A dear friend of Joan Larsen takes us with her into the wilderness of Botswana, and the results are spectacular.
By Alice Friedemann
We flew to Maun, in northern Botswana, and were whisked off to a luxurious lodge with hundreds of fenced-off acres full of wildlife that doesn’t eat people.
Jeffery and I set out to look for them. We saw some very exotic birds, but no animals, and then the green trail stakes went off in two directions. My instincts were to go a different way than Jeffery, so we split up, which did not make Jeffery happy.
The further I went, the more exotic birds I saw, and then there were animals everywhere — zebras, vervet monkeys, giraffes. So I knew I must be lost, since the animals clearly avoided the trails, and were startled to see me.
I always have a flutter of panic when I know I’m lost, but I had water, and the space was fenced. What worried me more was Jeffery finding out I was lost, which would triple the stern looks I’d already gotten for splitting away. Or horrors, he might send out a search and rescue party – how embarrassing. At worst I’d hit one of the fences and could walk along it until I ran into the lodge. I kicked myself for not having noted where the sun was in the sky so I could figure out the general direction of the lodge, and marked the junction we took off from, because the green trail could become an infinite loop if you didn’t know where to exit. Anyhow, I got back rather quickly to the lodge by retracing the green poles. Later at dinner, the couple next to me told me they’d gotten lost in just the way I had, and were even more afraid than I was since they got lost close to sunset.
But after that, I didn’t have to worry about getting lost – you can’t walk in Botswana, it would be suicidal.
Even at camp, we had a limited range between the dining tent and our tents to roam in.
After dark, we gathered around the fire, because if you’re by yourself at night, even sitting just in front of your tent, a hyena might be tempted to drag you away.
Not being able to walk was driving me nuts, so I was delighted when we got to go on two walks at Xugana Lodge. On the second walk, the guide miraculously found a lion lying in the grass – I say miraculous because the rest of us had a hard time seeing the lion because it was so camouflaged in the two-foot-tall dry grass. You could just make out the shape of her ears, but when the lion lay down, she disappeared. You could easily stumble on a lion walking around, which is how they hunt – they hope for prey to come within 20 meters, beyond that is too far for them to catch anything. Even though they’d just as soon avoid a person in the day, they might pounce before they had a chance to think about it if you got too close.
After that I was happier about remaining in the vehicle, and even worried we were putting our guide Stanley at risk every time he got out to see if it was safe when we took breaks.
Stanley was always peering out the window at the road. I thought he was seeing what the road conditions were, since driving was crazy – deep sand, rivers of unknown depths, and vehicle destroying potholes, but what he was doing was studying animal tracks.
He grew up as a boy herding his family’s unbranded cattle; if one wandered off he had to find it by knowing each individual animal’s footprints and following the most recent ones. He tried to show us how you could tell how old a footprint was when we came upon a huge elephant footprint with bird tracks on top –so the print couldn’t be too recent. I am in awe of being able to read tracks, I’ve tried to find my own unique running shoe footprints when returning on a trail and it’s hard since other footprints overlay them, or the ground doesn’t leave prints.
His skill led us to 11 African wild dogs. There are only 6,000 left in all of Africa, 300 of them in Botswana, so I hadn’t expected to see any.
Their razor sharp teeth take some of the cuteness away, but still, they look like potential pets, and you just want to grab a puppy and snuggle with it, they were adorable. I’ve always been fascinated by wolves, and in many ways these wild dogs are similar – an alpha male and female are the only adults to breed, and the rest of the pack helps out. But unlike wolves, the puppies have first dibs on the kills, are far more cooperative, way more lovey-dovey — lying together or nearby, are seldom alone, and rarely fight. On E. O. Wilson’s scale of eusociality, wild dogs are nearly there.
NEXT WEDNESDAY: PART 2 of Alice Friedemann’s On Safari in Botswana, Crown Jewel of Wildlife Conservation
After 25 years, Alice Friedemann managed to escape her day job as a systems engineer and architect. When she’s not traveling, throwing dinner parties, reading non-fiction, baking, volunteering to take 4th and 5th graders on hikes at Audubon Canyon Ranch, gardening, or walking, she’s in the back yard with her husband Jeffery listening to the birds and breezes, watching redwoods sway, and enjoying the cats, squirrels, scrub jays, skunks and other wildlife that roam our back yard. She’s been baking with whole grains for ten years, and spent the past three years making many batches of chips and crackers, which resulted in her cookbook “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers.”