Sunday Morning ~ Kasane, Botswana
August 19, 2018
When George and I first got together three years ago, every time he sneezed he asked me, “Did that bother you?” This puzzled me, because I’d think, why would it bother me if he sneezed? I’d reply, “Of course not! Why?” He told me his ex-wife hated the way he sneezed. She thought it was too loud. Then I started paying attention to it, and thought, well, yes, he does sneeze louder than most, but it really didn’t bother me. Plenty of other things did, but not the way he sneezed. It finally started irritating me that he kept asking if it bothered me. I said, “How many times do I have to tell you it doesn’t bother me?! The fact that you keep asking me is bothering me!” And he finally let that go. Tuck this tidbit away for later.
Back to last Sunday at Chitabe Camp in the Okavango Delta. We were heading out for our early morning game drive, and it was cold before we even started and driving in an open vehicle, even if it’s not going fast, is really cold. We’d dressed with all the warm stuff we had, but I was still a little worried about freezing before the sun came up. We were in the vehicles by 6:30 a.m. after tea and a light breakfast buffet. The sky was just starting to get light with that rosy glow on the horizon I’ve come to love almost as much as the sunsets. Our new BFFs from Scotland, Alistair, Laura, and their son Angus were in our vehicle. We’d been sharing the five hour morning drives, the three hour evening drives, and all meals and drinks by the campfire for four whole days. It was bonding. We were about to pile into the Land Rover when Ebs, our guide, handed us each a poncho. This was not just any poncho. This was a heavy poncho. A hard to lift it was so heavy poncho. It was flannel lined, oiled canvas and there was one for each of us. Glorious. It was like having a personal tent around you. As we were getting them on and settling into our seats, having negotiated who would sit where, Ebs handed each of us a flannel-covered hot water bottle to put under the poncho. Did I say they do tourism well here? I decided the minute we returned to camp I would see if I could get a job there. I never wanted to leave.
Not long after we set off we saw a mother rhino and her baby with blunt, shortened horns. They had cut the horns off to try to prevent them from being poached. What’s happening to the rhinos is tragic. They are being wiped out for a supposed Chinese aphrodisiac and the money that brings in is astronomical. The risks and the money put into saving them is also astronomical. The poachers are armed with AK47s, they helicopter in, kill the rhino and remove the horn in less than five minutes. It’s insane. In Malawi they were wiped out all together, but there is an effort to enforce stricter penalties for poaching. Since the rhinos were reintroduced a tremendous amount of money is put into protecting them. In Namibia, there is a shoot to kill policy for poaching and it has made a difference. No trial, no questions asked, if you are caught poaching or even being off the main road, the rangers can shoot you. One of our guides told us a tourist was killed a while ago. He ventured off the road and, bam. There are signs everywhere telling you to stay on the main roads in the park. And not to get out of your car for that matter. Cutting the horn off the rhino makes it less attractive for the poachers, but sometimes they will kill the rhino anyway because they don’t want to spend time tracking an animal they can’t use. The horns will grow back and there is a lot of controversy about the practice. They are such incredible animals. We saw one in Malawi and one in Etosha, but to see this one with a baby was great. We then went back to see the lions munching away on the zebra. Ebs told us he wasn’t sure if it’d still be there because hyenas may have came during the night and chase the lions away. They would finish off that carcass in no time. I said, “Really? A hyena can chase away a lion?” Ebs said, “No. Not one hyena. But they can come in large packs and thirty hyenas can take down a lion. And these lions are protecting their cubs, so if hyenas came, the lions would leave.” I never knew all this. So many metaphors, so little time.
The lions were still there so we watched them for awhile, then drove around and stopped for coffee in some beautiful spot where we watched herds of zebra and wildebeests. The sun was up and it had gotten much warmer, so we put the ponchos away and tucked the hot water bottles into the seat pockets. The landscape: open savannah and marshy grasses where all kinds of birds were congregating. Just gorgeous. We came to one spot and really, I thought it was too beautiful to even take a photo. I just wanted to hold the vision of that calm, pristine pond with the acacia trees in the background, and elephants milling around on the other side. I couldn’t stop sighing at the sight. We were coming around a corner of the sandy track and we asked Ebs to stop so we could take it in. As he brought the vehicle to a stop we heard people singing and around a copse of trees was the entire staff from the camp, with a long table set for brunch with colorful napkins and tablecloths. The chef was barbecuing meat, and a staff person was holding a tray of Campari and sodas, handing us each one as we descended from the vehicle. Did I already say I never wanted to leave? It was out of one of those magazines where you say, “Ya right, like this really happens.” Just a gourmet brunch out in the wilderness with cheerful staff and amicable companions. There was a camp toilet set up an appropriate distance away with a standing screen and basin and pitcher for hand washing. We had a little wait for the other group from the second vehicle, so that made enough time for three Campari and sodas, which, went down easy was indulgent at noon on a Sunday. Especially since I had to run six miles that afternoon. I suffered through it. Oh, and the food was amazing, too. I asked how often they surprise their guests with this impromptu wilderness brunch? They only do it when no guests are coming or leaving, so another lucky break for us. And right in the spot where I thought I’d died and gone to heaven! Eden. That’s all I have to say.
Since I am now in full training mode for the marathon, I needed to run six miles that day. That’s the longest run for me in about three years. We weren’t allowed to walk at all in the camp with all the predators and elephants roaming around so I thought I was going to have to run in place in our chalet. That was going to be unpleasant. Alistair, who has run several marathons including New York, suggested I ask if there was a treadmill at the sister camp which was a bit more upscale than the one we were at. I did and there was, so after we returned from our bush brunch I got driven 100 meters to the other camp and got on the treadmill for seventy minutes. It was a slog. The three Campari and sodas didn’t help. But I did it and finished in time for an outdoor shower and high tea. I hydrated myself with water and a glass of wine before the evening drive.
The evening drive was a different from all the others in that we saw the wild dogs. Ebs got a message on the radio from another guide who’d seen them leaving their den for a hunt, so we zoomed through the bush hanging onto the bars to stay in our seats (that ride itself was worth it) to follow them as they set off. I didn’t even realize wild dogs existed but they are flourishing there and are fascinating to watch. They looked to me like a soccer team fanning out and looking for prey. A part of me thought it would be neat to see them catch something, but in reality, the gruesomeness of that would have been traumatic, and I was happy just to see how they work together. When lions or leopards hunt they kill their prey instantly, but we heard that the wild dogs are eating it before it’s even dead and it’s a disturbing sight. They eat all of it then go back to their den to regurgitate it for the pups. They do this twice a day. We followed them for an hour or so before Ebs said we should not stress them and we left for sundowners even though the sun had already set.
We’d wanted to spend three nights at that camp, but when we booked there were only two available, so we prepared to leave on Monday. When we got back to camp for cocktails before another gourmet meal, we asked the manager if there was a possibility of staying a third night. Had anyone cancelled per chance? He said he would work on it. Monday morning we were wakened for the morning drive so we thought maybe we scored and could stay, and though they had to move us to a different chalet, a third night was arranged for us. We have been so lucky! I would have been happy to sleep on the floor in the common area, but with a little shuffling of gear, we were in another equally comfortable chalet. The Scottish family wanted to do a walking safari so asked if we could do that Tuesday morning. A special “walking-trained guide” has to be available for that, so that got investigated, and Phinley was booked to take the five of us on a walk early Tuesday morning before our afternoon flight out. He was a bit more serious than Ebs. At first he seemed like he didn’t want to do the walk and that made me skeptical. We’d seen so many lions and two leopards and I didn’t want our stay there to end badly (obviously they don’t either). They are very careful about the rules. He didn’t say anything about panicking, but he did remind us to do exactly what he says, stay in single file, talk in low voices, and don’t make any quick movements. We drove away from the camp a few kilometers and he parked the vehicle. We got out and watched him prepare his rifle, reminding us again of the rules. Then he stopped and said, “Hear that?” We could hear all kinds of noises, the birds, baboons, elephants in the distance, so I wasn’t sure which sound he was talking about. Then again, he said, “Hear that? That’s a lion and it is very near.” We all reached for the rails of the vehicle at the same time and were in it in less than a second. We drove to another location and I was about to say, “You know, I don’t really need to take a walk here. I’m fine to drive.” but didn’t want to seem like a wuss. I found out later everyone else was thinking the same thing. Well, I’m not sure what Phinley was thinking. He just drove to another spot and got his gun out again.
The new spot was deemed safe enough to get out and walk, so we did for over an hour and it was thrilling. We saw a few giraffe close up but mostly we looked at footprints and vegetation and learned about the changing landscape there. Phinley was incredibly knowledgable and though his manner was a little gruff, it was a great experience. I was relieved when we all made it back to the vehicle though. When we got there another vehicle was going by and told us about a pride of lions feasting on a giraffe, so on our way back to the lodge we swung around to see that. The giraffe was a healthy female that had fallen when she was crossing a marsh the day before. Phinley told us he saw her in the morning struggling to get up. I asked if he couldn’t help pull her out? He said no, that would either kill him or destroy the vehicle and fatally injure her. The only thing to do was to wait until she had drown. When a giraffe falls down it can’t get up. Another thing I didn’t know. So Phinley and some other guides waited until she died, then got a tractor and pulled her out so her carcass wouldn’t contaminate the water. He said he knew it would not be long before either lions or hyena took care of her. Wow. The harsh side of nature. When we got there a pride of nine lions had done quite a number on the huge animal. They were lying around guarding the remains as loads of vultures circled around. We watched for awhile as some of the lions surrounded the animal and others sauntered over to a shady spot under a tree. Phinley moved the vehicle closer to the ones under the tree and we parked there, no more than fifteen feet from these incredible animals. I mean, they are enormous! It’s astonishing how close you can get if you are in a vehicle as long as no one stands up. They all had their eyes focused on the vultures and were looking around for anything else that might come to share the giraffe…and then…George sneezed. One of his really loud sneezes. The ones that don’t usually bother me, but I will admit, that sneeze made me think, “What the fuck?” He was sitting on the lion side, and I was next to him. The male lion closest to us turned his massive head and looked at George with a curiosity that, frankly, I found terrifying. I whispered, “George, he’s looking right at you.” Those big amber eyes did not move from little George sitting fifteen (or was it twelve? maybe ten) feet away. It seemed a lot closer now. George was looking down at the seat between us and said, “I know. Is he still?” I said, “Yup. Do not move.” And I started nervous-laughing, and was having a hard time controlling it. I looked back at the lion but that stare was scary. I stopped laughing. He wasn’t Aslan. I sat motionless looking at my phone wanting to take a photo but afraid to move. Phinley, never taking his eyes off the lion said quietly, “No movement in the vehicle.” That scared me more. We were all frozen, and George whispered into the seat between us, the funniest thing he has ever said, “If he gets me, take a picture of it.” I have holes in my tongue from biting it. And all I could think of was, “Jeepers. What a satisfying end for the ex-wife. Killed by a lion for sneezing.” After about five frozen minutes the lion turned his gaze back to the vultures, Phinley turned on the engine and slowly drove away. Holy Shit. What an ending to our stay there.
Later that afternoon, Phinley took us to the airstrip and we said goodby to that magical place. We had to drive up and down the airstrip to clear it of giraffes and kudu. As the plane approached, the giraffe started coming near again and Phinley got out of the vehicle and started chasing them on foot. They finally turned and ran into the bush. The plane landed and a group of eight Americans got off and into the vehicle to take them to what I thought of as my personal camp. I really loved it there. We got on their plane and took off for Maun where we spent the night trying to decide what to do with our last week of this odyssey. I felt like nothing could top that and was prepared for everything being downhill from there.
We needed to head north to Zambia and the most direct route was through Savuti in Chobe National Park, but we’d heard the road was deep sand and I had no desire to get stuck for God knows how long. The other option was to drive 300 kilometers to Nata, then another 300 north to Kasane, and that’s what we decided to do.
Wednesday we drove to a place called Planet Baobab, a campground on the edge of the Makgadikgadi Pans and National Park. Again, we were warned it was deep sand into the park, so opted to stay outside the park and take an organized trip in a proper safari vehicle the next morning. About three minutes into the drive I was saying, “Thank God we didn’t try this ourselves.” Our car is great but the clearance isn’t super and we would have been anxious at best and marooned at worst. Plus all the roads were unmarked and looked alike and we would have been hopelessly lost. Our skeletons would have been found years later. The safari took us into the largest salt pan in the world, which extends for miles. You wouldn’t think a flat endless white landscape would be impressive, but it was breath-taking. You cannot see the end of it anywhere. These pans are the remnants of a huge inland lake that existed a half a million years ago. It’s possible to camp there in the middle of this vastness, but I don’t think I’d do that without a group and someone who knows the place. Though I guess people do. The night sky must be amazing.
From there we went another 100 kilometers on Thursday to a place called Nata, where there is another pan filled with water where there is a huge flamingo and pelican population. We camped in the community campsite, run by the local village, and were the only ones there. Horses and wildebeest walked around our tent at night. We drove down to the pan in the morning with a guide and watched the astonishing number of birds in the lagoons and in the pan. The flamingos were only visible with binoculars, but there were thousands of them. Joy, our guide, told us when other places dry out, there are sometimes half a million flamingos there. At sunset they fly in groups to a closer lagoon. We decided on the spot to stay another night and be there for sunset. It was nice that afternoon lolling about at the campsite. We’d been on the go so much we haven’t had as much unscheduled time as I thought we would. It is definitely getting hotter and I needed to do a run and was trying to figure out how to go about that. There were no predators there, so I could run on the hard salt road and incredible flat landscape. There were only grazers around and zillions of birds, but it was baking sun and too hot during the day so we read. A little before five we drove the seven kilometers down to the pan and I decided to do a run from there and be back to the spot where George was before the sun went down. There was a loop around one of the lagoons and it’s so flat it’s easy to see the way back. That scenery was so spectacular. The setting sun in the background with huge flocks of flamingoes taking off and coming toward us. I just run out of superlatives. I’m sure in George’s blog he has a list of all the different species of birds, but I’m not capable of listing them all. Maybe I’ll just add a link to his blog (after I read it). I always find it interesting to see how he describes the same things I do or what he decides to write about. It’s often different from me.
Yesterday we arrived in Kasane, the gateway to Chobe National Park and got a campsite at one of the nice lodges here. I just love traveling in on this continent! For ten dollars a night we get a campsite with a fireplace and power source, on the river, and we can use all the amenities at the lodge! It’s fabulous! Right now I’m sitting at the campsite bar overlooking the river and herds of elephant are walking by. Last night we watched two lions stalk a buffalo. They were at a bit of a distance, maybe fifty meters, on the riverbank. We’d seen the buffalo all alone about an hour before and the guide told us he was old and kicked out of the herd. Again, nature can be so cruel. He was facing the lions who were on each side of him and I thought, “Oh my God, we are going to see a kill.” which, seems like it would be a cool thing to see, but I really don’t want to see it. Anyway, the buffalo charged at the lion, and she turned around and sat down again, still watching him. He stood still for awhile, then slowly turned and walked about twenty yards before he started running. The lions just watched. They can smell fear the guides say. They let him go.
Tomorrow we head north into Zambia and spend two nights on the Zambian side of Victoria Falls, then Wednesday to Lusaka, then Thursday to Lilongwe. Friday I fly to Rotterdam. I have a little sadness about the trip coming to an end, but mostly am so incredibly grateful to have been able to do this.
Next week from Rotterdam then back to real life…
Love to all,