By Phyllis Dawson
Part 11
Moremi, Botswana

     As we drove through the mopane forest an elephant mother and her baby were blocking the road, so we stopped and waited, watching them while they ate. Elephants are such amazing creatures, and it was great to have such a close up view of their thick wrinkled skin, prehensile trunks and ridiculously long eyelashes. They seem so intelligent and wise.

     When they finally moved we went around a bend and surprised five or six more ellies. They were all around us. One big female standing by the road challenged us, raising her trunk and moving toward us a bit aggressively. With no room to yield or turn around, Gee gunned the motor and drove straight at her, contesting for the right of way.   


     Fortunately she backed down, and we were able to accelerate by her safely. Gee said that if he had hesitated it could have gone badly; she might have called all the other elephants nearby to come help her squash us. Playing ‘chicken’ with an elephant is definitely an exhilarating experience.


     A troop of baboons moved through the forest, backlit by shafts of golden sunlight stabbing down through the trees. They ambled along searching for food, stopping now and then to groom each other. A tiny baby clung upside down to his mother’s belly as she walked. With their long lithe limbs and athletic way of moving, baboons really do have a graceful beauty to them – if it wasn’t for those ugly bald butts! 
As we came out of the forest to more open land, we could see lion tracks in the dusty road. Zebras grazed and giraffes nibbled at acacia trees. A pair of dainty steenbok stared up at us as we went by, the male sporting small sharp horns. Jineen’s count was up to 29 roller birds for the day. We saw a vehicle license plate lying in the road, and Gee stopped to pick it up.
We came to the Xakanaxa gate, entrance to the area where we would be camping. We took a potty break, and checked out the whiteboard at the gate where wildlife sightings were recorded - we were intrigued by such entries as Leopard at Paradise Pools. We forded several water crossings; Gee told us the water level was lower than usual for the time of year. We saw many huge termite hills, some of them fifteen feet tall. Three magnificent kudu bulls stood near the road, their impressive twisting horns glinting in the sunlight. Kudu-peckers perched on their necks, picking off insects.


     We arrived at our camp at six o'clock. The area is called Xakanaxa – try saying that three times real fast! Our familiar tents and dining table were set in a grove of tall mopane trees. There was an open area in front of camp; Gee called it the lagoon, but there was no water in it. He said the floods didn’t reach as far as usual this year; there had been some water in the lagoon a month earlier but it was now gone.
It was a beautiful camp, a bit more spread out than the others. It was also more private – there were no other camps anywhere nearby. Parrots perched in the trees and impala wandered along the dry riverbed in the lagoon. The silvery trunks of dead leadwood trees stood in stark contrast against the pink sunset sky. It had been another long travel day for us but longer yet for the staff, who not only made the drive but built the camp and fixed dinner. Those guys were amazing.


     We sat around the campfire before dinner, watching the stars come out one by one. The moon, now several days past full, was rising later each night - so at last we were able to appreciate the magnificence of the stars in the dark African night sky. We heard a loud elephant scream just outside camp; peering into the darkness Gee said he could just barely make out the shapes of two elephants playfully poking each other with their tusks. Later we heard them right behind our tent, breaking branches and eating them.  
     Gee told us about an incident where an elephant had come into one of his camps. A lady was sitting reading a book in an area where he had told her not to, and when the elephant noticed her it had turned around and knocked her over in her chair. Gee had instructed her to sit still and not make a sound; fortunately she followed his instructions and they were able to distract the elephant away from her - but it had been a close call.
We asked Gee if there were any woman guides in Botswana; he replied that there were a few, but they didn’t last long because they were not tough enough. I attributed this slightly chauvinistic attitude to the culture in general, not to Gee personally. After all, he had probably never worked with horse people, so he wouldn’t know how tough women can be when necessary! 
Gee told us about the local culture. Wealth in Botswana is counted by how many cows one has. If a man gets money, he uses it to buy more cows. He might have a poor house, old clothes and no shoes (people don’t spend their money on such things), but by golly he has lots of cows, so he is wealthy.
Botswana weddings last about two weeks. There may be as many as 600 guests; the whole village comes, whether they are invited or not, and food and drink is provided for all. The groom pays a dowry to the bride’s family, usually 7 cows. At dinner Gee showed us a video of his own wedding. It was really great to learn about the Botswana way of life. How different we all are, and yet how much the same. Looking up at the stars, we deliberated on the universe from diverse perspectives.


     The stars were astonishing. The Milky Way is brighter in the southern hemisphere, and with no lights from civilization its hundred billion stars glittered like diamonds. Scorpius shone brilliant high overhead, and we could see the kite-shaped Crux, the Southern Cross, with its two bright pointer stars. Gee pointed out some unfamiliar southern constellations, such as Corvus the Crow, the Crane, and the False Cross low on the horizon. And there was Sagittarius, the teapot, like an old friend in the sky.
Gazing up at the Milky Way, it was hard to fathom the enormity of it all. How can the universe, with space and stars and galaxies, go on forever? But if it doesn’t, how does it end and what is beyond it? It took me back to childhood memories, when a friend and I would spend hours contemplating these questions.  

August 3
We set out for the morning game drive at seven. Gee had heard lions calling around five in the morning and he hoped to find them. It was my turn for the front seat, and I enjoyed the unobstructed view out the front of the land cruiser. As we drove among the majestic trees near camp I marveled at the magical feel of the early African morning.  


     Here in the Okavango Delta the scenery was quite different from the drier lands we had previously been in; it was much more lush and green, with many areas covered in shallow waters from the floods. We negotiated a number of water crossings, some quite deep. We saw fewer big open bodies of water than I had expected, but lots of marshes and channels. What Gee referred to as islands seemed more like grassy meadows, but during the flood season they were surrounded with channels of water.
Seven red-eyed doves perched in a tree. A herd of red lechwe stood gleaming in the morning sun. There were lion prints in the road, probably made by those Gee had heard calling in the wee hours - we followed the tracks hoping to find them. We passed through a marshy expanse with many large dead trees; Gee explained that the area had not flooded for many years while the trees grew, but then the floods shifted and covered the area with several feet of water, drowning the trees. The roadway led across a channel deep enough that we had to lift our camera bags off the vehicle floor to keep them dry – maybe we would need that snorkel after all!

     We stopped to watch a troop of baboons. It seemed to be a family unit - the adults groomed one another while the youngsters played. There were two small babies, held in their mothers’ embrace, looking like incredibly ugly human infants. But this tranquil scene was interrupted by the sound of raucous shrieks nearby; a big male baboon was violently swinging a female around in circles while she screamed in protest. Then he mated with her, rough and violent. Gee suggested that the female baboon had probably misbehaved and the male was punishing her - but to us it seemed that we were witnessing baboon torture and rape.


     Moving on, we saw several of the lovely Meyer’s parrots; they are beautiful and charismatic birds. There were two white storks and a spoonbill sitting in a tree.  We passed an old hamerkop nest in the crotch of a tree; these sturdy birds construct huge nests, up to five feet across. They build with sticks and mud, but will also use any materials they can find, such as items of clothing, litter, rope, and old flip-flops. It is said to be very bad luck to rob the nest of a hamerkop. 
     A white-headed vulture perched on a nest in a treetop, gazing down at us. Through the binoculars I could see flies buzzing around its face. These scavengers are huge, with a wing span of nearly six feet. Seeing the vulture prompted me to share a little verse I remembered from childhood:

The Vulture eats between his meals
And that's the reason why
He very, rarely ever feels
As well as you and I.
His eyes are dull, his head is bald,
His neck is getting thinner.
Let this be a lesson to you and I
To only eat at dinner! 

~ Hilaire Belloc ~

White-headed Vulture

     We saw very few other vehicles the whole time we were in the Moremi Park. Following the lion tracks, we crossed a wide open expanse punctuated with dead tree trunks, aptly called Dead Tree Island. We stopped for tea by a flooded lagoon in an area that reminded me of a putting green, parking next to a huge termite hill. It was very quiet; just the sound of the birds and the voice of the occasional hippo. Eighteen elephants walked in a single-file row along the opposite shore. Hippos moved through the water, appearing to glide effortlessly but actually walking on the bottom rather than swimming. Gee explained how termites and hippos are vital to the delta ecosystem; termite hills often form islands, and the hippos open up new channels as they make paths through the marshes.


      Gee gave us a lecture about the termite hills. One meter in height equals ten years of age, so the mound where we had tea would have been roughly 40 years old. He told us about how termites farm a mushroom-like fungus inside their hills, which is what they live on. They have a three month ‘holiday’ in winter when they go dormant. It was really interesting to learn about the termite colonies, and how their life cycles are so connected to the whole ecosystem.  

Termite Hill

     Gee described growing up on an island in the Okavango Delta, and how his family would harvest the termites. After a big rain his father would be able to tell when the termites were ready to fly. He would dig a big hole nearby and put a sack in it, and then start fires to attract the termites to the light. They would come out of the mound in a swarm with a sound like a big wind. When the sack was full Gee’s father would get another sack to fill, and then another – for as long as the termites kept coming. The flight of the termites would attract other things that eat them, such as giant frogs, pythons, monitor lizards and genets - Gee’s father would catch those for food also. They would then roast the termites with a little salt, and then spread them on mats to dry. Then they would pound them into pulp until they were the consistency of butter. Gee said this was very good to eat; they would slice off pieces to serve when they had guests. Friends will make many excuses to drop by when you have termite butter!

     The lion tracks led away from the road to where we could not follow, but there was much else to see. Driving along the edge of a large lagoon, there were more hippos in the water and elephants among the reeds. Several huge crocodiles rested on the banks, and red lechwe ran through the shallows in long leaping bounds. 
    On the bird front, a pair of fish eagles stood on top of an old hamerkop nest they had taken over and remodeled for their own use. A striped kingfisher perched on a twig; these small birds eat insects rather than fish. A hoopoe hopped along the ground looking for a meal, and we saw a tiny African stone chat in the grass. We watched a secretary bird as it walked along through the bush and then took off in flight.  

Secretary Bird

     A group of vervet monkeys foraged for food, moving along the ground with an easy grace. Several of them ran effortlessly up a tall tree and looked down at us impertinently. An impala buck took offense when several of the monkeys crossed under his belly and warned them off with a shake of his horns. 
Gee pointed out that the dominant male monkey had an impressive set of bright blue balls. He explained that the other males have to be very humble and keep their testicles hidden; if they don’t the dominant male will castrate them with his teeth. We noticed that the females had two long wormlike appendages hanging off of their chests, and we realized these were their nipples. Gee said that monkeys have a gestation period of 7 ½ months, in contrast to only 3 ½ months for lions. The biggest threat to the vervet monkeys is hungry leopards.

Vervet Monkeys

     We spent quite a lot of time watching the monkeys, and they did not seem frightened of us being there. But the odd thing we noticed was that no matter how close they were to us, they would never meet our eye. They were definitely aware of our presence, but when looking toward us they always averted their gaze. This was in stark contrast to many of the other animals, especially the lions and leopards, who looked us in the eye boldly as they strolled past.
We saw more elephants - a breeding herd passed close to us alongside the road. A mother nursed her small baby; an elephant’s mammary glands are between her front legs, and look uncannily humanlike. One of the older babies challenged us as he came across the road, but his auntie gave a low rumble to tell him to cut it, and he immediately obeyed. Teenagers! 


     Gee told us that young bulls need elders to train them. He said a Game Reserve in South Africa took in a group of young rogue elephants that had been raised as orphans, and they behaved very badly, trying to mate with the rhinos, and sometimes killing them. The Reserve brought in a big bull elephant to take charge of the youngsters, and within a week everything was calm and orderly.
Being in the front seat, I really enjoyed the chance to talk with Gee while we drove. He told me about Botswana’s efforts in conservation. He said that the animal numbers were on the rise; almost all of the species are increasing due to conservation (with the exception of the rhinos, which have been illegally hunted to the brink of extinction for their horns). For the most part the local people now realize that the animals are worth far more alive bringing in tourist money rather than being killed for their meat or hides. Botswana has strong anti-poaching laws, and the Botswana Defense Force is allowed to shoot poachers on sight.
We arrived back at camp to see zebras strolling along the dry riverbed near the tents. Open met us as usual with the tray of drinks; tea in wine glasses, with sugar-coated rims. When we went in our tents our towels were laid out on the beds, folded into the shape of an elephant head with a long trunk. After lunch we took bucket showers and then lounged in front of the tent, watching and photographing the zebras from the porch. Hoping to see their stripes reflected in the water, I decided to add seeing zebras drinking to my wish list.


     In the afternoon we set out for Jessie’s Pool. We passed through a forest of dead trees and came to a long shallow lake. An assortment of storks, herons, ibis and Egyptian geese lined the shore. Hippos lounged in the water, chortling at us mirthfully. A red lechwe bull with impressive twisting horns paraded by us. A very large crocodile lay on the bank with its mouth held wide open, and several white-faced ducks stood just inches in front of it - which seemed unwise to us.


     We drove up to the far end of Jessie’s Pool. A lone elephant approached the water on the far side; she waded in and drank, sucking up great trunkfulls of water and squirting them into her mouth. She came straight toward us, moving closer and closer, and the rest of the herd came up behind her, a dozen or more of them streaming in to drink. I could sense Gee tensing, ready to back up and move out of the elephant’s way if she became annoyed – but he wanted to let her get close if it was safe. She apparently decided we were OK, and she walked right beside the vehicle. The rest followed, one by one, moving all around us. One big bull came so close to the land cruiser that he nearly brushed it, passing within a meter of where I was sitting in the front seat. It was fantastic.  

     Moving on, we forded a deep water channel, almost needing the snorkel. We passed a mother waterbuck with her baby, and a family of warthogs. A grey go-away bird was drinking from a pool. We saw a whole herd of zebras - though not drinking.     
We headed for Paradise Pools, remembering the Xakanaxa gate report of a leopard sighting there. We drove slowly through stands of tall elegant mopane trees, searching high limbs for feline forms. It was an enchanted forest. Long shafts of late afternoon sunlight bathed the woods in a golden glow. It was like a place where you would find leopards in your dreams.
An elephant stood in a pool, spraying water from his trunk. We went on slowly, scanning the trees for horizontal branches where a leopard might be resting. We didn’t find one, but it didn’t matter – the hunt is half the fun. You never know what you are going to find.  
The sun was getting low, and the sky displayed its evening array of pastels. On the way back to camp we passed the small airstrip. For some reason the road to camp was blocked off with a road closed sign, but Gee deftly maneuvered around it through the bushes. A giraffe stood silhouetted against the pink sky.


     We arrived back at camp just as the sun set, and I got out my tripod to photograph it. We heard two pearl-spotted owls in the trees at the edge of camp, calling to each other in ascending whistling notes. We tried to call them down by imitating their whistles as Adam had done in Hwange, but apparently we didn't have the touch. 
As darkness fell the Milky Way shone in all its glory. Around the fire, Nick and I experimented with photographing the night sky, using a tripod and 30 second exposures to capture Scorpius, the Southern Cross and the Milky Way.


     After another great dinner, we sat long around the fire enjoying the celestial display. We talked about our safari experiences and compared the camps; they had all been excellent but the consensus was that this last one at Xakanaxa was our favorite, because it was the most secluded and private. We missed the sounds of the hippos at Khwai though.
Later we heard lions in the night, far off at first and then closer. The quiet whoo-oop call of a hyena just outside camp was like a lullaby. Whenever I think of Africa, the sounds of the animals in the night is one of my most abiding memories.

 ~ Continued on next page ~

"Do these stripes make my butt look big?"

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