I’m sitting at the gate with the Delta flight parked on the runway in front of me and wishing SO much that my trip was about to begin rather than to end. I wish the gorgeous sunset I’m watching through the airport window were my first and not my last here in Africa. Don’t get me wrong: I would not trade being an American and living in the US for all the leopards in Africa. But these three weeks have simply been magical. I have paid no attention to the clock or the calendar; getting out to begin a game drive seemed so much more important than a shower or clean clothes; I have seen things I really never expected to see and enjoyed myself so much more than I even hoped I might… I have wanted to do this and be here since I was five years old. And it was everything I could have hoped for, and more.
Thank you, Gina, Evan and Dana, for sharing with me the chance to spend that first week in South Africa. Thank you, Fred, for sharing the wonder of the next leg of the trip in Botswana and at the Victoria Falls. And thank you, Grant Craig, for making sure that we left Africa so much richer in experience than when we arrived.
It will be a very very long time before I will be able to close my eyes and NOT replay, in my mind’s eye (and ear and nose!), scenes of lions and elephants and wild dogs. Of hyenas screaming through the campsite. Of the roar of a lion behind the tent. Of the smell of wild sage and elephant dung. Of the delicate colors of the lilac-breasted roller. Of the joy and the wonder of it all.
And I would love, someday, maybe, just maybe, to come back…
We are back in civilization tonight, at the Airport Grand Hotel in Johannesburg. Civilization. Right. Noise, crowds, hustle and bustle. Sigh… at least we can pretend.
With all of the hassles of yesterday, everything worked out neatly today. First off, the weather was simply terrific: clear and calm and few if any clouds in the sky. Second, the logistics went off without a snag. Transfer company #1 picked us up at the guest house and got us to the Zimbabwean border where we quickly went through the exit process; that company then turned us over to transfer company #2. Transfer company #2 got us to the Zambian immigration station where we quickly went through the entry process (and, I think, where we astonished — and disappointed — the guy at the counter by having exact change for the exorbitant $135 visa fee to enter a country where we’d be staying for all of three or four hours). And they took us on to the helicopter airfield where transfer company #3 (the one taking us to the airport afterwards) was already there to meet us.
Rainbow over Victoria Falls
The flight itself was terrific. There were four of us in a four-passenger helicopter. Fred took the front seat, and I grabbed a window seat in the rear. The other couple split up, each one coming to a side of the back seat, and I am not ashamed to say I refused to budge. I was NOT giving up my window seat!
The pilot passed the length of the falls four times (up, down, up, down) and gave everyone a very good look — and the weather was bright and clear. So I got some great photos from the air, and some decent video footage as well (which I combined with footage taken from the ground the day we arrived in Zimbabwe).
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(I also volunteered to take the couple’s photo for them with their camera and they were pleased by that. Maybe not enough to forgive me for not giving up my window seat, but hey… They’re tour operators from South Africa and can come back sometime. I’m not in the travel business and I came 8000 miles for this helicopter trip!)
In all, we both felt the helicopter ride over on the Zambia side was nicer than the one in Zimbabwe would have been. In addition, it meant we actually DID something in Zambia other than just fly out from there, which made us both feel a lot better about the ridiculous visa fee that Zambia charges. So, all in all, it was one more case of something that could have been a snag working out for us in the long run.
Livingstone, Zambia is a bustling town that is obviously prospering greatly from the misfortunes of the folks in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. The folks in Zimbabwe spoke contemptuously of the Zambians and how they used to have to drive over in their rattle-trap cars to buy gasoline in Zimbabwe and how poor Zambia was. But that’s all obviously past tense. Now Zimbabweans drive to Botswana to do their shopping, and the Zambians we ran into were only too happy to comment about how nice things were in Zambia these days! The contrast between the two towns right now is stunning. The joke going around is that, where the Big Five in Africa are the elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion and leopard, the Big Five in Zimbabwe are meat, corn, sugar, rice and milk. It’s sad, and we can only hope things improve in Zimbabwe. I’m glad we stayed where we did, and very glad we went… and very glad we left when we did. (As a side note, it’s amazing that even South Africans keep saying how completely out of touch with the reality of what’s going on in Zimbabwe that South Africa’s president is.)
The airport is small but was packed with a number of flights going out around the same time. Had one bad moment at the airport where British Airways-Comair turned out to be the only airline that actually weighed carry-ons and mine, of course, was over the 7kg limit. The woman gave Fred a white tag for his bag and told me I’d get a red tag at the aircraft. I asked if I’d be able to keep the bag with me and she said yes. I wasn’t so sure… It turned out that if folks didn’t have a white tag, there were people at the side of the aircraft making them turn over their bags to be stowed in the nose of the plane (with the referenced red tag). And there was NO WAY I was going to give up a bag with thousands of dollars in owned and rented camera gear. Fortunately, Fred realized what was going on immediately and without a word simply ran interference for me. He kept putting his 6′3″ frame between me and the folks who were trying to check the bags for white tags and engaged them in conversation so I could simply get on board. Boy was I relieved when I got into the cabin and tucked the offending backpack into the overhead compartment… (I’d apologize to British Airways for this, but the fact is that between us, our carry-ons were under the limit, and if I’d known they were going to enforce it, we could have moved things from one bag to the other and been totally within the rules. So it was a no-harm no-foul situation.)
The only other bad moment was when some idiot decided I wasn’t moving fast enough to get through a security area and pushed a movable gate onto my ankle. I begin to understand why it’s not the Ugly American Tourist in parts of Africa, but rather the Ugly South African… (It’s kind of nice not to be the only Bad Guy in the tourism world…)
Fred agreed to take charge of figuring out what our options are for sight-seeing tomorrow. (Both of us began by feeling reluctant to impose on one of our South African friends (from the Delta) who had volunteered to be our guide, and then it all became academic when I realized I couldn’t find the card he’d given me with his contact info.) We’ve settled on a tour of a gold mine and a driving tour of Johannesburg. We should be back at the hotel just in time for me to head off to my flight.
Civilization does have its nice points, by the way. Nice meal, nice bar downstairs, nice room with coffee machine and a lovely tub to soak in…
First the good… we got up at oh-dark-thirty to go out to the Lion Encounter. The tour company was supposed to pick us up at 5:30 — they actually got there early. Drove out to the game reserve about five miles from Victoria Falls, where they run an operation that is part of conservation effort principally with cubs from lions that have to be relocated away from areas where their territory is encroaching on people (or vice versa). We met up with the only other two participants — a young German woman now living in South Africa and an Australian woman. (Neither of whom, incidentally, had known about the no-credit-cards rule — we ended up loaning the German woman some cash so she could have dinner!)
You get there when it’s just light out, get a stick and a safety briefing (“just say no no to the cub and point the stick at him!”) and then walk out into the bush. Here, unlike all the time we spent in Botswana, one of the guides carried a rifle; there were also three trainers with the group. Fred spotted something big and dark off to the side and it turned out to be a black rhino. He and the guide (with the gun!) walked over for a closer look. I kept telling the guide I’d appreciate getting my brother back in one piece. When they came back, we walked a little further, the guide asked if we were ready to walk with lions, and when we said we were, he told us to look to our left — and there they came, full tilt, straight for us!
Now we’d been told there were three cubs, 14 months old. What they do NOT tell you is how big a 14-month-old lion cub is. Their heads are easily up to or past waist-high. Ulp! And all we have are sticks! But they acted exactly like big kittens — playing with each other and with the trainers. They let themselves be petted, they generally came to a trainer when called (try that with your tabby at home!), they even let people walk with them holding their tails… There were two males (Loza and Stitch) and one female (Stancy). Their fur is very rough, their ruffs are bristly.
Cub on alert
At one point, I was looking at one of the lions and felt a weight against my leg. I looked down, and there was the sole female cub leaning up against me as if to say that she wanted to be petted. The whole thing was just enchanting, and it was very hard to remember that these are wild animals and will, eventually, be trained for and released to the wild. Extras were watching the cubs go on alert when they heard wild lions in the distance, and a kudu herd not far from the entrance. You get a full cooked breakfast when the walk is over (and it’s over too soon, even if it was an hour or more!). It was just wonderful. Couldn’t recommend it more.
Then the bad… we were back at the guest house by about 9:30 and the weather was simply gorgeous, so we were so so looking forward to the helicopter ride. The tour company picked us up and took us out to the helipad just in time to find out that the helicopter had developed problems on the ride just before ours and had been grounded. We waited just long enough to find out that they’d cancelled all flights for today and tomorrow and asked if they could book us on the Zambian side. The company didn’t seem much to understand (or care) that we’d come 8000 miles and would probably not be back, and did nothing more than offer us a refund and a provisional booking for the next day (after telling us that all the Zambian flights the next day were fully booked). Since we have a 1:30 flight out back to Johannesburg tomorrow, this did not look promising. We rode back to the guest house discussing options — some of them wild and some even wilder (trying to hire a plane from Zambia to come get us is not very realistic!).
In any event, we put the whole thing into the hands of Hartmut and Miriam Giering, the owners of the guest house, and in about 45 minutes they felt reasonably confident they had the whole thing under control. But the plans are contingent on the weather being as good tomorrow as it is today and on a series of transfers from one tour operator to another going without a hitch. Ulp… we shall see. And I will be verrrrrrrry disappointed if I end up having come 8000 miles and don’t get to fly over Victoria Falls.
Sunset over Zambezi River
The sunset cruise was okay but filled with loud Americans and we didn’t see nearly as many animals as we did on the Chobe cruise. The area of the Zambezi river where the cruise boats operate is astoundingly close to the falls (it’s the Zambezi that tumbles into the gorge at the falls). And I think we’re both a bit concerned about the arrangements for tomorrow. Spent some time sharing a couple of bottles of wine with the owners and one of the two Swiss women (the other went off to try to see moonlight over the falls after having exchanged some Botswanan pula for my American dollars so she could pay the entrance fee to the park!) and will head off to bed early since we need to be up for breakfast, packing, etc., before heading out sometime before 9 a.m.
It was surprisingly hard to say goodbye to Grant this morning. In a very short time, he has gone from being “Grant the safari operator” to “Grant, our friend.” We knew we were going off to do other things, more “citified” things, things where we wouldn’t NEED Grant to hold our hands — but both Fred and I felt bereft. Who would we turn to now with our questions? Who would point out the things we might otherwise miss? And we had just gotten to know him, and wanted to know more, and have time to talk about things we hadn’t had time for yet.
It was hard.
I will say this: there may be fancier safari operators in Africa. But there are none who know more and who care more and who share more than Grant Craig of Papadi Safaris. He cares, deeply, for the country, and the bush, and the animals, and he wants, deeply, for those he guides to come away with something of the same appreciation he has for the country, and the bush, and the animals. He became truly upset one night at the Moremi campsite when some campers started dragging a big log — far far bigger than they could possibly need as firewood — into their camp. He sent Likan to tell them it was against camp rules. But as he sat and explained to us, it wasn’t because it was against the rules. It was because it was against nature. If the logs don’t stay in place and rot, then there won’t be food for the termites, and if there aren’t any termites, then there won’t be honey badgers. (Grant loves honey badgers. Or, more accurately, he admires them for the bombastic, aggressive, don’t-mess-with-me critters that they are.) And if there aren’t honey badgers… and so on. To him, it’s a system, and a system that needs minimal impact from humans to survive. And he very much wants it to survive.
I do too. Now that I’ve been there, and seen it, and smelled it, and watched it… I do too.
But the sudden shift from being with Grant to being in a vehicle with strangers headed into a country renowned for its political turmoil was very disconcerting this morning. (It was especially disconcerting when, not 10 minutes inside the Zimbabwean border, we saw a police car pulling over vehicles with plates from other countries… A couple of young Swiss women who were stopped at the roadblock told us the police officer tried to shake them down and they simply played the “we don’t speak the language” card and were finally let go.)
At any rate, we understood why Grant kept emphasizing that we needed US dollars and exact change for the visa fees for Zimbabwe when we were at the border station. First off, the whole transaction was a lot faster with US dollars than for folks with other currencies. Secondly, even though we could see plenty of bills in various currencies, nobody but nobody was being given change if they didn’t have the exact amount. Sort of a revenue-enhancement device, as far as we could see.
We arrived at the Amadeus Guest House without incident and found it to be everything Grant had described. It is very nicely appointed with beautiful grounds and nice folks at all levels from the room cleaners right up to the owners. We got everything set up for our extra activities — walking the Falls in the afternoon, dinner at The Boma tonight, lion walk in the morning, helicopter ride in the afternoon and sunset cruise later — and then headed off to an internet cafe to let folks know we were alive and well. (On our way back we ended up sharing the road with a troop of baboons. It surely reinforces that we’re not in Kansas any more, Toto!)
250 million dollars
Although we’re both very comfortable at the guest house, frankly Victoria Falls is not a comfortable place a week before the elections. There is a feeling of impending disaster that is almost tangible everywhere and the few people we encountered anywhere in Zimbabwe who would say anything (and then only in whispers) were not at all confident that political change could occur without violence. The economy is in ruins — at one point, a Zimbabwean gave us a $250 million Zimbabwean note — and it’s worth maybe a nickel, maybe less, in US dollars. The disconnect between the real value of the Zimbabwean currency and the government-sanctioned exchange rate is so great that nobody, but nobody, takes credit cards here. So… everywhere we went, we went with the vehicle from the guest house. It just felt better that way. All in all, I’d say that Victoria Falls is safe for tourists … in the day time, in groups, with escorts from travel companies or hotels-guest houses etc., and with US dollars in your wallet.
The Falls themselves are simply amazing from ground level. You can walk the entire Zimbabwean side of the Falls in about an hour (getting thoroughly soaked in the process) and unlike a lot of waterfalls that you see in pictures, the Victoria Falls tumble into a narrow gorge so that from where you stand to where the water is can be a very short distance. (Compare this to Niagara Falls where there’s a wide open area at the base of the falls.) We did our very best to protect things from the water and still didn’t manage. Some things in Fred’s backpack got wet, and I ended up not getting nearly as many photos as I might otherwise have gotten. But Fred personally made up for that!
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This evening, we went over to the Safari Lodge for drinks and for The Boma (a very touristy and great fun set-up for a dinner of traditional African foods). It was thoroughly enjoyable — and we FINALLY got to taste warthog! And, by gorry, it is wonderful stuff. A slightly gamey and flavorful meat that is clearly recognizable as a kissin’ cousin to pork. My only regret is that I didn’t have more! Also had a fruit salad that practically burned my mouth with whatever spice it had! Listened to a story teller and let the traditional medicine man throw bones and tell our fortunes. It was truly striking that there were mostly older people and Japanese tourists at the place and it was still not even half full.
Only took one photo at the Boma — my camera battery finally gave out. I’m in the process of charging a full set for both cameras because of the lion walk, helicopter flight and sunset cruise all scheduled for tomorrow.
About 2 a.m. I woke up, alarmed and not sure why. I realized that there were noises outside the tent and the tent flaps were rustling. Could have been the wind, but the side of the tent closest to where I was sleeping was also bowing in. Ulp… Buffalo? Bandits? Then all of a sudden all of the noises and rustling stopped. Ulp!!! Buffalo! Bandits! I lay there for a minute and all of a sudden heard Fred’s tent door unzip. My first thought was that someone was trying to get into his tent. Then I heard him take care of his business. At that point I figured what the heck. If he wasn’t worried, I wasn’t either. I went back to sleep.
It turned out that it was just the wind — a cold front and cloud cover had moved in during the night. So this morning was cloudy and overcast but strangely warmer. We left Likan and Nami packing up and went off on our morning game drive. It was fun to sit and watch a whole troop of baboons and some black-backed jackals who were sleeping out in the open and more.
As we drove the short distance out of the park and into Kasane, we saw our one and only sable antelope, our one and only puku, some kudu stags, a whole group of mongoose (Grant said they were territorial), and a family of warthogs rooting around in the grass. It was hard at times to know what to look at!
At one point, I wanted to open the truck door to take a photo of a particular flower, and Grant told me to look up first: there was a whole herd of elephants not far away! Then we stopped dead in our tracks for perhaps as much as a half hour while a whole huge herd of buffalo crossed the road in front of us.
Fred was adamant that we couldn’t be that close to yet another country and not at least try to check it out (and, of course, get a stamp in our passports). So we took a motorboat ride across the Chobe River just before noon to Namibia, got the stamp, took a brief walking tour of a local village. The guide Calvin was excellent — highly educated, knew the latin names of most of the plants — and it was interesting to see the mix of old and new in the village. One woman came up with a plastic bin of tomatoes carried in the traditional fashion on her head. She had her baby strapped to her back with her shawl, but a cellphone in her hand. (Cellphones are positively ubiquitous in Africa, even more so than in the US. Given the lack of landlines, it’s either a cellphone or no phone, so everyone has a cellphone.)
South African friends
Back in Botswana we boarded a boat for a sunset cruise of the Chobe and found ourselves back with our South African friends. We had a good time with them, they’re all bright and friendly folks in their 20s and 30s, and I’m awfully glad we had the chance to see them again and say goodbye. The boat ride itself was great fun by itself (Fred, of course, not only charmed the female tour guide but got her email address — and probably her phone number!) — but the Chobe River area is famous for its elephants, and this cruise surely did not disappoint on that score!
First, we saw elephants walking in the river:
Then, we saw elephants playing in the river:
We even saw a whole herd of elephants swim across the river:
That was followed by a truly spectacular sunset.
Chobe River sunset
Back on land, we found that Grant had managed to find two cabins at the lodge where we were to be camping that were open due to reservation no-shows and he got them for us. This was just another episode that underscored for me the kind of guide Grant is. His concern was that the campground would be noisy and crowded, and it would feel like a letdown after the really wonderful camping we’d been doing the previous nights. So, he said, he’d rather have us in basic cabins where we could shower and relax so we’d remember the camping part of the trip as a uniformly good part.
Dinner at a local lodge with unbelievably mouth-watering chicken, a good hot shower, and tomorrow we’re off for Victoria Falls. Weather permitting (and even if not!), we’ll walk the Zimbabwean side of the falls tomorrow afternoon.
Today was spent en route to and at the campground called Ihaha on the Chobe River. We started out watching the squirrels at the campsite and then drove over to the rocks near Savute where there is a Bushman rock painting that’s been dated back 3000-4000 years. It’s a small climb up to where you can see it and I find that I am still very over-protective of my ankle where I broke it more than 10 years ago. You’d think that after all this time I’d start to relax, but the exact opposite is true: I get MORE afraid as time goes by. Sigh… if I ever do anything like this again, I’m going to get professionally made hiking boots with ankle protectors.
Fishing on Chobe River
The area here in Chobe is vastly different from what we’ve seen so far… there are baobab trees everywhere (there was just one that we saw near Savute), umbrella acacias, palms along the river. It’s very green right along the river, instead of being so dry as it is everywhere else (even just back from the river). Long drive en route but got into the park by lunchtime and had sandwiches beneath a huge tree (I’ll have to remember to ask Grant what type of tree — he told us but I’ve forgotten!) where vervet monkeys kept watch from above.
The campsite is right on the river and the afternoon game drive was fabulous. We saw buffalo and monitor lizards mating (she eventually developed a headache and rolled out from under him into the water and swam away), more eagles…
monitor lizards mating
monitor lizards mating
African fish eagle
… And then a giraffe spooked over to our right. We all looked and Fred gasped: “Four feet!” Sure enough, the cause was another lioness, wearing a transponder collar, who eventually strolled out right into the road… followed by three nearly-grown cubs perhaps a little less than two years old. All females, all gorgeous.
Mother and daughters
They weren’t hunting or anything, just strolling along, playing, pouncing, flopping down and getting back up. We kept following and watching for over an hour and it ended up with them getting into a staring contest with another giraffe. Stupid giraffe kept coming closer, as if it didn’t believe what it was seeing.
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Moon over Chobe River
Good thing for the giraffe that the lionesses weren’t hungry. They angled off back into the bush and we had to make a mad dash back to the campsite before the gates closed. Fortunately we made it (but not until well after moonrise)!
(I should add that lots of people would drive up, spend a few minutes looking at the lions, and then drive off, as if to say, “Okay, lions checked off on our checklist. Now go find us something else.” There was even one totally bored teenager with headset on and book on her lap. Fred and I, on the other hand, would have been perfectly happy to sit there all night… well, okay, until dark, that is. Being out after dark in a park without fences is a little intimidating…)
Lots of buffalo on the riverfront right in front of the campsite. Grant told us we are NOT to even THINK about leaving our tents and walking to the ablution block after dark. If we absolutely have to go, we’re to yell out and he will drive us there — even though we are only a short walk away — we can even see it from the campsite. That’s how dangerous buffalo can be. And, he says, we’re close to the border where four countries come together, so there could be bandits as well… Ulp…
Finally all the adults had had their fill — the cubs were alternating between eating and playing — and Grant deemed it safe enough to back up even closer to the pride. We ended up with the truck not more than 15 feet from the lions. In one image of a cub lying in the grass, you can actually see the reflection of our truck in the cub’s eyes.
Cub with reflection
We watched and watched… taking pictures and even videos. I don’t think any of us could quite believe what we were seeing. Every so often Fred and I would look at each other, smile, shake our heads in almost total disbelief and go back to watching.
Finally, even we had had enough. All of the lions were lying down, we were starving (not for zebra but for lunch!) and we finally headed off back to camp.
The afternoon drive was quiet, but beautiful. We got a good look at an ostrich, and then spent some time watching elephants at a waterhole.
We drove along some croppings of rock, looking for antelope or cheetah or leopards. We didn’t see anything much, but it really didn’t matter: we had seen lions. LOTS of lions. And finally Grant stopped the truck out in the middle of the Savute marsh and let us get out on the road. There was nothing out there but us, and with the land so flat, we could see the entire sunset, 360 degrees. It was like being in the middle of a pastel-colored bowl, with blue along the horizon and pink and red and orange above. It was one of the single most peaceful moments I’ve ever spent…
And tonight, every time I close my eyes, all I’m seeing in my mind is that replay of lions, lions, lions. Fred said it, and I agree: today alone would have made the whole trip worth every penny.
The lioness kept the cubs at a substantial distance from the kill for a long time. Judging from the time stamps on my photos, it was six or seven minutes at a minimum. Then she slowly led them down to the kill.
Lions scares cubs
First, the big male roared at them and scared them away. The lioness, who had gone into the shade, then went back, gathered the cubs up again and brought them back to the kill, around the back where the zebra’s hide was scored by the claws of the lion that brought it down. This time the male let them alone and they began to eat what they could.
Interestingly, the mother lioness did not try to eat at that point. Whatever the pecking order in the pride was, or perhaps to buy tolerance for the cubs, she went back and flopped down in the shade again, leaving the cubs to eat. The cubs were left unimpeded on the kill, climbing over and around it, tugging at the flesh and entrails. Even when the third lioness went to claim her share, though, the mother lioness stayed behind. She only went to eat after both other lionesses were finished.
Cubs begin to feed
second lioness feeds
cubs in body cavity
cub in body cavity
At one point, Grant told us to look up. We did, to see two eagles — a bateleur eagle and a tawny eagle — fighting with each other. The bateleur eagle was clutching the remains of a genet (a cat-like animal in the mongoose family), dangling its tail down where the tawny eagle was trying to grab it and take it away. The tawny did get a grip on the tail at one point, but the bateleur managed to get away with its prize.
Today… oh, today… my eyes are full of lions. I can still hardly believe it.
We were up early again this morning, before dawn, and Grant set us off on the task of finding the lions. He knew we really wanted to see some big cats, and I think he was starting to feel a little frustrated, since we have seen so many tracks, and no cats. Today he put Likan behind the wheel and he acted as spotter. Fred did spot a black-backed jackal and a hyena very early on, so we started joking that this was going to be a dog day and not a cat day.
And again, as before, tracks, tracks and more tracks. Even fresh tracks of a lioness with cubs. But no cats at all. We must have driven around for hours — from daybreak to pretty close to mid-day — going up one road and down another, criss-crossing the Savute marsh (dry as dust at this time of year), following one set of tracks or another… but finding no lions.
Finally, another truck came by, both stopped and Likan spoke with the field guide in Setswana. Then he told us that, 30-45 minutes earlier, that field guide had seen a pair of lions at a waterhole not far away. We drove over, our hopes high, and sure enough, there was another truck sitting there with everyone staring across the water. And there they were… a big male with one lioness under one bush and another lioness under another bush. We grabbed some quick photos and then just stood there watching. After a few minutes, the other truck drove off and we were all alone with the lions.
Lion and lioness
The male had obviously been in some kind of fight very recently. Grant told us that as recently as last year there had been one big pride at Savute but that the males had had a falling out and now there were several much smaller prides with a lot of contesting among the males for control of those prides. Looked to us as though this guy had won his battle, but had certainly paid the price.
Now we weren’t that close — the waterhole between us and them was pretty big. But we did get a good look at them as they did interesting things like, occasionally, raise their heads and flop back down as if the effort was too much. (We heard later that the male and one lioness had been mating earlier, so maybe they were just worn out!) Fred spotted a mongoose at the side of the waterhole and we focused on that for a while.
Lioness charges into bush
Then, all of a sudden, all three lions alerted. The single lioness shot off into the bush; the male and other lioness followed more slowly. Grant turned around with a grin: “Let’s see if we can follow ‘em!” And off we went. After bumping around in the bush for just a minute or so, we broke into a clearing and there they were… the pride had just taken down a zebra.
One lioness had her jaws closed tightly on the zebra’s snout, to suffocate the zebra. The other, apparently the one that had made the initial pounce, was on the side away from us, crouched by the zebra’s belly.
lions with zebra
The third lioness started to walk past the zebra’s hindquarters and was startled (as we were!) when the zebra kicked out at her. We couldn’t believe it… the zebra was still alive! The third lioness and the male lay down in the shade on the side by the zebra’s head, and the other two stayed crouched in position for a long long time. (It wasn’t clear to me whether the lioness by the zebra’s belly was actually eating, or just holding the zebra in place. I never was sure when she ate, but the blood around her jaws later showed that she did.) In some of the photos, you can actually see the lioness’s spittle running down the zebra’s face as she holds it in her jaws.
lioness drags zebra
Finally, when the lioness at the zebra’s head was satisfied it was dead, she grabbed it by the neck and dragged it into the shade, with the lioness at the rear crawling along. Grant said this is to get it out of sight of vultures, who circle overhead and alert other predators who can come and try to contest the kill.
lion approaches kill
The lioness at the head then flopped down into the grass for a while and, after several minutes, the male went to the zebra and began to eat. Only the lioness by the hindquarters seemed to also be eating; the other two stayed in the shade.
After several more minutes, the lioness who had suffocated the zebra walked off slowly down the road into the bush. Grant turned and grinned again: “What do you want to bet she comes back with her cubs?”So we waited and waited and, sure enough, after a while (as the big male and the lioness at the hindquarters kept eating), the lioness came back down the road and flopped down in the shade of a bush at a distance from the kill. And she was followed by a cub! A lion cub! And then two more cubs! Three lion cubs! And then a fourth cub! Four lion cubs! Grant said they were not more than six months old, old enough to eat meat but probably not given a lot of meat given the size of the pride.
Up early this morning. VERY early. About 2 a.m., give or take. There is nothing that gets your heart pumping quite as much as hearing a great big adult male lion roar just behind your tent. I couldn’t find the iPod quickly in the dark and the lion moved off, after giving off an even-scarier purrrrrrrrr sound, roaring twice more farther and farther away (thank heavens!) before I could come up with it, but that’s okay — all it would have recorded was the pounding of my heart, I think! (Fred says that just as the lion did his purrrrrrrrr sound, the oil light in front of my tent went out. He was convinced that the lion was sitting on my doorstep, bib around his neck, knife and fork in paws…)
Grant went looking for the tracks when it got light enough to see — not as close as we would have thought (I would have said, oh, 18-24 inches behind my tent, personally) — probably 25-30 feet away at the closest. Heart-pounding distance no matter what. (If you have a good internet connection, check out this site — cursor down to the Sounds section — to hear something of what we heard!)
Now… there’s no delicate way to discuss this… but you know… when you get scared like that, you have to go. I mean you have to go. And there was no way, no way in God’s green earth, that I am getting out of the tent with an adult male lion wandering around, possibly with bib and knife and fork. So… now what? No chamber pot issued as standard camping equipment! So I’ll tell you what — it’s called IMPROVISE!! I had packed a bunch of plastic zip bags just in case I needed ‘em for anything. So you take one one-gallon plastic bag and tuck it inside another one-gallon plastic bag, you put the whole thing on top of a towel (in case you miss…) and you aim as carefully as we female types are capable of aiming. Then you zip the inside bag, zip the outside bag, and go back to bed. (Necessity is the mother of invention after all. Nobody said anything about the father. He can just, well, stick it outside the tent flap if he has to!)
Khwai river bridge
Once the sun was up, we headed off on a long hard drive from Moremi to Savute today. The first thing you face on your way out of Moremi is the bridge over the River Khwai (sorry, the reference is irresistible). It’s made entirely of mopane poles.
Then there’s the rest of the drive. The distance itself isn’t all that much — I think Grant said it’s about 180km — but though there is a nominal speed limit in the parks of 40km/h, the roads of Botswana do not permit anything even vaguely approaching that speed. Four wheel drive is essential, there is deep sand or brush or both, you never know when approaching water if it’s safe to drive through or whether there’s a hole 4′ deep hiding underneath. It’s a sure bet that I wouldn’t have wanted to drive for ten minutes on that stuff, and Grant has been driving us around for DAYS.
On top of the condition of the roads, there’s the issue of game. You never know when something is going to come out of the bush just in front of you, and you have to be aware of everything. It’s a bit disconcerting to be driving along and have an elephant suddenly decide it wants to cross right in front of the vehicle.
The first hour or two of the trip was actually a game drive in and of itself. Elephants, hippos, giraffe and more. We came to the conclusion that it would be a dog day when Fred spotted a black-backed jackal just to the side of the road.
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But once the animals thinned out a bit, it was just a long haul. Lunch was in an area where there was but a single tree, and in the tree were roughly a kazillion (or two) red-billed queleas. Grant says they’re a real nuisance, and can gather in such numbers that branches will literally break off under their weight. We were also “joined” for lunch by a warthog or two that stood within easy run-for-your-life distance and looked at us as though they were just amazed at the sight. (Sometimes I wonder if we’re not as much a spectacle for the animals as they are for us.) The lunch area was also one where Grant has seen lions before but… sigh… once again the most we saw was tracks and no lions.
Savute turns out to be even more sandy that Moremi (so the driving was even tougher) and yet more rocky as well. There are actual outcrops rising from what is otherwise a very very flat marshland. We should be able to see some Bushman rock art on our way out on Sunday. We did our usual camp-day arrival routine: dropped the trailer with Nami and Likan to set up camp and headed off for another game drive. Fred and I think this is wonderful but I’m amazed that Grant isn’t exhausted already yet with the driving.
We saw lots of different antelopes, including an impala licking a termite mound (for the minerals it has), and more interesting or impressive birds — a juvenile Bateleur eagle, a tawny eagle (which kept moving so I don’t think I got a shot), another fish eagle (they are so darned impressive), some noisy little birds called lapwings, a Meyer’s parrot (the only parrot in Botswana) — and all kinds of elephants.
juvenile bateleur eagle
Impala with termite mound
We also saw lots and lots of lion tracks but… no lions. That doesn’t mean no CATS, however. Fred simply has the best eyes of anybody I know. We were driving through an area of grass and reeds all painted a golden orange by the afternoon sun. Suddenly he sings out that there’s something moving in the grass. Now, for the life of me, I couldn’t see it. Even after he pointed it out, I’m not sure I would ever have seen it on my own. Turned out it was a serval — a simply gorgeous cat with great big ears. Bigger than the wildcat by orders of magnitude (the wildcat runs to about 3-7 kg (6.5-15 lb.) while the serval runs to 13.5-18 kg (30-40 lb.)) and just simply beautiful, especially with its eyes catching the light and its body so very well blended with the grass until it turns its back and you see those black and white ears.
Serval in grass
After spending time watching this marvelous cat, we got to see yet another spectacular sunset.