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Lions and Hippos and Stars (Oh, My!)

Lions and Hippos and Stars (Oh, My!) March 27, 2009

“He turned on the lights of the truck and two large male lions were standing 20 feet away, just looking at us.”


Todd Knoop

Among the field trips taken by students on the ACM Botswana Program this semester was a safari in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, one of the largest in the world. The following account comes from Todd Knoop, Botswana Program Director and Associate Professor of Economics and Business at Cornell College.

Read more about this Botswana Program field trip on Jordan Davis’ student blog in her post “The Okavango and more. “

ACM Botswana Program students with their guide on safari in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve.

By Todd Knoop

We began our safari with two nights in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, the largest national park in Africa. We learned that the typical African safari involves hours and hours of tedious, intestine-jarring driving punctuated with occasional moments of such intense beauty that the only thing that fills your mind is “I am in Africa!!”  Despite the fact that it is the rainy season here and game are much more difficult to see, we saw a nice collection of cheetahs, giraffes, zebras, gemsbock, puff adders, and elephants.

The most interesting event happened the first night in camp. When it gets dark in a place 800 miles from any city, it really gets dark. But the stars are fantastic — in the southern hemisphere you get a wonderful view of the Milky Way and the stars actually twinkle when you look at them.

Anyway, we are settling down when we hear two lions begin to roar. Our guide says “3km away.” Fifteen minutes later we hear them roaring again, and they are closer. Our guide says “2km away.” Fifteen minutes later, and you guessed it: “1km away.” About five minutes after that, we hear a roar that sounded like they were in our tents.

The guide says “Get in the truck!” and I figured it was for safety. But instead, he drives us down the road about 500 meters, stops, and turns out the lights. We sat quietly in the pitch black for about five minutes. Then he turned on the lights of the truck and two large male lions, one with a yellow mane and one with a dark brown mane, were standing 20 feet away, just looking at us. All of us had a pretty tight grip on our door handles. Anyway, we followed them for a couple of minutes while they walked right by our camp and off into the bush. Pretty cool.

Our guide’s name was Ruster. He was excellent, and we all felt perfectly safe with him. His words carried a certain authority given that (1) he sounded like Louis Armstrong, and (2) he had a sizeable scar on his face and arm from a leopard attack he survived. A leopard with cubs ambushed him on a game walk and he killed it with his knife. For me, that translated into “whatever this guy says, do it.”

On a mokoro trip in the Okavango Delta.

Anyway, I am quite happy to say that he has bestowed upon me my official Swana name. It is “Radiri Toro,” which means “dream leopard” in Setswana. I would like to convince you of the fact that he gave it to me because of my cunning mind and agile reflexes. In reality, I was given the name after my enthusiastic spotting of a leopard in a tree, which in fact turned out to be a branch.  But it was a very scary branch.

The second part of our trip involved visiting the Okavango Delta, the largest inland delta in the world. The delta is an immense swamp of reeds and flowering lily pads, interspersed with islands teaming with animals.

The way you see the delta is on a mokoro trip. A mokoro is a very flat-bottomed canoe that is propelled by a man standing in the boat and pushing it with a pole. Kind of like extreme gondoliering, because a gondolier actually has sides to his boat that rise more than 4 inches above the water, has a boat that weights more than 20 lbs., and doesn’t have to deal with crocodiles and insane hippos, which are the most dangerous African game.

Todd tries his hand at poling.

Riding in a mokoro is a wonderfully beautiful experience. You lay back inside under the searing sun and bake like a saltine, and because you are so close to the water, you feel like you are gliding along the surface. Tall reeds and beautiful yellow, pink, and white water flowers roll past, almost lulling you to sleep until you remember that there might be a 3-ton hippo underneath your boat.

The polers are amazingly agile, and we really felt no danger of falling into the water even given the precariousness of the whole thing. [One of the students] and I even tried our hands at poling. She was a natural. I was able to ineptly go around in circles for quite a long time. I did not fall in, to my eternal pride. We saw lots of elephants along the way, but no hippos until the very end, when we spotted them in a lagoon after we had gotten out of the boats. I think the students were quite happy not to see them before then.

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