A friend who lives in Windhoek and his teenage daughter treated us to a traditional braai (So. African barbeque) at his place on the evening we arrived in Africa. We met him again before heading off to Botswana for a tour of town and dinner at a local restaurant. The next morning we took a scenic flight to Sossusvlei, with its towering red sand dunes and dramatic landscape. We sailed over the Namib Desert at dawn in a hot air balloon, followed by the traditional champagne breakfast in the bush, though this was the first time I’ve seen anyone uncork a champagne bottle with a machete. We climbed to the top of the highest dune in Namibia - "Big Daddy" - 1200 ft/365 m and had a ball running back down. The sand makes a loud booming sound when you slide on it. In this arid area we spotted the first of many herds of springbok and oryx (gemsbok), solitary steenbok and plenty of ostriches and other birds. The nighttime sky was dazzling. From Sossusvlei by road to Swakopmund and Walvis Bay, where we took a small boat out to view huge colonies of fur seals and cormorants. Some seals even climbed into the boat, including a friendly, blubbery male named Casanova. Bottlenose and Heaviside dolphins surfed in our bow wake and pelicans raced with us. We enjoyed fresh oysters and more champagne before climbing into Land Rovers to explore golden sand dunes, colonies of sea birds, rosy flamingoes and a stealthy black-backed jackal.
We admired the ancient petroglyphs at Twyfelfontein on our way to Damaraland, where our guide, Rosie, grew up. She is very familiar with 2 small herds of desert-adapted elephants who inhabit the area. In the early evening she introduced us to Rosie’s group - one of the enfants was named for our guide - and the next morning we met Oscar’s group. Oscar is a curious young male who enjoyed running his trunk over our truck and sniffing everything and everyone. These groups are wild, but more comfortable with visitors than most elephants and we were so close to them that we could count every wrinkle on their dusty hides. We continued to Palmwag Rhino Camp where we tracked black rhino on foot and had the great fortune to see a huge male and shortly afterwards a female with a baby (scouts locate the rhinos, we drive nearby and walk the rest of the way so that we don’t disturb them). We also saw Hartmann’s mountain zebras, giraffes and the usual antelopes. The scenery in this area is spectacular with interesting mesas and ridges. We took a long bush walk in the evening before watching the sun set.
The next stop was Ongava, a reserve adjacent to Etosha National Park. We took game drives in both areas but some of the most interesting animal spotting was at the waterhole in front of our camp. There were springbok, steenbok, oryx, kudu, waterbuck, black-faced impala, blue wildebeest, Burchell’s zebra, warthogs and a family group of white rhinos - male, female and infant. One day we found a sleepy pair of young male lions under a tree who jumped up and growled ferociously when someone slammed a window of the vehicle shut. The biggest surprise was a large bristly porcupine who joined us for dinner one evening in camp. He’d been injured and the camp staff fed him so he was not shy, though he puffed out his quills just to warn you not to come too close.
We flew in a Cessna Caravan to a camp tucked into the dunes on the Skeleton Coast, another gorgeous desert landscape. We were amazed at how many animals survive in this harsh environment including giraffe and a small herd of elephants cavorting at a waterhole. We also saw a group of about 20 ostriches - a feather-duster convention. We got remarkably close to a rare brown hyena, a young male with a luxurious blond mane. We visited a Himba village and learned a bit about their nomadic culture. The women smear red ochre all over their hair and bodies for sun protection and for beauty, a striking effect.
We took a comfortable charter flight from Windhoek to Maun in the Okavango Delta of Botswana, zipped through customs assisted by a young man named Ollie, then hopped another small plane to Chitabe Trails Camp. We flew low to enjoy the lush landscape and to spot elephants, giraffe and zebra from the air. A couple from Colorado arrived on a different bush flight from another camp and joined us and our guide, Andrea, for the ride to our camp. Not far from the airstrip, Andrea heard a panic call from vervet monkeys and the nervous squawking of a flock of francolins, which told him that there was a cat nearby. He drove off road into the bush and within minutes spotted a male leopard in the crook of a sausage tree. We parked next to the tree and enjoyed a close-up view before continuing on to camp for lunch. Not a bad start! The camp was beautifully situated near a long waterhole which attracted herds of elephant, antelopes, lions and more. The game drives were amazing, we saw 2 more leopards, a young female lion babysitting twin cubs while their mother was off hunting, a combative, but amorous lion couple plus a solitary male, hippos, warthogs, wildebeest (gnu), giraffes, Burchell’s zebra, mongoose, lots of birds and, my favorite cats, a young female cheetah with 3 cubs about 7 months old. The cheetahs were keeping watch across the savannah from a termite mound. We parked close by, watching both them and, about an hour later, a glorious sunset, as we enjoyed wine and snacks in our open land rover.
Elephants were everywhere, including the camp. One day after lunch we were unable to return to our tent because a large herd was grazing right next to our deck. We watched until they slowly moved into the near distance. I was cooling off in the outdoor shower, enjoying the view of the herd in the tall grass, when suddenly a teenage male came running right next to me, trunk raised and trumpeting loudly, with a smaller sibling in tow. It was clear that he felt left behind and was calling to the herd - "Hey, guys, wait for us!!" I flattened myself against the wall of the shower, heart pounding, until he rejoined his family. We also watched elephants taking mud baths and saw some of the smallest calves we’d ever seen - still covered with black bristly hair, no control yet of their floppy little trunks.
We took a walking safari one morning but most of the time viewed the animals from our truck. We hated to leave Chitabe, but the next stop, the Makgadikgadi pans of the Kalahari Desert, was equally fascinating. We stayed at a very simple, but intimate and elegant camp, that truly evoked old-style safaris. The first evening we rode quad bikes with 2 other couples into the vast salt pan, returning to camp for drinks by the fire followed by a wonderful dinner, where our guide, Chaba, regaled us with hysterically funny tales. The next day we met two Bushmen, who took us on a walk and demonstrated traditional tribal survival skills. In the evening we took a bush drive and spotted a pregnant brown hyena and a variety of other desert-adapted animals, including African wild cats, small felines that look a lot like house cats. On our last day we took a morning game drive but saved the best for last - a visit to a colony of habituated meerkats. These small carnivores from the mongoose family spend much of the day hunting, digging out scorpions, grubs and other delicacies. There were several tiny babies in the family and a sentry posted on high ground to keep an eye out for predators, especially the winged variety. We watched the sunset at Chapman’s Bower - an enormous sprawling boab tree that had once been used as a mailbox. On the drive back to camp, with the help of a spotlight, we got a very good look at an aardwolf, an odd-looking creature in the hyena family that eats termites, as well as another wildcat, 2 more brown hyenas, lots of spring hare, who hop around like small kangaroo, and Cape hare.
Our last camp was on Chief’s Island in Moremi. The game drives were very good, though not as exciting as Chitabe. We saw a female lion with 3 nursing cubs, a trio of lionesses, huge herds of Cape buffalo, lots of elephants, giraffe, red lechwe, tsessabe, impala, wildebeest, warthogs, baboons, vervet monkeys and more. We got a rare glimpse of a honey badger as it waddled into the bush. During a candlelit braai one evening, a very large spotted hyena ran into the camp and grabbed a hunk of meat off the grill, startling everyone and causing quite a commotion.
Way too soon our adventure was over and we were flying Air Botswana to Johannesburg to connect with our long flights home.