Last June, I embarked on a safari to Botswana with my sister. I entered the following story in the travel writing competition at my Hibiscus Coast writers club. I received a second placing.
Plop, plop, plop. Basking in the weak morning sun to the soothing rhythm of the pole plunging into the water, my sister and I lean back on our packs in our dug-out canoe, a mokoro. Our poler at the bow of the canoe effortlessly navigates through narrow channels in the Okavango Delta, the worlds largest inland delta. Thus begins our safari.
Sedate lily flowers open.
Kingfishers delicately balance on reeds.
Cormorants swoop and dive.
A low bellow of a hippo reverberates in the distance.
As our six mokoro weave through this vast expanse of water, cameras click and whirl, voices whisper. When two hippos are spotted doing what hippos do which is not a lot, gasps of wonder, of excitement. Realisation dawns: I am here, witness to nature in the raw.
We arrive at our campsite on Chief’s Island. A circle of canvas tents, each with their own en-suite chemical toilet surrounds, a large fire-pit with huge logs already burning. A ring of camp chairs is placed between the fire and tents. Once ensconced in our tents at night, due to the possibility of roaming animals, we are forbidden to come out until morning.
Later, led by our two tour guides, Jay and Kenny and one of the local tribes-people, we venture into the grasslands. On this first day, we see herds of elephants in the distance and one lone giraffe, shyly skirting the edges of a clump of bush.
Jay, concentrating his gaze on the ground in the hope of spotting tracks, pauses, pokes his stick into a solid mound and asks: ‘What is this?’
We huddle close, peer at the mound.
‘A pile of dung,’ someone offers.
Jay pokes at the chocolate brown mound some more. ‘Whose dung?’
‘Not big enough to be an elephant, maybe a zebra’s?’
‘Hmm, it’s probably buffalo but more importantly, what do you think happens within this pile of dung?’
‘Heard of the dung beetle?’
We nod. Jay continues. ‘The dung beetle eats the poo, regurgitates it and rolling the poo into a small ball, bores a hole in the top. The beetle lays its eggs into the hole and buries the dung ball in the sand. The baby beetles hatch two weeks later.’
Martin, the photography buff in our group, crouches, directs his elaborate camera on the pile of dung, twirls his lenses and clicks furiously. Who’d have thought a pile of dung would generate such interest!
On the following days during our ventures into the interior, our guides reveal more fascinating facts. The sweet, tangy fragrance hangs in the air as our legs brush against sage bushes. The sage bush is a useful insect repellent.
The acacia tree sends messages to other trees downwind when grazing animals are about, who then produce tannin, an off-putting, bitter taste for animals.
Beneath the mopare tree is not the most sensible place to set up camp. The leaves on the tree remain closed during the day offering no shade from the sun and at night, elephants tend to graze on this tree.
The anti-social, knob-thorn tree not only sprouts nasty thorns on its branches but on its trunk as well to dissuade climbing animals.
SOS translates to Save Our Sausage, as in the sausage tree. Named for the shape of the fruit this tree produces and renowned for its medicinal properties, these trees take fifty years to grow to maturity. Due to the scarcity of the sausage tree, local people are encouraged to make their mokoro from fibreglass rather than from the sausage tree as was traditional.
Sparrow weaver nests are a feat of engineering precision designed with entry and exit holes. In devotion to his loved one, the male bird tirelessly weaves together hundreds of twigs and leaves. The female bird scrutinises the stability and aesthetics of the structure before agreeing to co-habitation.
Hamerkop’s nests, wedged in forks of trees, are unmissable due to their enormity. A metre and a half in diameter and strong enough to support the weight of a man, an estimated eight thousand sticks and bundles of grass, are stuck together with wads of mud. A mating pair of Hamerkops toil side-by-side for ten to fourteen weeks to complete the build. Compulsive nest builders, an enterprising pair will add a further three to five nests to their property portfolio per year. Hamerkop’s breed year-round, sharing the incubation of the eggs. Is this the essence of a strong and lasting relationship?
Beside a termite hill, signs of the animal equivalent of a couch surfer, the nocturnal aardvark is detected. With their long pig-like snouts, aardvark’s sniff for ants and termites in and around their favourite hang-out, termite hills. It’s disappointing not to witness one of these curious creatures.
Although the white ring on a waterbucks tail may be considered a fashion statement, that’s not the case. It is a useful beacon when following each other.
The Marabu stork carries its own cooling system in the form of a hanging sack on the breast, an air sack for cooling down.
Once the Botswana tribe’s richest hunting ground, we travel next to Moremi Game Reserve, in a four-wheel drive, open truck. Our lodgings are private tented bush-lodges complete with en-suite, surrounded by bush.
On the following days, we criss-cross this vast area in the truck with the promise of sighting local inhabitants. We are not disappointed.
Elephants plod unhurriedly across the grassland in family herds. The babies, corralled into the middle of the herd, nudged by the trunks of their older protectors, win the prize for cuteness. Often close to the stationary truck, the elephants turn their mammoth heads sideways, eye us as if in a warning. Our cameras click wildly.
The sun glints on the rotund butts of zebra’s, emphasising the uniqueness of their decorous hides as they graze on the grassland. Like human fingerprints, no two zebra hides are the same.
Spindly-legged, gangly giraffe stretch their extended necks, nibbling the upper-most leaves on tall trees. With the grace of cat-walk models, they move from branch to branch, from tree to tree. Their large doleful eyes and long fluttering eye-lashes affirm their ‘model’ reputation.
On one occasion, witnessing hippo’s humping in water, our guide informs us that due to their size, hippo’s can only mate in water. These loved-up pair are afforded no privacy as lenses are hurriedly adjusted.
Crocodiles lurk on the edges of waterways.
Water buffaloes meander.
Jittery impala scurries at the slightest noise.
Warthogs, with snouts to the ground, play tag, chasing one and other in circles.
With serious expressions, motionless kudu poking their heads above clumps of the bush, ears taut, eyes alert, surveying their surrounds.
Monkeys scamper along the ground, scoot up trees and scrunch on leaves.
But what we all long to see is the king of the wild, the mighty lion. And we do. At dusk on the first day, the driver veers off the track, halting at the edge of a small clearing. Three emancipated, scrawny lions and the carcass of a massive hippo lie before us. One lion vigorously tears meat from a gaping hole in the neck of the hippo. Another snoozes. The third lion, the sentry, patrols the clearing. The stench from the carcass is overwhelming. In stunned silence, we attempt to photograph the grizzly scene. Focussing our cameras, shooting our shots while holding our noses to avoid gagging, proves difficult.
Like statues, vultures perch high above in the trees. Their beady gaze directed towards the promised bounty beneath. They watch, they wait knowing their turn will come.
‘The hippo, probably an old male ejected from the herd due to him being a liability, would have lost his way while wandering from one water hole to another. Lying in wait, the lions pounced on him, dragged him down and killed him,’ our guide surmises.
Losing his way on a journey travelled hundreds of times over his lifetime, I wonder if these mighty beasts suffer from dementia in their dotage.
Daily, we returned to the scene. The carcass shrunk, the stench increased. With their bellies engorged, the lions become less scrawny but, in my eyes, not at all regal. Daily, the vultures come closer, anticipating their reward for patience.
‘There is little likelihood we will see a leopard,’ guide Kenny announced.
During our excursions, we follow many tracks. No leopard do we see. Until the last day. On hearing of a sighting, vehicles rush from across the reserve. Each driver, vies for prime position, creeping closer to the mound behind which the leopard reputedly lies. As a pair of ears poke above the mound, breaths are held, cameras readied. Will the leopard grace us with an appearance? On cue, with an air of nonchalance, the leopard emerges, parading around the mound several times for his camera-clicking audience. He stretches, yawns and scrambles up a stumpy tree. Show over.
I am here, witness to nature in the raw; her cleverness, her showmanship, her grace and her despair.