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Safari State of Mind

boat Botswana buffalo bush plane campfire elephant guide hunt jeep Johannesburg leopard lion luggage Maun Moremi National Anthem nature walk passport pilot predator safari Savute sundowners Travel warthogs watering hole Xugana zebra

Per usual, a trip with us could never begin smoothly. Shocking, I know. I now believe that a passport chip should be inserted in the arm of frequent travelers so as to save them, and I mean me, from a near heart attack when the hard copy “vanishes” once you arrive on foreign soil. It’s a wonder I even got to Botswana at all. Keep it exciting, that’s our motto (sometimes begrudgingly).

We survived the near 17 hour flight with plenty of wine, food, movies and sleep. Since we had our luggage for the week of safari (which had to meet weight and size requirements for the bush planes) we stored secondary bags for part 2, South Africa, in the airport’s luggage storage  unit. After storing our bags we returned upstairs to check-in for our next flight when suddenly I realized we had left the specially ordered “bugs won’t come within a mile of us” bug lotion in the now stored bags. I offered to run back downstairs to the storage unit to retrieve the goods- first making sure to have Chris give me my passport, which he was carrying, should anything happen in the 3 minutes I would be gone. I dashed off and was back in a flash, every porter yelling as I passed “What gate, I can help!”. Bug lotion in hand, mind at ease that I wouldn’t be terrorized by mosquitos, I ran back to meet Chris at the check-in counter (porters still shouting to me offering assistance with each step).

“Passports, please”, the nice South African Airlines employee said at the check-in counter. I put my hand in my pocket…then another pocket…and another. This was not the day to be wearing safari cargo pants with a dozen pockets. Pockets searched and searched, no passport. Chris looked like he was about to leave me at the airport then and there, but he told me to be calm…check again. All I kept saying was that I must have left it back in the luggage storage unit. I sprinted, faster than one could imagine after a 17 hour flight and with porters now baffled by my exercise routine, back to the luggage room. No passport there either. On the verge of tears and trying to calm myself I raced back to the check-in counter. Midway through the chaotic run I realized there was something in my back pocket (in my defense, I never use my back pockets)…I could have punched myself. Out of breath, and still nearly crying, I handed my passport to Chris and sagged to the ground in a crouch trying to catch my breath- both from the mad dash and the sheer panic of thinking I had lost my passport BEFORE we even arrived in Botswana. Chris told me while I had been gone searching that he’d been weighing his options. Obviously we both agreed he would have had to just go on ahead without me. Our flight was in an hour. Crisis averted (yet again) and I even got in a little exercise.

Upon arriving at the Maun airport in Botswana we somehow ended up last in line for the customs counter. After an hour of waiting we finally made it through and a rep from the safari group greeted us with a kind smile and “What took you so long?!”. The small 8 passenger plane, the largest we would travel in all week, was ready to go. As we flew to the first camp, Moremi, we looked out the window watching the plane’s shadow glide over the winding waterways, vegetation and herds of elephants that looked more like herds of ants. We were picked up at the airstrip by our guide for the next few days. Here I thought it was just a regular drive to the camp when out of nowhere a huge male African elephant emerged from the brush and walked right in front of our vehicle. I didn’t even realize my reaction until the guide had to insist that I sit down and be quiet (I had immediately stood with my camera and smiled so hard it hurt, giggling the entire time). Seeing an elephant for the first time in the wild is something that I will never forget. Funny to think that at the time I imagined it might be the only elephant I would get to see so closely on the entire trip.

One of the very best aspects of the trip was the company in which Chris and I got to travel. At Moremi we shared experiences with some truly wonderful, funny, curious and kind people. Unless our guide told us to be quiet, it was nothing but laughter coming from our jeep. Chris and I, Sara and Luigi, Violetta and Wolfgang bonded over some of the most memorable moments of the trip. There are always people to meet when traveling, but that doesn’t always mean that you’ll come across people whom you know you will stay in touch with and possibly even share more vacations with. We found kindred spirits in the bunch and were so grateful for that extra bonus.

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The first night after dinner our new friends joined us with some of the guides around the campfire. Enjoying wine and conversation, one thing led to another and the next thing you know Chris had me singing the National Anthem for the crowd. For whatever reason I thought it a wonderful idea at the time which then led to Luigi and Sara singing the Italian and then Portuguese National Anthems as well as Violetta singing the German Anthem. There was no way animals were coming into the camp that night. Both our singing and laughter had to have kept them at bay. This became the regular campfire theme throughout the trip. We entertained many a guest and learned many a National Anthem, except for the Swiss. For some reason that group couldn’t recall all of the lyrics which had everyone laughing even harder.

Our final morning in Moremi took us to Paradise Valley, a place I could not have even concocted a vision of in my imagination. It was here that we first got truly close to the elephants, so close that our guide had to start the engine and get moving as a more aggressive male approached. Chris kept taking video and begging not to move. Sweet Violetta finally persuaded us to be sensible after her rapid fire of “please, please, please, please GO!”. After our elephants we found leopards in trees, pregnant lions in the grass, warthogs trotting along. Then we spotted again the two lion brothers who the day prior we had driven up upon while they were napping, having just devoured a young hippo (remnants shockingly laying near by). I had no idea that we would literally drive right up to a resting lion. We had an open vehicle and the lions were less than a foot from the 6 of us in the jeep. “Let a sleeping lion lie” now holds very little clout with me. Monkeys, buffalos, antelopes, warthogs, birds galore, crocodiles, hippos, zebras, giraffes, more elephants. We saw more in the first two days than I had thought we’d get to experience the entire trip.

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Next stop was Savute, a very different landscape and full of even more elephants. Our flight from Moremi to Savute was not what you would call comfortable. Sara and Luigi were also traveling to the same camp and shared our flight. This flight had both a pilot and co-pilot (or perhaps a trainee because that’s what he flew like). Chris and I were directly behind the pilots, Luigi and Sara behind us. Our Italian friends’ stomaches didn’t take the turbulence as well as ours. No air-sick bag needed, but my nerves were shot. I didn’t know how I would get on two more of those planes for our next camp. Once at the camp it was time for a little R&R (recovery & recovery) before the afternoon drive.

It was our lucky day. We were informed that there were a group of female lions closing in on a herd of buffalo as soon as we set off in the jeep. Our guide received a call on the radio from a team of videographers who were there shooting for a National Geographic special on predators. They had special licenses and permits and were allowed in areas that our tour was not so our guide was getting the first hand details of where we needed to be. Our guide told us that this was a once in a lifetime chance to see a hunt like this. Chris was like a kid in a candy shop, I hadn’t seen him this excited on the safari yet. His binoculars were practically glued to his eyes. Enjoying our sundowners (beer and wine) while watching for the hunt to begin in the distance was amazing. We could have just as easily been sitting at home with a beer and Nat Geo on watching this scene unfold on the television. But then, we hit a bit of a speed bump. In the middle of the savannah, amongst a giant heard of buffalo and lions stalking through the grass, our dear Luigi had a sudden and serious call with nature, one that you would not want to have in such a setting or scenario. The poor guy jumped from the jeep and did what he had to do. After fits of laughter (one of countless) we returned our attention to watching the hunt and luckily Luigi was not the hunted. We didn’t get to see the entire scene unfold to our dismay. The sun was setting and the rules are to be back at camp before dark. We were all still grateful that we had the chance to watch the scene begin in the distance and it was certainly not hard to imagine the gruesome action that we might have missed once the sun completely set. Perhaps we were lucky again.

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The most memorable experience of the safari happened while we were in Savute. We had driven to one of the watering holes to see what we could find. Three male elephants were spread around quenching their thirst. As we moved the jeep to get a better view another group of 4 elephants walked toward the watering hole. We sat quietly, being assured by our guide that we were safe, as more elephants appeared from behind us and passed by the jeep. More came from the left, then the right. Shortly there after 2 females approached with a very young baby in tow and several other adolescents. I couldn’t believe my eyes. We sat there surrounded by the herd of nearly 20 elephants. Some drinking, another taking a mud bath and the mothers watching protectively over the young. It was a moment that is etched in my memory, one that when I think about I still get butterflies in my stomach. We were the only group that got to see this display. No one except for our guide, Chris, Sara, Luigi and myself got to witness it. The elephants were not threatened by our presence, they somehow knew we meant no harm and just wanted to watch. It sounds cheesy, but if something can be described as “magical” that was it.

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The next day we parted ways with Sara and Luigi. They were headed to Victoria Falls and we were bound for Xugana Island. Contact info exchanged, promises for ski trips together in the Dolomites made, we set out on our next adventures. As our plane approached to pick us up elephants began crossing the runway one by one. They had come to bid farewell just as the baboons at our next stop came to welcome us. A very large troop of baboons was scattered all over the runway during our approach to Xugana. Employees of the camp are supposed to arrive prior to the plane to chase any animals off the runway that might have gathered there. This step was somehow skipped this time around. No baboons or humans injured, the tiny plane came to a stop as  the baboons circled and ran about chaotically. We knew this final camp wouldn’t disappoint.

Moments after departing the plane we were led to a small boat hidden between the 6 foot tall reads and papyrus. Boarding the boat we made the acquaintance of our fellow traveler for the next few days, Margaret, who had us laughing with every sentence she spoke. A true traveler, there didn’t seem to be a place she hadn’t visited. A retired history teacher from England, she now calls the coast of Spain home and travels as often as she can. Whether she was referring to people she didn’t particularly care for as “jelly beans”, calling her late husband “a silly thing for up and dying” or asking me how the wine kept appearing in her glass at dinner in the most prim British accent, we couldn’t have enjoyed her company more.

The night we arrived we were taken on a boat cruise to the hippo lagoon where we sat and listened to the hippos grumbling and snorting as they gazed curiously at us, disappearing to then suddenly reappear within feet of the tiny watercraft. On the way back to the camp one of our guides abruptly stopped the engine of the boat and insisted that we all immediately become silent. Through the papyrus, directly in front of our gliding boat, a mother elephant entered the waterway followed closely behind by her young baby holding its trunk above the water like a snorkel. The guides had never seen this procession right in front of them through the waterways. We had again had all of the luck to be there right at that very moment. The next morning proved just  as lucky when on our nature walk we came across another herd of elephants. Typically a stroll to check out the fauna and birds, we were informed that we were very lucky to be walking among “PDAs” or “Potentially Dangerous Animals”. It was thrilling and eye opening knowing that we were on their territory now and our only line of defense, if needed, was to run  like the dickens.

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Nature walk with “PDAs” behind, I assumed our nature walk on a different island the next day would be a bit calmer seeing as the guides kept telling us how lucky we were and that they hardly ever see the elephants on the walks. As soon as we stepped foot on the land we spotted more elephants, this time a bit further away. No need to be sure we were standing down wind nor in between them this time. Now that I was used to walking among the elephants I relaxed a bit. Then suddenly, while taking in the beautiful surroundings, excited to see more of the land, I slowly realized that we were approaching a wide open savannah with grass about 4 feet high, no path. Gazelles staring at us as we approached darted their eyes away from us all at once. I knew exactly what this meant and no sooner had I come to grips with it than our guide pointed while whispering and nodding to us, “Predator”. I thought to myself that this had to be as far as we were going. But wouldn’t you know it, the crazy bunch that I was with decided we should walk right into the high grass, where obviously a large cat (perhaps more than one) was stalking through. Onward we marched through grass that no one would have spotted a leopard or lion in and all I could think was “Wouldn’t this be a hell of a way to go”. Out of the grass a half hour or so later and into the open we started to make our way back to the boat for our return to camp. That was until we had to change direction after we all stopped in our tracks upon hearing a guttural, vibrating, grumble come from our immediate left behind some vegetation. We had encroached on an elephant’s territory and it was letting us know it was not happy about it. Our guide dropped to his knees, picking up a hand full of sand and letting it fall to see where the wind was blowing which would decide what we needed to do. We hightailed it in another direction eventually making it back to the boat. Back at camp with just enough time to pack, we then zipped by boat to the airstrip for our final bush flight to Maun and the beginning of our journey to Cape Town.

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The smallest plane yet, a 5 seater, picked Chris and I up. A very windy day with partly cloudy skies, I knew this would be a bumpy flight and the pilot made sure to let us know that it would be “very” bumpy. I’d also like to add that the pilot looked to be not a day older than 16. Chris was asked to sit in the co-pilot seat while I white knuckled it all the way to Maun behind him. That was the flight that has convinced Chris he no longer wants to get his pilots license. “Way too much stress up there,” were his words and that coming from a guy who actually enjoys turbulence. We were off on two more flights to get us to Cape Town for the second half of the adventure. Great White Shark cage diving, Table Mountain gorge hiking, mountain pass driving, much wine tasting and even a bit of relaxing on this leg of the trip ended our African adventure just right.

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Next post to come: The Wonder of Cape Town and the Winelands

All photos © Hillary Leo (photo of Hillary with binoculars by Chris Leo, photos of Hillary & Chris by Sara Vagarinho and safari guides)

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