The next leg of our journey began after an overnight in Johannesburg at our home away from home the Southern Sun OR Tambo. I think they will soon know us by name there. I think I have now spent more time in that hotel than any other single hotel in my life.
The next morning we boarded our Air Botswana flight for Maun, for our connection to Kwara Camp in the Kwando Concession of the Okavango Delta. We ran into Sue Smart in the terminal on her way out for an air lift rescue in the Delta. How fantastic is that!! I met Sue at Indaba and am extremely impressed with her. She is a Brit that was in the states working during 9/11. She lost many friends in the twin towers and felt she just had to do something in her life that would make a difference. She moved to Botswana and starting volunteering for an AIDS charity. After awhile she decided she must get a job before running out of money. From there she has had many jobs and is now the CEO of Kwando Properties as well as Moremi Air. How great to run two such fantastic companies and have such a passion for both. Kwando owns several private concessions all over Botswana and Moremi Air is a small bush plane airline.
Maun is just a little spit of a town compared to what you would expect, since it is the base of most all Botswana safaris. It is full of strapping twenty-something year old young men all anxious to out do each other and impress, aka safari guides and bush pilots. If I had to do it over again I would move to Maun immediately after graduating college for about 10 years of a fantastic adventure and maybe if I was lucky, finding the love of my life and living it out in Africa!!!
We were quickly met and transferred to our four seater Moremi Air plane headed for the Delta. This is quite a flight. You fly low over the Delta and it is just amazing to see all that water. It is hard to imagine there actually being roads at all. You wonder how anyone gets around without a 4 wheel drive. Water is everywhere. We came down, and while I was sure we weren’t supposed to land in the water, and I somewhat trusted my twenty something scruffy pilot, I really was looking around hard for a landing strip in the middle of what appeared to be Lake Sinclair.
Low and behold he put us down very smoothly on the landing strip and we were met by Hobbs, who would be our ranger for the next two days. He took us to camp where we got our usual yummy fruit juice and genuine smile from the precious Janet. She had worked her way up from the bottom and was now the assistant manager of camp. She was delightful. She showed us around and then to the tent. We had a raised tent on a stilt platform with twin beds and nice linens. “Welcome to Kwara Camp” was spelled out on the bed with match sticks. It was very homey and comfortable. We had an outside shower, but as always, there was extreme privacy. You don’t have to worry about showing anyone your business while out there bathing. (except for maybe a warthog).
After freshening up we were off for our first game drive in the Delta. I feel like we fjorded rivers in our land cruiser, but I know there were just flooded out roads. They put stakes at the water level in front of camp and we were able to see how much it rose in the two days we were there. That was quite eye-opening considering there were still a couple of more months of rising water left. I felt like it would be in the dining area in one month!! I couldn’t imagine two. We saw lots of game including a Tsetsebee, which was new to me. This is an aquatic antelope only found in the delta as I recall, and looks a lot like a topi. It didn’t take long to find the coalition of seven male lions that is basically unstoppable. These boys have now reached their prime, and other males don’t stand a chance against these seven boys. They do as the want all over the delta. They were, as usual, sleeping. We took a few pictures and sat with them for awhile just enjoying their majesty. Hobbs felt like they would get active after the sun went down, so we went to have sundowners a short distance away. Just as we were packing up, the boys starting calling to each other in low roars. There is no sound in the world like a lion’s roar. I can’t in any way describe it and do it justice. Just know that the sound can carry three miles (think about that for a minute) and will actually vibrate the ground when you are near it. It will also send chills down your spine. There simply is nothing I have ever heard that compares. We jumped in our vehicle and off we went. We were hoping to see a hunt. We went with them for a long time after it got pitch black dark, as they walked single file grunting and roaring into the night. They came to a flooded out road and took a long time deciding what to do. Apparently they were apprehensive because of crocodiles. Finally, they all went in together and swam across. It was too deep for us to drive, so we left them to carry on alone.
We spent two nights and the food was good and the beds were very comfortable and we got to see these lions several times over the next couple of days. We tried to find a mother cheetah with five babies that I had read about, but she was hiding somewhere out there. I was also hoping to see wild dogs as there are quite a few in this area, but to no avail. We did however see lots of animals and really enjoyed it. We just didn’t get lucky with the dogs or baby cheetahs on this trip, which just gives me a reason to return.
We flew back to Maun where we changed planes to head out to the Kalahari Desert. We boarded our other small plane and off we went again. As we approached our dirt landing strip I noticed a man in camouflage with an AK47 running across the runway in front of us when we were about 200 feet from landing. I was thinking in my mind that I knew we were still in Botswana and it is a stable country, so what on earth was going on. I don’t think this would have surprised me in Zimbabwe, but I wasn’t expecting it in the middle of the Kalahari Desert. We taxied to the end of the runway where we saw two camouflage helicopters and many more men in camo with guns. I asked the pilot what on earth was going on and he said that the President or Vice President must be around. That was the only time he saw this kind of security detail. As we got into our land cruiser, our ranger confirmed that the President was to land in about 10 minutes. I took some pictures with his secret service and off we went to the lodge.
Tau Pan is the first and only lodge inside the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. It is completely solar and quite a feat of engineering. I was surprised that the rooms were cool even without air conditioning. They are adobe with what appeared to be grass cloth over the window openings. They captured a good breeze during the day and were never uncomfortable. At night the desert gets very cold, but the rooms stayed nice and cozy.
Carl and his wife were very gracious hosts, and we were the only guests in camp at the time, so we had run of the place. The next day we did an all-day game drive down to deception valley. We were very fortunate to run into the world famous Kalahari Lions on the way. We watched them for as long as we could. We also saw lots of Springbok and Oryx (gemsbok). The markings on both of these animals are some of my favorite of all of the antelope. They are just beautiful. We went to look for meerkats in their normal hangout – but they were off somewhere else that day. Deception Valley is amazing. It really is a large pan (empty open area) that is a mirage. It appeared to be a large lake instead of just dirt. Really messes with your brain a little bit. You know logically what it is, but it is still very confusing. Pictures really don’t do it justice.
We also saw the President and his entourage camping. The helicopter in the middle of the desert with a tent nearby was kind of a dead give away. What was interesting though was that we just drove right up to them and waved and said hey. The secret service just looked at us and no one seemed concerned or alarmed. We came back to the lodge for sundowners and just enjoyed the scenery as the sun set over the desert.
Our tracker was a San Bushman named KC. The San Bushmen are the ancient people of the Kalahari. They have the “clicking” language. We went out into the desert and KC showed us how his people made traps and snares to catch the animals for food. They are quite amazing and can make something fantastic from a piece of string and some twigs. My favorite story about them was told by Sue Smart. She flew into camp on our last morning because the President had asked to see it. The bushmen trackers at Tau Pan have the same vacation rules as everyone else. For their two week vacation they are flown by the company up to Maun (about and hour) and then put on a bus to their village (a few hours). The village is about 60 miles from camp. The bushmen asked if they could just be allowed to run home. Yes – RUN 60 miles through the middle of the Kalahari Desert in 100 plus degree heat to their village, instead of taking a plane. That is what I call “in shape.”
On the last day of our stay the President (Ian Khama) and his entourage came to see camp. Because we were guests and the only ones in camp, we had free access. We did actually shake his hand. He is extremely popular in Botswana and the son of the first President.
Too soon our time came to an end and we were flown out of the desert back to civilization. The next day it was back to the US for us…..but we will be back soon….. November 2009…..
Posted by aowens at 8/11/2009 5:38 PM Comments (0)
Singita - Ebony Lodge, Sabi Sands and Sweni Lodge, Kruger National Park Permanent linkAfter Indaba, I met my mom in Johannesburg and off we went on the next part of my adventure! Safari!! We flew federal air (small 20 passenger plane) from Johannesburg to the bush. First stop – Singita, Sabi Sands – Ebony Lodge (although we were actually the second stop on the flight) We stayed in two Singita properties and visited two more. Really – there is nothing to say but WOW! These properties absolutely deserve their number one hotel in the world rating by Travel and Leisure Magazine! (http://www.travelandleisure.com/slideshows/top-25-tl500-2009)
Let me start by saying how much I love the Sabi Sands. I think it could arguably have the best game viewing in the world – so I would pretty much stay anywhere to be there, but to add such a fantastic lodge was icing on the cake. We stayed at Ebony lodge, but visited Boulders lodge as well. We were met at the airstrip and taken to the lodge by Brett, who would be our ranger for the next few days. Check in was handled in the main lobby which is a lovely open air area with lots of big comfy furniture. The common areas are all extremely inviting and warm. We were welcomed and shown to our suite.
We stayed in the family suite. This is a two bedroom suite with another two bedroom suite next door. The two suites are connected by a dining room, but not just any dining room. This one has glass doors for walls that can be retracted for a completely open dining area. You can take these two suites together and have your own chef and ranger and tracker! It would be great for a family. These suites are amazing inside as well. Each one is two bedrooms with 2 ½ baths. The master is a large king size four post bed with a large dressing area and his and her closets. All of the linens are exceptional. The bathroom is all glass across the front overlooking the porch and private plunge pool as well as the wilderness. We had some baboons that truly enjoyed our deck as well as watching us shower!! The den was filled with comfortable chairs and sofas, with lots of books and journals around. There was also a large fireplace in the center of the room. It was extremely cozy and inviting! The decorations were very tasteful and fit in well with the surroundings. The en suite bar was kept stocked with drinks and snacks.
Breakfast and lunch are served open air on a patio overlooking the river. Dinner is served in a small cozy dining room. One night we went to Boulders lodge for a wine tasting. There are about a gazillion bottles of wine there and a very knowledgeable wine sommelier. We sipped and sipped (and swallowed our wine – no buckets needed) and afterwards went back for dinner and enjoyed more wine there!
Prior to arriving, I was a little bit concerned that game drives might take a back seat to other activities since they were so well known for their food, wine and over the top luxury! I will honestly say I worried for no reason. There is no shortage of “game enthusiasm” here. The game drives weren’t shortened because of wine tastings. It was all up to each individual vehicle as well as what was found while out on game drive as to what time we returned each evening. Our ranger Brett even gave us an astrology lesson, which was the best one I ever had. Truthfully, the sky is so black there, that it makes the constellations stand out more. It also helped that he had a laser pointer and could be very specific instead of a vague general pointing that you have to guess where things are!!
We spent quite a bit of time on a morning game drive with a mother leopard and her cub. She was teaching him to balance well on small branches. She would lead him up a tree to the lower smaller branches and then jump down to the ground. She then turned around and tried to knock him out of the tree while he tried to stay balanced on the limb. It wasa fantastic opportunity to see a mother teach her cub valuable lessons!! They did this over and over for quite awhile. We ran into our old friends the Eyrefield Pride of lions. This pride is about 14 strong plus the Rollercoaster Male. Here at Singita they are referred to as the Sparta pride, but it is the same pride of lions. They have a large territory that crosses several private concessions so they are known by different names in each. It was good to see the Rollercoaster Male doing well as we saw him in December not doing so well. There is a local coalition of 6 male lions called the Eyrefield Males that are intent on taking over this pride and we saw quite a fight between them all in December. We weren’t sure how much longer this male would last, but here he was looking quite well!!!
Later that evening, after sundowners, we stopped for a quick moment to look at something. With the motor turned off, we heard in the distance the barking of a zebra in distress. We took off in pursuit of the sound!! We quickly came upon the Eyrefield pride devouring what was one minute ago a living zebra. It does not take very long for a pride of about 15 lions to consume a zebra! We really enjoyed watching the action. The male always takes the biggest share, but the females don’t always give it up without a bit of a battle over the meat! It is impressive to watch.
We next flew from the Singita private airstrip to Kruger National Park. We were picked up and driven to Sweni Camp. This is the smaller of the two camps in the Singita Private Concession inside Kruger National Park. The advantage to the private concessions is off-roading. If you can’t drive off road, you miss an awful lot of the wildlife! The other camp is Lebombo. Sweni has 6 suites. Both Sweni and Lebombo Camps are truly amazing. Sweni has very modern architecture, but not in an intrusive way. I would never think that modern would mix in the bush as it is so rustic, but they have taken care to make sure it all blends in well with the surroundings. We had 2 ½ bathrooms in our room. Singita really believes in lots of bathrooms at all of their camps! In each suite there always seems to be at least a bathtub and a shower and an indoor/outdoor shower. It is quite spectacular. We had a huge bed with a very modern square mosquito net and to my complete surprise outside on the balcony was a double bed. I immediately gravitated to that. I found out they would be happy to make it up for me. This bed was on the open air balcony about 100 feet over the river with just a mosquito net! I was so excited, but also wasn’t sure I could make it through the night without getting scared or too cold and having to come inside. After dinner, I got back to see the bed had been made up for me and in the bed was a lantern, flashlight and cordless phone. (just in case) I actually fell asleep quickly and slept through the night only to be woken up by a very faint ring on my cordless phone for my wake up call. This was truly one of the neatest experiences I have ever had. I slept out there both nights and will never forget it. It was a little chilly, but my big down comforter was plenty warm. Mom slept inside and much to my surprise was not one bit jealous of my outdoor experience, as she was convinced a snake was going to fall out of a tree on top of me!
Our ranger was Marlon. He was cute as can be and one that could certainly inspire a little khaki fever!! After quickly settling in we were off on a game drive where we were hunting lions! The family sharing our vehicle had been with us in the Sabi Sands on safari and in Africa for about a week and hadn’t yet seen lions! This is unheard of! Of course they left Ebony lodge a few hours before we saw the Eyrefield pride with a kill. After much searching and tracking, we found lions! We found lots of lions and watched them for quite awhile that evening! I was glad our vehicle mates did not go home without seeing lions!
The next day we were by ourselves and Marlon took us to the most fantastic overlook on the Mozambique border. We had sundowners overlooking Kruger, with the border right at our backs! Of course we had to put our hands over just to say we had been there. But hopefully our full bodies will go there before too long as Mozambique is gaining ground as a safari destination.
The next day we flew back to Johannesburg and spent the night before our safari to Botswana!