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Friday, August 25, 2006

Maun, Botswana: Okavanga Delta - a piece of paradise

This morning we went on our last game drive at 6am. I was so looking forward to it and it did not disappoint!! We arrived Chobe and after a few minutes drive of seeing nothing the driver was radioed by another driver that he had seen a leopard. We chased off to the location and there in an almost dried waterhole was a young leopard in all it splendour posing as if for a picture. It was a bit too far away for me to get as good a picture as I wanted to I used Izabel’s call (Pssst – I swear it works!! You should try it next time you’re out in the wild or at the zoo) and he strolled around for a bit, circled a tree just behind our vehicle, leapt up into the tree and posed among the branches for a perfect postcard picture. I’m going to have to add that to my collection of pictures for my babies.
The acacias were in bloom and the smell was very nice. When I was young, I used to read Harlequin romances and many of them were set in Africa among the acacia trees. Now I know what they are. Apparently Noah built his ark with the umbrella thorn acacia.
Elephant dung was everywhere. The locals burn the dry dung for keeping mosquitoes away. I bet it would probably keep everything else away!! The elephant eats about 22 hours a day consuming about 360 kgs of food and drinking about 180 litres of water. We saw some honey birds. They are interesting. They eat honey from the combs and when they can’t reach the honeycombs, they will whistle when people are around and guide them to the honeycombs. People will of course try to harvest the honey from the combs and in the meantime, the honey birds will get some of the honey. Hence the name honeybird. I thought someone named a bird after me – honey bird. Obviously I was wrong.

Our guide today was the same one from the boat cruise yesterday. His name is Mbala. The names here are different. They don’t always have vowel sounds. He said that many North Americans and Europeans say Mabala but it’s M-bala as it sounds without the “a” vowel sound. He is very knowledgeable about guiding and actually studied at Mokolodi (where I’m taking the students on Monday for a game drive). Chobe Park is the largest park in Botswana – about 11,700 ms. Considering how small the country is, over 30 percent of the land is used for parks.

After the game drive, we went back to the hotel to get ready to go to the airport for our trip to Little Kwara in the Okavanga Delta. We arrived in Maun about 30 minutes late and left in a chartered single engine plane that seats 4 people including the pilot. Robin and I were the only passengers so that means that I can finally say that I have my own chartered plane. Yeh heh.

The pilot asked who wanted to sit in the front seat and I didn’t even give Robin a chance to think about it. I jumped in first and the pilot disappointingly said that I couldn’t fly the plane although I would have no clue how to.

The delta is huge and this is interesting. The waters of the delta start in the highlands of Angola and through Zambia and will usually a river flows into a larger body of water like a sea but this one flows into the sands of the Kalahari Desert. We arrived at Little Kwara about 30 minutes late and a 4x4 overlander was waiting for us at the airstrip. A vehicle has to wait there for passengers because there are wild animals which can attack. The vehicles are built for safaris. The guide’s chair is in front of the hood of the vehicle and he sits there on the lookout for wild animals. The guide’s name is Martin and the driver’s name is Richard.

Instead of going to the camp, we were whisked off to our afternoon game drive. Talk about exciting. We literally did not even have time to catch our breath and we were off. We drove around for about an hour and saw nothing. Then the driver got a call on radio to say that another vehicle had spotted a leopard so off we went in hot pursuit of the leopard. After driving around for about half an hour, we saw nothing that looked like a leopard – not even a spotted bird.
Richard suggested that we go to where he had seen some lions a few days before so we agreed that we would go. He gave us a little pep talk about safety, saying that the animals are not tame even if we get close to them so if we see any, we are to remain in the vehicle, keep our voices down and no sudden movements. He drove over some rough terrain and finally in the distance we saw two lions sitting on a tiny hill – well more like a bump in the grass.

We drove up silently – as silently as you could drive in a 4x4 (which is neither silent or invisible). There in front of my eyes was not one, not two, but 6 lions. I could hardly believe my eyes. Two male lions were laying on their backs, legs spread wide open basking in the sun, three female lions were soaking up the sun and one young male was eyeing the females. It was an incredible sight but not as incredible as what was to come later. We stayed there quietly watching them for about 45 minutes then it was tea time so we drove off about 300 metres, got out of the 4x4, got out a little table, complete with tablecloth, wine, wine glasses and a few snacks and had our afternoon tea out in the open sky knowing that at any moment we could have to leap back into the vehicle if the lions decided to move. Fortunately they decided to rest and we had our wine after which time, some of us marked our territory behind some bushes (if you can decipher that) and we were off again to have a last look at the lions.

We were told that male lions are a bit lazy and it’s the females who do most of the hunting while the males will wait and eat the kill. The males will only do any work if the prey is too big for the female lions to take down. The males will also eat first even if they didn’t do the killing and the females have to wait until the males are fully satisfied before they can get to eat. Sometimes if the kill is too small, the females get nothing and can go hungry for days. Does this sound familiar? Don’t answer. Lions lose their prey more times than they get them and they are not always efficient at catching their prey. They are also not known for having a plan so they can wander around aimlessly for days trying to stalk their prey.

Anyway, the female lions got up and started to wander off so we decided to follow them. They really didn’t look like they had a plan and frankly neither did we. We followed them knowing full well that they don’t plan their kill. The male lions soon followed ambling along the path that we were on. Then we spotted some impalas and thought the lions would go after them but impalas are very fast so it would be difficult for lions to outrun them unless they are young and at this time of year, they are either pregnant or almost a yearling.
We kept following them and really I don’t know how Martin was seeing them. All I was seeing (and it was very dark) was tall grass when he shone his flashlight but he knew what to look for. We rounded a corner of the path and there was a male lion lying in our path so we had to stop. Man was I quiet. The thing was about 6-8 feet in front of us. We were so quiet that you could hear a blade of grass rustle which is what I suddenly heard right beside my door. It was a lion walking about 6 inches from where I was sitting – in an open vehicle!!! Talk about holding my breath!!! I was so startled that I wanted to yell but that was the very thing not to do. I made not a single sound. In fact none of us in the vehicle made any sounds. Martin by this time was in the front passenger seat because it was too dangerous for him to be sitting in his seat in front of the bumper.

Suddenly from the left of the vehicle we heard water splashing and rustling in the bushes and we turned in time to see a buffalo charging directly in the path of our 4x4. That was a death sentence because if that didn’t kill us, the lions in hot pursuit of the buffalo would have had a human feast with the eight of us. Martin shone the flashlight in the eyes of the buffalo which had a frightened look on its face. Who wouldn’t if you had 4 lions chasing you? The two males in front of us sprang up and joined the chase. The buffalo just cleared the back side of our vehicle and ran for its very life. We turned around and followed the chase and what a chase!!. What we saw was either a spectacular law of the jungle or a gross scene of killing and carnage. I chose the former.

So this is what happened next. The buffalo continued to run but one male lion sprang onto his back and sunk his teeth into the hide. The weight of the lion slowed down the buffalo enough to have the other male lion jump on his back from the other side. That slowed him down some more so that the female lions were now grabbing his tail, his sides and whatever else they could sink their teeth into. They stayed far away from his head because the horns can wound them quite seriously.

If they could make him fall, they would be able to kill him but as long as he was standing, he could still overpower them. But there were now 6 lions on this buffalo so he was not going to have an easy time of it. After about half an hour of fighting them off, they got off and jumped him again and the force dropped him to the ground. Then they were all over him knowing that his horns were not really a danger to them but still staying far enough away from them. One of the males positioned himself behind the neck and bit hard. One of the females somehow got between the back legs and held on to the testicles and bit hard. I knew it was hard because I could actually hear the crunching sound as she tried to chew it off. Another male cut off the bull’s air supply by smothering him. Between the six lions the bull didn’t stand a chance of survival. We were about 10 feet from all of this and had a front row view of everything.

Finally after about 45 minutes, the bull was dead. We watched for a few more minutes as they tried to rip chunks from him then we left wondering if we had indeed witnessed what we thought we saw. Then the adrenaline rush set in when we really comprehended the danger we were in. We got back to the camp slightly speechless from the day’s events and were also ready for a good dinner. Our hostess Mel met us at the gate of the camp well lit by lamplight. She asked if we wanted to eat dinner first or go to our tent so we opted for the tent first. She gave us the safety talk about absolutely not venturing out of the cabin alone at night. If there is an emergency, there is a whistle close to the bed and we have to blow it and light a lamp while the other camps have to extinguish theirs so she can know which camp has the emergency. It was getting a bit scary especially when everything is pitch black except for the starlight and we still had not seen our tent. So off we went with our flashlights in the company of Richard who looked like he was going on an elephant hunt in the dark. Well indeed it was an elephant sighting – right in the path to our tent so needless to say, we all hightailed it back to the main eating area and decided that it was dinner after all and the tent could wait.

Dinner was very gourmet and it was no camp fare. It was in fact better than anything you’d get at any high end restaurant anyplace and it was all fresh cooked – buns, soup, meat, everything….

After dinner we tried for the tent again and this time we were successful. I was sure glad that the elephant found something more interesting than the outside of our tent. But this tent was no ordinary tent. It was tenting 5 star style. Teak furniture – everything from the towel rack that sits on the floor, to the vanity, to the bed frames, to the chairs on the veranda. Yes our tent had a veranda. It is built on a platform made of teak and has a claw-footed bathtub, double sinks, a shower sort of outside (wooden slats covered with a tarp), two beds and two additional veranda chairs on the inside. This is living. I have to describe the doors though. All of them have screens – only screens – including the toilet, the shower, the veranda and the door going outside. So privacy is not something you cherish. When I say screens, I mean that instead of wood, the doors are covered with mesh like you get in summer screens for your windows. Imagine that you are in the toilet or shower and there is no door. That’s what it’s like. Mmmm hmmm. And imagine that someone walks in to your tent – say the maid or the plumber and you say “Wait a minute” but he or she can see right into your tent. Yep. That’s about it. Might as well be no door. Well I had a shower and fell into bed to be fast asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow (this obviously written when I woke up). Nothing could top this day.

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