Showing posts with label nature. Show all posts
Showing posts with label nature. Show all posts

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Retrospective (July, 2012): Footloose in the Kyrgyz Mountains

Thunder Bay, May 11th

After my disappointing result on Peak Lenin back in July, 2012, I arrived back in Bishkek on July 18th to meet up with my partner on the upcoming Muztagh Ata climb, Eric.  He had arrived from Europe the day before and we met at the Asia Mountains Guesthouse, where we were installed in a comfortable room.  It was good to see him, and to look forward to new mountains and (we hoped) more success than I had had on Peak Lenin.

Kyrgyz life is all about horses and mountains 
July 18th and 19th passed in delightful sloth in Bishkek, buying supplies, eating and drinking well and planning our next move. We were leaving with the rest of our Muztagh Ata expedition on July 30th, which left us with 10 days or so of freedom to do some exploring.  Eric had just arrived from sea level, so we wanted to get some altitude into his blood, and some hiking into his legs.  We tossed around various ideas, including the Inylchek Glacier, one of the world's largest glaciers outside the polar regions, but logistics and timing were tough for the Inylchek, so we decided to go hiking on our own in the Terskey Ala-Tau mountains south of Lake Issyk Kul.  I had cycled along the north shore of the lake back in 2004, but hadn't gone to the south shore or stopped to do any hiking, and our guidebook made it sound like a great place to explore.  We stored our skis and heavy mountaineering gear in the storage room at Asia Mountains and set our alarm clocks for early in the morning of July 20th.

It was just as well that we got up at 6 am, as it took a while to get to the mashrutka stand and get going.  We inadventently took the long way to our destination, the town of Kyzyl Suu; we went first around the north side of the lake to the large regional centre of Karakol (the old Przhevalsk) and then took another marshrutka to Kyzyl Suu, rather than taking a direct marshrutka to Kyzyl Suu along the south shore of the lake.  This was, perhaps, a foreshadowing of route-finding to come!  It was a long ride in the minibus, although the scenery was pretty in places.  We were retracing my 2004 cycling route in reverse, and I remembered highlights like the ruins of the old Blue Turk capital of Balasagun (now called the Burana Tower near the dismal town of Tokmok).  The views across the lake were stunning, with a backdrop of snow-capped mountains (our ultimate destination) rising over the deep blue water.  We drove past the town of Cholpon Ata, where I had explored the ancient petroglyphs on the outskirts of town back in 2004, and stayed with a friendly Kyrgyz cyclist and his wife.

With a stop for food at a little roadside cafe at the northwest corner of Lake Issyk Kul, it took six and a half hours to get to Karakol. Once there we visited the rather unhelpful tourist office to try to figure out how to get to our hiking trailhead, and stopped to buy necessary supplies like bread, beer and gasoline for my MSR stove.  Eventually we caught another marshrutka for another hour to Kyzyl Suu, and then found a taxi driver to take us to Dzhyluu Suu, where we would start hiking.  We negotiated a price, threw our bags in the trunk of the Lada and set off.  As we drove, I thought "this isn't the road shown on the map!" and talked with the driver, but he insisted that we were headed to Dzhyluu Suu.  I was dubious, and when we got out of the car after a long drive, beside the entrance to a Soviet-era hotspring complex, I questioned some locals as to whether this was Dzhyluu Suu.  Only when we were reassured that it was did we get our packs out and set off up the valley.  It was already 5:30 pm and we only walked 15 minutes up a narrow valley beside a rushing river to the first decent camping spot we could find.  We erected my tent and cooked up some eggs, bread and sausage for dinner and then lazed beside a fire that was tough to light, as dry wood was in short supply.  It felt good to be out on our own, free to walk wherever we wanted, out in beautiful mountains and soul-restoring conifer forests.  

Camping in another idyllic meadow
We slept well, lulled to sleep by the burbling water of the river.  By 8:00 we were up, gobbling down some muesli, yoghurt, tea and delicious fresh peaches.  A group of local Kyrgyz herders wandered by to say hello; although it was only 9:30 am, they were wobbly with vodka, and it was a bizarre, disjointed conversation.  Like so many post-Soviet states, serious drunkenness is a problem in Kyrgyzstan, despite most of the population being nominally Muslim.  By 10:00 we had packed up and were hiking upstream, headed towards a pass marked on our map.  We followed the path as it climbed away from the river up some fairly steep slopes and then petered out in a meadow full of beautiful wildflowers.  We were puzzled; our map showed this as a major hiking route, used also by local herders, and yet there were only vague suggestions of tracks and some trampled grass that looked as though it had been done by grazing herds.  We kept pushing onwards as the grass and bushes got deeper and denser, and within a couple of hours we were utterly flummoxed.  Where the hell was the path?  The slope of the meadows kept getting steeper and steeper, and the footing grew ever more precarious.  We kept hoping that at any moment we might stumble upon the proper trail that we assumed we had lost.

Lovely scenery; pity it was the wrong valley!

Eric in the lovely but trackless Suruu Valley
As we continued to flounder, Eric got more and more annoyed, and his mood was not improved when he slipped on wet grass and twisted his ankle pretty severely.  Moving at a hobbling pace, we eventually decided that we needed local knowledge, so we made our way downhill and across the river on a small footbridge, then up the other side of the valley to where we had seen several women walking around a couple of yurts in the middle of their jailoo (summer high-altitude pasture).  Almost everyone in Kyrgyzstan, and particularly older people, speak Russian, and my Russian is good enough to get by, but I didn't understand what our interlocutor, a middle-aged Kyrgyz matron, was saying.  It didn't seem to make any sense.  We showed our map and asked which of the two possible notches on the skyline was the pass we were looking for.  She frowned at the name of the pass (the Taleti), and said that the valley we were in led to a pass that was really fit only for mountaineers with ropes, and that she had never heard of the pass we named. We kept asking, and after much head-scratching and miscommunication, suddenly the light went on in her eyes.  She asked what village we thought we would reach across the Taleti Pass, and then cackled with merriment.  WE WERE IN THE WRONG VALLEY!  My initial misgivings about the taxi driver's direction had been right.  But how had this happened?  Wasn't this Dzhyluu Suu?  The woman looked at me pityingly.  "Don't you know what Dzhyluu Suu means in Kyrgyz?  Hot Springs.  There are hot springs in almost every valley; there are at least three near Kyzyl Suu,"  The taxi driver had taken us to a different Hot Springs than the one we wanted, and we had been floundering around up a dead end valley, the Suruu, that ended in cliffs.  We hadn't found a path because there wasn't one; the local herders drove their animals up to graze where we had been flailing, and we had been following animal tracks for hours.  "Why didn't you tell us we were heading the wrong way?" I asked, rather lamely; she had been watching us for quite some time, and could easily have signalled across to us.  "I thought you were looking for mushrooms," she replied.  "The only reason anyone other than us ever goes up there is to look for mushrooms."  

Cute Kyrgyz girl on cheese-making duties in the mountains
There was nothing for us to do but to cut our losses and retreat the way we had come, muttering imprecations about our own stupidity and about the taxi driver.  We were two valleys west of where we should have been (the Jety Oguz valley), and the Suruu valley (the one we were in) really didn't lead anywhere.  Eric's ankle was swelling and painful, and we needed to get to a real trail that was on our maps.  It was hardly an auspicious start to our hiking adventure, but at least we knew what had gone wrong.  We bought some fresh bread and some fresh ayran (a salted yoghurt drink) and headed slowly back down the valley until we found a promising meadow to camp in.  We cooked up a nice dinner and sat around a campfire, shaking our heads at how we had managed to delude ourselves for so many hours that our reality corresponded to where we thought we were on our map.  It was funny now, but it hadn't been so amusing when we were completely lost and mystified.

Filling the valley with our campfire smoke
We slept deeply again that night, and woke up to beautiful weather.  We breakfasted on muesli and ayran, and had a visit from the lady from the jailoo.  Having talked that evening with her husband about the crazy foreigners, she was concerned that we would try to climb the treacherous pass at the end of the valley, and was relieved when we assured her that we were headed downhill instead.  She brought us more ayran for free (Kyrgyz hospitality in the mountains is legendary) and we put it into the side pocket of my backpack.  We traipsed down the valley for an hour and a half, including a rather cold river crossing, to the hot springs where we had started our little misadventure.  A local taxi driver agreed to drive us back to Kyzyl Suu for 600 som (a bit over US$ 10), and off we went.  We stopped in town just long enough for Eric to buy 2 kg of amazing raspberries, then caught another 600 som taxi to the Jety Oguz sanatorium, where we thought we had been two days earlier. This was a much bigger, grander hot spring development than where we had just been, and we walked along the road upstream with dozens of Ladas passing us in both directions, stuffed full of families and groups of friends.  Eventually we got tired of the traffic and flagged down a lift with a group of drunk Kyrgyz men (the driver was only slightly less sloshed than the others) in a minivan.  We got dropped off in a huge meadow full of yurts and tents that wasn't even slightly appealing as a place to camp, then hiked upstream along the river to the final bridge before our valley, the Taleti, branched off.  The scenery was grand and sweeping and beautiful all along the valley, much more so than the previous day, and we actually knew where we were!  We passed a series of meadows and pine glades before settling on a quiet, secluded spot in a long, narrow riverside meadow.  We set up camp and relaxed around a roaring but smoky fire.

Eric climbing painfully up the Teleti Pass
The next day, July 23rd, we finally got our planned hike underway.  We slept as soundly as ever and woke up at 7:40 to cloudy skies that presaged a change in the weather.  We finished off our our ayran supply on our muesli, then packed up our tent and headed off.  We passed the tent of Petr and Adam, two Czech backpackers whom we had met briefly the day before.  They were headed the same way we were and we checked in with them to see if we were going the right way; we had lost confidence in our route-finding ability during our debacle of the previous two days.  Having confirmed our route, we hiked uphill for an hour until the Teleti valley branched off.  We turned into our valley and continued uphill, stopping in at a yurt for some fresh cream and cheesy nibblies before continuing uphill.  At 2700 metres' altitude we entered a lovely open, flattish landscape.   Our path led through a marshy area, and despite our best efforts to stay dry, we both broke through the mat of vegetation on the surface to mid-thigh (Eric once, me twice).  We were very soggy when we met Petr and Adam again, leapfrogging each other at snack stops.  We had another river crossing (more cold water soaking the boots, as it was too rocky for either of us to want to take off our boots) and then climbed steeply and sharply uphill towards the crest of the Teleti Pass.

Eric started to lag behind badly, suffering both from altitude (we were up at 3350 metres) and his increasingly painful sprained ankle. I had lots of time to wait for him and to look around at our surroundings.  They were magnificent, with grey stone spires rising into view as we escaped the steep valley walls that had imprisoned our lines of sight.  Big patches of snow still lingered here deep into July, but below the rocky peaks there was a luminescent green of fresh grass and fir trees, speckled by millions of blooming wildflowers.  It was something out of an 19th century romantic painting, and I realized that this, rather than the harsh high altitude deserts of Peak Lenin, was what I liked most in the mountains.  Rather than being just a warm-up for Muztagh Ata, maybe this was the main course?

Campsite with a view below the Teleti Pass
The skies continued to darken, and I decided to move ahead to arrange some shelter in case it started to rain.  I found a flat patch to pitch the tent (no easy task in this very vertical world) and had everything set up when Eric finally wobbled into camp, clearly suffering from the pain in his ankle. We had a huge feast of pasta, tuna and tomato sauce and then lounged around on the grass watching the afternoon light fade on the peaks.

The wildflowers were everywhere, and burrows and droppings indicated that there must be animals as well, but they stayed out of sight.  I imagined that there were probably marmots and foxes, and perhaps wolves too, although I hoped that the wolves would keep their distance from us.  As we lay there in the grass, Eric smoking his daily hand-rolled after-dinner cigarette, it all seemed impossibly idyllic.

Eric reclining on the grass, a touch of Italian elegance around his neck

The next morning, July 24th, we were up at 7:00 am, our earliest morning yet on the trail.  For breakfast we finished the last of the raspberries from Kyzyl Suu (just before they fermented) atop our muesli and yoghurt.  Petr and Adam stopped by, having camped below us the night before but being earlier risers than us, and continued on their way towards to the summit of the pass, some 400 metres above us at 3760 m.  We packed up and got ready to go, but when Eric went to the nearby stream to get water, his ankle failed him and he fell in, soaking himself.  He was not amused, and it was a sign of things to come, as his ankle was in bad shape.  We left at the leisurely hour of 9:20 and took a little over 2 hours of easy climbing to reach the top of the pass, passing through a riot of wildflowers and butterflies before entering a world of rocky scree just below the pass.

Descending from the Teleti Pass
As it turned out, the climb was the easy part.  The descent from the pass down into the Karakol Valley was long, steep in places, treacherous in many spots and absolute hell for a man with a bum ankle.  In addition to the ankle itself, Eric's new, very stiff mountain boots were giving him horrible blisters, and he was hobbling downhill.  The last 400 vertical metres into the main valley were nearly vertical, and our well-defined path disappeared into a tangle of indistinct indentations in the grass.  Footing was tough, as water was seeping out of the ground making everything slick, and we both went down heavily a few times, luckily without further injury to Eric.  Eric was convinced that we must be going the wrong way, down the wrong side of the river, but there were no signs either way, and once we were committed, the river was almost impossible to cross.  We soldiered on, and eventually came out on flattish ground down in the Karakol Valley just as it started to rain.  We were a dispirited pair as we trudged to the nearest possible camping spot and put up our tent.  Supper was an affair of instant noodles, and Eric was in serious doubt about whether he would even be able to walk the next day.  Given that Muztagh Ata was our main objective, it seemed best for us to curtail our walk and head as soon as possible to a roadhead to catch vehicular transport somewhere where he could rest his leg.

Our kind-hearted saviour in the Suruu Valley
Re-reading my diary now, I realize that I'd forgotten what I was reading those long evenings in the tent on Peak Lenin, and now in the Terkey Ala-Tau.  My Kindle was stocked with lengthy, worthy literature that I might not have the patience to wade through in other settings.  That evening I finished off Marcus Aurelius' Meditations (which I had been inspired to read by William Irvine's recent book A Guide To The Good Life) and settled into Michel de Montaigne's Essays (which in turn I had been inspired to read by How to Live, by Sarah Bakewell).  I had been hard at work (and it was hard work!) on Remembrance of Things Past (or, as the new translation I was reading had it, In Search of Lost Time), Marcel Proust's epic doorstopper, the longest novel every published, but I was taking a well-earned break after spending all of my Ladakh evenings with him.  I had always tried to bring at least one tome with me on long summer expeditions; previous trips had found me with the complete works of Shakespeare, Thomas Musil's great pre-WWI Viennese novel The Man Without Qualities, and both War and Peace and Anna Karenina.  It was always good to feel that I had improved my cultural education when I came back from a long hike or bike trip.

July 25th found us slow to wake up, as there was no sunshine to wake us up, and we were both pretty tired after a long day the day before.  We cooked up some oatmeal, finished off our yoghurt supplies and then slowly wandered down to the tourist yurt camp at the mouth of our valley, where we bought some overpriced bread.  We continued downhill in the main valley for a couple of hours on a track that was deteriorating.  It was spitting rain, but we paused under a sheltering tree beside the track for a delicious salad and cheese lunch.  We then hobbled further down the valley to the beginning of the road, past yurts and small houses.  The scenery continued to be beautiful, despite the grey skies, and I wished that we could continue our footloose odyssey for a few more days, but Eric desperately needed to be off his leg as soon as possible.  At the roadhead we tore a taxi driver away from his vodka and cards and had him drive us to Karakol, where he found us a cheapish room (800 som, or US$ 16) in a dismal hotel/brothel.  It didn't matter to us; there was a roof over our heads, and good takeout shashlik to eat just down the street.  We had showers (which felt good after 5 days of hiking), called our respective partners (it was the first phone signal we had seen in days) and went to bed.

July 26th found the skies clearing and us keen to get somewhere on the shore of the lake.  We ended up bargaining a good price with the driver of a Mercedes to get dropped off in Cholpon Ata, and found ourselves on the main strip of the highway.  Issyk Kul is a very popular summer lakeside resort for Kyrgyz and (especially) Kazakhs, and it's a clone of many of the resort towns I had stayed in in Russia and Ukraine on the Black Sea coast the summer before.  We found a cheap room in a small anonymous hotel and settled in for two days of people watching, good food and relaxation.

The water was frigid, but it didn't deter hardy Kyrgyz holidaymakers.  Eric thought it reminded him of Italian beach resorts on the Adriatic in his youth, and there really was a feel of the 1950s or 1960s to it.  The town had once been a massive sanatorium, and the ruins of the old complex still dominate the foreshore, with small bits dolled up as smaller hotels or privatized sanatoria.  We visited a slightly weird museum, the Ruh Ordo, all grandiose national pride and slightly pompous modern architecture, dedicated to Kyrgyzstan's greatest modern writer, Chingiz Aitmatov, to get our cultural fix.  Mostly, though, we sat on the beach or walked, unencumbered by big backpacks, along the sand.  It was fun to spend a couple of days on the beach and a couple of nights reclining in chaikhanas, eating delicious lamb shashlik and sipping green tea and cold beer, but it was a poor substitute for hiking in the transcendent mountains of the Tien Shan.

I really enjoyed cycling through Kyrgyzstan back in 2004, and I really enjoyed our brief hiking journey in 2012.  If I were to recommend one area of the world for some really wonderful off-the-beaten-track adventures, either on foot or on bicycle, Kyrgyzstan would be near the top of the list.  I would love to go back again for more adventures, or even work in Bishkek and explore the country on weekends and holidays.  The fact that an almost unknown minor mountain range like the Terskey Ala Tau contains peaks higher than any in the Alps tells you how much exploring there is to be done in the mountains of this Central Asian Switzerland.

We walked past so many wonderful wildflowers
July 28th found us in a marshrutka, heading back to Bishkek.  Asia Mountains' main hotel was full, but they put us up in their overflow complex, Asia Mountains II.  The Olympics had started in London, and we spent a lot of time watching the early events.  As well, since most of the climbers I had met on Peak Lenin had been employing the services of Asia Mountains, I met a few climbers whom I had last seen moving up the mountain while I was retreating.  Tim, one of the northern English climbers I had met at Camp One, was back and had summitted, one of the very few successful summitteers during that period.  Alex Goldfarb was back as well, and had a harrowing tale to tell.  He and his guide Dasha had pushed towards the summit in horrible winds (go figure!) and had made it to within 100 vertical metres of the summit, but they had been moving slowly and when they finally made the decision to turn around, they ran out of daylight before finding their way back to Camp Three.  They had wandered around lost, with Alex convinced that they would freeze to death out in the open, for hours until Dasha finally found the tent around midnight.  They had made it down, but barely.  I was starting to feel a lot more confident that I had made the right decision in turning back.  Branko and his fellow Slovenians were back as well, having made it to the top of Razdelnaya Peak (the 6148 m bump on the ridge behind Camp Two) but no further.  It certainly seemed as though this summer was a particularly tough one for success on the 7000-metre peaks of Central Asia, the so-called Snow Leopard Peaks, and I had been unfortunate in terms of choosing 2012 as my mountaineering summer.

I also had a run-in with Turkish Airlines while I was in Bishkek.  I wanted to know how much it would cost to change my flight back to Geneva if our expedition were delayed in China (I had no margin of error, being scheduled to depart less than 24 hours after our scheduled return), but Turkish said that if I wanted to change anything, I would have to buy a new ticket.  I was surprised, and not a little annoyed, but there it was.

And then, suddenly, it was July 30th and Eric and I were loading our skis, our mountaineering gear and everything else into a hellaciously overloaded minivan for the 2-day drive to Kashgar.  Eric's ankle and feet had healed, and we were ready for the last leg of my 2012 summer adventure:  Muztagh Ata!

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Stanley's Travels in Review: Top 10 National Parks and Wildlife Areas

Thunder Bay, April 18

So as snow belts down outside, lashed by Arctic winds, it seems like a good time to look back longingly on a year spent living mostly outdoors in Africa, sleeping inside our faithful bakkie and camper combination "Stanley", and visiting as many of the great wildlife spots in southern Africa.  I thought it might be useful for any of my faithful readers who might be thinking of an African odyssey of their own to have a look at what Terri and I thought were the top 10 spots along our route to see wildlife.  We were lucky to visit many, if not most, of the great national parks and other wildlife hotspots of the southern end of the continent, and these are the ones that stuck most in our minds.

I've embedded a Google Map in the post, so you can have a look to see where these various parks are located; hope that's useful.

1.  Chobe Riverfront, Chobe National Park (Botswana)

Buffalo in the early-morning dust

Chobe is the great remaining stronghold of the African elephant
This is really the epicentre of large-scale big game in all of southern Africa.  Botswana is the country that has done best at preserving its elephants and its other big game, and Chobe is the jewel in its wildlife crown.  There are something like 350,000 African elephants left in the wild, according to the Great Elephant Census, completed in 2016.  Of those, something like 130,000 are in Botswana (that's about a third of the entire continent's population) and of those, something like 60,000 are in Chobe.  So something like one-sixth of all the African elephants in the wild are found inside this one park, many of them concentrated around the Chobe River.  You will likely never see such huge numbers of elephants in one place anywhere other than Chobe.  If only for this reason, Chobe would be worth visiting, but it's got equally impressive numbers of almost every charismatic megafauna species.  If you go to only one African wildlife park, you really should make it Chobe.
A well-fed Nile crocodile
Lioness hunting in Chobe
It is a big park, but particularly in the very dry conditions that we encountered in September, 2016 the animals are almost all right along the Chobe River, in incredible numbers and concentrations.  In the course of a day's game-driving, you're sure to see thousands of impala, hundreds of elephants, lots of lechwe, waterbuck, puku, kudu and buffalo, along with more waterbirds than you can see almost anywhere in Africa.  There's also a very good chance of seeing lions and a good chance of spotting wild dogs (endangered and hard to see most places), along with some possibility of seeing roan and sable antelope.

An African darter takes flight
One of the most enjoyable ways to see the wildlife and the birds is on a river cruise.  The town of Kasane, on the edge of Chobe, has lots of operators offering boat trips, and they're not that expensive. We went twice with Kalahari Tours, and both times I took hundreds of photos.  There's a common 24-hour package deal with a river cruise, lunch, an afternoon game drive, an overnight at a private campsite in the park (no more than 16 guests at a campsite on a given night) and then another morning game drive.  We did this with our group of KLAS students back in March, 2016 and it was an overwhelming non-stop series of "wow!" moments. 
A seriously muddy buffalo
It's difficult (that is, impossible) to get camping reservations for the campsites inside the park, unless you start a year ahead of time.  We didn't do that, but we found quickly that you can stay outside the park and do day trips into the park every day, despite what you read in guidebooks and online.  There are tons of places to stay in and around the town of Kasane, but it's quieter and nicer on the western side of the park.  We particularly liked camping at Mwandi View, about 20 km south of the western end of Chobe Riverfront.
Magnificent male sable antelope
Southern carmine bee-eaters
Another campsite that's well-nigh impossible to get reservations at is Savuti, deep in the interior of the park.  It's a long, tough, dusty, sandy slog through the park to get there, and we didn't make it.  We didn't have Savuti camping reservations, so we were going to have to try to power right through the park and out the south side to Dijara Community Campsite in one day.  Mechanical issues with Stanley scotched this plan, and in retrospect that was no bad thing, as the longer drive around on paved road through Nata and Maun was beautiful and interesting.  We met a number of people who did the dusty grind through Savuti and saw almost no animals to reward them for some pretty hard 4WD driving.
Queleas in front of the sun over the Chobe River

2. Khwai River Conservancy (Botswana)

Posing leopard

Baby elephant protected by adults
This is a small area immediately adjacent to the much larger Moremi Game Reserve in northern Botswana, just to the south of the Savuti sector of Chobe National Park.  We visited it in September, 2016, basing ourselves just to the south at Dijara Community Campsite.  It was an amazing place to visit, a real jewel of wildlife.  

Technically, only people staying at the Khwai Campsite and the Khwai Lodge are supposed to visit the conservancy, but there is no gate and nobody checking admission tickets, so we drove in from the main road on consecutive days and spent the entire day absolutely open-mouthed with amazement at what we were seeing.  On both days we saw lions and leopards.  Leopards are tough to see; on our entire trip, we only saw leopards seven times, and two of them were here at Khwai.  One of the leopard encounters was really memorable, with a young female leopard spending almost an hour posing in a tree, then walking casually along the ground between the gathered tourist vehicles, passing us at a distance of no more than three metres.  It was amazing, perhaps the best single wildlife encounter of the entire journey.

Handsome male waterbuck
There was a lot of wildlife that wasn't lions or leopards, too.  There were prodigious herds of elephants, sometimes so numerous that they blocked our way for half an hour at a time.  We saw lots of baby elephants trotting along with their mothers, having dust baths or drinking at the river.  There were big herds of impala, lechwe, waterbuck and other ungulates, with tons of waterbirds and raptors to satisfy our birdwatching instincts.  

Magnificent leopard
If you can manage to get reservations in the Khwai campsite, you should stay there, but otherwise the Dijara Campsite is conveniently nearby.  You could even probably camp wild just south of Dijara; pretty much nobody lives there and it's beautiful bush.

We found Khwai to be much more densely packed with game than its more famous neighbour Moremi, and with much less driving involved to see it.  It's an absolute jewel of a spot, and a must-see in northern Botswana.

Our farewell sunset at Khwai

3. Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (Botswana/South Africa)

Big male lion near Twee Rivieren

Our first view of a brown hyena
That unpronounceable name is just another way of spelling "Kalahari", and it's probably the most impressive of the arid-zone parks in southern Africa.  We visited two sectors of this huge park, one on the eastern edge in Botswana, near Mabuasehube Gate, and one on the South African side near Twee Rivieren.  We absolutely loved this park, and would go back in a heartbeat, trying to get reservations for the more remote and smaller campsites.

A gaggle of baby ostriches

The Kalahari is a magical place, not really a desert (it gets too much rainfall during the rainy season) but with almost no surface water for nine months a year.  The landscape consists of vegetated sand dunes with seasonally flooded pans inbetween.  During the dry season the pans are where the action is, particularly where the wildlife authorities have made waterholes for the animals to drink from. The main grazing species are the desert-adapted gemsbok (also known as the oryx) and the springbok.  There are plenty of ostrich about (we saw a big group of baby ostriches one day; they are impossibly cute), along with the iconic kori bustards and secretarybirds, both striding across the grasslands in search of snakes and rodents.  The predators are more easily seen than elsewhere, with prides of lions (with the dark manes so characteristic of the Kalahari), quite a few leopards and lots of cheetahs.  We also saw several hyenas (relatively hard to see, as they're generally nocturnal; Mark and Delia Owens, of Cry of the Kalahari fame, studied them), spotted hyenas, bat-eared foxes and black-backed jackals.  

Billy, the southern yellow-billed hornbill
If you do go, see if you can get reservations well ahead of time for the isolated campsites around some of the interior pans near Mabuasehube Gate (like Khiding, Monamodi or Mabuasehube Pan), or for the Botswanan campsites near Twee Rivieren (like Rooiputs and Polentswa).  We wanted to drive right across the heart of the park from Mabuasehube to Nossob, but we couldn't get the necessary campsite reservations for Motopi and Nossob.  If we were to do it again, we would want to do this crossing.

Juvenile cheetahs follow their mom off towards the waterhole

Mother cheetah near Rooiputs
Rooiputs is where we had an amazing encounter with a mother cheetah and her two subadult daughters, sitting right beside our vehicle for about 40 minutes.  We also saw a huge pride of at least nine lions near there.  It would be great to camp at Rooiputs for several days and just watch the animals passing by (or through!) the camp.

Southern ground squirrel

4. Etosha National Park (Namibia)

The vast empty space of Etosha Pan

Early-morning spotted hyena
Etosha is a special place in a very special country.  We visited in February, 2017 just as it was starting to rain, and we were lucky to get out without getting stuck.  The park is based around an immense salt pan that floods during the rainy season and which provides reliable waterholes during the dry season. It's full of springbok and gemsbok and ostrich in the dry short-grass plains in the west of the park, and has lots of other less dry-adapted species in the slightly moister east end of the park. Two specialties of Etosha are the black-faced impala and the Damara dik-dik; we saw lots of the former, but none of the latter. We had amazing encounters with hyenas (two came right up to the car to drink water from a drainage ditch, giving us very up-close views), lions (two lionesses drinking at a waterhole early one morning) and aardwolves (very rarely seen nocturnal hyenas who eat exclusively termites).  

Black-backed jackal

Early-morning pair of lionesses
The feeling of space you get driving out on a causeway into the pan is transcendental, while the birdlife is spectacular, with various raptors, blue cranes, flamingoes and chestnut-banded plovers particular highlights.  The two main rest camps (Okaukuejo and Namutoni) are pretty crowded, but the central one, Halali, is quieter.  All three are built around floodlit waterholes that apparently draw in black rhinos at night; we weren't lucky on that front, but the waterholes are peaceful, beautiful spots to sit.  We didn't venture into the far west of the park, only recently opened up to the general public, but we heard good things about Olifantsrus campsite; if we go back to Etosha, we will check out that area.  


Black-faced impala
Overall Etosha is great, with lots of game, easily-seen predators, good scenery and wonderful birds. It's also well-run and (at least when we were there) not overly busy.

Two aardwolves

5.  Bangweulu Wetlands (Zambia)

Black lechwe herd
This is probably the most obscure of all the places on this list, but don't let that obscurity fool you.  This is a world-class wildlife attraction and pretty much nobody goes there.  You might have this area entirely to yourself.  It's a long, rough drive to get there, and it's in the middle of nowhere, northern Zambia, so the lack of tourist traffic isn't that surprising, but it's not that there's nothing to see.  This area, not really a national park but managed by African Parks and (formerly) the Kasanka Trust as a community-based conservation area, is full of animals.  The main species in terms of numbers are the black lechwe, a graceful and powerful antelope that congregates in groups of tens of thousands on the flat short-grass plains of the area.  We cycled among them on our folding bikes, and it was an amazing experience.  There are also said to be tsessebe (a kind of hartebeest) around, although we didnt' see any.  There are apparently predators to eat the lechwe (lions and leopards and hyenas).  
Fishing village in the marshes

Blinking shoebill
The real attraction of Bangweulu, though, is a very rare species of bird, the very prehistoric-looking shoebill.  If you've never heard of the shoebill, you really need to watch this clip from David Attenborough.  It's a ridiculously rare bird, with only a couple of thousand individuals thought to reside in the wild, scattered from Bangweulu along the lakes of the Rift Valley and up into the impenetrable Sudd swamps of South Sudan.  Bangweulu is one of the very, very few places where shoebills can be seen with any degree of ease, and it's an adventure.  We saw the shoebill twice, setting out on foot to walk through the grasslands, occasionally fording streams or walking across floating mats of vegetation in the papyrus swamps that are the hiding place of this reclusive fish-eating bird.  They look like something out of Jurassic Park, particularly when they roll up their opaque eyelids from below.  We went to see them twice because a computer error made me lose all the photos I had taken on the first visit; luckily our guides found the birds again and even got us closer than the first time.

Terri riding across the grasslands
Terri and Stanley at our campsite in Nsobe
As well as shoebills, there are crowned cranes, wattled cranes and white storks to be seen, along with huge clouds of pratincoles and larks.  It's an ornithologist's dream, and it was great fun to cycle among the birds along the jeep tracks.

The campsite at Nsobe was an outstanding place to stay.  It's really cheap (US$5 per person per night) but well built and well maintained.  Each site is situated beside or on top of a giant termite mound with a shade tree growing out of it.  The sites are very widely spaced, and at night you can barely notice that you have any neighbours.  The night sky is spectacular and the sounds of hyenas fill the darkness and make you a bit nervous.  There were grass fires around when we were there as the locals burn off long grass to stimulate new growth; the flickering fires at dusk and after dark were eerie and more than a bit alarming.

It may be hard to get to and far from anywhere, but that's part of what makes Bangweulu a must-see wildlife location.
Morning fog

6.  Nyika Plateau (Malawi)

Roan antelope

Common reedbuck
This is another fairly obscure park, way up in the highlands of northern Malawi, but it was surprisingly good for animals as well as having a unique setting and a fabulous camping area.  My friend and former colleague Nathalie used to live in Malawi and raved about Nyika, and we were glad that we took her advice.  
Two elands passing our campsite, one with a twisted horn

Baby bushbuck at our campsite
The plateau rises to 2000 m high above sea level, and 1500 metres above the surface of Lake Malawi. It's cold up there in the winter (we were there in July), especially at night, but the campsite attendants stoke up huge campfires to overcome the chill.  The campsite is unfenced and animals wander right by in large numbers, and sometimes right through the camp.  We woke up to find cute bushbucks right beside Stanley our last morning, and every evening we had elands, zebras, reedbucks and zebras wandering past in the late afternoon light.  Our first evening we were convinced that there was a leopard skulking in the underbrush, causing the reedbucks to issue frantic alarm calls, but we never managed to spot it.
Late-afternoon zebra mother and child

Terri toiling up a hill on the Nyika Plateau
Another nice thing about Nyika is that it's good for cycling; we rode around on our bikes taking pictures of the roan antelopes; it was nice not being confined to our car as is often the case in parks with big predators and elephants around.  We did a bit of hiking as well, although the area right around the lodge was a timber plantation and didn't give much in the way of animals.  From our bikes, we got great views of roan antelopes and eland, both magnificent big antelopes.  The roans are spectacularly coloured, and I was pleased with the photos we got of them.

7.  Kruger National Park (South Africa)

Leopard at Punda Maria

Elephant at sunset
Kruger may be the most famous national park in all of southern Africa.  It's South Africa's flagship park and we spent more time in Kruger (10 nights) than in any other park on our trip.  That said, we both felt that despite Kruger's size and variety, it wasn't as great an overall wildlife experience as some other parks, notably Chobe.  When we were first there, in May, 2016, Kruger was in the grip of a multi-year drought and there was precious little in the way of game to be seen.  We did, in the end, see a reasonable number of elephants and, on our second visit at the end of May, plenty of white rhinos, but there were not that many of the basics:  herds of impala and waterbuck and zebras, big aggregations of buffalo and wildebeest, lots of giraffes.  We would often go a couple of hours an a game drive without seeing much of note.  

Thick-tailed galago (bushbaby)
We found the rest camps to provide some of the best wildlife viewing in the park.  They're often located on riverbanks, and even though most rivers in the park were bone dry, there were still a few waterholes here and there that attracted elephants, waterbuck, buffalo and impala down for a drink.  At night we would wander around the perimeter fences of the camp with a spotlight, looking for nocturnal creatures, and we were rewarded with views of hyenas, a genet, bushbucks and a few impossibly cute bushbabies.  One of our favourite wildlife moments in Kruger was having three thick-tailed galagos (large bushbabies) walk right under my chair and up the tree behind us.  

Parked at a picnic area in the south of the park
African spoonbill
Kruger was outstanding for birds, particularly birds of prey, and over the course of ten days we ended up seeing almost everything we wanted, even our first leopard of the trip on a sunset game drive up at Punda Maria.  I shouldn't be too hard on Kruger; it has a lot of animals, and a lot of different species. It's just that it's hard to see them in great numbers.  The northern half of the park, from Letaba onwards, is much less visited by tourists, as it's a long way from the southern entrances, and is the main elephant population centre of the park.  Unfortunately it's also an area of thick mopane forest, so it's a bit monotonous on the eyes and hard to see the elephants until they're right on top of you.  The far north, from Punda Maria to the Limpopo River, was perhaps our favourite bit of the park, with lots of riverside trees, great birdlife and plenty of elephants, in addition to the leopard.  One of the best features of the park are the picnic sites, always in beautiful locations, good for looking for animals and birds.  We got into the habit of setting off early on game drives, fueled only by tea and coffee and rusks, and then having a big cooked eggs-and-bacon brunch later in the morning at one of the picnic sites.


Tawny eagle
Kruger's campsites are well-run and have everything you need to stay there indefinitely (including well-stocked grocery stores and washing machines), but they are big and a bit crowded.  They're certainly not the place to go for solitude in the wilderness.  There are so-called rustic campsites which are much smaller, quieter and wilder, but they book up very quickly, so we could never get reservations for them.  

Overall Kruger was a good park, well-run and with good infrastructure, but at least while we were there, it didn't knock our socks off with the quantity of animal encounters that we had.  It's still one of Africa's great parks, though, and no trip to southern Africa should exclude it.

Chameleon seen near Punda Maria

8.  Central Kalahari Game Reserve (Botswana)


We didn't, to be honest, have as many predator encounters in the CKGR as we did in the Kgalagadi, but in every other respect the CKGR can hold its own against any other park.  It's remote, it's wild, it has very few tourists and you can live out your hunter-gatherer fantasy around a campsite under the stars that feels pretty unchanged from how it must have felt 10,000 years ago.  
Bat-eared fox

Crimson-breasted shrike
We were able to get campsite reservations at the last minute at the DWNP offices in Maun.  Unlike the Kgalagadi, this park is far enough from the South African border that the number of South African tourists is low enough that the campsites aren't perpetually booked solid.  We camped at Kori Campsite, and it was absolutely idyllic.  The campsites in the CKGR are very far from each other, so that you really have the illusion of being completely alone under the African stars.  The Kalahari is really very beautiful, full of birds (like the kori bustard and the pale chanting goshawk) and very wild feeling.  
Kori bustard

Slender mongoose
As in the Kgalagadi, the pans are where the action is, and where the best campsites are.  We didn't try to drive all the way across the CKGR from Deception Valley (where Kori is) to Xade, but if we go back, that will be on the list.  We didn't make it all the way down to Piper Pan, which was a pity since we met people coming from there who said that it had a big pride of resident lions.  We had to make do with lots of springbok and gemsbok, a few wildebeest, plenty of mongooses and bat-eared foxes and jackals, and lots of smaller stuff.  The isolation and pristine beauty of the Kalahari is amazing, and I would gladly go back to spend more quality time there.

The all-important campfire

9.  Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park (South Africa)

The green hills of Hluhluwe

Some skinny-looking white rhinos
This is a place that we heard about a lot from South African wildlife enthusiasts.  We ended up adding it to our itinerary around the New Year, and I wish we had had more time to spend there.  These two parks (which are really one larger park, divided in two by a highway) are where the white rhino was rescued from extinction back around 1900; there were fewer than 50 individuals left in the wild in 1895, all in Imfolozi, and now there are over 20,000, all descended from those few survivors. In the 1950s and 1960s Ian Player, the older brother of golfer Gary Player, led Operation Rhino, repopulating other parks with white rhinos from Imfolozi and reducing the chances of extinction (at least until today's murderous assault on the rhinos).

Elephants in the distance
Imfolozi and Hluhluwe are very hilly and green, located in the moist coastal area of KwaZulu-Natal.  Driving around the parks the scenery is strikingly beautiful, much more so than in most of Kruger.  The hills are steep and dramatic, and are a great place to spot white rhinos.  Both days that we were in the park, we saw plenty of white rhinos, along with lots of impala, zebras, giraffes and buffalo.  There were elephants around, but we didn't see too many, except at a distance down in the river valley.  We heard that in the northern sector of Imfolozi there are a couple of packs of wild dogs, but despite having a good look around, we had no luck on that front.  In general, though, there are a lot of animals around and you are guaranteed lots of wildlife encounters, especially with white rhinos.
Baby zebra
The only drawback to visiting Hluhluwe-Imfolozi is that there is no camping inside the park.  If you want to sleep in the park, you have to fork out the money to sleep indoors in a lodge.  There are plenty of campgrounds not too far from the park; we stayed at lovely Bushbaby Lodge, about a half hour's drive from the Hluhluwe entrance.

Supercilious giraffe

10.  Kasanka National Park (Zambia)

Sitatunga buck seen from our campsite


This is another slightly obscure park in northern Zambia.  It's a success story in rehabilitation, as it was once more or less abandoned to poachers and encroachment.  The private Kasanka Trust brought it back to life and now it's a well-run park full of animals. We spent a couple of nights camped at idyllic Pontoon Campsite, where we were spoiled by attentive service by the attendants (lighting fires, getting the hot water going) and by having the normally shy and secretive sitatunga antelopes wander out every evening and morning to say hello.  This was the only place that we saw these beautiful creatures.

Canoeing near Luwombwa
The rest of the park has plenty of puku, as well as a herd of sable antelope that we didn't get a very good look at.  We headed up to Luwombwa Fishing Lodge, hired a canoe and spent a fun couple of hours paddling up and down the river, spotting lots of kingfishers and bee-eaters and enjoying being out of our car.  Lots of birds, including coppery-tailed coucals and the lovely African pygmy kingfisher.  The park landscape is striking, with patches of bush interrupted by dambos, seasonally flooded grasslands punctuated by thousands of very small, narrow termite mounds.
Dambo with tiny termite mounds

Malachite kingfisher
What Kasanka is most famous for is its massive bat gathering which takes place every November and December, with something like 7 million bats gathering from parts unknown (presumably the jungles of the DRC) for a couple of months of feeding and breeding.  It must be an amazing spectacle, and if we're ever in the neighbourhood at the right time of year, we'll certainly be there!

The Rest

We visited a number of other parks, most of which had their good points, but these ten stuck in our minds in particular.  There were several parks that we chose not to visit (Lower Zambezi, South Luangwa, Hwane) that are probably very impressive but which we didn't think would give us much that we hadn't already seen and experienced.  We never made it to Addo Elephant Park, which is supposed to be really beautiful and full of elephants.  There were others like Kafue National Park (in Zambia) that just didn't impress us very much.  Liuwa Plain in Zambia was interesting, but if you don't go there in October, November and December there are almost no animals to see; we didn't think the slender pickings justified the tough sand driving that we had to do to navigate the park.  And finally Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique is supposed to be beautiful and full of endemic birds, but with the renewed civil conflict in Mozambique in 2016, it was a no-go area.