Trip Diary: Beastland

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Meals at Splash Camp are timed around the game drives: breakfast at 5:30am, brunch at 11:30am when you return from the morning drive, no lunch because why bother, when you just had brunch at 11:30? Instead, tea is at 4pm, which feeds you enough to keep you going until dinner around 8:30pm after the evening drive.

I knew that I wouldn’t be able to eat anything at 5:30am, and also that if I were expected to wake up and be functional by 6:00, I would need more time to pull myself together than the half hour they usually expect. So I arranged with TJ to call me at 5:00 as usual, but not to expect me at breakfast. Instead, I would be up and ready to go by 6:00 and I’d eat when we got back. That seemed to work pretty well this morning, actually, so I’ll probably do it again for the rest of my time here.

By the time we set out at six, I was close enough to functional as makes no never mind. It was a beautiful day, and unlike the previous evening we were not beset by elephants at every turn. In fact, there were no elephants at all. I swear, it’s either feast or famine with those creatures.

Waterbuck, with the characteristic white ring on its butt.

But there were waterbuck and wildebeest (two new types of antelope for me), a big herd of zebras, and giraffes — there are always giraffes, but I don’t get tired of them. Then the radio chattered at TJ. I asked him, remembering the way we had called the other camp’s vehicle when we found the wild dogs the previous night, whether they had found anything.

TJ nodded, putting the safari vehicle into gear. “Cheetah.”

I literally gasped. Wild dogs last night and cheetah this morning? The two animals I had shyly admitted were my favorites? Could I possibly be that lucky?

“It’s a long way away,” TJ cautioned me, “five or six kilometers. So we’ll have to keep up our momentum. No stopping for other animals. We’ll slow down for the ones you really want to see. OK?”

I agreed with a nod, still breathless, and TJ put the safari vehicle in gear for speed.

Bouncing along madly at high speed
Bouncing along madly at high speeds. TJ is at the wheel, KP sitting on the tracker’s seat in front.

Riding in an open safari vehicle, off-road and at speed, is a lot like riding a roller coaster without a restraining bar. You find yourself flying up out of your seat a lot. Fortunately, there is a bar you can hold onto; it just doesn’t come down over your lap to keep you in. The only things preventing you from flying right out of the compartment are your grip and your driver’s skill.

It’s a lot like a roller coaster in another way, too. It is an awful lot of fun.

Aside from worrying about whether the cheetah would still be there by the time we arrived, I had a glorious time bouncing wildly along the twisting trails in the fine summer morning. Nothing smells as fresh and clean as an Okavango dawn in the green season, I am convinced. Nothing I’ve ever smelled, anyhow.

We finally arrived. The cheetah was still relaxing, and the other camp’s van pulled out as soon as we got there — they had only waited so long, to keep track of him for us — so we had him all to ourselves.

Mr. Special, a large male cheetah
Mr. Special, resting in the shade.

The cheetah was a beautiful, sleek beast; very big for his species, and looking well-fed and quite contented indeed. I was thrilled to see him so healthy, knowing there’s a general problem with cheetah being pushed out by lions in many areas, and not getting enough to eat. The lion we had seen the night before also looked very well fed, so it’s likely that his pride just doesn’t need to care who else hunts here, so long as there’s plenty for them. And there is. Such is life in the Delta — plenty to eat for herbivores, plenty of herbivores for the carnivores. A thriving ecosystem. It’s so good to see one, after everything I know is true about so many ecosystems which are struggling with the climate right now. This one, at least for now, appears to be so rich that it can’t be ruined. I hope that remains true.

Mr. Special close up
Look at those beautiful facial markings.

We sat with the cheetah for almost half an hour, moving around him from one side to the other to ensure we got photos that included the beautiful markings on his face. He sat still very patiently for all of this; in fact, from what TJ said, he was resting after a big meal and therefore likely to stay put for a long while. So it would be worth coming back with the new guests this afternoon, in the hope that he’d still be around. The Splash Camp staff knew this cheetah well; they call him Mr. Special, due to his willingness to perform for guests. The area close to their camp is his territory. So he’s certainly not always available, but he can be found more often than any other cheetah in the region, and he’s well used to the safari vehicles. He didn’t even roll over when we moved the vehicle around to the other side of him to catch his face in the photos, and we parked only about ten feet away from him.

Red lechwe, in the water
Red lechwe, in the water.

When we finally said goodbye to the cheetah, I knew nothing could top it that morning. And I was largely correct. But it doesn’t take topping the most exciting moment of all, to have a good time. I had a blast as TJ plunged the van through water up to the its floorboards in order to see red lechwe (a kind of semi-aquatic antelope), and KP went poking around in the bushes on foot, looking for leopard. We didn’t find leopard, but we did find jackal — twice. Also kudu with babies, wildebeest with babies (I got to watch one nursing), and a tiny little turtle called a freshwater terrapin. That was one very fast turtle! I had to get down off the van to photograph it, and it kept moving out of my screen before I could focus. I finally caught it on camera — just barely.

A jackal, outstanding in his field.

We stopped for tea and cookies — the morning equivalent of sundowners — right in front of a hippo pond. There was a huge pod of them. I counted eighteen and I was pretty sure there were a few beneath the water that I wasn’t seeing. We stopped just on the other side of the pond from where the hippos were… close enough to see them well, but far enough to make sure they had their space. Hippos are the most dangerous land mammal in Africa, and they’re territorial. Giving them their space is generally a wise idea. (The most dangerous animal, period, is the malarial mosquito. It’s good to give those their space too, if you can.)

A big pod of hippos
A big pod of hippos.

After a scattering of additional antelopes, we came back to brunch; and with four hours between brunch and tea, I managed to fit in a bunch of useful stuff. I wrote up the last few days of adventures for y’all, and tended the weird rash I’ve picked up on my hands and forearms — it came from something I put on them, back at Old Drift, but I have no idea whether it was the sunscreen or the insect repellent, so I’m avoiding them both for the time being. I even got a little bit of catch-up sleep. Then I went out to meet the new guests.

There are four of them — two opposite-sex couples. One pair told me they’re from Switzerland; the other from South Africa. The Swiss guy is a serious photographer; he has an enormous lens that I really don’t know how he wrangles from inside the van, especially since he always wants to get down low to take pictures. He says you can’t get good shots of wildlife from above; you have to be at their level, which makes a lot of sense — but since he’s not allowed to get out of the vehicle, he leans out over the sides a lot. With that enormous lens in his hands. And somehow manipulates it into exactly the position he wants, even dangling out of the van with no leverage. I really want to see what pictures he gets from this trip — they ought to be incredible.

TJ asked the new guests what they most wanted to see. The photographer mentioned wild dogs, and the South African lady mentioned elephants and lions. The other two just said they wanted to see animals, and they were happy with whatever the bush gave them. TJ told them about our cheetah, and explained that we were going to head in the direction of where we’d left him. He said that Mr. Special had eaten plenty last night, and so he wouldn’t move far by this time, unless elephants had come and chased him out of his napping spot. So we were going to look for him there, but meanwhile on the way, we would stop for any other wildlife we might see.

We ran into a mixed herd of zebra and impala first. It was fun watching other people, slightly newer to the safari world than my four days so far, awed by what we were seeing. I was still awed by what we were seeing myself. Even impala don’t get boring, although I’ve mostly stopped taking pictures unless one of them does an interesting behavior. Otherwise, I just gaze. They’re the most common mammals in the bush, but they remain beautiful no matter how many times I see them.

It was soon after that when we found our first elephant. The lady who had asked for them was enchanted, but disappointed that she didn’t get the light for a good photo. It was twilight, so you had to have the sun at your back if you were going to take a good picture. But we found more of them later — several herds, in fact — and she got her photographs and then some. So did the photographer with the enormous lens. So did I.

We finally came to the place where we’d left Mr. Special. But there was no cheetah.

TJ was as disappointed as we were. The others asked me if I had really seen him in the morning, and could I show them my pictures? Of course I did, which only made them feel more disappointed that they missed it. TJ and KP got out of the van after telling us firmly to STAY THERE, and wandered the bush looking for clues. Finally, they spotted (and showed us) the signs of what has happened: an elephant had definitely showed up and made a mess there. TJ was right: Mr. Special would not have gone far unless an elephant had pushed him out of the area. But it did.

We searched for quite a while, and then disconsolately turned toward home. We’d gone a long way and it was nearly dark; TJ began looking for a place to have sundowners. Suddenly the Swiss lady called, “There he IS!! Back up, back up, back up!!”

TJ stopped the vehicle with a jolt and carefully backed it up several feet. There was Mr. Special, all right — still lying among the bushes, digesting his last meal. He had simply moved the whole operation far enough away from his previous location to avoid further run-ins with elephants, and then resumed his relaxation.

Mr. Special washing himself like any other cat.
Cat, washing like any other cat.

We watched him for more than half an hour, while he did common cat things. It was sometimes funny how much like an ordinary housecat he behaved… for example, he washed himself with his tongue using exactly the same mannerisms as my cats at home. TJ warned us that washing was one of the things they usually do just before they get up and move — and TJ was, as usual about the wildlife, correct. Done with his grooming, Mr. Special then got to his feet, stretched, and began walking calmly toward a small group of trees.

Cheetah stalking through the bush.
Cheetah stalking through the bush.

We followed him, circling — every time he got past us, we brought the van forward by a roundabout route so as not to bother the cat, until we were in the perfect position to see him coming toward us instead of away. Mr. Special scratched at one tree that TJ says is one of his usual territory markers, and peed on another. Then he went gracefully down to the nearby pond to drink. It was so dark by this time that nobody except the photographer with the advanced lenses could get a decent picture, so at last we turned to go. TJ said we would skip sundowners and head straight back to camp, because it was getting very late. But nobody minded. We’d spent our sundowner time watching a cheetah, and it was even better than seeing him in the morning had been.

After we left Mr. Special by the pond in nearly full darkness, KP turned on the spotlight for the night drive toward home. He explained that at this hour, we were looking for only nocturnal animals: lion, leopard, porcupine, aardvark, and all the small nighttime creatures like the spring hare we’d seen the other day. The daytime animals, we could see at other times, and they were settling down for the night, so we would leave them alone.

We all agreed and set out. We didn’t spot much at first, especially of the nighttime animals. (We did deeply offend one startled elephant, who trumpeted a warning and then got hastily out of our way). But I was sitting in the front seat, and after a while, I began to listen to the radio chatter. Most of it is usually in Setswana, but this time I heard someone say in English “We are following him,” so I knew they had something impressive in store for us. They don’t follow the animals you can usually find easily.

I didn’t ask what they were following, figuring that if TJ wanted to surprise us, I was willing to be surprised. But he stopped the vehicle shortly after we saw the light of another safari vehicle in the distance, and told us that there was a lion beside the van making that light. KP — who normally has a seat outside on the front of the van, to allow him to see signs of wildlife better, but gets inside when there’s a predator around — climbed into the front seat, and we proceeded slowly.

There was indeed a lion. There were, in fact, more than one of them. We saw one big male with a gray blotch just above his nose (which is how TJ recognized him), but we heard obscure night noises that felt like they were coming from right behind the back of my neck. TJ told us that sound was two other lions mating. This made our gray-snout lion a bit disturbed. He was sniffing at the air, trying to figure out how he should react and whether he could get in on this mating business himself.

Male lion at night.
Nighttime lion, sniffing the air for signs of lioness.

We watched Gray-snout for a long time, till it was full dark and then some. Then we crawled back to camp. I was exhausted and even gave up on dinner; I just came home and went directly to bed. I knew I would need to be up at five again tomorrow morning, for a ride in a Mokoro — a traditional Delta canoe.

Next: what’s the canoe experience like? And can anything top a cheetah and a lion in the same drive? Find out in the next post!

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