This trip was part of my honeymoon, so photography was not the primary factor, although it was definitely high on the agenda thanks to a very understanding wife.
The Kgalagadi spans the border of South Africa and Botswana, forming part of the Kalahari desert. An arid park, I had read numerous reports telling of huge numbers of predators and raptors, plus an abundance of the smaller, rarer animals. There are no rhino, and no elephants, as it’s just too dry for them.
In the Kgalagadi we had some great sightings, fornicating lions, lions asleep in the road, a cheetah with it’s kill, and 3 different leopard sightings.
There was a profusion of birds of prey, owls, eagles, falcons, a really nice range of different birds.
Using my UV torch at night helped me to spot several scorpions, and everything was rounded off with a cape cobra with it’s hood fully flared.
The lack of population means the night sky is almost totally unaffected by light pollution, so you get a fantastic milky way just about every night.
Being in the park just after the rains meant there was quite a lot of vegetation and greenery around, rather than the rolling red sand dunes the park is famous for.
However, both of us (the new wife and I) felt a little underwhelmed by it all. We had had more prolific sightings in other parks, and were hopeful here of finding the smaller stuff that everybody raved about, yet did not see 1 cape fox, nor a single hyena.
There were some disappointments on the trip, in general they were brought about by the almost total lack of accommodation availability in the park. Sure, we could have camped, but we aren’t into camping. It was almost impossible to get 2 nights in a row at any accommodation other than the main camp (Twee Rivieren).
So, we decided on staying at Kgalagadi Lodge, just 5km from the main gate.
We were not expecting luxury, but getting basics wrong is pretty hard to justify.
Just lots of disappointing little bits, which do all add up.
Because of the lack of availability in the park, we had to visit as day visitors, and this severely limits your options for exploring the park. There are only 2 main roads within the park, and barely any link roads between the two, and a lack of little loops such as you get in Kruger, Etosha, Pilanesberg. So, unless what you wanted to see was on or near the main road, you were out of luck. It’s a big park, and it is only just possible to visit one of the other camps and get back in time for the gate closing – so you are limited to a tiny portion of the park.
I know they intentionally keep the amount of accommodation low, to keep the visitor numbers down, and this is reflected in the generally very courteous behaviour of the other people we saw in the park, lots of people stopping for a chat, pointing out sightings, and when there is a good sighting, everybody keeps the road clear, unlike Pilanesberg!
However, when you have to be ready to book the accommodation you want 1 year ahead of time when the reservation opens, it’s not conducive to attracting new people to the park.
As with many other places, there is a Facebook group set up for reporting sightings in the park, but it is also a great platform for sharing experiences and asking questions about the Kgalagadi.
Unless that is you dare to report a negative experience. The venom, hostility, and outright abuse directed at me for daring to mention that it’s not the best park I have ever visited was unexpected. To be honest, being rebuked by a faceless keyboard warrior doesn’t bother me, it actually made me feel sorry for them, their blinkered view of their beloved park means they don’t see the real issue. Whilst they may be glad that ‘normal’ tourists are put off from going there, those ‘normal’ tourists will happily take their money and spend it elsewhere, then the park has less money, and the poor facilities they like to moan about will never be fixed.
I put up a reasoned, balanced post about why I probably wouldn’t be rushing back to Kgalagadi, preferring the other parks I have visited recently, and was told “GOOD RIDDANCE” by one particularly vocal person.
Good effort mate, people are already dubious about South Africa owing to high levels of violent crime, murder and rape, and you are telling tourists good riddance, smart move.
Eventually, the page moderator decided to delete the thread, without bothering to tell me. So, in their own little world everything is perfect again.
Whilst we had a few disappointments with the accommodation, we worked hard for some great sightings and generally had a very pleasant time within the park, and within South Africa as a whole – Kgalagadi was just a third of the trip.
We genuinely think that we are just a little safari’d out – when you get blasé about lions, you know you have been spoiled in the past.
I don’t let the bad bits put me off, but they may delay my return, as there is a whole world to visit. With that in mind, 2 weeks in Costa Rica are coming up soon!
Continued from my Swaziland trip report
As we were coming from Swaziland, we had yet another border crossing to do. despite using the busiest border post, at Oshoek/Ngwenya, we were still through in under 15 minutes.
From the border, we stuck to the main roads and tolls just to cover the ground, and a few hours later we pulled into Bakgatla, our first camp in the Pilanesberg.
Located next to the Bakgatla gate, this camp offers a range of fairly low budget accommodation, we opted for a chalet. It was clean, comfortable and of a good size. Food was good, and well priced. The resort is reminiscent of a holiday camp, but we were there for the animals.
Whilst guided drives can be arranged, we did self drive. It’s easy to do, everywhere is well signposted, and the maps are good. I feel that finding animals yourself tends to mean a bit more than just having them pointed out to you, although it is naturally harder work.
We were at the gates for 0600 every morning, and would come back to camp around 0930 for breakfast. The early starts were essential, as the animals are most active when it is cool, and by 1100 the sun is seriously strong so the vast majority of animals disappear into the shade, apart from a group of male elephants who would go for a swim at midday everyday!
Our afternoon drive was from 1500 through to 1830 when the gates closed, as the cooler conditions do lead to more wildlife making an appearance.
We had some very nice sightings, including a stunning male lion all to ourselves, groups of up to 7 rhino, herds of elephant, and literally thousands of plains game.
Being only a few hours North of Johannesburg, the park gets busy at weekends, which if there is a good sighting can lead to carnage. Picture the scene, if you will;
It was a road block with cars everywhere. Rather than pull off the road a touch, they were stopped 4 abreast totally blocking the road. It took 30 minutes to fight our way through the traffic. We made up for it on the Monday morning, they were at work and we were viewing a lion with no other cars in sight.
As we were there at the end of the wet season, the grass was still very long, so it did make finding game quite difficult, as they rarely visited the waterholes, as there was water everywhere. It does however provide a nice backdrop to a photo than a dusty wasteland as can happen in the dry season.
I enjoyed my 4 nights in the camp, and self-driving around the park, seeing many of the animals I wanted to see, but did notice there seemed to be a lot less variety than some other parks I have gone to. The bird life was also quite sparse, which was surprising.
For our final 3 nights of the trip, we went for a little bit of luxury, and booked into this lodge, which is situated in the Black Rhino Private Reserve. This is a private concession that forms part of the Pilanesberg National Park. There is no fence between the 2, so animals have free rein to roam, but the access to this side is restricted to a handful of private lodges.
No self driving here, it was all guided drives, and the guides are all in contact with one another so do tend to share sightings. We were the only guests during our time there, so we had a game vehicle to ourselves. Our guide, Warwick, was also a photographer, so he understood what I wanted, and the fact that I would prefer a good subject in great light, to a great subject in poor light.
Light was an issue however, as the drives were at sunrise, and sunset, and as always happens the darker it got the better the sightings were. I ended up shooting in light so low that I was at 1/13s at ISO 6400. They’ll never be gallery quality images, but I still have images I am more than happy with. The fantastic high ISO performance of the Nikon D7100, and the Vibration Reduction (VR) of the Nikon 80-400mm AFS went a long way to helping get reasonable images in very challenging conditions, as did having an empty game vehicle.
Pilanesberg is a small park of 572 sq km, compared to the Kruger which is 19485 sq km. I enjoyed the smaller size of the park, as repeatedly visiting the same areas gives you a feel for what animals you are going to find, and where. I learned this with my diving, and much prefer to visit one site multiple times, than to try and visit as many different sites as possible.
The ease of access from Johannesburg means it is very popular, and rightly so. This does of course mean it can be very busy, but if you visit mid-week, when it’s not school holidays, then it is nice and quiet.
All in all it was another good trip, quite successful photographically, and with no major issues or failures. All that is left to do now is to plan the next one!
Swaziland, the name just sounds African, conjuring up images of safaris and wild animals. It did not disappoint!
Swaziland is a beautiful country, and as yet appears to be relatively unscathed by mass tourism. It retains a ‘wildness’, it feels like real Africa, rather than a sanitised tourist experience.
Over the next couple of posts, I shall provide a brief trip report with images from a recent 14 days safari trip, that covered 3 parks in Swaziland, and 2 camps in one of the smaller South African parks, the Pilanesberg.
We (my girlfriend and I) flew to Johannesburg in South Africa aboard one of the new British Airways A380 double decker aircraft. Paying a bit extra for premium economy was worthwhile, as even at 6ft3 I was quite comfortable in the seat and managed to get some sleep.
Arriving at around 0700 local time, we grabbed our hire car and set off on the 6hr drive to our first camp in Swaziland, Hlane Royal National Park.
The border crossing was the quickest I have ever had in Africa! The paperwork at immigration and customs (including declaring the camera kit) must have taken under 10 minutes. We had to pay 50 Rand for Swazi road tax, which is around £3! Other than that there was no charge for visas, and no ‘tips’ required to ease our passage.
This is a very small park, you can cover most of the self-drive trails in a couple of hours. Despite it’s size, there are large numbers of rhino, plenty of giraffe and elephants, and they have a pride of lions.
The lions however can only be accessed on one of the organised game drives, as they are kept in a separate area. We were booked on this drive, but when we found out the vehicle would be full to the brim with 10 of us (there are 10 seats for passengers) we declined. A vehicle full of non-photographers is not the best place for me to try and create some nice images, as their wants/needs would be quite different to mine.
The draw here is the ease of access to large numbers of rhino. On one occasion there were 9 by the waterhole, which is conveniently located right in front of the restaurant. The only thing separating you from them is a couple of strands of barbed wire.
Our accommodation was a Rondavel (small hut) which had plenty of hot water, but no electricity. Lighting is provided by paraffin lamps, which is nice for a while, but it makes you realise how dependent we have become on easy access to power. I made sure the camera batteries were fully charged simply by using a 12V car inverter.
We treated this place as a stop gap before the trip proper started, to get ourselves dialled in a little bit and make sure we were well acclimatised before moving on to our next camp. However, the rhinos and proximity of other game really make this camp quite good!
Just 2 hours drive from Hlane, this reserve offers a level of exclusivity as there are only 12 cottages available. We spent 2 nights here, and had 2 game drives per day, plus a bush walk, all included within the price.
Game drives here are on the camps safari vehicles, with no option for self driving. Fortunately for us, the vehicles were not full, so photography was still fairly productive.
Again, there is no electricity, and the cottages are semi open, with just half open walls, so you really get the feeling of being in the wild, yet with the comfort a good bed and a mosquito net! At night you hear the bush babies and hyenas calling, which just adds to the experience.
The food was good, and the dining area was outside in a clearing among the trees. Nyala roam through the camp, whilst monkeys use the trees above, hoping to steal some food.
We had a very nice time here, other than our experience with our guide. He was miserable, and talked down to all of the guests as if we were stupid. Our ‘bush walk’ consisted of him interrogating us for 15 minutes, then telling us about how great he is. Whilst we saw huge numbers of rhino on our game drive (18 in just one drive) any questions we had about them were met with disdain, or accusations of being poachers. He spoiled it for us, to the extent that we skipped a game drive rather than be subjected to 3 hours of being spoken to like an idiot.
Our final 2 nights in Swaziland were spent here, as it was closer to the border crossing than either of the other camps, making our upcoming drive to the Pilanesberg shorter by a couple of hours.
Our accommodation was the beautiful Reilly’s Rock Hilltop Lodge, built by one of the early pioneers in Swaziland, Mick Reilly. This wonderful old house commands great views over the nearby valley, and all meals are served outside where possible, in the well planted botanical gardens, where duiker graze on the lawn, and bushbabies may be hand fed in the evenings.
The sanctuary is stuffed full of plains game, but with no predators (other than crocodiles) it is perfectly safe for people to go walking, and with numerous trails through the park self-drive games viewing was very productive. The rolling grasslands made for a different feel than our previous 2 locations. We undertook a 3 hour hike to visit an old bushman’s cave, which was very worthwhile, it felt good to really stretch the legs after several days of driving.
The main camp offers plenty of accommodation for family groups, from camping through to cottages, and with monkeys in the trees and warthogs rummaging on the ground, it is a great place for families to get close to wild animals.
Swaziland is not what one would consider a common destination, but for the smallest country in Southern Africa it certainly has a lot to offer. I feel like we only scratched the surface, yet the people we met were all friendly and welcoming (with the exception of our guide). I would love to go back, and explore a bit more of the country, as the scenery we saw was fantastic and deserves a good exploration.
Continued in my Pilanesberg trip report