Tag Archives: elephant

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.

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.

The Okavango Panhandle – animal spotting from the water

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The Okavango Panhandle – animal spotting from the water

I remember doing a school project on Botswana when I was about 10 years old. It was a handwritten single page document showing a map of Botswana (undoubtedly hand drawn as well) and three facts: 1) the capital is Gabarone; 2) The currency is pula and; 3) a tourist attaction is the Okavango delta (I think I may have termed it the Okovango swamp back then).

Since then Botswana has held a special place in my heart and visiting the Okavango Delta has been an important item on my bucket list.  In 2009 Chris and I visited it for the first time. In my little Ford Focus we headed to Maun and then (rather nervously) hopped into a Mokoro so we could experience the Delta like a local – first, dangerously close to the hippo in our little dug our canoe and then camping under the stars in the middle of the reserve.  It was both terrifying and exhilarating at the same time.

Chris testing out his mokoro driving skills in October 2009

Chris testing out his mokoro driving skills in October 2009

This time, we were bypassing the ‘delta’ section and heading straight to what is known as the ‘panhandle’. (Literally, if you look at an image of the delta it has a long inlet and then a circular bit, looking a lot like a pan with a handle!) We stayed at Drotsky’s Cabins, a lovely campsite with a beautiful bar overlooking the river. Although we were a few days into our Botswana holiday we had so far had no real close encounters with animals. Kubu Island was fairly barren and the ‘holiday home’ at the Makgadikgadi reserve had a large fence between us and Africa’s wildlife. It was,  therefore, with great excitement that we found our campsite was right on the river – no fence between us and the hipos and crocs this time.  Although we experienced nothing near as close to what we would come to experience with animals later in the holiday, it was wonderful to be woken up in the middle of the night to the sound of grunting hippo and then in the morning to the iconic sound of the fish eagle.

Our shady campsite on the edge of the river

Our shady campsite on the edge of the river

The river

The river

The Okavango Delta is the perfect place for animal and bird spotting in Botswana. Especially in the dry season, Africa’s wildlife flocks to the edge of the water. We decided to take advantage of this and spend the afternoon on a  boat with our wondeful guide, Salvation. As expected we saw many crocodiles and hippos in the water – both were a bit skittish of the boat and as soon as we got close they would make themselves scarce. The one animal that seemed to be very relaxed with the boat was a fish eagle. As soon as one flew close, Salvation mimicked its call and the bird responded. It flew closer and took up position on a tree close to the boat. Salvation then took out a small tiger fish he had with him and told us that this was our chance to take a photo of a fish eagle hunting. It seemed unlikley to me but, then again, the fish eagle did seem to have been chatting to him only a few moments earlier. Salvation got the fish ready and tossed it into the water close to the boat. Within seconds, the fish eagle took off from the tree, swept down and took the fish right in fromt of us. Sure, it may have been a planned hunt but it was still spectactular!

Hunting fish eagle

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Bee eater

Prehistoric creature on the water

Prehistoric creature on the water

Elephant peering out at the boat from the bush

Elephant peering out at the boat from the bush

You don't only get to see wild animals... there are also plenty of domestic cows wading through the water

You don’t only get to see wild animals… there are also plenty of domestic cows wading through the water

At the end of any boat ride the best thing to do is relax with a glass of wine and watch the predictably stunning African sunset. So, what would a post about Africa be without a photo of a sunset…

Going with the flow – an unexpected night on the edge of the Makgadikgadi National Park, Botswana

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Going with the flow – an unexpected night on the edge of the Makgadikgadi National Park, Botswana

We left the Kubu Island and the Makgadikgdi pans having abandoned our planned route. We were travelling with two other families who knew someone who happened to be heading to their holiday home in the Makgadikgadi National Park that night. So, instead of heading to Maun as planned, we were persuaded to join them there.

The whole journey started badly. There were immediate concerns in our camp about last minute changes. Maun was supposed to be a halfway point between Kubu Island and our next destination, the Okavango panhandle. Now, we were leaving the majority of the driving for the second day. The bad feelings were then compounded when, instead of the first short journey we had been promised, the drive to the holiday home turned into an all day affair. It was here we learnt a valuable lesson about communication. Instead of looking at a map and seeing exactly where we were camping, we headed straight into the Makgadikgadi National Park. This resulted in an extra 2 hours of driving and an extra R1000 of cost in both park fees (even though we were just transiting!) and a hugely overpriced ferry (180 pula for a 1 minute journey – half of which you drive in the water yourself!) to then get out of the park. Frustratingly, all of this could have been avoided by simply taking the quick (and free) tar road around the park directly there.

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When we arrived there, any hopes we had had of home comforts were quickly dashed. I am not sure where this ‘holiday home’ notion had come from. The place we were camping was nothing more than a field covered in thorns and goats. We did manage to find an outdoor toilet and mom showed her camping prowess by working out how to get hot water into a little shower so at least we had moved up from the ablution situation in Kubu Island.

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The wonderful thing about life is that just when you have given up on a situation, something amazing happens. The land where we were camping overlooked a river that bordered the reserve. Trying to make the most of our day, we got out our chairs and poured a glass of wine. We had only been there a few minutes when someone spotted an elephant walking down towards the water. This was soon followed by about 5 other elephants, including two babies. They ambled down to the river and stopped directly in front of us. What followed was a simply marvelous display of playful elephants in action. They all started in the water, drinking and splashing themselves for a good 30 minutes. When they tired of that they moved to the dirt where they used their trunks to shower themselves in sand. It was like we were watching a live, well-edited, wildlife video – the best thing of all was that the entire show was just for us. The family stayed there for an hour or so – basking in the setting sun and reminding us of how glorious it is to just relax and settle into an African way of life.

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