THE KALAHARI : TSWALU PART 1
Early in the morning we headed to ‘Fireblade’, the Oppenheimer private airport terminal at Johannesburg airport. We were flying to Tswalu, in the North Cape area of the Kalahari Desert. Tswalu is a 100,000 hectare reserve now owned by the Oppenheimer family who are strongly committed to conservation. We saw photos of this area after Steven Boler bought dozens of farms to create the reserve, leaving right of first refusal to Nicky Oppenheimer in his will. Farming had totally devastated the fragile arid land, a story we Australians could relate to - desert lands cannot sustain intensive farming.
The Oppenheimers now own and operate the reserve. Tswalu means a new beginning. They allowed the land to regenerate and brought in many thousands of animals, including critically endangered animals such as the black-maned Kalahari lion. They did not introduce elephants, which could destroy the fragile ecosystem.
This view shows the Korannaberg Mountains across a plain of now flourishing desert vegetation.
We flew to Tswalu on their luxurious private jet with a couple of skilled lady pilots, one of whom had the longest eyelash extensions I have ever seen. Here is a travel tip which will no doubt have the men rolling their eyes, so avert your eyes, men, while I tell the ladies!
My daughter gave me this tip, and it works. If you don't have lovely long eyelashes and you care about this (as I do) get eyelash extensions before you go on a trip of this nature. Not ridiculously long ones, but natural length. Why? Because putting mascara on in a dark tent before dawn is very difficult, and if you get caught in a rain shower or splashed in a boat, you will not have panda eyes. If you have eyelash extensions, you can get up and go without all the bother, and look half decent in any weather. Just saying.
My Sherpa is looking pretty serious. The big camera backpack got its own seat and seatbelt!
We were met by our guides Kyle and Fez at Tswalu airport under a thatched, open-sided structure which was heavy with sparrow weaver nests. They made us very welcome and drove us to the Motse Camp, a series of thatched roofed bungalows which blended into their environment.
Our family bungalow was very spacious and well appointed, with two bedrooms which had ensuite bathrooms, separated by a kitchen and living room complete with a fireplace. It gets seriously cold in the Kalahari at night.
The views from the windows took in the open plain and grazing animals such as these kudu. It was a joy to look out of the window, and totally private for each of the bungalows. We freshened up before heading back to the main lodge to have lunch in the outside dining area
The first thing that caught our eye was the cutest little mouse in a tree! Immediately, lunch was forgotten and the photographers were taking photos!
It turned out later that this was actually a black-tailed tree rat – so tiny, cute and fluffy that I never imagined it was a rat. They rarely come out in the daytime but sometimes in winter they emerge during the day. We were very lucky!
On our first evening we had the rare privilege of seeing the highly endangered pangolin. I don’t usually say where we see rare and endangered animals which are poached because of an ignorant notion that their scales, blood and body parts are medicinal. However, the security at Tswalu was exceptional and I hope that their protected pangolins flourish.
We walked in to see the pangolin, which I found difficult with a gammy knee. I struggled to hand-hold Big Bertha and the 1DX Mk II. In the end our daughter took pity on me, and took some shots for me with my gear. The pangolin was hiding in the grass under a tree, and we did not disturb it, so all these photos only feature bits of the pangolin!
It is hard to understand how 14 tons – 36,000 tiny curled up dead pangolin bodies - could have been found in a container in Singapore, allegedly coming from Nigeria and bound for Vietnam, which is the second largest consumer of pangolin parts after China. This happened previously in Malaysian Borneo – 33 tons! In total, 47 tons in 2019 alone. How can these poor little creatures survive?
I have heard to my utter disgust from a friend who has many business contacts in Vietnam and speaks fluent Vietnamese, that Vietnamese known to them declare, with smiles like naughty children, that they know rhino horn and pangolin scales are not really effective as cures, but buying them proves how wealthy they are.
In other words, it is a status symbol for the rich - wiping out an entire species so they can flaunt their wealth.
I have also been told that ground up rhino horn is mixed with cocaine for the same reason – to prove you can afford it. How utterly repugnant! So much for people in the western world who prate that they respect the ancient customs of other cultures. This is not an ancient custom, it is an evil expression of materialism.
That night, before dinner, we chatted in the main hall with other guests on couches in front of the warm fire.
Most camps have shops with suitable gear, so before dinner I went and bought a nice warm Tswalu jacket! The quality was excellent and it served me very well. The Kalahari desert is freezing at night even in summer, but this was winter and minus temperatures were the rule as we set out in an open vehicle before dawn.
I had a grizzle about our bungalow being the second furthest away from the main lodge. We had to negotiate a long, rough brick path which was ill-lit at night to get to the dining area. I was having enough trouble walking without that! We had booked a year ago and asked for quarters close to the main lodge way back then - I was not a happy decrepit camper.
They said everything else was booked out - but did provide me with a wheelchair which my long-suffering family members pushed back and forth to the main lodge. To be fair, the staff offered to push it for us but we found it quicker and easier to do it ourselves.
We enjoyed a delicious dinner in the dining room, accompanied by wines chosen in the cellar.
I tried a warthog schnitzel which was very tasty - the food was excellent. I was presented with a delicious chocolate cake for my birthday which we shared with the other guests. It was a lovely, thoughtful gesture - the service at Tswalu was extremely good, friendly, attentive and unobtrusive. We made friends with people here, and are still in touch. I would happily go back to Tswalu.
When we got back to our lodge we quickly prepared for bed, knowing that we would be getting up very early and going out before dawn the next morning. It was really comfortable, with reverse cycle air-conditioning to take the chill off the air, and we had a lovely warm fire lit for us in the sitting-room. The wood burned exceptionally well, being so dry in the desert climate.
Next morning early, we were treated to a breakfast tray in our quarters, which was most welcome and meant I didn’t have to hobble back and forth to the main lodge. There was a small postern gate in the wall around the lodges near us, so Kyle brought the jeep around to it. Everyone was most attentive and helpful in view of my inability to get around easily. Off we went to see the meerkats at dawn. We traversed open bushland, where the dew on the grass was lit golden by the rising sun.
I was devastated to learn that we would be getting out of the vehicle to walk to the meerkats! It wasn’t all that far and I could make it with some help to carry my heavy gear, but I had given my tripod and gimbal to Gerry to look after in the belief that I could take photos with the heavy lens resting on a beanbag on the side of the vehicle!
My husband took the photo above. I was almost in tears because I cannot hand hold the camera and lens, having had a stroke ten years ago. Kyle saved the day with an ingenious bit of improvisation. Off he went and scouted around, finding an oryx horn that was just the right length. The tip fitted neatly into the hole in the gimbal mount which was still on my lens.
So there I was, the decrepit traveller, with an oryx horn monopod, swaddled in every layer possible plus a rug, because it was seriously COLD - nights below 0 degrees centigrade in winter. At least I could now take photos - what a relief!
The meerkat lookouts made sure it was safe.
I crouched on the little stool they had procured because I can’t get down on the ground or stand for long periods. I was so grateful to Kyle and Fez, who took turns holding the oryx horn to steady it. (Although I must admit at times their hands would wobble, and I had to fight to keep the camera and lens still enough to get good images!)
Kyle has a gun because although every precaution is taken to ensure the area is safe, it is possible that predators might happen by. In that case a gun would be an absolute last resort to keep everyone safe. Thankfully, it wasn’t necessary.
Finally, I was taking photos of the animal I had come to Tswalu to see in the wild.
We were photographing with the rising sun behind us, giving great light as the tiny and industrious little meerkats began emerging from their burrows. Our daughter lay down on the ground and got a great low angle. I wish I was that mobile! (Taken by her father.)
These meerkats are habituated to humans and tolerated us taking photos. They checked out their surroundings to make sure no predators were about. If they saw a hawk, eagle, snake or jackal, the lookout would give a warning call, and all the meerkats would disappear into their burrows in an instant. My husband took the photo below.
Others assiduously cleaned the burrow entrances, sending sand flying as they had a good tidy-up, like any housewife with her broom on the front stoop!
It was as well that we concentrated on getting good photos, because all of a sudden, as if at a signal we didn’t hear, the meerkats stopped their cleaning, looked up, then suddenly scampered off like lightning into the bush to look for a grub or tasty scorpion. Voracious little hunters, they also eat insects, lizards, small rodents, birds, and fruit.
We packed up our bits and pieces and headed back to the vehicle. My significant birthday trip was proving eventful, to say the least - but in spite of all, I did have some good photos of the little cuties I had come to the Kalahari to see. Their family structure is very close, with each member acting to protect the rest of the 'gang', as they are called. Only the alpha pair are allowed to breed, and any other female which becomes pregnant is ejected from the group by the alpha female. It is brutal but effective, ensuring their survival.
Guides always look for an open space to take time out, so that they can be sure there are no lurking dangers to their guests. We stopped for a coffee and to stretch our legs at a waterhole with a cleared area around it.
My husband took a photo of African ground squirrels nearby, nicely focussed on the one further away.
After a welcome break and toilet stop behind a bush, we all got back into the vehicle and headed off back to the lodge for lunch. On the way we passed a beautiful sable antelope checking over its shoulder to make sure it is safe. They have been endangered in the past, but are now coming back from the brink.
Lunch was eaten hastily in order to lie down for a nap. When you get up that early you take every opportunity to catch up on lost sleep! Plunge pools and the like are lost on us - we are so busy taking photos that all we ask of the camp is a comfy bed, decent lighting for when you get up in the dark, great guides and good food!
Oh, and a coffee first thing in the morning, or I am liable to look like this:
Animals generally sleep in the middle of the day, so the best time to see them moving about is morning or evening. As we set off on the evening game drive, a few warthogs posed up, which is very rare!
In general you see a rear view of them scampering off into the bush, up tails all, but this time they gave us a good opportunity to take photographs and see their strange, heavy heads with a fine set of curling moustaches and curving tusks.
Further along, a giraffe demonstrated how tall he was next to a tree – perfectly designed to graze on their taller branches.
We headed along the red sand road towards the dark blue hills, ready for more adventures, which I will relate in my next post.