Monday 7 July 2008 - Tuesday 8 July 2008
Madikhudu Island was a pleasant place to make camp for the night. (Although if you ask Crystal she would probably tell you that there was death lurking around every corner - Crystal has developed a "healthy" sense of fear of the African ecosystem since living here). We found a nice spot to camp, shaded by large trees and only a few meters from the water. There was a hippo pool not too far away from our camp, and we could hear them snorting and growling throughout the evening. We went for a series of hikes during our couple of days there. During this entire excursion we really had no idea what to expect. There was no discussion of itineraries or activities, we just went with the flow. So, the fact that we were to be hiking 15 km or so through the African Bush was a surprise to me. I'll admit, I was a bit scared. Even though we were on an island, the Delta is part of the Moremi Game Reserve which is very densely populated with wildlife. Most of the animals, including the big ones (elephants, lions, leopards, Rhino, Cheetah, etc.) can swim or walk over the narrow channels to follow food onto the islands. And, of course, there's lots of water, which the animals will predictably follow during the dry season. Before we left on our long hike Matthew carved a stake out of a limb from a nearby tree. He showed it to me and told me he would use it to stab predators that try to attack us. Then he laughed. I think he was joking, but I'm not sure.
As we set off on our walk through the African scrub brush all I could think of was the story that our South African friends had told us a few nights earlier while camping on the salt pans. There is a corridor through Kruger National Park, just north of Johannesburg, which is used by Zimbabwean refugees to flee their country and illegally enter South Africa. Kruger has a very healthy lion population and the lions have learned that this corridor is used by men. A group of five Zimbabweans came through the corridor on their way to Jo-Burgh to find work and were approached by a lion. They ran. One was attacked and killed and the remaining four escaped up a tree. Soon the rest of the pride emerged to partake in this meal. Realizing they had the other four men cornered, the lions stayed nearby and throughout the next few days picked them off one by one as they became hungry and needed meat. Eventually the park officials found the one sole survivor left in the tree. By that point he had gone completely out of his mind and was rambling incoherently.
But, being the fearless soldiers that we are, we proceeded onward stepping over aardvark and fox holes and dodging thorn acacias and wild sage bushes as we went along. Hiking through Botswana was very different than anywhere I had ever been before. There were very few large trees beyond the occasional Acacia tree or small Mopane forest. But the thorn acacias that grow on the ground carry very long and sharp thorns, and the leaves are prickly. It was easy to get caught up in them or to get them caught in the bottom of a shoe. In fact, they're so difficult to manipulate that the Angolan militias used to set up acacia barricades during the civil war to hold off opposition troops. This challenge was coupled with the long grasses and mounds of dirt left behind by termites, foxes and anteaters. Occasionally we would pass by fields of singed earth, when I asked him Matthew said that a fire could have been set accidentally or possibly by villagers who had been chased by elephants. Lighting a fire to a branch or bunch of leaves will deter them. I was suddenly disappointed that I hadn't brought a lighter along. But, of course, we did have Matthew's single carved spear to protect us.
In all seriousness, the walk was very enjoyable. It was far from the most beautiful or dramatic scenery we had seen- most of the landscape was brown and brittle - and we were all pretty subdued after a long few days of traveling, but there was something very special about seeing the African landscape up close. And it was a totally different experience then driving through it as we did while we were in Chobe. Even if for just a few hours we were very in tune with our surroundings. We came across a herd of Zebra and antelope and watched them as they grazed, realized we were there, checked us out, and moved on. On a couple of occasions we came across elephants grazing on the Mopane trees. We paid careful attention to the direction of the wind and to where we were standing so to remain unnoticed by the elephant. Even though we've probably seen over a 100 elephants since we've been here I still don't get tired of seeing them. It just blows my mind to think that with entire villages only a few km (or sometimes meters) away, these giant creatures are minding their own business foraging through the bush almost entirely unnoticed. On one particular occasion we approached an elephant that was downwind from us (elephants rely more on their sense of smell than eyesight). Matthew led us to the edge of a small forest and instructed us that we would be fine here, if the elephant charges we could just run into the trees and hide. We nodded our heads in agreement, "yes, we'll just run into the trees if we're chased by the elephant standing over there". Luckily, he was more scared of us then we were of him, and he immediately took off when he smelled us. I personally think he saw Steve and realized he had met his match.
After hiking for 5 or so hours with no lion attacks to speak of we headed back to our tents to have lunch and break camp. Last (the second poler) had thanked us for offering her food during our stay by cleaning all of our dishes and boiling water for us. Unfortunately we couldn't converse much with her as she spoke very little English, but she did seem to enjoy listening to us sing camp songs around the fire during the previous night (little did she know they were mostly national anthems, its been a while since we've camped) as well as our attempts to speak her language (i.e. rattling off the greetings and animal names we had learned from Crystal). Nonetheless, we managed to connect with her on whatever level we could and I think we were mutually grateful for it.