Thursday, 1 March 2012

Duba Plains

Monday, 20th February 2012

The Control Tower at Kasane Airport, Botswana.

I was sitting in the terminal at Kasane Airport happily working on my blog. One or two light aircraft had come and gone and I'd heard a helicopter. There was no view of the apron from the terminal so I restrained my curiosity until another aircraft arrived producing a tremendous racket. Judging by the 'white noise' audio spectrum which, even in the terminal, was quite painful I first thought it was a pure jet. But, as I became used to the deafening sound, I could make out the lower frequency spectrum of propellor blades 'chopping' the air. I temporarily abandoned my blogging to go outside and find a spot where I could see what was producing the dreadful noise. It was a military transport with four noisy turbo-props, very similar to the ubiquitous 'Hercules' but, I was told, the Spanish version (actually, whilst Botswana operate a couple of CASA C-212 and CN-235, they're only twin engined so it may have been a C-130 'Hercules' after all, of which Botswana have three).

After this interruption, I went back to my editing and then, shortly after midday, one of the check-in guys approached and said they were ready, so I had to hastily finish off and meet the young pilot, Geert. He said he had just two other passengers and I met the two young American ladies before we all went through security together and out to the aircraft.

Our 'plane was a single-engine Cessna high-wing monoplane (206, I think) with a tricyle undercarriage, registration A2-JKL. I was given the right-hand front seat and the Americans the middle row seats. The rear seats were used for my hand luggage. The pilot started the engine and obtained taxi clearance to the runway in use. As we taxied, the noisy military aircraft departed before us, demonstrating impressive STOL (Short Take-Off and Landing) capability. We passed three other military aircraft parked up - a helicopter and a couple of Britten-Norman products ('Islander' I think). We waited clear of the runway until another small aircraft landed then we were given take-off clearance. There's a single tarmac runway of reasonable length but work was going on at either end to lengthen it, presumably to accommodate more tourists in larger aircraft.

'Zambezi Queen' on the Chobe River.

At fairly low altitude, we turned left over Kasane town, and headed roughly south-west, overlooking the Chobe River which I'd just left. I took a reasonable picture of the 'Zambezi Queen' at her mooring before we passed over the herd of buffalo on the island I'd previously seen from the river level. We flew over the area of the Chobe National Park we'd explored by 4 x 4 before climbing to our en-route altitude for our 75 minute flight to Duba Plains Airstrip. On arrival, we overflew the dirt runway so that the pilot could check the runway for obstructions and perhaps check surface wind direction from the airsock (the only 'aid' these simple airstrips seem to have) before making a beautiful landing and taxiing to an area near a waiting Toyota 'Land Cruiser'. Spike, the driver of the 'Land Cruiser' and guide for my Game Drives introduced himself and transferred my luggage. I said goodbye to the pilot and the two American girls (who were continuing in the aircraft to a different camp) and Spike took me via a sandy track a short distance to Duba Plains Camp.

The airstrip at Duba Plains, in the wilderness of the Okavango Delta.

More pictures of my journey from 'Zambezi Queen' to Duba Plains are here.

At Duba Plains Safari Camp, I was welcomed by the Camp Managers, Lizzy and Martin. After a 'Welcome Drink', I had lunch whilst Lizzy explained some of the arrangements. Then Lizzy took me along a sandy path which extended from the central group of buildings to serve each of the six double 'tents'. I was in Number 6, requiring the longest walk.

"It's Camping, Jim, but not as we know it."

My luxurious quarters at Duba Plains.

Large areas around the camp are subject to seasonal flooding and there was a lot of water at the time of my visit. So they start by building a wooden platform on wooden piles. A large tent is then built on the platform. Window areas are just covered with a flexible insect mesh allowing a cooling breeze to flow through the tent. There are roll-down covers on the outside of the windows which are closed at night. There's a wooden framework around the tent supporting a tubular steel framed outer roof of canvas or similar. This roof extends over a generous verandah at the front with splendid views across the delta. The front of the tent has double wooden doors onto the verandah whilst the rear has a single door connected to an elevated wooden platform extending to an outdoor shower facility. This is screened on the 'landward' side but completely open on the swampland side.

There are more pictures of Duba Plains Safari Camp here.

At 4.00 p.m., I made my way to the central area for what they described as 'High Tea'. At 4.30, I went on my first game drive. Spike was our guide and driver and we used the 'Land Cruiser'. I was with John and Eve, an elderly couple from the Scottish Borders and Patricia, a charming lady from Canada. Other guests, including two young ladies from Australia, preceded us in a Land Rover. We'd only been travelling for a few minutes when we came across a group of baboons, relaxing in the shade of large trees and completely blocking our path. About 75 yards ahead, we could see a large elephant standing immobile. We slowly eased forward and, reluctantly it seemed, the baboons let us pass.

Baboons and an Elephant near the Camp.

By the time we'd passed the baboons and crossed over a wooden bridge across one of the many channels, the elephant was lumbering off into the trees. I also saw my first Kudu. This is a large, browsing antelope with vertical white stripes in the grey hide, almost like 'marbling'. There was a second long wooden bridge to navigate but after this, the vehicles had to demonstrate their ability to drive through water.

My visit was in February and all the trees were green and there was luxuriant grass (Duba Plains is in the Southern Hemisphere). What looks like solid grassland is often actually flooded. The tracks used by the vehicles are clear of grass so the 'road' appears as one broad (or sometimes two narrow) ribbons of water, sometimes as deep as the diameter of the wheels. We continued our trip, sometimes on dry land, sometimes on a muddy track, sometimes in water. One particularly bumpy section had been provided with two rows of sandbags, presumably because the natural bottom was too soft to support the vehicles.

Dotted around the landscape were a number of conical termite mounds and these offered a good vantage point to birds. But birds were often standing motionless beside the ribbon of water we needed to traverse. They would patiently wait for opportunities to catch water life so,like the gibbons, they would only move at the last possible moment. This is where I saw my first Hamerkop. The name of this bird refers to the hammer-like shape of the head. There were so many different and colourful species that I quickly became confused (doesn't take much).

Another type of antelope commonly seen is the Reedbuck - a handsome animal. We watched a group of elephants for some time. The group, which included a young elephant, were happily grazing and seemed unconcerned at our presence. There are a number of birds of the bee-eater family. I think the first I saw was a Carmine Bee-eater. Another antelope found in large numbers is the Red Lechwe. There's also the oddly-named Tsessebe. With rear-facing horns and a pronounced hump in its back, it looks odd, too. But it's supposed to be the fastest of all the antelope and I saw examples displaying an impressive turn of speed.

A Tsessebe pauses for a photograph with a Buffalo and an Egret in the background.

There was one large herd of Buffalo moving round the area and our guide used his tracking skills to find them. There are normally a number of Cattle Egrets near the buffalo since the movements of the Buffalo stir up the insects for the birds to catch. There are often Egrets or smaller birds like the Oxpecker riding on the back of buffalo. They can be helpful in removing ticks from the animal's hide but on a number of occasions I saw buffalo irritably shake the birds off. We found a number of Red Lechwe and at least one Tsessebe around the buffalo as well.

Where there are buffalo, you'll often find lions. Within a few hundred yards of the buffalo, our guide found a group of lions. Their attention was completely on the buffalo herd so we were able to drive up behind the lions without disturbing them. We watched the lions for some time as they stalked the buffalo herd and slowly moved closer. But there was to be no attack on that evening, I'm relieved to report. We left the lions, left the buffalo and started to make our lengthy journey back to the Camp. Traversing the long grass, we passed within a few feet of a jackal, curled up like a dog. He didn't stir as we drove carefully on.

Seven lions monitor the large herd of buffalo.

More pictures of my first Game Drive at Duba Plains are here.

We retraced our route to the camp as it became dark and enjoyed an evening meal in the semi-open dining area. Some people moved on to an outside seating area with chairs arranged in a circle around a fire but I was tired from my travels and retired to bed.