I awake before dawn to the sounds of croaking frogs and the baboons barking in the distance. I unzip my tent and breathe deeply, looking around the small open field that is my campsite. A forest of leafless trees borders the backside of my campsite and to the east I overlook the Chobe River and the open grasslands that fan out to the horizon. Across the river, several hundred Cape buffalo graze on the lush green grasses.
I gather a few branches and some large sticks below the trees and rekindle the fire. I pull my seat closer to the glowing embers. It’s a cool morning and I stare into the flames waiting for my kettle to boil. In the African bush I’m happiest having my morning coffee black with a small bowl of Sadza, a cooked cornmeal that is a staple in Southern Africa.
As the sun begins to rise I see a herd of elephant walking toward the water a few hundred yards from where I sit, several of them frolicking in the river. It’s hard to break away from their antics, but I need to get on with the day. I break down the tent, douse the embers, bury the remaining ash, and set out for a day of observing the wildlife in its natural habitat of Chobe National Park in eastern Botswana.
Driving the deep sandy roads of Chobe are always challenging in the dry season. My tires have trouble gaining traction but the deep sands also make it far easier to track animals. My first sighting is a giraffe’s track the size of a dinner plate with its distinctive split hoof. I drive a few dozen yards as I turn a corner to see the giraffe walking elegantly across a field toward its morning drink in the river. It spreads its forelimbs wide allowing its head to reach the cool river waters.
Further up the road I see a male lion coveting an elephant carcass a few dozen feet from shore. When an elephant carcass is found in water it usually means the animal was weak from old age or disease and was seeking comfort in the cool waters. This one appeared to have expired the previous night.
On land, the lion is king, but even the king doesn’t enter the croc- filled waters of the Chobe River. Crocs here can reach 20 feet in length with 1,500 pounds of killing power. The lion walks about and waits. Within hours, after the crocs have had their fill, the carcass will be lighter and more buoyant, and will finally float toward the waiting lion that will drag the carcass ashore and make a meal of it for the next several days.
As the morning turns toward afternoon many animals seek shade to wait out the midday sun. With more than 140,000 elephants in Chobe it’s easy to find elephant throughout the day. You also see a lot of baboons, some grooming each other, very relaxed in the absence of leopards or lions. As I drive along the river, I see a bull elephant happily grazing on the long grasses; a massive Nile crocodile lazily basks on the river bank.
As I lay down in my tent after a long day of game drives, I close my eyes and listen to the cacophonous army of frogs croaking. In the distance a troop of baboons sends up a distinctive barking alarm; a leopard is likely nearby. From the short burst of baboon calls, the leopard is most likely passing beneath the tree where the troop is sleeping this night. The calls quickly quiet down as the leopard moves on to find an easier and quieter prey.
Your man in Africa,
Words and photos by Howie Minsky. To see more of Howie’s African adventures, visit bocamag.com/our-man-in-africa.