Indulging in flora and fauna

Many years ago my idea of 'travel' included hobnobbing at expensive clubs, eating at fancy restaurants and basically having a jol on nice things like oysters and sushi, gulped down with champagne.

But I have found that as I get older and evolve to be more in tune with myself, I've become less 'shallow' and prefer more subdued and laid back engagements; I actually like being in nature and quiet spaces. Maybe it has to do with growing up between the township and city and spending my younger years visiting mostly urban areas.

Nowadays, crowds and noise irritate me and I always want to travel out to relaxed, calm and quiet places where there is abundant fora, fauna and water. There is something about being in the bush or game park - that smell of grass and trees, and water is amazing. And the fresh air is always calming. My only problem is that I am an ENT patient and vulnerable to sinus attacks and rashes when in the bush but I always carry Vicks, St. John Worts and lavender and chamomile tonic and herbal teas on hand to alleviate irritations.

I have always been a 'vintage soul' and I like off-beat stuff like environment. I have also always liked wild animals and grew up watching National Geographic and the likes. I'm that proudly 'boring' person who finds fascination in the seemingly mundane such as how animals mate, what they eat and learning about herbs and plants and watching sunsets and shooting stars in the night. And just one secret that I have always had - I am fascinated by anthills, also known as seolo in Setswana.

Several years ago I used to eat soil and would even go on 'anthill expeditions' until one day I saw some man peeing on the anthill that I had been eyeing, and I nearly puked in disgust. I also learnt that eating soil is a sign of an iron deficiency and it is quite strange now that I think about it. I have learnt to control my urges and just appreciate the sight of these giant soil structures. At the Sanctuary, I spotted so many anthills and one that looked like a gigantic penis, that left many people giggling.

My first introduction to game viewing was a visit to Gaborone Game Reserve while I was still in Primary. At the time I was more interested in eating sandwiches and braai meat than watching animals, which were difficult to spot. During that time it was a lovely place buzzing with activity. A few years ago I went on a 'baecation' at Madikwe Game Reserve, and on the game drive, I finally understood why foreigners pay lots of money to come and see wild animals - the sight of lions, impala, warthogs and giraffe just being there on the backdrop of pristine flora and fauna is an amazing sight.

Someone once told me that they would never pay to go and watch wild animals, saying that: "dilo tseo ke tsa makgoa (those are white people indulgence)." I had a chuckle because I know a fair number of blacks, even Batswana who genuinely enjoy nature and game viewing. But at least, us locals have the advantage of seeing wild animals for free. I have been to Kazungula, Kasane and Maun and saw live elephants, impala and giraffes here and there without paying a cent.

I once even came in direct contact with a buffalo sometime last year in Maun and I nearly peed in my pants. I stood still like a statue as it crossed before me in the rain, praying it does not see me and come charging my way. Thank God I survived that! I'm always fascinated that people who live in areas where there are wildlife are actually unfazed by wild animals that they can just walk confidently even amidst the incidents of human-wildlife conflict. I have heard that there is some juju that some folks use in wildlife areas to avid being spotted by wild animals. Ha! I guess for the rest of us it is best to put our faith in God and keep a safe distance from them. As much as I love animals, I am neither gullible nor naive - I want to love and see them from a distance.

But I had observed that the one wild animal that is difficult to spot is the rhino. This is one animal that you are likely to mostly see only when you visit a proper game park. The first time I came close to a rhino was this year when I visited the Khama Rhino Sanctuary. I found the Sanctuary to be a lovely outing. The sanctuary lies adjacent to Paje and Mabeleapudi, about 40kms from Serowe and 340kms from Gaborone.

I have also wanted to see live rhinos. After all, they are the most prized wild animals in the country and facing extinction due to poaching.

Rhinos are the biggest targets of wildlife criminals in southern Africa. Furthermore, the black rhino is an endangered species.

Endangered black rhinos have found a safe haven at Khama Rhino Sanctuary, a community-based wildlife project, which was established in 1989 and officially started operating in 1992, with the main mandate to assist in saving the vanishing rhino, and restore the Kalahari sand veldt of about 8500 hectares, to its previous natural pristine state, as well as encourage tourism and the sustainable use of natural resources.

The sanctuary boasts more than 200 plant and bird species, and more than 30 animal species, giving you variety to appreciate flora and fauna.

Botswana is home to about 500 rhinos. By the 1980s and early 1990s, Botswana had experienced a complete collapse of both white and black rhino populations, with the black rhino classified as locally extinct.

The Khama Rhino Sanctuary has a lovely restaurant and bar and the food is amazing. I particularly loved their bogobe ba lerotse and stew - evidently cooked by a 'setswerere sa Mongwato'. There is also a non-functional pool and several chalets peppered across the huge facility. The chalets are a distance of 500m-1km apart so if something happens, it could be a while until you get help. I recall I was so terrified and ensured the doors were locked.

There was a huge fat gecko on the wooden ceiling and though scared of it, I just left it alone and in the morning I woke up and noticed it had two other companions - maybe calling friends or starting a family above my head! The rooms are spacious with lovely showers and little verandahs where you can sit out and enjoy a cold beer or two, or some whisky as you watch the sunset or listen to the sounds of wild animals. The signal is bad which is good as there won't be any interruptions - just quiet time and a chance to zone out.

Most guests are encouraged to leave the front area to their chalets earlier and use the Sanctuary van if they are not using their own trucks and vans. It is not safe to walk because you might come across a lion that thinks you are a late night snack. One of the bartenders actually told me a story of one tourist who apparently got attacked and killed by a lion while attempting to walk to his chalet from the bar. The thought gave me shivers!

Khama Sanctuary is not just a place to escape to and enjoy braais and bonfires in between game viewing, it is also the home of ‘Sisiboy,' named after the President. Apparently hundreds of guests throng the facility to see the endangered species – a young black rhino that has found a home at Khama Rhino Sanctuary. He was moved to the sanctuary from the Okavango after his mother was killed by poachers. He is cute and shy, and it's difficult to spot him on a game drive.

Thapelo Baiphethi, Chief Warden and CEO of Khama Rhino Sanctuary said that the black Rhino is one of just six in the country. The rhino was moved to Khama Sanctuary after its mother was killed by poachers. But the rhino lad is apparently doing well and having the time of his life after first struggling to fit in. "At first, he would lurk around the gate and by the pool, not wanting to mix with the other animals but he started blending with other animals and has made friends, and spends time with other rhinos."

Rhinos are highly protected because they are the target of merciless poachers who kill hundreds of rhino annually. A single rhino horn sells for between BWP 400,000 and BWP 1million on the black market. The horn of black rhinos in particular, reportedly fetches a much higher price on the market, sometimes at close to BWP 2 million, and is often used as traditional medicine for treatment of ailments such as gout, fever, rheumatism, to detoxify blood among others.

It is also used as keratin, which is a component in hair and nails, and some use it as cultural artefacts or merely a ‘status’ symbol or as an aphrodisiac to boost potency.

Killing a rhino in Botswana can lead you to a hefty fine, and a decade-long imprisonment. In the past two years, Botswana has been evacuating rhinos from the Okavango Delta, amidst rising rates of poaching and the Khama Sanctuary is one of its safe havens.

The sight of a live rhino is a marvel. My eyes nearly popped out when I saw it walking confidently across the road/pathway as If it saying, "This is my territory!" An adult rhino is almost the size of a sedan. However, despite its size, it has a speed of up to 40km per hour.

Tour guide at the sanctuary, Store Lobopo, noted that rhinos are generally reserved, but they can also be aggressive and defensive when they feel attacked, and that is when they angrily charge towards you, and chances are that you will be unceremoniously reunited with your ancestors once they touch you with that sharp horn.

The rhinos at the Khama Sanctuary are safe and protected because they are far off the target from poachers, most of who operate along the Namibian and South African borders. But this has not stopped efforts in ramping up security at the facility to deter poachers because they can infiltrate the area anyhow.

The Sanctuary also operates an Environmental Education Centre, through which there is a programme that provides courses for locals on conservation and environment, and through which staff regularly visit schools to educate learners on conservation and environmentalism.

It's a great place to visit with friends and family and ideal for both young and old. The entrance fees are also affordable and it offers a lovely camping and outdoor experience. I don't like repeating experiences but this is one place that I will be returning to in the near future, to at least take a glimpse of Sisiboy and roast marshmallows, gherkins and game meat on the backdrop of an outdoor bonfire!