been standing for some time, watching the angry bull hippo in the
water in front of us. He resented the fact that we had parked
beside the lagoon – his lagoon - for our tea break, and he let us know it in no uncertain
terms. Opening his mouth impossibly wide, he displayed enormous
tusk-like canine teeth. Then he reared up out of the water in a
great plunging leap, sending a tsunami-like wave across the
lagoon. He raised his voice in maniacal honking laughter and then
plunged up out of the water again, leaping and breaching like a
Our guide Gee explained that a hippo’s teeth are razor sharp and
up to twenty inches long; they can bite a small boat - or a person
- in half in one chomp. Hippos are very aggressive in defending
their territory, and the show this big bull was putting on was
clearly intended to intimidate us. We knew that hippos kill more
people in Africa than any other animal.
there was an eruption of motion and noise among the trees behind
us. As we turned to look, we saw that a second huge hippo bull had
come out of the water, and he had circled around furtively behind
us. He appeared suddenly in a gap in the trees not thirty meters
from where we stood, sidestepping and stomping as he tossed his
head and snorted angrily, challenging our right to be there. He
was 4000 pounds of muscle and fury. We could see the battle scars
on his sides. What was it we had been told? “Never get between a
hippo and the water.” Uh-oh, this could be a problem.
At last we were off! The week
leading up to a vacation is always busy and stressful, and as we
made our way through Dulles Airport, my friend Jineen and I were
glad to finally be on our way. We made a brief visit to the
Turkish first class lounge for breakfast and then met up with Mary
and Natalie at the gate.
Ethiopian Air, our old friend,
treated Jineen and I well up in the ‘Cloud Nine’ business
class section (courtesy of Frequent Flier miles), plying us with
champagne and traditional Ethiopian food. It would be a long
flight for poor Mary and Natalie back in the economy
As we soared above Virginia we
watched the Blue Ridge receding below us out the plane windows. We
could identify the familiar shapes of the mountains near home;
there was Mount Weather, and Clark’s Gap, and then we could see
Hillsboro nestled in the gap in Short Hill Mountain. Beyond, we
could just barely make out the fields of Windchase, and the arena
roof gleaming white in the sunlight.
and I first visited Botswana in 2011, and we fell in love with the
country. A few years later we went on a mobile camping safari in
Chobe and the Okavango Delta and I was totally hooked. This was
our 4th trip to Botswana, and our 3rd time
touring Savuti, Khwai and Moremi with Letaka
(expertly arranged by the Scott
Dunn Travel Company).
Part of me wishes I could run away from home and become a
safari guide in Botswana, or better yet a nature photographer.
Maybe I will in my next life.
People often ask me why I
want to go back to the same places again; wouldn’t I rather
visit somewhere new? But the animal and bird sightings are
different each time and that is mainly what we came for. While I
love seeing new places, it is also rewarding to really get to know
an area by visiting it multiple times and in different seasons,
and to learn all about the wildlife there. And we have developed a
close friendship with our guide Gee; this was to be our third trip
The first leg of our trip, the
flight from Washington Dulles to Addis Ababa, was over 12 hours
long. We settled back in our Cloud Nine seats, stretching out to
try and get some sleep, but excitement kept me awake - we were
heading back to Africa!
Waking from fitful snatches of
sleep, we watched the first sudden break of dawn. A fiery orange
glow stretched across the rim of the earth as the sun rose over
Early sunrise over Africa, as seen from the plane window.
Spectacular mountains rose above
Addis Ababa; we came in on a different approach from our last
trip, and I could see that the capital city of Ethiopian is larger
than I had realized. We landed to change planes for the flight to
Johannesburg. Natalie and Mary seemed to have weathered economy
class well. We met
Tara near the gate; she was fresh as a daisy after only a four
hour flight from Cairo.
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
were picked up at the Johannesburg airport by a driver from the Sunrock,
where we were staying that night. By the time we checked into our
rooms we had been traveling for 24 hours. Having gotten very
little sleep on the plane, I took a nap before dinner. We all went
to the bar where we met up with the rest of our group; Paula,
Sally and Mike.
There were eight of us on the
trip, and all had been on one of our previous safaris. Mary, Sally
and Mike had been on the 2015
trip, and Natalie, Paula and Tara had gone on the 2017
safari. And of course Jineen and I had been on both.
Everyone knew what they were getting into and they had all loved
it enough to come back for more. This should be an awesome group,
I reflected. Exhausted from the travel, we had dinner and then all
fell into bed by nine o'clock.
gone to bed early, I was wide awake at five. That’s good; time
to get into the safari routine! I went out on the lawn to watch
The birdfeeders were a frenzy of
activity. The tiny Red Bishops and Red-headed Finches competed
with a flock of much larger pigeons for the birdseed, while a row
of doves watched regally from a tree branch above. Four Go-Away
Birds perched on an antenna and a Mousebird hid deep in a tree.
Several Swifts circled the yard and a trio of ibis flew overhead. My
favorite was the Pin-tailed Whydah, an elegant black and white
bird with an impossibly long trailing tail. Sally, an avid birder,
was keeping a list – she must have had a dozen species on it
the 2017 trip I had bought a little stuffed-animal baby cheetah in
the Johannesburg airport, which I named Duma, and Paula had gotten
an adorable bushbaby she called Fred. They had become our mascots
on that trip, so we brought them along again this time. Tragically
Paula discovered that Fred was missing; she realized that she must
have left him on the plane. She was devastated, as were we all. We
never did see Fred again. We can only hope and believe that he was
rescued by some nice Ethiopian family who adopted him and he is
currently residing in a loving home. God Bless you, Fred, wherever you are - we will never forget you.
a huge breakfast buffet the Sunrock shuttle dropped us off at the
airport. After checking in we had some time to shop at Out
of Africa and some of the other shops which are amazingly
familiar by now. Paula found another bushbaby which she named
Merle, and Natalie bought an adorable little wild dog she called
Solo. They would be our mascots for the trip.
When our flight was called we
boarded the plane to Maun, Botswana, glad to be on our way. But
no! There was a technical problem with the plane so we sat on the
tarmac. After an hour they told us we had to change planes; we
were several hours late by the time we finally took off.
After clearing customs and
immigration at the small Maun airport we boarded the Mack Air
charter for the final leg of the trip; fortunately it had waited
for us. We could see Black Storks walking in the grass along the
runway. Heading north, fluffy white cumulous clouds floated
outside the plane windows; it reminded me of a line from that Joni
Mitchell song. “Bows and
flows of angel hair, and ice cream castles in the air, and
feathered canyons everywhere . . .”
over the bush, we were filled with anticipation. Everyone in our
group had been here before, but always in the dry season when the
landscape was dry and brown – now we were eager to see it in the
rainy season. Looking out the windows of the small plane we were
struck by how green everything was. I would have to start
re-calibrating my mental image of what Africa looks like.
From the air we could make out the
occasional grey bulky shape of an elephant or the angular outline
of a giraffe. As we descended toward Savuti, which is in Chobe
National Park, we saw a herd of dozens of elephants below us.
Often before landing the pilots have to make a low pass over the
airstrips to chase off animals, but this time the runway was
the plane touched down on the Savuti airstrip, we were greeted by the
familiar sight of our guide, Gee, standing by the Letaka Safaris
land cruiser and waving to us. It was a poignant moment. As we
rolled to a stop Gee drove up beside the plane. We got out and
greeted him with a hug, letting the sights and sounds and smells
of the African bush surround us. It felt like coming home.
We looked around; other than us
the tiny dirt airstrip was deserted. There was a small pre-fab
shed with red fire buckets hanging on a frame next to it. An
incongruous sign by the little shack read:
Savuti International Airport
Finally, after four flights and two days, we were at the
start of our adventure. We all climbed in the land cruiser and sat
in the raised bench seats behind Gee. It had a canvas top but no
side walls, and was completely open to the air and elements (and
animals). We were pleasantly surprised to find we had a larger
model with four rows of seats instead of three; it would
accommodate all eight of us nicely without anyone having to use a
Gee started driving us toward our camp we were amazed by how lush
and green everything was. The plains were covered in thick grass,
with small rain-fed waterholes everywhere. In the past we had come
in the winter, July or August, the dry season. But one time as we
were driving along a dry riverbed which Gee said flowed with water
when it was flooded, I suddenly had a great desire to see Botswana
when it was wet and green. At that moment I had started making
plans to come back during the rainy season. Now here we were.
The Scott Dunn travel agents had
cautioned me that we might not see as many animals during the
rainy season. In the dry season they congregate at the waterholes
and are easy to find, but during the rains the animals are more
widely dispersed, and the tall grass makes it harder to find many
of the smaller ones. Leopards in particular were said to be harder
to spot this time of year. We would just have to take our chances.
My trip advisor also said that one
of the advantages of rainy season safaris is that you may have
some great photo ops you can’t get at other times. For instance,
she told me, you might get a photo of a male lion shaking the
raindrops off of his mane just as the sun comes out after an
afternoon storm. This sounded great, and I couldn’t wait to get
away we started seeing birds we had not seen before, such as the
Golden Bishop, a beautiful small yellow and black bird, and the
Shaft-tailed Whydah, elegant and impressive with its long tail
trailing behind it. Barn Swallows swooped over the grasses; they
looked just like the barn swallows we have at home.
There was water everywhere, and
plenty of waterfowl; we saw White-faced Ducks, Red-billed Teals
and a Moor Hen. New water birds included the small dark Collared
Pratincole, a Dwarf Bittern, and a Ruff which was taking a bath in
a puddle. We hadn't been on safari more than fifteen minutes
before it was clear that there are way
more birds in the summertime, many of which we had not seen
saw some familiar faces. Two Crested Francolins perched in a tree;
as usual we would see these ubiquitous partridge-sized birds on
virtually every game drive. Gee pointed out a Red-billed Buffalo
Weaver and a Magpie Shrike. A small flock of Helmeted Guineafowl
scurried across the road. A pair of Egyptian Geese were fussing
over a clutch of young babies; we watched the parade of goslings
with delight. Cape Turtle Doves serenaded us from the trees; to me
they always sound like they are chanting Bots-wa-na,
I have heard locals insist they are actually saying Drink-Lag-er,
We saw a myriad of birds that
first evening, but not many other animals. We did come across a
herd of impala; they are always the first and most common antelope
you see. We caught a glimpse of a jackal in the distance, but
otherwise it was just our feathered friends.
arrived in camp as it was getting dark, just before 7:00. Our
tents were set up in a row along a dry riverbed with a dining
table beneath a canvas roof nearby. Camp chairs were set out for
us around a merrily burning fire; we sat contentedly watching the
flames while we waited for dinner.
Gee introduced the camp staff. Our
chef was named Life. Our waiter was Badisa,
who went by the initials BD. The camp hand was Keokegile, known as
KK. Life stood by the fire and announced dinner, telling us
what each course would be.
Dinner was excellent. I am always
amazed by the wonderful meals the chefs prepare in the bush using
a camp stove or Dutch oven. We sat around the table talking with
Gee, and passed out some small gifts we had brought for the staff.
I gave Gee a leopard talisman I had made for him; perhaps it would
help us be lucky in finding them.
went to sleep in our tents, listening to the night noises of
said a soft voice
outside our tent at 5:00 a.m. - our wake-up call. Breakfast was
served at 5:30; avocado and hard boiled eggs, toast with
honey, and camp coffee at the fire. By six o'clock we were in the
land cruiser and heading out for the morning game drive in the dim
Not surprisingly, the first thing
we encountered was a group of impala. They were adolescent males,
milling about in the road and playing. No doubt they had been
kicked out of the herd by Dad; as with many of the African
animals, when the males approach maturity they are pushed out of
the breeding herd by the dominant male, to form bachelor herds.
A bachelor herd of impala
trees stood out starkly against a fiery sky as the sun came up
through layers of cloud. A trio of ducks were perched high in a
dead tree, adding an unlikely silhouette to the dawn scene. A
Black-shouldered Kite watched the morning unfold from his perch in
small herd of Blue Wildebeest were grazing on the plain, and with
them were three babies that were just a few months old. The adults
ignored us but the calves looked back at us over their shoulders
with curiosity. Red-billed Oxpeckers perched on their rumps. Not
having seen baby wildebeests before, we watched them with delight.
Getting to see baby antelopes was one of the best perks of coming
at this time of year!
I have stated in accounts of previous trips, I write these
journals mainly so that I and my travel companions will have a way
to remember and relive all of the details of the journey. For
those of you who were not there, my apologies if you find this
journal overly detailed and boring. Even so, it is not a complete
account; for most of the more common birds and animals I only
recount the first time we saw them (with names capitalized for
first sightings), or describe the more notable sightings. It would
not be practical to report every time we saw an impala, a
wildebeest or an elephant walking in the distance, but I am making note of each time we sighted a large predator or a more
We drove along the Savuti Channel,
a now-dry riverbed. A pair of Pied Babblers perched in a tree,
white with black wings and tail. Gee pointed out a tiny bird
called the Rattling Cisticola; we could barely see it but we could
hear its song.
passed the campsite by the river where we had stayed on the last
two trips. A large Giraffe stood there; he browsed in the trees
for a while before turning away. A Dwarf Mongoose sat on a log and
peered up at us. A pair of tiny Steenboks peeked out of the
underbrush; they are less than two feet tall and the males have
tiny sharp horns. These impossibly delicate antelopes are like
something from a fairy tale. The female’s belly was heavy with
her unborn baby. She watched us furtively from beneath the bushes.
A female steenbok, nearing her due date
impala doe was nearby and she had a tiny baby by her side - it
couldn’t have been more than a week old. It was exquisite. Mom
watched us warily, then turned and headed into the brush. Her baby
scampered behind her, pausing once to look back at us before
disappearing into the trees.
Impala doe with her fawn
we drove along the Savuti Channel, Gee told us about this ancient
riverbed which has a history of mysteriously flooding and then
drying up again, independently of the rainy seasons and flood
levels. This is thought to be caused by shifting of the tectonic
plates beneath the earth. The channel runs from the Chobe River
over a hundred kilometers to the Savuti Marsh. Back in
Livingstone’s time it was a flowing river, but then the channel
dried up in the 1880s and remained dry for over 70 years. It
flooded again in 1957, but then dried up again in the 1980s. When
the river goes dry it is devastating to the wildlife depending on
the water source, especially animals such as hippos and crocodiles
that live in the water, not to mention the fish. I had read about
this in the excellent book The African Diaries, by National Geographic photographers Dereck and
The river flowed again in 2008,
and once more became a deep clear waterway, complete with hippos
and waterbirds; but then it dried up again in 2015. There were
still a few pools of water in the channel on our first visit to
Savuti in 2015; at the time we had not realized we were seeing the
last remains of a recently flowing river. We had seen pelicans and
storks clustered around the dwindling water, but now it was
completely dry and the waterfowl was long gone.
This was my third trip to Savuti,
which gave me the chance to get to know the area more intimately.
Between the repeated visits and reading accounts of the ebb and
flow of the Channel, I felt I was finally really starting to
understand this place.
Greater Kudu bulls were grazing along the slope of the riverbed.
These large antelopes are incredibly beautiful with elegant faces,
big ears, and thin white vertical stripes on their sides. They
have a short mane that stands up along the entire length of their
back from head to tail, and also a long thick multi-colored mane
that hangs down from the underside of their neck. But their most
remarkable feature is the long spiraled twisting horns that adorn
the males. Kudus are my favorite antelope.
We watched the two bulls as they
grazed along the slope above us. One of them was mature and really
big; the other was younger and a little smaller. We were very
close to them, which they did not seem to mind. Several oxpeckers
were having a go at the younger kudu, sticking their heads in his
ears searching for ticks. He shook his head resignedly.
The bigger bull stood regally, his
head raised high, tilting back his massive horns proudly as he
posed for us. He was magnificent. Gee said that mature kudu bulls
have three full twists to their horns. Big manes and large horns
indicate good genes, and the female kudus will choose males with
these traits to father their babies. This kudu bull was an amazing
individual, Gee told us, very well-bred with good genes.
kudu raised his head even higher, holding it straight up with his
nose pointing to the sky. He seemed to be showing off, displaying
his dominance. But
when I looked at the photos later I saw that in some of the shots
he had his lips open and his eyes closed blissfully, wearing an
expression of ecstasy – it appears he was raising his head to
scratch his back with the tip of his long sharp horns.
left the riverbed and followed a sand road across the plain.
Before long we came across a large herd of female impalas grazing
near the track. Most of them had babies that looked to be about
two months old. They were milling around; some of the adults lay
on the ground dozing while many of the babies scampered about
playing. Several of the does regarded us with disdainful
expressions, squinting their eyes and puckering their lips at us.
One of them definitely stuck her tongue out at me.
told us that impalas have their babies after the first big rain of
the season; the mothers will hold them until the rains come, and
then they all have them at the same time within a few days - this
way the predators can’t eat them all. The babies can run right
away and they grow fast. But there are always a few impala moms
give who birth later, like the one with the tiny baby we saw
pointed out a monkey high in a tree in the distance; I was
surprised as I had not seen monkeys in Savuti before, nor baboons.
Gee told us that back about 30 years ago the baboons at the lodges
in Savuti had became a big problem, getting aggressive and
stealing things, so the park service shot them all. Now there are
no baboons in Savuti. A grim story.
A Yellow Mongoose peered up at us
from the entrance of her burrow; she had lovely red eyes and a
delicate face. I think these are the prettiest of the mongooses.
we came to Leopard Rock, a huge rocky ridge that sticks up out of
the flat plain. In 2017 we were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of
a mother leopard nursing her tiny week-old baby up in a shallow
cave in the cliff face. No leopards were here this time, but we
were delighted to see a flock of five Ostriches near the ridge,
three males and two females. These enormous birds always seem to
me somewhat comical and a bit unreal, like something out of a
children’s story. They have long thick necks, tiny heads, large
eyes and great luxurious eyelashes. There legs are like giant
drumsticks. The males are brilliant black with white tail
feathers, and the females are a drabber greyish brown. Both sexes
wave their long wing and tail feathers about like a grand dame in
a Broadway show, and you can’t help but laugh when you see them.
However despite their comical appearance they are incredibly tall
and strong, and when they get those huge legs pumping they are
Ostriches, with impressive drumsticks
We drove by a
series of waterholes. A Crowned Plover was striding along near the
edge of the water and several Kestrels were flying above, hovering
in the wind. A group of Banded Mongoose scurried busily to and
fro, never still. These large mongooses are hard to photograph;
between their subtle grey-brown striping and their tendency toward
perpetual motion, they play havoc with my camera’s autofocus.
we came across several giraffes. There was a big male that was
very dark in color with a smaller lighter female. They walked
along casually, stopping now and then to eat from the trees.
Giraffes are another animal that do not seem quite real.
encountered more ostriches, this time a pair with four half-grown
chicks. The babies are a lighter shade of mottled brown, and can
camouflage well in the bush. A pair of Egyptian geese flew across
in front of them as they hurried away from us. The babies are
shyer than the adults, but no less ridiculous.
A couple tsessebes
were grazing among the impala. These distinctive medium-sized
antelopes are built uphill, with shoulders higher than
hindquarters, and Gee said they are very fast. Tsessebes are a
sort of purplish brown color with black patches extending up from
their legs. They have black faces topped by short backswept horns.
This pair was plastered with mud on their necks and heads, and one
of them had a horn that was completely encased in a large blob of
could see two elephants in the distance, moving our way. An impala
dashed across the road in front of us. The mud-encrusted tsessebes
decided to join in the fun and went loping along, though they soon
tired of the game. We looked around in wonder; from one spot we
could see impala, tsessebes, elephants and a family of ostriches,
not even counting all the other birds.
reviewing my photos later, I would often be surprised at the
number of unnoticed birds and animals that end up being in the
background of shots I took of some other animal. African
two elephants moved toward us. A big bull was in the lead with a
smaller male following some distance behind him. They filed right
past us one after the other, walking fast but silently as they
headed to the water. They turned their heads to keep an eye on us
as they passed. They were fabulous.