After hustling to shower and pack up after the bushwalk, we arrived at the airstrip a half an hour late with no plane in sight. We weren't sure if the pilot left us, or wasn't able to land because there were donkeys all over the strip!
While Lets and Zero ran around shooing the donkeys off the runway, we pondered where they might have broken in. The airstrip is surrounded by a fence constructed for the precise purpose of keeping donkeys and horses out of the area. So, where'd these guys come from?
You'll remember that the news from the bush was that elephants had been through camp the night before. They were the likely vandals of the fence. Liza made a mental note to bring the guests to the airstrip earlier than necessary so she'd have time to rid the strip of donkeys. Thankfully our 6-seat Cessna arrived after the strip was cleared.
About five minutes after take-off, I spotted my first herd of elephants huddled around a small watering hole. I felt an amazing surge of energy to see animals in the wild. This was just a foreshadowing of what was to come.
Whirlwind Game Drive
No trip to Botswana would be complete without a game drive. Since Khwai is located between the Chobe National Park and Moremi Game reserve, it might be one of the best places for wildlife viewing. In fact, as the plane taxied down the runway, I saw a group of zebra enjoying a snack along the strip.
Game viewing is best done in the early morning or late afternoon when the animals are eating or hunting for food. So, we had time to grab a late lunch at the camp before heading into the bush. Lani rode up front with Mike Chase to find out about the Okavango/Upper Zambezi TFCA, while I rode in the back of the truck under the auspices of snapping photographs. Kelly Landen, a conservation volunteer, rode in the back with me, bringing me up to speed on how Mike and his volunteers collar elephants for the purpose of tracking their migratory habits.
Back in Shakawe, Mike had promised an amazing experience, and he wasn't lying. I hadn't even imagined that I'd see so much wildlife. Before we'd hardly left the village, we spotted a family of giraffe snacking on some leaves alongside a dozen or so zebra. We drove less than half a mile further to find even more giraffe and zebra, along with baboons, wildebeests, cape buffalo, and impala.
"One lone bull we found bathing in a pond had the idea that if he stood really still we wouldn't see him"
The animals were nervous by our presence, but they did little more than move a few feet away from the road. Once they moved to a comfortable distance away from us, they simply returned to their dinner.
One of the challenges to wildlife tourism is minimizing the impact that the mere presence of humans can cause. It doesn't take much for well-intentioned tourists to affect the lives of the animals, from disrupting their feeding habits to transmitting deadly diseases to them. Mike was careful to keep a respectful distance from the herds.
>>Measure your impact with CI's EcoFootprint Quiz
Being an elephant researcher, Mike was keen to show us some of his pride and joy, so he drove us to some special spots where elephants were likely to be. And if I thought I saw a lot of other animals, it was nothing compared to all the elephants we encountered. There were large packs with babies and teens, to a few solitary bulls. Most of the time, they'd nervously turn and start heading into the trees, but one lone bull we found bathing in a pond had the idea that if he stood really still we wouldn't see him.
Elephants can live to be about 80 years old, and the really old ones can grow to be quite big. They also tend to be a little raggedy with broken tusks and torn ears. These scars are not from fighting, but mostly from tearing down trees and ripping apart branches. Everywhere that elephants roam is a path of destruction. On the bushwalk, Zero described them as "nature's destroyers." The large numbers of stumps and dead tree limbs scattered about the bush made it easy to understand why the locals might see elephants this way. A little environmental awareness goes a long way, as Zero was quick to concede that their behavior is part of the cycle of life in the bush. The bushmen know that clusters of downed trees make good houses for small creatures that, in turn, make good dinners for all sorts of predators, including people.
Further down the road, we came upon a bull who had a sizable hole in the flap of his ear, and when I pointed this out to Kelly, she told me that noticing permanent markings on an elephant, such as this hole, is good way to identify different animals. It's not enough to rely on the size of the animal or his tusks because these are features that are likely to change over time.
King of the Jungle
Elephants weren't the only attraction in Khwai. Lions tend to stay close to potential food, and Kelly explained to me that the cape buffalo had recently appeared. This meant that lions probably weren't far behind. Fueling our anticipation, a lion had been spotted in the area on the previous day, so we headed in the direction of the
sighting in hopes of catching a glimpse of this fearsome predator.
|"It's too dangerous.
You don't know what's
out there," she warned.
Kelly and I noticed dozens of vultures circling in the sky, and figured that if we followed them, they might lead us to the lion that was probably eating dinner. We spotted the kill first, a baby giraffe, and then a few feet away was a male lion resting under a tree. Mike agreed to move closer to him if Kelly and I would crawl into the cab of the truck.
Mike inched the truck forward until we were about 10 feet from the lion. To my surprise, he was completely unaffected by our presence, probably dazed from eating too much. I asked Mike why the male lion was hunting, because I'd understood that the females usually have that responsibility. He speculated that the lion had been pushed out of his pride, which would force him to hunt for himself.
On the way back to camp, we contemplated going back out again for a night drive, but after dinner we decided that getting some sleep was a smarter plan, especially since we had an early wake up call. The chalets of the abandoned lodge were essentially open, with only window screens protecting us from the animals that roam at night. Before I hit the sack, Kelly told me that if I needed to use the restroom during the night, it was best not to go all the way to the toilet.
"It's too dangerous. You don't know what's out there," she warned.
Not exactly the most comforting thought when sleeping in such an exposed place. I found myself longing for the huts at Gudigwa that have protected the bushmen for centuries.
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