The Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) is supposed to be a good place to see big cats at this time of year, and the camp sites have no fences. Leopards and lions in your camp – why wouldn’t you go?…
Our original plan was to drive down the tar road to Rakops, then take the dirt road into the park. This dirt road is notorious during the rainy season and has been known to take a few days just to drive its 42Km. The mechanic told us the road that follows the vet fence down to the gate is much more interesting to drive than the tar and saves time and distance. It was a sand road of about 72Km, that was more or less dead straight. Interesting – no, but probably was much quicker as we could get up to around 60KPH on the reasonable sand and still be able to catch it when we hit a few patches of really soft stuff.
We drove through the park towards our first camp (the way the availability worked out, we were staying one set of camps one night, another the next and then back to the first set for the final night). We had visions of the Kalahari as a sandy desert. It is in the south and western regions of the CKGR and in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park that we visited when we left South Africa earlier in the trip. Up in the north of the park, where we were, it was a very different scene.
Who said that deserts were all sand?
After we looked at our pitch for the night to see if there was anything we needed, we headed up to the nearest water hole to see what was happening as it was getting on for 3pm. When we got there, we saw a game drive vehicle parked up. That only happens if they’re having a sundowner, it’s broken down or they’ve seen something interesting. As it was at a water hole, we decided on the later and went for a chat. He was a very friendly guy (usually they can be a bit sniffy about giving vital information to tourists) and said there was a male and female lion sleeping the other side of the bush. We took up a perfect position looking at the water hole assuming they would be thirsty when they woke up. After about 2 hours, they did wake up and we found out they were a breeding pair, so they just mated very affectionately and went back to sleep. Apparently during this time they mate every 15 minutes, for 3 or 4 days, and are not interested in anything else including eating and drinking, so our position by the water hole instead of nearer them was a bit of a bad call..
Should have picked a better spot…
We waited for an extra half hour to see if anything changed, but they were still asleep, so we headed off at a bit of speed to get back to camp before 7pm, which is a nominal time you are supposed to stop driving. It was dark as well, and we stopped off in another empty camp to get some stones to try out a more wood efficient method of cooking as we were pot cooking, not cooking on the rack. This involves lighting the fire at the centre of 3 bits of wood in a star shape and feeding the wood in or out to control the temperature. The stones are placed such that you can put the pot on top of them. It worked fine and indeed was better on wood than our standard offering of torching a reasonable amount of wood.
The yellow lights we have in the rear of the car and on a tether usually keeps the level of bugs down, but here the number of praying mantis flying into them and then staying in the car was amazing. They were also landing on us and flying in our faces which wasn’t great either. We eventually found using the red night vision mode of the head torches was the best method of beating the prayers.
As we were only here for 3 days and you allegedly need to be up early to have a chance of seeing cats, we got up at 5:15am each morning, which anyone that knows us will realise is a remarkable feat. No breakfast as we’ll get that en-route and off we went. We drove down Deception Valley first. A couple spent time here in the 70’s and wrote ‘Cries of the Kalahari’ about their experience. Our experience was one of weeping as there were no cats there. We stopped for avocado on bread with some olive oil for breakfast (a surprisingly good and quick breakfast, the idea for which we’d picked up from a lovely young German couple we’d met at Nyika Plateau) along with the Earl Grey (as you do in Africa) on the Deception Pan. Three Bat-eared Foxes wandered across the pan as we munched.
Bat-eared foxes mooching along
Then we drove further down the valley before turning back. At about 9:20pm and normally way beyond cat sighting time, we saw a Black-backed Jackal on the road and a vulture in the air and thought “eh-up”. As we looked further in the bush we saw a large Cheetah just walking away from us. It was great to see one mobile and not lying down rather fatly, and flatly, after a kill.
We headed up to Leopard Camp, the site we would be staying at next, and had a very long and lazy lunch under the shade of the trees, before heading out again later in the afternoon. Not much action, just a few Jackals, Gemsbok and Springbok on the pans, and despite staking out the waterhole again before sunset we didn’t see anything more than birds coming for an evening drink.
The following morning we were up again early and headed to the waterhole, but again nothing doing. The same for the pan. So we drove north into the Passarge Valley, which we’d been told was beautiful and there was lots of game. It was pretty and there were areas full of swaying thistle-like flower heads, but the game had obviously moved on.
Thistles in the desert
Then, at exactly the same time we’d seen the Cheetah, give or take a couple of minutes, two animals shot across the track in front of us. It was a Caracal chasing a Steenbok. They tore into the bush but the cat was obviously distracted by us the the little antelope got away. The Caracal stopped for a look at us and then sat down. We watched each other for about 5 minutes – he seemed completely relaxed with us being there despite us ruining his breakfast. They’re brilliant looking cats with long ear tufts. They are normally nocturnal but we were told that now the weather was cooler the cats come out more during the day. Eventually he wandered off into the bush and we lost sight of him.
We had a late breakfast at a nearby campsite and headed back to Sunday pan. Lunch there and an the later afternoon spent looking for animals but no more cats. Sunday waterhole was rammed with people looking for the lions. A group of three cars with German tourists were using walkie talkie’s to chat with each other as they watched the waterhole and a car full of South Africans with the girls sitting on the roof as if they were at St Tropez kept driving round the waterhole. We decided to head back to our camp site for some peace and quiet.
It was dark by the time we got there and Angela was a bit twitchy about large predators watching from the shadows. Then she heard a rustle in the undergrowth. As she flailed wildly with Slasher in an attempt to stave off the imminent onslaught of claws and teeth, a terrified rabbit shot out of the bushes and fled the camp site. As Gareth handed her a medicinal G&T to calm her still-shaking hands he consoled her with the words “don’t worry, it must have been a Were-rabbit…”.
The final morning started as early as the others. Up in the dark and checking the boundary for shining eyes we saw another cat. This time it was a small one, an African Wildcat, which is very much like a large domestic tabby. In the torch light we watched it circle round half the camp before disappearing, again very relaxed in our presence.
We were on the road before sunrise and about 100 metres up the track we saw a Bat-eared Fox cross in front of us, just as Gareth noticed a noise from the engine. “That doesn’t sound right”. He slowed down to have another listen when there was a clattering and a nasty acrid burning smell. At the same time the battery warning light came on. Shit. The fan belt had gone. We’d just replaced it before we set off for the CKGR as the old one was partially damaged. Now the new one had gone. Thank god we weren’t far from the camp site. Gingerly we backed down the narrow sunken path back into camp. The belt was completely shredded and the thin strips had wrapped around various parts of the engine. It took ages to get it all out. Fortunately we had a spare which we fitted. The alignment of the belt wheels was off so we used a trick that Gareth had learnt, fixing a small coin in behind one of the wheels to adjust the alignment. We’d done it earlier in the trip to resolve a squealing noise but when it was serviced in Livingstone they had obviously removed it. This may be why the belt had now given up and partly damaged the old one. With the coin in place and the alignment looking good we gave up on the idea of a morning game drive, had some breakfast and headed out of the park. One of our worries was that the water pump might have been damaged in the process of the belt failing, as it was making a slight noise. We had another spare belt but not a spare water pump and we really would be in trouble if that failed in the middle of the park.
As it was we had no problems getting back to Maun. Gareth even saw another Caracal en route. Sadly no leopards, but we hadn’t done too badly on the cat front. Angela is now holding out for the Kruger National Park in South Africa to get her leopard fix.
The sandy but event free track home
We stopped again at Drifters, where we had already booked dinner. We had a delicious meal on a table set out on the river front. The managers, Wayne and Sarah, were a lovely couple. They had met on safari, he as the guide and she as a tourist – how romantic! They now ran this place, with the help of their young son, appropriately named Leo. With his guiding experience, he gave us lots of advice on where to visit on the rest of our trip, and we also got some great tips, as well as a pack of Boerworst, from a really nice South African couple camping alongside us. We had a really relaxing weekend and caught up on some sleep. Now we are heading back into Maun again, to get the track rod replaced and with a couple of new problems to discuss with the mechanic…