Our first foray in to game territory is into the Botswana side of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. it happened by accident but what amazing luck. The South African side was full but our initial frustration at this dire news has turned into an instant love affair with the poor cousin of the Kgalagadi here in Botswana. This has become one of our favourite destinations and will see us return for sure. I always believed the Botswana side was more of a transit area, few camp sites and no facilities but it is a serious under representation of the well organised, friendly and well designed camps on offer.
There are a variety of camps dotted around the reserve. The ones we visited were in the eastern side and consist of 1 to 4 sites per pan. There are many pans dotted in the landscape about 10-15 km apart. They look like flat landing pads for flying saucers, circular white plains with little or no vegetation, ringed by the red sands and scrub bush. There was no natural water but 3 of the pans had some pumped water creating water holes as attraction for the game and to guarantee survival. The camps are unfenced and consist of an A frame shelter and open shower and long drop toilet. Most have tap water which was sweet enough to drink.
Mabuasehube means red sands and this is one of the dominant features of the landscape, The colour is picked up and amplified by the orange and red light especially at sunrise and sunset and there are magnificent camel thorn trees, currently in flower, and low lying scrub carpeted in golden grass. The area is dry as it is the end of the dry season and no surface water can be found The animals are scarce and wary but we see a good representation of oryx, springbok, red hartebeest, steenbok, jackals and brown hyena. The star of the show however, in this dry and unforgiving land, are the lions.
The black maned Kgalagadi lions are iconic for this area and nowhere are you more likely to see them than in the vast empty spaces of Mabuasehube. They roar at night, are habituated to the human traffic and find the shade and water of the camp sites attractive.
Our second camp site was in an abandoned scout camp near to the central pan, Mpaathuthulwa. We were pleased with this because there was a good and active water hole there. The scout camp was a bit dilapidated and there was fence around and rondavels and even a flush toilet but no gate. Still all in all it looked more substantial than any of the regular camps.The evening before we had seen our first lion come down to drink at the waterhole, a heavily pregnant female whose belly hung so low she looked as if she could hardly walk. I am no vet but we were confident she was due to deliver in a matter of days if not hours. 3 days later another camper reported to us they had seen a lioness carrying tiny cubs across the road in her mouth.
We could hear the lions roaring as we made dinner in camp but thought little of it until a casual sweep of the compound with a head torch revealed a lioness lying barely 10m from us observing all our domesticity. We hurriedly repaired to the safety of a rondavel but then Alan, our friend, decided he needed to chase her out of camp or we would all go hungry.
He started to run and shout and wave. She began stalking us behind the buildings and a second lioness could be seen joining her, slipping into the shower block.After much noise and a few poorly aimed stones t he pair ran nimbly out of the broken gate to be joined by a young male. We did not expect to sleep that night but passed out within minutes, probably due to adrenaline let down. The next morning the tracks showed us the lions had returned and circled the tap and the Beast within 1 m of us.
In the course of the next few days we had multiple close encounters with the lions. The next morning when we set up to breakfast at an empty camp on the edge of the pan we were alerted by Alan again as he spotted a large male lion lying just next to the tap where we planned to fill up for tea.
2 nights later another male came into camp and terrorised our neighbours. 3 of them jumped into their pop up shower cubicle. Probably not lion proof but a good advertising idea for Campmaster!
Next day we were doing a group portrait on a timer when a lion walked past roaring about 30 m away. Needless to say the smiles looked a bit manic as we vacilated between running to the car and capturing the shot.
Truly this is the most magical place for lion encounters unfettered by the usual oppressive constraints and rules. It does, however, pay to be careful
As we left the park and travelled down the road to the Kaa conservancy a huge female lion with her yearling cubs stood up from the side of the road and cut us with a withering yellow stare before moving away from the road dust. We contemplated the fate of the driver of a broken down car we had passed 2 km up the road.
In this dry and hard landscape Jackals are commonly seen and heard calling. They seem to attach themselves to the lion. So as the sun rises and the purple predawn light is lit by the golden sunrise the lions will often stroll down to drink. Everything else stands off and shows the respect we come to expect but the jackals are not far behind and dart around on the periphery like sycophantic courtiers, waiting their turn but remaining close to the lion in the hope of any crumbs from the table.
One morning, as we watched a lioness prowl back across the pan after her drink , we saw 3 jackals follow her and then fight over her faeces, eating and rolling in the royal excrement. I am told lion faeces is a good repellent for rabbits eating carrots in the garden and can be bought on line in the UK! Strong stuff indeed.
This is also one of the few places we have had the opportunity to see the brown hyena up close. He seems to be a solitary animal although the books say he stays in social dens. He comes down to the water at dawn and dusk skulking along in the low light. He is also very wary of the lions, more so than the jackal and keeps a healthy distance if they are on the scene. One evening he came into camp for a quick foray but Dudley and Alan chased him off. Secretly we were excited to share his space. Smaller and prettier than his spotted cousin he looks much less intimidating.
After a couple of days watching the rhythm of the waterhole at Mpaathuthlwa pan we were charmed by the regularity and reliability of the behaviour of the birds. In the early presunrise light doves would come and coo and drink. At 8.30, as if on a timer, the sandgrouse started to appear in small groups. There are Namaqua sandgrouse and Burchells sandgrouse.
They can be heard chattering and twittering as they approach swooping lower and lower over the water, in groups of a hundred or more, until they finally build up courage to land. The Namaqua sandgrouse arrive perhaps 30 minutes before the Burchells sandgrouse. They are larger and more vocal and they land in a scattered group and run to the water. They are quick to drink and fly and swoop again. The Burchells are prettier, specked birds and come straight into the pan , sitting in the water and fluffing their feathers. They will keep and carry water back to their chicks in the nest in this way but it makes them look plump and ungainly to take off again with their load.
Again and again they return, easily startled and spending sometimes just seconds on the ground. They are a favourite target of the mid sized and smaller hawks as they are slower than the doves and easier to catch. Clearly they know this and they take as much evasive action as they can.
One hour later, also on the same natural timer , they are gone and the water becomes quiet as the sun climbs in the sky and the day heats to its intense peak.
We arrive early every day and place our remote cameras by the water to catch as much of the action as we can.
The middle of the day is unkind, with little shade by the water. Animals retreat to the low scrub bush and lie under the camel thorn trees to cope with the harsh heat. Now only the vultures and raptors alight at the water, apparently unfazed by the heat. The Bateleurs come in groups of up to 6 , sharing space with the Lapet faced and White backed vultures and Tawny eagles. I have never seen such a collection of raptors together in such numbers. These birds, all voracious hunters in their own right , seem to be comfortable with each other and show no animosity.
The Bateleurs stand with their feet in the water, perhaps that feels as good for them as it does for us. The feathers fluff and ruffle in the breeze and they stare unblinking and the vultures spread their wings to cool. We are waiting patiently for the flying shot, familiar with the hazards of trying to precipitate the flight prematurely as this always results in a back view but the birds are in no hurry and the cameras and lenses feel heavy as the sweat drips down your back and eyes blur. How do they always know your attention is wavering. They are gone and the camera clicks on an empty space.
As the heat leaves the day the birds leave for loftier perches, the vultures circle in the sky before heading off over the pan. The evening is closing in and the animals start to wander back.