Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Into Africa Part III

Africa for Experts!

Today we go to the Okavango Delta in Botswana and get hip deep in wild Africa. :-)

Very near the Chobe Safari Lodge is the Kasane Airport- a nice little regional airport with two gates and some Air Botswana prop planes on a regular schedule. We went there to pick up our ride to Delta Camp- a little six seater single engine Cessna. We let Coop be co-pilot since it was his first time in a small airplane, and settled in for some scenic flying.

I know these could be pictures of almost anywhere from 4,000 feet, but if you look closely you will see the tiny white lines that are animal trails to water holes.

From the plane we could see a dozen trails leading to every waterhole and even see the trails left by hippos underwater in the rivers of the delta. Cooper and I saw three ostriches from the air.

We landed at Delta Camp's airstrip- a small dirt runway carved out of the bush, and were introduced to our guides, Lena and Space (don't ask me). We got the guide who trains the guides (Lena) because we had a kid with us- so, thank you Cooper!

They took our bags and loaded us into their makoros. These are handmade dugout canoes that the people in Botswana have used forever to navigate the delta. Lena made his large enough for two, so Coop and I got in with him and Ted got in with Space. These are the makoros in their parking spaces at Delta Camp. Note that Ted's (on the left) has a broken nose. He says it didn't ship water. That's Lena poling me and Coop to camp.

We were welcomed at what we called the "Clubhouse". The main building for the camp where you meet your guides each day, eat meals, sit and play chess or Scrabble, read, or just watch the Delta.

Here's Coop with the Delta behind him...

and the table set for lunch...

Then we were shown to our 'Chalet'. This is our most perfect hotel room ever. Seriously. It's camping but with wood floors, innerspring mattresses, and flush toilets. I know it doesn't look like much from the outside, but here it is (note Ted peeking and waving from the bathroom 'window').

This is Coop's bedroom (he chose the bed on the wall) just inside the door.

This is our bed...

and the view from it...

Can you believe it? Nothing between us and the African bush but some bamboo half walls- no doors, no windows, just fresh air, trees, mosquito nets and comfort. We actually blew off one of our walking safaris to spend the morning in bed and just watch the passing parade.

Elephants and baboons regularly passed right by our bed (and bath). Imagine standing in an outdoor shower concealed by bamboo walls, soaping up with handmade glycerin soap, and this walks by...

that's my towel on the left, hanging on the wall.

There were times when we couldn't head over to the clubhouse for meals because we had to wait for the elephants to go by. At night we were picked up for dinner because it was dark and we needed a guide to make sure we got there without being snake bit, elephant trampled, lion eaten, or worse! ;-)

(Whenever Lena showed up to escort us, Ted would say, "Our ride's here!")

When we were done eating and relaxing and looking at the millions and millions of stars, Lena would accompany us back to our chalet where we would go to bed and listen to the hippos (they kind of grunt and moan- REAL loud), the lions, and the baboons, accompanied by the squawks of a dozen birds we never heard before and a million different kinds of frogs.

So the first morning we were there, we got up early (at least it was light out!) and met Lena and Space in the clubhouse. We piled into the makoros and headed out for a walking safari. This is the view as you leave the makoro parking lot...

Lena had a somewhat better view, since he was standing, but then he had a much better chance of landing in the drink, too, so we stayed seated, as makoro passengers should.

He poled us out the 'driveway' and when we reached here...

we stopped for a briefing. The main point: Do NOT jump out of the makoro. The waters of the Delta are full of hippos and crocodiles and the makoro is your only hope of survival if they attack.

Of course, this, like many of the things Lena told us over the next four days, made total sense and seemed almost impossible to do. But we promised to try our best to fight the urge to jump and run- he convinced us that hippos can run in water way faster than we can swim, and we didn't even want to think about the crocs.

We moved on, headed for Chief's Island (named for the Chief of Lena's village, a place that is being ignored by the Botswana gov't. because it is in the (Chief) Moremi Game Reserve and they don't want to encourage growth- but they are wasting a valuable resource that is 100% in touch with the environment, knows the animals, the birds, what plants are edible, how they are edible, what plants can be used for dyes, to make baskets, to carve, for boats, how to cure headaches, stomachaches, diarrhea, and so much more. But they have no schools, no Doctors, and no's a lesson the U.S. learned too late and I hate seeing it repeated in this glorious country.)

Once on the island, we stopped in a clearing for another briefing.

Pay attention.

-If we are surprised by a lion, stand still and stare at its eyes. Make your eyes as big as possible. The lion will not attack unless you turn and run. (Oh, okay. Let me just stand here and wet my pants.)

-If we are surprised by a leopard, do NOT stare at it. It will not attack unless you challenge it and stare. (Oh, okay. Let me try to remember which big giant cat with teeth and claws to stare at and which one NOT to stare at while I wet my pants.)

-If you are bitten by a python, it will most likely be in the ankle. Use a knife to cut its throat, and move away from it rapidly so it can't wrap around you. If you don't have a knife you can use your shoelace to strangle it. (Oh, okay. Excuse me, giant snake? Can you wait a sec while I unlace my sneaker and wrap it around your neck?)

-While you unlace your sneaker, lay down to keep the python from climbing your body. (Uh, no. Well, okay, if fainting counts.)

-If we are charged by a Cape Buffalo, elephant, or hippo, we must climb a tree. Do not climb Acacia trees, they have big, sharp, thorns. Do not try to climb a palm- they are too slippery and have no branches. Lena and Space will try to point out useful climbing trees. (Oh, okay. At this point Ted and I are both thinking of the old joke about running from a predator- "I don't have to run fast, just faster than YOU!" We are hoping in vain that we are not the two slowest runners. And eyeing each other to decide which of us is slower...).
Okey doke!

Briefing over, we set off, on foot into the home of some of the most dangerous animals on earth.

Please don't let us see anything, please don't let us see anything, please don't let us see anything...

Lena pointed out all kinds of stuff that was interesting and non lethal- plants that we could eat if he died and left us all alone. Even one that we could use (as they do in his village) to make a really plump fluffy pillow.

He pointed out birds that shimmer in five or six colors (including this guy- the National Bird of Botswana)

and two endangered Wattled Cranes (picture in other camera!).

We saw impala by the hundreds, a few warthogs, some Kudus, a couple of distant elephants, a bunch of baboons, and footprints.

The one on the left is an elephant, the right is a lion. We also saw hoofprints for Zebra. Which is apparently what the lion was stalking.

This tree is the baobab tree that you read so much about, especially in Botswana. They are huge and old and often provide the only shade in the less wet parts of Botswana (like the Kalahari desert). This one is not very old, according to Lena- only about 50 or so. They live as long as the giant Redwoods.

Our heart stopping encounters were not on foot, but in the makoros. We would be gliding along through hundreds of lily pads and day lilies enjoying the scenery and the fresh air and suddenly Lena would stop.

The first time it was to sit absolutely still while four bull elephants crossed the delta from one island to another. We were upwind of them and one of them stopped and swung toward us (we were partially hidden by the tall grasses, but not invisible by any means). After two heart stopping minutes, he decided we weren't threatening enough to charge and moved on to catch up to his buddies. Resume breathing.

The second time was on the way home from one of our walking safaris. We crossed the main channel and saw a baby hippo climbing on his mother's back. Great sight, bad situation. Hippos are aggressive and mother hippos are double trouble. Lena pointed them out and then poled like crazy to get us out of the channel and into the reeds before she took it into her head to charge us.

The third time was as we were leaving Delta Camp to go to the airstrip to come home. We had been zooming along for about 20 minutes and were within site of the strip when Lena suddenly stopped our forward movement. As the makoro quivered from the effort of stopping us and reversing as fast as he could make his muscles do it, I heard, to the left AND the right, the sound of water being expelled rapidly from nostrils. Hippo nostrils. Gah! Stayintheboat, stayintheboat, stayintheboat...

Lena backed us out of the area really really fast and then said, quietly, "Hippos. Three of them." They were between us and the air strip and we had to turn around and go all the way back to Delta Camp to be picked up by 4WD and bumped across the island that way in order to make our flight.

Practically killed by hippos, we were. :-)

Over breakfast on our last day, just before our hippo encounter, Lena had admitted under close questioning that he has had to stare down lions before with guests, and that one of his guides had been snatched from a makoro by a 15 foot crocodile (He solemnly informed us that they had "killed the crocodile"). Ooh. Eek. Glad to have seen only foot prints, please remain the biggest target on the makoro.

Sissies on Safari. What can I say?

Meanwhile, back at the chalet. We were lazing around before dinner one night and a huge troop of baboons came crashing through the bush, screeching and yelling and running over each other. The babies all headed for the tree tops and the large males spent a lot of time smacking each other around.

Two large males stopped just outside our doorway and while one of them screamed bloody murder, the other sat on him and poked him in the chest occasionally. After about 3 minutes, the Chest Poker got up and let him scramble away, still screaming. Then Chest Poker took off after a smaller male who had been watching from a fallen tree and everyone scrambled for higher perches on their trees to avoid the scuffle. It was a hoot. This picture shows some of the troop sitting and watching just outside our bedroom, waiting to see if they need to get scarce...

Which brings us to the Marula tree. The elephants like Delta Camp because it has bunches of this kind of tree. And on this tree is a nut.

Humans make Amarulla Cream liquor out of it. Elephants just eat the fruit of the Marula tree and get drunk, then poop out the nuts.

Lena said he saw a drunk elephant head butt a palm tree (normal behavior to loosen coconuts) and knock out three baboons (they usually check for baboons first, since the fall will kill them). Our Hostess said she had a drunk elephant outside her quarters most nights, laying down, snoring, sleeping it off. We hoped for a drunk elephant to lay down outside our house, too.

One day, we had to delay going to lunch because of this guy...

Note the dark line behind his eye on his cheek. It's a mating musk that he will ooze to attract elephant women until they succumb to his charms. He wandered past our bedroom and followed the path to the clubhouse. When it was safe to follow (meaning he was way gone), we headed down the path and found a present he had left for us.

Full of Marula nuts.

Cooper bravely sacrificed himself to provide size perspective. Elephant poop is BIG. And this elephant was, at best, tipsy.

This view of a makoro highway was taken off the porch of the clubhouse by Ted.

You can't see them, but there are tons of hippos and some crocs in that picture. You can't hear them, but hippos are grunting, and the baboons are screeching. We have rarely been so happy as we were to lay in bed on a cool African morning (we slept under a heavy duvet- nights on the Delta are nicely chilly!) and listen to things roar and grunt and hoot and screech. It was a once in a lifetime experience that we are so grateful to have had.

And this is the living end...