Two kinds of people sign up for African safaris. Most, myself included, want to see the Big Five – lion, leopard, rhino, buffalo and elephant. The other people are the birders.
So when my birder father announces he wants to join me on a trip to Botswana I have planned for myself, I clarify, ‘This is not a birding trip.’
‘I won’t mention my interest in birds to anyone,’ he assures me.
As we climb into the open Land Rover for our first wildlife drive, the guide Tim asks, ‘Are you birders?’
‘I’m not. I want to focus on mammals, especially lions and elephants,’ I respond with an I’m-in-charge attitude. ‘This is my daughter’s trip, but if we see a bird or two, that would be great,’ Dad adds. Tim’s face lights up and I realise I’m doomed.
A few minutes into our drive, we stop. ‘My first lilac-breasted roller,’ my father announces with pride. With its colourful feathers shimmering in the first morning light, I have to admit it’s a beautiful specimen.
During the next hour we stop and stare at every brown, yellow, big, little, flying and sitting bird. I listen to discussions about wingspan, beak shape and throat colours, and I learn new names like hamerkop and bateleur. Twelve sghtings of lilac-breasted rollers and many other bird species later, we see a pride of seven lions. I focus my binoculars on the cat’s blood-stained fur. After a few minutes, Tim interrupts my trance, ‘They aren’t going to do anything, so let’s push onward.’
At our last tented camp I explain to my father, ‘It’s probably obvious by the name of this place, Savute Elephant Camp, that I really want to focus on the elephants here, not the birds.’
‘Of course,’ he agrees. So I hire Clive, a private guide, to lead us on a bush walk.
‘We have no interest in seeing birds,’ I tell him.
‘We’ll try to find the rogue bull elephant that has been in the area,’ he says.
I follow Clive, his shotgun slung over his right shoulder, with Dad taking up the rear. As we catch up to the massive grey bull Clive raises his hand to motion us to be quiet and stay close, whispering, ‘Adolescent male elephants can be unpredictable and dangerous.’
We creep nearer the huge beast, then Clive signals us to stop. Any further would be too close for comfort. The bull moves from one mopane tree to the next, snapping branches like twigs. I turn around to share this adrenalin-pumping moment with my father but he is nowhere in sight.
‘We can’t follow the elephant until we find your father,’ Clive insists. I know he’s right, but I’m reluctant to let the animal get away from us. I look around and see Dad in the distance, half hidden behind a thick bush, his binoculars focused on a lilac-breasted roller.
I walk across to him. ‘Dad, you’ve seen hundreds of lilac-breasted rollers already. Please you walk with us; the elephant’s moving away,’ I plead.
‘You’ve seen a hundred elephants,’ he retorts. We stare at each other for a tension-filled moment, and then start to laugh. The noise causes the bird to fly off, while my elephant disappears into thick bush.
Back home in the States my father sends me a gift. It’s a 2×3-foot (60×90-cm) poster of a lilac-breasted roller.
He may just make a birder out of me yet.
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