Tales from Botswana (sort of): Livingstone, Zambia

It wasn’t my intention to drag out these safari stories, but I realize that after a month, enough is probably enough. So, don’t worry! I do have one more batch of photos lined up, but with this post — the one you’re reading right now — my tales from Botswana are coming to an end.

(Also, these bits are set in Zambia, so it doesn’t even really count.)

On the last day of our safari, we took the Kazangula Ferry across the Zambezi River. It’s the place where four countries meet: Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Zambia. It doesn’t look like much, but for those fifteen minutes, we were everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

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The moment we stepped off the ferry, we were bombarded by Zambians trying to sell us things. Carvings, purses, paintings, t-shirts, keychains. “I give you good price, sistah.” “How much you want?” “Two for ten kwacha.” “Three for ten kwacha!”

The relentless noise of their voices, and uncomfortable pressure of their bodies, were a sharp contrast to the laidback quiet of Botswana.

From the ferry landing, we drove for an hour to Livingstone, where we would spend the night in a hotel — with real showers! real beds! — before flying back to America. Our hotel was just outside the city, right on the river, with a view of Victoria Falls. Or at least, the rising clouds of mist that the waterfall produces. Mosi-oa-Tunya.

The smoke that thunders.

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Victoria Falls was incredible. Though it is neither the tallest nor the widest waterfall in the world, it is overall the largest — spanning more than a mile in width and falling from almost twice the height of Niagara. On both the Zimbabwean and Zambian sides, you can walk across bridges and forested pathways to get a magnificent view of the massive cascades.

(If you’re brave, you can even bungee jump.)

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Nothing I say can really do justice to the rumble of the water, the beauty of the lush greenery, or the staggering depths below. The mist is so thick and constant that it may as well be rain. (Fortunately the Swiss couple on our safari had warned us, so we wore our shower shoes and rented ponchos.) There are rainbows — and even double rainbows! — from every angle. In a moment of wonder, we spotted a hippo walking among the rocks near the edge of the falls.

In spite of our experience at the ferry, we optimistically entered the curio market at Victoria Falls — and were promptly bombarded again. “Sistah, let me show you what I have.” “This bowl would look so beautiful in your home.” “Maybe you want some more for your friends.” “I need money for my family.” “You would be supporting a whole village.”

It was hot and cramped, and the haggling was intense. My mood dipped drastically in the short time it took us to negotiate for gifts and mementos. But we managed, and we got out, and we took another short walk through the fresh air along the falls, to clear our minds and spirits.

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Put off by the pushy peddlers, as well as the trick our taxi driver had played to ensure that we would use his — and only his — services, we decided to stay at the hotel for the rest of our time in Zambia. From the back deck of our room, we watched monkeys playing in the trees. We had dinner next to the river and shared a sundae for dessert. We slept in late the next morning and took a second shower, just because we could.

The last story I’ll tell is that of the French toast-stealing monkey.

Andy and I were enjoying our breakfast, emotionally unwinding from our wonderful trip, and mentally gearing up for the long plane ride home. While we sat there, listening to the falls and fending off the advances of the hotel cat, a vervet monkey jumped down from a nearby tree and perched on the light pole to watch us. I snapped a few pictures, and then we ignored him.

As usual, Andy finished his food before me and stood to go pay the bill. As soon as he walked away, the monkey scrambled down the pole to the railing next to our table. Sensing his mischief, I stood, shouted “No!” and threw my hands over Andy’s plate to protect it. Well, that monkey was no fool. He ran right around my arms and snatched a slice of French toast off my plate. He was back up on top of that light pole before I knew what had happened.

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After hearing me cry out, Andy had stopped and turned around. He watched the whole thing unfold. And oh how he laughed.

Botswana is

Light in the water, and dark shapes on the horizon.
Rumblings in the night, and the smell of wild sage.
The whisper of the Chobe River,
And the gnarled silhouettes of mopane trees.
The racing of your heart when you spot lion tracks in the sand,
And the laughter in your throat while you watch an elephant swim.
Dust in the air, in your hair, in your mouth.
Scorpio and the Southern Cross shining clear and bright as diamonds.
The pure, cloudless sky of dry season,
Painted with every color as the sun rises and sets.
The leap of an impala.
The lifted tail of a warthog.
The flicking ears of a hippo in the water.
The lazy basking of a crocodile.
The distant lights of Kasane on the horizon.
The little pink buildings in all the villages.
The crackle of the campfire when you add another log,
And the hiss and smoke when you put it out.

For me, Botswana was just seven days in the wild,
Seven days that I will remember for the rest of my life.

Tales from Botswana: Life vs. survival

You guys, there is nothing cuter than a baby elephant that doesn’t know how to use its trunk yet.

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Elephants usually master their trunks at about 1 month of age, which means this little guy is probably about 3 weeks old (according to our guide). While his mother elegantly sucks water into her trunk, then tips her head back to pour it into her mouth, her little guy does, well, this.

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Yeah, he’s pretty much just jamming his face into the puddle and hoping for the best.

Also cute: a baby elephant (same one) scratching his nose.

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And for our final cute: a baby elephant (same one) who is too afraid of crocodiles to cross the water with the rest of the herd, so his mother has to take him aaaaallll the way around to a land crossing.

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After watching him for about 20 minutes, every single one of us (even the guide) wanted to take that baby elephant home.

Even though we saw a TON of elephants over the course of our safari, somehow they never got old. Unlike the antelope. Or even the giraffes and hippos. I think it’s because elephants seem to have so much personality. They react to the cars, they interact with each other. They shake their heads. They trumpet. When they open their mouths, they look like they’re smiling.

The only other adventure/wilderness trip that Andy and I have been on was in 2011 when we visited the Galapagos islands. Though the two places are like apples and oranges, we couldn’t help comparing them. Both are filled with beauty beyond imagining. The landscapes, the wildlife, the culture. The sky.

I think the biggest difference I noticed was that the Galapagos feels much more… nurturing. It’s always wet and lush, and the animals are of a “friendlier” variety. Sea lions, turtles, lizards, penguins, finches, and fish. (Okay, yes, and sharks.)

But Botswana, at least during dry season, is a harsh place. The grasses get so dry that wildfires start spontaneously. So many of the plants have thorns that elephants have evolved to just eat them. And then there are the lions, cheetahs, leopards, wild dogs, and crocodiles roaming to kill.

Life versus survival.

Of course, a balance of both exists no matter where you go. But one definitely seemed a more dominant theme in Galapagos, and whereas the other prevailed in Botswana. Just an interesting observation — one of many in our travels.

Tales from Botswana: The kill

It was halfway through the safari, and everyone was starting to get nervous. We hadn’t seen any lions yet. What if we didn’t see them today? What if we didn’t see them until the last day? What if we didn’t see them at all?

Mike, our guide, kept telling us not to worry, but I’m sure he was feeling the pressure too. After all, it was his job to show us the animals. Every day he would point out tracks in an optimistic tone — small thrills to tide us over.

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“Hyenas came through, maybe two days ago.”

“Leopard passed by, just yesterday.”

And then, finally:

“Lions here, very fresh.”

The enormous cat prints were unmistakable, even to us. Mike followed the tracks through the vast, dried-out marshes of Savute, our Land Cruiser throwing up a cloud of dust. Ahead, another group was already on the same trail. But when we all came to a fork in the road, the other group turned right. Mike paused, eyed the horizon, double-checked the tracks, and went left instead.

Five minutes later, we found the lions. Two of them — large, graceful females lounging almost invisibly among the yellow grass. We drove right up to them, close enough to see whiskers, and the rise and fall of their chests. They paid no attention to our excited whispers, or the furious clicks of our cameras.

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Suddenly, a family of warthogs came trotting down the plains. Mike noticed them first and alerted the rest of us. By the time we picked out their silhouettes in the distance, one lioness was already sitting up, angling forward with interest.

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Without a sound, she stood and began to walk in a wide arc around our Land Cruiser. She was moving downwind, Mike explained, so that the warthogs would not smell her coming. Her body was low and lithe, a mere shadow slicing through the savannah.

The second lioness sat up but stayed in place, waiting for her cue. She watched, as we all did, while the first lioness got into position. Then it was her turn. The second lioness made her own arc in the opposite direction, smaller and quicker, but just as deadly quiet.

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After ten minutes of this stalking, the lions had trapped the warthogs between them. The unknowing prey continued to sniff the area for food, until one warthog caught a different scent. He walked upwind, toward the second lioness, and raised his nose into the air. Something was wrong, even if he didn’t know quite what. Still concerned, he went downwind and sniffed again.

That’s when the first lioness pounced.

Fluid as water, she sprang forward, and the warthogs fled for their lives. In their terror, they ran right into the path of the second lioness, and she was ready. Within seconds the chase was over. A young warthog dangled from her jaws. The trap had worked.

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The other three warthogs did escape, sprinting away with their tails straight up in the air so they could follow one another to safety. Meanwhile, the second lioness held their fallen brother, teeth sunk into neck, and she lay down to wait until he died.

The whole thing was remarkably calm, brief, and gentle. Beautiful, in its way.

We continued to watch and record as the second lioness feasted on her kill. We heard the crunching of bones and tendons, saw the pinking of paws and snout. For a while, the first lioness kept a respectful distance, but by the time gray entrails were being pulled from the warthog’s body, she had moved closer, and received a warning growl for it.

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Almost an hour had passed since we’d first found the lions, and we ended up driving away before they traded off on the meal. But that didn’t bother us. Nothing bothered us anymore. Because we had seen lions, had seen a kill from start to finish. The rest of the safari would just be icing on the cake.