Thursday, December 1, 2016

Closing the Loop: the last leg of Stanley's Travels, version 1.0

Nosy Be, December 1, 2016

Sociable weaver nest, Kalahari
When we crossed into South Africa from Botswana at Bokspits, a microscopic border crossing in the far northwest of the country, on Monday, October 3rd, it was in one sense a homecoming for Stanley (a South African registered vehicle), and in another sense the end of the adventurous part of our big loop around Southern Africa.  We still had well over 1500 km to drive to the Johannesburg area, where we were going to store Stanley for a couple of months, but suddenly we were in a country full of shopping malls and sprawling suburbs and it felt as though we had left Africa behind at the border.

We drove south from Bokspits on perfect new tarmac, past big fenced-in ranches and huge communal nests built by sociable weaver birds on top of telephone poles.  Desert melons, the life-giving moisture source of the Kalahari, grew beside the road wherever fences prevented the cattle from eating them.  As we approached Upington, the regional centre, a structure oddly reminiscent of the Death Star appeared in the distance, glowing strangely.  It was a solar-thermal electricity plant, built by a Spanish company, in which a huge array of mirrors reflect sunlight upwards, concentrating the rays at the top of a high tower where the combined heat is used to generate electric power.  Apparently Upington has three of these structures nearby, although we only saw one, and hundreds of Spanish engineers live and work in Upington building and maintaining them. 
Kalahari desert melons

Upington was a culture shock after the emptiness of the Botswanan Kalahari.  We drove through fancy white suburbs to an immense Pick’n’Pay supermarket and shopping mall.  We refilled Stanley’s fridge (working well since its repair in Maun a few days before), changed our leftover Botswanan pula for South African rand, ate some meat pies (our favourite southern African quick lunch), bought Terri a new pair of binoculars, and then drove west towards Augrabies Falls National Park.  It was a pretty drive along the Orange River, past a long series of irrigated vineyards that contrasted sharply with the dusty Kalahari scrubland beside them. 

The Upington Death Star
There was no camping available at Augrabies Falls National Park, so we found a place to stay a few kilometres outside the gate at the Augrabies Falls Lodge and Campground.  It was well maintained, with pretty grounds and good facilities, but a bit close to the noise of the main road.  We finished up the huge pot of lentil and pea soup that we had been carrying around and slept soundly inside Stanley.

We set off for Augrabies National Park the next morning on our trusty folding bicycles after some fresh scones for breakfast courtesy of Terri.  We went first to see the waterfalls, an impressive sight of crashing waters even in the dry season.  The canyon into which the river hurtles is deep, steep and made of beautiful slabs of reddish sandstone.  We set off on the Dassie Hike, but turned back when Terri’s leg, still sore from her tumble at Tsodilo Hills a few weeks earlier, complained about the steep river crossings.  We opted for the shorter but more scenic hike out to Arrowhead Point, where two side canyons join the main river.  One of those tributaries has Twin Falls on it, another beautiful waterfall.
Terri at Arrowhead Point

We had a picnic lunch seated in the scanty shade of a small tree (it was properly hot by midday) and watched a pair of rock kestrels nesting on the sheer cliff on the opposite bank of the canyon.  Pale-winged starlings, a characteristic species of Augrabies Falls, flew by in small groups.  As we walked back to the lodge, more new species appeared:  acacia pied barbets and southern masked weavers, along with dozens of fat, contented rock hyraxes (dassies, if you’re South African).  We rode back to our campground, then returned shortly before sunset for a night safari.  We were hoping to see aardwolves (a secretive type of hyena) but had no luck, although our spotlights picked out fleeting glimpses of the eyes of genets, African wild cats and spotted eagle owls.  We had more substantial views of eland, springbok, steenbok and klipspringer, as well as Cape hare, scrub hare and red rock rabbit.  We cycled home in the pitch black under clear starry skies and went to bed immediately.

Twin Falls
The next day was less productive, although we did manage to do some laundry, bake brownies and catch up on e-mail, as well as getting in a long run, some yoga and broiling some delicious lamb for dinner. 

Thursday, October 6th found us backtracking to Upington.  We had originally planned to head further west to see the desert flowers around Springbok, but a phone call there revealed that in fact the flower season had peaked a month earlier and there were almost no flowers to be seen.  Rather than drive 400 km on a wild goose chase, we started the long retreat to Johannesburg instead.  It was a short, pleasant drive back to Upington, once again through the vineyards and orchards along the river, and we picked a big municipal campsite, Die Eiland, as our base for the next few days.  It was pleasantly situated on the banks of the Orange River, even if it did look a bit past its prime.  We set up our table and camp chairs to claim a spot, then drove back downtown to get some work done on Stanley.  An auto-electrician fixed the malfunctioning door switch that had been setting off our car alarm intermittently for the past two weeks (for the princely sum of US$ 18), and then while Terri went shopping for some new clothes, I dropped off the car at a garage to replace a blown front shock and to replace a worn-out and leaking tire, and dropped off my malfunctioning watch to get repaired.  By 5:00 I was picking up Terri to head back to Die Eiland.

Some desert vegetation
When we drove into the campsite, it was immediately obvious that our camp table, chairs and our dish drying rack were all gone.  We asked around, both the three locals sitting around having a braai, and the campground employees, but nobody (of course) had seen anything.  Infuriated at the pointless vandalism of such a theft, we went back to reception, demanded (and received) our money back and called the police to report the theft.  The police were spectacularly unhelpful, much to Terri’s disgust, and we eventually gave up and moved across the river to a tiny private campground, Sakkie se Arkie, where we stayed for the next 4 nights.  It was safe and friendly and well-run, very unlike Die Eiland.  We were annoyed about losing our chairs and table, but we heard that we had gotten off lucky; other campers who have stayed the night have had far more stolen, and one couple staying indoors at Die Eiland’s bungalows had thieves break in while they were in the bungalow and clean them out of all their valuables.  Everyone in town agreed that Die Eiland had fallen apart over the past 15 years under dubious municipal management, having once been rated the top municipal campground in the country back in the apartheid era.
Lovely rock face, Augrabies Falls
The next day we went to the Kalahari Mall to buy me a few new clothes, and to replace our table, chairs and dishrack.  The chairs were expensive, but were so comfortable that we didn’t really begrudge the money.  We headed back to our campground and I spent a while trying my luck at fishing; although others were getting bites, I got nothing but snags, and had to cut off three hooks in a row. 
Terminally relaxed hyrax, Augrabies Falls
Saturday, October 8th found us ready to head off, but when I went over to pick up my watch, the watch repair shop was unexpectedly closed.  Since I had specifically asked if they would be open Saturday morning, I was quite annoyed, especially since they didn’t answer their various phones.  We had lunch, then cycled off to the big tourist sight in Upington, the Orange River Winery, for some wine tasting.  We were surprised to find that something relying on the tourist trade closed at 3 pm on a Saturday, so we were out of luck.  We retreated to town, frustrated, and found an Irish pub to have a huge meal and watch the New Zealand-South Africa rugby match.  It was a massacre, with the All Blacks running in 9 tries to humiliate the Springboks.  Strangely, Terri wasn’t the only person cheering the All Blacks; a number of non-white South Africans were cheering for the visitors as well.  Apparently the Springboks are still viewed as the team of the apartheid-era Boers, and don’t enjoy universal support among coloured and black South Africans. 
Augrabies Falls scenery
Sunday, October 9th was another fairly lazy day, spent doing a few exercises, writing a blog post, having a long lunch, taking a long bird-watching stroll along the river with Terri, running and then having sundowner drinks with an interesting older couple, Ros and Anthony, both white East Africans (one from Kenya, the other from Tanzania) who are keen sailors and bird watchers.  We sat listening to some of their stories, then retreated to our campsite for a late dinner.  I stayed up late taking advantage of having good internet for once to post some photos from Botswana and upload my blog post.

Augrabies sunset light
Monday, October 10th saw us finally break free of Upington, not without resistance.  The watch repair guy was open, but the watch wasn’t yet fixed.  We went to the grocery store to stock up, then returned to find the watch not repaired, but at least physically present.  Muttering imprecations, I took the watch and drove us out of town towards Johannesburg.  It was a long day of driving, most of it through not very interesting countryside (a mix of bleak desert, grim mining areas, rough towns and commercial farms), ending up at sundown in the small town of Delareyville, where we spent the night camped at the Pigmy Lodge, a small campground attached to a cheese farm.  We sampled some of their excellent goat cheeses with some wine before dinner, ate some leftovers and were in bed early, tired from driving.

Tuesday, October 11th was the end of the road for the first leg of Stanley’s Travels.  We had a leisurely bacon and avocado breakfast and set off by 9 o’clock, carrying a couple of packets of the farm’s goat cheese.  Terri drove the first 100 km before I took over for the final 325 km.  We cruised into Johannesburg past the endless mining towns of the Witwatersrand.  We made it most of the way through the Johannesburg suburban sprawl without incident before hitting a traffic jam that saw us take an hour to cover 3 km.  Then, as suddenly as it had started, the traffic jam was over and we were flying out of town headed east towards the tiny town of Delmas, the headquarters of Blinkgat, the small camper manufacturer who had made Stanley’s camper insert.  We stopped off for meat pies at Pick’n’Pay, then followed directions out of town, past a dismal looking township of corrugated iron shacks, to a small farm just outside town where Sarel and Elize de Klerk, the owners of Blinkgat, live and run their workshop.

Maree and Stanley with Stanley's creator, Sarel de Klerk
We had thought about taking Stanley camping for the few days before our flight to Athens on Oct. 17th, but Sarel and Elize urged us to camp in their garden, an offer which we gladly accepted.  We spent a few hours the next day going over Stanley, detailing the modifications and repairs that we wanted to have done in our absence.  A sliding drawer for our fridge, a new awning and some changes to the food and dish storage system, along with some much-needed rainproofing, were the main items, along with a general servicing of the pickup truck. We figured that since we had spent so long living in Stanley, we had figured out what we most wanted to make him even more user-friendly. 

The days slipped by easily, cleaning our stuff out of Stanley in preparation for the workshop and storing them in one of the farm’s outbuildings.  We had a lot of interesting discussions with Sarel and Elize, both of them keen explorers of southern Africa’s wild spaces, ate lots of good food, did some exercise and running and generally relaxed after five and a half months on the go. 

On Saturday we drove into Johannesburg to have lunch with my friend Angelo and his family.  We stayed overnight in The Birches, the small backpackers’ lodge where we had stayed when we had first bought Stanley back in April; Ian, the friendly owner, was curious to hear our stories from the road.  We also heard from one of our fellow guests that he had been mugged on the street in downtown Johannesburg that very day; we were glad that we had avoided the worse of South Africa's crime frenzy.  On Sunday we had brunch with my fellow Thunder Bay-ite Erin Conway-Smith (the southern Africa correspondent for the Economist) before heading back to Delmas. 

On Monday, October 17th we bid Stanley a fond farewell for two months and caught a lift with Elize to OR Tambo Airport for a flight to Athens.  We won’t see Stanley again until December 21st, when we return from Madagascar.  It will be good to see him fixed up and looking spic and span, and it will be good to resume our nomadic lifestyle on our own 4 wheels.  We have both really enjoyed how well we have lived, and how much unforgettable wildlife and scenery we have seen, since late April.  Our final tally for the first leg of Stanley’s Travels is something like this:

Total time since leaving Johannesburg:        5 months and 19 days
Total distance covered:                                 20,558 km
Number of countries visited:                        6
Number of national parks visited:               17
Number of flat tires:                                     2
Number of sunsets viewed:                          at least 130
Number of bottles of wine consumed:        probably too many
Number of amazing campsites:                   a large number
Favourite country:                                       Botswana

It really was a life-altering sort of trip, seeing so much of the beauty of the African bush up close and personal.  It would have been nice to get in more hiking and physical exercise (I feel a lot flabbier than would be the case after a bicycle trip of this duration!) but that is a minor quibble given the amazing time we had on a consistent basis for months on end.  Sitting around the campfire in so many beautiful locations, watching the sun set in a blaze of orange, gazing up at the stars, listening to the sounds of hyenas and nightjars and owls and lions in the distance:  all these experiences were made possible by us having bought Stanley. 

We look forward to lap two of Stanley’s Travels around Africa starting in December and continuing until…..we don’t know.  The plan is to head through South Africa, Swaziland and Lesotho, then head north into Namibia (the favourite country of almost everyone who explores southern Africa), cross into Zambia again and then drive further north into Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya.  If the security situation and visas permit, I’d like to head through Ethiopia (currently in the midst of serious unrest) and Sudan, but I’m not sure that will happen this time.  If we do make it to Sudan, it’s a bit of a dead end:  Egypt is a bureaucratic and monetary and security nightmare, and the other ways out are to take a ferry to Saudi Arabia (then Kuwait, Iran and Turkey to get to Europe), to return south to South Africa, or to ship Stanley out of Sudan somewhere else in the world.  We have not yet come to any final conclusion what the end game will be, but I am sure that the next leg of Stanley’s Travels will be as rewarding as the first one was.

Yet another African sunset at Augrabies Falls

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Central and Southern Botswana: The Charm of the Kalahari

Antananarivo, November 16

By now, the delay between travel and posting about that travel has lengthened to almost two months.  I really must get better at this!  Since the travels in Botswana written about in this post, Terri and I have been back to South Africa, worked briefly in Greece, raced through the Balkans in a high-speed country-bagging tour and flown to Madagascar, where we will be until late December.  This post, however, is about the second half of our month in magical Botswana in late September.

48th birtday feast in Maun--thanks Terri!
After my birthday celebrations on September 13th, we spent two more days in Maun, largely closeted in our room at Laphroaig Cottages, resting, reading and doing administrative tasks.  We picked up Stanley from Mike’s repair shop, his 4WD working again after several days of hard work by Mike and his mechanics.  The problem (luckily) was not a broken gearbox, but rather mechanical issues inside the shifting system that moves the transmission from 2WD to 4WD high range and then into 4WD low range.  It had taken quite a while and lots of problem-solving , but when Mike and I took Stanley out for a test drive in some deep sand, it was good to see that all four wheels engaged and pulled us out easily. 

For the rest, I spent a lot of time reading two classic books about travel in Botswana:  The Lost World of the Kalahari, by Laurens van der Post, and Cry of the Kalahari, by Mark and Delia Owens.  I love doing my background reading before going somewhere, and both of these books are brilliantly written and got me excited about our upcoming adventures in the arid Kalahari. 

Bat-eared fox, one of the characteristic species of the Kalahari
Our first destination, towards which we set off on Friday, September 16th after a particularly slothful departure from town, featured prominently in van der Post’s book, which tells the story of a trip in the mid-1950s to make a BBC documentary film looking for any of the San hunter-gatherers, the “Bushmen”, still living a traditional lifestyle deep in the sheltering sands of the Kalahari.  After a long, fruitless slog through the Okavango Delta looking for any traditional San there, battling with a film director who really, really didn’t want to be part of the project anymore, the expedition ended up visiting the Tsodilo Hills, where they didn’t find any San in residence, but did find one of the great collections of San rock paintings in southern Africa.  We were keen to see Tsodilo, particularly since we had been wowed by our previous encounters with San rock painting in the Matopo Hills and at Domboshawa in Zimbabwe.

The van der Post Panel at Tsodilo
It was a long, flat, slightly monotonous drive from Maun to Tsodilo, 420 km of pavement enlivened occasionally by slalom sections around the axle-breaking potholes that have developed in the asphalt over the years.  We headed southwest from Maun, then turned northwest along the western edge of the Okavango Delta.  Only 30 km south of the Namibian border, we turned left onto a surprisingly good dirt road.  After the tracks we had been on lately, it was a relief to be able to steam along at 60 km/h on recently-graded gravel without having to watch for the next massive pothole .  We had been in overgrazed cattle country all day, but we now started to see a few hints of wildlife:  a red-crested korhaan, lots of elephant dung and a couple of ostriches.  We crested a rise and saw the back of the hills rising above the surrounding plain, then stopped for our obligatory sunset toast beside the road.  We entered the site past a ticket gate that was unmanned, then made our way in the gathering dark to a campsite that seemed abandoned.  We were glad that we were self-sufficient in water, as there didn’t seem to be any running water.  The atmosphere under a starlit sky flecked with wisps of high, thin cloud was magical and timeless, and left us eager to explore further the next day.

Xuntae, our guide at Tsodilo
After a peaceful night’s sleep, we drove over to the foot of the hills the next day to see the paintings.  We found a tiny site museum and visitor’s centre with two Botswanan men sitting outside:  a burly Bantu man who was the ticket seller, and a slight, lighter-skinned San man Xuntae who was to be our guide.  We went for a walk with Xuntae and a couple of Dutch tourists around the site and fell in love with the rugged beauty of the surroundings and the haunted, melancholic paintings of a bygone age. 

Xuntae was the last San man living at Tsodilo; when he was a young boy growing up, his father had been the chief of the local San, and had taught him to hunt the wild animals that roamed the area:  kudu, steenbok, giraffe and their favourite, eland.  Now all the other San families had drifted away to other parts, and his own children had been taken away to attend school at a village 60 km to the south.  The Botswanan government, like the British colonial government and the South African settlers before them (and like other governments in the US, Canada and Australia, to name but a few) view hunter-gatherers as primitive peoples who must be brought into the embrace of modern civilization, and taking away San children to be educated away from their parents is remarkably similar to the efforts made by Canadian and Australian government to destroy indigenous culture by educating children of aboriginal communities in residential schools in order to break their cultural bonds with their parents.  
Tsodilo giraffes
The San, inheritors of the way of life lived by all humans until 10,000 years ago, genetically the root from which all the other branches of humanity have sprung over the millennia, are now a broken and disappearing culture, leaving only their paintings to remind us all of what has been lost over the past two centuries of outside intrusion, land-grabbing and warfare.  Xuntae was a quiet, dignified man who glowed with pride as he showed the ochre panels of kudu, elephants, rhinos, giraffes and people scattered across the rock faces of the massif.  He told us of the yearly gatherings of bands of San at Tsodilo that were still going on in his youth, when for a couple of months at the end of the dry season they would gather to use the life-giving springs hidden among the rocky defiles, to hunt eland, and to dance late into the night around their campfires. 

Xuntae and Terri
We returned to the tiny site museum and read the panels, in which San, other Botswanans and outsiders all talked about the importance of Tsodilo.  There was an element of inevitable sadness in the statements by the San about how the once-abundant game had become rarer, how the springs flowed less than in the past, and how the blessings of the ancestral spirits no longer flowed to the remaining San.  Xuntae told us how, since Bantu villagers had moved into the area with their cattle, the game had declined precipitously and the supply of wild honey, the great dietary joy of the San, had almost disappeared with large-scale collection of firewood and overgrazing by cattle and goats.  He was surprisingly sanguine about it; perhaps given the wars of extermination waged by the Bantu and the Boers over the years against the San, they have concluded that resistance is futile.

We retired to the shade of Stanley and his awning after having a lovely picnic lunch under the shade trees beside the museum.  I napped and read more van der Post, did some yoga and had a great sundown toast watching the last orange embers of day play on the rocky slopes of Tsodilo, before watching a full moon rise majestic in the sky.  We made a campfire out of some of the dead wood lying around on the ground and sat there trying to commune with our inner San.

Terri trying her hand at San art
The next day we got up early and went back along the interpretive path to our favourite set of paintings in order to try our hands at sketching them.  It has to be said that the San artists were much more accomplished at rendering life-like animals than either of us were!  It gave us a good chance, though, to focus on the details and subtleties of the paintings and to try to intuit what the original artists meant by them.  Eventually we returned to Stanley for a late brunch of apple and banana fritters and watched huge clouds of quelea birds coming to drink at the little water trough (made from half a PET bottle) that Terri had put out for them.  As had been the case at Mwandi View, the sheer number of queleas was amazing, as was their ability to fly to and from the water from a nearby tree in a continuous stream without bumping into each other.  A few louries dropped in for water as well, their comical prolonged croaking echoing against the rock faces.  I sat and finished off Lost World of the Kalahari, did some yoga and sat musing on the passing of an entire way of life.  Terri went off for a run and managed to trip over a rock and land on her knee; now, two months later, the leg still troubles her.

Tsodilo rhinoceri
We set off at 3:15, headed for Drotsky’s Camp, a well-known fishing camp on the west side of the Okavango Panhandle.  We bumped back to the main track and once again found no-one around to collect camping fees at the gate.  Given the dilapidated state of the facilities and the lack of water, it didn’t bother us too much to drive away without seeking out the ticket people.  It was an easy, short drive back along the good dirt track to the main highway, and then a few kilometres north to Drotsky’s.  We set up camp in a perfectly maintained campsite, with spotless ablution blocks and spacious sites.  We could hear hippos and elephants snorting and splashing around in the marshes below us.  The contrast between the arid, derelict campground at Tsodilo and this oasis of well-watered loveliness was striking.  We dined well on lamb chops and had a huge campfire, listening to elephants passing by close behind us in the darkness.

On the water of the Okavango River near Drotsky's
Drotsky’s is a fishing camp, and I was keen to try out my birthday present from Terri, a fishing rod, but in order to fish, you have to hire a boat and captain (fairly pricey), as they don’t let people fish from the riverbank in front of the lodge.  I tried practicing my casting in the pond below our campsite, but all I managed to achieve was a series of snags on submerged vegetation that cost me several hooks.  After a lazy day of breakfast, reading (I had moved onto Cry of the Kalahari), juggling and catching up on photographs, we set off for a late-afternoon boat cruise with a French couple along the Okavango River.  It was a great chance to do some birdwatching with a really knowledgeable guide, with the highlight being a colony of hundreds of brightly coloured Southern carmine bee-eaters nesting in the vertical mudbanks of the river a few kilometres upstream.  It was thatch-collecting season and local villagers were everywhere cutting and bundling up reeds from the marshes and transporting them across the river in tiny mokoro canoes.  The light was perfect and it was a wonderful farewell (or so we thought) to the magical Okavango.
Southern carmine bee-eaters

Southern carmine bee-eaters 
We got back to Drotsky’s just before sunset and managed to have sunset gins-and-tonics on the dock as the sun sank into the papyrus marshes.  Once again we stoked up a sizeable campfire and sat around eating, sipping wine, reading and playing guitar under the brilliant stars of a southern night sky.

The next day, Tuesday, September 19th, found us driving back to Maun, eager to get back, buy supplies and head to the Central Kalahari Game Reserve.  The long drive was enlivened by strange sounds coming from the engine that turned out to be the secondary fan belt (the one that runs the air conditioning) coming off as the little tensioning wheel fell apart.  Luckily we had stopped immediately, before the wheel had a chance to fly into the main fan, and since we knew that it wasn’t essential to the functioning of the engine, we removed the belt and the wheel and continued on our way, wondering what it was about heading to Maun that was so dangerous to fan belts.  We drove into Maun, having contacted our Good Samaritan mechanic Jake, bought a new tensioning wheel, did our shopping at Beef Boys for our upcoming expedition and headed back to Laphroaig’s Chalets to meet Jake.  He replaced the fan belt and, for good measure, welded a couple of small cracks that he had spotted in the load bed of the truck.  All the while Terri was cooking up a feast of roast lamb and potatoes which we shared with Jake once the welding was done.  We went to bed late but confident that Stanley was ready for the Central Kalahari.

Jake doing some welding on Stanley
Once again, as had become habitual, it took a while to tear ourselves away from the embrace of Maun the next morning, as we had to refill water tanks and wallets and our refrigerator.  We didn’t leave town until 11:15, driving east and then southeast along the main road until the town of Rakops.  We spent a ridiculous amount of time in Rakops trying to find fuel (our GPS misled us, and the fuel station had moved) and trying to find the proper turnoff for the Central Kalahari (once again our GPS was hallucinating).  We eventually got on the right track and trundled along into the reserve, eventually leaving behind the overgrazed wasteland along the main road.  We got to the main gate at 4 pm, checked in and marvelled again at what an amazing bargain the Central Kalahari is in terms of admission and camping fees:  4 nights for two adults was about $120, much less than at most other wildlife parks in southern Africa.  We bought some firewood at the gate (collecting inside the reserve is officially prohibited) and drove to Kori campsite.  The dry thorny bush gave way at the last minute to the flat open shortgrass of Deception Valley, site of Mark and Delia Owens’ research camp in Cry of the Kalahari.  We spotted our first springboks, a few bat-eared foxes, Southern ground-squirrels, huge kori bustards, steenboks and clouds of quelea birds.  It made for a memorable entrance to the Central Kalahari.

A campfire, a necessary accompaniment to camping in Botswana
The campsites in the CKGR are very widely separated, giving you the illusion of being completely alone in the wilderness, so when we pulled into our allotted spot, Kori 3, and found a couple just setting up their tent we were all a bit nonplussed.  It turned out that the other couple had mistaken Kori 3 for Deception campsite 3, a few kilometres away, and with profuse apologies they packed up and sped off, leaving us just enough time for sundowner snacks and wine.  We walked over in the gloaming to see no fewer than 6 kori bustards stalking around the grasslands looking for prey; the world’s heaviest flying birds, they are impressive creatures, particularly when the males puff out their necks in courtship displays.  We went out again after dinner to see if we could find any nocturnal creatures with our spotlight, but we had no luck.  We lingered around the campfire as the Magellanic Clouds rotated into view, sipping tea and reading, thinking how privileged we were to be able to enjoy such solitude in this harsh yet beautiful wilderness.

I see you!  Bat-eared fox trying to hide in the short grass
We got up early the next morning, keen to get out wildlife spotting.  Tea, coffee and rusks did for breakfast and before 8 am we were driving.  We planned to do just a short local loop, but it ended up being 69 kilometres.  The Central Kalahari’s game is overwhelmingly concentrated in its pans, rounded depressions that sometimes fill with water in the rainy season and often keep some water in their lowest points throughout the long dry season.  We visited a number of the nearby pans:  Sunday, Leopard and Kori, hoping for cheetahs and wild dogs, although realizing that both were long shots. 

Gemsbok and springbok, the classic Kalahari antelope
Sunday Pan was full of springbok and gemsbok (oryx), the two species of antelope best adapted to arid conditions.  The Central Kalahari is not technically a desert since it receives a reasonable amount of rain.  The problem is that the water tends to seep away immediately into the soil, leaving almost no surface water for animals to survive the long dry season.  The species that do thrive there, like the springbok and gemsbok, can run on very little liquid water, deriving enough moisture from their food, including succulent desert melons that they dig up with their hoofs.  A black-backed jackal trotted past us as we watched the gemsbok, and a number of kori bustards patrolled the plain, along with a couple of smaller but still fearsome secretarybirds. 

A springbok playing peek-a-boo
We drove through the dusty, almost lifeless intervening high ground to Sunday waterhole, an artificial water source that attracts oodles of gemsbok and springbok, along with another jackal.  We lingered a bit, hoping for predators, but we were out of luck.  We looped around Leopard Pan, past its magnificently-located campsites (booked out months in advance by Kalahari connoisseurs), looking out at kori, gemsbok, springbok, a couple of steenbok and two wonderfully comic bat-eared foxes.  Eventually, hungry and starting to overheat in the 42 degree temperatures, we returned to Kori for a lunch of bacon and eggs.
Apparently these facial markings help shed heat?
Black-backed jackal
We lounged throughout the heat of the afternoon, watching birds coming in for water in our little PET bottle birdbath:  village weavers, great sparrows, glossy starlings, sparrow-weavers and red-eyed bulbuls.  Our camp resident, a slender mongoose, came by repeatedly on his rounds and I tried to get the perfect photo of him, a task made difficult by his reluctance to stand still. Eventually the furnace-like conditions began to abate and Terri and I went for a walk along the main track, watching carefully for lions and leopards, then back for sunset, scaring up a scrubhare along the way.  We had an elaborate apero at sunset, with smoked salmon and a selection of delicious cheeses on pita bread, before cooking up steaks and corn.  As we put food back into the fridge, we made the unwelcome discovery that its temperature was warm and rising:  another repair mission to be carried out in Maun!  We sat beside a roaring campfire getting in touch with our inner hunter-gatherer selves.  Lying in bed in Stanley later that night, I smelled smoke and got up to investigate, worried that something was on fire in the camper.  It was a false alarm, just smoke from the dying campfire, but my headlight picked out a black-backed jackal who had come in for a drink our birdbath, and wasn’t at all fussed by my presence. 
Terri at Kori campsite
The slender mongoose who enlivened our Kori campsite
Friday, September 23rd saw us move on from our little oasis at Kori.  Many overlanders make a complete traverse of the CKGR from Kori to the southwest, but with us a bit unsure about how much to trust Stanley’s rebuilt 4WD, and the route description saying that there are very few animals to be seen on the traverse, just endless dry and almost lifeless thornveld, we had decided to do a loop around the northeastern corner of the park and then retreat once again to Maun.  That morning we were up with the sun, heard a distinctive lion’s roar in the distance, made a sumptuous feast of oatmeal, raisins, nuts, dates and yoghurt, and were rolling south and then west by 8:15.  
Crimson-breasted bushshrike
We drove down the Deception Valley, scene of most of Mark and Delia Owens’ adventures and misadventures, passing bat-eared foxes and the obligatory herds of gemsbok and springbok.  We continued west along the Letichau Valley, an ancient waterway that once, long ago in a wetter era, channeled water from the Okavango towards a huge lake where the Makgadikgadi Pans are now.  There was a small artificial waterhole surrounded by springbok and gemsbok, but sadly no predators.  A vehicle coming the other way told us that there was a pride of 6 lions at Piper Pan; looking at the map, we decided reluctantly that it would be too long a detour out of our way and continued north, east, north and then west again to Phokoje Pan, where black-backed jackals joined the usual springbok and gemsbok suspects on the plain.  Along the way we began to spot lots of northern black korhaan, a sort of smaller cousin of the kori bustard, with the koris apparently giving way to the black korhaans as the terrain got drier and more open.

Phokoje campsite and its lone tree
Our campsite at Phokoje proved to be a grave disappointment.  Unlike at Kori, there are almost no tall or medium-sized trees to be found in the area, just short scrubby bushes and short grass.  Our campsite consisted of a long-drop latrine and one lone, sad shade tree in whose shadow we parked Stanley.  It felt very desolate and far from any animal action, as well as being blast-furnace hot in the afternoon sun.  There were far fewer birds than we had had at Kori, although there were a few Marico flycatchers, queleas and black-throated prinias, along with one very friendly and curious Kalahari scrub robin.  We passed a lazy afternoon taking a siesta in our big bed in Stanley, then rehydrating with mint tea and beer as we munched more smoked salmon and Camembert.  Our refrigerator had completely given up on cooling, with a temperature of 21 degrees inside it, so we were keen to eat up any perishable items.  Given the unappealing location of Phokoje and the temperamental fridge, we decided to cut our losses and head out north towards the park boundary the next morning.
Kori bustard
Pale chanting goshawk, common raptor of the Kalahari
That night, after a fine meal of smoked fish and potatoes and a roaring campfire, we slept with Stanley’s roof flap open to let in cool air and to give a view of the stars.  Both Terri and I woke up from time to time to stare up at the small square section of the heavens above our heads and wondered why we hadn’t slept this way before.

We slept long and deeply and awoke before the dawn.  We were on our way by 7:45 after bolting down some coffee, hot chocolate and rusks with honey.  Our path lay to the northwest, past a series of pans (Phokoje, San and Phukwe) to our breakfast stop at Passarge Waterhole, where we paused to fry up eggs and the last of our bacon.  There were plenty of black korhaans and a handful of kori bustards pacing around the bush, and the usual contingents of gemsbok and springbok lying in the scanty shade of small trees on the edges of the pans.  As we headed north, away from the pans, we spotted the distinctive profile of a secretarybird (one of my favourite African birds) as well as the first three giraffes of the CKGR.  At Motopi waterhole we ran into a party of kudu as well as (very unexpectedly) four enormous elephants and twenty or so ostriches, along with a couple of black-backed jackal.  As we drove away from Motopi into the featureless bush, our only real regret was that we had not seen any cheetah anywhere in the park.

Bacon and eggs stop at Passarge Waterhole
We exited the park at the little-frequented Tsau Gate and turned due west along a track that ran parallel to the boundary fence of the reserve.  It was in excellent shape and I zipped along averaging 50 km/h until, suddenly, we found the only deep sand of the entire track and a big truck stuck in it, blocking the track entirely.  We tried, unwisely, to go around the obstacle and got ourselves thoroughly stuck in loose, deep sand that not even our newly fixed 4WD could get us out of.  We dug and pushed for a while, and then, just as we were almost out of the sand, another truck, coming to the rescue of his stuck comrade, came driving along quickly and out of control in reverse without any rearview mirrors.  Terri, at the wheel of Stanley while the other truck driver and his assistant and I dug and pushed, saw the collision coming and yelled out to us, but we weren’t quick enough to avoid the would-be Good Samaritan backing into the back of Stanley at speed.  Luckily he stopped as soon as he heard bending metal, and equally luckily it was the little-used gas canister holder at the back of the camper that took most of the blow (transforming it into a tangle of useless metal that we later pulled off entirely).  We yelled at the driver, who seemed to be as bad at understanding what had happened as he was at driving, and eventually he managed to figure out how to move around us.  We eventually pushed Stanley out and then followed a Land Cruiser driven by CKGR rangers on a wild bush-bashing detour through the thornveld to get around the stuck truck and back out onto the track. 

Perfect wild campsite just outside the CKGR
It had eaten up a lot of time getting around the truck, so we looked for a place to camp wild beside the track and found one just a kilometre further along.  Another short bush-bash over a few small trees and we were in a decent-sized clearing that featured a series of large excavated holes that looked suspiciously like a hyena warren.  Hoping that the hyenas weren’t currently in residence, we popped the top on Stanley, had a brief late afternoon snack of matzo crackers (our latest staple starch source), Camembert and red wine.  Just before sundown we dragged our chairs and our wine glasses back out to the road where we watched a beautiful sunset, tinged red by Kalahari dust in the air, sitting right in the middle of the empty dirt road.  It seemed like a fitting farewell to our four days in the Central Kalahari.  That night we sat around a crackling fire reflecting that all of our camping over the previous five months had been leading up to the succession of perfect wilderness campsites we had had in the Kalahari.

Sundowners in the middle of the road
We drove into Maun the next morning along a perfect sand track right to the main highway, then along the highway. No more than two kilometres along the track, an unfamiliar animal loped across the track; its silhouette looked like that of a spotted hyena, but the colouring was far too dark and lacked stripes.  Leafing through our mammal book, we concluded that it was a brown hyena, the secretive lone scavengers that Delia Owens had studied for her PhD forty years earlier.  It was a great feeling to spot a new predator, especially one as cryptic in its habits as the brown hyena.  I rather think that we had camped atop one of its abandoned dens the night before. 
The one car that came to disturb our sundowners

We stopped briefly at Lake Ngami to try to do some birdwatching, as we had heard that this lake, full of water after years of being dry, was full of waterbirds.  It was difficult finding a track to the lakeshore, but when we got there it was an apocalyptic wasteland of land grazed right to the soil by cattle dotted with dead trees leading right into the muddy water.  It was no place to linger, so we turned around and headed straight back to the main road and into Maun.

Okavango from above
When we were last in Maun, we had run into a couple of tourists who had raved about scenic flights over the Okavango.  Terri was keen to do one, so we drove straight to the airport and made a reservation for that same afternoon.  After a couple of hours of delicious Indian food and wifi at an airport restaurant, we wandered out onto the runway at 4 pm.  Maun airport is peculiar in that almost no large planes land there, and yet dozens of tiny aircraft take off and land constantly, ferrying people and supplies out to the exclusive top-end fly-in safari camps of the western Okavango Delta.  

Elephants seen from above, Okavango
We clambered into a tiny 4-seater plane and were soon roaring at 150 metres’ elevation over the southern edge of the Delta.  At first we passed over cattle country, but soon enough we were flying over wilderness.  The Delta, at whose edges we had nibbled in Moremi and Khwai and at Drotsky’s, was revealed as a complex immense jigsaw of streams, marshes and small islands of dry land.  As we made a big turn and headed south again, the density of game animals increased dramatically.  Big herds of red lechwe grazed in the marshes, while families of 20 or 30 elephants moved placidly across the landscape.  Zebras and impalas teemed here and there, while occasionally huge herds of wildebeest and buffalo streamed determinedly in a huge migratory line.  Giraffe and hippos appeared here and there, but we were past them too quickly for me to take many decent photos. 

Buffalo on the move, Okavango
As impressive as the picture of the sheer density of animals was, I think that the landscape itself was even more striking.  I have always been a huge fan of Yann Arthus-Bertrand, the French photographer whose Earth From Above exhibition featured dozens of incredible aerial photos taken from ultralights around the world, and the Okavango From Above provided equally memorable views of lakes, ponds, rivers and meadows.  It was almost sensory overload, and I was actually glad when the 50 minute flight was over as I was sated with visual imagery, not to mention almost airsick.  Terri and I both agreed that it was 100 dollars each well spent as we drove back to Audi Camp, ready for our last stay in Maun.

Okavango scenery
We spent two contrasting days in Maun, one spent running annoying errands that expanded to eat up our entire day:  getting our reverse lights seen to yet again (Mike’s mechanics hadn’t reconnected them after working on the transfer case), getting our refrigerator fixed (one of the pipes had cracked and refrigerant had leaked out), buying groceries and electrical supplies and scissors and other items too diverse to remember.  While we were standing in line to pay for the scissors in a pharmacy, a deafening bang shook the walls, followed by a pall of acrid smoke that drove us out onto the pavement wondering if a bomb had gone off.  As it turned out, a storage battery (used for storing electric power during the frequent blackouts) had built up too much hydrogen gas on its terminals after being overcharged by an inverter and had exploded.  It was a bit alarming, given how Stanley’s batteries are charged by our solar panels and an explosion like that would be very dangerous inside such a confined space.  Luckily a little internet research revealed that our solar panels didn’t develop enough voltage to build up substantial amounts of hydrogen, so we slept soundly that night.

This is never good news for your refrigerator!
The next day was a blissfully unbusy day, spent loafing around Audi Camp, ready for our departure the next day for the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.  We made use of the time to buy tickets for an upcoming leg of our travels, to Madagascar in early November, and took advantage of the swimming pool.

Wednesday, September 28th found us leaving Maun for the fourth and final time in a three week period.  As usual, it took a while to break free of the gravitational field of the city, with stops at Spar and Beef Boys for groceries, and the Department of Wildlife and National Parks to pay for our campsite reservations.  At about US$ 22 for two people for two nights, including park entrance fees, it was the deal of the trip.  We had two slight scares on the way out of town:  our newly-repaired refrigerator suddenly started to show higher temperatures after we added food to it (luckily, by the time we drove back to the fridge people, the temperature had started to go down again—maybe it took a while for the new refrigerant gas to really get working?) and we seemed to have a soft tire.  We put some air into the tire and drove out of town by 11:30 on the long road south.

We had been advised to hide our meat somewhere not inside the fridge until we had passed the veterinary control fence (one of a network of such fences with road checkpoints trying, vainly, to stop the spread of foot-and-mouth disease from the Okavango Delta into the south of the country).  We did so, and once we were past the checkpoint, we dug out the steaks and pork chops and put them back into the fridge.  Little did we know that there were two veterinary checkpoints, so we were duly busted at the next one.  The inspectors looked into the fridge and found the meat.  Luckily, we had the option to cook up the meat on the spot on our stove; the restrictions only apply to raw meat, so we fried up the steaks and chops by the side of the road and then set off again on our way, bemused by the system.

Yellow mongoose, Mabuasehube campsite
It was a long, flat drive on excellent roads, and we spent the time listening to podcasts, chatting and watching for ostriches and steenboks, both of which made appearances beside the road.  A lot of the way the scenery was very much like the CKGR, but towards the end fences and cattle and massive overgrazing resumed, making for a less appealing landscape.  We stopped for the night in a little well-run campsite in Kang, behind the Ultra Stop gas station, ate our pre-cooked pork chops and sat out under the stars for less time than usual, as the slightly more southerly location made a big difference in nighttime temperatures.  The temperature had dropped to 10 degrees by the time we got up the next morning.

Thursday, November 29th began with a trip to a tire repair outfit, as we woke up to find that the pressure in the suspect tire had dropped in half overnight.  It was done quickly, efficiently and very cheaply (US$ 4!) by two guys in a tiny, junk-strewn yard who had a steady stream of customers; the combination of lots of thorns and people driving on heavily worn tires makes for a lot of punctures.  By 10 am we were on our way, and by 11:25 we were in Hukuti.  We fuelled up, bought some lunch at the local supermarket, then drove another 10 kilometres to the end of the tarmac at Lokgwabe, where Terri (as usual) took over the wheel for the dirt road section.  It was a good track at first, but then we hit a section that was being repaired, with big truckloads of coarse gravel that were being graded into the fine red dust.  That made for slow, tricky driving, but then the gravel stopped and we were in deep, deep dusty sand.  We let down the tires to 1.1 bars and plowed on.  It was tough going at first, but eventually the road improved somewhat and Terri was able to hit 50 km/h in places.  It wasn’t ideal driving conditions, but it was at least much easier than our experiences in Liuwa Plain and on the M14 in northern Zambia. 

As we headed towards the park, we were still passing small cattle stations, but we started to see a few gemsbok and steenbok here and there, along with a lone ostrich.  We stopped to collect a pile of firewood and made it to Mabuasehube Gate by 3:30.  We were a day early for our reservation, as we had anticipated camping in the bush outside the camp gate, but it turned out that there was a campsite available that night, so we paid for an extra night and moved in.  We were in the least desireable campsite in the park, right inside the gate, since the combination of proximity to South Africa, cheap camping and great wildlife makes for a lot of South African wildlife enthusiasts booking up campsites months in advance.  It was still a lovely spot, shaded by trees and frequented by birds, and our campfire made for a perfect atmosphere.

Brown hyena, Kgalakgadi
The next morning we were up earlyish, but lingered over breakfast and moved a few possessions to the campsite next door, where we were to spend the next two nights.  By 8:40 we were off on a circuit around the nearby pans.  The scenery was redder and dryer than it had been in the Central Kalahari, but the pans were still a centre of life.  Our first pan, Monamodi, gave us a prolonged close encounter with a brown hyena, giving us a much better view than our fleeting glimpse on the way out of the CKGR.  It’s a down-at-heel sort of creature, with a big, straggling mane and a hyena’s characteristic pained loping gait.  After he lumbered into the bush, we saw a few kudu and a pair of secretarybirds before driving on towards Lesholoago Pan.  We had heard that this pan had a lioness with 4 young cubs, but we were unable to locate them.  We chatted with an elderly Belgian couple camped there (they come every year to the Kgalagadi as part of two or three months in southern Africa; they had made their reservations a year beforehand) and admired the colourful violet-cheeked waxbills that clustered around their tiny birdbath. 

Quelea by the thousands stream out of a tree
We drove partway around the pan and had a brunch feast of leftover steak with peanut butter and alfalfa sprouts on pita bread—it was much more delicious than it might sound!  As we ate, we watched a tree absolutely loaded with thousands of quelea just above the artificial waterhole; it seemed impossible that that many birds could fit in one tree.  A greater kestrel made an unsuccessful raid into the branches in search of lunch, while two lanner falcons circled menacingly overhead.  A sizeable party of wildebeest mingled with springbok out in the middle of the pan.  Mabuasehube Pan gave us wonderful views out over the countryside, but very little game.  Mpayathutlwa Pan, our last stop, had black-backed jackals, tons of vultures of several species lurking around the waterhole, and another secretarybird.  Sadly we couldn’t find any meerkats or big predators, although we had heard that both were there somewhere.  We retreated to our campsite in the heat of the early afternoon for a relaxed afternoon of yoga, juggling and guitar before another delicious sunset wine-and-cheese selection followed by another dinner under the stars, beside a crackling fire.

Kestrel on his approach to the quelea's tree
Our sleep that night was disturbed as a brown hyena, perhaps the same one we had seen earlier, came by in the night to ransack the garbage can, full of remains from the previous occupants.  It took hours for the hyena to make his way noisily through the contents, with much banging of cans and clanking of bottles.  No sooner had we drifted back to sleep than two striped hyenas arrived to drive away the brown hyena and take over pillaging duties.  Ordinarily the garbage cans would have been emptied, but it was the 50th anniversary of Botswana’s independence from Britain, a huge national holiday and party, and the park staff had been too busy celebrating to do garbage collection duty.

View out over Mabuasehube Pan
A bit groggily, we woke up to cloud cover, something we hadn’t seen much of for a while.  A hearty breakfast of oatmeal with dates, raisins and chopped nuts revived us and we set off again for a tour of the nearby pans, hoping for lions, cheetahs and meerkats.  We didn’t find any of those, and even the ordinary wildlife of the previous day was scarcer than usual.  We found the same vultures as the previous day, a couple of jackals, some kudu, gemsbok and springbok, but the main interest for us was the contrast in landscape, from deep red sand to stony rockscapes.  Most visitors to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park try to do the traverse from the eastern Botswanan campsites (where we were) to the South African border.  We were keen to try this, but of course all the necessary campsites were completely booked out, so we had to content ourselves with the Mabuasehube end.  We returned to camp, had a long nap to make up for the hyena-induced insomnia, then got up in time for juggling, yoga and sundowners.  The sunset was even better than usual, as the high cirrus clouds set the entire sky on fire.  We had pea-and-lentil soup for supper, along with corn on the cob, and it was a perfect end to the day, sitting around a raging fire (we hoped it would keep hyenas away!) and reflecting on the amazing month we had spent in Botswana.

Red-billed spurfowl at our campsite in the Kgalakgadi
The wildlife experiences weren’t over just yet.  That night, before we went to bed, the pair of spotted hyenas made a brief return appearance, sending a nervous Terri into Stanley’s safety quite quickly, while the brown hyena showed up at 10:30 to drink water from our little birdbath, and then again at 2 am to filch an empty tin of sardines from our sundowner snack.  As we had breakfast, one of the two yellow-billed hornbills that haunted our campsite sneaked up on Terri’s camp chair and stole her breakfast rusk, to her great annoyance.  The hornbills, along with a very curious yellow mongoose, had been our favourite small wildlife in the Kgalagadi, along with a group of noisy and inquisitive red-billed spurfowl that dropped by the campsite from time to time.  We ate the rest of the rusks and then packed up for our next expedition, to a nearby place, Jack’s Pan, which had been described to us as a free, wild spot to camp and to see lots of lions.  

Our noisy, naughty yellow-billed hornbills
We retraced our tracks from a few days earlier north along the eastern boundary of the park, and the track was almost unrecognizable, as it had been graded the day before and was in mint condition.  As we drove, we were putting down the first tire tracks of the day while following a definite track of a big cat.  Eventually, with Terri at the wheel, I spotted the source of the tracks, a big leopard lying beside the road.  We screeched to a halt and leapt out to take photos.  The leopard seemed pretty unconcerned by our presence, but was sitting in a shady spot that made for poor photos.  I tried (perhaps unwisely) to get a big closer on foot, at which point the leopard got up and trotted away into denser bush.  We were excited to see him, as it was only the second leopard we had ever spotted on our own (in the Khwai and Kruger, we had mostly had them pointed out to us by others). 

The leopard who crossed our path twice on the way out of the Kgalakgadi
Jack’s Pan was a bit of a washout.  We had an old guidebook that suggested a route to the pan which had obviously not been used for a long time.  The track got narrower and narrower, and the sound of thorns scratching along the side of Stanley was constant and nerve-wracking.  Eventually we gave up on the idea and decided to make a run for the South African border instead.  We zigzagged back through the bush and headed back along the boundary road.  Less than two hundred metres from where our previous tracks showed that we had stopped to look at the leopard, we spotted him again.  This time we got even better views and were able to photograph him at leisure.  Buzzing from the excitement, we passed the Mabuasehube gate and headed south into new territory.  Another ten kilometres down the track and we saw yet another leopard, this one an even larger male, crossing the track in front of us.  We stopped to watch him until he slunk off into the undergrowth.  It was amazing; two full days of searching for big cats inside the park had been fruitless, while within two hours we had had three leopard encounters outside the park boundary.

Yet another great campfire, this time with a roasting pan full of potatoes
The track to the southeast from the corner of the park back towards tarmac was surprisingly good, and we averaged 60 km/h along it until we came to pavement near Tshabong.  We stopped to refuel and refill our tires (we had another slow leak from the thorns) and stopped at a supermarket for some food.  The town seemed very rough around the edges, a harsh contrast to the wonderful nature reserve we had been in for three nights.  We sped along a newly surfaced asphalt road paralleling the South African border, past cattle farms and overgrazed red sand dunes, until we found a hidden side road perfect for camping.  Our last night in Botswana was spent in an idyllic, quiet spot under the stars.  It had been an amazing month, easily the highlight of our time in southern Africa, and the next morning it was going to end.  It was a contemplative night under the canopy of southern constellations.
You lookin' at me?
The next morning, Monday, October 3rd, it took only an hour to get to the tiny South African border post at Bokspits.  The Botswanan border folks were quick and efficient and professional, while one of the South Africans kept trying to get our address and e-mail to discuss “business investments” in tourism.  We were sad to leave Botswana behind, but I am sure that one day we will be back to the jewel of southern African travel.
A perfect final campsite in Botswana
Looking back on Botswana now, both Terri and I agree that it was our favourite country in southern Africa (although we haven’t yet been to Namibia, about which most people rave).  The wildlife viewing is amazing:  Chobe is one of the greatest wildlife spectacles on earth, the Okavango Delta and Khwai are equally impressive, while the arid country of the CKGR and the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park provide views of a different suite of animal species.  The Tsodilo Hills are worth visiting for the rock art, while the Makgadikgadi Pans, which we barely touched, would be worth returning and investigating further.  Elephant Sands was a wonderful surprise, and Botswana is easily the best country on our trip for finding free wild campsites.  The emptiness and wilderness of much of the country is incredibly appealing.  It’s also nice to see a sub-Saharan African country that has done such a good job of converting mineral wealth (Botswana is the world’s largest producer of diamonds, and has a number of mines producing other minerals such as gold) into a broadly prosperous middle-class country.  The contrast with places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar, Nigeria and many other resource-rich African countries is striking.  I think that if you have your own car (or have rented a 4x4 equipped for camping, as so many people do) in southern Africa, Botswana should be your first port of call.

Yellow mongooses are irresistably cute!