The Limpopo Valley, Botswana, July 2011

Part 9

July 23
    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.
     We 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.
      We 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, categorically ugly. 


     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 Five:  Warthogs, 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 delivering babies.  
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?
      Going 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:  Botswana, Botswana, Botswana.  Vervet 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.
     Being 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 adventurous driver.


     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.
     We 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.

 July 24
     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 monkey pee!
     We 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.  


     Nearing 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   

(The Lion King)

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

It's 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 

AFRICA 2011 Pages:                                    9

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