Archive for Botswana and Journal
The air was electric. Even without training in bush craft and tracking we instinctively knew there were dangers. Alarm calls from birds darting from bushes to trees raised the hairs on our necks. In a nearby baobab tree vervet monkeys shrieked, all staring in one direction. Already during our tour of Botswana we had experienced mock elephant charges and very real hippo charges and that surge of adrenalin was there again.
“We’d better get the truck,” said Vasco, our guide, staring in the direction the agitated monkeys were looking. “It could be a snake, or a lion, but it’s probably our leopard.” All morning we had been tracking the leopard from our camp away into the bush. Every so often Vasco stopped, crouched down, leaning the rifle on his shoulder and pointed out the huge leopard paw prints in the soft sand. Many animals followed the old elephant tracks through the bush and the sand recorded their nocturnal passage. Alongside the leopard tracks were those of red hyenas, the characteristic groove of a snake and imprints of herds of passing impala.
From the safety of the open truck we had a better and more relaxed view. The monkeys were almost bouncing up and down in alarm all their frightened eyes fixed on one point in the middle distance. Vasco’s sharp eyes saw the flash of yellow first.
“He’s after the Lechwe,” he said dropping down into the driver’s seat and moving us toward a prominent termite mound.
As we approached carefully through the dense bush Vasco whispered softly, “Keep very quiet and don’t stand up!” There on the mound was a magnificent alert Leopard, scanning a clearing where a herd of Lechwe antelope had been grazing. They had also been alerted by the agitated birds and monkeys. Every creature in that area, including us, understood that sudden death was stalking the bush.
“He sees the truck as a large inanimate object,” explained Vasco. “So if you don’t move he won’t recognise you as potential prey. If he passes close don’t make eye contact.” We didn’t move.
An attack plan had clearly been resolved in the calculating mind of the leopard. Ignoring us it slid into the bush with a determined stride, curving wide toward the herd of Lechwe. We’d already seen huge red livid gashes on the haunches of zebra inflicted by lions. So we held our breaths waiting for the leopard to strike.
Directly to our front the leopard moved quickly across a gap in the bush. But the monkeys high in the tree saw it too and shrieked a warming. Startled Lechwe heads sprang up, ears held tense and erect, eyes scanned all around, then they exploded into flight. As the distance between the leopard and the herd filled with dust the leopard decided to save its energy for a better prospect.
Not every charge is successful, but some are. We were later privileged to sit in the truck and watch a young cheetah enjoy his first kill, a baby springbok. Our presence in the evening light didn’t seem to disturb the cheetah but the prowling jackals kept their distance. They certainly seem to regard us as a threat.
Elated by the events of the day we drove slowly back to camp, the search light picking up the eyes of impala in the darkness. Lying across the track a huge male lion stood up and moved toward us. As it passed within inches its huge amber eyes swallowed Margaret’s dilated pupils. “I made eye contact,” she whispered. Happily the lion wasn’t hungry.
“We need to get to the airstrip half an hour before the plane arrives,” commented Vasco. Being used to the modern formalities of air travel we nodded our understand ascent. “It’s the game,” Vasco explained. “The pilots don’t like animals on the runway.” Sure enough, as our truck emerged from the bush a small herd of zebra were ensconced on the long dirt airstrip. Driving fast up the side of the strip we startled the zebras and followed them far enough into the surrounding thorn bushes to keep them clear.
From the clear blue sky our light aircraft emerged as a tiny smudge. On landing a huge cloud of red dust trailed the plane to the end of the runway where it turned and taxied up to our truck. “Hi, I’m Alex”, said our young pilot in sweat-shirt and shorts as he loaded our rucksacks into a bin between the wheels. Sitting in the co-pilot seat Allan had a good view of the flock of birds that suddenly flew past our windscreen when we took off.
We’d crossed the land border from Zimbabwe into Botswana quickly and efficiently, chatting to friendly officials on both sides. Botswana is a large empty country about the size France but with only 1.8 million people. Large tracts are designated as National Parks and these teem with wildlife. Some are thickly forested and some are in the Kalahari Desert. The most intriguing area for us was the Okavango Delta. The huge Okavango River flows south and then splits into a myriad of channels becoming an inland delta, like the Niger. But instead of reforming and flowing on, its waters evaporate or sink into the ground. In the wet season the Delta is inundated leaving only small islands. Large expansive plains of grass and scrub are available to the grazing animals in the dry season.
It is heaven for hippos. Having been charged by an angry hippo on the Chobe River, further north in Botswana, we were a bit wary of them. Now in a small boat on an idyllic placid lake we were watching baby herons in large untidy nests. Being a shallow lake the weeds constantly clogged the propeller and Pipi our boatman had to reach down and clear it. Evening was falling. It was the time hippos emerge from the water and forage on the land. Since we had travelled through deep narrow channels in the tall reeds to reach the lake we casually asked Pipi what was the drill if we met a hippo in one of these channels on the way back. He smiled reassuringly and explained that we would charge the hippo with our boat. When it instinctively ducked for cover in the water we would race over it. By the time it recovered we would be long gone. That seemed hardly reassuring.
Then in the gathering dusk we heard the unmistakable roar of a hippo echoing across the still surface of the lake. We couldn’t take our eyes of this huge male hippo displaying large open, tooth filled, mouth challenges. Our concern increased as the hippo start to swim, surprising quickly, toward us. With just a mild whiff alarm Pipi said, “Lets go”. But the propeller was clogged. Pipi worked with more energy than usual as the hippo approached steadily. He was big and nasty. Perhaps sensing a challenge, as we were not fleeing, the hippo started crashing his head against the water sending up huge splashes. He certainly got his message over. With the propeller leaving a turbulent wake between our boat and irate hippo we plunged into the narrow reed channels. That hippo was bigger than our boat we thought and Pipi’s theories on surviving a direct confrontation were neither convincing nor reassuring. But we’re here to tell the story. It turned out to be a lovely sunset in the Okavango Delta.