Thursday, January 8, 2009
.An Emerald In The Desert
From the air the Okavango Delta comes as a sudden surprise. The flight from Gaborone, capital city of Botswana, to Maun at the edge of the Okavango Delta is drab and monotonous being mostly Kalahari type countryside; dry and uninteresting with scattered native Kraals, the grass roofed huts surrounded by log palisades to keep out wild animals. The ground is crossed by myriads of footpaths made by people, cattle and wild game animals. Ripples of wind blown sand covered with sparse brown grass and the occasional stunted tree can be seen to go on for miles as the Piper Cherokee wings its way towards Maun, the launch point of our safari into the Okavango Delta.
I had met Paul in the hotel he owned in Lichtenburg in the far western Transvaal. I was in the area engaged in selling huge one way disc plows to the local farmers in the Western Transvaal which is one of the maize growing areas of South Africa. Paul also owned a company which sold tractors and implements, and I had done some demonstrations to the farmers using his tractors which were well suited to the plows I sold. The result was that we sold a number of units, and the week had been most successful. The manager of the tractor company and I were celebrating our success in the bar when Paul walked in and joined our conversation.
The discussion soon drifted to Paul's passion, hunting, and he was impressed by the fact that I had had extensive hunting experience in Central Africa. We talked about the various game animals, guns, calibers and hunting vehicles. The best hunting areas were debated and he asked me if I had ever hunted in Botswana. I told him that I had never hunted in Botswana, but I believed that it was as pristine as can be encountered anywhere in Africa. With that the gathering broke up and I went off to bed. The next day I departed for my base in Johannesburg.
It was a few days later that my boss called me into his office and told me that he had had a call from Paul who demanded that I accompany him on a two weeks trip into Botswana where he had certain business contacts, and that he required my presence at a few of his meetings. My boss told me that he had consented to the request, and that I should get ready to leave for Lichtenburg the next morning. A three hour drive brought me into Lichtenburg, and I went up the stairs to Paul's office. He ushered me into his office which was large and sumptuously furnished with many trophies adorning the walls.
"Do you see what is missing here?" Paul asked, waving at all the stuffed heads. I shook my head. "A massive buffalo bull!" He transfixed me with a glare as if it was my fault that he did not have a stuffed buffalo head amongst the rest. "I have arranged for us to go hunting one in the Okavango Delta. We fly to Gaborone at four this afternoon, and tomorrow we will land at Maun. I have arranged licenses for you from a buddy who cannot make the trip. If there is anything you need for the trip I suggest that you go out now and purchase it as we will take off at four sharp."
We took off at four as promised, and after two hours landed at Gaborone where we cleared customs and immigration and then booked in to the Holiday Inn. I settled in to my room, and at seven went down to the bar to see what had happened to Paul. The barman informed me that he was in the gambling hall, and there I found him playing blackjack. I am not much of a gambler, and by eight I went off to have supper and go off to bed. Paul continued to play, and as I walked into the dining room the next morning for breakfast he came out of the gambling hall, and joined me for breakfast. He had not slept all night, and informed me that he had lost a king's ransom; his mood was not good.
Taking off from Gaborone airport he set the autopilot and said to me. "I am going to take a nap, but if we stray from the road, just wake me, and when you see the Okavango Delta on the horizon wake me so that we can land."
Mile after mile of Kalahari countryside sped beneath the Cherokee while I sweated watching in case we strayed from the main road to Maun, and Paul snored softly while he slept. Suddenly there it was on the horizon! A green contrast to the monotonous drab Kalahari stood out like a mirage ahead of us with a burst of color. I leaned across and shook Paul awake. He sat up wide awake and took over the controls.
Paul put the Cherokee into a wide turn and I gazed out over the massive delta. Green papyrus with channels of clear water interspersed with stands of riverine forest, dark leafy trees clustered among wide patches of Mopani woodland. From the air I could see that the campsites would be as good if not better than anywhere in Africa, together with the crystal clear water it was a veritable paradise. A thrill of anticipation coursed through me; it was one of the greatest sights of the bewitching continent.
We approached the airstrip and Paul put the Cherokee down like a butterfly alighting on a flower. His driver was waiting with his Land Rover, having been sent on ahead.
Our first stop was at the Crocodile camp, a delightful lodge just outside of Maun. We broke out the camping gear and set up sleeping facilities in a reed enclosure on the banks of the river. The night was clear with stars sharply visible and after climbing under our mosquito netting we fell instantly asleep. Paul's driver had already presented our licenses to the authorities at Maun, and collected the tracker and guide who were to accompany us, so that an early start was in order.
We awoke before the dawn, packed up the camp, and took off for Toteng, a village on the shores of Lake Ngami. The lake is more like a pan with water knee deep in most places after a season of rains. When we arrived the lake was dry as a bone, and the naked children running around the village were covered in a layer of grey dust that disguised their natural color completely. Washing was a luxury they could only afford when the lake was full. The rest of the year dust baths are in order. If the elephants can do it, so could they, and one could see that they enjoyed it immensely. I never saw one with body sores, or rashes of any sort although I will add that I never got too close to them.
Leaving Toteng behind us we travelled in a North Westerly direction deeper into the delta. The waters had started to recede and many of the channels were dry with only the deepest streams holding water. The grass was lush however, and the trees were full of green leaves. The bush was full of spoor, and it was not long before we encountered a small herd of Impala. A beautiful big ram stood looking at us about thirty yards off with long lyre shaped horns held aloft. He snorted at us and stamped his front feet in indignation at the intrusion of his territory. Paul took up his rifle, a magnificent 6.5 Manlicher full stock, fitted with a Pecar Berlin scope, and I surmised that the Impala had breathed his last. Paul stood two paces from the vehicle and took aim through the telescope. The ram kept standing and after what to me seemed an age the shot went off and the dust flew about five yards behind the buck. With a leap the Impala was off, and Paul let off another two rapid shots at him which both missed by a mile. "Just hunting jitters," I thought to myself. "He will come right after a few shots." The next animal we encountered was a large Warthog. Paul leapt out of the Landie and let fly at the hog. The bullet kicked up dust under the hog's belly, and the animal took off tail in the air and kept running. Again Paul sent two shots after it, but they were so far missed that we could not even see a strike. He took the rifle and threw it to the ground. Fortunately there was thick grass and the rifle did not strike the ground directly. I went and retrieved it, and wiping the dust off with a cloth, I stowed it behind the seat.
We arrived at the camp spot at about midday, and set up camp. Paul had brought a massive tent which his driver pitched for him under a large leafy tree. I had to take my bedroll and stow it near the fire in the open. We set up a large fold out table and some camp chairs, and Paul brought out his rifles. He had a beautiful .416 Rigby, a .378 Weatherby Magnum, and the 6.5mm Maanlicher.
"Sorry," He said, "We could not organize any hunting licenses for you, so you will have to only be an observer. However you can back me up when we shoot the Buffalo, and then you can carry the 378."
"You mean to tell me that I have come all this way and now I cannot hunt?" I was livid. "Now I must sit here for ten days just watching you do all the hunting. Why could you not convert the licenses which your pal could not use?" I knew that the Game department would not have had any objection to that.
"Well my pal said that he would use them for another occasion, and therefore he would not release them to me."
"You mean to tell me that when we left Lichtenburg you knew that there would be no hunting licenses for me, and yet you let me get on board your plane without telling me?"
Suddenly I was totally irritated, and my attitude showed it. Paul however was quite nonchalant, and let my mood run off him like water off a duck's back.
"Look at it this way," Paul said, "You are in the bush with all the animals around you, and not trying to chat up some stingy farmers to buy your implements. You can get rid of some frustrations and absorb some tranquility; in the meantime I will get that Buffalo head for my collection."
He was quite right. I was not paying for the trip, and even though there would be no hunting for me this time I was in one of the gem areas of Africa, and I would have the opportunity of observing and relishing the unspoilt wilderness and the freshness of the environment with its many animal, bird and plant species. My mood lifted, and I resolved to make the best of the observer status which had been assigned to me. I had brought a notebook, and using it as a journal I started to record every interesting aspect of the trip as it happened.
As soon as the camp was set up and enough firewood gathered and deposited at the fire pit, we had some lunch consisting of corned beef sandwiches and a mug of coffee. I helped Paul to load his rifles, and took the Manlicher to the edge of the camp, and setting up a target at one hundred and fifty yards took a shot. I hit the target dead centre, and then took two more shots to make sure that the scope was set properly, and had not sustained any damage when Paul discarded the rifle. My conclusion was that Paul still suffered from the jitters, and he should take the shots comfortably and relax when taking aim. I mentioned it to him, but he pooh poohed the idea.
When the afternoon started to cool off we took the Land Rover and drove along the track deeper into the Delta. Skirting a channel which was drying fast we came to a wide vlei. The ground was damp, and we could see that towards the centre where the Papyrus stood high and luxurious there must be a pan of water. Avoiding the wet ground we drove along the edge of the vlei, and as we came to the opposite edge we spotted a group of about twelve Blue Wildebeests and four Tsessabys grazing at the far edge. Paul and the tracker alighted from the Land Rover and stalked the group through the Nile grass and Papyrus while I stayed at the vehicle and observed their progress through the binoculars. Paul had taken the 378 Weatherby, a fine weapon, and soon I saw him sink down to a kneeling position taking aim. There was a fine bull which stood broadside on and I surmised that Paul was aiming at him. When the shot sounded I saw a Tsessaby calf behind the Wildebeest fall. And the herd was off at a gallop. They were not wild so that it was plain that they had not been shot at often, and about two hundred paces away they stopped and stood watching Paul who was running towards them He again sank to his knees and took aim. The shot echoed and a wildebeest went down, got up and ran about fifty paces before collapsing and started to kick with all four legs in the air.
We drove the Land Rover around the vlei and up to the Wildebeest. I could see that it had taken the shot in the belly the heavy bullet striking it down. It had then angled forward and exited just behind the shoulder blade. The meat was a mess, and had the rifle been a smaller caliber the poor animal would have suffered dreadfully.
Returning to camp I assisted in dressing the meat that could be used, and cutting up the biltong while Paul's driver prepared supper. After a tasty meal of tsessaby liver and kidneys with stiff maize meal porridge we called it a day and I turned into my bedroll next to the campfire. The far off roar of a lion made me pull the blanket tighter around my shoulders as if that could protect me from an assault by that king of all predators. With the call of a pearl spotted owl sounding softly from the trees nearby, I eventually fell asleep and dreamt of great big buffalo bulls all gut shot and charging down on me while I battled to run away on rubber legs.
As the dawn broke, a Copper Tail Coucal called nearby with deep dooo, dooo, dooo, tones sounding like water being poured from a bottle. I lay in the warmth of my blanket listening to the calls, identifying the new sounds as the delta became alive with a myriad of birds.
Paul came from his tent as I was busy washing my face and informed me that he was going to Maun and would be back only the next day, and I should amuse myself while he and the driver were away. Without even waiting for breakfast he got into the Land Rover and sped of in a cloud of dust. I must say that I was not very sorry to see him go. The Copper tail Coucal had inspired me to spend some time observing the birdlife in the delta, and after a breakfast of hard rusks and coffee I took up the 6.5 Manlicher and a pair of binoculars, and the tracker and I strolled off into the forest chasing the various bird calls. The tracker, who's name was Watson, knew many of the species we encountered. There were shrikes, both the red breasted and the long tailed, tiny flycatchers all sitting in a row on a reed hanging over the channel, flocks of green pigeons in the wild fig trees and Meyer's Parrots clowning about in the branches of a dead Mopani tree. Near the water I spied a big Marabou Stork standing like an undertaker at a funeral. Iridescent sunbirds flitted about among the flowers of a lucky bean tree. We could hear the trumpeting calls of a group of Crowned Cranes not very far ahead of us signifying the proximity of a vlei not far off, and we walked towards the sound.
A deep gulley crossed our path, and as we entered it I saw that there was coarse washed sand in its bottom. There in the sand lay the impressions of a massive lion that had passed not one hour ago. The prints in the soft sand were shiny with newness, the edges crisp and defined. No sand had been blown onto them although there was a fair breeze blowing. Watson followed the spoor for a few paces and whistled softly to me. He was looking at a jumble of tracks overlaying the male's spoor.
"These are the tracks of a whole pride of lions see here the many juvenile spoor. It shows that there are cubs of varying ages with at least five lionesses in attendance. I am sure they are up ahead probably drinking at the pan in the vlei." He looked up at me as if to indicate that we should clear out sharp shoot.
I had the rifle with me and there were five rounds in the magazine with an extra five rounds in the breast pocket of my bush jacket. I certainly did not relish an encounter with a whole pride, so we retraced our steps back to camp. The vlei was about half a mile away and even that was too close for comfort. The trees were tall with thick smooth trunks, and would be impossible for me to climb even in the direst panic. I did the best I could and broke out the 378 Weatherby and twenty rounds of solid tipped ammunition and put it ready on the table while I sat in the camp chair nearby reading a book. We had plenty firewood, and the two black men stoked the fire while they put on a three legged pot of water for the day's porridge. That night we sat up at the fire till the early hours listening to the roars sounding as if they were at the very edge of our camp. I sat with my back against a tree trunk and eventually drifted off to sleep while the other two continued to sit at the fire putting logs on to keep the flames high.
Paul arrived back at camp about eleven the next morning, and I could smell on his breath that he had enjoyed a good night of partying. After eating a good lunch he retired to his tent and slept till early afternoon. At about two in the afternoon he emerged and called for the Land Rover, and after putting the two heavy rifles in their carry racks we made of into the bush. We skirted the dry gully and emerged into the vlei. The crested cranes were still there, and sure enough there was a large pan of clear water with a small beach of washed rough sand where the gully entered the pan. The lion spoor was plentiful and the tracker announced that it was a favorite drinking spot. Buffalo tracks were all over the lion spoor showing that they too favored the pan. The pan was empty of wild life, and we slowly drove around the edge and headed for a stand of forest on the other side. There we encountered a path which we followed. There was a big termite mound covered in dense shrubbery and two tall trees, and as we approached it we saw a leopard raise its head and quizzically peer at us. When we came too close for his comfort he bounded out followed by his mate which had been hiding in the short grass at the base of the mound. They had been mating when we disturbed them. We took the opposite tack and left them to their courtship.
As we drove through the forest there was a stand of scrubby Mopani stretching for about a mile. The Mopani scrub was about five feet high with here and there taller bits bushing out from base trunks that had been damaged by elephants but had then grown out again forming clusters of tall shoots. The tracker hissed and pointed and I stood up to see what he was pointing at, and saw eight buffalo bulls grazing about three hundred yards away. There was a nice young bull amongst them with a fair spread of horns. They were grazing leisurely and the wind was blowing from them in our direction.
We parked the Land Rover, and Paul took up the 416 Rigby while I took the .378 Weatherby, checking that the magazine was loaded with full jacketed solid cartridges. We started to stalk the group and with all the scrub we had plenty cover so that after a slow stalk we got to within about twenty yards from the group. The young bull was slightly behind another one, but they were grazing from our left to right, and I indicated to Paul to wait till he emerged and then to give him a shoulder shot. He knelt down and sighted, and I could see the bull come out ahead of the others to present a perfect shoulder shot. Paul continued to sight for what seemed an age.
When the shot sounded the whole group took flight straight for where we were crouched They had taken fright at the sound of the shot and came past us with the speed of a freight train I could of shot the young bull point blank as it passed me. Paul took fright and started to run towards where we had left the land Rover. The group of buffalo ran for about a hundred yards and stopped in a tight knot while one split off from the rest and made for some dense bush at the edge of the Mopani scrub. I concluded that it was wounded. The afternoon had progressed to about five o'clock, and soon the sun would be gone and the darkness would come suddenly as it does in the African bush. Paul returned to where we were standing, and I said that if we wanted to get the buff then we would have to take its spoor right away and dispatch it before the sun went down. This he refused and said that we should first get the Land Rover so that we could follow the animal with the vehicle nearby as a refuge in case of a charge. By the time the vehicle arrived the sun was already sinking towards the horizon and we got to the forest too late to further take up the spoor, and had to abandon the chase till the next morning.
With sunrise we were at the spot where we had left the spoor, and with the tracker and I leading along the spoor while Paul rode the vehicle behind us refusing to take a chance of facing a charge on foot. Twice we came on places where the buffalo had gone down, and where he had regained his feet and struggled on. The tracker carefully surveyed every dark spot in the bush before moving on along the spoor. Suddenly we saw movement ahead and he froze intently staring at the source of the movement. I saw a hyena scurrying away, and knew that the buffalo was dead and the hyenas were feeding on the carcass. Sure enough there lay what was left of the beast, and as it turned out it was an old bull with one broken off horn. Paul had again shot the wrong animal. Had we followed it we would have come up to it to find it already dead as the shot had penetrated right through the right side and the bullet had lodged in the left side shoulder. The hyenas had eaten the carcass and Paul was left with the head from which even the ears had been chewed off as a trophy for his hunting collection. What an anticlimax to his buffalo hunt!
At midday we broke up camp, and returned to Maun where we slept the night and the next morning took off for the return trip home. As we gained height I asked Paul to turn over the delta for a last look, and this he did flying over the spot where we had camped before making for home. That was my last view of the Okavango Delta, and the memory is firmly entrenched in my mind. It is one of the true jewels of Africa and a wonder of the natural world. I will always remember it as such and hope to one day visit it again.