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SAR, Botswana, Namibia and so on - Novemeber 2018

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Old Sunday 9th December 2018, 16:48   #1
opisska
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SAR, Botswana, Namibia and so on - Novemeber 2018

We have just come back from by far the most productive birding trip we have ever done - and it's even more fascinating considering it wasn't really a "birding" trip as we went with a friend who collects countries instead of birds and we drove an insane trajectory to visit 8(or 9, depending on your views) countries. We have also spent a lot of time on watching mammals, which was also the best experience in this regard we ever had. Seeing how hard it was for me to find relevant information on southern Africa before the trip, I think a report is in order, focused mostly on practical aspects - maybe it makes the report boring, but I hope someone finds it useful.

First, short summary: in 3 people (me, my wife and our friend) we travelled 11600 km in a 4x4 car across South Africa (SAR), Botswana, Namibia, southern Mosambique, eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) and Lesotho, with a side trip to Victoria falls (Zimbabwe and Zambia) and a slightly illegal side step about one meter into Angolan territory. We haven't remotely IDed all the birds we saw yet, but so far we are at 334 species, out of which 273 is lifers, which is more lifers than we ever got in a year. We also saw at least 53 species of mammals, including almost everything you can dream of when you think about Africa. The whole endeavor took 25 days and cost roughly 2700 EUR per person including airfare and everything else.

Second, I would like to answer the two key questions that bothered me the most during the planning:

4WD or normal car? - As a 4WD is so much more expensive to rent, this is a really big budgetary choice and the advice I found was conflicted. Also most people are chicken and would recommend a 4WD to a perfectly doable road - if I tell you you need a 4WD, you can trust me, as someone who drove a 2WD Chevrolet Corsa to 5000 meters a.s.l. in Argentina, 20 kms offroad ...

All main roads in the area are doable in a normal car and so was every numbered road we met in Nambia, but I am told that this is not true in NW Namibia beyond Opuwo. Etosha and Kruger are perfectly 2WD, so is half of Mahango in Caprivi, so in Nambia, we needed the 4WD only for the last 4 kms of the road to Sossusvlei, the waterhole in Mahango and to reach Ngepi camp. In Botswana, smaller roads can be impassable without 4WD, but the main problem is that virtually no place of interest we visited was remotely passable without a fully-fledged 4WD - Chobe Riverfront, Savuti, Moremi, our wild foray into Okawango delta, salt pans. The main roads in Tuli are 2WD-friendly, but without a 4WD we wouldn't get into the Molema camp. Maputo special reserve in Mosambique also needs a 4WD.

The problem in Chobe, Moremi and Maputo reserve isn't some "rough bumpy road", but half a meter deep soft sand. There is absolutely no point in trying to pass in a 2WD car and the rangers in those places just won't let you anyway - well, in Savuti, you won't even get within 30 kms of the gate without a 4WD, so any kind of policy on this would be redundant ....

Obviously, you can still use a normal car and just take organized wildlife drives into the parks, but for a birder, the ability to go at your own pace and stop where you want is invaluable. We definitely do not regret the 4WD choice.

Do you need reservations for everything? - The Lonely Planet as well as most of the internet raves about how you definitely need to book every place you wanna stay months in advance. That honestly may even be true, except for when you visit the area in the lowest of possible seasons, which happens to be November.

The key thing to understand is that in Botswana, you probably won't be allowed into a park unless you have a booking for accommodation within the park. This seems to be true for Chobe (with the exception of riverfront), but I got somewhat confusing information in Moremi. In Namibia (and Chobe riverfront), day visits are possible - however, sleeping in the park is extremely desirable anyway, because evenings/mornings are the best for everything.

We hate itineraries though, so we decided to only book at the last moment and see how it goes. In Swakopmund, we went to book camping in Etosha in the NWR office two days ahead and got the two nights we wanted, albeit we had to change the planned site into another for one of the nights. In Botswana, the camps are separated from the park administration, but SKL has on office in Kasane next to the Riverfront gate - we were able to book one night in Savuti three days in advance here, but Ihlaha was fully booked. They also tried to arrange camping in Moremi for us, but they could never reach the company (Xomae) by phone - I finally managed to do that on third attempt from our reception in Kasane and paid online with no problems.

Again, your mileage might vary outside of the torturous heat and dust of November, when more people come here, but our experience with leaving bookings to the last days was absolutely positive, because it gave us the flexibility needed to actually make it through the ambitious circuit we took.

Now for some more practical insights!

Getting around - we rented a Ford Ranger using Drive South Africa search system that hooked us up with Britz. This seems to be like a reasonable company - some of their policies are a little unusual, but the car was in perfect condition and included an aluminum "trunk" constructed above the otherwise open bed to store luggage without it getting stolen on the first traffic light, an extra tank pushing the fuel capacity to 150 liters of gasoline (to amusement of some filling station personnel), two spare tires and a 12V tire compressor - which is an absolutely must-have for any 4WD driving (although I had to ask for it despite it being mentioned in the booking). The company offers papers allowing you to cross in all the countries we needed and assistance anywhere, including a promise of a replacement vehicle to be sent no matter how far we are. They also for example allowed us to buy a new tire and refunded most of the cost. The only real drawback is that before any significant repair or tow, you have to call them first for it to be eligible for refund, which might be challenging in some areas.

Driving around the region is straightforward, border crossing is reasonably easy as long as you don't go to Zambia/Zimbabwe (where we took a tourist shuttle instead, leaving the car in Kasane), only in Botswana some main roads are a bit scary, because they are so full of potholes that people are used to drive around them no matter how much they get in your way in the process.

I have actually never driven in deep sand before and it took me some learning. The silver bullet here really is lowering the pressure from 2.3 bar to 1.5 - after that, it's like driving a whole other car, but this is where you need the compressor to get the pressure back up when returning to tarmac. Don't forget to lock your diff in the sand and switch to 4x4 "low" (reduction gear) on consistently sandy tracks. This might be a bit counter-intuitive to people who ever drove a 2WD car in slightly sandy places, but super-low gears are actually very useful in deep sand. I would normally engage the reduction for the whole day in a sandy park and use 2nd gear to get moving, reserving 1st only for getting out of being stuck in sand. The added benefit is the much more finer spacing of gears, because the optimal rev range in sand is narrower; I have found it absurd at first, but I really drove for hours at 6th gear with reduction (roughly equivalent to 3rd) and it was the optimal way.

For orientation, we used just maps.me, which presents OpenStreetMaps in a handy way. In many places it was almost unbelievably perfect, with every track shown, but in Maputo reserve it was a bit misleading, getting us lost in some uncharted village. In northern Namibia it also showed a numbered road that was just not there.

Sleeping - after some doubts about safety from big animals, we still decided to just take our tents and camp next to the car. A lot of people rent "camping" variants of the 4WDs with tents on the roof, but we find it silly and just not our style. In Etosha, the camps are fenced and safe, but in Botswana, even an organised campsite means you are still sleeping in the same continuous space where all the big cats, hippos and elephants live. But somehow, people do this and attacks in tents are very rare, just don't go wandering around your site in the darkness.

Outside of reserves, we wild-camped a bit, 3 times in Namibia, once in Botswana and once semi-wild in Lesotho. Those are very safe countries and in Namibia, we even encountered some very, very "local" people from tiny huts and they were perfectly friendly. However this is supposedly a very bad idea in SAR, because of the risk of criminality.

We tried a "guesthouse" for the first night in some small town in SAR, but the room was so full of mosquitoes with no chance to build a net that we just evacuated to the garden and pitched a tent there. After that, we realized that our tent really is the most reliable mosquito protection we can think of and continued using campsites even in Swakopmund and Kasane.

Costs - people say that safari is expensive and to some extend, this is true. Renting the 4WD itself costs almost 80 EUR per day and gasoline is only slightly cheaper than in Europe. Park entry fees aren't dramatic, but accommodation prices, especially in Botswana can be, to use a Lonely Planet metaphor, eye-watering. Honestly, people who decided to charge 4-figure sums in USD for one night in a lodge must have been high and so must be the people who actually pay that. Even the $50 per person (yes, USD) asked for camping indicates some mild substance abuse, but at least that is within our budgetary possibilities.

Outside of parks, campsites go typically for 10-20 bucks per person, which is doable. Food in supermarkets (there are actually western-like stores almost everywhere) is similar to eastern Europe. A quite expensive adventure is Victoria falls - if you want to see both sides, visas and park entries alone will set you back some $100 or so per person, but it's quite worth it.

Animal watching - Another aspect I really didn't know what to expect about, animal watching turned out to be easy and exciting even after many days of doing so. While in SAR, big animals are restricted to reserves, in Namibia and Botswana, you can meet some pretty interesting things in the open country. Luckily for us wild campers, at least lions and elephants seem to be mostly restricted to the parks as well, making the non-park landscape relatively safe.

We found the best wildlife watching in Etosha and Chobe riverfront. Etosha has an awesome system of waterholes which (unlike many that we visited in northern Kruger) usually really have water and lead to big congregations of animals. Chobe riverfront has a similar effect at work around, not surprisingly, the namesake riverfront - seeing how the rest of Chobe around Savuti was super dry, one can understand why the animals concentrate there in such numbers.

Chobe proper (Savuti) was a little disappointing because the marshes and the Savuti Channel were completely dry and thus there was not that much wildlife, but it was still quite an interesting experience due to the remoteness of the area. Moremi had much more water and more animals with the bonus of the the only cheetahs and honey-badger we saw. We also made an effort to get inside the Okawango delta outside Moremi, which worked on the second attempt using the road turning off at -19.783716, 23.648221. We got some 50 kms deep using some very wonky bridges (4WD only), eventually reaching a communal concession that allows day visitors for free (no wild camping) where we watched the true African paradise with a lot of water bodies surrounded by all sorts of big animals without paying a dime or dealing with any permits and stuff!

A definitive highlight for mammalwatching was a night drive in Tuli. There, on private land, you aren't allow to do any self-driving outside of the main roads, but those "main roads" are actually some pretty deserted tracks (2WD possible) from nowhere to nowhere and you are allowed to drive on them in the night, which allowed us to see porcupines, genets (not gannets!) and an aardvark.

Birding - Having very little time due to the ambitious plan, we didn't really keep a list of species, we just took photos and did quick checks in an ID book - which made us really surprised when we paused and quickly estimated having already seen more than 200 species at that point. The birding didn't really feel "superb" at any point, but the stream of birds was constant and the large area covered with a lot of different biotopes has really pushed the amount of species to an extreme, despite us having spend so much time just driving into a distance.

In the reserves where big predators are present, you are required to stay in your car and you probably really should take this as good advice. From the car, you can obviously still bird and you will get a lot of birds that way, especially around waterholes and other water sources, but it is a little bit disconnected from the nature. That's why we often found a morning walk around a campsite (outside a park, or a fenced one in Etosha for example) to be one of the most productive birding activities. Especially nice in this regards were some of the wild campsites we took in random places in Namibia and Botwsana.

Some specific places we found good for birds include:
- Luderitz coast: a penguin colony and lots of seabirds
- Walwis bay "wetlands": in reality probably a waste processing facility, but with ducks, lesser flamingoes etc.
- Swakopmund "river mouth": a very accessible small wetland
- Halali camp in Etosha: african scops owl roosting near the pool in the day with other birds around, waterhole at night has drinking sandgrouse, barn and marsh owls and nightjars
- Popa falls and nearby Ngepi Camp on Okavango river with riverine habitats
- Victoria falls: the waterfall mist creates a small patch of "rainforest", which is as great as it sounds
- Bridge over river near Pafuri camp in northern Kruger (where you are allowed to exit the car while on the bridge), one of the best single sites
- Maputo special reserve: we were not aware of the ban on leaving the car, but as it is only due to elephants, we would have ignored it anyway. Much greener and moister than other places and thus really nice for birds.
- Malolotja reserve in eSwatini: here you can already hike normally, lots of grassland birds
- Drakensberg in SAR: a whole different lot of mountain species
- Sehonglong river valley near Mohkotlong, Lesotho - bald ibis colony next to the road crossing

Final thoughts - it was an awesome experience. Very different from what I would naively expect but mostly in being better in every aspect. For many years I was sceptical about Africa and now I am just thinking when to go there again. Yes, some things can be expensive and some frustrating (such as the confusing and confused bureaucracy or somewhat messy urban centers), but the whole new world that visiting Africa opens is worth it.
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Old Sunday 9th December 2018, 17:22   #2
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Gannets on a night drive is impressive Jan!!!
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Old Sunday 9th December 2018, 17:52   #3
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Gannets on a night drive is impressive Jan!!!
Are birders now going to flock to Tuli in thousands?! I will rather edit it to keep the secret safe!
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Old Sunday 9th December 2018, 21:55   #4
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4WD for Ngepi, which way did you go?

We did it easily in a Chevy Spark (14000km, six weeks) and here's the well know camp sign that proves it.

http://ngepicamp.com/wp-content/uplo...06/Slide2a.jpg

We did Sossusvlei too and can't recall any limitations due to out 2WD but the C13 was interesting in our little car as was the drive in to Kunene River Lodge.
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Old Sunday 9th December 2018, 22:55   #5
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4WD for Ngepi, which way did you go?

We did it easily in a Chevy Spark (14000km, six weeks) and here's the well know camp sign that proves it.

http://ngepicamp.com/wp-content/uplo...06/Slide2a.jpg

We did Sossusvlei too and can't recall any limitations due to out 2WD but the C13 was interesting in our little car as was the drive in to Kunene River Lodge.
Lol, there must be another route to the camp that I missed, because the one we took was almost silly. There were some funny signs (mainly focused on their mysetirous hate of Landrovers) on the way I didn't stop to read in detail, so maybe that's why :) In Sossusvlei, you need to park a 2WD vehicle 4 kms before the end of the road and either walk or take a shuttle for a couple of bucks. If you can show me proof you did the last 4 kms in a 2WD, I am gonna personally go there and make you a statue out of Big Daddy Dune! C13 we took only north of Aus and was completely 2WD, the only slightly dramatic numbered road was D3710 and of course the lovely D3640 that actually does not seem to exist at all ...
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Old Monday 10th December 2018, 08:06   #6
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Roads are changing all the time and even in 2010-11 when we did it, we were finding occasional roads that were tarmac which we'd expected to be gravel. One example is the road in to Bruce Miller farm in Zambia where you go for the endemic Chapman's Barbet.
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Old Monday 10th December 2018, 12:10   #7
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In Sossusvlei, you need to park a 2WD vehicle 4 kms before the end of the road and either walk or take a shuttle for a couple of bucks. If you can show me proof you did the last 4 kms in a 2WD, I am gonna personally go there and make you a statue out of Big Daddy Dune!
When we were at Sossusvlei, we had stopped at the 2x4 car park having a bite when a family drove straight past in their 2x4. As soon as they hit the soft sand they stopped dead, no more that 10m in. I pulled them back out using my 4x4.

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Old Monday 10th December 2018, 14:37   #8
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Lol, there must be another route to the camp that I missed, because the one we took was almost silly. There were some funny signs (mainly focused on their mysetirous hate of Landrovers) on the way I didn't stop to read in detail, so maybe that's why :) In Sossusvlei, you need to park a 2WD vehicle 4 kms before the end of the road and either walk or take a shuttle for a couple of bucks. If you can show me proof you did the last 4 kms in a 2WD, I am gonna personally go there and make you a statue out of Big Daddy Dune! C13 we took only north of Aus and was completely 2WD, the only slightly dramatic numbered road was D3710 and of course the lovely D3640 that actually does not seem to exist at all ...
A memory that obviously eludes my old brain.
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Old Tuesday 11th December 2018, 14:02   #9
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On OpenStreetMaps, the Sossusvlei track (the final 4 kms) has a description something like "Don't try this as a foreigner". Which has probably been edited in by the people who run the shuttle, because it's not that hard in a 4x4 :) But seeing a normal car stuck there must really make them laugh.
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Old Tuesday 11th December 2018, 16:12   #10
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We were there last month. We only had a 2WD saloon car, so parked-up and took the Landcruiser shuttle out to Deadvlei / Sossusvlei. The driver stopped to rescue two carloads of German tourists in 4x4 rentals who had got bogged in the sand. It took him about 2 minutes to get them unstuck, without the need for a tow: he had the demeanor of man who wasn't doing this for the first time!

It's one thing having a capable 4x4, it's another thing knowing how to drive it!
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Old Tuesday 11th December 2018, 18:13   #11
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We were there last month. We only had a 2WD saloon car, so parked-up and took the Landcruiser shuttle out to Deadvlei / Sossusvlei. The driver stopped to rescue two carloads of German tourists in 4x4 rentals who had got bogged in the sand. It took him about 2 minutes to get them unstuck, without the need for a tow: he had the demeanor of man who wasn't doing this for the first time!

It's one thing having a capable 4x4, it's another thing knowing how to drive it!
Not rocket surgery, first thing to do is let a bit of air out of your tyres.
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Old Tuesday 11th December 2018, 20:09   #12
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Not rocket surgery, first thing to do is let a bit of air out of your tyres.
Deflating tyres is overkill for a couple of kms of not-very-deep sand, especially if you don't have a compressor to re-inflate when you get back on the tar. More fundamental is knowing how to engage 4WD and low range, locking in a low gear if automatic, and keeping momentum.
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Old Tuesday 11th December 2018, 21:25   #13
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Deflating tyres is overkill for a couple of kms of not-very-deep sand, especially if you don't have a compressor to re-inflate when you get back on the tar. More fundamental is knowing how to engage 4WD and low range, locking in a low gear if automatic, and keeping momentum.
Not overkill if it stops you getting stuck.

Re compressor, why would you set out without one, if you know you need a 4X4, that means a chance of sand, especially in Africa.
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Old Tuesday 11th December 2018, 21:29   #14
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Deflating tyres is overkill for a couple of kms of not-very-deep sand, especially if you don't have a compressor to re-inflate when you get back on the tar. More fundamental is knowing how to engage 4WD and low range, locking in a low gear if automatic, and keeping momentum.
The key point here is that in Sossusvlei, if people don't know what they are doing, they hurt absolutely noone, because the track is 10-vehicles wide, so they are blocking no other vehicles and there are no dangerous animals, so walking around is fine (you can even just hike the track instead), so there is no reason to get too serious about this endeavour and it is great practice for further more critical 4x4 driving in, say, Chobe.

I found it worth deflating even for that short stretch, the sand is pretty deep in places and it's more respectful to make yourself able to drive through it slowly than to try to burst through the deep part using momentum, since there are many people on foot around. I was in posession of a compressor, but since the nearest filling station is just 50 kms out, I inflated tyres there, it's much more convenient (and the speed limit in the park prohibits you from driving on tarmac at speeds where deflated tyres would be dangerous).
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Old Tuesday 11th December 2018, 21:42   #15
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The most surpising thing for me, given the money that Etosha is making, is that there is no proper medical centre. We found this out after my wife stepped on one of Southern Africa's most potent Scorpions. We were driven, in the dark at break neck speed from Halali to Okaukuejo for basic, medical treatment.
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Old Tuesday 11th December 2018, 22:19   #16
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The most surpising thing for me, given the money that Etosha is making, is that there is no proper medical centre. We found this out after my wife stepped on one of Southern Africa's most potent Scorpions. We were driven, in the dark at break neck speed from Halali to Okaukuejo for basic, medical treatment.
Well, that's one way of getting a free night drive...
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Old Wednesday 12th December 2018, 08:37   #17
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Well, that's one way of getting a free night drive...
Nearly hit a Black Rhino on the way back and flushed two Marsh Owls from the road plus numerous Nightjars.

My wife was left in agony and only able to walk with great difficulty for about a week.

A few details about the species that got her, noted as 'potentailly lethal' but it's most often children that succumb.

http://www.toxinology.com/fusebox.cf...play&id=SC0429

and here s the perpetrator.

https://c1.staticflickr.com/4/3770/1...03942022_b.jpg
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Old Wednesday 12th December 2018, 10:14   #18
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That does sound painful! Glad she was ok in the end.

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Nearly hit a Black Rhino on the way back and flushed two Marsh Owls from the road plus numerous Nightjars.

My wife was left in agony and only able to walk with great difficulty for about a week.

A few details about the species that got her, noted as 'potentailly lethal' but it's most often children that succumb.

http://www.toxinology.com/fusebox.cf...play&id=SC0429
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Old Sunday 10th February 2019, 14:14   #19
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Moreorless final tally: 373 species (304 lifers)
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Old Monday 11th February 2019, 11:11   #20
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I decided I don't play with data enough at work, so let me present some silly graphs.

- cummulative distribution of all/new species as they piled up day by day
- daily overall species counts

Note this is done from photos, so there are some birds missing - either we did not take a photo, or we did not sort the photo under the bird - especially when there are multiple species on a photo, the photo counts only for one of those. But it gives the overall impression.
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