When you tell people you’re going on Safari usually the first thing they say is, “you know there are things there that can kill you.” Yes, yes, of course. I mean, it’s humbling to see lion prints as big as my foot or an elephant uproot an entire tree, but when you’re in a car or on a boat, it’s pretty safe. However, when you’re walking to the bathroom, hear a little movement and turn to see you’ve accidentally cornered a cobra which is rearing up and hissing, it’s not cool anymore.
“Did you hear me scream?” I asked Gregor, who was sitting by the pool not very far away.
“I heard something, I thought it was a bird.”
Ok, well, it wasn’t a bird. It was your wife screaming just loud enough to not pee herself but not so loud the cobra would think she wanted to fight.
I admit, several times on this trip I said, “I want to see snakes!” to which Gregor replied, “I do not want to see snakes.” What I meant was, I wanted to see snakes from afar, not happen upon them when it was hair-washing day. So there you have it, be careful what you wish for, especially in Africa.
Being from Maine where the only poisons thing is ivy, I did not know what to do. We had just spent two nights in Kalahari NP camping the bush with no facilities, no power, no water, no rangers, nothing. When we got to the gate to the park there was a walkie-talkie so you could call someone to check in. The last sign-in was two days before that and our campsite was at least 30 kilometers away from the nearest person as best we could tell. If something like this was going to happen, I expected it to be in the middle of nowhere. However, the cobra incident happened at a very nice camp with a pool, hot water and people eating lamb for dinner.
“Uh, hi. A cobra just spat at me. What do I do?” We had just checked in about an hour ago with a woman we presumed was the owner and who seemed very, particular, and she said, “Oh, let me go get someone,” with some urgency.
Thankful for not getting laughed at for what I thought may have been perceived as an overreaction, I followed one of the groundskeepers over to the ablutions (bathrooms) and showed him where the incident occured. He asked me what kind it was and becuase we have a handy animal identification booklet that has a page on snakes and – oh god, there’s only one sitting up looking like it wants to attack you and it’s got the red symbol with “very venomous” listed next to it and it’s the Mozambique Spitting Cobra- I was able to make a positive ID.
“Oh yeah, that’s a dangerous one,” he said as he stomped around to try to find the snake and picked up my shampoo bottle that I had hurled in the air as I ran for my life.
“What do you do when you find it?” I asked.
“We have a stick.”
Oh, yeah, of course, a stick, no big deal.
From Maun in central Botswana (where we had repaired the truck) we left the wetlands behind and headed for our most remote camping yet in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. We weren’t sure what to expect here – especially after the sandy and uninteresting stretches through the middle of Chobe – and as we drove in past acres of blackened ground from recent brush fires our first impression wasn’t exciting. But this quickly changed. Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) for all its vast arid desolation is exceptionally beautiful.
Our first evening here was truly isolated. We saw no other vehicles on our way in, and the only recent tracks on the road were those of the rarely seen huge black-maned Kalahari lions. Dramatic evening light and clouds led to an amazing sunset and the night sky wonderfully clear. I’m sure there was nobody else within a dozen kilometers or more.
We spent two nights in CKGR with a day-long drive between the two. Once again our luck was a bit weird and we didn’t see much unique wildlife on the drive, but we still enjoyed the fantastic scenery and another great campsite.
In the morning we rose to swing by the nearby watering hole once more before heading out of the park. Our luck returned – here were a pair of the fabled black maned lions lounging about! We think these were pride-less bachelor siblings, relatively young, trying to fare for themselves. They had recently and unwisely gone after some porcupines and had paid the price – one had several quills in his chest and another a few in his neck and throat. They didn’t seem too bothered by it but it looked pretty painful to us.
Clapping ourselves on the back – we really wanted to see those guys! – we made our way southwards. Our last stop in Botswana was for two nights at a place called Khama Rhino Sanctuary. This is a small popular preserve where thanks to hard conservation efforts there is a large and growing population of both white and black rhinoceros. (Pretty much everywhere else in Botswana rhino are sadly few and far between due to poaching). Khama was the most zoo-like of all our game viewing – it really wasn’t a challenge at all to find rhinos – but we were happy for the up close looks at these awesome animals.
To shake things up a bit – and get out of the truck for a while – we signed up for a “rhino tracking” activity in the morning. We expected the typical wander around the bush looking at rhino tracks and droppings and hearing interesting facts about the animals and their habitat, without any actual expectation of coming close to a rhino (it’s hard to get close to any of these animals with their keen senses of smell and hearing). Oh no, this was a completely serious tracking attempt reminiscent of ye olde big game trophy hunting expeditions (or modern poaching, I suppose). Our guides were wholly intent on finding the rhino we were tracking, which based on location and poop clues was one of the dominant bulls, awaiting a name, currently called #137.
For four hours we trekked silently through the bush, quickly learning how to identify the thorny ones. At one point we came across a leopard kill – a young zebra – at an impressively high 6m up in a tree. I noticed the guides looking up into the branches as we passed under more trees.
After 7km, for better or worse, the tracking was called off without managing to sneak up on #137. As soon as we returned to the vehicle and headed back, though, there he was on his way to the watering hole.
Our last two safari nights were spent back in South Africa at Marakele National Park. This was also scarred by recent fires and unfortunately we didn’t see much wildlife other than zebra, but we did enjoy the dramatic landscape which reminded us of parks in Utah.
So that about wraps things up!
For the most part on our safari we saw as much of and what we expected, or hoped, to see. There are definitely some exceptions: for example, we got way closer to far more elephants than we had imagined. And we enjoyed finding interesting species that we had never even heard of before such as kudu and eland. The rather useless safari guidebook we picked up cautioned that self-drive trips have the downside of needing to identify animals yourself, but we found this to be fun and engaging. (Said book is not really targeted at folks like us, it seems.) Here’s a rough accounting of our sightings:
- thousands: impala, springbok, buffalo, zebra
- hundreds: elephant, giraffe, hippo, wildebeest, kudu, waterbuck, steenbok, warthog, baboon
- tens: lion, rhino, gemsbok, tsessebe, hartbeest, nyala, reedbuck, jackal, mongoose, nile croc
- just a few: cheetah, hyena, wild dog, eland, roan antelope, bat-eared fox, bushbaby
- uno: African wild cat, Mozambique spitting cobra, boomslang, aardwolf
- not a one: leopard!
That’s not including the hundreds of different bird species we found, many of which are striking. There’s a huge range of eagles and hawks, kites and falcons, vultures, kingfishers, woodpeckers, weavers with intricate little nests, waterbirds of all types and flamboyantly colored parrots, shrikes, bee-eaters and more. We ended up buying a bird identification book partway along and were glad for it.
Obvious in hindsight is the fact that observing the behavior of some of these animals was far more rewarding than simply spotting them. Watching warthogs or rhinos wallow in the mud, zeebras taking dust baths, elephants swimming and play jousting, and cubs or calves interacting with their siblings and parents were some of the most fun moments we had. A lot of these animals are really quite intelligent (not all, we found a fair share of morons too) and seeing them be nervous, excited, relaxed, or all business is something you can’t really get at a zoo; that, and seeing species interact by cooperating, scaring, or eating each other.
Much like our diving adventures, we did not come equipped with the best photography equipment for the job here – far from it. We knew this going in, of course, but traveling like we are rather inhibits one from hauling around massive telephoto lenses. We did pick up a cheap pair of binoculars which certainly paid off many times over and even served on occasion as an impromptu scope for our little camera (by and large this worked horribly but we did manage to snag a couple winning shots). So the photos don’t convey the whole experience, but then, there really aren’t many worthwhile experiences where they actually do.
There were some difficulties, of course. We’ve mentioned some. Also, doing what we did is a lot of driving. Driving in parks is slow, distances between parks can be large, and shoddy roads are a norm (South Africa excepted). There isn’t much opportunity to get out enroute – all your safari sightseeing is from within the vehicle, for obvious reasons. We probably averaged 7 hours a day in the car with several days getting to 12. Good news is when you’re in a park those hours aren’t boring at all since you’re busy looking around and finding cool animals. But at the end of each day you’re pretty tired of being in the car, and relieved to relax at camp.
One of the best parts of our safari didn’t have much to do with wildlife at all, and this was the camping. Southern Africa is vividly beautiful, and nearly every campsite of the 21 different ones we had came with a unique and pleasant view. Sunsets were spectacular, good South African wine was cheap and plentiful, and we could grill something delicious every evening. At night we were comfortable and secure in our big rooftop tent. A couple sites we were happy to leave – usually on account of ravenous mosquitoes or obnoxious monkeys – but most were very relaxing. By the time our 25th day rolled around we weren’t eager at all to be done with the trip!
Would we do this again? Absolutely. We would definitely use (and recommend) a different 4×4 rental company – we did not part ways amicably after the owner rudely yelled at and threatened Elaine over the phone. But for all the problems we dealt with, we had an incredible time and found the camping to be so beautiful and relaxing. We’ve heard many good things about Namibia…