Elephants With Wet Feet, page 3:

He had stepped on a mound of elephant dung, where a puff adder was settled in for a nap, perfectly camouflaged in pale golden and brown markings. One of the deadliest of all snakes, the adder lunged toward Rolf's ankle, snagging his canvas boot-top. "He definitely got my attention", Rolf said. He shouldered his rifle, adjusted the 44 Magnum pistol in his belt and we headed back to the boat, double-time.

The next day, we motored to Kariba's western shore for a milder adventure, a visit to a rescue station for black rhino orphans whose parents had been killed by poachers. The orphans are raised by local men who guide them through the bush each day, teaching them to forage and to survive independently. We hiked around and came upon three young rhinos, whom Rolf introduced by name. The youngest and most boisterous was Shungu, weighing about 1500 pounds. "He's a cheeky little sausage," Rolf said, "just a little poof, but he thinks he's tough."

Cautioning us not to approach head-on, lest the animals charge right between our legs, we gingerly touched Shungu, scratching his withers and rubbing his tough, leathery skin, which felt to be about two inches thick with wiry, black hairs gray with dust. The softer area at the crease of his thighs was as smooth and silky as a well-worn handbag. Shungu seemed to like the scratching, as he grazed on the leaves of a young tree he'd just trampled, but when one of us touched his horn, he raised his head with a obstreperous snort and trotted away.

When the rhino orphans are about a year old, they are released into other parts of the park. Research shows that they no longer recognize their keepers or their former home after about three months, becoming truly wild.

The Okavango Delta

Toward the end of yet another uncomfortably hot, bumpy, but mercifully short, small plane flight, we watched the landscape change dramatically from dry scrub forest to an endless network of glinting streams and lakes in the Okavango Delta of Botswana. Touching down, we threw open the windows and drank in the humidity as hundreds of tiny red and yellow parrots exploded off the dirt strip. Damp and shaky, we motored by Land Rover a short distance to Kwara Camp, a compound of tent cabins and a beautiful lodge at Gadikiwe Lagoon on the Chobe River. The small buildings are all eight or ten feet off the ground with steep thatched roofs, floating in the shade of an ancient jackalberry tree and over-arching mangosteens. Over cold Tusker beer at the bar, we were just in time to watch the sun set over a breathtaking, prehistoric-looking scene of wetlands and reedy swamps around a lake where a large herd of buffalo were drinking. A family of hippos posed for our photos. Elephants trundled slowly, single file, from the waterhole into the deep green forest beyond.

In the middle of the Kalahari desert, Kwara encompasses diverse habitats, from clear delta waters filtered by vast papyrus- and bullrush-lined lagoons to open savanna, mopane woodlands and palm-fringed islands. We spent a few days poleing in mokoros -- hand-carved dugout canoes -- through the narrow channels of the delta, taking photos of waterbuck, reedbuck, bushbuck, the ubiquitous hippos, crocodiles, zebra, tsessebes and the world's only swimming antelope, the sititunga, which can hold its breath and hide underwater. Among the spectacular bird life were pygmy geese, fish eagles, maribou storks and the elusive Pels fishing owl. Draped in periwinkle blue waterlily necklaces made by our Kwara Camp guide, we flew off to Victoria Falls in a daze, to one more riverside camp.

Victoria Falls

Nestled along the Zambezi just above the chasm of Victoria Falls in Zambia lie two well-hidden lodges frequented by those for whom privacy and a front-row seat for wildlife viewing are essential. In a marriage of luxury and low-impact tourism, Tongabezi Lodge's tent cottages lie in a grove of ebony trees on the river bank.

No sooner had we arrived in camp after a hot, dusty, Land Rover ride and had a cold drink, when we were led away, bag-and-baggage, by our guide, Lloyd, down to a narrow, motorized "banana boat" at the shore. Gliding downriver, we watched the spray from Victoria Falls, not a thousand yards away, rising in a prismatic white cloud. The river churned with hippos and sandbars were covered with the sunbathing animals, while nearly submerged crocodile eyes peered at the them and at us from a few yards offshore.

We pulled up on at the south bank of Sindabezi, a sister lodge on a tiny island, consisting of four thatched-roof chalets, each open to its own private panorama of the Zambezi. Draped in filmy, white mosquito netting -- all that separated guests from the outdoors -- and with antique, wind-up field telephones; kerosene lamps, bathrooms with river views and canvas bucket showers, the chalets were enchantingly vintage. One former guest was inspired enough to leave his name and London address in the guest book. His name was Ralph Fiennes, star of the film, "The English Patient".

That night, dinner was served by candlelight alongside the river, complete with white linen and fine china. After some South African Cabernet Sauvignon in crystal stemware, we hardly noticed thrashing sounds from the river, twenty or so feet away. We did notice when the thrashing proceeded up the bank and into the high grass a few feet away.

Lloyd cocked his head, listening, then calmly suggested that we pick up our wine glasses and adjourn to the lodge. Huddling together on the thatch-roofed verandah, we peered into the darkness, whereupon two very nervous hippopotami burst through the thick brush and sniffed around the dinner table, still flickering with candlelight. Eventually they settled down on the ground, their heads together, and feel asleep.

"That's Horace and Henrietta,", Lloyd said, "They are regulars and they think this is their island. They are often scared by the ellies (elephants) who swim over here each night. Best leave them to it."

Was there any question? We left the hippos to their grassy bed and tiptoed off to our own, lying awake half the night under the Southern Cross, listening to the sounds of Africa.

If You Go...

©Karen Misuraca; all rights reserved.