17 Jun 2015 AFRICAN SAFARI
I was away from June 4 to 17. The journey began before I left the flat when I somewhat apprehensively took the first of a daily course of malarone anti-malaria tablets, having read the possible side effects which included vomiting. Mercifully my concern was short lived. The pill caused no problems. As you might expect, I will be writing primarily about the fauna and flora. My rapture at seeing the creatures, the vegetation and the lie of the land was identical to the feeling I get when I’m filming a species for the first time or in a new setting here on the mountain. I suggest you google the species to which I refer so that you can at least see what they look like. A warning, this article contains over 9,900 words.
My travels introduced me to four planes I had not flown in before. The first was the Avro RJ85, no longer in production, but an impressive aircraft, which took me from Johannesburg to Maun in Botswana, the southern gateway to the Okavango Delta. From there I boarded the second ‘new’ plane, a single-engine 12 seat Cessna 208 which flew me above the tree tops on the 15 minute leg to the Stanley’s Camp air strip. The luggage allowance was limited to 20 kg all up. Soft bags were favoured over suitcases as an easier fit in small planes. My check-in bag weighed 6.7 kg on leaving and, burdened by two books and some light footwear, 8.5 kg on return.
Although the Okavango Delta was belatedly World Heritage-listed in 2014, it is too remote to be easily accessible to the public. There are no sealed roads, only tracks through sand and water. Visitors have to stay at one of the many small camps scattered within its 15,000 square kilometres. A recent article in the Guardian praised it as arguably Africa’s most pristine wildlife area. The delta is formed by a river system (whose source is in the Angolan Highlands) which floods and is ultimately claimed by, the sand of the Kalahari. Its varied, often lush vegetation is rooted in sand. There is not a naturally occurring rock, not even a pebble to be found in the delta. As the plane circled to land, I saw elephants near a water hole.
A buffalo kill became the theme of my two day stay at the camp. A pair of male lions had brought the buffalo down close to the air strip and its carcase was the first thing we were taken to see by Allan, our guide, an imposing man in his fifties and wonderfully knowledgeable as all the guides would prove to be. My travelling companions were Leeanne, Ellie and James, a mother and two teenagers from London, who were on the plane from Maun. Allan laid down the ground rules which included speaking quietly. The main rule was not to stand up in the vehicle which risked drawing attention to what is otherwise perceived by much of the wildlife as a single, big and uninteresting entity.
The buffalo’s body was largely intact, only a small amount of bare flesh exposed. From the kill Allan drove the short distance to some scrub covering a small mound atop which sat a female leopard gnawing at something more bone than flesh she had scavenged from the buffalo. She was unperturbed by our presence and that of the passengers of another landcruiser, perhaps ten metres away, as awestruck by her proximity and beauty as we were. Allan wanted us to see the lions guarding their kill. We found one of them strategically placed, resting. He looked plain mean. My ten day safari could hardly have got off to a better start.
The transfer from air strip to camp took forty minutes. At times the track disappeared under water which was no problem for the open-top landcruiser, the vehicle of choice in these parts, with extra big wheels and three raised rows of seats behind the driver. We saw warthogs, impalas, a variety of birds, including the aptly named Hammerhead (a medium-sized brown wader), and a Common Tsessebe (a large antelope).
On our arrival at camp we were met by staff singing beautifully a cappella, swaying gently to the rhythm of the song. We were given hot towels to wipe the dust from hands and face and a refreshing drink. It was like the embracing welcome of a family greeting a dear friend after a prolonged absence. My room was closest to the main building. Lavish as the accommodation was, it was still a tent which meant that there was no discernable difference between the inside and outside temperature, fine once the day had warmed up, but a completely different propostion in the cold of night (which electric blankets helped dispel at bedtime). Guests were forbidden to walk unescorted to and from their rooms at night at all the camps and lodges.
Because of the time spent at the air strip our afternoon game drive was later than scheduled. Allan set out in the opposite direction to the one he had planned and downplayed our prospects of matching the excitement of the morning. We had barely started when we came across four giraffes nibbling the upper branches of an acacia tree. Two were adorned by Red-billed Oxpeckers, more commonly associated with buffaloes and rhinos. The oxpeckers were where I would have expected to see them, namely silhouetted on the mane at the base of the neck of one of the giraffes. It was only after closer inspection that I saw birds clinging to the flank and belly of the other. For me this was as auspicious a beginning of our second drive as the kill had been of our first.
Nearby was a sausage tree, so named because of the shape of its fruit which is as much as two feet long. Agnes, who accompanied Allan, retrieved a fruit to show us. Allan produced a knife and cut into the fruit which was hard. He then asked us how many poisonous snakes there are in the world. I started to rattle off a list of Australia’s finest, but Allan stopped me by stating the difference between poisonous and venomous: poison is ingested, venom is injected. I had never considered the matter nor do I recall previously hearing this succinct explanation.
Shortly after we had marvelled at the giraffes, one of the Londoners spotted a Chacma baboon on a grassy slope in front of a tree. It was so well camouflaged that I was only able to see it again when it moved.
There was something magical about catching sight of my first wild African elephant gathering food with its trunk. Vervet monkeys have a bad reputation which belies their engaging appearance. A few infants tumbled about on the ground at the foot of an ample tree between the branches of which other infants and some adults leaped athletically. We saw a Saddle-billed Stork, African Sacred Ibis, spoonbills and a Rufous-bellied Heron. I particularly enjoyed the hornbills, the Red-billed and Yellow-billed being frequent flyers here. A majestic African Fish Eagle and Hooded Vultures completed the day’s bird sightings.
Allan pulled up at a tranquil waterhole for sundowners. On our way back to camp we encountered some wildebeest which were hard to see properly in the gloaming. Later, the spotlight picked out an African Civet lurking in scrub a short distance beyond the track.
In the evening we were again entertained by singing and dancing. This time there were more performers. Their harmonising was unerring. Their sound enhanced by a beautifully sonorous bass line. I was at a loss to know how it could be done. I mean, a random group from villages in the delta, all with melodious voices and able to sing tribal songs without, as far as I could tell, a wrong note between them. Whether they rehearsed or not seemed beside the point.
What struck me powerfully from the first sighting of the leopard, was how she seemed to blend into the background. I could almost describe her appearance as drab. Perhaps subdued would be a better word. So to varying effect with the lion, the giraffes, baboon, warthogs, vervet monkeys, the tsessebe, even the elephant, and impala. After a lifetime of only seeing these animals in increasingly high tech documentaries, I had expected something more filmically glossy. But on reflection, merging into the background to avoid being seen made eminent sense for both prey and predator.
Receiving a 6 am wake up call was a rude shock to the system. It was bitterly cold. I made the mistake of showering. It was still dark outside. After breakfast we were driven by a different guide, David, to a tryst and a walk with three orphaned elephants who had found a good home with a dedicated husband and wife team in return for being in an educational outreach programme. A family of five from America’s mid-west (parents and three teenage daughters) likewise staying at Stanley’s, had also booked the elephant walk.
As we were on foot, David carried a gun. I am ambivalent about animal presentation events because even the best are contrived. True, we were able to touch the elephants and walk hand to tip of trunk with the older female. We were also regaled with intimate facts about the elephants’ eyes, ears (they hear through slits in front of the ear flaps) and mouth (the tongue is not detached and cannot protrude, the teeth are used for grinding vegetation). The trio were very biddable and did what they were told, performing a number of tricks. The young bull was huge, standing 3.35 metres at the shoulder and expected to grow to 4 metres. There were other creatures around. Some butterflies and the vibrant blue of the Burchell’s Starling delighted my eye. We had a sumptuous lunch at a large table under the trees.
I had put in an early request with Allan to see a baobab tree and he promised to oblige me on the morrow. En route to check the kill we saw Bushbucks (the smallest of the antelopes we encountered), some baboons, warthogs, Red-billed Spurfowl, elephants and giraffes. The buffalo had been considerably opened up. Now there were two male lions affectionately lying beside oneanother, evidently having formed a close bond. Some hooded vultures perched in a tree waiting for their chance to gorge on the buffalo’s remains. And the leopard was still hanging around. We watched her shift position on the ground before she sprang onto a fork in a tree, climbing further up a limb before settling down as easy as you please, her tail and whiskers twitching, her front paws draped over the branch. Her prospects of feasting on buffalo seemed hopeless. Her and the vultures’ best chance would be when the lions went to drink, unless they took it in turn.
Pressing on to our sundowner destination we saw more saddle-billed storks (a huge bird, whose name derives from a yellow frontal shield on the red bill with its black band), starlings, hornbills, Blacksmith Lapwings (another frequent flyer), vervet monkeys and a Magpie Shrike (one of several predominantly black and white birds, such as the hornbills, lapwings and Pied Kingfishers, I saw in Africa). The most unexpected sighting of the day was a Verreaux Eagle Owl which flew out of scrub as we passed and landed on a tree branch, looking at us as we looked at it. The bird was huge. Some Little Bee-eaters (they are prettily coloured) preceeded the owl and settled in a bush next to the track. Nothing appeared in the spotlight’s beam as we returned to camp.
The elephant eating leaves for its breakfast right next to the deck where I was having mine was a much more authentic experience than yesterday’s walk. Ellie, contemplating the view of the flood plain stretching into the distance, was startled by a warthog emerging from its home under the deck. In my room I would hear a sound which I thought was the chirping of birds in the trees but turned out to be the chattering of Tree squirrels. They were in all the camps and in many other places as well.
Although I was continuing to Chief’s Camp, I had opted for a full morning game drive. Early on we stopped to watch a large troop of baboons with many babies and adolesecents on the move. We got a better view of some wildebeest, saw a male giraffe, hornbills, impala, a Coppery-tailed Coucal and two birds who sound remarkably like kookaburras (the Green Wood-hoopoe and the Arrow-marked Babbler). I was especially intrigued by the call which I had heard in the dark, because it was so surprising. A highlight of the drive was seeing some Burchell’s Zebras. They stood out more than most other creatures.
We duly had our coffee break at the baobab tree. It was the most impressive of a group of three. I was disappointed that I couldn’t feel the bark because elephants had stripped it from the trunk to get at the water it contains. There were distant hippos and elephants in a lagoon. That morning we also came across a Malachite Kingfisher (a stunning bird, like so many of the kingfishers) and White-browed Sparrow-weavers (whose unattended straggly nests with either two entrances for roosting or one for breeding purposes, we had already seen). By now we were on our way to the air strip. We saw some Common Reedbucks, a fish eagle, some Meves’s Starlings (blue like the Burchell’s but with a longer tail), a White-browed Coucal and a Lilac-breasted Roller (an exquisite small bird).
Before I was dropped off at the air strip to catch the plane to Chief’s we checked the buffalo kill which was now profoundly on the nose. The vultures were nowhere to be seen. The lions occupied separate positions within sight of oneanother and the poor leopard surveyed the scene from a tree seemingly oblivious to the hopelessness of her predicament as it appeared to us. I flew to Chief’s with Claire, a young woman also from London, who had been staying at Baine’s Camp, which the air strip also served. She would be a travelling companion in the Chief’s landcruiser.
We received a similar welcome to the one at Stanley’s. The camp is slightly larger, but still intimate. The rooms are also tents and even more luxurious than those at Stanley’s, with his and her wash basins. After lunch I showered in the warm of the day. My housekeeper was called Girlie. She was a sweetie, procuring me a bedside clock. The camp is located at the edge of an extensive water meadow with a channel running through it which does a ninety degree turn in front of the main building. Arriving there for afternoon tea I was greeted by a hippoptamus walking past the deck perhaps twenty yards away in the shallow part of the channel before submerging to swim in deeper water. In the middle distance an elephant was pulling up water grass to eat.
We set off on our afternoon game drive with our guide Kinose, an intense young man who loves the biodiversity of his tribal land. Kinose had been assigned to Russell and Marion, a couple from Capetown whom I joined for the duration of my stay. Claire was also on board.
A warthog scurried off the track. Vervet monkies frolicked in a tree. Impala paused as we passed. The antelopes are beautiful animals. Their coats range from shades of fawn to dark grey with markings from vertical or horizontal stripes, to spots to bright patches of white. Generally they don’t retreat far from the vehicles and remain in view. The terrain around the camp is wonderfully varied. There are stands of dead trees and of Real Fan Palms, densely timbered ground, great expanses of meadows, arid areas and extensive lagoons bounded by reeds and water lilies. Some broad vistas of grass with densely wooded edges, dotted with trees and graced by a waterhole or lagoon looked rather like the slightly unkempt park of an English country house, but for the far-off presence of a family of slow-moving elephants or giraffes.
Both here and at Stanley’s, mounds built by fungus termites are a feature of the landscape. They are said to be the largest in Africa. Because of the elevated water table in the delta they can attain a great height. No-one could tell me the weight of material used in their construction. A scrub turkey mound may contain up to four tons of material. Even if they are not solid structures so many of the termite mounds just seem bigger.
It is a wonder that, exposed to the elements, we could park within a few feet of three lionesses. Kinose knew they were around. He had seen their tracks. One might almost think that lions are so named for all the lyin around they do to conserve their energy for hunting. They were dozing. Indeed one was snoring. Kinose repositioned the landcruiser so that we could get a different view. It was an ideal arrangement. We were fascinated by the lions and they couldn’t have cared less about us. Better still, they felt no need to avoid us.
Kinose pointed out an Emerald-spotted Dove, a Rain Tree (a name also given to a different species I saw in Burma) and a Jackalberry Tree (alternatively known as African Ebony) which is one of the largest and most characterful trees in the delta. He further drew our attention to a strangler fig which I found hard to recognise because it grew in relative isolation and was far smaller and less defined than the trees I am used to. There were a few baobab trees away from the track. Red-billed Quelea (which is the world’s most abundant wild bird species and is entirely confined to sub-saharan Africa), a Brown Snake Eagle, a Fork-tailed Drongo which bears a family resemblence to Australia’s Spangled Drongo and a Grey Heron which is also found in temperate Europe and Asia as well as parts of Africa, were other birds Kinose identified for me.
There was a Spotted Hyena close to camp. It was larger than I expected. Hyena tracks were among the most common one saw. In the evening the pinging sound of countless frogs in the water meadow filled the air.
We rose early for the ‘long drive’ to Kinose’s favourite spot which he wanted to share with us. We were soon on the trail of a large Cape buffalo herd on the verge of panic because lions were said to be in the vicinity. The clouds of dust raised by agitated hooves guided us to the herd. In Stanley’s and Chief’s the guides are able to go off road (well more accurately, off track) and Kinose liked nothing better. The herd comprised some very young animals as well as the range of females, adolescents and assorted males including a number of massive bulls. We watched as the herd attempted to sort the situation out. A hyena skulked nearby just in case the lion threat was real. Calm was gradually restored and the herd began to move off in orderly fashion, even making way for a small group of elephants.
We had a close view of four zebras and a more distant one of a giraffe suckling her young. We stopped to look at three Southern Ground Hornbills. They were so unlike the other hornbills we had seen, being hugely bigger and splendid in their black plumage with vivid red patches of bare skin around the eyes and throat. A troop of baboons was on the move. One of them was carrying a lifeless baby, hoping that it would wake up, apparently unable to accept that it was dead. I was told this behaviour was not a rarity.
Crossing a wooden bridge over a channel was unexpected. Usually we would plough through water, but the channel soon widened into a large lagoon. We were nearing Kinose’s chosen spot. It wasn’t quite where an immense, majestic 2,000 year old baobab tree stood. This was the finest and biggest I saw during my safari. It was higher than any of the others. It possessed an epically wide trunk and the broadest limbs I have ever seen on a tree. They rose almost to the top of the canopy. The bark, ironically grey like an elephant’s, had been stripped from the lower trunk.
We pressed on, rounded a corner and stopped for morning coffee near the water’s edge. A couple of Nile crocodiles were basking on the opposite bank. One flopped into the lake. Several hippos were enjoying a dip. Now you saw half a dozen of them. Next moment you saw none. Elephants grazed in the middle distance. The lagoon was a paradise for waterfowl. We saw some vulnerable Wattled Cranes (another huge bird), Reed Cormorants, African Darters and Long-toed Lapwings. The bare branches of the venerable baobab stood out above the trees behind us. We were filled with a sense of peace and wellbeing, exactly as Kinose had expected.
Having re-crossed the bridge we struck out over open country. On a slight slope Kinose spotted a dead zebra. It was beginning to bloat and had not been scavenged, suggesting it had died of natural causes. Close by were some tsessebe. Given earlier reports of lions and the presence of vultures and other scavengers, it was a mystery why the carcase was still intact.
Kinose directed our attention to some rattled birds, pronouncing a snake to be the cause of the commotion. We got out of the landcruiser to have a look. The culprit was an African Rock Python which tried to hide as we approached it, but gave up the attempt and slithered off in the short grass enabling us to get a good view of it. The snake was perhaps two metres long, slender and beautifully patterned like the Carpet Pythons in Australia, but in shades of brown, not grey.
The guides are in constant radio communication with a controller at the camps. A tall tower betrays the camps’ location. A guide reports a fortuitous sighting and the controller can alert other guides who converge on the spot. Kinose was trying to find the whereabouts of four young male lions and drove wildly off track in pursuit.
The key pointer was a rain tree located a few hundred metres in a north westerly direction from a reference point eventually agreed on by base and Kinose. Fortunately Russ had a smart phone with a compass. After a false start or two I caught sight of what had to be a lion lying down near just such a tree. We parked within a few yards of the four males. Their sparse manes compared with those on mature males, did little to diminish their aura of power. They shifted position, so did we. We would have stayed longer, but we were already late for lunch.
On our way to the check the wild dog den we called by at a hyena den. Only one hyena was visible. It didn’t seem to mind our presence. The den was a shallow mound of bare sand, sheltered by overhanging vegetation. Although dog-like in appearance, hyenas are related to cats, whereas the rarely seen Side-striped Jackal which we happened upon afterwards, is definitely related to dogs. It was a short distance from us and went about its business, sniffing the ground and looking around, for several minutes as we watched.
The wild dog den lay beyond two extensive water meadows. The track, at times covered by water, skirted the edge of one. The ride was bumpier than on the tracks across the sand. After a welcome interlude driving through woodland we plunged into the middle of the second water meadow, tall grass on either side. Three or four Common Reedbucks a little way off watched us, ears pricked, only their heads clearly visible. Five male Red Lechwe bounded over the water grass with speed and elegant ease. They are the swiftest antelope through water. There was no sign of life at the wild dog den which resembled that of the hyenas.
To make up for drawing a blank, Kinose was determined to show us a leopard said to be in the vicinity of the camp. We retraced our bumpy path across the water meadows. We covered the ground as quickly as the conditions would allow. The wild dogs we had hoped to see in the den were actually on the route to the leopard. We scattered one or two of the pack which was being watched by other guests at Chief’s. The dogs were handsome-looking animals sporting a coat in a complex black, white and brindle pattern. We arrived at the leopard’s hideout among the trees. It was another female. We studied her as best we could in the twilight before she moved off.
At first light, just below my deck, a baby baboon was riding its mother’s back immediately forward of the tail like a diminutive jockey before dropping on its belly and clasping her fur. Kinose wanted to try the wild dog den again. We sighted a hyena and he decided to follow it across country. Fortunately Claire (Marion and Russell opted for a later wake up call) was well positioned in the landcruiser and had the eyesight to keep the hyena in view. After a short chase it slowed down and greeted another hyena who was advancing to meet it. Observing this small event was touchingly rewarding, a modest instance of the immeasurable privilege of being able to share the world of all the creatures we came upon.
Another vehicle was at the wild dog den when we arrived. It failed to observe the etiquette of moving so that newcomers could share the view. I asked Kinose if we could go to the other side of the den. Fortunately all the dogs followed us and rejoined those adults who hadn’t bothered moving in the first place. The pack consisted of five pups and eight adults. All the pups, three males and two females, came right up to our vehicle to get a good look at us. They played as pups do the world over. The adults were more scattered but we eventually counted all eight in the one place. Adults, the fur on their cheeks and neck smeared with blood, constantly regurgitated food from the morning’s kill for the pups to eat. A pack strips its kill bare in one go leaving the bones and little else for scavengers.
We rendezvoused with another landcruiser which took Claire (bound for her next destination) to the air strip and headed back to camp in time for lunch. I now saw White-browed sparrow-weavers at their nests, flitting in and out of the entrances, after seeing nests and birds separately at Stanley’s. Kinose stopped the landcruiser and plucked the leaves of a wild basil plant. When crushed they are applied to overcome ‘hot wings’, the pong of sweaty armpits. I did not expect to see southern ground hornbills at camp. The flash of white on their wings as they flew off was dazzling.
Russell and Marion rejoined us for the afternoon drive. They wanted to go to the wild dog den, but I did not feel up to a third jaunt through the water meadows. Instead we kept to dry land. We were rewarded by the sight of a Steenbuck, a small antelope, leaping and speeding away. We saw Greater Kudu (They are one of the largest species of antelope. The horns of the male twist as they grow. Those of a fully mature male attain two and a half twists. The horns if straightened, would on average be 120 cm long.) and some elephants fresh from wallowing. But before we could catch up with them Kinose noticed an old male lion resting near the water hole. He was a dominant male with a dense mane, content to leave his pride up to their own devices for now. After stretching and yawning he got up, pottered to a bush, sprayed it and advancing a few strides, lay down again.
We were heading for another water hole. A group of elephants which included the smallest baby I had seen thus far, wanted to cross our track. The leading female who had no tusks, flapped her ears at us in annoyance. We stopped. She stared at us and then led the group on its way perhaps ten yards in front of us.
The waterhole where we had our sundowners was idyllic. We climbed out of the car. A large crocodile on the opposite bank glided into the water to join a lone hippo. The croc remained virtually motionless and more or less submerged during our stay. On several occasions the hippo opened its mouth, the lower portion invisible until it threw its head completely back into a horizontal position and fully opened its mouth once more.
The old lion was where we had left him, as indolent as before. Russ had a sophisticated sound recorder with which he hoped to capture the lion roaring. At last it rose and in no hurry, sauntered over the sand in search of his pride. We followed him. After some minutes the lion let out a roar, not of rage, but to say, “I’m here, where are you?”. The sound can carry for two kilometres. The lion kept on slowly walking. We followed. Minutes later there was an answering roar. The lion walked on. His path was beginning to diverge from ours, but not before, again minutes after he was answered, he roared again.
At four in the morning and then at five, I heard a lion roar quite close to my room. Having heard the old male the previous evening, I was not alarmed. Russell and Marion were delightful to be with. We were all moving on, they back to Cape Town, I to Chobe Wilwero. We decided to leave half an hour early to enjoy a mini game drive. As we departed a female elephant in charge of a small group was about to cross the track. We halted. The elephant made her annoyance at our presence clear before continuing her walk.
Talk among the staff was that the lions in the night were near the therapy suite which was the building closest to my room. Kinose doubled back off road towards the camp and pulled up next to the two young males, resting after whatever nocturnal exertions. I didn’t grasp if they belonged to the group of four we had seen two days ago or not. While we were admiring the kings of the jungle a brouhaha was brewing on the other side of the camp. Elephants were trumpeting, vegetation was being trampled and bashed. Next moment a line of elephants walking quickly, crossed the open ground fifty yards or so in front of us. The trumpeting and crashing grew louder, more angry and closer. Kinose reversed the landcruiser. Suddenly a female elephant appeared as if running for her life, chased by a mad young bull in musth (a state of uncontrolled and uncontrollable sexual arousal). The bull caught sight of the lions and charged them. They ran off and the bull continued on his demented, destructive path.
Kinose drove to a waterhole near the airstrip. It was occupied by a crocodile and teeming with birds. We saw grey herons, Water Thick-knees, flocks of Egyptian Geese, Red-billed Teal and Comb-billed Ducks which looked at least as big as the geese.
The staff in the delta had invariably been enchanting with ready smiles which I regarded as genuine rather than artful. They live at the camps and are away from their families because of their work. Kinose’s baby daughter celebrated her first birthday during our stay at Chief’s. It was tough for him not being with her, though he managed to see her on skype. Basadi, the highly competent camp manager who had an easy way with guests and seemed revered by her mostly young staff, was a treasure. She sold me the camp’s copy of Karen Ross’s book on the Okavango, having been unable to track down a new one.
The flight north east to Kasane took over an hour. We flew at 10,000 feet. As we came in to land I could see the sheets of spray from the Victoria Falls (a 20 minute flight in a small plane from Kasane) which ascend as high as 400 metres above the top of the gorge. I was met at the airport by Rogers, who was assigned to be my guide. The drive to Chobe Wilwero, a lodge located on a ridge above the Chobe river, was on a sealed road, except for the last bit in the national park. All the rooms at Chobe are permanent structures. From the restaurant I could see herds of elephants, buffaloes and hippos on an island in the river whose far bank was in Namibia, while bushbucks grazed in the resort’s grounds. Chilwero was bigger and noticably warmer than the camps in the delta (no need for electric blankets here), though the welcome was somewhat formal and cooler. Fortunately my housekeeper Stanley was a gem. He too found me a bedside clock and saw to it that marks were removed from my other pair of trousers without them having to be washed.
For sundowners we were booked on a boat. Not needing to traverse water, the landcruisers had smaller wheels than the ones in the delta. They were also equipped with a canvas shade. Our route to the landing stage took in a few baobab trees, impala, kudu and the first rocks and stones I had seen in nearly a week. The boat had two decks. We chugged along a main channel. The roots of the jackalberry trees on the river bank were exposed because of the low water level, reminiscent of the coolabah trees I saw in outback Queensland. We watched an elephant crossing the river from the island. At times it appeared to be walking, at others only the tip of its trunk poked above the surface before it clambered up the bank. An african darter was drying its wings close to shore, a reed cormorant next to it.
There were plenty of hippos on the island, followed by lots of buffaloes towards its tip which we rounded heading back. We saw grey herons, yellow-billed storks, more buffaloes and a family of elephants with a very small baby. The boat slowed down to give us a good look at a lone bull elephant walking close to the island’s edge. We were torn between watching it and the sun setting over Namibia. The day’s final sighting was of an African Open-billed Stork. Rogers combined hosting and guiding duties in exemplary fashion. I was left to dine alone, something which did not happen in the delta camps.
The lodge is located in a fenced area within Chobe National Park which is open to the public at gated access points. There were guided tours by a host of different companies plus numbers of people driving their own or hired vehicles. It was forbidden to go off track. All tours had to be completed before the gates were closed. Rogers opted for a drive on the wooded plateau above the river. He noted my request to get as close as possible to a hippo standing on land. The ones we saw were a long way off. We passed some well-disguised Crested Francolins close to the track. A line of Marabou Storks stood at the river’s edge. It was always a pleasure to see impalas, kudus and warthogs no matter where. Numbers of Helmeted Guineafowl with their patches of blue skin on head and neck, ran out of the way as we drove by. Rogers pointed out a Giant Kingfisher, its black , white and grey colouring brightened by a rufous chest.
There was a vehicle with a film crew off the track. According to radio reports the crew were filming a lion kill. Rogers tried to get close enough for us to see it, but was hampered by the ban on off road driving. He spent an inordinate time watching the crew to no good purpose. At last we continued on our journey and were rewarded by sightings of red lechwe, red-billed spurfowl (a species of francolin), greater blue-eared starlings and a herd of giraffes (five male and one female). They stood out brightly in the sun against a blue sky and let us get quite close. Rogers drew our attention to a Grey go-away-bird whose eponymous call is not as convincing as the green catbird’s miaow. He finally achieved his goal of showing us lions. Two were resting near the track but were hard to distinguish in the undergrowth.
We came to a more open area occupied by a herd of some forty male impalas, a curious and unusual sight. Normally a single male has many females in tow. Elephant bones lay scattered on the ground, the skull right beside the trail. At Chief’s I had seen a giraffe skeleton and a hyena skull. A placid female elephant led a group with two young, one about a year old, across our path less than ten yards from our landcruiser as if to familiarise the adolescent members with this benign form of human presence. One of them passed within a few yards of me. It was my closest encounter with elephants on the move and utterly captivating. They were going to the river.
Rogers indicated a Kori Bustard which I only glimpsed. It is said to be the planet’s heaviest flight-capable bird. Although I only saw it fleetingly running past me in the opposite direction to us, my description of its bushy tail, size and general appearance was sufficient for Rogers to identify the animal as a Black-backed Jackal, more common than the side-striped jackal I had seen at Chief’s. We slowed down for a red-billed spurfowl with six chicks waddling along the track. We spied kudu near the river, then marabou storks riding the thermals. At lunch I caught up with Leeanne, Ellie and James from Stanley’s who had just arrived at Chobe. Moreover Claire was due later in the afternoon. We arranged to have dinner together.
Rogers took us for a drive along the river bank. A herd of elephants had just returned from the island. Marabou storks still occupied the stretch of dirt where I had seen them from the ridge in the morning, only their number had increased to at least fifty. Close up they were enormous. We were travelling beside a long, narrow dead arm only 20 or 30 metres wide, incorporating an extensive mudflat. Beyond it lay the main channel.
A small crocodile was basking at the mudflat’s edge. Looking back we saw hippos entering the water. A baboon was picking through elephant dung near us looking for seeds. It had disturbed a Glossy Ibis. A bigger crocodile lay on the mudflat. This was the closest I had been to these reptiles. We drove on, seeing yellow-billed storks, an African Jacana and a Little Egret. A female hippo and her baby were standing close to the edge of the mudflat. They lay down as we drew nearer. Hippos are skittish animals.
Rogers stopped to show us a Black Heron fishing by the river bank. It spread its wings to form a cape which reached from its head to the surface of the water, the better to distinguish its prey. A fair way off he spotted a female Sable Antelope drinking, apparently a rare sighting. He drove as quickly as he could to approach her without scaring her. Fortunately she must have been thirsty. She was attended by red-billed oxpeckers all over her body. A Puku Antelope was having a drink nearby. The species is threatened by loss of habitat.
On our way back, as if on cue, we came to a pride of ten lions taking up position in front of some trees and bushes on the gentle slope above us, preparing to check out the river bank for prey. One or two of the lions disappeared behind the bushes. I didn’t go short of lion sightings in Botswana. We entered a gully which led from the river to the park gates. Many more than fifty marabou storks were spending the night atop a forest of dead trees, lit by the golden glow of the evening sun. It was one of the more remarkable sights of my safari. I had an enjoyable dinner with my travelling companions from Stanley’s and Chief’s.
Rogers was keen to know if the pride had made a kill during the night. If not, he reckoned they would have headed north before making their way back to the river. We hadn’t driven far into the gully from the park gate before we found ourselves in a stand-off between the hungry pride and a troop of baboons. The lions were on a scarp sheltered by trees, all but one or two invisible. The baboons were lower down the slope near open ground which they wanted to reach in order to feed. Several vehicles, some of them self-drive, were angle parked next to the track, their occupants keen to find out who would blink first.
One, then a second baboon defied the lions, leaving the safety of a stand of large trees and walking to an isolated tree, pausing on the way to look in the direction of the lions, who watched motionless. Some puku were grazing on the gully floor unaware of the stand-off. The defiant baboons continued to walk to and fro. How long we would have waited became academic because the occupants of one of the self-drive cars thought they would bring matters to a head by blasting a recording of a male lion roaring. This had a galvanising effect on the pride which made off, feeling threatened by the presence of what they took to be a new male. The baboons were now free to move. Rogers was furious at this ignorant, human intervention, identifying the culprit as coming from South Africa and trying to have him reported to the park authorities.
My notes state that somewhere in the park we saw a Bradfield’s Hornbill which meant that I had seen four of the five hornbill species resident in this part of the world. I have a very soft spot for these distinctive birds.
Because of the lodge’s nearness to Kasane, Rogers was able to live in town. He told me about his children, a son at high school and a daughter at college studying hospitality and tourism. He spoke of contacting a friend in Europe with a view to getting her a placement overseas which would improve her prospects back home.
Botswana is a rarity in Africa. It is regarded as politically stable with a sound economy and an enlightened conservation policy. I was happy to be there and I had a strong feeling that so were the people and the wildlife.
It seemed preposterous to be dropped at Kasane airport an hour and a half before my international flight to Livingstone in Zambia in my third ‘new’ plane, a four seat Cessana 206, in which I was the only passenger. I sat next to the young African pilot who brilliantly smoothed the bumps caused by the windy conditions.
Sussi & Chuma
Luckson, my final guide, expertly ushered me through the visa process. He met me in one of the resort’s mini-buses. We drove through Livingstone, a substantial town with several attractive colonial buildings. The one which impressed me most and made me laugh aloud was ‘Fawlty Towers’, a back-packer hostel in tip top condition, suggesting that unlike its namesake, it was a thriving business. I noted the unexpected presence of jacaranda trees and a poster exclusively in mandarin script which spoke of arrogance towards the Zambian people by its Chinese begetters.
The resort is located seventeen kilometres from town on the banks of the wide, fast-flowing Zambezi which is studded with islands, mudflats, flood plains and rocky shoals. Its waters were variously swift and deep, rippling stony shallows or a swirling, frothy turbulence. The tree houses are high-set solid buildings with views of the river. Luckson explained that he would keep me company during my stay from the moment I came to breakfast to the moment I was escorted to my room at night. He was charming and extremely knowledgeable company.
Both the falls and resort are located in the Mosi-oa Tunya (The Smoke That Thunders) National Park. The falls were so named by a tribal king. The dominant vegetation away from the river is scrub mopane, the soil a mixture of clay and loam. After not noticing them in Chobe, I was pleased to see acacia bushes and trees again. Luckson stopped the landcruiser and asked me to get out. He pointed to a column of several hundred Matabele ants advancing diagonally across the track in search of their favourite food, termites. The ants were about 10 mm long.
The riparian vegetation was dominated by african ebony and natal mahogany. We saw a White-fronted Bee-eater (another pretty bird), warthogs and zebras. Luckson was expecting a call from the rangers specifying the starting point for our meeting with White Rhinos. Eight were brought to the park from South Africa to save them from poachers. They roam freely but are under round the clock armed surveillance by the Zambian Wildlife Police. The call came. We drove to the spot. Adnan and Imana, a honeymoon couple from Melbourne whom I had met at Chobe and who were also staying at Sussi and Chuma, joined us. We were driven the short distance to where the wildlife police were awaiting us. After an even shorter walk we stopped fifteen, possibly twelve metres from the rhinos, two females and an orphan male, munching on grass and bushes. They were enormous, fully living up to their status as the second biggest terrestrial animal. I was mesmerised by their formidable presence but felt no fear. I could have stayed with them much longer.
An American family with adolescent children and a party of mainly British travel agents had booked into the resort. A majority of the guests at the places where I stayed were American. Guests were younger than I had envisaged. Many had been on safari in other parts of Africa and become addicted. Other than Russ and Marion, all had travelled long hours by plane.
The morning was set aside for the falls, beginning with an earlyish fifteen minute flight in a Eurocopter, my final ‘new plane’. The flight was marvellous and cleverly routed so that no matter on which side the passengers sat, everyone had an equal, direct exposure to the falls. I had a window seat behind the pilot on the left. The flight was the only means I had of seeing their full 1,700 metre width. I attempted to plot the twists and turns of the gorge, an arresting landscape feature in its own right, carved by the six previous incarnations of the falls, but was unable to.
On our way to seeing the falls on foot we drove to a baobab tree which is noteworthy for having a viewing platform built into it. From the platform I noticed numbers of attractively coloured small birds which Luckson identified as Blue Wax-bills and Jameson’s Firefinches, bathing in the puddles produced by the watering regime of the man who tended the tree. From there we drove to town.
I was under strict instructions to wear my shorts and buy some suitable footwear for the falls, otherwise my trousers and shoes would be soaked. We went to a typical-looking super market which was a place where only the well-off locals shopped, and found exactly what I was looking for (I get blisters wearing flip-flops).
We began our perambulation of the falls in the dry, walking away from the cataract to watch the Zambezi before it plunges into the chasm, a chilling enough sight.
Wherever I had been on my safari I was told that the rains had not been good this season and the water levels were lower than unsual. My impression was that there didn’t seem to be a shortage of water anywhere. The Okavango Delta receives 400 mm of rain annually. One place had that amount in a day during the severe weather event which battered south east Queensland at the beginning of May. Conversely I was also told that as the dry season progresses I would see a very different delta. The water covering many of the tracks on which I had travelled would have evaporated and some of the waterholes and channels I had seen would be empty.
From the edge of the gorge the view of the plunging torrent was hypnotic. The cloud of spray obscuring the falls was a few hundred metres distant, but even here we could not see the river below us. I found a spot where I could sit and look and look at the cascade before we donned ponchos and picked up umbrellas to take on the falls face to face. The Zambian side only comprises a third of their width. We could now see the water descending most of the rock face.
The sound was all encompassing. We pressed on, clambering down steps to a bridge which was drenched by spray that was like an impeneterable fog, before reaching drier ground opposite ‘the armchair’ where the water foams, spirals and tumbles between two rocky outcrops. We made our way back across the bridge and then opted to walk through the rainforest created by the spray, a vibrant instance of a functioning micro climate. There we watched a gorgeously coloured Schalow’s Turaco darting among the trees. Luckson gave me a berry of Flacourtia indica to taste, tart and refreshing. He showed me a native lobelia and identified a flowering yellow plant as a species of gladiolus. I lingered to watch a butterfly with satiny, pastel blue wings.
As luck would have it, Luckson spied a second column of matabele ants crossing the track near the resort and this time they were carrying termites back to their nest to complete the feeding picture. The column was bigger than the first one. Termites find food in elephant dung. The ants know this. There was a pile right next to the track. The ants have to cut a termite in half with their mandibles in order to carry it. This struck me as feeble compared with the prowess of a far shorter single ant on the mountain, which carried a cricket’s leg many times longer than it up the trunk of a rainforest tree in the dark.
What better way to round out the morning than lunch on an island in the Zambezi.
Adnan and Imana joined us for the afternoon drive. Adnan had admitted to a certain fear in the presence of the rhinos, perhaps wisely when I reflect on it. Imagine my incredulity when he told Luckson and I that he and Imana had taken a boat to Livingstone Island that morning and swum in a pool at the very edge of the falls. I had heard about this activity but never imagined it taking place with so much water flowing. We drove along the riverside, saw elephants inland, five endangered White-backed Vultures in a baobab tree and two Nile Monitors, similar in size to a goanna, climbing the bank. We left the river and found a large herd of buffaloes apparently just hanging out. I was impressed by the generous spread of the limbs of a Masa Tree.
Over dinner Luckson told me about his fourteen year old son who loves school and works hard at his studies. His day may not see him back home until seven in the evening. Luckson lives in town with his family.
Of all the sounds I heard in Africa that of the hippo was the most winsome, conveying a sense of absolute contentment. Luckson speculated on having it as a ring tone.
I had felt the general absence of reptile sightings on this trip, but here I saw numerous lizards and skinks sunning themselves on the resort’s elevated timber walkways. The general dearth of insects was even more pronounced, alleviated only by the ants and a few butterflies. While opportunities to get close to flowers and plants were limited, though rewarding.
We spent the morning on the river in one of the resort’s five metre aluminium boats equipped with a powerful outboard motor capable of dealing with the strong currents and eddies. The boat was a welcome change to the landcruiser. The first bird Luckson pointed out was an african jacana. Some hooded vultures and red-billed oxpeckers were perched in a tree. An african darter flew elegantly, low over the water. Cormorants rested on a rock. White-backed vultures soared in the thermals. After mourning the absence of vultures in Delhi less than two years ago because they had been poisoned, I rejoiced each time I saw them here.
Our course took us from island to island. On one a male Waterbuck watched us. Some baobab trees were in flower on an island in a shallow reach of the river. A hippo on a bank stood up to peer at us while a crocodile idled in deeper water. A fish eagle surveyed the world from a branch. We powered back to the Zambian side and saw an open-billed stork wading. Vervet monkeys were active in a tree behind it. Luckson drew my attention to the Communal spider webs on trees overhanging the water.
We entered the narrowest stretch of the river and crossed to the Zimbabwean side before continuing downstream to Long Island, slowing to admire some Hadeda Ibises and Three-banded Plovers on a sand bank. Luckson showed me a Candle-pod Acacia and Phragmites reeds at the water’s edge. A short way upstream from where he had stopped the boat he counted ten hippos following oneanother swiftly into the water. I lost track in the flurry. Moving on we came to Papyrus reeds (which I knowingly saw for the first time and couldn’t have seen as clearly from land) and a mudbank in which White-fronted Bee-eaters had built their nests. A Green-backed Heron stood in front of the papyrus. We kept going and pushed into the bank in pursuit of I don’t know what, to discover we were only a few yards from where a two metre crocodile was snoozing under a tree. It was definitively the closest I have ever been to this notorious reptile. Another, larger croc took to the water as we approached. At this point we were only a few kilometres from the falls.
On an islet off Long Island Luckson was thrilled to see a flock of African Skimmers which he had not expected until later in the year. The birds, a near-threatened species, took off to stretch their wings and landed almost where they had started. We were on our way back to the resort and were able to get close enough to an open-billed stork on the Zambian bank to allow me to see why it was so named. We only saw the Water thick-knees a moment before gently running aground. There were some puku grazing near the bank and a young bull elephant feeding. He was heading in our direction yet trudged inland before drawing level with us. It had been an exhillarating morning, but our water idyll was not quite done. At the resort we transferred to a boat which had been set up so that we could have lunch on board, securing it in a bosky spot upstream.
After tea Luckson took me to Dambwa Central Markets where he and most of Livingstone’s inhabitants shop. On the way we saw a funeral procession. There were scores of mourners walking to a far corner of the cemetry with narry a car in sight. Due to the expense, not all burials are marked by a tombstone. Cremation isn’t practiced. It is not an African custom, though that may be changing. Zambia is a Christian country.
The market was as full of life and bustle as those I had seen in Asia, but more impoverished. The shops ramshackle on bare earth, roofs made out of of piles of debris. The fruit and vegetables fresh and vibrantly coloured. The meat and dried fish stalls pungent and flyblown like their ilk elsewhere in the absence of running water and refrigeration. Among the dried fish Luckson counted Lake Taganyicka sardines, three varieties of squeakers and silver barbel. Fresh meat in the form of a take-away live chicken seemed a better bet. The premises selling fresh fish were slightly more salubrious, with an impressive variety on offer. Luckson tallied six varieties of catfish, tiger fish, eels and five varieties of tilapia. Naturally it was this part of the market where the passages were most crowded and claustrophobic, the ground underfoot most squlechy.
At a stall selling popular snacks in the form of a selection of fried caterpillars an old man explained what the different kinds were and popped one in his mouth. Back at the resort the manager, Lezinah, declared that they were a favourite of hers. We watched maize being milled in a large corner shop, the machines, the floor and the workers covered in a fine, white dust. The flour was sold in 25 kg bags. Other stalls ground and sold smaller quantities of legumes.
The clothes stalls made the biggest impact. The entire stock consisted of second hand goods. I had seen nothing like it; used bras hanging from racks, used underwear and stockings piled on trestle tables or on sheets on the ground, used shoes similarly displayed. Even the garments on hangars were second hand. Nor will I easily forget being alerted by Luckson to the pregnant woman buying sun-baked earth to eat for its mineral content, or the woman I noticed sweeping bits of paper from the damp earth in front of her shop.
Luckson pointed to eateries which had a few poker machines, concerned that they were fostering a gambling habit among young people. He also alluded to the money they were spending through their mobile phones. We stopped at a sheet metal working stall where two men were skillfully making such essential items as tin baths, braziers, scoops, pots and baking trays. In an outlying part of the market we saw a bed maker at work. Among his stock of bed frames was a kitchen dresser. Next door was a welding workshop. The welders were busy mending an axle.
At dinner I heard an animal call from the dark. Luckson told me that it was a Bush Baby.
16 & 17.6.15
I flew from Livingstone to Johannesburg, thence to Sydney, on to Brisbane and so, home again, concluding a journey whose time had come.