After months of planning the time had finally come for my first trip to Mabua. A good friend of mine (Bruce) had week-long pink slip from the wife and kids and we were both looking forward to spending some time in the bush. With a bit of luck we would also encounter the Mabua lions we had heard so much about.
We left Joburg at 6am and made good time to our first stop for breakfast at Swartbruggens (Wimpy). Just outside the Wimpy we saw bags of wood for sale for R11 each so we decided to take the opportunity to stock up. 9 bags of wood loaded into the back of the Landy and as a reward for our big purchase we got 2 free bottles pre-mixed Spiced Gold and cola. Good start to the trip! We pushed onward to Zeerust and the border at Skilpadshek.
The SA side of the border was a breeze but it all went downhill on the Bots side. Whilst passport control was pretty quick there was a long queue for customs filled with truckers crossing the border. We finally got to the front of the queue only to be informed that they only accept Pula. Only my previous trips to Bots I have always been able to pay in rands and sometimes even credit cards but anyway… fortunately there is a bureau de change right outside. So after 2 more queues we finally pay for our road insurance and we’re on our way again to Jwaneng.
At Jwaneng we filled up the 2 tanks and 2 jerry cans (140l total). We briefly contemplated a lunch at the Nandos but the long queue dissuaded us and as it was nearly 2pm we decided to get back on the road. We didn’t stop in Sekoma and short while later took the turn off to the right and into the bush. When the time approaching 5pm, and well away from the tribal lands, we decided to pull over and make camp for the night. As firewood collection is allowed outside the park we collected a few big pieces and got a good fire going. It was our first experience of the eerily quiet Kalahari nights, with not another person or car in sight!
An early morning start to make coffee and then we were off to East Gate. We stopped enroute to inspect lion tracks and to take photos of some vultures and bateleur. We also spotted many, many steenbok and our first Gemsbok of the trip.
We arrived at the gate around 11am and went in search of our last flush toilet for a while and the national parks staff. When found she was friendly and efficient and even tried to see if there was any last minute availability at Mpaya 2 but unfortunately not.
We were keen to get to camp to set up and so took the direct route to Lesholoago via Monamadi, getting into camp around 1pm.
First things first, lunch and a cold beer. Second we set out to fill up with water. It was a short drive across the pan to Lesholoago 2 which has water. There appeared to be people staying there but when we asked if they minded if we filled up our jerries they told us to go ahead, it wasn’t their camp anyway. They were just hiding out from the bees that made life at their camp very difficult. They were staying at Mabua which was our next camp! Oh well we’d cross that bridge when we got to it. Back to camp to start a fire and enjoy a G&T.
Up early and we headed back down towards Monamadi with the plan of doing a long drive around Mpaya, Khidding, Mabua and back. There was not much game in between pans but just after the turn off to Mpaya I spotted the head of a male lion head on the side of the road. This was our first encounter with the 3 males of Mabua. The lions didn’t look like they were in a hurry to do anything so we decided to head straight back, have brekkie and then return in the afternoon. We spent a leisurely afternoon at camp reading and dozing before heading back to find the lions exactly where we left them. We spent the whole afternoon with them and although they barely moved it was fantastic to spend all that time with them without being disturbed by a single other vehicle.
Back to camp and around the braai we are visited by a brown hyena who didn’t appear particularly scared of us!
Moving day. Packing up camp was pretty simple until the electric tent wouldn’t go down. We managed to make a plan which involved unties, releasing and retying the internal ropes. Not the best start to the morning but things could only get better, right? We decided to go check on our lion friends but they had moved off.
Back at Mpaya waterhole we waited for the nearby wildebeest to come and drink but they did not oblige. We drove to check out Mpaya 2 and less than 50m away from the campsite we found our 3 male lion friends.
Knowing they probably wouldn’t be going anywhere anytime soon we decided to head to Mabua to set up camp.
Arriving at Mabua we discovered that the warning about the bees was not exaggerated. There were bees everywhere! Spending time in camp was completely unpleasant and we were distraught. Its was so bad we decided to try and change camps. Rather than taking a chance and squatting on an unoccupied site we went back to the gate. Unfortunately the official at the gate couldn’t help us. She had just given away the 2 reserve sites, one to a party complaining about the bees at Khidding. Out of luck, we made our way back to Mabua to make the best of it.
Returning to camp around 5pm the bees were still around but far fewer and by the time the sun started to set they had all gone for the night. With the sun setting we grabbed a quick shower under a tree with a view of the pan – bliss!
Just before 6am we are woken by lions roaring. They were close! We woke and to got fresh coffee on the go so that as the sun rose we could be back on the road – but the tent wouldn’t come down again!!! Fortunately we were now pros at fixing it so it doesn’t delay us too long. While fixing the tent the roars were getting closer and closer to the point where we were both looking around expecting to see lions at any moment.
With the tent fixed we set off after the lions in the direction of the roars- towards Lesholoago. About 2km round Mabua pan we found 2 of them and they were clearly calling the third.
We sat with the Lions for a while before they decided to walk off down the road, marking their territory along the way. They stopped and called again before settling down. We waited about an hour before they were joined by the third and together headed off a bit deeper into the bush. It was time for us to head back for brekkie.
Around 11am the bee invasion began. They were unavoidable but they were focussed around our rubbish bag, which we have forgotten to pack away. By staying relaxed and moving slowly we managed to avoid being stung even once. Unfortunately the bees found our shower bag and a massive swarm formed buzzing around us and the bag. We decided to admit defeat and seek shelter. We set up a table at Mabua 1 and enjoyed a relatively bee free meal before two Land Cruisers arrived packed to the rafters with Italian tourists. Seems we had been squatting on their campsite. So we left them to it after a quick chat where we explained where the lions could be found.
It was only 2 o’clock and with out camp site out of bounds we decided to drive to the relatively unexplored (by us) Khidding pan. Its seems it is unexplored for a reason – no game at Khidding. We pushed on to Mpaya and enroute got into a race with a group of ostriches. They are incredibly fast! At Mpaya there were the usual suspects, gemsboks etc. We found the one tree next to the waterhole and took the chance to rest in the shade for a while. With the exception of a quick visit from a bateleur there was nothing at the waterhole.
Around 5 we went back to camp, hoping the bees would be gone by now? Unfortunately the lure of, what we discovered was a leaking shower bag, proved irresistible and the bees were still largely in residence. It was only when the sun set that the last bee finally departed back to the hive. Determined not to be defeated I set up the shower and used the small amount of water left to have a quick shower in the fading light. Sitting round the camp fire that night we were visited by 2 brown hyena. I thought they were solitary creatures? It was to be a sign of busy night ahead.
At 5am we were jolted awake by something bumping into the vehicle. Then another clatter as something explored the table. Were the hyenas back? A vicious snarl left us in no doubt that we had lion in our camp! Unzipping the tent we peered out with our torches. 2 lionesses gazed back at us from under the A-frame. They were less than 2 metres away! Nothing sets the heart racing quite like staring into the eyes of a lion with nothing but mosquito netting to separate you. And just like that they were gone. There was still +-90 minutes to go until sunrise and neither of us had any chance of going back to sleep.
As soon as the sun started peeking over the horizon and I jumped out of the car eager to check the camera to see if it had managed to capture any of the lion action.
Going through the photos it seemed it had been a busy night in camp. The 2 hyena had been back, a few jackal and then something I wasn’t suspecting… leopard! Sadly the lion got too close to the camera for a clear shot. All we had was a glimpse of a tail to tell it was a lion and a myriad of paw prints all around our tent and camp. So it seemed the only thing to do would be to see if we could follow the trail.
Perhaps they would meet up with the three males that had been roaring again throughout the night although, by now, they now sounded much further away towards Lesholoago. We set about lowering the roof top tent only for it to stop half way. More tent issues!!! Climbing back into the half lowered tent we discovered a disaster. In resetting the ropes it seems like we had set them up incorrectly and the tension had now ripped the belt mechanism out of the winder. Engaging the clutch on the winch we managed to lower the tent and set off after the lions. Fixing the tent would be a problem for later.
The lions had left a clear trail along the path. Thanks to the sandy roads and the lions’ tendency to take the path of least resistance we managed to track them with relative ease, even for a bunch of amateurs like us. Just before Lesholoago pan the tracks veered off into the bush. We couldn’t see anything so continued on to the pan where I managed to get my meerkat shot.
From across the pan we could see a number of vehicles parked at the spot where the lion tracks had veered off the road – somehow we had missed them. Sure enough when we arrived we found our old friends the 3 male lions.
Somewhere along the route we must have lost the tracks of the lionesses and picked up the tracks of the males. We’re not quite at the level where we can tell the difference! By now we had many hundreds of photos of these lions and had spent over 6 hours in the their company so we decided to leave them for the others to enjoy. While passing the land cruiser full of Italians we noticed that their front left tyre was completely flat. Karma for the fact that they were all hanging out of their sunroof less than a few metres away from 3 male lions?
Back in camp we had a quick breakfast of granola and yoghurt and set about trying to set up our shower in a way that it would not leak and become a bee magnet again. On closer inspection of the shower we discovered that the lions had not left out camp completely unscathed. A swipe from a lionesses paw had left the shower leakier than a sieve. We would have to make a new plan to get clean.
Right on schedule the bees invaded again and we needed to find somewhere to hide out for a few hours. We drove back to Maya waterhole to watch the coming and goings whilst enjoying some lunch. Sadly, apart from a vulture or two, there was not much happening at the waterhole. Later in the afternoon we popped across to Lesholoago and asked the guests if we could make use of their shower facilities at Lesholoago 2, thankfully they were only too happy to oblige. The night at camp passed uneventfully and for the first time on our trip the motion camera did not pick up any activity whatsoever. I’m convinced its because that night I had decided to take my camera up into the tent.
We woke up to the now familiar sound of lions roaring. They sounded like they were on the northern edge of the Mabua pan so we set out to see if we could make it 5 days out of 5. Unfortunately despite fresh tracks in the road we couldn’t find them. So we set off on the journey south for our last night at Bosobologo. The best thing that I can say about Bosobologo is that it was extremely peaceful and quiet with not another soul in sight. We had heard that leopard and cheetah can be seen in the area but we saw a few springbok and jackal and that was it!
Time to head back to civilisation. Having arrived via the Jwaneng and the cutline we decided to head back to Joburg via Tsabong. The road to Tsabong was fairly tough going with some of the deepest sand we had encountered on the trip. After a few hairy moments we were relieved to arrive in Tsabong and to see a tar road again. We filled up with diesel and drove to the border at McCarthys Rest. The border crossing was quick and painless compared to our arrival. We were the only people there. What we didn’t realise was that once across the border the tar road disappeared and we had a long stretch of gravel to navigate before Hotazel. In our eagerness to make good time we probably went a little too fast on this section and had a very scary moment! The rest of the trip passed by uneventfully. We stayed over in Vryburg at Lavender Lodge, which is highly recommended. They have a fantastic big screen for watching the rugby on, the less said about the actual game though, the better!
On reflection Mabua was a fantastic experience. The quiet and the feeling of isolation is an incredibly unique experience. In the 6+ hours we spent with the 3 lions we only shared the sighting with other people once. The game while we were there was not prolific but there is always at least something to be seen on the pans and the lion encounters were some of the best I have ever had. I think the best camps are Mpaya 2 and Lesholoago 2 and they will both be on my wishlist for the next trip.