AFRICA 2017

By Phyllis Dawson
Botswana - Part 1
Johannesburg to Savuti

 
    
We had just gone to our tent when the hyenas came. Suddenly the night was pierced by unbelievably loud high-pitched whooping noises and shrieks of maniacal laughter. I had never heard anything like it before, but I knew immediately, unmistakably, that it was hyenas. I had always vaguely wondered why they called them ‘laughing hyenas’, as the soft whoops and calls I was accustomed to hearing from them did not sound like laughter at all. But this did - like incredibly loud hysterical laughter from some deranged insane asylum escapee! Chills went down my spine.

      I grabbed my headlamp and went out the front of the tent, scanning the darkness, seeking the source of those bone chilling cries; Jineen was right behind me. We shined our lights into the night, searching. Suddenly I saw glowing eyes, just outside the light of the lanterns; five or six pairs, staring back at me intently. Whoa!  OK, I think it is time to go back in the tent now. We retreated back inside the canvas, peering out the thin mesh door.

     Two hyenas walked right into camp as if they owned it. They let out their haunting cries again as they squabbled, walking right between our tent and Patty’s. Perhaps they were arguing over which of us to eat first? We leaned out the tent flap, awestruck. They were huge! Second in size only to the lions among the predators of Africa, the hyenas have powerful jaws that can crack elephant bones. When looking down at hyenas from the safety of the Landcruiser they had seemed imposing enough - but seeing them at eye level from less than fifty feet away was a completely different experience. And listening to their terrifying shrieks and cries was not something I would forget any time soon.

     About that time Gee pulled the Landcruiser up into the middle of camp and turned the headlights on; the hyenas stood frozen in the glaring light for a few moments, and then disappeared back into the night. Gee’s voice came floating through camp; “That was amazing!” 


 

       I write this journal, in part, to try to share the wonder of going on safari in Africa. You can’t really explain what it is like to someone who hasn’t been there. You cannot sufficiently describe the spectacular and amazing diversity of the landscape and wildlife, and the glorious, beautiful and often cruel circle of life. Yet I feel compelled to try.
      But the greater reason I write this is for more selfish reasons; I want to be able to relive the trip, and to have a record to help me remember every detail. As I go over my notes and look at the photos, I am reliving a thousand magic moments that had already slipped my mind, even though only a few months have passed. So I am recording as much detail as I can remember in order to be able to enjoy the trip for years to come. For most of you who were not there this narrative may seem boring, but perhaps there might be a few readers out there who take as much delight in wildlife and nature as I do, who find some interest in the details of these pages. For the rest of you, I apologize in advance for boring you.


July 15
     At last we were off! My friend Jineen and I were on our way to northern Botswana. We had last visited southern Africa in 2015, and had been looking forward to returning ever since.  
    
It is always a bit of a dilemma; do you go back to a place you have been before and loved, or do you go somewhere new? I like to do some of both; if you return to an area you can really get to know it and make it your own – but of course you want to see new places as well. We booked through the Scott Dunn travel company for an extended version of the Letaka mobile camping safari we had done in 2015, and added a short stay at Camp Kalahari at the
Makgadikgadi saltpans at the end of the trip for a change of scenery. In addition to Jineen and myself, our group for this trip included my sister Patty and her husband Rob, and friends Paula, Natalie and Tara. 

      After a hectic week getting everything caught up on the farm in preparation for being gone for almost three weeks, we were happy to finally be on our way. Jineen and I flew out of Dulles on Ethiopian Air, business class courtesy of frequent flier miles. Flying first class is enough of a novelty to me that I really don’t mind the long flights; it was 13 hours to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, and another six to Johannesburg. Seats that turn into flat beds, our own private movie screens, great service, an excellent selection of traditional Ethiopian foods and free alcohol. Life was good.

      Looking out the window as we approached Addis Ababa, we could see a patchwork of crop fields below in a variety of rich earth-tone colors. We had a layover of several hours which we spent in the Cloud Nine first class lounge. We enjoyed the international flavor of the airport; many of the destinations on the flight board were so exotic that we didn’t even recognize the alphabet.


Changing planes in Addis Ababa

July 16
     Flying across Africa on our way to Johannesburg, I was mesmerized by the vast expanse of barren brown desert rolling beneath the window. Does anyone live there? Endless sand, low hills, sparse trees and dry riverbeds, punctuated by a few sharp ridges. I could see Mount Kilimanjaro in the distance, shrouded by cloud. 
      In Johannesburg, we were picked up by a driver and taken to the Sunrock Lodge. This was a comfortable small lodge close to the airport where we were to spend the next two nights. We met up with Paula at the Sunrock that evening, and went to the bar for a drink. We played a scavenger hunt type game of locating 14 little yellow Gumby-like toys hidden around the bar. We had a nice dinner, and then exhausted from the long trip, it was early to bed.

   
July 17

    
The next morning a private guide took Jineen, Paula and me for a tour of Constitution Hill and the Apartheid Museum. Driving through the busy streets, we were amazed at the number of people walking in the roads in dangerous traffic – we were expecting to see people run over at any moment. We passed a statue of George Harrison (not the Beatle); our guide told us he was the one who had ‘started all the trouble’ by discovering gold near Johannesburg, leading to everyone fighting over it.

    
Constitution Hill is the site of a former military fort that later became a prison, where activists opposed to Apartheid were imprisoned along with criminals. It was a place of extreme injustice, and the conditions in which the prisoners were kept, especially the black ones, were beyond belief. People were often held in prison for up to seven years before even being tried and sentenced. The cells were extremely overcrowded, and the food was horrible and scarce. The prisoners were strip-searched, humiliated, starved, whipped, and sometimes beaten to death. We were shocked to find that these abhorrent practices had continued until as recently as the mid-1980s.
      We learned about the horror of Apartheid. Non-whites had no rights, and had to live apart from the whites in horrible slums. They could only enter the city if they had special passes proving they had a job; if they were caught in the city without a pass they were thrown in to the prison. 


The prison at Constitution Hill

     There were signs and displays giving info about the atrocious conditions and cruel treatment of the prisoners. Sixty or more people would be crammed in to each small cell, with nothing except a thin blanket between them and the cold stone floor. It was sweltering hot in the summer with little ventilation, and freezing cold in winter. We toured the dark tiny solitary confinement cells, saw the whipping posts, and gazed at the rolls of barbed wire atop the walls. Prisoners sometimes did art projects to keep themselves occupied; we saw an elaborate tank built from folded and rolled-up towels and blankets - my guess is it was dismantled in winter when they needed the blankets.

      After Apartheid came to an end in the mid-1990s, The Constitutional Court was built on the site of the former prison. This is the highest court in the land, equivalent to the Supreme Court in the USA. Our guide explained to us that much symbolism was used when building the court. The walls were built using the bricks of the prison. The words Constitution Court  are written on the outside of the building in the eleven official languages of the country. There are wooden carvings around the door depicting the 27 human rights. There is a beautiful round sign on the door displaying a tree of justice. 


The Tree of Justice

     Inside all of the seats are leather, and they are at the same height for both the justices and the public, signifying that everyone is sitting equally. Only the press sits in an elevated position, as they are responsible for keeping the people informed. The windows around the court represent transparency, but they are placed low, where from inside one can only see the feet and legs of the people outside; that way they are seen not by race or gender, but merely as people. There are variegated black and white cow hides on the railings from a breed of cattle found only in South Africa, signifying that the two races have unity while each keeps its unique patterns. An intricate tapestry hangs in the court, containing the South African flag, the tree of justice with 11 trunks for the 11 tribes and 11 justices, and a flower in flames symbolizing that sometimes things have to burn in order to make things better. As depressing as the prison was, my impression of the court was uplifting, filled with hope for the future.


The Path to the Future

     Outside there was a winding stairway built from the prison bricks; our guide told us it symbolized ‘the bricks from the past paving the path to the future.’ At the bottom of the staircase stood an impressive and somewhat disturbing statue of a creature that appeared to be half man and half crocodile; we never did find out what it meant. There were silhouettes of people like long shadows embossed in the sidewalk. By the door was another depressing statue of a man harnessed to a cart; the meaning of this one was clear - the yoke of slavery and oppression.


The Yoke of Slavery

     Next we went to the Apartheid Museum, which was a really remarkable experience. We followed the maze of hallways filled with displays of photos and text, learning about the life and career of Nelson Mandela and his fight against Apartheid. He was imprisoned for 27 years, from 1962 to 1990, and became president after his release at the age of 75. He died in 2013. We enjoyed learning more about this great man and his fight for freedom and equality for all people.
     We had a little trouble following the displays chronologically; at times we could not tell what order the displays were in and what came next. It was only when we were in the last room of the tour did we realize that the pamphlet we had been given with our tickets included a map.

    
Outside, there was a display of large mosaic-like glass signs in different colors, each with a different Nelson Mandela quote. A sign instructed us to each decide which quote we found most inspiring and then to choose a stick of that color and place it in a special rack; all the colors were represented about equally. My favorite was
“I learnt that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

    Paula had been in Johannesburg for a couple of days before our arrival, and she had discovered a nice bird exhibition at a nearby casino. After completing our half-day tour we took an uber to go visit it.  It had a huge aviary that one could walk through and see dozens of different species; among others we saw parrots, pelicans, flamingos, ducks and cranes from all over the world. There were tiny deer-like duikers, scarlet ibis, golden pheasants, and ring-tailed lemurs. While I do not believe wild animals and birds belong in cages, it was a very good exhibit which lets the general public have access to these beautiful creatures and raises awareness of the need for conservation. 
    
Back at the Sunrock, we met up with Patty, Rob and Natalie for dinner. Paula is a veterinarian and Rob an emergency room doctor, so we figured we had any medical needs covered! We were only missing Tara, who was scheduled to arrive at the airport in the morning.

 

 July 18
     After breakfast at the Sunrock the shuttle took us to the airport. Looking through the shops I found a baby cheetah stuffed animal that I couldn’t resist buying - I named him Duma. Paula bought an excellent stuffed bushbaby which she called Fred. They would be our trip mascots.

    
It was time for our flight to Maun, Botswana. Tara was still not there; we knew her connection had been extremely tight - at the last possible minute we saw her running down the escalator to the gate. Our group was now complete.
      In Maun the airport was hot and crowded, and the line for customs and immigration was long. Once through, we met up with the pilot from Mack Air for our charter flight to Savuti, in Chobe National Park. It was a relief when we finally got on the small plane.

      We had a birds-eye view of the Okavango Delta, with its wide expanses of water and flooded plains. Fed by seasonal rains from Angola a thousand miles to the north, the Delta’s blue water stretched out below us, interspersed with green marshes and sun-bleached plains. It was a beautiful blue-green landscape, like photos of earth from space. Our little plane stopped at two other airstrips to drop off passengers along the way; we could glimpse elephants in the water as we flew over, and make out a few giraffes and zebras far below. At Khwai, the second stop, a herd of impala were grazing on the runway, and the pilot had to buzz them with a low pass to scare them off before circling around for a landing.

 
Landing in the Okavango Delta

     Our guide, Gee Mange (pronounced Mang-ee), was waiting for us when we landed on the dirt airstrip at Savuti. Jineen and I had been on safari with Gee on our previous trip, and we were really happy to be going with him again. I got a little choked up when I saw him standing there, leaning against the Letaka safari vehicle, just like we had last seen him when we left in 2015. 
    
Gee greeted us, then loaded our luggage into a small trailer on the back of the Toyota Landcruiser. We all piled into the vehicle and Gee straightaway took us to see some giraffes that were not far from the runway. One of these tall graceful creatures crossed the road right in front of us, walking with long slow elegant strides. Wow, we were about 30 seconds into our safari and already had our first major wildlife sighting!  Then Gee stopped and introduced himself to the rest of the group, and everyone seemed to hit it off well immediately.

     It took Gee about an hour to drive from the airstrip to our camp. On the way we saw impalas, giraffes and wildebeests. There were plenty of birds to greet us, including the abundant francolins and spurfowl, both red-billed and yellow-billed hornbills, a magpie shrike, and a kori bustard. The sun lowered in the sky as we drove on in the fading light. A mongoose crossed the road in front of us, and an elephant walked quietly through the dusk.
    
Gee stopped the Landcruiser briefly and we watched the sun go down. A herd of wildebeests crossed the bushveld in front of us, silhouetted against the sunset. A fiery sky bathed the scene in golden light. Those in our group who had not been on safari before were wide-eyed, but for Jineen and me it all fit like a well-worn glove. The bush, the wildlife, the Landcruiser, driving with Gee; it felt like coming home.

 
Sunset with the Wildebeests

      Traveling to Africa and seeing the wildlife is always incredible, and each time we have gone Jineen and I have been just blown away by it - the thrill never wears off. Patty and Rob had been once before as well. But Paula, Natalie and Tara had never visited Africa before, so we were seeing it fresh through their eyes. They were absolutely amazed at the amount of wildlife we encountered; Tara said we had seen as much in an hour as she had expected to see in a week! We were off to a good start.

    
We arrived at camp; it was the exact same campsite Jineen and I had stayed at last time, right beside a dry riverbed. A rocky hill rose on the other side of the river, and a dead tree was silhouetted against the pastel sunset sky, serving as a perch for birds of prey. There were five tents in a semicircle, with lanterns lighting the way to them. 

 
Our camp at Savuti

     The tent Jineen and I shared was closest to the riverbed. It had a canvas floor, mesh windows, and a zippered door flap. There were two camp beds, each with a tiny folding bedside table. At the front of the tent there was an overhang that formed a small verandah, with two folding camp chairs and two canvas basins for washing our hands. At the back of the tent was a canvas enclosure with a bucket shower, and a toilet seat situated over a deep-drop hole - a bucket of ashes sat nearby to be used for ‘flushing.’  The toilet paper was kept inside the tent in case of monkeys.
    
After a brief visit to our tents we came out to the campfire, and Gee introduced us to the rest of the staff. Pula was our chef, Phillimon was our waiter, and our general camp helper was Parker.
    
As we sat around the fire, the blue and rose and mauve sky faded to a velvety black, and the stars came out in force. With no moon to cast ambient light, the night sky was a celestial show without rival. Scorpio hung high overhead, and the Southern Cross shone brightly above the river bed.  The Milky Way stretched across the sky and all the way down to the horizon, its magnificent grandeur making us feel small and insignificant.

     Gee told us about his childhood, growing up on an island in the Okavango Delta. His real name is Gaeboelwe, but at least on safari he goes by Gee. He learned at a very young age how to track animals and survive in the bush. His family sent him to live with his aunt in Maun while he attended school there, but she was mean and starved him, not giving him enough to eat even though his family sent food and money. Eventually he could not stand living with her anymore, so he left school and went back home. He later went to Guiding school and earned Grade 3, the highest rating, which is required to guide for camping safaris. Gee is of the Bayei tribe. He speaks three languages, Setswana, Bayei, and English.

    
Pula announced dinner, standing formally by the fire and telling us what each course would be. We went to the table, beautifully set under a tent canopy. The food, all cooked in camp, was excellent; it is unbelievable what these guys can cook over a fire or with a camp stove. Gee told us that any leftover food is thrown into the fire and burned so as not to attract scavengers.
    
As we were eating, a large brown insect over an inch long landed on the table and buzzed around a bit. Gee said it was a driver ant, and we watched it with interest. Then it flew down my shirt.

     After dinner we went back out to the campfire. I gave Gee a gift I had made him; a talisman of beads and stones, hopefully imbued with some Windchase Magic from home. I told him it should bring him good fortune and luck. We headed to the tents about ten o'clock. Shivering a bit in the cold winter air, I was delighted to find a hot water bottle tucked away in my bed; it kept me warm and cozy all night.  
 
    
One of my favorite things about Africa is hearing the sounds of the animals in the night. I didn’t sleep much; I was too eager to listen. I heard a faint trilling noise and the rustling of something small, close to the tent. Later I heard high-pitched voices going up and down the riverbed. Was it spurfowl? Mongooses? I wasn’t sure, and never did find out. 
     I could hear hyenas as they passed through camp, their voices rising and lowering in pitch as they communicated quietly with one another. Later, there was a soft ascending whoop-whoop as a lone hyena called out for his friends. I shined the flashlight out the window to try and see him but the mesh reflected the light back. Several times in the night I heard a harsh snorting sound not unlike the bark of a dog - probably the alarm call of an impala or kudu.
     
Early in the morning, not long before our wakeup call, I heard what sounded like the grunting of a large pig near the tent. Was it a warthog? A bush pig?  At breakfast Gee told us that it was the cough-like sound of a leopard; one had been right in the camp during the wee hours of the morning.


July 19 
    
Our wakeup call came at five-thirty, a soft voice calling good morning outside our tent. The winter air was crisp and cold, and we dressed in layers. There was coffee at the campfire, and a simple breakfast of toast and oatmeal (known here as jungle oats) was served at six. Jineen told me she had dreamed that I had left the tent in the night and was being chased by hyenas in the deep dry sand of the riverbed.
    
We were on the road by 6:30, heading out before it was fully light. We paused to watch the sun come up, the sky a palette of purple and rose. The world was peaceful, the quiet broken only by occasional birdsongs.

     Right away we came upon a pair of lions, lying beside the sandy road. They were magnificent. A big male with a blonde mane, and a lithe tawny female. Gee said the female was starting into estrus, and might be ready to breed by later that day. She stood up, yawned and stretched, then walked about ten feet and lay down again. The male did the same, marking his territory and looking hopeful, but she wasn’t quite ready yet. This pattern was repeated over and over. 

     Gee told us that these lions were members of the Marsh Pride, and that the male was the same one I had seen and photographed in 2015. I remembered that occasion, when I had taken one of my favorite photos ever. My old friend. Will he still be here next time I visit?


My friend from 2015

     As we drove on through the bush, we saw lots of impalas - graceful beautiful antelopes reminiscent of our white-tailed deer in Virginia. The males have long backswept twisted horns. There were many birds; the ubiquitous francolins and spurfowl were everywhere, and red-billed hornbills flitted from tree to tree. 

    
Before long we found more of the Marsh Pride members; there were three lionesses and a couple of half-grown youngsters by the carcass of an antelope they had killed. They gnawed on the remains, the ribcage sticking up in the air. One of the adolescent males got up and walked around carrying an empty beer can in his mouth, no doubt discarded by some careless tourist. Several vultures watched from the nearby trees, waiting their turn at the carcass.


    
It is always amazing how the animals take so little notice of people, as long as they stay in the vehicle. Gee said they don’t see us as humans; they see us and the Landcruiser as one entity, like a big harmless animal. On the other hand, if we were to get out of the vehicle then the lions would see us as people - they would either run away or kill us, depending on their mood.

 ~ Continued on next page ~

 


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