The Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) in Botswana spans 55,000 square kilometres and is the second largest wildlife reserve in Africa. It is one of the most remote places in Africa and when visiting here one needs to bring all fuel, water and food, and one needs to be completely self sufficient. There are also no fenced areas and all camping is in the complete wild of “the bush”, (“The Bush” is what we South African’s refer to as “The Wilderness” or “The Outback”). Chris & I had spent time here two years ago and it was a very easy decision to return here even though the camping can be considered rough, and with searing temperatures it can be at best uncomfortable. Very few people visit here and in our two week stay we saw no more than twelve other vehicles. There are also no phones or internet, it’s just a place to completely immerse oneself in nature and quite frankly there is nothing better for my soul!
January and February are considered the best months in The CKGR. This is the height of the rainy season, meaning that the animals will migrate from the dune veld into the river beds to graze. There has to have been enough rain to provide good grazing and with late rain this year our first week was rather quiet. The park was dramatically different compared to our visit two years ago. Areas where we had seen lush and long grass pastures had been reduced to dust bowls. It seemed to be a tough time for all. The predators especially seemed to be taking strain as their prey had not moved into the lions’ territories. We sadly saw a number of lions in poor condition and this was a tough sight to see.
A Special Lioness
Chris did happen to have one exceptional photographic opportunity on our very first morning. At first light we came across a lioness lying in the old campsite of Mark & Delia Owens of “Cry of the Kalahari” fame. This is a little oasis of trees and the foliage of green provided a beautiful green background. Chris snapped at the perfect moment as a shaft of early morning light caught her eye. Later that evening Chris spotted her again as she magnificently strolled across Deception Valley. He judged the spot where she would cross the road and we had an extremely close view as she passed right past our 4x4. This day was also our ten year wedding anniversary so it was a great memory to have on a very special day.
African Bull Frog
We were really hoping to have the chance to see African Bull frogs on the trip. They normally come out of aestivation after rain in order to breed. By the end of week one we had one big down pour. The very next day we nearly squashed a bull frog that had decided to make camp in a large pool in the road. One of our good friends who was travelling with us, Barrie Rose, is a keen naturalist with a great interest in herpetology. He felt it would be best if we moved him to a safer location as the next car would most certainly squash the frog whose pool was rapidly diminishing.
What followed was a few hilarious moments as we tried to find him in the pool, and catch him! For those who don’t know, these frogs have a serious bite and he was none too happy with us. I know I certainly let out a few girlish screams as it jumped towards me! We did successfully catch up and relocate the frog and not only did we get a great view of it, it also hopefully has a better chance of survival.
Our luck started to change at the end of the first week, just after the big thunderstorm. As we left Deception Valley we spotted a family of squirrels with nine babies close to the road. The morning light was beautiful again so Chris thought this would be a good opportunity to stop. I always like to stop and look at the “little” things. It was a brilliant forty minutes as we watched the family interact. I had not realised before how similar their behaviour is to meerkats. In the photos you can clearly see how alert for danger they are.
Not long after we had spent time with the squirrels we spotted a Honey badger in the road. The CKGR is one of the best places in Africa to have a chance of seeing these extremely feisty predators (they are similar to wolverines). In fact they are notorious for supposedly attacking male lion genitalia when under threat from them! So, you can imagine the character of this animal....
We saw about eight honey badgers on our last trip but did not manage to get one photograph of them. They were extremely skittish and would normally bolt for the bushes when our car approached. When we got closer to this particular animal he paid no attention to the car at all. He was extremely focused on his foraging and barely glanced up at us. Chris decided to try exit the car (which is allowed in the CKGR), so that he could photograph him from the ground. As he oh so carefully did this the honey badger still paid no attention and continued his hunt for tasty scorpions to eat.
Forty five minutes later all four of us were out of the car and sitting quietly as the Honey badger dug around us. Every few minutes the sand would fly high into the air as he dug and then he would promptly lope off in his jaunty gait. It was an incredible experience and I think it will be a long time until we find a Honey badger as relaxed as this one was. It was a little difficult to photograph as he barely had his head up, such was his intent on the scorpion holes but it certainly was a highlight of the trip. We did see another five Honey badgers, but no more photographs as they were as skittish as we know them to be.
An Emotional Sighting of a Brown Hyena
In twenty five trips to the bush, spanning over a year in duration, over the last twelve years I had only ever seen two brown hyenas. Not only are they nocturnal, but they are normally shy and retiring animals too. These two factors mean that it is rare if you do have the privilege of seeing one.
On this morning we were at The Piper’s Pan waterhole. Chris was lying beside the car taking photographs of the sandgrouse as they would land and take off in the water. Chris caught my attention by tapping quietly on the car. Behind him, a Brown hyena was approaching. My gosh, we were both so excited, this was such a special animal to see. It quietly walked no more than five meters from Chris, not aware of him at all on its approach to the water. As it started drinking we could finally see that there was something seriously wrong and that this was an extremely emaciated Brown hyena. It sat down in the water and barely had the strength to get up and walk to the shade of a nearby bush.
It was painful to watch and although all of us felt the privilege of seeing this animal it was certainly emotional to see an older animal during what was most likely its last day. We actually came across its tracks a few kilometres away, so it was obviously at a waterhole that it knew well and had used many times before. In the late afternoon it was still under the same bush, but the next morning it had departed. The end is inevitable but tough to watch when one is so passionate about nature.
Plains Game Under Stormy Skies & Dusty Surrounds
When going to the bush it is not just about the predators. The Plains game are also highly entertaining and provide beautiful photographic moments. In fact just being in the bush with its sounds and smells are a highlight. We don’t even need to see any animals!
This trip we spent a lot of time watching the springbok, wildebeest and gemsbok herds. There is a lot of very interesting social interaction happening all the time. The springbok are continually honking and snorting (I guess communicating with each other). They also pronk and joyfully chace one another. This highly energetic chasing was also prevalent amongst the wildebeest and gemsbok herds.
I guess the most beautiful scene was a late afternoon, just after a big rainstorm. Although the rain had stopped, other cumulonimbus clouds were forming around us and the setting sun was breaking through the cloud just above the horizon. The evening light was magnified and the clouds were illuminated. On the pan in front of us one hundred gemsbok peacefully grazed. Tt was truly magnificent and summed up precisely what makes The Kalahari so special.
Cheetah in the Rain
We spent a fantastic three days in the Tau Pan area. After very dusty conditions with few animals we approached a beautifully green Tau Pan with hundreds of plains game. Tau Pan was like paradise! Of course with so many animals we knew there would either be a lion pride or cheetah close by. It was not long before we found a female cheetah with two eight / nine month old cubs. There is a lodge in this area and the guides here know this cheetah family well. I guess the cheetah’s are also pretty relaxed with cars and people, and as such we had another amazing wildlife encounter with them. Whenever possible Chris tries to take photographs of animals from different angles. He has spent his entire life around wildlife and as such he has a good understanding of their behaviour, and his passion for predators means he wants to get as close as possible. Knowing and assessing each encounter on the merits of not only the safety to him, but also any possible disturbance to the wildlife. It is possible to get out of the car in The CKGR, and as such Chris normally likes to be lying flat on his belly photographing an approaching cat. He is very good at reading where they are moving to and always sets himself up ahead of them so that by the time the animal approaches, there is nothing new to think about. The most important thing is that the animal is not disturbed in any way. Second (and only on my insistence), is that Chris does not put himself in a compromising position.
Chris could tell that these cheetah were used to people so when we saw them crossing the Pan several hundred meters away, he knew they would be setting themselves up to lay down in the shady bushes opposite to where we were. We parked and waited. Although the cheetah mom was aware of Chris, she paid very little attention and casually passed by him. One of the cubs was a little more curious and gave him a second look before running along to play with its sibling. We waited the whole day with them expecting them to hunt if a springbok came close by, but by sunset they had not moved.
The next morning it was pouring with rain! On our arrival we found they had just made a successful kill. It was a springbok lamb so mom was already on the lookout for another meal. We sat with them for a good while, and when she started to really look like she was on the prowl we moved into a position roughly 500m away that was an open and likely hunting area.
From afar an adult wildebeest came upon them. This is not cheetah food for a single female cheetah (too big), but we thought there may be a bit of an interaction. Suddenly the cheetah mom started jogging... We thought this was due to the wildebeest. Then she started putting the pace on and we immediately thought that perhaps a lion was approaching them and she was getting her cubs out of the area. Chris swung the car around and as he did so I spotted a springbok lamb. This was the prey and I still can’t work out how she saw it. I also don’t know how the springbok picked up on the cheetah so quickly. A flat out chase proceeded right in front of us. The cheetah can reach a top speed of 110km per hour and she got pretty close to this. It was phenomenal to see. The springbok picked up on her too early for the cheetah to be successful, but with rain exploding off her back as she sprinted full stride it certainly made for a spectacular sighting.
The story wasn’t over though, and as the cheetah rested with her cubs she kept watching the bushes the young springbok had run into. The springbok mom then appeared and bleated its heart out calling for the lamb. The last thing we wanted to see was a lamb returning to its mom and being caught by the cheetah in the process. The more the mom called, the more we thought it likely the inevitable would be the death of the lamb. About thirty minutes later the lamb bolted out of the bush far to our left and joined its mom. It was incredible! It had snuck at least 400m around the cheetahs and had found its mom, completely out foxing the cheetah! It was a happy moment, especially since I am sure the cheetah would be able to obtain another meal soon.
Once they knew the game was up they continued into the bushes. The cheetah mom was again extremely relaxed with Chris. Then the same curious cheetah cub from the day before decided he had to know what this funny looking creature was. It came within two meters and I was so sure he would sniff Chris’s feet. As Chris was not moving a muscle the cheetah cub satisfied its curiosity and moved away. What a privileged way to end our encounter with them!
Aardwolf in the Day
This was a trip of a few special sightings, and Tan Pan gave us another special gift; an aardwolf. An aardwolf is a type of hyena that specialises in eating termites and insects. On an average night, an aardwolf can consume anywhere from 200,000 to 300,000 termites. It is also a nocturnal animal and not easy to see, especially in broad day light. Mid morning Barrie spotted a female aardwolf with two juveniles returning to their den. The mother was obviously aware of us sitting 200m away and she ran away from the den. This is a defensive strategy that is designed to focus the attention of predators away from the den. It also enabled us to get a great view of her as she had to walk a good 100m back towards us once she felt safe. This is the first time we have ever seen an aardwolf during the day. We were extremely lucky as the lodge guides that work at Tau Pan were supposedly not even aware of the den.
Lioness, Queens of the Kalahari
I am saving the best for last! The afternoon before this sighting Chris had spotted a male lion crossing Leopard Pan. He was calling for his mate and as such we were on the lookout for the evasive lioness too. During the night we could on and off hear the lion roaring and then the lioness answering in return. I can’t describe what this is like. To be lying in your tent and listening to the call between the pair of lions, it is breath-taking, and not in a scary way at all.
In the morning we had a pretty good idea in which direction to head. A lions roar can travel far and we had last heard them in the early hours. Just after dawn we came upon them on Leopard Pan. The male was lying some distance away from three magnificent lionesses. It appeared that one of the lionesses was the mom to two almost full grown adult females. They were still extremely playful, and this provided some beautiful sights as these two lithe and athletic predators ran about.
It’s a different story photographing lions off the ground, compared with cheetah, so Chris started from a long way off using the car to protect his back. They were very comfortable with the car, and as they ran and played along the pan they came closer and closer. The early morning light was beautiful and looking through my binoculars I could see that Mom had a gorgeous brown fleck in her right eye. To give you a quick laugh, we had bought ourselves a new pair of Swarovski binoculars last year, and I only discovered on this last trip that we had the settings for someone with short sightedness. Chris couldn’t understand what all our friend’s ravings about these binoculars were about up until this point. I can tell you that putting it on the right setting has taken my game viewing to new levels. And now I know why the binoculars were so expensive! Anyway, I was admiring the lionesses through the binos when suddenly they were filling the frame. I always very closely watch for Chris (as he is just looking through the lens), so when they kept coming in a straight line (again it was just the path they were walking on, they did not change direction to approach us), I had my hand ready on the hooter, just in case. They had come so close, within ten meters, that Chris could not get up and ease back into the car. It would have changed the entire dynamic and I am not sure what the sudden movement would have done to the lionesses. Chris had to stay put!
I don’t think he minded though. He was in his element with three huge lionesses bearing down on him as they touched shoulders like three warriors psyching up before battle. He was savouring the experience with Africa’s great cats. My heart was in my mouth! At the ten meter mark they just casually veered slightly to the left and kept on walking. Wow, what an incredible wildlife moment!
Both Chris and I are very aware and conscious about being in close proximity to predators, both on the land and in the sea. It constantly amazes me how accommodating they are to share their space with us. I wish humans would behave the same way. They talk to you with body language all the time so the key is to listen to them. Just remember that Chris has spent his life trying to understand animal behaviour, particularly predators, so he understands the risks and can anticipate a problem before it evolves. It's also something he loves doing and like a racing driver understands the risks but uses his experience to minimise them.
And so our two week stay in the CKGR sadly came to an end. Its tough being back in a city when you are used to peace and quiet, but the last few months of our Mako and Blue sharks trips is beckoning. We had such a fantastic time in the bush and we can’t wait until the next trip!