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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.’
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
Baobab trees grow to
massive proportions; their trunks are often up to 40 feet in
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.