Monday, August 1, 2011

Lions and Elephants: Thrills and Chills

Nestled among the Aloes: our first camp near Baltimore, South Africa.

This blog has been poorly serviced because I have been on the road. On July 14th we headed into the wilds of Southern Africa to continue my work on a documentary for LinkTV about the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area. Called the KAZA for short, this massive project is working to create the biggest protected area in the world. Larger than Italy and spanning the borders of Angola, Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana, it is the most ambitious project of it's kind ever attempted. I have been working on a long-term story about the project and some entries from past trips are found here and here.

Johannesburg's dry wintery cold had lifted a bit by midday. Four of us, including Carl the trainee cameraman and Megan Izen, an intern from the the City University of New York left the city late. We headed due north, up towards the border where Zimbabwe, South Africa and Botswana come together. It's not safe to drive at night in Africa so we found a little spot in a communal area near a town called Baltimore. This little village of concrete houses was about as different as it is far away from US city of the same name.

The Hog, our Toyota Landcruiser, had a small hiccup and decided our fate for us. By the time I had reconnected the little wire that keeps the diesel switch open the sun had set and we felt the chilly African night start to settle in the little valley. Some boys on a donkey cart came, axel-squeaking, toward us from a small woodland and we asked if we could camp there for the night. They smiled largely and said no problem, so we forded the small stream and found a little clearing nestled into the trees and big aloe plants. Wild camping in Africa is usually no problem, but it is important to ask the local people not only for their permission, but for any helpful advice and even their protection. In a small rural community a truckload of people with cameras will be seen and talked about for kilometers around and we are in essence their guests, so it's best act as such.

We were heading for the ancient kingdom of Mapungubwe. By the 10th century, Mapungubwe had become the center of power in Southern Africa. Connected by trade all the way to the coast of Tanzania, the kingdom reigned supreme until the arrival of slavers. It is now the site of the Greater Mapungubwe Transfrontier Conservation Area that spans the borders of South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe. We came to get a sense of what a working TFCA looks like. Lodges and guest houses as well as community camps dot the area, which is also known as the Tuli Block, a place notorious for smugglers, elephants, buffalo and of course, lions.

That night, after crossing over to the Botswana side, lions circled our little bush camp. We lay in our tents, hearts beating as first one then two lions started booming their WUh HU hu hu hu sound on either side of our flimsy shelters. My heart was so loud I was sure the lions could hear thumping against the earth. During dinner our small party had relocated to the roof of the truck when a lion boomed the first time. Plates and all, most of us finished our tasty curry perched on the top of the canopy of the Hog.

I was not too worried on account of that old truism: you don't have to run faster than the lion, you just have to run faster than your slowest friend. I have always been a good runner. Nevertheless, lions very rarely tear into a tent, and many a night I have heard them, breathing, pacing and circling the camp. They are more curious than anything else, I am sure, but regardless I usually wait until first light to make a trip to the latrine.

Our Camp on the second night of the trip in the Greater Mapungubwe Transfrontier Conservation Area that was surrounded by lions.

The next day, bright eyed and less bushy tailed we headed up to the very edge of the KAZA park itself to visit some farmers and lodge owners who are interested in integrating their lands into the conservation area.

Botswana is big, and despite an early departure we only arrived at my friend Ben Mueller's Elephant Sands camp a few hours after dark. Ben is a large personality of a man, and he loves elephants. Some jokingly refer to him as the elephant whisperer. Ben has turned his three farms into a conservation area all his own. He is happy to share it though and has already been approached by the KAZA park officials and local chiefs to see if he is interested in being included in the park. He wholeheartedly agrees. like most people in Botswana, he has seen the benefits of tourism firsthand, and already runs a successful lodge and bush camp.

His farms are designated cattle country, but tell that to the thousands of elephants that pass by his waterhole every year on their annual migration from Botswana's Kalahari desert and into Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe.

Cattle do not thrive here. They fall prey to lions and some of Africa's only free ranging wild dogs, but it's the tsetse flies other insects that prey on them that really make it difficult for cattle ranchers. This trouble is also a boon, and Ben wants to join in the KAZA park plan to offer these rare animals official protection. "We want any future fence around the KAZA to encircle us too," he explains, sitting on his sunny front porch next to a swimming pool that serves elephants as much as it does the guests to his lodge.

"The chiefs are behind the plan, and the local people have already contacted us. If possible, some other farmers in the area are also keen to have their farms included. Of course not everyone feels this way, but we can be part of this if the park planners are interested, its been a dream of mine for some time." This forward thinking man's love for elephants and nature is legend.

The notorious "elephant pool" at Elephant Sands in Botswana.

A small injury from an angry and confused female elephant has done nothing to deter him. Earlier this year a baby elephant fell into his swimming pool. The mother jumped in after it, but the pool was too small for her to turn around. In the resulting chaos, Ben jumped into the pool and helped the baby elephant to safety at considerable risk to his own life. The mother made it out but not before damaging the pool and getting very worked up. Later in the evening she came to the bar, cornered Ben, and charged him -lifting him up off the ground with the force of her impact and sending him flying across the bar floor. Only the solid roof of the structure prevented her from trampling him. In response, Ben widened the pool and made big elephant-sized steps for the beasts to safely get out. He also grudgingly made a small fence around the bar area to protect clients from what he calls "the possibility of future confusion". He does not regret the attack, and feels that people and elephants can get along with mutual respect and understanding. He blames himself for not making sure his trunked guests were as catered for as him two legged ones.

From my journal:

Today is a rest day here at Elephant Sands. Last night over dinner a lone bull elephant came down to the waterhole next to our table and slaked his thirst noisily as we enjoyed the cook's best fare. The cook, named Lazarus, came to check on us and made sure we had everything we need. Thirty years ago there were few elephants here, he told us, but now there are more elephants than ever. The Botswana government's official protection has been a shining example for conservation throughout the continent, and shows that like Lazarus' namesake, ecosystems like this one can be brought back from the dead.

Megan Izen, working with the project as an intern from the City University of New York (CUNY) on her first African assignment. The top of the truck is a safe place for star gazing and escaping from predators.

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