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12.24.2012

One Day More



We interrupt your regularly scheduled program for this important announcement: “Les Misérables” is finally coming to theaters tomorrow!!!

I flew home for Christmas on Friday night and I haven’t had time to complete another South Africa post since then. I still have two more posts to write and my goal is to have them done before New Year’s Day. Being home for the holidays is great and there are many fun distractions to choose from. Tomorrow my family and I will see “Les Misérables” at the movie theater. I heard it got some pretty mediocre reviews and I’m slightly worried it will be disappointing. It is no exaggeration that I have been waiting for this movie for 20 years. I have seen the play live 10 times - eight times in San Francisco, once in Utah, and once in London.  My mom still has the souvenir brochures we bought during our first few trips to see the play. In the back cover of one of the brochures there is an advertisement the proved to be the biggest fake-out of my childhood: “In 1992 she will be going to the cinema. Tri-Star Pictures and Cameron Mackintosh present Les Misérables.” The second-biggest fake-out of my childhood was hearing that Les Miz would be a movie in 1998 but, alas, it would not be a musical version.

It’s been a long time coming but I’m so so so so happy I only have to wait one more dawn, one more day, one day more!


12.21.2012

South Africa TravelBlogue (Part 8 - Safari Day Three)



THURSDAY 11/22 Thanksgiving in Africa

My mom and really had a blast on safari. By now my mom and I were total pros at going to sleep at 9 pm and waking up at 5 pm. The trouble at this point of the trip was facing the fact that we only had three game drives left. I was already dreading the fact that we’d have to leave Elephant Plains Game Lodge the following day. We had bidden Louis and Fanoti farewell the night before. They had already worked for six weeks straight and they were due for a two week period of leave. That meant we’d meet our new ranger and tracker at the crack of dawn.

Willie & Connie
We headed out to the Land Cruisers at 5:20 and met Willie and Conny. They were very friendly and took time to shake each guest’s hand as they arrived and climbed into the vehicle. Willie was very soft spoken and Connie was even more so. Willie asked us a question that made my heart race, “Did you guys hear the lions last night?”

The lions (just like all of the other animals) are free to come and go as they please. Unfortunately they had decided to wander off the property two days before my mom and I arrived. There was no way to know when they’d come back so my mom and I had prepared ourselves for the possibility of seeing zero lions on our trip. Willie’s simple question changed everything.

Willie said that the lions were calling to each other all night long. He had a good idea of what area they were in and we set out right away.

GAME DRIVE 4

After driving for a few minutes (and carefully scanning the road ahead) Willie and Connie agreed to stop the car and start tracking on foot. The most suspenseful part of our trip was watching Willie and Connie walk farther and farther away from the car until they were both out of sight.


It didn’t help that Willie took the rifle with him. My mom, unknowingly quoting Jurassic Park, exclaimed, “He left us!”


I can't wait to see this movie in 3D next year!
Just under ten minutes later another tracker emerged from the bush. We didn’t recognize him but he smiled and said he had been told to come get us. We looked at him peculiarly but it wasn’t because he was a stranger to us. It was because he didn’t have a gun. He only had a slingshot!


He hopped in the driver seat, smiling broadly as ever, and drove us over to where Connie and Willie were waiting. (These guys truly have an amazing sense of direction and they know the area inside and out. Willie later told us he knew every single tree on the property and Connie would be able to find him based on a tree description alone.) The tracker then walked back to his own vehicle which was waiting nearby. Up ahead we saw a very welcome, much anticipated sight: four adult lionesses.





I can’t tell you how great it was to just stare and stare and stare and these four beauties. Willie told us that this group (part of the the Breakaway Tsalala pride) was made up of two pairs of sisters. One pair of sisters had been adopted by the mother of the other two sisters and all four were raised as siblings. One of the lionesses had been pregnant and given birth in the past but her cubs didn’t make it. Willie told us that raising lion cubs is very difficult and it can take a few tries before an adult female successfully raises cubs to adulthood. This particular lioness was pregnant again and the rangers are hoping she will have healthy and thriving cubs in a few months.

The morning continued to build great momentum. We unexpectedly came across a big 12-year-old male elephant. He wasn’t very temperamental. In fact he was a pretty good poser.



It was good to have everyone in the car together again. “Safety in numbers” is a common theme in the animal kingdom and humans are no exception. Neither are hyenas, for that matter.



One of the great unexpected surprises during our time at Elephant Plains was seeing a dazzling array of birdlife. We saw several types of eagles. There were also many wonderful small, colorful birds. When we came across this saddleback stork our jaws pretty much dropped.


We were still riding the “lion high” when a call came in over the radio that there was an Africa wild dog sighting. Willie told us that African wild dog sightings are extremely rare. He knows people who have been in his profession for as many as 15 years who have never seen a wild dog. It was our choice if we wanted to drive out to the sighting for a chance to see them. Doing so would mean we’d have to drive there at top speed and not stop to look at any of the common animals we had seen thus far (impalas, zebras, water bucks, etc.) We agreed to go for it and Willie shifted into “Ferrari Safari” mode.

The ride there was a total thrill. We had to drive as fast as possible for nearly 30 minutes before we arrived at the sister lodge where the dogs had been spotted. (Willie joked that this was all a ploy to get us to sign up for spa services – we’d certainly need some R&R after the crazy ride!) We met up with two other vehicles and one of the rangers told Willie the dogs had just run off. They were chasing baby impalas all over the place and they had already killed and eaten six of them. Willie decided to search along the far side of the lodge. We spotted a lot of stranded impalas who had been separated from their groups. One of the females even had a fresh wound on her hip. Willie said, “Ah, she’s not happy. She’s just been chased.”

We carefully scanned the tall grass in the area but we didn’t see anything. Willie got another call on the radio, listened carefully for a moment, and then whipped us around in the opposite direction at full speed. A minute or two later we found one of the other vehicles holding still with all of the passengers craning at the grass nearby. The first thing I noticed was fur with orange, black and white splotches. There was also a flurry of fluffy white tails and a few pairs of round black ears. We had found a dozen wild dogs and they were in the process of splitting up their freshest impala carcass.



Luckily the baby impala had been decimated and it just looked like the dogs were playing with leftover ribs from the dinner table. Wild dogs are extremely successful hunters (they kill 90% of the prey they pursue) yet for some reason their population has dwindled greatly over the last several years. Wild dog packs are led by an alpha female and an alpha male. They are the only pair that reproduces in the pack. One wild dog litter can contain 12 pups. The pack will create a den while they collectively raise the pups. Everyone in the group gets along as long as they cooperate and are willing to play a begging game to share pieces of food with each other. The sad thing is that if either the male or female alpha is killed (or if they are both killed) the pack will soon after split apart, wander off and die. Perhaps that is why their numbers are endangered.

These small dogs are beautiful and even though they have a small build similar to most medium-sized dogs, they would make terrible pets. Make no mistake – these dogs are efficient and brutal hunters. Once they get a hold of prey they simply rip it apart. My mom told us that a toddler had been tragically killed by wild dogs at an exhibit at the Pittsburgh Zoo earlier in November. While it may have been exciting to see the dogs actually take down an impala in front of us I was somewhat relieved to not see them in action. 


We left the dogs behind and started to make our way back to our lodge. We immediately spotted a group of wildebeest and Willie told us that one of the wildebeest was in labor. The rangers had made it abundantly clear just how dangerous it was to be a baby animal in the wild. Even though the wild dogs were a few hundred yards away this group of wildebeest seemed perfectly safe. I looked at the female in labor and realized the umbilical cord was visible. Much to his surprise Willie spotted the calf on the ground and pointed it out to us.


The next few minutes were just spectacular. The baby wildebeest made one or two attempts to stand up. It is extremely important for newborn animals to be up and on their feet within minutes or else their odds of survival plummet. (Baby giraffes have to stand up within 15 minutes or their mothers will leave them behind.) This wildebeest mother stood close and encouraged her baby to try again.


Once the baby got on its feet and took its first steps the others came over immediately to meet him. It was one of the greatest moments of our trip.


After the game drive was over we had several hours of down time. I spent at least an hour watching two crested barbets putting on a show to attract females. They were very loud and they waited very patiently with food in their beaks. I was reading my mom’s safari companion book and eventually fell asleep.


After I woke up I wandered around the lodge taking pictures so I wouldn’t forget how beautiful everything was. My mom and I also took advantage of the movie room and we watched an episode of National Geographic’s “Great Migrations.”


The morning game drive was thrilling and we were pumped for the evening game drive. Willie knew that my mom and I had seen four of The Big Five (leopards, water buffalo, elephants and lions) and we were just missing the rhinoceros. Would tonight be the night we’d find one?

GAME DRIVE 5

The safari experience once again proved to be completely unpredictable. We spent a good deal of time tracking a rhino but his tracks eventually led to an adjacent private property which we were not allowed to enter. Along the way we saw another group of water buffalo. This group was a little more sightly than the mud-caked “old dagga boys” we had seen two days prior.


We had another great elephant encounter. A small group of elephants crossed our path. They were a bit difficult to photograph because they moved quickly and disappeared into the trees as fast as they had emerged. Regardless it was totally awesome to see them.


We saw many of our other common animal friends. Eventually we pulled off for our evening beverage break and chatted with our group. The biggest challenge of the game drives (besides drinking too much water and ignoring the fact that I had to go to the bathroom) was to curb any frustration I experienced when we had a relatively “slow” morning or night. It was very easy to assign blame to the person in charge (in this case Willie) but I had to constantly remind myself that he doesn’t control the animals and he is doing his absolute best to find them. Each staff member we interacted with had an obvious appreciation and respect for the animals. Willie emanated a real love for the animals and it was clear that this was his dream job.



THANKSGIVING DINNER

On Thursday night my mom and I enjoyed Thanksgiving dinner with two other Americans who were seated to our left. The table to our right was empty for a while and then Willie and his wife came into the boma and sat there. (We had already raved about Willie to the woman who worked at the front desk without realizing she was his wife!) It was great to sit there and ask more questions about how he learned his tracking skills and what he liked to do on his time off. He had taken a one-year wildlife course to become a ranger. He picked up tracking skills over the past several years. “It’s something that only comes with experience.” He said there is nothing better than waking up at first light and setting out to find fresh tracks. However, the process of tracking is mentally exhausting. Just by looking at a partial leopard track he can tell which leopard he was tracking. (They all have names and known territories.) When it was finally time to go on leave he’d either head on a bass fishing trip, an excursion to Kruger National Park, or to his in-laws’ home. Visiting the in-laws, of course, was his last choice.

I had noticed one major difference between Louis (our previous ranger) and Willie: Louis always wore a radio ear piece and Willie never did. Instead Willie would just have the radio turned down low or turned off altogether. Willie told us he preferred to be out on his own as opposed to taking his car around to every major sighting that was called in over the radio. Seeing the animals was wonderful but finding them on his own made the victory even sweeter for him.

I supposed many, if not all, good things come to an end. Willie and his wife told us that eventually he’d have to find another job that paid better so they could raise a family. The thought of Willie having to give up being a ranger made the dread in my stomach well up. Tomorrow would be my mom’s and my last day on safari and there was no telling if we ever even be able to return to Africa. We were thankful for so many things but the only thing that would have made this trip better was the presence of my dad, sisters and brother-in-law. Even if all good things come to an end perhaps it is only to make room for great things. Maybe having a dream job or being on a dream vacation is just “good” in the grand scheme of things. I truly hope the best is yet to come.

TO BE CONTINUED!

12.20.2012

South Africa TravelBlogue (Part 7 - Safari Day Two)


Wednesday 11/21

When I work up on Wednesday morning I found out my mom had barely gotten any sleep because she was so anxious about missing the 5 am wake-up call. We had our alarms set but we definitely didn’t want to be left behind. The morning game drive would begin at 5:30 so we had a few minutes to get ready and then we headed out to meet Louis and Fanoti at our designated vehicle. When I passed the patio area I noticed a lot of guests looking up at the trees. We had some visitors in the form of vervet monkeys!

 
GAME DRIVE 2

Once all of the passengers were assembled we set off for the open road. The game reserve was massive and Louis would follow his eyes, ears, instincts and Fanoti’s suggestions as we roved along. Some game drives yielded a staggering array of animal sightings and others were a lot quieter. This particular game drive was our first “quiet” one. However we got to see some of the bread and butter of the African bush.

Right off the bat we spotted one of my favorite animals: the classy and sassy plains zebra. Individual adult male zebras take care of groups of female zebras and their young. This particular harem’s leader made vocal noises to make sure his females noticed us and kept a safe distance. Louis pointed out that although zebras may stick out like a sore thumb to us humans most of their predators only see in black and white. When zebras are out in the open they make sure to stand close to one another and as a result the predators have a hard time distinguishing individual animals. Predators will always go for the slower-moving young, sick or injured prey since they have to expend a great deal of energy in the chase. If, for example, a lion can’t pick out a baby zebra in a group then that baby just might make it to adulthood.

Aside from a camouflaging advantage the zebra stripes also afford each zebra an unmistakable individual identity. Female zebras will step away from the herd in order to give birth. That way the baby will be able to memorize its mother’s stripe pattern before it meets any other zebras. No two zebras have the same pattern. They are as unique as a human face. A lot of people argue whether zebras are white with black stripes or black with white stripes. The only way to find out is to shave a zebra. If you do that you will find their fur is solid black at the roots. Problem solved!


You might be looking at these nice zebras and asking yourself, “So, did you ride one?” Heavens no! These animals would have kicked my tail if I had gotten anywhere near them. Louis told us that farmers did try to domesticate zebras for plow work and other farm chores but they found that extensive riding actually killed the zebras. Their kidneys are in a more vulnerable place than horses’ kidneys and the constant weight of a human or work load will cause kidney failure. Also, their backs are not as strong as horses’. Louis also told that zebras are pretty gassy animals and when they run away from something you can hear them farting. That’s right folks – plains zebras are classy, sassy and gassy!

Just around the bend from the zebra hangout we saw some mean-looking spotted hyenas. Despite their menacing appearance I was really glad to see them! They’re so darn interesting. They have the very strongest jaws in the entire animal kingdom. You can tell they are just made for ripping stuff apart.


 
Next up we saw another example of an adult male watching over a group of females. In this case it was a blue wildebeest. The wildebeest in the area have been getting dominated by a pride of lions. The rangers had to bring in wildebeest from Kruger National Park to prevent these guys from getting wiped out. The project was successful up until the new wildebeest wandered back to Kruger and never came back!

 
Other tasty animals in area included the water buck. They are named water bucks because in general they are never more than one kilometer away from a body of water.


 
BUSH WALK

After the morning game drive my mom and I ate breakfast and then we met up with Davi, Louis and a few other guests for a one-hour bushwalk. This was an interesting experience because there were a lot of rules and we actually got to walk on one of the roads we had previously driven on. It was fun being down closer to the ground and getting a different perspective. We had to walk in a single file line and stay completely quiet until we stopped off to look at something in particular. After vowing to stay in formation (even if a big scary animal charged us) we began our little walk. Louis pointed out a tree whose leaves contain latex. If you were to burn the wood from that tree for a campfire and inhale any of the smoke it would make you extremely sick. Direct contact with the latex would cause a severe reaction and ingesting it could kill you.

Next up we stopped off at a termite mound. We saw these things everywhere. (They always looked like animals!) I believe 1/3 of the termite mound is underground. Either that or only 1/3 of it is above ground. It’s one of those two. These termites don’t eat wood – they actually eat fungus. They are packed with protein so if you’re ever lost in the wilderness they’ll make a good meal. The termites create a complex system of vents which they can either keep open or temporarily block in order to control the temperature of the mound. The queen of the colony can control what type of termite she creates – workers, soldiers, reserve queens, etc. If the queen dies and there isn’t a reserve queen to take her place then the entire colony will lose purpose and die. (Queen termites can live for up to 40 years but one queen survived for 60 years in captivity.) The mound we were next to was only about four years old and it will continue to grow as long as there is a thriving queen inside. We saw many abandoned mounds and we picked up one of the pieces that had broken off. The stuff feels a lot like a porous brick. Louis told us that in the old days people would actually construct their homes using pieces of abandoned termite mounds.

In case eating termites to survive or using their old homes to build your own doesn’t quite make them useful or interesting enough to you check this out: you can use soldier termites to close your wounds if you don’t have a field suture kit. That’s right folks, according to Louis old school soldiers with lacerations would grab a soldier termite (with big pincers), hold their wound closed, let the termite bite them so the pincers would hold the cut skin together, and then snap off the termite’s body so the pincers remained in place. They would repeat that process multiple times until the length of the wound was closed with little pincer “staples.” Wild? Yes. Crazy? Yes. True? Not sure.  

GAME DRIVE 3

Between the bushwalk and the evening game drive I spent some quality time reading by the pool. When it was time for the game drive we jumped in the vehicle excited for whatever was ahead of us. I had already been jazzed by seeing zebras and hyenas that morning but when we saw this next trio the picture really felt complete.

 
The giraffes were the second-hardest animal to photograph. They were pretty shy and they’d scurry off almost immediately. (The very hardest animal to photograph was the warthog. They would sprint of every time I tried to get a picture.) Since giraffes are so tall and thin it was hard to focus the camera on their faces when they were on the move. It was always nice when they would settle in at a tree and stay put for a few seconds.


 
Remember how much I love zebras? Did you know I also love baby animals? Imagine what I thought when I saw this:


After staring at the baby zebra for what was probably too long we meandered over to a watering hole. We saw a lone hyena taking a very cautious look around before he/she got into the water to cool off. The hyena was very methodical. It would look around and then put one side of its head in the water. Then it would look around again and put the other side of its face in the water. Louis told us that a single hyena out in the open could easily be targeted by lions or a rival hyena clan. After a few minutes the hyena put its entire face in the water.

 
Hyenas got a pretty bad rap in “The Lion King” but I’ve always liked watching them on TV shows about African animals. The most interesting thing Louis told us about them is they are neither classified as canine nor feline. They are in their very own group. I personally think it looks like a bear.



The grand finale of the evening was meeting Salayexe, the mother of the cub we had seen the previous evening. Salayexe means “the lonely one.” She was named that because she had been born in a litter of two but her sibling died as a young cub. Now that she is a successful mother of her own cub I’m sure her life is busier than ever. Now if she could just find some baby impalas to keep her company…




TO BE CONTINUED!

12.19.2012

South Africa TravelBlogue (Part 6 - Safari Day One)




TUESDAY 11/20

My mom and I were very sad to leave Cape Town behind but the departure was bearable because it meant we were headed to a new part of South Africa to go on safari. We got to the Cape Town airport with plenty of time to spare. In the process of looking around for something to eat we found a tiny nail salon (about the size of your typical Piercing Pagoda mall kiosk) and decided to get manicures. It was a fun, spontaneous thing to do and my mom and I picked matching gold glitter nail polish. We weren’t sure if it would attract or deter the animals but we had fun nonetheless.

When it was finally time to board our plane we had to take a quick shuttle bus ride and then walk out onto the tarmac where our tiny South African Airways plane awaited us.


Our flight was about 2.5 hours long and when we landed at Eastgate Airport (HDS) near Hoedspruit I couldn’t help but scan the landscape for signs of wildlife. I didn’t have any luck but we were able to get our next air-conditioned rental car squared away in a decent amount of time which was important because it was really hot outside. We also bought a helpful tourist map which showed just how close we were to the border of Mozambique. (Basically we had flown from the southwest corner to the northeast corner of South Africa.)

Eastgate Airport (HDS)

If you see this map buy it. You will need it!

There are many options to choose from when you’re booking a safari in South Africa near Kruger National Park. You can do self-guided day trips in and out of Kruger, you can stay at a self-catering (“bring your own food”) lodge, you can go on a traveling multi-night safari where tents are set up and broken down by your guides, or you can stay put in the lap of luxury at an all-inclusive resort. We chose the resort (“game lodge”) option for a few reasons. We weren’t confident we’d be able to see a lot of animals if it was up to us to find them. Even if we did find them we’d have to bury our noses in books to find out things guides would know off the tops of their heads. We didn’t want to worry about running out of camera batteries without a source of electricity to re-charge them. We knew that the resort option was going to cost a lot of money but considering what we were going to get (two 3-hour game drives each day, three meals a day, lodging, access to a swimming pool, etc.) we knew it would be worth it. Ultimately we wanted an easy, relaxing vacation experience with maximum potential for seeing animals. My mom had read rave reviews of Elephant Plains Game Lodge (part of the Sabi Sands Game Reserve) and even though their most economically-priced lodging was sold out we decided that was where we really wanted to stay. The next part of the adventure required us to drive about 2.5 hours to get there.

Can you spot Elephant Plains in the center?
On our way from the airport to Elephant Plains we passed through a lot of small towns. In the early afternoon hours we saw a lot of schoolchildren walking home. Each school we passed had a distinctive uniform and some uniforms were very colorful. It was very tempting to try to take stalker photos of the kids walking by but I would have felt like a total creep so I didn’t do it.

We came across a lot of grazing cows that would traverse the road at random times. We had to keep a close eye out for them and drive relatively slow.


When we left the paved road we had to slow down even more. The road had some pretty unforgiving bumps and dips. (One particular ditch gave us a flat tire but we didn’t know it until we got to the game lodge and someone told us.)
 

After a short eternity we arrived at Gowrie Gate where we had to pay an entrance fee and fill out a form saying who we were, where we were going and how long we’d be staying. The gate attendant then gave us a receipt that our game lodge would have to stamp to verify we had indeed stayed there. (These measures are meant to deter poachers but we found out poachers still enter the private territory in search of lucrative game.)



When we were really close to our destination I saw a juvenile giraffe. I was like, “Game on!”

 
ELEPHANT PLAINS GAME LODGE (http://www.elephantplains.co.za/)

We checked in at the main desk and I got a glimpse of the schedule. I knew the game drives were offered twice a day and each one was three hours long. (They were scheduled during the times animals were most active: dawn and dusk.) My mom and I planned to go on every game drive offered during our time there (six game drives for a grand total of 18 hours). Luckily we made it to the lodge in time to catch lunch. After we ate we checked out our luxury suite (the rondavels were sold out) and unpacked a little. We were so excited for our first game drive at 4 pm. We knew this area was not a fenced-in territory with “wild” animals that were basically trapped for the tourists to see. Instead this area was wide open and the animals were free to go wherever they wanted, even in and out of nearby Kruger National Park. Since the animals were so free to wander there was no guaranteeing what we would see.


GAME DRIVE 1
 
The Big Five
At 3:50 pm we headed out to the safari vehicles (giant open-air Land Cruisers that had room for a ranger, 10 passengers and a jump seat for a tracker). Each guest was assigned to one of four vehicles during their entire stay. That way the rangers and trackers could keep track of what each guest saw. The staff does their best to help each guest spot The Big 5: elephants, water buffalo, rhinoceros, lions and leopards. Unfortunately it isn't possible for every single guest to have all five sightings but it would be much more difficult if guests constantly switched between vehicles. I also suspect vehicle selection would turn into a popularity contest between the rangers. I was glad to have this decided for me.


We met our ranger, Louis, and our tracker, Fanoti. Each ranger and tracker works seven days a week (about 16 hours a day) for six weeks straight and then they go on leave for two weeks. We were lucky to meet Louis and Fanoti on their second-to-last-day before going on leave. Even though they must have been exhausted we had a great time with them.

Louis & Fanoti
When I first got into the vehicle I couldn’t help but say, “I feel like I’m on a ride at Disneyland!” (The Indiana Jones adventure, to be exact.) Louis gave us a safety talk and told us that the animals in the park are used to the shape of the vehicles. However, if any of us were to stand up or reach out we would change the shape of the vehicle and have an immediate problem on our hands.


I didn’t know what the next three hours would entail but we got off to a fast start when we came across a “big tusker” male elephant in musth leaving his scent for females. Louis told us that this male had the potential to grow truly gigantic tusks (the kind that almost reach the ground) and that we had to keep pretty far away in case he tried to charge. Since our vehicle only weighed a fraction of the elephant’s weight he could easily flip us if he felt threatened. The British lady in front of me very seriously asked, “If he flips us are we to stay near the vehicle?” Louis grimly answered, “If he flips the vehicle you’re going to hear a lot of gunshots.” The vehicle let out a collective, “Ah.” This was the first time I noticed the giant rifle on the dash.


The “big boy” (as Louis kept calling him) eventually made a false charge at another vehicle and we backed the h#!! out of there as fast as we could. It was a great way to start our first game drive!

It didn’t take long to see scores of impalas. Louis called them “the McDonald’s of the bush.” He said only a small percentage of them make it to adulthood. The baby impalas are very popular meals. Since it was spring time we saw dozens of baby animals and most of them were impalas. The babies liked to hang out in little groups (called crèches) and they were the most scared of the vehicles.


When we spotted this little guy we thought it was another baby impala but Louis corrected us. “He’s actually a full-grown steenbok. They’re monogamous for life. Aww!”


The nice thing about being in a lodge with multiple vehicles is all of the rangers could talk to each other over the radio. If there was an especially interesting sighting the rangers could notify each other. Each type of sighting had its own particular rules for how many vehicles could be there at a time. For example, the next animal we saw was only allowed to have two vehicles nearby it at a time.


That’s right, folks, it’s a baby leopard! A baby freaking leopard! This little girl was such a beauty. She doesn’t have a name yet (one of the rangers is still deciding on it) but she’s 5-months-old and she was hanging out in this tree waiting for her mom, Salayexe, to come back with dinner.


When we saw the cub I was really surprised. My coworker had gone on a safari in January and he hadn’t seen any leopards so I didn’t have my hopes up. The leopards ended up being my favorite animal to see.

By this point we had already seen two of The Big 5 and we were well on our way to seeing another. We stopped a lagoon near one of the sister lodges in the area and we saw several pairs of hippopotamus eyes and ears just above the water. Hippos don’t count as one of The Big 5 but they are responsible for more human deaths than any other animal in Africa. Louis told us that people who try to take canoes down the Okavango Delta in Botswana put themselves at huge risk of startling hippos. Hippos can only stay underwater for 5-8 minutes and if they hit something when they come up to breathe their first reaction will be to defend themselves and bite whatever is next to them. A resurfacing hippo can easily knock someone out of their canoe. Since hippos have giant teeth and powerful jaws they are capable of biting the human body right in half. I think you know where I'm going with this. Next time you want to canoe the Okavango Delta count me out.
 
 
On the shore of this little hippo paradise we saw three “old dagga boys”- adult male water buffalos who had once been part of a breeding herd but were now content to spend their days knee deep in cool mud. The mud is also beneficial to them because it suffocates the ticks that constantly vie for their blood. A lot of the water buffalos we saw had little bird friends that ate the ticks right off their fur. Now that’s a great friend to have! It’s a good thing they get along because water buffalos kill the second highest number of humans every year. They might look serenely stuck in the mud at the moment but they are extremely aggressive.


 
In just a few hours we had already seen three of The Big 5. My mom and I would be going on five more 3-hour game drives so the chances seemed good that we would manage to see lions and rhinos.

Our vehicle continued to wander as Fanoti and Louis scanned for tracks in the dirt. We entered a large clearing near a small watering hole (I think we were near an airstrip) and were enjoying our surroundings when Fanoti said something to Louis. (They always spoke an African dialect together. Louis spoke Afrikaans over the radio with the other rangers.) Louis turned to us and said, “Fanoti said he can hear elephants coming.” We looked around the huge expansive area and saw no sign of elephants. We all got quiet as Fanoti pointed to the tree line far off to his left (like really far). I saw trees moving before I heard any of the elephants rustling. That man has super powers! We watched in awe as 17 elephants emerged from the trees. They were a bit cautious coming out to the open.


 
By now another safari vehicle had arrived and Louis called other rangers who might be interested. The elephants took a look around and Louis anticipated they’d make their way to the watering hole. He backed up and got us in perfect viewing position. Then the elephants started walking in another direction and acting like they were going to skip the watering hole all together.


 
For a moment we were disappointed that they were going to move on so quickly but then they changed direction again and came straight for the watering hole. The next few minutes were some of the absolute best I had while on safari.


 
The tiniest baby of the group stole the show. Louis estimated he/she was about four weeks old – too young to know how to use its trunk in a sophisticated way like the adults. Instead it just put its entire mouth into the water and drank that way.


 
The fun thing about the evening game drives was the fact that it would get dark. Around 6 pm each night we got out of the vehicle for sundowners (bottled water for Mom and me) and chatted with other tourists or our guides. Mom’s favorite person to talk to was Fanoti. He told her that he grew up in one of the nearby towns and that his uncle had taught him how to be a tracker. His dream was to become an engineer but in his community the women had better luck picking up the math and sciences aspects of engineering. I really hope he’ll be able to pursue his dream career.


After our short break we got back into the vehicle and Fanoti pulled out a spotlight to search for animals. Louis told us that we could only look for certain animals in the dark. If we shone the light too long at certain animals it could blind them permanently. Lucky for us we were able to see our second female leopard of the night – this one was an adult female.

 
After a long and extremely eventful game drive we pulled into the lodge and enjoyed a nice dinner around the fire in the boma.


My mom and I were super wiped out and I’m pretty sure we were asleep by 9 pm. The next morning we would have to be up by 5 am and we didn’t want to risk missing the wake-up call.

TO BE CONTINUED!