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The Big Splurge

We were plenty happy to bid goodbye to bus travel after our last leg to Livingstone, Zambia which was a perfectly nice bus with big windows on a good road where they so kindly played not one but two profanity laden horror movies for our entertainment, which we all could have done without. We were in Livingstone to check out Victoria Falls but also to celebrate Vance’s birthday, which we did by walking across the bridge to Zimbabwe and having lunch on the shady verandah at the grand Victoria Falls Hotel, with a view of the bridge and the rising mist from the falls past manicured lawns. The falls were in full force, and we were glad we packed rain coats as the spray was drenching. They’re big, those Victoria Falls, and it’s impossible to take in the span at once from ground level, but we were all suitably impressed.

The next morning we drove to the border and took a boat across to Botswana and Chobe National Park. Chobe is huge, almost 11,000 sq km and has the interesting problem of having too many elephants. You might wonder how such a thing could be possible, as I did, but elephants are destructive buggers and the landscape at Chobe is showing the effects of so many. According to our guide, culling has been discussed and dismissed- since some of the elephants are recent arrivals fleeing the unrest in Angola, there is hope that they will eventually return from whence they came and the situation will sort itself out. We were only there one night, but that was long enough for a lovely cruise along the Chobe riverfront to see scads of elephants in all shapes and sizes, as well as hippos and crocs, and we’ll visit another part of Chobe later.

From there we flew further into Botswana for our highly anticipated five nights at two fly-in safari lodges- Lebala, in the northern corner of Botswana near the Linyanti Marshes, and Kwara in the Okavango Delta- our biggest splurge of the whole ten and a half months.

What you are really paying for with a fly-in lodge is great swathes of space, acres and acres of prime wildlife viewing land which you only have to share with a handful of guests. With that space usually comes comforts such as luxurious tents, delicious meals, and extra touches like hot water bottles and blankets to tuck around yourself on chilly morning game drives and ice cold cocktails at sundown. After our train mishap and hours of bus rides, we were ready for all these things.

In Tanzania, our guide Mussa had us well trained for marathon game drives in the Serengeti, but here the rhythm was different. We were woken at 6:00, met for coffee and porridge or muffins at 6:30, then trundled off for our first game drive at 7:00. We returned around 11:00 for brunch and a siesta before tea at 3:30, and another game drive at 4:00. We paused somewhere in the first game drive for tea and biscuits, and somewhere in the second for cold drinks and nibbles. Dinner around 8:00, then to bed. Rise and repeat. This is my idea of a great time.

At Lebala the landscape was flat and scrubby. Game was less dense, and harder to spot but when we did spot it, being on a private concession instead of a national park meant our guide could drive right up to the animals and park amongst them. I was startled the first time he did this with a pack of rare African wild dogs finishing off the last tidbits of a recent kill, cracking bones with gusto. We could tell it was a young warthog, because one of the dogs had the identifiable front end of a rubbery snout, which he worked on like a chew toy with enthusiasm right next to the car. As with other things, we quickly got used to these close encounters- as one, the animals were used to the cars and hardly stopped what they were doing to blink at us when we puttered up to them.

One evening we followed the pack as they hunted impala. Scattered in a fan-like formation, we lost sight of them for a few moments in the scrub, so missed the moment of take down. By the time we caught up a dozen dogs were in the process of ripping the carcass from limb to limb, whining in their frenzy. I would not have believed their efficiency if I hadn’t seen it, but four minutes later all that remained of that impala were a few trophies- a leg, a strip of skin, a chunk of backbone and upper rib cage- which a few dogs claimed and trotted off with to gnaw on away from the group. Latecomers went hungry.

Another day we drove to see an elephant carcass that had been spotted thanks to clouds of vultures. Five sleepy lions, their bellies bulging, were on the scene, their presence keeping all scavengers away for the time being. Because our guides had seen these same lions with a similar elephant kill two weeks ago, they theorize that this pack has been actively pursuing and killing elephants, a feat previously documented among the lion packs of Savuti, not too far from here. Two days later we revisited to see the elephant reduced to mere bones draped in leathery skin, and two big male lions holding court. It was hard to drive up to lions in our open topped vehicle having just read about the American woman who was tragically killed by a lion in South Africa, but as with the dogs, they could have cared less about our presence. Over time, I didn’t feel the need to grip both my children every time we encountered one, or three.

From Lebala, it was a short flight into the Okavango Delta to Kwara, but a different landscape of long grasses and marshy spots interspersed with islands of higher ground. Here, on our first game drive, we were able to get up close and personal with a magnificent cheetah. After our distant sightings in the Serengeti, it was a treat. The next day we came across a fresh impala carcass and a hyena busy both feeding and fending off the advances of two jackals. Our guide theorized a cheetah had brought the impala down and the hyena had stolen it from him, and was probably still in the area. Sure enough, we spotted him a few minutes later, slinking across the plain, closely monitored by six giraffes. He was heading in the direction of a warthog family, and our guide quickly circled around front, thinking he might go for one of the piglets, but the warthogs spotted him first. The mama warthog stood her ground, and the cheetah responded with a low whiny growl. Further emboldened, the warthog stepped forward and the cheetah changed direction. With that she launched herself at him, tail up, piglets falling into line behind her, and the cheetah turned and fled! While on safari we had seen gross things, beautiful things, fascinating things, exciting things, but never had we seen such a funny thing- the sleek cheetah looking most undignified as he fled before the stumpy warthog. We laughed until we cried, our guide and tracker joining in. Only the day before we had talked about how their job never got boring because even though they saw the same animals they were always doing different things. Cheetah being pursued by an über-brave warthog was case in point. Eventually the warthogs veered off and the cheetah went for a drink, checking and rechecking over his shoulder to make sure he wasn’t being followed. Poor cheetah, it just wasn’t his morning.

Coming back into camp one evening, the radio crackled with the news that lions were walking around IN camp itself. We came across them soon after- a mom with her two teenagers, sister and brother, and saw their tracks where they had marched right in front of the boy’s tent. The next morning the mom and brother popped out in front of the vehicle during our drive, but where was the sister? They settled down in the shade and we waited with them, the mom raising her head from time to time to utter a low, throaty call. Eventually the sister appeared from the brush across the plain and trotted over. Their greeting was so ecstatic, all three rubbing and moaning and rolling around together, you would have thought they had been separated weeks instead of an hour or two.

In more than thirty hours of game drives, these were the highlights. There were, of course, plenty of other hours spent scanning grasses or admiring less exciting giraffe, zebra and impala, but overall it was well worth the price of admission. Where our time in Serengeti gave us breadth across the classic African landscape and so many animals, these intimate experiences gave us depth. I am so grateful that there are such beautiful places in the world where animals can come and go as they please, and that I got to witness it for a few days. I may have to sell a kidney to repeat the experience, but maybe, if I’m very lucky, we’ll be back one day.

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