During the “big” trips I keep a diary for the entire group – what we did, what we saw, the jokes, the things that went wrong, the things that went right. I refuse to pretend that everything always goes smoothly on all of my trips, but we always learn and we always have a good time. Skim through this synopsis – blemishes and all – it isn’t sanitized but I think it will give you a flavor of my trips and the wonderful people who go on them.
Botswana and Victoria Falls
Michael Ellis and Friends
September 6 to 21, 2007
Thursday, September 6:
Most of us (except Katie, Mike and Paul who are already cavorting in Joberg and Jeff and Pat in London) leave our home towns heading for Joberg. 7 of us on the same plane from SFO to NYC to Dakar to Joberg. Good food, good service and not a bit crowded. We cruise into the next day…………..
Friday, September 7:
Our airbus 340 arrives more or less on time. We make it through customs. Met by Michele and then to The Garden Court right near the airport. Johannesburg is a megalopolis of 4 million, 30 miles across. The Guetang Province generates 10% of the entire African continents GNP. Everyone is at the hotel except the Wrights who have been exploring Joberg for a few days. Tomorrow the big adventure begins!
Saturday, September 8.
Bags out at 7:30, we leave on the shuttle at 745. We are a great group. Store bags. I leave early to file a police report because my checked bag was broken into and things stolen. Check in, and then I give you a brief orientation about our upcoming trip at Gate A 30. Finally we begin boarding at 930. Hop on bus. Onto a 77 PAX BA 140 plane a jet for our 1 hr 20-minute flight to Maun. We travel 1200K, right over the Kalahari Desert. The Boteti River is full and many intermittent streams are flowing this year. Much rain in Angola and none in the Kalahari. Fairly smooth ride and then we land at Maun international (2nd busiest airport in Africa, so they say). Enter Botswana officially. Loaded onto two Cessna Grand Caravans. And took off. Well the second plane had to circle back because the control tower saw something that should have been lifted up off the tail of the plane but was not. Aardvark diggings and ostriches are seen from the air as we fly over Africa’s second largest desert. To Jack’s Camp on the edge of the Makgadikgadi Pans, the largest salt pan in the world and land on a dirt runway, the first of many.
Met by Cyrus (meercat expert, half Persian and the rest is mutt but good-looking), Kevin (Aussie/South African/Zimbabwe and Masters in fruit bats) and my old friend Super (17 years here and full of local knowledge) whisked over to Jacks Island. On the way: Lilac breasted rollers, black korhann, rattling cistacolas, fork tailed Drongo, anteating chats (black and white little birds sitting onto termite mounds where they sleep and nest in communal groups), water acacias beginning to bloom bright yellow flowers. Met by young Vilma (Holland) and cute Lynda (Zimbabwe who is married to the chef). Very hot this PM and the landscape is thirsty.
Ralph’s museum and a snack waiting for us in the luxurious tent. Great bones and displays. Common birds: yellow billed hornbill, Cape turtledoves, and pied crow. We are escorted to our tents. How very lovely and private. Whatta view. Now I feel like we are in Africa== somehow the Garden Court in Joberg just didn’t do it. Rest time. Two yellow mongooses – in monogamous pairs, not large groups. seen around the tents.
Lions have come back into the area so we need an evening escort to our tents. The commiphora (Frankincense) trees are about. Dense communal spider webs. Palms, wonderful Ilala palms. Elevation here is 900 m. Teatime at 4 30 and the guides introduce themselves. Story of Jack (Tanzanian of Brit descent): left his pregnant wife in 1962 in Tanzania to go to the most remote place in Bots where only an “idiot” would go, Ralph his son born. Jack was a famous Croc hunter but changed his ways here became more conservation oriented. Loved the bush. He died in a 1992 plane crash (flown by his son). This same son built our lodge in his honor.
I show you our first ant lion larvae – one of the little five. Then off on our first game drive at 5. Ilala palms, red necked falcon, ostriches, kori bustards, more black korhanns, white backed vultures, steenboks (totally desert adapted antelope). 17k zebras through here; after the Serengeti the largest Z migration. Last year there was water in all the pans that lasted for 8 months. This year = nada. Kalahari means great thirst land. Female steenbok (Bushman say they have magic, arrows miss them). They can live in a very dry environment with no access to water. Can allow their temp to rise very high.
Out in the middle of nothing there are chairs about and drinks waiting for us. Lions tracks a few days old are there. We are at Lion Island named because they are often seen here. The red ball of the sun is setting at 609. Super suggests 5” of quiet time just taking in the environment. We drink and laugh and take pictures. This is gonna be fun. We have a nice talk by our guides that helps us understand the big geologic and geographic picture of the Ok Delta and this desert.
Here are some of my notes.
Makad is the largest salt pan in the world = to Switzerland. Botswana = Texas but only 1.6 million folks (3 million cows). Botswana is a mixture of San, Bantu and Zulus. Kept it stable. Only part of the region that wasn’t a colony- but a protectorate. 40k in Maun. 400K in Gaborone. 80% is made up of the arid Kalahari Desert. Sometimes get 2-400 mm yr but only in a couple of months. 3 1/2 billion-yr. old granite underlies the entire region- old rock. 100-140 MYA Africa split from S Amer. Immense quantities of lava (basalt) poured out and elevated the entire southern part of Africa. Basically the Great Rift Valley ends at Duma Tau. Kalahari formed 60 MYA, one big sandy basin (300 m of sand all blown in). At 7 million yrs one river drained the region and emptied into the Indian Ocean. A flurry of tectonic activity lifted highland areas and prevented the river from draining. It back flowed into the basin and created a huge lake 3X as big as Victoria! 20.000 yrs ago there was a lot more faulting. Victoria Falls created at this time. Remnant of that lake is Mak salt pan, the concentrated salts of this once immense lake. A geologist from DeBeers found a kimberlite pipe, which yielded millions of dollars in diamonds and has totally energized the economy of Botswana. Fortunately the diamonds were found one year after independence though the rumor is that it was actually five years before independence!
We head back with the spotlights. Hoping against hope for looks at spring hares! Yes we only see 120 of these rats that bounce like kangaroos.. But also see the African wildcat and the Cape Hare (a real rabbit) and all the vehicles get to see the Aardwolf. The most highly adapted of the hyenas. Specializes in eating termites. A small spotted genet cat is seen by our vehicle right near camp.
Back for a great dinner, some get a look at Jupiter’s moons and then to bed. Rustling ilala palm leaves sound like rain in our African dreams.
Sunday, September 09, 2007.
We are awakened at 630 AM with coffee delivered right to our rooms. At 7 group B heads off to join the Meercat family and have their breakfast out on the plain. Group A eats and then goes walking with the five local Bushmen from a distant village, which still retains much of the knowledge of hunting and traditional ways. They see scorpions dug out of holes, baboon spider out of hole, watched the Bushman play games, make bird trap, pointed out tracks and spoor, making fire so they can have a cigarette break. Walked about a mile or so.
We are off to see the suricates or meercats= a very social mongooses. Red capped larks, two banded coursers, red crested korhanns, red eyed bulbuls. Jacks Camp has a hired a local villager to keep track of the family unit of 22 meercats. The dominant female gave birth to 6 recently even though a puff adder destroyed one of her nipples. We drive over to the local guide and then get to follow these endearing little creatures all morning. 9.9999 on the cute scale. Super promises that he will have them all sitting on our heads before noon and while that doesn’t happen we all have a mighty fine time getting very close to these remarkable critters. We do see some interesting interactions between the pregnant alpha female and another subordinate pregnant female. It warms up but the wind keeps it quite nice. We are waiting for an eagle to fly over and then all the meercats dive into holes. When they emerge they will crawl up on the highest areas available to watch for the predators. The plan is that will be our heads.
Alas, only vultures and one lanner falcon fly over so we give up and head for Chapman’s Baobab. We cross the old Missionary Road, one of only 2 major roads that cross the country. The nearest other Baobab is 10k away next is 20k. Mystery can only grow where there is underground water. This one may between 3 1/2 and 5 k years old! But since there are no growth rings it is hard to tell. Let us pretend that it is older that pyramids, Stonehenge, way before the Bantus even came here, alive for 2 thousand yrs. at time of Christ. Biggest one I have ever seen, maybe the 2nd largest in Africa. 7 sisters, ie trunks. 50-75% is water. It has actually shrunk since measured by David Livingston in 1850’s. So it is drying out and losing water. Flowers only open for 12 hours. Cream of tartar commercially from fruit. Roots and leaves can be boiled and eaten. Wood good for paper making only, not lumber. Now protected by law. Hole was used for letterbox, heading south you took the letters home. Other hollow was carved by Bushmen to keep bees. Thomas Baine- painter with Livingston and with Chapman. David Livingston was a millionaire missionary who encouraged and supplied other missionaries. Carved into tree Helmore (with wife and 7 kids) and Pearce (pregnant wife) 1859. All but 3 died, mostly of malaria, they converted no one.
Scars on tree show that bushman cut out bark to make rope with Stone Age methods not that long ago. Jack died in 1992 carved into tree as 1990 by the local people in his honor. This is a power spot. Portuguese script indicates first European were Portuguese traders (slaves) here in 1780’s not the British. Tree is highest pt in 1000’s of sq. miles. Many stories about baobabs. Hyenas and baboons stuck with each other. God threw the tree upside down; Barn owl lives in hollowed out tree. You can follow one of the roots way out. very very extension root system. 80 meters. BTW our visit here supports the guides who (except for Super) are doing research on the critters of the Kalahari. Diamonds, cows and ecotourism are the sources of foreign revenue. Tourism recently replaced cattle in the number 2 position.
We drive back for a late lunch and there is the Tawny eagle we were waiting for, back at camp. Then siesta, showers etc. Outdoor showers are great. Hot in the tents, but nice in the mess tent!
Miscellaneous information about this area that some of us got some of the time:
Historical routes through this area are defined by the Real fan palm. Elephants eat the common real fan palm and poop the seeds out distribute the palms and the trees mark the migration route of these magnificent animals. Palm is Hyphaenae, called Real Fan Palm or Ilala in Zimbabwe. S. Flowering acacia = A. mebrownia. It grows on a special rock called calcrete (sedimentary calcium carbonate) that stops water from draining away and allows trees to grow. Unlike the majority of the Kalahari, which is sand and the water just pours right on through. Small termite mounds are from the snouted harvester termite that eats grass seeds not wood. These are diurnal therefore not white. Fungus growing ants and termites rule the world. Large termite mounds from grass harvesters that grow fungus. 4X the nitrogen in the immediate area results in abundant bushes and trees. Always point to the west, the bush compass. due to wind from east. Silcrete is a metamorphic rock and much older than the calcite.
Mozambique harvester ants are the nocturnal ones who leave little piles of dirt in the middle of the road. Many aardvark (earth pig) burrows. three kinds- small foraging holes, bigger feeding holes and very large sleeping, mating burrows. Can weigh 170 lb and have a tongue that is 3 feet long. This tongue is actually attached at pelvis and is pulled through stomach to, which has tight muscles that close around it to pull the termites off. They may eat 300K of termites each night
We meet a 430 in the mess tent for our next grand adventure. And I know something you don’t know! We finally have official introductions even though we have already really gotten to know each other already. A short drive takes us over to the Quads. We learn the proper way to wrap our heads in the kikoi. Lawrence of Arabia or Florence of Arabia as the case may be. We are looking good and feeling great. Fortunately my red underwear (with holes in the back thank you Katie for pointing that out) matches my pink bag and kikoi. Pictures on You Tube next month. 9 bikes roar off, some of us are better at this than others! I think most of us enjoy the noisy experience that enables us to get out onto the salt pan with minimal impact. At least that is what we believe is the reason for the bikes. We stopped just before sunset for beer. Crunch crunch crunch, we walk away and then sit for 5 minutes. The quiet of the area is profound and moving. Next our guides arrange to have us attempt to walk straight into the desert blindfolded. All the Wrights and most of the women do very well. Bob, Roger and I better not be leading groups of people into the Kalahari. Though the other two at least circled back to be near the drinks! Next we are off to the end of the road where we stop and learn a few of the constellations. Jupiter is in Scorpio. Sagittarius is the teapot. Milky Way overhead and bright. Coal Sack Nebula. Southern Cross, Alpha (our closest neighbor and clearly a binary star but in reality a 3 star system, 4 ½ light years away) and Beta Centauri, Northern Cross (asterism in Cygnus the Swan), Altair in Aquila, Vega in Lyra, Arcturus the keeper of the Bear. We cannot see the North Star from 19 degrees south but we do see the South “Space.”
So it is time to head back or so you think! Cyrus tells us that some illegal campers are ahead of us. Hook, line and sinker! The first of a few surprises this evening. The fire feels good and drinks are waiting. The party gets really going early. Many of you are thinking …. Wouldn’t it be great to have dinner out here? But soon it’s time to head back to camp. HA! Grab those chairs and walk over to the entire dining table that is set out in the salt pan. Dinner! how amazing! We thought the drink setup was great. We all get a load of hot coals under our chair that warms our buttocks just fine. “Hot cross buns” says Jennifer. We are really roughing it in the wilds of the Kalahari. The group gets even louder and louder and louder, much to the chagrin of our guides. Toasts are made. Mark sings us a song by the Coasters that the next day at breakfast he denies singing. Scotch effect.
But what other surprise can possibly be waiting for us??
We sit around the fire for awhile and Kevin continues the wonderful overview of the Kalahari region. Then we are lead over to see our final sight of the evening- bones of the giant hippo left over from the Pleistocene mega fauna. Yea, right!! The skeptics yell. But there we go in the total darkness – eyes open this time – walking in the Kalahari. What do you know? There is a bed sitting out in the salt pan which Katie and Patricia immediately jump in and you can tell they will be reluctant to give it up. But do not worry, there is Feng shui – on a north south axis, all of the beds are sitting out in a row, right out in the middle of the plains with toothbrushes and hot water bottle waiting. Cozy and very warm blankets. The stars are out; the moon is almost new so we do not see it this night. Most of us sleep a wondrous sleep. My roommate Paul snoring contentedly, though he denies it later.
Monday, September 10, 2007
In the morning, Venus is very bright in the East, right through our feet. Orion, Sirius, Mars all shining brightly. Sunrise at 620 with the red rubber ball making another fast appearance straight up here near the equator. The night was pleasant, the wind blows just before sunrise. Mike and Paul reluctantly get out of bed and join us at the coffee circle.
Cyrus then takes us out a bit and we walk radiating out for 30 minutes or so collecting artifacts. Ours are middle stone age 50K to 250K ago. Bulb of percussion, 42 diff tool types, mostly scavenging tools, not weapons. Bigger the chief bigger the tool. Silcrete is the rock type. Source is 8 K away.
Back on the quads roaring off in the dust to camp and brunch. Yummy. Then a tour of the Ralph Museum and then R and R. Cathy not feeling too well and is attended by Dr. Tom and Nurse Kay. Much thanks to both of you. We decide that Cathy needs a medivac to Maun and maybe Joberg. Tom, Kevin, Bob, Cathy and I get to the airstrip. You have tea and then head off to the hyenas. Paul apparently is a good spotter of brown hyenas. We join you and all of us get very good looks at the two 13 month old youngsters.
Sundowners and the red rubber ball drops down again. We see the Zodiacal light; which is very visible at this latitude and time. Then back to the mess tent and Glyn Maude (firstname.lastname@example.org) gives us a nice talk around the campfire. BH have an anal gland that secretes 2 scents and marks the grass twice. The upper one lasts up to a month, the lower perhaps a week (at least to humans). The lower indicates to other clam members that this area has been searched for food and therefore to continue somewhere else. The upper one marks terr against other clans. musty smell. There must be 200,000 of these marks in one large territory. this rare animal numbers only 5-7000 and are very shy. Hyenas have powerful jaws – the pressure is equal to a bull elephant in stiletto heels – that is one great image. We donate some $$$$ to his work. I read you a poem right before dinner….
The Silence of the Stars by David Wagoner
When Laurens van der Post one night
In the Kalahari Desert told the Bushmen
He couldn’t hear the stars
Singing, they didn’t believe him. They looked at him,
Half-smiling. They examined his face
To see whether he was joking
Or deceiving them. Then two of those small men
Who plant nothing, who have almost
Nothing to hunt, who live
On almost nothing and with no one
But themselves, led him away
From the crackling thorn-scrub fire
And stood with him under the night sky
And listened. One of them whispered,
Do you not hear them now?
And van der Post listened, not wanting
To disbelieve, but had to answer,
No. They walked him slowly
Like a sick man to the small dim
Circle of firelight and told him
They were terribly sorry,
And he felt even sorrier
For himself and blamed his ancestors
For their strange loss of hearing,
Which was his loss now.
We get our escort to our tents and pack for our early wake up call tomorrow.
Tuesday, September 11.
Wake up call at 530 for the Meercaters. I show most of you crescent Venus through the scope. Bushman walkers eat breakfast and then off. Group A has a fine time with those cute animals and even see a caracal. This sighting apparently causes all the meercats to gather around the local man who follows them. That must have looked great.
We have a great time with three Bushman. The usual stuff – baboon spider, trapdoor spider, making fire, playing the game, trap for birds, smoking rabbit poop. Salt grass can live in soil that is 40-50% salt. tough. Only the springhare can eat it, the roots. We all meet at the airstrip around 11 for the flight to Xigera. We give our tip to our three very good looking and smart guides. There is something special about this place…
Two planes come to get us – the same two Cessnas and we fly for 1′ 10″ to Xigera. From the air- Baines Baobabs, elephants, hippos, ostriches. We are met by KD, Phet and Ndebo and travel the very short distance to Xigera (the sound the pied kingfisher makes) where we are met by the entire staff singing a song for us. Francoise- a South African man who does not speak French and uses the word “guys” about 100 times in his orientation is the head manager. Helped by Karen, Nicki and Kago.
It is so nice to be near water!! We get a welcome drink, refreshing towel and an orientation – a nice overview of the delta, the lodge and our activities for the next few days. An elephant is right near our first “loo with the view”. Then to our rooms for R and R. Elephants galore.
The camp is situated on “Paradise Island” within the Moremi Wildlife Reserve, close to its western boundary. Xigera lies in an area, which has permanent water all year round, yet there are lots of large islands in the area which hold good concentrations of animals. It is the perfect land-and-water activity camp — in fact, it is one of the only Okavango camps which offers game drives, mokoros and boating trips. Sausage tree blossoms are on the walkway- beautiful maroon pollinated by fruit bats, open only for 24 hrs. The one bridge to the Island often has animals that use it to cross over into the island. They smooth the sand overnight so they can see who came over to visit.
To our rooms. Incredible view and ambiance. we could get used to this!. Tea at 330ish then we all head out in the mokoros. Mokoros were used for hundreds of years by the BaYei tribe – the so-called river bushman. The mokoros seem a bit tippy but we get used to it. Mokoros made from the sausage tree (ours are fiberglass so they save the tress), poles are made from Terminalia trees. We all go on a very peaceful float, going in the right rhythm of this place. Day water lilies in full flower. African tree squirrels around the lodge. Not a true desert, more than 10″ of rain – a semi-arid zone. 1000′ of sand. no rocks. Dry season is wet with floods and many animals (August, September). Flood season is wet with rain and very few animals (December). 100 miles and 120′ drop. Hippos make channels. The OK delta is only 30k yrs old. 98% lost by evaporation or transpiration.
Mokoro- Ndebo, Moses, Chris, KD, Phet, Orbet, Matt. We wind our way through myriad waterways. so many birds- Black collared barbets, Afr jacana, Squacco heron, little egret, cattle egret, rufous bellied heron, Africa anhinga or darter, reed cormorant, red-faced mousebird, Meyer parrot, African fishing eagle, ring necked dove, red-eyed dove, gray go away bird, Little bee eater, dark eyed and red eyed Bulbul, Palm swift, swamp boubou, red-billed woodcreeper, saddle-billed stork, pied kingfisher, malachite kingfisher, burchell’s glossy startling, pygmy goose, yellow-billed teal, fork-tailed Drongo, black crake, swamp reed warbler, coppery tailed coucal, tawny flanked prinia, wattled starlings, bearded wood pecker, banded martin, arrow marked babbler, hadada ibis, fiery necked night jar, golden weaver, green backed heron, chirping cisticola, coppery tailed coucal. glossy ibis, stone chat, crested barbet, carmine bee-eater, lbr, purple heron, black winged stilt, black backed cisticola, lesser striped swallow, common waxbill, African marsh harrier, whiskered tern, red billed teal, black shouldered kite, open billed stork, lesser jacana.
Three giraffes!! We must be in Africa. Good looks at African Fish eagles.
We make our way to the sundowners…gee this is grand …even champagne. A flowering Sausage tree above us with beautiful maroon flowers that are only open for a day. Back to camp and our rooms. Pick us all up at 730 for our escort back for dinner. A bit more formal here and the food is very good. The ambiance is nice and I think you are all very very happy. Epilated fruit bats with high pitched squeaks. Frogs as well. Escorted by to tents. The warm night, the smell of the flowers of the potato bush which open right at sunset (Phyllanthus in the Euphob family). Paul has broken up with me and got his own tent…sigh. Scops owl and fiery necked nightjar singing this night.
Wednesday, September 12.
Ellie visits Bill and Jennifer’s cabin, tears down a tree next to them and shakes their room. Fun fun fun. Hippos vocalizing, frogs, and a great dawn chorus of birds. Wake up call at 6, breakfast 630 off at 730 for all day boat ride. Plants that are here -sage, leadwood, sausage tree, knob thorn acacia, mopane, hibiscus, knot weed, wild basil, poison apple, toothbrush plant, python climber, baobabs, jackal berry (persimmon or ebony family), buffalo thorn. African mangosteen, sycamore fig. We check the tracks on the sand and sure enough hyena and small spotted genet. Baboon troop crosses the bridge while we are having breakfast.
Off in two motor boats with Father (KD) and son (Phet). Cool in the am but it sure won’t be later. Papyrus every where – some is rooted and some floats. Creates soil and therefore Islands. Ellies love to eat them but hippos don’t. Crocodile or swamp fern is all along the channels as is Phragmites australis – the common reed. Its biological claim to fame is that it has the greatest altitudinal range of any plant in the world – from below sea level to 19000’ on the Tibetan Plateau. We reach the main channel = the freeway called Jao-Boro River. There are many first sightings on this trip- Nile crocs, Cape buffalo (injured one with right horn missing), impala, Blue wildebeests and our first Zebras. More giraffes and baby elephants. An elephant is in the channel blocking our progress, he finally leaves and the second boat sees his partially erect penis (26 kg at full glory). Many white faced tree ducks and a lot of the same birds we saw yesterday. A partial list – greater blue eared starling, whiskered tern, goliath heron, sacred ibis, red winged prantincole, gabar goshawk, little grebe, open billed stork, black chested snake eagle, brown snake eagle, CARMINE BEEEATERS!!!!!, yellow billed stork, African white pelican, African spoonbills.
One pee stop, then for a bit of tea and shade at 1130. Hot hot hot === looking at zebras, wild beasts, spoonbills sitting across the channel from us. We get to the end of the water at Chiefs Island and see large troop of baboons and our first impalas. 2 male impalas play/fight in front of us. The Chief at Maun used to get his game from this Island hence the name. It is an uplifted island and not created by biological processes (termite mounds, peat etc). There are very large trees including baobabs and we see tire tracks as well from the Miomba Camp (the really expensive WS one).
We get stuck in the mud for a little while before we make it to our lunch spot. It is under a huge Jackal berry tree (member of the Ebony family named because of the dark wood- which was just as valuable as ivory in the old days) with plenty of shade and tiny bit of welcome breeze. Three of the staff have brought quite a spread for us including some freshly grilled veggies that are heavenly. We are spoiled and loving it. After lunch we do our species list…. I start out with all 14 attentive listeners but by the time we are done I am down to a mere 4 dedicated listers. Then it is R and R until 4 when we start back. The temperature is finally cooling. The water is dropping and we have a bit of trouble getting out. This may be the last trip to the Island this year. I had never been because of lack of water.
We had a brief stop all together at a pool full of hippos. I share a little about their communication strategies – in air via ears and underwater via lower jaws into ears. My personal highlight on the way back were the two giraffes. One very pale blonde, the other finely reticulated with more than 25 oxpeckers all over him.
Very nice shower had by all and our escorts come to get us. At dinner I cannot seem to explain the phenomenon of Burning Man. Tongue tied I am for once. At mid speech a hyena whoops very close to us. This night the sound of frogs, crickets, hippos, nightjars.
Thursday, September 13, 2007.
Leopard tracks left in the “newspaper” as they call it here. Sandy Times headline is
LEOPARD ENTERS PARADISE ISLAND
STILL THERE ALL DAY,
AMERICAN TOURISTS STAY CALM
We opt for a late breakfast but the memo did not get through to the staff and we get our 6 am wake up call. oh well. Elephant family walks right by our rooms, quietly and a bit nervous. Great looks through the scope at the African green pigeon eating the ripe figs on the Sycamore Fig tree. Off on the Mokoros at 830. Going downstream just a bit to the next island. Off for a brief walk amid ellie tracks and dung and the evidence of male hippo dung slinging and the gentle pooping of female hippos. KD goes ahead and manages to find the Pel’s fishing owl and scares it back right above our heads in an ilala palm. Superb looks through the scope and great photos are taken. I give a little overview of owls. And then we get back on the boats to look for frogs. Only see one the painted reed frog. Cute though. To the next island downstream for tea and biscuits. gee it has been so long since food. There is another pair of owls here as well. Phet gives a brief talk about the bicarbonate soda (trona) on the ground and the reason many of the islands are salty in the middle.
Back for brunch at 11 and then the highlight of the day (so far) – White Men Can Pole!
Mike, Mark, Jeff, Bill and I try our hand at it. Not too shabby!!! We end up in the water (on purpose — we swear). All wet except for I-Can’t-Swim Mark…we’ll get him later. Then more shopping and rest and reading. Nice to have some down time. Strong breeze blows through to keep it cool.
At 330 tea we meet for a little talk on mammals and ungulates and the story of the fig tree. And then off at 4 on a game drive. Three vehicles with a very nice roof. Bushbuck – a very shy small antelope. Great leopard tracks in the road next to hyena. Yellow throated sand grouse. African hoopoe. Our first greater kudus – only females and young the males are off out of the area (only the Eland is larger and Kudus have the largest horns of any antelope almost 6 feet!). Mole rat tunnels. Movie to see – Fast Loose and Out of Control. Off road into the bush we go. Great impalas, one group sees a baby zebra. Baobabs. African tree squirrels. 4 warthogs, one reed buck, several tsseebbe (topi), striped kingfisher. And then we rendezvous at a termite mound as it is getting dark and see one of the spotted hyenas out of the den. We stop for our sundowners and Roger refers to yours truly as a RED BUTTED DUNG EATING TOUR GUIDE. The moon is a fine crescent with Mercury right close by. A short quiet time while we listen to an ellie shake an ilala palms for the fruits just as it gets real dark. Back on the bumpy route to the lodge by 725. More yummy food and good conversation. Lucky this is a congenial group says Cappie.
Friday, September 14.
Late breakfast!! Hurray. Word from Bob and Cathy – they are in Kruger for the next three days right now enjoying cooler temperatures. WS and Bert from the US are helping out. Cathy is stable but needs to stay cool. More shopping especially for the baskets made by the ladies here. Golden weaver is weaving a nest nearby. Another perfect day. Off in the two motor boats on our last excursion at a water camp. To the nesting rookeries of open billed storks, reed cormorants and African darters. Good look at Nile croc sunning himself and he does not move into the water. Our first Crane – the wattled – highly endangered and very rare.
Then we cross the Bora River and continue to the nesting site. Not sure how these guides find their way but they do. Of course KD was raised here. Good photo ops of all the birds. Roger ids every single one of the African fish eagles for our boat! Back to the lodge at 1035. Then half of us go for a walk with KD on the grounds of the Lodge. Whoops! now we know why we are not to wear white. The ellies can see us easily. We do walk fairly close to one guy shaking palm trees. Then we are back for lunch and afterward the other 7 go walking. Pay our bills and gather at 1 ish for my talk on termites, legumes, African geology and the formation of the Delta. Only Anne goes to sleep. Species list folks stay a bit behind to catch the later plane. Over 110+ species of birds so far.
All are off around 215 flying low toward the southeast to Chitabe (Place of the Zebras). Great views from the plane. we been down there!!! 35 minutes or so and then touch down. Met by Phinley, Ebs et al around 3. Thirty minutes at least to camp. Knobthorn acacias dead from the ellie girdling them. Many impala and elles. Crimson breasted shrike. Check in and intro by quiet speaking Ryan and then off on our first game drive at 430. Side striped jackals seen moving at least two of their young to another den. Then Ebs spots a leopard’s tail hanging down. We are all impressed. We watch as an elephant moves right over to him or her and shakes the palm but good. We radio you all to join us. You do and we can breathe easier because leopards are sometimes hard to see. Not here though as we will find out. We move off and 2 vehicles stay to watch her come on down and walk right by the lrs….. very cool.
Sundowners as usual. Mercury and the crescent moon. I finally convince you all to look at Alpha Centauri. More side striped jackals seen and one lr sees some banded mongooses. Back for dinner and Paul has a scorpion in his room = thank god that wasn’t Roger. More good food and some singing for us.
Saturday, September 15, 2007.
Gunshot heard…nope that was an accidentally discharged bear banger by Ebs. That could have been serious. We wake up at 530. Light breakfast at 6 off at 630ish. Basically all this morning were leopard events. Everyone saw three of the resident ones and some of us got some good action. Stalking, one nearly getting an impala, we heard two fighting and screaming, up a tree, down a tree, walking, running, sitting on a termite mound.. It was quite cool in the am but heated up nicely. We also saw a cheetah – young male. We also saw a ratel or honey badger. Ratels are the toughest animals pound for pound probably in the world. They eat poisonous snakes, will attack at lion, buffalo, hyena, man in the scrotum. 3 of them were seen to take a kill away from 6 lions!!!!!! Don’t mess with those little guys. They have wonderful bounding gait and the ability to dig only second to aardvarks. very cool weasel family member.
Wonderful landscape. Bateleur and martial eagles. White crowned shrike, white browed sparrow weaver. We ended the morning at a water hole very near the camp watching giraffes bend down and drink. And there were baboons, ellies, warthogs, impalas, a hammerkop. We agree that life is very good right now. Back for lunch and then a rest.
At 330 we reconvene all except Bill and Katie who are stuck on the trail because an elephant mom and calf are near the board walk. Ryan rescues them for the brief talk by me on “why giraffes don’t get dropsy”. Also a very brief overview on the Felidae family.
CATS esp lions
40 mya by 24 my we had all the modern cats. Worldwide except Ant, Austr, Madagscar and oceanic islands. 36 species of cat.
4 genera-Felis- slit pupils, purr not roar, domestic cat
Panthera- roaring, round pupils = jaguar, lion, leopard
Chetah – all alone
Neofelis – clouded leopard from Burma
Puma most widespread in NA and greatest longitudinal range. Leopard greatest latitudinal range in the rest of the world. Lion- Largest African carnivore. Males 485 lb. 575 lb 10 yrs. Fem 270 lb. 350 lbs. 12-14 yrs.
Range- Cape to Medit except for Sahara and rain forest, all the way across Near East to India (a few remain inthe Gir Forest). Lion in fountains from the Nile flooding. MGM lion and all the zoo lions Barbary taken from Algeria now extinct.
Most numourous carn after S. Hyan. Cooperative hunters though individ can bring down prey 4x size (CB, ad giraf).
Social- territorial (by fem), matriarchal, communal care. Sister grps. Male coalitions.
Pride aver #13 with 2 males, 5 fem and cubs and yearlings. To #40. Stable through time. Females are all related- sisters, moms, daughters, cousins. Emigrants do occur if full, 2 yr old fem leave.
Sex dimorphism- size and mane (which is disadvantage in hunting). Brothers 2 or 3 often emigrate together at age 3 due to male pressure. Male tenure is usually only 2 yrs 4 at most. Only survive 18 months after losing tenure. Prime age 5-9, peak 5-6. Will kill cubs so fem into estrous. Females are in sync and cross suckle. 3000 mating before pregancy.
Spend 20-21 hrs resting. 33 mph for 100 m. Skill, patience, judgement. Charge within 30 m. Lions share, males take. Cubs suffer in food shortage. Greeting ceremony. Females all the time. Common smell to group. Cubs and Fem to male but males only to coalition partner.
Breed at age 4, 3 1/2 mo gestation. 3 cubs, interval of 2 yrs.
1000 lions died in Serengeti due to distemper in 96. Hyan are afraid of male lions but not females. Feed every 3-4 days.
Our game drive sees the same side striped jackal again. Also the same solitary male cheetah that has not caught anything all day. Sharp-eyed Katie sees two giraffes staring at something and sees the cheetah attempting to hunt. All of us see the young female leopard eating a young baboon she caught in the afternoon. Yummy. Bill gets a great shot of the primate’s eyeball. anyone care to look at it?? We watch two ellie males play fight. Magpie shrike. Sunset at 615. Big bush fire on Chiefs Island near Miombo (means peat fire in Setswana). Two vehicles join for sundowners. Ebs is off looking at the fourth — yes fourth– leopard of the day!!!! A spotted hyena comes near us just after sunset very close looking at us. We spotlight him and get good looks.
Back for dinner and more good food. Jupiter’s moon all on the left side now (Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto). The moon is setting and turns a very red smiley face due to the smoke from the fire. We get the lowdown on tomorrow with 7 of us going on the sleep out.
Sunday, September 16, 2007.
Loud hyenas, lions roaring in the distance, ellies trumpeting, frogs a chorusing. Off right on time at 630 for our walk. In two groups of 7. One LR goes to the hide to retrieve the gun. They see the folks that stayed there and Mike says they looked rather beat…hmmmmm. Three Cape buffaloes right by the lodge in the beautiful rising sun. yellow billed duck in the water hole. We see the young female leopard that was eating the baboon but she is very skittish and runs off. Lai is our follow-up guide today. We stop the LR and begin our walk and see 22 + giraffes in one group. A jenny or a tower of jerries. Off at 735 but we linger for quite a while watching two giant spotted eagle owls. Very good looks. The other group is on plan B because plan A had Cape buffaloes there. Good choice. Hooded vultures with a small bill – scientific names name means monk pulling at corpse.
Both groups get a very nice overview of the plants growing here at Chitabe and some of their medicinal uses. Mother in law tongue, Matebele ants, magic gewia bush with wavy leaves, social spiders, Mopane trees, camelthorn acacia with the ear like fruits, tawny eagle, blue waxbill, baby giraffe, giraffe skeleton, greater kudu males, impalas, sand grouse, sour plum etc. Getting hot we get back to the LR at 1015. Then to lodge before 11 and lunch is delayed because there is a large male ellie called Tsunami who is blocking the trail. Dawson has a conversation with him and eventually he gets out of the way. Another fine lunch and then r and r.
At 330 we have a little talk on the evolution of life on the planet= photosynthesis and then a bit about birds which culminated with my rap song about birds. Keep my day job? This is my day job…
You were all very impressed and little did you know at the next camp I would be crowned CHIEF!
Ok, so here’s the bottom biological line currently running on the planet Earth. There are these miracle molecules called chlorophyll, which are present in all green plants. They trap photons, particles of energy streaming from the sun and use this light energy to convert water and Carbon dioxide into a C6H12O6, which we all know as glucose – a kind of sugar. Given off from this chemical reaction is some water and Oxygen, which is released into the atmosphere.
The first living things to photosynthesize 3 1/2 billion years ago were blue green algae. The ancient atmosphere of the earth did not have an Ozone layer. This protective shield as you know keeps the extremely damaging ultraviolet light from penetrating down to the surface. UV radiation causes mutations in DNA replication and is very harmful to all living organisms. When these first green plants began emitting oxygen as a by-product, the O2 changed into O3 or Ozone. By actually modifying the atmosphere, the plants changed the Earth into a more hospitable place for life.
Now animals survive by basically eating green plants or eating other animals that eat green plants. Now the chemical reaction of photosynthesis basically runs backwards. Animals take the glucose from plants, in the presence of oxygen and water, they free that trapped solar energy and use that energy to live, thrive and build more animal tissue. This is called respiration and the by-product of this, as we all know when we exhale and pee, is carbon dioxide and water.
So to recapitulate- sunlight plus green plants in the presence of carbon dioxide and water makes sugar and gives off more water and oxygen. Animals eat plants, breathe in oxygen and use this chemical to get energy out of the sugar and then emit carbon dioxide and water. Presto there you have it – the simple but elegant miracle of life on our planet.
Baboon troop is here, ellies shaking ilala palms. 93 degrees in my tent. A hooded vulture is nesting near cabin 4; only the 5th recorded nest in Botswana. Off we go – Dickenson kestrel and we all see another female leopard 2 yrs old. I get as close as I ever have to this beautiful animal as she walks right below our lr. We will end with a total of 5 different leopards and the best sightings I have ever had. Another red ball setting sun in wondrous landscape of cool trees..ho hum. On our way to our sundowner we get word that Ebs found a female lion with her 3 young cubs and an older cub from her recently killed sister. They are up in a tree. They come down just as it is getting very dark. Nursing and way cute in our spotlights and undisturbed by us. The lioness is full; apparently she is an excellent hunter and can take down buffalo alone!!! African wild cat also seen.
Next we have a surprise for you. Over to the sleep out hide for a bush dinner. The fire is hot, the drinks are cool, the conversation is loud and we have a grand time. A hippo comes out of the water and serenades us. Pat, Jeff, Bill, Jenny, Cappie, Tom, Dawson and I spend the night. Hippos and frogs and maybe a mystery noise nearby. Jeff thinks he hears Dawson cock the rifle but actually he doesn’t do that. We enjoyed it a lot and it is good to be on the ground in Africa.
Monday, September 17, 2007.
We hear male lions roaring over toward the camp. So we leave soon to find them. Phinley tracks them down- the two males sleeping by a termite mound. We all watch them sleep for a while which is the typical lion sighting. Phinley gets a flat tire. Highlights for us- dwarf mongoose, yellow mongoose, more ellies, giraffes, martial eagle. We all drive to the far eastern edge of the concession along the river for our teatime. Water birds here and red lechwes. Back for lunch and a talk on elephants at 1. The group is very hot and sleepy; and my talk is not listened to with rapt attention. Then to the airstrip into 2 planes but one plane takes 10 of us to the Chobe Airstrip about 40” away. The other four are thinking that we have left them. Never!! Flying over fossil river beds, we see the fires, large group of buffaloes and a devastated mopane landscape of over browsing by ellies.
Everyone arrives by 325. Met by Ronald, Ollie, Oats, Master, and Brian (husband of Chantelle the manager). We go straight to a game drive through the Mopane woodland. Hot and dusty with a soft, sandy road in many spots. We see our first rocks in a very long time!! I impress you all by finding an African Scops owl sleeping in a tree as we drive along. That was definitely my best sighting of the trip. Then there is another one on the other side of the road easier to see. We pass the Savuti Camp with many elephants milling about waiting for water at an artificial water hole. The dust is intense. We see kudu, black backed jackals, impala, warthogs, elephants, giraffes, zebras, wildebeests, banded and dwarf mongoose, bush squirrels in this (ahem) desolate landscape. We more or less follow the Savuti channel heading toward the Linyanti River. Red crested korhanns, Wahlbergs eagles eating a snake. greater blue-eared glossy starling, red-billed francolin, double banded sand grouse, wattled crane, helmeted guinea fowl, red-billed, ground and gray hornbill, red-billed and yellow-billed oxpecker, cape turtle dove, green pigeon, saddle billed stork. . Trees- Mopane (with the butterfly leaves), leadwood, mangosteen, Kalahari apple-leaf (favors the sandy soil of fossil riverbeds), sycamore fig, purple-podded Termanalia, knob thorn acacia, flowering knobby combretum are in full flower.
Vasco (one of the guides) tells us about a vervet monkey here who has been accepted into a local troop of baboons. He has been seen on several occasions copulating with female baboons!! This is really weird behavior but perhaps a new species will arise – BABETTES or VerBoons. Not really it cannot happen.
There are 8 ecosystems in the Delta. The lodge is in the riverine one with an interlocking canopy of mangosteen trees. The camp is situated close to the confluence of the Savuti Channel and the Linyanti River. Open loosely spaced trees with an understory of bushes and grass is Savannah woodland. According to a previous guide the national animal of Botswana is the zebra, the tree is mopane, the bird = the lilac breasted roller. Setswana for giraffe is thu-twa.
To a very large hide with an artificial waterhole for tea etc. Large groups of elephants and zebras are getting drinks while we get a drink as well. To our final lodge in the bush Duma Tau (lions roar). Met by Brian and Chantelle just as the sun is setting. We hear about George the very large elephant this is here and some of the hazards we face. Cabin 6 (lucky Fains) have a pair of aggressive wood owls that attack anything walking by at night. An umbrella is necessary to stem the birds off!!!! We are feted in the Kgotla or Boma and are serenaded by the staff. I record it and make a cd for them. I am chosen Chief with my advisors – Roger and Katie. I am not get over this one watch out.
Tuesday, September 18, 2007.
Leopard eyes seen by Pat last night outside her active tent. Active only outside not inside as Jeff assures me. Four ladies opt to stay back have a yoga meeting lead by Jenny. We go off in 2 lrs along the Linyanti River and have good sightings of elephants, carmine beeeaters, kudus, warthogs, lechwes and the usual stuff. Nice to be in the early morning light along the river. WE find a male ellie in mustch, dripping urine and we get a whiff of the scent. Strong! An African hawk eagle is seen, new for the list. Kudus and all the usual mammal suspects.
Back for a good lunch and we meet Bryce and Nicola the other managers. Then at 1230 seven of us take the boat ride on the river. Windy but free of dust. We are lucky to see a breeding herd of 22 elephants cross the river. Way cool. Nice temp but windy. A very large croc and many hippos. A large group of trees to the east is in Namibia. We are close to the border. Many elephants are crossing back and forth without passports.
I introduce the group to Theba, who was my guide many times before. I saw my first aardvark with him. At 330 teatime Brian gives us an overview of the water/elephant scene here. We are in a different river system than the delta right now. Still from the Angola Highlands and takes 7 months to reach here but flows to the Indian Ocean via the Cuando, Linyanti, Zambezi. Govt. says there are 120k ellies in Botswana. That number may be high but the largest concentration left on the planet is certainly in northern Botswana. 1857-1957 was good flow in Savuti Channel. Started back up and then quit for good in 1982. Flowed 7 k up in 2005 and went 4 k up this year. WS may have to maintain 6 bore holes as per their agreement with the govt. but it is clear the artificial holes are not good for the area. 5 species of birds have disappeared and all but one baobab. Landscape is devastated and elephants are suffering but continuing to increase. There is a plan for an international park between Angola, Botswana, Zambia; Zimbabwe that may help relieves some of the pressure. But Brian’s opinion is that some sort of culling will eventually have to take place. This is a really tough issue for all concerned and not a simple solution.
And then off on the afternoon game drive. Highlights: bat hawk, find another hooded vulture nest (6th in Botswana) hundreds of carmine bee eaters and a mud bank full of nesting ones, water monitor seen by one lr, many elephants crossing into Namibia, steppe buzzard, white fronted bee eaters. We head north east along the river. Then setting sun sundowners and a group photo is taken but alas without Roger. We have a quiet drive back but I think the other LR sees two AFRICAN wildcats – they must be mating- and some scrub hares.
Wednesday, September 19, 2007.
Hyena whooping this am right before wake up call. Elephants in camp and will be all day. We are off. 2 lrs go up the Savurti Channel. Ollie et al head north to find the lions. They do find tracks and go way off road looking and find a killed Zebra thoroughly eaten but no cats. Next they find some wild dogs tracks but no wild dogs. But they have a grand adventure which is what life is all about. Offroading!! We see roan antelopes, another honey badger, crested francolin, several spotted hyena including one who shows us her masculinized genitalia, steenbok, three kori bustards. Then we hear reports of a leopard that killed an impala that was stolen by lions. The cat is walking our way and the two lrs do a fine job of tracking it through the bush. We see a pearl spotted owlet but no leopard. Good look at an African wildcat – we sure have seen a bunch of those this trip.
We stop and have a lot of trouble leaving a quietly feeding troop of baboons. They are eating combretum seeds and mangostteen flowers that have fallen on the ground. There is one particular new born baby that we cannot stop watching. He is sooooooooooooooooooooo cute. But we must make it to lunch.
Alas not only is our old friend George in camp there is one big fellow right outside the dinning area. I do mean right outside. His trunk could reach in to the table. Photo ops galore and while this is entertainment for us, the big animals knock down the boardwalks and fences. We need elephant escorts to get to our tents.
The motor boat people have a fine time watching elephants cross the water. Also African rail and dikkop seen. We meet at 330 for our closing circle. We all share what a fine time we have had and our personal highlights. We are a very very fine group of nice folks if we do say so ourselves!
Off on our final game drive. Highlights= warthogs in hole, kori bustard, hyenas, pearl spotted owlet very close to lr, juvenile giant eagle owl, baboon troop, kudus etc. Meet for our final sundowner and a group photo is taken just as the red rubber ball is plunging down again.
I know something you don’t. Our final bush dinner as well. Great singing by the staff and the last OPEN bar. Tom and I sing them a song in return. I suspect they will not forget this Chief. A breeding herd of elephants is close by our party. Yet another African wild cat (the original house cat domesticated by the Egyptians). Home to sleep, serenaded all night on this end by the baboon troop, a coughing leopard, ellies eating trees, hippos munching and Cappie coughing.
Thursday, September 20, 2007.
We get to sleep in a bit this am and enjoy this camp. George is blocking Tom and Cappie from their cabin. The wood owl actually dove at me last night. Hot and quick drive to the strip. Off at 10 for two planes= Paul and I on the first and you all follow shortly. A 50′ flight to Kasane last looks at the magnificent Botswana landscape. You can see the parallel trails down by the ellies heading straight toward the Chobe River. They would have done great looking for the daypack on the Pan. We arrive at “JKF”, tarmac, air conditioning and water fountains. We are in civilization. Reminds me how remote we have been and how wonderful to have such a private experience in the bush.
We all get in a big bus (several other fellow Americans have joined us) with Reason heading to Zimbabwe relatively painlessly. The country is a mess. No products in the stores, no gas at the Shell station for the last 5 years. Poverty and unemployment of 80%. No violent crime however. Cross the border and pay $30 for ZIm visa and travel 80K to Vic Falls to the Ilala Hotel. We orient you a bit and then you are off on your own. Shopping adventures are had; visits to the Old Vic for tea, and of course a look at magnificent Victoria Falls. Warthogs, bushbucks, Trumpeter hornbill, red-winged starling, African wagtails, tawny-flanked prinia, baboon, vervet monkeys, grey and banded mongooses, Heuglins robins and friendly warthogs. Will Mark actually bungee jump tomorrow???? That is the big question.
Very few tourists in town because of all the trouble in the country. But don’t talk about it; big brother Mugabe is listening. We all head over to the Boma for dinner 730. Put on our skirts, get a dot painted on our face, beat the drums, eat Eland and no one tries the Mopane worms. Back to the hotel by 10. Internet works here. Back to our comfortable hotel room with a great shower.
Friday, September 21, 2007.
Some of you get going early and have the park all to yourselves. Very few tourists are there. 9 30 AM pick for helicopter flight for 6 (we wanted 10 but they were sold out—no waiting for jumping off the bridge however.)
Ishmael comes at 11150 for our short trip to the airport. Flying in to Joberg it is easy to see the corrugated landscape that created the falls. Cracks caused when the basalt cooled filled w/ soft sediments. Joberg is surrounded by huge gold mining pits. We say goodbye to the Garretts and the Fains (yea right! They keep following us) and we go off on our new adventure!!! Until we meet again. We were a great group!!