By Phyllis Dawson
Botswana - Part 10
Moremi to Maun to the Kalahari

It was moving day again. Our destination was the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR), but it would take most of two days to get there. For now, we were heading to Maun, and then on to a lodge called Meno A Kwena for the night. We would go the rest of the way to the Kalahari the next day.   
I rode shotgun in the front seat next to Gee. Up until then we had all sat back in the bench seats, rotating who sat where daily. The back seats were extremely bouncy, but being up higher gave you a great view. But riding in the front seat was really nice because I could see straight ahead, and best of all, I could talk to Gee.
We left camp early.  It is a long way from Moremi to the CKGR. Our camp staff was heading straight to the Kalahari while we went to the lodge; this gave them time to set up the new camp before we got there, as well as breaking up the drive for us.
We headed out in the semi-darkness on the main road from Moremi to Maun, a sand road just wide enough in places that two vehicles could pass. Gee was driving fast because we had so far to go. The road was quite wet, and we frequently forded large puddles.  
     Although we were officially traveling rather than game driving, we had pretty good luck with wildlife sightings. A couple of jackals scampered by, and we saw an elephant here and there. We came across a large buffalo bull; he glared at us grumpily as we passed.


      Before long we encountered a baby giraffe with his mom. He was the smallest we had seen; he still had his umbilical cord so we knew he was less than three weeks old. Young baby giraffes always seem smaller than I expect; I am used to horse foals, which are born with legs almost as long as they will be when they are grown; this does not seem to be the case with giraffes. However they do have disproportionately thick necks and large soulful eyes, and luxurious eyelashes.. Mother and baby stood by the road staring at us for a few minutes, and then they turned and loped away.


     We came around a turn to find our way blocked by lions; an adult female and two adolescent males were dozing right in the road. We could see the dappled spots on the young males’ coats. Soon we realized there was a second lioness hidden behind some bushes. As we watched the lions they stared back at us intently. One of the boys yawned hugely as if we bored him, then gazed straight up and switched his attention to some birds overhead. After a while the lions got up and left, and we went on our way.


     Less than ten minutes later we encountered three wild dogs in the road; two were trotting along and one was lying in a puddle. Soon two more came into view. Looking around, we realized that more and more dogs were coming out of the underbrush. They gathered in the road, and several of them flopped down in a huge puddle to cool off. By now we counted ten dogs. We sat watching them, as did another vehicle that was coming from the other direction.


     Some of the dogs rested in the shade on the right, while others ran in circles in the high grass on the left. Several young ones begged their elders for food regurgitation. More dogs kept appearing out of the bushes, settling in all around us, looking for a spot to rest for the day. As we started to pull out, we spotted another group in the trees off to the left. In the end, we counted wild dogs 22 in all.


     Three huge old male African buffalo were grazing on a slope near the road. The dagga boys. Their coats were sparse, and they were encrusted with mud. They swished at the flies and disdainfully turned their butts toward us.

     Mid-morning we had another amazing wildlife encounter; a leopard tortoise was crossing the road. We got out of the vehicle to see him up close. He was beautiful, with a patterned shell of black and yellow. Paula was especially excited to see him. For what we had expected to be a routine drive to Maun, we were getting awesome game sightings. 

Leopard Tortoise

     As we approached Maun the road became wider, and eventually turned from sand to pavement. We passed small farms and villages, and started to see more traffic. Donkeys and cattle grazed alongside the road. 

     To our delight, Gee took us to see his farm for our tea break. He showed us his farm house, a basic shelter where he can sleep if he is staying at the farm overnight, and the kraal, an enclosure where the livestock are kept. There was a nice looking calf in a pen. Gee told us that he used to have twelve cows, but now he was down to just seven because his helpers did not take them to water like they were supposed to when he was away. He said it is hard to find anyone trustworthy to do such jobs.

Gee's calf, Open Door

     We walked through the woods to see Gee’s crop field. He had planted rows of maize (corn), beans, and sweet reeds (like sugar cane. Watermelons were planted throughout the rest of the crops. He grows the food mostly for his own family, not to sell. He said that he was having trouble with the porcupines coming in and eating the melons - they eat a little from each melon and ruin them all. He tries to trap the porcupines to save the garden. Sometimes they eat the porcupines. Gee also told us that elephants can be a big problem. They will come in and ruin the garden, destroying in one night the crops that he had worked for months to grow.

     Gee’s farm is called Motswere Pan Farm. It is near the river Nxabe. As we were leaving, a black cow came in through the gate, running. He told us her name is Kumi, which means ‘to arrive.’ The calf is named Open Door. Gee's religion is very important to him, so it was no surprise his animals had spiritual names.


     We continued on toward Maun. We were amazed by the number of cattle and donkeys in the road, and goats too, grazing mere inches from the whizzing traffic. We passed through Shorobe, which was the town where Gee lived when he was in school.      

     As we came to Maun, Gee said he would take us by to see his house. As he turned up a small lane, a woman stood there wearing a tee-shirt that proclaimed WIFE in bold letters, with three lovely girls. We realized this was Gee’s wife and daughters! Gee introduced us to Totang, his wife, and his three beautiful daughters, Thannine, 14 years old, Thembi, 11, and Kimberly, 5. 
Gee showed us the lodge he was building beside his house; it looked like it will be really nice, and I hope to stay there one day. His house was painted a bright fuchsia pink, and had a beautiful carved wooden door with elephants on it. (Tara and I were both coveting that door!) The family had a friendly brindle-colored dog named Polka; she reminded me of my lurchers. 
It was really great to get to meet Gee’s family; they were lovely friendly people, and we felt honored to have been invited to meet them.


     We stopped by the Letaka Safaris headquarters for supplies, and for a new spare tire – one with five lugs not six. Gee filled up the land cruiser’s gas tanks at the Shell petrol station. 
We drove down by the river and had lunch under a spreading sycamore fig tree, which Gee said was about 120 years old. Tara climbed it and draped herself over a huge branch like a sleeping leopard. I took her picture; we could use it for the 12th leopard photo for the calendar, as so far we only had eleven.     
My penchant for writing corny limericks seemed to be rubbing off on others; Sally came up with this one:

To the park we were taken by Gee
To lunch under the sycamore tree
The tree Tara did climb
And laid down so sublime
She was our twelfth leopard indeed!

Leopard number 12?

     We set out from Maun; Gee said it would be about four hours to Meno A Kwena. As we left town we saw Botswana’s version of a speed camera trap; a policeman sitting by the side of the road with a camera on a tripod. 
There was loose livestock along the road everywhere, including right in town. Cows were walking down the middle of the road. Two donkeys were pulling a small cart with a family of five crowded into it. The donkeys had no bridles or reins, but the driver directed them with a stick. A man was holding a calf on a long rope; it looked like he was lounging it.  A tall thin man was riding a donkey, his feet nearly dragging the ground.  

     We crossed the buffalo fence constructed to prevent the spread of foot and mouth disease, walking through the disinfectant at the checkpoint. We drove eastward on the main road for a couple hours.
Eventually we turned onto the little road into Meno A Kwena. Gee had never been there before, so it took us a couple of tries to find the right road. We came across two more leopard tortoises together in the road; we got out of the land cruiser to get some close photos. . A bit further on found one more; that was four tortoises total.  

     Meno A Kwena is a lovely lodge on a cliff above the river, with an incredible view. It is on the western edge of the Makgadikgadi Pans. The staff greeted us and gave us a cold drink, and a guide showed us to our rooms. He pointed out an enormous spider web by the path, occupied by a beautiful Golden Orb Spider.

Golden Orb Spider

     We stayed in small thatched cabins with walls of glass and screen, and a great view of the river below. Our lodging seemed very fancy and luxurious, with electric power and running water. We realized it was our first time inside a building in 12 days.
Our rooms were very comfortable, with fluffy beds and spacious showers. Our guide said they were experiencing a drought and asked us to conserve water; when waiting for water to get warm for a shower, he said, catch it in bucket and to use it to flush.  

     We went back up to the bar and sat with a glass of wine, watching the sun go down. The river wound below like a silver ribbon. Kudus, backlit by the setting sun, came down to the shore to drink. There was a blind lower down the cliff; Jineen and Natalie went down for a look, but I relaxed with a drink and photographed the sunset. 


      The cabin was very comfortable, but I couldn’t get to sleep; perhaps I missed the bush and the animal noises in the night. In the wee hours I went outside; it was very quiet and peaceful. No hyenas whooped nor lions called. Gemini the Twins were reflected in the river.
Meno A Kwena was a lovely luxurious lodge, and a nice break and a change of pace. But I still liked the camping better, and I couldn’t wait to get to the Kalahari.

February 18
We got to sleep in until 6:30, and breakfast was at 7:00; it was nice to have bacon and eggs cooked to order, but I sort of missed our avocado toast and hard-boiled egg.

     After breakfast we went on the Bushman’s Walk. This was with a group of the San people, who were the original inhabitants of the Kalahari. They were dressed in their traditional clothing made from hides and skins, and they talked in the San language, which consisted largely of tongue clicks and other sounds we could not come close to duplicating, along with vigorous hand motions and facial expressions. One of them spoke English, and he acted as our interpreter. 

The San

     The San showed us different plants they use for medicines, and how to get water from tubers and roots. They showed us the poison arrows they hunt with. One of them dug up a scorpion; he put it in his mouth to wash it and also somewhat sedate it. They demonstrated how to make a fire from rubbing sticks, and played a hunting game that involved much singing, chanting and laughing.

Paula blends in with the Bushmen

     There were three men and three women, and they were all smaller of stature.  The men in the group were on the younger side, fit and athletic looking, and they had smooth skin and very little body hair. The women were older, and looked wizened.  It was like they were straight out of that old movie, The Gods Must Be Crazy. If you remember the little bushman in that film, these people looked like him. The one who spoke English told us that they spend three months at the lodge doing this show, and then go home and another family group comes to take their place. It was really interesting to spend time with the original inhabitants of the Kalahari.


     By 10:15 we were on the road to the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR). We drove along the main road at 70 km/hour, which after so long in the bush seemed like flying. A pair of Abdim’s storks flew close overhead. We saw leopard tortoise number five. We were going south I think - I was wishing for a map.

     We passed a huge double tractor-trailer on the side of the road that had been in some sort of accident; its canvas sides were torn and the contents of this Choppies grocery truck were strewn over the roadway for a hundred yards. Over half a dozen people were there, including young kids and dogs, salvaging bags of brown sugar and mealie meal - they were helping themselves to all they could carry off.

     As on all of the main roads we had seen in Botswana, cows grazed freely along the roadside, along with goats, donkeys and the occasional horse. We saw a few isolated houses and farms, but mostly we drove the endless straight road through mile after mile of flat open land full of scrubby trees and bushes. Every so often we would see a car fender or plastic chair fastened to a post; Gee told us those were signposts people had put up to mark directions to their houses. Turn left at the upside-down car hood, then continue on ¼ mile and right at the white plastic chair . . .

     The fencelines were set back from the road about fifty feet, so that animals crossing the road could be seen and hopefully avoided. This verge along both sides of the road also seemed to be a free range for livestock. Every now and then we saw people riding donkeys along the road, and much less often we saw riders on horses. A big flock of goats moved up the road, guarded by two dogs - Gee said the dogs protect the goats from jackals and hyenas. There were mirages in the road like water, and cows wandered by in front of them. Two men were riding a couple of thin weedy horses alongside the road at a brisk trot; oddly enough they had ropes tying the two horses’ necks together.


     The bushes were becoming smaller and further apart, and there was open grassland on our right. A large herd of cattle and goats grazed near a waterhole. We thought maybe we had arrived at the Kalahari Desert. No, said Gee, it is part of the salt pans. At a sign welcoming us to the village of Rakops (even though we could not see any town), we turned right onto a dirt track. A road sign told us it was 45 km to CKGR.

     Now that we were off the paved road and on a small track, Gee drove slowly again. We started seeing birds along the route; a couple new ones were a Double-banded Courser and a Scaly-feathered Finch. Gee pointed out a plant with pale lavender blossoms; it is called poison apple, he told us, and the fruit is very poisonous. We drove through a bushy area with lots of puddles, and there were millions of white butterflies swarming all around. A half dozen horses and one foal crossed the road in front of us, apparently roaming free on the open plains.


     Finally we came to a signpost that said Matswere, and to the gate of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR). While Gee sorted out some logistical paperwork in the office, we sorted out finding the bathrooms. We had lunch near the gate. 
A beautiful long-tailed paradise whydah flew out of a tree above us. Welcome to the Kalahari! We were excited to be there. We were in the park now, but it was still a long drive to Deception Valley where we would be camping. Gee had guided in the Kalahari some, but not all that often, so he did not know it as intimately as he knows Chobe and the Okavango Delta.

 Long-tailed Paradise Whydah

      As we drove along a big black and yellow beetle flew in and landed on my shirt; we looked it up - it was a Giant Jewel Beetle.
It was much drier here, and the sky was clear and blue. The landscape was dotted with scruffy bushes and small trees, and compared to the Delta it was very barren. Some areas were covered with a tall grass with fluffy whitish heads that shone in the sunlight. 


     We had been warned that we would see fewer animals in the Kalahari; the climate is too dry and harsh for much of the wildlife that inhabits the Okavango and even Savuti. But we did hope to see some different types of animals here. 
There were tons of birds, and most of them were different as well. A Red-Faced Mouse Bird flew across our path. Three Pale Chanting Goshawks perched at the top of a tree; Gee said these lovely birds of prey are the most common raptor here. To me they looked fiercely regal. 

     It was getting late in the afternoon, and we had been on the road quite a while. We were all getting a little sleepy. “Look at the leopard!” Gee suddenly exclaimed. Sure enough, there was a male leopard sitting on a termite mound on our left, not more than 15 meters away. Tara had been dozing off - Natalie shook her awake. 
This was the prettiest male leopard we had seen. He had a long narrow face and a pleasant expression, and looked like he was probably quite young. He was also quite thin. He was sitting on the termite mound as if he was waiting there to greet us. He looked at us intently, but without worry. Then he quietly leapt down the far side of the mound and disappeared behind it.


     His ears and upturned face appeared over the top of the mound as he peeked back at us for a moment; then he turned and walked away through the grass. At the far side of the meadow he paused once more to turn and look back at us over his shoulder - he seemed to be saying goodbye. Then he was gone.


     Wow! We felt much honored that the leopard had been there to welcome us to the park. “It is very hard to see leopards in the Kalahari,” Gee said. It was a lovely sighting; Leopard number 12! Now we really would have enough for that leopard calendar. But we didn’t get a picture of that one we saw at night, so I may have to use the photo of Tara in the tree after all.
     Now I was going to have to revise that darned limerick again. You can see from what I came up with that my poetic aptitude was declining.

We asked if there’s leopards in Kalahari 
Gee said
only if you look wide and far-ee
But guess what we found
On the first termite mound?
Leopard twelve, to complete our safari.

     Gee’s leopard talisman had worked like a charm. Next time I would have to give him a cheetah.

     A flock of tiny Red-billed Quelias flew into a tree like a swarm of bees, then flew off again. A pair of lovely Burchell’s Sand Grouse walked down the road in the tire tracks. We saw a shaft-tailed whydah with its impressive long tail trailing behind; we had seen one of these on our very first evening in Savuti but none since.

Red-billed Quelia

     Around five o'clock we came down a slight grade and saw a wide open plain stretched before us. Deception Valley! I couldn’t believe I was here. I had wanted to visit the Kalahari ever since reading The Cry of the Kalahari by Mark and Delia Owens; they spent seven years in Deception Valley back in the 1970s doing wildlife research, and wrote several excellent books chronicling their adventures. I think that is what I would like to do in my next life.

Deception Valley

     We drove across the flat grassy plain; in times long past it had been a mighty river. There we found our first springboks - a small herd of them were near the road, with more in the distance. These attractive antelopes are about the size of an impala, but with much gaudier markings. They are brown over their backs, with a dark diagonal side stripe. The white of their bellies extends halfway up their sides, and they have white faces. A narrow dark brown stripe extends from the base of their horns to their eyes and down to their nose. They look like large, slightly satanic goats. Springboks are common in the Kalahari; large herds of them graze on the short grass in the old riverbeds.


     While we were watching the springboks, we noticed a couple of adorable Ground Squirrels. Chestnut-brown and beige with a light side stripe, they had very bushy tails and plump little bellies. They scurried around eating morsels of grass but not straying too far from their burrows.
We were enjoying watching the springboks and the squirrels, but we still had a good ways to go to reach camp so Gee drove on – he told us not to worry, we would be seeing plenty more of both.

Ground Squirrel

     The wide open plain was covered in short well-grazed grass, and accented by a few copses of trees here and there. We followed the sandy track across the vast expanse. A Bat-eared Fox was making its way across the plain. These appealing little foxes have fluffy coats, dark masked faces and absolutely enormous ears. 

     A kori bustard was walking along in the distance; his neck feathers were all puffed out like a great woolly muff, making his neck appear about five times its usual size, and his tail was up and fanned out like a turkey. He made a booming sound like a drum. Gee told us this was his mating ritual; he was trying to attract a female. He was stalking around proudly and looking quite ridiculous, though no doubt the female kori bustards found it irresistible.

Kori Bustard

     We saw a dozen more new birds. A tiny Chestnut-backed Sparrow Lark posed for us on a twig. A Dark Chanting Goshawk kept watch from the top of a small tree, very similar to his cousin the pale chanting goshawk, but as you might guess, darker.

     The sun got lower and the light started to fade, and we could see a pale moon hanging in the sky, nearly full. We noticed a pair of long horns sticking up out of the bushes in front of us; as we got closer we saw that they belonged to a Gemsbok. Also known as an Oryx, these large antelopes are common in the Kalahari, and I had really been hoping to see one. He stood beneath the large pale moon as the sky turned to lavender. It was a fitting end to an exciting day filled with new sights.


     The sun went down just before we drove into our camp. BD, KK and Life were there waiting for us; we hadn’t seen them in two days, and it felt like coming home. They had the usual cold drinks and warm towels waiting for us.
When we went to our tents, as usual on travel days we found our towels folded into original shapes. However the towel art on my bed this time was a little unusual; the large towel was arranged in a double-lobed vaguely heart-shaped pattern, with the smaller towel rolled and standing straight up in the middle, with phallic undertones. I wasn’t sure what it was supposed to be. A three dimensional elephant? A giraffe?  Or something else?

     The guys had the bucket showers ready for us; this was a nice surprise, being moving day. We had drinks around the fire and another excellent dinner.
     The stars were brighter here in the clear desert air. Even with the moon nearly full I could see the Southern Cross shining high in the sky. Moonlight bathed the bush all around us in a silvery light.

 ~ Continued on next page ~

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