Some say life is mostly about being in the right place at the right time. And this particular day would underline that theory, big time.
Remember in the first episode of our Chobe adventures, an infestation of mad Africanised bees had sent us packing a day early? This chapter story picks up just one day later.
We had had the strangest of starts to the day. Everyone, including the camp staff, had overslept. The telltale sounds of camp rising at 4am simply didn’t happen. Nor at 5am, or indeed at 5:30 when our wake up call was expected.
It’s quarter to six!
I was sure I had missed the alarm call. We had to be packed, bags outside, and ready to leave, for the last time, after breakfast. So you can imagine the dashing around. No time to wash (sorry camp mates) I just threw on some clothes and went to grab a hasty breakfast. I stepped outside. It was incredibly quiet. I realised, nobody was out yet. Starting to wonder if I had woken an hour early, I crept back to the tent and checked. All was well, obviously the staff had decided we should have a gentler wakening today.
Half an hour later, and we were all out and breakfasted. A last check of our tents and it was a sad farewell to our Pangolin “crew” as we waved them off with a wish for a safe “bee free” break down of camp. And we were off.
It’s All In The Planning
Remember in the last episode I introduced our party? Well, at this point it’s worth briefly mentioning photo Steve’s seating plan. Photo Steve so called as he is the professional photographer among us – and not to be confused with my Steve, who almost always goes by the name of Mr Smith. Got it? Great.
So, the aim of the seating plan is quite simple. To ensure everyone feels they have had fair chance of photo opportunities, by having placed their bottom on every available seat on the vehicle and the photo boat, over the period of the nine days.
And he achieved that by cooking up a seating process, involving three pairs of rotating couples. I don’t have time to explain, or draw a picture. Just think of it as a bit like Scottish Dancing – in your seat. Shoot on the spot, then swap with your partner, then both cast off to the back. We did tease him unmercifully for it, but you’ve got to give the guy credit. Only once did someone attempt to steadfastly contest a seat as theirs. It wasn’t. He explained the plan once more in full. Nobody ever mentioned the incident again. That day I realised that photo Steve was a genius! Because, as he regularly reminded us, it would have been total chaos without his plan. Sorry Steve, you knew it would make it in somewhere didn’t you.
Then we threw the plan out of the vehicle.
Was there a mutiny? Not quite. It started the day the bees came. Our excursion to find a phone signal, to send and SOS, had resulted in the pair who had endured the bouncy back seats just that once, declaring themselves out. It’s fair to say, it isn’t for everyone. There is a certain knack to riding there. If your coccyx can stand the pounding, your elbows stand the bruising, your back hold up against trying to stop yourself bouncing out – oh and your circulation can cope with your feet dangling about a foot off the floor then it might be for you. I am not selling it at all well, am I?
Anyway, for one day only, the mighty seating plan was gone. The strict rotation was temporarily suspended – Rosamund and John did a do-si-do back to the front. And so our “I’m only little” Ruth got to ride at the back alongside Ann. We got her set up with a footrest. The drinks cooler and our brunch bag did the job perfectly. With all her equipment easy to hand, she declared it an adventure! And she was as happy as a baby elephant in a muddy puddle.
The only plan today “We will take our time, have a long game drive, and slowly head back to the hotel”.
I confess, I was a bit distracted. Taking in the scenery, enjoying the peace, I had almost forgotten we were there to capture great images of Chobe’s finest. I am not even sure my camera was out of my bag.
“There they are” Keeme, our driver guide, pointed out. A pack of wild dogs were coming up on our left hand side. The chatter of shutters with every twist and turn. Wild Dogs are incredibly social animals. It is important for their survival to stay together as a pack, and so social bonding is key to ensuring they stand the greatest chance. There is a fabulous book by Nicholas Dyer and Peter Blinston, called Painted Wolves: A Wild Dog’s Life. Well worth a read if you would like to know more about these fascinating animals.
Meanwhile we were treated to a great spectacle of post mealtime play. They had eaten their catch and, as one wild dog takes the lead with his trophy, a common playtime activity, the others join in. “Anyone want my white feather? Catch me if you can”. We stayed with them until they were nothing more than dots on the horizon, ducking in and out of the grass, still holding onto that feather.
Imagine had we not been leaving camp today. We would have been heading in completely the opposite direction. Right place right time…
Can a Lion Eat An Elephant?
Well, not in one sitting.
We were just heading around the bend, still reeling from our wild dogs, when we are stopped, quite literally, in our tracks. Several vehicles, eyes trained on two super male lions. Brothers in arms, tucking into breakfast. Closer inspection would leave us with no doubt as to what was on the menu.
Wait, don’t go. Keeme explained that this baby elephant probably died from natural causes. I know, it’s sad to even think about it. But it’s waste not want not in the wild. Try and look at it another way. This wee thing was not meant for this life, but will go on to feed at least four other species. Some vultures open the carcass, some strip the bones when the main feed is done. And the hyena will come clear up, bones and all, leaving little evidence that there was ever a meal here at all. It’s tough, but it’s a necessary part of life.
I promise, no more gory words.
We count ourselves incredibly fortunate to be witnessing this. In the National Park, it is against the law to go off road. The downside of this is that, the action doesn’t always conveniently take place by the side of a road or track. Except today. In fact it was so close to the road, we were almost too close for a long lens. But that’s handy for those tourists (in almost every vehicle we passed) who were enjoying the ride with their mobile phones at their finger tips.
And so there we are, our second case of right place right time…
But wait, there’s more.
We had encountered our first leopard during our maiden outing on the photo boat. I have been on many a safari where we would pray for even a glimpse of this shy cat, without success. So, I am not greedy – well, not much. And so I assigned spotty cats to my “unlikely to get another chance this trip” box.
No sooner said…
Leopard! Up went the shout! In the tree, look. You will need to be quick, she might jump down. Just get what you can and then if she stays, there will be time to try for more. So you can imagine can’t you? My heart was jumping right out of my chest. This morning couldn’t bring any more excitement could it….
The corral of vehicles, occupants straining to catch a glimpse.
She was well hidden, having made a kill and taken her breakfast up into the tree. There was a lot of speculation about exactly what she would be tucking into later. Impala, baboon? But a rumour, and a closer inspection of my own images a couple of days later, would confirm she had in fact caught herself an otter.
Now this is where the fun begins. Not content to leave us with seeing a handful of spots in a leafy canopy, Keeme expertly positioned, and repositioned our vehicle. Always keeping a respectful distance away, but enabling everyone to try for something. Anything.
Ruth abandoned her back seat and moved down the vehicle to look for a better angle. Lenses poking into the tiniest of gaps, shutter bursts on, each willing the breeze to blow the leaves just enough to reveal her full face. And those all important eyes. The leopard’s that is, not Ruth’s. Then the leopard started to move. Leaving her catch safe, she stealthily crept along the branch. We were up, down, ducking and diving. I tried Ruth’s seat for a while – at just the precise moment the canopy separated and she looked right at us. Wow! Wow, wow, wow.
“Ruth, do you want to come back up here, she is in good view now”.
I have no idea why
…but at that precise moment, all my emotions decided to collide somewhere deep inside my chest. A culmination of sightings in a morning which truly demonstrated the right place right time theory. Perhaps it was the willingness of the entire group to help each other get a good look. The good humour as John offers “Ruth, do you want to steady yourself on my knee?” Hey, we photographers are not proud! Or maybe it was the relief at heading off to a warm shower at our final destination, in just a couple of hours time. I have no idea what it was, but suffice it to say, a woman of a certain age can weep at the silliest of things. And this one did. Not overwhelmed. Not upset about the otter. Just happy.
I laughed, wiped my tears and reassured the crew I was absolutely fine. Just having a moment. The rest of the morning, you will be glad to know, passed uneventfully.
As I hugged my camera close, looking forward to some time to download todays captures properly, I was finally feeling at home. I think I might be getting the hang of this.
The Best Things Come In Threes
Back at the hotel it was confirmed we would head back into the park for one last game drive. The group had been hankering to get out on the river again. But we were back a day earlier than planned, so our vehicle was assigned already. Ah well, it’s only one more day of bouncy bouncy. Not that Ruth minded in the slightest. “I like it up here”. That’s the spirit! It’s not the comfiest of rides, but, if you can bear it, it can offer a great 360 degree vista. While most lenses are pointing one way, it’s amazing what you might be missing over your shoulder. Sometimes they are the real gems that make up for an otherwise steady drive.
And our final drive was proving to be a little bit like that. A steady drive. It had been a hot hot day. Despite secretly hoping for one more lion, it wasn’t to be. The elephants were not quite playing ball either. Not that we hadn’t had opportunities. Some lovely scenic shots. A few backlit eagles. Antelope and giraffe having a munch. But all in all it was a fairly quiet evening as we began our journey back to the exit gate.
There are various routes around the park, to ease congestion, but come 6pm everyone is moving to the entrance to be out by closing time. It gets busy. We pull up behind a stationery vehicle. Traffic jam!
What are they watching?
Can you see it? Up there look, she is coming down towards the road. Who, what, where?
Oh my lord! This is mental. I am only looking at another blooming leopard. A leopard on a mission.
And she is just feet away from us. As she crosses the road, we set off to try and get ahead. Two, three, four more vehicles follow suit. She stops for a while. Watching. Then she is on the move again. We are boxed in, the cars just keep on coming. We need to get out. This is the bit of game drives, in popular national parks, I don’t especially enjoy. The pushing and shoving. The noise of the vehicles revving. The excited shouts of their occupants. Shhh, don’t shout guys, try and be quieter, yeh?
In reality, our presence is not our leopard’s priority. She is totally focussed. Because she is stalking some impala. More vehicles join the melee now. The light is dropping, the gate will be closing, but nobody wants to give up. Jostling for position, it is madness.
Cht cht cht cht cht cht cht! Camera shutters going off like machine guns all around. Still she stalks her prey. And still the cars gather, edging ever forward, hoping for one last glimpse.
BARK! And that’s it. Game over. The tell tale sound of the Impala as she blows the leopard’s cover, warning everything else around. Our leopard, stands and watches for just a short while and then crosses back, on up the hillside, and likely towards new hunting ground. There will be nothing around here for a while now.
Meanwhile, I am left wondering if I might have just dreamt that. I mean, that was crazy right? Two leopards in one day? And as for all those cars. I wonder how nobody had a bump. Skilled at manoeuvring I guess. Or was it simply survival of the fittest.
And to think, we nearly went out on a boat? It was meant to be, obviously. Our very last game drive finishing on yet another case of right place right time.
Think back. We should have still been in the bush camp, today. The morning drive would have taken us away from the main route, out towards the plains perhaps, as we had the day before. It was only because we were slowly making our way to the exit, along the popular route, that we saw those wild dogs. That we saw those two lion brothers. And saw the leopard up in the tree.
And then tonight – again, had we still been in the bush camp, we would have stayed quite close to camp. With only a couple of hours of light, we would never have been on this road. And certainly not this close to the gate. Indeed, had a boat been available, we would never have been on the road at all.
In a nutshell, we should never have been here, in this location, ever, on this day.
And it’s also important to remember, sometimes life deals you a hand – or in our case, a bucket shower full of bees. You might wish it hadn’t. But from that moment on, your course has already changed. And, like us, that course might put you in the right place, at the right time, to see something you might otherwise have missed.