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A Texan In Botswana – Part Two

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Story and photos by John Griffin

When you go on safari, your body has to get used to a new timetable – and not just because of any jet lag you may experience. In the camps throughout the Okavango Delta and northern Botswana, day begins well before dawn. At 5:15 a.m., we would receive a verbal wake-up call from one of the guides passing by the tents. We would then struggle out of bed, slather sunscreen and mosquito repellent all over, and get to the campfire as quickly as we could. The quicker we got going, the more animals we would see, including some nocturnal creatures heading for a little shut-eye before the sun rose.

We didn’t always succeed in getting an early start. But we did enjoy what became meal number one of the day: each camp’s version of muesli made with locally dried fruit as well as a cup of instant coffee or rooibos tea. (Don’t knock the instant coffee; my friends found it as eye-opening as Starbucks – and similar in flavor. I stuck with the naturally decaffeinated rooibos, which I drank without sugar, much to the guides’ surprise.)

When we finally set off, we would have to wait a short while before we saw any animals of note, as most of them seemed to know enough to stay away from camp. I can’t speak for the elephants, hippopotami, baboons and velvet monkeys that tramped about the tents, but the rest of the wildlife stayed away.

Sunrise over Lebala Camp in northern Botswana.Sunrise over Lebala Camp in northern Botswana.

That gave us time to drink in the perfume of the African sage plants around us. This aromatic shrub, which grows no more than a yard tall, could be found most everywhere in the dryer, more northern area we toured. It filled the air with the fragrance of gooseberries and passion fruit; and in the morning, when the dew was fresh, there was a slight touch of cat pee. In other words, for this sometime wine writer, the air was redolent of all the characteristic traits of a fine New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. We couldn’t get enough of it. Several of the women even asked for branches to tuck in their suitcases to keep their clothes smelling fresh. The cleansing nature of this scent bucked us up and made us welcome whatever was in store for us.

So did the incredible colors often painted across the morning sky and the landscape. Fragonard pinks and blues up above might give way to David Hockney, almost dusty, pastels below. The lighting often changed the palette of the setting in an instant, one minute warm as Van Gogh’s burnt yellows and oranges, the next silvery cool as Whistler’s grays.

Giraffes almost always seem to be chewing on something.Giraffes almost always seem to be chewing on something.

Day in and day out, we drove through this paradise seeing the likes of giraffes, zebras and elephants, along with Cape buffalo and kudu, an antelope with large, vertical white slashes on its side that look as though someone had been keeping score on the hide. There was even a mother leopard lazing in a tree after a successful hunt.

The jeeps always headed out in different directions, largely looking for big cats. If a guide or a tracker spotted a cheetah or a lion, the other vehicles were alerted, in case they wanted to join in. The guides and trackers earn extra money from tips, so they make it their business to go after the most exotic creatures they know of in the region.

Mama leopard lounges in a tree after dinner.Mama leopard lounges in a tree after dinner.

Each new species we encountered made us want to see more – the tiny steenbok, the jackal, the hyena. The African fish eagle and the gigantic Pel’s fishing owl flew past us, while the Jesus bird appeared to walk on water. We learned that warthogs kneel to eat, that elephants love to scratch up against the baobab tree and termite mounds, that a group of zebras is accurately dubbed a “dazzle.” We saw tadpoles no bigger than a matchbox that croaked loudly through the night and spiders that spun elaborate webs.

A red-billed hornbill checks for leftovers after breakfast at Lebala Camp.A red-billed hornbill checks for leftovers after breakfast at Lebala Camp.

To break up the ride, we would stop for a mid-morning snack, and before we knew it, we were headed back to camp for breakfast. This time, we would be offered more muesli, followed by a full English breakfast – eggs any way you chose, sausage or bacon, and fried mushrooms, tomatoes and baked beans plus all the fresh fruit you could imagine.

After that came a three-hour siesta. (The animals do not go out in the noonday sun, why should we?)

The sable antelope has a long, narrow face that looks painted, much like an African mask.The sable antelope has a long, narrow face that looks painted, much like an African mask.

Mid-afternoon tea with a sweet and a savory dish preceded our return to the road. Then came the sundowner, again with a snack or two. Cocktails and hors d’oeuvres would greet us back at the camp, followed by dinner. Was that meal number six or seven for the day?

Who can keep count when you’re marveling over the sighting of a sable antelope, whose long, thin face looks as painted as an African mask? Or that you saw a civet cat run from you in the dark?

From Camp to Camp

Every two or three days, we would move from one camp to another in order to cover the most ground during our 10-day safari. We had started in the northernmost part of Botswana, at Lagoon Camp on the Kwando River, and would work our way to an island in the midst of the Okavango Delta where Jacana Camp is located.

Getting from one camp to another was handled largely by prop plane. At first, we were nervous because of the adventure we had had in getting to our first camp, but all of our subsequent flights were smooth and afforded us the opportunity to study the changing terrain as we moved ever closer to the water of the Delta.

The first three camps we stayed at – Lagoon, Lebala and Kwara – were all run by Kwando Safaris, and they had distinctive personalities yet a sense of welcoming familiarity that carried from one to the other.

Though we were staying in tents, they were nothing like what you’d find on a Boy Scout trip. In fact, each of the tents at Lebala had a claw-footed bathtub that felt luxurious to sink into after a morning’s ride.

Of course, no hotel I know of recommends that you lock the doors to keep out the monkeys, yet that was exactly what was needed. At Kwara Camp, the baboons have been known to go inside open tents and take whatever is not nailed down. One of them might also leave a little souvenir on the floor to remember him by.

Even the open-air showers at the back of the tents are not sacred. My traveling companion, Jean, had to fight off a rambunctious velvet monkey, who wanted her shampoo, her towel and whatever else was handy. She just screamed at him until he ran off. (Of course, it could have been a female monkey; they’re not much more docile than their male counterparts, except when they’re tending their young.)

Monkeys aside, service was impeccable. Laundry was available daily. The beds were made up twice a day, with light covers for the midday nap and heavy covers for the evening, when the temperature could drop into the 30s. Ask for anything within reason and it was provided, often by unseen hands.

In other words, it may have been the wilderness, but not all of it was wild.

At Jacana Camp, the spacious Land Cruisers used to transport visitors had a covering. The smaller jeeps at the other camps did not.At Jacana Camp, the spacious Land Cruisers used to transport visitors had a covering. The smaller jeeps at the other camps did not.

Only at Jacana Camp, run by Wilderness Safaris, did we encounter anything less than elegant with regards to the living accommodations. Our tent was next to the water in this island camp, and it was overrun by an infestation of tiny ants. The little critters had spread everywhere, including the bed, which made sleeping uncomfortable, especially for Jean, who had a reaction to the bug bites. Ours was the only tent affected, we were told, and nothing could be done about it, given the island setting. Needless to say, we were not thrilled with that response, especially when another tent opened up and we could have been moved there.

This was also the only camp with electricity in the tents, but the outlets in ours were so old and loose that it was impossible to keep our camera batteries sufficiently recharged. The bulky rechargers would simply fall out when you tried to plug them in.

Thankfully, we spent little conscious time in the tent, regardless of which camp we were in. It was largely a place to sleep and store luggage.

Not All Treks Are the Same

Because the guides and trackers work in expectation of tips, they naturally want to show their groups the rarest of creatures and the most bang for their buck.

The first few days were filled with so many new species to mark on our checklists that everything felt slightly unreal. Where were we, we kept asking ourselves. Was it some sort of Disney-fied zoo with all of these magnificent beasts just waiting for us around the corner? We would take photos of one, then turn around and see another.

When you follow a pack of wild dogs or a herd of any animals, you get plenty of back shots. This prompted a friend to suggest I start "Buttbook" on the Internet. When you follow a pack of wild dogs or a herd of any animals, you get plenty of back shots. This prompted a friend to suggest I start “Buttbook” on the Internet.

At Lebala, for example, our guide quickly picked up the trail of African wild dogs. So, off we went, riding swiftly in pursuit. We found a pack of them, with their big ears, spindly legs and inquisitive eyes, lounging in the tall grass.

It was a little too hot for them to be hunting, so we sat there and watched them nap. Yes, watching an animal sleeping is as much fun as it sounds. They sleep. Sometimes they roll over. Sometimes they perk up an ear to listen for the sounds of dinner on the path. But mostly we watched sleeping dogs lie.

We were not impressed. It was the only time on the entire trip that I wish I had brought a book with me on a ride.

But our guide was excited beyond belief. The chance to see 11 wild dogs was momentous. And if they started hunting, it would be even better. Tourists love to see kills, and they often tip heavily if the action is particularly exciting. Animal-on-animal action, that is. Only the animals are allowed to hunt each other on government property in Botswana, and all the camps are on government land. (That is why there are no guns in the jeeps and why you stay in the jeep unless otherwise told, no matter what is happening around you.)

The scrawny dogs eventually decided they were hungry enough to move, so off they tore, with us in hot pursuit. Unfortunately for my companions and me, no one had told us to wear our seatbelts, and soon we were far from the road, sailing over enormous holes trying to keep up with the dogs.

What the dogs were after we will never know, because, along the way, we passed a large herd of elephants with several babies in tow. The female elephants, scared by the sound of the jeep, crowded around their young, while the alpha male decided to come after us.

This lone elephant treks across northern Botswana.This lone elephant treks across northern Botswana.

He was roaring and snorting and waving his trunk around in the air as he charged. The jeep stopped and we were, well, speechless, frozen in fright.

After a few seconds, the male realized that we were not a threat, so he settled down before joining the rest of the herd as they headed off in search of fresh greens.

It was only when I caught my breath that I realized we really weren’t in a zoo after all.

Whatever You Do, Don’t Run – that was the name of a book Jean had brought with her and was urging me to read. It was the memoir of an Australian, Peter Allison, who had become a tour guide in Botswana. The advice in the title is what guides give to all newcomers with regard to the wild animals, and it apparently holds true for most, except for the Cape buffalo, which have a reputation for being nasty whether you run or not.

The lilac-breasted roller is one of the many colorful birds flying through northern Botswana.The lilac-breasted roller is one of the many colorful birds flying through northern Botswana.

The following day we sat and waited while a pack of 13 dogs slept, but we couldn’t have cared less. Our guide watched the dogs while we studied the birds around us, including lilac-breasted rollers, Burchill’s starlings, and red- and yellow-billed hornbills. (It was only later that we discovered how truly rare these animals are.)

No kill. And that was just fine with us.

Not so for some of our fellow travelers. One morning, when we had stopped for a break, another vehicle from camp joined us. Out hopped a Portuguese tourist, who ran over and proudly showed us the pictures he had just taken of a hyena feasting on an impala.

The reds were red, as they say in the cult classic The Toxic Avenger. But there was something toxic about the violence in the photo that just wouldn’t let me share in his enthusiasm. I congratulated him on getting the shot he had wanted – and I was silently grateful that I hadn’t had to watch it.

But it seems everyone must face this aspect of nature at some point or other.

My turn came one evening at Kwara, as we were taking our sundowner. I had answered nature’s call behind a termite mound that our guide said was safe ground. As I was returning to the jeep, however, I heard a hiss.

I looked down to see a snake. I didn’t move. I called the guide over. It was no problem, he said, much to my relief. It was just an olive brown snake, much like our garden snakes back home.
All but Jean, who is deadly afraid of snakes, gathered around for photos of yet another new species. But our fascination went beyond the snake itself. As it turned out, the snake was in the process of devouring a gerbil or a mouse, half of whose body still stuck out of its mouth.

Jean witnessed her kill two days later. She was returning to our tent at midday when she spotted a skink lizard catch a fly with his tongue.

For some us, that’s all the thrill of the kill we need to see.

A lioness passes close to our jeep while our guide, General, looks on. A lioness passes close to our jeep while our guide, General, looks on.

Mating and Mud

High on our list of animals we wanted see were lions. Boy, did we get what we asked for.

One morning, after we left Kwara Camp, our guide, the ever-astonishing General, had us in hot pursuit of who knew how many. We first saw a pair of adult males lounging in the shade. A third was nearby with a lioness, and the jeep quickly headed their way.

The two had gone off for some privacy, as we soon discovered, because they were busy mating every few minutes. In the first twenty minutes, they were off and on each other at least seven times. General made sure we got to see them from most every angle without leaving the vehicle.
He hadn’t counted on getting the jeep stuck in the mud, though.

A lion and lioness play around after one of many sexual encounters. A lion and lioness play around after one of many sexual encounters.

This began a series of mishaps that was sort of like a hybrid of Monty Python and the Three Stooges.

Another jeep in the area came by and pushed us free – only to get buried even further in the wet ground.

So, off we went to fetch some wood to put under the tires, while the folks in the disabled jeep were left to watch the lions’ mating games.

When we returned, we drove in too close and ended up stuck for a second time. By then, a third jeep had arrived and pushed us free (we were in General’s vehicle, after all, and we learned then what weight his name carried). From our relatively dry spot, we watched as the third jeep tried to pull the other vehicle out of the mud. Not a good idea. Both of them were now several feet deep in mud. The libidinous lions watched the comical scene with detached amusement, that is, whenever they weren’t otherwise engaged.

The guides at Jacana Camp use Land Cruisers made to go through fairly deep water. But that didn't make crossing such paths easy for those of us who had been stuck in the mud at an earlier camp.The guides at Jacana Camp use Land Cruisers made to go through fairly deep water. But that didn’t make crossing such paths easy for those of us who had been stuck in the mud at an earlier camp.

After about 45 minutes of watching people dig and tires spin, someone realized that a pair of fellow travelers had to catch a plane to their next camp in short order. With General’s vehicle the only one free, it was the natural choice to head back to camp. The couple made a hasty dash for our vehicle, guarded every step by trackers and guides. We then headed off faster than you might imagine those jeeps could travel.

We flew past another jeep and a tractor headed to the site, but General wasn’t stopping for anything.

We arrived in time for the couple to catch their flight, but it took more than two hours for the other jeeps to make it back to camp. Needless to say, their knowledge of lion love-making could best be described as voluminous.

So Much to Learn

Many visitors to Botswana nowadays come armed with copies of The First Ladies’ Detective Agency, Alexander McCall Smith’s humorous series involving Mma Precious Ramotswe and her attempts to solve crime under the unforgiving sun. Jean brought two volumes with her and sped through both quickly. The new HBO series has only raised further interest.

Several of the women at Jacana Camp in the Okavango Delta weave baskets in their spare time.Several of the women at Jacana Camp in the Okavango Delta weave baskets in their spare time.

But life at camp is nothing like the life in the capital city of Maun, where the novels are set. In camp, you see no homes, no businesses, nothing of the way people live. You are solely at resorts, where American dollars are accepted. We never saw any Botswana currency or had need of any.
Still, I was curious about one aspect of life raised by the books: the title “Mma,” which precedes Ramostswe’s name.

One of the camp managers, pleased to be asked about the customs of her country, gladly explained. Mma is a term of respect, used with all grandmothers and older women, she said. It’s also used with other women of a certain rank or stature within the family, but it’s not quite as ubiquitous as our “Mrs.” or “Miss.” Occasionally, it is used ironically, with a note of disrespect in the tone of voice. The male version is Rra.

Every day brought something new to see or to learn. Even on our trip to the airstrip for our flight back, we saw a new bird to tick off our checklist, the hammer-headed duck, which has a strange, helmet-shaped plume.

It was a fitting way to end our adventure and give us one more memory to hold us over as we faced the 41-hour trip home.

The airstrips near the camps offer plenty of comfort at its most natural.The airstrips near the camps offer plenty of comfort at its most natural.

If You Go

Africa Travel Resource
Specializes in custom made safari tours throughout Africa.

Photo at the top: The mokoro, a type of dugout canoe, is still used to transport people across the Okavango Delta.

Guest writer John Griffin is editor of the food e-zine www.SavorSA.com and of the upcoming magazine, San Antonio Taste. Read Part 1 of his safari here.

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