Into Moremi for 3 nights
More photos :https://flic.kr/s/aHskj2x4VR
I felt very emotional saying goodbye to Titi when we arrived back at the Mokoro station around 8.45am.It had been a pleasant hour’s journey through the Delta waters, while camp was packed up by Kilos and the rest of the guys.We chatted to Titi on route – he loved village life, the quiet, the tent he lived in ; preferred it to Maun where all the polers headed when the season was over.The villlagers were already preparing the ground for planting crops and fruit, were very self sufficient. Maun was expensive, noisy, you needed taxis to get about. One day, he wanted to travel, ‘see everywhere !’ A lovely young man.It’s always seemed to me whilst travelling that the most genuine, kindest people are those who have less in terms of material things.
By 9.15am we were back in the vehicle, ‘Custard’ Samoya driving, our safari guide for the next 8 days.Kilos reckoned it would take 3 hours to get back, load up at the office and set off into Moremi Game Reserve.
They were bang on – though I don’t think I quite appreciated just how difficult the logistics are to head into the wilderness for 8 days and be fully self sufficient.We wild camp in Scotland for around 4 days maximum at a time but this was a different scale altogether.
True to their word, off we set at 12.30 for the long, bumpy, hard drive to our next camp, the air so hot it felt we were travelling in a fan oven.There was no respite from it. No cooler air from the vehicle moving at speed.The sand roads began very quickly outside Maun and there were few signposts. I was VERY glad we weren’t self driving though we passed quite a few who were.’Mostly South Africans,’ Custard commented. ‘they’re used to farm roads.This is like home.’ You’d certainly need to enjoy hard driving and be very competent on rutted deep sand for hour upon hour.Heaven knows how long it would take to get rescued if you had vehicle problems out here.
We were 5 now including Kilos, Custard and LT, camp assistant.Guys who worked super hard to make our trip memorable, always smiling , friendly, professional and ultra knowledgeable.I sensed quickly that we were in safe, expert hands and so it proved.They made the trip the success it was , no doubt about it.
Custard , like Kilos, was freelance and had also been one of the guides employed by the BBC for the ‘Giant Killer’s’ filming .He had been Head Guide for Abercrombie and Kent, Head Ranger for the National Parks, a Policeman…if there was a key job, Custard had done it.Had guided throughout much of Southern Africa too. Now, he was freelance and had started his own fledgliing company, taking clients into some of the private concessions, usually by plane.
Stopped for lunch off road, a fine spread of food laid out on a tablecloth on the vehicle bonnet.
Through Moremi South Gate, then through Khwai village and up to North Gate.Bureaucracy held us up for half an hour and then we headed for our camp; a couple of miles from the small public campsite for self drivers. All on our own.Very open site in woodland, though not with any views as such.
It was 4pm now and Custard asked if we were up for a safari drive; the guys would set up camp.We were!
Moremi was more beautiful and varied a landscape( savannah, riverine and mopping woodland) , than Sabi Sands , perfect for getting some lovely images and light.Game was phenomenal. Big herds of red lechwe and elephant, zebra, kudu, buffalo, bushbuck.
Hippos, enormous Nile crocs, warthogs.
Birds galore:rollers, carmine bee eaters, Namaqua doves – gorgeous – sand grouse, guineafowl, blacksmith plovers, egrets, fish eagles, hawk eagles, martial eagles.The Khwai River was the big draw, plenty water even in the dry season.Lots of top end safari vehicles now too – And Beyond, Kerr and Downey, Desert and Delta.
Everyone knew Custard and each vehicle always stopped to say hello and – importantly – find out what was going on, game wise.In Sabi Sand the 20 or so vehicles out at any one time are in radio contact with each other to share where the star animals are. They are also going working in the same area every day and get to know what’s happening, where. Where the leopard has her cubs; where she likes to hunt .Here,there was a Moremi radio station but not everyone shared where the big sightings were that way; most did this when they met in passing. The guides might only have come into the Reserve recently after a few weeks or months absence. It was a harder job for them, I thought, to find the top stuff everyone wanted to see.
Custard had remarked that in Sabi Sand they were now PROMISING the Big 5 on any trip of a few days. Our experience had certainly been the Big 5 on most drives.This wouldn’t happen on this trip given that none of the Parks has Rhino.Leopard I wasn’t expecting either , to be honest.
A brief chat with another vehicle and we found out that a lioness was guarding a kill close by.Minutes later, with a couple of other vehicles, we drove up close to where she sat upright, panting in the heat and calling loudly, a deep heaving bellow. Her sister was nearby but she’d lost her. She was magnificent.The colour of the bleached grass, with amber eyes.Total thrill – lion always are.
Heck, we were only 30 minutes here and we’d seen lion….10yds away. And then we saw the hyenas…three of them….hunkered down in the long grass, waiting.Vigilant.Patient.But she was too powerful for them to take on.Tucked into the bush behind her was the antelope kill, or what remained of it.They’d have the bones to look forward to, the only animals that have jaws powerful enough to chew what lions can’t. It was superb to see them so close too. I have a morbid fascination for them.They are menacing, evil looking.Opportunistic.Clever.
We sat beside the lioness for some time as she settled down, giving up on her sister. SO close. Now and again those amber eyes would study you intently, as if she saw something more than just the big unthreatening shape of the vehicle. Thrilling – and a tad scary too.
Then Custard spotted Red Lechwe, way in the distance, staring motionless in one direction.
Something was afoot.Left the lioness and headed towards them. Minutes later and the sister lioness emerged from deep grass, leading two gorgeous cubs to safety.The cubs stumbled along trying to keep up, very camoflagued in the grass.What a sight! Never seen cubs like that before. Wow.
We lost her as she headed into a marshy area and towards an island.The Red Lechwe stared tensely in her direction, rigid and utterly alert.
Got back to camp at 6.30pm and what a fantastic set up we now had.
A big mess tent with shade was set up, a shower tent all ready with hot water, a toilet tent at the back of our tent though not the en suite set up I’d asked for.Custard noticed my surprise as Mosu had confirmed they could do this.It was the set up he always arranged for himself and his guests – standard these days. I didn’t want to make a fuss – I had my little plastic container arrangement that I used at night inside the tent (carefully – the chance of disaster was pretty high given the tight space) as not for a million quid would I wander across camp at 2am for a pee.But Custard insisted he would sort it and he did.He was a guy who knew how to fix things and quickly, knew the systems, knew so many people, got things to work for him and his clients; clearly, he was used to delivering things to a high standard whether you were going ‘budget’ or not.
The pattern of each day…..
And that was the pattern of the day. Up at 5.30 for a light breakfast at 6am. Game drive 6.30 – 10.30. A superb cooked brunch after our morning drive, hot water in the bucket shower and for handwashing. Then from 11.30 till 3.30pm it was siesta time for reading or blogging or just resting up.Plenty cold juice, or hot water for tea on the go. Fresh fruit and biscuits.Whatever snacks we wanted ourselves.It DID feel like quite a long time as there was nothing to see as such from the camp.No waterhole or river, just the forest clearing. And the tents were very hot, despite being well pitched under a tree.Even the mess area, with its gazebo, felt like sitting in a fan oven. The temp regularly hit 104F in the shade and the wind, quite strong at times, was a boiler that drove the heat into you. Exhausting – even for someone who likes heat.And there was no retreating to an air conditioned lodge as at Sabi Sand. It’s a fair way further south of course ; 90F at most in September.We were now much nearer the Equator.
Custard suggested next time we look at the Green Season, late Feb or March. Fly in. Yes, there was more undergrowth then but the animals were far more active.With antelope young born, the predators were up and about hunting more frequently. Now, everything was hiding from the heat. Also, if camping, look at getting HATABE camps booked – a little more expensive than we had but in more interesting locations.Overlooking a river or with a better outlook.
It was a relief to prepare for the afternoon drive, just as the sun’s heat waned a little.No sign of mossies at any time day or night.
The pictures speak for themsleves – game was plentiful, always, as were the birds. Leopard was a tougher nut to find and Custard did his best but no-one was seeing them.We saw leopard every day plus a kill, in Sabi and tracked them too.
Moremi Highlights: the lioness eating her kill next day.
Two lionesses and two male lions from the Savuti Pride who were now in Moremi, walking across the grass then flopping down under a bush where we watched them – so close it was unnerving.
Custard recognised the brothers, Tamoc (meaning ‘bald- headed’) and Pandani (full-haired one), one of which was the father of the cubs. In fact we saw lion close up each drive, which was exactly what I hoped for and THE highlight each day.In all, we saw around 25 lions the whole trip.
Very nervous elephants that were flapping their ears and raising their trunks at our vehicle, VERY close up.Scary. The hyenas – really close – still waiting their turn.
A fish eagle catching a fish in front of us and flying off with it in its talons.
The Savuti lions being chased from their shady spot by a young bull elephant. A Honey Badger sniffing around looking for food.
The two lion brothers had ambled across the grass to where the female sat upright, her cubs safely hidden.
But Pandani came too close and in a millisecond, she sprung at him , all snarling and fierce growling , teeth bared in fury. Attack mode. In a moment he went from lazy calm to vicious retaliation, all claws and teeth.Then they settled again, uneasy. She was hyper alert, turning at any and every noise. Voices in the cars, engines restarting, the breeze stiffening. Then the other cars left and Custard manoeuvred us even closer for better shots. Our car was built for 9 people and it felt empty. Chris and I were up in the first passenger seats behind Custard. The lioness kept looking at me, fascinated by the big lens’s zoom movement, then fixing her gaze back on me. Then she sat up a little straighter, looked even more intensely, her neck muscles tensing – Christ, she was going to spring! ‘I’ll go a bit closer – did you get some good shots?’ Custard was still trying to get the angle better for us, take us in closer. ‘Yep.Great.Thanks.’ Staccato responses.Stifling the panic. Let’s just get the hell out of here….NOW.
Utterly unnerving. Later, Custard explained it was because she was guarding small cubs. She hadn’t seen the males most likely in three months and had to re-establish the bond before she felt the cubs were safe from being killed by them.She was ultra nervous, ultra aware. The brothers lazed about, unperturbed and relaxed, but she was ready to pounce at anything she felt a threat from.
They were truly magnificent lions, all of them.
Hyenas were around the camp from our second night, after we all went to bed.The smell of food attracted them, even though the camp was kept super tidy. I found them really disturbing, came to dread that ‘ooo – whoop’ rising call that signalled their presence. One crunched the bones of something VERY close to my tent one night and there was no way I could sleep. In fact, I spent a fair bit of each night almost rigid with tension, listening to them, while Chris slumbered away in blissful ignorance. In the past, at the public site, crazies had been feeding them and they’d grown so bold many had to be shot.On our last night, Mosu arrived with the proper toilet attachment for the tent and it was all set up for us getting back after the evening drive. It was a ‘ta -rah’ moment, as the guys showed off the new arrangement.Yep, mighty impressive. Mariam herself came too, to apologise for the mix-up in person and to offer us a free Chobe Sunset cruise too. Tall Custard’s doing, behind the scenes.Excellent.
However, I was still too ‘ feart’ to unzip the tent and cross the few feet into the new loo arrangement in the middle of the night with the hyenas close by.It was a bit loose and flappy at the bottom – too easily nudged through by hyenas for my liking.We now had a full sized chemical loo in Moremi in the ‘attachment’ – all to ourselves – but I much preferred the hole in the ground set up in the Delta. Seemed more hygienic and far less hassle in terms of sorting out etc.
Back to hyenas….
A boy had been killed by hyenas in Moremi a number of years before, in a similar camp set up. Turned out Custard was guiding another group in the area when it happened. The boy had taken his family’s guide at his word ( it had been said as a ‘joke’) and left food out for them beside his tent so that he could get some close-up shots of them at night.They grabbed him and took off with him in the dead of night.What remained of his head was found two days later.The guide was banned for life.
Frustrations: we weren’t in a private concession as in Sabi so had to play by the National Park rules – no off roading to follow lion into the bush or follow tracks. Following a predator or tracks for ages had been a real highlight in Sabi Sands.No night driving either.We had more exciting drives in Sabi…kills, hunts, leopard up close every day, following wild dogs several times for quite a long time. Botswana had more animals and birds overall….bigger herds and larger lion prides.
£1000 fine for self drivers who did this: guides lost their licence.Custard worked incredibly hard to do what he could is and that’s all I’ll say on this; we had some amazing sightings up close of lion.I know he also found this very frustrating, as he often operated off-road in the private concessions.We had great safari guides in Sabi Sands but I did feel Custard was at a different level again in terms of experience and knowledge and sheer commitment to top notch service.
The reality of living alongside predators
Custard had been surprised that we had walked in the Delta without a guide with a rifle; he would always do that.Nevertheless, he was quite clear that the animals are not interested in us; fear us mostly, prefer to avoid us. I was aware of that but it can be hard to believe.We saw several men from Khwai village fishing , by themselves, down at the river late afternoon. No guns; a stick perhaps; occasionally a dog. Hippos and crocs were the biggest threat, not lion or hyena. In fact, lion move through Khwai village often , using its dusty sandy road.We saw fresh tracks, right past the houses.No wonder so many keep dogs. Custard had been out on a night drive in Khwai Concession when he came upon two locals, walking in the dark armed only with flashlights and sticks. Animals don’t like flashlights apparently; think it is fire. Yes, one or two deaths happened each year but it was carelessness, usually(!)
Next day – the long dusty bumpy drive to Savuti.