Monthly Archives: August 2015

SOUTH AFRICA:
CONSOLIDATED TRIP REPORTS 1994 TO 1999

By Bert Duplessis
 

Introduction

My wife and I visit South Africa from time to time, usually for a few days en route to Botswana, Zimbabwe or Namibia. Over the last several years, I have also co-led a few nature tours in South Africa, amongst others a 20-day trip which visited Cape Town, the northern Cape as far as Upington, Johannesburg, Pretoria, parts of Mpumalanga (the former eastern Transvaal) and much of Kwazulu-Natal, including the southern Drakensberg. Our most recent trip (in Sept. 1999) was our 6th visit over a period of five years, and this report contains elements of all six trips.

On the whole, reports of increased urban crime & deteriorating health & other social services were worrisome, but hardly visible to non-residents. People seemed to go about their business and everything was very ‘normal’, right down to having to deal with surly post office clerks. There is no denying that the ‘new’ South Africa is struggling to cope with an increase in crime, from petty theft to armed robbery and worse. Much has been said and written about this topic; my advice is to go, but to be very alert in the cities.

Having lived most of my life in South Africa, I am – still – used to the vast discrepancies between the haves and the have-nots, all too visible in this country and elsewhere in Africa. To visitors from overseas, especially the United States, it is sometimes shocking to come face to face with poverty and deprivation, and with stark reminders of racial division. I think one should take heart that things are changing for the better. By visiting the country and spending dollars there, you will be making a real difference in somebody’s life. There is no sense in ignoring the fact that underprivileged Africans are materially much worse off than any homeless person you’ll see in America. However, if this kind of thing is going to really spoil the trip for you, going to Africa may not be a wise choice.

My groups certainly never experienced anxiety of any kind, and I think their lasting impression of the country areas (the ‘platteland’) will be one of smiling, happy people. If our vehicle passed by a thousand children in the interior, 999 of them – all dressed in school uniforms – were waving! There is much hope for the future. South Africa still offers visitors from overseas more variety than any other African destination. For wild-life enthusiasts, South Africa is without doubt the best place for rhino – both black and white. At the rate these animals are disappearing elsewhere on the continent, my advice would be to go and see them first! However, South Africa has a lot more going for it than just animals, and one simply has to spend at least a couple of days in Cape Town, a word-class travel destination. Together with the dunes at Sossusvlei in Namibia, Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe and Kilimanjaro, Cape Town’s bay and mountain are deservedly considered to be one of the four most impressive sights in sub-Saharan Africa.

Food: Fast and Otherwise

Before I get to the animals & birds, a few words on logistics, for would-be visitors. The South African currency unit, the Rand, has taken quite a hit over the last few years against the US Dollar. This results in very good prices at restaurants, especially : one has to frequent really fancy joints to pay more than R60 ($10.00) for a main course, and about R50 ($8) for a good bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. You can get away for less, and for a little more you can enjoy a fabulous meal. At the Quay Four (Victoria & Alfred Waterfront) in 1999, my wife and I ordered the most expensive item on the menu – a grilled seafood platter – with crayfish, langoustine, excellent grilled fish and more. The entire meal (including mineral water and coffee) for two, including a 15% gratuity, came to just under $60. At Cynthia’s – one of the better restaurants in Pretoria, we enjoyed an excellent aged rump steak with a green peppercorn sauce for less than $10 per person.

Don’t bargain on eating fast food: it is generally mediocre & over-priced. South Africa was a late starter on the McDonald’s band-wagon, but the golden arches are becoming a familiar sight around this country as well. So if a Quarter Pounder with cheese is a particular favourite of yours, go right ahead. KFC has been in South Africa for many years, and the Colonel’s fare is not too bad a choice if you are really desperate for fried chicken! Do try some of the local ‘fast food’, though: in Kwazulu-Natal – and for that matter pretty much everywhere – samoosas make excellent snacks. Just make sure that these curried vegetable or meat-filled pastries (of sorts) have been kept at an adequate temperature! Another local specialty is ‘boerewors’, a sausage which is (usually) stuffed with a mixture of ground beef & pork. Like the local potato chips – here known as crisps – boerewors is nowadays available in far too many flavors, from garlic through to barbecue. Everything in this country seems to come in a barbecue flavor! As a rule of thumb, rather order a piece of boerewors on a roll, than a hamburger. With the latter, you never know what you’re going to get.

Places to Stay

Quality of accommodation & service fluctuates widely between urban & country areas. In all the major cities & some of the larger towns one has the choice of hotel chains such as City Lodge, Holiday Inn Garden Court, Protea, etc. which offer good value for money in the 3-star category, where one should expect a good, ‘generic’ hotel room (air-conditioned, en suite bathroom, color TV, telephone) for about $60 per person, per day, bed & breakfast. It’s a different story in the countryside. Two-star hotels are often no better than run-down boarding houses with seedy bars, bad food and no service to speak of. This was certainly our experience at the Hantam Hotel in Calvinia and the Kenhardt Hotel in Kenhardt. However, the 2-star Pofadder Hotel was quite pleasant and the Belmont Hotel in Ceres was terrific, especially the lavish buffet dinner!

City and suburban hotels such as the Grace Hotel in Rosebank, the Cullinan in Sandton, the Cape Grace at the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, the Victoria & Alfred Hotel, the Table Bay, The Mount Nelson and the like, offer a first class level of hospitality, service and amenities, comparable with deluxe hotels anywhere in the world.

The concept of guest houses and b & b’s has taken off in South Africa in a big way. The latest edition of the Portfolio collection lists some 200 recommended B & B’s. South Africa also has many excellent guest houses, several of which I can personally recommend, including Fugitive’s Drift Lodge near Rorke’s Drift, Klippe Rivier Homestead in Swellendam, and Welgelegen Guest House in Cape Town.

Getting Around and Getting There

South Africa is very easy to get around in: in fact it is the one southern African country where one should ordinarily not have to travel with a tour group, unless you’re single, interested in a specialized activity, or simply prefer the group experience. Although South Africa has the best road network in Africa, we find it very difficult to encourage self-drive trips. Road safety standards leave much to be desired, with many terrible drivers who speed, tail-gate & overtake when they shouldn’t. Many vehicles are in a shocking state of disrepair and the incidence of drinking and driving is very high. Traffic law enforcement is lax, driver education poor. So my advice is to avoid extended self-driving around the major cities and to avoid night-driving, especially on weekends.

South Africa has a fairly decent passenger rail service (take the trans-Karoo Express from Jo’burg to Cape Town or the weekly train from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth, if you have the time). There are several luxury train trips on offer, including the classic Blue Train journey between Cape Town and Pretoria, and as far as Victoria Falls; Rovos Rail offers similar trips. South Africa’s air transport network, which has benefited from privatization, is more than adequate, although some of the airports still leave much to be desired. Recent improvements at Johannesburg Airport’s International Arrivals Hall include modern luggage carousels. Too bad the luggage still takes as long as it does to make it to the carousels…

My experiences with South African Airways have been mixed. I rate the food above average, the service about average and the comfort level no better than anybody else’s. However, SAA is a pretty professional outfit, it runs on time most of the time, and there’s nothing ‘third worldish’ about it. The convenience of South African Airways’ direct flights to Johannesburg and Cape Town makes up for what one may be able to save going via Europe. However it appears that SAA will shortly drop Miami as a gateway city, opting for Atlanta instead. It is a pity. I have flown SAA’s non-stop MIA/CPT flight several times lately and recommend it highly: arriving in Cape Town at about 2 pm after an uninterrupted overnight ‘2 movie, 3-meal’ 15-hour flight sure beats the alternative. This being two long flights; the first one the trans-Atlantic leg to London or Frankfurt or whatever. Followed by another south-bound overnight marathon. Not to mention the time spent cooling one’s heels in the process. Much the same applies to the JFK/JNB flight. Travelers should take note that SAA’s flights have been running to capacity, and I know of at least one incident – I was there – when more than 30 people were bumped from the Miami/Cape Town flight in early October 1995. The same thing happened in September 1999, from Cape Town to Miami. Reconfirm you flight at least 72 hours before departure and don’t show up late at the airport!

But is it Safe?

Johannesburg, Cape Town or Durban is no more ‘dangerous’ for travelers than is Nairobi, Kenya or New York City, for that matter. Would-be visitors would do well to remind themselves that car-jacking, for which Johannesburg has gained quite a reputation lately, is a crime which originated in the mean streets of America’s big cities and has since spread all over the world. Traveling independently in South Africa should present few problems – even to women traveling by themselves – provided that they maintain the level of personal safety precautions they practice ‘back home’. I wouldn’t encourage anybody – male or female – to go walking around downtown Johannesburg or Durban’s beach-front area (other than perhaps the Marine Parade itself) at night, for example. Chances are that you may get mugged, just like in parts of Houston, Detroit, New York City & who knows where else. So just be sensible, don’t take risks you wouldn’t normally take & you’ll be okay. If you wouldn’t aimlessly drive around Chicago’s Southside by yourself, don’t try it in Alexandria, Guguletu or Soweto. The U.S. State Department’s booklet on a safe trip abroad has good advice which is to “…remain in that healthy grey area between complacency and paranoia.” I would advise you to get hold of a copy of this booklet as much of the information is pertinent for a trip to South Africa.

When to Go

In planning a first trip to South Africa – or any southern African country, for that matter, timing is important. If game-viewing is your primary objective, go anytime from June through October: little chance of rain (except in the Cape) and good game-viewing, due to generally good visibility as the veld is sparsely vegetated. Keep in mind that the greater part of South Africa’s interior, as well as Cape Town, is cold in winter, especially at night, when temperatures routinely drop to the lower 40’s (F) just before dawn, warming up to the 60’s by early afternoon. However, even in winter, temperatures in Zululand and the north-eastern lowveld (including Kruger Park) are mild. For bird-watching, the spring and summer months (September through March) are better, due to the presence of many migrants from Europe & central/north Africa. Also, most land birds breed in the summer, so that by January both parents and off-spring are present, as much as doubling the overall population.

Once it rains (mostly from November through Jan/Feb.) game tends to disperse as they can find pools of water almost everywhere, not just at the few waterholes, dams & rivers which retain water throughout the winter and beyond. Even so, South Africa is largely a dry country, and rainfall is relatively low to very low, even in the ‘rainy’ season. What rain does fall is mostly in the form of scattered thunderstorms so it won’t really affect one’s holiday. Occasionally, however, a tropical weather system will move in from the east and settle over the lowveld for a few days, causing extended periods of rain, especially along the northern Kwazulu-Natal coast. It is only at the end of especially heavy rainy seasons (which are few and far between) that one gets major dispersal of game.

Avoid going to South Africa in December through mid-January, unless you can plan your trip well in advance. December is the biggest local holiday month, with – literally – thousands of people from the interior crowding into coastal cities and other resort & game-viewing areas. In fact, it’s almost comical to see so many Gauteng license plates in places like Cape Town and Durban. Accommodation is hard to find, everything suddenly costs more, there are lines galore, etc. etc. Another ‘busy’ month in Durban and the game reserves is July, which is also a school holiday. Book well in advance!

Mammals from Aardvark to Zebra

Even though our October 1995 trip was geared towards birding, we ended up with a list of no less than 45 mammals, including Samango Monkey, Springhare, African Wild Cat, Bat-eared Fox, Cape Clawless Otter, Striped Polecat, Large-spotted Genet, Antbear (aka Aardvark), African Elephant, Black Rhino, White Rhino, Bontebok, Blesbok, Red Duiker, Springbok, Klipspringer, Steenbok, Gemsbok, Buffalo, Kudu, Nyala, Bushbuck, Eland, Common Reedbuck & Waterbuck. Both the Cape Clawless Otter – which was feeding in a rock pool in the ocean at Kommetjie and the Aardvark (which really is quite pig-like in appearance) were lifers to even our very experienced local guide, so these two sightings were particularly thrilling. Quite a few of the rarer, nocturnal mammals were – obviously – encountered on night drives, which we undertook just about everywhere. To be fair, we did spot some birds on the night drives too, a memorable one being a Spotted Eagle Owl which just sat and sat right in the road, seemingly fascinated by the quartz halogen beam. We never did see large herds of wildebeest or antelope as one might expect in east Africa, and this is pretty much par for the course in South Africa.

On a subsequent trip we enjoyed excellent game-viewing at MalaMala game reserve, highlights being finding ourselves – on an open game-viewing vehicle – right in the midst of a massive herd of buffalo; closely observing a leopard on the hunt, some stunning looks at a pride of lions, very relaxed elephant and a solitary white rhino. Which makes for the so-called ‘Big Five’ and we duly received our certificates. MalaMala is without equal in terms of ‘delivering’ a consistent, quality experience all-round, from its game-viewing which benefits from extensive river footage, drawing large numbers of mammals onto the property, to its superior hospitality and food, resulting in numerous awards over the years. The reason for MalaMala’s success? Michael and Norma Rattray. When we visited there in 1998, the first person we saw as we drove onto the property was Mr. Rattray himself, inspecting one of the roads. Later that evening, he personally inquired about our well-being. And it was obvious that Mrs. Rattray was treated with great respect by all the staff members.

Cape Town

In reply to a question whether Cape Town was safe to visit, a student was given the following advice on an internet newsgroup:

‘Perhaps you should avoid Cape Town. If you take the chance, don’t bother with a return ticket because chances are you’ll never go back. The Victoria & Alfred Waterfront is a knockout, the view from Table Mountain will slay you, the Capetonian girls will leave you breathless, trying all those clubs and pubs is an absolute killer and the beaches are absolutely to die for.’

For the 20-something crowd, that about sums it up. Even for the rest of us, though, starting a South Africa trip in Cape Town is not a bad idea. It’s a laid-back, relaxed sort of a city, a world away from the Johannesburg rat race, and first-time visitors won’t experience too big a culture shock here. A few days in Cape Town is just what you’ll need to ease into Africa, so to speak, before you tackle a safari or some such adventure further north. It may be tough to leave the city behind, though, even if you’re not a student! Scenically breath-taking, with Table Mountain forming the most appealing backdrop imaginable, Cape Town offers a feast of fascinating things to do and see. Take your choice from scenic drives, tours to the nearby wine country, interesting historical monuments like the recently restored Castle, appealing Cape Dutch architecture & furniture, superb beaches, restaurants to please every taste & pocket, the bustling Waterfront development, good hiking, biking & running opportunities, horse trails & riding, the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve, scuba diving, boat trips & deep-sea fishing and more.

The down-side? The weather can be crummy, especially in June & July, when it’s rather cold – in the 50’s – and rainy. Spring and summer, although mostly sunny & warm to hot, can be windy, and you have to experience a howling south-easterly wind which doubles up pedestrians and rocks buses to appreciate what I’m talking about. However, one soon learns to appreciate the wind as just one more facet of the incredibly varied experience that is Cape Town. A truly cosmopolitan city with its feet squarely in Africa, but with a feel that is very European.

A ‘must do’ outing in Cape Town is a ride by cable car to the top of Table Mountain for breathtaking views of the city & environs. Amongst others, one can see Robben Island where Nelson Mandela spent many years of his life as a prisoner. At the terminal station the dassies (rock hyraxes) are so tame they’ll eat right out of your hand. Conventional wisdom has it that the ‘ideal’ cable car trip is at about 1800 in summer so that all the sights can be seen in daylight, following which one can enjoy the most beautiful sunset imaginable. From November through April the cableway operates until 2130 (2230 from December to mid-January).

The Victoria & Alfred Waterfront is Cape Town’s most popular attraction, and on weekends, especially over December and early January, it is extremely crowded. With more than 40 restaurants, fast food establishments, coffee shops & taverns, you won’t go hungry or thirsty. Take your pick from Belgian through Mexican cuisine, from burgers to seafood. Leisure attractions at the Waterfront are as varied, ranging from boat trips and helicopter flips to visiting the Maritime or Fisheries Museum. The new Two Oceans Aquarium is fascinating and certainly worth going a bit out of one’s way for. Shopping reigns supreme, however, and the Waterfront boasts well over 100 shops, crammed with jewelry, curios, foods & wines, books, clothing, crafts and much more. Not to be missed.

I never grow tired of visiting Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, one of the more beautiful spots on the peninsula, where some interesting birds and typical fynbos plant species such as Protea and Erica may be seen. The Cape has many hundreds of endemic plants and the area is in fact a separate Floral Kingdom, the smallest, yet richest of its kind in the world. The best time to visit the gardens is in spring, when many of the Protea species are in bloom, but there is always something to see.

When in the Cape, it is considered ‘de rigeur’ to visit Cape Point, the spot where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans purportedly meet (they actually meet at Cape Agulhas). It is a great outing, nevertheless, and in addition to some interesting birds, such as sunbirds and sugarbirds, there is a herd of bontebok, and some eland which are regularly seen. The baboons can be a nuisance. From the look-out point it is also possible to watch the fascinating spectacle of hundreds of Cape Cormorants, which breed on the cliffs, approach and leave the nesting site in a never-ending procession, while a steady trickle of Cape Gannet can be seen making their way around the Point, flying low over the water. The ruggedly beautiful Cape Point is worth a visit just for the view, which is hard to describe without resorting to clichés and hyperbole. The relatively new restaurant, which was completed in 1995, offers some stupendous views and it is a good choice for a light lunch. After lunch, take the funicular tram-way up to the look-out point.

To slow down the pace a bit, consider a guided walking tour of the Cape Malay quarter, including a visit to the District Six Museum, a visit to one of the colorful Malay homes (whole avenues have been declared a national monument) and ending with an interesting lunch at the Noon Gun Tea-room, high above the city. The downtown area has several museums and galleries which are worth visiting, such as the South African Museum, and the South African National Gallery. Try to make time for a visit to the nearby Castle, the oldest building in the Cape, which has been meticulously restored, to see the colorful changing of the guards, but more importantly, the William Fehr Collection. The Grand Parade, on the west side of the Castle, is transformed into a rather funky street market on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

Yet another worthwhile outing is a day-tour of the scenically beautiful Cape winelands, including lunch at a typical estate. There are no less than 10 different wine routes within easy driving distance from Cape Town, the most popular ones being the Stellenbosch and Paarl Wine Routes, as well as the Vignerons de Franschoek. The area is reminiscent of northern California’s Napa Valley, and one need not be a wine-lover to enjoy the rural landscapes. The university town of Stellenbosch, where many excellent examples of Cape Dutch architecture may be viewed, as well as the picturesque village of Franschoek, originally settled by French Huguenot immigrants in the 1680’s, should be on your itinerary. You could actually spend a night or two in either of these towns, Stellenbosch perhaps having a bit more to ‘see and do’, while Franschoek is more isolated, and in a superb natural setting.

With several days in the Cape, you certainly wouldn’t want to miss the ferry ride and tour to Robben Island. It is a most worthwhile morning or afternoon activity. Just be sure to buy your tickets early – seats are very popular and are sold on a first come first served basis. In addition to some great views of Table Mountain (coming and going), the tour offers a nice insight on the natural history of the island (watch for the introduced Chukar Partridge and endemic Jackass Penguins, as well as some rather exotic wildlife, including fallow deer). The tour around the village is rather ho-hum, but few people will easily forget the size of Nelson Mandela’s prison cell, in the forbidding maximum security prison where he spent some 17 years of his life. It is smaller than many Americans’ walk-in closets. The guides talk with passion and sometimes even wry humor about their past dismal experiences as political prisoners on Robben Island.

In late 1995 our accommodation in Cape Town was the Townhouse Hotel in downtown, not far from the Houses of Parliament and several other interesting historical places. The Townhouse is a very well run hotel with a restaurant which counts amongst the city’s best. The rooms are on the small side, and guest parking is on the 7th floor, which makes for quite a production coming and going. Even so, the Townhouse, which has the feel of a good downtown club, is excellent value for money, has good security and is very centrally located.

Last year, we stayed in the much more elegant, yet also much more expensive Cape Grace Hotel, on the Waterfront. The choice for someone who appreciates a typical small, deluxe hotel, with understated charm and polished, efficient service. The Cape Grace was voted ‘Hotel of the Year’ for 1999 by the board of the prestigious ‘Small Luxury Hotels of the World’ group, which has nearly 250 member properties worldwide.

Another recommended hotel is the Victoria & Alfred Hotel, which is located in the historic 1904 North Quay warehouse on Cape Town’s waterfront. It has large, luxuriously furnished bedrooms with nice views of Table Mountain and the City of Cape Town. The hotel is a past winner of the much sought-after Silver Collection Award based upon consistently high standards of service, hospitality and ambience. We stayed there in September 1999 and the hotel most definitely lived up to expectations, great views from our room! Of all the Waterfront hotels, it has the best location.

Other hotels at the Waterfront include the budget Breakwater Lodge (a former prison – good value for money in the budget category), the Villa Via, PortsWood and the City Lodge. More recent newcomers include the 4-star Commodore, the 5-star deluxe Table Bay Sun, the Cullinan and the Holiday Inn across the corner from the entrance to the waterfront, and several more.

I also recommend a nice little guest house in Gardens, the very stylish Welgelegen Guest House, a beautiful double-storey Victorian home in a quiet cul-de-sac. Owner-operator Lanie van Reenen will go out of her way to make sure that you have everything you need. Here is what a recent guest had to say about the Welgelegen: “I also wanted to let you know how much we enjoyed the Welgelegen guest house. It may be the best we have ever stayed at. Lanie really makes sure all the “little” things are always done, and of course the breakfasts are fantastic”.

A bit further afield, our latest ‘favorite’ is Bushmanskloof, in the Cedarberg area, about 4 hours from Cape Town by road. We think it is destined to become the Western Cape’s premier game lodge. The game-viewing at Bushmanskloof was certainly better than I had anticipated (we saw Eland, Springbok, Grey rhebuck, Cape Mountain Zebra, Black Wildebeest, Bontebok, Bat-eared Fox, Cape Fox and Aardwolf) but even if there were no game it would be a worthwhile place for a two or three night visit. The variety and abundance of Bushman rock art in the area is phenomenal and viewing it from close up is a stirring experience. The area and its attractions could not be more different than Botswana or, for that matter, any of the real ‘bushveld’ areas. Yet it is still very much ‘Africa’, offering a tremendously wide variety of adventure activities, including hiking, mountain biking, swimming and even abseiling on request. The guiding at Bushmanskloof was as good as any I have ever experienced. There’s a young chap there (I believe he is from Zimbabwe) by the name of Andre who impressed us no end. Personable, articulate, knowledgeable, the lot. They are fortunate to have him.

On a visit to Cape Town in the mid 90’s our local naturalist guide was Dr Peter Ryan, a young scientist attached to Africa’s foremost academic centre for ornithology, the Percy Fitzpatrick Institute for African Ornithology at Cape Town University. Peter made sure that we enjoyed many bird-watching highlights, starting with Jackass Penguins at Boulders Beach. Jackass Penguins are the only penguins found in Africa, so this outing was one which tour members keenly anticipated. They were not disappointed. Boulders’ little colony of Jackass Penguins had over the last few years grown into a very healthy, obviously thriving population, and we had some excellent looks at these aptly named birds, many of which were ‘braying’ loudly.

From Cape Town, our route took us along the West Coast road to Langebaan Lagoon, famous for its populations of seabirds and shorebirds. The southern end of the lagoon, as I had anticipated, was good for Black Harrier, easily one of the most spectacular birds I have ever seen. One of South Africa’s few endemic birds of prey, the Black Harrier is easily identified by its striking black and white feathers.

From Ceres to Calvinia

After a side-trip to De Hoop and the Grootvadersbosch, we found ourselves in the town of Ceres, at the very pleasant New Belmont Hotel. Ceres, which has been described as the Switzerland of South Africa, is a pleasant town, but with quite a lot of snow on the nearby Hex River mountains, it was a little on the chilly side. The next morning we ascended the Theronsberg Pass, entering renosterveldbos, a transitional vegetation zone. The area from here onwards, which is also known as the Tankwa Karoo, is rather barren and will not be high on anybody’s ‘must visit’ list, except for birders who come here for species such as Namaqua Prinia, Karoo Eremomela, Karoo Korhaan and Tractrac Chat. We made an extended stop at the Katbakkies picnic spot, one of the best places in the country for Cinnamonbreasted Warbler, a noisy, but elusive little ‘rockjumper’.

Quite a few miles beyond Katbakkies, literally in the middle of nothing, disaster struck in the form of two flat tires in quick succession. One flat tire anybody can handle, but not two! Fortunately, we were only a 20-minute walk or so from one of the few farm houses in the area. A telephone call later, and the Calvinia tire crew was on its way. Damage repaired, we were underway again in less than two hours. Turns out that our tires were underinflated for the weight we were carrying and for this particular road surface, which consists of small, sharp shale particles. Be forewarned, if you ever wander onto the Bushmanland gravel roads. The quarter sized, jagged-edged pieces of flat rock wedge into the tire tread indentations (of underinflated tires) and slowly penetrate the rubber until the inevitable happens. We spent the night in the only hotel in Brandvlei, one of South Africa’s most isolated towns. It was near here, at the vast dry salt pan of Verneukpan, that Sir Malcolm Campbell set the world land-speed record in his car, the famous Bluebird, in 1929. We had more mundane things in mind, such as hot food and a firm mattress, as we had to rest up for the long trip to Pofadder.

Pofadder

The small, dusty, Northern Cape town of Pofadder had probably never seen anything like it. A member of a French film crew crashing into a gate that had been evaded by everybody else for generations, and a group of crazy birders from the ‘States setting off from the hotel in pitch darkness to go and find a Cape Eagle Owl. Indeed. When I first heard that we were going to be sharing digs with a French film crew, I trimmed my beard. Who knows whom one may run into. It can happen, you know! Alas, all we saw of alluring French actresses were rather sleepy-looking types huddled over their pre-dawn breakfast. I think our small group of birders were the only other people in town awake that early! The presence of a large group of foreigners did help me out of one tight spot, however. One afternoon – after several weeks of driving on the left-hand side of the road – my acquired (in the USA) habit of keeping to the right inexplicably re-surfaced. Half a block down the main drag of Pofadder, I found myself being motioned over to the left by an irate local policeman, who was circling his extended index finger around his right ear and muttering something about crazy Frenchies driving like idiots. Little did he know that the only thing vaguely French about yours truly is a French Huguenot surname and a fondness for good food, and, (in my younger years), good and not-so-good wine. Very French, I’m sure.

Pofadder, by the way, is a lonely but rather cheerful little place, even though its annual rainfall is no more than many cities in Europe receive in a day. One of those rare places where you simply can’t get today’s paper until tomorrow, which is probably why so many people love it. The bird-life in and around the town is sparse, but fascinating. A highlight of both our mid-90’s trips was an outing to Aggeneys, a place-name which features prominently on the South African birding scene, due to the rare Red Larks found there in the dunes. Another memorable experience was stopping to observe the goings-on at a colony of Sociable Weavers. Industry gone berserk. These sparrow-sized birds achieve the improbable feat of building haystack-sized nests which they usually inhabit for life. With luck, a Pygmy Falcon will be found in or near one of the Sociable Weaver nests. We saw several of these shrike-sized falcons, which breed almost exclusively in Sociable Weaver nests. At Onseepkans the South African border officials gave us the okay to walk on the bridge over the Orange River, and we nearly made it all the way across, adding a Rosyfaced Lovebird, perched high up in a tree on the Namibia side, to our trip list.

Upington

In October 1995 we spent one night in Upington, at the Upington Protea Hotel. Reasonably priced & with large, comfortable bedrooms, this was one of the few hotels which had regular showers in the bathroom. Many of the older hotels in the rural parts of South Africa have baths only. This is something you may wish to check on before making a booking. The Upington Protea does not serve meals, but you could have dinner at the adjacent Spur Steakhouse & charge it to your room, or stroll down the street to the very nice Le Must restaurant, located in a converted residence on Schroder Street. For six of us, ordering a couple of salads and main courses ranging from chicken breast to veal piccata as well as dessert & coffee, the bill came to $75, including a ten percent gratuity.

Augrabies Falls National Park

As our flight to Johannesburg was not scheduled to depart before 16h00 in the afternoon, we took a side-trip to the Augrabies Falls National Park. Here, the Orange River has gouged out a spectacular crevice in the rock, and it plunges down a ravine into a deep cauldron. When the river is in flood – early in the year – this can be an awesome sight but it has been pretty tame on my three recent visits, which were all in the month of October. A few of the viewpoints elsewhere in the Park, such as at Ararat and Moon Rock are worth visiting. At one of these picnic points, which has an awesome view over the Orange River basin, we were enjoying our box lunch while a pair of Black Eagles, arguably the most spectacular bird of prey in Africa, flew low over our heads repeatedly, searching out rock hyrax, of which there were dozens. At Augrabies we also added Klipspringer to our mammal list, but there was not much else to see in the way of animals, the park being particularly barren and dry at this time of the year.

From Augrabies we returned to Upington, killing an hour or two at the Game camp just north of town, where we had some excellent looks at Eland and Gemsbok, both new additions to our growing list of mammals. If you do the self-drive through this seemingly barren area, keep in mind that if you follow the ‘one-way’ arrows, the track winds back and forth, and you’ll cover nearly 40km before it’s all over. The SA Express flight from Upington to Johannesburg was uneventful and on time.

Johannesburg

Johannesburg has not been getting much good press lately. Actually, it is not an unpleasant city and as one that has lived there for many years, I can attest to the fact that it has a wonderful climate, nice hotels, great restaurants, a thriving cultural scene, and some world-class shopping centers. Jo’burg also offers its residents very sophisticated entertainment choices and sporting facilities. Not a great deal to see and do for the visitor, however. If you’re so inclined, take a tour of (part of) Soweto, an acronym for South Western Townships. Soweto is not all ‘little boxes'; there are some nice neighborhoods, a lively informal economy, and you may even stop over at a shebeen for something to drink. Of course, Soweto is famous as the flash-point of the Soweto Riots which started at a local school (a mandatory stop on the proverbial “Cook’s Tour” of Soweto) on 16 June 1976, now commemorated as a public holiday. The Soweto Riots, which spread throughout the country and caused great loss of life and damage to property, proved to be a seminal event in the democratization of South Africa. Essentially, it dramatically illustrated that black aspirations for freedom could no longer be ignored. By literally forcing the government of the day into a conciliatory position, the Soweto Riots signaled the real beginning of the end of apartheid.

Another popular outing in Johannesburg is to the Gold Reef City complex, a replica of an 1880’s gold mining village, complete with hotel and restaurants. Traditional African dancing may be seen at the museum on Sundays and there are opportunities to go underground and observe gold ingots being poured. One more thing to do in Johannesburg in the summer months is to go to a limited overs, night-time cricket match at the Wanderers. It will dispel any suspicions you may have harbored about cricket being a slow, genteel pastime.

Pretoria

Pretoria is only about 35 miles or so down the freeway leading north out of Johannesburg. Drive it yourself, but be careful: South Africa has a deserved reputation for terrible driving. If you’re at all interested in history, I’d say Pretoria is a ‘must see’. There’s a host of interesting monuments, museums & government buildings, and even a few good restaurants. The Voortrekker Monument is squat and rather ugly, but it can hardly be ignored. The inside is stark and cold, and the series of friezes depicting the history of the Great Trek, although interesting, does nothing to dispel the gloom. All rather depressing, I’m afraid.

The Union Buildings – where new RSA President Thabo Mbeki occupies an office with a terrific view – is a charming sandstone edifice, designed by famed architect Sir Herbert Baker. In the centre of Pretoria is Church Square which is dominated by a statue of Paul Kruger looking north. Church Square has a nice western facade, and the Ou Raadsaal, old Reserve Bank Building, and the Palace of Justice all date from the days of the South African Republic. Unfortunately, Church Square also has lots of buses as the city council has, in its wisdom, turned it into a bus terminal. Melrose House, a well-maintained Victorian house on Jacob Mare Street is worth a visit, even if it is just to see the stained glass. The Transvaal Museum on Paul Kruger Street, between the station & Church Square, houses many fascinating exhibits of natural history. An hour or so spent browsing around the Austin Roberts Bird Hall is time well spent, and I recommend it as an introduction to the birds of South Africa. The Museum store has a good collection of natural history books at reasonable prices.

If shopping’s your thing, a mall that is as good as any is the Hyperama just east of Pretoria. It has everything from books & maps to clothing (good value at Woolworths), curios (at better prices than the airport’s so-called ‘duty free’) & much more. Across the street from the Hyperama is a discount outlet where you can buy some good – cheap – leather items, clothing and the like. the Hyperama is currently (late 1999) being completely renovated and extended.

Aventura Blydepoort & Swadini

From Pretoria, we headed towards Mpumalanga, formerly known as the Eastern Transvaal. Before going on safari, visitors may want to spend a day or so at one of the two Aventura Resorts near the Blyde River Canyon. These resorts, which are very moderately priced, offer a wide range of activities such as nature walks & scenic drives, swimming pools, tennis, horse-riding, etc. Although many visitors bring their own supplies & do their own cooking, the resorts have restaurants & well-stocked stores.

Blydepoort Resort offers accommodation in rustic stone chalets and is the ideal starting point for scenic trips to attractions like Bourke’s Luck Potholes, God’s Window, The Pinnacle and the Three Rondavels. The beauty of the Blyde River Canyon and magnificent views of the escarpment and Lowveld make this resort unique. The resort is heavily oriented towards families and there are children everywhere, especially in summer.

Swadini Resort is below the Blyde River Canyon in true Lowveld (bushveld) habitat. It gets rather hot in summer (I was there early in November a couple of years ago & can testify to that!) but it has lots of atmosphere and is very well run, being a past recipient of a Satour Award for the best self-catering resort in the country. From Swadini it’s a rather long haul to some of the ‘usual’ Blyde Canyon attractions (such as the ones mentioned above), but the resort’s combination of river, mountains and subtropical vegetation is very appealing. Personally, I prefer it over Blydepoort Resort because it is a little more out of the way. Bird-watching is excellent at both the resorts. It’s an easy drive from Swadini & Blydepoort Resort to the private lodges adjacent to Kruger, by the way.

Kruger National Park

My first recollection of a visit to the Kruger National Park dates back to the late 50’s when I was but a bright-eyed little boy in the back of my dad’s VW, scanning the veld in keen anticipation of finding lions. Sometimes, I had to settle for elephant, but I soon got bored looking at Impala, of which there were thousands.

Not much has changed. Kruger is not as inexpensive as it used to be, and there are more visitors from overseas, but impala are still ubiquitous. In fact, visitors soon realize that spending too much time videotaping impala is considered faintly amusing by the locals. I’m still looking for lion – who isn’t – but I’ve overcome the boredom factor by developing an interest in birds, of which there are just as many in Kruger Park as there are impala, the difference being that the birds come in about 400 different species.

It used to be said about advertising that it’s about as much fun as you could have with your clothes on. I’d put a visit to Kruger Park in the same category. It’s all very well to be pampered at a 5-star private lodge, and to be shown this leopard and that lion, but discovering your ‘own’ animals on a Kruger game drive is eminently satisfying. Another facet of the Kruger Park experience is meeting other visitors, and if you’re the least bit gregarious, you’ll soon find yourself exchanging sightings & experiences with people from all over the world. My wife and I still fondly recall an evening in Punda Maria when we met some onion farmers from the Orange Free State around the camp fire. As I recall, they contributed a bottle of Klipdrift brandy & we had some duty-free chocolate mint liqueur, so it was an interesting party.

Kruger Park is famous for its wide variety of mammals, and on our last trip we did pretty well, spotting Impala, Burchell’s Zebra, Blue Wildebeest, Cape Buffalo, Southern Giraffe, Tsessebe, Bushbuck, Lion, Cheetah, Spotted Hyena, Black-backed Jackal, Kudu, Waterbuck, Warthog, Chacma Baboon, Vervet Monkey, Steenbok, Duiker and Klipspringer. Mammals in Kruger Park are habituated to the presence of vehicles, so while other African parks may have bigger concentrations of certain species, Kruger Park allows one the opportunity to get really close up for some excellent photographs.

If you are keen on game-viewing, I would definitely recommend a short stay at a private game lodge near Kruger Park, especially for first-time visitors to South Africa. There are convenient daily flights from Johannesburg to Skukuza or Hoedspruit, or alternatively it is a fairly easy – and interesting – drive from Johannesburg – so one does not spend much time in transit. Game-viewing at a private lodge, where you are taken out on fully guided game drives, is usually very productive irrespective of the season. The rangers know where the animals are concentrated at any given time; they are familiar with the territories of predators and there are often several vehicles out at the same time, in radio contact with each other. Notable sighting are shared, so not too much is left to chance! Two game lodges adjacent to Kruger National Park that I highly recommend are MalaMala and Londolozi.

The ultimate Kruger Park experience, though, is to go along on one of the 4-day wilderness trails, operated twice-weekly in 7 different areas. The thrill of a ‘Big 5′ encounter on foot will stay with you for the rest of your life. Being close enough to an elephant to hear its stomach grumble and see the dust fly when it flaps its ears, is exciting when you’re in a vehicle. On foot, in an environment where man is at a distinct disadvantage, it can be a life-changing experience. Reservations for the guided wilderness trails are near impossible to come by and despite regular applications since the early 80’s, I have only been on three walks, viz. Nyalaland, Sweni and Bushmans.

Birding in big game country is fun. On our last visit we purchased a copy of Ian Sinclair’s excellent guide to the birds of the Park at the Phalaborwa entrance gate and then proceeded due east on the tar road, trying to make Letaba by lunch-time. The birding was surprisingly good, and in no time at all we had seen some 40 or so species. Sabota Larks were everywhere, and Southern Yellowbilled, Redbilled and Grey Hornbills were competing for our attention, while the ubiquitous Lilacbreasted Rollers elicited several appreciative comments. A couple of Little Bee-eaters, seemingly indifferent to the presence of the vehicle, posed for the photographers.

Our short visit to Letaba Camp was great. Woodland Kingfisher, Kurrichane Thrush, Redbilled Buffalo-weaver and Mourning Dove were added to the list in quick succession. It was obvious that the dry, dusty conditions had taken their toll of birds in the surrounding veld, and that many species had found the camp to be a good source of food and water. This is true of most Kruger Park camps, and prospective visitors should allow ample time for birding the various camp grounds. All in all, we ticked about 120 species of birds over 4 days in Kruger, including some striking KNP specials such as the Saddlebilled and Marabou Stork, Ground Hornbill, Kori Bustard and Bateleur.

In the afternoon a rather less productive drive saw us arriving at the lovely Olifants Camp, where we would stay for two nights. This drive, and another one the following day, reminded me that Mopane veld is not a very productive habitat. Too many leaves and not enough birds. Plenty of elephant, though! Olifants Camp, which was built in 1960, has retained its old-fashioned charm and it also has the most dramatic setting of any camp in the park, on a rock dome with grand views over the Olifants River Valley.

Itala Game Reserve

From Kruger Park we headed south, skirting Swaziland, reaching Itala Game Reserve after a long drive. From the friendly reception office staff to the moderately priced accommodation and excellent restaurant, Itala scored high marks. Itala’s main camp, Ntshondwe, is one of the most pleasant game reserve camps in all of South Africa. Perfectly situated to blend into the natural surroundings, it has a waterhole with a first-class hide for bird-watching, a great restaurant, and in summer the natural rock pool offers relief from the midday heat. Our very first sighting was the ever-impressive Black Eagle, high against a cliff face.

Itala is also great for game-viewing as it has lots of open woodland and grassland. In very short order, we saw Impala, Common and Mountain Reedbuck, plenty of Kudu, the impressive Eland, Tsessebe, Giraffe, Burchell’s Zebra, Warthog, Waterbuck, Steenbok, Nyala and White Rhino. To be precise, we encountered White Rhinoceros no less than 7 times, and managed to capture some wonderful images. A night drive was no less exciting, with great views of Black Rhino, Porcupine, Brown Hyena, Large-spotted Genet, and Fierynecked Nightjar. Two words of advice about night drives: dress warmly! No matter how warm or hot the days might be, nights in South Africa’s interior are generally cool, cold in winter. Add to this the wind-chill effect of an open vehicle moving at speeds of up to 40 mph and you’ll find yourself freezing in early summer if all you have on are shorts and a t-shirt.

Birdlife at Itala is prolific and our two day-outings produced an impressive tally of birds, including Gymnogene, Natal Francolin, Pygmy Kingfisher, Cardinal Woodpecker, Gorgeous and Olive Bush Shrike and Rudd’s Apalis. A Secretary-bird (an absolute must for a trip to Africa as far as I’m concerned) which was doing its measured tread of about 120 paces per minute, was topped only by a nice view of Shelley’s Francolin, a new bird for yours truly! Yet another Itala birding highlight was a magnificent Crowned Eagle, which we studied at length as it was perched in an open spot high up in the dense riverine vegetation along the Pongola River.

Mkuzi Game Reserve, Kwazulu-Natal

Mkuzi

Game Reserve is one of South Africa’s lesser known reserves. It has good populations of white and black rhino and lots of nyala, as well as giraffe, kudu, zebra and the ubiquitous impala, so game-viewing can be quite interesting here. In fact, it is one of only three Southern African reserves where I have seen leopard, the other two being Kruger Park (several times) and the Moremi in northern Botswana. On an earlier visit to Mkuzi I spent quite a lot of time in the Kubube Hide, being lucky enough to observe the very rarely seen Bushpig come to drink. I highly recommend that you spend some time just sitting in a hide, especially between about 0900 to 1200, when many animals make a trip to water, at least in the dry season from about June to October. However, Mkuze is better known as a birding Mecca and it is generally considered to be the single most productive bird-watching area in Southern Africa. In October 1995 we rattled up 200 species in 2 days there, including Barred Owl, right on the southern edge of its distribution. Birding around the main camp with Glen Holland on the first afternoon was very exciting as we added some 36 new species in less than two hours, highlights being Pinkthroated Twinspot, Yellowspotted Nicator and the stunning Plumcolored Starling. In an interesting area outside the reserve we added Lesser Blackwinged Plover, Broadbilled Roller, Lemonbreasted Canary and easily the least handsome bird of the trip, a Marabou Stork.

Hluhluwe/Umfolozi

Hluhluwe/Umfolozi is South Africa’s third largest game reserve (after Kruger and Kalahari Gemsbok) and it offers superior game-viewing. Rhino – mostly white, with smaller numbers of black – takes pride of place here, but elephant, buffalo, zebra, giraffe, kudu, nyala, impala, waterbuck, hyena and several other mammal species may be encountered. With luck, lion or leopard (on night drives) may also be observed. As is the case in other Kwazulu-Natal game reserves, most visitors explore the parks themselves during the day. At night, guided 2 to 3-hour long game drives ($20 p.p.) are available. Be sure to book on arrival. Guided game drives are also available in the mornings and afternoons.

In October ’95 everybody enjoyed the accommodation at Hluhluwe’s Hilltop Camp and the food in the restaurant – although my ‘Nyala strips in a creamy sauce’ was not quite as good as the previous year’s ‘Fillet of Kudu with peppercorn sauce’. We certainly did not go hungry! Good game-viewing there too, with more than enough White Rhino to satisfy even the most avid animal lover. Hluhluwe also has lots of birds, including Crested Guineafowl, which we always enjoy. Very photogenic birds they are, too.

Durban

Durban is widely considered to be the ‘fun’ capital of South Africa, especially for people who’s idea of fun is surf, sun & sand. In December and again in July, Durban’s fine beaches are literally overrun by holiday-makers from the interior, mainly of the ‘beachball & bikini’ variety, with kids in tow. Durban’s Golden Mile is a smorgasbord of hotels, restaurants, amusement parks & attractions, not to mention many, many vendors with good (cheap) trinkets & crafts. Surfing is good to excellent, there’s some pretty good fishing off-shore and if night-life’s your thing, Durban certainly has plenty of that. The best way to start a trip to Zululand is to spend a couple of days in Durban to rest up and enjoy the city’s superb beaches & many other attractions. Durban has a wide range of accommodations, literally everything from modest bed & breakfasts through Holiday Inns to the Royal Hotel on Smith Street, one of the best hotels in the entire country. The Royal Grill is Kwazulu-Natal’s most celebrated restaurant. (The Langoustines are simply the best & freshest in all of Southern Africa). From Durban it’s an easy drive to Shakaland, a Protea Hotel near Eshowe. Originally recreated for the film sets of Shaka Zulu and John Ross, Shakaland is an unusual cross-cultural centre and living museum where Zulu people pursue the customs and traditions of their forebears. Accommodation consists of thatched beehive-shaped huts, with all modern conveniences and bathroom en suite.

Driving Up the Sani Pass into Lesotho

Anybody interested in history & nature, and especially keen photographers, bird-watchers or hikers, will enjoy a trip up the Sani Pass into the Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho. The pass offers the visitor a singularly beautiful route into the Drakensberg – “…primitive, rugged, and pervaded by an atmosphere from the past”, as the Illustrated Guide to Southern Africa so aptly puts it. The trip should ideally be done over three days, spending a couple of days in Bulwer, Underberg or Himeville and one day ‘on top’ at the Sani Pass Chalet, which happens to be the highest licensed premises in all of southern Africa. On a trip in October 1994 our local guide, Robin Guy, amazed us with his encyclopedic knowledge of the area, its wildlife and its peoples. The actual drive up the pass, which may be undertaken in a 4-wheel drive vehicle only, is rather bumpy and mildly hair-raising with many tight hairpin turns. At the base of the actual pass one passes through the South African border post, so don’t forget your passport, which is essential for entry into Lesotho. On the way up, the vegetation changes with the altitude, and so does the bird-life, some of the specials being Gurney’s Sugarbird, Orangebreasted Rockjumper, Drakensberg Siskin and Lammergeier, aka Bearded Vulture.

On top, looking down over a vast expanse of the Natal Midlands, the tension from the drive quickly fades as one steps back half a century or more, encountering people who rely on donkey-carts as their primary means of transportation. In the thin mountain air – the elevation is about 9,000 feet above sea level – visibility is very good and things look larger than life. So don’t mistake a Cape Batis for a Mocking Chat and don’t be alarmed by the size of the rodents you’ll see sunning themselves on the rocks outside the rather rustic Sani Top Chalet. They’re harmless Slogett’s Ice Rats. The Sani Top chalet is very rustic, and can hardly be described as cozy, but it is the perfect base for exploring the eastern highlands of Lesotho, in the direction of Mokhotlong (‘the place of the bald-headed ibis’). At the time of our visit, there was speculation that this isolated mountain track may very well be tarred all the way down the Sani Pass, as an indirect consequence of the Lesotho Highlands water project. Hopefully it will take a while. Last year, Robin took us to a nesting site of the majestic Bearded Vulture along this track which offers a series of constantly changing vistas, each one seemingly more spectacular than its predecessor. When we finally got to the spot and started looking and listening, it was as if we were re-discovering the meaning of words such as silent, peaceful and tranquil. Just sitting there quietly with the telescopes on the birds, watching the receding rays of the lowering sun peel away layer after layer of light from the towering cliffs, we were as close to heaven as we may ever be.

In October ’95 we stayed in Robin & Bella Guy’s cottage, adjacent to their home in Underberg. Definitely an improvement on the local hotel: Bella’s cooking is superb and both she and Robin are excellent hosts, after-dinner conversation ranging from the origin of Southern African bird names to the intricacies of bee-keeping. With Robin as our guide, we again saw every one of the local specials, including (for the first time) Mountain Pipit. The Bush Blackcap could not have been placed better, and we had equally good views of Orangebreasted Rockjumper, Drakensberg Siskin and Gurney’s Sugarbird. Bearded Vultures may be rare elsewhere, but certainly not here: for almost two days we were rarely out of sight of one or more of these magnificent birds.


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By Bert Duplessis

 

 Kings Pool Camp
As is customary at most of the camps in Northern Botswana, dinner at Kings Pool Camp in the Linyanti Reserve of Northern Botwana is a communal affair, served buffet-style. Vegetarians are well catered for.

If I had any lingering doubt as to which country to recommend as the best game-viewing destination in Africa, no more. I just returned from what can only be described as a mind-blowing educational trip with Wilderness Safaris in Botswana, experiencing both in quantity and in quality an astounding array of wildlife sightings.

In just 10 days there in late May & June, my wife and I saw close on 50 lions – twice seen hunting – once for buffalo and the other time for kudu. We observed leopard on three different occasions including one with the remains of an impala in a tree and another one with a youngster frolicking alongside. African wild dogs were likewise seen three times, once just seconds after they had taken down an impala; and cheetah twice, the latter sighting of a female knocking down and ‘delivering’ an impala to her five youngsters. She patiently waited in the shade until they had their fill, before she moved in and fed herself, keeping a wary lookout as the vultures started moving in. There were many other fantastic sightings including scores of elephants, magnificent sable antelope, a martial eagle on a fresh impala kill, a ‘Giraffic Park’ scene at one of the camps with as many as 23 giraffe in one area, all staring at two cheetahs walking by; some superb night drives (including my first ever sighting of aardwolf ), etc. etc.

However I hasten to add that the Wilderness people made an even stronger impression. They were simply wonderful. Without exception, every single Wilderness Safaris employee we met at the various camps in Botswana – as well as at Matusadona Water Lodge in Zimbabwe – was terrific. They made us feel welcome right away, they were friendly, enthusiastic and knowledgeable to boot. Very professional all round.

I have always been very relaxed about sending clients halfway around the world on a Wilderness Safaris trip and my experience this year justifies every bit of confidence I have in them.

Our first stop was Victoria Falls where we spent the night at the Victoria Falls Hotel. Don’t believe a word of the reports you may have seen that the venerable old Vic Falls Hotel has seen better days. Not so. Our room – in the recently added west wing – was large and comfortable with powerful air- conditioning, a massive ball and claw style bath, cable television and a well-stocked mini-bar. Even if you’re not staying at the hotel, by all means make an effort to enjoy high tea on the terrace (served between 3 and 5 pm). You can skip lunch that day. For about $15 (for two) you get plenty of dainty cucumber and smoked salmon sandwiches (sans crust naturally), several chunky scones with strawberries and freshly whipped cream and a selection of petit fours to top it all off. High tea at the Victoria Falls Hotel comes with as much Earl Grey tea as you care to have, attentive service and one of the best views in Africa: a long, lingering shot down the Batoka (sp?) Gorge with the railway bridge over the Zambezi River at the end.

We enjoyed the table d’hote dinner at the Livingstone Room (the hotel will provide the required coat and tie for the gentlemen). Salmon tartare salad, mushroom soup, Kariba bream, Zimbabwe beef stuffed with chicken & spinach and a forgettable dessert for about $18 per person. Impeccable service and impressive setting, but rather quiet on Mondays when the live band has the night off.

Exploring the waterways
A novel way of exploring the waterways around Kings Pool. This ‘houseboat’ is used for wildlife observation and for sunset cruises.

On May 26 a friendly Botswana customs official stamped our passports at the Kazungula Road border post and in short order we were en route from Kasane’s neat little airport to Kings Pool Camp. Our 50-minute flight in one of Sefofane Air’s well-maintained Cessna Stationairs would take us alongside the flooded Chobe River for a while and then across into the Linyanti area.

Our first camp was Kings Pool where we were fortunate enough to be put up in tent # 1, the elegant honeymoon suite, a large and well-appointed tent under thatch, complete with tiled bathroom. As was the case at every Wilderness Safaris camp we visited, we received a comprehensive briefing about camp routine, activities and safety procedures. In our tent there was a guest information brochure with detailed information about aspects of the area and its wildlife, a disclaimer of liability, a general warning about the presence of wildlife in and around the camp, game drive etiquette, gratuities, bar and curios, emergencies, electricity, laundry, etc. There was also a complimentary bottle of South African wine and a bird & mammal checklist.

Kings Pool is noted for its very large elephant population, several of which we couldn’t help noticing or hearing, as they were feeding right outside and around our tent. In fact, our walk back to the main lounge for lunch took much longer than anticipated, as we had to wait for a couple of elephants to move away. Even so, the walk was pretty adventurous, as we tip-toed past one or two elephants and ducked behind some foliage or sneaked under the balustrades to stay as far away from them as possible.

From past clients I had heard many stories about how Kings Pool’s noisy and naturally cantankerous hippopotamus population had kept them sleepless at night. As if to remind us of their presence, two hippo put on quite a noisy display mating in what appeared to be fairly deep water. All during dinner later that evening we could hear them and the rest of their clan bellowing at each other. However, we slept right through the 4 am ‘hippo wake-up call’ which I had heard so much about. Another notable inhabitant of Kings Pool is crocodile, with a 3 to 4 meter (10 to 12 feet) specimen being visible upon our arrival. Guests need not be reminded that the only safe bathing at Kings Pool is in the plunge pool.

Our afternoon game drive with concession manager Angus as our guide started on a high note. Not long into the drive, we came across a wild dog pack of nine, resting up and lolling about in a loose group, a couple of the younger ones coming right up to take a look at our vehicle. Over the following few minutes their demeanor changed from relaxed and inquisitive to alert and focused as they started hunting. We followed the main group as they rambled through the bush, slowly increasing their speed to a steady trot. Soon, they were moving rapidly through fairly dense woodland, changing direction once or twice, but heading in the general direction of the floodplain. Two hyenas could also be seen, following the dogs, in the hope of a ‘free meal’, no doubt. By this time, there were two vehicles in radio contact ‘working’ the hunt, one trying to maintain visual contact with the dogs, and the other one anticipating the direction and speed of the chase. As it happened, we were in the lead towards the end. As we emerged from the tree-line and descended onto the edge of floodplain, in a cloud of dust, we came upon the wild dogs just seconds after they had brought down an impala ram. It was a scene of primeval intensity as they devoured their prey, the sound of their teeth tearing the skin and ripping at the sinews all that could be heard other than our muttered exclamations of amazement and awe. Within the space of just five minutes or so the impala was reduced to little more than backbone, skull and horns. We sat there for the longest time just taking it all in, waiting for the last light of dusk to fade away before we slowly made our way back to camp, for dinner.


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Game Drive
A game drive near Dumatau Tented Camp in the Linyanti Wildlife Reserve. In the dry months there are large concentrations of elephant and buffalo in the Linyanti area, and various predators and their prey – usually plains game such as impala or zebra – are also frequently observed. Dumatau is also good for wild dog, which is regularly seen hunting on the edges of the floodplain.

Wednesday 27 May, 1998. More wild dogs on our morning game drive today! Kings Pool was really hopping. It was the same pack we had seen the previous day, but they were several miles from the floodplain in an area of broken veld. The pregnant alpha female, which had not been seen for quite a while, was thought to have secluded herself in a new den in the area. So it was with great anticipation that we followed the dogs, holding our collective breath each time one of them would enter an aardvark or warthog hole. Several times there were false alarms, someone exclaiming that the den had been found, only to have the dogs emerge a minute or so later and amble off. On one occasion Angus checked a hole which had been ‘inspected’ by two of the dogs and was not surprised to find a warthog huddled there.

We had some work to do, so we reluctantly left the wild dogs behind and drove off to inspect Savuti Camp. This small 8-bedded tented camp on the Savuti Channel is used for some of the Jacana overland safaris, which gives the group exclusive use of the camp. We were impressed with the lay-out of this compact, intimate camp. The cozy dining and pub area is under thatch, and some of the rooms have open – three-walled – ‘bathrooms with a view’.

Elephant
Elephant at the small waterhole in front of Savuti Tented Camp. In the dry season this waterhole is used right throughout the day by various animals, sometimes several species at once.

As there had been no local rain in the area for several months, the waterhole in front of the camp was seeing more and more activity every day, especially in the afternoon, according to the camp manager. While we were there, several elephants could be observed drinking in association with zebra, impala and a troop of baboons.

Then we were off again to Dumatau Camp, Angus skillfully negotiating the open Landrover along a particularly sandy track. At all the Botswana camps open vehicles, with customized raised seats, are used on game drives. This ensures excellent visibility even if there is a full house of six guests on board. For a while, driving through fairly dense mopane woodland, we focused our attention on the birds, twice spotting the very localized and very distinctive Arnot’s Chat. The birds were quickly forgotten when we encountered a small herd of elephant, which appeared to be very nervous and stressed, probably because they had several youngsters in the group. The matriarch could be seen whisking a couple of little ones to safety, while several more elephants turned their attention to us. With their massive heads lifted high, trunks raised and ears spread wide in a threatening display, they gave us the royal send-off.

Dumatau Camp was one of our favorites. It has a great setting, built under cool and shady mangosteen trees overlooking an enormous lagoon. Our accommodation was a superb tented room with a thatched roof and a ‘regular’ hinged door, as opposed to the zipper doors, which we found mildly annyoing. As at all the other camps, the tent had hot and cold running water, a flush toilet and an indoor shower. Dumatau goes one better, though, as the room also had an additional outdoor shower, which received the thumbs-up from Kathleen.

Our afternoon game drive along the tree-line provided some excellent close up views of lions which were lying up at the base of an anthill. It was the Selinda Pride, consisting of three young males, three females and three young cubs. We marvelled at the close-up views, scrutinizing scars both old and new on the bluish-golden skin and trying to fathom the intent of the flat glare in the several sets of yellow eyes fixed on us.

From there we drove down to the Zibadianja Lagoon, where there were literally masses of elephants drinking at the waterside, one group changing places with another in what seemed like a carefully choreographed parade. More and more elephants would emerge from the trees, speeding up as they caught sight of the water. There was dust and water flying everywhere and with the sun setting in the background, it became a tableau of silhouettes against hazy, golden light. Very ‘Africa’.

We stopped for a while at a hide overlooking the source of the Savuti Channel, identifying a variety of wading birds and watching a pod of hippopotamus, to use the currently popular collective term. As Angus had predicted, one of the hippos performed a manoeuver which none of us had ever seen before: it rolled around completely from a standing position, flashing its short, stocky legs and pale pinkish belly. It was now late afternoon and the hippos were starting to stir, calling at each other in anticipation or preparation of emerging from the water for their nightly foraging. In this area the local lions had become quite adept at taking hippo as prey, and on occasion lions are observed ‘surfing’, clinging to the back of a desperate hippopotamus trying to make it back to the safety of his water home.

We were already sold on Dumatau, but there was more to come. During pre-dinner drinks around the ground-level fireplace in front of the dining room, the mellow atmosphere was rudely shattered when a kudu burst out of the bush into a clearing on our right. Wide-eyed and frantic, it stared at us for a split- second and then scrambled around the fireplace, closely pursued by a female lion. It happened so quickly that we were frozen to the spot, looking at each other in disbelief. The kudu got away, but the incident was much discussed over dinner. The main course this evening was beef fillet with pepper sauce, served with potato au gratin and zucchini. As is the custom at all the camps, dinner was announced by one of the chef’s assistants, and we were pleasantly surprised by a spontaneous exhibition of dancing and singing by a very talented group of kitchen staff.

At around 10 pm most of the guests were again assembled around the open fire. Tim and Robin were the first ones to say good night, preparing to return to tent # 3. They declined an offer from one of the guides to accompany them to their tent. “We’ll be fine, it’s not far,” said Robin as they took their flashlight and started up the path. “That’s what the last nice couple said,” the guide joked. Because of the earlier activity in camp, a guide went ahead to check the path anyway. There was a pride of nine lions not 10 meters away, busy crossing the path, the males so big they had to duck under the balustrades. Watching the lions move away we all made mental notes never to decline an escorted walk back to one’s tent at night. When we later heard that Dumatau means ‘roar of the lion’, we were not surprised.

The next morning we enjoyed a boat ride and a guided walk at Dumatau. It was a pleasant change to be out walking but as outings go, it was rather quiet. There were more hippo in the lagoon and we were glad when Angus gave them a wide berth. En route to the airport later that morning, we made a detour to check on the Selinda Pride again. This time, we had a brief look at two small cubs with them. The lions had killed a zebra the previous night.

Linyanti Tented Camp, another small 8-bedded tented camp in the concession, is nearing completion and will be ready in July. The builders have been seeing superb game around the camp, which is being constructed in an area which is well frequented area by elephant, lion and the like. Linyanti Tented Camp will also be used for the Jacana Safaris and like Savuti Camp, it will be ideal for small groups.

Fireplace at Chitabe Camp
Enjoying sundowners around the fireplace at Chitabe Camp, adjacent to the Moremi Wildlife Reserve in Northern Botswana. The entire camp, which sleeps 16 guests, is raised off the ground on a teak deck, with walkways leading to the various rooms.

The next morning we flew to Chitabe Camp, which is situated on a beautiful island in the Okavango Delta, in a stand of ancient ebony, leadwood and sausage trees. Chitabe has an impressive layout, the entire 16-bedded camp being built on a raised teak deck, with linking walkways. This is especially appealing to first time visitors to Botswana and would be a good choice for anyone concerned about the type of ‘camp action’ we experienced in Dumatau. Our afternoon game drive was rather quiet until we came upon a pack of 14 wild dogs, which had not been seen in the previous couple of weeks. The alpha female was visibly pregnant. We observed them for as long as we could, alerting the other two vehicles in the area, but the dogs moved off before anyone else saw them. It was now dark and using a powerful spotlight, our guide found Honeybadger, Civet, Bushbaby and Largespotted Genet, in addition to elephant and giraffe.

We slept in at Chitabe the next morning, before visiting the nearby 8-bedded Chitabe Trails Camp, which is ideal for groups preferring an even smaller camp. It is identical to Chitabe in terms of style and decor, but is on the ground. We thought it was cute: compact and intimate, with leopards frequently seen around camp. A new plunge pool is being installed at Chitabe Trails and it will be ready by spring.

Then it was on to Jedibe Island Camp in the heart of the Okavango Delta. Our landing at the Jedibe airstrip, close to the village of Jao, was the only one during our entire trip that was not strictly routine, as the pilot had to go around in order to avoid a child chasing a dog across the runway. Sefofane Air, the company who flew us around Northern Botswana, was most impressive: timely and safety-conscious with pilots whose professional demeanor belied their youthful appearance. Sefofane’s Cessna Stationairs all looked and felt like they were well maintained.

Returning to camp
Returning to camp after an afternoon outing on the waterways around Jedibe Island Camp. Jedibe is a typical ‘deep water’ camp in the heart of the permanent swamp. As there are no vehicles on the camp, activities are limited to mokoro outings, boating, fishing and walking on the islands.

At the airstrip we were picked up by motor boat for the 8-minute ride to this lovely water camp. The annual flood was cresting and water levels were very high, the jetty from the boats to the camp being almost under water. All the floodplains around the back of the camp had filled up making some new and interesting routes for the mokoro rides. Game in this area had been picking up and leopard, wild dogs and elephants were being seen. Even so, Jedibe is a camp which one visits for the water and everything associated with it. One only needs to stand in the lounge, looking out towards the jetty, to appreciate this. To the left, suspended over the bar, is an old mokoro. To the right is a huge new fishtank with indigenous fish such as Johnston’s Topminnow, Striped Robber, Southern Mouthbrooder, and Dashtail Barb. The Delta supports a great diversity of freshwater fishes, some 60 species having been recorded.

Our afternoon mokoro ride was on the quiet side, with rather too many mosquitoes. The birdlife in the area is fantastic, however, and we ticked off several interesting species such as Malachite and Giant Kingfisher, African and Lesser Jacana, Brown Firefinch and Copperytailed Coucal. We also visited the nearby village of Jao, where there were some interesting huts, lots of kids with dusty faces, friendly dogs, and rather expensive woven baskets. Kathleen added a new mammal to her life-list on the way back to camp – Spottednecked Otter.

relaxing in a hammock
Jedibe is a camp where relaxing in a hammock seems like the natural thing to do.

On the morning of May 30, we were up early, experiencing the best dawn chorus of the trip. Heuglin’s Robin, Swamp Boubou, Hartlaub’s Babbler and several other bird species tried to outdo each other in welcoming the new day. By 0730, fortified with some coffee, we were enjoying a boat ride with Mark and George to Lizard Island. The scenery could not have been more beautiful. In the soft morning light all we could see were tree-fringed islands, beds of papyrus, and lagoons dotted with waterlilies. The Delta is always picture- pretty, and all the more so in winter when the color mosaic of brown, green, blue and gold is at its most impressive. There is much to be said for the ‘big game’ camps, but a couple of days at Jedibe can do the soul a lot of good. Relaxing in this watery wilderness is a very soothing experience. In a camp where hammocks are part of the furniture, tranquility is just a fishing trip away. (To be continued).


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En route to a fishing spot on the waterways around Vumbura Camp. Tigerfish and Nembwe, a type of bream, as well as African Pike, may be caught with conventional rod and reel, supplied by the camp. Fly-fishermen must bring their own rods – and expertise.

Saturday May 30, 1998
So what does one do on a Botswana safari other than game drives, walks, mokoro outings, birding, boating trips and the like? Eat of course! Brunch at Jedibe this morning was typical of the wholesome, delicious food we enjoyed at all the camps: eggs to order (I prefer mine scrambled but you can have yours pretty much any way other than cholesterol-free), bacon, toast, freshly baked herb bread, vegetable quiche, vegetable breyani, yellow rice, fresh fruit, yoghurt and more. Brunch items at some of the other camps included potato salad, a squash-based ratatouille, fruit salad, muffins and even bobotie, a spicy baked ground lamb dish of Malay origin.

Our afternoon flight to Vumbura Camp was just a short hop by air, but by now we had practically reached the end of the line. The Okavango Delta is remote, and in a camp such as Vumbura the sense of being away from it all, really hits home. This is about as far as you can go, and it shows: few roads, no other vehicles, no permanent structures of any kind. The Vumbura area, which is close to the Okavango’s outermost dry sandveld, consists of open floodplain with ribbons of riverine vegetation, patched with woodland-covered islands. From the air, we could see that there were quite a few elephant around, and our afternoon game drive with Quinton took us very close to a beautiful herd of Sable antelope. As antelopes go, Sable is probably the handsomest of them all, with Gemsbok (Oryx) a close second, I would think. There was one male in the herd which had a simply magnificent pair of horns, swept back almost to the point of absurdity. A bit later in the afternoon, just as the sun was setting, we came across a good-sized herd of buffalo, partially obscured in their own dust-cloud. Surely there could not have been a better setting for sundowners: just us and the buffalo, dust and silence until a few pesky elephants crashed the party and moved across our line of sight, passing right in front of the setting sun. There was also a report of a sighting of two cheetah, but we weren’t close enough to pursue them.

Vumbura Camp has lots of character, with a cosy dining room and pub area under thatch in a stand of large trees. We were shown to our well appointed tent, which had the best set-up of any of the camps, with the beds facing towards the entrance of the tent, complete with his and her basins, a large mirror, discreetly placed toilet and shower en suite.

On foot in the Duba Plains area. One of the advantages of staying at a camp which is located in a private concession is that walking and night drives are allowed.

Something which we had first noticed in Jedibe, and was to experience at all the other camps in the floodplains, was the sense of excitement which grips the Okavango Delta every year in early winter. It is a refrain which can be heard at every camp: ‘The flood is coming, the flood is coming!’ No conversation was complete without at least one reference to the water: “Wow, it’s really pumping now”; or “By tomorrow/next week/next month we won’t be able to use that road”, or “There will be water in front of camp right up to here ” and so on. We were treated to stories of floods anticipated, floods remembered, embellished and forgotten. Great floods, average floods, late, early or just in time. All very entertaining and stimulating. If you’re just thinking about your first trip to the Okavango Delta, by all means plan it to coincide with the annual flood. One guest at Vumbura got so into the whole thing that he was seen with video-camera in hand, recording a close-up view of the slow trickle of clean water pushing into the dusty grassy plain in front of camp. Not exactly spell-binding footage, if you ask me . . .

Sunday May 31
This morning I had to be persuaded to go fishing. Given the choice, I would rather have gone after some more buffalo on a game drive… As it turned out, the one time that I was reluctant to do something turned into one of the most vivid memories of all. On the drive out to the boat launch area we enjoyed good sightings of Honey Badger, numerous Red Lechwe, some Tsessebe and also Wildebeest. Making ourselves comfortable in an aluminum skiff with a shallow draft outboard motor, we chugged and churned through some narrow channels and reed-lined backwaters, feeling very much the explorer as we ducked under overhanging reeds and brushed off spiderwebs. Soon enough, we found ourselves in a small, picturesque lagoon where we tied up the boat and started fishing. The first strike came within seconds of an artificial lure hitting the surface of the cool, crystal clear water, and it was non-stop action from then on. Over the next hour or so the four of us caught and released what must have been 40 or more African Pike and a few Nembwe. Not many were keeper-size but they were not shy to go after our spinners. Great fun.

Enjoying a surprise ‘bush dinner’ at Duba Plains.

By early afternoon we were 500 feet up in the air, looking down upon the amazing sight of the flood pushing its silvery fingers further and further into the Delta. We were on our way to Duba Plains, a scant 7 minutes or so by air from Vumbura, but an arduous trip by vehicle, I am told. Duba Plains Camp, which was closed at the end of 1997 and completely rebuilt, is now one of the most stunning camps in the entire Okavango Delta. This small camp, which sleeps only ten guests, has tons of charm and offers guests the complete Okavango Delta experience, with day and night game-drives, walking and mokoro outings. We loved the design of the dining area and bar, which was truly integrated into the natural environment, with existing tree stumps being used very creatively. We were accompanied to our tent by a semi-tame African wild cat, who took an instant liking to Kathleen. We didn’t mind, in fact we were thrilled to have an opportunity to get such a close-up look at a rarely seen small cat. The resident tree squirrels did mind. They were practically falling out of the trees, chattering and screeching in an attempt to alert each other to the danger posed by the cat, semi-tame or not. If I didn’t know any better, I would have sworn I saw them pointing.

Our afternoon drive started on a promising note when we spotted what would turn out to be our only Wattled Cranes of the trip. Striking and unmistakeable as ever, they strutted around the edge of the incoming water, keeping a wary eye on us. Wattled Crane are extemely sensitive to any disturbance while nesting, which has resulted in these birds practically disappearing from much of their former range in Southern Africa, the Okavango Delta being a notable exception. I had told our guide, Graham, that I wanted to take some photographs of buffalo, so he drove in the direction of a herd of more than a thousand buffalo which had been seen and photographed from the air the previous day. Somehow – the terrain is very flat – we missed the herd of buffalo, finding instead a thousand mosquitoes and for a while there, things looked a bit grim. The sighting of a Denham’s Bustard, a bird rarely seen in these parts, brightened the mood somewhat. Almost immediately after our stop for sundowners, the tenor of the drive changed completely and within a couple of hours it had turned into one of the best night-drives we had ever experienced. One after the other we started seeing some of the most elusive nocturnal animals, including Bateared Fox, Side-striped Jackal, Aardwolf, Civet, Porcupine, and African wild cat. We could not believe our luck, and it more than made up for the disappointment with the buffalo. At one stage a couple of very vocal Hyenas ambled past us and Graham did not hesitate for a second, swinging the Land Rover around and bouncing off after the fast disappearing animals. When we finally caught up with them, they had disappeared into a thicket, and all we could do was to sit and wait on its edge, trying to imagine what was happening in there. The unearthly whoops, growls, giggles and yells emanating from the bush were fodder for the imagination. The loud alarm snorts and distress calls of a buffalo completed the picture. A solitary buffalo must have been fighting off several hungry hyenas and we expected the bloodied animal to come crashing out of the undergrowth at any moment. Unfortunately, the encounter would remain an imaginary one for us as we had to leave the animals in the bush. Pangs of hunger affect not only hyenas – we had our own dinner appointment!

Fittingly, the day was capped with a surprise bush dinner, the first one we had ever experienced. In a clearing in the bush camp manager Britt and her team, ably assisted by Diana, had set an elegant table under the stars, lanterns adoring the scene. There was a chill in the air but a hearty beef stew and a shovel-full of glowing coals under the seats of our canvas chairs warmed us up nicely. It was a superb conclusion to a perfect day in Botswana.

Monday June 1
Our morning drive was a classic and probably the best single game drive any of us had ever experienced. Right off the bat we found the herd of several hundred buffalo which which had eluded us the previous afternoon. In a cloud of dust we saw them, bunched up in defensive posture. Around a corner we came across a lioness, then more lions, a total of three adult females, two young juveniles and two youngsters. A few older buffalo bulls broke off from the herd, wheeled around and approached the lions, challenging them with heads raised high, shiny noses reflecting the light. The lions retreated, clearly extremely wary of the massive horns. In turn, the greater part of the buffalo herd also decamped, thrashing noisily through the water. As we came closer, a lioness clambered onto a stump and looked back at us, making for one of the best photo opportunities of the entire trip. A couple of the younger lions then started ‘playing with their food’, to use Graham’s expression. They were making repeated mock charges, running after the retreating buffalo, only to scamper away as the buffalo swung around and came after them with tails arched, tossing their heads as if to draw attention to the threat posed by their horns. Just when we thought it was all over, two old buffalo bulls approached from the other direction, and the lions immediately turned their attention toward the isolated animals, which presented an easier target than the tightly bunched herd. The lions started stalking their quarry and we were anticipating a full-blown ambush when one of the younger lions showed itself prematurely. The cantering buffalo broke into a full speed run, showing their awesome strength by literally blasting through some shallow water, and charging off into the distance. The lions quickly broke off their half- hearted pursuit. The show was over, at least for the day.


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Giraffe on the plains of Mombo
Giraffe on the plains of Mombo. It is not unusual to encounter groups of up to 10 or more giraffe in one area.

Monday June 1, 1998
Our last two nights in Botswana were to be spent at Mombo, Wilderness Safaris’ flagship camp on the northern tip of Chief’s Island, in the Moremi Wildlife Reserve. We had heard so much about Mombo, and had looked forward to the visit for so long that disappointment was a distinct possibility. Would Mombo live up to its reputation? Were our expectations too high? Would we find cheetah and dared we hope for a sighting of that most elusive of African cats, a leopard? We’d been in Botswana for a week now and had still not seen a spotted cat… All these thoughts and more were tumbling through our minds as our Sefofane pilot, Neville, adjusted the trim and banked the Cessna gently on the final approach to the Mombo airstrip, a little after 2pm.

We need not have worried. Our duffel bags were still being retrieved from the small luggage pod under the aircraft when Garth, who had come to pick us up, mentioned that a Martial Eagle had just taken down a young impala, not far from camp. We were nodding our heads the moment he suggested an unscheduled midday game drive to go and take a look. The sight which greeted us was vintage Mombo: a magnificent adult Martial Eagle was perched on its freshly killed prey, wings spread open to obscure its meal from inquisitive airborne eyes. The Martial, which is Africa’s largest eagle, is a powerful-looking, long-legged bird with a markedly broad, flat head, and penetrating yellow eyes. Alternately glaring at us and at the steadily growing number of vultures which were settling in the open field a respectful distance away, the bird started tearing chunks out of the impala, the fresh blood turning its black bill a vicious red. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime sighting for all of us and I was not the only one shooting roll after roll of film, trying to capture the essence of this most rare event. Even the experienced Mombo guides had never seen anything like this before.

Around 4 that afternoon we revisited the scene. The eagle was nowhere to be seen. As our guide – Hayden – had predicted, the vultures had by now appropriated the impala and were scuffling over the remains. It was a good opportunity to brush up on vulture identification as there were four species cheek by jowl: a few massive Lappetfaced, some Whiteheaded, a solitary Hooded on the edge of the action, and a mass of Whitebacked vultures, all fighting and pushing like a bunch of soccer hooligans run amok.

From there we went off in search of cheetah. Hayden was on a roll and we found our quarry not far away, lying down in the shadow of a tree. There were two of them – the famous ‘Steroid Boys’, brother cheetahs who were improving their odds for survival by living and hunting in a coalition. The brothers were notorious for their size – hence the nick-name – and for taking down lion-sized prey such as adult zebra. They were literally lolling around, affectionately cleaning each other, before eventually ambling off. Within minutes, the two cheetahs were seemingly surrounded by giraffe, and at one stage we counted no less than 23 of the long-necked beasts, all staring intently at the cheetahs. Nonplussed, the cheetahs walked between them and settled on an anthill. After watching them for a while, we drove off to a nearby sighting of a hyena with two young, both suckling. Re-entering the scene from stage left, so to speak, the cheetahs then walked straight towards the bush behind which the hyenas were lying. From our vantage point we could see both sets of animals, who were unaware of each other’s presence. We were holding our breaths, anticipating a confrontation, but as soon as they spotted the hyenas, the cheetahs halted in their tracks, changed course, and disappeared into the bush. Steroid Boys or not, they weren’t at all keen to take on a hyena.

By radio, Hayden was then informed of a sighting of a leopard towards which we drove. In the fast disappearing light we had a brief look at our first leopard of the trip; a large male with a pronounced limp, no less magnificent an animal for it. Despite his physical imperfection ‘Limpy’, who had apparently come off second best in an altercation with a lion as a youngster, was the dominant male in the territory. Mentally, we marked off the leopard sighting with ‘better view desired’ in brackets. We had no reason for complaints though: the end of our first half day at Mombo and we had nailed both leopard and cheetah. It simply doesn’t get any better than this, we thought.

Time for tea at Mombo
Almost time for tea at Mombo: this corner of the deck in front of the dining room and bar complex is where early morning breakfast and afternoon tea are served, just before game drives.

Then it was back to camp. In comparison with Wilderness Safaris’ fabulous new camps elsewhere in Northern Botswana, the lay-out and design of Mombo, and the tents themselves are not quite up to par. The reason for this is that Mombo is an old style tented camp which cannot be changed in any way until Wilderness Safaris enter into a new lease period in 1999. Moremi park regulations do not allow them to make any changes until then. So, for the time being, visitors to Mombo will have to ‘endure’ the old-fashioned type tents, the fact that some tents are in line and relatively close to each other, and the inconvenience of unzipping the main tent to get to the bathrooms, which abut directly onto the tents. As long as you don’t expect the same superb accommodations offered at the newer camps, you won’t be disappointed. Mombo is a wonderful area with a comfortable rustic tented camp which offers good game-viewing year round.

Dinner on this day was particularly festive, with everyone in a good mood after such an eventful day. As is the practice at all the camps, the ‘menu announcer’ decided whether ladies or gents would have first shot at the buffet table. The men struck out again – I was now batting about .300 after six nights, the score being ladies 4, men 2. Anyway, the food was worth waiting for – roast fillet of beef, squash, broccoli with cheese sauce, potato au gratin, a lovely mixed salad and a superb lemon meringue pie. For those that care to, white and red complimentary table wine is served with the meal.

Tuesday June 2
Our morning game drive with Hayden was another winner. Winding our way through some spectacular scenery, in an area where the new water was slowly spreading over the dry floodplains, we bumped into two stunning male lions walking in a westerly direction on the floodplain. Like the two cheetahs which we had seen the previous day, they were also brothers and likewise the dominant males in a huge territory. About 10 years old , the two full-maned lions were just a year or so past their prime. Hayden referred to them as “Goss’ Boys” after Richard Goss, a well-known film maker. At one stage the two of them took a brief respite and then jumped over a stream, in order to avoid the incoming floodwaters. Even though we had advance warning, we still managed to fluff the photograph…

Elephant at Mombo Camp
Elephant at Mombo Camp. In addition to the big cats, for which Mombo is rightly famous, most of the other big game species are also present on Chief’s Island, on which it is located.

A little further on Hayden noticed a drag mark across the road, and we swung off to the left, following it in one direction around some low bushes and stumps in a lightly wooded area. The drag trail ended at the spot where the kill had obviously been made some time the previous night, as the contents of the stomach of an impala (or perhaps some other antelope) were right there on the ground. In case you were wondering, this consisted of a lump of moist, green, partially digested foliage.

We promptly turned around and followed the trail to the other end, back across the road, into more dense woodland with many fairly big trees. Again the drag marks ended, this time near a sausage tree. An observant guest spotted the remains of the impala in the tree, tucked into a main fork branch slanted at about 45-degrees. Almost immediately afterwards, Hayden spotted the leopard: it was our friend Limpy, partially hidden inside a bush, busy devouring a choice part of the impala. We watched him for a while and then heard via radio about a cheetah kill nearby. Off we went, winding our way along a narrow track, occasionally having to duck to avoid overhanging – thorny – branches.

On arriving at the scene, we witnessed an amazing sight of five young cheetah – about 4 months old – trying to overpower and bring down an adult impala. They were pulling it in all different directions, trying to take a chunk out of it at the same time. The adult female cheetah then grabbed the hapless animal by the throat and put it out of its misery. The young ones started feeding ferociously, the mother retreating to a shady spot under a nearby tree. For the next 40 minutes to an hour, we watched the young cheetah gorging themselves on fresh impala. Occasionally they would lift their heads, survey their surroundings, or they would get up and change places. Every now and then one would look straight at us for a moment or two, its bloody muzzle reflecting the morning light.

When some Whitebacked vultures, which had been sitting in a tree a short distance off, starting flopping down onto the ground and moving in, the adult female also started eating. One by one the young cheetahs, their rounded bellies indicative of their satiety, left the carcass and flopped down into the shade. We took our fill of photographs, saved the memories in the ‘just another glorious day at Mombo’ folder of our brains, and called it a morning.

Brunch was a little bit late, not that it mattered. After the kind of morning we had, food was the last thing on our mind. A walk-by at the buffet table soon changed that: bobotie, aubergine with tomatoes, chicken crepes with cheese sauce, omelettes to order (any combination of ham, cheese, tomato & mushroom), fresh fruit, toast, coffee… We tucked in.

For once, Kathleen and I had an opportunity for an early afternoon siesta, which we sorely needed by now. The one-day-here, next-day-there pace was starting to show, and combined with the very early mornings, we were starting to drag a little bit. If I had my druthers, I would spend three nights at any one camp, rather than just two. Slowing down the pace improves the entire experience: less stress, fewer flights, more opportunities to explore a particular area a bit better, and enough time to participate in all the activities offered at the camp. We had a ways to go on this day yet. At 3:30 it was time for tea or coffee, with cake, quiche and salad on the side. As if we needed another meal…

Barely into our afternoon game drive we had some nice close-up views of a female lion who had killed a young buffalo and had dragged it into a nearby bush. We were so close that we could see the flies she was trying to swat away from her muzzle, grimacing and squinting in the process.

From there, Hayden headed towards the floodplain, intending to take us back to the scene of the cheetah kill. En route, we stopped to enjoy a lovely view of the incoming flood. I made one of my favorite images right there. It was a typical Okavango Delta scene: two colorful Saddlebilled storks close by, a large group of lechwe splashing around in mid-distance, and a lush green fringe of palms and other vegetation in the background.

Serenity is not exactly part of the Mombo experience. None of us were surprised when the radio crackled with news of yet another leopard sighting, this time a female with two young, a daughter of about 18 months, and a small cub of about 4 months. When we reached them, they were close together in a relatively densely wooded area, the playful cub skulking around and peering at us from behind a tree stump. Nervous impala were snorting their disapproval from all directions, and when yet another leopard, a male, appeared on the scene, the tension was palpable. The sub-adult female – which was possibly in oestrus – quickly disappeared, following the male into very thick brush.

For the next half hour or so, we followed the mother and baby leopard as they softly padded their way through the bush. The cub would occasionally jump over obstacles – real and imagined, or dash up a tree only to come tumbling down clumsily. Once, the cub used its mother as a makeshift springboard, darting up from behind, bouncing once and plowing into the underbrush rather unsteadily. By this time, we were stationary, the engine had been switched off and we were enjoying our sundowners in silence, just enjoying the moment. The cameras had been put away, and it was too dark to use binoculars. Perhaps this absence of movement or activity in the vehicle helped to relax the cub even more, as it now approached very close to the Landrover, staring at us intently, its cute little face a mix of curiosity and audacity. A prince of stealth in the making, to be sure.


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At 0945 on a Wednesday morning in June 1998, our Sefofane pilot Neville glanced back at us over his right shoulder, adjusted the throttle of the little Cessna 206 to the maximum setting, released the brake and off we went in dust-blower fashion, bouncing along for a very long minute or so, before the laws of aerodynamics mercifully kicked in and we were airborne. As if someone had flipped the tension switch, we immediately relaxed, peering down at the wonderful mosaic of water, islands, clumps of palm trees, patches of riverine bush and open plains which makes the Mombo area such an animal paradise. We would never forget our stay there.

Our day would be rather typical of a ‘travel day’ in northern Botswana and Zimbabwe. A half hour by air to Kasane Airport, one and a half hours by road to Victoria Falls, crossing the Zimbabwe border in the process, followed by an uneventful commercial flight on Air Zimbabwe to Kariba, via Hwange. We touched down at Kariba by 330PM, repacked our stuff into a smaller bag and boarded yet another small plane for a 30-minute scenic flight to the Tashinga airstrip at Matusadona. From there it was a short 7-minute drive by open Land Rover to the edge of the water, followed by a 15-minute boat ride to Matusadona Water Lodge.

Kathleen had her doubts about this camp, but she started changing her mind, practically as soon as we got there. First impressions were good: the camp had been recently updated and the blue and white decor was quite striking. For once, the camp briefing – presented by Tracy in a crisp and forthright manner – did not include references to animals strolling through camp! She did mention crocodiles, but this being mid-winter, we did not need much incentive to stay out of the water. The ‘mother ship’, which houses the central bar, lounge and dining room, was a real hit with us (and the other guests in camp at the time) and we spent several hours there simply relaxing and chatting away. Guests commute between this unit and their rooms either by canoe or the camp motorboat. We tried both: a canoe when we arrived and the pontoon boat to get back to the mother ship, a couple of hours later, for dinner. By that time our ears had picked up the unmistakable throaty, resonant grunts of hippo. Sound travels incredibly well over water, and the hippo might have been miles away, but we weren’t about to take any chances.

Matusadona Water Lodge and its practically identical sister lodge Water Wilderness both have accommodation for a maximum of 8 guests in four tastefully decorated twin-bedded chalets, each with en-suite toilet and shower. Our room had a very comfortable double bed. Each of the floating rooms has its own cool verandah complete with table and chairs. We briefly tried our luck for some of Kariba’s legendary bream, but for one reason or another they flatly ignored our proffered bait, some local earthworms. It was probably just as well that we did not catch a fish, as it might have distracted our attention from one of the most glorious sunsets which we had ever seen. The sun appeared to be drowning right in Lake Kariba, filling the air with an almost pure pink glow and creating the perfect backdrop for the skeletal remains of long dead leadwood trees. Of the thousands of trees which had perished here in the late 1950’s, when the water started to rise upon completion of the dam wall, the stumps of the leadwoods are all that remain.

With the good rains inland earlier in 1998, Lake Kariba had risen by over four meters and many of the grassy plains which used to line the shores of the lake were under water. The level of the water was not that much below full capacity, and we were told that the sluice gates may have to be opened if they had another good rainy season.

Matusadona Water Lodge has to be amongst the most underrated camps in Zimbabwe. With the new floating chalets, the new decor and its wonderfully secluded site within Matusadona, there are few other camps to rival it. Wilderness Safaris have a superb couple running the camp, Clive and Tracy Meakin. Clive is a full pro guide who did his training at Chikwenya. Tracy complements Clive and they run a great operation. The food was delicious and the range of activities on offer make the place an exciting and interesting one to visit.

The real highlight here is the game viewing – and the night sounds! One does not have to travel anywhere to get to the best game viewing area in Matusadona. You’re already there! On a boat trip, we had some of our best views ever of elephant, marveling at the sight of elephants feeding ‘under water’… Two or three of them were practically completely submerged, rooting around for a type of water plant that obviously appeals to them. On emerging from the water, the ‘clean’ wet elephants appeared to be almost pitch black, their tusks almost blindingly white.

Colin Bell, who visited Matusadona Water Lodge a few weeks earlier, also enjoyed great game-viewing: We had buffalo, lion and elephant around camp! We did not want to sleep at night with the night sounds echoing around the bay where the camp is moored. Then the lions started up in stereo and we could not sleep. It was one of the loudest lion nights I have ever experienced. Their calls from all sides came barreling across the waters. Next morning we found their tracks right along the shoreline.

All too soon we had to bid Zimbabwe goodbye, going on to South Africa for our last stay at a game reserve, the famed MalaMala Main Camp adjacent to Kruger Park. Much has been written and said about MalaMala and we wondered whether it would live up to our expectations, especially following hot on the heels of such as wonderful trip to Botswana and Zimbabwe.

There was no reason to worry. From the moment we were met at reception, it was evident that MalaMala was a thoroughly professional, exceedingly well-run operation. Everything was done smoothly and seamlessly, just as one would expect at a deluxe hotel. Our room itself – Suite #6 – was almost too luxurious for us, but it is the kind of luxury we can get used to in a hurry, with air-conditioning, his and hers bathrooms (one with a bath, the other with a shower), heated towel rails, a telephone, a separate lounge, and a fully-stocked mini-bar. We arrived right at lunch-time, which was served alfresco on the verandah. The food was superb: elegantly presented both at lunch and at the very enjoyable outdoor Boma dinner, which MalaMala does better than anybody else.

The game-viewing and the guiding at MalaMala can only be described as world-class. Our guide Leon and tracker John made a superb, if unlikely team. Leon, who has a degree in zoology, was the perfect host, urbane and gracious, always checking on our well-being. John, the Shangaan tracker, whose father had also been a tracker, didn’t miss a thing. With his amazing eyesight he saw things which we could only make out with binoculars. On our very first game drive that afternoon, we found ourselves – in an open game-viewing vehicle – right in the midst of a massive herd of buffalo, all very relaxed and allowing us to observe and photograph the finest of details. Soon after, we came across a pride of 6 lions, again having the opportunity to observe them closely. Initially, they were just resting up but our eyes soon locked onto a powerful big maned male as he walked right by the vehicle, acknowledging our presence with just a flicker of a disdainful glance. The next day, we had two different leopard sightings, first following two female leopards on the hunt, and then running into another young male drinking at the river, close to camp. Add to that some very relaxed elephant herds and a solitary white rhino, and voila, the ‘Big Five’. We duly received our certificates, putting us into some pretty select company. There are people who make light of MalaMala’s ‘Big Five’ focus, but let’s face it, people do not come to Africa just to see termite mounds or dung beetles. On the way out back to Skukuza Airport – but still on the MalaMala property – we had an excellent sighting of a cheetah, sitting right by the side of the road. If we didn’t have a plane to catch we might have spent more time there…

MalaMala is without equal in terms of ‘delivering’ a consistent, quality experience all-round, from its game-viewing, which benefits from its extensive river footage, drawing large numbers of mammals onto the property, to its superior hospitality and food, resulting in numerous awards over the years. The reason for MalaMala’s success? The personal touch, as embodied by Michael and Norma Rattray and their great staff. The first person we saw as we drove onto the property was Mr. Rattray himself, inspecting one of the roads. Later that evening, he came over to our table and inquired about our well-being. And it was obvious that Mrs. Rattray was treated with great respect by all the staff members. We look forward to a return visit to the property to have a look at the new Harry’s Camp.

The last couple of days of our trip was spent in Cape Town.

Bert du Plessis
Houston


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August 2000


A very confiding Ring-tailed lemur at Berenty. These animals are no longer fed, but some of them are extremely tame.

After my first short visit to Madagascar in July 2000 I’d have to say I found it to be a truly strange and wonderful yet mildly maddening country, that is definitely not for everybody. Strange? Absolutely. Madagascar is often associated with Africa, having split off the African mainland some 165 million years ago, yet it is very unlike Africa in almost every way. Not even once did I feel like I was in Africa, while in Madagascar. To the contrary, I might as well have been in an Asian country, judging by the facial features of the people and the many rice paddies which are tucked away into the valleys and hillsides like an Impressionist version of a patchwork quilt. Or perhaps it could have been some hidden corner of France, where time had stood still, the roads had not been worked on for 20 years, but everybody drives their Peugeots and Renaults in typical Gallic fashion, using their horns to squeeze through impossibly tight spots and generally paying scant attention to ‘no entry’ or ‘do not overtake’ signs, happily at a fairly sedate pace.

Wonderful? Undoubtedly. I am not a great monkey fan, and I generally consider the few African monkey species which I have seen, especially the cheeky Vervet monkeys, to be a bit obnoxious. By contrast, Madagascar’s lemurs are stunning. It took me all of 15 seconds to fall in love with the first species of lemur I had a good look at, namely the Ring-tailed Lemur, at Berenty. But more about that later. The same was true of the birds. On my last two visits to Botswana I had to work really hard to come up with a new ‘life’ bird or two. So what an absolute pleasure it was to be in a country where I was seeing not just new birds all the time, but several entirely new families of birds, most of which are found only in Madagascar! It is not fair to have them at the bottom of my ‘wonderful’ list, but the Malagasy people – especially the children – were equally fascinating. We just simply did not have enough time to enjoy the many cultural offerings which Madagascar no doubt has in abundance.

Mildly maddening? Most assuredly. On the day of our departure from Ivato Airport in Tana, by way of example, we had checked our luggage and received our boarding passes for the flight back to Johannesburg. Which, by the way, was no mean feat. Having stood in a poor excuse for a line for an extraordinarily long time, we had to produce our passports to various persons at least four or five times, and we were even asked if we had anything to declare upon leaving the country! We’re used to getting this question asked on arrival somewhere, but on departure? Go figure. In any event, some 20 minutes after the flight to Johannesburg was supposed to have departed, a blunt announcement was made that the flight would be delayed, because…the airport is now closed. Down came the shutters on the coffee kiosk, a split second before the blinds dropped in front of the duty free shop. In the time it took to utter a four-letter word, every single Air Mad employee had decamped. So there we were, stuck in a dingy departure lounge with about 234 smokers and nowhere to go. For the next 90 minutes, our emotions ranged from slightly bemused to exceedingly annoyed when it became clear that the reason for the abrupt airport closure was the not-so-imminent arrival of the president of Madagascar, M. Ratsiraka, on the Air Mad flight from Paris. Our flight could have been long gone by the time ‘his’ ‘plane actually landed, but alas it was not to be. So we were treated to more pomp and circumstance than we had collectively seen in a lifetime, with much playing of shiny instruments, rolling out of long red carpets, serial saluting and handing over of elaborate bouquets of flowers as Madagascar’s first couple arrived safely back in lovely Tana.

Those of you who have spent some time in Madagascar will know that ‘lovely Tana’ is an oxymoron, and used very much tongue-in-cheek here. Perhaps Mr. and Mrs. Ratsiraka really needed lots of flowers and many ‘so nice to see you’s’ from the gathered dignitaries at the airport, to prepare them for their return to ‘lovely’ Tana. Which is part of the reason why I contend that Madagascar is not for everybody. Maybe we just did not spend enough time in Tana to find its redeeming features, although I am inclined to think that I might have liked it even less had I stayed longer. A bit more about Tana later.


Lemur ‘safari’ in the rainforest at Perinet, in eastern Madagascar.

Before I lose every one of my readers with tales of gloom, let me hasten to add that the other two areas of Madagascar which we visited, namely Berenty Private Reserve in the south and the Perinet rainforest in the east, were superb. Admittedly our room at Berenty was not the best one we had ever stayed in, and it could have done with some refurbishment. The walls were bare, the towels were threadbare, there was nowhere to unpack or hang anything, the toilet had a tricky seat and the shower head was suspect. To be fair, we were offered a much nicer bungalow with all of those things and more, but its solar water heating system was not functioning too well. It gets cold at night in July, even in the south, so we opted for the room with a hot shower and no pictures on the wall.

One had only to step outside, however, to come face to face with the many reasons to visit Madagascar, and to shrug off its many imperfections. Early on our first morning at Berenty, we made our way to the open-sided breakfast ‘bar’ area, a little ways down the sandy track which runs between the older research bungalows and the newer tourist bungalows. The mediocre coffee, stale French bread without butter, a bit of jam, good local honey and so-so pound cake stretched the definition even of ‘Continental’ breakfast. But no matter. The morning lemur show more than compensated for the food. I had hardly taken my seat, when I spotted a small group of Ring-tailed Lemurs ambling over and gracefully leaping onto some empty chairs, so close that I couldn’t get their distinctive tails into a photograph. For a minute or so several lemurs looked straight at me, their intent little faces and piercing red eyes practically imploring me to share my rations. In earlier years, lemurs at Berenty had been fed, and I guess some of them still fondly recall their free-loading days. They were never pushy though. Unlike monkeys or baboons, which can act like real rogues when they become habituated, the lemurs politely kept their distance.

I had many other opportunities to observe various species of lemurs over the next few days. Following a group of Ring-tailed Lemurs at Berenty early one evening, I sometimes almost felt as if I were part of the troop, as they completely ignored my presence and carried on feeding, picking and chewing away at choice bits of flowers on the edge of the forest, sometimes just a couple of feet from me, slowly making their way on the ground from one spot to the next, the little ones giving me a wary look every now and then. Nice as the Ringtails were, my favorites at Berenty were definitely the Verreaux’s Sifaka, arguably the most handsome of all the lemurs. I will never forget their apparently effortless, yet prodigiously acrobatic leaps from branch to branch. As powerful and athletic as they appeared when making these leaps, they were graceful and almost dainty when crossing an open space in weird sideways ballet-like dance steps.

Berenty is Madagascar’s best known reserve, because its large populations of sub-desert lemurs (Ring-tailed, Verreaux’ sifaka and brown lemur) have been the focus of many television documentaries and books. The brown lemurs are very common at Berenty, and their unmistakable pig-like grunting contact calls can be heard just about everywhere. I was very impressed with the gallery forest and the beautiful trees of Berenty, as well as with the great views over the Mandrare River. The wide roads and well-maintained trails made getting around easy and effortless. Late one morning Olivier took us to the noisy colony of ‘flying foxes’, some 400 to 500 large fruit bats roosting in a tall Tamarind tree. Seemingly constantly embroiled in territorial disputes, they are never quiet during the day, one or two taking to the air every few minutes, showing their huge 4-foot wingspan.


Southern Madagascar’s unique ‘pitcher plant’, one of the few plants of its kind in the world.

The birding at Berenty was slow, but almost everything was new to me. Amongst the species seen on our first day there were Common Jery, Madagascar Paradise Flycatcher, Madagascar Coucal, Crested Drongo, Souimanga Sunbird, Crested Coua, Giant Coua, Hookbilled Vanga, Madagascar Kestrel, Frances’ Sparrowhawk, Madagascar Bulbul, Greyheaded Lovebird, Madagascar Bee-eater, Magpie Robin and Madagascar Turtle Dove. In Madagascar, the local guides are going to point out various species of birds to you, so go prepared to take an interest in the island’s fascinating birdlife, even if you’re not much of a birding type. Although the island does not have anything like the rich birdlife of most African countries, the diversity is stunning. As pointed out elsewhere, had Charles Darwin gone to Madagascar instead of the Galapagos, the peculiar bill shapes of the 14 species of vangas might have underpinned his theory of evolution, rather than those famous finches. Be sure to take a copy of Sinclair and Langrand’s excellent Birds of the Indian Ocean Islands (Struik 1998), which contains descriptions and superb illustrations of more than 300 regularly encountered birds of the area, which includes Madagascar, the Seychelles, the Comoros, Mauritius, Reunion and Rodrigues.

Berenty is also a good place to observe the southern region’s peculiar flora, notably the Euphorbia-Didieraceae bush. This includes baobabs and various bloated Pachypodium species and the baobab-like Moringas. Walking in the so-called spiny forest, we marveled at the almost surrealistic shapes of the various cactus-like plants. We might as well have been in the Sonoran desert region of Arizona, except there were no Cactus Wrens to be seen anywhere… There were Grey Mouse Lemurs though, and we enjoyed several sightings of the diminutive White-fronted Sportive Lemur. There were not many birds in the spiny forest, but we did spot a couple of African hoopoes, and a white-headed Vanga.

The main dining room and lounge complex at Berenty was very pleasant and the meals which we enjoyed there (lunch & dinner) were more than adequate. A typical dinner consisted of very tasty sauteed shrimp for a starter, a hearty beef stew with potatoes, carrots and green peppers served over rice, and fresh papaya for dessert. The coffee was excellent. On another occasion we had sliced roast pork with gravy, accompanied by peas and cabbage. Dessert was a delicious fruit salad of papaya, banana, pineapple and granadilla (‘passion fruit’) juice. Here, as everywhere else we went in Madagascar, the nice crusty French bread was excellent and plentiful.


Mother and child at a street market in Fort-Dauphin, southern Madagascar.

Earlier, on our way to Berenty, we had flown into Fort Dauphin, where we arrived without being met at the building which passes for an airport. Apparently someone at the Dauphin Hotel (we couldn’t quite figure out who was the ‘responsable’) did not put our name on the ‘tableau’. I figured this was not a big deal, easy to fix with a phone call. Ne Pas d’telephone’, I was told upon inquiry. Not broken, just not there… It is on an occasion like this when traveling in Madagascar becomes really interesting. Having repeatedly and unceremoniously rebuffed the offers of several taxi drivers up to that point, I had to eat crow and quickly summon the last remaining one. Despite my earlier rejection, he was very friendly, told us that we needed to go to the Hotel Dauphin and promptly drove us there, where our guide Olivier caught up with us. How the taxi driver managed to fit all our luggage (two huge duffel bags) plus the two of us plus two other persons and himself into the very small taxi I will never know.

Like many other things in Madagascar, the Hotel Dauphin has seen better days. Something as basic as a coat of paint would make a huge difference in the lobby, where the stains on the wall look almost as old as the hotel itself. We couldn’t believe the condition of the road from Fort Dauphin to Berenty. Considering that a substantial percentage of all visitors to Madagascar visit this famous reserve, one would assume that the central government (or the local authorities) would keep this road in as good a condition as possible. One would be wrong to make such an assumption. Over the years, some of the potholes have evolved into craters that have engulfed the entire width of the asphalt road, so that vehicles are forced onto the shoulder. A couple of the bridges along the route are not exactly in ship-shape condition either. Even so, it is not an uninteresting drive, with most guides stopping at various point of interest, such as Madagascar’s famous pitcher plants and at a stand of the unique three-cornered palms. At another ‘obligatory’ stop at an Antanosy tomb, we encountered a large group of small children. Having taken a photograph of them with a digital camera, I gathered them around, switched the camera to its playback mode and motioned them to come closer. Thirty little faces pushed to within 12 inches of the camera, and the collective squeal of delight as they recognized their images was worth driving all the way there.


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There are many destinations where it is not too difficult to hide the fact that one is from out of town. Unless you wear a particularly garish Hawaiian shirt, for example, or point the latest digital Sony videocamera at everything in sight, it might be possible for most of us to blend into the populace of many European cities, or even some African cities such as Johannesburg or Cape Town. No such luck in Madagascar. Even in the airport at Tana, where Kathleen and I were having a cup of very good coffee one afternoon, I had the distinct feeling of having ‘tourist’ written all over my forehead. A magazine seller was hawking French magazines to several other people at tables near ours. “Paris Match, monsieur? Le Monde?’ As he turned towards us, without missing a beat, I noticed that he had replaced the fairly dated French magazines with much older American ones… “Time Magazine, Newsweek?… Be prepared to firmly, yet politely decline the repeated entreaties of any number of hawkers and assorted chancers to browbeat you into parting with a small amount of your money. It takes a while to get used to the currency – 25,000.00 Malagasy Francs initially seems like an awful lot, until you realize that it is less than US$4.00. Changing only a couple hundred US dollars or so, saddles you with a pile of FMG25,000.00 bills that look positively extravagant, especially in a country where the heavily used bills are obviously the smallest denominations, some of which are incredibly grubby. Some of the FMG1000.00 and FMG500.00 bills which we were given in change looked and felt as if they had been around since the time when paper money was first invented.

In Fort Dauphin, we had a ‘Lonely Planet’ experience. Excellent as the Lonely Planet guidebooks are – and the one on Madagascar certainly is extremely detailed and should be on the ‘must read’ list of any would-be visitor – they date quickly. Having read a glowing report about the Panorama Restaurant (‘our favorite restaurant in town, probably the best south of Antsirabe’) and having several hours to kill in Fort Dauphin, we decided to walk the half mile or so from the Hotel Dauphin to the Panorama Restaurant. What could have been a nice stroll was marred by the unwelcome attention of a local vagrant, who did not understand the meaning of ‘non’. By the time we stepped into the Panorama Restaurant, we were very relieved to be able to leave him behind. Until we started looking around us. It immediately became painfully obvious that we were the only two patrons in the place. It might have been superb three years ago, but by late July 2000 it was a real dive, with a ‘gone to seed’, dilapidated feel. Faced with running the gauntlet of vagrants and beggars, we stayed put. The waitress clearly knew what had brought us to the place, as she was quick to point out that the Lonely Planet-recommended ‘tasty tuna steak’ was not available. ‘Pas d’atun’. We ordered langoustine and freshwater bream instead. I could have sworn the Panorama sent out for the food, it took that long to prepare… When it finally came, my ‘poisson de l’eau douce’ was passably okay, Kathleen’s langoustines overcooked but palatable. Best food south of Antsirabe? No way. I wonder if some of the other Fort-Dauphin villagers jokingly refer to Panorama patrons as ‘lonely planets’, meaning ‘tourists who foolishly believe everything they read in a book’.


Some of the many colorful baskets for sale at the Artisans Market near Tana, on the way to Ivato Airport.

From Fort Dauphin, an uneventful flight took us back to Tana, where we were met by our new guide Lalaina, a most capable and extremely pleasant young man. We had to run by his office to pick up some sleeping bags, so we were treated to our second drive from Ivato Airport into ‘lovely Tana’. What an experience. Few things can prepare one adequately for the dusty, spare look of poverty which typifies much of Tana. Parts of the road from the airport reminded me of Oljoro Road in Arusha, the only other place I had been to that exhibited the same kind of mind-boggling amalgam of pedestrians, young and old, dodging all forms of transportation ranging from pushcarts to bicycles to Range Rovers to the ubiquitous taxis and mini-buses, with dogs, zebu cattle and donkeys thrown into the mix just to make it exciting. If anything, the array of streetside shops and stands in Tana was even more amazing than in Arusha. There were primitive butcheries, with chunks of raw meat spread out on a counter or strung up on hooks, dozens of colorful fruit and vegetable stalls, almost as many rice, grain and dried bean merchants, auto parts, bikes and pieces of bikes, and junk stands defying any description. On every block, someone was cooking kabobs on a charcoal-fired brazier, or deep-frying some local version of donuts, which I was tempted to try once or twice. Maybe next time.

From Tana we headed east to Perinet, on a good but rather narrow, winding road, designed and built by the Chinese. I have never been fond of night driving, and this trip reminded me why. I was not thrilled to hear that it was the main route for many heavy trucks coming into Tana from Tamatave, the main east coast port city. In fact, we encountered a long row of these trucks, many of which were petroleum tankers, on the outskirts of Tana, waiting to enter the city from midnight onwards. Except for inexplicably using the left-hand lane around corners (in Madagascar people drive on the right), our driver Theodore was very proficient and got us to Perinet in good time.

Our accommodation for the night was a bungalow at Hotel Feon ‘nyala (‘call of the forest’), a pleasant enough place consisting of about 24 bungalows, all with great views over the natural forest – and hot showers. We had not had anything to eat since lunch at the ‘famous’ Panorama, so we were famished. It turns out that we had selected a good place to be hungry, enjoying one of the best meals of the trip. I had the excellent chicken curry and Kathleen chose chicken with fresh ginger, both served with mounds of rice as is customary in Madagascar. Fresh crepes with local preserves and some very good coffee with sweetened condensed milk completed a memorable dinner. The sleeping bags which had necessitated the detour into Tana earlier than evening, were put to good use as the A-frame room was quite chilly on this late July night at some 900 meters above sea level.


A Verreaux’s Sifaka at Berenty Private Reserve. These handsome lemurs are known for their impressive acrobatics and ability to ‘dance’ across open spaces.

At 7a.m. the next morning we departed for Perinet Reserve with Lalaina and our local forest guide, who turned out to be excellent. He was very knowledgeable about the lemurs, the plantlife and the birds. He led the way along the trails, turning this way and that, deeper and deeper into the rather damp rainforest. We had read enough about leeches to nervously check our extremities every now and then, but other than that all we had to do was play ‘follow the leader’. Initially, the forest was rather quiet, but as time passed we started finding the occasional bird party, and after perhaps 20 minutes or so, our first lemurs. These were brown lemurs, high up in a tree, not what we were looking for. Shortly afterwards, we found our quarry: a family of very relaxed black and white Indris, foraging and moving around in the lower reaches of the trees. Peering at them through our binoculars, we could see why they are described as looking like cuddly teddy bears. The experience was unfortunately marred by a group of extremely noisy and talkative spectators. Muttering a few choice expletives, we moved into a different area of the forest, continuing our ‘lemur safari’. Our next find was a grey bamboo lemur, which looked more like a weasel or a squirrel, clambering about quite high up in the trees. Later on, we heard the haunting contact call of the Indris and we had another excellent sighting of a female Indri with its 2-month old baby. Isolating them in the telescope, we watched the baby, which was all black with large green eyes, move around on its mother’s belly.

The birding at Perinet was fantastic. We were treated to great views of Hookbilled Vanga in the ‘scope, found the superb Blue Vanga, more Souimanga sunbird, Madagascar Cuckooshrike, Green Sunbird, Madagascar Paradise Flycatcher, Madagascar Malachite Kingfisher, Ward’s Flycatcher, Madagascar Little Grebe and several other waterbirds. The bird of the day and of the forest was definitely the unique Nuthatch Vanga, climbing up a tree-trunk in nuthatch-like fashion. Unlike true nuthatches, these birds do not climb downwards.


The dining room and lounge at Vakona Lodge, near Perinet.

For lunch, we drove to the nearby Vakona Lodge, which impressed us a well run establishment in a great location, with well-equipped chalets, a very inviting pool, and a nice restaurant. I tried zebu steak here for the first time and found it to be quite tasty. Vakona Lodge offers a wide selection of chalets including twins, doubles, and family rooms. Activities include horseback riding and hiking, in addition to excursions to Perinet and Mantadia forests. The Vakona Lodge looks like the kind of place where our clients would be very happy to stay and we will definitely try it ourselves on our next visit to Madagascar.

Our last night in Madagascar was spent in Tana at the Hotel Pallisandre, which we rate quite highly – very friendly staff and nice rooms. My only problem was the French computer keyboard (I checked some e-mail from there). Mon dieu! How the French could possibly make the period (full-stop) an ‘upper case shift’ character, or put a ‘q’ where we have an ‘a’ is beyond me! Meals at the Pallisandre were first class. On one occasion we had a type of fish which I had never encountered before – Capitaine. A week or so later, in Kenya, I found out that Nile Perch was being harvested in great quantities from Lake Victoria and sold as ‘Capitaine’ in Europe, making its way to Madagascar from there, I would think. In any event, it tasted great. We highly recommend the restaurant’s Creme Brulee.

Will I be going back to Madagascar? Without a doubt. I simply have to explore more of this utterly fascinating island and its wonderful people and wildlife. The next time, I will spend a few days more so that I can start to relax and enjoy a country that just cannot be rushed, and I will be sure to include one of the beach areas such as Ifaty or Morondava. What would I say to people thinking about visiting Madagascar? Do it soon, before the charcoalers burn down the entire place and before the prices reach the level of African safari destinations. But before you pack your bags, call the Alliance Francaise and sign up for some French classes, or order a Berlitz course. Having a bit of French – beyond just oui and merci – will make your time in Madagascar immeasurably more enjoyable. Had I not been able to understand the language, I might have missed some real jewels, such as the comment by the Malagasy taxi driver who drove us from the airport to Tana on our arrival. Summing up the Madagascar experience very succinctly, he said, ‘My country is rich, but the people are poor’.


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