AFRICA 2019

By Phyllis Dawson
Botswana - Part 3
Savuti


February 8 

    
We heard lions calling in the night, and the soft rising whoop-whoop sound of a hyena. We woke up before five to the whistling call of the pearl-spotted owlet. The camp staff reported they saw a honey badger in the early hours trying to raid the kitchen.
      I filled my cup from the coffeepot at the fire. Breakfast was at 5:30; no jungle oats like in winter, but the avocado on toast was perfect. On the road by six o'clock - this was to be our schedule for the whole trip. 
     Some of our group were talking about things they hoped to see – a leopard, a cheetah, perhaps wild dogs. Not wanting to make demands, I told Gee I would be happy as long as we saw an impala or a francolin (though I did secretly wish to see a leopard in a tree).

 
Sunrise near Leopard Rock

     We were out in the bush when the sun came up, and the sky was filled with streaks of dark clouds and fiery orange. A Rufous-naped Lark serenaded us from a branch, singing his little heart out in accompaniment of the dawn. A kori bustard stepped out of the shadows into the early sunshine.

 

     A bachelor herd of impala greeted the morning, their chestnut coats glowing in the warm early light. They were trying to get up the nerve to cross the road in front of us but seemed skittish – dawn is a time when many of the predators are out hunting.
     A tawny eagle kept watch from the top of a dead tree. The air was filled with the background noise of cape turtle doves chanting; Bots-wa-na, Bots-wa-na. Gee pointed out some hyena tracks in the sandy road. The sky was clear and blue now. We scanned the plain for motion as we drove.

 

     Around seven o'clock we passed King’s Rock, another big outcropping, and we were heading toward Leopard Rock when we caught a flash of chestnut movement across the plain. Suddenly we saw a herd of about 15 impala, bounding and leaping toward us, running for their lives. I barely had time to think, ‘It must be wild dogs’ before we saw one of those fabulous canines streaking at the heels of one of the impala, and another one close behind. The impala herd split, and we lost sight of the impala and the dogs.

 
African Wild Dog

     Gee intuitively turned the vehicle in the opposite direction than we expected and circled around through the brush. As usual he knew just where to go; before long the two African Wild Dogs trotted down the track in front of us. Soon a third dog joined them; this one was younger, and he took a submissive pose while chirping and trilling in a high pitched voice - apparently he thought the others had killed and was begging them to regurgitate some meat for him. Wild dogs are formidable hunters; they hunt by sight and hearing, not scent, and they chase down their quarry with relentless endurance. But it appeared that there had not been a kill so far this morning so no breakfast was forthcoming, regurgitated or otherwise. Soon all three dogs made their way off through the bushes to rejoin the hunt.

 

     We drove up the road ahead, hoping to see more action. Before long two dogs came out of the bushes off to the right and stealthily walked straight toward us. We could see the sun gleaming on their brown, black and white patchwork coats. The wild dogs have long lean bodies like a greyhound, huge ears, shepherd-like muzzles and long sharp canine teeth. They walked right up to our land cruiser and paused to look around, taking little notice of us before continuing up the road. We left them to their hunt.

 

     We drove along the dry Savuti Channel, and Gee reminded us that a famous BBC documentary about fishing leopards had been filmed there. As the river was drying up and the catfish were trapped in dwindling pools, several leopards in the area learned to hunt these fish, leaping into muddy pools to catch them. On a previous trip we had seen one of these fish-eating leopards curled up sleeping in the dry riverbed.    

     A Coppery-Tailed Coucal looked down at us from a tree branch; this largish bird is very striking with bold black, white and coppery chestnut plumage and bright red eyes. We added the Arrow-marked Babbler and the White-browed Sparrow Weaver to our bird list. A Brown Snake Eagle took flight from his perch in a dead tree as we approached; Gee told us that as they have bare legs they are not considered true eagles, which always have feathered legs.

 
Brown Snake Eagle

     Gee drove us along the edge of the Savuti Marsh. Suddenly we noticed several colorful birds following the land cruiser, swooping back and forth to catch the insects that fly up out of the grass in front the vehicle. They were Carmine Bee-eaters, a bird I had not seen on previous trips. These beautiful birds are a deep chestnut-red color with scarlet throats, iridescent dark-green heads with black eye masks, and light blue on their backs that is only visible in flight. 

 
Carmine Bee-eater

     As we continued across the marsh more and more of the bee-eaters flew along beside the land cruiser, swooping, diving and crisscrossing all around us. Their vivid red and blue plumage shone brilliant in the sunlight. I spent a lot of time trying to photograph them; it was difficult to get the auto-focus to lock on because they moved so quickly. But in the end I got some good shots, including one where you can see the bird actually catching a bee in its beak.

 

     We scanned the wide open plain for a glimpse of a cheetah, but with no luck. Gee pointed out a dark dot far across the plain and told us it was a Roan Antelope.  His ability to identify animals from a huge distance is amazing. Gee changed course and moved carefully toward the antelope. He told us, “I had planned to go the other way, but the animals are driving us this way.”
     The roan antelope was wary so we could not get too close, but we did get near enough for a better look. Large and handsome, he was brownish-grey with black and white markings on his face and short backwards-curving horns. I was excited to see the roan; they are rare and quite shy, and I had never seen one before.  

     We came to the far side of the dry marsh and drove through an area of dead trees that had grown during the time the channel was not flowing, but then drowned with the water temporarily filled the marsh again. Their bare limbs reached up to the sky like grasping hands.
     To our delight we say a Meyers Parrot sitting on the top of a bush with a Go-away Bird. Gee paused to point out honey badger tracks and a centipede trail in the sand road.

  
Meyers Parrot and Go-away Bird

     We came to Rhino Pan, a man-made water hole with a solar powered pump. As we were in the rainy season there were waterholes everywhere, but the pump is vital in the dry season, especially for the elephants. As nature made them, elephants would migrate, following the water sources with the change of seasons – but as most of their habitat has been lost and they can no longer travel across the continent like they used to, water sources must be provided for them within the Park’s boundaries. This encourages them to stay in the park as well as helping them survive the droughts.
     A big bull elephant walked by the solar pump and came to the water hole. He drank for a long time, swaying gently from side to side as he sucked up water by the gallon with his trunk and squirted it into his mouth. He seemed relaxed and serene.
     Soon a second big male joined him; this one looked dark, almost black in color, because he was covered with wet mud. He seemed to be agitated - Gee said he might be in musth. He told us that females come into estrus once a year, but the males go into musth twice a year - that sounds like a recipe for frustration to me. Observing the wet muddy bull, Gee said, “See, his brain is dripping.”

 

     We sat by the waterhole watching for a while. A small bachelor herd of impala wandered by; several of the young males locked horns in fighting practice. Half a dozen Amur Falcons circled above us, small pretty birds of prey sailing on the breeze to hunt for bugs. A group of banded mongoose scurried about and a pair of spurwing geese flew overhead. The musth elephant stalked off across the plain angrily, tusks held high and tail wringing. He flapped his ears and waved his trunk about for effect. 
     We stopped for tea around nine.  We reflected on how much we had seen already this morning. Mary pondered, “I wonder what will happen next?” 

 
Spurwing geese 

     We skirted through a wooded area at the edge of the dry marsh. For a while the air was hot, but soon the breeze picked up and the clouds rolled in, and the air felt amazing.      A pair of warthogs crossed the road in front of us and then turned to regard us suspiciously. Caked with mud, they looked a bit absurd with their sparse coats, course manes, curved tusks and the knobby protuberances on their faces for which they are named.  

 

     Tara spotted two honey badgers, but they disappeared quickly into the bushes before we could get a good look. But then a bit further on she spotted movement off to the right and asked Gee to stop – sure enough it was another honey badger. This one was covered with wet oozy mud; Gee said he had been in a wallow. His normally silvery-white back was almost black with slick mud, and the only visible white on him was the top of his head. Gee pulled closer and we watched as he bustled around, scratching in the dirt and looking for food. He did not pay any attention to us being there. A good spot by Tara; we dubbed her the badger queen.   

  
Honey Badger

     A Black-backed Jackal stood looking at us intently; this beautiful member of the dog family was a chestnut color with a silvery-black back and a foxlike head. Several more of them trotted through the tall grass. Gee said that the jackals will make alarm calls when they see lions, which alerts the herbivores; therefore the lions will kill them if they get the chance.

 
Black-backed Jackals

     We noticed a lovely giraffe drinking at a waterhole. He had just a short stump of a tail; Gee said a lion took the rest of it. Further off we could see a herd of Plains Zebras; one of them had a fairly young baby, but they were far from the road so we could not get close. 
     Along the edge of the marsh we spotted yet another honey badger; that made it four for the day, plus the one the staff saw in camp that morning. We were surprised to see so many honey badgers; they are generally elusive and you have to be lucky to see one.  

     We stopped back by Rhino Pan; we learned the solar-powered waterhole is so named because rhinos used to hang out there years ago. A waterbird was convention going on; the ones we had seen earlier were all still there, and they had been joined by dainty little ducks with bright blue beaks called Hottentot Teal, as well as their cousins, the Red-billed Teal. An African Spoonbill waded along, hoovering his shovel-like bill back and forth under the water to see what he could spoon up for lunch.

 
African Spoonbill with Red-billed Teal.

     Three giraffes walked alongside the road for a ways, stopping occasionally to peer at us. One of them lowered himself awkwardly down to drink from a puddle, splaying his long legs out wide to be able to reach the ground - this definitely seemed like a design flaw. A very large warthog stood in a mud hole staring at us, his lower half dark with a coating of wet mud. A Yellow-billed Kite was flying above and we got a look at an interesting ground bird with the absurd name of Spotted Thick-knee.

     We got back to camp about 12:30 for lunch, showers and a little relaxation time. We were back out on safari by 2:30 pm. This is the great thing about having our own private group on a camping safari; Gee was willing to take us game driving for as long as we wanted. Often at the lodges they take you on a morning game drive for a couple of hours, and then another short late afternoon drive – and the rest of the time you sit around camp. None of that for us; we were all very keen to do and see as much as possible. We were spending 10 to 12 hours per day out on safari; this made it a great experience for us, but I worried that we were working poor Gee to death.  

 
Our dining room

     The land cruiser took several tries to start that afternoon, and it sounded a little rough. It was raining lightly as we set off. Our camp was right by the Savuti Channel so we drove along the dry riverbed each time we set out. A short ways from camp we came upon a big giraffe right in the road. He moved over a few meters to let us by, but we stopped to watch him close up. He was very old and thin, and had scars on his legs, probably from lions. Gee said the giraffe’s main defense is to kick; they can kick with all four legs, forward, backwards and sideways. When lions come a giraffe does not run, he kicks.

    
We could see an impressive storm on the horizon; there was a dark mushroom-shaped cloud with rain streaming down in the middle. Four go-away birds sat on top of a tree; one of them gave its signature Go Away call in a petulant voice, sounding like an old hag telling us to get lost.     
    
At the Elephant Spa waterholes a mother Egyptian goose led her brood of seven babies out of the water and along the shore. We noticed a strange looking white blob that like a Styrofoam ball about two feet above the water at the edge of pan; Gee told us it was the nest of a Foam-nest Frog. They lay their eggs in the foam, which is poisonous to other animals. When the babies hatch they jump down into the water.

  

     Before long two bull elephants came in to drink.  They silently strode down to the water’s edge, scattering the blacksmith lapwings that stood by the pan, and drank in a dignified manner, taking their time. When the elephants visit the waterholes it always seems somewhat of a ritual; they are not there just to quench their thirst, but to enjoy the surroundings and each other’s company. Sort of like stopping off at a pub with friends for a drink.

  
The Elephant Pub

     Then the giraffes arrived one by one, seven of them altogether. One of them was heavily pregnant. Gee told us that giraffes have a 14 month gestation period, where lions are only three and a half months. 
     In contrast to the relaxed demeanor of the elephants, drinking is a dangerous time for giraffes, and they approach this necessary ordeal with trepidation. When they spread out their legs and lower themselves to drink they are most vulnerable to attacks by lions. Whenever possible giraffes drink at small puddles in the open, and avoid deep waterholes with trees and bushes that would conceal predators. This group stood scanning their surroundings for a long time, looking and waiting nervously before finally lowering themselves to drink. They repeatedly startled at some noise or imagined threat, leaping back up tall to scan some more.

 

     As usual we were surrounded by birds; some of the notable new ones were the Red-billed Fire Finch, the tiny Kitlett, and a Ruff in its white phase. A beautiful pair of Little Bee-eaters sat on a branch; green with bright yellow throats, orange breasts and iridescent turquoise eye shadow, they were camouflaged against a background of green leaves.

 
Little Bee-eaters

     Two black-backed jackals hung out near the road; I loved their refined features and bright expressions. It seemed we were seeing them much more often than on previous trips. Many people have a negative association with jackals; to my mind, these beautiful creatures have an undeserved bad reputation.

     We spent some time watching a herd of impala that had quite a few babies. The youngsters have exquisite faces with large dark eyes, huge ears, and refined muzzles; the boys have little spike horns. We saw a mother impala nursing a very small baby.

  
Baby impala

     An African harrier hawk was trying to rob a hornbill nest in a dead tree; it flapped its wings for balance as it tried to stick its head into the tree holes. The father hornbill was going crazy, squawking and diving at the hawk trying to protect the nest.  
     A dainty steenbok with one broken horn turned his butt to us and took off when we approached; you have to be quick to get a photo of these tiny antelopes. They are tiny and delicate viewed from the side, but when seen from behind appear surprisingly round. It must be hard to be a steenbok in Africa; you would be everybody’s idea of a good lunch.  

    
Steenbok

     Another interesting new bird was the Levaillant’s Cuckoo; he was largish, glossy black with a green sheen, and had a large ragged topknot. 
      We passed near a charismatic kori bustard; these huge birds also seem to be much more plentiful in the rainy season - we had been seeing them everywhere. We got quite close to an exquisite female Red-crested Korhaan, a fair-sized bird though smaller than the bustard. The beautifully patterned feathers on her back and large expressive eye made her extremely photogenic.

 
Red-crested Korhaan

     A greater kudu mom was hiding in the trees with her several-month-old calf; the baby looked like a miniature replica of his mom, unlike the wildebeest and tsessebe babies who were a completely different color. A bit later we passed a large kudu bull, most likely the father.      

    
On each drive we saw many more birds and animals than I am reporting here, and some of the more common ones we saw every time. In the interest of preventing this narrative from being too long and boring I am sticking to the more notable sightings.

      We took a deep sand road; we saw far less of these in the rainy season because the damp sand was packed, where in winter it is dry and loose. We were driving up the Savuti Channel again, but at a point far away from camp. The riverbed was wider here, and the perspective was odd - it felt like we were going uphill when we were not. I recognized that this was the spot where I had decided to visit in the rainy season; now I realized that the flowing of the river was not controlled by the rains, but rather by whatever mysterious Teutonic factors determined when the Savuti Channel flowed.
     A huge African Buffalo was walking up the riverbed, and the road took us quite close to him. He stopped and looked at us, chewing some grass and eyeing us with disfavor. He was covered with dried mud, and a single oxpecker sat on his back.

 
African Buffalo

     A bit further on we found a lone wildebeest, no doubt watching over his territory. It seemed a lonely existence; he would have a herd of females but hardly ever spend time with them. We admired his silvery coat and streaky black stripes, and his thick, course black mane on both the top and bottom of his neck. He was immaculately well-groomed and clean, at least in comparison to the buffalo.
     We stopped by the hyena den; we had seen babies here last time, but now nobody was home. We paused to watch a tree squirrel run up and down the trunk of a big mopane. Gee picked a wild cucumber to show us; it was about the size of a fist, green and prickly. Ostriches eat them whole; they can get enough moisture from these fruits that they don’t need to drink water.

     We came upon a Tsessebe Day Care center. Several tsessebe mothers were watching over half a dozen caramel-colored babies just a few months old. Again we were struck by the color difference between the blondish babies and the dark purply-brown moms. We stopped to watch some more giraffes; I never tire of watching these graceful, gentle creatures.

 
The Tsessebe Day Care Center

     We were delighted when Gee found a Pearl-spotted Owlet sitting in a tree. These tiny owls are only about six inches tall, and have rounded heads with no visible ear tufts. They have two black marks that look like eyes on the back of their heads. We often hear their call of ascending whistling notes in camp, so we were excited to get to see one of these little beauties. A Gabar goshawk sat in a tree, a gorgeous small bird of prey. And a bit further on we saw another pearl-spotted owlet – we were able to get even closer to this one.

 
The tiny Pearl-spotted Owlet 

     Leopard’s Rock stood tall against a darkening stormy sky as we headed back toward camp. A juvenile tawny eagle stood in silhouette on a dead tree, his plumage pale, almost white.
     It was a spectacular sunset. The fiery light of the lowering sun broke through the black storm clouds in the distance, making the clouds glow. We could just barely see a herd of wildebeest in the foreground, grazing in the dim light. A lone elephant hurried across in the gathering dusk.

 
Savuti Sunset

     The campfire merrily blazing in the near darkness welcomed us back to camp. We had gin-and-tonics and wine as we sat in the camp chairs and gazed at the fire - BD called it ‘bush television.’  It had been a fabulous day.

  

     Life announced dinner, and we sat down to a lovely meal. We noticed a little statue of a bicycle decorated our table. We had seen only one other vehicle the whole day, with just one guest in it – one of the perks about visiting during low season. At dinner Gee got a radio call saying that the other vehicle didn’t make it back to their camp. He set out to try to find them after dinner, but by the time he got close they had gotten back to camp.
     We could here lions roaring in the night, closer than before.  

 ~ Continued on next page ~




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