Archive for the ‘safari’ Tag

Friday Foto Talk: Video & Wildlife   8 comments

My blog series on video for still photographers continues.  It’s not been too popular, something I figured would happen because of the the nature of blogging.  The blogosphere is quite biased toward still photography.  Videos are very popular overall, but tend to be concentrated in other places on the web.  It’s sad to say but most serious photographers still don’t think video is worth doing, I believe because they think the learning curve is too steep.  But when you’re out shooting photos you’re also carrying a very good video camera around with you.  So why not add movement and sound, even if the results aren’t likely to measure up to those of a pro videographer?

Last time we looked at landscape videos.  Today let’s talk about critters, or animals.  Specifically wildlife.  Domestic animals have their own challenges.  Video of wildlife is not easy.  But it’s one of the few subjects that even non-video people think of shooting.  The reason is that wildlife often do interesting things that are very hard to capture with still pictures.  They also make fascinating sounds.

To view the videos don’t click the play button right away.  First click the title at top left, then the play button.

Shy Shy

Wild animals are generally shy and not easy to find.  In modern times there is a two-edged sword.  Plenty of roads and easy access make it a snap to go looking for wildlife.  But the same development and population growth that gave us those roads also causes most species to decline in numbers.  And the survivors normally become very shy and elusive.

A general truism is that the easiest critters to find also tend to have the fastest and most unpredictable movements.  On the flip side, leaving aside rarity, if they’re very difficult to find they tend to be slow and easy to follow.  Sloths come to mind.  But it’s not always true that the slow ones are hard to find.  It could be the animal is simply not afraid and instead looks on you as lunch, like the Komodo dragons below.

STRATEGIES

Location, Location.  There are just a few main strategies that will make it easier to find wildlife.  One is heading to protected areas.  Parks and preserves concentrate the wildlife that we have chased out of most parts of the world.  Some African parks even fence them in, which is actually to prevent them leaving the park where they can be poached.  Of course the poachers just go into the park to kill, so the fences are relatively ineffective in that way.  The fences do cut down on human-wildlife conflict, as well as reduce road-kill.

The Right Time.  Another strategy is to go out looking when animals are most active.  And I’m not just talking about dawn and dusk, when most (not all) animals are likely to be moving about.  I’m also talking season.  Fall is when many animals become active, and spring (or the start of wet season in Africa) is also good because many have their young and are thus forced to go out hunting, foraging or browsing to feed them.  Also, the babies are irresistible.

‘Tis the Season.  Seasonality also affects the ease with which you’ll be able to spot critters because of vegetation.  For example going on safari in Africa during the dry season is popular because the general lack of green leafy growth on shrubs and trees of the savannah makes it easier to spot wildlife.

Some wildlife during a specific season will ignore their natural instinct to avoid humans and come right down into our towns.  In late fall, the elk of several western U.S. National Parks (Rocky Mountain and Grand Tetons for e.g.) descend from higher country and congregate in gateway towns like Estes Park, Colorado.

Showing their Moves

Animals move (I know, duh).  And they move apparently without warning and in unpredictable ways.  But really not so unpredictable once you observe and learn about them.

STRATEGIES

Ready & Steady.  Be ever ready to move the camera instantly.  It’s a mindset that is applicable to still photos of critters as well.  Your positioning and stance needs to be such that you can swivel or pivot easily.  I liken it to when I was a kid being coached on how to take a lead in baseball.  You also need a way to smooth out your motions, covered in a previous post: Video on the Move.

Observe.  The most important thing in this regard is careful observation.  The more you learn about a species, the better you’ll be able to predict its movements.  But avoid the trap even experienced people fall into.  You can know the species but not the individual.  Like us, each one is different and unique, in ways that seem quite subtle to us (but presumably not them).  So even if you know the species well, a little pre-shooting observation goes a long way.

Chatty Critters

If you record the voices of animals (and why wouldn’t you have sound recording turned on?), you can be sure that even the chattiest of them will choose the time after you press the record button to give you the silent treatment.

STRATEGIES

Observe some More.  Same goes for sound as for video: if you have the opportunity, observe the animal for awhile before you press record.  You’ll gain a sense of the periodicity or patterns inherent in the animal’s vocalizations.  The keys, as it is in general nature observation and photography, is patience and timing.

Examples.  At Yellowstone Park I went out in the very early morning to film the buffalo above.  On a previous morning I’d seen them crossing the Lamar River and figured they were sleeping on one side and eating breakfast on the other, with a bath in between.  Also the early hour meant only one other tourist, and he stayed up by the road.  A shotgun mic helped to capture their voices.  Below, on the Kafue River in Africa, I couldn’t get close enough to these hippos but their voices carry so well across the water that I didn’t need the shotgun mic.

That’s it for this Friday, thanks for looking.  Have an excellent weekend and don’t forget to press that record button!

Addendum:  Dry Run

Try is a dry run from time to time.  For example you could walk out into a forest in the wee hours to hear the dawn chorus of birdsong.  Try leaving your camera in the bag, at least at first.  The goal is to find the best locations and to simply listen.  Note when certain bird species begin and end (it’s strictly regimented), along with how long the singing lasts.  If you go out several times you’ll begin to learn how the weather affects timing along with other features of bird vocalization and behaviour.

Believe it or not I did this for a job one summer.  I surveyed forests in the Pacific NW proposed for logging, looking for evidence of use by endangered bird species.  Since most of the areas lacked trails, I would go out during the day with some white surveyor’s tape.  I’d find a good spot to observe from and then, on the way back to the road, flag a route by every so often tying a piece of surveyor’s tape around a branch.

Then in the morning, at “zero dark thirty” I returned with my flashlights (I recommend two, a headlamp and a strong hand-held) and followed the trail in.  White shows up in the dark a lot better than orange.  On the hike out after sunrise I’d remove the surveyor’s tape.  This is, by the way, also a good way to find and shoot out-of-the-way places at dawn, your “secret” spots that are away from roads and trails.

 

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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.

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.

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.

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).

Kafue II   Leave a comment

A warthog boar with impressive tusks stands in the forest near the Kafue River, western Zambia.

This is the second of two installments on Kafue National Park in western Zambia.  After visiting the center region of Kafue, along the main road that bisects the park, I drove up to the more-remote, northern part of the park.  I bounced down increasingly sketchy dirt tracks, crowded in by the bush to the point of scraping along both sides of my truck.  I was headed for McBride’s Camp, along the upper Kafue River.  I got a flat along the way, and thought for the second time in a week that I would be spending the night in the bush, sleeping in the truck.  It was well past dark when I finally found the camp.  A night watchman showed me where to camp, and I turned out to be the only camper.  That night, I heard the mournful calling of lions.  It just got louder and louder, until they sounded as if they were in camp.  Thankfully they proceeded right through, not bothering to check out the small tent pitched all alone among the trees.

At McBride’s Camp along the Kafue River in the eponymous national park, a black-backed barbet calls for some more to eat.

McBride’s is run by an affable ex-lion researcher from South Africa named Chris McBride.  We got along famously, the Scot and the Irishman.  He and his wife were winding up a very busy season, and I was one of their last visitors.  I was taken first thing in the morning by boat to see the two lions that had visited the camp during the night.  After that, there was plenty of time in the afternoon to swap stories with Chris, drink tea and watch the colorful birds who flew in for handouts.  I was treated very well.  The staff insisted on calling me “bwana”, a word I had only heard on old movies featuring Brits wearing those funny safari hats.  Bwana, by the way, is Swahili for boss.

Late in the day, we struck out on foot, accompanied by an armed guard, looking for more wildlife.  A foul smell was on the air as we walked along, and soon we found a dead hippo, killed by another hippo.  We almost didn’t notice at first, but a male lion was lying alongside the carcass, apparently taking a snooze.  He then heard us and, startled, jumped up and ran away, or so we thought.  As we circled the carcass to get upwind of the horrible stench, we heard a roar in the bush to the left and then saw a shape dart out.  He was there, and moving so quickly for a big creature.  The guard turned as if to run, and my mouth dropped.  Wasn’t he supposed to protect us?  But it turned out to be a false charge, and he retreated to the bush, softly growling at us.  Needless to say we beat a hasty retreat.  We didn’t run, because it’s true what they say: Never Run!  I’ll never forget the sound of that lion, penetrating my bones it was so deep, and how fast he was.  I learned there is a huge difference between a lion sighting while in a safari vehicle, and a lion sighting while on foot.

The second night at McBride’s was a sleepless one for me.  This was not because of the insomnia that I am experiencing as I write this, but because I was afraid of being dragged from my tent and eaten.  The African night is full of bird sound, and also primates (tough to tell between the two).  Near where I camped there is a meadow, and this was full of impala grazing from evening on through the night.  After hearing lion calling again, and tracking them off in another direction, I was getting close to sleep.

 

 

 

But then I opened my eyes, realizing there were no birds calling.  It was dead silent.  Then, suddenly, I heard the sound of a hundred or more hoofs galloping away.  It was the impala running..but from what?  I was literally holding my breath as silence descended again.  Then I heard it: a deep, rasping-breathing animal, and walking right toward my tent!  I had not even put the fly on, because of the heat.  So I just flattened my body and tried to sink into the ground, while the cat (that is what it must be) caught its breath only a few meters away from me.  It seemed an hour passed, but it must have only been five or six minutes, and the cat padded silently away.  It was only when the night birds began to sing again, one by one, that I relaxed somewhat.

An armed ranger is essential for walks in the African bush

I guessed it must have been a leopard, and I was proved right next morning when I talked to Chris.  Turns out I was camped inside the territory of a big male.  Chris was amused at my concern, and assured me that as long as I stay in my tent, no animal will harm me.  Why then, I asked him, do all the other campers I see have those rooftop tents on their 4x4s?  He just smiled.  We called my type of person a greenhorn in Alaska.  Climbers call them flatlanders.  I still don’t really know what Africans call the clueless.  Maybe they are just too nice for that.  That night I got no sleep, but it wasn’t just the leopard.  In the wee hours of morning, a herd of elephant trundled through camp, and I again worried about dying, but this time squashed flat, not with a pierced jugular.  Once again, the next morning Chris explained that elephant can walk right through a camp in pure blackness of night, expertly stepping over the staked guylines and around the tents.

There were other adventures in Kafue.  I saw my first Cape buffalo (see previous post for the picture).  It was a fantastic close encounter with a large herd I found towards dusk.  I had been told that buffalo are fearsome, probably the most dangerous African animal (and that’s saying something).  But they are only hazardous when you catch a male alone or in a pair.  In a herd, they are almost like antelope, running if you approach.  The shot (again, you’ll need to look at the previous post) I got from a tripod, since the light was fading fast.  Thus the shutter speed was slow.  Luckily they stood almost completely still.  Combined with the dust kicked up by the herd, this gives the image a soft quality, one that lends itself to black and white.  Feel free to comment on any of my images.  But please if you click on one and it takes you to my website, realize the image is for sale only.  Images that do not take you to my website you are welcome to download a jpeg and use for personal use only.  Thanks.

 

 

Toward midnight on the third night at McBride’s, I was just falling to sleep after (again) listening and tracking the call of lion, when headlights appeared.  It turned out to be my friends from Lusaka, come to reclaim the truck they had given me.  Turns out they had borrowed the Mitsubishi from a friend, and now they wanted to give me the Ford back (which was repaired, or so they said).  I watched them for a few minutes walking around their truck, trying to figure out where I was, then jumped out of the tent and ran over to them, saying hello and I would love to stand around and talk but there are lion and elephant in the immediate area and I would not recommend hanging around in the darkness.  They didn’t need to be told twice, believe me, and fought each other in a frenzy to get back in the truck.  They were hilarious; I started calling them Laurel and Hardy.

A puku buck is always on alert in Kafue National Park, with good reason.

Next morning they switched trucks with me and drove off.  Later, after coffee with Chris, I found out that (1) they had taken off with my wallet still inside the truck, and (2) they had left me with not enough fuel to make it back to Lusaka.  I solved the second problem by buying fuel from a private party in a small town at the edge of the park (this is something you can always try in rural areas thoughout most of the third world if you are desparately low on fuel).  The wallet had me VERY worried all the way back to Lusaka.  I had called Laurel on my cell phone, and he told me he would look for it in the truck.  When I met him in Lusaka, he walked up with the wallet in his hand – nothing missing.  This honesty amongst Africans was one of the nicest discoveries of my trip to Africa.  They are much more likely to return an expensive camera (or a wallet) than they are to take advantage of the situation, however poor they are.  Of course there are a few bad apples, as there are everywhere, but there seem to really be few bad ones in Africa.

An African vulture dares to creep close to a hippo carcass while a male lion waits for the brave bird to get too close.

If you go to Zambia, I recommend both South Luangwa and Kafue National Parks.  If you can only do one, make it Kafue.  It has much more of a wilderness feel than Luangwa, though the animals are much more spread out.  You’ll also want to go to Livingstone, gateway to Victoria Falls.  Here is Zambia’s number one tourist attraction by far, but even here, if you simply walk into the town center, you will find the tribal heart of Africa, in the form of its people.  Though they come from all over the country to work in the tourist trade, they are at heart simple folk with strong tribal and family identities.  ‘You can take the African out of his village, but you can’t take the village out of the African’ would be an apt way to put it.  While this is true enough right now, things are changing.  Western values are infiltrating African culture as they are to one degree or another all over the world.  So if you have not yet made it to Africa, go soon.  And get off the beaten track, visit a village, go to a relatively unknown park like Kafue.  And remember: don’t leave your tent, and never, never run!

The sun comes up (finally) after a night in which my tent seemed to be the epicenter of animal activity in this part of Kafue National Park, Zambia.

Kafue I   Leave a comment

A large bull cape buffalo, among a herd on the move and kicking up dust, pauses to stare down the stranger in Zambia’s Kafue National Park.

When I traveled through Zambia recently, the new president had been in office less than 2 months.  There was a definite sense of optimism among the people regarding their country’s prospects.  I really think the fact that the election was free of violence (a rarity in most African countries) had almost as much to do with this optimism as did the new president himself.  The country is riding a boom in commodity prices, sitting on huge copper reserves, with China’s investment in and demand for raw commodities being the primary driver.  And so while walking the streets of Lusaka, or even in Livingstone, near the tourist magnet of Victoria Falls, it was not only easy to engage in small talk with the average Zambian, it was also fairly easy to come across those willing to speak about their country’s future.

All seems to depend on how the country invests in infrastructure, education and agriculture in order to avoid the typical boom-bust cycle of a commodity-dependent country.  But in this way Zambia is in the company of countries like Australia, which is not a bad place to be considering the alternative (Mali, etc.).  An academic at Columbia recently wrote an article in the New York Times claiming that Africa was the new Asia, and he put forth Zambia as a prime example.  Well there are a few very serious obstacles to growth that Africa has and Asia does not, so to me the analogy seems way overstated, but the general point is valid.  Africa is doing better as a whole these days, and societies are modernizing, spawning more and more consumers as the village culture is steadily being pushed to the edge.

But this blog post is not all about African economics and politics.  It’s about a place in western Zambia called Kafue.  Kafue National Park is not as famous as South Luangwa in the country’s east – that park has just recently become as popular as big and famous safari parks like Kruger in South Africa.  Kafue is, of course, well known to experienced African travelers, because of its size and sense of wildness, and because it has a very remote feel to it, without actually being all that inaccessible.  It only takes a few hours to drive to the park from the capital city of Lusaka, and that same decent, paved road traverses the middle of the park.   In order to visit the northern or southern reaches of Kafue however, a 4×4 is necessary.

Obviously the lead hippo is the one in charge of this pod, and he doesn’t much like the guy in the boat holding the camera.

This was to be the first time I would rent a 4×4 in Africa, and I experienced some sticker shock when I was told what it would cost.  I couldn’t really afford $200-250/day for the week I planned to spend in Kafue, so I asked around the backpacker lodge I was staying at and soon met a guy who knew a guy.  I checked out the pickup that two young Zambians brought to me, and it looked okay.  It was a Ford of all things, similar to a Ranger.  Although I was able to haggle and get it for $100/day, I was to soon regret my decision to rent from these young “entrepeneurs”.  Later, while driving the lonely road across the park, not far from the camp I was heading for along the Kafue River, it happened.  It coughed a few times, then quit on me.  I couldn’t start it.  I got out and looked it over, but while I was leaning over the engine with the hood up, I suddenly stood up straight.  This was no good at all.  Dusk was rapidly descending, and I was in the middle of an African park, a preserved area with all manner of wildlife roaming free.  I could see this situation going from bad to worse in a hurry if a pride of lions began to stalk me, or an angry buffalo or elephant took exception to my presence.  I couldn’t look at the engine again.  In fact, I literally tripped over myself getting back in the truck.

Soon however, the first vehicle showed up, and it happened to be a group of gregarious Zambian friends who happily picked me up and took me to the nearest town to the park border, where there was cell phone service.  I won’t recount what I said to my friends in Lusaka, but suffice to say I insisted on another truck being delivered to me.  My saviours took me to a small hotel where I checked in.  There was something about the woman who helped me, but I forgot about it as the guys insisted that we go get something to eat.  Later, after they finally dropped me off, I saw the woman again, and spoke to her.  Then I realized, she had a different accent than I had been hearing, and seemed very simple and pure.  She was straight out of a village in remote NW Zambia, and was just different.  She spoke some English, but it was more broken than I had been used to in my travels thus far.  In Africa, most people speak English quite well.  They learn from their first year in school, so it’s only in small rural villages, which lack good education, where you’ll find people who don’t speak English.

Africa is beautiful: a young western Zambian woman.

I was charmed by the woman’s innocence.  I talked to her for quite some time, in that awkward but funny and charming way that two people speak who only comprehend a part of what the other is saying.  As a nice breeze finally appeared, I sighed and thought how different things had turned out.  Not long before I was preparing for a long, sleepless night barricaded in my truck, hoping that no elephant decided to roll this little toy over.  Now I was chatting with a beautiful African girl while the stars twinkled in the black sky.  Such are the twists and turns of travel.  This was to be a night, given my limited experience with women of other races, that I would remember.

The guys came through for me, delivering a blue Mitsubishi 4×4 next morning.  Little did I know as they drove off in the stuttering Ford that I’d be seeing them again at Kafue.   While camping along the Kafue River at     Camp, I watched from my small one-man tent as hippos grazed in the night mere yards away, their small bright eyes giving lie to the enormous bulk and giant mouths behind those eyes.  I also did my first game drive where I was driver and tourist packaged in one.  It takes real skill, I found, to be able to drive rutted and narrow dirt tracks while keeping an eagle eye out for wildlife.

It was getting hot in Africa, toward the end of the dry season, and late afternoon one day in Kafue I just had to break down and take a quick dip in the river.  I walked up to where some rocky rapids lay upstream from camp, and jumped in then out, wasting no time splashing around.  I was pretty sure the crocs and hippos would not be interested in rapids, so felt pretty safe.  Later, at dinner, I let slip what I had done and the guide and few other tourists there just shook their heads.  Next day, while walking again up along the rapids, I spotted the biggest crocodile I had ever seen, staking out a spot right next to the biggest rapid.  He must have gotten word on the predator hotline that there was a dumb tourist swimming there the day before.

 

 

Of the many things I learned in Kafue, one important lesson was how dangerous elephants can be, and how seriously Africans themselves take elephants.  They garner the most respect from Africans of any animal, and this goes triple at night, when they can really get their ire up.  The wilder the herd, the more dangerous they can be.  We entered a small valley on a night drive while at McBride’s, and on the opposite side of the valley there started up a loud trumpeting.  The driver made as quick a U-turn as you can imagine, and as he drove away I looked back and could just make out some huge heads bobbing as they ran after us.  I also saved a couple African girls from an elephant who was growing angry with them as they walked with their tomatoes along the main road, caught by darkness.  I picked them up as they waved wildly in the darkness, and drove them back to the Kafue River Bridge, where there was an encampment of Zambian military, campfires blazing.  From then on, every time I passed the checkpoint (where bribes are normally paid), I was waved through by the men, who smiled and said, “Oh, it is the good samaritan!”

The sun passes below the horizon after a 100 degree-plus day along the Kafue River, western Zambia.

Malawians   Leave a comment

Mmm gooood! A greater bush baby in Malawi’s Vwaza Marsh Reserve samples some sap.

A couple village kids along Lake Malawi’s coast only accessible by boat.

            Before leaving aside Malawi and moving on to Zambia, I need to give a shout out to the people of Malawi.  Poor they are, as a rule, and with a corrupt government, but they are by far the nicest people I met in my recent travels to Africa.  I met some real characters, including this greater bush baby, one of a pair who played and snacked (and wailed like babies) in the tree I camped under in Vwaza Marsh Reserve.  The people I met along Lake Malawi puts to mind what the Caribbean must have been like before the resorts and yachts came calling.  The two boys at right were present at the lively soccer game we played on the beach nearby.  Malawi is a warm place, and as I mentioned above has a definite hippie/caribe vibe.  The fellow below is a woodcarver I met at Chitimba along the northern shore of Lake Malawi.  Before you draw conclusions about him, realize that every morning when Iwas camped on the nearby beach, as the sun was rising, I heard him chopping away, cutting the large pieces of wood he turned into art.  He is one industrious stoner.  Unfortunately for him, all his best salesmanship couldn’t get me to buy a woodcarving that would take up half the space in my luggage.  Please realize this image is able to be licensed for use at my website (clicking on it will take you there), so please don’t use it.  Any images you click on that don’t take you to my site you are free to use for personal use.

A woodcarver at Lake Malawi relaxes with his drum & a smoke.

 

Malawians share much culture with Zambians directly to the west.  They are very different from Tanzanians (much warmer) to the north and even separate from Mozambiquans to the west.  In fact, if you pick up words in Zambia’s main tribal languages, you are very likely to be understood in Malawi.  In fact, if Zambia had an enormous, warm blue lake taking up half the country like Malawi, I think they would be as charming instead of almost as charming as Malawians.  The lake defines the country, and very well I might add.

In the image below, I was walking the steep road from the lakeside at Chitimba up to Livingstonia when I ran into some villagers.  I got the younger woman in the background to show me around for a couple dollars, and she took me down to a gorgeous waterfall (where I took a much-needed natural shower).  Then we met the woman who is seated in the picture.  She was pounding casava, and at first said no to pictures.  I asked her why, and offered to give her a wallet-sized print (I carry a pocket-sized printer).  She came around, but not before telling me that she was afraid I would show the pictures when I got home, making fun at all the “monkeys” in Africa.  I couldn’t believe it.  I explained that most of us are better people than that.  I tried my hand with the large pestle, and they couldn’t stop laughing, since they NEVER see men pounding casava.  I told them they would need to work at changing that, and they looked at me like I was crazy.

Hard-working Malawian women prepare casava in a northern Malawi village. They’re laughing because I am asking why I don’t see men doing this.

Livingstonia is one of Africa’s oldest mission towns, and is named for David Livingstone, the famous Scottish explorer.  To avoid rushing, it is an overnight walk, and I recommend just staying at Mushroom Farm, perched on the edge of forever with the lake far below.  It is geared toward camping but has simple huts as well.  It is quite basic, and has a hippie flair, with friendly young people running it.  You can also get a taxi up, or drive if you have your own 4×4.  It’s cooler up there, being on the edge of the Nyika Plateau (see previous post).

Moonlit Lake Malawi on a warm evening.

These two girls were happy to pose for me, but then they insisted on grabbing a shot of the photographer (but no way I post that, I’m still sensitive about losing my youthful looks)

Malawians are fun and friendly, and unlike so many “friendly” people around the world, they don’t first think of how they can sell you something, or otherwise separate you from your cash.  For example, while walking along a rural road, I was stopped several times by locals who simply wanted to chat for a few minutes.  This never happens in America believe me.  I at first thought it was because I was white, but then I started noticing this happening between the locals as well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The image below was captured at Mayoka Village, a nice place popular with backpackers that is right on Lake Malawi at Nkhata Bay.  The staff were a happy bunch, and one night we had a pizza party.  While the tourists partied in the bar above, I stayed below with staff, steps from the warm waters of the lake, as they had a ball making pizza and playing with the camera.  I learned how to play bow, the game you see everyone playing with small stones and a wooden board of small depressions.  Sometimes it’s best to avoid your fellow travelers I’ve found, since almost all of them will naturally avoid contact with locals, no matter how much they claim otherwise.

A Malawi-style pizza party in Nkhata Bay, along the shores of beautiful Lake Malawi.

 

The day before I left Malawi, I stayed at a pension-style place in Mzuzu, and this lovely young woman, a friend of the owner, was there.  I asked to take her picture, and she grew shy and uncertain.  But then after I shot a few, she began to open up, and that’s putting it mildly.  She became a fashion model before my eyes, and we moved into the garden as she assumed many stylish poses, constantly flashing that huge Malawi smile.  I felt fortunate to have made the spur of the moment decision to come here (it was not in the original plan), and realized I would miss it dearly.  If you are planning to go to Zambia, or another nearby country, do not miss the opportunity.  Stay and play by the lake, go up on the Nyika, and enjoy the genuine warmth of Malawians.

Yet another smiling Malawian, in a garden at Mzuzu in northern Malawi.

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