AFRICA 2019

By Phyllis Dawson
Botswana - Part 4
Savuti

 

February 9
    
We were up at five again, but I didn’t mind the early wakeup call. Normally at home I hate getting up that early, but when I am in Africa I can hardly wait to see what each new day will bring. 
    
The land cruiser would not start this morning; the guys had to pull it with the other truck to get it running. After that Gee was careful not to turn it off too often. I sat in the first row this morning; I liked the view out the front.
    
We headed out along the riverbed and then turned across the bushveld toward the rising sun. The familiar crowns of Twin Hills and Leopard Rock rose up out of the flat plain.  

     Gee examined the assortment of tracks in the sand road; there was spoor (tracks) from wild dogs, a wildcat, caterpillar and mouse. A bit further on we saw more tracks; springhare this time, and also beetle. Gee spotted some fresh leopard tracks; we scanned the plain to try to find their maker, but we had been warned it would be hard to find leopards at this time of year because of the tall grass.

     We saw a herd of impala running. At first we looked for wild dogs but then we realized they were not being chased; all of the youngsters were running flat out among the trees, circling the herd, dashing back and forth. They were leaping high and kicking their heels in the air like they do to escape predators, but in this case they were doing it for the sheer joy of motion and speed.

 

     A couple of giraffes strolled by; one stopped and spent several minutes scratching his neck blissfully against a tall tree stump. We had a glimpse of another honey badger in the underbrush. A family of over a dozen dwarf mongooses scurried back and forth on a fallen tree; they were small, quick and playful, with dark brown coats and red eyes.

     A Secretary Bird strode across the veld. These tall slender birds of prey can fly perfectly well, but they are more often seen walking. Black and white with a scraggily fringe of long quills on the back of their head and neck, they remind me of a tall leggy chicken, or perhaps the Road Runner from the cartoons. Beep-beep!

 
Kori Bustard with Carmine Bee-eater

     As we drove across the Savuti Marsh the carmine bee-eaters were going crazy beside the vehicle again; it was beautiful to watch them swoop and dive. To our amazement we saw one of the bee-eaters riding on a kori bustard’s back. Gee said they do that often, catching a ride scouting for the insects that fly up at the bustard’s approach. These beautiful birds are quite opportunistic; a bit further on we saw a pair of them catching a lift on a warthog.

  
Lilac-breasted Roller

     We stopped by Rhino Pan; nobody was there this morning but a few water birds. A lilac-breasted roller posed for us on a twig; the challenge is to catch a photo of one in flight, showing the iridescent blue on its wings. We waited long minutes for him to fly, our arms aching from holding our cameras at the ready – but when he finally took off he was too quick and I missed the shot.  

  
Wildebeest

         Gee was still searching for the leopard who had made the tracks we saw earlier, but there was no sign of him. A lone wildebeest went galloping across the plain in front of us, putting on a show. He did not seem alarmed - he appeared to be running just for the fun of it. 

    
A kori bustard strolled by with a baby behind her, walking right underneath her tail. A bee-eater rode regally on her back. We watched this unlikely trio make their way slowly across the plain. Gee said the bustards lay a single egg, raising just one baby at a time.

  
Kori Bustards and friends

     It was a warm sunny day with just a few patchy clouds accenting the clear blue sky. We had tea in the shade of a lone tree. A lizard climbed in the tree; I think it was a skink, and there was also a long black millipede. After tea the land cruiser would barely start, so after that Gee kept it running all the time, even when we were watching wildlife.

 

     A herd of zebras grazed out on the plain, and there were several babies among them, along with the odd wildebeest. So far our zebra sightings had been a bit fleeting, and this was the closest we had gotten to them. I can’t resist zebras; my love of horses carries over to these rolly-poly striped equids. I hoped to see a lot more of them. 
    
The zebras’ stripe patterns are as distinctive as fingerprints - no two are the same. Many of them had faint ‘shadow’ stripes superimposed on the white stripes on their hindquarters. The herd turned their tails to us and moved away; anyone who has taken photographs on safari knows about zebra butt shots.

  

     As we left the open plain and headed into the trees, we came upon a half dozen tsessebes. The mud-caked adults had several babies with them. One mother had a tiny caramel-colored calf by her side, not more than a week old. He had the most marvelous floppy ears.

 
Tsessebes

     We stopped to check out the waterhole; four big elephant bulls were standing by the pan. They sprayed some water around and then put their heads together to have a drink. For a long while they stood quietly in companionable silence, just seeming to enjoy the company. Two of them stood face to face and interlocked their tusks, pressing against each other affectionately as they brought their trunks up to their mouths to drink. After a while a pregnant female came by; her mammary glands, between their front legs, were noticeably distended.

 

     While we were watching the elephants, a warthog mother with one baby ambled by. Gee said warthogs nearly always have litters of four babies, so something must have eaten the other three. Four Yellow-billed Oxpeckers sat on the mother’s back, and they seemed to be irritating her. She rubbed up against a small termite mound to scratch herself, turning this way and that for the best positioning, but try as she might she could not rid herself of the oxpeckers. Her baby stayed at her flank the whole time; after what happened to his three siblings he was not going to stray far from mom.

 
Warthogs and Red-billed Oxpeckers

     Hundreds of blacksmith lapwings (formerly known as blacksmith plover) lined the edge of the water behind the warthogs; I had never seen so many in one place. These handsome pied birds are said to be named for their call which sounds like a blacksmith’s hammer hitting an anvil, but I have never heard them make such a sound.

 
 Blacksmith Lapwing

     Around noon we found more giraffes. A pair of them crossed the road in front of us; one very light colored female with a split ear, and a very dark male with one prong bent over at an angle. Shortly after that we came out to the edge of the plain where four more beautiful giraffes stood, with a long low ridge in the background.  It was a beautiful scene; fluffy grey and white clouds dotted the blue sky, and the veld was bathed in golden light. The crest we could see was the Magwikhwe Sand Ridge; it is 65 feet high and over 150 miles long, and was once part of the shoreline of a huge ancient lake that covered much of northern Botswana.  

 

     In the morning when the land cruiser wouldn't start, Gee had called Letaka Safaris for help. A mechanic had driven four hours to get there, and he arrived just as we were finishing our morning game drive - we met up with him to guide him to camp. He had brought another game drive vehicle in case he could not fix ours.

    
BD was waiting as usual with our fruit tea when we got back to camp for lunch. Gee turned off the vehicle and then tried to start it again; it would not start at all. Good thing we had the mechanic.  
    
The mechanic replaced the battery and worked on the starter while we had lunch. By 2:30 he had the land cruiser good to go. Duma, Merle and Solo sat in the console as we set off for the afternoon drive, and Samba the Mamba was coiled around a rail. 

     It was nap time at the Wildebeest Day Care. We could see two adult wildebeests with about ten babies, and they were all laying down close together taking a nap. It was a tender scene. They raised their heads and stared at us curiously when we came close.

     Stopping by a pan, we saw plenty of familiar birdlife. A flock of Pratincoles flew overhead, wheeling back and forth against the cloudy sky. A comb duck paddled around with that ridiculous disc on his bill; I can’t imagine the evolutionary purpose of it, but it is sure to attract the ladies.
    
A lilac-breasted roller sat on a twig while we waited with cameras poised. He seemed to sit there forever, but this time I finally got a shot of him as he took flight. A group of Abdim’s storks took flight, circling around over the waterhole before coming in for a somewhat awkward landing in a dead tree.

 
Abdim’s storks

     We were quite familiar with Leopard Rock from previous visits; now we learned the names of the other hills that rise up out of the flat plain near Savuti Channel. Closest to camp is Kudu Hill, and the next one is Sable Hill. There is another bare ridge called Quarry Hill. We passed the huge ancient baobab tree known as the Bushman's Baobab; this magnificent tree is over 1200 years old and the trunk is twenty feet across. I like to imagine the things this tree must have seen. The ridge standing nearby is called Bushman’s Rock.
    
We stopped to spend a bit of time with some gorgeous giraffes. Resplendent in the afternoon light, they stood on the open veld, with the Sand Ridge rising beyond them.

 

     Gee told us he was going to take us to an area we had never visited before. We drove a long way through a wooded area without seeing any wildlife. Eventually we came around a corner and surprised an elephant with a half grown baby. (Upon reviewing my photos at home, I was surprised to see that only 12 minutes had passed between the giraffes and these elephants. This was one of the longer stretches of time with no wildlife viewing on the trip.)

     We came to the ‘Garden of Baobabs.’ This small rocky knoll was home to a grove of thirteen age-old baobab trees. We walked among the mighty trees in awe, climbing over the rocks and wandering between the huge boles. We were in another world. It seemed like a magical place, mysterious, perhaps even sacred. We were quiet, like you would be in church. The bigger trees were around 300 years old; they were mighty enough to be impressive, though they did not rival the age and girth of the Bushman’s Baobab. Still, I imagine they have seen a bit in their lifetimes – I like to think of them watching the circle of life through the ages.

 
Tara in the Garden of Baobabs

     The rocks among the trees help protect the baobabs from the elephants, but nonetheless many of the larger trees showed damage on their trunks. There are fewer baobabs around because the elephants tend to destroy the smaller ones, which made me appreciate this beautiful grove even more. I collected a rock for a cairn I built in my yard at home, made with stones collected from places that have meaning for me. As we were leaving, we looked back at the grove and bid farewell to the ageless silhouettes of the baobab trees.

 

     A yellow mongoose was lying in the road in a small spot of shade. She looked like she was hot. She got up and stretched, then looked at us and flopped back down in the road again. Reclining on her back with her feet in the air, she looked like roadkill. 
    
Our new birds for the evening were a Marico Flycatcher and a beautiful blue Cape Glossy Starling. We watched a pair of ground hornbills walking through the grass and rummaging through a pile of elephant dung – Tara said it reminded her of the TSA going through her luggage.

     I had told Gee I would like a good close photo of a Cape turtle dove; soon he found me one posing on a twig in good light. We could see the subtle blue, pink and purplish hues in his grey-brown plumage. The dove was calling Bots-wa-na, Bots-wa-na - the persistent chant of the turtle dove is the background music to all my visions of Africa.

 
Cape Turtle Dove

     As I was photographing the dove we were suddenly startled by a loud trumpeting close by. While our attention had been on the bird a whole herd of elephants had come up silently to the waterhole on our left. They seemed to have snuck up on us; there was not a sound until that sudden trumpet. A breeding herd of about a dozen, they had three babies with them, and one of them was tiny, only 2 weeks old Gee said. It still had pinkish ears.
    
The herd splashed skittishly through the water, and then they left quickly; whenever there are babies that young the elephants don’t want us to get too close. We followed them a short ways at a distance to get a few more glimpses of the baby.

 

     A half dozen giraffes were near the road, standing close together and intertwining their necks. Two of the boys were mock fighting, wrestling with their necks and banging into each other playfully. One of them crossed in front of us; he was magnificent as he strode across the plain, almost glowing in the golden light of evening.  

 

     Driving along a deep sand road, Gee had to brake suddenly as a group of elephants burst out of the bushes and dashed across the road right in front of us. Then a few minutes later yet another group went rushing across; for some reason the elephants seemed to be in a hurry this evening. There was a mother with a tiny baby, not more than a couple weeks old. Mom was too far ahead and the poor baby was running for all he was worth, his little legs fully extended trying to keep up, but still lagging quite far behind. This seemed unusual, as normally the mothers are very protective and keep the small babies close; Gee said she might be an inexperienced mother.

     Three kudu bulls stood among the trees in the fading dusky light – they looked like they belonged in an enchanted forest in a fairy tale. They stared at us for a long moment, then turned and silently disappeared beneath the dark trees.  

 
Kudu bull at dusk

     The camp crew cheered and whistled as we drove in; Mike let out a piercing whistle in return. The stars were out tonight, though without the brilliance of the dry winter season. Orion was high in the sky, but upside-down, and Sirius shone straight overhead. The guys called us to dinner by whooping like a hyena. We noticed the little bicycle statue on the table was now accented with feathers. Another excellent dinner. Sitting around the fire having a glass of wine, we could hear elephants calling out and breaking branches somewhere quite close to camp.
    
During the night we could hear the lions roaring again – they sounded closer. We heard the faint whooping call of hyenas passing by, and the noisy racket of francolins along the dry riverbed.  

February 10 
    
The morning greeted us with the faint, plaintive whistle of a pearl-spotted owl. Our wakeup call came early; it was moving day. The camp staff had packed the dining tent the evening before, and they were breaking down our tents as we ate breakfast. We would be on an all-day game drive, while the guys travelled to our new location in the Khwai Concession Area and set up camp.
    
It was a clear morning with a cloudless sky. We started out the day watching a huge herd of impala grazing in the early light. We spent a little time with some storks and hornbills. Mary said, ‘I wonder what will happen next?’ This was becoming our catchphrase.  

     Gee drove in the direction of where we had heard the lions in the night and stopped to listen. After a while he heard them call again, and he soon located them. There was a big male with a lioness, and off to the side was another male. Gee said they were from the Western Pride. Several jackals watched from a short distance away; they were probably following the lions hoping to get some scraps if they made a kill.      
    
Gee drove in the direction of where we had heard the lions in the night and stopped to listen. After a while he heard them call again, and he soon located them. There was a big male with a lioness, and off to the side was another male. Gee said they were from the Western Pride. Several jackals watched from a short distance away; they were probably following the lions hoping to get some scraps if they made a kill.

 

     The pair of lions continued sleeping, but the lone male got up and walked toward us. He came right up to where we were parked, crouched down beside the road not 50 feet from us, and had a long drink from a large puddle. We watched as he lapped up the water; he drank for almost five minutes.
     After a while the lion stood up again and looked around. Taking his time, he strolled right past the other two vehicles that had arrived at the scene. Every few paces he stopped to look around and scan the area. He walked across the roadway, pausing to look both ways before he crossed.

 

      He turned, and the morning sun bathed his coat in gold. He gazed straight at us for a moment as he passed, then stopped and looked back over his shoulder. His tawny coat shone in the sun and the light reflected in his eye. His long flowing mane, a mixture of blond, caramel and black, looked fluffy like someone had brushed it. He wore an expression of confidence and majesty. He looked lean and strong and every inch the King of the Beasts.

     The lion made a full circle before turning and heading back toward the other members of the pride. He walked along the edge of a small waterhole, mirrored by his reflection in the still water beneath the clear blue sky. Amazing.

 

     Gee always cut the motor when we stopped to watch the animals – this time it took him a few tries to start the engine. Though the mechanic had done some work on the starter it was still a little reluctant. Gee turned the key repeatedly while the starter made a clicking sound before it finally roared to life.
    
We saw a Long-crested Eagle, which are very rare. A Burchell's starling shimmered blue in the sunshine. As we passed the Savuti ranger’s camp we saw a herd of impala snorting and making the alarm call – did they see wild dogs? No, we quickly realized there was a ranger’s dog near the camp and the impala were reacting to it.

     Gee took us to see the Bushman’s Rock Paintings. He parked by a tall cliff and led us up a short steep grade. Up on the rock face we could see the 2000-year-old cave paintings; there were some sable, an eland, a river and several elephants. With the patches of bright sunshine and deep shade it was hard to make out the images, but it was remarkable to think of the ageless history depicted here.

 
Bateleur

     As we drove back along the Savuti Channel we passed a bateleur perched in a dead tree; we were able to get quite close to where he sat basking in the sunshine. This regal bird of prey gazed down at us regally, the light shining in his eye (always Gee’s requirement of a good bird photo). Then he raised his wings and sailed off to loftier heights.  

   

 ~ Continued on next page ~



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