite in Savuti

9. Be prepared to see lots of animals
These are wild animals but with a certain amount of luck and lots of respect you can have incredible encounters with a variety of animals. We had elephant walking though our campsite, hornbills landing on our laps, hyena visiting our campfire and hippo joining us at our dinner table.

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10. Be on the lookout for animals at all times
Sometimes the best times to spot wild animals – especially elephant – is while you are driving on the freeway. So keep an eye out even while you are doing 120km/hr.

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Moremi National Park, Botswana – 7 lessons from living in the African bush

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Moremi National Park, Botswana – 7 lessons from living in the African bush

After 1 night in Savuti we were all a bit tired of all the sand and the long walk to the ablutions so were looking forward to moving on to Moremi. We had no idea what type of campsite we were heading to but all had dreams of it being something like Dan’s place in the Caprivi (private bathroom, kitchen, dining room, clean sand etc etc).

Accommodation in Moremi is limited and in high demand. We had ended up booking on the edge of the park in Magotho campsite on land belonging to Khwai Development Trust. The journey there turned out to be incredibly slow and bumpy and was made even slower when our trailer broke (luckily not permanently).  In the early afternoon we arrived at the co-ordinates for Magotho campsite and our hearts sunk.  There was no office, no person to tell us where to camp, no running water, no ablutions. To put it simply, there was nothing. Suddenly the sand and distant toilets of Savuti seemed like luxury.

We drove around looking for someone to help us and eventually found some campers who said that no one from Khwai Development Trust had been around for a few days. They suggested we should just find a camping spot and set up. We looked around for a bit and found a few potential spots – some had numbers on a tree and others just had the remains of another campers campfire. We chose one of the latter on the main road with a lovely bunch of trees behind us and a beautiful open view to the front of us. It later transpired that where we had camped was not an official campsite (still not sure what made a campsite ‘official’) but we were settled there so we stayed.

Be under no illusion, although I may make references in the above paragraphs to ‘campsite’, ‘official’ and ‘booking’ this was no ordinary camping holiday. We were completely on our own in the middle of the African bush. So, should you expect to find yourself in a similar situation one day, here are our ‘7 Lessons from living in the African bush’.

1. A campsite is sometimes just a bit of land around a tree.

When in the wild, do not expect modern luxuries of buildings, a roof, lighting, electricity, toilets, showers or water at all. Do not expect the security of a fence, an armed guard or even a sign telling you that you are permitted to be there.  Instead, content yourself with a flat, dry area of land and hopefully a tree for shade.

Our beautiful yet rustic campsite

Arriving at our beautiful and rustic campsite

Camp set up

Camp set up

2. Elephant walk along ‘corridors’ and camping within these mean elephant will walk through your campsite

We cannot help you identify an elephant corridor as our experience of Botswana is that elephant are everywhere. While the sight of 5 large bull elephants suddenly emerging from the trees behind your tent and passing by your campfire may be quite alarming, we found that they generally just ignored us and continued with their eating / drinking / walking. We had about 2 hours of the one herd hanging around and, with us keeping a respectful distance away from them (and close to the car) they were an absolute delight to watch.

The first of many elephant to wander through our camp

The first of many elephant to wander through our camp

Sitting around the campfire with a pretty amazing view

Sitting around the campfire with a pretty amazing view

3.  Camping next to the water means hippo

While a campsite with a view is always in demand, remember that a watery view comes with the risk of grazing hippo (one of Africa’s more dangerous beasts). We had a lovely view of a river from our campsite which meant elephant and buck came down to drink during the day. However, as the sun set we would start to hear the now familiar grunt of hippo as they readied themselves for their night time graze. During the night you could hear the ‘chomp chomp’ of the hippo as they wandered around near our camp eating. Definitely important to stay in your rooftop tent until morning! Although, saying this, I believe hippo can travel up to 10km at night while grazing so even if you chose a campsite without a water view you may still see them.

Do not be fooled by their cuddly appearance

Do not be fooled by their cuddly appearance

4. Be prepared to build your own toilet 

When in the African bush and faced with the prospect of no formal ablutions, be prepared to build your own. You will need a spade to dig the hole and to put sand back in the hole after every visit. Choose your location  carefully. It should be far away enough from the campsite for some privacy but close enough so that people can hear your cries for help if you are at the toilet and come across a lioness. Ensuring good visibility is also a good idea – I never feel comfortable having my back to the African bush.

Chris digging the hole

Chris digging the hole

5. You will only shower if you make one

If cleanliness is important to you then perhaps living in the African bush is not for you. Water is scarce and swimming in the water channels is downright dangerous. We were fortunate to have one of our team able to safely collect river water and build us an outdoor shower so we could at least feel a bit cleaner. Luckily, some elephant chose to wander down to our camp at the same time providing an exceptional showering view.

Collecting water at a crossing point

Don collecting water at a crossing point

Chris, shower and elephant

Chris, shower and distant elephant

6. Make a big fire, you never know what will try visit you at night

A fire is your friend as it provides light, heat, a place for cooking, a center point to your evening conversation and a deterrence to some particularly scary wild animals. On our first night, we sat nervously around the fire surrounding by a thick blackness like I had never experienced when Don suddenly said ‘whats that?’ and aimed his torch out to the front. There, a mere 8 meters (we measured the next morning) was a hyena. A giant hyena. A giant hyena with a jaw that can crack bones. What amazed me was that it had got that close to us without the rest of us hearing one thing. We reassured ourselves that with the fire it would not have come any closer.

The next night we were setting the table for dinner when a car suddenly came careering along the road in front of us. It slammed on breaks and asked us if we had seen the leopard. Ummm…. no? Apparently it had been walking down the road towards us but when the car came up it ran into the bush next to our camp. Now it was somewhere around us and we had no idea where. The next morning we woke up and found its footprints on the road right next to our fire. Like it had walked through the camp, around the fire and back out the other side. We heard and saw nothing of course.

Leopard prints

Leopard prints

Some beautiful lionesses we found about 1km away from our campsite

Some beautiful lionesses we found about 1km away from our campsite – wonder where they were that night?

7. Be prepared to work hard

Life in the African bush is not easy. Anything you need you have to either have brought with you or be in a position to collect yourself (firewood, shower water etc). The roads (where there are roads) are just marked out of the bush and you must get used to sand, bumps, obstacles and water crossings.

The look on Chris' face says a lot about how he feels about this

The look on Chris’ face says a lot about how he feels about this

Collecting firewood at sunset

Collecting firewood at sunset

It sounds like a cliche but is an absolute privilege to stay in the wild in the African bush. There are not many places left in the world where you can go without the restraints of a reception desk and checkout times and without the security of phones and wifi. If you are lucky enough to experience this, embrace it. Give in to the lack of toilets and showers and relish the chance to walk around a corner and see a family of elephant playing in the water. Be respectful of your surroundings and remember that you are the intruder. Leave it as you found it so many more travelers can get the chance to experience the same.

Savuti, Botswana

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Savuti, Botswana

Getting there:

The road from Chobe to Savuti is a proper sandy 4×4 African track. To make it across in 1 day you will need an excellent 4×4 vehicle, an excellent 4×4 trailer, an excellent 4×4 driver (good levels of concentration essential) and a strong bladder (those bumps do not make it easy). Luckily we had the first three elements and plenty of toilet breaks in the reserve to get us through the fourth element.  We left Chobe around 7:30am and were in Savuti by mid afternoon feeling quite pleased with ourselves at our speedy progress. However when we came to set up camp those bumpy roads came back to haunt us as we discovered that all of our food containers in the trailer had been shaken open and all our food had been broken up and dispersed across everything else in the trailer. With the high temperatures and dry conditions this was not a good start to our stay in Savuti. (Tip: Secure all boxes of food as if they are to be placed on a roller coaster)

The road from Chobe to Savuti

The road from Chobe to Savuti

Some of the food that stayed in the box

Some of the food that stayed in a box

Accommodation:

If you want to camp in the reserve then your only option is the SKL campsites. There are 14 campsites of varying size and a few tented camps.  Each campsite has their own braai area and a tap with fresh water – which was an absolute blessing with the ‘food splattered through our trailer’ disaster. There is one adequate communal bathroom but, unless your camp is right at its door, it is a long walk and is useless after dark when you aren’t supposed to walk around.

A map of the campsite - we were 'upgraded' to CK4 and were quite happy with it.

A map of the campsite – we were ‘upgraded’ to CV4 and were quite happy with it.

The view of our campsite from across the channel

The view of our campsite from across the channel

In our 3 week holiday this campsite was by far the most expensive. I can only think that it is because accommodation is in such short supply that they can up the price. In 2013 one night was R250 per SADC adult and $50 per international adult. This campsite really is in the middle of nowhere. There are no phones, internet, shops etc anywhere nearby. There is a tiny little supply shop open for a few hours during the day that sells the essentials like cold coke and “tinned stuffs”. They also sell firewood but we would recommend bringing in all of your the firewood you think you will need and only relying on this for emergencies. You are not allowed to collect firewood in the reserve so will face very steep prices for firewood (wood that other people have collected outside the reserve and driven to the campsite).

Rations at the tuck shop

Rations at the tuck shop

Wildlife:

The campsite is along the Savuti channel. When we were there (granted it was the middle of the dry season) there was only a single little watering hole and nothing as majestic promised by the word ‘channel’. However, just in the first few hours of setting up and cleaning out the trailer we saw elephant and buck coming down to drink so we were pleased it was there.

The campsite has no fences and is just plonked in the middle of the park. We had a rather terrifying moment when a large Bull elephant decided to wander through all the campsites during the time when 2 of our party had taken the only car out for a drive – there are high panic moments when there is no vehicle to hide in and elephant wandering up towards you! I had stupidly read that elephant had destroyed the last Savuti campsite and was concerned they were on their way to take on this one. Other than that our more regular visitors to our campsite were some very cheeky hornbills.

Elephant on the channel next to our camp

Elephant on the channel next to our camp

Little hornbill wanting to share my mom's breakfast

Little hornbill wanting to share my mom’s breakfast

We took several game drives around Savuti. The fabulous thing is that you hardly have to drive very far to see anything. We had been told that Savuti was cat country so we were desperate to find some cats. We didn’t have to wait long as mere minutes after driving out of the campsite we found a beautiful male lion. It was thrilling to know that lion was less than 1km from our home and we were constantly reminded of it that night when we were lying in our tent listening to him (and a few others) roaring nearby. This was a unique and unforgettable experience for me.  Another special moment was when we came across a huge clearing and were busy admiring a very definite elephant path when my mom pointed to elephant coming out of the trees along the path. She quickly maneuvered the car off the path but kept it close (closer than I would have liked but further than she would have liked) and switched off the engine. We sat there silently and watched the whole herd walk peacefully by us.

Lion

Lion

Elephant

Elephant

While you’re staying at Savuti or on your way out we would highly recommend stopping by the rock paintings not far from the camp entrance . The paintings themselves are small but scrambling up the rock while you look out for leopard is a lot of fun. Also, the views from up there are gorgeous – we watched giraffe and elephant from above.

Us and the rock paintings

Us and the rock paintings

(Em)

Chobe National Park, Botswana

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Chobe National Park, Botswana

Chobe riverfront is not considered the rolls royce of game viewing for nothing. If you want to see Africa’s animals in a beautiful setting but you don’t really want to spend any effort looking for them then Chobe is the place for you. You can literally place yourself in a spot and watch the animals come to you. It is nothing short of spectacular. The only downside to Chobe is that it (along with the Delta) is Botswana’s premier tourist attraction so you will not be alone. The town of Kasane (the gateway to Chobe National Park) is packed with tourists – many spending big money in one of the many five star lodges and it is sometimes easy to forget that just within the manicured lawns, swimming pools and luxury accommodation is an African town amongst African bush.

Shopping in Kasane (see if you can spot Em)

Shopping in Kasane (can you spot Em?)

We made the mistake of arriving in Kasane in high season with no booked campsite. (Don’t do that.) As soon as we crossed the border from Namibia back into Botswana we got out our Botswana sim card and our Lonely Planet and frantically started phoning all the (now fully booked) campsites. We had our heart set on a place called Senyati thanks to Dan’s glowing recommendation but had already been told by Dan’s contact that it was fully booked. We called anyway and when the lady on the phone didn’t send us away immediately (we took her broken English as a sign that there was space) we decided to head straight there. Senyati is 18km out of Kasane but it is an easy drive along a tarred road so you should not be put off by this extra distance. As we had come to expect with this part of the world, the campsite is a bit of a dust bowl but this is made easier to handle as each site has private ablutions and a covered kitchen area. There are 16 official campsites. We stayed in number 17. It was possibly not the best (the lights were operated from a different campsite’s ablutions and the staff kept forgetting to light our donkey so we had limited hot water) but it was right on the edge and, more importantly, it was a place to stay! The absolute selling point about this place is the watering hole they have built alongside the bar. It is the only water source in the area so attracts animals each evening. Perfectly set up for sundowner viewing.

The watering hole

The watering hole

Our first evening there was incredible. I have never seen so many elephant at a watering hole. They were mere meters from us (although we were safely sitting in the bar) drinking and playing. I was captivated by a baby elephant who spent the whole time trying to reach the waters edge but just couldn’t make it not matter how much he tried to stretch his trunk. It was a very special place to sit and have a drink. Even better, was that the route the elephant took to get to the watering hole was around the campsite so, as lucky number 17 residents, they wold walk right passed our camp all evening.

Elephant at the watering hole

Elephant at the watering hole

Our campsite

Our campsite

Our experience with the elephant on the first night became even more special on the second night when no elephant appeared. That first night had seemed circus-like – almost like the camp hired elephant for its guests – that it was good to be reminded that these were wild animals and their presence at any watering hole was not guaranteed. However, not to be left with nothing to watch, a friendly troop of baboon passed by. The highlight was watching another display by a baby animal – this time the tiniest little baboon I have ever seen who spent the whole time at the watering hole climbing to the top of a little sand mound alongside it and then sliding down into the dust.

Cutest little baboon in the world

Cutest little baboon in the world

Baboon

Baboon and water

You will be pleased to hear that, as lovely as it was, we did not spend the entire time at our campsite. We had one full day in Kasane and we were set on spending that in the Chobe National Park – along the riverfront. My mom commented that, for her, Chobe was everything she imagined the Serengeti would be like. We continuously came across endless plains that were littered with different species of animals – the scale of which could simply not be captured on camera! There were elephant, giraffe, kudu, impala, nyala, sable antelope, baboon, hippo… as far as the eye can see. In particular, the giraffe put on spectacular shows for us. We saw them mock fighting, eating, running and drinking in their very awkward stance. Spot of the day goes to Chris, who ignored the hippo we were watching and found a little jackal in the bushes alongside our car.

Cue a very small selection of our photos of animals…

Can't resist a baby elephant

Can’t resist a baby elephant

Crossing paths: giraffe and elephant

Crossing paths: giraffe and elephant

Giraffe and sable antelope

Giraffe and sable antelope

Tangled giraffe

Tangled giraffe

Jackal

Jackal

Fish eagle

Fish eagle

Namibia – exploring the Caprivi Strip (Part 2 – The East)

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Namibia – exploring the Caprivi Strip (Part 2 – The East)

Looking back on our holiday, we all agreed that our favourite place that we stayed was Dan’s place – or, as officially named, Mavunje campsite run by a cheerful Englishman called (you guessed it) Dan.

Dan is contagiously enthusiastic about the region and spent many hours sharing stories with us over a glass of wine or dinner.  His campsite is run as a part of what is otherwise a business focused on expert tours of the Kwando / Mashi river system (Mashi River Safaris). Although his focus may be on the river safaris but this does not mean that any corners have been cut in building his campsites. The sites have been set up with a lot of care and consideration. The end result is that they are private and about as comfortable as you can get while still being in the wild. There are 2 campsites, each with their own view of the waterways. They have a fully equipped kitchen; private shower, toilet and basin (with paraffin lamps!) and a little covered dining room complete with table and tablecloth – a real delight for someone like me who loves soft furnishings!

The campsite was so separate from anything else that it felt like we were completely isolated from civilization. This was made more real when we discovered the hippo path next to our campsite and learnt that we were right next to an elephant corridor.  So, we had two nights of hippo grunting symphonies to lull us to sleep and one night of nervously listening to grumbling elephant passing by our camp.

Relaxing and chatting to Dan by the water

Relaxing and chatting to Dan by the water

Part of Campsite 1 - our dining room on the left and our kitchen on the right

Part of Campsite 1 – our dining room on the left and our kitchen on the right

Inside the dining room which looks out onto the water

Inside the dining room which looks out onto the water

Every campsite should have a hammock

Every campsite should have a hammock

Mudumu National Park by car

The campsite is only 20 minutes from the entrance of Mudumu National Park. Although we had already booked a boat ride with Dan for the afternoon, we couldn’t resist popping into the park to have a look. Dan had made it sound even more appealing by letting us know that this would probably be one of the most rule-free parks we would visit. Unlike Chobe in Botswana or Kruger in South Africa, game viewing here is pretty relaxed. We could sit on our roof racks or explore off road a bit without any trouble.

Best spot for game viewing

Best spot for game viewing

It wasn’t hard to find elephant in the park. We headed straight to the water and straight into a drinking herd. They weren’t too pleased about our presence there and a few of the younger bulls started walking towards us and waving their ears. I was (predictably) very nervous but everyone else was calm saying that they were probably just worried that we were in their path.  (I was worried about that too so not sure how that was supposed to calm me down.) We were in a tricky position. They wanted to come our way and we wanted to go their way. Hmmmmm. Luckily Don drives a Landcruiser and an adventurous spirit and we headed off road into the bushes to try and go around the herd. We came out (a bit bumped and scratched) the other side and the elephant moved on peacefully.

Baby elephant cooling down

Baby elephant cooling down

After that, we made the mistake of heading inland away from the water. Don’t do that. There is nothing there in the dry season. So, we headed back to the water for a quick snack. As we were approaching the ‘hippo pool’ a spotted a large rock about 10m from the road which looked a lot like a hippo. It seemed unbelievable as we were still a few kms from the water. Despite this, we headed back off road and, sure enough, we found a huge lump of a hippo lying in the sun.  This was highly highly unusual. In all my years in Africa I had never seen a hippo this far out of the water in the middle of the day. We were convinced that he must have been kicked out of his pod and had come here to die. He even had wounds to back up our story. This turned out to be a bit overly dramatic. Dan later told us that hippo often do this when they have been hurt, using the sun to dry out their wounds. After that I just felt bad for disturbing the poor old chap!

Lunch with a view

Lunch with a view

Bwabwata National Park by boat

Not satisfied with our morning game viewing, we spent the afternoon on a river cruise closer to our camp. Dan was in his element at the helm of his boat showing us around his neighborhood. He seemed almost familiar with the pods of hippo floating on our route – I wouldn’t be surprised if he recognised each and every one  – and had an almost childlike delight each time he spotted something to share with us. He had boasted to us that he knew the paths of the animals by heart and we teasingly told him we would not pay unless he found us some red lechwe (a type of buck only found in this region). True to his word he hunted out a herd and, once all the obligatory photos had been taken, he expertly maneuvered the boat into a position for us to watch them running away and pronking across the water.

Chris and the still blue water

Chris and the still blue water

Hippo letting us know he's there

Hippo letting us know he’s there

Pronking red lechwe

Pronking red lechwe

Animal watching from a boat is very special. Where cars are noisy and intrusive a boat is able to silently float right up next to the animals. We managed to sit right on the edge of the water while a glorious male Kudu ate from a bush and also snuck up on a hippo out of the water who got such a fright that he belly flopped back into the water right in front of our path. Probably the most special encounter was when we cam across a large bull elephant in the process of crossing the water way. The water mark came right up to his eyes but the time we saw him he was only knee deep and making his way slowly to the edge. He passed by a fish eagle, sitting on the waters edge and gave us a photo opportunity of note – two great African icons in one shot. Once he was out of the water, he went in to the bush and disappeared silently. It never ceases to amaze me how those giants can simply disappear in the bush.

Kudu

Kudu

Elephant and Fish Eagle

Elephant and Fish Eagle

Dan kept us out on the water a little bit longer than usual.  He wanted to share with us the beautiful African sunset over the water (and I think also wanted us to have some close encounters with the hippo leaving for their evening meal!) The sunset was spectacular, especially the way it reflected off the ripples in the water following the water. Just another day in Africa I suppose.

Sunset on the water

Sunset on the water

Namibia – exploring the Caprivi Strip (Part 1 – The West)

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The Caprivi Strip is a really odd piece of land. It is like a little lever stretching out from the top right hand corner of Namibia towards Zimbabwe, crossing between Botswana, Angola and Zambia.  The land was a gift, well more of an exchange, from the UK to given to Germany in 1890 (who at that time controlled Namibia).  Germany had desperately wanted access to the Zambezi river and had even exchanged both Zanzibar and an island in the North Sea for this important stretch of land.

Caprivistrip

For us, the Caprivi strip was important for an altogether different reason. Two of the men in our group had been members of 32 Battalion – a former light infantry battalion of the South African army. They had both lived and trained in an area known as ‘Buffalo’ in the Caprivi strip from where they were deployed into Angola during the Angolan Civil War. One of the aims of this trip was to return to the area where they had lived and trained for so many years. I think it was a bit of a bitter sweet moment to be back there after so much time had passed. This place held a lot of importance for both men and we could visibly see the memories flooding back about their time there.  However, what to them had been a thriving community in the heart of the Namibian bush had now become a series of dilapidated buildings amongst overgrown trees.

Don and Gert at the entrance to their old camp

Don and Gert at the entrance

Deserted building

We spent the day exploring the area – which is now known as the Bwabwata National Park (formerly the Caprivi Game Park and Mahango Game Reserve).  To sound very spoilt, we had been disappointed with our animal viewing so far. Botswana had always been heralded as a game viewing mecca but so far we had seen very little (although, will still had Chobe, Suvuti and Moremi to go so  the best was definitely yet to come!).  This meant that the animal life in the Caprivi was an absolute delight for us. It started almost the second we drove across the border, with the familiar ‘beware of’ signs. Except, this time, there were no pictures of cows or rock falls but rather elephant, wild dogs and hyena. We stopped to photograph one showing an elephant only to spot an elephant in the distance of the sign. Almost like he knew to be waiting there…

Note the real elephant in the bush to the left of the photo

Note the real elephant in the bush to the left of the photo

Once in the park we saw some beautiful animals – including a tiny elephant that trumpeted and charged us. Although very cute and possibly harmless against our car, we got out of the way very quickly in case the bigger elephants heard it and came to help it!

Small elephant and big tree

Small elephant and big tree

Charging elephant

Elephant preparing to charge

Nyala females

Buffalo in the water

Buffalo in the water

There were a few scary moments when the idea of camping in the wild was suggested but common sense (and an acknowledgement that this would be illegal) prevailed and we raced from the park to find a campsite before dark. We ended up in Shametu – a sweet campsite offering a rare luxury –  grass! At only R100 per person (R50 per child) it was a real bargain. Each campsite included a kitchen area with lights and electricity and private toilets and showers. It also offers a view of Popa falls. Although, Popa falls will not quickly find itself om my list of favourite waterfalls. In fact. I’m sure you can only count it as rapids rather than falls?

Sitting on a mokoro watching the falls - yes, the falls are so unimpressive that a picture of us looking at them is more interesting.

Sitting on a mokoro watching the falls – yes, the falls are so unimpressive that a picture of us looking at them is more interesting.

Buying fish in the Okavango Panhandle

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If you love fresh fish, the Okovango panhandle is a place for you. Forget about the local shops or even the local fisherman markets and head straight out onto the water. Without wanting to state the obvious, the freshest fish will definitely be the ones you catch but I have been on many a ‘fishing’ outing and never seen anyone catch a fish. So, ignoring that option, the next best thing is to simply relax on your boat and watch the wildlife while keeping an eye out for mokoros in the reeds. Here, you will find fisherman waiting with their rods in the water and fresh fish in the mokoro to sell to you. A small bream (to feed 1-2 people) will cost about 10 pula (80p)  and a larger bream or bass (2-4 people) will go for 20 pula (1.60) – what a delicious bargain!

Fishman amongst the waterlillies

Fishman amongst the waterlillies

Buying fish

Salvation our guide showing us a 20 pula bass

Salvation our guide showing us a 20 pula fish