Saturday, June 14, 2008

African Adventure: Central Kalahari, getting completely stuck & a close encounter with male lions (Feb 10-13)

Current Location: Central Kalahari Reserve, Botswana.

Highlights: Close encounter with Kalahari Lions, getting completely stuck in the mud and deep water.

Upcoming: Moremi Park and driving through flooded roads & a school visit in Francistown

Current GPS Coordinates: LAT: S 21.42828 LONG: E 023.79850

If I wanted an adventure though Africa, that is exactly what I’m getting in no small measure. We are currently in the Central Kalahari Reserve which I think is the worlds largest reserve. I was expecting a searing hot vast desert area with some shrubs and sparse grass. What I got was hours of relentless thunder and lightning storms with torrential downpours of rain and a unique and rare close encounter with two large male Kalahari lions.

We left Namibia on the 9 th after spending the night in the bush by the roadside. That morning the Landy started acting up and would not idle smoothly, then would not idle at all and die (it would run fine once the revs were up). We arrived at a petrol garage at the Namibia-Botswana border and I decided that we could not go into the Kalahari with a car that would not idle so I had to fix it here. "Here" just happened to be in the middle of nowhere and miles from any town and certainly miles from any help from a mechanic. I decided it was a carb problem as just about all the ignition electronics were newly replaced so I set about removing the carb to clean out all the jets, tubes, orifices, and galleries. After two hours and several liters of petrol, the carb was reassembled and refitted. Perhaps miraculously, it started with the first turn of the key and idled as smooth as it has ever idled if not better. I then readjusted the mixture and fitted a second fuel filter as the float bowl was full of dirt that had passed through the first filter (which was changed a few 1000 miles ago). We then entered Botswana. The border crossing was very smooth and all of the officials incredibly polite and friendly. We then set out for Ghanzi where we would spend the night (again in the bush just off the roadside) and obtain our permit the next day to enter the Central Kalahari. That night was a night to remember. As the sun went down, the sky surrounding us was still bright with the flashes of lightning storms in all directions with some closing in on us fast. We rapidly set up the tent and preyed that it really was as tough as the maker claimed as these were like no storms I had ever seen. We lay down in the tent watching as the thunder and lightning steadily came towards us. I felt like a small bird looking out of a hole in a tree and just as defenseless as the fury from the sky approached. At this point I have to point out that I don’t really have fear for most things that are natural, I respect them, but not really fear them. That night however, I have to say, I was worried. We were the tallest metallic object for a long way, an ideal point for lightning to strike. When we bought the tent, the owner of the company said he was working on a tent that could safely handle a lightning strike. At the time I thought he was daft! All I could see as I looked out of our small tent perched on the roof of the Landy was lighting bolt after lighting bolt hit the ground accompanied with a cash of thunder. The thunder sounded like the earth was ripping open and the fury of God had been unleashed, and it was all coming closer and closer. The next 15-mins brought torrential rains and the storm was directly overhead. All we could do was to batten down the hatches so to speak and hold on tight as the Landy shuddered with each crash of thunder. Thankfully the storm passed without incident but it rained for most of the rest of the night. The next day, the Landy was pretty soaked inside as it leaks from just about every seem and joint. This is partly because of Leimers terrible job on the rebuilt and partly because older Landys just leak! Anyway, we got our permit at the wildlife office, bought some food, filled up with petrol and set off on the 175-km journey to the Kalahari. I must also mention that the officials in the wildlife office were incredibly friendly and polite. One even offered his chair to us! The journey to the reserve gate took about 4.5 hours along some pretty rough roads, a sign of things to come.

We arrived at the entrance and found our way to the hut where you sign in and pay your 150 Pula per day fees (that’s about US$33). There was a German couple there who had not obtained a permit so were waiting to see if the official would let them in. I offered to let them share the campsites we had booked so off we all went. The campsites by the way are no more than a space designated as a camping spot and have nothing at all at them. You must bring with you all water, and dig a hole for a toilet. It had started raining so we quickly set off on the 70-km journey to the campsite. This took about 3 hours. About 1 km before the camping spot and just as the light was disappearing; we saw a herd of Oryx running, then two magnificent male Kalahari lions with their unique black manes. We then left the road and followed the lions for the next 45-min as they roared, played, and then walked off into the night. We turned back to the road, found the campsite and set up camp, again it was raining, again there were thunderstorms on the horizon, but were we satisfied and thrilled at seeing the lions. Its actually quite amazing how nonchalantly we walked about the camp given that just 1 km away were two large male lions.

The next day it was still raining. By now most everything was wet. We packed up and we set off with the German couple for the next campsite just 80 kms away. But let me tell you, what an 80 kms these proved to be. But first let me tell you out about our traveling companions. They are a middle aged German couple who have this super deluxe camper on a new Toyota Land Cruiser. He is a retired shoemaker and they decided to ship their vehicle down and tour Southern Africa. OK, back to the story: the tracks we were driving on were not too bad, although deeply rutted and flooded in most parts. I think I was driving a little too fast in the deeper water as all of a sudden the engine just stopped. Water was being splashed all over the engine bay and flooded the ignition electronics. I tried to dry them, but still it wouldn’t start. In the end the German couple towed us out of the flooded track and the car started with a tow start. Not sure why it wouldn’t start by cranking? Then about 30 min later we got stuck, and I mean really and truly stuck up to our axles in deep, wet mud in the pouring rain. The German couple turned round to help us and they too got bogged down and stuck. It took almost an hour of digging, driving back and forth, then winching (thanks for the Superwinch sponsored winch) using a small bush as an anchor to get us out and back onto the firm, but flooded track. We spent another 20 min or so digging out the German couple. When they hit the firm road surface we all triumphantly and jubilantly jumped in the air with huge smiles despite being soaking wet and covered in mud. We drove slowly in the rain for another few hours then we got stuck again. By chance we just hit a soft spot of mud and immediately one of the rear wheels sunk completely up to the axle. The car would not budge at all. Again the German couple had to tow us out. I decided to stick to the track from here on out. Both times we got stuck was in soft mud spots where the pan crust was thin whereas the track, although flooded, was firm. Again I drove too fast through the water (about 16 inches deep) in the tracks and again water flooded the electronics and the engine cut out. The German couple gave us another tow start and eventually the Landy started after some coughing and spluttering. This time I did as I should have done in the first place, I drove slowly, just fast enough to maintain a good bow wave, and not so the water splashed over the bonnet onto the windscreen! We had no further problems!

I am not sure what we would have done if we did not have the help of the German couple in their new diesel Land Cruiser. I am sure we would have got ourselves out of the mud and eventually dried the electric’s so the Landy would have started. Maybe this was a Karma thing? I offered to share our campsite, so they were there to help us. Who knows, what I do know is that if they were not there and if we could not have helped ourselves, the nearest help was a very long was off, at least several days walk in the rain and mud.

I am writing this on our second night in the Kalahari to the sound of insects and singing birds all around us. It is still very damp although not raining. I wonder what will happen tomorrow?

I wrote the section above two days ago. Several hours after finishing on the computer, after we went to bed, I was awakened by the sound of a roaring lion. Excited I immediately got the touch and lifted the front tent flap. About 20 meters away I saw another male lion standing at the edge of the camp spot. I could rear more roaring from time to time through the night. At first light I couldn’t wait to get up to go to where the lion was. Cautiously I walked over to the where the long grass was flattened and the lion had stood. Later that morning we heard more roaring, but didn’t see the lion anymore. I think he was just curious to see who was in his territory! The rest of the day was relatively dry and we toured the park driving carefully through water and sticking to the solid roads. I was tempted to drive fast through the water as I had sealed the distributor using silicon caulk and water dispersent oil and wanted to test how effective this was, but decided that this test should wait for a more appropriate venue! We saw lots of other animals here, large herds of Oryx, springbok, as well as red heart beast, wildebeest, and a few jackals. The bird life was pretty spectacular with many raptors. We are now just outside the Kalahari Reserve at Mangana Gate as we spent the night here having exited the park as it was getting dark. Today we head off for Maun and to see if its possible to head into the Okavanga Delta. I think it will also be too wet there, but you never know.

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