On Safari in Botswana
Botswana is a place of almost mythic names: the Kalahari Desert, the Okavango Delta. Our 10-day safari is your guide to turning this land of boundless beauty into your wildlife-watching dream come true.
The Moorish-style lodge, which opened in 1974, is in the midst of a sweeping retrofit. Some of the "green" improvements are small, such as installing long-life compact fluorescent bulbs. Operations manager Johan Bruwer, a South African native and an avid reader of Popular Mechanics, has also undertaken ambitious DIY projects, including a home-built solar-heated water system and an organic-waste incin-erator (honey badgers and baboons wreaked havoc on composting). He's also field-testing South African-built electric four-wheel-drive trucks for game drives.
"It's in our interest to look after the environment," Bruwer says. "Your market wants to see you be more accountable for your business, and be more sustainable."
Given the lodge's choice location, wildlife wanders everywhere. When I return to my room after dinner, I notice a large, furtive shadow on the walkway ahead. Lion? Leopard? The creature passes a spotlight and I relax: just a 50-pound Cape porcupine, Africa's largest rodent.
The next morning the property's environmentalist, Wouter Theron, an affable, rugby-sized Afrikaner, takes me on a game drive in an open Land Cruiser. Theron, an avid birder since his childhood in Pretoria, heads south into a woodland of Zambezi teak and leadwood, passing a spiral-horned kudu and a troop of baboons, and then parks and turns off the truck's ignition. Above us, a Technicolor-plumed male lilac-breasted roller rises from a dead tree, then suddenly banks and dives earthward. He blurts a raspy call and turns from side to side to reveal his turquoise and cobalt-blue primary feathers. For a female roller, it's an irresistible sight.
Soon a half-dozen South African giraffes emerge from the bush. Vultures festoon the tops of the surrounding trees, waiting for the temperature to rise enough to allow them to catch a warm updraft and search for carrion. Chobe supports southern Africa's highest densities of many raptors, says Theron, including the bateleur eagle, known for its distinctive canting flight action (bateleur is French for "acrobat"), and the lappet-faced vulture, identifiable by its bald, reddish head.
The route leads us toward the river, past two scarce, lyre-horned antelope species: the red lechwe and the puku. Their oily skin and shaggy hair are adaptations to a semiaquatic life along river floodplains. We're in time to see scores of elephants drinking at water's edge and then sauntering back into the forest. I've seen elephants in the wild but never in such profusion--or unnerving proximity. A large bull eyes our vehicle and then blocks the track, allowing a string of cows and babies to cross undisturbed. Luckily, the male isn't in musth, a hyperaggressive period associated with breeding. He gives us a dismissive shake of his massive head and follows the group into the trees.
In a nearby clearing, hundreds of female impalas stand in tight clusters; around each group, a snorting male in rut circles like a border collie. "They're starting to get the ladies in order," Theron explains. "The chances these males will die in the next few months are quite good. They get so preoccupied with the females. It's the perfect opportunity for predators. Also, they don't spend a lot of time feeding, so they're exhausted."
We pass a pair of juvenile males, clacking horns as they practice sparring. Soon enough, they'll get the brief opportunity to fight and mate before becoming a meal for a big cat or an African wild dog. Few impalas reach old age. My safari guide lists their life expectancy as "unknown."
On a final, late-afternoon game drive with another guide, we approach a small pride of lions--a big male and a half-dozen females--lounging in the bush. The cats soon rise to their feet and pad stealthily through the dry forest, ready to pounce. Their quarry is a baby elephant that has strayed from its herd. But a wary old bull elephant spots the impending ambush and trumpets an alarm call; the commotion flushes a caracal, a rarely spotted lynx-like wild cat that can weigh 40 pounds, and calls in the first responders--another old bull and a juvenile male--who rush in and escort the youngster back to the main herd. The old bull thunders into the bush, thrashing at trees in a raw, primal rage until the lions melt away in the fading light.
Unlike most rivers, which ultimately drain into the sea, Angola's Cubango River flows more than 1,000 miles into Africa's interior, transecting the Kalahari to spread across a vast alluvial fan in northwest Botswana, where it dissipates into countless dead-end channels before vanishing completely amid the fringing desert sands. At the heart of this astounding oasis lies the 1,880-square-mile Moremi Game Reserve, a peninsula on the east side of the wetland where Bushmen hunted for almost 10,000 years. In 1963, however, the BaTawana people declared it a preserve to protect it from poaching and cattle grazing--the first refuge in Africa created by local residents.
The Moremi has since become Botswana's ultimate wildlife destination, attracting rustic lodges, exclusive fly-in "water camps," and multiday wilderness camping adventures, like the one I'm undertaking by truck with birding specialists Letaka Safaris. Among the species I'm hoping to see in the reserve are several specialties, such as the slaty egret, a charcoal-gray wader rarely seen outside the Okavango, and the Pel's fishing owl, an elusive species notable for its large size and ginger coloring.