Central Kalahari

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The Central Kalahari Game Reserve is a huge park, the second largest in the world at 52,800 square kilometres, and has a wide range of animals scattered throughout it. It is technically a desert but has a range of habitats and as we are visiting after the rainy season there is abundant vegetation. Accommodation in the park is limited and can be difficult to book so our camp site locations are dictated by what is available at late notice. We are entering through the Xade Gate which is a long way south and west of the main part of the park we want to visit. Our first two nights in the park will be more than 160 km from the entrance so we spend a night bush camping just outside the park boundary. Unlike our last camp just outside the Kgalagadi Trans-frontier park we have no nocturnal visits from lions, the only wildlife we see are some butterflies forming a cluster on damp sand.

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After we leave the park reception at Xade the first section of the drive is through quite dense bush and slow going and, although we see signs that elephant have been in the area very recently, we don’t catch sight of any. In fact we see very few animals at all until we reach Piper Pan where we see the usual complement of Springbok and Oryx. A less common sighting is the fascinating Secretary Bird, so named because the feathers sticking out from its head can appear similar to pens stuck behind the ears of an office worker. Not sure I see that myself but it makes a memorable name.

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After lunch at one of the campsites we continue the second half of the journey and arrive at our campsite by mid afternoon. Just as we are nearing it we see giraffe crossing the road in front of us. More and more appear and eventually we count seventeen, the largest herd we have seen. They are walking away from the direction of our camp so we hope it is on their normal path to or from water.

Most of the campsites in the park are very spaced out, our nearest neighbours are 14 km away. Our campsite is on a rise above the San Pan but the views are limited by trees and the ground is uneven and covered in prickles, maybe that is why it hadn’t been booked already. Paul shovels away the prickles to give us room to sit and to work at the kitchen and we shovel out some sand under one side of the car to level out the vehicle. Its not an ideal spot but the reappearance of the giraffe next morning makes up for it. They are passing behind the car and are very curious and stop to gaze at us.

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We head out for a drive in the morning and spend most of the day parked under some trees beside the Tau Pan which is not too far away. We see quite a few antelope milling around but none are very close. Its very pleasant though and a lovely spot to enjoy being out in the bush and reading in between gazing around. After lunch we decided to drive a little further around the pan and then to head back to camp. Less than 200 metres away we see a young male lion lazing under a bush. We watch for a while but then our attention appears to annoy him, or perhaps it is just time to make a move, and he ambles off. We are able to follow for a while but he eventually leaves the road and heads into the bush.

After another night at our campsite we move to our next camp which is only a few hours easy driving away. The only time we need to pause in our drive is when we see another lion. Sometimes it can be difficult to see lion in the bush, this one is hard to miss. Its actually lying on the road as we approach and shows no sign of moving until we get quite close when it moves to a bush right next to the road. We travel past and apart from turning to watch us he shows no sign of disturbance, and before we leave the area he has settled down for another snooze. At least he is not on the road now so he won’t have to move when the next pesky lot of tourists drive by.

We arrive at our new camp, Lekubu, by late morning. It is also lacking a view but at least it has no prickles. It is situated just at the start of Deception Valley so we continue on to a better spot for a picnic lunch and soon find another grove of trees near an open area with large herds of Springbok and Oryx as well as Zebra. Recent rains have added a sprinkling of wildflowers to the grass.

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As we continue our drive we see plenty more game including lots of ostrich roaming across the pans along with large herds of wildebeest, oryx and springbok.

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Deception Pan is damp and, rather than take one of the tracks right next to it and risk getting bogged, we travel part way around on a drier track. Its getting later in the afternoon and storm clouds are gathering but there is time for yet another photo of the majestic Oryx, this one in full flight.

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Rain starts before we get back to our campsite and soon becomes very heavy. We had considered camping in the grove of trees where we had our lunch but now we see why the camp sites are set on rises away from the edge of the pans. The track becomes very muddy and we slide our way through several sections of the track but reach our sandy and safe camp site with no problems.

We have one more night in the park and another longish drive to reach it the next day. We are a little concerned about the track, or at least I am, but our trusty vehicle, and experienced driver, get us through the muddy patches with no worse than a little slipping and sliding. We pass the two largest of the campgrounds, Kori overlooking the Kori Pan and Deception not too far away. Here the sites are closer together and they are the easiest to reach, perhaps accounting for why they are all fully booked. We are continuing on to one of the three camp sites in the Passarge Valley via tracks that pass by Sunday Pan and Leopard Pan. Again we are 14 km from our nearest neighbour. We haven’t seen as much wildlife in this area but the scenery has been great and the camp site is by far the nicest we have been in so it is well worth the drive. Thankfully no more rain falls during the night. Instead we leave the area to the sight of the valley still slumbering under a heavy morning mist.

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The mist lifts as we breakfast beside the Leopard Pan. There have been recent sightings of, you guessed it, leopard and we are hopeful but out of luck. Still it is a very pleasant place for our cereal and coffee before we make the long drive out of the park and up to Maun. Luckily the sun is drying out the roads but we still have several patches of mud to negotiate and twenty kilometres of large mud pools on the road after we leave the park. We even have ducks swimming on the road. I thought this was supposed to be a desert!

 

 

Kgalagadi Trans-frontier Park

 

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A Field of Springbok

When we visited Botswana last year it was towards the end of the dry season and the weather was getting very hot. Too hot, we decided, to visit the desert areas of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve and the Kgalagadi Trans-frontier Park. We promised ourselves we would return to travel in those areas when there had been some rain and the temperatures would be more comfortable.

After we flew back into South Africa in early March it took us two busy weeks in Johannesburg to finalise all the changes we wanted to the fitout on our vehicle and to spend time with Paul’s mother, sister and other family members.

Because we had sold the trailer we needed to make numerous changes to the fitout of the Toyota so we had more fridge, fuel and water capacity and space to fit in all the things we would need to carry to make our lives comfortable and safe for the next two plus years, including of course all Paul’s camera and computer gear. We also wanted a new roof top tent which was more comfortable, easier to set up, and had more air and light as well as a new awning to provide better shelter. While we were out of the country Gary had completed lots of work re-fitting out the interior of the land cruiser. He had installed our new fridge where the back seat had been and made a great shelving system next to and in front of it so Paul could securely stow all his camera and computer gear and still be able to easily access it all. A new water tank and gas bottle carrier had been ordered and our new roof top tent and awning was due to be installed a couple of days after we arrived. The roof rack had been modified to allow them to fit and Jerry cans and our storage box for awnings and mats were in place. Other handy features Gary had designed and built were tables which could be clipped on to both sides of the rear of the truck or on top of the drawers at the back and a wash basin support which fitted on to a rear spare wheel.

We were very happy with all the high quality work he had completed and after living with it on the road for a month we are even happier with it all. Thank you Gary.

Paul would still need somewhere to set up his iMac to process his photos so we bought a ground tent we could set up when we were staying put for a little longer.

By the time we had had the roof top tent, awning, water tank and gas bottle carrier fitted, had the car serviced, found and bought a list of items we needed, stocked up our provisions, caught up with some people we had met on our last visit and installed the solar panels we were just about out of time and Paul struggled to find time to reorganize his photographic files and process a few to share while I juggled everything to make it all fit in the car.

It was time to get back into the bush and we headed west out of Johannesburg in the pouring rain two weeks after we landed in South Africa. By mid afternoon the next day the weather was hot and sunny and we were checking into our campsite at Twee Rivieren at the South African entrance to the Kgalagadi Park.

All together we spent six nights in the park, two at Twee Rivieren and two at Nossob in the South African section and one each at Polentswa and Swartpan in the Botswana section. We also had one night just north of the Kaa gate in Botswana. We took drives each morning and afternoon so we had a good chance to explore quite a lot of the area.

Beautiful Gemsbok, also called Oryx, were abundant showing why the South African section used to be called the Gemsbok National Park. Springbok were the other very abundant type of antelope and we also saw wildebeest, hartebeest, impala, and bush duikers.

Other animals we saw included zebra, black backed jackals, a bat eared fox and lots of ostriches. I finally saw some meerkats and loved watching them standing upright and peering all around before scurrying back to their holes. We also saw lots of social weaver nests, they are quite a feature of the park. We had a distant sighting of a cheetah but hardly enough to pick out its markings as it rested in the shade of a tree several hundred metres from the track.

Even though we didn’t see any of the lions which are one of the main draw cards of the Botswana section of the park we enjoyed the rugged bush scenery and and the general feeling of isolation.

When we left the park we drove just a short distance from the gate to the Kaa pan where herds of springbok, Oryx, Eland and Wildebeest grazed on the short grass covering most of the area. We decided it would be a good place to make a bush camp and have a good view of the full moon a well as a good chance of seeing more wild life in the morning. We selected a spot well clear of any trees or bushes so we had a good field of vision and settled down to enjoy the views.

About 2.00 am we woke to the cough of a lion. Instantly wide awake we peered out of the windows and, under the light of the full moon, we could make out a distant movement. As we watched we saw more movements and eventually we had a pride of at least seven lions, including two large males, circling our vehicle. The nearest was a curious female who approached within 50 metres. We felt quite safe in our hard topped roof top tent, well pretty safe anyway, but we certainly weren’t venturing out of it to get a camera to record the amazing experience.

The show continued for an hour or so but finally they lost interest in us and faded away into the night. In the morning there was no trace they had been there, with just a few springbok grazing as the mist lifted. The drive out to the main road continued for the next couple of hours through this buffer zone surrounding the park but eventually our sightings of springbok and other wild game gave way to sightings of cattle and goats, and, as we began passing people and villages the road turned to bitumen and this part of our Botswana adventure ended. Onward to the next!

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Springbok grazing as the mist rises at Kaa Pan

Gracious Luang Prabang

Grand old car and grand old building in historic and gracious Luang Prabang

The city of Luang Prabang sits on the mighty Mekong River in the north east of Laos. At its heart is the charming and historic old town which is included in the UNESCO World Heritage List of important cultural sites. It’s an easy place to visit with an international airport and plenty of accommodation and dining options to suit all budgets and, in our opinion, should be on everyones ‘must see list’. It’s the last destination on our trip to northern Thailand and Laos and it’s a charming city in which to wrap up our visit to South East Asia.

The entire old town in Luang Prabang is included on the UNESCO World Heritage List of important cultural sites and it was a treat to wander around and look at all the French Colonial Buildings and take in the atmosphere.

Buddhist Temples abound, large and small. It’s very easy to find yourself on quiet back streets or lanes with no other tourists around and maybe monks sweeping leaves in the temple grounds.

Luang Prabang is situated on a peninsula with the wide Mekong River flowing past one side and the much smaller Khan River forming the other boundary. During the dry season bamboo bridges are built to allow locals to cross the smaller of the rivers to other parts of the city. Ferries shuttle non-stop across the Mekong to carry people and vehicles across its expanse.

Other interesting places we found on our ambling walks were fabric and weaving showplaces, photographic galleries, great places for coffee and amazing croissants. On our wanderings around the town we meet up with a fellow traveller from China. Like us he travels in a 4WD and he has had some great experiences travelling throughout Asia, including Mongolia which is on our must see list. Paul and he made an instant connection. He is also an artist but while Paul works with digital photographic images, he paints on canvases and the top of his vehicle is stacked with new canvases and half the interior is filled with completed works. When he runs out of room he ships them back to his home in China and has new canvases sent onward to him. He took a liking to Paul’s hat and they traded for a photo.

Paul meets a fellow traveller who wanted to swap hats.

Every morning the monks from the many temples collect alms from the faithful followers who line the streets. Paul was out early on several mornings to capture more images of them.

We treated ourselves to a very comfortable room in a guest house overlooking the Mekong. From our balcony we could watch the sun setting over the river or, if we wanted a view unobstructed by branches, we could simply cross the road to a bar opposite and enjoy our sundowners there. At the end of the dry season a lot of fields are burned to prepare them for the next planting and the continual haze in the sky creates a very red sunset.

After our sundowners we would set out to find yet another wonderful place to eat. With its French and Asian influences combined with a constant tourist population, Luang Prabang certainly has lots of good places to eat. The cheapest place for an evening feed is probably in the night food market where less than $2 AUD will get you a plate you can pile high with all sorts of vegetarian food and for a little more you can choose what meat or fish you want grilled. You can then grab a Beer Laos and sit on of the bench seats opposite the stall and chat to other people while you wait for the meat to be cooked.

The night food market is in a small lane just off the main street where a night market stretches for half a kilometre. Lots of local crafts are for sale there or alternatively you can stop at a smaller market which operates all day. Next to it we found the best spot for mango smoothies, or any other type of smoothie you want. As well as any fruit you can add peanut butter or Oreo cookies, but we’ll stick to our mangoes! Our favourite restaurant is deep in the heart of the old town, a tiny place with just five tables and a counter and often people standing patiently in the street waiting. It certainly rated a return visit.

Tuk tuks patrol the streets and congregate on corners seeking passengers. The most common offering is a trip out to Kuang Si Waterfall and it is well worth a visit. We agree on a price and travel 30km out of town to the falls. They are in a large reserve with a ten minute walk to the beautiful falls. The crystal clear water has lots of calcium in it and smaller falls cascade through a succession of pools. Swimming is allowed in some of the larger pools a little away from the main falls.

After enjoying the beauty of the falls and the pools and green rain forest areas surrounding them we return to entrance calling into the Sun Bear enclosure on the way. Then we walk down the hill for a couple of hundred metres to a Butterfly Park. Beautiful orchids and other flowers line the path on the way to the enclosure and the splendid array of butterflies provide even more beautiful colours.

Finally it’s time to finish this section of our adventures and take a long plane flight on to Johannesburg in South Africa to experience more of that huge continent. Backpacking has been fun and I’m sure we’ll incorporate more side trips like this in our future travels.

Heading on to our next adventure

 

Travelling back in time to Muang Ngoi

Mist rising in Muang Ngoi

I fell in love with the village of Muang Ngoi in Laos when I visited it five years ago and when I reluctantly left I kept some local money as a promise to myself that I would return. Finally I’ve made it and Paul is keen to visit the area as well.

Muang Ngoi lies on the Ou River (Nam Ou) between Muang Khua in the far north west of Laos and Luang Prabang, the major city in the north of Laos. The river is almost the only means of reaching the village and at that time only a handful of tourists visited it. It felt as though the village existed in a time warp with no cars or motor cycles and with chooks roaming freely in the main street.

I was worried that increasing tourism may have changed the nature of the village since my last visit. Tourism had certainly increased but I’m very happy to say that, in my opinion, the village has retained its essential character and the changes which have occurred have hopefully brought about many positive opportunities for the local people and few detrimental side effects. A new dam being built up river may have more alarming consequences, I guess only time will tell.

To reach Muang Ngoi we caught a public boat from Muang Khua along with about 15 other tourists and a few local people travelling to villages down stream. The boat had a few reasonably comfortable seats at the front which were quickly filled and the rest of us sat on low planks lining the sides of the boat. To bypass the new dam we were off-loaded above the construction, crammed into a tuk tuk along with all our packs, and then dropped off below the dam to wait for another boat to collect us. This time Paul and I managed to snaffle the comfortable seats for the final ride to Nam Ou.

The trip lasted about four hours but any discomfort  was more than made up by the beautiful scenery along the way.

After our delightful trip we reached Muang Ngoi and climbed the stairs from the river along with a few of the other travellers. We called into some of the guest houses lining the river and found a rustic bungalow overlooking the river where we could relax for a lazy five days. The bungalow was mainly constructed from bamboo and the view from the hammock on the small verandah more than compensated for the very basic bathroom and the rough and ready construction.

We sampled different restaurants for our meals but often ended up at one of two adjacent places which had the best views of the river and all the activity on the river and reliably tasty food.

Apart from eating, our main activity was taking short strolls around the tiny village. Longer treks into the surrounding forests and up mountains or boat or canoe trips were available but although we considered them the time passed very easily.

Paul was out before sunrise several times and captured some nice shots of the monks from the temple at the edge of the village and of the early morning light.

Finally it was time to leave Muang Ngoi and travel further down river to Ngong Kiaow where we caught a mini bus to Luang Prabang, our final destination in Asia for this trip.

Leaving Muang Ngoi, passing our two favourite restaurants