By Phyllis Dawson
Part 7
Chobe, Botswana

July 29
We fell into a regular routine that we followed every day (except on moving days when we traveled to a new camp). Each morning KP or Open would give us our wake-up call at six, and bring warm water for our washbasins.  Once up and dressed, we would stand around the fire having our tea or coffee, and a breakfast of hot porridge and toast was served at 6:30. Gee would take us out on the morning game drive at seven. We would stop for a tea break around ten. We would usually return to camp sometime around 1:00, to find Open waiting to greet us with a tray holding goblets of ice tea, often with sugar-coated rims.
At 1:30 lunch would be served, always with a fresh salad and a hearty main course, and with separate entrees for Rosemary and Nick, the vegetarians. After lunch we would have showers and relax a while. If we had left laundry out in the morning, it would be waiting for us in the afternoon, cleaned and folded. Our beds were always beautifully made, and the towels often folded into animal shapes. We felt very much pampered.

Fresh bread baked in camp!

     Afternoon tea and cake was served at three, and Gee would take us back out for the afternoon drive at 3:30. We would return to camp around 6:30, and sit around the campfire having wine or gin-and-tonics until Mosa shyly announced dinner about eight o’clock. The food, cooked over the fire or in Dutch ovens, was always amazing - complete with appetizers, salads, homemade breads, vegetables, main courses and dessert – with separate starters and entrees for the vegetarians. We would serve ourselves buffet style - the vegetarians were always invited to go first, followed by the ladies and then the men.  Afterwards we would go back to the fire and sit talking with Gee until we were too tired to keep our eyes open – usually around ten o'clock. Crawling into bed, the hot water bottles under the covers made the day complete.  

     Heading out on this morning, we started with birds. As usual there were plenty of guinea fowl, francolins and hornbills. We saw several beautiful sand grouse, and Sally identified a crimson-breasted shrike. I continued with my photographic attempts to capture a lilac-breasted roller in flight. A kori bustard hid in the bushes; these handsome birds tend to be well-camouflaged despite their large size.

Kori Bustard

     We were able to get quite close to a family of giraffes with a fairly small baby. We watched as they browsed in the trees, nimble lips picking the leaves from among the thorns. A big bull giraffe cantered across in front of us, appearing to move in slow motion with huge ground-covering strides. (A giraffe’s normal canter gait is what would be called a cross-canter in a horse.)


     A small herd of zebras grazed on the plain, several babies among them. I never tire of watching these charming equids. Their stripe patterns are varied and unique, each one different, like fingerprints. Their bold stripes are said to confuse and dazzle predators close up, but from a distance they appear grey and fade into the landscape.  

     We watched one poor zebra that had several oxpeckers really going to town on him, practically crawling into his ear looking for ticks. The zebra would shake his head angrily and the birds would fly up, startled, only to be back burrowing for parasites a few seconds later. (Obviously they should really be called zebra-peckers.) Gee told us that if the oxpeckers can’t find ticks or parasites, they will pick at scabs and raw wounds on their host animals. 
We watched the antics of a herd of wildebeest as they ran back and forth across the plain. One big male seemed to be pursuing another; Gee said he was trying to chase away a competitor. He wouldn’t give it up - he continued chasing his rival until he had the whole heard running in circles. Nick called it a gnu kerfuffle. They were kicking up a great cloud of dust; perhaps this is what caused the greyish haze we had noticed around the horizon.

Wildebeest in action

     Zebras, giraffes and wildebeests were all mingled together - but there was one lone giraffe with an injured knee slowly making his way across the plain; we thought that sadly he would be lion bait soon, as he could not run or defend himself. The circle of life in the African bush is not gentle. 

     We came across a huge herd of buffalo, easily over two hundred strong. We watched them file past on their way to the river. The biggest bulls were massive, weighing up to a ton. Their coats were scruffy and caked with mud, and they squinted at us nearsighted, snorting malevolently. A number of the females had half-grown calves by their sides. The buffalos’ ears seemed to be split into three sections; at first I thought they had been torn and tattered, but Gee told us they were born that way, to mimic the leaves when they hide among the trees. He pointed out that several of the buffalo had yellow-billed oxpeckers on them, relatively rare compared to the red-billed ones we had been seeing. 


     We looked back as we drove down a narrow track and saw wild dogs in action. Half a dozen of them crossed the roadway behind us – one of them was carrying a large bone in his mouth as he ran. The Official Photographer  vehicle we had seen the previous day was close on their tails. I was a little envious - I would have loved to go watch the dogs hunt!

African Wild Dogs

     We forded the Savuti River, and then stopped for a tea break in a beautiful open meadow right beside the water. A fish eagle stood sentinel in a treetop, looking for all the world like a bald eagle with its bold white head and neck. We took turns going over a small ridge for nature’s call - once Gee had checked it out to be sure there were no predators lurking. A pied kingfisher hovered like a giant hummingbird over the river, periodically diving for fish. I amused myself trying to photograph such moving targets as a fluttering butterfly and a flying banana peel thrown in the air by Jineen. 
Moving on, we saw six tiny dwarf mongooses poking their heads out from a termite hill. A little bee-eater sat on a twig, brilliant green in the sunshine. We passed warthogs by the road, and a big herd of impala. A lilac-breasted roller sitting on a twig in the sunlight displayed most of the colors of the rainbow. Several female kudus went running across the road in front of us in leaps and bounds, seemingly on a mission.


     Gee saw a flash of color and stopped; searching with the binoculars he and Sally identified a scarlet-chested sunbird deep in a bush. These iridescent little birds have a long curved beak for sipping nectar, and look a bit like a hummingbird, though larger. They are beautiful but quick, so it is difficult to get a good look at them.
Driving along the narrow dirt track, Gee suddenly spotted the head and neck of a male ostrich a ways from the road; we couldn’t see the rest of him because he was lying down. ‘No,’ Gee said when asked the inevitable question, ‘they do NOT bury their heads in the sand.’  He seemed amazed at the idea. ‘How would they breathe?’ He did tell us that they would lie down to be less visible though.  

     We saw a vulture flying overhead, and it soon became evident what was attracting him. Beside a big rocky ridge was our same pride of nine lions, feasting on a recently killed buffalo, probably one of the same ones we had seen heading for the river earlier.  
Four or five of the lions were lined up at the carcass side by side, tearing at the flesh savagely, occasionally snarling at each other and quarreling over the grisly remains. They were liberally smeared with blood and gore, and flies buzzed all around. Several of the lions buried their heads in the carcass, burrowing in to the body cavity in search of the tastiest bits, while others climbed over the top of the body. As they pulled at the dead buffalo its head would move or a leg would suddenly poke in the air, for an instant giving the illusion that he was still alive. It was hard to watch, and yet some primal part of me found it oddly thrilling - I was revolted but yet oddly transfixed.

The Buffalo Buffet

     It was the young lions that were feeding; the older lionesses were sleeping nearby, bellies full and apparently sated. There was still no sign of the pride’s dominant male; Gee said he must have been off patrolling his territory and didn’t know about the kill. Wouldn’t the lionesses call him to dinner, I asked? I knew the sound of their roars would carry for miles. But Gee said no; the male might call out, but the females won’t answer. A male lion feeds first and won’t let the others eat until he is done, and sometimes there is not enough left - so the lionesses try to keep the kill secret until the youngsters have eaten their fill. Contrary to popular belief male lions can and do hunt, but it is usually the females that feed the cubs.


     After a while we left the lions and headed back toward camp, none too soon for Rosemary. Mary said now that we had seen lions eating a buffalo, all we needed was a leopard with a kill – it never hurts to ask! We saw our ostrich again, now running through the trees, flaunting his black and white plumage. A kori bustard paced through the underbrush.

     Gee spotted a flash of movement; we just barely caught a glimpse of something leaping through the brush, and then a puff of dust. Gee followed the roadway around to the other side of the thicket to get closer, and there was a leopard with a slender mongoose hanging from his mouth. The leopard was young and quite thin; Gee said he needed to kill something larger than that little mongoose to get enough to eat - but at least he had lunch.

     We were impressed with Gee’s conjuring skills. Mary had a theory that all you had to do was say your wishes out loud and it would happen. She had told Gee she wanted to see a leopard with a kill, and sure enough he found one within minutes. I put in a request for a giraffe drinking. Nick asked for a bushbaby. George said he would like to get a photo of a hippo, rising up out of the water open-mouthed, with the setting sun between his jaws like a ball.  

     When we went back out for the afternoon drive we soon came upon more wildebeest. These ungainly-looking creatures are sometimes called the spare parts animal, said to be made from the parts left over after God made all the other animals.       
     We crossed a flat sparse plain and came to a watering hole, where we found two elephants standing in the shallow water having a drink. We could see their reflections in the water. They were taking their time over it; perhaps it was their equivalent of having a drink at a bar after work. 


     We had only been there a minute when a very tall giraffe came to join them. He walked right past our land cruiser and stood in front of the water. He was not concerned about our presence or the elephants’, but scanned the bushes looking for predators. His dappled coat was an unusually dark color, and he was magnificent. The afternoon light was perfect for photography, and we watched him for a long while.


     The giraffe stood and looked around for quite some time before nervously splaying out his long front legs and lowering his head to the water. After a few sips he raised his head again to warily scan the area for danger, then crouched back down to drink. Gee explained that while their heads are down to the water is when giraffes are most vulnerable to attacks from lions. A giraffe drinking; another item off our wish list had been fulfilled already!


     It may be anthropomorphizing, but to me the giraffes appear to be serene and wise. They have a tranquil eye and long amazing eyelashes. This one watched us benevolently, oxpeckers clinging to his neck, and then walked off in a stately manner. Another giraffe approached, considered having a drink, but decided against it and left.


   The two elephants took a mud bath, using their trunks to throw wet mud over themselves to cool off. Then they waded deeper into the pool for a drink, sucking up great quantities of water in their trunks and squirting it into their mouths. When they were finished drinking they stood tranquilly in the water, just taking it easy. One of them stood with his trunk hooked casually over one tusk. A blacksmith plover waded along the near edge of the water.

     Gee got a radio report that there was some action over at the buffalo carcass. The dominant male lion, presumably out patrolling his territory from interlopers, had not been with the pride earlier - perhaps he had returned? 
Amazingly, the nine lions were still feeding when we arrived. How much can they eat? Several were sleeping, their bellies bloated. Others lounged nearby lazily, yawning and stretching. The exertion of eating so much seemed to have worn them out! Those lined up at the carcass looked somewhat lethargic as well. A couple of the teenagers were trying to fit their whole head, neck and shoulders into the buffalo’s chest cavity. There was no sign of the big male.


     But a mile further on, we did find the male lion, walking regally across the plain. He was huge, with a thick dark reddish-brown mane. Gee told us that he was about 8 to 10 years old. The lion didn’t know where his pride was and he looked hungry - I felt a little sorry for him. Surely the ladies would let him know where the kill was now that the kids had eaten? 


     Once again Gee parked in just the right spot, and lion walked straight toward us. As he approached Gee quietly reminded us to be quiet and still, and in all his majesty the lion walked within feet of where we were sitting, almost within touching distance. As he passed he looked me in the eye, and a shiver ran up my spine. He had amber eyes that seemed to look into your soul, displaying wisdom and perhaps a touch of cruelty.


     We watched the lion stroll across the bushveld under a dusky pink sky. He walked with imperious confidence; clearly he knew he was the King of the Beasts. Gee repositioned the land cruiser to get ahead of him, and again the lion walked right to us. He stopped and sniffed the ground and bared his teeth. Then he turned and looked back over his shoulder toward the sunset with a wistful look in his eyes. In that moment I thought he was the most magnificent creature I had ever seen.


     As we returned to camp the sky was painted in brilliant shades of orange, red and rose. We watched the nearly-full moon rise as we sat by the fire. This was to be our final night in Savuti. The tent over the dining table had already been taken down in preparation for moving camp, as had our bucket showers. We dined under the stars. 
Sitting around the campfire, Gee described his childhood growing up with his family on an island in the Okavango Delta. He told us about how he had gotten started guiding; he had always loved wildlife, and when he learned he could make a living as a guide he knew that was the life for him.   
We asked him about the most frightening wildlife encounter he had ever experienced, and Gee told us about the time that he was charged by an angry elephant. Having no other options, he sat down on the ground in front of it, hoping to make himself less of a threat. Apparently it worked, since he survived! He told us that the elephant stopped right in front of him and kicked dirt on him, and he remained immobile until it went away. One can only imagine the nerve it would take to sit down in front of a charging elephant!  
Gee recounted several scary encounters he’d had with lions as a youth. He also gave us a number of examples of how dangerous elephants can be. He told us it is not unusual for people to be killed by elephants in Africa - usually on walking safaris. I thought back on our experience in Hwange when we walked up to the bull elephant; perhaps in Zimbabwe they have a much higher risk tolerance for such things than in Botswana.
     When we told Gee about our Hwange adventure, he commented that you could never tell when an elephant would be in a bad mood and decide to crush you. I had really enjoyed the encounter at the time, but now I had second thoughts. I believe Botswana’s more careful policies are probably wiser. (Later, hearing of Quinn’s untimely death from the lion at Hwange, I felt this was confirmed.)
We heard hyenas calling in the night, just outside our tent – they were so close we could hear them walking. And in the wee morning hours we heard lions calling in the distance - had the big male found his family yet?

 ~ Continued on next page ~

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