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Tswalu Kalahari and Phinda: August/September 2015


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For my first trip report, earlier this year about our jaunt to Peru, I procrastinated a full 5 months before getting up the gumption to proceed. There are so many fascinating reports posted by others, who are much more interesting and knowledgeable than I in just about every subject imaginable, that I always hesitate to take up space with my own stories. In fact, I had considered skipping a report altogether this time around.


However, given that we have two trips booked in 2016, and both center on places and accommodations that I would never have known about but for the generosity of other SafariTalkers who have taken the time and made great effort to report on their adventures, I felt that it would be hypocritical of me to do anything but dutifully outlay the highlights of our most recent trip.


There are some folks who can convey the spirit of their experiences with just photographs and a few well-chosen words. It is a talent for beautiful minimalism that, allow me to confess upfront, I do not possess. I am a man of words, and the English major in me simply will not allow me to leave well enough alone.


So, where do we begin? Ah, yes. The pangolin.


It all started with the pangolin -- or, to be more precise, our desire to see one.

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Our first safari was to the Timbavati and Sabi Sands Game Reserves in South Africa in September 2013. Flipping through our book, Field Guide to the Mammals of Kruger National Park, we found ourselves fascinated by the photograph of a pangolin, having no idea at the time of how rare a sighting is. So, on each successive drive, we jokingly began telling our guide that we wanted to see a pangolin. And with each pronouncement, the desire became more earnest. Unsurprisingly, while we had many wonderful, high-quality sightings on that trip, we did not see a pangolin. I suppose that was the point from which we began to plan our second African safari.


Given that our previous trip was concentrated on Kruger, I was interested to see what else South Africa had on offer. And it so happens that the Tswalu Kalahari Reserve in the Northern Cape province of South Africa, in to which the southern reaches of the vast Kalahari Desert extend, just happens to be one of the most likely places where one may come across a pangolin. During the winter months, temperatures in the Kalahari drop off rapidly once the sun sets, so much so that the chances of finding a pangolin and other elusive species like aardvark and aardwolf during the warmer daylight hours are increased.


Tswalu isn’t cheap. But my desire to see some of the desert specialties that we had not had the opportunity to experience in Kruger drove me to frugality in other aspects of my life, making a 4-night stay (with flights between the reserve and Cape Town or Johannesburg thrown in for free) a feasible achievement. And so it was on a cold, rainy Monday morning on the last day of August that we found ourselves in the Signature Aircraft hangar at Cape Town International Airport for our 2-hour flight to Tswalu inside a 7-passenger aircraft.

Edited by Alexander33
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Our itinerary for this trip was as follows (beginning August 27, 2015):


Day 1 – Depart Dallas (P.M.)

Day 2 – Arrive London (A.M.); Depart for Cape Town (P.M.)

Day 3 – Arrive Cape Town (Victoria & Alfred Hotel) (A.M.)

Day 4 – Cape Town

Day 5 – To Tswalu Kalarari Reserve

Day 6 – Tswalu

Day 7 – Tswalu

Day 8 – Tswalu

Day 9 – To Johannesburg; to Durban (uShaka Manor)

Day 10 – Durban

Day 11 – To Phinda Vlei (road transfer from Durban)

Day 12 – Phinda Vlei

Day 13 – Phinda Vlei

Day 14 – Phinda Vlei

Day 15 – Phinda Vlei

Day 16 – To Cape Town via Durban

Day 17 – Depart Cape Town (P.M.)

Day 18 – Arrive Dallas (P.M.)

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Kicking Things Off: Cape Town


We selected Cape Town as our African gateway because, quite simply, Cape Town is a lovely place to shake off jet lag. As expected, our morning arrival put us at our hotel before our room was ready for occupancy. Not a problem. We stowed our luggage, grabbed the camera back-pack, and high-tailed it to Kirstenbosch Gardens, Cape Town’s world-famous botanical gardens at the base of Table Mountain adjacent to Table Mountain National Park. The gardens are perhaps at their best from August through October, when the proteas for which they are renowned are blooming. My goal was to photograph sunbirds in the midst of the proteas, on whose nectar they feed, in particular the Orange-breasted Sunbird, which is endemic to the fynbos biome of the southern tip of the Cape.


Kirstenbosch Gardens, Cape Town





Unfortunately, over the course of two days, the Orange-breasted eluded us. In spite of this, we thoroughly enjoyed just being in the cool, fresh air of the gardens, surrounded by the dramatic peaks of Table Mountain and accented by the yellow, orange and red colors of the proteas and blooming birds-of-paradise. In this setting, any bird looks good, and we did have the opportunity to photograph Southern Double-collared Sunbirds, which were very numerous on this visit.









We also encountered the beautiful and less common Malachite Sunbird, Africa’s largest sunbird, the males of which were sporting their iridescent green and blue breeding plumage.











Cape Sugarbirds, another fynbos endemic, also made a welcome appearance, animatedly working their way through the protea bushes with their outlandishly long-streaming tail feathers.









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Of course, almost every other bird we came across was interesting to us, and many we had not seen before. (Or maybe we just hadn't noticed them before. They say that safaris can turn people into birdwatchers, and in our case, there's some truth to that. I fear I may be becoming one of those people).



Cape White-eye











Cape Robin-chat







Helmeted Guinea Fowl







Cape Bulbul





Cape Spurfowl





A Rock Kestrel soared above the treetops beneath the cliffs of Table Mountain, occasionally alighting in a tree to survey its surroundings a bit more close up.






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By the time Monday morning rolled around, we were thoroughly rested and relaxed and primed for the true start of our safari. Departing Cape Town International Airport in the early morning darkness and a cold headwind punctuated with light rain, our small aircraft made its way through clouds and turbulence to the Northern Cape. A little more than two hours later, we descended from the clouds and into the midst of a vast landscape of red sand, monumental dunes and ancient, eroded mountains punctuated by sage green vegetation. We would spend the next 5 days (4 nights) in an almost otherworldly landscape far different from what we had experienced in the lush Western Cape.





And, so, we will pause there for now. Like Robert Frost, who tells the reader in his poem Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, that he cannot linger, for, ".....I have promises to keep,/And miles to go before I sleep,/And miles to go before I sleep," I, too, now have promises to keep and thousands of photographs to go through before I sleep.

Edited by Alexander33
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Yes, some very cool birds there.


You've started very well and I am sorry to say it, but your argument that you were going to skip it because others wrote better reports is already looking really feeble.

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I am not one of THOSE people (birders) but those photos of the birds on the proteas are just gorgeous! really looking forward to more!

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@@Alexander33 Kirstenbosch really turned the birds on for you.


I really like all your photos from the Gardens.

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Great bird shots, Peter, love the Sunbirds! I feel your pain and fully understand about the worries of becoming "one of these people", it´s getting worse with we me as well. :)


Very glad you decided to do this TR, if I had known you had second thoughts about it I would have soundly told you off. I had been looking forward to this report ever since you mentioned going to Tswalu and Phinda, and I am very curious how you you fared in the Pangolin/Aardwark/Meerkat section.


So: Super pictures, super words - more please soon!

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Hello @@Alexander33 we always try to go to Kirstenboch when we visit Cape town-did you see the spooted Eagle Owls? the photo's are so good that we forgive you in advance for probably seeing aardvarks all over the place!!!

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I am very pleased you have decided to post this (an remember the nervousness of posting my first report).

The photos are beautiful, as is the writing - I look forward to the rest (after you have had your sleep!)

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A perfect start to a great trip report, @@Alexander33 . As for becoming "one of those" ... it is a very likely option! Looking forward for more, Cape Town + August + birds is a very inviting formula for us.

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@@Alexander33, I too am becoming "one of those people". Thanks for indulging me with your beautiful writing and photography.


I am really looking forward the red Kalahari sands. Like birding, it gets under your skin.

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Thanks, everyone, for joining along.


Those birds are stunning.


@@twaffle Coming from you, I consider that very high praise indeed, if not a bit unmerited. Those blown highlights in the proteas were an unending source of frustration, but with such beautiful subjects, it's hard to complain. I will just have to go back again for more practice!



Kirstenbosch really turned the birds on for you.


Cape Town + August + birds is a very inviting formula for us.


@@Treepol @@xelas Yes, for anyone visiting Cape Town, I heartily recommend a visit to Kirstenbosch. And for something a bit more rugged, Table Mountain National Park is immediately adjacent and accessible from the gardens. August through October are reported to be the best time to visit Kirstenbosch, as that is when the proteas are at their peaks. (But I could go anytime).



we always try to go to Kirstenboch when we visit Cape town-did you see the spooted Eagle Owls?


@@Towlersonsafari We did not see the owls. When we were there in 2013, we saw a sign posted by a large tree alerting us to the presence of their nest, but we didn't see them then either. And this time, there was no sign. In retrospect, I should have asked, as I would have loved to see them.

Edited by Alexander33
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I am really looking forward the red Kalahari sands. Like birding, it gets under your skin.


@@Peter Connan


That red sand does more than get under your skin. It gets under your toenails, too! My boots were no match for the sand. I had to have a foot bath every time we returned to the lodge. (I had forgotten about that. Funny how a comment can bring back obscure memories. Thanks.)

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Well, if you are becoming one of those people, at least you have a good eye (and lens) for it!

The sunbirds are stunning.

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Tswalu Kalahari


Although the morning we arrived was blustery and overcast, the weather gradually calmed.


Our aircraft on the Tswalu runway (actually taken on a few mornings later)





By the time we departed for our afternoon drive at 2:30, the wind had settled down and the clouds were higher in the sky, giving the red sands, the straw-colored grasses and sage shrubs a soft illumination. At more than 100,000 hectares, Tswalu is the second largest reserve in South Africa, trailing only Kruger National Park. We must have driven for 45 minutes, stopping along the way for this or that, and generally just getting a feeling of how broad and immense the Reserve truly is.


As is probably the case on everyone’s first day on safari, we wanted to stop and soak in just about everything. We spent time with some giraffes, which were much lighter in coloration than those we had seen in Kruger.









Taking advantage of the stop, our genial tracker, James, silently slid out of his seat at the front of the Land Rover and climbed into the front row next to our guide, Kalie, casting him with a knowing look. Something must be up.


It was a female cheetah (collared) and her three cubs on a springbok kill, probably taken that morning from the look of things.





Mom and the kids would relax for a spell, then go back to the table for seconds (or fourths), providing a perfect combination of the present (cute, fuzzy balls of fur) and the future (stealthy, hungry predators).

















The cubs lovingly groomed one another – or were they just going for “sloppy seconds?”







Kalie drew our attention to movement off to our left. A lone black-backed jackal was surveying the scene. He circled the area, keeping his eye on the prize while maintaining a respectful distance. Perhaps he was waiting on reinforcements before moving in.





We stayed with the cheetah family for perhaps an hour, then moved on as the light began to dim, the jackal lying in the grass nearby, ever hopeful.

Edited by Alexander33
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We stayed with the cheetah family for perhaps an hour, then moved on as the light began to dim a bit, the jackal lying in the grass nearby, ever hopeful. The remainder of our drive was fairly uneventful in terms of sightings, but just being outside in the midst of this landscape, its silence almost haunting, seeing the giraffes against the hills and plentiful antelope, many of which, such as oryx (or gemsbok), eland, sable, and roan, were new for us, was more than enough. (More about the different species of antelope later).













Kori bustard silhouette





We stopped for sundowners, and with the clouds that had been with us all day beginning to dissipate, enjoyed our first Kalahari sunset, complete with calls of the jackals in the distance rippling through the gentle breeze of an otherwise silent darkness.







On our drive back to the lodge that night, we saw our first springhares – so bizarre, almost a cross between a rodent and a kangaroo. (Apologies for the quality of the photograph, but the combination of dark sky and animal speed equals an image worthy only for recordkeeping purposes.)



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And, so, after that first drive, we quickly settled into a routine that suited us. Our general schedule was to start between 6:00 and 6:30 each morning. We had the lodge pack breakfast for us. We’d return between noon and 1:00, have lunch, shower and relax for a while, then leave again between 3:00 and 3:30, returning again for dinner around 7:30 or 8:00.


One of the great benefits at Tswalu, and something I was very excited about, is that guests are assigned their own private vehicle, guide and tracker. There’s no set schedule. You can stay out for as long or little as you like. And you don’t have to feel guilty about inconveniencing other guests if you want to stop to look at a small brown bird or spend time photographing springboks. With that said, there were a few times when it was fairly clear that our guide, Kalie, didn’t want to stay out for as long as we did, and we occasionally found we had to push a bit more than I had expected in order for our desires to have sway. (In his defense, it was only in the middle part of the day, when it was hotter and things were quieter, that his enthusiasm sometimes waned at my suggestion that we extend our morning drive or start the afternoon drive early. But our expectations weren't high at those times, anyway. We just wanted to be out in the bush). However, aside from that and, on occasion, a lack of focus (I’ll be more specific later in the report), we were happy with the level of guiding we received. Kalie and especially our tracker, James, were very personable, and, at our invitation, they joined us for dinner each night except our first.

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I can only but echo @@pault - feeble indeed - with such good story telling, how could you not have written this up? :)


And those sunbirds - gorgeous. I only wish I had been a birder when I first visited the gardens all those years ago. (I mostly only have blurry photos from that time). I also admit I am one of those - the bug bit, together with the safari addiction.


With that said, there were a few times when it was fairly clear that our guide, Kalie, didn’t want to stay out for as long as we did, and we occasionally found we had to push a bit more than I had expected in order for our desires to have sway.


I applaud your decision to also tell it like it is. It is only your opinion of course, but it can be useful for others. And since this is not your first rodeo, you also have some sense of what a safari camp (especially one which claims and charges for a high level of service) ought to be providing.


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By the way, after reading about Tswalu in ST, it has popped into my destination list. A friend had visited some 2 years ago but he did not "sell" it (not that I had expected him to). It's definitely in my 2017 plans (because 2016 safaris are already booked) :P


And I await your stories of Phinda Vlei. We were there in April 2012.

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Lovely Cheetah sequence - even the dead and bloody Springbok can´t detract form the cuteness factor of the cubs. :)


Interesting what you are saying about the guides - I think it was @@bushmaniac who stated similar issues in her report.

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Tswalu is also on my list (like many others on ST I think after a few great TRs lately!) and @johnkok I also was at Phinda in 2012! But we stayed at Mountain and it was in June. So I'm also looking forward to hearing how Phinda is these days.

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