We went to Botswana to see animals. At Khwai River Camp we saw the lions at the top of this home page and we met some interesting travelers. The third Botswana post, a safari for those who’ve never left home.
I sat co-pilot on our flight to Khwai River Lodge and could look down over the countryside. At one point we passed a large pond with perhaps a dozen elephants in it, some swishing water at each other. Lovely sight! A bird’s-eye view of elephants at play. Another pool, farther off, with what I took to be hippos standing at the far end. I saw no trunks and the animals seemed to be squatter than elephants. But hippos don’t seem to stand around. (Probably zebras with my imagination providing the rest.) And one more pool with elephants.
We were fetched at Khwai River Lodge airstrip by Sello, a longtime guide, stocky with a wit and sense of humor and, unlike Leopard, a willingness to share in dinner conversation. We were met at the lodge by the inevitable singing ensemble: three African women led by the local camp managers, a couple called Harold and Lee-Ann, he an Afrikaner from Pretoria with an Afrikaner’s native brusqueness/abruptness that never quite gets polished off (or so it seemed to me), she from – I think she said Stellenbosch – which probably means Afrikaner with her “native abruptness” suitably masked.
Harold and Lee-Ann met after hotel management school while working; both are food-and-beverage people. They did a stint in UK, mainly in north Wales, then returned to South Africa. A hotel workers employment agency seems to have found them this spot. They took a three-year contract which has a year to run and have just bought a home in the Table View section of Cape Town. Apparently they selected it from builder’s plans – to which they made amendments. Lee-Ann’s mother attends to details like choosing bathroom tile. Mum suggested pink and gray. Lee-Ann seemed uncertain.
As we got settled in our tents, clouds began to gather. They had not even seemed particularly in evidence during the flight. I’d taken a quick dip in the pool – the heat was oppressive! – and was lying down when thunder suddenly started cracking across the sky. Stick figures of lightning had already been dancing against the backdrop of dark skies. Then rain! It pelted down. I joined Donanne on the terrace of the tent and simply watched it beat down for not quite an hour. There’d be occasional patches of sunlight, but the rain went on and broke the heat. It was blissfully cool. When we went out on a game drive all the tall grass had been beaten down by the rain – as if giants had been rolling in it.
Sello took us around the concession in which Khwai River Lodge is placed. It stands just north of the Moremi Reserve, but on private land. Which means that the safari vehicles can go wherever they wish. After heavy rains, of course, every depression was filled with water, some seemingly deep enough to serve as hippo wallows. The really deep ones, ones that are too challenging even for four-wheel drives, are avoided and at the moment the landscape is cut over with loops of tire tracks. How this terrain is ever reclaimed to what passes as a natural state, I don’t know.
Significant events on the game run. We came upon an old bull elephant tearing up grass with its trunk and stuffing the grass into its mouth. Sello pulled the vehicle as close, I’d estimate, as five yards. We watched the bull; the bull watched us, eating all the while. These animals are certainly habituated to the presence of tourists and their vehicles.
We encountered a second old bull elephant. I thought at first that it was the same animal. But no. This old boy was grazing, too, but the poor guy seemed to have sprung a leak. There seemed to be a sack of flesh between his rear legs – no sign of masculinity – from which liquid leaked out at a steady rate, virtually the entire time we watched him. Again Sello drew to within five yards of the animal.
But the best moments were those spent watching two hippos together, frolicking. One, identified by Sello as a male, dispatched himself, rising and splashing into the water. His playmate, said to be a female, raised her hind end now and then and wagged her piggy tail with great rapidity. The male would open his mouth to its full extent so that there were bulges on either end, then narrow sections near his jaw. An incredible pink! “As pink as a hippo’s mouth,” D said as we left the pair. I could have stayed watching them a great deal longer.
At tea a fellow came over to sit beside me, introducing himself as Chris and the woman with him as “Kem – with an e.” I had noticed the couple earlier at the pool, largely because they ran to type with a similarity to Inger and Ian, met at Eagle Island. Each woman was blonded and thin and looked good in a bikini. Chris obviously worked in an office. His skin was pale and a bit too fleshy. (I can see myself in their description of me, but I am a generation older.) Moreover, each woman was aware of newcomers and seemingly happy to see them, the sort of behavior that might suggest a certain ennui with her companion, but in these cases probably did not. (Each woman was married to her man.) Checking us out when we appeared on Eagle Island terrace to eat our sandwiches, Inger had adjusted – in fact, seemed to put on – her bikini top. (Can she have been swimming topless? There were Africans around. Don’t they count as men?) Kem said hello to me as I went down to the pool. I exchanged banalities with the pair.
At tea I was surprised that this pair focused on me instead of Paul and Bill who incarnate the beauty of youth. I must have established D’s and my particulars – that we’d lived in Nairobi many years ago, that I’d been a journalist there, that D had finished secondary school in South Africa, that I’d been a USIS officer in the Congo. We must have seemed old Africa hands to Chris and Kem.
Then Chris gave me his story – a bit more fully than I expected. He noted that he was originally from Philadelphia, but was now resident in London. He’s a fund manager for an American firm (Morgan Stanley, Kem later revealed). Since European markets are growing, it’s possible that he could be in London for 20 years, a prospect that at first delighted him. Now, however, he thinks maybe it would be good to return to New York in five years. He’s been in London three years. Kem later told us that she hails from Charlottesville, Virginia. She remarked that regardless of how long she lived in England she would always say, “Yawl.” But, of course, in our earshot that word never passed her lips.
Chris said that he and Kem had been “dating” when he was in New York. Apparently he’d asked her to join him in London and she’d been there with him for two years. In fact, when we met them, they’d just gotten married in Philadelphia at an Orient-Express facility there. When O-E learned they were thinking of having a honeymoon in Africa, Chris said, “I started getting calls about Orient-Express hotels down here.” He and Kem had taken a “beach trip” to the Seychelles the previous year and so they wanted something different for their honeymoon. Chris said that an inquiry had been made at some point about his fund managing the assets of some Botswana government fund. He admitted that although he knew the country was in southern Africa, he’d had to check an atlas to find out exactly where.
Chris was probably nearing 40. There was a bit of gray at the end of his chin where he was letting his honeymoon whiskers grow. He wore glasses, spoke quietly, decisively, with a manner that probably inspires the confidence of investors and probably does a good job of closing deals.
When we arrived for dinner, D, P and Bill going to the bar to order drinks, I saw Kem talking to Sello, then in his Gametrackers dinner uniform. She called out to me – “Did you have a good game run this afternoon?” – and I went over to say hello. She wore white chino slacks and a blue top and seemed very sophisticated in a Miss High Finance, looking-out-for-where-the-money-is kind of way. We chatted for a few moments, then I excused myself to get hors d’oeuvres. Once I had these, I shifted back to talk with Kem who was now with Bill and Sello who quickly withdrew. She told Bill and me her version of the story Chris had told me. They were both working for Morgan Stanley in New York. When he suggested that she join him in London, she would not consider working for the same company. So she had joined Invesco.
She and Inger seem to be modern women. I’m not sure I understand the type. What were once behaviors sending signals no longer send the same signals.
At dinner I sat next to Sello. I asked him about himself. Did he have a family? (He’s certainly old enough, probably pushing 40 like our friend Chris.) He has a fiancée, he said, in Maun. They were thinking of getting married. (Bill said he’d been talking to Colin, the Eagle Island bar man. Colin said he had a fiancée in Maun and that they had been together – whatever “together” means in these circumstances – and had four children together. He said, furthermore, that in Botswana if you’ve had a common law marriage of this duration and it had produced four children, you are legally obligated to marry the woman. And so Colin is thinking of getting married. So when Sello said he had a fiancée in Maun, I wondered if it was a relationship similar to that of Colin.) Sello said he came originally from Gaberone.
He had been in the police there. Then he said quite spontaneously that reading a book had changed his life. The book: Chinua Achebe’s THINGS FALL APART. Something about: If you know you must do something, do it. He had known he must leave the police. He had stopped working on a Friday and by Monday had been able to start a new job in the game and tourist business.
Later when Lee-Ann was chatting about Mum choosing pink and gray tile, I asked Sello more about the Botswana police. Surely I did NOT ask: “Why did you leave the police?’ but he told me that he had two brothers, both in the Botswana Defense Force. He seemed to have felt that all three of them in this similar line of work was too many.
It would have been nice to have coffee with other guests at the fire. But it was 10:00 o’clock when we finished dinner. Since they were waking us at 5:00 for a light breakfast and an early morning game run and since Paul was ready to turn in, we got Sello to escort us to our rooms.
Up too early the next morning. D set the alarm for 4:30. Kem at light breakfast said that she and Chris had stayed up chatting with Harold and Lee-Ann until 12:30. “We are only coming this way once,” quoth she and I suspect they are not all that interested in wildlife. Chris photographed her out on the fireplace deck and she lifted her chin to be kissed.
A game drive that took us all over the concession. We saw little. When we returned to camp, Harold greeted us with professional heartiness – “Did you have a good game drive?” The others answered with polite assurances and then I heard myself say, “We saw five nadas and two riens.” That response – had he heard it, Paul would have been very disapproving! – made me conclude that perhaps I should sit out the afternoon game-run. Guess I’d been jounced around enough splashing through deep ponds and bits of swamp. So a bit of respite was advisable.
On the morning game drive we saw a male impala chasing a female of his harem, disciplining her. She led him a merry chase, but eventually submitted. I got to thinking about Chris and Kem and Hemingway’s great couple-on-safari story “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” How far we’ve moved away from the characters and stories of Hemingway while at the same time moving into his style and “mythos” – which are mutedly all around us here! Kem’s a very different lady from Mrs. Macomber who scorns Macomber’s lack of courage – and sleeps with the white hunter – until her husband demonstrates his courage, at which point she shoots him. Kem’s attraction to Chris clearly has something to do with money and his considerable earning power. (Fund managers make big bucks.) Does she lead him a merry chase like the little impala, both of them knowing that money will eventually make her behave herself? Probably not. Everything’s changed since Hemingway.
As I recall, Francis Macomber had inherited wealth and had never tested himself. Whereas Kem’s Chris tests himself daily in the bond markets and she’s had three years to observe his performance. The white hunter’s physical courage seems irrelevant today. More importantly, women are now individual players, professionals with jobs. Kem can be Miss High Finance just as Chris is Mr. Hi Fi. Of course, she gains power and reputation thanks to her attachment to him, but she no longer needs to sleep with the white hunter – who would that figure be anyway? – because she’s already had ample occasion to sleep with a variety of lovers before choosing Chris and sealing the choice with an Orient-Express honeymoon.
At lunch all of us sitting again with Sello, D asked him what he had done with the police. Quite without pushing he related a completely different reason for leaving the police than he told me. Two personal friends had run afoul of the law, Sello said, and it was clear this had taken a toll on him.
One friend was a sub-lieutenant in the Botswana Defense Force. He got drunk one night and robbed a couple at knife point taking about $20 from them. The woman had marked her money. She complained to the police and identified the sub-lieutenant as the robber. He was found to have in his wallet money marked as the woman indicated. Sello did some of the investigation; he may have even been the arresting officer. He had to testify at the friend’s trial. Because the friend had betrayed the trust lodged in him as a member of the BDF, he was sentenced to 15 years.
The second friend came to Sello’s house one night and said: “Put me away.” Sello realized that something was very wrong; the friend would – or could – say nothing else. Sello took the friend to a bar to quiet him and get him to talk about his difficulties. But he learned little. He took the friend home. When he entered the house, he saw that his friend had murdered his wife. There seems to have been little question of his guilt. He was tried, convicted and spent two years in jail – presumably while the magistrate’s sentence (no jury trials in Botswana) was reviewed by a higher court. The man was ultimately hanged. For a time Sello visited the friend in jail, then decided there was no future in that and stopped.
D returned with a great report of the threesome’s game run. Sello tracked – and Paul spotted – for them two lionesses and three, now almost fully grown cubs. They watched them loll around. Saw hippos and again encountered the four lions starting out for a hunt along a road. They passed within a yard of the vehicle at the same height as the passengers!!!
Some Sello stories. Once when he was leading sixteen tourists on a walking safari through bush, he turned a corner and came face to face with a lioness and two cubs. He reached for his rifle, but by the time his hand rose to his shoulder, the lioness was at his feet. He froze – as did all his guests. Except the woman at the end of the pack who panicked, turned and started to run. The lioness immediately bounded down to this woman; fortunately, she gained control of herself and also froze. (As Sello tells this story Paul observes that the woman froze silently screaming; he demonstrates her pose.) The lioness returned back down the frozen line to still-motionless Sello. She measured him, kicked dirt up onto his feet and returned to her cubs. After the lions went off, Sello and the tourists withdrew. “And,” Paul observes, “returned to their tents to change their underwear.”
Another time Sello was alone on a bush drive. Came upon lions. Had to stop the vehicle and sat in it frozen with his arm resting on the driver’s door, half in, half out. One of the lions comes to do a thorough check of the vehicle: smells, licks the tires, licks the side of the vehicle, even licks – with its very rough tongue – Sello’s forearm. And continues. Then stops. Cocks his head as if thinking, “Hey, that tastes like flesh.” So the lion does not bite Sello’s arm, but instead bites his front tire. And it deflates. Sello had to wait till the lions moved off, then got out to change the tire.
Once Sello was again on a foot safari with guests. They were walking beside a hippo wallow, admiring the beasts. They move on and Sello realizes that one man has stayed behind to take photos. He hears a roar and a whooshing of water and turns to see an enraged hippo charging his guest, its enormous yawp open to crush some bones. Sello reaches for his rifle, brings it to his shoulder and manages to get off a shot – into the hippo’s mouth. This kills the animal. It falls dead, on top of the bewildered tourist, trapping him under its massive weight – maybe three tons – and breaking the tourist’s hip. The other tourists discover it’s not easy to move the dead weight of a fallen hippo, but finally the camera-bug is extricated and medevacked to safety.
Watching these guides work makes one realize how alive the natural world must be to them. They have acute vision, can spot animals and birds at great distances and detect the slightest variations. They know what they’re hearing: bird calls, animal cries. Know the meaning of what they’re seeing. Presumably their sense of smell is also sharp. And I’m also aware of the extent to which my activities have not demanded of me that I keep my senses sharp.
The next morning Donanne and Paul opted to sleep in so Bill and I took a game drive with Sello. He suggested a return to Moremi – okay with me – for Bill wanted to see if we could relocate the five lions seen late the previous afternoon. So we tried. And did not find them. Sightings of note: a hummerkop, largish brown bird with remarkable head – thus its name – which constructs an enormous nest, and a long and bloatedly well-fed crocodile – perhaps seven to eight feet long – lolling at the edges of a marsh (with its feet touching bottom, Sello thought, rather than floating), eating fish (said Sello) and accompanied by a much smaller croc which did not move the entire time we observed the pair and had its back covered by a broad, light green leaf. Sello drove us through an acacia forest which he said had once been beautiful and serene. Of late elephants have started to push down trees, the better to graze, and hundreds of dead, dried-up acacias litter the landscape. Many remain standing, but the forest now looks like a war zone. Man is not the only animal that destroys habitat.
Brunch, goodbyes and tipping at Khwai River Lodge.
Next post: Savuti Elephant Camp. Botswana