- Robert Heinlein
We woke with the dawn to beat the heat, and ideally to meet the animals, who were also beating the heat. We quickly spotted more red litchri, splashed with steeply slanting sunlight, as well as a lonely elephant in the (far) distance. However, as we traversed the dry grasslands, hopping from one island of vegetative copse to another, I found myself obsessively scanning treetops and canopies in full leopard-hunting mode. Not sure why I so latched onto the mission of spotting a leopard (so to speak), but there it was, some palpable fascination. The Safari Companion (Estes) describes the leopard as "the embodiment of feline beauty, power, and stealth":
"The Prince of Stealth stalking with infinite patience and complete silence, a leopard tries to get within 5 yards of its quarry before pouncing, taking it completely by surprise . . . Tremendously strong, it can pull down and get a stranglehold on a 300lb wildebeast; carry a 150lb impala up a tree; abduct a sleeping German shephard without a sound."
Despite the tilt of my vision, though, we next spotted a warthog, a ways out in the tall grass. There were two of them in fact, darting around and being wary of us. Our group sat for a 10-minute breather in some tall tree shadows, but I had other interests I approached our lead guide (Richman) about going out closer to the warthogs. He assented, sending me out with one Collecion a very nice guy, who was my and Mark's poler on the trip out. With this redoubtable security detail as well as with Andrea, who jumped into the fray, SLR and telephoto lens in hand we set out. Crouching and stepping slowly through the high grasses, we worked for shots. Closer . . . closer . . . closer . . .
We set off again, having spotted another elephant. Richman led us on a loop that seemed likely to get us close to him, without getting us stomped. As we got closer, our guides gigglingly pointed out that this was one of those five-legged elephants, if you get my drift as we got theirs. However, all giggling died away as this 80-pound-phallus-slinging land-whale kept coming toward us, around the edge of some trees. Richman led us in beating a hasty retreat. We almost immediately spotted an adolescent elephant in the grove to which we were retreating. This drew a lot of ooh's and aah's until Mom showed up a few seconds later. We turned to retreat again but right into the path of the first elephant, who had kept on coming. Trapped! Like rats! Our reaction to this was to sort of stand around in the open, and let the locals go where they were going to go. Luckily, this non-strategy worked.
We had actually broken into two (more wieldly) groups for today's walk. As we angled back toward camp, at the tail end of the fourth hour of trekking, we spotted the other group in the distance. Hominids, walking upright, actually look really funny and out of place on the Savannah.
Back at the ranch, we sat around for a while resting and rehydrating and (for my part at least) being as grimy as I've ever been in my life. Laura finished her hat. I provided camp follies with a little Savannah juggling. With Collecion's assistance, I performed an emergency tooth extraction on a skull I found lying around. (I've also collected a litchri bone or two, I must confess.) Then, after a special-treat breakfast of french toast, we broke camp, and got out of Dodge.
On the pole back, Collecion patiently chased down a rare (found only in this Delta) Malaki Kingfisher, until I got my shot. At the boat transfer point, I requested a photo with him. And for going so far above the call in warthog-stalking, dental surgery, and chasing small flighty birds in a makoro, Mark and I sneaked him a large-ish private tip (outside of the group tip that is evenly shared).
While this was going on, the manly men of our group have taken out makoros, to show their mettle and vie for group alpha dominance in a little on-water jousting. It goes without saying that Paul is far and away our dominant male (and I hope to have time to talk more, much more, about Paul and Jo later), so any aspiring young male has to take him down. Unfortunately for Aaron, Paul didn't get where he is by sticking to the rule book. Muhahahaha! Boom! But of course all rivalries were settled and smoothed over, in the interest of group harmony. The young pretender licked his wounds, and plotted for another day.
The rest of us watched the drama, sitting around anticipating the arrival of our powerboats, and looking for all the world like grizzled veterans from another era and another delta awaiting extraction after a rough tour of duty.
On the motor back, we rounded a corner almost right into a group of bemused hippos (our first of the trip). Also, our boatman took us by the lair of two more African Fish Eagles and pulled a clever stunt (one with which they were seemingly familiar) where he whistled at them, then tossed a nice dead fish out in the water (conveniently close to our boats). One, then the other, of the AFEs (thanks to Ari for the abbreviation) unfolded their tremendous wingspans and soared on in for lunch. I got my twitchy wildlife photography on, and got busy tracking and clicking: Here she comes! In for the "kill"! And away with the bounty! Good stuff!
Back at fly camp, we were enjoying a truly lovely evening, at our halfway point back to civilization when Mark showed up looking concerned: Sebastion has found fresh leopard tracks extremely fresh leopard tracks right in camp, on the path between our tents and the bar. We took Paul to show him at which point he offered up the previously unvolunteered factoid that there's a leopard who lives on this island. "She's a bloody pain in the ass, man. She shouldn't be in camp." We tried to get a sense of how scared this should make us. "She's never attacked anyone. And a leopard's never going to take down a human, okay?" We tried to get a sense of what we should tell the group. Paul was focused on not causing a panic so, after some discussion, I rejoined the herd at the bar, and quietly spread the word: Paul wished to remind us that we're still in the Delta and we need to walk in groups, and use torches (even within the camp site).
After consideration, I pulled Laura aside and gave her the scoop about our feline friend. Shortly after, she requested (of me) an escort to the ladies; I fired up the torch, put palm on knife grip, and we swung into stride. As I stood guard outside, Rachel appeared companionless and torchless. Criminy. Laura and I waited, then added her to our caravan back to the bar. Back at the bar, Mark was just heading back to the tents, so I turned on my heel again.
Mark: Jeesh, what are you? The Ferryman?
Me: Pretty much. Ah, well.
Mark: Oh, come on don't try that weary sigh on me. I know you. Let's add it up: You get a possible chance to spot a leopard. You're out walking. You get to hang out with and, much more importantly, protect multiple young, attractive, British females. You're probably having the best night of your entire life.
Me: God . . . it's so gratifying to truly be understood. (Particularly for sometimes sullen, always inscrutable, bastards like us.)
Back by the tents, a sort of roaring snort erupted from down on the water. To my great surprise, Paul exclaimed, "What the hell was that?" "Hippo," I answered drolly. "Even I know that, at this point." I withdrew a bit down the trail, to the water's edge, notebook in hand. There keeping one eye out for a pounce from the trees above, and another for a charge from the riverbank I took stock and scribbled a few conclusions about my Delta experience:
For starters, I'm dirtier than I've ever been in my life (outside of mud football). I haven't showered in 72 hours, and I've been living in a swamp. In the day, you slather yourself with sunblock; in the night, insect repellent; and you sweat pretty much straight through both. To launch a makoro canoe, you stand behind and push it through ankle-deep mud. Of more interest: I've now mitosed my set of belongings down three times 90% got left in California; half of the remainder got left in Atlanta; and 3/4 of that got cached in the truck until I'm now living out of, essentially, a man purse. And I've done it for three days, in open country shared with lions, leopards, hippos, and crocs. I've stalked pigs and elephants, and crossed paths with huge paw prints, and not felt fear (or, well, not all that much). For the most part, I've maintained my good humor and, much more importantly, my honor. I've pulled my weight in camp and within the group, and (I hope) never let anyone here down. Admittedly, I'm yet maladroit, and of mixed moods, in our micro-sociosphere; and I've, regrettably, failed to master myself on several occasions and issued the odd snipe and unkind word. But I don't, at bottom, care all that much about the former, and I forgive myself for the latter I'll get it right one day, hopefully soon.
In the morning, before our final extraction, Mark spots a small hopping bird with legs, eyes, and beak so absurdly colorful, "it looks like it was colored by a six-year old."
Next: Chobe National Park and more killer kitties at play.