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Safari Journal



Don't forget to look under your bed

Something woke me up!  The pain in my leg was excruciating!  As I attempted to stand up, my right knee buckled out from under me and I fell back on my bed.  I fumbled for my flashlight.  There, on the right side of my lower leg, was a perfectly round circle about 3cm in diameter.  It was purplish-black in color with a large red blister in the middle.  It scared me when I saw it.  When I touched it, it stung!  Something had definitely bitten me, but how and when?  It had to have happened during the night. 

The safari tent I was in wasn’t exactly clean, as I had noticed when I first arrived.  I have a habit of looking under beds when I am on safari and when I looked under this bed, I saw an old used band aid and a receipt of some kind, stuck in the cobwebs. There were lots of cobwebs!  Yuk!!  This was not the norm for a high-end safari camp.  As I sat on my bed wondering what had bitten me, I heard a gentle voice on the porch of my tent.  “Hello” said Wilson, my tent attendant.  He had walked all the way to my tent to bring me my morning coffee.  “Thank you” I said, as he very quietly stepped out.  I looked at the steaming pot of coffee and plate of ginger snaps and suddenly realized something.  The pain in my leg was gone!

I downed my coffee, ate my cookies, and got dressed.  Soon we would be off on our morning game drive.  I was with a group of 16 people on a safari in Botswana.  I forgot about my leg, at least temporarily.  I unzipped my tent and stepped outside on the porch.  The cool, crisp air hit my face.  The sun was rising and Africa was waking up.  I made my way to the dining tent.  None of the group members were there yet.  As I sat down, I asked Joseph, who brought me my coffee, where Mark was.  He said he would go and fetch him for me.  I looked down at my leg.  I still felt no pain.  Had I dreamt this?  Was my malaria medication giving me problems again?  At the time, I was taking Mefloquine (Lariam) which can sometimes cause hallucinations.  I had already experienced some side effects from this drug so it would not have surprised me.  I then heard my name, turned around, and there was Mark.  His smile was large, for so early in the morning, as he sat down next to me with his cup of tea.

Mark was the camp manager of Machaba Camp, one of the safari camps that Ker & Downey owned at the time.  The camp was situated on the eastern side of the Okavango Delta near Moremi Game Reserve, one of the most beautiful reserves in southern Africa.  The game viewing around the camp was phenomenal!  Elephant could most always be seen on the banks of the Khwai River for it was the main water source of the area.  In fact, when we first arrived at Machaba in our safari vehicles, we had to wait for a huge herd of elephant to leave before we made our way to camp across the shallow part of the river. I had never seen so many elephant in one place.  It was spectacular!

Mark, and his wife, Ethel, moved to Botswana from South Africa.  Married for only a short time, they first managed a camp in Kruger National Park.  Although Mark knew his mammals as well as anyone who managed a safari camp in Africa, it was the birdlife that excited him most.  Always, at different times during the day, usually when we returned from the morning game drive, we would find Mark sitting by the fire pit with a dozen or more birds around him.  He particularly liked hornbills.  It was quite a sight to see Yellow and Red-beaked hornbills eating out of his hand.  He had a natural way with these birds.   

I will never forget when we first arrived at Machaba.  When our plane landed on the airstrip, not far from camp, we saw three open-sided safari vehicles waiting for us.  When we arrived at camp, Mark and Ethyl, and other camp staff members, were there to greet us.  They sang a sweet Setswana welcome song to us, which I will never forget.  What a great way to begin our stay at Machaba!

“Hey, Denise, how are you this morning? I hope you slept well.”  I told Mark that I had slept great until the pain in my leg woke me up. I pulled up my Levis on the right side, just above my boot, so he could see.  In a way, I was relieved to see that the bite, or whatever it was, was still there.  I hadn’t hallucinated after all.  As much as I love Africa, I am always a little “off” when on safari, but in a good way.  Malaria pills, maybe, or the headiness of being at my favorite place on earth!  Mark looked at my leg with not a hint of concern.  “Oh” he said “it looks like something bit you.” Duh, I thought to myself.  “Did it happen this morning?” Mark asked.  I told him that I thought it had happened during the night in my tent.  “Well” Mark replied “it doesn’t look all that serious to me!”  He told me that during this time of year (it was late November) a little spider sometimes appears for only two to three days, and will bite.  He told me, however, that the bite was nothing to worry about and should go away in a couple of days.  He patted my arm and smiled “this is probably what bit you.”  “Well, okay” I said “if that’s what you think.  But does it always look like this?” Mark told me that people react differently to bug bites and that I shouldn’t worry one more minute about it.  He said “If it begins hurting again, take an aspirin.”  And that was that!

As Mark walked away, I sat there in my canvas chair gazing at the morning campfire feeling a whole lot better. The African bush is not a place to get bitten by anything poisonous.  Most tourists fly from camp to camp in bush planes because there are either “no” roads, or what roads there are, are not drivable. If someone gets sick or hurt, they are at the mercy of camp radios or phones, which many times don’t work.  If something happens during the night, you are out of luck!  If you sit around enough campfires in Africa, you will hear the stories.  Tales of sickness, madness, and animal attacks!  Many times you witness first-hand how dangerous African mammals can be!

Two things come to mind here.  When we were at Camp Okuti, at the end of our safari, one of the guides told us about a guest who had disappeared just two days before we arrived.  Camp Okuti lies alongside the Maunachira River and is situated in the heart of Moremi Game Reserve.  Early one morning, it was time for all of us to go to Camp Okuti.  We had just spent three glorious days at Shinde Camp.  Members of our group, as well as our bags, were loaded into four small wobbly aluminum boats, each fitted with a small outboard motor.  Our boat was the only one that kept getting stuck in the reeds.  There was no land on either side of us, just papyrus and reeds.  Some were so tall you could hardly see the sky.  There were also hippos and crocodiles in the water around us and beneath us.  Once, when I put my hands in the water, one of the guides yelled at me to take my hands out quickly!  I did!  Falling into the water was not an option.  In fact, the first boat hit a hippo!  Everyone was fine but I was really glad we were third in line, although, again, our little outboard motor was useless!  It took us over three hours just to get to Camp Okuti. 

We heard the about the honeymoon couple when we first arrived.  The manager told us to be very careful when we stepped out of our boats because a croc had just taken a woman the day before.  We laughed to ourselves thinking she was joking with us.  She wasn’t!  A man and woman from the UK (who were on their honeymoon) had been sunbathing on the bank of the river when the wife asked the husband to go to the bar and get her a drink.  A sign was posted close to the river that said “Beware of Crocodiles!”  When the husband was gone, the wife decided to take a quick dunk in the water to cool off.  She was never seen again!!  It was the talk of the camp while we were there.  The manager pointed to where she had been laying on her towel.  

The Nile crocodile is one of the dominant species of the Okavango Delta.  It grabs its victim, using its massive jaws, and does a death roll several times in the water.  The victim has no chance of survival.  Many times it will take its prey to its underground lair.  This is what most likely happened to the woman.

The same day we learned the fate of this young woman we heard another sad story.  Our guide, who was female, told us the story about a leopard attack.  Sadly, it was her father who had been attacked. At their home in Botswana, he had gone outside to check on his dogs one night when he heard them barking loudly.  When he stepped off his porch he immediately heard a yelp from one of his dogs.   When the man ran over to where his dog was being attacked, he tried to intervene to save his dog. The leopard turned on the man, however, and killed him.  Leopards are notorious for going after dogs in Africa.  Sadly, the man and his dog died this fateful night.  And our guide lost her father.

I never did find out what bit me that night in Botswana.  Even though the camp staff cleaned my tent from top to bottom the next day, they didn’t find anything with fangs.  Whatever it was had most likely already crawled into my duffle bag earlier.  I had problems with my leg for several months after I got back to the U.S.  The pain was horrible at times.  The bite eventually led to necrotic scarring which is still noticeable on my leg today.



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