Since we’ve been here I’ve hardly closed my mouth once. Not so much because I’m talking all the time—which of course I can do—but because I’m in such perpetual awe of the Okavango Delta’s diversity. I feel like a toddler—delighted beyond reason by each new sight, sound, and smell. Already we’ve seen elephants (live ones), antelope of several varieties, baboons, warthogs, cape buffalo, a leopard, a civet, hyenas, hippos, and, of course, lions.
But even more interesting to me are all the things I never noticed while watching Wild Kingdom way back when. Like trees. In Botswana they drip with sun-dried apple rings (not really, but that’s what an Ana tree looks like); grow upside down with their “roots” in the air (the baobab); sprout king-sized sausages (sausage trees); and inebriate elephants (marula). Then there are the trees that make toothpaste (leadwood), wine (palm), and chewing gum (mangosteen).
And what festoons these trees by the hundreds? Birds, birds, and more birds. Everywhere you look! I could go on for pages about the jewel-like malachites, the lilac-breasted rollers, the go-away bird that whines like a bratty baby, and the egrets that pick bugs from the eyeballs of the bully cape buffaloes. But I won’t bore you with what you can read about elsewhere. Instead, I’ll tell you about camp.
As I said in my last dispatch, Kwara is a bush camp, which means it’s not as fancy as the “Gucci camps” with their palatial tents and Queen Ann arm chairs and personal armed guards. With just eight tents for a maximum of sixteen guests, Kwara is the kind of camp where people with plenty of coin come to feel gritty and down-to-earth, to prove to themselves they can survive in the bush with killer beasts roaming at large, just as long as they have a flushing toilet, a private guide and tracker, three hot meals a day, a midmorning tea break with homemade pastries, and, of course, plenty of sundowners after the afternoon game drives, preferably within view of a National Geographic setting.
There are so many tourists from around the world coming through this concession that I think it’s all the staff can do to muster half the freakish enthusiasm of a guest like me. You know, the ones who ask questions like “Do hippos eat people?” “Have you been attacked by a man-eating lion?” and “What does bush meat taste like?”
Just yesterday I found something that I thought might really stump our guide, TJ, who seems to know the name of every living species under the Botswana sun. Everything from buttonquail to the potato bush. He just rattles off their common names the minute he spots whatever it is that’s flying or sprinting or sprouting. Sometimes he includes their Latin names too.
The stumper I found yesterday was only a few feet from our tent. It was a feather and it was quite large, maybe nine inches long, pale gray, and fluffy like down. Although it didn’t look like it came from any of the birds TJ had identified on our drives, it did look kind of familiar. I thought maybe I’d seen it in the African bird book I’d pretended to read yesterday while eavesdropping on guests in the lounge.
In any case, I was sure TJ would be pleased with my find and might even use it for show-and-tell at the after-dinner campfire. That’s why I had to approach TJ when I saw him near the kitchen hut talking to our camp hostess (who, by the way, looks like the beautiful and “traditionally built” Precious Ramotswe from the #1 Ladies’ Detective Agency TV series, which she told me people tell her all the time).
“Yes?” TJ said. He didn’t seem to appreciate the interruption, but I knew he’d forgive me once he saw what I had in my hand. I held up the feather by the tip of the hollow shaft and waved it so he could see that it was an undamaged specimen of perfect plumage. “Look at this feather I found right outside our tent!” I said. “I haven’t seen any birds here that would have a feather as big and fluffy as this. Do you know what it is? Is it rare?”
TJ and the camp hostess exchanged looks. Then the Precious lookalike laughed under her breath and took the feather from me. TJ didn’t even crack a smile. “Rare? No … no, no, no, the bird that this feather once belonged to is not rare at all. It is a species native to Botswana.” He took the specimen from Precious, lifted his sunglasses to the top of his closely shaved head, and examined the vanes as he twirled the base slowly between his thumb and forefinger. He handed the feather back to me. “What you have found here is a feather from the common African house duster.”
While TJ let out a big, warm laugh I thought would never end, Precious put on a poker-face.
“A what?” I asked.
“This is a feather from the common ostrich,” he said, straightening his posture and returning his sunglasses to the bridge of his nose. “The Struthio camelus. Village women use the feathers to remove the dust from their homes.”
Ah, yes. The feather-duster feather. I thought it looked familiar.
I don’t know what it is about travel that magically turns me into a mook every time I cross a border. I see all these other tourists acting like they’ve left their heads at home, and I roll my eyes and sigh. Then something like this happens and I’m reminded that I’m every bit as capable of winning an idiot award.
But no time to ponder that. It’s time for dinner and then a night drive to see what the animals are up to after dark. I’ll write again soon to let you know.