Hello all! I am back in Macha after a wonderful four day weekend. We went on our safari in Botswana and it exceeded even my high expectations. It was an amazing, awe-inspiring experience. We traveled to Livingstone on Thursday and crossed the border into Botswana early Friday morning. The safari company was excellent - we started our day with a trip down the river on deck boat driven by a guide. As we floated down the broad river to our left the bank rose gradually to form a low hill covered with vegetation, but to our right a large island in the river formed the opposing bank. This island lay so low and flat that its shimmering green and yellow grasses seemed to float on the water like a carpet…then as we rounded a curve a dark black mass rose shockingly large among the grasses. The elephant was enjoying his grazing so much that he was unfazed as the guide maneuvered our boat within feet of his massive head. This was only the first of a series of amazing experiences with all kinds of incredible creatures. I had started the morning reading in Job about God rejoicing in the variety of animals on the earth (Job 39-41) and those verses came to mind repeatedly as we saw a fish eagle wheeling over the river, a massive crocodile floating among the reeds, and a hippo mother and her small male calf sunning themselves on the bank. We saw a bull elephant swim across the river just in front of our boat, pods of hippos, herds of impala, and one lone village fisherman poling his traditional craft through the water lilies floating thick along the bank. The river float was amazing, but it was only the beginning.
The guide beached our boat on the white sands of a little inlet where we were met by another guide in a safari jeep. This guide has been working in the park for 18 years and his experience showed. As he maneuvered along the narrow sandy trails he was constantly scanning for animals and evidence of their locations: tracks along the edge of the path, broken branches, the warning cry of bird, etc. He took us on a short drive and showed us giraffes grazing peacefully among the acadia trees, a group of baboons running along the roadside, herds of kudu and impala, a family of warthogs…as well as deep, fresh tracks in the sand made by the massive paw of a lion. As the day grew hotter we were taken to our campsite in the bush - cluster of tents around a sheltered dining area and campfire. We were served a nice lunch that had been prepared over the fire and then we had some time to settle into camp and wait for the cooler evening hours. We enjoyed meeting our fellow travelers: a couple of other medical students from the UK as well as some university students from Norway.
At about 5pm we set out again - the park is amazingly beautiful. It covers a huge area and encompasses a variety of different terrains…I spent most of my time in the lush and fertile riverside area. The park rises to a plateau overlooking the shining ribbon of the Chobe river, there are relatively open grassy expanses alternating with more dense areas of acadia trees and bushes. Alongside the river a series of pools in a narrow grassy band alongside a forested area is a favorite haunt of herds of elephants.That was our first stop in the evening and it was surreal to be so close to a group of about 30 female elephants and their young as they drank from the pools and wallowed in the mud holes (yes, wallowed…I will never forget seeing an animal weighing several tons slowly lower itself to its side and wriggle about in the mud). Several baby elephants ran among their massive adult counterparts doing play charges, splashing in the water, and generally being adorable. When the jeep first drove up some of the females startled and wheeled around to face the threat, but they quickly settled and didn’t seem to mind our presence. Later in the drive we came around a corner and ran right into the middle of a smaller group of elephants grazing. The dominant female did not appreciate our presence. She spread her fan-like ears wide, lowered her tusks at us, and swung her head threateningly. She trumpeted briefly and bluff charged at us as the other females and lone baby escaped into the forest. It was frankly terrifying, but the guide has handled such situations before and everything turned out fine. After her short charge our direction she wheeled around and crashed into the trees after her family. In the evening the park is teeming with life and there were fascinating things to see at every turn…cape buffalo, a family of banded mongooses (mongeese? )…and countless birds darting jewel-like in front of our jeep, soaring above the bluffs, covering the branches of trees. Some say that the rainy season is not a great time to do a safari as the dense foliage makes animals harder to see, but I thought it was wonderful as it is the bird season, the park looks beautiful, and the animals all look healthy and many have their babies with them (the dry season makes animal populations more concentrated as they all cluster around the dwindling water holes, but it is also a rougher season for them).
Our guide had warned us early on that although there are both lions and leopards in Chobe National Park, few travelers see either of them. There are not that many for a park of such a great size, and the ones that are there can be shy and elusive. However, the tracks we saw earlier in the day had given him a clue as to the lions’ location. He has known the two male lions in the area (they are brothers) for a long time, and he knew that this one was with a single lioness - a breeding pair. He tracked them up to an area of dense foilage and we were creeping along in the jeep when we saw a bush move and a faint streak of gold in the grass…the lioness was sleeping among tall grasses and we could see nothing of her but her thin tufted tail. Far away we heard a chilling sound - the roar of the male lion. The pair was at that moment separated and unable to be visualized..we drove back to camp in the light of a blazing sunset with the promise of tracking the lions again in the morning.
After dinner we were sitting around the campfire talking when the guide quieted us. “Elephants”, he said, and flipped on a large flashlight. Passing only a few yards behind our tents a long line of elephants was slipping through the trees with surprisingly little noise. It was a remarkable sight to see their massive gray forms passing through the weak beam of a flashlight and then disappearing into the darkness.
At first light we were up again and in the jeep, stopping to take pictures of the glorious sunrise over the river with a huge group of baboons playing along the water’s edge. We immediately began tracking the lions and as we came around a bush we saw a large golden form in the road ahead - the lioness. As the jeep advanced slowly past another bush there was a massive crashing sound - the lion had been startled by our arrival and lept into the bushes. The guide stopped the jeep and we waited, breathless, as his thick mane and heavy golden body slowly emerged from the branches into the road just behind the jeep. We were now between him and the lioness who had begun to trot down the road away from us. The guide put the jeep in gear and began to slowly drive away from the lion, edging the jeep over on the path so that the lion had a clear visual to the lioness ahead…but then the lion broke into a swift trot and the guide sped up the jeep, pulling it off the trail and behind a bush. He pulled the jeep around an area of dense foliage into an open space a little further along the road. We could see just a few yards behind us to where the lion had rejoined the lioness and the two were sitting in the road. The lioness suddenly lept at the lion, snarling, her sharp front claws grazing his shoulder. He backed away with a short roar and she subsided, suddenly deciding she needed to groom her front leg. The guide had explained earlier that during the mating season the dynamics between the male and female are quite dynamic and sometimes aggressive. It was surreal to watch them, wild apex predators just yards from our open jeep…I will never forget it.
Well this post is certainly long enough. I am sure it is clear that this was a remarkable experience :-). It was really refreshing and inspiring to spend some time where the natural environment is allowed to have its own way. After returning to Zambia we enjoyed the rest of our Saturday in Livingstone and traveled back to Macha today (Sunday). I believe I will start on one of the adult wards tomorrow. Good luck in the week ahead! You will hopefully hear from me soon with the long promised Q and A