Sunday, 16 October 2011

Botswana, Part 3


Part 1
Part 2


Wealth of game in Moremi
I zoned out and fell asleep, wondering how the hell managed to stay awake through the whole tour, because if were always on the go, then he was always working, but he never flagged and never seemed overly fatigued. We had our closest near miss along this stretch of road with a very lazy dog ambling across our path (we must have been doing about 80km/h at the time) and after barely getting out of our way decided to double back. Somehow, in a flurry of brakes and dust, there emerged a seemingly unphased pooch heading to its home, although now he seemed to be moving with a little more urgency.

Impala buck making a break for it.
I awoke as we approached the South Gate of Moremi game reserve. The tall, lone thatched gate building seemed deserted, but one or two staff were around doing as little as possible, which was only fair in this heat. Shanna was beginning to show signs of fatigue, which would later become a worry, but for the time being all we could do was take it easy and have lunch. We headed due north to the North Gate to fill up our jerry cans with water and then moved on to our camp.

Despite passing a few 'gates', the sense of isolation with overwhelming as we made our way through the low bush. We saw a number of elephants along the roadside, but generally we saw the effect of the big guys more prominently. There were very few trees over six meters tall still standing, for every one tree that was upright, there were about five of six broken on the ground and in places the road wove all over the place as fallen trees had forced new routes to be taken.

Zazu's kin
Through many of these twists and turns we finally arrived at our camp and everybody seemed dead pleased with the site except for Marianne, who had been told that there would be showers and there was not a single standing structure in sight, so this was some kind of cruel joke, right? She was eventually (grudgingly) placated and we set about pitching our tents, which was a much easier process during daylight hours. As the sun began to sink, we headed off on our first real game drive. The pickings weren't great, but we did manage to see lots of impala, a crocodile and an elephant at pretty close quarters. Game viewing is exciting in the sense that you never know what you're going to see or when, so you have to keep your eyes peeled. Often you might start to drop your guard on the way back to camp and come across a massive herd of elephants, as happened to be the case the following day. We returned to camp, dog tired from the long day and went to bed dirty yet overjoyed to be there in those surroundings

Our stealthy visitor's calling card.
Not Katrina, but elephants. 
This was our first night spent camping in a park where our campsite was unfenced, so we had to take a number of precautions in order to protect ourselves and our supplies from the scavengers and general animal traffic. Tents had to be zipped up and food securely locked away. Sleep did not come easily, as all around us animals hooted and cackled. We heard lions, hyena and hippo, which were close by in the river. I slept terribly and the next morning we were up at dawn, which by now was a pleasant ritual, starting early before the sun began beating the life out of you. Behind out tents, we found tracks where a rather large elephant had passed during the night and none of us had heard a thing, which was surprising until Shaba explained that elephants have very complex feet, capable of controlling the pressure they exert to the extent where they may walk by and not make a sound. Except for the breaking trees of course.

We got going early as we had a tricky water crossing to do, but after some examination, the river we intended to ford proved dubious in depth, so Shaba opted for a safer drive west towards the Hippo Pool. We seemed to be skirting an endless shore as the marshland stuck to our right during the two-odd hours of twisting drive. Generally we saw only buck and some birds, with glimpses of what may or may not have been crocs, but we were all very keen and alert, except for Shanna who had been going downhill since yesterday as rest had not really been an option. We arrived at the Hippo Pool and climbed the several metre-high viewing platform, but during the midday heat, we could only catch glimpses of the big guys as they lay submerged among the reeds. Some distance across the water was a herd of zebra, but generally the animals seemed to be in hiding. I couldn't blame them.

Shanna's Lion
Warthog family
So we began, somewhat dejectedly, making our way back to camp. Here and there we took side paths as Shaba often had a hunch about what game might be in the area, tracking animal prints in the road ahead as we went. We spotted a herd of impala that seemed to be concentrating all its attention away to their left when Shanna saw a lion, obviously the object of the Impala's concern. We were very chuffed seeing a big cat, as they had thus far eluded us. It was an old male who had probably been kicked out of his pride and he was looking a little worse for wear, although still not to be trifled with. We edged closer and eventually stopped mere metres from where the old guy was sitting. By now he had given up his stalk, as we had obviously blown whatever cover he might have had, so instead he sat there yawning. After a few minutes some members of our party became a bit wary of being this close to such a big ball of muscle, claws and teeth, especially after Shaba told us that only desperate lions are prone to attacking humans. Desperate being outcast males that are unable to hunt with a pack. Yes, exactly like this one.
So we said our goodbyes to Shanna's lion took the long road back to camp. Upon arrival we hooked up the bucket shower before heading off on another game drive. Shanna was in no state to keep knocking about in the jolting vehicle as she had acquired a bad cough and Bonny Tyler hooker voice over the past few days, so she stayed behind with her dad. Of course we promised them we wouldn't see any game and they weren't missing out on anything and five minutes after leaving camp we had giraffes and zebra on the side of the road. We had been down this road four times and now the luck of the draw went in our favour. We were at the far northeastern reaches of the delta in what was otherwise a murderously dry country and clearly life followed water. In places the water looked as though Katrina had passed though, because as far as the eye could see, every tree had been snapped a meter off the ground by elephants. As majestic as these animals are, they take a significant toll on the land and it seemed that trees just didn't stand a chance with big herds around. We drove all the way to the North Gate to fill up our jerry cans in order to have a shower later and made our way back to camp, about an hour's drive each way.


We set about erecting the shower screen and began heating buckets of water so we could finally get clean, which was a pretty good feeling in the end. By now Shanna was down in the tent most of the time trying to get some rest and her cough was getting worse, helped in to part by the hard days on the road and the freezing nights in the tent.

Our visitor, scared the shit outta me. Look closer.
When everyone had turned in for the night and I was some distance from the main camp using the makeshift facilities, there was some hurried tearing of velcro and zips being pulled. I paid no mind until someone said 'hyena' and then I froze. It was dark and I had no idea what was going on, so I scanned the camp and 'felt a presence' as bad descriptions often read. There was an animal scratching less than ten meters from my tent, where we had buried our leftovers the previous day and the beam of my headlamp caught the illuminated eyes. It was starting at me, but for now there seemed to be only one. I was transfixed, but also wanted to get clear. In the end curiosity prevailed and I stood there for some time, trying to take photos while maintaining my night vision and not taking my eyes off the bastard. Mental note, next time bring a tripod. Many unfocused shots later I backed into the tent, woke a very dopey Shanna and lit the animal again, but even the next day she had no recollection. Eventually the hyena hopped over a fallen tree and out of sight, so I went to bed, wondering how many were out there and what if I had to go pee! So naturally that thought made me have to go, so I got back up and stuck my head out of the tent. The moon was full enough to not need a flashlight, so I got out peering all around. Some way off I thought I saw a big dark shape, so I lit in that direction and saw a pair of eyes again. Great, he was now hanging round the camp. What I do know about hyenas, apart from having the strongest jaws of any mammal is that they are known for sneaking into tents and biting people in the face. With their vice-like jaws. Awesome.
I finished and keep looking the direction of the shape, lighting it, but not seeing the eyes. Then I realised it was an Impala standing there! Bizarrely I was then overtaken by a wave of adrenaline and stood there with goose bumps. Clearly the hyena was gone if there were buck hanging around, so I went to bed chuckling at my misapprehension. I still don't know whether I slept well that night, but I generally woke up freezing when we were in tents, so at some point I would wake up and have to put on more layers of clothing.

Kudu bull, Moremi
Another brilliant sunrise along with another early start. We struck camp and got moving early as we had a lot of bad road waiting for us, today it would be sand. I was responsible for the loading and unloading of the trailer and by now the routine had become a familiar one, everything had to be ordered according to weight, shape and the abuse something could take. Tents, steel folding table, folding chairs, food boxes, cooking pots, buckets, mattresses, luggage, sleeping bags, tent poles, shovels and various other bits and pieces. I was much happier doing the heavy lifting and leaving the cooking to those less likely to screw that up, so a happy distribution of tasks reigned. We drove to the North Gate one last time, crossing the bridge spanning the river Khwai (I shit you not) and about five minutes later we had our first 'challenge' (as Shaba called it) of the day. We had to cross two rivers the hard way about five minutes later and the 'easier' point to do so (on the more tricky of the two crossings) was unfamiliar to our guide, which meant that we were winging it. We had had a few splashes before, but this time all bags and luggage came off the floor. We plunged into the dark water and snaked left and right across the stream in a big S before finally emerging at the far end. We had been up to the gunwales in water, both inside the vehicle and out, but luckily in this climate a little moisture wasn't going to stick around forever. On the far bank we let the water drain before getting back on the road, away from the Delta and into dry country.

The road was straight and hard letting us cover quite a lot of ground. We stopped for firewood, as this was not allowed within the park boundaries. The reason for this is to protect the ecosystem as insects and small animal may nest in fallen trees as well as to deprive poachers of fuel, as they would otherwise set up permanent camp in a park and operate there for extended periods of time. Within the park's boundaries, the going soon became a slugging, sandy mess. Vehicles running slowly would bottleneck the traffic and the thick sand did not allow us to stop just anywhere, so it was all a very squishy affair as we slid along the straight dry track, fishtailing as we went.


Seeking shelter from the midday heat
For a long distance we drove north along the western edge of the Mababe Depression, a massive seasonal wetland that at present had nothing but grass. Absolutely flat and featureless except for the odd dead-looking tree which invariably had a raptor of some description perched on a skeletal branch. We left the depression and ahead small round hills became visible, the largest features we had yet seen in Botswana. Everything so far had been flat as a tack with only the plants changing shape. On we twisted between the low hills and turned from the main track. Soon we were fishtailing like crazy in deep powdery sand until we came to a standstill in what was evidently our new camp. It was brutally hot, with the sparse trees providing scant shade. We went through the ritual of pitching our tents, each one huddling in what little shade it could find.

Enthusiasm was very low at this point. Shanna was getting steadily worse and we were worried about her asthma. We were very far from civilization and at this rate the prevailing conditions (blistering days and freezing nights) and our daily routine of hard driving and dust were not much help. After dozing for a few hours, we went on another drive, once again leaving Shanna to rest at camp. We went to see some rock paintings in the nearby hills and I got some good shots of a massive baobab which I happened to need for an upcoming work project. Across the river we could see the hindquarters of some lions lazing under a bush, but I would hardly call this a solid sighting. Some wildebeest, warthogs and giraffes crossing the road was a good way to round off another full day and with that we retired to camp after fetching water for another shower. It was less cold here at night and for once it was my turn to cook (we're hardly going to trust foreigners with a braai, now were we?), which all went well.

Couple of Wildebeest, Sav
It had been our last night camping, but we were not out of the woods yet and the following morning before we went out on a short game drive, Shanna's dad was threatening to have her evacuated if her condition did not improve. I agreed, but I also hoped it would not come to that, as it would completely derail our trip, so we all kept our fingers crossed and had Shanna stay put. The previous day she had been supplied with a course of antibiotics from Thomas, who is a retired dentist, which we hoped would bring her condition in check. Off we went looking for lions and leopards that were suspected of being in the area. We followed several sets of tracks around a koppie and across a number of jeep tracks until they finally disappeared into broad grassland where we had no hope of following. Soon we came across a cluster of game viewing Land Cruisers who had followed a leopard into the shrub, but we were too late to spot it and the clock was ticking, so we had to get back.

Luckily Shanna's condition had begun improving, so we would press on and see how things went. We had struck camp earlier and just had to pack and get moving. Everyone was huddled and tired as we drove off in our last hard day back to Kasane. We passed the Savute airstrip and left the picturesque parkland behind. The landscape was pretty grim which stunted low shrub as far as the eye could see. We soon had our final 'challenge', a nasty long sand slope which bottomed out and inclined beyond, like an inverted sand dune. We had to gun through this, because getting stuck at the bottom could end up being more than merely getting stuck. Struggling to get a vehicle out would put a lot of strain on the engine and a mechanical breakdown was really not something we would want. On the way down we passed some Delta Rain vehicles going the other way and the guides had their usual chinwag before we bombed down the slope and everyone held their breath, the sand was thick and we were heavy, but once again Shaba kept his foot down and kept us moving and some nervous swerving later, we pulled out up the far slope. We found solid footing on a grass patch and let the engine cool for a minute before continuing out of the park.

The Longnecks
There was still a lot of sand ahead, much of it single-track, which meant oncoming traffic could be a problem, as there were tall bushes and trees close along the roadside. The landscape began falling away to our west (we were heading north) as we approached and in the distance, like a bloody mirage, appeared a stretch of dark tar road. We could not believe our eyes and there was a cry of dismay as we pulled off to the right mere meters before crossing onto the elusive hardball. The moaning ceased as soon as the 'cold drinks' sign and presence of flush toilets were spotted. Alongside our dusty, motley bunch was parked a shiny white Windhoek Toyota looking like something out of District 9. Round the back of this pearly monstrosity was a German couple who seemed to have found a way of cloning clothing and accessories. They were dressed from head to toe in matching bleach-white everything and had identical sunglasses. No doubt they had his'n'hers watches too, but I didn't want to be rude and look to closely.
Battling the dust
Leaving Savute

No comments: