Patricia Ann Byrne
3 March 2021
In August 2016, three ladies leave Stellenbosch in “Stella” (Toyota Hilux double cab) destination Brandvlei. Stella was equipped with a roof tent, a long-range diesel tank and a special large water tank (we calculated 2 litres p.p.p.d and had 42 litres for 1 week, refilling our water at each fuel stop); 1 two-man tent (mine) for Claire & I. Sally slept in the roof tent. Roof rack had 2 spare tyres, 2 gas tanks, 2 filled diesel jerry cans, a fold up table, spade, sand tracks, firewood (compressed wood chip logs) etc. tied down with webbing. Inside the cargo hold at the back went the luggage, books, compressor, tent, sleeping bags, the food box, medical box etc. On the front of “Stella” was the high lift jack and a snatch rope. We hired a Satellite phone (for emergency use) and each took a month’s leave for the adventure.
From Brandvlei to Upington, onto Twee Riveren and we were finally in the Kalahari Transfonteer Park. The Kalahari is breath-taking in its vastness and terrain. Initially we travelled in convey with another vehicle, but on day 3 the decision was taken to travel solo. We appreciated the stillness of the bush, falling asleep to hyaena whooping in the distance and then waking up to bird song. The other travellers were a noisy lot! Very quickly the city life faded completely as we were surrounded by a huge herd of springbok with their delicate ballerina feet and exquisite markings. Males were rutting to attract the females and sire the next generation. We dug a hole for the cooking fire and when finished we buried all evidence leaving our campsite virginal. My binoculars were a prized item as I began identifying bird species with the bird book. There were many things to enjoy; I appreciated the glorious pink sunrises, gentle breezes, lion grass undulating in the wind. Drinking the morning coffee I watched a pair of Hornbills trying to remove the windscreen wipers (perhaps they thought them to be edible worms?). A frequent camp visitor was the stunning red breasted shrike which hoped around our feet looking for insects.
We trundled along at a leisurely pace. Deflating the tyres to drive on soft sand and then inflating the tyres when the road improved did mean we travelled slowly. I soon became proficient at using the compressor. When we drove for more than 8 hours, we made our camp a two-night stay. The northern Kalahari Game Reserve has huge expanses of nothing. Our stops had lovely names: Piper Pan; Khanye, Jwaneng, Xaxa; Mabuashaupe; Passage Pan; Rakops Oasis; Leopard Pan; Deception Valley; etc. August wasn’t the best time of year for animal viewing but it did mean we rarely saw any other vehicles or people.
We split tasks. I was the designated driver. Claire (Belgian) cooked our dinners and was an excellent camp chef. Sally prepared the daily lunch box (eaten on the roadside). I was the strongest physically, so I set up camp, erected the roof tent, started the fire, climbed onto the roof rack unloaded the gas tank, the table etc. Claire and I put up the two-man tent and she helped with the pack up the next day. Our fold up little green square wash bucket was also used to attract the birds as we put precious water in it for them. We got used to living with clean dirt (our clothes and hair).
There were many highlights. Kubu Island was up there as a 5 star experience. What a sacred spiritual place. Tears coursed down my cheeks in unstoppable rivulets when witnessing the beauty and feeling the poignancy of this place. We camped underneath one of the huge baobabs. I erected our small tent under a Star African Chestnut with its velvety pods and little black seeds which looked ticks. It happened to be full moon whilst we were there, and the Sowa salt pan was shimmering. I felt tender and vulnerable embracing Kubu Island and its immenseness.
The next day we put in 124 litres of diesel at Letlagang and did a much-needed grocery shop. Destination that evening – Makgadigadi. Driving was very slow with lousy roads on soft, soft sand. I learnt to drive with just my finger tips caressing the steering wheel. If I gripped the wheel and the tyres encountered a tree root, I would go careering off into the vegetation. There was soft dung on the road and yet we failed to see the elusive elephants responsible for these steaming deposits.
We each had a special animal that we hoped to find. Mine was the brown backed shaggy coated hyaena. A shy, solitary animal (not a pack animal) and normally only viewed at night. An extraordinary moment was one night we were sitting silently around the campfire with our cups of cocoa, staring into the embers and from stage right the brown backed hyaena came ambling slowly past us illuminated clearly by the firelight. It was carrying the remains of a small buck in its jaws and stopped for a few seconds to look at us. Nobody spoke. Nobody whispered. I believe we all held our breath. Such a beholding which I coined as a visitation.
It was our last night in the bush as the next day we travelled to Maun and from there we would go into the Okavango Delta. I woke to a pair of greater kestrels singing in a tree above our tent. We stopped at Njuca Hills for a proper shower in the ablutions with hot water (solar panels). Close by we saw Kudu females nibbling sweet grass. On the game drive we then saw giraffe, elephant, water buck and finally at the Bateti River (which had water for the first time in 16 years) we saw a huge herd of elephant. It was picture perfect. With an abundance of choice, it was difficult choosing our next camping site. Johan Steyn arrived with all his film equipment in a dilapidated Landrover (he was busy making a documentary on the extraordinary flooding of the Bateti River), Johan shared how he witnessed a 5 ft crocodile which waited for the water to fill the big pool and then ate his offspring (other crocodiles).
Flying into the Okovango Delta in a light aircraft did mean that Sally needed to buy a tent. We bought food for 5 days and hired 3 makoros (1 for luggage); 1 for Sally with Taba the licensed guide; 1 for Claire and I. Flying into the Delta is exhilarating. Perfect game viewing conditions under a bowl of a big blue sky. When we landed the guides were waiting and took us to the makoros. After a pleasant three hours being gently poled, we camped on a raised knoll. Taba went fishing and came back with dinner for us to cook over the fire and share. There were the sounds of the Kurrichane thrush (so tame) calling to us from the shade of a bush; we could see elephant in the distance wading and eating papyrus grass. Dinner was a huge success. Thabo played his primitive finger piano and told some animal folk lore stories.
We rose at 5.30 to go in the makoros to another island for a game walk hoping to see Letchwe. We saw the rare Pells Fishing owl; Brurbru (telephone bird); wood pecker; black egret; 3 reed buck; a small group of Letchwe, a warthog and some hippo. Next day we moved camp to Moremi Island. The journey of just over three pleasant hours in the mokoros was a highlight for me. Being slowly poled and taking loads of photographs was a once in a lifetime experience. At the new proposed camp site we began clearing a spot to erect tents when suddenly a huge elephant (they do look enormous when they are so close) came walking through just a few feet from us. We had almost pitched the tents on a game path! Adrenalin flowing, we had avoided being trampled. As the sun went down, we observed 11 elephants with 3 calves very close by feeding from where we sat underneath the Jackelberry tree. Moremi was a two-day camp site, so we rested and ate some more delicious tilapia which Taba had caught and we cooked.
During the night I listened to the rumblings of the elephant feeding closeby and eventually I heard the distinctive sound of a lion roaring, probably +/- 10 kms away. Sound travels long distances over water. The next morning after breakfast we went birding in the mokoros and saw the black headed oriel; a hooded vulture; a southern black tit; a white bellied sunbird, a palm swallow, a tiny Pels fishing owl, which was being dive-bombed by starlings. The Goliath heron met us back at camp. I realised how relaxed and sedentary we had all become in the Delta. We cooked a pot of stew over a slow fire with defrosted chunks of impala, vegetables, and tinned tomatoes. We enjoyed a final feast with the guides. Mosquitoes were also feasting and rather bothersome. I was glad we had all been on a course of malaria tablets.
O ur flight out of the Delta departed at 11 am, so we returned in the mokoros, tipped the polers, gave them all our left-over food supplies, Sally’s tent, our medical bag and some clothing. We waved them goodbye and headed back to Maun where our car was parked. From there it was quite a journey to return home via Namibia. But that story can wait for another time.
I sincerely believe that life is on your side if you have a positive attitude. We were sensible; planned well; our mindset was harmonious; the air was crisp and clean; the vehicle was trustworthy; and my character made a difference to how it all unfolded. Challenges were presented. How you approach things determines the outcome. For example Diesel wasn’t readily available so it was prudent to fill up whenever it was on offer. I got heat stroke at one point and discovered the joy of wearing a wet cloth around my neck. Age never slowed me down and I embraced this adventure whole-heartedly. I would do it all again even if I was 80!