Archive for the ‘Wild animals’ Category

Yellowstone I: Wolves and other Critters   2 comments

Part of a small herd of bison begin to feed on a frosty morning in Lower Geyser Basin at Yellowstone National Park.

I visited Yellowstone again this year.  I spent a week+ there last August, and returned this year for late autumn there.  I spent a chilly first first week of October.  Mornings were icy, afternoons sunny and brisk.  Plenty of people were there, considering the season, but almost exclusively on the roads.  Trails were almost empty.  This post will focus on the wildlife.  I’ll post later on the (sorry) state of the Park Service, as well as the geysers & other thermal features.

Last year was the first time I had been to the park since the reintroduction of wolves in the 1980s.  Yes, it had been a long long time.  I saw some wolves on a kill last August, but they were so far away that no pictures were possible.  I went back this year, to try and get closer.  And boy did I!  Of course buffalo, and also elk, are your most likely large wildlife sighting in this park.  Also, recent times have seen an increase in fox.

The setting sun illuminates a resting pronghorn in the lamar River Valley of Yellowstone National Park.

 

A bison grazes the late autumn grasses on a cold sunny Yellowstone morning.

I started in the northern part of the park, concentrating on the Lamar River Valley.  This area is an excellent place for wildlife, and feels pretty wild compared to, say, the Old Faithful area.  My first morning in the Lamar I woke at sunrise and quickly found a sizable group of wolf-watchers parked at a picnic area in the upper valley.  They all had their spotting scopes, their long glass, etc. etc.  I normally don’t like these gatherings; I want to photograph the people’s behavior rather than the wildlife.  But this time, since it was quite early, there were no tour buses (beep beep beep backing up) or other nonsense going on.  So I went for it.

There were four wolves not too far away, and they were prancing and playing.  Still, they were a bit far for my 400 mm lens, so I just enjoyed watching them through binoculars.  As they finally departed, the lead wolves howled for the others to catch up.  The howling, echoing off the cliff walls that border the Lamar Canyon, and with the crackling cold air, was just plain magical.

There were plenty of pronghorn in the Lamar.  During one hike, three of them jogged over to me in the wide open valley, curious as to what this creature was.  Since these animals can run at over 60 mph, much faster than any predator, they can afford to indulge their curiosity and get pretty close.  Pronghorn are a unique animal, the only species left of a group that evolved in North America millions of years ago.  They are NOT antelope (a creature of Asia and Africa), though they resemble them.  When they evolved, the now-extinct American cheetah still prowled the west.  This accounts for their speed being ridiculous overkill for today’s predators.

I camped two nights in the awesome Lower Geyser Basin, taking star pictures at night.  I woke one morning a frigid steamy atmosphere, and soon spotted a herd of buffalo emerging from a hollow in the hills where thermal features were particularly concentrated.  They had obviously spent the night on the warm ground there, and now wanted to enjoy the rising sun’s warmth (which I certainly couldn’t feel!).  A few of the big bulls were last to emerge, one by one, and I got some good shots of them.

I saved the best for last.  Now there was an occasion a very long time ago, in Alaska when I was in my early 20s, working in the interior on recon expeditions looking for gold.  I was climbing a bare tundra hill, a stiff wind in my face, when I crested the hill and stopped short.  At first I thought it was a stump, but I saw that 25 yards or so ahead was a sitting wolf, facing away from me.  He was enormous, the biggest wolf by far that I’ve ever seen.  He was light colored with a beautiful coat that was flecked with red in places (like the tips of his ears).  He was scanning the valley below.

I made a small noise while reaching for my camera and he whipped his head around.  I’ll never forget his surprised look!  He immediately ran down the far slope, onto a small saddle several hundred yards distant.  He did not run like a dog, but sort of glided, not appearing to exert himself but covering the ground very quickly.  He sat down again, looking up at me, and let out the first wolf howl I had ever heard (to that point).  After he tipped his snout back down and quieted, I tried my best to imitate him.  We spent about 15 minutes howling back and forth before he just turned and trotted away.

On a frigid morning at Yellowstone National Park, a big bull bison emerges from his warm geothermal bed for the night.

Back to Yellowstone.  I stopped, just before noon, at a nondescript wide spot in the road just south of Madison Junction.  There was an old disused powerline right of way (no more line though).  So I took my little dog Charl (a shih tsu), who had not been for a walk yet that morning, and we went for a short stroll.  I grabbed my camera as an afterthought, which had the 24-105 mm on it.  Nobody stops here, so I didn’t bother with a leash for Charl.  Rangers will definitely ticket you for an unleashed dog, but he’s old and always stays close.

A large bull elk appears to be just as surprised as the photographer upon bumping into each other in the forest of Yellowstone National Park.

We were heading back to the van, only about 100 yards from the road, when we turned a corner and saw him at the same time he saw us.  A black wolf, obviously not young with his gray highlights, stopped short, surprised by our meeting.  He stood for a moment, looking back and forth from me to Charl, then back to me, then more intently at Charl.  My poor little half-blind partner did not even realize he was less than ten yards from his wild brethren.  But I certainly was, and quickly took a couple steps forward, scooping up Charl.  This got the wolf moving, but he didn’t leave right away, giving me a chance to snap a few shots.  At 105 mm there is no reason to expect a decent shot of a wolf, but mine aren’t too bad.  After he trotted away, I paced off the distance that had separated us; it was about 12 yards, and Charl was closer!

An older alpha male wolf in Yellowstone National Park is unsure how he happened to get so close to the human.

I was on a high all that day, so much so that I walked into the visitor center at Canyon and told the young female ranger what I had seen.  She wasn’t too interested, strangely,  but as I described him she brought out pictures and we identified him as the alpha male for the Canyon Pack.  He was an older wolf, not all that big, and had been alone inside another pack’s territory.  I suppose there is more to being the alpha wolf than brawn.  He has years of experience on his side, wisdom.  I take much encouragement from this encounter.  I’m not a spring chicken anymore, and just like him I need to rely more on my experience than my strength.  This is not a bad thing.

Grand Tetons: Wildllife   Leave a comment

Late Autumn along the Snake River in Grand Tetons National Park, Wyoming means the moose are busy fattening up for the coming winter.

I was initially pretty disappointed in the lack of animals over the first couple days I was here in western Wyoming.  I heard in the mornings the bugling of elk as they continued to arrive from the colder high country of Yellowstone to the north.  I also got close to running into one large bull on the road while driving at night.  I try to keep it to 35 mph in National Parks (or any wildlife-rich country) at night.  The speed limit on the roads is 45 mph, which I think is too fast to stop in time unless you are really hyper-alert.  I was routinely being passed by cars doing 55-60 mph, which is just asking for a nasty encounter with a large mammal.  Or you will kill a fox, coyote, or even a wolf.  Plain stupidity.

One morning on Signal Mountain, a great place to watch the sunrise from at the south end of Jackson Lake, I glimpsed a fox crossing the empty road.  I pulled up and just watched him, since the light was way too low to try a shot.  He was just beautiful, with a long bushy tail tipped with a bright blaze of white.  Signal Mountain has a seldom-walked trail which winds up its flanks.  You can drive to the top as well, but an early-morning hike will likely reward you with sightings in this wildlife-rich area.  The picture below is not strictly of wildlife, but it points to the fine horse ranches to be found on the drive along the east side of the park, north of Jackson Hole.

The Grand Tetons form a spectacular background to a fine herd of horses in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

The main animal I wanted to see, and hopefully in good light with a background of the Tetons, was moose.  After the glorious sunset I posted on last time, I was going to just head into Jackson for the night.  I was nearing two weeks without a shower and needed to do laundry too.  But the sunset got me into the mood to try for a good sunrise, so I drove up to a place called Schwambacher’s Landing, on the east side of the Snake River.  I camped there for the night (illegal but there aren’t many rangers this time of year), and woke early to a nice sunrise (see image below).  Not as colorful as the sunset of the previous evening, but it was worth bearing the temperatures in the teens (Farenheit).

Now I really had to leave for town.  Or did I?  After letting my lazy little dog (who had taken over my sleeping bag and was snoring) out, I decided to take a stroll along the river.  I took only my camera and long lens, a Canon 100-400L.  I saw some birds, including a busy little water ousel (a.k.a. dipper) who didn’t realize I was there laying prone on the stream cobbles.  He approached pretty close, and I got nice stills plus videos of one of my favorite birds, a denizen of cold rocky streams all over the mountain west.

The dipper, or water ousel, frequents all the best mountain streams in the mountains of the American West.

 

An American dipper goes under on the Snake River in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.

The morning was warming rapidly as I walked back, this time eschewing the trail along the river and cutting through the cottonwoods that grew back quite a ways from the riverside.  I was glad I did.  All of a sudden I looked into some willows ans a massive head appeared, not more than 20 yards away: a bull moose!  He was softly grunting and munching away on the willows, occasionally scraping his massive rack on the branches.  I was happy (not the first time) that my lens wasn’t a fixed 400.  Even so, at 100 mm, I had to back up a few steps to get most of him in (see top image).

Now I know from my Alaska days how dangerous a moose can be.  So I was cautious.  But then I noticed the young female and her calf nearby (see image below).  They were very much aware of me, unlike Mr. munch mouth.  When she decided to trot away, her cute little youngster following, the bull followed, grunting and obviously all hot and bothered.  I wouldn’t need to worry about him; his mind was fully occupied.  So all I needed to do was keep my distance from the cow and her calf, something she made very easy to do.

A peekaboo hole through the trees is enough for me to get a glimpse of a cow moose with her calf (and for the little guy to see me), near the Snake River in Grand Teton national Park, Wyoming.

 

One of the Tetons forms the backdrop for a silhouetted moose in Grand Tetons National Park, Wyoming

I pursued for awhile, getting some nice shots, even though the light was getting pretty harsh by that time.  I didn’t want to interrupt the family’s morning too much, but I did notice that after a bit the cow relaxed a bit.  She apparently had realized I wasn’t much of a threat, though I never got as close to her or her calf as I did the bull.  It was interesting how she let the slower bull catch up to her, even though she could have made sure of her calf’s safety by leaving me in the dust.

It was near noon when I returned to the van, and the day was so warm that I switched to shorts, cracked a celebratory beer, made a sandwich, and reflected on the sheer randomness of wildlife sightings.  There was another one I was thinking of – the wolf in Yellowstone a week ago.  But that’s a subject for another post.

A beaver-dammed channel of the Snake River in Grand Tetons National Park is the perfect mirror for sunrise.

 

 

Nicaragua III: Rio San Juan   Leave a comment

The Rio San Juan at the outlet of Lago Nicaragua. The town of San Carlos is at right.

It felt rather surreal pulling into the small port of San Carlos at the south end of the lake.  I had a few hours before I caught a small boat down the San Juan, so I explored the town a bit.  A lot of trade comes through here, and bananas are no small part of that trade.  I headed to the riverside town of El Castillo.  It’s dominated by a very interesting fort on the hill above town.  It was built by the Spaniards to protect the entrance to Lago Nicaragua (and the rich town of Granada) from marauding pirates.

Unloading bananas from the overnight ferry that travels the length of Lago Nicaragua.

El Castillo is the jumping off point for trips downriver and into the pristine rain forest on the Nicaraguan side (the Costa Rica side of the river has been cleared for ranching and agriculture, sadly).  But the town is a great spot to hang for a day or two.  I found a little family-run place along the river, where I again worked a deal to photograph their rooms and beautiful exterior in exchange for lodging.  You can hear the rapids on the river as you fall asleep, always a good way to beat insomnia.

The Rio San Juan (central America’s longesr river ) winds toward the Atlantic as viewed from the walls of El Castillo

I walked around town rounding up a few backpackers to share the cost of a boat and guide into the rain forest downstream.  Next morning we were on our way.  We hiked a beautiful stretch of jungle, and I saw my first poison dart frogs (see image).  On the way back upriver we stopped at a place called Refugio Bartola.  I decided on a whim to stay, despite having only the clothes on my back, a water bottle and bug repellent ( I had left my luggage with the family in Castillo).  Bartola sits on the river and is backed by wild jungle.  I had a little adventure here…

The so-called blue-jeans frog inhabits the pristine rain forest along the Rio San Juan in Nicaragua.

Although it was getting to be late afternoon, I took off on a hike into the forest, by myself.  I often do this in unfamiliar places, not sure why.  I like the challenge of using only my sense of direction to find my way back.  And I often am rewarded with great sightings.  I was really hoping for a jaguar, but my consolation prize was a spider monkey, my favorite!  I blame this sighting for keeping me going away from the Refugio for too long.  As I worked my way back, I took a wrong turn and ended up against darkness.  I was still running on the rough root-strewn trail when darkness caught me.

A spider monkey sits in the jungle of southern Nicaragua.

In the tropics dark comes quickly, and in the jungle it descends to true blackness.  With no flashlight, I tried to proceed.  But it immediately became obvious that it was impossible to stay on the trail.  I was stuck!  I sat down for awhile in the blackness, but then stinging ants found me and I hopped wildly about, shaking them out of my shorts.  I had to keep pacing to keep the insects off me as the jungle started to come alive.  I had nothing but a near-empty water bottle.  Luckily it wasn’t destined to get cold overnight, so I would probably survive.  But would I still have my sanity in the morning?  I was doubtful.

After a couple hours of this being alone with my thoughts (“I am NEVER hiking without a flashlight again!”), I saw a brief flash of light in the trees.  I was thinking fireflies, but then I heard them: guys speaking Spanish!  I shouted at the top of my lungs: Ayudeme!  I was rescued!  The guide who works at Bartola had had happened to hear from one of the women who works in the kitchen that she had seen me hiking off alone.  He rounded up the two military guys from the nearby post and, armed, they began the search.  They were amazed that I was so distant.  I asked why the guns were necessary, but knew the answer before it came: jaguar.  There apparently was a large male that called this patch of jungle home.  As we walked back to the Refugio, I wondered about my confidence that I could survive the night.

A couple days later I was traveling, again by river, across the border into Costa Rica.  This country is safer I thought, more traveled and more civilized.  Isn’t it?

 

Mount Rainier I   2 comments

Mount Rainier is reflected in a pond in the subalpine meadows on the west side of the mountain.

I spent the past week at Washington’s Mount Rainier National Park, about 3 hours north of here (Portland).  I haven’t spent quality time there for years.  A long time ago I worked a season at Rainier, living in the park cabins at Longmire and hiking out every day to track elk and document their impacts.  I worked with a young biologist, but spent much of my time sketching and describing the glacial features in the park.  That is, when I wasn’t trail running, an addiction I developed at around that time.  We would literally throw a dart at the map of the park on some mornings and just go there looking for elk.  You could count on one hand the number of times we saw our supervisor.

Mount Rainier and the largest glacier in the lower 48 United States, the Emmons, are bathed in early morning sunshine.

Another interesting part of the job was flying in a light aircraft once a week to count elk and mountain goat.  Of course, I was “green around the gills’ the entire time in the air.  I’m cursed with motion sickness, have been my entire life.  But thankfully it takes some doing.  Flying a light plane close to that mountain was the (easy) doing.  The best part about the job: no ranger uniform.  Yes indeed, we were blessedly incognito! Mount Rainier, at 14,410 feet (4265 meters) and heavily glaciated, is probably most famous as one of the finest climbing challenges in the lower 48 states.

I’ve climbed it twice, once from the south and once from the north.  The north side climb was most fun.  It was about five years ago now, three of us (the perfect climbing team size) ascended the Emmons Glacier (the largest glacier in the lower 48).  We started around midnight, and were the first group up.  I led most of the way, being the most comfortable member of our little group with glacier travel.  We skirted crevasses by headlamp and climbing up into the darkness.  I’ll never forget that feeling, like ascending into the starry sky.  I’ve never had a climb precisely like that one.

It’s understandable that Rainier, being the Cascades’ most massive and most heavily glaciated peak, attracts climbers.  Quite a number have died on the mountain, but the dangers it presents are no more than average for a mountain of its size.  As is the case with Mt Hood in Oregon, it comes down to numbers and probability.  More climbers equals more accidents.  It’s that simple.

Rainier is a sleeping giant.  It is a composite volcano, meaning it’s made of layers of ash and lava.  The type of lava that dominates is andesite, named for that great mountain range in South America where this kind of volcano is abundant.  This mixed layered makeup of the mountain, combined with relatively recent glaciation, which scoured (and still scours) the sides of the volcano, means the mountain stands tall and steep.  Acidic gases vent from the summit area on a constant basis, converting much of the rock there to a crumbly mess.  When winter releases its icy grip, and especially during very warm periods in late spring/early summer, there is a very real risk of huge avalanches of rock and ice cutting loose from high up on the mountain.  These can quickly turn into floods or even mudflows lower on the mountain, channeled into furious destruction by the major river drainages.

Mudflows (or lahars, the Indonesian word preferred by geologists) are a sort of dense flood.  A slurry, the consistency of wet concrete, complete with trees, rocks, chunks of ice, cars, buildings, bridges, etc. races down-valley at speeds of 30, 40 or even 50 mph.  A lahar don’t take prisoners.  The reason I mention this mechanism for starting a mudflow is that it does not require a volcanic eruption, just melting.  An earthquake could easily trigger one as well.

Of course Rainier is only sleeping and could erupt.  In that case, you have not only the likelihood of mudflows, but also pyroclastic flows, lava flows and ash falls.  The French term for pyroclastic flow is nuee ardente, which means glowing cloud.  And that’s what they are.  Made of pulverized rock superheated to hundreds of degrees, they race down the mountain at speeds of 100 mph. or more.  The deadliest thing a volcano throws out, they kill even more quickly than mudflows.  Ask the ghost-like corpses at Pompei, the ancient Roman graveyard at the foot of Vesuvius.  They’ll tell you how much time you have to get out of the way.

The stars are reflected in Reflection Lakes at Mount Rainier National Park in Washington.

So this park is one of the more geologically dangerous in the country.  Yellowstone is a much bigger volcano, but one that goes ages between eruptions.  Rainier will almost certainly erupt well before Yellowstone’s caldera does.  By the way, Rainier has one of the world’s few warning systems for mudflows.  Sensors high on the mountain are triggered when a probable mudflow starts, sending a signal to loud alarms near towns like Orting down-valley.  Residents are trained to flee to high ground.  And if you visit the park, and hear a loud rumbling sound (especially if an earthquake preceded it), that’s what you should do.  Get out of whatever valley you’re in, and quickly!

High in the Cascade Mountains of Washington gives a heavenly viewpoint on a moonlit night.

What many don’t realize about Mt Rainier is that, despite its great climbing, the park actually has much more to offer hikers than climbers.  You can spend months exploring this park without ever going much above treeline.  If you go to climb the mountain you are essentially exploring a much smaller aspect of the park than if you were to go for a week with no thought of climbing.  Rainier has the most extensive subalpine and alpine meadow system in the Cascades, with the spectacular flower displays that go along with that fact.  I love the park because of this.  For this trip I tried for the peak of the flower bloom (normally mid to late August), and although a week earlier would have been perfect, I was able to hike through and photograph a stunning profusion.

I headed up there late on a Saturday, arriving near midnight. This seems a strange time to go I realize, but I wanted to photograph the mountain under stars, then have it get light with the promise of the park to explore for much of the week.  I love arriving at a place in the dark, and then having the morning light reveal where I am.  Of course, since I’m a photographer and have to shoot at sunrise, doing night photography means I only get a few hours sleep.  But I found a quiet, shady spot to sleep the rest of the morning away.  There is definitely an advantage in having my camper van (it’s an 87 Westphalia).

Blue gentian bloom in the meadows of Mount Rainier National Park.

My faithful companion Charl accompanied me.  He’s my little buddy, a shih tsu with an enormous personality.  Most important, he can sleep for hours and hours, and can hold his pee for an unbelievable period.  When he was young I took him on hikes, many of them long & tough.  But he’s old now (14) and can’t do more than a mile or two, and that only on an easy trail in cool weather.  So I leave him in the van, parked in shade with plenty of ventilation, water and snacks. It was forecast to be fairly cool, and that’s what it was, perfect for hiking.  In fact, one morning it dipped below freezing.  Every day but one had plenty of sunshine.

I already mentioned this is a hiker’s park.  Unlike some parks, where there are plenty of things to do that don’t involve much in the way of strenuous hiking, Rainier rewards the fit.  In fact, it’s hilarious watching people visiting the park.  They don’t know what to do with themselves, and seem confused at the general lack of overlooks.  The National Park overlook is an institution in the U.S.  I believe I should write a post on the psychology behind N.P. overlooks.  There is a definite behavior associated with them. Many parks are inundated with overlooks (Shenandoah, Bryce Canyon and Grand Canyon are a few examples).  And parks like Yellowstone are chock full of small parking areas where one can stroll along a super-short, flat trail to a geyser or some-such sight.  The same sort of effect applies there as with the simple stop and gawk overlook.

But at Rainier, visitors are forced to drive for miles without pulling over.  They crowd the few short trails, and hang about the smallish visitor centers,  looking a bit lost.  They’ll stop at the smallest wide spot in the road, with no real view, just because that’s what you’re supposed to do in a National Park.  Like I said, it’s hilarious watching them.  If these same people ever visited parks like Kobuk Valley in Alaska, I think they’d end up insisting that their entry fee be returned.

So Rainier is, generally speaking, lacking in the standard National Park crutches.  (I haven’t mentioned the Disney-esque gateway towns that one must pass through, like a gauntlet, at many parks – think Dollywood on the way into the Great Smokies.)   There are a few stops and sights at Rainier, but they’re generally low-key.  Longmire is one.  It’s a low-elevation meadow among old-growth forest in the SW corner of the park.  A short nature trail circles the meadow, and there is a small gift shop and ranger station, but little else. The two main destinations, however, are Paradise and Sunrise, on opposite sides of the mountain and high up in the subalpine zone.

Paradise, the park’s most popular destination, has some relatively short trails, plus the park’s only real lodge (the Paradise Inn).  There is a great view of the mountain from the large patio in front of the visitor center here, and the crowds on a weekend can be breathtakingly enormous.  The metropolis of Seattle-Tacoma is close-by, after all.  I love the girl watching at Paradise; so many beautiful Asian women (National Parks get many more foreign visitors these days than they did in the past).  It was here at Paradise that I came that Sunday, after my morning sleep.

I soon grew tired of watching the people milling about and struck out on the trail to Panorama Point.  This starts out as a paved trail, then it turns upward through flowery meadows.  It grows steeper and you drop 90% of the other hikers.  I was amazed and surprised when I saw a bear, then another, near the top of the trail.  It was a mother and her older cub, feeding on early season berries.  You could tell she was getting ready to say goodbye to her youngster.  The two never got more than a few hundred, but never closer than 100, yards from each other.  Given their location, these were obviously bears that were used to people, though try as I might, they wouldn’t let me get too close.  And since I was in the park’s most crowded area, I didn’t think of lugging my 100-400 telephoto zoom lens.  So my pictures needed some serious cropping.  I had a lot of fun stalking the two, trying to get close enough for my 200 mm.

A black bear prowls the meadows of Mt Rainier looking for berries.

Note that black bears present no serious danger, so long as you don’t get between a mom and her cubs, nor bother one on a kill.  There is an exception, when a black bear is in a remote wilderness well away from humans, you need to take more care.  In this case they can stalk and kill, treating you as prey.  At Rainier, there has never been a bear fatality, and this indicates how used to, and wary of, humans the ursines are in this and most national parks.  Well, finally the pair of bears gave me the slip, and I still can’t figure out how they got by me.  I thought I had all the “exits” covered!

I ended up spending the whole week at Rainier.  I visited an area where I did many elk surveys years ago, and also went to a place I have never been, Mowich Lake.  I had an adventure climbing Unicorn Peak, nearly having to spend the night in hypothermic conditions, and had a delightful romp (me and a billion mosquitos) in the flower fields of Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground.  I will do the pics and write on that in my next post. Thanks for reading!

The last of the day’s light falls on Mount Rainier in Washington.

Northern Namibia   2 comments

A Cape fur seal pup checks me out, thinking I might be mom.

Northern Namibia is a different world.  On my recent trip to Africa, it was the last region I visited.  I also went to Malawi, Zambia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa, and those articles are accessible below.  I’ll cover the Skeleton Coast, Damaraland & the Himba tribe.  Etosha National Park I will cover in the next post.  My jumping off point for the north was the town of Swakopmund (Swakop for short).

One of the many shipwrecks along Namibia’s Skeleton Coast.

Swakop is touristy – it’s the go-to beach holiday for Windhoek residents – but I found it pleasant and not at all overdone.  Strangely enough for Africa, white people seem to outnumber blacks.  It’s best feature is that it is right on the beach.  There are the usual tourist attractions here, which I am not generally interested in.  But there are plenty of outdoor diversions too, including great boat tours, excellent bird watching, and the desert is just outside town.  A prime driving route for nature lovers is Welwitschia Drive.

This route, which takes about 4 hours  with stops and does not require a 4×4, takes you east out of town into the northern Namib Desert.  A permit is required, which you can obtain at the Ministry of Environment & Tourism office on Bismark St. in Swakop.  They will set you up with directions and a guide to the natural attractions.  Simple campsites allow you to take your time, and I started late in the afternoon, camping one night and returning to Swakop in the morning.

The dirt road traverses the gravel plains of the northern Namib Desert, which  are uniquely covered with low-growing lichen.  Here you will find the fascinating, namesake Welwitschia plant.  This plant is, strangely enough, related to pines & firs.  Individuals can live over 2000 years!  In the picture below you can see what looks like many large leaves, but it is actually only two leaves that split and wander.  It does not absorb water through roots, but through its leaves.

Next morning there was a dense, moist fog lying over the dry landscape; this is characteristic of the Namib.  And so this strategy makes perfect sense.  There are separate male and female plants, and when I visited, the blooms were on display, meaning that these aged plants still had some youthful exuberance left in them.

Welwitschia plants, well over 1000 years old, grow on Namibia’s gravel plains.

I was eager to head north to the emptiness of Namibia’s famous Skeleton Coast, but before I could leave, a reckless driver, a local woman, slammed into my rental car as I was parking.  She did not even brake, so the damage was severe.  Luckily, Hertz had an office in town, and they were quite helpful in replacing the car.  The unfortunate thing was the woman was claiming it was my fault.  Police here will visit the accident scene, but they refuse to investigate or make a report.  So it is always a he-said she-said situation when you are in an accident.

I completed a police report, but in scanning her report, it was quite obvious who the untruthful one was.  A couple months later, after I had returned home, a Hertz office in Africa gave me a nasty surprise when they tried to charge me $3500 for the damages.  Since the local office had assured me I would not be charged, I was not about to go along with it.  I had to dispute the charge with my credit card company, and thankfully Hertz finally gave up.

Venus flies over the southern Atlantic on the lonely Skeleton Coast of Namibia.

The Skeleton Coast is a lonely piece of coastline, no trees, gravel plains looking inland, and endless beaches seaward.  Numerous shipwrecks dot the coast (its name refers to skeletons of ships), and there colonies of Cape fur seals.  Cape Cross is the easiest colony to access.  I drew up to this site near dusk so it was closed.  Since it was almost dark, I had two choices.  One was to stay at the nearby hotel, newly built and quite nice.  If I were not in the third month of a trip, I might have gotten a room.  But money was running out so I camped.  I found a nice patch of beach to the north of the hotel, where it was just me, the sea and the sky.

The African jackal is a resourceful and intelligent predator that is very similar to the North American coyote.

The wind blew that night and my tent was rocking a bit.  But upon waking in the middle of the night (something I did in Africa more than at home for some reason), I noticed my tent was really moving, and the wind had not increased in strength.  I was about to get out and look for the reason, but before I could I felt a pair of jaws clamp down hard on my big toe!  I yelled ow as the sharp teeth sunk into my tender toe, and yanked my foot away.  I was fully awake and alert by now, believe me.

When I popped my head out, I saw a jackal standing there, staring at me hungrily.  I had to wave my arms and yell  before he took the hint and ran off.  I checked my toe and lucky for me there was no blood.  If he had broken the skin I would probably have had to go to a doctor immediately for the long, painful process of rabies shots.  So that was it.  I actually was bitten by an African animal.  All I know is he must have been awfully hungry to go after me.

Next morning I sleepily rose and walked the beach.  There were many dead seal pups lying washed up on the shore, and I wondered why.  Were they hunted?  Did they die of natural causes?  Later, at breakfast in the hotel, I found out that the males killed many babies, and their bodies wound up spread along the coast.  Sad.  I visited the seal colony and, aside from the incredible stench of thousands of close-packed seals, was truly amazed.  The babies were especially precious.  They waddled right up to me (thinking I was mom I guessed), so I was able to get some great frame-filling shots (top picture).  I also witnessed numerous fights among the males for the title of “beach master”!

After the seal colony, I drove north into the increasingly barren, strangely beautiful landscape.  I spotted numerous mirages (image below); these were the most obvious I had ever seen.  I reluctantly turned away from the coast, and began climbing on the M126.  I entered southern Damaraland, and started to see a very familiar landscape.  With the mesas of reddish volcanic rock, the broad semi-arid valleys and big skies, this area is very similar to eastern Oregon.  Near sunset, I pulled up at a campsite near the World Heritage Site of Twyfelfontein.  This is an amazing collection of rock art, and is well worth visiting.  There are numerous campsites in the area, and scattered lodges of various price-scales as well.

A mirage of a lake appears along the extremely dry desert coast of Namibia’s Skeleton Coast.

Next morning I enjoyed a guided hike into the rocky terrain (you must do a guided hike, and there are many available at the entrance station/museum.  It was amazing to see all those African animals etched thousands of years ago in stone.  Most are petroglyphs (carved into the rock) as opposed to pictographs (painted).  They even depicted seals.  It was obvious that in the past the area possessed many more animals – lion, elephant, etc.  Now the animals of this area are difficult to spot.  They travel the long dry river beds between the highlands and coast, and include the famous desert elephants, rhinos and more.  I did not see much, a few antelope and giraffe.  There are opportunities to hike with rangers who go out on anti-poaching patrols, looking for rhino-killers.  Check this site for more info. on this outstanding opportunity (one I sadly did not have time for).

Petroglyphs, including a seal, adorn the rocks near Twylfelfontein, Namibia.

A young Himba woman from northern Namibia has a direct gaze.

I continued north towards Etosha, and near the town of Kamanjab asked at one of the lodges for some local knowledge regarding the Himba.  This tribe, famous for the red clay the women and children spread all over their near-naked bodies, features in many travel photographer’s portfolios (search for images of Himba and you’ll see).  I wanted to meet them and get a feeling for how they lived, to what degree they had been influenced by modern life, etc.  You really have two choices when it comes to the Himba.  You can go to an organized “village”, which are normally run by a lodge which pays Himba from other villages (often quite distant) to demonstrate their way of life.  A mock-up of a village is constructed and tours run.  The other option is to take off on your own and visit villages, asking the chief or elder if you may visit and take pictures.

The second option was my preference, but it is almost impossible to do this without two things: a 4×4 and plenty of time.  Since I had neither (my flight home was 5 days away and I still had Etosha Park to do), I opted for the former.  I expected to be somewhat disappointed, but was surprised to find I had a wonderful time.  Out of a lodge run by a German woman (go figure), I met a nice young guy who took me and an English couple into the “village”.  When we arrived, the Englishman started taking pictures.  Although the Himba are in part there for photography, and they know that, I resisted the temptation to start firing away.  This isn’t really my style.

I instead started to talk to them, of course focusing initially on the precocious butt-naked kids, and then picking on the most beautiful girl there (I’m incorrigible).  I am using “talk” very loosely here, as they did not speak English and I didn’t speak Himba.   But these women (no men, just women and children) were so delightful that I did not have to try very hard to loosen them up.  As I began to take pictures of the pretty girl, who was sitting against a mud hut wall in beautiful open shade, I tickled her feet to get her to smile.  This had the desired effect, and she started cracking up.  Her friend came over and joined in the fun.  She even playfully took her friend’s bare breast in her mouth and…well, I turned red, let me tell you.

The red ochre they mix with animal fats, applying it to their hair and skin.  It helps with their stunning hairstyles, and protects them from the sun and insect bites.  They have began to substitute store-bought vegetable oils because of the intense odor caused by the traditional mixture.  I was told tourists were shying away because of it, and this I found very sad.  I would not have minded the smell.  Their simple beauty attracted me and no matter their (natural) smell.  The Himba are very real, very personable, completely unself-conscious. I loved them.

After getting numerous great photographs, I finally allowed the guide to drag me away.  I will certainly spend more time with these people if I am lucky enough to return to Namibia.  It is also possible to visit San (bushmen) communities in northeast Namibia.  So the combination of Himba, Herrera (whose women wear Victorian dresses) and the San makes northern Namibia one of Africa’s finest destinations for those interested in indigenous culture.  Of course things are rapidly changing; these traditional nomads are transitioning to a settled existence in towns and cities.  So I recommend going soon.

Springbok in Damaraland, Namibia, flee using their signature springing leaps.

A Himba child has an amazing hairstyle, in northern Namibia.

Next up: Etosha National Park (my last wildlife safari in Africa)!

Kruger National Park, South Africa   Leave a comment

A lion in Kruger National Park pauses just as the sun breaks the horizon & lights his profile.

 

My Africa series continues with South Africa.  This is the country I first flew into, landing in Johannesburg (Jo’burg) only to immediately get lost driving my rental car through the sorts of neighborhoods where the world’s highest carjacking rates are.  There I was actually stopping to ask groups of young men on the street for directions.  Since I am writing this, you know I survived.  I had planned to visit Kruger, one of the world’s most famous National Parks, straightaway.  But instead I spent two months in Zambia, Malawi, Botswana & Zimbabwe.  Now, with some experience under my belt, I returned to Jo’burg and prepared to head to Kruger.

A baboon in Kruger National Park, South Africa, has an expressive face.

I had arranged for reservations in the park, ahead of time, through the Park’s website.  At Kruger Park’s camps, one has the choice of a nice but simple room or chalet, and a campsite.  For the former, reservations are necessary.  For the latter, it is not strictly necessary during the quieter periods.   I visited during a slower period, but still found plenty of other people, especially compared to some of the parks I had already been to (Kafue, Nyika, Hwange).  With this park, it is very wise to not visit during a busy period, which includes the height of summer (their winter) in July/August, nearly all of December, and other holiday weeks besides.  Check South Africa’s school and government holiday schedule on the web.

Many tourists fly in to the airport near the Park where they are picked up for their stay at one of the private lodges in Kruger or one of its satellite reserves (Sabi Sands, etc.).  But I am firmly in the budget traveler category, so I rented a car at Jo’burg airport, piled my stuff inside (including my well-used pup tent) and headed out.  Note that Kruger’s roads are generally excellent and do not require a 4×4.  A simple sedan will do, and they are relatively cheap.  Also note that drivers in South Africa do not like to travel at less than 90 mph unless they are forced to.  Be prepared to put the pedal to the metal or get good at pulling aside to let them pass.

After spending the night at a little B&B in Malelane just outside the southern gate of the same name.  Although I was told I needed reservations before I showed up at the gate, the truth is you can get the staff at the entrance to set you up at a camp if you arrive with few plans.  Just make sure, once again, that it’s not during a holiday period.  I drove right into the park, took the first turn toward the west, a well-graded gravel road, and began right away to see animals.  I saw a baby giraffe, a white rhino with her baby (image below), elephant and more.  I was stunned at the diversity.  Another thing I didn’t expect was the beauty and diversity of Kruger’s landscapes.  The southwestern corner, around the excellent Berg en Dal Camp, is hilly and rocky, with gorgeous landscapes.

 

Boomslangs are highly venomous snakes native to southern Africa, here emerging from a tree in Kruger National park.

I continued to explore the southern part of Kruger over the next 6 days.  I stayed at Skukuza, Lower Sabie & Satara Camps, plus visited Oliphants.  I liked Skukuza (for animals) and Berg en Dal the best.  I wished I would have stayed at Oliphants – it is perched spectacularly on a high hill.  Satara is a nice big camp as well.  Lower Sabie really squeezes their campers in.  I rose very early every morning, and was out on a game drive by 5 a.m. at latest.  One morning, from Lower Sabie Camp, I was the first car out when they opened the gate.  Shortly a few vehicles started following me (I go slower than most), so I impulsively turned onto an empty road.  Nobody else followed, and I kept going as the dim dusk light gradually improved.

Then I saw something in the road ahead.  It looked at first like small boulders lying there, but there were no cliffs around – flat as a pancake in fact.  As I got closer I realized I was looking at a dozen or so lions just lying in the road, all females and youngsters.  I stopped a hundred meters from them, but they had heard me.  A big female was the first to rise, quite reluctantly, with a lot of stretching and yawning.  She then took a long pee, forming a lake on the pavement.  The others slowly followed, the babies very cute as they yawned.  I drew closer.  The sun was breaking the horizon, but I was unable to get the photos I really wanted, as they were rapidly melting back into the bush.  Now I turned and noticed a couple other cars had showed up.  Beyond them, I saw a big male sauntering down the road.

I waited and he passed within a few feet of me, pausing briefly as the sun cleared the horizon and cast a golden light on him.  He gazed at me briefly, then continued his slow pursuit of his pride.  He was majestic, and I a nice portrait of him (above).  Note that these photographs are available for licensing via download, or purchase as framed or matted prints.  If you click on one of the images, it will usually take you to my website, where you can make a purchase.  If you click an image that does not take you to my site, you are welcome to download that image for personal use only.  Thanks very much for your respect and interest.

 

Near Skukuza Camp, there are several kopjes, which are large rocky outcrops that stand up above the surrounding bush.  One such kopje was the site of my first leopard sighting in Africa, and it was special.  I was alone at the base of the rocks as dusk deepened.  I was really pushing it, since at Kruger it is illegal to be outside the camps after sunset.  It was the type of environment where you cannot help but think of leopards: plenty of rocky hiding places amongst the large granite monoliths.  I was just about to give up and race back before they closed the camp gate when a leopard just trotted up the dirt road.  I watched as he gracefully probed the forest near the road for prey, his long tail waving in the air above him.  He was the most gorgeous animal I had ever seen.  My picture was not the best, because of low light, but it means a lot to me.

A leopard stalks the bushveld in the early evening at Kruger National Park, South Africa.

 

A lioness stalks impala (who are unaware of her) in Kruger National Park, South Africa.

This spot became my lucky kopje.  Next morning early, I was once again alone, very near where I had spotted the leopard the previous night, when I felt a strong urge to stop and wait.  As I backed into position near an opening in the bush, a lioness abruptly rose from right beside the dirt road, only a few meters from me.  I had passed without noticing her crouching there.  Lions blend in so well with the tan grass of the bush.  She proceeded to stalk some impala who were clustered in trees just below us.  I watched for a good 40 minutes until a couple other cars showed up.  As I pulled away, I was happy that my normal routine of late-sleeping night-owl had been turned on its head in Africa.  The early bird gets the wildlife sightings.

I saw much more at Kruger, all of the Big Five several times over.  (The Big Five are Elephant, Buffalo, Lion, Rhino, and Leopard.)  But those experiences at the kopje were probably the most memorable.  I also took a night drive, which I highly recommend.  Guides working at Kruger are extremely professional and good at what they do.  You are not allowed to do night drives on your own, and lions, wild dog, and other animals are much more active at night.  They often use the roadways as trails at night.  Many other animals (such as the honey badger and civet) you will only see at night.  Later, near the southern part of the park on a dirt road, I saw the rare black rhino, two in fact.

These are MUCH less common than white rhinos, and the two species’ behavior differences are much greater than their physical ones.  If you are charged by a rhino, it will most likely be a black rhino.  One of the pair I saw, in fact, made as to approach me, trotting a few paces before just staring at me.  Later, as I lay on the road (illegally – you are not supposed to get out of your vehicle at Kruger), trying to photograph a dung beetle busily rolling his dung ball, I looked up to see my friend the rhino, this time alone.  As he walked down the road toward my vehicle, I walked (quickly, trying not to run) toward him to beat him to my car.  I made it with room to spare, but he had definitely caught my scent.

 

I crossed out of Kruger on a bridge over the Crocodile River, after a memorable week in this beautiful park.  On my way to Swaziland (the “kingdom within a country”), I stopped on the bridge and watched (what else?) a large croc  basking on some rocks below.  I recalled being told by experienced Africa travelers that Kruger was too touristy and developed a park to be worth a visit.  You will definitely see more cars and other tourists in Kruger than you will in, say, Kafue N.P. in Zambia.  But Kruger’s beautiful landscapes, its diversity of wildlife, and its sheer size (I only saw a fraction of the park in one week) make it a very worthwhile destination.  And to seal the deal, it offers all of this at a relatively cheap price.  Take the dirt roads, get up very early, nap in the afternoon, and stay out until the gates close.  You will see all of the African wildlife of your dreams, from big and mean loners (below) to cute families (bottom).

A black rhino approaches for a closer look in South Africa’s Kruger National park.

A family of vervet monkeys stick together in Kruger National Park, South Africa.

Zimbabwe   Leave a comment

An immature martial eagle in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park stretches his wings.

Entering Zimbabwe was the second occasion during my recent travels through southern Africa where I took a “left turn”.  That is, I went somewhere outside of the original plan.  A couple days before leaving Maun, Botswana, I met yet another fellow-traveler who recommended “Zim” (as its often called), and so I shifted gears.  I had been planning to travel overland into Namibia from Botswana, but instead I went in the opposite direction, to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.  I did make it to Namibia eventually, but it had to wait until I revisited South Africa (posting to come).  It also required me to push my return flight to the U.S. back by a full 3 weeks!

A young lady who works near Zimbabwe’s border with Botswana, proved to be a delightfully mischievous companion for the several hours I had to wait for a ride.

Right away upon crossing the Zimbabwe’s western border with Botswana, I knew this country was going to be a little different.  I was questioned extensively about my pro-looking camera gear.  This was the first time I had been worried about losing my gear, but I can talk my way out of many things, so I got through okay.  I waited several hours for a ride into Bulawayo, in the requisite impromptu village set up by locals selling stuff.  All over Africa (and in other parts of the world too), near borders it is common for entrepeneurs to set up shop.  For the traveler stuck there, it provides prime people watching, much better than being stuck at a lonely spot with nothing but border guards for company.  During my wait, I met a young lady literally brimming with personality and warmth.  Her name was Queen, and she ended up offering me a free place to stay in Bulawayo, at her sister’s place of all things.  I almost took her up on it.

Bulawayo is a large town, modern and clean.  It was merely a stop-off point before I traveled north to Hwange National Park.  I walked around the town a bit, and found a nice coffee shop/bakery downtown.  It struck me as a place of haves and have-nots, but perhaps most cities are that way.  I caught a small bus north, and the trip took hours and hours, made even longer because I decided to go all the way up to Victoria Falls on the border with Zambia.  I wanted to get more info. on the park, and possibly join a tour, and the park turnoff was almost deserted.

This was actually my third visit to Victoria Falls.  The image of the Falls below was captured on the Zambian side looking toward the Zim side.  Note in the upper-right corner the bathers perched at the edge of infinity, in Devil’s Pool.  This is a can’t-miss experience, one only available during the dry season’s lower flows.  Dry season runs roughly from August through November.

There is definitely more going on over on the Zambian side, in the town of Livingstone.  Zimbabwe is not doing nearly as well as Zambia, economically.  For example, Zim does not even have its own currency.  Also, it is quite noticeable when you are traveling through a country with fewer individual freedoms, one run by a virtual dictator who does not appreciate people speaking their minds.  I experienced this to a degree in Venezuela and a few other places.

Here in Zim there was that same feeling, the same sort of atmosphere.  It is hard to explain or give concrete examples – it’s more of an impression you get from the people, a sort of oppressed vibe (but very subtle).  All of that said, if you find yourself at Victoria Falls someday, do yourself a favor and visit both the Zim and the Zam side.  There are unique things about both places; for example, you get more of an in-your-face view of the falls from the Zim side, and you can only access Devil’s Pool from the Zam side.

When people speak of the rise of Africa economically, I think of places like Zimbabwe, and know they are over-generalizing.  The media, and really most people who have never been there, seem to fall into the trap of treating all of Africa as a monolithic entity, as if it was not made up of many different & diverse countries and peoples.

Victoria Falls (which spans the border of Zambia & Zimbabwe) flows with more force on the Zimbabwe side than on the Zambian side during the dry season.

 

Hwange National Park is one of Africa’s richest preserved ecosystems.  It is famous for its enormous elephant herds, and also is one of the best places to see the sable, Africa’s most elegant and beautiful antelope, and also the wild dog.  Cheetahs are abundant as well.  I stayed at a wonderful little camp called the Ivory Lodge, where for not a ton of money I got my own safari tent.  A safari tent, if you don’t know, is a wall tent, normally with a floor and bathroom attached, that has everything a little cottage would have.  They do range enormously in comfort and degree of luxury.  This one was on the basic side, but it beat crawling into my little one-man tent any day.

A lovely Zimbabwean

The people at the Ivory were welcoming and easy to talk to.  A couple from England who had recently returned to Africa from London (they had been born in Zim) ran the place.  Their staff were gentle folk, the food scrumptious.   Best of all, I met a beautiful young woman.  She works for the hotel company who owns the Ivory, so she visits on occasion to assume the role of hospitality agent.  It was my good fortune to be there while she was visiting.  We continue a pen-pal correspondence; she’s my African connection.

The Ivory Lodge has a hide, a small low, covered building that is set up for wildlife watching.  It is located adjacent to a flood-lit waterhole.  I spent hours there one afternoon, writing poems, waiting for wildlife to show, doing pull-ups and push-ups, waiting some more.  The wet season had just arrived in southern Africa, and the rain put a damper on wildlife activity at Hwange.  The guided drive I took next morning was also pretty quiet, though I did see my first sable, plus a gorgeous martial eagle.  I did not like being kept from walking away from the camp, however.  This was for my own protection of course, but still, I am not made to stay within boundaries, of any kind.

And so I only spent two nights at the Ivory then moved up to the main campsite at park headquarters.  I was able to camp on my own, eating in the small restaurant attached to HQ.  Only one other camper was using the campsite, but there were plenty of birds in the area, including weaver birds building their nests, several owls, and hornbills.  Also, I got my first good look at beautiful sunbirds, who were feeding on the blooms of the outrageous blood lily (image below).  I also saw a cute baby zebra (bottom image) who eyed me while his mama brushed flies off his body with her tail.

Unfortunately I did not see wild dogs, and these remained the one species of animal I wanted to see in Africa but didn’t.  I don’t regret it though; one always need a reason to return.  In fact, I want to go back to Hwange one day, when the weather is better, to see what it can really offer.  It was the only park I visited in three months in Africa that was somewhat disappointing for animals, but that was, I’m certain, only because of the rainy weather.  The people I met,  however, more than made up for it, particularly one person.

Blood lilies in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe bloom at the start of the rains, attracting numerous sunbirds.

 

Zimbabwe seems to me to be missing out on the exciting growth throughout much of Africa.  But unlike another misfit (Malawi), it does have plenty of natural resources – copper, gold, platinum, even oil – and yet it still lags.  The abundant infrastructure built by the British years ago when it was Rhodesia is steadily falling apart.  Roads are crumbling, historic sites are falling into disrepair, and there is a general lack of enthusiasm amongst the people (with notable exceptions of course).  The contradictions present in Zimbabwe, the unfulfilled promise, can be laid squarely at the feet of Robert Mugabe, their dictator.  He is quite old now, so at least Zimbabweans will get the chance for a fresh start in the near future.  I have high hopes that they will make the most of it.  I would love to see the people of Zimbabwe finally spread their wings.

Mom uses her tail to swat flies from baby in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park.

Okavango Delta   Leave a comment

Botswana’s Okavango Delta is a beautiful and rich water-world.

During my recent trip to Africa, I had been going back and forth about visiting Botswana’s famous Okavango Delta.  It has a reputation for being expensive, so I was hesitant, worrying that I might blow my budget.  But I listened to my inner self, which had direct access to those many dreams of Africa, where I floated in a dugout canoe past prides of lion and herds of elephant and giraffe.  Finally giving in to this voice, I headed there from Livingstone (Victoria Falls) in Zambia.  It is a short bus trip from here over to Kasane, in the northeast corner of Botswana.  The river here is superb for watching wildlife.  Elephant and crocs (image above) grow to enormous sizes on the rich watered grasslands.  So after doing a boat cruise on the Chobe, I flew to Maun, the gateway to the Okavango Delta.

I learned when I visited that one does not have to empty her wallet when she visits Botswana.  There are few budget options compared with other places, but a few turned out to be more than enough.  I did end up spending more than I wanted, primarily because I decided to rent a 4×4 and head off on my own for a week.  But that still cost me much less than a guided trip through the same areas would have cost me.  I will focus on the Delta in this post, than branch out into nearby sights next time.

A bull African elephant in Botswana’s Okavango Delta begins a short charge, just to make sure we are paying attention.

In the above image, I was in a boat on one of the many channels through the Delta.  The elephant suddenly became annoyed at our close presence, so he false-charged.  We actually got splashed by him, as the guide quickly gunned the motor to add some distance.  All of these images are available to download (for license or printing yourself), or you can purchase directly from my website (just click an image).  You can buy a beautiful, large print, either framed or unframed, made with high-quality archival papers and inks.  These are all high quality images as you can see, made by a pro.  If on any of my blog posts you click on an image and it doesn’t take you to my website, that means you are welcome to use those images, but for personal use only please.  Thanks a bunch, and enjoy the rest of the article below!

Maun & The Okavango

“It’s the Maun magic” said the young bush pilot simply, and drained the rest of his beer in one gulp. I peered more closely at his profile as he tilted the glass. I doubted that he was old enough to drink, let alone fly a bush plane. He had offered the catchy phrase when I brought up the fact that my planned departure from Maun kept being delayed by one thing after another.   Now here I was in the same bar I had landed on my first night here, having spent the past week and a half exploring the Okavango Delta by boat and the Central Kalahari & Savute by rented 4×4.  Shaking my  head, I wondered how yet another day had passed while doing absolutely nothing about leaving.   The pilot’s words began to make sense.  There did seem to be a magnetic quality to this town in northern Botswana.

A common bird along Africa’s waterways, the darter is also known as the “snake bird” because of its sinuous neck.

Of course, there are real, non-magical reasons to linger a bit longer in Maun.  Simply put, this town and its surroundings are too dynamic and fun, its inhabitants too fascinating, to pass through in a rush. From boating and camping in the Okavango Delta, to flightseeing over herds of elephant and zebra, to hiking amongst world-renowned rock art in the Tsodilo Hills, Maun offers itself up as Southern Africa’s base camp par excellence.  And because of its location on the doorstep of some of Africa’s most pristine and beautiful safari country, Maun attracts more than its share of intriguing and entertaining characters from all over the world. I thought it might be this last fact as much as the natural wonders that was keeping me here much longer than I had planned.

The bush pilot sitting next to me in the bar was a perfect example of Maun’s dynamic population.  For such a young guy he had some great stories to tell. Maun has one of the world’s busiest bush plane airfields, and its pilots are some of the world’s youngest.  Most of them are from South Africa, which in part explains their hard-drinking, wise-cracking swagger.  This delay in Maun, I decided, was not at all a waste of time. In fact, it was a treat, not in small part because I love being an observer of human behavior.

I listened as the pilot told of landing his plane and as he tried to taxi having a large bull elephant emerge from the bush to express its displeasure at the intrusion.  Throughout his story the young man’s eyes drifted over to make sure a certain blonde tourist from Germany was listening.  I was reminded of my days in Alaska, when I too was barely 20 and eager to test myself in a similarly wild and often dangerous land.

There are numerous tour companies in Maun which are happy to arrange well-priced, escorted safaris to the road-accessible destinations such as Moremi Game Reserve and Nxai Pan (the x in words here signifies the characteristic click in the language of local San people).  The lodges, which are strung out along the river west of the airport, can either offer trips of their own or arrange one with a local operator.  As always, it pays to shop around, not only for price, but also to find the best group size, length of trip and departure day, among other things.

In the Okavango, roads are nearly nonexistent, except where the Moremi Reserve touches the Delta in the southeast.  Thus choices are limited to the expensive but excellent all-inclusive camps accessible by air, or the few budget-oriented camping safaris which use boats to transport tourists into the Delta.  I chose the latter, I don’t mind saying for reasons of budget.  But during the trip I saw some of the tour boats belonging to the big, expensive lodges.  These were bigger craft, in some cases relatively crowded, tourists with drinks in hand – that is definitely not my style.

Arguably the most beautiful of the many kingfishers found in the Okavango Delta is the tiny malachite kingfisher.

I preferred our small group of 4, including the guide/boatman.  Our boat, being smaller, was able to drift into places the bigger boats couldn’t maneuver into.  In one case we glided right up on a tiny brilliant-blue malachite kingfisher (image left).  One thing to consider when deciding on a trip is what you give up at lodges in return for the obvious comforts. One night I woke sometime after 2 a.m., and poked my head out of the tent to see a glorious moon-set.  I felt relatively safe from animals, with our closely-spaced tents circling a still-glowing campfire.  So I set up my tripod just outside the tent, capturing a magical interplay of moonlight and clouds, all the while listening to the mysterious sounds of the African bush at night.  The picture is below.

Something like this may be possible in a lodge environment, but when you’re camping these sorts of experiences are a given.   In the end, you will have a great experience whichever type of trip you decide upon.  It’s worth remembering there is a choice, and your own style and preferences (not just budget) should always dictate which way you go.  Think carefully whether you actually need the luxury of an expensive lodge.  Often people assume that they will get a better safari experience if they spend the money on a high-end lodge or camp.  They are convinced they will see more animals, get closer to them, etc.  Nearly always, it is not this you are paying extra for, but that fluffy towel, the comfy chairs and onsite restaurant.

Here in Botswana, like elsewhere in the world, budget-friendly trips (which often involve camping) are usually an option.  But they are not generally advertised in travel magazines, or even on the internet.  And so you must be willing to do some digging, or simply wait until you arrive to arrange things.  Talking to other travelers is the best way to get info. of course, and this can be done beforehand on the internet.  But it is much more reliable to speak to people who have just been to the place you are interested in.  They can give you first-hand information and unvarnished opinions.

The middle of the night in Botswana’s Okavango Delta is mysteriously beautiful in the light of a setting moon.

The Okavango Delta is an immensely beautiful landscape, a waterworld where you can boat and camp, take a mokoro (dugout canoe) ride, visit villages and even party in Maun.  It has an energy all its own, and you will most certainly experience the “magic” of Maun and the Okavango if you choose to come this way.  I am certainly happy that I did.  The picture below is of another beautiful red sunset, taken from a boat in the Okavango heading back to camp.

Birds return to their roosts as the sun goes down over the Okavango Delta in Botswana.

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