Africa: The Last Leg

Already on the beautiful island of Zanzibar we were planning the last leg of our African trip. This meant some frantic online searching for safari-equipped 4X4s and of course our plane tickets to get back to Namibia. We managed to secure both, although waiting until the last minute to book our bush and camping-equipped 4X4 was not a good idea in retrospect- it was the end of April which is the beginning of the busy season, and these vehicles are in high demand. We finally found one though with a very reputable company (this is also a very important consideration when renting in Namibia), Savanna Car Hire in Windhoek. We got ourselves a Toyota Hilux double cab equipped with a rooftop tent, fridge, and all the camping and emergency road gear you can think of for a 15-day rental which set us back around $100 per day with all of our insurance included- not bad when you consider that you are completely self-sufficient for that period of time. The only other expenses you can expect are the camping fees which average around $30 per site and, of course, fuel. There are however plenty of places in Namibia where you can find a secluded place to pull over and set up camp without paying any fees at all, but if it’s the fancy washrooms with showers, restaurants and many times even swimming pools you want, you will need to pony up on the campsite.

Our first night in the desert

If you're going to drive in Africa, you gotta learn the signs!

Having been to Namibia a few months prior on our overland tour, we knew there were some places we wanted to return to and spend some more time in, namely some areas in the Namib Desert, Spitzkoppe, and Etosha National Park. As well there were also places that we wanted to explore for the first time such as some areas off the beaten track in the Damaraland and Kaokoveld regions. As with any road trip there would also be some more impromptu stops and in some cases these would prove to be among the highlights of the trip. So, a portion of our road trip was planned and at other times we changed our course and decided to wing it, but our 15 days went without a hitch and we loved every minute of it.

Inside Dead Vlei

Another scene from Dead Vlei

After leaving Namibia’s capital of Windhoek we headed south into the Namib Desert, spending our first few days around the incredible sand dunes and desertscapes of Sossusvlei. We started our mornings before the sun came up and usually didn’t return to camp until well after sunset. Not only are the times around sunrise and sunset the most photogenic, they are also the moments of the day that offer some reprieve from the oppressive temps that is all to common in this part of the country. Many afternoons the mercury climbed to well over 40 degrees Celsius. After we had our fill of the desert we headed towards the Skeleton Coast until just north of the Cape Cross Seal Reserve which is a real treat for all your senses! Here the mornings can be downright chilly and the winds blustery but its rugged scenery is well worth checking out. We then headed inland again spending a couple of nights in one of our favourite places… Spitzkoppe. We were blown away by its beauty the first time around and knew that we couldn’t leave Africa without becoming a little better acquainted with the area.

An oryx poses pretty, Sossusvlei

The seal colony at Cape Cross

Spitzkoppe by night

We then pushed further into Damaraland through the Brandberg area and onto the incredible territory of Twyfelfontein. This region was a spontaneous stop for us and became one of the trip’s highlights. It was here where we discovered many amazing petroglyphs that dated nearly 5000 years old. It was also in this area where we hung out with a herd of over 30 endangered desert elephants and spotted a couple of cheetahs to boot! From Twyfelfontein the roads became progressively worse which signaled our arrival into the Kaokoveld (Kunene) region. This area is arid at best but the further north we pushed, beautiful Baobabs became more prevalent. At some points we couldn’t have been more than 30 kilometers from the Angolan border but we based ourselves out of Opuwo, the hub of the Kaokoveld and the capital of Namibia’s northern tribal lands. The town itself is a hubbub of activity. OvaHimba push shopping carts through the supermarket aisles, Herero women trade their wares in the streets, and groups of Zemba girls hang out on the corners. It's truly a colourful display of life. We did head out to one Himba village not too far from Opuwo which was a nice insight into their culture and a fun afternoon. This experience was much more positive than the one we endured during our overland tour. This time it was just us, our interpreter, and a village full of Himba women and children who were just as happy to spend time with us as we were with them.

One of the petroglyphs in the Twyfelfontein area

Desert elephants, Twyfelfontein

Himba woman near Opuwo

After leaving Opuwo we made a beeline for Etosha National Park, entering from its westernmost gate. We spent our first night at Okaukuejo and our remaining nights at Halali, our favourite of Etosha’s camps. We had such great experiences with Etosha on our Nomad overland tour, but nothing could have prepared us for all the wildlife we spotted during our days of self-driving in the park. We really got to know some of the animals during this time; their habits and schedules, which made tracking them a whole lot of fun. Being in your own vehicle you can also spend as much (or as little) time as you want with each animal encounter. During our time in Etosha we saw more animals that make sense to list, and slept each night under the stars with the calls of the wild all around us. These were also very early mornings and late returns to camp, but there can be no question that the best time for wildlife viewing is during the early morning and late evening hours. We were rewarded royally one morning when a lone leopard crossed our path. The sun just came up, and it was just the leopard and us- one of our favourite experiences for sure! After Etosha we spent a couple of nights in the Waterberg region and that took us to the end of our 15-day road trip through Namibia. We put on a staggering 4,700 kilometers in those 15 days but man… was it worth it!

Night shot of a rhino at an Etosha waterhole

Male lion at the golden hour, Etosha

Early morning encounter with our leopard

Two exhausted lionesses and six reasons why!

Another male, another golden hour

A lone lioness and acacia tree

A black-backed jackal scurries along

We caught the Windhoek to Cape Town bus a couple of days later and there in Cape Town is where we enjoyed our last six days on the African continent. After four months we had come full-circle to the city we had started our journey, and one of our favourite cities in the world. We rented a car for a couple of days to explore some of the other sights scattered around the Western Cape and fell even deeper in love with the area. There can be no doubt that our trip to Africa was epic and one we will always remember and one we will probably always want to replicate. Seven countries and four months of experiences that we will cherish for the rest of our lives. But this will not be the last we see of Africa!

The colourful surf shacks at Muizenberg beach

 

Seeing Spots with the Leopard Man

Bera: a small rural community in Rajasthan's south, 150 kilometers from Udaipur- home to about 7000 people, mainly farmers and herders. While it's a pleasant, albeit dusty, little village with many colorful Rabari men and women, nothing seems to be extraordinary about this town. In the even smaller villages that surround Bera, women carry water to their houses in stainless steel pots perched on top of their heads and children in blue and white uniforms ride one speed bicycles through the sandy tracks that weave through the countryside on their way to and from school. Charming, but a pretty common scene in India. So what sets the area around Bera apart from other villages in Rajasthan? Well, when we watched the women carrying water from the well down the road to their modest homes, a mother leopard was hiding a few short yards away on one side of the road and calling out to her two young cubs visible on a rocky hillock on the other side. The hills around Bera are alive with leopards! When one thinks of Rajasthan, many things may come to mind; towering stone forts, men with turbans and impressive mustaches, camels, sand dunes, intricately chiseled havelis, and perhaps if one did associate a big cat with this place it would probably be one of the few remaining tigers found in Ranthambore National Park. Leopards are not often associated with Rajasthan.

We first heard about the leopards of Rajasthan quite by accident. We were up on top of a hotel not yet completed in Udaipur enjoying the setting sun when the hotel owner came up and chatted with us. He told us about his family, some of their history, and about his brother- the King of Nana, another small town not too far away from Bera. “Do you want to see leopards?” the man inquired. “What, like in a cage?”, I asked. “There are many leopards living in the hills around my brother's castle, and if you wish to see them you can stay with my brother and he will show you”, he replied. Within a couple of minutes I was on the phone with the King of Nana himself who invited us to stay with him in his fort and promised us that he would indeed lead us to many leopards. Still skeptical, I said I would call him back. I did some research over the Internet that evening and discovered that these stories of leopards up in the hills around Nana were true. I also learned of a place- Bera, and a man who was quite famous in the area for the work he has done in the field of leopard conservation. I called him up, instead of the king, to see if now was a good time to spot some of these big cats. He said it was. So we hired a motorcycle and drove 150 kilometers down roads which steadily deteriorated until we reached the town of Bera and our leopard expert, Mr. Devi Singhji.

Thankur Devi Singhji, also a descendant of Rajput royalty and owner of Leopard's Lair Resort, has had a history with the leopards of Bera since he was four years old. As a toddler he was frightened by these animals, as a young man he hunted a few of them, and then something changed inside him. He told me that “when you hunt an animal your experience with it is over the moment you pull the trigger, but when you shoot an animal with your camera, you learn its behavior, its routines, its personal characteristics”. His passion for these animals is obvious. He lives for these creatures, and on the many days in the year when he is not guiding guests to the regular leopard haunts, he will be there watching them from his gypsy nonetheless. He never misses a day and he never stops taking pictures and videos of his one true love. He has over 20,000 pictures and 54 DVDs of video to prove it! We watched a couple of his favourite DVDs with him over beers in the evenings after our outings. In between our safaris he spoke with such profound compassion for his leopards. He would tell us about the latest WWF findings that state '5 leopards in India are slaughtered each day', or the moment he first set eyes on Zara's new cubs, and so on. But he does more than just talk. The dry landscape around Bera supports little in the way of natural prey for the leopards. They hunt the occasional peacock, rabbit, or monkey, but their main sustenance is comprised of the livestock that graze in the fields and forests below. This created a problem with the local farmers and herders whose very own subsistence was being threatened by the leopards. Their response to their predicament was to poison the meat of the goats, calves, and sheep that the leopards killed (they often return to their kills over a period of days to finish their feast) thus killing the leopards. In the absence of any government intervention, Devi Singhji stepped in and offered the shepherds 2000 rupees (about $40) out of his own pocket for each of their livestock lost (with adequate proof that it was killed by a leopard). This financial gesture really helped to turn around the relationship between the herders and hunters, and one can only imagine how many leopards have been saved due to Devi's generous compensation pact. He affectionately has given many of the leopards names which include Zara (his main love), Charger, Cutear, and Devraj to name just a few. These creatures are his extended family, his children. His expertise on the leopards of Bera has garnered him some international attention as well. A few months back the BBC spent a couple of weeks with him shooting for a documentary not yet released. National Geographic has also dropped by. Now it was our turn!

Over three days we went out in Devi's gypsy four times. During our four outings we had 15 sightings in total with six separate leopards spotted- but to Devi Singhji this is not out of the ordinary. He prides himself on his 95% sighting success rate, and with us, it was 100%. Leopards are known to be elusive animals though. With equal parts determination and luck, one would have a far better chance of spotting tigers and lions in India than leopards- but not in Bera. Bera is different because of the lack of any thick vegetation impeding ones vantage of these animals, and, there can be no doubt that Devi's familiarity of their routines and anticipation of their next moves has much to do with it as well. With all that said though, leopards have a very different schedule than us humans. They hunt at night and sleep in the day which leaves only a couple short windows of opportunity to fraternize with these felines. They can be seen for a couple of hours after sunrise and again for a couple of hours before sunset. If you're lucky you can see them in good lighting but the tall rocky hills, and shadowy boulders in which they call home make that very difficult- and even more difficult to photograph! They are incredibly camouflaged with their environment as well which just adds to frustration of photographing these animals. I only wish I left Bera with a few of the quality leopard pictures that Devi Singhji has in his collection. If only I had more time. But photos or no photos, watching the leopards with Devi was an experience I won't soon forget. His love for these animals is infectious and in the immediate days after we left I couldn't help but think of them often.

Even in photographs these leopards are hard to see

The leopards of Bera are healthy and safe today because of the efforts of one man. But a different kind of threat is now on their doorstep. Devi was the first to offer guided leopard excursions in the area and has been doing so for quite a few years. A couple others have followed suit over the years, but still the rural town of Bera remains blissfully devoid of any real tourism. However, still more people, businessmen from Delhi and other cities in India, are buying-up property with the intentions of developing safari-style lodgings and running leopard tours in the area. These are the kind of people who put profits before preservation and could have a real negative impact on the future of the Bera leopards. The hills and jungle around Bera are not a part of any national park, wildlife sancturay, national forest or any other protected area, which means there is no governmental constraints on development. All animals need a healthy amount of privacy and if tourism descends on this area as it has in other parts of India, the leopards will have no choice but to find new homes in an altogether different area. There they will once again face the struggles that they faced in Bera during the early years, and wherever they finally decide to settle down, there might not be a man like Devi Sighji around to look out for them.

As we drove down the narrow streets of Bera and the sandy roads through the small villages with Devi in his Mahindra jeep, many people bowed or passed him subtle hand gestures of respect. This is most likely due to his status as a nobleman, but I would like to think, and I'm sure Devi would like it too, that these were given to him because he is the one true “Leopard Man” of India.