Safari April 2016 ~ Day Two

Day 2

“Are you awake?” asked Craig. “It’s nearly 05:30”

In the darkness I could hear the sound of the camp staff getting our breakfast ready. Crockery clattering, pots clanging and the sound of whispering voices as people moved quietly around.

Under the canopy at the front of our tent there were two ‘wash basins’ created out of waterproofed canvas bowls suspended at the top of four foldaway legs. We were to discover that the camp staff would come round each morning with buckets of hot water from the campfire and fill our wash basins so that we could freshen up before breakfast.

Not being a natural early riser, I was surprised to find that I was first at the breakfast table. However, being excited about exploring the Okavango is a great motivator. Cornflakes, coffee, toast and HONEY!! (I am a honey addict – hence I have a similar shape to Winnie the Poo). This was a good start to the day. Over breakfast one of our guides told us that a spotted hyena had been through our camp just after 22:00 last night. I was dead to the world at that time and saw and heard nothing. At one point through the night I did hear a lion roaring to declare ownership of his territory. Any pre-safari concerns I had about being scared of such things were completely unfounded. I was too knackered to care.

Breakfast in the dining tent

Breakfast over, we headed out into the delta just after sunrise… about 06:25. We were on our way for a waterborne trip on the Xakanaxa Lagoon. It was a twisted and torturous route through the bush spotting elephant and impala along the way.

We came around a bend and encountered a bull elephant stood in the middle of the track and he made it quite clear, he was not for moving. We stopped. He stood and stared at us with his trunk nonchalantly draped over his right tusk. Shadrack, our guide, switched the Landcruiser’s engine off. After a couple of minutes of mutual staring, the elephant started to display signs of agitation and aggression. He began shaking his head and flapping his ears.

He took a few steps towards us but stopped about 7 meters from the front of our vehicle… more head shaking and ear flapping. The tension amongst my fellow passengers raised noticeably as he took another step towards us. Shadrack didn’t switch the engine on which, at this point, I thought might be a good idea. Instead he spoke calmly but firmly to the agitated beast saying, “Elly, Elly, Elly…”. A further display of aggression came as ‘Elly’ suddenly trumpeted and surged forward to within a meter of the front bumper. Shadrack fired up the engine which had the immediate effect of making the elephant back off. He switched it off again.

Shadrack spoke again. “It’s okay. It’s okay.” he said. I’m not sure if this was directed towards Elly, or to us in the rear of the vehicle.

Elly picked up some dust from the road with his trunk and flung it between his front legs against his undercarriage. More staring followed. Then, slowly, he turned towards the vehicle and advanced with purpose. Shadrack switch on the engine and revved it up loudly. This seem to unnerve Elly and he went into reverse, backing away from the vehicle. I left out a nervous laugh, not altogether sure if I was scared or amused at the elephants behaviour.

To our relief, Elly had made his point, and he grumpily got out of our way, wandering off into the bush and joining two other elephants grazing quietly amongst the trees.

Another stop on the way to the lagoon was to examine tracks made by a leopard overnight. We also saw where a spring hare had sat down in the dust leaving an imprint of his back legs, backside and tail.

Eventually we reached the Xakanaxa Lagoon which resembled a massive, elongated lily pond, full of hippos.

Hippo with only head showing out of water

Hippo watching our arrival with interest

Our canoe, called a Mokoro, was made from fiberglass. Traditionally it would have been made from ebony but now-a-days fiberglass is preferred to conserve the endangered trees. Propulsion is from the rear by a long pole, as in punting.

Shadrack set off in a mokoro on his own, but armed with a large rifle. He was checking for cantankerous hippos that might have been lurking along the route that we would take.

I was joined by fellow traveller Gill, the lady I had teamed up with in Johannesburg Airport. Our Mokoro guide propelled us both on an idyllic two-hour gentle meander through the myriad of lily pads. Thankfully the hippos stayed in the deeper waters and we kept to the shallower areas. We silently glided through water lilies in their thousands as colourful damsel flies provided an escort flying along side us.

A relaxing Mokoro trip along the Xakanaxa Lagoon

Black, open billed storks perched on the upper limbs of a dead tree looked down on us like sinister sentinels of the lagoon. A white tailed African fish eagle called out from a tree on the opposite bank. Jakana, with their massive feet walked over the leaves from the lily pads as they hunted for insects. From a distance they appear to be walking on water, hence they are sometimes known as the Jesus Bird.

Pied king fishers dived down from branches into the water like black and white missiles, emerging with tiny fish squirming in their beaks. The would fly back to their perch and with a deft flick of the head smack the fish against the branch to stun it before swallowing it whole.

We saw tiny frogs only 15mm long clinging to the reeds. They were exactly the same colour as the reeds and so small we would never have seen them if our guide hadn’t pointed them out to us.

On the bank, the huge skull of a bull hippo that had been killed in a territorial fight with another bull was a reminder that the lagoon was not always a tranquil place.

We eventually pulled up onto the bank for tea / coffee and biscuits before retracing our route back upstream.

Feeling totally relaxed after our mokoro journey, it was time for a game drive that would take us back through the bush ending up at the camp for 13:00 and lunch.  As we twisted and turned our way through the bush we enjoyed sightings of impala and kudu. My favourite bird, the lilac breasted roller, made an appearance, perched high on the branches of a dead tree. It is the most spectacularly coloured bird – quite stunning.

The Lilac Breasted Roller

Lunch was wonderful with a ham and cheese pizza with curried cauliflower and raisons.

Everyone then had a couple of free hours to relax. Mid afternoon a member of the camp staff came around with a bucket of hot water, heated over the campfire, to fill our bush-shower.

Craig graciously let me go first, bearing in mind that one bucket of water was for both of us to shower with.

With the cicadas chirping away and the African sun beating down, I stripped off and enjoyed my half bucket shower. It is surprising how little water is needed to get clean. However, I quickly learned that it was better to take the second shower rather than the first. Both Craig and I were both concerned enough when taking the first shower, not to use too much of the water. As a result, there was always much more than half a bucket left for the second shower. There was also the knowledge that once you were clean, you could luxuriate in the freedom of draining the bucket dry.

Refreshed, it was then time for afternoon tea / coffee before heading off on another game drive. We circled through the same area of bush we had been in during the morning drive, seeing masses of impala, kudu, red lechwe, a warthog with two wart piglets, crocodile, storks and so many other creatures.

Red Lechwe

As the sun was going down, we found ourselves in a clearing about three quarters of the size of a football pitch. Initially, there were seven or eight elephants grazing peacefully. But, as we parked up and switched off the engine, more of the herd joined us for a spectacularly colourful sunset.

Elephants bathed in the light of sunset

We were now in the midst of between fifteen and eighteen elephants and the setting sun was bathing them in a warm deep pink glow as they grazed around us. A tiny baby elephant was playing with a juvenile and went completely off the cuteness scale.

An adolescent male made several threatening gestures towards us, just to let us know who the boss was. One mature female came up to the side of the vehicle and studied us with great interest. She was no more than a few meters from the side of the Land Cruiser.  I was unaware of it at the time, but I was to have a much closer encounter with an elephant in the days to come.

As she lost interest in us and wandered away, our attention turned to the tragic sight of a baby elephant with no trunk. There was no way of knowing what had happened to it’s trunk, but the most likely cause would have been an encounter with either a lion or a crocodile. It was a cheery wee thing but sadly destined to have a short life. Although he could happily suckle from his mother for now, without a trunk it would not be long before feeding became almost impossible.

Baby elephant with no trunk

Baby elephant with no trunk

In the quiet evening air, the sun sank below the horizon and our herd of pink elephants returned to grey and wandered off into the bush.

Darkness descended quickly and we set off  searching for nocturnal animals with the aid of a search light. Our first discovery was a hippo leaving the water to go and graze. We later found another hippo with a youngster in tow. Other creatures of the night included spring hare, genet, night jar and a bush baby.

By 20:00 we were back in camp for dinner. Roast potatoes with carved roast beef, with a choice of well done, all the way through to very rare. We sat in the dining tent discussing the day’s sightings. The guides wanted to know what was on everybody’s wish list of animals to see. I commented that “…whilst seeing pink elephants in the sunset was a magical experience, …it wasn’t a hyena.”

I had been on safari in places like the Maasai Mara and the Kruger National Park where hyenas are prolific. But for some reason they took it upon themselves to hide from me. So top of my wish list was to spot a spotted hyena. Shadrack and N’cosie smiled at one another and said they could almost guarantee me that at some point on our stay in the Delta I would get to see a hyena.

The guides left us all chatting over a glass of wine, after a chocolate mousse desert. It was the first real opportunity for us all to sit together as a group and get to know one another. The atmosphere was convivial and relaxed with lots of laughter.

Suddenly, Shadrack came up behind me and tapped me on the shoulder. “Come with me please.” He said quietly.

The conversation around the dinner table went quiet and my travelling companions watched as I excused myself, rose from the table and followed Shadrack into the darkness. I was feeling somewhat puzzled and unsure of what was about to happen. Had something happened back home? Had I done something wrong?

“Be careful where you put you feet.” he said. He held his head torch in his hand, shining the beam onto the ground. By the light of Shadrack’s torch, I obediently followed him into the darkness beyond the edge of the camp. We walked on in silence and at no point did I think to ask him why we were doing this or where we were going.

Then he stopped. I was still looking at the illuminated ground around my feet searching for any signs of snakes or scorpions. He directed the beam of the torch to the scrub in front of us and in a very quiet voice said, “Meet your first hyena.”

Ten meters in front of us, in the beam of Shadrack’s head torch, was a large female spotted hyena. She was staring back at us with her eyes reflecting the light. Every hair on the back of my neck stood on end. My first hyena! It was a heart stopping moment filled with excitement, fear and delight. Standing face to face with one of Africa’s top predators in the darkness of the night, protected by only a head torch was surely going to be one of the highlights of this trip.

Shadrack quietly explained that the hyenas habitually come around camps during the night scavenging for any scraps they can find. This particular one had turned up early and was patiently waiting for everyone to go to bed so she could explore the campsite. She was quite calm and unconcerned about our close proximity and we spent several minutes staring at each other.

Spotted Hyena

I thanked Shadrack, and we left the hyena to herself and returned to celebrate with another glass of wine, or two.

Exhausted but excited, well fed and watered, I made my way back to the tent wondering what adventures tomorrow would bring. I fell into the deepest of sleeps with images of hyenas swirling through my thoughts.

To be continued….

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