Hillary had brought along the book “Cry of the Kalahari” by Mark and Delia Owens for us, as she thought it would be interesting to read up on the area that we were about to visit. I was well into their story by the time we headed towards Deception Valley and was hoping that we would see as much game as they described in their book. Of course this wasn’t possible because the area was really very wild and undiscovered when they took up residence in the 1970’s. They spent seven years there studying brown hyenas and lions and their account of it was both heartening and very sad. Hillary had the GPS co-ordinates of where their campsite was, so we were hoping to find the exact spot.
Deception Valley gets its name from the mirages that make the area look like a huge lake in the heat. The other reason it’s called Deception is because although the ground surface looks dry after rains, beneath the dry crust the mud is slippery and causes havoc with vehicles that venture onto it. Fortunately it was quite dry when we visited the area but, we did see lots of evidence of places where people got well and truly stuck in the mud.
The drive to Deception from Passarge is a short 57kms on a fairly decent road. Rob and I had been looking forward to seeing bataleurs in this area and we spotted a few flying high above us along the way. These magnificent raptors are very photogenic with their black and brown feathers and red beaks and legs. From below they are distinguishable by the white bands under their dark wings and their almost diamond shaped tails. We were really hoping to get some good close up shots of them sitting on a tree, but it would be many days before this became possible. In the meantime we lived in hope!
Deception Valley is fairly close to the Matswere Gate, which is the eastern entrance to the Park, and there are a number of upmarket lodges in the area outside the game reserve. Because of this it is easier for game vehicles to come into the Park for the day, so one doesn’t have the isolation and solitude that is experienced at Passarge or Piper Pan. There are also many more campsites, although these are not too close together. It does mean, however, that one doesn’t get to view game alone and the safari vehicles can be quite a pain when special game is on display.
Even though we didn’t have a good view of the valley, we had a very well-appointed and shady campsite with the usual circular open-air toilet and shower facilities.
The birdlife in the trees above us was amazing and before long we were visited by hornbills, shaft-tail whydahs and lots of the more common birds like sparrows and starlings and finches. Hillary put a dish of water on the ground and quite soon the whole bird community was there jostling for a turn to have a bath.
Quite fascinating too were the barking geckos that lived in and around the camp. Although they made a huge din every evening as the sun was going down, we were never able to find them as they seemed to have an uncanny knack of throwing their voices. It sounded like they were situated on the shrubs, but subsequent research has shown us that they live in the ground in little burrows, which amplify their sounds, so we were obviously looking in completely the wrong places for them.
By now Rob was itching to have a good long walk, which wasn’t possible in the Park. With lions and other predators around, it’s not really advisable to leave the campsite. He decided to risk it during the hottest time of the day, hoping that the animals would all be too lethargic to make a meal of him. So with camera and binoculars in hand he set off each day and was lucky enough to see many more birds than the rest of us who remained safely in the campsite. We did check up on him occasionally though, just in case he got into difficulty. I wasn’t missing my walks too much because of my painful back.
With the GPS set on the co-ordinates for the Owen’s camp, we found it was actually quite close to where we were – probably no more than two kilometers away as the crow flies. We could only imagine how isolated and wild it must have been when they stayed there and were ever so envious of their amazing experiences in the area. The Valley was well-stocked with animals so we were optimistic about seeing predators. We heard lions roaring at night, but it wasn’t until the last morning, as we were leaving the Park that we saw any lions.
On our first afternoon drive we headed along a very sandy road to Sunday Pan, which is situated about 21 kilometers from Deception. The Pan was disappointingly lacking in animals, apart from the usual black-backed jackals and springbok, but on our return journey Hillary noted some large tracks in the road. We didn’t know what animal had made them, but saw that they were heading in the same direction in which we were driving.
We all saw the enormous brown hyena at the same time and were very excited about the sighting.
These animals are quite rare and mostly hunt at night, so for us to see one walking along the road in the early evening was a bonus for us. We followed him for a while before he ducked off into the bush on our left. He must have been moving quite fast because we picked him up on the road again further ahead and managed to get a couple of photos before he disappeared for good. Brown hyenas differ from the spotted hyenas as they are covered with long hair which makes them look a lot bigger.
On a previous visit to the area Jon and Hillary saw lots of honey badgers, but we were out of luck with these animals. They were probably hidden by the long grass. A local tour guide told us that if we wanted to see honey badgers we should look out for a pair of pale chanting goshawks sitting low in a tree, as they usually stick close to the badgers waiting for them to dig up scorpions, mice and other small creatures, which the goshawks then poach off them. Jon also warned Rob about keeping his distance from a honey badger if he came across one on his walks, because they attack males by going for their genitals and they don’t let go!!! Ouch!
That evening as we were driving back to our camp in the dark, we came across a striped polecat that I mistakenly took for a honey badger. The others knew immediately that it was a polecat by its smaller size. It ran along the road in front of us for quite a few metres before scrambling into the grass. As one doesn’t come across these animals very often it was nice to be able to notch it up as one of the more unusual creatures that we had seen on the trip.
Jon and Hillary had chores to do around the campsite early the next morning so they didn’t come with us on the game drive. We’d hardly passed the Owens’ camp when we were stopped by another vehicle and told that there was a cheetah about a kilometer ahead on our left. We had great difficulty locating it and had just about given up when we came across another couple about two kilometers further on who pointed it out to us in the distance. Unfortunately the cheetah was quite far away from the road so we could hardly see it. Rob was sure though that he could see two cheetahs at one stage.
Back at the camp we excitedly told the others about the cheetah we’d seen, but they laughingly said that it didn’t count as all four of us had to be there to verify the sighting. We’d heard on our way back that a pair of lions had been spotted on the road to Passarge, so we all made our way there, only to find that they had already left the area or were plonked down on the ground somewhere out of sight.
As we were close by, Jon showed us where they had camped previously and on our return to the main road we came across an area with a number of squirrel burrows. The squirrels were standing on their hind legs surveying the area in a similar fashion to the way suricats do. I then spotted an enormous striped cobra sunning itself next to a burrow and told Rob to turn back so that we could photograph the snake.
Unfortunately when we pulled up beside it, the snake slithered down into the hole. We sat silently waiting for it to reappear and after about three minutes its head peeped out of the hole. When it saw us there it just froze and we sat silently staring each other down, in suspended animation, for at least half an hour. The snake didn’t move at all and in the end we had to leave. Apparently these snakes are known for sunning themselves next to burrows in the early morning. We went back again the next day, parking further from the hole and walked quietly up to it, hoping to see our big boy, but sadly he wasn’t there. I’m not sure what we would have done if he had come out and confronted us – I’m not that brave!
The next morning we were up very early on a quest to see cheetahs. We came across a pair of them sitting like book-ends quite near to where the Owens camp was. When the sun hits their coats, these lithe creatures are absolutely beautiful to look at. We were truly blessed to have had such a wonderful sighting of them and surprisingly, we were on our own again.
With the early morning sunrise painting the sky a beautiful pink behind them, they were a heart-stopping sight. We watched as they crossed the road ahead and made their way through the valley, all the while keeping their eyes on the many springbok that were in the area. The springbok were very wary of these two and kept their distance. Eventually they disappeared into the ridge on our right, obviously hoping to sneak up on their prey further down the valley.
That evening on our game drive we came across a safari vehicle with a number of tourists on board, watching an area very keenly. It turned out to be two female cheetahs with four cubs. We couldn’t believe that we had been lucky enough to see no less than eight cheetahs in one day. This has to have been a record for us. The little cubs were frolicking in the grass – playing with each other and having a great time. Their mothers had caught a springbok but unfortunately they were too far away for us to watch them eating it. We weren’t sure if these were the same two adults we’d seen in the morning, or another pair altogether.
The safari vehicles can be very useful for pointing out game, but they come at a price. We found that they help each other out by radioing details of sightings and then they all converge on the spot, leaving no room for any other private vehicles to get close. When one of their vehicles moved on, they pulled off slowly to enable the next one to take over their place. It is quite an unfair arrangement but they probably feel obliged to help each other to satisfy their paying guests.
The next day, Jon was keen to get to Maun as early as possible so that he could take his car to be repaired. We broke camp and were on the road by 7.00 a.m. As we were leaving the valley we were told that a pair of lions had been sighted on the circular road back to the campsites. Jon opted to go on ahead and we went to have a quick look at the lions. They were two young lionesses, but we couldn’t get close to them because of the safari vehicles. We decided not to waste any further time and managed to turn around with great difficulty and head off to catch up with Jon and Hillary.
The road out of the Park was very sandy but quite drivable and before long we were back on the main tarred road. We had to turn right to Rakops so that we could fill up with petrol and diesel. Jon was ahead of us and we were quite surprised when he ignored the first turn off into the town and carried on driving another three or so kilometers to the next one. It became evident very quickly why he had done this, as the main road through the town was in a shocking state. The tar was so broken up and potholed that it was easier to ride on the dirt at the side of the road than on the tar.
The garage where we filled up was so dilapidated and desolate that we had serious misgivings about buying their diesel. In the end we opted to put in just enough to get us to Maun. About two hours later, after a pleasant drive, we drove into Maun and made our way to the Island Safari Lodge. They have a lovely shady campsite situated on the banks of the Thamalakani River.
Jon unhitched the caravan and left immediately to take his car into the local Toyota dealer. We had planned to leave for Mankwe the following day after replenishing our stocks, but we decided to stay two nights instead to take the pressure off Jon in case his car took longer to repair than promised. This proved to be a wise move as this is exactly what happened.
After settling in at the campsite, we drove the twelve odd kilometers into town to fetch Jon. Maun is a bustling dusty town on the edge of the Okavango Delta. It reminds me of Windhoek on a Friday because of all the bakkies loaded with camping gear and the many safari vehicles driving around with tourists. The visitors all seem to have a sense of purpose – something that isn’t really shared by the many locals who wander along the streets as if they’ve got all day to get to where they are going. Cattle and goats wander across the main road and nobody thinks it’s unusual to see them milling around on the steps of Barclays Bank!
My first priority in Maun was to see a doctor about my back problem. I spoke to someone who recommended that I see the pharmacist instead, because the local doctor was prone to take extended lunch breaks and was often not sober on his return to the surgery. The pharmacist turned out to be just the right person and she soon had me feeling great again after a Voltaren injection. I had a second one the following day and was then able to walk up upright again and totally pain free for the first time in ten days. What a pleasure. And it all cost me no more than R16,00 a time.
While we were waiting for Jon at the garage, we heard some lively reggae music coming from across the road. On closer inspection we saw two young black men vigorously washing a car at Ponny’s Car Wash and Bar. Never mind about drinking and driving – just get yourself pissed at Ponny’s while your car is being cleaned! These poor young men had rather a thankless task, as the vehicle was covered with a fresh coat of dust every time a car drove past where they were working.
Maun is a town of local entrepreneurs. Everywhere you look there is evidence of people running their own little backyard businesses. The spelling on some of their lean-to’s and walls is really amusing and I could have spent the whole afternoon just taking snaps of shop names. One that took my fancy was “Forever FU”. What did that mean????
That night Jon and Hillary stood us to dinner at the lodge where we were camping. This was partly in payment for all the animal sightings that I had made first, but mainly to thank us for all the driving and help with Jon’s car problems. It was a festive evening with us reminiscing about the wonderful time we’d had in the Kalahari. We were looking forward to going to Mankwe, which borders on the Moremi Game Reserve and Savuti, in the Chobe Reserve, which is famous for its elephants. So still lots to look forward to.
As Jon’s car had been promised to be ready by lunchtime, we spent the morning sorting out our Savuti bookings with the Wildlife people. Angola had experienced exceptional rains this season, which resulted in the Okavango Delta flooding more than usual. This caused quite a few problems up north because many of the rivers were unpassable. We learned, to our dismay, that there was only one road into Savuti and one had to cross over a privately owned ‘makeshift’ bridge (whatever that meant) to get to it. Once over the bridge, the usual road to Savuti was flooded and very muddy, so travelers had to use the notorious ‘sandridge’ road which is best avoided by anyone pulling a trailer because of its deep sand.
We’d chatted to a fellow camper who told us that he had come via the sandridge road and that seven cars had been stuck that day and had to be pulled out. Hillary wasn’t keen to go to Savuti after hearing all this, but Jon wasn’t deterred at all and when he overheard a man talking about it at the Wildlife offices, he said we should go ahead with our booking. Rob and I just remained dumb as we had no experience of this area at all and were relying on Jon’s judgment. “I go to Savuti every day of the week,” the man said, “and I never have a problem.” We later learned that the reason he goes to Savuti every day is because he is the one who tows everyone out, which is naturally why he would encourage us to go and get stuck! Great for business!
It’s actually a very expensive exercise being stuck on the sandridge road because not only can you miss your deadline to be out of the Park and end up having to pay for an extra day, but you also have to pay this fellows petrol to and from Maun, as well as his entrance fees to the Park and whatever he charges for the job. Quite lucrative for him I would say.
By the time we had finished making our bookings, it was time to collect Jon’s car. As we were making our way towards the garage our car’s malfunction light came on and the power died on us. We limped into a parking lot and waited for a while for it to right itself, but this time the self-repairing mechanism didn’t happen. Rob had to drive us to the garage at about 5 kph, holding up the lunchtime traffic in the main road of Maun. What a fantastic place for this to happen – we had really been lucky that it waited until we were out of the Kalahari before dying on us.
Fortunately the mechanics at the garage were able to diagnose what was wrong with our car and it turned out to be a relatively cheap and simple thing to sort out. It was the accelerator sensor gauge which had come undone and once it was pushed back into position the problem seemed to be sorted out. Rob asked them to show him what they had done in case it happened again. It was lucky that they did, because we were to have at least two more occurrences after that which Rob managed to sort out immediately. Jon’s car was only ready by late that evening, by which time we had restocked our groceries, booze, water and petrol and were ready for the next and final leg of our trip. We weren’t sorry to be heading out of town again as it is no match for the bush!