Does the wilderness call your name? I often hear my name. Today I am answering the call and feeling fortunate to be looking at a packed safari vehicle with open air seats and a canvas roof. By 8:30 a.m., our group of seven is ready to head from Maun to Moremi Game Reserve for a three-day safari. Qani, Shaka, Allan, and Shylock are from Botswana; Trevor is from England; Kelly is an Australian; I am from Canada. The first 25 kilometers are tarred roads. Before leaving the tar, we stop to buy firewood. Another 50 kilometers of gravel road brings us to South Gate, one of the reserve's main entrances. While Shylock, our guide, registers the vehicle and occupants, we stretch our legs, warm ourselves in the sun, and have a cup of hot coffee.
We are heading to Khwai, our campsite for the next two nights. The road becomes more a worn trail, and often we are holding on because of the dips and ruts. Heavy seasonal rains have caused considerable damage. The trip is now a game drive. Impala, kudu, and giraffe are spotted along the way.
Camp is close to the River Khwai. The tents are erected in a semicircle, facing our vehicle, portable kitchen, and chairs. From time to time, our attention is drawn to the peaceful grunts of hippos enjoying themselves in the river. After a light lunch and brief rest, we are ready for the afternoon game drive.
Our camp is in a mopane forest. Elephants like to eat mopane trees for food, and it is not long before we come upon two elephants feeding themselves as they make their way through the forest. Elephant spore or huge balls of dung are regular occurrences in this kind of habitat.
The river is starting to overflow its banks. We explore some of the plains areas that run off the river. Soon the plains will be closed off to vehicles by the increasing annual flood. The soft late-afternoon light offers a beautiful sighting of a small herd of impala. They are relaxed and graze quite close to the vehicle. Moving further around the edges of the plains, we meet five or six wildebeests -- the clowns of the plains. They tend to be more animated than other large animals and often entertain with their characteristic canter and toss of their head and horns.
Getting back to camp at twilight, everyone is pleasantly surprised that Shaka has set up camp chairs around a bright fire and has some refreshments on the dining table. Allan, Trevor, and Kelly sit together by the fire and reminisce. They last met as a group 25 years ago in Australia. Our safari is part of celebrating their reunion.
Shaka has prepared a tasty curried chicken dish. The stories of these old friends flow around the table like the South African red wine that is washing down our meal. A bottle of whiskey appears after dinner, and the stories become more animated and comical. I feel honored to be sharing highlights from the lives of good friends. No doubt, our trip will become part of the stories of future reunions.
We are unsteady getting out of our tents the following morning. Over toast, coffee, jam, eggs, and hot beans we discuss the cause of the unsteadiness. Kelly decides it is because the cots are low and none of us have camped out in quite a while. Pulling on some extra clothes to ward off the morning chill, Trevor observes how low the whiskey bottle appears to be. We all mutter some level of surprise, with explanations verging toward the mysterious.
Today we do two game drives. The morning drive is about birds. Shylock knows the name and habit of all the birds, but I am also impressed with the knowledge of my fellow travelers. Shylock has been a professional guide for 20 years. When one of us makes a spotting or expresses an interest, he expands our understanding. According to Shylock, "An interested guest is a guide's best friend."
The terrain we are covering is similar to yesterday's, although in the opposite direction and more inland from the river. Fortunately some water remains from the rains of three months ago. We come upon a small, picturesque, receding pond. Henry David Thoreau would have been happy to be with us. The collection and activity level of the birds is priceless viewing.
Qani is filling up her notebook with English names and descriptions of the birds. There is a balance, peacefulness, and interaction that is miraculous to watch. Coffee and cookies are served. Grey heron share the deeper water with Marabou storks. Kingfishers are flying around and make way for Egyptian geese coming in to land. Kelly's attention is captured by the pink-backed pelican. Much to our amusement he starts to hum an old ditty, "A funny old bird is the pelican, his beak can hold more than his belican..."
The group is in high spirits heading back to camp for lunch and a rest. The afternoon game drive takes us across the bridge over the River Khwai, an assortment of floating mopane logs. Trevor has been hoping for a lion sighting, and Shylock is out to give it his best shot.
After about an hour drive and only seeing one old male elephant, Shylock appears to stop for a rest. Trevor is more than a little startled and draws our attention to a male lion resting in the tall golden grass. Then we are all startled. There is also another male and female lying in the grass not 20 meters away. It may seem overdone to you, but we are using binoculars. The males have been fighting over the female, and we are looking at the damages of battle -- the cuts and bleeding. We leave wondering if the fighting is over or whether nightfall will bring another ferocious encounter.
The following morning, we do a final game drive, determined not to leave any leaf unturned. It is the quality of game viewing that makes Moremi so enjoyable. Often you do not see another vehicle during an entire game drive. You never feel rushed or harried by the outside world. Many visitors come for a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Africa. Here is the ideal place for that trip of a lifetime...or, as in our case, reunion.