Jane's Journeyers

Jane's Journeyers

Friday, November 28, 2014

Okavango Delta

Here is an account of the further adventures of Jane's Journeyers who wound up in the middle of the Okavango delta for a further three nights after our tearful parting at Chobe. Thanks to Joe McAllister for the text and to Blanche Tait for the photos (except for the ones of Little Dave and the one with Blanche & Dermott in the mokoro, which came from Jane Deluzio).  The Okavango Delta, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is a very large inland delta formed where the Okavango River drains into the sands of the Kalahari basin. 
The Okavango Octet

First rule of Gunn’s Camp: Watch out for Little David, the resident elephant, who, we have been told, has the tendency to run rampant through the camp.
Second rule: Lock your tent when you leave. The baboons are smart enough to unzip the flap to get inside.
We were literally in the middle of nowhere. For all educators, “literally” is correct usage here. From Chobe we took two puddle-jumper planes west-southwest into the very middle of Africa. We needed two planes because each could accommodate no more than five passengers, one of whom had to sit in the co-pilot’s seat.
We passed over miles and miles of scrub brush only rarely intersected by roads. There were scores of animal trails and occasionally watering holes containing elephants or hippos. It was hard to tell from that height what they were.

No mistaking this fellow
Finally we flew over a vast area of green swampland that is the Okavango delta. We came all this way to the other side of the world to see muskeg? As if we didn’t have enough of that at home in Canada.
At one small, dry, island there appeared a dirt airstrip where the pilots set down, stopping just short of running off the end of the runway. We collected our bags and took the short, three-minute walk to Gunn’s Camp where greeting staff sang a welcoming song.
Then came the introduction to the camp and warnings about Little David and the baboons. Our “rooms” were tents, albeit with a self-contained washroom, wood floor, and outdoor shower and tub. The tents were nicely appointed with king-size beds and lovely fresh white linen. There was a porch and reading room for each tent.
Our first excursion, like many to follow, involved taking a slow moving motorboat through the channels of the Okavango. Canadian muskeg this was not, with sightings of many exotic birds and a pool of ten or 12 hippos.

We saw the undertaker stork’s cousin the Saddlebilled stork with plumage like a costume hero and Spotted heron, Fish Eagles, Blacksmith Plovers, African Jacunas (Jesus bird because he looks like he is walking on water) Purple Herons, Woodland Kingfishers, African Darters, various colored Egrets, and Giant Eagle Owls.
“We need to make those birders jealous,” said a wryly vindictive Mary, recording yet another sighting.
There was no phone or wifi, nor clocks in our tents, which are separated from the bar and dining huts by a long wooden walkway to keep visitors above the rainy season flood. We arrived before the true rainy season, so below the walkways is a thatch of grasses, but the walkway did narrow at two points for an “elephant crossing.” A little staff humor no doubt.
Big Dave?
At six a.m. each morning a line of women kitchen staff with trays carried on their head, wove its way over the walkway to the guest tents. At the door to each tent a serving staff quietly called “Knock, Knock” and delivered a tray of hot coffee. A light breakfast at 6:30 and onto the channels by seven.

On two mornings, breakfast was followed by being poled about in a mokoro through some of the smaller channels. Our guides Eustice and Edward avoided pointing out the crocodiles sunning on the sandbars, something they gleefully did when we were safely in a metal-bottomed motorboat.
Third Rule: Don’t trail your hand in the water. There are crocodiles, Curt.
A “mokoro” is a dugout canoe, flat bottomed and powered by a man standing in the rear pushing with a long pole.  a 20 minute poling looking at the flowers and birds through the delta at water level you arrived on a major island in the middle of the delta where we took a four km. walk through the woods. A mixture of giant owls and natural examples of substitutes for Kotex were pointed out to us. (The cotton wool plant, if you must know, a plant with a fluffy, absorbent top like milkweed weed.)
Then there was the fireball lily (first seen at Victoria Falls). The flower is ground up and fed to cows to increase their milk production. The stems are mixed with oil and ash and put in a pinhole incision in a mother's breast to increase her milk supply.
Wild basil is spread over corpses to keep the flies off during the wake after a death, since there is no embalming done.
Animals like lions and trackers rub themselves with wild sage to hide their scent from other animals as they hunt. It also act as an insect repellent.
Eustice and Edward were Bushmen and talked of how they learned about the plants and trees. Edward proudly pulled out his credentials. He was a fully qualified guide after a month’s course, but knew far more than could be learned in one month.
The hippo pool was empty when we arrived at the end of the walk. There were hippos without end on the three motorboat rides we took through the larger canals.
Rule Four: Don’t run over the submerged hippos in your motorboat.
One the first day, most of those with any intelligence went for a long siesta but some found out there was a gift shop at a nearby camp. They went shopping. 
Upon arriving home they were greeted by Little Dave, who is really a large four or five legged elephant. (Figure out the five-legged reference for yourself. Blanche has pictures of course.) Little Dave was blocking the landing spot for the motorboat.
Little Dave stuck around for high tea while the staff cast nervous glances as the hulking animal stood just beside the dining hut with its outdoor grill.
On our last night, responding to our questions about culture and memories of the Boma restaurant, the kitchen staff put on an impromptu song and dance performance before supper. There were no costumes and nothing professional about it; the staff were still dressed in their working clothes, but there were some sweet voices and good footwork.
We worry sometimes about the racial divide and implications that arise from the blacks in each of the countries we visited frequently being in servant positions. We whites, including most of the guides and managers, were usually in superior positions.
But the all-black managers at Gunn’s assured us the staff enjoyed performing. The songs they sang and dances they did were traditional pieces which members of the dominant Tswana tribe might sing at weddings or other cultural events. Wikipedia says Botswana is a relatively free and democratic country with a good standard of living, fourth highest in Africa. “The citizens refer to themselves as Batswana (singular: Motswana).”
Supper was always a faux regal affair. The serving staff, in newly learned English announced the night’s meal to applause and laughs. Brazil always announced the dessert selection as the “Desert selection” in spite of himself. So the service was good if a little homespun as were the food and wines. Suffice to say The Test Kitchen has nothing to worry about.

After dinner and a few drinks at the self-serve bar upstairs, all guests were guided back over the boardwalk for an early night before the next 6 a.m. “Knock, knock” call.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Home again, Home again, Jiggety Jig!

Except when I go To Market, To Market I want to find Warthog, not Pig.  Doesn't even have to be a fat one.  If you ever see warthog ribs staring at you on a menu, do not pass them by!

The long journey home is behind us.   The glow of this trip, the sights we've seen, the thrills we've felt, the experiences we've had, the people we've come to know, this is all mingling together in a most excellent combination.  This travel journal will allow me to recall the events long years into the future, long after my conscious brain has forgotten them, (or at least forgotten the neural pathways to where the memories may be locked away).

For me there were many highlights.  This short piece of video recording our first elephant encounter is definitely one of them:  http://youtu.be/YApVsActRgI.  I had to post it onYouTube & hopefully this link works.

By now (Monday Nov 24) everyone will be home?  Joe?  Blanche?  Okavango?  We all want to know.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The elephant in the room

Chobe is home to a population of 130,000 African Elephants and so far we had seen not a one. Yesterday, after a somewhat disappointing morning trek, our guide suggested that we combine our two Wednesday safaris into one longer one. A six hour trek would allow us to go deeper into the park where the guides thought the odds of seeing some elephants and also giraffes would be higher. This was to be our last day on safari and we all agreed to this change. Yes, we all knew it would mean even longer periods being hurled about the swaying, bouncing truck, but, it also meant we were more likely to be alone which had a lot of appeal after all the traffic along the river route. And if this safari increased our odds of seeing more wildlife, well, we couldn't say no.

Thus we set off at 6am, provisioned with a bagged breakfast which we would consume about three hours later. We spent most of those three hours searching in vain for animals. Oh yes, Brian's sharp eyes detected a giraffe a couple of hundred meters in the bush. Good work Brian!

Apparently there were two more close by but only some of us could see them. Most of Chobe Park is covered by Kalahari sands which seemed to resist compaction. As a result, in addition to bouncing up and down, we were also swaying back and forth as Tony negotiated the deep, wide ruts in the sand.

Finally, somewhere close to nine we stopped for a 'rest stop' then breakfast.

Just as we were finishing someone saw something a kilometre or so down the road. Out came some binoculars and it was determined to be a person. What's a person doing All alone in the middle of the bush? Then moments later, three armed men in camouflage stepped out of the bush right beside us. We were startled and then relieved to learn that these were soldiers on poacher patrol. On a previous bio break on the ladies' side of the road Jane and Bridgette had the feeling of being observed - by a giraffe it turned out. We have no idea how long the anti poaching group has been observing us, but they did emerge from the ladies side, and they did have big smiles on their faces. Ladies beware! There are eyes everywhere!

Poaching is a serious issue here. There are no rhinos to be found in Chobe as a result of poachers. There is a shoot to kill policy in effect. Poaching is big business and you do not want to encounter anywhere close. Here we are, deep in the bush with our guide (and Brian) chatting with the good guys. Did they know something we didn't about this area? Finished breakfast, we climbed back aboard to continue our hunt. A few minutes later we turned off the firebreak pathway onto a smaller track. No sooner had we done so when more armed men simply materialized on both sides of the truck and motioned Tony to stop. The good guys again. Phew! Even so, they were making a careful check of our Land Cruiser. I have a new appreciation for the camouflage uniforms. They look so obvious when you see a soldier dressed in them in an urban setting. But these guys, only meters away were completely invisible until they popped up, weapons in clear view.

These Sable Antelope were pretty curious about us too. Those horns can impale a charging lion and so, still a little rattled by being up close with armed soldiers, we were all smiles and pleasantries with the antelope as well.

So, with less than two hours left and still not a hint of elephants Tony advised that it was time to turn back towards the river. And so we bounced along at a very brisk pace. I was at the back with Dave and Mary. After a couple of spine jarring compactions I found it best to hold on to the roll bar above my head and push down thereby making sure by butt and the seat never parted company. Poor Mary did not have that option and she was frequently launched. My arm was getting tired and so I would alternate this strategy with the trotting horse strategy using my legs once launched off the seat to try and time my descent back to the saddle, so to speak. This was not as effective, I found, but thankfully right around the time I was simply resigning myself to this punishment we came upon a smoother track, now back by the river. Right where we had been the previous morning only now it was really hot. We were happy to have shade over our heads, as do others as we happily discovered.

Finally we had come across these wonderful beasts huddling in the shade of a tree like stern-tied yachts at port (description courtesy Laurel). We watched this family unit for a while and then headed down to river to see if there were anymore there. Yes, there were, dozens, and we happily watched them lumbering into the water taking long drinks, then showers, then heading over to the mud pit to coat themselves with this coolant loved by all it seems.

Alas our time was up and so we had to start heading back to the lodge. We saw many more elephants along the route back to the park gate. We really wanted to drag our heels leaving. Then we realized that there was another kind of dragging going on.

Thus was our lust for elephants satisfied in a most extravagant manner. Shortly thereafter we said goodbye to the park delighted with the day's events. And it was only shortly after noon. After a leisurely lunch everyone found a way to relax and recover in preparation for dinner, our last one together as a group.

As I write this entry relating Wednesday's events we have just departed Heathrow Friday afternoon for the long flight to Vancouver. I'm a bit tired right now and I still have a lot of thoughts I want to record so I think I will save these for another journal entry which I will try to finish tomorrow once home. There is also going to be an Okavango addendum which Joe has promised to relate to me and Blanche has promised to send a few photos.

Location:Chobe National Park, Wednesday Nov 19

Friday, November 21, 2014

Don feeds the Chobe River God

On the afternoon of our second day here in Chobe (Tuesday Nov 18) Jane had scheduled a three hour river cruise rather than the land based safaris we had had so far. (Jane we love you for this!). This morning's safari was a bit short on wildlife but we did see the leopard included in my last post. However the afternoon cruise was spectacular, and I'm pretty sure the Chobe River God smiled upon us as a result of Don's sacrifice.

Now he's not praying in this photo, it's more of a 'Oh no, what have I done?' posture brought on as a result of having just seen his untethered camera launch from his sunscreen slippery fingers and over the bow and into the river. Were it not for this gift, I am sure we would not have seen the sights we did that afternoon: Hippos copulating, a crocodile defending it's eggs from an egg thieving Monitor Lizard, Maribou Storks, the ugliest of birds by the dozen and countless other birds, lizards and assorted wildlife.

There were dozens of hippos on the island and in the water and it occurred to me that these were really happy hippos living in their natural habitat. It made me wonder a bit about the hippos living at Kapama, where there was no river nearby, only muddy water holes. Were they as happy? Hmm. Do hippos have emotions? Well, it sure looked like the guy in this photo was smiling;-)

We watched this croc for a while. Here she is laying directly on top of her nest, defending it from a lizard we saw circling about. It is the Monitor Lizard that keeps the crocodile population in check by stealing the eggs from the less vigilant.

This one was 100 percent vigilance. I was startled at how quickly she could move, keeping a fellow like this at bay.

A large group of Marabou Stork, one of the creatures on the 'Ugly Five' list, were gathering at a spot on the island and we watched a dozen or more glide in for very graceful landings to join the others. They are huge, a meter or more in height, and yes, they are ugly. Those old enough to remember the Spy vs Spy series will instantly recognize the artist's inspiration for the characters; the beak, the posture and the walking gate are all lifted from this scavenger.

The Cape Buffalo are renowned as the most dangerous of the 'Big Five' and it was explained to us that, unlike all the other animals, these beasts give no warning of attack. There are no false charges and they are very adept at using their fearsome horns to deadly effect. I think a guide told us that more people die on the horns of the Cape Buffalo than any of the other animals. During our safaris we saw several herds of maybe a hundred animals, but there can be thousands on the island at other times.

Anyway, we had a delightful three hours observing all the wildlife. It was a beautiful afternoon and I think everyone enjoyed the fact that rather than bouncing along in the modified Land Cruisers, we were cruising along the river banks able to get up and walk around. There was even a bar! (I think Don was the first to take advantage of this feature. After all his hands were free for almost the entire duration of the cruise). Yes, we were all happy campers as our craft approached our hotel, the late afternoon sun casting marvellous light on the shoreline.

Location:Afloat on the Chobe River

Public vs Private

As I mentioned last posting, our first safari treks took place in a private game reserve. Here in Botswana they are in a huge national park. Pretty much the same animals to see, so what's the difference? Well, there are a lot of differences. Let's look from the perspective of we human visitors. In the private game reserve (PGR) there is only one tour operator. In the national park (NP) there are many. In the PGR the the guides cooperated. They also competed. Which tracker or guide was first to track and sight the elusive leopard? Which guide was responsible for discovering a new lion's den? Once discovered they would excitedly communicate the location to the other guides in the area. In the NP there are many tour companies. They certainly compete and we did not see much cooperation.

In both the PGR & the NP the number of vehicles are controlled. In the PGR the guides deliberately space themselves out and as a result we were alone exploring and encountering the animals the great majority of the time. Only rarely did we encounter another vehicle and I think the most we saw at any one game sighting was four. In the NP the number of vehicles are also controlled, but there is a much higher volume of vehicles to begin with. Because there is no cooperation there is no attempt to space things out. As a result there seemed to be a lot of traffic on the roads as all the guides head for the well known and close in animal hang outs. There was a serious leopard jam we became snarled in. The road was blocked by all the vehicles jockeying for the best position to view the leopard. If you were there first, then the rest be damned. You didn't need to understand the language to know that the banter among the guides was not pleasant. Something like 'Get the f**k out of the way' was the voice intonation I think I detected.

In the PGR the guides stuck to the roads the great majority of the time, but, on several occasions we plunged off-road pursuing something or other, allowing us to get very close to the animals to observe and photograph them. These chases were very exciting. In the NP going off-road was strictly verboten upon penalty of losing access to the park - not for us, for the tour operator - disaster! This stay on the road requirement not only helped create the traffic jams, it also meant that many sightings were far, far, away making observation &/or photography difficult without good binoculars and high powered telephoto lenses. Here is the cat responsible for the traffic jam. I needed maximum magnification to get this close.

I like the shot because the leopard is up in the tree, but the quality of the image is low as a result of the extreme magnification. If I had used the same magnification for this leopard shot from our Kapama safari we would be able to examine his ear wax.

In the PGR there were many, narrow roads cut more or less in a wide grid pattern. Thus once the tracker detected fresh tracks and determined the direction of travel, the driver and the tracker could utilize the grid system so determine if the animals had exited on one of the other sides of the grid. If not then they had narrowed the search to a relatively small area. If we were tracking a single leopard, the skill of the tracker mattered. This process, tracking the animal, was exciting in itself and when the sighting was finally made, wow! It was a real thrill. Even if it didn't end in a successful sighting it was still an interesting process to observe, as was the communication between guide and tracker.

In the NP there is no such grid system and the was no tracker perched on a seat above the front bumper. If you couldn't see it from the road, you just drove on. The skill of the guide seemed to be about knowing where the different animals like to hang out at various times and during different conditions and then driving us there to have a look. I guess this is not too difficult in the dry season as all of the big animals hang out by the river. As was explained on our first trek in Chobe, the rains had begun and so the animals were moving deeper into the park as water became more accessible there. Now the guide's job becomes more difficult as the animals are no longer concentrated (sometimes by the thousands) close to the river. Not only that, he has to cover more distance as the animals can basically spread out more. In the PGR we spent most of our time crawling along at 5 - 10 km/hr or stopped for extended periods just observing. Sometimes we would speed along up to a thrilling 30 or 40 if called to a rare sighting some distance away. In the NP it seems we rarely slowed down from 30 - 40 and we frequently endured extended periods jouncing and bouncing along the roads. Woe to the three at the back as we would be launched from the seat by the frequent unexpected bumps. A bit like riding a horse that's trotting and receiving spine jarring impact as the saddle rises to meet your descending butt if you are out of sync with your mount.

But enough! There were aspects of the Chobe National Park experience that were awesome and impossible to duplicate and our guide Tony was terrific. Maybe we were spoiled by our experiences and the comfort of the Kapama Private Game Reserve. Same animals yet as different as night and day.

Location:Chobe National Park, Botswana

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Another day, another country

After a leisurely breakfast at our hotel

we departed Victoria Falls and drove for about an hour to the border crossing from Zimbabwe into Botswana for the final leg of our journey. (Final for most, but several in our group carry on to the Okavango Delta for yet more TIA adventure).

En route to the border our guide filled the time by outlining many interesting TIA Zimbabwe tidbits. He paid ten cows for his wife. Nobody thought to ask if he has more than one wife. (Mind you, he did not say 'I paid ten cows for my first wife', just that he paid ten cows for his wife, so I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt). Most Botswanans still live in traditional huts (we haven't seen one). Most still live a rural life, subsistence farming. If you don't grow enough food, you starve as there are no social services to speak of. There are not enough schools for the children and so schools do split shifts. And so on. (I wasn't taking notes and I am writing this a couple of days later).

After exiting Zimbabwe, we waved goodbye to our guide and then hello to a new one after a quick, friendly, visa-free entry into Botswana. (Thanks goodness our fearless leader restricted his UN comments to just one African nation).

Our hotel, situated on the outskirts of the small town of Kasane is the closest community to the huge Chobe National Park, a game reserve of nearly 11,000 sq km.

Our first safari was scheduled for 3:00 - 6:00 pm and we were all excited. Didn't matter that the thunder and lightning was crashing all around us and that the rain was coming down in buckets. Didn't matter that the sturdy lightning poles were swaying back and forth like they too wanted to dodge any lighting strikes. Yes, the rainy season has begun, but we were here to see animals and so off we went, weather be damned,

For a while the rain was sluicing off the canvas roof and Julie seemed to the chief beneficiary of this bounty, but Jane and Laurel were valiant in their rather soggy condition. Eventually the rain slackened then stopped and were we better able to focus on our trek.

The Chobe River runs along one side of the park, separating Botswana and Namibia and our first trek was along the river route.

The island on which these hippos are grazing disappears by March or April, but until then it becomes somewhat of a safe haven for thousands of animals, not to mention a source of that essential of life: water. However, our guide Tony noted now that the rainy season has begun many of the animals head deeper into the park where water again becomes accessible and so the more easily reached parts are now quieter. Hmmm.

The Impala were certainly plentiful.

The Kudu wondered what all the fuss was about.

Even the Jackals were confident of finding something to munch on.

Don't Baboons make lovely tree ornaments?

They also seem to be doing their best to keep their numbers up.

And so ended our first Chobe game drive. Needless to say, we were all comparing the Kapama experience to Chobe, and there are some striking differences, but I will save this for my next post. I should also note here that not only are the animals in this region large and abundant, so are the bugs. Exceedingly so. Getting smacked in the face by a dung beetle while riding down the road could probably break your cheekbone or chip a tooth if you were foolish enough to have your mouth open. The entry way to our room tonight was under siege by a hoard of ground termites looking to establish a nest. Have I told you about the cicadas or even the millipedes? No, but TIA so I'm sure you can imagine!

Location:Chobe Safari Lodge, Kasane, Botswana