Maun isn’t much of a place from the air. An array of native huts and boxy little modern dwellings resembling trailer houses scattered on the sand amid a smattering of trees along the Thamalakane River in northern Botswana. It used to be a Wild West town of cattle men, adventures, and big game hunters. It’s more settled now, thanks mainly to the tourist traffic of high-priced photographic safaris embarking from there into the vast Okavango Delta to the north and into the High Kalahari Desert to the east. But remnants of the Wild West spirit persist. Maun brims with testosterone.
At least that’s what our guide, Granger, told the six of us as we met him there after our flight from Johannesburg, South Africa for our safari into the delta. “It’s full of guys trying to prove they’re dominant males like lions in the bush,” he said with a broken smile. “Women are prey here, and so are tourists, who’ll believe anything that guides say about Africa and wildlife and their own exploits. Bragging and lying are currency, and turf wars among the guides a way of life. But, of course, I’m different,” he assured us. “You can trust everything I say.” He gave us that broken smile again.
Who’d have guessed that tour guides competed for dominance like lions? Maybe Africa does that, I thought—brings out the animal instincts in humans. The heart of darkness and all that. But I couldn’t see Granger succumbing. He was unusual in many ways. One member of our group had traveled with him on a previous safari and had lauded his work when organizing this adventure, insisting that he be our guide from beginning to end. Ruddy-faced and weathered under his ever present Tilley hat, he spoke with a soft South-African English accent and displayed education, wit, and a social flair. He also proved to be a gifted photographer and patient instructor. He certainly didn’t match the predatory, dominant male type he had described, even physically. And we were inclined to believe pretty much everything he told us.
Before long, we took flight in a puddle-jumper going from Maun to the Duma Tao Camp a couple of hundred miles to the northwest. Below us we could see the Okavango Delta beginning to stretch out in an abstract patchwork of waterways, swamps, grass lands, and sandy islands sporting clumps of palms, acacias, mangosteens, sycamore figs, and jackalberry, and providing watering holes for abundant wild-life, like the elephants we sighted lumbering along or gathered to drink. It is a remarkable sight, at once aesthetically artful, hospitable, and desolate. It belongs, after all, to the Kalahari Desert.
The Kalahari Desert. A forbidding, fabled land, idealized decades ago by Laurens van der Post in The Lost World of the Kalahari as a remote, challenging, sandy habitat of stone-age Bushmen living pure, pre-civilized human lives. Today few Bushmen have survived, and their world no longer exists as far removed from the rest of us as it used to be in time or space. Tourism has seen to that. But the Bushmen’s isolated desert home was not the whole of the Kalahari either. Their piece of that austere terrain, the High Kalahari, claims but a section of the vast Kalahari Basin, whose sands range over much of southern Africa from Zimbabwe in the east into Namibia in the west, from South Africa in the south to Angola and Zambia in the north. And wherever you go in landlocked Botswana (previously the British protectorate of Bechuanaland) you remain in the Kalahari, including the great Okavango Delta, where waters of the Okavango River flowing from Angola fan out to create the largest delta system in the world.
The delta is a maze of waterways that flood in the wet season and weave around sandy islands and broad plateaus where many species of animals live off the water and greenery and each other. The herbivores—elephants, giraffes, zebras, wildebeests, red lechwe antelopes, buffaloes, Tsessebes, hippos, monkeys, and others—have it best. They munch on grasses and leafy trees, and they proliferate in herds. The carnivores—lions, leopards, cheetahs, hyenas, wild dogs, crocodiles, eagles, and more—have a harder life. Dependent for food as they are on killing herbivores, carnivores find their mealtimes come irregularly, unpredictably, and dangerously. Herbivores often outrun them or collectively defend themselves with lethal hooves or horns. Carnivores kill each other, too, to protect territory or seize it for survival. So their lives are short.
Not long ago, both the herbivores and carnivores here also had to fear hunters seeking trophies for their parlor walls. Ernest Hemingway exemplified the type, although he favored Kenya and Tanzania notheast of the Kalahari. He took great pride in the hunt. And he respected the honest courage of animals. But, like most hunters, he showed little real courage compared to the creatures he killed. Animals have to search for food and fight for survival every day. Hunters just travel into the animal kingdom carrying high powered weapons that snuff out animals’ lives at a safe distance. Hemingway even confessed in The Green Hills of Africa, recounting his safari days, “I like to hunt sitting on my tail. No sweat.” Such courage. Shooting fish in a barrel or lions or elephants or other wild beasts at several hundred yards—like Hemingway’s Francis Macomber, who finds courage only with a long-range rifle in his hands and lives his “short happy life” by wounding a lion at 200 yards and then pumping more shells into it until it dies, just moments before his wife fires a bullet into his own head. Anyhow, those hunting days in Africa are largely gone, except in restricted areas where shooting animals is still allowed, and, of course, for poachers who respect neither animals nor laws. Nowadays the camps of the Okavango Delta greet only affluent tourists who come for photographic safaris led by guides mainly from that nondescript little town of Maun.
An hour and a half after taking off from Maun, we landed on a dusty strip and were soon bouncing along a rutted path, not a road, in an aging Land Rover toward the camp through an arid and eerie landscape of nothing but dead and broken trees rising forlornly from the sand. It was a desolate terrain apparently bereft of life. Puzzled by the lifelessness, we asked Granger about it. “Elephants,” he said. They had over time broken the trees to get at the leaves and then stripped away the bark for food. “This,” he went on, “is the kind of thing that has led ignorant critics to claim that there are too many elephants and so they should be culled. But what does too many mean? ‘Too many elephants’ means only that humans have invaded the elephants’ habitat and decided there are now ‘too many’ for human convenience or sensibility. But nature has its own ways of deciding whether there are too many animals in a habitat. It takes care of itself without us. You might not like how nature does this and want to intervene for some moral or sentimental reason, but what is morality or sentiment in nature?” Granger’s words made us feel like interlopers in the elephants’ strange landscape.
That landscape finally yielded to a cluster of green foliage where the camp lay. Tented cottages perched on platforms ten feet from the ground were linked by elevated wooden pathways to allow wildlife to pass under. An elephant stood eating from a tree near the central camp structure where meals would be served. We stared, but the staff gave the beast little notice. Granger explained the rule: “If you see an elephant or lion near the path when you come out of your tent, don’t move, or slowly go back in. Someone will come get you. Otherwise you could be sorry. Animals rule here and you have to respect them—for your sake.”
After settling into our comfortable lodgings and having lunch overlooking a plain on the delta where red lechwe grazed, we climbed up into our three-tiered Land Rover and went off for a late afternoon game drive and sundown cocktails in the Savuto channel, a valley-wide river bed that attracts many kinds of wildlife to its watering holes, and for food. We wove through the forest surrounding the camp and on out to the channel. The landscape was greener and more inviting here than earlier on our way to the camp. Grasses grew in the channel, and palms, acacias, sycamores, and mangosteen rose amid vegetation on both sides. A herd of elephants wandered through the trees on our left toward a water hole not far away, prompting Granger to speed up and swing the Land Rover around to the far side of the hole to get in position for photographs when the elephants arrived. He was an adept stage director, finding just the right angle and lighting for the photo buffs. But he warned, “We never pass in front of an elephant, if we can help it, even in the Land Rover. They can get spooked and charge. And you never get out of the vehicle when any animals are near. Lions might walk past within a few feet of the vehicle and will ignore it because they sense it’s neither prey nor enemy. But a human on foot could be either.”
We accepted his advice and sat with our cameras at the ready awaiting the elephants. A soft rustling sound in the trees just behind us took our eyes to the lanky forms of giraffes ambling along at the edge of the channel nibbling in the high leaves. They were in no hurry and seemingly had no fears. As they moved along, their long necks undulated gracefully and their bodies swayed like rocking chairs, making them look like fanciful beings of primordial times, or a filmmaker’s invention. Before long, the elephants and giraffes were mingling beside the large water hole in front of us. The elephant herd had many young who waded into the water to drink. Granger pointed out one of them whose trunk was, well, truncated. “It probably got attacked by a crocodile,” he said. “The poor thing won’t survive to adulthood because an elephant needs its trunk to eat, and that trunk won’t do the job.” It was sad to think of this child being marked for doom and nothing was to be done about it. “Couldn’t a zoo take it, or something?” someone asked. “That’s not how nature works,” Granger answered. “You can’t save every threatened animal. Nature has its ways.”
The sun now lay low in the sky, casting soft light and spreading long shadows on the ground that mirrored distended forms of the elephants and giraffes. Cameras clicked, people sighed. This was the Africa we had imagined. Then, the idyllic scene was disrupted by a noise, and we saw a Land Rover roaring down the channel toward us. We stared as the driver pulled up near-by, and we could hear him telling his passengers how to get the best photographs. Unsettled, several of the animals backed away from the pond and disappeared into the bush. Granger was not happy. But, gentleman that he was, instead of causing a row with the intruder, he just told us it was time for our sundown cocktails and drove off down the channel.
We came to a stop near a majestic umbrella thorn acacia, the iconic tree of the African plain whose flat canopy spreads out a hundred feet or more. There we had cocktails, served by Granger with aplomb from the trunk of the Land Rover, and watched the sun set, lighting the sky in fiery colors and silhouetting the acacia in picture-postcard perfection. More elephants and giraffes passed by, trailed by wildebeests. We sipped our drinks and relished the picturesque African moment,
While dusk descended and a chill drifted into the air, we climbed back into the Land Rover to search for creatures of the night on our way back to camp. Darkness came quickly, and we pulled padded parkas over our shoulders to warm us against the Kalahari’s arid cold. Granger drove along one side of the channel near the foliage, adroitly steering with one hand while holding a spotlight with the other, shining it into the trees and around the channel, keeping up a steady stream of talk over his shoulder. It was a remarkable performance. He found owls perched on branches and bright eyes staring from dark brush. Out in the channel his light caught a bushy-tailed aardwolf on its nighttime hunt for termites. The sight excited Granger, and we came to a stop. “It’s not often you see one,” he said. “They’re very shy and hard to find.” The aardwolf sat still in the grass, looking at us. Then it slunk away, and we drove on.
After a few minutes, Granger hit the brakes and turned off the headlights. Shining the spotlight beneath a tree, he turned and said softly, “Leopards.” There were two of them on the ground at the edge of the forest, difficult to see with their mottled coats blending into the environment. “Male and female,” Granger remarked and inched the Land Rover forward to get a better view, directing the spotlight toward them briefly and then averting it to avoid frightening them. “Leopards are the hardest animals to find,” he said, almost in a whisper. “They’re very nocturnal and there aren’t many of them. They protect their privacy and are easily spooked. Occasionally, you find one sleeping in a tree during the day. But to see a male and female out together at night is a treat.”
The leopards now gathered themselves up, stretched, and appeared to be preparing to leave the trees for the channel. As Granger cautiously shined the light around them, we could see that the male was distinctly larger than the female, but their faces looked very much the same and not the least wild. When someone mentioned that, Granger replied, “Don’t kid yourself. All cats are wild. Even the ones you think of as pets. They’re closer to leopards than you’d think.”
While he said that, a pair of headlights showed up across the channel careening rapidly toward us. The leopards stood still. The headlights grew larger, glaring directly on the cats, who then darted from the channel and disappeared into the dark beneath the trees. “Christ,” Granger grumbled. “That moron again.” He shined his spotlight in the other drivers face and held it there to send a message. Then he backed the Land Rover up and we headed for the camp. The drive went swiftly. Granger kept shining the light into the trees and talking, still steering with one hand despite the rugged road and the speed he was going. There were more owls and anonymous eyes that shined from the dark in the spotlight. But it was growing very cold in the desert night and we were ready to eat.
Dinner went convivially with talk of the afternoon. We asked Granger about the guide who had so rudely disrupted our peace at the watering hole and had scared off the leopards. He told us he knew him all too well. The guy had worked in several African countries and had come to Botswana from Zimbabwe a while ago after safari work there had dried up because of political turmoil. A tour company had given him a contract and he’d settled in Maun, where he liked to boast of how well he knew Africa and its wildlife. He wasn’t making any friends among the other guides, who observe certain protocols toward each other in the field, whatever their competitive spirit. But he didn’t seem to care. He figured he would be the Big Man in Maun and the Okavango and clients would come running. He evidently had a group of them now staying at another camp. Granger added that he had himself had an altercation with the guy in a bar that had almost turned violent. But he wouldn’t say just what had happened.
After dinner, Granger showed us some of his own nature photographs. He proved to be as much a photo tourist as anyone. But his pictures were professional. A lioness stretched out in midair leaping a stream, a cheetah racing on the attack, a sleeping leopard draped over the branch of a tree with the remains of a small antelope, an elephant chugging through the dust as if on some urgent mission, an eagle diving for a rodent, buffaloes fending off an attacking lion with their horns. Granger had been in Africa all his life, and it was in his blood, giving him an unsentimental admiration of animals in the wild, an instinct for their behavior, a respect for the ways of nature, and a wariness of the ways of people. He was a civilized gentleman, but he also belonged to this world of nature, where he was very much at home and that he clearly was not inclined to trade for the world of civilization.
The next day took us away from the Savuto channel through another area of sandy desolation littered with dead trees twisting into the sky, until we reached wetter land and a grassy meadow surrounded by leafy greenery. There we found herds of giraffes and zebra mingling in a photogenic pairing. The gangly, blotched giraffes fed from tall trees or awkwardly spread their long spindly front legs and stretched their necks down to reach the nourishment on the ground. The neatly designed black-and-white striped zebras (each pattern slightly unique, we were told) stood still at first to watch us, some of them in rows as if at attention, their thick and evenly cropped manes rising on their necks like the crests of centurions’ helmets. The young of both species followed close to their mothers, looking like children’s toys. Groups of monkeys and baboons playfully swung in trees and scampered through the grass. A family of warthogs trundled speedily past on their little legs toward some insistent destination. The peaceful amicability of the scene was Edenic. No predators. No competition for survival. Just placid dining and quiet socializing among herbivores. We sat at a discreet distance, being eyed occasionally by curious and cautious zebras standing at attention.
Then the atmosphere changed. A vehicle burst into the meadow and rumbled toward us. Zebras jerked their heads around, giraffes froze. It was the same Land Rover we’d seen before. As it loudly approached, the zebras closed ranks and trotted away and the giraffes mozied into the trees. Baboons and monkeys skittered nervously across the ground and into high branches. Granger cursed under his breath and snarled aloud, “Unbelievable. This guy hasn’t a clue. But he’s bragging that he can find more wildlife and get better pictures than anyone else.” Granger pulled our Land Rover out of its spot and drove to the other end of the meadow and around a patch of bush to a space largely concealed from animals who were slowly moving in that direction. A mother giraffe and her boney offspring came by, the young propped up on wirey legs like stilts, followed by others sticking close to the trees and zebras grazing in the grass. A group of distant elephants crunched their way through the woods and the meadow.
Once again our peaceful viewing was shattered by the other Land Rover rolling toward us. “Are they following us,” someone asked. “He doesn’t know what he’s doing,” Granger responded, “and so he tracks me. He’s done it before, but he’s getting worse.” “Isn’t he violating the safari protocols you mentioned?” I asked. “Yeah,” he answered. “Guides might be rivals, but they should let each other know where good sightings are, and they’re not supposed to crowd in. But he tells his clients he’s the best there is. The clients don’t know the difference.” “Can’t anything be done about it?” I inquired. “Can you complain to the tour company?” He paused. “We don’t do that kind of thing out here,” he said, as though I should have known. “He’ll get his….,” he muttered without finishing.
We left the meadow and drove on through another landscape of desiccated trees and termite mounds, standing sometimes ten or twelve feel high as monuments to the industry of the insects. Monkeys and baboons and warthogs scampered around. Eagles flew overhead or perched prominently on dead tree branches. Soon the desolation gave way to more wetlands. There a large herd of elephants was moving through a stream where the eyes of bathing hippos poked above the water and others stood nibbling grass on the bank. Not far from the hippos, saddle-billed storks stood statuesquely, their black and white feathers and the bright orange saddles across their bills standing out against the greenery surrounding them. Stately curl-horned dear-like tsessebes wandered in the background. As we watched and snapped pictures from our position near the stream, a huge bull elephant with six-foot tusks bringing up the rear of the herd stopped some thirty yards away, casting us a suspicious eye. Slowly he waved his massive ears. “That’s a warning to us,” Granger said. The elephant took a few heavy steps toward us and stood waving his ears. “What’s he going to do,” we asked Granger nervously. “He’s just telling us this is his herd and he doesn’t like strangers,” he replied.
The elephant pawed the ground with deliberate front footfalls and flapped his ears more vigorously. “Shouldn’t we leave?” someone said. “He could crush us.” “Don’t worry,” Granger said. “He just showing off. And you can see he’s proving his manhood by enlarging his genitals.” The beast now came forward a few more steps displaying all his signs of masculine dominance. “Yikes!” one of the women in the group exclaimed with theatrical flair and no fear. “If he’s going to come after us I’m going to need some lubricant.” The group erupted in nervous laughter. The elephant kept moving slowly toward us until he was only ten feet away. His tusks practically touched our headlights. We could see his six inch eyelashes protruding over the eyes that glared at us. His ears flapped like flags in a breeze. “Uh, Granger,” someone said edgily, “Are you sure….” Granger turned around and said firmly but good-naturedly, “Paranoia emanates from this vehicle. Relax. When he’s made his point he’ll go away.” We waited. He stood his ground. Finally, after a seemingly very long time, he took a few steps backwards then turned and clumped off toward his herd.
“Why were you so sure he wouldn’t attack?” we asked. “They don’t attack unless you get in their way or provoke them when they’re hungry or being protective. This was nothing like that. It was a territorial encounter. This is his herd. Once he had put us on notice and decided we weren’t going to challenge him he calmed down. Granger’s explanation ended with the noisy appearance yet again of the pesky guide who was still on our trail. Granger just drove away, and we wended back to camp for lunch and rest and afternoon tea before going out on the next sundowner. As we lounged after lunch by the swimming pool a lone elephant strolled past almost close enough to touch but oblivious to our presence, and he made his way to a distant rendezvous under some palms near a group of hippos. It was again a picture of serene nature.
The serenity continued through the sundowner that evening amid the elephants and giraffes and lechwes that had become our neighbors. And the dramatic sunset again made Africa an art form. The sole jarring note came from another entrance of the intrusive guide who, fortunately this time, only rumbled by and then parked farther down the channel. Granger said we’d be free of the pest tomorrow when we moved on to Duba Plains for the lions and buffalo. But first came the dogs.
Granger greeted everyone the next morning with boyish alacrity. A pack of wild dogs had been seen in the area, and he wanted to find them. We didn’t understand why dogs should have excited him so much. After all, we have dogs at home. How could wild dogs be that much more interesting? “You seldom get to see a dog pack,” he explained at breakfast, “and they are among the most fascinating creatures in nature. They’re highly intelligent and thoroughly social. They hunt as a team with scouts, leaders, and soldiers. I hope we can see that.”
We took him at his word, as usual. He drove us back to the Savuto channel and well beyond where we had gone before. Eventually, we veered around a bend where Granger announced, “There they are.” He pointed across the channel to a rise against the trees. We strained our eyes to see anything moving, but saw nothing. We headed cautiously across. As we drew near the other side, we could at last detect a dozen or so splotchy brown forms lying together on the ground blending into the landscape. “Still sleeping,” Granger observed, as he coasted the Land Rover to a stop. “We’ll just wait until they get up.” In ten minutes or so a couple of the dogs started stirring. One of them stood up, and one by one the others rose, stretched, and rather restlessly paced around. “They’ll leave together then fan out when they begin the hunt,” Granger said. “When the time comes, they’ll surround their prey and attack.”
We watched as a lead dog started out. The others followed. They loped on down the channel against the trees. We trailed them. Several hundred yards along, they slowed, gathered, and paused. We waited. Then, as if having consulted and decided on a course of action, they disappeared under the trees. Granger seemed to know where they were going and drove on down the channel to an opening that delivered us to another branch of the channel where we could see a herd of lechwe. Granger pointed out some of the dogs that were already circling widely around the lechwe. Others dogs waited under the trees. We waited, too. Then, as if on cue, from their appointed positions the dogs dashed toward one lechwe that had drifted slightly apart from the others, and that the dogs had somehow collectively singled out. It bounded from its pursuers. The herd took off. Other dogs rushed in from the side. Shifting direction, the lechwe met yet another attacker. A panicked turn took it to another. And another. One dog now got close enough to grab a rear leg. The lechwe struggled to break free but another dog seized the other rear leg. The lechwe went down. It was over. The other dogs raced in and the lechwe was finished.
It was quite a drama. Granger was more excited than anybody. “They’re remarkable, aren’t they,” he effused. “You’ve had a treat.” That wouldn’t have been the word I’d have chosen, but the incident gave us all more respect for wild dogs.
While the dogs devoured the ill-fated lechwe, we turned back toward the camp. Reentering the main part of the channel, we crossed paths with the other Land Rover, which was racing toward the dogs. Granger steered clear and shook his head slowly. It was a sign of contempt. But this time he had bested his rival without incident. And soon we would be far away at Duba Plains.
As the plane descended to the Duba Plains landing strip that afternoon, we could see that the delta below was more flooded than at Duma Tau. Granger explained that this was a marshier area, and the year had been unusually wet, making for some soggy travels on the ground. We shortly learned what he meant. Going out for a sundowner later that day, our Land Rover crossed a bridge to a road that lay under water. A foot of water. Then two feet. Then three. By the time we had ventured fifty yards toward an island that looked quite far away, the hood of the vehicle was under water as we plowed our way through, sending a wake into the marshes on both sides. Water washed through the vehicle covering Granger’s legs and onto the floor of the lower seats where we had to lift our feet up to keep them dry.
“You ever get stuck out here?” someone asked, and Granger replied that it happens a lot, while he struggled to keep the vehicle on its underwater track. “What do you do?”
“Wait until we can get pulled out,” he answered as if it was obvious.
To our relief, we made it to dry land, where we had our sundowner in view of a band of baboons and monkeys cavorting in the acacias. We enjoyed another African sunset in the silence of isolation.
The next day, we went out before dawn for our first look at the the lions and water buffalo. Soon we found ourselves driving through water again up to the hood of the Land Rover. For an hour or more, we were in and out of water as we passed from one small island to another. Eventually we rose onto a large plateau and drove along a relatively dry road until we reached a stand of mangosteen and acacias where we encountered a pair of regal male lions sitting a few yards away. They gave us a lazy look and resumed their quiet gaze toward a herd of buffalo a couple of hundred yards beyond. Beneath another clump of trees three lionesses lolled, and their cubs played like kittens. How domestic and familial they looked, the females attending to the children as the males sat proudly to command the scene. Granger disabused us.
“Domestic, perhaps. But the females are waiting for their chance,” he said. “If a young buffalo strays, they’ll attack. The older males wait for lunch to be served. By the drooping of their stomachs I’d say it’s been quite a while since the family’s eaten, so they’re getting hungry. A good meal lasts them several days. But going after buffalo is no picnic. Buffalo protect each other, and they can send a lion flying with a well-placed kick, or skewer it on their horns. The lions have to be cautious and lucky.”
Granger eased the Land Rover close to the females and their cubs so we could photograph the fun. The cubs frolicked, rolling and biting and scampering, and the adult females bathed them with affectionate tongues. This pride of lions had been in the area for a number of years, Granger told us, and the males were getting on in age—twelve years, he said, is a long time for a lion to survive in the wild. “Sooner or later,” he went on, “young males from another pride will come in and force them out and take over. And they’ll kill any cubs that are left. That’s the ultimate turf war. Nature, red in tooth and claw, as Tennyson said.”
Ignoring those cruel realities, we happily took photographs of the familial bliss. After a time, Granger pulled back and drove to get closer to the buffalo. They were munching grass and drifting slowly across the field, seemingly indifferent to both us and the lions. While we watched, we saw two of the lionesses leave their group and slink out into the tall grass toward the buffalo. They crept almost indiscernibly through the grass, coming our way and within twenty yards of the trailing members of the buffalo herd. They crouched to a stop with their eyes fixed on their prey. As the buffalo grazed along, a space opened between two young ones and the rest of the herd. The lionesses’ inched forward. The young buffalo still appeared oblivious to their presence, thanks possibly to the light wind blowing in the lions’ favor. We sat nearly as still as the lions. And waited. A little more distance opened between the herd and the two trailers. The lions crept still closer.
Suddenly, they sprang together. In a flurry of dust they vaulted toward the slighter of the two buffalo. Both buffalo took off toward the heard. The chase was on. The commotion startled the herd, but instead of running they pulled together, horns and hooves set for battle. The lions came within a few feet of the two fugitives. At that moment a Land Rover came racing into the chase, engine roaring, gears grinding, wheels churning the ground. “What the…?” Granger exclaimed. “Not him again! All the way from Duma Tao?” It was as though the guy was trying to horn in on Granger’s turf, like the young lions taking over territory from the old ones. The lions slid to a halt. When the dust cleared we saw the buffalo herd standing at alert, the two strays now back in their midst, and the lions slumping back to the pride. The alien Land Rover had pulled up very near the site of the aborted attack. “That SOB,” Granger growled. “Unbelievable! You never interfere with a hunt. These lions probably won’t eat today. I wish they’d make a meal of him.”
The drama over, the female lions rejoined their brood, and the buffalo resumed their lunch. Granger said there wouldn’t be any more action here today, so we might as well go back to the camp for lunch. We circled around past the female lions and the cubs, now sleeping quietly despite having lost a hunt, and on past the male lions, who had wandered away and were now lounging on a knoll with a view of the plain, as impassive as if nothing had happened to disturb their regal calm. Granger paused for photographs.
“What would happen if we got out of the vehicle here?” someone asked. Granger replied, still a bit agitated. “You’d be their lunch.”
“But they seem unthreatening.”
“Don’t kid yourself,” Granger said a little edgily. “They let the females do most of the work, like lots of guys. But you’d be much easier to catch than the buffalo.”
From there, we made our watery way in the increasing heat of the day to the cool repose of the camp. After our usual afternoon of leisure, we piled into the Land Rover again and went to find a different pride of lions that had their own turf several miles away to the south of the pride we’d seen that morning. Granger explained that the space between the two prides was great enough to keep them apart, as long as they both got enough to eat. To our relief, the drive was drier than that of the morning, although there was plenty of water around.
It took an hour or more, but we finally came to a pair of males with two females and three young ones, older than the cubs of the morning but not yet fully grown and still very playful. They were all traveling through shallow water and reeds, the young ones cavorting behind the adults. “They play like house cats,” someone observed. “But water doesn’t seem to bother them.”
“They couldn’t survive long here if it did bother them,” Granger remarked. “And all the water this year makes it harder to hunt because their prey don’t have to go to just a few water holes to get it. You can see that these lions are as hungry as those this morning, too. They’re probably on the search for something to eat—buffalo or lechwe or wildebeests or anything else that they can find.”
We drove alongside the lions and stopped with them at a dry cluster of brush surrounding a large termite mound at least ten feet high. The males sat and the young ones tussled, and one of the females climbed up the termite mound and perched on the top. Sitting there, with the sun now lowering to the horizon and bathing everything in soft warm hues, she looked more like a statue than an animal on the lookout. Cameras clicked ferociously to capture the picturesque sight, another of Africa’s stunningly beautiful and tranquil moments. Then it happened again.
The tranquility was broken by a vehicle rambling toward us. It pulled up in front of us to grab the view of the lioness with the sunset. She turned her head and descended from the mound. The pride withdrew into the brush.
“That’s it,” Granger said softly. “This is intolerable.” And without more words he swung the Land Rover around and started back. He was kind of out of sorts and unusually quiet during our sunset cocktails. And the return to camp went quickly as darkness fell and he drove faster than before, shining his spotlight around, but catching only the eyes of some owls and small nocturnal creatures that vanished into the night. Later he also seemed preoccupied at dinner, not his usual loquacious and amusing self. Maybe he was tiring of us and the troubles with the other guide. But we had one more camp to go to after this, and it didn’t seem like him to lose interest or energy. Anyhow, I went to bed thinking of the lions in the sunset, and wondering if they would eat tomorrow.
The next morning brought a long drive along a new route that abounded in wildlife. We saw hippos bathing and saddle billed storks posing and wattled cranes nesting and egrets prancing and kingfishers fishing and eagles soaring and a fox on the hunt and a hyena scavenging for someone else’s lunch and monkeys and baboons swinging in trees and tssebees tussling with their curly horns and crocodiles sunning and elephants chomping branches. It was a beautiful and animating drive. We quite forgot the lions, and the intruder, who, happily, did not show up.
The mid-day back at camp passed as usual, culminating in our last sundowner here at Duba Plains. Granger had learned that the second group of lions had temporarily abandoned their trek to the south and had followed a small herd of kudo in the direction of our camp. When lions get hungry enough, he said, they will even go to a camp in search of food. So you don’t really like to see them too near-by.
A short drive led us to where they were now gathered under a clump of trees with a good view of the kudo. A couple of them paced, and a male scratched a tree trunk just like a house cat does to furniture. But we had no sooner settled in at a discreet distance than the other Land Rover bounced toward us on the far side of the lions. It stopped almost between the lions and the kudo. The kudo moved away, and the lions went to sleep. Granger didn’t react with anger. He simply said now there’d be no dinner for these lions tonight, so we might as well go for our sundowner. We were all quite willing to do that, and we drove away to where we could see the kudo and a forest of palms against the sinking sun. We had our cocktails and then returned to camp for dinner. Granger was rather quiet again, and we suspected he was glad to be leaving Duba Plains and his obnoxious rival. He left the dinner table early, pleading preparations to make.
The next morning, as we flew off for a short stay at Kwetsani camp before our return to Maun, Granger told us, in a still rather distracted manner, about the loveliness of the waterways we would be seeing and the varied wildlife that we should find, including cheetahs. He was right, as always.
Once there, our first foray from camp took us out on the swampy water in mokoro, or dug out canoes, pushed along by oarsmen wielding poles that penetrated to the bottom of the shallow water. We drifted through vast patches of colorful waterlilies and bulrushes and stands of lacy papari that gracefully arched out of the water, giving perches on their stems to tiny brightly colored frogs. After a while, we could see far away a large pride of lions assembled on a knoll beyond the floodplain. It was all perfectly quiet but for the motion of the water against the mokoro and the poles that eased us along. It was the peaceful Africa again. And no one to spoil it. We wondered if that would last.
The pleasant morning exploration of the waterways led to another mid-day lunch, followed, by time at the pool, maybe a siesta, tea service, and our last sundown game drive. Granger continued to be rather distracted through lunch, not his witty, voluble self.
But when we reassembled for tea, his mood had changed. He was talkative and spirited again. He didn’t say why. We were glad to see it. The change made afternoon tea more enjoyable and promised a genial sundowner. When the time came, we climbed into the Range Rover with anticipation of a new sunset adventure and regret that it would be our last..
We passed through marshy terrain and verdant grasslands, where elephants and giraffes and lechwe and wildebeests grazed. Without warning, Granger stopped abruptly. He pointed to a cheetah lurking in the tall grass in the vicinity of some lechwe. That he had detected it amazed us. We couldn’t get very close, he said, without scaring the cheetah off so we had to settle for distant photographs. But we could see it was a handsome cat, with proper spots and a lean face, poised, and alert. It wasn’t very large. After a few minutes we caughta flurry of movement. The cheetah attacked in a blur. It happened so fast we almost missed it. A young lechwe had wandered a bit, and that was the end of it, in the flash of an eye.
Granger was as excited as we were to have seen that rare sight. “A fitting climax to your safari,” he said. “Africa is full of surprises.”
We moved on and encountered the lions, who had traveled a mile or so from where we had seen them that morning, and they were still tramping through the marshy terrain. The females and cubs were leading the way as usual with the mature males ambling unhurriedly behind. We drove ahead of them to a location where Granger said we would get a good view of their eyes as they drew near. We did. As they came toward us, their coats glistened and their yellow eyes shown bright, and the manes of the males matched their eyes in the late afternoon sun. Cameras clicked, and the lions walked by as though they had a definite destination and ignored us as though we were part of the scenery. We followed them toward a large termite mound amid brush on a rise, and there the females lay down on one side and the males sat on the other. We parked discreetly. One of the males got up and climbed the mound and perched on it as the female lion had done back at Duba Plains. We eased near them. The sun was now at the horizon and the scene was if anything the most picturesque Africa yet. Palms and umbrella acacia pines stood silhouetted against the descending sun, and wisps of high clouds overhead lit up the sky in a diffuse light of radiant orange that the waterways reflected, creating a golden glow that enveloped everything. Pink water lilies covering much of the water caught that glow, and the spidery sprays of the tall delicate papari tendrils here and there glistened almost like a child’s Fourth of July sparkler. The same glow fell over the lions. The proud male sitting atop the termite mound was a monument to his species, his statuesque form and full mane burnished in the warm light, making him appear to be the king of beasts for sure, surveying his kingdom.
The scene gave us a slight feeling of déjà vu from the other evening. That previous event was like a rehearsal for this one, which was perfect. And as the sun sank beneath the horizon beyond the lions, giving the clouds overhead and the watery landscape around us an even more intensely celestial radiance, we all had the feeling that the curtain was coming down on the last act of our African adventure in a perfect tableau. It was Africa at its most magnificent and serene.
Eventually, someone broke the silence that had held us all for minutes. “This is the best night yet.”
“ And thank god that crummy guy didn’t show up,” someone else added.
“He won’t bother us or anybody anymore,” Granger said calmly.
“Why not? How do you know?” I asked. He turned fully around in the driver’s seat to face us. “The manager told me this afternoon that the guy didn’t come to breakfast at his camp this morning or show up for the game drive. He wasn’t in his tent, either. So some of the crew went out to search. They found what little remained of him out toward where we saw the lions last night. The lions lay in the shade under some trees. They weren’t hungry anymore.”
“What happened?” we asked almost in unison. “How did he….”
“It’s a mystery. But the manager told me they suspected he got drunk, as he was wont to do, and meandered out in the night.”
“But could he have walked that far?” I pressed.
“I guess it wasn’t too far from his camp. Besides, one of those hungry lions could have jumped him and dragged him away. He was arrogant, reckless, and stupid. Something like that was bound to happen to him.” Granger wore a peculiarly placid expression as he said that. It was as if this news had come as no surprise to him. It clearly pleased him.
Back at camp, Granger was full of life that night at dinner, telling stories of funny safaris and ridiculous clients and wayward guides. He was entertainer, philosopher, naturalist, and bon vivant. We had never seen him so lively. Possibly it was a performance for the last night of our safari. But I couldn’t help thinking there was more to it than that.
The safari was over. In the morning we gathered our things and took a mid-day plane back to Maun. From there the six of us would fly to Johannesburg then take our separate routes home. In the Maun airport we said our grateful farewells to Granger and tipped him generously. He accepted graciously then swung his backpack around his shoulder and amiably saluted us good-by. I watched him go out of the airport. And I saw him cross the street and walk to a shabby establishment with a weather-worn sign reading Safari Bar. He pushed through the entrance. The place probably wasn’t for tourists. It looked kind of forbidding. Curiosity seized me. I couldn’t resist. I followed him. As I approached, I heard cheers from inside. Gingerly, I went in and stood near the door in the semi-darkness. Rough-hewn and seedy, it looked like a suitable hangout for guides in Maun’s testosterone culture. Animal trophies adorned the walls, and rugged guys were crowded at the bar. I couldn’t see Granger at first, but he was being hailed for some manly accomplishment that they all seemed to know about and celebrated. Rivalries aside, they had a certain camaraderie and admired manliness.
A couple of them hefted Granger up on the bar. They all toasted him:
“To the man who did it!” they cried.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Granger shrugged.
“Who else could it be?” they shouted. “Got the bastard drunk and fed him to the lions.”
“All I know,” Granger replied, “is that the lions were hungry.” He flashed his broken smile,
“To the man!” They toasted again. “The victor. The dominant male. The safari king.”
I was stunned. Nature, red in tooth and claw. Granger lived it. And he was the biggest guy in the room. Even though he stood only four feet tall. A dwarf with a limp. I had long since ceased to notice.