AFRICA 2017

By Phyllis Dawson
Botswana - Part 3
Savuti, Chobe National Park

 
July 20

    
After a 5:30 a.m. wake-up call, we had coffee and tea around the campfire, looking up at the brilliant stars. Jungle oats and toast at 6:00 and we were in the vehicle and on the road by 6:30, before it was fully light. This was to be our morning schedule throughout the duration of the mobile safari. Normally I hate getting up really early, but in Africa I never mind - I can’t wait to see what the day brings, and you have the best chance of seeing predators in the early hours. But with the winter temperatures in the low forties before dawn, it was a little hard to crawl out of our warm beds.

      The Toyota Landcruiser was the perfect size for our group of seven. Two people sat on each of the three raised bench seats and one rode shotgun in the passenger seat beside Gee - we rotated each day who sat where. Duma the stuffed baby cheetah and Fred the bushbaby sat on the console behind Gee; we figured they would bring us good luck. The vehicle was completely open, with a canvas roof and no side walls. The engine had a large snorkel, which seemed a bit incongruous in the dry sand. There was a cooler of drinks handy, and the tea break supplies were stashed in metal boxes under the seats. There was a warm wool blanket for each of us, which we gratefully wrapped overtop all our other layers in the mornings.

 

 
Our trusty Landcruiser

     It was cold and quiet when we set out. As the sky lightened and the stars faded there was a sense of anticipation; what would we see today? A pair of thick-trunked baobab trees stood silhouetted against a pastel dawn sky that faded from rosy pink to shades of mauve and lavender, delicate colors like the inside of a shell. We stopped to watch a glorious sunrise, the red orb of the sun climbing into view among the trees. A single bird sang out, and then another – and soon the air was filled with birdsong. 


Baobab Dawn

    The ubiquitous impala were there to greet us; these lovely antelopes were very numerous and we encountered them on just about every game drive. We saw a myriad of birds, which we would get better at identifying as time went on. A kori bustard was walking near the road; he had brown variegated feathers, long legs and a stylish topknot. The heaviest flying bird in Africa, the kori bustard is about the size of a turkey, but far more attractive.


Kori Bustard

      Several giraffes were browsing on the trees, and we were able to get quite close to these splendid creatures. We admired their luxurious eyelashes and their knobby horn-like prongs, which were covered with skin and hair. Oxpeckers clung to their necks, flapping their wings and picking for ticks. Gee told us that giraffes have excellent eyesight, capable of seeing predators up to two kilometers away.

  

    Jineen caught a glimpse of motion in the tall grass way off to our left; it was a pair of black-backed jackals, barely visible in the distance. “Good spot!” Gee congratulated her, and we watched as they moved toward us. Closer and closer they came, finally crossing the road right in front of us, pausing to pose for a photo. They were exquisite.  It is hard to understand why these beautiful foxlike creatures have a negative reputation.      

 

     There were birds everywhere. Swainson’s spurfowl and red-billed francolin are among the most common and look very similar; Gee said the spurfowl have longer spurs. Both are about the size of a bantam chicken, and throughout the trip we saw them in abundance, running around on the ground foraging, and flying up into the bushes when startled. 
    
A group of crested francolins walked alongside the road; these are less common and quite beautiful, with many shades of mottled tan, brown and chestnut. Gee pointed out a more ordinary lone red-billed francolin among them; he told us that sometimes a red-billed francolin hen will lay her eggs in other birds’ nests, so this one had probably been raised by the crested bunch, and didn’t know he was any different.


Crested Francolin

     A blue-eared starling perched on a twig, his sapphire feathers iridescent in the sunlight. A yellow-billed hornbill posed for us in a tree, somehow more handsome and dignified than his red-billed cousins. A female northern black korhaan was perfectly camouflaged against the underbrush; these attractive long-legged birds with mottled feathers look somewhat similar to the kori bustard, though quite a bit smaller. 


Dwarf Mongooses 

     A family of dwarf mongooses were out sunning themselves on a log beside the road; a mother with about four half-grown youngsters. They watched us with inquisitive expressions. These small ferret-like mongooses are dark brown in color and have reddish eyes. One of the youngsters stretched languorously, then scratched himself thoroughly - presumably he had fleas. Several of them were playing hide-and-seek, darting in and out of holes in the log.

     We passed a pair of steenboks, one of the smallest antelopes. They are tiny and delicate; the fawn-like adults are less than two feet tall. The female was lying down and the male stood beside her. He sported tiny spiky horns, which did not look like they would be very formidable in a fight.


Steenboks 

     We stopped by a hyena den, but nobody was home. Like many other animals, the hyenas don’t dig the holes themselves but take over dens dug by aardvarks. Nearing Leopard Rock, we swung by the lion kill we’d seen the previous day, but the lions were gone. The vultures were still there though, a white-backed (the better looking of the pair) and a hooded. They were having their turn at the ribcage, the last remains of the carcass.  Following paw prints in the sand, we drove around the ridge searching for the lions up on the rocks, but they were nowhere to be seen.

  

     We checked out leopard’s den, and once again found her home. Using the binoculars to look into the entrance of the cave, we could see her spots. She was moving around a little; we thought perhaps she was grooming herself. But then she turned, and we could see that she was licking a tiny baby. There seemed to be just one cub, and when she shifted positions we were able to make out his little face and tiny paws. He couldn’t have been more than two weeks old. It wasn’t easy to see into the den, but with the binoculars we were able to see the baby despite the dim light.  
    
The leopardess groomed her cub for quite a while, turning him over and licking him thoroughly all over. After a while she stretched out, and the baby settled down to nurse. A wonderful and beautiful occurrence which has taken place every day for thousands of years, and we are among the lucky few who have had the privilege to witness it.

    Moving on, we picked up some more lion spoor, and followed these tracks down the dusty road. Presently we caught a glimpse of tawny movement and saw a female lion, and then two more, stalking across the plain. We followed the three lionesses on a parallel path, watching from a distance as they moved stealthily through the tall grass. They seemed to be stalking an ostrich, sneaking ever closer, but it saw them and took off. After a while the lions moved away out of sight.

     We stopped for a tea break; no elephants while checking the tires this time. Our group reflected on what a terrific guide Gee is. He does it all: drives, finds elusive wildlife, tracks animals and tells amazing stories.  He has a number of interesting sayings:  If someone sighted an animal that was hidden or hard to find, Gee would compliment them with “Good spot,” though this was occasionally said in sarcasm. If we expressed a desire to see some animal or behavior pattern that was extremely rare, he would nod and say “That would be very good,” which was his polite way of telling us “Not a snowball’s chance in hell.” We noticed that when we called Gee by name to ask him a question, he would turn and answer, “Hi?”  I loved the way that whenever we witnessed something really special and unusual; he would exclaim “My God, that is amazing”, or perhaps “Unbelievable!” 

 
Gee

      I noticed that Gee did not have his camera on this trip; last time he had carried a nice Nikon with a good telephoto lens, and seemed to enjoy taking pictures. When I asked him about it he told us he’d had to sell the camera to buy bricks to build his house. What a shame.

   
After tea we tried to find those lionesses again. Gee drove around to the area we had last seen them headed, but there was no sign of them. We passed another safari vehicle, and one of the guests exclaimed “Look, a cheetah!” He was pointing at Duma, proudly perched on the console with Fred.

 
Fred and Duma 

    We saw a variety of birds; some of the new ones Gee identified for us included a rufous-naped lark, a Meve’s long-tailed starling and a tiny desert cisticola. We got a good close view of a black-winged kite as it perched in a tall tree, a beautiful grey raptor with black wings and red eyes. A red-billed hornbill sat in a bush right by the road.

     We were skirting the plain where we had seen the lionesses stalking, hoping to find them again. Suddenly I saw a familiar profile. “Stop, a lion!” I exclaimed, pointing. There was one of our lionesses, sitting under a bush a good ways from the road. “Good spot, Phyllis,” said Gee, the highest of praise. Soon another lioness appeared, sitting up out of the tall grass where she had been hidden, and then a third. They were gazing at a herd of impala in the distance, which oddly enough had one lone wildebeest with them. Gee told us that the dominant male wildebeest defends his territory alone; the females will breed with the one that has the best territory. The solitary bulls hang out with the impala for protection - many eyes are more likely to see predators.
    
We watched the lions furtively sneak closer, weaving silently through the underbrush toward the impala. Then they moved into the dense brush and out of sight, presumably planning their attack. The impala were on the alert, all staring in the direction where the lions were hiding; they must have caught their scent. They moved away and took shelter under an acacia tree, watching the bushes suspiciously.  
    
Gee gave us some insight into impala behavior.  They have a short memory, he told us. Look, something moved, they think. Could that be a lion in there? They all look alertly in the same direction. But then a few minutes go by and some start to think, Did we really see it? And some of the others, who didn’t see the movement at all, don’t believe it was there. Soon they all lose interest, and while they are not paying attention the lions can sneak closer.

 

     We waited in anticipation for the ambush, but the element of surprise was gone and the impala moved off. The lions realized the impala knew they were there, so content to just wait, they lay down for a nap. Lions are very patient hunters - they would try again later.  
    
Further on, we found another lioness sleeping under a bush by the road, taking advantage of the small spot of shade. She looked very thin, and Gee said she was really old. Nearby we got a glimpse of the honeymooning lions, the pair that we had seen courting the previous day, just sitting quietly. Typically while she was in estrus they would have intercourse up to fifty times per day; at that rate I suspect they skip the foreplay.

 

     Crossing an open treeless area, we came upon a male ostrich right by the road, sitting down with his body on the ground and his neck and head sticking straight up. As we approached he stood, looked around and shook himself, and pranced off in a somewhat prissy manner. This was the closest I had ever gotten to an ostrich, and I was really impressed. His legs were enormous and strong, like the hind leg of a horse, and his absurdly long neck, tiny head and pink bill made him look cartoonish.  
     Patty asked Gee if he had ever eaten an ostrich egg; “Yes,” he told her.  “Was it good?” Patty asked him; "No!" answered Gee emphatically.

     A pair of secretary birds were walking through the short grass. These tall slim birds are light grey with black legs and wingtips. They are quite handsome, but there is also something slightly outlandish about them. They have a crest of long loose black feathers on the back of their heads that gives them a distinctive look. They are birds of prey and can fly well, but you often see them walking around like a tall thin chicken.

 


Secretary Bird

     We swung back by Leopard Rock, but the mother leopard was not there now. Perhaps we could come by later and check on her.  
    
We stopped for lunch at the Bushman's Baobab tree; I had been hoping we would get to have a closer look at that magnificent tree.  Phillimon and Pula were waiting there with the camp vehicle, and had lunch all ready for us. The camp chairs were set out in a semicircle, and we relaxed in the shade of the magnificent baobab while we ate.

 

     It was awesome. The trunk of this mighty tree was at least fifty feet around, and it provided an oasis of shade in the dry plain. The baobab is a very spiritual tree; the San people, or Bushmen, pray to it for good hunting. I could see why they believe spirits live in it. Gee told us that the tree is around 1200 years old; I tried to imagine the things it must have seen. It was magical.

 
Yellow-billed Hornbill

     A yellow-billed hornbill sat in a small tree nearby and begged for food, looking at us intently with an intelligent expression. He was quite handsome, with white feathers delicately edged in black, and an impressively big curved bill. We would have liked to share our lunch with him but it was strictly against the rules. (I may have accidentally dropped a few crumbs) A tree squirrel ran up and down the massive trunk, then came down and approached us, doing a little begging of his own. We took a group photo, with us all standing stretched across the tree’s mighty girth. I collected a rock to take home for the cairn in my yard.

   

     After lunch we cruised past Leopard Rock once more; Mom was back! We could see her spotted coat in the den, and she seemed to be sleeping. Swinging by the remains of the lion kill, we saw the vultures now stood watch from the top of a dead tree. Gee picked several twigs off of a plant and passed them back to us; it was wild basil, also locally known as the perfume plant, and it had a lovely spicy scent.

     We stopped back by the lioness that was sleeping by the bush, but now the shade had moved around and she was in the full sun, apparently too tired to get up and move. She almost looked dead, and she was so thin we could see every rib. After a while she did get up and move to the shade, but it seemed a big effort. We felt sorry for her.
    A brown snake eagle regally surveyed his territory from atop a dead tree, a fierce-looking brown raptor with a bright orange eye. A black and white magpie shrike perched on a twig, with his long tail dangling down. To complete our hat trick of shrikes we saw both the helmeted and white-crowned varieties. 

 
Brown Snake Eagle

     We went through a lovely patch of woods and Gee stopped to show us Seretse Khama’s campsite; it was the spot where the former Botswana president used to stay when visiting the area. Just before this trip I had watched the movie A United Kingdom which tells the story of this inspiring leader; I would encourage everyone to see it.

     We visited the waterholes; the elephants were not in attendance this afternoon but the giraffes were. I was hoping to get a chance to watch some of these impossibly tall, elegant creatures drinking.  First a lone giraffe approached the water and stood deliberating whether to take a sip; it seemed a tough decision but after a while he decided against it and strode off across the plain. Then another came, a big bull, and stood quite close to us gazing at the water, filled with indecision. 

   

     Giraffes are at their most vulnerable when lowering their heads to drink; this is when lions may attack, so they quench their thirst only after careful reconnaissance and much deliberation. As he watched and waited, we had a close-up view as half a dozen oxpeckers clung to his neck and picked at insects and ticks. Gee told us that the more common red-billed oxpecker will always stay on one side of the neck, while the yellow-billed variety will move from side to side.
    
Presently more giraffes arrived, three females and a half-grown youngster. They walked up beside the male and looked carefully around, stared at the water wistfully for a while, and then all four of the adults turned and walked away in a single file line, without anyone having even a sip. This was getting ridiculous! 

 

     But one giraffe stayed behind, the half-grown baby. He may have been bolder than the adults, or more naïve, or perhaps he was just thirstier. He spread his front legs out wide in order to get low to the ground, put his head down to the water, and drank his fill.
    
Another large male giraffe wandered close to us, munching on the trees and occasionally glancing down at us curiously. He bit off twigs and leaves with velvet lips. The oxpeckers had groomed his mane until in lay in a swirly pattern that looked almost like it was braided.

 

     Giraffes have very individual color patterns, Gee told us, and to identify them the researchers take photos of the spots between the eye and the ear. For leopards they use the spots between the eyes to identify them, and for cheetahs it is the markings just below the eyes. 

      A blacksmith plover picked his way along the shore, his feathers a bold pattern of black, white and grey. Other new birds included the southern grey-headed sparrow and the capped wheatear. A pretty Namaqua dove scratched in the sand, and an Egyptian goose dabbled in the shallow water.

 
 Egyptian Goose

     We moved on, heading back toward camp. We stopped briefly at another waterhole, this one occupied by a small herd of wildebeest and a few impala. A pair of Cape turtle doves drank at the edge of the water, way less shy than the giraffes had been.  
    
We noticed some activity on the far side of the plain; through our binoculars we could see a table and chairs set up and people gathered round them; Tara thought it was a wedding, but Gee said it was a lodge having dinner out in the bush. Near the Savuti gate we passed a group of locals playing a game of soccer on a sandy field that had been cleared for that purpose.
    
On the way back to camp we passed a pile of old bleached elephant bones. Rob asked Gee to stop so he could get out for a better look; he lifted a huge leg bone and examined the pelvis. 

 
Rob at the Elephant Graveyard 

     As the light grew dim two huge kudu bulls crossed the road in front of us, walking regally, their massive twisting horns like polished ebony. These large magnificent creatures are my favorite of the antelopes. They have thin white stripes on their sides, shaggy manes on the underside of their necks, and the males have spectacular long curving spiral horns.

 
Kudu bull

     We came around the hill and crossed the dry sandy riverbed into camp just after the sun went down. The hill loomed dark against a fiery sky, and we could see the cheery twinkling of the lanterns. The campfire beckoned us.

 

     We put away our gear, grabbed a G&T (gin and tonic) or a glass of wine, and pulled our chairs close around the fire.  Again we started with the question; what was your favorite thing today? Most of us agreed it was watching that baby leopard. Paula had recorded it all on video, and it had come out surprisingly good.
    
The stars were incredible, and Gee was very knowledgeable about the constellations. He explained how to find due South: You trace an imaginary line lengthwise through the Southern Cross and extend it down to the horizon. Then you link the two Pointer stars, and trace a line perpendicular to that downward. Where the two lines meet is South.

     At dinner the food was very good, but the setting and ambiance made it spectacular. We asked Gee about his scariest ever wildlife encounter; he told us a story about being charged by an angry elephant. Having no way to escape, he sat down on the ground hoping to seem less of a threat. The elephant stopped right in front of him and kicked dirt on him; he sat without moving until it finally calmed down and went away. Wow, that must take some nerve!
    
We refilled our wineglasses and went back out to the campfire, enjoying the company and conversation. Gee told some stories about his worst ever clients. I can’t remember now who they were - I hope it wasn’t us! We could hear the sharp cracking sound of elephants breaking branches not far away. Above us the Milky Way illuminated a path to the heavens.


 ~ Continued on next page ~


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