We start the day by checking on our neighbors, the hippos. They turn and quietly stare back as us, but we hear them bellow at each other as we eat our breakfast.
On a loop through the grassy meadows near our campsite, we find a large herd of impala wandering on and along the track. They seem less skittish than usual and continue to browse amid the tall golden grasses and fragrant sage while we photograph them.
At the river we are met by a pair of reedbuck. The female takes off, but the male holds his ground, watching us and posing for my camera.
Soon we are driving along the Khwai River.
The river forms a narrow, winding strip of green, with slim narrow channels of clear water, wide pools filled with lilies and floating mats of vegetation, wet meadows of tall grasses, and closely cropped hippo lawns. All of this green is bounded by a strip of sand and dry grass, fenced in on one side by the scrubby woodlands and stretching away dry and flat on the other.
There is an abundance of bird life here. Most often we see the fanciful Egyptian geese. We regularly find these very common but exotic-looking ducks (they are really ducks, not actually geese) hanging out in pairs along and in shallow water at the river’s edge.
An amazingly beautiful saddlebill stork lets us watch him hunt for awhile before taking off in flight. This is one of the tallest storks and it is a very stately looking creature, stalking the shallows in search of prey.
A wattled crane is the next bird to allow us to observe it’s morning hunt. We can’t identify what it has found, but it must be something tasty as the crane spends a considerable time trying to get at it.
We also see hippos and more impala.
We have been looking for leopards, searching the tree line for leopards keeping watch on the ground or, more likely as the morning progresses, lounging in a tree. At last Kaiser directs our attention to an odd spot in an otherwise grassy meadow.
With binoculars, we can see a lone leopard keeping watch. After a short time it stands, turns, and walks into the woodland on the far side of a marshy arm of the river. There is no way for us to follow it and in a moment it disappears.
Later Kaiser shows us a backbone hanging from a high tree limb: All that’s left of an impala a leopard had dragged up into the tree to eat. The skeletal remains dangling from the tree make for an eerie scene.
Next we come across a giraffe enjoying breakfast. This entertains us for quite some time. Giraffes always seem to be eating when we see them, but that is probably to be expected since they spend 15-20 hours a day eating. No wonder they so seldom let us distract them!
Giraffes are well-designed to feed on the thorny trees and shrubs, with a tongue that allows them to pluck the leaves, flowers, and seed pods away from the surrounding thorns.
Around the bend we come across a small herd of waterbuck. A couple of males engage in a tussle of some sort. It looks more like play than serious combat, something young males engage in as practice. Their activity doesn’t seem to faze the rest of the herd grazing nearby. Soon the two break apart and resume grazing — and posing for us.
Our sighting of the waterbuck is followed (a short distance from the river) by a herd of impala intermixed with a large troop of baboons. Evidently impala and baboons are often found together, for mutual protection from predators. The baboons keeping watch from the tree tops have the superior eyesight, while the impala contribute a superior sense of smell. Despite the logic of this arrangement, it is funny to see them so casually intermingled.
Next we come across a large herd of zebra, which includes a number of colts.
Usually the zebra we have seen have been pretty skittish. These must be more accustomed to visitors, as they move off the road, but otherwise allow us to drive through the herd and sit and watch them on both sides of us.
We see some antelope that I identify as young wildebeest, but they seem too dark, shaggy, and stocky and seem to lack most of the markings I associate with wildebeest.
We see so many antelope that, even after making mental notes of Kaiser’s identification and then looking them up in our wildlife guidebooks, I still sometimes struggle to separate one type from another.
Then we come across a small group of elephants feeding amidst a few struggling trees.
We are again amazed by the destruction elephants bring, killing the trees and trampling the undergrowth. Wherever there are lots of elephants, the landscape is punctuated by dead trees. In some places it is completely desolate, with every tree dead and bleaching in the sun.
Of course, the elephants may be no kinder to one another, as now an old, thin, raggedy-looking elephant is repeatedly shoved aside by the others and prevented from feeding.
Back at the water a large Nile crocodile waits for an unwary snack to pass by.
Farther along, we see many more Egyptian geese and then a group of tourists taking tea on the shores of a hippo pool while the hippos keep an eye on them.
Nearby we see a group of white faced (or whistling) ducks, mostly standing on one leg and still looking half asleep. A spoonbill stands quietly in their midst.
A small herd of tsessebe along the road turns their backs to us and slowly wanders into the woods. They look back just once to be sure we aren’t following.
We see lion tracks, but no lions. Lions and Cape buffalo are about the only large animals we haven’t seen yet, but should expect to see.
Back at camp I discover why our camp staff always hang out in the trucks when they aren’t working: It is the coolest place in camp. There is shade and if there is any breeze at all, you can feel it best up here.
As we sit and write and play cards we notice a few baboons moving toward the campsite. A large one climbs into a tree over the tents. Near where we sit in the truck, a group of females sit on the ground under a tree grooming a baby and each other. We watch them for awhile, then realize there are baboons everywhere: This is a large troop that is slowly moving through the mopane woods and into camp.
K’s father is sitting alone by the hippo pool. He uses a walker and I see the baboons are curious about the shiny metal. He is unlikely to have noticed the curious baboons above and behind him, so I go to warn him at the same time a couple baboons move to the water’s edge. Yes, now he sees them. We watch them together for awhile and then I head back to the truck.
There is more rustling in the woods behind us and I turn, expecting to see still more baboons. Instead a herd of impala is following the baboons through the woods, heading toward camp. I wonder how close they will come.
The impala are probably only 30 feet away when OT notices the baboons. Evidently OT has had too many encounters with baboons to find them entertaining – he says they can open almost anything and like to steal food. He goes after the baboons, yelling and throwing sticks. The impala flee. The baboons scatter, regroup, consider the situation for a bit, and then start to move back in. OT resumes yelling and stick throwing. The baboons scatter, the females with young moving far away, the others climbing trees and continuing to keep watch. OT gives up and goes back to preparing lunch.
The afternoon is hot, with only the slightest breeze.
I wish I could jump in and join the hippos – they sound very happy submerged in their pool behind our tent.
We sit in the shade behind our tent, 20′ from their pool, watching the hippos as they peer at us and go about their business.
I’d say that we are watching them watch us, but hippos are pretty nearsighted, so they probably aren’t actually watching us. Still it’s an odd sensation. When we approach the water all the hippos turn and look in our direction. They won’t leave the water, but they move as close to the shore as they can while remaining submerged. Then they remain there, looking at us. They are pretty quiet now, but once in awhile one will let out a bellow.
Occasionally we see a hippo grazing on the far shore. We also see a mother and child across the way hunting something at the water’s edge. There is a small village or settlement visible in the distance and a track comes up along the river almost to our campsite, but we see very few other people either near or far.
The hippos are the most interesting creatures we’ve come across thus far. I hadn’t known much about hippos before this trip and hadn’t had a lot of interest in them. I expected to see them, although I hadn’t expected to share quite such close quarters with them. Nor had I expected to find them so entertaining.
I spend the afternoon sitting in the shade by the hippo pool watching them, talking to K’s parents, and writing.
Evening Game Drive
We start the evening game drive with some more warthogs. Usually they flee before we get too close, so being able to observe these odd creatures up-close is a treat.
Next we come across a small group of kudu. Then there is a larger herd of wildebeest mixed in with a few zebras.
This is the largest herd of wildebeest we have seen and for once these usually shy creatures continue to graze long enough for us to photograph them.
We see a small flock of what look like vultures walking through an open grassy area. Kaise tells us these are not vultures, although vulture-like in both appearance and habit. They are instead, marabou storks, which are among the world’s largest flying birds, with a huge wingspan of three meters. They are large, dramatic birds, but really homely!
Tonight the only hippos I hear are far in the distance.