Tuesday, 9 August 2011

The Circle of Life

“Nature was here something savage and awful, though beautiful. I looked with awe at the ground I trod on, to see what the Powers had made there, the form and fashion and material of their work. This was the Earth we have heard of, made out of Chaos and Old Night. Here was no man’s garden, but the unhandselled globe.” Henry David Thoreau “Ktaadn”

This past weekend Fais, Thomas and I returned back to Kasane to venture back into Chobe National Park. With Chloe, we planned to do a full 12 hour day game drive, camp in the park, and then go for an early morning drive before leaving on Sunday. In a hitch driving North through the afternoon and early evening, I couldn’t help but feel that somehow we were coming full circle. Our first weekend in Botswana was spent in Chobe National Park; and now we were coming back on the last weekend that we will all be together. Passing by two ostriches on the side of the ride, I mentioned to the boys that it would be amazing if we came totally full circle and saw the same animals that we did on the first drive to Kasane. Ostriches. Elephants. Giraffe. Kudu. Fais calculated and the odds of seeing them in that exact order were 1/36. And that’s assuming that we would see them at all. Never the less, in under an hour from when I had first mentioned it we saw them. Ostriches. Elephants. Giraffe. Kudu. I settled back in my seat and watched the sun set; secure in my knowledge that this was going to be a good weekend.

The next morning Fais, Thomas, Chloe and I were out the door early; walking in the pre-dawn light to the Spar where we were to meet our guide Godfrey at 6:30am. The Team Bots traditional breakfast of peanut butter and bread was dished out sitting on the curb in the parking lot. When Godfrey rolled up in a closed sided refurbished safari truck we looked at each other and rolled our eyes; disappointed to not be in an open car and thinking ourselves safari experts. Obviously we had no idea what we were talking about. Most of the roof was made of canvas and could be rolled back, and we spent much of the weekend perched on top of the moving car, sitting on the frame. 

Two juvenile male giraffes fighting.
"You can not hunt a giraffe. It's like you
shoot a baby. You can see the tears. The
lips moving and saying 'You have done
something bad.'" -Godfrey
Driving into the park Godfrey chatted to us; telling us about his company “Fun Fun Safaris”, his family, his guiding history, what he did before guiding, basically everything. Right away we knew we were in the presence of the real deal. “Bush Master” as he called himself. I have never met anyone as knowledgeable about the African bush and wildlife as Godfrey was. His instincts were so sharp that it was almost hard to believe. While most guides use radios to communicate with each other and talk about where big game sightings can be found, Godfrey relies on what he calls "Bush Telegraph". But what really made him such an amazing guide was his obvious passion and connection to what he does.

This next bit is hard to write. Talking with Tom and Fais as I wrote this, I said that out of all the blog posts we have written so far, this one will be the most difficult to get out, because whatever I write will just seem like a list of sightings. Which I’m sure people will read and think, “Wow! That’s really cool!” Which it was. But it wasn’t just “really cool”. It was moments throughout the day where we witnessed and were essentially part of the great circle of life. The fight for continued existence at its fiercest and most raw, and the beauty of the earth at its most unspoiled.

A wild dog waving its white tipped tail
in the air is body language that signals
to other dogs that a kill has been made.
"The kill has been made- run!"-Godfrey
Our first sighting of the day was three wild dogs ripping apart a fresh killed impala. If you read my Okavango Delta post you know how rare wild dog sightings are. Now, out of the approximately 550 wild dogs in the whole of Botswana, we have seen four. We sat in our jeep, less than 100 metres away, with our cameras clicking and our energized monologues overlapping. This, we thought, is it. We cannot get luckier. Everything else is just icing on the cake. Minutes later, the wild dogs suddenly abandoned their kill; running off swiftly and smoothly. After a brief intermission of vultures swooping in, we understood the reason for the abrupt exit of the dogs. A giant leopard paced evenly towards the kill, camouflaging so well that if you took your eyes of him for a moment you needed someone else to tell you where he was. The leopard stood protectively over the kill, grapping it by the neck and dragging it between his legs until he was well out of our sight. ”Now you can see how nature works. It’s symbiotic...You guys,” laughed Godfrey, “You guys are lucky.” Fais and I looked at each other and shared huge grins; unable to say anything to describe how we were feeling except muffled screams of excitement.

"The mortality rate for lion cubs is very, very high."- Godfrey
Hyenas and snakes pose a big threat, and if there is not
enough food the mother will abandon her cubs.
Moving on, we headed down the track towards the Serondela picnic site overlooking the Chobe. Several hundred metres before reaching it, Godfrey hastily stopped the jeep. “Lions!” We rushed to the left side of the car, hanging out the windows as we frantically tried to capture the two lion cubs fattening themselves on a fresh looking baby elephant kill. Their mother, or a female from the pride charged with their safekeeping, lazily watched us from the shade of a small hill 100 feet away. “He’s trying to rip off the trunk! What a cutie!” Fais gushed. It was a strange moment for me. On one hand, the lion cubs were incredibly adorable. On the other hand, that baby elephant could have been one of the many that we saw during our first visit to Chobe. Elephant gestation period is 22 months long. And in a second, that life, that potential, was snuffed out. This was all before 8:45am.

10:00am. Pride of lions lying in the shade of scrub trees down by the river. In the middle of the pack, a young male lion dwarfed the females; at only 5 years of age his mane was still only starting to come in. Godfrey: Why do male lions have a mane?
Chloe: I feel like this is a joke...

1:17pm. Three female lions snoozing in the shade. We sat watching them in silence for what seemed like an endless amount of peaceful time. Glaring, we stared at the other trucks and jeeps that stayed only for a few brief moments; both interrupting our calm and not valuing the moment like we did.

"There's far too much to take in here
More to find than can ever be found."
3:20pm. Elephant encounter. This one different from the others of the day. Walking slowly by us, the big female turned her head towards our car and stopped. She stared at us sitting on the roof, and as I made eye contact with her I felt and saw a light of recognition in her eyes. I have no doubt that this was the same female who we took pictures with and wondered at on our first trip to Chobe all those weeks ago. A peaceful intelligence radiated from her, as if she was both greeting me and saying goodbye at the same time.    

3:38pm. A single Chobe bushbuck darted past our car. Godfrey explained that the bushbuck is the most dangerous and aggressive of all the antelope species in Botswana. Now we know why the bushbucks by our camp in Molema did not run      away from our accusing headlamps and flashlights in the dark.

4:09om. Three roan antelopes grazing in the distance. The only species of antelope I have now not seen are the elusive, water dwelling, and nocturnal sitatunga and the southern reedbuck.

Buffaloes crossing the flood plains at sunset. 
The inescapable Golden Eyes.
Sunset. Godfrey drove us back down to the river where we had seen the pride of lions earlier in the day. “They will come down behind us to hunt.” Trusting him completely after a full day of what seemed like miracles, we relaxed on the roof of the car. Talking and laughing and sun tanning. A guide passing by questioned Godfrey, “What’s wrong with your guests? They look so happy not doing anything and they aren’t even looking at the animals!” (The animals in question were a massive herd of impala. Not exactly thrilling after the day we had had so far). Cars passed by us, stopping to check out why we were stopped and moving on when they learned that there was actually nothing there. All of a sudden, Godfrey announced their presence and backed up. There they were. The same pride, sitting just behind us like Godfrey knew they would. Watching in awe, we waited to see what would next unfold. A cub got up and trotted away from us, towards the herd of impala. “She is smart. She will be a good hunter.” Soon after some females followed, leaving behind the male and the Old Mama; a old female who is blind in one eye. In the distance we saw the herd start and start running further onto the flood plains of the Chobe. All of a sudden a one horned buck started running straight towards us. “What the hell is he doing?” We all quivered with anticipation at what was about to go down. He saw the trap too late. Trying to change his direction in mid-air he was no match for the waiting lions. A plume of dust enveloped them and the next thing we saw was the pride lying in a circle eating; every now and then an impala leg sticking straight up out of the centre. Tensions were high as we watched them growl and swipe at each other when someone came to close to their “plate”. Talking about it later we questioned the sanity of the doomed impala. All I could think about was how he felt when he realised his fate; staring into the golden eyes and waiting claws of death.
"From the day we arrive on the planet
and blinking step into the sun
There's more to see than can ever be seen
More to do than can ever be done."
Leaving the lions behind as the sky transformed from the bright orange and pink glow of sunset to the waiting purples and blues, we slowly made our way back to our campsite. The colours were the most dazzling that I have seen so far; the perfect ending to a magical day. Arriving at BOGA Site No. 5 we went to quick work starting the fire and preparing dinner. Top Chef Botswana: Chobe was to decide the winner of the competition. Since we were only going to be there for one night, we had decided that we would each cook a smaller than usual portion of dinner. Chloe and I prepared marinated and grilled chicken in a tomato chutney sauce over a fresh tropical salad of tomato, avocado and papaya. The boys made a traditional dish of pap (phaletshehttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pap_(food) and chakalaka http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chakalaka with cabbage. Godfrey was to play the part of our impartial judge, but in the end we declared no winner, deciding that both dishes were great and just this once we could put aside the competition. Sitting around the fire during and after dinner we traded stories with Godfrey. We talked about the work that we have been doing here, the other places we have travelled to in Bots, and our plans to come back in the future. Godfrey told us stories about other trips he had done, his own belief in the energies and balancing powers of the universe and the intelligence of animals, and how lucky we were. We have all been advised to buy lottery tickets upon our return home, and our laughter was silenced by his insistence and story of another group who he had told to buy lottery tickets that had actually won millions. While Godfrey maintained that we are an extremely lucky group, I believe that it was a perfect mix of our luck and Godfrey’s luck that came together to create an epic and unmatched day.   

Godfrey's canvas tent in the background.
Our Game tent in the foreground which
can be pushed over with one finger.
Heading to bed we were given the safety talk. I should mention that this site was in the middle of the bush. No firepit, no running water, no toilets and definitely no help nearby. We were in the animals’ territory now. Don’t worry about rustling noises right by the tent; it’s just the honey badger. If you hear big noises nearby, don’t leave the tent and be quiet. The elephants know you are there and will leave the tent alone. Most important: do not leave the perimeter of the camp. Anywhere beyond that you are fair game to the golden eyes and other predators of the night. With these “reassurances” in mind we headed to bed in our usual order: Fais, me, Chloe, and Thomas from left to right. I was so exhausted from the excitement of the day I fell right to sleep and didn’t wake up at all in the night. Time to get up: Elephants are walking by! Before our alarm even went off at 5:30am, I was awoken by the combination of a herd of elephants moving through the bush by our camp, snapping branches and rustling the fallen leaves, and the others talking about it. For once, Fais was not the last one up! Surprisingly, I was. Disoriented, I asked for the time (thinking it was still night) and Fais told me it was 5:20. Calling out quietly for Godfrey, we were greeted by his good morning and rushed to break camp.

6:15am (ish). Rushing through the still dark park we headed back to where we had seen the kill the night before, hoping to see the same pride again. Coming around a corner we found the road blocked by a sleeping elephant; front legs curled up to her chest with mouth hanging slightly open and tongue sticking out. “That’s how I sleep!” Waiting for several minutes it became apparent that she wasn’t moving anytime soon. So we inched forward until like that repetitive buzz of an alarm clock we became too obnoxious and she got up and started her day.
"Keeps the great and small on an endless round."

6:30am (ish). Arriving at “our” lion spot, we were disappointed to find nothing there. But never fear, Bush Master Godfrey is here! We raced back to where we had found the baby elephant kill the day before. Two female lions and two cubs were there to meet us, still working on the elephant carcass. As more and more jeeps and trucks started to park and watch, we moved on.

Graceful, beautiful, and deadly.
Passing cars coming into the park on our way out, a guide mentioned to Godfrey a leopard sighting right off the road. Joining the other cars parked facing a tree, we turned off the engine and waited. We were not disappointed. Soon after a chunk of flesh fell from the upper reaches of the tree, a female leopard gracefully bounded to the ground. Staring at the cars surrounding her she evaluated the situation and called her cub to her. Winding through the cars she walked right in front of us, pausing to pose on a log and put on a show that seemed almost to be only for our eyes. This is all before 8:33am.

I have just taken up more than two Word pages talking about what we saw. And that was only the big game. Throughout the day we watched countless impala, kudu, vervet monkeys, chacma baboons, elephants, warthogs, giraffes, crocs, hippos, buffalo, and birds. It is easy for it to be read as a list.

But it’s not just a list. It has meaning beyond the actual sightings of the animals themselves. Trying to comprehend everything we saw was difficult for me. What made us so lucky that we were able to witness all we did? How was it possible for us to be in the right place, at the right time, so many times in one day? Was this some kind of reward after surviving the toughest week of Bots yet? Was it proof of some kind of great balance? Or was it just a glimpse into the perfect beauty and harmony of the world? Everything happens for a reason. This has become my Bots mantra. We are all part of the Great Circle of Life.

Talking about coming full circle again at the end of the trip, Chloe pointed out the sadness of it; that it was a sign of our time here coming to an end. Fais was quick to correct her, “No, no. A circle never ends.”
Bush Family. Ma-naga.


  1. LOOONNNN post but very evocative of all the sights and sounds and thrill of being out there among all those raw moments of life and death. Can't wait to hear your stories. Enjoy the time you have left. Love Moo

  2. i don't even have words to describe what i'm feeling just reading about what you've felt. i can't even imagine what it would be life to be in the presence of that circle of life.
    aaaaahhhh gosh iz. it's a really beautiful thing to have followed your journey. i hope this last week/few days/time you have left continues to be just as magical.