Is this real? Did I actually make it to Africa? I did. I went to Botswana to give a workshop and had one of the most life altering experiences of my life. A short ride from Gaborone, Botswana’s capital, took me over the border into South Africa. No shoes off, no pawing through purses just a quick look at passports and a stroll through a little building and out the other end. I was in South Africa at its northernmost border.
I stayed at TAU, a wildlife refuge. Africans figured out that more people would pay to photograph animals over and over than would pay to shoot them once. We went on "safaris" but our only weapon was the camera. The rangers, however, had powerful rifles, on the dashboards of their jeeps and land rovers.
The Tau routine was eat a quick, unremarkable breakfast at dawn and get into a vehicle. There were several jeeps and land rovers in the big reserve telling each other through handheld radios where the animals were. But really how hard could it be the find an elephant, or a giraffe? They’re huge!
It was so cold and dark. But quickly the sun rose and the dusty landscape emerged. We were a small group of 6 zipping around the wildlife reserve on bumpy dirt roads. At each herd or single animal we stopped to take a picture or just overuse the word "awesome." First up were zebras, including some young ones. The precise black and white lines on the smooth flanks were stunning. They looked rather bored, but elegant and dignified, while they munched on the sparse vegetation. They had zero interest in us.
And wildebeests. We saw so many wildebeests that they became as ordinary as herds of their distant relatives, cows. Ho hum, more wildebeests.
A family of extremely ugly and hilarious little warthogs ran by. The ranger said, "Yum barbequed pork." Not in the reserve but these little guys were plentiful in the countryside and a favorite treat of the locals. Warthogs have little tusks and they are fat and do indeed have warty little bodies.
A crackling message over the radio and we sped off to sit a few feet from a pride of lions. They were calmly basking in the sunshine with very full bellies. The biggest lion had a blood smear on his cheek. We sat spellbound for a long time. I was barely aware of the other jeeps quietly coming up to form a circle. I was not afraid but I was definitely not getting out to pet the kitty. .
Back at our little hut we moved onto the enclosed porch overlooking a water hole. At one end were several elephants playing in the water and splashing each other. Elephants are very noisy. Herds of zebras and wildebeests came to drink their fill and left. Each group drank and departed. Finally as the sun was setting and all the animals seemed finished a straggly line of baboons emerged. They went quickly to the waterhole and slurped up their fill. They looked nervously over their shoulders and hightailed it out of there fast. Poor little baboons. Nobody likes them. Neither other animals nor humans. Later in my trip a baboon looked wistfully at my banana but I was warned not to feed him. They’re viewed as pests.
The next day we were already jaded by zebras and wildebeests and then we saw giraffes. They were so tall that they had to "crouch" to reach the juicy green treetops." Awesome" again. They move along like rocking horses. Now when I visit a zoo and I see the giraffes I weep for them confined in their cages.
We spent hours tracking rare wild dogs. We learned to recognize their footprints but we never saw the elusive, extremely shy creatures. We were sated with animal sightings and on our way back to our little cabins when the range stood up on his brake we all fell forward. What could it be? He was really excited. He pointed to the road where a huge black mamba snake was stretched out trying to catch he last warmth of the day. "Well, he said, "You are so lucky. It’s very late in the season to see a black mamba." Then he casually mentioned that the venom is so powerful that it takes about 20 minutes for an average size human to die. Yikes! The snake left to go home and so did we. On the way he told us a story. The rangers also lived in little cabins. One night he came back to his cabin and noticed his soap and toothpaste were on the floor and the bathroom was a mess. And coiled up beside the sink was a black mamba. So he said, "I really like snakes but even I had to get an expert to remove that one." Didn’t sleep at all well that night.
The rides at dusk included a pause in the bush for wonderful South African wine and treats on the hood of the jeep. On our last night there was an enormous banquet in a clearing in the bush. It felt unsafe with lots of animal sounds, not a soundtrack but real bush animals just chatting away. They had rigged up a curtained area to serve as an outhouse but I think everyone managed to hold it.
For a passionate animal person Tau was perfect.