November 2021: The earliest nature documentaries I can remember watching as a youth featured the natural marvels of the Kalahari Desert. This is a region of the world that has always intrigued me. It is not a desert in similarity to the Sahara. On the contrary, the Kalahari is full of life and has a lot of vegetation. It is considered a desert because it is semi-arid and has few year-round standing water sources. Few people live in the Kalahari, except the traditional occupants of the land-the San people. The San are one of the oldest cultures in Southern Africa. Historically, they are a hunting and gathering tribe that lived in Southern Africa long before the arrival of the agricultural-based Bantu and European peoples. Sadly the San have been displaced from their traditional lifestyles and land and now live in government villages where poverty and depression are rampant. I was hoping to meet some San during our visit to Botswana, but we didn’t come across any.

Where is the Central Kalahari Reserve
Map of Botswana

The Kalahari Game Reserve is located in Botswana, a country of immense diamond wealth with a small population that can afford to protect 37 percent of its lands for wildlife conservation. The Kalahari Game Reserve is the world’s second-largest reserve behind the Selous reserve in Tanzania. The country of Botswana is dominated by the flat, featureless Kalahari Desert, with the exception of one of the world’s richest river deltas in the world in the north of the country-the Okavango. Between the Kalahari and Okavango, Botswana easily is one of the best wildlife viewing countries of the world-it has 70 percent of the world’s remaining African Elephants and has more elephants than any other country in the world.

Arrival in Botswana

We arrived in Maun via South Africa Airlink Airlines. I saw nothing but desolate, dry, and parched flat earth below for two hours flying over Botswana. When we landed, all passengers were corralled into a chaotic scene tent on the airport’s tarmac in the blistering 100-degree heat. Despite just recently getting a passing PCR Covid test, we were forced to take a rapid Covid test. This test isn’t always reliable, and false positives can occur, so this was a little worrisome. Luckily no one had a false positive. We set off to our hotel from the airport to relax and prepare for our early morning departure the next day.

Planning for the Kalahari

Our jeep in the Kalahari

There are two ways to visit the Kalahari: 1: Self-drive with a 4WD vehicle or 2: Via a Local travel agency that drives for you. At the beginning of the trip, I planned to rent our own 4-wheel drive vehicle and make all of the driving and camping preparations myself. After a week of going down this route, I decided it was much easier and safer to make arrangements to visit the Kalahari via a local safari agency. In my research for a self-drive trip to the Kalahari, these were the challenges I listed:

  • The Kalahari Central Reserve receives few visitors, and it isn’t uncommon to not see others for days in some areas. For this reason, it is safer to travel in a group of more than one vehicle.                                                                                    
  • The roads are sandy, and the roads can become impassable in the rain. Our visit was during the beginning of the rainy season and this was a concern that weighed heavily on my mind.                                                                                       
  • All campsites must be booked before being allowed to enter the reserve and the process to book the campsites is a tricky one.                                                                               
  • There are no places within the park to refuel or pick up extra water supplies. All visitors must be completely self-reliable. This includes bringing equipment to dig yourself out of getting stuck-sand mats, air compressors for letting air in and out of your tires, plenty of spare tires, and extra fuel and water. Then, of course, the ability to navigate in a wilderness area is a considerable challenge.

We had only one evening to make all of the above preparations upon our arrival, which was too little time. Since my wife and mother-in-law were with me, I didn’t want to take any chances, so we decided to go with the safer but less adventurous option 2-a a local safari company. I always try and keep the money in the local community as much as possible, so I chose a community-run safari company located in Maun that was started by safari guides and drivers, who pooled their money together to create their own company. I found out that we were the first customers since the beginning of the pandemic. It is staggering to imagine the cost of the pandemic on local businesses and indirectly on wildlife conservation since tourism dollars contribute to conservation. 

It was the start of the rainy season and the end of the hot season. It didn’t take long in the morning for the temperature to climb to 100 degrees plus. The first hour in the safari vehicle-which was open to the sides-was on a paved road. We arrived at a police checkpoint, and since no one was wearing a mask, including the police officer until we pulled up, the guide was forced to pay a fine. So from that point on, we only wore a mask at checkpoints.

After the checkpoint, we turned off the main road to a rough sand road that bordered a wildlife fence. This separated the wildlife from domesticated cattle to prevent the deadly foot and mouth disease. As our driver called it, the road was an African massage, 2 -hour ones until we arrived at the gate for the Central Kalahari reserve. A small community of rangers lived at the entrance gate, and it looked like a mini-military camp. For many rangers, the fight against armed poachers is like being in the military.

Female Leopard

The beginning of the reserve consists of tall scrub brush, and the thick vegetation easily obscures wildlife viewings. Aside from a few birds, we saw little until we neared the pans-wide open sandy grasslands where visibility can extend for miles providing outstanding wildlife viewings. Our campsite was in the area of one of the largest pans in the reserve. I deliberately selected this area to maximize our opportunities to see wildlife. The wildlife-rich northern section is also the most visited part, but in 3 days in the reserve, we only saw about 4 other vehicles.

When we arrived in our campsite area, our driver slammed on the brakes and pointed at the leopard. Before our eyes, in the bushes 10 feet away, was a female leopard lying next to a half-eaten carcass of an antelope. Our guide proclaimed we are fortunate because leopards are very hard to find in the Kalahari.

Deception Pan

Location of Deception Pan where we camped
Commonly scene giant Oryx which is better adapted to the dry environment than other grazing animals 

We dropped our packs off at our camp, and some of the staff stayed behind to set up camp. We had a private campsite surrounded by thick brush, plenty of places for lions to hide. Then we set off to the pans to look for wildlife during the cooling hours of the afternoon when animals tend to become more active.

Animal sightings in the Kalahari are not as good as the Okavango, but we would not be disappointed by the end of this trip. At night, we saw scattered herds of antelope and Gemsbok, and we saw a pair of bull elephants in musth, judging by the enormous erection and in a huge hurry to get someplace. One of them threatened to charge our vehicle a few times and then stormed off into the brush.

The highlight of the night was when we returned to see the leopard outside of our campsite. Now the antelope carcass had been claimed by a pack of jackals. We parked the jeep and observed in close proximity as the leopard slinked past our car as it ambushed the jackals reclaiming the antelope. The jackals surrounded the leopard, cackling as the leopard dragged its kill up into the tree to eat it in peace.

Leopard attempting to keep the prey in the tree from the jackals
Jackals attempting to steal prey
Leopard eating the prey in the tree
Our Campsite

When we arrived at our campsite, it was already dark. Our tents were all set up, including a meal tent with a bonfire. Our camp was magically illuminated with lanterns and candles. A universe of stars never looked as bright as it did in the sky that night. Nights in the Kalahari were a special time. The temperature finally cooled as the wind picked up, and it actually became chilly. We sat next to the bonfire staring into its flames, drinking wine, and listening to the sounds of the wilderness around us. I hoped to hear the lion roaring, but we never did. To my delight but not to the others in my group, fascinating insects came out at night. Praying mantis insects patrolled the lanterns feeding off the flies and gnats attracted to the light. Giant monster cricket insects about 7″ long that look like crickets but with massive jaws came out and were crunching on the leftover food that fell to the ground. A sun spider-a menacing giant spider crawled up Cienne’s leg on the toilet chasing after the light on her head lantern, thus the name sun spider because it chases after morning. She screamed in a panic.

I tried to wander around the edge of our campsite looking for pangolins and other creatures, but the guide warned me it was dangerous. It is true that leopards, hyenas, and lions lurked in the shadows and could enter the camp as they pleased. For this reason, the guides asked us to try and stay in our tent at night. I was hoping to see some animals in camp at night, so I kept my flashlight close, but I slept soundly through the night. There were reports of hyenas sniffing around the tent at night; however, sadly, I wasn’t awake to see it.

Our Campsite set-up
Endless Kalahari stars
Us having Thanksgiving dinner in the Kalahari

Our Tents

Giant carnivorous looking cricket with teeth

Sun Spider Attack

We awoke at dawn to coffee and breakfast in the morning and set off to look for wildlife before the heat set in. Our cook stayed back in camp to prepare our lunch and dinner and keep wild animals from ransacking camp while we were gone. We left camp at about 630am and returned at 1100 am. Every day, we were greeted by the most common scavenger in camp, the very vocal Southern Yellow-Billed Hornbill, which was surprisingly tame and would very close to us to eat our leftover scraps. Another campsite visitor was the hawk that would stealthily divebomb us and steal scraps from hundreds of feet in the air.

Campsite by day
Southern Yellow Billed Hornbill-common campsite visitors

We returned to see the leopard now separated from her kill and trying to reclaim it from other hyenas or jackals that have now claimed it. Beyond the leopard, we visited a watering hole and scoured the pans but did not see any notable wildlife except for the general game, as our guide called it. We spotted cheetah prints in the sand of the road but no cheetahs. Our guide was hopeful to see more big cats but based on his experience; the odds were against it. Besides, we had already used our luck to see the leopard.

Our leopard neighbor 
Our leopard neighbor 

We hoped to see meercats, which live in the reserve but we ended up seeing the similar ground squirrels and mongoose instead.

Ground Squirells

Mid-Day Heat

The wildlife grew scarce around 11 am as the sun reached its daytime peak and the temperature soared. We stayed in camp during this time and tried to keep out of the sun. The heat became an oppressive 100 plus degrees during mid-day. Then in the afternoon, we set off to look for the famed lions.

Giant Kudo 
A Huge female Ostrich
The Cheetahs 

Our luck decided it would keep working for us, and after an hour of driving, we came around a bend in a pan, and beneath a tree stood four cheetahs-one mother and three full-grown cubs. It was a glorious sight, and the guide proclaimed these were the ones from yesterday he was tracking. They glanced at us with little regard for our presence, and they proceeded to stalk some antelope in the distance. The mother cheetah took the lead in the stalking, and the cubs followed suit. We watched for an hour as they stalked the antelope hoping for them to give chase, but it never happened. At one point, to my dismay, our driver even drove offroad and attempted to herd the antelope towards the cheetahs. The cheetahs still didn’t take pursuit.

Cheetah Family
Cheetah Family
Cheetah Family
Antelope being stalked
Kalahari Lions

We had a great second night at our campsite, and now it was our last morning safari in the reserve. We had yet to see the famed Black maned Kalahari Lions. The odds were stacked against us, but we set off to try anyways. After an hour, we barely even saw antelope. It seemed our luck had come to a halt. Then we were suddenly smacked with luck. A bull elephant appeared on the side of the road. It was not pleased to see us and stormed off. We followed down the path it was on, and three male lions appeared. One lion was stalking prey while the other two watched intently from the ground. And beyond this, we also had our first giraffe sighting. We were beyond excited.

Blackmaned Lion
Blackmaned Lion

Then if the lions weren’t enough, we spotted the cheetahs from the night before. There were only two cubs with the mother now. We watched for a while and never spotted the last cub. Our guide speculated that the cub might have been killed by the three male lions the night before. The lions looked at us passively and watched some antelope in the distance intently. Here we were in the open vehicle just 10 feet away from the lions. If they wanted, they could easily charge and attack us by the time we could accelerate the vehicle to safety. Seeing the lions was definitely a highlight of the trip, and even the guide was in disbelief with our luck. The only animal we didn’t see that I was hoping for was the Painted Dog.

Blackmaned Lion
Blackmaned Lion

In the distance, the sky began to fill with dark clouds as thunderstorms started to form. The crew frantically packed up everything, and we set off at breakneck speed through the reserve and back to the paved road. Our driver confessed that he was trying to exit the rutty clay roads before the rains started because they had become virtually impassable. When we arrived at the paved highway one hour from Maun, the storm hit us at full force. We donned rain gear since our vehicle was open to all sides. The storm that unfolded before us was one of the fiercest that I have witnessed in a long time. Lighting erupted with booming thunder all around us, and the driver had to drive slowly since visibility was almost nothing. Hail and freezing rain pelted us in the face. Then there was an explosion of light around us and what sounded like a bomb going off. Lightening had just hit right off the side of the car, and for the first time in my life, I could smell burnt air in the aftermath of the electrical current passing through it. The storm’s fury passed, and we eventually made it back to Maun.

Storm Clouds on the Horizon
The Arrival of the Covid Variant Omicron 

For the last two nights of our stay in Botswana we wanted to experience the Okavango Delta, so we stayed in a lodge right on the edge of the Okavango-Thamalakane Lodge. The lodge was in a peaceful location far from town and on the edge of a waterway full of raucous hippos and a few crocodiles. The lodge was mostly empty and there were only a few South African guests. We were happy to relax and enjoy dinner when we were able to log into the wifi and connect to the world for the first time in days. Instantly I was inundated with messages, “Are you in Botswana? Get out?  There was a new variant detected in Botswana and South Africa while we were in the Kalahari and the variant is meant to be evasive of existing vaccines. The world, within hours began to close itself to the southern region of Africa blocking out our region and cancelling all flights. We knew we were in a world of hurt and the next few days would be clouded with uncertainty.  Some of our flights were cancelled and we spent hours trying to rebook flights and determine an exit plan. 

Scorpions at the Covid Test

Before we could depart Botswana, we needed a Covid test, and the following day we arranged to get a PCR test in Maun. While standing in line at an outdoor covid testing center, I saw a bird fighting with something on the ground. The bird didn’t seem committed to the fight, and I realized why when I took a closer look. This aggressive, venomous little guy with a foul temper was ready to battle with birds or anything else that came across his path.

Scorpion 
Day in the Okavango 

We were powerless to leave the country or book any emergency airline tickets since we could go without a Covid test, and our test results wouldn’t be ready until later in the evening or the following day. So we decided to stick to our original plan and visit the Okavango delta. The goal was to take the traditional boat-mokoro-a dugout canoe carved out of a tree paddled by a local villager into the delta to observe wildlife and do a walking safari. The problem is that we had a late start because of our Covid test, and we would be setting off in the heat of the day. To reach a village where the mokoros depart, we had to take a 4wd track a few hours to a subsistence farming village with thatched roof houses and no electricity. The town also raises cattle and subsidizes its income by taking tourists into the delta on a mokoro.

Village on the edge of the delta that floods during the rainy season
Man on his mokoro with a catch of fish. These days to prevent deforestation the boats are made out of fiberglass mostly. 
Bushbuck

The boat trip seemed relaxing in theory, but in reality, we were stuck in the boiling hot 100 degrees plus sun without shade while our mokoro boat captains propelled us at a snails’ pace for a few hours in each direction.

Giant Boabaob Tree that we walked to

We parked the mokoro, and our village guide took us on a long walking safari through the grasslands and into a few groves of trees looking for animals. Our guide was a little worried about encountering buffalo in the thicket, so we walked very carefully in the woodland sections. We found an ancient baobab tree, and from there, spotted some zebra and an elephant.

Zebras we approached on foot

Paula and I under the Baobab Tree

Little kingfisher bird that followed our boat

On the paddle back, we came dangerously close to a big bull elephant off to the side of the waterway. We eventually returned to our lodge, where we spent the rest of the night plotting our way around new Omicron regulations around the world. Then early the last morning before our departing flight from Botswana, we hired a small boat at our lodge to go out and observe the hippos.

 

A bull elephant we came across on our boat
Pod of Hippos in front of our hotel
Charging Hippo

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