The Limpopo Valley, Botswana, July 2011
Part 5

July 16
     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.
     We 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 fast.
     The 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. 


     We 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.
     The 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.
     This social structure is very important in the development of the young elephants.  Jeanetta 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 sight.   
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 do not.
     We 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.

     Although 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 resources.  But 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.


     But 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.



     Jeanetta 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.
     Heading 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 this.


     We 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 waterhole.  This 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?)


     Jineen 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.
     Next 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 cameras.


     We 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.    

     Justice 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.


     After 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.
     We 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. 
     It 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 wrong.

     As 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.
     We 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. 
     It 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.

July 17
     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.
     We 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.


     We 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. 

     We 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 scrubby tree. 
     The 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.
     A 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 around us.
     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. 


     We 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.  

     On 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!

~ Continued on next page ~


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