Mankwe & Khwai WeXplore Text

We returned to the bush, this time after being told not to refer to it as the bush, importing foreign affronts into a location that clearly has no issue with the term. Ah well. In two short weeks it had warmed considerably and now Mankwe camp was wonderfully hot during the day and no longer so miserably cold at night. Everyone else wilted while I blossomed. Nap time/down time was built into the schedule in the afternoon and everyone hid from the sun. I basked in it, playing on the slackline and the rock rings, exercising in my tent, drawing, reading, writing, then filling two buckets of salty fire-heated water for my shower.

This time in the bush was devoted to learning about it scientifically. We learned to identify tree species, set camera traps, identify spoor (animal tracks) and conducted transect surveys in a “citizen science” endeavour reminding me of the similar power of citizen diplomacy. Bird species such as the lilac-breasted roller, the kgori bustard, the emerald-winged dove; spoor of elephants, impala, lechwe, hyena, wild dog, lion; dung from hyena, impala, and zebra; soil composition preferences of the silver terminalia, camelthorn, shepherd’s, and kalahari apple trees. A deluge of knowledge from our guides (the same as from before), from our scientist Christian, and our tracker.

One minor scare occurred at the “Picnic” pan, a flattish pool of water collected from the rainy season and dug by elephants. We stopped our vehicle by the pan after a long transect, talking about the various animals we’d seen (such as a skunk), and the tracks, ready to head back for lunch shortly. After a few minutes Christian came down off the hood mounted seat to walk around, so Vega and I joined him. All of a sudden a hippo emerged with a burst of water from the pan, then submerged itself again. Vega and Christian yelped, teleporting back into the safety of the vehicle. We’d been sure, Christian included, that hippos could only hold their breath underwater for five minutes. When two different hippos surfaced later, after we’d been there for twenty minutes, we soundly refuted that estimate.

The following activity saw the students setting camera traps by a different pan. My group had the wonderful fortune of working with KT again, who expertly let the students choose an awful location before nudging them into getting a better one.

With the heat and the nocturnal nature of the creatures, especially the mammals, we saw few during our transects. Mostly we counted spoor, with one designated student as the tracker calling out what kind of animal, how many, what direction, and how long ago as another student logged the information, rotating roles throughout the vehicle while the rest of the students focused on looking for animals – some looking in the distance and some close. I’m rather proud to say that I spotted the vast majority of the animals. It’s quite startling how quiet and invisible an entire herd of elephants can be. I spotted warthogs, kgori bastards, steenboks, and many majestic elephants.

Our students bought into the enthusiasm of our guides. They spoke of “seeing” lions and leopards and elephants and hyenas that they’d only seen the spoor of. They understood that it amounted to the same thing. Still, we endeavoured to give them a proper game drive and scheduled two very early morning transects. My vehicle was never a lucky one, with other vehicles seeing a cackle of hyena. We did see the tail end (literally) of a pack of wild dogs, however.

Our second game drive was a full day affair, taking us from the dry delta to the wet, in the concession of Khwai. Apparently it’s just a coincidence that the romanization of the name coincides with that of ควาย, or buffalo. Fascinating, as we would see many cape buffalo, over 200, on our trip. We saw giraffes, a terrifyingly long crocodile, elephants right by the side of the road, and endless impala, waterbuck, kudu, and lechwe. Tipped off by another guide (the brother of one of our guides), we raced through the park to an area by the airport, where we crept up on a group of drowsy female lions, totally disinterested in us.

I was appalled by the attitudes of some of my students – calling them cute, and saying they wanted to pet them and hug them. It brings to mind the most fiery central line of inquiry we explored at the time – the legality of hunting. Those students from the most urban environments were those most appalled by the killing of animals. In contrast, those students living with and around animals supported the legalization of limited hunting. We debated it – guides, scientist, educators, students, at a wonderfully tense fireside circle.

Loathe to leave Mankwe camp, we celebrated a final dinner with the camp staff, guides, and the school community, singing Beautiful Africa one last time before heading back to dusty Maun.

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