The Limpopo Valley, Botswana, July 2011

Part 2

      We stood at the top of a cliff looking down at the Limpopo River below us, broad and shallow.  South Africa was on the other side.  We were told that the Limpopo sometimes dries up by the end of the dry season, but now it was flowing strong.  It did look a bit grey-green, with a turquoise hue to it, but I couldn’t see where Kipling got the ‘greasy’ from.
     We sat on a bench above the river and looked for crocodiles.  Plover waded at the edge of the water, and a bushbuck came down to drink on the far side.  Bee-eaters flew swiftly back and forth from the steep riverbank below us, their plumage a brilliant green in the sunlight.  We caught a glimpse of something moving across the current – we were pretty sure it was a croc.

     We had high tea at 3:30, and then went back out into the bush.  Jineen and I were assigned to a new guide, Abraham, for a private game drive.  Upon learning we were from Virginia, Abraham sang a refrain from Country Road; apparently much of our pop culture seems to be familiar in Africa.   
When you go out on a game drive you never know what you will find.  There are a lot of animals in the game reserves, but there are also vast areas of empty plains.  Some people think Africa is like a giant zoo where you can count on seeing animals in certain places, but that is not true at all.  Each game drive is like a hunt, with the guide looking for signs of the animals, following tracks, and searching for game.  Sometimes you might see a huge variety of animals in a short period, and other times you might drive for hours without seeing anything at all (except impala – you pretty much always see those).  It is the hunt that makes it interesting.
     A lilac-breasted roller bird was perched on a branch, brilliant in its plumage of blue, turquoise, green and lilac.  The purple roller bird was less flashy but still attractive.  We also enjoyed watching the yellow-billed hornbills, with their somewhat comical swooping flight patterns – the guides refer to them as ‘flying bananas.’


     A tiny steenbok lay curled up beneath a tree.  Abraham told us that they could always be found in pairs, but they rest a bit apart from each other, for concealment and safety.  Sure enough, we spotted another about fifty yards away, camouflaged in the brush.
     There were certain animals we saw virtually every time we went into the bush.  We could count on seeing numerous impala, as well as at least a few wildebeests and zebras.  We could generally expect to encounter elands, steenbok, warthogs and baboons.  In the bird department, we would always see guinea fowl, hornbills, crested barbets, francolins and Cape turtle doves, as well as a various LBBs (little brown birds).  Even though we saw these often, we never got tired of watching the fabulous diversity of wildlife. 
       Abraham was a fantastic guide, and we really enjoyed driving with him.  He seemed to have a real love of the African wildlife, and he was able to tell us all about the different animals and birds we saw.  He had eagle eyes when it came to spotting animals.  The great thing about a private drive was that when we found interesting animals we could stay and watch them as long as we wanted, with no pressure from others to move on.

     We spent quite a bit of time watching a herd of zebras, with several half grown babies among them.  I absolutely love these roly-poly cousins of the horse, with their striped pajamas and Trojan horse manes.  Their voices are slightly reminiscent of a donkey, but more cheerful and upbeat, and somehow not at all what you would expect them to sound like.
     Continuing on, we saw a pair of kori bustards walking along through the bush; these attractive brown and grey birds, larger than a turkey, are the heaviest flying bird.  Nearby was a crowned lapwing, one of Africa’s many varieties of plover. 


     We came upon a small group of giraffes – these graceful creatures are mesmerizing to watch.  There was a large male, a heavily pregnant female, and several youngsters.  We sat for a long time and watched them as they browsed in the trees, their agile lips and tongues avoiding the sharp thorns as they nibbled the leaves.


     As the sun was getting low, we saw a wave of motion cross the track ahead of us – it was a whole group of banded mongooses (mongeese?), their grey-brown striped coats blending in to the background.  We also saw a hare, crouching in the grass.  With all of the predators there are in Africa, I don’t think I would want to be a rabbit.
     Abraham stopped the Landrover beside a large rock outcropping.  A cliff rose above us, with a jumble of rocks and boulders at its base.  A mother spotted hyena and with a small baby lay curled up on the rocks, with another slightly older baby close by.  The mother watched us intently for a while as the young one intermittently nursed, but after a while she relaxed, unconcerned by our presence.      
     Abraham told us about their habits.  Hyenas are scavengers and will steal the kills from other predators, but they are also very effective hunters.  It was long thought that hyenas stole kills from lions, but now researchers have learned that it is actually more often the other way around. The hyenas are very social, and raise their young in community dens.  He said that the larger baby was from a different litter, and it is common for the mothers to babysit one another’s young.  Hyenas are not the most attractive of creatures – in fact in the past I have found them downright ugly – but the babies were actually quite cute, and seeing the mother care for the young ones gave me a new appreciation for these fascinating animals.  We stayed and watched them until the light faded.


     A huge rocky knoll towered above the plain, and Abraham drove the Landrover up the rough jeep track to the top.  The plain was far below us, and there were awesome views in all directions.  We clambered out over the boulders to the edge of the cliff just as the sun was starting to set in an orange sky.   
Tuli Lodge had sent along a bottle of white wine and some cheese for the traditional ‘Sundowners.’  We sat on the rocks in companionable silence, sharing the wine with Abraham.  We shared the cheese with an elephant shrew that darted among the rocks, quick and clever, with a mouse-like body and a long slender nose reminiscent of an elephant’s trunk.  Jineen threw pieces of cheese to lure it out of the crevices so I could photograph it.

     We watched the sun slip below the horizon, disappearing surprisingly quickly, painting the clouds with magenta and gold.  We heard a sudden chorus of high-pitched yelps – jackals calling nearby.  Abraham told us that this hill was called De Beer’s Sundowners Spot, named for the famous diamond company.  It was an incredible setting, indescribably beautiful and utterly peaceful.  We could have stayed for hours.  All too soon we had to leave, but that Sundowners at De Beers is a memory I will cherish for a long time.

     We climbed back in the ‘rover and headed down the hill, Abraham shining the spotlight back and forth.  We saw impala of course, and steenbok, and a couple of hyenas on the move.  But suddenly we came across the most amazing thing – amid a flurry of activity, a bunch of kangaroos came swiftly hopping alongside the vehicle, and then across the track in front of us.  OK, I know what you’re thinking; we were in Africa, not Australia – how could there be kangaroos?  But really, there were!  Or at least, they looked like kangaroos, tiny ones.  They were about the size of a rabbit, but totally kangaroo-shaped, and they moved by hopping on their powerful hind legs, with their tiny forelimbs held up in front of them.  It was my first encounter with springhares, and I couldn’t believe my eyes.  Springhares!  Why has no one ever heard of these?  Have you heard of them?  I certainly hadn’t!  Everyone talks about the kangaroos in Australia, but no one even knows the African version exists.

     Back at the lodge, dinner was served on a stone patio next to a campfire.  We had an excellent meal of lamb and impala.  When we had packed for the trip we had brought a sizeable stash of granola bars in case the food was really bad, but so far it looked like they wouldn’t be needed.
     After dinner we had a real treat:  The Tuli Choir, made up of the lodge’s staff and guides, put on a show for us.  They sang traditional Tswana songs, a cappella, while swaying back and forth in a sort of tribal dance.  The music seemed to capture the essence of the African soul.  Afterwards, we sat around the fire and talked well into the night.
     Wendy, the lodge manager, told us that the Tuli Choir has made a music CD, which is sold in the gift shop.  The proceeds from the sales, along with donations received, are used for medical expenses for the local people.  Half of the money goes to provide the Tuli staff with the means to see private doctors when needed, and the other half is used to supply treatment to people in the community who are HIV positive.
     AIDS is a huge problem in Botswana.  Wendy went on to explain that the country has free healthcare for all citizens, but generally the drugs to treat HIV positive patients are not available at the public clinics.  I had read some shocking statistics:  In 1990 the life expectancy in Botswana was 65 years, but because of AIDS, by 2001 it had dropped to around 35 years.  By some estimates one out of four adults in the country are HIV positive.  Now the life expectancy is on the rise again, but this is a vivid illustration of the devastation that AIDS has wreaked on the African continent.  We applaud the efforts of people like Wendy, and the Tuli Choir, who do what they can to help.  

July 12
We were up at six again, and it was a much colder morning.  Grabbing a cup of hot tea from the lounge, we watched the tree dassies playing hide-and-seek.   Startled by a sudden movement, we looked up to see vervet monkeys leaping from branch to branch in the huge mashatu tree overhead.


     We had signed up for a special day trip to the Confluence, where the Limpopo and Shashe Rivers meet.  Once again we had Abraham and the Landrover all to ourselves; the British family and several other guests were all crammed into Simon’s vehicle – they must have thought we were terrible snobs.  We left the lodge at seven, game-driving along the way. 

     Abraham got word on his radio that a leopard had been sighted.  We drove down a dry sandy creekbed and met up with the group in Simon’s vehicle – they had caught a glimpse of a leopard as it disappeared into a patch of brush.  Abraham drove the ‘rover up the steep bank and through the dense bushes to prevent the cat from leaving the thicket on the other side.  It took cover under a huge thornbush.
     Leopards are elusive and sightings of them can be quite rare, so we were prepared to wait in hopes that he would come back out.  They hunt at night, but are often on the move early in the mornings, so we were hoping he had not yet hunkered down for the day.  Both Abraham and Simon maneuvered their vehicles back and forth, trying to wedge into a space where we could see him under the bush, but he was well hidden.  They changed positions often, driving the ‘rovers heedlessly over trees and bushes, trying to get as close as possible to the big cat’s hiding place.  Tired of our presence, he finally came out from under the thorns with a disdainful look on his face.  We got a brief look at him in all his glory as he trotted across the clearing and disappeared into another patch of brush.  Abraham had us in the perfect position to photograph the leopard as he came out into the open, and I was able to get a good shot.

     As we left the creekbed, we encountered a female kudu and her half grown baby, hiding in the trees.  These tall rangy antelopes are shy, and tend to quickly disappear into the bush.  Their grey-brown coats with narrow white stripes help them to blend into their surroundings.  Abraham told us they are known as the ‘ghosts of the bush.’

     Abraham turned on to the gravel road toward the Confluence.  It was a cold and cloudy morning, and we huddled under the blankets, shivering.  We were driving faster on the road in the open vehicle, and we quickly realized that we weren’t wearing enough warm clothes.  Or for that matter, that we hadn’t brought enough warm clothes.  We’d been told that it would be cold and to pack warm clothes – but somehow we hadn't really taken that seriously.  Its Africa – how cold could it be?  Well, we found out.  And as for packing light?  Well, I guess we could have left the shorts and swim suits behind.
     Looking off to the left, we saw elephants on the hillside.  Abraham turned off the road and drove us closer, then stopped the ‘rover near the herd, where we could watch as they fed on the mopane trees.  There were at least a dozen elephants, several with babies.  After a while the herd moved away; they were on the other side of the Tuli Game Reserve boundary, so we could not follow them.


     A pair of ostriches meandered among the trees.  The male would have been hard to miss, with his bold black and white plumage, but the female, in her shades of grey, blended in to the bush.  Ostriches are taller than you think, eight to nine feet, and just slightly ridiculous looking.  When they saw us they moved away quickly with enormous strides.


     Soon we were back on the road, congratulating ourselves on our morning so far.  Not bad: a leopard, kudus, a dozen elephants, and a pair of ostriches, all before breakfast!  

     It was a longer drive to the Confluence than we had realized, and through varied terrain.  We crossed through the Mashatu Reserve, less barren and rocky than around Tuli Lodge, with more vegetation and trees.  Though we were on the road and traveling faster than a regular game drive, we saw animals everywhere:  Baboons, warthogs, more kudus, and wildebeest.  At one point we heard a loud fierce animal noise; looking around expecting an elephant or perhaps one of the big cats, we were surprised to find that this harsh exclamation came from a male impala.  We stopped to watch a group of eight elegant giraffes, strolling along near the road.  Several of them were a lighter cream color – Abraham told us giraffes that come from different areas have developed different color patterns to blend in to their habitat. 
     We passed through a forested area, and the dirt road became ever smaller, winding its way down toward the Limpopo.  There were quite a lot of loose cattle grazing among the trees – Abraham called them Zim cows.  He said that they come across the river from Zimbabwe to graze during the day, and they cross back at night to avoid the lions.  He told us that cows are not the only refugees from Zimbabwe; people fleeing from the poor conditions there, desperate, sometimes swim across the Shashe River to get into Botswana – and many of them get eaten by crocodiles during the crossing.  

     After two hours of driving, we arrived at the junction of the Limpopo River and the Shashe River, called the Confluence.   Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa all come together here.  Abraham parked the Landrover on a narrow point of land overlooking both rivers, under a huge mashatu tree.  The Shashe is enormously wide, at least a half a mile across, and to our surprise it was totally dry.  We looked across the vast sandy riverbed to Zimbabwe on the other side.  The Limpopo was in front of us, a fraction of the width of the Shashe, but with a steady flow of water.  Looking across to the South Africa side, there was an immense baobab tree standing majestically at the top of the riverbank.  

     Baobab trees grow to massive proportions; their trunks are often up to 40 feet in circumference.  The branches are small and stunted compared to the girth of the tree, and since we were there in winter, they had no leaves.  Abraham said that the baobabs are often referred to as the upside-down tree.  The story has it that the baobab originally grew in heaven, but the gods tired of it and cast it down to earth, where it landed upside-down with its roots in the air.  Looking at this tree with its huge girth and comparatively small stunted branches, we could see where the story came from.
     We walked around in the dry Shashe riverbed, gazing out over the immensely wide, sandy flats; Abraham told us that like many of the rivers in the area, the Shashe only flows a few days a year, after heavy rains.  Now the story about the refugees risking crocodiles to swim across the Shashe River into Botswana didn’t quite make sense; surely they could have just waited a few days and walked?  We stood beside the swiftly flowing Limpopo, but Abraham said that even that would be dry later in the season.  
We walked along the bank of the Limpopo River.  A yellow-billed stork and several cormorants stood near the edge of the water.  A blacksmith plover (lapwing) and several black-winged stilts waded in the shallows, and a pair of Egyptian geese floated nearby.  A grey heron flew ponderously by, close to the surface of the water, his huge wings seeming to beat in slow motion.  As we watched, a pair of olive baboons climbed down the rocky bank beneath the baobab tree to drink at the river.  A goliath heron stood regally on the far shore; these magnificent birds, over four feet tall, are the world’s largest heron.  A pied kingfisher perched on a rock, before flying downstream just above the water.
     There were lines of elephant tracks in the sand; we could see the texture of their skin in the big round indentions.  Abraham told us that when the rivers are dry, the elephants dig in the sandy riverbeds to find water below.  We found some hippopotamus footprints; this turned out to be the only sign of hippos we saw on the whole trip.  They can be found in the Limpopo during wetter times of the year, but during the dry season they all move on to deeper waters.

Abraham served brunch by the Landrover, complete with hot tea, cereal with fruit and yogurt, boiled eggs, sausages, tomatoes, and excellent little crustless cheese sandwiches. We ate under the canopy of the huge mashatu tree, admiring the beauty of the scene before us.

     Eventually it was time to start the long drive back to Tuli Lodge.  We passed more of the Zim cattle, who had crossed international borders to find the best grass.  We watched a small group of elephants browsing close to the roadway.  There were herds of wildebeests, families of warthogs, and of course the ubiquitous impala everywhere.  We saw many tall termite hills, some of them built around the trunks of mashatu trees.  Crossing a watercourse we passed a huge saddle-backed stork, conspicuous with its gaudy yellow and orange bill.  Vervet monkeys watched us from the top of a rock outcropping.
     Birds were plentiful; in addition to the usuals, we saw the attractive blue-black Burchell’s starling, a three banded plover, a shrike, and a Namaqua dove.  A tawny eagle perched high in a tree.  There were red-billed hornbills everywhere, which the guides often refer to as ‘flying chili peppers.’ 
     We were bumping along the rocky track when we suddenly saw a line of black across our path.  It was a column of army ants, crossing the roadway in a long file – there must have been a million of them.  Abraham hit the brakes, but it was too late and we went skidding through them.  Reversing to get a better look, we found them in disarray – they thought they had been bombed.  

       We returned to the lodge in the early afternoon.  We explored the grounds for an hour or so, watching the bushbucks on the lawn and the vervet monkeys in the trees.  We stood on the top of the high bank above the Limpopo River and watched the white fronted bee-eaters flying below us.  

~ Continued on next page ~

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