All posts by J Silk

The Smoke That Thunders

First, A Word About Zim

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We were only in Zimbabwe for a night, but the situation there is volatile (not where we were).  The border crossing was comical.  The official kept me standing there for 15 minutes while he fiddled with a stuck stapler, frequently banging it on the counter, which of course accomplished nothing, until I just wanted to snatch it from his hands and fix it myself, but restraint was the order of the day.

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After 30 years of corruption and dictatorship of Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe may be in even worse straits than South Africa and Namibia.   

6ED2725F-D7FD-4D2E-9F99-20FA7C84012EThe current president, Emmerson Mnangagwa has struggled to fulfil promises of economic prosperity and greater political freedom. The health system has largely collapsed amid the worst economic crisis in more than a decade.  Frustrations are running high as the economy crumbles. Inflation was last calculated at 300% by the International Monetary Fund in August, the world’s second highest after Venezuela.   Electricity is only on for a few hours per day in the middle of the night, so that is when people have to work, and fresh water taps work for only a few hours on day a week.

In November in the capital of Harare, protesters were met with police who fired tear gas and water cannons and struck baton blows.  Some Zimbabweans allege that repression is worse than under the late Robert Mugabe, who oversaw widespread rights abuses that led to international sanctions.

There may be some hope.  The government is taking steps to turn the economy around, having just announced that the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe plans to incrementally inject $1 billion into the economy over the next six months, stimulating demand and production in a measured manner while keeping money supply in check.  We saw long lineups of people waiting at the banks.

The Geopolitical Monitor states that “implementing reforms – especially after decades of mismanagement – is a painful process and Zimbabweans are tired. But with political will tangible results are gradually being achieved. The country may be on the cusp of a better future, finally putting the years of isolation behind it. Perseverance and collaboration will help to ease the way.”

The Smoke that Thunders

Early this morning we left Botswana and crossed into Zimbabwe to witness the dreamy, amazing Victoria Falls.  At the Falls, four countries merge:  Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia and Botswana.  Victoria Falls are on the Zambezi River.  My research suggests the best viewing point for the falls is in Zimbabwe.

I heard recently from two independent sources that Victoria Falls was nothing but a dribble.  I had the impression that was on the Zambia side, not the Zimbabwe side, and it appears that is correct.  The Zambia visa is less expensive than the Zim visa, so people make the mistake of choosing to see them from Zambia.

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That said, the water was at a three-year low and we were visiting at the driest time of year.  The best time to see the falls begins in March.  There were still falls, but half of the length of the sheet, which is what makes these falls so unique, was dry.  This was more evident in the air.  We took a helicopter spin to get the bigger picture.

On the ground, walking the 18 points from which to view the falls from Zimbabwe, they were more impressive.

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We could hear the roar of the falls and see the spray before we saw the actual falls themselves. This is one of the reasons why the local Makalolo tribe’s name for the falls, Mosi-oa-Tunya, “The Smoke That Thunders,” is so appropriate.

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Scottish missionary and explorer David Livingstone (“Livingstone, I presume”) renamed them Victoria Falls when he became the first white man to see them, on November 16th 1855.   Having heard stories of a spectacular waterfall, Livingstone paddled down the Zambezi in a dugout canoe and landed on a small island at the lip of the falls.  In his diary, Livingstone wrote of the falls: “scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.”

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Livingstone Island in the background.

 

We saw the Devil’s Cataract, a separate particularly heavy and dangerous flow.

The falls are twice the height of Niagara Falls and twice the width of its Horseshoe Falls. 

The spray thrown up by the falls creates a special rainforest microclimate along the rims of the falls where there is 24/7, 365 days of annual rainfall, in what is otherwise a very dry area.  We witnessed the spray and the full-on rain in the forest.

No, thank you.  During the months of September to December, tourists enjoy ‘toying with danger’ on the edge of the waterfalls at the naturally formed Devil’s Swimming Pool.  Several have died falling over the natural stone barrier and plunging down the falls.

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The Falls were beautiful, but I’d still like to see them like this, at full force.

 

 

I guess I’ll just have to come back.

Best,

Jan

Birds of Chobe

,We saw some wonderful bird life in this beautiful park both on the water and the land.

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Malachite Kingfisher

 

The magnificent Marabou Stork:

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Fish Eagle

 

Glossy Ibis and Sacred Ibis:

African Darter:

Goliath Heron and Grey Heron:

African Spoonbill and Egrets:

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White-backed Vultures:

Egyptian Geese:

Farewell, beautiful Chobe National Park:

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North of the park, the Chobe River meets the Zambezi River and tumbles over Victoria Falls, where we are headed tomorrow.

Best,

Jan

Monkeying Around

Chacma Baboon
Status:  Non-threatened, but may become so

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This largest species of monkey has a distinctive dog-like head.  It’s fascinating to observe their behaviour.  They live in large troops and have a complex, rigid social structure with a matriarchal lineage and plenty of inter-troop movement by males seeking social dominance.  Female ranking within the troop is inherited through the mother and remains relatively fixed, while male ranking is often in flux, especially when the dominant male is replaced. Chacmas are unusual among baboons in that friendships form not with members of the same sex but with unrelated adult males and females.

With a highly organised defence system, the only predator that seriously affects them is the leopard, which will try to pick them off at night, whilst they are roosting in trees or cliffs.  They sleep in large groups and have a distinct synchronized morning dispersal system.  Dispersal will be initiated by a single individual, and at least five followers must be recruited for a successful dispersal initiation.   

A20A5EA4-956B-4A8F-8B8C-8529D907D487Orphaned baboons whose mothers have disappeared or died are adopted and cared for by both mals and females,  sleeping close to the infant, grooming and carrying it and protecting it from harassment by other members of the troop.

Vervet monkey
Status:  Least Concern (but numbers diminishing)

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The vervet is probably the world’s most numerous monkey and inhabits the savannah and woodland, spending most of its time on the ground.  The vervet’s light grey coat, black face and white forehead band are distinctive – as are the male’s garish blue genitals.

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Vervets live in troops averaging about 25 animals and are found only around the narrow belts of woodland beside the Orange and Kunene rivers, and in the lush areas of Mahango and the Caprivi Strip.  They stay in the same troop for life.

Usually, the female Vervet monkeys do not have a lot of mates. Throughout their life, they have a small number of mates; males on the other hand have several mates during their lifetimes. Though, there is not a lot known about how the Vervet monkey reproduces. It is known that usually a female will give birth once a year to one young.  Most females love to actively take a huge amount of time raising the babies.

Vervets are active during the day and roost in trees at night. They eat mainly fruit and vegetables. 

We saw them in Mahongo and Chobe parks, but the baboons were far more photogenic.

Lesser Bushbaby
Status:  Widespread – Non-Threatened

4F65C4F7-593F-439C-9B62-C9A42F28E125I’m thinking from the looks on these guys’ faces, they have just seen the male vervet monkey’s sapphire jewels for the first time!  

The lesser galago, also called the lesser bush baby, is one of the smallest primates, about the size of a squirrel. Their plaintive cries and cute appearance may account for the name “bush baby.” They have night vision goggles for eyes and large, delicate ears that can track insect prey in the dark. Despite their small size, the bush baby produces loud, shrill cries surprisingly like those of a human baby.

Aside from these baby-like cries, they make croaking, chattering, and clucking sounds or shrill whistles in case of danger.  They are almost impossible to see except for possibly a glimpse of two red eyes peering down from a treetop at night, but we didn’t see them by day or night.   

Best,

Jan

 

A Dazzle

Status:  Vulnerable

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Zebras have very different temperaments to horses. They’re far more aggressive and a lot more dangerous. Adorable as they are, ebras have been known to kick each other to death, they will viciously bite any human that comes too close, and there are even many accounts of zebras killing lions.

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All this only made the zebra more desirable to colonials who wanted to display their power and wealth.

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Jumping an obstacle: riding a zebra in East Africa, about 1900, Carpenter, Frank G., 1855-1924

 

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Lionel Walter Rothschild (1868-1937), 2nd Baron Rothschild, with his famed zebra carriage, which he frequently drove through London

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I had never heard of the “mountain zebra” (Equus zebra) which is the most common zebra of southwest Africa, meaning they have adapted well to the mountains, heat and drought of the region.  The Hartmann’s Mountain Zebras are good climbers and live in hot, dry, rocky, mountainous and hilly habitats. They prefer slopes and plateaus as high as 1,000 m (3,300 ft) above sea level, although they do migrate lower during winter. Their preferred diet is tufted grass, but in times of shortage, they browse, eating bark, twigs, leaves, buds, fruit, and roots.  We saw them on a hilltop in southern Namibia.

D8D4D640-3C11-47C8-9959-068ACA759D1DThere are lots of propositions for the eternal question of how zebras got their stripes, but the previously unrecorded ability of zebras to erect their black stripes was discovered by comparing the temperatures of living zebras to a zebra’s hide. The latter got hotter than the former by as much as 16°C/29°F. The suggestion is that the raising of black hairs transfers heat from the skin to the hair surface.

There is no denying the zebra is dazzling, so it is not surprising a group of them has been classified as a “dazzle.”  Each animal, but even more so in numbers, look like a piece of modern art.  These are some of the savannah zebras we saw in Etosha.

They look even better as the sun goes down.

Best,

Jan

Tswana!

65BE119E-EBD9-4E72-99A1-CC5E68BB73D3F5013608-2A78-4548-8D26-0B77E7E73DDDYesterday, we crossed the border into Botswana, saying goodbye to beautiful Namibia and our amazing guide, Tuhefani (he was making the long drive all the way back to Windhoek in 2 days in order to vote in the upcoming election).  

We made the short drive to the magnificent Chobe National Park. With one of the highest percentages of land set aside for wildlife preservation in the world, Botswana is one of the top wildlife destinations in Africa. Fortunately, the government of Botswana has also recognized that low volume tourism is the best way to balance the needs of tourists and the wildlife they come to see.   Today, we will be among the lucky tourists to visit.

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In the 1930s, British colonial commissioner, Sir Charles Rey, visited the Chobe River and subsequently proposed that the whole region become a wildlife reserve, following the trend set by the newly-proclaimed Kruger National Park in South Africa to move away from hunting and towards conservation.

In 1932, 24,000 sq km of land was declared a non-hunting area.  Creation of the national park was delayed by heavy tsetse fly infestations in 1943, but by 1953 the project was back on the table again. The Chobe Game Reserve was officially created in 1960, before becoming a national park in 1967.

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What I know of Botswana I learned mostly from Mma Ramtoswe and the Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency books by Alexander McCall Smith and the HBO series.

Roots

In the 14th century, Botsana’s history had all the drama of an opera.  One of the most significant developments in Botswana’s human history was the evolution of the three main branches of the Tswana ethnic group during the 14th century.   Three brothers – Kwena, Ngwaketse and Ngwato – broke away from their father, Chief Malope, to establish their own tribes.  In the 18th century, following a quarrel between Chief Khama I and his brother, Tawana, the Ngwato clan split further.  Tawana left Serowe and established his chiefdom in the area around Maun. The four major present-day Batswana groups – the Batawana, Bakwena, Bangwaketse and Bangwato – trace their ancestry to these splits and Botswana’s demographic make-up owes much to the dispersal of the various groups.

Colonization

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In 1836 around 20,000 Boers set out on the Great Trek across the Vaal River into Batswana, setting up their own state ruling the Transvaal – a move ratified by the British in the Sand River Convention of 1852. Effectively, this placed the Batswana under the rule of the so-called new South African Republic, and a period of rebellion and heavy-handed oppression ensued. Following heavy human and territorial losses, the Batswana chiefs petitioned the British government for protection from the Boers.  Eventually the British conceded, triggering the first Boer War.  The war continued until the Pretoria Convention of 1881, when the British withdrew from the Transvaal in exchange for Boer allegiance to the British Crown.

AC1C6241-8207-4DFA-A050-D66E8A0F2D0DThe extent to which the British subordinated Botswanan interests to those of South Africa during this period became clear in 1950. In a case that caused political controversy in Britain and across the Empire, the British government banned Seretse Khama from the chieftainship of the Ngwato and exiled him for six years. This was done in favour of South Africa, who objected to Khama’s marriage to a British woman at a time when racial segregation was enforced in South Africa.

Independence

A2042406-1557-49B3-8898-3569BB7C75FDIn the 1950’s, the idea of an independent Botswana germinated.  In 1962, the moderate Bechuanaland Democratic Party formed and set a timetable for independence and a new nonracial constitution, drawing on support of the local chiefs.  The British gratefully accepted the BDP’s peaceful plan for a transfer of power, and Khama was elected president when general elections were held in 1965. On 30 September 1966, the country – now called the Republic of Botswana – was granted full independence.  The BDP has been in power ever since, winning 38 of 57 seats in last month’s election.  On November 26, 2019, joint opposition parties challenged the results of voting in 19 constituencies, a move that could result in the country’s electoral commission calling fresh elections in those districts, so the long hold of the BDC may be starting to fracture.

Sundowner Cruise on the Chobe River

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After checking into the lovely Chobe Safari Lodge, we took a late afternoon boat ride.  The Chobe River runs through the park, and there are islands and tributaries making an excellent home for many creatures, including the incredible hippopotamus.

The River Horse
Status:  Vulnerable

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The hippopotamus must be one of the most unusual animals on the planet.   Despite their physical resemblance to pigs and other terrestrial even-toed ungulates, the closest living relatives of the Hippopotamidae are cetaceans (like whales, dolphins, porpoises) from which they diverged about 55 million years ago.

Hippopotamuses love water, which is why the Greeks named them the “river horse.” Hippos spend up to 16 hours a day submerged in rivers and lakes to keep their massive bodies cool under the hot African sun. Graceful in water and good swimmers, they can hold their breath underwater for up to five minutes. However, they are often large enough to simply walk or stand on the lake floor, or lie in the shallows. Their eyes and nostrils are located high on their heads, which allows them to see and breathe while mostly submerged.   Both reproduction and childbirth occur in water.

925EB28B-F926-4338-906F-9D8CC8ABC198Although hippos lie close to each other in the water, they are actually solitary and do not seem to form social bonds except between mothers and daughters. Occasionally, they will bask alone on the shore, and if their skin cracks, they secrete an oily red moisturizer which gave rise to the myth that they sweat blood.  They rise gracefully from the banks of the water at night to graze alone on about 40 kilo of grasses.  After a night of feeding, they return to the water in the exact same place, so you do not want to get between her and the water.

Their powerful jaws are capable of opening up to 150 degrees revealing their enormous incisors.  Male hippos appear to continue growing throughout their lives as do their ivory canine teeth which can reach 50 cms long.  On land, they are capable of running 30 km/h over short distances.  The hippo is highly aggressive and unpredictable and all these factors make the hippo one of the most dangerous animals in the world.

Hippos have long been popular zoo animals. The first zoo hippo in modern history was Obaysch, who arrived at the London Zoo on 25 May 1850, where he attracted up to 10,000 visitors a day and inspired a popular song, the “Hippopotamus Polka.”

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We saw loads of these unique creatures today.

We also saw the Waterbuck, whose unusual backside markings are explained by the joke that the waterbuck was the first antelope to use the freshly painted toilets on Noah’s Ark.

Some of the critters we have seen before were here, too.

Chobe being what it is, we didn’t have to leave our hotel before we saw wildlife.
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We got up at the break of dawn for a game drive in the park.  No sooner had we registered with the park ranger and pulled into the park, than we saw these beauties:

We saw some more beautiful animals I have already described, as well as the hideous monitor lizard and a pair of alligators fighting, but the fellow in behind gave up quickly.

Spring is an absolutely lovely season to visit, we saw so many adorable babies!

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The warthog mama and her babies were an adventure, because they were living under the porch of my cabin and I had to be escorted to my room by security.  You don’t want to come between this mama and her little ones, she has nasty, razor-sharp  tusks and is perfectly willing to use them in their defence.   I felt quite sorry for her – how hard it must be to raise little ones when you can’t talk, have no thumbs, are surrounded by predators and find yourself trying to raise them among the bedlam of a sprawling hotel.  All three of them had to back into the hole she made one at a time to access the safe space under my porch.

Tis group of elephants strolled past us so closely that we held our breath when these two turned toward us and shot us a meaningful glance – but one look at us oldsters and they shrugged, turned and carried on.

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Best,

Jan

Camp Kwondo

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We had a short drive today, further into the Caprivi Strip.   We stopped early at Camp Kwondo, our accommodation on the Kwondo River.  Our rooms were tents – sort of – thatched roof, wooden floor and canvas walls.  Good thing for the mosquito netting – I didn’t hear any mosquitoes but the only thing between me and a scorpion at the foot of my bed in the morning was the net.

 

There were lovely seating arrangements on decks at the edge of the water and we had time to relax and watch and listen to the abundant bird life.

 

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Hadada Ibis

 

 

 

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Paradise Flycatcher

 

 

 

 

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Red-eyed Bulbul

 

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A pair of Ruppell’s Robins

 

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A Golden-tailed Woodpecker

 

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This afternoon we visited a “living museum” so common in Namibia.   The visit answered a lot of my questions about the way of life here.  First we went into a compound and learned how the Bantu people used to live in pre-colonial times.  Their food staple was millet and it was ground to a fine flour.

 

 

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Clay formed by the termites in their hills was used to line the storage container for the millet.

 

 

 

An ingenious device was used to mimic the hippo’s sounds.  The hippo would be eaten at ceremonies such as weddings:

Traditional music and dances with a shaman were performed:

The second part of the visit was to the modern village.  This village has about 300 inhabitants and each compound has a fenced courtyard with the huts of a single clan – children, their parents, aunts and uncles and grandparents, with each family or couple having their own sleeping quarters.   There are segregated bathroom areas with shower hookups.  Kitchens are partially open air for ventilation and food is cooked over a fire in a communal kitchen.   The government provides a water hand pump for each compound.  School is mandatory and there is a school in each village. In this village, the children walk 2.5 kilometres each way to go to school.  There was one vehicle in the compound.

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Income is earned in a variety of ways – many chop trees on their land and sell firewood for about $1 a bundle.

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We were slated for a boat ride here but as we walked back to the lodge after our tour, lightning streaked the sky and the clap of nearby thunder accompanied us so the ride was cancelled.  Instead we had a rare chance to relax and enjoy the surroundings. We watched flocks of egrets fly up the river at the end of their day.  

 

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The cancelled boat ride had a silver lining.  We were so happy to learn that both Chobe to the east and Mahongo to the west received rain.  It is hoped that eventually the building cumulus clouds will reach Etosha.

 

Best,

Jan

 

 

The Caprivi Strip

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As we learned in Gibralter earlier this year, sometimes a weird bit of geography – the long, thin extension of Namibia that stretches out between Angola and Botswana through to Zambia and Zimbabwe – is formed when competing governments are horse-trading land.  This happened here in Namibia, too – over what became known as the “Caprivi Strip” (recently renamed the Zambezi region).  However, history makes some sense of it.

 

 

Leo von Caprivi (pictured right) was the German politician who succeeded Bismarck as chancellor in 1890.   He struck a deal with Britain, trading the islands of Zanzibar for Heligoland, a group of islands just northwest of Hamburg.  The Germans stipulated that they wanted this little strip of land all the way down in southern Africa because it leads to the Zambezi River which they thought would give them access to the Indian Ocean.  Were they fooled!  Either they didn’t look at a map or visit the area or even consult with anyone local, because a little thing now called Victoria Falls make the Zambezi River completely unnavigable.   Bismarck huffed that the Heligoland trade had been a bust, and that Germany had traded away its entire “trousers for a button.”

Whether a strip, or a button, the Caprizi strip makes a nice path for tourists to the Falls.

Chobe River landscape, view from Caprivi Strip on Namibia Botswana border, Africa. Chobe National Park, famous wildlilfe reserve and upscale travel destination.

Looking at this pastoral, lovely countryside, it is hard to imagine that civil war raged here in the 1990’s as a local rebel group, the Caprivi Liberation Army, tried to secede from Namibia.  Life in Africa is complicated, and it is unclear whether this war was the result of side-taking during the war in nearby Congo or a carryover from the Angolan war and the seeds of socialism left by the likes of Che Guevera.

Brendan van Son is a travel blogger more intrepid than I.  Riding his motorbike across Africa, he describes his afternoon on the Caprivi Strip this way:

While driving through Bwabwata National Park, I see a herd
of elephants browsing through the shrubs in the distance.  I
stop, pull out my camera gear and photograph the scene in
awe.  As I pack up my equipment, I hear shuffling behind me.
I twist my head to see a large male elephant walking briskly
towards me.  I race to my scooter and jump on. I’ve left her
running just in case something were to come up; elephants,
zebra, antelope and even lions that can be found along the
strip.  I twist the throttle and toss my head over my shoulder
to see the big elephant is now chasing me down the highway
at full speed.  I’ve learned a couple things today.  My scooter
can outrun a male elephant – though just barely.  I drive off
again laughing hysterically.  Oh, the adventures I have!

I’d say he was lucky that elephant wasn’t an ostrich or a leopard, or he might have been in real trouble!

 The abundant rivers and water make this a green, lovely and productive agricultural area and we we saw small, traditional villages.

Mahango

We drove here on paved Hwy B8 then turned south on asphalt.  Eventually we  veered east again and drove along a sand path.  Every lodge we have come to has involved a road so rough you were sure you were going to sketchy accommdoations, and then you marvel at the beautiful lodge and wonder how it can possibly be provisioned.  This time,  we arrived at a beautiful jungly lodge on the Okahongo River.  We sat on the deck over the River and almost immediately spotted the eyes of hippos in the river and the lodge posts this sign because sometimes the hippos come up at night and eat all of the vegetation on the property.

We went on a stunning game drive this afternoon in the beautiful riverside Mahango Park.  Skulls of the animals in the park were on display at the entrance and we were to see many of the living versions.

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Puffs of clouds hung on the sky and there were beautiful vistas at every turn and we saw a magnificent Baobob tree (for context one of our group stood in front of it).

Mammals and a Reptile

We saw lots of animals, many of them new to us, some of them the most spectular in Africa:

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– The Nam Buffalo (known as “Cape Buffalo” to South Africans).  

 

– Hippos, including a mother and child:

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– the Crocodile

 

We saw many of the ugly cute Warthogs along the water.

We saw new ungulates, in order, the Common Antelope, Roan, Tsetseba and Sable:

We saw Baboons and the Mervet Monkey.  The baby had a little nursing then went into the shrubs to play.

Giraffes, Zebras and Elephants also appeared.  We are in Elephant territory now.

Birds

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– Violet-Breasted Roller

 

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– Little Bee Eater

 

 

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– Swainson’s Spurfowl

 

 

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– The enormous Spare-winged Goose

 

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– Goliath Heron (the largest heron in Africa (see how it dwarfs the ordinary heron next photo)

 

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– Grey Heron

 

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– Egret

 

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– Cape Vulture

 

 

 

 

This morning we had seen the Hammer Cock Bird, here we saw its enormous nest which is the nest for life of a pair of Hammer Cock Birds, and we saw the Jesus Bird.

African Sky

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A lightning storm hung over the sky – it was raining somewhere!

 

 

Our drive ended with a spectacular sunset.

Best,

Jan
PS. No hippos at the lodge overnight!