AFRICA 2017

By Phyllis Dawson
Botswana - Part 5
Savuti
to Khwai Concession

 

July 22
    
We heard hyenas in the night, and the ascending whistling notes of a pearl-spotted owlet calling early in the morning. Since it was moving day, it would be an all-day drive with the luggage trailer in tow. We had our usual quick breakfast of toast and jungle oats, and headed out at 6:30. Parker, Phillimon and Pula would pack up camp, drive to the Khwai Concession and set our next campsite; we would meet them there in the evening.

     Gee stopped the Landcruiser at a spot where we could see a large round hill in the distance, and we watched the sun come up from behind it. The sky turned to scarlet, and then we could see the rim of the sun just barely peaking up over the top of the hill, with the trees silhouetted against it. Birds flew across the crimson sky as the fiery orb slipped above the horizon. This was sun-uppers at its best.

 

     Two spotted hyenas went loping past, barely seen in the early dawn light, intent on some private destination. We went by the waterhole pans but nobody was there. We paused to watch two tree squirrels sitting on the trunk of a large tree; they looked very similar to our squirrels at home.

 

     We came across two lionesses beside the road. One was sleeping, and the other was sitting gazing intently out over the bushveld with a slightly wistful expression. As we drove up close she turned and looked at us briefly, then resumed watching the plain. We studied her from close quarters; she was exquisite. After a while she stood up and posed for us in the morning light, still looking out into the distance. Her body was strong and muscular yet lean; a perfect hunting machine. She was all magnificent power and dangerous beauty. Eventually she lay back down, but she still kept a restless eye on everything around her.

 

     Gee drove us back to Leopard Rock to check on the mother leopard and her cub. Mama was home; we could see her spots through the den opening. She was grooming herself and licking the baby. We watched her a long time, using binoculars to see into the dim cave. The leopardess stood up and turned around restlessly a couple of times, looking out of the opening. 

 

     Gee knew the leopardess was going to come out. “Look – watch - get ready,” he told us, and we waited silently, holding our breaths. And sure enough, she stood up and came out of the cave. She quietly slipped through the trees and tall grass, making her way across the outcroppings and up the steep slope. Her spotted coat glowed softly in the morning light. She had an exquisite, feminine face – could this be the same leopardess we saw near here two years ago? She moved with a silken grace, easy and athletic, as if gravity did not affect her. She climbed higher up the ridge, pausing now and then to look around regally, giving us superb photo ops.

     Finally the leopardess came out on the top of a big rock outcropping and paused, looking out across the land, surveying her territory. If Disney was making a movie entitled The Leopard Queen and she was the star, this is just where they would have her stand. She was regal - the queen of all she sees. After a while she lay down on the point of the rock and gazed out across the plain. She seemed content to relax and enjoy the sunshine. “My God,” Gee breathed quietly. “This is amazing! You never see it like this.”

 
The Leopard Queen

     After a while the leopard queen stood and climbed higher. She was silhouetted against the sky as she traversed the ridge, backlit by the bright morning sun, with tall golden grasses blowing in front of her. This was magic. Gee repositioned the Land cruiser to keep her in view. She sat for a while at the top of the cliff, and then crossed over the top of the ridge and disappeared from sight.

 

     We drove around to the other side of Leopard Rock; the road was further away, but it gave us a good view of the entire ridge. We could see the leopardess, tiny against the huge cliff, moving sinuously among the rocks. Gee said she might be checking out the caves, making a plan in case she needed to move the baby. She rubbed her jowl against the rocks, leaving her scent to mark her passing. She finally disappeared behind some dense bushes, so it was time to move on. What a spectacular sighting it had been!  Patty dubbed it The Lady Leopard of the Rocks Show. Gee’s talisman must have been at least partially responsible.

     A herd of wildebeests walked slowly across the plain in a long single file row, parallel to the road. We stopped to look at some elephant tracks in the dusty road; there were some prints from a baby that were barely bigger than my hand.  
    
We stopped at a stretch point for tea break, not far from the lions’ waterhole. It was a rather barren place with one lone tree, not the prettiest of spots.  A lilac-breasted roller was perched on the top of a sparse bush; I had my camera ready, and got another crack at in-flight shots when he took off.

 

     There were no elephants at tea break today, but a little squirrel came down out of the lone tree to beg for crumbs. There were no bushes so we had to go behind a termite hill to check the tires. Walking back to the vehicle, something made me look down at the ground, and I found a great prize - an elephant tail hair! Obviously the spirit of the elephants was with us at tea after all, even if we couldn’t see them.

     Driving on after tea, we soon came upon a pair of ostriches strutting along near the road. This was the closest we had gotten to a female; her grey-brown feathers were puffed up and she looked quite stylish. She was eating, and her neck and throat would expand like a python when she swallowed. Her expression seemed a bit frivolous, but with her tiny head compared to the size of her neck and body, one did not expect a lot of brain power.

 

     We set off through the mopane woodland. A handsome Senegal coucal sat on a twig; a large bird with bold black, white and copper coloring. We could see a white-headed vulture soaring overhead.
    
There were four bull elephants among the trees, and two of them were very close to the road. We stopped to watch them feed. One of them approached the vehicle and looked at us closely, raising and lowering his trunk like he was smelling us. After a while he must have decided we were OK and he went back to eating. He would pull up a big clump of grass with his trunk, whirl it around in circles and bang it on his leg to knock the dirt off the roots, and then put it in his mouth to chew. We watched it all from about five feet away. Gee explained that elephants have six sets of teeth through their lifetime, and when they wear out the sixth set then they starve.  

 

     We were heading for our next camp, which would be in the Khwai Concession. We had a long drive ahead of us along the edge of the Mababe Depression, a vast open plain that sometimes floods in the rainy season, depending on how much water flows from the Savuti channel. This is dictated partly by the rainfall, but even more so by the shifting of the tectonic plates; there are areas of marshland that have changed to desert for several decades, and then back to marsh again

 
Black-shouldered kite

     We took a deep sandy road through a forest of stunted, elephant-eaten mopane trees, right beside the edge of the plain. For the next hour and a half we didn’t see a lot of animals, but there was a fabulous variety of birds, including a number of ones we had not yet seen. A black-shouldered kite looked at us from a lofty perch before sailing away; this smallish bird of prey has a rounded head and looks slightly owl-like. A swallow-tailed bee-eater perched on a twig; he had a bright blue collar and a long forked tail. Many trees had buffalo weaver nests hanging from the limbs, and Gee pointed out several of the weaver birds in the bushes. We saw a purple roller, less common and not nearly as pretty as his lilac-breasted cousins.

   
The  purple roller versus the lilac-breasted roller.

     Other birds we saw were old friends: A greater blue-eared starling gleamed in the sunlight, a brilliant deep blue color. A lilac-breasted roller had a choice perch in a tree, only to be chased away by a red-billed hornbill who wanted to sit there. We got a good close view of a pert little black fork-tailed drongo. 
    
Shortly after noon we came out of the woods onto the open plain of the Mababe Depression. We stopped and had lunch under a shepherd’s tree, an evergreen with a distinctive whitish trunk. It had been our lunch spot on the previous trip as well; no tsessebes this time. There was one other Letaka Safari vehicle there, and we met the guide, who was Phillimon’s father. We spent a leisurely hour sitting in the shade before resuming our journey.

     On our way again, we rolled along the edge of a vast treeless plain. We saw a warthog on our right, the first animal for a long time, then a giraffe on the left, and then more warthogs on both sides. Soon we were seeing impala, zebras, and dozens of giraffes, mostly taking advantage of the shade under the few trees along the edge of the plain.  

  

     A family of warthogs ran along near the road, their tails held straight up over their backs. Soon they slowed down and started to graze, walking on their knees to reach the grass easier. There was one poor fellow who was missing an ear. Warthogs are ridiculous looking creatures, with sparse hair and large snouts. They have bony protuberances on their cheeks that give them their name, up-curving tusks, and stiff bristly white mustaches. We dubbed the area Warthog Alley, because they were everywhere.  

     A tawny eagle stood sentinel on the top of a tall tree. We saw white-browed sparrow weavers, a juvenile African hawk eagle and a fabulous blue long-tailed Meves’s starling. There were several red-billed teals in a small waterhole, attractive little duck-like birds. A secretary bird took flight, skimming along just a foot above the grass somewhat awkwardly. Somehow he reminded me a little of the roadrunner from the cartoons. 

 
Secretary bird

     Suddenly three huge bull elephants appeared on our right, walking quickly with silent tread, seemingly on a mission. It is truly amazing how silently these giants can move; though they were just twenty meters from us, we could not hear a sound. A pair of tsessebe stood near the road, their purplish-brown coats caked with mud. Then a family of muddy wet warthogs went running across in front of us, jumping fallen trees and logs like they were going cross-country.

 
Tsessebes

     We came to the Mababe Gate, leaving Chobe National Park behind. While Gee took care of the paperwork we studied the maps at the gate, curious to visualize where we were going. A very old looking hornbill with a damaged beak sat on a bleached giraffe skull by the gate, looking up at us haughtily.
    
For the next ten kilometers we drove on the main gravel road, which was dusty and very wash-boarded. There were eerie dead trees alongside the road, with bare twisted branches like reaching hands. Everything was covered in a fine white dust; the road, the trees and shrubs, and us. We noticed a triangular caution sign with a large leaping antelope on it; the international symbol for a kudu crossing.

  
Kudu Crossing  

     There was a tiny steenbok by the road, very delicate and beautiful, with short spike horns. He was covered in flies; there must have been hundreds of them on his face and back. A bit further on Gee heard a loud bird call and stopped; he spotted a red-crested korhaan in breeding plumage. He had a rusty-red crest that looked like a mane accenting his variegated brown, black and white color.

 
Red-crested korhaan 

     We turned off the main road and drove down a smaller lane; Chobe was on our left and the Khwai Concession on our right. Soon we came to the Khwai Gate. It was well into the afternoon but we were in no hurry; we couldn’t arrive at our new camp before six o'clock, because the guys needed time to have it set up.

     The landscape began to change dramatically; we were at the edge of the Okavango Delta, which flooded annually with waters from the rains in Angola a thousand miles to the north. There were rivers, channels, lakes and lagoons everywhere, and the area was much more lush and green than the dry plains of Savuti. Because the flooding of the Delta coincides with the dry season, there is a high concentration of wildlife around the Delta at this time of year, much of it different from what we saw in Savuti.

 

     We came across three waterbucks. Larger than an impala but smaller than a kudu, these attractive antelopes have thick soft brown coats, white markings on their faces, and a white ring on their rumps like a big target. The males have long curved spiral horns.  
    
Tara was on the lookout for crocodiles; twice she thought she saw one, but both times it turned out to be a floating island of weeds or debris moving with the current. A pair of massive kudu bulls walked along the far side of a river channel, the late afternoon light illuminating the shaggy manes below their necks and their marvelous twisting horns.

 
Kudu bull

     Suddenly the air was filled with a high-pitched haunting cry; it was the call of a fish eagle. He was sitting high in a tree, looking down over the river. Dark brown or black in color, the fish eagle has a white head and neck, and looks quite similar to our American bald eagle. 

 
Fish eagle

     A spur-winged goose stood by the edge of a small channel; he stretched his wings wide and flapped them, showing off an impressive wingspan. At first glance his plumage was a bold black and white, but in the sunlight his back shone with highlights of green and purple. A sacred ibis perched in a dead tree, a large bird with striking black and white plumage and a long curved bill.
   
We were driving along beside a narrow river when Tara sighted our first Nile crocodile sleeping on the far shore. It was a big croc with a clean-looking brown and green color, still wet from a recent swim.

 
Nile crocodile

     Before long we came to a small lagoon where several hippos floated, only the tops of their heads and backs visible above the water. These were the first hippos we had seen since the hippo rock in the waterhole at Savuti.  Three bull elephants were moseying along near the road; they made their way to a marshy channel and stood contentedly in the shallow water eating the tall grass.

 

     A small group of vervet monkeys were climbing in a tree. They moved up and down the trunk and through the branches effortlessly on lithe graceful limbs. The dominant male made a striking image as he stood on a limb gazing out, silhouetted against the sky; he had a grey-brown coat with black face, hands and feet, and his balls were a bright powder-blue.

 
Vervet monkey

     The sun was lowering toward the horizon, and we watched through the acacia trees as the sky turned orange. A female kudu stood beneath the trees, less massive and powerful than the males but with a graceful beauty that is hard to top. Then Gee got the radio call – the wild dogs were on the hunt!

     Gee set off driving fast toward the area where the dogs had been sighted. He had to brake hard at one intersection; a huge bull elephant was getting ready to cross, and though the elephant was polite he was not about to give up his right-of-way.
    
We skirted through sparsely wooded areas and across open meadows, looking for the African wild dogs. Lean as greyhounds, they can run fast for great distances. They live and hunt in packs, and have a very high success rate when hunting. The dogs have patchwork coats of black, white and tan, an imposing set of teeth, and large round ears. They are also known as painted dogs or African hunting dogs.

 

 
A kudu doe, alarmed by the hunting dogs.

     Gee watched the antelopes to get clues to the whereabouts of the dogs; the impala and kudus were snorting in alarm. The zebras wore not worried - the hunting dogs rarely go after something that large, preferring impalas and other smaller antelopes. Gee tried to determine the direction they were moving and get ahead of them.
    
Suddenly a dog with a light-colored coat came by us, running hard on the hunt, zig zagging back and forth and leaping over logs. Another followed, this one darker in color and a little further away. Gee had positioned us perfectly and the dogs gave us a great show, running intently, following the trail of their prey.

 
African wild dog

     We followed the dogs, trying to keep them in sight. Gee had a great knack for anticipating which way they would go and getting us to where we could see them, but the light was fading fast and after a while we lost them. The zebras were standing quiet against a pastel sky and some kudus huddled nervously in the brush – but the impalas were nowhere to be seen - they had taken off running for their lives. Gee drove us out by the river, where we watched the last vestiges of a brilliant sunset. Dark trees stood in contrast against the blazing colors reflected in the water.
    
As we lingered there in the gathering darkness, two dogs came out of the brush and trotted down to the edge of the water, crossing right in front of us. They stood there silhouetted against the river for several long moments, then turned and disappeared back into the brush. “Amazing,” Gee proclaimed, using his signature phrase. “Unbelievable.”

   

     It was quite dark by now, and we were still quite a ways from our camp. Even though Khwai allows night driving and there was no curfew, we had spent a long day traveling and were getting tired - but I was still loving every minute of it. Driving along beside a watercourse, when the vehicle paused we could hear a noise like a thousand crickets; Gee explained the sound was made by a flock of tiny birds called red-billed queleas.
    
It was well after six o'clock so we thought we would be in camp soon; the guys would have it set up and ready by now. But Gee told us that our camp was in a remote area not normally used for camping, and it would take a while to get there. Then instead of heading straight for the camp, Gee turned on the spotlight, sweeping it back and forth across the road in front of him as he drove, looking for night animals.

    
Almost right away we came across a leopardess, hunting in the night. We followed her, tracking her movements with the spotlight, but Gee was careful not to shine the light in her eyes or disturb her hunt. After a few minutes she moved off of the road and disappeared into the darkness. Gee told us that the leopard is his favorite animal. I was beginning to think it might be mine as well. 

     A bit further on, Gee shone the light on a scrub hare; the little rabbit was huddled in the grass looking vulnerable. Not high on anybody’s list of which African animal they would like to be, especially with the hungry leopard nearby. 
    
And then we found springhares! These little miniature kangaroos are one of my favorite nocturnal animals. They are technically rodents, not kangaroos; kind of a cross between a rabbit and a rat, but they sit up on powerful (relatively speaking) hindquarters and hold their little front paws up in front of their chests, and hop like tiny kangaroos. I am completely in awe of the fact that Africa has tiny kangaroos, and nobody even knows about them! 

 
Springhare!

      We turned down a tiny narrow road and crossed several water channels, each deeper than the last. After all, we were in the Okavango Delta, famous for its seasonal flooding. Finally we came to a crossing that was deeper than the others; Gee instructed us to pick up our belongings off the floor to keep them dry. As the Landcruiser plunged into water that came halfway up over the hood, we were starting to see why the vehicle was equipped with a snorkel. Patty expressed dismay as the water sloshed up through the floorboards onto our feet, as well as high up the sides of our luggage trailer. “Welcome to the Delta!” Gee turned and said with a wolfish grin.

     It was quite late by now. Though we were having a great time, we had been driving for nearly 14 hours, and we were tired. We were in a totally remote area – we had seen no other signs of vehicles or people for hours, and had no idea how far from camp we were. Suddenly Gee stopped the Landcruiser, killed the engine, and turned and looked at us. “I am totally lost,” he said, “I have no idea where we are.” Having gone on safari with him before I knew he was teasing us, but some others fell for it in dismay. Gee chuckled and started up the Landcruiser, and within five minutes we were in camp.

     It was almost eight o'clock when we arrived, and very dark. It turned out that our camp really was remote; it looked like nobody had been there in ages. We couldn’t see it very well in the dark, but we could make out a large body of water right by the dining tent. Somehow the camp seemed only about half put together; there were only a few lanterns out, and the paths to our tents were very rough – we had to climb over roots and branches to get to them.
    
In our tent, Jineen and I found that our twin beds were awkwardly placed, necessitating a bit of rearranging. However the slope of the tent floor limited the options, and after collapsing the bed several times we ended up putting everything right back where it had been when we started. Opening my suitcase, I found that my clothes were quite wet from that last water crossing. But no worries; we strung up a clothesline in the shower enclosure and hung them all out to dry.  
     
We made our way back out to the fire, tripping over logs on the unused path. Sitting around the campfire we could hear loud splashing - there were elephants in the river just down from camp. Hippos were calling nearby, their voices sounding like slightly sinister laughter. There was a constant chorus from the frogs, occasionally accompanied by some night bird. We looked forward to seeing what the camp looked like in the daylight.

 

     Dinner was excellent as usual. We learned that Pula, Phillimon and Parker had gotten lost on the way and couldn’t find the camp; they had arrived only three hours before us. No wonder the camp wasn’t quite finished! This explained why Gee had gotten us here so late; he had been in radio contact with them and knew that the camp was not ready, so he had stalled for time by taking us night driving. The guys had done a spectacular job putting it all together in such a short time. We thought we were tired, and all we had to do was ride in the Landcruiser and look at animals. But those guys had to pack up the old camp, drive to the new locations, set up the camp and have our dinner ready for us when we arrived! They are amazing.
    
At dinner we asked Gee if this campsite had been used much; he said that actually this was the first time it had ever been used for camping! Being repeat customers, Letaka wanted to make sure we had a private camp in an uncrowded area. The best two regular sites were already taken, so they opened this new area just for us, and we were the first people to camp here. No wonder it wasn’t perfectly prepared yet. We loved the privacy and the newness of it.

     So far this trip had been special, and we had already seen a fantastic variety of wildlife. Lions close-up, a baby leopard, elephant spas and wild dogs hunting, among many others. There were only a few things left on the wish list. Rob was really hoping for an aardvark, and Paula (and Fred) dreamed of seeing a bushbaby. I had always wanted to see a honey badger, but I knew that wouldn’t happen so I didn’t want to mention it.
    
We were all tired, and soon headed for bed. There would be little enough rest for the crew, who had to be up long before our 5:30 wakeup call. Back in our tent, Jineen and I found that something had eaten our toilet paper while we were at dinner. Definitely something bigger than a mouse. A squirrel maybe? No, they are not nocturnal. Perhaps a genet?
    
I climbed into my bed, gratefully snuggling with the hot water bottle that had been placed under the covers. All I can tell you is, if anyone ever offers to put a bushbaby  in your bed, do not turn it down! It is one of the finer experiences in life.

 ~ Continued on next page ~


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