By Phyllis Dawson
Botswana - Part 6
Khwai to Moremi

Shortly before five o'clock we drove by a large all-season waterhole with a few hippos floating out in the middle; we remembered watching wild dogs trot along here in the dusk on our last trip. A lone hippo entered the water from shore, walking right through a flock of about twenty little Fulvous Whistling Ducks. 
     Gee’s radio crackled; the guides often radio each other when they find something interesting – though being low season there was not a lot of radio talk on this trip. “Roger, Roger, Roger,” Gee replied (he pronounces it Ro-jure, Ro-jure, Ro-jure, always repeating it three times). He told us another guide had sighted a leopardess in a tree. We headed toward its location; driving fast on the bumpy road. “Stay in the vehicle,” Gee advised, looking back at us over his shoulder.  (Good advice, but this can actually be quite challenging for those in the back seats.)
We paused for a small troop of baboons beside the road; we stayed to watch them a few minutes. Their leader was a huge male who looked quite fierce; we remembered what Gee had told us about the aggressive baboons in Savuti. A female was walking along with a baby clinging upside-down to her stomach.


     The leopard was gone by the time we got there, maybe because we had stopped for the baboons. Gee took us to a hyena den. Several other vehicles were there as well. We could see the entrance of a large burrow in the sandy soil; we sat there quietly, hoping the babies would come out.
     We some watched starlings building a nest, and a squirrel running over a termite mound. We listened to the refrain of the doves as they chanted Bots-wa-na, Bots-wa-na, though tonight it sounded to me like they might be saying Look farther, Look farther.


     We sat there for over an hour before a young hyena face finally poked up out of the den for a few seconds. A quick look and it was gone again. Finally at seven an adult (mom?) walked by in the near-darkness, checking us out. Then she moved on - too many vehicles, no doubt. We moved on as well.  

     Darkness fell, and Gee was sweeping the spotlight back and forth as he drove. Unlike the national parks, in Khwai we were allowed to drive at night. Gee’s light fell on a quickly moving shadow; we got a quick glimpse of another leopard.
     There was a rush of wind and feathers as a Giant Eagle Owl swooped by us. A Scrub Hare crouched timidly in the grass. Gee used a red filter on the spotlight whenever he sighted an animal or bird, so as not to impair their night vision. It was always his goal to give us a great view of the animals, but without affecting their behavior. We startled a hippo beside the road, glowing scarlet in the red spotlight. 
Earlier Paula had asked Gee what made a sound like ‘whip-poor-will, ha ha ha’, that she had heard in the night. Now we heard it again; it was a fiery-necked nightjar.

     Gee stopped and the land cruiser in the middle of an open field, turning off the motor. The evening air felt fantastic, and we listened to the night sounds. Gee always knows how to find his way from place to place, and knows exactly where to go, even at night. He asked us how we think he does it. Does he navigate by the stars? By maps? No. He knows all the roads and paths from travelling them over and over again. He has memorized the tracks and the rivers, and learned where the animals like to go, he told us, and all of the ways of the bush are in his head. We considered ourselves lucky to be able to benefit from his vast experience in these parks.  

     Gee continually shined the spotlight up into the trees, looking for the glint of eyes. After a while he spotted a Bush Baby. These tiny, nocturnal, arboreal primates have huge eyes, mobile ears and long bushy tails. We had a glimpse of him in the trees, sitting on a branch with his tail hanging down.

     Then we saw Springhares! The spotlight caught the glint of their eyes as they were hopping along near the road. These darling nocturnal rodents are about the size and shape of a small rabbit, but they hop on their large hind legs while holding their tiny front paws up in front of them. Springhares look just like tiny kangaroos; I think they are one of Africa’s best kept secrets.


     We saw lightning strike the ground in the distance many times, but we could hear no thunder. This seemed odd, but distances are deceiving – we realized because the land was so flat we could see the lightning from much further away than at home. As we neared camp there was a much closer flash of lightning, accompanied by a loud crack of thunder. We thought we might get wet, but the storm moved off across the dark plain. Dinner was waiting when we got back to camp.

February 12
We heard hyena calls in the night again, and lions in the morning. It rained hard from three to five a.m. Our wakeup call didn’t come until 5.30; we got to sleep in because of the rain. We had our usual breakfast of hard-boiled eggs and avocado on toast, and then we were on our way.
The bush was rain washed, with everything fresh and clean. The water droplets clung to the leaves, getting us wet as we brushed by them. Maybe today I would have a chance to get that photo of the lion shaking the raindrops off his mane.
An egret perched at the very top of a dead tree, and below it walked a new bird, the Hadeda Ibis. It is named for its distinctive call; Ha! Ha-aa-a-a.  

     A beautiful waterbuck stood in a rain-drenched meadow, looking at us over his shoulder. He had magnificent twisted horns, and the white target marking on his rump stood out in the dim morning light. Gee told us that waterbucks don’t taste very good to many predators. Wild dogs don’t hunt, them but lions will eat them.


     It started raining. I got a considerable amount of grief for having asked yesterday if it ever rains during the rainy season; it seems I was now to blame for the precipitation. Gee handed out excellent waterproof ponchos.

     We came to a lovely glade with a few big trees. It was raining steadily, and the light was dim. Gee spotted a female leopard with a recently-killed impala. She was dragging it across a field, huffing and puffing – it was very hard work. She panted with exertion; the impala weighed as much as she did. The leopardess would stop to rest for a few moments, and then get a new grip on the impala’s neck and set off again, dragging it between her front legs and underneath her belly. This was repeated over and over as she slowly worked her way across the field.


     A herd of impala stood facing the leopard in the misty rain, making alarm calls. I was surprised they didn’t run away, but Gee said they knew she was not hunting now, and they wanted to be able to keep an eye on her and know where she was. We noticed the leopardess had already eaten some of the impala; it must have been last night’s kill. There were large dark holes where its eyes had been; she had apparently eaten the eyeballs first– they must be a delicacy.


     The leopardess was looking up, scanning the trees. Finding one that suited her, she dragged the impala to the base of the tree and stood sizing it up, judging the effort she would need to make. I didn’t see how she could do it – as hard a time as she had dragging the carcass across the field, how would she ever get it up into the tree? We watched in awe as she grabbed it by the neck, rocked back and made a huge effort, leaping and scrambling up the trunk, dragging the impala along with her. She reached a fork high off the ground and paused to rest there for a few minutes. At least the impala was a female so there were no horns to catch on things.


     Our leopard hoisted the impala again and climbed higher, making her way up a slanting branch a good twenty feet above the ground. It would definitely be safe from the hyenas there. She wedged the carcass securely on the branch, and then gathered herself and nimbly leaped over it, moving further up the limb. 
     Then she rested, lying draped over a branch with her legs hanging down in that signature leopard pose. Amazing. The only thing that could have made it better would have been brighter light for photos.


     After she had rested a while the leopardess got up and stood on the high branch for a few moments, silhouetted against the sky. Then she came down out of the tree. She walked head-first down the steeply angled branch to the fork, and then leaped nimbly to the ground. She marked her territory, and then walked off toward a waterhole for a drink.  We did not follow, but left her to her privacy. I had secretly wished to see a leopard in a tree, but this beat my wildest expectations. Unbelievable. Leopard number four, and one of our best all time sightings. The leopard talisman was working like a charm.  


     We had spent about an hour with the leopardess when we moved on. It was still raining softly. We were watching some hippos navigate a narrow winding river channel when Gee spotted a Malachite Kingfisher sitting on some reeds by the water. This tiny beautiful kingfisher is bright blue with orange and white markings, and is spectacular. Gee also pointed out two birds that are endemic to the Okavango Delta; the Hartlaub’s Babbler and the Coppery-tailed Coucal. Wet and bedraggled, the coucal looked miserable in the rain.

Coppery-tailed Coucal

     We stopped for tea by the Chobe border. Every leaf and blade of grass was covered in rain droplets, as if laden with pearls. We asked Gee to tell us the whole story about the leopardess and her kill. Here is what he said:

     I got a radio call that a leopard was in a tree, with a hyena sniffing around. Even a single hyena will take the kill from a leopard. The leopardess made the kill in the night. She would stalk the impala, hide in the cover and attack from 3 to 5 meters away. They can chase down a baby impala but not an adult. Then she would have immediately gutted the impala, and then buried the entrails because they can be smelled for miles. Then she ate some, including the eyes.
The hyena was probably a young and inexperienced one, and it left the tree – it probably had found the entrails. Immediately the leopardess started to move the carcass, to get it out of reach of hyenas. We came along just then and watched her carry the impala to the tree.
Our leopardess’s mother had held this area; then she extended her territory, and gave the old territory to the daughter. Then after the daughter had babies, the mom pushed her out to a smaller territory.
When leopards have small babies, they move them every three days or so. They will hide them in thickets, hollow logs, or up in a tree. Even small babies can climb very well; they will climb to the very top of a tree. But leopards can’t climb palm trees. I once saw one climb another tree, and then leap three meters into a palm tree. They can grab a baboon, fall out of the tree, twist around in mid-flight and land on the baboon.


     A small flock of helmeted guineafowl moved through the grass and across a log, hunched against the rainy weather. These striking birds have black and white speckled feathers, bright blue and red heads, and a horny knob on the top of their heads. They have a noisy call, often sounding an alarm if they sense danger.

Helmeted Guineafowl

     A group of vervet monkeys were walking through a wooded area, and a few of them were climbing high in the trees. A big male displayed his vivid sky blue balls; they can control if they show the family jewels or keep them hidden. If another monkey shows his balls, the dominant male is likely to castrate him with his teeth. Female vervet monkeys find the blue balls desirable.

Vervet Monkey

     We passed through an elephant forest; this was an area filled with dead trees killed by the elephants. The limbs looked like earie outstretched hands. I wished I could explain to the elephants about conserving their resources. A lone elephant walked among the dead trees. Gee told us that animals like to come to the elephant forest because it is open, but the dead trees still give some cover. A tawny eagle gazed down regally at us from a high branch; his feathers were tawny bronze intermingled with dark.

Tawny Eagle

     We saw a beautiful butterfly, and I wondered why there seemed to be so few of them here. Gee told us about the government’s efforts to control the tsetse fly:
‘The flies nest in camelthorn acacia trees, so they decided to kill all of those trees. After a while that was stopped. They considered killing the top two host animals, buffalo and warthogs, but then they realized that humans are number three; if you kill 1 and 2 they will come after us. Then they used DDT, which killed all the butterflies. Finally they developed baited traps, and managed to mostly eradicate the tsetse flies in Botswana.’

     A jackal scrutinized us from a distance, and a pair of impala with a small baby watched us warily. A Slender Mongoose climbed out on a log, yet another elegant member of the mongoose family.  
A White-backed Vulture sat in a dead tree, giving off a grim reaper sort of vibe. Soon we found the reason he was there; we passed the carcass of a dead elephant. It had been dead a while, and the smell was overwhelming. Flies buzzed all over it. Ugh! Gee paused so we could take a look, but I was wishing he would just drive on.

     We came to a lovely lagoon; a striking black and white Sacred Ibis stood at the edge of the water, along with some Egyptian geese and white-faced ducks. A fish eagle perched in a high tree, his mournful cry wafting down through the mist. We admired the graceful lines of an African darter, with his slender racy head and neck and his duck-like feet. Just beyond him in the water the serrated ridges of a crocodile’s back broke the surface.

Egyptian Geese

     Out across the bushveld black clouds were rolling in, the stormy light making for dramatic landscapes. In a reversal of last night’s meteorological show, now we could hear the thunder but could not see any lightning. But either way, a storm was definitely coming.
It started pouring rain. We huddled in our ponchos as we drove back to camp. My earlier question about rain in the rainy season was blamed for this downpour; it seems it may have brought on bad juju.
     We got back to camp around noon, earlier than usual because of the weather. We ate lunch and then took a nap.

The Rainy Season

     It was still raining lightly when we went out at four. We bundled up in the ponchos and set off, fortified by high tea. (We usually skipped tea because we came in for lunch late and went back out early, but on this occasion it was much appreciated.)
Went took the main road, and almost immediately we found wild dogs, five of them, standing in the road in the rain. They disagreed about which way to go. Three of them wanted to take the road ahead of us, and the other two wanted to go back the other way.

African Wild Dog

     Two of the dogs trotted right past our land cruiser, pausing to urge the others to come along. They started to follow, but then suddenly turned back and went the other way. Not wanting to be separated, the first pair went back to try to convince the others to change direction. This routine was repeated several times, back and forth. While the elders were having this discussion, two of the younger dogs chased each other several times around the truck. 
We were happy for the opportunity to watch the dogs in action close up. They were lean and fit, with strong necks and powerful jaws. A bit like a German shepherd head on a greyhound body, but with huge round ears. After a while they came to an agreement on direction and went off through the trees trying to find the rest of their pack, and we moved on as well.  


     A Greater Painted Snipe was wading near the edge of a waterhole; he was quite beautiful, marked in brown, black, white and chestnut.  A Yellow-billed Egret flew by in the rain. Another brood of baby Egyptian geese waddled after their parents.  

     We were able to get quite close to a small herd of wet zebras. The wise-looking old stallion had a broad head with a roman nose, and the scars of many battles could be seen on his coat. One of the zebra mares had a small foal about a month old, still with his fuzzy baby coat. The mother was missing her tail, probably from a close encounter with a lion. The baby stood wet and bedraggled in the rain, looking somewhat miserable. Two half-grown youngsters stood scratching each other’s withers, but after a while they started to bite and wrestle, mock-fighting. An elephant walked sedately past behind the zebra herd.


     Presently the rain stopped. A huge bull elephant crossed the road and walked right in front of us; the ends were broken off his tusks. He stopped by a tall tree stump and started rubbing his chest and stomach on it, scratching himself blissfully for a long while.

     More male elephants strolled up; now there were five of them. Two big bulls challenged each other, advancing on each other assertively. One would charge forward as the other backed away, and then they would switch; back and forth they went. One of them almost backed into the land cruiser. Up close and personal with the elephants!
The bulls moved at each other again. We wondered what would happen - would this be a mighty fight? But instead of attacking, this time when they came head to head one of them wrapped his trunk tenderly around the other’s tusk, and they stood there companionably. Apparently they had just been playing a game.


     We went back to check on our leopardess. She was asleep in the tree with her impala, lying over a branch with a front leg hanging down. After a while she got up, looked around watchfully, and then lay down again. She restlessly shifted positions several times. Finally she went over to the carcass and ate some more; the impala was about half gone.


     It was a fabulous sunset, and the air was cool and fresh as we drove into the darkening evening. A starling perched on a dead tree, framed against a crimson sky. We were startled as something big buzzed by us; it sounded like a monster horse fly but then was gone. A giant eagle owl perched in a tree.
The brilliant sunset lingered as the fierce red sky melted to shades of pink and mauve. That buzzing noise came again; it turned out to be a Carpenter Bee, over two inches long - it sounded like a small aircraft, or perhaps a drone.  

     Gee shone the spotlight on a Rock Monitor Lizard, stretched out on a branch high in a tree. He looked almost like a snake at first. His head was hidden in shadows, but we could see his long scaly body and legs. As we drove on we saw a Fiery-necked Nightjar, a scrub hare hiding in the dark, and more of those amazing little springhares. Another  another giant eagle owl gazed down at us wisely from a tree.

 Gant Eagle Owl

     Gee stopped the cruiser by a marshy area, turned off the motor and told us to just listen. There was an incredible chorus of frogs singing and croaking. We could hear four or five different songs at the same time, all in harmony with each other. It was absolutely beautiful. Gee said they sing like that just after rain. This is always my favorite part of the night drives, stopping in the dark to just listen to the sounds of the night.

     When we were almost back to camp we saw a hyena, no doubt lurking about hoping to raid the kitchen later, or perhaps find someone’s shoes left outside the tent. 
No time for sitting around the fire tonight; the crew called us to dinner right away with a meow call. A Sundowner Moth flitted around the table while we ate. We heard the hippos laughing in the night, but our hyena did not come back to visit.  

February 13
It was moving day again, and we set out early. We paused to watch a whole troop of baboons move across the road and past us; there were about forty of them. Several of the females had babies riding crouched on their backs like jockeys. One baby sat up tall on his mother’s rump, leaning back against her upward-held tail, looking around like he was royalty. Another mom came loping along with her baby clinging upside-down to her belly. Two adults walked toward each other in the road and tenderly shared a quick hug. We watched them with fascination.


     The baboons moved through the brush, not hurrying, but covering the ground efficiently on their long nimble legs. Baboons are athletic, graceful even. You could almost even consider them beautiful, if it weren't for those ugly bald butts. The big dominant male leader came by, heavily muscled and strong, ever watchful. You wouldn’t want to mess with him.


     Presently Gee realized something was wrong with the trailer; he stopped to check and found it was not closed properly, and two of the camp chairs had fallen out. We went back and found them.


     We went to the hyena den that we had visited two nights earlier, and this time there was plenty to see. Two mothers were lying near the den, and there were four babies moving around. The smallest was about two months old, the others three and four months. Gee said the mothers come in the morning and feed the cubs, and then let them play a while. When the cubs go back in the den, the mothers leave. 

     The adults checked us out thoroughly, but they apparently decided we were no threat so they went back to sleep. Meanwhile, the youngsters cavorted around, treating our vehicle as a grand adventure, daring each other to approach us. One of the would run boldly up to the vehicle, look at us inquisitively, and then scamper away in mock terror - then it would be another’s turn to make the same daring approach. 


     They played this game over and over, while the mothers watched indulgently. One youngster lay on his back with his feet in the air and idly pawed the branches above his head with his front legs. Hyenas don’t have a great reputation, and the adults may be considered ugly by many, but let me tell you, there are few things cuter than a baby hyena.


     A pair of Saddle-billed Storks wandered through a stretch of tall grass. These storks are huge birds, almost five feet tall. They are vivid black and white, with stripes of red and yellow on their bills, and they have bright yellow eyes. They are one of Gee’s favorite birds, and mine too.

Saddle-billed Stork

     We came out to a wet grassy plain inhabited by a large herd of red lechwe. There were dozens of these antelopes grazing, or loping along with their peculiar downhill gait. Lechwe Plain, we called it. The lechwe look amazingly off-balance as they move; they may be Gee’s favorite antelope, but they remind me too much of a horse on its forehand.


     We noticed a beautiful red lily with yellow edging; Gee said it was a flame lily, and that it is very poisonous. If you eat one you die, Gee told us, unless you boil it with milk - then it is OK. I wonder if this is true? I wouldn’t want to test it.
On the new bird front, we saw an Emerald-spotted Wood Dove and a Long-toed Plover. An African Crake was taking a bath in a puddle. 

The clouds were rolling in and it looked like more rain was coming. We could see black storm clouds in the distance with showers slanting down. I was still getting grief for my earlier comments about the rainy season. 

     We watched some hippos in a narrow river, so close we could count their whiskers. They floated with just their ears, eyes and nostrils showing above the water. A baby hippo swam beside her mother, impossibly tiny beside Mom’s huge bulk. She would submerge for a while, and then suddenly pop back up.


     We passed through Khwai Village, with its small round houses with thatched roofs, huts made with coke bottles built into the mud walls, and the Water Lilly Tuck Shop with murals painted on the walls. Several new houses had fences stretching nine feet high to keep the elephants out of the yard, with four or five strands of electric wire laid out horizontal on the ground. We saw several cottages with their thatch roofs in shambles; the baboons had torn them up. We passed a school, and two little boys rushed out to wave at us - we waved back.
We crossed the pole bridge over the Khwai River, briefly disturbing the egrets sitting on the railings. We checked in at the Moremi gate, and Gee showed us where we were on the big wall map. It started to rain gently. 

Intermediate Egret

     We drove along with the Khwai River on our right; we could see the Khwai Concession that we had just left on the other side. We could see muddy hippo paths through the tall grass and reeds. We were welcomed into Moremi by lechwe, impalas and kudus. A raft of hippos floated in the water, and a rather large crocodile lay sunning himself on a mound. A giraffe watched us go by and a trio of vultures peered down at us from a tree. A dwarf mongoose watched us intently from a fallen tree. A juvenile African harrier hawk clung to a tree, trying to rob a starling nest. As he flapped his wings and tried to reach his beak into the holes he was mobbed by the starlings.


     Each winter the Delta is flooded from rains that fell months earlier, a thousand miles to the north in the Angola highlands. This water flows down the Okavango River, filling lagoons and flooding fields and plains. While some of the deeper lagoons are permanent, the flooding is seasonal and in summer the water recedes. The flooding of the Delta happens in the dry season, and then as the floodwaters recede the rainy season comes, so there is abundant water most of the time. This makes the area a paradise for the wildlife. The Okavango has been described as ‘one of the last best places on earth.’ It is rich with life in amazing diversity and glory.


     We passed through an area of tall dead trees; Gee said that shifts in the Teutonic plates under the earth changed the water flow, flooding areas that had been dry for decades and killing the trees. The sky was lightening up some and the rain was letting up; now where was the photogenic lion with the raindrops in his mane? 
A ranger came by looking for a missing self-driver; Gee told us the rangers are identifiable by the red license plates on their vehicles. The self-drivers get lost, stuck or in trouble quite often; we were much happier having Gee for a guide. We could not have found a tenth of the things he showed us on our own.  

 ~ Continued on next page ~

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