By Phyllis Dawson
Botswana - Part 9

After lunch we continued on; everything was lush and green, and there were lagoons and waterholes everywhere. Some were connected to the Delta floodwaters and some came from the rain, but all had abundant waterfowl. We followed a small river linking the pools. A Sacred Oreo Ibis flew along the river.
We went out across a marshy field. Driving along, Gee would spot a small songbird in the tall grass far in the distance; he could identify a stone chat or a Cape Wagtail from a quarter mile off. I don’t know how he does it.  

     A lechwe doe ran along in the shallow water at the edge of the river in great leaping bounds. Once she got to solid land she trotted off in that odd, distinctive downhill gait with her head held low. The lechwes really are strange-looking creatures.


     The river widened out into a beautiful lagoon with a large tree growing beside it, lined with tall reed-like grass. Hippos floated in this pool, and there were several indignant bulls. There was much calling, chortling and leaping from the hippos. One of them opened his mouth wide to show off his fangs, and then did an open-mouthed backflip to impress us. It seemed to be our day for angry hippos! I kept trying to get a video or photo of some of their more impressive leaps, but I needed just two seconds notice to have my camera ready, and they would not give it to me.

Egyptian Geese teenagers

     A flock of about two dozen juvenile Egyptian geese crowded at the edge of water; they were reluctant to go in because of the crocodiles in the pool. I didn’t blame them. We saw one of the crocs floating in the water near shore, with just the top of his head visible. He had mesmerizing green eyes.


     We came to a small pretty lagoon which Gee said was one of his favorite spots. We paused to watch three elephants approach from a distance; a mother and baby went to the right while the other one went left, and they all disappeared from sight into the bushes. 
Several giraffes strode by us, intent on their journey. A female kudu stood near the roadway with her adolescent son; he was sporting a small pair of spike horns. Gee said that kudus can jump up to three meters high. I thought he was probably exaggerating, but when I got home I looked it up; indeed, they have been documented jumping 3.5 meters in height, that is over 11 feet!


     An unattractive marabou stork flew over, and then landed awkwardly in a grassy field. These birds are huge; Gee told us they can be near five feet in height. They don’t look that big from the vehicle!  
We came to a huge lagoon, the largest we had seen yet. Three hippos were walking along the far shore; we watched as they entered the water with much splashing and joined the rest of the pod. Dozens of crocodiles floated in the water, looking somewhat sinister. The shore was lined with pelicans, storks and egrets of many varieties. We had two new birds; the Glossy Ibis and the Pink-backed Pelicans. Names can be deceiving; we noticed that the pink-backed pelicans were white, while the yellow-billed storks had pink backs.      

Marabou and Yellow-billed Storks

     A herd of impala were grazing quietly on the far shore when suddenly something spooked them, and they took off running. The big buck was leaping and bounding, kicking his hind feet high out behind him; this is a move they use to escape predators.


     We drove through a meadow of dead leadwood trees; they had died from the changing floods. These trees are very dense and hard; they stand tall for fifty years after they are dead. Gee found another new bird as he drove along; a tiny Spotted Flycatcher perched in a tree. It was another amazing spot.
A half grown male impala stood near the road gazing at us; he had tiny spike horns. The impala are easy to take for granted because of their numbers, but they have the most exquisite faces.


     As we neared camp we passed Pula’s Hole, a large hole in the road big enough to swallow a vehicle. Gee told us the story; Pula, a cook who we knew from a previous safari, had been driving the support truck to set up a camp. There had been a lot of rain and everything was flooded, so he could not see that the road had washed out under the water, forming a great hole. He had driven into it and gotten stuck, and they had been unable to dig the truck out, not least because there were crocs in the water. In the end they had to set up camp right there by the road where the vehicle was stuck. The park service fined them for camping outside of their designated campsite.
We got back to camp a little after six and sat around the campfire having drinks and watching the display of brilliant colors in the sky as the sunset faded to dusk.

View from the campfire.

February 16 
Wakeup call was not until five thirty this morning; I guess we all needed a lie-in. A hyena visited us at breakfast. Lions had been calling in the night, and we set out at 6.30 to try and find them.
A reed buck was grazing in the dim morning light; it was the closest look I had ever gotten to one of these elegant antelopes. We saw the usual contingents of impala, giraffes and zebras. We stopped to admire a family of spurwing geese.  A guineafowl kept watch from his perch high in a tree. A pair of double-banded sand grouse were in road; they flew away just in time to avoid getting run over.


     Two Side-striped Jackals were out hunting; this was a new animal we had never seen. They are a mottled grey color with a slanted silvery stripe on their sides. Where the black-backed variety of jackal looked very foxlike, these reminded me more of coyotes. I had noticed that a large number of the animals in Africa have diagonal stripes or color variations on their sides - I wondered what their purpose was.

Side-striped Jackal

     A herd of impala were standing with heads up and eyes wide, all staring in one direction intently, and the squirrels and birds were sounding alarm calls. We knew something was there, and circled the thickets looking for a lion or leopard. Suddenly an African Wild Cat burst up out of the grass in front of us and raced to the bushes. Not much bigger than a large housecat, these tawny felines are an ancestor of the domestic cat. They are not common, and we considered ourselves lucky to see one.
We had a quick sighting of another honey badger as it ran into the thicket; we couldn’t believe how many of these normally elusive creatures we had seen.

Banded Mongoose family

     A banded mongoose sat poised on fallen tree. This was the stillest I have ever seen one, but with her blurry stripes it was still hard to get my camera to focus. She looked at us a few moments and then disappeared into a crevice in the log. She came back out in a few moments followed by two small adorable babies. Two more adults stood on a mound in front of the river, silhouetted against the water.

     Around 8:00 we were back in the area of Dead Tree Island. Suddenly Gee said “Look at the leopard!”  To our delight we saw a beautiful female leopard lying in the crotch of a huge dead tree. As we got closer she sat up and looked all around; she was gorgeous. We admired her sleek spotted coat and her ridiculously long tail. Gee said she might be watching for mongoose, but it seemed to me that she was posing for us. For once we had lovely light for a leopard sighting, so it was a great photo op.


     The leopardess stood up, stretched luxuriously and yawned, and then came down out of tree. The trunk was slightly leaning, and she effortlessly walked down it head first, leaping when she got near the ground. She walked away slowly, blending in to the tall grass. She stopped once in a while to lick her paw or scratch her chin.  We followed her for a while, and then left her to her hunt. Incredible. That leopard talisman I gave Gee sure did seem to be working.


     We were driving across an open area mid-morning when the land cruiser ran over a branch and punctured the left front tire. Gee quickly jacked up the vehicle, but when he got out the spare it was wrong – it had 6 lugs instead of 5 so would not fit. He had to get out the second spare tire, which left us without a usable spare. 
While Gee changed the tire, I came up with another revision of the leopard limerick:

When our leopard count got up to nine
We thought it was all quite divine
But it will be a sin
If it gets
up to ten
And I have to re
write this limerick one more time. 

     Now if we could just find a cheetah! But we knew they did not live in Moremi; perhaps we would see them later in the Kalahari Desert.


     We watched some zebras roughhousing at a waterhole. Two young adults were fighting each other; it was hard to tell if they were playing or establishing dominance. They were pushing and shoving and biting just like the young horses do. They took off across the plain, still carrying on the skirmish.     


     I had no sooner gotten the limerick revised when we saw another leopard. Gee had heard about this one on the radio. It was a male, and he was standing in a low crotch of a tree when we arrived. He got down and stood by the trunk looking around a bit; then after a few minutes he lay down and curled up to take a nap.  
     We moved a little closer for a better view. Unlike the other leopards, which had mostly ignored us, this one was annoyed that we were there. He seemed hot in the sun, and was panting with his mouth partially open. He yawned widely, but then instead of settling down to sleep, he glared at us with a scowl on his face. When he heard our cameras clicking he bared his teeth and gave an angry snarl. Gee immediately told us to stop what we were doing, and instructed us not to talk, move or take photos. The leopard snarled again, and Gee quickly drove away. He wanted to give the leopard his privacy, and not take a chance of provoking him to attack. Gee said if the leopard became agitated enough he might even attack us in the truck.


     A family of side-striped jackals lounged in the shade of a tree, parents with two half-grown youngsters. One at a time the adults got up and walked away, but soon they turned and trotted toward us, coming back for the kids. The young ones got up and followed them. They had long lanky legs and impressively long bushy tails, and moved with easy grace. Again, I was reminded of coyotes. Their appeal was quite different from the foxlike black-backed jackals.


     By now I had come up with yet another version of the leopard limerick, which I shared with the group as we drove:

Seeing leopards is really a treat-a
Finding ten is hard to beat-a
Believe it or not
They are hard to spot
But now we’d gladly trade for a cheetah.


     The morning clouds had burned off and the sun was out; we were under a blue sky with a few puffy white clouds. We drove a loop around Marula Island; Gee told us he had never been there before, as it is usually too flooded to drive to. We were excited to see a part of the park Gee had not been to.
The marula trees for which the area is named bear a fruit that Amarula liquor is made from; this is a sweet creamy liqueur reminiscent of Bailey’s. Elephants also enjoy the fruit of the marula tree, and baboons have been known to get drunk off of it when it ferments. The ebony trees were also prevalent, distinctive with their near-black trunks. We had our tea under a spreading ebony tree, and watched the baboons strolling by. Gee showed us a map of Moremi, but we couldn’t really tell where we had been.  

     As we continued on, a wood hoopoe flew beside the land cruiser for a few seconds. We saw a Brown-hooded Kingfisher, a new one for us. A Black Coucal perched on a twig; this was a variety we had not seen before, quite different from the coppery-tailed or Senegal. A pair of elegant wattled cranes made their way across the meadow.
     We crossed a very barren area with lots of elephant-killed trees. There were no water holes here. We spent some time watching a mother warthog with two babies. Remembering that Gee said they almost always have four in a litter, we wondered what ate the other two.


     There were a few zebras scattered about. We noted their varying stripe patterns - each one is unique. One of them turned his round rump toward us, as they are wont to do; with thin horizontal stripes on the top of his tail and a black bushy swish below, it reminded me of a horse with a nicely braided tail. 


     We came across another group of zebras, and we saw that one of them was very lame; he could hardly put any weight on one front leg. Sadly, being unable to run away, he would probably soon be a lion’s dinner. 
We completed the circuit and came back to Dead Tree Island around noon. We sat by the large, beautiful lagoon and watched the hippos. A dominant male ran through his now-familiar intimidation tactics, raising his head high out of the water and stretching his jaws impossibly wide. We could clearly see the inside of his pink fleshy mouth, with large teeth protruding out of his gums in seemingly random patterns.


     Crocs floated lazily in the water, and water birds lined the shore. From where we sat, we could see Egyptian geese, white-faced ducks, black herons, blacksmith lapwings, Green Shanks, Black-winged Stilts and several varieties of egrets, just for a start – there were surely others I have missed recording. A pair of Water Thick-knees walked along the shore; these are stilt-like birds with long legs and enormous eyes. I think thick-knees is a stupid name for a bird!

Water Thick-knees

     On the way back to camp we passed an impala day care center. There were half a dozen babies with one mom, lying under an arching log. Another adult female was nearby. We saw a tiny lizard on a tree trunk, I think Gee called it a tarasale. 

Bennet’s Woodpecker

     We came back to camp, and BD and KK were waiting for us as usual with fruity drinks and moist towels. We had lunch and showered. Around camp, a Bennet’s woodpecker pecked his way up a tree trunk, while a green wood hoopoe flitted through the high branches. A tree squirrel ran up and down to join in the fun.

Green Wood Hoopoe

     In the afternoon we went back out at 2:35. On the way out of camp we stopped to look at the monarch butterflies. A pair of them landed on my jacket; I think they were mating.

     We swung by Jessie’s Pools. Groups of impala and baboons come down to the edge to drink. A big croc floated just off shore. As always, there were lots of birds. A hadeda ibis and a Common Sandpiper stood by the shoreline, and a goliath heron waded in the water. A fish eagle looked down on us from a tree and let out his signature mournful cry. We went by and checked the tree where the ranger had shown us the leopard with her cub, but they were not there.

Jessie’s Pools

     We stopped by the campsite of a guide from another company; Gee was dropping off a container of transmission fluid for him.  Compared to our camp, theirs was smaller and less comfortable. Their vehicle was smaller, and when they traveled all of their gear was stored on the seats between passengers, making it very cramped. They slept in tiny pup tents. But the most remarkable thing we noticed was their bathroom: it consisted of a canvas wash basin, a roll of toilet paper, and a shovel.
     Then we headed to Paradise Pools. I remembered this name from our first trip – the blackboard at the gate where people record notable sightings had said ‘Leopard at Paradise Pools.’ That phrase had been so full of romance and intrigue.
As we were driving along, there was a sudden flurry of motion and something bombed into a puddle in front of us with a huge splash, and then flew up into tree. It was a woodland kingfisher, and he perched on a limb where we could get a good look at him, his baby blue wing feathers shining bright in the sunlight.  

A wet Woodland Kingfisher, after a bath in a puddle.

     Paradise Pools is a beautiful area. A network of pools sit amidst a forest of tall trees, more thickly wooded than most of the areas we had been. Driving through the dappled shade, it felt like we were in an enchanted forest. Suddenly Gee called out the by now familiar phrase, “Look at the leopard!” Number eleven! Unbelievable. This one was a young female, high in a tree, lying on a branch sleeping. It was a good spot by Gee; she was hard to see.


     The leopardess lifted her head and yawned, and then looked straight at us. She was exquisite, very feminine with delicate features. She had golden eyes. I have noticed that the female leopards seem to be noticeably prettier than the males.  


     She stood up and stretched, sharpened her claws on the branch, and then yawned some more. She flopped back down for a moment like she was going back to sleep, but then she sat up again, and after a bit more claw sharpening she got to her feet. She stood on a small knot on the side of the trunk for a few moments, then carefully bounded down the trunk head first and leaped out of the tree. 

     On my first safari back in 1994 I had been lucky enough to see a leopard climb down out of a tree; I had hoped for another such chance ever since. And now we had gotten to see it three times!  One thing was for sure; the leopard talisman was still working. I wanted to go back to the gate and record ‘Leopard at Paradise Pools’ on the sighting board. But for now I would just redo the limerick. I came up with:

The leopards are getting out of hand.
We’ve seen eleven in trees and on land
We should not have to delve
Too far to make twelve
Because for Gee they appear on command.

     Eleven leopards. Pretty unbelievable. We said it was almost enough to do a calendar, with a leopard photo for each month.

     We moved on through Paradise Pools. Reeds grew along the edge of the water, and many of the pools were thick with lily pads. We came to an area of huge dead trees, killed when changes in the Delta waters had caused the area to flood. 


     An African darter perched on a fallen tree, and a jacana waded at the edge of a pool. Go away, the petulant voice of a go-away bird admonished us from the treetops. A beautiful African Hoopoe landed in the grass beside the vehicle. This distinctive bird had a reddish body with bands of black and white on his wings, a long curved bill, and a perky topknot of reddish feathers with black spots.  

African Hoopoe

     A dead tree stood in a small pool, and there were about 300 weaver’s nests hanging from its limbs. Gee told us that nests are built in a tree surrounded by water so that predators such as genets can’t get to them. The weaver birds were clinging to the nests, singing and dancing as they weaved. It was an amazing sight. There were two types, Southern Masked Weavers and Village Weavers, and they looked almost exactly alike. Both were bright yellow, and the males had black masks.
Gee explained that the male weavers were doing the building, and trying to attract a mate by showing off what a good nest he had made. The nests were round, tightly woven, with a tidy entrance hole at the bottom. Some of the birds had nearly finished their nests and others were just starting. As they were building the male weavers did a courtship dance; they hung upside-down from the nests, beating their wings, swinging back and forth and singing as loud as they could to attract the attention of the females. 


     But the amazing thing was that hundreds of male weavers were all singing and dancing at the same time. The tree was fluttering with hundreds of flapping wings, and the voices of all the courting weavers singing rose up in a jubilant din. Every so often, as if by signal, they would all suddenly fly away – and then soon they would return and resume the courtship dance. We watched for a long time. It was crazy.
I am sure the female weavers were very impressed by this amazing display. I expect that they could hardly wait to choose a mate, go in his nest and lay their eggs. But I did wonder why the entrances to the nests appeared to be at the bottom; wouldn’t the eggs fall out?


     We stopped by a larger pool where hippos floated, but by then a storm seemed to be blowing in, and it was time to go. As we drove back toward camp we skirted along the little airstrip and watched an impressive storm in the distance, with much lightning and thunder. My attempts to photograph the lightning were unsuccessful. The stormy clouds made the evening sky very dark. We surprised an elephant standing in the brush beside the road, hard to see in the dim light.
We heard hyenas and leopards in the night, our last night in Moremi.  

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