Sunday, September 28, 2014

Kwara Camp by the Numbers: Tracking Wild Dogs

Twenty minutes on one tiny plane: Wednesday afternoon we were back to the hot Motswiri airstrip to fly to our final camp in the Okavango Delta, Kwara Camp. Our pilot looked like he wasn’t old enough to have a driver’s license, let alone a pilot’s license.  Thankfully, only twenty minutes later, we landed and were immediately greeted at the airstrip by our guide and tracker. 

One guide and one tracker for six game drives:  As soon as he greeted us at the airstrip, our guide Robbie and tracker AT peppered us with questions: What animals have you seen already?  How long have you been on safari?  What do you want to see?  In response, Giorgio immediately began pestering Robbie about wild dogs and was disappointed to learn that the reserve’s main pack had been spotted the day before and was last seen moving west to a different concession.  Robbie and AT were not hopeful that they would return to Kwara during our stay. 

Three packs of wild dogs:  Despite the warnings, we saw three distinct packs of wild dogs on three different game drives.  We were the only group all year that was this lucky. PSA: Wild dogs are incredibly endangered, even more so than rhinos – only between three thousand and five thousand five hundred remain in the wild and Botswana is currently your best chance to encounter the elusive canines. 

Wednesday night, we came across a pack of six wild dogs on our first game drive.  The drive started off quietly, with sightings of giraffe, elephants, impala, and other grazers.  However, the tranquility was interrupted after forty five minutes with an announcement over the radio of a wild dog sighting!  All three of the Kwara Land Cruisers are connected via radio, so unlike our self-drives through the South African and Namibian parks hoping to catch a glimpse of a big cat or rhino, the guides constantly receive up to date information regarding animal whereabouts.  Immediately following the radio announcement, AT hopped in the passenger seat (more on this later) and Robbie sped up the Land Cruiser as we bounced along the dirt tracks in the direction of the dogs.  Along the way, we spotted herds of impala jetting in every direction to escape the pack.

Heading through a small thicket, we suddenly emerged out into the grass to see six dogs on the hunt, followed by one of the other Land Cruisers in hot pursuit.  (In case you’re wondering, the dogs don’t seem to take any notice of the vehicles and continue about their business.)  At this point, our off-road adventures began – the dirt tracks in the concession are hardly roads to begin with, but since the dogs don’t stick to the tracks, neither did our guide.  Robbie drove over trees, through the sand, across rivers, and amidst thorn bushes to stay as close to the pack as possible in the hopes of seeing a kill.  Sadly, our progress came to a standstill in a log-filled thicket the dogs had traversed.  If only we had been on horseback we could have jumped the logs!  Given the dogs’ high speeds, we were unable to catch up, missing a chance to see a kill.  Wild dogs are believed to be extremely effective predators, with an eighty percent success rate.

Friday morning, we encountered a pack of four wild dogs less than twenty minutes after the beginning of the drive.  They were stationed in the middle of a large clearing, with the remains of one unlucky impala.  Although we had just missed the actual hunt (Robbie estimated we were about ten minutes too late), it was incredible to see the animals interact with one another – although the pack has an alpha male and female, the dogs share the food, mock fighting occasionally over the best cut of meat.

One hyena attempting to steal the kill: After watching the pack for thirty minutes, Robbie and AT decided to head out in search of other animals.  However, they almost immediately encountered hyena tracks in the dirt, followed by the sighting of a spotted hyena peering out of the tall grass.  He was quickly on the trail of the dogs’ fresh kill and we doubled back in the Land Cruiser as the hyena approached the four dogs, setting off a protracted battle for the ownership of the remaining bits of impala.  If you look closely at the first photo below, you can see the dogs chasing the hyena away.

Saturday morning, our third and final day in camp, we encountered a pack of twenty-eight wild dogs!  This is Kwara’s main pack that had headed west out of the concession the day before our arrival.  Just as we were about to catch our flight out of the Okavango Delta, Robbie and AT spotted vultures circling – fresh kill!  Once again, we were too late to see the hunt, but did find the entire pack, composed of fifteen puppies and thirteen adult dogs, digesting their meal in the shade of the trees.

Thousands of tracks spotted by AT, our amazing tracker:  The Kwara Land Cruisers are outfitted slightly differently than the vehicles at other camps.  AT had a special chair perched on the hood of the car, with the best views of the animal tracks crisscrossing our path.  In our four days at Kwara, he must have spotted thousands of different tracks and could explain the details of each, whether the animal was running or walking, what time the tracks had been made, and where they were headed. 

Two elephants mock charging our Land Cruiser:  One evening, two young bull elephants mock charged the Land Cruiser, trumpeting their alarm calls.  Although after Motswiri, mock charges aren’t quite so scary.

Zero snakes but one excessively large spider and one scorpion in our shower:  Giorgio killed not one, but two very scary animals who had made a home in our tent.  He is already a spider-killing expert since arachnids are Steph’s primary fear.  However, killing a scorpion was an entirely different, manlier task.  It took him five minutes to work up the courage to kill the venomous creature inhabiting the shower and several blows with a shoe before the stinger stopped moving.  We decided to postpone all further showers until our arrival the following day in Johannesburg.  After all, as Giorgio’s dad always says, “only dirty people shower”.

One leopard spotted in the dark (but not in a tree):  We were privy to one of Kwara’s first leopard sightings in several weeks when one of the guides tracked the cat at dusk.  In the Land Cruiser, we followed the leopard through the woods, until he retired underneath a tree with a small evening snack.

Six lions:  Kwara is home to several groups of lions and our guides tracked them on various game drives.  One evening, they found two bachelor lions on the prowl through Kwara’s marshes.

The next day, we watched one lioness stalking unsuspecting impala and zebra for fifty minutes, but sadly missed the final kill. 

The most exciting were two lion cubs, both ten months old, waiting for their mother to return from the hunt.  The cubs aren’t allowed to hunt with their mother until they are a bit older, so she had left them behind in the shade of a tree.  As the cubs waited, they practiced their own hunting moves – “stalking” a few antelope in the water nearby.

Our final encounter was one lioness lying under a tree.  After leaving the cubs, our guides tracked their mother, who was found resting from the afternoon sun before continuing her search for food.

One cheetah: Don and Susan hadn’t yet seen a cheetah on their safari, so Giorgio asked our guides if they could track one.  No problem!  A little under two hours later, they found a gorgeous male resting under a tree after the day’s exertions.

Three Spaniards who think that no one else in the world speaks Spanish, that Giorgio is Hawaiian, and that Stephanie’s hair looks awful.  They left the camp unaware that Giorgio, Stephanie, and other guests were privy to their conversations.

Two rounds of four gin and tonics: Our safari wouldn’t be complete without a sundowner or two!  During our wild chase of the dogs the first evening, we missed the nightly ritual.  Regardless, we still managed to fit in the requisite gin and tonics the next two nights -- complete with fabulous sunsets!

Zero fences around camp and two elephants visiting our tent in the middle of the night:  We were used to hearing hippo noises at night, but elephants directly in front of our tent were an entirely new experience.  Stephanie was shocked to sit up at three am and see anything at all without her glasses, let alone a large pachyderm directly in front of our porch, knocking over trees and munching on leaves.

very rare aardwolf spotted so briefly that a photo is not available.  Our tracker informed us that he hadn’t seen one for the past two years.  Sadly, our request to see an equally rare pangolin went unfulfilled – AT mentioned that he had seen only eighteen of the creatures in his nine years as a tracker.

Countless zebra, impala, tsessebe, kudu, giraffe, hippo, jackal, birds, and many other wonderful animals that can quickly become second nature in the quest to find predators.

Third and final safari by the numbers:  We are sad that our travels in continental Africa are now complete and so are our safari adventures.  However, we have learned that the word “safari” means “journey” in Swahili and our adventures are now continuing in Madagascar!

#stephandgio (and #donandsusan)

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Motswiri: Lots of Ponies, One Too Many Black Mambas, Not Enough Rosé

On Sunday afternoon, we embarked on our fly-in safari adventure to the Okavango Delta.  The Kasane International Airport is not quite as large as its name indicates and the check-in area was a packed, chaotic scene.  However, a friendly porter expeditiously sorted everything out and soon enough we were out on the hot tarmac, ready to board a tiny, tiny airplane.

Stephanie had imagined that flying to Motswiri Camp would be an Out of Africa experience, flying low over the river and startling herds of animals.  Although our pilot chose a scenic route with views of elephants, buffalo, and hippos, the actual experience of flying in a small, hot, and unpressurized vessel for over an hour is not as magical as imagined.  Regardless, we all survived and landed on a remote airstrip to find a Land Cruiser waiting to greet us.  Giorgio had the good luck to be seated shotgun and captured part of the landing on video.

We had chosen to stay at Motswiri because the camp specializes in riding safaris, with a stable of over twenty horses.  Not just anyone is allowed to ride, though.  Strict instructions accompanied our reservation: all riders need to be able to gallop away from predators and helmets are not provided.  Since lessons at Bonnie Lea Farm do not typically involve uncontrolled gallops away from potentially lethal animals, Stephanie had been preoccupied with this aspect of the ride for over a year.  Giorgio, of course, is an open rider and had no such concerns.

We arrived at camp just in time for high tea (how civilized!) and a short evening ride out into the bush.  The two of us, along with two guides (one armed), had a quiet ride, spotting several elephants and other animals.  There were no predators to gallop away from, just a few nice tracks for cantering and logs to jump.

The following morning, we awoke bright and early for a more serious ride.  Unlike the other places we have visited, we weren’t the only experienced riders.  The other guests were on holiday from the United Kingdom, where they regularly fox hunt.  We quickly discovered that hunters are extremely serious riders (as well as extremely serious drinkers).  We galloped across varied terrain full of unexpected holes, forded a river or two, and continually searched out the best logs to create a cross-country course in the bush.  If we had encountered a pack of wild dogs as we had hoped, the hunting experience would have been complete.  Instead, we encountered a lethal black mamba snake darting through the grass in front of the horses, making both them and us skittish for the remainder of the ride.  Our guide did not hesitate to explain in excruciating detail how venomous a black mamba's bite is and the extremely low probability of survival (especially when you take into consideration that the emergency plane or helicopter is about 50 minutes away).  As a reward for our efforts (and to celebrate not being medevac’d out after being bitten by a large snake), we were treated to a lunch out in the bush -- even Giorgio was impressed with the number of Bloody Marys and bottles of rosé that were consumed.

On Tuesday morning, our ride began with the sighting of a five meter python.  Although these snakes aren’t venomous like the black mamba, the sight of such a large creature slithering through the reeds was enough to cause Stephanie to consider returning to camp immediately.  Instead, we were off to gallop through the wetlands, with buffalo eyeing us suspiciously from the riverbanks and giraffes peaking through the trees.

Evenings exploring the river via motorboat and mokoro (dug-out canoe) complemented our daily rides.  Although Giorgio failed to catch a fish and impress his father-in-law as suggested by one of the other camp guests, there is nothing quite like watching the animals and sunset with a gin and tonic in hand.  Furthermore, our guide proved to be a much better fisherman than Giorgio, quickly catching one to feed to a resident fish eagle, seen swooping in for his prize below.  

As our guide poled the mokoro downstream, we felt as if we were on of a safari-style Venetian gondola.  Although a mokoro, at eye-level with the reeds, is not ideal for viewing big game, it is an incredibly peaceful mode of transport and offers other unique views.  For example, we were introduced us to the river's ubiquitous reed-dwelling frogs.  These frogs created quite the night-time chorus outside of our tent, particularly in conjunction with a visiting elephant or two.  We were shocked to realize that such a small amphibian was creating such a loud noise!

And regardless of the game viewing, the sunset is beautiful from any location.

If it weren’t for the hippos blocking the route or the elephants crossing the water before our eyes, the river at Motswiri could easily have been Lake Minnetonka.

Giorgio, despite being a self-described “extremely strong rider,” was too worn out to ride on our final morning at Motswiri.  Instead, we joined Don and Susan on what should have been a tranquil game drive.  The herd of elephants we encountered had other plans, though, and mock charged the Land Cruiser.  Our guide, apparently unfazed, simply watched as the elephants approached, flapped their ears and trumpeted loudly.  One even stared us down from a distance of three meters and broke a large tree trunk in two, seemingly to demonstrate her strength.  This was the first time we thought we were in any real danger on a game drive - mock charges feel very much like real charges.

Although Motswiri offered some exhilarating rides, we still did not encounter any of Africa’s endangered and elusive wild dogs.  Perhaps we didn't drink enough of the camp's house rosé (which our traveling companions were constantly concerned would run out) to spot them.

#stephandgio (and #donandsusan)

PS: Although Giorgio continues to be less than enthused with the number of birders we have encountered and their obsession with stopping constantly to see the most boring specimen, here is a pretty cool picture of a kingfisher.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Chobe National Park: Still No Wild Dogs

Our Botswana adventures began Saturday, when we traveled back over the border from Zimbabwe to Botswana.  We’ve spent the past two days exploring the fringes of Chobe National Park, known for its large elephant herds.  Nothing as exciting as almost swimming over the edge of one of the world’s largest waterfalls has happened during our stay here, but we have been quite content with our two days of game drives.  We’re sure many of our readers are tired of our endless descriptions of different animals, so we’ll confine this post primarily to Giorgio’s amazing photos.

Don and Susan are clearly good luck, as we saw four of the big five (rhinos don’t roam through this part of Chobe).  From our lodge along the banks of the Chobe River, we embarked on two sunset cruises through the park.  For those of you familiar with Lake Minnetonka’s “jungle cruise,” we consider these cruises to be the ultimate jungle cruise, with sightings of hippos, crocs, elephants, and buffalo.  For the first time on our trip, the crocodiles actually did something!

A 4x4 game drive through the park completed the Chobe experience.  As we bumped and sped along the sandy roads, one of the other passengers suggested that our guide compete in the Dakar rally across the desert of Senegal.  We saw several couples self-driving through the park, but Giorgio was quite content not to be digging the car out of the sand while looking over his shoulder at lions in the distance.  In addition, our guide was in contact with other guides via radio and had an idea where to find the lions and leopards – Don and Susan are incredibly lucky to have seen both on their first game drive!

Some of the highlights from Chobe below, starting with the pride of lions expertly spotted by Giorgio.

The rare find of a herd of the highly-endangered sable antelope, plus lots of other grazing animals, like these inquisitive zebra.

One sleepy leopard, considering whether to eat a troop of passing guinea fowl (also known as melon birds).

Various pods of noisy, cranky hippos.

And of course, a multitude of elephants, including a parade crossing the Chobe River at sunset.

Later this morning, we’ll be boarding a five-seater airplane to explore the Okavango Delta for six days and continue our quest to find a pack of wild dogs.  If nothing else, the flight promises to be an adventure!


PS: Susan briefly caught a glimpse of a (non-venemous) snake, but decided not to hop on the next flight back to the US after all.