Elephants With Wet Feet, page 2:

Fortified with tea and toast at six in the morning, we set off with a guide and four other people down the Zambezi in an awning-shaded pontoon boat. Hundreds of hippos bobbed and waddled across the river, appearing suddenly beside the boat like submarines. Unaware of us as we drifted silently along the bank, eight or ten mature elephants were at the water's edge, slurping and sloshing, while two babies rolled in the mud.

Finally noticing our approach, they eased off drinking and playing in the water. A large male rose up to full height -- over fifteen feet to the top of his head. He flared wide his huge ears and stared at us, blowing and stamping. Our guide laid his Gibbs 505 magnum rifle across his knees and whispered, "Don't move". We stopped breathing. After a moment, the bull nudged the babies out of the water. Pushing and jostling each other into one glistening, dripping, dark mass, the animals lumbered away across the grassy plain.

At the river bank, we got out for a short walk, and encountered a motionless herd of nyala, their wavering stripes the colors of sunlight through the dry, brown forest. Not the least bit camouflaged were endangered saddle-billed storks feeding in the shallows. Almost five feet tall with striking, yellow-banded beaks, their legs are black with bright red knees and feet. Overhead, a fish eagle flew by in formal wear, with white bib, chestnut vest and black coat.

After lunch and a rest in the heat of the day, we ventured out on the river again, this time in canoes. Waterbuck and chattering baboons on the shoreline paid us no mind. A gang of five crocodiles feeding on a Cape buffalo carcass on the bank did strenuously object to our arrival. They plunged into the water and surrounded us. With only their eyes above the water, they positively trembled with anger. Longer by three feet than our canoes and as big around as a truck tire, one fellow repeatedly rose in plumes of water and slammed back down, drenching us. This is what we came to see, Africa in the wild. For a few moments, it was plenty wild enough.

Lake Kariba

We flew on into northern Zimbabwe to the Water Wilderness Safari Lodge, a flock of small, teakwood chalets floating amidst a ghostly, drowned forest of trees on Lake Kariba, the large lake created when the Zambezi was dammed more than thirty years ago. Accessible by plane or by miles of rough roads, the lodge is within Matusadona National Park, which comprises 338,000 acres of protected wildlife habitat, the home of the endangered black rhino. Driving from the dirt air strip, we spotted a mother rhino and baby, and hopped out to approach them on foot. We got close enough to snap photos with telephoto lenses before the dusty, three-ton, mother turned to face us, stamping her feet, and we left her there.

We paddled to the lodge and the five guest chalets by canoe. And, when we realized that crocodiles and hippos live in the lake and elephants along the shoreline, our canoeing skills rose to expert level, our paddles slicing silently through the dark, green, water. Every muscle tensed, we whispered low, scanning for hippo and croc eyes. Arriving at the lodge -- called "the mother ship" -- we stepped gingerly onto the deck and smartly into the bar.

Later we set out on our first safari on the lake, in a pontoon boat. The sky and the water were the same blazing blue, the weather very dry and very hot. Our guide, Rolf Neimeyer, a 6-foot, 4-inch bloke who has spent most of his life in the bush, seemed to know every sound, shadow, and shape on the landscape. "We'll just keep close to shore," he said, "in case those little bastards get fussy," -- meaning the crocs. Close to shore we stayed, in shallow water, just clearing the red-brown mud where the eyes of some unnamed, silvery creatures glowed neon yellow in the sun.

"By the way, don't drag your fingers in the water," he said, "The crocs think you're calamari."

Around the bend on the side of a muddy cliff, a colony of Carmine bee eaters flitted in and out of their nesting holes, their fluorescent, melon-colored breasts attracting not only we tourists but several two-foot-long green lizards hunting for eggs. The flamboyant bee eaters are one of hundreds of species of birds in the National Park. We saw herons, plovers, storks and cormorants in the swamp grass around the lodge, and fish eagles in the dead tree branches.

The next morning before sunrise, Rolf led us on a walking safari along the shore, following lion and rhino tracks. Matusadona is said to have the highest population of wild lions in Africa's national parks. In single-file, we trudged up and down the dry slopes, through mopane scrub and woodland, watching for the big cats. Suddenly, Rolf stopped, arms flying up, hissing, "Now, he's a nasty bugger! Get back!"

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©Karen Misuraca; all rights reserved.