Duma Tau, Botswana
Mom and I met up with my sister-in-law, Michele, at the Jo’berg airport for our trip to Botswana. (We had been placing bets on whether Michele would make it. Michele is the Lucille Ball of our family. One time when she was at a very fancy restaurant on business she pulled out what she thought was her lip liner. After some very awkward stares from her clients she pulled out a mirror to discover she had outlined her lips with black eye liner. Another time Michele was in a rush to get to the golf course, grabbed what she thought was her cell phone, raced to the course and reached the first tee only to discover she had grabbed her remote control. I could go on and on with Michele stories, but suffice is to say it was 50-50 whether Michele would find her way to Jo’berg. Fortunately, she did.)
We boarded the flight to Maun, Botswana, made a brief stop in Gabarone to take on supplies, and landed in Maun, on time, at noon. Our bush pilot, Phil, met us and 8 others for our quick 40 minutes trip on the Sefofane bush plane to the Linyanti Reserve within Chobe National Park. The Linyanti Reserve is in the northeast part of Bostwana surrounded by marshes and plains. The area is known for its elephant herds, but also has lion, hyaena, giraffe, hippo and a myriad of deer species like red lechwe, kudu and of course impala.
We made one stop to drop two folks off at a camp in Sauvuti (landing and taking off on a dirt runway) before landing on yet another dirt runway for our jeep trip through the marshlands to Duma Tau Camp. After one thirty minute, very bumpy, windy ride over sand roads we reached the beautiful 10 room Duma Tau Camp. We were greeted by the staff (as well as an elephant munching on trees near the lodge, shown our two rooms (Mom and I had a lovely tented cabin overlooking the delta waterway that fronts the camp), fed and were ready for action within 30 minutes of our arrival.
Our guide, Bobby, had us loaded in the jeep and off and running by 4 p.m. In our jeep were me, Michele, mom and two camera nuts, David and Janet, from California (this was their 14th trip to Africa). The jeep consists of graduated seating with the driver seat in front that is the lowest, then a row of three seats, a middle row of three seats that is slightly higher and the back row of three seats that sits highest. I decided I would take the back row (since it allowed me to move between three seats to watch the wildlife) despite the fact that the back row is the bumpiest ride in the jeep. (I figured my middle would get a good workout over the next 8 days, and was I ever right.)
Anyway, the area around the camp that we were going to be riding through was covered with bare trees (it is still early spring in Botswana so the trees have not yet bloomed), rolling grassy hills, marshlands, water channels, and large leaf covered trees. The area was perfect for lots of game viewing. We would be on game drives from 6:00 to 11:00 a.m. and 4 to 7:30 p.m. each day with an early breakfast at 5:30 a.m., brunch at 11:00 a.m., afternoon tea at 3:30 p.m., cocktails at 7:30 p.m. and dinner at 8:00 p.m. Fabulous!
We drove along a very rough, sandy road over and around trees before reaching the grassy plain adjacent to the delta and the Sauvuti channel (a water way that runs through the area). We soon spotted a large breeding herd of elephants with babies in tow. We spent a few minutes snapping photos and watching the giant animals graze. While we were watching the elephants, we spotted a lilac breasted roller, a magnificent multi-colored bird. We saw some wart hogs and more impala than we could count. (Impala are fast food for the desperate in the wilds aka “MacDonalds”.)
We also saw some of my favorite deer species in Africa, the kudu (the male have magnificent curly horns). Then Bobby spoke the magic words… leopard. Uh are you kidding me? (Leopards are the most difficult of the “Big 5” animals in Africa to spot. People can come to African multiple times and never get to see a single leopard.) Bobby told us that the leopard had been spotted in a tree that morning, and we were heading in that direction.
I was on the edge of my seat. (Mom and Michele were excited as well, but I don’t think they completely realized that this was a VERY rare opportunity. I, on the other hand, spent 15 days in Africa prior to this trip and the closest we got to a leopard was a single paw print in the mud.) Bobby slowed the jeep as we moved toward a cluster of trees. We bobbed and weaved around tree branches and spindly trees and then there it was … the elusive leopard. My hands were literally shaking as I grabbed my camera to snap some photos of the leopard lazing on the branch of a tree. It was so friggin’ beautiful I could barely breath.
We spent about twenty minutes snapping pictures and staring at one of the most amazing animals on earth. Then Bobby got a call on the radio that wild dogs had been spotted across the river. Holy shit! Leopards and wild dogs in one afternoon on our first day in Botswana! (Wild dogs are on the endangered species list, and at last count there were only 600 in all of Botswana.) Bobby told us we had to go, and we could come back to see the leopard again since it appeared to be settled in for a while. So Bobby backed the jeep out of the tree grove and off we raced over the bumpy, sandy path and down to the water.
We immediately spotted another jeep across the waterway and Bobby steered the jeep in the direction of log bridge. As we crossed the very creeky bridge, the wild dogs came into view. There was a whole pack of them. As we reached the other side of the waterway, the dogs wandered in front of our jeep. Then, they trotted down along by the river channel and disappeared from view. We looked up over the hill and saw some of the pups in the pack wandering down the sandy road. Apparently the pups are left behind when the wild dogs begin to hunt. We watched the pups for a bit until Bobby tried to start the jeep, but no luck. We waited as Bobby turned the key repeatedly until finally, the engine started. We all began to give Bobby a hard time about getting the “runt” jeep of the litter, but he assured us the jeep was fine.
Once Bobby got the jeep started we raced after the dogs. We caught up with them just as we saw impala take off across the delta with the dogs not far behind. The dogs, however, will not cross the the water because of the crocodile danger. As we watched the impala we saw one struggling in the water and limp to shore. (We later learned that it appeared to have 2 broken legs. Our guide was not sure if it was from the dogs, from running or from a crocodile.)
The dogs in the meantime came racing (and I mean racing) along the water embankment past us all the while watching the impala on the other side. It was fascinating. Eventually, the dogs gave up and wandered down along the channel. We followed the dogs for a bit and encountered a hyena lying under the log bridge we had crossed, hoping to steal any kill that the dogs made. As Bobby angled the jeep for a better view, Michele spotted a giraffe. Michele wanted Bobby to move the jeep over to see the giraffe, but he assured Michele we would see more. Instead, we were going to cross the log bridge and go back to see the leopard.
The sun was just beginning to set as we reached the cluster of trees … and there it was again. The leopard still lazing in the tree. We watched for a while and then Bobby advised us it was time for a “Sun Downer”, which is the traditional later afternoon drink on safaris as the sun is setting. So there we were in the middle of the grove of trees, watching the leopard and drinking. (Michelle wanted champagne so a bottle had been included in the cooler and we all had a drink of the champagne toasting the leopard.)
We spent another half hour or so watching the leopard until we could hardly see it in the tree. Then… it got up and began to climb to a higher branch. As we watched, the leopard revealed the secret for staying put all day. The leopard’s kill was in the tree with the leopard: a baboon lying dead on the branches above the leopard. We all watched in fascination as the leopard began to chomp on its kill. Little bits of dead baboon fell as we watched and listened to the leopard chew and chomp on the carcass of the baboon. (Sorry if this graphic description offends you, but this is exactly what we saw.)
It finally became too dark to see, so Bobby tried to start the jeep and no luck. Uh oh. Not again. After a few minutes Bobby got the vehicle running, backed the jeep out of the tree grove and we headed in the direction of camp. Again, we gave Bobby a hard time about the jeep. (This would be a continuing theme). As we drove, Bobby switched on the red spotlight and we watched for the eyes of animals as Bobby drove. We did not spot any other animals and arrived back at camp around 7:30 p.m. It had been an absolutely incredible start to our safari with both a leopard and wild dogs being spotted.
We cleaned up, (Michele apparently encountered a large spider in her cabin AND a scorpion in her shower), met up with the other guests in the bar for a drink and were seated for dinner at 8. After a traditional welcome song with African singing (and our guide Bobby singing baritone), we ate dinner consisting of lentil soup, salad, pork chops, mashed potatoes and veggies. (As luck would have it, I was seated next to two attorneys from Seattle, one of whom was a former bankruptcy attorney at Graham & Dunn whom I had met before. Unbelievable!)
By 9:30 p.m., it was time for bed since we would be awakened at 5:00 a.m. for our morning game drive. So we were escorted to our cabin (since wild animals prowl around the camps), and as we walked we were all looking up at the beautiful sky and moon. Michele then came up with the line of the night… “Is that the same moon we see only in reverse?” Classic Michele line! Once at the cabins, we cleaned up and crawled between the mosquito netting into our beds. As I dozed off to sleep, I could hear the hypos making their low pitched bleating noise. It was real “Out of Africa” moment as I drifted off to sleep. Then just as quickly, I was awakened by our guide, Bobby, outside our door telling us it was 5:00 a.m. and time to get up.
After throwing on some clothes and downing a very light breakfast, we were in the jeep by 6:00 a.m. and off and running again. The sun was just rising in the sky as we bounced along the sand path. It was a fire red this morning and absolutely gorgeous against the pale morning sky. It was going to be a very hot day as the air was already warm in the early light.
We started the morning watching a myriad of birds, including the lilac breasted roller, which we saw the day before and is such an incredibly beautiful bird. Then hippos appeared to be the order of the day as we spotted a number of the dangerous creatures floating about in the water. (Hippos kill more humans in Africa than any other species). When Bobby went to start the jeep, the engine would not turn over. Uh this problem needs to get fixed Bobby! Finally, the engine started and we drove on, encountering numerous families of baboons wandering around as well as impalas grazing on a termite hill. (Termite hills are everywhere in Africa and its a wonder any tree is still standing given the proliferation of the little pests.) We then paused to watch Egyptian geese and a water eagle as well as a number of southern ground horned bill birds.
As we drove through the bush, we spotted zebras in the distance (which thrilled both Mom and Michele who had been dying to see the stripped relative of the horse). As we approached the zebra we encountered another jeep from Selinda, the sister camp to Duma Tau. Bobby stopped the jeep and greeted a friend of his, Letz, who was the guide in the vehicle. After some good natured teasing, Bobby went to start the jeep and … no go. We sat there for about 10 minutes as Bobby tried to get the jeep moving while Letz laughed. (Poor Bobby. All he could do was mutter “how embarrassing.”) Finally, the jeep turned over and we were off towards the zebra. Bobby got to the spot, turned off the engine, and we watched the zebra. As we sat and watched, a call came in over the two way radio that lions had been spotted. Fabulous!
One thing about these guides, they are bloody amazing in their ability to spot wildlife. They can literally see animals off in the horizon and identify the animal. You pull out your binoculars and sure enough … they’ve spotted exactly what they said it was. They can also see animals in the tall grass and brush even through the animals blend into the environment. The other remarkable thing about the guides is their ability to track animals. They watch the ground for tracks and can tell the difference if they are old or new tracks in the sand and dirt based on the amount of deterioration. What I found really remarkable is that they can tell the difference between tracks made in the morning and tracks made in the evening. They also use other signs for tracking like warning calls from animals, birds circling overhead, the movement of herds and animal feces. It is an absolute science in tracking animals and guides are remarkable in their abilities.
Anyway, after the call about the lions, Bobby started the jeep (to applause) and we headed off to see if the lions were still there. We drove along the waterway and up over a small hill and then suddenly there they were … the kings of the jungle. Two small male lions and their mother. They were lazing on the side of the hill in the sun. It was thrilling and amazing. We sat and watched as the two younger lions woke up and momma continued to laze in the sun. After a few yawns from the boys, they were back lying on the ground (with one of them rolling on his back legs splayed like a house cat…. hysterical).
As we prepared to leave, momma woke up, stretched, yawned and I immediately snapped the best picture I think I have ever taken. Mouth wide open. It was awesome. Bobby started the jeep (which actually did start) and we were off heading back towards the camp. As we drove, Bobby received a report that another leopard with kill had been spotted across the river. It was too late to head over to the area as it was about a half hour away, but we would pass the spot from our side of the river and could take a look and then go visit later in the day. (If the leopard was with a kill, it would be eating for a couple days.)
We drove along and spotted a jenny of giraffe, which thrilled Michele, so Bobby stopped the jeep so we could watch the long legged creatures. After ten or so minutes we moved on and as we rounded the bend, we ran into a breading herd of elephants. (Watching elephants NEVER gets old. They are always up to something.) We finally moved on and reached the spot across the river from the leopard. Bobby stopped the jeep so that we could try to see the leopard through binoculars. We all took a look, but it appeared that the leopard was in the brush with its kill. Another jeep from our camp was at the site and all of the folks appeared to be looking in the bush. So much for that.
As we looked around, we noticed a single red lechwe (a member of the deer family) standing in the middle of of a small strip of land in the middle of the delta looking rather forlorn. We all speculated that the leopard kill may have been its partner. As we watched the red lechwe, something spooked it and it took off with great leaps through the water and back onto dry land. We all stared with our mouths open. It was just like something out of Animal Planet. Stunning.
Then Bobby tried to start the jeep and … nothing. And this time it was really nothing. The jeep wouldn’t start at all. Bobby got out and opened the hood. Played with the wires. Played with the starter. Still nothing. Then after 20 minutes he took a fuse from the headlight and put it in the starter and … presto! Engine started. We all clapped and then ripped Bobby about the jeep. “Get a new jeep Bobby.” “Get this fixed Bobby.” “Nice jeep Bobby.” Bobby assured us the problem was fixed, but he would check it out before we went out for our afternoon safari.
As we arrived back in camp, we were greeted by a large number of baboons and an elephant wandering around. You gotta love these Wilderness Camps. After lunch, we went back to our cabin and rested. The cabins are wood framed, canvas enclosed buildings with mesh screens for windows. As a result, you have an open view to the wild life passing outside your cabin. As I sat and relaxed, an elephant decided to walk through the area outside my cabin, followed by impala, kudu and baboons. It was surreal to lie on my bed and watch the wild life pass by. I then decided to take a shower in our outdoor shower – a wooden partition area on our deck that is open at the front to nature. What a riot to stand naked on my outdoor deck showering in front of elephants. (Sorry if this is too much information, but those of you who know me well know that I have participated in the “Naked Picture” on all three of the Barenaked Ladies rock cruises so I have a pretty liberal view about “nakedness”….)
Anyway, after my shower and rest, we met for afternoon tea (usually consisting of drinks and appetizers and no tea) before getting back in the jeep at 4:00. As we climbed in, Bobby told us that we would be heading over to see the leopard and also to check on the wild dogs, which had been spotted in the area. Bobby steered the jeep in the direction of the log bridge (pausing in the area of the first leopard sighting from the day before to see if the leopard was still around – it wasn’t). We passed by more impala and red lechwe, as well as a few baboons, before encountering a single juvenile male elephant to the right side of the jeep. (These male “teenagers” are the most dangerous elephants because they have no fear.) Bobby stopped the jeep as the elephant made some threatening lunges at us and flapped its ears. Then the elephant walked in front of the jeep and again flapped its ears and shook its head. Finally, it moved to the left, paused, shook its head and let out a huge trumpet. Oh my God! It was freakin’ fantastic! (Mom was slightly petrified that the elephant was going to charge the jeep, but even she had to admit it was a pretty amazing moment!)
Bobby started the jeep and we moved on. We finally reached the creaky log bridge, which gives me heartburn ever time we cross it. I have visions of being a byline in the newspaper… “TOURISTS KILLED IN BOTSWANA. Today a safari jeep from Duma Tau wilderness camp with 6 aboard, including a guide, a husband and wife from California and a mother, daughter and daughter in law from Canada, fell into delta after the log bridge they were riding on collapsed. Rescue efforts were unsuccessful as the area of the collapse is filled with crocodiles…”. Ugh!
Anyway, we crossed the bridge successfully and headed off towards the kill area. The afternoon air was thick with smoke as there were forest fires in the area. It was brutal on the eyes. As as we sped along, we encountered a herd of elephants and Bobby charged through … which actually scared the hell out of all of us as they scattered and lunged at us. We finally spotted the wild dogs and they were on the move. This meant it was hunting time. We followed the dogs briefly before they took up residence along the delta embankment. Bobby started the jeep and rounded a bend, catching up with another jeep for Duma Tau and then …. there it was … another leopard. This time, the leopard was in full view lying on the ground in the late afternoon sun. We all stared at the beautiful creature and snapped away. As we watched, Bobby shifted his position and accidentally laid on the car horn. The leopard immediately lifted its head and sat up. Uh oh. It stared at us as we were all suppressing giggles. Bobby felt horrible, but it was a “no harm horn” as the leopard relaxed after a couple minutes and laid down again.
The other jeep moved on and Bobby advised us that we would stay here with the leopard for while to see if it would move towards it kill. While we waited, Bobby angled the jeep (which fortunately appeared to have the starting problem solved) around a large bush so that we could see the leopard’s kill. The dead red lechwe was missing its stomach and was lying just outside the underbrush of the bush. We were all surprised since it was not hidden like we had expected it would be. This meant that it would make it easier for scavengers like hyenas and vultures to steal the kill.
We circled back and watched the leopard doze. Then a vulture circled overhead and the leopard was on high alert. Bobby told us that the leopard had spent the better part of the morning chasing the vultures away. Bobby kept assuring us that we had to be patient and after about an hour of watching the leopard laze around in the setting sun it got up (coincidentally as I was taking a picture of Michele with the leopard in the background). We all held our breath as the leopard came within a couple feet of our jeep and wandered past us towards the kill. Once the leopard disappeared into the underbrush near the kill, Bobby lept into action, started the jeep and repositioned us by the kill. Minutes later the leopard emerged and immediately attacked his dinner. It was fascinating to watch his powerful jaws tear into the hind quarter of the red lechwe and it gave all of us a better appreciation of the strength of this beautiful predator.
No more than ten minutes into dinner, the leopard was suddenly spooked. It looked up, jumped into the brush and immediately took off to our right and climbed a tree. It had been been an amazing afternoon. We headed back to camp as dusk began to set in. As we drove, we passed two hyenas on the move. Bobby speculated that they may be heading towards the leopard kill. As dusk turned to darkness, it was time for the red spotlight, but when Bobby tried to turn it on … it wouldn’t work. We all burst out laughing.
Once back at camp it was an early night. We were all tired from the early morning wake-up call and the exhilarating day. The camp was still surrounded by baboons, so we stepped over branches and baboon dung as we walked back to our cabins. You gotta love nature!
We were up again at 5:00 a.m. on Friday and got ready for our last drive at Duma Tau camp. It had been a wonderful experience so far, but what was in store for us on Friday morning came pretty close to surpassing anything we had experienced to date.
As we met up with Bobby, Michele was asking everyone if they had heard the high pitched screaming in the night. No one else heard it, but Michele was so shook that she did not sleep all night and kept hold of her emergency air horn. She said she thought whatever animal was screaming was coming into her room. (Michele speculated that it was a Sasquatch… classic Michele, but others thought it may have been a leopard or a baboon. Michele later confirmed it was probably a baboon and not a Sasquatch since we heard similar sounds later in the safari. I was feeling bad for Michele because she seemed to be taking the brunt of the downside of safaris what with the spider, scorpion and the Sasquatch outside her room!)
Anyway, as we walked to the jeep, we had to step over the mess of leaves, branches and poop left by the baboons that had remained in residence at the camp overnight. Bobby informed us we would be going back across the bridge to check on the leopard and then heading over to see the lions as they had been spotted on the move (meaning maybe a kill). We jumped in the jeep and tore off down the now familiar sandy, bumpy path. We reached the log bridge, got across successfully once again, and drove about 20 minutes to the kill sight. Not a scrap left. And I really mean nothing. No bones, no antlers, no fur. Nothing! Bobby advised us that the hyenas and vultures would have picked the area clean. Ah mother nature!
As Bobby started the jeep, with the intention of heading over to where the lions had been spotted the day before, a call came in that two leopards had been spotted in the area. Leopards are so rare that they take priority so off we raced! We paralleled the canal and the jeep came close to horizontal a couple times as we bounced along the canal embankment. (I was keeping a wary eye out for crocs.) We reached the area of the first leopard siting and heard over the two way radio that the juvenile leopard accompanying the adult had taken off into the bush so there was only one leopard… or so we thought. Suddenly, Bobby pointed to a second leopard prowling around. It walked very close the first leopard (both were females), which let out an angry growl (another classic animal sound). We all jumped. It appeared the two were going to fight. (Bobby told us that the first female was the dominant female in the area and would defend her territory.) The second female, however, apparently was not up for a fight and backed down. She wandered down by the canal and disappeared. One of the jeeps from a sister camp was going to take up the chase and we would stay and watch the first female.
We watched the first female leopard as she stayed on high alert. Then came word over the radio that the second female leopard had climbed a tree. Bobby suggested we go take a look and then come back to watch the first female. We took off through the bush and 5 minutes later we were staring at the second female resting on a low hanging branch of a tree. It was beautiful. We stayed for a while and just watched the leopard. (And why wouldn’t you… this is what we came to see.)
Finally Bobby said we should go back to see if the first female was still lying in the grove of trees. We drove back to the area and there she was. However, just as we pulled up, she got up and walked so close to our jeep I could have leaned over and touched her. It was a huge adrenaline rush as this magnificent cat came within a couple feet. We watched as she moved to a bush and began to mark her territory. Bobby said she was doing this as a warning sign to the second leopard to stay the hell away from the area.
By now, it was mid morning and we had to start back for camp. We crossed the rickety log bridge for the last time (yay!) and paralleled the canal. As Bobby drove, we encountered a herd of kudu and impala. We wound back through the bush and saw some male kudu hanging out in the brush. (Young male deer species form bachelor packs to protect themselves … safer in numbers … after the dominant males of a herd push them out.) We stopped to watch them for a bit and then continued through the heavy bush and underbrush. We came out into a clearing and began to parallel the waterway again when all of sudden all of us let out a yell… in front of us was a huge male leopard. I could not believe what I was seeing! Three leopards in one day! Are you kidding me?!
Bobby told us that this leopard was the dominant male in the area, and it had been named Duma Tau. We watched as this huge cat wandered past our jeep and towards a thicket of trees. As the leopard moved, we could hear a crashing noise. Bobby told us that it was the impala banging their horns against the trees to warn each other of danger. Bobby backed the jeep up and we followed the leopard past the heard of impala (who were by now in panic mode banging their horns and spitting) and to a large tree. We watched as the leopard effortlessly climbed the tree, found a large branch and made himself at home. It was an awesome, awesome moment.
By now we were really pushing it to get back in time for the 11:30 flight the other two folks in our jeep had to make, so Bobby put the jeep in high gear and headed back to camp. We passed a large herd of wildebeest and impala, before pulling into the camp. The drive to the air strip was about 30 minutes, so David and Janet had to hustle. Fortunately, our flight was not until 12:30 so we had some spare time.
We packed our bags, said our good byes to our fellow campers, thanked the awesome staff at Duma Tau and jumped in the jeep with Bobby for one last time for the 30 minute drive to the air strip. As we drove, Bobby told us that he had never seen 3 leopards in one day. It had been an incredible start to the safari with an incredible guide.