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A trip for the dogs...and kats! Atravelynn to San and Chitabe

A trip for the dogs...and kats! Atravelynn to San and Chitabe

Oct 11th, 2005, 04:39 PM
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A trip for the dogs...and kats! Atravelynn to San and Chitabe

San Camp Aug 11-14
Chitabe Camp Aug 15-23

46 Pictures: http://www.kodakgallery.com/I.jsp?c=...9&x=0&y=q1377h

First installment…

A smooth couple of flights on British Air from Chicago to London to Johannesburg, then a pleasant overnight at the Joburg Holiday Inn had me thinking that I would enjoy an uneventful arrival into San Camp in the Makgadikgadi Pans of the Kalahari.

But then I boarded Air Botswana. An initial hour delay, a landing in Kasane instead of my destination of Maun, a complete deboarding of the plane in Kasane, claiming and rechecking all bags (for those whose bags had not been lost), and another delay, all resulted in a very late arrival into Maun—too late for my charter to San Camp. So I became acquainted with Riley’s Cresta Hotel in Maun and can recommend it for a restful overnight and for the vegetarian pizza, but not for their chocolate cake.

How nice I was able to fly early the next day at 7:30, which meant by 8:30 I was coming in for a landing at the Jack’s/San airstrip. What struck me was the unending network of burrow holes that littered the landscape, but I saw only one little creature scurrying into its home. Who knows what it was but I’m saying I saw my first meerkat from the air! As we landed, the first of many Black Korhaans also landed next to the airstrip, undisturbed by the plane.

Guide Kaelo (excellent spotter, fountain of knowledge, wonderful conservationist, very kind, highly attentive, funny as all heck, and many other superlatives) was at the air strip to meet me and we headed to camp.

Upon arrival at camp I could see a few guests and three Bushmen (from the Ju/Was tribe of San people with the / being a clicking sound) just a few hundred feet from camp. I hopped out of the vehicle and joined the Bushman Walk in progress. They were stopped and watching the Bushmen dig out a scorpion from deep in the ground. When asked what they use the scorpion for the response was for nothing; they just dig them out for entertainment and let them go. It’s the Kalahari’s answer to Gameboy or Ipod. If the scorpion stings during this amusing game, special leaves must be eaten to induce vomiting to rid the body of poison. Neither leaves nor vomiting were required during our demo, thank goodness.

The Bushmen proceeded to show us medicinal plants and explain their life in the desert. As interesting as it was to learn about the Bushman way of life, just hearing them talk to one another with their five different clicking sounds (of which I could do two) was equally fascinating. They demonstrated their skills with their homemade weapons—spear, club, bow and arrow, and then let us try. Throughout our walk they kept reminding us, especially those straying in various directions, “There are many holes, follow the Bushmen!” They were referring to all those burrows I saw from the plane.

San Camp overlooks one of the largest pans in the area (whereas Jack’s is in a more wooded area) and each of San’s six tents has an expanse to itself. The simple tents were nicely decorated and had raised beds in accordance with the superstition that a Tokolosh, or supernatural bringer of bad medicine, cannot work its mischief if it the bed is elevated safely out of reach. Nor could any scorpions.

Meals are served in a sit down non-buffet manner and were excellent. Jack’s may have the reputation for luxury and fame, but I found the whole San atmosphere to be absolutely captivating. While Jack’s does possess electricity and running water (unlike San), it no longer has the edge in toilets, as San started enjoying ensuite flush loos as of April 2005.

The manager at the time was Cyrus, who also works at Jack’s. The staff goes back and forth as needed. Cyrus has a biology background, specializing in meerkats and could talk meerkats all night when prompted by guests. He was an absolute delight even when the subject was not meerkats.

Other activities at San, which are the exact activities as Jack’s, included day and night game drives, quad bike (ATV) riding, ancient artifact searching, and visiting the habituated meerkat colony, which I understand will be colonIES in the future.

Day drives produced kudu, ostrich, black backed jackals and a distant aardwolf that earned Kaelo an excellence in spotting award, in my opinion. Our vehicle stopped suddenly as Kaelo announced, “I saw two ears and then I didn’t.” An aardwolf was hunkering down in stubby brush about 30 meters away. A Black Korhaan was within inches of it, getting a better look. Kaelo maneuvered the vehicle and we used our binoculars to get our own better look. On night drives we saw many spring hare and another aardwolf at very close range so that its stripes were clear.

(Quad bikes and meerkats at San are next)
atravelynn is offline  
Oct 11th, 2005, 04:55 PM
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Absolutely great photos. I particularly like the meerkat eating the scorpion and the shot of several upright meerkats.

What are the shower facilities like at San Camp. I have stayed at Chitabe, so I have a frame of reference.

Also, what is the lion inside of?


thit_cho is offline  
Oct 11th, 2005, 05:18 PM
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wonderfully written.
bat is offline  
Oct 11th, 2005, 05:27 PM
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Great report, great photos... I love the one with several meerkats, and the large horizon/landscape behind them. And the dogs!!! When I look at the pups I'm reminded of the Dumbo the Elephant story! Thanks for sharing. Looking forward to more of your report!

cooncat2 is offline  
Oct 11th, 2005, 06:02 PM
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The showers at San were also ensuite and open to the sky. You stood on a wooden platform. Hot water was delivered to the shower midafternoon and there was plenty of it. Showering was a pleasant experience.

The young lion is inside a buffalo carcass just outside Chitabe Trails Camp.
atravelynn is offline  
Oct 11th, 2005, 08:28 PM
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great pictures and report!! looks like everyone is seeing wild dogs these days...(except Rocco!) Hope I get to see some.
matnikstym is offline  
Oct 12th, 2005, 12:33 AM
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Firstly, the photos! Wonderful and I particularly love your wild dog ones - mine didn't come out at all well so I'm quite envious! And the meerkats too - it's amazing to think that most of those will be the same individual critters we saw last June and that the tiny babies we saw hopefully having made it to adulthood are amidst them.

Isn't that experience of sitting and walking within their colony one of the most wonderful things? Habituated yet wholly wild - the best of both worlds for the observer!

When we booked Jack's it was so far in advance (18 months in advance of a June 2004 trip) that we weren't aware of the upgrades but when we arrived that's when we found out about the waterhole they had drilled which allowed them to install flush loos in both camps, plus standard 24 hour showers in Jack's. I understood that they were retaining bucket showers in San Camp. I had been looking forward to experiencing the bucket showers but it was not to be, however the bathrooms at the new Jack's were beautifully done, the toilets being made in the form of elaborate wooden thrones!

They said that when they did the upgrade to Jack's that they took the Jack's tents and used them to upgrade San and the San tents and used them to upgrade staff accommodation. So the staff were happy!

One of the things we found most wonderful about this operation was the quality of guiding. Most of the guides and staff are either locals who have been trained up by Ralph (Jack's son and owner of the camps) or overseas graduates in a relevant discipline such as zoology or such. And they get lots of training on the job too. Their knowledge and enthusiasm and skills and warmth blew us away.

Did you ever figure out how to tie those kikoi's in the way they showed you for the quad biking? Pete managed but I never got the hang of it - someone had to do mine for me each time!

Anyway, lovely to read your report and see the pics and to reminisce.

Kavey is offline  
Oct 12th, 2005, 06:22 AM
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Wow - great pics, probably the best I have seen posted of wild dog pups.

Also, very enjoyable report. I am looking forward to walking with San Bushmen at Deception Valley in March and this is the first detailing of the experience that I have read here. Looking forward to the rest of the report.
PredatorBiologist is offline  
Oct 12th, 2005, 08:34 AM
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I had a good kikoi tutor and was able to manage a decent knot. I actually was so proud of my new head-dress that I wanted to wear it just for hanging around the camp. But I refrained.

Fortunately it was quite windless for the quad biking and sunglasses were a big help.
atravelynn is offline  
Oct 12th, 2005, 09:14 AM
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OH that looks wonderful! Thanks for the nice report and picks

LadyOLeisure is offline  
Oct 12th, 2005, 02:27 PM
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The quad bikes at San were a pleasant surprise for me. My concern was that they would be too intrusive and damaging to the desert. But their use is limited to the dry season when the ground is hard, and the trails are strictly controlled with a single file path. In fact, these ATVs are lighter and do less damage than a heavier vehicle. There was certainly no wildlife that could have been scared in the areas that the ATVs operated. We drove into vast emptiness in daytime and at sunset.

We also used the quad bikes to reach an area where remnants of Stone Age tools and weapons were strewn about. We walked around scouring the ground for anything looking like a knife or arrow and found numerous relics, picked them up, admired them, then returned them to the sand. To think that the last hands to have touched some of those items may have been from 20,000 years ago was mind boggling.

Anyway, I was converted from holding an anti-ATV position to being like, “Dude, how fast can these go?” and then confirming those 30 mph capabilities on the straight-aways!

Now for the meerkats—a colony of 11! I made a request of guide Kaelo and camp manager Cryus to get an additional visit to the meerkats beyond the one allotted to each Jack’s and San guest. Since I had booked four nights (though I missed the first) I felt justified in asking. Kaelo was able to arrange an afternoon private visit to the meerkat colony.

The colony is about 45 minutes from San Camp and the first sign that the meerkats are near is a distant silhouette of a researcher, who locates the colony, accompanies all guests, and is a great source of information. Shortly after we spotted the researcher, the meerkats could be seen popping up and down. I spent about an hour with the meerkats as they searched for food. One found and ate a scorpion. As the sun went down they gathered around their burrows and stood up to catch the last warm rays. I stayed until I had put the last of the meerkats to bed. I would have sung a lullaby too, but with my voice, it might have traumatized the poor creatures and disrupted years of research.

I also had the privilege of being the meerkats’ morning wake up call when I returned to the troop just after sunrise with six other guests. The meerkats again perched outside the burrows welcoming the morning sun. When they had warmed up, they set out to find breakfast and we followed. Eventually we had our own breakfast, served from a vehicle. We continued to pursue the meerkats in their morning foraging routine and finally parted after a 2 ½ hour visit. Next stop was climbing and/or photographing a giant baobab that had been visited and marked with carvings by David Livingstone and Frederick Selous years ago.

When the morning came to depart, I sadly bid farewell to San, boarded the plane, then said hello to Chitabe. On the drive into camp I saw three of my favorites—ground hornbills. Heard them again several times but that was the only glimpse I was to enjoy.

The impressive grassy area in front of camp was a mosaic of greens, yellows, oranges, and browns. I took numerous photos of just grass. Maybe the fire they had about three years ago that pretty much destroyed the camp had something to do with the spectacular grasses now growing.

Heading to my tent (which the staff preferred to call home rather than tent and with that level of luxury, they were justified) on the raised walkways, I witnessed the first of many dramas that played out right in camp. A young elephant was chasing off two kudu. Other game in camp included a herd of elephants passing through; a resident, photo-obliging bushbuck; and a troop of baboons that enjoyed the trees, rooftops, walkways, and pool. About 200 meters beyond the campfire deck, a leopard was spotted one morning by those of us who were the earliest risers.

Also in camp a screaming tree squirrel and calling francolin alerted us to a mother leopard with a 4-month old cub, which I got just a glimpse of. The leopard had just killed an impala. The carcass disappeared but later turned up hanging from a tree right behind the outdoor shower of Tent #5—my tent and shower! I wonder if mother and cub were in that tree while I was showering. I’ll never know because I usually shower with my eyes closed.

Actually, I think Chitabe Trails had even more animal action in/near camp than Chitabe Main Camp. I frequently shared a vehicle with Chitabe Trails guests and they would brag about the elephants, hyenas, lions, etc. that they had encountered in camp after dropping me off at the main camp. Often they had to be driven to their tents, due to the animals in camp, instead of just escorted on foot. Unlike Chitabe Main Camp, the Chitabe Trails Camp does not have raised platforms.

The first game drive produced a lion pride of seven adults and seven cubs of various ages, dining on a buffalo that had been killed the day before, right outside Chitable Trails. This incident was noted in the on-line Wilderness Chitabe newsletter. Later we saw a pregnant leopard getting her much needed rest in a tree.

That first evening in camp I could tell I was getting ill—a first for me in Africa. Fever, chills, sore throat, and fatigue--and not just the jet lag variety. To augment my own medicine chest, I asked the camp manager to please deliver to my tent/home a dish of salt (to be mixed with water) and two shots of vodka for gargling purposes. The first time I ever ordered room-service shots.

I went to bed without dinner and later learned I had missed the coveted chocolate mousse, that night’s dessert. Later in my stay I was able to experience the delicious mousse, but truly everything I put on my plate was equally outstanding.

The extra bed rest and “medicine” helped because I was better by morning, but still weak. No matter how weak I was, I was determined to haul my butt into the vehicle that morning because our guide, Relax, had scheduled us for the wild dog den. All I had to do was be able to sit upright, focus, point, and shoot. Despite my compromised state, I knew I could handle that.

Enroute to the den we stopped at the lion pride and watched their progress on the buffalo carcass. The dog den was 15 or 20 minutes from camp in an area pretty much void of game. We pulled up to the den’s opening that was well secluded by thick sage and waited…and waited…but no sign of dogs. Suddenly, movement about 25 meters away attracted our attention and there were a couple of adult wild dogs that soon showed the way to their new home. It was in a much better neighborhood, with the burrow in a slightly elevated mound surrounded by less obscuring brush.

Out spilled eight 2-month old puppies that alternated between curiosity with our vehicle and complete disinterest. They tumbled back in the hole and re-emerged several times to our delight.

During the three days I had scheduled at Chitabe, I visited the den a second time, in the evening when all seven adults were milling about. The pups chased down the dominant male, who was collared for research purposes, begging for regurgitated food, but the male had none. We witnessed the noisy reunion of adults and pups before the youngsters were sent off to bed and the adults went hunting.
atravelynn is offline  
Oct 12th, 2005, 05:51 PM
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Oooooh I'm so jealous! Chitabe was one of my absolute favorite camps, and I saw dogs there but they were 5 males and it was my first time w/my new camera and my pictures didn't turn out. But to see the puppies, what a joy! It was fun reading about San Camp because like Kavey, I have stayed at Jack's and it sounds like the experiences were fairly identical. Those places are special - I also became an ATV convert. It was awesome to look back at the riders behind me and see the dust curving up into the pristine air. And those sunsets!!! I'm sorry you didn't feel well, hope it didn't last long.
Lin is offline  
Oct 13th, 2005, 09:24 AM
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Thanks lin, good name!

I'm just glad I was sick for a couple days this past trip when most of the time was spent in a vehicle, rather than being sick for the gorilla treks i 2004 and missing the gorillas.
atravelynn is offline  
Oct 13th, 2005, 01:33 PM
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Other notable Chitabe sightings were:

-A bull elephant checking out our vehicle at very close range, maybe five feet. I was as intrigued by my own instinctive reaction as I was by the elephant’s behavior. I put my camera down and lowered my eyes and head submissively as he lumbered around the vehicle. Then he moved on to a water hole. That’s where the elephant encountered the lion pride. Each moved warily around the other. The lion cubs watched the elephant intently from a termite mound.

-A nursing kudu.

-A drive to the Moremi border for a herd of kudu, a family of three bat eared fox, and a mother and baby honey badger. A baby honey badger! Near Moremi was where we saw small wildebeest herds that were quite skittish, as were the zebra herds. I did get my first nursing zebra picture. This was where hippos could be seen, in the deep lagoons. The area also produced three lions and a leopard in a tree that eventually came down and took a drink.

-More nursing activity with nursing lion cubs, something I had never seen before and always wanted to.

- Herds of up to 15 elephants, often with good views of them eating, shaking palm trees for the fruits, and even felling tall palms.

-Hyena den with two seven-month old cubs that investigated their immediate surroundings each night. Interestingly, the guides emphasized how hyenas in Chitabe would never be seen during the day, and I never did see any, only at night. This den was also mentioned in the Chitabe on-line Newsletter. During my stay it was vacated and we were not able to locate the new one.

-A half dozen African Wildcats on night drives. Even saw a kill--a wildcat pounced on and ate a mouse.

- Best ever view of a Bush Baby on a night drive.

-Good birds were an African Hoopoe, three rare Wattled Crane, a Purple Roller, a photogenic juvenile Martial Eagle, and a Pearl Spotted Owl

My fourth and supposedly final night in Chitabe was at their Walking Trails Camp. In the afternoon I set off with Newman, the walking guide (and superb all around guide), and Luke, a guide in training (who will make a superb guide and as far as I could tell already was) for the hour walk to the Walking Trails camp. On the way to Walking Trails, we saw elephants at a distance and did our best not to alarm them.

When I got settled into the Walking Camp, the Chitabe Main Camp manager stopped by for a chat and sundowners, a very nice touch. Then Newman, Luke and I had a lovely lantern lit dinner with salad, main course, and dessert. Really a lot of staff effort is put into this memorable night in the bush.

The Walking Trails hide itself is a raised platform of two stories above the ground level with stairs. A comfortable mattress with mosquito netting was set up on the first level, about 15 feet above the ground. The second level is for observation and with a lagoon right there, at least one elephant was usually present.

Many lanterns were provided and could be left on all night. The path to a drop toilet with “sand flush” and a bucket shower was lit by lanterns. It was suggested that during the night, a bedpan be used. I did not take advantage of either the bedpan or the bucket shower.

Before retiring, the three of us went on a night drive. The hyena den was not far and I got my last view of the two frisky hyena cubs and one adult hyena nearby. The highlight of the night drive occurred within sight of our lantern-lit Walking Trails hide. Spotter Luke saw a relaxed leopard that proceeded to lounge around the vehicle at a distance of about five feet, then took a drink out of the lagoon and returned to visit with us. Eventually she walked off into the moonlight to hunt.

Time for bed about 9:00 p.m. Two days short of a full moon meant the lagoon was well lit throughout the cloudless night and the elephants that wandered into the lagoon could be easily viewed and even more easily heard as they shook the nearby palms for the fruit. Besides the elephants, I could hear lechwe leaping, hippos grunting, hyenas, and lions calling in the distance, plus I had my own personal fruit bat chirping all through the night from its home in the tree above.

It was a beautiful and peaceful experience and I got to sleep in until 6:30 the next morning. Newman and Luke slept within view in a tent on the ground and were up first to prepare cereal, fruit, and toast for breakfast. Sleeping in the open air in the bush was a magical experience and a highlight of a wonderful trip!

I stayed at the OLD Walking Trails, which accommodates up to four, and is only an hour’s walk from camp. There is a NEW Walking Trails that sleeps up to eight with platforms adjoined by hanging bridges and is a three or four hour walk from camp. The immediate area of the lagoon-less new camp did not seem as interesting as the old camp, but the new camp is closer to the Moremi border with its abundant, diverse wildlife.

You can walk between the new and old camp in several hours and spend two consecutive nights in the open-air bush. You also can be driven to and from either of these walking camps (despite the name indicating otherwise) in case you wanted to sleep on the open platform but did not want to give up the more game-intense drives.
atravelynn is offline  
Oct 13th, 2005, 02:15 PM
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sounds wonderful.
bat is offline  
Oct 13th, 2005, 03:12 PM
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Thank you for the great report.... I hope to look at the pictures shortly.
dreaming is offline  
Oct 13th, 2005, 03:14 PM
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Great trip report! Those meerkats are adorable
Patty is offline  
Oct 13th, 2005, 03:50 PM
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Great pictures. And the Walking Trails camp sounds so cool.

Okay, so the whole trip sounds pretty cool. Thanks for posting this, atravelynn.
Leely is offline  
Oct 13th, 2005, 04:13 PM
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Thanks for sharing those very interesting photos of meekrats and wild dogs. I absolutely loved the dogs, especially the puppies. You could just see the love between them!
Roccco is offline  
Oct 14th, 2005, 10:14 AM
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(The finale)

My itinerary had me departing Chitabe after four nights and spending four nights in Duma Tau in Linyanti. On Day 2 in Chitabe I started thinking: I designed my itinerary to give me the best shot at denning wild dogs. There is a den in Chitabe that is visible, conveniently located near camp, and shared by only four vehicles from Chitabe Main and Trails Camps. I had been getting reports from guests returning from Linyanti that the wild dogs had not been seen in that area and that the den must have been moved. One guest had spent a day searching for the dogs without luck. Since NapaMatt had reported such a fantastic experience at the Linyanti dog den, complete with photos, just a couple weeks before I got there, it just shows how unpredictable those canines can be!

I requested a four night extension at Chitabe, at the expense of Duma Tau. I actually preferred Chitabe Trails Camp, but there was not space for all four nights (nor was there availability when I made my original reservation) so I ended up being able to extend my Chitabe Main Camp stay with only a switch from prime location Tent #1 to an ok location in Tent #5. But it was Tent #5 that the leopard chose to tree its kill!

Wilderness has a very accommodating policy of allowing camp switches within the same price range for no charge if availability exists. If additional charter flights are needed, those must be paid for, but I was eliminating a charter flight, so I paid nothing more for my change. This musical camps must be common because the extra four consecutive Chitabe nights were made available due to a client switching his Chitabe stay for Jao—now that guy would have to pay extra.

Nothing against Duma Tau. I’ve been there before and had marvelous game viewing, probably overall more abundant and diverse than Chitabe. But I was sticking with the Chitabe “dogs in the den” vs. the unknown “more in the bush” in Linyanti.

With my interest in the dogs made evident, I was able to visit them six more times in the next four days and even had two private visits. What Air Botswana taketh away, Air Botswana also giveth. The Air Botswana woes that cost me my first night on safari continued and plagued other travelers, resulting in guests not reaching Chitabe. That left only me in the vehicle on two occasions! I spent the majority of those private visits just sitting at the dog den.

With eight visits in eight days, I was actually able to see the pups mature physically and behavior-wise. Early visits required the adults to send the pups into the den at night before leaving to hunt. They did this by barking and pretending imminent danger may exist. By the last evening visits, the pre-hunt greeting ritual would take place between adults and pups and the adults would just take off, leaving the pups to put themselves to bed.

Despite this advance in behavior, the pups still lacked confidence, as was evidenced by an encounter with two starlings that were hopping around the den, inadvertently terrifying the pups. All eight pups shot into the burrow and remained in there for about 15 minutes, much to our disappointment, because the light was just right. Finally, a couple of adults trotted over and comforted the pups that the coast was clear.

During the additional four days in Chitabe, the overall game viewing was much less exciting than the first four days, and not just because I was spending more time with the dogs. The 14-member lion pride left and was not relocated, the hyena cubs were gone, buffalo were no longer seen. Not that I am complaining, but just noting the contrast. I would have gladly extended my stay for nothing but the wild dogs.

There was one nice leopard sighting during those next four days, along with three lions. (Overall Chitabe averaged one leopard sighting a day with eight total, although four were in one day and some were just glimpses.) My birding highlight of the trip also occurred near the end, compliments of Lazarus, my second Chitabe guide: the African Hoopoe.

There also was a slight misconception on my part. Since Chitabe bordered Moremi, I thought there would be more Moremi-like habitat with the accompanying large numbers of game. When we drove to the Moremi border, that’s where it distinctively became more open with lagoons and plains that supported herds. We could not cross into Moremi and the Moremi habitat did not creep into Chitabe. Again, no complaints, just noting the error of my thinking for the potential gain of others. Chitabe—the park and the camp had been on my list for a long time and I am thrilled that my eventual visit went so well.

I always hope to hear a “quote of the trip” and Relax, my first Chitabe guide, provided it when he was describing the unusually cloud-filled skies that are not typical of mid-August. For two days the clear skies that produce that beautiful morning and evening light were sorely missed and Relax surmised that early rains would occur because, “the sky is practicing cloudy.”

I made a few acquaintances that may be of interest to other Fodorites. A party of four proudly proclaimed their allegiance to Camp Run Amok, a loosely knit, self-titled group of travelers from all over the US who venture to Africa every few years. Perhaps some of you have encountered this jovial bunch whose motto is “We put the Fun in Dysfunctional.”

Their collective positive attitude was especially commendable in light of the fact that their camera equipment had been lost/stolen during a ground transfer at an airport and they had to acquire all new camera gear in South Africa. What they lacked in spotting skills they made up for in their passion for Amarula and they were proud of it. Quite a hoot they were, but always well within proper safari etiquette.

I met Seetheworld, who posted some safety questions awhile back on Fodors. Seetheworld is actually two delightful young women who are co-workers and have literally seen the world in their travels together and independently. China is next up for them, as I recall.

They had a funny tale from Vumbura that I hope they include in a post eventually. If I don’t see anything from them after a few months, I will take the liberty of recounting what they told me by adding an additional post to this report.

As I made my way to the Chitabe airstrip for the transfer that would send me on my way home, the last animals I encountered were zebras. I felt that the small herd of relaxed zebra was an appropriate farewell since Chitabe means place of the zebra.
atravelynn is offline  

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