By Dave Fox
Sankuyo Safari Camp, Okavango Delta, Botswana
I’ve come to Botswana to teach writing classes, but it’s hard to compete with elephants, lions, zebras, and wildebeest. They’re the main event twice each day, when we hop in a Land Rover for a four-hour game drive.
In this particular safari camp, our driver’s name is Doctor. Doctor is not his given name, but a name he adapted from his original Setswana name, which, translated into English, means “Who’s the Doctor?” I am not sure why anybody would name their son “Who’s the Doctor?” but then, in a recent survey of Botswana residents, 93 percent of them responded that they weren’t sure why anybody would name their son “Dave.”
Anyway, Doctor drives our Land Rover through the Okavango Delta in search of wild animals. He drives like a highly skilled madman, hurtling our vehicle over small logs and large shrubs, through shallow rivers, and across large expanses of sandy bushland. If an animal is spotted, Doctor will get us there, but first, someone has to spot the animal.
That is Culture’s job. Culture is our spotter, and he is ever-so-slightly crazier than Doctor. Don’t get me wrong; Culture is mild-mannered and soft-spoken, not the kind of person you would normally define as crazy. But he is crazy in the job he does.
When we go on game drives, Culture does not sit inside our Land Rover. He sits in a chair that’s mounted on the front of the vehicle. This gives him the best view. It also ensures that if we should swerve around a large bush, and happen to startle a hungry lion, Culture will be the first to be eaten.
Culture seems to have magical animal-locating powers. He sees through all the camouflage the bush offers, spotting beasts a mile away. He can read tracks in the sand and figure out how long ago a leopard or an elephant has wandered our way. He can even locate buffalo based on their excrement. If that is not a special skill, I don’t know what is.
On days with no other activities, we typically do two game drives – one in the early morning, one starting in the late afternoon. The late afternoon drive has a break in the middle for a “sundowner” a safari happy hour. Doctor and Culture supply the Land Rover with all the basics of a bar. We park by a termite mound, sip gin-and-tonics, and watch the sky turn from blue to yellow to pink to firey orange to deep purple. And finally, to black.
Once the sun is down, the night drive begins. For another couple of hours, we bounce through the bush in our Land Rover. Culture sits in the spotter seat with a spotlight, and his superpowers grow superer. In the pitch dark Okavango Delta, he sees African wild cats, jackals, and nocturnal birds. He looks over his shoulder and says something to Doctor, who slams on the brakes and backs up a few feet as Culture shines his spotlight on a spring hare – a rabbity creature that hops like a kangaroo.
At first, I am baffled by how Culture spots these animals in the darkness. In the pitch black night, through thick shrubs and leafy trees, he locates animal after animal. Sometimes, he spots their tracks in the sand — not an easy feat when you’re bouncing through the bush in the dark. But more amazing is when he catches their eyes, far off in the distance. Bill, the wildlife Biologist from The Wild Source who has organized this trip, explains that Culture’s spotlight catches two tiny bright points of red or green or yellow and he knows something is out there.
This goes on night after night, and although I struggle to be the first in our vehicle to spot something in the dark, I never can. But then, one night, I awaken at 3 a.m. Through the screen in my tent, I shine my flashlight into the darkness. The bush is thick with foliage, and in amongst it, I see two yellow flickers of light bobbing less than 20 feet away. Is it a bush hare? A hyena? A leopard? I turn my flashlight away for a minute and fumble for my camera. If I am about to be eaten, I want to leave photographic evidence of exactly what gobbled me up. Whatever it is, I am feeling proud. I am learning how to spot wild animals in the dark.
I find my camera and train my flashlight back into the bush again. For a minute, I cannot see the two yellow blips anymore. I scan the bushes for the mysterious pair of eyes. Did the animal leave? But then, I see the tiny points of light… flickering at me once again. There is something out there!
I have just spotted a couple of fireflies.
If you’d like to come along on a journaling and creative writing adventure, my next tour is to southern Vietnam in October, 2010. Visit traveljournaling.com/vietnam for full details. Plans are also in the works for future creative writing safaris in Africa, and private trips can be set up for groups of four or more people. For more information, please drop me an e-mail or subscribe to my free e-mail newsletter using the form on the right.