By Phyllis Dawson
Botswana - Part 5
Mababe Depression to Khwai

We crossed the Sand Ridge and took a road through a mopane woodland. We went for a long way without seeing any animals. The trees were much larger here because the elephants just pass through seasonally and don’t stay to eat them. We were seeing more water now; there must have been a lot of rain recently because there were huge puddles in the road. Sometimes these water-filled potholes were enormously deep, but Gee navigated them expertly.

     After a long stretch with no wildlife, we passed several elephants and a giraffe. Soon elephants started popping up everywhere, emerging out of the cover of the trees into the road. We had to stop numerous times to wait for them to cross the road or allow us to pass.
Then more giraffes started appearing, casually strolling into the road and stopping there, watching us with benign expressions. We were busy dodging water-filled potholes, elephants and giraffes at every turn. Two especially beautiful giraffes stopped in front of us and stood with crossed necks. (We noticed the giraffes’ manes were short and tidy - they seemed to be well-pulled. Still, it would be quite a job to braid them!)


     A herd of elephants wandered into the road and Gee cut the engine so we could watch them quietly. More and more moved in, and before long they were all around us - we found ourselves surrounded by over thirty elephants. One of them seemed a little mad; he flapped his ears at us and trumpeted, moving toward us threateningly.  Time to go!  Gee went to start the land cruiser: click, click – would it start? Fortunately it did, but only after several tense tries.


     Before long we started to see zebras mixed in with the giraffes. Gee told us they hang out together because zebras can see better down in the thickets and giraffes can see for long distances from their great height – the partnership keeps them both safer.  

     There were fewer large trees here. Gee pointed out the tall grass with whispy heads called fingergrass; he told us it brings grazing animals to the area.
‘My God!’ Gee exclaimed, and pointed. A pair of Coqui Francolins was crossing the road; they were beautifully marked and much prettier than the ubiquitous crested francolins. Gee told us this was only the second time he had ever seen these birds.  

Coqui Francolin

     We came out of the woodlands to the edge of a vast plain, the Mababe Depression. This shallow basin was once part of a huge lake that used to cover much of northern Botswana, connecting to the Savuti Marsh and the Makgadikgadi Pans. Now it is grasslands, and home to large herds of animals.
     We drove out onto the open plain and stopped for tea beside two lonely trees that grew in a V shape; I recognized this as our lunch spot on the two previous trips. There had been another tree nearby with tsessebes under it on our first visit, but now it was just a dead log on the ground– the work of elephants, no doubt.

     A yellow-billed hornbill came and begged for food, hopping around on the ground in front of us and tilting his head up beseechingly; we were obviously not the first people he had begged from. Soon his wife joined him, along with their four kids; when the adults found a crumb they would feed it to the adolescents. Gee explained that it was important that we not feed the birds; when given people food they can get so hooked on it that they spend all their time waiting for handouts instead of hunting for food in the wild, and that can cause them to starve to death.

 Yellow-billed Hornbill

   After tea we went back into the edge of the woods, following the road that skirted the plain just inside the trees. There was not a lot to see here. Eventually the road came back out into the open, and we drove along the edge of the Mababe Depression.

     There were thousands of zebras spread across the plain. Gee said this is the second largest animal migration in the world, and that 3000 zebras migrate each year from Chobe. They were broken into smaller herds and family groups.
The zebras went on for miles and miles. It was an amazing scene; the green grassy plain, fluffy clouds dotting the blue sky, and zebras as far as the eye could see. Earlier I had hoped to see more zebras; I had clearly gotten my wish!

     There were many waterholes, and zebras were gathered around each. Some were drinking, some were grazing, some were playing and some fighting. We watched zebras chasing each other, running in circles, splashing in the mud and standing scratching each other’s necks. There were several very small babies just a few weeks old; we watched them nurse from their mothers. I was in heaven.


     There were wildebeests among the zebras, though in far fewer numbers. We also saw warthogs at every turn. We watched a mother warthog with three babies grazing on their knees, and wondered who ate the fourth. We could see some black dots on the horizon, shimmering in the heat waves; they turned out to be half a dozen elephants, quietly walking toward us across the plain.  

     A large female Spotted Hyena was lying in a mud hole near the road, trying to cool off. She had a full stomach, or perhaps she was pregnant. She seemed sleepy. When we stopped to watch her she got up and walked sedately away, looking back over her shoulder at us in admonishment for interrupting her nap.  
     Gee spotted two lionesses sleeping under a tree; it was a good spot as they were hard to see, hidden in the shade and brush. They had full bellies as well, so no hunting for a while.


     Dozens of wildebeests were lying in the shallow water along the edge of a large waterhole, along with several babies. About fifty zebras grazed nearby, and some of them made their way down to the water to drink. Warthogs were rooting around in the mud in front of them, and the elephants we had seen on the horizon had moved closer now, along with a couple giraffes.


     A whole group of the zebras started running, chasing each other. They galloped back and forth along the shore of the pan. The elephants walked by in a dignified manner, ignoring the antics of the foolish zebras. After considerable scrutiny, a giraffe splayed out his legs and lowered his long neck to drink from a puddle. It was a fantastic scene.


     Two zebras started fighting in earnest; they reared and crashed into each other, biting and pawing. Gee told us it was probably a young male zebra challenging the herd stallion hoping to earn one of his daughters. They need to be strong enough to challenge the father to be allowed to breed.


     All in all, we spent two and a half hours crossing the Depression, watching zebras, wildebeest, warthogs, elephants and giraffes the whole way. No cheetahs though; we had hoped to see them here. Gee said when we went to the Kalahari later in the trip we might have a chance to see them.

     It was midafternoon by the time we came to the Mababe Gate. We drove fast on one of the larger sand roads, and then turned out onto the wash-boarded and dusty gravel main road. After a while Gee turned off to the left on a little lane. 
This track got smaller and smaller, and became increasingly wetter. We had several deep water crossings where we had to pick our bags up off the floor in case the land cruiser flooded. And all this with the luggage trailer in tow. 

We passed several elephants and what seemed like hundreds of wide deep puddles. Each one we crossed was deeper than the last. It was a road of water! We hoped the luggage was not getting too wet. This was definitely not the way we had gone to Khwai before, we thought. Where are we going?      


     Suddenly we drove out of the woods into a wide green field beside the Khwai River. The landscape was quite different from Savuti, much lusher, and with more water everywhere. There were some scattered trees, and the grass was thick and tall. A herd of elephants were walking across the floodplain toward us, and some were already crossing the river.

     More elephants came; a breeding herd, mothers with their offspring. There was one very tiny baby; the elephants were protecting it, shielding it from our view. Then another herd came into view, with many adolescents and another small baby. As they crossed the river the youngsters splashed and rolled in the water with delight – and a few of the adults did too. They just kept coming; soon the floodplain was scattered with elephants, over 100 of them. A huge female, the herd matriarch, strolled by keeping a wary eye on us.


     They kept on coming. Another breeding herd arrived, with yet another tiny baby. When they crossed the river the little one was totally submerged, with just his trunk sticking up like a snorkel.

      Many of the elephants stopped to play in the river, wallowing and splashing like they were in a spa. Two young males stood face to face, pushing and shoving each other while play-fighting. One small baby was missing his tail; we figured a crocodile must have gotten it, or possibly a lion – either way a close call. An adolescent male mock-charged us, trumpeting angrily while he flapped his ears and waved his trunk; Gee said he was trying to be the big man.


     The riverside seemed to be a meeting place where four or five herds all came together. Now there were over 200 elephants spread across the floodplain. We had never seen anything like it. Even Gee was impressed. How did he know they would be there? Amazing!
At four o'clock we had a late lunch by the river, watching the elephants. We headed out at 4:30, just as yet another herd was arriving, also with a very young baby. We had seen more tiny baby elephants in the last hour than I had on all of my previous trips put together!


     We went back out to the main road for a while, then finally took the turnoff toward our camp. We were now in the Khwai concession area, and the landscape was quite different. Savuti is much drier and more arid (though there are plenty of waterholes in the rainy season), but now we were near the edge of the Okavango Delta where everything is wetter and more lush. Different animals and birds could be seen here.

     A female Waterbuck was walking through a meadow. These fluffy antelope look like a larger furrier version of our deer, with a white target-like circle on their rumps. The males have long twisting horns. There is something very appealing about them – they have an almost cuddly appearance.

 Female Waterbuck

     It was getting on toward evening as we drove alongside the Khwai River. The floodplain was a wide green expanse, wet and marshy this time of year. Three parks come together here: we had left Chobe National Park and were now in Khwai, and we could see Moremi Game Reserve on the other side of the river.

    A Hippopotamus raised his face up out of the water and regarded us suspiciously, and then a second hippo joined him. They snorted at us and then disappeared again beneath the surface. A tall slender African Darter stood by the edge of the river, reaching up with his elegant neck and long sharp beak. A slaty-black color, he had a chestnut throat and a thin white racing stripe along his neck.

     A herd of Red Lechwe was grazing in the marshy grass. These unusual-looking antelope are a bright reddish chestnut color over the tops of their bodies, fading gradually to lighter chestnut on their flanks and white on their bellies. They are built very downhill, with front legs shorter than hind, and have curved twisting horns. They love the water, and they run into the flooded areas to escape predators. They are quite prevalent in the Delta and we encountered them often. The lechwe are Gee’s favorite antelope.

Red Lechwe

     A Pied Kingfisher was sitting on a branch. These large black and white kingfishers hover like a helicopter scanning the water and then dive in for a fish. We heard the haunting cry of a Fish Eagle wafting down from; he was flying high overhead.  These regal birds are black with white heads, and look very like our bald eagles. A pair of dainty Double-banded Sand Grouse walked in the roadway.  

 Double-banded Sand Grouse

     A Goliath Heron slowly waded along the edge of the water, the largest of the herons. He was a lovely bird with a slaty grey body and a variegated reddish-brown neck. He looked very elegant and dignified.

Goliath Heron 

     The light was fading as we drove through a huge area of dead trees that had been killed by elephants. There were impalas, zebra, wildebeest and birds by the dozen. We passed another hippo pool; the half dozen occupants were accompanied by a Nile Crocodile floating in the water. An elephant crossed the river, and several more wandered along the floodplain. Several kudus were standing alert, staring across the field, and we could here impalas snorting the alarm call. We looked around, hoping for wild dogs. Mary said, I wonder what will happen next?


     What happened next was Tara suddenly called out to Gee to stop - she had seen a Leopard! It was a big male, lying flat out on his side sleeping in a little side road a hundred meters away. He was not easy to see; great spot, Tara (pun intended). He raised his head and turned to gaze at us. After a few moments he sat up and scratched, and then stood up and walked quietly away, fading into the dusk. 

     A go-away bird sat on a branch, silhouetted dark against the sky as the last light faded. We arrived at our new camp as night was falling, and we were tired. The warm glow of the campfire beckoned us, and we heard the crew whistling and cheering as we approached – this camp staff was so outgoing and fun! Mike gave a piercing whistle back at them, and we all cheered.

Go-away Bird

     It was a pleasant and very private camp under some big trees, with woods all around. Not that we spent much time in camp anyway, between the early starts, short lunch breaks and long evening drives. We had dinner at nine; we were not all that hungry since we’d had such a late lunch down by the river with the elephants. We could hear the hyenas calling during dinner. All through the night we were serenaded by the wonderful, ridiculous, laughing, honking calls of the hippos in a nearby lagoon.  

February 11 
We slept in until five-thirty and were on the road at six-thirty for our mokoro excursion. There were plenty of birds out this morning, such as the Fork-tailed Drongo and the Willow Warbler. Gee was driving along at 30 mph when he suddenly braked to a stop and said ‘new bird,’ and pointed out a tiny black bird we hadn’t seen before - a Village Indigobird, which he identified by hearing its song. How he does that is a mystery!
Mokoros are flat canoes guided with a long pole, the traditional mode of transport around the Delta for the local people. It was sunny and clear when we climbed into the mokoros around 7:30, and a bit on the warm side. It was two of us to a mokoro, along with a guide/poler. The water was calm and clear like a mirror as we set out upstream, gliding along peacefully. Natalie and I shared a canoe, and Tara and Jineen floated along ahead of us. Mary and Paula pulled up alongside, and Mike and Sally drifted by serenely as we were all propelled by the long poles, expertly wielded by our mokoro guides.


     Some Egyptian geese flew over with rasping cries. An Open-billed Stork sat in a tree beside an African darter. The stork was heavy and thick-billed, in contrast to the slender and graceful darter, who gripped the branch with unlikely looking webbed feet.

African Darter

     There were water lilies everywhere; we learned that the day lilies are white with a little purple and a smooth pad, and the night lilies are cream with yellow, and have pads with spiked edges. The roots and fruit of the lilies are edible by people and baboons, but the elephants eat the roots only. 

Painted Reed Frog

     Our mokoro guide pointed out a beautiful little brown and white frog about an inch long, sitting on a reed. It was an Angola Painted Reed Frog, also playfully called a Delta leopard. A Reed Cormorant perched at the top of a tall dead tree. There was a huge fish eagle nest up in a tree, with dozens of small weaver nests hanging all around it. 
Several Jacanas were running across the surface of the water on top of the lily pads. These long-legged wading birds are aptly nicknamed lily-trotters. They are a bright coppery color, with white heads, black eye-masks and sky blue on the top of their heads.


     There was a pod of hippos ahead of us, and the big bull did not want us to pass. He reared up out of the water and threatened us, opening his mouth impossibly wide to display his fleshy gums and long, scraggly dagger-like teeth. An angry hippo can easily capsize a mokoro, so we turned around and didn’t mess with him.  

 One of our Polers

     We had tea on shore, using an overturned mokoro as a serving table. One of the boat guides wore a big palm-like leaf as a hat. When we headed back downstream the fish eagle perched majestically near his nest. We saw another reed frog, this one pale white. An open-mouthed stork flew in for an awkward landing in a tree. We were back to Gee and the land cruiser by ten o'clock.  

     We saw a Hamerkop wading at the edge of a puddle. A bit bigger than a crow, they are the brown-grey color of mud. Heavy beaks and thick feathers on the back of their heads give them a hammer-like shape, but somehow to me they appear gentle and kind. There is something about them that is very appealing. Gee told us that these distinctive birds are not closely related to any others.


     We were driving through a wooded area when Gee suddenly stopped and said “Look at the leopard.” Sure enough, there was a female leopard, lying flat out on her side sleeping by road. She raised her head to look at us, and then groomed herself for a while. She did not seem to mind our being there. She stood up and walked a few yards before flopping back down to continue her nap, rolling on her back like a dog who wants its tummy scratched. A few more yawns and a little more grooming, and she sat up again. 

     Her face was beautiful, refined and feminine, and her eyes were green. I have always thought leopards should have green eyes, but this was the first one I had met that actually did. She had an impressive set of long white whiskers. After a while she got up and walked off through the grass; Gee followed at a respectful distance. She paused to drink at a puddle, and then moved deeper into the woods. She stopped by a tree and stood like a statue. She was exquisite.


      The leopardess moved into a thicket, and we could see her pounce on something - Gee said perhaps a snake. Then she settled to wash herself some more. Gee told us that a female leopard’s territory stretches for 2 to 3 miles in each direction. A male’s territory covers that of several females. Our leopardess was still in her mother’s territory, as she was too young to have her own. 
We were quite pleased to have seen two leopards, despite the tall grass making them harder to find. The leopard talisman I gave Gee must be working!


     We passed a group of zebras; one of them had a young foal, less than a month old – it was the closest we had been to one so small. He still had motley black patches on his face, which would disappear into stripes as he got older. Gee said they were Burchell's zebras, a subspecies of the plains zebras, identifiable by their shadow stripes.


     We passed the campsite we had stayed at on our prior trip; we recognized it by the old mokoros sitting at the entrance, and we could see the tree that the fish eagle had greeted us from each day. Gee told us it had been a mistake that we camped there; the Park had given our reserved campsite away to someone else so they let us camp there, but it was no longer used as a campsite. 
Gee drove across the Khwai River. We were not sure we would make it through the deep, long stretch of water, but the land cruiser plowed across valiantly. But on the other side the ground was too wet and there were no tracks, so we crossed back.

     We drove alongside the river. The sky was blue, with puffy white clouds. We could see hippos popping their heads up, and pretty little white-faced ducks swimming among the lily pads. A Little Egret and a Little Grebe walked among the tall grasses lining the river.

     A Vervet Monkey sat high in a tree with her tiny baby clinging to her front; we could just see his hands around her back, and his little face was pressed into her chest. A comb duck perched awkwardly on a tree branch, looking completely out of place. A warthog was taking a mud bath, immensely enjoying his wallow.


     We were back to camp for lunch just after one o'clock; as usual KK was waiting with the moist towels to wipe away the road dust, and BD with our drinks. The table was decorated with soda cans, sliced and bent into vaguely floral shapes. 
I was pleasantly surprised by how nice the weather was. We had seen a few rainclouds and several storms in the distance, but on the whole it had remained pretty dry, and had not actually rained on us. I jokingly asked Gee, ‘Does it ever rain during the rainy season?’ This was a highly unpopular comment, and I was later made to eat my words several times over.  

      We set out again for the afternoon drive around three o'clock. When we left camp BD and JJ, knowing we would be doing a night drive, said to us, ‘See you later – much later, ha ha, like see you tomorrow!’  Little did we know that we would be seeing them in less than an hour.  
We drove along the river again, enjoying a myriad of interesting new birds. Some of the highlights were the colorful little Golden-breasted Bunting, the black and white Arnot's Chat, and a pair of blueish green Swallow-tailed Bee-eaters. We saw a Green Wood Hoopoe in a tree – these lovely birds seem somehow mysterious to me.

Swallow-tailed Bee-eaters

     A Green-backed Heron sat on a stump along the river. A father jacana and his chick were walking across the lily pads. The polyandrous jacana father takes care of the chicks once they hatch; meanwhile mom goes off and mates with someone else. An African hawk eagle perched on a branch close overhead; he had a hooked beak and fierce yellow eyes.

African Hawk Eagle

     A large hippo watched us from water. He seemed curious about us; he lifted his head up out of the water and moved closer to check us out. He had tiny ears and a huge double chin. A tuskless elephant was moseying along on the other side of the river; he decided to cross, wading in and passing right by the hippo.


     More hippos came into view now. We watched an impossibly small baby surface, tiny in comparison to her massive mother, her little face just barely out of the water. We knew the baby was a girl because she was allowed to be with the pod; mothers have to hide the male babies or the bulls will kill them. 


     One big hippo bull made a show of opening his mouth wide like a huge yawn to show off his teeth and intimidate us. Then he turned and defecated, swishing his tail madly back and forth to spread his scent.  

BD and KK

     We drove around a turn just past the old camp, and to our total amazement the guys were waiting there with high tea for us! BD and KK were standing by a table they had set up by the river; KK was adorned with a twig of thistles behind his ear. They had a fabulous carrot cake for us, along with coffee and tea. It was a lovely surprise.

 ~ Continued on next page ~

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