The Rain Goes Down in Africa
Few months ago my friend Florian invited me & Jan-Erik to a 2-week road trip across the Botswana desert and Namibia. The tour was organized by Sibylle, Florian's mom, who has been living in Botswana in'n'out roughly for the past 20 years. If there was ever a time I was going explore the south-African wilderness, this was it! Needless to say, we both said yes and the adventure started right after Christmas, on the 27th.
Note: this blog post is more of a recount of our adventures, sprinkled with a bunch of pictures, than an animal photo gallery—for nicer shots of the wildlife we encountered, check out Sibylle's blog
Note: this is a developing story, be sure to check back for updates!
Day Zero: getting to Africa
My careful planning was a bit thrown off by changed plans around the family Christmas—so instead of popping over from Nyíregyháza, I had to jump on a train in Budapest at 8AM in the morning to catch my flight from Debrecen to Munich, then onwards to Frankfurt and eventually the overnight flight to Johannesburg. Only one last short hop from there to Gaborone and we were done—eventually arriving in Botswana Friday evening. It was quite a hike!
I've met up with Jan-Erik in Frankfurt, so we got to enjoy each other's company for the rest of the journey (except for the flight itself to Johannesburg, but I slept that clean through, anyway!).
Due to various delays we ended up spending most of our Friday in the Johannesburg airport. We arrived in Gaborone late in the afternoon, where Sibylle & Florian picked us up.
If we wouldn't have been aware that we were in Africa proper, the monkeys chasing each other around right outside the airport terminal (and Sibylle reminding us to look out for our belongings) quickly reminded us. We hopped in the car that would be our trusty companion for the next two weeks and left for Lobatse where we would spend the night in Sibylle's house before we set out on our road trip.
It did not take us long to learn what "wet season" meant in Botswana, as soon as we left it started raining like there was no tomorrow—we didn't know back then that these rainstorms would accompany us for the days to come.
After arriving we have washed off the dust of the road with some real Botswana lager and had a nice dinner together. As a personal favorite I frequently gift Tokaji Aszú (a sweet white desert wine from the Eastern region of Hungary) to people whenever I travel outside of Hungary. This trip was no exception, I picked up an "5 puttonyos Tokaji Aszú (2008)" of the Disznókő winery while in Debrecen to take with me. After flying about 6000 miles, that's a well-traveled wine for you! We drank some of the bottle after diner and Sibylle put the rest aside for later in our Kalahari trip.
Everyone was rather tired at this point and we had a tough morning ahead of us so we turned in rather early. Sibylle gave me and Jan-Erik one of her lovely downstairs guestrooms, each, so I hunkered down, plugged in All The Things to charge and went to bed.
The next morning my watch informed me that I "got some killer Zzz-s" and I've slept 12% more than usual. Hell yeah, vacation izzz oonnnn! 😎
Day 1: Into the Wilderness!
After a warm shower the next morning (we suspected this would be the last one for a while—but frankly, we were not prepared) we got to have a closer look at the mansion. The semi-open indoor swimming pool and sauna we saw the night before but the balcony's view and the weaverbirds nesting on the other side of the living room window gave the place an even nicer flair.
After a quick breakfast we started loading the LandCruiser with supplies. We are heading out on a two-week road trip across Botswana and Namibia, the first 4 days of which leads through the deserted Central Kalahari, we needed to be prepared for virtually anything.
Florian had warned me, that in the Kalahari we won't have any kind of reception, much less internet—and my Google Fi subscription has decided to shun Botswana so I was looking at a really disconnected vacation. I wasn't sure how I felt about that (or how the family will feel about it, having been used to keeping almost real-time tabs of my travels through a variety of online channels and services.) In retrospect, being disconnected was less of a problem than I expected it to be, especially in the desert. In the towns it felt more of a hindrance, and I was constantly reminded of this classic:
Slow internet is always worse than no internet.
We have left Lobatse somewhere around noon, armed with every possible thing we could need to survive for days in the desert—except for two things. Fuel and water.
We drove from Lobatse to Molepolole where we filled the LandCruiser to the rim (and also some jerry cans) with almost 200 liters of diesel fuel, and then visited the local supermarket to further stockpile on industrial amounts of water: 5 liters per person per day ends up being quite a massive stash of water.
This Superspar looks like a Spar, it quacks like a Spar, so you kinda' get the feeling it is actually a Spar... and then the power goes bye-bye and the next thing you see is people roaming the shop with flashlights, getting that last piece of grocery or diapers in the pitch-black twilight of the giant supermarket.
Halfway through our stockpiling-run such a power outage struck and the entire giant shopping complex went dark. People (including me) would continue shopping, as long as the generators would supply enough power to operate the cashiers' machines, with a guard standing in the entrance, checking whether all the exiting customers have actually paid for the produce in their trolleys.
We set out to cross the Kalahari from south to north. Most of the central Kalahari is a nature reserve, the Central Kalahari Game reserve, the south tip is a separate, smaller reserve—the Khutse Game Reserve—which was our entry point into the wilderness.
We haven't spent much time in Khutse, our night camp were already in the Central Kalahari reserve, so after a quick gate check and paying the park fees we were on our way... well, we were supposed to be, but the car didn't start.
We have learned a lesson in redundancy—the hard way...
Crischa & Sascha
Sibylle had told us early on into the planning that to go to the heart of the desert one must at least bring two cars, in case something would happen to one of them. This was when Crischa, Sibylle's best friend decided it was time he had introduced Sascha, his 5-year-old son to the trials of life in the desert, and they accompanied us for the Botswana portion of our journey.
Crischa is a budding hunter (although, he'd mostly just affectionately refer to himself as "a pig farmer with a giant industrial mincer"), and in the days that followed his wit & skills have ended up saving our butt numerous times in the middle of the wilderness. We have also learned a ton, some of these learnings I'll try to share further below.
Four days in the desert—in a broken car
Crischa disconnected the cable from what seemed to be a faulty secondary system, but the car still wouldn't start.
It is highly suspected that the separately installed secondary battery system caused the engine trouble, but we never actually learned what exactly happened. Seemingly the troublesome secondary circuit has completely drained & killed the main battery, so we needed to jump-start the car from Crischa's LandCruiser. This dance would become a frequent occurrence in the following days, but we have decided that this little "inconvenience" won't spoil our quest. Nevertheless, our desert survival trip was not off to a promising start...
After this short intermezzo, we were finally in! A few minutes into Khutse we already had our first wildlife-spotting experience, courtesy of some Red Hartebeests peacefully grazing by the roadside.
We haven't spent too much time enjoying Khutse's hospitality, but even with that—the several hundreds of kilometers of a drive from Lobatse and the time spent (wasted?) on stockpiling, and in limbo at the park gates—it was already past 6PM when we arrived at our campsite, at the edge of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve.
Most south-African countries are 1 hour ahead of Central European time in the winter months—6PM here is already dusk, with 8PM being already pretty much pitch-black (due to the cloudy skies and lack of light pollution in the desert).
This campsite was one of the better ones: equipped with a (bucket-)shower and latrine ("toilet"), and a designated fireplace. We needed to pitch our tents & get the campfire running quick: fumbling in the dark outside the camp, searching for firewood was strongly discouraged, especially in the late hours.
First night's dinner would be open-fire grilled steak & grilled cheese. Crischa's rooftop tent literally took seconds to set up so he dove into bringing light into the darkness and we enjoyed the crackling fire and nice juicy steak late into the evening. We didn't know (although, we should have probably suspected from the piling clouds) that these luxuries we'll be missing a lot for the following nights...
Day 2: The Heart of the Kalahari
- *Grapefruit juice..?
- No, really, why grapefruit?
- Umm... readily available?
- For the Europeans. Here, noone likes it. I think it tastes like sh★t
Although it rained quite a bit on our first night, by the time we got up the thirsty desert plains have soaked up all traces of the overnight storm. The weather was nice long enough that I got to go on a quick walk (a bit further away from the camp) and record some morning nature noises: the desert felt remarkably docile.
Our breakfast then was cut short by another shower rolling in, so we hastily packed and set out to cross the reserve towards the north to our next campsite. These alternating storms and blazing hot dry runs would continue for the whole day (and pretty much for the rest of our desert adventures) to provide us with plenty of adventure and excitement for the rest of the week...
Peekaboo—some heads pokin' out!
We have barely left the camp behind we soon started seeing curious animal heads poking out form behind the roadside bushes:
Since human presence is ubiquitous in these parks (to a point where I was often joking about how these parks are amusement parks for animals to do human-watching) most animals will give you a long, inquisitive stare, as they assess how much threat you may pose to them. Needless to say this makes for excellent photo opportunities, and it is easy to lull ourselves into the belief that they are posing just for us. :)
Village visit: Kukama & Mothamelo
In crossing the desert our journey had led through various little settlements, such as Kukama (pictured) or Mothamelo, to which in my notes I have just referred to as "The village with exactly one car — and a football field". That description actually manages to grasp the extent of poverty and seclusion in these areas—bearing in mind it took us two days, two cars and days of precautions to reach these villages from the nearest inhabited areas.
That said, seeing fancy modern cars (not just four-wheel-drives, but all kinds of cars, sometimes multiple) in twig-fenced residences, parked besides traditional huts in towns across both Botswana and Namibia never once ceased to amaze me for the rest of our trip.
We didn't end up spending too much time in Kukama—crossing the desert was a several hundred kilometers long endeavor, we got to keep moving. As a parting gift, Crischa handed a loaf a sliced bread to the villagers from our stash and we got back on the road...
Towards the Heart of the Desert
Halfway to that day's campsite we have stopped for refuelling and stretching our legs. We have brought over a hundred litres of diesel and gasoline in jerry cans that kept bouncing around on Crischa's car on the rugged desert terrain so we had to stop quite often for him get them tied down, time and time again.
As we were early into the trip, and we haven't interacted much (we were travelling in separate cars, after all), this was the first time I got to hang out a bit more with Sascha. Well, as it happens, he seemed a slight bit more interested in Baela and ginger cookies (they are amazing. both.) than me, personally, but you know, baby steps...
As his initial suspicion dissipated, Sascha would earn himself the "little monkey" moniker (even though he seemed to prefer little tiger), as the little energy bomb would make a point in climbing everywhere and everything, even (or rather, especially) if that "thing" happened to one of his fellow travelers. :)
Jan-Erik grabs the wheel
Until this time, it has been mostly Sibylle and Florian who were driving our car, so it was time for Jan-Erik to jump behind the steering wheel and get a taste of kicking the tyres on a 4WD in the Kalahari!
As I noted then, he chose the perfect time for doing so, as he'd get to experience all the fun the desert had to offer: from spouting dust puffs as one is tearing through the deep sandy trails to peering out from behind the windshield in raging rainstorms and sledding in the post-shower mudbaths.
Even discounting the frequent showers of the wet season, the Kalahari was nothing like what Hollywood's depictions of deserts (with their looming infinite sandy dunes) might have set you up for. Both the flora and the fauna was rich, with scurrying insects, chirpy birds and varying degrees of vegetation all around—the view never got boring for even a second.
Even though we were well-equipped with various maps and guides, and have even received a map at the entrance, finding our way around the desert was not always trivial. The car's built in GPS navigation was not of much help in the desert, roads and trails would shift around (or even become completely impassable) with the volatile weather, signs would be damaged or missing altogether. We were relying tons on Crischa's wayfinding skills, and Jan-Erik's foresight in downloading the
maps.me app and Botswana's offline map: both of these proved indispensable in finding our way in, and eventually out of the desert.
Turns out, Open Street Map's data (maps.me's source of mapping data) has surprisingly accurate information on not just the map and trails of the Kalahari, but even the various campsite-locations.
Open source saves the day—again!
Xaxa Waterhole camp
Talk about perils of wayfinding, we missed a left turn trying to find our campsite. Quite soon we realized our mistake, but there was no way of letting Crischa know who was leading the way, sometimes couple hundred meters ahead of us! Crischa is also not famous of his relaxed pace of driving, so a 10-minute car chase ensued as we were trying to get his attention.
This really got me thinking about how useless all the technology packed into our high-tech mobile phones are in the absence of infrastructure (=network coverage)—and how it really shouldn't be! Well, that, and have made a note to pack some good-ole' walkie-talkies next time...
After eventually finding the campsite, overlooking the waterhole, we could already see another storm rolling in. This meant nice sunset pictures—but also a priority to get the campfire going.
With the unending parade of rainstorms, the campfire has become our number one desert home furnishing, and—with the frequent storms and hungry cats around—one of the first things erected once we settled down for a new campsite. Another such home improvement staple would become the makeshift rain shelter/tent we would bring up every night from now on to be able to stick it out against the raging elements until dinner was ready.
That is to say, keeping the fire alive throughout the evening storm—long enough to have Crischa's special, house-made sausages grilled to perfection—had become a challenge on its own.
Crischa has been after elephants that whole day—week, even. On this evening, though, we would only get to lay our eyes on some recent tracks and a fresh pile of dung—maybe few hours old—in the bushes around the camp. "Darn, we missed it!", we thought, but little did we know then that the desert still had plenty of surprises in store for us...
Day 3: Here There Be Lions
The next morning we were awaken by some furious tweeting. Now, our highly disconnected circumstance might have given away already that I'm not talking about being caught in another internet-wide-tire-fire, but The Hornbills.
Meet The Hornbills
A yellow-billed hornbill family has moved into a tree trunk just besides our tent, and the chicks were acknowledging & furthering the flow of juicy bites with their furious chirping, as mom & pop-'bill were bringing them the tasty treats.
The various species of hornbills would become a rather frequent neighbor of ours in the coming weeks all throughout Botswana, always managing to find a hollowed-out tree they could make a family home of.
I gotta admit, I was pretty fascinated by the proximity (and the casual attitude) of the nest—but as it turns out, The Hornbills nesting just a stone throw away from our tent was only the very beginning of what the Kalahari had in store for us for the coming days...
For the casual Monday-morning breakfast Crischa has broken out the tiny gas stove to fry us up some sliced sausages (of the more casual kind, than yesterday's artisanal treats):
We didn't forget of our trusty campfire, either—but managed to find a way to use the metal meat grille as an impromptu toaster oven. Campfire toasts, eat this! :D
The Trunk is Out There
Halfway through packing up shop Crischa called us over. He was pointing at the tracks our cars have left in the soft mud on the previous day, just beside the camp. There was a large fresh splat of dung sitting casually on top...
- You remember when I said elephants could walk right up to you, and you wouldn't hear a thing? This is it. This was here, last night.
He broke out the binoculars, and soon enough he spotted our evening visitor walking across the pan below. We hastily bundled up, did the engine-dance and was on our way to meet our first (and as it turns out to be, also our last) elephant in the valley.
On our way to the valley our engine has accidentally stalled. This time, we managed to save the jumpstart-dance, due to the downward-pointing slope of the road. A quick push would roar the trusty 4WD back to life—but this was the point where I decided I will wait with taking on my part of the driving until we can get the car fixed up.
As I mentioned before, our close encounters with the African wildlife soared the moment we entered the Kalahari reserve—and Mother Nature was just getting started...
Xade Entrance and Ranger Station
After waving good bye to our elephant buddy we drove further up north-west, towards our next campsite around Piper Pans. Our journey led past the western entrance of the park, Xade.
Before we could continue, the rangers checked our permits (acquired by Sibylle months ahead already), and we needed to top up on water. We still had a lot of drinking water, but our 20-litre "grey water" tank—intended for stuff like washing-up and bathing—was empty by now.
Speaking of elephants—turns out these benign-looking behemoths have a tendency of digging up water pipes in dry runs (read: always). This meant that even though the station offered showers and other world-class facilities we couldn't use them, as elephants have happened to sever the pipes leading to the station months ago. The only water the station had was in the water tanks that were filled up from time to time with what trucks ferried in.
Oh, and this one...
Stuck in Xade
We have arrived Xade in the driest, most blazing-hot noon ever. Then, while we were waiting for our water reserves to be filled up, in mere 30 minutes a storm rolled in and the landscape changed—completely.
The sudden influx of this amount of water was fascinating, even to me, who has been used to massive storms like this. Singapore has quite a few of these, especially in the wintertime, in their wet season, when they roll in around 4-5pm every single day, like clockwork.
We have decided that there was no point in trying to brave the elements, and instead we had a quick lunch and waited for the rain to simmer down. Half an hour later we were back on the road—and by then the thirsty desert have already gobbled up all remnants of what resembled The Great Flood just minutes before.
- Look, I got a picture of a springbok, falling flat on their face!
- That's because it is a facebok!
That's right, these are the folks I have been stuck with for two weeks in the middle of the African plains. :)
Our trans-Kalahari journey has mostly revolved around pans and waterholes. With good reason—our primary goal was animal-spotting (technically, our primary goal was survival, but yeah, animal-spotting was pretty high on that list, too).
The Piper pans were refreshingly new for two distinct reasons. Firstly, this was the first time we have seen looming sandy, almost vegetationless desert plains all around—with the sky being mostly clear, with only few fluffy clouds sprinkled over it the combination fused into a rather spectacular view:
Of course, it wasn't just sand all the way down. These pans were overflowing with animals to lay one's eyes on! A springbok here, some jackals over there, oh look some tortoises! The only other place that was able to compete in sheer density of exotic wildlife with these pans would be the Etosha National Park later on the trip, in Namibia.
The springboks have become a big favorite of mine during our trip (only topped by the absolutely majestic gemsbok, a.k.a Oryx, now officially my Nr. 2 favorite animal ever, after the sleek and cunning cheetah), we would constantly bump into them during our travels—solitarily, or in large "harems". They were also remarkably calm and unfazed: they would intently watch us pass by & were less twitchy to run for cover, two features that lend themselves to excellent photo opportunities.
The Bushy Neighbor
It was also in the Piper pans that we would happen upon our first big cat sighting:
Need help? There is a black-maned male lion lounging by the bush in the middle. The interesting tidbit about this picture is that it's not only that the lion was chilling right beside the road, but a few hundred meters ahead (just outside of the frame of the shot to the left) lied the first Piper Pans campsite, where happy campers were just unpacking as we drove by. They hadn't the slightest clue about the regal neighbor, just a couple bushes down the road...
Right past the Piper pans, about a 30-minute drive later we arrived to that evening's campsite. The double-rainbow and the looming dark clouds in the distance was a telling sign that this night won't be our driest, either.
Fuelled by this precognition Crischa & Jan-Erik headed out to collect some suitable firewood while we popped up the tents and worked on the Makeshift Rain-shelter Mk II. with Florian. Before leaving, Jan-Erik propped up his GoPro on a nearby tree to preserve 2018's last campsite, and the year's last sunset, for posterity.
Crischa, again, was not going to let the unremitting Kalahari showers stand between him and his special celebratory New Year's Eve lamb stew dinner recipe—maybe this was the final straw that urged Mother Nature, who would later respond in style to the early year-closing fireworks with her own composition...
As Florian mentions towards the closing shots of the video, we did have an amazingly colorful sunset that evening, so while the stew was bubbling and the others were chopping up the vegetables that would go in our festive meal, I set out to document the view just outside of the perimeter of our camp:
New Year's Dinner and Fireworks
As expected, sometime around 7 the storm has rolled in, and as fierce gusts of wind ripped into our cobbled-together shelter, we were cooped up in hopes that we will see our meat soften and our dinner finish. At points, that seemed less and less likely as tiny rivers formed around our campfire from the downpour that seemingly had no intention to stop anytime soon.
That night's campfire proved to be relentless fighter, and eventually we managed to have an appropriately festive year-closing dinner: Crischa's recipe (of course) did not disappoint.
Even though around 10 o'clock, with the rain not giving up, we decided that we wouldn't wait until midnight, one could say we even had our NYE fireworks, as presented by Mother Nature:
The video above is a compilation from roughly 2 hours of footage, as recorded by Jan-Erik's GoPro, set on the horizon after sunset, cut to the "interesting parts", that is, the lightning strikes that have lit up our evening.
This fierce desert storm, though, wasn't the only thing that roared through the night...
A (not so) distant roar
I should have expected that my previous cynical comments on those happy campers with a lion in their backyard would come back to bite me eventually...
As we decided to turn in early, I went straight to our tent, while Jan-Erik was still brushing his teeth with the others tidying up. After hearing some strange noises, suddenly Jan-Erik shows up by the tent entrance while I'm still undoing my shoes.
- Lions. Get in!
- Oh, so that was this noi...
- Get in, quick!!
As you might imagine, documenting wasn't exactly top of my mind, but if you are curious what kinds of sounds we have heard listen in to this clip (at 29 seconds). The elongated cries were coming from a pack of lions, a hundred, maybe two-hundred meters from the camp (as per Crischa's observation)—and would continue, late into the night. Terrifyingly, (at least) one of the lions would pass by the campsite, as, at some point the cries would be heard from one side, than the other—and very close.
Even though Crischa has reassured us that as long as the tent remains closed, we were safe (apparently to lions the concept of a tent is somewhat foreign...), you could imagine that sleep wasn't exactly amongst the top priorities of our brains that night...
Day 4: A very special new year
- Trisha, could you check the campsite from above? It feels like something is breathing down our necks…
- Oh yeah. Lions. They are far, though!
- How far?
- 5-600 meters? You'd be surprised how far that sound carries.
- That's not…reassuringly far…
Few weeks before we have all received a preparatory e-mail from Sibylle, reminding us of bringing some essentials (closed, tall shoes with robust soles for hiking and against the snakes, insect repellent and long-sleeve shirts against the mosquitos, etc.). The e-mail also contained a succint description of the adventures we would be signing ourselves up for:
“We’ll start on the 29th December, go into the Kalahari for 4 days and nights. Lions and Hyenas will be our closest neighbours...”
She wasn't exaggerating.
Is it safe out there…?
The rain and the roars persisted throughout the night, and would continue into the morning the next day. I was up from 5-6 AM at least, and would imagine the others too, but noone felt like sticking their nose out of the tents for about an hour or two. Eventually our bladders won this flight and we have emerged from the safety of our tents around 8AM.
We have never actually seen the lions, not once.
[to be continued...]