Sunday, December 20, 2009

Botswana trip report: Okavango Delta

I arrived at Kwara Camp in the Okavango Delta on Thursday December 3 2009 in an impressive thunderstorm. It reminded me of my first ever visit to Botswana in February 1990 when we landed in Maun just minutes before a massive thunderstorm briefly closed the (then) tiny airport. Maun has changed a lot since then. It is considerably bigger, as is the airport itself. Alas the quaint Duck Inn pub/bar which was a fixture right by the airport, is no more. I spent several hours there on my first day ever in Botswana, gawking at the parade of safari guides, hunters, tour operators, tourists, pilots, and assorted crusty characters hanging out at the bar. Maun is probably no less interesting now than then. Just a bit bigger and a lot busier. It is still a frontier town, but you can buy fresh herbs in the grocery stores. The roads are still dusty, but your Blackberry will work - if you have international roaming of course. This time around, there was no time to mix with the locals – we had a plane to catch. Having completed a minimum of formalities (flight vouchers issued on the spot) we were escorted to a waiting Cessna Caravan, climbed up the narrow rickety steps in the back and strapped ourselves in. Then it was full throttle, flaps down and blood pressure up (just a little!). Compared with the bush strips the runway at Maun is gigantic, so no sweat to take off from here.

The pleasant low level flight from Maun to Kwara took less than 30 minutes, and like most flights within the Delta, it was quite scenic (elephants on the left!) and interesting. Once on the ground at the airstrip, an approaching thunder storm which we had first noticed on approach, was all too visible. We quickly donned raincoat ponchos and set off down the sandy track for the bouncy trip to camp. We made it just in time. As we dashed into the lounge, a heavy storm lashed the camp, driving the rain sideways into the front of camp. Our small group of 6 huddled in a dry corner of the lounge, wondering how long this was going to last. Like most summer storms, it was impressive with heavy rain, wind and thunder but it blew through quickly. Soon enough, patches of blue sky started to appear on the horizon. As the staff scrambled to undo some havoc caused by the rain in the rooms, we enjoyed a cup of tea.

Before the fun could start, we had to sign a waiver and listen to the camp briefing. Stay in your room at night, don’t walk between the lounge and your room unescorted at night, and don’t use the emergency air horn to order a gin and tonic! Minutes later, I was settled into my room, a Meru style tented room on a raised platform with en suite toilet and outside shower. Like the others at Kwara, the room had a very nice view over a small lake in front of camp and some woodland behind and to the sides. The lake, as we were soon to find out, was home to some 80 hippo. While we never saw more than 20 or so at any one time, that was plenty and they certainly kicked up a ruckus at night. Waking up in the dead of night a day or so later, I observed three hippos grazing on the vegetation just meters in front of my tent. As they said in the camp briefing, don’t go walkabout at night…

I found Kwara to be a very relaxed, comfortable camp with above-average game-viewing (for an Okavango Delta Camp), excellent staff and management, and nicely varied activities including twice daily game drives and boating. The rooms are nothing special though. They are on the small side and could do with a fan, better lighting, and somewhere to sit other than on the bed or the two chairs on the small verandah. There were a couple of other minor issues such as a broken toilet seat and a balky shower door. None of this affected our enjoyment of the camp.

I very much liked the lounge, particularly the area looking out over the boma (outdoor fireplace area with camp stools) and beyond that, the lake. I spent the better part of the siesta break there one afternoon catching up on my trip report, chatting with a couple of other guests. We agreed that if our offices could have a setting like that, we might never go home. The covered dining room at Kwara is separated from the lounge area by a bar area and partition; if the camp were to be reconstructed or upgraded at some stage I imagine that the dining area would not be so distinctly separate a room.

Interior of our tent at Kwara

Part of the bathroom at Kwara; the tilted mirror is a nice touch

Tent #7 at Kwara

Partial view of the lounge at Kwara

My favorite spot in the lounge, overlooking the fireplace

The dining room at Kwara

The bar which separates the lounge and dining room

Breakfast at Kwara

Quickly falling into the safari camp routine, we met for tea at 1600. We were greeted with an excellent array of snacks and other items including a veggie roll, fresh fruit and a cake. Not to mention lemonade, iced ginger tea and your choice of regular Five Roses, rooibos or other herbal teas and of course coffee. Over the next few days I would find out that the catering at Kwara is of a very high standard. The food was consistently good and certainly more than ample. My vegetarian/vegan special diet was happily accommodated and other than for a lack of soy milk I couldn’t fault it. Like practically everywhere else in Botswana, Zambia and even in Kenya and Tanzania, morning porridge at Kwara is usually made with milk instead of water, but by the second day there was a ‘no milk’ porridge available. I was not the only one who preferred it over the ‘traditional’ version. The important thing with dietary needs and preferences is just to let the camps know in good time. The more details you provide, the better. For example, instead of just stating that you are on a gluten-free diet, specify what you can eat, such as corn, potatoes, rice, millet, quinoa, sweet potato, yam, beans, soybeans, chickpeas, buckwheat etc.

One of the lechwe which are often to be seen right in front of camp

Our afternoon game drive started out rather slowly but became quite spectacular when we successfully tracked and found a pack of 5 wild dogs passing through the area. This particular group (the alpha female had a dilapidated tracking collar around her neck) was apparently not well known in the Kwara area. They seemed to be searching for something, or possibly unsure of themselves, sniffing the air and fairly rapidly moving from one area to the next. We followed them for quite a distance, pulling ahead for an occasional photographic opportunity. Eventually the dogs tired a bit and lingered along the road, playing and making contact sounds. Just before they disappeared, the late afternoon light which had been pretty marginal from the get-go, improved briefly and we were able to capture a few really nice images. It was a magical experience. I had not bumped into wild dogs over the course of my last four entire trips to Africa. Little was I to know that this was to be the first of four different wild dog sightings over the next 10 days.

Wild dogs near Kwara

Impressive set of teeth

December 4

Up early at 0530, followed by a light breakfast around the campfire (fruit, porridge, muffins, tea/coffee) and eventually departing on a game drive at about 0630. Not far out of camp, we had some good views of a Black Coucal, a much sought after bird species in
Southern Africa. It was the first of many exciting birding opportunities on this day. The most striking of these was watching two huge Spurwinged Geese pursuing each other in a circle around the vehicle. There’s very little to no ambient noise out in the bush so the swishing sound of air rushing through their feathers was incredibly loud. As the two powerful dueling geese passed low over our vehicle, it reminded me of two jets flying over a stadium at a sporting event. There was no cheering crowd, just five of us staring at them from a small vehicle in the massive arena of nature.

Black coucal near Kwara Camp

Yellowbilled kite

The objective of this morning’s game drive was to find some cheetah and at the end of a fairly long and bumpy drive, the mission was accomplished. We came upon three magnificent cheetahs resting up on the side of an anthill, in the shade. They momentarily lifted their heads and looked at us in what can only be described as an uninterested manner, and then went back to their nap. We took our time observing them, marveling at the gorgeous coloration and the impressive size and sleekness of these highly endangered creatures. What a privilege it is to see them out there, a truly unforgettable sight. Being diurnal cheetah hunt during the cooler hours of the day, but judging by their extended bellies, the three brothers we were observing had seemingly already had their fill for the day. Also it was getting warm by now so we took a last, long look at their permanently tear-marked faces, and started to head back to camp.

En route to this spot and on the way back, we came upon a wide array of general plains game, including giraffe, zebra, wildebeest, tsessebe, warthog, impala, kudu and lechwe.

One of the three cheetah brothers

Looking for some protection from the sun and heat

Some plains (Burchell's) zebra

A tsessebe on the run

A young reedbuck

Female reedbuck

A warthog family

After brunch and a refreshing nap, we took off by vehicle to a spot alongside an Okavango Delta channel, quite close (15 minutes or so) to camp. En route we had some good elephant sightings, including one bull which gave us quite a warning display and who was not at all impressed with us being there. At the jetty, we boarded a 10-seater aluminum double-decker skiff and set off along a winding waterway. I don’t think I will ever tire of boat trips on the Okavango Delta. Despite the noise of the outboard motor, it is a serene experience, gliding smoothly along the channel as it unwinds in front of you, mostly narrow and enclosed but often opening up into beautiful lagoons, passing by reedbeds, large stands of ferns, and in this instance, eventually some impressive papyrus groves. We all marveled at the pristine quality of the watery environment in which we found ourselves. Invariably, it evokes thoughts and conversation about the sorry degraded state of so many other similar habitats elsewhere in the world. After about 20 minutes or so, we reached the Godikwe heronry. There were several species with chicks on the nest including marabou stork, yellowbilled stork, African darter and cattle egret and various other birds coming and going including sacred ibis and openbilled stork. Very impressive, especially when viewed from the upper deck of the boat.

Dirt bath time

The elephant was not too happy to see us

Giving us quite a look before he moved on

We enjoyed sundowners in a glorious spot with the sounds and activity of the heronry right alongside, while the sun and the light were slowly slipping away behind us, towards the west. It was fascinating to listen to the busy noises of the roosting birds communicating with each other and their offspring. Hardly mellifluous – contrary to woodland species most water birds emit mostly squawks and guttural croaks – but certainly not discordant in this setting. The noise emanating from a nearby boat with some French tourists was the only harsh thing we heard all day. Keep it down people. Due to cloud cover the light was far from ideal but I took several photographs, and a few of these turned out well enough I thought.

Yellow-billed stork in breeding plumage

Cattle egret in breeding plumage

An intermediate egret

Cattle egret descending onto a roosting spot

Sunset over Godikwe Lagoon

December 5

Two rather quiet game drives on this day, morning and afternoon, to the Four rivers area. We saw a fair amount of general game and I managed a few decent photographs of birds in flight. I particularly enjoyed the good views of some Tsessebe with young. During the afternoon tea break we marveled at the antics of a particularly cranky hippo, the sole inhabitant of a small waterhole. He did not enjoy anybody approaching even remotely close to the edge of the water, jumping with fury and showing off his size and potent teeth protruding from his gaping jaws. At one stage he just about cleared the pond, rushing out towards Steve who had wandered to a nearby termite mound on the edge of the waterhole. What a performance!

A couple of grey go-away birds

Impala with young

A young bateleur eagle

Whitefaced duck at a waterhole

An African Fish Eagle

A wooly-necked stork

A lilacbreasted roller. I struggled mightily to get a good photograph of one of them in flight

This is the cranky hippo which tried to take Steve out

Here it is going berserk due to our presence even remotely close to its waterhole

Sundowners at Four Rivers - note angry hippo in background...

We enjoyed a particularly nice dinner this evening with pap (local version of polenta), stuffed butternut squash and zucchini. The omnivores enjoyed a starter of corn fritter, and what looked like a hearty beef stew.

December 6

As always on a summer trip to
Botswana, we were up early this morning, which was overcast and rather cool compared with the previous day. After the customary early breakfast, we got back into the boat for a short trip along the channel for some fishing. Kathleen and I struck out on the fishing but not everybody else did, and collectively our party caught several fair sized bream and one good sized barbel (catfish). It was a fun and relaxing outing. Brunch consisted of vegetable spring rolls, salad, fresh fruit and freshly baked bread. The bread at Kwara is outstanding!

Very fresh fish for brunch!

There were lots of carmine bee-eaters in the area

A grey hornbill nesting site near the channel in the Okavango Delta at Kwara

The afternoon game drive was one of the best so far on the trip. We enjoyed excellent views of a group of about 12 giraffes, as well as several huge elephant bulls. The highlight of the day was a sighting of 3 female lions, with incredibly close up views of a one-eyed female devouring what was left of a warthog which she and her daughter and grand-daughter had just recently caught. We were sitting close enough to the lions to hear their rasping breath, and to study the rather weather-beaten face of the older lioness. It was a road map to the toughness of survival in the wilderness. I am sure we were all wondering how she had lost the other eye and acquired her many other scars, not to mention the torn nostrils. People who ‘hunt’ for food in well-stocked grocery aisles clearly have no concept of the day to day struggle for survival these predators have to deal with. One look at this lion speaks volumes though. It is a tough life out there! She was very amiable nonetheless, showing no sign of stress or anxiety despite the vehicle being just meters from her. We enjoyed our sundowners a little further down the sandy track but literally within sight of the lion, who was resting up just a few hundred meters from us. How cool is that! What a brilliant day – it is why we keep returning to places like these and why we have always been and remain so enthusiastic about Botswana as terrific safari destination any time of the year.

Giraffe are easy to see and they make good photographic subjects. As a result I sometimes take too many photographs of them...

'One-eye' the lioness - one tough cookie!

'One-eye' walking past our car

One of her descendants

Sunset near Kwara

December 7
Another fantastic day in
Botswana. Up very early at 0500, on yet another rather cloudy and cool morning. Breakfast as usual around the fireplace, with oats, fresh fruit and rooibos tea. This morning we set out on an expedition to find the pride of (seven) male lions, but met with little success. We initially heard them calling in the far distance, but driving through spectacular woodland and along marshy areas, they were nowhere to be found. We did find several other things of interest though, including a new bird species for our guide Steve, a Blacktailed Godwit.

Blackbellied Korhaan. We witnessed its territorial display and call from close up

One of many yellowbilled kites in the area

A nice group of female kudu

En route to the Four Rivers area, we made what appeared to be a routine river crossing but which turned interesting very quickly. The vehicle was nearly drowned when it suddenly got deeper and then deeper still, with water flooding the floorboards. Steve ending up sitting in a puddle of water as water literally spurted into the front seating area. As we were crossing the river, the vehicle slowed down to a steady rumble. The four of us in the back were riveted, literally holding our breaths as we saw the water level rising around us, steam escaping from the engine compartment, and large bubbles of exhaust fumes breaking the surfaces immediately behind us. An inquisitive or perhaps startled hippopotamus appeared on the scene, approaching the jeep fairly rapidly from our right. Just as well that we didn’t stall out – the hippo crossed right behind us and moved off into the distance. Whew!

About to enter deeper water than we anticipated...

The hippo crossing behind us

Tea was enjoyed at a small waterhole at Four Rivers, where we watched several hippo who had apparently displaced or joined the solitary and rather cranky individual from the previous day (the one who chased Steve). We then started to slowly wind our way back along the sandy path, the vegetation changing all the time from acacia thornveld, to Kalahari appleleaf, then mopane woodland, sometimes a mix. Every now and then we would drive by a small waterhole with anything from a solitary hamerkop to a collection of whitefaced ducks, blacksmith plovers, spurwinged geese, comb and other ducks, jacana, ruff and many other bird species.

Hippo at the Four Rivers waterhole

As we turned a corner in the road, Steve yelled ‘dogs’ and there they were, another small group of 5 – all female – wild dogs right by the side of the road. They were feeding on what remained of a small impala. One of the dogs, a rather badly wounded female with what looked like a broken left rear leg, was trying to hoard the last substantial piece but it was quickly grabbed by several of the other dogs, despite loud yelps of protest. Soon enough, the dogs started to trot away through the woodland and we promptly followed them, charging around and sometimes through small trees, over dead logs, bouncing headlong through the woodland, every now and then catching up with the dogs for a few quick photographs before they disappeared into the bush.

Eventually, the pack reached a small waterhole where they dashed right into the water to cool off and have a drink, proceeding to lie down and relax on the periphery of the waterhole, where we eventually left them behind. Quite a morning!

Upon first seeing the wild dogs we noticed that they were still feeding on the remains of an impala

Soon afterward, they flopped into a waterhole

A few of the dogs started to play and mock fight

The afternoon game drive was equally interesting. Steve had intended to go back to the cheetah sighting of a few days ago, but we bumped into the three female lions (headed up by the older lioness known as One-eye) and spent quite a bit of time with them, as they lounged around the edge of a marsh, taking a snooze or just strolling around. By the time we were ready for sundowners, a report came in of a sighting of 5 male lions, and off we went along one of the sandy tracks, in search of more lions. It didn’t take long to find them: there were two parties of very impressive maned lions, sitting or lying in the grass, their eyes reflecting the harsh light of the spotlight. After a fairly long wait, two members of the coalition started to roar in a duet of sorts. If this were an opera house, they would literally have brought the house down. The sound of lions roaring like that right in front of you is both incredibly loud and hugely impressive. There is simply no other natural statement of power and majesty that comes close to what he heard that evening from those two kings of the jungle. The sound literally reverberates in one’s chest and no person can come away from that unchanged.

'One-eye's' daughter

With her own daughter, trying to locate 'One-eye' who was slowly walking towards them

One of the impressive male lions which we saw on the night drive

Another of the 'Magnificent 7' males yawning

This is what it looks like when the lions are roaring, as opposed to yawning

Reluctantly, we left the lions ahead and headed back to camp, but the night was not over yet. We were treated to some spectacular views of a serval cat, hunting for rodents as well as birds, hares, insects, even frogs and reptiles in the grass. This beautiful and graceful animal with its sleek long body and long ears is perfectly adapted for its nocturnal environment. Servals are apparently some of the most successful hunters of any of the cats, being successful about 50% of the time, and even higher at night. Happily, we were 100% successful at hunting for our dinner a little bit later, back in camp.


Safari Girl said...

Bert- WOW what pics! You know how much we loved Little Kwara when we visited in Sept. (After seeing the pics of the tents at Kwara - Little Kwara was a better choice by far we had much larger tents very nice). Apparently you had the priveledge of having Steve who was our guide as well (we had Bait as a tracker-we joked about his name). It is great you were able to see Malito(the one eyed lioness)and her daughter Stryker - we saw them climb a tree with the cub... never found them with a kill only on the hunt, but a spectacular sight none the less. They loved to nuzzle the vehicle - made you almost wnt to reach out and pet them. We also were priveledged to see all 7 of the Magnificent 7 (male lions)there. I agree the wildlife at Kwara and Little Kwara is simply outstanding. But I have to say your photos are AWESOME! Just incredible shots! I now am thinking perhaps we need to return during December rather than always going back in Aug/Sept. Thanks for posting the photos... it puts a big smile on my face.

Mona said...

Wonderful posting. I really enjoyed reading it! My husband and I are going to Botswana in May 2010 and staying at Kwando Lebala, Lagoon, Little Kwara and Tau Pan Camps. I'm vegan and my husband is omni. Cheers.