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Travel and Tourism

An African odyssey

OmNIUM-GATHERUM - OMNIUM-GATHERUM By Miguel Ramos -
(Second of two parts)
Aside from "How was Africa?" (extraordinarily fabulous!) and "How much did it cost?" (extraordinarily a lot!), the most common questions I have been asked after going on safari has been "Was it worth it?" and "Should I go?"

Without a doubt, it was absolutely worth every centavo of the "extraordinarily a lot" we had to spend. Is it for everyone? Absolutely not. However, I think a safari will appeal to more people than one would expect. You don’t have to be an adventure junkie or a tree hugger to have the time of your life in Africa. Why does the Singapore Night Safari or any zoo, for that matter, appeal to so many people? Because animals are fascinating creatures. And to see enormous herds of animals in their natural habitat with essentially nothing between you and them is really an experience nonpareil. Add on the luxury of modern-day camps and you have the perfect formula for a once-in-a-lifetime trip.
Day Five
Our fifth day in the African bush started with a relatively quiet morning spent with Little Vumbura’s local lion pride again. Resting and apparently well-fed by the previous night’s hunt, which we unfortunately missed, this pride is different from many others. Whereas a pride of lions normally has a single dominant male, this one has a dominant female, the mother, and her two sons on whom the job of protecting the pride rests.

Although lions do not have any natural enemies, other predators who stumble upon the pride will certainly kill the cubs given the opportunity. Predators kill each other not for food, but to reduce competition for food. I guess even the animals realize that a cute cub today is going to be a full-grown lion tomorrow.

Our afternoon drive brought us our fourth leopard of the trip and a herd of buffalo stretching for what seemed an eternity. Our guide, Lety, figured that the herd probably numbered well over a thousand and mentioned that he had never seen one that big before. Along with the buffalo were a smaller herd of zebras and a spattering of birds like cranes, egrets and the ubiquitous ox peckers sitting atop the buffaloes, cleaning them of parasites. Seeing so many animals in one place occupying so much territory made me wonder, How can something so huge be so difficult to find? The thought gives you an idea of just how big and expansive everything is on a safari in Africa.
Day Six
The morning was supposed to have been spent on a quiet trip around the island on a mokoro – the local version of a dugout canoe. That is, until I sat in it and realized this canoe which was barely two feet wide was sitting maybe six inches above the water and the "pole man" was tasked with not only propelling this "African gondola" forward but also balancing it with a single pole. He assured us that they had never lost a guest and not to worry as the water was only a few feet deep. Small comfort, I thought; with my luck there would be a crocodile lurking behind the papyrus plants just when I went into the drink.

Surprisingly, though, after a few minutes of petrification, you do get comfortable and pretty soon it doesn’t feel any different from sitting in any other boat. They do advise, however, that you let them know should you feel the need to significantly shift your position. From thereon it was a nice, peaceful trip that allowed you to appreciate the smaller animals such as frogs and birds, which inhabit the waters surrounding the island.

During lunch, Dardley, one of the managers at Little Vumbura, had a little surprise for us upon our return from our mokoro ride. For whatever reason, we were going to be transferred to our next camp not by Cessna, but by helicopter. As he was trying to jokingly take credit for arranging the flight, I was excited by the fact that not only was it a rare opportunity to go on a helicopter ride, but one over the African bush afforded a unique opportunity to possibly see or photograph animals from the air.

But perhaps the funniest part about this helicopter trip happened before it even started. Four or five of the lodge staff accompanied us as we boarded the boat that was bringing us to the departure area. I did not really think anything of it until we arrived and the first thing they did was run to the helicopter to look inside. I guess it is not every day that they get the opportunity to see what a real helicopter looks like up close, but at the very least we got a great sendoff from the staff of Little Vumbura.

Our next stop was easily the most highly anticipated on this African journey – Mombo Camp. Located on Chief’s Island in the middle of the Okavango River Delta, Mombo ("pit fire") is known for its top-tier "six paw" accommodations and second-to-none game viewing. The constant advice to first-timers by people who have been to Mombo is to make it your last stop. If you stay at Mombo first, everything else will be downhill from there as this lodge sets the bar so incredibly high. With rooms so spacious that new arrivals have mistakenly thought they had to share the room with another couple and a top-notch staff that caters to your every whim and desire (actually, they do that in all the Wilderness camps), it is little wonder why Mombo Camp consistently ranks among the top 10 hotels in the world. However, what really makes this lodge shine is not the accommodations, which can be replicated elsewhere, but the unequaled game viewing which is arguably the best in Africa.

The first thing you notice on your first drive out of Mombo is the incredible number of animals. Quite often it felt like we would see animals around every corner and you do get the feeling of "Oh, gee, it’s another impala…and another giraffe…and another elephant." Little wonder it has earned the moniker "Okavango’s place of plenty."

Mombo affords visitors the opportunity to see animals do things you otherwise might not. One of our unsubstantiated theories is that because there are so many animals in such a small area, you tend to see more interaction between them. In our case, although we still did not see any kills, we had more than our fair share of "fights."

During our first drive on the afternoon we arrived, the first thing we saw was what looked like a pair of giraffes walking circularly in unison. Although they looked like they were doing some kind of choreographed dance, our guide Brookes assured us that the giraffes were about to have a fight. Sure enough, after a few minutes of mirroring each other’s movements, the giraffes started clubbing each other with their necks. Although the movements looked slow and fluid, the resounding thuds as their necks came in contact were a sure reminder that getting hit with a neck that size was probably a painful experience. They were very entertaining to watch as they interspersed neck strikes and attempts to trip each other with mirrored movements, even feeding on nearby branches. All this while a single female – presumably the reason why they were fighting in the first place – looked on from the bushes.

Our next stop was a visit with the local lion pride – this one numbering a total of 19 lions! Although they were resting most of the time, except for the cubs who were either running around or suckling, they would often peer into the distance indicating that perhaps they were looking for something to eat in the trees on the horizon. I can imagine a pride of lions this big needing a constant food supply and this was testament to the fact that the number of animals — both predators and prey species — in the Mombo area must be unusually high.

Driving in the direction the lions were looking confirmed a large herd of buffaloes and amazingly, while driving right through the middle of the herd, not 30 feet from our vehicle we heard a resounding crack. Two large males started fighting right beside our vehicle as the crashing impact of their horns resonated throughout the African bush and dust was literally flying everywhere. In spite of the huge ongoing fight in the middle of this herd of hundreds, the other buffaloes in contrast simply went about their own business… eating, drinking, allowing themselves to be cleaned by the ox peckers or just generally lazing the afternoon away. We stayed with the buffaloes until one of the protagonists apparently successfully chased the other into some of the trees behind a thick cloud of dust that they had left behind them.
Day Seven
One of the couples we were sharing our Land Rover with was leaving later in the day and we all agreed that we wanted to look for the elusive rhinoceros. One of the most endangered animals in Africa, as they are favorite poacher targets with their horns commanding tens of thousands of dollars in the black market, four rhinoceroses have recently been reintroduced on Chief’s Island in an effort to repopulate the area.

There are two species of African rhinos: white and black. Curiously, neither of them are really very far from a drab shade of gray. The first species that was discovered by the colonizing British was the white rhinoceros. The local Africans were calling them the Afrikaans word "wyd" which was the local term for "wide-lipped." The British misinterpreted this and thought they were calling the rhinos "white" and that is how the name evolved. The black rhinos got their name because when this second species was discovered, they were given the name "black" to differentiate them from the "white." I guess there is nothing necessarily scientific about how they used to name animals.

White rhinos are "grazers" who eat grass, and the black rhinos are "browsers" who eat plants. That makes the black rhinos more difficult to spot in the wild as they usually spend their time in thick bush, while their white counterparts spend their times in open fields. Unfortunately for us, in spite of having spent the entire morning looking for the rhinos, we came up empty-handed. The couple that was leaving even offered $20 to whoever could spot one of these animals, which are second only in size to the elephant. Though it was hardly a wasted morning as we saw a lot of other things – including a giraffe running in front of the sunrise, warthogs having sex, a pair of impalas fighting, and baboons jumping from tree to tree with their babies – we unfortunately came up empty in the rhino department.

For the afternoon session, after driving around looking at various animals for a couple of hours, I distinctly remember starting to entertain a few thoughts of boredom. Just when we were watching some elephants and I was starting to think "Oh, gee, it’s another elephant" to myself, two of the large males suddenly started a fight! We’d seen giraffes, buffaloes and impalas; now we were being treated to a bout between two of the biggest creatures around!

Similar to the giraffes, the elephants curiously pause in between charges to take a drink of water or even "go to the bathroom." What I found even stranger was the lack of trumpeting. Brookes said it was a serious fight because even after we left they were still going at it. He also pointed out that the elephants often break their tusks in one of these fights. When I asked if we could pick up the tusk just in case it broke — after all, that is a lot of ivory! — he jokingly pointed out that we could as long as I was the one who would sneak in between the two charging elephants to pick up the tusk that was on the ground.
Day Eight
Only a couple of days to go and 13 game drives later, we decide to take the morning off and just lounge around since we had a long flight to Jack’s Camp which was quite a distance away. Big mistake. The group that arrived from the morning drive apparently found the lions eating an antelope. Oh, well, at least we saw the cheetahs eating the zebra and I just imagined bigger cats making a lot more noise eating a different animal. Moral of the story: Do not skip anything because you never know what is going to happen out in the bush!

We were met by our new guide — Kaelo — after the relatively lengthy flight to Jack’s Camp which is in the middle of the Kalahari Desert. Technically, even the Okavango River Delta is part of the Kalahari, which is one of the reasons that the delta is so unique because underneath all of that water and vegetation is desert sand! Jack’s, however, is located in an extremely dry and arid area. There are no sand dunes here, just flat, empty salt pans as far as your eyes can see in every direction.

Jack’s Camp is quite possibly the most unique camp one can visit in Botswana. Not only does its distinctive location afford different kinds of animal interaction, but the territory also allows unique activities such as quad biking across the salt pans, sundowners in the middle of the desert, among numerous other really "unique experiences." Suffice it to say that I think two nights at the camp is enough, but if you want to ensure participation in everything that Jack’s has to offer, you need to stay for three nights.

Without question, the highlight of a stay at Jack’s Camp — and quite possibly the whole trip — is a visit with the meercats. Better known for being "Timon" in the Lion King, meercats are about a foot and a half long and during wintertime they come out and warm themselves in the sun. When they do, they stand around in rows with their paws crossed in front of their bodies seemingly oblivious to the people around them. You can actually get within a couple of feet of them as long as they are aware of your presence and know that you are not a threat.

As meercats are always on the lookout for predators, they continuously turn their heads in different directions while their bodies remain still — sort of like little people who are constantly looking around. The guides even tell us that because these meercats are accustomed to people and know that we are not a threat to them, if you lie down beside them, they will sometimes climb on top of you to get a better vantage point in their vigilant watch for predators.
Day Nine… And Victoria Falls
Our last morning on safari was spent quietly in camp with some people choosing to do the Bushman’s Walk where guests are shown how the bushmen survive in the desert using rocks and the area’s flora and fauna. After all, water is such a rare commodity in this extremely inhospitable area that even the staff at Jack’s do whatever they can to save water. They go as far as using large bowls for sinks and recycle that water for mopping floors and cleaning. One of the other interesting activities that the camp offers for real adventure junkies is a quad-bike safari to nearby areas where you essentially ride a bike and camp in the desert for several days. Sounds interesting, but I don’t think it’s for me.

Alas, it was the end of our safari and we were topping it off with a couple of days in Livingstone, Zambia, to see the largest waterfall in the world, Victoria Falls, which makes Niagara look like a dripping faucet. Referred to by locals as the "Smoke that Thunders" because of a permanent mist — and rainbow! — that hangs above the falls, "Vic Falls" dumps one million gallons of water over the edge every second! Three hundred fifty feet high and 1.7 kilometers wide, it is also home to Livingstone Island, named after the man who discovered the falls. The island is literally at the edge of the falls and when the water is low enough (usually June to January), excursions can be organized to the island for lunch. Unfortunately, missing the island’s opening by just a few days, I could imagine the amazing view standing at the very edge of the falls looking down into the gorge that nature has carved for centuries. I can also imagine that the boat ride to the island would make any roller coaster feel like lying on an inflatable raft in a swimming pool somewhere, sipping a drink with a little umbrella. I do not think the rapids will be what makes that boat trip so harrowing as much as the visions we all have of something — usually a boat — falling off the edge of a waterfall. Not exactly the thought you want to have when you are some 50 feet from the edge of the world’s largest waterfall.

While at Livingstone, we also found out that there was a nearby reserve with rhinoceroses. Because we were not fortunate enough to catch sight of one in Botswana, we figured we might have better luck here in Zambia. We made our way to what turned out to be a relatively small, fenced, "drive-through" reserve where you simply drive in your own car. I kept emphasizing to our driver that we did not care much about the other animals as we had had our fill of them and that we were only interested in the rhinoceros. After some driving he noticed a couple of game wardens standing by the side of the road and mentioned something about talking to them. I did not understand what he said at first but it became clear to me afterward that these guys were apparently assigned to provide 24-hour security for the rhinos to prevent them from being poached! They were rhino bodyguards armed with AK-47 automatic weapons!

As the rhinos were in the trees and this reserve did not allow vehicles to go off-roading (i.e., you need to stay on the road) there was no way we could see the rhinos from the vehicle. The only way we could see them was to walk right up to them — so much for the animals not attacking because they think our vehicle is one big animal. The wardens offered to escort us into the bushes after our driver probably told them some story of how we came halfway around the world to see a rhinoceros. It certainly did not take much convincing for us to agree. After all, how often do you get to be up close and personal with a rhino?

About 50 meters into the trees, there they were. Two white rhinos — one male and one female — not 20 feet from us. The warden pointed out that it was only safe to approach them because they were asleep and that they do not normally allow people to walk up to the animals. Although I could have come closer, I figured prudence was the better part of valor and did not want to find out if the warden was willing to use that AK-47 on the rhino he was supposed to protect while it was goring me with that $50,000 horn.

Needless to say, this rhino encounter cost us a generous tip. But like the rest of our African odyssey, it was an expense well worth it as the experience was one that will certainly last a lifetime. You often read about people who fall in love with Africa and return at every opportunity, forsaking more popular destinations like Europe, and wonder how these people could possibly want to keep going back. How many times can you look at a lion? But as proven by our firsthand experience, I cannot emphasize enough that you never know what you are going to see. That sense of the unknown is part of the excitement, but going on safari is really an experience. It is difficult to describe and, to be understood, must really be — for lack of a better word — experienced. So to answer a question like "How many times can you look at a lion?" The response of course is, "How many times can you look at a painting by Monet?"
* * *
(Erratum: One of the photo captions in the first part of this series incorrectly identified the hippopotamus as one of Africa’s "Big Five," which actually consists of the lion, leopard, rhinoceros, buffalo and elephant.)

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

FIRST

LITTLE VUMBURA

MOMBO

MOMBO CAMP

ONE

SEE

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