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Follow Oliver Self, from the United States, as he searches for a ‘deeper African experience’ on both the South African and Namibian side of the Kalahari in this two part series:
“So, it has been a full four years since I last set foot on African soil, and not a day has passed since that I haven’t thought about my time there. I made returning to Africa a priority, and finally, in July, I was able to return. Having visited South Africa and the Victoria Falls region in 2013, I wanted an even ‘deeper’ African experience, so I visited the Kalahari region of South Africa and Namibia in hopes of going even further off the beaten path. The focus of this trip was time spent in the bush and so my itinerary was for sixteen days: four days in the Kalahari, at Tswalu in South Africa, and the remainder of the time in Namibia.”
“I had been interested in going to Tswalu for many years, in the hopes of having a good chance to see a pangolin (among other rare sightings). We flew into Johannesburg from U.S. and Tswalu is accessible via private air charter directly into the Kalahari airstrip. It was clear upon our arrival that Tswalu catered to an upscale audience, the lodge was a traditional boma-camp style structure, but composed of high-end elemental effects such as crafted natural stone and timbers.”
“The weather was absolutely perfect for our first game drive with crisp and refreshing air, a pleasing arid clarity of a mild Kalahari winter. The first drive was outstanding, we had a few ‘first native sightings’ in the wild, including: gemsbok (Oryx), red hartebeest, and ostrich. We even got a tantalizing glimpse of a young male black rhino in some thick bush, but he was not having it and quickly dashed deeper into the impenetrable thicket. The best ‘first’ sighting occurred near the close of the day, when we spotted a lone male cheetah walking alongside the road near a main barrier fence of the reserve. He was clearly seeking something in the area, and our guide, Sian, told us that he was known as one of a bachelor pair in the territory, so he could have been seeking his sibling.”
“Our second day brought even more wonderful sightings including: black-backed jackal, some springbok, a young giraffe and its mom, and several more ostrich. I found the ostrich quite amusing because they always seemed in a hurry, flying through the bush to who knows where. Their posture and gait was quite comical to me, and I smiled a little whenever one would fly out of the bush, racing into any direction that wasn’t ours. Then there was the steenbok, which we had seen before in the Kruger area, and the Kalahari sightings were almost always the same: a brief moment of pause, then a quick direct stare at you and then off like a rocket into the bush.”
“Our wonderful tracker, Ben, repeatedly demonstrated his fantastic tracking skills, spotting pangolin tracks and porcupine tracks among others. During our game drives, I was struck by the diversity of terrain at Tswalu, as it could quickly turn from mountain to semi-desert, to thick bush and then to clearings with open expanses, grassy fields mixed with rocky terrain and hazy blue mountains off on the horizon. Throughout the open areas, numerous animals could be spotted either lying down or traversing and grazing about. There were springbok, Oryx, trotting ostriches, and wildebeests in relative abundance. Other sightings of the day included a small meerkat colony, cory bustard (the largest flying bird in Africa), numerous giraffe, eland and common zebra.”
“On our evening drive, soon after our departure from the lodge, off to the left of the road was a large lizard basking in the afternoon rays, it was a rock monitor! I had not expected to see many, if any reptiles in the winter, but it looks like we were fortunate. Sian explained that this reptile was a relative to the Komodo Dragon, and it certainly looked as much. Evidently, this lizard also possesses poisonous bites similar to the Komodo.”
“Continuing on, we spotted a mongoose, red-crested korhaan, a beautiful tower grouping of giraffe, some bat-eared foxes pouncing and foraging in the grass, more steenbok (complete with trademark pausing direct gaze followed by jet propulsion into the bush), red hartebeest and gemsbok (Oryx).”
“The highlight of our evening’s sightings was at the wild dog den, just as the sun was setting. We enjoyed sitting in this tightly shrouded enclave of bush, watching the dogs frolic, wrestle and grapple. After some time, just before full sunset, we followed the pack into the thick bush to view their hunt, only to lose them eventually in the darkness and thickness of the brush. Sian talked to us about the species current threats, of which I was mostly aware, and how the reserve had completely lost their previous pack, unfortunately, to canine distemper. It was an honour and privilege to have seen these fantastic animals in their natural surroundings.”
“Our last full day at the lodge would turn out to be a full 12 hours out in the bush and a truly spectacular and memorable African day for us, filled with magical wildlife moments. Armed with Ben’s superior tracking skills and Sian’s sharp eyesight, we started out on the lion side of the reserve in search of the famed Kalahari black maned-lions (the reserve is divided into a lion-side habitat and a non-lion-side for the protection of some of the more highly endangered prey species, such as the Tsessebe).”
“Ben got tracking and we could sense we were close. Crystal (my wife) first spotted the majestic male perched on a high embankment, casually surveying his territory. When we drove around, a second male was seen standing nearby. We spent some time with this magnificent pair, following them as they moved about the area, sometimes stopping to rest in the grass. They were beautifully intimidating, visibly larger than the typical African lion and looking healthy and well fed, as you would expect from two eight-year-old dominant males in their prime.”
“Moving on, we drove on to a nice sandy and high vegetation area where we spotted more zebra grazing with eland. We arrived, to what we were told was one of the most remote areas of the reserve, to have our packed lunch. As we stopped in a clearing that was, in wetter seasons, a watering hole, we saw several Hartmann’s mountain zebra up on the rocky hillside nearby. We had a fantastic gourmet bush lunch and continued on our way, to yet a different area of the reserve.”
“Ben caught sight of some lion pride tracks, and this was to consume our next 1-2 hours, driving off road through thick brush. It was clear that Ben was certain we were close and true to the maxim, ‘never, ever give up’ our perseverance paid off as he spotted the young lions hiding deep in the thicket, lying down. There were at least four of them, all looking healthy, relaxed and well fed.”
“Driving on, we spotted a herd of kudu and a sable before we got radio notice that a bachelor coalition of cheetahs had been seen nearby. After some brief off-roading and radio communication, we saw two of the males lying down in the bush. We approached closer in the vehicle, and the cheetah seemed quite accustomed to four wheeled visitors, but they were very aware of our presence, taking the time to occasionally stare back in our direction. Shortly thereafter we saw all four coalition males in front of us neatly spread out in the brush, all seated and looking in the same direction.”
“We then moved on for a visit to one of the largest resident meerkat colonies on the reserve. Evidently, conservationists had been working to condition the meerkat to tolerate human visitors over time, so that Tswalu visitors could walk amongst the colony as a native. It was a very fascinating, amusing and informative visit amongst these little animals, which were somewhat paradoxically both adorable and vicious. We saw them foraging about the ground, sometimes locked in heated battles with one another over an ostensibly empty hole in the ground! I was particularly drawn to the sentinel, perched high in a nearby tree as he scanned all 360-degrees of the horizon for any sign of predators from above or on the ground. As Sian remarked, ‘you have to take your job seriously because it could mean the death of one of your mates and it would be on your head’.”
“The day was waning but Sian and Ben made a last effort to find a pangolin before we headed back to camp. We went to an area where Ben knew there to be a resident pangolin and he hopped off the vehicle to track it on foot while we drove around the area. With indications of fresh tracks, Ben had, amazingly, tracked the pangolin down to its home, which was a basketball sized hole in the ground. We watched the hole quietly for some time with no signs of activity and eventually decided to carry on. Even though I had high aspirations of making this rare sighting, one of my personal favourite animals, it was actually very thrilling to see its home. I had come so close to this truly special animal which was burrowed before us in the ground.”
“For our last morning game drive at Tswalu, we drove to a yet un-explored (at least, for us) part of the reserve. After a couple of hours, we unexpectedly came upon one of the large black-maned Kalahari lions taking a rest in the grass just beside the road. We sat, basking quietly in the morning sunlight, taking photos of these great cats at close range. Both males had risen to a seated position, one on either side of the vehicle, when Sian instructed us to be quiet. Imperceptible to us, a rival male had made a call off in the distance. The two massive males started to respond in kind and it was one of the most awesome experiences one could imagine, awesome in the true meaning of the word. The sheer power of these thunderous roars were deafening, with vibrations that you felt running through your chest, as if you were at the loudest concert with the deepest bass. It left me with an immense, profound respect for the outright power of these animals and reinforced in my mind why they are known as the king of beasts, a title that is well deserved.”
“After the “roaring lion” encounter, a guide radioed out that the local pride contingent was at a nearby watering hole taking a morning drink, so we headed over in time to see the matriarch and numerous young cubs hanging out, drinking and relaxing under brush. It was another great close encounter with the counterpart members of the lion family, and we could see that the adult female still had fresh remains of pink from the blood of the previous night’s kill.”
Follow the rest of Oliver’s trip with part 2: Oliver’s Tales Of Namibian Splendour.
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Jemma's love for nature and culture grew while growing up on her family's dairy farm in the Natal Midlands. Since then she has been a ski lift operator in the Sierra Nevada, an Au Pair in London, an English teacher in Vietnam and is now writing about her favourite continent - Africa.
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