gatoratlarge

South Africa and Zambian Adventure: Tswalu and Kafue

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I've always believed it's best not to go on safari with a checklist mentality...I've set myself up for disappointment before by expecting to see a particular animal: a lion trekking safari in Matusadona NP: no lions seen...a rhino sanctuary in southern Zim: no rhinos spotted...it's best to let nature decide what to reveal to you because that's how it's going to be anyway, right?  My attitude is "a bad day on safari is better than a good day doing just about anything else!"  I think a lot of Safaritalkers would agree there's no wasted time spent in the African bush.  That being said, you certainly have hopes to see certain animals---call it a "goal"--- and on this particular choice of safari locations (thanks to being a faithful reader of SafariTalk), I became fascinated with the number of folks who had spotted an aardvark at Tswalu in the "green" Kalahari (mostly during the winter months) and the fact it had one  of my favorites, Black Rhino, as well as cheetah, lion and leopard...and even better, pangolin!!  I just had to go and see for myself!

 

i checked online availability at Tswalu and only found one set of dates in late September to take advantage of their buy four nights get one free deal...so I jumped on it.  After several attempts and multiple calls to my bank, my deposit finally made it past "security" and into the right hands at Tswalu...nothing was standing in my way and the long months of anticipation began...

 

Next I booked Devil's Pool in Livingstone to get that up close and personal view of the falls only available during the dry season.  Finally I reached out to Safaritalker Tony McKeith about visiting Zambia's Kafue NP which I've read a great deal about on this site.  He quickly arranged a "too short" but well worth it safari with 2X each at Kaingu Lodge as well as Musekese bush camp...it's hard to describe but I fell in love with Kafue.  In many ways it's the opposite of Tswalu.  Tswalu is a well managed game reserve.  A vast, strikingly beautiful reserve, fenced but so large as it is not something that particularly registers with you.  There is "the lion side" and then everything else.  I imagine they know exactly the numbers of certain species and their DNA such as lion, rhino and wild dogs...they raise sable for sale, I believe.  In fact I think this is a feature of a lot of reserves in South Africa.  What is not managed would be all the interesting species you can see like pangolins and aardvarks and aardwolves and brown hyena...my point is that Kafue has that totally wild, free range feel.  And very few camps to share the experience with...my only issue with Kafue is that it is intensely burned.  Virtually the entire park is burned at one time or another during the year.  In certain places it doesn't make for the best pictures with the charred landscapes.  I have to agree with Tyrone McKeith that it tends to create a mono landscape over time that favors the fire resistant grasses etc...around Musekese they have taken a different approach and I love the results.  The habitat appears more varied and it certainly makes for better pictures :)

 

My itinerary was as follows:

 

Sept 21 Depart US

Sept 22 overnight in Jo'burg

Sept 23 - 28 five nights at Tswalu

Sept 28 overnight in Jo'burg  visit to Kliptown in Soweto

Sept 29 over night in Livingstone, Vic Falls

Sept 30-Oct 1 2X at Kaingu Lodge in Kafue NP

Oct 2-4 2X at Musekese Camp in Kafue

Oct 4 Depart for US

 

To get to Kafue required flying to Lusaka and then an approx five hour drive to the park.  I didn't mind it.  I enjoyed seeing the countryside and the villages along the way.  The roads were good although its a bit tough getting through Lusaka.  Linda and Rick, part owners of Kaingu picked us up and we had great conversations all the way to the lodge.  But apparently next year Proflight will be offering a certain number of flights each week which will make the park more accessible to visitors.  I must say that Kafue had lived up to its reputation as a diverse park with the most antelope species but it was only on the ride back to Lusaka (still in the Kafue) through beautiful Miombo woodlands that we came across a galloping herd of sable.  They kept pace with the car for a long stretch running through the woodlands.  It was a memorable, beautiful sight!

 

So a visit to Tswalu typically begins from the Fireblade Hangar owned by the Oppenheimers.  It's plush and certainly not reminiscent of my 16 hour journey flying coach to get to South Africa!  You can have a meal, a smoothie, a drink...it's all included and the plane ride is about an hour and a half, shortened by wine and beer if you like to drink and fly.

 

As many of you know Tswalu is pricey, but there's no single supplement and each person or two person(s)  get(s) their own guide and tracker.  We were thrilled with Jonas as our tracker (I requested him based on recommendations here on Safaritalk) and our guide Moses.  The had a great rapport with each other and kept us laughing in between seeing all that Tswalu offers---the were skilled trackers, spotters, knew about the environment and wildlife we were seeing---they were as good of guides/trackers as I've had.  I'd highly recommend them!

 

The arrival and departure lounge has been taken over by an enormous sociable weaver nest---I love this place already :)

 

 

 

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They sort of choose an animal to try to look for on each outing:  twice we visited the habituated meerkat colony during our stay and I could spend hours watching them.  They are tireless and entertaining, trilling and digging for scorpions.  Taking turns as the sentinel always on watch duty for predators

 

 

 

 

 

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After our visit to the meerkat colony we continued on into a night game drive.  It's difficult to take pictures at night but on our first time spotlighting we came across two cheetah brothers, an ostrich that had decided to bed down for the night in the road, the rear ends of a couple of brown hyenas running off, a Cape fox and some nightjars... a nice first half day at Tswalu...

 

The next morning we headed to the large block of the reserve where two lion prides lay claim to the territory...I was stunned at the scenery.  The red of the Kalahari sand, the Korannaburg Mountains, and the seemingly endless horizon makes for one of the most beautiful landscapes in Africa.  And to see the pride of lions walking along the road following them through the bush was a remarkable experience.

 

 

 

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Tswalu has so many activities you can do, almost too many to list:  horseback riding, there's a spa, wine tastings, heli rides, boma dinners, you name it but I was pretty focused on the wildlife and eschewed most of those activities.  We did book the sleep out deck to spend a night star gazing...my impression was that this time of year, clear skies were all but guaranteed but that's not exactly how it turned out.  But I'm getting ahead of myself...first came the afternoon drive and I believe we were on the trail of the cheetahs but we came across the pack of wild dogs and were waylaid.  The pups were playing and the adults resting when some drama began to unfold.  A herd of buffalo began to move in to drink at the bore hole, one or two of the dogs held their ground if not downright taunted them.  This attracted a group of buffalo to pursue the dogs...there was a stare down, a chase, the dogs then turned the tables and took off after the stampeding buffaloes...it was all quite comical since the dogs really posed no danger to the herd.  There was the possibility the buffaloes might harm the pups, however...

 

 

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As night fell, clouds gathered.  Heat lightning lit up the horizons and thunder rolled.  I thought we were in the desert!  The sleep out deck is pretty cool sitting atop a dune ridge looking out over the plains below.  Needless to say the food is incredible and there's a nice fire in the pit.  My determination to sleep out under the stars (or clouds as fate would have it) would not be deterred by a little lightning and thunder...but then the drops began to fall and we moved the beds under the thatch...three times we did this! :D

 

So the starry night turned into a lightning show with a lot of fake outs with regard to rain---they call them dry storms.  I would say it was a bit buggier than I thought it would be but perhaps that was because of the unusual weather...We had no sooner settled in and were about to dig into dinner than our walkie talkie began to ring---or was it a phone?  At any rate, a leopard had been spotted near the stables and Moses and Jonas called to see if we wanted to see it---of course we did!!!  We raced like banshees to get there---I guessed that a leopard was one of the species most difficult to see at Tswalu.  When we arrived, we found the leopard napping in a camel thorn tree head sort of hidden, paws hanging down.

 

 

 

 

 

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The next morning we set out to find black rhino, in particular, a relaxed mother and calf rather than a couple grumpier ones recently encountered...along the way we crested a dune ridge and watched an enormous herd of eland (150?) on the run.  It's an impressive scene for sure.  In the meantime, there was a health emergency with one of the trackers in another vehicle so we took on two extra passengers as the guide attended to the emergency.  The rhinos were fantastic---the Black Rhino in particular is my favorite.  The mother gave us a mock charge just so we'd keep our distance and we had a nice view as they browsed the scrub and then laid down for a nap.  Not before the baby implored its mom to get up :D

 

 

 

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The afternoon game drive sent us to the lion side to find the two black maned Kalahari lion males that dominate the two prides...we found them lazing about...checking to see if the females were in heat.  In other words, being lions...

 

 

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The next morning we set out to get our pangolin! :D

 

I have to hand it to Jonas our tracker and Moses our guide.  They found the fresh tracks of a pangolin in the soft Kalahari sand and we got out of the land rover and began following its rambling, circling patterns into the bush.....an agitated wildebeest letting out a periodic snort of disapproval with our presence.  For an hour we followed the tracks---mind you, I was looking at the ground but to the untrained eye it looked like a car wreck of antelope tracks of all shapes and sizes...how they are able to read the bush so well like a road map is one of those impressive and amazing things about Africans... we found the hole it had dug to nap during the heat of the day covered in fresh dirt....we would return that night to check on him/her...

 

I may be getting my days confused but we set out to find White Rhino on the lion side and found three trotting about in thick bush but I was unable to get a clear picture of them...they rarely see vehicles I was told and often ran from the land rover...on our way back to camp we came across a long black snake in the road.  Moses identified it as a mole snake.  it scooted off into the bush and Jonas jumped down from his spotter's chair to investigate.  They thought it moved rather slowly and as Jonas walked back to the vehicle another snake (a cape cobra) wriggled into the bush in the opposite direction.  This gave everyone a start as Jonas likely jumped down very close to the cobra.  They figured that the cobra had bitten the mole snake and had planned to eat it as they prey on other snakes...yikes!  We also came across a napping owl which had taken liberties with a sociable weavers' nest...

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The afternoon game drive we set out to find cheetahs...we found the two cheetah brothers working the dune ridge looking for potential prey.  As with so much of Tswalu, it sets up for spectacular silhouettes   against the backdrop of the Kalahari skies.  It is a stunning environment.  Later we searched some thick bush for a leopard unsuccessfully though it's tracks crossed the trackers' tracks a couple of times...a game of cat and mouse...

 

 

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I love the bendy owl @gatoratlarge and what a contrasting trip!

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@gatoratlarge Tswalu looks like an amazing experience, one for my bucket list.

 

The photo of the reclining owl is priceless!

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@gatoratlarge...your sleep out home looks great!  Sorry about the lack of stars, but at least you did have some excitement weather-wise.

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We returned to the pangolin hole at dusk prepared to wait.  We cut the engine and stayed quiet.  Jonas exited the land rover and quietly approached the hole when he heard scratching---the pangolin was emerging!!!  Now a pangolin can do a lot of things...it can come out just after dark, or it can decide it's perfectly comfortable in there and sleep through the night...so we waited until the pangolin was good and out of his hole before we risked turning on a light.  Moses and Jonas did not see that it had been tagged previously and so alerted the pangolin research team so soon we were joined by an expert complete with a weight scale and various measuring devices.  It turns out the pangolin had been marked before but had not been seen in two years.  Such an amazing creature and what a privilege to see in the wild!  I was feeling quite lucky!

 

 

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Great to have another report from Tswalu. We were there in September 2015 and loved it. Sadly, we learned the wild dog pack we had seen there was wiped out by distemper shortly thereafter.  I was wondering — hoping — that they would  reintroduce them, and it appears they have. My fingers will remain crossed for their success. 

 

The starry skies at Tswalu were unlike anything I had seen before — or since. I’m sorry the clouds rolled in for your sleep-out, but I hope you at least had some clear night skies on your other nights?

 

I’m glad the female black rhino and her calf are still prospering. The white rhinos appear to have remained just as skittish as they were two years ago.  I’m used to the blacks being the grumpier and more uptight of the two species!  

 

There’s always something to see at Tswalu, but those red sands, broad skies, and the quiet solitude offer plenty enough even when things are slow. 

 

Cant wait to hear about the rest of your trip. 

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And, oh my gosh, as I was writing my post, you were writing yours. You got a pangolin. Wow!  We were not so fortunate, but this just gives me added incentive to go back!  What a great sighting. Congratulations. 

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Moses and Jonas would stop at nothing to try and spot wildlife, sometimes scaling up small hills or mountains to scan the bush with binocs.  I'm already losing track of the days but I believe the next morning we went back to the meerkat colony which was hard to get enough of...the first visit we saw them at the close of the day.  Gathering at the den, cuddling and grooming each other.  This time we saw them after emerging from the den, hungry and spreading out in all directions churring and frantically digging for grubs and scorpions.  I've lost a little track of my days but the bottom line is that we booked five nights and we were facing our last afternoon/evening game drive and still no aardvark.  I had kidded with the staff that if they could find an active aardvark hole or den, they could set up a cot and I'd wait it out but the last night drive, temps chilly, we had added another cape fox and a flap necked chameleon to our list of sightings but we were striking out on aardvark.  I was determined, but I wasn't sure if my travel mate was as committed lol.  Long drives in the night in the cold seemed not very appealing at this point.  So off we set on the last afternoon drive about 4:30P,  Aardvarks are frequently seen at Tswalu in the winter months cheating the last rays of sunlight as the night time temps plunge,  Otherwise, an aardvark is nocturnal and extremely difficult to lay eyes on...in fact, some safari guides have spent decades in the bush, seen evidence of aardvark activity all around but never actually spotted one...so this was the last chance and we needed to be prepared to go deep into the night if necessary and I was :) but it was with elation that I can report we had been searching for about 20 minutes before Moses and Jonas spotted that great domed back scurrying around in broad daylight!  They are particularly skittish, so we killed the engine and used our downwind position and various bush cover to sneak ever closer to this amazing animal.  We spent about 45 minutes to an hour watching it dig for food, sniff the air, at some point it became aware of our presence but hadn't made visual contact.  We were tolerated for a good while until we weren't and in a quick hurry scuttled off .  We cracked open our sundowners and laughed and joked with Jonas and Moses....we didn't need to see another thing.  Total satisfaction!

 

 

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And a couple videos---sorry in advance for the shaky camera work but I was a bit out of breath...Behold the AArdvark:

 

 

 

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woo hoo an Aardvark!

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Outstanding trip report @gatoratlarge!      And you must have set a record with your rapid-fire installments.    Thanks for the video clips in your TR.

 

You had good luck with your strategy of "taking things as they come" - Pangolin, Aardvark and more.  

 

Tswalu is firmly on my bucket list thanks to you and other Safaritalkers.

 

Question:    do they offer good chances of seeing Honey Badger?    Also - I noticed you mentioned Brown Hyenas are present at Tswalu - are they seen regularly?

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@offshorebirder LOL yes I just decided I'd power through the trip report although I'm not even done with Tswalu yet---one more game drive for the last installment before Livingstone and Kafue :D

 

The answer is you have a good chance of seeing brown hyena at Tswalu---we saw them just briefly however and they ran off so no pictures from me.  You also have very good chances to see bat eared fox which we saw five during our stay; we saw a solo Cape fox twice; black backed jackals; springhares; a couple porcupines; aardwolf can be seen but I didn't see any on this trip. As for the honey badger, I don't think it is commonly seen there.  I asked my guide that question and he had been guiding for eight months in Tswalu and I don't think he saw any---if he did it was only one so I'd have to say you'd be very lucky if you saw a honey badger at Tswalu.  I've only seen them once and there were two trotting along near Kings Pool Camp in Botswana.  Not quick enough to get a picture of them then either...between Tswalu and Kafue I counted 55 species of mammals we saw.

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Aardvark and Pangolin - great stuff!

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@gatoratlarge As you know it was a great pleasure to finally meet you in person. I was so happy to spend a full 10 days there and take advantage of the fact that they even gave the last two days for free. I did see aardwolf,brown hyena. and meerkats. I had several sightings of bat eared foxes,cape foxes,  as well as meerkats.

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@optig it was great to meet you in person and look forward to Omo and Zakouma!  Good times ahead!

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The last morning at Tswalu I couldn't resist trying to fit in one more game drive.  There was only about a hour or so before breakfast and then the drive to the airstrip but I'm glad we did.  We tracked four sub adult cheetahs and they had just killed a small or baby oryx.  A lone jackal hung around for scraps...a great last memory of such a special and beautiful area.  I heard that the Oppenheimers hope to continue to enlarge the reserve to Kruger-size...I hope they are successful.

 

 

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Flights out of Jo'burg continuing on to Livingstone or Vic Falls did not coordinate with the return from Tswalu so we had an overnight in Joburg---you'd think there'd be an afternoon flight to the falls but that's not the case.  We filled in the time with a couple hour tour of Soweto and Kliptown specifically.  Kliptown is especially impoverished even having to pirate electricity from the nearby train tracks...still, it was a joyful time and the children sing coming home from school and folks seem relatively happy.   Ilan Ossendryver is a South African photo journalist and he offers tours of Soweto and other specialized tours around Jo'Burg.  He's done a lot of volunteer work in Kliptown and seems well known in the community.  As an aside, his son started the app Latest Sightings for Kruger and it has spread all over.  At any rate, it was a productive and educational few hours...

 

 

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