Our first day was a beautiful one, with large puffy clouds dotting the sky throughout the day, while never quite becoming ominous enough to make us worry about rain. The game was hiding from us, unfortunately – likely hiding and exhausted after all the excitement of last week.
Nevertheless, the birds were still out in force, and we found white storks and a white-backed vulture en route to the trail, and a black shouldered kite, multiple PCGs, and both black and red-crested korhaans while en route to Swartbas. As for animals themselves, we only managed to find gemsbok and steenbok this first day, but had high hopes for what the rest of the trail would bring us.
On arrival at camp, I had a look around to see if there was any more lion activity since we’d been here last, but from the looks of things the lions had not returned, and the rains that had hit the camp in our absence had washed away all signs of their passing. However, we did manage to find some tracks of a Brown Hyena, which had wandered through the night before our arrival, checking out the camp before wandering away west to continue on the patrol of its territory.
As the sun dipped towars the horizon, the wind picked up and a thick layer of cloud rolled in. We kept a wary eye on the clouds and worked quickly to produce dinner, but we were lucky that the rain held until we were in bed.
Once that happened, however, the skies opened up, and it rained. And it rained. And it rained.
It wasn’t a severe downpour,. But rather a constant steady rain, the likes of which I’ve not before seen in the Kalahari. It started raining at around 2am, and didn’t cease until 4pm, shortly after we had arrived at the next camp.
The second day, aside from being quite damp and cool, was actually quite good for sightings. Rain is wonderful for predators – the cooler weather means they are active longer, and the rain dampens both their smell and the sound of their approach, meaning that all manor of predators are able to sneak up on their prey much more easily then during dry weather.
We broke camp at Swartbas a little later then planned – in the hopes the rain would break and our tents could dry before we left – and headed over to Eileen’s pan for tea. This was the first time that I’ve seen actual standing water sitting in the pan, and it was an impressive sight to show my guests as we sat in our trucks drinking coffee and watching a group of red hartebeest frolic and play in the rain, chasing each other back and forth across the pan quite near to our convoy.
We continued on past the pan, and were rewarded for tolerating the dampness of the day, finding a male cheetah that ran along beside our vehicles for a bit, before turning and walking back around behind us and over the dunes. Full credit for this sighting goes to my guests, one of whom spotted only the briefest of silhouettes on top of a dune which I missed completely, before he ran down into the valley we were driving along. We also spotted a steenbok in the same valley, just on the opposite side of the road from the cheetah, and we think we may have accidentally spoilt his hunt! Sadly, this guy was a little skittish, and spent most of the time hiding behind some bushes from my position in the front, so while my guests were able to get some excellent pictures, I wasn’t able to capture any.
After the cheetah disappeared behind us and we moved on, we decided to tackle Bertha, the largest, softest, most s-curved dune on the trail. It’s a dune we occasionally skip in very hot weather, as the softness of the sand makes it nearly impossible to concur, even for the most powerful 4x4 vehicles. However, with the cool temperature and fairly good soaking the dune was getting from the constant rain, we managed to set a record that will likely stand for quite some time: of all 5 vehicles, all but one made it up on their first time – and the one that missed made it easily on their second! Considering this dune is the only one the trail with an “escape route” that goes around t due to the difficulty of the climb, this is an amazing achievement. I’d love to credit the achievement to the skill and excellent advice of the guide, but the weather probably had more to do with it.
We pulled into camp with the rain still going strong, surrounded by thick rainclouds and no sign of releaf anywhere on the horizon. So, we did what every camper knows is the surest way of getting rain to stop in a hurry: we set up every tarpaulin we had.
Sure enough, the rain stopped not 30 minutes later, ending a 14 hour stretch of unbroken showers, and leaving Rosyntjiebos a maze of tent poles, rope, and bungee cord.
Camp that night was remarkably peaceful and quiet. The rain held off all night, and we enjoyed a respite from the constant rain, sitting around a bonfire (started by using the last dry bag of wood we possessed) and trying to spot stars that managed to peek between the clouds (we only spotted 6).
Our third day dawned cool and quite overcast, but we were mostly just happy that it dawned dry. The rain from the day before had washed away all signs of tracks prior to our arrival, and we didn’t find any new ones that had come through camp in the evening. So we set off on our third day of adventure towards Witgat.
Our third day’s sightings were incredible, and seemed as though trying to make up for the rather miserable day in the rain we had experienced. Bird life included a rock kestrel, kori bustards, 2 adult bateleurs and one juvenile, and more pale chanting goshawks you could shake a stick at!
But of these bird sightings, two stood out as truly remarkable. First, we found two pale chanting goshawks mobbing and divebombing a tawny eagle, which is the first time I’ve seen a bird as large as a PCG actually doing the mobbing, rather then being mobbed by smaller birds. It was an amazing sighting, and only 75 meters off of the road, affording us an excellent view of the tawny trying to duck into the braches of a tree every time the goshawks came screaming down at it out of the sky.
The second amazing sighting was spotting a pair of secretary birds and a juvenile PCG following a honey badger along the dunes. This was the first time I’ve ever seen secretary birds following a badger around – even the first time I’ve heard of such a thing happening! The PCGs and jackals are well known to follow the badgers around in the hopes of snatching up an easy meal that the badger digs up but fails to catch, but I didn’t expect secretary birds to follow the same behaviour! Another amazing sighting that, unfortunately, happened too fast for me to get my camera ready before the birds and the badger made it up and over the crest of a nearby dune.
Beyond the bird life, we also saw plenty of steenbok and gemsbok, found a fresh set of African wild cat prints at our lunch site, and a black backed jackal dashed off along a dune as we came roaring over the top.
We pulled into Witgat camp and immediately turned the area into a field of drying items, as we all aired out those items of ours which were still damp from the rains our second day. I took an extra long walk around to make sure that the lion pride which had decided to claim their camp as their own were nowhere around, and saw no clear signs of them – of course, the rains had washed away all signs of everything that had been in the camp, so all I could be sure of was that they hadn’t been around earlier that day!
We enjoyed about an hour of sun in the camp until the thick grey clouds rolled in for a second time, but we decided to live dangerously and left the tarps in our vehicles. On our last night, mother nature decided to play games with us, raining every so often, but just long and hard enough to send us scurrying for cover before stopping.
The fourth day dawned with a bright blue sky overhead – our first day without a single cloud in the sky! We started by heading down to the waterhole, and found some fresh tracks – lions from before the rain, and brown hyena after the rain let up! We were quite excited by this finding, even though we hadn’t seen the animals themselves, as the prints were wonderfully fresh and clear thanks to the damp sand.
Our final day was also quite good for sightings as we made our way to the end of the trail, spotting plenty of steenboks, kori bustards, PCGs, and gemsbok, as well as a rock kestrel, tawny eagle, 2 black-backed jackals, ostrich, and the tracks of an African wild cat.
All in all, a truly excellent trail!
I’ll be adding pictures next week – I’m a bit behind in my photoshopping! Off on another trail tomorrow – until next time!
"...I can believe things that are true and things that aren't true and I can believe things where nobody knows if they're true or not..." - Neil Gaiman (American Gods)
Miros Photography on Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/gbfootprints/