The Lions and the Gemsbok

Driving to a Kalahari air strip to fly to the Okavango Delta, we discovered this pride of lions and their kill. The male lion presides over the kill, with three lionesses behind him. Note male’s black mane — this is a black-maned lion of the Kalahari.

lion pride and their kill
lion pride and their kill

There were several cubs.

lioness and cub
lioness and cub

From the black and white marking on the face, the kill is a gemsbok, a large antelope adapted to the Kalahari.

lion cub and gemsbok
lion cub getting ready to dine on the gemsbok

The male lion hauled away the remains of the gemsbok. Note the straight horns of the gemsbok below.

male lion hauls away the remains of the gemsbok
male lion hauls away the remains of the gemsbok

See how the male limps as he hauls off the gemsbok.

Two lionesses fight over the stomach left at the kill site.

lionesses fight over the gemsbok stomach
lionesses fight over the gemsbok stomach

And the victor trots off with the spoils.

lioness trots off with stomach
lioness trots off with gemsbok stomach

The male lion hauled the gemsbok to the shade of a tree, where four cubs joined him and the kill would be hidden from circling vultures.

male lion, four cubs, and gemsbok
male lion, four cubs, and gemsbok

Having finally seen the black-maned lions of the Kalahari just as we were leaving, we were very pleased as we raced off to a rendezvous with our plane to the Okavango Delta.

Flight to the Okavango Delta

On our last morning in the Kalahari we would fly to the Okavango Delta, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The sunrise painted clouds stretching out to the horizon.

last Kalahari sunrise
last Kalahari sunrise

On the drive to the airstrip, we saw this lion pride and their kill. More on the lions in a separate post.

lion pride and their kill
lion pride and their kill

From our plane, the Okavango Delta stretches into the distance, a flat area with islands, channels, and pools, stretching to the horizon.

Okavango Delta
Okavango Delta from the air

Having seen the BBC video with animals running through the waters of the Okavango Delta, I had hoped to see more animals from the air. This elephant below was the only animal I saw from the air. The lines are the various trails made by animals.

Okavango elephant from the air
Okavango elephant from the air

After the plane landed, we took a boat to our lodge, where this crocodile was sunning himself next to the boat dock. We had read about hippos and crocodiles in the Okavango Delta.

basking crocodile at the lodge boat dock
basking crocodile at the lodge boat dock

In the afternoon we took a ride in a mokoro, traditionally dug out from a log, but now fiberglass. Too many trees were being chopped down to make mekoro (the plural form). The water is shallow; the person standing in back is poling our mokoro, like a Venetian gondolier.

mokoro ride
mokoro ride

The mokoro ride is quiet, calm, and relaxing — movement without sound, like skiing or sailing, When researching our lodge on TripAdvisor, reviewers wrote about their mokoro ride, saying they were told there are no hippos or crocodiles here. But all the waterways are connected, and we saw a crocodile earlier. But on our relaxing mokoro ride, we forgot to ask about crocodiles and hippos, and we didn’t see any.

The setting sun colored the grass golden.

mokoro rides low
mokoro rides low in the water

Kalahari, Day Two – Deception Pan and Lion in the Camp

At night we heard lions calling loudly. I tried recording the lion roar using our iPhone, but both Voice Memo recordings were silent.

To start our morning game drive we drove nearby, but our guide only spotted fresh lion tracks on the road. In the morning, cheetahs lay in wait for a springbok to wander close enough to give chase, but the springboks kept their distance. As it warmed up, the cheetahs gave up and walked to shade.

springbok looking at cheetahs
springbok looking at cheetahs

Jackals usually keep their distance, but this black-backed jackals paused briefly to pose for us.

black-backed jackal
black-backed jackal

Yet another pretty bird. Birds with such long tails need to be careful where they land, so that their tail doesn’t get caught in the thorns or leaves.

shaft-tailed whydah
shaft-tailed whydah

The steenbok is a small antelope.

steenbok
steenbok

In the afternoon we saw Deception Pan. It looks like a lake with water, but it’s actually dry. The vegetation helps sell the notion of a lake: a band of red vegetation near us, a band of green vegetation, and the dark patch that looks like water.

Deception Pan
Deception Pan

Below, a closer view looks less like a lake.

lanner falcon and gemsboks at Deception Pan
lanner falcon and gemsboks at Deception Pan

We watched a giraffe bend over carefully to graze on grass. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XGe_4MkAkKs

At dusk, after we returned to camp and were cleaning up, we heard “Lion in the camp! Stay in your tents!”. I looked outside but didn’t see a lion.

Stanley, one of our guides, was cleaning his vehicle when he saw a lion walking next to the land cruiser. The lion had walked past the dining tent next to the vehicle, and one of our safari members was having a smoke in the dining tent.

lion walked past Stanley on this road
lion walked past our guide here

“Get in the truck!” said Stanley, and Elise climbed into the truck. Stanley yelled out the warning for the rest of the camp. As you can see, the road isn’t very wide. Our tents are within 50 m of the truck and dining tent. Eating dinner in the dining tent that night was more exciting. We still hadn’t see the black-maned lions of the Kalahari, and we would leave the Kalahari in the morning.

Kalahari, Day One

The rhythm of daily game drives is set so we see the most wildlife, and they’re active at dawn and dusk. For our April safari in Botswana, sunrise was around 6:15 am, and sunset was around 6:15 pm. To start a game drive at sunrise, the wake-up call was at 5:30 am, and we started the morning game drive around 6:15. Not what you’d imagine for your ideal vacation, but a safari is costly in terms of time and money, so you want to get what you came for.

At dawn we were on game drive, and we paused in this copse of trees where the authors of Cry of the Kalahari lived. The trees have short-grass plains on three sides, providing views and food for grazing animals, with some protection from predators.

our first Kalahari sunrise
our first Kalahari sunrise

Below a lesser gray shrike is lit by the pink dawn light. The shrike sits on an acacia tree, which has sharp white thorns to fend off animals.

lesser grey shrike
lesser grey shrike

The kori bustard walks through the grasslands eating insects and reptiles.

kori bustard
kori bustard

A pale chanting goshawk looking for prey. See the long white thorns of the acacia. African birds learn to land and take off carefully.

pale chanting goshawk
pale chanting goshawk

Nests of weaver birds.

weaver nests
weaver nests

Springboks are an antelope found in southern Africa. This herd of males is grazing and hanging out.

male springboks grazing
male springboks grazing

Springboks are extremely fast, reaching speeds up to 100 km/hr and leaping up to 4 m through the air. Male springboks sometimes race and leap to show off their strength. Called pronking, here’s a shaky video, but you’ll get the picture.

A stoic gemsbok with vultures gathering, probably at a recent kill.

lone gemsbok and gathered vultures
lone gemsbok and gathered vultures

Before dusk these cheetahs waited for a springbok to come close enough for them to run it down, but the springbok wisely kept its distance.

cheetahs waiting at dusk
cheetahs waiting at dusk

Game Drive to the Kalahari

With an area of 900,000 sq km (350,000 sq mi), the Kalahari Desert is huge, about the size of Texas and Oklahoma combined. The Kalahari Desert covers most of Botswana and parts of five other countries. Because of its aridness, Botswana was ignored during the scramble for Africa at the end of the 19th century, when the European powers partitioned Africa into colonies.

The Kalahari’s dry season lasts 8 months, even longer than California’s 6-month dry season. Much of the Kalahari has no permanent surface water. Thirst drives animals to migrate to water sources and fresh grass, like the great migration in the Serengeti.

On the first day of our safari, we drove all day from Maun, the jumping-off point for the Okavango delta, to the Deception Valley in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR). The world’s second largest game reserve, the CKGR was established in 1961 as a place for the San people to continue their hunter-gatherer life style. The government forcibly resettled the San in the 1990s.

We drove south on dirt roads for hours along fences like the one on the right in the photo below, watching the vegetation change from woodland to savannah. One fence is a veterinary fence, a double fence erected in the 1970s to separate animals with hoof and mouth disease in northwest Botswana from cattle in the rest of Botswana. At the time, cattle was Botswana’s primary industry. The fence contained the disease.

driving along a fence
driving along a fence

A second fence marks the CKGR boundary on the north and east. Before the fence, wildebeests and other animals would migrate from the Kalahari after the rainy season to water and grass in the north. At the time this migration was second in size to the Serengeti migration. When the government put up the fence, animals piled up on the fences and were blocked from the surface water they had always used. The animals died.

We entered the CKGR at the Matswere Gate. We washed our hands at this faucet, amid a cloud of butterflies attracted to the water puddle beneath the faucet.

Matswere Gate to CKGR
Matswere Gate to CKGR
butterflies attracted to water
butterflies attracted to water

We saw some beautiful birds.

pale chanting goshawk
pale chanting goshawk
lilac-breasted roller
lilac-breasted roller
northern black korhaan
northern black korhaan

We finally reached our destination, Deception Valley, where we saw our first herd of gemsbok. The gemsbok is an antelope that does not depend on drinking water, so it’s ideally suited for the Kalahari. Gemsboks (pronounced with an initial h sound, as in hemp) are large, with long horns and a distinctive face markings.

gemsboks checking us out
gemsboks watching us as we watched them

Like other antelopes, a dominant male rules a harem of females and their young. Young bucks butt heads to prepare to challenge the dominant male for his harem.

gemsboks fighting
gemsboks fighting

With its sharp horns, gemsboks need to nurse carefully. The tip of the baby’s horn is visible under its chest.

baby gemsbok nursing
baby gemsbok nursing

Gemsboks eat roots, wild melons, and grass. Gemsboks and other antelopes graze in the early morning, when the dew is still on the grass.

wild melon with bitter taste
wild melon with bitter taste

We visited the Kalahari at the end of the rainy season, after the roads become passable and before the vegetation dies back. Botswana received more rain than normal this year, so the grassland is greener than usual.

Three weeks before, the 4-wheel-drive land cruiser driven by one of our guides got stuck in a Kalahari mud hole and had to be pulled out by a larger truck. In the CKGR and the other areas we visited, our vehicles had to stay on the roads, but detouring around mud holes is permitted.