We left the camp a few minutes before sunrise each day, but when the sun came up, it came up quickly. There weren't many mountains or tall buildings to defuse the light, so it was bold and bright at 06h45 - really energizing. There was a bit of a chill in the air for the first 20 minutes or so each day, but that quickly disappeared making it a beautiful morning.
We had two staffers with us at all time, one driver (Mufuso) and one spotter (I forget his name) who rode on the hood of the vehicle. We also had a high caliber rifle with us for protection. I'm assuming it was for protection from animals, but the guards at the lodge entrances had large rifles as well as a several back up weapons. My impression was that these guys were employed to keep non-guests out of the game reserve. Interestingly enough, I never felt unsafe in the camp -- it was so hard to find the camp from the road I wasn't concerned that marauders would come in and try to rob/murder us at all. Thank god for the small things in life, eh?
The morning drives we'd often see elephants pretty close to the lodge. I was so surprised to see them walking through the trees. We could hear them only when we got right up on them. They would either stand in the road for a little bit, staring at us, then cross to the other side into the thick brush and trees -- once we get up to where they elephants had crossed, we were SHOCKED that we could see little evidence that they had crossed just moments ago. Yes the grass was trampled, but within 30 seconds it was starting to lift again and the elephants were no where in sight. This of course made me think of the first European explorers walking through the African Plains and they stumble upon these huge creatures -- seemingly out of nowhere. I can't imagine the terror of being nearly surrounded by a dozen multi-ton creatures.
On one drive we were came across a hyena (or as our guides called them a hee-na). It (he/she?) was traveling alone down the dirt road we were on. She wasn't very pleased that we were following her, but didn't even attempt to move off of the road, so we followed her, taking pictures and waiting for her to laugh...she didn't think it was funny at all though. Our guides said that hyena droppings are often white because of all the bone they eat and the calcium turns it white. That's a fascinating little fact that I haven't checked, but will assume it's accurate. We did see some white poop out and about. I think I'll stay in the vehicle and away from the bone eating fiend outside (remember that episode of Law and Order SVU where they fed that guy to a hyena...ugh).
More than 75% of the time out on the drives we were looking at some animal -- perhaps it was a bird or another (real) animal. I'll discuss the birders in a future post. I was glad we weren't just driving around aimlessly looking for these creatures. When we came across the biggest herd of water buffalo we managed to make our way right into the center of their herd. We were surrounded by about 300 animals, some of whom didn't care we were there, while others stopped everything they were doing and just stared at us...SMILE.
The end of the first night drive (it was completely dark when we started to head back to camp) I saw a white tail of some cat like creature in front of us crossing the road. I was excited. Was it a leopard? A cheetah? A chupacabra? No, it was a civet. I had no idea what this was either. So I asked our fellow campers, who all knew what it was. I asked if it was like a cheetah or a leopard -- you know a cat like creature, which is what it looked like. They said no, it's a civet. I asked if it was like a wild dog. No, it's a civet. Hmmm, Urban Tim is starting to run out of small four legged creatures to describe this animal. Was it a HUGE rat? NO! It's a civet. So obviously I wasn't getting anywhere with this description...so I made a note in my little book to look this up next time I found a wifi connection. Basically, it looks like a long cat. That's all -- much easier if you just said "It's like a small, long wild cat. Describing the animal by using it's name repeatedly doesn't help me understand -- AND these people were all South African...so it's not like we had a language barrier to overcome.
The final night our game drive was actually a game float -- we took a rickety boat down the swollen Zambezi river. Evidently the river is as high as it has been in 20+ years. The boat looked like a small party boat that you see on the lakes in Wisconsin or Michigan. It was buoyed up by several of those blue 55 gallon plastic barrels (you know, the kind that Drew Peterson allegedly put his most recent wife in after her allegedly murdered her). The captain was well trained and Mufuso joined us on the ride. The safety talk was uninspired -- we have life jackets, but if you fall overboard, you will float away very fast and something will probably eat you before we can get to you. Let's assume that was only 5% true and 95% for dramatic effect. I do not like that one damn bit. Our goal for the boat ride was to find a hippo. Did you know that hippos are the deadliest creatures in Africa? They kill more humans than any other animal out there (well, humans are probably the most dangerous animal out there, but that's another story). We went up river, watched some birds, some baboons (ARGH! A BABOON!), found a crocodile who had spent 2 days eating a dead and bloated cow (see picture). This was one of the most fascinating things on the game drives. In the picture you'll see a baboon in the tree in the upper right potion of the picture and the crocodile in the lower left. Just to the left (not pictured) are about a dozen baboons walking towards the tree bound baboon. The baboon in the tree lets out a loud yell -- all the walking baboons stand up, look immediately to the water and the crocodile and turn the other way. I am not sure what the look out said, but I'm sure it was something like "Hey! Watch out, you're going to get eaten by a crocodile! Dumbass!" They might not speak in full sentences, but the communicate more clearing that people at the Post Office (see a future post on my Hong Kong shirt delivery issues).
One morning after a game drive, we came back for breakfast and found some visitors at our breakfast area. A family of 4 warthogs. They weren't really bothering us - just rooting around some some food, and sniffing at us. They got so close I could touch them -- I didn't, of course, but I could have if I were totally insane). They aren't pretty creatures, but I found it fascinating that their knees hinged such that they could kneel down and eat off the ground -- and scoot their nose along too. So interesting. The most awkward moment of the trip was when I ordered my double plate of bacon and the warthog came up about a half a meter from me and started sniffing away. Was I eating his sister? If so, she was damn tasty! The host then shot a rock from a sling shot near the hog and she wandered off. No harm, no foul.