The plan was finalized and I found some inexpensive tickets on South African Airways from New York (JFK) to Jo’burg (JNB). Unfortunately, the deal was not as good for the JNB to Upington leg, but with only one airline serving Upington and only 2 flights there per day, what can one do? The connection in JNB was suppose to be tight, but not terrible – 3 hours. Unfortunately, storms in both Africa and New York delayed our take-off and arrival times by 1 ½ hours. I literally pushed through immigration/customs and ran to my gate. As Upington is served by SA Airlink, one must re-check bags at the domestic check-in kiosk, which is not close to the international baggage claim/customs exit. This haul while running with camera gear and luggage was painful, but at least it increased chances that the luggage made it to Upington.
I did make the flight and slept until arrival at Upington. Several things struck me upon arrival:
· Amazingly long runway for a small airport – I researched this when I got home. At 16,076 feet in length, it’s the 7th longest runway in the world. One source said Upington Airport's runway was built to accommodate a Boeing 747 with a full load of passengers, cargo and fuel, so that it could take off for Europe without having to stop along the way. Another source said it was an alternate emergency landing site for the U.S. space shuttle. I’m not really sure why it was so long but it was.
· The next amazing thing about Upington is the solar power tower. On approaching the airport, I saw this extremely bright light on a tower with a weird luminosity in the sky around it. In talking to a fellow passenger, I learned that this is the Khi Solar One power station.This solar field is made of more than 4,000 heliostats, totaling up to 576,800 m2 (6,209,000 sq ft) of mirror surface, focusing solar energy on a boiler located on top a centralized 205-metre-high (673 ft) tower. Impressive.
· Last, but certainly not least, I was amazed at how nice, modern and clean the terminal was. It was hard to believe that this airport was built for just a few flights a day.
My friend, Andrew, along with the others of our group, Richard and Josh, were waiting for me upon arrival and having drinks and lunch when I arrived mid-day. We immediately hit the road for the several hour drive up to the park entrance at Twee Rivieren.
Andrew had book all of our lodging and campsites and our final plans were as follows:
· Feb 11 - 12 Twee Rivieren – 2 room Chalet
· Feb 13 – 17 Mata Mata – Camping/tents
· Feb 18 – 21 Nossob – Camping/Tents
· Feb 22/ 23 Twee Rivieren – 2 room Chalet
· Feb 24 – morning photography, then to Upington for flight home
The mix of camping and chalets may confuse some. The logic was pretty simple. Upon arrival, we were going to be too tired to set up tents and we would also be eager to have a few sightings – so chalet the first night or two. Once we were more into the Kalahari, we would have more time and we wanted the more rustic and lower cost option of camping. More on that later. On the last days, it would be nice having a chalet to organize gear and relax before departure.
Checking into the park was fairly quick as I had emailed Andrew my Wild pass and passport info and he had the required paperwork for the rest of the group also. Within a half hour of arrival, we were unloading at our chalet for night one. Around 4 pm, we headed out for the first game drive. Not a particularly eventful set of sightings, but enough to let us know that the future was bright!