Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Things you might see on a Kalahari Safari

The days are comfortably warm but the nights can be seriously chilly on a Kalahari Safari in the Botswana winter. On our recent ten-day safari, most nights found me in long johns and fleece under several layers of bedding often with my ski hat on to try to stay warm through the cold night. There is no going out until the sun rises.

Despite the fact that we only covered the top third of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) we spent several days driving on sand tracks through the bush. Along the way we encounter gemsbok, springbok, wildebeest, jackal and bat eared foxes. All species that don’t require much water. During the dry season, their only options are the solar pump water sources of the “watering holes” or the dew on the morning grasses (but there isn’t much of that). This time of year we see lots of new babies as the herds practice “synchronized birthing”  - timing the arrival of their young in order to improve their chances of survival (any one baby is more likely to survive if there are more to choose from).

Gemsbok babies
Springbok babies
Bat eared foxes

 When people hear the word “desert” they may think of rolling sand dunes but what you encounter in the Kalahari is rolling plains of yellow grasses that blow in the wind like the waves on the ocean. There are a series of “pans” – large flat areas with a slight rise at the edge (like a pan) and more “wooded dune” areas than you would think – creating a bit of variation in the terrain that is pleasing to the eye. 

Kalahari traffic jam - guinea fowl
The birdlife in the CKGR is stunning. At our first camp site in Deception Valley (named because, from a distance, it looks like it is filled with water, even when it is not), we were greeted by the sweet songs of white browed sparrow weavers and multiple sightings of crimson breasted shrikes whose red chests looks like they were colored with the “crimson” crayon from a box of Crayola Crayons. There is also an abundance of kori bustards (huge pterodactyl like birds who look like they could have served as an inspiration for some scenes from Jurassic Park), pale chanting goshawks and secretary birds (large (~4 feet tall) grey birds with black leggings that work tirelessly all day to stir up bugs and other critters for eating). We also encountered a slight traffic jam…of guinea fowl.

These trips remind me that Paul and I both share a love for “the journey”, not just the destination. Both of us enjoy the drive, the different landscape you see, the 360 degree panoramic views. Neither of us are fussed by hours (days?) of endless driving (perhaps those childhood road trips imprinted this in me early – thanks Mom and Dad!).

Paul’s stories fill the time during long drives and around the camp fire at night. I often wonder if people realize how lucky they are to have Paul as their guide in the Kalahari. He has a wealth of information and his experiences as a Bushmen Development Officer “back in the 1970s” (a phrase my students often giggle about because of its frequency of use when Paul is telling them stories on study away) are one of a kind. And, when it comes to “knowing the Kalahari” Paul is responsible for cutting many of the roads that are currently used by tourists. I realize I might be bias but I can’t imagine many other guide having over forty years of experience in Kalahari like Paul does. 

We also enjoy the unpredictability of it all…not knowing what you might see or encounter on any given day. Some of our unique sightings this time included a curious aard wolf who came right up to our vehicle as we were returning from “sun downers.” An aard wolf looks like a small hyena, is nocturnal and vegetarian. We also had a wonderful sighting of a young male lion at Letiahau. He was parked off at the watering hole just waiting for dinner to arrive. He looked to be in great shape…perhaps a young male recently kicked out of the pride. He had few scars from previous fights and I couldn’t help feel saddened by a system that kicks its young males out once they reach maturity. At night we could hear him calling and I wondered if he missed his pride. 


We also encountered the notorious remains of a car that caught on fire heading towards the Xade gate. Rumor has it that two older Swedish ladies found themselves in quite a pickle when their car caught on fire due to grasses caught in their exhaust system. They walked the 35 kilometers (about 22 miles) through the deep sand and heat only to find no help at the main gate. So…they found a tractor, somehow got it started and drove another 180 kilometers (~ 112 miles) to Ghanzi where they finally found some help. I’m not sure if the burnt out car is left there as a reminder to all drivers to use a screen over their engines to avoid this problem OR simply left there because it is too cumbersome to remove it from there!

Male Hill at Tsodilo Hills
Each night we saw breath-taking sunsets and one of our last nights, up at Tsodilo Hills where the Bushmen rock paintings are, we were lucky enough to see the total lunar eclipse. It was magical to be in such a mystical place for such a unique experience – the sky darkened as the full moon turned from bright white to deep orange. I wondered what the Bushmen of the past might have thought they saw such an aberration. Perhaps they feared the world was ending.

Bushmen Rock Art, Tsodilo Hills
These are just some of the things you might see on a Kalahari safari with Kalahari Skies.

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