We went on safari

This was, without a doubt, one of the best trips we ever took. Sally would say it was the best. We spent nine days in four camps, eight days in three cities (1), and three days traveling to and from Africa.

Final Collage

The cities were pleasant and/or informative. I would say we are both much more knowledgeable about South Africa’s history than we were before the trip, and much more aware of the conditions on the ground. My biggest learning was this: South Africa, under Nelson Mandela’s leadership (2), transitioned from the horrific oppression of apartheid to a functioning though messy democracy inclusive of all people, one which still faces significant issues. And it did so without a civil war, and without a bloodbath.

The camps were something else. While we knew what lions, giraffes and elephants looked like we had no idea of how they lived. We had no idea how they interacted with all the other wildlife in the bush. We had no idea how the ecosystem that is the bush worked, and how the pieces all fit together. It was sad and gruesome to watch the lions catch and kill the water buffalo, but the alternate outcome is clear: if the lions don’t catch and kill their prey, they will die. That is truly the circle of life.

The animals were spectacular. The birds were spectacular. As I mentioned, Africa could turn you into a birder – there’s so much to see.

While the city hotels were, well, hotels, the camps were a completely new experience for us. They are a strange combination of luxury and roughing it.

Luxury: you never touch your luggage, there’s food and drink set out for you throughout the day, the view from your tent/villa is extraordinary (3). Your every whim is catered to, within the limits of what the camp staff can accomplish in the bush. Free laundry. Hot water bottles and blankets in the game drive vehicles as well as your bed (4). Watching the sunset from a private pontoon boat with a G&T in your hand, just the two of you (and your guide). Sitting for an hour and watching an animal live. A free high end camera to use (5). Binoculars to use (5).

Roughing it: no heat in two camps, limited in another. No electricity in one camp. Dim lights at best. You’re not allowed outside after dark. Limited or no wifi in three camps, and no phone service (even to call the front “desk”). Driving around at dawn and after sunset, in the cold and even the rain, in open vehicles. We were cold, a lot.

I’m not sure whether to characterize being flown from camp to camp in your own private plane as “luxury” or “roughing it”.  It was, as the pilots said, “a little rough”.  At the very least it was new for us.

But there was another dimension to the trip, one that made this different than any other trip we’ve taken.

Mind blowing: being close enough to lions to touch them, although you don’t dare reach outside of the vehicle. Watching a male ostrich chase a female across the plain at high speed. Watching a leopard cub annoying it’s mother, just like any toddler. Hearing a pride of lions, which surrounds you, announcing to the world that they’re there with their roars. Seeing hundreds of water buffalo appear out of the brush and cross the meadow in front of, and all around, you. Seeing lions bathed in the golden light after sunrise. Seeing two lions catch the scent of, chase down and kill their prey. Seeing hyenas anxious to get the scraps the lions left, but afraid the lions are still around. Seeing an elephant herd rush to protect their young from a leopard, bellowing all the time. Watching a father baboon caring for and playing with a newborn, and a (slightly) older sibling joining in the fun. Seeing a herd of elephants come down to the river to drink, and to play in the mud.  Sunrise and sunset over the delta.  Rushing through the brush in our open Land Rover as our guide tried to follow some animal’s tracks.  Following a pack of wild dogs as they patrolled their territory, looking for food. 

Did I mention the birds?

And I’m sure I have forgotten maybe one or two (6).

Once we had decided on this trip, I gathered up my camera gear and went to the Bronx Zoo to see if I could actually take pictures of animals. I got some good portraits. But I may never go to a zoo again. The idea of seeing these animals confined to cages (even “big” cages camouflaged as natural areas) is just so unappealing. The animals don’t interact with any others as they normally would; they don’t hunt or forage, but get fed by humans. Life for animals in the bush is unforgiving, but it’s life. It’s not cruel; the concept doesn’t exist.

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Perhaps there’s a lesson there for all of us. Perhaps all of Africa, where we all came from, is a lesson for all of us.


(1) I use the term “city” loosely regarding Vic Falls.

(2) Countries seem to do better when they have good and effective leaders.

(3) Jack’s Camp excepted; there we saw a bush.

(4) An attempt to offset the lack of heat in the tents, or a roof and windows in the vehicles.

(5) A camera in one camp, binoculars in two.

(6) John Sebastian, Younger Generation.

Victoria Falls

Imagine you took Niagra Falls and put it down in the middle of the wilderness, hundreds of miles from anything. Just rugged mountains upstream, with no industry to encourage any commerce and therefore shipping on the river. Hundreds of miles of scrub brush downstream, with rocky and dry land unsuitable for crops.

Then you built a large Victorian style hotel by the Falls, and a railroad to deliver tourists. A small town would grow up around the hotel to support the workers and provide some services to visitors – restaurant, gift shops, art galleries, cheaper hotels and campgrounds.

You would have Victoria Falls.

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Dr. Livingstone, I presume?, August 2017

David Livingstone, the famous English explorer and missionary, was the first European to see the Falls. The Zambeze River, which forms the Falls, is also the local border between Zimbabwe, where we stayed, and Zambia. The town of Livingstone is a few miles away in Zambia.

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Everything you need to know about Victoria Falls, August 2017

After six nights on safari in Botswana, Vic Falls (1) was a good decompression point before our long journey home. While the hotel is large and fairly luxurious, it does show it’s age somewhat, and the service is not as crisp or attentive as the other places we’ve stayed on this trip.  Even the Cape Grace Hotel in CT (2) had much better service than this.

As far as I can tell, there are four things you can do in Vic Falls.

  1. You can visit the Falls.  That’s why you’re here.
  2. You can take a helicopter ride over the Falls.
  3. You can take a boat ride on the Zambeze RIver upstream from the Falls.
  4. You can take a safari ride through the bush near town, either in a motor vehicle or on an elephant.

We opted for (1) and (3).  (2) seemed uneccesarily risky for the 12 or 22 minute view, while (4) seemed uneccesary after nine days in the camps.

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Horseshoe Falls section, August 2017

The Falls stretch for over a mile wide and about 250-350′ high.  It’s impossible to see the entire width of the Falls from any vantage point on the ground; that is only possible from the air.  We were wisked over to the Falls, which is surrounded by a National Park, by our guide as soon as we arrived at the hotel around 3:30 in the afternoon.  This is actually the best time to visit, as the late afternoon sun is behind you and you get rainbows in the mist rising from the water.  The falls themselves are mostly in Zambia, but the best viewing points are on the Zimbwabwe side of the river.

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Big rainbow, August 2017

When we visited the US National Parks several years ago, we were impressed  by the apparent stupidity of people who felt they were invincible, and that the parks were just as safe as Disneyland.  That behavior is not limited to the US; we saw people bathing in pools a few feet from the edge of the waterfall.  Craaaaazy.  Or Darwinian …

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Not likely to pass on their DNA, August 2017

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Victoria Falls Bridge, August 2017

Just downstream of the Falls the Victoria Falls Bridge spans the gorge for 650′, and about 420′ above the river.  It was comissioned by Cecil Rhodes, the British mining magnate who gave his name to Rhodesia (the predecessor to Zimbwabwe and Zambia), the Rhodes Scholarship, and was a founder of the De Beers diamond firm.  He was also an unabashed white supremacist.

Victoria Falls Hotel Collage.jpg

Victoria Falls Hotel, August 2017

The next day we hung around the hotel, and went for a walk into town where we found a large market place that seemed to specialize in large stone and wood sculptures. Despite the tempations, we managed to not buy anything.

At 3:30 we went on our last activity, a sunset cruise on the Zambeze River complete with snacks and unlimited drinks.  Our last African sunset …

Zambeze Cruise Collage


(1) Just like Joburg is local slang for Johannesburg, Vic Falls is how Victoria Falls is referred to around here.

(2) “CT” = Cape Town

Zarafa in the Selinda Reserve

The camps are all full of eating and (mainly) drinking traditions. Around 3:30pm, most camps seem to gather for afternoon tea. This consists of tea, of course, but also pastries and sometimes fruit, and other soft drinks such as lemonade. At 4:00 you head out on the afternoon drive. Around 6:00pm, you might stop for a “sundowner”, which is drinks in the bush to watch the sun go down. We often had G&Ts (gin & tonics), and there would again be snacks – chips, some dried beef, maybe something else. All very civilized, all very British.

Sundowner Collage (Singita)

Sundowners – there’s always an excuse for drink and food, August 2017

Zarafa is located in the Selinda Reserve, a 500 square mile private area.  All of our camps were on private reserves.  The big advantage of that over the National Parks (like Kruger in South Africa) is that they are much less crowded.  The second big advantage is that the guides can drive off-road in search of animals.  The disadvantage is the cost – an order of magnitude higher than you would pay if you stayed in one of the parks.  But the wildlife is the same: they can’t read the signs at the boundaries.

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Sally with the big gun, August 2017

On our first drive with our guide Isaac at Zarafa, Sally was fully equipped with binoculars and a big Canon camera with a telephoto zoom. As the camp only had two couples staying there, we had a private car and guide. He asked what we wanted to see, and Sally asked for leopards and giraffes. Isaac drove off and eventually took us to a leopard den, where a mother had her cub stashed. The mother was lying in the grass besides a log, and we waited patiently.

Leopard & Cub Collage (lit)

Golden light, August 2017 (Photos by Sally)

We learned a lot of things on this trip. One was that the wild animals are completely unpredictable, yet also follow patterns of behavior. So once you’re in a situation where the pattern is likely, patience becomes a huge asset. You simply wait for the expected behavior, which will probably but not necessarily occur. In this case, we were waiting for the cub to emerge from the den to see its mother. After a while it did, and Sally got some fabulous pictures in the late afternoon golden light.

Leopard & Cub Collage (Shadow)

Mother and cub leopards, August 2017 (Photos by Sally)

I know I’ve shown pictures of some of the birds we saw in earlier posts, but here are some more.  If you weren’t a birder before you came here, the variety and beauty might turn you into one.

Zarafa Bird Collage

Selinda Reserve birds, August 2017

When Isaac first took us out in the morning, he asked what animals we hadn’t seen yet.  We really had seen pretty much all the animals we knew about, but our giraffe sightings were not very clear (one was in near darkness).  He almost immediately found us some giraffes.

Giraffe Collage (Zarafa)

Adult and young giraffe, August 2017

After the excitement of our first two game drives at Zarafa, Isaac suggested a pontoon boat ride for the late afternoon and sunset.  We did our sundowners on the water.  You get a different view of life there.  For one thing, it’s quiet and smooth, not at all like the noise and bouncing of the Land Rovers we drove around in all day.

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Elephant by the water, August 2017

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Hard to beat this, August 2017

The next and final morning of our safari adventures Sally decided to sleep in (1), while I got up in the dark to go out one more time with Isaac.  We (2) tracked a pride of lions and I got a shot of three of them warming in the morning sun.

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Sunning, August 2017

Then back to camp to finish packing and to say goodby to the safari life.


(1) 7:00 am

(2) Isaac tracked; I sat on my throne and held on tight as he sped through the bush

 

Zarafa Camp

August 10-12 

Our fourth and final safari camp was Zarafa, located in the Selinda Reserve about 30 minutes north of Vumbura by bush plane.  It represented a continuing improvement in modern conveniences from the previous camps:

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Our tent at Zarafa Camp, August 2017

Jack’s – no heat, light by paraffin lantern, mostly canvas walls in the tent with small screened windows (so dim even during daylight), no real storage for clothing etc., electricity in main tent from 8-5 daily.  Did I mention there is no heat anywhere?  No wifi or other connectivity.

Vumbura Plains – much much larger tent, electric lights, fully screened walls for lots of daylight, 24 hour electricity in tent, tons of hanging and storage space.  Still no heat anywhere.  Still no wifi or other connectivity.

Zarafa – large tent with “living room” and “bedroom suite” areas separated by a canvas wall, electric lights, fully screened walls with plastic covers at night, gas heater in bedroom area, 24 hour electricity in tent. Wifi, although pretty limited in speed.

Even in Zarafa, the toilet room was unheated and cold in the morning or at night.  And I had to start the gas heater in the morning, as we were asked to not keep it on all night.

There was also the question of what to do if you needed to leave the tent, or needed assistance, at night.  In no camps are guests allowed to walk unescorted in the dark, as there’s always the chance that a dangerous animal could wander into camp.   Singita, our first camp, had phones in the villas.  The other camps did not.  Jack’s and Zarafa relied upon air horns for you to call for help if needed, while Vumbura added a walkie-talkie radio.

We never needed any of these.

Zarafa Tent Collage.jpg

All the modern conveniences of 1935, August 2017

Zarafa, like Jack’s, was decorated in early 20th century British camp style – lots of trunks, campaign chairs, etc.   But Zarafa also had serious amenities.  Each of the four tents had Swarovski binoculars (1).  The camp has four serious Canon cameras with big zooms lenses available for your use (2).

As I mentioned, Zarafa is small – just four tents for two people each (3).  It’s managed by a couple, Sas and Dave.  Dave is/was a professional photographer and all-around very knowledgeable about many things.  I had several good chats with him.  When I asked him why he had moved from England to Botswana, he replied “Sas”.   She was born in Africa, and has been knocking around the tourism and safari business for a long time.  She was never going to live in a place like England.


(1) She used the binoculars for each drive.
(2) Sally used the Canon 5D with the 100-400/3.5-5.6 lens for one drive, and enjoyed it, but found it way too heavy to use comfortably.  Frankly, I found it too heavy to use comfortably as well.  That’s why I use my lightweight Olympus and Panasonic gear.
(3) Only two tents were occupied, including ours, during our stay.  So it was pretty quiet.

A real time update

Due to the lack of any useable wifi (or any at all) for the last week, I’ve been trying to catch up.  I still have two more stops to go: Zarafa camp, and Victoria Falls.  

Tea, anyone?, August 2017

Right now, Sally and I are in the British Airways lounge in Johannesburg’s airport.  We should be on our flight to London in two hours, and back in the US of A in about 24 hours.  

Did we miss anything?

The Okavango Delta

August 8-10

As I wrote earlier, the Okavango Delta is an area of marsh and grassy plains that is rich in wildlife. After our days at Jack’s in the Desert, it was nice to be in areas that contained more wildlife in our next two camps.

Given our plan of visiting three camps in succession for two days each, our schedule went something like this:

Day 1: travel late morning to early afternoon to a camp. Unpack quickly, then take the afternoon game drive.

Day 2: wake up in the dark, get dressed and have a light breakfast. Leave for the morning drive or activity at first light. Come back late morning, have lunch, perhaps rest or cleanup. Afternoon tea at 3:30, then the afternoon drive or activity until after sunset. Dinner. Try to pack as much as possible for departure the next day.

Day 3: wake up between 5:30 and 6:30 am in the dark, get dressed and have a light breakfast. Leave for the morning drive or activity at first light. Come back, finish packing. Drive to the airstrip for the flight to the next camp.

Rinse and repeat as needed.

Vumbura was the first of two in this climate. It’s at the edge of the Delta, and we were often crossing water in our Land Rover.  The camp was located at the west edge of a wet area, giving us beautiful sunrises each morning.


Sunrise at Vumbura, August 2017

There were an endless number of birds. Our guides at each camp made sure to tell us the name of each one that we saw, and often some interesting facts about them, but all I can remember is how pretty they were. 


An ostrich, an eagle, and a bunch of other birds, August 2017

We tracked a pack of African Wild Dogs through the bush for a while, and they came to a water crossing. They all lined up to think about the best way to cross.


Should we stay or should we go, August 2017

The King of the Jungle made an appearance. Lions sleep most of the day – up to 18 hours. This one was awake but not wasting any energy. When they make a kill, they’ll eat until they’re gorged, then fall into a food coma. They may not find any more food for several days.


Lazing on a sunny afternoon, August 2017

We came across a group of baboons with some youngsters. Chris, our guide at Vumbura, estimated this baby was only a few days old. It’s being cared for by its father.


Father and child reunion, August 2017

Vumbura in the Okavango Delta

August 8-10

Sadly, we were happy to be leaving Jack’s Camp behind. The staff was very friendly and helpful, although our guide Harold, didn’t seem to like talking too much. Not a good trait in a guide. But we were going to Vumbura, a much more luxurious camp at the edge of the Okavango Delta.

The delta is an inland swamp formed when several major rivers got trapped by seismic action. The flood plain originally extended southeast to the Kalahari Desert, where Jack’s is, forming a giant lake. When the plates shifted they formed a barrier that prevented the water from reaching the Kalahari, making it a desert. Since the water flow is highly seasonal, the resulting water dries significantly in the dry winter, leaving a huge fertile area with waterways and plains. That’s where Vumbura lies.


Bush travel, August 2017

Traveling to all of these bush camps is interesting. First you drive from your camp to the airstrip, which is typically 30-40 minutes away, using the same vehicles as the game drives, on the same rutted, dusty roads. Then you climb into a small plane, which carries anywhere from four to ten people. The flights are under an hour, some as short as 25 minutes. And depending on what else the pilot needs to accomplish that day, you may make one or more stops along the way to pickup or drop off other passengers.

I think we made at least ten take-offs and landings to visit our four camps. We were the only passengers on about half of the hops. Every plane was very noisy and “a little rough” (1).


Vumbura in the delta, August 2017

Anyway, Vumbura Plains camp was a significant uptick from Jack’s. The tent was huge and light, with three sides being fully open (2) during the day. And electric lights at night! Normally, we would have been unhappy that the lights were so dim, but after packing by candlelight, this was heaven. The tent also had outlets to charges our batteries, a huge closet area, and a really cool shower. There was a huge deck, where I had a massage.

The only similarity to Jack’s was our long walk from the tent to the main area, and the lack of heat other than bush babies.


Is that an elephant in your backyard?, August 2017

Vumbura also had abundant wildlife. While we were unpacking, an elephant was grazing next to our tent.

———–
(1) Every pilot, before each takeoff, gave a safety briefing (“there’s the door and fire extinguisher”) and apologized that the flight was going to be “a little rough”.

(2) Fully open but screened. There was plenty of natural light during the day. 

Roughing it

August 6-8

Our travel yesterday was far in distance and far in style. We went about 1,300 miles from Cape Town to Jack’s Camp. We also went from state-of-the-art luxury to primitive shabby elegance.

First the trip: Nick picked us up at the hotel at 8:00 am and deposited us at the airport 15 minutes later . Our flight to Maun, Botswana was on time at 10:15. Maun is basically a transit point for safari travelers. Scheduled flights come in from big cities, and small craft go out to the camps. In our case, we somehow got assigned a pilot and plane from a different carrier, and so Johannes flew Sally and me in his single engine plane about 100 miles to Jack’s (4). We were met at the dirt landing strip by Harold, our guide there.

Jack’s is deliberately designed to emulate the safari experience from the early 20th century. You stay in real tents. They have hot and cold water and a flush toilet, but that’s about it. No electricity – light comes from paraffin lanterns or battery powered lamps, both of which are pretty dim. No heat – we found two bush babies (1) under our heavy quilt. No Internet or cell service, of course. Charging is done at the charging station (2) in the meal tent from 8-5 each day.


Little tent in the bush, August 2017

The overall decorating style is what someone imagined an English safari camp would have looked like 100 years ago. Campaign chairs, wooden toilet contraption, big four-poster canopied bed, etc.


Dinner at Jack’s Camp, August 2017

The dinner is eaten family style around a big table, and just like when you feed your family, you get what mamma cooked (3). Sally and I agree that the food is top rated.

The camps in Northern Botswana are much warmer than Singita was. Where Singita was about as far from the equator as Savannah, Jack’s is more like Miami. So it’s pretty warm in the sun during he day. And since we are in the middle of a desert, it rapidly cools down in the evening and at night (hence the bush babies).


Sally heads off on safari, August 2017

We arrived just in time for afternoon tea, so we threw together our safari kit and headed over (7). After tea we went immediately out to look for some brown hyenas; we found one. As this is the desert, one does not come here to see abundant wildlife – and after Singita’s bounty, it was only mildly interesting. Also because this is desert, the dust is pervasive.

As I mentioned, dinner at the big table was tasty. A staff member escorted us to our tent afterwards (5), and then we had to unpack, prepare for the morning and get ready for bed in near darkness. The five paraffin lanterns and four battery lamps along with mini-flashlights just didn’t cut it.

Our wake-up call (6) will be at 6:30 tomorrow, an hour later than Singita.

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(1) Hot water bottles. Big ones.
(2) Lots of power strips on a table.
(3) Not necessarily my family, where there seem to be as many food choices as there are people.
(4) Not to criticize since he got us there safely, but he kept a map balanced on one knee and what looked like the plane’s EZ-Operation Guide on the other.
(5) This is the same as Singita – guests are not allowed outside alone after dark.
(6) A staffer came up to our tent and called us; there’s no phone in the tent, of course.

(7) This needed scheduling, as it was a five minute walk.  

Jack’s Camp

August 6-8

Singita was wildlife paradise; most of our game drives wound up going longer than planned because we kept finding more stuff to look at. Jack's Camp is in the Kalahari Desert, and we are here during the dry season, so the wildlife is pretty sparse. The first afternoon we spent a couple of hours to find a hyena. It was cute. Over the course of the next two days, we did manage to get a few interesting sightings.


Cheetah, hyena, and Mr. & Mrs. Ostrich, August 2017

The second morning we took a ride into the salt pans, which are large expanses of open land where the water has dried leaving behind salty soil. While they look white from the distance or air, they are just light colored soil. Rather than ride in the game drive vehicles, we took an ATV or quad bike. It was fun. You have to wear these scarves as turban/face masks to protect yourself from the sand and dust, just like a real desert dweller on a motorized bike.


Sally learns geology from Harold, August 2017


Bushmen, August 2017

In the afternoon of the second day, we went for a walk with a group of Bushmen. Bushmen are the original settlers of Southern Africa, and have traditionally been hunter/gatherers. Since Botswana has outlawed all hunting, and because they are gradually moving into fixed villages, their way of life and culture is inevitably changing. Jack's has hired two dozen of them to live near the camp and give us this walk. It was fairly interesting. About a dozen – men, woman and two babies – led us into the bush. Along the way they explained traditional medications they extract from plants and even elephant dung, firemaking, clothing, etc. They played a game analogous to rock/paper/scissors around a fire they built rubbing two sticks together.

These people were real bushmen. But they are employed by Jack's to put on a little show for us demonstrating their traditional way of life. They actually live in a village 700 km away, and spend several weeks at the camp as part of a rotation.


Meerkat scout, August 2017

The third morning was probably the highlight of the stop – we rode out to watch the meerkats wake up. Meerkats are members of the mongoose family found in the deserts of Southern Africa. They live in burrows in a group called a "mob" (1). Every morning, the mob sends a lucky scout out to see if there are any lions or hyenas around. If they don't hear back from him, they suspect bad news. Since we aren't lions or hyenas, the scout reported back and a dozen or so came out of the burrows and stood in front of Sally looking around for a while.


Sally and the Meerkats, August 2017

From here, it was back to Jack's, a quick packing and then off to the airstrip to head for Vumbura.

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(1) They exhibited no mob-like behavior while we were there.