In northern Botswana, Chobe National Park contains one of Africa’s largest concentration of game, but unfortunately it seemed like it also had one of the largest concentration of tourists, usually rich tourists. We entered the village on the edge of the park, complete with a supermarket, ATM and currency exchange, and a large resort (where we were meant to be camping) with decent Wi-Fi. Sam was happy. I winced at the thought of how much it was going to cost us to not camp here for two nights. C’est la vie; we would live on next to nothing in Malawi.
That night, Sam and I cruised from our very nice but very expensive room to access the Wi-Fi at the reception area. Sam spied the impressive buffet laid out for the guests staying in the rooms (we didn’t upgrade for food) and went at it like a moth to a flame.
‘No Sam, we are not allowed to eat there.’
‘That is for rich people.’
Looking around the guests in the dining area, most of whom were now watching us as Sam’s loud talk and bouncing walk gathered attention, he corrected me, again way too loudly.
‘It is for rich OLD people.’
‘How to Insult Fifty People at Once’, by Samuel Thomas Best. I tried to bundle him out of the dining area.
‘It is for old people. They are old. They have grey and white hair. Even more grey than you, Dad.’ Make that 51 people.
‘Shh, shh, just go.’
Sam: (pointing at some poor guy) ‘Look, white hair!’
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We awoke before dawn to go on one of many open 4-wheel drive trucks into the park. The drivers constantly chatted with each other on the two-way radios, and there was clearly a system for directing everyone to where the interesting animals were located.
It was very cold in the open truck bumping along the road. The driver was tried to track a lion, looking out his door at tracks made recently in the sandy road. Giraffes, warthog, hippos, hyenas, red letchwe, impala, kudu, waterbuck, guinea fowl, Chobe chickens, francolins, and a variety of monkeys and birds abounded.
We drove past a thousand head herd of buffalo and a congress of baboons. The latter were interspersed with the impala, as they have a synergistic relationship, with the baboons providing higher sentinel positions in the tree and shaking fruit out of the trees for the impala, which in turn provide better hearing and vision to alert baboons of approaching predators. This cooperation, however, apparently vanishes in times of poor food supply when the baboons will steal and eat newborn impalas to boost the protein in their diet. The natural world is so brutal.
We were keen to see some predatory cats, but no luck yet. Our driver then heard on the radio there was a sighting of a leopard at the far end of the park. We were the fourth of eight trucks to arrive, all sitting at the bottom of a tree where glimpses of the leopard’s coat and occasionally her face could be seen with binoculars through the dense foliage.
Apparently, after she’d killed an impala, a pride of lions chased her up a tree and took the kill for themselves. Nearby jackals and vultures slunk and hovered respectively, hoping for a scavenger’s share.
I felt like a vulture too. Sitting with what must have been more than 50 people in all these trucks to get a glimpse of an animal through binoculars just didn’t seem right. I felt sorry for the leopard; she was in a life and death struggle and she was being gawked at by all these strange primates in their noisy beastly machines. Eventually, one by one the trucks left her alone to her fate.
Sam struggled with the cold and his facial rash was bothering him. He huddled in the vehicle wrapped in a blanket and didn’t engage much. Sam can’t use binoculars well so he never saw the leopard. He did, however, like the baby baboons clinging onto their mother’s abdomens, and the monkey trying to steal biscuits from our group when we stopped for a cuppa.
After the tour we had a break and recharged our batteries, both for our electrical appliances and ourselves. I let Sam chill out on the DS; he had had a very early start to the day and seemed tired. In the afternoon we were meant to go on a river cruise. I wasn’t sure whether he was up to it or not. After asking other tourists, they strongly recommended it so I pushed through and took him.
Sam became angry and argumentative we waited on the dock. I was worried he was going to get physical, but he managed to reel it in, just.
The boat, carrying more than fifty people, had the same over-touristed feeling as the morning drive. For much of the three hour tour Sam was struggling; he lay on the floor of the boat, stimmed and generally refused to engage. He was also being very loud, and shouting to me about bank notes or other obscure obsessions when the guide was making announcements about the wildlife, or when we were meant to be quiet so as to not spook animals. I told Toni, the English girl from the tour who was kindly helping me out as best she could, that I was beginning to regret my decision.
I gave him my notebook and pen and he proceeded to draw his favourite obsessions: Harry Potter, Super Mario, gaming consoles, the alphabet, numbers and notes and coins from different countries. It took him over an hour; perhaps it was a form of meditation.
The boat approached a large pod of hippos, and Sam broke away from the notebook and engaged. Sounding off warning honks to the boat, the alpha male breached and showed us his massive gaping mouth and teeth; ‘I’ve got ‘em, and I ain’t afraid to use ‘em’. As a hippo, he was probably stupid enough to try and attack the big boat, but we were certainly safe.
Sam loved it, and also the long line of elephants walking in line up the banks of the river. Soon a buffalo, stranded on one of the islands on the river, decided to try and swim to another island. The islands were safe havens from predators and a good supply of grass for the buffalo, but when it was time to move on you had to get past the crocs.
The buffalo took off and swam across the channel and a croc, a couple of hundred metres away, spied the opportunity and took off after him. It was touch and go whether the buffalo would make it, and the tourists were enthralled watching the life and death race. Sam was fascinated. Guenter from the tour group stood next to Sam explaining what was going on. Sam cheered for the buffalo; he made it!
As the sun set over the river and the flat expanses of the valley beyond it, the sky lit up a myriad of colours, reflected in the waters below. The river cruise ended up not being too bad, despite starting poorly. I made a mental note that this was not the first time this had happened with a tired Sam on the trip; a floundering start but finishing with a wet sail.
We readied ourselves that evening to enter Zimbabwe the next day, as we headed for Victoria Falls.