Sunday, September 25, 2005

Botswana: Kubu Lodge

Previous Post: Morning at Chobe

I am a little surprised when we drive past the main road into Kasane. Based on the description in my guidebook, I think the lodge will be right in the city. Although it seems strange to have a game lodge located in a city, that is where many are here because the park comes almost into the city. Being in the city would be nice, as I have seen a lot of game (too much maybe) and I would like to spend some time checking out urban life and doing some shopping.

But Kaiser continues down the highway past the city. We pass small industrial areas, shops, signs announcing various lodges that are hidden from our view, and Chobe farms (the first fruit and vegetable operation we have seen), with its irrigated green fields and swaying banana trees. We are definitely out of town.

I feel guilty for taking everyone so far out of the way and begin to worry that they won't have room for us at the lodge – or that they will, but it will be outrageously expensive. There really isn't any changing my mind now that I’ve dragged everyone out here. (Not that our friends seem to mind.)

I actually had several lodging options to choose from, but the other places were more traditional hotels. Kubu Lodge appears to be something between a hotel and an all-inclusive safari lodge – and at an affordable in-between price. Even if the price has gone up from what is in the guidebook, this will be a great deal for us. Heck, even if it turns out to be double what the guidebook says, it will be worth it. But I am worried.

Finally Kaiser pulls onto a private road. A guard opens the gate and we drive past what must be the world's largest bougainvillea – a large tree draped in brilliant pink – and stop outside a reed fence topped by towering trees awash with blossoms.

This looks promising.

Kaiser jumps out and begins to gather up our luggage. We suggest that he wait until we see if they have a room available. He laughs and takes our bags, saying he will take care of us. After all, he tells us, he used to work here. At this point, this only mildly surprises me. Kaiser has contacts everywhere and know everyone. (Probably part of the reason he is such a good guide.)

There is a room available. It is $150 per night, including one breakfast. Other meals, game drives, and river cruises are extra. We are welcome to eat breakfast while our room is prepared. The sense of relief is almost overwhelming.

Kaiser offers to pick us up in the morning to take us to the ferry, but we noticed the transfer point on the way here, so this would be out of the way for him and the rest of our party. Kaiser insists, but so do we: We will meet them at the ferry transfer. He agrees only after we assure him that we are capable of getting there on our own and promise to wait there until he arrives so we can say goodbye.

And then he is gone.

For the first time in nearly two weeks, Lane and I are on our own.

We follow the porter through Kubu's lovely gardens to our "room," a delightful cottage with a small deck and thatched roof. It reminds me of a Fijian bure. Inside it is large and comfortable, with a ceiling fan and full bath – all cool dark wood and African prints. Outside the landscape is a mix of carefully tended gardens, towering trees, neatly trimmed lawn, and untended woodlands. The Chobe River is visible through the trees beyond our window.

We settle in, wash up a bit, and head to breakfast on the expansive deck that overlooks a manicured hippo lawn that sweeps down to the tree-line river which then, in turn, stretches away to the Zambian shore. A huge baobab towers above the distant countryside.

Nearby, flighty, brightly colored birds keep an eye on us. The solitude is as heavenly as the view.

After breakfast I take my camera and explore the lodge’s grounds.

Along with the gardens and lawn, there is a pool and, below that, steps leading down the steep embankment to a dock. At the top of the stairs is a stern warning about the dangers that await in the river.

I already knew there were hippos about – the neatly trimmed lawn and deeply indented tracks running through the grass had made that clear.

Back at our cottage I shower. Ah. . . Lovely running water. While brushing my teeth I hear a sound outside the bathroom window. I peer through the screen to see a group of striped mongoose lounging in the shade just outside the window. They hear me move the shutters, peer back at me, shift a little farther away, and then return to their business.

We decide to follow their example and do some lounging ourselves.

First I watch the beautiful, intensely blue, iridescent starlings as they play in a bird bath outside our cottage and then dry off in the tree directly across from our deck. When the starlings retreat into the shade of the tree to wait out the heat of the day, I do likewise, retreating to the comfy beds in our cottage to read, write, and nap.

I'm so happy here.

River Safari
By early afternoon we decide to do the evening river cruise. I don't anticipate great game viewing, but we have already seen a lot of wildlife and it will be nice to relax on the water.

There is only one other couple doing the river cruise and we are dropped off at an almost imperceptible trail that leads down to a small dock where an equally small boat awaits.

Soon are off.

The first part of the trip is what I anticipated, a relaxing, but rather dull recitation of the names and owners of the homes, businesses, and resorts we pass mixed in with friendly greetings to local residents (mostly children) out fishing or playing in the river. He also provides an interesting overview of the economy and history of the area, including and explanation of Captivi Strip and Botswana and Namibia's battles over the location of the “real” river channel.

But soon we start to see both more boats and a lot more birds. Many of these birds are old friends from the Okavango, but our guide is very knowledgeable and we learn many new things about them. The birds here are more acclimated to people than those in the Okavango, they are less skitterish here and allow us to move close to them in our small boat.

We also see a smaller group from the herd of buffalo we had viewed the day before. Like the birds, they let us approach amazingly close, actually allowing our small boat to bump its nose against the grassy shore directly in front of them.

The water is filled with hippos, inlcuding one that pops up angrily from below the water when we inadvertantly venture too near.

Despite the parched land, there are also many animals on the mainland shore where we see giraffe, elephants, and a variety of antelope – including puka, which are rare in this area. (Another antelope for the list :-)

We watch a troop of baboons for a long time. It is a large group and the youngsters are engaged in all matter of play, including what appear to be ferocious battles. There are attacks and loud screeches, but it is all practice and the adults lay about in the shade nearby. When a baby loses its grip and falls from a branch, it is another juvenile baboon who rushes to the rescue. As we watch, our guide tells us everything there is to know about the lives of baboons (or so it seems), including a few things we really didn’t care to know. (I can do without detailed information on baboon sexual practices, although it is fun to see them with their colored rears prominently displayed.)

We also witness a n actuallife and death struggle farther down the shore, as a pair of shore birds screech and scream at a monitor lizard. Our guide guesses that the monitor lizard has already succeeded in raiding their nest and the pair can do nothing now but scold him for it.

Despite all these interesting goings on, the true focus of a safari on the Chobe is the elephants.

Hoards of boats converge at narrow points on the river creating a safari boat traffic jam. They are here for the same reason we are – to observe the elephants as they cross between the shore and various islands and peninsulas. This isn’t a tranquil scene. Many of the boats are much larger than ours – all pushing off of one another as each maneuvers to secure the best view. Some seem too close to the elephants too, causing these great creatures to hesitate and look about nervously. I can empathize with them.

On the other hand, most of the time I am unaware of the commotion around us – transfixed by these magnificent animals as they swim from shore to shore, raising their trunks high to breath, and then stopping to splash each other and play in the shallows.

It is incredible in a way I simply cannot describe.

The second elephant highlight is sunset. As I noted in a previous post, the elephant-in-the-sunset picture is ubiquitous in Botswana. This time I understand the appeal.

Back at the lodge, we have dinner by candlelight on the deck overlooking the yard. I order the local fish while my husband tries the impala. Throughout the trip it has seemed that every time we saw a new animal M would ask how it tastes. (Which eventually led to a discussion with Kaiser about why he quit hunting and the importance of protecting wild game instead of eating it. Unfortunately, we were interrupted before we got to discuss farming game.) Aside from fish, this is the only time we eat game. I wish M could have had this opportunity too.

(The fish was fine and the impala would have been excellent as a roast, however, it was served shredded in the style popular in Botswana. This preparation was a poor choice on several levels, both culinary and philosophical.)

Next Post: Leaving Botswana

Botswana: Morning At Chobe

Previous post: Savuti to the Chobe River

Lane and I get up early to finish packing before the game drive.

We decide that I will distribute the tips to the staff. We think this will confuse them: It seems they have as many misplaced preconceptions about us as we probably have about them and we enjoy upending their expectations a bit. I explain to each that we are leaving early, thank them for both the general service they have provided us and for specific things we have appreciated (OT's excellent meals, Dick's help identifying birds), and give them their money. Then we are in the truck and off.

It is a quiet morning for a game drive.

We see a beautiful carmine bee eater.

There are few creatures along along the road and the morning is hot. All is still and quiet.

However, there are very few animals along the river's edge, not even birds.

A regal tawny eagle keeps watch from a high tree, but he seems to be the only one keeping watch.

When we reach the nearby elephant carcass, the lions seem to have abandoned their kill, although the lack of scavengers on the kill itself (but skulking about in the trees) indicates they are still somewhere out of sight, but nearby.

A lovely, but shy, roan antelope watches us, keeping its distance. (Another antelope for our long and still expanding list.)

I'm interested in the vegetation. The dry landscape above the river is punctuated with bushy green shrubs that the elephants won't eat and there are funny puffy white flowers on some of the bushes.

As I photographing the shrubbery, a lone sable wanders past.

Soon we reach Kasane.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Botswana: Savuti to the Chobe River

Previous post: Around Savuti

I heard a truck leave this morning even before OT came by to awaken us and bring hot water for washing.

At breakfast Kaiser tells us he was at the nearby waterhole, where he saw a lion. He is hoping it will stay there awhile, so we hurry to start the morning game drive. Not surprisingly, the lion has moved on by the time we arrive. Kaiser tracks it along the sandy road for awhile, but when its trail leaves the roadside, the hunt is over.

Not seeing lions here is odd, as Savuti is known for its huge prides of lions.

There actually are lions here, but just before our arrival they brought down an elephant near a waterhole in a private concession area. With both food and water right there, the park's lions have had little reason to wander elsewhere and - because the waterhole is in a private leasehold, we cannot go to them. It is a clear reminder that, while Botswana has protected a huge proportion of its wildlife areas, not all those areas are open to the public.

When tourism first took off in Botswana, the country quickly became a magnet for low-budget campers, many of whom arrived fully equipped with all the food and supplies they needed. A negative impact on Botswana's natural areas was seen almost immediately, but without a corresponding boost to the economy.

The government reacted by implementing policies designed to both protect fragile wildlife areas and increase the financial benefits of tourism. To do this, Botswana leased some wildlife areas as private concessions - blocks of land leased to private companies which then have exclusive use of that area. These are where the safari lodges are located, giving lodge guests access to both the concession and public areas. The companies that lease these concessions pay large fees to do so and development is strictly regulated. This helps make Botswana one of the more expensive safari destinations - but it also helps protect pristine wildlife areas and allows most visitors a relatively private wilderness experience. It also provides the government with a good source of revenue.

Unfortunately, this system means that Savuti's lions are off-limits to us.

On the Road to the Chobe River
We backtrack some as we leave, again passing the lovely hills and strange baobabs, then following the same sandy road that brought us in.

The next sandy road eventually leads us through miles of woodlands.

At some point, the road becomes a trio of parallel tracks. At first I wonder why this has occurred and then realize each probably represents a new effort to find a drivable path. To me they look equally bad, but Kaiser probably sees a difference between them. At any rate, he continues along, slowly grinding, steadily, through the deep sand.

After awhile I realize that we have been gaining altitude, climbing up through the sand near the edge of a ridge. Through the trees and far below there is a broad, flat plain dappled with palm trees and cattle.

Eventually the trails come back together again and soon we arrive at a village.

African villages all seem to sprawl out across the landscape, not linear strips along the road, but seemly flung about in all directions. All buildings are well separated from each other and many are some distance from the main road. As we enter this village we pass a mix of homes, a school, what appears to be a government office, and various unidentified structures. It seems like a random assortment, nothing relating to the rest.

Kaiser pulls off the road and parks in a shady clearing between several homes and the local craft shop. The small shop has two rooms, both of which overflow with neatly arranged baskets and bowls. Along with the traditional baskets we have seen in other places, this shop carries a type made of a much lighter material that seems to have been first twisted and then woven. These turn out to be Zambian style baskets, a technique the local Batswana learned through an exchange with basketmakers from across the border. They remind me of the beaders and quilters at home who bring in outside craftspeople to teach new techniques. I am glad to know these exchanges occur here too.

I buy a couple small baskets and a bowl made of lightweight wood painted in an intricate pattern.

From the door of the craft shop I can see cows grazing on a flat plain far below the village.

I'd like to explore the village, but it is too spread out for the limited time I have. Instead I examine the houses nearby. The simple materials showcase intricate workmanship. The basic construction is embellished with a few graceful flourishes, such as the neat topknot on a nearby roof.

This is the first place where we have been approached by anyone looking for a handout - and even here, our "beggars" are just a couple of young boys looking for quarters. Kaiser gives them fruit soda from our dwindling supply.

The Chobe Riverfront
Then into Chobe National Park, home of the world's largest population of elephants. Spend two nights in this area that is full of huge herds of not only elephants, but also buffalo, wildebeest and various antelopes.

Rather than doing the riverfront drive through the park at mid-day, we switch to the highway and hurry into Kasane to get ice and other supplies. Kasane looks like an interesting place to do some shopping, but Kaiser wants to get a game drive in on the way to our campsite.

Before re-entering the park, we stop near the gate for lunch. We are greeted there by the first insects we have seen: Clouds of mopane flies. These are actually bees, but they act like gnats and I find them similarly annoying. The mopane flies don't actually bite, but are very focused on getting into my eyes, mouth, and nose - anywhere they might find moisture. They make it too miserable to eat, but they also make me grateful for the fact that we really haven't seen any bugs before now.

I flee to the restroom at the gate, which I find to be cool and insect-free. I wait there until we are ready to continue.

Elephants move out of the road ahead of us when we drive through the gate.

Our route generally follows the ridgeline above the Chobe River. The Chobe forms the border between Botswana and Namibia (here) and Zambia (farther to the east near Kasane). The river twists and turns and curls back on itself, creating both islands and long peninsulas with meadows and flats. Because the river provides a year-round source of water, there is a lot of variety within a relatively small area.

There are small groups of elephants everywhere - not really a surprise in a park noted for having some of the highest concentrations of elephants found anywhere in Africa.

We also come across a herd of sable antelope -- until now we have only seen a few solitary individuals. Rather than fleeing, this group watches us cautiously from the safety of the scrubby brush.

A private vehicle moving in the opposite direction stops us and asks Kaiser if he knows about the dead elephant along the road up ahead. Did a lion kill it? Kaiser explains he has just arrived and does not know. Of course, he has a pretty good idea. We head up the trail with renewed interest. Lions at last!

However, along the way we make Kaiser stop so we can gawk at thirty or more hippos grazing in a meadow (a hippo lawn) along the river far below us. Because their skin is sensitive to the sun, hippos usually finish grazing by early morning and retreat to the water until evening. Seeing such a large group out grazing during the day is a rather amazing sight.

Finally we come upon the carcass. It is that of a young elephant, freshly killed, and left alongside the narrow road. Immediately across the road, a lioness lies in the shade of a tree. From here she can keep an eye on her kill and protect it from scavengers. She is so close to the road that her front paws are actually resting in the sandy tire tracks at the road's edge.

The lioness looks hot, tired, and well-fed. She is breathing heavily (do lions pant?) in the mid-day heat. We peer down at her. She is so close to the road that she is practically beneath our vehicle. However, she is wearing a radio-collar, which deflates some of my excitement. While I am glad to know someone is studying the wildlife here, the collar makes her seem less "real" somehow. Until now it had been hard to think of these creatures as the same ones I could see in a zoo back home, but the collar breaks that magical spell.
Of course, Chobe itself doesn't seem wild the way the Kalahari, or even Moremi, does. We watch the lioness for only a few moments before we are surrounded by other vehicles.

The lion doesn't seem bothered by all the vehicles, but I am. I feel like I should finish watching the lion and move on so others can have their turn. Very soon, Kaiser suggests moving farther up the road.

A few car lengths later we stop again. From here we can see a second lioness resting in another patch of shade. She is a little farther from the road, but we still have a good view of her through the thin brush. The other vehicles don't seem interested in her, which is their loss.

Off to the side and behind the lion a family of elephants - mother, baby, young adult, and juvenile - are approaching along a trail at the edge of the ridge. If they continue along this path, they will pass very close to the lioness, who is resting in the shade of a small bushy tree in an otherwise open meadow. The mother, baby, and young adult all stop near a large tree at the boundary between the woods and the meadow. The juvenile elephant, however, keeps following the path into the meadow.

The lion notices the elephant and watches absently, turning her head, but otherwise unmoving. However, as the elephant continues in her direction, she takes more interest. Soon she sits up and turns to get a better view.

The juvenile elephant fails to notice.

The lion is clearly well-fed, hot, and tired, so she isn't going to attempt a kill, but we watch intently to see what will happen next: How long it will take this youngster to notice her? Can't the other elephants warn him somehow?

The elephant continues to move along the path, actually passing behind the lion, who turns her head to follow his movement, but otherwise remains still. The other elephants remain by the tree, the mother with the baby now tucked against her, protectively encircled by her trunk.

The juvenile elephant stops and looks back at the group. His look seems quizzical, but then he continues forward.

This time he only takes a couple steps before hesitating again. He must realize something is wrong. He turns and walks directly toward the tree behind which the lion sits watching. Elephants don't have very good vision and, even if they did, the shrubby tree with its mop of green leaves is just the right height to block his view of the lion. Just as I'm wondering how close he will come without realizing she is there, he stops and reaches toward and around the tree with his trunk.

Elephants do have a good sense of smell. What can only be a look of total horror comes across the elephant's face as he recoils his trunk and begins stumbling backward, away from the lion. He quickly turns and hurries to join the other elephants by the trees.

The lion looks both bemused and bored as she turns and lays back in the grass as if nothing had happened.

The elephants stand huddled together by the trees.

We are grateful to have been given a great show and move on.

Despite the abundance of tourists here, there is wildlife everywhere. It seems as if every time we come around a bend there are animals either alongside the road or actually in the road. They usually seem unconcerned by our approach and lope away at a languid place. Kaiser threads us through this obstacle course of animals, tour vehicles, uneven roads, and overhanging branches at the same time he is pointing out wildlife we may have missed.

Kaiser has also been watching for a spot where we can drop down to a path that runs along the river, but most of the roads are impassable, washed-out gullies. At last he finds one he deems suitable and we bounce down to the river's edge.

Immediately we see a small antelope. At first glance it looks to us Minnesotans like a large white-tailed deer fawn. It is an adult bushbuck. Another type of antelope for our growing list.

We also see a very large herd of African buffalo on a nearby island. The "island" turns out to be a peninsula and we follow a faint, convoluted path etched in the hard dry surface until the road reappears in the grassy meadow where the buffalo are grazing.

As we approach, a quick count indicates this is a herd of around three hundred - the largest herd of any type we have seen. Most of the buffalo stop grazing to monitor our approach. Kaiser stops some distance away and we watch them watch us.

The buffalo remind me of large cows, which I suppose is what they actually are. Bovine or not, they don't have that gentle vacant look I associate with dairy cattle. These look like cattle that are best given a lot of space. We eye each other warily across the distance that separates us.

Soon most of the buffalo become bored with us and return to grazing.

The herd begins to move further from us, but when Kaiser puts the truck into gear and begins to pull away, the entire herd turns seems to stop and turn in unison to look at us.

As we leave, a male, female, and juvenile line up to watch us and model a variety of horns.

Back on the main shore, Kaiser finds a spot to park near the water. There is a pool favored by elephants nearby and we watch the elephants as they come down the bank and through this sliver of water.

It is an amazing scene. Mostly single-file, the elephants stream down to the river. At its shore, they suck up sand with their trunk and then blow it over themselves as a dust bath. Then they suck up water to either drink or splash over a sandy back. Next they wade through the shallow water to the other side. Each elephant takes its turn. One baby hesitates, evidently nervous about entering the water. It is finally nudged into action by its mother as the line behind them builds. From the water the elephants climb the bank on the other side, cross a broad peninsula, and head for the next pool, where they appear to repeat the process all over again. It is an almost continuous, mesmerizing stream of elephants.

Continuing toward camp we come across a small herd of buffalo laying near the road. They gaze at us without interest as we photograph them.

There are elephants everywhere.

At Camp
We are camping near the Ihaha campsite in the middle of a hot, dusty mopane woodland with no facilities. There are mopane flies.

After the others get out, I stay in the truck and cry.

I swat at the bees and page through my guidebook. There are three spots in Kasane under $200 per night for two. Even though it isn't the cheapest, I'm leaning toward a lodge that sounds lovely, yet affordable. I want to be there now. I look around and wonder if we can convince Kaiser to take us back into town. Maybe if he called to confirm they have a room. . . Unfortunately, I know it is a long way to Kasane and it is already 5 p.m. - soon it will be dark.

I know I am stuck here for the night.

Once it begins to cool down, I escape the mopane flies by joining my husband in our tent. There we strategize for a bit. We know we are out of bottled water and Kasane is probably as close as anywhere to get more, so we will ask Kaiser to take us there after the morning game drive. This way we won't inconvenience the others too much.

Later we broach the subject with Kaiser. He doesn't seem to think we need to call first and says he will take us wherever we would like to go - he will end the game drive in Kasane and go from there. He asks where we want to go and, of course, I can't remember the name and my book is back in the tent, so he starts listing places. He names several before coming to Kubu Lodge. Yes, that's it! He says he knows where it is and says it is a nice place.

Escape is in sight.

Next Post: Chobe River