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Yes, I realize that the terms "wet" and "rainy" season may indicate something other than a desolate landscape, and therefore should have tempered my surprise. But my impression of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa was just so singular ... I'd only seen photos and TV shows depicting a land of barren bleakness, a harsh environment where any life seemed a little miraculous. I was going to Namibia in March to participate in the filming of The African Witchfinder. This is the off-season in terms of wildlife viewing. Seeing animals as a tourist in a huge park is most aptly accomplished by visiting waterholes, either natural ones or man-made ones (parks create them in order to concentrate the wildlife in areas designated for safari tourists). In the dry season, the animals congregate here freely and happily. In the wet season, though,waterholes are nothing special as there are plenty of water sources throughout the parks, so the animals are more widely dispersed and the odds of seeing them along the roads and waterholes are much slimmer. In fact, in Etosha National Park, Namibia, the off-season is so low in March that the park gives 75% discounts on accommodations to Namibian residents. That's how desperate they are to get business, the viewing is so dismal. While filming for the documentary, we secured amazing accommodations at the last minute, they were so empty. But more on that in another post.
So ... that is all to say that no one holds out much hope for wildlife viewing in southern Africa in February and March. I, however, was spending the money and effort to get to Africa and, off-season or not, I couldn't bear to travel there without at least taking a shot at seeing some wildlife. A little online research revealed that my best shot was the Kalahari region of Botswana. The wet season (also referred to there as the "green" season) was said to bring out the herds of zebras and antelope species upon which lions, cheetahs and leopards dine. So supposedly one had a reasonable chance of spotting these majestic predators. I like the zebras and wildebeest and springbok, don't get me wrong, but I admit that what excites me, as with many safari-goers, are the big mammals ... the predators and the elephants and giraffes. I knew my chances to see them might be slim, but I was compelled to try.
As this is a narrative blog about my experiences, I rarely spend time giving travel advice, endorsing hotels, guides, rental companies, etc. ... that's not the aim of my blog. However, you may notice that every once in a while when someone delivers a stellar experience that made my trip, I like to give them a little space. And so, if you're looking for a wonderful safari experience in Botswana, allow me to recommend my guide, Jane of Ulinda Safaris. Owing to a past highly unpleasant experience safari-going with strangers, I decided to forfeit the extra arm and leg to hire a private guide all to myself. And boy was it worth it. I had such a marvelous and relaxing time. So if you're looking for a moderate-priced safari (as opposed to a luxury-priced safari, which 90% of safaris in Botswana are, and there really are no "budget" ones), please contact me or Ulinda Safari Trails directly.
Anyhoo ... let's get on with the pictures! So, even if I'd never seen a single animal, I think it would have been worth my time to see the Central Kalahari Game Reserve simply to have my preconceived notion of the place rocked and completely upended. It was a cornucopia of grasses in shades of green and yellow, forests of acacia trees, incredibly dense thickets of green and blooming bushes. I had to keep asking Jane over and over, "So you're telling me that in the dry season, all these trees and bushes have no leaves and the grass and weeds are brown?" "Yep," she replied over and over. Even though that is what I presumed of the desert -- brown, leafless, lifeless -- once I was there inside the floral fecundity, I could hardly wrap my head around it. I understand why it's commonly referred to as "the green season." The CKGR is enormous, one of the largest game reserves on the planet. Some sources claim it as the largest, if you discount the transfrontier parks.
The other stellar aspect of a great big flat plain in the rainy season is the dynamic skies the weather produces. In the dry season, the skies in Africa are pretty much just pure, deep blue. Which is pretty, to be sure, but the skies the weather produced in the Kalahari were pretty remarkable. Here are a few photos depicting the sky in just one direction. But imagine turning in place 360 degrees and seeing several different skies around you. So take the photo below, you see this, turn 90 degrees and the sky is blue with patchy pillow clouds, turn another 90 degrees and a great wall of white cloud looms low over the land, turn 45 degrees and there's another curtain of rain like this one, 45 degrees more and it's clear blue sky, then complete the circle back to the scene below. Multiple weather/sky events at one time all around you. Where I'm from, the weather comes from primarily one direction. So, it might be totally cloudy and gloomy in the west and sunny in the east, but you only have two halves to the sky. Here, there were many sections to the sky. For me, it was remarkable. I'm sorry, but I must apply the word "epic" -- it's used appropriately so rarely these days, but I stand by the usage here. I loved it!
It's fortunate that I was so enthralled with the landscape and skyscape because in truth, the wildlife was pretty minimal. But it's OK. In addition to the natural features, we had a lovely campsite all to ourselves ... one of the awesome perks of traveling with Jane is that she gets access to special limited campsites in the national parks, away from the public campgrounds, which are completely private just for her own party. It was so much fun to genuinely feel that we were in the African bush. Anyway ... I also learned, with the paucity of the "big" animals, to appreciate more the antelope species and birds and less popular animals. I think that was a worthy upshot of the trip. Perhaps the coolest thing I saw was an open marsupium, or pouch, on a springbok's back ... technically referred to as a dorsal skin flap (I like "marsupium" better). I never even knew springbok had these! Jane said it's quite rare to see them open. I asked a very well-seasoned Africa photo-safari guide friend of mine if he'd ever seen this and he didn't know of the existence of these pouches either ... had never seen one. I think it must be pretty rare to see because even if you Google for springbok + marsupium, the lead entries are articles about this anatomical feature yet there are no photos of it! There are only photos of springbok with it closed, so it would be very hard to imagine what it looks like from all those articles. Lucky for you ... you don't need your imagination!
Each evening on safari, Jane and I had happy-hour G&Ts as the sun began to approach the horizon ... right at that time of day with the lovely golden light ("the golden hour"). Delightful. This little springbok was rather keen to join us, demanding to know where his G&T was..
These two springbok had a few words to say to each other .....
I saw a couple other rare-ish sights in Botswana (though probably not as rare as the springbok pouch!) involving animals with deformities. One was an elephant in the Nxai Pan I wasn't able to get a picture of (he moved too quickly into the bushes), who had two tusks on one side -- one was quite small and tightly curled upward, and the other was a huge one that almost touched the ground and was nearly straight (had no curve in it like most elephant tusks do). Another was this orxy, below, in the Central Kalahari with a deformed horn.
The oryx, or more commonly referred to as gemsbok (pronounced "hemsbok") in this region, is probably my second-favorite of the antelope species (favorite being the kudu). They are one of the largest antelopes and their straight, spiky horns can be terribly impressive in their length, but mostly I just like their coloring patterns, their black-and-white faces and black-and-white socks. They strike a most epic pose when they are crossing the plains (that's right, I said epic again). Below, an abdim's stork is keeping pace with a striding orxy (see it flying just above it?). Wildlife photos with multiple species in them are my favorites (as you may know by now) ... those are springbok in the background.
You don't know what an abdim's stork is? Well neither did I until I saw one! But they certainly have striking faces.
And look -- oryx kiddos! I'd never seen oryx tykes before; pretty darn cute.
Third in line after the springbok and oryx for most numerous antelope species in CKGR were blue wildebeest. Not claiming they're world-class photos, but these are by far the best captures I've managed to get of wildebeest to date ... their faces are just so dark, it's difficult to expose their faces light enough to see without blowing out the light on the rest of their bodies. But in the past I've been trying to photo them under piercingly clear blue skies, and here the sky was far more amenable with its diffused lighting through the clouds.
To me, what was most special about the CKGR in regard to animal sightings was the large number of bat-eared foxes. They were everywhere! I love these guys and I'd only ever seen one in the wild a couple years previously, and it was from a long ways away on a barren sandy plain (beneath a sand dune). This was the one animal in which Jane said she had pretty much complete confidence that we would see. I was pretty beside myself when we came upon the first group ... just little heads popping up out of the grass and then back down, up and down, up and down, all over the field.
They were so adorable and it seemed really special to me. After a few days, I realized they were a dime a dozen here, yet I never became jaded toward them! They remain in my book as one of the most darling creatures to watch in the fields.
Extremely high-energy critters, they are continuously running, scampering, skittering around until they find a little insect hole and then, ears pointed downward, paw frantically at the ground, then eat what they dig up and immediately run on. They are primarily insectivores, though occasionally indulge in fruits or rodents; their staple food is termites. Whole little pods of foxes would be moving across a field, all so quickly it was almost impossible to keep in front of them to try to get a photo of their faces rather than their behinds.
I mean seriously, can you deny that's one of the most precious little faces ever???
The first day in CKGR after we'd set up camp ("we" = everyone but me, haha ... the support crew of three, all just for little ol' me, set up camp in no time), Jane said, "OK, let's go back out on game drive and find a honey badger." I was a little surprised at this because it was my understanding it's relatively rare to spot a honey badger (and I'd never seen one before). I said, "Do you really think we'll see one?" Jane said, "Probably not." We chuckled. She was being optimistic, but what the hell. So we drove out of camp, we were hardly out more than a few minutes, and what crossed our path?? A honey badger! I will remain impressed for the rest of my life over that.
And so what did our camp actually look like, you might be wondering -- our private spot away from the campgrounds. Here, Jane is lounging in the "dining room/community hall" shall we call it, but we were only ever under there for shade in the afternoons, otherwise we ate all our meals outside next to a campfire. Had it been raining, though, it would have made a good dining room. My tent is in the background on the right. Below that is our lovely little bucket shower, the staff will warm up a bucket of water on the fire whenever you want a shower!
If you like bat-eared foxes and jackals, or ostriches and kori bustards, the Central Kalahari is definitely for you. Jackals are probably one of the lesser-appreciated mammals by safari-goers. They look similar to dogs rather than something exotic, and they are often proper pests at campgrounds, running off with not only campers' food but also shoes and any other items you might leave outside your tent on the ground. But I think they're quite pretty and I certainly can't begrudge them their adaptability to human environments -- after all, we're the ones invading their space. We never had one come in our camp, but they were all over the place on game drives. (and notice those LUSH fields not at all like a desert!)
But even less appreciated than the jackal, I wager, are the ground squirrels. Jane made a point of stopping beside some. They do look different from the ground squirrels we have in Colorado; these seemed almost more like meerkats in the way they stood up with their long, slender bodies. Watched them for awhile bringing food into their holes. As common as they are, they're still cute!!
But the little ground squirrels better keep their eyes peeled for this eagle! It's always hard to decide who to root for between predator and prey. You want the predator to eat and live, yet you want the prey to escape and live. But it can't be both ways.
The bird that I most wanted to see on this safari was the secretary bird. And we did see a number of them, both on the ground and in trees, but always at a great distance, too far for my camera lens to pick up -- we just looked through binoculars. So I was happy to see them, but a little disappointed I never got a photo. However, there was a kori bustard practically around every corner. Supposedly they are the heaviest flying bird in Africa, but I've never gotten to see one fly. Nor have I seen one with its neck all fluffed out ... that will be a goal for my next visit to Botswana! They're pretty cool birds in any case, whatever they're doing, but they are often hard to pick out in the weeds and bushes. Here, the light was doing me a favor.
Now if ostriches could fly ... that would be a sight, indeed! I swear there was an ostrich conference going on in the CKGR, there were so many and they hung out in large flocks. The best was that I saw a bunch of baby ostriches running alongside their leggy parents. (sorry, no good photos, though) These guys below are apparently heading toward Deception Pan ... even ostriches need to stop and get directions.
No safari is complete, of course, without a dose of friendly giraffes! I have yet to lose my awe at how tall and improbable they are. You probably didn't think a giraffe could hide in a tree! But this one probably has good reason to want to be incognito, you can see she has suffered a major injury on her face ... the skin scraped away across her forehead and then knotted up on the right side, plus a scar in her horn.
This one's too tall to hide in a tree!
This one is just a silly little fella ... I think he's got his mouth full. And the next two are simply sweet ... perhaps mother and offspring.
From the tallest of Kalahari creatures to one of the smallest ... Well, in context of the insect world, actually this dude is quite enormous. But compared to a giraffe, he's a wee bit on the small side. Hanging out on the hood (or bonnet, as they say in Africa), of our vehicle as we stopped for our daily tea halfway through each morning's game drive.
One animal I never thought of seeing here but which I always enjoyed getting out to inspect when Jane spotted one, was the leopard tortoise. The first time Jane stopped the vehicle and got out motioning me to come see, I couldn't imagine what she was looking at, for I could see nothing. I had a narrow mind, looking only for large, exotic animals. But I have to say, I think tortoises are rather fascinating.
I saw lions in the Nxai Pan, which I was extremely excited to see! I can't genuinely say I was disappointed at their absence in the Kalahari because I came into this area with very low expectations, so disappointment is kind of moot in the face of low expectations. But on the last day of my safari in Central Kalahari Game Reserve, late in the afternoon, Victor, one of Jane's camp assistants who accompanied us on most game drives as a spotter, yelled out he spotted a lion eating a wildebeest. What?!? I'd never seen any big cat actually eating recognizable prey before, so I was pretty excited. We got very near to the lion, to see that he was extremely elderly. Male lions typically die of starvation as they will have lost their pride (their family, not the emotion) and must hunt alone and eventually can no longer bring down prey. Who knows if this wildebeest was injured or if the lion managed a waning hurrah. But you can see how old and broken and missing his teeth are. I cropped this in and clipped off his lower jaw and lip because it makes me sad to see his whole head ... he must have gotten kicked in the mouth or something, his lower lip is just hanging down loosely off his jaw, way below his gums. Even so, I find him captivating in his wildness ... the look in his eyes is stunning. So intense.
Getting back to Africa and its wildlife was so refreshing. I know there are animals everywhere on the planet to see, and many interesting ones in my own backyard (literally), but there is something about Africa. I'm far from the only person who has been bewitched by it and forced to return again and again. Should I tell you? ... I already have my next safari booked .....!! Can't help myself. I think I am most contented when on safari; it's like a form of meditation -- just waiting for the wildlife to show up as we drive around slowly. I'm focused only on that; my mind is cleared of all else. I can stay focused because it's so massively rewarding when finally the animal-free space is punctured by an animal. It's super difficult for me to stay so focused and distraction-free in my normal life, I'm always so scatter-brained. On safari, my brain just slows down and absorbs and waits (I'm also typically an extremely impatient person, yet I can sit there with my eye near the camera, finger on the shutter button, for ages waiting for an animal to turn around and look at me). So here is me in my happy place. My very happy place ... on safari.