By Phyllis Dawson
Part 5
Chobe, Botswana

July 27
It was my birthday! We slept in until 6:30, and then Stan took us to the Botswana border. We signed in, said goodbye to Stan, and went through customs and immigration. While we stood in line we noticed a large sign posted on the wall regarding customer service, but it was unclear whether it was a list of the dos or the don’ts. It read as follows:   

Adherence to time schedules including absenteeism
Inconvenience and delays in service
Lack of redressal of grievances 
Rebuke and ridicule to complainants
Lack of respect, especially to senior citizens
Inaction on reported cases of negligence of officials
Unhelpful help desks
Non acknowledgement of receipts of letters and delays in ultimate resolution of concerns
Apparently increasing corruption in Government offices
Improving overall efficiency and reducing bureaucracy

     We were directed to walk through a shallow vat of disinfectant to prevent the spread of hoof-and-mouth disease, and then we crossed into Botswana. We transferred to a minibus which took us to the town of Kasane. We passed many hotels and safari companies, some rather shabby and others quite posh. We were surprised to see a KFC, complete with Colonel Sanders pictured on the billboard.  

     At the Kasane Hotel we met Gee Mange (pronounced mang-ee) from Letaka Safaris; he was to be our guide for a private ten-day camping trip through Chobe National Park and the Okavango Delta. George was still not feeling well and had arranged to see a doctor in Kasane, to make sure he was OK before heading off into the wilderness. Rosemary and Nick stayed with him, while the rest of us went for a cruise on the Chobe River. Gee dropped us off at the cruise company, and while we waited on the lawn under a flowering tree Sally scored three new kinds of birds.
Our cruise guide took us down to a pier at the edge of the river, where we boarded a little motor boat. We seemed to be given a smaller boat each time we went out on the water! As we headed up the broad Chobe River our guide was able to maneuver close to the shores. A giant kingfisher flew along the shore - he was much larger than the other types we had seen. An anhinga perched on a branch, holding his large wings outstretched to dry his glossy feathers. A small baby crocodile was well-camouflaged as he lay stretched out on a tree root. A fish eagle sat in a treetop surveying the river, his white head and shoulders shining in the sun.

Fish Eagle

     There were hippos up on the shore, and more in the water.  Our guide pointed out an antelope we had not seen before, the red lechwe; they live near the water and run into the shallows to avoid predators. We also saw impala, waterbuck and baboons. A man stood in a flat canoe, poling it through the shallow water near the shore. Several huge crocodiles were sleeping beside the river, and we passed so close to one we could almost have reached out and touched him (but we didn’t). We marveled at his sinister jaws and rows of jagged teeth close-up.

     A large herd of African buffalo were grazing on the floodplain, some of them quite near the water. Marabou storks, the ugliest of all birds, meandered among the buffalo. A large hippopotamus lay sound asleep in the grass just a few feet from the river’s edge. When we got close he opened one eye a crack and glared at us, then closed it and resumed his slumbers.


     The buffalo moved closer, and some of them came right to the edge of the riverbank. Our little boat floated within feet of them, and we were about at the level of their knees. They stared down at us myopically, snorting, their ragged ears outstretched and nostrils flaring. We gazed up at them in awe; it was amazing to be so close to these massive creatures.


     A pair of wire-tailed swallows circled around us - our guide said they wanted a ride on the boat. I didn’t take him seriously, but sure enough a few minutes later the swallows landed on the front of the boat, perching less than three feet from where I was sitting. They seemed to enjoy the ride!

Wire-tailed Swallows

       As we motored along suddenly the boat lurched; an angry hippo had bumped it hard, warning us we were encroaching in his territory. His head popped up out of the water in our wake, and he seemed to be rebuking us for coming too close.
A herd of elephants filed down to the left bank of the river, ambling past impala, water bucks and baboons. The elephants were quite a distance from us as they lined up along the shore to drink; I was really sorry that we couldn't approach them closer, but the tour was required to follow a set route.

      We floated past low islands inhabited by Egyptian geese, white-faced ducks, egrets and several types of storks and ibis. A goliath heron caught a fish by spearing it with his beak, and we watched as he struggled to swallow it. When other birds approached he flew away with his dinner to avoid competition. A thatched gazebo sat on a floating deck mid-stream; our guide said it was a bar. The fish eagle had left the tree and was now soaring above, looking down from his place on the wind.
A pied kingfisher shot by, and then returned to hang in the air just a couple of yards from the boat, posing for us as he flew in place. It was amazing to watch these agile birds in action; they hover above the water, hanging motionless in a whir of wings while looking for fish. Then with folded wings they dive straight down into the water, usually emerging with a tiny fish in their beak. We couldn’t believe our luck at getting such a close look at one of these amazing birds.

Pied Kingfisher

     Back on shore we reunited with Gee and the rest of our group. Fortunately the doctor had found George to be on the mend so all was well. We climbed into the Toyota land cruiser that would be an integral part of our lives for the next ten days. There was an aluminum ‘Letaka Safaris’  water bottle for each of us set in the metal cupholders mounted on the sides of the vehicle, and our luggage was in a small trailer attached to the back. Our Letaka safari was arranged so that we would spend three nights at each of three different camps. We set out for Savuti, in Chobe National Park.

     We followed a paved road and soon came to the gate to enter Chobe. The countryside was forests and meadows, and the trees were rich with autumn-like colors. An elegant giraffe stood close to the road. We passed elephants, another giraffe, and then more elephants. Suddenly a beautiful black antelope dashed across the road in front of us – Gee said it was a sable, very rare, and only likely to be seen right in that area. 
Before long the road crossed back out of the game reserve and through farmlands. We could see zebras out in the pastures grazing with the cattle. Gee had brought box lunches, which we ate on a picnic table under the shade of a magnificent ancient baobab tree. With their huge trunks and small stunted branches, these remarkable trees are the quintessential symbol of Africa.


     Soon the road to Savuti narrowed and turned to sand, and led back into the game reserve. And note that both for this and our entire mobile safari, I use the term ‘road’ loosely. Two adjacent tire tracks in the sand would be a more accurate description.
The further we went, the deeper the dry sand became. Before long Gee was shifting the land cruiser into four-wheel low and plowing through the heavy sand with the engine racing. We noticed the land cruiser was equipped with a snorkel, which seemed incongruous in the arid sandy environment, but no doubt it might come in handy later. When Gee stopped for a short break most of us took turns going behind some bushes for nature’s call. Mary said she would wait until we came to a rest room; uh-oh, I thought . . . she may be in for a shock . . .


     We continued on and on for hours, grinding our way through the deep sand on the narrow track through the dense mopane-veldt. Periodically there were pockets of sand so deep that multiple tracks had been made through it, presumably to avoid where the previous vehicle had been stuck. Once we passed a small truck coming the other way, and several times we had to stop to let elephants or giraffes cross the road in front of us. The deeper we went into Chobe the tougher the going was. The land cruiser lurched like a roller coaster gone amuck, and we were thrown from side to side. Jineen and Nick, in the farthest back seat, were being tossed against the roof. (Gee told us later that the guides refer to the far back seat as the kangaroo seat.) And the amazing thing was that this was the main highway from Kasane to Savuti! 
We came upon a little blue pickup truck with a mattress and pop-up tent strapped on the roof, occupied by a young couple from The Netherlands. They were sitting at a fork in the road looking lost – their GPS told them to turn right, but Gee told them to go left and follow us. We knew we wouldn’t want to be driving these roads without a guide!  

Female Ostrich

     A zebra stood near the road, and we saw an ostrich in the distance, making its way through the brush. A mongoose darted into the bushes, and we spotted a ground hornbill and a kori bustard. We came to a spot where the road widened and the sand was especially deep. Gee went around this treacherous spot by driving through the brush, but we looked back and saw the Dutch couple try to go straight through the deep sand - they promptly got stuck. Gee stopped, looking doubtful, and asked us what we wanted to do – of course we agreed to stop and help them. Gee produced a shovel and dug out the front tire, and we all got behind the vehicle and pushed it out of the sand. Our good deed for the day!


     We arrived at our camp in Savuti at six o’clock, almost ten hours after leaving Kasane. The setting sun painted the sky in brilliant shades of orange, red and magenta, fading to deep blue. We were greeted by Open, one of our camp staff, with glasses of iced tea on a tray. We also met the rest of the staff; our chef Mosa, and KP, who did whatever needed doing around camp. They had come ahead in another vehicle with all of the equipment, and had the camp set up and ready for us.


     Our tents were placed along a dry riverbed. Each had two narrow bunks with comforters and heavy blankets, and two tiny bedside tables. They had canvas floors and zip-down windows with screens. At the back of the tent was a canvas-walled bathroom stall, open to the sky, with a bucket shower and a toilet set over a deep hole in the ground. The toilet seat had a canvas cover, and a bucket of ashes for ‘flushing’ was on hand, complete with a little shovel. Towels and toilet paper were provided; we made sure to keep the TP inside the tent so the monkeys wouldn’t get it. There was a little covered verandah on the front of each tent, with two canvas washbasins, supplied with warm water to wash up for dinner. There were two chairs there during the day; they were moved to the campfire in the evenings. After dark, lanterns glowed in front of the tents.
The dining table was under an open-sided tent. A campfire burned nearby; Gee collected elephant dung to use as kindling to get it started. Open served us drinks while we sat around the fire; there was an ample supply of wine and gin-and-tonics. After a while Mosa came and shyly announced dinner, looking down and scuffling his feet while he told us what each course would be. The food was excellent; Mosa had done an outstanding job. Our group surprised me with a birthday cake, candles and all, which had somehow survived the bumpy ride all the way from Kasane. Things don’t get any better than this. 
     After dinner we sat around the campfire talking with Gee. A sudden noise like a gunshot split the night; Gee explained it was an elephant breaking a tree. The night was crystal clear - we could see the stars, but the light from the half-moon diminished the brightness of the southern constellations.


     It was quite cold by the time Jineen and I went back to the tent, so I was delighted to find a hot water bottle in my bed. We heard the soft whoo-oop, whoo-oop  of hyenas calling in the night, sometimes near and sometimes far. An elephant trumpeted once.  I was cold during the night; for some reason I couldn’t seem to get warm despite the thick blankets on the bed. Shivering, I put on extra layers of clothing and cuddled the hot water bottle to me like a teddy bear, wishing I had borrowed one of the heavy blankets from the land cruiser.

July 28
We heard Open quietly calling good morning outside our tent at 6:00 a.m. - our wakeup call. Warm water was waiting for us in our washbasins. The morning was crisp and cold, probably in the mid-forties. Still cold from the night, I put on most all of my clothes for the game drive. I wore sweat pants over my long-johns, and my jeans over that. I layered on short-sleeved shirt, long-sleeved shirt, sweater, light jacket, photo vest, and finally my coat. Soon I was quite toasty.
We gathered around the fire for hot tea and coffee. Breakfast was served at 6:30; hot porridge, and toast with jam and honey. (The butter was hard as a rock from the cold.) We set out on the morning game drive at seven. 
The land cruiser had three rows of seats, as well as the ‘shotgun’ position next to the driver. The front row had two seats with a console in between, three people sat in the middle row, and two back in the kangaroo seat, which took a bit of climbing to get in and out of. Gee usually tried to stop with the left side of the vehicle toward the animals we were viewing. Throughout the trip we rotated who sat where. We took the canvas top off the cruiser for better visibility, and Gee folded down the windscreen. A cooler of drinks sat on the console on the front tier of seats, and there was a power strip for charging camera batteries. There were thick wool blankets for each of us.    

     We started out along the river; it was merely a small stream trickling from pool to pool, but no doubt a strong watercourse during the rainy season. A fish eagle watched us from a tree, and a flock of white pelicans stood by the edge of the water.

Great White Pelicans

     Heading out across the plain we saw warthogs, wildebeest and elephants. A male ostrich strolled through the bush, his brilliant black and white plumage unmistakable even from a distance. At first we wrapped up in the blankets for warmth, but as the sun got higher we were soon shedding layers.
     Gee heard a radio report from another guide that lions had been seen moving our way. He drove to a sandy spot on the plain where several tracks converged, and stopped to wait.  ‘It is better if we let the lions come to us,’ he told us. Several other vehicles joined us. It was very quiet as we scanned the empty plain. Would they come?

 ~ Continued on next page ~


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