We came to the kgotla, our home
for the next two nights. A
kgotla (the pronunciation inexplicably sounds more like hotler)
is a tribal law court and public meeting place; this one had been
the court for a village that had been here before the Game Reserve
It was a circular boma made of
upright posts from a leadwood tree; the wood from this tree is so
dense and heavy that it does not float.
There was a campfire in the center of the circle, and the
dining table and chairs were set up near the entrance.
Our beds were positioned around the fire, just inside of
the high circular fence, and our bags were beside them. We
were to sleep in the open here, without tents, under the canopy of
a towering mashatu tree. There
was a narrow path with high leadwood walls that led to a toilet
and shower, complete with running water.
The horses were tied among the trees outside of the kgotla,
and the beds for the staff were nearby.
had told us that the kgotla was her favorite spot on the earth,
and being here, I could see why.
This place had an almost magical feel to it.
I found a huge fluffy white ostrich feather beside my bed;
surely an omen of good luck.
Flopping down on my bed, I looked up at the spreading
branches of the mashatu tree above me.
It was full of life, and we contentedly watched the birds
among the branches and the squirrels running up and down the
trunk. It was the
best view I have ever had from a bed.
We had lunch beneath the tree, enjoying the beautiful
surroundings and excellent company.
Between us Americans, the French family (Pierre, Chantal
and Pauline), Saskia from Germany, and West and Mooshi from
Botswana, it was quite an international group.
We told jokes around the lunch table, some of them slightly
off color and at the expense of others – good humor definitely
superseded the language barriers.
Suddenly we heard a loud squawk
from above, and an unwelcoming parrot-like voice directed us,
‘Go Away!’ Looking
up, we could see a large grey bird, somewhat like a cockatiel,
observing us from the top of a dead tree.
‘Go Away!’ he chided us again clearly, in nasal tones
of disgust. He was, of
course, a go-away bird, also known as a grey lourie.
We had seen them before, but this was the first time we had
heard their signature command.
We gathered for tea at four o'clock, and then West took us
for an evening game drive. We
had no sturdy Landrover or well-appointed Landcruiser this time;
instead we all piled into the back of a small, old, battered
pickup truck that had definitely seen better days.
There were no seats, but we all perched precariously on the
wheelwells, the tail gate and the spare tire.
I tried sitting on the side of the truck’s bed, but
quickly abandoned this perch when we hit a bump and a jagged metal
edge ripped both my jeans and the skin on my thigh.
After that I stood up behind the cab, clinging on to the
roll bar for dear life as West drove across the bumpy ground.
We saw many of the usual animals: Impala,
kudus, elands, warthogs and a pair of kori bustards.
We noticed more lion tracks in the dusty roadway, quite
close to camp. We came
across a young bull elephant, and watched him until he moved away
to join his herd down by a river.
We crossed a pitted floodplain to get closer, almost
getting stuck several times as we drove through huge ruts and deep
elephant footprints that were made when the ground was mud, but
were now hardened to brick. I
clutched the roll bar as the little truck lurched through the
craters left by the elephants’ passing, trying to avoid getting
my fingers mashed between the bouncing roll bar and the back of
West parked the truck at the base of a huge granite
kopje rising abruptly out of the plain.
We climbed up the steep path to the top of the outcropping,
where a weathered baobab stood on the crown of the hill.
We watched as the sun slipped below the horizon, turning
the sky to orange and rose. The
vista from the top was incredible; we could see for miles.
West told us that this kopje was called Mmamagwa Hill.
We gazed at the ancient silhouette of the baobab, standing
broken but proud, bereft of many branches.
What had that tree seen?
What hardships had it endured?
We sat on the top of the world and had Sundowners, sipping
white wine and eating campfire-cooked potato chips.
The crystal sky was filled with reflected color, the deep
blue blending to gold, orange and magenta, stretching all the way
around the horizon. We
sat quietly, filling ourselves with the peace of the evening.
An elephant shrew joined us, searching for bits of potato
chip among the rocks. West
showed us where Cecil John Rhodes, founder of Rhodesia (now
Zimbabwe), had carved his initials in the baobab tree in 1895.
I could have stayed on that high rocky spot forever, but
time blew by like the wind, and all too soon it was time to head
Back at the kgotla, we had an excellent dinner, all
camp-cooked on the fire, courtesy of Grace and Martha.
Afterwards we sat in folding chairs around the fire.
Good food, good company, and stories around the campfire;
what could be better? We
could hear the faint call of lions in the distance.
As the temperature dropped, we moved closer to the fire.
We heard the lions again, nearer this time, an eerie primal
sound – a combination of roars, moans, and low-pitched grunts.
They were answered faintly by others in the distance.
West told us that the lion’s roars can carry for up to
five kilometers, and they communicate this way to call members of
the pride together. Soon
the roars were repeated, and the second set of lions sounded much
closer. We listed to
them calling at intervals, moving nearer each time.
I thought of the paw prints we had seen in the dust, just
outside the camp.
I asked West to tell us the
scariest lion stories he knew, but he refused – he said he would
tell us those stories later, after we had left the kgotla.
Earlier in the evening while at Mmamagwa Hill he had told
me about a lion eating a staff member at one of the camps, but he
would not now recount the story to the group.
Suddenly a thunderous roar split
the night – the lions were now extremely close.
Hearing them was exhilarating.
The guides assured us that even though a lion could easily
jump the rough leadwood wall into the enclosure, they probably
wouldn’t. The night
was filled with the roaring of the lions.
Saskia said that they often sound closer than they are; we
hoped so, because they sounded like they were right outside the
We were not afraid for ourselves,
but we did worry for the horses on the picket line outside.
Saskia told us that there have been several times at the
kgotla when lions have come for the horses, and they have had to
chase them off with bullwhips and flaming branches.
There would be little sleep for the guides tonight!
Saskia said that if all hell breaks loose in the night, no
matter what happens and what we hear, we were not to try to help,
and not to leave the enclosure.
She reiterated that the guides could do their job of
protecting the horses much better if they didn’t have to worry
about the safety of the guests.
Eventually the lions
seemed to settle down, and it was time for bed.
I lay awake a long time, looking up at the stars through
the branches of the mashatu tree and listening to the sounds of
the animals in the night. We
could hear the soft whoop, whoop of hyenas calling, and we were serenaded by the
rising-pitched wheet, wheet,
wheet whistle of a pearl-spotted owl. The
lions roared at intervals through the night.
Later on elephants came close to camp, and some of them
sounded angry. At one
point we heard a sharp noise like the crack of a whip; it was an
elephant breaking branches just outside the fence.
We could hear the high pitched cries of the jackals, rising
in a chorus each time the lions roared. Listening
to the lions in the night is one of my abiding memories of Africa.
In the morning we got to sleep in
– our wakeup call wasn’t until six.
Saskia told us that she had slept on top of the horse truck
because of the lions. The
elephant we had heard breaking branches in the night had been so
close to where she was sleeping that she had been afraid he would
reach her with his trunk. There
were elephant prints all around the truck, and lion tracks within
fifty yards of the guides’ beds, which were outside of the
kgotla near the horses.
We rode out of camp at seven.
In the trees near camp we saw a bush pig; it is quite rare
to see these elusive creatures.
They are sleeker and prettier than warthogs, with long
slender noses, soft reddish-brown coats and fluffy grey manes.
Saskia told us that bush pigs are crepuscular (which she
said is her favorite word); active only at dawn and dusk.
We rode back past the double rock formations of Mapungubwe
Hill. A baboon stood
like a sentinel on the top, watching us as we rode slowly by,
perhaps guarding the ancient burial grounds.
We had a brief glimpse of a group of zebras before they
took off, and saw four jackals on an early morning hunt.
We had a couple of nice long hand-gallops, and I was
pleased to find that Lancelot’s cough was much better this
morning. At one point
we unexpectedly cantered up behind a group of elephants - we had
barely a glimpse of them before they took off.
We rode down to the Motloutse
River, which only flows for a few days a year, after heavy rains.
We crossed the wide dry expanse of sand, following a path
of elephant footprints. A
steep rock wall thirty meters high stretched halfway across the
riverbed; West told us it is called Solomon’s Wall.
At one time it reached all the way across, damming the
river and creating a waterfall, but centuries of erosion have
reduced it. We stood
the horses in front of the wall and took group photos.
We stopped on the far shore for morning break, with the
usual cheese biscuit for us and apples for the horses.
We collected guinea fowl feathers among the trees, and
watched raptors soar high overhead.
We had a long canter on the way home.
Pauline had a good camera, and was trying to take
photographs of her parents while riding.
She kept veering out of line to gallop beside the group,
positioning herself to get shots of the moving horses.
We arrived back at the kgotla
around noon; it was our shortest day riding, just four and a half
hours. We had a
leisurely lunch, once again accompanied by the go-away bird; he
did not welcome our presence and suggested we leave.
We could hear elephants nearby.
I walked around outside the camp taking photographs, but
remembering the lion tracks, I was careful not to stray too far.
Pauline showed me her photographs
– some of her galloping shots had turned out surprisingly good.
I was inspired to give this action photography a try.
I lay on my bed, watching the life
in the Mashatu tree. Birds,
bees and squirrels all vied for the fruit that hung from the
branches. The tree was
over 500 years old – I loved to imagine the things it must have
seen. How much had the
world changed during its lifetime?
Less here than elsewhere, no doubt.
West took us out again in the little pickup truck for an
evening drive. Once
again we rode in the back, clinging to the roll bar and jouncing
around in the truck bed. A
herd of kudus stood on a small knoll, and a huge bull posed for
us, showing off an impressive set of twisting horns.
An oxpecker perched on his back and another hung under his
belly; these birds have a symbiotic relationship with large
mammals, picking off the ticks and other parasites of their hosts.
We passed a pair of bat-eared foxes; they are very cute,
with petite faces and enormous ears.
They vanished quickly when we stopped to watch them. We
found it amazing that even after nearly two weeks in the bush we
still saw at least one new species each day.
West parked by a large kopje with a huge hollow baobab at
the base. A mother
elephant with her baby were there, but they moved off when we
followed a precipitous path up the side of the granite
outcropping; in places it was treacherously steep.
We climbed carefully, using narrow crevices for handholds,
my old fear of heights kicking in.
The view from the summit
was spectacular. We
stood at the top of a sheer rocky cliff, high above the plain,
looking down at the wide dry river stretched below us.
Rocky ridges stood in layers beyond it, fading into the
distance. We could see
There were elephants everywhere, in all directions. A
small herd crossed the river to our left, and more moved across
the savannah below. The
mother and baby we had seen earlier were hanging out around the
base of the kopje. We
counted fifty elephants that we could see at one time.
Looking out to the right, we watched a herd of wildebeests
crossing the riverbed. A
swarm of mongoose went across the sandy flat, flowing over the
ground like a wave.
We sat on the rocks and watched the sun setting over the
dry river, painting the sky in shades of pink.
It was a lovely feeling, sitting there with the world at
our feet. An elephant
shrew joined us for Sundowners, wiggling its long trunk-like nose
and rummaging for dropped bits of popcorn.
Pauline climbed far out on a rock ledge that jutted into
space, making me nervous on her behalf.
I didn't go close to the edge myself – getting back down
the steep path in the half-darkness was challenging enough!
Once again we sat around the fire after dinner, enjoying
the companionship of the group.
I asked West to tell us about the scariest thing that had
ever happened to him on safari, but he denied having had any close
calls. Instead he told
us about a man who had been crossing the Limpopo River at the Pont
Drift border in a canoe because the water level was too high to
use the cable car. He
had dangled his hand in the water, and a huge crocodile grabbed
it, pulled him into the river, and ate him. What a way to go! I
think I would rather be eaten by lions.
We went to bed, listening to the
night sounds. We heard
bat-eared foxes, jackals and hyenas – but no lions.
No crocodiles, either.
Slowly the velvet African night enfolded us, and we drifted
off into sleep.