Safaris tend to focus on the so-called Big Five – lions, leopards, buffalo, rhinos, elephants – but the Ugly Five makes for a fun alternative for anyone who’s already checked off the safari stars.
“That’s the ugliest bird I’ve ever seen.”
The statement doesn’t so much roll off my tongue as it stumbles out of my mouth as I look at the scrappy tufts of feather on the leathery head of a marabou stork. Others on the boat mutter similar sentiments.
It’s one of the Ugly Five,” says Amos, our captain and guide on an afternoon safari cruise at Moremi Game Reserve in Botswana’s Okavango River Delta. His enthusiasm feels exaggerated for such a hideous bird.
The list runs like a cast call for the “Lion King’s” least majestic animals: marabou stork, hyena, vulture, wildebeest and warthog. And we’re here to meet them all.
The marabou stork doesn’t just rely on its looks — it’s also got a scent thing going down.
“They can grow up to five feet long,” says Amos as we get close enough to see the scabby-looking beak of one these large birds. “And be glad it’s not close enough that you can smell him.”
Everyone, except our guide, cringes as the bird spreads its malodorous 12-foot wings and takes off from a tree, giving us a full view of its underbelly and wrinkly throat sack.
The Okavango Delta is one of two breeding grounds for the marabou stork. During mating season, the birds are known to eat live prey, including adult flamingos. The stork also goes by the name of the “undertaker bird” in recognition of the grim but important role it plays in the Delta — reducing diseases and cleaning up the ecosystem by devouring rotten carcasses.
One the next morning’s bush walk, we get lucky in spotting a hyena. We’re certainly luckier than the smelly dead animal it’s devouring. “Your nose is the strongest tracker of game,” says Amos. Apparently, your ears are the second, but we’re alerted to the hyena’s presence not by its notorious cackling laugh but by the sound of the bones it’s crunching.
We peer over the brush to see a spotted hyena with its snout in the stomach of an impala. Before anyone can ask, our guide says: “It probably didn’t steal this meal from lions. Hyenas are very successful hunters.”
The hyena registers low on the cuteness meter. This one couldn’t get any more ugly unless it was covered in blood. Which it is. My friend Anja, disagrees, claiming that hyenas are so unattractive they’re actually endearing.
“They’re only ugly because they’re villains in movies,” she says.
Because they’re one of the most populous safari animals — and not much to look at — many people don’t bother to photograph them, says Amos.
As the unpretty cousin of the more elegant eland and gazelle, the wildebeest is a peculiar genetic mishmash. It has the head of a buffalo, body of an antelope and tail of a shaggy horse. Its elongated face is connected to a dirty-looking neck fringe and features a mouth shaped, and used, like a lawnmower. Murky gray bodies decorated with black and white markings add to the unkempt appearance.
“It’s ugliness is no problem for mating, they’re practically blind,” Amos laughs.
The only way to get to Moremi Crossing is by small plane, followed by a five-minute boat ride. The guided cruise, bush walk and mokoro rides are part of all-inclusive packages for guests. Accommodations include luxury tents, outdoor showers and nightly hippo serenades.
Originally published on CNN Travel