By Bert Duplessis
In the early afternoon on November 6 Kathleen and I boarded a twin KingAir at the Anglo American hangar on the eastern side of Oliver Tambo Airport, perspired a bit while waiting for our take off slot, and then started to relax as our FedAir pilots powered the aircraft up to its cruising altitude of about 20,000 feet above sea level. We helped ourselves to some cold water and chips, clamped the Bose QC15 noise-cancelling headphones over our ears and got back to where we had last switched off our Kindles. Let’s face it, gadgets have taken over the world and you may as well play the game. If there’s one gadget that you just ‘have’ to have though, it is the Bose QC-15. What a difference it makes; hugely beneficial on long transatlantic flights for watching movies or TV shows (no painful ears or excessive noise leakage) and even better on noisy small propeller-driven aircraft such as a Cessna 206.
A little more than 1 hr 30 minutes later, we descended into typical sparsely vegetated Kalahari scrubveld and duneland, at Tswalu. On arrival we were met by our guide Jolyon and his tracker for a drive of about 20 minutes from the airstrip the lodge. The Motse lodge is an impressive structure in terms of size and design, with striking brick red colors and lots of stone, together with a massive thatched roof combining for a very pleasant visual effect.
Our room was no less pleasing. For one thing it was huge, with a large foyer and lounge area leading to the bedroom and ‘study’, with a separate large bathroom (his and hers vanities with a nice-sized bath as well as inside and outside shower) plus an outdoor verandah area. It was hot – in the 90’s F – so the extremely effective air-conditioning was a much necessity. It never even hesitated once during our 3-night stay, and of all the African safari lodges I have visited in more than 20 years, this one definitely has the climate-control thing down to a fine art. The very lavishly stocked mini-bar and a selection of snack foods ranging from biltong (jerky) to dried fruit and nuts, all contributed to a very cozy and luxurious place to rest one’s weary head after a day on safari in the Kalahari. The bedding and pillows were first-class.
At 5:00P that afternoon we set off on our first game drive, and there was definitely plenty of general game about, notably gemsbok, kudu and springbok. However our mission was to find and see the Northern pride of lions and in that we were very successful. Soon enough we were parked and observing them feeding on a wildebeest kill. There were 3 cubs of about 8 weeks old, 1 sub-adult 1-year old female, 2 adult females (mother and sister) and 2 adult males about 4 years of age.
It was interesting to observe the feeding hierarchy and dynamics. The dominant female was aggressive towards her 1-year old daughter, favoring the interests of the 3 younger cubs. Much to the displeasure and consternation of the young female!
We sat and watched the lions until the sun had set.
Meals at Tswalu were all great, with a very wide range of choices from breakfast through to dinner. Amongst others I recall a very good vegetable stir-fry with pasta and a deliicately flavored vegetable curry.
The breakfast selection was equally good with a fresh fruit platter, eggs to order, oats with soy milk, fresh English muffins and whole wheat toast, while lunch featured items such as a ‘club’ sandwich. Of course for omnivores there are multiple other meat, poultry and fish choices.
07 Nov 2012: Cheetah trumps horseback riding
On our morning game drive, the objective was to find some Black Rhino but we struck out. As on the previous afternoon, there was plenty of general game around though and we saw plenty of gemsbok, kudu, springbok, and some eland as well.
Kathy had intended to do some horse-back riding this afternoon, but a cheetah sighting got in the way. Just as we were on our way to the stables, word came that a coalition of two male cheetahs had been spotted. Having to indulge in some ‘vulturing’ as the guides call it (i.e. horning in on a high profile animal found by someone else) we had to take our turn. The rule at Tswalu is that the guide (and his guests), who had made the original sighting can stay with the animals indefinitely. The other cars can take turns of 20 to 30 minutes.
As it ‘turned out’ we got lucky with a great white rhino sighting while we were waiting for our turn with the cheetah brothers. We crept up on four of these pre-historic behemoths, all of them trying their best to make sense of our 21st century vehicle, with a brain that had not evolved much beyond the era of the dinosaurs, some 60 million years ago. Talk about a generation gap!
By then, the light was fading fast and we got to the two cheetahs just in time to get a half decent look – they were heavily obscured by grass – and to snatch a few quick photographs when one of them lifted its head to survey the terrain.
Right at sunset the most amazing orange-red glow filled the sky and lit up a nearby hilly range in perfect golden light. Soon after, we stopped in a clearing and our guide Jolyon and tracker set up an elaborate al fresco dinner in next to no time.
Under a sky full of stars, and an atmosphere devoid of almost any sound except a few birds settling down for the night, we enjoyed a most delightful meal. It was another good day on safari in Africa. Which also happened to be our 31st anniversary!
On the way back to camp Kathleen and I practically simultaneously spotted a dark form scurrying along in the grass, just about 10 meters off the dirt track, to the right.
Almost immediately we realized that we had spotted an aardvark, that near mythical beast which is almost exclusively nocturnal and hence rarely seen. At Tswalu the chances of seeing an Aardvark is in the 60 to 80 percentile range, for a stay of 3 or 4 nights – with a better chance in the winter months when they are often seen in daylight. So if this elusive animal is on your ‘must see’ list, Tswalu should be on your ‘must visit’ list!
The aardvark appeared to be on a mission to get back to its burrow and it barely paused on the way. I managed to snap off a couple of quick photographs, none of which turned out great but at least two of which were adequate to prove the point. We had seen an aardvark!!
The Aardvark is not just unusual because it is a weird-looking nocturnal mammal that is rarely seen. It is unique in many ways, making it the only species in its own exclusive order the Tubulidentata, typified by having peculiar tubular teeth. Aardvark feed mostly on ants and termites, catching and eating as many as 50,000 insects in a single night.
08 November: Another species of rhino
In summer, mornings at Tswalu come very early with a knock at the door at 0500A. 15 minutes later, we join up with some other guests for a very light breakfast (juice, muffins, rusks, coffee and tea) and then we were off, each party in their own private vehicle with a private guide.
This morning, we were trying again for Black Rhino. Jolyon drove to the southwestern part of the reserve where a specific black rhino female is known to hang out. Trying to find some fresh tracks, our guide and trackers stopped every now and then for a short walk in the bush, looking for the tell-tale footprints. All they found were white rhino tracks.
Fortunately for us another vehicle located the black rhino mother and calf – but it was a good distance away. Arriving on the scene about 20 minutes later, we were fortunate to be able to observe the rhinos from very close up for the next 30 minutes or so.
The young rhino was suckling intermittently, emitting the strangest ‘mewing’ sound when he was not. The sound was very cat-like and not at all in keeping with the burly, sturdy young rhino. We managed to capture a few decent photographs of these usually very nervous, even aggressive animals before making our way back to camp for breakfast.
After an excellent meal on the terrace over the pool, Kathy and I rested up a bit in the comfortable air-conditioned room at Tswalu.
Later that afternoon, we ventured out again, stopping at a watering hole where we observe mammals such as warthog coming to drink, and several small colorful birds as well.
By 6:00P we were well underway to the site of a ‘dune event’, Tswalu’s version of a bush dinner. Complete with tables and chairs set up outside, a large potable grill, and of course a bar, this was a nice change of pace and I think we all enjoyed the spectacular sunset over the Kalahari sunset while enjoying another superb meal. Note to self: always have a good standard lens in your day pack.
We did not see another Aardvark on the way back to camp, but we did have a very good sighting of an Aardwolf; in fact we ended up with two sightings of this rarely seen mammal while at Tswalu. It is much more hyena-like in appearance than an Aardvark, and is indeed part of the hyena family. However when it comes to diet, an Aardwolf is an extremely picky eater. In South Africa it feeds almost exclusively on two types of harvester termites.
09 November: The Meerkat family
Our last morning at Tswalu was one of our best yet! First it was off to the stables to check out the horses. We were surprised to have more than a dozen beautiful horses greeting us, ranging from a few small child-friendly animals to a couple of hulking Clydesdales. They were ready to be fed, clustering together right at the fence, just like guppies in a fish tank waiting for the flakes to fall. A couple of the horses were happy to be petted and we were happy to indulge them. I took a few photos, we checked out the very comfortable stables and then departed for the Meerkat colony.
Fifteen minutes or so later, we were being briefed by Johani and Leah, who gave us a brief overview of the two meerkat colonies at Tswalu. And laid down a few do’s and don’ts: Don’t touch them, don’t cast a shadow over them and don’t make any sudden movements. After a few more minutes, first one, then another and soon enough a whole bunch of meerkats emerged from their burrow to cautiously check out the surroundings. We were delighted to observe a whole bunch of baby meerkats just reaching the ‘cute’ stage where they start playing with each other, running around, clambering all over each other and the adults and just generally acting out. We snapped away merrily, hopefully capturing some nice ‘meerkat moments’. After about 20 to 30 minutes, the meerkats started to disperse into the woodland to forage for food, and we bade them and the two girls farewell.
By 2:00P we were on our way to Johannesburg, cruising well above the clouds at over 300 mph in Tswalu’s very comfortable Pilatus C-12, easily one of the nicest pressurized single turbo-prop aircraft around. We spent the night at Fairlawns Hotel, in Johannesburg’s northern suburbs. The transfers from and back to the hotel were very competently handled by Wilro Tours. We enjoyed an excellent dinner at the Fairlawns restaurant, and an equally good breakfast the next morning. The rooms are extra-large and each one is decorated in a complete different style and color scheme. The hotel would be a good choice for someone looking for a bit of local flavor and it is definitely in the ‘anti-corporate’ category. So if a cookie-cutter generic hotel room is not your style, by all means consider Fairlawns.
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