Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Game Drives

After two nights in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe and two nights on one of the Ichobezi Safariboats on the Chobe River, our last stop on our quick southern Africa trip was at the Elephant Valley Lodge in Botswana. To that point our trip had been working out perfectly and we were excited to get to see what kind of wildlife watching we could get in on land rather than from on the river. Although in all honesty we couldn't imagine the game viewing being any better than it was from a small boat with an outboard motor that allowed us to get within 20 feet or so of elephants, crocodiles or Cape buffalo.

We were handed off from the Safariboat to the Lodge at the riverside immigration office in Kasane in northern Botswana and were loaded into what looked like a pickup truck on steroids with three rows of seats and a canopy welded to the flatbed portion of the vehicle. After convincing and re-convincing our driver that we actually did only have a single backpack each with us (traveling light on this trip), we were off, down paved roads for about 30 minutes before turning left onto a dirt road (later called "African asphalt" by our guide, Daniel) which we would come to find was going to be the type of road we would spend most of our time on for the rest of our trip.

Following lunch and a few hours of relaxing at the Lodge, it was time for our first safari drive. After hopping back into the truck, avoiding the back row of seats which we were promised would be bumpiest (Daniel calls this experience the "African massage") and driving about 30 minutes over African asphalt, we made it to the gate of the Chobe National Park. After boating along the outskirts of the park the previous two days, we were finally heading inside.

The Chobe National Park is a fenceless park. The government of Botswana has set it up this way deliberately so as not to disturb the natural range of the animals which live in and around the Park. In that capacity it is different than some other national parks in southern Africa which are fenced game reserves, presumably arranged that way to prevent wildlife incurring on nearby human settlements. But while the animals are free to come and go 24 hours a day, vehicles are not. Drivers are required to check in when entering the park and there's a 6:30 p.m. (in winter when we were there) gate closure. And gate closure means gates locked. Find an African asphalt road out if you can beyond that time.

Our first foray into the park included a packed vehicle and by and large these were the same people (including our guide but with the exception of one group of three Britons) with whom we would take all our game drives over the next couple of days. This arrangement is deliberate and it became obvious why by our second outing. If you mix and match groups of people and guides randomly each time, then their priorities can more naturally conflict. Staying together on these drives time after time allows the guide to head to a location in the park where all the tourists want to go. Animals seen in one trip en masse can simply be bypassed in a later trip. It makes a whole ton of sense.

It also becomes obvious pretty quickly that by far the biggest influence on your game viewing experience is your guide, so hooking up with a good one is essential. Get a timid guide or one who doesn't properly communicate with and gather information from other drivers (the "bush Google") and you could be sunk. Our guide Daniel was fantastic. He'd been driving through the Chobe Natonal Park for years and years and really knew where each species of animal congregated at whichever time of day we happened to be in the park. He also got some big props from us for knowing the genus and species of each animal. I realize it's his job to spot creatures but that part was pretty impressive nonetheless.

So now that we know about the Park's closing time, African asphalt, African massages and the bush Google and a little bit about our fellow passengers, we entered the Park for real. Our first trip into the Park was sort of a variety show. We saw most of the herbivores we could have possibly seen either from far away or very much up close: giraffes, elephants, Cape buffalo, waterbuck, impala (the "McDonald's of the bush" due to the fact that they are everywhere and a pretty good snack), sable antelope, kudu and hippos.

It is amazing to me how close we could get to these animals in a car. I found some like the giraffes and for sure the sable antelopes to be pretty skittish but if you are sitting still in the car, impala and kudu grazed feet from our open-sided truck like they didn't have a care in the world. Of course towards the second half of our first drive, a herd of these same two species continued to eat even though some of their family members were warning the whole herd of a leopard or some other predator nearby. Nonetheless, being able to watch from ten feet or so away was incredible. This for sure is not a zoo.

If we had any skepticism about the game drives being better than the boat trips we'd taken the previous two days, that doubt evaporated pretty quickly. There are two distinct advantages to being on land. First, there are far more of some sorts of animals away from the water than near the water. This proved especially true of giraffes. On the boat, giraffes were a cause for some serious excitement; on land, they seemed to be everywhere and they are much more impressive up close than from a distance. The second reason that land excursions were better than boat rides for us was our ability to follow. If an animal heads inland from the water's edge, there's no way you are following in a boat. If an animal decides to head away from you on land, there very often is a way to follow. This proved especially true on our second and third drives.

The McDonald's of the bush, grazing obliviously to any sort of danger.
Driving through the Park is not for the faint of heart or for the ill-equipped driver. None of the roads inside the park are paved and most at one point or another become very sandy or are quite steep and rocky. Most are one way and passing another vehicle which is stopped to view animals involves getting at least one side of the vehicle off the road and into the edge of the bush, which is a couple of feet higher than the main path, causing the vehicle to tilt sideways. There's no question you need a real four wheel drive vehicle with big tires. I couldn't contemplate driving any car I've ever owned anywhere we drove those couple of days.

If I needed any more proof of how inadequate some vehicles would be inside the Park, it came on our way out of the Park on our first drive. It was about 6:15 p.m. and we were about ten minutes away from the Park exit when we passed a "four wheel drive" Hyundai stuck in the sand. And by stuck, I mean buried up to its axle. When we arrived the owners of the car were trying to push it to more solid footing with the help of all the passengers in a nearby safari truck which had stopped to help.

From my view on the side of our vehicle right next to the Hyundai there was no way this thing was moving without another vehicle to tow it. And we didn't have the time or capability to tow this car with no rope on hand. Despite the request of the car owners, we didn't stop. We'd be late if we did and there was nothing we could do anyway. So Daniel told them we'd let the staff at the gate know and we took off. I don't know what happens when someone is stuck this close to closing time. I imagine they spend the night in the park but I really don't know. I just know I'd never think to take something I can rent onto roads like that.

A family of elephants heading away from the river and into the bush towards sunset.
If our first game drive was all about getting an overview of the Park and seeing a variety of species, our second (in the afternoon / early evening) and third (really really early the next morning) drives were all about one thing: cats. We all agreed we'd skip everything non-cat we came across on both of those last two drives in exchange for a good sighting or two of lions or leopards. We were all in. Let's go! While the leopards ultimately avoided us, Daniel would not disappoint with the lions. Not at all.

Cats are way more difficult to spot in the bush than the herbivores and there are a few reasons for this. First and most obviously, there are way more animals that eat plants wondering around than there are cats. The herbivores are essentially the grocery store that feeds the cats. There have to be tons of them around to feed these animals. Secondly, the cats are generally more shy; whereas impala and kudu rely on numbers for safety and elephants and giraffes are just bigger than any other animal to keep predators off, lions and leopards tend to just stay out of the way of anything (i.e. humans) that might kill them. And finally, these things blend in very well with their environment. The lions we found were pretty much the exact same color as the grass in the bush. If they were standing still, it was near impossible to see them.

But thanks to Daniel and the bush Google, we did find lions. First from afar and then way up close. Our searches for lions also produced our second and third "scare the tourists" moments, although just like our first one with hippos, these were not staged and they both worked out OK. But they could have gone wrong.

Early morning lion hunting (with cameras, not guns!). The shadow is our car's. These things were close.
Our afternoon / early evening lion hunt turned out to be mostly an exercise in frustration and patience. Our first lion encounter turned out to be a long distance viewing of a mated or mating pair of lions who were lying in what was likely some sort of depression behind a stand of trees. And if that sounds like we didn't get a good view at all, you are correct. We got a glimpse every so often of the lion's maned head each time he chose to pick it up off the ground and could from time to time see the lioness' tail swishing back and forth in the air. Legitimately, we could only see these animals when they moved and this went on with us standing still for about 35 minutes, from just after 5 p.m. to about 5:35 p.m. I know this because I have a series of photographs in that span showing a dark blob in the distance behind some vegetation. I couldn't even begin to post those here. They are not clear at all.

Eventually, we got tired of this exercise and recognizing how deep we were in the Park, we had to head towards home. Maybe we'd find some other species on the way out. And we did. Four or five giraffes, a couple of angry looking Cape buffalo and a small family of elephants. But when we reached the elephants, we stopped and turned around. Daniel had received a call on the radio telling him that a herd of elephants was likely going to pass close to the two lions we had been watching and might flush them out. It's about 5:55 p.m. at this time and we took off back into the Park, hoping to catch a better look.

We did, but not much. We definitely saw the male leaving his hideout and after circling around the entire area on some side paths, we finally got a decent, although still very far away, view of the two lions lying by themselves in the bush. It was way more exciting that waiting for a head to pop up between trees for a half an hour but it was not a spectacular encounter. Still, I could now feel good that I'd had a fairly respectable look at the most fearsome carnivore on the continent.

The problem? It was about 6:05 p.m. and we were about a 45 minute drive from the gate. Now we are in to "scare the tourists" territory. 

We took off at what seemed like a breakneck speed over the uneven and rocky African asphalt although it was probably only about 35 miles per hour or something like that. Most creatures got out of our way in a hurry. We scattered impala, sable antelopes and got some worried looks from an elephant. We even managed to get a Guineafowl to flap its wings to get out of the way, although the one hippo we passed looked too confused to move. We opted for the African massage seats on this trip, which was a great idea until this race to make the gate because it is seriously rough at the back of these trucks. We found gripping the overhead bars and letting the car bounce us out of our seats worked the best.

At about 6:28 p.m. Daniel turned towards us while somehow still driving and informed us "Two minutes. we are going to be late, but not too late." What the heck did that mean? The gate closes when it closes, right? I mean the Lodge could send another car to get us but this one's staying in the park tonight, right?

Maybe not. Daniel continued talking, letting us know that the best thing to do would likely be to say we had a flat tire and that we got delayed because of it. BUT…don't let them see your phones or cameras. Sounds sketchy but I'm all for anything that gets us out of the park.

6:40 p.m. We finally reach the gate and sure enough, it's locked. And there's nobody around. Now what? Before we knew it, Daniel hopped out of the driver's seat and left us, telling us as he walked away "keep an eye on me in case I get eaten." Har har. Seriously?

Five minutes later, Daniel's back with a key to the gate and we are gone. It pays to have a good guide, I mentioned that, right? I hope if anyone that's reading this post gets one like Daniel. Not only did he get us a maximum viewing experience, but the trip out of the park was a blast. The back seat is the way to go. Way better than a roller coaster. And one more thing…let's get going early the next morning. Like 5:30 a.m. Daniel hates being the second car in the park. And we had more lions to see.

Lions on the hunt.
Our game drive the next morning was literally one of the most amazing experiences of my life. As a kid growing up in England, I couldn't have imagined viewing lions up close in an open-sided vehicle in Botswana. But that's just what happened. I'd never been particularly enthralled with lions before. I am now. In a major way.

If the previous evening's drive finding lions at a distance was exciting, what we found the next morning made that experience completely pedestrian. We found a lioness with four cubs at a distance and watched them walking through the bush early in the morning and longed for a closer look. But about 15 minutes later we got our signature lion experience that will stay with me the rest of my life.

We came across a pride of six lions with about twice that many cars around them that morning at about 7:15 a.m. This is a big part of the reason we came to Africa. I'd never really considered the lion a powerful animal but that impression changed for sure as close as we got that day. These things are all muscle and they are huge. And we got really really close. At one time, I was about 15 feet away from the nearest lion. I can still remember how orange their eyes were as they walked seemingly directly towards me. I fall out of that car or make the wrong move at the wrong time, and I'm done for. We kept the engine running to keep the smell of humans from the lions and I guess that worked. Over the past few days, the only time we hadn't cut the engine of our car or boat was when we were near hippos. That tells me a lot. Lions and hippos were the only animals we didn't view without the engine running.

At our first encounter, our pride of six lions seemed to move about randomly. Who knows, maybe they were groggy and just waking up. But after a bit, they seemed to get organized and started to move in formation from the right side of our vehicle to the left, striding purposefully between the fleet of trucks with admirers with what seemed like a singular focus. We followed and soon found out when we saw a herd of impala (McDonald's of the bush) that the lions we found were hunting.

Closing in on a herd of impala. Past the trucks and with real purpose now.
I'll spoil the ending and let you know right now that we never got to see the kill. The people we were traveling with had to catch an early-ish flight so we stopped watching mid-hunt. But this was impressive. Of the six lions in the hunt, one took the lead, approaching the impala straight on, while two others flanked the herd from the left side and three other lions lay down in the lion-colored grass waiting for the herd to be flushed towards them. It was incredible strategy that surprised me. I'd never seen a pack animal hunt before. They really do know what they were doing. This was way better than some nature special.

Watching lions hunt is not a particularly good spectator sport but for someone who had never seen this sort of thing before, I didn't want to look away. The anticipation is a killer. They are so careful and deliberate, I suppose knowing any sort of sudden movement would be spotted. Eventually we got to the point where the lead lion, who had crept up so stealthily towards the herd, sat up and revealed herself to the impala. When this happened, all the impala watched her and only her, oblivious to the two lions creeping around their flank.

But we had to go. I would have loved to see what happened. I'm not a particularly morbid sort of person that wants to see animals die but witnessing the entire hunt would have been such a rare privilege. The experience stuck. I didn't necessarily want to see a lion take down an impala or two, but my trip would have been more complete seeing that. I can't imagine a better way to spend a Thursday morning in Botswana or any other day of the week for that matter. I want to return to Africa and I want to be in the back of an open-sided truck tracking down lions and other sorts of animals right now. If I wondered if seeing animals from land was better than from on the water, I don't now. Now I know. I will never forget this.

But that's not all.

Early in the morning before we had our incredible lion encounter, we had our third and final "scare the tourists" moment of our trip. The part of the Park we visited that morning to see lions was pretty remote. We had to drive a good distance to get there as the sun rose. And as it turns out, the sunrise wakes a lot of animals, including an enormous hippo on the left side of the African asphalt on our way to the lions. As usual, we stopped the car so we could get a good look and planned to get going again when the animal disappeared into the bush, heading for the safety of the river no doubt.

Only we didn't get going. The engine wouldn't start. Great! We get up early to meet Daniel at 5:30 a.m., managed to be in the first wave of cars into the park and we are stopped dead.  How are we going to get to see more animals. But more importantly, we are stopped dead in a vehicle in the middle of a park full of wild animals, including potential man-eating lions. What the hell are we going to do?

The answer…push.

Yep, that's right, minutes after we chased a hippo off the path we were asked to get out of the car and push. The same sort of hippo that we were terrified of on the Chobe River which provided our first "scare the tourists" moment of our trip. On our way to find lions. Lions, for God's sake! Us seven tourists were expected to get out of the car and push until we got moving enough for Daniel to pop the clutch and get the engine started, just like Daniel LaRusso and his mom did with Ali (with an "i") in the driver's seat on the way to Golf N Stuff in The Karate Kid. Only they didn't have wild animals all around them.

It didn't work. Not at first. Somehow we got another car to stop and help us and those three people were the tipping point, moving our vehicle fast enough backwards to get some speed to pop the engine and we were off and running again. If you had told me before I came to Africa that I would be locked inside a game park and the very next morning that I'd have to deal with an inoperable safari vehicle, I might not have come. But having done all this with no advance warning and having it all work out not just fine but spectacularly amazing, I'd do it all over again. And I might. But I want a good guide.

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