Into the great Etosha National Park

We had heard so much about Etosha that by the time we arrived there we no longer knew what to expect:

“You have to just camp by a waterhole the whole day – it’s the only way to see things in Etosha.”

“All the game is hidden, nobody is seeing anything there any more.”

“Etosha has the best game in Southern Africa.”

“The campsites are awful and there are too many people.”

There’s only one thing to do when you hear such diverging opinions about a place: go there and see for yourself. So that’s what we did.

We took the road north-west from Maun, Botswana and crossed into Namibia at the base of the Zambezi Strip (previously the Caprivi strip but they changed the name a couple of years ago just to keep tourists on their toes.) The road out of Botswana was deceptive. At first we were cruising along at 120kph when out of nowhere the road disappeared into a bottomless pothole. Cheryl didn’t see it in time. Or the next one. Then I didn’t see a couple after that. We needed an alignment. It was described by the technician when we took it in as “Bad, real baaaaad.” Glad we got it fixed.

We spent a night in Rundu, Namibia where we stayed at the Kaisosi river lodge. We only pulled in pretty late so we didn’t see much of the river but we did enjoy our own shower and toilet for a change. Good place for a quick stop.

After getting the alignment in Rundu and doing a few errands we drove on to Tsumeb and stayed at a great campsite that was more of a resort called Kupferquelle. We did all of our shopping except when I needed to get propane to fill up our cylinder the next day the two shops in town were closed. It was explained to me that, even though it was indeed mid-week it was “like a Sunday” because it was a public holiday so the shops were closed. Classic. This is why we got two gas cylinders in the first place even when people said we only needed one. Stick to your guns. Cheryl did get some work done that she needed to do that day though and we were soon dashing off at full speed towards Etosha National Park.

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There was a line (read: one car in front of us) at the entrance gate so we got out and had a quick selfie with the sign.

We arrived in Etosha three things immediately stood out to us:

1. There were paved roads.

  • It turned out that just the entrance roads from the main gate were paved. Most of the roads in Etosha are dirt roads but they are extremely well maintained. The speed limit in the park is the fastest I’ve seen anywhere at 60kms an hour and there were multiple times that we found ourselves pushing this limit in order to get to a waterhole in the morning. What a difference to the flooded, overgrown, pothole-ridden, mud-filled roads we’d been driving on in other parks.

2. The staff was rather rude.

  • The staff here have to deal with a lot more people then the other parks we went to. These tourists are probably also more demanding. I guess I’m not surprised they have bad days every now and then. It was just a shock after everyone else we’ve encountered so far on our trip has been overly friendly.

3. There were a lot of people.

  • Coming from a bunch of parks where we saw barely anyone, especially when camping in the remote campsites in Zimbabwe and the Central Kalahari, it was a disturbing to see so many cars on the road. That said, it wasn’t as crowded as, say, Kruger and definitely nowhere near the Pilanesberg but there were a lot of cars. All in all though we found there was space on the roads so we didn’t have a lot of “traffic jams” except for a couple of times when we were at sightings of exceptional animals that were rather stationary (e.g. some cheetah by the side of the road.) We were often lucky enough to be at these early to get a good spot though and the roads were often big enough for everyone to see.

Overall, the positives of Etosha definitely far outweighed the negatives for us. The campsites, though quite cramped and rather uninspiring, were well kept and all had lovely waterholes with interesting game coming around. Speaking of game, we had some great sightings! Lots of lion, rhino, cheetah and a leopard. On top of all of the other great game like black-faced impala, ostrich, elephants, massive herds of zebra, a honey badger; we saw a ton. (For a list of all noteworthy sightings see below.)

Every day we got up and out the gate of the camp as soon as they were open and drove straight to a waterhole which we would choose the night before. Once there we would just wait. Two mornings we were greeted by a pride of lions when we arrived. Even on our way to the waterholes we would see lion (the big male crossing the road below is one such example), hyena and lots of other great game. The trick was to enjoy them but not for too long so you still get to the waterhole before the crowds of tourists in rental vehicles and safari buses get there. This way you stake your claim to a great spot and just sit and enjoy without having to jostle for space later on.

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Cheryl spotted this guy 100 m off the road and he proceeded to walk right in front of us. 

Our best sighting at a morning waterhole was a pride of lions clearly playing with each other. After an hour or so we even saw a live kill! Mind you it wasn’t what either of us expected a live kill to be. The adult male was going off to have a look at a crane or some other big bird but gave up and sauntered back to the pride. Out of the blue he pounced and as he came up he had a small korhan (bird that lives in the grass and makes lots of noise as you drive past) in his jaws. It was really fun to see. He definitely did not want to share the bird with the others but he kept getting a bunch of feathers stuck in his mouth. Then he played keep-away from the younger male and a female until he eventually he gave up on eating it entirely. How cool!

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Playing early in the morning

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This bird was his and he wasn’t sharing!

Besides the lions, my favorite part about Etosha was the waterhole at Okakuajo camp. It is a floodlit waterhole with a fence on one side to keep the people in the camp (and maybe some animals out.) Almost every night it is visited by rhinoceroses and elephants looking for a drink. We wound up spending two nights at this camp (due to an on-the-fly change from 2 nights in Olifantsrus to only 1 night so we could go back to the Okakuajo waterhole.) At one point on our second night we saw 6 rhino at one time at the waterhole. One of them was a bit belligerent and clearly didn’t like that some other rhinos had the audacity to drink water at the same time as him and we got to witness an intense stand-off with a lot of grunting and charging. I can’t imagine that I’ll have another opportunity to see something like this so I took hundreds of photos (most of which are extremely blurry because I had to have a long shutter speed but luckily rhino have a high propensity to stand still and play like a rock for a while) and we stayed to enjoy them for hours.

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Mama rhino and her baby.  Notice they cut off some of the rhino horns, like this female’s.  We think it was an anti-poaching method since it doesn’t hurt the rhino this way.

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Two rhinos with a lot of grunting and harumphing.  Eventually one got bored but not after a few charges. It was too dark to capture any of the charges nicely though.

Day 0:

Didn’t see much as we entered the park a bit late and had to drive back to the main gate to sort out that we reside in South Africa so are supposed to pay less then residing in ‘foreign’ which was the other option (besides, of course, Namibia). Still did see some nice plains game on the side of the tar road though.

Day 1:

Jackals playing, lots of black-faced impala, giraffe, honey badger, hyena, eland, steenbok, a couple elephants, and of course zebra, kudu, springbok etc.

Day 2:

11 lions, jackals, 3 cheetah (and a missed kill), lots of elephants, 5 rhino, lots of different birds (I’ve turned into quite a “birder by convenience” as Cheryl calls me. I’m interested in birds when there’s not something else interesting to see. Sounds about right.) and of course all of the other good stuff.

Day 3:

More rhino, hyena eating, 1 big male lion crossing road right in front of us, 7 additional lion just lazing around, leopard, and a really cool waterhole experience with giraffe, zebra and a rhino all trying to drink at the same time.

Day 4:

Tons and tons and tons of elephants, 3 more lion (another solitary male and 2 females), lots of cool kudu and herds of zebra and of course the great rhino experience I described above.

Day 5:

Got up early to head straight out of the park. Took a quick waterhole stop and saw a few jackals. No big bang hurrah to say goodbye but we left with great memories from the previous days.

Next stop: Swakopmund!

Let the updates roll!

I know there haven’t been any updates in a while.  I keep getting reminded by email and Whatsapp (It’s great to know at least some people are reading this besides my mom!)  We’ve had some very slow and intermittent internet (and no internet or cell phone for 7 days in the middle there but that’s a story for later) but it just hasn’t been fast enough to make any updates.  It turns out the wordpress.com website that I am using to power this blog is quite a cumbersome website and makes fun of me when I try to connect on a slow connection.

This morning, back in Rundu, I find myself on a decent connection and ready to upload.  The first post today will be about Etosha National Park.  We were there almost 2 weeks ago now so it is a bit old but still worth relating.

From there we made a quick stop in Swakopmund before embarking on a 6 night adventure of Tolkien-esque proportions.  This is a tale so legendary that it can not be told in one blog post.  In fact, each day was so unique and exceptional that it must be told in 6 separate posts.  We encountered mud, water, sand, dry desert, lush gardens, steep rocky slopes, flowing plains, massive herds of oryx, springbok and zebra, and desert-adapted lions and elephants.  All this in 6 days through the desert.  6 nights without electricity and water (let alone internet or cell phone coverage.)  6 nights in the true wilderness.

But first, Etosha and Swakopmund.

I hope you enjoy.

A mokoro trip into the Okavango Delta

We bid goodbye to Morris and Gill and they headed north into Chobe while Cheryl and I headed south back to Maun. We had quite a few things to sort out like our accommodation, our trip into the Okavango, and a new deep cycle battery (that powers our fridge and lights when the car is off.) We got the first two figured out rather easily but we did stop in at quite a few places before making the decision about who we’d go with on the Mokoro into the Delta (we went with Old Bridge Backpackers, the very place we got a quote from months before, shouldn’t have even shopped around!)

The battery turned out to be a bit more difficult. It started out easy. We went to THE place in town that everyone recommends for all things overlanding, Riley’s Garage, and purchased a battery. So far, so good. I even had a guy give me rough directions as to how it should be installed to avoid shocking myself. Easy stuff! Well, not so easy. It turns out the box we have to hold the battery is only 33cm wide. We bought a 34cm wide battery. And it is the only one they have. Of course I didn’t figure this out until I had everything out of the car and trying to fit in the new battery.

Since it was just after 4pm (and everything in Maun closes at 5pm, latest) we beat it around town to see if we could get a new battery that fits before taking the original one back. Supaquick had only the same as Riley’s. However, Midas proved to have the golden battery touch and had what we were looking for. We got back to Riley’s at 5:01pm and I squeezed through the front door as the guard was trying to lock it. The manager wasn’t happy to end the day with a high cost return but we were finally sorted. Well, except for installing the new one but that turned out to be fairly simple actually.

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I wasn’t a happy camper when I realized the new batter wasn’t the same size as the old one.

We spent the next full day in Maun doing odds and ends that needed doing. We washed our clothes, Cheryl did some work, I shopped for our food for in the Okavango etc. We had an early start the next day so decided to forgo the late night party and head to bed.

The mokoro trip into the Okavango was great in some ways and a disappointment in others. This types of trips are really made or broken solely because of the guide that you get. On this trip, we unfortunately got a guide that couldn’t communicate very well in English and we had some early miscommunications that set a strage tone for the trip. He was also altogether just a bit of an oddball which didn’t help things either. One of the biggest miscommunications is that we weren’t told that we were expected to provide him all of his food and since he couldn’t communicate with us very well it got a bit awkward. We had brought enough food to share dinners because it seemed like the best thing to do but hadn’t planned on sharing breakfast and lunches really.

Despite the difficulty in communication, we made the most of the trip and enjoyed the time we had in the Delta. We spent 3 days and 2 nights in there, spending the heat of the day in camp playing cards, reading, napping and all of those good things. We cooked over an open fire, boiled water from the Delta to cook with (and drink sometimes) – real bush living. As part of the trip we went for a couple of nice walks on some islands through the bush and had a sunset mokoro cruise. You really can’t go wrong. Even if the guide can’t explain what you are seeing when walking. It was great.

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Before we set off into the delta.

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The path for the mokoros was often very narrow. Had to watch out for spiders all in the reeds but we were assured they weren’t poisonous. That point we made sure we understood!

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Cheryl on one of our walks

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Riding in the Mokoro with our guide.

 

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Selfie on the sunset cruise

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The lilly-pad flowers were really interesting. We learned that they open up throughout the day and close again at night time. This one was in the process of closing as the sun was setting.

We decided to come back to Maun early on our last day (options were 9am or 4pm, the difference being another bush walk but given the communication issues we decided to come back to get last things done in town.) We did some food shopping and booked accommodation for the next couple of nights on our way into Namibia. (This wound up being for naught as we decided to drive further the first day and cancel the reservations anyway…)

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Time for a quick hair cut trim around the ears. The wine was necessary!

Next main stop: Etosha National Park – Namibia!

Dipping into Moremi Game Reserve

After our stop in Maun our next destination was Moremi. Moremi is in northern Botswana bordered to the east by the Okavango Delta and to the west by Chobe National Park. The surrounding areas are also all protected areas so game is renowned to be plentiful in this park. Throughout our travels we’d heard that it was extremely difficult to see game in Moremi because the vegetation was too thick and that all the cool animals were in Chobe given the strange weather patterns this year. We easily dismissed these with the knowledge that, even though it may have been a professional guide who told us this, we’ve each got eyes so certainly we’d be able to see more then them for sure.

Well, maybe not. After our first game drive in the park our spirits were high. We saw a bunch of game after all. All buck with the occasional buffalo but if the food was there, we were sure predators would be there as well.

No such luck. After 5 days of searching we had a very quick sighting of a lion cub but that was about it from the cats. I did get a good picture of it though. And of course we saw the massive herd of elephants that I already posted about.

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Lion cub. A bit far but he was definitely staring back at us.

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We still enjoyed the game drives, even if we didn’t have many epic sightings.

Despite the few animals, we still thoroughly enjoyed our 5 nights in the park. We spent 3 at Southgate (you guessed it, in the south of the park) and 2 at Xakanaxa (said with a ‘click’ wherever there’s an x) in the northern part of the park. We were in a nice, relatively secluded campsite at Southgate while the campsite at Xakanaxa was on the main road to the lodge so we had safari vehicles driving past us for the better part of the day. Still a great spot next to a reed-filled river though. Most people don’t spend more then a night at Southgate since there is typically less game in that part of the park. For us, however, that’s where we saw the most game.

Camping in Southgate and Xakanaxa

As we drove into the park we noticed a bunch of vultures circling and a small road off to the side that looked like it led right to where they were casting their gaze. Perfect! As we drove down the road we noticed 100s more vultures. In trees. On rocks. On the ground. On a big rock, oh wait, no, that’s a dead elephant. No predator around but just a dead small elephant. It was fairly fresh as it hadn’t started to smell yet. (Unlike a couple of days later when we went back and made the mistake of having our windows down as we drove up. Multi-day-old dead elephant stench is disgusting it turns out…). We waited around for the predator to come back but it never did. Not sure how the elephant died but it was really neat to see so many vultures in one place.

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Vultures on a dead elephant

The real highlight of Moremi was that Morris and Gill taught Cheryl and I how to play Bridge. Although the card game is more popular with a certain generation we played multiple times and really enjoyed the game. I personally like that whoever is playing gets to play their partner’s hand as well and everyone gets to see it. Makes the game so much more strategic.

Perhaps the most memorable moment during game drives in Moremi was the water crossings. In Southgate we came across a few water crossings that we decided not to attempt since we were a lone vehicle and there were few trees around them to hook our winch to if something happened. In Xakanaxa that all changed. We watched a safari vehicle head through a water crossing and immediately decided to follow suit. Sure it was a bit higher then we were but we’ve got a snorkel. Boy am I glad we did too. Water came up as high as the hood of our Hilux but she made it through swimmingly.

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This water crossing made us nervous. It was just child’s play compared to what we would be doing by the time we were out of the park. The issue with this one was the mud underneath, it went on past where we could see the end and there were no trees close enough to winch ourselves out if things got bad.

Here’s the link to a video of our bigger crossing. Stops before the big splash on the hood but you get the idea.

For our last night with Morris and Gill we are camping outside the park to the East. They drive north to Chobe the next day and Cheryl and I return to Maun where we prepare for a few days in the Okavango Delta, transported via Mokoro (dugout canoe). When we came across water today we went through it with much more confidence then when we first saw water on our path. Nothing can hold us back now!

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This one we were (fairly) sure was safe to cross. It was!

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The rive is called the Khwai river. This is literally the bridge over the river Khwai, just the Botswana version.

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Posing with our Hilux in our last campsite.

Photo with Morris and Gill our last night together. This was the reason I was allowed to keep the tripod.

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Practising our newly learned bridge skills our last night together.

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Cheryl and her mom.

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Cheryl and her dad.

Elephant Encounters

This post is about exhilarating elephant encounters. The first one happened in the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park and the second in Moremi. One is about a single bull, the other about a massive herd. Both are about being a little too close for staying in our normal comfort zone.

Encounter 1:

Soon after we got to see 3 elephants playing in the river and mud a separate group of 4 came quickly down the hill next to us and plunged immediately into the water. Instead of playing and crossing the river the way the first group had, a large bull left the group and started walking toward us. From 30 or so meters he walked out of the water and got to 20, 15, 10 meters away. We were stuck. He was looking straight at us. If we turned on the cars he would get angry and most likely charge. That would require us reversing (uphill) faster than a charging elephant (up to 40 kph). Not likely to turn out so well for us. We stayed put.

He kept getting closer and closer. 5 meters away he started angling to the side. Constantly staring at us he came around up the hill slightly so that he was now towards the driver side of our car. I was positioned between an intense elephant on one side and my in-laws on the other side. I motioned that if he charges I am driving forward. Fast. Morris and Gill frantically waved “NO!!!” thinking that I was motioning to turn on the car and drive now. I wasn’t that naive.

I had one hand on the ignition, turned one notch short of starting the car. It was in gear and ready to go. If there was charge I was going as fast as possible straight ahead (trying to avoid driving straight into the river in the meantime). I stole a quick glance at Cheryl knowing that she is quite nervous around elephants (and for good reason.) Her head was buried in her arms. This was probably best.

As the elephant continued ever so slowly around the vehicle he suddenly got annoyed.. His trunk went up, his ears went out. He wasn’t happy. My heart was pounding. My jaw clenched. My stomach knotted.

“This is it!” I thought.

Still no charge.

We stayed still.

For 10 agonizing minutes (+ or – a few) the elephant slowly made its way past our vehicles. For some of the time I could only see him in the side mirrors. At one point he disappeared completely into the blind spot directly behind me since our rear-view is blocked. My heart never stopped pounding. My hand never left the ignition.

Eventually he made his way to the river on the other side and continued as if nothing happened. We could breathe at last. Phew. The only sad part is I have no photos to commemorate the occasion. Silly me for not thinking of that in the moment.

Encounter 2

On a rather slow morning game drive through Moremi we were exploring one final area when we came across a massive herd of elephants. On the way past the elephants were all well away from the road and we drove slowly past with taking the requisite number of photos. As we drove we saw the herd kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger. Overall we estimated over 150 elephant. Amazing! There was no where for us to get above them to take a picture of just how many there were though so we continued on our way.

After leaving the herd the road we were on ended in a pond. The GPS told us there was a road there but with all the rain that this part of the world has received this year, the road had turned into a pond. Being a single vehicle we decided not to cross, opting to turn around and head home for breakfast.

We were on the lookout for elephants knowing that the herd was close by but they were soon closer then we anticipated. As we turned a corner there was a nice bull right in front of us on the road. Time to reverse. Oh wait, now there’s an elephant behind us. Go forward again. Nope! I guess we stay still. Wait, there’s an elephant just to our left. And now one’s approaching on the right. We had to stay put. Sitting in the middle of a massive herd of elephant will make you feel small and powerless in a way that doesn’t happen too often. Really cool to see them group together.

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Can’t go forward…

Unlike the encounter before, this time the car was never off. Most of the time the elephants didn’t seem the least bit perturbed by us (except once when I tried to inch forward a bit too quickly.) They were moving at their own pace (read: slowly) but eventually a large enough gap opened up in the herd that we could slip through without bothering anyone.

Back through Makgadikgadi and Nxai Pans

We left the CKGR with Cheryl and I once again deciding to take the long route through the park from Motopi in the NW and out the Matswere gate on the NE side by Rakops instead of the much shorter route in the park and along the tar road around to the north. We did this under the auspices of being able to bring the remaining meat from South to North but Morris and Gill not being able to bring meet from North to South due to the presence of a vet fence. These vet fences are throughout Botswana and Namibia and are in place to inhibit the spread of foot and mouth disease which crops up from time to time in the north but not in the south. Morris and Gill went via the north (Tsau gate) and through Maun where the filled up on diesel and other provisions before we met up again at Tiaans camp just to the east of the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park.

Cheryl and I had driven through this smaller park on our way to the CKGR because our original route to the west was flooded and not passable so we already had a good idea of where we wanted to explore. We had a bit of a relaxed morning then took the ferry across the river and into the park. We had a leisurely drive up the river until we found a nice shady spot with a great view where we had seen some elephants come down to drink when we last came through.

After sitting for a few minutes our spot did not disappoint as a trio of elephants came down the hill 30 meters or so from us to drink and play in the water. It was really special to see them swimming, rolling in the mud, spraying dust on themselves to protect their skin from the mud and generally having a jolly good time. As they got out on the far bank of the river another male elephant came down from that side and they clearly greeted each other by lifting their trunks and lightly touching them together. After doing this with the first two elephants, that new elephant then galloped (do elephants gallop?) to the third and smallest one in the group and was clearly playing with him. We later read in Morris and Gill’s guide book that old bull elephants often have good relationships with groups of younger males and acts almost as a mentor while they provide him with additional strength for protection. We think this is what we were witnessing. Amazing to see.

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Elephants drinking

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Swimming with a natural snorkel

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Nothing beats a mud bath on a hot afternoon after a refreshing dip

Shortly after this another group of 4 elephant came down to the river the same way the first group had. We thought we were in for another show at a reasonable distance but a large bull had another idea in mind for us. (You’ve got to read the other post titled “Elephant Encounters” to read about this heart-pounding moment as well as our drive through a massive herd of >150 elephants.)

After our encounter Cheryl and I continued along the river while Morris and Gill went back to get their trailer. We had plans to meet in Nxai Pan for the evening but on the road out of Makgadikgadi we noticed that the sand was getting extremely deep so we did a u-turn to find Morris and Gill and make sure they could get through. They have a lower clearance then us, especially with their trailer, so it seemed like a good idea to make sure they’d make it. After finding them we left in convoy and sure enough, right before the place Cheryl and I decided to turn around the Fortuner started slowing down in the thick sand and got stuck. Weighed down by a trailer the spare wheel decided to dig itself in. How rude.

Unfortunately we hadn’t thought through our rescue mission entirely and we were behind them on a single track road so pulling them out wasn’t immediately possible. Down on our knees and digging in the sand we tried in vain for multiple attempts to get them out. Morris and Gill got in on the digging fun too but still no success. We were able to get the vehicle forward a few meters though, just enough space for me to put Fiona in low-gear and drive up and around on a sand dune to get in front of them. Being well prepared, I whipped out my snatch-strap (only 50% sure that was the right one to use) and proceeded to hook it up to both vehicles with great bravado. A quick acceleration and a big jolt when the strap got taught and they came right out of there. Thank goodness for second-hand recovery kit I purchased before heading out on the trip.

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Digging out of the sand

After that we had no incidents on our way through to Nxai Pan National Park. Nxai Pan is essentially the same park as the Makgradikgadi Pans National Park, just across the main road, so you don’t need to pay for entry again. Well, not in monetary terms. Your payment is a lovely 30km drive along corrugated sand roads that make using a jack hammer sound like it might be a pleasurable experience. We only got into the park quite late (thanks in part to our earlier fun in the sand) so all we had time to do was set up camp and light the braai before the sun went down.

Despite the aggressive road, the most remarkable part about Nxai Pan was that it was rather unremarkable really. Their waterhole was unfortunately not full of water so we even opted to sleep in rather than embark on a game drive in the morning.

Before leaving the park, we decided to check out Baines Baobabs, an island of baobab trees famous because the view was painted by some guy named Baine over 150 years ago and they still look the same today except one lost a branch at some point along the way. A mere 18km detour (each way) and we were there. We snapped off a couple of pictures and moved along. It was on this drive that we developed the potentially soon-to-be patented “Hendrickson Model for Travel Decision Making” which will be discussed in another post. Stay tuned.

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The famous Baines Baobabs

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Baines Baobabs – Been there, done that, took the selfie

A night in Maun allowed us to stock up on provisions and I uploaded a few blog posts. We were off to Moremi the following day.

Epic sightings in the CKGR!

Now it’s off to the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR). This is a massive reserve right in the center of Botswana. If you look at a map of the country you can’t miss it. It’s about the same size as Portugal in total. Yet, in that whole area there are only around 50 campsites and they are all tucked away on their own away from other people. There is no running water or electricity at any of the campsites but they do set up a long-drop toilet (read: hole in the ground with a toilet over it, kind of gross) and a place to hook up a bucket for a shower if you bring enough water. It forms a major part of the larger Kalahari region and is mostly sandy ground. It is an arid landscape but is covered with grasses, bushes and small trees so the bush itself is quite thick. The antelope in this park are all varieties that don’t need much water and we’ve seen thousands of oryx and springbok. But those aren’t why we came. We came because of its reputation for big cats. Lots of big cats.

We set off for the CKGR nice and early after filling up our drinking water and lashing some wood to the top of the Hilux for our braais and fires while we are in the reserve. With 5 days of remote camping we need ~8-10 liters of water per day for Cheryl and I but that’s if we don’t want to shower. We brought 100 liters. Way more then enough. We plan to take a showers or two.

We were less then 20 kms off the tar road when we stopped for the first time. Morris and Gill’s trailer lost a diesel jerry can. Got it back on and tied it down and we were off again. 10 kms later and we stop to check to make sure it’s all good. Now the spare tire is missing. After a scouting mission we got the spare back and we were on our way again. Luckily the trailer had all of its dirt road wobbles in the first 30 kms. It’s been working great since.

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Morris and Gill driving in front of us to make sure nothing else falls off

Once in the park the first night’s game drive was already spectacular. 2 cheetah and a male/female lion pair. It was quite dark at this point already so the photos didn’t turn out very well but not to worry. The next morning Cheryl and I got out early as the sun rose and found the cheetahs again. It turns out there were three. This time they hung out right in the road with us and we had them all to ourselves for over 45 minutes. Phenomenal. We even came across another pair of cheetahs later that morning. The CKGR is living up to its reputation for big cats already and we’re only 24 hours in.

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A bit dark but a great time with this lion

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The mom cheetah stayed on watch as the two (almost fully grown) cubs played and lay around

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The two cubs just plopped down in the road in front of us

The next day the four of us (Cheryl, Me, Morris and Gill) piled into Fiona (our Hilux is named Fiona) and decided to take a longer drive down to some further away water holes because there are only a few in the entire park. The water holes themselves are a bit pathetic but that was all right with us given what we saw on the way there. Two more cheetah. A lioness literally lying on top of her kill. Two leopards crossing the road right in front of us. And many other interesting things. For all of the big cats we were the only people there to see them. We stopped back at the lioness later in the day on our way back from the waterhole and she was still just laying there, obviously very full. What a day.

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Cheryl’s eagle eyes spotted these leopards. They got up and decided to cross the road right in front of us.

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She literally fell asleep on her kill. Not interested in us in the slightest.

With that great of a morning we decided to relax in the afternoon and make another poitjie stew. We toasted in celebration over a nice fire and went to bed early because we had a long drive the next day.

Cheryl and I scooted out early because we decided to take the 145km route to our next campsite, Motopi 2, in the Northwest corner of the park. The mantra for our trip has quickly developed into: if there is an option with something interesting that is a bit longer, we’ll probably take it. (More on deciding if a detour is worth it in another post.) Morris and Gill were going a bit straighter of a route that would only take ~100kms. We came across another set of Cheetah (I have hundreds of cheetah photos at this point) but didn’t see much else the rest of the day.

I write this post our last night in the park. We get up before the crack of dawn tomorrow for a long drive out of the park and back to the Makgadikgadi pans. Right now Cheryl and her mom are locked in an epic battle of the wits where they make up funny words and put them on a board with wooden letters all while huffing and puffing and cursing the gods for giving them such bad letters. I think they call it scrabble. Morris is packing.

 

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Girls playing scrabble. Morris was packing in the background.

Overall we’ve stayed at 3 different campsites in CKGR. For those interested they were Sunday 2, Kori 4 and Motopi 2. The set-ups are all the same. Braai pit, bucket shower, long-drop toilet. Not much to speak in terms of amenities but we didn’t come here to collect little bars of soap and tiny bottles of shampoo. We came for the isolation. And it is glorious.

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Quiet campsite in the CKGR

The road to the Central Kalahari

We really enjoyed our time in Zimbabwe where we really felt like we were on our own in the wild. We bid goodbye as we drove out of Hwange. I really wanted a photo with the entrance sign since I forgot to take one on the way in. As we got to the gate I remembered that I hadn’t forgot. The sign was blank. Nicely painted. But blank. So we took a picture overlooking the bush and called it good. Onto Botswana.

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The entrance to Hwange National Park.

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Saying goodbye to Zimbabwe.

The boarder was a breeze and we drove south through Nata and onto Gweta where we stayed at Planet Baobab just north of the Makgadikgadi pans. The first thing we noticed after filling up with diesel was how well the shops were stocked. Even the little shop at the gas station had more food then the markets in Zim. And it was half the cost.

We next noticed just how many tourists were around. Every other car seemed to be a kitted out camping vehicle with the logo of a rental company boldly emblazoned on the hood and both sides. We realized just how off the beaten path we were in Zim. Not so in Botswana, at least on the main roads. Though there are elephants on the main roads. Lots of them. They even put up elephant crossing signs to let you know. We were going 120kph when elephants decided to cross in front of us. Luckily we saw them in plenty of time.

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We were warned about elephant crossing despite the 120kph speed limit

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The signs weren’t joking

After a big shop and a stop for fast food in Nata (needed after 18 days in the bush) we continued onto Planet Baobab. Just like in Zim we had to push on the breaks. A “drive slow” sign was posted on the side of the road, followed by “be careful.” Not sure what that means. Around a corner (on a main tar road with a 120kph speed limit) the road disappeared. In front of us was just mud and water. Now it makes sense why we hadn’t seen any other cars coming the other way in a while.

After looking at it for a while we noticed a tow truck sitting nearby so I went up and chatted to the driver. “It’s too deep and muddy, you could get stuck” he said. “I’ll put you on the flatbed and drive you across though…”. (For a hefty fee, he implied. We later learned somebody paid an extremely high price for this service)

I got back in the Hilux and said to Cheryl “They said they could tow us across. But if they can drive across then we can too. We’ve got a snorkel and 4-wheel drive.” Let’s do this.

Just before taking off a big truck rumbled down the road. They were going to do it too. We let them go first.

“Their tires are so big, is it OK for us?” Cheryl asked.

“No problem” I calmly responded. I had no clue.

We took off in 4-low through the mud but quickly hit solid road. Well, solid below tire-deep water. We didn’t even need our snorkel. This was easy. Though we were happy to have the truck in front of us as the water went on and on. If you went off the road that would have been bad. Then it would get real. Staying on the solid ground was fine for us. This time. It took some time but soon enough we were out the other side and waving goodbye to the truck that guided us.

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Is it safe to cross?

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Following behind the truck.

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We were “well warned” thanks to the signs…

Planet Baobab is a lovely backpackers with campsites and chalets tucked amongst, you guessed it, baobabs. The individual camp sites have a thatched shaded area and electricity to charge our electronics. After another hot shower we were feeling great. It was there that the internet let me down and I couldn’t upload the blog posts I had been hoping to but we cut our losses, found the only “butcher” in town and drove on. We were meeting Morris and Gill (Cheryl’s parents) that night in Rakops, an hour outside the Central Kalahari Game Reserve.

As per our mantra, we decided to go the long way and turned off the tarred road to drive through the Makgadikgadi Pans national park. A lazy winding river brought us passed plenty of game and out the other side. A simple ferry crossing later (this water was just too deep) and we were back on tar driving 120kph towards our reunion.

We arrived at Rakops River Lodge to hugs, kisses and beers and we spent the night chatting through all of our stories.

Into CKGR tomorrow!

Animals of Hwange

Hwange is really wild. You aren’t allowed out of your car at this park but even if you did get out the animals would all runaway before you got anywhere near them anyway. You really feel like you’re in Zimbabwe the way Zimbabwe used to be before any development hit. There are times that you drive through the park, the grass is above your car on either side and even down the center of the track that makes you questions the essence of what it means to call something a “road.” At any moment an elephant could charge out of the reeds next to you and you’d never see it until it was right in front of you. Then again, it is too afraid of the noise of the car. It is long gone before you get anywhere close to it.

Despite the car-high grass at times and a few cases of disappearing roads (or roads where bridges inexplicably collapsed but it still somehow finds a way around) we did see some animals while we were here.

Hwange is known for its massive amount of elephants (over 40,000 by official counts) and the elephants certainly did not disappoint. We saw herds upon herds of the largest land mammals. Eating, drinking, playing, scared, angry, pooping, running, walking, young, old. We saw it all when it comes to elephants. All except reproducing I guess. That one remains on the elephant bucket list even after this park…

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Elephants using the road to get where they need to go

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Two young elephants playing at a waterhole

Besides elephants we of course saw the usual suspects of buck: impala, zebra, wildebeast, waterbuck, kudu and all of their antelope friends. Typically we saw their butts as they charged off away from us but I was certainly able to add to my photo count with some great pictures of things other than elephants. And don’t forget the giraffe, crocs, buffalo, jackal, warthogs, ostrich and birds upon birds upon birds upon birds. Now that we’ve got a professional bird book we could even name a few of them.

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Giraffe looking dapper

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Jackal posing nicely

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Lilac breasted roller hanging out

We didn’t get to see any of the large cats (not yet at least, we still have this evening and tomorrow’s drive out of the park) but Michael and Lisa did spot 3 cheetah on their way out of the park yesterday morning. I guess our bad luck when it came to big cats trumped their good luck until they separated from us.

Not to disappoint though we did see some really cool and unique animals while we were here. Cheryl and I came across a caracal (small cat but totally awesome) on a mid-afternoon drive from one camp to another. Unfortunately this one will have to just live in our memories as I missed a photo of it. We approached an animal lying in the middle of the road and from afar it looked like a jackal. Since I already had 50 solid jackal pictures I decided not to force another one through a dusty windscreen and I left my camera off and on the seat next to me. As we got closer the animal got up, turned and snuck off into the woods. When we saw its profile it was clearly not a jackal. It was a caracal. Rarely seen. Always striking.

Our luck continued the next day when we came across 3 bat-eared foxes lounging and playing in the road. These don’t really live in South Africa so we had never come across them before. (One of the rangers called them Aardwolfs but we later figured out he was incorrect when we read up on them.) This time I didn’t wait to see what the animals on the road were as we saw them ahead of us and I snapped three shots through the dusty window. Not pretty but they are clearly visible.

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Bat-eared foxes hanging out in the road

Then, last night we were joined around the dinner table by two bush babbies hopping between the trees. It’s amazing how far those little critters can jump. Right before going to sleep we were also joined by a hyena trying to drink from the water remaining on the ground where we washed our dishes. It was dark but I got fuzzy photos of both. Count ‘em!

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Night time visit from a bush baby

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Hyena trying to drink from where we just washed our dishes

The last night we said something that I thought we would never say. “Gosh, these hyenas are annoying!” They kept coming to our camp to try and take our food. They ran away with tail tucked between their legs when shooed (the bright spotlight was also used once they got really annoying) and we quickly got over it when we just wanted to sit back and enjoy the enormous fire we had built to use up the last of our wood. Who would have thought?

Camping in Hwange

Hwange is a very large park situated in western Zimbabwe on the boarder with Botswana. It has three main camps in the park with many satellite camps and picnic sites scattered around them. Although people are able to visit these picnic sites during the day, if you book one for camping you have it all to your self at night. Naturally, we went for picnic sites.

When booking Hwange we knew nothing about the campsites that were there and what they were like. We left our fates in the hands of Christina and Choice from ZimParks and they picked us 3 of these picnic sites for the first 5 nights and Cheryl and I chose to stay in one of the larger main camps our last 2 nights. We worked our way from the South-East to the North-West of the park over the course of 7 nights.

We started by driving to the South-easternmost point in the park and camped at Ngweshla (spelling is different depending on who you ask.) Here we saw the largest herds of game, especially elephants. The site itself was great with Brian, the camp attendant, lighting a cooking fire for us (what luxury to have someone do this for you so its ready when you get back from your game drive!) He also lit a fire under the water heater so we could take hot showers. What service. There was a small fence around the campsite but I think this was more to keep the people in rather than any animals out. We really enjoyed Ngweshla and if you really forced us to do this trip again (like just saying “want to go again?”) we would spend more time at this camp. During the wet season (which we are just at the end of now) the game tends to be more plentiful in this area of the park. We didn’t know this at the time of booking so we only spent one night at this lovely spot.

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Herd of elephants on the way to Ngweshla

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Sunrise on my birthday at Ngweshla

From there we moved to Masuma Dam, more centrally in the park, for the next 3 nights. The site itself is more of a dirt parking lot with a braai area and some toilets on the other side but the locale boasts a beautiful hide overlooking a well-used waterhole. We spent most of our time there (when we weren’t cooking) in the hide and looking out over the water. We saw some great game there. During the dry season we were told this water hole sees up to 1000 elephants per day. Hard to believe but I’m not surprised it’s a high number. There was only one unfortunate part to this hide: it was so nice that during the day it was frequented by each of the 20 or so visitors that are currently staying in the park. (Yes, I am not exaggerating, we saw max 20 other visitors the whole time which is really unfortunate because you can see how such a beautiful park is not economically sustainable for the country and the people who live in its surrounds. Zimababwe in general is hurting for tourists but they don’t make it easy to be here. The sad part is that this will inevitably lead to the slow demise of the park, its facilities and the animals that live here if it continues.) All the people left after looking for animals but we didn’t have the isolation that we enjoyed to-date on the trip.

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Sundowners in the hide

Tents pitched for the night in the “parking lot”. You can see the thatch roof to the hide on the right and the dam itself between the two vehicle. Great view from the tents.

The third site we stopped at was Deteema Dam. We really enjoyed this site. When Cheryl and I first arrived we set up the awning and sat next to the dam enjoying some elephants drinking and playing. We cracked open a few beers and I penned a few of these posts. We spent most of our time outside the hide here because the fences that once prevented people from viewing the dam from other parts of the camp had long-since fallen down so we chose instead to stay in the comfort of our own set-up. We liked this place so much that Cheryl and I came back to spend the day a couple of days later. (Hence this post is being written…)

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Cheryl reading in the shade of our spot

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It wasn’t a hardship to sip a Zambezi lager and write these posts

The last site we stopped at was Robin’s camp. Upon arrival we were given the tour of the camp including a view from a fire tower which looks out over the whole park. Beautiful. In the visitor centre our host Prosper showed us some photos of 3 cheetahs that were taken that morning. He was very proud. He then showed us the book to show who had taken those photos. It was Michael and Lisa. They had left us that morning to begin their trip back to Joburg. We shook our heads in disbelief. Lucky devils.

Robins camp has a large campsite and some chalets. They claim to have a food store but the only ‘edible’ things there were some tinned sardines and canned beef that looked like it was from the 60s. We decided to pass and stick with our pasta for the evening. They did have a well stocked bar that was showing a Manchester United game though. We skipped the football but purchased some beers to enjoy while doing some clothes washing (needed after 16 days in the bush.)

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Clothes hanging to dry at our spot in Robin’s Camp

That evening was kind of eerie. We were the only people in the site (which had over 20 spots). It feels more eerie being in a large camp and being the only people vs. being in a remote campsite where you know you are the only ones. We also felt like we were part of a bad horror film when we went into the ablutions. Upon entering you were greeted with a loud bzzzz of mosquitoes. 100’s of them. Needless to say, we didn’t use the toilets or showers any more then we had to and when we did we made sure to put on a thick layer of bug spray first. Before showering I took my fly swatter and went to town. I barely made a dent. It was a quick shower.

Now we head out of Zimbabwe and into Botswana. Looking forward to the shops being full of groceries, the price of diesel decreasing by ~50% and the police road blocks stopping. Zimbabwe was a great experience and I place I would definitely love to return to. There were few other tourists and we really felt like we were “off the beaten path.” It’s sad how it has declined since it was known as the Breadbasket of Africa, but we hope that its fortunes will turn in the coming years.

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Beautiful spot overlooking the Salt Pan Dam