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HUGH BEARD (TRAVEL TRIPS #2)

GAME DRIVING Kgalagadi & Etosha. MAY 2019
by Hugh Beard
Posted May31, 2020

 

Debra and I returned home to Vancouver in October 2019, having completed a 37 day, 7,000 km self-drive safari. Our journey took us through Kgalagadi Transfrontier National Park, bordering South Africa and Botswana, into Namibia on route to Etosha National Park, then travelling south-east in Botswana to Nxai Pan and then back to our starting place, Johannesburg. 

Indeed, a fantastic trip with National Geographic animal sightings… and a serious accident that presented enormous challenges that only made us more determined to complete this adventure.

In Kgalagadi, you feel the spaciousness – a landscape of unpeopled desert, with a silence unknown elsewhere. There is a surprising abundance of life and a big sky, displaying spectacular sunrises, sunsets, thunderstorms, and glittering starry night skies. It is one of the few places on earth where true wilderness can be experienced in the comfort of an ordinary vehicle.


The two fossil rivers, the Nossob and the Auob are mostly dry and the park’s main feature. 

Several boreholes in the riverbeds serve as a lifeline for animals in times of drought. There are no elephants in the park; they need much more water than is available. 

Kgalagadi is known for its large variety of big cats, though sightings were down compared to past years due to a three-year drought. A rare sighting was a Caracal.


The park was undertaking a significant migration study. Many of the lions we encountered in Kgalagadi wore radio collars, which didn’t make for the best photography, but still great to see them.

 

                                                  


We have never seen such large numbers of ostriches gathered at a waterhole. Babies look so small standing beside their parent’s long legs.



The smaller animals were quite entertaining – especially the squirrels, mongoose, and meerkats! 


 

   

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We camped at Twee Riverien for three nights then moved on to Nossob, where we had a Premium Campsite with a private ablution and outside kitchen. I parked close to it, so it was an easy few steps to the bathroom - a grave mistake!



At three in the morning, Debra clambered down the ladder, turned towards the bathroom, catching her foot on the raised stone floor and tripped, causing a deep gash on her temple.

The first thing I noticed as I scrambled down, was a trail of blood on the floor. As I helped her up, she was in a lot of pain from a sprained arm, now showing bruising and swelling of the bicep area. I bandaged her head, then put a foam mattress in the shower area, where she fell into a deep sleep. I sat beside her waiting, knowing we had to get medical attention for her cut head, but we couldn’t leave the camp until 6 am, as it’s forbidden to travel in the dark, it’s too dangerous to turn the head lights on. Animals could charge the car.

We journeyed out of the park to a small medical clinic in the town of Askham. It was a long silent trip with some incredible animal sightings on route, but we didn’t stop. We were both worried sick that we’d have to cancel our trip. Debra’s arm had now turned black and blue, and she winced at every bump on the road. It took five hours to get out of the park, then another hour on the highway to the small town. 

The clinic Doctor gave her two stitches and three different injections - tetanus, antibiotic, and muscle relaxant for her painful arm. She didn’t think there was anything broken and rotated her arm, which was painful for Debra, but advised us if it didn’t improve to have a scan when we got back home.

She instructed me how to remove the stitches, then took us to the pharmacy for pain killers and antibiotics. We asked how much we owed them, and she said nothing, as clinic health care is free in South Africa, even for tourists. 

At this point, we were both wondering if Debra would be able to climb the ladder up to the rooftop tent using only one arm? More important - if she got up, would she be able to get back down without falling and further injuring herself? 

We arranged to upgrade some camping days to bungalows, so we would have six nights before we needed to camp again. I rigged a tripod so she could shoot out the back window with her good right arm. 



One of our sightings was our first wild cat. That lifted our spirits - we were not going to let a sprained arm and a couple of stitches spoil our trip.


 Okay, I know it looks like an ordinary house cat, but it’s a rare lucky find to see one, and we saw three!


Approaching the Kgalagadi Tented Camp, we spotted a pride of lions in the far distance.


It’s famous for the lions that freely roam through the entire wilderness camp. The rules are simple – do not walk through the camp, only travel in your vehicle, and always keep the gate locked on the fence surrounding your tents and vehicle.



Lions often sleep under the tent platforms in the heat of the day, and their footprints are visible throughout the camp. The distant roars add credence to the rules.  


The accommodation consists of a large sleeping tent, with a smaller kitchen tent, and a deck that overlooks a dry river bed. 

The night skies were spectacular, a perfect place to practice night photography. I would have liked to open the gate to get an unobstructed view of the sky from outside our compound, but that wouldn’t be a good idea.

A single burning candle lit up the edges of the tent roofs. 

  

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After leaving Kgalagadi, we spent two nights in a funky castle-like resort called Okambara, owned by a German farmer. All the staff and guests were German; we were the first visitors from Canada.



They upgraded us from a standard room to a fantastic Rondavel, a traditional circular African dwelling with a thatched roof.   The luxurious interior had mosquito netting covering the double bed. The large washroom and shower area was the perfect place for Doctor Hugh to operate. There was barely a scream from Debra as I took out her stitches! 




We made strong connections with several of the guests who welcomed us into their interesting after-dinner conversations and got hugs from the staff when departing.

                                     

 

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On route to Etosha National Park, we stopped in Windhoek to get Debra an arm brace. My plan was for her to rest completely, and let me do all the camping work, setting up the tent, lighting the fire, cooking, and dishes.
 

I was so intent on getting the arm brace that I completely forgot about security for our camp truck. Both camera bags were in the back seat in plain view, and Debra’s travel purse, with most of our cash, passports, and credit cards, were in the unlocked glove compartment. 

I locked the truck with our remote fob, and we proceeded to cross the street. I turned when a man shouted, “Come back to your vehicle!” I quickly ran back, seeing the driver’s door was partially open. The man said, “A bad guy rushed over and opened the door, but I yelled at him, and he ran off. He said thieves use an electronic device to prevent you from locking your truck.” 

Then I remembered when we first traveled to Namibia, three years ago, our car rental agency warned us that gangs use garage door openers that send an electronic signal to block you from locking your vehicle. Your remote fob beeps like it’s locking the doors, but you need to walk around the truck and check that the doors are actually locked.

I shook his hand and thanked this truly honest man. Had he not intervened, we would have faced getting new passports before we could travel back to South Africa, and wouldn’t have cameras for photography, throwing our entire trip into a crisis mode. 

We did a test run with Debra climbing the ladder to our rooftop tent with her sling on. She could climb up on her own, but it took us twenty minutes for me to help her climb down. I was worried she might fall, so I created a cozy bed in the back seat of the truck, with a memory foam mattress.



We experienced incredible sightings in Etosha National Park, Namibia. On our first game driving day, we witnessed a herd of fifty elephants racing across the plains to a water hole - a National Geographic moment.


                  


The secret to game driving is to relax and be patient, not to drive around, desperately looking for animals.

Waiting at a water hole – the animal sightings are a constantly evolving experience.


 

 

We had a few hurdles to overcome but we knew we had salvaged our trip, which was confirmed with a late afternoon sighting of a pride of lions, not just sleeping, but playing with their young. We were very close to a lioness – her affection for her cubs was genuinely inspirational.

  
 
           

                           
On our last game drive day in Etosha, we spent the late afternoon at the Chudob waterhole. It was quiet with several zebras drinking and two giraffes waiting; their reflections in the water made beautiful shots. Then they all wandered off.

 

                                                    


Rather than heading back to camp, we decided to relax and wait to see what might show up.

We talked about our sightings in Etosha and that we had experienced a National Geographic moment every day - except for today.

Then we looked behind us as a thirsty herd of elephants joyfully raced to the water hole. Within minutes the small pool became overcrowded, with the younger elephants splashing and rolling in the mud. It was an incredible sight.

                        



Suddenly the lead female started to trumpet loudly, and chaos broke out. Mothers with their babies raced out of the water.

                                                   


I immediately scanned the horizon, thinking a predator was approaching. Then I noticed the waterhole was empty except for a mother who quickly walked back into the water, reaching out with her trunk. We couldn’t see what she was gesturing to, as it was behind tall grass. She repeated this action of walking back into the pool, and reaching out several times.



We wondered if a baby elephant was stuck in the mud. But I thought if that were true, several elephants would have raced back into the water to assist with a rescue. We concluded a baby was enjoying the mud bath so much that it didn’t want to come out.

We waited, but no baby emerged from behind the tall grass. Finally, we decided to leave as we didn’t want to cook supper in the dark.

As we drove away, we looked back to see the mother escorting a wet baby elephant, covered in mud, back to the herd, who moved around them, affectionately touching the youngster with their trunks.

 

                                                   

 

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Our next destination was Botswana. Before crossing at the Mohembo Border Post, we spent a couple of nights at Ngepi Camp on the Okavango River, resting, watching birds, and the hippos and crocks in the river.

                                                          



We camped on the rivers’ edge, and Meke, our manager friend, who we first met three years ago, warned us that hippos like to wander out of the river and eat the grass at our campsite. I asked, “Do the crocks also come out of the river.” She just laughed, which was her usual response to silly tourist questions, of course, they do!


The last afternoon, we were relaxing in the reception and bar area catching up on emails, when we saw a cute green snake in a planter box near us - it turned out to be an extremely poisonous Western Green Mamba. It has the fastest-acting venom of any snake, usually fatal. We didn’t realize how dangerous as I snapped photos with my iPhone. The staff quickly took it away.


 

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Our last wilderness stop was at Nxai Pan. It was a long 27 km jarring drive from the highway through deep sand to reach South Camp. This was the place where Debra took a photo of me with the elephant that visited our campsite on our first trip to Botswana.

True to form, three elephants visited our campsite. I captured a shot of Debra with an old friend.


The entire area was suffering from severe drought, which made for genuinely amazing sightings at the large water hole—a kind of Noah’s Ark experience - minus the predators. We didn’t see any lions but were told they visited the water hole the morning we arrived. 

 

                                                           


We captured a fantastic shot of two jackals at the waterhole.

                              


Of course, not all the elephants are as friendly as the ones who frequented our campsite. One young male took a dislike towards me and chased us away from the waterhole several times.



We spent two days at Khama Rhino Sanctuary back in our favorite campsite, number 13. It was three years ago that we first experienced camping and sleeping on top of our truck, waking up to the sounds of birds in our campsite.

This time we woke up to a hornbill pecking loudly on our frying pan. I think he wanted us to cook breakfast for him.

                                    


That afternoon we game drove through the rhino sanctuary. Three years ago, we were afraid of getting stuck in the deep sand; now, we had an incredible time 4x4 driving. We had excellent bird sightings, but no rhinos.

 

 

                                                    

 

It was getting late in the afternoon, and we decided to head back to our camp. We passed the road that led to a newly constructed bird hide. We backed up, deciding to check it out. We parked our vehicle and entered the long, fully enclosed walkway to the hide—the perfect place to see animals. 

You have to be very quiet as you set up tripods in the hide. It was a beautiful pond location with lots of birds.

Then, less than 10 feet away, three rhinos casually wandered into the water right beside us, oblivious that we were in the hide right next to them.


The rhinos were so close we couldn’t get a wide shot until they wandered to the far end of the pond.

It was truly one of the most wondrous sightings of the entire trip, a fitting end to our adventure. 


Crossing the border back into South Africa, we spent our last evening in the Waterberg Game Reserve. A beautiful doe-eyed Nyala wandered into our site to greet us.

That night we had a large campfire and cooked our last meal.


The next morning, we were up for the sunrise, enjoying a coffee while watching our wildlife visitors. I was amazed by how fit I felt, despite all the work I did on the entire trip. I stowed our rooftop tent for the last time, and we departed for a leisurely three-hour journey back to Johannesburg to drop off our truck. 

We returned to our favourite hotel, the Radisson Blu, where we were greeted like old friends. “Welcome back, Mr. and Mrs. Beard. We trust you had a successful safari. We have upgraded you from a standard room to a VIP suite, with access to the Business Class Lounge”.  Yes!!

As I flopped back on the comfortable king-size bed, a wave of fatigue flooded over me, all the work from our trip caught up to me. We stayed in our suite for two nights, only venturing out to the business lounge for complimentary meals, including fine wines and draft beer.

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On returning to Vancouver, we had Debra’s shoulder x-rayed. To our shock, her humerus had three spectacular fractures – that’s how the x-ray technician actually described it. 

At that point, we were concerned thinking we made the wrong decision not cancelling the trip, but the Ortho surgeon told us, “You did the right thing, keeping her arm in a sling, resting, not doing any work. It was in a perfect position, and it has healed miraculously.” His exact words.

So, the safari ended well – despite the initial sleepless nights and agonizing, we had saved our adventure. We are scheduled to return to Kgalagadi and Etosha this fall, but this time with a new style camper truck with a tent that springs up in 10 seconds and closes in less than 30.

But only if the coronavirus restrictions allow for international travel – probably not!

Please contact us if you have questions or comments or are interested in conducting a self-game drive safari through South Africa, Botswana or Namibia. We’d be happy to share our experiences in booking campsites and some suggested routes. And if you are agreeable, we'll post your questions and our answers as others may have the same curiousity.

Hugh Beard – hugh.beard@forcefourfilms.com

Click here for more great pictures.


HUGH'S BIO: I started my career by joining CBC Vancouver in October 1960 as a 1B technician, a training position. Over the next few years, I did several jobs, beginning with boom operator, then camera operator and then switcher which became my regular job.
Whenever there was a film camera shoot for a drama program, I was asked to be the boom operator. I liked working on film shoots, being able to perfect the sound recording. During my time as a live television program boom operator, part of my job was to work with lighting to get the best boom position without causing a boom shadow. Sometimes "work with" meant fighting for the best sound you could get.

I was asked to do the sound boom for the film drama series "Cariboo Country." Location shooting had just been completed for the first season and interior set shooting had started in Studio 40. When they got to the editing process and realized that my studio sound was better than the on-location sound, I was asked to give up switching and became the boom operator for the second season of "Cariboo Country."

When not working on drama programs, I was a full-time location sound recorder working on documentaries with cameramen John Seale, Roy Luckow and lighting technician Gerry O'Connor. We traveled and filmed all over North America and occasionally in exotic locations like Malaysia.

I went from sound mixer to Assistant Director, working on "The Manipulators," created by Don Eccleston and Elie Savoie with Phil Keatley as executive producer. In between film shoots I was an on-air coordinating producer in Studio 50, trained by Alan Walker.

When "The Beachcombers" started, I was going to be first AD for the series, working with production manager Bob Gray. But I won legal custody of my two young children and I felt I could not take them out of school and move them to Gibsons, so I left the Drama Department and continued working as a studio director.

Dick Bocking had been assigned to the BC Schools Program as producer and  he requested me as his studio director. When we met he said, "Okay, you're in charge and you’re going direct all the School Programs!”  I produced the School Programs for three years, winning an award for "Doctor Helmcken's Journal."

Al Vitols asked me to join the production team on "The 7 O'Clock Show" as a producer and the News director. I worked for several years in News, and then Phil Keatley gave me an opportunity to direct a Beachcombers episode. Praise from people I respected gave me the confidence to continue directing Beachcombers and to eventually take over the series as Executive Producer. I ran Beachcombers until its tenth year in production.

In 1984 I eventually left CBC to start an independent production company, Force Four Productions, but that's another story.

CLICK ON THE PICTURES BELOW FOR A LARGER LOOK AT SOME OF THE ANIMALS.