En­coun­ter­ing Africa’s ma­jes­tic king

The Ver­weys get up close and per­sonal with Botswana’s lion pride

Land Rover AFRICA Magazine - - CONTENTS - Schalk Ver­wey

Schalk Ver­wey and his daugh­ter Leaan’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to snap the elu­sive lion pride of north­ern Botswana al­lowed them to cap­ture some amaz­ing wildlife footage.

With his daugh­ter’s overzeal­ous urge to pho­to­graph lions, af­ter the big cats had eluded her on pre­vi­ous trips, Land Rover owner Schalk Ver­wey and off­spring set off on an epic African ad­ven­ture in or­der to snap the king of Africa’s Big Five. Read on as we fol­low th­ese happy trav­ellers in this first in­stal­ment of a two-part fea­ture through north­ern Botswana.

Over the years we’ve been travers­ing the Botswana parks on a reg­u­lar ba­sis, in­clud­ing Mabuase­hube, Moremi and Chobe, cov­er­ing all the re­puted lion hotspots. One of th­ese was a ded­i­cated ‘lion trip’ through Mabuase­hube and the Kgala­gadi. Camp­ing at var­i­ous sites in Mabua, we took the wilder­ness trail from near Khid­ing pan to Nos­sob, stay­ing a num­ber of nights in Kgala­gadi and leav­ing for Namibia through the Mata-Mata bor­der post, all aimed at get­ting up close with the king of the Big Five.

On none of th­ese ex­cur­sions though, where my old­est daugh­ter, Leaan, ac­com­pa­nied us, could we man­age any lion sight­ings of note. So she nat­u­rally came to the con­clu­sion that she was jinxed some­how for vuil­baard (dirty beard) to keep evad­ing her so suc­cess­fully.

My daugh­ter was adamant to break the jinx. So, shortly af­ter re­turn­ing from a Kaokoland trip in July 2011, she started plan­ning for an­other trip to Botswana, this time mak­ing book­ings early enough to en­sure that she could pick camp­ing spots by rep­u­ta­tion (for lion en­coun­ters).

The trip was com­pletely planned and booked for Septem­ber 2012 – a month af­ter our re­turn from Kaokoland.

Leav­ing from Somerset West, we would travel via Red Sands at Ku­ru­man, en­ter Botswana at the McCarthy’s Rest bor­der post, camp at Mpay­athutlwa in Mabua for a cou­ple of nights, travel to North Gate in Moremi (overnight­ing at Tautona Lodge near Ghanzi on the way) and then on to Savuti in Chobe, turn­ing South again only af­ter a cou­ple of nights at Linyanti (just be­low the most south­ern point of the Caprivi pan­han­dle).

On the re­turn, we would stay at Maun Lodge, camp at Khubu Is­land for a cou­ple of nights, stay over at the Mokolodi re­serve close to Gaborone and Mazurka guest house at Uping­ton, be­fore tack­ling the fi­nal leg home.

Packed to the rafters

Ini­tially we would have taken a num­ber of ve­hi­cles, but due to the strain of the eco­nomic down­turn, our party dwin­dled to our one ve­hi­cle only – my daugh­ter de­ter­mined not to let her prepa­ra­tions go to waste, and the rest of us putting our trust in the Land Rover Defender TD5 (die Trok) to get us there and back safely. So it ended up be­ing my wife (Petro), my daugh­ter with her boyfriend (Charl) and my­self in a soli­tary Landy.

Hav­ing had a very dif­fi­cult time dur­ing the Kaokoland trip with the fully kit­ted off-road trailer, es­pe­cially from Rua­cana to Epupa along the Kunene river, we de­cided to kit the Landy for trav­el­ling with­out the trailer, quite a costly af­fair and a story in it­self. With this be­ing the first longish trip with­out the trailer and ev­ery­thing not com­pletely sorted out yet, the Landy was packed to the rafters and be­yond.

The leg from Somerset West to Ku­ru­man was rel­a­tively un­event­ful, ex­cept that we made the mis­take of de­vi­at­ing from the golden rule: plan your drive and drive your plan. Com­ing into Clan­william, we de­cided it would be a good idea to take the gravel road di­rectly to Calvinia. The go­ing was, how­ever, rel­a­tively slow, with a num­ber of road­works, from the Pieke­nier­skloof Pass to Citrus­dal, adding to the time lost.

The de­ci­sion to travel as far as Ku­ru­man on the first day proved to be a bad one. We ar­rived at Red Sands only a cou­ple of hours af­ter dark. The staff at Red Sands deserves a word of praise. I called ahead to in­form them of our late ar­rival, and they went out of their way to have some­one re­ceive us and get us to our bun­ga­low late at night.

The last stretch was par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult in the dark given the amount of traf­fic be­tween Kathu and Ku­ru­man. Adding to the con­di­tions were my re­place­ment Xenon HIDs, which I had in­stalled a few days be­fore leav­ing, act­ing up. The dim­ming unit was in­ter­mit­tent, re­sult­ing in the on­com­ing traf­fic (un­der­stand­ably) flash­ing an­grily or bluntly leav­ing their lights on bright. An­other golden rule bro­ken: never make any note­wor­thy changes to your ve­hi­cle days be­fore de­par­ture. Leave enough time to test any mod­i­fi­ca­tion prop­erly. For the re­main­der of the trip we made sure we weren’t driv­ing af­ter dark, and upon our re­turn the sup­plier gladly swapped the faulty dim­mer unit, which has been work­ing per­fectly ever since.

Red Sands was bliss. The bun­ga­lows are spa­cious and well looked af­ter, the sun­sets are fan­tas­tic and the restau­rant is first class, of­fer­ing an á la carte din­ner and a full break­fast.

En­ter­ing lion coun­try

We stocked up in Ku­ru­man and left for Mabuase­hube via Ho­tazel, en­ter­ing Botswana at McCarthy’s Rest bor­der post and top­ping up with diesel at Tshabong.

The start of the sand track about 30 km be­fore the Mabua gate still caught us some­what off-guard. It was not the thick­est sand, but the com­bi­na­tion of the heav­ily laden roof rack, the deep tracks and the speed at which I tack­led the first patch, made it rather dif­fi­cult. The slightly nar­rower wheel spac­ing of my Defender caused it to go into the nor­mal side-to-side wad­dling mo­tion. This time it was sub­stan­tially am­pli­fied by

The shower out­let had a drip-leak and was vis­ited by a lonely brown hyena, act­ing quite se­date and look­ing sheep­ish when pho­tographed.

the heavy roof rack, caus­ing the Defender to tog­gle be­tween over-steer and un­der-steer. When push­ing it, the max­i­mum safe speed in the deep tracks was around 40 km/h.

We set up camp early af­ter­noon at Mpay­athutlwa Camp­site. The ablu­tion fa­cil­i­ties at the gate didn’t have any run­ning wa­ter and were out of or­der. From the re­sponse from staff, who promptly pointed the women to a nearby long-drop, we re­alised the prob­lem was not likely to be fixed any time soon. The feed­back from them upon re­turn­ing from the long drop was of ut­ter dis­may, and this was not their first en­counter with a long drop.

Oth­er­wise, the camp­site is mag­nif­i­cent, al­though per­son­ally I’d choose Camp­site 2 if we were a big­ger party with a num­ber of ve­hi­cles. Camp­site 1, how­ever, boasts a panoramic view across the pan, with the added ad­van­tage of be­ing able to see wildlife ap­proach­ing the wa­ter­hole. Be­ing close enough, it pro­vided ex­cel­lent photo op­por­tu­ni­ties. The site still had good and clean run­ning wa­ter, and not­with­stand­ing the usual prob­lems with bees in sum­mer, the cold shower worked fine. The long drop fa­cil­ity is well struc­tured and quite clean; leav­ing the door slightly ajar and the win­dow open at the back also took care of the nasal sounds. The shower out­let had a drip-leak and was vis­ited by a lonely brown hyena early ev­ery morn­ing, act­ing quite se­date and look­ing sheep­ish when pho­tographed.

Shortly af­ter set­ting up camp, a cou­ple of passers-by stopped to en­thu­si­as­ti­cally warn us about the pre­vi­ous oc­cu­pants who were has­sled so badly by a pride of lions dur­ing the night, that they packed up and left a day early. This was mu­sic to my daugh­ter’s ears. For some mem­bers in the group, the lev­els of ex­cite­ment, and lev­els of con­cern, con­se­quently upped a notch.

We heard the pride of lions quite soon af­ter dark and we zipped into the tents when they got closer, but to my daugh­ter’s dis­ap­point­ment, they didn’t en­ter the camp. The sounds of vuil­baard and his fam­ily in close prox­im­ity were ter­rific.

The next morn­ing we were up early and saw the pride on the other side of the pan. In py­ja­mas and scram­bling for our cam­era kit, we rushed to the other side of the pan to try and in­ter­cept the pride be­fore en­ter­ing the bushy fringes. Alas, too late, but the drill was set for the fol­low­ing morn­ing.

The pat­tern re­peated the next night, but the pride was again re­luc­tant to en­ter the camp. The fol­low­ing morn­ing, we were up

early to see them me­an­der­ing to­wards the wa­ter­hole. Again in py­ja­mas we jumped in the Defender and kept abreast of the pride as it moved to­wards the wa­ter hole.

The cam­eras kept rolling, cap­tur­ing amaz­ing shots of the young ones in mock fights and the whole pride ex­cept for vuil­baard com­ing down to the wa­ter­hole to drink. We snapped the young ones play­ing and chas­ing each

We jumped in the Defender and kept abreast of the pride as it moved to­wards the wa­ter­hole.

other be­fore dis­ap­pear­ing again into the bushes on the other side of the pan.

The ex­pe­ri­ence was re­mark­able. Some de­scribe lions as a bit like Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe: absolutely gor­geous but spend­ing most of their time in bed. For nearly 20 hours a day, they sim­ply lounge around in the shade, twitch­ing their tails and yawn­ing. In fact, it is dif­fi­cult to see lions do­ing any­thing much, and many peo­ple are dis­ap­pointed with their first lion en­counter.

But what an ex­pe­ri­ence! We drove slowly back to camp, ev­ery­one lost in their own thoughts. Over cof­fee and rusks, we sat in semi-silent ex­cite­ment. For hours af­ter, ev­ery re­mark be­gan with the phrase: “Did you see when…?” What can one say, it all hap­pened as wished for, and Leaan’s jinx was bro­ken. Af­ter break­fast, we broke camp, packed up and headed for Tautona Lodge.

Schalk Ver­wey’s trusty Landy played a vi­tal role in get­ting his fam­ily the right kind of shots.

Leaan Ver­wey’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to get good wildlife shots led her to the lion pride.

Mpay­athutlwa Camp­site 1 lacks ameni­ties but of­fers amaz­ing vi­su­als of the pan and wildlife.

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