Tag Archives: Botswana

Saddle-billed Storks – My Favourite

It’s always nice to come across storks in nature and one that really excites us, not only for its size, but also its beauty, is the Saddle-billed stork.  It is the largest of the storks, standing about 150cm tall, and looks magnificent when it takes to the air, with a wingspan of approx. 2.5 meters.  These storks are listed as endangered in South Africa, which makes a sighting of them rather special.

Saddle-billed stork - Moremi, Botswana

Saddle-billed storks are easily identifiable by the red and black bands across their bills and the yellow saddle, made of leathery skin, straddling the top of their bills.  Males and females look almost identical in their black and white plumage, but it is actually easy to tell the sexes apart as the female has bright yellow eyes as opposed to the male’s which are a dark colour.

Saddle-billed stork- Kruger National Park

Males also have yellow wattles that hang just below the head at the base of the bill and they are slightly larger and heavier than the females. The female has an exposed red patch on her chest that darkens during the breeding season.

Mother and chick - Saddle-billed storks

Looking at our pictures it would appear that they are all of females – unless this rather motley-looking juvenile is a little boy!

Juvenile Saddle-billed stork

Their habitat is mainly in wetlands and along rivers and lakes as their diet consists mostly of fish, frogs, crabs and the occasional bird or small reptile.  They are territorial and are usually found singly or in pairs.  Mating is for life and they never breed in colonies.  Together they build a stick nest at the top of a tree close to water.  The nest is deep enough to conceal the bird sitting on the two to three eggs that are laid.  Incubation takes about six to seven weeks and chicks are ready to fledge  two to three months later.

Saddle-billed stork- Kruger National Park

As I said, it’s a treat seeing these birds and well worth spending some time watching them gracefully going about their business along the water’s edge.

Only fools and elephants

Having lived in a region where there are lots of elephants, I do tend to blog about them rather a lot.  Forgive me for this indulgence, but they are such beautiful animals and I have such a great respect for them.  I noticed in a newspaper report last week that two Asian visitors to the Kruger National Park in South Africa had their vehicle trampled when they were charged by an angry elephant.  This is always a danger when humans encroach on the space of wild animals and especially elephants.  The sad thing is that humans always come off second best in these encounters – except when the poor elephant is shot for the sins of the visitors.

A regular visitor to our campsite

Fortunately I wasn’t around to see if these tourists provoked the elephant into charging, but they must have done something to annoy it because they are now both in hospital and their vehicle is in the scrapyard.  When we were staying at Xakanaka in Moremi, Botswana, we saw how foolish people can be when they are on holiday in the wild.  We were staying in an unfenced campsite on the edge of the Okavango Delta and had elephants around us daily.  We always retreated when we saw them, feeling so privileged to share their space.

Happily grazing in the swamp nearby

For almost a week a big bull elephant wandered in every day and waded into the swamp next to our campsite.  In fact we woke up one morning and found ourselves eyeball to eyeball with the elephant.  It was quite scary and poor Rob had to make a hasty retreat out of our rooftop tent to a safe spot.  The elephant was not concerned with our presence and grazed the entire day just meters from our campsite.

Waking up to company

Imagine our annoyance when ‘our’ elephant was disturbed in his peaceful grazing by a group of four tourists who walked right up to the waters edge and provoked him into coming after them.  Once they had his attention and he was seeing them off, the husband positioned himself with his camera to get a shot of the elephant going after his wife.  Fortunately for the lady concerned there was a tree behind which she could take refuge, because the elephant was clearly annoyed.

Hoping to get a photo of a death

They then all came over to our campsite and lured the angry elephant towards us, not only endangering us, but putting our vehicles and campsite set up in danger of being trashed.  When we told them how stupid they were, they said they knew all about elephants and there was no danger when a male elephant was feeding on its own.  Maybe one day those famous last words will be on their gravestones.

Happily grazing in the swamp nearby

If you happen to recognize these silly people, perhaps you can talk some sense into them while they are still alive.  We certainly couldn’t.  The Africans have a good name for these kinds of folks – Mampara’s!  Which means ‘idiots’.


African wild dogs in Moremi Game Reserve

One of the highlights of our visit to the Moremi Game Reserve in Botswana’s Okavango Delta in September was a wonderful sighting of a pack of African wild dogs.  It’s not that common to come across these unusual animals, so when one does it’s a great privilege for game viewers.  We’d been driving around for a while without seeing much activity when we saw a flurry of movement in a clearing of Mopani woodland.  With great excitement we counted at least seventeen wild dogs in the pack, most of which were young pups chasing each other playfully around the area.

African wild dog near Xakanaka, Moremi

The adults, more sedate, lay down under the trees keeping an eye on the activity of the youngsters as they jumped over logs, ran through water or just chased each other around joyfully.  It’s great to be able to enjoy this sort of spectacle and even better to be ready, with cameras on hand, to capture it in detail.  It wasn’t long before we were joined by numerous other game vehicles, all jostling for the best situation for photography.  Fortunately the dogs weren’t phased by the onlookers and they continued to play as if no-one was there, or as if we didn’t deserve their attention!

If you go down to the woods today ....

Wild dog enjoying the water

The African wild dogs that we saw were within a few kilometers of our campsite at Xakanaxa.  With an abundance of small buck in the area, the dogs are never short of food to eat.  A few days before this we saw an alpha male run across the road in front of us with a blood-stained face – obviously having just partaken of a nice juicy meal.  We were disappointed that we didn’t have enough time to photograph him, but the pack of seventeen more than made up for that.

African wild dog near Xakanaka, Moremi

Botswana wildlife authorities spend a lot of time researching these unique animals and they are sometimes collared for tracking and monitoring purposes.  They are particularly concerned about them crossing busy main roads and it is not uncommon to see warning road signs as you near the game reserves.  We were glad that none of our dogs had collars on them – it kind of detracts from a wildlife photograph.

Look out for Wild Dogs

If you’d like more information about African wild dogs, click here for a blog we did on them about two years ago.

Young wild dogs playing

Botswana 2010 : Kang to Matseleng Pan

I guess you could say that our holiday’s fate was sealed in the planning stages of our 2010 Botswana trip when I courageously gave Hillary the brief to take us to the most remote campsites she could find.  (Hillary has a flair for working out exciting itineraries!) This bravado was born on our trip to the Central Kalahari in 2009 where we had stayed in marvelous campsites unfettered by fences and open to all the wildlife that the area had to offer, lions and all.  Anyone who has ever camped in the wild like this knows that it has no equal in the African bush.  There is something so special about sitting around a campfire, under a canopy of stars and knowing that there are no other campers anywhere close and it’s just you and the bushveld.

With consummate skill Hillary found routes that, unbeknown to her, would give us adventures we hadn’t counted on and would leave us with memory banks so full of credit we would remember the holiday fondly for years to come. After spending our first night at the Kalahari Rest Game Farm just outside Kang, we departed on the first leg of our journey to Matseleng Pan via the little village of Hukuntsi.  We didn’t realize it at the time, but this road was the first of many that would challenge the skills of the drivers and the mettle of our trusty Toyotas.  The tarred road was so bad that we averaged about 40 kph and looked like slalom skiers as we zig zagged our way around the giant potholes.

Hukuntsi was our last opportunity to refuel the vehicles and once done, we followed a friendly local who showed us the road to Matseleng Pan.  There were three ways we could have gone to the Pan – one via Monong, the other via Zutshwa, both of which were regularly used gravel roads.  The third option was a direct route between the two that consisted of a very sandy track.

Deflating tyres for the sand

We voted for the middle one, the road less traveled, wanting to take the shortest and most challenging route.  At the outset the road looked sandy but pretty innocuous.

Grassy track

However, this soon changed as the sand gave way to grass tracks and then the road was hardly discernable through the tall grass.

Rob ponders the road ahead

Rob and Jon had placed seed nets over the front fenders to protect the radiators, but with grass seeds flying over the bonnets of our cars we soon felt like we were driving combine harvesters.  It didn’t take long for our air conditioner to stop working and both engines to heat up.  An inspection revealed that the radiator grills were totally clogged up with seeds.

Jon & Rob tackling the grass seeds

After using sticks and brushes to clear them and waiting for a few minutes for the cars to cool down, we resumed our journey, keeping anxious eyes on our gauges for overheating.  We progressed slowly but fought a losing battle against the seeds. There wasn’t much shade along the way, and with the sun burning down on us the heat was relentless.  The journey proved very slow as we literally stopped every couple of kilometers to clear out seeds and let the cars cool down.

The 80 kilometer drive to Ngwatle, took us six and a half hours.  I don’t think we took in much of the scenery, because of the overheating problem, but the road itself would have been quite drivable if it hadn’t been for the grass seeds.  At Ngwatle we saw a number of Abdim Storks, which we had particularly wanted to photograph on this trip, so that turned out to be a moment of excitement for me and Rob.  Camp fees had to be paid to the local community and after settling with the lady in charge and fending off hordes of children asking for sweets, we proceeded on the last leg of our journey to Matseleng Pan.  In her book on Botswana, Veronica Roodt describes this area as “the most spectacular Acacia savannah veld that Botswana has to offer” and she was not wrong about that.

Abdim Storks - Matseleng Pan

Unfortunately the only campsite was taken so we had to look around for somewhere suitable to park ourselves off.  We ended up making camp on a lovely area overlooking the pan.

Campsite at Matseleng Pan

With views of hartebeest, herds of springbok, ostriches and birds aplenty, it felt like the Kalahari Ritz!  On an early evening game drive we found a single tree next to the Pan, which was quickly dubbed “Lone Tree Pub” and was the forerunner of many evening sundowners at similar pubs on our trip!

Jane, Jon & Hillary at Lone Tree Pub

The birdlife was quite prolific in the area and when we filled a frying pan with water we were visited by the most amazing collection of red-headed finches and shaft-tailed whydahs.

Red-headed finches & Shaft-tailed whydahs

Altogether a magnificent spot to spend a couple of nights, enjoy the solitude and spend time alone with the local fauna.

Ghanzi to Grasslands

They say that Africa is not for sissies – I think they should qualify that and say that the backroads of Botswana are not for sissies.  Our trip to the Central Kalahari and Chobe for example – definitely not to be tackled by the faint-hearted.  We should have realized this when we read that one could only enter the area with a four-wheel drive vehicle.

No problem, we thought, we’ve had a 4×4 for years and have had a few successful attempts at rocky and sandy terrain – this should be no different.  First mistake.   Never under-estimate the challenge of the Kalahari.  We were prepared, after all.  We had a high-lift jack and had also acquired a brand new pair of sand tracks just in case we got stuck in the sand.  With these heavy duty plastic miracle rescuers we would be home and dry.  The second mistake was placing them under the running boards on the sides of the car, neatly tied on with bungy cords.  Out of the way but easily available if we needed them, we thought.

Our co-travellers, Jon and Hillary, are denizens of the remotest areas of Botswana, having made more forays into the wilds than David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley put together.  Only their mode of transport was different. David and Henry probably did it all on foot or horseback, whilst Jon & Hillary have a trusty Toyota and an off-road caravan.  So, we were all set and keen to tackle the unknown.

Our meeting in Ghanzi was marred somewhat by the news that Jon’s vehicle was having wheel-bearing troubles which he was having repaired at a local garage of doubtful repute.  It took until late in the evening to get the car on the road again and Jon’s wallet was about P800 lighter.  Not a good start to the trip!

Day 1 – Ghanzi (Tautona Campsite to Grasslands)  135kms

We were hoping to make an early start from Ghanzi, but our plans were thwarted when Jon thought that his caravan was hitched to the car when in fact only the electricals were attached and he drove forward.  The wiring seperated from the plug, and the caravan was instantly without indicators, tail-lights and stop-lights.   Unfortunately we didn’t have a wiring diagram, so after a fruitless two hours of trial and error attempts to get everything working,  Jon took the car back to the same garage in Ghanzi.  They were unable to help.  He finally phoned a mate in Durban who managed to sort describe the wiring set-up.

So it was quite late on Saturday morning when 45kms further up the main road we turned off at a little village called D’Kar (named after some unknown traveller’s initials found carved into a tree in the area).  Once we left the tarred road the narrow track turned to thick sand, bordered on one side by a fence and on the other by a low sand ridge covered with thick shrubs and thorn trees.  Hillary had smilingly assured us before we set off that the only hazards we’d have to contend with on this deserted stretch of road were the ten or so gates that we’d have to open and close as we went through.

We bravely took the lead with a feeling of exhilaration and excitement at finally heading off on our adventure.  The first few kilometers passed without incident.  Apart from the soft sand and the deep furrows made by the wheels of other cars, the road was quite drivable.  The high ridge between the furrows (aptly described in Afrikaans as the middelmannetjie) was covered with grass, which gently brushed the undercarriage of the car.  Rob joked that one could practically put the wheels into the tracks and let the car steer itself.  His mirth soon turned sour when the sand deepened making it much tougher to plough through.

I noticed things getting quieter in the car.  Rob was leaning into the steering wheel gripping it tightly with both hands, his knuckles white with the effort.  As we bumped and ground our way through the sand he was deep in concentration, breaking the silence only to say that it was a good thing this was such a remote road as he wouldn’t like to meet an oncoming vehicle under these conditions.  “We must keep up the momentum or we’ll get stuck,” he said knowingly.

Sandy Road

Sandy Road

The umpteen gates that had to be opened began to pall after about number seven or eight.  Fortunately, with Jon and Hillary taking up the rear, we didn’t have to close them behind us.  Jon fell back slightly so that they didn’t have to drive in our dust.  Things were progressing quite well until, horror of horrors, I saw a vehicle approaching us from ahead.  Oh damn!  They would have to get off the road somehow as we had the fence running alongside us on our left.  Fortunately it was a safari vehicle so they managed to clear the ridge on our right-hand side quite easily, driving over shrubs and grass with all the ease of practice.  We stopped to tell them that a car towing a caravan was coming up behind us, but they pulled off without hesitation, happy to clear the way when they met the obstacle.

One of many gates

One of many gates

We pushed on, glad that it was now a quiet early Saturday afternoon when most people are already at their destination. We expected a clear ride through to our campsite at Grasslands.   Suddenly we came to a corner where the sand was especially deep and yet another gate had to be opened.  Rob cursed as he jammed on brakes, worrying about getting going again once the gate was opened.  He put the car into gear and tried to pull off.  The back wheels spun furiously in the sand and the smell of burning rubber filled the air.  It was clearly now time to engage four-wheel drive, which up until then we had managed to avoid.  Once we were on our way again the rubber smell was still strong, but Rob assured me that this often happened when wheels spun in sand.

About five minutes later a warning light flashed on the dashboard and the car lost power and slowed down to a crawl.  Alarmed, Rob stopped and pulled out the trusty car owner’s manual.  The book wasn’t exactly reassuring when one was in the middle of nowhere on a Saturday afternoon and it read:  “malfunction – take vehicle to nearest service provider.”  Quite scary when we had no power and it was impossible to turn around on the narrow track.

By now Jon had pulled up behind us and jumped out to find out what the problem was.  “Give it a minute or two to cool down,” he said, “maybe it will fix itself.”  Sure enough, when Rob started the car the malfunction light had gone off, power was back and we were able to proceed with our journey.  “Aren’t these self-repairing Toyota’s wonderful,” Jon laughed.  We spent the rest of the way anxiously watching to see if the light came on again, which fortunately it didn’t.  This wasn’t a good thing to have happen when one was about to go into the wilds of the Kalahari for ten days.  I was secretly thankful that we had been so understanding and patient with Jon about his car problems – hopefully he would feel the same about ours!

The sand was getting ever deeper, more gates had to be opened and it looked like the ninety kilometer drive was going to take a good couple of hours, but we pressed on.  When another car approached we were again in no position to pull off the road.  The other fellow braked about ten meters in front of us and a young man jumped out of the front passenger seat to direct operations.  He turned some knobs on the front wheels to put the car into four wheel drive and instructed the driver to pull the car up onto the bank on our right.  Easier said than done.  The wheels just slid back into the deep furrow in the road.  The driver reversed and tried again.  Same result.  He then climbed out of the car to have a look at the terrain.  He was very well dressed in a nice suit, which was actually quite out of place where we were.  His decision was to reverse back even further and try another spot to ride up.  Once again his tyres slid back into the rut in the road.

This was going to prove more difficult than we thought and of course there was a caravan coming up behind us too.  By now two other passengers had alighted from the car.  At first glance they looked like bulls in drag, or perhaps the driver was taking two bulls to a fancy dress party.  Then we recognized them as being Herero ladies, who wear hats in the shape of bull’s horns.  To anyone who has never seen this particular headdress it must look quite strange.  I’ve often wondered at the origins of this peculiar form of adornment – the best explanation I could come up with is that they remind the men of the lobola (bride price) they have had to pay for the women – usually in the form of cattle.  But I digress ….

Eventually, the other driver managed to get two wheels up onto the ridge but his vehicle was still halfway across the road.  We would have to try and squeeze past him somehow.  With very little space to maneuver, Rob pulled his side mirror in and just made it past without touching the other car.  Whew!  That was a close shave.  Relieved we pressed on hoping that that would be our last encounter of the day.  Alas it was not to be.

About a kilometer up the road we saw yet another car heading our way.  “Goodness,” I said, “this is like the main road of Underberg on a Saturday morning!”  This time it was a hearse bearing the name “Joyce’s Funeral Parlour”.   With dismay and some difficulty we managed to pull over onto the verge.  “Let’s hope there isn’t a whole funeral procession,” Rob quipped.  Well, there was and there wasn’t.  The procession was very broken up with cars coming at odd intervals.  So it wasn’t like we could just sit and wait for them all to pass by.  Every time we got going again we met yet another mourner.  Eventually about sixteen cars later we cleared the last of them and were able to proceed with our journey in relative peace.  It was a relief to see the Grasslands gatepost looming up, assuring us that we’d arrived safely at last.  It could only get quieter as we drove further into the Kalahari.

Jane, Jon and Hillary at Grasslands

Jane, Jon and Hillary at Grasslands

The manageress at Grasslands struck the fear of God into me when she commented on the road we were to drive the following day.  “There is a very sandy stretch for about 26 kilometers just before you get to the Xade Gate,” she said.   “You will have a real battle towing a caravan through that, especially as there are deep ruts as well.  At least you have two vehicles so you can pull each other out, but it is going to be a very tough drive.”  I was secretly hoping to goodness that Joyce’s Funeral Parlour didn’t have any more business in the Kalahari that weekend!  Imagine meeting them on that awful road.

Leaving Grasslands

Leaving Grasslands

TripsTo Piper Pan in the Central Kalahari Park