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Trip Report Trip Report: Etosha, Okavango, Kwando and Kafue - August '08 by Safaridude

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What to do when Africa is in your blood? Pass it on to the next generation, of course. So began my planning nearly two years ago for a family safari. It would be the first safari for our two boys, and seven other friends would join us. This was the big one. Seamlessly executed by Uncharted Outposts in Santa Fe, we would visit some of the most spectacular spots on earth -- Etosha, Namibia, the Okavango Delta and Kwando/Linyanti complex in Botswana, and Kafue in Zambia. It turned out to be the most action-packed safari yet.


Ongava Tented Camp, Ongava Game Reserve/Etosha National Park, Namibia – 3 nights
Little Vumbura, Vumbura Concession, Okavango Delta, Botswana – 3 nights
Kwando Lebala Camp, Kwando Concession, Botswana – 3 nights
Lufupa Tented Camp, Kafue National Park, Zambia – 3 nights
Busanga Bush Camp, Kafue National Park, Zambia – 3 nights

Ongava Tented Camp, Ongava Game Reserve/Etosha National Park, Namibia – Bringing It Back to the Wild

“All the menageries in the world turned loose would not compare to the sight I saw that day.” - Gerald McKiernan, an American hunter-explorer commenting on Etosha in 1876

That is how I too felt in 1993 on my first visit to Etosha National Park. The very first morning on the eastern side of the park, I watched in awe as eleven mammal species drank together at a water hole. In previous visits, I had explored the entire southern side of Etosha Pan, staying at various camps within the park. This time, we chose to stay outside the park in the adjacent Ongava Game Reserve. It was a perfect way to enjoy both the park and the geographically contrasting Ongava.

Etosha National Park, as large as it is at 22,000 square kilometers, was once about four times larger extending all the way to the western coast of Namibia. In reducing the size of Etosha in 1963, the wildlife officials drilled artificial waterholes in the park to supplement existing natural springs in order to “compensate” the wildlife. Ongava was once wild, then became a private cattle ranch, and then became a 30,000-acre wildlife conservancy in the early ‘90s. In order to bring Ongava back to the wild, the reserve is actively managed – principally with artificial waterholes and bush clearing (overgrazing by cattle had created encroachment of bush onto grasslands). All of this adds an element of artificiality to Etosha/Ongava, but this slight “un-wildness” is, ironically, what makes Etosha/Ongava unique. During the dry season, animals must come to water in this semi-desert environment. Sitting by a waterhole, one is able to make most intimate observations of the animals.

Each day, we followed the routine of visiting Etosha in the morning and exploring Ongava in the afternoon. Since it hadn’t rained since April, the prevailing colors of Etosha’s plains were dull grey and drab yellow. But there were signs of easier days. Remarkably, Acacia Nebrownii shrubs sprout fragrant, bright yellow flowers during the height of the dry season, providing much needed fodder for the browsers. On the northern horizon, Etosha Pan glimmers in the heat. This dried-up ancient lakebed is clearly visible from space, but from the ground, it appears as a distant mirage. Game viewing at Etosha in August is all about going from waterhole to waterhole; we repeatedly visited Ombika, Olifantsbad, Aus, Gemsbokvlakte, Nebrownii and the famous Okaukuejo. From mid-morning on, the procession of animals to water begins… zebra (with distinct shadow stripes here), springbok, wildebeest, oryx (or gemsbok), greater kudu, black-faced impala, red hartebeest, giraffe, warthog, etc. A lone male lion was spotted on an open plain. Okondeka, a natural spring 30 minutes from Okaukuejo is well worth the long drive as it gives you an excellent view of the Pan. Animals seem to shimmer in the heat haze on the Pan. Salt particles from the pan are delivered by dust devils and make your hair feel as if you have gone swimming in the ocean.

Okaukuejo is the administrative headquarters of Etosha, provides inexpensive accommodations for self-drive travelers, and has a large waterhole bearing its name. It is here that we made our last stop each day before heading back to Ongava, and Okaukuejo provided the best elephant viewing opportunity, as several breeding herds came down to drink, bathe, and play. Etosha’s elephants are reputed to be the tallest elephants in the world. They also wear the silvery soil of Etosha, giving them a ghostly appearance. It is here at Okaukuejo that an infamous incident occurred in 1993. A tourist foolishly decided to spend the night outside his bungalow and got taken by an old female lion. I happened to be at Etosha at the time at the other end of the park. Two days later in the middle of the park, we ran into Daryl Balfour, the famous wildlife photographer, who happened to see the lion feeding on the human carcass the morning after. Daryl, sickened by the scene, could not get himself to press the shutter button on his camera.

Ongava Game Reserve itself is a gem. As soon as you leave Etosha and enter the bordering Ongava Game Reserve, the flatness of Etosha is broken up by Ongava’s dolomite hills. Just before arrival at Ongava Tented Camp, an improbably golden plain, interspersed with russet mopane shrubs, is grazed by zebras, oryxes and red hartebeests. The main mess area of the camp is merely a few yards from an eye-level waterhole. It is a source of constant action. Greater kudus, oryxes, zebras, waterbucks, giraffes and baboons, along with two endangered species, Hartmann’s mountain zebra and the black-faced impala, are regular visitors to the waterhole. Some inevitable carcasses are strewn around the waterhole, and many ungulates display osteophagia – chewing of the bones for phosphorous. Lions often come through camp, and one night a male roared through the night nearby, disturbing everyone’s sleep and delighting some.

While Ongava is fenced in, its borders are porous. Most animals except elephants find their way to come in and out of Etosha. Currently, Ongava is enjoying a proliferation of lions, many who are from Etosha. We were able to observe two different prides up close. “Ongava” means “rhino” in Herero language. Both white and black rhinos have been reintroduced there, and we caught two separate glimpses of the white rhino.

The camp is expertly managed by Hein, who should have been born a couple of hundred years ago as a great white hunter, and Gregory, a friendly young man who is eager to please. The highlight of each evening is when Jaces recites the dinner menu in his native Damara Nama dialect. The clicking sounds in Damara Nama are much more pronounced than the various bushman dialects; we are entertained and baffled.

Speaking of the bushmen… a few years ago, the game department of Botswana asked Hein to participate in a game count in a remote part of the Kalahari. Hein, along with a handful of men, were to find a place called Gha Pan, which theoretically exists on a map, with no roads leading there and no GPS. So, they decided to recruit some local San bushmen to accompany them in search of Gha Pan. Only one of the four recruits understood a few English words and acted as if he somewhat understood what Hein was up to. This bushman was given a long wooden stick and stationed on the back of the vehicle. With Hein driving, the bushman would tap the left window if he wanted Hein to turn left and tap the right window if he wanted Hein to turn right. After days of this through the featureless Kalahari sand dunes, Hein was beginning to have serious doubts about finding Gha Pan -- or for that matter their survival. Just then, the bushman led Hein’s vehicle up a large Kalahari sand dune, and as the vehicle reached the top of the dune, there it was: Gha Pan. If you think about it, getting lost in the Kalahari is fatal. Through instinct and learned behavior, the bushmen had developed a keener sense of direction. Hein theorized that this bushman probably once walked to Gha Pan and back from his home base, a journey that must have taken days, and that is how he knew how to get to Gha Pan. On such journeys, bushmen often sleep out in the open on nothing but goat skin mats. How they, unlike ordinary tourists, avoid getting taken by lions is a mystery.

Little Vumbura, Vumbura Concession, Okavango Delta, Botswana – The Sable Calf Rises

The moment we got off the plane at the airstrip in Vumbura, our guide Lazarus, after quickly introducing himself, asked if we would like to go see a cheetah he had spotted nearby. Within minutes we were following a big male cheetah stalking red lechwes and tsessebes. About a mile from reaching our camp, we could see in the distance three male lions feeding on a buffalo carcass. It is easy to get so spoiled in the Okavango Delta.

The Vumbura concession, sandwiched between Duba and Kwara, lies on the northeastern part of the Delta near the panhandle. The concession must be one of the most diverse in terms of vegetation. Near the airstrip, dry leadwood/knobthorn woodlands dominate. South of the airstrip is a combination of inundated green floodplains and drier plains dotted with large termite mounds and attractive, orderly jackalberry trees. Then, in order to reach Little Vumbura, one must take a blood pressure-lowering, five-minute boat ride on one of Okavango’s permanent channels. If you had just one day to experience all that the Delta has to offer, Vumbura would be a fine choice. Wildebeest, zebra, buffalo, impala, greater kudu, waterbuck, red lechwe, tsessebe, southern reedbuck, and sable are on the menu for Vumbura’s predators, and a large number of elephants come into the main game viewing areas during the dry season.

Built on one of Okavango’s many permanent islands, Little Vumbura must be one of the most tranquil places in the world. The camp exudes luxury without “going over the top”. Guests are embarrassingly pampered by the staff led by Uno, Max and Brian, and wildlife can and do move about through camp. Both Thurston Howell and Gilligan would feel right at home on this island.

The regal sable antelope is a specialty at Vumbura. While inconspicuous elsewhere, they are often encountered at Vumbura. On several occasions, we were able to observe a herd of 16, easily identifiable by the dominant bull with a missing tale and a tawny-colored two-week old calf. One morning near the sable herd, Lazarus spotted a male leopard in the thick bush. As the grazing sable herd drifted toward him, the leopard, the consummate opportunist, climbed up a tree to assess the situation with singular intent. The two-week old calf, weighing perhaps 30-40 pounds, if somehow became separated from the rest of the herd, would be an easy kill. Despite this exquisite setup, we had to return to camp to meet the rest of our party, who went on mokoro rides, for lunch. An Australian couple, who patiently stayed through the heat of the day, later captured on video an unsuccessful kill attempt by the leopard. The sable calf was indeed somewhat separated from the rest of the herd, and the leopard stalked it from right behind a large termite mound. However, at the last moment as he began his charge, the leopard saw a slightly bigger juvenile sable and turned his attention away from the calf. This last second indecision led to the leopard’s hapless lunging at the bigger juvenile, who along with the calf, got away. He had tried to “bite off more than he could chew”.

That afternoon, the local lion pride was largely ignored by the guests of Little Vumbura and its sister camp, Vumbura Plains. We were all hell bent on finding the beautiful male leopard again. The search party found the leopard not too far from the sable herd of 15. Yes, 15, not 16. The little sable calf was missing. Lazarus speculated that the leopard had probably taken the calf at some point in the afternoon and cached the carcass on a tree. Before they are allowed to join the herd, sable calves are hidden in the thick bush for about two weeks by their mothers. The calf we had seen probably just joined the heard, and thus, is about as young a sable as one can expect to see. We had nicknamed him Bambi. A certain sense of sadness came over us.

Near the airstrip one afternoon, what appeared to be smoke was seen in the distance. Bush fire was my guess, but Lazarus declared, “buffalo”. A herd of perhaps 300 buffalos was on the move, enveloping the plain with dust. Robert Ruark once said buffalos look at you like you owe them money. So true for solitary old bulls, but in a herd they appear almost gentle. The enormity of the herd conjures up images of what the Great Plains of North America must have been like with great herds of bison.

The last morning at Vumbura we decided to take a nature walk led by Brian and his rifle. Our transfer flight was much later in the day, so after the walk, we begged Lazarus for one last short game drive. Within minutes, we encountered the same sable herd. The majestic, jet-black bull was thrashing the bushes around him with his scimitar-shaped horns in classic dominance display. Then, behind one of those bushes appeared the tawny body. The sable calf was alive! Apparently, the calf had been hidden somewhere all this time. It was certainly an uplifting moment and a fitting end for our stay at Vumbura. The fact that our guide’s name was Lazarus had nothing to do with the reemergence of the sable calf, did it?

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