[Note: this happened in early September]
Rra Dinare means Father Buffalo in the language of the Botswana people (who are collectively called the Batswana, and one of them is a Motswana). I know nothing about the country – not the currency or the exchange rate or the capital or the name of the president. My ignorance about Botswana doesn’t have an opportunity to be rectified because we are in remote areas of the country. We have spent 6 days in two tented safari camps, flying into each in small aircraft. There is no internet or phone signal. Like Evan I often say “I don’t know”.
But Botswana, and specifically where we are – the Okavango delta, is the reason we are started our trip in Africa. Back many months and miles ago when Jo came up with the idea and pinned a world map on a wall in The White Wooden House in Austin, we each marked where we wanted to go. Evan chose obscure locations like Greenland and Outer Mongolia. Vivian’s first pick was Harbin in the far north of China, near North Koera and Russia. Jo chose Vietnam. Mine was the Okavango delta. Here we are.
The Okavango river starts in the mountains of Angola. Instead of finding it’s way to the ocean, the Okivango ends it’s journey in the sands of the desert in northern Botswana, in a giant inland delta. After the rainy season in Angola, the Okivango river floods the delta with rain water and turns the desert into a paradise for a few months each year. The flood covers large portions of the land under a couple of feet of water. Instead of the usual 4×4 safari truck, you get into a dugout canoe called mokoro and your guide poles the mokoro through the flooded landscape. The safari lodges are tented affairs built on high ground and then on stilts.
When we reached the delta, instead of a flood, there was a trickle. Locals say that the rains in Angola are probably late or lower than usual this year, but without much connection to the outside world they don’t know. And there is a local three year drought going on. So it is more desert than flood. There is water in the deeper channels and some green grass. But the flood plains are brown and dry. The Rra Dinare camp sat on stilts beside one such deep channel with water. They told us that a few weeks ago there was no water. While there is only a little of it now, the hippos, elephants, buffalos, impalas, giraffes, crocs, cranes, egrets, and other birds and animals are pretty happy to have it.
Our guide is T. Unlike other places we had been, he has a tracker, Boxer, who rides shotgun with him. The dirt is soft sand and everything leaves tracks. We learn to spot elephant, antelope, hyena, lion, rhino, buffalo, and hippo tracks. T and Boxer look for tracks as T drives us around, and every now and then they get out and follow tracks into the bush. They also do something else differently here in Botswana. Just before sunset they drive you to a safe spot where they set up drinks and snacks. You enjoy a glass or two of wine while munching on roasted nuts and biltong and chatting with the guides and watching the sunset. One evening just before sunset we saw a baby elephant and its mother at the river. The baby was less than a week old and hadn’t mastered walking yet. The mother had to use her trunk to bail the kid out of all kinds of trouble with gravity.
We usually drove around for a bit after sunset while T and Boxer looked for animals using a bright spot light. The bush comes alive after dark. The number of eyes that shine back at you is a bit erie. One day Evan said that he wished he had seen a wild cat. That night we saw a small leopard like animal called the African Civet cat.
Driving in the dry delta isn’t for the faint hearted. When you come up on a stretch of deep sand, the driver puts the vehicle in low gear (it’s always in 4 wheel drive) and guns it to maintain speed and not get stuck in the sand. The trails are twisty and have a lot of bumps, so you get jostled like a sack of cassava, and occasionally get whipped across your face by a branch of a tree close to the trail.
One day we came upon a group of wild dogs tearing into the carcass of an adult male impala. We had heard of the wild dogs. They look like dogs and are not hyena or wolves. They hunt in packs and are considered the most vicious predators. A pride of lion don’t succeed every time they set out to hunt, we heard. But the dogs get a kill every single time. And they are ravenous, killing multiple times a day. Their kills are very gory – instead of killing a prey they just start tearing off the flesh till the prey bleeds to death. Yeah, fun.
While the dogs were pulling the remains of the impala apart, we noticed that a new one showed up and made a yelping sound. Quickly the others made room for him at the carcass while one of the dogs who had been feeding took off in the direction that the new adult had come from. T explained that both males and females take care of the pups, and this new adult must have been guarding the pups. Now it was his or her turn to eat. We followed the one that left and it led us to a litter of eight cute and cuddly puppies. They looked and acted like domestic dog puppies with extra large ears – playing with each other, running on wobbly legs, and falling over in piles. The returning adult regurgitated some bloody impala and the puppies squealed with joy and ran off with bits of meat. We waited and watched them eat and play for a long time. Jo wanted a puppy. Vivian commented on how cute they looked. And that in a few months they would become bloody predators. The dogs are endangered. Several of the adults had radio collars so that the park rangers can track them. A litter of eight pups is a big deal, T explained.
Our daily regimen started with a wake up call and hot chocolate at 5:30 am. The delta, in addition to being not flooded, had encountered a cold front. We were waking up to temperatures in the mid 40s F. The nights were cold and also full of sound and activity. One night a buffalo decided to sleep under the deck of the tent that was occupied by Jo and Evan. It awoke at 2 am and banged its horns on every post that held up the deck (we later learned that the banging was intentional – the buffalo was scratching it’s face and horns on the wooden posts). Another time Evan found a baboon trying to undo the velcro door of the tent. He was mighty proud of scaring away the baboon that was bigger than him.
On our last morning we woke up to the sounds of lions roaring. Theye were causing a huge racket. After a quick breakfast we went looking for the lions. T and Boxer followed lion tracks and drove around madly for a while. Then we found the lions in the woodlands next to the camp. It was a mating couple. There was another male in the proximity, trying to sneak in – which was the reason for all the roaring.
Animals are hard to spot in the wild. In spite of the huge amount of game we see, it is a complete crapshoot. You could drive within five feet of a lion and not see it. This couple was like that. Boxer was standing up to get a better look at tracks and to help guide T through the brush. Suddenly the lion and lioness were right there beside us. The lion was already a bit testy, having to put up with a lioness in heat *and* a competing male. He turned to face our 4×4 as we crashed through the brush and growled and snarled at us. Boxer is a big guy who moves with a certain controlled slowness. He sat down very quickly. A lion (and many other animals) percieve standing humans as threats. Seated in a 4×4, you’re a part of the scenary. I pulled Evan away from the window and closer to me.
After we had backed away sufficiently and checked that we hadn’t wet our pants we turned to look at the mating pair. They were beautiful massive beasts at the prime of their lives. Over the course of the next 40 minutes they did it six times. Sometimes as often as just three minutes apart. It was a repetitive ritual – lioness snarls and flops over to lay on her side, lion moves away and does a weird thing with lifting his hind paw awkwardly, lioness rests then swishes her tail, lion growls, they copulate, lioness snarls, lions jumps off, repeat. This is strictly work. No one was even pretending otherwise (Do animals enjoy sex? I mean, they must….). T explained that the lioness can be in heat for three days. During this time the lion will never wander more than a few feet away from her, forgoing eating and even drinking water to make sure that no other male has the opportunity to sow it’s genes instead. This was Vivian and Evan’s science lesson of the day. And their PSE (Personal and Social Education) class.
From Rra Dinare we flew west to another camp called Moremi Crossing. This is normally an island but this year it was a vast plain with rivulets. We spent three days looking at game. One evening during dinner there was a huge ruckus outside. The guides and waiters got some spotlights and we saw a big Cape buffalo being attacked by six hyenas across the water channel. Apparently this buffalo had been attacked by lions s few days prior and had fended them off but had injured his front right leg pretty badly. From the horrible baying sound that the buffalo was making we assumed the end was near. But then the sound stopped. The buffalo had somehow got into the water and the hyenas didn’t want to follow it in there. The staff thought that perhaps the crocs were deterring the hyenas. That’s how we left things after dinner. We expected to hear the end of the buffalo that night. Instead all we heard were the sounds of elephants thumping and shaking the palm trees and generally trying to destroy the camp. In the morning the buffalo was still alive and on the camp side of the water. At breakfast, the burly staff member who was manning the spot light the night before seemed as excited as I did. “Our Rra Dinare is s survivor” he said.
That’s Evan holding a fruit of the sausage tree. They grow all over the place. On closer examination I realized that back in Hyderabad we called them breadfruit trees and there were two giant specimens at school over the place where we assembled for sports every evening.
On our last afternoon our guide Four Four, and his tracker, Action, took us on a short Mokoro trip. We avoided crocs and hippos and stopped for a nice walk and sunset drinks and snacks and made it back to camp.
We found that neither the safari camps and nor the staff in Okavango were as polished as in the Maasai Mara. Which came as a surprise because the delta is supposed to be the high-end tourist destination and was certainly more expensive to visit. Chatting with the guides also suggested that they are comparatively poorly paid and overworked in Botswana. Recent news articles suggest that the happy story of Botswana as the shinning democracy of Africa with high standards of education and wildlife conservation may just be that. The De beers diamond family and the ruling party have quietly hijacked the country, it’s democracy, it’s huge diamond wealth, and it’s wildlife – while spinning a good PR campaign to hide the dirty underbelly of politics as usual. What’s wrong with these shit hole countries where hurricanes are made to change course and favors from foreign leaders are traded for military aid?