Aitch and I flew from Maun to Xudum in August 2001 when Janet & Duncan were helping Landela Safaris run their show. We landed on the nearby bush strip.
After a few days in camp they had business in Maun and we accompanied them on the drive out of the Delta to Maun in the Land Cruiser. Rickety bridges, deep water crossings with water washing over the bonnet onto the windscreen.
On the drive back to camp after the day in the big smoke of the metropolis of Maun we entered a Tamboti grove and saw two leopard cubs in the road. They split and ran off to left and right, then ran alongside of us on either side for a minute calling to each other before we moved off and let them be.
We enjoyed mekoro trips, game drives & walks and afternoon boat trips stretching into evenings watching the sunset from the boat while fishing for silver catfish or silvertooth barbel – I forget what they called them. Later, wading in thigh-deep water sorting out the pumps. Only afterwards did I think hmm, crocs.
Visited Rann’s camp for lunch where Keith and Angie Rowles were our hosts. That’s where we first heard the now-common salute before starting a meal: “Born Up a Tree.”
Janet moved us from camp to camp as guests arrive, filling in where there were gaps in other camps. We transferred by boat, mekoro or 4X4 vehicle. One night we stayed in a tree house in Little Xudum camp.
Lazy days in camp drinking G&T’s
Later Xudum was taken over by &Beyond. Super luxury: R15 000 per person per night! Very different to the lovely rustic tented camp it was when we were there. I hate the way ‘conservationists’ use miles of wooden decking and flooring!
Getting into Botswana’s Okavango Delta can be awfully expensive.
A cheaper way is to fly in to Oddballs Palm Island Luxury Lodge, get on a mokoro and disappear off into the wild with a guide who knows where he’s going and what he’s doing. In 1993 Aitch and I did just that, spending a night at Oddballs, where you are given a little dome tent to pitch on the hard-baked earth.
You get visitors:
The name is ironic, see (“contrary to what is expected, and typically causing wry amusement because of this” – I made a quick check; don’t want to get ‘ironic’ wrong). While in camp you stock up on the meagre supplies available in their shop, like potatoes and onions; a tent, a braai grid; add it to the 10kg you’re allowed to bring in on the high-wing Cessna 206’s and you’re away! 10kg doesn’t go far when you’re a books, binocs and telescope junkie!
The next morning we pushed off in our gentles S-shaped tree trunk mokoro to enjoy six nights out on the water in the care of a wonderful man named Thaba Kamanakao. He rigged up the seats so they were really comfy, the backrests enabling you to fall asleep at times!
Thaba said we could choose where we wanted to camp – anywhere. Soon after lunch we saw a magnificent jackalberry tree on an island and said ‘there!’ – my guess is he knew that! We set up camp – our tent and two deckchairs and a ready-made campfire spot which he’d likely used many times before. The rest if the day was given to lurking, loafing, listening, lazing. Thaba set his gill nets, gathered firewood, pitched his smaller tent and set his chair at the fire. We were all quiet most of the time, listening and loving as night fell. After we’d eaten we sat talking and listening some more. Then Thaba played his mbira – his ‘thumb harp’ – and sang to us; I’ll never forget his introduction as we switched on our tape recorder: ‘My name is Thaba; Thaba Kamanakao; Kamanakao is surname;‘
We chose not to move camp each day, electing to sleep three nights under a jackalberry and three nights under a mangosteen, both giving welcome shade and birdlife. We had little food, but Thaba provided us with the fish he caught in his gill net each night.
I ate the barbel and he and Aitch the bream. Lucky me, it was delicious! He also loved barbel, but his lifestyle advisor – a sangoma? a shaman? a nutritionist? – had told him he wasn’t allowed it! So a myth robbed a man of a useful source of protein. The first night we were joined by newly-qualified Pommy doctors Louise and Richard and their guide “BT.”
When we moved camp from the camp Aitch named Jackalberry Camp, to her new chosen Mangosteen or Squirrel Camp, we decided we needed a bath on the way, so Thaba took us to a stunning clear lagoon, carefully checked for big things that could bite and then stood guard on the mokoro while we swam and rinsed – no soap, please! Anyone going to this beautiful inland delta: Pack some small swimming goggles and an underwater camera if you can. The clarity of that water is awesome.
Squirrel Camp nights were again spent cooking and sitting around the fire; talking and listening to Thaba playing his mbira and singing;
Days were spent birding the camp, hiking the island and an daily foray in the mokoro. Once we we were ‘moved off’ by an impatient ele, Aitch getting mildly reprimanded for turning round to get a fuzzy picture as we retreated. Another time Thaba – scouting ahead – spooked a herd of buffalo, who thundered in a tight mass towards us. We climbed the nearby termite mound – Thaba had told us to stay next to or on it – and they thundered all around us;
We would sally out daily on short mokoro trips,
Back before the sun got too high so we could loaf in our shady camp, where the squirrels and birds kept us entertained for hours. Six lazy, wonderful, awesome days.
One night a herd of eles moved in and we lay listening to their tummy rumbles. We kept dead quiet and just peered at them in the moonlight through the tent flap, as they had a little baby with them and we didn’t want to upset mama.
Then we headed back reluctantly for a last night at Oddballs. Warm showers under the open sky; cold beer & gin’n’tonics on the deck, ice tinkling in the glass; watching spotted-necked otters in the lagoon, lounging in comfy chairs. Topped off that evening by a big hearty hot meal prepared for us and plonked onto a table on the deck. We ate watching the sunset turn the water .
And suddenly it dawned on us that, even though we did have to pitch our own tent again, Oddballs really IS a Luxury Lodge!
Flying ants, black rhino, wild dogs and a magic unidentified raptor.
Plus impressive thunderstorms, pelting rain, dry stream beds that ended up running merrily. The Hluhluwe river changed from dry sandy bed to quite a brown torrent between Friday night and Sunday morning.
I thought ‘Augur Buzzard’ as I stopped the car just outside the reserve cattle grid gate on the main road. Three raptors were soaring in the wind welling up from a little ridge on the north of the road, right overhead.
Pale leading edge, rust-coloured trailing edge, black ‘fingers’; A falcon-like head pattern (yet not quite) and the size of a YBK or a marsh harrier). Soaring and diving spectacularly. Saw the underside mainly. Upperside I think brown-ish. Forgot to take a photo!! Foolish!
A coucal bubbling in the rain, then listening intently till his mate or rival called then immediately hunching and bobbing into his call (The girls said “Look Dad: he’s laughing!”.
Yep, three teen girls. Who were most impressed by the buffet breakfast and most unimpressed by the massive thunderclap that banged right overhead in the wee dark hours of Saturday. “Dad, I thought the thatch was going to catch fire!” says Jess. And by the lack of wifi.
Samango and vervet monkeys with babies, bushbuck, nyala, duiker, impala, zebra, francolin, longclaws, lots of buffalo, a dozen white rhino; Two eles right at the roadside each munching a tree for breakfast; Baboon; a hippo out of water; a few giraffe.
One of Aitch’s list of ‘things to do’ once we knew she had cancer, was to visit her twin sis in Botswana. Janet quickly mustered her network and arranged a trip to Hwange, Zimababwe’s world-class national park. We’d been once before. Her friends Beks and Sarah Ndlovu of African Bush Camps own a concession and run a very special camp at Somalisa in the eastern area, Linkwasha I think they call it.
Beks calls it his Hemingway-style camp. We called it bliss. Unpretentious tents from the outside, luxury inside.
The weather was amazing! Bright sunshine, then huge gathering clouds, then pouring rain and back to sunshine in a few hours. Repeated daily. Enough rain to bring out the bullfrogs – the first time I have seen them, not for lack of looking. They were out for their annual month of ribaldry: Bawdy songs, lewd & lascivious pixicephallic behaviour. Also gluttony. Then back underground for 11 months of regrets.
The rain was spectacular!
After the rain there’s sunshine, and the bush telegraph page is wiped clean: New spoor becomes clearly evident. Aha! The lions have cubs!
After a good soaking the animals would have to drip-dry. We could get under cover and have hot showers, hot drinks and warm dry clothing.
Hwange has become my favourite of all Africa’s big parks. It is simply fantastic.
Those sand roads are very special, as were the breakfasts out on the pan.
I had dashed off an email to Aitch in February 2009:
Hi Aitch – As ‘they’ so crudely put it, we need to ‘sh*t or get off the pot’ as far as a decision to get to Okavango (and to Beks Ndlovu’s camps) this year. Either soonish (March), or September / October (very hot). We must decide yes or no, and if yes, who could we leave the kids with? Dilemma – K
—-oo0oo—- So glad we stayed on the pot! The kids were fine; We got to Botswana eleven months after that email, in January 2010, then trekked on to Zimbabwe for Aitch’s last – great, unforgettable – Hwange trip.
Lunchtime high on the Momfo cliffs overlooking a great bend in the Mfolosi river. Our guides lit a fire and began to prepare our lunch. We shucked off our light daypacks and settled down for another ‘well-deserved’ break after our gentle amble up the hill.
From our high vantage point we had already seen a buffalo in the sandy river bed, a rhino on the far bank and a lioness hiding behind the reeds on the opposite bank. As we watched she stalked across the wide river bed towards some zebra. She lay down and waited once she was on the near bank. A few more lionesses and a lion walked across the sand to our left, crouching and flanking the zebra, who panicked and dashed off straight towards the first lioness. She pounced in a cloud of dust and she and her target disappeared behind the thorn bush. We strained to see what happened. Did they get their lunch?
After a while they all walked out looking a bit disgusted with themselves. So no, probably not.
While scanning with my telescope I took a good look at the rhino and called out excitedly to the rest. Hey, come and look! It’s uBhejane, not another white rhino like the many we’ve seen. We all had a good look and confirmed the jizz and the hooked lip of the rarely-seen ‘black’ rhino. What a sighting!
Scoping well left of the river up an adjacent valley I noticed baboons in two sycamore figs, the mfolosi tree that give the river and the park its name. Suddenly they started barking and swearing in fluent baboon-vloek, and a magnificent leopard appeared in view, staring up into the tree above him. I got the scope on him and called the others. He was most obliging and waited till all nine of us, including the two rangers had a good look before flicking his long tail and bounding up the tree, to increased pandemonium from the residents. We heard loud shrieks, even ruder words and then much barking and squealing. I watched for a long while to see if I could spot the leopard again. But we didn’t find out if he got his lunch either.
So as far as lunches go, we can only confirm that we definitely ate ours, and that it was the delicious traditional huge white bread sarmies with butter, tomato and raw onion with salt and black pepper, washed down with freshly-brewed Five Roses tea. Mmm mmmm!
Four of the Big Five for lunch. On foot! Actually, sitting on our bums at lunchtime. What a day! And the rhino was the real Big Five member, not the more placid white rhino. The big five idea originated in the days when they were considered the five most dangerous animals to hunt. The days when the way you “got” the big five was to kill them, not just to see them. We joked as we packed up to walk back to base camp that we now needed to see an ele on the way home to round off our lunch. Well, we did. It was almost ridiculous. But thrilling.
And that was not all . . .
The next day our walk took us on a different route. As we crossed the low Mfolosi in the blazing sun we asked our guides if we could swim. ‘Well, you can wallow,’ they said, ‘It’s not deep enough to swim.’ So wallow we did, King Fogg and I; and that’s how we came to spot the Big Six, adding the rare Pink-faced Ceramic-white Freshwater Mfolosi Beluga Whale to our tally of wondrous things spotted in that very special place, the wonderful Mfolosi Wilderness Area.
The next day we walked upon this sleeping pride, loafing on the riverbed. They scattered when they saw us, the male on the right leading the flee-ing, tail tucked ‘tween his legs! They’ve learnt not to trust those dangerous upright primates.
baboon-vloek – impolite baboon dialect used when worried
The Umfolosi Wilderness is a special place. Far too small, of course, but its what we have. I’m reading Ian Player’s account of how Magqubu Ntombela taught him about wilderness and Africa and nature. The idea of a wild place where modern man could go to escape the city and re-discover what Africa was like
My first trail was ca 1985, when I went with Dusi canoeing buddies Doug Retief, Martin & Marlene Loewenstein and Andre Hawarden. We were joined by a 19yr-old lass on her own, sent by her father, who added greatly to the scenery:
A good sport – took our gentle teasing well
We went in my kombi and some highlights I recall were:
Doug offering “bah-ronies” after lunch one day. We were lying in the shade of a tree after a delicious lunch made by our guides: Thick slices of white bread, buttered and stuffed with generous slices of tomato and onion, washed down with tea freshly brewed over a fire of Thomboti wood. Doug fished around in his rucksack and gave us each a mini Bar One (“bah-ronie”, geddit?). Best tasting chocolate I ever ate, spiced as it was with hunger and exertion.
After the 5-night trail we went for a game drive. Needing a leak after a few bitterly cold brews I left the wheel with the kombi trundling along amiably and walked to the side door of the kombi, ordering Hawarden to take over the driving. Not good at taking orders, he looked at me, waited till I was in mid-stream out of the open sliding door and leant over with his hiking stick and pressed the accelerator. The driverless kombi picked up speed and I watched it start to veer off-road, necessitating a squeezed premature end to my leak and a dive for the wheel.
Thanks a lot, Hawarden! Pleasure, he murmured mildly. Hooligan!
30yrs later Andre Hooligan Hawarden wrote:
“Hey, remember that cool walk we did in the game reserve when you had the tape recorder and we attracted the owl? Then next day we lay on the bank of the Umlofosi river and watched the vultures coming down for a lunch time drink and a snooze?
That was a wonderful experience. I’ve never forgotten it.”
On the way to Ithala we stopped at a Boxer store in Dundee to buy supplies. I deliberately didn’t go to the Woolworths or a shopping centre as the boys had been talking about dodgy places. As I stopped Josh and Tom said “This place is dodge”.
Grabbing a trolley, I sent them off to buy the braai. “Buy charcoal, lighters, matches and meat”, I said. Then I thought “Better write that down”, so I tore my list in half and wrote down those four things for them:
We put all our goods in one trolley. I glanced at the meat they had bought while paying and stifled a grin: We were not going to be short on protein!
I paid, left the shop and loaded all the stuff we had bought into our trusty Ford Ranger bakkie.
“Oh! We forgot the charcoal”, they said.
“And the lighter and matches?” I asked.
Forgot that too.
In their minds they HAD remembered four things:
Meat, Meat, Meat and Meat.
They did the braai both nights and did a great job of it. While they were at it they spotted a Thicktailed Bushbaby (or nagapie) and a Large-spotted Genet in the headlamp light.
Photogiraffing? It’s hard to photograph giraffe in Ithala Game Reserve when you have a Jack-in-the-Box popping up in the jeep right in front of your lens every time you’re ready to depress the shutter. And then the laughter gives camera shake.
Geoffrey Caruth is a doer. He gets going. He has run an indigenous nursery in an industrial area for decades, he ran an Olde Heritage Shoppe for years, he built a pond in a park – as a donation to the people of Westville; he has a lovely young (much younger!) wife and two ugly old dogs. He lives on the bank of the Palmiet river, on the boundary of the Palmiet Nature Reserve. Sure, he thinks that to be an Englishman is to have won the lottery in life, but hey, even he’s not perfect.
Recently he decided to re-introduce bushbuck into the 100ha Palmiet Nature Reserve in Westville, KwaZulu Natal and – typically – got off his butt. I would have talked about it, he rallied the troops. The bushbuck or imbabala (Tragelaphus sylvaticus) should be eminently suited to our valley and we hope they’ll thrive here.
So this week, 18 months after he decided to launch “Operation Nkonka”, we were in the Palmiet watching five beautiful bushbuck, three females and two males, jump out of the back of the truck and explore their new home.
Geoff and Warren Friedman watch with pride and angst:
A = Release site
B = Where I last saw a bushbuck
C = Our home
Later four more were released. Soon we’ll be fawning over their offspring, we hope!
nkonka is isiZulu for male bushbuck;
bushbuck in general are imbabala; the Cape bushbuck is our species; the other is the Harnessed bushbuck or kéwel, a different species in west and central Africa. Convergent evolution has them looking very similar but ours is closely related to the Bongo and the Sitatunga while the Harnessed is closer to the Nyala. The Nyala has the wonderful Latin name Tragelaphus angasi – you can imagine how that came about! (angazi in isiZulu can mean ‘I don’t know’).
In Tsavo East we walked down a long underground tunnel from Elephant Hills Lodge on the hilltop in the first pic below, to the waterhole below the hill, where the tunnel ends in an iron-barred underground hide looking out at elephant feet and buffalo legs as they drink within pebble-tossing distance.
In Tsavo West we climbed down into an old metal tank with glass portholes looking out into the crystal clear waters of Mzima Spring, where fish swim past and hippos can be seen looking like graceful ballerinas who have ‘let themselves go’ as they move daintily by, holding their breath. We watched and waited but not a one of them farted while we were there.
The spring bubbles out of the hillside volcanic rock, crystal clear and forming a sizeable stream.
Its a sudden decision: Let’s go to a game reserve Dad! – that’s Jess on Friday night.
OK! (I’m chuffed!). I’m working tomorrow, so you guys buy food and gather the camping stuff. Be ready when I get home at 2:30pm and we’ll go to Mkhuze. Remember the tent, mattresses, pillows, your swimming cozzies.
Cecelia helps them. Minenhle & Andile join us. As we head north to Zululand I realise we’ll be cutting it fine. The gates close at 7pm and it’s 3:30pm already, so there’s a change of plan: We’ll go to Hluhluwe/Mfolosi instead. Means no camping and no swimming.
At the gate the usual story: A pessimistic Ooh, you haven’t booked? Mpila is full. The bushcamps are full.
Keep trying, I say cheerfully. Oh! OK, I’ll try Hilltop camp. Just then the kids walk into the office and he gets interested in me and the kids, asking all sorts of adoption questions and Where’s my wife? and Is she a Zulu lady? and so tries harder when there’s no reply on the radio. Will you phone them on your cellphone? he asks me. Sure. We get thru, there’s a chalet available, we book and head off on what turns into a free night drive!
Tom spots an elephant running towards the road ahead of us, ears flapping. I slow down and it turns onto the tar road and walks determinedly towards us, causing great panic on the back seat. We reverse and wait, reverse and wait, giving it plenty of space, till he eventually finds a mud wallow, drinks and heads off into the bush, allowing us to proceed. It’s dark now and later on two more eles loiter on the road and we just wait patiently. All the kids have watched the videos of the elephant flipping the car, so they’re nervous and don’t want to go anywhere near eles.
At Hilltop they’re waiting for us, they give us our key and bring us an extra set of bedding and towels for the fifth body. Bleeding luxury.
AND the big breakfast buffet in the restaurant is included.
The dawn chorus the next morning was fantastic. In that magic spell between pre-dawn and the screaming banshees waking up I made a cup of coffee and sat out on the deck listening in the half light. As the kids started waking two trumpeter hornbills landed in full view and they had a good look through my telescope. I issued a decree banning all post-5000BCE music and they just nodded, acquiescent (!)
Off we went to St Lucia estuary for a camping long weekend. Let’s take the minimum guys, we can buy food locally. Just clear out the fridge and bread bin and let’s go. We’ll buy charcoal and meat and etc from the local Spar. I didn’t even take any wine! Let’s take a tent for the three teenage girls, and the 12yr old fella and I will sleep in the back of the pickup. The simple life.
Except I realised at the first tollgate that I had left my wallet in Westville. Complication. To turn back or not. In my rucksack I found Tom’s saving card, daily withdrawal limit R300. I had just changed his password, as we had not used the account for ages, so we were good to go. We just gotta be frugal, kids. And that’s where they blew me away. All four of them said “Dad, we’ve got money! You can have our money, Dad”. They each had R200 pocket money for the weekend and offered it freely! What stars.
Thanks guys, I may need that, but I have enough to fill up with diesel and we’ll just go easy and discuss it before we spend anything, OK?
The next morning I managed to activate my eWallet and cellphone banking at an internet cafe so could now draw R1500 a day! Problem solved! I gave them each R100 to thank them for their generous offers. Their eyes looked like chocolates and ice creams! Off we went to the game reserve (entrance fee R245) and to the water park (R120 for the four of them). We wuz rich! The girls bought swimming shorts with their money.
The next day that amount had kindly been reduced to R200 (“for my safety” – Thanks FNB!), so I had to make the speech again, and again they rallied around with their offer of chipping in, but with Tom’s R300 and my R200 we were fine. We ate boerie rolls both nights – cheap!
Here’s an isimangaliso* pan with buffalo, waterbuck and zebra (click on the pic). The Indian Ocean is just behind that high forested dune:
Tom got on with fishing . .
. . while the teenage girls did what teenage girls do . .
*isimangaliso means ‘miracle, wonder, surprise’ in isiZulu
Walking single-file to supper in Thembe Elephant Park camp one early evening with Jess bringing up the rear.
“Dad there’s a snake!” she said, and pointed out this vine snake at about her eye level two foot off the path. We had all walked past it.
Beautiful. Aitch took the pic.
She’s a great spotter, our Jess. While Tom waxes lyrical all the time, she’ll say “What’s that?” and we’ll see some new creature.
Saturday morning, and it’s just the boys, as Aitch is in Johannesburg and Jessie slept over at Annabelle’s. Tom & I have just spent the night in our beach shelter on the school playing fields in the annual Livingstone School Campout, and we’re driving home. He’s in grade 1.
Dad, did you see the lions come to drink and the one crocodile ate the little cub?
No, TomTom, where did you see that?
Dad, if I was a crocodile I’d just live on the water and not eat babies. I’d be a vegetarian to other animals.