Encountering Africa’s majestic king
The Verweys get up close and personal with Botswana’s lion pride
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.