A wise man once told us, “there are only two reasons to get up at 5am. To go on a game drive, and to play golf.” Actually, this wise man was our guide at our second lodge that we would later befriend, but we quickly learned he was right. Between the heat of the day and the nocturnal nature of many predators we were tracking, we needed to get out early to track the animals while they were still active. And even this anti-morning person could get on board with that!
At precisely 5:30am, we were loaded on our Land Cruiser and off to track animals. In addition to maximizing our chances of viewing wildlife, we also were treated to some really incredible sunrises over the African plains. We headed south today and had seen some birds and a few more common wildlife when we came across a lion print in the middle of the road. We knew something was up when the prints were headed in the opposite direction as where we were heading, yet Margiet was insistent we forge ahead, away from the prints. The radio was quite active this morning but the guides refer to the animals in a different language, so none of us could make out what the big deal was. Shortly thereafter, we went off-road into a thicket and up a hill, and met up with another one of Impodimo’s vehicles in a small clearing. Right next to a bush was a sleeping lioness! I have no idea how the other tracker found the lioness as we had to go pretty far off the main road, but it was likely that either someone tipped them to a sighting last night, or earlier this morning. The lioness was separated from her pride as she had recently given birth to 4 cubs, and we learned that a lioness spends the first 2 months nursing her cubs, and the next 2 months bonding alone with her cubs before rejoining her pride. The rest of her pride was close by, but she had set up shop in this area where her 4 cubs were playing off in the far distance up the hills. From what we could see (only with binoculars), they were adorable, playfully swatting at each others’ faces like how our dog Opie does with his friends when he plays.
Margiet was stressing a bit and we didn’t know why, but apparently this was still not what came over the radio so we needed to rush over as the other guides were all yelling at her to hurry up. It was quite the predicament – stick around to see a lioness with her 4 cubs, or hurry to see the mysterious munye. We went to a completely different area, as the thorny bushes and thicket gave way to open plains, and then stopped to look at a termite hill. Um, is this what we left the lioness to see?! It actually turned out that because we had taken so long to get across the reserve, Margiet now had to stall for time as the other guides had to radio in the sighting to the rest of the park, and we were now on standby so as not to overcrowd the animal. Shortly thereafter, we pulled in and lo and behold, sitting right in front of us was a pair of male cheetahs. Cheetahs in general are a rare sight in the wild, as not only are they highly endangered but they are particularly hard to track. And here we were, staring open-mouthed at two of four cheetahs that live on the reserve, having just finished off a kill, and too full to move. It was a stunning sight, these magnificent animals posing under a tree, then slinking around lazily and not at all bothered by our presence. It is common knowledge that cheetahs are the fastest land mammal, running upwards of 100-120 km an hour, but what we learned was that this speed is not sustainable as they can suffer long term lung or brain damage after a mere couple of seconds at this speed. So most of the time they conserve energy, until they absolutely need to sprint to capture their prey. Even though they are hunters, they are also hunted, by leopards, lions, poachers, and farmers, resulting in only 8,000 cheetahs living in the wild. To make matters more challenging, all four cheetahs here at Madikwe are male, so there hasn’t been any hope in reproducing. However, Margiet explained to us that they were expecting to slowly introduce three females that came over from a cheetah rehabilitation center in hopes of increasing the population here.
Back at the lodge, we enjoyed a nice breakfast when Margiet offered us a chance to join her and another guide, Declan, for a bush walk. We had inquired about the opportunity to go for a guided walk through the reserve to see the animals from a different point of view, but weren’t sure if we’d have enough courage to do so. But of course we couldn’t say no, and with two armed guides accompanying us, we felt safer. We popped over to our room quickly to change into fully neutral colors, and were making our way back to the main lodge when all of a sudden Doug noticed a giant buffalo standing among the trees, just a few feet away from us! I actually thought he was kidding until I turned and was nearly face to face with the creature. We walked quickly (but didn’t run, thank goodness! Animals interpret anything running as “food.”) over the footbridge and safely made our way to the lodge to tell everyone. A few more people popped out to take a look and by the time Declan walked over, it tried to charge him! If it weren’t for the guardrail on the bridge, Declan would have been tonight’s dinner. We learned after the fact that the cape buffalo is one of the most dangerous animals in Africa, as it is very aggressive and, unlike other animals, can charge without any warning signs. Ironically, buffalo are herbivores, so I guess they are just really angry animals. Another fun fact: a buffalo can run short distances faster than our own Usain Bolt. So don’t try to outrun him!
Now, back to the bush walk…after that incident, we were a little shaken up to say the least. We drove around a bit before finding a good spot to park and walk around. Rules for the bush walk are to remain silent, walk in single file, and follow the person in front of you closely so as to appear as one unit. If the guides felt we were in danger, Declan would stay behind and Margiet would walk us to safety. Good luck, Declan! Declan showed us how to match poop to the right animal and made us hold elephant poop (mostly sticks thankfully). We had a really peaceful walk, observing zebra and wildebeest, and then came across three more elephants in the distance. Even though most of the animals are used to humans, they are used to them in the vehicles and not on foot, so we had to maintain a safe distance until they decided on their own terms to come closer to us. We actually got pretty close to the elephants and it was a really cool experience to approach them by foot and also have them watch us. Declan had us follow Margiet back to the vehicle while he stuck around a bit longer to make sure the elephants didn’t try to follow us…he actually told us a story once we were back of how they stumbled across a black rhino on a walk and it chased him up a tree, where he hid until reinforcements could come for him later. This place is no joke!
After some afternoon down time consisting of an outdoor shower, sunning on the deck, and napping, we were off again at 4:30pm for our afternoon game drive. We checked back on the cheetahs, who hadn’t moved but a few feet from where we left them 9 hours ago. The previous night, Margiet was telling us about how her favorite animal on the reserve was the endangered African wild dog, but that they had migrated over to the far east side of the reserve, which was a bit far for us to drive. They also have a tendency to hide in the thicket, and guides in the private reserves are only allowed to go off road if they can see the animal from the road or can locate it on foot. Well, today was our lucky day as Margiet received a radio call about a pack of wild dogs not too far from our cheetahs, so off we went. Unlike the cheetahs, the wild dogs were extremely active, so we had to go far into the thicket and watch our heads as we drove over and through thorny bushes to track the wild dogs. We eventually did find them, a pack of 3-4 bounding through the bushes. Unfortunately, they were way faster than our vehicle could go through the uneven terrain, so we lost them after staying on their trail for a few minutes. I thought they would be really ugly rabid looking dogs, but they were so cute!
By this point, the sun was already down but we had to pull over for a quick sundowner nonetheless, before heading back to the lodge. Tonight, we dined outside on the deck with our new companions – a German couple, a Dutch couple living in Cape Town named Vincent and Marieke, and a Swiss gentleman named George who was in Gaborone for business and decided to make a side trip. Definitely an interesting crew as Marieke works as a travel agent for her European clientele, visiting reserves and lodges to gather intel, and George was the head of the Swiss National Baseball and Softball team. Right up our alley!
Summary of animals seen today: Klipspringers, Giraffes, Zebras, Wildebeest, Banded mongoose, Kudu, Lioness and cubs, Termite mounds, Cheetahs, Elephants, Lilac-breasted roller, Warthog, Impalas, Black-Shouldered Kite, Red-Crested Korhaan (they fly up and free fall straight down), Long-Tailed Strike, African Wild Dogs, White Rhino at night