Big game country

Who associates Uganda with big game? I never did. Mountain gorillas, maybe. But sweeping savannah dotted with grazing elephants and antelope? We were startled when yesterday we saw all that and more.

I had expected the day to be somewhat tedious, one in which our main objective would be to travel from our lodging near the chimpanzee forest down to the southern end of Queen Elizabeth National Park. Originally, I’d planned an itinerary that would have had us stop in the middle of the park and then enjoy a day of game driving. But an opportunity arose to be useful to Women’s Empowerment (WE) International — the San Diego-based microlending organization we’ve admired since its inception — so we jumped at it and cancelled the park day. We would only stop at the southern end to break up the long journey to Nyaka village and its grannies who were potential recipients of WE’s micro-loan funds.

The Land Cruiser carried us down from the mountains and southward, taking us across the equator (photo op!) a bit after 11. Lunch was at the tent camp adjoining a large channel between two lakes where we’d originally planned to stay. It looked lovely, and it would have been thrilling to watch the hippos come into the camp for their nightly grazing session (reportedly they don’t bother humans who don’t threaten them.) But we pushed on, and it was then that we began spotting the elephants, antelopes, cape buffalo, baboons, and monkeys.

Before making the final approach to the simple camp where we were staying, Robert surprised us by announcing we’d make a quick sweep of one area of the national park to look for lions lounging in fig trees –the most sought-after tourist attraction in this area. It was a long shot; Robert said he’d spent days on some previous trips looking for them with no success.

All lions can climb trees, he pointed out. But what makes the Ishasha area of the national park famous for its tree-climbing lions is that a few huge fig trees are scattered (widely) amidst the legions of acacia. And, unlike the short acacias, the mature fig trees grow stout horizontal branches that make wonderful resting places for lions. High off the ground, they’re well-positioned to catch a cool breeze, escape attack from the tsetse flies that infest this area, and spot the most likely direction in which dinner might lie, come the evening hunting session.

Robert had popped up the top of the Land Cruiser, and Steve and I stood up, finding it not unlike jogging through the savannah — without having to exert any more effort than that required to avoid being jounced out. We’d driven for maybe 20 minutes, and I had just muttered to Steve that I didn’t see ANY fig trees, when he retorted, “There’s one!” The path took us around a bend and up to the tree — which was occupied by three beautiful lions.

I’m sorry, but if there’s anything cuter than drowsy giant cats draped over fig branches, I don’t know what. Robert told us these were a mom and her two youngsters, male and female. They all were dozing, loose-limbed and looking so comfy I imagined if we could just get a bit closer, we’d hear the purring (assuming that lions purr.) we spent a long time drinking in the sight, while Robert shared some lion lore, asserting, for example, that they’ll never attack, as long as you’re staring in the eyes. (Conversely, you NEVER want to run.)

Finally, we pulled away, and Robert drove us to the banks of the Ishasa River, where on the far bank, the Democratic Republic of the Congo looked close enough to be hittable by someone with a good arm and a pebble. Hippos often play on these banks, but all we could see were two hippo head tops and four pairs of ears that emerged and then re-submerged in the distance.

So we pushed on to our rest stop for the night, a homely but well-tended collection of tents and “chalets” overlooking another nearby river, the Ntungwe. The only guests, we sat in an elevated pavilion, drinking in the splendid countryside and, after sunset, dining on excellent roast goat, assorted vegetables, rice, and the most delicious banana dessert I’ve ever tasted.

I slept well, though I had my earplugs in. I never heard the chomping noises or the raucous cries of young men. I only heard about them from the plump young American property manager. A recent international studies graduate, she recently took this gig after completing a 6-month stint with a Kampala-based NGO. She thought the chomping was a hippo, and commented, “It sounded close!” I was just as happy to have missed it. I prefer for my encounters with wild animals to be during the day — and for the wild animals to be exclusively non-human.



A warning about the Senegalese safari experience…

If you’re thinking of trying it, keep your expectations modest! Steve and I paid $178 for a “package” organized by our B&B that included sharing the 70-minute taxi ride to Bandia National Park, the park entrance fee, rental of the safari truck (which we shared with the above-mentioned Ardyce and her mom, an Italian guy, three African-American ladies who’d come to Dakar for the black African arts festival, the B&B owner’s 16-year-old son, and a guide), plus the guide’s services.

A converted pickup hauls tourists around Bandia National Park.

In French, the guide dutifully recited the gestational period and age of every species we saw — but not much more.  The experience reminded me a lot of going to Orange County’s Lion Country Safari, back in the days when it was operating.  Only briefer and more expensive. 

Who doesn't like giraffes?

On the other hand, it’s churlish to complain about a two-hour outing with the breeze blowing through the safari truck and sightings of impala and sable antelope, savannah buffalo, eland, zebra, ostrich, giraffe, monkeys. (No predators; they’re long gone.) The animals posed and munched among dense acacia and thorn trees, and — thrilling to me — forests of baobabs.  The best thing our guide did was to spot a fallen baobab fruit (not so easy to find!  Monkeys love them so much that the Senegalese call them the “monkey’s bread.”  He let us photograph the long oblong fruit, then smashed it against the side of the truck to reveal a fractured white interior. He passed it around to let us extract fragments, which looked like pieces of white packing material. Inside each piece was a huge seed (the malevolent invaders that Le Petit Prince had to ceaselessly prevent rooting in his beloved planet!)  The big surprise was the taste of the white stuff around the seed — refreshingly citrusy.

Now we’re happily settled into the Relais in Kaolack — by all reports a dreary town despite being the crossroads of Senegal. But our trip here was a personal triumph, and Laura and Alberto will meet us here tomorrow afternoon so we can continue on into the delta paradise where we’ll ring in the New Year.

Bush memories

Goodby to Mosetlha
March 2, 2010
We’re airborne again, en route to Durban, the biggest port in Africa and South African’s most Indian city. It will be the launching point for our next adventure. But up here at 37,000 feet, I’m still thinking about our stay at Mosetlha.

I can’t help comparing one aspect to it to our visit last year to the cattle ranch in Argentina. That was a magical place, and from the instant we arrived, I regretted that we only had one night to experience it.

In contrast, three nights at Mosetlha felt just about right. In addition to the congenial (occasionally electrifying) conversations we enjoyed over meals with Chris and June and the other guests, it gave us six separate game drives. We left every day on the morning ones at 5:30 a.m. and didn’t return until 9:30 a.m. or a bit later. Then we departed again at 4:30 and usually returned around 8-ish. So that meant we spent almost 8 hours a day in the Land Rovers. (In the middle of the day, we ate big breaksfasts (at 945) and lunches (2-ish), showered, napped, read, or hung out in the communal room and chatted with the other guests.)

Although 24 hours of game driving felt like enough to have really experienced it, I never once felt bored, even though most of the time we were searching for animals, rather than actually viewing them. But Madikwe includes multiple landscapes — grasslands, mountainsides, acacia forests, a river — and their appearance changed throughout the long days. I loved dawn the most, watching the sky go from charcoal opacity through shades of navy and then neon streaked violet, then lightening to a luminous opal. The juxtaposition of that sky with the verdant emerald bush and hillsides, the red earth, the distant purple wilderness and the black tree forms in the foreground impressed me as one of the most beautiful landscapes I’d ever seen.

Driving through it hypnotized and soothed me, and every encounter with an animal woke me up. Some flooded us all with adrenaline, as when we screenched to a halt to gape at a huge white rhihno staring at us not more than 20 feet from the road. We studied each other in cautious silence for a while, then (apparently reassured that our Land Rover was neither another male rhino, nor a likely competitor for his grass), he lowered himself to the ground, flopped over and started to snooze. That made him look comical, until a few minutes later someone prompted him to leapt to his feet faster than I would have dreamed possible. If he had wanted to reach us and drive his murderously sharp horn through our vehicle, I have no doubt he could have done so even though Andrew had already started the engine. But he didn’t.

Another unforgettable moiment came one evening just before sunset, as we were making our way over a narrow track. The tall dense bush pressed in on each side. We’d been looking for elephants with no success, when suddenly Andrew spotted a big matriarch 200 feet away. A few seconds later, we could see that she was leading a youngster who in turn preceded a tiny (as elephants go) baby. More elephants followed in the line — not so such a herd as a parade of elephants. We stopped countng when we got to about two dozen, but by then the impeturbable Andrew was looking worried. Although the animals seemed to be moving in the opposite direction from us, and on a parallel track, I knew he feared that they might swing over and double back, which would trap us. (And the elephants in the south part of Madikwe have historically been the most aggressive animals in the park, many of them refugees from areas of Mozambique where years of civil war taught them a lot about the human capacity for atrocities. Nothing bad happened; Andrew reversed the Landie and we withdrew. But it was thrilling to suddenly feel so vulnerable and small.

We never did see a leopard (the final member of the Big Five),but we did encounter the extremely rare and endangered African wild dogs, as well as hyenas, jackals, a wild cat, bunches of wildebeest, impala, zebra, giraffes, kudu, a mongoose and more — almost 20 mammals in all. I also checked off almost 40 species of birds on the list of 350-plus supplied by the camp. And the giant millipedes, leopard tortoise, and puff adder felt like special gifts, each in their own way.

But in the end, by the time we departed, I had begun to understand the viewpoint of our fellow guests Rene and Mandy, veterans of countless game drives throughout the years. While you might start out by checking animals off a list, seeing them for a second time turned out to be just as interesting, if a little bit different. Their behavior and demeanor, rather than their mere existence, started to command your attention. Do this enough, like Rene and Mandy, and I could imagine coming, like them, to revere the dung beetle as much as the Cape buffalo, for that matter, to simply delight in spending time in the wondrous place that serves as home to them all.

Game driving

Sunday, February 28
On our very first game drive (Friday afternoon/evening), we saw three of the Big Five (lion, elephant, and rhino). We saw the fourth at lunch yesterday, but it was a sad experience, rather than a thrilling one.

Meals here take place in an open-sided wooden pavilion that houses a polished wood table.that can accommodate 16 in a pinch. We had finished our tuna/pasta salad and Greek salads and were chatting with June (the owner), when some movement in the trees nearby caught my eye. A moment later, an enormous animal emerged from the thicket. It was one of the two old male Cape Buffalos who’ve been frequenting the camp – the injured one. June says he first showed up about two months ago, and something appeared to be wrong with one of his eyes. Although that seemed to clear up, he also somehow hurt his right front leg, and when he appeared yesterday, it looked broken. He would put a little weight on it, then stumble, and try to walk on just the three remaining legs. That’s not easy, when you weigh close to a ton.

He moved into a patch of trees perhaps 200 yards away from us and lowered his head to drink from a puddle there. We, in turn, silently moved outside to stare at him in wonder. Next to him, an ordinary fighting bull would look like some kind of a miniature breed. His horns were fearsome enough to rip someone apart by accident, say if he merely shook his head too close to anyone in Gahis vicinity. It was obvious we needed to keep our distance from him, but equally obvious that he would probably die soon. No animal so grievously injured could survive for long in the wild.

June appeared to be as anguished as I felt, at the sight of his suffering. She commented that if a car had hit him and accidentally broken his leg, the Madikwe park administration would order him euthanized. But since he had broken it naturally, their policy was to refrain from intervening in any way. Mandy from Joburg shook her head and curtly approved. “It’s nature,” she said.

This is the second visit to Mosetlha for Mandy and her jovial husband Rene, but they’ve done innumerable game drives in other places (including Kruger). Rene, who was born and educated in Zurich but immigrated to South Africa 26 years ago, hates actual on-the-ground camping. (His parents apparently dragged him and his siblings off to European campgrounds almost every weekend of his childhood.) But he and Mandy have a reverence for everything about the African bush – from the smell of the air to the antics of its smallest insect inhabitants.

Like them, I love it here because Mosetlha gives us the access to nature provided by camping but spares us all of the unpleasantness. Our beds are as padded and inviting as my bed at home. At night we let down the mosquito nets, which protect us more from any worry about potential nocturnal bedmates than actual ones. (The anopheles mosquito, which carries malaria, doesn’t live in this province of South Africa.)

We have plastic chamber pots for use after bedtime (since a trip to the composting toilet might lead to an unwanted encounter with an animal). But when I have used the toilet during daylight hours, I’ve never smelled the normal odors that I associate with such installations. Even though there’s no running water, Chris (a civil engineer by training) has installed a marvelous system for providing us with hot showers. (This involves filling a bucket with water from a portable tank, pouring it into a little wood-burning “donkey stove” that instantly raises the temperature to near boiling, mixing that with enough cold water to make the temperature just right, pouring all that into a bucket in one of the shower stalls, raising it by ropes, and then controlling its egress through a shower head by means of a little hand valve.)

The electrified fence that discourages elephants from entering the camp is solar-powered. The refrigerators that cool our beers and bottled water runs (somehow) on kerosene, and kerosene fuels the lanterns that softly illuminate everything here after dark. It’s all so ingenious, the infrastructure alone could be a tourist attraction. But the daily spectacle of the park’s non-human inhabitants takes center stage in that department.

As for the injured buffalo, he was gone from sight this morning. But June says he and his able-bodied buddy aren’t far. I’d like to see them again before we depart for our return to Johannesburg, now less than 24 hours from now.

In the bush

Saturday, February 27
I’ve started reading Paul Theroux’s book about traveling overland from Cairo to Cape Town. In the introduction, he says the word “safari” means “journey” in Swahili and has nothing to do with animals. But for Americans like me it has everything to do with journeying into the bush and shooting animals — either with guns or (more often today) cameras. In my mind, it comes with even more specific imagery — sitting around campfires in a wilderness an order of magnitude wilder than anything in the Americas.

I’ve learned that the reality of contemporary safaris is actually not so wild. From what I gather, you either drive yourself around in a car and camp at a crowded campground in a place like Kruger National Park, or you stay in a 5-star lodge, paying $500-$1000 a day for pampering and chauffeuring around in a Land Rover. But we’ve found a middle ground which has dazzled us.

We’re staying in a game reserve called Madikwe. It’s about 4 hours northwest of Joburg, on the Botswana border. Now the fourth-largest reserve in the country, when it was created in 1992 more large mammals were relocated here (around 8000 of them) than has been done anywhere else in all of Africa. You can only enter if you’re staying at one of the 20 or so lodges, all of which are 4 or 5 star facilities. Or you can stay at Mosetlha, as we’re doing.

Here there’s no electricity or running water. But there are 9 raised wooden platforms scattered around the grounds. They have corrugated metal roofs and the walls are closed on two sides, but openings in the other two are open enough to make you feel that you’re more outside than in. You have to wonder why the baboons and lions and mongeese and wild dogs and Mozambique spitting cobras and puff adders and other creatures who live here don’t enter the cabins at night. But apparently something about the human presence puts them off.

There ARE currently two Cape buffalo who’ve recently taken to visiting the grounds. I heard one of them at 2:30 this morning, walking past our platform, chomping on something herbivorous and occasionally snorting. I’m furious with myself for not getting up to look at him. But frankly, I was too scared! Buffalo rank among the legendary Big Five — the most dangerous large mammals, in the one-time estimation of hunters. And of the 5, the buffalo is considered the most dangerous of all. Plus he sounded immense (they weigh close to a literal ton).

The owners of Mosetlha, Chris and June, happen to be staying here at the moment, and Chris insisted at breakfast that the buffalos actually are “nice old boys” (best avoided on foot, but fine to look at from the safety of our platform. June says almost every major animal type that lives in the reserve has wondered into Mosetlha at some point or another, with the exception of the white rhino (and they’ve been seen right outside the gate). Just a few weeks ago, lions killed a hyena next to her house here.

But we guests at Mosetlha don’t just wait passively for animals to wander in and visit us. Like the folks at the safari lodges, we also go out on two major game drives per day. Steve and I experienced our first one yesterday.

We arrived around two, ate a lunch of hamburgers and salads, got settled into our cabin, and then set off in the Land Rover around 4:30. The only other guests in the camp, a South African couple named Rene and Mandy, accompanied us. Our driver and guide was a tall muscular and knowledgeable fellow named Andrew. The color of dark chocolate, Andrew has a calm demeanor, and he steered the Land Rover over the dirt trails with the focused patience of someone who is used to hunting, day in, day out. At first I felt distracted by the big picture. Madikwe is mostly what the locals call “bushveld” – an ecosystem similar to the savannah but with more trees. Bushwillows and more than a dozen species of acacia predominate. This time of year (the rainy season) the myriad grasses have grown dense and green. A couple of dramatic hills rise up, against a backdrop of surrounding countryside that looks as vast and uninhabited as anything I’ve ever seen in the American West.

Soon, however, Andrew was pointing out animals that yanked my attention in closer. We passed a group of Burchell’s zebra grazing side-by-side with a dozen impala. We only glimpsed the baboon dashing across the road far ahead of us, but we were able to pull up and park no more than 20 feet from the lioness and her two 7-month-old cubs gnawing on zebra parts under the shade of some trees. Later, we spotted an acacia swaying in the distance. After a while it cracked and fell over – pushed over by a big bull elephant who had recently been in a sexual frenzy. We caught up with him and watched him nibbling on the leaves that once had crowned the tree. That’s all he wanted; he would leave behind the rest.

You can read my words and think, oh yeah, she’s on safari. Of course she’s going to see lions and elephants. I myself of course expected to see lions and elephants, of the sort I’ve seen in countless nature programs and National Geographic photos.

What I still don’t understand is why the actual experience of seeing them in their native habitat moved me so profoundly. At times my eyes filled with tears. Was it the sheer physical beauty of the tableaux? Or the depth of my gratitude that I’ve lived to experience this? Was it the sense of amazing interconnectedness that overwhelmed me? I have no idea, but for maybe the first time in my life, the word “dumbstruck” really makes sense to me.