We woke to the high-pitched rising call of a pearl-spotted
owl in the pre-dawn hour. We
bagged our new species for the day early; we saw a Cape glossy
starling while we stood by the campfire eating our oatmeal.
As we rode out of camp, the staff began packing everything
up and loading it into the truck, carrying suitcases and tables on
their heads. Moving
into the bush, we saw chin-spot battis and helmet shrikes – that
was three new birds for the morning.
came across a group of a dozen giraffes, several of them with
babies. We watched as
they crossed the road with huge deliberate strides.
They were wary at first, but then apparently deciding we
were not a threat, they went about their business.
We were riding
through the trees when a honey guide bird flew across our path.
It swooped back and forth in front of us, trying to get us
to follow. These
opportunistic birds are known to lead both humans and honey
badgers to beehives – if the hive is opened the bird will then
have a chance to share in the bounty.
Local lore says that if a honey guide bird leads you to a
hive and you don’t leave some of the honey for him, the next
time he will lead you to lions.
crossed a creek and came face to face with a warthog.
He stood staring at us, just feet away – it was the
closest we had been to one. From
his bristly mane that looked like hair implants to the large
wart-like protrusions on the sides of his head, he was thoroughly,
West said that
everyone knew about the Big Five (elephants, lions, leopards,
buffalo, and rhinos), and many were familiar with the Little Five
(elephant shrew, ant lion, leopard tortoise, buffalo weaver, and
rhino beetle). But he
told us there was another category we should know about - the Ugly
hyenas, wildebeests, baboons and the marabou stork.
We found another tiny
pearl-spotted owl in a tree; perhaps it was the one we had heard
just before dawn. A
single black stork flew along a small river – they usually
travel in a flock, so it is unusual to see one alone.
West said he was probably a straggler, tired out from
There were giraffes everywhere,
and we never got tired of watching them.
They would raise their elegant heads and gaze at us with
soulful eyes before moving off gracefully.
West and I decided we would create a new list – the
Beautiful Five. We
agreed it would include giraffes, cheetahs, zebras, and
lilac-breasted roller birds, but we did not concur on the fifth
member of this exclusive grouping – I said it should be kudus,
but West was more partial to impalas.
We went galloping
across an area of open plain, and we were going fairly fast.
Suddenly two bush pigs shot out of the underbrush in front
of us and started running, zigzagging back and forth in panic but
staying just ahead of us. They
plowed through a large flock of guinea fowl, sending them running
and squawking as well. We
galloped across the plain hard on the heels of the pigs, laughing
with delight. We had
been told we might get the chance to canter among zebras,
wildebeests or giraffes – but here we were galloping with the
bush pigs! Amazing.
Who knew a pig could move so fast?
at a more sedate pace, we came upon a group of elephants.
They were standing guard over a small baby who was sleeping
on the ground, flat out on his side.
At first we feared he was dead, but when we got closer he
leapt to his feet. Continuing
along the top of a high riverbank, we saw another small herd of
elephants in the sandy riverbed below us.
They were digging down through the sand to find water
beneath. Because we
were on the bank above them, we were able to safely get very
close. This was the
nearest we had been to elephants on horseback, and it made
Lancelot very nervous.
It seemed like there
were elephants everywhere we looked.
Winding through the trees, we kept altering our path to
avoid groups of them. We
came to a lovely grove of mashatu trees where West had planned to
stop for morning break, but it was occupied by a herd of elephants
so we kept going. Finally
we found an elephant-free mashatu tree and stopped for a rest.
A go-away bird expressed his disapproval of our presence.
We snacked on the usual cheese biscuits and fed the apples
to the horses, along with the last of the granola bars.
There were fresh lion tracks in the dust.
Mooshi took a short walk to ‘go
behind a bush,’, and came back reporting that there was a dead
eland a few hundred feet away, presumably just killed by lions.
There was no sign of the lions, but several jackals were
checking out the carcass. With
the possibility of the lions’ return at any minute, we decided
not to linger.
We went back down to
the Limpopo River and followed a path right along the bank.
In places the trail was so close that I was afraid the
horses would slip over the edge into the grey-green river.
Water makes a soft landing, so what bothered me most was
not fear of falling, but rather fear of crocodiles.
We listened to the constant chanting of the doves:
monkeys climbed in the trees beside the river, and we could hear
the harsh barking voices of baboons raised in argument.
A grey heron glided by on slow silver wings.
On a sandbar down in
the river, two huge crocodiles lay basking in the sun.
They slipped into the water when we approached and floated
there, lurking just beneath the surface.
They had an evil look to them.
I remembered West telling us about the man who had been
dragged out of his canoe and eaten, and I had read that crocodiles
account for more human deaths in Africa than elephants, lions,
leopards and snakes all put together.
The trail led down to a sandbar at the edge of the water,
where we let the horses wade and drink.
I kept a wary eye on the depths.
It was midafternoon
when we rode into Two Mashatus, the same camp where we had stayed
the first night on the trail.
From our tent we could hear elephants just over the hill; I
would have liked to walk down the path to the river to see them,
but I couldn’t convince Jineen.
a semi-permanent camp, Two Mashatus had running water with real
showers, so after lunch the guys started the fire for the boiler
to heat the water. They
told us that once they fired it up we should leave the hot water
running until they turned it off again; if we closed the tap with
the boiler going it would build up too much heat and steam, and
then explode. I did as
they said, but while I was showering the water suddenly surged
scalding hot, burning my hands, arms, and other sensitive parts.
I concluded that bucket showers are safer!
Jineen decided to forego the shower and stay dirty.
West took us out for
an evening game drive – this time in an ancient Landcruiser. Though
it was a bit old and beat-up, it was complete with bench seats,
and much more comfortable than the scatty little pickup we had
used before. At the
wheel of this tough and durable vehicle, West proved to be an
A pair of baboons
stood near the track. The
male postured aggressively, showing us his bald butt, while the
female walked past with her baby clinging underneath her belly,
nursing on the move. A
hornbill flew along beside the vehicle, dipping and swooping in
its unique flight pattern. A
kingfisher perched on a branch, and a giraffe nibbled on the
treetops. A herd of
elephants went by, pausing briefly to pay their respects as they
hurried on their way. We
drove back to where we had seen the dead eland in the morning,
hoping to find the lions, but the carcass was untouched and there
were no predators in sight – West concluded that it hadn’t
been killed by lions after all, but had probably died naturally.
We drove along beside
a dry riverbed, looking for a way to cross.
We came to a track that angled steeply down the high bank,
and West pointed the ‘rover toward the creekbed below.
Halfway down it became evident that the track was made by
animals not vehicles, and the ‘rover started slipping sideways
down the steep slope. We
all leaned to the right as the ‘rover listed to the left, and
West managed to bring it to a precarious halt, hanging halfway
over a small ledge. He
muttered an expletive and asked me how big the drop-off was on my
side: big enough to turn the vehicle over, I told him.
West cut the wheels the other way, and while we held our
breaths, he managed to slide the vehicle the rest of the way down
safely. Pity the next
driver to come along and try to follow our tire tracks!
Once on the far bank,
we drove slowly along near the riverbed.
Suddenly Mooshi pointed, directing West toward a patch of
reeds where he had seen some movement and a flash of gold. It
was a leopard, camouflaged among the tall grasses.
He was absolutely magnificent.
He sat looking at us with an imperious expression, and we
were enthralled watching him.
After a while he stood up out of the reeds and strolled
past us. He headed
down the river, starting to search for prey.
We followed him for a little ways, but then left him, not
wanting to interfere with his hunt.
By the time we left
the riverbed it was starting to get dark.
Looking over to our right, I suddenly saw the most enormous
rat I had ever seen! It
was huge, nearly two feet long.
West told us it was a cane rat, and that it is rare to see
these shy nocturnal creatures – in fact this was the first one
he had ever seen.
drove to the top of a small hill for Sundowners.
Although it had not seemed like much of a climb, from the
top we had fabulous views of the plain below in all directions.
Looking back, we could see the dirt road we had traveled
winding across the plain, and it stretched along the ridge in
front of us as well. Zebras
and impala grazed near the base of the hill, and the last rays
from the setting sun turned the plain golden.
We watched a vivid sundown while sipping a glass of wine.
Pauline stood up on the seat of the Landcruiser and paid
tribute to the setting sun, greeting the nightfall with arms
outstretched above her head. Jineen
and I were sad that this was our last evening in Botswana; neither
of us were ready to go.
Back at Two Mashatus,
we stood around the campfire before dinner admiring the stars
above. The Milky Way
was a luminous slash across the night sky, like the most fabulous
planetarium imaginable. Propping
my camera on a log and using long exposures, I photographed the
Southern Cross and Scorpius.
After dinner, the kitchen staff, grooms
and guides put on a show, singing for us a
cappella, while one of the grooms performed a traditional
Tswana dance. It
sounded fabulous – they had great voices and terrific harmony.
When I went to bed I lay awake long, purposely fending off
sleep so I could listen to the noises of the African night.
We woke in the morning to the sound of rain on the tent –
but when we went outside we were surprised to find that it
wasn’t raining. Looking
up, we saw vervet monkeys in the trees above us, and one of them
was peeing, the stream of urine splattering on the top of the
tent. Not rain, but
headed out of camp for the two hour ride back to the stables.
It was sad to be taking our last ride of the trip.
Not far from camp was a spot where something must have
killed a porcupine in the past; Mooshi dismounted and collected
some of the quills for us as souvenirs.
A tawny eagle perched high in a tree, regally surveying his
territory. We sighted
a large black bird we hadn’t seen before, a Hadada ibis, our new
species for the day. We
rode back across the dam, and our long shadows went before us.
the stables, West’s horse, who had not put a foot wrong the
entire week, suddenly spooked and wheeled around, depositing West
in the dust. He looked
like he felt a little embarrassed, but there was no need to be –
we’ve all been there many times!
We arrived back to
the stables, where lunch was waiting for us in the boma.
We showered and re-packed our bags for the trip home.
West and Mooshi drove us to the border and we said our
goodbyes, thanking them for an amazing week.
We rode the cable car back across the Limpopo, thinking of
the crocodiles and the poor guy in the canoe.
We were met by our shuttle, and headed back to Johannesburg
to catch our flight home.
One thing was very
clear to me by the end of the trip - I have to do this a lot more
often. Africa gets in
your soul, and traveling there changes your outlook.
Going on safari may not be something I can afford every
year, but I will plan my next trip as soon as I can.
And seeing the world between the ears of a horse is the
best way to travel. Perhaps
you would like to join me?
The Circle of Life
From the day we arrive on the planet
And blinking, step into the sun
There's more to be seen than can ever be seen
More to do than can ever be done
Some say eat or be eaten
Some say live and let live
But all are agreed as they join the stampede
You should never take more than you give
In the circle of life
It's the wheel of fortune
It's the leap of faith
It's the band of hope
Till we find our place
On the path unwinding
In the circle
The circle of life
Some of us fall by the wayside
And some of us soar to the stars
And some of us sail through our troubles
And some have to live with the scars
There's far too much to take in here
More to find than can ever be found
But the sun rolling high through the sapphire sky
Keeps great and small on the endless round
the circle of life
And it moves us all
Through despair and hope
Through faith and love
Till we find our place
On the path unwinding
In the circle
The circle of life