Rick is in Africa to see elephants. Read his previous post, Africa: From Gaborone to Kasane.
May 3, 2009 (Sunday)
What an amazing day! We woke early to catch the 6:40 a.m. shuttle to the airport. Though our flight was not until 9:30 a.m., we needed to catch the early shuttle because the later shuttle would have been too late to check in on time. The nice thing about getting to the airport early was it afforded us the time to sit and enjoy a very rich cup of African coffee.
The flight from Gaborone to Kasane took just under two hours in the twin turbo-prop airplane. It was actually a very nice flight, but due to the enormous thunderclouds over Botswana, we could not see much of the landscape below.
Arriving at Kasane’s single runway airport, we were met by Dr. Mike Chase and Kelly Landen, the two-person team that makes Elephants Without Borders (EWB) what it is. The airport was small enough that the little entryway where we walked in was also the baggage claim area. The ground crew literally hand carried everyone’s luggage from the airplane to the doorway and just piled up the bags there.
Within minutes, we had loaded our gear into the EWB Land Rover and headed directly to the entry gates of Chobe National Park, a mere five-minute drive from the airport. During the ride, Kelly explained to us that the park has no fence and that the animals come and go as they please. (This was evident by the many different animal droppings all along the road).
Dr. Chase and Kelly told us that they had already set up camp about 25 miles (40 kilometers) into the park and it should take us a little over an hour to get there. For the most part, the drive was along a single-lane dirt trail that occasionally widened to a lane-and-a-half. Within minutes of entering the park we saw our first animal, a handsome male impala. Little did we know that he was the first of hundreds of impala that we would see during this adventure. Further along, we started seeing red-beaked hornbills, lilac-breasted rollers, a couple of fish eagles, and countless other birds.
At one point, Dr. Chase stopped the Land Rover suddenly and pointed to the flooded river just to the right of the road, “Look, look, a pod of hippos. Do you see them?” Sure enough, a pod of at least 25 hippos was gathered in the water just offshore. Their backs and the tops of their heads, all slightly above water line, looked much like a cluster of large boulders poking through the surface of the water.
Continuing on down the dirt road, we paralleled the river much of the way. It wasn’t long before we saw our first herd of about seven elephants feeding on a few trees near the road. The only one to acknowledge our arrival was a youngster who looked to be about two or three years old.
It was the first time I had ever seen elephants in the wild, and it was just amazing. Trying to take it all in and enjoy it for what it was, I also wanted to take a few photos, too. I snapped a few shots and then just stared in quiet amazement; it was truly an exceptional moment in my life as I watched the family interact and feed.
Not too long after we came across the small herd, the matriarch decided it was time to move on. With a slight toss of her head she started to walk away and the rest of the herd stopped browsing and followed her immediately.
I could go on and on writing of each and every encounter with different elephant herds, giraffe, and impala, but I would need another day or two of just writing. It has been an amazing day with an incalculable amount of animals all within a few meters to maybe two dozen meters from the truck. Just to give you an idea, here is a list (beyond what I already mentioned) of what we encountered today: kudu, at least 15 giraffes, waterbuck, 3 different troops of baboons, about 10 water buffalo, 3 crocodiles, an Egyptian goose family, 3 or 4 fish eagles, countless Guinea foul, 5 or 6 ground hornbills, countless red beaked hornbills, hundreds of other birds, a good-sized water monitor, and an incredibly beautiful encounter with a female lion and her cub right before sunset! Oh, and I should tell you we saw fresh leopard droppings, but no leopard.
As night approached so did a very large thunderstorm. We could see it to the south of us, lighting dancing across the horizon within the clouds.
Tomorrow we start setting up to track the collared elephants that may be in the area. Our goal is to catch up to one or two of these animals to see how they are doing.
To support our elephant conservation work in Africa and learn more, visit the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy.
Rick Schwartz is the San Diego Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey Ambassador.