Monday, 1 August 2011

Unplanned eventualities...

It's virtually impossible to plan for every eventuality before departing on a cross-border trip. One such aberration occurred relatively recently on a trip to Botswana. Getting into Botswana via Stockpoort border post was easy. Getting back through the same border post into South Africa proved a trial for reasons which will become apparent.

Stockpoort / Parr's Halt is our preferred border entry for our numerous trips to Botswana. Although not centrally located it's close enough to our home in Johannesburg and the formalities are always, well, 'just formalities'. Both the South African and Botswana border officials are genial enough which gives me the opportunity to catch up on the latest weather / news and other goings-on in the area. It's a nice way to 'officially' start a Botswana bush-break. Incidentally, as an aside, don't be put off by the gravel road section just after Parr's Halt. It's only 50 odd kilometers long and the 'road's-not-so-bad'!

We had spent an idyllic two weeks in the Moremi, Savuti and Chobe regions of Botswana before returning home to South Africa via the same border-post. By way of background we were a party of four travelling in two fully-laden, luxury 4x4 vehicles. Given the nature of our trip both vehicles were extensively customised for the Botswana conditions. For those of you unfamiliar with what that would entail customising usually includes fridges, compressors, additional electrical systems, 2-way radios, water tanks, storage, roof-racks, MT tyres etc. Both the vehicles had been across borders many times before.

You'll recall we had left via Stockpoort border post some two weeks prior...

Getting through the Botswana side (Parr's Halt) was a cinch, as usual. Getting one of the vehicles through Stockpoort was also a cinch, as usual.... However we knew something was up when five (5) armed policemen exited the office in an agitated state only to descend on the second vehicle and its occupants, my elderly parents. You can imagine our confusion......  As it turns out the vehicle had FAILED clearance inspection and was in fact reported stolen. My Mom and Dad, both in their sixties, are the epitome of integrity and a lesson to everyone I know on what it means to be a 'good citizen'. Claims that their vehicle had been reported stolen and that, as its occupants, they were, by definition, it's thieves were therefore preposterous and almost amusing if it wasn't for the serious nature of the allegation. You see the vehicle was no more than a year old and had been bought, by my parents, brand new from the dealership. Since the vehicle was still in their possession they had not thought it necessary to report it stolen.... They were, so to speak, enjoying the fruits of their labours.

Although the SAPS officers, once everybody had calmed down, suspected that my parents were not the desperados the system claimed them to be, they were, however, obliged to impound the vehicle and arrest them as required by the law. Nobody could fault the policemen who were, to a man, very professional if not a little confused. No cellphone reception at the border compounded the issue. By late afternoon nothing much had changed despite numerous calls to the regional SAPS office in Ellisras, some 70 odd kilometers away. The system clearly identified the vehicle's chassis & engine number as stolen. I was 'free-to-proceed' but obviously declined. It was decided, given the circumstances and late hour, that our case would be better heard at Ellisras. All four of us were therefore transferred to Ellisras police station; my parents under armed guard and my husband and I in 'hot-pursuit' behind them in our own vehicle.

Whilst the 'stolen' vehicle was immediately impounded on our arrival in Ellisras pending further investigation, my parents were placed 'in-my-care' under house arrest as long as we all remained in Ellisras until told otherwise. Even at the late hour the Station Commander had personally taken over our 'case' which was fortunate in that he could liaise directly with the Johannesburg branch commander in charge of the investigation.

This then is the story and it's compelling...

It transpired that the vehicle had been hijacked off the delivery truck parked in the dealership's driveway. At the time the dealership's manager, hearing the commotion, grabbed his own firearm and 'engaged' the hijackers who then fled in 'our' vehicle, in peak traffic, down a main road. The intrepid dealership manager decided to pursue the hijackers in his own vehicle and continued to fire his firearm at the escaping would-be hijackers. They in turn fired wildly back. He was obviously the better shot and one round at least found its mark, punching holes through 'our' (as yet undelivered) vehicle. The hijackers, in turn, careened the vehicle over the pavement into oncoming traffic and collided with not one but two vehicles. The would-be-thieves deciding the action a little too hot for comfort, exited the vehicle and fled the scene, never to be seen again.... In the interim, unbeknownst to our intrepid dealership manager, the vehicle transport company had immediately reported the vehicle stolen and thus it remained for close on a year and MANY other trips out of the country later leading, 'eventually', to my parents arrest for armed robbery 'grand-auto'.

The vehicle had therefore been hijacked, shot at and damaged; ramped over pavements at high speed and collided head-on into oncoming traffic. The dealership recovered the vehicle and had it repaired 'on-the-quiet'. Shortly thereafter the vehicle was delivered as a new vehicle 'off-the-floor' to my unsuspecting parents happy to take delivery after a 'brief' delay. Needless to say we were released by Ellisras after 24 hours of confused misery.

Planning for every eventuality before your trip is sometimes difficult........

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

iSimangaliso Wetland Park - Sodwana Bay's accommodation options

Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife's accommodation options at Sodwana Bay include 10 five-bed Swiss-style log cabins; 10 eight-bed cabins; Gwalagwala, a luxurious camping site [33 stands] and other camping sites some with power points, others not.

Half our party preferred a camp site at Gwalagwala, the other half stayed in one of the five-bed cabins. Neither option is particularly cheap. In fact you could almost say that both options are exceedingly expensive. Nevertheless, any trip to the Elephant Coast more than makes up for any niggles along the way.

We were allocated No. 13 which would not be my first choice by any means. The cabin enjoys no view worth mentioning. It's cold and badly positioned drawing very little warmth from the late afternoon sun. Its really quite morose, if you like. The patio trestle table was rusted past its useful life. The chairs need replacing. Inside the furniture is dated and the lighting dingy. The freezer door wouldn't seal and the kitchen taps dripped constantly. Although the linen was clean, strangely for the three nights we were in this particular cabin neither the linen nor the towels were changed once. The cabin is supposedly serviced, which wasn't always the case. Some two or three days later we asked to be moved to a more favourable cabin and to the reception staffs' credit we were immediately accommodated. Housekeeping's Nicolas was very accommodating. Cabin No. 9 was a vast improvement. The views over the ocean and lagoon are spectacular. Late afternoon bird parties love the large tree in front of the cabin. We're all keen birders!

Unfortunately the weather proved difficult so we spent less time on the patio than we would have liked, particularly in the evening. The  plastic table was in much better condition, obviously; the chairs too. Our braai (barbecue) facilities were pitifully tied together with wire. No grid was in evidence, anywhere. We fixed that rather quickly.. Even though both the Samango & the Vervet monkeys are a nuisance, raiding bins and kitchens too, there is little reason why plastic bags and other garbage should be scattered throughout the coastal forest in and around the cabin. We fixed that too.. Inside the cabin the furniture was much more suitable except for the bar-stools which had the bracing bars on the legs missing. Our children, who sat on the stools are young fortunately but we fixed those too.. Besides the braai facilities the two major gripes were the front door which wouldn't stay latched unless locked and the absence of hot water on more than one occasion. The cabin's hot water is gas heated and as ever the gas always runs out at 8pm just before the evening shower... Housekeeping attended to the gas the next morning but not the door. The five-sleeper has two bedrooms, the main suite with a king-size bed which unfortunately impedes the opening of the cupboard. The private door onto the patio is a good idea. The other bedroom, designed principally for children, obviously, has a single bed and a bunk-bed. The rooms are clean and functional. Amazingly none of the linen or the towels were changed for a week until we insisted otherwise. The kitchen is adequate and is comprehensively equipped. The microwave proved a mystery to us all and needs replacing! Nevertheless, the cabin is cosy and adequate.

The rest of the party preferred their own comforts and camped at Gwalagwala, the so-called luxury camping site. Even though the sites are more than adequate there are no obviously discernable differences between the Gwalagwala sites and the 'normal' sites except for price..?

Anybody who has ever been to Sodwana will usually note if not complain about the horde of people offering camp-cleaning services for the duration of your trip. Even so, the few people who were employed seemed pleasantly competent. I mention this because the KZN camping staff, officially employed, were woefully incompetent. The ablution blocks were generally grubby. The showers had no hot water for days. Our allocated site had no braai-facilities. The camp sites themselves were never raked nor cleaned. Perhaps KZN expects their guests to provide their own labour...

Monday, 18 July 2011

Sodwana Bay is NOT a shore fisherman's dream.

Fishermen take note! Sodwana Bay is OVER-RATED. It is, however, important to differentiate between shore-angling and offshore angling. 

My family and I, all keen fishermen, spent the last two weeks at Sodwana in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. From the outset the weather proved difficult. The water temp. of 20 degrees didn't help too much; neither did the easterly wind. Offshore fishing was satisfactory. Admittedly fishing in the winter has its challenges. Nevertheless we did land a 125kg Blacktip reef shark and some decent couta [King Mackerel]; all on live-bait. Bonita were plentiful and we missed a sailfish or two on the rapalas. Other boats landed a few Yellowfin Tuna and some decent Wahoo. Incidentally couta are, in my opinion, the finest eating fish in the world. Marlin are generally absent at this time of the year. Quite rightly then, Sodwana is considered a world-class offshore angling destination. Shore or surf-angling off its beaches is another story entirely!

In years gone by it wasn't a rarity to catch large kingfish in the bay from off the beach. Sight-casting to feeding  GTs with a popper or drop-shot, on light-tackle is fishing second to none! Fishing at night is usually the only way to fish the Zululand waters. Sliding for large inedibles ie: skates and sharks is still possible in the bay at night given the correct conditions and before the boats launch at dawn. One or two smaller kingfish are still taken. At any other time [ie: when the first sunrays hit the water until sunset] the fishing is dreadful. No amount of scratching with either bait or plastic in and around the bay or further south off the ledges yields even a single bite. Small kingfish and wave-runners are entirely absent. Bonefish are non-existent. We did land over the course of two weeks one or two undersized shad on small spoons north of the bay. 

Fishing improves 20kms further up the coast and down south near Cape Vidal. Anybody who tells you that fishing from the shore in and around Sodwana is anything more than rubbish probably hasn't been there for a while.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Hoogland Health Hydro - ??

I'm not a 'hydro' fundi by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, just the thought of forcibly eating micro doses of vegan for a day or two puts me in a protein-deprived state of nausea... What people see in these 'houses of health-pantomime' is beyond me. If you like decadence get a manicure and a head-massage an hour or two before lunch at the Saxon; then leave!

Nevertheless, I recently visited the Hoogland Health Hydro on a whim, had a look around and was underwhelmed, to say the least. This 400 hectare property, a little west of Pretoria in the Schurveberg, is home to a variety of game. It's also the most accessible site for the pretoriae subspecies of the Short-toed Rock-Thrush, an ornithological favourite for those thus inclined! Partially endemic flora and particularly the winter-flowering aloes are a personal favourite. The drive through the reserve down to the hydro is pleasant enough. Even so, geologically there's not much on offer, but the views, generally, from atop the mountains are memorable. That's the good part.

The first thing you'll notice at the hydro is the surprising number of guest vehicles parked haphazardly under cover or under suitably shady trees. The hydro is seemingly popular and for the life of me I'm not sure why. The grounds are shockingly unkempt. Old jacuzzi-baths and three-legged chairs decay quietly in the nearby flower-beds. Rusted drums and other discarded bric-a-brac are strewn casually around the grounds, migrating, eventually, under the pull of gravity to the nearby stream; an obvious health-hazard! Garbage is collected and burnt in an old concrete 'dam', well within an average health-nut's stones throw of the pool. The pall of black smoke hanging over the garden is testimony to that fact.

Built in the 1970s the buildings are somewhat derelict and in need of renovation or a little TLC, at the very least. The interior decor is dated and altogether a little grubby. In a nutshell the ambiance / atmosphere is reminiscent of a retirement village, forlorn and forgotten.

Amazingly, per the owner, 50% of the patients (his words not mine) are 'returning-regulars'; suckers for punishment if you ask me...

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Skukuza's 'Wooden Banana' - Enough is enough!

Eating at any of the restaurants in the Kruger National Park is usually unpleasant, mediocre at best. Whether it's at the buffet table or from the fast-food outlet, the experience is unforgettable and always for the wrong reasons.

The Wooden Banana (?) at Skukuza, the park's flagship camp, deserves its name. The staff are woefully incompetent, surly and poorly trained.  Management's to blame. It's a cheap and dirty business model. Who on earth awarded these people the catering contract?

I recently observed the counter staff treat a group of twenty American visitors with complete disdain. 'Culture' does NOT excuse incompetence. ALL front-line staff should treat their customers with respect. Private conversation should be conducted outside of WORKING Hours (remember the concept?) and certainly not between the counter staff and the kitchen staff some 30 meters away and NEVER whilst customers wait to be served. The American group, frustrated by the 'language barrier' [??] and obviously annoyed by their treatment still spent over R2000 on 'food' and drink.

If the staff are poor inside 'the banana', wait and see what's waiting out on deck.... It's plainly a dump. Tables are never wiped and just generally filthy. Litter is usually strewn across the floor. Condiments & sauce bottles are dusty or smeared with old sauce or grime. The deck itself is plainly a health hazard, covered in unsavoury bits of decaying food, guano and other 'material'. Umbrellas are never opened or clean.

All this, however, pales into insignificance when served the slop passed as food. The fries ['chips'] are fried in what could be old motor-oil and served an awful rancid yellow in colour. The chicken is precooked, then heated, a recipe for disaster. Do yourself a favour and NEVER order a toasted sandwich..Mouldy bread (bread rolls too) has been served to me more than once. On another occasion, the chicken mayo sandwich served to me was rotten. The shade of green on the chicken and the accompanying stench was a clue too subtle, obviously, and missed completely by the waitress, 'chef' and 'QC' Manager. Incidentally, whoever runs the kitchen should be fired. It's quite obvious that he/she is completely out of his/her depth. There's just never enough stock on hand, ever!

Now, let's be honest. Nobody expects the 'banana', which is little more than a canteen really, to serve 5-star fare. Expecting courteous service, fresh ingredients well-prepared, a hygienic surface from which to eat and a modicum of comfort should not, however, be too much to ask for, surely?

Monday, 6 June 2011

Go camping, it's fun..

The best trips are often 'spur-of-the moment' decisions and half the fun, usually, is anticipating the unexpected. We decided that a weekend away to the Kruger National Park would prove just the tonic for our JHB-wearied spirits. Anybody who has ever tried to book a last minute trip to the KNP will tell you that securing accommodation is virtually impossible, always fully-booked well in advance either by booking agents and or by self-drive travelers, local and foreign. Getting specific accommodation i.e: at a chosen camp, is even more difficult.

We wanted to stay at Satara, our favourite camp in the central Kruger, famous for its sightings of lion and other big game. As expected, the camp was fully-booked. There was, however, some 'camping' availability. We're not new to camping having over-landed in most of Africa's wilderness areas which require total self-sufficiency. Camping in the Kruger though had, until now, seemed 'unnecessary'. The park's formal accommodation is perfectly adequate and well-priced, generally. Given no option, however, we packed a 'three-day katundu' [camping equipment to see us through three days] and set off a little later than expected on Friday morning.

The drive to Orpen (the closest entrance gate to the central parts of the park) via Bushbuckridge in Mpumalanga, is always 'fun'. Cattle, goats, 'thirsty traffic officials' and unruly pedestrians can be a distraction... Nevertheless, we arrived at the park a little before three and used the remaining two and a half hours of daylight to travel the 50 kms to Satara camp. Our first lesson in 'Kruger-camping' we learnt as soon as we arrived. None of the sites are pre-booked, allocated or demarcated in any way. It's a free for all first come, first served buffet of inefficiency. Getting to the camp late, as we did, obviously had us scratching amongst the 'campsite-dregs'. Caravans of all sizes, shapes and hues cluttered the area from fence-post to lavatory-post [why do caravaners actively pursue the closest spot permissible to the olfactory pleasure that is the communal latrine??)

We eventually found the perfect spot well away from halogen lights and the clamour of miniature-satellite-dish assisted television [??] and set up our little canvas dome-tent and some chairs. Our second lesson in 'Kruger-camping' became obvious when our grumbling stomachs hinted that it was time to light the fire... There wasn't a braai-stand to be found anywhere! Some of our fellow 'campers' had commandeered two, sometimes three, braai-stands. It takes a LOT of wors ('sausage'), it seems, to feed some of those boys... Housekeeping fortunately found and delivered us a spare braai-stand. Annoyingly though, the grid was befouled with old grease and grit. Take a brush or your own grid, another lesson.

A crackling fire is considered medicine for the soul and this night was no different. Scops, White-faced and Barn Owls called quietly in the dark. The distant roaring of a lion was almost, but not completely drowned-out by drunken laughter from the nearest chalets [...yes, it's not ALWAYS the pesky campers that make the most noise] (BTW: KNP authorities have banned the sale of alcohol to non-residents, a BIG thumbs-up! You'll see fewer cans littering the roadside and better behaved visitors at the picnic sites. Now for those unnecessary 'day-trip safari vans'....). 

The most unnerving aspect when camping in the Kruger is the enforced use of the communal ablution facilities. Shades of plague-ridden nightmares past conjure up images of filthy pans and mud-splattered baths all of which usually haunt the first-time camper. This is, however, not the case. We found the ablutions clean and orderly. Besides the precautionary and obvious need for foot-gear, there's nothing 'grim' about the ablution facilities; our forth 'Kruger-camping' lesson.

The 'old-timers' will remember years gone by when strangers met around a fire to discuss the day's events; what was seen, where and when. Some formed lasting friendships. Interestingly, those days still exist in the campsites of Kruger.

Go camping, it's fun....

ps: for those of you who consider yourselves spiritual please note the 'orb' in the top right of this picture... (That's a story for another time)

Thursday, 2 June 2011

South Africa - New grading criteria

The Tourism Grading Council of South Africa (TGCSA) recently updated the travel industry with its new grading criteria. I'll admit it's internationally competitive and credible but it still falls short on the most critical issues.

Travelers to this country are entitled to quality assurance. Unfortunately, the majority of first-time travelers don't know what to expect from their chosen lodges / hotel etc. and settle for a less than full experience. This is particularly the case  in the safari industry. It's possible for lodge-owners to secure a top grading without providing the traveler with the appropriate safari-experience, which I imagine, is what the traveler wants from his /her safari in the first place. A 5-star lodge in a small private reserve with semi-tame wildlife does NOT provide the same experience as a 5-star lodge in a wilderness area with free-roaming wildlife. Both lodges advertise their grading and both are entitled to charge a similar rate, yet it's obvious the lodges don't provide the same experience. In fact having been to many of these 5-star lodges in small private reserves, advertised as Big-5 [i.e: free-roaming lion, elephant, rhino, buffalo and leopard] I can say from experience that the vast majority fall woefully short on providing the right wildlife experience. For example, a small pride of lion in a small camp within the reserve, separated from the rest of the wildlife in the reserve, can be legally advertised as 'free-roaming' [ie: not tied to a tree?], but this is NOT the experience we should be providing our visiting guests.

In addition, 5-star lodges with an unacceptable environmental impact should NOT have the same grade as a 5-star lodge with minimal impact on the environment. The same can be said of the facility's social conscience. Lodges which involve the local community should have a better grade than a similar aesthetically appealing lodge which doesn't.

In my opinion food plays an important role too. Defining 'good food' is subjective but it's quite obvious that guests should be exposed to SOUTH AFRICAN cuisine prepared well rather than international cuisine even if well-prepared, particularly in the bush. I would like to think that we can provide local dishes to our visitors without embarrassment. I recall a visit to Londolozi, a private lodge in the world-renowned Sabi Sands, adjacent the Kruger National Park which served my party French cuisine for our entire three-day stay. The food was well-prepared and yet local travelers were VERY unhappy. Our foreign guests, once enlightened, were also unhappy. Even though the game-viewing experience was magnificent, the staff wonderful and the facilities world-class, the EXPERIENCE fell short, badly so and remains the abiding memory from that particular trip.

In the end it's up to the travel industry to enlighten our foreign guests, prove that the REAL South Africa has a place as a world-class travel destination and stands alone as an experience to be remembered as truly South African. Being good at what we're not doesn't differentiate us as a destination.

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Queen Elizabeth's train...South Africa

One of South Africa's best kept secrets is Kaapsehoop, a tiny hamlet in the north east of the country near Nelspruit, Mpumalanga. Famous for its accessible pair of Blue Swallow which return each summer and perhaps more so for its relict herd of wild horses, this town is an absolute must-see for any self-drive traveler to South Africa.

Ghostly apparitions are said to walk these streets in the dark of night. Locals tell fiendish yarns of little lost boys and domestic murder. Recently a national television network attempted a visual recording of the ghosts, which I was asked to attend. I remember the night being frosty and more particularly the sight of an unnatural and large half-ring halo of light which cast an eerie glow across the sky. It's difficult to describe the sight of an unopened umbrella taking to the air in a darkened room seemingly unassisted.......

One of Kaapsehoop's best kept secrets is the aptly named Adam's Calendar, South Africa's very own 'Stonehenge'. In fact, some claim that these stone monoliths which overlook two pyramids in the valley below, pre-date any other known man-made structure on earth. The structure itself is said to date back 75000 years and tracks the constellation, Orion, which if verified, makes Adam's Calendar a global priority.

Logistically the town is easily accessible on good tarmac from the N4 and from Nelspruit directly. There are no general grocery retailers in the town besides the small stores which offer the usual soft-drinks and snacks. Restaurants in the town are recommended but limited. Dishes are mostly local but tasty. Breakfast options are more varied and imaginative; the Koek 'n Pan exceptional.

Accommodation options are adequately simple but cozy; The Silver Mist Country Inn the obvious stand-out. Avoid 'The Train' at all costs. This ancient carriage is dusty and in need of refurbishment. Seemingly the bed-linen could be the original cloth from its early years when its most famous passenger, Queen Elizabeth, bestrode its balconies some 70 years ago.

Monday, 30 May 2011

Botswana Chobe National Park – security risk – April 2011

Botswana is a favourite travel destination of mine. The political stability is uniquely refreshing. Nevertheless, I can’t help thinking that the gloss is wearing a little thin. Evidence of decline, however temporary, is subtle but altogether obvious if you look closely enough in the right places.

Botswana’s policy of low-impact tourism, ( low volume – high revenue) is noteworthy and a lesson to other countries. Fly-in safaris notwithstanding, many of the lodges, hotels and camps are reached by road. Self-drive tourism to Botswana’s northern parks and sites is, as always, bustling . Sadly though the ‘surfaced’ road between Nata and Kasane has decayed to such an extent that travelling the 300 odd kilometers to Kasane from Nata or vise-versa, particularly at this time of the year, is for long stretches at least, a quagmire of mud, stray animals and deep potholes. I concede that some of Botswana’s charm comes from the remoteness of its parks and the ‘romance’ of its natural wilderness. Getting there is usually half the fun. Nevertheless, if Botswana continues to allow international, industrial heavy-rig transit en-route to Zambia via this route for very little revenue / benefit, then its current attempts at rebuilding this road, aptly named the ‘Nata-Kazangula Project’ is naive at best. An aggressive tolling system on the new road might address the issue; time will tell.
However, its not the state of the roads I want to highlight here. The burgeoning security risk for tourists to Chobe NP and neighbouring Kasane is concerning. An international territorial dispute between Botswana and its immediate neighbour, Namibia, over a tiny, inconsequential island in the middle of the Chobe floodplain seems to have upset the local people on both sides of the river. Planting a large conspicuous Botswana flag in the middle of the island ‘farmed by generations of Namibians‘ seems, as a neutral, to be adding insult to injury. The lodges and hotels in Kasane on the Chobe river employ both Namibians and locals. The Namibian employees, who have to travel through immigration each day, make it patently obvious in conversation that they feel exploited. The local Botswana people will tell you that the rising levels of serious crime in Kasane emanate from Namibia. Either way, it’s indisputable that Kasane / Chobe poses a serious security risk for travellers.

By way of example one of my hitherto favourite sites in all of Botswana is the Ihaha camp site located some 25 odd kilometers west of Kasane on the banks of the Chobe river in the Chobe National Park. The site is scenically spectacular. March / April is generally considered to be low season. Consequently, besides the small staff compliment some distance away we were the only people in camp. One hour post sunset an unmarked vehicle arrived unannounced in our camp. We were informed by the two occupants of the vehicle that they were Botswana police. Furthermore, since we ‘were to be attacked tonight by people from Namibia’ they would stand watch. Evidently, the Namibians, as the story goes, would row across the Chobe expanse from Namibia to the shoreline in Botswana in makoros when camping lights in the darkness, across the water confirmed that the camp site was occupied. Having robbed the occupants of their valuables at knife-point they evidently make good their escape by retracing their route across international waters safely back into Namibia. You can imagine our consternation.

Unsurprisingly the Namibians will tell you differently. Having cancelled the rest of our pre-booked stay at Ihaha in favour of Chobe Safari Lodge in Kasane we were told by Namibian employees that it was Botswana residents who were supplying Namibians with information on tourists who would then be robbed, sometimes killed and the spoils shared. Either way, an unpleasant and obviously sad eventuality if taken at face value. Chobe Safari Lodge themselves had a very large security contingent working the night-shift which, if nothing else, adds credence to the threat. 

If Botswana wants to preserve its reputation as a safe destination then decisive steps need to be taken, immediately, to dispel the security risks in northern Chobe.

Audi Camp – Maun [Botswana] review April 2011

Quite often, as a self-drive tourist, circumstances dictate a change of itinerary. Last-minute accommodation is frantically sought in unfamiliar surrounds and usually under trying circumstances. The pontoon driver who would have ferried us across the Botete River to Khumaga Camp was nowhere to be found which necessitated a last minute dash for Maun. We arrived just before sunset and stayed the night at Audi Camp.
Audi Camp is situated on the Thamalakane River just outside Maun en route Moremi. At first glance Audi seems a little run-down. The entrance is certainly unappealing and so was the dusty reception. The pool gardens are generally unkempt, so too is the encroaching bush near the large house. The facilities are certainly well worn-in, which is a kindness considering the green-tinged pool and the weary furniture. No doubt, this large operation has seen better days aesthetically.

Our party of four stayed the night in two of the four luxury en-suite tents which supposedly overlooked the Thamalakane River. The unattended invasive shrubbery dispelled any chances of a river view.  The tents on raised wooden decks were therefore surprisingly well-kept, clean and comfortable. The linen was crisp and unblemished. Extra towels, linen, blankets and pillows were also provided. Each tent had the obligatory tea and coffee but no milk. Coffee creamer in tea?

The bathroom en suite was an outdoor affair but functional. Notwithstanding, the wooden pegs provided for towels presumably, were arranged dangerously at head-height and is an accident waiting to happen. 

Dining is at the restaurant. No self-catering facilities are provided. An old outdoor braai / barbecue facility is provided for ambiance outside each tent. There are no discernable lights outside the tent nor on the unmarked pathways to the restaurant. Unless you carry a torch, arriving unscathed at the restaurant is a feat in itself.

The menu was a pleasant surprise. Notwithstanding the outrageous prices the food was well-prepared, well- presented and in adequate portions. Close inspection of the restaurant’s clientelle yielded very few travellers amongst the many local patrons. Wildlife film crews and other semi-permanent residents in a discernably rising crescendo as the night wore on, provided a little of that famous Maun hospitality. Audi is like an old friend, life-worn and tired but also comfortable and fun. There are no pretentions, secrets or extras. It’s a place to meet old friends, drink the local brew and have a warm shower before like most who visit here, returning to the bush.

Khama Rhino Sanctuary – Serowe, Botswana – review April 2011

One of two stop-over options for travellers from the south en route northern Botswana is Khama Rhino Sanctuary. Situated just west of Serowe on the A14 this reserve is a welcome oasis at the end of a long day’s travel. Principally established, relatively recently, as a central hub for the reintroduction of the regionally extinct white and black rhino,  a stop here is usually rewarding.

Unusually though, the frontline staff are astonishingly unapproachable, poorly trained and generally surly. Given Botswana’s propensity for top-class service and its generally friendly peoples, Khama’s attitude is sinful.

The self-catering thatched chalets are adequate. An open-plan dining room/ kitchen doubles as the second bedroom. The main bedroom is not walled to the double-volume ceiling and is therefore semi-private. Both rooms have two single beds. The linen needs replacing but is clean. The kitchenette provides utensils, pots, pans, cutlery and crockery for four people.

Outside, the braai / barbeque facility is new and well-tended. Notwithstanding, the only exterior light was filled with rainwater and was therefore non-functional. No external furniture is provided. Guests are therefore expected to bring their own chairs or remove the dining chairs from the chalet.  Guests can also make use of the restaurant and pool facilities nearby.

The sunsets and the night skies are incomparably spectacular and sitting around the fire with family and friends under Camelthorn Acacias is memorable if not indisputably magical. Sunset or an early morning drive in the sanctuary is a must. The roads are well-kept but occasionally narrowed by overgrown Candlepod Acacias. Caution is therefore advised for travellers in larger 4×4 vehicles.

Undoubtedly the sanctuary’s worth is the haven it provides for rhinos, extinct elsewhere in Botswana, but sans the staff, it’s also a brilliant soul-cleansing elixir.

Kwalate Safaris – Ihaha Camp; Xakanaxa & Maqwee (South gate) – April 2011

Some months ago the DWNP [Department of Wildlife and National Parks - Botswana] confirmed a shift in its camp management policy. Most, if not all, of the public camps in Moremi Wildlife Reserve, Chobe National Park & Makgadikgadi Pans National Park are now managed by external management / tour operator companies.

IT.Com Civils (Pty) Ltd trading as Kwalate Safaris was awarded the management of Ihaha Camp (Chobe N.P), Xakanaxa (Moremi) and Maqwee / South Gate (Moremi).

Rumours of unresolved contractual disputes between the newly appointed management companies (MC) and the DWNP abound. Just how and why the dispute affects the management of the various camps is moot. Notwithstanding, the management of the camps is currently the sole responsibility of the MCs and in some cases the results are less than impressive.

Anybody who has been to the various public camps in the past will concede a degree of neglect. Very few of the camps were properly managed. Facilities were mostly poor and in need of repair. Presumably the intended change of management was to address the neglect and improve service levels. Not so. Prices have more than doubled but service levels haven’t.

Our party had secured and prepaid / confirmed accommodation at Maqwee, the public camp site at South Gate, Moremi. An hour after arrival and lunch we were told that the camp was closed until further notice. Rain water, it seems, had adversely affected the batteries which operated the water pump. The doors to the ablution blocks were subsequently locked. We had little alternative but take up the offer to try Xakanaxa, some 40 odd kilometers north. Recent rains yielded most of the road north virtually impassable. Nevertheless, some 4 hours later we arrived at Xakanaxa. Xakanaxa’s facilities were not much better. A fortunate encounter with the camp’s manager on his way out had us allocated camp site 5, pleasant enough as is most of Xakanaxa. Unfortunately the nearest ablution block was out of order and locked. The only other ablution block available to us some 150m away had no lights, no hot water and no toilet seats. Only one cubicle in the ladies bathroom was operational. Returning to Maqwee some three days later en route Savuti we discovered that the camp site was still closed. Little attempt had been made, it seems, to secure a new battery for the pump. Worse was yet to come.

In the interim our stay at Savuti camp managed by the SKL Group of Camps was exceptional. The camp site was in tip-top condition. Connie, an executive at SKL who assisted us on another matter, obviously runs a tight ship and must be commended. The camp sites were properly raked, the refuse was removed, the ablution blocks were spotlessly clean, all the showers had hot water and the toilets still had seats. The lights worked too.

Our arrival at Ihaha camp again managed by Kwalate Safaris in Chobe National Park some days later was nothing short of disastrous. Having left Savuti earlier that morning via the western route for northern Chobe NP we arrived at an empty Ihaha camp office tired and dusty at approximately 4.50pm. Our booking had been prepaid and confirmed. Closer inspection on the booking sheet revealed that we had been allocated site 8 which after brief inspection proved entirely unsuitable for two vehicles given the extent of the water in the floodplain. The solitary tree in site 8 would also prove to be the preferred roost for the local troop of baboons. Interestingly we were Ihaha’s only confirmed guests for the following few days. Besides the obvious neglect and the baboon damage, neither of the two ablution blocks had any hot water. A wood-heated boiler hadn’t any wood and therefore we weren’t to have any hot water…. Returning to the office to inform the camp’s management that the ‘donkey’ [hot-water boiler] had no wood and to request a change of site, we were informed by the DWNP representative that Davidson, the camp’s manager, would see us in the staff quarters some way away if we so desired. Davidson proved a revelation in bad service. Not only was the office unmanned during office hours, the camp sites unraked, both ablution facilities filthy and generally neglected but the ’recently serviced cruiser was broken’ too which meant that no wood could be carried to the boilers.  No solution was forthcoming from our designer-clad Kwalate representative.

Given the late hour we had no alternative but stay the night at a site of our choosing. We left the following morning forfeiting the rest of our prepaid days at Ihaha for Chobe Safari Lodge who charged us a third of the price of Ihaha for clean bathrooms, clean sites, hot water and good security.

Sadly, Kwalate is grossly neglectful of its guests which is a pity given the beauty of the sites under their control.

Botswana – Overland Trip report /Part 2 – April 2011

We checked out of Audi after breakfast and headed into town to do some grocery shopping and settle our fees at the DWNP office.  The ladies in our party preferred their own company giving the rest of us the opportunity to reflect on the Monday-morning activity. You can’t help but marvel at the people going about their business in a frontier town. The basic human model’s the same but with some interesting twists, most notably the urchins, purportedly wilderness guides, sent on supply errands by their respective employers. One, not so hairy-chested ‘ranger’ driving a zebra-striped safari-vehicle, careened into a tree, obviously overcome by the stresses and strains of rush-hour traffic.

With our fridges stocked and vehicles fueled we looked northward. The road to Moremi is initially tar and then gravel which deteriorates rapidly from the veterinary barrier north. It’s especially brutal after torrential rains when the slippery surface and severe corrugations provide a unique combination of shake, rattle and slide. South Gate or Maqwee, our planned accommodation for the night, was therefore a welcome relief, if only temporarily. Recent rains had destroyed the water-pump’s battery system some days earlier. The camp was therefore ‘waterless’ which we discovered only after we had unpacked and started lunch. The facilities were subsequently locked by staff and the camp closed until further notice leaving us effectively stranded. Xakanaxa, some 40km further north, was recommended as an alternative. We repacked the vehicles and departed for Xakanaxa at 3pm approximately. The rain intensified which impeded visibility and so began our ordeal. We arrived some four hours later in the twilight at Xakanaxa tired and a little bemused. We had managed to get through reliant on some driving experience and a great deal of luck. The rain had all but obscured the entry / exit lines in the waterlogged dips, some as deep as 1m and with visibility virtually nil, the cotton-soil mud-pits were impossible to avoid.  Neither vehicle had to be recovered but both destroyed a full set of brake pads respectively. En route we had passed two two-wheel- drive camper vans forced to turn back. Permitting obviously inexperienced foreign tourists to rent unsuitable vehicles in these conditions, is unethical if not criminal.

We pitched camp in the dark, avoiding our allocated site [No. 5] with its hippo paths and large Maroela trees dangerously shedding fruit. After a general clean-up and a light dinner, we settled in for the night, serenaded by the plaintive pings of reedfrogs. Lions roared some distance away.

The new day confirmed our suspicions that we had survived the flooded roads, snuffling hyenas, suspicious hippo bulls and untold other uglies of the night. Early elephants ghosted through our camp.

Xakanaxa is situated on one of the mopani tongues and overlooks the phragmite-clogged channels of the delta. Those who know these things will argue that the ‘true delta’ lies much further west. Either way, it’s quietly understated and has less big game in season than the more westerly campsite at 3rd Bridge. Yes, Xakanaxa’s for the birds, quite literally. Rufous-bellied Heron, Hartlaub’s Babbler, Luapula and Chirping Cisticola, Slaty Egret, Coppery-tailed Coucal and Great Swamp Warbler are fairly common and occasionaly ticked in a single morning from the breakfast table. This morning was such a morning; a grand way to start our day.

By 8:30am we’d packed the vehicles and departed for 3rd Bridge, our scheduled accommodation for three nights. On our way out I was amused to see our neighbours in various stages of disrepair. Sadly the alcohol-induced hilarity of the night seemed long forgotten.

We took close on five hours to cover the distance from Xakanaxa to 3rd Bridge, driving slowly and birding en route. Game was seasonally sparse. Part way we came across a lion roaring his territorial dominance in the middle of the road, always thrilling. Like flies to the proverbial, vehicles converged on the lion from all directions driving us, not him, from the sighting. Rumours of a waterlogged and virtually impassable 3rd Bridge, kept us time-honest or we might have stayed longer. Other game en route included Lechwe, Impala, Elephant, Buffalo, Giraffe, Zebra, Hippo, Crocodile, Kudu and Wilderbeest. As it turned out, even though water levels were reasonably high, 4th Bridge proved more tricky than the notorious crossing at 3rd Bridge. Even so, our near disaster came not in the mud but at the hands of an uncoming safari ‘ranger’ who thought it prudent to accelerate wildly into a blind corner on a narrow road. Suffice to say that we discussed the merits of his strategy at length!

You can understand the popularity of 3rd Bridge. It’s not necessarily picturesque but is sought for its location in the heart of big game country. In drier months tourists and game abound but in the wet season, as it was when we arrived, only the very dedicated and the most sedentary of game remain.

We were given the pick of the camp choosing No. 1 for its proximity to the facilities and its unimpeded views of the water. The baboon troop, responsible for the running wars waged on tourists and staff alike, has been ‘controlled’. Camp-life is therefore a little easier. Even so, you can’t help but feel remorseful for the remainder of the troop now scattered some distance away. That afternoon we enjoyed two cheetah going about their business. 

Dinner was a light affair, as are most when we camp in the Moremi, prefering our main meal at lunchtime. The DWNP has banned the picking up of wood in its parks. Primeval dancing around roaring bonfires in camp is, perhaps, a thing of the past. A lion roared ‘in our tents’ sometime in the early hours of the night. There is nothing more disquieting than the ensuing silence…

Botswana – Overland Trip report / Part 3 – April 2011

Rising with the dawn we waited on our guides who would shuttle us to the jetty for our scheduled two hour trip up the channel. Our intentions were to bird the phragmites and papyrus from the boat. As it turned out the best bird on the trip, a Striped Crake, was viewed from the back of the Land Cruiser en route to the jetty long before we set foot anywhere near a boat. Birding on the channel proved disappointing. Less than a handful made an appearance, nothing special. The boat itself was in a state of disrepair; seats were broken and the motor ancient, stalling an hour out. No amount of tinkering from our intrepid ‘rangers’ solicited much more than a cough. We were quite literally up the creek without a paddle. To our fearless khaki-clad duo’s complete surprise the motor sprang to life some 20 minutes later and we roared homeward-bound; our siesta rudely ended by the slap of reed and weed.

We spent the rest of the morning on the southern route driving slowly from pan to pan enjoying excellent views of Slaty Egret, Rufous-bellied Heron and Wattled Crane. Game was scarce to non-existent.
Overlanding out of season has its perks. A change of itinerary is always possible. 

3rd Bridge is a favourite. Even so, we agreed that the seasonal Savuti would offer more. Radio communication to Maun confirmed the changes and vehicles subsequently packed in anticipation of an early start.  A journey of some 230km lay ahead of us, mostly in either mud or sand.

We crossed 3rd Bridge a little after 5:30am without mishap. 4th Bridge creaked and groaned in the early dawn and was much more interesting. A little further on two Wild Dogs, one collared, trotted on the road. Two dogs on their own, seemed a little sad.

We reached the junction south a short time later. The road from Xakanaxa to North Gate was still flooded and therefore closed. To get to Savuti we would have to return to South Gate and then the main road north to Khwai which eventually proved much easier than anticipated. We breakfasted at the dysfunctional Maqwee [South Gate] camp in light drizzle. Thunderstorms would sweep through Moremi later that morning. With the difficulties of the mud behind us, getting to Khwai was easy and mostly uneventful. The last 60km to Savuti, however, dishes out it’s own blend of thick, soft sand. Even so, this time we did not deflate our tyres and travelled in relative comfort on the road’s thin, rain-hardened crust. The Marsh road was closed, as expected. Game on the alternative route proved scarce, as usual.  The monotony of the day was all but forgotten when we came across a coalition of four, very large, black-maned lions sunning in the post-storm warmth.

Some time later we arrived safely but a little tired at Savuti Camp. We were allocated No.5 away from the river and therefore not ideal. Nevertheless, the site was spotless, large and secluded; perfectly comfortable but for its view. An old bull elephant found our site just as enticing. Fortunately he checked-out just as we took residence, preferring the mid-afternoon shade in the site next door.

The day’s toil had taken its toll. Even so, we couldn’t resist a late afternoon drive and just as well. Pectoral Sandpiper at Harvey’s Pan! It’s only the 12th record ever for the region. Usually the rarities are not confiding. This particular bird, however, had no fear at all and was perfectly happy strutting its stuff in front of camera. Although I’ve seen them elsewhere in the sub-region, it’s an unforgettable Botswana highlight. Incidentally, birders are a peculiar bunch. The disgusted ‘ag man, it’s just a bird’ we lunatics hear too often from those considered ‘normal’ does not explain our sweaty palms and beaded brow when confronted by a ‘special’.

Cathedral Peak Hotel – The Good, the Bad and the Ugly! April 2011

The uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is spectacularly scenic and none more so than the Northern Drakensberg’s Cathedral Peak / Didima Valley region. At the foot of Cathedral Peak, which towers some 3005m above sea level, is one of two local accommodation options, the privately-owned 4-star Cathedral Peak Hotel.

The resort is advertised as upmarket and in places that’s true but as a whole it falls woefully short. It’s cinderalla’s older sister in make-up masquerading as her younger sibling. It’s soft and saggy and the shoe doesn’t fit.

First impressions are poor. The entrance road is dangerously pot-holed and in a general state of disrepair. Seemingly abandoned bits of iron, old concrete and wire are not entirely hidden by the ouhout trees near the entrance on the right. The ‘bridge’ over the river en route to the clubhouse reveals a heap of torn green & white sand bags. Nearing the hotel’s reception the senses are assaulted by the smell of raw sewerage. Dilapidated signs near the day-visitors’ parking reserve the hotel facilities for residents only. Resident guests pay extra for covered parking. Even though the staff are generally efficient and the security personnel especially so, the gardens are sadly unkempt and in need of weeding. The hotel’s written history displayed in the entrance hall is spoilt by syntax error and poor spelling. A trip to the stables necessitates a walk through the back-end of the hotel which exposes guests to very ordinary staff quarters.

On the positive side the golf course is surprisingly good. The greens are slow but immaculate. The fairways are better if not as good as those of any country course anywhere.

Included in the daily rate are all meals and the food is generally of a high standard if not lacking a little in variety and imagination. Children are catered for both in the kitchen and the playroom. Daily activities are well advertised and varied. The hotel’s interior furnishing is adequately functional. Guest rooms and suites are classically luxurious but not overtly stylish.

A minimum stay of four nights is imposed in peak times. Even so, the hotel provides for a socially vibrant environment where guests are entertained ad nauseum. If you enjoy a good game of golf in the majestic silence of the Drakensberg with its awe-inspiring peaks and valleys then stay at the nearby Didima and buy a day-visitor’s pass to the hotel’s golf course. It’s the Drakensberg at its best.

Central and Northern Namibia – ‘For the birds’ – Part 1

Day 1 Johannesburg (JHB) [South Africa] – Zelda Guest Farm [Buitepos; Namibia] – Distance as the crow flies: 1050km

Months of planning and a plethora of OEM accessories added to our Defender 110 lay in our wake. The do's & don’ts list had been checked, stowed & forgotten. ‘Dieseled’ to the eyeballs we roared out of JHB en route nearby Pretoria. Roadworks warning signs winked us on. Not until we reached Zeerust sometime later did we truly let our hair down. The mace and napalm [medicine for the treacherous Gauteng locals] was confined to the console. Pioneer Gate / Skilpadshek – the RSA / Botswana border post into Lobatse (Botswana) beckoned.

Pioneer proved a breeze. We filled out the departure forms, inked in the vehicle registartion on the register & with a skip ‘n whistle waltzed through to the Botswana gate [Skilpadshek]. Piece of cake! The devil’s in the detail  – Officialdom beckoned!

U musti be standing in da line’ – which line ma’am? [Internet said be polite]. ‘I said be standing in da line & you must never never cross this white line when you presenti urselef.’ Yes ma’am. [My first Botswana conversation had gone rather nicely I thought]. Right! Time for that 2nd line…….

Grim & dazed RSA faces in a queue [THE 2nd line] 100 paces long hinted at what was to come. The 2nd queue was the money queue. Motor vehicle declaration – 3rd party insurance etc. We had arrived at Pioneer 7am – subsequently departed Skilpadshek 12:15 pm. Smile you’re on Africa's candid …

The Botswana police were clearly in evidence; edgy even. Banter in the queue had long departed for places other. The officials broke for lunch at 11:25 am approx. [No apology]. Some 180 Pula (Tswana for 'Rain') & 5 long hours later we belted across the white stripe en route Kang, in the middle of the Kalahari & the only fuel stop between Kanye and Ghanzi.

Welcome to the land of goats & donkeys. Kang turned out to be an interesting stop. No electricity meant the pumps weren’t working. It was disheartening to see the same sallow faces from ‘Die Tweede Lyn ‘– reddened and crusted from the 38 degree sun, blankly staring at ‘moerse-stil-pompe’ [Wat nou Pa?]. Gaan koop vir jou ‘n long-range tank boetie! We pressed on…..

The rest of our day's journey proved less eventful. Birding was fair to middling. The usual suspects were in evidence – [85 species thus far] Some notables included Pale Chanting Goshawk, Black-chested Snake Eagle, Eastern Clapper Lark, Fawn-coloured Lark, Common Fiscal [desert race], Village Indigobird, Red-billed Oxpecker, Greater Kestrel, Northern Black Korhaan, Chestnut-backed Sparrow-Lark & Red-billed Spurfowl.

The final insult before Buitepos was the 160 kilometer, absolutely into THE SUN, grind from the Ghanzi turn-off to Mamuno. Cattle, donkeys & goats, from the working class, care less that we had already been on the road more than 12 hours and insisted on right-of-way. All this with my best puckered-eye rendition in blinding glare. Some say we do this for fun……..

Border posts at Mamuno & Buitepos were an efficient relief [even though the queues at Buitepos rivalled Skilpadshek –this at 9pm Wednesday night] An impressively paraat soldier-boy refused to let us through the boom until we had satisfied ourselves that he could [indeed] read [Vehicle-permit]. We streaked across the white line, filled the car at Buitepos and made for Zelda Game Farm, our first stop of the trip.

9:30pm & stars twinkled in the night. We had already seen jackal, gemsbok, impala and kudu. This land is God's own. Words will never do justice the solace & food for the soul this country spoon-feeds travelers & birders alike. Long-forgotten the mahem of Skilpad. Arrogance, strife, stress & ignorance naughty words from countries past.

Zelda was magnificent & just the tonic. BH [Better half /have] did herself justice with the pre-prepared chicken biryani. Our roof-tent was whipped up in double time. All fell 'silence’ –  until the leopard sawed into the night, that is, somewhere under the sheets…. A little hand gently tugged my arm. Nature was knocking on the bladder & the ladder was out.. On closer examination, early next morning, we learnt the truth of the rehabilitated leopard in the camp next to our campsite. BH sees the funny side only now…….

Day 2 Zelda Game Farm – Windhoek [300 km]

Zelda’s the only realistic stop after Buitepos, particularly if you make the trip from South Africa in a single day. I highly recommend the joint. As always we enjoyed an early walk around the lodge grounds. Other South Africans remained asleep, where they had fallen, dead to the world on mattresses, out in the open, [They too had suffered Skilpadshek & Kang...] We felt, at last, that our holiday had truly begun. Some notables in the camp included Barn Owl, Southern White-faced Owl, Pririt Batis, Dusky Lark, Ashy Tit, Barred Wren-Warbler & Swallowtail Bee-eater. Our trip list had topped 114, respectable given the circumstance.

We left Zelda en route Windhoek via Gobabis. Some prefer a heavy foot on the B6 to Windhoek. I, however, find the transition from bushveld to dry scrub intriguing. The mix of birds had therefore changed. Some notables on this section included Cape Vulture [yes it was], Capped Wheatear, SA Shelduck & Kori Bustard.

Windhoek itself is tad surreal. The eclectic mix of indigenous folk and foreigners alike make for fascinating study. On this point I highly recommend not finding your designated [booked & pre-paid] accommodation. That way you too can enjoy the scintillating drive across town, on the hallowed tarmac of Robert Mugabe & Sam Njoma drives. You too can get lost in the parking lot of a local church and you too can contemplate a night on the street, chastened by the smarter one in the seat alongside & whilst absently steering Nandos around a greasy plate. [Some N$1950 later we settled into our hotel room – chastened but not beaten!] Before that though – the sewage works & Daan Viljoen. For those of you who find delight, like I do, in the unsavoury ponds of human waste & scum, do yourselves a favour & visit the Windhoek Sewage Works. It’s a no-brainer given the near-desert conditions of the Khomas Hoghland. Some field notables include African Reed Warbler, Hottentot Teal, Lesser Swamp Warbler, Chestnut V T-Babbler, BF Waxbill, B Crowned Night-Heron, Eurasian Honey Buzzard, Cape Shoveler, Great Reed Warbler, Lesser Honeyguide, White-backed Mousebird, Yellow-bellied Eremomela, Cardinal Woodpecker and Monteiro’s Hornbill.

Daan Viljoen was still under revamp and not conducive to much exploration. Singletons travelling on their own might be intrigued by the overwhelming female welcome at the gate…..! Nevertheless we drove the mandatory loop through the reserve in search of White-tailed Shrike and Rockrunner. Neither was conspicuous. We did, however, notch up both ‘Bradfield’s’ as in lark & swift. Trip list commendable 167.

Day 3 Windhoek – Walvis Bay via C28 through the Khomas Hoghland & Namib-Naukluft [335 km]

Anybody who has driven this road will tell you it’s long. I agree. What they won’t admit, maybe, is the overwhelming feeling of scenery-inspired awe. Realised personal insignificance is honesty in its purest form. The Khomas Hoghland, at 861m, descends into the desert of the Naukluft in a mere 250 km. The beautiful sunrise over Windhoek’s fading twinkling lights was all but erased by the sunset over the burning red sands of the Namib. Some say the sands sing a song of silence. Others suggest just the faintest hum. Locals claim this song’s of life. Either way it’s a show-stopper.

The birding was pseudo-fictional too. Notables included inter alia Orange R Francolin, Great Sparrow, Dusky Sunbird, Red-headed Finch, Rock Kestrel, Rosy-faced Lovebird, White-tailed Shrike, Short-toed Rock Thrush, Lappet-faced Vulture, Carp’s Tit, Rockrunner, Augur Buzzard, Sociable Weaver, Stark’s Lark, Lark-like Bunting, Sociable Weaver, Ruppell’s Korhaan, Tractrac Chat, Grey-backed Sparrow-Lark, Gray’s Lark & Namaqua Sandgrouse.

The first 30km or so of the C28 is tarmac. The last 30km between Swakopmund & Walvis Bay is also tar. The 280km, in between, is gravel. Years of RSA travel has ingrained an inherent fear of anything not tar [That notion too is sliding into yesteryear when you see some of the pot-holes in and around JHB]. In Namibia, however, it doesn't take too long to note that the gravel roads are quite easy to drive on, particularly at birding pace. White-knuckle driving is symptomatic of things other and not the state of the road. This can, however, lull you into a sense of false bravado…. At the 110km mark ex-Windhoek, on the left-hand side of the road, is a boulder strewn cliff which drops away into what appeared to be the devil’s very own. Naturally it was here that we found our first Rockrunner of the trip.

We all know that a 400mm lens refuses the eye when a lifer’s on hand. [Get closer boy!] Flagrant disregard for all things natural [e.g.: gravity] is also commonplace as doors are flung open. Eyes bulge and teeth grind [breathe son – you’re turning blue]. When you’re like me though you get as close to the subject as possible before DFO [Door Flung Open]. Only when we had unwittingly roared into the abyss and teetered on the brink of catastrophe [2 ½ wheels on planet earth – the other 1 ½ wheels soaring like eagles over the valley] did I realise that a DFO from BH would require a pre-flight check. Careful analysis of BH’s wordless, blue-lipped scream proved demeanour not usually in the pre-flight manual. Lip-reading comes easily to me. An 'F' in Portuguese [Alisha is Latino] and other preferred extractions from the alphabet, always carry a 2 meter death-to-all warning. I was well within range & took that as cue to gently, very gently. return from whence we’d come. A ‘where’s the Rockrunner gone’ inquiry might have triggered an ear-flattened charge.  As perceptive, as ever, I resisted that thought!

For a while BH seemed particularly interested in what seemed to be some faraway spot on the earth’s curvature? [Note to self: - Have eyes checked] We drove in silence for the next hour. Birding is not for the faint-hearted! [Children & drivers should always be accompanied by an adult at all times]

For those of you thus inclined, look for Damara aged turbidites, Naukluft Nappe geology and Nama sedimentary rocks. These contain Namacalathus, the first hard skeleton animals on planet earth. Stromatolitic carbonate reefs include some of the oldest fossils of hard skeleton animals known.

Nearer the Naukluft, beyond the Sociable Weaver’s nest on the left and the pair of Ruppell’s Korhaan on the right, we stumbled upon our first flocks of Stark’s Lark. Interesting birds those & reminiscent of Emperor Qin’s buried Terracotta Army. Flocks of 50 birds, or more, stand motionless, perched statuesque & always into the wind. For the botanists the occasional Welwitschia mirabilis is always noteworthy.

We arrived sometime later at Lagoon Loge [no not lodge but loge – French s.v.p!] in Walvis Bay, just in time for the sunset. Supper at The Raft rounded off the intrigue. Salt air, gulls and guano our heady accompaniment for the night. 

Central and Northern Namibia -’For the birds’ Part 2

Day 4 Walvis Bay – Rooibank – Salt works DATCF 50km

The interesting field-skill when birding Namibia in the summer, particularly in the west, is timing. First light is usually an hour and more after JHB dawn. The same applies in the evening obviously. The domestically motivating aspect of an extra hour’s sleep before the dawn watch is always bankable.

Dune Lark [DL] was the breakfast aperitif. That required a whistle trip out of Walvis en route the airport & then south down to Rooibank [village]. Intimidating as the desert can be, it’s particularly so early in the morning. It’s oppressive even. Very little wind stirs up a soup of unnerving cathedral-like silence. Village curs don’t bark but stare blankly into the distance. The people seem more soft-spoken too. The renegade in this respectful hush though is the Dune Lark. Not for them the haloed silence on bended knee. The sheer delight in their calls draws you closer just as drunken laughter does at a campfire. The birds are common around the clumps of dune grass. The first bird [lifer] is normally the one you remember. This time however it’s the second bird we saw that is the abiding memory.

You’ll remember Sods 2nd law of photography from earlier – [you’re too far- get closer.....] and so the saga began……..

BH [BE&BT – bright eyed & bushy-tailed] enthused by the extra hours shut-eye, grabbed the camera to capture [first-hand] our first DL. Picture the scene… Rooibank [the village] was hidden from view a mere 500m away by the large ochre-red dunes. We happened to be sitting on one of these [BTW: this is barefoot country – experience the dunes between your toes. You won’t be sorry!] At the foot of the ‘dunelet’ [juvenile] opposite us bestrode a red devil [Dune Lark]. Applying Sod’s No.2, that meant covering 50m of open ground, from elevation, backlit by the first sun with the 400mm lens periscoped over a shoulder. I grabbed the popcorn, fluffed up my grandstand [category 4] seat & enjoyed.

The 1st 25m was [disappointingly] a synch; BH having employed the SDB technique. [Slide Down on your Backside...] The DL completely engrossed in the first moth of the day seemed oblivious or uncharacteristically short-sighted. Drunk with early success, BH up-ended & fatally switched to the HD-AA [Head Down – Arse in the Air] technique. This uniquely mystifying strategy [origins unknown – although documented evidence of the same hunting stratagem employed by the Hollywood superstar, Elmer Fudd, does confirm some early success] immediately enraptured the grandstand. The red devil too demonstrated early signs of merriment. And so the dance began….

For those of you unfamiliar with the Cotillion, a classic Victorian-era formal dance let me explain. In its graceful movements, bewitching rhythms and expressive charm belies a silent poetry of the body. It’s freedom of movement with an unrestrained impulsiveness.

And so it was with face turned slightly left, the gentleman [red devil], in homespun red attired, did lead the mistress of the ball [solemn vastness of the dunes] on swaying legs and chest thrust out. The lady, still in HD-AA [maintained eye contact & therefore respectful of the dance] held the pose, followed & did not lead. Around and around – first left then right, the rhythmic cadence perfect. No photos did she take the narra-vegetated hummock dunes in between. The grandstand roared approval, tears of laughter wet the dunes – the silence back to Walvis a fitting end….

A few lines on Lagoon Loge –The rooms were spotless and our hosts [Francais] charming. The breakfast’s memorable. I highly recommend a two night stay at least. Notwithstanding the luxury of the lodge, the location is simply other-worldly. Thousands of waders & flamingos a mere 50m away; companions / friends even, at your breakfast table. The memory haunts me still.

Walvis Bay’s bay is large. In the summer untold migrants in their thousands make this oasis home. When the tide’s right [low] and where the sand banks are exposed, waders appear in countless droves flying in to land at what seems no more than a spit & a doddle from your feet. I used a scope to sort Knot from Curlew and Red from Red-necked, but it’s not the end of the world if you don’t have one. The birds are confidingly close. Some of the notables included Common, Caspian, Arctic, Sandwich, Black, Swift & Damara Terns; Terek Sandpiper; Bar-tailed Godwit; C Whimbril; Lesser & Greater Flamingo; Grey, Common Ringed, White-fronted, Chestnut-banded & Kittlitz’s Plover; Black-necked Grebe; Ruddy Turnstone; Red & Red-necked Phalarope and Jaegers both Parasitic & Pomarine. The rest of the cast was also in abundance, particularly Curlew Sandpiper & Sanderling in their thousands, usually in HD-AA pose.

We spent the rest of the day & early next scanning the bay, salt-works and beaches of Walvis which naturally raises a few questions; the most obvious of which is why ordinary people hurriedly cross the street making signs against the hex when birders descend en mass for the briefest optical glimpse of the unusual . Why do we do it? It’s not just simply answered. Time spent on introspective reflection would [I imagine] reveal a diversity of opinion. Watching BH quietly engrossed behind the scope, sitting cross-legged at peace on the promenade whilst the world jogged nervously by, seems reason enough.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

'Safari-operators' - Kruger National Park

The southern half of the Kruger National Park suffers under the service yoke of an array of independent ‘safari’ operators, some of which little more than fly-by-night ‘bush-pretenders’ preying on foreign tourists who don’t know any better. Obviously there are operators and there are ‘operators’. The operators provide an ethically honest service to their guests taking the welfare of the ‘park residents’ ie: it’s fauna and flora and the Park’s residents ie: OTHER overnight guests, into consideration. The ‘operators’ couldn’t care less about the fauna, flora, guest welfare or the Park’s other resident guests.

Distinguishing between operators and ‘operators’ is somewhat subjectively moot but with a little patience and an understanding of the salient characteristics, a positive ID is plausible …

Initial observation will confirm that both versions of operator descend en-mass on a sighting like flies to the proverbial and that both versions sport bush-converted ‘open-air’ canvas-covered safari-vehicles in either bush-green, kalahari-sand or savanna-thatch yellow. All are emblazoned with mint-perfect signs of mildly impressive sunsets or pictures of the Big 5 in classical repose. Most come standard with a superficially trained  ’vehicle-operator’ of sorts. Blaring two-way radios / cellphones communicate 11 official languages and confuse the distinction even more. ‘….say again Vlakvark ['warthog'] ….ingwe – mobile –  4-clicks north – H7 ?- ….. Mossie –over??‘… In the back of the ‘truck’ dollar-paying guests are mostly ignored and irrelevant in the ensuing chaos.

First impressions notwithstanding, ‘operators’ soon reveal the characteristically distinguishing and wholly unsavory behaviour of the uninitiated and unintelligent.  Common to all ‘operators’ is the classic diagonal slew across the road at a fairly accurate 45 degrees which unsurprisingly prohibits any outside interference or observation from other paying self-drive guests. Subsequent observation of the leopard [... did you say cheetah??'re not really a guide are you sunshine?....] through the obstructing vehicle is, difficult…. Operators on the other hand are always discreetly PPP [parked perfectly parallel] next to the road to allow for unobstructed views for all. Passing the diagonally parked offending ‘operator’ is also aggressively discouraged. Brazen hand-signals from the ‘vehicle-operators’ propose a trip through the acacia-infested bushveld, an idea generally frowned upon by the authorities. Impasse then….

In the interim no self-respecting ‘big cat’ sticks around for further instruction from the loudly belligerent flailing-armed ‘operator’ and departs for destinations other. *Note to ‘operator’ : Your embarrassed, EDUCATED guests are not easily fooled and recognise your stupidity for what it is…’  ‘Operators’ then flee the scene at a measured 80kph to a fading ‘…..Mossie – I say again mossie – stationary —  ’tau’ –  S112………’