Today we are moving on to elephant and lion territory in Botswana. We finally arrive at the great gray green greasy Limpopo River all set about with fever trees (thank you, Rudyard Kipling). We cross it in a cage swinging on a cable, first our baggage and then ourselves. The Limpopo is swift-flowing, wide and high at this time of year, a dull but intimidating army green color flowing beneath our feet as we cross. Our guide, West, meets us on the Botswana bank. A handsome young Motswanian, he points out the fever trees to us and tells us how the British had mistakenly attributed outbreaks of cholera to the trees and had set about chopping them all down. This particular tree survived the aboricide and offers us its shade. The outfit here in Botswana is owned by a twenty-something ex-pat couple from Cambridge (although her parents are American you’d never know it to hear her talk.) He’s an ecologist who also acts as guide. But not this week. This week, we have West, who carries the rifle and the bullwhip and his cousin Mpho, who brings up the rear. The camp is quite posh with a thatched pergola sheltering couches and a bar and another one for our dining table. I am happy to see that the tents are of a good size. You can stand up in them and they fit two cots and our luggage and bed tables on either side. Each tent gets a battery-operated lantern, which we are encouraged to conserve. There’s a “porch” with an awning in front and in back, a platform with a latrine, a washbasin, and a bucket shower. There are tin pitchers for hot and cold water, which we are encouraged to put out every night and they will be filled first thing in the morning for a morning wash. Also supplied, a tall thermos full of ice water. After dinner West walks us to our tents because we are in lion country and it is clear he wants to instill in us a certain sobriety regarding our surroundings and the potential dangers they might hold. The whistle in the basket by the bed is so we can whistle the lion away from us? No, seriously folks, I guess whistle for West who will come running with the rifle or the bullwhip or all of the above and shoo the lion away.
We see scads of elephants this morning, ranging from bulls down to teeny-beeny two week-olders no bigger than a potbellied pig. When we approach, the bigger animals surround the tinier ones. West is careful to slow down around the elephants and we are encouraged to keep quiet but relaxed. Even so the females look at us and wave their great wing-like ears as if to dare us to try something.
The horses are first-rate, very strong and mellow and all capable of a lovely collected canter, like buttah. The terrain here is wonderfully varied: now scrub/desert with candelabra cactus, now more jungle-like with baobab trees. We ford lots of dried out riverbeds, where the sand is soft and the horses sink down deep into it, caused by flash floods during the rainy season. Lots of iron in the soil here but also lots of copper.
At siesta-time, when we get off the tail at Zwala camp, we find our tents all set up with pitchers of hot and cold water next to our wash tubs on tables in front, along with a thermos full of ice water that comes from a bore hole or has been boiled. We find our cots with their duvets all made inside and our basket with our lion-alarm whistle set thoughtfully by the side of the cot. The latrine is in its own little canvas cover just out the back door of the tent.
Our next camp is a kraal (or corral) made of odd-sized gnarled gray lead wood logs sticking up out of the earth at odd angles and forming a sort of circular fence around our camp ground. A huge machato tree with spreading limbs shelters the space. In the trunk of the machato tree is a water tap. It looks like somebody’s idea of a joke. Then West tells us to turn the tap. Cold water splashes out. We fill our glasses and drink. West really has us going for a second there, thinking the water actually comes from the tree. (An African Well Tree). Someone was clever, bringing up a line from the borehole through this massive tree trunk and putting in a tap. A crude picketed corridor leads off the kraal to a ladies and a men’s room replete with flush toilets. There are also two showers with hot and cold running water. Oh joy. Here we will sleep for two nights sans tents but avec all the water we can drink and bathe in. Just outside the kraal, in a grove of trees, the horses are tethered. It’s pleasant and comforting to hear them munching and stomping and snorting and blowing. It’s also pleasant to know that they are surrounded by that electric fence. When we get off the trail, the wranglers take very good care of the horses. They water them and feed them and curry them. They clean all of the tack. You can hear the wranglers murmuring to the horses. That, too, is comforting.
The morning is overcast, which is a relief from the sun. We see a herd of over 40 elephants, plus giraffes, ostriches, baboons, impala. After our delicious cheese sandwich break, we mostly canter through what looks increasing like lion country to me: high, tawny grass broken up by stands of bushes out of which huge flocks of birds break as we - the wranglers, the two cooks, and West and Mpo sing to us before dinner. They sing in perfect harmony songs have they made up about themselves and Botswana. They are funny and sweet and very charming. At dinner, we meet our third of Little Five: a rhinoceros beetle that trucks across our dinner table and is kind enough to pause for a photo op. We are just sitting down to Martha’s version of Bobotie (like Sloppy Joe’s with curry), with West as Dad at one end of the table and Mpo as Mom at the other, when suddenly, we hear a rumbling sound that blossoms into a roar that shakes the tableware. West and Mpo stand up very quickly and say, “Excuse us, please, we must be going.”
“Lion!” we whisper and stare at one another with wide frightened eyes.
I don’t know how but we manage to finish our meal while all around us, outside the kraal, wranglers and guides scurry this way and that, securing the horses, checking the bushes, swinging their lanterns into dark corners. What is the expression? Beating the bushes?
We hear the roar again and this time it is closer. We go to sit around the fire in a tight, nervous circle around the fire. West occasionally comes in to report. He appears calm, if a little irritated by the inconvenience of it all. Then returns to duty. When the roar gets even closer, Mpo comes to sit by the fire and say that the lions have taken up a position in the bushes just outside the Kraal. West asks us if we are interested in coming out to see the lion. There are actually three of them: a male and two females. We troop out. West flashes the light in the bushes. We peer through the break and see the three lions inside. It’s like peering in a very peculiar, very exotic Easter egg and seeing a scene of quaint wildness. Oooooh. We return to fire. There is no gate on the kraal, we point out to West. West tells us not to worry. He will put a lantern in the center of the open doorway which will surely keep the lions out. He tells us not to worry. The lions are not interested in us. They are interested in the horses and they are working to protect the horses. He asks us to stay inside the kraal, for if he has to shoot one of the lions to protect us, there is an awful lot of paperwork involved and he would just as soon avoid it.
The next morning, all of our horses are whole and safe and we are more than eager to leave this campsite behind. The horses seem a little jittery too but after a few canters, they calm down. I, too, feel calm, for I have survived the lions and that’s good.
Animals, animals, animals. I never tire of seeing them. Still can’t believe I am seeing them…just out there running around and eating and crapping in plain site, without bars or moats or fences.
A delicious cheese sandwich at mid-morning. I am amazed that my ass never hurts. Must be the saddles. It surely can’t be my horsemanship. The ground is littered with beautiful copper-green rocks. I want to dismount every ten steps to pick them up and fill my pockets. I’m as acquisitive about them as any binge shopper. I want them. There are geodes here, too.
Camp is in a beautiful leafy ravine. The shower is up on a hillside near the horses. After siesta we go to the dining room area and find a Motswanian named Elvis is there to take us on a ride to our sundowners. He is a Machato Game Reserve park ranger and has a very posh version of the jeeps we have been riding these past days. These are the kinds of jeeps that people who are on jeep safaris ride every single day, seven hours a day. As we bump along, we can’t believe people actually do this all day every day. It’s loud and stinky. Horses are so much more comfortable and smell better. Elvis shows us lots of wonderful things. We come to a place where there is a whole pack of wild dogs. With their big, dish-shaped ears and their tan-white-spotted hides, they are called painted wolves. We are parked right in the midst of them! Except for a few of them, who sniff the tires of the cars, they ignore our presence and we see them signaling to each other with significant looks and little yips. They are making their plans for the evening hunt, which is serious wild doggy business. A pack of wild dogs can bring down a giraffe, no problem. Elvis drives to where a leopard lounges atop a big old termite mound. In a tree nearby, its bloody ribs exposed to our curious and appalled scrutiny. The leopard, which Elvis tells us is only one and a half years old, is almost ready to leave its mum and take care of himself although he can still be seen with his mother now and then. Doesn’t look like any toddler I’ve ever seen. The leopard stares lazily back at us as we snap its photo and that of its kill, swinging from the tree branch like gory laundry. He puts it up there to keep it away from the hyenas.
That night, we have a lovely dinner with the young couple that owns the outfitting company. They are raising their 16-month-old son here without TV, Internet, shopping malls. I am envious.
We ride across a dam and see crocodile prints. Not long afterwards a dreadful stench bombards us. West calls it right away: it is a dead elephant. We ride toward the awful smell and eventually come upon the body of an elephant hidden in the bushes. West tells us she died in childbirth and gets on the radio to let the park rangers know. There is a sound of elephants trumpeting in the distance and I wonder whether they are telling each other the news. We learn that the elephants will probably soon converge on this place to pay their respects. Then the hyenas will come in and the vultures and the other bone-pickers. When the skin and flesh are all gone, the elephants will return and each one take up a bone in its trunk and deposit it somewhere in the bush. I guess it’s the elephantine equivalent of spreading the ashes. I get a sad, heavy feeling here looking at the dead elephant and I am glad when we move on and the air freshens again.
We take a nature walk with West and Mpo. On our walk, we find lots of rocks and somehow or other West and Mpo persuade us to play a quaint old game children in Botswana have been playing for centuries. It’s called Put the Impala Turd in your Mouth and Spit it Out as Far as You Can. The more dignified and squeamish among us (Vee, mainly: smart girl) refuse to do this. The rest of us white liberal soft touches are filling our mouths with the little pellets and spitting away. (It’s odorless and more importantly tasteless, but still…) And guess what? I don’t think I even gargled when we got back to tent and got ready for dinner. Oh, I’m a bush baby for sure now!
That night, I hear more elephants trumpeting and imagine them converging on the site. At dinner Vee mentions that she wants to drive back to the site and see if we can sight hyenas, one animal we haven’t yet crossed off our list. Everyone is interested. West promises to do this. I have mixed feelings, mostly regarding talking about this at dinner as my olfactory memory remains vivid.
This is our last day of riding, the day when we will ride the horses back to the ranch and, from there, drive to the very first camp we stayed in for the last night in the bush.
Without further incident, we ride into the ranch to return the horses to the stable. The horses, freed of their tack, go and roll on their home turf.
A beautiful big pole barn, open at the sides and covered with netting to keep out the midges, is where our beautiful horses spend their nights. There are several corrals, one of which is under the trees. It seems like a lovely place for a horse to live. We reunite with the extra baggage and valuables we stored at the ranch during the week and drive back to the ranch. The Tuli Circle is complete as we return to the camp from whence we started six days ago. There we are happy to see Lari, doped up but smiling woozily and not too badly hurt.
And speaking of elephants, before dinner West drives us back to where the body of the dead elephant lies. Sure enough, it is not long before a she-hyena and her mate slink out of the bush and over toward the elephant. They are fearless. The expression on their eyes is pure hunger. Their bellies are fat and sway beneath them as they walk. These are no cute Disney characters.
As I reflect back on the two weeks of riding: the skulls the bones, the leopard and its bloody side of impala hanging from the tree, the ménage of lions and their triple kill, the elephant dead in childbirth and the slinking hyenas coming to chow down, I find myself in awe and fear of nature.
This trip has taken me a long way from the cathedrals and bastides and quaint little inns of my usual Euro-centric equestrian vacations. It has taken me to a place which seems vast but which is only about one one-hundredth the size of the vast continent of Africa. I want to see more of it. Somebody said that the western world is very Yang. With all its advances and technologies, it’s very male. But Africa, the cradle of civilization, is still very Yin. And that yin makes my head spin and my soul sing.
These horseback riding safaris can be booked via Hidden Trails - have a look at their extensive website and details on this ride at:
http://www.hiddentrails.com/tour/botswana_mashatu_tuli.aspx or call Toll Free 1-888-9-TRAILS -- their knowledgable staff will be able to give you all the details.