For the last decade, I have been privileged to travel to many exotic locations to pursue my passion for observing wildlife in its natural habitat. On most of these trips, I joined a prepackaged tour organized by a tour company. While I enjoyed them all, I decided to try and organize such an expedition of my own.
Botswana is a politically stable, English-speaking nation of about 2 million people in an area the size of Texas. Most of the country is taken up by the great Kalahari desert, but on its northern edge is the Okavango Delta, a 15,000-square-kilometer wetland that holds one of the world’s greatest concentrations of wildlife. Having never been there previously, I decided that Botswana would be my destination.
I wanted to be certain that my traveling companions shared my interest in wildlife, so I first invited my fellow Memphis Zoo docents. Regina Cook, Richard Mashburn and Nora Fernandez and Nora’s husband, Al, all signed on. Kay Owen, a former zoo docent, and her husband, George, also agreed to go. Dawn Wilkins, a biology professor at UT Martin, completed our roster.
We left Memphis on Nov. 4, flying first to Atlanta, then taking the 16-hour flight to Johannesburg. Exhausted and jet-lagged, we checked into the hotel airport for the night.
Next morning, we met our guide, South African Lee Gutteridge, who shepherded us through the airport and onto our flight to Maun, Botswana, the jumpoff location for most Okavango safaris. From Maun, we took charter flights to the Moremi Game Reserve in the Okavango Delta.
Landing at reserve headquarters, we met our local guide, Shadreck Tshanga, and the modified Toyota Land Cruiser that was our transportation for the next 10 days. Shaq drove us to our first camp, which the three-man safari crew had ready.
We camped at that location for three days, observing elephants, buffalo, lions, hippos, zebra, antelope and many different species of birds. On the fourth day, we moved to the Khwai Community Campsites, near Khwai village, outside the reserve. Tour companies pay the Khwai village council to operate the campground and conserve wildlife for ecotourists. It is a win-win situation for everyone; tourists, tour companies, villagers and especially the animals.
At breakfast next morning, Shaq announced that he had found very fresh lion tracks just outside the campground. We hurried through our jam and toast to scramble aboard the safari car to pursue it. Not one hundred yards from camp, we found a gorgeous young male lion, traveling alone.
He had most likely been ejected from his pride by his father when his scruffy mane had begun to grow. He had not yet acquired the battle scars and torn ears of a pride ruler and his bright yellow mane showed sign of becoming especially beautiful.
Paying us no attention, he sat on his haunches gazing back toward the campground. Whether he had caught scent of potential prey or another lion who might be a potential threat or even better, a companion, was impossible to tell. His expression seemed oddly wistful, as if he knew that lions are social animals for which solitary life is not natural. We sat mesmerized by his beautiful golden eyes until he finally turned and walked silently away.
Our next destination was one of the many channels and waterways that crisscross the Okavango Delta. Waiting for us there were four young men and five “makoros,” or dugout canoes. Two of us boarded each canoe, with Lee joining Gina and me. One of the young men stood in each stern, poling us through the shallows, while Shaq came behind in the last vessel with our morning’s refreshments.
A hippo and her calf watched us suspiciously as we shoved off. I knew that there must be crocodiles close by, so I was definitely nervous. The water could not have been more than 4 feet deep, but with both species of these dangerous creatures around I was concerned about much more than drowning.
Water lilies and other plants grew profusely along the waterway. The boatmen pulled up water lilies, then fashioned the stems and flowers into ingenious necklaces for each of the ladies.
The channel was a magnet for water birds. We flushed a rufous-bellied heron from the reeds and watched a saddle-billed stork snap up fish and frogs with its massive, colorful beak. Comb ducks and African pygmy geese swam alongside our makoros.
As we rounded a bend, three very tall gray-and-white birds came into view. They were wattled cranes, named for the peculiar lappet of skin that dangles from either side of their bill. Wattled cranes live only in the Okavango and a few other locations in southern Africa. I had not expected to find these majestic birds and was thrilled to do so.
After refreshments on the bank, we turned for home. Our boatman took our craft through a side channel to admire some especially lovely water lilies. We glided past stalks of rushes and other water plants when I noticed that one of the stalks was keeping pace with us. I called Lee’s attention to it and his response was “It’s a Mozambique spitting cobra!” The snake swam unconcernedly away behind us as our guide poled us back to where we had left the car. We unloaded quickly and returned to camp for lunch and a well-deserved siesta.
Since we were outside the public wildlife reserve, we were under no constraint to be in camp before sunset. Accordingly, we lingered on our afternoon drive, observing zebras, hyenas, elephants and baboons until nearly dark.
Of all the animal species that I had hoped to see in Botswana, the one I most wanted was the African wild dog, the rarest large predator in southern Africa. Botswana is the animal’s last stronghold. For that reason, we were all excited when the radio crackled, “Wild dogs are close and they are hunting!”
The dogs made their kill just before we caught up with them. They were tearing apart the unfortunate prey animal, which could be barely recognized as an impala. All of this activity attracted tourist vans and a pickup driven by wildlife biologists who had been remotely tracking the alpha male, who was wearing a radio collar. It also attracted a pair of spotted hyenas who were quickly driven off by the dogs. We observed the pack as it fed and played until well after dark. We arrived at camp late but exhilarated.
Next day, we embarked on a short walking safari where an approaching herd of elephants caused us to scramble for shelter. That evening we made our only night drive, finding nightjars (birds), springhaas (rodents), lesser bush baby (nocturnal primates) and an African wildcat.
We rose early next morning for the long drive to the Savuti channel in the Chobe National Park. This was a savanna area where there were many more hoofed mammals, more reminiscent of the game parks of East Africa. Nora and Gina had brought along jackets that they wear as docents at the Memphis Zoo. These uniforms jackets feature an embroidered sable antelope. Shaq had noticed and tried hard to find a sable antelope in our two days at Savuti. He found roan antelope and gemsbok, large and handsome animals, but there were no sable.
We left Savuti on a very hot morning for the long, dusty, bumpy ride to Kisane where we were to spend our last night at the Chobe Safari Lodge. As we rumbled along, Shaq shouted “Look!”
Just next to the road a handsome bull sable was lying under a bush. Sable are perhaps the most beautiful of Africa’s antelopes; they are certainly its most aggressive and dangerous. We observed the powerful animal for some time before moving on.
Eventually, we reached Kisane, which lies on the bank of the Chobe River that separates Botswana from Namibia. At the Chobe Safari Lodge, a pontoon boat waited to take us on a lunch cruise on the Chobe River, where we observed Cape buffalo, hippos and many elephants as well as many water birds.
Next morning, we sadly left Botswana for the short flight to Johannesburg, then the very long flight to Atlanta and then home.
Originally published on the Commercial Appeal by Van Harris.