Day 85 - Mon Jun 27 Johannesburg to Tubu Tree Camp (via Maun, Botswana)
(Chris) We got up extra early for our 10am flight to Botswana, ushered to the airport by the travel company. Our driver gave us an additional lesson on the history of Jo-berg and the failure/corruption of the Zimbabwe government, which impacts all neighboring nations to a great degree. He says they have massacred over 180,000 people, primarily for political reasons (similar to the way Iraq was, there are 2 main groups of people there, I can't remember the names, but the minority is in power and killing the other), which is horrifying.
At the airport, we made a 15 minute, $35 call to Norway (to reserve some specific travel we were worried would book up), and then jumped on our first of 2 flights. Flight #1 was on a medium-sized Fokker jet, to Maun. No big deal. Flight #2 was smaller, on a 15-person single-prop plane. They carefully weighed and positioned our luggage. The flight before us, a Cessna, was so overloaded its tail barely stayed off the ground on a long, laborious takeoff. Our flight went fine, and we landed on a tiny dirt airstrip. That was the first time I'd landed on anything other than either asphalt or water!
Two nice fellas with a deluxe open-topped Land Rover picked us up, and told us it would be 10 minutes to camp. But it took a lot longer! On the way we encountered a giraffe from afar, a family of impala (sort of like deer), and a large family of baboons with babies (baboons are so much fun, they scamper and talk and jump). Each time we saw significant animals the driver would stop the jeep and tell us a little bit about them. It was pretty amazing given we only expected to be taxied to our tent.
Speaking of, camp is gorgeous. The main area is all on raised poles and connected by bridges. There are large 3-sided tents with nice padded furniture, a bar, and friendly staff (though many of the staff speak only limited, broken English, the guides and hosts speak it fluently, and it seems like 100% of the clientele is a sampling from the entire English-speaking world - England, Australia, New Zealand, and we are the only Americans so far.
Our own tent is gorgeous and huge, about 15'x25' with hardwood floors, running water, your choice of indoor and outdoor showers, and nice furniture. There are animals everywhere outside, sort of a herbivore plain out back, and leafy trees on the sides that the baboons and birds seem to like quite a lot. The tents are really spread out, maybe 200' apart, and we were instructed that at night we were not supposed to go outside our tent, even on the maintained paths, without a guide present. The one quibble is that we can't really read much at night, because tiny flying insects fly through the mosquito netting and toward the light, by the 100s. But with a 6am wakeup it's not the biggest issue in the world. =)
At 3:30pm we went to tea, and then at 4 went out for a 'real' safari. The Land Rover has 4 rows of bleacher seats (the first row for the driver), each raised up about a foot over the previous. The view from the 2nd row was great. Our driver/guide, Moa ('Mo'), is an amazing multi-tasker - he'd drive, be looking for prints, looking for animals, talk with us, and hold the spotlight when desired. Anyway, it started out very hot outside, and we saw elephants almost right away. Then we focused on birds for awhile (I am quickly discovering that there is a hierarchy here wrt how important the animals are - first look for carnivores, if not there then look for herbivores, if not there look at the birds, as there are always birds!).
After about an hour trying to re-find a leopard that the other couple had seen briefly in the morning, we caught word on the radio that the other jeep had found lions. So Mo took us there, and we were *shocked* that he drove about 10 feet from the lions and stopped. Here we were, dumbfounded, exposed, looking at wild lions (a pride of 3 female adults) up close. But I guess they don't recognize people in a jeep as a threat or food. Mo told us not to stand up when near the cats so they don't change their mind on that point.
Unlike the other jeep, we followed the cats for about an hour. Eventually we were in very tall weeds, and there was an overwhelming stench. Turns out they were eating an old kill, and we got in close and could hear them crunching the bones with their teeth! The sun was going down and the sunset was fabulous, but it made photography difficult, and it got super-cold in a hurry, dropping from around 80 to 50 in maybe an hour. We watched them eat for awhile, then discovered a fresher (well it still stank to high heaven) one where 2 other female lions were eating a giraffe (primarily gnawing on the leg was all we could see - the torso was behind a big row of bushes). We watched that for awhile also, then slowly drove home, using the spotlight to look for more animals via the reflection of their eyes.
We had a big dinner back at the camp then turned in, tired and happy.
(Jen) When we first arrived at camp, the managers, a couple named Carrie & Anton, explained how each day would play out: wake up at 6 AM, light breakfast at 6:30, game drive from 7:00 - 11:00, brunch at 11:00, siesta 12:00 - 3:30, tea & light snack at 3:30, game drive 4:00 - 8:00, dinner at 8:00. It gets pretty hot during the day so the animals find shade mid-day and are hard to find (and inactive) - thus siesta.
Day 86 - Tue Jun 28 Tubu Tree Camp
(Jen) This morning we were woken at 6am and were pretty bushed still. We'd both been awakened earlier in the morning by the rambunctious baboons who don't seem to understand the concept of needing 8 hours of sleep. We met the rest of the guests (a total of 8) at 6:30 for a light breakfast and by 7 AM were back in the jeep for another game drive. They have two jeeps here that each hold 10 people and a driver - but they send both jeeps out on each drive so we only have 4 guests in each. It's nice because it gives you lots of room to stretch out and gives you great visibility as you aren't always leaning across someone. The drive was a bit slow at first, lots of birds (as usual). We then got our first up close look at some Wildebeests, and boy are they weird looking. Moa explained that they are sort of a cross between a horse and a buffalo. They were quite skittish though and made a hasty retreat. Mo made short order of then re-locating the lions we saw yesterday. They were lounging around and Remi, the younger of the three was quite photogenic. It is truly amazing to be so close to them and they really don't seem to care at all. We drove back near the giraffe kill and found a male lion lying in the grass snoozing. Mo explained that the lions may be occupied with the giraffe kill for about a week. It smelled pretty bad given it was already about 3 days old Mo thought and was rotting in the sun. It was also covered with flies. I guess the lions will gorge themselves on up to 25 kg of meat to the point that they are nearly incapacitated and all they can do it lay in the grass. We even saw how some of the lions were struggling a bit to breath because they were so stuffed. Around 10 AM we stopped for a coffee / tea break (we are really feeling quite pampered!). If you have to go to the bathroom (which I always do!), then Mo just checks behind a bush for creatures and you make it happen. We headed back to camp and on the way saw our first giraffe close-up. A few more baboon sightings and were back at camp for lunch.
On the afternoon game drive we saw a herd of about 10 Zebra, including 3 that were about 4-5 months old. We visited the giraffe kill again and it still smelled quite bad. There were two female lions eating which was interesting to see.
(Chris) We stopped for our standard 'sundowner' (a stop for drinks, a snack and a pee, at sunset or around 6pm) near a herd of about 100 Cape Buffalo. They were mostly drinking, a couple were taking mud baths, and a few had birds perched on their backs. The sunset, in the other direction, was amazing, with a brilliant range of pinks and oranges. As we left the sundowner, the buffalo semi-stampeded away, but Moa cleverly got behind them in such a way that they stampeded right by us again, through the water. Even though it was barely dusk, it was powerful and amazing to take in.
On the way home we stopped to gawk at the Milky Way for about 15 minutes. The sky here is amazingly clear, with no pollution (at least when the LR is turned off) and no ambient light. It was as clear as a backpacking trip into the mountains, except the stars reached nearly to the horizon. Also the constellations and planets are different down here, and Venus is almost always the first light in the sky. We saw a few shooting stars and then headed in to get warm and have dinner.
On this night we decided to do a 'sleepout.' Instead of staying in our normal deluxe tent, we were driven to a more remote location where there was a small platform with a few beds on top, and an outhouse nearby. We thought we might hear more animals out there, but given how remote our normal tent is, it was about the same or maybe even quieter. Two guides game with us, and we had a small fire including roasted marshmallows, yum! But overall I think we're going to skip the sleepouts, because it cuts your sleep time by over an hour and isn't much more wild. I mean, how wild can it get? ;)
(Jen) While talking to the guides around the fire we learned a bit about the culture in Africa as well as their schedule at camp. All the staff work 7 days a week from about 5 AM - 11 PM for 3 months straight and then they have a month off. Most of the managers (who are Caucasian) are couples, most of the staff are black and are either single, having a romance with someone at another camp, or married and away from their family for 3 months at a time. I can't imagine how difficult that must be.
Day 87 - Wed Jun 29 Tubu Tree Camp
(Jen) This morning was a 5:50 wake-up, ugh! Since we slept in the hide last night we just drove back to camp, quickly changed and freshened up and then met everyone else for breakfast. This morning we went out on Mokoro instead of a game drive. A Mokoro is essentially a flat bottomed canoe - originally made out of a tree but these ones were made out of eco-friendly fiberglass. The difference between a Mokoro and a canoe though is that the guide called a "poler" uses a pole and stands up in the back of the boat and guides the boat. It's sort of like a gondola in Venice in that regard, no singing though. The ride was peaceful and pretty but a bit boring. We didn't see much -birds and some Red Lechwe. The lechwe were fun to watch as they bounded through the water - they call them "aquatic antelope" because they like the water and move faster through water then they do on land. They have an amazing ability to leap in the air like grasshoppers - maybe 8 feet or so in height. They also make quite a racket moving through the water and it sounds like fast moving rapids. The Mokoro in front of us spotted some hyena but by the time we arrived we could only see the back of their heads as they dived into brush. The only downside of the trip was the bugs. They were everywhere!
Our evening game drive was fantastic. Our first sighting was of a large bull elephant enjoying some forest salad. He was about 100 yards from the Land Rover and Mo turned off the engine so we could watch and enjoy. Gradually the elephant started making his way towards us, as we were between him and his watering hole. He started coming at us more quickly and about 20 feet away he made a large snort and threw his massive head at the same time - according to Mo sort of a "hey, I see you" sort of signal. My heart started to race a bit as I was on the "hit side" and he was pretty stinking big with good size tusks. Chris was scared too. He also had a lame right front leg, it looked like the ankle may have been broken at one point and mended at an odd angle, but he seemed to move just fine and Mo thought he was about 40 (they live to about 65) so he seemed to be doing ok.
Some warthog, red leschwe, and baboon sightings and we were on our way to see the giraffe kill again to see if there were lions, leopard, or hyenas hanging around. Emily wasn't thrilled about going because of the smell, so she brought a washcloth and air freshener from the room which I thought was pretty ingenious. We spotted the big male lion first, sleeping in the grass on the other side of the bushes from the kill. You could tell from his huge round tummy that he was absolutely stuffed. It seemed it was all he could do to open and eye and check us out. We then drove around the bushes to where the giraffe was - now maybe 4 days old or so and it really smelled quite bad. Most of the meat was gone but there were two females having a go at what was left and a few more lying around the area. By this time it was nearly dark and getting hard to see so Moa turned off the engine about 10 feet away and used the spotlight so we could see. After a few minutes we were surprised to see the male lion come through the bushes in front of us and head straight for the kill, growling and shooing off the females - one of them ran straight towards the truck and David nearly jumped out of his seat. It was really amazing to see them interact and be so close. Mo said the male lion wasn't even hungry, he was just asserting his dominance. One of the females tried to make her way back to the kill a couple of times but the male would rush her, growling and snapping and she'd back off. One of the females laid down right behind the male and stared right at us - Chris thought for sure she was checking him out for a meal. We stayed for about 20 minutes or so and just watched; I took some video with our Canon camera which turned out pretty well. When we started to leave we spotted a few more females within 50 feet of the kill, Mo said the pride was about 10 lions total. The whole experience was absolutely amazing. (Chris) After such an experience, Moa always sums it up with "that's as wild as it gets" and cracks a big smile.