Archive for the ‘African Safari’ Category

Travel Theme: Dry   17 comments

It’s been too long since I’ve participated in Ailsa’s travel theme posts.  This week the topic is Dry.  Enjoy these images from southern Africa.  I was there for three months a couple years ago, at a time that straddled the end of the dry and beginning of the wet seasons.  My better desert landscapes are from the American Southwest, but these show the real impact of dry.

It was amazing the sense of anticipation among the animals (and also people) as they awaited the rains.  It is for many of them a time of life and death, a time of anxiety.  This is especially true with respect to their young.  Most animals there have babies not long before the wet season.  Then they have to wait out the worst days, the end of the dry season while watching their young suffer.  Maybe it’s a way for them to make sure the young are strong, I don’t know.

If you are interested in any of these images (copyrighted and not available for free download), please click on them.  If you have any questions or specific requests, please contact me.  Enjoy and thanks for looking!

A lone wildebeest stands watching the wet season's first storm sweep into the Mbabe Depression of Botswana.  No rain came at first, only wind and incredible dust.  A moment after I shot this, the wildebeest ran for shelter.

A lone wildebeest stands watching the wet season’s first storm sweep into the Mbabe Depression of Botswana. No rain came at first, only wind and incredible dust. A moment after I shot this, the wildebeest ran for shelter.

A clump of grass grows at the base of an enormous orange dune in Namibia's Namib Desert.

A clump of grass grows at the base of an enormous orange dune in Namibia’s Namib Desert.

A large female African elephant shades her baby from the hot direct sun during the hottest days of the year in Botswana's Chobe National Park.

A large female African elephant shades her baby from the hot direct sun during one of the hottest days of the year in Botswana’s Chobe National Park.

The standing snags of camel thorn trees trace a dry watercourse in Namibia.  the mountain-sized dunes of the Namib Desert lie in the background.

Standing snags of camel thorn trees trace a dry watercourse in Namibia. Mountain-sized dunes of the Namib Desert lie in the background.

Ostriches seemed to be most abundant in the dry grasslands of Namibia.

Ostriches seemed to be most abundant in the dry grasslands of Namibia.

During their incredible migration into the Makgadikgadi Pans of Botswana, a zebra mom uses her tail brushes insects away from her foal.

During their incredible migration into the Makgadikgadi Pans of Botswana, a zebra mom uses her tail to brush insects away from her foal.

A desert plated lizard in the dunes of the Namib desert uses its armored head to dig quickly into the sand.

A desert plated lizard in the dunes of the Namib desert uses its armored head to dig quickly into the sand.

Plants adapted to dry conditions normally grow very slowly, but it's hard to beat the ancient Welwitschia of Namibia.  Some are well over 2000 years old.

Plants adapted to dry conditions grow very slowly, but it’s hard to beat the ancient Welwitschia of Namibia. Some are well over 2000 years old.

The long horns and large ears are characteristic features of the gemsbok, an antelope living in arid regions of Africa.

The long horns and large ears are characteristic features of the gemsbok, an antelope superbly adapted to the arid regions of Africa.

This lioness in Botswana's Kalahari Desert is preserving her energy during an incredibly hot day in order to hunt in the relative cool of the evening.  Wish I had as good an excuse to be lazy!

This lioness in Botswana’s Kalahari Desert is preserving her energy during an incredibly hot day in order to hunt (the above animal) in the relative cool of the evening. Wish I had as good an excuse to be lazy!

Namibia's Skeleton Coast is by far the driest, most empty place I've been, an extremely arid coast with plenty of shipwrecks.

Namibia’s Skeleton Coast is by far the driest, most empty place I’ve been, an extremely arid shore with plenty of shipwrecks.

Anyone who has spent a lot of time in deserts knows about the annoyingly dry thing that happens inside your nose.  This giraffe in the Kalahari has the solution!

Anyone who has spent a lot of time in deserts knows about the annoying, dry thing that happens inside your nose. This giraffe in the Kalahari has the solution!

Then he smiled mockingly at me for having far too short a tongue!

Then he seemed to smile mockingly at me for having far too short a tongue!

A mirage of a lake appears on Namibia's Skeleton Coast.

A mirage of a lake appears on Namibia’s Skeleton Coast.

Sunset in the dunes of the Namib Desert.

Sunset in the dunes of the Namib Desert.

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Happy Mother’s Day!   4 comments

This is the day to celebrate all the things your biggest fan has done for you.  So I have put together a short series of photos from my travels.  Pictures of my own mom remain in printed form only.  Just click on any image you are interested in to be taken to the main part of my website where purchase options are easy (just click “add image to cart” and then choose your option – download, prints, etc.).  They are not available for free download, sorry.  Please contact me if you have any questions.  Enjoy!

A large female African elephant shades her baby from the hot direct sun during the hottest days of the year in Botswana's Chobe National Park.

A large female African elephant shades her baby from the hot direct sun during the hottest days of the year in Botswana’s Chobe National Park.

 

A woman in the Himalaya of Nepal is proud of her vegetable garden, and her grandson.

A woman in the Himalaya of Nepal is proud of her vegetable garden, and her grandson.

 

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

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

 

Mother's day is a great time for a new hairdo!  A Himba mom in Namibia.

Mother’s day is a great time for a new hairdo! A Himba mom in Namibia.

 

A white rhino mom is not about to let the stranger with the camera get anywhere near her baby.

A white rhino mom is not about to let the stranger with the camera get anywhere near her baby.

 

A cheetah mom shades and protects her cub while she scans the bush for dinner in Etosha National Park, Namibia.

A cheetah mom shades and protects her cub while she scans the bush for dinner in Etosha National Park, Namibia.

 

 

 

 

 

Elephants are too Awesome to Lose Forever   2 comments

Driving in Botswana has its particular hazards.

Driving in Botswana has its particular hazards.

This is a rare type of post for me.  I think that, sometimes, predictions of a species’ demise are exaggerated.  Why is extinction always (reflexively?) ascribed to humans when natural forces often play the most important role?  But what is happening to the elephant is personal for me.  A little over a year ago I spent 3 months in southern Africa.  I saw plenty of elephants, and observed their behavior sometimes for hours at a time.  Elephants once roamed across Africa, but now they are largely limited to a few sanctuaries: the national parks.

A bull African elephant (Loxodonta africana) in Botswana's Okavango Delta begins a short charge, just to make sure we are paying attention.

A bull African elephant in Botswana’s Okavango Delta bluff-charges, just to make sure we’re paying attention.

But even in the parks elephants are under constant attack.  They have always been poached of course, but recently the slaughter has increased in intensity.  There are several factors at work here.  The most important is the increasing price for ivory in SE Asia.  For example, the Philippines is a big consumer of ivory where it is shaped into religious icons.  Talk about a sad irony!  The unusually hard ivory of the forest elephant of western Africa is particularly prized.

Ivory where it belongs, attached to an African elephant (Loxodonta africana) in Botswana's Okavango Delta.

Ivory where it belongs, attached to an African elephant in Botswana’s Okavango Delta.

A large African elephant (Loxodonta africana) shows off his prehensile trunk at a waterhole in Namibia's Etosha National Park.

A large African elephant, fresh from a mudbath, shows off his prehensile trunk at a waterhole in Namibia’s Etosha National Park.

Now since these parks are poorly patrolled, and because they aren’t very far from hotbeds of Islamic extremism such as Mali, the slaughter is on a massive scale.  Parties of men, equipped with high-powered weapons and often flown in by helicopter, have been recently wiping out whole herds: mothers with their babies included.  I can’t bring myself to post pictures of the dead elephants; it’s just too upsetting.  You can easily find them on the web.

An apparent assignation between two African elephants (Loxodonta africana) beneath a tree on the banks of the Chobe River, Botswana.

An apparent assignation between two African elephants beneath a tree on the banks of the Chobe River, Botswana.

It’s all done for money of course.  The sight of these butchered elephants hits most people like a punch in the gut.  At this pace, we will lose the forest elephant very soon.  The larger African elephants of eastern and southern Africa are also being poached in record numbers.  Complicating all this is that countries like Kenya are hoarding their ivory, collected from legal culling operations.  That just drives up the price of course.  Even parks like Kruger in South Africa are losing elephants (and rhinos).  I visited this park and was very impressed by the high, electrified fence encircling the huge park.  But this doesn’t stop poachers.

A partial screen of grasses allows a close approach to a grazing African elephant (Loxodonta africana) in Botswana's Okavango Delta.

A partial screen of grasses allows a close approach to a grazing African elephant in Botswana’s Okavango Delta.

Given the amount of corruption in Africa, I believe that ivory smuggling is very difficult to stop.  I also believe that convincing people to stop buying ivory, while very worthwhile, will never make a difference in time to save the species.  I believe strongly that a two-pronged approach is necessary.  First, attempt to lower the price by forcing Kenya and other countries with abundant localized populations in their parks to continue culling the herds and releasing that ivory on the market.  The second step, which is most important, is to use high tech weaponry to kill every single poacher in these teams.

A large bull African elephant challenges any intruder to his piece of the Okavango Delta in Botswana.

A large bull African elephant challenges any intruder to his piece of the Okavango Delta in Botswana.

We should use armed drones (which are being brought home as the U.S. gets out of their ill-thought-out conflicts) to go after these criminals.  After a time, and in conjunction with satellite surveillance, we should be able to get them before they do their dirty business.  We should get them coming out if we fail to get them going in.  I think, despite the potential of a big payout, that knowing they have a better than even chance of dying during the attempt will keep potential poachers from signing up.

An African elephant blocks the main channel in the Okavango River in Botswana.

An African elephant blocks the main channel in the Okavango River in Botswana.

It’s important to kill every single person involved in a poaching attempt.  If we approach this like we approached the war in Iraq, we should be able to make these better than even odds a reality.  I strongly believe that funding for this should come from the U.S. and Britain, along with a few other countries, big donors and even NGOs.  Money from western governments should come directly out of the aid budget for Africa (so it does not add to the deficit).

An African elephant (Loxodonta africana) reaches into the trees for succulent fruit, on the Chobe River bank in Botswana.

An African elephant reaches into the trees for succulent fruit, on the Chobe River bank in Botswana.

I have seen firsthand how intelligent, how caring, and how incredibly awesome these creatures are.  I really want to help save elephants, as well as rhinos.  If I can make that happen, you will see me blogging from Africa in the future.  I do not want to see these magnificent beings disappear forever.  I really don’t.

A large female African elephant shades her baby from the hot direct sun during the hottest days of the year in Botswana's Chobe National Park.

A large female African elephant shades her baby from the hot direct sun during the hottest days of the year in Botswana’s Chobe National Park.

Etosha National Park   Leave a comment

Etosha is a very large park in northern Namibia that is dominated by one of the biggest dry lake beds (called pans in this part of the world) you will ever come across.  With only a few days before my flight home, this was literally squeezed in at the end of my recent 3-month trip to southern Africa.  The highlight of the trip was undoubtedly my cheetah sighting.  I had not seen this cat in my travels, and along with wild dog was the only major African animal species I had not seen yet.

Two cheetah cubs in Etosha National Park, Namibia, appear to be taking turns keeping watch.

Most people enter Etosha from the south (Anderson Gate) or east (von Lindenquist Gate).  The far western (Galton) gate is  nearly forgotten, largely because this region of the park was closed to the public for years.  A couple of years ago it was opened, and only recently has the only lodge in western Etosha been accepting guests.  Since I always try to do things with a twist of difference, I made a detour after visiting the Himba people (previous post), driving up through gorgeous, unpopulated hill country to the Galton Gate.

A curious young springbok with stubs for horns and huge eyelashes in Etosha National Park, Namibia.

I arrived too late to enter the park, but the friendly (and lonely) ranger set me up in a campsite.  I was very comfortable, and I heard lions calling in the night, but from outside the park.  His wife showed up next morning, wearing bright African dress, and she was delighted to allow me to photograph her.  I later sent her some photos.  This should go without saying, but if you are traveling, make sure to never promise to send photos to someone unless you are certain you will do it.

Entering the park, I immediately headed to Dolomite Camp, which is only an hour or so from the entrance.  Dolomite is perched on a long ridge of (what else?) dolomite.  This craggy outcrop rises dramatically from the surrounding wildlife-rich plain.  Beautiful chalets are perched along the ridge, with decks that have stunning views of classic African savanna.  What a place!  A bit spendy, $100/nt with no activities or meals included, but well worth it.  It was near the end of my trip & I was treating myself.

Checking into my airy chalet, I took a cool shower and parked myself on the deck, cold drink in hand.  I spotted some zebra, antelope and even giraffe through my binoculars.  Later I enjoyed the ultra-refreshing pool and chatted up the young Namibians tending bar.  I chilled out for the whole afternoon in fact, a hot one that “forced” me to take numerous dips in the pool.  Then toward evening, I got into my little rental car and did a game drive through western Etosha, which was empty of other tourists.  I drove the dirt roads (passable in 2WD as long as you drive carefully) and saw the rare black-faced impala, the strangely intense kori bustard, and also the red hartebeest (a funny-looking critter).  No predators though.

When I returned to camp, the moon was rising over the savanna, and the evening breeze had kicked up – very beautiful.  By the way, Africa newbies might be confused when they hear the word “camp” applied to what are actually lodges. Camp is often used when the lodge does not even have an attached campsite, and is pretty luxurious.  This is the case with Dolomite.

Next morning, I woke early and went out on the deck.  Soon I saw a herd of antelope below, and while slowly sweeping my binoculars over the area around the herd (this can net you a stalking predator), I was rewarded with lion!  The first one I saw was a big female, who was staring intently at the herd from thick cover.  I found the rest of the pride nearby, including the male (who was still sleeping, go figure!).  After watching for awhile with no attack, I walked to the breakfast cafe for coffee.  I told the staff about the lion, and one of the young girls working there wanted to see.  Since the lion could not be seen from the main camp, I took her to my chalet and pointed them out. She was amazed.  Turns out these were the first lion she had seen in Etosha (she had just started working there).

Termite mounds dot the savanna of Etosha National Park, Namibia.

I finally dragged myself away from Dolomite and drove into the heart of Etosha.  After about 5 hours, I caught sight of the enormous Etosha Pan.  This is a tan expanse of pancake-flat dried lake bed that is 130 km (80 mi.) long and up to 50 km (31 mi.) wide.  You cannot even see to the other side it is so huge.  It is surrounded by typical African bush/savanna, peppered by large termite mounds (image above) and waterholes where animals gather.  The campsites along the southern margin of the Pan are situated near these waterholes, but they are not really that great.  They are much like Kruger’s, in that they have restaurants, pools, and simple cabins, but those that I saw were somewhat ratty in appearance as compared with Kruger.  But they do work for campers like me, and I had no problem pitching my tent at them.

A rare blue crane feeds near Etosha Pan in Namibia.

A gorgeous cheetah rests after a hot day in Etosha N.P., Namibia

Now on to more animals!  After photographing a pair of rare blue cranes (above) next to a viewpoint over the Pan, I drove toward Halali Camp and saw a vehicle stopped on the road.  I scanned the bush for what he was looking at, but realized I was looking out too far.  As I drew closer I saw them: a family of cheetah!  Woohoo!  I had finally seen cheetah!  Mom and two cubs lay at the edge of the road just chilling out in preparation for the night’s hunt.  I started snapping away, with my Canon 100-400mm f/5.6, and a crop-frame Canon 50D.  I had close to 600mm of focal length, but still could not fill the frame with the cubs.  This is because I was not parked as close as I could actually have gotten without scaring them away.

I’m conservative in this regard, and feel you must strike a balance between getting close enough for good shots, and yet keep enough distance to avoid drastically changing the animals’ behavior.  Since light was getting lower as dusk approached, it was hard to keep my shutter speeds high enough (a common challenge on safari).  I noticed the other guy there had a mount for the door of his 4×4, with his big lens attached.  That is the ticket, I thought, for my next African safari.  You will undoubtedly use such a mount more than you use a tripod on safari.

I did catch some adorable shots of the babies, who were fighting sleep.  Mom was so sleek and graceful!  The other photographer and I had them to ourselves for awhile, until an overland truck arrived.  If you don’t know, overland trucks are basically big 4×4 transports, like a mini-bus on steroids, which carries (mostly young) tourists inside.  They are popular with travelers on a budget, since they typically camp out on their long routes through Africa.  Many overland trips travel from Nairobi, Kenya to Cape Town, South Africa.  This means being on the road for a month or more, all with other people you don’t know, and on somebody else’s itinerary.

It is likely obvious that I do not have a high opinion of the overland option.  I saw many overland trucks pull into a campsite late in the day, where the tourists proceed to hang out as a group, catching up on the internet.  They then pull out next day, usually before daybreak.  This is not my idea of a memorable travel experience.  They tend to pass through Africa without really interacting much with locals, yes doing many of the activities and seeing most of the sights, but all in a rush, and on a superficial level.  I won’t even go into the cliques and politics that inevitably take place along the way.  Ugh!  But if you are one to sacrifice quality for quantity, by all means do it.

Back to the cheetahs: the overland truck stopped in the middle of the road, startling the mother who rose and grew nervous.  Then the truck squeezed through, further disturbing the family.  The tourists, who cannot open their tinted windows, had maybe a 3-minute sighting before being ushered away to keep on their schedule.  But the family was still there in the bush by the road, and the light was getting very nice as the sun set.

A mother cheetah leads her cubs through the savanna near Etosha Pan in Namibia.

Mom led her family off in a row, stopping to scan the meadows (above).  I had brilliant photo opportunities as the setting sun hit their sleek bodies.  I did get some pretty good photos, but I am a perfectionist and next time will be certain to have the door mount for my big lens.  A gorgeous sunset led me to camp, and I had a glow about me for hours from the cheetah sighting.

A big elephant in Etosha N.P., Namibia shows how dexterous a trunk can be.

But there was more.  On my last full day in Etosha, I stopped at a waterhole on the way to the southern entrance.  While photographing very interesting-looking ducks there, I was about to leave when a herd of elephants showed up, including babies.  They proceeded to splash and spray muddy water all over themselves, making all sorts of racket. Since I was parked on the grass very close to the waterhole’s edge. I got good (not great – it was high noon) pictures and video.  They were leaving now, and the head cheese, a huge specimen, was trailing the group.  He (or she?) was looking at me now, and pulling her trunk into all sorts of contortions (showing off?).

Then the big elephant came over and stood immediately next to my open driver’s side window, blocking my retreat.  I realized he could have simply hooked his tusks under my little car’s body and flipped it into the waterhole with no effort whatsoever.  I dared not start my engine, since that can startle an elephant and cause violence.  So I just froze there, managing to grab a couple shots & a brief video.  They are super close-up!  She stared down at me, watching me.  I could not even close the window for fear of her reaction.  Finally, the big bruiser slowly meandered away, destroying small trees in the process of using them as scratching posts.  My adrenaline was really pumping.

After that, the herd of wildebeest, the close-up of the jackal, the black-faced antelope buck, they were all anticlimactic.  I reluctantly left the park, and drove back to Windhoek on a good paved highway with little traffic.  Next morning I was on an airplane heading to Jo’burg, and then to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where I unexpectedly was bumped and had to spend the night (not a bad thing!).  Then it was back to the good old U.S.A., and a serious case of reverse culture shock.

Africa had changed me for certain.  I had finally completed my dream trip.  I would say I had knocked off a big item on my “bucket list”, but I detest that term.  I’m really not a list person anyway.  Don’t like to list accomplishments, don’t like to keep track.  It’s too much like competing with other people, or even worse, with yourself.  Each stage of life brings new priorities in life, and my goal is to live in each moment, not fret about a bucket list.    But if Africa is in your sights, strongly consider an independently-oriented trip.  However you do it, do not let any fear of danger or crime dissuade you from taking control of your own trip.  Africans are friendly and honest people, and will welcome you with open arms.

The bush in Etosha National Park, Namibia, has abundant open spaces and few large trees. Thus they are in heavy demand for weaver bird nests.

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)!

Namibia’s Naukluft Mountains   3 comments

The second of my Namibia articles, the Naukluft is a place you should really consider visiting if you go to Namibia’s number one tourist attraction, the Namib Desert at Sesriem.  The mountains are visible from the desert, and only take about 90 minutes to drive to from Sesriem.  There is a great campsite at the end of the road (very doable in a regular non-4×4 car).  You register at the little office on the left, then drive another 3/4 mile to the camp.  It is a quiet little place, lying right along a gorgeous creek, which flows year-round most years.

The Tropic of Capricorn crosses grassy plains near the Naukluft Mountains.

But I should say right here, right now, beware the baboons!  These are some of the most aggressive I saw in Africa, and though you (probably) won’t be attacked, keep every bit of food inside your vehicle, hidden.  Also keep an eye on the kids if you have them.  Finally, take it from me and don’t leave your tent unattended.  More on that later.

The mountains are quite diverse, with smallish trees, cactus and shrubs.  Namibia’s signature tree, the strangely beautiful quiver tree (a type of aloe), even grows here, as do wild olives.  But the Naukluft is dominated by bare rocky outcrops.  These are really desert mountains, and like those in many other deserts, they have been shoved up by faulting.

Granite underlies the range, but it is the limestone and dolomite which overlies the granite that gives the range its character.  Since limestone tends to dissolve easily in rainwater (think caves and caverns), this means much of the water flows underground.  And where the water surfaces in the many springs, it is clean and sparkling and forms natural swimming pools.  These splendid spots lie in steep canyons, cut into the easily eroded limestone.  The word Naukluft means ‘narrow ravine” in German.

By the way, if you were curious as to why you find granite in so many mountain ranges, it is because granite is much lighter than most other rocks in Earth’s crust.  So when faulting happens (as it inevitably does when plate tectonics is affecting the region), the granite areas tend to rise while the others fall.  Yes, it’s that simple.

The scenic tumbling creeks are not only perfect for swimming, they also attract wildlife.  These are mostly small mammals, amphibians and other small critters.  But you can also spot the mountain zebra, kudu and gemsbok (large antelope; image left).  Many types of birds also call here (over 200 species), including the beautifuly-named rosy-faced lovebird.    Leopards prowl, but you’ll probably not see them unless you go out starting at deep dusk.

The long horns and large ears are characteristic features of the gemsbok (or oryx), which lives in arid regions of Africa.

There are two main hikes accessible from the campsite area.  One, the Waterkloof Trail, leaves right from the camp and is 17 km. (10+ miles) long with a modest elevation gain.  It climbs the beautiful creek bed, with gorgeous waterfalls and pools all the way.  Hiking out in the early morning, I photographed with long shutter speeds for the silky water effect, but it was not until I got to a pool that was filled with frogs that I got a shot that I really like.

This little guy (picture below) just floated on the green surface of his pool as if in the air, staring curiously at me.  After a few minutes of communion with him, he dived and swam away.  For me, this shot really sums up the Naukluft’s contradictory nature.  Who would think that in Namibia, one of the world’s few true desert countries, you would run into a scene like this?

The Waterkloof Trail continues up and over a pass, with awesome views out over the desert, and down into another valley, descending to a spectacular dropoff and waterfall.  Note that the trail switches just before the waterfall to the left side of the valley – it can get confusing here.  Just follow the yellow footprints.  I saw little flocks of lovebirds in the valley.  They seemed to prefer trees shaded by the cliffs.  I also saw, in a rocky area with a cave, a group of rock dassies (image below).  These incredibly cute critters are similar to marmots in the western U.S. where I live.  But they have a funny, cute nose.  It is this nose that gives a clue to their strange heritage.  Their closest relative in Africa, genetically-speaking, is, wait for it…the elephant!

I was loving this hike, but the climb over the pass had made me hot and sweaty.  No problem: the first large pool on the descending creek was too good to pass up, so I stripped off my clothes and hopped in.  Oh what a feeling!  And all alone…or so I thought.  Soon I had a troup of baboons barking at me from the trees overlooking the pool.  I don’t know why I did this, but I jumped out of the water, buck naked, and swelling my chest, barked right back at them.  You should have seen their reactions!  Priceless.

 

Later, I saw my first and only hikers.  They had caught up with me (what can I say, I’m a photographer), and were, predictably, German.  They of course were camping at the same place I was, but they were smart and did not leave their tent standing.  They were actually using one of those roof-top tents.  In fact, I never saw anyone else in Africa using a tent you pitch on the ground.  I was the only one.  Go figure.

The clean streams in the Naukluft Mountains of Namibia host many frogs, including this curious little floater.

 

But when I got back to my prized little one-man Nemo (a fantastic tent-maker), yikes, it was damaged!  There was a neat little rip in the screen netting, just big enough for a baboon to squeeze through.  Nothing was missing inside, and it looked just like a person had rifled through my things.  They were looking for food of course.  Since I never have had food inside the tent (leftover habit from my days in Alaska’s bear country), they found nothing.  I did have a package of snacks visible on the front seat of my car, however, and that meant I had baboon tracks all over my windshield, along with a slightly bent windshield wiper blade.

Unlike other animals, baboons are like us and use their eyes and brains more than their noses.  Remember this when you are in Africa.  But here’s the thing:  it’s only when baboons are fed by people, inadvertently or not, that they become bothersome and potentially hazardous to humans.  So please, if you go to Africa, do not feed baboons, and don’t leave food for them to find either.  It will eventually result  in their deaths at the hands of locals.

A denizen of rocky places all over southern Africa, a rock dassie checks out the stranger, but from the mouth of the cave that he and the family live in. Naukluft Mountains, Namibia.

 

The other day-hiking trail in the Naukluft is the Olive Trail, which is somewhat shorter than the Waterkloof and requires a short drive from the campsite.  If you have some time, consider the much longer Naukluft Trail, which traverses nearly the entire range.  The trail, 120 km (75 miles) long, takes about a week to hike.  It is easy to find a guided trip for this one, or if adventurous you can get some good maps and backpack it yourself.  But check the regulations, since hiking in Namibia is not like hiking in America.  To get a permit, you even need to submit a doctor’s note saying you are fit enough!  And they actually close trails to hiking during the hot season.  Definitely not like the U.S., believe me.

Visiting these gorgeous mountains is much easier than you might think.  You only need to be geared up for camping, which you should really be if you want to travel Namibia independently and not spend a fortune.  Take a break from the desert when you visit the Namib-Naukluft National Park: hike the Naukluft!

By the way, this website is a great first start in researching Namibia.  For guidebooks, Bradt’s are a great choice, but Lonely Planet will do you well too.

A Namibian ground squirrel, with its signature super-long tail, pops up over a rock.

The Namib   2 comments

Namibia is a desert country in southern Africa.  That does not mean all of it is dunes & sand with no vegetation.  Most is in fact semi-arid country of the Kalahari “Desert”, and in the north it even starts to resemble standard African bush with a pronounced rainy season.  But the heart of Namibia is its desert, the spectacular Namib, with the largest and oldest sand dunes in the world.

The Namib Desert near Sossusvlei, Namibia.

 

Culturally the country is similar to South Africa in that it retains significant white influence.  This cultural flavor takes German form; it was occupied by them during colonial times, and there are many German natives of the country.  This means that the architecture, food and customs will often make you think you took a left turn on the way to Africa and landed in Frankfurt.  The country gained independence from South Africa after a prolonged war in 1989.  But Namibia is different than its southern neighbor in that there is not the same sort of acrimony between the races that still exists in today’s South Africa.  The country is so young that most people seem to have family members who fought in the war of independence.

This country is clean and safe, and perhaps in that lies its major drawback.  It’s terrain is not the only thing that makes it stand out from most African countries.  As in South Africa, Namibia does not create the feeling of being in “true Africa”.  The tribal towns in the north might be an exception to this.  So if you visit Namibia and have time for one other country, do not make it South Africa – too similar.  Choose a country like Zambia instead.

A rare rainbow appears over the dry grasslands of southern Namibia.

I’d been dreaming of coming to Namibia for years.  I knew as a geologist and lover of big empty landscapes that I would feel right at home.  I was not disappointed.  I saved Namibia for last on my recent 3-month trip to Africa, and (predictably) ran out of time before I was finished exploring.  Flying from Cape Town to Windhoek, Namibia’s ultra-clean, compact little capital city, I watched hundreds of miles of empty plains, canyons and lonely coast glide by underneath the wings.  The plane was full of Namibian roller-hockey players returning from their championship run in Singapore.

The weather was actually a bit rainy when we hit the ground, which is unusual for this part of the world.  But I was firmly into the rainy season, so it wasn’t too surprising.  After a night in Windhoek (the cleanest, most walkable city I’ve been to in a long long time), I headed south toward the Namib in my rental car.  One can easily get around Namibia in a regular sedan.  There are many gravel roads but they are well maintained.  If you want to go deep into northern Namibia, however, or off the beaten track anywhere, a 4×4 is necessary.

It was still drizzling, and I was hoping for great light in the desert because of the clouds.  Although it is only a 4-5 hour drive SW from Windhoek to the heart of Namib-Naukluft National Park at Sesriem, I left late and took the long way, swinging south and approaching from the south.  The landscape was some of the emptiest I had seen in Africa.  It reminded me of the empty areas in Nevada and a few other areas of the interior western U.S.  I experienced some dazzlingly beautiful light at sunset (image left), then spent the night at a funky little place run by a talkative Frenchwoman.  The town, called Maltahohe, was no more than a wide spot in the road, and the surrounding   countryside was as unpopulated as places get in this world.

The Namib’s dunes began to appear in the intense sunshine of the next morning (the storm had abruptly broken the previous evening).  At first I thought I was looking at mountains.  Then as I drew closer I noticed their smooth, reddish color.  Can that really be sand dunes?  Wow, I was amazed (and, sadly, I’m not easily amazed anymore).  At the little village of Sesriem, there is an excellent campsite that sits right at the gateway to the National Park.  The onsite restaurant is fine, and the views even better.  From there, I drove the paved road down the long valley to Sossusvlei, towering dunes on either side.

The animals of the Namib are one of its unique characteristics.  Stopping at one of the bigger dunes on the way to Sossusvlei, I hiked around and spotted a cute little lizard with a shovel on top of his head (image left), obviously for burrowing into the sand.From beetles to birds, reptiles to mammals, the creatures have fascinating adaptations to the extreme aridity.  This desert gets most of its moisture not from infrequent downpours as in other deserts, but from a moist fog that rolls in from the cold South Atlantic only a few miles away.  A decade or more can pass between rains, but when they do come, it can pour buckets.  Then small ponds and even lakes can appear in the ‘vleis’.

 

Note that these images are available for licensing or purchase as prints (framed or unframed) from my website, and if you click on an image you will be taken there.  If you do click an image and it does not take you to my website, that means you can copy the image, but for personal use only.  If you have any questions at all, please contact me.  Thanks so much for your interest and cooperation on this.

A shovelnosed lizard prowls his sandy home in the Namib Desert of Namibia.

There are numerous dried lake beds throughout the area, and these are called vleis.  Sossusvlei is one, and nearby Dead Vlei, with its stunning dead camelthorn trees, is another.  You may have seen pictures of Dead Vlei; it is the target of serious photographers from around the world.  I visited both.  Note you cannot drive there without a 4×4.  There are jeeps that will take you from the car park, but they don’t run all day.  So needing to stretch my legs anyway, I hiked in toward sunset.  This is Namibia’s most popular tourist attraction, but I saw only two other visitors there.

The light was not perfect for pictures, but I did get an expansive view of the dunes (image at top).  The dunes in the background are over 3000 feet high.  I rushed back to camp but it was still well after dark when I arrived.  Fortunately it was a simple matter of contacting the guard at his nearby house, and the gate was opened for me without any hassle.

Next morning I was out early.  A thin fog had swept inland overnight, and was laying over the dunes.  As the sun rose, so did the fog, and I grabbed a shot I doubted would turn out well.  The contrast was high, with washed out color.  But I was surprised when I looked at the picture later.  It makes, I think, for a starkly beautiful black and white image (below).  The dead camelthorn trees in the picture follow a now-abandoned water-course.

 

A thin fog lifts over the huge dunes of the Namib Desert as the sun rises.

 

I hiked up a moderately high dune, but after reaching the first peak, I realized that I didn’t have enough water to push on to the far summits.  It was tougher than I thought, humbling for an outdoors hiker guy like me.  But after stowing my shoes, I ran and skied/skipped down the dune yipping and yahooing all the way.  I rolled to a stop at the bottom laughing like a kid.  Exploring further, I loved how the dune grasses contrasted with the deep reds of the sand (image bottom).

I very much hope I can make it back here to this heart of the Namib, and with more time.  Perhaps it will be as a pro photographer, or even running a tour/workshop.  One thing I missed is doing some serious night sky observing.  I was simply too worn out to stay up late.  But there is at least one lodge near Sossusvlei with its own telescope.  So next time, I’ll make stargazing and night sky photography a priority.  I left Sossusvlei too soon, but I wanted to check out the Naukluft Mountains nearby.  So next post up: the spectacular Naukluft!

In the Namib Desert, a clump of dune grass takes root in a slightly more stable part of a red dune.

Cape Town, South Africa   9 comments

A beautiful summer evening in Cape Town, and an illuminated Table Mountain looms over the city. View from Signal Hill.

Cape Town, South Africa is one of the few cities in this world that I have always wanted to visit.  I’m not a city person, but I do like those which have a scenic location or have an energy or layered history behind them (Istanbul springs to mind).  Cape Town falls into the former category, but was still not in my plan on this first visit to Africa.  I’m not sure why I changed my mind, but after a week camping in Kruger National Park, I found a long weekend in Cape Town, staying in a nice room by the seaside, was just what I needed at that point in a long trip.

Tidepools along the shoreline near Cape Town South Africa.

I flew into Cape Town from Jo’burg, but instead of checking in right away, I steered my rental car up towards Table Mountain.  I took a nice walk near its base, starting in neighborhoods perched on the steep hillside.  I followed a path upwards to a viewpoint of the city, with the blue sparkling southern sea stretching out before me.  From here, it looked like a fairly compact, easy to navigate city, and that’s what it turned out to be.

Fog often rolls in here, and when I arrived it seemed to be doing battle with the sun.  I would enter a fog bank, the temperature would drop 20 degrees Farenheit, and I would shiver.  Then I would break out into warm sunshine.  Ultimately, as I discovered next morning when I walked out of my small hotel in the Sea Point area, the sunshine happily won the battle.  It was a gorgeous summer day, and since it was a Saturday, locals were out in force enjoying it.

I walked along the beautiful promenade that extends for a few  miles along the rocky coastline.  Runners, walkers, a few roller bladers and bicyclists were full of smiles, mirroring the bright blue water.  Small beaches dot the coast, and it is very easy to access rocky tidepools as well (image left).

After hours of wandering and exploring the coast, I took the car and headed south down the western side of the peninsula that extends south to the Cape of Good Hope.  I wanted to find a great spot to photograph the sunset, and hoped to find one of the shipwrecks that this coast is known for.  I stumbled on a very popular beach at Houte Bay, and did some serious people-watching (image below).  The locals were a mixture of white and black, and I watched carefully for any of their interactions.

Beach at Houte Bay on a busy summer Saturday. The highlands of Table Mtn Natl. Park rise in the background.

I had noticed in South Africa that the two races do not mix unless they have to.  I am sure there are those who dispute this, but I regard these folks as exceptions to the rule, this latter-day apartheid.  I am not saying you won’t find some of this at home in America.  I’m simply giving my impression of the separation that remains a barrier to this country’s truly putting its past behind it.

Aside from the people, Cape fur seals were riding the waves in their pursuit of fish, and birds swarmed above them in a frenzy.  The image below I grabbed with my 70-200 f/4, since I had neglected to bring my 400mm.  I consider myself a competent body surfer, but these seals were showing me how it’s really done.  I waded into the water, but it was a very cool sea.  In fact, the entire Cape Town area was reminding me of my home coastline in Oregon: rocky, tidepools, cold sea, the parallels were stacking up.

The entire area is a playground for those with a good job and income.  But there are also black townships (Nyanga & others) in the area where the poverty hits you in the face.  I got lost once and ended up driving through one.  I wanted to stop for pictures, but without a guide I thought better of it.  You can drive all the way down to the actual Cape, but this requires the whole day to avoid rushing.  I skipped this, but see it as a reason to go back.  By the way, the Cape of Good Hope is not the southernmost tip of Africa, it is the southwestern-most.  To the east lies the southernmost tip of the continent, at Agulhas.

Cape fur seals surf the waves in pursuit of fish at Hout Bay near Cape Town, South Africa.

I stopped on the way back to Cape Town near a point of rugged coast at Camps Bay.  The view was incredible.  As my eyes wandered upward to the Twelve Apostles, peaks making up a big chunk of Table Mountain National Park, I thought of some history I had read of.  In the early days, when a trading post was being established here, lion, leopard, and other wildlife roamed the hills.  No longer; the land is relatively empty of wildlife.  The well-to-do build houses where large predators once hunted.  It is rather sad.  But the same cannot be said of the sea, which teems with fish, marine mammals, and the famous great white sharks of South Africa.  It is possible to book a scuba dive trip here where you enter a shark cage and are lowered into baited waters.  I scrambled down from the road and came upon a wreck lying just offshore.  I was able to get a decent shot looking north up the coast, the Twelve Apostles on the right (image below).

A wreck lies just offshore, near the Twelve Apostles south of Cape Town, South Africa.

Fossil mammal quarry at Langebaanweg, north of Cape Town, South Africa.

On my last day I drove north into the emptiness of the West Coast National Park.  It is easy to get out into the countryside in South Africa.  Roads are decent and if you can survive the very high average speeds that motorists travel, it won’t take much time to put many miles between you and civilization.  I stopped at a fossil quarry called Langebaanweg, which lies not far from the R27 via a signed turnoff to the right.  It only takes a couple hours to get here from Cape Town, so it is perfect for a day trip.  Long deserted beaches of the western Cape, part of the National Park, are easily accessible as well.

The fossil site, which documents the immediate predecessors of today’s African menagerie (such as giraffes with much shorter necks than today), is fascinating and not touristy at all.  There is a friendly tour of the fossil quarry, along with a small museum and restaurant, but everything is very much low-key.  With my background in geology, the staff were interested in talking with me about the fascinating connections with the related mammal fossils of Oregon’s John Day country.  This is just the sort of off-beat travel destination I love, where people are happy to get a few visitors, and who aren’t so busy processing hoards of tourists to spend time with you.  It can make the experience a much more personal one.

Cape Town is a place where I could happily live.  The environment is a clean one, with a nice balance of the city and outdoor life (like Portland, Oregon where I live).  My last night there, I drove up onto Signal Hill, where because of the gorgeous summer weather many locals were gathering as the sun went down.  We were all there to enjoy the stunning view of the city, the sea, and the illuminated face of nearby Table Mountain.

As the dusk deepened and “blue hour” approached (blue hour is that short time of deep blue skies just before total darkness, a time photographers love), I set up my tripod for a long exposure.  The top image in this post was the result.  I can feel the soft breeze when I look at this picture, and sense the southern Atlantic far below.  I was to leave South Africa for Namibia the next morning, and this time on Signal Hill, this picture, was really my way of saying: ‘Bye-bye South Africa, it’s been fun.  I’ll be back!

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.

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