Warning: I am not a concise writer and have not been able to keep this short. It should be very useful for those planning trips but a long read just for fun.
This trip came together as a result of multiple goals for me. Over the summer I began to seek some new lodging alternatives in Botswana that could offer the high quality experiences that Botswana is known for but at more affordable pricing than most of the well known camps are going for. As I sometimes lead groups and I love Botswana I felt like I needed to find some new alternatives that could make it price competitive with leading groups to other countries. Just as importantly I have been looking for wildlife projects that could possibly fit with some other things that I’m working on and this trip let me have some meetings and make contacts to pursue those goals.
My research led me to a group of small independent properties who recently have all begun a marketing association with Footsteps in Africa. The more I researched the more impressed I was with the level of community involvement and the vision that Footsteps is pursuing. I was very impressed with the Kalahari Summer special pricing that was the best deal I have ever seen for a fly in Botswana safari and that it included a circuit that really covers a wide range of habitats and experiences. So in August I decided to squeeze in a two week trip during November.
However, what was to be a solo trip turned into leading a group of 2. I am friends with a couple that have wanted me to lead them on safari for a while and were waiting for the right opportunity. They loved the sound of this trip and decided to make their first trip to Africa with less than 90 days until departure so that added another dimension and certainly added to my enjoyment.
1 night Metcourt Laurel (Emperor's Casino Complex near airport)
3 nights Deception Valley Lodge
4 nights Mapula Lodge
2 nights Delta Camp
1 night Makgadikgadi Camp
Important tip for anyone flying through Washington Dulles. A great last meal stateside is to go to Five Guys for a burger and fries. I grew up in the Washington, DC area and it was a great pleasure to see that Five Guys, a legendary burger joint in Northern Virginia has an operation inside the airport. I am a carnivore with eyes in the front of my head and teeth built to eat meat. As such I have developed a great knack for tracking down the best burgers, cheesesteaks, etc. and trust me that this is a great burger and fries. Retired General Wesley Clark happened to frequent Five Guys while we were eating in case anyone is moved by celebrity endorsements.
I fly packed in the back of economy so needless to say it is a hell that has to be endured to get to Africa. I was pleasantly surprised that the flight from D.C. made it all the way to Joburg without a fuel stop. Previously I have always flown from Atlanta with a stop in Sal Island so this made it about an hour less. Also nice was the flight from D.C. departs late in the day so I could leave Denver in the morning and make it. Previously I had to red-eye to Atlanta meaning I basically missed two nights of sleep instead of one (I can’t sleep well on planes so I’m lucky if I can get an hour and a half). So this was all improved over my previous trips.
Joburg – Metcourt Laurel
We arrived at about 3 p.m. and had a 10 a.m. flight the next day to Botswana so we just stayed near the airport. There is a complimentary shuttle that takes about 10 minutes or less to get to the Metcourt Laurel which is a part of the Emperor’s Casino Complex. The rooms here are very spacious and plenty comfortable to do an overnight. The casino is a 10 to 15 minute walk inside so there is no noise or disturbance but it is great to be able to walk around with a number of restaurants, shops and the casino. Think small Las Vegas. This was originally owned by Ceasar’s and those common areas are very reminiscent of being at Ceasar’s Palace. It is a very surreal way to start your time in Africa. We did eat at Tribes African Grill, which was very good with fake alfresco dining under the painted sky ceiling of the casino complex. Good night sleep and an excellent breakfast at the hotel and we were off on the complimentary shuttle and onto an on-time Air Botswana flight into Maun.
Deception Valley Lodge
This was a lodge I had been to previously and that I really loved, in large part because my guide Adriaan was one of the best I have had. An afternoon flight on a hot November day lead to a warm and choppy flight by Delta Air and all 3 of us felt a little nauseous. I was happy to land and it was great to see Adriaan there waiting for us.
When we arrived at the lodge it was obvious they had been busy in the year and a half since I was last there. A new outdoor area for dinning and lounging had been built and was wonderfully done. I also learned of a new extravagant DVL camp that was under construction – it will be a self contained camp for just 4 people and meant to provide a Kalahari location for the 6 paw crowd. It should be very wonderful and exclusive for those who can afford it. It has a completely separate location from the existing camp and will function independently. It will add a 4th vehicle to the property when at full occupancy which I don’t think will impact anyone’s experience as we never see another vehicle unless a call goes out for a special sighting and even then I have rarely had two vehicles at a sighting.
We got settled into our chalets, I had #1 at the far end of the row, which was a great location. Lions had been in camp throughout the previous night and tracks surrounded the walkway between our chalets. Chalets here are very well done with a living room, bedroom, and bathroom with a clawfoot tub and outdoor shower. They are very comfortable accommodation and they are very well spaced apart, which is necessary since there is not very much bush around the lodging but it helps add to the solitude. One thing to note is during the hot time of year you definitely need to open your windows all night and they are unscreened. This is a non-issue for me but I know some people love more exposure to the outdoors and others panic about it so I am noting it for whatever your preference may be.
Finally off on the first drive and we start tracking lions. Mostly we are seeing steenbok, it seems like every 100 meters with a few kudu or scrub hares mixed in. Then we come to a dead honey badger that had been found in the morning, killed by lions. This unfortunately was my first sighting ever of a honey badger, a species that fascinates me, and that I most wanted to see on this trip. I was able to get out and make a nice examination, studying the claws, coloration etc. We continued on and found the lions by a waterhole. This is an unlikely group of 2 year olds, 2 males and a female. They are a little young to have been evicted from the pride and yet they have set out on their own. This would be the first of many encounters with animals that were defying the expectations for their species. As is typical with precocious adolescents without adult supervision these three were being plenty naughty. In addition to the honey badger they had killed a brown hyena a week earlier. These are not the easiest species to mess with and one of the males had porcupine quills sticking out above his nose as evidence that Kalahari school does have some consequences. We had our first sundowner within view of these magnificent young lions bathing in spectacular light and needless to say my clients were ecstatic to see lions on their very first drive.
The night drive back continued our good luck as sightings became much more plentiful. Black-backed jackal, bat-eared fox, African wild cat and then my first living honey badger! Of course it was dark and the badger was on the move – I saw it for a fleeting moment but almost felt as if I hadn’t. Still a wonderful first drive out that had started slowly and built into lots of sightings ending with another corpse, this time a jackal killed by a leopard the night before. These big cats of the Kalahari are rough on the smaller carnivores.
Camp was full, including us, a Swiss couple who shared our vehicle (excellent photographer), a group of 4 from the U.K., and a group of Germans who had come in from a mobile through the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR). I don’t usually note the specifics of food but it is a very pleasing experience at DVL. The first dinner was an oryx fillet, which I had been looking forward to from my last visit. This is another very important thing to note. At DVL game meat is a common component of the food. In addition to excellent dinners things like kudu mini-burgers make a substantial snack at tea. Oryx, kudu, and springbok are all commonly served. I think they are outstanding and in Namibia game meat was common but nowhere else that I have stayed in Botswana has served it so it deserves to be noted. Dinner gave way to drinks and the first springbok shooters of the trip went down as a big storm rolled in out of nowhere. We walked quickly back to the chalets as the rain began to fall and thunder roared. As my guests were dropped off it began to pour and I was soaked by the time I reached my chalet. As I pulled off my wet shirt lightening struck and it felt like the earth shook with a crack of thunder that made me jump and left my head ringing. I was concerned for the guide Douw who had just dropped me off. The next morning he said the lightening hit about 50 feet from our chalets. Each chalet has a lightening rod (60 feet or taller) next to it so they are prepared for such events.
First night disappointments. One of the great things about DVL is their involvement with the bushmen, which includes having a bushmen as your tracker. At our sundowner I asked Adriaan about Rouse, our tracker from March 2006. Unfortunately Adriaan told me that he had become extremely ill from HIV and was no longer with us. I know many of you have encountered this same sad news on your return trips with guides, trackers, etc. that you shared time with. It definitely left me hollow. My second disappointment pales by comparison. Prior to dinner there was a flurry of activity on the deck that I discovered was due to a porcupine feeding on kitchen scraps thrown over the rail with everyone crowding in for pictures. Of course everyone loved seeing the porcupine so close up so I understand the draw of doing it but it is simply a poor practice to feed wildlife and it is something I very much object to camps doing. I did not see it occur my other 2 nights so it does not seem to be a regular feeding/baiting station as some places do but perhaps more of an infrequent practice to show the guests a little something extra.
My internal clock did not quite make the adjustment and I was awake at 4 a.m. so I just sat on my deck railing enjoying the stars followed by the birds until my wake up came at 5:30. Our a.m. game drive was mostly quiet sightings wise with a nice journey of giraffes being the highlight. We did have some very interesting tracking though with a good trail from an aardvark and a unique print of where a leopard had laid down in the road and you could really make out the base of its tail, its leg tucked under the body, everything. In my minds eye I could see the leopard laying right in the spot from this imprint left behind. A steaming hot day was passed at the pool and then one of the DVL highlights, our p.m. walk with the bushmen. We had a special treat as our tracker !Xashi (pronounced Cassie but nicknamed Zami) was joined by his older brother !Xunta (Kutta) who was in his mid-50s. These two were old enough that they had actually lived the life of survival within the CKGR before the bushmen were evicted by the government, often in a very unpleasant manner. The bushmen walk starts with them changing from their everyday clothes into their traditional wears. Adriaan says that these guys know their way of life is virtually extinct and they treasure the opportunity to be able to share their incredible knowledge and they also are very strict in teaching the younger bushmen and insisting that they do everything correctly. As part of this they insist on wearing their traditional clothes. On the walk the bushmen will talk to one another in their language stopping from time to time to show us various survival techniques or to just talk about something interesting they see such as a leaf or a root that has a special purpose. They have an encyclopedic knowledge of all that is around them and learning about how their tools are made and used (including making fire with sticks) is an incredible experience and for me a highlight of my trip despite going on the walk previously. They inspire my soul to want to learn the things that my people have forgotten in the generations since leaving Africa and it is a very profound and thought provoking privilege for me to spend time in their company. Their enthusiasm and good humor are infectious and highlight our similarities as well. There is also an unexplainable magic in the bushmen and in this case !Xunta, having joked earlier about being a gum gum (old man) and pretending to walk all hunched over on his walking stick like a crippled old man performed a vibrant giraffe dance (Adriaan said he had never seen that one before) and then the oryx dance – would this influence our trip to the CKGR the next day?
On our third day we had scheduled an all day trip into the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. This is an important change to note. When I had stayed previously it was standard practice to allow for an all day trip into the CKGR on a 3 night stay but now these day trips are supposed to be pre-arranged and cost $175 per person. Luckily we were able to schedule it without the prior notice, I did bring it up for planning when we arrived which left time to get it sorted. Game drives had been starting at 6:30 and since I had been waking up at 4 a.m. everyday I’d become impatient with people taking 6 to 6:30 to eat a bowl of cereal with the day full of wonderful light so I was ecstatic that for this trip we had the vehicle to ourselves and thus got up at 4:30 to depart at 5:15. The day was perfect, relatively cool temperature and it seemed that animals were everywhere as we drove through the DVL concession on our way to the CKGR. As we passed the airstrip there was a nice herd of wildebeest and red hartebeest and then a pair of jackals. The jackals split apart and started howling to each other with a 3rd jackal unseen joining in the howling from a distance. I must have had a huge smile on my face, so happy to be out early as we neared the edge of the DVL property and then I saw them, a pair of honey badgers digging in the ground!! I quickly alerted Adriaan to stop and back up and then he kicked it into high gear to get us to them quickly as they had started to disperse. They ran in opposite directions and as we followed one the brilliant power pack stopped, turned toward us with an audible snarl and flash of the teeth and then quickly ditched us. Between the movements of the ratels and the bumping of the vehicle there would be no in focus photo but I finally felt like I had seen the magnificent honey badger and in fact had seen two of them in thrilling, exciting fashion. My day could have been done and we hadn’t even left the DVL premises yet. The drive to CKGR was interesting as we drove through a quarantine area. Fences of the private game reserves to the north and the fence of the CKGR to the south. Within this buffer area we came across a wonderful group of oryx and when we drove on they also ran in our direction paralleling us for what seemed like minutes. The flowing muscles and grace of 4 oryx running in a single file line at 30 mph or so was awe inspiring and something I will never forget. At the end of the quarantine zone we had to stop and have government employees spray the tires of the cruiser and we had to step on the chemical mat to prevent the spread of foot and mouth disease. All told I think it took about an hour and a half to enter the CKGR. DVL has tried to get a gate put in that would allow direct access to the park and would allow guests to reach Deception Valley in the park in about 45 minutes instead of 2 ½ hours by driving around and it would bring in lots of additional park fees for the government but thus far it is a no go. It appears that Wilderness Safaris is buying a property that is east of another property next to DVL. The property immediately east of DVL (Haina) and I believe the prospective WS property were both hunting areas that have been converted to photo areas. I imagine with additional lodging coming soon there may enough demand to get an access gate to the CKGR granted in the future. Once we arrived we basically had the CKGR entirely to ourselves. I was told this is the second largest reserve area in the world and we saw only two other vehicles in about 6 or 7 hours. I had hoped a little rain may have made it to Deception Valley which can be a paradise full of huge herds of springbok and oryx with cheetah and lion watching for opportunities. However, as Adriaan had suspected not a drop had fallen and it was bone dry leaving a sparse scattering of wildlife. Raptors were abundant, especially pale chanting goshawks. We saw our only springbok(s) of the trip as well as a smattering of oryx and a leopard tortoise. Completely unexpected we saw a giraffe which supposedly are not to occur in such dry areas but here he was and with a crooked neck likely from an injury necking vs. other males. It had me think back to !Xunta and his giraffe dance the night before. Then as we pulled into our picnic spot, under a group of trees in Deception Valley at the former location of the Owen’s research camp (brown hyena researchers who penned Cry of the Kalahari) there was an oryx with a hobbled leg. I wondered to myself, could it possibly be !Xunta pretending to be hobbled and then dancing for giraffe and oryx that brought us these unlikely sightings? That sounds crazy until you read a lot about the bushmen and you find such things to be commonplace. In the end we saw very little wildlife and yet we all considered the visit to CKGR a highlight and an activity we were thankful for doing. There is a tremendous sense of space that dwarfs you that is hard to understand unless you stand there. If you appreciate large wilderness and the humbling effect it can have on you this is a must place to visit. Deception Pan appears to be a huge lake right up until you are literally feet away from it and realize it is nothing but sand. Huge space in all directions, it was really just phenomenal.
We made it back at about 4 and decided to quickly freshen up and get out for another drive. We had an outstanding sighting of 3 oryx bulls posturing with one another. The strongest bull put on a fascinating display of stomping his back feet in front of the number 2 bull who in turn went into displacement behavior and dropped onto his front knees and started slashing the bushes with his horns before finally rising and chasing off the #3 bull. Beyond this it was a quiet drive as sometimes happens at DVL. This is not the delta but the desert, and one that is largely filled with shrubs that can make viewing difficult. It is also a wonderful sandy substrate that provides unparalleled tracking opportunities and within that thick bush there is a wonderful pride of lions, including big black-maned males, and there are 8 leopards. With patience and putting in tracking work quiet times can give way to unbelievable sightings. We would have one more opportunity in the morning.
At dinner an animal made a quick approach toward the deck. Quick lighting revealed a honey badger coming to visit but lighted he made a hasty retreat, none the less our 4th honey badger sighting (not counting the dead one). Camp had emptied out and now there were only 5, us + Ysandre (see her ongoing report The River and the Rain: Botswana 2007) and her husband who had arrived in the afternoon. They were big fans of the desert, passionate about checking the historical flow of the Boteti River at their last stop, and they were return guests who had incredible sightings the first time at DVL. I of course immediately liked sharing camp with folks that have such appreciation for the desert and the small things. Too bad we only had one night but it was an enjoyable one. We retired to our chalets for our last DVL sleep. I took a shower and was in the process of photographing a gecko on my wall when I heard my name being yelled by one of my clients. I went out on my deck and asked what was the matter and she said “Bill, we have a snake in our room!” I quickly grouped myself together and grabbed my laundry bag and headlamp. I scanned the light carefully to cover the 50 meters or so between our chalets and didn’t see any lions so I quickly jogged over to find a snake against the wall near their bed. It was maybe 3 feet in length at the most but I wasn’t sure of the species so I quickly looked around the room and found an umbrella in their closet. I pinned its head with the umbrella and then slid it out from the wall and over to the laundry bag. When I first let him go he kind of tried to move around the bag so I had to pin the head again and do a better job of presenting the bag as the nice, safe place for the chap to go. This time I barely unpinned the head and guided him a little and he was pleased to go to safety in the sack. I then took a sash from a bath robe and tied up the sack. With my clients being a little unnerved but really handling it quite well I offered to stay and sleep on their couch if needed but they decided that would not be necessary. Then I said their favorite line of the trip: “the chances of another snake coming in here is like being hit by lightening, oh wait, that almost happened two nights ago”. Having left them completely settled I again checked for lions and returned to my chalet with a sleep over guest who would remain in his protective laundry bag. It was hard to resist the temptation to walk to the lodge and start looking through the reptile guide but I decided not to violate the rules. Again up at a little past 4, I enjoyed my deck and early morning birds until Douw came for the wake up and I greeted him with a snake in a bag. I brought it with me to the lodge and Adriaan was shocked, first snake in a chalet in his 3 ½ years. The id process was difficult as this is a nocturnal snake and not often seen. We finally figured out it was a night adder or an egg eater (I have since confirmed night adder which is a poisonous snake but not deadly). We then loaded up the snake for a safe release during our final game drive.
A tracking we will go. Zami is a brilliant tracker and Adriaan is very good as well. We find some very nice lion tracks leading to I can’t believe it – another incredible print of the lion laying in the road. In this case he has squatted down as both his hind feet have left wonderful prints inside of the rest of his shape, which includes the impression of quite a nice mane. We go on and this time Adriaan spots a honey badger moving through the bush. We watch for about 30 seconds as it moves along through the bushes and then gone. 4 sightings and 5 honey badgers. Then we come across a leopard trail. The guys get out and follow it for a while, circling here, moving there. Back into the vehicle. About 3 minutes later a gentle wave of Zami’s hand and ahead in the bush is a stunning female leopard. I’m thinking she is going to run away but instead she walks right in front of us crossing the road and going about her business that would seem to be finding food. We leave the road and weave through the bush to follow as best we can. Adriaan does a fabulous job of not disturbing her but keeping up as she is stalking guinea fowl. At some point the other vehicle arrives with Ysandre and we share the sighting for a short while before we move on and leave her. We spent close to 45 minutes observing and want to get back to tracking the lion. First we make a stop by a waterhole with a hide and release our night adder to the wild. Then we proceed and we drive right past a small leopard laying just off the road. This turns out to be one of Adriaan’s two favorite leopards and another very unlikely story. This young boy is just a year old but somehow he lost his mother at just 5 to 6 months of age. Against all odds this crafty boy has made it on his own and is in great condition. Apparently the same thing happened to his father who is now the biggest, baddest male in the area and Adriaan’s other favorite leopard. This boy was very relaxed and a real poser, giving a new head tilt or expression every 30 seconds or so. He led us to the waterhole, great fortune as it’s a big open area with no cover. Then he decided to use the photo hide on us by walking around the far end only to peek his head out of the near side to look at us moments later. He then went to stalking a family of warthogs, ambitious prey for a young guy. We did not follow him into the bush to give him a chance but we found him 5 minutes later panting presumably from a missed attempt. In all we probably had 45 minutes with this glorious leopard! A fitting way to end at DVL.
A quick summary: this camp is special but viewing takes patience. There is a lot of bush and some drives can be low on sightings but it also is an area that provides amazing tracking experiences, the bushmen and guides work the tracks more than anywhere else I have been, and often you finish with amazing observation opportunities. For people with the proper expectations and appreciation this is a an amazing place to view Kalahari predators and general game (we saw 22 mammal species). I am hoping to lead future groups that will focus on the art of tracking (including aging of tracks), studying the spoor and sign of aardvark, porcupine, honey badger, etc. and of course most excitingly trailing leopard and lion with a combination of foot and vehicle for the viewing. Beyond the wildlife experience, camp management, food, comfort, etc. are all at top levels at DVL and everyone should walk with the bushmen at least once in their lives.
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Predator Biologists Botswana Report: the search for something different
Warning: I am not a concise writer and have not been able to keep this short. It should be very useful for those planning trips but a long read just for fun.