Ears flared and eyes hard as stone, the two-ton elephant barreled toward us. Boom! Boom! Boom! Pounding the ground with heavy, intent steps, our world shook around us. Bracing helplessly for the colossal impact, life flashed before our eyes; but luckily, the bull did not. Stopping abruptly, the elephant snorted in discontent and kicked up an unhappy dust storm, but we were safe.
“Ha ha, it was only a mock charge,” our guide mused. “The young bulls are naughty.”
After months of solo backpacking through sub-Saharan Africa, I arrived in Botswana to a few familiar faces – my family.
Reuniting at Kasane International Airport, I welcomed my family with bear hugs and a hippo-sized surprise. Waiting in the parking lot was an open-sided Land Rover and Lance, our private safari guide. Within minutes of disembarking the airplane, my family joined me on our next great adventure … an African Safari!
Chobe National Park, located in Botswana's northeast corner, is home to one of the highest concentrations of year-round wildlife in Africa. Sharing borders with Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe, the mighty Chobe River snakes its way through the park, providing a consistent water source for an endless variety of animals.
Zebra, impala and giraffe herds greeted our park entrance, but none were more forward than Chobe's most recognized and populous animal – elephants! A three-dozen-strong herd pulsed all around our safari vehicle. Stretching their muscular trunks into nearby trees, each of these magnificent herbivores ripped branches and chomped leaves.
We had even more exciting encounters on the exposed delta. This area of flat, plantless earth leads to the life-giving waters of the Chobe River. But reaching her shores requires a huge risk. Thirsty animals must reveal their locations to hungry predators – a necessary venture best tackled in groups.
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Glowing red with the afternoon sun, a giant dust storm seemed to swallow the river. Curious as to the cause, we cautiously drove into the dusty vortex. Advancing only a short distance, hundreds of nervous, timid eyes stopped our progress. Moving in slow unison to and from the river, a massive mob of buffalo kicked up the camouflaging cloud. Marching on a rotational basis, some buffalo lapped their liquid fill while others remained on guard, wary of what lurked just inside the vegetation shroud – lions!
Dragging her day’s kill to within five feet of our vehicle, a lioness flaunted her success – a female sable. Ripping sinews, breaking bones and masticating flesh, the spectacle was gruesome but impossible to turn away from. Every few bites, the lioness would look up from her meal. With a red-stained mouth and ominous glint in her eye, she no doubt was considering a second course.
Another unlucky victim, a full-grown water buck, required a more collaborative hunting effort. Slain under the intense heat of the exposed floodplain, a good 60 feet from the peripheral foliage, it took three adept lionesses to bring him down. Too heavy to drag into the distant shade, the lionesses instead took turns eating under the scorching sun. It was a game of merry-go-eat watched not only by our hungry cameras, but hungry vultures.
Each time one of the lionesses concluded a serving of water buck, she returned to the cooling shade. The vultures saw this as the perfect opportunity to nip a few fleshy bites. Similar to the childhood game "Red Light, Green Light,” the lionesses would turn their backs to the carcass, take a few steps toward the shade, and turn and glare at the impatient vultures. Freezing in their tracks, the vultures pretended they hadn't moved an inch. Continuing toward the shade, the lionesses turned every so often to remind the vultures who was boss, and right before reaching the shade, inches before the vultures reached the carcass, the next lioness would leap into action … ROAR! Running full throttle out of the shade and back to the carcass, the vultures scattered in her wake.
Commentating this game in hysterics, we lost track of our own vulnerable situation in an open vehicle, a few feet from the other two lionesses. One decided to take a more direct route to scare off the vultures. Bolting from the shade, she practically jumped through our vehicle. My heart stopped as the incredible beast raced toward us. In the direct line of fire sat my father. I could see the tension on his brow, but his body showed only confidence. Puffing up his shoulders and facing the lioness, he too would protect what was his. In the very last moment, the lioness skirted behind the vehicle and raced to the carcass.
Retiring to our portable camp, hidden in 4,150 square miles of wilderness, our safari team welcomed us with dusty canvas tents, a crackling fire and shiny tin cups brimming with Africa's "finest" boxed wine.
Dinner, a hearty beef and potato stew, filled our bellies while banter filled our mouths. Swapping stories between spoonfuls of braised beef, each camper was amazed by our family’s love for travel and adventure. I couldn't have been more proud.
As the evening came to a close and the stars flickered to life above, we stared into the glowing fire. It was “Bush TV,” as locals refer to it, reminiscing on our day’s discoveries and all-too-close encounters, and anticipating those yet to come. This was only Day One!