Oops. That took a bit longer than I anticipated. But, yes, all good things eventually come to their end, and I, too, have come to the end of this series on my safari in the Kalahari.
And so, to close it out, here’s one last photo, this time of the setting African sun.
My Kalahari safari predates my interest in birding, so I wasn’t paying too much attention to the region’s feathered friends. However, I did think to take one or two photographs. And, because they are rather memorable, I learned some of their names.
These first two photos are of the largest bird capable of flight. It’s called the Kori Bustard, but, thanks to the accent of our South African guide, I kept hearing “horny bastard.” (Believe you me, that made my head turn.)
This one is being stalked by a jackal.
Here’s another bird whose name I enjoyed: the Spotted Thick-knee. I like its Afrikaans name even more: Gewone Dikkop.
I don’t have a photo of the Sociable Weaver ― in fact, I don’t think I ever saw one ― but we saw lots of their nests. Part of the sparrow family, they reside in large colonies ― hence, their name ― and build magnificent nests like these to live in.
One reason why I was so enamoured with lions on my Kalahari safari is because they really are just really, really big cats. I live with two (much smaller) cats, so I should know.
Another animal that reminded me of my cats is the yellow mongoose. I entertained myself one evening at camp taking photos of these fellows. Yellow mongoose are about the size of a kitten, and have just about as much personality. They never stop moving. Not for a second.
This is a cheetah. It’s not the best of photos, but I thought I should include it in my Kalahari series because apparently I was pretty lucky to see a cheetah on my first ever safari. We came across this one on our fifth day out, and my German safari companion was ecstatic. It was the first cheetah she’d seen in all her years of going on safari.
There were actually two cheetahs under this tree, but one lay down in the grass just as we spotted them, so it’s not visible in the photo. (Which made me wonder, then: exactly how many animals had we not seen over the previous four days because of the tall grass?)
Two bits of trivia about the cheetah: its coat is covered with nearly 2000 black spots. And it can sprint at a speed of 100 kilometres an hour, making it the fastest mammal on land.
And now … what you’ve all been waiting for. (At least, I sure have!) I’m talking about what most people think of when you say you’ve been on safari; I’m talking about meeting the King of the Beasts.
As excited as I was about seeing lions on our Kalahari safari, I had fully prepared myself for the eventuality that I might not see a single one. I mean, it’s not like going to the zoo. What you see in the wild is (ahem) wildly dependent on a wide variety of factors, not the least of which is a whole lot of luck.
But! It turns out we were lucky and on only our second morning out, we saw our first lion. Here he is.
It was my turn in the very back of the car, which meant, although I had a great view of the fellow, I had to take my photos through a window that did not open. Even so, I was beyond thrilled.
It took us a while to spot the guy. We had stopped by the side of the road to look at a herd of gemsbok. Several minutes went by, and then one of our German safari companions spoke up. “There is a lion in the grass directly in front of us about 20 metres,” was all she said, but I’ll never forget the tone of her voice: calm and quiet and tense, all at the same time.
That’s when I realized what sharp eyes she had. The rest of us had been too focused on the gemsbok to notice what was right under our noses. We stayed where we were, keeping our voices low because the car windows were open. Every so often Mr. King of the Beasts would lift up his head ― to let the gemsbok behind him know he’s still there, our guide told us.
That was lion # 1. Little did I know he would be only the first of many.
On the morning of our third day, I was eating my breakfast and enjoying the view from the shelter of our unfenced campsite. Off to my right, in the distance, I noticed some sandy-coloured rocks. To myself, I thought, “The biggest rock kinda looks like a lion.” I imagined a pair of eyes, but dismissed the idea as too much wishful thinking, and didn’t say anything to the others. This rock was maybe 100 metres from where I was standing.
A few minutes later, my friend and I were in our tent, packing up our stuff as we were moving camp that day, when I heard our guide yell, “Lipid!” (At least, that’s what I heard.) But my friend understood.
“Leopard!” she said, and we both raced out of the tent. I pretty much tripped over my own two feet, and then wasted more time running for my cameras, which were over by the shelter in the exact opposite direction from where everybody else was running. By the time I looked over to where our guide was, all I saw was him pointing. I didn’t see any of the cats, but he had seen four lions and a leopard.
And that’s when the penny dropped. I ran back to where I had seen the “rock” earlier. It was gone! I told everyone, and some of the group were a bit disgusted with me for not sharing what I’d seen (honestly, it was so far away it was really hard to know what I was looking at), but they were soon over it. I endured quite a bit of teasing for the rest of the day about how I didn’t know the difference between a rock and a lion. Later, it dawned on me that the lion had been watching me just as carefully as I had been squinting at her. She had stood sooooo still that she really did look like a rock. Except for, you know, those eyes.
After all that excitement, we went looking for their tracks in the road. They were … big.
On our fourth day, we saw what I’m calling lion # 3. She was lying beside the road, sleeping. Eventually she sat up and struck a lovely pose for me.
On our fifth day, our guide noticed lion tracks by the side of the road. We drove on slowly, all of us looking carefully in the meadows beside the road.
And then, there they were, three of them in the distance (lions # 4, 5, and 6).
Here are a few more shots taken with my zoom lens.
On our last day of the safari, we hit bonanza in terms of lion-sightings: eight in total. The first two were too far away for photographs. I was the first to spot this one (lion # 9), which is a considerable accomplishment considering the company I was in. (I took this photo with my zoom lens. The lion was maybe 200 to 250 metres away from us, and to the naked eye, she was no bigger than a large cat.) Our guide said this lion and the previous two were getting ready for a hunt — he could tell by the way they had positioned themselves on the edge of the dune.
And then we came across a family: lions # 10 to 14. Here’s dad …
… and here’s several shots of mom and the three cubs (one cub is off camera).
The most thrilling night of our safari was one of the nights we were camped in an unfenced campsite (which we did twice, both times on the Botswana side of the park) and we listened to the lions roar. Every hour or so we’d hear them, and they were getting closer and closer as the evening went on. I didn’t quite get the goosebumps you read about people experiencing when they first hear a lion roar in the wild, but it was probably the most thrilling experience of my camping life.
That night, around 3:30 a.m., my friend had to get up. This meant waking up our guide and waiting for him to say it was OK for her to leave our tent. He didn’t wake up when she called out his name a few times (although she woke up the Germans — which we heard all about the next morning), so I suggested she shine her flashlight on the SUV where our guide was sleeping.
“Is there a problem?” came his South African–accented voice, eventually. My friend told him what she needed, and he opened the door of the SUV and jumped down to the ground in his bare feet. (This, after he’d warned us every single night after the sun went down that we could not wander through camp wearing sandals or flip flops because of the scorpions.) He slowly shone his flashlight across the meadow beside our campsite.
After a long minute, he finally said, “It’s OK.” My friend scrambled out of the tent, did her business, and returned to our tent, after which the entire camp could finally go back to sleep.
The next morning when I got up, our guide told me that he had woken up every hour to take a look around because he was hearing lots of animals in the grassy plain we were camped next to. I never thought to ask if the animal sounds woke him up, or whether he simply had a good internal alarm clock. At any rate, I was glad to learn our guide was taking our safety seriously.
I hesitate to say that my Kalahari safari wouldn’t have been as extraordinary an experience without seeing 14 lions ― because the safari really was, as a whole, so much more than the extraordinary sum of so many extraordinary parts ― but I will say this: you should all put seeing lions in the African wild right at the top of your bucket list.
The top, people.
Blue Wildebeest and Red Hartebeest
And moving right along from the “boks,” we come to the “beests.” In the Kalahari, we saw blue wildebeest and red hartebeest. These too are antelopes, although the blue wildebeest (above) looks awfully cow-like to me.
You can tell them apart because the blue wildebeest (also known as the gnu) has a bluish tinge, and its horns are shaped like parentheses (once an editor …). The red hartebeest has a reddish tinge, and its horns are shaped like backwards question marks (… always an editor). The red hartebeest is smaller than a gemsbok, but larger than the springbok, while the blue wildebeest is the largest of them all.
Often we came across a solitary blue wildebeest with a herd of gemsbok, but usually the wildebeest live together in herds. Their range is throughout southern and eastern Africa.
Standing about a metre and a half at the shoulder, the wildebeest runs at speeds up to 80 kilometres per hour. It can survive in the Kalahari because it gets enough water from eating melons, roots, and tubers.
We saw a lot of wildebeest calves as well.
And hartebeest calves.
The red hartebeest is found mostly in southwestern Africa, and it too can get all the water it needs from eating melons and tubers.
It has excellent hearing and sense of smell, but poor eyesight. To get away from its predators, the red hartebeest runs in a zigzag pattern as fast as 55 kilometres per hour.
Gemsbok and Steenbok
Besides the springbok, there were a couple other “boks” we encountered on our Kalahari safari: the gemsbok and the steenbok.
The gemsbok is almost twice as large as the springbok, but they run at a comparatively much slower speed (a sluggish 60 kilometres per hour). Like the springbok, they live in herds. Their colouring is striking: mostly light brown, but with a black and white face and black and white legs. The other striking feature about the gemsbok is its horns. They are loooooooong (almost a metre) and straight. Both males and females have horns, although the female’s are slightly longer and thinner.
The great thing for the safari photographer is how the gemsbok love having their photo taken. They always struck a nice pose for me.
The steenbok, in contrast, were much harder to photograph as they bounded away as soon as they saw our car. They are a small antelope, measuring about a half metre at the shoulder. Only the males have horns. The steenbok live alone or in pairs.
The first animal we came upon after entering Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park were the springbok, and we were to see many, many, many (!) of them over the course of our week. The springbok is the national animal of South Africa. (Even the South African national rugby team ― the Springboks ― is named after the animal.)
These small antelope live on the dry grasslands of northwest South Africa, Namibia, and Botswana.
They’re not big animals ― less than a metre high at the shoulders ― but they can run as fast as 88 kilometres per hour.
Both males and females have horns. Fawns are usually born in the spring (October and November).
Often one springbok would be standing all on its own, some distance from the rest of the herd. Our guide said they were the look-out.
In the mid-afternoon heat, the animals squeeze together under a tree to take advantage of the shade.
Springbok comes from the Afrikaans words for “jump” (spring) and “antelope” (bok). When nervous or alarmed, the hairs underneath the tail stand up in a fan shape. The springbok can leap about two metres straight up into the air ― this is called pronging. We saw this for ourselves on the last day of our safari.
As we were driving, we saw a fawn that had become separated from its mother. The fawn was in the road ahead of us, and the mother was in the meadow, pronging up and down (literally bouncing: boing! boing! boing!) trying to find her fawn. Finally, the fawn hopped over the side of the road back into the meadow, and the two were united. We all cheered (and some of us even teared up at the happy reunion).
Of all the species of antelope we met on our Kalahari safari, the springbok was my favourite.
On Safari in the Kalahari
“This must not be your last time.”
So said our safari guide near the end of our time in the Kalahari and near the end of our safari ― my first ever. Never, in all my travels, did I think I would ever get the chance to go to Africa. Never, in all my dreams, did I think I would ever go on safari.
But when a friend who just happened to be travelling to South Africa invited me to meet up with her, I jumped at the opportunity. After I had worked out the details of how and where we would meet, my next step was to arrange a safari for us.
And here’s the first thing I learned: when you type the keywords “South Africa” and “safari,” the destination at the top of the list is the Kruger. Safari-goers like to talk about checking the Big Five off their list (Big Five = lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, and buffalo) and Kruger National Park, the largest game reserve in South Africa, has all of these and more. Plus, it’s conveniently located near Johannesburg. Which makes the Kruger a popular safari destination.
But with a little more digging, other choices are discovered. I began reading about the Kalahari in the northwest part of South Africa, near the Botswana and Namibia borders. It’s more remote, so it takes a lot more schlepping to get there, but I was intrigued by the descriptions of its landscape.
My friend said the choice was up to me. I went all pragmatic and made a list of pros and cons. The two options came out dead even, so I was right back where I started.
I then sought the advice of a co-worker who had grown up in Zimbabwe and had spent a lot of time in South Africa. In the end, my choice came down to her warning that, because we were going to be there in February, at the height of the rainy season, the foliage in the Kruger might be so lush and full we ran a fair chance of not seeing any game at all.
That settled it. We were going to the Kalahari.
Following a recommendation from my trusted Lonely Planet, and after several emails back and forth to South Africa, I booked us on a six-day camping safari with a small family-run operation out of Upington in the Northern Cape, the largest and least populated province in South Africa. Our safari would take us to Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, a game reserve that straddles the border of South Africa and Botswana.
And so, on the appointed morning, our guide picked us up at our guest house in Upington. Introductions were made all around. There were only four of us on this safari and our companions were the best we could hope for: two Germans who never stopped laughing or joking around and destroyed every stereotype I ever had about Germans. By lunchtime on our first day, my friend and I realized they were going to be a lot of fun. (What was almost unbelievable, given how well they got on, is that this couple had never met before our safari.)
And our South African guide not only took very good care of us, he was a gifted tracker and a wise man. I enjoyed his stories immensely ― and I am pretty sure he enjoyed ours.
Upington to Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is a bit of a trek and it took us most of a day to get to our first campsite. The roads inside the park are unpaved and covered in sand (which we soon learned makes them an excellent surface for tracking!).
We also soon learned that these roads were prone to flooding because (1) it was the rainy season and (2) they follow dry river beds. Flanking the edges of these river beds were dunes. The day we drove cross country from the Nossob River bed to the Auob River bed gave us a marvellous roller-coaster ride over waves of dunes that rippled the landscape before us.
We spent three nights camping in Botswana, in basic, unfenced campgrounds. (Basic = pit toilets and no running water. Unfenced = absolutely no leaving the tent at night without waking our guide.) There were two tents for the four of us paying customers that we quickly learned how to put up and take down ourselves. Our guide slept in a smaller tent or, when it was too windy, the back of the SUV.
The other two nights we camped in South Africa, in full-service campgrounds that included a gas station, small store, showers and flush toilets, and a high fence encircling the entire campground. The gates were closed from dusk to dawn, but by 6 a.m. each morning there was always a line-up of SUVs eager to start their game drives.
Our daily routine was rather basic. At 6:00 a.m. sharp, our guide gently woke us by calling out “morning, morning, morning.” At that hour it was scarcely light enough to see without a flashlight, but mornings were the best time to see game, so we wanted an early start.
Once we were on the road, we stopped anytime we saw game. On the days we moved camp, we’d reach the next campsite by early afternoon. On days we weren’t moving camp, we still went back to the campsite for the height of the afternoon as there was little to see in the way of wildlife at that time of day. There would be another game drive in the late afternoon/early evening, and then back to camp for our sundowners (gin & tonic were our drink of choice) and dinner: always a braai (Afrikaans for “grill”) prepared and served by our guide.
My safari experience, to put it simply, far exceeded my expectations and then some. I loved the landscape ― I blame my love of flat horizons on my Prairie upbringing ― and I loved the early mornings at dawn when the world was cool and soft. Although the Kalahari is a desert, the daytime temperatures never seemed overwhelming ― again, my Prairie temperament loves a dry heat.
As far as the main attraction of the safari went, my expectations were exceeded and then some as well: two cheetahs, 14 lions (three of them cubs), and springbok, gemsbok, blue wildebeest, and red hartebeest, including fawns and calves, by the herdful. Lots of birds as well. A handful of giraffes. A couple of jackals. And of course the barking geckos who serenaded us every single night.
As we were driving back to Upington on our last day together, we teased our guide about the stories he would tell his next group about all our antics. He laughed along with us, but then turned serious for a moment and looked right at me and my friend. “This must not be your last time,” he said earnestly.
Never, in all my travels, did I think I would ever get the chance to go to Africa. Never, in all my dreams, did I think I would ever go on safari.
I can only hope and dream that I will get the chance again.
So, here’s a thing: it wasn’t until after my African safari that I realized I wanted to do more with my photos than simply post them on Facebook. I also wanted to tell the stories behind the photos. Starting a travel blog seemed like the natural next step in my social media evolution.
But here’s another thing: even though it was five years ago this month that I was on that safari, and even though I am well into my fifth year of posting to this travel blog, I have yet to write about that safari.
So consider this a heads-up: my Kalahari safari will be the focus of this blog over the next few
weeks months. If Africa and animals aren’t your thing, feel free to tune out for a couple of weeks.
To get us started, here’s a photo I took just before sunrise at one of the watering holes we camped beside.