A Travellerspoint blog

Mombo Camp

The Moremi Game Reserve or Otherworldly Theme Park?

sunny 72 °F

Mombo Camp is in Botswana’s Moremi Game Reserve on the northern tip of an Island called “Chiefs Island”. The Island’s name sake, the local tribe’s chief, had been the only person allowed to hunt this sacred place over the past centuries. It’s surrounded by permanent water ways and seasonal flood plains creating an island ~100km long and ~30km wide that has historically proven difficult to reach by poachers or hunters. The animals seem to have genetically encoded this geography and history, taking advantage of this relative safe haven for what many guides consider to be the heaviest concentration of wildlife in the Okavango Delta, and perhaps all of Africa. The wildlife seems undisturbed by the coming and going of vehicles, as if knowing that you aren’t the chief. Mombo Camp’s reputation illicits an envious ooooh or ahhhh from safari goers that have only heard about it, and an acknowledging nod from those that have had the pleasure of staying or working here. This was the only camp on safari we had high expectations even before arriving. On the short trip from the airstrip to camp, we were blown away with the quantity of giraffe and elephant that we saw. Every turn in the road seemed to produce another tower of giraffe or herd of elephants.
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When we arrived at Mombo, we were greeted by Izzy and Taps, the managers of the camp, and Kirsty, a high school graduate who was learning the ropes, and taking care of guests like they were family. They walked us through the do’s and don’ts of the camp, and showed us to our tents, which were more like houses, making even Tubu Tree, (which was incredible), seem relatively simple by comparison. The paths to the rooms were elevated as were the two pools, the bar, the dining area, the viewing platforms, and of course your three room house, errr… I mean tent. This “elevated everything” was required to let the deadly cape buffalo migrate through camp every night without crushing the guests. Yes, I’m serious. Our three room tent included a private viewing platform with a comfy couch, an outdoor shower, a long balcony, two full beds, a living room, and a bathroom that had two showers, two sinks and two toilets. Ok, I’m kidding about the toilets, but you get the picture. Our rooms were over 100 yards from each other with an area by the pool only slightly elevated, so we split up in our usual Griffin/Mom and Dad/Parker combos.
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Of course, shortly after we arrived and settled in, it was time to eat our “tea time” snack. The food at Mombo is prepared by a chef named Simon, a larger than life South African bloke who is a pleasure to hang out with and share a beer or two. He and his kitchen were amazing producing some of the best food we’ve ever had. Not the best food on the trip. I mean the best food we’ve ever had, period. I had an ostrich filet that was as good as the best beef fillet I’d ever eaten at Morton’s or Daniel’s. We had an eggs benedict brunch one morning, and it was by far the best I’d ever had. The boys wanted burgers one night, and they got burgers that were equally yummy. One evening, shortly after Simon introduced the meal, which he did before each dinner, Griffin made the comment to me “When Simon describes what we’re going to eat, my mouth waters”. So, not only is his food delicious, his descriptions are as well. Griffin found that he had so much fun with the staff at Mombo that he became part of it. Griffin was mixing drinks behind the bar, serving snacks, chasing monkeys and squirrels away from the brunch bar, and on one occasion he was even part of the official greeting team, welcoming new guests to Mombo with a old towel and a special drink that he actually made at the bar.
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Mombo Camp “stilts” on the edge of a wide plain which turns to a seasonal marsh flooding as the Okavango Delta rises. The floods were filling the plain as we arrived. Across this broad plain we could watch hippos wading, cape buffalo meandering, crocodiles slinking, and red lechwe grazing – all at once. Just sitting at the bar or chilling at the pool, brought a sense of awe as we gazed over the plain and felt flooded ourselves.
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We went on 6 game drives over the course of our three days at Mombo, and all were incredible. I won’t go into the details of each drive, but will highlight a few of our experiences. First, it should be said that we hooked up with a couple from San Francisco, Lucrecia and Wayne, who were on four of our drives with us. They were both funny and interesting and we couldn’t have chosen a better couple to experience this with. They were a hoot. Our guide at Mombo was an affable and fun Botswanan named Emang, who knew the area well, and was always there with a fact, or a quip. Emang had the coolest way of finishing every sentence with an “ayh?” “Look at these prints. These lions walked a long way last night, ayh?” “We’re now going to drive a long way to see the white rhinos, ayh?” The boys and I found ourselves talking like Emang by the time we left, and none of us have been able to stop. We felt a little jaded, having seen so much before Mombo. The large herds of Impala had been so common over the weeks that we didn’t gasp anymore. Emang knew pretty quickly what we had seen and what we hadn’t, so we spent little time viewing animals of which we had seen many. “We’ll move away from the Impalas now, ayh?”
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A documentary covering the life of a female leopard called “Eye of the Leopard” was filmed in the Mombo area. The documentary is shown on BBC, Animal Planet, and National Geographic. We had the pleasure of seeing this leopard, (named Legadima), one morning with her two new cubs, as they played shortly after dawn. They were precious, and so utterly comfortable with people, that they played without fear or caring as we watched the cubs beat up on their mom for a half hour or so as. That same day we saw our first and only cheetah of the safari, as she hung in the shade after a hunt, avoiding the midday sun. We rushed from the cheetah to catch up to some white Rhino that were a few kilometers away. We were in a Land Rover again and we found ourselves in door deep water, for 100s of meters as we made our way to the Rhinos. When we arrived we found the other camp Land Rovers there ahead of us viewing a Bull, a mother and two baby rhinos. These Rhinos are new to the area and rather shy, so it was heard to follow and get a good view, but these animals are incredible. They are huge, made of muscle, and they are unbelievably quick. We saw all of these things, plus our usual sightings of lions in one single day. Absolutely incredible.
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Lions were plentiful here, and we had many encounters with prides of up to 22 at once. Each night, we could hear the lions, and one night, a couple of males were so loud, apparently in a fight, that Parker arose from a sleep and woke me as well, we listened to males make more noise than you can imagine. They sounded like they were just outside the tent, yet they were likely over a km away. The guides joke that a male Lion’s roar sounds like a deep bellowing “Whoooooselandisthis…” “It’s mine”, “It’s mine”, “Mine” and you can almost hear them say it as they patrol their area. The next morning on our game drive, we ran into the two male lions, both of whom appeared injured and tired from their fight. Later that morning, we ran into a large pride of females. While we were parked next to the pride, my glasses fell to the ground as I was working with the camera. Remember that lions think you’re part of the vehicle when you’re in it? It’s true. Well, I got out of the Land Rover within 20 feet of the lions, (on the other side of the vehicle) to retrieve my glasses. I asked and Emang said no problem but be quick. Every lion lifted their napping heads abruptly and turned toward my foot the moment it contacted the ground. I was back in the Land Rover within approximately one nano second. Chilling.
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We tended to lose track of dates and days of the week while we were on Safari. We didn’t really care which day was Sunday or Monday, or the 20th or the 31st or whatever. On this particular day, we had completed a morning game drive and we were headed toward the camp, but we sensed that we were heading to a different camp than usual. All of the vehicles seemed to be converging at the same time at the same place which is very odd. We arrived at an elevated tree house, sitting atop a beautiful hippo pool and an exquisite brunch. It was Sunday brunch. It was Easter Sunday brunch. A Simon prepared Easter Sunday brunch. We had all completely forgotten what day it was, and it never occurred to us until we showed up at hippo pool. Chocolate eggs and all. Brunch was wonderful as was every meal at Mombo…. and so were the hippos. Hippos, had been difficult to spot before Mombo camp, because they tend to be pretty shy and unfortunately we tended to get glimpses of hippo heads or hippo backs, but never a whole hippopotamus. That changed at this hippo pool. We didn’t get enough on Easter however, and we returned the next day to take all the hippos in.
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frontCape Buffalo had been elusive for the entire trip. We’d been close, but the buffalo would simply disappear after our first glimpse. Not at Mombo. They slept in the camp, and under your tents. They would migrate into the camp from the plain at night, and back out in the morning. We could hear them breathing, and we could feel them rub against the stilts of our tent. In the morning, we would have to be careful not get in the way of these huge creatures as they moved out into the open plain again. These guys are incredibly fast and pretty nasty if you rub them the wrong way, so you have to be careful. A couple of the bulls stood near our vehicle as we took off for our morning game drive, and we were “encouraged” to move quickly. After we were in the Land Rover, the buffalo took off in a sprint and shocked all of us with their power and quickness. Yowza.
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We were lucky to be treated to a full moon at Mombo which shared the sky with a setting or rising sun on a few occasions, providing us with some great photo opportunities. The night sky was beautiful and we could see Cape Buffalos move through camp in the moonlight. On one occasion Carol and Griffin saw a hippo and a Nile Crocodile square off right in of their room under moon light.
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We saw more baby animals at Mombo than anywhere we had been. We saw baby giraffes, baby elephants, baby leopards, baby hippos, and baby rhinos all within 10km of the camp. Each sighting of animal babies produced ooohs and awwwws and we usually hung out with the little ones until they meandered out of sight. We also saw the other side of life, running into an elephant skeleton that even Emang had never seen before. He explained how the bones of the elephants are spread around the grave site by the herd, everytime they return to “visit”.
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Mombo was an otherworldly conclusion to our safari. Our little Cessna landed in Maun, which is the “safari city” of Botswana, readying to transfer out to Capetown. After two weeks, we were all sad that our safari had come to a close, not just because of all the incredible wildlife we had seen, or the beautiful landscapes or sunsets, but because of the remarkable people we had met. The very special people who have decided to make wildlife the key ingredient in their own life are forever etched in our hearts and minds, and we couldn’t help take just a little piece of their spirit with us.
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Without any question, we’ll be back to renew that spirit, over and over again.

Posted by Blakei 03:22 Archived in Botswana Tagged family_travel Comments (1)

The Kalahari Desert

Jacks Camp and the Makgadikgadi Pans

73 °F

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Allison Nolting had recommended that we go to the Kalahari Desert as part of our safari itinerary for a couple of very good reasons: The Kalahari was only an hour away by charter, and we shouldn’t pass up the opportunity to see the desert in the green season. The scenery and wildlife were very different than what we were to experience in the Okavango Delta and being so close, we should seize the opportunity. We did, and Allison was spot-on. As we descended below the rain clouds that had drenched us and the Okavango Delta the days previous, we had obviously transitioned into a completely different landscape. Plains spotted with the very occasional thicket and palm islands dotted the land below our Cessna 260. What appeared to be large beaches could be seen on the horizon. The apparent beds of sand below us, held water from recent rains and were ringed in white. We glided onto the dirt strip surrounded by this landscape, spun the plane around, and then squeezed our way out of the seats and through the door. We were met by Kevin, a young Australian with a dry wit and a studied background, who would act as our guide for the next few days . On the way to our camp, we stopped to admire some unusual bird species, plants and a few small mammals. Kevin was providing excellent commentary and we learned that he will soon pursue his Phd in the Central Kalahari studying predator – prey relationships, already having received his Bachelors Degree in Advanced Zoology, and a Masters Degree in Wildlife Management. He’ll be our educator over the coming days.
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This camp is called “Jacks Camp”. The camp was started in the 70s by a man named Jack and is booming today, with a loyal following, a growing business, and a strong conservation agenda. The camp is located on the edge of the Kalahari Desert in an area known as the Makgadikgadi Pans. The individual pans that make up the Makgadikgadi are some of the largest in the world, and are essentially dry salt beds, evidence of a giant super lake that used to cover this area and the much of the delta millions of years ago. Those weren’t beaches I was seeing from the plane. Jacks camp is a permanent tented camp, themed as a 1940s British officer’s compound. There are old books, old furniture, old pictures of old soldiers and more interestingly, there are old skulls, taxidermied animals, and ancient tools providing a museum of sorts in the main eating and lounging areas. This place is very unique and unlike the last two camps that seemed focused on “client meets animal” experiences, Jacks Camp seems to be more of an academic institution, with a set curriculum focused on building an appreciation of this foreign landscape and teaching all things native to the area; history, geography, geology, sociology, botany, ornithology, and zoology.
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When we arrived in camp, we were greeted by Renee, one of the managers of the camp, and roughly one billion ants. Yes, one billion ants. It seems that ants rise from their subterranean homes and spill onto the foot paths after a rain to feast on bugs that have been washed up from their homes. Now, these aren’t the common little black ants that we have back in America. Nope. These are carnivorous ants that can sense the vibration from a step and actually run toward your shoe the moment you set it down. I am petrified. We are all petrified. We sprinted to the main tented area for lunch and epileptically kicked and swiped the ants off of our shoes and trousers the moment we hit the first step to the raised wooden floor, which ironically was ant free. We met the other guests who were just finishing their lunch and witnessing our anti-ant seizure. Surely they must have endured the same affliction upon their arrival. It seemed not from their reaction, but we later found that everyone who is visiting the place is a bit freaked by the notion of one billion carnivores and we witnessed each having a seizure filled moment not unlike ours upon stepping onto any raised floor. Yeah, perhaps I’m being a bit melodramatic about the whole thing, but man they freaked us out, and we had to walk some 300 yards between the main area and our tents through piles of these things, repeating our seizures upon arrival anywhere.
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Our first evening, Kevin, (who the ants don’t seem to phase), took us out on the open plain to watch the sunset and hear about the history of the camp, the geography and geology of the location. We happened to find a fantastic bar set up out in the middle of the plains. This lesson of sorts was quite fascinating, and made perfect sense. It is an area unlike anywhere in the world, with some of the largest salt pans on the planet. The camp sits on the edge of the Makgadikgadi pans and wildlife migrates through the pans, adoring their ability to expose a predator’s intention from a long distance. The area is also rich geologically, providing the source, but not location of the world’s largest diamond mine, and hosting scores of unfelt earthquakes every other day. I will spare you the details, hoping you come here and see for yourself. We enjoyed drinks and snacks under the stars, absorbed the clouds and colors of a gorgeous Kalahari sunset, and drove back to camp in the dark, spotting an occasional spring hare with Kevin’s spotlight.
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The next morning we went on a bush walk with the native “San” Bushmen from the area. If you’ve ever seen the film, “The Gods Must Be Crazy” you would recognize the native bushman of the Kalahari. They have a gentle appearance and a soft presence, appearing to conserve energy in an environment that demands conservation of all kinds. They speak a wonderful language that is formed of tones, clicks and pops, leaving you wondering how they make the sounds, after you’ve tried it out. Three bushman walked us around the bush and dug up a plant to show us where water is stored in its roots. They dug up a plant, showing us a root that provides an energy supplement for their food. They dug up a scorpion “just for fun” and they started a fire from zebra dung, grass, and twigs – which was crazy to watch. They smoked a pipe full of dung, lit from the fire and they instructed us how to shoot their arrows with a tiny bow. We weren’t too good at this. It is amazing to think that these people have been able to survive and find sustenance in an area that appears to banish all but the hardiest residents. These kind and gentle people might be the hardiest of them all.
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That evening we drove to the salt pans and saw firsthand how flat and disorienting the salt pans are. The pans are the most convenient and speedy way to cross this part of the Kalahari, but they are also the most difficult to navigate. Old explorers would set out by night and use the stars to navigate across the pans, but after 25 miles, the sun would rise and they would still have 15 miles to cross. If you didn’t have a good inner compass, you were in a tough spot. We did an experiment on the pan and it showed how damaging a continuing five degree miscalculation could be in your navigation, perhaps spinning you in circles indefinitely, not unlike the vultures who would likely be circling above your carcass. On the edge of the pan we saw a fresh lion kill (a local cow) and heard the lion bellowing just a kilometer or so in the distance. Kevin also showed us how to take advantage of the Pans for some really silly photos that are equally disorienting which we share with you here. This was like having a recess in a day of extraordinary classes in the great outdoors.
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Our next morning, we set out early to find the meerkat group that lives a few kilometers from the camp. If you have seen the TV show “Meerkat Manner”, you know these animals. This is a different group, but they exhibit the same comical behavior. Meerkats move from burrow to burrow throughout the day foraging for food as they go. One Meerkat takes on the role of sentry for the group, climbing to the highest point nearby, and watching for predators, calling to warn others if trouble arises. Not fearing humans as predators, they assume that we are basically just another mound of dirt that will allow them to get a better vantage point for their role as sentry. See what I mean…..
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Later that morning, we visited an ancient baobab tree that is one of the largest in the world. It was historically used by explorers to navigate the last 15 miles of the pan when the daylight struck on their trip northward and it’s nicknamed “the beacon of the pans” The tree is a giant succulent with 7 trunks and you can literally hear or feel the water when you slap the side. There is no bark, but rather a hard fibrous covering that can be ripped away in sheets to make a very strong rope. You can see quite clearly where rope has been cut from the tree over the years. The age of giant baobabs can only be determined by size, because baobabs have no rings like a more common tree. This Baobab is believed to be between 3,000 and 6,000 years old, and before a few years of drought, was actually larger than it is today. It was pretty amazing.
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That evening we ventured out on a drive to “see what we can see” as Kevin put it. We spotted many birds, a jackal or two, and we ran into 1,000s of zebra who were completing their migration to this part of the Kalahari. We also heard a male lion bellowing, but we never got close to it. After dinner, Parker and I went for a night drive with Kevin to see if we could spot that male lion. Three camp mangers were in the vehicle with us as well. We saw some bat eared foxes; a couple of small spotted genet, quite a few birds, but we never did see that big cat. We couldn’t take pictures of course at night because the flash freaks out the animals. Parker and I ran the ant gauntlet back to our rooms, kicked and slapped the ants off our shoes and pants and then collapsed.
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The next morning we ventured to the pans one last time to pick up stone tools that were used by the natives some 40,000 to 200,000 years ago. The pans is the perfect place to find these stone tools because the ground is generally more dense than the stone, so the tools just ride on top. We found blades and scraping instruments of all kinds. Kevin explained how the stones were made. It was fascinating to understand this process, and astonishing that someone built the tool you hold in your hand over 40,000 years ago. That afternoon, as we were heading out to our plane, we met Ralph, who accompanied us to the airport. Ralph is the son of Jack of “Jacks Camp” fame and now owns and runs the camp. He was a great guy to talk with and we got an understanding of what Ralph is accomplishing with Jacks Camp. Ralph is passionate about the Kalahari and believes this is the most beautiful part of the world. He is quite keen on ensuring that the habitat is conserved and taken care of and he seemed like the perfect steward for this land. Jacks camp was quite different from the other safari experiences we had, seeming like more of an educational institution than a Safari. With that said, I would recommend the Jacks Camp experience to anyone who maintains an intense curiosity and has a passion for learning. It is a great experience to accompany a traditional safari itinerary.
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Posted by Blakei 03:39 Archived in Botswana Tagged family_travel Comments (2)

The Moremi Game Reserve

A few days of tracking with Brian Gibson

rain 68 °F

Our Cessna 260 lifted off from Tubu Tree and headed toward the south eastern corner of the Moremi game reserve. As we lifted from the airport and cleared our first tree line we looked down and saw a herd of 30 or more Elephants with babies in tow. It was a beautiful way start to the day and we wished we could have called in the sighting for others to enjoy. We were just on the ground moments before and couldn’t see or sense that these giants who were only steps away. From the air, it is amazing how much you can see. We took only 25 minutes to reach the Moremi area and were met at the landing strip by our guide, Brian Gibson who was highly recommended by Allison as a guy who was great for the boys. She was right. Brian is a South African, who hopes to soon have Botswana citizenship. He has a quick wit, a great laugh, knows and loves animals and birds, and he knows this area and its mammalian residents like the back of his hand, which is bandaged due to a recent cricket accident. We are instantly at ease and start finding out more about the area. This area looks and feels entirely different than Tubu Tree. It is flooded already and there is water everywhere. Roads that were accessible two weeks ago are now covered with water. The dry areas for animals are shrinking which is good for game viewing, but our range is a bit limited. There is deep grass everywhere and the Mopane Forest is thick with leaves. The area has received twice as much rain as it usually does, and it shows.
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This camp is different than Tubu Tree. It is a real camp at a campsite that Brian has set up for us. It has a dining room, an open area for playing games, or lounging in hammock chairs, and we have two tents with ensuite bathrooms and bucket showers right next to each other. We are close enough to have the boys in one tent without worrying too much, but the rules are clear. Do not EVER go outside your tent at night under any circumstances. The first night will tell us why.
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At 4:00 we headed out on our first game drive with Brian. Brian stopped and read the tracks and told us that Cape Buffalo, has just passed through the area and we will use the paths to find them. As we are moving down the paths, we can’t believe how thick the forest is. Brian tells us that we are going to have our work cut out to see animals these days because the grass is so high. The grass is easily 3 to 5 feet high and visibility is difficult. Within fifteen minutes of cruising, looking and stopping to read tracks, Carol stammers something that sounds like Brian or Lion or something. She is so excited that she can hardly get it out. 15 feet from the Land Cruiser is a Full Grown Male Lion, lying in the grass. I have no idea how Carol spotted the thing, but there it is. It is a great spot. We backed up and rolled close to it, and it rose up and walked underneath a bush, which hid it completely, which is more than unnerving. Imagine walking next to a bush and having a full grown lion leap out at you. It could happen. Simple as that. Brian told us that he does walking safaris in the summer, but not at this time of year, for this very reason.
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We left the Lion there and began looking for the tracks of the rest of the pride and the Buffalo herd. We couldn’t find the pride, but we did see some tracks. Just then, the radio crackled and the camp called to tell us that two wild dogs, the most endangered predator, had just entered our camp. Brian asked if we would like to see these dogs, and off we went. We were tearing back to camp, on the same path, when we slid around a corner and slammed on the breaks. Right before us, just feet ahead of our vehicle, were four lion cubs, looking attentively at our car. Right behind them were four lionesses and a male Lion. They were spectacular. They were all just lounging around on the road, and waiting for the sun to go down, so they could begin their hunting. Ironically, a herd of Impala was off in the distance looking very nervous as the lionesses made deep and bellowing “hurroomph” sounds. The sound was so loud it could be heard 400 meters away where the impalas stood, and the lionesses weren’t even opening their mouths. Brian joked that the Lionesses looked sooo relaxed, just waiting for another fun evening, while the impalas looked like they were thinking “oh god, not another night…” especially after hearing that sound.
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After the game drive which exceeded every expectation we had, heading the “start at zero” advice from our friend at Tubu Tree, we proceeded with a great dinner and a nice time around the fire. We bedded down for the night in our tents and the night came alive around us. Birds made beautiful sounds and wildebeest and other animals interrupted our sleep throughout the night, coming within feet of our tent. We heard the lioness bellowing their sound repeatedly from nearby, “Hurrrooomph” “Hurrrooomph.” The sounds of the Hyena could also be heard nearby, “Awwwwooooyaa”. We are staying in our tents tonight.
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The next day we headed out with expectations already exceeded and we didn’t expect much more having hit the lion lottery the night before. We were going to be joined this day by a guide from the Africa Adventure company who actually grew up in Zimbabwe, Andre Steinberg. After a morning game drive and a few Giraffe and Zebra, we picked up Andre who dialed us into some Lion and Buffalo from his flight in. We took an afternoon break to let the heat subside, and we enjoyed a very brief and refreshing thunderstorm. After the thunderstorm we took our first bucket showers. It’s an experience to take your entire shower in one bucket of warm water, but the challenge was quite fun and the shower felt great. Afterward, we headed out on our afternoon game drive. The Lions that Andre saw were actually right next to the landing strip, so it was pretty easy to find them. There was big male Lion and a few females, all of which we had seen before, but the cubs were off in the bush somewhere. These Lions were following the herd of 150 or so cape buffalo that were passing through the thicket. We had spent some time with the lions, so off we went to find the buffalo. We found them in a deep thicket and we could barely get a glimpse of them. It was just the front ranks of the herd while the others trailed behind. Soon after we spotted them, they seemed to just disappear. Imagine 150 2,000lb cows instantly disappearing from view. They blend in so well with the thick greenery, they just dissolve into the background. Either that or David Blaine must be traveling with them. That evening, after enjoying our little sundowner with Andre and Brian, we sat around the fire, told stories, and watched electrical storms flash in the distance against a deep purple sky. We heard the low rumble of thunder and the low hurrrooomph of lionesses, and you could almost hear impalas stiffen nervously as the sun faded into the horizon. The night went black and we finished dinner to the night sounds once again.
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The next day we had a fabulous time dodging a lightning storm that we saw moving quickly toward us across the delta. We sat in our Land Cruiser and took a few photographs from behind a Hippo Pool at the lightning as it crashed into the delta in the distance. It became apparent that this was going to be a big storm and we were going to have a tough time avoiding it. Brian thought the best thing to do was to outrun it for a bit and try to get to some shelter. Camp was out of the question being quite a few kms away, but there was a shelter by the third bridge, and we just might make it. We sped along at around 40kmph across some incredibly rough and already drenched roads, racing the lightning and rain. As we passed over the rickety stick bridge, the wind broadsided us as did a 10 degree drop in temperature. And the rain came. We made our way into an old bathroom that is shared in the busy season by many campers. Today it sits empty and we were lucky that the bars in front were left unlocked. We stayed for almost an hour as the rain poured down, chatting about things that would make us forget we were in a dark bathroom. The rain lightened up and Brian thought we should leave before the next broadside came. We made it back to the camp, laughing about the new speed record we set getting to the 3rd bridge. It was apparent that the camp got blasted as well. Water had seeped into the dining area, blowing sideways and we were expecting to see something blown over, but all was intact. We ate dinner and hung out telling stories and then made out way tour tents, falling asleep to the sound of rain on their plastic roof tops.
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It had rained all night, and was still raining when we woke, so the next morning was a bit “iffy”. As the rain began to lighten up, we set out for the permanent water ways of the delta. Brian had hired a boat and we were to travel up the delta for a few hours, stopping for a picnic and then returning. Brian said that rainy days and the main channels of the delta weren’t great for wildlife spotting, but we’d see some great scenery. On our way, Brian spotted some Lion Tracks in the wet sand. We had all heard a lion last night, and Brian thought this was the one we had heard. He knew it was a male by sight, and this track confirmed his hunch about the sound last night. He told us it was a male over breakfast. These tracks were very fresh, because the rain had washed all the tracks from the night before, and these sat atop the rain drops. At one point Brian got out of the car and found an Elephant track with the lion track on top of it, and a leopard track going the other way. I only know this, because Brian and Andre were schooling us in tracking and to watch Brian track this lion was really something. We raced down roads with Brian looking down at the sand from the car every so often, and saying “yep, this way”. We turned left, right, left, then a right again. We stopped looked at tracks and then went on again, when we ran headlong into a full grown beautiful adult male Lion about 10 feet from the Land Cruiser. We watched it for a while and then followed it for a few km as it marked its territory on the bushes that ran along the road. The lion lay down and rested. We congratulated Brian on his tracking, and he brushed it off saying it was easy. You see the grass is wet and lions don’t want to walk on wet grass, so he was sticking to the roads. Very easy. Errrrrr…. maybe for Brian not for any of us. Another safari vehicle showed up and we left” our” lion for the others as we headed for the delta.
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Boating on the permanent water way in the delta was as beautiful as Brian said it would be. The scenery was awe inspiring. Tall grasses rose from the root beer brown water for as far as you could see, leaving narrow paths for boats to traverse, opening to larger channels and pools every so often. Maroula trees and small islands of land seemed to draw close toward the boat as we made our way down the snaking water ways, only to recede toward the horizon as we motored our way around another bend. In one of the wider channels we encountered a hippo and Brian and John got very serious - very quickly. You don’t want to encounter hippos. They can flip boats and often do. We slowed, and then sped up and the Hippo could be seen sliding underneath the boat as we passed. Disaster averted. We took photographs of the landscape and of fabulous birds, and we stopped for our delicious lunch. On the way back, we encountered a few more hippos without incident and passed some elephants that grazed along the edge of the water way and a few others that enjoyed the water, playing and washing themselves as we passed nearby. These Elephant encounters had been the best of our trip thus far. Elephants are working their way into our hearts and becoming a family favorite.
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We arose the next morning to a light rain and short schedule with Brian. We would depart at 10:00 for the Kalahari Desert on a charter flight. After packing and eating, we made our way out of camp for one last goodbye game drive with Brian at about 8:00am. While were driving, the crew would pack up the camp site to make way for the next campers. Within those two hours, we saw a heard of Cape Buffalo, a few friendly elephants, and we came within few feet of an elephant, that had just exited the water. This elephant didn’t like us so close, but he was nearly blocking the road and we passed as silently as possible. This male bull turned quickly to face off with us as we passed, and chased us just a little bit to ensure we weren’t coming back. It was actually quite unnerving, having a giant bull elephant that close and that unhappy. We made it to the airport shortly thereafter and had a quick coffee and a sad goodbye while we waited for our plane. Brian was an awesome guide and the experience he provided us was absolutely top notch, exceeding our wildest expectations, even when the weather wasn’t cooperating.
Thanks for a great four days Brian. We really missed you at our other camps. Griffin is ready to come and work on your farm as soon as he’s in High School, so start negotiating now
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Posted by Blakei 06:23 Archived in Botswana Tagged family_travel Comments (2)

The Okavango Delta, Botswana

Tubu Tree Private Concession

sunny 70 °F

The Okavango Delta is located in the northern most regions of Botswana and is the only place on earth where rivers dump into a flood plain, without any exit. The Okavango river and a few others, pour into this Delta and convert savannah and grassland into seasonal marsh lands for thousands of square miles. These seasonal changes in the Okavango Delta provides one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world with forests, grasslands, seasonal marshes, and permanent waterways all accounted for. The delta is technically in the Kalahari basin, sharing the same sand that exists in the most arid areas of the Kalahari. Rains from Angola fill up the river, which floods the delta and then the Kalahari sand simply absorbs it. An endless variety of animal and bird life exist here, and it is because of this uniqueness that we chose Botswana as our primary safari destination. We chose three different areas within the Okavango delta based on recommendations from Allison Nolting at the Africa Adventure Company. She has two boys the same ages as Parker and Griffin and she laid out an itinerary and guides that would be perfect for them. The first place we safari’d was a privately owned concession, while the second and third were within the Moremi game reserve, a national park within Botswana. Each area was unique for its environment and animals.
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Tubu Tree
We took a 70km drive to the Botswana border from Victoria Falls and crossed the border with little hassle. There was no Visa fee for entering Botswana for Americans. Compared to Zimbabwe at $30 and Zambia $130, we welcomed the bargain. Woohoo! We drove a short distance to the Kasane airport and boarded our chartered flight to our first camp in the Delta. The plane was a Cessna 260 which barely held all four of us, the pilot and our few bags. We would be on this plane for 1½ hours, traveling over Botswana for 150 or so miles. As we flew over Botswana, warn paths, like spokes in a wheel, led to full watering holes which we could easily see 3,000 feet below us. Elephants showering themselves in the middle of watering holes looked like the last cocoa crispies in your cereal bowl of faux chocolate milk. As we grew closer to the Delta, the grasslands appeared to be reflecting sunlight, providing a clue to how wet this environment becomes when the floods flow. We dropped to 500 feet for the last 20 or so miles. Scores of elephants, giraffe, zebras and other animals could be seen from the air, and it felt a little like dropping into Jurassic Park. Could this all be real? It didn’t seem so.
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We landed at a remote dirt air strip and were met by Johnny, our guide for the next three days. He drove us over sand paths and through tall grass, for a half hour to the Tubu Tree camp, where we were met by the entire staff who were belting out a beautiful African welcome song. We met Demi and Bono, the managers, who informed us that our rooms were ready, but we couldn’t walk there at the moment, because an Elephant was blocking the way. Yeah right, we gaffed. They weren’t kidding. An adult male elephant was standing on the path to our room. He eventually moved away, and we split into our rooms. Carol with Griffin, Blake with Parker. This whole elephant business is repeated with Hyenas and Leopards at night, and we weren’t to walk the long paths from room to room at night under any circumstances – without our guide. Check out the photo if you think I’m joshing. That’s a bull elephant outside the window of our tent.
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Tent is kind of an understated way of saying “nicest rooms we’ve stayed in on our trip”. Technically, these are tents, but they are tents with hardwood floors elevated 8 feet off the ground, with indoor and outdoor showers, a sink, hot running water, lights, beautiful bedding, a desk, coffee, and a gorgeous elevated balcony. All the conveniences of a great hotel are here. There is a fully stocked bar, a library room, a dining room, a curio shop, and a little pool for cooling off. We are pinching ourselves. It is hard for any of us to believe that an elephant is standing at the window at our 5 star tent, eating the trees. This must have been planned for our arrival? Oh, did I forget to mention the Baboons who were climbing all over the tent as well? Not to mention that a few Impala, and snakes made appearances on the way.
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The managers explained a pretty hard core schedule for us. Each day we would take two game drives. We would take an early morning game drive, rising at 5:30am and heading out at 6:30. We would head out again at 4:30pm for the evening drive. Animals are much more active at these times. That evening, we took our first game drive in the 10 passenger land rover. We drove a few meters from the camp, and began seeing all kinds of game. We couldn’t believe how much was here, and it furthered the “Could this be real?” feeling of the whole place.
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We experienced some incredible animal spotting. We saw from the Land Rover in no real order Elephants, Hippos, Impalas, Wart Hogs, Ostrich, Kudu, Wildebeest, Banded Mongoose, African Python, Giraffe, Zebra, Steenbok, Red Lechwe, Bat Eared Fox, Brown Hyena, and the Leopard and… the incredible Leopard Tortoise. We also saw a huge and beautiful assortment of birds. We saw all of these things at Tubu Tree in our first two days of game viewing. We have ten more to days to go at two different camps in the Okavango and one more camp in the Kalahari.
You could rattle through the list above by visiting a zoo, but seeing these animals in the wild, in their own environment is breathtaking, and you feel privileged that the animals let you watch them. We saw a full grown bull elephant running across a field shaking his head to warn us not to come any closer. We saw a mother leopard stalking a wart hog and we watched the chase that ensued. We saw a juvenile leopard climb a tree and rest. We watched a male leopard walk toward us and come within 4 feet of our Land Rover as he passed, barely giving us a thought. It seems that animals think you are one big and harmless animal when you’re in the Land Rover. Don’t step out though. As soon as you step on the grass, their pray drive kicks in and you are just another meal or intruder to them. We hit the jackpot at Tubu Tree seeing more Leopards than anyone expected, and we were told by a woman who runs a UK safari company staying at camp, to keep our expectations low for the rest of the trip. “Start at zero at every location” she told us. That is probably very good advice.
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Johnny was an excellent tracker and he would look at tracks in the sand, listen to the birds, and say in the coolest Botswanan accent, “a leopard is this way”, and he was usually right. After he sensed we had seen enough of a particular animal or had a watched a scene long enough, he would say “oookaaayyyy.. “and off we would drive to the next spotting. Johnny would drive the Land Rover in some unbelievably harry situations and pull out of it without an issue. I couldn’t believe what these Land Rovers can do. They go anywhere and over anything. My respect for Land Rover is forever changed. Johnny would turn the vehicle off anytime we asked a question, or when he wanted to point something out and we would all listen to the sounds of the delta, and look over the expanse of plains rolling into islands of jungle. He’d fire the car up and you wouldn’t even hear the starter motor. We would have a “sundowner” each evening, which was a drink with cheese and crackers overlooking a watering hole, or perhaps the savannah. The evening game drives were so peaceful – as the sun usually dipped behind storm clouds on the horizon.
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The meals at Tubu Tree were prepared by an excellent chef and were so good and abundant that you had to decide what you wouldn’t eat – sorta’ like a cruise ship. If we ate everything we were served, breakfast, brunch, afternoon tea and cakes, and an incredible dinner, we would have weighed more than the Land Rover. If you are going to Safari in Botswana, Tubu Tree is an excellent choice.

The evening before we departed, the same bull elephant that greeted us kept Carol and Griffin up all night as he ripped tree bark off a tree next to their tent, trying to get to the tasty inner bark that is packed with vitamins. It was a fitting farewell to this amazing place

Posted by Blakei 05:45 Archived in Botswana Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

Victoria Falls

Your safari starts here...

sunny 75 °F

We visited Victoria Falls on the advice of our safari organizer, Allison Nolting and the African Adventure Company. We did so reluctantly because we really wanted to visit the Okavango Delta in Botswana, not Zimbabwe, but Allison proved persuasive, and we left Joburg to Victoria on a 737 on Saturday, March 8th. We noticed that we weren’t flying over farms, but bush; real African bush, unlike anything we had seen in Kenya or Ghana. As we prepared for our landing on a strip of cement that looked barely large enough to land a Cessna 172, we noticed a seam in the ground where smoke rose and then evaporated as it stretched skyward. What we were seeing was the spray of the falls being blown into the air. They were visible from 20km away.

We obtained our visas quickly and cleared customs, meeting Esther. Esther was our local tour guide and she was a kick. Esther is about 65 and actually retired as a tour guide. Today, whe will only work for the Africa Adventure Company. A tribute to Allison me thinks. We climbed aboard a bus with some other travelers, and headed for out hotel “The Victoria Falls Hotel”. Esther had a relaxed and confident style as she educated the bus about “Vic Falls” and the National Park in which it resides. We saw baboons on the road as we entered the little city of Victoria Falls and Esther made sure that we knew that the entire area was a game park and there would be animals roaming freely throughout the area. Be careful she said. These animals are wild!

We arrived at our hotel and it was beautiful. The Victoria Falls Hotel is 103 years old and was named after Queen Victoria as were the falls. The hotel is perhaps an overly gracious tribute to English colonialist history, with warn photographs of a 1947 visit from Queen Elizabeth (as a teenager), dukes, duchesses, the King and then Queen, and the entire royal entourage. Sharing the wall space are politically incorrect animal trophies that are stunning, but harken back to a time when the word safari meant you were taking shots with a gun and not a camera. Even with that, the hotel was beautiful and splendorous and we were privileged to have the best view of the falls possible from the hotel Grounds.
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After checking in, we went immediately to the pool to play around and have snack. The pool was square and fountain clad in the old school style that you might see at Hearst Castle. There were cabanas, tables, a beautiful lawn, and people getting massaged in their loungers. We ordered snacks and they were brought by African waiters clad in the black pants, white dinner jackets and bow ties we saw in the 1947 photographs. It was classic. The food was delivered, and as I looked over to Carol to ask a question, I almost choked, as I waved my arms and tried to sputter “look out”! A pretty large and lean Vervet Monkey was taking a swipe at her shoulder, trying to get some of her food. We shooed him away, when a nice guy who had been staying at the hotel a few days set us straight, about the “monkey thing” . We were a bit more careful from then on, noticing that baboons and monkeys were all around us in the trees.
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The next morning we went on an elephant back safari with a company called “Wild Horizons”. We had heard about elephant back safaris and were predisposed to it believing it was cruel to have elephants toting around people on their back. It turns out that elephants are quite comfortable with this arrangement, and better yet, the reserve we visited for this safari actually adopts abandoned or orphaned elephants, and raises funds to protect elephants from poaching, which is a big problem in Zimbabwe (folks are poaching for ivory). The reserve was quite large at 30,000 hectares and the property has no fence, allowing the elephants to roam freely when they’re not on safari, and allowing other wild animals to enter the land to be viewed. We really enjoyed the one hour tour and were surprised by what a comfortable ride the elephants were. Our guide, Francis, was a very knowledgeable young man, and controlled our elephant (Jake) gently, but firmly. We really didn’t expect to see any animals excepting the elephants we road, but we were pleasantly surprised to see 24 wild Giraffe with 10 accompanying zebra, and we even saw a Crocodile making its way across a large watering hole to snatch a water buck drinking on the shore. We were stunned actually. We had seen Giraffe, Zebra, Baboons, Vervit Monkeys, Elephants, and a crocodile within 24 hours of landing at the airport and we hadn’t even come to Vic Falls for Safari.
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That afternoon Esther met us at the hotel and took us to see and experience the Victoria Falls. Victoria Falls, or the “smoke that thunders” as the locals have called it over the years, is one of the 7 natural wonders of the world. This is why we came here. Esther took time explaining Zimbabwe geography and geology, and then told us about the Falls. If any of you have heard the “Dr. Livingston, I presume?” line over the years, this is where it happened. Livingston actually discovered the falls and named it for Queen Victoria. A larger statue of Livingston watches over the falls from a nice vantage point. Victoria Falls is hard to describe. In fact, it is hard to see. The mist is so thick, you can’t see the entire falls from any one point. You can see the devils Cataract, a small and speedy fall about the size of B ridal Veil Falls in Yosemite. You can see Livingston Island. You can see the main falls, which are larger than Niagra, but you can’t see it all at once. The mist is simply that thick. It was about 80 degrees outside, but we actually had to wear rain jackets. Why? The mist is so thick, it would fall from the sky like sudden and torrential rain. There would be no warning, just a drenching. We were looking at the falls with a peaceful mist all around us then wham! The sky seemed to open. Esther is an old hand at this and laughed as we got our first unexpected drenching – which she shared by the way. How does she stay excited about this place after doing this for 20 years, just stare at the falls, and there’s your answer. You could visit every day and watch the power of this water pouring over the edge.
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The next day was an “activity day”. Victoria Falls is the adventure capital of Africa, just like Queenstown is to New Zealand. There seem to be a guhzillion extreme activities that you can choose if you’re feeling the need for adrenaline. Parker and I were hankering for some adrenaline, so he chose a 450 meter zip line over the Zambezi river Gorge, I chose to Bungee Jump off of the Victoria Falls bridge, and Griffin chose the Zambizi river tour later that evening, preferring to see more animals. Mom chose to chill out and take the river tour that night. At 9:00am Parker and I headed over to the Wild Horizons adventure area, that featured a sky swing, an abseil, a flying fox, and a zip line. The Zip Line “launch platform” is on a cliff hovering 100 meters above the Zambezi river, and the cable extends from this platform to the other side of the canyon 450 meters away. Parker had strapped into a climbing harness and now dangled underneath. “Three – Two – One” and away he went, shooting down the wire at a speed better than 100kmph all the way across the river. After reaching the other side, parker started sliding back to the low point in the wire that hovered about 50 meters above the river. Parker hung there for 5 minutes or so while a local slid down the line to tow him back to the “launch platform”. Parker loved it. It was a thrill and unbelievably beautiful. Yes, I tried it too, and it was a rush. From here, legs still shaking, Parker and I walked to the Zambia border crossing at the Victoria Falls Bridge. We had to get our passports stamped just to make the bungee jump. We walked between semi trucks that were lined up for 1km just to clear customs unto Zambia. We arrived, I weighed in, and we proceeded to the jump platform in the middle of the bridge perched 120 meters above the Zambezi. The folks at the platform strapped me up, gave me some tips, walked me to the edge, and then yelled five, four, three, two, one “Bungee!” I leapt out, looking at the horizon, in a nice little swan dive. As gravity pulled me down toward the river, I could feel spray in my face from the falls and I could see the river approaching. With my arms outstretched, I free fell for four second before the Bungee stretched to stop me from going in the water. I felt like I was flying. After the bungee stretched to it’s end, I was whipped back toward the bridge, where I bounced and dangled until someone hooked me up to a cable that pulled me back up. I was pumped. This was one of the biggest adrenalin rushes I’ve ever had. I did buy the pictures and the video. Turns out that watching the video was actually scarier than the jump itself.
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The Zambezi River Cruise was amazingly beautiful. We left at at 4:00 from the hotel and didn’t get to the boat until 4:30. All drinks were free and there were a group of French Tourists on board already taking advantage of this . We met their guide, a young man named Waldo who as an absolute blast, spoke perfect English and French along with the local language and dialects. We talked a great deal about the local political climate and other things. We cruised the River above the falls until sunset and drank in some of the most beautiful sunsets you can imagine. Better than this, we spotted a bunch of Hippos and hung out with them, watching Moms and babies keeping cool in the flowing river. We saw gorgeous birds and a crocodile or two as well. We were told that we might see hippos, but don’t expect much. Our expectations were exceeded, and we floated only 20 feet or so from the big river horses. What a terrific way top end our stay at Victoria Falls.
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Victoria Falls, as beautiful as it is, is unfortunately a fantasy island in the middle of a sea of thorny issues. Zimbabwe, it seems is in deep trouble. The inflation rate is 26,000 (yes thousand) percent. Unemployment hovers around 75%. The currency is worthless, (which we saw in our $1billionZD check for dinner) and the locals are paid in this worthless stuff. People are starving in Zimbabwe and the few folks who are working, are taking care of their extended families and sometimes friends. We talked to one man who had 15 people staying in his house. They were all broke, and many were starving before the were taken in. We heard from many people how one man, Robert Mugabe, has single handedly ruined the country. The once strong and respected leader has let the country collapse into a malaise. Yet there is a strong sense of hope. Elections will take place in the beginning of April and everyone we talked with was wishing that Robert Mugabe steps aside, so the country can start anew. Folks who haven’t ever voted, are voting. The Zimbabweans we talked with felt strongly that if the election doesn’t unseat Mugabe, there will be a forcible removal. In either case, folks felt it would be another 10 years before Zimbabwe will return to the position it enjoyed only ten years ago as a prosperous, stable and respected African Nation. With that said, the people at Victoria Falls were optimistic about the future and they would want you to come, visit and enjoy one of the Seven Wonders of the World. But…. please, pay in American Dollars.

Posted by Blakei 11:45 Archived in Zimbabwe Tagged family_travel Comments (1)

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