Botswana: Beauty & The Beasts

Fall 2011 CSANews Issue 80  |  Posted date : Sep 02, 2011.Back to list

"His rotten-meat breath woke me up," said our guide, Gavin. "The hyena stuck his nose into my mosquito net, but I pretended to sleep, so he eventually slunk away."

This was not the information we wanted to hear, prior to our first night tenting in Botswana, a Saskatchewan-sized country landlocked by Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa. Our trip through its three diverse habitats – savannah, the Kalahari Desert and the Okavango Delta – included tented accommodations, as well as a camp with permanent luxury bush pavilions. Just as it was for Roosevelt, Hemingway and Baroness von Blixen, a tented safari is the most exhilarating and intimate way to view African wildlife.

"Don't worry," Gavin assured us, "I slept outdoors, but you'll sleep in tents. Animals see tents as barriers. Just make sure you zip up the door. An open tent invites curious creatures inside to look around."

The fact that these tents had teak beds and bush washrooms did nothing to allay our anxiety. After spraying ourselves with the Peaceful Sleep bug repellent (left on our bedside tables next to a tin of Doom insecticide), we tried to sleep, but our eyes kept wandering to the tightly zipped screen door. Outside, the battery-powered lantern revealed only flying insects.

Surely something, or someone, was being eaten out there

The cacophony of snorts, snarls, squeals, squawks, grunts and unsettling cries made it difficult to fall asleep.
"What's that loud noise?"
"Just Fred, snoring in the next tent."
"How can he sleep with that deafening chorus out there?"

We eventually fell asleep, only to be awakened before dawn by Sarah, who left a basin of warm water on our outside table. "Breakfast at 6," she said. Dressing quickly – and relieved that we had survived the night unmolested – we walked outdoors, zipping the tent door behind us. Turning around, we tripped over a trail of elephant droppings the size of bread loaves.
"Were these here yesterday?"
"No."
"Gulp." Welcome to Botswana, home to 90,000 elephants, 550 species of birds and 9,000 species of flora and fauna.

"Did you hear the gunshots?" asked Samantha, a New Yorker, as our eclectic group of Canadians, Americans and Europeans ate breakfast. "That was the sound of elephants ripping bark off trees," replied Gavin.

No one saw any critters, but July, our driver, claimed that a leopard had invaded our 4x4.
"How do you know it was a leopard?"
"Its spoor."
Spoor was a word we'd hear often. It means any signs of wildlife, from paw prints and foraging marks to dung.
"If you want to see predators when they're most active, at dawn, we must leave now," said July. Lurching over the wheat-coloured savannah, our vehicles startled some warthogs which trotted off, their tails at full mast like exclamation marks.

A Formidable Array of Teeth

We stopped by an umbrella tree, within a tail's flick of two reclining lions. The lion looked as if he were whispering sweet nothings into the ear of the lioness, cuddled up next to him. We grabbed our cameras.

"Don't stand up," warned July. "They look docile, because they think you're part of the vehicle. If you stand up, you could be breakfast." We obeyed.
"This is why it's dangerous to travel on your own in rented jeeps, because you can get lost, stuck in mud or run out of fuel," said Gavin.

We didn't have to worry during our Moremi Game Reserve safari in the Okavango Delta. The Abercrombie & Kent vehicles were new. Each carried two spare tires, extra fuel and 1,000 litres of water. One of their six radio channels was devoted to a medical evacuation service, one to safari 
headquarters and the remainder to communications between vehicles.

Part Noah's Ark, Part Garden of Eden

Dawn broke as we arrived at a pond in which hippos surfaced like corks with big gaping smiles. Their eyes bulged like ping-pong balls behind their snouts. "Before charging, they show aggression by yawning or growling," said Gavin. Snorting, the hippos wriggled their ears and submerged like submarines in clouds of bubbles. "Every year, hippos tip over boats. Local people drown because they don't know how to swim."

A Nile crocodile, the length of a canoe, drifted like a log in the pond. A hip bone jutted from the water, the remnants of a carcass hidden by a predator. A white-headed fish eagle snatched its prey from the water mid-flight. Two hornbills courted on the branch of a partially submerged tree.

As we approached a herd of zebras, a phalanx of stripes surrounded us. A parade of trumpeting elephants, led by a massive matriarch, diverted our attention. We followed them to a pond in which they gleefully rolled in the water, with all the finesse of boulders. A titanic tusker emerged, coated with mud.
Driving back to camp was like flipping through a picture book of Animals, A to Z. A male kudu rotated his large ears towards us like satellite dishes. The donkey-siz
ed antelope had white stripes on his sides and magnificent spiral horns. A waterbuck stopped grazing to watch us pass. (The white ring around its rump looks like it sat on a freshly painted toilet seat.) A mother cheetah coaxed two cubs across the trail. When they stopped to play with her tail, she snarled, demanding their attention.

One Creature's Death is Another's Opportunity

After lunch and a siesta, we boarded jeeps for a sunset safari. Within minutes, we spotted a coalition of white-backed vultures devouring a giraffe carcass. Flies buzzed around the hole in its neck, its hollow eye sockets and missing tongue. The parents looked on from a distance, as if they were mourning.

Birds and animals gave us clues to predator hideouts. When a flock of Northern black korhaan skittered nervously and a vervet monkey cried out in alarm, we followed the gaze of a baboon, sitting like a sentry in a treetop. On the lower limb of a jackalberry tree, we spotted a leopard. She observed us intensely, with tawny eyes, curling her long furry tail voluptuously over the branch.
Camp staff, meanwhile, had set up a full bar, complete with ice cubes from the generator-cooled freezer. As we sipped our drinks around the campfire, thundering hooves stopped all conversation. A herd of wildebeest raced by, raising clouds of dust. Seconds later, a lioness followed in full pursuit.

We ate dinner at a candlelit table outdoors. A spine-tingling roar resonated from the darkness. Gavin was unperturbed. "A lion's roar carries for eight kilometres." But was he near or far?

Close Encounters of the Stinging Kind

Other dangers lurked closer, as July unfortunately discovered when a scorpion stung his hand. "It's not the lethal kind," he stoically assured us, as he applied ice to suppress the swelling.

The next day, we flew on a chartered plane to Sanctuary Chief's Camp. Each of Chief Camp's 12 canvas-walled bungalows had hardwood floors, a large teak deck and an ensuite washroom complete with double sinks, a glass shower and thick terry towels and bathrobes. Locally made baskets and coffee table books about African elephants and birds decorated the rooms. We relaxed on our deck chairs, overlooking the savannah, which is illuminated at night for more game-viewing.

That night, a spine-tingling scream woke us from our deep slumber and started our hearts pounding. "Wa-hoo, wa-hoo!" Another, deeper growling sound followed. With eyes as wide as the full moon above, we listened to the encounter for 20 minutes before silence resumed.

At that point, we knew only two things for sure. First, although something or someone was being threatened outside, we were safely and comfortably ensconced inside our room at Chief's Camp. Second, we knew that we were not on vacation, but on safari.

Nocturnal Shenanigans

It wasn't until we gathered for breakfast in the main lodge the next morning that we learned that the screams had come from a baboon challenging a leopard that had invaded the camp. Such nocturnal shenanigans were not at all unusual, we discovered. One night, behind the staff quarters, lions killed a zebra, enticing a host of scavengers including hyenas and vultures.

When it comes to game, what you see and how you see it depends upon the time of year. The wet season, between December and February, is ideal for viewing newborns, new foliage and the migration of rare birds. Floodwaters, which originate in the Angolan highlands, work their way down into the Switzerland-sized Okavango Delta by April and May, infiltrating the flood plains until July. Animals gather on elevated areas of forested land which become islands. Game-viewing is by mokoro, or dugout canoe, poled through papyrus-
lined channels by boatmen.

During the dry season, water levels drop and wildlife search out water holes. Visitors exchange mokoros for open-sided, four-wheel drive vehicles to view herds of buffalo and elephants. Because predators gather around the water holes as well, there are great photographic opportunities. Our visit was during the October dry season. We weren't disappointed, even though the green grass was now parched and straw-coloured.

Canine Hit Squad

At Chief's Camp, our most spectacular sighting occurred during brunch, when a herd of impalas dashed by the lodge, pursued by five wild dogs. Camouflaged with patches of brown, tan and white, the dogs have sinister reputations because they kill by disembowelment. After the pack used their hunting instincts to tire one impala, the pack leader killed it directly in front of two cabins. The remaining dogs joined the feast and completed their meal in fewer than five minutes.

The kill was on our minds as we joined Gavin on a walking safari. "Walking is more exciting than driving," he said. "You're on ground level with the animals, away from the noise and security of the vehicle."

Unexpected wildlife encounters were possible, so Gavin reviewed the rules. "Stay close together, in a single line, so animals see us as a large unit. If elephants appear, back off slowly. Stay rock steady if lions threaten. If you run, you're acting like prey and they'll chase you."

Easier said than done. Our hearts pounded at the mere thought of a rendezvous with a four-legged bulldozer. A trail of pachyderm footprints the size of car tires crossed our path. The two of us stood in one footprint, with room to spare.

We approached some giraffes. Their long purple tongues snaked past razor 
thorns to pluck tender acacia leaves from the treetops. A shrub suddenly rustled. We scattered. A poodle-sized steenbok jumped out. Gavin chastised us: "What did I say about staying in line?" We sheepishly looked at the small antelope and returned to formation.

Feline Ambush

Red flowers dotted the ground below a sausage tree. "Leopards often wait above, pouncing on impalas when they eat the blossoms," said Gavin. We looked up warily, but saw no leopards.

Beside a termite mound, we spotted a bleached white antelope skull. As we examined it, a banded mongoose ran by and began digging a hole, powdering its nose with flying dirt.

Two impalas broke into head-to-head combat. The scrape and crunch of hollow antlers filled the air. Suddenly, Gavin swatted a tsetse fly that bit his hand. "You're guaranteed to be bitten by tsetse here, because they're all over the Okavango Delta," he said.
"Don't they cause sleeping sickness?"
"They transmit disease to animals, but rarely to humans. Large moving objects like vehicles and dark animals like Cape buffalo attract them. See those black-and-blue fabric rectangles in the bush? They're tsetse traps, containing hormones that paralyze the flies. Buffalo urine, sprayed on the fabric, entices the flies to bite it."

A Cast of Thousands

The sun sank like a gold coin as we boarded our 4x4s to return to camp. A herd of Cape buffalo made dusty tracks to a water hole. Three crouched lionesses, their amber eyes fixed on an aged straggler, ignored us. Zebras and antelopes turned to watch. Marabou storks (a.k.a. undertaker birds) waited in a treetop, silhouetted like hunchbacks against the tangerine sky. Turkey-shaped ground hornbills foraged for insects. It was a scene straight out of The Lion King.

The beating of an African drum announced dinner at Sanctuary Chief's Camp. We enjoyed glasses of South African Cabernet Sauvignon and appetizers around the fire, under a canopy of stars. Moving indoors, we dined on beef filet, spareribs, chicken, vegetables and mocha cheesecake, served on white linen by candlelight. It could've been an elegant meal in a Toronto restaurant – at least until the lions roared, stopping all conversation.

The next day, we travelled to Nxai Pan National Park in the Kalahari Desert, where we viewed a stand of tall baobab trees. The bark on their bottle-like trunks resembled wrinkled elephant skin. According to Gavin, people lost in the bush can find protection in the hollow centres of mature baobabs. "After you hide from lions and hyenas inside, you can use a chunk of thornbush to block the entrance."

Watching Predators in Action is High Drama

In spite of the heat and dust, the October/November dry season is the best time to see animals, because they congregate around water holes. We watched two lionesses stalk springbok. Hunching low to the ground, they moved stealthily on opposite sides of the water hole. If the springbok stopped drinking to stare, the cats paused, resting motionless on the parched soil. When the antelope slaked their thirst, the felines resumed hunting.

Suddenly, one lioness bolted like a coiled spring unfurled. Panic-stricken springbok scattered as she sprinted to the edge of the water hole, where one animal dallied a second too long. She skidded to a halt in a cloud of tan dust. When it settled, the lioness emerged, her teeth firmly gripping the lifeless springbok by its neck.

As the cats began eating, an elephant swaggered over, flapping his ears and erupting dust with every step. The lionesses snarled and refused to move. The elephant bellowed. Satisfied that he'd asserted his power, the pachyderm ambled to the pond, evicting the thirsty springbok so he could drink.

Just when we thought the play had ended, a new actor appeared. The King of Beasts, who was resting in the shade, strutted over and roared, demanding the kill. The lionesses bared their teeth, but reluctantly let him steal it. Licking their bloody muzzles, they returned to the water hole to hunt again. The lion proudly dragged away the booty.

Our initial fears were well founded. We were bitten in Botswana. Not by predators, but by the irresistible fascination of the cycle of life. Courting, mating, birth, nurturing, murder and death are all here, unscripted and unedited. 

Botswana had grabbed us by its teeth and refused to let go. We willingly succumbed.

RESOURCES

Botswana Tourism Board:
www.botswanatourism.us and 1-888-675-7660 (information about safari tour operators, flights, weather, currency, electricity, accommodations, brochures, maps, etc.)

Abercrombie & Kent (A&K):
www.abercrombiekent.com and 1-800-323-7308 (Africa brochure and information about East Africa mobile tented safaris and Botswana safaris that include Sanctuary Chief's Camp)

Botswana entry requirements and travel health recommendations for Canadians: 


Barb & Ron Kroll publish the trip-planning website: www.KrollTravel.com.