Wednesday, 20 July 2011

The Great Grey-Green Greasy Banks of the Limpopo River, All Set About with Fever Trees

One of my favourite bed time stories when I was a kid was “The Elephant’s Child” by Rudyard Kipling. I can still remember my Dad picking up our green covered copy of The Just So Stories and reading through it, his accent changing slightly with the character voices. All the different stories in the book had their own charm, but “The Elephant’s Child” is the one which really stuck with me.

The story tells of how an inquisitive young elephant, with his “'’satiable curtiosities”, goes on a journey through Africa to find out what the Crocodile eats for dinner after his family won’t tell him. Guided by parting words from the Kolokolo Bird he heads towards the “great grey-green, greasy banks of the Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees” to find out. When he finally gets there and asks the Crocodile his question the Crocodile urges him to come closer and hear the answer. When the Elephant’s Child leans down to hear the whisper the Crocodile promptly bites the Elephant’s Child’s nose. A tug of war ensues and the Elephant’s Child’s nose, which originally was “no bigger than a boot”, slowly stretches and stretches out until he frees himself from the Crocodile and is left with the long trunk which we all know. To find out the end of the story and read the whole thing in Rudyard Kipling’s much more appealing writing, check out this link:
Dramatic clouds for one of the first times
Driving through a blocked sunset

This past weekend (July 8-10), I got to live out a childhood dream and visit the great grey-green, greasy banks of the Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees. Thomas, Faisal and I set out for Tuli Block on the Botswana side of the Limpopo (South Africa just a stones thrown and an electric fence away). The journey there might have been the most adventurous transportation undertaking so far. We left Francistown around 2:30 and arrived at Molema (our campsite) around 7, after hours of driving on an increasingly empty tank, in the middle of funeral processions (2!), and finally down 5km of dirt road that would have been bumpy in a 4x4, let alone our low-riding Toyota sedan Amantle! Along said 5km of “road” we not only ran into multiple dry river beds and rocks, we also ran into 3 or 4 young elephants grazing in the dark and a couple herds of impala. By the time we got to the campsite in the pitch dark all our nerves were pretty high. Poor Thomas, the driver for the weekend, even refused to look at the elephants as we scooted past them with only a couple feet to spare. I love driving, but I definitely did not envy him then!

Our camp under the nyala tree
Molema Bush Camp was our home for the weekend, and in some ways it was both the closest and furthest we have gotten to real bush camping. Our beautiful campsite, under the shade of a massive nyala tree, was fully outfitted with a fire spot, huge brick braai, two tent platforms (just a square, evened out, raised dirt platform), a tap, an outdoor sink, a shower with hot water and a toilet! Pretty luxurious for camping if you ask me! On the other hand, Molema is situated deep in the bush. There is no fence around the property, it is about 20 metres from the Limpopo, and animals go where they want. While we camped without fences in Khama and Kubu, both of those locations had little danger of animals entering camp. We were to soon find out this is not the case in Molema.

After slaving away to start a fire (yey for team efforts and three sets of lungs/bellows!) we sat down for a dinner of cheese melted on French bread, cream of chicken soup, and some sausages. Top Chef Botswana was put on hold as I was missing my teammate. But it was still delicious! Throughout dinner and the campfire stories after animal calls that we identified as baboon were getting louder and closer. We braved it out for a while, but in the end the roars (literally, I can’t describe it in any other word) got the best of us and we retreated to the safety of our tent. At least, I thought it was safe. Thomas had other ideas. While Fais and I were peacefully ignorant in our deep sleep, Thomas was lying awake, presumably psyching himself out and listening to the animal noises that he said were right outside our tent. I guess after a while he had enough of lonely misery, because the call “Is....Is....Isabelle.....Isa....Is!” slowly crept through my dream and brought me back to reality. The conversation that followed went a little something like this:
Thomas: You awake?
Thomas: Do you hear that?
Thomas: Its footsteps! Listen!
Thomas: There! Did you hear that?!
Is: Thomas...that’s just your stomach!
Thomas: No its not! Listen!
Is:....Ok. I heard that.
So then there were two of us. Lying side by side in our cheap Game (like Canadian Tire) tent, listening to the clear animal noises coming from mere feet away. We needed our resident zoologist so I tried to wake Faisal up. Here’s something you need to know about Fais: he can sleep through anything. After body checking him a couple times and saying his name as loudly as I dared he woke up. And promptly fell back asleep again without giving us any peace of mind. After listening for a little bit longer and freaking ourselves out more and more, I decided to adopt a Motswana perspective. What happens happens, everything happens for a reason. So I rolled over, turned my back on Thomas, and fell back asleep.

In the morning we inspected the group of our campsite and Thomas was greeted with gratifying proof of his late night scare. Two feet away from where his head was inside the tent were two very deep and big baboon footprints. Clearly he had been sitting there for a while, probably listening to Thomas and I whispering on the other side of the tent. Walking around the campsite we found tracks EVERYWHERE. Baboons of all sizes and some impala as well. Then, taking a short walk, Fais and Thomas found LEOPARD PRINTS about 15 metres away from our campsite. This place was the real deal. After cooking some delicious breakfast of beans on toast over our fire we headed down to grab my first look at the Limpopo.

The great, grey-green, greasy Limpopo
There wasn’t really much of the river itself at the time, as its in its dry period, but looking at the banks you could imagine how beautiful it would be in full flow. Even low, it was clear to see that the water was indeed grey-green and greasy. It even smelled a little greasy! We took a stroll down on the river bed, looking at all of the different animal tracks, although the animals themselves didn’t make an appearance. To be honest, I was a little bit glad about that. There really weren’t that many places to run to! We saw loads of bird and impala tracks, some absolutely enormous elephant footprints, and a single set of tracks that we had a hard time identifying but turned out to be hippo! Heading back we decided to take the road. I’d like to take a minute to remind you that Molema was in the middle of the bush, and the road we were walking on was used for self-drive safaris. We were all on edge, especially when the baboon roars got louder and closer. Eventually we decided to head back to the relative safety of the river bed, and ran back down ripping branches off of dead trees to use to protect ourselves. “I learned this from The Gods Must Be Crazy II” said Thomas, as he held his stick over his head.

After a quick lunch we got back in trusty Amantle and headed back down the treacherous road towards the Tuli Game Reserve, where we were booked into a night game drive. Getting to Tuli we were shocked by the lush green gardens surrounding the main lodge and other buildings. It was in sharp contrast to the dry surrounding landscape that we had been driving through for two hours. Once at check-in we were informed that we would not be able to do the night drive as we had originally planned, since one of their safari cars had broken down. After some tense negotiations, led by the strong-willed Thomas, we were booked into an afternoon drive for a discounted price. In the end I’m actually glad that we went on the drive we did.

This drive was different than the ones we had done before. For one thing, the safari car was not covered, it was completely open air. For another, in contrast to the densely populated Chobe we actually had to drive around the park looking for game, as opposed to stumbling upon them. Our guide often leaned out the side of the car to look for tracks to follow. Finally, there was some serious off-roading on this trip. Our guide Simon drove like a boss, steering up and down steep riverbeds, through deep sand, and around logs and trees like it was no big thing. Later, when we were heading back to Tuli Lodge in the dark, he even managed it with one hand on the wheel – the other holding a flood light that he constantly swept the surrounding grounds and trees with to look for game.
Posturing: Fully flapped ears. The bush isn't much protection!

On the drive we saw way less game than expected, which almost made it more exciting when we actually did spot something! When we came across two male elephants it certainly was exciting, as the male elephant did full posturing (fake charging) with nothing other than about 10 feet of empty air separating us! When you’re not expecting it, an elephant trumpeting is extremely nerve-wracking. Especially when he is also shaking his head and flapping his ears at you! We also saw a couple giraffes, loads of impala, steenbok, klipspringers, and a porcupine. But the crowning glory of the drive was coming across a den of spotted hyenas in the fading light. We sat there for about 20 minutes, watching them in their home life; the cub being scolded back to their den, the rest of the family heading out on a hunt, and the one grown female left behind to watch the cub watching us. It was amazing to be able to see the softer side of the often hated scavengers.

One of the juvenile hyenas

Driving back in the dark was a little tense. You couldn’t help but think that at any moment a leopard was about to jump down on top of you from the overhanging trees. And then getting back into the car for the long two hour drive back to Molema, wondering what was going to jump out of the bushes into the road. Poor Thomas. I really did not envy him at all. Finally back at camp we made ourselves a dinner of rice and curry and literally fell asleep on our stools in front of the fire. This time, when Thomas woke me up in the middle of the night to talk about the noises I promptly rolled over and ignored him. Apparently the tactic worked because I fell right back asleep and Thomas said he did too! Once again though he was justified, as we found more baboon and this time mongoose tracks outside the tent in the morning. We started the long drive back to Francistown fairly early, and it was no less tense than any of the other driving on the trip—this time because of the completely empty gas tank. The indicator was far below empty by the time we rolled into Bobonong to fill up. And by fill up, I mean put as little gas in as possible while still having enough to get back to Francistown. Gotta love cheap students! By the time we were back in Francistown at our carwash the tank was below empty once again.

All in all a fun weekend away with the boys and definitely many challenges annihilated by Team Francistown.  


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