Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Into Africa: Part II

On to the second part of our trip- Intermediate Africa!

We left Zimbabwe in a 4WD vehicle with a driver and headed for Botswana. The drive was fairly short, and the border is a lonely outpost in the African Bush with a few cinder block buildings separated by chain link fencing topped with razor wire. We passed through Zimbabwe immigration, picked up a different vehicle and driver, and entered Botswana, where we passed through their immigration. Then we immediately stopped at a short drive-through pit where we got out and wiped our feet on a liquid soaked mat while the driver took the 4WD through the liquid filled pit- all to ensure we didn't bring in Hoof and Mouth disease to Botswana.

A quick 20 minute drive deposited us at the Chobe Safari Lodge. It sits smack on the banks of the Chobe River, and our room, while still for sissies (nicely walled in, with doors and windows and air conditioning), looked out on the wild landscape. Before we headed out on our first "Boat Safari" we were treated to this view taken from the porch of our room:

He is laying on top of a nice mud hole that he dug for himself, and returned to each day.

We snuck out the other door of our room to avoid those tusks, and then we were off down the river on a big flat party boat with about 20 other people to find some wildlife.

About 4 minutes into the trip, our driver drove the front of the boat straight into the shore and we all got to meet this guy...

Our first elephant! Up close and personal! It was a seriously fun thing to be that close to a bull elephant in his own home. Whooot! I am standing on the front of the boat, looking him right in the eye from about 3 meters away. What a rush!

We continued on the river, beaching the boat (but staying on board!) whenever animals were spotted. We watched hippos feeding and watched an elephant herd with some very small babies get cooled off in the water and then throw dirt and dust on their backs.

We watched this crocodile for a good while. And yes, his mouth is open (go ahead, make the picture bigger- I dare ya!).

We took our pictures with a digital camera and a Nikon 35mm, but the 35mm photos are still being developed. Apparently all our hippos are in that batch of photos. Never fear, though- Ted has informed me that I'm leaving stuff out, so there will be an appendix to these first posts and I will include pictures from the Nikon there!

Anyhoo, the boat trip lasted about three hours and we were exhilarated and exhausted by the time it was finished. We cruised back to the lodge at dusk (everyone comes off the water at dusk- the hippos start to leave the water for land and they are VERY aggressive) and returned to our room after dinner, in the dark, over a bridge and across the river-fronted lawn holding our dinky flashlight on signs that said "Caution! Watch for hippos!" and "Beware of Crocodiles!". Okey doke. Will do!

Early in the morning, and I mean early - it was still dark out, we forced ourselves out of bed, got dressed and piled into a Safari truck (three rows of three seats in a stadium type arrangement- the back higher than the middle which is higher than the front...) with five other people and off we went into Chobe National Park. As we arrived, it was just starting to get light. The roads through the park are all single track sand paths that go every which way. There were other vehicles entering the park with us, but we only saw other people once or twice for the whole three hour trip. Our first spotting...

A whole family of wart hogs, grazing and ignoring us completely. There were about four more of them that I didn't get in the picture. they were very quiet and totally unconcerned about our presence. Tusks and a rep for being mean make you confident, I guess.

Not too long afterward, the driver stopped the truck and said, quietly, "Lion.", pointing to the side of the road. After
waaaaay too long, I finally saw a female lion in the grass peering out at us (I believe my career as a game spotter is a non-starter). While I was fumbling with my camera (Ted got her picture with the 35mm I think), her husband/boyfriend/significant other came ambling out from behind the tree she was under.

Ha! Can't sneak up on me!

Unless you're trying to.

Then it's apparently all too easy.

At least by that time I had my camera ready, and got this...

We were all very excited as they paired up and ambled by us, and they seemed to disappear into the scrub so we all took a collective breath and tried to get our adrenalin under control. Ted and I switched cameras and somebody said "Hey, look!" and pointed behind us.

We all turned and saw the lions back on the track making a noise somewhere between a purr and a growl. Both of them. They rubbed heads for a second and then she turned her back on him and we all figured out at the same moment that they were getting ready to mate.

Amid the flurry of cameras being sorted out and our common disbelief that this could be happening just for us, we all tried our best to intrude upon their private relationship. :-)

Ted, in a fit of "I Can't Miss This Shot!"-ness accidentally hit the OFF button on the digital and listened with dismay as the camera closed its lens at the crucial moment. Ha! I don't know if I squeezed off a 35mm shot at the right time- we'll all wait and see together next week, I suspect.

Thankfully, Ted got his lens opened again in time to shoot this touching moment when they were done, as she rolled over on her back and tried to entice him to hang out with her as he stood casually wondering what was on the National Geographic channel tonight...

Meanwhile, Cooper is sitting between Ted and I spouting some of his (heretofore unknown to us) extensive wildlife knowledge, apparently acquired from the Discovery Channel. According to Cooper, and I think I quote:

"This is the mating season for lions and they will have sex as much as once an hour for a week!" Our fellow passengers were gratified to possess this new knowledge, and it certainly explained the willingness of our happy couple to do it in the road while we all gawked at them. :-)

So after three hours and lots of other wild folk (these impalas for instance)...

...we were whisked back to the lodge for a 9AM breakfast.

We still had to book some prepaid activities and decided that we had really liked that truck safari and signed up for the afternoon round that started at 3:30 and lasted until dusk.

At about 3PM, the skies opened. In the pouring rain, with our cameras carefully cuddled under our sweatshirts, we headed for the main drive where another couple was waiting for the same driving safari. Our guide checked with the front desk and found out the other people who had signed up were declining to come out in the rain. Okay! More space for us! As the people who came with us said, "We can get dry at home!"

We all piled into the truck (Cooper, Ted and I taking the highest back seats) and set off in the rain, sitting on lodge-supplied ponchos and only getting kind of wet. By the time we reached the Park (about ten minutes), it had stopped raining and was gloriously cool and comfy. The animals thought so too, and came out to meet us in the hundreds.

Until now we had seen no elephants from land, but that changed right away with this guy...

He was the first of a couple dozen elephants we saw that afternoon. All large, all nearby, and thankfully all interested in things other than us. These teenagers (about 12-14 years old and still immature) played right in front of us for a half hour while we sat on the bank of the river. They were typical teens, pushing each other's heads under water, standing on each other's backs, smacking each other with their trunks- it was very entertaining.

When we left the elephant antics, we came upon two giraffes way off in the bush- our first free giraffes ever!

We couldn't get any closer, but we were awed enough just to see them at this distance. They, too, were getting frisky and had been canoodling pretty seriously, but just as they decided to go for it, two impala males decided to have a knock down drag out fight and started crashing through the bush all around us, disturbing the love birds and foiling our chance to see how skyscraper mammals mate. The frustrated giraffes cast disgusted looks at the impala and wandered off away from our view.

Our grand finale for the day was a troop of about a hundred baboons who were lounging on the sand track as we came through on our way out...they were doing all the things baboons do, and they were all ages from tiny babies clinging to their mothers bellies as they walked to very old very large males who went around smacking other, smaller males and baring their teeth just to show who was boss. We sat and watched them for a while and got this guy with the digital (and a bunch more with the 35mm).

We had to scurry out of the park at dusk (Africans try to be nowhere the animals are after dark- that's when they suddenly develop an interest in all the peoples), and saw a lot of animals getting pretty active as we zoomed down the tracks- we had to stop for a herd of elephants who were crossing the road and one small male, about 5 or 6 years old got annoyed with us and charged the truck. We were all laughing at him (while desperately hoping his Mom and Dad wouldn't decide we were doing something to him!) when he decided that retreat was the smarter move and joined his family and friends across the road so we could hurry past and out of the park for the night.

Next time, hold on to your hats for the final leg of our adventure, Africa for Experts!, wherein things get way more juicy and perfectly frightening!