Sightings and Games Drives
I can’t decide if what I have suffered from the past two days is jet lag or Africa Withdrawl Syndrome – but I must being coming out of it a bit as I am at the computer actually writing. Since arriving stateside late Wednesday night I have logged on several times with all the good intentions of writing a trip report while it is all so fresh. But the minute I start a report, some good memory floods my mind, my eyes glaze over, my fingers hover over the keyboard and I’m back There again and it is such a lovely place to be – even if only in my mind – I don’t want to break the spell – I step away from the computer again.
I called this trip the “People and Predators” tour. My husband called our “Second Trip of a Lifetime”. It was both.
I will start with the Predators, since most people want to know about the sightings.
Our first encounter with African wildlife began in Maun. There are donkeys everywhere there.
A group stationed themselves on the river road in front of our room at the Maun Lodge, eating the vegetation and occasionally providing us with song ( ? ).
Then it was into the bush. First stop Chitabe Lediba with our guide Newman. A word about Newman – he is my hero. Our first afternoon game drive started out with a couple who were birders – avid birders. Now, I have gained an appreciation of birds in Africa but our goal that afternoon was to have a sundowner at the hippo pool and see the dead giraffe that the crocodiles were slowly eating and pulling into the water. Not that I was all that keen to see and smell the dead giraffe – but this was my predators tour. We didn’t make it to the dead giraffe because after another stop to photograph yet another African dove the starter on the Landie protested and failed. Newman set up sundowners when it appeared there was no quick fix. Did I mention Newman is my hero? He kept working on the vehicle with just the Leatherman tool – a spark flew and the dead starter was resurrected. By then it was too late to see the dead giraffe, so we started back to camp.
Out came the spotlight – “We are looking for the eyes” Newman informed us “don’t look for shapes – look for the eyes” We were getting guiding lessons along with the game drive. Lots of eyes – lots of impala, tseebee, bushbuck. A million stars overhead. We hit a straight stretch on the winding dirt path. Newman gave the Landie a little more gas, going at a good clip, when suddenly he stopped, threw it in reverse, stopped again and peered down to the loose dirt on the side of the road.
“Fresh lion tracks” he said as he pointed to the earth. How did he do that?
With a quick right turn into the bush, we found we were just twenty feet from our first lioness. She posed in majestic glory, then turned to the left and vanished in the bush. With one hand holding the spotlight, the other steering we kept up with her until she settled near the mopane woodland.
Somehow during all of this Newman had radioed the other guides and after we had our chance (never our fill) of admiring the pregnant beauty we left the scene.
Sunday – the morning game drive goal – the dead giraffe and the hippo pool. As we made our way from camp Newman got a call. A male lion was spotted quite a distance from where we were. A vote was taken, we opted for the lion, fur and fangs over dead and smelly any day. The birders might have felt short changed that morning as they received the abbreviated descriptions and names of the same birds we’d seen the day before and when we did stop there was time for only a couple of photos. We found the other vehicles around the male and his mate. The male was magnificent but getting ready for siesta. The female, the same pregnant lady from the night before was still on the move, looking for a quiet corner, which she found in the mopane again.
We headed back to camp, not too disappointed that we didn’t get to see the dead giraffe.
As we got into the vehicle for the afternoon game drive Newman said to us “Okay folks, we didn’t get to see the dead giraffe this morning, so we go there now and we have a beautiful sundowner next to the hippo pool” The best laid plans….
We were waylaid by huge dazzles of zebra, giraffe and so many birds that even our vehicle mates put down their cameras and notebooks for awhile. We cruised by the Gometi channel and began to work our way to the dead giraffe. A pair of black-backed jackals grabbed our attention before darting away. We continued down the road. We came to a large tree and Newman stopped – female leopard!! We watched her glide down the tree, strike a pose and sashay down the road. We followed her for a while then she headed to the thicket, blending in like a fade out shot. One minute she was there, the next, she was gone.
“Sorry folks no time for the dead giraffe now” Newman apologized.
After a quick sundowner on the side of the road we headed toward camp. But Newman wasn’t done with us yet, we followed a pair of porcupines down the road, had a quick glimpse of a spotted genet, bushbabies played peek-a-boo from treetops and we watched the eyes of springhares in the dark do the bouncy bounce along the side of the road. (I can’t figure out if those springhares remind me a Disney Toon or Tim Burton characters).
As Newman dropped us off at camp I said “Newman, you are my hero. Can we find a cheetah tomorrow – you’ve shown us everything else.” “We will see” he replied with a smile.
Monday morning - “Today we will make it to the hippo pool” Newman declared.
“Well finally” I whispered to my husband “All those darn cats have kept us from the dead giraffe for two days”.
Just as we crossed the second bridge out of camp a golden shadow hovered on the edge of the early morning mist. An older lioness emerged. She came up to the vehicle then ambled down the road in the direction of camp.
On with our quest to see the dead giraffe. We were near a pond when Newman stopped suddenly. By now, as you can guess – when Newman stops suddenly it means something really good is about to happen. “”Shh – shh – shh” he warned us – “Cheetah” And there she was – a lone female finishing up her impala breakfast. We spent a half-hour in blessed silence, watching and listening to her eat. Due to a very full belly, she got up slowly, stretched and moved on into the bush. Not to repeat myself but, Newman is my hero.
Then it was on to the dead giraffe. First we had coffee by the hippo pool – it was a lovely spot and I can see why it is on Newman’s break-spot list. Then finally, onto the dead giraffe. Even Newman was surprised to see that the giraffe had been completely pulled into the water by the crocodiles. The sixteen viewable crocs in the water and the two fat bellied boys on the far shore of the pond looked completely sated, so we didn’t witness any feeding frenzies. And thankfully the carcass had just begun to stink.
On the way back to camp we were blessed with another lion sighting. This time, a lioness with two eight-month old cubs rested in the shade, with another lioness keeping watch nearby.
Our final night drive at Chitabe Lediba brought us back to the group by the airstrip. The females and cubs were still on siesta and not far away the handsome male roamed the perimeters of their resting spot.
The next morning game drive on the way to the airstrip – we were given a farewell by a shy male leopard and a troop of baboons that was overloaded with clowish babies.
Duba Plains – Disclaimer here – I quizzed and requizzed the guides to make sure I had the names of the different lion prides correct. I remember that some people wanted to know what the dynamics were as the shift seems to be the Skimmer male expanding his territory and taking over the Tsaro females who used to be aligned with the Duba Boys. I hope I recorded everything correctly.
We arrived at Duba Plains in time for a short siesta and tea before heading out with our guide, Lets for evening drive. It is a little disconcerting when your guide informs you that he is famous in Botswana – for rolling a tractor. We were in a newer vehicle, which we found out later rides a bit lower to the ground than the others, and the flood was coming in, which meant a lot of deep water crossings. This was to be our first private drive. We came to a troop of baboons having dinner in a lily filled pond. Then our first, but not last aardwolf sighting. Our first lion sighting came as the sun was setting – grandmother, mother and daughter from the Tsaro pride were napping next to a termite mound. The radio crackled, another sighting – with cubs! It was quite aways from where we were – Lets demonstrated his driving skills in the rush to get us there before dark. I kept thinking of his claim to fame.
It was well worth the white-knuckle ride. Three Skimmer females and five cubs were ensconced under some trees next to a watery pan. Two young males and three even tinier cubs frolicked while their mothers napped with one eye open to their young. By the time we had soaked up enough of the cubs the sun had gone down – so our sundowner was more like a night-starter.
On the way back to camp, the eerie silver form of a lioness sloshed in the watery reeds next to the Landie.
Wednesday – several sightings of temporarily dead Landies on our morning drive. The flood changes the landscape and waterscape daily. First casualty – Carlton’s vehicle stuck in the soft bottom of a watercrossing – we got to watch the feat of jacking it out of the hole and manuvering out of the water – all guides knee-deep in the water. Second casualty – the radiator hose in our vehicle sprung a leak. Another bush repair committed to video. Then it was off to see the buffalo as they were crossing over. Everyone was excited as this could be the start of some lion/buffalo interaction.
We opted to go on night-drive with another couple with Carlton as our guide. I did better with the deep-water crossings with more people in the vehicle, and the older, taller Landie. Highlights – seeing the Skimmer cubs again. We two women outvoted all the men when they were ready to move on – we couldn’t get enough of their antics. But we did move on and saw another aardwolf and side-striped jackal during our sundowner.
Driving back to camp on Kudu Road (the only road name I learned) the Skimmer male made an appearance – bossing around two Tsaro females. When they left he exerted his dominance with a roar so fierce it reverberated through our bodies. He spotlighted himself in the headlights and let loose.
Thursday – are we a vehicle curse? We started out for another private game drive. We got a call from Rueben that his vehicle was down, in the middle of lion country. We drove to his vehicle and picked up his passengers, our vehicle mates from the night before. We had a glorious morning chasing after the Skimmer male who was actively expanding his territory. He was following a Tsaro female who was hiding her sub-adult daughter from him – a daughter of a Duba Boy. Two females he had impressed and conquered the night before were with him. How thrilling to see a dynamic male as he bounded across the plains. As the morning wore on the big guy decided it was time for a break – he settled beneath a palm tree, his ladies took shade under another and the Tsaro mother rested under a third, keeping an ever watchful eye on the up and coming king.
After coffee and a stretch we started down the road again, only to discover we had a flat tire. This car trouble stuff seems to become a reoccurring theme. By then Rueben had his vehicle fixed and came to our rescue with a good spare as ours was flat.
We didn’t go on the afternoon game drive as my upper back went out in a major way, and though I took out the big guns of pain meds – nothing but a lie-down was going to help. We missed a night spotting of Silver Eye who is obviously pregnant by all accounts.
Friday – We awoke during the night to the violent rustle of the bushes next to our tent. But fell asleep before investigating. My wake up call was the blare of an elephant nearby – I attributed the moving bushes to the ellie. We got an escort to breakfast this morning – reason – lion tracks in camp. Actually on the pathway by our tent, leading out to the bushes. Carlton said that due to the size of the tracks, and them being in camp they reasoned that it was Junior, who along with the remaining Duba Boy, Silver Eye, and the Tsaro female with her cubs have been in hiding.
Buffalo were on the move to cross the channel so we headed out to the other side of the airstrip.
It wasn’t long before we came upon three Tsaro females purposefully striding up the road. They stopped and looked to the left. All of their attention was on what was off the road. When they started down the road again we passed and looked to see a huge herd of buffalo. The stalking had begun.
In the mopane the three took a strategy break – facing the channel now hidden by trees and brush. One came to attention and turned the opposite way – a family of warthogs was scurrying behind our vehicle and made it to a clearing where they froze. One of the cats prowled to the front of the vehicle and used it as cover to peer at the hogs. We held our breath as the other two used the thicket to flank the first cat. The skittish little hogs high tailed it into the brush when they heard a call from the Skimmer male who was following the Tsaro ladies.
We all turned our focus to the channel. When we crested a small mound we faced a sea of buffalo. The three females came out of the bush, watched, separated and began to get closer. They walked through the marsh their footfalls muted by reeds and soggy grass, flying diamonds of water droplets haloing their steps.
As we waiting, a fourth, then fifth lioness appeared. The mother of the female sub-adult was the sixth to arrive, followed by the grand old dame – the grandmother. Seven lionesses waiting and watching as the buffalo began their move across the channel. Two lionesses were missing, Silver Eye and the mother of the Duba Cubs. As the buffalo began crossing the channel, we backtracked to the airstrip, past the staff camp and across the bridge, hoping to meet them on the other side.
Our hopes were high when the radio crackled with news that lion was spotted in camp. The idea was that the lions would use the bridge themselves and we could have front row seats to a show down. But the message was garbled as we were in an area out of range. Finally the message was received by one of the other vehicles – Junior had made his way into the staff camp – no sign of the stalkers working their way across the channel.
Our afternoon drive found us with the buffalo, but no sign of the lions,
Our last morning at Duba – no morning drive – darn back out again. But we got reports from the others that the lions had hooked up with the buffalo and were patiently waiting for their moment.
Having spent a number of nights at Xigera last March – it was a homecoming of sorts. A few of the faces had changed – but we still received a lot of welcoming hugs for those who remembered us. Since Ishmael had retired and Sam had moved to another camp we were assigned to a guide named KD. Turned out he was Ishmael’s cousin and that Ishmael had trained him so we felt like we were in good hands. Our first sundowner was to be mekoro – but having done it once and probably one of the few people who didn’t like it we opted for a game drive. We were alone in the vehicle so moseyed along at a nice pace – the rest up from that morning seemed to help my back.
We saw the usual suspects, zebra, impala, kudu, red lechwe, reed buck and tseebee and got to hear a hyena near the airstrip. KD had seen our sundowner pictures from the year before and took us to a place he said was just a beautiful and he was right.
Sunday – First animal sighting – or hearing was at 2:30am when an elephant herd decided the tree next our tent would make a fine midnight snack. For the first five minutes it was a great adventure. We dozed between nocturnal feedings and the changing of the guard and got up to the hyena’s song at 5:30 thinking our wake up wasn’t that far away, plus we had hot water and the makings for coffee in our tent. Six AM came and went with no wake up and we wondered if we should make our way to the lounge on our own. I stepped out on the deck and heard clapping and loud voices. I returned to the tent –
“Honey” I said, “Breakfast has been delayed due to elephants”
Under the watchful eye of KD, we ended up treading very lightly on the boardwalk as the herd foraged between the tents.
We opted for another game drive with the couple we had met at Duba Plains. It all started tamely enough – sunrise in the bush, photo ops of various antelope species, an old impala carcass hanging from a tree, the leopard’s version of a meat locker. As we were hunting for the hyena den near the airport the call came through “Leopard sighting”. KD radioed back that he would be there in ten minutes. Gone was the leisurely drive as we raced to the site. Every couple of minutes KD would throw back the “You OK?” question and we all replies “Great”. In fact we were whooping it up a bit.
The other vehicles came into view near a small island of brush in the marsh. We could see every person on both vehicles had their cameras focused on something, but we were still too far away to get a good look. We began to slosh across the flooded plain – and got thoroughly and completed stuck in the mud. Here goes that reoccurring theme. Diya who was driving one of the other vehicles filled with travel agents came to fetch us and we left KD knee deep in mire working on getting his vehicle free.
Diya got us an eighth of a mile back towards the leopard sighting spot when splot, we went down.
The jack alone wasn’t going to work with the overloaded vehicle (ten passengers at that time) and it sunk into the mud. Diya radioed the third vehicle, which had disappeared on its merry leopard chase. The two men, my husband and Brad got out of the vehicle to help harvest logs and brush to wedge the jack. ND (the guide in the third vehicle) radioed and Diya said I should answer.
I radioed back “ND help – we’re stuck too”. He heard us and was working his way towards us, he crested a hill of a small island, then we saw him take a hard bounce and vehicle number three was stuck in the mud. The guys kept working on their respective vehicles while the ladies took photos of the event. Xigera mobile radioed that they were on their way, and made stops at each vehicle. By the time they got to our vehicle, the logs, brush and sweat had paid off and we were out of the mud and on an island in time for coffee break. By the time the break and stretch was over, KD had freed his vehicle and came for us, and Xigera mobile had helped ND get the third vehicle free. The two vehicles fill with the travel agents heading south towards camp as they had an early flight out. We rejoined KD and headed north to dry land.
We had barely kicked the mud off the tires when we encountered two leopards lounging on a tree limb with a bird’s eye view of our mudbound dilemma. I like to think that they had been laughing at us the whole time and that might account for how incredibly relaxed they were. Mother and sub-adult son descended the tree and we followed them for a leisurely half-hour as they ambled through the bushes. They stopped in the middle of the road and posed – moseyed on – stopped again to groom each other in a clearing – found another clearing to give us some good cuddle shots.
Then with a flick of their tails they did the disappearing act into the thick bush.
We ended our last day in the bush with a private boat cruise on the Boro River. No game, a few birds, lots of tall reeds, papyrus, bullrush, peace, the breeze in our faces. Stopping the motor and allowing the flood currents to take us wherever. A perfect ending to our time in the bush.