AFRICA 2017

By Phyllis Dawson
Botswana - Part 10
Moremi Game Reserve

 
July 27 

    
Today was my birthday! I couldn’t think of a better way to spend it. We stood by the campfire and watched the pre-dawn light start to glow in the sky. We heard a hyena call at breakfast, a loud one - perhaps he was wishing me Happy Birthday. 

    
Gee asked me - what did I want to see for my birthday?  I laughingly told him if I saw even one impala, francolin or elephant I would be happy. The trip had been so remarkable that I didn’t want to ask for something that might not happen - though I did secretly hope to see the wild dogs hunt again.

     Since it was my birthday, I nabbed the front ‘shotgun’ seat; I liked sitting there where I could see out the front and talk to Gee. Each seat had a slightly different viewpoint, and we rotated daily. We watched the sunrise, glowing through the trees like fire. A pair of green and brown Meyer’s parrots hopped along a leaning tree. There was plenty of waterfowl around; a shy slaty egret was a new one for us. A great egret, a yellow-billed stork and a hamerkop waded in the same pool. 
    
We drove through a riverine forest. In the cool morning light, the sandy roads appeared blueish in the shadows. Several zebras moved quietly through the trees, and an impala stared at us indignantly before drifting across the roadway. We passed the campsite we had used on the previous trip; back then it had been dry, but now the lagoon was filled with water, complete with crocs and hippos.

  

     We came to a beautiful marshy pond with dead trees standing up out of the water, and reeds and marsh grasses hemming in the edges. A goliath heron waded near a fallen tree. Nearby, the road was blocked by a deep steep-sided hole, perhaps 12 feet across and at least 5 feet deep, with water covering the bottom. As we went around this treacherous pit, Gee told us that one time when the road was flooded, Pula drove into the submerged hole and got hopelessly stuck. Unable to free the vehicle, he and the guys had to set up the camp right where they were – tents, kitchen, dining tent and all. Ever since, the location has been known as Pula’s Camp.

     Near the edge of the woods were several kudus; a large female, her coat fluffed up from the cold, stood quietly while several oxpeckers sifted through her fur. A young male with small spike horns was grooming himself intently.  Four giraffes moved through the forest, graceful as a dream, gliding silently through the trees.  

     We left the forest and came out on to a wide floodplain. A beautiful white egret flew just above the river, its reflection matching its wings beat for beat. A bateleur eagle was sitting in a tree, recognizable in silhouette by his broad owl-shaped head and short tail. A leopard orchid grew on a high branch. We came to an area of white soil; Gee said it was sodium bicarbonate, from which the salt pans are formed.

      We crossed a new-looking bridge, very narrow with the poles set lengthwise; we could see the old abandoned bridge a hundred meters off to the side falling into disrepair. Tall termite hills rose out of the floodplain, surrounded by reddish cottonwood grass.

     Around mid-morning Gee pointed out some tracks and said they were from buffalo; this statement was met with skepticism, as we had become convinced that African buffalo must be mythical creatures, like unicorns.
     Of course, four of us had been on safari before, so we knew that buffalo did exist - and even though the other three had not, I’m pretty sure they knew as well. But we had stated our skepticism so often that Gee may have been feeling a little pressure to come up with some buffalo. By this point he may not have been exactly sure of what some of our group believed - which was exactly our motive.  

     Four zebras stood quietly, lined up on the open plain near a waterhole, their stripes crisp and clean in the clear morning light. Gee told us that scientists compare stripe patterns on zebras’ shoulders and under their eyes to identify individuals.  

         A small herd of lechwe ran by ahead of us, their front ends low to the ground as their powerful hindquarters propelled them forward. One of the mothers stopped, allowing her baby to nurse from a kneeling position. A family of saddle-billed storks, a father with two juveniles, waded through the tall feathery miscanthus grass that was blowing in the breeze. These are Gee’s favorite bird.


Juvenile saddle-billed storks

   The birds were out in force. A handsome southern white-crowned shrike looked down us from his perch in a tree. An African marsh harrier circled around, buzzing a fish eagle as it flew down out of a tree. A couple of blue waxbills and a crimson-breasted shrike lent flashes of brilliant color to the scene. A Cape turtle dove perched in a thornbush. A blacksmith plover sat on her nest in the grass, fiercely guarding her eggs. An African stone chat stood on a log, close enough for us to catch the gleam in his eye, and then flew off in a flurry of feathers.  


African stone chat

     We took our tea break under a lone marula tree. Its twisted trunk and multi-colored wood was beautiful, but much scarred by elephants - they crave the sweet fruit produced by these trees. Baboons have been known to get drunk off of the fruit when it ferments; I have heard some say that the elephants do too, but Gee told us that is not true. A fine liqueur called Amarula is made from the fruit of the marula tree, much like Bailey’s Irish Cream - some safari guests have been known to get drunk off of that.

     At last we found the elusive buffalo! Gee drove across a wide expanse of dry yellow grass, and at the far side of it was a large herd of about a hundred African buffalo.  Most of them were lying down sleeping; we could see their curved horns sticking up through the tall grass. 

 
African buffalo

     The buffalo are black, with sparse patchy coats. The larger bulls weigh up to 2200 pounds. Both males and females have large curving horns, but the males’ horns are larger and heavier, fused at the base to form a continuous boney shield across the back of the skull called the boss. Their ears are split in three sections to blend in with the leaves on the trees. Along with elephants, zebras and wildebeest, buffalo are migratory.
 
     Several cattle egrets perched on bovine heads and backs, picking off parasites, along with the ubiquitous oxpeckers. Gee told us that oxpeckers sleep in holes in trees at night, and make nice fluffy nests of animal hair.
     Several large buffalo bulls appeared to be standing guard; they seemed powerful and slightly sinister as they stared at us nearsightedly. Although the herd was quiet they watched us warily – it was clear that these were not animals to mess with. Buffalo are considered one of the most dangerous animals in Africa; the older bulls that have separated from the herd tend to be especially grumpy.

     We watched the buffalo a long time, glad to see that they were not mythical after all. Presently they stood up and started to mosey away. There were several babies with the herd, their coats a lighter brown color. We noticed that the cows have their teats on the back of their udders, so the babies could nurse from the rear while the herd was walking along. Gee said that buffalo, along with warthogs, are the tastiest animals; predators prefer them – though it takes a quite a strong hunter to bring down a buffalo.  

 

     Not far from the buffalo herd, a group of zebras relaxed beside a wide shallow lagoon. Several of the babies were lying down taking a nap. We admired one young fellow with a shaggy baby coat; his black stripes still had a brownish tinge. He had a bushy mane and a forelock way too big for the rest of him. Two adolescent male impalas were having a mock battle; they stood with heads low and horns interlocked, each straining to push the other backward.

     We passed a great spreading tree with large seed pods hanging down from the branches; it was a sausage tree.  Giraffes, kudus and baboons all eat the sausage fruit, Gee told us, and mokoros are sometimes made from the trunks. He picked one of the fruits for us; it looked like a giant slightly obscene version of a sweet potato, well over two feet long.

     The abundance of wildlife was truly impressive. Looking around, we could see impalas, zebra, lechwe, tsessebe, giraffes, and wildebeest all from the same spot, not even counting all the birds. A particularly lovely dark zebra strolled by, with black stripes much wider than the white.

 

     A mother giraffe was eating the fruit from a sausage tree, her baby by her side. Soon the baby started to nurse, snaking his long neck down to reach his lunch. After a while they came out of the trees into an open meadow, where they were joined by a big male giraffe, presumably the father. The male went over to a stream to drink, looking around carefully before crouching down low on buckling legs to reach the water. 

     The giraffe family marched regally across in front of us, the baby leading and Dad bringing up the rear. The mother and the youngster were a bright chestnut color with white edging on their patches, and the male was a darker mahogany brown with tan edges. The family crossed a deeper channel, pausing before taking the plunge across one by one. It was an incredible privilege to watch them.

 

     As we headed back to camp, we paused by the same little lagoon with the dead trees reflected in the water; it seemed almost like a tropical spot. A pair of grebes floated on the mirror-like surface, and a Burchell’s starling looked down at us from a thornbush. A male jacana with one long-legged chick picked their way through the shallows; Gee explained that the female jacana lays the eggs, but then the male incubates them and raises the chicks while the mom goes off and finds another mate and lays more eggs.

 
Burchell’s starling

     We saw buffalo again, several of them hanging out under a tree. A spur-winged goose dabbled in a pool before taking wing. We heard a very high-pitched cry, who whoo whooo; Gee told us it was the wild dogs, calling out to locate one another after hunting. Gee mimicked the sound, calling to them. We rolled happily into camp to find Phillimon waiting.

 

     We had another excellent lunch, complete with fresh salads and camp-baked bread. An arrow-marked babbler joined us after we ate, a grey-brown bird with tiny white arrow marks and orange eyes, hopping around the table looking for crumbs. We rested a bit, reading and walking around camp, or taking advantage of the bucket showers. We noticed elephant dung just outside the tent; it had not been there in the morning. The campsite was a gorgeous spot, with the tent set among towering trees. I got everyone to pose for a group photo in front of the Landcruiser before the afternoon drive.

 

     Setting out in the afternoon, we were just a few minutes out from camp when we paused by a beautiful lagoon. Looking out across the water, we could see a huge eagle’s nest high in a tree, and a buffalo weaver’s nest hanging below it. A small green-backed heron sat at the water’s edge, and a large crocodile lay in the shallow water. The haunting cry of a fish eagle wafted over the water.

     A family of vervet monkeys climbed on a fallen tree, two adults and two youngsters. They sat in a row, bringing to mind see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.  Two of them left, scampering down the log, but a mother and baby sat peacefully together, long tails outstretched, gazing about the forest. A crested barbet perched on a tree trunk; these charismatic little birds are variegated yellow, red, black and white with a perky topknot. They are quite attractive, despite having a somewhat scruffy head.

 
Crested barbet

     We encountered two guys in a self-drive car, and they showed us where they had seen wild dogs. When we got to the spot there were about a dozen dogs sleeping on the ground – they were thin and looked hungry. We could see that one was a nursing female. Another wore a radio research collar. The dogs were sleeping hard; they took no notice when a business of banded mongoose went right by them. Gee told us that they would soon get up and hunt, so we decided to stay and watch the dogs for a while in hopes of some action.

 

       Soon the dogs started to show some signs of life. One after another they would get up, then yawn and stretch. Before long they were all up and milling around in the road restlessly. They set out to hunt and we followed them. They moved in a straggly line along the road, stopping often to look around, sniffing the air and listening intently.  It was all very low key at first, but the dogs were getting more animated as they went on. They began to fan out, and picked up a brisk trot. They appeared to have a plan; I observed two dogs touch noses in apparent communication and then move off in different directions. Gee kept the Landcruiser a short ways behind them, trying to keep them in sight without interfering with the hunt. 

  

       There was a flash of motion and an impala dashed away, and the dogs were after him in a flash, in hot pursuit. We followed them, trying to keep up as they spread out and ran hard, crossing water, going through woods and across open fields. Gee always seemed to know just where to go for us to see the most. He said that impala should have hidden instead of trying to run; the wild dogs are the second fastest predators after cheetahs, and with far greater stamina.  
 
     We came upon them just seconds after they killed the young impala, and watched as they tore it apart. It was intense and violent – not exactly pretty to watch – but it was the circle of life, nature at its most vivid.

     The dogs pulled the carcass into pieces and began to eat; most of them grabbed a piece and moved away to eat it undisturbed. Their faces were bloody from the kill as they gnawed on the bones. Several dogs that arrived later were enthusiastically greeted with high-pitched yipping and tail wagging. There was a little good-natured squabbling over the choicest bits, but no real fighting.   
      Having eaten, the dogs were quite relaxed now; some of them started to yawn and stretch in preparation for a nap. However many of the dogs still seemed to be hungry; one small impala for a dozen dogs was not a lavish meal. They seemed to be saying, That was a good appetizer, now where is the main course?  They started to get up and move about restlessly.

 

       Before long the dogs were on the hunt again, fanning out and moving through the brush, slowly at first, and then with more purpose. We followed, trying to keep track of them in the fading light. Soon they were running hard again, and we were flying after them. A giraffe walked right in front of the pack of hunting dogs, but they were after smaller prey.  A grey Go-Away bird gave his signature Go Away call, but we ignored him. A big male baboon had a tantrum as the dogs ran past him, screaming and aggressively chasing them; they yielded out of expedience.

 

     We were still following the dogs; they turned and ran right past our camp. Phillimon was waiting with the tea, and we ended the hunt there. Incredible!

     At dinner I found my chair was decorated with birthday streamers - and to my amazement, Birthday Bear was there! Birthday Bear is a little white teddy bear that Jineen and I pass back and forth on our respective birthdays; she had brought him all the way to Botswana in her backpack. I think he was a little traumatized by the trip, but he and Duma became good friends.

 
Birthday Bear with Fred and Duma

     We had an excellent dinner and a great evening around the campfire.  I managed to blow out all the candles on my birthday cake, but all my wishes had already come true. A wild dog hunt on my birthday – what more could I even imagine?

     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 makers 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 now at eye level from thirty 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!”

 

      It was an incredible display; I won’t forget it for a long, long time. I could not have asked for a better birthday.


 ~ Continued on next page ~


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