By Phyllis Dawson
Part 8
Chobe and Khwai, Botswana

 July 30

Moving Day!
We got our wakeup call at 5:30, starting early because we had a long way to travel. There was a bit of grumbling, but as we were going to bed by ten o'clock each evening, even with the early rising we were getting plenty of sleep. Mosa had breakfast ready at six, and Open and KP had half the tents taken down by the time we had finished eating. They would pack up everything and make the long drive to the next campsite in time to have it all set up before 6:00 p.m. when we were due to arrive.
We were on the road by 6:30, with the baggage trailer in tow. The sky was filled with the pastel colors of a splendid sunrise. A mother giraffe with a baby walked across an open field, and a herd of wildebeests meandered by in the distance. A black-backed jackal stopped to drink from a nearby waterhole, and was soon joined by another; with broad black stripes on their backs and reddish-brown foxlike faces, they were exquisite. 

Black-backed Jackal

       The birds were making a ruckus out on the plain; Gee said their distress could be a sign of a predator. We waited a while but never did see what had disturbed them. We did get a good close look at a grey hornbill though, much less common than the red and yellow billed varieties. And speaking of birds, Sally was now up to 170 for her trip list - this morning she added the desert cisticola, the sabota lark and the lizard buzzard, among others.

      We stopped by the Buffalo Buffet. Most of the lions were sleeping by the road, and incredibly, some were still eating – or more probably, eating again. Most of the others seemed to have gorged themselves to the point of semi-consciousness. Two youngsters were licking one another, washing each other’s faces. A lioness got up and stood by the signpost, and one of the boys entertained himself by chewing on a stick. Not far away, we found the big male lion beside a pond, fast asleep along with one of his lionesses. Their bellies were distended; it was clear that the male had finally found his family – and breakfast.  


     There were several beautiful giraffes near the road. We had stopped to photograph them, when suddenly, inexplicably, a white-bellied sunbird flew down and perched on the hood of the land cruiser. The stunning little bird was iridescent in the sun, with a long curved bill for sipping nectar. Then it flew up and hovered like a hummingbird just beside the vehicle, before swooping back down to sit on the windscreen. Normally the sunbirds are elusive, and so far we’d mostly had brief glimpses of them with binoculars deep in the bushes – and now one was perched on our hood! Gee was as amazed as the rest of us; he said he’d never seen that before. He had commented earlier that it was only a good bird photo if you could see the gleam in its eye- we were certainly close enough for that!

White-bellied Sunbird

     There were plenty of animals around this morning. We could see giraffes, warthogs, impala and tsessebe all from one spot. Two giraffes stood broadside to us with their necks crossed, looking a bit like a push-me-pull-you. We stopped for a tea break, enjoying the company of the giraffes.


     There were some beautiful birds at our tea spot. A Burchall’s starling perched in a tree, his glossy feathers a brilliant dark blue in the sun. A fork-tailed drongo lit on a twig nearby. A coucal looked down at us from a thorny tree. Guinea fowl and francolins scurried through the underbrush.


     Leaving the area and heading for our next camp, we had a very long drive through the vast Savuti Marshes. There was a fringe of forest on our right, but on the left was nothing but barren plain as far as you could see, accented by the silvery trunks of dead trees. Somehow I had always thought that marshes were wet, but this seemed more like a desert! Gee explained that the Savuti Marsh, part of what is known as the Mababe Depression, is flooded during the rainy season. But in 1984 shifts in the tectonic plates cut off the water supply, so for the next 22 years it did not flood at all. Then in 2006 there was another seismic shift and the flood waters returned; the trees that had grown during that dry period were drowned by the returning waters.
An eagle perched in a tree near the road, and as we approached it took flight. Gee trained his binoculars on the bird, trying to determine whether it was a tawny eagle or a Walburgh’s eagle. Using my new camera with the high powered zoom I took a close-up picture with the lens set at 800 mm as it soared high overhead. ‘Amazing,’ Gee proclaimed, and was able to confirm it as a tawny eagle from the tail markings in the photo.

Tawny Eagle

     We saw almost no wildlife as we crossed the waterless marshes. The barren terrain was interesting, but soon became a bit monotonous. The dry swamp was covered with golden-brown grasses and low thorny thickets. Once in a while we passed a lone tree. We saw a few birds, but most of them were LBJs. It was a warm day and there was no shade; it was comfortable as long as we were moving, but got quite hot when we stopped to identify birds. For the first (and only) time we questioned the wisdom of taking the canvas roof off of the land cruiser. It seemed to take forever to cross the marshes, but I enjoyed the journey. Crossing this vast open expanse I felt truly a part of quintessential Africa.   

     After a long while with no animals in sight, we finally saw several warthogs. We were back in business! Then we passed a group of shy giraffes. Hornbills, magpie shrikes and roller birds swooped alongside the land cruiser as we drove.

Lilac-breasted Roller

    The lilac-breasted roller is indescribably beautiful, displaying at least 12 different colors. When they fly you can see the brilliant turquoise color on their wings. I made a concerted effort to get a decent photo of one in flight, which is harder than you might think. Every time we passed a roller perched on a branch in good light Gee would stop the vehicle and I would focus my camera. Then I would wait, fingers poised on the shutter and holding my breath, ready to catch the shot when it flew . . . . dang they are quick - missed it again! Another empty twig photo.

Lilac-breasted Roller in flight

     Gee had planned to stop for a picnic beneath two tall trees that stood in the middle of the open dry marshland, but when we arrived it was already occupied – by tsessebe. A dozen of these attractive antelopes loitered in the shade. There was another large tree several hundred yards away, so we lunched there instead. 
We took an hour and a half lunch break. I walked around a bit, exploring and taking photos. The tsessebe gazed at us from beneath the trees with intelligent expressions. Gee cautioned me not to go any closer because it might cause them to leave the shade; he was always very careful that we did nothing to disturb the natural order. Through binoculars I could see the oxpeckers perched on them; of course they really should be called tsessebe-peckers.

Tsessebe at lunch

     The shade of the tree was heavenly, and it felt good to stretch our legs. Mosa had prepared an excellent lunch for us, and we served ourselves buffet-style. A very bold yellow-billed hornbill flew down from the tree and hopped about our feet - he reminded us of Zazu from The Lion King. He had a curved yellow bill way too large for his body and long seductive eyelashes that gave him a beguiling expression. He was hard to resist as he tilted his head and begged for a handout, so we broke the cardinal rule of not feeding the wildlife and shared our lunch with him. (It was evident from his response that we were not the first people to do so.) He really liked the raisins from our salad but was not impressed with the carrot strips. He was quite the attentive husband; when we gave him a scrap of bread he flew up into the tree and fed it to his mate. Chivalry is not dead.

Yellow-billed Hornbill

     A flock of weavers occupied the tree we were sitting under, filling the air with birdsong. We sat in the camp chairs, relaxing, dozing, and just soaking up the essence of Africa. George got out his watercolors and painted in his sketchbook, and I wrote in my journal.


     All too soon it was time to move on, and we were on the road again at three. Before long the most barren part of the swamp was behind us; there were a lot more trees and we soon started seeing more animals. We passed a family of warthogs, running along with their tails straight up over their backs. A single wildebeest lay sleeping under a tree. Impala and buffalo grazed, and we saw a family of giraffes and some elephants in the distance.
Presently we came to the gate of the Khwai Community Concession, where we were to camp for the next three nights. It had been a long day of driving - Gee had taken it slow so we wouldn’t arrive in camp before six, to give the guys time to set it up.
We were back into forested land, and the road once again dwindled to mere tire tracks through deep heavy sand. We passed a ‘five-legged elephant,’ a huge bull having a pee right beside the road. By contrast a bit further on we saw a tiny delicate steenbok. What wonderful diversity there is in the world.


     At last we came out on to the Maun Road; it was a proper gravel road instead of a dirt track. The trees along it were coated with a heavy layer of a fine white dust, and everything was surreal, like a moonscape. Gee sped along at upwards of 30 mph, and those of us in the back put our heads down and covered our faces to avoid breathing in the great clouds of dust that billowed up from the road as we passed. George spotted a hyena walking among the dust-covered bushes beside the road.


    After a while we turned off on a narrow track through the forest. We stopped by a channel of water; we were on the outer fringe of the Okavango Delta. Gee explained that the waters that flood the delta come from rains in Angola, thousands of miles to the north.  
We drove along beside a small river. A fish eagle flew before us, and hippos peered at us from the water. The Khwai area seemed incredibly lush compared to the dry barrenness of the Savuti Marsh. We passed several pools and channels where the surface of the water was completely choked with duckweed, appearing like solid ground - Gee said this was an invasive species from Asia, carried from pool to pool on the backs of the hippos.
We crossed an open field where zebras, waterbucks and kudus grazed, and at the edge of it was our camp. Open greeted us with glasses of ice tea when we arrived. Our tents were under a grove of huge trees, laid out very much like before, forming a semi-circle with the dining tent and campfire in the center. We couldn’t see the river, but we could hear the laugh-like voices of the hippos - we couldn’t help cracking up each time we heard their deep snorting calls. We looked forward to finding them in the morning.


     We’d had a long day of driving but I didn’t mind; it had been an interesting way to experience Africa. And if our day had seemed lengthy, it was nothing compared to that of Open, KP and Mosa. While we had taken a leisurely drive with a long lunch break, they had taken down camp, driven just as far as we had, set up the new camp - and then cooked our dinner!
We sat by the campfire and watched the moon come up through the trees; just one night shy of full it was rising later each evening. A hyena lurked near the edge of camp. We could hear the deep chortling calls of the hippos, like slightly sinister laughter.  
Deep in the night I heard something snuffling and digging just outside the tent, perhaps a porcupine or a warthog.  Later Jineen woke and looked out her window and saw a hyena walking in the moonlight. We heard lions calling, low and far away. And always the hippos laughing.

July 31
In the morning, eager to explore the area around our new camp, we climbed in the land cruiser and set out across the fields. We saw kudus, zebras, waterbucks and a giraffe with a baby. The road was full of ‘elephant potholes,’ deep round footprints made during wet weather, now rock hard.
To our delight, we found five African wild dogs sleeping under the trees. With their patchwork coats of black, golden brown and white, they were well-camouflaged in the dappled shade. Some of them had blood on their necks and faces, evidence of a recent kill. We noticed that several of them wore radio tracking collars. Gee left the road and drove close to where the dogs were sleeping; he told us that in Khwai the rules are more lenient, and you are allowed to drive off road for cats and dogs. Looking around, we found the rest of the pack nearby, sleeping in the grass singly or in pairs; soon we had located twelve altogether. Long and lean, the wild dogs are built for speed and endurance. Except for their large round ears they look much like greyhounds. They weren’t going anywhere fast at the moment however - periodically one of them would sit up and look at us for a moment, and then flop back down to continue its nap, undisturbed by our presence.

African Wild Dogs

     Gee explained that the wild dogs are extremely endangered - there are only about 4000 of them left in the world. He told us a bit about their habits. They have a large territory, which they mark. The members of a pack are usually quite closely related; to insure genetic diversity only the alpha male and alpha female breed. The other females don’t come into estrus until they leave the pack and find a mate not related to them. (In most animals it is the male who must leave the group when he matures.) Generally the adult dogs do not sleep in the same location as the puppies, because the pups are noisy and the adults need to listen for lions. Gee said they would probably sleep all day and hunt in the evening, so we left them to it.
A herd of elephants moved alongside the road, about eight of them, with two babies. A teenaged bull decided to try and intimidate us; he mock-charged the vehicle menacingly, trunk raised and ears flapping. It may have been all bluff - but still, it gets your attention. His mother turned and scolded him in a low rumbly voice, apparently telling him to cut it out - immediately he broke off the charge and departed.


     We were scheduled to go on a canoe trip at 8:00 a.m on the Khwai River. But when we arrived another Letaka safari group was also there, and there were not enough canoe polers to go around. We went back out to game drive until they were ready for us.
We drove back to the elephants we had seen earlier and spent some quality time with them. We parked by the roadway and let the elephants move toward us; this way they didn’t mind our being there. We watched close-up as they ate, using their trunks to strip leaves and branches off the mopane trees and put them in their mouths. Before long they were joined by several other herds, and soon there were elephants everywhere. As they moved all around us, Gee repositioned the land cruiser several times to make sure he always had an exit plan.
We watched the different groups of elephants moving in and out of the trees. It is amazing how quickly an elephant can disappear into the brush. You can be watching one of these huge creatures in plain sight, and then it will step into the bushes and seem to vanish into thin air.
Sadly, we noticed that one of the babies in the group was missing most of his trunk; Gee said it had probably been bitten off by a crocodile, apparently not an uncommon occurrence. The thought of it makes me cringe. The baby seemed happy enough, but I doubted whether he would be able to survive as an adult. Gee said he should be fine as long as he was nursing, but it would be harder after that since he would not be able to grasp food with his trunk. But he might adapt, and he at least had a chance. This made us feel better, though I suspect Gee wouldn’t have bet much on the baby’s chances for long-term survival.
In the meantime, our little trunkless elephant was not feeling sorry for himself at all; he was engaged in play fighting with another baby about his size. They would square off and charge at one another, bumping and shoving, having a grand old time. 


     We spent a long time just watching the elephants interact while Gee told us about their lifestyle. They have a matriarchal society - an older dominant female leads the herd. They have very close-knit family units, and the whole herd will protect the babies. Elephants communicate using deep rumbling sounds which carry for miles, at frequencies too low for humans to hear.
When the young bulls mature they are pushed out of the herd. They meet up with other outcasts and form bachelor groups, and eventually when they are strong and wise enough they might challenge a dominant male to take over a herd. Babies get their tusks at three years of age, so our little trunkless boy was probably about three as his tusks were just starting to emerge. 
Elephants have six sets of teeth throughout their lives, and when the sixth set is worn out they have trouble chewing and digesting, and they gradually lose condition and starve. The herd will assist an old elephant as much as possible, helping it to feed.


     We went back to the Khwai River for the canoe trip. Our vessels were low, flat-bottomed dug-out canoes called mokoros, pushed through the shallow waters by a guide with a long pole. The mokoros  had traditionally been carved from ebony trees, but these were made of fiberglass. The pattern of us being given a smaller boat each time we went out on the water had continued; just as well this was our last cruise.


     Our guide/polers introduced themselves as Zorro, Romeo, Culture and Tsessebe; we were starting to suspect that these were not their real names. We rode two to a boat, sitting on mats in the bottom, with a poler standing in the back, propelling the mokoro forward with the long pole. Gee went along as well; he sprawled across a spare mokoro like he was in a lounge chair. Hippos poked their heads out of the water and chortled at us as we left; I had to admit they were probably right - we did look ridiculous.  

Gee relaxes in a mokoro

     It was peaceful and serene on the river, and we slowly worked our way upstream, our guide poling against the current. The channels, lined with tall reeds and marsh grasses, were choked with lily pads. Dragonflies hovered above the surface. Our guide instructed us not to let a hand trail in the water because a crocodile might grab it; I remembered those powerful jaws and rows of jagged teeth when we got a close look at that big croc in Chobe. We’re gonna need a bigger boat!


     Jacanas walked across the top of the lily pads; these long legged copper-colored birds are also known as lily trotters. We got a close-up look at an open-billed stork, and a goliath heron flew up out of the reeds. Sally added the rufous-bellied heron and the yellow-throated petronia to her list; I’m not sure how many she was up to for the trip, but she was working on number 995 for her life list.  
We were drifting along peacefully when Sally alerted me that the bottom of my photo vest was dragging in the water; my notebook was drenched, along with my lens cleaners and everything else in the lower pocket. Oh well, better than being grabbed by a crocodile! We stopped to examine a hippo skull on the bank, and then turned around and headed back downstream, carried on the gentle current.


     A family of elephants came to the shore to drink, lining up in a row with their front feet in the shallows. We watched from the river, entranced, as they sucked up water in their trunks and squirted it into their mouths. They drank for a long while before turning and silently vanishing into the forest. 


     On the way back we came across a large herd of zebra right near the camp, and we spent some time watching them. A baby, several months old, peeked around his mother’s rump; he still had his fuzzy baby coat and it looked like he was wearing striped pajamas. Several adults were laying down napping under a tree, and one had a good roll in the dust.


     Back in camp we had a late lunch, and from where we sat at the table we could watch the zebras. A group of them hung out in the shade of some nearby trees, scratching each other’s’ backs and withers amicably. Their course black and white manes stood straight up. Standing together, they made a dazzling array of stripes.  


     As we were sitting around the table, Jineen looked over and saw a vervet monkey coming out of our tent. Darn, I should have zipped it tighter! Luckily he didn’t take (or leave) anything. The monkey ran up a tall tree nearby and looked down at us from a high branch. We could see an elephant not far from camp, munching on some bushes.
Gee showed us some really nice baskets that his family had woven from palm leaves. His mother, aunt, and grandmother had helped put him through school by making and selling these. They were dyed different earth-tone colors; the bark of the marula tree was boiled to make the yellow, the roots of the magic guarri bush for the darker brown, and the tan was made from the toothbrush tree. We were happy to buy some of the baskets to take home as souvenirs. 

     We went out driving again at four. We stopped to watch an elephant feeding; he would dig up a plant with his foot, pick it up with his trunk and shake the dirt off, and then pop it in his mouth. A hoopoe watched us from a tree branch, tilting his tufted head and shaking his feathers.


     We checked on the wild dogs; they were still sleeping, though they had moved a short distance. At first only two were in plain sight, but looking around we found more and more of them sleeping camouflaged in the bushes until gradually we accounted for all twelve. Every so often one of the dogs would get up and walk to a new spot and then flop back down again. 
Gee told us that the wild dogs hunt by sight rather than scent, so they hunt during the day, usually early morning or near dusk. They are very fast and have great endurance - they can run for hours. These effective hunters make a kill almost every day. Their main diet is impala, and they will pick one target and stay on it, even if another animal crosses their path.  Several lead dogs will run at top speed after their prey while the others fan out and follow; then they will switch off as the leaders tire - this way they wear their quarry down to exhaustion. Gee said that when an impala sees a lion it will snort a warning to alert the others; when it sees a dog it doesn’t take the time to sound the alarm – it just runs as fast as it can!


    We were just debating whether to wait in case the dogs started to hunt or to move on, when the vehicle from the other Letaka safari came to see the dogs. Gee arranged for them to radio to us if there was any action, and we drove on.
We came out to a broad open plain with a river winding through it, with a few big trees along the banks. There were large herds of zebra and waterbuck grazing together, with elephants and wildebeest behind them. It was an incredible scene, and I tried to capture it with panoramic photos.

     We spent some time watching these animals. The zebras always charm me, with their roly-poly pony-like bodies and those big round ears. Their striped manes stand up straight like a Mohawk - Gee said that if you see one with its mane laying over it is probably sick. The waterbuck have long soft fur and appear somewhat gentle and cuddly, though their sharp horns might prove otherwise.  


     In the brilliant afternoon light, we were able to observe the more handsome qualities of the wildebeest. Even though they are considered one of the Ugly Five they have a certain charm to them. Their necks and shoulders are patterned with subtle mottled black stripes; Gee explained that these are actually sweat glands - when they are running and sweating the black stripes get wider. The females’ heads are brown on top, while the males’ heads are black.   
Then we got the radio call - the wild dogs were on the move!

 ~ Continued on next page ~

"Do these rings make my butt look fat?"

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