Night of the Quelea - Introduction
Trip Start Jul 16, 2004
11Trip End Aug 01, 2004
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Where I stayed
We left the Xugana Lodge yesterday morning, using two Cessna six-seaters to take us a short ride back down the delta near the north gate of the Moremi Game Reserve (our entry earlier this week was at the south gate). Not surprinsingly, I was quite full of my pilot-self as the two planes made their approach and landed on the soft grass strip. I was allowed to sit in the co-pilot seat, though I think it was out of a misguided feeling of security for some that were a bit apprehensive about flying in a light plane. No doubt a result of my bragging the previous night of my flight school days. Okay, I could have gotten the thing down in a pinch, but it wouldn't have been pretty - it being a good six or seven years since I last landed an airplane. Even then, landings were still the most challenging skill in my "flight skill set". My most accomplished flight skill you may ask? My radio chatter; I had that down. So much so, in fact, that my instructor once as much as told me after I reported into the San Carlos tower one day that "he's going to think you're a better pilot than you are". It made me feel as if I should "dumb down" my radio persona so the controller would realize what an idiot I actually was
Given the discussion thus far, you can well imagine the childlike excitement I felt sitting in the copilot seat with my hands on my lap and my feet well away from the rudder peddles. But it was soon over and I realized that I actually preferred the delta while sitting precariously in a mokoro than I did from 4,500 feet. (Do I hear a "well, Duh!" out there?) Nonetheless, our pilot brought us in for an acceptable landing; I didn't have to intervene. As we taxied to a stop at the end of the runway, we could see Stanley and the two Land Cruisers waiting for us, now almost seeming like the center of the earth - home. We were back in the bush.
After disembarking and packing back into the Land Cruisers, a sudden decision was made to separate by gender. Us guys (two middle-aged men - one of them just barely middle-aged - and two teenagers) with Stanley, and the girls (four females talking about God-knows-what) with Alwyn. I bid Jayne farewell as Bill, Dan, Scott, and I loaded in with Stanley for the game drive into camp - just us men out on safari
Leaving the baboons in peace, we passed through a small village with scattered cinderblock buildings on either side of the road. We moved through without taking pictures, as is the proper and expected thing to do. After all, when you try to take a picture at Beach Blanket Babylon, that whacky theater production in San Francisco that has helped a certain two people live out their Africa travel dreams, we'll rip out your film and hand the empty husk of your camera back to you, with a bit of indignation to boot. I suppose it shouldn't be any different as we move through these people's homes
We were soon through the North Gate of the reserve, crossing the Khwai River over a bridge best taken at a speed slightly less than engine idle. From there, our short game drive of only about an hour or so took us past the ubiquitous Impala, an elephant or two moving stealthily through the trees, and a lonely hippo resting motionless in a small "pan", the water bright green with algae. "He's dead!" exclaimed Scott, but Stanley didn't think so, though he did say that he didn't look very happy. Sitting alone in a small pool of algae doesn't inspire happiness - not even for a hippopotamus.
Soon, like a mirage shimmering in the distance, a familiar site began to take shape. Camp! The women had arrived a few moments ahead of us and were already situating themselves, I found our tent (hereafter referred to as "tent #2") with my luggage already inside and waiting (we had only taken what we needed for the two nights at the lodge, with a twenty pound weight limit for the flight back.) It's back to basics; a pit toilet, bucket shower, and dust. But I seemed to notice a little more snap in our step as we all settled into our second camp; more so than at 4th Bridge. Our camp routine was falling into place. Perhaps we've become a lean, mean mobile safari machine
The area where we are camped is usually dry this time of year, the river "disappearing into the sand' by our extent along the floodplain. However, due to good solid rains during the wet summer season and the unpredictable nature of the Okavango Delta, water is still present here in the Khwai River, mostly in the form of small pools and marshy wetland. The floodplain is lightly wooded with Mopane and Acacia, wild sage and tall grass covers the sandy earth. Our camp is nestled amongst a small grove of trees.
After we settled in, we tucked in - to lunch that is; and then for me, a siesta. Ah, sweet Africa and her siestas! Jayne remained outside expertly manipulating here label-maker-cum-word-processor in an effort to keep her travelogue up to date. Not an easy task out here.
Nicky and Scott had been playing chess on a tiny little chess board with even tinier magnetic chess pieces, so Jayne and I decided to let them use my chess board that has always come along on trips. She then offered to help teach Dan, who didn't yet know how to play. Starting back at 4th Bridge, Dan had become quite taken with Jayne's inquisitive questioning of our surroundings, her overall intelligence, and her friendly disposition
In any case, after my siesta I was challenged to a quick game of chess with Dan before the evening game drive. Dan won, though he did have the ongoing coaching of both Nicky and Jayne. I was groggy from my siesta and outnumbered. Not that I'm a sore loser...
There was no time for that anyway, as Alwyn's call to "saddle up" had us scurrying to our chosen Land Cruisers for evening game drive.
It was an amiable drive in the warm afternoon sun, through woodland and savanah, the sunset giving a glimpse of what we experienced in full force today - the Night of the Quelea. But it's not time for that yet, there's still more catching up to do.
I previously expressed my curiosity toward what sort of conversation four females may engage in while riding through the African bush. Of course, we men discussed the interplay of nature and marveled at the web of life as we rode with Stanley. I have it on good authority that our counterparts with Alwyn were discussing the elephantine proportions of a male elephant's... well, you can guess. I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions from this...
Back to camp just as darkness fell, I took my usual evening bush shower gazing up at the stars; only shivering when the water was turned off, which is most of the time when you take a bucket shower (my typical shower back home is probably equivalent to a few dozen buckets full of water). Refreshed nonetheless, I made my way to the campfire and met Adam, the owner of Capricorn Safari, the outfit that Wilderness Travel Adventure wisely uses for these safaris. Coming up from Maun for mid-safari resupply, he had included with the essentials six bottles of fine South African Chardonnay. This was not at my request, mind you, but only because I had asked if they had any Chardonnay back at 4th Bridge. (Only vaguely aware of the fact that Alwyn was probably thinking to himself, "We're out here in the bush and you want Chardonnay?") I was perfectly fine to enjoy another evening cocktail - I just thought I'd ask. Ask and you shall receive - service is king at Capricorn Safaris!
I quickly deduced that since I was the only one interested in drinking the wine, and that we would be out in the bush for another six nights before going to Victoria Falls, I could consume a bottle a night if I wanted to. This was much too generous on their part for many reasons, principal among them (right behind not wanting to be the camp drunk) was that what goes in, must come out - going potty at 2AM in the bush isn't such great fun, I was just sure that there was something in the branches overhanging our "bathroom area" staring at me. But I did gladly accept a glass as we sat around the fire and enjoyed the starry Southern Sky; the large tree near our fireside circle looming ever larger in the deepening night, the long branches backlit with the waxing three-quarter moon.
Adam and his son, Tristan, proved a charming and engaging addition to our dinner table. Much to the parents chagrin, Adam regaled us with the delights of bungee jumping off the bridge at Victoria Falls, an ongoing topic of intense discussion amongst the younger set of our tribe. I think until Adam's encouragement, it has been mostly whistling in the dark; "I'll go if you go, but I've got to see it first." Adam helped to encourage and inspire, Bill and Barb smiling bravely, and a look of mild horror spreading on Nancy's face. Scott, Dan, and Nicky surer than ever that the gorge was calling to them - "Come fly the vertical expanse of my rocky canyon walls! Dive head first toward the mighty Zambezi. Cast you fate to the wind and thin nylon cord..."
Me? What are you crazy? I'm not jumping off a bridge with nothing but a nylon cord between me and 350 feet of freefall, the waiting rocks poking up out of the river below, taunting me, daring me. Besides, I have an out - I've got bad knees. My idea of fun lies most definitely elsewhere. (Have I mentioned that I like airplanes and used to fly? There's no nylon cord holding up an airplane)
Exhausted from all this talk of jumping off bridges, Jayne and I retired to tent #2.
While lying in the dark I listened for the troop of baboon that Stanley told me earlier was hanging out behind his tent. Not sure what to listen for, I did hear the unmistakable sound of a hippo grunting and a mysterious call in the distance - was it jackal? hyena? lion? I drifted off to sleep pondering the great nocturnal wilderness all around me, right outside our tent...
Our game drive this morning took us by the same algae infested pool we passed on our way in from the airstrip - only to find the same hippo looking as if he'd barely moved an inch since yesterday. "He's dead!" cried Scott. "No" replied Stanley, "just not very happy."
The real prize for the morning game drive was a pair of wild dogs resting idly in some tall grass by the side of the trail, possibly eyeing-up some Impala in the distance. The sad truth is that the reason there are so many Impala around is that they are food for so many predator, this pair among them. Wild dog bears only a faint resemblance to the domestic variety that responds to "come here, boy!" back home. More related to a wolf than the dog in your back yard, our pair had brownish red coats, probably weighing in at about seventy pounds. Their most striking feature was their large, rounded ears sticking out on top of their heads. Alwyn found the dogs and alerted Stanley by radio. By the time we arrived there was actually a bit of crowd, owing to the fact that wild dog are endangered and not commonly seen in the area. So we joined Alwyn and a couple of Piccadilly Circus trucks (probably 20 people in all - a veritable traffic jam out in the bush) to quietly watch the wild dogs quietly watching the Impala quietly grazing in the distance. There are so many things to hear when it is quiet, it amazes me the depth and nuance of the sound field when it isn't blanketed with a constant barrage of over-compressed, over-amplified, mind-numbing sound. I should know, over-compressed, over-amplified, mind-numbing sound is what I do for a living. Everything in its place, I guess. I use the remnants of my once pristine hearing to learn from this pristine soundscape. God, I think I want to go hug a tree right now! There's one right outside our tent.
And thus have been our days here along the Khwai River. Up at the crack of dawn, a bowl of oatmeal, glass of orange juice, and cup of coffee for breakfast, then load into the Land Cruiser de jour to watch the world awaken in the long shadows of the early morning sun. Back for lunch and siesta, and then back out for evening game drive. I've worked on my bird list since yesterday, adding white glover, bateleur eagle, pearl-spotted owl, and African jacana. Many of these birds spied along the pools and marshes of the floodplain, a hippo or two nearby watching with those bulging eyes on top of their heads protruding from the still surface of the water.
The intricate web moves, undulates, intimates - and goes on.
And now it is time for the Night of the Quelea.