AFRICA 2017

By Phyllis Dawson
Botswana - Part 9
Khwai Concession to Moremi

 
July 26

    
It was moving day. We packed up and set out, luggage trailer in tow, leaving Phillimon, Parker and Pula to move camp. We left with some regret; we would miss our secluded never-before-used campsite!
    
A small herd of impala stood with their coats puffed up against the cold, while a brown snake eagle looked down at them from a tree. We watched the sun come up; dead trees were silhouetted against the fiery sky with twisted branches reaching up like grasping hands. Pastel shades of dawn were reflected in the floodwaters of the Delta. 

  

     Gee was very adept at interpreting the spoor; he pointed out fresh hyena tracks on top of the tire marks in the sandy road, and then lion prints overtop of those. He showed us petite baby elephant tracks superimposed over its mother’s huge ones, and also the tiny footprints of a mongoose.  
    
We stopped by the hyena den. The mother hyena was lying in the entrance; we could just see the top of her head and ears poking up out of the hole. We waited, hoping she would come out. A whole flock of arrow-marked babblers flitted through the trees, several of them pecking in the dirt around the den. The morning sun highlighted the golden curlicue grasses.

 

     The hyena poked her head up a little more, gazing at us with alert eyes. She must have babies in there; maybe they would come out. Hoping to draw her out of the den Gee made a loud bleating noise, mimicking a wounded buffalo calf being caught by a lion - but the mother hyena was too smart to fall for that old trick.

     We left the den and headed out across the bushveld. Referring to Gee’s promise to show us the toothbrush tree, Patty said, “Gee, we all need to brush our teeth.” Gee pulled off the road near some shrubs, checked for lions, and invited us to get out of the vehicle. We all waited for him to find the appropriate bush and give us a sample to clean our teeth with, but he just stood watching us as we milled around. Finally, looking confused, he said “But nobody is brushing their teeth!”
    
I thought it must be a test; did we remember what the bush looked like? I turned to a likely looking shrub and asked if it was the right one. At that moment Gee realized there had been a total miscommunication; he had thought we had neglected to brush our teeth that morning and wanted to do it now! We all laughed until our sides hurt, especially Gee - he chuckled about it for the rest of the day.

     A marabou stork stood perched high in a dead tree, and another stood by the water. These huge birds are black with white underparts and have a long beak, a bare red head, and a neck that they can contract into their shoulders until it seems to disappear. Some of them have a grotesque bulbous red pouch that hangs down from their throat and can be inflated with air when courting. They are amazingly unattractive. Rob remembered them having been called the undertaker bird  when he visited Tanzania years ago, and the name seemed fitting.  


Marabou stork

     A throwback from the past, some safari companies still focus on seeing the Big Five: the elephant, African buffalo, lion, leopard and rhino – those were the animals most likely to kill you while big game hunting. But the marabou stork is deservedly considered one of the Ugly Five, along with hyenas, warthogs, wildebeest and vultures.
    
There were fewer animals out this morning. We saw impala of course – they are always around; we noticed one with an injured ear that drooped straight down. Several kudus dashed through the brush, and then stopped and gazed at us curiously. Gee pointed out leopard tracks in the road, both coming and going. We followed the most recent spoor for a long way, looking, stopping often to listen for alarm calls. 

     A light-colored giraffe was moving through the trees at the edge of a meadow, her pale coat glowing in the morning sun. A baby was following behind her; he still had his umbilical cord, which Gee said showed he was less than three weeks old. Several pelicans sailed overhead. Gee pointed out a tiny bru-bru bird, which makes a sound like a telephone.

     It was mid-morning when Gee took a shortcut through the brush, maneuvering the Landcruiser through the trees with the luggage trailer bumping along behind. We came out near the river, following lion tracks down a little-used track. As we paused, we saw a lone lioness moving through the tall yellow grass toward us. She walked straight to the Landcruiser. Gee said softly “be quiet, don’t move.” She looked up at us briefly and walked right by us, literally close enough to touch, squeezing between the vehicle and the bushes beside the road. Gee started the engine for a moment, causing the lioness to swerve away slightly - he said later he was worried someone might panic that she was so close. She stopped in the road and looked back at us over her shoulder briefly. She was graceful, majestic power. She turned and walked on.

     We turned around and followed the lioness down to the river. As we came out on the open floodplain, we drove around and got ahead of her several times, then watched as she walked sedately past us. She was noticeably pregnant; Gee estimated that she was about two months along (the gestation period for lions is 3 ˝ months). He said she is part of the Machaba Pride.  
     
She was hunting, looking from side to side and gazing intently into the distance – lions have excellent eyesight. She stopped several times along the river, almost as if posing for us, and then sat down on a termite mound. After a while she moved back into the brush, and we left her to her hunt. Getting to watch this beautiful huntress at work was a special encounter.

 

     A herd of about a dozen zebras lounged in the shade. About half of them were lying down; they got hurriedly to their feet as we approached and walked away, predictably showing us their striped rumps. Four ground hornbills walked down the road in front of us; these are really interesting birds, but they could be runners-up for the Ugly Five list.


Ground hornbill

     We crossed a rickety bridge made from poles, barely wider than our wheelbase, and before long came to Khwai village. There were a number of small round thatched houses called rondavels, with some modern stucco buildings among them. The village was quite spread out and very quiet – just a few people walking by the road or standing near the houses. One woman was doing her laundry in a water bucket, and a small boy waved to us as we passed. Gee stopped by a safari office to return the rifle he had carried when we went walking.
    
There were corrals with tall fences made from tree trunks and branches, and occasionally barbed wire; the fences were designed to keep animals out more than in. Several rondavels were constructed from coke bottles plastered together with mud-based cement. A smallish cinderblock building had Khwai Shopping Center painted on it in large irregular letters, but it appeared to be abandoned.

     As we left the village we crossed the Bridge over the River Khwai. On our last trip Gee had temporarily convinced us that it was the one from the famous movie (until we realized it was the wrong continent); I had remembered that when Gee was telling us that rock was a hippo back in Savuti!


Bridge over the River Khwai

     We studied the large maps at the Khwai/Moremi gate, and then had our tea under a tree nearby. Gee told us a little about the history of the village, and about the Bushmen, or San people, who lived in the Kalahari Desert. They lived off the land, hunting and gathering, but when the parks were formed hunting was outlawed. The government gave them cows to compensate, but the Bushmen sold them. Gee told us about his farm; the island is 11 hectares (about 27 acres). He grows watermelons and maize, as well as some other crops. We had several cups of tea before we moved on; by the time we drove past the Khwai airstrip we had to stop to check the tires.
    
We drove along a flooded plain, stopping near a small round island which had formed around a large termite hill; it had a scrubby tree growing out of it. On the tiny island there were yellow billed storks, reed cormorants, sacred ibis, spoonbills, a water thick knee, a grey heron, a little egret and a pied kingfisher.
    
We followed the track along the edge of the open plain. It was dotted with large termite hills; Gee said many of the islands in the Delta started out from termite mounds. Impala and zebras quietly grazed, and there were warthogs everywhere. Still no buffalo though; we told Gee that we figured they were imaginary.

     Gee stopped the vehicle; he had found a toothbrush tree. A vervet monkey watched him from a low branch as he pulled up roots from a sapling. Gee gave us each a piece of the toothbrush tree root to chew; at first it tasted like dirt, but once the bark was off it had a slightly tannin taste and a pleasing texture, and it made our teeth feel clean. We all brushed and spit - it was not a pretty sight, but our teeth felt great afterwards!

 

     We passed a family of warthogs, comically walking on their knees to make it easier for their remarkable snouts to reach the grass. A hippo was out of the water, grazing with a row of oxpeckers sitting on his back. A red lechwe buck cantered across the marsh, his distinctive downhill lope surprisingly graceful. Two tsessebes wandered across the plain; Gee told us they are the fastest of the antelopes, and can run up to 90 km per hour. They often run around for exercise, even during the hot part of the day.  
    
We skirted the edge of a vast plain; Gee said the current high water levels meant we had to go along the edge of the forest instead of across the plain as we had on the previous trip. An elephant was taking a mud bath in a marshy spot. He would suck up muddy water in his trunk and spray it over his shoulder onto his back. An adult saddle-billed stork stood in the marsh; these tall birds have a large orange and black striped bill, orange elbows and feet, and bright yellow eyes.


Saddle-billed stork

      We came to an especially deep water crossing, and Gee hesitated. “I think we can make it,” he said, but when he drove into the water, the wheels went into a deep rut and we got stuck.  Tara and I got out of the Landcruiser to help, gathering wood to put under the tires while Gee jacked up the vehicle. Taking off my shoes and socks and stepping down into the cool water with the mud oozing between my toes brought back memories of rescuing the Dutch family in 2015. They had gotten stuck deep in the Delta in a self-drive camper with no guide, and had been out there for five days by the time we found them!    

     Gee jacked up the most deeply submerged rear tire and we wedged logs and branches under it, and then we repeated the process on other side. He tried to drive out, but it was too deep and we were still stuck. Gather more branches, jack the tires up again – we went through the whole procedure three times. Others in our group got out to help, probably giving Gee more anxiety than assistance as he tried to make sure we didn’t wander off and get eaten by a lion. The whole thing was inconvenient but not stressful; the guides get stuck often enough, and they know how to get unstuck. Still, we weren’t sorry when another guide in a safari vehicle with some German tourists came by and pulled us out – though by that time we had the vehicle almost freed.

 

     We were running quite late after getting stuck; it was four o'clock by the time we arrived at our lunch spot, the Dombo Hippo Pools, and we were quite hungry. Gee said we would need to eat quickly and move on, as the park gate would be closed in two and a half hours. I asked him how long it would take to get to camp - two and a half hours, he answered. No time to linger. Looking out over the lagoon while we ate, we could see white-faced ducks and Egyptian geese dabbling in the shallows and a few hippos gliding through the water. By 4:30 we were back on the road.
    
Gee drove like the wind, but we still paused for a look whenever we came across something interesting. An African hawk eagle perched in a dead tree; Gee said it was a ‘true eagle.’ We learned that true eagles have feathered legs, while hawks and snake eagles do not. We drove past the Moremi airstrip, with its small canvas shed marked VIP lounge. We had flown out of here on our last trip, and the elephants had all come out on the airstrip to say goodbye. Looking around now, we saw to our amazement that the elephants were still there.

     We arrived at our new camp, barely making the 6:30 p.m. deadline. The crescent moon hung in the sky, noticeably bigger now. Our tents were laid out in a grove of large trees, not far from where we had camped in 2015. There was water nearby, and we could hear the deep laughing call of the hippos. Tired but happy, we sat around the campfire and discussed the events of the day. Gee was still chuckling, “We need to brush our teeth . . .”

 ~ Continued on next page ~


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