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Trip Reports

Central Kalahari Game Reserve: Part 1 & 2

written by Monique Fallows

A cheetah chasing springbok in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve

Posted on Thursday, 23 February 2017

Botswana January 2017

 

Part 1

The Central Kalahari Game Reserve in Botswana spans some 55,000 square kilometres and is the world’s second largest proclaimed game reserve in the world. It was to be our destination this past January and having not spent time here for 5 years we were of course thrilled to be going back.

January is the peak of the rainy season here and this is why we had planned our visit over this time. Once the rains come to the CKGR vegetation begins to grow in the fossil river beds with the result of most of the plains game moving here from foraging in the dune veld. Big herds of springbok, gemsbok and wildebeest abound and lion and cheetah are now also focused in the same area, and interesting behaviour is often seen.

The CKGR is not for the faint-hearted. One has to be completely self-sufficient and carry all your own supplies. This means everything from fuel, water, food and firewood. Campsites are merely a patch of dirt with a GPS point and if you are lucky a pit-loo. I don’t mean to talk this down because the locations are beautiful and the remoteness perhaps best of all. 

 

 

The CKGR is as wild as any place you will ever find. The camp locations are unfenced and one has to be extremely vigilant at night. There’s no messing around here, night time is for predators and as such we were in our tent each night almost as soon as darkness fell.

Most people only stay for a few days and stick to the core area of Deception Valley. Because we don’t ever operate in small measures we had booked 17 days. This meant Chris & I were restricted to 4.5 litres each of water per day that would need to be for drinking water, cooking, cleaning and an extremely brief shower! Our fuel capacity meant that we also had to restrict our driving and budgeted on 100km’s per day; not a lot to work with when a full circuit around the Park is what we had planned.

With our 4x4 packed to the absolute limits we were ready for adventure!

There were of course a few things on our wish list. With the rains we were hoping for an outside chance of seeing some bull frog action; the CKGR is an excellent place for seeing cheetah and it is also home to the famous black-maned lions. We also threw in a spectacular thunderstorm for good measure! The stars aligned and we got all of them…

 

 

An African Thunderstorm

The area had been experiencing good rains from December already and we arrived to an absolutely beautiful green park. Long tall grass dominated the riverbed and pans, trees were all heavily in leaf and pink, purple and blue flowers were dotted around.

We are so used to being in the bush at the peak of the dry season I have to say it was a wonderful feeling to not see animals in a highly stressed state. All the game looked in prime condition and well fed, the birdlife was prolific and their colours that much bolder and brighter as they were entering into their breeding plumage.

Butterflies were everywhere giving us that serene and tranquil feeling as they floated about in such numbers that they appeared to be confetti littering the bush. There must have been literally billions of brown-veined whites on their eastward migration as well as a myriad of other species such as African vagrants, liancids, yellow and blue pansies and the odd African monarch too. It was such beautiful scenes that I was perfectly content to just sit and watch them as they would daintily go about their business.

 

 

There is however nothing quite like a massive African thunderstorm and we were to get one already on our first afternoon. The sky and cloud build is constantly changing in these hot conditions and in as short a time as 10 to 20 minutes you can have a brewing thunderstorm from nothing.

Cloud build up and a low rumble of thunder in the distance is normally the first sign. The sky starts to turn purple and then black. Suddenly a stillness descends…

A faint breeze begins to tickle the hairs on your arm and in no time a strong cold wind is blowing. With lightening crashing all around and the black sky bearing down the storm is suddenly upon you. If you are lucky you’ll have the last moments of the sun peeking through throwing beautiful light against the green grass and the black sky.

When the rain begins to pelt down the Gemsbok stand stock still, not moving a muscle nor twitching a tail and all facing the same direction away from the rain.

After the huge down pour and with night approaching we headed back to camp only to find that I had made a rookie error and left the tiny triangle flap at the top of our tent unzipped…a long night in a wet bed awaited us!

Fortunately there was to be a great reward come morning…

 

 

Bull Frog Mania

The heavy rain overnight had stimulated a very special event that we were to experience properly for the very first time, and this was an emergence of a whole lot of African Giant bull frogs.

Bull frogs spend most of their time aestivating in the dry season and only once there have been good rains do they emerge with the sole purpose of eating and breeding. They can estivate for as long as they need to in dry conditions and in some cases this can be years.

In our past 3 visits to the CKGR seeing this event was extremely high on our list. We had even ear-marked a couple of good potential spots. One in particular was a marshy area surrounded by a lot of vegetation; a perfect environment for bull frogs.

As we approached the area on this morning we could already hear the deep bellows emerging from the bog and as we surveyed the area it became apparent is was Bull Frog Mania!

All around the pond it was bull frog warfare and on first count we estimated about 50 in total. 

 

 

The noises were so captivating with deep guttural bellows converging all around us coupled with leaping, duelling males and females trying to escape their excited suiters.

After having a good look around we decided to concentrate on a small shallow area that had between 18 and 20 males competing for only a handful of females.

The males were all of a very large size weighing in the region of 1 kilogram. I can honestly say I have never seen a species that can be so likened to a gremlin! These creatures were like streetwise bruisers and so brave, nothing could deter them. Of course at this size they were the cream of the crop and it was just our good luck that we were getting to observe such an amazing display of natural behaviour. I don’t think I have ever seen such determination and a dire need to procreate. It was an incredible event.

The first way in which to attract the female was through sending vibrations through the water. They would do this by bellowing deep and low. A male would use its entire diaphragm to push air through its body and then puff up it cheeks, creating a bellowing “boooo, boooooo” noise and thus sending vibrating ripples through the water. The puffing up of the cheeks also makes them look as big as possible and thus more dominant.

Of course with 20 other males doing the same thing chances of success were slim and this is when the fighting began. One male would stalk another and launch an attack. Often they would collide mid- air and with their big teeth blood would sometimes be drawn.

 

 

If a female dared move and expose herself a male was almost automatically onto her, quite literally. He is much larger than her and when this happened we could just see 2 little eye poking out from underneath him.

These males that had already obtained a female were still under threat from other males and they were under constant attack. Interestingly when the couple where challenged the male would leap away still firmly grabbing onto his female.

The spectacle lasted 4 hours and yet it went in the blink of an eye. It was utterly captivating and pure chaos reigned.

As you know animal personalities hold a special fascination to me and as such I always watch individuals closely. The bull frogs were no different and some males seemed more prone to being the attackers. One bullfrog in particular was lighter in colour, making him easy to identify, and he was definitely the meanest of the lot. He was so calculating in his attacks and was particularly brutal when he made contact. The funny thing was he didn’t get a female the whole time…I guess he needs to work on his manners a bit!

Chris being Chris could not help himself and was in the pond with them. He started way on the edge and as they gradually became used to his presence, and when we could see that he wasn’t disturbing them in any way, he was able to lie deeper in the pond. In the end mating couples were using him as cover and Chris was also under attack from other males creating some hilarious moments, and I of course was secretly hoping that he would be nipped. Well, he was never bitten but the bull frogs still had the last laugh. Having lain up in frog spawn for 4 hours Chris came out in an extremely itchy rash on his chest and legs…an uncomfortable few days followed!

We have waited many years to see something like this and I can say without doubt that it rates right up there with one of my most exciting natural events to have witnessed, just incredible!

While we were still intently watching the thicket we suddenly heard the thundering of hooves. We looked up and the cheetah was running head on towards the herd from the top of a small rise.

Part 2

A Day to Remember

The 25th of January will most certainly go down in our personal history books as one of our best bush days ever.

We were camping near an area called Tau Pan, a beautiful open pan about 6km in circumference and with a near constant water source it is always full of plains games and of course the presence of lion an cheetah almost guaranteed.

The afternoon before we had come across a female cheetah and her 2 teenage cubs as well as 2 male lions.

That morning we awoke to a slow drizzle and heavily overcast conditions. It definitely did not have the feel of an epic day to come.

But as we drove out of camp we spotted a mating pair of lions in the distance. We pushed on towards Tau Pan and on arrival as Chris stopped to check something I spotted a tan shape far in the distance… it was a male lion. As we approached we found it was a coalition of 4 male lions and they were laying up beautifully in the tall green grass. We spent a little while with them before heading on the do a slow lap of the pan.

 

Small herds of gemsbok and wildebeest dotted the pan as well as an impressive herd of about 200 springbok. With springbok being the mainstay of a cheetah’s diet we were on high alert and sure enough at the top end of the pan we came across the cheetah mum and her 2 cubs.

 

 

They crossed over the road into the thicket line and immediately began heading in the direction of the springbok. The springbok herd, being completely unaware of the threat, also began making their way towards the cheetah on an almost head on collision course.

I can’t tell you how many hours we have spent sitting and waiting for cheetah. Things rarely pan out and one’s patience is tested to the limit. This time however we felt sure we were about to witness a spectacular event. Already we were imagining the sight of 200 springbok fleeing as a cheetah chased through the herd. It certainly does not happened too often to have this potential situation of both predator and prey so close where one can actually see without straining. To give you an idea, I even had the 70-200mm lens ready to shoot with.

The adult mum disappeared into a thick area of bush. We lost sight of her and the springbok continued to approach closer and closer.

We repositioned the car so that the scene was right in front of us and kept our focus on the thicket…

There were a handful of gemsbok grazing with the springbok and Chris turned to me and said:

“The gemsbok could mess this one up…”

While we were still intently watching the thicket we suddenly heard the thundering of hooves. We looked up and the cheetah was running head on towards the herd from the top of a small rise.

We had obviously lost the cheetah as she slunk around the thick bush and around the back of the dune, moving herself into a more optimum position.

The noise of the panicked hooves was insane and mobilised us into action as we grabbed and lifted cameras. It was utter chaos with 200 springbok and a handful of gemsbok fleeing for their lives.

In the mass of moving animals I couldn’t even see where the cheetah was, all I could do was to keep firing away, and hope.

 

 

The stampeding mass moved behind the back of our car, across the road and back onto the pan. I jumped from driver’s seat to passenger seat and kept holding the trigger button down. Finally I could see the cheetah through my viewfinder.

She was just a hair’s breadth from a young springbok. Surely she couldn’t miss?

But the impossible happened and she did…

After slowing down she collapsed on the grass and sat heavily panting from the effort.

A short while later she despondently got up and went in search of her cubs empty handed once again, making us contemplate the challenges and difficulties of survival for these predators.

Within 5 minutes the springbok were back to normal as if nothing had ever happened. I guess this is all part of a normal day in their business of having to survive.

 

 

For Chris & I it was one of the most spectacular few seconds of wildlife watching we had ever seen at such close quarters and our adrenalin was on level 10!

When reviewing the images Chris’s prophecy of the gemsbok rang true. As the cheetah raced head on into the herd she was blocked perfectly by a gemsbok who continued to match her, as well as hide her, stride for stride.

I can’t tell you the frustration. The image of a racing cheetah with 200 springbok scattered before it… ah well…in wildlife photography the carrot is forever dangling tantalizingly close!

I don’t shoot very often so was immensely proud of my effort. Not quite full frame, but it does tell the story!

 

 

The day as amazing as it had been was however not yet quite finished. As we headed out of Tau Pan Chris spotted another female cheetah with a cub. The cub was extremely playful and seemed to be a great character. We watched him climb trees, play with his mom and chase a pair of jackals.

As afternoon approached we headed to our new campsite in The Passarge Valley. An afternoon thunderstorm greeted us and we were able to rejuvenate with a proper shower in the rain. There was the constant threat of being caught with shampoo still in one’s hair but I can tell you there is nothing quite like it; a shower in the rain is absolutely invigorating. 

Due to our fuel restrictions we could only budget our drive to 6km later that afternoon. Expecting just a very slow amber into the Passarge Valley and after the incredible morning we had just had we honestly expected very little from this drive. But, as we crested the dune veld and sat admiring the view of the valley below us Chris spotted something cat-like in the distance.

It was a lioness, and not just any lioness. She was crouched low and in a stalking position. To our left we could see a very tightly bunched herd of about 100 springbok. They must have been aware of the lioness as they appeared to be in a highly agitated state as they huddled together. One springbok stood guard at the front of the herd watching intently.

Suddenly they all turned and ran as one into the thick bush.

The lioness continued stalking forward, her head low to the ground, front shoulders up and belly almost touching the ground. She moved quickly in this fashion towards the herd.

To our surprise the springbok panicked and bolted back out the bush and directly into the path of the stalking lioness. She sprang upwards and immediately gave chase. The springbok scattered at high speed and in all directions as the lioness pursued them. We lost the lioness as she disappeared into the think bush but after looking at Chris’s images it was clear that she had managed to pounce on a young springbok and make a successful kill.

It was another phenomenal chase we had been able to witness, this time from a birds eye view. To see a predatory event in the bush is very rare and here we had just seen 2 two in one day!

Out of fuel budget and in excitement overload Chris & I sat on the tailgate of our 4x4, cracked an ice cold beer and as we reminisced about a truly incredible day we watched yet another magnificent storm cell building in the distance. Wow, after a day like we had just had its hard to imagine that the beauty and allure of Africa could be matched anywhere on the Planet!

 

 

 

Read part 3 here.

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