An African Diary Part VII : Into The Wetlands

dsc_0910Day 16: Friday, December 4, 2015

Sleeping in until 7:30 was absolutely glorious and much needed after so many days of rising at dawn. Today was mostly a driving day as we had another 450km of road to cover to pass through the whole Caprivi strip to our next camp – Mazambala, near the border of Zambia and as close to Victoria falls as we would get, unfortunately. Next time… because we absolutely know there will be a next time! The rains came again and joined us for much of our drive, this time accompanied by massive rakes of lightning and rumbles of thunder.

Mazambala was situated on the Okavango river, surrounded by marshlands.  The camp is actually on an island on the river, but because the rains were only just starting, it was still connected to land. The campsites were 2km away from the lodge on the ‘mainland’, but we could take a boat over to the lodge whenever we wanted. We drove over to check in and check the place out and book a game drive for the following day.  This was the part of the country where we were hoping to see hippos, crocs and water buffalo. After setting up camp, as night fell, the warning from the lodge host ruminated in my head: “Don’t stray far from your camp, the hippos will be about, you’ll likely hear them.” Sitting around in our camp chairs, enjoying the evening, things changed quite quickly. As soon as the last of the light left, huge bugs began to torpedo themselves at our heads and massive black skittering beetles the size of mice scuttled in front our feet. Something very large sounding crashed nearby in the blackness of the bush along the river. We scanned the blackness with our headlamps, but eventually had to turn them off because they were attracting the enormous bugs to fly right into our faces. Trust me when I say a gargantuan black bug the size of a mouse flying out of pitch blackness directly into your eyes is one of the most terrifying things you will experience in Africa! We looked at each other in the near blackness, swatting our hands wildly about our head at every buzz we heard.

“Truck?” Rug asked.

“I thought you’d never ask”,  I replied, and we bolted for the safety and bug free comfort of the truck. The dim orange glow of the interior lights was the only thing cutting the obscure blackness outside. After a moment of silence Rug broke it with a laugh.”We’re horrible campers”, and we both  broke down laughing.

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Our camp sat right on the rivers edge, the nine foot high reeds towering and swaying in the light wind, rustling together like natures violins. Sitting only 15 from the edge of the water, hearing things splash in the shallows and crash through the reeds, hearing loud snorts – there was just no way I felt safe when I thought about how big a hippos mouth was and how they kill more people in Africa than any other animal (except the mosquito). So  I think our mad dash to the truck was more than justified. We read our books, wrote in our journals and struggled to stay awake until 10pm.

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Day 17: Saturday December 5, 2015

It was another glorious sleep in until 7:30am. Even with the ear plugs in, the cheerful good morning calls of hundreds of birds chattering could not be ignored any longer. We were in bird lovers paradise here in the wetlands on the Caprivi strip.  With over 450 species, it’s common to see 50 yourself just sitting for an hour in your riverside camp. I got up, had some yogurt, granola and honey, and put the tea on.  I grabbed my book and read while listening to the chorus of birds. I stopped reading now and then to watch them swoop all over our campsite. A yellow canary had been diving down from the trees to the drivers side mirror since yesterday to admire himself. He would perch on the window, flutter over to the mirror and cling on to the bottom and then peck at his reflection. He would then hop on the top of the mirror and hang upside down all the while continuing to peck and chitter noisily. He’s done this at least 15 times now and I have thus dubbed him Dorian Gray (with a touch of the jaundice), as he is clearly quite taken with himself!

A pair of glossy ibis have a nest in the tree overhanging the river and our campsite and call out suddenly with their shrill, crashing whoops. Several grey go-away birds are resident and constantly let their presence be known by their raucous calls that remind me of the disturbing seal colony. I know understand their name – after spending a few hours near them you definitely want them to go away!

 

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The Grey Go-Away bird

Crimson breasted shrike and woodpeckers flit about tending their nests, the woodpeckers disappearing inside their hollowed out tree hole. A variety of bee eaters hide in the trees while an African red eyed bulbul swoops in to test my banana peel on the table. A beautiful  black collared barbet with his bright red chest hangs about in the tree right in front of me, snacking on the fruit of the tree. With the rains having arrived and the trees bearing fruit, this is the best time for bird watching in Namibia.  I’ve never before seen such variety and I’ve surely only named not even a tenth of what we’ve seen since we arrived.

I should note that an unfortunate event of the previous day was that when we got to camp we realized that Rug’s day pack was missing. We went back over our day to figure out what happened and the only time it could have been snatched was at the last gas station stop.  I had gotten out to go pee and Rug stepped out and around the vehicle for 30 seconds to stretch his legs. During that time someone must have slipped their hands inside the open windows, grabbed the sack from the back seat and ran off. There was just no other time that the vehicle was left unlocked or unattended. Luckily all that was in his pack were some of his clothes, and the chargers for his computer and phone; all things of value were left untouched – both cameras, laptops, kobo, phones, passports and wallets were all in check.  I consider this extremely lucky! It’s still a shitty loss and a shitty thing to happen, but has become a part of travel for me, one I’ve dealt with on multiple occasions already. I felt bad for Rug for having to experience what it’s like to have someone rob you from right under your nose, and to lose the few things he had, but we thanked the gods it wasn’t worse.

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A pontoon boat was sent from the lodge to pick us up from the campsite around 1:30 to bring us to the lodge where we would set off on our game drive from. As we cruised down river, large, grey rock-like lumps appeared in the water – and then moved! Hippos! So MANY! We ever so slowly crept up and passed a whole herd that was half submerged in the middle of the narrow river. They all turned their monstrously huge heads towards us, only their eyes and nostrils and twitching ears peaking above the water.  Those don’t-fuck-with-me eyes followed us closely, unblinking. The hump of ones back was slightly above the water level and three black and orange-beaked  birds perched themselves on it, the hippo paying no mind at all to his little parasitic latchlings. More hippos emerged from beneath the water, blasting the river water from their nostrils like blow holes, letting out loud water logged grunts.  A huge one lumbered out from the reeds and made his way into the water until he entirely disappeared. They turned their heads to follow us, never taking their eyes from us until we were well passed. There were closed to 30 of them there!

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Not far ahead we encountered a lone bull. Our guide advised us that he was aggressive because he needed to assert his dominance – being solitary, without a herd, he was trying to attract females and ward off any male competitors. Hippopotamuses are highly territorial. His head disappeared beneath the surface as we neared, leaving only bubbles in his wake. I scanned the water as we passed where he was and moments later he exploded from the water not 20 feet behind us, mouth grotesquely gaping – and slammed his monstrous jaws shut with a grating crash of fat, pink gums and long yellow canines. Water sprayed everywhere as his fat head struck the water and he glared after us. I squealed half in fright, half in delight at his display of aggression and considered myself well warned!  Rug and I began to laugh and so did our captain – but I think he was laughing at how terribly excited we were more than anything.

This game drive was already worth it! I didn’t think we’d see anything to top what we just did! I spotted a small crocodile hiding in the reeds, perfectly camouflaged, but not good enough for these newly trained African safari eyes! And there was still a half hour until our game drive even started – that adventure was merely the pick up! Our guides name was Keentah and we set off in a much nicer boat – back the same way we came. Luck was on our side once again as we were the only ones on the game drive!

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Our big bachelor was waiting for us where we had left him, furious, in the middle of the river. He pulled the exact same stunt of disappearing and resurfacing behind us, snapping viscously with his behemoth jaw. Which was of course hippo speak for ‘piss off!’ We cruised up past the huge herd on the current of the river, creeping along slowly so we could admire them.  Around the next bend we spotted what looked at first to be just two, but multiplied in to six hippos and a much larger crocodile who slowly slithered into the water at our approach. Keentah docked a little ways further down and I surveyed the shore with the utmost scrutiny before hopping from the bow of the boat to land and clambered aboard our open concept jungle green Toyota cruiser.  It was old and beaten down with a metal shade structure atop and nothing more. Once again, with the rains having arrived, we tried not to get our hopes up of seeing too much… we were in a national wildlife reserve park- Bwatabwa – but it was no Etosha! The Caprivi strip is known for its birds and hippos more than anything and we definitely saw our fill of birds on this drive!  King fisher, long tailed paradise whydah, fox tailed drongo, three types of hornbill, bee eaters galore, red billed francolin, African fish eagles, African openbill, blacksmith lapwings, great egrets, Egyptian geese, saddle billed storks, and countless other I can’t recall the names of.

I spotted a baboon through the trees and cried for Keentah to stop. We saw two eating in the bush and when we carried on moments later we found the whole brood of them. There must have been close to 50! I saw a mother get up and begin to walk and as she did a tiny brown bundle clung desperately to her underside – a baby! A tiny, tiny baby! It was so precious! We stopped and the mother sat down, nothing but the tiny, strangely human like hand of the baby visible, clinging to the fur on its mothers side. But patience is a virtue and curiosity is a part of life as a baby baboon. The tiny head began to poke around his mothers arm and look towards us. Deeming us as no threat, he grew bolder and began to climb up his mother and over her arm to get a better look at us. He was unbelievably adorable! His huge, curious brown eyes, so intelligent, staring wide at us. I could have stayed there forever watching the sweet little one! But just then, a big male sauntered across the dirt path in front of us, looked back and gave us a deep warning grunt.

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a little shy…

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a little curious…

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oh, hello!

Onwards we trekked deeper into the trees around us. We passed an old torn down South African army camp from the war in the 90’s and followed on the old path for some time. I was constantly scanning the trees in hopes of seeing some cheetah or leopard lounging on a limb, but I was only greeted with the plethora of birds.  The drive was beautiful and the landscape ever changing. At times we hugged the river bed and watched the cranes as they stood deep in the water, watching for fish. We listened to the fish eagle cry his piercing scream into the late afternoon and watched as a herd of impala with their abundant young grazed the verdant vegetations near the shore.  When we left the shore we cruised through the thick forest of burnt and dead trees, their gnarled and blackened limbs twisting upwards toward the blue sky as if in agony.  We cruised through plains of tall tan grass and open savannah where I strained my eyes to see the golden eyes of a lion hiding but found only impala.  We drove by a grassy clearing littered with a scattering of bleached elephant bones, stark against the green grass.  Near the end of our drive, when it was time to turn around we came across the carcass of an elephant still decaying.  The thick leathery skin hung from the skeleton like an old, dusty, moth eaten coat long forgotten in a closet. The long trunk shrivelled, the poor beast looked as if someone had simply deflated him like some toy and lain him down, left to be forgotten, cared only for by the birds as a perch.

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On the way back we encountered aonther troop of baboons also with a few babies in tow, who were finding themselves quire preoccupied with a young python.  He was unmoving, beside the jeep track in the sand just a few feet away.  One adult baboon had come over to investigate.  The baboon knew that python wasn’t venomous so they showed now fear of it. The baboon sat down a few feet away from the snake and watching, unconcerned, but ever vigilant, to ensure it kept heading away from the troop.  Soon another baboon came to investigate and then two more and before we knew it a whole crowd was gathered around to watch the snake, including us. Some of the youngsters, bold in their naivety got extremely close and whooped and grunted at it while their elders whooped and grunted at them and waved them back.  One sat down on his behind, knees bent, elbows hooked on them and hands clasped, looking pensive.  It was strange and comical to see an animal appear so human-like in posture and in certain physical features and behaviour. The snake began to move on quickly now, surely aware of the ever increasing presence of baboons and feeling threatened, wanted a quick escape.

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Darling, do get my good side…

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That’s the one!

As we neared the return of our boat by the river, our guide stopped suddenly and pointed to the dirt.

“Fresh elephant tracks”, he said as he pointed to the large imprints in the soft sand. You could see the veiny lines of their leathery pads clearly.  It had rained the evening before so he knew these were very fresh. Keentah reversed and we set out elephant tracking, which was totally unexpected!  His face was set in concentration and his trained eyes scanned the bush for the huge beasts, and the ground for more prints. We came across more tracks and followed them  down two different little paths. Suddenly, I saw one!

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“There!”,  I whispered and pointed while tapping Keentah on the shoulder.  We slowed down and crept up next to the young male as he pulled greens from an acai tree with his agile trunk.  His herd was off a little ways to our right, at least nine more heading into the bush.  We were so excited to have found them, even our guide was excited as no one had seen the elephants for four days in the area.  It was the perfect way to end our game drive.

As the sun began to sink, we made our way towards to boat and just ahead of us, three adult warthog and seven tiny babies came scurrying out of the bush!  They were so adorable and so TINY! Our luck with seeing so many babies was amazing! They scampered off and I marvelled at how there were three adults watching over them.  We hopped back in our boat just as the sun was dipping down into the horizon.  The sky exploded into a neon carnival of colour as our boat cut through the glassy river heading upstream.  Birds flew low against the water, their wing tips nearly dipping in as the creamsicle clouds morphed into pink and blue cotton candy.  We came up to the same herds of hippo and one aggressively snapped his big mouth at us sending a splash of water four feet high!

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We came to our bachelor and he didn’t disappoint!   He gave the same old act again! Sink, bubbles, reappear, snap and grunt.  It was the third time that day, but it just didn’t get old! It turned out to be yet another truly unforgettable day in Namibia. A game drive to see several new animals (and their babies!) and three trips up and down the Kwando river to visit the hippos in their domain and the most remarkable sunset on the river to finish it off.

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We thanked Keentah profusely for such an awesome day and especially for tracking the elephants.  It wasn’t often we ate out in Namibia – in fact, we’d only done it once so far! But we figured we would have dinner at the lodge tonight to end the perfect day instead of trying to cook in the dark, scary, bug filled night at our campsite. The food turned out to be far better than the buffet in Etosha.  There was a battered eggplant, tomato and olive appetizer with a hot french bread roll to start and then I filled my plate with a lemony mix of beans, carrots, peas, sweet carrots with raisins, greek salad, roasted potatoes with creamy mushroom gravy and I even tried a small piece of pork chop! It was simply divine and we were served a piece of scrumptious lemon pie for dessert. I was stuffed and it sure was nice to eat a home cooked meal like that instead of tuna wraps, burritos or sandwiches – our usual camp fare! And while the bugs didn’t leave us be, at least they weren’t flying directly into our faces. Instead they were dropping like rocks from all over the place. One lady (the only other couple there, screamed out loud, and let’s be honest, I let a few yelps out too when they dropped just a little too close!). Our hosts drove us back to our camp and we hit the sack early, too full to be able to think of doing much else.

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Day 18: Sunday December 6, 2015

I tried to sleep in, but the sun came up blazing furiously and woke me at 7:15. If it wasn’t the sun that woke me it would have been the birds anyhow! I switched ends of the tent so the sun wasn’t touching me with his tongues of flame and fell back asleep only to dream I woke up and saw a honey badger and her baby outside the tent window digging a den behind the truck. I awoke 20 minutes later – for real this time, and was sweating profusely. The tent had become a sweltering  sauna and I scrambled to get out and breathe. It was going to be damn hot today! I got up and got breakfast going – oatmeal parfait (oatmeal with peanut butter, honey, layered with mashed banana and granola, mmm). We packed up and were on the road by 8am and at our next stop, Ngepi Camp, by 11:30am.  We were headed back west now to begin the journey homewards in this last week.

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The camp was situated 14km off highway B8 on a dirt path only suitable for 4×4 vehicles. The camp was absolutely beautiful!!! It reminded me of some of my favourite hostels in Central America, ones that had awesome hippies vibes (in this case, the camp also had hippo vibes!) .  It was a community run, self sustaining camp run completely on solar power.  They have old instruments hanging from a ceiling, a caged in ‘floating’ pool in the river that’s infested with hippos and crocs (swim at your own risk in the cage!) and gorgeous landscaping: lawns filled with African art sculptures of giraffe placed so they look like they are grazing in the trees, warthogs paired up and elephants and crocodiles and hippos scattered about. Signs everywhere talked about how to be respectful of the earth (“save water, shower together!” was my favourite!). I felt at home immediately in this place and was so happy we were here for two nights! We set up camp, touched base with the wifi world and then I did a bunch of writing,  Rug a bunch of napping and both a little reading ! And then I had a nice yoga session, despite the doves swooping at my head!

The practice was much needed after the three day hiatus, that was due mostly to the sweltering heat. I threw together tuna wraps for lunch and booked us a Mokoro canoe cruise for tomorrow afternoon from the lodge.  At long last we even had our very first camp fire! I’m sitting here now at 9pm and it’s pitch black. Rug went to bed. The fire began to die down and I kept rearranging it to try and get some more flame and light from it. The stars are dazzling bright, but there’s no moon so its dark as obsidian. I can see the reflection of the stars on the river they’re so bright! The night is wildly alive with the raucous chorus of frogs and bugs and bats and birds. Yet as loud as it is, as motley of a mixture of sounds as it is, it’s music to my ears and somehow it all works in harmony to make the most beautiful soundtrack to the night. Though it is interrupted from time to time by the loud grunting and splashing of the hippos who are RIGHT beside our camp! I began to find myself jittery and afraid- the dark always gets to me and I was about to give in for the night when the camp dog drifted into our camp and curled up against my legs and made me feel safe again so I could sit beneath the burning stars and gaze in awe at their refection some more.  Half an hour later, when he left, I packed it in too and crawled up the ladder to our tent. What a special way to end yet another magical day in paradise!

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