AFRICA 2017

By Phyllis Dawson
Botswana - Part 11
Moremi Game Reserve

 
July 28
     We heard the hyenas several more times through the night, but further off. A leopard coughed nearby a couple of times, and we could hear the hooting of a scops owl and the harsh bark of the baboons. It was a moving day, and we were kind of sorry to leave this excellent camp. Due to scheduling constraints we could only stay here two nights, so Gee had arranged for us to spend the last two days in a more remote area of Moremi.
    But first, we were scheduled for a boat trip at 7:00. We headed out early, and Birthday Bear sat on the console with Fred and Duma. We could see the dim shapes of storks and ibis in the half-light. An elephant with just one tusk stood in a pool drinking; then he showered himself with water sprayed from his trunk.  

  

      We noticed the impala were on the alert and heard the urgent alarm call of a hornbill; Gee was looking all around for the source of their fear. Then the leopard appeared, a huge male, standing in the road in front of us. He stared at us for a few moments before turning and walking down the track ahead of us. He was all grace and power. To me he seemed somehow mystical, like a dream creature that moved through the shadows of my imagination.

     The leopard’s belly was distended; he must have eaten recently. He also looked like he had known some hard times - he had a nasty cut on his nose and his ears were tattered along the edges. He turned off into the underbrush, sniffing the grass as if looking for something. Gee seemed to know what would happen next; “He is going to call,” he said, and on cue the leopard let out a series of deep guttural vocalizations. Then he marked his territory, raking the dirt fiercely with his hind feet, and continued moving back and forth sniffing the ground. Gee said he was searching for a female in estrus. Surely this was the leopard we had heard in the night.

       We left him to his search and headed toward the river. A large flock of helmeted Guineafowl swarmed through the underbrush and into the road in front of us, at least a hundred of them. The size of a chicken, they have round bodies and delicate black and white dotted feathers that blended to a blue-grey color in the dim light. Squawking and flapping, they ran frantically down the road in front of us as if the sky was falling. 


Guineafowl

     We passed another safari vehicle; a young girl of about ten clutched a small stuffed hyena. Fred, Duma and Birthday Bear were all very interested. We arrived at the boat launch about 35 minutes late, but nobody seemed to mind.

     We boarded a motor boat big enough that we could all sit comfortably, and set off down the Khwai River. Our guide for the river trip was named Bala. Gee stayed behind to guard our belongings and hopefully catch a nap; we worried that the extra-long game drives he was taking us on each day must be wearing him out.  
    
The shore was lined with tall miscanthus and golden pampas grass. We passed a very fancy 5-star lodge on the left, and then turned out into the channels through the reeds and pampas grass. We followed a narrow channel until it opened up into the wide river; it reminded me of The African Queen. It was quite beautiful; the dark blue water contrasted with the golden grass under a deep blue sky. We found the voyage to be very relaxing.

     A lone hippo poked his head up and watched us suspiciously. Bala told us to keep alert; there was the possibility of seeing a situnga, a very rare and shy antelope that lives in the reeds.  
     Bala pointed out a coppery-tailed coucal and a squacco heron. He showed us a tiny island covered with daddy-long-legs nests; the babies can run across the surface of the water and get to land. Jacanas skittered over the lilypads and a reed cormorant took flight as we approached.


Jacana

    We came out into the Xakanaxa Lagoon, where the river widened to an impressive expanse of water. Bala said there is good fishing there, for tiger fish and tilapia. Water chestnuts were growing in the river, the type commonly used in Chinese food. We learned that the Okavango Delta is over 15,000 square kilometers, and Moremi National Park covers about a third of that. It was quite cold on the boat; I shouldn’t have left my coat in the Landcruiser.


Pied kingfisher

     A pied kingfisher hovered above the river; this was the closest we had been to one of these fascinating birds. It would hover in place like a helicopter, wings moving so fast they were a blur, and then suddenly dive down into the water for a fish. We passed a group of pygmy geese bobbing along with the current; they are the size of small ducks, and the males have white faces. I am not sure what makes them a goose rather than a duck – obviously the difference must be more than just size. An African darter stood on a small island, bill high in the air and wings outstretched to dry. We were used to seeing them with just their head and neck sticking up out of the water; when you can see the whole bird they are actually very handsome.


African darter

     A number of termite mounds stuck up out of the elephant grass, always leaning to the west. Bala said many islands were formed from termite hills:  termites build the hill during the dry season, the birds perch on them, bringing seeds, then trees grow and silt settles. Before long islands begin to form. 

     Entering a narrow channel, we caught a flash of dark movement in the water off to our left. It was an otter! We got a brief glimpse (and a very blurry photo) of the spotted-necked otter as it dived and then resurfaced, before disappearing into the reeds. We hadn’t even dreamed of seeing one!

 
A brief glimpse of a s
potted-necked otter - he disappeared before I could focus!

     Bala beached the boat on a broad island, and we got out and walked around. A heard of lechwe grazed peacefully over on the far side. There was a small soda flat, and we could see the spoor of the animals that were attracted to the salty soil. It felt good to get out and stretch our legs a bit. Tara in particular made a bid for escape; she was all the way across the island standing on a termite mound with her arms outstretched when Bala urgently called her back.


Tara runs wild

     We got back in the boat and continued on, admiring the fluffy heads of papyrus grass. Bala told us that people used to make rafts from bundles of papyrus to cross the river. We noticed areas of the lagoon where a lot of floating weeds were growing on the surface of the water, in places totally covering the surface. Bala said it was Salvinia Molesta; he said someone bought a second hand boat from outside the Delta, and when he brought it home it had carried seeds of this invasive species which spread rapidly through the Okavango Delta. Salvinia Molesta sounds like the name of an evil spell from Harry Potter, and actually that isn’t too far off.

     Salavinia Molesta is a free-floating duckweed-type plant that spreads quickly, covering large sections of many of the lagoons. It has infected vast areas of Moremi. The government started paying farmers to eradicate in on their farms, but that backfired, as some people actually planted it so they could be paid to get rid of it. Now they are bringing in a type of beetle from Australia to control it. Oh, right, like that ever works, bringing in one invasive species to control another . . . what could possibly go wrong?

 
Monitor lizard

     Bala steered the boat close to the shore. A huge monitor lizard rested in the grass. The monitor lizard is an enemy of the crocodile, as they eat the croc’s eggs. We also had a good look at a lechwe and a purple heron that were right on the bank. A colorful little stone chat perched on the pampas grass.

     A hippo lifted his head up from the water in front of the boat and stared at us as if trying to decide whether capsizing us was worth the trouble; apparently not, as he silently disappeared back down into the depths.

 

     Gee was waiting for us when we returned to land, and we enthusiastically told him about what we had seen. For me the otter and the monitor lizard were the highlights. Sadly though, no situnga.  

     We left the boat area and went back into the forest. Three elephants were hanging out under a black ebony tree with a trio of warthogs. Nearby was a troop of baboons, and we watched them with interest. The large male kept watch like a sentinel while the others spread out looking for food. We could see him sitting on a fallen tree, silhouetted in shadow as an elephant passed through the sunlit meadow behind him.

 

      One baboon mother walked along with her baby riding high on her rump like a little cowboy, and another female sat eating a sausage fruit while her youngster nursed. Several other baboons sat quietly grooming each other. Some of the older youngsters started to play, long-legged and athletic, running up and down the fallen tree. The smaller babies were riding on their moms, either sitting on her back or clinging upside down under her stomach. The baboons were fascinating to watch, though somewhat disconcertingly human-like.

 

       One of the elephants moved closer, casually snacking on the tall grass. A greater blue-eared starling shone vivid blue in the sunlight, and a crested barbet perched in a tree. Two vultures sat in a dead tree, the more handsome white-backed on a higher branch and a lappet-faced further down. Several Hartlaub’s babblers flitted among the branches, with edged feathers and red eyes.      

     We made our way across the park, enjoying the scenery.  We crossed the same pole bridge again, which we learned was called Fourth Bridge; we paused in the middle of it for a view down the river. A pied kingfisher hovered and dove, and a black-winged stilt waded in shallow water. A fish eagle surveyed his territory from a tree.

 

     Giraffes strolled across the marshy plains and red lechwes grazed along the water. We tried to get some shots of a lilac-breasted roller in flight, but with limited results. A grey go-away-bird perched on a thornbush, a handsome grey bird with a perky top-knot. Go away he implored us with his raspy signature call.
     We crossed another rickety bridge, this one with a ford at the end of it; this was Third Bridge. A sign said Slow Down on top of Bridge. We paused to photograph the heads of papyrus and pampas grass. The crescent moon shone in the afternoon sky, but now it was upside down like a frown.  


 
Sacred ibis

     The area was a waterfowl’s paradise, full of marshes and wide lagoons. There were birds everywhere, along with a fair number of animals. We drove from pool to pool, amazed at the variety. Several sacred ibis flew in for a landing, and pelicans soared overhead in formation. Among my favorites were the spoonbills, wading along with their round shovel-like bills. The yellow-billed storks were handsome, with a slightly pink tinge in the sunshine. On the other hand the marabou storks, or undertaker birds, are startlingly ugly; with their hunched shoulders and bulbous throat pouch, they are the last stork you would want delivering your baby.
     We sat at a pond and inventoried the birds and animals we could see from one spot. Egyptian geese, African spoonbills, a grey heron, black-winged stilts, Namaqua doves, blacksmith plover, red billed teal and white faced ducks with babies – along with giraffes, crocodiles, wildebeests, warthogs, impala and zebras; we could see all of these without moving! Astounding.

 

     At another lagoon, several large crocodiles lay along the shore, mouths held open for cooling. It was surprising how close the birds would stand to the open mouths and jagged teeth of the crocs. A darter, swimming with just his head and neck out of the water speared a good-sized fish with his long pointed beak. A grey heron started following him; Gee said the heron would try to sca-VENGE the fish and take it away from the darter. No chance though, the darter flipped the fish into the air and gulped it down whole.

 
African darter with lunch

     We came to a sign for Second Bridge; arrows showed one could get there by way of the Wet Road or the Dry Road - Gee took the Wet. We crossed the bridge and continued on past ponds and lagoons filled with a variety of birds, along with occasional hippos. There were plenty of crocs around; we saw several little baby ones, greenish-brown and innocent looking. We watched a great egret catch a frog.  
  
     We crossed a drier section of plain. A small herd of wildebeest were running to and fro in the distance. After a few minutes they settled down, and then they came marching toward us side by side, about eight of them abreast. They paused as a pair of black-backed jackals trotted past in front of them, and then went on again, breaking into a run as they passed us.

 

     A pair of ostriches paraded along near the road. The female was a modest brownish grey, and the male quite splendid with his black and white plumage. The skin on the fronts of his legs was a bright reddish pink color; Gee says that is how they attract a mate when courting.

 

     Mid-afternoon we came to First Bridge, another rickety pole affair. A sign reminded us, Do Not Speed Over Bridge.  Like the other three before it, this bridge rattled and creaked as we went across, the logs shifting under the weight of the Landcruiser. Speeding was the last thing on our minds.

     We crossed a long plain, briefly sharing the road with a bull elephant in musth. A zebra and a saddle-billed stork stood side by side. There were a few tall palm trees scattered among the stunted mopanes - they seemed oddly out of place on the African bushveld. Though there were many short palm bushes, only a few of them survived the elephants to grow into tall trees. Gee told us the area is called Bodumatau, which means A place where the Lions Roar.

 

     Stopping the vehicle by a small palm tree, Gee got out and cut a large frond from it. He then gave us a demonstration on how to weave a basket. Deftly braiding the long thin leaves as he spoke, he explained how his people would make a palm basket to carry fruit or fish in when going to see friends – and in no time at all he had whipped out a nice example. Jineen was eager to try her hand at basket-making. When Gee was finished he put the basket on his head like a hat; it looked quite ridiculous. We all modeled it; I must say Rob looked the best in it, though it did vaguely make him look like a gestapo agent.  In the end we put it on the console for Duma, Fred and Birthday Bear to sit in; they liked it because it felt cozy and safe, and they had been feeling that Botswana was disconcertingly wide and vast.

 
Gestapo Rob

     A lilac-breasted roller sat on the top of a tree; Gee stopped for us to watch. Soon the female stuck her head out of a nest hole, and they both began singing, their throats stretched wide as they courted. “He’s going to roll,” Gee told us, and sure enough, the male roller flew straight up in the air and then plummeted toward the ground in a series of uncontrolled diving rolls. At the last possible moment before certain catastrophe he pulled out and soared upwards again. The female followed suit, taking her turn at rolling, and they repeated the performance several times. I had vaguely wondered why these birds were called rollers - now I knew.

 
Lilac-breasted rollers courting

     Throwing a stick, Gee knocked some palm nuts out of a tree. He handed us the nuts; they were smooth and brown, and smelled like gingerbread - Gee said they taste like it too. He pointed out a python creeper growing on a tree, and said the vines are used when people get married; it means they will be tied up together forever. A Bennet’s woodpecker worked his way up a tree trunk. We passed some self-drivers stuck in the sand, but another guide was helping them so we drove on.  
     
We crossed a wide open space; it was an area of elephant devastation, barren, with many broken trees - there is much the elephants could learn about the conservation of resources. Hottentot teals paddled in a small pool. A crocodile was basking in a drying pool; Gee said the crocs will travel up to 10 kilometers on land if they need to, travelling only at night, to get to water. Other animals do not expect to encounter the crocs on land so they are not wary, and they sometimes get eaten. On the other hand, hyenas and lions might kill and eat crocs that they catch on land.

     Gee pointed out a greater honey guide; it is said that these birds will lead people to honey by pointing at the hive with their tails. They will also lead the honey badgers to the hive. Legend has it that when the honey guide leads you to a hive, when you open it and take the honey you must always leave some for the bird; if you don’t, the next time he will lead you to lions.

 

     Around 4:45 we came to a large waterhole that was absolutely packed with birds. It was unbelievable. There were big flocks of pink-backed and great-white pelicans, along with yellow-billed and Marabou storks. With them were spoonbills, saddle billed storks, sacred ibis, egrets, black-winged stilts and a few grey herons. It was practically wall to wall birds; they stood 3 and 4 deep around the shore - there must have been three hundred or more.

 
Pelican Pond

     The water was seething with fish, and the large birds were moving in rows, pushing them up into the shallow water near to the shore before scooping them up and eating them. It was an absolute feeding frenzy. We dubbed the place Pelican Pond, and spent nearly an hour watching the incredible show the birds were putting on.  
    
After a long while the fishing action settled down; the birds must have eaten all the fish. Then the pelicans started taking turns flying across to the other side of the pond. One or two at a time, they would rise ponderously in the air and flap across the pond, to land on the far shore. The pink-backed pelicans took off clean from the water, but the whites put their feet down and pushed off, patting the surface anywhere from 3 to 7 times before getting airborne, like giant skipping stones. It was extraordinary to watch.

 

     Moving on, we came to a big lagoon. We drove alongside it atop a causeway that had been built to control floodwaters by the people who lived here before it was a park. Hippo heads poked up out of the water to stare at us as we went by. Several fat crocodiles lazed on the banks, and an African marsh harrier flew up in front of us. We paused to watch as several hippos entered the water, oxpeckers on board, joining the group out in the middle. Then one big female hippo came up out of the water; she moved right toward us, backlit by the lowering sun and framed with sunlit grasses. She turned and paused, posing a moment while we admired her, and then went off on some mission of her own.

 

     We stopped to watch a herd of zebras, including the smallest baby we had seen on the whole trip. This dainty little equid seemed curious about us, climbing on a termite mound for a better look. A lone wildebeest hung out with the herd. One zebra had a scar across his hindquarters from what must have been a horrific injury; it was now totally healed up, but his stripes were misaligned by a good inch.

 

     A tsessebe bull stood with a small herd of lechwe, standing like a sentinel, his greyish brown coat appearing slightly purple in the evening light. Being built so uphill, with front legs longer than hind, he was in direct contrast with the downhill lechwes whose stature is completely the opposite.

     We drove back past Pelican Pond to watch the sunset. The pastel colors were reflected in the water, and pelicans and storks flew as dark silhouettes against the fiery sky.

 

     We arrived at our new camp just as it was getting dark. It was a lovely spot, very private; Gee told us that there is hardly anybody in this part of Moremi. The camp was right beside a huge lagoon, and our tent was just a few feet from the water. We reflected that each camp we’d stayed at had been quite different, and each has been secluded and beautiful.

 
My tent at our second Moremi campsite

     We sat around the campfire and talked about the awesome day. We could hear the hippos in the lagoon splashing and honking. Tomorrow was to be our last full day on the mobile safari - after all of the fantastic sightings we had been having, we mused that our last day would probably be an anticlimactic dud.

      Our group all agreed that Gee was the most amazing guide ever; most of the guides in Africa are very good, but Gee is exceptional. Having grown up in the Delta, he has a first-hand knowledge and understanding of the land and the wildlife that few others have. We wanted to give him a special gift to remember us by. Gee had told us earlier in the trip that he’d had to sell his camera to buy building materials for his house. Having bought a new camera recently, I had also brought my Nikon D7000 along as a backup; we gave that to Gee, along with a telephoto lens, as a thank-you gift. We presented it to him around the fire that evening, and he seemed to really like it.

 

     We heard the moaning roars of lions in the night; one of my favorite sounds ever. These sounded like they were not far away – maybe just across the water. Later we heard the high-pitched yipping cry of jackals.

 ~ Continued on next page ~


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