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.

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Our last game drive

This would be the last game drive of our safari, from our camp in the Maswa Game Reserve to a lodge just past Ngorongoro Crater.

We drove through the acacia woodland and discovered the cheetah mother and four cubs at the edge of the acacia woodland.  We were happy that they had made it back to the woodland safely from the gazelle kill.  The mother was taking the cubs somewhere — alternately walking and waiting for the cubs to follow.

mother cheetah and four cubs walking
mother cheetah and four cubs walking

They walked past a downed tree, so of course the cubs had to climb it as the mother kept walking.

cheetah cubs climbing the tree
cheetah cubs climbing the tree
more climbing
more climbing

Now we’ve seen what herding cats means. 😉 The cheetahs continued walking. We saw this cheetah family on three different days. Amazing luck and skill of our guides.

We started a long game drive along the boundary of the the acacia woodland and the short-grass plains.

Some jackals were looking at Thomson’s gazelles, but the gazelles had spotted the jackals and were careful.

jackals looking at thomson's gazelles
jackals looking at thomson’s gazelles

Later these two thomson’s gazelles were fighting (butting heads).

gazelles fighting
gazelles fighting

A pregnant spotted hyena showing us her long, yellow teeth.

pregnant spotted hyena
pregnant spotted hyena

In the Ngorongoro highlands there are Maasai villages and tropical trees.  Looking at the vegetation, you can see that the highlands get a lot more rain than the Serengeti plains.

Maasai boma overlooking the Serengeti
Maasai boma overlooking the Serengeti
lush vegetation in the Ngorongoro highlands
lush vegetation in the Ngorongoro highlands

We arrived at the lodge in time for lunch.  The lodge felt somewhat antiseptic after 8 nights in camps, but we did savor the long showers, electricity in our rooms, flush toilets, and internet.

At dinner we each talked about our favorite experience on the safari.  Mine was the cheetah family before the thunderstorm and the harrowing drive back to camp on the flooded dirt road.

The next day two people left for gorilla tracking, four for Zanzibar, four for South Africa, and three for home.

We had a blast. The safari was a fabulous experience that we’ll always cherish. We had great guides who found a wide variety of animals and parked so that we’d have good light for photos. They told us about the animals. They patiently answered our questions and told us stories. They put a very positive face on Tanzania. We enjoyed traveling with our fellow safari clients. I appreciate everyone’s patience with me as I clicked away with my camera, or more frequently, waited for an animal to turn its head just so.

Day 2 at Serengeti camp – the great migration, at last

During our safari in late February, the great migration is normally in the southern Serengeti. But so far there has been little rain so the wildebeests and zebras came, ate the grass, and moved to the north, where there was more rain and grass. We had seen few wildebeests and no herds of wildebeests.

On our second day at Serengeti camp, we woke early for a long drive north to see herds of wildebeest and zebra. We would enter the Serengeti National Park, where we would have to stay on roads.

Early in the morning this giraffe was eating its favorite food, acacia leaves.  Acacias have long thorns.  We see how giraffes use their long, dexterous tongue to grab the leaves while avoiding the thorns. The giraffe’s tongue is wrapped around the branch to strip the leaves.

giraffe tongue grabbing acacia leaves
giraffe tongue grabbing acacia leaves

Here’s a closeup with more detail.  See the long thorns to the left and right of the giraffe tongue. The thorns are a lighter green than the leaves and branches. At 7:18 am, the light was dim.  Like the night before, the ISO was maxed out and the lens wide open, and there still wasn’t enough light. Learning my lesson, I increased the exposure from 1/400 to 1/250 second, while shooting at 400 mm. The rule of thumb is that the exposure time is less than or equal to the inverse of the focal length, or 1/400 second for a 400 mm focal length. The photo looks clear enough despite the longer exposure. See the giraffe’s eyelashes?

closeup of giraffe tongue grabbing acacia leaves
closeup of giraffe tongue grabbing acacia leaves

A half hour later we stopped to see this jackal.  We were far away — these photos were taken at 400 mm.

common jackal
common jackal

A couple minutes later we learned why our guide stopped and waited.

jackal eating a bird
jackal eating a bird

Here’s a closeup.  It looks like the jackal’s eating a bird with long black feathers, perhaps a secretary bird.  Breakfast before 8:00 am.

closeup of jackal eating a bird
closeup of jackal eating a bird

When we entered the Serengeti National Park, we stopped to file papers.  This superb starling was in the parking lot. The iridescent top feathers and orange breast are very pretty.

superb starling
superb starling

At noon we finally found herds of zebras and wildebeests. Not the million animals that we had read about, but many herds of animals.

zebras
zebras
zebra and wattled starlings
zebra and wattled starlings

We saw a leopard and its kill, shown in my post.

leopard in tree
leopard in tree

We were happy.  Our safari was nearing the end, and we had not seen a leopard.  The leopard completed our seeing the big five animals.  As it turned out, this was the only leopard we saw.  It was almost 2:00, and we headed for a late lunch.

But of course we had to stop to see these baboons on the side of the road.

baby baboon playing
baby baboon playing
baboons grooming
baboons grooming

After lunch we drove along a river and saw hippos. There was much more water here than at the Alamana hippo pool, so these hippos were more comfortable.

hippo approaching
hippo approaching
hippos humping
hippos humping
hippo yawning
hippo yawning

Here’s a closeup of the hippo jaws.  Note the hippo’s enormous mouth and sharp, ivory canine teeth.  Hippo teeth are sharpened during use, and the canines can reach 20″.

hippos jaws
hippos jaws

We saw lions mating.  See my post.

We started the long drive back to camp. We had started early, and we were all tired.

Our guide saw some vultures landing and taking off in the grass so he stopped to look where the vultures were landing.  No other vehicles were stopped.  We didn’t see anything where the vultures landed.  Finally he told us to look to the left, far away.  We finally saw some brown spots in the grass.  Still in the National Park, we couldn’t drive off-road to get closer.  The following photos are with a telephoto lens at 400 mm. Here’s the initial photo.

brown spots in the distance
brown spots in the distance

Soon there was some movement.

lion moving the kill
lion moving the kill
lion with wildebeest hoof and head
lion with wildebeest hoof and head

And a closeup of the lion.

closeup of lion with wildebeest hoof and head
closeup of lion with wildebeest hoof and head

Looks like a wildebeest.  Our guide told us that the lions had probably killed the wildebeest and dragged it away.  The vultures were landing at the spot of the kill. Our guide is amazing at finding animals.

At dusk we saw these storks roosting in a tree.

storks roosting
storks roosting

Back at camp, we heard a loud elephant trumpet as we got out of the vehicle.  A large elephant was walking between two tents, about a hundred meters away from us.  The elephant was taller than our tents.  The guide said to climb back in.  After the guides said it was clear, they drove us back to our tents.

We later learned that this adult elephant is a frequent visitor to the camp.  Our lead guide saw it and shined a flashlight into its eyes. The light in elephant’s eyes ruins its night vision, so it moved away.

Day 1 at Serengeti camp – birds and cats, then raining cats and dogs

Our Serengeti camp is south of the Serengeti National Park, in the Maswa Game Reserve. The camp is in acacia woodland near alkaline lakes and grassland.  We could do game drives off-road, but we couldn’t do bush walks.

A game drive is like a treasure hunt.  You have better chances if you look around and know what to look for.  You don’t know what you’ll discover, and you appreciate what you find. This treasure hunt aspect contributes to the adventure and romance of the safari. Our guides knew this and fostered it, without talking about it.

At breakfast, one of our group asked the guide if he had heard hyenas and lions at night.  He did. As we started the morning game drive through the acacia woodland, we saw mostly birds.

Secretary birds are a meter tall  and have a striking appearance, resembling a British secretary — white top, black bottom, and a black crest that looks like a pencil in the ear. They walk fast, and they walk away when a vehicle pulls up, so they’re hard to photograph. We were fortunate to see two secretary birds in a tree.  The birds dipped their head, separately or together, before flying off.

pair of secretary birds in acacia tree
pair of secretary birds in acacia tree
secretary bird taking off
secretary bird taking off
secretary bird spreading wings
secretary bird spreading wings

We also saw a lappet-faced vulture, a long-crested eagle, and bat-eared foxes.

lappet-faced vulture
lappet-faced vulture
long-crested eagle
long-crested eagle
bat-eared fox
bat-eared fox

After the acacia woodland, we drove on the short-grass plains.  Under a tree we saw lions.  See my post lyin’ in the grass.

lion in the grass
lion in the grass

Returning for lunch, we saw 2 hyenas and a kill less than a mile from camp. The choice parts of wildebeest were already eaten. The closer hyena was guarding the kill from the second hyena, who was disappointed. Our guide thought that a lion had killed the wildebeest.

a hyena, a wildebeest, and a disappointed hyena
a hyena, a wildebeest, and a disappointed hyena

During the evening game drive, we found a cheetah family. See my post the family that preys together.

cheetah mother and sleeping cubs
cheetah mother and sleeping cubs

We watched the cheetahs past sunset, when it started raining cats and dogs.  We drove back to camp on flooded dirt roads in the dark.  When the lightning flashed, we could see that the ground was flooded as far as we could see.  It wasn’t a river out there; it was a lake. I was concerned that if our vehicle had to stop, it might get stuck in the mud. Fortunately, all three vehicles made it back without mishap.

On the last night of the safari, we each talked about our favorite experience.  The cheetah mother and cubs waking up and playing that evening was my favorite.  I thanked our guides for the experience and for letting us stay with the cheetahs until they woke up, despite the oncoming rain and difficult drive back to camp.

Lyin’ in the grass

On our first morning at the Serengeti Camp, we found a dozen lions in the grass under a large tree. We only saw female lions and cubs.  Outside Serengeti National Park, we were able to drive off-road.  Lions in the grass on a warm summer day.

lions in the grass
lions in the grass
the flies
the flies
lion cub
lion cub

Our guide let us spend a long time with the lions, so we had time to observe behaviors such as grooming, yawning, and sprawling.

Lions groom by licking.  According to the Honolulu Zoo, the lion “tongue’s upper surface has small bumps on it which enables the lion to hold on to meat while eating and to remove parasites when grooming”.

lion licking mouth
lion licking mouth
lion grooming
lion grooming
lion grooming closeup
lion grooming closeup

In the above closeup, the lion’s tongue extends back past the tuft of hair under her mouth.

It was noon, and the lions sleep 20 hours a day.

lion yawning
lion yawning
lion yawning closeup
lion yawning closeup

We can see the lion’s teeth.  The female lions do the hunting.  When the teeth clamp onto the neck, the lion can suffocate the prey. We let sleeping cats lie.

lion in the grass
lion in the grass

For the yoga enthusiasts, this lion got up and did a cat pose, where you exhale and arch your back.

cat pose
cat pose

Finally, a lion walked up to one of our trucks for shade from the noonday sun.

seeking shade
seeking shade

Cats are cute to watch, when they’re not killing something or eating it before your eyes.

To the Serengeti Camp

We drove all day from the Alamana Camp to the Serengeti Camp. In the morning we saw two kinds of antelope: a Coke’s hartebeest and a male impala.

Coke's hartebeest
Coke’s hartebeest
male impala
male impala

A group of giraffes were walking, and then they galloped past our parked trucks. These 3 photos were taken with a zoom lens at 135 mm, a short telephoto length. See the dust being kicked up in the third picture.

walking giraffes
walking giraffes
giraffes running
giraffes running
giraffes running with curved necks
giraffes running with curved necks

As we neared camp, a herd of elephants walked by.  Note that the baby is much smaller than the adult elephants.

elephant herd walking by
elephant herd walking by

Here’s a baby elephant nursing.

baby elephant nursing
baby elephant nursing

Close to sunset, we drove past an alkaline lake with various birds.

flamingos and 2 storks
flamingos and 2 storks
black-headed heron
black-headed heron
yellow-billed stork
yellow-billed stork

We’re in Africa

From Ngorongoro we drove to Olduvai Gorge, then north to our camp in Alamana.  It would be a long day of driving starting at 8:30.

Driving west down the Ngorogoro highlands, giraffes browsed in the acacia woodland. Do you see six giraffes?  We played see and count the animals with our guide, and he always won.  The first person would say “I see a giraffe at 2:00!” “I see two!” Our guide would say “I see six”, and we’d eventually see the six.

six giraffes
six giraffes
Don't you think this is my better side?
Don’t you think this is my better side?

Almost every tree or shrub we saw was an acacia, all with thorns.  Giraffes browse on acacia buds and leaves despite the thorns.

Driving across the savannah, we saw some diagonal lines in the distance.

giraffes migrating across the Serengeti plains
giraffes migrating across the Serengeti plains

At first, I couldn’t tell whether these were animals.  Watching them longer, they moved, confirming they’re animals. The neck and legs are long and thin — giraffes.  The necks lean the same direction, so they’re walking or running together.  Traveling in a single file, they’re migrating.  Giraffes migrating across the Serengeti plains — we’re in Africa.

The plains are brown and dry.  Although we visited between the short rains and the long rains of the wet season, rainfall has been scant, so there’s no grass here for grazing wildebeests and zebras.

At Olduvai Gorge, streams cut through several geologic layers, exposing old formations.

Olduvai Gorge
Olduvai Gorge

From Wikipedia, “Olduvai Gorge is one of the most important prehistoric sites in the world and has been instrumental in furthering the understanding of early human evolution. This site was occupied by homo habilis approximately 1.9 million years ago, paranthropus boisei 1.8 million years ago, and homo erectus 1.2 million years ago. Homo sapiens are dated to have occupied the site 17,000 years ago.”

We listened to a talk, visited a small museum, and walked through the gorge to the excavation site.

After lunch, we drove north cross country across the short-grass plains, until the acacia woodland, where we turned to head for camp. Cross country means no roads. We drove off-road for three hours across the Serengeti, navigating by bearing and mountain landmarks. We saw no fences, no rivers, no walls, no roads. Africa is a vast land.

On a game drive, the three cars drive parallel and radio the others when they spot something interesting.

In the acacia woodland, another car spotted a cheetah and radioed us. As our car pulled up, the cheetah ran. Cheetahs are the world’s fastest land animal, accelerating to 60 mph in 3 seconds. I had time for only one picture before it disappeared into the brush.  (400 mm, 1/1600 sec, f/9) We searched for the cheetah, but it had vanished.

running cheetah
running cheetah

Here’s a higher resolution image cropped from the photo.

fleeting cheetah
fleeting cheetah close-up

We also saw a tawny eagle and Coke’s hartebeest.

tawny eagle
tawny eagle
Coke's Hartebeest
Coke’s Hartebeest

We pulled into camp at Alamana just before 6:00 pm — a long day on the Serengeti. But we would be at camp in Maasai lands for four nights before moving on.