By Phyllis Dawson
Botswana - Part 7

It was a long way from the Moremi Gate to our camp. We were following a wet road through the woods; it seemed to be a different route than we had taken in the past, but perhaps it just looked different in the rainy season. There were many puddles in the road, and some of them were huge.
Gee let me drive! He had had been behind the wheel for eight hours when to my surprise he asked if I wanted to drive for a while, to give him a break. Wow! I don’t know if he really needed a break, or was just being nice letting me have a go at the wheel, but I jumped at the chance!  
I didn’t find the land cruiser too hard to drive; I am used to driving my truck and horse trailer, and I am comfortable shifting gears. I have driven in England enough that I am also comfortable driving on the left side of the road – though these roads were not really big enough to be on one side or the other, and besides the ranger we had not seen another vehicle all day. At first I was shifting a bit rough, and I had to sort out which gears to use, but as I went I got better, and the ride got smoother.


     I navigated quite a few huge potholes filled with water; and by huge, I mean they stretched across the whole road, and were often three or four feet deep. The key seemed to be to not fight the steering as you negotiate these craters, but to keep your hands loose and relaxed on the wheel.
There was much laughter at my driving and guiding skills. Paula said, ‘OK, now we expect you to be driving, spotting leopards, avoiding potholes, and pointing out birds we haven’t seen before.’ I braked to a stop, pointed up to the left and called out, ‘New bird!’
I drove through a beautiful area of big trees and meadows. We did see a new bird, the Crested Barbet – though it was Gee that pointed it out and not me. Then we came to an enormous pothole filled with water, bigger than all the rest; it must have been eight feet deep and would be like crossing a pond. I gladly let Gee take over the wheel again.
I am not sure how relaxing a break Gee had while I was driving, but I thought it really was fun, and I was honored that he trusted me to drive.


     With Gee driving again, we passed through a mopane forest. We were used to seeing these trees broken and stunted after being eaten by elephants, but here they grew tall and majestic. Gee told us the mopanes love the soil and rain in the Delta, and grow well there. Elephants can’t eat them all. The beautiful trees are used for building and for firewood.
A bird of prey sat high in a tree while we tried to identify it; after much debate and comparing our close up photos with the bird book, we decided it was a Booted Eagle. We saw a beautiful small yellow bird in a tree - an African Golden Oriole.  

     A lone African buffalo stood in a small waterhole, covered in mud – Gee called him a dagga boy. The buffalo snorted and pawed the ground, annoyed that we were watching him. I asked Gee why they are called dagga boys; he told us that the guys who mix the mud for building are called dagga boys, and since the old male buffalos are always muddy they got that nickname.

African Buffalo

     We saw a few more buffalo and another herd of giraffes. An elephant bull in musth blocked the road. Gee gunned the engine to make him yield right of way; he moved off in annoyance and vanished mysteriously into the underbrush.  

Around four o'clock the rain started again and we pulled out the ponchos. It wasn’t bad though - the temperature was pleasant and we didn't get wet under our ponchos. A call came over the radio; a guide needs help – his vehicle has fallen through Third Bridge and is stuck. Gee turned to us and asked, shall we go? Yes, of course – helping each other out here in the bush is the way it is done.
But before we got far, a ranger flagged us down and said to follow him to see something close and amazing. Gee followed; I got the impression he did not want to tell the ranger of our intended rescue mission - the guides seem to stick together and help each other. The vehicle stuck in the bridge would have to wait.

     We followed the ranger past a park gate to a huge spreading tree. Looking up to where he indicated, we could see a female leopard lying on a branch above us. The carcass of a male impala hung a few feet from her; those long horns must have made it even harder to drag him up there.  The leopardess watched us uncertainly; soon we realized why – there was a cub on a high branch above her.

     Camouflaged among the leaves, the baby leopard peeked out at us shyly. He looked to be 3 or 4 months old, and was impossibly cute. Gee told us that leopards usually have only one baby at a time, or occasionally twins. We couldn’t believe our luck; two more leopards for our list. So much for them being hard to find this time of year.


     We resumed the rescue. Gee drove fast – the guide stuck on the bridge was waiting for us. We bumped quickly along the sand tracks. A big, beautiful kudu bull stood by the road but we did not pause. Gee briefly stopped at our new camp to drop off the luggage trailer. BD and KK looked aghast when we drove in, hours early, as they had not finished setting up camp - they were relieved when we dropped the trailer and took off again .

We came to Third Bridge, a long rickety wooden bridge across a marshy river. It was built from roughhewn poles about eight inches in diameter, laid side by side and set lengthwise across the span. It was in a state of disrepair, with places where the poles buckled upwards, or were rotted out altogether. It sagged noticeably in the middle. A green caution sign advised us:  DO NOT SPEED OVER BRIDGE.

Stuck on Third Bridge

     Part way across the bridge sat another land cruiser. It was leaning alarmingly, with the rear wheels on one side stuck down through a hole in the bridge. The guide seemed glad to see Gee; his guests were a group of Germans, and they were not happy.  Deciding the truck would need to be pulled forward, Gee drove around the swamp to the other side of the bridge. We got out and he backed his vehicle over the long bridge. We did wonder, if one truck fell through, was it wise to drive a second onto the bridge? But all went well, and Gee towed the other vehicle to firm land. Our rescue mission for was a success!

Marabou Stork

     As we started heading slowly back toward camp, the clouds darkened and the rain started up again.  A Sausage Tree stood alone on the plain, its huge seed pods hanging down like hundreds of fat sausages – many of the animals eat these pods. A Marabou Stork sat high in a dead tree; these huge storks are quite possibly the ugliest bird alive.  In contrast, a grey heron was similarly silhouetted against the sky, all elegant beauty and graceful lines. A flock of spurwing geese flew overhead, and the lonesome cry of a fish eagle floated on the air. We paused to watch an elephant feeding.


     We rolled into camp at six-thirty. It was the same campsite we’d had in 2015. It had been dry then, but now there was a waterhole down from the tents, and we could see birds and impala around it. There was a kudu and a buffalo skull by a tree behind our tent, and a monkey climbing in the tree beside Mary’s tent. Our towels were on our beds, folded into shapes like impala and buffalo heads.

Towel Art on our beds

     As the rain stopped and the clouds cleared, an amazing double rainbow stretched out across the pink and purple sunset sky. We sat by the fire and watched the brilliant display with appreciation.
At dinner, we noticed porcupine quills had been added to the bicycle sculpture on the table. Life had prepared a lovely birthday cake for Mike; it was one day early but we didn't let on.


February 14
It was raining softly as we set out in the morning. We were scheduled to go for a boat ride on the Xakanaxa Lagoon. A female kudu stood in the morning mist and watched us pass, her thin white stripes blending with the tall grass in the pre-dawn light. A herd of impala were running back and forth. We saw no predators; the impala seemed to be running just for the joy of it. A Giraffe stood in the half-light among the trees; she had a small baby, the youngest we had seen so far. Baby giraffes’ necks appear thick for their size, and their heads proportionally tiny.

Baby giraffe

     We got to the boat dock about 7:15, and boarded a medium-sized covered motor boat. Our driver and boat guide was named Fly. Gee stayed behind in the land cruiser to watch the belongings, and we hoped he might get a nap – with our penchant for long game drives we had been working him pretty hard. 
Gee laughingly said maybe we would get lucky and see a situnga; he explained that these are very rare antelopes that live in the marshy areas along the river. He told us they are very elusive, and nobody ever sees them.

     It was raining fairly hard by the time we got underway. Fly navigated the winding channels through the tall thick reeds and brought us out to a huge lagoon.  Lily pads lined the way, and the grass was laden with water droplets. It was very serene, and seemed worlds away from the bushveld we had become used to.
We watched a pied kingfisher as he hovered above the water like a giant hummingbird; he would suddenly dive straight down and hit the surface with a huge splash, coming up more often than not with a fish.

Malachite Kingfisher

     We were able to get quite close to a beautiful little Malachite Kingfisher sitting in the reeds. He was holding a tiny silver fish in his beak. I was able to get a photo that not only showed the light in his eye (Gee’s standard for a good bird photo); you could just about see the light in the fish’s eye as well.  
There were quite a few new birds for us on the boat ride, including the African Stonechat, a Black-crowned Night Heron, a Black Crake and a Red-collared Widow Bird. Pygmy Geese floated by us, and we saw a Purple Heron when we stopped for tea.  

     Suddenly we saw a large swell rising up ahead of us like a great wave. Just as we were wondering what it could possibly be, an angry hippo plunged up out of the water, leaping and pushing a bow wave ahead of him. Then he turned and faced us, moving closer with his face barely out of the water as he scrutinized us. He glared at us a while, then submerged with a big exhalation and pushed up a few more waves. It was very impressive. He did not want us there, and let us know it in no uncertain terms. 

     Looking out across the wet fields, we could see an antelope grazing in the tall grass. At first we thought it was a lechwe, but it didn’t look quite right. Fly looked amazed, and told us it was a Situnga! Very rare, he said. Gee would never believe it! We were not real close, but we could see it well through the binoculars, and I was able to get a photo for proof.

The  rare and elusive Situnga

     As we finished our loop route and headed back, pygmy geese swam among the lily pads, and a goliath heron flew up out of the reeds on slow silver wings. We were back with Gee at 9.30. I pulled out my camera and showed him the picture of the situnga, and feigning innocence asked him, ‘Is this a lechwe?’  My god!  he exclaimed. 

     We were on the road again by ten. We watched as a group of young impalas exercised, racing in circles at top speed. A pair of African Green Pigeons perched in a tree above us.

 Impalas getting their daily exercise.

     A vervet monkey sat it a cleft in a tree, watching us. There were several young monkeys up in the branches, jumping from limb to limb, swinging and romping. They were quite daring, and put on an acrobatic show. Several times they looked like they were starting to fall, but then nimbly caught themselves. Two mothers with small babies lounged by the roadside; the youngsters pulled and jumped at their moms, begging for attention.

Vervet Monkey 

     We drove through an area of beautiful large trees. Gee identified Marula trees, Jackleberry and Ebony trees with their near-black trunks. There were many large mopanes as well; we marveled again at how tall and lovely they grow when the elephants don’t keep them bitten off to nubs. The mopane leaves are butterfly-shaped, and reddish at the tips. 
Gee pointed out a strangler fig on a large mopane tree; these thick limb-like vines will kill there host tree. Birds deposit the strangler fig seed on the tree, and the vine grows from there, stretching both up to the branches and down to the ground where it roots. The area was scattered with huge termite mounds; several of them were twenty feet tall.

     There were some pretty wildflowers here and there; Jineen was especially drawn to them. Many of them went unidentified, but Gee usually knew what they were if we asked him. There were wild hibiscus with yellow flowers, and Devil’s Claw, the national flower of Botswana – Gee told us these pretty little pink wildflowers are used to treat venereal disease. He pointed out a milkweed plant, quite different from those at home, and told us the monarch butterflies feed on them. As always we saw many birds; the Black Capped Bul-bul, Puff-backed Shrike and Grey-backed Camaroptera were a few of the new ones.

The baby Leopard

     We went back to check on the leopards we had seen in the tree the evening before. The mother was on the ground, just leaving as we approached. Gee said she is very shy. She looked at us through the grass and disappeared silently into the undergrowth. Then we saw the baby, half hidden behind the tree. He played peekaboo with us, peering out from one side of the trunk and then the other, and then he moved to a different tree and repeated the performance. After a while he quietly moved off through the brush in the direction his mother had gone.

     A troop of baboons moved by; they seemed shy and wary. Several big males were barking noisily, loud and aggressive. Two babies were riding upside down under their mothers’ bellies, with their tails sticking out between her hind legs.


     One baboon mother was sitting holding her small baby in her lap and hugging him to her chest. The little one looked straight at us and made eye contact, unlike the adults who always seem to avert their gaze. The baby baboons look very different from the grownups. While the adults have longer snouts and dark faces, the infants have hairless pink faces fringed with dark fur, and they resemble a baby chimpanzee – or even a baby human. I find most baby animals irresistibly cute, but there was something slightly disturbing about those little pink baby baboon faces staring at us. Gee said the males can be dangerous; if you are on foot don’t walk among them.  


     We saw a hint of motion in the dappled forest shadows. We got a quick glimpse of a male leopard as he walked through the trees hunting. We searched for him through the thickets, but could not find him again. Gee told us that leopards are the most active of all the big cats, and they will hunt all day if they need to. They are his favorite among the cats.
We were now up to seven leopards. Unbelievable! Keeping with a long-standing Dawson Family tradition, I made up a bad limerick for the occasion:

 The leopard is elusive to see
They hide in tall grass, says Gee
But when we saw seven
We thought it was heaven
Especially when they took dinner up a tree

     A herd of female impala were walking along near the road. A bit further on we saw a large male impala enthusiastically thrashing a sapling; he shredded the bark as he raked the base of his horns up and down the trunk. It looked as if he was fighting with the small tree. He kept at it for some while; we didn’t know if he was scratching an itch or taking out his anger on the shrubbery. Gee said he has a scent gland on his head, and was marking his territory. Finally the impala was finished flaying the tree and bounded away.

         We stopped to spend a little time with a very pregnant giraffe. She browsed in the trees sedately. Her stomach was enormous; she must have been close to her due date. Gee told us the babies are born in September and October. We continued back to camp, getting in for lunch at 12:30.

     There was a waterhole several hundred yards from camp, set in a large open glade among the tall trees. Many dead tree trunks stood around it, drowned from flooding when shifts in the earth had changed the watercourse. A group of impala were chasing each other around, and we could see Egyptian geese and egrets at the edge of the water. A dozen zebras filed down to drink.
Mary and I walked across the glade toward the waterhole, but we were not quite sure if it was safe to stray so far from the tents. Suddenly the impalas started snorting their alarm calls – uh oh, is there a leopard? No, we realized, they are snorting at us. We headed back to the tents.

The waterhole at camp

     A spectacular Burchell's starling posed on a log outside my tent for photos, his iridescent blue feathers gleaming in the sun. He tilted his head and looked at me beseechingly, hoping for handouts. Mindful of what Gee had told us about feeding the birds, I gave him nothing.

Burchell's Starling

     Mary’s tent was the last one in line, and that was where the action was. Two young vervet monkeys climbed in a tree, romping up and down the trunk and tussling with each other. One of them chewed on a stick while the other tried to wrestle it away.


      A male red-billed hornbill sat on a limb right in front of Mary’s tent. He was holding a large grub in his beak; then he flew to a hole in the tree and reached his head in. We realized there was a hornbill nest in the hollow part of the tree, and the male was feeding his mate.
Gee had told us about the hornbills’ mating habits before: The female hornbill squeezes through an opening into a hollow in a tree, then molts, and uses all of her feathers to make a nest. The male seals her in, leaving only a small hole which he feeds her through. She stays sealed in the nest until the eggs hatch and the babies are big enough to come out, and until her feathers have grown back. I had only half believed this scenario until I saw it for myself!

Red-billed Hornbill

     A bit later I had just finished my bucket shower when I heard Natalie quietly call to me, “There are zebras behind the tent!” And indeed there were, right behind the tent. 


     A family group of eight wandered by leisurely. There were four adults, a couple of yearlings, and two foals, one of them very small. They stopped often to nibble grass, and for the youngsters to scratch each other’s backs. The small baby was very curious about a vervet monkey that was in the path, following it until the monkey ran off. A big stallion rubbed his withers against a tree trunk.

     The zebras grazed their way down to the waterhole, pausing often but not seeming to notice us. They drank their fill, and then stood by the water a long time. The babies rubbed one another while the adults yawned copiously - they looked like they were laughing.  After a while they all moved back toward the camp. This time they did notice us; they stopped and snorted repeatedly. The big stallion looked at us warily and dared us to mess with his herd.


     The mare with the small foal stopped and stared at us; the baby nuzzled her and nursed a little. They were so beautiful, like magical creatures from a dream. Eventually they drifted off and disappeared into the trees. It was the best baby zebra sightings of the whole trip, right here within 20 feet of our tents. I thought to myself, ‘I love this camp!’


     We went back out around 2:30. Unfortunately Mary was not feeling well, so she sat out this drive. Right away we came across two female kudus. One of them stood quite close to the road and watched us with interest; I used this opportunity to get some close-up face shots of her.

Female Kudu

     We skirted along the edge of a permanent lagoon. A large hippo was walking along the shore, out of the water; he was wet with mud and slime. He turned his back to us and showed us his amazing round rump.


     A pair of Reed Bucks stood, appropriately, in the reeds. These medium-sized antelopes look a bit like the red lechwe, but they are a paler fawn color with refined faces, and are built level, not down-hill like the lechwes. The reed bucks are far less numerous; we saw them only twice on the whole trip.

      A baby croc was out sunning himself beside a small waterhole. The babies are so much brighter and prettier than the adults; this one was a mottled green and brown color, and looked clean and fresh - the adults are the grey-brown color of mud.      
There was a huge hamerkop nest in the croft of a tree. These unusual birds will use any materials they can find to build their nests, including sticks and branches, trash, discarded clothing and old shoes. Sometimes kids will break open the hamerkops nest to see what they find, but this is considered very bad luck.

     We came across a big male hyena sleeping in the sun. His spotted coat was a light chestnut brown color - I thought this unusual, but then again I’m not sure I had ever seen a hyena in full sunlight before. Several times he raised his head, looked around drowsily, and lay back down flat again. Finally got up slowly and walked away, probably to find a more private spot to finish his nap.


     A lone wildebeest bull stood in the road gazing at us; he was there alone guarding his territory. His face was covered in mud, though the rest of him was pretty clean. The soft black stripes across his neck and ribcage stood out in the afternoon sunlight.


     Around four o'clock we came to a large termite mound with a few trees around it, at the edge of a wide field. Gee pointed and asked us, ‘Do you recognize this place?’ And then suddenly I did! This was the spot where we had we rescued a Dutch family back in 2015. They had been self-driving and camping, and had gotten stuck – when we found them they had been out there for five days. Being winter the Okavango Delta had been flooded from the Angola rains, and the field had been under several feet of water. This was the termite mound where the family had their fire. We could still see the deep tire ruts where their truck had been stuck.


     We had a nice visit with a pair of giraffes. The big male stood close to the road gazing at us while a particularly precocious oxpecker climbed on his head and pecked at his horny knobs. We passed several more groups of giraffes; from time to time they would take off running in their slow-motion rollicking canter.  
Looking up, we saw a pair of saddle-billed storks flying high above us, backlit, the white edges of their wings glowing in the sun. These huge birds are graceful in flight. 
A pair of fish eagles looked down on us from a high tree. One of them called out; his soul-searching cry gave me shivers up my spine. The call of the fish eagle is often referred to as “The Call of Africa.” The two raptors took to the air and sailed off on powerful wings.

Fish Eagle 

     We saw something moving in the grass - it was a Water Monitor Lizard. He must have been four feet in length, and had attractive, patterned black and yellow scales. He walked along quickly and came to an old termite mound. For a moment he looked like he might go down a hole, but then he thought better of it. He raised his head and looked around, regarding us with beady eyes. He was quite beautiful.


     A group of male impalas were grazing; the biggest one appeared to be the leader of this bachelor herd. He walked regally along, holding his head high as he looked around watchfully. Because they are so common it is easy to take the impalas for granted, but they really are exquisitely beautiful.  

Impala buck

     We saw a pair of Monarch Butterflies on a mopane tree. Similar to our monarchs but smaller, they were a bright orangey chestnut color, and their wings and bodies were rimmed were with black and white polka dots. A heavily pregnant banded mongoose scurried though the underbrush.      
On each drive we would see many animals such as giraffes, zebras, impala, and lechwe, as well as birds by the dozen, so I am not necessarily recording every sighting of the more common wildlife. But as I go through my thousands of photographs and look at the times they were taken, other than occasional stretches on travel days it was rare that more than five minutes went by without seeing something worth photographing.

Red Lechwe

     Around five o'clock we came to a blackened area where a fire had swept through a month prior. Green grass grew on either side of a narrow black swath where everything had been burned away. A mother zebra stood on the edge of the burned area, nursing her foal.  

     We were driving along when suddenly Tara called out, “Look, there is a big frickin’ lizard!” We quickly realized it was not a lizard but a crocodile, and a big one at that, quite far from the water. Realizing we had seen him, the crocodile took off and ran from us. I expected him to crawl, but instead he lifted up on his legs, well off the ground, and moved with surprising speed.


     He went fast over a small ridge, heading for a nearby lagoon, and Gee followed - but as the croc topped the rise he found to his dismay there was no water in the lagoon. Changing tactics, he gave camouflage a try. He stopped under a tree and froze, and did not move a muscle or bat so much as an eyelash again. We pulled up close to look at him; he had an amazing serpentine row of jagged teeth, and surprisingly beautiful green eyes.


     Hippos can hold their breath for six minutes, Gee told us, but crocs can hold theirs for up to an hour.  In Africa, dinosaurs and elephants walked the same territory, but separated by 200 million years.  Crocodiles were around during the time of dinosaurs, and survived all those millenniums unchanged. The dinosaurs are long gone, but the crocodiles are still here.

 ~ Continued on next page ~

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