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!

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Northern Botswana, A Cornucopia of Wildlife

Upington, South Africa, October 9th

We have been lingering here in Upington for a few days now as our first loop around Southern Africa nears its end next week.  I probably should have written more blog posts, but there always seems to be something else that needs doing.  We only left Botswana a week ago, and we already miss it.  It was such an amazing country to travel through that I think I will split the blog post about it into two or three bite-sized chunks, rather than one huge War and Peace-style omnibus edition.

Chobe, the greatest collection of elephants in Africa
Entering Botswana from Zambia on Friday, September 2nd was like moving between two separate worlds.  On the Zambian side, all is chaos and unpleasant touts and hassle.  Once on the ferry, peace returns and the Botswanan side of the border is quiet and orderly and efficient.  It took very little time (and much, much less money than was the case in Zambia) for us to pay for our Temporary Import Permit and third-party car insurance.  A quick shopping stop in downtown Kasane and we were settling into our campsite just outside town, Kwalape Lodge. 

It's heartening to see lots of baby elephants in Chobe
We had heard horror stories about how hard it was to get camping reservations in Botswanan national parks, and how we wouldn’t be allowed into the parks without reservations.  We had ended up paying quite a lot of money for camping reservations for 9 days around Chobe National Park and Moremi Game Reserve, with the plan being that we would drive the sandy track linking the two.  The plan was to spend 4 nights camped on the Chobe River in a couple of campsites not far outside the national park boundaries, then have a long, hard day of driving to get to Moremi Game Reserve, where again we would camp just outside and do day trips into the reserve.  It was kind of a goofy itinerary, dictated by the impossibility of getting camping reservations at the key stopover campsite of Savuti, or indeed at any public campsite in Chobe or Moremi.
Kudu buck running beside the Chobe River
The trip started out well, with a day spent driving through the Riverfront sector of Chobe National Park, where we had spent a memorable 24 hours back in March along with a party of Japanese high school students on a humanitarian service trip at the Olive Tree Learning Centre in Livingstone.  Chobe is, to my mind, the single most impressive collection of big game in all of Africa.  The banks of the Chobe River, a tributary of the Zambezi, are thick with huge herds of game:  red lechwe, impala, zebras, buffalo, kudu, waterbucks and, especially, elephants in prodigious numbers.  Plenty of predators stalk this food supply, and the birdlife is awesome.  We were looking forward to a repeat performance this time around.
Giraffes just don't look graceful bending over to graze!
We left our campsite by 8:15 and by 9:15 we had entered Chobe, having paid for 5 days’ entry.  All we had heard about not being allowed into the park without accommodation vouchers proved to be inaccurate; the national park folks weren’t at all fussed about where we were staying, and were very welcoming to day visitors.  We turned down towards the river, then proceeded through huge numbers of elephants, along with big herds of giraffes, impala and zebra.  There was even a big herd of sable antelope, the species which we had searched for in vain in Kasanka (northern Zambia) a month before.  The landscape had changed; it hadn’t rained for five months, and the bush was tinder dry away from the river.  Almost all the animals in the park seemed to be out on the riverbank, grazing on the grass and drinking the water.
Sable antelope at last!
The birdlife was certainly less numerous than it had been in March, when thousands of migratory birds were present, but there were still lots and lots of species, particularly waders, egrets and herons.  There were pink-backed and great white pelicans (both new for us), several types of storks, spur-winged and Egyptian geese, red-billed teal, spoonbills, African and lesser jacanas (the latter a new species for us) and many more.  As always, there were so many species, and so many individual animals, that it felt like trying to drink from a firehose.  We spotted three well-fed lions lying comatose under a tree, with four other game drive vehicles clustered around; sleeping lions are not the most interesting of subjects, so we soon gave up and headed further along the river.
Roan antelope out for a jog, Chobe
Towards early afternoon, after hours of happy photographing and bird-spotting, we finally reached the far western end of the Riverfront sector and turned inland on a very sandy track to do the last 5 km back to the paved road.  It was much, much sandier than anywhere else we had gone, so it wasn’t surprising that we got ourselves thoroughly stuck in the sand, especially as we hadn’t let as much air out of our tires as we should have.  What was surprising, and a bit alarming, was that when Terri put Stanley into low-range four-wheel drive, nothing happened:  the wheels didn’t get any power at all, and we just sat there with the engine revving.  To make it even more alarming, ominous squeaking and grinding noises came from the gears.  We put it in high-range four-wheel drive and I started digging, but before we could get ourselves out, a game drive vehicle came from the other direction and very kindly offered to pull us out.  We pulled out our towing strap, and within a couple of minutes, we were free.  Terri drove very carefully up to the gate and the pavement, and we crawled the 18 km to Mwandi View, a beautiful little campsite on the banks of the Chobe River run by a personable South African named Anton. 
An impala utterly unfazed by our presence
Mwandi View was really a lovely place to stay, with abundant birdlife and sweeping views over the river into Namibia; sunset was spectacular, not just because of the great coppery flames of colour reflected on the river, but also because of the astronomical numbers of quelea birds flying back to their roosts for an hour around dusk.  Silhouetted against the red sky and the sun’s elongated disk, they darkened the sky in a continuous dense undulating stream, hundreds passing every second.  It was one of the most awe-inspiring sights of a trip that has been big on awe.  Queleas, a little finch, are the most numerous wild bird species on earth (with about 7 billion individuals, only domestic chickens live in greater numbers) and we had seen them before, but never in such prodigious profusion.  We sat there watching the sky slowly fade to black with a crescent moon near to Venus, and Jupiter closer to the horizon.  It was a place of sublime natural beauty, and it was hard to tear ourselves away to eat dinner.

Quelea darkening the sky at Mwandi View

The next day we were up early, breakfasting quickly on coffee, tea and rusks (the South African standby quick breakfast) and driving back towards the park by 7:10.  By 7:30 we were in the park, with Terri successfully navigating the sands that got us stuck the day before.  We kept Stanley in high-range 4WD and it seemed to work fine, especially with the tires further deflated to just over 1.0 bar of pressure.  There were no predators to be seen, but there was a huge herd of buffalo enveloped in a cloud of dust, a big herd of roan antelope, and a big male sable antelope looking majestic with his long, curving horns silhouetted against the sky.  
Buffalo herd in Chobe
Kudu and waterbuck mingled with impala and lechwe on the river plains.  There were lots of southern carmine bee-eaters, one of my favourite bird species with its brilliant red colours, and a few little bee-eaters with blue and green in place of red.  There were lots of fish eagles patrolling over the river, and little sandpipers along the banks.  Finally at 9:45 we stopped at a hilltop lookout to cook up a more substantial brunch of bacon, eggs, toast and fried tomatoes, looking out over huge herds of zebras below.  Commercial safari vehicles stopped by with their passengers, many of them paying many hundreds of dollars a day, and some of the passengers cast covetous eyes on our fry-up as they had tea and cookies. 

Terri and Stanley at our hilltop breakfast site

Replete, we headed back out in search of animals, heading away from the river to explore some inland routes.  It really wasn’t worth the effort, as the tinder-dry bush was bereft of game except for a handful of elephants. As we bumped downhill back towards the river, a new sound began underneath Stanley, a grinding, clashing, squeaking noise that we couldn’t locate.  It sounded like a broken bearing in one of the front wheels.  Lots of Terri driving slowly while I walked along listening and looking didn’t show definitively what was wrong, so we gave up, watched giraffe and roan antelope for a while, then drove cautiously back through the sands to the gate and on to Mwandi View, worried about what was wrong with Stanley.  At higher speeds, the noise went away, but as soon as we slowed down or turned sharply, it returned.  We saw another magnificent male sable crossing the road close to Mwandi View:  what an imposing creature!
The deep sandy track that injured Stanley
Back at Mwandi View, we took counsel from Anton and from some of our fellow campers as to what might be going on.  The consensus was that we might had gravel stuck in a brake pad making the squeaking noise, but that something more dire might be going on in 4WD low-range.  We called Ken Webster, a mechanic in Kasane, who said that he was going to be in the area the next day and could come check out whether it was safe for us to keep driving.  We had another breath-taking sunset and quelea display, then barbecued our steaks at Anton’s excellent riverside braai setup under the stars while Anton regaled us with tales that had us in stitches.  We went to bed in a jovial mood but worried what Ken Webster might find the next morning.

Quelea silhouetted against a Mwandi View sunset
It took Ken quite a while to deal with the other vehicle that he had come to rescue just up the river, and we sat at Mwandi View looking out over the river, walking along to do some bird (and hippo) watching, and sorting through the hundreds of photos from the previous two days.  When Ken finally arrived, he had a look and a listen, and diagnosed that even in high range, our four-wheel drive wasn’t working at all, and that the squeaking noise was probably coming from the gear box and transfer case.  We arranged to drop the car off at his garage in Kazangula the next morning, and drove off to our new campsite, a few kilometres up the river at Muchenje.  Muchenje proved to be another good-value well-run campsite, although the views over the Chobe River weren’t as perfect as at Mwandi.  We decided not to go game driving, and spent the afternoon relaxing in camp, watching birds and chatting with our neighbours, a German couple whom we had met on the Kazungula ferry three days earlier.  They told us about once discovering that there was no oil in their transfer case after having work done on it in a garage in Zambia.  We listened and thought something like “luckily nothing like that would happen to us!”.  Terri and I spent some time on the internet trying to research what might be ailing a Mitsubishi Colt, but it was a slow, intermittent connection and we didn’t learn much for the investment of a couple of hours.  I made a beef curry for supper, then we sat and watched another great sunset and another flight of queleas before playing guitar and packing up for an early-morning departure.
Buffalo crossing the road in a cloud of dust, Chobe
Tuesday, September 6th was a long day but a good day.  We were awake by 6 and packed up and driving by 7, taking the paved transit road through the park straight to Kasane, arriving at Ken Webster’s garage by 8:15, even before he had arrived.  We dropped Stanley off to be investigated, took out our folding bikes and rode the 9 km back into Kasane to make use of our day without a car to do a boat trip on the Chobe River.  We used Kalahari Tours, the outfit that Terri has used for a decade for her student trips, and since we already had park permits for the day, it only cost about US$ 14 per person, a tremendous deal. 

African skimmer in flight
The boat trip was as fantastic as we had hoped.  Although the bird life wasn’t as overwhelming as it had been back in March, there were still lots and lots of species, including the African skimmer, a very pretty, fairly rare and (for us) new species.  There were big herds of red lechwe, big herds of elephants and (very sadly) a dying elephant lying in a puddle of water; our guide said he had been wounded by poachers, possibly across the river in Namibia, and that he was expected to die that day.  Other elephants stood around him, splashing him with water and, in the case of a very young elephant, lying down beside him.  As the other elephants eventually moved off, we heard them vocalizing, and it sounded very much like humans crying, which is very much what we wanted to do.  Botswana has been the biggest, safest sanctuary for elephants during the blood-soaked past ten years during which Africa’s elephant numbers have plummeted by 25%, as documented in the recent Great Elephant Census, but now poaching is starting to nibble at the edges of Botswana’s safe zone.  Some 19 elephants have been poached near or inside Chobe in the past couple of months, despite Botswana’s strict anti-poaching shoot-to-kill policies. 
Dying elephant with distressed comrades beside him
We spent a bit of time rescuing a boatload of Korean tourists whose pontoon had run aground in the shallows, before visiting more hippos, crocodiles and waterbirds.  The whole time we were on the boat, I felt as though I was in a BBC Nature documentary narrated by David Attenborough, with new wonders of nature around every bend in the river.  It was a perfect way to spend the day while Stanley underwent his checkup.

Helmeted guineafowl at Chobe

We returned to shore around noon, and cycled off for lunch at the Chobe Safari Lodge.  Terri was feeling unwell, so I left her there to rest while I cycled back to Kazungula to pick up Stanley.  Ken said that it was safe to drive Stanley to Maun the long, paved way around through Nata, but that he wasn’t able to solve the gear-changing issue.  He had checked the transfer case, though, and found that it had not a single drop of oil in it, so he suspected this was the root cause of all the problems.  We thought back to our conversation of the day before with the German couple and winced. 
Giraffes always look so supercilious!

We phoned the agency which had arranged our camping reservations, Mackenzie 4x4 in Maun, and managed to re-arrange our camping dates for the coming days so that we didn’t completely lose the expensive bookings.  Coincidentally, Ken Webster recommended Mac Mackenzie, of Mackenzie 4x4, as the man to fix Stanley once we got to Maun.  At 4 pm, we drove out of Kasane along the paved road, past elephants, giraffes and lots of tiny steenboks beside the road.  We were outside the boundaries of Chobe National Park, but it was still some sort of game reserve, and looked just as wild (and just as dry!) as inside the park.  We nearly hit a black-backed jackal that darted in front of the car, and had the same experience with a roan antelope.  There were lots of impalas, ground-hornbills, red-crested korhaans and plenty of zebras.  Just driving along the highway, we were seeing significantly more game than we had seen in two days in Kafue National Park in Zambia a few weeks before.
Contented young elephant at Elephant Sands
We watched sunset from beside the road, then drove on towards Nata in the gathering darkness, hoping for a place to camp.  Our GPS told us that there was a place named Elephant Sands about 50 km before Nata, and we turned off gratefully to camp there.  It was a popular place, and the reception area had lots of warnings of how to avoid alarming the elephants.  We didn’t see any in the dark, but we could certainly hear them.  Terri went to bed, still feeling unwell, but I sat up writing a blog post and sorting through photos until the animal sounds got more alarming; what sounded like a nearby lion roar sent me scuttling to safety inside Stanley with great alacrity!  (It turned out to be an elephant snuffling while drinking, amplified by the trunk being inside a water trough.)
Pachyderm skin, Elephant Sands
We woke up to find ourselves in a wonderful place the next morning.  Elephant Sands is a campsite/tented camp/cottage complex built around a waterhole to which a dozen or more elephants come every day for water.  They walk right through the campsite and spend hours at the waterhole, drinking, bathing and socializing.  We spent some time watching the elephants and trying, vainly, to sketch them.  Around us were the students of the Travelling School, whom we had last seen at Jollyboys Campsite in Livingstone; they were spending a week here doing classes.  We looked through their science text, compiled by the teacher, and were impressed by the choice of topics (ecology, wildlife behaviour, conservation) that could be directly related to the experiential learning going on at Elephant Sands. 
Elephant Sands, with the guest cottages right beside the waterho
We drove into Nata, a dusty crossroads, had a disappointing takeaway lunch, then headed out to the Nata Bird Sanctuary, on the edge of the great Sowa Pan.  Central Botswana was filled, millennia ago, with huge inland lakes that have slowly dried over the years, leaving seasonally flooded salt pans in their place.  Sowa Pan is part of the Makgadikgadi Pans complex, a huge, wild area that is a favourite among hard-core 4x4 adventure enthusiasts.  We wanted to have a tiny nibble of the pan to get a feeling for whether it was an area that we wanted to return to.  We drove into the bird sanctuary and along a deserted track, past a few wildebeest and zebras, to find ourselves at the shore of an extensive shallow lake.  I had thought that the pan would be dry in the middle of a drought, but there was quite a bit of water, with a number of pelicans bobbing about.  It was an unearthly, empty landscape that hinted at the infinite, and I could see how exploring Sowa Pan could appeal to lovers of wild spaces.  On the way out, we spotted a few ostriches and a distant secretarybird, along with larger herds of zebras and wildebeest.

Terri and Stanley on the shores of Sowa Pan near Nata
Ostrich seen between Nata and Maun
We drove back to the main paved road and zipped along towards Maun, passing more wildlife and the turnoffs to the Makgadikgadi Pans and Nxai Pans National Parks.  We got into the outskirts of Maun at the exact moment that our main fan belt snapped.  It took us a while to figure out why our battery was losing voltage and our engine was starting to overheat, but as we sat in the parking lot of an Engen service station, Jake, a passing mechanic who was driving home from work, rescued us and replaced the fan belt in the parking lot.  We were relieved and impressed and after paying him, we kept his number just in case we needed his services again in the future.  We made our way out of town to Crocodile Camp only to find it had gone out of business, and we ended up at Audi Camp, a well-run campsite about 10 km north of Maun.
Jake replacing Stanley's fan belt in the Engen parking lot

The next day we delivered Stanley to Mac Mackenzie’s workshop to investigate what was going on with the four-wheel drive.  It took his mechanics hours to open up the transfer case, which was completely seized up from the lack of lubrication.  Mac decided that since it was going to take a long time, he would outsource the work to the workshop of a friend of his, Mike.  
Stanley's saviours:  Jake and one of Mackenzie 4x4's mechanics

Since it would likely take several days to deal with whatever the problem was, Mac offered to rent us another 4WD, a Prado owned by his wife, to use in the meantime.  At $100 a day, it was pretty expensive, but this is about a third of the going rate in Maun, so it was a deal from our point of view.  We still had our accommodation bookings to use in the Moremi and Khwai area, and didn’t want to spend days cooling our heels in Maun instead of seeing wildlife.  We selected a small subset of gear from Stanley and loaded it into our new substitute-Stanley.  We borrowed a portable fridge from Mac, borrowed a heavy canvas safari-tent from his son, took some cooking gear, clothes and bedding from Stanley and returned to Audi Camp for the evening.

Stanley's 4WD being inspected at Mackenzie 4x4 

The next day, Friday September 9th, it took forever to get away from Maun, as we bought cables at an electrical shop to run the fridge from the cigarette lighter in the Prado, went to an ATM for cash, picked up our accommodation vouchers from Mackenzie 4x4, bought groceries, picked up our fridge from Stanley to replace the one that Mac had lent us (it stopped working an hour after driving away from his workshop the day before) and generally ran errands.  We finally drove out of town by 1:30 pm, headed north towards the fabled Okavango Delta.  The road was perfect asphalt for the first 30 km before turning into a sandy track.  The Prado, much more powerful and lightly loaded than Stanley, handled the sand with ease, especially with the tires partially deflated.  It took us a little over an hour, driving fairly quickly, to get to Kaziikini Camp (where we would spend the night) and then another hour to reach the South Gate of Moremi Game Reserve.  The park rangers gave us a quizzical look when we said that we wanted a day ticket that late in the day, but also gave us good tips on where to go with limited time (the Black Pools).  We asked about accommodation in the park’s campsite at the South Gate, and were not surprised that, although it was supposedly booked solid, there were tent sites available for the night if we wanted them.  As we’d paid for an expensive tent site already at Kaziikini, we said no to the offer, and resigned ourselves to a long drive back to camp after our game drive.
A couple of tsessebe near Black Pools

At first there was precious little game in the dusty bush to justify our long drive into Moremi, but as we got closer to the Black Pools and their life-giving water, there was suddenly a profusion of game:  red lechwe, our first-ever tsessebe (a type of hartebeest), ostrich, secretarybirds and zebras.  As we beat a hasty retreat towards the gate, trying to beat the 6:30 pm closing time, suddenly a large feline shape crossed the track in front of us, and we realized that it was a leopard, the first one that we had spotted entirely by ourselves. We sat and watched it for a while, trying to get decent photos and admiring the powerful build and surprisingly dark-coloured coat before reluctantly resuming our drive.  We stopped beside the road halfway back from the South Gate to Kaziikini to watch another brilliant African sunset, then continued to our campsite, arriving in the dark.   We passed a nightjar and a sandgrouse both roosting on the sand of the road, and saw slender mongooses hurrying across the track in front of us.  In camp, as we cooked, Terri spotted a couple of honey badgers wandering off into the bush; we watched them for a while, trying to get photos, happy to have seen them until we realized that they had quietly and efficiently pillaged our kitchen for bread and sugar. We also discovered that our fridge didn't run well off the cigarette lighter in the Prado; so much for cold beer and fresh meat!
Pearl-spotted owlet, Moremi South Gate 

We slept well and got up very early the next day for a big day of game driving:  our alarms went off at 5:20 and we were driving back towards the South Gate by 6:20, fortified by hot tea and coffee and dry rusks, the standard Afrikaner fast breakfast.  By 7:10 we were back at the South Gate where we saw a beautiful pearl-spotted owlet sitting on a road sign, and soon afterwards we were headed into the park toward the recommended game-viewing area of Xini Lagoon.  It proved to be a great choice, with dense clusters of herbivores eating the recently-burned vegetation with its green shoots.  We saw big groups of red lechwe, impala, tsessebe, zebra, buffalo, waterbuck and more.  At the shrinking water pools, we spotted lots of waterfowl skulking amongst the reeds.
A wildebeest at full tilt near Xini Lagoon

We returned to the main track and continued towards Third Bridge, an almost mythical location that is about as far northwest as you can drive into the Okavango along the Moremi Tongue of land at a slightly higher elevation.  At the campsite there, we stopped and fried up steak and potatoes for a substantial early lunch while we watched other vehicles brave the water crossing at Third Bridge, where swamp water drains over the road at a spot where slender logs have been laid to create a corduroy road surface.  We had heard a few horror stories of people getting stuck here, but after watching a few successful crossings, Terri had figured out an optimal line to take without getting bogged down.  We polished off our lunch and Terri hopped into the driver’s seat to take us across the “bridge” without the slightest problem.  We were glad to have the power and light luggage load of the Prado for this sort of water crossing.  
Red lechwe fleeing through the marsh at Paradise Pools

Once on the other side, we drove a bit further to Xakanaka and Paradise Pools, two areas that other tourists had raved about.  The scenery was spectacular, with flooded plains dotted with massive trees, and red lechwe and waterfowl frolicking in the water.  It really felt very prehistoric and peaceful and far from the madding crowds of the modern world.  It was hard to tear ourselves away and drive back along a different track, far from the waters of the delta and utterly devoid of large or medium-sized animals.  By 5 pm we were back at Kaziikini, where we were one of only two couples camped in the entire campground.  We showered (the shower areas were full of birds drinking from the drips of the shower heads, including lots of pretty parrots), ate and were in bed early, tired by a long but good day of wildlife viewing.
Paradise Pools, Moremi

Sunday, September 11th found us driving 60 km north along a fairly good sandy track that the Prado handled brilliantly, headed towards the Khwai River Community Nature Conservancy via our new campsite of Dijara.  The track had been recently graded, and we sped along at 45-50 km/h until just before Dijara, where we found the road blocked by deep water across the road and floundered around looking for detours in the bush; after one track petered out entirely, we found another, more heavily travelled route that brought us out on the other side of the flood.  Dijara proved to be a scruffy little campsite with a great riverside location, run by a pair of South African guys barely out of their teens.  We set up our tent,  cooked up some bacon and eggs and then drove off 15 km down the road into the Khwai to see some animals.
Impala drinking at Paradise Pools

The Khwai River Community Nature Conservancy is one of the unsung gems of northern Botswana.  We had heard about it from tourists driving the other way, and it lived up to its billing.  It’s a relatively small area, adjacent to the northeastern corner of the much larger Moremi Game Reserve, and it shares the same low-lying landscape and dense concentration of big game.  Technically, it is supposed to be open only to those people who camp at the Khwai’s campsites, but those campsites, like the ones in Moremi and Chobe, are booked up months in advance.  In practice, no effort is made to stop people like us camping just outside the boundaries of the Khwai and then driving in to see the animals.  Since no entrance fee is collected at the gate, the experience is free, although I think most tourists would be glad to pay a fee equivalent to that charged in Moremi.

All along the banks of the Khwai River the green vegetation draws vast numbers of big animals from the bone-dry surrounding bush.  We spent the afternoon meandering along the tracks beside the river, taking photos of large herds of elephants, giraffes, kudu, waterbuck, impala, zebra and even a few common reedbuck (our first since the Nyika Plateau in Malawi), while big pods of hippos wallowed contentedly in the water.  There was a wealth of waterbirds to be seen as well, and the entire atmosphere was one of peaceful tranquility in the Garden of Eden.  It was hot, and after a while we rested beside the track for an hour, sheltering in the shade of the Prado.  Our late-afternoon game drive was productive, yielding a leopard (seen at a distance across the river) and three contented lions sleeping under a tree, seemingly undisturbed by the nine safari vehicles clustered around them.  We drove back to Dijara along the road, stopping for roadside sundowners when the sunset caught us still 10 kilometres from camp.  We fried up some vegetables with cheese, onion and bacon and fell asleep early.

We woke up a bit late (6:45) the next day to the unwelcome discovery that Terri’s air mattress had sprung a leak.  We set off without breakfast back towards Khwai, keen to make the most of the early morning coolness.  Red-crested korhaans scuttled around in the dry brush beside the road as we approached the Khwai, and groups of elephants emerged from the bush to cross the road towards the river for a drink.  Giraffe and kudu appeared beside the road too, making the commute towards the Khwai more rewarding than our day of game-viewing inside Kafue National Park a few weeks before. 
Imposing waterbuck male, Khwai

Once inside the park, we drove slowly along the river, past fewer animals than we had seen the previous afternoon but still enough to be seriously impressive.  We identified a new bird for us, the long-toed plover, and watched a juvenile martial eagle beside the water, looking improbably huge.  We stopped to cook up some oatmeal for breakfast beside a river crossing, one that we had been warned about as being treacherous.  Once again Terri took notes on where commercial safari vehicles crossed, checking out their line, and once breakfast was done, she drove across smoothly and without incident, to her great relief. 
The Khwai leopards aren't shy about being seen!

The other side of the river had more kudu and impala, but we quickly spotted a cluster of safari vehicles not far from the crossing.  Reasoning that seeing more than three safari vehicles probably meant lions or leopards, we drove up to find a young female leopard up a tree.  We spent the next hour watching the leopard as she climbed down out of her tree and up into another, larger tree where she obligingly posed at the end of a branch while dozens of camera shutters clicked furiously away.  Terri got us into position when the leopard started walking across open ground, and we had the leopard walk directly past us at a distance of a few metres, giving us an unconcerned glance as she finally cut into deeper bush and away from the gathered paparazzi.  It was by far the longest and most action-packed leopard encounter we had had, and it gave us the chance to take some really high quality photos. 
You lookin' at me?

This one meeting by itself would have made our Khwai visit memorable, but there was more to come.  We spent the heat of the day (the daily temperatures had been climbing to uncomfortable levels ever since our arrival in Botswana) in our camp chairs in the shade of the Prado beside the river, watching nearby elephants and giraffes and waterbuck.  We cooked up some lunch and I sorted through photos, very happy with some of the images I had captured over the previous few days.  We chatted with a French couple in a custom-built camper built on an Iveco truck; it was immaculate, perfectly designed, well maintained and thoroughly out of our price range. 
Magnificent kudu buck showing off at Khwai

That afternoon we drove along the bank of the river, our progress agreeably halted by a herd of 25 elephants who blocked the road.  There were a couple of tiny babies in the group, and we sat and watched them running along, full of energy, trying to keep up with the long, slow pace of the adults.  We eventually made it past the obstructive elephants and recrossed the side channel, the Prado’s power and Terri’s accurate route-finding making it seem trivial.  On the other side, kudu bucks came and displayed their magnificent spiral horns and pelts, while waterbucks grazed in the water.  Across the main river in Moremi, a lioness was on the prowl and we watched her for a while through our binoculars.  Our youthful camp operators in Dijara had told us that none of their guests who visited Khwai had ever missed seeing a lion or a leopard, and we had seen both great cats on both of our visits, proof of the tremendous game viewing to be done in this little paradisiacal part of the Okavango Delta.  We ended a day of unforgettable game viewing with one of the best sunsets of the trip, the sun turning the river and its drowned trees the colour of molten copper.  We drove back to Dijara in the gloaming, overwhelmed by the beauty of the natural world.

The next morning, September 13th, was my birthday, and we awoke in our borrowed tent to the sound of hippos and plovers.  We cooked up our remaining bacon and eggs, packed up and drove back to Maun content with the four days of world-class wildlife safaris we had had.  Stanley was on the mend, which was a great relief, and we used the Prado one last time to buy groceries at our new favourite shop, Beef Boys, stocked with top-notch meat, veggies and deli items.  We returned the Prado to Mac, glad to have been able to use him while Stanley was out of action, and settled in for a few days in Maun. 

As Terri cooked up a feast at our digs at Laphroaig Cottages (without Stanley, camping at Audi was expensive and impractical, so we found indoor accommodation in town), we were glad that our first 12 days in Botswana had lived up to and exceeded expectations.  We looked forward to further adventures in the central and southern parts of the country, hoping that they could meet the impossibly high standard set by our travels through Chobe, Nata, Moremi and Khwai, and thankful for being lucky enough to experience all the Attenborough-esque wildlife that we had experienced.  My 48th year had been a great one, starting in Corsica and passing through Sardinia, Canada, the Falklands, South Georgia, the Antarctic Peninsula, Patagonia, the Carretera Austral, Paraguay, Uruguay, Buenos Aires, Zambia and now four and a half months of travelling in Stanley around southern Africa.  I hoped that my 49th year would be just as idyllic.  

Sunset at Khwai