The Great Karoo

We are back, nestled up in our cozy UP home, where things look no different from when we left in December. It’s still damp, cold and cloudy. The deciduous trees stand bare-leaved and the forest seems devoid of life. We patiently wait for life to slowly wake up and  return to the north woods. I smile in anticipation of salamander dances, frogs croaking, birds rejoicing and  wildflowers quietly creeping into bloom. Spring is my most cherished time of year.
Africa seems like a dream. It came and went faster than I would have liked. Now, all I can do is relive it through pictures, videos and journal entries. There is so much I wanted to blog about when we were on our journey, but time was limited and wifi was lacking. We are gearing up for another busy field season, but so long as the crawling critters are in hibernation, I have time to write and post pictures from our marvelous adventure.
We loved the the National Parks (NPs) in South Africa, a stretch of the trip in mid-January offered some of the finest.
I want to share our fast-paced journey through several memorable national parks in the heart of South Africa, including Addo Elephant NP, Mountain Zebra NP, The Karoo NP, Camdeboo NP, Wilderness NP and Bontebok NP. That’s 6 parks (plus 2 small reserves) in a week! Talk about an intense national park visit marathon! Time was always maximized and never wasted!
Addo Elephant National Park 
Addo Elephant NP is a favorite among locals and if your into seeing massive pachyderms right outside your car window, then this park is for you! It is the 3rd largest park in South Africa and encompasses 5 distinct ecosystems, including a narrow band extending south into coastal dunes. It was established in 1931 to protect a small elephant herd that was close to extinction. Now there are more than 300 elephants in the park, along with Black Rhino, Cape Buffalo, Black Wildebeest and Lions. Animal spotting was ridiculously easy. We saw Meerkats, Yellow Mongoose, Warthogs, and Red Hartebeest straight away. We also had terrific encounters with elephants, including 2 youngsters playing and charging each other with sticks. Luckily, we didn’t run into any cantankerous bulls, which have been known to crush and upturn small cars if their space is not respected.


Mountain Zebra National Park 
We crossed a small mountain range to the north and the land was transformed. It was gently rolling hills clad in prominent brown earth scattered with small sage green shrubs – our first introduction to the great Karoo! The Karoo is semi-desert and renown for its high diversity of neat succulent plants. It’s the only desert on earth that is designated as a global biodiversity hot spot. Karoo is the largest ecosystem in South Africa and is a transition between the lush coastal ecosystems comprising forest and fynbos and the dry Kalahari desert to the north. It superficially resembles dry areas in the USA and Australia; the only large structures rising off the plains are windmills bringing up life-saving water for livestock and people.
An iconic symbol of the Karoo – a windmill.
Mountain Zebra NP was lovely mountain scenery with rooiplaats (red plateaus) peppered in grazing mammals. We saw our first Black Wildebeest, Mountain Zebras (there are actually 3 species of Zebra in Southern Africa), Gemsbok, Grey Rhebok, Eland, Springbok and Bat-eared fox! And that’s not all! We were extremely fortunate to spot the very endangered and hard to find Black Rhino! Ryne’s number one animal he wanted to see! They feed high in shrubs/trees, opposed to the white rhino, who feeds, with his head hanging low, on ground vegetation. Sadly, rhinos are still being poached in national parks. Several hundred per year are being killed for their horns, in PROTECTED parks!!
The Black Wildebeest with its gorgeous blonde tail on the rooiplaats.
The ornate Mountain Zebra at Mountain Zebra National Park. Those mesmerizing stripes are simply beautiful!
Common Ostrich
Eastern Clapper Lark. Larks are particularly diverse in Karoo, desert and grassland in South Africa.
Had to get out to soak up the beauty of this stream and waterfall.
Ryne only has to be in the bush for a second before he comes back with the neatest critters, these are Giant Milkweed Grasshoppers (mating).

This park had an added bonus of long hiking trails around the rest camp, fenced off for our safety, allowing us to use our atrophied game-drive legs for a change. One trail went straight up a mountain and I was amazed at how easily Cypress stomped his way up the rocky slope.

My little mountaineer waiting for Mommy.
Taking a much needed break from driving to go on a refreshing hike at Mt. Zebra Park
The Karoo National Park 
The Karoo NP encompassed a dry, bone dry mountain range with deep shaded canyons. The hot, still air felt like we were stepping into an oven. The parched burnt-orange earth cracked and crumbled beneath my shoes. The air was so arid that my hair literally dried in 30 seconds. Ryne, who had a very minor cold, had a runny nose that instantly dried up! Temperatures reached between 36-38 degrees Celsius (close to 100 degrees F). Wildlife was not as conspicuous here as it was at other parks. Perhaps because of the heat. Waterholes were usually good for kudu, birds and tortoises. However, we did have unbeatable looks at Klipspringers, an antelope superbly adapted to life on granite rocks.
The handsome Klipspringer with tiny delicate hooves, perfect for springing from one rock to another, is a denizen of granite slopes.
The campground had nicely watered grassy sights, an oasis in the desert, which made it fantastic for tortoise and bird watching. Leopard Tortoises were plentiful and easily observed munching in their cloudland of fresh greens.
Leopard Tortoises reach an impressive size.
Camdeboo National Park
Camdeboo was fascinating geologically speaking and interesting with a diversity of aloe plants and shrubs covering the mountain sides. The valley of Desolation was very scenic with dolerite columns rising up from a precipitous canyon. The lookout over the steep crevice had no guard rails so I was a nervous wreck with Cypress being the clambering fool that he is.
Neat succulent plant on top of the ridge
The volcanic dolerite columns rising up from the Valley of Desolation.
Admiring the flora and the plains over the Great Karoo.
The Cypress Bridge
The scenic landscape of the Great Karoo

I will share some highlights from Wilderness NP, part of the greater Garden Route NP in my next blog post. The Garden Route was one of my favorite places we explored because its hard to beat beaches, lakes, streams, wetlands and ancient forest rich in biodiversity.

The Sunset of our African Journey

An approaching storm glows purple in the fading sun in the Erongo Mountains (northern Namibia)
Cypress had a field day playing with some local children
A campground/resort swimming pool. There are hippos in the Kwando River behind.
The biggest tree in Africa. Perhaps the largest Baobob in the world.
The perfect jungle gym for Cy!
Ryne loved it for the nesting Mottled spinetails in the tree hollow which was more like a legitimate cave!
My happy boy 🙂
Great looks at munching hippos, swimming crocs and buffalo on our Chobe River cruise.
Victoria Falls
Perpetual mist at Danger Point. Imagine buckets of water being poured on your head. Little one is hiding under his hood.

A pod of noisy hippos. What a rush when the male charged our boat with his monster mouth agape.
Is this boy spoiled or what? Just watching an elephant swim past on our lovely float above the falls.

Since my last blog post (sorry for the halt – wifi has been slow with a weak connection) we’ve covered a lot of ground. We drove across the striking red Kalahari Desert, where we landed ourselves in the middle of a National Geographic special on cheetahs right outside our car window. We drove north through the Namib Desert where we soaked up the unique beauty of a shifting sea of red sand dunes, sought the marvelous ancient welwitschia and marveled at the vast and eerily quiet moonscapes until we reached wet tropical northern Namibia. We floated the Okavango/Zambezi River region hoping to spot some rare birds in these magnificent riverine wetlands.
After 6 days in Botswana and 3 meager days in Zimbabwe, we made haste to our beloved South Africa – my favorite country to travel in! We didn’t anticipate spending more time in South Africa, but Botswana was wet and expensive and Zimbabwe was corrupt and very expensive.
Botswana was wild wild wild! Raw nature. I mean expansive wild land with no fences and low human density. Small villages with modest huts erected out of local vegetation were sparse along the main road. When we crossed the border into Bot. there were 2 wild elephants munching without a care in the world along the road to welcome us! We were also hit with a $100 fine at a random police checkpoint. Ryne, who usually drives, didn’t have his driver’s license. We pleaded that it was stolen (because it was) and that I (Jen) will drive (eek…I was forced to really learn how to drive a manual and I must boast that I am really good now!). We presented a copy of Ryne’s license (we always make copies of credit cards, passports and licenses before we travel, just in case they are lost or stolen). The policewoman stated that a copy was unacceptable and wanted cash. I begged her to give us a break. She sat there straight faced and willing to barter “how much can you pay?” She said. We offered $20, but this was no good. We insisted that we didn’t have much cash, only credit cards. We weren’t budging either. She finally let us go after Ryne said “well I guess we are spending the rest of our holiday here with you.” We were about to find out that police checkpoints were commonplace and worse in Zimbabwe.
Most places in Botswana were water logged and required a 4WD (our camper is 2WD) to explore so we were limited to the main tarred road. However, it was necessary to travel off the main road to find a campsite. This was usually only 4-6 km of bouncing and swaying (and nail biting) down a wet-sandy narrow track. Surprisingly, we never got stuck because the roads had a hard packed bottom. However, we did break the front plastic underbody from scooping up copious amounts of water. Ryne fixed it easily by tying it back on with rope. Flooded roads, inflated prices and a malaria risk made Botswana less than ideal. That said, the positive out-weighed the negative. We had an amazing time at the very popular Chobe National Park in northern Botswana. A boat cruise is a great way to see the abundant wildlife. Hippos, buffalo and crocs along with many birds, including the gorgeous Schalow’s Turaco were spotted.

Crossing into Zimbabwe proved to be slap in your face expensive. $30 visas for each of us plus insurance and car rental fees. After paying $90 for visas, they wanted $135 more! And we were only staying for 3 days! This was absurd! It was free to get into South Africa (no visa required) and pennies for Namibia and Botswana. We insisted on seeing a document that stated the fees, but only got a crumpled piece of paper stapled on the bulletin. After seeing our dismay, an employee knocked off $30. What? How can a standard border crossing fee be negotiated? And get this, the workers were wearing shirts that said “we are not corrupt.” Ha!
So after getting through that hassle we were feeling pretty frisky and relieved to be in wild Zimbabwe. We cheered and hooted. The celebration only lasted 4 minutes, when we came to one of those obnoxious police checkpoints. They asked for my license (good thing I was driving) and then checked to ensure the break lights work. Yup, everything was working, but I didn’t have any front white reflector stickers!? $20 ticket, which we had to pay. I swear this traffic regulation (not even legit according to one Zimbabwe man) was made up to steal tourists money because the government is broke.
These checkpoints were bloody everywhere when we got into Victoria Falls! The locals are waved through and we always get stopped! Another $20 fine for pulling over in a no stopping zone. Maybe we just had bad luck? Some of the policemen had mercy as we managed to talk our way out of two $20 tickets.
Was all this stress worth our 3 days in Zimbabwe to see one of the worlds largest waterfalls? A big yes! The waterfall was truly a wonder and absolutely breathtaking! It was worth the hassle, the fines and debacles that ensued. We also enjoyed a boat cruise on the Zambezi River above the roaring falls. We were lucky enough to see elephants swimming across the river, a disgruntled hippo pod and the very elusive African Finfoot!! We were very excited to see this shy bird after searching several other places with no luck. African skimmer was also an unexpected treat!

We are currently in Kruger National Park, right back where we started our journey 3.5 months ago. Its poignant being at our starting place, ending where it all began with a whole new perspective. I knew so little about Africa before coming here. I perceived it to be quite different (A little more wild with tribal villages and a lot less whites). I now have a greater understanding of Africa (at least the southern part) and the world as a whole. We all have a deeper understanding. At 3 years of age, Cypress is no doubt the finest South African naturalist the world has ever seen! He knows the birds, bird calls and mammals better than 95% of the locals.
South Africa has made a permanent stamp in my heart. It saddens me to say goodbye. It saddens all of us. I asked Cypress yesterday if he wanted to go home and he said “no, I want to stay in Africa.”
Admittedly, it’s been nice to be away from social media, the news and America with its corporate-dominated mega monoculture. It feels great to be in a place that has a sense of itself. A place that in many ways hasn’t changed for millennia. The sheer timelessness of this place has made its impression.