We left Maun a little later than expected and arrived at our first campsite in NG41, a couple of kilometers outside the village of Mababe, around 6 pm. We quickly set up camp: pitching the kitchen tent and loading the equipment in it, pitching our own tents, and throwing a tarp up between the kitchen tent and the table we cook over. Sixteen, our instructor who was born and raised in Sankuyo, left to pick up Zencks and Foe (pronounced Foye) – our escort guides for our time in Mababe. We cooked as the sun set. Chicken, seasoned simply with adequate salt, pepper, and a little cumin, grilled over a mopane wood fire, sautéed peppers and onions, pap (the ubiquitous fine white corn meal cooked to the consistency of very thick mashed potatoes), and a kind of thick instant brown onion soup. “Monate tata,” as we say in Setswana (meaning: very good).
After spending the last few weeks conducting our spoor surveys with our new Bushmen tracker friends in the Xai Xai area, NG3 and NG4, here in NG41 we’ve begun our routine of herbivore transects, which we will continue throughout the rest of the program as we move to Khwai and return to Sankuyo. Everyday, two cars, each with an instructor driving, a community escort guide, and two students, leaves camp around 6:15 am with the aim of beginning a transect at 6:30am. All of these transects are along roads, some more than others, that have been driven in previous years by Round River. The car goes along at 10 kilometers per hour and everybody keeps their eyes peeled for movement in the bush. Once something is spotted, the car stops, we count, age, and sex the animals to the best of our ability, record distance with a rangefinder, take a GPS point of the car, and use a compass to record the angle of the animal from north. This method is called DADS (Density And Demography Sampling). During the first transect I went on, we saw three bull elephants, several small herds of impala and one with thirty individuals, mostly females, a waterbuck, and a wildebeest.
It still rains almost every day, as we work through this near record-breaking wet season, ranging from a prolonged drizzle to a torrential downpour. Yesterday we managed to have a fire, despite a little rain. A campfire is one of those things that never fails to remind me of so many good and peaceful times, and is my favorite part of how we operate out here.
As we sat around the fire after dinner, Ben and Kaggie took the chance to remind us that this area is very different than the one we just left. Namely, the difference in the concentration of lions, elephants, and everything else that goes bump in the night. It has only been three nights here and we’ve heard elephants pass not more than ten or fifteen meters behind our tents, and we’ve found hyena and lion tracks about fifty yards from camp.
According to Ben and Foe, lions are more present in Mababe than they ever have been. Nobody walks in town after 9:00 pm, and there are only ten dogs left in the village. Ben told us the story of an old man who, a few years ago, was on the toilet at night, outside of his house in Mababe, and was surprised by a male lion. According to Ben, as the lion attacked and lunged at the man, he shoved his arm down the throat of the lion and ripped out it’s tongue, and the lion ran off. Undoubtedly this is a story that will stick with me every time I head to the latrine.
Sixteen picked some meat in the village yesterday and began cooking it around dinnertime. Sixteen prepared the meat for those who were willing to stay up for another hour or two and chat around the fire. In Botswana, meat of all sorts is usually cooked in the same traditional way. In a round, cast iron pojkie pot, the chunks of meat are just covered with water, a healthy amount of oil, and lots of salt. After a couple hours over the fire, having been stirred occasionally, the water has mostly evaporated and sliced onions are added as the now tender meat browns in the fat. Spices can be added, but traditionally rarely are. We enjoyed a few pieces before going to bed.
Not long after I could hear the low groans of a pair of lions calling to each other a kilometer or two or way. It’s an indescribable sound, like a long, deep, tired moan that you feel in your chest, something I’ve only ever otherwise felt hearing a grizzly bear huff and puff.