African Experiences by Erica Elliott

From Erica Elliott’s Blog

Africa—Okavango Delta

Our Africa adventure began with a late start due to vagaries of the weather over Atlanta where we had to spend the night and get on another plane for Johannesburg the following day. We made good use of our unwelcome delay and visited the impressive Martin Luther King Jr. National Park and listened to his inspiring speeches and sermons as we wandered around the grounds.


MLK’s family home growing up in Atlanta



Ebenezer Baptist Church where MLK and his father preached.


It’s June 12th. By luck and perseverance all seven of use were able to get a seat on board Delta Airlines’ once daily 16 hour flight to Johannesburg. Ellen had found us lovely lodging 20 minutes from the airport. We stayed in thatched roof cabins surrounded by lush vegetation.  For dinner I ate ostrich meat and vegetables, both surprisingly delicious.

It’s June 14th. At last we’re on the final leg to our destination—Maun, Botswana, where our safari begins. I turned 70 today. Hard to believe. I never imagined I’d make it this far, given my history.

Did you know that there are 57 countries in Africa?


We joined the rest of our small group in time for a celebratory dinner. I ate kudu for the first time, a large antelope, along with many delicious vegetables. We went around the table introducing ourselves—all thirteen participants, plus Deborah Stephens, our trip leader.


I managed to give away the huge slice of birthday cake in my right hand that Deborah thoughtfully arranged for.


Lodging in Maun. Joanie and Gordie helped me to hunt for a room at the lodge that didn’t have air permeated with pesticides and air freshener. I felt fortunate I was able to get a good night of sleep.


My dear friends, Joan Borysenko and Gordie Dveirin.


Our lovely trip leader, Deborah Stephens, Co-Owner of Timeless Baja who resides in Baja, Mexico, leads trips to Africa, as well as to remote places in Mexico for viewing whales, cave paintings, and exotic plants and animals.


We will be spending much of our days inside one of the two safari vehicles.

June 15th, our much anticipated departure day into the bush in the northern part of Botswana called The Okavango Delta where there is a heavy concentration of wildlife, including over 450 species of birds. The Okavango is the largest inland delta in the world. We will be camped on the eastern border of the Moremi Game Reserve.

Let me introduce you to Peace Shakuma on the left, hailing from Botswana, and David C. from Zimbabwe on the right. Both men are extremely accomplished trackers and guides, having gone through four years of intensive training when they were young men. Their knowledge is vast and mind-blowing. They know how to think like the animal they are tracking.

Our first three nights we will stay on the Khwai River, part of the immense Okavango Delta, a pristine wilderness that offers an abundance of food and water for wildlife—even in the dry season. We will get to see the animals in their own natural environment.



This scene of the River Khwai is what we see right outside our tents for the next three days. We are in the dry season of winter. As water sources dry up, animals congregate around the remaining water holes, making the animals easy to spot. The wet season comes during the summer months around November and December.


These canvas tents will be our homes for the next 10 days. They hold two narrow cots with mattress and bedding.

We had to make sure we kept out zippers closed at all times to keep out the mosquitoes, monkeys, spiders, and snakes. One of the group saw a puff adder snake lying right next to Joanie and Gordie’s tent door—fortunately zippered tightly.

Ken Hughes and Ellen Kemper, my neighbors at my community, The Commons in Santa Fe, New Mexico.


Each tent has a canvas attachment to the back of the tent, accessed through the zippered flap, that serves as the “bathroom” with a hole dug in the ground over which stands a precarious toilet. On the other side of the roofless enclosure is a pole with a canvas bucket that can be filled with warm water for a camping-style shower.


In the middle of the night when I went through the zippered back of the tent to pee, the wind was gusting forcefully. As I sat on the toilet, the wind blew the structure down on top of me, toppling me and the toilet onto the ground, with the canvas on top of the pile. I called my roommate, Tina, for help. We couldn’t stop laughing at the comical scene.


My tent mate, Tina, from Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. We’re having a good time together. Tina is taking a year to travel the world. Africa is her starting point.

Another “bathroom” adventure occurred when the two men, Paul and Jim, who shared a tent, came back from an outing and found monkey poop on the “floor” of their “bathroom.” The monkeys obviously dropped down from the tree branches to check out the structure

We spent the first afternoon looking at the wild dogs, aka painted dogs, found only in the southern part of Africa. The coloring on their bodies is beautiful. All the animals I see look extremely healthy.


The painted dogs lie together and den, until they are rested enough to go off hunting again as a pack.


In practically every tree there is an eagle or a vulture waiting for some action, with eyes scanning the horizon at every moment. Peace and David carefully watched the activity of these birds of prey to get a sense of what was happening and where. This eagle looks pretty scary.—photo courtesy Ken Hughes, along with the next two.


This Marabou stork looks less threatening.


African Fish Eagle, waiting for some action.


The impala are ubiquitous in this area. They are one of many types of antelopes found here and are the source of food for the large predators, like the lions, leopards, wild dogs and hyenas


This large antelope is called a Tsessebe.

Surely you must be wondering how we can get so close to the animals without them becoming fearful. These wild animals are so used to the safari vehicles that they don’t view them as a danger. We are not allowed to get out of the vehicles without the supervision of Peace or David so that we don’t appear like predators—or potential prey.


Sometimes it’s hard to know if a tree is dead or simply lost it’s leaves for the winter months. Many dead trees are scattered around the savannah from the floods several years ago.


This tree is dead from the elephants stripping the bark in search of its nutrients. When the tree is “rimmed” and the bark stripped in a circle, the tree will surely die because it’s “circulation” has been disrupted and it cannot pull up nutrients from the soil.


The first of many giraffes that we spotted. Many of these photos (certainly not all) I’ve taken with my iPhone camera, which tells you how close the animals let us get to them.


Can you see the leopard lying on the tree branch, waiting for supper to pass by?


The dinners in the open air dining tent are delicious and elegant. Every dietary need is accommodated—somehow. The staff is friendly and gracious and never short on smiles.

The light is starting to dim. It’s time to return to camp and get ready for dinner, made by our fantastic staff of 8 helpers who do the cooking, washing the dishes, washing and ironing our dirty clothes, setting up and taking down camp every three nights, making our beds and putting hot water bottles between the sheets just before we go to bed each night.

Night comes to the Delta. We crawl into our tents and listen to the animals making their unique and sometimes scary sounds in the night—sometimes too near for comfort.

Before and after dinner we sit around the campfire and tell stories. David assures us that we’re in for some more excitement tomorrow with the leopard and lion tracking.

Our routine involves being woken up by the staff at 5:30 in the cold and dark morning. The wake up person pours warm water into our little canvas basins suspended from poles in front of our tents. We put on our headlamps and quickly wash up, get dressed and prepare our gear for the day and then grab a cup of coffee and head to the fire to talk about the sounds we heard in the night—including snoring sounds made by two-legged creatures—and our plans for the day.

David is keen on tracking the same leopardess that we saw last night. I am amazed that he thinks he can find her again. I soon discover that David and Peace have such an intimate understanding of the wildlife here that they know how to think like the animals that they are tracking and can find them no matter how well they are camouflaged.

Sure enough! David found the leopardess well camouflaged in the tall grasses, slinking around trying to get a decent meal.


She must be really starving because she’s stalking a squirrel—a mere hors d’oeuvre for such a big animal.


Now it’s time for her to go all out to find a filling meal. Squirrels are like eating candy. Intent on her mission, she completely ignores our safari vehicle only a few yards from her.
The leopardess is right next to our vehicle, up close and personal. As long as we stay in the vehicle, we are of absolutely no significance to her.


David says he knows the leopardess well since she was a small cub. He tracked the mother for years. Whilst all the leopards look roughly the same to me, David and Peace recognize each one of them by the markings on their bodies, along with any scars or other signs of injury.


After David temporarily took his focus off the leopardess, we spotted a cluster of zebra.


June 17th we get a special surprise, a ride in a mokoro, formerly a dugout canoe, now made of fiberglass to save the trees, propelled forward by a long pole that reaches the floor of the Khwai River.



The mokoro men poled our canoes silently around the watery marsh land. The experience was mystical as we floated past the wildlife—including a python snake in the rushes.



Female version of Ernest Hemingway—without the rifle—standing next to a hippopotamus with a telltale hole in his skull where he had most likely been gored by a competing male to win the favor of the females.


Joanie and Gordie are under the spell of the primordial scene surrounding us.


As we silently moved through the water a very large family of elephants appeared for their morning drink.


After the bull elephant walked out into the water to look us over, he saw that we were not a threat and then ignored us and watched over his family as they drank. After drinking, a big commotion ensued when a baby elephant walked off with the wrong family and then freaked out and started racing around frantically  looking for her mommy. The bull elephant responded to the commotion by raising his trunk and loudly trumpeting.


Hippopotamus eating grass. It’s surprising to find them openly eating in full view. They like to hide when they’re on land and feel most comfortable in the water.


We won’t be going into these waters with crocodiles and hippos waiting in the water. All the little faces you see in the picture with the frog-like eyes are enormous hippos.


Do you think this hippo is roaring for joy? Or is he simply letting the other males know that he its the boss?

June 18th. Today we move our camp to Savuti, part of the vast Chobe reserve where we’ll remain for the next three nights. Stay tuned for amazing close up views of some very impressive animals, like wart hogs, cape buffalo, wildebeests, kudu, baboons, monkeys, lots of lions, giraffes, zebras, and elephants. Some of the photos will be taken with real cameras by fellow travelers who have generously offered to take some shots for me. Here’s a preview of what you’ll see—in the case below they are simply tracks:

Tracks of a large male lion in our camping area.


This male lion gorged himself into a stupor from eating much of a large antelope called an Eland. The rest of his family is passed out as well. The all have abdomens that look like they will burst.

I hope you will continue to travel with me. It makes me happy thinking that I’m bringing this once-in-a-lifetime trip to you virtually.


Erica Elliott is a physician in Santa Fe, New Mexico,
with a private practice specializing in family and environmental medicine.
You can visit her Blog on  Musings, Memoir and Medicine from Erica Elliott


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