Take me to the Bush baby
On how this trip originated…
Africa, is enormous. The UK, China, USA, India, Japan and the rest of Europe would fit within its borders. Also, it retains 45% of the earths uncultivated land, a precious remaining asset. This makes it the world’s greatest remaining wilderness.
Yet in Africa humans have lived among nature and its wildlife longer than anywhere else on the planet. So in a way it is strange that this continent is the only one who managed to not wipe out most of its megafauna (large herbivores and carnivores). Since the Homo sapiens dominated Holocene, New Zealanders made the Moas go extinct, South America lost its enormous ground sloths, Europe and Asia lost their mammoths and Sabre toothed tigers died out in North America. Elsewhere in the world, megafauna communities are thus no longer existing and only a few larger species remain (e.g. American Buffalo, Asian Elephants, European bison, Polar bears, tigers); whilst in Africa, many of the large species managed to survive until present. From the vast Sahara to the endless tropical rainforests in the Congo basin over the Serengeti plains to the Okavango delta, the huge Zambezi river network and Namib desert in the south… Huge areas of wilderness remain all over the continent.
But while Africa does still comprise a lot of large wilderness area, not all is well. Since I was born, African elephants have been reduced by 60%. Every 15 minutes (!), an elephant is poached and on average three rhinos a day are slaughtered in South Africa alone, just so Asian guys can think their gentleman sausage will have a field day. Wild dogs have decreased by more than 90% in a few decades, due to poisoning and poaching by local communities. The problem is nowadays mainly situated in tropical Africa, facing fewer mitigation due to lack of funds, and it is mainly there that herbivores and carnivores are decreasing very very rapidly. Northern Africa sadly set this tone many years ago by wiping out most of the large carnivores and many of the ungulates. A simple example is shown by the former and current distribution of African lions:
African lions have decreased by 96% in the last 80 years (c)
In the 1940’s, more than 450.000 were taught to live on the African continent, nowadays there might be around 20.000 left. At the beginning of the 20th century there were 500,000 rhinos across Africa and Asia. This fell to 70.000 by 1970 and further to just 29.000 in the wild today. Wild dogs now only occur in a few national parks and are one of the worlds most endangered mammal species. Among specialists it is common belief that probably only southern Africa with its lucrative tourism and hunting tourism, will be able to safeguard its populations of large herbivores and carnivores. That would be truly sad…
The point I am trying to make is that even in this vast African wilderness, nature has to be protected and thus managed and studied, in order to survive. So now more than ever, Africa needs ecotourism to protect what is left and to safeguard its unique nature for the generations to come. I personally think that further changes that will take place in Africa, will influence how humans deal with nature in the rest of the world. Simply because nowhere else does wildlife generate that much tourism, employment and thus funding, helping local communities survive.
This large African Wilderness and all that dwells within was the reason we wanted to go there for quite some time.
Pj, Iwan, Frans and myself have been asking ourselves these questions for some years now: Where to go? When? And what to look for?
Further introducing Mr. -not too close- PJ and Mr. -Bring us a bit closer- Iwan
As well as Mr. Frenchie, who clearly was running away from something… Little did he know that in Africa, everything that runs is prey.
Our main region of interest was always the Congo river basin. By far the richest mammal region of the entire continent, and a place with many mystical species including Okapi and mountain gorilla. However, this place is very politically unstable and thus tricky (or should I say completely impossible) to travel. Moreover, we had never been to black Africa so it would be plain stupid to go there on our maiden trip.
Southern Africa then… Kenia? Tanzania? Zimbabwe? South Africa? These places are most known for Safari tourism and are known to deliver a lot of bang for your buck.
But to be honest, we weren’t really looking forward to a trip comprising mostly fenced reserves, fenced campsites, tarmac park roads and huge herds of people following huge herds of animals… Not that we didn’t have fun with the Americans explaining us how they witnessed “a lion killing a lama”… A truly rare sight indeed!
Our plan was a minimum of traffic jams caused by herds of iPad holders… One big bull though!
and a bit more remote areas with more possibilities…
No, we wanted to go somewhere more remote, yet with good chances of seeing the Big5 and many more. There is only one such place in Africa I reckon, where high numbers of herbivores as well as carnivores occur in stunning landscapes, and where fewer people go to see them: Botswana! This country has always adopted a policy to have fewer tourist numbers, by charging them higher prices. The result of this is that it is now the nr. 1 destination in Africa for the Rich and the Famous, with lodge prices easily exceeding €1000 (or triple that) per room per night.
As such the only affordable way to travel its parks, is to rent a jeep with roof tents and try to get permits to sleep inside the parks, so you can photograph at dusk and dawn. We spent many months trying to fix all the necessary paperwork to stay inside the parks at night, booked a flight to Windhoek in Namibia, took with us around 50kg of camera equipment, picked up our 4×4 and drove to Botswana. There we stayed in the Okavango delta NP for two weeks (Chobe and Moremi game reserve), after which we travelled to Namibia for several days of Etosha NP, finishing our trip along the skeleton coast and Namib desert. Due to severe El Niño drought, we skipped the Kalahari and Makgadikgadi Pans as well as the Victoria falls, and stayed more days in the Okavango delta.
Our 4×4 Toyota Hilux, aka “The White Lady” was our tented home for three weeks.
Just us, the car and three weeks of Dirt Every Day!
As such, the main region we spent our time in was the infamous Okavango Delta, the 1000th site to be inscribed on UNESCO world heritage list, and to me the most unique wetland in the world.
It is an alluvial fan, and depending on the time of year it covers 6000-15000 square kilometres, owing its existence to the Okavango River which flows from the Angolan highlands, across Namibia’s Caprivi Strip ending in the harsh Kalahari Desert. Each year the Okavango River discharges approximately 11 cubic kilometres (!) of water into the delta. Most of this water is lost to transpiration by plants (60%) and by evaporation (36%) with only 2% percolating into the aquifer system with the remainder finally flowing into Lake Ngami. Highest water levels occur between March and June, peaking in July. This peak coincides with Botswana’s dry season resulting in great migrations of plains game from the dry hinterland.
Okavango floodplain in full spectacle
This motivated us to visit it end of August, when the delta is still wet and the breeding season of all birds begins. Our target species comprised of Wild dog, Lion, Leopard, elephants, Buffalo, Giraffe, both Rhinos, Spotted Hyena, Brown Hyena, Aardwolf, Aardvark, Civet, Genet, the enigmatic Bushbaby and many more.
Ever since seeing the famous David Attenborough BBC footage of the delta, we wanted to see this spectacle from the air. We decided to rent a chopper to take us to the most remote areas.
Get to the Choppaaaaa, Schwarzenegger would have said.
Anyway… Doors off, lenses out.
Spotting herds of buffalo and elephants, giraffes and many more in the floodplains of the delta surrounded by dry Kalahari desert, was without doubt one of the great moments of life.
Red Lechwe crossing the waters
Many of the small islands in the delta originate from a single termite mount, elevating its height grain by grain.
The following days we drove deeper in the moremi game reserve, where campsites often shelter more elephants, hyena’s and even lions than people. Super wild. Best camping ever.
The Huddle’n Cuddle crew
Showering was never this cool before.
After sunset we photographed the milky way around the campsite. Surrounded by roaring lions and laughing hyena’s.
The past year, PJ and I put a lot of time in developing a dslr camera trap. We had a lot of initial problems with our wiring, but PJ managed to solve this before we left. As such we managed to bring a set of three flashes, triggers and pelicase with dslr to the bush. During daytime we would install this camera in a good place, and pick it up the following day. Here you see some results of the trap:
Spotted hyena photographed with dslr camera trap
Side-striped jackal, seldom seen and rarely photographed.
Close enough Donald Trunk
Photobombing is not a crime
We were lucky to see Cheetahs in moremi game reserve.
Train of Bulls
A kitchen with a view. And a chef working hard. Thanks Iwan.
At first we noticed only baby baboons riding their momma’s…
But then it seemed quite popular with the daddy baboons as well. Interesting behavior.
“I will give her a banana, and then maybe she’ll want to touch Macaque”.
Moreover, the elephants became sexual as well. Showing off their rather impressive second trunks all the time.
This made us a bit confused and anxious, so it was very relieving after a few days to see that we weren’t the only ones in the Kwai concession having blue balls…
Perfect leopard and wild dog habitat in Kwai. After four days, still hadn’t seen any big cats though.
Oxpecker changing diet
We saw around ten honey badgers on this trip. amazing animals with hardcore behavior…
Still no lions or leopards after the first few days… Until we met a friendly Australian who said “You boyz have seeein the dead ellie roight?” We clearly hadn’t…
A dead elephant was a few kilometers ahead, and was guarded by several lions all day round… Great first encounter with the big cat.
Iwan was scanning trees in its vicinity when he found a high prize… The first leopard of our trip. He was congratulated by many of the local safari guides for having good eyesight.
A few hours later, PJ loudly whispered LEOPARD LEOPARD but none of us saw what he was talking about. Until we looked about 3m from where we were standing and there it was, a gorgeous leopard sleeping in the grass.
Crikey she was close. Staring right in her eyes, we all were.
The magnificent little bee-eater
In Savuti we were lucky to spend two days with a pride of lions, who were doing nothing, as usual.
The following day was more exciting when we found their cubs left in the grass, whilst the parents went hunting. We stayed with them all morning.
At the campsite, the brown rock along the road, turned out to be biggest male lion of the entire trip.
As you can guess by now, many many images were made. So it was often the case of making backups and emptying memory cards. It was so hot at some moments (almost 40°c) that we had to cool down our hard disks with frozen fish cans…
After two weeks, there was still one unsolved issue. You see, our nr 1 target species -by a long stretch- was the wild dog, and we had just spent more than ten days looking for them. We got three den locations, who appeared abandoned each time we arrived on site, and did not manage to see the packs in action in Moremi or Chobe. We thought that we had dipped them, and despite having many good sightings of other species it seemed like a big setback for all of us.
The wild dog is one of the world’s most endangered mammals. The largest populations remain in southern Africa and the southern part of East Africa (especially Tanzania and northern Mozambique). Wild dogs are social and gather in packs of around ten individuals, but some packs number more than 40. They are opportunistic predators that hunt medium-sized ruminants, such as gazelles. In a sprint, African wild dogs can reach speeds of more than 70 kph. Click here for a video portraying their stamina.
Our last chance to see them, would be the Chobe river front, where we had completely no information regarding recent distribution of the dog packs.
We arrived there in Kasane, and rented a boat for a day so we could try to get the waterfront images we were after.
Iwan must have read somewhere that African fashion magazines would be casting on the Chobe river
Up close and personal
Eyes speak the same language, no matter where you go
Our boat driver was convinced he “knew” these hippos, situated on the right side of the boat. “Yeah no problem my friends, I know this hippoz. This hippo are stable and not moving. These hippoooz is nooooo problem”. Then suddenly one of them popped its head up on the left side of the boat… “Yeah so let’s go my friends!!”
Yellow-billed stork hovering
Pied kingfisher in the vast Papyrus fields
African skimmer photographed on the Chobe river sand banks, where they breed.
Missile flying below radar
Tawny eagle is having a squacco for diner.
Close to the river bank we found a pride of lions who managed to bring down a buffalo. Amazing to see these lions covered in mud.
As soon as the lions went away to give their fat bellies a rest, crocs crawled up from the river to join the feeding frenzy. In just a few hours, most of the buffalo was eaten.
The snake wrangler, aka Mr. Secretary bird.
If you end up in Kasane, make sure to stay at Senyati Safari Camp, they have a concrete bunker near a waterhole where you can see elephants at touching distance, just walking overhead. When we were there, a large herd of buffalo came to drink as well.
African civet on the camera trap
Look around before you take your clothes off to shower
When buying groceries we asked the lady if she heard anything about wild dogs lately…
“Ow yes. I see them every day lately…” !!! I will never forget the look on our eyes. After checking that she was indeed talking about the African wild dog, we started scouting the area she mentioned. It lasted until late afternoon the following day, when we met our American friends again saying briefly “We just found your dogs. Have a look along that road”. A very quiet yet nervous drive was followed by a sighting:
It was the longest we ever had to look for a target species. But it was so worth it…
What I found most amazing, was witnessing the alpha male and female of the pack, dictating the next moves. Just one bark, and the pack started running again. As such you see how well they are able to act as one super predator. Such an amazing species.
After Botswana, we traveled west to Namibia. We first visited Etosha NP since it is the best chance to see black rhino’s, then we traveled to cape cross in search for Brown hyena in the seal colony, before ending the trip in the Namib desert.
The Etosha salt pan stretches out as far as the eye can see
Life on the flats for a Gemsbok
The infamous white dust, gives crazy colors to the elephants.
First black rhino
Etosha is much more touristic than the Okavango delta. Busses drive in the park, campsites have got swimming pools, shops and bars etc.
So the experience is very different. However, there is one big upside as well… Namely the water holes at the campsites, where people can sit in the evening and at night (they are lit) to observe what happens.
Both rhino’s in the pocket, it was time to go to the skeleton coast, where spotlighting yielded us a very nice brown hyena on the first night. As such we put more time in photographing the seal colony…
The skeleton coast is known for its high numbers of shipwrecks, tossed on the beach by the Benguela current
Cape fur seals profit of the cold and nutrient rich waters of the current.
Streamlined nippels and navel
The last part of the trip brought us to the Namib desert.
Annual precipitation here ranges from 2 ml in the most arid regions to 200 ml, making the Namib the only true desert in southern Africa. Having endured similar conditions for roughly 55–80 million years, the Namib may be the oldest desert in the world and contains some of the world’s driest regions. The desert geology consists of sand dunes near the coast, while gravel plains and scattered mountain outcrops occur further inland. The sand dunes, some of which are 400 metres high and span 32 kilometres long, are amongst the largest dunes in the world. The Namib is so dry and windy, that it is almost completely uninhabited by humans.
The namib ostriches mainly forage when there is some dew or mist on the plants they eat, and therefore never (!) need to drink.
We spent one day at Sossus vlei, including the major tourist attraction of Namibia, Deadvlei.
The clay pan at deadvlei was formed after rainfall, when a river flooded, creating temporary shallow pools where the abundance of water allowed thorn trees to grow. When the climate changed, drought hit the area, and sand dunes encroached on the pan, which blocked the river from the area. The trees died (600-700 years ago), as there no longer was enough water to survive.
Whilst we went walking, Frenchie climbed the 400m dunes. You can see him halfway the ridge.
Bart, the weaver
The camera trap further caught glimpses of the enigmatic cape fox.
The last pic I wanted to show is of an animal we think was one of the coolest of the trip: The Majestic mountain Zebra’s living in the Namib desert. Such cool animals in such remote places…
We returned the car and headed back home
I know this report was way too long. I just couldn’t delete more images because they all add to the story.
I hope you enjoyed our impressions of one of Africa’s most beautiful corners.
I do want to thank some people:
– First of all PJ, Iwan & Frans. We all worked very hard this trip to score on both sightings and photographs. And I think we succeeded.
– Carole Deschuymere, who gave us a lot of practical info to get the permits fixed. She has traveled these regions many times and her help was most useful.
– Hannes Decleer, a bush pilot who directed us towards the company best for aerial photography.
– Mr. Boesman, one of the best nature guides I have ever met. He explained us how the Namib desert works, and was one of the friendliest people we came across.
– Alistair Wilmot, who crossed our path on a parking lot in Maun, and stopped to give us a ton of good info. Great guy and I imagine a very good safari guide (Wilmot Safari’s in Maun)
– Emily Bennitt, who was so kind to elaborate on her research and show us some beautiful corners of the Moremi game reserve.