Kalahari

 

Twenty thousand years are all that it took for the San Bushman to learn to live off the ‘fat of the land.’ With nothing more than a pair of eland skin slippers, a bow and a quiver full of surprisingly spindly arrows they could travel vast distances.

 

 

 

I was all set to take on the Kalahari too, but I would do it on my terms. I was travelling light 21st century style. With just a Britz Toyota Hi-lux 4x4 safari vehicle, fitted with long-range fuel-tanks, ten-gallon water containers and a high-level exhaust (in the unlikely event of floods). At night I would sleep out, as nature intended. With just the flimsy walls of an Eezi-Awn predator-proof roof-tent between me and the Kalahari night.

 

 

The coffin-sized ‘chilly-bin’ on the back seat was full of enough steaks and beer to ensure that my guide, Bart Vandepitte, and I wouldn’t be reduced to eating raw mopane worms or sucking gritty water out of grated roots. Taking everything into account I figured that I was immune to just about everything. Everything but death by donkey. “The donkey is the most dangerous animal in Botswana,” Bart warned me as we drove of the old frontier town of Francistown and overtook a row of the little carts that are known hereabouts as Kalahari Ferraris.

 

In his years as a safari guide Bart has stood up to his share of elephant charges and face-to-face stand-offs with lions but, during the course of more than a million off-road miles in southern Africa, he’s built up a lot of respect for the humble donkey. “Hippos and crocs attacks might be more glamorous,” he said, “but donkeys are responsible for more deaths in this country than any other animal. They’re the greatest menace on the roads.”

 

So we headed towards the Kalahari, dodging donkeys, until we turned off the desert highway and began to steer a seamanlike course straight into the ocean-like expanses of the great Makgadikgadi Pans. Eventually a rocky ‘island’ rose up as a rare blemish on the almost featureless horizon. Climbing to the peak of this kopje, I stared out over a great pale-grey wasteland that sparkled with mirages, like ghosts of the great inland sea that once covered these immense saltpans, along with most of northern Botswana.

 

Still it was almost impossible to imagine that just a few hours drive to the north of this desert landscape lay the Okavango. One of the great attractions of Botswana lies in this stark contrast; where else can you find one of the world’s greatest deserts and its largest inland delta in a country the size of France? By now my kopje was throwing a long shadow across the pans so, keeping an eye out for whichever leopard counted this as his territorial headquarters, I went back to the security of my roof-tent.

 

The next morning the mirages were still there and late-season thunderclouds far out on the pans had me wondering against all odds if there really was water out there. But this is a region that is famous for its mirages and we were heading for its illusionary epicentre, in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. The Bushman knew better than to trust the visions of sparkling lakes that materialise on the cracked earth, only to dissolve again as you approach, but there are stories of flocks of migrating pelicans that have been lured off-course by the treacherous phantom-lakes of Deception Valley.

 

Water is a commodity that will remain precious here long after the CKGR’s legendary diamonds have finally been discovered, mined and forgotten. For eight months of the year the hills and valleys here are burned the colour of a lion’s hide and even the great predators are forced to suck scant moisture from desert melons.

 

What little rain is released by the clouds often evaporates even before it reaches the ground but the desert nights are as cold as the days are hot. After sunset we piled logs on our mopane-wood braai and watched the hungry jackals skulk in the shadows, sniffing at our steaks. Further out on the pan we could hear an occasional roar that warned us that the East Side pride was on the march…and that they too were still hungry. In the early hours I was awakened by something and stuck my head out of my tent in time to see the lithe form of a hunting leopard stalk past our camp.

 

Central Kalahari Game Reserve is one of the most evocative and peaceful safari destinations in the world. Far from the game-drive traffic-jams of other reserves we sat at night around our campfire and commented jealously on the owners of the only other fire that we could see on the far horizon. That ‘fire’ turned out to be further off than we thought when two nights later we realised that it was actually Jupiter. We were after all totally alone with the endless canopy of Kalahari stars to ourselves.

 

The Bushman believed that every speck in that glittering sky was the soul of a hunter. Despite their spirituality, and the support of their gods, life for them must have been far from the ideals of Van der Post’s noble hunter in his Garden of Eden but they had somehow carved a living out of the desert. The white man and more powerful tribes had certainly offered them no retreat from increasingly remote Kalahari pans…until they forced them out for the last time.

 

But we were privileged to come and go and, in a day or two, we would make a tactical retreat and follow the old Kuki cattle-fence to cool sheets and warm baths at Deception Valley Lodge. Then it was back on the highway…and once more into the realm of the fearsome donkey.

 

Photo courtesy of Deception Valley Lodge here

Limpopo

 

The guide spurred his horse forward: “Let’s Ride!...And try not to let any big pussy cats spook the horses.” There’s nothing as thrilling as galloping through the African bushveld and, as I felt my horse surge underneath me and the wicked acacia thorns began to whip past my thighs, I gratefully delegated all responsibility for our welfare to my faithful steed. If either of us was in danger of getting �?spooked’ it wasn’t Strider.

 

We had travelled like this for much of the morning - whenever the rocky savanna and network of gullies allowed - once covering three miles in a few breathless minutes. But this time the trailmaster called us to a sliding halt and, even as I reined in, I was squinting into the sunlight ahead to see what the hold-up was. Then I made out the bulky shadows of a group of elephants ransacking the mopane trees and I realised with a shock that I could have ridden straight into that wall of grey flesh and curving ivory before I had noticed anything. I was suddenly aware of how effectively the world’s largest land animal can hide itself!

 

But I already knew that this remote corner of Botswana was capable of �?hiding’ the largest elephant population on private land anywhere in the world. From an open-topped Landcruiser I had already counted ninety-five animals in a single huge herd...and I knew that many more youngsters would have been hidden from view in the long grass as they followed the matriarchs towards the sunset. They were a remnant of the great herds that once roamed the Limpopo Valley and they have earned Mashatu Game Reserve the title of �?Land of the Giants.’

 

But as we held our horses in line and watched the group that was shredding the mopane branches, we were yet to realise that our path was blocked by of one of the region’s largest herds! This isolated part of Botswana, known historically as the Tuli Enclave, has remained almost unchanged since the pioneer columns blazed its trails in the late 1800s. As we had saddled up for our four-day �?patrol,’ at the Fort Jameson stables of Limpopo Valley Horse Safaris, I felt like a raw recruit preparing for a Boer war skirmish.

 

Our trailmaster, Steve Rufus, was a qualified ranger and riding-instructor and an experienced bushman. Steve’s love of horses came from a childhood spent on a ranch in the Zimbabwe bushveld and eight years lecturing on equine studies at Pretoria. A tour of duty during the �?bush war’ and a reputation as a champion three-day event rider suggest that Steve would have been a match for all but the most hard-bitten Fort Tuli trooper. On our first morning we rode eastwards across the rocky savanna among herds of zebra, wildebeest and impala before turning south to follow the Pitsani (Little Zebra) River. The ruins of Bryce’s Store, where one of the more decisive shoot-outs took place, and the Boer gun-emplacements on nearby Commando Kopje helped to enhance the feeling of timelessness that is the essence of horseback travel.

 

Just as the heat (and our, as yet unaccustomed, rumps) were becoming uncomfortable we rode into the Pitsani camp where Steve’s assistants, Joyce and Sam, had already unloaded the back-up vehicle of fresh local produce and eskies of G&T - without which no safari would be worthy of the name. Full of delicious bush pizza (and a ration of �?Tom Collins’ that would have done Hemingway justice) I slept soundly...until, just before dawn, I was jolted awake by the cough of a prowling lion. He seemed to be in the bushes on the other side of the stream and for a while it seemed that we could almost hear him breathing. The horses stamped and pulled nervously on the pony-line.

 

But we couldn’t let him interrupt Joyce’s fresh-baked blueberry muffins and the sun had already dried the morning dew when we saddled up and headed in the opposite direction. Though the lion remained hidden the day’s ride was unforgettable for other sightings: three hundred impala �?pronking’ in the early sunlight – warming up for another day on the run; a herd of giraffe lolloping away on willowy legs; warthog piglets scampering, squeaking, with tails held stiff and high - like little dodgem cars; kudu; ostrich; jackal; monkey; bushpig; hyena; baboon...

 

Even amongst these �?everyday’ Mashatu sightings there were highlights. As we spread out to canter across the savanna a herd of wildebeest - duped by their own instinct for safety-in-numbers - galloped down to join our �?stampede’! They would stay alongside us as long as we made no noises or movements that distinguished us from our horses. Once we were also joined by a bachelor herd of eland bulls and, when we were forced to return for one of our fallen comrades (whose horse had posted him through an unfeasibly small gap in a battered acacia tree), they looked back, as if to say: “why’ve we stopped?!”

 

Then there was that daunting elephant blockade. In an effort to find a safe thoroughfare through the herd we trotted cautiously along a dry riverbed but the horses’ constantly twitching ears alerted us to elephants feeding beyond the ledge above our heads. Steve scouted ahead and, just as he approached a gully that intersected our track, a young bull came charging down, pumping his tree-trunk legs to gain the momentum that would push his impressive bulk back up the opposite bank. Our horses spun around, whinnying - anxious for flight.

 

The enthusiasm with which Strider tackled the near-vertical walls of these gullies was a testament to the bumper-sticker on the back of Steve’s saddles: �?Best 4x4xfar!’ I knew that he could outrun an elephant...but I wasn’t too confident about my chances of still being with him when he’d done it. So, for once I refused to defer to Strider’s experience and, hearts pounding, we continued up the riverbed. By the time we arrived, two nerve-racking hours later, on the other side of that pachyderm minefield I was ready to concede that a horse-safari in �?The Land of the Giants’ is not for the novice rider...but, then again, six prancing horses and a charging bull elephant in a dry riverbed does make for a pretty steep learning-curve!

 

Photo courtesy of Limpopo Valley Horse Safaris here

Safari

 

David Whitley goes giraffe and rhino-spotting from atop an elephant

 

Ahead of us, Michael plunges into the trees. His three startled riders try and dodge the thorns as he manages to uproot an entire acacia bush. “Takeaway food,” says Elias in front of me. “Michael always gets his takeaway food.” Michael, oblivious to the havoc he’s causing, wraps his trunk around the light snack and marches onwards. It is one thing to see an elephant on safari in Africa – but it’s altogether something different to hop on top of one and lumber through the sunburnt countryside. Suddenly the wildebeest and  antelopes look a little puny from up on high.

 

Of the six elephants in our herd, Michael is also the one who likes to threaten the rhinos. But on the flip side, he does a cracking job of playing with and looking after Titimalo. The nine month old super-cute elephant calf isn’t even his, but Michael seems to have taken on a surrogate uncle role. Such unexpected diversions aside, it’s beaming smiles all round for the novice riders. We’re all sat in imperious positions atop the elephants as we plod through the Letsatsing Game Park, and behind every bush is another giraffe, warthog, impala or zebra.

 

The Letsatsing Game Park isn’t technically part of the Pilanesberg Game Reserve that most people come to this part of the world for. It is privately owned, and there are no big cats to spook the elephants, but the big beasts of the Pilanesberg are just over the fence. And don’t we know it when a dominant bull elephant stares out our herd from the other side of the electric fence. Elias steers us away, commanding our lumbering steed to “get over”. It means turn right, and is one of the 36 commands that the elephants learn during their two year training period.

 

Not that the one telling them to stop eating has much effect. By the end of our journey, each of the five jumbos has a satisfying haul of foliage with them. Which, given that we get to feed them afterwards, is just plain greedy. Hand feeding an elephant is a rather bizarre experience. You can do it one of two ways – risking your trembling paw by putting the food directly into their mouth, or waiting for them to turn their trunk around so you can put din-dins into that. Either way, they seem grateful, and seem to give us a wave after feeding time is over and they’re released back onto the grasslands.

  

More photos here

 

 

By David Whitley

Mountain bike

 


 

As I lay in the dust under an acacia bush with the rear wheel whirring three inches from my left ear I wondered once again why mountain-biking in Africa should be presenting such a challenge. This was no iron-man conquest of the Dark Continent. We weren’t pedaling grim-faced into the forbidden quarters of what the colonial’s once knew - with carefully concealed respect - as MMBA: ‘miles and miles of bloody Africa.’ We were simply a group of thirty-somethings who were more interested getting to meet the locals than in breaking bones or records.

 

Fair enough, we were in a remote corner of Botswana and the main difference between this and the usual potter around the local park was that the locals here included the lion and leopard that I’d spent the last week alternately searching for (in vehicles) and avoiding (on horseback). Still, at this time of day I knew that the lions would be lazing in the shade and would be unlikely to bestir themselves unless I actually fell under the acacia that was provided that shade.

 

Lying in historically un-tamed land on the northern bank of Kipling’s ‘great gray-green, greasy Limpopo River,’ Mashatu Game Reserve also boasts some of the largest elephant herds anywhere in Africa; and I was soon to realize that this could apply equally to either ‘largest herds’ or ‘herds of the largest elephants.’ I’d already been lucky enough to count 95 animals from a Landcruiser parked on the - to my mind - inappropriately named Disappointment Kopje, but herds of up to 400 have been reported.

 

When you view game from a vehicle, you are essentially a passive witness. When you travel through ‘predator territory’ on something as insubstantial as a bicycle you are entering their world…and would like to think that you do so only as a temporary guest. As I plucked the second set of acacia thorns out of the seat of my safari shorts I remembered a cartoon that I’d seen in the ‘discovery room’ at main camp: two hyena are chewing on the twisted frame of a bicycle and one says to the other, “the pink meat was delicious, but I just can’t seem to get any marrow out of these bones.”

 

But, aside from the wide-eyed surprise of a herd of impala, the grunts of bewildered wildebeest and a herd of zebra that kicked their heels up in undisguised glee, the local fauna had nothing whatsoever to do with my current bedraggled state. The sad truth was simply that I kept falling off my bike! Tentatively - and tenderly - I re-joined our little cycle-mounted pioneer column (commonly referred to as a ‘crank of cyclists’) as it pedaled onward into the bushveld, keeping eyes peeled for both game and the veritable mountains of elephant dung that are just another exotic obstacle to a mountain bike safari.

 

“Treat them as roundabouts,” shouted Jou Mazebedi, our guide, “- but don’t worry too much. They make a soft landing.” Jou has been a ranger for 12 years and, though a leading member of Mashatu’s ‘Meals on Wheels’ racing team, he was happy to make allowances for what he obviously considered clumsiness of near legendary proportions. (Although I had an idea who might be the star of the next discovery room cartoon). Not even Jou would claim that cycling is the best way to see animals: vehicles can get you closest to the big cats and what better way to see the plains herds than to gallop with them on horseback? But a mountain bike safari is an experience in itself: you have the close-up interest of a walking safari yet can cover greater distances and there’s the occasional thrill of a ‘gnarly downhill riverbed section.’

 

Not being famed for my mechanical diagnostic skills it took one such section to make me realize that the brakes were on the opposite sides to where they are on European bikes. Even a light touch to (what I thought was) the back brake in a bowl of bull-dust was enough to send me sailing off into the vegetation. Having made this reassuring discovery I kept as close as possible to Jou; he was invariably the first to spot the wildlife and was always ready with an informative angle on the smaller things, from industrious dung beetles to edible mopane worms. And also he carried a big gun.

 

Mashatu’s bike safaris take advantage of an extensive network of natural ‘cycle lanes’ that are kept open by the passage of the area’s estimated 1,200 elephants. Suddenly Jou stopped to calmly inform us that - despite having free-range in a playground that is close to the size of Belgium - we were apparently traveling up the wrong lane on a major pachyderm highway!

 

Unbeknown to us support vehicles had been shadowing us from out of earshot and just as we raced into a small clearing to meet them the bushes began to crumple behind us and the herd rumbled past. First were the big matriarchs, then a group of younger cows, some with calves keeping close to their tree-trunk legs. Next came a gang of young bulls, but apart from a bit of ear-flapping and some boisterous trumpeting they all hurried on their way…until a huge bull decided to make his presence felt in a ‘rearguard action.’

 

I’m no expert on pachyderms and I’m not saying that he was the missing link between the prehistoric mammoth and the African ellie but he was certainly the biggest tusker that I’d ever seen. And he was definitely the most bad-tempered. I had seen young bulls put in mock charges several times already but this looked like the real thing and, following Jou’s orders, we dropped our bikes and retreated behind the vehicles.

 

The bull flapped his massive battle-torn ears and flailed his trunk from side to side, destroying a sizeable mopane tree in the process. He trumpeted loudly and pawed at the dust. Then he charged. The drivers revved their engines noisily and, as I snapped off a few photos, I wondered if a couple of tonnes of Japanese metalwork would be able to stand up to this much elephant! Just as it seemed that he was going to plough straight into us he skidded to a dramatic stop, swung from side-to-side as if trying to make up his mind and then crashed away after the herd, roaring furiously, and doing a wonderful job of widening the ‘cycle lane’ as he went.

 

As we turned our own backs on the ‘battleground’ I realized that I’d be taking something home from this safari that would stay with me far longer than even the most deeply imbedded acacia thorns.

 

By Mark Eveleigh

 

Botswana

 

 

Somewhere beyond our comforting little circle of firelight the lions were hunting. In the hour before sunset we had seen the East Side Pride rise lethargically to their feet and wander off to begin their bloody nightshift. By first light the springboks would be pronking playfully again, kicking up their legs in apparent joy at having survived the night, but while we nursed our drinks and warmed our hands, terror and death ruled out on the dark savannah.

 

 

An almost solid canopy of stars hovered over us. In the entire 52,000 sq km of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve there was little, beyond the ineffectual flare of our fire, to detract from their brilliance. A pair of jackals whined – worried by the smell of our braai steaks – at the edge of the little colony of ‘civilisation’ that we had created. As inevitably happens on long evenings around an African campfire, the conversation turned to close-shave animal encounters. Six years as a Botswana Wildlife ranger and more than a million miles as a 4x4 safari guide had equipped Bart Vandepitte with a supply of dramatic campfire yarns that looked set to outlast even our stack of mopane wood.

 

There was the time when he wandered to the edge of his camp at night to ‘mark his territory’ (doubtless a side-effect of several bottles of Zambezi) and spent many long minutes face-to-face with the King of the Jungle himself…with only his ‘trouble-shooter’ in his hands. The different philosophies for dealing with such animal confrontations are well known but I had never met anyone who had been forced to test them out under such horrifyingly vulnerable conditions.

 

In the event of a lion attack, Botswana-based wildlife writer Clive Walker warns in Signs of the Wild, ‘one’s inherent desire is to flee…but this carries with it the certainty of a permanent end to lion-watching.’ Instead, the thing to do is to stare into the cat’s eyes…unless the cat is a leopard in which case this can be fatal and you should watch its tail instead. If you’re being charged by a rhino or buffalo, climb a tree. If it’s an elephant that’s after you the tree probably won’t last long and some experts advise that ‘casting off clothing and other items has been known to delay elephants.’ What they omit to point out is that it’s impossible to outrun an elephant with your designer khakis around your ankles. There are few times in the normal run of everyday modern life when such a breach of local etiquette could be punished by stomping to death by a three-ton herbivore, or by being eaten by a living nightmare from the cradle of mankind.

 

A long – and no doubt terrifying – collective experience has taught the San Bushmen how to deal with these threats and how to befriend the desert. Bart and I had just spent a few days learning what we could from these greatest of survival experts. (As I understood it, if I was ever lost in the Kalahari, my first priority would be to kill an eland bull with a knobkerrie root club. Then, using its leg sinews as a string for my bow and its scrotum as a pouch for my stash of wild dagga, I would surely be able to survive indefinitely.) I kicked another mopane log into the fire and opened the last bottles while Bart recounted the time that he and a Botswana Wildlife colleague trekked through the southern-Kalahari desert hunting game for their pot. They had completed a six-mile circle when they finally spotted a steenbok…which had cunningly positioned itself so that the first narrowly-missed bullet shot out on their Land Rover’s headlamp. It was strange to think that, here in the centre of the world’s most extensive sand desert, we were also only a hundred miles from its largest inland delta. The Okavango, with its population of crocodiles, hippos, swamp antelope and millions of water-birds, is Botswana major tourist draw-card.

 

A friend of Bart’s had recently been paddling a Spanish tourist through the waterways of Moremi Reserve when a large bull hippo took violent exception to their trespassing. Guide, client and £3000-worth of Nikon metalwork went into the drink …but a delighted tourist got on the plane to Madrid, vowing that it was the best holiday he had ever had. Unless they actually leave some part of themselves behind in The Dark Continent, you never hear anyone complain about an unnecessarily close animal-encounter. There is definitely a temptation for journalists to sensationalise – not to say invent – accounts of animal-human conflict. Even among the overland truck community (where a good story is known to travel like wildfire) I was unable to find any firsthand knowledge of a crocodile attack on a girl in a crowded campsite in Chobe Reserve. According to one Botswana newspaper, ‘a crocodile – estimated to be three metres long – dragged her tent, in which she was asleep, to the water’s edge.’ Apparently the reptile came out of the water again later…and ate the hastily vacated tent! With mopane and Zambezi supplies exhausted, I climbed into the Toyota’s rooftop tent to listen to the snooker-ball click of the Kalahari’s famous barking geckos. I had only been asleep about an hour when sixth sense awoke me and I grabbed my torch in time to see the bright eyes and powerful shape of a leopard prowl past the camp. Buzzing with adrenalin I lay awake thinking of all the spine-tingling close-encounter stories that I’d heard from Botswana.

 

There’s the ranger who tells about a freezing Kalahari night that he spent trapped under his Land Rover kicking at the paw of, what he still has the good grace to refer to as, ‘a playful young lion’ that was trying to hook him out. There was the guide who was forced to shoot a rhino at point-blank range while it was trampling him and yet another who spent a full twenty minutes wrestling with a large croc that was clamped onto his leg.

 

By a campfire, on the banks of the Limpopo River, another guide told me about the time he woke up to find a hyena chewing on his boot.

“You were lucky she didn’t run off with it,” I laughed.

“Bloody lucky – I was still wearing the bugger!”

 

 

By Mark Eveleigh

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