Safari September 2019 ~ Day Two

Day 2

After sleeping soundly, we awoke to the sound of the camp staff filling our wash basins with warm water at the front porch of the tent. Outside it was still dark with just the very first hints of dawn light beyond the trees. The camp staff had been on the go for some time, preparing breakfast, warming the water on the campfire, cleaning and refuelling the vehicle.

On my first trip to the Okavango there were fourteen guests, but this time there was only seven of us. Fortunately, it proved to be a successful mix of personalities and our whole safari experience would be greatly enhanced as a result. Enthusiasm, wonderment, curiosity and lots and lots of laughter would dominate the trip that lay ahead.

Apart from Malcolm and I, there was one single lady who was on her first major holiday since her husband had died. As well as her first time travelling as a ‘single’, it was also her first wildlife experience and she was just a little bit nervous about what she had let herself in for. An older married couple were seasoned wildlife travellers with a particular interest in birds and photography. The remaining couple were the two that Malcolm and I had correctly identified in the departure lounge at Jo’berg Airport as ‘newbies’ with their straight out of the packet safari clothes. Not only were they new to safaris, they had never camped before and they couldn’t tell the difference between a baboon and a buffalo. This was going to be a steep learning curve for them.

As soon a breakfast was over and we had attended to our ablutions, Malcolm and I headed for the vehicle. Again, we climbed into the high seats at the rear and were soon joined by the ‘newbies’ who took the middle row of seats. Ace started the engine with all eyes on the missing couple’s tent. Five minutes passed and still they did not appear.

This was not safari etiquette. The plan is to be on the move before sunrise to maximise the chances of wildlife sightings and one person being late affects everyone.

Eventually, they emerged from their tent and headed towards the vehicle. The husband stood back to allow his wife to clamber onboard first. Now it should be noted that there is no door on the sides of these safari vehicles and getting in requires a small amount climbing. It was therefore with some considerable effort that this vertically challenged lady struggled up the side of the Landcruiser.

Having reached the stage where she could step inside the vehicle, for some inexplicable reason she let go, and in slow motion, fell backwards. It was as if her feet remained attached to the side of the vehicle until the rest of her body had pivoted through 90 degrees to the horizontal. Once parallel to the ground, she plummeted, landing with a huge, sickening, dust erupting thud, flat on her back.

She lay motionless as people jumped out of the vehicle and rushed to her assistance. Miraculously, and thankfully, she was only winded and had sustained no serious injury. Given the option to have the morning to recover in camp or join us on a game drive, she chose the latter. The front seat beside Ace would be reserved for her for the next few days.

It was a stark reminder to us all to take great care. The nearest medical facility was a very long four hour drive away on bumpy dirt tracks. We were after all, camping in the out in the middle of a huge wilderness.

With a very pale, quiet, and undoubtedly still shocked lady, safely seated beside Ace, we embarked on our morning game drive. Our destination this morning was the beautiful Xakanaxa Lagoon where we would be treated to a trip in a Mokoro, a traditional Botswanan dugout canoe.

Among the many animals we saw as we made our way through the bush was an elephant who had pulled down a branch from a tree. We watched as it expertly and delicately stripped the branch of its leaves with its trunk. Such was the dexterity displayed by this elephant, it prompted a question from one of the newbies. “Has it been trained to do that?”

Trunk Curl

After a brief explanation about the natural talents and skills of an elephant from Ace, we left her to her breakfast, and carried on through a large, open sandy area. During the wet season this would have been a lagoon. But now it was a dry, dusty and open clearing with a line of zebra marching in single file to the far side. We had stopped to watch them dejectedly trudge along, when four giraffes appeared to our left.  The giraffes came out of the trees at the edge of the clearing and nervously, they checked all around before spreading their front legs and bending down as if to drink. But they were not drinking, they were licking salt and minerals from the dry ground.

Giraffe salt lick

Meanwhile, the zebra continued on their weary way. But as we drew level with them, the zebra at the rear of the column felt she was trailing behind and put a quick spurt of speed on to catch up. The zebra at the front of the column heard the sudden acceleration from behind, interpreted it is a threat and took off at the gallop. The rest of the zebra did not wait to find out that it was a false alarm and suddenly we were witnessing a black and white stampede across the clearing, leaving a trail of dust hanging in the air.

Time was running short for our Mokoro trip but, as we made our way towards the lagoon, a message came over the radio that wild dogs had been sighted. When there is a chance to see such rare and exciting animals as wild dogs, the Mokoros would have to wait.  With great excitement and anticipation, we sped off in the direction of the dogs.

Wild dogs were about as far up Malcolm’s wish list of animals as it was possible to get. These dynamic ‘painted wolves’ are the most endangered predators in Africa and to get a chance to see them in the wild was going to be a truly special moment.

One other vehicle was with the dogs when we arrived, and we pulled up beside it. These dynamic, exciting hunters were flat and motionless as pancakes. Every one of them was stretched out, sound asleep in the shade of a large tree. Every now and then, an eye would open and then close, or an ear or a tail might twitch. Even so, the camera shutters went into overdrive as the group got their photographic evidence of this rare animal sighting.

Wild dog sleeping

With the movement of the sun, the edge of the shadows drifted away from one of the dogs. Another burst of camera shutters erupted as the dog got up, had a pee, moved deeper into the shade, lay down and went back to sleep.

There is only so much excitement you can take, so we left the dogs to their dozing and made our way to the lagoon. As we approached, Ace shouted to me at the back of the vehicle. “Duncan, we have a surprise for you!” I wasn’t quite sure what he meant by that, but before I could ask him what sort of surprise he was talking about, we arrived at the lagoon and parked next to another Letaka Safari vehicle.

As we climbed out, Ace said, “Do you recognise this man?”

Standing by the other vehicle was Shadrack, my trusty guide from my 2015 safari. It was so good to see him again. We stood and chatted about the time he had to rescue N’cosie after he got stuck in an underwater hippo highway, the full story of which you can read about at…

The rescue of N’cosie

Out chat was short lived as our Mokoro guides were waiting for us. We shook hands and I headed off with Malcolm to board our trusty vessel. Our fellow guest who had had that fall earlier in the morning opted not to join us. She and her husband left with Ace for a gentle game drive while the rest of us took to the water.

All aboard for our Mokoro boat trip

I offered Malcom the front seat in the Mokoro as I had experienced it before.  But this trip would prove to be quite different from the last one I enjoyed. My visit to the Xakanaxa Lagoon four years earlier had been dominated by birdlife and thousands of water lilies. This time, there were very few lilies in flower. There were still plenty of birds around, but about 400 metres along the left-hand bank of the lagoon we could see an elephant in the water. As we slowly glided through the water, we realised that there was not just one elephant, but a whole breeding herd at the water’s edge.

Elephants ahead

As we approached, some of them slipped back into the bush with the youngsters. On the opposite bank a few buffalo appeared and watched us intently. But the creature that caught the eye was a huge bull elephant standing ankle deep in the water near the bank. He was pulling up waterlilies and deftly washing any mud off the roots before devouring them. You got the sense that this was a favourite food, and by his height and bulk, he had consumed them by their tens of thousands over the years. He paused momentarily and raised his trunk, pointing it at us like some sort of periscope. He was checking out our scent and apparently, was not impressed by somebody’s aftershave. He turned away and slowly lumbered off.

Elephant periscope

We pressed on along the lagoon and found some more elephants attempting to cross from the left bank to the right. For the adults it was not a problem. However, for the junior member of the herd it was proving to be a challenge as it tried to hang on to mum’s tail to prevent itself from total immersion.

African Elephant Shortarsus

At a safe distance from the animals, we pulled the Mokoros up onto the bank and we enjoyed a cup of coffee and a snack that was a cross between a biscuit, a cake, and a brick. Eating these morning treats was a challenge. Throughout the process of consumption, it felt like your teeth might shatter at any moment, but oh, they were so tasty, it was absolutely worth the risk.

Refreshed, we made our way back along the lagoon to where we started, our tongues checking that our fillings were still intact as we went.

The bird life was prolific, and we spotted open billed storks, jacanas, an African fish eagle, fork tailed drongos, pied king fishers, bee-eaters, a harrier hawk, to name but a few. Reclining in the Mokoro offered a gentle, relaxed, low level perspective, in direct contrast to bouncing along through the bush in the back of the Landcruiser.

Open Billed Stork

Our mokoro trip over, we returned to camp for lunch. As we snaked through the twists and turns of the maze of tracks, a few hundred metres from our tents we came across several elephants. They were on either side of the track stripping branches from trees and devouring the foliage. We watched them enjoy their lunch for a short time, but our lunch was waiting and so we moved on.

There were elephants everywhere. Our camp was surrounded by them. As we drove into camp there were gasps from several of us on the vehicle. Our dining tent was located next to a bend in the river and the river was full of elephants. Some were feeding on the roots of water lilies, some were spraying themselves with water and mud, some were drinking, and some had youngsters with them.

We were surrounded by about fifty elephants and possibly even more hidden amongst the trees. Not a single one of them glanced in our direction. They just carried on with their midday lunch and water-based leisure activities as if we were not there.

Standing there, taking in what was going on all around us, it was difficult not to feel really emotional. A matter of 25 metres to my left a mother elephant was suckling her young calf and was quite unconcerned about my presence. To my right another elephant was standing next to my tent contentedly tearing branches off the adjacent tree. On the other side of the river, several waterbuck and a warthog mingled with the elephants at the water’s edge. It was almost too much to take in.

We sat down to lunch and dined with these magnificent creatures going about their business just a few metres from us. It is a mealtime that will live in my memory for a very long time to come. If you ever have the chance to dine with elephants, do not hesitate. It is wonderful.

Slowly, the elephants melted away into the bush, munching as they went. Then a Southern Ground Hornbill with its scarlet eye patch and wattle moved along the bank, delicately picking up insects with its giant bill, tossing them up in the air before catching them and gulping them down. These turkey sized birds are quite rare and unusually, for the first four years of their life, they will not mate. Instead they find older birds with young, become their assistants, and spend their time helping the parents to collect food to feed the chicks. When they are old enough to breed, they have already completed an apprenticeship in parenthood.

After lunch we had an hour or so to relax and to enjoy a bucket shower. Then it was back on game drive. One of the reasons I loved this trip was because it was a full-on wildlife experience. Most of our wakened hours were spent watching wildlife, but even in our down time, the wildlife was still all around us. Total wildlife immersion.

During the afternoon drive we saw sand grouse, guinea fowl, francolin and a host of other birds. On the mammal front, warthogs, waterbuck and elephants dominated the scene. With the sun sinking ever closer to the horizon, we trundled along through the myriad of tracks feeling very privileged to be able to immerse ourselves in all that the Delta had to offer.

Suddenly, Ace stopped the vehicle. He grabbed his binoculars and focused on an area of long grass. Everyone turned and looked in the same direction. Then Ace uttered one word, “Lion.”

His seven passengers, none of whom had x-ray vision, stared at the grass and could see nothing other than grass.

“I saw an ear twitch.” Ace explained and started up the engine. He drove around in a semi-circle and low and behold, there was a sleepy lioness lying flat out amongst the grass. This lion was about fifty metres from where Ace had first stopped. How on earth he was able to spot a twitching ear at that distance remains a mystery to me. Seven passengers with their eyes peeled had seen nothing, but Ace, whilst driving, had. What made it all the more extraordinary was that the grass and the lion were almost identical colours.

As we watched her, we speculated about why she was here on her own with no evidence of other lions in the area. As we discussed the matter, she raised her head, yawned and stretched her front leg into the air before flopping back down again. Sleepy lions have undoubtedly developed the act of flopping into an art form.

Lazy stretch

Resuming our game drive, the sun slipped below the skyline and the sky turned a dusky rose pink. The air was warm with little or no breeze and it was a joy to be out and about in such stunning surroundings.

Dusky pink

Driving along uneven, twisting and narrow tracks in the dark requires concentration, but Ace managed to do this whilst operating a handheld search light scanning from left to right looking for nocturnal creatures. Our eyes followed the powerful beam of light trusting that Ace’s auto-pilot ability would not result in a collision with a tree or an elephant. Suddenly, there were two bright white eyes caught in the beam and staring straight back at us from a tree. It was a Genet. It’s spotted coat and striped tail made it difficult to pick out amongst the tangle of twigs and branches. It looked away from us and continued what it had been doing before we arrived on the scene and disturbed it. It was giving itself a good groom, presumably sprucing itself up before heading out for the night. It was not until it decided to move off that we got a good, if fleeting view of it.

We were just about to move off when another set of eyes caught our attention. This creature was hiding behind a log on the ground, and the eyes were peeking out over the top. This time it was an African Wild Cat. Realising its cover was blown, it came half crouching and half running out from behind it’s log, ran twenty metres and got behind a smaller log than the one it had just left. Confident that we had not seen it’s escape, it didn’t look back at us, but lay quietly waiting for us to depart.

African Wild Cat

Next up were bush babies. Their huge eyes brightly reflected Ace’s searchlight beam. They are tiny animals with an average size of 13cm (5 inches) but amazed us all with their ability to jump. None of us were expecting to see these cute bundles of fur leap extraordinary distances from branch to branch. An average leap can cover 2.5 metres, but some have been recorded jumping over 8 metres.

Our next nocturnal encounter would be slightly larger. Messages had been coming over the VHF radio that three male lions had been sighted moving into the area. These were not resident males and were likely looking to stake a claim on the territory and any female lions they could find. Ace thought that the presence of these males might explain why we had encountered the solitary lioness an hour or so earlier. Perhaps she was coming into season and was on the look out for a hunky male.

As lions can spend twenty hours a day sleeping, we were excited at the prospect of seeing males on the move. As Ace hunted anything with reflective eyes with his searchlight, he caught a glimpse of the unmistakable shape of a male lion moving behind some bushes and trees.

Just a glimpse of a male lion

We kept on spotting occasional movement in the undergrowth as the lion purposefully made his way through the darkness. Then suddenly alarm barks and calls rang out from branches of the trees above him. He had been spotted by a troop of baboons who had taken to the trees to sleep for the night. The calls did not seem to suggest that the baboons were anticipating any real danger from the lion. They were more barracking, insulting, abusive sorts of calls. Bravado from those who were confident the bad guy couldn’t reach them.

Eventually, the lion emerged from the undergrowth into a more open area, and Ace switched on a red filter on his searchlight. The lion seemed unperturbed by our presence and pressed on as if he had a particular destination in mind. He only interrupted his progress to scent mark the occasional bush. Bathed in red light it struck me that the scene before me might inspire a good name for a pub.

The Red Lion

Radio traffic confirmed that there were another two lions in the area and they were all travelling in the same direction, albeit each separated by several hundred metres. These boys were definitely on a mission.

Sadly, time was against us and we had to get back to camp for our evening meal or face the wrath of the chef. So, as the lions continued on their way, we turned and headed back through the darkness of the Delta for food and a few well-earned drinks around the campfire.

It had been a wonderful first full day in the Delta and as we retired to our tents for the night, we wondered what excitement the morning would bring. The answer to that was… lots!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *