Had expected the cyclone to land overnight and bring heavy rainfall which was a worry if it prevented us from making our flight to Jo’burg and picking up our plane for Tswalu, but still no storm so our guardian angels are working overtime. Easy flight to Jo’burg and met at the plane by someone from Anglo American, who would be flying us into Tswalu. Car over to their hanger where we waited for an hour or so then into an 7 seater exec turbo-prop for the 90 minute run to Tswalu. Very hot, sultry weather so lots of turbulence and V had a rough time; dug out the Gravol but after we levelled out at 26,000 feet, all smooth the rest of the way until our landing approach, when we had the same problem. A word about Tswalu. It was assembled in the mid 90’s by a very tough Manchester businessman who had the capital to take advantage of political and economic turmoil in SA at that time to acquire 105,000 hectares of farmland by buying out a large number of local farmers. He was a hunter and a conservationist and his vision was to return the land to its pre-agricultural condition, since much of it was suffering from over-grazing. The property is 60k long and 40k wide, is fenced around its perimeter, but with only one internal fence which separates a public road running through the property from the Tswalu property. He had begun the work of tearing down all the farmhouses , fences and structures on the property when he died in 1998. Because he was trying to create a Kalahari land and animal sanctuary, he willed that the land could not be broken up but had to be sold in one piece and further directed that Nicky Oppenheimer be given first option to buy. He did, and has committed vast resources to continue the vision of returning Tswalu to its natural state.
It is a magnificent landscape, a desert, not in the Sahara sense, but rather vast rolling country broken by ranges of hills and covered with wide stretches of knee-high grasslands, interspersed with acacia shrubs, and very few trees. If anyone has seen the picture of Bono descended from a small plane in the middle of sweeping country and holding his Vuiton luggage, it was shot a short distance away from our camp.
Met at the plane by Marco, the head ranger here and good friends of Susie and Rich of Africa Avenue, and who along with Sammy the tracker and Andrew a trainee ranger who will be shadowing Marco, will be our team for the next 5 days. There are only V and I and the team on the LR and as Marco is a very experienced photographer, we should have a very fruitful 5 days. Camp is luxurious but in a very different way from Mala Mala. Eight individual native stone, circular and thatched buildings with outdoor drystone-walled showers. The interior of the building is circular and larger than Mala Mala but much different in style; rough-hewn, eco chic, but very comfortable. Each of the eight dwellings, like MalaMala, has a private verandah but instead of looking down to a river, the verandahs look out across the vast sweep of the Kalahari veldt and across to distant, purple hills.
Additionally, in the Sabi Sands region, you have to really work at not seeing animals; here, I expect, the opposite will be true and we will have to work much harder to see, at least, the predators. Tracking will be to the fore here. (Update posted March 9, 2012) Couldn't have been more wrong about the number of animals to be seen, both big cats and all the diverse species of antelope, rhino etc. Tracking was paramount, but we saw more and in an up close and personal way than we did at Mala Mala. Extraordinary access to the whole range of wildlife.
Oppenheimer created a foundation to bring together at Tswalu, once a year, a number of world leaders and experts, 56 I think, in finance, economics, academia and so on to meet for a couple of days to discuss critical african and world problems. The meetings finished today and with the exception of a married couple who attended the conference and who stayed on for a couple of days, everyone left this morning, so like ourselves, all the other guests here just arrived today. The 105,000 hectares only host 30 guests, 20 in our camp with an additional 10 at the large family villa in another part of the reserve so can’t imagine how they manage to house put up the 56 conference attendees.
Lovely first evening drive. Very different country and most of our sightings were of the large variety of antelope in the region. Getting our photography skills re-established as this is very different terrain and shooting is very different from Mala Mala; e.g. didn’t use the 300mm lens at Mala Mala as the animals were too close, now won’t be able to survive without it. Finished shooting at sundown and Marco drove us to the top of a hill a couple of kilometres away from our camp, where we found the other 18 guests assembled on director’s chairs for sundowners, an activity that is rapidly becoming habit forming! Camp staff had brought out tablecloth-covered tables and chairs, a large grilling station and a bar so we adjourned for dinner with hurricane-lamps lit, the crickets chirping in the dark, wine being poured and very good dinner being cooked.
Had a very pleasant time with the two conference participants who had stayed on; a British Army general, who we learned later is Chief of Defence Staff, so head of the British Armed Forces, and his wife. A charming, humorous and interesting couple who had just returned from Ottawa to meet with Canadian Armed Forces general staff. They were going out for meerkats in the morning and invited us to join them, but Marco has our itinerary worked out and while gracious about allowing us flexibility in adjusting our schedule, there was a clearly delivered undertone that suggested that we stick to the plan! So no meerkats with the general but agreed to meet later tomorrow and compare notes.
And so off to bed.