Sausage Tree Camp
We arrived at the tiny, dirt Jeki airstrip later than had been planned. But "late" is just part of the African experience. There was nothing at the airstrip but a few bushes and trees and incongruously, three Range Rovers and a dining room table covered with a white cloth and an open Bar. We were invited over to the bar and offered beverages to soothe our memories of the bumpy landing. Then as the sun sank toward the horizon our guides: Dave, Garth, and Jason hurried us into two Range Rovers with the urgent note in their voices that we had to get to camp "Before Dark." We drove a short while and the sun set. In the dusk light we came to the river and boarded a boat, once again the guides urged us not to dawdle because we had to get to camp "before dark.". We were soon zipping along the Zambezi River. The evening smells of Africa entertained our noses, the sweet honeysuckle and exotic spice smell of the potato vine mingled with the smell of elephant dung. Pods of hippo laughed out their deep "Ho,Ho Hos" over the sound of the outboard engine. We made it to Sausage Tree camp just at dark.
We were taken immediately to our rooms. These were large circular structures with tent like roofs, smooth cement floors, and sturdy canvas walls. The walls were secured down at night to keep the animals out and raised during the day to allow the air to circulate. Out the back, a fenced-in walkway lead to the bathroom and showers. Once we got settled we were escorted back to chairs around a campfire circle. Here after our drink orders were filled, we were briefed about the safety rules. No one was allowed to walk anywhere at night without an escort. Hippos, cape buffalo, elephant, and assorted poisonous snakes all made there way through camp at night. The guides were trained to spot them before we walked into them. They pointed out that more people are killed by hippos in Zambia than by any other animal. They also urged us to keep back from the edge of the water. There were plenty of large crocodiles in the water and they had been seen lunging 8 feet up a steep bank to grab an impala and drag it to its death. I looked at the dirt cliffs separating us from the water and noted that they were about 8 feet high. Camping in Africa is a lot more exciting and deadly than camping in the Sierra Nevada.
The next morning, before dawn, the birds begin to sing, African birds with sings quite different from those I am used to in California. As I lay awake listening to new sounds there is a quite call "knock, knock." I resist the urge to call out "Who's there?" and instead call out that I am awake. It is still a bit dark so I turn on the bedside light, noting that the generator is on. Then I burrow my way out of the mosquito net curtains around my bed and make my way to the shower. The concrete floor is cool to the touch as I pad my way outside the tent along a corridor lined with reed fencing to the showers. The hot water feels good.
At breakfast I find that they have fantastic chefs. The pancakes are some of the best I have ever eaten, they are light, crepe-like, and taste of butter. I wonder what the tasty sausages are made of...but quickly dismiss that thought as one that should never be asked even in California.
After breakfast, Dave took a few of us away on a two hour boat ride up river to the nearby village, Frances came along as the boat driver. Around the first corner we come to a huge pod of hippos. Dave motors past the hippos giving them plenty of room and then once past cuts the engine and drifts quietly downstream past them again. Dave points out that they are submerging quietly, lifting their noses and sliding backwards underwater. Then as we get closer their submergings are accompanied by splashes, he says this is a gentle warning to us. Every pair of hippo eyes is fixed on our boat as we approach. Then, the big male ruler of this pod yawns a huge yawn. I comment, "My what big teeth you have," Dave agrees and notes that this is a real warning and so he starts the engine and we continue up river.
Around another corner we come to a group of three male elephants, a bachelor herd. They are crossing a side stream. One of them takes the lead and the other two wait and see how he makes out on the crossing. We keep a respectful distance but we can still see every wrinkle in their hides. My 10x30 image-stabilized binoculars show great details of their wonderful eye lashes. (On a later boat trip we would watch two elephants sparring for over 30 minutes, clacking tusks together, pushing and shoving, trumpeting and climbing over each other for more than half an hour. Dave noted that these young males were practicing for the day when they would fight the old male for dominance of the female herd.)
At the pit stop Dave makes a quick check of the shore to make sure there are no deadly snakes or large mammals lurking about. Then allows us on shore. While there he catches an armored cricket in his hat. It is a large cricket and really does have armor. Dave gives us an anatomical tour of the cricket and I am impressed by his scientific knowledge. I shouldn't be surprised, it turns out he is an entomologist! Later he points out an insect to avoid: the blister beetle, black with bright orange transverse stripes and as big as my thumb. It secretes a substance which raises blisters on human skin. We notice that bee eaters avoid eating blister beetles.
Continuing up river we saw huge crocodiles basking on sandbanks and many birds including fish eagles, hooded vultures and goliath herons. We almost never beat Dave when it came to spotting birds and animals. Eventually we came to the local village where I was scheduled to give a presentation about the eclipse. I'll write about that wonderful experience in another note. After the presentation we headed back downriver to sausage tree camp.
Along the way Dave found a great sandbar under the shade of some large trees. We stopped and he set up a table and spread out a fantastic lunch with meats, breads cheeses, salads, fruits, quiche and desert cookies served together with wine, beer and sodas. Somehow we managed to eat almost everything. The site was covered with quartzite and schist rock pebbles, they must have washed down from the surrounding mountains, I expected to find basalt lava pebbles, but there were metamorphic rocks instead. I'm going to have to find out more about the geology of the Zambezi River.
We arrived back in camp in time for high tea at 4 PM. Pastry and tea with beverages. After tea we had a chance to go on a game drive or a river trip. I chose the game drive. We boarded 6 passenger Range Rovers with a driver and a spotlight operator then set out into the evening hunting for animals. we first saw a huge family of baboons mixed in with a herd of impala. The youngsters scampered up and down trees swinging through the branches, pouncing each other and running about on the ground. The adults paraded slowly from place to place.
Soon after we encountered a lone bull elephant. It was chewing on some short palms. It gave us a long hard look and flapped its ears but didn't trumpet or charge. Another vehicle experienced a mock charge by an elephant! They said that the trumpeting was so loud it made their chests vibrate.
We came upon a pack of hyena, they were all lying on the ground with huge distended bellies. they had just gorged themselves on a dead hippo carcass. A photographer had pulled off to the side of the road and was out of his vehicle filming the hyenas at the carcass. As we pulled away we saw a lioness approaching the dead hippo, her path was going to take her right over the photographer. Garth drove rapidly back and warned the photographer to get into his vehicle because there was a lion coming. He got back in just in time.
The lioness drove off one hyena with a growl and a swat then turned to stare at us sitting in our open vehicle. Garth reminded us not to stand up. It was exciting looking eye to eye with a lioness. Then she turned her attention to the hippo. She stood on top in a cat like pose as if to say,"this is my hippo!" Then she crawled into the open belly and pushed her face into the belly flesh. We could see the face of a cat etched into the stretched flesh of the dead hippo. Wow! She came out with her chin dripping blood then dived in for more. Another vehicle drove up so we backed up to let them view the feeding. Then we drove off to a former village site. Garth pulled out a cooler of drinks and let us wander the bare ground looking at, but not taking, pot shards. We drove back in the dark using a spotlight to look for animal eyes. One vehicle saw a leopard cross the road.
We arrived back in camp to find a wash bowl and wet cloth waiting for us. we cleaned up then went to the chairs around the fire. The bartender arrived to take our pre dinner drink orders. I had been very boring, drinking only wine and I felt like allowing him to do something creative. When asked for a suggestion he offered a "scorpion." I accepted and was presented with a smooth fruity beverage with the punch of a rhino charge.
Sitting around the fire we shared stories and watched the southern cross, the milky way and there southern constellations. I was astonished to see the rare zodiacal light, rising like a pyramid of faint white light above the place where the sun had set over an hour ago. I pointed it out to the guides who had never seen it before. The zodiacal light is sunlight scattered by the dust from comets deposited into the plane of the earth's orbit. I had seen it once before in my 50 years of observing, on this Africa trip I saw it 5 nights in a row.
At 8 PM it was time for dinner. We began with a fabulous home made onion soup. Then continued with Beef Wellington, roasted potatoes, ratatouille, red and white wine. Then a fine creme brule for desert.
After this long wonderful day our guides walked us back to the tents. the walls had been lowered and secured and the mosquito nets were down. I wrote in my diary for an hour or so and then collapsed into bed I was asleep within minutes. It had been quite a day.
I woke up during the night to the barking sounds of mating baboons, the deep laughing of the hippos and the eerie wailing of the hyenas and knew I was no longer in California.
Go to Need a Physicist
Scientific Explorations with Paul Doherty
6 June 2001