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SPEAK TO ME OF WILD THINGS - or the salvation a safari can bring


twaffle
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SPEAK TO ME OF WILD THINGS

 

When I was a child growing up in East Africa, there were two places that spoke of wild places … the Serengeti and the Kalahari.  Wild, dangerous and difficult to travel to.  Well, that was back in the 1960s.  Now the Serengeti is an easy place to visit with a variety of accommodation choices, easy access with many light planes flying in to the various bush airstrips and, of course, the multitudes of us tourists to see the amazing quantity and quality of wildlife that lives on the vast plains.  The Kalahari remains a slightly trickier destination.  It is a vast, arid, hot area with few permanent camps, long drives if you want to access some of the more interesting areas and desert adapted animals that will always be fewer in numbers than in wetter areas making them harder to find.

 

When you throw in the two books, Laurens Van Der Post’s ‘The Lost World of the Kalahari’ and Bernhard Grizmek’s ‘Serengeti Shall Not Die”, the sense of mystery and awe that the two vastly different locations evoke casts a vast shadow over all other destinations.  These are much loved, early editions that sit comfortably in my over stocked African bookshelf.  Of course, Mark and Delia Owens’ ‘Cry of the Kalahari’ added to the myth of the Kalahari and thoughts of visiting Deception Valley were never too far from my mind. In fact, the memory of their observations on the mass deaths of wildebeest courtesy of the veterinary fences remain a shocking reflection on how humans can have such a dreadful effect on the lives of the wild species who rightly share this planet.  The veterinary fences, no doubt put in place with the welfare of the farmers at forefront of political minds post independence in 1966, had a devastating effect on not only the wildebeest migration which moved between the Kalahari and the Makgadikgadi Pans, but also the zebra migration that moved between the Chobe River/Delta regions and the Nxai Pan area. 

 

Wildebeest numbers have yet to recover the loss of over 90% of their numbers, however, the zebras are a different story altogether.  After many decades with their migratory routes closed to them, the removal of the north Nxai Pan veterinary fence in 2006 resulted in a totally unexpected revival of the zebra migration.  Touted as the longest mammal migration, the round trip straight line journey of over 300 miles outdistances the well known seasonal wildebeest journey in the Serengeti/Masai Mara ecosystem.  The latter migration attracts thousands of tourists, many of us figuring amongst them.  But what of the zebra migration?  If you want to see it, you have to be prepared to travel in the rainy season between January and April.  That means that it’s hot, humid and reasonably hard work as when the rains come down, they come down in volume.  If you want to visit the Delta at the same time, then you are faced with a beautiful, green vista but with a difficult task of finding and seeing the wildlife that live there.

 

I feel incredibly fortunate to consider Sangeeta a good friend and as she is relentless in her quest for exceptional wildlife experiences and adventures, it was only a matter of time before she sent me an itinerary for the zebra migration that covered prime zebra grazing areas along with the Central Kalahari Game Reserve and a few days in the Delta.  Sangeeta is a pioneer when it comes to finding affordable options for some extraordinary experiences (let's face it, she and her company Chalo Africa made travel to Zakouma reasonably affordable, no big thing at the time) and this was no exception.  With a mobile camp at our disposal, private vehicle, top notch guide and a small group of friends, what could go wrong.

 

Well, the rains could fail meaning that the zebras would delay their migration into the Nxai Pan area.  And to our dismay that’s exactly what happened.  We arrived to the news that very little seasonal rain had arrived and that Botswana was sitting on the verge of a drought.   Our guide Sam had journeyed to the Pans three days before our arrival and found no signs of migrating herds. 

 

But I get ahead of myself.

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THE LONG SHADOWS

 

“Cast across the brown earth

Red & auburn, glowing

Shallow hills bend each shadow

Moulding it gently.

Long Shadows point to the distance

To days long gone

With promises of new golden dawns.”

 

Travel is a strange beast.  Safaris even more so, and those of us who feel passionate about wildlife, who travel to many different destinations in search of new species, more exotic landscapes and increased adventures may find a more prosaic approach to each trip develops over time.  There is a certain familiarity that becomes evident whether you are flying to the Masai Mara, Mana Pools or heading off to Zakouma.  The language may change, but the language of safari remains the same.  It is that indefinable thing that a fellow safari goer recognises and understands.

 

For me, the body language of the couple sitting next to me on the short flight to Maun is obvious as is the excitement that they are trying to contain.  She pulls out a new copy of ‘Birds of Southern Africa’ and points to different images, talking rapidly in a language that I can’t identify.  Her partner has his own bird ID book, small and less detailed but I don’t see its name.  They compare pictures, turning pages and chattering happily.  I imagine them in the Delta, keenly looking for ‘Lifers’, hoping that their fellow travellers look kindly on their birding interests.

 

We are aboard an AVRO RJ85 and like all these regional jets, space for carryon is limited.  An announcement on the bus, as we headed to our plane warned us to remove our valuables from our bags so that the larger ones could be loaded into the hold.  Predictably, most take no notice of this and in true African fashion we all board with our bags firmly in our grasps and stuff them with some force into the overhead bins.

 

There is, however, a shadow that casts itself over every safari that I take nowadays.  Will it be my last one?  I try not to think like that as it tends to cast a melancholy pall over every day that I’m away, so I determine to focus on what nature will throw my way on this trip knowing that it will be something different, something special and something memorable.

As we fly into Maun, I look out the window with no small degree of curiosity.  I haven’t been to this flat, sparsely populated country before and have little idea what to expect.  Most trip reports that I’ve read focus on the undoubtedly fine game viewing and perhaps a little bit on the luxurious accommodations to be found, especially in the Delta’s private concessions.  Our trip is a driving expedition with mobile camping so I determine to try and capture some photos along the road as I know that it will be vastly different from what I’ve seen in the more populated countries.

 

The drive from Maun to Meno a Kwena, our first stop, situated as it is on the banks of the Boteti River near the edge of the Makgadikgadi is hard work.  Two and a half hours in an open game vehicle travelling at speeds of up to 70kph is more arduous than I would ever have imagined with the wind turning my face into a wobbling mass of jet streamed flesh.  We stop after about an hour to disinfect our feet at one of the foot and mount check points and I wonder why there are ants crawling all over my face and arms.  The tingling from the circulation returning to my skin takes quite a while to die down.  Later drives are better as Sam drops the plastic protective cover down at the front of the vehicle which protects us a little more.

 

Despite this, the drive is on well maintained roads and moves through pretty country which is green despite the lack of good, strong rains.  Much tidier than you’d find in many places due, no doubt, to the fewer people living in villages along the route.  Donkeys, cattle, goats and horses looked mostly healthy as they grazed along the side of the road although it was quite disturbing to see a donkey’s head hanging from a tree.  Whether the animal had been hit by a car and dismembered for its meat with the head an unnecessary by product, or some other reason there was no way for us to know, but it was certainly a little odd.

 

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Our arrival at Meno a Kwena is a relief although I think we were all effected by the intense heat, especially strong at 4.30pm when we finally were able to stretch our legs.  The humidity also hit hard and the temperature of 36C felt much hotter because of this.  The tents had fans and I wasn’t alone in feeling thankful for that small luxury.  Why Meno?  Our aim was to spend some time with the San Bushmen, or real people as I was told that they like to call themselves.  That was tomorrow’s activity.  For today, we could enjoy some time in the hide (which involved a steep climb down to the river bank and back up again, no mean feat given the heat) or sit around the small pool with cold drinks in hand.  I chose the hide which didn’t result in much wildlife viewing, just a few kudu but did give my cramped leg muscles a chance to detangle.

 

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I slept surprisingly well despite the oppressive heat.  Dinner under the stars, by candlelight was both delicious and beautifully atmospheric.  I had a silly accident just before dinner.  Sitting on what I thought was a stool in my tent to put my shoes on turned into what could have been the end of my much anticipated safari.  I don’t take full responsibility, the beds were far too high to sit on and the only seat in the tent was the aforementioned stool.  Only it isn’t a stool, it’s metal with a curved bottom with a cushion on top.  Looks like a stool, feels like a stool but when you lean forward to tie shoe laces it tips onto the curved base and shoots out from under you like a rocket.  Which is why I found myself hitting the concrete floor with some force, bruising my coccyx and then tipping back and cracking the back of my head on the metal side of the desk before ending up lying in a heap with the proverbial ‘Disney’ cartoon stars spinning around my head.   So my evening was spent with ice packs on both my head and my coccyx which given the heat, wasn’t so bad.

By 3.30am sleep evaded me, a recurring theme for the duration of the trip and so I started to write my notes and think about the sizable egg on my head.

 

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Edited by twaffle
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THE REAL PEOPLE

(as the San Bushmen called themselves)

 

“Because
of a broken string,
because of a people
breaking the string,
the earth, my place
is the place
of something,
a thing broken
that does not
stop sounding
breaking with me” 

Song of the Broken String – translation

 

The way of life for all ancient peoples is disappearing faster than we, so called developed societies, can possible document or even appreciate.  The chance to spend some time with the San Bushmen, who despite the vagaries of time and of lives that are being dragged away from their natural past, provided a beautiful window into what their nomadic lives might have been like.  It felt like we had an invitation as welcome guests into a strange world, where all plants and animals had meaning and purpose and where the symbiotic relationship between the different living things made lives complete.  A romantic view that I put down to the honesty and generosity with which we were received, dare I say, quite different to other tribal visits that I’ve experienced.

 

From hunting the duiker or steenbok, to some of the uses of plants and the strangeness of wild asparagus being used for fertility and for contraception depending on gender, to the digging up of a scorpion before returning it safely to a burrow, to the finale of a small ‘fire dance’ ritual (without the long trancelike state), we were invited into a different world and it was enchanting.

 

“Each would hold a handful of long dry grass and they would all sing together, beating time with the grass, and stroking the stems with the tips of their fingers like the strings of a guitar.  The melody was charged with all the inexpressible feelings that come to one at the going down of the sun over the great earth of Africa.

 

“This grass in my hand before it was cut

Cried in the wind for the rain to come:

All day my heart cries in the sun

For my hunter to come,”

‘The Lost World of the Kalahari’ – Laurens van der Post

 

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Edited by twaffle
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Brilliant start to your TR @twaffle, really looking forward to following your Botswana adventure.

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A Twaffle trip report! The only way a day can start better than this is if one is going on Safari yourself, something which is unlikely to happen this year for me...

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Just now, Peter Connan said:

A Twaffle trip report! The only way a day can start better than this is if one is going on Safari yourself, something which is unlikely to happen this year for me...

 

Thank you Peter, I have to admit that I'm extremely rusty and it took a while to figure out how to post photos.  But I'm so glad to feel like I can post again and share some of my experiences.  

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1 hour ago, twaffle said:

There is, however, a shadow that casts itself over every safari that I take nowadays.  Will it be my last one? 

 

~ @twaffle

 

Thank you for the above. I feel exactly the same.

 

Sharing your experience with the San is a precious gift.

 

It's also very nice to read a strong endorsement of @Sangeeta and her pioneering work with Chalo Africa.

 

Tom K.

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A DECEPTIVE FAIRYLAND

 

There is nothing quite as grounding as a true bush camp.  Our mobile camp is set up in a private location in Deception Valley.  Our tents are dotted around under the trees giving us the feeling of cool shade, deceptive though it is.  The looming storm has broken and thunder rolls over us in a forbidding manner.  The rain is heavy and welcome as this, the wet season has been very dry to date and with only two months left before the dry season, drought threatens.  We, of course, welcome the rain for a different reason, as without it the zebra migration won’t arrive in Nxai Pan in time for our visit in just a couple of days.  Whether this storm will reach that far remains to be seen, but we remain optimistic.

 

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The Central Kalahari Game Reserve is like nothing I expected.  Vast, open plains that despite the lack of rain have had enough moisture for the grass to take advantage of and there is a touch of green everywhere.  The coloured grasses in Deception Pan, in particular, are striking.  I find the trumpet thorn with its grey foliage and delicate pink flowers give the passing vegetation a prettiness that I didn’t anticipate.

 

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We explore our way to Letiahau, a long road that we have to follow both ways.  Butterflies are everywhere, especially here in CKGR after last night’s storm.  In fact, Deception Valley is like a fairyland.  The grasses with their green tinge and soft, feathered seed heads.  The aforementioned trumpet thorn with their silvery grey foliage.  The towering clouds floating in the bluest of skies.  The small, delicate white butterflies, that, when they lift off really bring the bush to life.

 

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And what of the wild things you may ask? Sam sees Cape Foxes and I think I do until I look through my binoculars and find that I’ve been looking at a bird and by then the foxes have vanished.  Bat eared foxes are everywhere but skittish and shy.  The oryx (Gemsbok) of this region differs from the Beisa and Fringe Eared oryx that I’m used to seeing in East Africa.   They are bigger and more striking and are present in large numbers. Their beauty is matched by their superb adaptation to the desert life.  The rapier sharp horns give rise to thoughts of mythical unicorns and are enhanced by the dramatic black face stripes.  Gemsboks have a remarkable physical adaptation to water conservation and they can tolerate temperatures that would kill most other mammals, allowing their body temperature to increase rather than lose precious water by panting or sweating.  The blood that flows along the arteries to the brain is cooled by travelling past a special network of veins, situated in the nasal passage, that carry cooler blood that takes up excess heat, and so allows the animal to survive external temperatures of 45C or more.  This cooling mechanism brings the arterial blood temperature down to around 42C which is the maximum the brain can tolerate without being damaged.

 

We see herds of oryx in large numbers along with small numbers of shy red hartebeest.  One small herd of oryx also contains one red hartebeest that is less shy and quite comfortable with the closer proximity of the vehicle.  We surmise that it latched onto the oryx when very young, perhaps its mother a victim of some predator and now considers itself a pseudo oryx. 

 

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We only encounter two other vehicles but the low tourist numbers are something one expects in this strange, arid land.

 

Every game drive starts with a clean slate, every morning drive particularly so.  The success of the drive can’t be rated until the last minutes before entering camp.  None illustrated this more than this afternoon’s drive.  Leaving camp at 4pm in a heavy, oppressive heat, we venture north through thick scrub.  There is little to see but Sam has hopes that there might be more activity at Sunday Pan where an artificial waterhole could prove fruitful.  We see a dramatic juvenile snouted cobra, but it slides across the road before we can do more than register the bands on its body.  Little is going on at the waterhole apart from the migrating butterflies drinking from little pools of water. 

 

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By 6pm, tired and disheartened, we head for camp when we come across a handsome Kalahari lion just as the sun starts to set.  An empty game drive became one of fullness within the space of a few minutes and we finished the evening with a jovial sing along to celebrate Chinese New Year’s Eve.

 

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Edited by twaffle
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wonderful recollections of an unexpected and welcoming place. no wonder it was called Deception Valley. I was certainly deceived by my expectations before we rolled into the Kalahari desert. 

 

 

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Great to see you back @twaffle.  Beautiful start to this TR and looking forward very much to the rest.

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madaboutcheetah

What a wonderful start !!!!! Great great read!!!

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Enjoying your report and the memories that it brought back in seeing the zebras in their thousands congregating for the migration.

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A wonderfully richly narrated and beautifully illustrated Trip Report, brings me right back. I love Deception Valley. Good to have you firmly "back in the field", twaffle. :)

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I am truly enjoying this.

 

Was that Letiahau Pan in your last post? When I was there in June 2010, it was scarcely a little puddle, but there were to big male Lions there, that had killed a Giraffe a few days before. The only evidence left was a piece of the neck and a hungry Jackal.

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Thank you everyone for the warm welcome back, I’m so happy to feel comfortable here again. 

 

Peter, I’m not sure which photos were at Letiahau, but not the lions. The crimson breasted shrike was down there and also some of the landscapes but I didn’t photograph the water hole. Not much happened. 

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Thanks everyone, there will be a slight delay as today I came down with a migraine which I've been half expecting.  So I'll need some recovery time and then I'll be back into it.

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~ @twaffle

 

Take your time.

 

Genuine rest and quiet. You deserve no less.

 

Hoping you feel better soon.

 

Tom K.

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As Hilary takes a break, I thought I'll just post a couple of videos put together on the San Bushmen. 

 

Video 1 shows a young and rather good-looking San bushman explaining how they hunt, and what they use the various parts of the plant/bush for. one of these uses was for the necklace worn by the lady. I was so won over by their candidness, their passion for their way of life, the genuity and enthusiasm of the bushmen. they also showed us how they hunted for a scorpion and how they stun one. not sure if i would ever dare put one to my lips! as one bushman stuns the scorpion, the other one covers back the hole and creates a hole - for the scorpion to return home. 

 

Video 2 shows the making of fire, and the celebratory dances that come after. 

 

 

 

 

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Christopher Moran

@twaffle - There are many, many fine photographers here on ST, but I have to say that I enjoy your images the most.. A real joy.

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Thanks for posting the videos. I apologise for my noisy camera, not much I can do about it. 

 

Christopher, thank you so much for your compliments on my photography. 

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I am thoroughly enjoying every word and your great photos showing this very special place, @twaffle. I hope you will be better soon. Take your time to rest and recover. 

The videos are great and compliment the TR, @Kitsafari

If I may comment... it looks like Sunday Pan, @Peter Connan.

 

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@twaffle, it is a joy to read your trip report. As for the photos, Christopher has said it all; the angles and the composition and the exposures, unique and lovely.

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@twaffle

 

Wow, I’m impressed with how quickly you commenced this report following your return home — and we are all the better for it. Your lovely narrative and evocative photos are pure pleasure. 

 

And thanks for the videos @Kitsafari. They add another dimension. I always end up regretting that we don’t do enough video on our trips, but then I never have the presence of mind to rectify that situation on the next one. 

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