Africa 2017: Machaba camp (wild dog sightings and lion tracking)

 Sunrise over camp with porridge on the fire.

Sunrise over camp with porridge on the fire.

Good morning Machaba! Today is the first official day of "safari". It's day one at our first camp in Botswana in the Okavango Delta. We arrived at camp last night, and it was definitely celebrated with lots of chatter (and drinks) by the fire pit after dinner. Dinner was served out under the night sky and the large tree, adorned with glowing lanterns, in the center of the outside common area. The indoor common area consists of a long, ranch style tent with a foyer to welcome guests in the middle, and a large open area on each side. One side is the dining room, and houses a long, family style table used for breakfast and lunch. The opposite side is a family gathering room. Lots of comfortable couches and seating areas are flanked by soft table lamps and elegant hanging sconces that warm the room at night (take a virtual tour). During the day, tea can be set up in the foyer - two of our favorite tea time recipes included mushroom bruschetta, and the chocolate taquitos with white chocolate sauce. The fire pit sits outside just in front of the family room and overlooks the river. After dark, it has a perfect view, with the stars above and the water of the river, glistening from the lights of camp and the night stars. It's easy to get lost in time when you're sitting outside, chatting with friends (new and old)...and, your cup remains full each time you look (seriously, the staff at Machaba are like service ninjas)! Shenanigans!

Wake up call (which happens at 5:30 a.m.) was difficult in the morning for many (eh hem, no names).

Photos below show views of the common areas, thanks to Mandy French and Machaba Safaris.

The first day was the perfect day to be on the water. Six members of the squad had decided the night before to go on the mokoros - a long canoe that is propelled by standing in the stern (back) and pushing with a pole. Traditionally, the mokoro were made by digging out the trunk of a straight tree. The mokoro crew consisted of me, momma Warfle, Jenni, Channing, Theresa and Paula (check previous post for introductions). We loaded up into the rover with Leopard and he took us to the water where we met up with our mokoro guides - the rest of the travel-squad headed out on safari.

The sun was shining on the water, giving the impression we were gliding through dancing stars. The sound of the water as the pole went to work pushing us forward was relaxing. The breeze blowing the long grass on the banks and against our faces, keeping us cool from the hot sun. We saw lots of little critters, like the tiny frog hanging on the reed (above), several different types of birds, and hippo peeking out, only their eyes and ears in view, like the tip of an iceberg (only a tiny bit exposed, but below the water there's a whole lot more you don't see). All of those things we expected, but what we did not expect was certainly the main event. Two elephant were playing in the water just in front of us. Like children, they were splashing with their trunks and seemed to be having the time of their lives. The playfulness of it all made you forget how dangerous these beautiful animals can be if you get too close and had us wishing we could hop in the water with them! In the wild, elephants can live up to 70 years. They are herbivorous and prefer to stay near water. They communicate via sight, touch, smell and sound; they even use seismic communication over long distances. Elephant intelligence can be compared to that of primates or cetaceans (whale, dolphin, porpoise) and appear to have self-awareness and show empathy for dying or dead individuals of their kind (Wiki).

Of course, after all the excitement and before we headed back to shore, we had to find a spot to pull up the mokoros and have tea. The guys flipped one of the mokoro over on it's belly to use the flat bottom as a table for our tea break. We were all so happy with our decision to do the morning mokoro ride, and we couldn't have asked for a better day or better sightings. 

As we were pulling up to the bank at the end of our ride, Leopard was there waving us in. He informed us that there was a leopard sighting and that we needed to hurry. Everyone rushed to the rover and Leopard floored it out of there, a stark conflict to our relaxing cruise on the mokoro, but it was well worth it. 

We arrived and joined the rest of our squad at the base of a tree that basically divided an open field to the right and the high bush landscape to the left. At the base of the tree, resting in it's shade were a couple of wild dogs. Up in the tree, on a branch was Machaba female - the pregnant female leopard known in the area. There were probably about 10 other wild dogs mixed in the bushes working on an impala. The impala take-down was not witnessed, however the group arrived not long after. When they arrived, the two dogs were having their fill, while the leopard looked on panting (either from the heat, or a chase). There are two possible situations: the leopard took down the impala and the dogs came in and stole the trophy, or the dogs took down the impala and the leopard was waiting for her chance to take advantage of their work. After the dogs got their fill, they ran off to share the news with the rest of their pack. The leopard went to work, knowing she had limited time to get her fill. The group watched as the leopard dined on the ultimate "fresh catch", until she heard the dogs returning, and cautiously took her place in the tree.

As if the day couldn't get more exciting, there were two elephant across the river from our tent (tent 3) when we returned from our morning drive, and then I got a massage after lunch. The Machaba masseuse set up her station right on my front patio, over looking the river and surrounded by all the sounds of the bush around us: the river slowly carrying it's current by the tent, the bird chatter, hippos grunting in the distance. It was honestly the best massage I've ever had. 

The afternoon game drive had another successful wild dog showing. I honestly can't believe how much we've seen these amazing (endangered) animals, that seemed to elude us at every turn in 2015. We set up in a wide open field for our "sundowner" - having a drink to toast the day, at sundown. Once again, the Machaba team set up tables, and snacks and transformed into bartenders as we all celebrated such an amazing day! We took a moment to gather together before the light was lost for a group photo, with our travel-squad of 21. How could it get any better than this?

How can it get any better? That was the question I asked...and Machaba answered. After the most amazing day beginning with the mokoro ride, to the leopard and wild dogs, my massage, more wild dogs, then (what we thought was) wrapping up with a group social sundowner, but on our way back to camp we took a left that we had not taken before and entered into a candle-lit dream. Machaba had set up an entire dining area in an open field, lit by campfire and candle light. They parked the rovers and as you walked into the space the campfire was to the left where the Chef (who was also Leopard's fiance) was barbecuing three kinds of meat over the open fire. Beyond the fire was a full bar, the glasses reflecting the dancing candle light, and to the right was a long family style table adorned in white linen and set with lanterns as centerpieces. The team even had a "bathroom" set up...down a path was a tent structure that inside housed an actual toilet set with toilet paper and a washing sink to use on exit. Since this was so unexpected, some of the squad felt that they needed to go back to their tents for warmer clothing (as the temperature drops after sundown, and they are wimps - haha, just kidding guys!), however several of us were prepared and happy to stay in this dream place and have a before dinner cocktail and reminisce about our most amazing day. 

Dinner always started with a soup while we were in Africa, which I loved! The meat that the Chef cooked over the open fire included pulled Kudu (a type of antelope), and was amazing! Appropriate for the amount of wild dogs we've seen on this trip, the wine paired for the evening was called "the den" and had wild dog artwork on the label. Due to the open space, you couldn't miss out on taking a moment to look up at the stars. After dinner, Leopard used a laser pointer and pointed out several constellations and planets. The group had many questions, and Leopard was knowledgeable and patient to answer each of them pointing out anything within our view. The time and care that it took to set up such a special evening for our group was so appreciated, and honestly unbelievable. Even now, talking about it and replaying the setting in my mind, I find it hard to believe it was a day in my life and not a dream. Truly blessed.

The next morning was Friday, and Leopard was on a mission to head out on a Tao (lion) hunt. They had information that the lion had been spotted in a camp area a bit further away than we've gone before, so Leopard warned us that it was a longer drive and that we wouldn't want to stop for every animal, if we've already seen them, to save time. It was a longer drive, but some of the scenery I recognized from our time there in 2015. We arrived at an area that is common for the lions. It's a wide open area with trees scattered throughout, some of which have been stripped of any leaves from the elephants rubbing against them. It was a beautiful scene, however a bit wetter than it typically is and we ended up getting stuck while trying to avoid water that was on the normal path. As we sat and waited, another truck (not with us) got stuck on the main path, however instead of being patient, they spun their tires over and over again, only causing them to sink further and further into the mud. We couldn't help but laugh at the entertainment, and it was a welcome distraction as we waited for one of our Machaba rovers to come and save us. We didn't have to wait long for Moreri's rover, including Sherry, Kathy, the French and Matheson families, to come and rescue us. We were out in a jiffy! Moreri also tried to help the other truck that had spun their tires, however they had gotten themselves so deep in the mud, that they did not budge even an inch when the tow line tightened. We had to leave them there to their own devices. Leopard explained that they would have to use a lift, along with branches and logs to get traction on the tires and work their way out. We, on the other hand, were off to continue our hunt for the Tao. 

We drove to the campsite where we had heard that the lion had been spotted the day prior. The information we received was that there were several female, two male, and cubs. No luck yet, so we pulled off to set up for afternoon tea. While stopped for tea, there were monkeys in the trees. One in particular was curious about our group and jumped from tree to tree to get a closer look until he ended up in the large tree branches just above our heads. Kevin grabbed his camera handing me his coffee, to try and get a good picture of the monkey up close and (robin egg blue) personal. However, I looked through our pictures and I don't see one, so we may have missed that moment for your viewing pleasure! ha. I'll update if I find we have one. ;) 

We continued the hunt for the lion for a bit longer, but then it was time to head back to camp. On the way back, my mom decided it was her turn to get up in the spotter seat on the front of the rover. The spotter seat is used for tracking, so you can see the ground and any tracks before the rover runs them over and they're lost. It's an amazing feeling to sit up in the front of the rover with the wind in your face and have nothing distracting your view. Mom instantly turned into a kid, smiling and laughing simply because of how awesome she felt out in the open air without modern distractions. She rode up front the entire ride back to camp, which included another spotting of "zeal" or "dazzle" (group) of zebra, and other wildlife. 

As we passed over a river, we stopped on the bridge to look at the hippos in the water. While we were stopped, the guides noticed that one of the rovers had a flat. We pulled off the side of the road so that the guides could change the tire. It was a beautiful place to be stuck, and it didn't take long. 

While we were stopped, I found tracks and Moreri confirmed they were hyena. However, we would not spot any hyena or lion on this drive and we headed back to camp for our afternoon break and lunch. 

During our lunch break, several of us shopped in the small store that they have at camp, while others enjoyed time in the pool. Yes, Machaba has a pool! It's a welcome break from the hot days and safari drives. The kids loved it (both young and old)!

After lunch, shopping, and the pool, we headed back out for our afternoon game drive. Paula was excited to start off up on the spotter seat this time, although it was not too long before she had to come into the main seating due to wild dog being in the area (dangling feet are not great when predators are around). We rolled up on the wild dog pack again (this is the same pack that we keep seeing). This time they are all lounging in the shade, laying on each other, and before we left they playfully called to each other, bouncing around and performing what Leopard called a mating ritual (I know one of the other guides said it was a different ritual, but going with what Leopard said). 

Continuing on with our drive, it was Kevin's turn to pop up into the spotter seat. We saw lots of zebra on our way to the same open area where we had our sundowner the evening before. As we entered the clearing, we came upon a large male elephant giving himself a dust bath directly in front of us, and off in the distance a large giraffe. We decided to hang out with the elephant for a while, and as we were watching him Moreri and some of our squad showed up. We headed down to check out the giraffe, who was curious about what was going on around him. He stood very still for us and we were able to get pretty close to him, eventually deciding he had enough he, in "slow motion", ran off.

The sun was starting to set and we needed to find a spot to have our sundowner. We decided to attempt to go across the river to the hippo pond. Leopard and Moreri took their shoes off and waded out into the river to check the depth and feel the bottom to make certain we'd be okay crossing. We also came across two bush-people from the local village, just walking out in the bush with their five dogs. A strange site to see, for sure. The locals walk everywhere, so although we were not close by a village, it didn't seem like any big deal to our guides that they were out on a walkabout at dusk.

We made it across the river, however were quickly disappointed when there was a large tree down on the path that we would have needed to take to get to the hippo pond for our sundowner. Due to the time of the day, and how dark it was getting, the guides decided to turn around and head back to the open area to get set up before dark. The spot, although in the same general area as our sundowner before, was closer to water and this caused it to be much more mosquito infested than any of the spots we had stopped at before. We tried to enjoy the sunset, but the bugs were just too much and we didn't stay long. We were ready to get back to camp and have another night sitting around the campfire and stargazing. 

Our last morning at Machaba, we got to "sleep in" a bit since we wouldn't have time for an actual game drive. We would take our time, have breakfast, and head out for the drive back to the airstrip. We didn't see much on the way however when we arrived, the end of the strip was saturated with a herd of elephants of all ages. They put on a show, flapping their ears and trumpeting. It was as if they were there to send us off in style. We were all a bit sad to be leaving Machaba, and are already looking forward to going back in 2019. 

We said our goodbyes to our guides and took pictures with them on the trucks. I got to drive the Safari truck that had our bags in it down to the end of the airstrip, something I had been asking to do since our visit in 2015! I don't know why I was so obsessed about it, haha! The safari rovers have the driver seat on the right side, so you shift the manual transmission with your left hand (same as when I lived in U.K.). I let the other vehicles get far enough ahead of us that I was able to get up to a pretty good speed on the open stretch, although you can't go too fast because it is not a true road and there are plenty of bumps and dips. 

When our plane arrived, Bastian from Mack Air was our pilot - he was also our pilot on the way here however this time he was flying solo, which was my chance...I asked if I could sit in the cockpit with him and he said I could! Whoop! On takeoff, we could see the herd of elephant that were now migrating off the front end of the airstrip. From the air I could see other elephants and the most beautiful landscape connected by greenery and rivers.

When we landed at the Maun airport, Chris met us inside with Kaylyn and a friend of hers. Kaylyn is Chris' daughter and we met when she came and spent time with us at Machaba in 2015. She's grown so much and has become a beautiful young lady. It was fun to see her again.

It took a while for our other group to come inside (we had two planes again, due to our size). Chris was actually getting very worried and didn't understand where the second plane had gone. Come to find out George W. Bush and his wife Laura were at the airport for a scheduled meeting with the president of Botswana and he saw the kids waving and called the group over to meet and take pictures with him and Laura. What a cool ending to an amazing Machaba adventure!

After everyone was together, we walked over to Cabellas the restaurant across from the airport for lunch and to pay our Mack Air flights. The Mack Air office is in the same strip as the restaurant so it made it easy for all of us to go in groups to pay for our three bush flights (we've taken two so far). Cabellas was surprisingly good. They have an aggressive menu and I was certain that due to that, it would lack in quality, however I was pleasantly surprised. Kevin and I shared nachos to start, which according to him were made correctly because they only had cheese and jalapeños on them. In his opinion, that is how nachos are intended, not with all the other "junk" people put on them these days. I also had a chicken sandwich, and it was delicious. Everyone's food looked great and Marta said that the pizza was some of the best she'd ever had. So, go there, if you're in Maun and find yourself needing to kill some time and with a bit of a hunger pain.

While waiting for our food and for the first time in a while, we were able to get on a strong internet connection. Dad was able to call us from home, in Florida, through WhatsApp so that we could check in and let him know that we were okay and on our way to our next camp, Meno a Kwena. 

We said our sad goodbyes to Chris, and divided into two groups for our drive to our next camp. It would take about 1.50 hours to get to the camp, and we would be canned sardines in the van. But, I'll get to that in my next entry. :) 

In closing, for our time at Machaba, we couldn't have asked for a more spectacular way to begin our African adventure. Machaba sets the bar extremely high and it will forever be hard to beat the experience that they provide to their guests. However, that is what will have us coming back for years to come (as much as Elcke likely just cringed at the thought of the Hyena pack returning AGAIN, lol). The squad has already talked about going back to Africa in 2019 and we just may have to, once again, kick off the adventure with a visit to our African home - Machaba. 

Thanks to the WHOLE Machaba Safari team, especially Elcke, Chris and Rachel, for an amazing experience and taking such care with our time with you. Also, to all of our amazing guides, especially Leopard, Moreri, and Kitso for your amazing tracking and guide knowledge! We miss you all!

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