by Hank Leukart
January 29, 2008

Goodman, my good man! What is that zebra doing?

Witnessing a zebra birth in Botswana, Africa.

A zebra and her newborn baby stand together in the Linyanti Wildlife Reserve.

A zebra and her newborn baby stand together in the Linyanti Wildlife Reserve. (view all Savuti Camp, Botswana photos)

This is the second essay in a three-part series about traveling in Africa. If you missed it, also read the first essay about Cape Town, South Africa.

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INYANTI WILDLIFE RESERVE, Botswana — There aren’t many cities more beautiful and cosmopolitan than Cape Town, South Africa. During the time we spent there, my family was humbled by Table Mountain, unsettled by the tour of Robben Island, and charmed by the Cape Peninsula. Yet when imagining Africa, most of us conjure images of wild animals, remote Bushmen tribes, and khaki safari outfits; and so, after three days in urban Africa, we set out to find the continent of our imagination.

After a two-hour flight to Johannesburg, a one-hour flight to Maun, Botswana, and a 30-minute flight in a propeller plane that touched down on a grass runway, we arrived in the African Bushveld. More specifically, we landed in the heart of the Linyanti Wildlife Reserve, a 275,000-acre area between the Okavango Delta and Chobe region in northern Botswana.

Quickly, Goodman — our guide and African wildlife expert — arrived at our landing strip in an enormous Land Rover modified with a snorkel for underwater driving. He greeted us with a British accent and drove us through the Bushveld to the Savuti Camp, where a staff greeted us with cocktails, quiche, and small pastries. Without warning, we had been thrust into a Hemingway novel in which “afternoon high tea,” “sundowners” and “my good man” became a normal part of our vocabulary. After warning us against walking on the camp’s raised walkways by ourselves (an elephant could hide behind a tree and trumpet at us or worse), the staff showed us to our “tents.” Only in this surreal, alternate 1920s-like universe could our luxury bungalows have been described as tents, but we thanked the staff profusely and tried to collapse on our plush mattresses. Goodman quickly informed us, however, that we had a strict schedule to which we needed to adhere (game drives started each day at 6am and 4pm promptly!). After confirming our sundowner orders (gin and tonic, all around), we were bouncing on the Land Rover’s seats before we knew it, as Goodman drove us even deeper into the wilderness.

“So relaxed, so dignified, and so handsome, the two cats couldn’t have appeared more kingly.”

Everything we had ever known or seen about Africa and safaris rushed into our heads. We were living in the Lion King, Out of Africa, and The Most Dangerous Game all at once. We had so many questions. Did Goodman really know everything about every animal in the African Bush? (We apologize for ever even wondering whether he would run out of information to teach us.) Was there a chance of us being eaten by a lion? (Goodman almost never let us step out of the Land Rover, and the lions didn’t bother us.) Did its snorkel really allow the Land Rover to drive under water? (We learned that it did, as we drove through deep rivers and lakes.) Was Goodman going to leave us in the middle of nowhere, forcing us to fend for ourselves while an insane Russian general attempted to hunt us down? (No, he had no plans to reenact Richard Connell’s short story).

Most importantly, would we see a leopard?

It’s difficult to describe the awe we felt as Goodman shared his Africa with us. The African Bush is not a zoo, it’s not an animal park, and it’s not Disneyland. As he escorted us across the African expanse, we gaped at herds of literally hundreds of elephants, stared at troops of baboons, and marveled at crowded towers (yes, that’s the correct collective noun) of giraffes.

We even sat quietly — or as quietly as our telephoto lens shutter would allow — as two massive lions lounged on the plain, fooling us into believing them to be harmless, strikingly oversized felines — until, of course, we saw the size of their mouths and teeth when they yawned. So relaxed, so dignified, and so handsome, the two cats couldn’t have appeared more kingly.

Yet we read in a wildlife guide that hippopotamuses, not lions, are the most dangerous animals in Africa. Compared to the lions, the hippos we saw appeared fat, ugly, and inelegant, and we kept our distance. But we soon found them to be as fascinating as our beloved lions, and we watched them perform mating rituals in the water, in which they sprayed excrement at nearby peers and emitted alien grunting sounds.

Zebras were my brother’s favorite — he insisted on their “objectively the best animal” status — and on our final day at Savuti Camp, we came across a large dazzle (yes, really) of them. As we watched them graze in the rain, which surprisingly didn’t seem to bother them, Goodman pointed out that a few of them had pregnant bellies. One of the pregnant zebras seemed to be having trouble cantering and standing, and we quickly realized that she was in labor. She repeatedly switched between standing and prone position as her confused progeny tried to play with and help her, agitating her further. During a brutally honest moment, she violently kicked them away as she endured the pain of labor. Epidurals were nowhere to be seen.

To our absolute astonishment, in the pouring African rain, we watched as a female zebra give birth to a baby. Zebra babies, always at risk of being torn to pieces by a lion, can stand on their own within five minutes and walk within fifteen minutes of their birth. Simultaneously terrifying and poetic, we observed, knowing that at any moment, a lion could wander by and gobble up the adorable baby zebra. It didn’t matter whether we were watching or not; there was no way we could interfere or protect.

Every minute following her birth was excruciatingly suspense-filled. We stayed quiet and hypnotized. Then, the baby zebra stood. She walked. She began grazing. Right before our eyes, as surely happens hundreds of times a day in Africa, she became a zebra.

Did we finally catch a glimpse of a leopard in Botswana? Find out in the final essay of this three-part Africa series.

A lion yawns in northern Botswana

A lion yawns in northern Botswana

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