Thursday, June 21, 2012


We set out at dawn for Etosha and quickly reached the main gate where we waited to check in to the park with several self drivers and some other tour companies.  Initially we were put off to see so many other people and vehicles.  Our first lion sighting had about 5 cars and even a large bus parked next to it. We have been so spoiled on our trip to have been in private reserves with no public access.  However, once we reached a waterhole the magic of Etosha was apparent.  It was like a scene from the garden of Eden...literally hundreds of grazers like Oryx, springbock, zebra, and assorted black back jackals, wart hogs, and other characters.  The animals were all frolicking about and chasing each other...oryx charging zebras, zebras chasing springbock, etc...

They were just having a grand time and had no worries in the world.  We visited several waterholes and they all had great game in a similar setting.  We also saw the huge salt pan that was created by glaciers during the last ice age.  The white expanse was impressive and went as far as the horizon...on our way out of the park we stumbled upon a large breeding herd of elephants with their young babies...they were heading for water and had a very organized approach with the elders on the outside and the babies protected in the middle.  We followed them to the waterhole and watched as they lifted their trunks high in the air to smell for water en route over several kilometers...their sense of smell is amazing.  When they reached the waterhole they started to play as well and the babies rushed around spaying water and living it up.  It was good fun to watch.  We returned to Ongava Lodge where we we're lodging that day.  The lodge is set on a hill with great views and wonderful stone work in the walls of the lodge.  We made a quick inspection of a nearby luxury property called Little Ongava which was just gorgeous and prefect for a honeymoon couple or someone celebrating a big anniversary.  The suites were basically a house with a plunge pool, loving room, master bedroom, private deck, outdoor shower and a sala (outdoor bed)!!! Later that afternoon we set off on our final game drive of the trip within the Ongava reserve.  We travelled out in a new area and it was not long before we spotted three lion just off the dirt track.  There were 2 male cubs and their mother. The cubs were very curios and approached us carefully but soon lost interest and started to play with each other.  

We continued on to a beautiful large savannah that reminded me of the Serengeti plains.  The we're lots of zebra, oryx, wildebeest, and red hartebeest grazing peacefully in the late afternoon sun.  Just an idyllic scene as one would picture Africa to be...a little further down the road we had a great lion pride sighting with 7 adults crossing the road in front of us starting on a hunt.  The sun was setting a golden orange ball which silhouetted the cats against the horizon in a perfect image.  We bid farewell to the lions and farewell to the bush after an amazing journey that took us from the banks of the Zambezi to the watery world of the Okavango Delta and then to the dry desert of Namibia into the wild northern frontier near Angola and finally to the oasis of Etosha and Ongava.  

I feel so blessed to have experienced another fabulous journey in Africa and  I reflected that many of these animals and wild areas may not be here for my children or their offspring if we don't take care of our planet and it's wild places and rare animals like the black rhino...I hope that those of you who have read my blog and followed my journey will be inspired to take your own journey to this special land and become involved in protecting it.

Ongava Private Reserve...

We arrived late yesterday afternoon at the Ongava Private Reserve where we checked in to our tented camp which looked out on its own water hole.  We were just in time to join Megustus who guided us on a late afternoon drive through this enormous reserve (30,000 acres). There was a lot of wildlife and the animals were all very calm when we approached.  We immediately noticed the difference between Damaraland which was much wilder and remote to this reserve on the edge of Etosha National Park (once the largest park in the world).  The reserve was teaming with zebra, kudu, sprinbock as well as some new animals that we had not seen like the hartebeest which is a large reddish antelope with big horns.  About 20 minutes into our drive we came upon several female lions and their large male cubs.  We enjoyed seeing the lions up close from about 15 feet away and then left them to have a sundowner. 

The sun sets quickly and it was soon dark so we started a night drive back to camp.  There were lots of black backed jackals around and as we turned a corner we came right up alongside a huge white rhino mother and her very large calf.  The rhino were a little startled and ran along side the land rover only 5-10 feet from us.  What a thrill.  They pulled off the road into some bushes and we enjoyed a nice viewing session with hem. They were very relaxed in our presence and the female had an enormous front horn.  Seeing them up close allowed us to identify the distinguishing features like the very wide mouth and the hump on the back side.  These rhino were also much larger than the black rhino we had seen in Damaraland.  

We returned to a wonderful meal under the stars overlooking he water hole and we could hear lions calling to each other very nearby.  As we slept the lions were calling throughout the night and we could really feel The sense of being in the bush as we were in canvas tents.  We even has to have an armed guide escort us to and from our tents because they have so many lions here...amazing!   Tomorrow we head into Etosha Park to see the famous water holes and great salt pan that are often featured in National Geographic wildlife specials.  it should be great and one of the highlights of the trip.

Palmwag Desert Lodge

The stars last night were absolutely amazing.  There is no artificial light within 300 miles in any direction and we were treated to a fantastic celestial display.  Here in the southern sky we see unfamiliar constellations like the scorpion and the southern cross as well as the good old big dipper low on the horizon.  The milky way just glows so brightly it is hard to describe but it is almost like there is a light shining in the sky behind the galaxy...

This morning we awoke early as we had an ambitious plan to track rhino before setting off to Etosha National Park over 6 hours drive away where we hoped to reach camp by 3pm for an afternoon game drive.  We set off before dark in the freezing cold and within an hour we had the good fortune to come upon 3 rhino browsing in a valley just across from us.  The group consisted off a dominant bull rhino (named Don't Worry), his mate named Desiree, and their 2 year old calf Dave.  We approached on foot down wind to within a 100 yards and enjoyed a good view of them as they munched on the bushes.  The trackers recorded all the details including GPS coordinates, activity, direction, markings on the ears, etc...

We then set off to pick up our rental car which we had stashed at Palmwag Desert Lodge and once we cleared the veterinary gate (protecting against foot and mouth disease) we drove into the high mountains towards the Grootberg Lodge which is a 100% community owned property set on a cliff overlooking a huge valley.  We did a quick inspection and met the manager Bob as well as their guide Isaac.  Back on the road and down the mountains we headed until we had a flat tire about 5 miles out of a very remote town.  Luckily we made a quick tire change and limped into the town on a temporary tire where we were able to get the tire repaired.  I use the word town loosely because in reality there was a gas station, a store and a collection of shacks offering tire repair, cell phone repair, and a public toilet.  We were happy to get back on the road and surprised to see that the graded dirt road we had been on now changed to a tarred road all the way to Etosha park.  We rolled into the Ongava Private reserve to our wonderful tented camp in the heart of the bush.  Our tented camp has a wonderful water hole directly in front of camp and a Plethora of animals frequent the spot including springbuck, kudu, and water buck.  We met our guide, Megustos, who took us out on a late afternoon game drive. The wildlife here was so abundant and habituated to vehicles that it served as a stack contrast to the wild areas of Damaraland that we just left.  Within a few minutes we had passed lots of kudu, oryx, blue wildebeest, and more.  Soon we found a pride of lions consisting of 3 young females, 3 males, 2 mothers and one dominant male.  These lions we so tranquil and easy going compared to the desert lions which were so skittish and shy.  

We enjoyed a great sunset viewing and then set off for the classic sundowner of gin and tonics while we listened to the lions roar nearby.  Surprisingly a leopard also called out in the middle of their roars, apparently to advise its territory though usually leopards are fearful of lions.  After the sun set we turned on the spot light and started a night safari as we headed back to camp. Very suddenly we came upon 2 white lions just 10 feet from our land rover running parallel to us.  We quickly shut off the motor and the mother and large calf stopped within 30 feet of us and we enjoyed some great viewing as we used a red filter on the spot light to avoid damaging their eyes.  The female had an enormous front horn which was very impressive.  The calf was quite old, probably almost 3 years old and soon he would set off on his own and leave his mom.  He will need to challenge a dominant male to establish his territory or move off to another area.  We learned that white rhinos are much more tranquil and less aggressive than the white rhino.  Black rhinos are browsers who like thick bush and are often startled and charge because they can't tell what is approaching.  in contrast the white rhino is a grazer who likes the open plains and can more easily identify a threat so is less likely to charge.  

Desert Rhino...

This was another amazing, where to start.  It was very dark and freezing cold as we set off at 5:30am with our trackers in the lead.  We traveled for about 2 hours over rough roads as we finally reached the rhino habitat.  En route we spotted a male lion making his way up valley at a very fast pace.  We got a clear view of him as he paused to look at us and then quickly veered off into a side valley.  Great luck!  Then we caught up to the trackers on a bluff above a large riverine valley with lots of green foliage a few pools of water here and there.  It looked like perfect rhino habitat as it was surrounded by rolling grasslands and lots of milk weed plants which rhinos love to feed on but is very poisonous to other species.   In fact elephants roll in the milk weed to help kill parasites on their skin.  The trackers led us up a side valley and soon spotted a mother and calf moving up the valley and of the ridge.  We then started on foot to find them over the rocky terrain.  The key with tracking a rhino on foot is to stay down wind of them and to be very quiet.  rhinos have excellent sense of smell and hearing but their eyesight is very poor.  Luckily the wind was in our favor and we were able to approach them behind a hill so that we were undetected.  The trackers emphasized that it is critical not to stress the rhino so they are very strict about viewing distances and time spent in their presence.  We silently approached on foot single file behind the tracker until he indicated that we should stop about 300 feet away.  From here we had great views of the mom and her calf eating the milkweed plants and I was happy that we we not disturbing them at all.  Having followed the rules we got into a great position and spent about 10 minutes observing them with binoculars and taking photos.  

The desert rhino is a black rhino and there are only 4,500 rhino left on the planet.  The majority of black rhinos live in Namibia and the area we were in was another partnership conservancy with the local people and Save the Rhino Trust.  Black rhinos have distinct features from white rhino which are much more plentiful (23,000 total) and more widely distributed.  Black rhinos are actually brownish grey in color and the main distinction is the hooked lip used for browsing and a small hump behind their necks.  The front horn is longer than the rear horn.  With a white rhino the two horns can be equal length and the mouth is wider, in fact the name white rhino came from a distortion of the Dutch description of "wide" mouth rhino.  The name black rhino just followed to indicate the different type of rhino.  White rhinos are not white in color but grey mud colored and they are grazers usually found in the open grasses.  Poaching is a huge problem with rhinos because rhino horn is consider medicine in places like Vietnam.  The horn is made out of keratin just like our fingernails.  It grows very slowly.  Some conservationist believe that rhino hors should be preemptively cut off the rhino to eliminate poaching.  Others believe that rhinos horns should be sold legally and controlled by the state and conservation groups working together.  There are huge stockpiles of rhino horns in places like South Africa and Zimbabwe that could be sold legally to try to meet the need according to those in favor of this method.  Personally I don't like either scenario and feel that we need to work on two fronts:  

1.  Educate the people of South East Asia that rhino horns have no scientific proof of being effective (which is true) - this will take time and be difficult but over a generation I am hopeful the old ways and beliefs will die out.

2.  Beef up security at transit ports, crack down on organized crime, and fund more anti poaching patrols

Every day a rhino is poached.  We lost 235 rhinos in South Africa alone last year.  Most a poachers coming from Zimbabwe and Mozambique through porous borders.  There are four types of poachers:  a small number due it for personal bush meat, a larger number due it for commercial bush meat, then you get professional poachers that come for the rhino horns with sophisticated techniques including helicopters and distribution networks using corrupt government and wildlife officials.  Probably the worst trend is that organized crime from China and other areas now operating poaching syndicates.  The situation is dire and I urge everyone to educate themselves and get involved to help out.  The April issue of Africa Geographic is completely dedicated to rhinos and an excellent exposé on all the issues related to rhinos including poaching, habitat, specific traits, populations, distribution, and details on the four species of rhino which include black, white, Indonesian, and Asian...

I am happy to be partners with Save the Rhino Trust and to offer my guests the opportunity to see these creatures in the wild and support the cause.  

I forgot to mention hat on he drive back to camp we came across 2 more desert elephant which are normally not found here so our luck has been extraordinary over the past few days...


We woke at 5:00am and set off down into the Hoab river valley in our land river.  The fog had moved in over night and related a magnificent scene - imagine a desert covered with a thick layer of fog viewed from the high mountains above.  As the sun rose we saw a camp fire burning on a nearby hill and our guide, Johan, told us it was probably illegal campers or poachers.  He said we needed to confront them and I was a little worried that we would be meeting armed poachers but to our delight it was all a big trick because the staff had set up a breakfast table on the top of a hill and we were treated to a wonderful "bush breakfast" with great views of the sun rising over the fog in the valley below.  After a yummy breakfast we drive down into the fog and the temperature quickly dropped as the visibility got worse.  It was strange to see animals like Oryx standing silhouetted in the fog. 

 Eventually the fog lifted as we reached the river bed and the scenery turned from a rocky landscape to a more lush river environment with trees and green bushes.  There was no running water but this was great elephant habitat with plentiful food and water which the would dig for in the river bed.  We found some lion tracks which was really a surprise because the area does not have any resident lions and they are not known to be found here.  We tracked the lion prints up the river valley and eventually found two other sets of tracks but we could not locate the elusive cats.  Like the desert elephant, these lions have adapted to he desert environment. They are quiet rare so we were excited about the prospect of seeing one though we knew that it would be shy and probably hide from us because it was not habituated to vehicles.  

After about an hour searching we gave up and soon found fresh elephant tracks.  Sure enough about 10 minutes further up the river we encountered a small group of elephants grazing on the moaned trees along the shore.  There was a mother and calf plus several small bull elephants.  We gave them plenty of room and observed from a good distance so as not to disturb these rare creatures.  The elephants need to eat about 2 tons of food a day and have the ability to go without water for several days.  They have unique features like very large foot pads which give them the ability to walk in sand due to the larger surface area.  The foot pads actually expand as they put weight on them and the prints are much larger than a normal elephant.  Very cool! We felt lucky to see these beautiful creatures here in a desert environment.  

Nature is just amazing and never ceases to surprise and impress me.  As we started back we decided to look one last time for the lions since we had a pretty good idea where they were located due to the tracks we had followed.  As luck was on our side we came upon a male lion who had just made a kill of an oryx but he scampered into the bushes to hide when we came on he scene.  We tried in vain to find him but he was too well hidden in the undergrowth.  We inspected the dead oryx up close and saw that the lion had already eaten it's stomach contents.  The oryx is a beautiful creature...a desert antelope that stands about 6 to 8 feet tall with two spiral horns that are very long and straight.  It looks like a horse from behind and has a strong body.  The most unique feature is its masked face with both white and black patches which serve to absorb and deflect the sun.  The oryx can stand high desert temperatures due to these features which allow it to cool the blood flowing to its brain...  

We headed back to camp passing some impressive herds of mountain zebra, some southern giraffes, oryx and even a black backed jackal.  Another great day in Africa!  Tomorrow we head to Desert Rhino camp where we will hook up with Save the Rhino Trust trackers and go out on foot in search of rare desert rhino... Can't wait!

Skeleton Coast

Today was a travel day as we drove about 50 miles up the Skeleton Coast which is aptly named for the huge shipwrecked tankers that have washed up on the remote oats and now stand as ghost ships in the pounding surf.  We encountered a massive cargo ship that sat eerily in the surf zone with the bridge clearly visible above the surf line.  It makes you wonder what happened to the crew in such a desolate place.  We turned into some spectacular mountains as we headed inland and up into the high desert.  The scenery was like the Southwest of he US with huge open ranges and geometric shaped mountains.  It reminded me of Mexican Hat in Utah near Moab.  We stopped at a Twefelfontain which is a park that contains the largest collection of San bushman rock art in the world. 

The San bushman carved figures of animals into the face of the sandstone rock.  We took a one hour tour of the valley and witnessed hundreds of carvings depicting elephant, lion, oryx, zebra and more.  The scenes were carved between 6000 and 200 years ago.  In one scene there is a lion that has a human hand at the end of his tail.  This image is purported to depict a shaman who had the ability to take the form of a lion in order to hunt.  We were impressed by the imagery and the beautiful setting.  We then got back on the roaweans eventually we reached a village where we met a 4x4 transfer that took us another 45 minutes over rough roads to Damaraland Camp.  This camp is a great example of a community partnership where locals have employment and responsibility for managing the private reserve.  The area is famous for the rare desert adapted elephants that inhabit the dunes and dry ever beds where very little rain ever falls. In fact, it is the damp fog from the ocean nearby that brings life sustaining water in the form of mist and dew which gives the area life.  The camp's setting is spectacular with great views out over a wide valley and lots of pyramid and table top shaped mountains glowing orange and red in the setting sun.  Tomorrow we search for elephants - yeah!

Sand Boarding at 77 km per hour!!!

Today we enjoyed a lovely breakfast at the Villa Margarita which is a great bed and breakfast in a converted house with a wonderful hostess named Carolina. We were then picked up by Beth who owns the local sand boarding company and driven to the nearby dunes.  We geared up with boots and boards and started hiking up a nearby dune.  The hiking was much easier than Dune 45 because the sand was hard in places and the boots had better surface area so we did not sink in too much.  When we reached the top of the dune we had fantastic views out to the Atlantic ocean only a mile away.  Our guides gave us instructions and we were off.  I grew up skiing but never boarded before so it was a unique experience to shoot down the dunes.  The others in my group we more experienced boarders and soon they were tearing it up and even doing jumps off a wooden platform.  Everyone was very supportive of us beginners and my first two runs were quiet successful (meaning I didn't fall on my face).  However when my third run came it was time to try linking turns and I did two huge face plants!!!  It did not hurt but the face full of sand was not fun... 

Next it was time to try lay down boarding which is done in a hard flexible square sheet of thin composite wood. You lay face down and then pick up on the front edge of the board as the guide shoves you off the steep face of a 200 foot dune.  You race down the face at up to 50 miles an hour.  Marc had the best speed at 77 km per hour - amazing.  It looks a little sketchy but once you do it you realize it is not as scary as it looks and actually is quite fun.  We were pretty wiped out by the time we had climbed the dunes about 7-8 times so we called it a day and headed back to Swakopmund.  It turns out Beth, the owner, is from Marin and has been living in Namibia for over 10 years.  Small world!  We invited her to join us for drinks at the tiger reef bar which is a fun beach bar set on the water with lounge chairs and a wrap around bar.  The cold beers tasted great after our physical day and the sunset was absolutely spectacular.  The sun actually mushroomed out and then somehow created a doubling effect so it seemed that two suns were setting on top of each other.  We were all blown away!  

We headed down the pier to the very cool jetty bar restaurant where we dined on local oysters, sushi and other yummy seafood dishes.  It was good fun to learn about Beth's life in Namibia and her experience starting and running a business that is so unusual as sand boarding.  Very cool. After dinner we found a German pub to watch the big Euro 2012 soccer match between Holland and Germany.  The place was packed and the atmosphere was lively and rowdy.  Lots of Germans travel l Namibia because it is a order colony and everyone speaks German here.  The Dutch also come due to heir heritage in nearby South Africa.  There are lots of "self drivers" that we are meeting here that rent a extended cab truck and do their own camping safari so the place has a fun vibe of authentic travelers.  Tomorrow we say goodbye to Scooter, Ryan and Nicki as they fly to Cape Town in South Africa for their final 4 nights.  Marc and I will pick up our rental and head north up the Skeleton Coast and inland into the Danaraland region in search of rare desert elephant and rhino.  It should be an adventure!!!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Delicious wines....

This morning the winds continued to howl so we set off on a very unusual adventure to Naukluft National Park which was a rough 2 hour drive through gorgeous southwest type of scenery.  

We arrived at the park and entered into a hidden canyon where a natural spring flowed down the cliffs creating waterfalls and emerald pools surrounded by tall trees and reeds.  We hiked about 1.5 hours up the winding canyon and followed the river as we wound our way higher and higher.  
Each bench revealed another clear pool and the atmosphere was so calming and peaceful.  Just incredible to find an oasis like this in the middle of such dry "Big Country"...  

Next we stopped by a winery that had been set up at another natural spring along our route back.  They think their wine as the driest in the world and I can see why.  We were hosted by a lovely family who were raising two children in the wilderness and making Shiraz and a red blend.  We had a tasty lasagne and toured the five pools on the property that were surrounded by towering palm trees, orange trees, and lots of flowering plants.  Another oasis in the desert which absolutely blew us away.
The Shiraz was delicious and all the profit goes towards nature conservancy so we felt good supporting kind of charity!  
When we returned the manager of the lodge Yvonne had set up a private tasting of some of South Africa's finest wines.  We loved the Ernie Els red and the Jordan unoaked Chardonnay among others...tomorrow we fly to Swakopmund which is a German town on the coast north of us. 

Hot Air Balloning over the Dunes...

 Wow!  Today we had an amazing flight over the sand dunes in a hot air balloon in perfect conditions.  The wind had dropped over night and we awoke at 4:30am and set off to the launch site where we watched out Namibian pilot John set up the balloon in the pre dawn light. 
  We then boarded onto the 8 person balloon and flew up into the sky as the sun rose over the mountains in the distance...  It was a once in a lifetime experience for sure!  We floated out across the plains and reached the edge of the red dunes as shadows stretched out in wild formations around the dunes.  It was incredible how the pilot could use different air currents at certain elevations to maneuver the balloon in the direction he wanted.  It was a perfect flight and we all had huge smiles on our faces as we floated across the sky. 
 We had a smooth landing and were escorted to a wonderful champagne brunch set up on the edge of a huge sand dune with great views across the valley. I forgot to mention that at one point the pilot had us floating only a few feet off the ground at about 20 miles an hour as we passed wildlife like Oryx and Springbock grazing nearby.  We then went to the airstrip and flew one hour to Swakopmund where I am now sitting in a charming hotel called the Villa Margarita writing this blog.  The flight was exceptional and gave us a great perspective in how huge this desert is...we flew for a full hour over red dunes and could see the blue Atlantic coastline just off our left as we flew north.  We had a nice lunch down by the sea where a nice cool breeze blew over us.  Believe it or not the temperature went from freezing in the desert to almost 80 degrees here on the coast.  Tonight we are off to watch some more soccer at a local pub and then to a sea food dinner at he Tug which is a converted tug boat set right next to the beach.  It should be good fun...
Perry and Marc, sand boarding...

Dune 45

We woke at 4:30 and learned the balloon trip was cancelled so we set off into the Namibia desert as the sun rose.  We arrived at Dune 45 an hour later and started an arduous climb of the red dune in a whipping wind that must have been blowing at least 35 miles an hour.  It was tough going as the sand was so soft and your foot would sink in preventing much forward progress up the steep slope.  If you ever imagined what it would be like to walk across the Sahara desert let me tell you it would be a major challenge and I stand in awe of the local bushman that make the 50 mile trek to the ocean to gather salt so that they can cure their bush meat.  
Scooter and Nicki
The bushman use ostrich eggs filled with water at hidden springs in the desert and bury them along their route so that they can make it safely back across the dunes... Talk about a workout - ouch!!!  We returned to our wonderful lodge for lunch and a found out that the local pub (an hour drive away) was showing the euro 2012 match between Italy and Spain so we decided to get some local flavor and set off to the rest camp.  

It was fun to see the self driver/campers that had found their way into the desert and were camping at the nearby campground.  Most of the travelers we met were Dutch, German, or South African spending 2-3 weeks driving the circuit of Namibia.  We drank ice cold local Hansa draught beers and watched Italy and Spain draw 1 to 1 in the game.  Then it was back to the lodge for dinner and off to bed with the hopes of ballooning the next morning.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Red Dunes of Namibia..

Today we took a small 5 seat Cesna plane across the wide open country on a one hour flight that brought us to the edge of these amazing red dunes...some of the tallest sand dunes in the world.

We were met by our guide, Nickey, who was a local Himba tribesman that had been trained to be a wilderness guide.  We took a rough road about 30 minutes to the awesome Little Kulala Lodge which looks like it belongs in a Star Wars movie on the planet Tatouin...our rooms were floor to ceiling windows looking out across a beautiful desert landscape towards the dunes.  
The wind was absolutely howling and the temperatures had dropped to freezing so we were glad to sit by the roaring fire in the main lodge and retire to our down comforters and hot water bottles in our comfy beds.  The bar featured some of the wines we had tasted at the show the day before and we were happy to see Beyerskloof on the list of included wines...

Before dinner we set off on a sundowner drive to see the local desert wildlife including ostrich, oryx, zebra, and black back jackals.  We drove to the top of a ridge with fantastic views across the landscape and toasted our arrival in the desert with ice cold gin and tonics...Tomorrow we hope to go hot air ballooning but he wind may prevent us from flying so we may tackle a climb of one of the sand dunes in the park.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Hello Namibia....

We flew out of the delta today to Maun in Botswana where we caught our flight to the capitol of Namibia which is Windhoek.  After checking in to our very cool hotel called the Olive Exclusive where we were upgraded to suites (sweet!) we grabbed a taxi and headed out to an international tourism show at the expo grounds.  It was good fun to visit the various booths and there was a wide range of service providers from safari lodges to wineries (yeah wine tasting!).  
Olive Exclusive
We met the wine maker at Beyerskloof which is one of SouthAfrica's best pinotage makers.  The pinotage grape is a special local grape produced originally in South Africa and to me it tastes like a nice blend between a pinot noir and a zinfandel.  Good stuff!  There were food demos and even a beer garden where we tried the local winter beer called Urboch...yummy! 
The local safari vehicle and camping rental outfits were should have seen the deluxe camping rigs for self drivers complete with kitchens, pop top campers, Dutch oven stoves and more... After the show we went to a great spot called Joe's beer house which is a local favorite where they served delicious entrees like oryx steak and grilled zebra.  The place was packed with travelers and locals in an outdoor/indoor garden pub with multiple bars.  We even got to watch the start of the Euro 2012 soccer matches...yeah!  Tomorrow we will fly into the Namibia desert which is the oldest desert in the world and features amazing red sand dunes.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Bull elephant in front of my door....

The day started out on an adventurous note when I left my room at sunrise and encounter a large bull elephant standing next to the raised platform that led to the main tree house.  I waited patiently as he stared me down from about 20 feet away and eventually he started grazing on a nearby tree and turned his back to me.  I took advantage of my opening a slowly crept by him as silently as possible...

I must have been about 10 feet behind this enormous bull.  I checked carefully to see if he was in must which would indicate that he would be very dangerous, aggressive and moody.  Luckily there was no liquid on his back legs (the tell tale sign of must) so he was not likely to charge me as long as I showed respect and gave him a wide berth.

This morning we set off in a comfortable land rover in search of two female lions and their cubs.  The terrain was an aquatic wonderland peppered with palms and other tall hardwood trees.  

Our search took us across Jao island where we encountered the rare red lechwe the area is famous for. The lechwe is a small water antelope with a red coat that   lives in the world between land and water.  We soon picked up the lion tracks and it appeared they were on the move.  
Play time
We followed e tracks for about two miles but could not locate the lions so instead we set off on a makoro trip through the water channels in search of hippo and crocs.  The makoro is a traditional dugout canoe made from a hollowed out hard wood tree.  They are poled along by makoro pilots who stand in the back and use long poles to propel the makoro canoe forward.  This is an enchanting way to travel through the crystal clear waters of the Okavango Delta.  One sits at water level and you can look down and see water lilies and other reed plants as they reach up from the sandy soil to the water surface.  The water is incredible clear and you can actually drink it straight from the delta. 

The scenery reminded me of traveling down the Nile river in Egypt on a felucca sailing boat.  Lots of palms and tall reed banks.  We eventually landed at a pretty little island where we found fresh lion tracks.  We sat up on a wooden platform and enjoyed a morning coffee break as we soaked in the gorgeous scenery all around us.  We then returned to the land rover and quickly found the lions lounging in the tall grass nearby.  There were two females and two lion cubs about 6 months old.  The lions were quiet relaxed as we sat within 10 feet or so taking pictures and listening to the little ones mewing to each other.  We then headed back to the lodge for a great lunch and while the others took advantage of the bush spa for massages Marc and I set off by boat with the manager of Jao, Anthony, who graciously escorted us to inspect the two nearby lodges of Jacana and Ketswana.  It took about 15 minutes by power boat to reach Jacana camp which was like a little Gilligan 's Island with 6 cabins set around the small island looking out over the water.  Unlike Jao, Jacana does not have raised walkways so it feels a bit wilder to walk from your room to the main area.  Hippos and elephants are common visitors to the camp.  Next we were off to Ketswana lodge which took about 45 minutes by boat.  This lodge was like a mini Jao camp with beautiful common areas and nicely furnished tents though not quite as luxurious and spacious as Jao.  

We retuned to Jao and set off on our afternoon activity which was a boat ride through the channels to a nearby lagoon.  We saw some huge catfish and a giant croc on the banks that we were able to approach within only a few feet before he plunged into the river. On our return to camp Anthony had arranged a private wine tasting off one of he top South African wines including merlot, cab sav, pinotage, and shiraz.  

We tasted some gold medal winners including one by an all African team led by a woman vintner whose wine is called Tandi.  It was a delicious treat for us all.  Dinner featured a Moroccan Lamb with risotto side and veggies.  We adjourned to the fire pit after dinner for a quick night cap to round out another wonderful day in the bush

Tomorrow we are off to Namibia and will stay overnight in the capitol city of Windhoek.  It should be fun...I hope I will have some Internet to contact home and send my last 5 days of blogs out...

One of my favorite lodges: Jao

Today we packed up and said goodby to the wonderful staff at Duna Tau.  The managers Gerard, Claire, and Ben were so gracious and great hosts to us.  it was sad to say goodbye.
Before we left we caught up with the lion pride one last time.  it appears they had chased off the wild dogs last night and the dogs won't be back for up to 2 weeks which means we we incredibly lucky to see them twice in our stay here.  The lions were resting in the shade just along the Savtu channel and watching a group of red lechwe on a nearby island.  There were two male identical twins who were playing with each other, rolling and pawing playfully in the grass.  This was abreast send off for us...

We boarded a Caravan 12 seat plane at 11am and flew 45 minutes int the heart of the Okavango Delta.  As we flew over this incredible ecosystem we could look out over hundreds of miles of hippo trails in the green swamp below.  Palm trees dotted the horizon and the world below became a watery mirage.  This is the largest freshwater delta in the world and one gets a complete sense of isolation here.  What a contrast this will be to Namibia's desert and sand dunes that await us in a few days...

Marc enjoying downtime at Jao

Bedroom at Jao

We landed at Jao airstrip and were escorted to camp by our guide, GT.  The lodge is absolutely an architectural gem set upon a lush green lagoon.  Palms surround the property and the two story wood structure is like a Four Seasons Swiss Family Robinson tree house.  High beamed ceilings, gorgeous wooden floors, tasteful furnishings, 2 outdoor pools, a spa and more. Our rooms are amazing as well.  You walk into a living room with a comfy couch and side arm chairs, a full bar in the mini fridge, tea and coffee service.  A large canopied bed faces out towards the extensive deck outside with views over the green grassy marsh.  The bathroom features an indoor and outdoor shower.  There is a sala covered day bed on a side deck.  This room is about half the size of my house back home.  Turkish carpets cover the floor and brass fittings are featured in the bathroom.  This is a premium class camp and you can certainly see why.  It will be hard to leave the property to go on game drives!  

Our deck at Jao
While the rest of the gang went out on a game drive and saw two female lions hunting a lechwe I stayed in camp to relax by the pool and enjoy a nice massage in the exotic spa they have here.  I tried a local technique which involved rolling wooden sticks over the muscles and the use of hot stones.  The massage was a perfect way to chill out and enjoy Jao which is one of the nicest camps I have ever had the pleasure to lodge at.  After my massage I drew a nice hot bath in my room and lit a single candle as I sat and listened to the world of nature's calls all around me.  Pure magic!

Pangolin, Leopards, Savuti Lodge...

Today was absolutely off the charts in terms of wildlife viewing.  We started out in search of the wild dogs just as the sun was rising.  We found them in a highly mobile hunting state as they ran through the underbrush at high speed.  It was huge adventure to follow them though the thick moose forest as our ride became very rough.  We were literally driving right over small mopane trees that bounced right back into position as we passed by.  We lost the dogs several times but at two points we rejoined the pack still in full speed hunt. 

One of my favorite images from this morning was the dogs traveling through high grass and jumping up to get a view of their surroundings...imagine how a deer jumps over an object and picture wild dogs emerging from the grass in a high spring then descending back down completely hidden from view.  Another was when a wild dog had a face to face with a very brave warthog who did not back down.  If the warthog had started running it would have been attacked for sure but he stood his ground and the dog backed off after a few minutes.  Later when we were in the thick bush again an impala came racing by with two wild dogs on its!  

We left the dogs to travel down the Savuti channel and soon we encountered one of the most rare animals that one can ever find in the bush - a pangolin.  Most of us have never heard of this prehistoric creature.  It looks like a small possum covered with artichoke spikes.  The pangolin was curled up in a protective ball because two lions had been trying to eat it.  It's defensive mechanism is very good, much like a porcupine.  This was an amazing find and our guide told me that many wilderness guides that have been in the bush all their lives have never seen one.  Incredible luck!!!  We waited patiently for him to uncurl and finally saw his cute little face and red nose.  He eats ants and has a long sticky tongue to probe into the ground.  He walks very slowly in a kind of shuffle...

Our goal that afternoon was to reach Savute Lodge and go out in a boat ride along the channel after a quick inspection of the property.  As we approached our guide, Ona, wanted to get me a good view of the lodge so he drive near the channel where I could shoot some photos.  As we turned a corner we encountered a male and female mating pair of leopards out it the open.  This was extraordinary fortune because leopards are usually nocturnal and very rarely come down from the trees in the day time - especially not in the middle of the day in the wide open.  It was another rare treat to sit within 10 feet of them as they sat in the grass sniffing into the air.  The female was quiet old but the male was in his prime with a beautiful body covered with spots.  We got some excellent photos and then left them in peace.  

After a wonderful brunch at Savute lodge we boarded a boat and headed down the very shallow Savute channel weaving our way between the reed islands and up channels that held numerous hippos and crocs.  Unlike the hippos in the Lower Zambezi that we encountered while canoeing these hippos were easily spooked and very aggressive at our approach.  It was really nice to get on the water and feel the cool breeze in our faces.  We eventually reached a viewing platform where Ona set up some nice drinks for us and we sat and soaked up the peace and quite along the river banks.  Some elephants came down to drink at the waters edge as we sat admiring the view.

After starting our drive back we encountered a new born baby elephant just one day old.  already he could walk and follow his mom around.  He was still covered in blood and birthing tiny and cute.  Wish I could bring him home as a pet for my boys.  We saw zebra, giraffe, kudu, warthog and many other creatures as we made our way home to Duma Tau camp to watch a spectacular Africa sunset.  What a day...has to rank in the top three days ever in my safari experiences over the past 25 years.  Tomorrow we will search out the lions and then fly to Jao camp in the Okavango Delta.  I feel really blessed to be here and share this with my brother and our very dear friends, Scooter, Ryan, and Nicki....

Wilds dogs in Botswana...

We rose at 5:30am in hopes of tracking down the very rare wild dog.  There are fewer than 3000 wild dogs left in the world and more than 90% live in Botswana. After grinding tracks we circled above where we thought they were headed and eventually found them lounging on the channel banks with a fresh kill of male impala.  There were 14 wild dogs in this group...what great luck!

They have beautiful coloring of black and tan splashed on their bodies.  Their faces are black and they have huge oval ears that provide them exceptional hearing abilities.  These dogs have a super high metabolism and need to feed constantly.  They will sometimes hunt up to three times a day.  We watched them finish off the remains of the impala and then start to play with each other.  Their antics were good fun to watch as they wrestled and nipped at each other...running round in circles and tumbling over each other.  One would crouch down like a hunter and the other would come at him in the same hunting position from the opposite direction then they would charge at each other and rise onto their hind legs as they battled in the air with their front paws and sharp white teeth. 

Of all the animals in the bush that I have seen after 25 years of travel to Africa I this was my first sighting of wild dogs and I felt so blessed to see these rare creatures while they still roam the planet.  My group must be bringing me luck because when you look back on the last 24 hours we have seen 19 lions and 14 wild dogs...just an incredible count!  Linyanti is living up to its reputation for having some of the best wildlife sightings in Botswana (in all of Africa for that matter).  

Botswana has set aside 40% of its territory as protected park lands and the results have been spectacular.  Due to a prosperous economy (diamonds & tourism), stable government, remote parks, and intelligent game management Bostwana can easily say it has the best wildlife in Africa.  The elephants alone number almost 100,000 individuals which is the largest population in the world.  The landscape is rich and varied.  To the north the rivers from Angola flow into a system of waterways that provide excellent habitat for game in what is the largest freshwater delta in the world (Okavango Delta).  The delta is created by fault lines that create depressions where the water fingers down from the north into the famed Kalahari desert.  The water never reached the ocean as the desert and eastern escarpment of the Great Rift Valley blocks its path.

I am proud to partner with companies like Wilderness Safaris who lease private concessions which they are responsible to manage.  They have extensive anti poaching networks and they also have a great program called Children in the Wilderness wherein the bring kids from local communities into the camps for a week long educational program designed to help them realize the importance of protecting the environment and the animals for future generations.  They follow this up 4 times a year and work in HIV aids education as well.  Any kid that wants to become a guide has the opportunity to take their training and Wilderness provides hundreds of jobs to local people in their camps thought Africa.  They are also a pioneer in lowering the carbon footprint of their operations.  

Today, I inspected a new camp being built that will be 100% solar operated including all the cold storage...amazing! That will have bio gas created by food and human waste that will be used to create cooking gas for the camp.  They invested over  $7 million US in the solar project alone for this one camp.  That eliminates an incredible amount of diesel gas used both from the trucking and transport of the diesel from South Africa and of course from the daily use in camp which I belief is about 50 gallons a day.  I feel great to know that my guests' safaris help underwrite and promote all these good efforts from conservation to community outreach.

Kudos to Wilderness Safaris!!! They have come a long way since the old days when I joined them in 1989 - in those days we just took a trailer, set up pup tents and slept on the ground.  We had bucket showers and no electricity at all.  I would sometimes sleep up on the roof of the land rover under a million stars.  Ahhh, great memories!

Friday, June 8, 2012

19 lions in Botswana...

We bid a find farewell to the Royal Livingstone hotel after an amazing buffet breakfast.  We boarded a small 5 seat Cesna 203 plane and flew off to Botswana. we landed 20 minutes later in Kasane which is the main border post in Northern Botswana.  We cleared immigration and jumped onto a 12 seat caravan for a 45 minute flight to the Linyanti Swamp.  

As we flew I took note that we were in one of those rare areas of the world where several countries come together at one point.  In this case it was Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and cool is that? 

Landing at the Chibe airstrip we were met by Ona, our guide from Duma Tau camp.  We were escorted to camp and served a lovely lunch overlooking the Linyanti wetlands.  After settling into our rooms we set off in search of a pride of 19 lions.  It took us about 1.5 hours of rough driving to finally track down these beauties.  They were lounging in the shade and polishing off a zebra that they had caught earlier.  Wow! I had never seen 19 lions together in one place - just amazing.  We got some great photos and watched the two cubs (who were several months old) play in the grass.  Their little yelps and pretend roars were so cute...on our way to sundowners on the Savuti Channel we saw zebra, giraffe, cape buffalo, warthog, wildebeest, and many many elephants.  

We capped off a great drive with some gin and tonics while watching the sun set red fire into the bush and the nearly full yellow moon rise behind us.  Two cranes flew past just at the prefect moment to silhouette against the purple sky - another magical day in Africa!

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Royal Livingstone..

Scooter, enjoying a cocktail at the Royal Livingstone...
Today while Marc went rafting and micro light flying I headed up river to inspect some of the top lodges along the river.  My first stop was at Toka Leya lodge which is fairly new Wilderness Safaris property.  One of the nice features was the full service spa (wish I had time to try a treatment).  

Next I was off to Tongabezi Lodge which is one of the original lodges that really set the standard for architecture and interior design that many lodges now emulate.  We used to book the Tongabezi in the early 1990's when I worked at Sobek and this was my first visit.  The lodge was everything I had heard and more!  My favorite room was the "dog house" which was anything but....The manager, Gary, arranged for me to visit their island bush camp called Sindabezi which was a great little gem hidden on an island in the midst of the river. 

 My final visit was at the upscale and beautifully decorated Sussi and Chumi Lodge which is part of the A&K private collection of properties.  The lodge was gorgeous and the rooms even had air conditioning - wow!  This property also featured a spa with products from Africology, one of my favorite lines of spa products...  The manager, Analt, was gracious and a great host.  We dined on grilled quail kebabs after a very nice spicy tomato soup. Desert was a lovely mango cheesecake...yum! 

I then returned to our wonderful sanctuary at the Royal Livingstone and lounged by the pool before joining my group for a beautiful sunset at the river deck where we enjoyed cocktails and heard Marc's story of rafting and micro lite flying.  We topped off the day with a great meal at the dining room where I had a local specialty of oxtail stew.  We enjoyed a nice shiraz and pinotage from South sitting by the roaring fire before heading off to bed.  Tomorrow we are u early and off to Botswana - yeah!

Nikki at the terrace of Royal Livingstone...

Tea time...
Marc and Perry