On the dune road across to the Aoub river we saw our first lions of the trip. It was a huge surprise as usually we see nothing on the dune roads, as there are no water holes and not much prey. Its just a path to the real road, the road running through the riverbed where the animals hopefully congregate. There were 3 lionesses at first, but slowly another 2 arrived over the dunes.
The GREEN kalahari
Each was looking very full, and a few had blood on their faces. Obviously the summer is treating them well! We also saw a cape cobra just outside the gate. We almost drove over it, it was so stick like, and it reared up very impressively as we backed away. They are all too easy to miss if you are not careful, and we had forgotten it was snake season...
The only other sighting to mention was of a small family of meerkat, although they were quite far away.
I love this park! It is so exciting to be able to see it in a different season. So far I have 3 winter trips and 2 dec/jan early summer trips. This is the first time I've visited such a green kalahari. A bit surprising it's a desert at all! The north of the park, where we headed, was the most green, and often there were puddles in the road, a sign of the plentiful rain the Northern Cape received this year.
Urikaruus is a fantastic camp, right on the riverbed overlooking a waterhole. There are only 4 rooms which is great as in the morning you have a long time alone on the roads and any sightings you find can be enjoyed without jostling for position with other cars. Our first full day on the Aoub we found 4 cheetah. All were hunting at various times of the day although none successfully. The grass is so long that at times all I could see was a pair of ears peaking up above the straw- coloured fronds.
I can imagine this can be quite an advantage for predators as the prey animals can only see the same. While watching a pair of cheetah hunting in the grass, the one actually started its bird like chirp call, which is a contact call, even though it's brother was barely 4 meters away.
As the evening arrives, the kalahari begins to smell. Some how the cooling earth always produces a different smell to that of the day time. Its usually a familiar one of dried straw, but this time it was far more pungent. Imagine a lot of long freshly mown grass, which has been sitting out for a few days. Then it rains, and soaks right through, and you put your head inside the pile of grass. I am not sure if it's a pleasant smell- it starts off gently but as dusk deepens and the sun sets the scent becomes almost acidic. Its very surprising, and caught me a bit off guard. The sunset was beautiful, as there were some big thunder clouds lined with pink and purple, and the yellow grass turned a shade of deep gold. The springbok herds all around feed in the soft light, gathering in the open river bed for safety during the night.
Both nights at Urikaruus, we had spotted hyena come down to drink at the waterhole. Other than them it was quiet, unnervingly so, but we did sleep very well. In the mornings we woke 45 minutes before the gate opened so as to enjoy some Milo cereal with cold milk, and to prepare the coffee for the morning drive. It's also an opportunity to watch for any animals coming down for a last drink, and to watch the stars slowly set as the horizon begins to glow. Another new phenomenon for us was the sheer volume of moths. There were thousands, every where, and I'm sure with each meal we ate a handful or so of the little guys. At times we could barely see the gauze between the balcony and the kitchen!
Our second morning at Urikaruus, we packed up the car and headed out, before the sun rose, in a southerly direction. Not long after we could make out the distinctive black tips of a lionesses ears on the ridge. The ears are a real give away from behind- very distinctive and round. From the front however it is unlikely we would have known she was there as her straw colored coat blends in perfectly with her surroundings. She was joined by 2 others as she stalked a herd of springbok. One was silhouetted against the morning sky, and must have spooked the springbok who took off down the valley, leaving the lionesses hungry.
The three of them moved toward the road and began to play with each other, strengthening social bonds. As we came nearer the one female decided that we would make a more interesting playmate and ran straight for us. There is a huge difference between and aggressive charge and a playful one, although undoubtedly both could do us damage! She was heading for my window, eyes intent on the black lens pointing toward her.
Our playful friend!
We began to drive just in time, and her front paw smacked into the window next to me , which looks in on the boot. She looked so disappointed as we slowly drove away, that we almost felt bad. This didn't stop her though and she chased slowly after us, eyes huge and round and glowing the soft gold of early morning. She had such a playful expression, so we weren't concerned, but more stunned! If she had hurt us it would have been unintentional, merely a result of her great strength. A lioness's paws are huge, and these three lions were very toned and sleek, most likely not too old as they had no scars or old battle wounds.
The three of them then began heading up the riverbed in the direction on Urikaruus, so we returned to camp and sat on our balcony and slowly but surely they made their way down to drink. It was really quite a way to spend the morning! What a treat...
Lioness at the Urikaruus waterhole
That evening we stayed at Kalahari Tented Camp, which is also unfenced. We had the cabin on the far end, and the wall is at most half a meter high, and a little disconcerting in the dark. The jackals put on a show for us, their high wails the typical cry of the kalahari. It was lovely to sit and listen to them calling across the valley to each other. Jackals have a different call to indicate each type of predator, so we figured we would use them to warns of any danger. They are very alert, and actually provide excellent warnings if one knows what to listen for. Fortunately we do... their predator call is a distinctive series of short cries, and it is only made if a predator is in sight, so its pretty reliable.
We had signed up for a night drive, which left at 9pm, and we were the only ones on it. It was brilliant! We saw 3 African wild cats- all good sightings. We also saw cape fox and bat eared fox, two spotted eagle owls and two barn owls- the barn owls surprisingly a first for me! They have beautiful faces, heart shaped and very pale. We also had a good sighting of a porcupine, although he refused to sit still for photos. It's great to get a chance to see the nocturnal animals, and to be out after dark as it gives a very different perspective on the park.
Unfortunately that night a huge bug landed in my eye and it felt as though it was clawing at my eyeball. It was so painful that I wasn't sure if I should go to the doctor the next day, a good 500km drive. When I woke my eye was swollen virtually shut, and very sore and itchy. Point to remember- always bring a medical aid kit! Dan made an eye patch for me, so that no more dust or other could get inside it and infect it. My eye (I think it was the lid and tear duct) spent the next three days creating far too much of an ugly green goo- Im sorry if you have a sensitive stomach! By day three it did clear up significantly though, and as my vision still seemed fine, I decided to leave the doctors visit until I got home.
Our last morning on the Aoub brought a honey badger just as we left camp. They are my favorite smaller animal, and are such little characters, especially the way the march around, muscles bunched and ready for a fight. We also saw another 2 cheetah, and the 3 lionesses from the previous day. There were of course the birds of prey that the Kalahari is known for. They seems to be everywhere, Lanner Falcons, Snake Eagles and a huge number of Marshal Eagle- one of my favourites!
Today's drive was a long one, all the way up to Grootkolk, around 300 km's away. In this park that's a good eight hours of driving in the heat...