By Phyllis Dawson
Part 12
Moremi, Botswana

August 4
Leaving camp for the morning drive, we were very sad that this was our last full day in Botswana. If I didn’t have such a wonderful farm at Windchase, I would be very tempted to run away from home and move to Botswana to become a safari guide. Or better yet, a nature photographer - perhaps one of the few professions even harder to make a living at than horses . . . 
     We drove through the beautiful forest of tall mopane trees – I never figured out how they were able to grow so tall here, when elsewhere they were all stunted from being eaten off by the elephants. Zebras standing by the road glowed in the golden morning light. A small herd of impala posed for a photo by a termite mound. A pair of Egyptian Geese perched high in a tree; one was standing on a hamerkop nest and the other sat on a high branch. This was surprising, as we normally only saw them by the water. We stopped to watch a splendid male giraffe as he browsed the treetops in the early morning sunshine.

     We were on the hunt for lions. Gee found their tracks in the dusty roadway, and we followed them for miles. We traversed Dead Tree Island, zigzagging back and forth on the sandy roads to see which way they had gone. In several places the road had long stretches of deep sand which, the four-wheel-drive vehicle plowed through with the engine racing. We searched through areas of tall reeds and thick golden grasses; if there were lions lying down in there we could have passed within yards and not seen them. We crossed from island to island, fording water channels, some of them quite deep. We seemed to have the delta to ourselves; there were no other vehicle to be seen.
     A large herd of lechwe grazed undisturbed; surely they would not be there if lions were near? But Gee told us that lions are patient hunters – they would hide downwind of the antelope and wait for them to come close. We watched a pair of young bucks wrestling in mock-battle, honing their skills for the future. A herd of elephants walked sedately by in the background.

Red Lechwe

     We came to a large expanse of shallow water surrounding the silver-grey trunks of dozens of dead trees. It was inhabited by a wide array of waterfowl; white-faced, knob-billed and yellow-billed ducks swam near the edge or sat on the shore, and a hadeda ibis flew overhead. A lechwe bull stood poised against a backdrop of bulrushes. A pale moon hung in the morning sky.
While driving along Gee spotted a honey guide bird - I don’t know how he does it!  He told us that the honey guide bird is so named because it leads honey badgers to bee hives; the badger opens the hive and takes the honey, and the bird feeds on what is left. People also follow this bird to finds hives; legend says that if you follow one and take the honey you must always leave some for the bird - if you don’t he will not forget, and next time he will lead you to lions.
We stopped to watch some banded mongoose as they scurried around searching for breakfast. A group of mongoose is called a business, and indeed they did seem to be intently busy. Sally got another new bird, our LBJ for the day, a wood pipit. The lechwe were on the move; they ran through the shallows, heads held close to the ground, leaping and plunging through the water.

     We continued searching for the lions, crossing to ever remoter islands as Gee tried to determine which way they had gone. At about 9:45 we noticed a stationary vehicle in the distance; were they looking at lions, I wondered? Sometimes checking out other stopped vehicles can lead you to good animal sightings. But then I saw someone out of the vehicle walking around - nobody would do that if lions were about.
As we drew closer I could see four people standing on a knoll near the vehicle, waving to us. We waved back. But then I noticed that they were jumping up and down and frantically waving their jackets in the air, and we realized they were in distress and trying to flag us down.
The area was marshy and flooded, so Gee stopped to figure out how we could get to the people without getting stuck. They seemed to be getting more and more agitated. We could see them desperately waving some sort of shiny cloth, and could faintly hear them yelling - it sounded like they were screaming HELP! There seemed to be a real emergency, and they were frantic that we would leave without realizing that they needed help. Was someone injured?
Gee drove to the closest point he could get to them while staying on dry ground, about 300 yards away. He got out and took off his boots and socks, and invited Nick to go with him. Nick and George both eagerly scrambled out of the land cruiser to join him, and they set out walking toward the stranded travelers. Soon they were wading through knee-deep water; Gee was barefoot but George and Nick still had their boots on. The rest of us waited in the land cruiser, watching through binoculars, slightly jealous of George and Nick – we would like to have gone on the rescue mission too.  
The people on the knoll seemed very happy to see our guys, and some hugs were exchanged. It was frustrating not knowing what was going on; it did not seem to be a medical emergency, but appeared that their little pick-up truck was stuck in the mud. A call from camp came over the land cruiser’s radio; in Gee’s absence Jineen answered it and tried to explain that we were in the midst of a rescue operation.
We got out of the land cruiser, stretching our legs and going behind a bush for nature’s call. While waiting I braided some reeds into a tiny grass rope, laughingly saying it was in case we needed it to pull out the truck. We were just getting ready to make tea when Gee came wading back, bringing a woman and young boy with him. We all got in the land cruiser, and having checked out the ground conditions while walking, Gee was able to drive us across the flooded field to the other vehicle.
The people in distress turned out to be a family from the Netherlands; parents Jaco and Anna, and their two boys, Oliver and Simon, ages 10 and 12. They had rented a self-drive pick-up truck and were on an unguided camping safari through the Okavango Delta. Very ambitious, since they had never been to Africa before, and had never been camping. Nor, apparently, had they ever driven a four-wheel drive vehicle. Thinking that they could navigate by GPS, they had gotten the little truck badly stuck in the mud. They had gotten stuck on Saturday, and this was Tuesday - they had been out there for four days!  We were the first people to come by in that time.


     Anna was in a dress, and all four of them wore rubber crocs for footwear. The boys looked traumatized. The whole family was so grateful to be rescued that they were hugging us, and Jaco was openly crying. They had thought they were going to die out there! And indeed, they well could have. They did have food and water enough for a few more days, but they had no satellite phone, flare gun, or any means of summoning help. Nobody at home would have known to report them missing for another week. They had put reflectors in the trees to try to make their location visible - which might have worked had anyone actually been looking for them. They had been there for three nights and four days, growing more desperate with each passing hour. 
The little white truck was equipped with a pop-up tent on the roof for sleeping, but they couldn’t use it because they were stuck in knee-deep water, and there was no solid ground for the tent support posts. At night the family slept in the truck, and during the day they sat on a knoll formed from an old termite mound and tended the fire. They had to wade through several feet of water to go back and forth to the truck. During the day they sent the boys to gather firewood, which may have had some inherent risks; after all, we were out there because we were tracking lions!  Jaco and one of the boys had tried to walk out to find help, but they had been forced to turn back because their way was blocked by water channels inhabited by hippos and crocodiles.

Anna, Oliver, and Simon

     Although we had come to the rescue of the Dutch family, we had yet to actually get them out. Gee, George and Nick started working on getting their truck unstuck. They hooked it up to the land cruiser with a long rope, but as Gee gunned the engine to pull them out the rope immediately broke. (I told him he should have used the grass rope I wove!) They tied the rope back together and hooked it up again, and this time as Gee put the gas pedal down the land cruiser got stuck. While all this was going on, the rest of us had tea on the termite knoll with Anna and the boys while watching the extrication attempts.
Gee produced a large jack, and by lifting up the wheels of the land cruiser one at a time and putting logs under them he got it unstuck. (It was evident he had done this many times before!) Then with George and Nick’s help he did the same with the stranded travelers’ truck, jacking up the wheels one by one and placing branches under them for traction. With Nick in the driver’s seat of the truck Gee tried again to tow it out, but once more the land cruiser immediately got stuck.


     While Gee, George and Nick jacked up the land cruiser again, Jineen, Sally, Rosemary, Mary and I all gathered wood to put under the wheels. Gee seemed surprised by the large loads we brought, but I heard Nick say to him, ‘I told you, these are farm girls, they know how to work - they are actually much tougher than me.’  Nick, however, was in his element - he was enjoying the challenge of getting the vehicles unstuck. To us this was all a great adventure, but for the Dutch family who had been out there for four days the whole experience was a terrifying ordeal, and they must have been wondering if we would ever get them out. Gee told them not to worry, that we would get them out, and we could always radio for help if we needed to.

     The guys got the land cruiser unstuck for the third time (or was it the fourth?), and repositioned it onto better ground. They jacked up the self-drive truck again and added more logs, and finally, engines racing and mud flying, pulled it free amid much cheering. The Dutch family cried and hugged us again, overjoyed. We took a few photos of the family standing in front of the little truck, which was well splattered with mud and dented from the jack.

Jaco, Anna, Oliver, and Simon

     But we still had to find a way off the island. Gee set out driving, looking for a dry route, with the Dutch family following. In hindsight we should have gone back the way we had come in, but Gee was afraid their truck wouldn’t make it through the marsh.  For a while we drove on solid ground and all was well, but then we came to a stretch of road that was totally flooded - there was nothing but standing water for over 100 yards. I thought it looked pretty deep, but there were tire tracks through the water where someone had crossed before, so Gee felt he could make it through and then go scout for a drier route for the little truck. He told the Dutch family to wait on the dry ground, and then he eased the land cruiser into the water, following the tracks. At first our 4WD vehicle hummed along through the water nicely, but about halfway through it dropped into a deep rut and was promptly stuck again. ‘This is very bad,’ said Gee.  
‘Would a push help?’ I asked. Before Gee could answer I had my shoes and socks off and was out of the vehicle into the knee-deep water. The others followed suit. The water was cold but not unpleasant, with the sandy dirt oozing between our toes. Up close and personal with the Okavango Delta! Gee seemed amazed that we girls were willing to get out and push, but we were glad to show him that women are tougher than he thought.
We managed to push the land cruiser out of the rut, and it surged ahead for about twenty feet before getting stuck again in an even deeper hole. We waded forward, tripping over logs and stumbling into holes. The water was up to our knees, and even deeper when we stepped in a rut. Several times I tripped over a submerged log and almost went down. Little fish were swimming around us. I asked Gee if there were crocodiles - he answered, ‘Yyeesss!’ We thought he was teasing, but we weren’t quite sure.     
     We couldn’t push the land cruiser out this time, so we had to jack it up and put rubber mats (kept in the vehicle for this purpose) and logs under two of the wheels. Then we pushed again and the vehicle came free - and went about ten feet before getting stuck again. Gee pointed out that there were lots of logs in the ruts - we weren’t the first people to get stuck here! The guys jacked the land cruiser up yet again, while Jineen and I fished the rubber mats out of the mud and dragged them forward to put under the wheels once more. Meanwhile the Dutch family waited at the edge of the water, probably thinking maybe they would perish out here after all.


     We went through this process several more times: Push the land cruiser free, watch it go ten feet and get stuck again, wade forward, jack it up and put logs under it, and push it free again. Gee drove while Jineen, Sally, Rosemary, George, Nick, Mary and I pushed (Mike stayed in the vehicle due to his artificial leg). Finally we got past the deepest ruts and Gee was able to keep going and get the land cruiser out of the water, with the rest of us trudging after him.
Once we were all back on solid ground, Gee waded back to drive the Dutch family’s truck out by a different route, and Nick took the wheel of the land cruiser. Being barefoot Jineen and I couldn’t traverse the thorny grass, so Nick picked us up at the edge of the water. We then drove on to meet Gee, who brought the little pick-up out by the route we had originally gone in on, crossing the standing water and honking the horn triumphantly while we all cheered. It had taken us four hours to free the stranded travelers.   

We invited the family back to the camp for lunch. They followed us as we forded three more water crossings, each one progressively deeper. The land cruiser had no problem, but in the last crossing their little white truck was nearly submerged, with a wave going up over its hood. When the family finally made it across the last ford we all cheered, and I think they were limp with relief.

     On the way back to camp we passed a pair of wattled cranes wading in a pool. These elegant birds have become quite rare; Gee said there are only about 1400 of them left in the world, mostly in the Okavango Delta. Spraying for tsetse flies has interfered with their eggs hatching, not unlike the problems with bald eagles and DDT in the U.S.

Wattled Crane

     Crossing an open grassy expanse, Gee spotted a serval crouched in the grass about fifty feet from the road. This beautiful medium-sized cat was well-camouflaged, with a combination of black stripes and spots overlaying a tawny coat. The serval watched us warily, and when he turned to leave we could see the broad stripes on the backs of his large ears. This was another great spot by Gee; we were constantly amazed at how he could find hidden animals and birds while driving. 


     We crossed a rickety log bridge over a small river; the bridge creaked and groaned as we drove slowly over it, the logs rolling and shifting under our wheels alarmingly. A new bridge had been built right beside it, constructed identically, but it was not yet open for use.
When we arrived in camp Anna, Jaco, Oliver and Simon looked around in awe - it must have seemed pretty luxurious after four days of sleeping in their truck. Gee had radioed ahead to let the guys know we would be having guests for lunch, so two tables were set up. When Open greeted us holding a platter of sugar-rimmed goblets of ice tea, Anna exclaimed, ‘This is paradise!’  And she was right.


     Lunch was excellent, as usual, and our Dutch friends were happy to have a good meal. They gave us a couple of bottles of wine they had in their truck as a thank-you present. Squirrels visited us during lunch, running up and down the trees near the table. A tiny dwarf mongoose watched us inquisitively. We took much-needed bucket showers, being especially grimy from pushing the land cruiser through the swamp. 
Our guests were due in Kasane the following afternoon, and they had been planning to use the same deep sandy tracks through the game reserves that we had come in on. Gee talked them out of going on those difficult roads and advised them instead to take the main (paved) road from Maun to Kasane. Having used up their adventure quota, they were happy to take the tamer route. Gee led them to the reserve gate so they wouldn’t get lost, and Nick went along. When they came back Nick was driving the land cruiser; afterwards he told us that driving in that deep sand is much harder than it looks.  

      In the afternoon we did a group photo with Gee and the guys; Nick set his camera on a tripod and used the timer so he could get in the picture too. Then we set out for our last afternoon game drive.

Our Group: Left to right - Sally, Mike, Mosa, Mary, Open, Jineen, Phyllis, KP, Rosemary, George, Nick, and Gee.

     We drove from island to island, most of them separated by marshy areas full of tall reeds. We met up with another Letaka vehicle and Gee gave them the license plate we had found several days earlier – they were the ones who had lost it. Jineen was only up to 10 rollers for the day compared to 30 the previous day; were they on the decline? I reminded Gee that a photo of zebras drinking was still on my wish list; I hoped to get shots of their stripes reflected in the water. 
We passed a beautiful lagoon of deep water, and then headed across a plain. Tsessebes grazed in the sunshine. A secretary bird made its way through the grass and an eagle soared overhead. We surprised a huge hippo in the brush near the road; this was as close to one out of the water as we had been. Gee pointed out that he was thin (for a hippo), and looked like he must be old or unwell.


     We had seen a number of hamerkop nests, so I was happy when we came across a waterhole with an actual hamerkop standing in it. This interesting bird had a sturdy build, short legs, and a long strong beak. He stood patiently in the shallow water; Gee said he was looking for frogs. There was something about him that I found very appealing.


     It takes six months for a pair of hamerkops to build a nest, and the male and female work on it together. They will use any materials they can find; things like clothes, garbage, and old shoes can often be found in the nests. It is extremely bad luck to mess with a hamerkop nest. Gee told a story about a boy in his village who burned a hamerkop nest just for kicks - he soon got sick and almost died. His family took him to a traditional doctor, who told them that if you burn a hamerkop nest you will die. This witch doctor was able to perform spells to cleanse him and saved his life, but just barely. Gee also said that sometimes black mamba snakes will lay their eggs in a hamerkop nest, and the birds will raise them - I am not sure if this is fact or superstition. 
We stopped by another watering hole and a small herd of zebras approached; this might be my chance to get that photo of a zebra drinking! They came and stood by the water but apparently they were not thirsty; none of them put their heads down to drink, but I did get a bit of zebra-stripe reflection in the water. Gee told us that a group of zebras is called a dazzle, because when in motion their bold stripes can dazzle attacking lions.

     More zebras soon arrived. They stood quietly, scratching each other’s withers and dozing in the late afternoon sun. We were content to spend some time just watching the herd going about their business. One of the zebras pawed the ground, sending up clouds of dust, and then laid down and rolled in a sandy patch. Several others followed suit, and soon three or four of them were rolling in the dust together. A mother stood while her baby nursed, and I realized my request had been met - technically this was a zebra drinking!


     Several giraffes walked by in a stately manner. We learned that giraffes have very keen eyesight at distances; they can see up to two miles, but they don’t see as well up close. Only the strongest males get to breed, but the other males are allowed to stay in the group as long as they don’t challenge the herd leader.


     The sun was getting low in the sky when we finally moved on. We passed a single male wildebeest; Gee explained that the dominant bull will stay behind and defend his territory from other males while the females of his herd roam searching for better grazing. The bull is often thin, because he spends so much time patrolling that he does not have time to graze enough. Tsessebes share this trait as well.

     A hyena was sleeping right out in the open, stretched out flat on his side on a low mound. He raised his head and gazed at us sleepily when we drew near. A few hundred yards away another hyena, perhaps his mate, was napping in a similar position. 
It was the most brilliant sunset we’d had yet. The sky was turning vivid shades of orange and magenta, and we could see a few wisps of clouds accenting the evening sky, the first we had seen on the whole trip. A pair of ibis flew across the sunset. Darkness crept slowly over the land. 


     Back at camp, we sat around the fire and drank the wine the Dutch family had given us. Mosa announced dinner - sadly our last one. I stood outside the tent for a long while before going to bed, soaking in the African night sky with its glittering array of stars, and listening to the sounds of the bush.

 ~ Continued on next page ~

"Do these feathers make my nose look big?"

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