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??.....you'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………’