About an hour after we check-in at Motswari we head out on the first game drive of our stay. We climbed into the back row of the Land Rover that we shared with two other couples and our awesome team of trackers, Marka and Petros. Based on our drive to the lodge earlier that day, I was half-expecting to see hoards of animals as soon as we turned out of the driveway. We quickly learned that tracking wild animals across 135,000 acres with little more than a set of sandy paw/hoof prints, broken tree limbs, and piles of you-know-what, is often equal parts luck and skill. With the "Big 5" (Elephant, Rhino, Lion, Leopard, and Cape Buffalo) at the top of everyone's must-see list, we were eagerly keeping our inexperienced eyes out for any sign of life in the surrounding bush.
Just as I was worrying about whether the sound of our incoming truck would scare off any nearby creatures, we pull up next to a magnificent grazing kudu (look at those horns!) and a nearby herd of shy impala, who only hopped away from us after a few moments of mutually curious observation.
Before we set out on the drive we were given only two rules: to watch our heads for low-hanging branches and to not stand up in the car. The animals in the reserve are completely wild which means they have had no direct contact with humans and therefor do not associate the Land Rovers or private cars with predators or prey. Despite being completely exposed and easy targets, as long as we stay seated and do not "break shape", animals supposedly see the car and its passengers as one, large, lumbering gentle beast. Obviously, the trackers use their instincts and experience to avoid any potential risk in the first place, obeying some basic rules: always approach elephants from the front, rhino from downwind, and a happily satiated leopard from...below?
We quickly pull off the main road (a sure sign that the trackers have spotted something) and come to a stop beneath a big tree, completely oblivious to the beast perched above our heads until Marka told us to look up. About 15 feet above us, was a spectacular leopard, sprawled out and panting contently after polishing off a feast of fresh impala, the leftovers of which hung a few branches below.
Look at that belly! The poor guy was so full he could barely find a comfortable position to wait out his food coma. We've all been there, buddy. I couldn't get over how big he was, from his paws to his tail that had to have been 4" thick. At one point he snapped a small branch as we was repositioning himself and everyone's shoulders may have twitched just a bit.
Unfortunately, the leopard wasn't going anywhere anytime soon, as a hungry hyena was hanging out at the base of the tree, patiently waiting for the remaining pieces of the kill. Hyenas are known for being scavengers but they are also super scrappy fighters and would probably try to take on the leopard too, if he were to come down from the tree. So the rest of the evening probably looked a lot like this. We pulled away just as the sun was starting to set, getting a final glimpse of the big guy up in his tree.
At 5:15am the next day there is a soft knock on our door. "Good morning", we call back from within our mosquito net-tented bed and start to get dressed for the morning game drive. At 6am on the dot, we settle into our seats in the open-air Land Rover, and roll away from the lodge into the heavy early morning mist. Marka and Petros are on a mission to find a male rhino that they had heard wasn't too far from an area we were exploring the evening before.
A short drive takes us back to the area of brush that the rhino was most likely in and Marka hops out of the truck, loads a rifle (which he's thankfully never used in the wild), and asks us all to get out- if we wanted to get close, we would have to go on foot. We follow behind Marka in a silent, single-file line, looking left and right, for almost an hour, stopping to examine traced of foot prints and potentially fresh droppings that dominant male rhinos take pride in spreading around to mark their territory.
We are marching along when Marka holds up his hand, a silent command for us to stop. He simply states "the rhino is here". Rhinos have terrible eyesight so they usually keep their faces close to the ground but have sharp noses (see what I did there) and excellent hearing, so we had to approach downwind and stay completely silent even as the rhino raised his head towards us. When we were about 30 feet from where the rhino was grazing we were able to snap a few pictures of this shy, prehistoric-looking statue before he disappeared back into the bush.
While making our way back from our rhino expedition, were able to stop to see a small pack of rare African wild dogs sleeping in the shade. Despite their camouflaged coats and super efficient pack-hunting skills (which we were able to witness later) these dogs are rapidly declining due to disease, habitat loss, and human predation. We could tell that seeing them was a huge deal just by how excited the trackers and staff at Motswari were that there was a pack nearby and were grateful to see them on a few occasions during our stay.
Another unexpected treat on our morning drive, was a herd of very photogenic zebra grazing in an open clearing not far from the road. Though designed to help them hide in dense trees, their stylish stripes are a stunning contrast against the otherwise neutral-colored fall landscape. Since this could be an advantage for predators if they were alone, zebra stay in packs, that are particularly confusing for predators trying to guess where one animal ends and another begins. Their other defense mechanism? Zebras inflate themselves with gas that is used to "distract" predators during a chase, giving them more time to get away. Spirit animal, anyone?
They were some of the only animals who seemed genuinely just as interested in us as we were in them, and a few mamas were proud to show off their pretty babies.
I mean, how pretty are they?! I could have snapped photos of them for hours, but I had to conserve my camera battery (don't ask*) and we needed to start making our way back to camp for breakfast.
It wasn't too long before we made another turn towards a small cluster of trees where two elephants were happily helping themselves. While I am a lover of the entire animal kingdom, African elephants have always held a huge place in my heart. They are the only animals I had researched and read about before our trip but to see them up close in the wild was nothing short of awesome.
We watched these guys for a good 15-20 minutes, since we were already late for breakfast and the Brazilian couple with us had already changed their flights that day so they could track the Rhino. That's what safari does to people, you've already come so far, you don't want to miss a single second.
I absolutely loved seeing so many amazing animals up close in the wild, but as we were sitting just a few yards from these gigantic, gentle creatures, I felt that I would have been just as content to simply watch and talk about elephants all day. In fact, I think I will in the next safari post where I'll share my favorite memory from our time at Motswari. Hint: babies. Stay tuned.
* In an exciting turn of events, upon arriving at the lodge, Dan realized he had left all of our camera chargers locked safely in our room at our last hotel. Despite coming close to losing his life in the African wilderness, everything was fine, I took more than enough photos, and we all lived happily ever after.