Our safari holiday to the wetlands of the Okovanga Delta in Botswana.
One of the driest years on record for Okavanga, with shrunken wetlands, dried up watering holes, and extensive wild fires.
Textures of Africa
Discovering the range of colours and textures out in the wetlands.
Buffalo Hunt by Lions (and Vice Versa)
We witnessed an attack by lionesses on a herd of buffalo, targetting their calves. The buffalo ganged up and counter-attacked, sending the lions packing. Until the next time...
We finished off our trip in Cape Town, South Africa, exploring the city, relaxing in the Ellerman House Hotel, visiting Table Mountain, and taking a trip to the Cape of Good Hope (rebranding from the Cape of Storms didn't actually change the weather it seems).
Notes on Botswana and South Africa trip, August 2023
Wed 2 Aug
Off on BA to the African sun!
Thur 3 Aug
Arrive in Jo’burg, immediately proceed to Kasane - but no bags turn up. Guide Big Mike and local AndBeyond rep Tsebe whisk us into town (banded mongoose and warthogs seen on way) to buy essentials to stand in for missing clothing. Will it be for one night or three? Or seven? We buy handfuls of cheap t-shirts, pants and socks to tide us over. Anything as long as we have something clean to change into after the long flight.
Evening game drive on way to Chobe Under Canvas - loads of giraffe, impala, kudu seen along the way.
Has to be said that our arrival into camp wasn’t quite we expected, despite the professional level male voice choir - the entire staff on site - that greeted us. We dine with Big Mike and camp manager Matthews at a camp table surrounded by kerosene lamps. Juicy steaks are fried over the campfire, as Philip the chef claims that it’s the only way to bring out the true bush flavour. There are three guest tents, but only one of them is occupied tonight: ours. Our guides explain that, since we’re in a National Park, the camp needs to be moved every 6 days. The ephemerality suggests some sort of military - even guerrilla - operation. AndBeyond continues to surprise.
Fri 4 Aug
Numerous weird noises heard in the night, and a strange smell of ashes as if the fire had been disturbed. We’re told in the morning that the odd baa/whoop we’d heard in the night were hyenas, close to the camp. Eek. Also the low rumble of distant lions - even scarier.
Morning game drive - we go looking for the lions. Plus hyenas and leopards whose tracks are fresh on the sandy road. Mike points out where an elephant has actually lain down for a bit of shut-eye. Once we meet the main routes through the park, the tracks are obscured by numerous other vehicles as self-drivers in 4x4s can buy day passes to try their luck in tracking the Big Five. Has to be said that our guides are a bit snooty about these amateurs - particularly their habit of giggling at the baboons that swarm all over their cars at the picnic area, instead of driving them off with stones in the Mike-approved manner. Finally we catch up with the lions, who are on snooze mode. Look no threat at all, but there are rather a lot of them.
Evening game drive - very lovely sundowners near old jetty on the Chobe River. We need to get smartly back to camp to beat the strict 6.30 curfew. I’m a bit surprised that even camping inside the game park doesn’t give us any leeway with night drives, but we learn later that the National Parks crackdown on poachers, including those crossing the Chobe River from Namibia and other neighbouring countries (Zimbabwe and Zambia are also close), means that anyone on the roam after curfew can be shot on sight.
Sat 5 Aug
Morning game drive - it’s sunny, but so cold there’s almost a frost on the grass. There are hippos and crocodiles in Chobe River, but our long drive turns up many tracks but no carnivores. We’re rewarded with the sight however of a rare secretary bird stalking across a clearing, then flying up to a creeper-covered tree.
Then off to the quayside in Kasane, and all aboard for our photographic safari on Chobe River with Pangolin Tours. Their set up is impressive - a flat-bottomed boat kitted out with six photographer stations, each with rotating chair and immensely complicated set of gimbals to carry the high-end cameras. We have a quick lesson from Walter on shutter speeds, f-stops, depth of field and all the other techie stuff we vaguely remember from using manual SLRs back in our youth. We practice on an approaching monitor lizard whose flickering tongue we both fail to catch correctly. Then a herd of impala who just won’t stand still. A lilac-breasted roller bird is more obliging.
Next - off down the river for the real fun. Three lionesses attack small herd of buffalo with calves, sound like they injure a calf. Then the buffalo regroup, lower their horns and drive the lionesses away. Great shots, at pretty close range! Next, a basking crocodile - very close indeed. Overall, we’re amazed at the quality of our snaps - just shows what we can achieve it’s good equipment, an excellent tutor and cunning boat captain.
Lunch at a swanky game lodge beside the river. Tsebe comes with good news and bad - Andrew’s bag has turned up, but mine is still missing. I slowly realise with chagrin that the chances of it catching up with us will shrink rapidly after we leave the Kasane area tomorrow.
Evening game drive - Mike gets word of a female leopard’s location from another guide, who’s seen the tip of her tail twitching under a bush we’d passed amd repassed several times that afternoon. She’s very pretty - but worryingly ensconced only a few dozen metres from where we’d enjoyed our sundowners the evening before.
We cruise off into the marshy areas towards the Chobe River, and join a melee of vehicles that surround a half-pride of very muddy lions. They are feasting on the whiffs carcass of a young elephant that apparently died of natural causes some time before, perhaps stuck in the mud and drowned.
Chef Philip announces no dessert, then produces home made cake (somehow cooked over the campfire too) as a farewell touch.
Sun 6 Aug
Morning game drive - see one of the pair of your male lions (brothers of the three lionesses) devouring a young elephant- last night’s kill. I’m a bit surprised by this second episode of elephant-eating, then I remember a documentary I’d seen about this behaviour becoming habitual in some areas of Botswana. Wikipedia confirms this - the large number of both lions and elephants in some areas like Chobe (Power and Compion 2009) have led to the one preying on the other, since the size of an elephant kill can more than compensate for the extra effort involved. Most kills are on moonless nights (lions have better night vision than elephants) and victims are typically young males 4-11 years old who have moved away from the protection of the maternal herd but not yet acquired their full size, strength and street savvy. Power and Compion opine that this behaviour is not new, but rather a return to lion’s age old preference for feasting on megafauna (including hippos and rhinos as well as elephants) before human impact on the African biosphere disrupted the supply of pachyderms.
Before our flight to Sandibe, I request another shopping trip to Kasane’s finest emporiums to buy plug adaptors and a power lead for my iPad - the fact these were in my checked bag (never again!) was irrelevant at Chobe Under Canvas as there was no power supply, only PV for minimalist lighting and a chance to recharge phones from a USB socket in the truck.
The short flight to Sandibe gives us a chance to see the complex pattern of pools and swampland in the Okavango delta, where hippos have made paths within the shallow waterways that are clearly visible from the air. It’s been a dry couple of years for the delta, and the wetland areas have noticeably shrunk. A “controlled” burn - to encourage new grass - got out of control a couple of weeks ago, and has burned an extensive area near our next stop. The bright green shoots of new growth are great for the impalas, kudu, tsessebe, red lechwe and other ruminants; not so great for the carnivores that have little cover for their hunts.
Sandibe Lodge is beyond swanky, and has guests to match. I take myself to the lodge shop to replace missing safari shirt, cap and scarf - at huge cost - just to fit in.
Evening game drive - I have hope of meeting a female ranger when “Diane” is announced as our guide. He’s male however, and prefers to be called “Dee-Aneh”; his tracker is I.T. (very much not the IT described on his collar). The team comes up trumps when they introduce us to the resident pride of 23 lions - although four males are missing, having better things to do when it’s the females’ turn to put food in the table. The pride yawns, stretches and set out on their hunt. After the lions locate a promising herd of impala and take up position for the final sprint, the hunt takes a disastrous turn when a couple of young males fail to take cover and the impala are spooked. Our truck drives off to look for small animals in the gloaming. There’s a commotion and we turn back - the 19 lions have overwhelmed a small warthog, and they’re in a massive scrap for a mouthful or two each.
Mon 7 Aug
Morning game drive - young male leopard, ostriches etc. bunch of crocodiles attracted by a bloated hippo carcass. He probably died as a result of wounds sustained in a territorial dispute with another male. Ask Diane about the long pale mounds of white ash scattering the burn area. Apparently they are the remains of smouldering ladywood trees, that have a high lime content. Locals collect this for washing and - I imagine - construction.
Did I mention the lodge was a bit swanky? We have our own plunge pool, no costumes required (yeah, my bag’s still missing). The water’s freezing, but this just has to be done…
Evening game drive - follow up on young male leopard, who’s dragged the carcass of an impala up into the crook of a tree to return to later. The older male leopards apparently too shy to be pursued. We visit a den of wild dogs, with a dozen or so pups mill around while the adults prepare for a hunt.
Tues 8 Aug
Morning game drive - leopard trees by lion pride, cheetah mum and nearly full grown twin son and daughter fail in hunt as kids are horsing around, male lion with tail tip missing courts a female from another pride, elephants around the lunch balcony
Evening game drive - trio of unsuccessful hunts:
Special treat: our supper will be ‘under the tree’ which turns out to be a private dining room with its own wine fridge and rack of decent reds. It’s bedecked with fearsome weapons - which turn out to be primitive scythes and the like. Delicious meal, and most romantic.
Wed 9 Aug
Drive on way to airstrip - we check out the water hole where the female leopard was lying in wait the previous evening. No obvious skeletons bleaching in the sun. We’re told the young male leopard has escaped from his tree without harm.
Flight to Nxabega, greeted at the airstrip by guide Gee and tracker Sea. I think they’re trying to make things easier for us names-wise, but it’s super-confusing. Promised my bag will arrive this afternoon from Kasane. Drive on way to lodge - female cheetah near airstrip
Evening game drive - Gee explains termite mound building activity, with added detail that mound summits tend to tilt to the west, as the hotter eastern sides of the mound are avoided in the morning, when most building activity is carried out. Buffalo carcass with pride of 21 lions resting nearby (minus male, absent on territory-marking duty).
I start to feel sick - totally unrelated to above scene - and get transported back to the lodge while Andrew continues on most exciting game drive with wild dogs pursuing and ultimately killing impala and then losing carcass to hyenas.
But - oh frabjous day! My bag finally arrives. Someone’s clearly rummaged through it for none-existent valuables, but most stuff seems present and correct.
Thur 10 Aug
Morning game drive - visit to dens of wild dogs and then hyenas, not much going on with either of them. Then a lonesome white rhino, the last remnant in the delta area of a contingent of 87 relocated from SA in 2015-19, to save the population there from extermination by poachers. He’s been de-horned, which saves him from poachers but may increase his vulnerability to lions. Worst threat seems death from loneliness, as there are no females to keep him company. Then a tree full of expectant vultures leads us to a couple of hyenas that have somehow acquired a buffalo and then fallen asleep practically inside the still-warm carcass. They’re waiting for their friends to come and finish off the banquet, otherwise the vultures would sweep in.
Evening game drive - trip by mokoro canoe to the middle of the swamp, failing to spot any frogs at all despite the constant croaking. Old bull elephant comes along and has a good look at us then continues browsing on the water lily tubers in the bottom. When we return to shore, the elves have set up our drinks table for sundowners. Fantastic.
Fri 11 Aug
Morning game drive - on the path to breakfast, I spot hyena scat by the path. Just after we set out, there’s an old female snoozing close to the track. She’s got a mangled ear and deep scar on her forehead from previous fights over a kill. Gee explains she doesn’t have cubs, so didn’t need to go back to the den to suckle them last night.
We’re the first car out, and so first to locate the lions - half of the pride, minus the male. They look quite well fed, so probably caught an impala at least last night. But they’re active, with the three cabs and four subadult males teasing one another happily. A bit later, we locate the other half of the pride, and then cross over, on reciprocal terms, into the concession of the next lodge to search for a reported leopard. We see a family of hyenas relaxing in the shade after a good night’s scrounging, with another trotting up to the group. Turns out he’s an interloper, and gets seen off without ceremony. The leopard takes quite a bit of tracking, but we’re again first on the scene when she’s literally spotted on the shady side of a termite mound. Beautiful.
Coffee with hippos and croc. I try my hand at getting into the spotter’s seat on the bonnet of the car - more difficult than it looks. On the way back to camp, we see the rhino on the move again and get some sunlit shots.
At lunchtime - prevented by elephants from returning to our room.
Evening game drive - we spend more that an hour attempting to locate the park of wild dogs seen by Andrew in killing mode two days before. Just turn up a civet - mongooses relative that feeds primarily on jackalberries - going about its business. Sundowners at a slightly unsafe feeling waterhole, and then a return to the area where most dog tracks were seen. Another truck smugly informs us they were first on the scene - the pack has killed an impala as is dismembering the bloody remains. It’s true, but we’re treated to the sight of typical wild dog behaviour when some adults tear lumps off the carcass and trot off to the sub-family of year-old cubs, waiting impatiently 100m away. The adults regurgitate the meat for their cubs to feast on. Yum.
More hyena and elephant noises during the night.
Sat 12 Aug
Our morning coffee arrives with the news that the mega-pride of lions is encamped within sight of our cabin. We are ordered to stay indoors. The housekeeper rolls up the canvas screens and revels the drama unfolding about 500m away, just beyond the river. Two trucks are following the pride as it flows from anthill to anthill around the edge of our panorama. Fell slightly miffed that our lie-in might have deprived us of seeing a full-blown lion hunt at close range. However, the trucks move off out of sight in a puff of dust and we learn from Gee later that the pride wasn’t seriously hunting, just going for a morning stroll to see in anything turned up.
Off to the Nxabega airstrip. Flight to Maun, via four other stops. Then on to Cape Town - will our bags make it this time? They are there for us at Maun, and we check them in successfully (with photographic evidence this time).
Massive - and pricey - meal in the hotel restaurant, but great tuna sashimi and wagyu steak. Feel very underdressed compared with a glittery birthday party going on at the next table.
Sun 13 Aug
Did the bags make it safely to Cape Town, you ask? Of course not. Andrew’s turns up the next day, with the excuse that the two bags were loaded onto separate vehicles and put en route to a different set of hotels. Believe that when we see bag no. 2.
We follow up last night’s blow out dinner with a more-than-adequate breakfast in bed, then exert pantry privileges for a lunch of green tea and fruit. Explore the hotel terraces - very grand, with not only a gym, spa and contemporary art gallery but a wine gallery too.
Oh, and bag no. 2 does appear a bit later - apparently having been routed via Jo’burg.
Mon 14 Aug
Morning - Ali Adams the garrulous guide takes us on the Cape Town tour. He’s very keen to get us up Table Mountain first thing, before the crowds arrive. Unfortunately that means in the freezing cold, with hardly a ray of sunshine to illuminate the fabulous views. The crowds never arrive - of course not, as it’s a Monday morning in the middle of winter. As picturesque as Scotland however, and a similar temperature. I think Ali just wanted to bag a prime parking spot and impress upon us that our VIP passes saved a few seconds of queuing time. But he does show us a few tricks with the iPhone that produce striking snaps despite the overcast skies.
Then off to Signal Hill, where a colonial-era cannon gives the noonday salute every day. Allegedly. Later, Ali winds down the car window for us to hear it on the dot. Nothing, and no puff of smoke either. The main activity on the Hill is a bustling trade in paragliding out over the city with a “professional” - heavily bearded Boers with many tattoos and a whiff of weed. Maybe as professional as the “paedodontists” advertised in the swankier suburbs down the coast.
We cruise past the Filarete-style five-pointed pointed Dutch fortress which is claimed to be the oldest building in Africa - well southern Africa, which does at least exclude the pyramids. Then on to District 6, parodied in name by the sci-fi movie District Nine. Ali tells us he’s of Indonesian descent and was brought up in the colourful Malay tourist trap of Bo Kap. Then his family moved to District 6 before the fateful day in 1966 when it was bulldozed by the apartheid government of the time to enforce the policy of separate areas for blacks, whites and coloureds - ie “others” like the Adams family. Wikipedia’s view is that this was a barefaced attempt to grab this desirable area near downtown exclusively for whites. The redevelopment stalled in the face of an international outcry - but the residents had already been shipped off to townships in the far suburbs. The policy was dropped by Mandela’s government, but the compensation due to original residents seems to have got the district stuck in a mire of inertia. Large areas remain as wasteland, with the occasional squatter tent.
Tues 15 Aug
A full day out with Ali, taking in the coastline down to Cape of Good Hope - all pretty spectacular, especially Chapman’s Drive. We’re lucky it’s open, as the wind is very strong despite bright sunny weather. Spot baboons and an ostrich from the road, and also an eland - a type of antelope that had eluded us on actual safari.
Just past the naval base of Simon’s Town, we stop off at Boulders Beach for some penguin spotting. Not very difficult, as helpful artificial penguin shelters have been built close beside the raised walkway - the fluffy grey fuzzballs of chicks can just be glimpsed inside the shelters. Adult “African”penguins are braying all around, hence their former Jackass moniker. The walkway leads to the rocky cove where the penguins launch themselves for aquatic operations. We’re told they swim up to 20km per hour, but it’s difficult to believe when their onshore pace is so ungainly. Fun filming the comical groups of adults sauntering down to the beach - penguins amusing too.
The Cape of Good Hope is actually the SW tip of Africa, not the actual meeting point of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Then on to Cape Point, with a diddy funicular and further 100 steps or so up to a lighthouse - not a very helpful one as it’s apparently often shrouded in fog and thus invisible to shipping. Rather many hit the rocks and so a new lighthouse was built in a more visible position, down near the shoreline. Was this the southernmost point of Africa? Oh no, the distinction belongs to little-lauded Cape Agulhas, some miles further east.
But the coastline is very spectacular and we have a lovely fish lunch at the Harbour Hotel, across the railway tracks in Kalk Bay.
Back to the outskirts of Cape Town, and time to take in a winery at the Steenberg Estate, Constantia. Super try-hard architecture, excellent water features and bevies of women on GDOs. There’s a menu of tasting menus, and we opt for the cheapest, which offers follows the obligatory glass of fizz with others in a steady stream. A lovely way to spend an afternoon, but not of course if you’re intenindg to do much with the rest of the day - which we aren’t.
The estate’s in a iffy part of the suburbs, and surrounded by a smart but high green fence topped with barbed wire. There’s another such fence on the opposite side of the approach road, only less smart and less green. We’re told that’s South Africa’s highest security jail, where Mandela spent seven years in confinement. Maybe the bouquet of Steenberg’s signature sauvignon blanc owes less than claimed to the sea air, and rather more to the tears of the prisoners.
Wed 16 Aug
Our final whole day! Lounging, swimming, eating fabulous fish once more and watching a different type of lionesses on the hunt… England's female football team in the semi-final of the World Cup on TV here in our room! 3-1 success against the Australian Matildas - and we’ll be home to cheer them on for Sunday’s final.