By Phyllis Dawson
Botswana - Part 8

      We came to a big lagoon with hippos, crocs and many birds, surrounded by a wide green meadow filled with the standing trunks of dead trees. I recognized the place and remembered its name; we were at Dead Tree Island. The lagoon was much smaller than in winter when the Delta flooded, but it was still a wide lake. The meadow had been dry long enough for large trees to grow, then some shift had caused it to flood and the changing waters drowned the trees.

 Dead Tree Island

     Having visited the Okavango Delta several times and in different seasons, I felt like I was beginning to understand the place better. The Okavango River, fed by the rains from the highlands in Angola, flows into the Delta. Some of the lagoons only have water seasonally, while others are full year round. During the winter when the floods come much more of the area is under water, though the amount fluctuates from year to year depending on rainfall levels. 
The land is influenced by termite mounds and hippo trails. Almost all of the islands start out as termite mounds; trees grow from seeds deposited by baboons and birds on the mound, and then dirt and silt carried in by the floodwaters expands them. Gradually several mounds are connected, and islands are formed. Hippos moving from one area to another create paths that become water channels. From time to time seismic activity or shifts in the Teutonic plates alter the watercourses, as do changes in the channels made by hippos, causing areas that were dry to become flooded, and vice versa. 
Gee explained that many of the waterholes we saw were from the rain; they are not actually connected to the Delta, and would be gone by winter.
It is amazing how much flux there is in the environment and landscape of the Delta, and how quickly the changes come with the ebb and flow of the seasons. Land everywhere is changing, but usually it takes centuries or millenniums; here in the Okavango it seems to happen in mere decades.


     We watched the hippopotami floating in the lagoon.  Several of the males opened their mouths impossibly wide in order to show us their teeth to intimidate us. Crocs floated quietly in the water, their snouts and serrated backs just barely showing above the surface - there must have been a dozen or more of them. A lechwe buck picked his way among the dead trees on the other side of the water. A Bennett’s Woodpecker hopped along the trunk of a large dead tree beside us - I was sorry Mary had missed seeing it.
     A large herd of lechwe grazed in the meadow beside the lagoon. Two young bucks were practicing their fighting skills, head to head with horns interlocked as they pushed each other back and forth. Other youngsters paired up and followed their lead; soon there were half a dozen pairs mock-fighting.


      We drove on, entering a forested area. As we went through the trees we saw a Woodland Kingfisher perched on a branch. Black and grey with iridescent, electric blue wings and a bright orange beak, he was spectacular. I had gotten a glimpse of these small birds a time or two on previous trips, but I had not fully appreciated how beautiful they are. Now we were seeing them much more often and close-up, perhaps because it was summer. They were fast becoming my favorite kingfisher.

Woodland Kingfisher

     A pair of Cape turtle doves sat on a tree branch chanting to us. Paula had been hoping to see a turtle or tortoise on this trip; she has some at home and was hoping to see one in the wild. We told her that these turtle doves may be the closest she gets!
We saw another of my favorites, a green wood hoopoe. These iconic birds are a dark glossy green color, with bright orange beaks and long black and white tails. I was sorry Mary was missing all this. I thought, I wonder what will happen next?


     What happened next was pretty spectacular. A young male waterbuck was grazing in a glade, and we stopped to watch him. He lifted his head and looked at us curiously, and then started moving in our direction. He came straight toward the vehicle; I wondered if he wanted a ride.
Then suddenly a huge, dark-colored waterbuck bull came bounding out of the woods and ran toward the younger one aggressively. He was moving very fast. The young one ran for his life, with the big bull right on his tail in hot pursuit. They raced right past our land cruiser. The big dark bull was still chasing the smaller one when they disappeared from sight.


     It was getting on toward evening. We could see rain storms moving across the horizon. There was lightning in the distance, far enough away that we could not hear the thunder. 
We stopped by Jessie’s Pools. I remembered this series of pans from previous trips, though the water level was much lower now. There were a few geese and lechwes hanging about, but not much else going on. The storm was moving closer now and we thought for sure we would get wet; we pulled out the rain ponchos and put the cameras under cover. But in the end it barely sprinkled on us. 

     It was nearly seven when we returned to camp. We drove around the edge of the meadow, past the waterhole and the dead tree trunks, to where our tents were standing in a line beneath the large trees. Home sweet home. As usual the staff called and whistled as we drove into camp; they were a fun bunch of guys. We sat around the fire watching the lightning show on the horizon, recounting the day and reciting more bad limericks.

Our Camp

February 15
It was raining gently again in the morning. Gee said we were going on a long drive to the area where we had our last camp in 2017. The original plan had been to go on an all-day drive and have lunch out in the bush, but because of the rain Gee told us we would come back to camp to eat.  

     Two fish eagles greeted the morning, their haunting cry floating down from their perch high in a tree. As we drove through the woods, dodging huge water-filled potholes, Gee suddenly stopped and pointed out a tiny terrapin in a puddle; all that could be seen was its head sticking out of the water, about the size of a pea. This was new heights for Gee's ridiculous spotting skills! Paula had wanted to see a turtle of some sort, so this one was for her.


     A family of kudus peered at us intently as we drove by; there were two young males with tiny spike horns. A wise old bull giraffe looked on - Gee said he was more than 25 years old. Several guineafowl walked across a high dead branch, their black and white spotted plumage accented by their blue and red faces. You could never tell what would be around the next corner. Again Mary’s catchphrase played in my head; I wonder what will happen next?


     Gee was hoping to find a leopard. He told us that when it rains in the night the leopards have to mark their territory again, so the next morning they can sometimes be found out marking. He said a female leopard’s urine smells like popcorn.
Sure enough, a bit later Gee smelled the popcorn scent and knew a female leopard was near. (I will never think of popcorn the same way again.) Then we heard the alarm calls; the hornbills and guineafowl were squawking out loud warnings that there was a predator in the area. Gee reversed course and set off in a new direction, working his way around to where the alarms were coming from. Following the calls, he accurately guessed which way she was moving and placed us where we would intercept her.


     Gee found the leopardess. We could see that she was pregnant. She walked stealthily through the tall wet grass, glancing our way every now and then. We watched her, repositioning a few times to keep her in view. The guineafowl kept up a loud obnoxious racket the whole time. After a few minutes Gee turned away, leaving our leopardess in peace. He is careful to never interfere with the animals or overstay our welcome.
What an amazing leopard sighting! Gee’s tracking skills were really showcased. This was one of my all-time favorite sightings, because of the skill it took to find her. Seeing a leopard in the wild is such a magical experience. They move gracefully through the shadows of your imagination, leaving you a little richer for the experience.

We were delighted to have seen another leopard, but I realized that I now had to revise my leopard limerick to reflect the new total. This is what I came up with:

Seven leopards we were happy to see
Including s
ome that were up in a tree
We thought it was great 
When we saw number eight
Due to the tracking skills of Gee

     As we came out of the brush we heard a large clump as the land cruiser hit a hidden stump. Is the radiator OK? Fortunately it seemed to be. Close call. Gee took a shortcut across a bending channel - it was quite deep and for a moment we were not sure if we would make it, but we did. We came out to a lovely lagoon.  Wildebeests and egrets grazed along the water’s edge. 
There was a huge marsh on our right with channels of water running through it, and we skirted the edge of it. We could see a herd of red lechwe on an island; Gee told us they swim across to the islands for protection from lions and leopards. The big cats can swim very well, as can the hyenas and wild dogs, but they try to avoid it because of the crocodiles.

Open-billed Stork

     An open-billed stork stood silhouetted on a branch; we could clearly see the gap in his great beak for which he is named. Several different types of egrets sat hunched in the trees, a bit wet and bedraggled, not enjoying the rain. A fish eagle perched regally on a branch, scanning the marsh – this was the closest we had gotten to one of these beautiful raptors.  
A mother lechwe stood near some termite mounds with her young baby; not far off was a huge male lechwe with a thick neck and huge horns. Gee told us this was the spot where we had watched lions hunt on the 2017 trip. He pointed out the cover where a young male came out too soon and spoiled the hunt.

Red Lechwe

     A kudu bull stood in a large grassy depression with a few dead trees; Gee told us this was Pelican Pond from our earlier trip, and this was where we saw the honey badgers take on the lions. There was no pond now because the Delta is not flooded in summer, and we would never have recognized it. 

A stunning pair of Wattled Cranes walked quietly beneath the trees; tall, elegant birds with white necks and a cascade of feathers in varying shades of grey. They are very rare now, Gee told us; there are only about 1400 of them in the Okavango, which is the most left anywhere in the world. A Senegal Coucal sat it a tree spreading its coppery wings trying to dry them – the coucals do not seem to enjoy rain. A bit further on was a White-browed Coucal, very rare, and endemic to the Okavango Delta. It looked very similar to the Senegals.

Wattled Cranes

     Around 9:30 we came to a shallow rain-fed pan, and an incredible variety of birds lined the edges. The water level was low and the birds were feasting on the fish that were trapped in the shallow water. It was a little like Pelican Pond, but less frenetic. We listed all the birds we could see from this one spot: great egret, intermediate egret, little egret, slaty egret, fish eagle, black heron, green heron, hamerkop, spurwing geese, blacksmith plover, jacana, saddle-billed stork, sacred ibis, white faced ducks, ruff, long-toed lapwing, black-winged stilts, whiskered tern, and wood sandpiper. A comb duck came in for a landing, a whydah flew by with its long tail trailing, and a pied kingfisher hovered and dived. We decided to call it Black Heron Pond, after the unusual little herons that held their wings up over their heads like umbrellas.


     The fish eagle had caught a big catfish, and the hamerkop pretended to be his best friend, hoping to get some. The eagle grasped the fish with one foot and hopped along the shore, dragging the catfish with him. The hamerkop followed – he eventually got some scraps. The egrets chased one another back and forth through the water, trying to lay claim to the prime fishing spots.


     We passed many lakes and waterholes, most of them inhabited by hippos and crocs. Gee took us by our campsite from 2017; we hardly recognized it as the lagoon was so much smaller. He told us the area is called Bodumatau, which means ‘Roar of the Lion.’

     Presently Gee stopped by a lagoon and parked near the water. It had stopped raining, though it looked like it could start again anytime. There were many hippos in the water in front of us; an African darter stood on the mostly-submerged back of one. The dominant male hippo did not seem especially happy about us being there. He honked and chortled loudly. Then he lifted his head out of the water and opened his mouth wide like a huge yawn; we could almost see down his throat. Gee said he was threatening us by showing us how big his fangs are. He told us many people are killed by hippos. We were impressed. Mary commented; I wonder what will happen next?  

     We had tea with the hippos. We got out of the land cruiser and stretched our legs, and took turns going behind a bush for a nature’s call. There were two tall palm trees across the water, and some small ones nearby. Gee cut some palm branches and made a basket, showing us how to weave the long fronds into a vessel. Then he put it on his head like a hat.      
We stood watching the angry bull hippo in the water in front of us. He resented the fact that we had parked beside the lagoon – his lagoon - for our tea break, and he let us know it in no uncertain terms. Opening his mouth impossibly wide, he displayed enormous tusk-like canine teeth. Then he reared up out of the water in a great plunging leap, sending a tsunami-like wave across the lagoon. He raised his voice in maniacal honking laughter and then plunged up out of the water again, leaping and breaching like a humpback whale.   


     Gee explained that a hippo’s teeth are razor sharp and up to twenty inches long; they can bite a small boat - or a person - in half in one chomp. Hippos are very aggressive in defending their territory, and the show this big bull was putting on was clearly intended to intimidate us. We knew that hippos kill more people in Africa than any other animal.

     Tara had just come back from visiting the bushes, and she murmured in urgent tones, “Hey Gee, there is a hippo right there in those bushes.” She pointed to some shrubby trees quite close to the vehicle. Suddenly there was an eruption of motion and noise among the trees behind us. As we turned to look, we saw that a second huge hippo bull had come out of the water, and he had circled around furtively behind us. He appeared suddenly in a gap in the trees not thirty meters from where we stood, sidestepping and stomping as he tossed his head and snorted angrily, challenging our right to be there. He was 4000 pounds of muscle and fury. We could see the battle scars on his sides. What was it we had been told? ‘Never get between a hippo and the water.’ Uh-oh, this could be a problem.


     The hippo opened his mouth wide and flung his head from side to side, making threatening gestures. We were directly between him and the lagoon. Hippos are much faster than they look; we wondered how fast he could cross that distance. Gee quickly instructed us to ‘be one with the vehicle’, and we hurriedly clambered into the land cruiser.   
The hippo snorted at us again, and strode past us imperiously. Many battle scars were visible on his huge body as he went by. When he reached the edge of the lagoon and entered the water, he turned and threatened us again, rearing up with his mouth stretched wide and his huge dagger teeth showing. Satisfied that we had gotten the message and were leaving, he nonetheless stood watch to make sure we did not change our minds. He definitely had our attention, and our respect.

     Looking at our photos later, we were amazed to see a jacana that appeared to be flying at the wide open mouth of the hippo. Boy, those little lily-trotters are braver than I thought!


     Wow, that was like the best hippo sighting ever. We were filled with exhilaration after the adventure. But several of our group had not had time to go behind the bushes! 
Inspired by our adventures, I came up with a pair of new bad limericks, and recited them to the group when we paused:

We stopped near the hippos for tea
The bull was as angry as can be
He made us feel frail
When he breached like a whale
And then he chortled with glee  

But then his friend went around back
And opened his mouth to attack
We then had to flee
Before we could pee
To avoid being a hippo’s snack.

     The rain had let up and the sky was lightening a bit as we went on, continuing along the network of waterholes and lagoons. We saw waterfowl everywhere; many of them were familiar, but a couple of the new ones included the Yellow-billed Stork, Yellow-Billed Ducks and a Squacco Heron. 
A sacred ibis made his way along the shore; these large birds with long curved beaks are quite striking. They have white bodies, but their heads and necks are black, as are their tails. Thus being white in the middle and dark at both ends, we decided we would rename them the Oreo Ibis. Gee was not impressed with our decision.     

There were animals about as well; lechwes, wildebeest and a family of warthogs. We saw more hippos, both in and occasionally out of the water. An attractive tsessebe strolled by us, for once not covered in mud, giving us a good view of his markings; I don’t think I had ever seen one before that was clean enough to see the mottled stripes along his neck.


     A Hooded Vulture sat in the very tip top of a dead tree. A whole flock of white Cattle Egrets lined the shore of a river channel. A hamerkop stood on a floating hippo’s back like a raft. 
Around 11:30 we crossed over First Bridge, a rickety pole bridge with the familiar DO NOT SPEED OVER BRIDGE sign. A pair of saddle-billed storks greeted us, and we saw a new one, the Woolly-necked Stork.

 First Bridge

     A bit further on we saw a hand-painted sign on a board with an arrow pointing that said DETOUR TO 3RD BRIDGE. We ignored it and went on to Second Bridge, only to find it closed. We backtracked and took the detour.
An especially handsome warthog posed for us, giving us his profile; his curved tusks were impressive. Then he turned his butt toward us and trotted away, tail held straight up over his back.


     We passed a small group of zebras and noticed that one had on a tracking collar tight around his neck; either that or maybe he was a cribber. An elephant had closed the road by putting a tree across; we had to detour around it.
Gee pointed out some fresh spoor in the damp sand road. The leopard tracks are nice and round with three lobes in the back and no visible claw marks. Hyena tracks are less uniform in shape, with indentions from their claw showing.
Tara spotted another water monitor lizard; it was walking along by the road flicking its long tongue. Sighting lizards seems to be Tara’s specialty, along with honey badgers. Gee told us that the water monitor lizard spends the winter in the water and comes out when it is warm. The rock monitor lizard stays on land and climbs in trees, and they hibernate in termite mounds.

Monitor Lizard

     As we explored a series of pans, Gee explained the two different types of waterholes. Many of the ponds were formed by the rain, and not being connected to the actual Delta, they would be gone by winter. Others, dry now, would be full and overflowing when the floods from the Angola rains flowed down. The ever changing waters are the life force of the Okavango Delta.  

     A yellow-billed stork was wading in a shallow pan; he was a lovely pale pink color with a red face and a long yellow beak. He caught a frog and smashed it in his beak, tossing it and catching it again over 25 times to break all the bones, before finally tossing it back and swallowing it.  

Yellow-billed Stork 

     We passed several more bird-filled ponds.  We watched a spoonbill in action as he swept his large rounded bill back and forth in the water searching for food. These fascinating birds are very aptly named.


     A marabou stork was eating a frog; this large stork was really incredibly ugly. His featherless head and neck was a mottled red, but with unpleasant smears of black on his face which might have been markings or slime. His eyes were dull and his bald pink neck looked somewhat obscene.

 Marabou Stork

     Yet another monitor lizard hurried across the road in front of us. A beautiful black-backed jackal went trotting by, looking back at us over his shoulder. A herd of a dozen or so wildebeest were making their way across the plain; they had two young calves, paler in color and still with their fuzzy baby coats. 


     Around one o'clock we came to Third Bridge, the one the other guide’s vehicle had fallen through. It had a sign that said, SLOW DOWN ON TOP OF BRIDGE. Both sides were lined with tall pampas grass. Gee drove across unconcerned, expertly dodging the holes in the bridge. 
The carmine bee-eaters were back, swooping around the vehicle for the insects it scared up. A ground hornbill strolled along through the bushes. There were many ducks, geese and egrets along the river.

Carmine Bee-eater

     A small group of zebras with babies moved past us; the youngsters paused to stare at us, and then suddenly took off and galloped away. A male waterbuck stood by the edge of the marsh; he posed for us while we admired his large horns and intelligent expression. He was magnificent.


     We drove around a bend and had a fabulous surprise; BD and KK were there with lunch! We had a lovely picnic under a massive sausage tree. Earlier when the rain stopped Gee had radioed camp and arranged for the guys to go by the original plan and bring us lunch in the bush - but he had kept this a secret from us. As always Life had prepared an excellent meal; hot sausage stew, fresh salads and camp-baked bread. After eating we relaxed under the tree for a while. Life doesn’t get much better than this.  

 ~ Continued on next page ~

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