We heard a voice calling dumela
outside our tent at six, and we woke to another crystal clear
morning. It was cold
again, though perhaps not quite as cold as the day before.
Or maybe we were just getting used to it.
had signed up for the Ivory Drive, a special game-viewing drive
with a researcher, to learn more about the elephants.
We were joined by Jennifer, but John’s back was still
hurting so he stayed behind. Jeanetta
Selier, a researcher from South Africa, accompanied us.
She perched on the front dashboard facing us, and told us
about the elephants and the research projects as we drove.
The first animal we encountered
was a large male giraffe, standing quietly in the early dawn
light. The pale full
moon was hanging in the rosy sky over his shoulder.
The white stripes of a trio of zebras caught the first rays
of the sun.
Jeanetta knew just where to find the elephants, and we were
soon watching a large herd crossing the bushveld.
Our driver went ahead of them and parked in their path, and
we watched them stream by us purposefully, walking with huge
strides. It is amazing
how quickly and quietly they can cover the ground.
Elephants don’t trot or gallop, their only gait is the
walk. When they are in
a hurry they walk faster, and when they want to they can walk really
herd finally slowed down as they approached the river.
It was an awesome sight; a dozen of the magnificent
creatures lined up side by side to drink, their images reflected
on the surface of the water. After
they drank their fill, they moved close to where we were parked
and started to feed. Meanwhile
more elephants arrived to drink at the river.
got to spend some time with the elephants.
Close up, we truly appreciated just how big they are.
While we watched them, Jeanetta told us about their social
structure and habits.
lifespan of elephants is around 65.
They keep growing throughout their life, so the older they
are the bigger they get. Elephants
have a matriarchal society, with an older female being the herd
leader. Typically a
herd will consist of several generations of females, along with
their babies of various ages. The males are kicked out of the herd
in their teens when they start to reach sexual maturity
(altogether a wise plan); they form bachelor herds, with the older
bulls keeping the teenagers in line.
The mature breeding bulls tend to be solitary, and only
interact with the females at mating time.
Jeanetta told us that elephants communicate in a complex
language that carries for miles, but at frequencies too low for
the human ear to hear.
social structure is very important in the development of the young
told us about some of the problems that have occurred when
orphaned elephants are introduced to game parks where there are no
older ones to be in charge, such as them attacking vehicles and
making sexual advances on rhinos.
We got to watch while
several of the younger babies nursed.
The mothers suckle their young until the age of four, and
their breasts, surprisingly similar in shape to a human’s, are
between their front legs. The
entire herd will participate in caring for the babies.
It is often difficult to see the very young ones, because
the rest of the herd will surround them to protect them from
Jeanetta told us about the
research being done on elephants in Mashatu.
One of their projects is counting the elephants and
studying their impact on the environment.
The population has grown to nearly 900, and they are trying
to determine if the area will sustain those numbers.
One of the elephants’ main food sources is the mopane
tree; they love the taste of its butterfly-shaped leaves.
Elephants are poor conservationists, but the mopane has the
ability to grow back even after being bitten off practically down
to the ground, surviving the feeding herds when many other trees
saw quite a few adult elephants with no tusks; Jeanetta explained
that there are an increasing number born this way.
Natural selection favors the tuskless elephant, because
they are a less desirable target for the poachers.
this journal is meant to be a lighthearted description of our
wonderful vacation, I cannot write it without including a bit of
the dark side. I am
absolutely in love with Africa, but I am also tinged with sadness
even while I enjoy the incredible nature she has to offer.
Botswana has done a better job than many African nations in
managing the game reserves and protecting the animals as natural
poaching is still a huge problem in Africa, and many animals have
been hunted to the brink of extinction.
I have always abhorred trophy hunting, killing a beautiful
animal to hang the stuffed head or hide on one’s wall – but
the reality is far worse than that.
Rhinos are nearly extinct from being killed for their
horns, which some cultures believe have aphrodisiac properties. Animals
like cheetahs and leopards are killed for their pelts. It
is estimated that in the early 1900s up to ten million elephants
roamed Africa, but by now 95% of them have been killed.
Many people think that the elephants are safe after the
worldwide ivory ban of 1989, but that is not the case, and
hundreds of thousands of these magnificent animals are still being
slaughtered each year for their tusks, their carcasses left to
rot. And it is not
local citizens hunting these creatures to earn enough to feed
their families, but rather violent poaching cartels, often funded
by the Asians who covet the ivory and horns, which come in with
helicopters and machine guns, and viciously slaughter hundreds of
animals at a time. They
are ruthless and violent, and will also kill rangers who try to
stop them. Despite the
incredible beauty, tradition and diversity of life in Africa, it
is still, in many ways, a dark continent.
enough of the bad stuff, and back to our elephants.
We were parked quite close to where the herd was browsing,
and got the chance to watch them close up.
We were particularly smitten with one baby, just a few
months old, who seemed to be trying to figure out just what his
trunk was for. He
dangled it limply, swinging it back and forth, and then used the
tip to enthusiastically rub his eye.
He picked up a front foot and swung it from side to side,
and then did the same with one of his hind feet.
He started whipping his trunk around in circles, watching
it curiously while he did so – he reminded us of a baby playing
with his fingers and toes, and trying to figure out how they work.
It was hilarious, and best of all, I got some of it on
video. We watched him
for quite a while, with his mother eating placidly nearby.
Then suddenly the whole herd seemed to spook at something,
and they wheeled and booked out of there at high speed.
I was lucky enough to get these three
videos of the baby elephant as he was playing around. In the
first he is experimenting with his trunk and feet, to see what
they would do. In the second he has just figured out how to
use his trunk to scratch his eye. In the third, he is trying
to pick up a thorn branch, and then his mother enters the scene,
so you can see how tiny he is in comparison.
had gotten a report of an elephant sighted in the area with a
metal ring stuck around his foot, so we went to check it out.
Sure enough, we found an adolescent male who had what
looked like the top of a metal bucket or barrel, stuck around his
hind ankle like a bracelet. It
looked like it would rub and irritate him, possibly causing
serious damage. Jeanetta
said they would keep an eye on him, and if the metal piece seemed
to be causing trouble they would try to arrange for a vet to dart
him with a sedative so that the bracelet could be removed.
back, we saw an African harrier hawk, flying high above.
We also found a dead python beside a tree, which our guide
said was probably killed by either a mongoose or a honey badger.
Alongside the river, we paused to
watch a troop of baboons. There
were about ten of them, moving along the riverbed.
Several mothers carried their babies on their backs, while
a big arrogant-looking male acted as sentinel.
In most animal species the babies are very cute and
appealing, but to me baboon babies are one of the exceptions to
headed back to the Tented Camp for brunch, and then we went to the
Hide. We watched as
more impalas came down to drink, and two female kudus walked by.
Several lanky vervet monkeys loped up to the water for a
drink, and then sat down and displayed their bright blue genitals.
A couple of baboons haughtily strolled by, appearing very
smug and self-important. A
bushbuck walked close beside the Hide.
We saw a good-sized black, white and brown bird, which our
field guide identified as a Burchell’s coucal.
We heard a discordant call, and
looked up to see a grey lourie sitting in the tree above the
attractive crow-sized grey bird has a crested head and a long
tail. It is commonly
known as the ‘go-away bird,’ and that seemed to be the message
imparted by its unwelcoming squawk.
We left the Hide on the narrow
path that runs between high banked stone walls.
I stood on tiptoes on a jutting rock and looked out –
there to my surprise was a female bushbuck, lying on the ground
looking back at me at eye-level, just inches from where I peered
over the wall. (Female
bushbuck, isn’t that an oxymoron?
Shouldn’t it be bushdoe?)
and I went out with Justice for the afternoon game drive; we were
accompanied by Mike, the guy from Kentucky, with Ephraim as
spotter. Right away we
encountered two magnificent kudu bulls, with huge, grand twisting
horns. Trying to live
up to the nickname of ‘ghost of the bush,’ one of them tried
to hide behind a small sapling.
He looked a little ridiculous, but he seemed certain we
couldn’t see him.
we stopped by a hyena den, where three youngsters, apparently
litter-mates, lounged in the shade.
They were very relaxed, sleeping on their backs with legs
in the air. They were
quite interested in us visiting them, and hammed it up for the
drove through an area of large trees alongside a dry riverbed.
A leopard was snoozing on the bank; his swollen belly
indicated he had just enjoyed a good meal.
A freshly killed and partially eaten warthog was lying
under a bush nearby.
received a call on the radio that cheetahs had been sighted, and
he set off to find them. They
were a long way off, and we bounced around on the bench seats as
he drove quite fast over the rough tracks.
We came to an area of the reserve that was shared with Tuli
Lodge; there were two Landrovers from Tuli already there, driven
by Abraham and Simon. The
cheetahs – the three brothers – were lounging beneath a tree.
They sprayed some scent at the base of it, and then took
turns running up the leaning trunk to mark their territory high up
in the tree.
a while the cheetahs went hunting.
They stalked a herd of impala, silently and furtively
creeping closer. We
followed, fascinated to get the opportunity to watch them in
action, and hoping to witness their blinding speed when they went
after their prey. But
the cheetahs seemed reluctant to make their move while we were
watching, so as the light started to fade we left them, so we
wouldn’t interfere with their hunt.
had noticed that the guides at both camps were very careful not to
interfere with the wildlife, and they really cared about the
animals. While they
tried to show us excellent game sightings and make sure we had a
good time, it was never at the expense of the animals.
This was an attitude we really appreciated.
was late when we left the cheetahs, and the sun was setting fast.
Justice drove us to a small hill for Sundowners, but by the
time we stopped the sun was already partway down.
It wasn’t the most scenic spot to view the sunset, but
who cares – we had gotten to watch cheetahs hunt!
But to our dismay, Mike threw a tantrum and thoroughly
berated Justice and Ephraim for not arranging for a better sunset
view. What had I been
saying last night about there being no jerks among the guests in
Africa? I guess I was
usual we returned to camp in the dark, Justice and Ephraim
sweeping twin spotlight beams back and forth as we drove.
They illuminated an eagle owl, on the ground eating a bird
he had caught. We saw
springhares again, like miniature kangaroos, hopping madly in the
spotlights; they are one of the most unique things we saw.
went back along the riverbank where we had seen the leopard, and
sure enough he was still there, reclining beneath a tree not far
from where he had been earlier.
He dozed lazily, ignoring us.
Ephraim shone the light high up into the tree, and there to
our surprise was the dead warthog, hanging from a branch overhead.
The leopard had dragged it up there to keep it away from
the hyenas, in order to save it for breakfast.
was a beautiful evening as we made the long drive back to the
Tented Camp, and we were mesmerized by the stunning night sky.
The stars and planets were set like diamonds in the black
of space, undimmed by any lights of civilization.
When we were almost home, a fat orange moon rose above the
horizon. Congo met us
with lanterns as we returned to camp.
We had an excellent dinner in the boma, and good company
around the campfire.
It was just Jineen and I in the Landcruiser with Justice
and Ephraim for the morning drive, our last at the Mashatu Tented
Camp. We watched the
sun rise in a blazing orange sky.
We passed the boomslang, hanging out in the same tree we
had seen him in several days earlier.
drove along a dry riverbed in the early morning light.
There were elephants everywhere, scattered among the trees.
Two young bulls stood facing each other combatively, tusk
to tusk, play fighting. One
would advance, forcing the second one backwards, and then the
advantage would shift and the second would become the aggressor,
pushing the first one in reverse.
Teenagers, most likely.
We watched as they shoved each other back and forth, mock
charging, their great ears flapping and clouds of dust rolling up
from under their feet. They
finally turned tail and ran off, chasing each other, taking turns
poking one another in the rear with their tusks.
The playful mood seemed contagious; we came across several
more pairs of youngsters engaged in mock combat.
Maybe it was something in the air.
traveled across the open plain.
The sky was cobalt blue, and a pale moon hung above us,
just past full. Justice
took us to the White Cliffs, a spectacularly beautiful area of the
reserve that we had not yet visited.
It seemed he had saved the most dramatic scenery for last.
Sheer cliffs rose high on the far side of a river, and
parts of the stone face glowed white in the bright sunshine.
The cliff was lined with candelabra trees, reminiscent of
huge cactuses, and several grand baobabs stood like sentinels
along the top. Justice
told us that the white coloration of the cliffs was actually
caused by the urine of thousands of rock dassies over the years;
we weren’t sure if we totally believed him.
For several days I had been
telling Justice that I wanted a closer look at giraffes.
I am fascinated by these elegant creatures, and although we
had seen scores of them on the way in when we arrived at Mashatu,
most of our giraffe sightings since had been either distant or
brief. We wanted to
get a chance to spend some time with them, close up, and Justice
came through for us on this morning.
found a group of half a dozen giraffes, including three babies.
The youngsters hung out together, and one of the mothers
seemed to be babysitting. Several
of the giraffes were the lighter cream color; Justice explained
that giraffes, having been hunted out of the area in the past, had
been re-introduced to Tuli – the varying color patterns were
because they had been brought in from different habitats.
One large male giraffe was hanging about with a somewhat
smaller female; the male seemed to be interested in mating, but
she was playing hard-to-get, waiting until he approached before
walking away, feigning indifference while he followed her with
long slow-motion strides.
We crossed the open
plain, full of appreciation for the wildlife that was all around
us. An African hawk
eagle watched us from his perch in a tree.
A family of warthogs crossed the track ahead of us, running
with their tails held comically straight up over their backs.
Two adult female hyenas slept in the shade of a small
elands were on the move, dashing across the road and jumping
fallen trees. Standing
still they look like cows, but when they run they are all grace
and muscly power. They
aren’t good movers at the trot, but they have a great canter,
and are surprisingly good jumpers.
fish eagle flew high overhead, black with a white head, similar to
our bald eagle – we could hear his distinctive high-pitched cry
wafting through the air. The
sun was high in the sapphire sky, and the Circle of Life was all
Justice drove the ‘cruiser up a very steep slope, wheels
spinning on the loose rocks. He
parked at the top of the ridge and we had tea.
From this high viewpoint we could see herds of impala
running on the plain below. The
doves were chanting down along the river, providing a constant
background noise. I
had thought that they were singing Botswana,
Botswana, but Justice had a different interpretation – he
said that in the morning the doves were chanting work
harder, work harder, but in the evening they were advising us
to drink lager, drink lager.
Moving on, Justice followed the course of the riverbed, and
before long he stopped under a large tree.
Looking up, we could see a large python, balled up sleeping
on a high limb. It had
a huge bulge in its middle; apparently it had recently eaten
something pretty large. A
bit further on we came down to the edge of the river – a good
sized crocodile was basking on the shore.
saw a vulture in a tree, the only one we had seen on the whole
trip. This was a real
contrast to our previous visit to the Serengeti, where scores of
vultures fought over the scraps of every carcass. We
passed the spot where we had seen the leopard the previous night,
but the warthog was gone from the tree; perhaps the hyenas had
gotten it after all.
There was a wealth of nature along
the river. We
encountered more eland, and they let us get quite close.
Several kudus faded quietly into the trees like ghosts as
we approached. A
duiker darted out of the underbrush by the riverbank; we had not
seen one before. This
tiny antelope, only slightly larger than the steenbok, is shy and
elusive, hiding in deep cover.
We admired the vibrant lilac, turquoise, blue and green of
a lilac-breasted roller bird as it posed for us on a branch.
Justice pointed out a red-eyed dove, which had a different
chant – I am the red-eyed dove, I am the red-eyed dove.
A mother zebra and her half-grown baby walked slowly
along the track, apparently separated from their herd.
Two eagle owls sat in a tree, peering inquisitively down at
us. We had a brief sighting of an owlet as it flew across the
river, and Jineen caught a glimpse of a Malachite Kingfisher, with
its brilliant blue and red colors.
the way back to camp we paused to say goodbye to the boomslang,
still coiled in the same tree.
Over an especially delicious brunch of chicken pot pie, we
reflected what a great morning it had been.
We packed up our bags, and Jakes drove us to the Limpopo
Valley Horse Safaris office, about half an hour away.
It was time to go riding!