Cascades Track

A short hike down to a rock platform and waterhole on Middle Harbour Creek, in the northern suburbs of Sydney.

Popular with walkers and mountain-bikers, the track down to the Cascades starts near Acron Oval in St Ives, with a locked gate at the start of the maintenance trail. Almost immediately after the gate, signs of “civilisation” disappear; unlike many other suburban hiking trails, you can’t see any houses or hear any noise road on the entire track.

The wide trail descends past the back of Acron Oval. After 900m there’s an intersection with the Upper Cambourne Track on the left; this provides an alternate access to the Cascade Track from Douglas St. Continue straight ahead.

After another 100m you pass the Lower Cambourne Track on the left. From here the track descends more steeply with a short section of asphalt, and after another 500m reaches the intersection with the Bare Creek Trail. (You can also reach the Cascades via the Lower Cambourne / Bare Creek loop, which adds 2km to the hike.) From the junction with the Bare Creek Trail there’s a final (fairly flat) 500m along the Cascade Track to reach the Cascades, crossing a concrete weir just before the end that’s normally got a bit of water running over it.

A picturesque rock platform and natural swimming hole, the Cascades is at the confluence of Middle Harbour and Frenchs creeks.

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A popular picnic spot and Boy Scouts camping site in the 1920s, a weir was constructed in 1934 (financed by unemployment relief money given to Ku-ring-gai Council) to create a large public swimming pool called the “Bungaroo Pool”. It had an average depth of 12 feet and was 60 x 100 feet in size (20m x 33m). Access was via a  new road built from Douglas St – which is now the Cascades Track. [Source: The Secret of Bungaroo, 1934]. The remains of the dam wall can be seen below.

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The Cascades Track, providing access to the Bungaroo Pool from St Ives for vehicles as well as hikers, was used by the Sydney Morning Herald on a few occasions to test new cars: “On the freak hill at Bungaroo swimming pool, near St. Ives, the car gave a good demonstration of its ability to climb, without wheel-spin, as nasty a slope as any motorist might encounter.” [Source: Motoring, SMH Dec 24th, 1935]

My most recent hike down to the Cascades is with 2nd Gordon Cubs, where we discuss the importance of treating water – and chase a water dragon around the rock platform! Interestingly, while the The Cascades was previously known as the “Bungaroo Pool”, the same name was given to a different area further downstream, at the tidal limit of  Middle Harbour Creek (accessed by the Bungaroo Track!). It’s thought this misappropriation of the name Bungaroo was the result of “large numbers of Boy Scouts camping in the area, who assumed it was the correct name” [Source: Bungaroo Transcripts].

From the Cascades, there are a few options to extend the walk…

  • Continuing straight ahead on the Cascades Track (below) provides alternate access to / from Davidson (about 1.5km up the other side of the valley) to Stone Parade
  • Heading in the opposite direction, a narrow bush track (Middle Harbour Track) follows Middle Harbour Creek downstream. By crossing the creek at the Stepping Stones and taking the Pipeline Track back up to St Ives, you can complete a much longer circuit (10km circuit, including 2.7km between the two trackheads by road). Or if you’re feeling more energetic, continue for 24.3km to reach Manly Wharf (the Cascades Track forms a short section of the 47km Harbour to Hawkesbury track).

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For an alternate (and longer) route back to the starting point, re-cross the weir and turn right down Bare Creek Trail. Soon after the turn-off the maintenance trail crosses a creek and 1.2km from the start of the trail you reach a junction with the Lower Cambourne Track. Turn left onto the Lower Cambourne Track (continuing straight will take you another 2.6km to Belrose via the Bare Creek Trail and Heath Trail).

After a short descent, you reach a crossing of Middle Harbour Creek (below left) – it’s fairly deep here, but (unless you feel like a swim) you’ll find a small but well-trodden path on the right that lets you cross without getting wet feet. Another 100m or so further on, there’s a small waterfall and natural pool to the left of the track (below right). The Lower Cambourne Track continues another 1.3km before re-joining the main Cascades Track. From here, it’s straight back up the Cascades Track to the gate at the top…

 Location Starts near Acron Oval in St Ives (corner Acron Rd & Douglas St)
Distance 5.6km circuit (90min). 3.6km to Cascades and back (1hr)
Grade Easy. Total ascent 115m.
Season/s All year
Map Hornsby (NSW 9130-4S). 1:25,000
STEP Walking Tracks of the Middle Harbour Valley (North). 1:10,000
GPS Route  Routie GPS trail. View route and export to KML format.
Resources Wildwalks track notes.
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Map of Cascades Track, Bare Creek Trail and Cambourne Track to the Cascades. Source: STEP

Hamilton Pool

An impressive waterfall cascades over a semi-circular cave, into a turquoise pool ringed by trees.

My last stop on the way to the airport – I wasn’t expecting anything much, but Hamilton Pool seemed to warrant a short detour from Enchanted Rock.

I arrive around 2pm – I’ve read that there may be a queue and people may be turned away during busy periods, but I have no problems. The situation may be different at peak times, so worth checking if reservations are required – or arrive early! In any case, I quickly pay the entry fee and park; the carpark is perhaps 60% full, but it’s not too busy.

Heading down the steep path to Hamilton Creek, it’s only 10min before I reach the creek (it’s only a 1/2-mile or 800m round-trip from the carpark to the pool) and turn right toward Hamilton Pool.

The pool is breathtaking. One of those spots where you know the photos won’t do justice to the scene. I try anyway, and spend some time walking around the cave and behind the waterfall. Part of the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, the pool and grotto were formed when the dome of an underground river collapsed due to massive erosion thousands of years ago.

There’s an inviting beach and the pool has been used as a swimming hole; a number of signs prohibit swimming due to high bacteria level. (On questioning the very friendly and helpful park ranger on my way out, it appears that there have been a couple of swimming deaths in recent years, and the swimming ban is less about bacteria and more about preventing any further drownings.)

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I’ve got a bit more time before I need to leave, so I continue down the trail towards the Pedernales River. There’s few people on this section, which is about 1.5 miles (2.4km) to the river and back to the car park. The trail closely follows the creek and it’s a pleasant and shaded walk, with very clear turquoise water. I don’t quite make it the whole way as I’m getting short of time, but I’ve really enjoyed this walk – it greatly exceeded expectations and is somewhere I’d definitely visit again.

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Location About 30 miles west of Austin on FM 3238
Distance 800m round-trip to pool. 2.4km to Pedernales River and back.
Grade Easy.
Season/s All year round. Can get very busy on weekends and public holidays
Map USGS Topo Map Quad: Hammetts Crossing
Resources County Parks web site

Havasu Falls, Arizona

A hidden gem: a two-day walk through a dramatic landscape red canyons and turquoise waterfalls.

I stumbled across this hike somewhere in the depths of the Web… it looked amazing, and yet I hadn’t seen it in any of my US hiking  books. After a bit more research, it was added to my mental “wish list” of hikes! “The Havasupai Waterfalls are the most dramatic waterfalls in the Grand Canyon and possibly even the entire Southwestern United States” and “Havasupai (Havasu Falls) might just be one the the most beautiful places on Earth” are a few of the descriptions of this hike.

Getting there was the first challenge. I needed to be in San Diego on Monday for a conference, so the best approach was to fly to Las Vegas from LAX and pick up a car, overnight in Peach Springs and drive the last 100km to the start of the hike at Hualapai Hilltop early the following morning. Getting there at sunrise, the hike started with impressive views down the Hualapai Canyon, a side canyon of the Grand Canyon. A few mules are tethered near the start of the trail – this is the only place in the US where mail is delivered by mule (UK Daily Mail).

The trail drops quickly  from 1575m down into the canyon via a series of switchbacks and follows the dry floor canyon. After about 10km the Havasu Canyon is reached, and some trees and greenery start to appear… another 2km and I reach the village of Supai at 975m).

Supai is an interesting place. Home to the Havasupai Tribe, which has a population of about 600 people, it’s the smallest Indian nation in America. Reached by foot, mule and helicopter, Havasupai tribe has been living in the area for centuries. The land on which the Supai village is now situated was claimed from the National Park in 1975, after many court battles, granting the tribe a trust title to approximately 185,000 acres (source: Wikipedia). The village now has a shop, cafe, church, post office, health clinic and a lodge, which is where I stayed overnight (day-hikes are not permitted, and it would be a very long day hiking back up to the top of the canyon). The village looks pretty run-down and while many locals are reliant on tourism, no-one appears particularly friendly…

I check-in to Supai Lodge around midday and continue hiking down Havasu Canyon. The best is yet to come: Havasupai is roughly translated as “the people of the blue-green waters”, in reference to the amazing turquoise colour of Havasu Creek, formed by leaching from minerals. Navajo Falls is reached first, a short detour off the main track about 3km beyond the village. It is spectacular. One of those spots where I know the photos won’t do justice to what I am seeing.

I take many photos, and continue… Another 3km and I reach (arguably) the star attraction: Havasu Falls. Being outside peak season there are a few other people on the track and swimming, but there is also a sense of isolation and serenity. It’s somewhere I could happily camp and stay for a few days.

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A little further again (another 2km) after walking through the fairly-empty Havasu camping ground, and I reach the 70m-high Mooney Falls (these are the highest). The base of the falls is accessed through a rough track carved through the cliff and then down some less than confidence-inspiring wooden ladders. But worth the effort. Each waterfall seems to outdo the last in beauty and amazing-ness!

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I climb back up the narrow trail to the top, with one last waterfall to reach. There’s now a 4km stretch to Beaver Falls. The track is well-defined it gets rough in sections, with a number of ladders and steep sections to scramble down as it alternates between the two banks of Havasu Creek.

At last, Beaver Falls. I’ve walked 24km from the start of the hike at the top of the canyon many hours ago. I still have another 11km back up to the lodge at Supai where I’ll sleep tonight. It’s another 7km further before  Havasu Creek meets the Colorado River, and I fear that I won’t be back at Supai village in time to get some dinner.

I take a few (more) photos, and reluctantly head back up the trail. I’ve got enough time for a swim at Havasu Falls – the water is warm and relaxing – and make it back to the Sinyella cafe in Supai on the far side of the village about half an hour before it closes. A cold drink and fry-bread never tasted so good!

Supai Lodge is fairly basic, but I sleep very soundly (after a mix-up with rooms is eventually solved, and I am allocated a room that doesn’t already have an occupant)!

It’s an early start again the next day. Back through the village, up Havasu Canyon and then the final ascent up Hualapai Canyon to the car.

I get back mid-morning. It’s been a spectacular day and and half. I wish I could stay longer and I will be back one day. But today, I have a conference to get to.

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Location From Highway 66 near Peach Springs, turn onto Indian Route 18 and follow this for 100km to Hualapai Hilltop
Distance 47km (35km Day 1 to Beaver Falls; 12km Day 2).
Grade Moderate.
Season/s March through June considered the best time. Avoid monsoon season (mid-July to August) where flash flooding can occur
Map Havasu Falls, AZ  36112C6
GPS Route Routie GPS trail. View route and export to KML format.
Resources Permit required: refer NPS web site
Good track notes on BigBoyTravel web site
Photos Google Photos gallery

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Mumbulla Falls

Short walk to a beautiful gorge and waterhole on the south coast, with Aboriginal significance.

Mumbulla Falls (or Mumbulla Creek Falls) is located in the Biamanga Cultural area (which is part of the Biamanga National Park on the NSW south coast). A very short paved track and boardwalk leads to a look-out with great views over the falls and gorge, and there’s a number of interpretive signs about the local Aboriginal heritage along the track.

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The Aboriginal custodians request that visitors don’t swim in the Mumbulla Falls area, as the site is sacred to the Yuin People; when we visited there were many people in the water and jumping off the falls.

At the start of the trail, there’s a picnic area and BBQs by the Mumbulla River.

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Location From Bega, take Tarraganda Lane which becomes George Mountain Drive (11km) and then turn onto Mumbulla Creek Road (13km). Access via Glen Oakes Road on the Princes Hwy at Brogo is now closed!
Distance 500m return
Grade Super Easy
Season/s All year round. May occasionally be closed due to floods
Map Brogo (NSW 8824-1n). Not required.
Resources NPWS Biamanga National Park web site

On Safari in Botswana

Our first trip to Africa – and without the kids! We’ve got what looks like an awesome itinerary that packs a lot into about a week – three camps and a final night at Victoria Falls before we head home. We used Cedarberg Travel to plan our trip, and they’ve created a bespoke tour based on our budget and time with everything organised for us after we arrive in Maun (the fifth-largest “town” in Botswana).

About Botswana

One of Africa’s most stable countries, according to the BBC anyway, Botswana has the continent’s longest continuous multi-party democracy and is relatively free of corruption. Formerly the British protectorate of Bechuanaland, Botswana adopted its current name after becoming independent within the Commonwealth on 30 September 1966.

Tourism is a major source of income, and the country is one of the leaders in conservation: there are still some hunting reserves which are strictly controlled, but the country has a “shoot to kill” policy against poachers. [Update: a complete hunting ban was enacted in 2014 due to the decline of several wildlife species in the country.]

The total inhabitants of this sparsely populated country is about 2 million. From an average per-capita income of $70 in the 1960s – one of the lowest in Africa – this has increased to one of the highest at $18,825 per year in 2015.

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When to go (and for how long)

There are very distinct seasons in Botswana, with “dry” and “wet” seasons. The “low season” is December to April when some camps close, and June to August is generally considered “high season”. Although the “best” and “worst” times vary depending on regions and parks – and what you want to see! Safari Bookings has a useful guide explaining the different areas and when to visit them.

We went in late August, which was the ideal time for the areas we were visiting (Okavango Delta, Chobe and Linyanti).

We had a very brief stay – six days across three camps – although the trip felt a lot longer than it was (in a good way!). With an early start for the morning drive and then another activity/drive in the late afternoon followed by dinner, the days are long and we fit a lot in. Still, we would have very happily stayed longer if we could. As many of the camps are completely different in terms of the environment and what you see, I’d recommend 8-10 days with a couple of nights at each camp if time permits.

Getting there and around

We flew into Maun from Johannesburg, which is serviced by a number of commercial airlines. There are car rental companies here and self-driving is possible… although we saw descriptions suggesting it’s pretty challenging and requires a well-kitted, high-clearance 4WD.

We didn’t even contemplate this, having limited time. From Maun, we flew between camps on small charter airplanes. It added to the novelty of the trip and meant we could do a morning drive, then fly to our next camp in the middle of day and be ready for our next  afternoon drive… Plus the short flights between the camps gave us a different perspective of the landscape.

The Itinerary

After arriving in Maun (the fifth largest town in Botswana with a population of about 50,000) we flew to Kanana, in the Okavango Delta), then onto Okuti and finally to Linyanti Bush Camp, before our last night at Victoria Falls. The idea being to experience the very different environments that Botswana can offer.

Botswana-map

Kanana Bush Camp

Our documentation explains that our “charter flights are ‘seat in plane’ charters – which means that the size of plane used for our air transfers vary according to how many clients are booked on that particular day.” It may be a small 4 seater plane or something much larger. After a speedy transit through the immigration checkpoint, we walk over to our charter plane.

We end up with an aircraft that carries about eight passengers, although it’s only four of us on board. As we fly at low altitude over the African plains – and spot our first elephants from above – now it feels like we’re really ”on safari”!

After we disembark at Kanana, our small plane takes off back down the dirt runway with a few departing passengers, and we complete the last part of our two-day journey from Sydney to Kanana Camp by 4WD.

We’re welcomed to the very comfortable camp by singing camp staff at the entrance. We’re spending two nights at Kanana Camp, which is set on the Xudum River in the southern part of the Okavango Delta. The Okavango Delta is Africa’s largest and most beautiful oasis with some of the richest wildlife in the world. Its waterways, lagoons, vast grassy plains and palm-fringed and wooded islands are home to crocodiles, hippos, elephants, lions, leopards, hyenas, giraffes, wild dogs, rare antelopes and around 400 bird species. The Kanana concession encompasses a necklace of islands dotted with fig, palm and other trees, with eight spacious twin-bedded Bedouin-style tents set on raised wooden decks.

Kanana – Afternoon Drive (Day 1)

After settling in we hopped in the open 4WD for our first safari drive. We were pretty excited when we saw our first animals. And took lots of photos. We remained excited for a day or two, until we realised taking photos of the impala was the equivalent of photographing sheep in Australia (or NZ). They are pretty much everywhere. Our guide explains how the impala are the “McDonalds of the savannah”, with what looks like a large “m” emblazoned on their rear when they are seen from behind.

Far more exciting was spotting a leopard… to be precise, our guide spotted the dozing leopard high in a tree and pointed it out to us. We realized later that day, when talking to other guest around the campfire, that many guests had been there for many days and had not seen a leopard. So, to see one in the first few hours was pretty unusual and impressive. A good omen!

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It was also our first Giraffe Day, with one of these surprisingly graceful creatures grazing on what seemed to us a dead tree, but was clearly tasty for the giraffe. The giraffes prefer the acacia trees, which are very thorny – but as our guide explained due to their long (up to 45cm) and highly prehensile tongue they are virtually unaffected by the thorns.

Between the larger mammals, we see many birds… from the tiny tchagra to the larger wattled crane, a wading bird.

Or even birds and giraffes together…

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The late afternoon light is perfect for photography, as the sun starts to set, signalling that it’s nearly time for “sundowners”!

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There’s a few (more) photo stops as we make our way to our sundowner location for a drink and to watch the sun set over the desert.

Considering it’s been less than half a day (we arrived at the camp around 2:30pm), we’re amazed by how much we’ve seen (and how many photos we’ve already taken, as I try and work out how long it would take Amazon to deliver a few additional camera memory cards to our camp)!

The day (almost) finishes with dinner – there’s a raised dining and sitting areas forming a semi-circle around a massive fig tree  – and stories around the camp fire, where we discover that seeing a leopard in the first hour of your safari is very unusual.

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Just to make sure we pack as much as we can in a day, we take up the offer of a night drive. It’s good fun, albeit hard to take photos – we see a couple of hippos and a nightjar.

Kanana – Mokoro Trip (Day 2)

A mokoro is a canoe, traditionally made by digging out the trunk of a large tree, which is commonly used in the Okavango Delta. It’s propelled through the shallow waters of the delta by standing in the stern and pushing with a pole… which is what we are doing this morning, giving us a chance to creep quietly around the reeds of the Okavango Delta and hopefully (or not!) startle a hippopotamus.

We set off from camp in the motorboats, which I suspect offer a bit more protection against an angry hippopotamus** than a bark canoe, and navigate down a number of narrow passages in the Delta. I don’t know if the guide knows this area, has a good GPS or we’re relying on luck to get back to the camp. I soon have no idea where we are. Although, this is a fairly regular occurrence 🙂

** The hippo is responsible for more human fatalities in Africa than any other large animal, according to 10 Most dangerous animals in Africa. It’s the only animal that our guide seems genuinely concerned about encountering.

As luck would have it, we do see a hippo – or part of one – lurking in the still waters. Followed by a baby hippo head popping up beside it.

There’s always plenty of birdlife, with this morning’s sightings including a black cormorant, and a fish eagle. We see a fair few fish eagles over the next few days –  always far up in the trees and hard to photograph.

We eventually reach our mokoro launching area; it’s a shallow part of the delta so hopefully we don’t get charged by a hippo. Our guides (there are four guests, with two of us in a mokoro) look pretty relaxed as they punt us along with their long poles.

We don’t see a lot of any wildlife from the mokoro, but it’s a different experience gliding around at the same level as the reeds. Very serene. And we see some beautiful water lilies that are flowering.

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Once we’re back on land, we hear a bearded woodpecker pecking, well before we spot it high up in the tree. A pair of warthogs head straight towards us, getting fairly close before retreating.

 Kanana – Boat Trip (Day 2)

After lunch and the usual African siesta, when the day is at it’s hottest, we head for the water again. This time, we’re just taking the motorboat to see what birdlife we can spot along the delta.

We see a white-fronted bee eater, followed by a pair of marabou storks.

Described as “one of the ugliest animals on the planet” by Mother Nature Network, these storks are scavengers of large carrion, eat other birds, defecate all over their legs and feet (which helps them regulate their body temperature) and generally just stand around. The large pink gular sac at its throat also helps in the thermoregulation of the bird, and by inflating their air sac the marabou stork can display its dominance. The storks build a tree nest in the African dry season (when food is more readily available) in which two or three eggs are laid, with a two to three day interval between each.

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Nearby are large nests of Pink-Backed Pelicans, a resident breeder in the swamps and shallow lakes of Africa, southern Arabia and southern India. A relatively small pelican, they tend to roost and breed in trees (e.g. mangroves) with many nests built close together.

Breeding season occurs year round, usually starting late in the wet season, and typically only one egg from a clutch of 2-3 eggs will survive. The chicks are fed by taking regurgitated fish out of their parent’s throat pouch and they are able to fly 10-12 weeks after hatching.

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The various birds are harder to capture in flight, some are more graceful than others!

With the sun starting to set, and more photos of bird than I ever thought was possible, we speed off down the river. It’s very important that we’re in the right spot for our “sundowners” on the boat!

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There’s always something unexpected to see, though… this time it’s some baboons in the trees above the river…

We’re soon in the right position, as determined by our guide and Sundowner Cocktail Mixer, to enjoy the sunset.

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There is, once again, a glorious African sunset to complement our gin & tonics on the boat.

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Kanana Morning Drive (Day 3)

It’s our last “drive” at Kanana, as we head off in a different direction to our first drive in search of interesting things… the first animal we encounter is a (female) kudu, crossing the road in front of us.

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Our next stop, a Boab tree. But not just any Boab tree. Our guide shows us the damage wrought by elephants as they seek water from the pulpy interior of the tree.

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We see some elephants. And a lot more kudu. Another bee eater. And a red lechwe (below).

We also get some photos of the southern yellow-billed hornbill, also known as the “flying banana”. It’s a fairly common bird, which tends to be a  loner and forages on the ground for seeds, small insects, spiders and scorpions.

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And, finally as we prepare to head back to camp, word comes across on the radio of a nearby leopard sighting. We engage second gear, and crawl along the track in slow pursuit. We spot the leopard fairly quickly – the same one we saw the previous day – but it’s not posing like the previous day. It’s eyeing us through the long grass, and we follow it for a while before giving up.

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Which brings us to the end of our first camp. We head back for lunch, then head to the nearby airstrip to await our connecting flight. `

It’s fascinating to see the landscape from the sky. One minute we are flying over the Okavango Delta where everything is green. A few minutes later it’s so completely barren and dry, you question how anything survives.

In some places these two environments meet, and it’s almost like there is a line between the “wet” and “dry” landscapes.

Camp Okuti

Set in the north-eastern part of the Okavango Delta of Botswana at the edge of Xakanaxa lagoon in the heart of Moremi Game Reserve, Camp Okuti is in close range to shallow flood plains, papyrus swamps and dense riverine forest. The camp itself has seven chalets overlooking the Maunachira River, which flows into the Xakanaxa lagoon.

Officially designated as a game reserve in 1965, the Moremi Wildlife Reserve is protected tribal land and forms the eastern boundary of the Okavango Delta. It combines mopane woodland and acacia forests, floodplains and lagoons, with the diversity of plant life attracting an abundance of animal life. Our game drives vary from dry plains to crossing creeks and very wet, boggy areas.

Camp Okuti – Afternoon Drive (Day 3)

Setting out in our 4WD vehicle on our first drive, we soon encounter a small herd of Plains zebras. The Plains zebra are distinguished by the stripes that continue onto their belly.

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A bit further on and we encounter some grazing giraffes.

We stop for a while and watch a troop of Chacma baboons playing, as they chase and fight each other while swinging through the low trees.

A herd of elephants is our next sighting. They are foraging in the long grass of the woodland forest and ignore us.

We’re very excited to spot a small pride of lions, a family of five. The adults groom each other not far from our 4WD, while the three cubs chase each other and play. We watch them for a while, before it’s time to move on. It’s the third of the “Big Five” (lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, and Cape buffalo), on our third day in Africa!

We encounter some more elephants, as we start to head back to the camp.

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We’ve spot some more birds – nowhere near as many as our last camp – but the area is known for its large numbers of breeding storks and herons. As well as some smaller birds, we see the saddle-billed stork and red wattled crane, a migratory bird.

As the sun begins to set, it’s time for sundowners – it’s been another very rewarding drive. Lots of photos to sort through…

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The sunset doesn’t disappoint – it never does! – as we enjoy our sundowner drinks, before heading back to Camp Okuti for dinner.

Camp Okuti – Morning Drive (Day 4)

We set off early in the morning. There seems to be a lot more birds around: we get very close to a lilac-breasted roller. The unofficial national bird of Kenya, these colourful birds are found throughout southern and eastern Africa.

We see the saddle-billed stork again, a normally shy and wary creature. These large wading birds are one of the “Big 6 Birds” established by Kruger National Park to raise awareness of threatened bird species (the saddle-billed stork is classified as Endangered in South Africa, but is far more common in Botswana.)

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Yesterday we saw the “flying banana” (southern yellow-billed hornbill); today we spot the equally common southern red-billed hornbill, or “flying chilli pepper”. They’re named because the shape of their bill reminded people of cattle horns. The uptight and dignified character of Zazu in the animated film The Lion King is an African red-billed hornbill. Also spotted is a Burchell’s Starling, distinguished by its large, dark eyes and long tail.

We see lots of bigger animals, too… A few elephants from fairly close.

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We observe a dazzle of zebras for a while, as they slowly cross the plain in front of us.

We spot giraffes a few times during our drive..

We get out of the 4WD to stretch our legs and look at one of the massive termite mounds that dot the plains. Termites mix salt and dirt to create these impressive structures, excreting a liquid to harden the mixture. Some are inhabited by termites; others, abandoned by the termites, become a home for other animals such as mongoose or snakes. Research has shown that the size and distribution of termite mounds can be used to predict ecological shifts from climate change [Science Daily].

Another 2m+ termite mound

Continuing on journey, more birds are spotted… the swallow-tailed bee-eater, a richly coloured, slender bird that – no surprise – eats insects, especially bees, wasps and hornets. An African Pygmy-Kingfisher, distributed widely in Africa south of the Sahara. They are very common but it’s hard to get a good photo – as they are always very high up in the tree-tops – is the common African Fish-Eagle: it spends most of it’s time perched high above the delta, swooping down to catch fish with its talons.

The area is well-known for its water-birds, and doesn’t disappoint! A Great Egret and Glossy Ibis are added to the morning’s list of bird sightings.

A very lucky find is the African Scops-Owl, which we spot in a tree by the road. A very small owl, it is strictly nocturnal and during the day perches close to the trunk of a tree.

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As we return to camp for lunch , we see a resting male waterbuck or waterbok (the female doesn’t have horns). They are very territorial and fights are common between males. A little further we spot a herd or gang of buffalo, the first time we see these large animals, which often travel in huge groups.

A pair of red lechwe greet us as we pass: as with the waterbuck, only the male has horns.  Arguably the antelope that’s most associated with the Okavango Delta, the Red Lechwe is the most common antelope in the Delta and can be seen in large herds as they graze on the short grasses of the seasonal floodplains.

Nearing the camp, our last sighting of the morning, a solitary elephant making its way gracefully down one of the channels in the delta.

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Camp Okuti – Afternoon Drive (Day 4)

I’m taking the afternoon drive today, in search of the elusive leopard, while my wife chooses to do another boat trip to see water-birds. My first encounter is a gang of Cape buffalo – perhaps the same one we saw on the previous day – crossing the road in front of our vehicle. A few of the buffalo have birds (in one case, a flock of birds) sitting on their backs: these are oxpeckers, one of two species of birds which have a symbiotic relationship with the large, hoofed mammals of the area (giraffes, antelope, zebra, Cape buffalo and rhinoceroses).  The oxpecker will eat diseased wound tissue, keeping wounds clean as they heal, and eat ticks and other insects that are on the buffalo. They hiss when alarmed, which can alert their host – a prey mammal – to potential danger.

More birds are sighted: a Burchell’s coucal, a shy and secretive bird, and a raft of white-faced ducks, which are common (often in huge flocks) in sub-Saharan Africa as well as South America.

It’s quite “mixed” terrain, alternating between dry grassland to very wet and marshy areas, where our 4WD gets close to being bogged a few times. Although our driver seems to have done this a few times before…

I don’t see any more big animals this afternoon – no leopards! – but many more birds. The African Jacana, also known as the “lilly trotter” because of it’s long toes that enable it to walk on floating plants,  feed on insects and other invertebrates picked from the floating vegetation or the surface of the water.

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I see another owl, this time it’s an African Barred Owlet, one of the smallest owls in southern Africa, which hunts in the day as well as night. On the ground and larger in size is the southern-ground hornbill, a very large black bird with a large bill – it’s the largest species of hornbill. The southern ground hornbill is a vulnerable species, mainly confined to national reserves and national parks.

As the sun starts to drop, there’s great light for photography, with the taller trees of the delta reflected in the water.

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We find a suitable spot to enjoy a sundowner and I watch the sun set, on our fourth day in Botswana (although it already feels a lot longer)!

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Camp Okuti – Afternoon Boat (Day 4)

Meanwhile, out on the boat…  there’s lot of birds, with the great egret and reed cormorant sharing a river-side tree, and many marabou storks perched above the river.

An African Jacana is also spotted on the bank of the river.

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A solitary elephant crosses the river…

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…and there’s a hippopotamus family – maybe it’s the same one following us? – that peers out of the water.

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So far, I think we’re pretty even in wildlife sightings (when we compare “drive” versus “boat” over dinner. But the sun setting over the river is magnificent, definitely trumping my sun downer photos!

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Camp Okuti – Morning Drive (Day 5)

Another day, another drive… although they never feel repetitive. We set off early, with the sun just rising as we leave camp.

Sunrise over the Okavango Delta on our last morning at Okuti Camp

We soon spot a lone elephant, grazing near the track.

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Some more buffalo, also grazing in the morning sun and quite content to watch us taking photos as they eat.

A pair of impala are engaged in a friendly (I think) duel: in the mating season the fights can be short but savage, with serious injuries and fatalities occurring.

Not as many birds on this drive, but we see a double-banded sandgrouse, a ground-dwelling bird which is found across southern Africa in small groups. Up in a tree is a green wood-hoopoe, which frequents wooded areas and forages for food under the bark of trees.

We stop and our guide points out a massive boab tree, that’s been almost felled by elephants. With the trunk of a baobab being able to store up to 100,000 litres of water, even during harsh drought conditions, it’s a target for thirsty elephants. They strip the bark from the tree, gouge a hole, and then start pulling out its wetter, spongy insides.

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A few more birds: the red-crested Korhaan, which raises its normally concealed red crest as part of a terrestrial mating ritual. Also known as the “suicide bird”, to attract the opposite sex the male red crested Korhaan flies vertically up into the sky, before plummeting back down before opening it winds for a sift landing. We also see my favourite bird, the flying banana / southern yellow-billed hornbill.

At the airstrip, where we drop off a few of our fellow passengers who are departing camp, is a troop of vervet monkeys, who play in the trees and structures around the “airport”. Vervet monkeys have been noted for having human-like characteristics, such as hypertension, anxiety, and social and dependent alcohol use.

Just after we leave the airstrip, we surprise a hippopotamus, which is cooling off in a small waterhole. It warily keeps his (or her) eyes on us.

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Also keeping en eye on us from a distance is a red lechwe, part of a larger group that’s travelling across the plain.

Red lechwe near the

While most of our drive has been in fairly dry areas, we’re back in the “wet” part of the Moremi Reserve, and one of the boggy tracks has finally claimed our vehicle! Our guide collects some fallen logs and uses a lift to get us going again. I offer to help – but he seems to have done this exercise a few times and we get going again fairly promptly.

As we conclude our morning drive, two giraffes cross the track in front of us. Heading for a small waterhole, they take turns drinking and keeping an eye on us. There’s something part comical and part fascinating about how giraffes drink, as they stoop down to draw in water through their long necks.

We return to camp, ready to catch our next charter flight to our third and final camp…

It’s another fairly short flight between camps, and as we near Linyanti we’ve already spotted more elephants from the air then we’ve seen in the last four days!

Linyanti Camp

Situated on the banks of Linyanti Marsh in a private reserve which borders the western boundary of Chobe in the Chobe Enclave, Linyanti Bush Camp (Google Maps location) is a tented camp  with large East African Meru-style tents. (The tents have en-suite facilities with showers and flush toilet, with each tent is positioned to offer views of Linyanti Marsh.)

The Linyanti Swamps lie to the west of Chobe National Park, known for its large elephant herds. The landscape is characterized by grassland vistas dotted with palm forest islands, with the permanent water of the Linyanti/Kwando River drawing the animals during the dry season.

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Even before we set off on our afternoon drive, as we’re transported from the airstrip to our camp down a very dry and sandy 4WD track, we see a colourful lilac-breasted roller, catching insects.

A bit further on is a warthog, and a tree squirrel, both animals being found in most of central Africa.

Linyanti Camp – Afternoon Drive (Day 5)

After settling into our tent, we set off on our first Linyanti drive. It’s not long before we see our first elephants, a mother leading her small calf across the Linyanti wetlands.

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Some more birds: a fork tailed drongo (below, left) and a blacksmith lapwing (below, right)

In the Linyanti River, which forms the border with Angola, is a family of hippopotamuses. We keep a reasonable distance and are ready to move if they get aggressive: my suggestion of jumping out of the 4WD to get a close photo was met with a firm “are you out of your mind?”. I’m pretty sure I can outrun a hippopotamus. Our guide clearly doesn’t agree.

Hippopotamus in Linyante River

We’ve seen many, many termite mounds – but this is the first one we’ve seen that’s inhabited by some non-termite residents. Popping their little heads out of various holes in the mound is a family of dwarf mongoose – the smallest carnivore in Africa.  Curious and sociable, like their meerkat relatives, dwarf mongooses live in groups of 8-30 individuals called a pack or troop.

As the afternoon draws to a close, we see more elephants. There are more elephants than I thought possible, walking past our 4WD and sometime sniffing the vehicle with their trunks. We stop near the river, with large herds of elephants on grazing on both sides.

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As the sun sets, we sit and watch the elephants on the bank of the river. I can think of much worse ways to spend an evening…

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Linyanti Camp – Chobe NP / Morning Drive (Day 6)

We’re up early again, sharing our breakfast with an inquisitive flying-banana as the sun rises.

We see a few of the usual suspects as we head off: some kudu, which we get close to, another tree squirrel and the Greater Blue-eared Starling, one of the most colourful of the African starlings.

As we reach the Linyanti River, as well as (more) kudu, we see some waterbirds including the white breasted cormorant, the largest cormorant in the region. We also spot another hippopotamus family, swimming down the river.

We then enter Chobe National Park. Where we find elephants. More elephants than I’ve ever seen before. Baby elephants. Old elephants. Elephant families. They pass both sides of our vehicle, sometimes stopping to sniff the vehicle and its occupants with their long trunks. It’s the first time I’ve had to swap my telephoto lens for a wide angle lens, when taking wildlife photos!

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While elephants are threatened by poaching and elephant numbers are declining, evidence suggests that the population in the Chobe area is reaching potentially dangerous levels which could lead to severe environmental effects and ultimately a massive die-off in prolonged dry periods. In Chobe there are 6.41 elephants per sq km – which is over 71,000 elephants [Source: Institute of Commonwealth Studies]. I think we see most of them today…

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We watch the elephants come and go for a long time, their behaviour fascinating. They are very protective of their calves, moving in a formation that protects the younger elephants. What I’d never seen before – or perhaps noticed – is how they rest their trunks on their tusks.

Once we get back to camp, we see more animals, despite it now being the middle of the day. A pair of pied kingfishers (the only black & white kingfishers in the region) stare intently into the marsh below a dead tree branch, occasionally diving into the water for food. At the other of the colour spectrum, is the Bennett’s Woodpecker. Found singly, in pairs or in family groups they forage on the ground and feed in trees.

And, while we’ve seen enough elephants to last us a day (at least) we can’t escape them today… beyond the swimming pool, we spot many more elephants crossing the swamp and grasslands in the distance.

Linyanti Camp – Afternoon Boat Trip  (Day 6)

In the afternoon, we swap the 4WD for a small boat, and take to the water around Linyanti Camp. The Linyanti River is about 10km wide at this point, with the Angolan border in the far distance.

Not surprisingly, elephants are the feature of this afternoon’s activity. There are elephants everywhere (again), both on land, by the river and in the river.

It’s fascinating to watch them cross the channel, their long trunks acting as snorkels when they cross the deepest part of the channel.

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Again, we watch the elephants swimming, playing, rolling in the dust and drinking from the water as we drift slowly in our boat.

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Just to break the monotony of grey elephants, we also spot a lone zebra who comes down to the river to drink before disappearing. And a spotted (laughing) hyaena, one of the scavengers of central Africa, which is walking along the riverbank in the distance.

It would be a wonderful way to spend an afternoon, even without a stream of elephants swimming past!

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Combined with a gin & tonic, the setting sun and elephants swimming past, it’s probably our most memorable sun downer of the week – not that any of the previous days have been disappointing!

Linyanti to Victoria Falls (Day 7)

No morning drive on our last day “on safari”: today we need to leave in the morning, for our last Safari Air charter transfer to Kasane. From Kasane, we’re going by road to Victoria Falls and then onto the Victoria Falls Hotel for our last night. It’s only about an hour’s drive (80km) – but we’re warned the Botswana / Zimbabwe border crossing (Kazungula border post) could be quick. Or it could take hours.

It’s with some sadness that we farewell the last elephants, giraffes, warthogs and other animals that we’ll see on this trip – we see a fair few birds and larger animals  on the reasonably short drive to the airstrip. [In fact, we see more elephants from the car between Kasane and Victoria Falls, and warthogs on the lawn of the Victoria Falls Hotel – but we didn’t know this at the time!]

Our plane arrives – we’re the only passengers – and we take off for Kasane.

As with our charter flight into Linyanti Camp, the aerial view give you a much better sense of the landscape. The incredibly dry and hostile expanses are punctuated by floodplains, which sustain all the wildlife we’ve seen.

Victoria Falls (Days 7 & 8)

Our last stay is at the Victoria Falls Hotel, which lies in the Victoria Falls National Park (a World Heritage Site). Built in 1904 and recently refurbished, the hotel is set in spacious tropical gardens, with lily ponds, palm trees and semi-tropical shrubs. It feels odd, a contrast to our previous six nights in small safari camps. Step outside the hotel, and you sense the poverty of Zimbabwe, with locals offering to sell you trinkets and sets of the completely devalued currency every few steps you take. Inside the hotel, you could be in the middle of London. Except for the warthogs that graze on the manicured lawns.

The falls, a short ten minute walk from the hotel, are (not surprisingly) spectacular, with a massive volume of water pouring over the top into the Zambezi River.

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We walk along the path that follows the top of the falls on the Zimbabwe side, which offers a changing perspective of the “the ‘smoke that thunders'”.

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The following morning – our last day – I get up early to see the falls from the Zambian side. In the background (below) is the Victoria Falls Bridge across the Zambezi River, which connects Zimbabwe and Zambia (the border being in the middle of the bridge).

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I don’t walk as far as on the previous day, but the views are (I think) more impressive, and give a greater sense of the length of the falls.

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So, which side is best for viewing – Zambia or Zimbabwe? Ultimately, I don’t think there’s a huge difference, but it’s worth seeing the falls from both sides (if you have time). The Zimbabwean side offers more vantage points of the falls as you walk along the top, while I found the view from the Zambia side slightly more spectacular. (It also depends on the time of year – our trip itinerary stated “Towards the end of the dry season from late September to January, the spectacle is best seen from the Zimbabwe side of the Falls as the Zambian side all but dries up”). Perhaps, more importantly, visit in the early morning or late afternoon, when the light is best, and bring a tripod.

Our last vantage point was from above, taking the ‘Flight of Angels’ helicopter tour from near the falls. The short helicopter trip itself was awesome; the overall experience slightly tainted by the feeling you’re in a sausage factory: there’s a constant stream of tourists onto multiple helicopters, which are quickly refuelled between trips with engines still running. There was also some aggressive behaviour by some tourists who would sprint to their allocated helicopter to secure the “best” seat (they take one person in the front – the prime position – and three across the back seat).

Once airborn, the chopper does a large figure-of-eight loop, providing an overview of the surrounding area and allowing passengers on both sides to get a good view of the falls. You can see the large floodplain above the falls, and the deep valley carved by the Zambezi River.

The falls are more impressive from the air, simply because it’s the only way you can see the length of the waterfall and get a sense of its scale.

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And that concludes our 8-day African adventure… now we fly from Victoria Falls Airport to Johannesburg, and then back to Sydney. It’s been one of our best holidays – what felt like a month away squeezed into just over a week.

More Information

We relied largely on Cedarberg Travel to organise an itinerary that covered different parts of Botswana, and they did a fantastic job (accommodation, especially in the smaller camps, being hard to secure in August).

We took some US dollars and credit cards; we also took some travelers cheques (in USD) which were completely useless. (It took us over a year once we got home to convert them back to local currency.) Almost everything – meals, accommodation and activities – were prepaid, so we really just needed some money to tip guides (about USD$20 per guide/day for both of us).

Prior to the trip we (or rather, my wife) did a lot of on-line research, as well as purchasing “Getaway Guide Botswana“.

For working out what birds/animals are what, the “Pocket Guide to Birds of Southern Africa” and “Pocket Guide to Mammals of Southern Africa” books are comprehensive, and small enough to take out with you.