Had some new visitors to the backyard feeders on May 8th (couldn’t post the images then because my internet connection was down)… A male and female brown-headed cowbird!
Archive for the ‘5. Botswana’ Category
About 2 a.m. I woke up, alarmed and not sure why. I realized that there were noises outside the tent and the tent flaps were rustling. Could have been the wind, but the side of the tent closest to where I was sleeping was also bowing in. Ulp… Buffalo? Bandits? Then all of a sudden all of the noises and rustling stopped. Ulp!!! Buffalo! Bandits! I lay there for a minute and all of a sudden heard Fred’s tent door unzip. My first thought was that someone was trying to get into his tent. Then I heard him take care of his business. At that point I figured what the heck. If he wasn’t worried, I wasn’t either. I went back to sleep.
It turned out that it was just the wind — a cold front and cloud cover had moved in during the night. So this morning was cloudy and overcast but strangely warmer. We left Likan and Nami packing up and went off on our morning game drive. It was fun to sit and watch a whole troop of baboons and some black-backed jackals who were sleeping out in the open and more.
As we drove the short distance out of the park and into Kasane, we saw our one and only sable antelope, our one and only puku, some kudu stags, a whole group of mongoose (Grant said they were territorial), and a family of warthogs rooting around in the grass. It was hard at times to know what to look at!
At one point, I wanted to open the truck door to take a photo of a particular flower, and Grant told me to look up first: there was a whole herd of elephants not far away! Then we stopped dead in our tracks for perhaps as much as a half hour while a whole huge herd of buffalo crossed the road in front of us.
Fred was adamant that we couldn’t be that close to yet another country and not at least try to check it out (and, of course, get a stamp in our passports). So we took a motorboat ride across the Chobe River just before noon to Namibia, got the stamp, took a brief walking tour of a local village. The guide Calvin was excellent — highly educated, knew the latin names of most of the plants — and it was interesting to see the mix of old and new in the village. One woman came up with a plastic bin of tomatoes carried in the traditional fashion on her head. She had her baby strapped to her back with her shawl, but a cellphone in her hand. (Cellphones are positively ubiquitous in Africa, even more so than in the US. Given the lack of landlines, it’s either a cellphone or no phone, so everyone has a cellphone.)
Back in Botswana we boarded a boat for a sunset cruise of the Chobe and found ourselves back with our South African friends. We had a good time with them, they’re all bright and friendly folks in their 20s and 30s, and I’m awfully glad we had the chance to see them again and say goodbye. The boat ride itself was great fun by itself (Fred, of course, not only charmed the female tour guide but got her email address — and probably her phone number!) — but the Chobe River area is famous for its elephants, and this cruise surely did not disappoint on that score!
First, we saw elephants walking in the river:
Then, we saw elephants playing in the river:
We even saw a whole herd of elephants swim across the river:
That was followed by a truly spectacular sunset.
Back on land, we found that Grant had managed to find two cabins at the lodge where we were to be camping that were open due to reservation no-shows and he got them for us. This was just another episode that underscored for me the kind of guide Grant is. His concern was that the campground would be noisy and crowded, and it would feel like a letdown after the really wonderful camping we’d been doing the previous nights. So, he said, he’d rather have us in basic cabins where we could shower and relax so we’d remember the camping part of the trip as a uniformly good part.
Dinner at a local lodge with unbelievably mouth-watering chicken, a good hot shower, and tomorrow we’re off for Victoria Falls. Weather permitting (and even if not!), we’ll walk the Zimbabwean side of the falls tomorrow afternoon.
Today was spent en route to and at the campground called Ihaha on the Chobe River. We started out watching the squirrels at the campsite and then drove over to the rocks near Savute where there is a Bushman rock painting that’s been dated back 3000-4000 years. It’s a small climb up to where you can see it and I find that I am still very over-protective of my ankle where I broke it more than 10 years ago. You’d think that after all this time I’d start to relax, but the exact opposite is true: I get MORE afraid as time goes by. Sigh… if I ever do anything like this again, I’m going to get professionally made hiking boots with ankle protectors.
The area here in Chobe is vastly different from what we’ve seen so far… there are baobab trees everywhere (there was just one that we saw near Savute), umbrella acacias, palms along the river. It’s very green right along the river, instead of being so dry as it is everywhere else (even just back from the river). Long drive en route but got into the park by lunchtime and had sandwiches beneath a huge tree (I’ll have to remember to ask Grant what type of tree — he told us but I’ve forgotten!) where vervet monkeys kept watch from above.
The campsite is right on the river and the afternoon game drive was fabulous. We saw buffalo and monitor lizards mating (she eventually developed a headache and rolled out from under him into the water and swam away), more eagles…
… And then a giraffe spooked over to our right. We all looked and Fred gasped: “Four feet!” Sure enough, the cause was another lioness, wearing a transponder collar, who eventually strolled out right into the road… followed by three nearly-grown cubs perhaps a little less than two years old. All females, all gorgeous.
They weren’t hunting or anything, just strolling along, playing, pouncing, flopping down and getting back up. We kept following and watching for over an hour and it ended up with them getting into a staring contest with another giraffe. Stupid giraffe kept coming closer, as if it didn’t believe what it was seeing.
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Good thing for the giraffe that the lionesses weren’t hungry. They angled off back into the bush and we had to make a mad dash back to the campsite before the gates closed. Fortunately we made it (but not until well after moonrise)!
(I should add that lots of people would drive up, spend a few minutes looking at the lions, and then drive off, as if to say, “Okay, lions checked off on our checklist. Now go find us something else.” There was even one totally bored teenager with headset on and book on her lap. Fred and I, on the other hand, would have been perfectly happy to sit there all night… well, okay, until dark, that is. Being out after dark in a park without fences is a little intimidating…)
Lots of buffalo on the riverfront right in front of the campsite. Grant told us we are NOT to even THINK about leaving our tents and walking to the ablution block after dark. If we absolutely have to go, we’re to yell out and he will drive us there — even though we are only a short walk away — we can even see it from the campsite. That’s how dangerous buffalo can be. And, he says, we’re close to the border where four countries come together, so there could be bandits as well… Ulp…
Finally all the adults had had their fill — the cubs were alternating between eating and playing — and Grant deemed it safe enough to back up even closer to the pride. We ended up with the truck not more than 15 feet from the lions. In one image of a cub lying in the grass, you can actually see the reflection of our truck in the cub’s eyes.
We watched and watched… taking pictures and even videos. I don’t think any of us could quite believe what we were seeing. Every so often Fred and I would look at each other, smile, shake our heads in almost total disbelief and go back to watching.
Finally, even we had had enough. All of the lions were lying down, we were starving (not for zebra but for lunch!) and we finally headed off back to camp.
The afternoon drive was quiet, but beautiful. We got a good look at an ostrich, and then spent some time watching elephants at a waterhole.
We drove along some croppings of rock, looking for antelope or cheetah or leopards. We didn’t see anything much, but it really didn’t matter: we had seen lions. LOTS of lions. And finally Grant stopped the truck out in the middle of the Savute marsh and let us get out on the road. There was nothing out there but us, and with the land so flat, we could see the entire sunset, 360 degrees. It was like being in the middle of a pastel-colored bowl, with blue along the horizon and pink and red and orange above. It was one of the single most peaceful moments I’ve ever spent…
And tonight, every time I close my eyes, all I’m seeing in my mind is that replay of lions, lions, lions. Fred said it, and I agree: today alone would have made the whole trip worth every penny.
Interestingly, the mother lioness did not try to eat at that point. Whatever the pecking order in the pride was, or perhaps to buy tolerance for the cubs, she went back and flopped down in the shade again, leaving the cubs to eat. The cubs were left unimpeded on the kill, climbing over and around it, tugging at the flesh and entrails. Even when the third lioness went to claim her share, though, the mother lioness stayed behind. She only went to eat after both other lionesses were finished.
At one point, Grant told us to look up. We did, to see two eagles — a bateleur eagle and a tawny eagle — fighting with each other. The bateleur eagle was clutching the remains of a genet (a cat-like animal in the mongoose family), dangling its tail down where the tawny eagle was trying to grab it and take it away. The tawny did get a grip on the tail at one point, but the bateleur managed to get away with its prize.
Today… oh, today… my eyes are full of lions. I can still hardly believe it.
We were up early again this morning, before dawn, and Grant set us off on the task of finding the lions. He knew we really wanted to see some big cats, and I think he was starting to feel a little frustrated, since we have seen so many tracks, and no cats. Today he put Likan behind the wheel and he acted as spotter. Fred did spot a black-backed jackal and a hyena very early on, so we started joking that this was going to be a dog day and not a cat day.
And again, as before, tracks, tracks and more tracks. Even fresh tracks of a lioness with cubs. But no cats at all. We must have driven around for hours — from daybreak to pretty close to mid-day — going up one road and down another, criss-crossing the Savute marsh (dry as dust at this time of year), following one set of tracks or another… but finding no lions.
Finally, another truck came by, both stopped and Likan spoke with the field guide in Setswana. Then he told us that, 30-45 minutes earlier, that field guide had seen a pair of lions at a waterhole not far away. We drove over, our hopes high, and sure enough, there was another truck sitting there with everyone staring across the water. And there they were… a big male with one lioness under one bush and another lioness under another bush. We grabbed some quick photos and then just stood there watching. After a few minutes, the other truck drove off and we were all alone with the lions.The male had obviously been in some kind of fight very recently. Grant told us that as recently as last year there had been one big pride at Savute but that the males had had a falling out and now there were several much smaller prides with a lot of contesting among the males for control of those prides. Looked to us as though this guy had won his battle, but had certainly paid the price. Now we weren’t that close — the waterhole between us and them was pretty big. But we did get a good look at them as they did interesting things like, occasionally, raise their heads and flop back down as if the effort was too much. (We heard later that the male and one lioness had been mating earlier, so maybe they were just worn out!) Fred spotted a mongoose at the side of the waterhole and we focused on that for a while. Then, all of a sudden, all three lions alerted. The single lioness shot off into the bush; the male and other lioness followed more slowly. Grant turned around with a grin: “Let’s see if we can follow ‘em!” And off we went. After bumping around in the bush for just a minute or so, we broke into a clearing and there they were… the pride had just taken down a zebra.
One lioness had her jaws closed tightly on the zebra’s snout, to suffocate the zebra. The other, apparently the one that had made the initial pounce, was on the side away from us, crouched by the zebra’s belly.
The third lioness started to walk past the zebra’s hindquarters and was startled (as we were!) when the zebra kicked out at her. We couldn’t believe it… the zebra was still alive! The third lioness and the male lay down in the shade on the side by the zebra’s head, and the other two stayed crouched in position for a long long time. (It wasn’t clear to me whether the lioness by the zebra’s belly was actually eating, or just holding the zebra in place. I never was sure when she ate, but the blood around her jaws later showed that she did.) In some of the photos, you can actually see the lioness’s spittle running down the zebra’s face as she holds it in her jaws.Finally, when the lioness at the zebra’s head was satisfied it was dead, she grabbed it by the neck and dragged it into the shade, with the lioness at the rear crawling along. Grant said this is to get it out of sight of vultures, who circle overhead and alert other predators who can come and try to contest the kill. The lioness at the head then flopped down into the grass for a while and, after several minutes, the male went to the zebra and began to eat. Only the lioness by the hindquarters seemed to also be eating; the other two stayed in the shade.
After several more minutes, the lioness who had suffocated the zebra walked off slowly down the road into the bush. Grant turned and grinned again: “What do you want to bet she comes back with her cubs?”So we waited and waited and, sure enough, after a while (as the big male and the lioness at the hindquarters kept eating), the lioness came back down the road and flopped down in the shade of a bush at a distance from the kill. And she was followed by a cub! A lion cub! And then two more cubs! Three lion cubs! And then a fourth cub! Four lion cubs! Grant said they were not more than six months old, old enough to eat meat but probably not given a lot of meat given the size of the pride.
Up early this morning. VERY early. About 2 a.m., give or take. There is nothing that gets your heart pumping quite as much as hearing a great big adult male lion roar just behind your tent. I couldn’t find the iPod quickly in the dark and the lion moved off, after giving off an even-scarier purrrrrrrrr sound, roaring twice more farther and farther away (thank heavens!) before I could come up with it, but that’s okay — all it would have recorded was the pounding of my heart, I think! (Fred says that just as the lion did his purrrrrrrrr sound, the oil light in front of my tent went out. He was convinced that the lion was sitting on my doorstep, bib around his neck, knife and fork in paws…)
Grant went looking for the tracks when it got light enough to see — not as close as we would have thought (I would have said, oh, 18-24 inches behind my tent, personally) — probably 25-30 feet away at the closest. Heart-pounding distance no matter what. (If you have a good internet connection, check out this site — cursor down to the Sounds section — to hear something of what we heard!)
Now… there’s no delicate way to discuss this… but you know… when you get scared like that, you have to go. I mean you have to go. And there was no way, no way in God’s green earth, that I am getting out of the tent with an adult male lion wandering around, possibly with bib and knife and fork. So… now what? No chamber pot issued as standard camping equipment! So I’ll tell you what — it’s called IMPROVISE!! I had packed a bunch of plastic zip bags just in case I needed ‘em for anything. So you take one one-gallon plastic bag and tuck it inside another one-gallon plastic bag, you put the whole thing on top of a towel (in case you miss…) and you aim as carefully as we female types are capable of aiming. Then you zip the inside bag, zip the outside bag, and go back to bed. (Necessity is the mother of invention after all. Nobody said anything about the father. He can just, well, stick it outside the tent flap if he has to!)
Once the sun was up, we headed off on a long hard drive from Moremi to Savute today. The first thing you face on your way out of Moremi is the bridge over the River Khwai (sorry, the reference is irresistible). It’s made entirely of mopane poles.
Then there’s the rest of the drive. The distance itself isn’t all that much — I think Grant said it’s about 180km — but though there is a nominal speed limit in the parks of 40km/h, the roads of Botswana do not permit anything even vaguely approaching that speed. Four wheel drive is essential, there is deep sand or brush or both, you never know when approaching water if it’s safe to drive through or whether there’s a hole 4′ deep hiding underneath. It’s a sure bet that I wouldn’t have wanted to drive for ten minutes on that stuff, and Grant has been driving us around for DAYS.
On top of the condition of the roads, there’s the issue of game. You never know when something is going to come out of the bush just in front of you, and you have to be aware of everything. It’s a bit disconcerting to be driving along and have an elephant suddenly decide it wants to cross right in front of the vehicle.
The first hour or two of the trip was actually a game drive in and of itself. Elephants, hippos, giraffe and more. We came to the conclusion that it would be a dog day when Fred spotted a black-backed jackal just to the side of the road.
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But once the animals thinned out a bit, it was just a long haul. Lunch was in an area where there was but a single tree, and in the tree were roughly a kazillion (or two) red-billed queleas. Grant says they’re a real nuisance, and can gather in such numbers that branches will literally break off under their weight. We were also “joined” for lunch by a warthog or two that stood within easy run-for-your-life distance and looked at us as though they were just amazed at the sight. (Sometimes I wonder if we’re not as much a spectacle for the animals as they are for us.) The lunch area was also one where Grant has seen lions before but… sigh… once again the most we saw was tracks and no lions.
Savute turns out to be even more sandy that Moremi (so the driving was even tougher) and yet more rocky as well. There are actual outcrops rising from what is otherwise a very very flat marshland. We should be able to see some Bushman rock art on our way out on Sunday. We did our usual camp-day arrival routine: dropped the trailer with Nami and Likan to set up camp and headed off for another game drive. Fred and I think this is wonderful but I’m amazed that Grant isn’t exhausted already yet with the driving.
We saw lots of different antelopes, including an impala licking a termite mound (for the minerals it has), and more interesting or impressive birds — a juvenile Bateleur eagle, a tawny eagle (which kept moving so I don’t think I got a shot), another fish eagle (they are so darned impressive), some noisy little birds called lapwings, a Meyer’s parrot (the only parrot in Botswana) — and all kinds of elephants.
We also saw lots and lots of lion tracks but… no lions. That doesn’t mean no CATS, however. Fred simply has the best eyes of anybody I know. We were driving through an area of grass and reeds all painted a golden orange by the afternoon sun. Suddenly he sings out that there’s something moving in the grass. Now, for the life of me, I couldn’t see it. Even after he pointed it out, I’m not sure I would ever have seen it on my own. Turned out it was a serval — a simply gorgeous cat with great big ears. Bigger than the wildcat by orders of magnitude (the wildcat runs to about 3-7 kg (6.5-15 lb.) while the serval runs to 13.5-18 kg (30-40 lb.)) and just simply beautiful, especially with its eyes catching the light and its body so very well blended with the grass until it turns its back and you see those black and white ears.
After spending time watching this marvelous cat, we got to see yet another spectacular sunset.
Maybe… just maybe… tomorrow lions????
Awakened during the night by the sound of hyenas screeching through the camp. It is a bit disconcerting — those are BIG canids! Grant reminded us to be very very careful about leaving the tents during the night. He showed us the tracks where the hyenas had been hiding when Fred and I did our last walk down to the ablution area after dark. (The ablution area is very very basic here at Moremi: working toilets and showers just barely big enough to get clean in. Fred had the right idea, to wear swim trunks etc. down to take a shower and actually change back here in the tent. Dumb me ended up trying to change there and keep things dry at the same time: not an easy task!)
Up just at daybreak (sun not even really visible on the horizon, just a red line showing where it will be). Vervet monkeys kept trying to steal parts of meals (and managed to escape with a tomato!). Probably not much fun for the camp staff, but a lot of fun for us tourists for whom this is all so very new.
Two game drives today here in Moremi. This morning it was misty at first and the meadows were full of lechwe standing in the mist. Then, for the most part, it was birds birds and more birds. Saddlebilled stork, plover, black harrier, Burchell’s coucal (who was Burchell anyway? ah… a botanist), a fish eagle that stayed in place long enough for us to make a whole photographic study of it, jacana, hammerkop, ground hornbill and more. I never thought of myself as any kind of a birder before this trip — even told Grant I wasn’t one — but he’s making sure I see the interesting birds and sparking my interest anyway. One in particular, the lilac-breasted roller — national bird of Botswana — is simply the most beautiful thing I may ever have seen.
Also saw wildebeest, hippos, elephants (including with a young one) and, finally, a vervet monkey that stood still long enough for me to get a good solid photo.
This afternoon’s drive we were around water a lot so we saw the white-faced whistling duck (I didn’t really hear it whistle, though), the pygmy goose and more. We also saw a bird that Fred insists on called the “pterodactyl bird” and so I am NEVER going to remember its name without writing it down (it is, for now and forever, officially christened the “pterodactyl bird” in our family!) — the Kori bustard. And we saw a goofy looking critter than looks, at a distance, something like a moose in its head structure called the tsessebe.
And though we looked and looked and looked, and found all kinds of tracks, we still didn’t see any BIG cats. That’s in capital letters because we sure did see a cat: a cat that actually looks like it could be lolling around in anybody’s living room. Called the African wildcat, it’s a gorgeous and very aggressive small cat that can (and often does) interbreed with the domestic cat, so it’s listed as endangered in a lot of areas.
So… dogs yesterday, the wildcat today, maybe BIG cats tomorrow! That is, if we can get any sleep. Grant had to go tell off the noisy bunch at the nearby campsite to get ‘em to pipe down. Their excuse: “But we’ve come so far!” Grant, shepherding around the pair of us, who’d come 8000 miles, was not impressed.
In camp in at the Khwai campsite in the Moremi Game Reserve waiting for dinner to be served. Flew back into Maun this morning, hooked up with Grant Craig of Papadi Safaris at the airport. Because of the cold front, he decided to switch to a closed vehicle (openings in the roof for photos) and I for one am grateful. It is COLD in those open vehicles! Did some shopping for snacks and drinks (including plenty of bottled water) and set off.
The road from Maun to Moremi begins as a paved road. Then it turns into gravel. Finally it turns into sand. And it isn’t supposed to get any better until we get into Kasane at the end of the trip! Oh the roads of Botswana are a joy…
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Grant has brought along a camp assistant (I will butcher the spelling of even the short forms of names, I’m sure…) called Nami for short and another field guide who he wants to work with him in the future named Likan. So there are three of them, and two of us! Amazing…
We are not 15 minutes down the road before we feel entirely comfortable with Grant and his crew. Grant is, I think, a little younger than I am (early 50s, perhaps), quiet-spoken with a wickedly dry sense of humor. He’s obviously a perfectionist, wants things done right the first time around, and makes you feel thoroughly confident that he knows what he’s about. Likan is very quiet but with a ready smile and an easy way about him. Nami is even more quiet than Likan, but gets things done. Nice group. And even before we got into the reserve we saw elephant and giraffe and some more lion tracks. (Eventually, we are going to HAVE to see lions. At least I hope so!)
Once we arrived at the campsite, the team disconnected the trailer and took down our gear, then Grant took Fred and I off for the first game drive of this mobile safari. Here in the reserve we have seen impala, which Grant calls “moneybacks” (“we call them moneybacks because if you don’t see them, you get your money back”), red lechwe, young male kudu, zebras, pelicans, storks, guinea fowl, young fish eagle, francolins.
Grant took us out to a location that is frankly gorgeous to take sunset shots, and unless I am very wrong, there are going to be some terrific shots in that group.
We started back to camp and then — just at dusk when we were really late for getting back (the camps have hours for the gates to be open) — we saw a truly amazing sight: Fred spotted and we stopped and watched a large pack of wild dogs who had just taken down and were in the process of devouring a red lechwe stag. The light wasn’t good enough for photos but I got a little bit of video from the S5 where you can at least see what’s going on.
Wild dog are so rare, it was just astonishing to see them. They yelp as well as bark and demolished the lechwe in minutes (the pack was 12 dogs or more — hard to count with the lighting being so bad). (Note: we found out later that people travel for long distances just to have a chance to see these wild dogs — and we got ‘em the first night out. And with a kill! Not bad!)
There are hyena and baboon tracks throughout the campsite so it’ll be interesting to see what we find by morning, but there’s a noisy bunch at a nearby campsite so it may not be all that much.
Up early, and a momentary terrifying scare when I thought I’d lost the power cord to the Hyperdrive. It would have meant taking only as many pictures as could fit on the SD cards I have with me. I know that 28Gb sounds like a lot of space, but I’m shooting in RAW, each photo takes about 24Mb of space, so a 4Gb card holds only about 200 photos. For the most part, I’m shooting with a new camera that I’m not entirely comfortable with (Canon 450D XSi) and a rented lens that I’m not entirely comfortable with (though it’s gorgeous in what it can do — Canon 100-400L), so I do NOT want to be limited. Fortunately, I found the cord — right where I’d put it for safekeeping…
Nice breakfast, back onto a small plane with George and off to Maun again.
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There was only one hitch: our safari operator was not there to meet us. The driver brought us over to the office for Gunn’s Camp where a nice lady took Grant’s name and phone number, went inside, came back five minutes later with a white face and said they’d made a terrible mistake. Turns out we WERE supposed to have three nights, not two. She offered to have us flown back out with the night at the main (upscale) camp rather than the bush camp, where drinks are included in the tab. Let’s see here… two extra small plane rides, an upscale camp for the night, and free booze. Somehow we didn’t see this as much of a problem.
So we were flown black out to the camp.
But this time we stayed at the upscale main camp: beds, en suite toilet & shower, laundry service and more. Nice gesture by the camp and a lovely end to a totally lovely experience (including tea at 3:30, another bush walk, then sundowners (otherwise known as evening drinks!) and dinner).
One scary moment in our last mokoro ride of the day: our poler did a quick reverse and back out of the channel and then had each of us stand up to see a hippo in the channel not far away. Hippos are so incredibly dangerous to folks in these small boats… Ulp…
Despite that, it’s impossible really to describe the peace of a mokoro ride:
or the peace of the delta itself…