January 2, 2010

All About My Excellent Botswana Safari

By David Paulin

It's called "bush vision" in Africa.

White men don't have it. But native Africans raised in the bush do. That's what an ex-game warden named Keith Rowles told me at a photographic safari camp he operates near Botswana's Moremi Wildlife Reserve.

Most wildlife blends easily into its surroundings thanks to its natural colors, strips and spots. But Rowles said native Botswanans seemed blessed with superhuman eyesight — "bush vision" — that made them extraordinary game spotters.

"I've never seen a white man yet who could spot game nearly as well as these native guides." he said. I was skeptical. But a few days later, at another camp some 40 minutes away by light plane, a native guide named Raymond offered dramatic proof of Rowles' claim one hot afternoon.

I was hiking with two vacationing Americans, a foreign service officer and his wife. Raymond, about 19 or 20 years old, was leading us along an elephant trail that meandered across a plain of tall grass on a huge tree dotted island.

The hike had been disappointing compared to others I'd taken. No wildlife was in sight; the animals had taken cover from the blazing sun. We'd started out too late in the day to see much of anything.

I blamed Raymond.

We'd met him that morning, and he'd failed to make a good first impression. At other safari camps I'd visited, the guides were athletic and self-assured men in their 30s. All had led hunting safaris. But Raymond had a boyish face and lanky body. With his perpetual smile, he seemed more suited for a job at the Kentucky Fried Chicken in the capital city of Gabarone.

My doubts about Raymond multiplied during our 30-minute delta boat ride to the island, much of it through barely passable, reed-choked channels. Reeds slapped across the boat, forcing us to duck and push them aside. A few times, the boat's motor conked out.

"How long has it been anybody has gone down this channel?" the foreign service officer asked. Like myself, he wondered if we'd blundered down the wrong channel and become lost. Raymond merely shrugged, then beached the boat on the island we'd been approaching. We disembarked and started along an elephant trail.

It had also bothered me that Raymond carried no rifle, although guides at other camps I'd visited had carried them. But then, as we neared a grove of trees just ahead on the elephant trail, Raymond's bush vision and judgment suddenly proved more valuable than any rifle.

"Stop here please", he said.

Staring straight ahead, his eyes searched a grove of trees 300 yards away. He lifted his binoculars.

"Under those trees. Lions."

Startled, we quickly scanned the tree line. We couldn't detect the lions. We raised our binoculars. Even then, Raymond had to provide detailed instructions. After a few minutes, I finally spotted them — several lionesses sprawled lazily about with their cubs. With their yellowish hides, they blended perfectly into the bush. We would have blundered right into them had we been hiking alone.

Then I noticed one big lioness: She was alert, craning her neck upwards staring intently at us. I wondered if she was curious or sizing us up as potential prey. The foreign service officer spotted them next and mumbled something to himself. His wife never did spot them.

"Where are they?" she kept repeating.

The lions were a fair way off. But we couldn't help feeling a bit vulnerable, isolated on that island, without a gun, led by a guide who seemed woefully lacking in experience.

After ten minutes, Raymond — who quietly had been taking in the situation — led us off on an angle back toward our boat.

We'd only gone a few hundred yards when we spotted about 20 agitated wildebeest under some trees, backing into a defensive circle.

"Tonight," Raymond assured us, "those lions will kill one of those wildebeest."

That evening I asked our safari operator why Raymond carried no rifle.

"We think a gun can get you into trouble more often than it will get you out of trouble, " he said.

I was unconvinced. Still, if I had to go into the bush unarmed, I'd want to go with Raymond.

A week earlier, I had arrived in Botswana from the United States to write about its wildlife and small tourism industry. A relatively prosperous African nation, Botswana's economy is primarily fueled by rich diamond mines and cattle production. Tourism accounts for just 2.5 percent of its gross national product.

Botswana was never colonized, so it was spared the growing pains that still afflict other African nations. Today, the landlocked country of 1.2 million people has a democratic, multi-party, non-racial system. Beggars and violent crime are virtually non-existent in Gabarone, the capital of 120,000.

Only beyond Botswana's borders does one find Africa's darker side— AIDS epidemics civil war, famine and racial violence.

Most people have heard of the fabled Kalahari Desert, an area of brush, grass and sand that dominates some 70 percent of Botswana. But many are unaware it's next to Botswana's verdant Okavango Delta, which is nourished by the Okavango River from Angola to the north. Many nature films are made in both areas, not to mention the comedy film of a few years ago, "The Gods Must Be Crazy," about a hapless Kalahari Bushman who walks through Northern Botswana to majestic Victoria Falls —420 feet high and more than a mile wide— on Botswana's northern border.

One reason Botswana remains a somewhat off-beat safari destination is its conservationists' tourism policy. Forty percent of its land has been set aside for wildlife preservation, and 17 percent of that land includes game reserves where hunting is prohibited.

In addition, Botswana limits the private safari camps dotting the country to mostly small, upscale facilities — reflecting its "high-end, low-volume" tourism policy At the four camps I visited, no more than 20 guests were allowed, so it was eommon to view game with just a few other guests.

For two people, a typical eight-day photographic safari in the Okavango Delta costs $4,000 to $5,000, which includes meals and light-plane transportation to two or three camps.

Like most tourists in Botswana, my safari started in Maun, a dusty frontier town on the edge of the delta, whose modern airport is a staging area for most safari operators. From Maun, it's a short light plane ride to grass airstrips near safari camps dotting the delta.

Our young, rangy Australian bush pilot packed six of us into a single engine Cessna 210. "Well, we're already too heavy for that bag," he told one alarmed female passenger. "But if you can squeeze it up front I guess we'll be okay." And then we roared off into the African wilderness, flying at 3,000 feet over the flat green delta.

Thirty minutes later, we started our final approach toward a grass airstrip a few miles from Shinde Island camp, operated by Texas-based safari operator Ker & Downey.

My hands clenched the seat when I noticed a number of deer-like animals grazing on the grass airstrip, and I wondered if the pilot saw them. But he landed anyway, and the deer ambled slowly out of the way.

The pilot steered to the left and right keeping a safe distance from the few stragglers who were unconcerned by the whirling proeller and roaring engine. "Those were springbok," the pilot told me later. "They usually get out of the way. But some animals don't want to move. So you have to buzz the runway a few times to shoo them off."

A delta boat then whisked me and four other guests across reed-lined channels and ox-bow lakes for 20 minutes. We pulled up to the dock at a shady tree-dotted camp, where guests stay in 10 African-style tents with adjoining bathrooms.

Camp manager Philip Davies, his wife and their uniformed native staff lined up to greet us. Women employees led us to our quarters, balancing our bags on their heads. We joined the Davies for lunch in an open air lodge, during which we got a real treat—the inspiring sight of five bachelor elephants, 150 yards away, ambling majestically across the grassy plain facing our camp.

"Do you ever get tired of that?" I asked Davies, a Welshman and retired banker who spent his banking career in Africa, but who now runs Shinde Island for the fun of it. They live in a tent for several months of the year, their only connection to the outside world a radio and BBC broadcasts.

"No," Davies smiled. "You never do. We have a home back in England with all the comforts. A TV and VCR. But we're happy here."

Unlike East Africa, where migrating herds of animals darken the plains, Botswana's herds are small. I never saw more than 40 or so animals together. Camps are in areas where hunting is prohibited, so animals remain calm if people remain a respectful distance.

One evening at Tsaro Lodge, a row of stone bungalows near the Moremi Wildlife Reserve, camp manager Keith Rowles took two other guests and me out in search of a nearby lion kill. Rowles warned us that lions might be about. A nearby herd of grazing impalas and leehwes had vanished, and the area had grown unusually quiet.

His suspicions were confirmed at 10 p.m. when he spotted a lioness drinking from a small pond - a few hundred feet from the group's dinner table.

"Oh, what excitement!" said Mrs. Rowles, as we climbed aboard our four-wheel-drive safari vehicle. Our headlights funneled into the darkness on one of those wonderful, unexpected adventures that makes a safari so memorable.

A few hundred yards away, we found the lions in a grassy clearing. We drew within 50 feet of them. They ignored us. Rowles beamed a search light over the bloody scene. One big lioness, her eyes glowing, gnawed on the ravaged belly of a young zebra. The others were asleep, scattered lazily about on their sides, their bellies bulging with meat. The next day, Mrs. Rowles said she heard a zebra mother crying for her lost child.

At some safari camps, it's not always necessary to search out game. Sometimes, it comes to you, much to the annoyance of most camp managers.

One afternoon at Shinde Island, I was sipping tea with the Davies in the camp's lodge when an elephant nicknamed Harry strolled amiably toward us across the grassy plain. His ears flapped, his trunk swayed.

Nobody could quite remember how Harry got his name. But one thing was certain: He liked to visit the shady camp to take a nap or bash his head against a palm tree to knock down its tasty fruit.

Once he had chased a young American yuppie couple, who'd startled Harry awake early one morning when they jogged along a path where he was napping. The irate couple wanted Harry shot. But the Davies spared the elephant, though they banished him from the camp. A "no jogging" policy was strictly enforced thereafter.

So that afternoon, when Harry ambled within 100 yards, Mr. Davies charged out of the lodge — confronting Harry on the edge of the plain. He shouted loudly, clapped his hands, furiously waved his floppy hat.

Harry stopped, shook his head. He pawed the ground, obviously confused. After a few minutes, Harry reluctantly turned around, ambling away with a stately gait.

Such stories about life in the bush are common, and for me they were as much a part of my safari as the wildlife. One night during dinner at Shinde Island, I sat near an unassuming native guide named Galabone (pronounced Hala-Boney). A year earlier, he'd been badly mauled by a wounded lion he'd been tracking with a hunter.

Galabone, who was hospitalized for some time, said the lion attacked him instead of the hunter, because it knew he was the tracker. He quit hunting.

And the stories are humorous. At a Ker & Downey camp called Pom Pom, I slept fitfully my first night in the bush, being unaccustomed to the deep rumbling snorts of hippos in a nearby lagoon.

Although my tent was tightly zipped up, I dreamed of grinning hippos poking their snouts into my tent.

"Hippos kill more people in Africa than lions," camp manager Brian Kemp had warned earlier, when advising guests to stay put after turning in.

Two weeks earlier, a middle-aged British couple who had used the tent I was now using took that advice one night. They bolted awake when a tree crashed across their tent, collapsing part of it.

Huddling together, they listened most of the night to a loud munching sound. They were too stoic to yell for help.

The next morning, they learned a hungry elephant knocked down the tree and eaten its leaves. They returned with one of many great stories to tell.

So did I.

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