Dumela. My name is Faisal Bakhteyar and for summer 2011, I will be interning at True Men Trust, an organization targeting HIV/AIDS issues in Francistown, Botswana. Through this travel blog, I hope to share with you my thoughts, experiences, and adventures in the most unadulterated manner.

Friday, 12 August 2011

A Weekend of Incredible Luck and Coincidence

NOTE: There is a lot of natural gore in this post and I recommend that you don’t read it if blood, internal organs, and viciousness make you faint.

After not spotting any lions in Moremi Game Reserve while we were in Maun, Thomas and I decided that we would do ANYTHING to see lions in the wild before we left Botswana. Running low on spending money and not being able to miss any weekday for the sake of workplace professionalism, our best option was to go for a weekend to the 12000 km2 Chobe National Park where we had spotted the 2 females on our first game drive in Botswana in early June. This was one of those things where we knew that even if we planned this trip as meticulously as we could, there was absolutely NO guarantee that we would see anything. And that was the beauty of it all.

The week before our trip to Chobe National Park, I sent out countless emails to tour operators and safari guides and explained to them full well that we weren’t looking for the luxury tourist weekend. All we wanted to do was spend as much time looking for the big cats as we possibly could with zero amenities. The main issue I ran into was that tour operators and personal guides are EXPENSIVE when you want to do your own thing. A lot of them had “set” activities where you would leave at 8AM, go for a boat cruise, have lunch, do a 3-hour game drive, camp, and then return the next day. There was little flexibility in such trips and they did not cater to our needs whatsoever. Of the 17 or so people I contacted, one man’s reply stood out in the sense that he didn’t ask about my budget or anything. He just said he would try and show us the big cats. His name was Godfrey Mbeha and the rest of the week was spent coordinating our weekend with him.

After one hell of a stressful week, Friday’s arrival came as a relief. That first week of fasting for Ramadan was tough and there was just a lot going on at work in terms of recommendations report finalization and tempers were flaring. We quickly grabbed some groceries and headed to the hitchhiking point at 2PM. After about 10 minutes, a big man in a red Mercedes stopped to pick up people. In sticking with the “every man for himself” ideology, we beat the crowd to the car and blocked all doors. No mercy. With no space in the trunk and the AC off, we drove all the way to Kasane (6 hours) with all our bags and sleeping bags on our laps. SO HOT! On the way, we discussed how it would be cool if we came full circle and saw all the wildlife we had seen on our first journey to Kasane. Elephants, Ostrich, Giraffe, Kudu in that order. I don’t know if this is right but the chances of seeing all of those creatures on the highway was low and had they all been encountered, the chance of seeing them in that order is 1/64? Whatever the odds were, it happened and we saw all creatures in quick succession in the correct order. We all just looked at each other in amazement. Mother Nature decided to be kind?

After arriving in Kasane, and having dinner with Chloe and Lyndsay at an Indian restaurant, we headed to their homestay to crash for the night. In the malaria zone, the mosquito nets came out and we slept knowing that the following day was going to be big. A couple of hours later, at 5:30AM, we woke up and got ready for a long day of driving. As a got out of bed, I looked at the bed sheets and there was leopard faces on them that I hadn’t noticed the night before. I made a note of it to Is and we continued our preparation. Foreshadowing? We were at the parking lot where we were to meet Godfrey and sun still hadn’t come up. The peanut butter and bread came out and breakfast was had sitting on an edge in a parking lot. Godfrey pulled up at 6:30AM- exactly when we had planned to meet- in a land cruiser. Having been in the backs of open top safari cars for all of our previous game drives, the sight of the land cruiser was initially disappointing. Our fears were quelled when Godfrey told us that the roof was canvas and we would be allowed to stand with our heads out the window after we dropped our gear at the campsite.

So we got in, put all of our stuff in the back of the car and headed off. Godfrey had a bunch of books on the dashboard including Newman’s Bird Guide. We started driving towards CNP (Chobe National Park) and he talked to us about his background, family, and views on the tourism industry. We’ve had a number of guides in the past, but never have we met someone so unbelievably knowledgeable and passionate about the bush.  A lot of guides talk like they’ve just memorized interesting facts and are just regurgitating them and there is nothing wrong with that. But with Godfrey, when he speaks, you can tell he speaks from experience. He started off in the army’s anti-poaching unit in the early nineties and lived the rough life going after poachers that wouldn’t hesitate to shoot him dead. He said his unit would spend 20 days or more patrolling on foot after being dropped off by helicopters. After leaving in 1996, he became a guide and opened Fun Fun Safaris after returning from the US in 2003. Godfrey or Bush Master as he appropriately calls himself is an expert in the bush. He’s a naturalist, a behavioralist, a tracker, and that makes him an incredible reader of the bush(He’s also very tech-savvy). He told us that after all the emailing and preparation, he thought we were “die-hards” and that coming from a man that spends most of his year in the bush, means a lot. He also said that the night before he had dreamt of lions and that it was a good omen. Was it ever…..

Our plan was to drive to our campsite, drop off our stuff, set up camp, grab a snack, and then head off for another 6 or so hours of driving in search of the big cats. It is required that all driving activity in the park stop at 6:30PM and so that was the time we had to retire back to our campsite. Im now going to start describing our actual trip and I just want you to know that these things don’t happen on every game drive or on most game drives. People go out on 10 or 20 day camping trips and not see one of the things we saw. It may seem “astonishing” to you readers, but just know that for us, it was “unreal” and hard to put into words. Here we go:

So we entered the park and headed down to the Chobe riverfront spotting the usual wildlife on the way. Out on the river plains, Godfrey spotted the Puku. No big deal. It’s the only place they are found with numbers approximating around 150. 10 minutes in, at around 7, and we already had a rare sighting.

We pulled off of the Chobe Riverfront above the banks into a different habitat. Along the way, Godfrey had looked in the sand and seen leopard and jackal tracks and told us to keep an eye out.  At around 7:45, there was an IMMENSE sighting. 3 wild dogs that had just taken down an impala minutes earlier were ripping it apart and swallowing chunks. Wild dogs are one of those complex predators that need more appreciation then they get. After chasing down medium-sized antelope in groups that work with a relay strategy, they disembowel their prey before it even hits the ground and apparently, it happens so fast that its painless. They then proceed to swallow chunks of the prey which are regurgitated upon return to the den for the youngest and elder members of the pack that cannot hunt.  This was our first predatory kill sighting from all our trips and it was exciting and barbaric. The car’s top was still covered and so we were literally hanging out the windows taking pictures of the dogs that were about 70 meters away. They would occasionally look up with their faces all bloodied and then return to viciously tugging at the impala. To explain to you how special this was: they are the most endangered large predators with around 550 wild dogs in Botswana, the pack ranges can sometimes be as large as 600 square kilometers, and they don’t occur permanently in Chobe National Park. Pretty cool huh? It gets wayyy crazier.
Bloody-faced wild dogs
So all the time the wild dogs were tugging at the impala, white-back vultures were accumulating in numbers on the ground and on the trees. Out of nowhere, a huge Lappet-faced vulture landed and all of a sudden, our “incredible wild dogs kill” sighting just got a lot cooler. Lappet-faced vultures are ugly as anything but are so significant to the ecosystem. Their beaks are much stronger than other vultures’ and thus they can rip through carrion skin and eat tough parts that most others can’t. Another rare sighting (it was even tagged). 
Lappet-faced vulture
White-backed vultures swooping in
Then, the dogs just sort of scurried away and the vultures swooped in to the sight of the kill. It was short lived as in the distance, Godfrey pointed to a moving object. It was really well camouflaged and when I switched from looking through my viewfinder and using the naked-eye, it was hard to locate. But as it got closer, it became obvious that it was a massive leopard casually walking up to the kill. It grabbed the kill, and making use of its massive neck muscles, carried it away into the distance. This wasn’t without drama as it was pursued by two black-backed jackals. With the leopard out of sight, we drove away perplexed as to how all this had happened in the first hour of our day. Godfrey explained to us that this is how nature works. The wild dogs ate half of the impala, vultures had a bit, and then the leopard had his part.
Large leopard dragging the kill away probably to hide it in a tree
Less then 20 minutes after leaving the leopard, at 8:30, there was another big sighting. We were about 200 meters from the Serondela picnic sight where we were to take a bathroom break when we joined a group of cars watching 2 lion cubs eat a baby elephant. The mother was lounging in the shade and according to Godfrey, she had probably taken down the elephant the night before as it seemed very fresh. It was strange because we had seen so many baby elephants on our trip to the Chobe National Park and its probable that this was one of them. But its life was giving way to more life and that’s just how it is. The were cute but savage at the same time. Hard to describe. Less than two hours in and we had seen everything we had come to see. We returned to the same sight throughout the day to see if anything new would happen but the same lion cubs and lioness kept their ground and guarded their kill. When we first saw the kill, you could tell it was an elephant and not a lot of it was missing. Later, we saw one of the cubs tugging at the elephant’s trunk, and on another occasion, all three playing tug-of-war with its guts. Absolutely brutal. When we returned the morning after, there was not much of the elephant left. The lions seemed nice and fat though. Godfrey’s dream had come true.
lioness and two cubs playing with their food
An hour and a half later, at around 10, after watching a herd of elephants and bull buffalos, we wandered down to the river where Godfrey spotted lion spoor in the sand. Earlier he had said that to be a good guide, you had to follow the tracks and work hard, and he was so right. Throughout the day he had stopped and looked at the sand to look for tracks and whenever he had, we had seen something. We drove down to the riverfront and there we saw about 7 lions of all ages (including a young male) lounging in the bush. As we watched, they were joined by 2 more, and then everyone got up and moved away. Having caught our glimpse, we headed for our campsite.
large cape-buffalo
BOGA 5, the private campsite reserved for local guides registered with the Botswana Guiding Association, was nothing more than a placard labeled BOGA 5. There was thick sand all around as well as a troop of baboons. No water, no fence, no nothing. Absolute wilderness. The only thing that made it a campsite was the sign that said BOGA 5. That is it. No one else except baboons around for at least a kilometer in any direction. Godfrey designed us a bush toilet which was nothing more than a hole dug in sand. He said where most places have long drop toilets, we had a short drop.
hiding under the mama
Baby loving the mud. Elephants lather themselves with mud to protect their skin and absorb minerals
 We headed out again at 12PM and spent most of the afternoon watching the grazers cross the water by which we also saw an incredible variety of birdlife. Occasionally, we returned to the baby elephant and take a look at the lions though because of the rush of cars, we never stuck around for long. Godfrey said that it wasn’t good that people crowded around the kill because it made it unnatural when the animals were so aware of people that they would look up. He said it was best to stick around for a couple of minutes and then drive on and let the animals do their business and because of that mentality, I have so much respect for the Bush Master. We also returned to the sight where we had seen the pride of lions down by the water. They were quite the lazy bunch sleeping in the bush but Godfrey noted that they looked skinny. We just didn’t think of it much up until around 4:45PM.

Throughout the day, we’d get amazing facts and information from Godfrey about everything in the bush. Everything from the significance of termite mounds, to the tufts on the giraffe’s horns, to the black hairs on the impala’s legs, to the stomach acids of crocodiles, to the communication technique amongst acacia trees to avoid getting eaten by giraffes and much more. We got the etymology of the latin names of species and learnt things that most books probably wouldn’t publish. 

At 4:45 PM,  we wandered down to where we had spotted the 9 lions, parked our car, jumped on top of the car and just relaxed. Godfrey said that they would have to come down to the water to drink at some point and so we would wait and see what they would do. We would “think like the lions”. He had this whole tactic where he parked the vehicle a little bit further down then where he thought they would come out and he watched the area through his side mirror. On one side were open plains with a large herd of impala and on the other was dense bush. We were straddling the boundary and had a clear view of both. Other cars would stop by us and guides would ask Godfrey why we were so happy even though we were watching impala. Man, after our morning, we were eternally happy.

At around 5:30, Godfrey’s predictions came true and it was just weird how accurate they were. The same pride of lions roamed in behind us and lurked in the shadows of the bush. Godfrey said he had seen a number of kills in the same area and with the animals looking skinny, something would happen. All the lions, from the cubs to the young male, were yawning continuously and that usually means a change in energy levels in creatures as in when a lion is going to sleep, when it is getting up, or when it is about to hunt.
part of the family

"Golden-Eyes". Just looking at this scares me a little
One of the lionesses got up and walked through the bush making sure not to come out in the open. Another followed. Godfrey was familiar with this pride as he picked out the “Old Mama” who was blind in one eye as the result of multiple anthrax attacks. All of a sudden, the impala’s sounded an alarm and ran onto the plains. Old Mama and the young male (he didn’t have a full mane but was by far the largest) got up and crept forward with their eyes focused on the impala herd. When you see all their ripped muscles, golden-eyes focused on a target, moving surreptitiously through the bush, it instills this instinctive fear in you. The golden eyes themselves were enough to bring fear. The lions, with the herd still far away and aware of the danger, just lay down as flat as they could. 

Young male yawning
Then out of nowhere, a one-horned male impala, quite possibly the dominant male, bounded from the herd and bee-lined for our car. He then turned towards the bush and just as he was reacting to the sight of the 2 waiting lions, they jumped him with such ferocity that we were all just left trembling. Like this instinctive fear that I cannot describe. I think I might have let out a whimper. There was a plume of dust and all of a sudden, all 9 lions were digging into this poor Impala. Its legs were up in the air but it made no sound. There was no room for sound. All we heard was vicious growls and roaring from the lions as they literally ripped this Impala apart. Man I tell you, its one thing to watch it in a documentary, but it’s a whole new level when everything happens meters in front of you. We all thought it was a dumb impala but Godfrey attributed everything to the hunting tactics of the lions. In 30 minutes, with their faces all bloodied, the scene quieted down and there was very little left of the Impala.
The poor one-horned impala just before he got owned. 3 seconds later he was in the jaws of a beast

5 minutes later, same impala

You gotta know your place in the pride
Impalas however are more of a snack than a proper meal. So, a lioness wandered down the water, had a drink and then proceeded to watch as a massive herd of buffalo crossed from the bush onto the plains. The majority of the hundreds strong herd had crossed which left the back 50 for the lion’s eyes. The weakest of the herd are kept at the back and you could see the lioness sizing up the calves and the elderly. But, the sun had gone down and the time came for us to return to our campsite, which was probably 2 km from where we had been watching the lions.
Buffalo crossing onto the plains

Sizing up her next meal
We returned to our campsite buzzing with our newfound luck. Godfrey has been guiding for a number of years and had said he had never had a day like this one. He said we should all buy lottery tickets upon our return to Canada. Though im sure we got lucky on a number of occasions, there is no way we would have seen half the things we would have seen, especially not the lion hunt, had Godfrey not been our guide. It was his skill, his own luck and intuition, and some of ours, that made for what had been the most spectacular game drive day EVER.
Roosting white-backed vultures
We spent our night sitting around the campfire listening to Godfrey’s stories and admiring his passion for nature. He is one hell of a person and definitely an inspiration. Not to mention well-known. Coincidentally, he is related to Chloe and Lyndsay’s host mom, is friends with their boss at work, and also knows my hosts from when they lived in Kasane. We talked about the energies of nature and how animals could sense things much better than we could and it was so nice to talk to someone who was genuinely in love with the Bush and not guiding for the money. Godfrey said guiding was his dream and that his job was his dream and it was just great to see that he was living his dream.

At one point, a honey badger, considered to be the most fearless creature on the planet, decided to roam by our campsite and give us a look. Occasionally there would be the sounds of hyena and zebra not far from our campsite but Im sure they saw us as more of a threat. Especially when we were singing. We retired to bed at around 11 after being briefed on animal safety. Godfrey said that if there was something close to our tent, it was probably a honey badger. If it was loud sounds, it was most likely elephants and they were aware of our presence. We were told to always look out before leaving the tent and not to wander past the “toilet” because then we were fair game for all the predators including the “golden-eyes”. With all that said and done, we crawled into our sleeping bags exhausted by the awesomeness of the day. Our plan was to leave our sight by 6AM so that maybe we could see hyenas on the baby elephant.

I woke up sometime early in the morning to the sounds of rustling leaves and twigs breaking under some immense weight. I’m usually the deepest sleeper and so me being woken by animal sounds meant that they were loud. Chloe described it as a thunderstorm. There happened to be a herd of elephants just roaming through our campsite. They were so close that I actually heard one fart. It sounds like a deep bubbling sound. We then heard more rustling but it turned out it was just Godfrey getting up from bed. I was then notified by Thomas that the honey badger had returned to the campsite sometime in the night.

With only 3 hours before we had to leave the park, we quickly set out to look for the lions down by the riverfront only to find a huge obstacle in our path. A young elephant was sleeping with his/her legs sprawled across the our path. Its funny that when elephants sleep, they look so much like humans. They lie down fully on their side, curl their front legs up to their chest like we curl our arms, and open their mouths to breath easy. This being had no care in the world that we were waiting for him/her to wake up. The elephant would just breath deeply and close its eyes. After about 15 minutes, Godfrey tried to inch closer and it just leapt up all confused as if we had snapped it out of a deep dream.

The big pride of lions was no where to be found so we went to the baby elephant where the lion cubs were still eating away though there was so much meat gone that had we not seen it a day earlier, we wouldn’t have been able to call it an elephant. Its crazy how much the lions ate in 24 hours. With the crowd building again with the influx of “daytrip” tourists, we headed on our way. As we were driving towards the exit, all the guides stopped Godfrey and told him that there was a leopard in some certain area. What I really liked about Godfrey was that he was never in a rush. If things happened, they happened. If they didn’t, they didn’t.

We arrived at the leopard but only saw a ton of cars almost surrounding dense patch of bush where the leopard apparently was. I felt a little bad because there were just so many cars (probably 8) and we were as much of the problem as anyone else there. But Godfrey pulled up to a spot further away from the tree and said that the leopard would cross in front of us. We didn’t even know it was there because of its camouflage coat until we saw a fresh piece of impala fall out of the tree. Then, it descended from the tree not more than 10 meters in front of us and disappeared in the bush after turning to give us a look. After a couple of minutes, it reemerged followed by a cub and crossed our car JUST like Godfrey had said it would. It proceed to pose as it called for its cub to follow him. It was a sound that I wouldn’t associate with a leopard. Very coarse and un-cat-like.  And then they both just disappeared into the distance. What a way for Chobe National Park to say goodbye to us on our very last game drive in Botswana.
posing for the camera

and again

mama and her cub
By 9 we were out of the park, and by 7PM we were back in the Ghetto. All in all, this has easily been the luckiest weekend of my life. It was just strange how lucky we got. People actually go looking for leopards and not see them on 10 day excursions. We saw 3 leopards, 3 wild dogs, and 13 lions on 4 different kills in 24 hours. Not to mention Roan antelope, Puku, Lappet-faced vultures, giraffes play-fighting, baby elephants playing in the mud, elephants sleeping, and the unreal scenery.  National Geographic should hire us Id say. They take weeks to film their scenes. We can do it in a day with our luck. A big thank you to Godfrey Mbeha for taking us on this trip, sharing his knowledge about the bush with us, and making sure we achieved and surpassed our goal. The Bush Family forever. Ma-Naga. (Godfrey if your reading this, I was being very serious when I asked you if you’d mentor me when I came back for my guiding license. See you soon Bush Master). 
Ma Naga

1 comment:

  1. Overall amazing post! This part i especially appreciated ...
    "He told us that after all the emailing and preparation, he thought we were “die-hards” and that coming from a man that spends most of his year in the bush, means a lot."