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Travel

Mar 28, 2019

Into the Valley of Deception: The Central Kalahari Game Reserve

Sarah Kingdom takes us across the Zambezi River and into Botswana. Driving past the well visited national parks, and onto the huge Central Kalahari Game Reserve.

WRITTEN BY

Sarah Kingdom

Crossing the Zambezi River from Zambia to Botswana, at Kazungula, on a rickety ferry is a good introduction to the frontier town feel of Kasane. By the time you have completed the crossing, waded through the paperwork required both sides of the border to clear yourself and vehicle, and driven the few kilometres into town, you feel like you could be in the ‘Wild West’. Kasane is full of people and vehicles from all number of countries, heading in and out of nearby Chobe National Park, or shopping for supplies, stocking up on fuel, searching for spare parts and doing maintenance on their vehicles, so they can venture even further afield.

We were fortunate enough to be spending a couple of nights at Cresta Mowana; built around a giant baobab tree, in grounds full of huge trees and perfectly positioned on the banks of the Chobe River, away from the hustle and bustle of town. Without even leaving our verandah we could see an array of birdlife. Hundreds of weavers, robin chats, several pairs of paradise flycatchers, shrikes and numerous, nameless ‘little brown jobs’ that flitted past too quickly to identify. Three enormous monitor lizards prowled amongst the rocks in front of our verandah and a large male bushbuck patrolled past our room regularly.

A visit to Chobe would not be complete without a boat trip on the Chobe River, into the park. For a country that is usually so dry, and where water is so scarce and valuable that their currency, the Pula, is named after it, I had chosen a remarkably wet afternoon for a ‘sunset cruise’. The sun was hidden behind dark grey clouds and was clearly not going to appear in time to ‘set’. The river banks were lined with bedraggled, damp impalas, red lechwe, kudu and waterbucks, hippos looked almost as wet on the land as they did in the water. Squacco, Purple and Black herons waded in the shallows. Cattle Egrets and Open Billed Storks followed behind a grazing hippo, snacking on insects disturbed as he walked. An African Marsh Harrier swooped in, snatching a Dikop out of a flock congregating on an island. Drifting on we found four Pied Kingfishers sitting on the branches of a partially submerged tree, each with a fish in its beak, which was repeatedly beaten on a branch to ‘tenderise’ before swallowing headfirst and whole.

After a couple of days relaxing on the banks of the Chobe River it was time to move on to somewhere we had never been before, and were very much looking forward to… the Central Kalahari.

For my 21st birthday, a family friend had given me a copy of Mark and Delia Owen’s book, Cry of the Kalahari, about their seven years living and researching in the Kalahari. It was a book that had resonated with me and filled me with a desire to visit and see for myself what they had seen. Island Mobile Safaris were running our trip, and this was going to be a private expedition into the Central Kalahari Game Reserve that would spoil us for ‘regular camping’ ever again.

“Below us lay the gentle slopes and the open plain of Deception Valley”

Established in 1961, the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) covers an area of 52,800 square km, almost 10% of Botswana. Yet few people visit here, only a handful in any given year. 210km from Maun we arrived in the dusty village of Rakops, where we decanted into game drive vehicles and headed off into the wilds. 45km from Rakops we entered the park, another 45km and we arrived in the Deception Valley. In 1974, when the Owens had arrived here they wrote… “Below us lay the gentle slopes and the open plain of Deception Valley, an ancient fossilised river channel meandering through forested sand dunes. Herds of springbok, gemsbok, and hartebeest grazed peacefully on the old grass-covered riverbed, where water used to flow. The blue sky was stacked high with white puffs of cloud. Deception was incredibly serene and all we had hoped it would be.” Forty-five years later, as we arrived, it was as if nothing had changed. Herds of slender, long-legged springbok were waiting for us and the plains were alive with gemsbok, with their distinctive facial markings, black-stockinged legs and white socks.

Everything was set up and ready when we arrived at camp. Spacious tents set out under trees, with, to my husband’s delight, proper camp beds with mattresses, pillows and sheets, even an ‘ensuite’ bathroom with loo and bucket shower… all the creature comforts of home in fact, but in a unique and beautiful location. A large open-sided mess tent housed the dining area and bar, would be the central meeting place for us all to eat, drink, relax and discuss in the days ahead.

Our first-afternoon game drive gave us a taste of things to come. Kori Bustards (Botswana’s national bird), paraded proudly across the landscape displaying, with comically puffed out neck feathers. The vibrant orange beaks of Pale Chanting Goshawks, vivid blue necks of Helmeted Guinea Fowl, velvet black markings on Northern Black Korans and the startlingly bright red of the Crimson-Breasted Shrikes all stood out in the sun-bleached landscape. Wildebeest, giraffe, ostrich, numerous jackals, a civet and a wildcat all added themselves to our list of sightings that afternoon. But for me the star of the show, as the sun went down on our first night in the Kalahari, was the bat-eared foxes. These diminutive insectivores, who only average 55cm in length, really stole my heart and we would catch glimpses of them regularly throughout our stay, usually close by their burrows, often with their kits close by.

Back in camp that night, we relaxed with drinks by the fire. The youngsters inspected the campsite, with an ultraviolet torch-light, looking for unwanted critters, particularly in the bathrooms and under the beds. We were summoned to inspect a scorpion who glowed luminously under the light on the fringes of camp. The moon rose, just a sliver in the sky, as we ate our dinner and retired to bed, in preparation for the early wakeup call we knew would be coming in the morning.

Morning came and the White Browed Sparrow Weavers were up early, getting a head start on the heat of the day. We could hear them long before we were ready to get up. We had a light breakfast and set off into the park, as the sun rose, watching the world wake up around us. We had the place to ourselves. In fact, we only saw one other vehicle the entire time we were in CKGR.

Heading deeper into Deception Valley we found a pair of mating lions, who were not remotely perturbed to see us. Stopping for coffee under some acacia trees we watched several giraffes, ambling across the plains, pausing, from time to time, to gaze at us curiously. A little later we spotted a cheetah. A pale, one-eared female, looking worn and weather-beaten, and her two companions, both younger, darker and in much better condition. As we headed back to camp in the afternoon, we saw this same three cheetah again, walking down the road ahead of us. We would also, rather unexpectedly, given the lack of standing water in the park, see two bull elephants. A perfect ending to a perfect day in the Kalahari.

The following morning we set off in the opposite direction, towards Passarge Valley. Reaching Passarge we saw hundreds of gemsbok grazing, interspersed with wildebeest and springbok. Numerous pairs of jackals scurried back and forth, noses down investigating enticing scent trails. A couple of jackals, in particular, drew our attention as they sniffed the ground, scampered about and generally looked excited. A nearby group of gemsbok stared intently in one direction. Stopping to examine the scene more closely, we decided that something was definitely going on. As we got closer we found four lions on a freshly killed gemsbok carcass. A young male gave a low growl, clearly disliking our presence, and a female, in an impressive feat, dragged the kill, weighing an estimated 150kg, away, concealing it under a bush. Not wanting to disturb them further we retreated, leaving them in peace.

That evening, back in the Deception Valley, we stopped for sundowners on a wide open plain, watching as giraffe and springbok grazed. The day had been hot, but as the sun sank in the sky, the air cooled, and lightning illuminated vast clouds far away on the horizon. Heading back to camp and dinner we came across yet more lion and then, just as it was getting dark, we saw the animal I had wanted to see since I had first read the Owen’s book, a brown hyena. Just visible in the fading light, the hyena with its long shaggy dark brown coat, short tail and pointy ears trotted past. The brown hyena is the rarest of the hyena and listed as ‘near threatened’ on the IUCN Red List, with a global population estimated to be less than 10,000, and here we were, seeing it for ourselves, on our last night in the reserve.

Nothing prepares you for the feeling of the immensity of CKGR, nor its raw beauty. There is a real sense of unending space, of having the place to yourself. Wide, empty pans stretch interminably, appearing like endless stretches of saucer-flat earth, occasionally punctuated with dwarfed trees and scrubby brush. By day the sky seems vast and wide, and at night brilliant stars dominate. The next morning we had to pack and say goodbye to this special place, but the reserve was not done with us yet. As we drove out, heading back to civilisation, reclining on a large anthill, like a throne, a magnificent leopard surveyed us regally and then almost with disdain, averted her gaze until we drove away.

After our stay in the dry heat of the desert, it was time for a short visit to Moremi Game Reserve, breaking our journey with a night in Maun at Island Safari lodge. The lodge, nestled under a canopy of tall trees, on the banks of the Thamalakane River in a 300-acre private reserve, was the perfect place to relax in ‘civilisation’ before heading off to ‘tent life’ again.

Moremi covers the central and eastern parts of the Okavango Delta (about 40% of the Okavango). The lush green of Moremi was an incredible contrast to the Kalahari. The vegetation in the reserve ranges from savannah to palm covered islands, waterways, lagoons, grasslands, Mopane woodlands and acacia forests. Sausage trees abounded and our campsite at Second Bridge was home to several of these beautiful trees. The flood plains were full of reedbuck, red lechwe, hippo, tsessebe, zebra and large groups of elephants. We were lucky enough to see, in broad daylight, the usually nocturnal civet and honey badger. The lagoons and wetlands teemed with water birds; from the African Crakes, Lesser Jacanas and Slaty Egrets to the gracious Wattled Cranes and African pygmy geese. We saw the African Red-eyed bulbul and the Black, Coppery-tailed and Senegal Coucals. Martial, Tawny and Black-chested snake eagles abounded, as did magnificent Fish Eagles.

On early morning drives through the reserve we saw lions on numerous occasions, the first morning we found a magnificent young male, resting at the base of an anthill and surveying the open grassland before him. Another morning we found a group of six lions; a mother with her sub-adult young. After dark we often heard the lions roaring in the night, one night, in particular, it sounded like they were right outside our tents… no one in camp was brave enough to visit their ensuite loos before sunrise!

Our final afternoon in Moremi, and we went out for ‘one last look’. Two-spotted hyena, much larger than their brown CKGR counterparts, lay in the cool mud on opposite sides of a waterhole. A group of wildebeest with calves standing nearby cast nervous glances in the direction of the apparently disinterested hyenas. As the sun sank in the sky we had our last and possibly most impressive Moremi encounter. A herd of over 400 buffalo, combined with wildebeest and impala, surrounded our vehicle, silhouetted against the setting sun and in a haze of dust stirred up by their trampling feet, an awe-inspiring finale to our visit.

You can find our more about Island Mobile Safaris here, and Cresta Mowana, here.

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Travel

Jun 14, 2019

Riding Through Rajasthan

On the back of an indigenous Marwari horse, known for its warrior spirit, a female-only group rides 160 miles across India through villages that have never been visited by foreigners.

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WRITTEN BY

Margaret Reynolds

The adventure began before we even arrived at our destination. Racing through the twisting narrow back allies of Delhi, we were late. Our train to Ganganagar was leaving in ten minutes and we hadn’t made it through the swarm of Delhi traffic to the train station. We rounded a corner and came to a screeching halt as the road ahead was completely closed off at the intersection with no hope of a resolution any time soon. Honking horns, a constant accompaniment to Delhi traffic, now rose to a crescendo of cacophonic sounds as frustrated drivers expressed their annoyance. “Out! Out!” our guide shouted, and we leaped from the van and ran through the street. We were weaving around traffic which bolted forward erratically to gain inches, trying to maneuver their way free of the jam, while we stayed alert to avoid being bumped or hit. Some drivers called out to us in Hindi words we only understood by their tone. Blindly following our guide, using our adrenaline to power us through the crowd, we made it to the train and our sleeper cars minutes before departure and hoped that the bags coming behind us on porters made it too!

Author Margaret Reynolds is an experienced horseback rider who prepared for this trip with previous rides in both Europe and Africa.
Some of our group in the sleeper car of train.

Awaiting us in Hanumangarh, a short distance from Ganganagar, was the Bhatner Horse Fair, a once-a-year festival to celebrate, compete, and market the famed Marwari breed indigenous to India and unlike any other breed worldwide. Missing our train would have meant missing the Fair and it was an event that we planned our entire Rajasthan riding safari around.

“We discovered that we were the main attraction.”

The next morning, we arrived at the fair. It was the last day and while most of the events were completed, we discovered that we were the main attraction as they rarely had foreigners, and there were no other women there. We were given the red-carpet treatment since we were accompanied by Raghuvendra Singh Dundlod, affectionately known as Bonnie, a nobleman of the Shekhawati clan and reputed to be the savior of the Marwari’s. He has dedicated his life to the promotion and protection of the breed which he considers the true ambassador of Rajput culture and heritage. We were followed by a beehive of fair attendees, drawn to us like honey, and even interviewed by the local media. It became clear that our presence held so much more value than just our own education and enjoyment; we could offer support to Bonnie’s cause through our words and interest, as well as in undertaking the week-long safari to showcase these beautiful steeds to his countrymen.

Bonnie educating us on the horses while being observed by other fairgoers.
In breeder tent at the Bhatner fair with Bonnie, our guide and emissary (Margaret wearing bright scarf).

The next day we greeted our horses and mounted into traditional military saddles. The horses were proudly adorned with cloth martingales baring the rich red and saffron colors of Dundlod Fort, and the ride began past sheep herds along the Indira Gandhi Canal. These majestic horses, with warrior spirits, known for their stamina and power were the perfect partners for our eight-day safari across 160 miles of desert. We rode through the heart of Rajasthan, across the Thar desert, far from the bustling cities of the Golden Triangle, now populated by robust crops of millet and mustard enabled by the newly built canal system.

Our group freshly mounted ready to ride out. Margaret and Noel on far right.

“These majestic horses, with warrior spirits, were the perfect partners for our eight-day safari.”

The route was a new one as each year the progress of India’s roads, establishment of new agricultural fields and corresponding fences creates the need for a different trail. We passed through villages that had never been visited by foreigners. Women and children came rushing from all directions to shout “Hi” and “Hello” and shyly wave at us. We were followed for miles by young men on motorcycles whose English focused on the word “selfie” as they came armed with their cell phones to take pictures of this unusual parade of noble horses and white-skinned foreigners. We were welcomed guests wherever we traveled.

Passing through a village in Rajasthan.
Being greeted by villagers along the route.

Our first night by the village of Raika Ki Dhani, we were greeted by dozens of villagers who came to watch us—they observed us sharing chai and popadum, a crispy tortilla-like bread spiced with pepper whose flavor snaps in your mouth just like the texture, as we sat around the fire and chatted about our day. Bonnie regaled us with entertaining tales from his many adventures such as the time they were almost attacked by misinformed villagers who thought his group was hunting their sacred antelope. The locals stood quietly, respectfully, yards away and crept ever closer like sandhill cranes, en masse one step at a time, until the camp staff intervened.

Evening view of tents.
Inside view of the tents.

“We were all wearing smiles that transformed our souls and changed us forever.”

In the morning, the son of the landowner on which we camped, fluent in English, came to us requesting our presence at their home in the village so we could meet their women. Delightedly, we accepted and drove to their brick and adobe home in the village. Many generations live together, and women join the family home of their husbands. When we arrived, there were a dozen people and when we left many dozens as villagers heard of our presence and joined the gathering. The women are beautiful, graceful, and shy but so friendly and welcoming. It didn’t take long to bridge the language barrier as they let us hold their children, shake their hand, and take many pictures together. We aren’t sure who enjoyed it more. We were all wearing smiles that transformed our souls and changed us forever by the time we left.

Invited inside a local village family home.

The ride was swift with many fast canters through the desert, lined up side by side on a sandy two-track, with every horse competing to be in front. Astride the powerful Marwari thundering through the desert is an experience in which your soul is freed, and you are in the moment, feeling like you are riding on the wings of warriors past. You hope it never stops and if it were up to Koel, my lovely Marwari mare, it wouldn’t. She is a successful endurance horse that can go forever and is pleased to show you her power and speed.

The famous Marwari inward tilting ears—view to the desert.

Animals are esteemed in India. Cows, dogs and even pigs are considered holy and roam freely throughout India, including the cities. Drivers don’t honk at them even though they honk at everything else. They feast on grass and garbage or food provided by shopkeepers or families. While those of us in first world countries drive through our suburban neighborhoods, expecting to see the standard home with two car garages and the glow of multiple TVs, as we passed each home in the village we found a courtyard with a camel which served as the beast of burden pulling carts of supplies or crops, a few water buffalo that provide milk, a dog or two and likely sheep or goats for milk and meat. These precious animals, so essential for survival, are well cared for in a country known for its poverty.

The indigenous Marwari horse.

Life is simple in the villages. Days are repetitive and the work is essential –laundry, gathering fuel, cooking, and tending fields. Our presence in their villages provided some respite from the day to day existence. Often, a young boy would lead the way through town shooing goats, cows, or other animals out of our path and showing us the way to the community water trough so our horses could have a refreshing break, feeling pleased with his important role.

“The earthiness that filled the air was far preferable to the gagging stench and pollution of the city.”

Unlike the cities with their explosion of people and constant stench created by the recipe of uncontrolled diesel fumes, sewage, and trash, the villages were peaceful and calm. Here the smells were not of diesel but of livestock. Camels, so common in courtyards and hitched to carts, are ruminants. They chew and swallow their food into rumens where it is fermented, then burp it back up into their mouths later for more chewing. It smells a bit like a compost heap on a warm desert day. Cow patties are the most common source of fuel and they are being shaped by bare hands, then dried for use, usually within the courtyard or sometimes on the roof. Inexplicably, these smells weren’t offensive as they seemed harmonious with the way of life and the use of the land and its resources. For this Midwestern equine enthusiast, the earthiness that filled the air was far preferable to the gagging stench and pollution of the city.

Riding through a village.

We rode for 6-8 hours a day stopping for a break mid-day for lunch and a rest, avoiding the hottest sun of the day. Just before lunch, Bonnie’s staff raced ahead of us in the “gypsy” jeep to set up a small camp, with chairs and sleeping pads and to prepare the food, a buffet of vegetarian delicacies such as dal and curry flavored vegetables with steamed rice and endless chapatis. We were reliably greeted by villagers or passers-by, a camel driver, or young lads on their bikes, as we rested. Our biggest challenge was in finding an appropriate and private spot for a comfort break without being observed.

Men gathered with invitations to their homes.
Photo Op and Interview with the local press while the crowd watched. Margaret in a bright scarf to right of the horse.

“The future of the Marwaris has become our new cause.”

Our eight days through the desert was not a ride for the inexperienced. For those experienced riders who have come to believe they have tried it all, this ride surpasses expectations—not just because of the majesty of the Marwari’s but for the combination of culture, history, and riding which is unparalleled. I have worked up to this event by riding through other countries from Europe to Africa and the magic of this ride transcends them all.

Riding through a village being led by a young man.

The Marwaris, which drew us to India like snake charmers beckoning cobras, were everything we expected and more. We learned that they are banned from exportation which is leading to declines in the quality and popularity of the breed. The future of the Marwaris has become our new cause as we have so much respect for these amazing animals.

Dancing Marwari.

The days included challenge and leisure; hardship and comfort; and speed and stillness which have come to define India to me. It is a country of contrasts—from city to village; from western dress to traditional kurtas and saris; from Muslim to Hindu; and from ancient to modern buildings and customs. It is a country with many possibilities and it was exciting to experience first-hand the range of the country’s legacy and promise for its future.

Margaret Reynolds is a speaker, author, and advisor to organizations on improving business performance and increasing revenue growth. She is an avid competitive trail rider, winning back to back National Championships with NATRC in 2017 and 2018. Every year she and her adventurous friends find a new country to explore on horseback. [email protected]https://www.breakthroughmaster.com/

Feature image: Group send-off at Bonnie’s Dunlod Fort

 

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