AFRICA 2017

By Phyllis Dawson
Botswana - Part 2
Savuti, Chobe National Park

 
July 19 continued

    
We drove on to Leopard Rock, a large ridge that rises up out of the flat plain. With many rocky outcroppings, caves and brushy areas, it is an ideal place for a leopard to hide her cubs. A small sign on a tree identifies Leopard Rock, and the track around it is signposted as Leopard Drive. We drove around it slowly, scanning for a feline shape. Gee told us that a female leopard had been hanging around the area recently, and he thought she might have cubs.

  
A glimpse of the leopardess in the cave.

     Going around to the back of the ridge, we came to a small cave under a tree, part way up the side of the cliff. Using our binoculars, we could just barely make out the sleek spotted coat of a leopardess. We watched her for a while but there was no movement; she appeared to be sleeping. Gee said she must have a baby in there, and we would come back later to check on her. We moved on.

      A bateleur eagle flew overhead, recognizable by its broad head and short tail. Bateleur is the French name for a tightrope walker, and watching this graceful bird of prey swaying gently from side to side as it rode the thermals, wing tips spread and lifted up for balance, I could see how the name fit.
      A tall slender bird with variegated feathers walked through the underbrush; Gee identified it as a northern black korhaan. A black-winged kite flew high above, hovering and diving, its black and white markings vivid in the sunlight. A little bee-eater perched on a twig, shining brilliant green and yellow as the morning sun found him. 
 


Little Bee-eater

    The land was mostly flat. The plains were interspersed with sparse bush and stunted trees kept short by the elephants, though there were some areas of forest. The sand roads we drove on were deep in places, and would often split into several tracks going around the most treacherous spots. Care was needed to avoid getting stuck. 
    
A pair of black-backed jackals were hunting in the tall grass; we watched as they leaped and pounced, probably going after mice. These lovely canines look a lot like large foxes. They are a chestnut brown color with black backs and silvery stripes on their sides.  
 


Black-backed jackal

     After a while Gee stopped the Landcruiser and got out, saying he needed to check the tires. But then he disappeared behind some bushes for a few minutes, before getting back in and driving on. From then on, ‘check the tires’ became our euphemism for ‘go behind a bush.’  

      A lilac-breasted roller was perched on a twig near the road. These brilliantly colored birds are absolutely beautiful, displaying a rainbow of green, blue, turquoise, bronze, rose and of course lilac. We waited, hoping he would fly and show the brilliant blue of his wings, but he was huddled against the chilly air with his feathers puffed up, not going anywhere.
     A family of warthogs ran through the tall grass, their tails held straight up over their backs. Several impalas bounded across the track in front of us. A yellow mongoose darted through the grass, quick as a weasel, and another ran down the road ahead of us. A butterfly very like our monarchs flitted around a flowering bush.
 


Impala

     We drove along the edge of the Savuti Marsh, which seemed an incongruous name as it was bone dry. I am sure it must be a completely different environment in the rainy season, but now it was a wide open plain of golden grass. Gee told us that several cheetahs had been sighted here recently; the open plain is the preferred habitat for these sight-hunting cats. I was thrilled to hear this; cheetahs have become very rare and I had not realized there were any left in northern Botswana. 

    We spotted a single dark round shape on the horizon; even with binoculars it was too distant to identify. Rob was sure it was a lone wildebeest, but Gee thought it was an ostrich. When we drew closer of course Gee was proved correct. With practice, we got better at identifying animals in the far distance by their shapes. Wildebeests have a distinctive triangular profile, high at the shoulder, while ostriches appear as perfectly round black dots. Zebras have an oval shape that appears grey from a distance, either light or dark depending on the light. That tawny flash of gold you think is a lion usually turns out to be in impala – they are everywhere.
     A beautiful Burchell’s sandgrouse was near the road, her dainty feathers mottled with many shades of tan and brown. To our delight she had four tiny chicks with her. The chicks froze as they are taught by their mother and by instinct, sitting motionless, depending on camouflage for protection. This worked well for the first three, who blended in to the grass and virtually disappeared from sight - but the fourth one ended up crouching in the sandy roadway in plain sight. We got out for a look; they did not move, even when we came very close.


 
Sandgrouse chick

     We watched a herd of half a dozen giraffes with three babies. One of the babies was quite small; we could see that his umbilical cord was still attached - Gee said that meant he was less than three weeks old. We were surprised at how big he was for being so young. The baby giraffes are proportioned just like miniature adults, unlike long-legged horse foals.  
    
Several tsessebes stood near the road. These handsome antelopes are fairly large, with a dark purplish-brown color, tidy backswept horns, and intelligent goat-like faces. They are built uphill, with front legs longer than the rear – Gee said this is for endurance, a trait shared with other long distance runners such as giraffes and hyenas. I noticed one of them had a broken horn.


Tsessebe

     A yellow mongoose stood up tall on its hind legs, peering at us through the grass. Another one was on all fours in front of its den, a burrow in an old termite mound. These slim-bodied little creatures have long legs, bushy tails and refined faces. They are sleek and beautiful, my favorite of the mongooses.

     There was a waterhole on each side of the road, and we stopped as a large herd of wildebeests crossed in front of us, moving from one hole to the other. As they milled around drinking, two calves, probably 4 or 5 months old, ran frantically back and forth bawling pathetically, searching for their mothers. It was a heartbreaking sound. Gee said their mothers had probably been eaten by lions. The Circle of Life is harsh.

     We stopped under some trees marked with a little sign that said stretch point; these are the only places you are allowed to get out of the vehicle in Savuti. From there we had a view of the wildebeests; the babies were still frantically running and bawling. Gee pulled out some thermoses of hot water and supplies; we had our choice of coffee, regular tea or bush tea. I was never exactly sure what was in bush tea, but it seemed like an appropriate choice while on safari - and it was quite good. We had cookies and rusks, hard biscuits that are very good dipped in the bush tea or coffee.
    
We took turns going behind a large tree about 100 feet away to ‘check the tires.’  Patty provided an alternate expression; she used to tell her kids to ‘empty the teacup.’ Whatever one wants to call it, Rob was the last one to visit the tree. While he was going about his business we glanced over and noticed a huge bull elephant silently strolling toward us, his route on a trajectory to go right past where Rob stood. Rob was facing the tree with his back toward the elephant, unaware of its approach. 

 
Rob's tree

     Gee instructed us all to get close to the Landcruiser: ‘Be one with the vehicle’ were his words. When Patty informed him that Rob was still behind the tree, Gee looked a little concerned. When Rob emerged and started toward us, still unaware of the elephant closing in on him, we beckoned him to come be one with the vehicle in a hurry! Elephants at the tea break. Awesome.  Rob endured a fair bit of teasing over the incident, and ‘be one with the vehicle’ became one of our catch-phrases for the trip.

 
Be One with the Vehicle

      On our way again after tea, we caught up with the male ostrich we had seen from a distance earlier. He was black with bright white tail feathers, and had huge strong legs, a long skinny neck and a tiny head. It is difficult to appreciate how big these birds are until you get close to them; he was enormous. In a way he seemed sort of prehistoric, like he belonged with the dinosaurs.

      Gee pointed out some of the native trees to us. The most prevalent were the mopanes; although they can grow into lovely tall shade trees, most of them never get the chance because they are eaten off to shrubs by the elephants. He also showed us the camelthorn acacia, big trees with spreading branches and a flat crown, the quintessential image of Africa. Another tall beautiful tree he pointed out was the rain tree. I have heard various reasons why it has this name; the seedpods hanging down look like rain, when the wind blows the rattling pods sound like rain – but Gee offered another explanation. He told us there is a bug called the frog hopper that sits in the branches and ‘rains’ liquid down below.  Ugh.  
     Gee also showed us some of the local plants and herbs. He picked some wild sage, and we enjoyed its pungent scent. He also showed us some purple pen weed, which had an awesome smell; he told us that ladies sometimes boil the roots and drink it to get rid of unwanted pregnancies.


Ground Hornbill

      We watched, fascinated, as a group of four ground hornbills walked through the underbrush. These unattractive large black birds are about the size of a turkey. They have red featherless faces and enormous bills. Though they can fly, they spend most of their time on the ground. They are an endangered species, and reproduce slowly, only breeding once every four years.
    
On the way back to camp we passed a huge baobab tree. Gee told us it is called the Bushman’s Baobab, because it is near Bushman’s Rock. Baobabs are grand and unique trees, with thick trunks and tiny branches. It was like an ancient living monument. This magical tree was quite near to camp, but I was sure I had not seen it before on the previous trip.


Savuti Camp

      As we drove across the dry riverbed and into camp, Phillimon was there waiting for us, holding a tray with goblets of sweet iced tea. The guys served us a delicious lunch, complete with salad and fresh baked bread. The meals were buffet style; we would serve our plates and then sit around the long table. Gee always ate with us, telling stories and answering questions. There was a variety of condiments on the table, such as chutney, hot sauce, sweet chili sauce and honey. The water pitchers had little beaded covers to keep any errant insects out. Most importantly, the food was always excellent.

     After lunch the guys brought hot water to our tents for the bucket showers. We found our towels folded into heart-shapes on our beds. This was a swanky place!

     We set out on our afternoon drive around 3:30. Red-billed hornbills were everywhere, flying in their distinctive swooping patterns; they were like Zazu from The Lion King.  Their calls, repeating pairs of ascending notes conveying a sense of urgency, reminded me of a musical score from an action movie. A tawny eagle sat in a tree, surveying the world from his lofty perch. He looked proud and regal, feathers tan, brown and bronze in the sun, and a light gleaming in his eye. 

 
Tawny Eagle

   A tiny dwarf mongoose stuck his head up from behind a termite mound and gazed at us; he was dark brown with red eyes and a perky expression. We were able to get quite close to an impala doe; she had a beautiful deer-like face with large liquid eyes and ears tipped with black. A very large lone wildebeest bull grazed nearby; Gee said he was patrolling his territory.

   
Impala doe

     Gee heard something while driving through some mopane trees; he stopped and turned off the engine. A Bradfield hornbill was sitting in a small tree beside the road; he was a dark grey in color with a big orange bill and orange eyes. He was larger and more handsome than his red-billed cousins. And he was singing his heart out! He tilted his head back and pointed his substantial bill straight up in the air, and sang out in a loud and poignant voice. His song filled the air. Then his voice was joined by another hornbill, and then another; they were having a singing contest, marking their territory and competing with one another for the females. There were five males altogether, singing for all they were worth. It was marvelous.                                                                                                                      
     “My god,” said Gee, “This is amazing!” He told us he had never seen or heard anything like it. We watched and listened for a long time, feeling very fortunate to be witnessing this spectacle. We called it the Hornbill Choir.


Participating in the Bradfield Hornbill Choir.

     We passed a herd of giraffes. Gee told us the collective noun for a group of giraffes is a tower if they are standing still, but it is called a journey of giraffes if they are moving. Before long we came to a series of pans (shallow lakes or waterholes) which I remembered from our last trip.

 

     There were two bull elephants drinking at the first waterhole. One was huge with a very long trunk, and was glistening wet with mud; we had apparently arrived just after he took a mud bath. The other was slightly smaller and considerably cleaner. We parked just across the water from where they stood, and settled down to watch the show. A giraffe was waiting his turn to drink, but after a while he gave up and left. 

 

     Suddenly the big bull came straight toward us, crossing the water and climbing the near bank with a toss of his head. He was huge - Gee said the big males weigh over six tons – and he was very close. He looked at us and snaked his trunk around his face, curling and uncurling it and waving it in the air. Would we need to make a hasty retreat?

 

     Then the elephant danced for us. He started moving in a slow shuffling pattern, swinging and crossing his legs back and forth and doing a slow-motion pirouette. He swayed rhythmically from side to side, curling his trunk around his tusks like a big python, and then swinging it in circles, looking straight at us while he performed. We watched in awe as he danced to some inner music that we could not hear. Finally, show finished, he stood there a few minutes resting his trunk over one tusk in a cavalier manner. Then the huge elephant turned and walked away, his smaller companion following.

 

     There were half a dozen elephants at the second pan, but they seemed spooked by our vehicle and left in a hurry. Moving on to the third watering hole we found a large family group of ellies just coming down to drink. Perfect timing! We drove around to the opposite side where we could watch them from across the water.  
    
It was a breeding herd with several big females, about ten half-grown youngsters, and three babies. The smallest one seemed quite young - Gee estimated that it was about 7 months old. They all lined up at the edge of the water, drinking leisurely. We could hear the low stomach rumble they use to communicate with each other; this sound carries for miles, often at frequencies too low for humans to hear. Several giraffes moseyed by in the background.

 

     Elephants have a matriarchal society; the dominant female runs the show. A breeding herd consists of all the adult females and youngsters in an extended family. The females have a very close-knit society, and they share in caring for the babies. Anyone who has spent time observing elephants can’t help but be impressed by their intelligence and empathy.

     The males are forced to leave the herd when they approach maturity; the females don’t want them around anymore. These outcasts will hang out with other males and form small bachelor herds. There was one adolescent male at the pan who was being pushed out of the herd; every time he tried to join the others the matriarch would chase him away - it was time for him to make his own way in the world.

 

     Once the elephants finished drinking, several of the rowdier youngsters waded into the deeper part of the water and began to play and splash. They lay down and rolled, and then sucked up water in their trunks and sprayed each other. Several of the smaller babies soon joined in the fun, sitting and splashing with only their heads above water. It was like an elephant spa! One of the adolescent males strutted along the shore, obviously feeling very important.

 


The Elephant Spa

     After a while the ellies moved on to the next part of their spa; there was a big dust wallow near the waterhole, and the herd made full use of it They took very thorough dust baths, some of them laying down and rolling in the deep powdery dirt, and others sucking up great trunkfulls of it and blowing it all over themselves. Once thoroughly coated, they marched away in a dignified manner.

 

     As we left the pans we caught a flash of movement; a whole group of banded mongoose, one of the larger types, was moving through the grass. Their striped coats blended in perfectly with the underbrush while they scuffled along searching for beetles and millipedes. The collective noun for a group of mongooses is a business, which makes sense as they are so active and busy. I have always found them very hard to photograph, because not only are they never still, but there is something about their subtly striped coats that seems to defy the autofocus on my cameras.

 
Banded Mongoose

     We were getting ready to head back toward camp when Gee got a call; the cheetahs had been sighted! Hang on, he told us, and he drove fast, flying across the plain as we bounced about in the back of the vehicle. We were required to be back to camp by 6:30 pm and the cheetahs were some distance off, so we didn’t have time to hang about.  
    
As we accelerated across the plain a young bull elephant took offense at our haste. Even though we passed several hundred feet from him, he waved his trunk and trumpeted angrily, sidestepping and flapping his ears in anger. We laughed at his antics, and dubbed him the Road Rage Elephant. 
    
     We found two cheetahs sleeping in the grass on the edge of the open plain. There were several other vehicles there; we parked where we had a good view of one of the slender cats, lying flat out on his side sleeping. Every once in a while he would look up at us with a slightly annoyed expression before putting his head back down to nap. We watched him as the sun went down.

 
Beautiful, elegant cheetahs.

     Cheetahs hunt by sight and run down their prey, which is why they like the open plains. As everyone knows, they are very fast, able to run up to 120 km per hour, but they can only sustain their speed for short distances and then they have to rest. They are lean and fragile cats, built like a greyhound, not fighters at all. Often hyenas or lions will steal their kills. Sadly, these beautiful endangered cats are very rare now.
    
As the other vehicles started leaving, we were able to move to a better spot to watch both cheetahs. They were starting to get a little restless; one would raise his head and look around a bit, and then the other would do the same. They looked like they might get up at any minute, but it was close to 6:30 so we didn’t have much time.
    
The last of the other vehicles left, but Gee waited a few minutes more, hoping for action. Then to our delight one of the cheetahs reluctantly stood up and walked over to a tree to mark his territory. We were elated to have had the chance to see these elegant graceful creatures.

 

     Gee headed back to camp, driving fast, stopping just once briefly to check for leopards when he noticed the impala and wildebeest all looking in one direction with alarm. It was getting dark when we drove up the riverbed and pulled into camp a few minutes after the 6:30 curfew. The dead tree stood starkly against the rose, mauve and blue sky. Phillimon was there with our glasses of tea, and Parker had warm moist cloths for us to wash off the road dust. We could see the lanterns lighting the way to the tents, and the campfire beckoned. All was right with the world.

     We sat around the campfire and watched the stars come out. The African night sky is unbelievable. The Milky Way stretched above us, its stars gleaming like diamonds thrown across the sky, shining against the depths of time. Scorpius rode high overhead, and the Southern Cross watched over us. With the clear dry air and no light pollution from towns or cities, the stars were brilliant right down to the horizon - truly far more spectacular than we ever see in the northern hemisphere. I set up my tripod and took some long-exposure photos of the night sky.

 
The Southern Cross and the Milky Way

     We discussed the highlights of the day, and which were our favorite sightings. Some said the hornbill choir and some said the elephant spa. For me it was a toss-up between the honeymooning lions and the cheetahs. But wait, what about the dancing elephant? And the baby giraffe? We had seem so many incredible things - it was hard to choose just one.
    
After much banter around the campfire, I called for everyone’s attention and announced I had something to say. Everyone looked at me expectantly, waiting for something profound. Keeping with the long-standing Dawson tradition of making up bad limericks while on vacation, I recited:

“To our tea break an elephant came

He did not appear to be tame.

When Patty told Gee

Rob was behind a tree,

He shrugged, and said “Oh, what a shame!”

     Pula came to the fire and announced dinner, taking everyone’s minds off the bad poetry. The main course was roast beef, and it was excellent. We told Gee that if there was any food left over we hoped the guys would eat it, because it was much too good to be burned. He replied that it would have to be cooked much more; his people eat a lot of meat but they like it really well done with no pink in it, especially for beef. Perhaps the spirit of the animal might still be in it? Gee told us he does not eat pork at all; we weren’t sure if it was because of religion, or if he just doesn’t like it.
    
We sat around the fire again after dinner, talking some more about our fantastic day. Parker shyly asked permission to put bushbabies  in our beds, referring to the hot water bottles – we all gave him an enthusiastic yes. Gee told us stories about life growing up on the island in the Delta, and about going to guiding school. We made plans to go on an all-day drive the next day, and then retired to our tents. We let the animal nightly noises lull us to sleep.

 ~ Continued on next page ~


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