The Skies of Africa – Part 4, Serondela

As we observe Earth Day this week, it seems a great time to celebrate one of the most magnificent continents that our planet is blessed with.

There’s so much to see in Africa – the vast plains of the Serengeti, gorillas in the jungle, some of the greatest rivers on earth – that it takes some serious thinking to decide where to go on safari. Even one trip is a great gift, and yet there can never be enough visits. My hubby and I have been there four times – we’ve seen the pyramids of Egypt and cruised up the Nile, watched antelope stand up on their hind legs to graze and Samburu villagers dance for us, gotten soaked to the skin in the spray from the waterfalls named after England’s queen – and we’ll never get enough of it. It’s the only place that we don’t want to leave to return home.

So as we weather this pandemic and watch the unsurprising effects on nature of having humans mostly leaving it alone, we can take the opportunity to rethink our role as caretakers of all the precious places where we can still see animals living freely the way that they should be.

One of the greatest of those places is Serondela.

By this time in our safari, you might think we’d be jaded about seeing animals in the wild. Yet I’ve been on three different safaris, and I can tell you that every game drive is exciting and different. Should you ever go on a safari, don’t sell yourself short with just a handful of drives – the more your trip includes, the better! Every habitat is different, and the way the animals interact with it.

After the excitement of a leopard sighting in Savute, what could Serondela hold to top that?

The journey from camps Three to Four involved a long morning drive toward Kasane, the ‘gateway’ town to Chobe National Park and the Serondela Reserve within it.

The scenery began to change dramatically as we drove up and down long rolling hills, flanked by deep green shrubs and towering trees as the tires of our truck kicked up clouds of red dust. Occasionally someone would pull a bandana up over their nose and mouth to block out the sand, and guests who wore contact lenses learned pretty quickly to carry moisturizing drops in their day pack.

We could tell we were getting near ‘civilization’ again as we began to pass more vehicles going in the opposite direction and our guide made us put our seat belts on.

Directional signs and the odd roadside billboard began to show up, like this one about HIV, which was a big issue in Botswana at the time. It was nothing for visitors to worry about unless you planned on having a fling with one of the camp staff, which would have been challenging within the intimacy of a small tented camp. We could often hear our fellow travellers like laughing with each other, or cursing if they dropped something on the floor of the tent in the early morning darkness.

It was impossible not to know what your fellow guests were up to any given time. Although a bit disconcerting at first, we soon got used to it – sharing battery chargers or a friendly euchre game, laughing over unavoidably bad hair, helping each other recall what that bird or animal was that we’d seen over by the river or at the bend in the road for our journals. Having worked in the pharmacy business for many years, I always carry a well-stocked first-aid kit and was often treating rashes and scrapes. (The guides have their own kits, but I have a few ointments and concoctions that I like to keep on hand.)

As we got closer to Kasane we could see outlying farms, threatened by the rising waters of the Chobe River, which had already started swallowing shrubs and small trees. Some of our fellow guests had brought school supplies to donate, so our guides had arranged for us to visit a small school on the outskirts of town.

The school consisted of several low buildings built of dusty pink brick and plaster, lined up in a sandy clearing. We were greeted by the principal, vice-principal and one of the teachers, who were welcoming but quite formal and serious. They led us into the cool interior, past classrooms, walls full of the students’ artwork, and cork boards with the usual teachers’ notices.

We sat around a wide boardroom table while our guides introduced us. Botswana has one of the highest literacy rates in Africa, and the school was in good condition, but for anyone interested in contributing something to a country they’re visiting, extra school supplies are always welcome. On the way out, I decided to try thanking the principal in Setswana for allowing us to visit – our guide had taught me the phrase, Ke a leboga. I suspect that I mangled the pronunciation somewhat, but the effort was worth it, because the stern principal, official in her pink suit and hat, broke into a wide smile and gave me a big hug!

Kasane straddles a fine line between residents and the surrounding wildlife. As we approached town a herd of elephants decided that they needed to cross the highway, and it can be quite dangerous to argue the point. We waited patiently from a safe distance, although one little elephant, straggling behind the adults and already annoyed with an oncoming car that decided to bypass him, turned around and decided he wasn’t happy with us either. He flared his ears out, stamped his little feet and blared at us crossly for a couple of minutes before trundling off to catch up with the rest of the herd.

In town, there are a number of shops for buying souvenir t-shirts and handmade jewellery, and for restocking supplies. While our guides filled up their gas tanks and some supplies for camp, we were able to check out a small grocery store (impala steaks, anyone?), bottle shop (liquor store), camera supply store and a variety of t-shirt and jewellery vendors. There was a small internet café for anyone who wanted to fire off a quick email or two. Warthogs and other amiable critters wandered the streets freely!

After our short shopping excursion, we had another picnic lunch just outside the entrance gate to Chobe National Park.

There is no shortage of delicious food on safari, even in bush camps where the chefs may be cooking food on a jury-rigged stove – a grate set over top a wood fire, with a metal baking box resting on tin cans. You can do far more luxe safaris than this, but if you want a genuine Hemingway-worthy adventure, this is the way to do it.  

We drove along the river, spotting more animals on the way to our fourth and final bush camp. Serondela has its own unique atmosphere. The river attracts large herds of a variety of animals – the elephants are famous for their daily excursions down to the water, which teems with hippos as well as crocodiles.

It’s de rigeur to do a boat cruise on the river, but our guides warned us not to reach down and touch the water! Basically, if you fall in or get pulled in, there will be no chance to rescue you.

The river is the focal point, but wildlife is everywhere. In the cool morning air, marabou storks spread out their wings to dry off while warthogs rooted around in the dirt for breakfast. Along the river bank, crocodiles were warming themselves, their jaws open towards the sunlight to draw in the heat.

Fish eagles perched on top of trees, waiting to swoop down and snatch a meal out of the river.

Rock cobras, almost perfectly camouflaged, slithered through the scrub.

Giraffe spread their legs to reach down low enough to lick salt from the ground, looking so awkward in comparison to the elegant kudu.

There’s a large and rambunctious troop of baboons who took over one of the old safari camps years ago and had refused to give up their turf. We’ve seen them striding the grass like a street gang looking for a rumble, pursuing amorous liaisons (or sometimes refusing them ungraciously), indulging in some grooming while babies romped in the dirt, or sometimes just harassing other animals for the fun of it.

On our boat cruise, just as the elephant herd was coming down to the water’s edge for a nice drink and a bath, the baboons decided they wanted to throw a party. They proceeded to run up and down the sand and up the trees, chattering and screeching. The elephants were having none of that, though! They stomped back and forth along the water, bellowing their displeasure and shaking the trees for emphasis.

It had little effect, to be honest, but eventually the baboons seemed to get tired, or bored, and moved back up the hill to annoy elsewhere. Then we were treated to the spectacle of an entire lineup of elephants jostling for drinking room, the babies sometimes falling in the mud and being rescued from their own endearing clumsiness.

Farther down the river we carefully skirted a large pod of hippos, and our guide stopped the boat probably about 20 yards away so that we could watch them slowly swimming around their little inlet, flapping their ears and snorting water. They seemed unconcerned with our presence – until a massive male suddenly reared up right behind our boat and lunged at us with a roar!

He must have been swimming around below the surface – we hadn’t seen him anywhere nearby. Our guide, who had prudently left the motor running, fired up the engine and we lurched across the water, the hippo in hot pursuit.

Hippos are extraordinarily dangerous. They’re extremely territorial and have very short fuses. Couple that with surprising speed in the water, enormous strength and a massive jaw full of long teeth, and they’re responsible for more human deaths than any other creature in Africa. They’ve been known to bite canoes in half, and this one could have easily flipped our motorboat if he’d caught up with us, dumping us into those pretty crocodile-infested waters. It could have been an abrupt end to our safari. Fortunately, the guides in Botswana are some of the best-trained in the continent (the testing is rigorous), so while we watched in shock our guide got us to safety.

As dusk falls, the lions come out to hunt, strolling right down the sandy road. From that vantage point, we were able to see the black markings on the backs of their ears and the tip of their tails. With their beautiful buff coats, they blend well into the taller grasses and use the markings to find each other.

Sunset along the river is magical, and one evening we caught up with the wonderful sight of a trio of giraffes lifting their heads into the evening breeze as the sky turned pink and lavender.

Even the nights in camp were exciting. One evening we could hear two male lions sounding their territory. It’s not a growl or a roar, more like a throaty huffing noise that carries for miles. A couple of times hyenas visited the camp after we’d all turned in – we could hear them sniffing and chuckling as they passed right between the tents.

A bush safari puts you right in the midst of the untamed African wild – by turns remarkably peaceful and incredibly exhilarating. The animals you see are fairly used to the game vehicles bouncing around, but they are never to be considered tame or safe. Most will run away, and elephants will usually mock-charge and make a lot of noise if they think you’re too close.

But when you run into the fierce water buffalo, you can see on their faces that they’re not to be messed with. The words ‘mock’ charge are not in their vocabulary – we were told that if one of them takes a run at you, you get the hell out of there.

After two days in Serondela that were a little more exciting than we’d anticipated, we were heading to the border to cross over to the place that explorer David Livingstone made famous, where the great Zambezi River separates Zimbabwe and Zambia – Victoria Falls!

We were reluctant to leave behind beautiful Botswana, and the amazing safari staff who had taken care of us over the past eight days. We’d become more than guests — we’d become friends whom they were proud to share their country with,

For me, having grown up near Niagara Falls, I wondered if I’d be very impressed with the other equally famous falls we were soon to see.

Join me next week for the final leg of our safari, the expedition to Mosi oa Tunya, the Smoke that Thunders!

The Skies of Africa — Part 3, Savute

The overland trip from Khwai to Savute is a day full of adventure. The road is long and dusty, often trapping the tires of self-drive visitors whose rented SUVs don’t have the suspension to handle the very deep sand.

Rescuing a self-driven couple stuck in the deep sand

In April, as the rainy season that brings storms and high waters to the Okavango Delta trickles to an end, the landscape progresses from fresh and green in Khwai, through thick mopane forests with their odd butterfly-shaped pairs of leaves, and then into the dry beige grasslands that Africa usually brings to mind.

Mopane shrubs studded with tent caterpillars

The journey is essentially a day-long game drive. Elephant paths criss-cross the road, and you’ll often find yourself waiting patiently as one of the big grey creatures leaves the brush on one side, lumbers across unconcerned with the trivial presence of motorized vehicles, and disappears surprisingly quickly into the scrub on the other side.

A stop for morning tea might be overseen by a curious troop of Chacma baboons, romping up and down the trees around the clearing where the safari staff have set up the cups, thermoses and plates of cookies. We watched a trio of youngsters play ‘king of the termite mound’ until a big adult male chased them off and claimed the throne for his own.

In the heat of mid-day, the guide will choose a shady spot to stop for lunch, where there’s still enough visibility to make sure no predators are resting under the shrubs.

Lunch is a picnic in the bush, where you can watch a large monitor lizard slink through the grass or a herd of wildebeest graze in the shade of acacias while you enjoy dishes like roasted chicken, potato salad, buns, three-bean salad, cold cuts, creamy rice salad and other amazing food, cooked by the camp chefs that morning and packed in metal containers for the trip.

Finally, in the late afternoon, you arrive at the Savute Channel, one of the strangest places in Botswana. The channel is a deep valley that links two sets of marshes, Savute and Linyanti. The first time we were there, we drove along the bottom, swerving between the tree-lined sides as we spotted banded mongooses and searched for that elusive leopard. The channel had been dry for about 20 years.

Three years later, the channel had experienced one of its mysterious flows and was full of water. Decades of research have failed to reveal the reason for this strange phenomenon, but geologists attribute it to some kind of tectonics that sometimes block the flow of water, and other times let it through.

Camp is set up on the top edges of the channel where it’s always dry, and there are always flat plains to enjoy all the wildlife and the spectacular sunsets.

That first safari, we arrived at the channel in the late afternoon. Our guide decided to explore the bottom of the channel while we still had some daylight. He said that, with all the rocky outcrops, it was a place where leopards liked to hang out so they could lurk on the rocks and look for prey. We drove from one end to the other and up the other side – nothing. It was getting late, so our guide decided to cross back and head for camp, and was nearly at the bottom when a fellow guide radioed the exciting news: a leopard sighting! It’s one of the advantages of a guided safari – all the guides from the different safari companies will share the location of sightings with each other.

The sometimes-dry bottom of the Savute Channel

Our guide screeched to a dusty stop, made a quick three-point turn and tore back up the hill. We were all hushed, holding our breaths so we wouldn’t make any noise to spook the creature, and scrutinizing every shrub and shadow right along with our guide. I was at the back on the right side of the vehicle, camera ready and repeating “Don’t scream, don’t scream” silently over and over in my head. While I’m not normally a screamer, it’s hard to stop yourself from at least a tiny shriek of excitement when you see something special.

We rounded a curve in the road and suddenly I spotted the leopard, lounging in the sparse grasses of a little clearing just off to the side! I whispered as softly/loudly as I could to the people ahead of me, “It’s over there! It’s right there!!”, and pointed frantically. It felt like forever as word made its way up to our guide and he carefully pulled over into the dust, slowly approaching the animal.

It was a small female, lying quietly in the dusk. She was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen, even more stunning in person from just a few feet away. She didn’t seem to be bothered by our presence at all, lying there graciously for about 20 minutes while we quietly snapped photos. Eventually she got up and calmly licked herself a bit – as if displaying all her elegance just for us – and then faded away into the brush.

My hubby looked over at me at one point incredulously. “Are you crying?!”

We had done it. We had found a leopard, all lethal beauty and grace, lying right out in the open for us. By that point I’d been fully convinced that we’d never see one. And I’d been the one to spot her first. I was incredibly moved by the experience. That evening in camp we all cracked open a special bottle of wine at dinner to celebrate.

The amazing sightings continued.

One morning an entire flock of ostrich paraded across the savannah as we had morning tea.

In another section we watched two male impalas lock horns in a deathly battle. One of the males flipped the other so hard it crashed into the side of our vehicle. We were sure it was dead, until it suddenly leapt up and sprinted away, the other male hot on its hooves.

Around a bend we surprised a big male lion courting a female right at the side of the road. He let out a massive aggravated roar, making every single one of us jump in our seats. Our guide told us that he was one of three brothers, any of whom would happily dethrone him. Through three days of prolonged, repeated and exhausting mating needed to stimulate the female into conception, the male had to be constantly on alert lest one of his brothers attacked, so he was a bit testy.

A muddy pit held the heartbreaking remains of an old elephant who’d got caught in the muck and hadn’t had the strength to get out. We sat there in respectful silence for a few minutes. No one took any photos, and we left it in peace as we continued on our game drive.

A flooded road in the water-filled Savute Channel

Three years later, the abundant waters of the full channel had changed the migration – now large herds of animals remained in Savute instead of moving on to Linyanti, and we were overwhelmed at the sight of so many zebra forming a crazy piece of op art with their dizzying clusters of stripes. Scientists believe that’s the  purpose of the stripes, to confuse predators so that they can’t tell where one zebra stops and the next starts. In such groupings, it’s easier for the vulnerable babies to disappear between dozens of legs.

Beyond the zebras the landscape was full of herds of giraffe loping along the ground and elephants taking dust baths.

Guinea fowl supplied comic relief, with their fat speckled bodies topped by long necks and small red and blue heads. When they’re disturbed, they dash in absurd clusters through the grasses. The guides call them ‘running teapots’.

There was an impala run behind our camp, and every day at tea time in the afternoon the antelopes seemed to get their own version of cat-crazies, bounding back and forth along the base of the hill until they’d worked off their energy.

On one afternoon game drive we drove to an area high up in the Savute foothills where hundreds of years ago San bushmen painted rock art of the animals they hunted, best seen in the golden light of late day, after some steep scrambling up the boulders!

As the sun began to sink, a pair of lionesses on the hunt prowled through the grasses right in front of us.

And then there were the sunsets.

We all loved Savute and were as sorry to leave it behind as we were excited to move on to the Serondela region and the Chobe Reserve with its world-famous elephant herds. The reserve runs along the wide Chobe river, and would give us the opportunity to take to the deeper water amid crocodiles and big pods of hippos. Join me next week for our surprisingly dangerous venture into Serondela!

The Skies of Africa – Part 2, Khwai

Khwai, ahh Kwhai! It remains my favourite part of Botswana (although in all fairness I haven’t visited the entire range of game reserves in the country). There’s just something about this area that I completely fell in love with.

Khwai is part of the Moremi reserve, a drier section of the Okavango Delta. It’s considered one the most magical parts of Botswana, and that’s definitely the effect it had on me. After another short flight across more of the Delta, you come in for a landing at another short sandy strip, and proceed to the entrance to Khwai village, where there’s a scattering of traditional round mud huts with conical thatched roofs, and a small rectangular ‘tuck shop’ where you can restock on AA or AAA camera batteries and possibly a storage disk or two. The mud huts are built with material from disused termite mounds, so they’re as waterproof and weather-resistant as the mounds themselves.

The Khwai villagers used to live in the game reserve itself, but were moved outside of it with the offering of a concession to run the tuck shop, sell their beautiful handwoven basketry, and work as safari staff. At the edge of the village a picturesque, rough log bridge straight out of an adventure movie crosses the Khwai river to take you into the reserve itself.

Our guides let us out at the start of the bridge for photo ops and so we could have the fun of walking across ourselves while they drove the safari vehicles with all of our luggage across, picking us up on the other side. Pretty grey vervet monkeys with charcoal faces tend to hang about the bridge and watch the human antics.

Our second bush camp was set up in a clearing amid acacias and sausage trees. In the distance, from the direction of the river we could hear hippos grunting, and since we were there during rutting season, at night the male impalas snorted at each other for hours not very far from our tents – one night I was tempted to hurl a hiking boot at them.

The landscape of Moremi, and Khwai in particular, is flat and colourful, with thickets of green acacias and mopane interspersed with white termite mounds, gold and russet grasses, blue pools of water and large muddy grey wallows where you can size up your footprint next to an elephant’s.

We often stopped for morning tea in a clearing near the river, watching rust-coloured lechwe antelope graze while Nile crocodiles sunned along the river bank and wading birds strolled through the water.

Lazy lunches back at camp were followed by naps, journal-writing or a spot of laundering with an afternoon cocktail.

In the late afternoon our guide would take us back out to catch elephants moving through the golden grasses and lions huffing as their pride settled down with the dwindling rays of the sun.

With such a varied terrain, Khwai is truly a birder’s paradise. On our first trip to Botswana we had a birder from Australia in our group, and we soon became as fascinated as he was as our guide pointed out all the exotic-looking birds for the tally. Cranes, African ground hornbills, open-billed storks, spoonbills, pied kingfishers, Egyptian geese, tawny eagles, fish eagles, kori bustards, lilac-breasted rollers… a buffet of birds for spotting.

Open-billed stork
Kori bustard
Lilac-breasted rollers

Our safari company had provided small wildlife journals with descriptions of the animals as well as checklists to mark off everything we spotted. We quickly learned that this was an essential activity – we’d regularly see at least a dozen or more new creatures in a single day, and the only way to remember which was which was to jot notes in the order that you took photos of them!

Nights were cooler there, with less moisture to hold in the heat. I can still remember the feeling of lying snug and warm under my duvet while cool fresh air bathed my face. It was a wonderful way to sleep.

One night I woke up briefly to snuffling and grunting beneath the tent window. I couldn’t see what the animal was, but the next morning, upon describing the sounds to our guide, he told me it would have been a honey badger, a fierce animal that I was happy not to have met face-to-face. The guides are experts at identifying animals by their different sounds and tracks, and they’ll spot a giraffe peeking out of the trees long before you do, a bird in a distant tree, a rock python slithering through the grass.

In the morning the camp staff would come round to each tent to gently wake us up. In the morning chill we dressed quickly with a minimum of primping in the low pre-dawn light, although I did bring a portable lighted plastic mirror that has become an indispensable travel companion ever since.

Bush camping is an intimate experience. The tents are clustered enough that you get to know the routines of your fellow travellers pretty well, especially if you’re on a safari with shared toilet and shower facilities. There’s not much to be done in the way of grooming when you have no electricity, and hair issues are easily hidden under a hat, thank goodness.

Mornings are usually a quick washup and tooth-brushing with warm water in either a canvas bucket or a tin basin while the raucous francolin birds chatter all around the camp. You have time for a swipe of unscented deodorant, and exchanging sleep wear for layers that can be removed as the day gets warmer. Our usual outfit would be convertible hiking pants that would keep our legs warm in the morning chill but with zip-off bottom halves that could be taken off to create long shorts; a t-shirt underneath a ventilated hiking shirt, maybe topped with a sweater and/or light jacket; socks and hiking shoes; and scruffy hair tucked under a hat.

As the temperature rose, typically into the 80s or 90s F by lunch time, we would peel off layers and stuff them in the seat pouches.

A light meal of coffee or tea, cereal and toast; a quick potty break; you make sure you have your daypack with camera, water, journal and pen; and you pile into the safari vehicle for the morning game drive.

On every safari we’ve done, the participants take turns in different seats of the open part of the vehicle so that everyone gets a chance at different viewpoints. The experience is different depending on where you sit. Up front in the cab next to the guide, you get to see everything first, and it’s fun to chat. In the rear section, on a good safari every participant has a ‘window’ seat with an unimpeded view.

When open-sided vehicles are used, as they are throughout Botswana, the seating is typically staggered in height, lowest in front to highest in back. The two seats farthest back can provide the best viewing from the elevated height, but it’s also the bumpiest place to sit, and while the guides keep an eagle eye out for logs and ruts, an unexpected deep pothole can send you flying.

When animals are spotted, the guide will position the vehicle in the best possible viewing location with a good angle for photos. If it’s possible without spooking the animals, he may even reposition after a while so that guests on both sides have good photo ops, Good safaris will also stay with an exceptional sighting for as long as the guests want, instead of rushing off somewhere else on a tight schedule.

We spent a long time enjoying the spectacle of our first big male lion, belly full and sated from a big meal, as he lay languidly in the shade digesting, He was quite unconcerned with our presence. We were able to get close enough to smell him, and I can tell you that male lions stink. It’s a wonder they can find a female to mate with!

Afternoon game drives operate a bit differently, since many public game reserves don’t allow night viewing to avoid disturbing the animals. As the day turns to dusk, the predators come out to hunt, while the other animals start to settle down for the night. Baboons that have been foraging in the grasses all day will move up into the tree branches, impalas sprint across the fields to their nightly abode, giraffes scent the evening air and lumber slowly away through the trees. In most reserves the guide is required to return you to camp by nightfall.

In private concessions, you may get to do one or two night drives. A spotter will sit up on a special seat on the front edge of the vehicle’s hood, carrying a spotlight. The guide will slowly drive along through the deepening darkness, looking for movement in the brush and eyes reflected in the light. You might spot a serval cat prowling through the grasses or a spotted hyena loping down the road. If you’re near water and are very lucky, there might be a ghostly Pel’s fishing owl in a tree. It’s an interesting peek at life in the wild on the flip side of the day.

A Pel’s owl

Either during the lunch break, or before dinner, your canvas bucket will be filled up with hot water so you can have a bush shower.

It’s my assertion that you haven’t lived until you’ve experienced a hot bucket shower in the African bush. A large canvas bucket, hanging from a tree branch or a wooden stand, holds enough water for two people, if you’re careful. You strip and step onto a slatted wooden platform, then open the spigot at the bottom of the bucket to allow enough water through to get you wet. The spigot gets closed while you lather up from head to foot; the camp provides the unscented, biodegradable shampoo and shower soap.

Once that you’re fully soaped up, you reopen the spigot to quickly rinse off. The water drains into the dirt through the wooden slats beneath your feet as you take your fluffy towel off its metal perch to dry off and get dressed so the next person can have their turn.

On our first safari, where the shower tents were shared by all, there was a thick rope to string across the opening that showed the tent was occupied, and the shower itself was located in a separate section with its own flap. It was my misfortune one windy day in the Khwai camp to be in mid-shower when my hubby started frantically calling my name. A male elephant on a mating mission, blind with lust, was charging through the edge of our camp. But the wind was trying hard to flip open the tent flaps, and it was impossible for me to take a look without flashing everyone – not for lack of trying! Intensely frustrated, I had to be content with hearing about it afterward.

Black-backed jackals on the hunt

After two days our time in magical Khwai was done, and once more we gathered up our belongings while the safari staff packed up the entire camp. From there it was a full day overland, back through Khwai village and northward through hours of bush to get to our third camp in Savute, famed for its sunsets. There were sunsets in Khwai, of course, but apparently they paled in comparison to Savute’s, where the wide savannah topography allowed for magnificent views.

Savute was also a good place to see leopards. At the start of a safari your guide may ask you what animal you most want to see, and will try and find it for you. My instant answer was a leopard – dangerous, beautiful, and elusive. We’d now spent four days trying to spot one, and time was running out. I tried not to get my hopes too high for Savute, and I knew there were no guarantees that we’d see one at all, but Savute was my last best chance.

Next week, part 3: Savute!

The Skies of Africa, Part 1: Nxabega

How is everyone doing? Interesting times, and it can take some determination to block out most of the media frenzy so that it doesn’t rub off on you. I love this article by Smarter Travel, Tips from Italians on Handling the Lockdown with Grace and Style — lots of things that made me smile.

I’m always up for a little escapism when I’m stressed, and a recent email from one of the safari companies we’ve travelled with gave me the idea for this extended blog post.

Going to the continent of Africa is a transcendent experience – a visitor will come back changed. It’s believed that Africa affects us so deeply because, going back hundreds of thousands of years, it’s where all of us – our species as human beings – originated. There’s certainly a feeling of great age there.

My hubby and I have been very fortunate to have been to Africa several times, so over several weeks I’m going to take you on a virtual journey to beautiful Botswana in southern Africa.

These are long reads, so get comfy.

First, prepare yourself some tea or coffee – preferably served in a metal cup, stainless steel or speckle ware, such as you might use on a camping adventure – and a plate of cookies (any kind will do, but feel free to have an exotic flavour if you like). If you need to eat gluten-free food, on one of the safaris the camp chef made us delightful gluten-free corn muffins. If you can’t have caffeine, get yourself some Rooibos tea, a hearty herbal tea that we enjoyed on our first safari.

Next, if you have an old-fashioned oil or kerosene lamp, light that up for atmosphere, and imagine yourself in the orange and lavender African dusk as we journey together.

Getting to Botswana is an adventure in itself. We flew from Canada to London, England, then 11 hours to Johannesburg, South Africa, then a smaller jet to Maun in Botswana, where our safari guides met us and loaded our baggage onto small bush planes with propellers. There’s not much room on the bush planes, so your luggage must be compact, soft-sided and lightweight. My hubby bought a duffle bag for the purpose, but I found a great backpack-style bag with lots of pockets and a small set of wheels. When I’m getting up at the crack of dawn deep in the African bush and trying to dress myself in near-darkness, I want to be able to locate the various parts of my outfit!

As we chugged along just 1,000 feet above the Okavango Delta, Botswana’s famous wetland and the location of our first bush camp, we could see small bits of island dotting the vast shallow floodplain. Our guides pointed out channels made through the swampy waters between some of the islands, made by elephants and hippos as they wade through and graze on the water plants.

The Delta is created by waters from the Okavango River, which, instead of emptying into the ocean, dumps itself into the northern part of the Kalahari Desert, creating one of the largest wetlands in the world. The deep blue waters are always there, although they swell and shrink from one rainy season to the next, so the Delta is the permanent home for all kinds of wildlife. If you’re a birder, it’s an absolute paradise!

The flight to our first bush camp lasted about half an hour, and then we were coming in for a landing on a tiny strip of sand in the middle of nowhere – the bush airstrip used by several camps and lodges. Our baggage was transferred into a couple of waiting open-sided safari trucks, into which we all piled in for the roughly 90-minute ride through the bush to our camp.

The first thing you notice in the Delta is the salty, pungent scent of wild sage in the warm air. The landscape is filled with sage bushes, tall and short palm trees, and high slender termite mounds studding the deep sandy  Kalahari base. The mounds are the genesis of the islands themselves, as termites start gluing together soil above the waters, and seeds germinate on the fertile exterior.

The few roads wind through the Delta, skirting trees, tall mounds and shrubbery – they’re meant to be minimally invasive – and we rode along with all of our senses engaged as the trucks bounced along the deep sandy surfaces, drawing our breaths in as we began to see wildlife! Your first sighting in Africa is typically a herd of impalas, the antelopes with the buff coats, pretty ears and striped rumps. These antelopes are so successful a species that, despite being the favourite prey of the big cats, they can be found on much of the continent. The first time we went, we were delighted to see them all, until after a few days and many sightings later, someone would say excitedly, “Look, over there, I see some…oh, it’s just more impalas.”

Safaris through the wettest part of the Delta often involve crossing from one island to the next. Sometimes there are log bridges, sometimes your safari truck will just wade directly through the waters.

The vehicles are specially designed with exhaust pipes that snorkel upward above the hood to keep them dry. It can feel a bit like the parting of the Red Sea – on one game drive I was sitting up front next to our guide and had to quickly raise my feet above the water that came rushing into my seating area (thankfully not as high as my seat itself).

After going on safari, driving back home isn’t nearly as much fun!

When we finally arrived at our bush camp in the Nxabega section of the Delta, the camp staff all came over to welcome us, show us to our assigned tents, and lead us gratefully to a delicious lunch. Here the camp is set up overlooking the permanent floodplain in the Delta, set more-or-less safely back from the water (one morning the meal table had to be hastily moved).

The tents are a wonderful combination of comfort and exposure to nature. On our first trip to Botswana we were in 9′ x 9′ dome tents with just our 2 comfortable cots, but the same safari two years later featured three-part tents with a large sleeping section, a middle section open to the sky so that a canvas bucket could be hung overhead for our showers along with a table with a metal sink and water pitcher, and an enclosed toilet section with a flushable toilet connected to a canvas cistern outside at the rear.

After lunch and a bathroom break, we had a chance to explore the camp and settle in for the next two days.

We had embarked on what’s called a mobile camping safari, spending two nights in each of four camps in different habitats in Botswana.

Safaris typically follow a format created by the earliest commercial safaris:

  • Rising at dawn for a full or continental breakfast and then heading out on a morning game drive in the cool of the day when the animals wake up and are active
  • Mid-morning break for tea/coffee and biscuits in the bush
  • Return to the camp around lunchtime. The day has usually gotten hot by this point, so the animals are often hiding in the shade, so it’s an opportune time to enjoy lunch and relax in the camp, perhaps writing in your journal or playing cards with a gin and tonic.
  • Afternoon tea, a holdover from the early British days of safari, followed by
  • A late afternoon game drive when the temperature is dropping again and predators are often out on the hunt
  • Return to camp at dusk for showers and dinner around the campfire.

The camp chefs are expert at creating some amazing meals over a wood fire – even cakes are possible. Wine and beer are generally included on safari, while hard liquors can be arranged. Some passengers will bring their own supply; Johannesburg airport won’t sell liquor to non-nationals, but Maun has a “bottle store” (aka liquor store) and you can arrange with your guide to make a quick excursion when you land.

After dinner we sat around the table with our guides, chatting, listening to the tinkling sounds of tree frogs and fruit bats all around us, watching the sky turn indigo and purple, then black, and all the stars coming out to twinkle overhead.

The campfire stayed lit all night, and lanterns were hanging outside our tent flap, to keep the animals away (mostly). After a busy day in the fresh African air, bedtimes are generally early and well-earned.

Our first night as we lay in the tent, just some canvas and mesh separating us from the African wild, listening to all the night noises, we experienced such a thrill of excitement at being so immersed in that legendary continent.

With a permanent source of water, the Okavango Delta is a treasure-house of a wide variety of both land and water animals and birds. We saw elephant herds with babies, long-necked giraffe grazing in the tops of the thorn trees, troops of Chacma baboons rooting through the long grasses, zebra and tsesebe well-camouflaged in the shadows, saddle-billed storks…and lions.

The first sighting of a lion in the wild is sensational. We spotted this female lounging in the shade just a few feet off the road, watching us with her great, beautiful golden eyes. The animals seemed surprisingly relaxed around safari vehicles, but it’s essential to keep quiet and seated, especially around the big cats. Our guide told us that the animals see the vehicle and all its occupants as one big ‘animal’, but if the guests start making too much noise and moving around, the lions and leopards will recognize that there are several ‘prey’ inside and will attack.

This is the critical part of safety on safari: always do what your trained and experienced guide tells you to do. It will keep you alive – not that safaris are overly dangerous, but you can get yourself into trouble if you don’t follow the rules.

The guides are extremely knowledgeable about all the animals and how safely they can be approached, where the different animals like to hang out, how to read tracks in the sand and follow other clues (like a large concentration of vultures watching from a tree) to where a cat has just made a kill and is feeding.

One unique adventure in the Delta is a ride in a traditional canoe, called a mokoro. These canoes were the sole means of transport through the vast delta waterways for a long time. All of the guides on our safari were native to the area and had grown up poling a mokoro around the waters. In the cool morning air they drove us over to the muddy boarding area a short drive from our camp and helped us step carefully into the canoes. As they poled us out into the shallow floodplain, we glided silently and softly among the water grasses and sunlit lilies, slowing down to look at painted frogs, stick insects and exotic spiders on the stems of reeds, or watching monkeys cavort in distant palm trees.

For our morning tea break, our guides pulled into a small scrubby island and set up a table with thermoses and tins of cookies. Across the water, a big bull elephant waded up to another island and noisily tore up great chunks of grasses for his own breakfast.

There’s a section of the floodplain that’s deep enough to host hippos and crocodiles, and for that part we were taken out in a motorboat through avenues of papyrus and night lilies to watch the sun set in amber serenity over the still evening waters.

On our final morning in Nxabega, enroute to the little sandy airstrip to fly to our next camp, our guides spotted a lion hunt in progress and we stopped to watch.

It was an absolutely brilliant piece of strategy. A mother lioness (who happened to be collared as part of a wildlife study) prowled through the tall buff grasses, slowly but inexorably driving a young warthog toward the dirt mound that her daughter was perched on ready to pounce. When the warthog was close enough, in a flash the younger lioness had leapt and captured it. Then came the hardest part of the experience, hearing the heartrending cries of the little warthog, its own mother watching helplessly from a distance. This was nature in its most primal form, the cycle of life as one creature gave up its life to feed another – easy to recognize but difficult to witness.

After that piece of high drama in the grasses, we moved on to the airstrip to continue our adventure in a drier section of the Delta, the beautiful Khwai reserve in Moremi, on the other side of the floodplain.

Join me in two weeks for Part 2: Khwai. Next week we’ll embrace the playfulness of April Fool’s Day and look at the whimsy of board games, another great way to pass some of the time we currently have on our hands.

In the meantime, the excellent safari company that we used, &Beyond, has posted a playlist of African music that you can download from a selection of online music apps.

If you’d like to make an authentic African soup, here’s one of my favourite recipes, which I believe I got from an issue of Gourmet magazine many years ago (although I’m not positive). It’s quite easy to make in a couple of hours, and makes a good-sized pot of hearty, delicious soup that also freezes well. An important note: include all the fresh ingredients as stated (both colours of peppers, fresh garlic, etc.), or the soup will not taste as good. You can substitute water and some raw chicken thighs for 4 cups of the broth and the cooked chicken at the same time as the canned tomatoes – I prefer to do it that way instead of adding cooked chicken at the end. I also add extra chili flakes for a little more heat. If you’re vegetarian you could try substituting sweet potato for the chicken – I’ve never tried it that way but I think that might be an interesting flavour combo.

African Peanut Chicken Soup

serves 8 to 10

  • 2 onions, chopped
  • 1 lg red pepper & 1 lg green pepper, each seeded and chopped into approx. ¾” chunks
  • 3 to 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 tbsp peanut or canola oil
  • 28-oz can chopped tomatoes with juice
  • 8 cups chicken broth
  • ¼  tsp. dried hot red pepper flakes, or to taste 
  • ¼  tsp black pepper
  • ½  cup long-grain rice, uncooked
  • 1½  cups diced cooked chicken
  • 2/3 cup creamy peanut butter

In heavy pot cook the onions, peppers and garlic in the oil over moderate heat, stirring, until the onions just begin to brown; add the tomatoes with the juice, the broth, red pepper flakes, and black pepper, and simmer the soup, covered, for 1 hour.

Add the rice and the chicken and simmer the soup for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the rice is tender. Add the peanut butter, stirring until the soup is smooth. Serve hot with biscuits, rolls or fresh bread. This soup can be doubled or tripled and also freezes well.

Women around the world

My dad was ahead of his time. His generation viewed women only as wives and mothers, but he encouraged me to study science as a career choice. When I was a little girl and wanted a bicycle, he took me to the bank to open my first bank account and helped me save up enough money to buy one. Years later, he taught me not only how to drive but also the basics of car maintenance — he showed me how to check the oil, change a flat tire, top up the windshield washer fluid.

When I was just seventeen and adventurous, I decided I wanted to drive 300 miles to visit my great-aunt in the city I was born in, and he agreed to let me take the family car. He drew a map for me of how to get there while avoiding the craziness that was Toronto traffic at the time. My mother, who couldn’t drive herself, came along with me, but in contrast to my dad’s calm assumption that I’d do just fine, she prayed surreptitiously most of the way. She was a good sport, though, and we had quite a few laughs along the way.

I was lucky — both my parents raised me with a strong sense of ethics and taught me how to be an independent woman. When my husband and I decided not to have children, they supported our right to make that decision for ourselves.

Not all young women in the world have had that encouragement and respect, so the annual celebration of International Women’s Day, just around the corner on March 8, is so important because it’s also a celebration of equality for all genders, whether female, male or any other. The theme this year is EachforEqual, which speaks to exactly that point.

There’s a photo contest attached to the event, but I’m not a competitive person (except when playing Backgammon, at which I’m ruthless 😀 ), so I’m happy to just post my own photos of wonderful females from my travels.

Flower arranger, Lima Peru
Group of lively girls dressed up for a Day of All Souls parade, Camana Peru
Ladies selling handmade dolls, Arequipa Peru
Samburu women with their spectacular beaded neckpieces, Samuru Kenya
A mother elephant protects her baby, Samburu Kenya
The sisterhood, Masai Mara Kenya
Grandmother making flour, Uros Floating Island, Lake Titicaca Peru
Young woman herding llamas, Andes Mountains Peru
Girl selling handwoven reed cup, Khwai village Botswana
A devoted mother

World Elephant Day

When you think of Africa, what animal do you think of most? A good bet that it’s an elephant – their distinctive shape with widespread ears is such an iconic symbol. There are Asian elephants as well, which have smaller ears and a large twin bump at the top of their heads.

This is a special early post this week in honour of World Elephant Day.

African elephants are a wonderful sight in the wild. These massive creatures – they can weigh up to 12 tons) can be surprisingly silent when they choose – we have spotted them emerging from the bush unexpectedly without us even having been aware that they were moving about.

When watching them on safari, they are remarkably laid back as long as you don’t impinge on their personal space. A good safari guide knows how close to get without making them feel threatened.

If you do get a little too close, they will usually mock-charge by running towards you with ears flared and trunk raised, perhaps even blaring through their trunk. In certain situations they can get quite pissy, however.

There’s a large resident herd in Chobe National Park in Botswana, and most safari-goers embark on a short cruise on the Chobe River to see them trudge en masse down to the river for a drink and a bathe. There’s also a large and rambunctious resident troop of Chacma baboons. On one occasion we were watching the elephant herd peacefully roaming the river’s edge when the baboons decided to join the party. The baboons were making lots of noise and running all over the place, which really irritated the elephants, who proceeded to stamp up and down the river front, blaring loudly and shaking the trees with their trunks. The baboons were unrepentant, scampering around and creating chaos for several minutes. Eventually they seemed to tire of the game, leaving the elephants in peace once more.

In Kenya in Aberdare National Park, at a wonderful treetop lodge called the Ark, we watched animals at the watering hole while we were having afternoon tea in the lounge on the second level. We were highly entertained watching the water buffalo do end runs behind the back of a feisty teenage male elephant who seemed to feel that the watering hole was his and his alone and tried to evict them, with little effect.

As placid as elephants can be when you’re viewing them from a safari vehicle, any time that baby elephants are present, the adult elephants will be more protective, and male elephants in musth (heat) are essentially hormone-crazed and very dangerous.

If an elephant is in the road you’re travelling on, it owns it for the duration. Don’t ever try to bypass the elephant (as this tourist in Kruger National Park found out the hard way back in 2014).

It is amazing to watch them in the wild, doing what they do naturally, whether congregating for a sunset drink, bathing in a muddy puddle, or wading through the water to tear up great mouthfuls of vegetation for breakfast.

Elephants – in fact, all animals – are a gift, and we are privileged to be able to spend a little time with them in places like Africa. You can find out more about one of the world’s most majestic and enigmatic creatures, and how you can help ensure that other generations can continue to be amazed by them at the World Elephant Day website.

If you’d like to travel to Africa yourself and would like more information about where these images were taken, or about going on safari, please email me at liontailmagic@gmail.com.