Archive for the ‘African animals’ Tag

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.

Botswana   Leave a comment

A young male Nile crocodile basks on the banks of the Chobe River in northeast Botswana.

When travelers finally reach Maun, jumping-off point for safaris in Botswana, they are understandably eager to visit the Okavango Delta and its bordering reserves to the north.  But a great option if you have the time are the Kalahari and other areas to the south and east.  A visit to “the Pans” (Makgadikgadi and Nxai Pans) is easy to combine with the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, and this will expose you to ecosystems that could not be more different from the Okavango’s wetlands.  Of course, there are plenty of guided options here.  Any internet search will turn up places like Jack’s Camp, a fly-in camp deep in the Kalahari that includes guided walks with the San people (less correctly called Bushmen).  But Jack’s is pretty expensive.

An African hornbill perches over my campsite at Makgadikgadi Pans National Park in Botswana.

Cheaper and easier is simply traveling by bus to Gansi (pronounced Hansi), a center for San culture southwest of Maun.  Use one of the more moderately priced lodges here (such as the excellent Grasslands) as a base to tour the Kalahari in the company of San who will show you their unique ways tracking and survival.  There are, as far as I know, no San remaining in the Kalahari who live as their ancestors did.  But many groups now residing in or near Gansi are only a decade or less removed from a hunter-gatherer existence.  Even if you don’t walk with the San, traveling through any area south of Maun means you will overhear the characteristic “click” language of Botswana’s Kalahari natives.  I listened for a long time to a group gathered by a campfire; after a while it began to seem normal.

It is arguably easier to visit the Kalahari (as well as the Pans) by simply driving yourself.  If you can share with two or three other travelers, this might be the cheapest option as well.  Arrange to rent a 4×4 ahead of time, or by visiting the rental car company offices across the road from the Maun Airport once you’ve arrived.  You can either rent a vehicle with camping equipment, or rent what you need from Kalahari Kanvas, located a couple hundred meters down the road that runs along the airstrip.  Be sure to rent or buy at least two 5-gallon containers, one for water and one for petrol or diesel.  Both fresh water and fuel are in very short supply away from major towns in Botswana (not kidding, you will run out of gas on a lonely road if you do not bring at least one 5-gallon can).  I rented a 4×4 Toyota Hilux pickup.  It ran about $125/day, but was probably the toughest 4×4 I’ve ever driven.

Driving east from Maun on an empty and excellent paved road, you first come  to Nxai Pan, with its gorgeous open landscapes and prides of lion.  There are campsites and driving loops, and it’s famous for its gorgeous groves of baobab trees.  Travel a bit further east, then drive south of the highway on 4×4 tracks across the Makgadikgadi Pans to camp amidst herds of migrating zebra (end of dry season in November) elephant, antelope and other animals.  You are truly getting off the beaten track in Africa if you do this.  A planned safari in a high-end lodge will not come anywhere near this kind of experience, and will cost you much more besides.

Not far south of the Pans lies the enormous Central Kalahari Game Reserve.  I entered from the east.  Friendly staff at the entrance station are happy to help you plan a camping loop in the reserve.  It is very different visiting this reserve at the end of the dry season, as I did in November, then it is if you go at the end of the wet season in March or April.  I was there at the hottest time of the year, when temperatures regularly top 100oF.  But…it’s a dry heat.  The grass is lower at this time of year, and wildlife is drawn to the few artificial waterholes.  So the wildlife is easier to spot.  But the green season has much to recommend it, including more beautiful landscape photo compositions along with the cooler temperatures.

Roads in the Kalahari are sandy but negotiable in a 4×4.  Remember to deflate your tires BEFORE you get fully buried in sand, and you should have little problem.  It’s worth renting a small compressor at Kalahari Kanvas to re-inflate your tires once you’re back on hard surfaces.  Also, in brushy areas approaching the Reserve, stop and pick up some firewood.  You’ll need it to cook with and to keep the animals away from your camp during the nights.  Don’t stop inside the reserve and collect firewood.  This is not because of regulations.  Simply put, you do not want to be walking around, stooping and picking up firewood, in the domain of Kalahari lions.  Speaking of brush, if you head here in the green season, expect to have to stop frequently to brush off the seeds and plant debris from your front grill.  If you don’t, you are asking to overheat.

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

 

Soon after entering the Kalahari Reserve, I saw a large lion and two lionesses (image below) in Deception Valley, a beautiful expanse of grassland.  They were lying about as lions do during daytime.  I also saw gemsbok, giraffe and springbok, along with many interesting birds.  For example, the Kori bustard is a large bird that tends to freak you out with its strange sidelong gaze as it strides purposefully through the tall grass.   I camped near Leopard Pan, alone except for hyena calling nearby.  These camps are very simple, which is to my liking.  They are quite different from camps in South Africa or Namibia, which even have restaurants and swimming  pools.  Here in the Kalahari, you get a bucket shower (if you’ve brought an extra 5-gallon jug) and a fire ring.  Sometimes there’s a picnic table (but rent a folding table and chairs just the same).  You will come to look forward to the bucket shower.  You simply fill the bucket, then hoist it on ropes to its position above your head.  Then you simply open the shower head and let gravity do the work.  So refreshing after a long hot day, believe me.

A lioness nudges her lion with not much success in rousing him. Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Botswana.

 

A gemsbok, or oryx, gets a drink at a water hole in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Botswana.

Traveling through the Reserve, seeing only a few other vehicles in 3 days, feeling very free and self-reliant, camping out amongst the brilliant Kalahari stars, I felt fully immersed in the great emptiness of untamed Africa.  I saw enough animals to keep me in neck-swivel mode while driving the rough roads.  There is a definite skill to be developed by anyone considering a self-drive safari in Africa, to keep your attention on the narrow track yet be able to spot wildlife.  I was mostly alone, wandering the dry landscape, spotting mirages and the long horns of gemsbok, always alert for the large, dark-maned Kalahari lion.

A more relaxing way to go about wildlife watching in the Kalahari is to park at a waterhole (which is filled by a nearby well & pump).  I sat for over an hour at a waterhole near Leopard Pan, watching a pair of jackals foraging.  I was rewarded when a herd of gemsbok showed up.  This antelope species, with its enormous horns, is supremely adapted to desert life.  The big ears, for example, aren’t only for hearing.  As with elephant ears, the animal rids itself of heat using the thin, floppy ears, which have abundant blood vessels near the cooler surface.

On my last day in the Kalahari, I passed several giraffes that were passing the heat of the day under some acacias next to the road.  When I rolled down the window and craned my neck upwards to get a better look and photograph them, one curious male slowly bent his long neck downwards to me.

 

 

A giraffe’s tongue is a wonder of nature.

He used his long tongue to reach up to his nose and gave several long licks.  Then, peering down at me with those huge eyes, he gave me a little smile.  I did not know before this that giraffe mouths commonly take on this expression, and it solidified the giraffe’s position as my favorite African animal.  I often think back on that moment, and it speaks to me of this heart of southern Africa.

If you have even more time, you can drive northeast from Maun, to the Savute.   It lies within the Chobe National Park, and has a reputation for abundant wildlife.  I saw a great variety of animals, but no cats, sadly.  The elephant were super-abundant  however.  The Savute Channel flows now nearly year-round because the pancake-flat land of this region has been slowly tilting, resulting in water from the Caprivi area in nearby Namibia flowing down to Savute.  This has also brought much more water to the Okavango Delta itself.

The dry season being at its peak when I visited, elephant had been showing up in numbers at Savute  from drier areas in the region.  Some had walked hundreds of kilometers to get to lifegiving water.  And yet, I soon began to notice many elephant carcasses, and at the campsite I asked a guide why elephants were dying with all this water and grass around.  He told me his theory, which I agree with.  The dead were made up almost entirely of young elephants.  Not babies – teenagers.  They had died, the guide said, when they drank too much water.

 

 

This reminded me of the problems we humans often have when we drink too much water.  If you drink too much without taking in electrolytes (i.e., eating), you risk a condition called  hyponatremia.   This causes your cells literally to burst, with death not far behind.  Maybe this had happened to the young elephants.  The adults are too smart to do this, and they keep their babies from overindulging.  But teenagers without adult supervision could easily get carried away when they first arrive, parched from their long trek to water.  It was quite sad, and reminded me of the trials and hardships inherent in surviving the African bush.

But despite the heat, the harshness of the terrain, the eat or be eaten nature of genuine safari experience, northern Botswana, with its diverse population and surrounding wonders, welcomes all those who make the long trek there with big curious eyes and a shy smile.

A giraffe in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Botswana, appears to smile at me (but is merely curious).

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.

Lake Malawi   Leave a comment

Malawian fishermen ply the coastal waters of the enormous and beautiful Lake Malawi in Africa.

Oh Malawi, how I love thee.  I traveled to Africa recently, and these are some highlights.  Zambia was on the schedule, but after only a week there, I took a left turn and caught a taxi from Chipata, the gateway town for South Luangwa National Park to the Malawian border, crossed on foot, then took a taxi/bus to Lilongwe, the capital.  I planned to come back to Zambia on my way back west.  Malawi lies at the southern end of the Great Rift Valley, sort of a transition country between Southern and Eastern Africa.  It is dominated by one of Africa’s great lakes, in this case Lake Malawi (also called Nyassa), an incredibly clean, pristine, undeveloped, beautiful blue lake.

Malawi was one of two countries I visited that were not in the original plan, but the Lonely Planet guidebook I had covered the country along with Zambia.  I can highly recommend that guidebook (Zambia & Malawi by Lonely Planet).  So I was somewhat prepared.  But Malawi is the poorest country I visited, and that is noticeable right away.  What I didn’t realize was that Malawians are basically the same people (tribally speaking) as Zambians, and speak a similar language to those in eastern Zambia.  They are also as friendly or more so than Zambians.  These were the friendliest, happiest people I met in Africa.  Add to that it was the cheapest country to visit in the greater southern Africa region, and you have a top-notch “adventure” (hate that word) travel destination.

After the capital, I moved on to Lake Malawi, traveling to Nkhata Bay on a long, tortuously crowded bus ride.  A fuel shortage was affecting the country at the time of my visit, and boy did it affect travel.  After about 12 hours on the bus, I finally got there and was met by a driver from the lodge I stayed at.  By the way, bring a tri-band cell phone if you go to Africa, the type that take SIM cards.  Then, when you enter a country (even at the border), you can buy a SIM card and charge it up with time.  For example, I was able to call several lodges while I was “enjoying” the bus ride and set up a pickup.  I REALLY needed that pickup.

The Mayoka Village in Nkhata Bay is a backpacker lodge right on the lake.  I got a thatch-roofed room with a beautiful bed and a little deck overlooking the lake, all for about $12/night!  Within an hour of getting off that bus, I was swimming in the moonlight, the water perfect, my room steps away.  Then I visited their lively bar for dinner and conversation, again overlooking the moonlit lake.  It was one of those travel experiences you can only get in third world countries: extremely tiring, frustrating travel followed by landing in the lap of perfection!

I spent four lovely days at Nkhata Bay.  I took walks along country roads, visiting with friendly villagers, shopped the fresh market in town, swam, took boat rides (free!) to nice beaches where we played soccer with locals, hiked along the rocky, beautiful coast (again laughing with locals), snorkeled, ate, drank, and enjoyed perfect summer-type weather.  The lake is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.  It is so clean you can drink from it with only a little risk, it is very large, with the far shore of Mozambique not even visible in some areas.  Importantly, it has no real population of hippos or crocodiles.  This makes swimming safe, unlike most places in Africa.  Instead, it has a large number of small, colorful fish called Cichlids.  These look exactly like aquarium fish because that’s what they are.  This is the source for many aquarium fish sold worldwide.  The snorkeling is excellent.

The image below was taken during one of the free boat rides so graciously provided by one of the guides based at Mayoka Village.  A blonde guy from South Africa who looked like he could be straight out of California’s surfing culture, he is a real character, with a surprising number of great stories for someone so young.  He took us out in order to promote his guiding business, trying to put out the good word on the backpacker grapevine.  There are African fish eagles nesting along the shore which are routinely fed by some boatmen.  They pierce a small fish with a floating stick, hold it up and whistle to the bird, then throw the stick in the water for the eagle to come swooping in to take it (image below).  This is the only time I got very close to fish eagles, and I didn’t waste the opportunity.  I had my point and shoot because we were going to be in the water, wading to shore, swimming, etc.  My DSLR would have gotten a higher quality picture, but the Canon S95 (which shoots RAW) did a pretty decent job on the eagle.

I can’t recommend Malawi highly enough.  And the Lake is a must-see.  The north part of the lake, from Nkhata Bay northwards, is less developed in general, but the whole area is pristine and relatively undeveloped for tourism.  For example, you can take a light backpack and hike along the coast, village to village, camping near each village or staying with locals, and just soaking up a simpler way of life, not a roadway in sight.  In fact, one of these trails starts at Nkhata Bay and enables a 3-4 day walk north, coming back via ferry (if you time it right), hiring a boat, or simply retracing your steps.  Another great thing to do if you have time is to hop aboard the weekly ferry over to Likoma Island, where life gets even slower and simpler.  With more money and less time you can also take a charter plane to Likoma, which makes sense if you have several people to share the cost.

Away from the Lake, there are other sights like the Nyika Plateau.  That I’ll save for another post.  I now have this dream, where I build an off-grid solar/geothermal house along Lake Malawi, pumping water directly from the lake through a simple filtration system, just enjoying life away from smart phones and traffic.  Food you can always get in Africa, but for water and electricity it’s best to be self-sufficient.  This is especially true in a country like Malawi.  But you could not choose a cheaper, more lovely place along the water to retire.

An African fish eagle swoops low over the pristine, blue waters of Lake Malawi.

Welcome to Africa!   Leave a comment

A young male giraffe in the central Kalahari of Botswana appears to be smiling a welcome to the strange little creature in the 4×4.

I recently traveled to Africa for the first time, and stayed a full 3 months.  I traveled all over southern Africa, from Cape Town to Lake Malawi.  After a few days in Victoria Falls, I went to South Luangwa National Park in Zambia.  I arrived at my beautiful riverside chalet on the edge of Flatdogs Camp in the evening.  In the gathering dusk, I heard some tree movement towards the river.  Looking over there, I could just make out a few tall, gangly shapes: giraffes.  My first African animal (save birds) and it was what turned out to be my favorite African animal as well.  The next morning at sunrise I walked out and a large female was just striding along the river gracefully (image below).

A real splurge for me, Flatdogs was actually quite reasonable.  A chalet with kitchen on the edge of the National Park and steps from the river for about $100/night.  A real deal compared to the camps that lie inside the park, which can be $500/night and up.  I bought my meals separately and had to pay for each game drive, while the all-inclusive camps throw that in, but it still ended up being less than half the price.  The one downside to Flatdogs is you can’t bring your own camping gear and set up, as in other camps in Africa.  They used to do this but decided awhile back to move a bit more upscale.

South Luangwa is becoming quite a popular park in Africa, which means it can be crowded during high season (late Summer/Fall).  But it’s for good reason.  At times it seemed like I was in an (excellent) wildlife safari in the U.S.  I don’t know if that’s a good thing, but there sure was an abundance of wildlife, and diverse!  The quality of guiding there is generally top notch as well.

Later in the trip, in Botswana, I got very close to a group of giraffes (sometimes called a “tower” – haha!) in the intense desert heat of the Kalahari.  They were sheltering under some trees for shade, and I pulled right up to them in my 4×4 (which you definitely need if you do the Kalahari on your own).  One young male leaned down to look in the window, licked his face (that looong tongue) and then just smiled at me.  I caught a shot of him (image above), but had my focus on his tongue and did not have quite enough depth of field to get perfectly sharp eyes.  A mistake that marks me as still being on the learning curve of wildlife photography, which has its own challenges like any branch of photography.

By the way, you might be wondering how I was able to tell male from female.  It’s not the way you would think (giraffes are subtle that way).  You look at the horns.  If they are smooth with no hair on top, it’s a male.  Females have furrier horns by far, since they don’t spend time butting heads with other males.

Africa was awesome.  And everything about giraffes is just plain charming.  For my first few posts I’ll share some of my best experiences from there.  Enjoy!

A female Thornicroft’s giraffe strides along Zambia’s Luangwa River in the early morning.

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