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Tswalu Kalahari and Phinda: August/September 2015


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Phinda (Vlei)


We chose Phinda as our second destination for a variety of reasons. First, as I mentioned at the outset, we had wanted to see a variety of landscapes in South Africa, and after the Kalahari, what could be more different than coastal KwaZulu-Natal, which is warmed by the Indian Ocean and, with the coastal rain pattern, has a more subtropical feel? Comprised of 23,000 hectares, Phinda seven distinct ecosystems, from palm savannah and thornveld to a unique rare sand forest to a more deciduous mountain bush.


Phinda would also nicely round out the wildlife we had not seen at Tswalu: namely elephant, hippopotamus and crocodile, as well as a host of different birdlife, some of it endemic to southeastern South Africa. In addition, Phinda is known for its cheetah population, and although we had had the good fortune to enjoy a scarce sighting (and a good one) at Timbavati the last time around, we wanted to be assured of more time with them on this visit. Finally, Phinda is run by andBeyond, a company known for its consistent high standards of guiding and accommodation, and which had delivered us such a fine experience previously.


Having now reflected a bit on both places, I come up with this: If Tswalu were the eldest son, a bit studious and an old soul, Phinda would be his younger, more happy-go-lucky sister.

Edited by Alexander33
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Phinda is roughly divided in half from a lodging standpoint: the South, with Mountain Lodge and the more intimate Rock Lodge, and the North, with Forest Lodge and the smaller Vlei Lodge. We opted for the North, simply because we wanted to be close to the sand forests for which Phinda is noted, and Vlei Lodge, because, with only 6 cabins, its smaller size would lend itself to a more intimate experience and also guarantee that no more than 6 guests would be assigned to each of its two vehicles.


Actually, it’s not just the lodging: everything at Phinda seems to be oriented to either the North or South, and that certainly was the case with lions. There are two main prides on the Reserve, and guess what they are called? You got it: the North Pride and the South Pride.


You may recall that on our last afternoon at Tswalu, I reluctantly had to choose between pursuit of the wild dogs or lions. I chose the dogs, reasoning that we’d have a better chance at Phinda to see lions. Even though we ended up not finding the dogs that afternoon, I still think that was the right decision, as Phinda, indeed, produced repeated quality sightings of lions.


On our initial afternoon drive, not 10 minutes from the lodge, we encountered this furry little thing in the middle of the road.




He was having quite the adventure, out on his own, but it proved to be a bit more than he had expected, and he found he needed to take a break.




Not surprisingly, his mother was near, keeping a close eye on him.




The rest of the family was just around the bend. It was the North Pride, sans its dominant male. They had had a particular fruitful hunt earlier that day, as the cubs were helping themselves to not one, but two, nyala bull kills, one on each side of the road. Unfortunately, both were hidden away in thick brush, making decent photographs impossible.




There were two sets of juveniles: one set that was a little over a year old and another that reportedly was 4 to 5 months of age. They interacted freely and lovingly with one another.




The curious youngster finally decided that he’d had enough exploration for one day and soon returned to the comfort of the clan, where one of his siblings was already settled in next to mom.




With bellies full of nyala, the lure of sleep began to creep over them.




But a stick proved too irresistible to ignore.














Eventually, though, it was time for some grooming.....




.....before the specter of sleep finally prevailed, once and for all.













The family, comfortably splayed all over the road and to the side, seemed perfectly content. But where was their commander-in-chief?

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With the lions full and evidently settling in for the evening, we headed north, with our young guide, the very able Dylan, and veteran tracker, Mr. T., at the helm. After an absence of almost a week, there finally was a report of a leopard in the area, and Dylan wanted to see if we could find it.


At both Timbavati and Sabi Sand, we had experienced tremendous leopard sightings on multiple occasions. Phinda is not as well known for leopard, and the ones there generally are more skittish than those at either Timbavati or Sabi Sand, so I had prepared myself for the possibility that this trip might not yield much in the way of leopard.


We were still in an area of dense brush, so if we were to find the leopard, it would be quite a challenge. The brush was relentless except in the places where straight dirt side roads were cut through it at equidistant points. In a shared effort to find the leopard, the group in the other vehicle from the lodge traversed these roads, slowly winding their way up one and down another, beginning in the northernmost area in which the leopard was suspected to be, and then down toward the south, hoping to spot it, in which case they would summon us.


In the meantime, we remained parked at the intersection of the main north-south axis road and the southernmost side road of the area where our sister vehicle was busy scouting for the leopard. Dylan and Mr. T. reasoned that with the other vehicle working from the opposite direction, we were poised at the perfect location to see the leopard should it try crossing out of the targeted area.


And they were right. It took 30-45 minutes, but suddenly Mr. T. raised his arm, and we saw a flurry of spots about midway up the side road that we were staking out. It was a large male, which had bounded out of the thicket and decided to have an easier go of it by staying along the road for a while.







By this time, dusk had set in and the circumstances did not yield themselves to ideal photographs (obviously), so we spent much of our time just enjoying the experience of being in the midst of such a magnificent animal (as well as taking genuine pleasure in the excitement of our friendly and enthusiastic vehicle mates, who were seeing a leopard in the wild for the first times in their lives).


As a footnote, let me add that as we planned our second safari, we did so with the trepidation that it would lead to a letdown after our first unforgettable experience. How could we ever again be witness to such an exhilarating sense of discovery? This is an opportune moment to report that, in fact, we experienced no such letdown at all. Far from it. As I had realized at the end of our stay at Tswalu, and as our time with this leopard illustrates, with the amazing sightings and equally amazing photographs that we had our first time around, this time we could allow ourselves to relax a bit more and put the sighting and the experience into a larger context. There wasn’t as much sensory overload as before and, thus, we were afforded a better opportunity to notice details that we likely would have missed before: the smells, the sounds, the nuances that always are there and that one often fails to appreciate on a maiden voyage.

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We actually would come across this same leopard on another occasion.


One morning, when the two of us had the vehicle all to ourselves, we heard that he was trying to fend off a younger rival for his territory. The two were traveling together, but sparring at every opportunity, and the war zone currently happened to be in the sand forest nearby. After about half an hour, we found their tracks, and Mr. T. and Dylan both jumped off the vehicle and went into the thick vegetation to see if they could find them.


Dylan and Mr. T. survey the area.





Dylan follows Mr. T. into the brush, after having first shown us how to work the radio should anything go wrong -- an ironic twist, as we soon would learn.





We ponder the scenery while waiting to hear back.





After what seemed like an eternity, but was probably only a very short time (isn't that always the case when your guide and tracker leave you in the vehicle alone while they scout in the field?), Dylan returned, leaving Mr. T. in the thicket. With Mr. T. behind, we would circle the block to see if either animal crossed the road into a different area. After about 20 minutes, Dylan radioed to Mr. T. for a status report, but we heard nothing back. Again, and nothing. And then again. Something was amiss with the radios.


To give you an idea of how potentially dangerous this situation was (or at least, how dangerous it appeared to me), you need to have a better idea of what the sand forest into which Mr. T. had ventured is like.

Over the millennia, beginning about 75 million years ago, the nearby Indian Ocean coastline moved back and forth numerous times. Each time the ocean receded, it left a deposit of sediment and deep gray sands, the remnants of which today are a dry sand forest, the fossil dunes of the earlier coastlines. A rich array of plant species grow in this area.


According to andBeyonds Eco Guide for Phinda, this sand forest is one of the most unique and fascinating habitats in South Africa, with numerous plant species confined solely to it. The elements typical of moist forests, such as ferns and mosses, are comparatively scarce, while the appetite of the abundant termites appears to limit the accumulation of dense leaf litter. Sand forest is characterized by sharp edges, often delineated by narrow zones of bare or sparsely vegetated sand.



Trees in the sand forest grow at an achingly slow pace. This one was ancient.





Dylan had led us and one of our friendly vehicle mates on a walk through the sand forest the previous morning. That's me on the right, with Dylan in the center, likely responding to one of my endless questions, while our vehicle mate on the left probably wonders why in the hell he took this walk with us in the first place.





A pathway leading into the sand forest, which is much less dense at its edges.





The sand forest is home to several species of shy antelope, such as red duiker (below, first ) and suni (latter two).









J. was taken with the evocative trees on this trip and took a number of black-and-whites of the sand forest.








In any event, it was a bit unsettling that our tracker had ventured into this environment, where two aggressive leopards likely were lurking, and that we had lost radio contact with him. While Dylan was trying to reach Mr. T., we saw the big male leopard dash across the road. We had no sign of his frenemy, however. Phinda, though, is not as remote as Tswalu. With the radios on the fritz, there was a back-up plan. Both Dylan and Mr. T had their cell phones and they had reception!


Thus, we were able to learn that Mr. T. had indeed come across both the leopards, squaring off against one another in the recesses of the sand forest. He was unaware that the big male had since left, and the younger male was currently not in sight. Mr. T. walked back to the road, and after he was safely in the front seat next to Dylan, we tried to off-road through the forest to see if we could find the younger leopard, which apparently was still in there.


Unfortunately, the vegetation was just too dense for us to make much progress, and, in the end, we had to settle for the lone, brief, blurred sighting we had had of the big male crossing the road.


This one is actually from that first night, but shows you what the conditions were like.



Edited by Alexander33
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Welcome to the party! I was wondering where you were.



@@Alexander33 - i've been AWOL because of work and doggie commitments. busy travelling, meeting year-end deadlines and preoccupied with my dogs. One of them just passed away, causing a lot of heartache, another has cushing's and growing old and probably her last christmas with us (i'm praying it's not), a third damaged her leg and needs a bit of intensive care, and the fourth feeling very lonely and neglected.


But i'm glad to have a chance to read the Tswalu trip in one go. Looking forward the Phinda portion now. :rolleyes:

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As a footnote, let me add that as we planned our second safari, we did so with the trepidation that it would lead to a letdown after our first unforgettable experience. How could we ever again be witness to such an exhilarating sense of discovery? This is an opportune moment to report that, in fact, we experienced no such letdown at all. Far from it. As I had realized at the end of our stay at Tswalu, and as our time with this leopard illustrates, with the amazing sightings and equally amazing photographs that we had our first time around, this time we could allow ourselves to relax a bit more and put the sighting and the experience into a larger context. There wasn’t as much sensory overload as before and, thus, we were afforded a better opportunity to notice details that we likely would have missed before: the smells, the sounds, the nuances that always are there and that one often fails to appreciate on a maiden voyage.


@@Alexander33 well said! it mirrors what I had felt on my second trip. and then you find after 5 trips, you still find something fresh and nuances that you had missed in your earlier trips.

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Your photos are making me extremely enthusiastic about my visit to Tswalu Kalahari in 2017. I am planning on spending a full ten days there and to take advantage of the stay five pay four offer. I can see that there will be plenty to keep me occupied over a ten day period. I am also looking forward to visit Capetown again.

Your photos and your trip report are just outstanding. I can't wait to take photos when I visit Tswalu Kalahari.

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Oh, dear, I know firsthand what that's like. It's one of the high prices we pay for the joy that our canine companions otherwise bring to our lives. You have my best wishes.





Thanks for your kind words. And good for you on your upcoming trip. 2017 will be here before you know it, and 10 nights certainly should offer you a good feel for what Tswalu has to offer.

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Having seen the North Pride, absent the dominant male, on our initial afternoon drive, we set out the next morning to see if we could find its leader. Dylan reported that in the past few weeks, the male had set off to the south to assert himself against the South Pride, so he wasn’t sure where he might be. As it turned out, he had stepped out with a lady friend, and we found them lounging on the outer steep edge of a waterhole. The male had a small flesh wound on his cheek. I’m not sure if that was courtesy of the South Pride male or not, but whatever the case, he had returned to the North for a little R&R.













The lioness he was with was a magnificent creature herself. She had been resting in the brush below the rise, but eventually came up to join her male companion, although her position made it still difficult to get a clear shot of her.







The warm sun began to make her sleepy……




.....and it was having the same effect on the male.

















In the waterhole, two hippos peered over the surface, but they were not interested in cooperating with our cameras.








And I can assuredly report now that we still haven’t seen a hippo out of the water! (Of all the goals to have!) Guess it’s time to go to the Lower Zambezi?


In any event, we had seen the North Pride without its king, and then we had found him and his girlfriend off on their own, but we hadn’t seen the whole happy family together. Would we have that opportunity?


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@@Tom Kellie


Thank you for your kind remarks.


I admire this excellent trip report, which increases one's interest in the Kalahari ecosystem.

As an example of how little I know, I'd have supposed that small reptiles might be visible here and there. Apparently that's not actually the case.


Actually, I suspect that there are plenty of small reptiles (and probably larger ones, too, as I recall that @@PCNW encountered a puff adder on her visit in, I believe, May 2014). I think the reason we didn't see any is simply due to the time of year we were there. It was still winter. I suspect that as the weather warms up, the reptiles will as well.


~ @@Alexander33


Thank you for the explanation.

I forget that there might be cooler winter weather.

All of my safaris have taken place in warm weather, thus to date I've never experienced cool weather in Africa.

Your report has been great fun to read. I definitely appreciate how tough it is to prepare a trip report of this quality.

Your creativity enlivens your trip report, making it one of the great ones!

Tom K.

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We started out that afternoon with a strategy.


Although we had spent two rides with lions aplenty, as well as an unexpected leopard, we still had not seen the cat we had most hoped to come across at Phinda – the cheetah. One of the couples we had been riding with had left earlier in the day, and so it was just J. and me and a wonderful British couple that we had connected with almost instantly the night before, pushing our tables together at dinner and enjoying our first night on safari at Phinda in the way I always prefer – with good food, wine, and plenty of stimulating conversation and laughter.


As it turned out, our vehicle mates were up for just about anything, so cheetah it was.


We began with giraffe, which I’ve always loved. There’s something so improbable about the giraffe, as if it were assembled from parts and pieces that were never designed to go together, yet, in spite of all apparent odds, it nevertheless somehow maintains an extraordinary grace in its movements and gait, while its immensely long eyelashes give it a gentle and almost loving countenance. So long as I can manage to avoid being kicked by one, I suppose giraffe will always be a favorite.















There were no reports of cheetahs in our sector, the North, and so we made our way down south along the main north-south axis road of the Reserve. As we did, we encountered a breeding herd of 60-70 elephants, slowly crossing the road one by one, or in pairs, as they traversed north to south, or vice-versa (we weren’t sure in which particular direction they were traveling at that moment), in search of fresh spring vegetation.




















Dylan explained that when it would rain on the Reserve, the elephants would travel to the South, since that area was closer to the coast from which the weather systems first come through. The thought was that the vegetation would sprout earlier in the South, because it would receive the rainfall earlier than in the North. When the weather was dry, the elephants would migrate back to the North, as that area would have had the last rainfall and, thus, would proffer the newest fresh vegetation. To be honest, the Reserve didn’t strike me as so large that it would have such distinct weather patterns, although it did have some mountainous areas, and, quite frankly, the explanation didn’t completely make sense to me, but, then, what do I know? Thought I’d mention here, and maybe some of you Phinda veterans could weigh in.


We spent some time with the elephants, as we had not seen them yet on this trip. I’m always in awe of these incredible creatures – so huge and potentially dangerous, yet so intelligent and sensitive. Whenever I encounter elephants, I always sense that I can feel their emotions. I don’t mean that I have any kind of understanding of their feelings, but, rather, my instincts simply kick in and tell me that this is a sentient being that operates on a higher level than so many others.

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We continued our way toward the South, and eventually a radio call came from Matt, the guide driving our sister vehicle: he and the other group of guests from the lodge were with three young adult male cheetahs, brothers from the same litter that had formed a coalition.



We head to the cheetah brothers.






















After a while, the other vehicle left, and it was just us. When some time had passed, Dylan suggested that the cheetahs likely would spend the night in this place, and should we proceed on to sundowners? This surprised me, because, although the sun was certainly waning, it wasn’t dusk and it seemed a bit early for sundowners. To my credit, I resisted speaking the first thought that entered my mind, which was, “Hell no!” Instead, I invoked my best Southern manners, and asked, “Do you think it might be possible for us to stay just a little bit longer?”


I certainly don’t pretend to have any in-depth knowledge of animal behavior, but something, call it a Sixth Sense if you will, told me that, in fact, these boys were not going to spend the night there. They seemed too alert and active. One of the cheetahs would occasionally take his paw and bat a sibling’s tail. They playfully would scuffle around in the sandy dirt, and then pause and look around. It just didn’t feel like they were down for the count. Fortunately, our vehicle mates were perfectly happy to remain with the cheetahs, and so that’s what we did.















Suddenly, almost in unison, the brothers collectively looked past us toward the area across the road. The next thing we knew, all three were up on their feet, surveying the scene. As the sun began to set, they walked toward the more open landscape behind us. One took the lead, marking territory; another climbed small mounds along the way and kept a lookout; and the other brought up the rear, looking behind the group periodically to make sure nothing sneaked up on them. What had gotten their attention?



















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As it turned out, the cheetahs had their eyes set on some wildebeest in the distance. Soon, however, the wildebeest, all too aware of the three brothers, sounded an alarm call, and any opportunity that the cheetahs had had for a fresh meal that night were dashed. The lead sibling ambled over to a tree and resumed his marking, as did the third sibling, while the second one remained on the lookout.



The tree in question was at quite a distance, and with the light in short supply, it was difficult to obtain good photographs. Consider these to be just "documentary evidence."











Meanwhile, we stayed close to the sentinel. I developed an affinity for him very quickly.























Although we didn’t see a hunt, seeing these beautiful cheetahs interact with one another in the rosy light of the sunset, as its last rays settled over the low mountains in the distance, had been an exceptional experience, and it had been ours alone. Darkness came over us, and only then did we finally proceed to sundowners.


We drove to a remote waterhole, and there, suspended from a tree on a bank above the water, was plank holding a cake, ablaze with candles. Unbeknownst to us, it was the birthday of the husband of the British couple with us, and his engaging wife had conspired with Dylan and the manager at Vlei to have a birthday cake with candles as well as a bottle of chilled champagne transported out into the bush in celebration. The management team had even arranged for a newly arrived couple, who technically were assigned to our vehicle, to ride that evening only in the other vehicle, so that it would just be the four of us and Dylan and Mr. T.


No wonder Dylan had been a tad anxious to depart for sundowners. Someone from the lodge had had to be on hand at the site in order to light the candles at his signal, and then depart before we arrived there. Fortunately, everyone had their priorities straight, and the cheetahs and the sun had controlled the schedule. All in all, it was a lovely gesture and the perfect way to end a most memorable afternoon.





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@@Alexander33, stunning photos of the lion lovebirds and the cheetah, but particularly the lookout-Cheetah!


@@Kitsafari, sorry to hear about your dogs. Strongs! (hope you know what that means, because my English isn't good enough to translate it sufficiently)

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@@Peter Connan thank you Peter for the kind thoughts. I tried to google strongs, but couldn't find an equivalent, but it must refer to an equivalent of - to stay strong, remain strong. I shall do. Thanks again.

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@@Alexander33 that's a beautiful lioness. Such regalness in her stature.


And those 3 cheetahs are hpgreat looking, in particular the sentinel cheetah. I don't blame you for wanting to stay. And I've not adult cheetahs playing the brothers did! Very delightful watching them through your eyes!

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@@Peter Connan



Thank you for your kind comments.


You know, until our visit to Tswalu, I confess I had not really thought about conservation as a business, but that's exactly what it is, and a complex one at that.

And it hope it is a wildly successful one in all locales!


As the others have stated, your birds are just beautiful. Not many places you can see roan and sable so close.

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"According to andBeyonds Eco Guide for Phinda, this sand forest is one of the most unique and fascinating habitats in South Africa, with numerous plant species confined solely to it. "


How ince you could enjoy it, though your guide may have preferred not to go leopard hunting on foot there.


You had some great cat luck at Phinda! I was actually thinking all that lion and leopard activity might mean the less aggressive cheetahs would be scarce. Suni is a real prize. Were Mr. T & Dylan quite enthused with it?


You mention weather patterns in the north and south sections--I think it is more how the types of vegetation react to the weather that makes a difference. I agree the areas are close enough without major geographical features to have their own little climate zones.


Again, I think pairing Phinda and Tswalu is a fantastic combo.

Edited by Atravelynn
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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.


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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.


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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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I would be interested to know which camera and which lens you used for those fabulous sunbird photos Pen

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Really strong images of lions and eles from Phinda.

I knew the cheetahs would be a highlight - so far they have not disappointed!

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Omgosh @@Alexander33 what a pleasure to arrive back here from my LOA and get on board this train. This is a fun report having been to both lodges and experiencing similar sights and days.


At the risk of having missed your point and get busted like @@madaboutcheetah I'm interested in why you wanted to go through Cape Town twice.


I, too, felt the same lack of connection with the other guests but I don't think it's totally due to different meal times and private vehicles.....not sure what it is. Tswalu was our third and final lodge of our trip so for me it was almost a relief.


Odd but I can't remember seeing a single warthog.


You weren't interested in the horseback ride?


Looking forward to the rest of Phinda and thanks for taking the time to share your trip and excellent photography.



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@@Alexander33 - I apologize for asking redundant questions, the answers to which is already in the report ;) - hard to keep up with all the reports and I also saw bits of it prior to traveling for work and then finishing the rest of it more recently.

Also, I think I mentioned this in another post -it's hard to find the current ongoing trip reports when so many old threads are topped up in a heap!

Edited by madaboutcheetah
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There is absolutely nothing to apologize for! I was just teasing you with my own particular brand of American humor, and Patsy, knowing that very well, was just adding fuel to the fire, as we say. In fact, it was her trip report and patience with numerous questions of my own that largely helped me plan my own trip, along with that of other Safaritalkers.


That's one of the great assets of this site -- information overload! I understand all too well.


In all sincerity, it was my pleasure to answer your questions and I am happy to answer any others you may have -- because I have a distinct feeling I will end up having many, many questions for you, as your own reports have been so inspiring.

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You mention weather patterns in the north and south sections--I think it is more how the types of vegetation react to the weather that makes a difference. I agree the areas are close enough without major geographical features to have their own little climate zones.




Aha! Thank you for this. That makes much more sense. (I always end up coming home and then thinking of questions I could easily have asked if only I had thought of them at the time!)

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