Posts Tagged ‘Wildlife’

South Luangwa National Park, Zambia – October 2013

Sunrise over the South Luangwa catches an breeding herd of elephants on the move

Sunrise over the South Luangwa catches a breeding herd of elephants on the move

October was dominated by a three-week assignment to Zambia’s flagship national park. The late dry season is an incredible time to be in the bush, especially a wildlife-rich place like the South Luangwa. The game viewing was outstanding; the people were friendly; and the conservation work was nothing short of inspirational.

Kindly assisted by Robin Pope Safaris (RPS), the trip focused on the outstanding work being done by the South Luangwa Conservation Society (SLCS) – www.slcszambia.org – to support the dysfunctional wildlife authority in managing this important African asset. Working hand-in-hand with SLCS is another laudable NGO: the dynamic Zambian Carnivore Programme (ZCP) – www.zambiacarnivores.org.

A ZCP research team fit a VHF radio collar to a lioness

ZCP researchers fit a VHF radio collar to a lioness

Headquartered in the South Luangwa, the ZCP is a non-profit research organisation dedicated to conserving Zambia’s large carnivore species as well as protecting the pristine ecosystems in which they reside. Under the leadership of the tireless Dr Matt Becker the organisation also focuses some of its seemingly inexhaustible energy on finding, training, mentoring and supporting promising Zambian wildlife professionals to attain internationally recognised graduate degrees based on their research data. The admirable long-term thinking being that competent, well-trained Zambians must take responsibility for their own wildlife heritage.

Zambia is an impressive country with relatively low population density and a rich wildlife heritage conserved within thousands of square kilometres of protected natural habitat. The country’s three most impressive national parks centre on its three greatest rivers – the Zambezi, Kafue and Luangwa – but it is the iconic South Luangwa that tops this list.

A joint SLCS-ZCP team removes a thick wire snare

A joint SLCS-ZCP team removes a thick wire snare

Sadly, however, things in paradise aren’t quite as perfect as they might seem at first glance. It didn’t take long to discover that the South Luangwa and its surrounding Game Management Areas (GMAs) are under ever-increasing pressure from hungry local communities and, more worryingly, the commercial bush-meat trade. Wire snaring is endemic and if current trends continue, this gruesome and indiscriminate form of poaching will ultimately finish Zambia’s wildlife.

I was fortunate enough to join a joint SLCS-ZCP team when they went out to locate and dart a snared lioness. It was a hectic experience to see a lioness so severely incapacitated by her deep neck wound; but also uplifting to see her resilience after the team had removed the wire snare and cleaned up her wounds. Rachel McRobb of SLCS estimated that this Chowo lioness was probably around the 300th animal they had successfully de-snared to date.

To address these challenges, real benefits and a dramatic mindset shift have to be achieved within the communities that surround the park. But considering the number of local people involved, it’s a monumentally difficult task. One shining light in this area is the donor-funded Chipembele Wildlife Education Centre – www.chipembele.org – which is actively educating secondary school kids in the Mfuwe area as to the value of wildlife and the importance of the wildlife-based economy to the region.

South Luangwa is home to some of the best wildlife viewing and animal encounters on the continent

South Luangwa is home to some of the best wildlife viewing and animal encounters on the continent

Fortunately, my South Luangwa assignment wasn’t all ‘work’ and no play… I was lucky enough to also sample a number of the Robin Pope Safaris – www.robinpopesafaris.net – lodges and bush camps.  After easing my way into the Luangwa lifestyle at Luangwa River Camp in the perennially popular Mfuwe area, I headed northeast and into the wilder Nsefu sector.  It was here that I sampled what I believe to be one of the finest African safari products currently available: Luangwa Bush Camping.

It's not just the 'big n hairies' that impress

South Luangwa is not just about the ‘big and hairies’

Restricted to a maximum of six guests and under the watchful eye of Kanga (our expert nature guide) and his team, I enjoyed a three-day walking safari from this mobile bush camp. We ate like kings and slept alongside the river in an unbelievably luxurious tented camp that moved site every day after we set out on foot. The animals were thick on the ground and aside from the ubiquitous hippos, crocodiles, puku, impala and baboons; we were treated to exciting encounters with elephant, lion and leopard almost every day. Luangwa Bush Camping was the highlight of my Luangwa safari and I would wholeheartedly recommend this (or one of RPS’s other mobile safari options) to any safari enthusiast who enjoys experiencing nature up close and personal on foot.

The RPS segment of my trip concluded with three nights at the newly renovated Tena Tena bush camp.  It was a great spot and the wildlife viewing was outstanding. Nothing more so than witnessing seven lions killing an adult male buffalo in an epic hour-long battle that saw the old dugga boy throwing lions off his muzzle and putting up a spirited fight. It was a never-to-be-fogotten sighting and a fitting way to end my assignment into one of Africa’s greatest game parks.

Survival of the fittest: he wilds of Africa are a harsh and unforgiving place

The wilds of Africa are a harsh and unforgiving place where only the strongest survive

Exploring Maputaland in Northern KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa – July 2013

KwaZulu-Natal's Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve remains South Africa's rhino stronghold

KwaZulu-Natal’s Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve remains South Africa’s premier rhino stronghold

Stretching from the Mozambique border to Sodwana Bay and inland to the Swazi frontier, the wild Maputaland region lies in the far northeast corner of KwaZulu-Natal (www.zulu.org.za). This beautiful and sparsely populated area is one of the most splendidly diverse and unspoilt landscapes in Southern Africa. Sprinkled with coastal lakes, freshwater pans and sluggish rivers, it’s home to a slew of pristine game reserves, wetland parks and marine protected areas: an alluring prospect for any nature enthusiast. During early July I had the opportunity to take the new RAV4 and a Toyota-fanatic friend, Tim Korving, on a circuitous route through Maputaland to explore the hidden reaches of this often under-rated South African outpost as part of an exciting SA 4×4 magazine assignment.

Northern KZN 003 (Tembe)

Sunset in Tembe Elephant Park

We kicked off our 4×4 exploration of the northern KZN game reserves in wildlife-rich Hluhluwe. Once the royal hunting ground of King Shaka, the towering grassland hills and low lying thornveld of Hluhluwe-iMfolozi have metamorphosed into a world-renowned Big 5 game reserve that is recognised as the pride of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s portfolio of protected areas (www.kznwildlife.com).

From Hluhluwe we moved on to Mkuze – another of Africa’s earliest game reserves that today constitutes the 40 000ha uMkhuze Section of the iSimangaliso Wetland World Heritage Site (www.isimangaliso.com). With Sand Forest giving way to gently undulating grasslands, peppered with flat-top acacias and fever tree-choked drainage lines, the park is well-known amongst ornithologists for its varied habitat and rich birdlife. Twitchers tend to concentrate their energies on Nsumo Pan and the neighbouring fig tree forests, while wildlife enthusiasts focus their energies on Kumasinga Hide: the most productive of Mkuze’s four recently refurbished game-viewing hides.

Situated deep inside Maputaland and abutting Mozambique, Ndumo Game Reserve centres on the Pongola and Usutu rivers. At 10 117ha it is a small reserve with a big reputation. Most people know Ndumo as one of the top birding destinations in Southern Africa and while this is beyond dispute (a staggering 430 species have been recorded in the park), this widely-acclaimed twitcher territory is by no means the exclusive domain of binocular-toting birders. Ndumo’s wilderness walks are another highly entertaining and informative activity available to park visitors.

The idyllic campsite at Ndumo Game Reserve

The idyllic campsite at Ndumo Game Reserve

The next stop on our Maputaland circuit was Tembe. Established in 1983 on Tribal Trust land, the 30 013ha Tembe Elephant Park (www.tembe.co.za) is dominated by sand forest and the game-rich Muzi Swamp in the east. It is home to an abundance of wildlife, including African wild dogs and a burgeoning lion population (over 40 at last count). While Tembe’s carnivores eluded us, the park’s elephants did not. Tembe has built its reputation on its gigantic tuskers. More than 200 of these gentle giants tramp the sandy paths of this pristine wilderness and we soon discovered that sightings are all but guaranteed from the hide overlooking Mahlasela waterhole as well as at nearby Mfungeni Pan. If you have time to visit just one game park in KwaZulu-Natal, I would unreservedly recommend it be the meandering sand tracks of the gloriously wild Tembe Game Reserve.

The RAV4 dominated deep sand, mud and water crossings

The RAV4 dominated sand, mud and water crossings

Having identified an exciting-looking 4×4 route down the exotically-named Elephant Coast of the gigantic iSimangaliso Wetland Park (www.isimangaliso.com) as the perfect grand finale of our Maputaland adventure, we set off along the scenic coastal route from Bhanga Nek to Sodwana. The deep sandy tracks took us first to scenic Dog Point, where we stopped to watch a couple of humpback whales breaching offshore, before continuing on past the breathtakingly beautiful beaches of Rocktail Bay in the Maputaland Marine Reserve and passing Lake Sibaya en route to Sodwana.

With our northern KwaZulu-Natal circuit complete and our great Maputaland adventure rapidly drawing to a close, we returned to Hluhluwe-iMfolozi for our final night, splashing out to stay at the secluded Nselweni Bush Camp overlooking the iMfolozi River. Much later that evening as I sat alone on the veranda savouring my last night in the wilderness, the rasping cough of a territorial leopard snapped me from my musings. A few seconds later the guttural roars of a distant lion pride joined the harmony. As I sat there in awe of the primordial melody resonating from the darkness, the melancholy whoop of a lone hyaena added its voice to the wilderness refrain. To me their bushveld chorus sounded grander than any orchestra or opera, but the real privilege was that the animals of Maputaland were bellowing their farewell song for an appreciative audience of one!

The pristine beach at Bhanga Nek in the Muputaland Marine Reserve

The pristine beach at Bhanga Nek in the Maputaland Marine Reserve of iSimangaliso Wetland Park

On Safari in the Eastern Cape and Sabi Sands, South Africa – Feb 2013

Great Fish River Lodge exudes luxury and charm in the midst of scenically spectacular Kwandwe

The first week of February saw Katherine and me take family visiting from America on an Eastern Cape wildlife safari. Unbeknownst to many, the Eastern Cape is home to six of South Africa’s seven major biomes: a veritable botanic melting pot that supports a diverse spectrum of wildlife scattered across breathtakingly beautiful and historically rich landscapes. With the traditional Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo) in residence and the great white shark and southern right whale frequenting its marine protected areas, the Eastern Cape can rightfully claim to be home to the Magnificent Seven, providing a grand finale to any journey down the Garden Route. From affordable Addo to exclusive Kwandwe, the Eastern Cape boasts a wealth of safari options to suit every wallet.

The belligerent black rhino bull

We kicked off our safari at Kwandwe (www.kwandwe.com) – the Eastern Cape’s premier private game reserve. The luxurious splendour of their flagship safari product – Great Fish River Lodge – was our home-away-from-home for the duration of our four-day stay. Our guiding duo of Doc and Siza were steadfastly dedicated to the task of hunting down the Big Five, but, for us, it was the top-quality rhino sightings that proved the game-viewing highlight of our Kwandwe safari experience. This well-protected rhino haven spoilt us with one crash of white rhino after another – many with young calves in tow – not to mention a big belligerent black rhino bull that took an instant disliking to our open-top game-viewer!

Add to this sightings of two lionesses with their four sub-adult cubs finishing off a black wildebeest kill while the satiated black-maned king slumbered in the shade nearby; a trio of ever-alert cheetah; a regal leopard patrolling his territory; a rare brown hyaena; a pair of bat-eared foxes with pups; an elephant family fording the Fish River; a huge herd of buffalo slaking their thirst and the full spectrum of general game… and you have a wildlife-viewing experience that stands tall alongside SA’s very best.

With five-star accommodations, elaborate menus, impeccable service and close up sighting of over 30 large mammal species in surprisingly scenic surrounds, there is no disputing that a Kwandwe safari has plenty to offer first-timers and old-hands alike.

An elephant bull grazes in the Colchester Section of Addo

Our next safari stop was the perennial favourite Addo…

While the constantly expanding Addo Elephant National Park (www.addoelephantpark.com) is home to the Magnificent Seven and synonymous with some of the best elephant-viewing in all of Africa, it offers considerably more to the discerning safari connoisseur. Whether you opt for self-drive or guided game drives, 4×4 adventuring, hiking, horse-back safaris, birding or whale-watching, Addo has something for everyone.

Accommodation options are just as varied, although in my opinion there is one option that stands head-and-shoulders above the rest: the intimate 10-bed Spekboom Tented Camp that lies in the heart of Addo’s prime game-viewing section. Comprising five large permanent dome tents with real beds and fresh linens, it’s a simple, but comfortable, camp with 24hour access to a hide overlooking the local waterhole where a big bull elephant in musth provided some quality entertainment when he angrily chased kudu and warthogs from the water’s edge.

Each evening, as Orion chased Taurus across the night sky, a quartet of jackals serenaded us to sleep in our little camp at the end of yet another highly memorable day in this incredibly diverse national park. Before nodding off on the final evening, I relived the day’s highlights: a magical morning spent conquering the half-day Doringnek Hiking Trail in the Zuurberg section of the park, a rare caracal sighting on our game drive, not to mention an obligatory elephantine extravaganza of thirsty beasts swimming and drinking, and the unexpected bonus of a relaxed black rhino patrolling his territory in the recently opened Colchester section of the park.

Although it’s been labelled a ‘soft safari option’ by detractors in years gone by, I was impressed to discover that the Eastern Cape has metamorphosised into a genuine safari destination, boasting outstanding wildlife-viewing without the crowds. Get the full safari story at: www.stevecunliffe.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/Explore-SA-Eastern-Cape-Safaris.pdf

Addo is home to some of the highest densities of elephants to be found anywhere in Africa

February was the month for safaris and after a short break back in Cape Town where we found time to walk the stunning Orangekloof section of the Hoerikwaggo Hiking Trail (www.hoerikwaggotrail.org), we flew to Nelspruit – gateway to the Sabi Sands – for a weeklong safari with friends.

An impala ram in his prime is still no match for a cheetah

Thanks to a generous invitation from our good friends Duncan and Kirsti Gutsche, we were staying at a cool private lodge on Buffelshoek game farm in the far northeast of the park. Cruise Camp, barely a frog’s hop from the unfenced Kruger boundary, is slap-bang in the midst of a highly productive game-viewing sector of the internationally acclaimed reserve.

The Sabi Sands Private Game Reserve (www.sabisand.co.za) garnered a deserved reputation as a stronghold for prolific and well-habituated wildlife. The result of this is unsurpassed game-viewing opportunities even in the height of the green season. In ten plus visits to the Sands I’ve never had a disappointing wildlife experience with each trip being a different degree of WOW and this one was no different.

The 'sundowner' is a time-honoured African tradition

From observing marula-loving elephants to lazy old duggaboys; from watching a male cheetah feeding on an impala to tracking a trio of male lions; from trailing a leopard with her two young cubs to some of the best-ever rhino sightings… this is a park that always delivers.

We made a point of taking our time to savour our sightings and in return we were rewarded with memorable encounters and opportunities to appreciate and interpret the animal behaviour on display. Throw in some ice-cold beers, delicious gin & tonics, tasty snacks, enthusiastic nature-loving friends and you have a perfect concoction for a action-packed, fun-filled safari that we all wished would go on at least another week!

In spite of the 'rhino genocide' currently ranging in neighbouring Kruger... the Sabi Sands Private Game Reserve remains a bastion for the beleaguered species

Kruger National Park Wilderness Trails, South Africa – Jan 2013

The view over the Olifants River from Barry's Rocks ... The ultimate KNP sundowner spot

Following rumours that the wilderness ethic was making a strong comeback on the Kruger’s multi-day hiking trails, I set off on a two-week Wild magazine assignment to discover whether this ‘wilderness renaissance’ was fact or fiction.

Night shooting is an essential skill for KNP Backpack Trails Guides

Having been invited to attend the Kruger Backpack Trails Guides’ Annual Workshop and AGM from the 7th – 12th of January, I spent my first week in the company of some of Kruger’s most knowledgable and experienced Trails Guides. I listened to a useful talk on bush first aid, enjoyed a practical presentation on snakes and scorpions, a lecture on Anthrax, a talk on KNP’s anti-poaching, as well as participating on a two-day track and sign evaluation. The incredibly interesting and enlightening week finished up with Advanced Rifle Handling (ARH) assessments, which included jungle lane and night shooting exercises! There’s no doubt in my mind that Kruger’s backpack trails are led by some of Africa’s most well-trained and highly skilled Trails Guides.

Aside from all the ‘hard’ skills that were being taught and tested on the workshop, Kruger’s finest spent the evenings gathered around a modest campfire honing their ‘soft’ skills by sharing personal insights into what ‘wilderness’ meant for each of them. The evening hours whizzed by as these gurus of the bush debated how best to convey the spirit and majesty of the park’s pristine wilderness areas to their trail guests.

I found it an energising experience to be in the company of these like-minded and passionate walking guides. Certainly, if my weeklong workshop experience is anything to go by, I would unreservedly recommend signing up for a primitive backpack trail with out delay. The multi-day Olifants, Lonely Bull and Mphongolo self-supported trails await you…

Wilderness appreciation and reconnecting with nature is a vital element of any Kruger trails experience

Unfortunately, the first backpack trails of the year don’t start until early February (with the strenuous Olifants River Backpack Trail only getting underway in April after the rains and extreme heat have dissipated), so I signed up instead for a couple of the traditional ‘base-camp’ wilderness trails. With a choice of the Bushman’s, Metsi-Metsi, Nyalaland, Napi, Oliphants, Sweni and Wolhuter trails, I opted for the Olifants in the north followed by the Metsi-Metsi in the south. These fully catered, three-night trails operate from fixed eight-bed camps where a highly competent cook prepares all meals while participants accompany two extremely knowledgable and highly competent Trails Guides on twice-daily walks in the surrounding wilderness area. Find out more at: www.sanparks.org/parks/kruger/tourism/activities/wilderness/default.php

Our trail was led by the experienced duo of Sean Pattrick and Aron Mokansi who, over the course of the next couple of days, treated us to… a lion tracking experience on foot; walked us into a large herd of elephants; showed us (an increasingly rare) white rhino cow and calf; and shared the epic scenery that surrounds their favourite Olifants wilderness area haunts.

The trail culminated with some rare ‘alone time’ deep in the wilderness… Aron checked the area was safe while Sean selected a well-positioned rock, overlooking a vast tract of pristine riverine wildland, for each of us. For the next half-hour we were left to reflect on the beauty of nature and imbibe the wilderness spirit on our own. I found the experience of being alone with my thoughts in the wilderness an incredibly powerful – near sacred – experience.

As we reminisced around the campfire later that evening, our small group of trailists enthusiastically relived the trail’s many memorable highlights. Inevitably elephants, rhinos and the previous day’s lion tracking dominated the early fireside exchanges but later the conversation evolved into a fascinating discussion on wilderness and its immeasurable value to society. With the fire reduced to embers, I finally tore myself away and headed for bed knowing without a shadow of a doubt that Kruger’s trails were in good hands and the wilderness ethic on backpack trails was alive and kicking

The Olifants River rose three metres overnight but the worst was still to come...

Later that night the heavens opened to unleash a thunderstorm more vicious than any I’ve encountered to date. It was impossible to sleep through the deafening thunder cracks, as rain bucketed down and lightening streaked across an angry night sky.

Rising at dawn, I was shocked to see the river had risen a couple of metres overnight, transforming the Olifants into an angry, muddy maelstrom churning past our trails camp.

A bird's eye view of the flooded Kruger

It’s just as well we’re headed home today I thought… any more rain and Kruger’s rivers might start to make life difficult for us.

Joining the other trailists and guides in the open-top game-viewer, we immediately set off for Letaba. We should be there in just over an hour I mused as we slid along the waterlogged track. Ten minutes later we rounded a corner and descended towards the first of three small tributaries we needed to cross. The trickle of the day before had been replaced by an angry torrent over 15 metres wide and three metres deep.

We were stranded with no way out until the water subsided. Our guides radioed a situation report into HQ and we retreated to camp to wait it out. I crawled into bed for a nap.

The Letaba high-water bridge underwater

The thud of rotor blades invaded my slumbering mind and snapped me back from dreamland. I looked at my watch; it was 2pm. Outside the sky was heavy and foreboding.  The sound grew steadily louder.

Sean popped his head in the door and said, “Come on; let go. There’s more rain on the way and they’re choppering us outa here before it hits.”

I didn’t need another invite; I had always dreamed of flying over the Kruger Park. Charles – our lively and entertaining Zimbo pilot – strapped us in and gave us headphones before lifting off. The SANParks’ chopper dipped over the ridge and flew low over the swollen Olifants. The scenes below were incredible with hippos huddled in eddies trying to escape the powerful torrent sweeping by. We cut across to the Letaba River where I noticed the low water bridge had already disappeared underwater. (What I didn’t realise was that in just 24 hours the high water bridge would follow suit below the runaway river.)

Landing at the Letaba helipad, after a scintillating 20 minute flight enjoying a vulture’s view of Kruger’s rapidly rising rivers, I appreciated how fortunate I had been. After all, there can be no better way to end a Kruger visit than a SANParks’ helicopter evacuation: the ultimate ‘grand finale’ to an entertaining and exciting KNP Wild assignment.

Sean Pattrick and Aron Mokansi in action on the Olifants Wilderness Trail

Kgalagadi Transfrontier Conservation Area, South Africa – Dec 2012

The stately gemsbok - also known as an oryx - is perfectly adapted to life in the waterless dunes

December picked up where November left off as we embarked on a 1076km road trip from Cape Town to the Kalahari (www.sanparks.org/parks/kgalagadi/) for Christmas. A visit to the red desert in the height of summer is not everyone’s idea of the perfect Christmas present, but there is no denying the Kgalagadi TFCA is a very special place and – for me – the prospect of watching gigantic thunderstorms build over the rolling dunes before unleashing their fury on the parched red sand was an intoxicating prospect.

Two springbok rams fight ferociously

The amalgamation of the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park in South Africa and the Gemsbok National Park in Botswana on the 12th of May 2000 gave birth to the 3,6 million hectare Kgalagadi TFCA: one of the largest protected wilderness areas in Africa.

Our trip concentrated on the South African side of this scenically spectacular Peace Park and rather than visit the traditional rest camps of Twee Rivieren, Mata-Mata and Nossob, we chose instead to spend our two weeks exploring the park’s smaller Wilderness Camps. These intimate and exclusive 8-bed camps are unfenced and boast comfortable, intelligently designed, self-catering accommodation where you can escape the 40°C summer heat!

A resident brown hyaena at Bitterpan

Passing through Upington on our way north, we traded our VW Polo for a Toyota Hilux double cab from Kalahari 4×4 Rental (www.walkersmidas.co.za/companies/upington-4×4-rental/), specifically to allow us to conquer the dunes and access the remote 4×4 Wilderness Camps of Gharagab (with its resident brown hyaena and jackals) and Bitterpan (with its extremely productive waterhole drawing lions, hyaena and jackal on a nightly basis). Add to this a couple of nights perched atop a red dune at Kieliekrankie followed by the honeymoon suite at Kalahari Tented Camp and you have an almost unbeatable Kgalagadi itinerary. The cherry on the top was spending our final three nights at !Xaus Lodge (www.xauslodge.co.za/): a 24-bed private concessionaire-run lodge on the ancestral lands of the traditional Mier and Khomani San communities in the west of the park, offering the only fully catered and guided safari experience available in the TFCA.

The arid Kgalagadi landscapes are absolutely mesmerising, but it was our epic wildlife encounters that stole the show. The dry Nossob and Auob riverbeds are the focal point for large herds of antelope and their ever-attendant predators; and we were privileged to encounter more brown hyaena and big black-maned lions than you could shake a stick at, not to mention a coalition of male cheetah on the hunt and a young leopard reclining in a shady camel thorn. Watching springbok rams spar viciously and a ewe give birth right in front of us augmented an already top-notch wildlife extravaganza in this family-friendly, retiree-friendly, everyone-friendly national park.

With our car battery having given up the ghost and smelly sulphurous fumes leaking into the cab, I started to feel bad about continually asking my pregnant wife to push-start the vehicle. So, when the novelty of begging a jump-start from passing motorists soon wore off, we reluctantly bid farewell to the Kalahari and its wild denizens … But the red desert is an addictive place and I know it won’t be too long before it calls us back for visit number eleven!

!Xaus Lodge enjoys an enviable dune-top position overlooking a giant salt pan

Chobe and the Okavango Delta, Botswana – Nov 2012

The outstanding &Beyond team stationed at Chobe Under Canvas mobile camp

The wildlife-viewing experience in Chobe during the late dry season is truly in a league all of its own and there’s no disputing that this is one of Africa’s greatest game parks. Despite Chobe being a veritable Mecca for elephant enthusiasts from around the globe, I’ve always had one small criticism of the place … Personally, I feel the nature experience associated with the park’s incredible wildlife densities – especially the vast herds of elephant, buffalo and their ever-attendant lion prides – is diluted by the vehicle congestion around the Sedudu Entrance Gate. The problem arises from the fact that there are no concessions inside the park, so a plethora of big lodges and hotels have sprung up around Kasane with everyone then forced to make use of the same gate and well-worn eastern sector of the reserve for their game drives. Exacerbated by the park’s ever-increasing popularity, this long-standing problem has finally been overcome with the launch of luxury mobile safaris in Chobe .

Botswana's national bird

Innovative &Beyond introduced their latest safari offering – ‘Chobe Under Canvas’ (www.andbeyondafrica.com) – a few years back with the temporary tented camp affording ten privileged guests a unique opportunity to enjoy the relaxing solitude of sleeping at a secluded wilderness campsite deep inside the game-rich Chobe National Park. And, although Chobe Under Canvas is marketed as a “rustic mobile camp”, I have to say that in my opinion the camp’s elegant simplicity, friendly atmosphere and ultra-comfortable en-suite tents would be far better described as “Botswana’s ultimate ‘glam-ping’ [glamour camping] experience!”

Over the course of five highly memorable days in the company of expert nature guide Stanza Molaodi, we were treated to an almost gluttonous wildlife extravaganza. The rains were late, which ensured a continuous procession of elephants, buffalo, zebra and the like trekking to and from the Chobe River on a daily basis. Lions lazing in the shade nearby kept an eye on the passing menu until the sinking sun finally galvanized them into action.

The sight and sound of a couple of powerful lionesses hungrily devouring a stately sable was an experience we certainly won’t forget in a hurry; a young leopard snoozing in the V of a tree was another Chobe highlight. But it wasn’t all about the predators… Katherine – like most ladies – was enamoured by all the young being dropped to coincide with the arrival of the first rains: tiny warthog piglets and gangly impala lambs being the most ubiquitous of the diminutive newcomers.

Sleeping under crisp linens and listening to the primordial roars of a distant pride filter through the canvas walls of our ‘Chobe Palace’ on the final night before we moved on to the Okavango, my wife and I were in total agreement that there is no better way to get up close-and-personal with Botswana’s wildlife than on an extremely rewarding &Beyond Under Canvas safari excursion.

A hyaena den located 15 minutes from Nxabega provides safari goers with hours of entertainment

Next stop was the Okavango Delta. Oft referred to as ‘the river that never finds the sea’, Botswana’s freshwater ocean is a watery wilderness teeming with wildlife deep within the arid Kalahari Desert. Boasting a picturesque palm-peppered landscape with exceptional game-viewing opportunities, our Okavango safari experience didn’t disappoint.

The silent hunter

Over the course of four action-packed days amongst the tree-covered islands, croc-infested crystal-clear channels and grassy floodplains of the jewel of the Kalahari, we enjoyed some sensational sightings in the care of Max; although two stood out above the rest… Dawn visits to an active hyaena den with three exuberant and inquisitive cubs became a daily ritual, but it was an elegant female leopard that stole the show. Katherine first spotted the graceful feline reclining in a shady Sausage Tree and, after an impressively agile descent, the stealthy cat proceeded to stalk a gang of banded mongoose before upgrading to impala shortly thereafter. The hours whizzed by as we spent a privileged afternoon in her regal company.

But our Delta experience wouldn’t be complete without mention of &Beyond Nxabega Okavango Tented Camp (www.nxabega.com). This permanent canvas lodge consists of nine exquisitely appointed safari tents nestled within a riverine forest overlooking the reeded channels and expansive lagoons of a private 7,000ha concession on the edge of the permanent swamp. Raised on wooden platforms with private viewing decks, the opulent tents provided weary nature enthusiasts – such as ourselves – with a tranquil abode in which to recuperate in style. Imaginative menus, delicious food and exemplary service completed a truly five-star Nxabega safari experience.

A stormy sunset over the palm-fringed Okavango Delta

Khaudum, Sisheke and Zambezi Whitewater, Namibia & Zambia – Aug 2012

Spotted hyaena feed on a kudu carcass while thousands of flamingoes look on at Nyae Nyae Pan

After a thoroughly enjoyable summer holiday in the USA, August was devoted to a long-awaited and much anticipated JavZam work trip to explore the Sisheke District in the northern sector of the KAZA TFCA (http://www.kavangozambezi.org/).

I departed Cape Town with three work colleagues on a drizzly winter’s morning for Namibia; first stop was seldom-visited Khaudum (http://www.met.gov.na/Documents/Khaudum%20National%20Park.pdf) in northeast Namibia. This arid park falls within the KAZA TFCA and is quite possibly Namibia’s wildest national park. Elephants are dime a dozen here and anyone with a soft spot for these giant pachyderms should make sure a trip to Khaudum features prominently on their safari bucket list.

Khaudum is wild tract of arid Namibian wilderness where elephant herds outnumber tourists 10:1

After 5 days exploring the wilds of Khaudum and its neighbouring flamingo-rich Nyae-Nyae Pans, we reluctantly bid farewell to the elephant herds and made our way through the Caprivi to try out the new Sioma Border Post north of Kongola.  A fancy new road terminated in the middle of nowhere and we were forced to backtrack 17km to find the Namibian ‘immigration table’ perched under a shady tree!  In contrast the Zambian side had some very fancy new immigration offices, but no road yet!  All this made for a great adventure as we eventually figured everything out.  Later, we learned that we were the first visitors to use this new KAZA tourist facility, which had only officially opened 5 weeks earlier.

The primary reason for our trip was to conduct a thorough reconnaissance of the Sisheke District and Sioma Ngwezi National Park as these areas make up the core area for the exciting and ambitious Sisheke Conservation Project (http://www.sisheke.com/).

An inquisitive wild dog at Katuli Pools on the edge of Sioma Ngwezi NP

For the next two weeks we drove, boated and flew through out the 3,000,000ha Sisheke Conservation Area that was recently awarded to JavZam to manage and develop on behalf of the Barotse Royal Establishment for the benefit of the local people and wildlife alike.

In amongst clocking up many miles investigating this massive tract of wilderness, we also managed to catch a few tiger fish and find a pack of 16 wild dogs!  Sadly, we also saw the unsustainable practices of escalating elephant poaching, widespread logging and uncontrolled burning at every turn. The area has incredible potential but huge challenges as well.

After a couple of weeks deep in the bush, we headed for a well-earned break in Livingstone where the folks at Safari Par Excellence (http://www.safpar.com/) treated us to a great day of world-class whitewater on the mighty Zambezi.  After an adrenalin-charged morning of river boarding where it was hard not to feel like crocodile bait, we abandoned our little body boards in favour of a more sociable self-bailing raft for the afternoon session.  The rapid-infested Zambezi is a very special river and it’s hard to imagine there’s any better way to spend an action-packed day in the wilds of Africa.

Tackling the wet and wild Class V whitewater with SAFPAR on the mighty Zambezi River in Zambia

Royal Malewane and the Lowveld, South Africa – May 2012

It was a social start to the month of May when Mike Arbuthnot and Cath Salmon tied the knot and we celebrated in royal style at the indomitable Suikerbossie Restaurant (www.suikerbossie.co.za) above Hout Bay. This tried-and-tested venue was a sure-fire recipe for festive success and, with the photo booth working overtime, there were plenty of intriguing photo strips to help the more inebriated guests reconstruct the events of their wild evening on Sunday morning.

The biggest surprise of the month was a last minute request and invitation to fly up to Royal Malewane (www.royalmalewane.com) in the Greater Kruger National Park for four days. The reasons for my visit were twofold… Firstly, the lodge was desperately short of rangers so, with the post-Indaba influx of travel agents, I was asked to please come up and help them out as a freelance guide.  Secondly, the high density of well-travelled tour operators and agents afforded an excellent opportunity to promote the Sisheke Conservation Project (www.sisheke.com) and our dynamic Zambian conservation initiative.

It was a real treat to be back on Thornybush Game Reserve and I revelled in the opportunity to catch up with old friends and soak up the Lowveld atmosphere on this unexpected ‘bonus’ bush break. It was great fun to be back guiding again, although I did feel decidedly rusty and it took me a little while to get back into the swing of things. Trying to remember my way around the reserve, along with all the old road names, proved more than a little stressful and compounded my feelings of being thrown in the deep end. But, with the assistance of my experienced tracker, Shadrack, we managed to find some outstanding sightings, treating our guests to a royal bush experience.

The three top wildlife sightings of this stint were undoubtedly tracking and locating a big male black rhino as he emerged to drink from Ingwe Dam; watching a young male leopard intently stalk towards a small sounder of warthogs in broad daylight; and a late night leopard adventure of note.

Young male leopard on the prowl at Royal Malewane

Male leopard on the prowl at Malewane

While watching a female leopard and her two sub-adult cubs devour an impala, a loose wire caused a short on the battery and left us without power, lights or an operational radio. Sitting below a star-strewn sky with a leopard lying either side of the vehicle noisily devouring their respective impala legs, was an experience that none of us will forget anytime soon. A cell phone, one bar of signal and a much-appreciated push from another game-viewer eventually got us mobile again and brought to an end a sensational game drive that will stay with me and the rest of the crew for many years to come.

I’ll sign off this entry with the fantastic news that years of work and a nerve-wracking presentation to the Board and EXCO members of the Peace Parks Foundation last week, finally culminated in pen-on-paper with the signing of a ten-year Management Agreement between Javelin Capital and the Barotse Royal Establishment on Friday the 25th of May.  The contract gives Javelin Zambia the exclusive rights to manage and sustainably develop the ecotourism and other natural resources of the Sisheke Chiefdom in South West Zambia. This 1.5 million hectare tract of wilderness is an integral part of the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA TFCA) and the deal was supported and sanctioned by the Peace Parks Foundation (PPF).

So, the Sisheke Conservation Project has now taken its first steps down the long road to realising the huge potential of this valuable wilderness area on the Upper Zambezi River. You can read more about the Project and see pictures from the signing ceremony, which took place at  Birkenhead House in Hermanus, by following this link www.sisheke.com/blog/.

Exciting magazine assignments for June include a Wild assignment to put together an outdoorsy piece on the Wilderness section (www.sanparks.org/parks/garden_route/camps/wilderness/) of the Garden Route National Park. This SANParks story will be followed by a return trip to the Lowveld to watch tracker-extraordinaire Louis Liebenberg in action when I report on CyberTracker and his new tracking institute for the October issue of Africa Geographic.

The negotiations and signing of the Sisheke Management Agreement was attended by representatives of the BRE, Javelin and Peace Parks

The negotiations which culminated in the signing of the Sisheke Management Agreement were attended by representatives of the BRE, Javelin Capital and the Peace Parks Foundation

Big Game Parks, Swaziland – March 2012

The highlight of March was definitely my assignment to cover the three reserves of Big Game Parks (www.biggameparks.org) in Swaziland for Wild magazine (www.wildcard.co.za/wild_magazine.htm). Mike Richardson and his team organised an action-packed itinerary for my weeklong whirlwind tour of Mlilwane, Hlane and Mkaya game reserves. With game drives, mountain biking, horseback safaris and exciting encounters with rhinos on foot, these wildlife parks offer the active nature lover a wide variety of opportunities to really immerse themselves in the bush.

The Unitrans Unite Against Poaching (www.uniteagainstpoaching.co.za) initiative kindly provided me with a very smart Audi Q7 for my Gauteng road trip to Swaziland. Unitrans is doing a commendable job raising funds for South Africa’s underfunded, underequipped and outgunned field rangers as they try to turn the tide in the latest Rhino War. Our beleaguered rhinos and their guardians need all the help they can get if they are going to successfully stem the needless slaughter. The statistics are horrific with 171 rhinos already lost in South Africa by mid-April of this year. These prehistoric-looking animals are being slaughtered in their hundreds to supply a seemingly insatiable demand for the curative power of rhino horn in Asia. Rhino poachers are primarily targeting the Kruger National Park where 103 rhinos have been killed during 2012 alone. Sadly, the future for rhinos looks extremely bleak right now.

Two other highlights during March included the scenically spectacular Cape of Good Hope Hiking Trail (www.tablemountainhikes.co.za/parks/table_mountain/tourism/overnight_hikes.php), which we walked with family visiting from abroad. The overnight hiking trail took us on a spectacular circuit as we trekked around Cape Point. We happened to be there on the Argus Cycle Tour weekend and this ensured we had the entire nature reserve pretty much to ourselves on the Sunday. It was a very unique and special experience to be standing at the Point without another soul in sight.

With Katherine returning from a work trip to America at the end of March, we finished off the month in style by taking a weekend jaunt with friends to enjoy a couple of nights stay in sleepy Churchhaven (www.sa-venues.com/attractionswc/churchhaven.php). The Western Cape’s best-kept secret is a real gem of a spot hidden deep inside the tranquil West Coast National park and it proved the perfect place to kick back and relax in the company of eland, kudu, ostriches and even the usually elusive caracal put in a surprise appearance one morning!

April sees Katherine jet off to Arusha in Tanzania with work and I’m headed to Lesotho to compete in the three-day 120km Lesotho Wildrun event. We will also be celebrating our SA wedding anniversary with three nights at the spectacular Birkenhead House in Hermanus, and taking a long weekend trip to Plettenberg Bay with friends visiting from India. There is plenty to look forward to during the month ahead…

Kalahari, Namibrand, Sossusvlei and the Orange River, Namibia – Nov 2011

November proved to be a standout month packed with new experiences and great adventures, which is not a bad effort considering that 2011 has been a year dominated by some fantastic travels, incredible magazine assignments and epic new experiences.

The latest four-week trip kicked off with an Africa Geographic magazine assignment to 26,485 ha Mokala (www.sanparks.org.za/parks/mokala/) and it was fascinating to explore and learn about South Africa’s newest national park. The reserve is a stronghold for rare and endangered species and it’s doing great work breeding up and relocating the progeny of these threatened species to a wide range of national parks and private game reserves throughout South Africa.

Next stop was the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (www.sanparks.org.za/parks/kgalagadi/) and after six long years away, it was every bit as good as I remembered … with the exception of the roads! The increase in the park’s popularity and a newly paved road running all the way from Upington to Twee Rivieren Entrance Gate meant that more vehicles are bumping and bouncing along the park’s heavily corrugated roads. But the energising experience of being in this arid, wildlife-rich wilderness of rolling red dunes is well worth the price of a pair of new rear shocks!  We enjoyed good cheetah cub viewing, hyaena clans escaping the heat by relaxing in the waterholes, great lion interactions, a couple of Cape fox den sites with tiny playful puppies, and the emotional sight of a springbok ewe give birth to twins!

After five nights in the Kalahari, we made use of the special tourist border facility at Mata Mata to cross into neighbouring Namibia and the friendly faces of smiling border officials were a very unexpected and pleasant surprise. The excellent dirt roads of southern Namibia – with the exception of the well-used routes around Sossusvlei – were regularly graded and in considerably better condition than the South African park roads; our little VW polo breathed a huge sigh of relief as we exited the Kgalagadi.

The first Namibian port of call on the itinerary was &Beyond’s stunningly situated Sossusvlei Desert Lodge (www.andbeyondafrica.com/african_safari/namibia). Perched on a hillside below the Nuimib Mountains in the northeastern corner of the NamibRand Nature Reserve (www.namibrand.com), it is the ideal spot from which to appreciate the reserve’s arid landscapes and incredible natural beauty. The sophisticated desert-chic lodge comprises ten ultra-luxurious en suite stone and glass villas with private verandas and outdoor showers with superlative views.  If you rate your lodges according to their location, then I’d give this spot 13 out of 10!

After five fun-filled days exploring the northern NamibRand, we moved on to Kulala Desert Lodge (www.wilderness-safaris.com/namibia_sossusvlei/kulala_desert_lodge/) and found ourselves within spitting distance of the world-renowned Sossusvlei dunes. Those dunes are something special and looking down onto a soupy sea of dense fog shrouding the skeletal trees of Dead Vlei below us as we slogged up Big Daddy is an experience I won’t forget in a hurry.

The NamibRand was so good that we headed back for round two, exploring the southern concession in Namibia’s largest private nature reserve. Tok Tokkie Trails (www.toktokkietrails.com) caters for a max of eight guests, but we were fortunate enough to have the the fully catered three-day trail all to ourselves and the personal attention bestowed upon us by guide Domingo and his back up team made for an extraordinary and unforgettable nature experience. Tramping through the desert and sleeping amongst the red dunes under a billion bright stars was the absolute best way to get up close and personal with the Namib.

After recharging with a couple of R&R days at the historical Hansa Hotel (www.hansahotel.com.na) and enjoying  a mandatory German beer tasting extravaganza around Swakopmund, there was one last stop at Camp Provenance on the Orange River before we headed for home. The following morning we scrambled into a glass-fibre canoe and set off to explore the Ai-Ais-Richtersveld TFCA with Felix Unite River Adventures (www.felixunite.com/river_trips/orange_river), embarking on a six-day paddle all the way from Noordoewer to the Fish River Canyon confluence. It was a great trip with good food, excellent guides, incredible stars and big enough rapids to ensure people took an involuntary swim at Shambok, Surprise and De Hoop rapids!

What an incredible trip made possible by magazine assignments from Africa Geographic, Explore and Travel Namibia.

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