By Phyllis Dawson
Part 6
Chobe, Botswana

      We sat in the land cruiser, waiting quietly on the Chobe plain. Before long we saw a lithe tawny form moving through the brush - a lioness, coming our way. She was followed by another, and another, weaving through the scrubby trees in a line. Soon half a dozen lions were quietly walking across the plain toward us.


     I was sure the lions would see the vehicles waiting and veer away, but amazingly they took no notice of us. The lead lioness came right to us and sat down within thirty feet of the land cruiser. One by one the others joined her. The adult females stood looking around, and the younger ones flopped down to sleep. Several more lions joined the party; as the dominant lioness arrived the youngsters got up and greeted her one by one, rubbing themselves against her affectionately. Several of the young males were bigger than the lioness, but it was clear that she was the boss. She scanned the area for possible prey, pretty much ignoring the youngsters.

     All in all there were nine of them; three adult lionesses, two adolescent males with scruffy manes, and the rest youngsters. The dominant male was not with them. The pride seemed quite relaxed, yet they were also alert. Several of the adults seemed to be scanning their surroundings, on the lookout for enemies or lunch. One huntress gazed intently at a warthog that was rooting around in the bush a good ways off, oblivious to its possible peril. She started stalking toward it, but after a while she changed her mind and lay down again. Another lioness gazed wishfully at the ostrich in the distance.  


     A young male lion climbed up on top of a termite mound, surveying his territory and no doubt dreaming of one day being King of the Beasts. Several of the others lay down and took a nap. One of the adolescent males got up and walked straight toward us. As he got close Gee quietly murmured, ‘Stay still, be quiet, do not move.’ The lion came right to us, passing close enough to the open side of our vehicle that I literally could have reached out and touched him. (I didn’t.) He met my eye as he passed. He was magnificent - all feline grace and raw power. It was thrilling beyond measure.

     We watched the lions, enthralled. After a while most of them lay down to sleep. As the day got warmer they started repositioning themselves to find shade; they would get up one or two at a time, yawn and stretch, and move to a new resting spot. Several times one of them walked within a foot of the land cruiser. Leaning out taking photos, I accidentally dropped the lens hood from my camera on the ground beside the vehicle; needless to say I did not get out and retrieve it.
It amazed me that the lions had laid down for the day right beside the vehicles. I knew that they did not fear us – after all, they are at the top of the food chain. But still, I would have expected the annoyance factor of having tourists at their resting spot would have compelled them to go to a more private spot, which they easily could have done since we were not allowed to go off the road. But Gee explained that the lions do not recognize us as humans when we are in the vehicle; they see us and the land cruiser as one big entity, and take no more notice of us than they would of an elephant browsing nearby. But if we got out of the vehicle it would be an entirely different story - the lions would either move away or kill us, depending on their mood.

     Eventually the lions were all sleeping, and it was time to move on. As we got ready to leave another safari guide pulled up between us and the lions, and sheltered between the vehicles a man got out and retrieved my dropped lens hood. We left the lion pride snoozing, reflecting on the incredible experience. The Dawson Family has a tradition of composing ridiculous limericks while on vacation, so I came up with this one:

The Lion’s the King of the Beasts
Nothing bothers him in the least.
But when people from far
Get out of the car
On tourists the Lion will feast.

     Gee spotted a small group of African wild dogs sleeping in the shade. These endangered animals are very rare. They were a good ways from the road, so we watched from a distance as a couple of the dogs got up and moved to another spot. They were lean like greyhounds, with big round ears and mottled brown, black and white coats. Near them was a man in a land rover which had a sign that said Official Wildlife Photographer; that is what I want to do in my next life!
We continued down the road, stopping to watch a small herd of zebras. A beautiful magpie shrike flew past, black and white with a long tail. Two kudu bulls looked out at us from the shadows; I think these are the most beautiful of all the antelopes.
Gee got a report of a possible leopard sighting near where we had seen the dogs, so we went back to check it out. From a distance we could see several dogs sleeping in the shade. We waited, and a leopard came into view, walking along through the brush. Upon sighting the wild dogs it quickly changed direction; Gee said a pack of dogs can kill a leopard, so this one wasn’t taking any chances. Gee drove around to the other side of the area, and parked where he hoped we might get a better view.


     Sure enough, the leopard moved toward us. She was a female, very refined and beautiful. I was struck by how small she was compared to the lions. Gee seemed to have a knack for knowing where to park - as the lions had done earlier, she came straight toward us. Gee softly instructed us to be still, be quiet, and we watched in silent anticipation as she came nearer. She passed right by our land cruiser, so close I could have put out my hand and touched her. Then she paused for a second and turned, allowing us to admire her feminine beauty. It was magical. She moved off, climbing a nearby kopje and making a soft trilling sound - Gee said she was calling for her cubs.             


     Moving on, we passed a familiar-looking little blue pickup truck; it was the Dutch couple we had pushed out of the sand on the road from Kasane, on their self-drive safari. While exploring on one’s own is something I love to do in many places, it is not the best way to see Africa. Without Gee to guide us, we would never have seen half the wildlife we did.  
We came across a large herd of wildebeest and waterbuck mingled together grazing; Gee said this was very unusual and he had never seen it before. Several warthogs scurried around among them, tails held straight up over their backs. We watched a dozen banded mongooses as they scratched in the dirt searching for insects, their brown and black stripes providing camouflage. Roller birds and hornbills were out in force.
     We got a much closer look at the male ostrich we had seen from a distance earlier; these enormous flightless birds weigh up to 300 pounds, and are slightly ridiculous looking and unforgettable. They have strong powerful legs, long skinny necks and tiny heads. The males are black with white highlights, and the females are a drab grey color.

Male Ostrich

      Further on we saw a group of tsessebe, with dark brown coats, an athletic uphill build, short horns and intelligent eyes – it was our first time to see these attractive antelope. 
     We stopped for a tea break around ten-thirty. Gee brought out thermoses of hot water to make tea and coffee, and some cookies and biscotti. Butterflies flitted above the tall grasses. A swallow-tailed bee-eater perched on a twig, and a black-chested snake eagle soared above us. 
     We drove back beside the river; it was mostly dry, but there were channels and pools of water along it. The fish eagle was still there, gazing down regally from a nearby tree as he surveyed his territory. A pair of elephants meandered down the dry riverbed toward us. A large flock of white pelicans flew in formation high in the air, wheeling back and forth in perfect synchronization. Gee explained that they soar to cool off during the hot part of the day, catching the high breezes. Mesmerized, we watched them as they soared in gracefully.   

     A pair of saddle-billed storks waded in the shallow water, vibrant black and white with bills striped with orange and yellow. They are tall and elegant, with a wingspan of over eight feet. We found many birds - a few new ones for the list included a Dickenson's kestrel, a swamp boubou and a wood sandpiper. An immature fish eagle flew down the river past us.
As we drove along Gee suddenly exclaimed, ‘Look at the leopard!’ And sure enough, there one was, curled up in the sand beside the riverbed taking a nap. He squinted up at us sleepily as we approached, eyes half closed. His ears were tattered, and he looked tired. Gee crossed the riverbed and pulled the vehicle up close to him for just a moment, possibly bending the rules a little. He told us that this was one of the fish-eating leopards about which a documentary had been made; this unusual family of leopards survives by regularly catching and eating fish. We took a few photos, then left him to his slumbers and continued along the river.

     There was a large colony of marabou storks gathered along the river, some standing by the water and others perched in a dead tree. These birds are huge, with wingspans up to nine feet. They have black backs, white underparts, and a bare head and neck. A large pink sack hangs from their throats, which when inflated with air is huge and vaguely obscene-looking. They are considered a member of the Ugly Five. The most dangerous animals to hunt have become known as the Big Five; elephants, lions, leopards, buffalo, and rhinoceros. Less well known are the Ugly Five; wildebeests, vultures, warthogs, hyena and the Marabou stork.

Marabou Stork

    We returned to the camp about 1:30, and Open was there to greet us with glasses of ice tea. We were bubbling over with excitement; this had been the best game drive ever! To see so much in one morning was amazing. Chobe National Park is known for having one of the highest concentrations of animals in Africa, and it did not disappoint. 
An excellent lunch was served, with special dishes for Nick and Rosemary who are vegetarians. After lunch KP brought warm water to fill the bucket shower in the canvas enclosure behind our tent. Jineen and I were conservative with the water as we took turns showering, but there ended up being plenty, and it felt great to get rid of the travel dust. It seemed very unusual to be showering beneath the open sky; one could get a suntan in places that don’t usually see the light of day!  

     We had high tea at 3:30 - but we had just eaten lunch! Then we all clambered back in the land cruiser for the afternoon drive. We went back down along the river hoping to see the leopard again, but he had moved on. An elephant was standing in the water, with marabou storks lining the shore in front of him. We saw a roller bird holding a small writhing wormlike snake in its beak. We passed a pile of elephant bones, bleached white by the sun. Squirrels ran up the trees, and a fish eagle came in for a landing. The pelicans were again soaring above, riding the thermals in perfect synchronization

     We found giraffes out on the plain. These regal animals are among the most beautiful in Africa. Red-billed oxpeckers clung to their necks and heads, picking ticks out of their ears - I felt these birds should really be called giraffe-peckers. We learned that a group of giraffes is called a tower if standing still, and if moving it is known as a journey of giraffes.


     A black-backed jackal was crossing the plain, and his path brought him near the road. He was absolutely beautiful, reminding me of a larger version of a red fox. A pair of ground hornbills ran along near the road; the patches of bare red skin on their faces could put them on the list of alternates for the Ugly Five. A slender mongoose stood up on his hind feet in the grass and peaked out at us; he was impossibly cute.

Slender Mongoose

     Two secretary birds were perched on top of an acacia tree, courting. These vulture-sized birds of prey are striking to look at, with bold black and white plumage and long quills on the back of their necks. They stood facing each other, preening and rubbing heads. Sally and Mary also identified a rufous-naped lark and a steppe buzzard.

Secretary Birds

     We passed through some woods and then came out into the open. Before us there was a herd of giraffes crossing a golden plain. There were eight of them walking in a line, striding through the tall grasses in ground-covering, slow-motion steps. More giraffes came out of the trees and joined them; soon there were more than a dozen. We decided to call this spot Giraffic Park.


     As we drove on, we found even more giraffes. We watched a family of these elegant creatures, with several half-grown babies, as they strode across the open plain. They were breathtaking. We had noticed that although the sky was a deep clear blue, there seemed to be a greyish haze around the horizon - we were not sure what caused that. 


     As the sun was getting low in the sky, we returned to where we had seen the lions that morning. They were still there, nine of them, sleeping - apparently they had slept all day without moving, much like the housecats on my bed at home. Presently several of them woke up, stretching and yawning. One pair sat side by side gazing up at the three-quarter moon.


     Gee told us about the lifestyle of the lions. The prides are very close-knit. The lionesses do the majority of the hunting while the dominant males defend the territory. The youngsters are dependent on the adults to hunt for them until they are several years old. As they grow up the females will stay with the pride, but the dominant male lion will drive the younger males away as they reach maturity. These adolescents will join up with other outcast bachelors and form coalitions, until eventually they are experienced and strong enough to form their own pride, or fight to take one over.


     We left the lions and headed back; the park rules required us to be in camp by 6:30. The afternoon sky gradually filled with subtle color; a hazy purple at the horizon, blending to shell pink, to golden, to dusky blue. A hyena loped along in the fading light. The sun was below the horizon by the time we returned to camp, and the sky was on fire. There were lanterns on the table and the campfire was blazing. Across the riverbed a marabou stork perched high in a dead tree, silhouetted against the magenta sky. The colors remained long after sunset, before finally fading into the twilight. It was a magical evening.


     We sat around the fire until Mosa announced dinner. The food was excellent; it was amazing what delicious meals Mosa could make cooking in a Dutch oven or over the fire. After dessert we sat around the fire again, moving in close for warmth. We could hear the high-pitched whistling call of a pearl-spotted owl from nearby. 
The moon, waxing toward full, was flooding the dry riverbed with a silvery light. I had been looking forward to the brilliant African night sky with its unfamiliar southern constellations, so I was a bit disappointed that the moonlight obscured the stars. We headed for our tents around ten o’clock; this time I took a warm heavy blanket from the land cruiser.

 ~ Continued on next page ~

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