Sunday, February 23, 2014

Back to Africa - Duba Plains Camp in Botswana

Flying over and deep into the Okavango Delta to Duba Plains Camp

Before I get all involved in spring and all things blooming (yes, some of the daffodils are finally starting to bloom), I thought I'd finish up my series of posts about my dream trip to Africa. Other than a few nights spent on our arrival and departure through Johannesburg, South Africa, we spent 12 days in the bush in Botswana. You can read about the first two places we stayed in my other posts: Muchenje Safari Lodge along the Chobe River and Chitabe Lediba at the southern edge of the Okavango Delta.

We left Chitabe by tiny airplane for our last camp, Duba Plains, which is deep in the heart of the Okavango Delta. It's at the northern end of the delta and most times its 70,000 acres are completely surrounded by water. So the only way to get there is by airplane (in the bush the planes make a low sweep over the dirt airstrips in order to scare away the wildlife before landing!).

Duba Plains reception area

Just so you don't get the illusion that we were really roughing it, above is the reception area. All the places we stayed were similarly outfitted, all cozy and comfortable.

Joe, our greeter

When we arrived at the reception area after a jeep ride from the airstrip, we were greeted by this old boy, Joe. Joe was nicknamed by the staff as he likes to hang out near the tents eating the vegetation. They believed Joe was about 45 years old.

View from our tent

For some strange reason we were given the honeymoon tent (we'd been married for 25 years by this point!). It was the last of six tents and closest to the many water channels. That meant that nights were noisy with the hippos munching and groaning all night. One night Joe (the elephant) hung around our tent making all kinds of noise. But at least he didn't block our path with his body and a downed tree like he did near the tent of some other safari goers one evening. (Don't worry, we were always escorted to our tents and the escort managed to scare away Joe without firing a shot. ;-) )

Stuck again. That pipe on the right is attached to the muffler so that it doesn't drown from all the water one drives through.

I think we had a jinxed jeep during our stay because we broke down numerous times. But our guide, Katembo, always fixed us up quickly. Katembo was one of the best guides we had on the entire trip. He knew so much about the vegetation and animals.


There were a number of new-to-me animals to be seen, including the tssessebe. And the birds - I collected quite a life list!


Bee eaters snuggling for warmth one morning

Napping lioness

But Duba Plains is most famous for its lion prides. What makes them unique is the fact that they hunt during the day. We weren't privileged to see that but we became quite familiar with the Tsaro pride. They've been filmed by National Geographic and filmed and studied by the Jouberts for some time now. In 2011, they released a film, The Last Lions, about this pride.

Nursing lioness

The lionesses nurse all the cubs, not just their own. Over the course of our stay we watched the same pride of about nine lionesses and nine cubs. One or two adult males occasionally showed up as well. The day this photo was taken, we noticed that some of the cubs were in bad shape with wounds. One even had a broken foot. Katembo believed they had gotten into an altercation with hyenas, one of the "enemies" of lions.

Watchful mama

One day after we had been observing the pride for a long while, we decided to head off. Unfortunately our jinxed jeep had other plans. This time smoke started to pour out of the engine when we were only about 25 yards from the pride! Katembo very quietly and carefully snuck out on the side away from the lions and popped the hood. It seems one of two batteries was on fire. He got that under control under the watchful eyes of the pride. Though we were very careful (and yes, my heart was pounding), they decided it was too much commotion and thankfully they moved off.

"Supervising" and watching for dangerous wildlife

The other battery in our jeep was also on the blink and the radio wouldn't work so we couldn't call for help. Fortunately, the only other passenger in our jeep was a bush pilot who knew a thing or two about engines. They managed to cobble the batteries together to get just enough juice to call for help. How you tell someone where you are in the middle of nowhere, I'll never know.

Might as well have some tea

Then, when we knew we'd be rescued eventually, Katembo decided it was time for tea! :-) These photo safaris feed you constantly. After a light morning snack before 6am, we always stopped in the bush for a mid-morning tea and snack break. And then back for lunch, then a little snack before heading out for an evening safari, then a snack at sundown with our cocktails, and then back for dinner. It was wonderful. :-)

Sausage tree

Though I kept thinking so much of the landscape of Botswana reminded me of Texas, there was always a surprise, like this "sausage" tree, another important food for wildlife.

Jeff, Katembo, Margaret and Tony from Australia, and another sundowner

We met some nice people on our trip, including Margaret and Tony from Melbourne. She worked at a lion zoo or something there. In this photo we had just finished a boat ride through the water channels. We saw so many interesting things: giant papyrus, jacana, pied kingfishers, malachite kingfishers, all kinds of herons, and crocs, elephants, a lion, and a civet on the banks.

Sunburned, windburned, and oh-so-sad to leave the bush.

I savored our last evening in the bush - the smells, the sunset, the stars. It was the most magical and transformative trip I have ever taken in my life.

I hope you enjoyed my posts about our Botswana trip. If you are ever in as lucky a position as I was to take a trip like this, I say, don't think twice about it. Just do it. You won't regret it.

This post was written by Jean McWeeney for my blog Dig, Grow, Compost, Blog. Copyright 2014. Please contact me for permission to copy, reproduce, scrape, etc.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Garden Bloggers Bloom Day - The Resilience of Plants

'Peggy Clark' flowering apricot 

What a difference a few days makes! This is not what my flowering apricot looks like today.

'Peggy Clark' flowering apricot

This is what it looks like today. A few days ago we experienced that "great winter storm" that much of the nation experienced. I was sure my flowering apricot blooms would look like mush by Garden Bloggers Bloom Day. But no, I forgot about the great resilience of plants.

Joker hellebore on Wednesday

Joker hellebore today

It's true, though. I don't have very many flowers blooming today, especially if you compare today to last year at this time. Check out what I had blooming then. I had quite a few bulbs blooming as well as more hellebores and the 'Peggy Clark'. Patience, Grasshopper.

I wasn't hopeful at this point.

But they're back!

I wish I knew which blooms these are. I recall a bulb expert (Celia Jones) telling me that 'February Gold' was one of the first to bloom around here. And I recall digging some up at Celia's farm. But then Scott from Old House Gardens thought these might be the common Lent lilies. I don't know but I am very happy with them. They are almost always the first to bloom.

Rosemary blooms encased in ice

I'm not sure where the bees are today. I hope they're just still warming up.

Little Women rose in ice. There may not be a bloom here but at least the red colors are pretty.

So... I have a sum total of three plants blooming today. Not the norm. But I believe in the great resilience of plants. Check with me next month. :-)

And be sure to visit Carol's blog to see what's blooming around the world today. I'm sure there are blooms somewhere, at least in the southern hemisphere!

This post was written by Jean McWeeney for my blog Dig, Grow, Compost, Blog. Copyright 2014. Please contact me for permission to copy, reproduce, scrape, etc.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Botswana Photo Safari - Next Stop: Chitable Trails Camp in the Okavango Delta

Pre-chase yawn
Continuing my posts about our 2004 trip to Botswana, we left Chobe National Park and our lovely hosts at Muchenje Safari Lodge (blogged about here), and boarded a very small plane to our next stop - Chitabe Trails camp, now called Chitabe Lediba camp (and looking more upscale than when we were there), in the Okavango Delta. The Okavango Delta is massive and is now one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa. Wikipedia has some good info on the seasonal flooding, what it provides for the wildlife, and how it eventually flows towards the Kalahari Desert.

NASA view of Okavango Delta, with national borders added (from wikipedia).
This should give you an idea of where the camp is relative to the Okavango Delta.
To get to the camps around the Okavango Delta, you almost have to fly, and it was about an hour and a quarter flight from the town of Kasane. Chitabe Lediba is a very small camp, as you can tell from this photo of the dining area. It's a real bush camp set amongst trees overlooking a flood plain.

Dining area at Chitabe Lediba
We had just enough time to drop our bags before boarding a jeep for our afternoon safari. We were in for a treat.

Leaving for the hunt
As you can see from my first photo in this post and the one above this paragraph, we were privileged to hang out with some lionesses for a little while. Our guide, Relax, was radioed that they were nearby, so we just sat. Sure enough, they came to us, literally 7-8 feet from our jeep. It didn't hurt that we were also close to a very large herd of Cape buffalo. In the photo above, they decided it was time to start the hunt and they are moving off.

Note the stalking position of this lioness.

Dust from the buffalo and one lioness to the right
But the hunt was a bust from their perspective. Another pride of lions/lionesses came at the buffalo from the other direction and ran the girls and one lion off, right past our jeep!

Were these the guys the lions were stalking the previous night?

Cape buffalo

The next morning, after a 6 a.m. wake-up drumming and some hot tea delivered to our tent, we went out to see if we could find them again. We didn't see the lions that day but we did find another herd of buffalo. It was interesting to see how they have male sentries surrounding the females and young ones, as you can see from the photo above.

Older giraffe

The area had some vast plains with concentrations of trees and shrubs here and there. That meant a variety of different animals, such as this older giraffe. How can you tell he/she is old? By how dark the areas between the spots are.

Wattled cranes

There were so many interesting birds that I will probably never see again, like these wattled cranes that are almost six feet tall.

Francolin chick that didn't make it.

Life in the wild can be difficult, especially for the newborns.

Baboons and termite mound
Not a great photo but I wanted you to see the size of the termite mounds here. They're like little condos!


The highlight of this day (and any day, ha!) was our leopard sighting, a 3-4 year old female.

Now you see me, now you don't?

What a master at blending in this leopard was!

Watching impala
The leopard walked right past our jeep, sat on the edge of a termite mound, and watched some impala. For some reason, she was not interested in pursuing them, and she eventually just walked away.

Several tsessebee, a type of antelope, and one impala
Some days you see a lot of wildlife, some days you don't. The following morning, after being kept up most of the night by the roars of some dueling lions, I headed out on safari as my husband stayed behind to write a lecture (he was interviewing for a job as soon as we got back!).

Wildebeest running away

We didn't see as many animals this day but I did finally see my first wildebeest.

Every afternoon I captured in a diary what we saw and did. Yes, this is a tent!
Morning nap. Note the gash on the lioness' nose.

The next morning, our final morning at this camp, we found three beautiful lionesses and one handsome lion.

Youngish male
It was lovely just sitting in our jeeps watching these animals sleep and roll around. The guide thought maybe they had eaten the night before. It was so quiet and peaceful.

And then it was time to catch a little plane to our next camp, Duba Plains. More about that in my next post!

This post was written by Jean McWeeney for my blog Dig, Grow, Compost, Blog. Copyright 2014. Please contact me for permission to copy, reproduce, scrape, etc.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Botswana Photo Safari - First Up: Chobe National Park

Air Botswana plane at the Johannesburg airport
The dead of winter is a great time to get things in order if you're a gardener. One of the things I have been meaning to do for a long time is post about our trip to Botswana on a photo safari. It's as much for me as anyone since I'm quickly forgetting many things about the most fantastic trip I've ever taken. So when Pam at Digging started posting about some of her great trips, and especially her trip to Tanzania, I was inspired to get on the ball and do it.

This trip was the result of a lifelong dream and interest in animals, as well as a switch to a new company where I received a signing bonus. Instead of doing what my normally frugal self would do and socking the bonus away, I decided I wasn't getting any younger and now was the time for this trip. I started planning it in 2003 and then at the end of May, 2004, we were off. We were to visit three areas in Botswana for 4 days each, but arrive and depart the continent through Johannesburg, South Africa. These three areas were diverse enough from each other that we should see an interesting mix of wildlife. In this post I'll talk about Chobe National Park, our first stop. I posted about Chobe National Park here in 2009 when Pam did a blog meme about national parks, but I'll give you some more details now.

First about Johannesburg - it is a big, vibrant city but we only saw a smidgen of it, and it was the well-off area, too. My first impressions were that they had some cool looking aloes growing everywhere and that I wouldn't want to live behind razor wire as I saw many people doing. But we only had one day and night there before we flew to Kasane, Botswana, to see Chobe National Park. The Chobe area is in the northern part of Botswana, close to Victoria Falls and just across the Chobe River from Namibia.

First wildlife sighting - at Kasane Airport! ;-)

We arrived at Kasane expecting to be picked up by staff at the lodge we were to stay at - Muchenje Safari Lodge. But because of a last minute change from another lodge (due to Air Botswana cancelling flights from there), the staff was told the wrong date of our arrival. Not to worry, with the help of folks at the airport we figured out how to call them and they immediately came to pick us up. It was a blessing in disguise because it turned out only two other people were at the lodge at the time so we had the place to ourselves.

View from Muchenje Safari Lodge across the Chobe River to the Caprivi Strip area of Namibia

You may assume southern Africa is always hot and dry but we were there in Botswana's late wintertime when the rivers and watering holes were still pretty full and mornings and evenings were very cool.

Lilac breasted roller, the national bird of Botswana

The afternoon of our arrival we immediately left for the bush. My first intention was to see baboons in the wild (explained in my 2009 post about Chobe), and so our guide, Gordon, made sure to accommodate that wish. We had the most patient couple in the jeep with us. They were an elderly couple from England who had been to Africa several times. They let me sit as long as I wanted with the ubiquitous baboons.

Baboon social group grooming and playing

Sundowner time

One tradition on safari is having a "sundowner." That's when the guide pulls up to a scenic (and safe) place, pulls out some snacks, and fixes everyone a cocktail. This photo is of our first sundowner. I'll remember it always.

African eagle

Most places that host photo safaris schedule two trips to the bush per day, one in the very early morning and one in the afternoon. (I stress the word 'photo' only because I learned on the plane to South Africa that many people on the plane were there to kill the animals, not just look at them, a real eye-opener for me.) I think it was the next day that we took an afternoon trip down the Chobe River. At this point we were the only folks at the lodge so we had two guides and a boat all to ourselves. This is when we came across the elephants...

We saw a bachelor herd of young elephants playing in the water. Pardon me if you're already read this in my other post but it was magical. These large beasts were thoroughly enjoying themselves. Imagine being as large as they were yet treading weightless in the water. And quiet! All we heard was water splashing.

Play fighting

I could have stayed watching them all afternoon.

Happy, fat croc

But there was much more to see. Such as the crocodiles on the little islands in the river.

Hippo family

And the hippopotami along the banks. One thing we learned - never get between a momma hippo and her baby. You most likely will not survive.

Once we got on land again we saw another first - our first lion. This male was consorting with a female, who quickly took off when we saw them. We named one of our cats 'Chobe' after this guy.

A little before sunset we saw a troop of baboons heading down the beach. They were on their way to settling down for the night.

Time for bed

It's always a good idea to sleep where the predators can't easily get to you!

When we arrived in South Africa, I had contracted a horrible cold. I was too excited to let it stop me but I gotta say, I was not feeling well. I was encouraged to start having gin and tonics (or g-and-t's as they're called) at our sundowners in order to break the cold's spell. It worked.

Red lechwe and geese at dawn

One morning we went on a walk with our guide. We started out right near the lodge to see what the elephants had been up to the night before (we urban gardeners shouldn't complain - they had elephants tromping through their vegetable garden). When one goes on a walk in the wild there, one carries an elephant gun just in case!

The cool thing about walking is that you can see up close what is easily missed from a jeep, like this dung beetle.

Impala and zebras

Impala were everywhere on our trips. Our guide explained why they call them "McDonalds" - they have "M's" on their rears and they're as ubiquitous as McDonalds is here in the states!

More impala

That's okay, I still enjoyed it every time I saw them.

One day we were taken on trip to learn more about the people in the area. We visited a village outside the lodge, though to my eyes it looked more like a compound for an extended family. Unfortunately the families were away on other business at the time, only a grandson was there to greet us.

Life is very basic here. I'm sure dwellings such as this have to be repaired frequently.

Typical round house

Isn't this a lovely pot?


This is how they keep their chickens safe at night from predators.

Mabela Primary School

Next up was a visit to Mabela Primary School. Education in Botswana is free for as long as you want to go, including a PhD! Of course, the reality is that poverty still gets in the way of many people's dreams. But the first president of Botswana, Sir Seretse Khama, reinvested much of the wealth from diamonds into health and education programs, transforming the nation into a southern African economic success.

The children sang a song of welcome for us. That's our guide, Neo, in the back.

The kids had fun looking at themselves in my digital camera after I took photos.

Lunchtime fixings

Here's Neo "helping" fix lunch, which is a mixture of beans and corn porridge. I think he was really just flirting!

Muchenje Safari Lodge

Muchenje Lodge was a beautiful place and we had a great time getting to know the managers and guides since we were the only ones there for a while. One of the guides and the two managers were from Zimbabwe, and they spoke longingly of their home country. Unfortunately it's still in bad shape.


Our last day at Muchenje meant another early morning game drive before a tiny plane would take us to our next destination. Waterbucks were numerous and they are quite majestic looking.

Sable antelope
Sable antelope were even neater looking and we were told this was a rare sighting.

Chobe River Valley looking towards Namibia

After our morning game drive we were driven back to the Kasane airport to meet our bush pilot for the next leg of our trip, a visit to Chitabe Trails Camp (now known as Chitabe Lediba) on an island in the more southern end of the Okavango Delta. But that will have to wait for another blog post!

This post was written by Jean McWeeney for my blog Dig, Grow, Compost, Blog. Copyright 2014. Please contact me for permission to copy, reproduce, scrape, etc.