"I'm going to speak my mind because I have nothing to lose."--S.I. Hayakawa

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Africa Journals, Ch. 29, Rub a Dub Dub, Elephants in the Mud

       The Africa Journals
      Chapter 29
        Rub-a-Dub-Dub, Elephants in the mud 
                       A hurricane is like an elephant--it can go anywhere is wants.--Cliff Lusk

The soft, misty rain has all but abated as we climb into the safari vehicles for our late afternoon journey into Chobe National Park. The vehicles are rigged for rain with a large flap hanging from the overhead canvas down to the windshield, providing protection for the driver and front seat passenger, but obscuring forward visibility for the other passengers. 

Ponchos are passed out to those who want them and then we're on our way, out onto the service road, then the primary road, and a right turn toward the park entrance. 

"There's a photo op on the left," says Brian, and our driver slows down so we can photograph what is indeed an unusual photo op. 

Part of the AIDS/HIV campaign.

He slows again for us the photograph the park's entrance sign, the parks fo he and Brian can check us into the park. 

With a quick right turn towards the river, we see a female kudu just off the road with a million dollar view behind her. By this time, the rain has stopped completely and the sky is a dramatic tableau of any kind of weather you could imagine. The front rain flap is rolled up, too. 

A few more yards and we reach the baboon 'jungle gym," with young baboons scurrying up the tree and annoying all the adults. 

Up in the branches, a solitary adult seems quite at peace, until the youngsters reach him. 

My favorite photo of the whole trip.

We drive a short distance and turn onto the sandy beach road. A small herd of beautiful impala are next to the road. These antelope are up to 3 feet at the shoulder, five feet long, and weight between 88 and 168 lbs, with the males being taller, longer, and heavier. Only the males have horns and they can be 36 inches in length. 

What is amazing about these animals that are on all the predators's menus, is that they can jump as high as ten feet, cover thirty feet in a single leap, and run at 37 mph. For this reason and one other, they are called African Fast Food.

The other reason is that they have black markings on their rumps that look like the McDonald's double arches. It's an African joke. 

The double arches.

Shortly, we spot one of the creatures on the Ugly Five list-- the Marabou Stork with ts featherless head. These birds are five feet tall and have 10-12 foot wingspans. They are also known as the Undertaker birds, because of their appearance. 

Remember the Mad Magazine cartoon Spy Vs. Spy? That's what the Marabou stork looks like when it walks. You can see a video of one here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z_46e0SgYQE 

A pair of Black-backed jackals watch the stork and nearby birds with great interest. 

And then the fun begins. Herds of elephants are rolling in the mud wallows. They do this to cool off and to protect their hides from the sun and insects. 

 It looks like a lot of fun.

If the video below doesn't work for you, here's a link to it:

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Africa Journals, Ch. 28, Piglets in the Mist

The Africa Journals

 Chapter 28
Piglets in the Mist

The warthog is a hindgut digester, meaning most of its digestion occurs in the intestines and cecum.  Because it grazes close to the ground, it sometimes ingests foreign objects like pebbles and stones and flints.  When the warthog defecates, the stones can strike the flints and ignite methane gas in the dung, which then burns the hair off the warthog’s tail.   That is why the warthog has only a tuft of hair on its tail and why it runs with its tail sticking straight up.—Brian the Tour Guide   (Really.)

Suckered us in, he did, with that tail tale.  
A soft rainy mist enfolds Chobe Safari Lodge as I sit on my balcony this afternoon.  Below me on the green lawn, four warthog piglets scuffle and play as their mother grazes on the short grass.   Warthogs will never win any beauty contests, hence their prominent place on the list of Africa’s Ugly Five, where it joins the wildebeest (gnu), vulture, Maribou stork, and hyena. 

But the warthog, a member of the pig family, is indeed a hindgut digester and there is little hair on its body, just bristles here and there and a mane on its back.   And there is that tuft on its tail.  But the flint thing?   Don't think so.

I think the warthogs are kind of cute, despite how ugly they are.   They stand about 30 inches at the shoulder, are three to four feet long, and weigh anywhere from 120 to 250 lbs, with the males heavier than females.  They are omnivorous, eating mostly grass, berries, and roots, but also the occasional carrion they find.

They have a keen sense of smell but poor eyesight.   Their eyes are far back on their head, enabling them to watch for predators as they kneel on their front legs and eat.   Calluses form on a warthog piglet's front legs even before it is born.

What’s remarkable about them is that they can go several months without water, particularly valuable in a land that has frequent droughts, and can tolerate a higher body temperature than normal.

They are also all over the place, especially where people plant those nice green lawns that taste so good and where the soil is easy to dig, which must please the lawn-owners no end.   Warthogs, so-called because of two protuberances near the eyes and, on males, near their tusks, den up at night in holes dug by ardvarks.  They back in, ready to defend themselves with their tusks or run, which is their usual form of protection.   They can run as fast as 30 mph, or faster depending on what’s after them.

We had seen one explode from an aardvark hole at Mabula reserve, too fast to get photos.

Those warts, Brian says, are useful when the animal lies down as the tusks would otherwise hold the snout end of the skull off the ground in an awkward manner.  The warts enable the skull to lie in a relatively flat position.

Digging a hole in the lawn.

I watch the piglets play for a while, pushing each other with their snouts in mock fights, digging holes in the lawns, and attacking the sow to nurse.   

This angle shows the prominent wart on the mother warthog.

 Then two lie down beside each other to nap, but the other two won’t allow any sleeping and hassle them.

Then, it’s time to meet the others for our afternoon safari into Chobe National Park.  At the bottom of the stairs, I see some banded mongoose scampering around and stop to watch them digging in the hole the warthogs had been enlarging, as well as under the foundations of buildings.

They are 12 to 16 inches long and weigh between 3.5 and 5 lbs.   After pups emerge from the den, they will seek out a “helper” or “escort” that will feed them until they are able to forage for beetle, grasshoppers, etc., and small vertebrates.   The pup receives it food exclusively from its escort.

Time to go.  I’m still gobsmacked from our cruise on the Chobe River yesterday and can’t imagine anything that can top that.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Africa Journals, Ch. 27, Namibian Village

The Africa Journals

Chapter 27
Namibian Village

I never saw a discontented tree.   They grip the ground as though they liked it…
—John Muir

I lay in bed the next morning thinking about all the elephants we had seen on our Chobe River cruise.   I had given up counting them.  I thought about how excited Henry had been when he saw saw a single elephant approaching the river.

When I enter the outdoor dining room, Henry and his group are seated at the first table.  I can't help myself.   I go up to Henry and say, "Boy, Henry, I'm sure glad you saw that elephant yesterday morning.   Otherwise we might not have seen any at all."   Momentary silence and then everyone laughs and comments on the multiple herds of elephants.  Good way to start the day.

Mid-morning we board a small skiff and are greeted by Emett, who is our local guide for an excursion to a Namibian subsistence fishing village.   So down the river we go.

Our destination is across the river, but first we have to go through passport control for Botswana, go across the river and through passport control for Namibia.  Photos aren’t allowed at either place, which is really, really too bad.   The dock is primitive and the walkway dangerous.   The building is very modest and utilitarian.

Seven miles long and three miles wide, Impalila Island is near the confluence of the Chobe and Zambezi rivers.

Emett pulls the skiff up to a dirt bank and we disembark.  I note that he has turned the skiff sideways to the bank, apparently so there is no possibility of us getting wet.   I wonder if there's another reason, like making sure a crocodile can't reach us.

Namibia passport control is a short distance away.   Even the natives who live on the island must go through passport control when they return from grocery shopping in nearby Bella Bella, Botswana.   A form must be filled out and a line waited in before we can pick our way along a trail turned into a quagmire by recent rains and vehicle travel.


We are on Impalila Island, home to about 500 people. 

We pass a cattle kraal, the fence made of native thorn plants and branches.


Eventually, the village comes into view and we are greeted by several grinning children, a few dogs, a bunch of goats, and a few chickens.  One of the dogs immediately attaches itself to me and we are instant buds, so long as I continue to pet him and scratch behind his ears.

Note the blue Crocs.


My new pal.

The kids are delighted to pose for photos and want to see them.   One of our group uses his iPad to take a photo and then kneels down to show it to a very young boy.  The boy smiles, then reaches up and swipes the photo to see what’s next.   First clue that many, many tourists visit here.

The homes are made of poles and termite mud, sometimes reinforced against wind by whatever material is available.

Beginning a new hut.

I have no idea how this squash plant has stayed safe from the goats and chickens.

Emett points out the pride of the village, a gigantic baobab tree he claims is 3,000 years old.  From the back of our group comes a mutter, “Must be 3006 now.  A friend of mine was here six years ago and it was 3000 years old then.”   Emett doesn’t hear this, but I doubt anyone has been keeping track for 3000 years.

Ever since Disney built that big tree with animals at Disney World, and called it the Tree of Life, Africans have been calling the baobab tree the same.  Sources differ as to who started that first.  When you’re a tourist, you never know for sure.

Anyway, that’s what the African guides call it today and it’s easy to see why.  The largest known baobab (in Limpopo Provence) had a circumference of 154 feet and a diameter of 52 feet before it split into two sections and made room for the also-rans.   On-line sources say the oldest tree is over 1,000 years old, but maybe they haven’t heard about the one on Impalila Island, the one that's 3006 years old. 

A single tree can hold up to 1200 gallons of water, though I haven’t been able to verify any source that squeezed the water out of the tree and measured the volume.  If that’s true, the residents of Impalila Island should plant a whole forest of baobab trees along that muddy road we’d just waded through.

Fruit of the baobab, also called monkey fruit.

The fibers of the baobab can be made into rope and clothing, and the leaves are edible.  The fruit is especially nutritious and contains lots of calcium, Vitamin C, and antioxidants.   In 2008, the European Union cleared the fruit for use in smoothies and cereal bars, and the USDA is allowing its use.

We walk through the small village, past modest huts with sticks for fences, the interior yards clean and spotless, cooking utensils carefully piled.

Across the compound, lies another baobab, this one blown down by wind but still alive.

The fallen baobab.

The impressive baobab from the other side.

There’s a water tap for the village to use.   The water line, from nearby tourist lodge, was provided after several children were killed by crocodiles when going to the river for water.

While we wander around and take photos, several women are busy laying out mats and blankets and arranging baskets and other souvenirs on then that they hope we will buy.  Most of the items appear mass-produced.  I wonder how the carved animals could have been made without electricity nd electric tools for the fine detail finishing process.  Later on in this trip, we see the same items by the thousands elsewhere and everywhere.

Perhaps it's simply a way for the women to supplement their husband's income.

Huts without reed fences are inhabited by bachelors.   According to tradition, only married couples are allowed to fence their huts.

We were supposed to meet the chief of the village and perhaps be invited into his home.  Ement hails the hut, but there is no response.  He questions the women, then tells us the chief is working in the fields.

So back we go along the quagmire, meeting other villagers toting groceries and supplies.   



When I first saw these two termites, it looked as if they were cooperating to carry this four inch long piece of straw.   They carried it about a foot in one direction and then stopped.  When I showed the photo to Brian, he said they were probably fighting over it.

I took this photo of the African woman in her lovely skirt, and forgot the Namibian passport control was beyond her.

Near Namibian passport control, a couple women are selling fresh bream.

One of my favorite photos.   I'm told this is an exceptionally large bream.

Dug out canoes full of water, apparently no longer used.

Emett pulls the skiff farther up the beach and we climb aboard with our muddy shoes and boots.  Then two of our group out and help Emett push the boat into deeper water.

A light rain falls at Botswana passport control as we go in once again to be readmitted into the country.  The rain has turned the already difficult approach to the dock into a treacherous approach, but we make it back safely to the boat.


 All in all, it’s been a pleasant and interesting insight in how things were, even if they aren’t now that primitive.

I want to swish my hiking boots in the water to clean off a few pounds of mud, but Emett discourages me from doing that.   Back at Chobe Game Lodge pier, I want to do the same there, but again I’m dissuaded.

And then I remember:   There are crocodiles in the river.