Little Vumbura, Botswana
After the short 2 minute ride to the airstrip from Duba Plains, me, mom and Michele sat in the jeep and watched our helicopter come into view. It landed a few hundred feet from us and we watched as our pilot, a woman named Annie, open the doors and motion for us to come over. I could hardly contain myself. Mom was actually quite excited too, although Michele was approaching it with a little more trepidation. Annie asked if anyone wanted to sit in the co-pilot seat and we motioned for Michele to sit up front. Mom and I climbed in the back and donned ear protectors and got ready for takeoff. Then suddenly, we were lifting off ever so gently and heading forward. Annie flew quite low so we could see the beautiful Okavango Delta and the wildlife below (we spotted elephants and giraffe). The flight was absolutely magnificent, but at 10 minutes, way, way, way too short.
As the helicopter landed and we piled out, we were like excited schoolkids on a snow day. All three of us started talking at the same time about what an amazing flight it had been. We all agreed we could have flown around for a couple hours just staring at the beautiful scenery below.
We finally stopped talking long enough to greet the fellow from Little Vumbura who would be taking us to the camp. Little Vumbura is on an island so the only way to access the camp is by a boat. We were lead to the dock and jumped in the aluminum framed boat that looked something like an airboat (without the big fan engine). Our bags were loaded on the boat and minutes later we were speeding through the papyrus and reeds to the camp about 3 minutes away. Uh can we circle around and just keep riding in the boat? It was very hot and the breeze felt wonderful.
The boat slowed as we approached the camp’s dock and there was a welcoming party of women at the dock singing. WOW! Talk about making a first impression. We were given a quick tour of the very small property (only 6 cabins) and were told that we had the option of having all three of us stay in the family cabin (2 large rooms, 2 bathrooms and a sitting area) or having the family cabin and the honeymoon cabin. We opted for the latter with Michele in the honeymoon cabin and me and mom in the family cabin. The camp hours were, again, slightly different than the past two camps. Wakeup was at 5:30 a.m. (we were very excited about the extra 1/2 hour sleep), breakfast at 6:00 a.m. and morning game drives from 6:30 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. We would take the boat to the shore for each game drive. (Most excellent!) In the afternoon, tea (or the cocktail hour) was at 3:30 p.m., afternoon game drives from 4:30 to 7:00ish and dinner at 8:00 p.m.
So we headed to our cabins to clean up and saw a herd of elephants grazing near Michele’s cabin at the end of the row. Cool … or maybe not. We got settled and cleaned up, and then I went to sit on the deck to watch the elephants and try to cool off. (It was actually cooler outside than in our cabin.) As I watched the elephants munch on the grass and trees, the herd (which was huge) began to move closer to the cabins. After about an hour, the herd was all around cabins 5 and 6 (Michele’s cabin) and heading to our cabin (number 4). The longer I watched, the more I wanted to stay outside, but at each of the camps we had been given strict instructions to stay indoors if the animals are near.
Finally, I figured I better head inside as the herd (including some very young babies) had moved to the other side of our cabin. No more than ten minutes after I opened the screen to head inside, one of the giant bull elephants lumbered right in front of the deck and began grazing beside my shower. Soon a half dozen more took up residence near mom’s shower on the other side of the cabin. We looked out the mesh windows on the front side and saw elephants everywhere. Yikes! Not only was this a little unnerving, but the elephants were screwing with the cocktail hour as 3:30 came and went. We were stranded in our cabins!
Soon, however, we heard banging and shouting and watched the guides as they tried to scare the elephants out of the camp. One guide in front of our cabin was throwing sticks against the trees near the elephants in an effort to get them to move out. It was interesting to say the least.
The large bull elephant (who had been walking near my shower and around to the front of our cabin) was particularly stubborn. He did not want to move, but after a joint effort amongst the guides of banging the walkway, shouting and throwing sticks at the trees near the elephant, he shook his trunk, let out a bellow and began to move out. Finally, we got the all clear sign as guides came to our doors to let us know the elephants had moved on, but just to be safe, they escorted us to the lounge for tea/cocktails. It was a a pretty interesting start to our 3 day stay at Little Vumbura.
Anyway, in the lounge, we met our guide, Kay, or Madala Kay (old man Kay) and a couple from San Francisco who would be sharing our jeep: Paul and Betty (who turned out to be a lot of fun). Then the surprise. Rather than going on a game drive we were going to take a boat ride through the channels around the island. Since it was incredibly hot, none of us could think of a better way to spend the late afternoon.
So around 4:15 p.m. we piled into the boat with an ice chest full of drinks, Kay started up the boat and we were off. We flew through the reeds and around bends, past small islands and through water lilies. It was breathtaking, peaceful and refreshing. We stopped near an island and watched an elephant wander around. Kay advised us that the elephants often wade into the water so we would need to be on the lookout for elephants going for a swim.
Kay started the motor again and we started through a narrow, windy patch of reeds that Kay called Hippo Alley. We could not tell if Kay was joking or serious. (Kay is one of the veteran guides and is well known and highly, highly respected. However, he has a wicked sense of humor and loves to tease.) Just to be safe, I kept a lookout for the nasty beasts (as well as my nemesis … the croc).
We paused numerous times to look at the multitude of bird life around the water. We saw a myriad of crane species as well as darters, kingfishers and fish eagles. Whenever we saw some unusual birds, Kay would cut the engine and we would sit there and let our wake carry us along. It was beautiful and serene as we floated past the birds. At one point, we could hear an elephant splashing in the water. It sounded if it was coming closer as we sat there, but then the sound stopped. (I guess the big fella decided he was done swimming, which was unfortunate because I wanted to see him sucking up the water with his trunk and spraying himself.
At one point, Kay pulled over, cut a reed and divided it into 5 sections to give us a little geography lesson about the Okavango Delta, the Angola River and the 5 channels that make up the Okavango Delta. As the sun set, it was time to pull over and enjoy a Sundowner. Vodka and orange juice was the order of the day so we sat back and enjoyed our drinks as we floated among the reeds, papyrus and water lilies and watched the sun call it a day. Wow!! A really memorable afternoon.
When we arrived back at camp, Mom and Michele decided to have a drink before dinner while I headed back to change. When I arrived back at the bar, Mom and Michele had made friends with the ladies tending bar and knew the history of every one of the guests. (My mother loves to “get to know” all the folks at the camp. I called her nosey, Mom calls it being friendly.) Anyway, just as I arrived, Mom and Michele (who appeared to be onto their third vodka and OJ) were learning how to toast Botswana style. Rather than say “cheers” or “bottoms up”, the folks in Botsawana say “Poola”. After a series of Poolas, Michele decided to just call it “Poo”. The ladies in the bar burst into hysterical laughter. One poor gal was laughing so hard she had tears running down her cheeks.
Then for some reason that I either missed or have forgotten, mom began to teach the ladies how to say skeedaddle (as in the elephants finally skeedaddled out of the camp). Apparently the word is a bit of a tongue twister for the Botswana folks because mom must have said it ten times if she said it once while the ladies tried to repeat the word. Mom, Michele and the ladies were in fits of laughter. (I on the other hand didn’t quite get the silliness, but then again, I’ve always been a little more reserved in the letting loose department. In addition, I wasn’t drinking, while Michele and Mom on the other hand were well on their way … lushes!)
Anyway, we finally moved on to dinner where the silliness continued through another huge, but very delicious meal (although they served lamb, which is not a favorite of mine) and soon it was time to turn in. The hippos were moving about making their bleating noise as we reached our cabins. (Another thing on this safari that NEVER gets old.) I fell asleep very quickly and then just as quickly, Kay was at the door waking us up for breakfast and the morning game drive.
We were in the boat and headed to the mainland by 6:30 a.m. We climbed in the jeep and headed out. The landscape here was a combination of what we saw at Duma Tau (lots of trees and bushes) and Duba Plains (water, plains and scrub). We saw a huge herd of elephants and stopped to watch them for a bit (and were greeted with a lovely trumpet and head shake by one of the younger male elephants … those frisky teenagers).
We then saw some water buck and giraffe before a call came in that wild dogs had been spotted in the area. Excellent. Kay put the jeep in high gear and as we headed off to find the wild dogs, another call came in that a leopard had been spotted very close to where we were driving. Kay diverted the jeep and the hunt was on for the leopard. Pretty soon Kay spotted the leopard moving toward a small clump of trees. It was a very young male leopard. No more than a year old and likely less. We all pulled out our binoculars to try and track him. He was so small he blended into the tan grass, but a slight movement allowed us to all spot the little fella and watch him move towards the clump of trees. By now there were two jeeps very near him and he appeared to be very scared. Both jeeps stayed well back and gave the leopard room. The engines were shut off and we sat and watched him move in the thicket and then settle into the tall grass. If we had not had our binoculars trained on him from the start, there is no way we would have spotted him. I got a couple really nice pictures of the leopard and when I enlarged the shots, the pictures turned out really well (despite the distance we were from the leopard).
We did not stay long as it was apparent our presence was really straining the little guy, so Kay put the jeep in reverse and we headed back across the marshy plain in search of the wild dogs. Minutes later Kay spotted the dogs lying in the thick grass. (The man may be known as Madala Kay (old man Kay) but the guy has not lost a step in his eyesight!) We approached the dogs who appeared to have just finished a meal. Their bellies were extended and only a couple of them could even be bothered to lift their heads as we approached. There was, however, one dog that remained on high alert at the front of the pack. He was, apparently, on the lookout for hyenas, the wilds dogs enemy.
We moved on to watch some kingfishers in a swamp and then began our trek back to the camp. As we drove, we passed a tsessebe and her newborn wobbling along. The newborn was only a day or two old and was still a little unsteady. Then we stopped and watched some sable. This was quite exciting for me since we had not seen any sable before and they are on the endangered species list.
We passed through a very wet, swampy area and noticed a croc sunning itself with its mouth wide open. It was surrounded by birds, but appeared to have not a care in the world. Kay paused the jeep so we could snap some photos and then it was onward to the camp. As we drove, we noticed an ostrich in the distance and as we approached, it began to trot. (Very skittish.)
We got back to camp and decided we would spend the afternoon drive looking for lions and cheetah. (The cheetah is the only animal of the “Big 5” that I have yet to see in the wild, and I was really anxious to see the speedy cat. By the way, the Big 5 consist of the lion, leopard, elephant, cape buffalo and cheetah.) We headed out around 4:00 p.m. and immediately sped through the trees and across the delta. We passed a myriad of bird life (which Kay took great delight in pointing out) including wattled crane, kingfisher, lilac breasted roller, sparewing geese, common cranes, carmine bee eater and on and on. Paul and Betty are huge bird fans so they were absolutely thrilled with all the birdlife. I, on the other hand, just wanted cats. However, the tree full of carmine bee eaters (a beautiful orange colored bird) was actually quite spectacular.
We finally reached the area where the cheetah is known to hang out, and Kay immediately spotted fresh tracks. We followed the tracks to a thicket area and then turned around as the tracks appeared to double back. Then … nothing. ****! As we sat there with Kay trying to figure out the next move, a hyena appeared. It was moving rather slowly so it was unlikely that there was any kill in the area. We sat there for a bit and watched a breeding herd of elephants pass by (because …. you guessed it … watching elephants NEVER gets old … although I am sure by now you think that my saying it is getting old). By now the sun was beginning to set so we headed back towards the camp and called it a day. Maybe tomorrow.
As we drove, I spotted a circle of vultures in the distance. Damn. That can only mean one thing … a kill. Kay said it was likely that it was a cheetah since it was known to frequent the area. Unfortunately, it was too far away and too dark to head over. Just my luck!
We got back to camp and found out that dinner would be in the Boma – an outdoor area amongst the trees where dinner is cooked outside. As we sat in the Boma with the fire blazing and dinner cooking in the traditional pot, the staff of mostly women began to gather and sing. For the next 20 minutes they sang and danced traditional African songs around the fire. The voices were absolutely beautiful, and we all sat mesmerized by the sounds and the setting. Mom even got up to dance. (Thankfully I was snapping pictures so I didn’t see her shake her grove thing!)
As we were getting ready for dinner, one of the guides spotted a small python in the brush… yuck! Nevertheless, I went over and had a look (and only hoped that the reptile was really as small as they said it was). I missed most of it as it had already slid into the underbrush… fine by me.
So we headed back into the Boma and the dinner that followed was wonderful featuring shredded beef, corn on the cob, a bread mixture (the name of which I cannot remember) and vegetables We were encouraged to eat with our hands by balling up the bread mixture and using it as a scoop for the rest of the food (except the corn on the cob). Never one to pass up an opportunity to participate in local culture, I jumped in with both hands as did mom. It was a really special evening.
We got to bed around 10:00 p.m. as the hippos were beginning to bleat. I fell asleep pretty quickly because the next thing I remember was Kay knocking at our door. Time to get up and hunt cats. (We had decided that we were going to look for lions and cheetah again today because Paul and Betty were leaving in the early afternoon and they wanted one last chance at the cats.) Michele decided to stay at the camp and take a mokoro ride. A mokoro is a form of canoe and is used in the area to get a close look at the plant life, frogs and water fowel.
We set off at 6:30 a.m. and unfortunately it was a pretty sparse morning. (This is exactly what I had been trying to describe to Mom and Michele in the first days at Duma Tau when we encountered a lottery of animals. Sometimes you can go days without seeing much.) We had one false alarm as we heard the warning cry of a monkey. We headed over towards the sound, and I
spotted the monkey in the trees (a miracle since I never spot anything). The monkey was screeching, and Kay told us it was a warning that a leopard was in the area. Unfortunately, the area was covered in tall grass making it virtually impossible to see the leopard. We drove around for a bit and then moved on.
As we drove through the swampy delta we encountered three ground horned bill. One was carrying a dead bird in its mouth (which shocked Kay because he had never seen a ground horned bill eat a dead bird) and another had the legs of a frog sticking out from its beak. Now THAT’S not something you see everyday!
Kay drove the jeep to an area where a lot of cape buffalo had gathered in hopes of spotting a lion. We weaved around the animals, but did not see a lion in sight. We then headed off towards the area where the cheetah tracks had been spotted the day before and again, nothing. However, Kay did spot wild dog tracks. We followed the tracks for a while, but did not find the dogs and lost the tracks. As we wandered, Kay spotted a herd of sable. We stopped and watched them for a while and Kay noted that the herd only a few weeks before had numbered 15. Now it was down to 9. It was likely the wild dogs or the cats were killing the beautiful species. (Too bad the dogs and cats can’t stick to impala or cape buffalo which are so abundant.)
After spending some time with the Sable, it was time to begin our drive back to the dock and our short boat ride back to the camp. Kay put the jeep in gear and we no sooner got started than we encountered a black backed jackel tugging at the carcass of an impala. Kay told us the impala was likely killed by the wild dogs since tracks were nearby. We watched in morbid fascination as the jackel tugged and tugged at the carcass. Finally the jackel managed to grab a piece of the carcass and off he went. Kay said the jackel would bury it and then return for more. It was another amazing moment.
We got back to the camp and said goodbye to Paul and Betty and began the trek back to our cabin … but no … that wasn’t going to happen. There was an elephant wandering around the camp so we had to wait for the all clear sign. Ten minutes later we were told we could head back to our cabin. We headed off in the direction when Kay stopped us. The elephant had decided to camp right beside our cabin (in fact next to mom’s shower). Kay jumped in to action and managed to move the elephant along. It was just another interesting moment on an incredible safari.
We had a quiet lunch, tried to relax in the sweltering heat (it was 41 celsius or about 106 fahrenheit) and then got ready to head out for the afternoon game drive. (Mom ended up taking two cold showers in an effort to cool down.)
The afternoon was again going to be spent hunting for cats. I was determined to try and see a cheetah. We drove past a number of birds, saw a whole cadre of marmots, but no cats. Kay spotted some hyenas in the distance so we headed over to check them out. Bad news. The hyenas were lazing in the grass with VERY full stomachs. It was highly likely they had eaten the remains of a cat kill. Dammit!
We watched the hyenas for a short while and Kay spotted another one in the distance. We went to check that one out and same story. Fat and lazing in the tall grass. It looked like it was time to go look for some other animals. Kay suggested we go look at the hippos so off we set for a watering hole near the plains. Kay figured we could continue to look for lions in this area while at least seeing the hippos.
We reached the hippos just as the sun was beginning to set. It had really clouded over and looked like we may be in for a thunder storm, but Kay assured us it wasn’t likely since the rains were still a week or so away. (He turned out to be right.) As we approached the watering hole, a number of hippos began to get very restless and were moving close to the embankment showing who was the boss by opening their mouths in a display of aggression. It was classic photo time.
We stayed with the hippos as the sun set and began our drive back towards the dock. We passed a giraffe in the setting sun as well as a number of bird species. We stopped to have our Sundowner with another couple from our camp and then got back in the jeep. As we drove, Kay spotted a large owl in the trees. It was too dark for a good photo, but it was still fabulous to see.
Once back at camp, Mom and Michele decided to take up residence at the bar while I went to clean up and change. By the time I got back, the two of them were once again entertaining the ladies tending the bar. One of the managers suggested that we all move around the fire for a drink. When it was time for dinner, the female staff began to sing. We all got up and as we were about to sit down, Kay told me, Mom and Michele that we were to follow him. We walked behind the dinner area to the pool where the staff had set up a lovely table for just the three of us. The pool and surrounding area was lit with candles. It was an incredibly touching moment probably done because Mom and Michele had been so damned entertaining with the staff.
As we sat and ate dinner with our own private waiter, we watched the stars come out and listened to the hippos making their bleating noise as they began to come ashore. Dinner was suburb with risotto, chicken, veggies and a wonderful dessert. It was a very, very special way to send us off and all three of us were pretty choked up by the thoughtfulness of the staff.
As we were escorted back to our room in the dark, we encountered kudu roaming near our cabin. The flashlights scared them and they quickly left the area, but it was still a wonderful moment. We got ready for bed for the last time in the bush and crawled under the mosquito netting. I laid in bed for quite a while before dozing off listening for the hippos, crickets and frogs. I did not want to go to sleep because I knew in short order the wonderful sounds of the bush would be replaced by horns and sirens and the sounds of everyday life.
I finally managed some sleep and actually struggled to get out of bed when Kay called us for the last time. Michele decided she did not want to go on another game drive and instead just wanted to relax for the morning. Mom and I headed out with Kay with me still hoping for my cheetah sighting.
./7Elephants single fileUnfortunately, it was not meant to be. It was a very sparse final game drive. We encountered a number of elephants and hung out with them for a while (because watching elephants never gets old … come on you knew I had to say it one last time). We also ran across two different herds of cape buffalo. But not a lion in sight. Birds were everywhere this morning and we saw a croc sliding into the water. We also saw a number of young baboons sliding up and down the trees using the trees like fire poles. We sat and watched the show for a bit and Mom got a good laugh out of it. However, the most interesting sight of the morning and perhaps the saddest sight we encountered on the entire safari was finding a dead baby zebra.
We had spotted a number of zebra in the distance and were heading in that direction when I noticed what appeared to be a dead animal on a slight rise to my right. (Yep, I actually spotted something other than stumps and grass. Other than the monkey sounding the alarm, this was pretty much my only other solo siting.) I told Kay and we turned in the direction of the animal and discovered the intact carcass of the baby zebra. Kay said that it was likely a snake that killed the baby and since the carcass was still intact, it had probably happened in the last few hours. As we drove off, we saw three zebra and could hear a mournful braying. It was the momma zebra calling for her baby. Mom and I looked at each other and just about cried. It was heartbreaking to hear the call over and over. As we pulled away, we watched the momma heading over to where the baby lay. It was just too difficult to watch.
As we left the area and began our drive back to the dock, we passed two ostrich with a number of very tiny chicks running between them. They were very, very small, and Kay told us it was likely that only one or two would actually survive to adulthood. Darwin’s theory at work.
We passed through the Okavango Delta marshlands for the last time and reached the dock in what seemed to me like record time. I was very sad to be leaving the animals and very sad to be leaving Botswana. It had been a marvelous stay.
We packed our bags, had some lunch and said goodbye to the magnificent staff at Little Vumbura. Although the game viewing had not been the best, the staff had been magnificent. We piled in the boat for the final time with Kay and then loaded in the jeep for the 30 minute drive to our plane. No helicopter this time. Instead, we were flying in a 12 seater bush plane to Maun.
We reached Maun in about 40 minutes and waited in line to check in for our Air Botswana flight to Jo’berg. When we went to check in, the woman advised me that I could not take my carry-on onto the plane. She took my bag, tagged it and that was it… until I realized that I had not taken my purple plastic billfold containing my travelers checks and American cash out of my carry-on. The carry-on was locked, nevertheless, I was terrified. I said nothing to Mom and Michele as I did not want to worry either of them. I sat on the plane and prayed that the lock would be enough to deter any thief.
Once we landed in Jo’ Berg, we retrieved our luggage and to my relief, the luggage was still locked. I said goodbye to Mom and Michele and walked to the hotel van pickup area for the two minute trip to the Southern Sun hotel where the bulk of my luggage had been stored during our safari. (We had been limited in the size and weight of what we could take on safari hence the reason for the storage.) The Southern Sun van was already at the pickup area, and I hustled over. As the driver was helping me with my bags I asked him to wait a minute as I wanted to check on my wallet. I unlocked the lock and opened the pouch and my heart sank. The pouch was empty. Tears welled in my eyes. I had been robbed. The wallet with all my travelers checks ($2,500) and all of my American cash (about $1,000) was gone. Normally I do not carry any cash on me when I travel. I only travel with my debit card and travelers checks for emergencies. However, four of my tours (one in India, two in Laos and one in Cambodia) only take American cash, and the guides had no ability to accept a pre-payment. As a result, I had carried the money since I left Seattle in August and had been so careful never to leave the carryon unlocked or to let anyone touch the bag. I had one lapse and it had cost me dearly. I started to sob. I did not have a penny on me.
The driver took charge and radioed the hotel and when we got there, two security guards immediately escorted me to an office. One called the Jo’berg airport police while the other got American Express on the telephone. I spoke to American Express for almost two hours (while also speaking to the police between holds). I am not stupid and knew there wasn’t a hope in hell that my money would ever be recovered, but I was praying that American Express would come through. And did they ever. Although the process was time consuming, they gave me a claim number, told me my travelers checks had been canceled and new checks would be reissued to me at an office in Delhi. Hallelujah!
By now it was 7:00 p.m. I had no money and did not know what to do. All I could think of was that I needed to get checked in for my flight at 11:00 p.m. and then rush to the Delta Airlines gate where Mom and Michele would be getting ready to board their flight. Perhaps they could lend me some American cash until I was able to figure out how to buy some American funds in Delhi.
The Southern Sun drove me back to the airport and a very nice lady from Jo’Berg who was also on the shuttle walked me to the Emirates Airlines counter for my check-in. (I was still a little teary, and she had overheard me telling the driver I had no cash to tip him because I had been robbed.)
Emirates checked me in, gave me my boarding passes and helped me speed through security and customs. Then it was a race to the Delta boarding gate, which was unfortunately at the other end of the airport. I heard the announcement for business class travelers to board the aircraft so it was really a race to get there before my mother boarded the plane.
I reached the gate and charged ahead only to be stopped by security who advised me that I could not go into the sitting area outside of the boarding gate without a boarding pass (that’s weird). I immediately explained my problem, showed them my passport and boarding pass, and they allowed me to pass through. I reached the boarding gate check-in area and was explaining my problem when Michele came running over.
She told me that Mom was already on board. I then told Michele what had happened, and I immediately started crying all over again. Michele, bless her heart, gave me her last $25 (Michele I will be sending a check when I get home in November), and the boarding folks told me they would see what they could do in terms of talking to my mother.
Long story short. They wouldn’t let me talk to her. The boarding folks talked to the Delta staff and suggested that Michele speak to my mother, get some money from her, hand it to the Delta crew who could hand it to the boarding staff. Nope. In fact, Delta wouldn’t even let Michele talk to mom since Michele was flying coach. Unfreakinbelievable!
The boarding folks were very nice and told me that U.S. airlines are the strictest in the industry and had it been any other airline it would not have been a problem to have Michele speak to mom and then have the flight attendants deliver the money to the boarding folks. I told them I understood and since terrorists have attacked the U.S. by air, I could understand the strict rules. I started to wander off without a clue what to do when one of the security staff came over and told me that there was a place in the airport where I could use my ATM card to withdraw American funds. I wanted to kiss the guy I was so relieved. (While I was very upset at the loss of cash, I was as stressed by the fact that I had no American money for my tours. The fellow called for an “old person cart” and we jumped on and ten minutes later I was standing in an office that doubles as a money changer, ATM and Western Union. Problem solved!
I got on the plane to Dubai for my connection to Delhi and cursed myself for letting my guard down and being so stupid. It was a very, very costly and stressful lesson, and I had nobody to blame but myself.