Once again, we spent too many hours in an airplane in order to spend too few hours watching elephants and the other wonders of the African continent. We journeyed in Southern Africa – 10 days in Botswana and four in Zimbabwe. Our Letaka Safari guide was Nkosi Sibanda who had showed us the wonders of the Okavango Delta two years ago. Enjoying our first African sunset at the Okavango River Lodge was made perfect by our first African Gin and Tonic.
Moremi Game Reserve in the Okavango Delta is the favorite part of our safari. Flying in over the delta looking for elephants and giraffe is spectacular, as is landing in the very small airplane on the small runway in the middle of the bush. The wildlife is used to vehicles so one gets up close views without feeling that you are disturbing or altering behavior. Among the first spectacular sightings during the three days was a daytime view of the endangered Wild African Cat. They look much like the average housecat and unfortunately will interbreed with domestic cats, as well as catch their diseases. The next day we watched and listened to two wild dogs that were vocalizing in an attempt to reconnect with their group. Their vocalizations were unexpected – not wolf-like howls or any sort of dog-like sound that I’d heard before but more like a high pitched keen. One dog would sound out, then both would listen intently – completely ignoring us. At a later time, Nkosi placed us perfectly to watch a successful wild dog hunt – chasing impala who attempted but failed to flee through water. We were sad for the impala that was caught and more so for another confused animal standing in the river watching the dogs and not seeing the crocodile who took advantage of the impala’s distraction. National Geographic photographers spend months in the field to film what we’d just seen in 30 minutes or less.
We watched a group of lions strategically place their sub adult males in clear view of waterbucks while the females attempted to circle around out of view. It didn’t work, thanks to some vocal francolins. It was then that we discovered that the battery on the truck was dead. Not to worry, it is easy to attract help if you tell the other guides that they and their guests will see lions.
Some of the lions we saw were little cubs the last time we were there. Mortality in lion cubs is high so there were fewer in the pride than two years ago but they looked healthy and well fed. Nkosi gave us good long times watching this pride as well as several groups of elephants. I could watch elephants for hours and never be bored.
While we were out looking for wildlife, lions and leopards visited our camp. In fact, each time that the camp staff went out for firewood, they had a spectacular sighting. We thought maybe we should go collect firewood with them. At night, with lions so close, the impala stayed closer – bedding down within sight of our campfire.
The next three days in Khwai we could venture out at night to see what might be there. Bouncing eyes meant springhares, more than we could count. Small feline predators such as Genets and Civets are out at night and their glowing eyes helped the diurnal humans find them. We possibly saw bush baby eyes. We sat (in our truck) outside an abandoned aardvark burrow at dusk, waiting until the hyenas and their cubs came out after dark. I am fascinated by hyenas so this was a true treat. As cubs nursed on what we assumed was the alpha female, another hyena paying very close attention until it was snapped at by the nursing mom. The chastised individual laid down in another spot and several cubs joined her to nurse. An adult of unknown gender (it is hard to tell with hyenas) brought out a piece of well chewed something to play “tug” with a pile of cubs.
Nkosi found the wild dog den with a pile of puppies outside and helped us spot a female leopard and her older female cub. This momma leopard had a younger cub and it was unusual for her to tolerate her older daughter nearby. It was clear she was barely tolerating the adolescent as she vocalized warnings frequently. Sydelle’s goal of being the first to spot at least one animal was rewarded when she was the one to find the younger cub.
We had an unfortunately placed campsite in Savuti that meant long drives each morning to the spectacular Marsh. Nkosi and the camp staff made the best of it by packing our lunches each day so we could spend the maximum time out. We observed a group of elephants pass by some well-fed lions who had happened to take their siesta in the middle of an elephant trail. The elephants were almost stepping on the sleeping cats. Elephants can’t see that well, but they could clearly smell the lions. The lions weren’t rousing no matter what. A large number of elephant bones lying near roadways was the evidence of an extended heat wave that Savuti experienced in October/November of 2012. The elephants died returning from drinking, making us wonder if they had died from electrolyte imbalance caused by overdrinking after dehydration.
We saw so many antelope that I can’t list them all but the second ever sighting of a bushbuck was a highlight as were abundant sightings of the magnificent Sable and Roan antelope. Though there are never enough giraffe or zebra for me, we did see quite a few. The giraffe in particular were less skittish than past visits. It was dryer than two years ago so perhaps they were more focused on eating.
Letaka specializes in birding safaris and though ours wasn’t a birding group, we saw lots and lots of fantastic birds. Lilac breasted rollers always got an Oooh and an Aahh. No wonder for a bird whose feathers represent the rainbow and looks like liquid turquoise in flight.
Our unfortunate campsite meant that we had limited time in Chobe and were unable to enter at the Ngoma gate on our last day. Chobe may be crowded with day trippers but it is also filled with spectacular wildlife in abundance. Our disappointment was quashed by the boat excursion where we were treated to several groups of swimming elephants. There is nothing more adorable than a swimming baby elephant.
This part of the trip ended in Kasane. One of these times we need to do the reverse itinerary so that I stop disliking Kasane – it is not the town’s fault but its association with the end of the safari that makes me dislike it. From here we transferred to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. Cross boarder transfers are interesting – enough said.
Our lodge in Vic Falls was beautiful without being snooty. One does notice the grime that one accumulated in the bush immediately upon entering a non-bushish establishment. We were suitable for the dining room after a long shower and change of clothes. The sound of the falls soothed us to sleep. We got up early to view this World Heritage Site before our 9am pick up for Hwange Camp.
Hwange Camp in Zimbabwe is a year old establishment that is structured to be comfortable, but not ostentatious. It was strategically placed and built to provide maximum views of the nearby large waterhole. A baby hippo had been born days earlier and was wonderful to watch. At night, one could hear the hippos and sometimes elephants munching vegetation outside the cabins. We met new friends from the UK on the way to Hwange who were our companions on safari for three days, and made more friends each evening over a scrumptious meal.
Wildlife in Hwange National Park is not as used to vehicles or humans as that in Botswana though the wild areas are contiguous and presumably wildlife from one area can easily migrate to the other. The elephants were testier, the antelope shyer and walking safaris were possible. Coming upon a lion on its kill meant no tragedy for humans, just a scared lion (Brent was a little scared too – I didn’t see the lion). We saw lots of tracks but few animals while walking though we did see a recently killed civet in a tree – probably stashed there by the leopard whose tracks we were following. During our afternoon siesta by the truck, a group of elephants came close by which was quite wonderful. The other group had seen a lion kill a baby elephant on their way in. One guide said that elephants in Hwange often leave their calves behind when they go to drink. This was most certainly not the case in Botswana – the mother and entire herd protected and defended calves vigorously. This behavior has been described in studies where elephant herd social structure had broken down due to poaching of the older adults. We don’t know if that was what happened in Hwange but seeing different behaviors was interesting.
Our reason for visiting Zimbabwe and Hwange Camp was to see black rhino. Unfortunately, poaching in Hwange has reduced the population from around 45 animals to 4-6. The remaining animals were across the river in another part of the park and so this part of the quest was thwarted. Rhino horn is not medicine.
Our first guide in Botswana said that you have to leave one animal to bring you back next time. This trip it was the cheetah – which we did not see. We’ll be back – though everyone knows that I come back for the elephants.
All the pictures were taken by Tanya and / or Brent, her husband.