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In Context #8 (Fall, 2002, pp. 5-8); copyright 2002 by The Nature Institute

African Impressions
Craig Holdrege


Hippopotamuses

To give our readers a small taste of Craig's trip in August to observe wildlife in Botswana, we're reprinting here some excerpts from the journal he kept during the trip. He was on the safari with his 19-year-old daughter Christina, his geologist brother Tom, and his sister-in-law Peggy. Their guide was Anne from Audi-Camp in Maun, Botswana, who was assisted by Watch, a young man in his twenties. With a land rover the six drove on sandy tracks into the bush savanna of western Botswana and camped out in tents.


Sunday August 11, 2002. Moremi Game Reserve, Botswana.

We arrived at our campsite in late afternoon. There were no people within miles of us. We pitched our tents in a grove of trees surrounded by hippo pools. The sun set and in the quickly darkening dusk the crescent moon appeared quite high above the western horizon with Venus shining brightly above it. The moon didn't look right—the convex edge was nearly horizontal, making the impression of a chalice, but it was tipped slightly the "wrong" way. I realized that the moon's path, like the sun's, was through the northern part of the sky—not the southern as I'm used to—so that looking towards the west, it comes from the right and not from the left. Now I get it, I thought, but it's still strange. A crescent moon with Venus in the vicinity is a familiar and always beautiful sight; now it was telling me: you are on a wholly different part of the earth. It's fascinating that you become aware of your place on the earth by gazing at the sky.

In the evening we sat around the campfire. Time and again we heard the loud, deep bellowing and grunting of the hippos. At times it sounded like a concert of guttural bassoons. The deep, broad roar of distant lions seemed to expand and envelop a large area. A couple of times we heard the high-pitched call of hyenas—it sounded friendly. There was the quiet "cough" of a leopard. The landscape at night is strongly ensouled through all these sounds of the mammals.

The stars were bright. Directly above us the scorpion spread hugely over the sky, a summer constellation we always see, from home, incompletely and near the southern horizon. To the south of the scorpion shone stars—many very bright—and constellations we'd never seen before. With our star guide we recognized the Southern Cross and the two pointer stars above it. (The bushmen saw the Southern Cross and surrounding stars as a giraffe; I preferred this more expressive image to the modern one of a cross that doesn't look like a cross.) This was our first night fully in the bush, surrounded by nothing from a familiar world.


Monday August 12, 2002.
Moremi. Sunny and becoming very warm (~90 degrees F.)

In the morning, we went to the hippo pools that surrounded our campsite. As we neared a pair of pools separated by a strip of land, I saw in the right-hand pool many brown piles and bulges that I thought were floating hippo dung (don't ask me why). But when I took out my binoculars, I recognized the heads of hippos! In the right-hand pool there were about twenty-one hippos, in the left-hand pool about eighteen. There were obviously—based on head size—all different ages of hippos in the pods. The hippos seemed to be dozing most of the time. One animal's head stuck especially far out of the water and the form of the crease of his closed mouth looked like a contented smile. Every once in a while a hippo would yawn, presenting the gigantic gape of its rosy-colored mouth, against the background of which the formidable lower canines clearly shone. There were ongoing bouts of bellowing, snorting, sneezing—or whatever you might call the many sounds hippos make.

At one point two males climbed out of the pool, water dripping from their massive, barrel-shaped torsos. You wonder how their short, comparatively skinny legs can hold all that weight. (I immediately thought: no wonder they spend so much time in water, where they basically float around all day. However, they spend many hours at night grazing on solid ground.) The two hippos began to spar—all the phlegm they'd radiated up till now was gone in an instant. With wide-open mouths, they growled and lunged at each other. One of the animals was clearly the aggressor and kept coming at the other hippo, who then ran off to the other pool. It was astounding to see how quickly such a massive, short-legged animal could move.

Returning to the hippo pools in the late afternoon, we saw a short stand-off between a large and two somewhat smaller males, who then moved off to the other pool. The big male then proceeded to defecate, swirling the manure with his tail as with a rotary blade, scattering it into the area around him. This rapid radiating motion that leads to the fine dispersement of manure into the surroundings contrasts with the sheer bulk and contained massivity of the hippo's torso. Maybe that's why we all laughed when we saw it.


We saw numerous giraffes, usually in loose groups of four or five adults, both males and females. Only once did we catch a glimpse of a young giraffe. In one group there was a single, very light-colored individual. Not only were his spots a light tan, but also the white bands between them appeared wider than usual. Toward the rump, he became lighter and lighter; it was very difficult detecting the spots on his behind. Up till now we've seen lots of variation in pattern and coloring, but most of the extreme types were very dark individuals.

Since giraffes are so large you'd think they'd always stand out. But often we drove right next to a giraffe when it was in the bush and didn't see it till it moved away. It just blends in with the trees and shrubs around it—the patchwork of leaves and light mirrors the pattern of dark and light in the giraffe itself. A lovely fit. But when a giraffe is in an open grassy area or sandy pan, you can see its upright form at a great distance. Most of the other animals we've been watching didn't really appear to be looking at you. But a giraffe, from on high, looks at you with its big and bulging dark eyes. It is silent and moves away silently.

Giraffes

One giraffe, perhaps ten meters away, had a fruit from a sausage tree still protruding about four inches out of its mouth. (These impressive fruits look like big sausages—over a foot long and about three inches thick.) It was clearly having a time trying to swallow and chew the sausage. It would stretch its head upward and gulp as if trying to massage it down. In about ten minutes it didn't seem to have had much success. We wondered the rest of the day what happened to this sausage-eating giraffe. (After returning from the trip, I read that giraffes occasionally eat these fruits during the dry season.)

We observed another giraffe chewing its cud, swallowing it, and then briefly thereafter, regurgitating it back up and chewing again. It was fascinating to see the rapid peristaltic wave in the skin along the course of the giraffe's neck as the bolus traveled the long way from stomach up to mouth.


We went to bed at about 9:30 with hippos bassooning and lions roaring in the distance. At 11:30 I awoke suddenly to the sound of the loud cracking of tree branches. I knew—an elephant. It was close and I could follow its movements through the trees behind the tent by listening to the cracking of the branches—so much for the silent elephant, I thought. I wasn't all that comfortable, although I "knew" he wouldn't do anything to us. My heart was racing. The elephant's cracking quieted down as the animal moved nearer the tent. Then I heard no more.

The next morning we found tracks about ten feet in front of our tent. The elephant had more or less circled around our camp feeding on leaves. We found the broken off branches—often not totally denuded of leaves. (This we saw on other occasions. The elephants move through an area feeding, but are not particularly concerned to take all they can get.) Tom told me he had seen and smelled the strong scent of the elephant as he had passed by us. I had thought that Christina slept through the event, but she said the next morning that she had awoken, heard the noises and thought, "Oh, that's only an elephant—no problem," and dozed off again. She was becoming acclimatized to the bush.


Tuesday, August 13, 2002. Moremi. Another clear and hot day.

A large herd of elephants—we counted sixty-three individuals—crossed the sandy track along which we were driving. We stopped and observed. As they walked, the elephants enwrapped tufts of grass with their trunks and shook them back and forth, removing the soil; then they curled their trunks inward and brought the grass into their mouths and began their to and fro grinding. This was a mixed herd with all age groups. Anne helped us to distinguish males and females by the shape of the head—females have a sharper angle between forehead and the more horizontal, rear part of the head, while males have a more gradually rounded forehead.

There was one tiny baby, almost newborn, with its trunk flailing about. The end portion of the trunk always seems a bit limp in very young elephants—it lacks the muscular dexterity apparent in the trunks of older animals. Because of this it's always humorous to look at these little (comparatively speaking!) animals walking quickly about with this swaying appendage they don't yet fully command.

Elephants

At one point we heard trumpeting coming from the woods as more elephants emerged into the open and scrubby area. As the elephants walked, they continually flapped their large ears. Although their ears and trunks always seem active, the huge bulk of the animals with their smooth and flowing gait (no bobbing up and down) radiates calm and inwardness.

These elephants took little note of us. None put up its trunk to catch our scent more accurately, as others have done on previous occasions. Elephants are not, in contrast to giraffes, visual animals. They don't look at you unless you're close enough to smell and hear. This herd moved off to a watering hole. There they drank and sprayed themselves with mud.


Toward sunset we drove out into a transition area between moist delta (waterways and high-growing green grasses) and dry bush savannah. The air became cooler and the landscape gradually turned golden as the sky above the green of the swamp reddened. There were many lechwes (antelopes) grazing, and a lone hippo walked into a small pool and submerged himself. Other hippos were bellowing and grunting. Behind us a herd of elephants bathed in a muddy area. A young one rolled around, while others flung and sprayed mud onto their bodies with their trunks. There was continual interaction between the elephants—never a moment when something new didn't happen. Not far from the elephants a herd of zebras grazed. We were surrounded by wildlife and bathing in Africa!

As I turned and looked toward the west again, I saw an animal moving out into the short-grass area. I knew immediately—it was a lion! My first lion in the wild and a beautiful moment it was—the whole inner world of concepts and images that you carry vividly in your mind find their true home in the animal in front of you. It was an adult lioness, and she sauntered across the short, yellow-brown grassland, moving slowly, but in a fairly straight line. The lechwes nearby continued grazing; they weren't bothered by the lioness and she didn't seem to be interested in them.

Soon thereafter a second lioness appeared out of the higher grass and walked in the same direction. Like the first lioness, she didn't seem to take note of the animals around her. Both animals continued walking. We looked around with our binoculars into the area from which the lionesses appeared and saw a third lioness. She was lying on a rounded-off termite mound surrounded by high grass. She peered intensely in the direction in which the other two lionesses were walking. She seemed more intent and focused in her awareness. After a time she looked in other directions and then, descending from her "perch," moved through the high grass. If we hadn't already seen her and continued to follow her movements, we would never have discovered her there, so well did she blend in with the yellow-beige of the grasses.

She moved to the edge of this long grass and crouched down. A male lechwe was walking in her direction, grazing. When the lechwe was about forty feet away, the lioness sprang out and began to sprint. The lechwe took off in the opposite direction even faster and the lioness gave up after only very few strides. It was, from our human perspective, not a very energetic attempt to make a kill. This lioness then walked off in the direction of the other two, who had now disappeared going east into some very high grasses.

As all this was happening, the hippos were bellowing and the sky filled with flocks of black starlings gathering from all directions and flying into the high grasses of the swamp. Their cries and chatters were deafening, and they finally sounded together en masse from the swamp as the sun set behind them.

Surrounded by sounds of all kinds, atmospheric colors, and all the animals—all intense, all together; it is one of the strongest experiences of wholeness I've ever had.


Go to sequel of this article.


Original source: In Context #8 (Fall, 2002, pp. 5-8); copyright 2002 by The Nature Institute

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