By Phyllis Dawson
Part 9
Khwai, Botswana

      We got the call that the wild dogs were up and moving, setting out to hunt. We hurried to where we had last seen them. The afternoon light was fading and the dogs were getting ready to hunt. They trotted along in single file, and we followed them. They were lean and athletic, and very much reminded me of my lurchers (greyhound crosses) at home. They paused to scan the area for prey, standing backlit by the setting sun. They were spectacular. Gee pulled the land cruiser up close, and several of the dogs walked within feet of us. One big male looked up into George’s eyes, and for a moment we had the feeling that it might jump right into his lap.


     The wild dogs spread out in a fan as they moved silently through the trees stalking a herd of impala. They quickened their pace, effortlessly loping along, and we followed, picking up speed to keep up with them. The land cruiser sped along the narrow dirt roadway, and then off it as we cut across country. I was in the kangaroo seat in the far back, getting airtime with every bump. We could see the dogs in front of us, weaving in and out of the trees; intent on the hunt they paid us no attention. Whenever we lost sight of them Gee would somehow know where to find them again. It was unbelievable – we were on a wild dog hunt! It was like something out of National Geographic.

     Suddenly the dogs surprised a small herd of zebra; there were half a dozen adults and one half-grown baby. The dogs spread out and partially surrounded them. They paused, clearly trying to decide if they should try to take one down. ‘Oh, look, here are some zebra, they look tasty,’ they seemed to be saying. ‘But is it too risky? Maybe we should just go after some impala, much safer. But then again, the zebra would be a bigger meal, and they are right here . . .’
Oh no, I can’t watch!  Nick asked us, ‘Team Dog or Team Zebra?’ Definitely Team Zebra for me. I know the dogs have got to eat, but let them eat impala!


     The dogs hesitated, undecided, as the zebra herd nervously milled around in a cloud of dust. They seemed to be picking one out of the herd to go after. But then the zebra stallion pinned his ears, bolted forward and charged at the dogs. He kept himself between them and his herd, darting back and forth aggressively, ready to fight valiantly if needed. Gee told us that a zebra stallion will fight to the death to protect his herd from predators. We could see the dogs having second thoughts. ‘Wow that zebra looks really mean. I know there are some impala around here somewhere, let’s go find ‘em.’ The zebra stallion had successfully stood the dogs off and protected his herd. It was like a scene straight out of Planet Earth. Go Team Zebra!


    The dogs took off again and we lost sight of them as they entered a dense patch of woods to our left. Gee turned in the opposite direction and went down a lane to the right; we thought perhaps he hadn’t seen which way they had gone. He stopped the land cruiser on a narrow track in the trees and just waited - we were sure he had lost them for good. But suddenly an impala came bursting out of the underbrush like a rocket, flat out, simply flying - and right on his heels was a wild dog in hot pursuit. The impala crossed the road just inches in front of us, practically leaping over the hood of the land cruiser, and in a flash he was gone. Distracted by the vehicle inadvertently being between him and his quarry, the dog pulled up, looked at us for a few moments, and then trotted off to rejoin his pack. Gee was amazing - he had once again known just where to stop to let the animals come to us.  


     We were driving down a track through thick forest when suddenly Mary, riding shotgun, saw a leopard dart across the road and into the underbrush. Stopping, in the dim light we could just barely make out a dappled rump, crouching in the thicket. After a few minutes the exquisite leopardess turned and faced us. She strolled out from her hiding place and past the vehicle, walking as if she was moving through the shadows of my imagination. She turned and looked at us over her shoulder for a moment, and then quietly vanished into the dusky forest.

     By now it was getting quite dark and a stiff breeze was blowing. Gee explained that on windy days the lions and leopards have the advantage because their prey’s scent carries further. We noticed a lot of impala moving about; with the wind they don’t bed down for the night as usual, but stay alert because they know the big cats are out hunting. When we came out of the forest we caught up with a few of the dogs returning from the hunt, and we watched them in the light of the rising full moon.


     Because Khwai is a private reserve instead of a national park, the rules are more relaxed. In addition to being able to go off road for dogs and cats, night driving is allowed - so we didn’t have to hurry back to camp at sunset. Gee swept the beam of his spotlight from side to side as he drove, searching for the reflection of eyes in the dark.    
We passed a baby zebra, standing all by himself. Where was his family? Didn’t they know the wild dogs were on the prowl?


     An African scrub hare crouched in the bushes – we figured there was a strong likelihood of him becoming somebody’s midnight snack. An eagle owl flew over us - probably looking for scrub hares. 
This started a discussion; if a rabbit is the worst animal to be in Africa, what would be the best? Somebody said elephant, but I’d hate to have to worry about someone shooting me for my tusks. The lion was brought up, but who’d want to have to stick their head inside a dead buffalo? I said maybe a giraffe because they are so beautiful, and big enough that not too many things hunt them - but Gee thought that was a bad idea because of the lions. So I asked Gee which animal he would want to be, and his answer was ‘an angel.’  Hard to argue with that.

Scrub Hare

     Gee stopped the land cruiser, turned off the engine and lights, and told us to just listen. We might hear lions calling, he said, or we might hear other animals. We sat silently, taking in the magical African night. We could hear the wind in the leaves, and the mocking laughter of hippos in the distance. Stars were shining overhead and the full moon was bathing the bushveld in a light strong enough to cast shadows. Soon we moved on, but I could happily have sat there all night.
     The spotlight illuminated the shadowy form of a hyena running through the bush, and we saw several hippos grazing in the marsh. Nick mentioned he would like to see a bushbaby, and Gee responded, ‘That would be very, very good,’ meaning it was highly unlikely. Gee stopped again for us to listen to the night, cutting the motor and lights. This time we could hear a loud, constant slurping and crunching noise; to our amazement it was the sound of the hippos eating marsh grasses.

      Back in camp, we learned that the guys had some wildlife encounters as well. Mosa had seen a leopard walk through camp shortly after we’d left. Then later, just before sunset, an impala had come flying right through the middle of camp, with a wild dog hot on its heels. 
We had another terrific dinner. We were amazed at the variety of excellent dishes Mosa could cook in the bush, including beautiful loaves of fresh bread and fancy desserts.
The full moon bathed the bush in a pale silvery light. We sat around the campfire, sipping wine and talking about how amazing the day had been. We drew in closer to the fire as the night air got chilly.
We could hear singing and chanting coming from a neighboring camp, with kind of a primitive rhythm to it. We had noticed that many of the nearby campsites were now occupied, but we had seen very few other vehicles out game driving. Gee said that many of the campers were probably weekenders from Maun; people from this nearest large town often come to camp and party but don’t necessarily go out driving in the bush. 
We made our way to our tent by the light of glowing lanterns set along the path. The distant singing continued on well into the night, as did the laughter of the hippos.


August 1
We had listened to the hippos laughing throughout the night, and heard the chuffing of lions in the wee morning hours. We got to sleep in until seven! After breakfast Gee took us out walking in the bush. 
Mike and Mary stayed behind, and the rest of us followed Gee out the back of the camp, past where the zebras had been hanging out. The birds were singing and the sky was a clear blue. It felt good to be out walking around; you don’t always get a lot of exercise on safari. Although he took a rifle along as a precaution, Gee’s walking safari was not geared toward finding large animals; rather it was about showing us the small things we would miss while driving, and teaching us about the bush. 
Gee showed us what is known as the toothbrush tree, which local people use to clean their teeth. He dug up the root of a small sapling, cleaned it off, and gave us each a piece to chew. In addition to making our teeth feel clean, the tannin in it turned our tongues orange! This tree is also used to make the dye for the baskets. Next Gee picked some wild basil, and had us rub some on our hands and clothes to mask our scent. Animals roll in it for this purpose, both predators and prey. It had a strong pleasant odor, like sage. 
Walking through a large area of dead trees, we wondered if a fire had gone through - but Gee told us that the trees had been killed by the elephants. They like to eat the bark of the camelthorn acacia trees, but when they strip the bark off all the way around the trunk it kills the tree. Not for the first time, I noted that elephants are poor conservationists. 
Gee showed us a bush covered with orange flowers and told us it was cat’s claw, which is used for family planning - girls take it to prevent conception. He pointed out wild stock rose, which has yellow flowers in the summer; the roots can be boiled for sexual stimulation, like a natural Viagra. He explained that the jackalberry tree has fruit in the winter and supplies food for many birds, as well as monkeys and impalas. Then he found a wild cucumber root that had been dug up by an elephant and gave us each a piece to taste; it was very bitter but apparently the elephants love it. Gee said it is also used to treat gonorrhea. I used the leftover toothbrush tree root to get rid of the nasty taste in my mouth. 
We got a lesson on the different types of dung. The kudu droppings were very fine and crumbled to a powder when crushed – the food of all ruminants passes through several stomachs and is well digested. We also saw some very tiny baby impala droppings. In contrast were the huge piles of elephant dung everywhere, much courser, full of leaves and sticks.


     Gee told us a bit about the ‘cultural beliefs’ of his people. He said that if we took the elephant dung to Maun people would buy it. Elephants find and eat rare herbs which pass through the system largely undigested, and many people believe that these herbs offer powerful protection and good luck, particularly for children. ‘Traditional Doctors’, which we might call witch doctors, will ‘smoke’ a baby for protection by passing him through the smoke of burning elephant dung.
Gee pointed out an elephant footprint in the dust, so fresh that we could see the wrinkles and texture of the skin. He sprinkled a little sand over the track to show us what it would look like if it were a day old, and then a bit more for two days. He told us that if you measure the circumference of a front footprint and multiply it by 2 ½, that will tell you approximately the height of the elephant that made the print. We also found leopard and wild dog tracks on the dusty ground, as well as numerous zebra and impala hoofprints. It was likeThe Morning Report in The Lion King.
We saw several of what Gee called elephant bedrooms, big indentions in the ground where they had slept. Elephants sleep lying down for about two hours per day. They often use a termite hill as a pillow, and also to make it easier to stand up.
At one point the air was suddenly filled with raucous screams and bellows. At first I thought we were hearing elephants nearby, but Gee told us the sounds were made by baboons. A bit later we saw a troop of them walking across the meadow. Overhead three types of vultures rode the air currents; using his binoculars Gee identified them as the lappet-faced, hooded and white-backed varieties. 
As we turned back toward camp there was a sudden blur of motion, and we got a mere glimpse of a leopard as it darted into the underbrush. Gee said that because we were a group it had fled, but that if just one person had been walking alone the leopard would likely have stalked him.  

     Returning to camp after the walk, our group all climbed in the land cruiser for a morning drive. We went down to the river looking for hippos. A big bull elephant came for a drink, and then he slowly waded in and crossed the river straight toward us. As he got closer it was clear that we were in his intended path; Gee quickly moved the vehicle out of his way and he passed about ten feet from us.

     Continuing along the river we saw a tiny malachite kingfisher. This beautiful metallic blue bird is one of the smallest of the kingfishers, and a real treat to see. A blacksmith lapwing flew bravely at the land cruiser, attacking to protect her nest from perceived threats. An anhinga stood by the shore, drying its outstretched wings. Down in the reeds beside the water Gee spotted a shikra, a beautiful grey dove-sized bird of prey with bright red eyes (formerly known as the little sparrowhawk). This turned out to be Sally’s 1000th lifetime bird! She was also up to 181 new ones for the trip.  


     We passed a baby hippo out of the water, all alone; Gee said it must be a boy. He explained that the mother hippo gives birth in the weeds, and if she has a girl she takes her back to the group. But if it’s a boy she leaves him hidden in the grass and only comes back when it is time to feed him, because if the father finds the male baby he will kill him to eliminate competition. The boys grow up alone, but can later join a bachelor group.  
Soon we saw more hippos, standing along the shore or moving ponderously toward the water. They are huge; the females weigh around 3000 pounds and the males can be over two tons. They live to be around forty, and their skin gets very damaged with age; we could see long scars and wounds on many of them. They need to stay in the water most of the time for protection from the sun.


     We passed an old elephant that looked very thin and poor; Gee said he had probably gone through all six sets of teeth and now was having trouble eating. Due to their inefficient digestive process, elephants need to eat tremendous amounts of forage, at least 200 pounds per day. A group of banded mongooses scratched in the dirt hunting for insects, busily scurrying to and fro. We stopped for tea beneath a tree, with a herd of zebras nearby.  

     When we returned to camp George discovered that the monkeys had taken his comb, toothbrush and toothpaste, which he had accidentally left by the washbasin on the porch of his tent. For safety reasons we were not allowed to go outside of the camp, so Nick, who wanted to get in some marathon training time, ran something like 36 laps around the tents.
The power strip in the land cruiser was working only intermittently, so we had a bit of a queue to plug in our camera battery chargers. Gee radioed to the Letaka home office and they actually arranged to have a new power strip flown in to us, which was pretty impressive - but it turned out that the problem was in the wiring of the land cruiser itself. But by taking turns plugging our chargers into the cigarette lighter we were able to keep everyone’s batteries charged.   
After lunch and a shower, we watched two monkeys, an adult and a baby, leaping from branch to branch in the tall trees above us. Gazing at the bigger one through his binoculars, Nick commented, ‘Wow, that monkey’s hair looks very well parted, and aren’t his teeth white!’    

Vervet Monkey

     A big bull elephant was browsing just behind camp, about 100 feet from my tent. We watched him from the dining table. My camera was in the tent, so I asked Gee if it was all right for me to go get it - he said yes, but if the elephant decided to smash me there would be nothing he could do! (Fortunately he didn’t.) 


       As I photographed the elephant he wandered closer to the tent, passing less than 50 feet behind it. Perhaps he wanted to use our bucket shower. How cool is that?

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