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Travel and Tourism

An African Odyssey

OmNIUM-GATHERUM - OMNIUM-GATHERUM By Miguel Ramos -
(First of two parts)
It was over two million years ago when man first roamed the African continent communing with nature and living with its denizens. Today, Africa continues to be the cradle of life – one of the few true sanctuaries left in the world where animals can live the way nature originally intended.

In recent years, it has become difficult to find a travel magazine that does not mention Africa somewhere in its pages. This continent that has been cursed by strife and blessed by nature has become the destination du jour not only for travelers from the US and Europe, but increasingly from other parts of the world, including Asia.

Going on what is essentially the modern incarnation of a safari is an experience like no other – difficult to explain and nearly impossible to comprehend without a personal encounter. Thoughts of a safari always conjure images of roughing it up in tents on a vast savanna half expecting Tarzan to swing from a vine. This, however, was perhaps the only way to experience a safari a few decades ago. Today, the demands of modern tourism have created a substantial market for large operators like Wilderness Safaris to build first-class accommodations in the middle of the African bush. Make no mistake, there is still no electricity (only batteries and generators), access to the Internet or a signal for your phone. You are in the wilderness. There is, however, hot running water, down comforters and complete en suite bathrooms that are as comfortable as any other hotel. You will be surprised at how little you have to give up in terms of creature comforts in spite of actually living in a large tent in an area that is only accessible by light aircraft.
Day One
Our six-seat Cessna landed on what was essentially a cemented dirt road in the middle of a clearing. Our first stop was Duma Tau Camp ("Roar of the Lion"), which is known for its huge herds of elephants. For some reason, we did not see any big herds – a testament to the fact that for better or worse, you never know what you are going to see when you are out on a game drive.

Barely five minutes into the drive to camp, an impala rustled in the bushes and our guide Silas turned off the vehicle and pointed out the solitary animal. All of a sudden it hit me. This is the real thing. Welcome to the African bush! The initial rush of excitement and realization enveloped the four of us – all newbies – in the vehicle as cameras and videocams suddenly became our best friends.

We spent several minutes with the impala – an inordinate amount of time for what is one of the most common animals you will see in the bush – but we must be forgiven as it was our first sighting. A few minutes later we ran into some elephants and, as was the case with the impala, they appropriated much more than their fair share of film, flash memory and videotape. It was at this point that Silas decided to mention that there would be plenty of time to take pictures of impalas and elephants later as we had to get to camp in time to join the afternoon game drive. I only realized it much later on, but it must be entertaining – and probably refreshing – to the guides and other veteran safari travelers to see newbies get so excited over a single impala.

By the time we arrived at camp, afternoon tea was set up and we had about 30 minutes to freshen up and grab a bite before the start of the afternoon’s activities. Our first drive proved to be one of the best of our nine-day safari as it was highlighted by the extremely rare opportunity to be within 15 feet of one of the most difficult animals to spot – much less approach – the leopard. Another rarity was its location, sitting atop a termite mound in the wide open, as these beautiful cats normally spend their downtime resting in the shade and relative safety of trees. Additionally, he accommodated our curiosity by allowing us to come so close and obliged my camera with his piercing gaze, which was probably meant to discourage any would-be predators. As Silas said, "This is the closest you are ever going to get to a leopard."

Our nearly unbeatable first day wound down with a true Botswana (pronounced "Batswana" when in adjective form) tradition – the sundowner – where the guide would find an ideal spot for drinks and sunset viewing. Needless to say, our first sundowner again turned out to be one of our best as Silas found a large pool with hippopotamuses and a solitary elephant in front of the crimson setting sun. Not a bad way to end our first day.
Day Two
They wake you up at the crack of dawn – often 5:30 or 6 (depending on the camp) to prepare for breakfast at 6:30 and the start of the day’s drive at about 7. Indeed, waking up after the sun rises is considered a luxury in the African bush. The reason for the early-morning and late-afternoon drives is that these are the times when the animals – especially the predators – are active. During the warm hours of the day, they are normally resting and conserving their strength.

Dragging myself out of bed I entertained the thought that my first night in the bush was interesting, to say the least. To hear the unadulterated sounds of nature: birds, frogs, insects, and the occasional roar or hippo grunt. It was like listening to nature’s orchestra – actually it sounded more like a jazz band with its organized chaos of sound led by the ceaseless "coo-coo-coo" call of the Cape turtledove.

As amazing as our first day was, our second day was even better. The morning drive consisted of two major spottings. First was a lioness hunting some red lechwes (a specie of antelope). Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your view, the lechwes spotted the lioness well before she was able to approach and were ready to run for the water before she could make her move. After our mid-morning snack, the late morning was highlighted by another leopard who had dragged her kill, a baboon, up a tree. That was our second leopard in two days – we would spot a total of four on this trip. Silas tells us that a lot of people would come on safari for a week or two and never see a single leopard. I guess we should consider ourselves fortunate for having some kind of kinship with these hard-to-see cats.

The daily schedule out in the bush has you back at camp about 11 a.m. in time for lunch, a siesta and afternoon tea, enough to reinvigorate anyone for the afternoon drive at about 4.

Heading out, Silas spotted the single most memorable event of this whole safari. He pointed out some large birds in the distance and told us that they were vultures, and where there are vultures there is usually a kill, as they await their turn at the carcass. We hurriedly drove towards the circling birds and found an open field with tall grass, a herd of zebras and a nearby tree with dozens of vultures. Now Silas was sure that there was a kill somewhere and it was only a matter of finding it in the tall grass.

Driving through the grass for a few minutes beyond the zebra herd, we finally spotted it – three cheetahs, locally known as "The Three Brothers," had just killed a zebra. Having missed the kill by a scant 10 or 15 minutes, the tall grass had been cleared for several meters around the kill zone indicating a gigantic struggle for survival. But once the cheetahs had the zebra in their jaws, death was inevitable as the rest of the zebra herd looked on mournfully and the vultures circled and sat atop a nearby tree patiently awaiting their turn at the carcass.

By the time we arrived, the cheetahs had broken through the skin in the rump area and were busy gorging themselves before another predator came and took their meal (see Predators 101). It wouldn’t take much longer until the zebra’s hind leg was essentially detached from the body and hanging on by just the skin. Needless to say, by this time, we could clearly see the insides of the zebra. I remember thinking to myself, now, this is what you came to see on safari!

We left the zebras after about 30 minutes to visit a "hide" overlooking a water hole. The hide is essentially a wooden structure built into the trees where we could have our sundowner while observing animals at the watering hole. We were fortunate enough to have a solitary elephant, some wildebeests (also known as gnus) and a herd of zebras.

Over some cookies and coffee, we watched the elephant repeatedly force the other animals to back off by splashing water on them when he seemed to want the water hole to himself. He finally drove them away by chasing them out of the hole. The wildebeest left the area while the large herd of zebras stayed within the periphery of the tree line, maybe 50 meters in the distance.

After having his fill, the elephant slowly walked away into the trees. When the coast seemed clear, a single zebra walked to the water hole. This was the herd’s alpha male. It is his duty to check the water hole for other predators or animals that could possibly be a danger to the herd. When the area looked clear, another zebra approached... then another... then another. Pretty soon, the entire herd of over a hundred zebras was at the hole drinking, running, playing, and in one case rolling in the muddy water.

As it was getting dark, we started our lengthy drive to camp and decided to check on the Three Brothers on our way back. Amazingly we found them in the same spot still eating, but this time there was a pungent smell in the air. One of the brothers had made a mistake and breached the stomach of the zebra and its contents were releasing the unmistakable odor. They were much further into the zebra now but amazingly, there was not nearly as much blood as I had expected. I thought they would be sitting in a crimson pool as they ate but apparently, much like Nip/Tuck, ER or CSI, blood does not necessarily come spewing out when incisions are made into a living creature’s body.

On the way home in the dark, Silas spotted leopard tracks on the dirt road with his searchlight. We quickly doubled back and he somehow found the leopard in the tall grass in complete darkness with only his searchlight to help. Truly impressive! He pointed out that the leopard had probably smelled the zebra and was headed towards the Three Brothers. If he did, he would easily drive away the cheetahs and take over the kill. Two days, three leopards. Who ever said these animals were difficult to spot?
Day Three
The first thing we did in the morning was to go and check on the Three Brothers again. We found the carcass in the field without any predatory animals. Silas’ theory was that at some point in the evening, the leopard probably drove away the cheetahs and himself hid in the grass or trees when he heard us approaching. Although leopards normally drag their prey up trees, this was a relatively large prey and too heavy for a leopard to carry.

We left the carcass and upon reaching a large open field at least several kilometers across, Silas suddenly turned off the engine, as guides are wont to do on occasion, to listen for sounds in the bush. He called our attention to a very distinct, repeated, high-pitched call and said, "That’s a cheetah." We followed the incessant call for at least 20 minutes. It is amazing the great distance that sound can travel when you are on open plain. The source of the call was one of the Brothers who had been separated from his siblings and was calling to them so they could find each other. More interestingly, he had a hugely engorged, almost pregnant-looking, stomach after almost a whole day of eating. I didn’t think he was going to be doing any 60-mile-per-hour runs anytime soon with all that extra baggage!

Lunchtime at Duma Tau brought an unexpected visitor – an elephant who was going about his business had wandered into the open camp. Not really bothering anyone, I wished that they would allow me to move closer to him for a better picture. But the camps have very strict rules about approaching animals, especially when you are on foot and not within the protective confines of the Land Rover.

It’s often been written but still worth mentioning that the animals see the Land Rover as a single creature. To the animals, as long as this "creature" is neither a threat nor something they want to eat because it is too big to attack, they will leave it alone. This is why you are not allowed to stand up or make sudden movements in the vehicle when predators are around, because they might be able to spot you as an individual as opposed to part of the large whole. For the record, Wilderness Safaris has never had a tourist attacked in any of their camps.

After lunch we were off to our second camp, Little Vumbura. Loosely translated, vumbura means "surprising fortune," which the first settlers christened the area because they were surprised by the land’s fertility.

Little Vumbura is one of the more unique camps as it is a "water camp" on an island completely surrounded by water. Guests therefore need to ride powerboats to get to and from a dock where game drives start and end. There are also numerous water-based activities including sunset cruises, where you have your sundowner on the water, and trips on a mokoro, the local dugout canoe.

Having just arrived, we informed our new guide, Lety, that we were opting for the sunset cruise as our afternoon activity. As expected, it was restful, although not nearly as exciting as being a few meters away from feeding cats. Appreciating the simpler things in life was very relaxing. On the way out, we saw a small crocodile, after which we enjoyed a sundowner with the sun setting behind the ubiquitous papyrus plants. The trip home was highlighted by the sighting of a hippopotamus just a few meters from our boat.

Hippos actually spend most of the day in the water as their skin is very sensitive to the sun. These often-unpredictable animals therefore spend very little time, if any at all, on land during the day. It is often said that the most dangerous place to be is between a hippo and the water, because strangely, one of the defense mechanisms of these huge animals is to run to the water.
Day Four
The next morning’s game drive proved that not every single drive would prove to be momentously memorable. For some reason, there were no animals to be seen except the odd impala and we repeatedly overheard the crackle of the radio with other vehicles reporting similar luck – or lack thereof.

One advantage of going with an operator of multiple camps in a single concession is that the different vehicles from the nearby camps actually coordinate to help each other and maximize efficiency. Anyone who has a major spot radios the other vehicles so that interested parties nearby can benefit. This cooperation increases the odds for everyone and is one of the advantages of going to a country like Botswana, where operators are granted exclusivity to particular areas. In other countries like Kenya, accommodations may be cheaper but it is less likely that neighboring and competing camps help each other in the spotting of animals and it is not uncommon to see nine or 10 vehicles jockeying for the best position at a single sighting. Wilderness Safaris maintains a strict rule that only two or three vehicles at any one time may observe the animals.

With all the animals on hiatus in some "animal convention" unbeknownst to us, we headed back to camp hoping to have better luck in the afternoon which, luckily for us, more than made up for the eventless morning.

We successfully tracked three lionesses who Lety said were obviously hungry and ready to hunt. We stayed with them all afternoon, spending most of the time just sitting in our vehicle watching them wait for the sun to go down. This experience gave me new appreciation for National Geographic and Discovery Channel photographers who must sit watching animals for days, if not weeks, just to get that one magical shot.

We skipped our sundowner, not willing to pull out on the off-chance that we could witness an actual kill, and after four hours they finally started to move. They zeroed in on a lechwe in the bushes and began their approach. One of the amazing things about these lions is that they did not just rush in to kill the prey. Since there were three of them, they approached the lechwe from three different directions in a coordinated pincer attack that would make the best tank generals green with envy. Unfortunately for the hungry cats, the lechwe spotted them and was letting out its distinct "alarm call," which sounds a lot like a loud snort. The lechwe began to move away and unfortunately for us, we lost the animals in the tall grass and the darkness. In spite of our efforts, with three vehicles searching for them, the night sky made it impossible to find them. Not wholly disappointed, we headed back, having witnessed a hunt albeit missing the all-elusive kill... again.
* * *
Wilderness Safaris (www.wilderness-safaris.com) can be contacted through their local representative Asia to Africa Safaris (www.atoasafaris.com) at tel./fax 750-0076 or [email protected]

For comments, e-mail me at [email protected]

ANIMALS

CAMP

CENTER

DAY

FIRST

ONE

SILAS

THREE

WATER

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