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Trip Report Little Kwara and Nxai Pan: trip report and videos

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Safari to Little Kwara (4 nights) and Nxai Pan (3 nights) camps in March, 2010.

Little Kwara
I’d reserved a private vehicle at Little Kwara, and Hobbs was my guide. Kwando is properly renowned for the quality of their guides, and Hobbs is among the best of the best. He’s chock full of both knowledge and understanding, he’ll instinctively drive to where the animals will go to (instead of where they already are), and he knows how to position the vehicle for the best photography.

Little Kwara is a wonderful camp. It has just 5 tents, so no more than 10 guests at a time. The tents are comfortable enough with verandas, outdoor showers, big comfortable beds, and ample storage space. The lodge is more or less standard (dining area, boma/fireplace, and bar/sitting area, though the chairs in the sitting area are arranged to preclude conversations that involve more than 2 people. (I think that’s my biggest gripe, which should tell you something about the place.)

A highlight of this trip was meeting a fellow poster, Jan (botsfan on Fodor’s), who managed to bring Spencer in her luggage as her guide. Jan was enormously interesting and lots of fun, and it was a special treat to enjoy a few meals and drinks with her.

Little Kwara provided no shortage of predators during my visit. On my first afternoon, we ran across a pack of 7 wild dogs who had been in the Kwara area for several days. They were relaxed and not much in the mood for a hunt, spending the afternoon in the shade. Kwara was not home to these dogs, and by the following day they had decamped and moved on.
Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dSKWTEy13oc

As the sun was getting low, we came across a group of 3 lionesses. Hobbs moved the vehicle to where I got some terrific video of the lions prowling and sniffing for prey.
Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ahzhPd-QdtU

The lionesses worked as a team. After locating their prey – in this instance, a small herd of wildebeest – one of the lions would head round to the other side of the wildebeest. That lion would then start chasing the wildebeest, who would, if all went as planned, run smack dab into the other two lions. Not many projects ever run perfectly, and this was no exception: the wildebeest ran in a slightly different direction, the other two lions gave chase, there was enormous amounts of dust and confusion, and in the end the wildebeest ran faster than did the lions. Particularly noteworthy was one infant wildebeest (could not have been more than a few days old) who managed to keep up with all of the others. All in all, a heart-pounding event. Sorry to say, I have no video of this: I was too busy watching it all unfold (other excuses: it was getting too dark, we kept moving the vehicle to follow the chase, the wild dogs ate my homework, etc.).

Next day we were treated to more bush theatre. As we’re driving along, an impala and a few giraffe are trotting in one direction and a lone hyena is headed in the other, with the hyena paying no attention at all to the giraffe or impala. Meanwhile, quite a way ahead, a female cheetah had taken down an impala for herself and her two sub-adult cubs. The cheetahs seemed aware that danger was lurking, as the cubs dragged the impala from the kill location to a more secure spot, behind a knoll. As the cubs opened up the impala and began eating while the mother looked on from a short distance, the hyena appeared, about 30 meters away. The hyena bared its teeth, and that was all it took. The cubs left their prize, and all the cheetahs could do was watch as the hyena feasted on their kill. Hobbs suggested that had there been 2 or 3 adult cheetahs, they might have put up a fight, but the hyena would be too tough for the 1 adult and 2 juveniles. This whole thing was an amazing scene, straight out of what you see on TV. I was half expecting Jeremy Irons or someone to start describing events as they unfolded.
Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wmi7ni86uG4

On another day we ran into a pride of at least 7 lions in the tall grasses: we saw 2 adult males, two females, and 3 cubs. The tall grasses made it easy for them to move around unnoticed, though the males did not object to showing off their stuff.

And then there were the honeymooning lions. It was the first time I’d seen lions mating, and it’s fair to say my jaw dropped on hearing that they’ll mate every 5 or 10 minutes for several days in a row. Sans commentaire.
Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xlyhYJMSr1M

Little Kwara advertises itself as having both land- and water-based activities. I passed on the motorboat (too noisy for my taste) but enjoyed a mokoro ride one day. The area for mekoro is quite a bit smaller than other camps I’ve been to in the Delta (Nxabega, for example). This made for a relatively brief mokoro ride, but allowed both mokoro and game drive in the same morning.
Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eiM8QuCUPzA

Lots and lots of other mammals and birds and a few reptilians, but I was too lazy or preoccupied to note them. A flock of African Skimmers during the mokoro ride stood out. And, after having always visited in the dry winter, it was a treat to see so much green. The tall grass did at times limit game viewing, but not as much as I’d have thought. I was lucky with the weather: not a drop of rain during my 8 days. I’m told that it had rained quite a lot during the previous week.

Nxai Pan
Some of the most interesting game viewing is from the lodge and individual verandahs. Loads and loads of elephants show up at the waterhole -- at one point I counted 19 elephants there -- and the interactions among them are absolutely amazing. For example, the way that an elder male shows his dominance and right to the best spot at the waterhole, giving a certain look or a flap of his ears to a young upstart. A dazzle of zebra stood nearby while the elephants drank and bathed and lounged at the waterhole -- the zebs were hoping to get a seat at the bar, but they had no chance.
One elephant put on a great show at a small waterhole next to the lodge.
Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rRh9B3L4r6U

The most entertaining part was an amazing show that the springboks put on one day just before sunset, bounding around as if they were on pogo sticks. Pronking, that’s what the Brits in the vehicle called it.
Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eGgtqLXpDO0

The only cats seen were a cheetah and her cub. Our guide Donald said that lions were very definitely in the park, but they hadn't been seen in several days. Leopard sightings are said to be rare in Nxai Pan. During my 3 full days, I'd rate the game viewing as fair-to-poor. But the best part of Nxai Pan, for me at least, was the relaxed and pleasant environment.

I'm not a birder so can't comment on the viewing, but the bee eaters (many blue-cheeked, and a single carmine) topped my list.

Nxai Pan camp has 8 stand-alone chalet-style accommodations (villas). All have an enormous panoramic view onto a plain, where a waterhole always attracts elephants, zebra. Sliding doors open out onto a veranda. There's an exceptionally large desk area, a king-size bed, separate toilet room, and a large area with double-sink, shelves for clothing, and an indoor shower. This area leads to a door to the outdoor shower, which everyone but the very most modest would use instead of the indoor shower. Floors are made from a very light colored wood, and that all works to make the interior seem airy, even at night.

The lodge is set up to face the same plain as the villas. Under the roof of the lodge, but open top the plain, are a bar, a seating area with sofas, and the dining table. Then, not under the roof, is a minuscule swimming pool (or maybe it's a full-sized plunge pool) with lounge chairs, a boma (fireplace), and a few other chairs.

The managers are Carlos and Phoebe, who try hard, treating each guest warmly and with plenty of attention.

The camp is encircled by an electrified fence, apparently to keep the elephants from coming through. The fence -- several strands of wire -- is very visible from the lodge and from my villa. I suppose that there are some very good reasons for the fence, but for me the fence detracted from the overall experience: the absence of fences is surely a major appeal of Botswana.

Another problem that is not just Nxai Pan but with all of Kwando is the seating arrangements in their vehicle -- 2 rows of 3 seats, with the obvious potential of 1 or 2 guests having to sit in the middle. One night when only 5 guests were in camp, Kwando assigned only a single guide to the camp and put all 5 of us into a single vehicle. It would be one thing if the 3-across were a family of 3 people, or if the camp were fully booked and it was a capacity issue. This was Kwando saving a relatively few dollars by not paying for the additional guide and tracker. This arrangement detracts, in a major way, from an otherwise outstanding product. A vehicle issue that is specific to Nxai Pan is the roof on the safari vehicles there. All or most of Kwando's other camps have open-tops, and to me the open-top vehicles are enormously preferable to the roofed ones. It's not so easy to see birds flying over you when the roof is in the way.

Nxai Pan Camp is in the National Park of the same name, unlike most other Kwando camps where the Kwnado controls access. Off-road and night drives are prohibited. This means that you can't track and seek predators, and it makes the job of the tracker nearly superfluous. Yes, it's 4 trained eyes instead of 2, but Kwando guides are so good that the extra pair of eyes don't add nearly as much as they do in off-road camps.

Photos
I can no longer imagine being without my camcorder on safari: it’s fantastic to close my eyes and just listen to the sounds. So just a few photos: http://tinyurl.com/yf66e2v

Getting there and back
I didn’t have any side-trips planned, so it was a straight Boston-to-Nxai Pan trip on the way out. First class between Boston and Johannesburg made life easier, but it still took forever.

My Lufthansa flight left Boston at 4.30pm on Thursday, getting in to Frankfurt about 6am Friday. The flight was unremarkable – forgettable meal, and a bit too early in the day to get any sleep. In Frankfurt, I’d arranged for a day room at a the local Kempinski hotel (the day room is free when you arrive in F on Lufthansa), and I got a decent sleep once I settled in to the hotel. It was too cold to head into the city later in the afternoon (I had only a cotton sweater and windbreaker for warm clothing), so I headed back to the airport around 6pm for the scheduled 10.30pm flight.

After an excellent dinner featuring chicken in a light Thai sauce washed down with Perrier Rosé at the restaurant in Lufthansa’s dedicated First Class terminal, I learned that the flight to Johannesburg would be delayed by about an hour. I’d have a very tight connection in Johannesburg to my scheduled Air Botswana flight, and I asked Lufthansa for assistance when we got to Jo’burg. They came through for me, having an agent meet the plane and racing with my papers to the Air Botswana check-in desk at the transfer area. My flight from Johannesburg to Maun required a change of planes in Gabarone, and that’s where everything fell apart. A 2.5-hour delay followed by an aircraft that took off and had to return to Gabs because of mechanical problems made for a hellacious day and an arrival in Maun at 7.30pm, long after it would have been possible to get to Nxai Pan. Air Botswana arranged for me and a few other misconnectees to stay at Riley’s Hotel in Maun, a place that was nice enough except for the single most sourpussed clerk I can ever recall at any hotel in more than 50 years of traveling.

Travel between camps was mostly uneventful, except for the bizarre itinerary that Moremi Air slammed on me to go from Nxai Pan to Kwara. They first flew me from Nxai Pan to Maun, and I was the sole passenger on the plane. In Maun, I transferred to a 12-seater, which flew first to Lagoon (!) and then back to Kwara. For those who aren’t familiar with these locations, that would be about like flying from Rome to Zurich by way of Stockholm, or Los Angeles to San Francisco by way of Portland. Thanks, Moremi.

Flying back from Little Kwara to Boston was enormously easier than coming the other way. I had a non-stop from Maun to Jo’burg, and the Virgin Clubhouse lounge at JNB is one of my favorite places in airports – the host there is about the most welcoming fellow you could ever want to meet. One of the benefits of traveling in F is having dinner served when it’s convenient for you, and that worked out especially well coming home. My last flight was Frankfurt to Boston, which (1)got in 30 minutes early, and (2)plopped me into an immigration hall with exactly 0 people in line ahead of me. I was out the door and in my car ride home within 10 minutes of getting off the plane.

This report is cross-posted at safaritalk.com

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