Story by Nathan Hindman
Photos by Tyler Wirken
It’s two o’clock in the morning and I’m lying in my roof top tent staring at the canvas ceiling. Despite the comfy mattress below me, I can’t seem to get to sleep. Perhaps it’s because the normal background noise of city life in Colorado is gone; replaced by the blood curdling shrieks of jackals. Then again, maybe it’s the nearby lions having a territorial disagreement. They can’t be more than a quarter mile away, but their deep baritone voices which echo across the savannah sound like they’re right outside the tent. Come to think of it, lions outside my tent might be a big reason I can’t sleep. They’re a stark reminder that we’re halfway around the world from Denver, Colorado camping on the edge of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa. Sure, when I get home this is the stuff of great anecdotes and party stories, but right now it just scares the hell out of me.
Although my company, Pangaea Expeditions, had organized this two-week expedition into the bushveld of southern Africa, this was my first time visiting the continent. Graham Jackson, our guide who was born and raised in southern Africa, was responsible for our welfare out here in the bush. It came as a great comfort when I soon heard him walking around outside the campsite checking to make sure that everyone was all right and comfortable with the noises outside our tents. “It’s OK,” he reassured, “it’s just a couple of lions.” Great, just lions! For a second there I was worried that it was a giant predator higher up on the food chain than me, like a LION!
The night before, we’d slept in the comfort of a B&B on the outskirts of Johannesburg, South Africa. There, it was easy to forget that you were in Africa. The friendly people and plethora of chain stores and malls made it seem like any other major metropolis in the world. But here at St. Clair’s Camp, just a few miles inside the border of Botswana, there was no mistaking it—we were in the classic Africa of legend, the Africa you usually only see on the Discovery Channel.
Bushveld wisdom dictates that if you don’t bring any food into your tent and you zip all the door flaps up before you go to bed, you’ll be OK. You can go to sleep relaxed and calm knowing that lions and other animals don’t really know what to make of a rooftop tent- they think of you, the tent and the vehicle as one and the same, and thus a larger entity than them- not prey. Real world experience however is not quite so calming, as testified the next morning by the mass of people huddled around the coffee pot, hoping for a caffeine buzz to keep them awake after a sleepless night listening to “those noises”.
After the ingestion of large amounts of caffinated beverages, our group was to begin its first day truly in the wild. Our journey would take us another 250 km along the Kalahari to Khama Rhino Sanctuary, one of the few places left in the world where both species of rhinoceros, black and white, still roam. Once hunted to the brink of extinction by poachers for their horns, the rhino population is slowly beginning to recover. Khama is now home to about 28 white rhinos and 1 black rhino, just one small chapter in what will hopefully become the success story of the rhino.
Our late afternoon arrival to the sanctuary meant that everyone had to quickly settle into the campsite and prepare for a nighttime game drive, a rarity in Botswana. Nearly all parks and preserves in the country prohibit driving after dark, since the glaring headlights and loud lumbering vehicles disrupt the habits of nocturnal animals. However, in a few parks, Khama being one of them, sanctioned night drives in park owned vehicles driven by the park rangers are permitted. These drives offer a unique view of the bush and give you the opportunity to see the “other half” of Africa’s animal population. Among the sightings this night were hyena, aardvark, aardwolf, impala, as well as a mother rhino and her baby.
After a cold night camping (May is the beginning of winter in southern Africa, and night time temperatures sometimes drop into the low 40s) we woke up early for a morning game drive on the way out of the park. Gone were the hyena, jackals and leopards of the night; in their stead, herds of gazelle and zebra descended en masse to the watering holes. Our first daytime game drive of the trip was truly jaw-dropping. Seven Land Rover Defender 110s lined up end to end, and perched on top of each truck were the respective passegers with cameras, binoculars and video cameras in hand. We simply sat there panning back and forth as if unable to decide what to pay attention to. Directly in front of us, a heard of impala, but there to the right a few wildebeests grazing beneath the meager shade of an acacia tree. Further off to the right a group of ostriches intermingled with zebra while to the left a lone giraffe made an appearance in the clearing. It was like watching Animal Planet in 360 degree 3D TV.
In one moment the countless hours sitting in an airplane crossing the Atlantic, the frustration of getting sixteen people through the border into Botswana and the exhaustion from a sleepless lion-filled night suddenly melted away. In it’s place, the sheer elation of a lifelong dream fulfilled and the wonder of seeing the curious animals roaming their natural habitat.