Botswana – Lions of the Kalahari

The best day of my recent trip to the Kalahari Desert in Botswana was definitely the last. After spending the previous five days having game drives in two areas of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, we had yet to see one key species: lions.

We had been told what to do if the lions came through the camp while we were there and had heard a story of a previous trip when a large pride had walked straight through one evening during dinner. We had even seen their footprints on the sandy tracks. However, we hadn’t actually seen any. That changed in the early morning of the last full day in the reserve. 

As we headed out of the camp at around 6:30am, just as the sun was rising, casting an orange glow across the savannah lands, we turned right onto the main track and headed west. We immediately saw a black-backed jackal wandering through the long grass but in the distance was something else, something bigger; Lion! Shaka (our guide) announced and the excitement burst through the safari truck. Not just one but two; a male and a female. As we approached, a third appeared and as we got to them, we spotted two more; five in total.

We had heard the previous day that a mating pair had been seen by others travelling in the area but had yet to come across them. We were soon given confirmation that this was the same pair with a robust mating completed with a snarling, bad-tempered finish. As the pair sloped off to the rest behind a bush, we had clearer views of two sub-adults wandering towards us and then resting in the long grass just a few metres from the truck. One was a young male, just starting to show the first signs of a mane, perhaps one day to be as magnificent and black as adult male’s; I silently named the youngster ‘bum fluff’, for it was a pretty poor effort of a mane to be honest.

I certainly wouldn’t have called him his new name to his face! At one stage he was lying just a handful of metres away from our open-sided truck when he fixed me with a piercing stare and made a sudden move towards us. My heart leaped into my mouth, momentarily; I think a quiet ‘woooaaah!!!’ might have escaped my mouth, but he rested back again and a little wave of relief washed over me. 

The adult pair mated a couple more times and then wandered off to a nearby area of small trees and scrub, eventually followed by the other three. We had spent a good long while with them during the morning, taking photos but also just trying to quietly observe them and their behaviour.  We left them in peace and headed off for another area for the mid-morning coffee break.

Shaka told us that the pride was larger than just simply those we had seen and that there were actually two adult males, with the second probably off patrolling the pride’s territorial boundaries. He too will have had the distinctive black mane of the Kalahari lions. He also would have been larger than average; with the Kalahari being a semi-desert and food harder to come by, the rule of the survival of the fittest is even truer there. Less food means more competition and weaker animals, with weaker genes, are even more likely to fail, meaning that fewer but stronger and bigger lions remain.

After our usual siesta during the heat of the heat of the day, we headed out for the last game drive of the trip. As we returned to the spot where we left the lions in the morning, one stood up as if to show us where they were. We headed over and found all five there, lazing around in the long grass under the shade of a tree. We watched and photographed them for a while; the youngsters grooming each other while the adults dozed – all was peace and contentment.

Then the adults got up and decided it was time to mate again and the peace was broken. When calm was restored, one by one they wandered out from the shelter of the tree and into the open grassland. The two adults stayed close together but the other three spaced themselves out. A gemsbok and springbok nonchalantly strolled across the savannah in the general direction of the pride and we wondered just how close they were going to get before noticing the five large mouths in front of them. When they did spot the lions, they didn’t run off, they just altered course slightly. I’m not sure I would have been so calm, but then again, they probably are better at judging the safe distance to be from a lion.

We left the five of them lying in the long grass as the sun was setting. They were starting to show signs of interest in the prey around them, particularly a herd of springbok some distance away. Some males were chasing each other around and pronking (that’s bouncing around like idiots – demonstrating their strength). They were far too far away for the lions to launch an attack but it just seemed that they liked looking at their food – just like I enjoy looking at a big table full of cheese, even when I’m not hungry.

We had been getting concerned that we weren’t going to see lions but a day full of them blew those concerns away. For me, it felt like a final reward for the previous days of searching and was one of the major highlights of the trip…and I didn’t get as good and prolonged views of lions in the Okavango.

The black-maned lions of the Kalahari were worth the wait!

Botswana – The Kalahari Desert

I’ve been very quiet on my blog lately, largely because I haven’t had very much to say. However, earlier this month I went on my second trip to Africa and I thought this would be a good opportunity to restart my blogging – especially as over the next few months I’m going to have a lot more to blog about.

My second trip to Africa was a return to Botswana where I stayed in the Okavango Delta two years ago. However, this time, instead of heading north from the airport at Maun, I headed south and into the Kalahari Desert.

After arriving mid-afternoon on the first Saturday, it was too late to head into the desert, so we had an overnight stay in a lodge near to Maun. This provided a first opportunity to look for new species of birds as we wandered around the lodge grounds, watching out for hippos and crocodiles when walking near to the river bank. We had a walk along the river bank, seeing quite a few different species, most of which were waterbirds, the likes of which we wouldn’t be seeing later on the trip.

After a good night’s sleep in one of the posh huts at Thamalakane River Lodge, we set off on the long journey into the Kalahari. First, there were 60km on tarmac roads, passing lines of roadside properties; small fenced compounds with breeze block houses or, in some cases, little more than huts made of wooden frames and mud. There were hazards on the way in the form of the local farm animals, having to dodge suicidal herds of cattle, goats and donkeys. With the heat of the day starting to build, we came to the turn off from the tarmac and onto the track to the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. Ahead of us lay 115km of arrow straight sand tracks including one which was 75km alone. The route seemed endless but we saw wildlife on the way in the form of the desert birdlife and an occasional antelope. After a couple of hours, we came to the Park gate and stopped for lunch, sheltering under the roof of a new picnic hut – and then we headed into the desert for the next six nights.

When imagining deserts, we often think of vast swathes of sand dunes but the Kalahari isn’t a true desert and the landscape is different to what most people would expect. I’ve seen the Kalahari on TV numerous times so had a fair idea of what it would be like. Being at the end of the summer, when the rains occur, the Kalahari in March is a landscape of grassy savannah and well-leafed thorny scrub with the occasional stand of larger trees. Looking across open plains, the grassland looks quite lush, but up close, the grass is sparse with the sandy ground beneath showing through. As we crossed the Reserve on the way to our first campsite, we travelled through the varying landscape, sometimes thick scrub, sometimes the savannah and then out onto one of the great open clay ‘pans’ – these are large flat areas that are filled with water in the rainy season which slowly evaporates as the dry season progresses, leaving vast areas of cracked earth. The rains have been light this year and there was little water to be seen and the pans were already very dry.

The whole journey from the Lodge to our first camp in then Passarge Valley took just under ten hours and we were very ready to get out of the safari truck – and Shaka, our guide, must have been shattered. The camp was all set up ready for our arrival with the four camp staff (Banda, Two Metre, Sisco and Dreams) waiting with a very welcome drink and wet towel for each of us. We arrived not long before the sun set but it was still hot in the camp and the tents were like saunas as we unpacked. These were the same tents I’d stayed in two years ago – large with more than enough height to stand, comfy camp beds, a small table and a battery-powered light. The tents had mesh windows on three sides and a back door as well as front, with a covered veranda with a seat and washbasin. Behind the tents were screened-off ensuite shower rooms with bucket shows and ‘long-drop’ toilets.

…and so we settled into a new pattern of life for the next six nights. Each day we would be woken at 5:30am with a freshly filled washbasin, breakfast would be at 6:00am and we would go out on the first game drive of the day at 6:30. We would stop for coffee at 9:00am or so and return to camp before 11:00am with lunch at 11:30am. We would all then have a siesta through the hottest part of the day before heading out for another game drive at 4:00pm. With night drives banned within the Reserve, we would return to camp at sunset and have our evening meal at 7:30pm after a drink around the camp fire. 

I have to say that, probably very obviously, the Kalahari is very different to the Okavango Delta, both in landscape and wildlife. The latter is a wildlife extravaganza, both day and night, and a visit is probably one of the greatest nature experiences that can be had anywhere. The Kalahari, on the other hand, is slightly more subdued experience with harder work required to find the wildlife and a harsher environment in which to travel – although the sandy tracks are a lot more comfortable than the washboard gravel tracks to and from the Okavango. This does not mean that the Kalahari isn’t worth visiting, it very much is – I added significantly to my life list of both birds and mammals and there are species here which can’t be seen in the Delta. One of the biggest differences for me, however, was the night-time – the Kalahari is nearly silent, save for a few insects punctuating the darkness and a very occasional call of a jackal.

For me, the most interest comes from seeing mammals and we did quite well on this trip with 20 species seen altogether, 14 of which I hadn’t seen before. The most common animals we found during our stay were the large herbivores with gemsbok (oryx) and springbok dominating the landscape with large herds wandering the savannah. Much fewer in number were the giraffe, steenbok, red hartebeest and blue wildebeest, some of which were seen on most days apart of giraffe, of which only three appeared during the whole trip. The differences in their behaviour was interesting; many took no notice of us although the gemsbok could be a bit skittish but the hartebeest often legged it at first sight of us, even at some distance away.  

Tracking the herbivores was a great range of carnivores of varying sizes. More common were the smaller predators, with black-backed jackals everywhere and a few sightings of bat-eared foxes. We came across a cape fox, the first that even Shaka had seen, and it took us a while to work out what it was. We also found african wildcats and a particularly obliging one that sat around for a while in the evening light. Perhaps my favourite view, albeit very short, was of a honey badger at the end of a long and otherwise largely fruitless afternoon drive. It saw us coming and stood momentarily before trotting off into the long grass and disappeared.

Of the larger predators, we had brief views of a running brown hyena some way in the distance but couldn’t catch up with it. We found two groups of cheetah, one group that of three we found on two consecutive days but they were very shy and both times ran off before we could get close. However, later in the trip we found a much more relaxed pair resting under a tree and spent some time watching them. 

The best views of predators were of a pack of African painted dogs and a pride of lions but more on them in further posts.

As the third night in the Kalahari started to draw in, the skies began to look ominous and the smell of rain came in on the increasing wind. In the distance, lightning could be seen followed by the rumbles of thunder and as we settled down for dinner the rain started. The storm hit the campsite as we went to bed and the flashes and bangs went on for the best part of six hours with intermittent rain lasting through to the early hours. In the morning there were clear signs of the weight of water that had fallen overnight with many of the tracks submerged, but not so deep to stop us from progressing onto our second camp site. During the day we moved on to Deception Valley and the new site was in a secluded location at the top of a slope in amongst a few more trees than the first site.

It wasn’t just mammals that caught the eye in the Kalahari, the birds were great too. We didn’t have any avid birders in the group so we recognised fewer species than I did in the Okavango but I still managed to see a good selection of new ones; 93 species altogether and 34 that were new to me. During most siesta times I couldn’t sit still for long so I paced around the camp and found a few species just around the tents. The white-browed sparrow weavers were frequent visitors to the camps and a large group spent some time taking water from one of the bucket showers.

Most species were found out in the landscape with raptors and vultures some of the highlights. We often saw pale chanting goshawks sitting on top of bushes – they looked more like a male hen harriers than goshawks and I didn’t hear any doing much chanting. We also saw black kites on the way in and out of the reserve and a few greater kestrels, which are enormous compared to the standard version we get in the UK. My favourite of the birds of prey were the bateleurs of which we saw quite a few; they are snake eagles, with very short tails, and look life big huge bats.

The more terrestrial birds were also quite showy with ostriches seen often, including some dancing males, a few secretary birds and very frequent kori bustards. northern black korhaans were everywhere, with their angry scratchy calls following us on many of our drives (this recording is a good example).

There were also plenty of smaller birds including whydahs, coursers, larks, chats and doves.  Of the doves, I was glad that the red-eyed version was only found at the lodge on the first night as I found their call massively annoying and gave me a plaguing ear-worm.

Overall, my favourite bird was found in the last campsite – the southern pied babbler. These are not unlike Eurasian jays in size and shape but mostly white but for black wings and tail. I saw other babblers during my previous trip and just like those, these babblers spent time in a group close to the camp, frequently breaking out into a raucous, laughing, babbling racket, particularly when I approached – just like this.

Another big difference between the Kalahari and Okavango was the number of people we saw; it was clear that the Kalahari is much less visited and we only saw two or three different vehicles a day. As we passed other vehicles there was often a quick conversation on what others had seen during the day and we got great help in finding the painted dogs but not the elephants that others had found. We saw elephant tracks and dung in various places but failed to find them – they are relatively rare in the Kalahari so it would have been an unexpected bonus if we had.

After the six nights in the reserve, it was time for an early wake up for the long journey back up the arrow-straight sand tracks to Maun to catch the flight home. When we got to the airport and checked in, I was taken to one side and into an office, after a slightly alarming moment, I was transferred into another plane, which turned out to be faster and got me to Johannesburg earlier!

After the last time in Botswana when the showers at the campsite had gone before we returned from the last game drive, meaning we had to travel home without having had a shower for a while, I booked into a lounge at Johannesburg Airport, just in case. I’ve never been so glad to have a shower, ever, and I think the passenger sat next to me for the 11 hour flight was probably quite pleased too!

Overall, visiting somewhere as remote as the Kalahari was an immersive experience particularly as we were camping. While I’ve yet to spend a whole safari staying in a lodge, I just can’t imagine that you can feel quite as part of the landscape and in the wild as you do when there’s just a thin bit of canvas between you and nature. Lying awake that one night with the thunder and lightning all around will stay with me for a long time but so will so much more; the wildlife, the travelling companions, the guide and the camp staff, the long, straight roads, and more than anything, the landscapes.

I booked the trip through Naturetrek and it was their Botswana’s Kalahari Desert tour. The trip was run by a local company, Letaka Safaris, the same guys who I went to the Okavango Delta with. I have to say that the service by Naturetrek was as good as ever. Letaka provided an authentic Kalahari experience, comfortable but not luxurious, giving a good balance of back to basics and good food and hospitality. If I ever go to Botswana again, which I hope to, then this combination really works.