Ecologist Gordon Orians thought he’d arrive at camp with enough time to enjoy a cool beverage with the setting sun. It didn’t happen.
We flew northeast from Seba Camp in Botswana’s Okavango Delta to the Chobe airstrip. A rich network of wildlife trails clearly visible from the air told us that, despite the apparent barrenness of the landscape, animals were abundant beneath us.
After landing, we quickly drove westward toward the Savuti Channel, a linear oasis in a landscape otherwise lacking surface water at the end of the dry season. The only water available for many miles, Savuti is a magnet for herds of buffalo, zebra and impala and for solitary giraffes, kudu and warthogs. Egyptian geese and jacanas graced the shoreline, African fish eagles filled the air with their ringing cries, and an osprey, a long distant migrant from Europe, dove for its fish lunch.
Our reward? Finding a pack of wild dogs with six half-grown pups resting in what little shade they could find at the bases of the leafless trees. The adults were clearly successful in capturing enough prey—probably impala—to satisfy six hungry mouths and their own.
Guided by information he received over the radio from other guides, our capable expedition leader Thuto Moutloatse spotted a cheetah resting beneath a shrub. The bush had just enough leaves to cast a streak of shade from the hot afternoon sun.
Although we were protected from the sun by the canopy of our safari vehicle, we too welcomed natural shade. In our case, it was beneath spreading fig trees along the bank of a channel where grunting hippos peered at us while we ate sandwiches.
Thuto’s keen eyes soon spotted a pride of lions resting in the bushes on a low ridge overlooking the water. A group of nine females and young males, they were clearly assessing the options for their evening hunt.
“See that solitary buffalo?” Thuto pointed out. “The lions are going to kill it tonight.”
He may have been right, and we wished we could have stuck around to find out. But our destination for the night was still a long drive away.
“We must hurry,” Thuto reminded us, but then he couldn’t resist stopping to point out another pride of lions along the way. We also repeatedly halted to let elephants cross our path. They were heading for water—their version of happy hour, perhaps?—but were indifferent to our need to reach camp before dark.
The last traces of pink remained in the western sky when we finally approached arrived at camp. We were tired and hot—and, yes, thirsty too—but none of us would have preferred to arrive earlier.
Ecologist and author Gordon Orians is a emeritus member of WWF’s Board of Directors and professor emeritus of biology at the University of Washington in Seattle.
©WWF. Reprinted with permission.
By Karen Loftus
Karen Loftus was recently in Botswana and Namibia on a writing assignment about the romantic appeal of Southern Africa. She shared with us why she fell madly deeply in love with Botswana. Enjoy the read!
Travel to Africa was love at first site for me. I have been a number of times now and have headed in a few different directions. This past fall I dipped in to the bush of Botswana. I decided to stray away from an all luxury level trip this time. So, I started in the lap of luxury with &Beyond in the Okavango Delta. Then I went for a rustic, authentic and immersive traveling safari with Letaka.
It’s easy to see why so many couples choose Botswana for their honeymoon or romantic getaway. Two weeks later, I had fallen truly, madly and deeply for Botswana. You will as well. This is what you can expect…
First stop: &Beyond – Xaranna Lodge on the Okavango Delta
After a quick connecting flight from Johannesburg to Maun, followed by a bush flight, I was scooped up by the crew from &Beyond (www.andbeyond.com). My African adventure started once we departed from the airport.
En route to the Okavango I was greeted by Xaranna’s crew who had a chilled bottle of champagne and exquisite snacks, which were served to me on the jeep. That immediately set the spoiled tone that was consistent throughout the trip.
Once there, it was easy to relax in the lap of luxury as their digs are decadent. True to the name, everything that &Beyond does, between amenities, service and aesthetics is always above and beyond. Their welcome massage on the deck of my villa was the best way to decompress after the long journey.
My game drives were a mix of morning, late afternoon and full day drives where the Xaranna crew provided full linen service and a beautiful buffet lunch in the middle of the bush. It will be hard to ever step in to a restaurant again.
On our drives we were saw herds of buffalo, female wart hogs with their babies, zebras, giraffe and vultures after a kill. Drives aside, we took full advantage of the Okavango Delta’s magical oasis of islands and waterways in the middle of the arid Kalahari Desert. Sundowners and game were also taken in from a boat as well, where pods of hippos surrounded us and snorted throughout our toast.
Riding in the small mokoro, a traditional dugout canoe, was even more relaxing. The soul sating silence and the slower pace together with their stunning South African sparkling rose wine had me drifting away in a matter of minutes.
The level of culinary excellence reached at each meal at Xaranna was one of the many stars on site. The candlelit dinners served by an exuberant crew on Xaranna’s deck together with spring bok jumping in the air, in a choreographed-like manner and elephants grazing, but a few feet away from our feast, set the safari tone. Whether on a drive, on the Okavango or on deck, the game was forever around.
It was anything but easy to leave the Delta, the Xaranna crew or my luxury villa. My return is already on my travel to do list…
Letaka Safaris – Moremi Game Reserve, Khwai Concession Area and Chobe National Park
Before I knew it, I hopped a quick flight on a plane the size of a suitcase. Letaka (www.LetakaSafaris.com) took over as we headed to the Moremi Game reserve. The bush boys of Botswana provide a slice of safari life for the more ruggedly romantic couple. It made for the perfect travel pairing with the lap of luxury that &Beyond provided.
I’ve never been much of a camper. So, a camping safari felt a bit daunting. But Letaka’s crew complete with a guide, a chef and two crew members provided seamless service throughout. Our tents came with a private veranda in front, the perfect way to experience the laze of the day between game drives. Equally important was the ensuite and bucket shower in the back, which was filled throughout by Gabriel, from our crew.
We were spoiled silly with fresh bush bread, baked daily underground by Life our chef. That, together with fresh five course meals cooked over the fire, where no two dishes were ever repeated, made the meals as much of a feast as the experience itself.
Every night after our late afternoon drive, we sat around a raging fire with beers and wine in hand. Before we were called to the table for dinner, Life would tell an unbelievable story. The simplicity of conversation, silence, stories, bush theatrics, the roar of the fire, the moon’s mood and dinner on a picnic like table surrounded by tiki torches, quickly became a delicious ritual.
There was nothing quite like a roar from the king mid-meal to remind us that we were merely visitors. Animals in camp were expected. We had buffalo snorting in a macho match below our tents, elephants making a feast of the trees surrounding our tents and hyenas waltzed in to our open kitchen regularly.
That is just the beginning as we experienced an abundance of bush theatrics in the Moremi Game Reserve, the Khwai Concession Area and the Chobe National Park on our twice daily drives.
We saw it all as no two days or drives were ever alike. Full bellied male lions looking like kings after a kill, herds of elephants, bachelor groups of impala with their white tails in the air, herds of buffalo running through the water, giraffes awkwardly and adorably dropping to their knees to gather sodium from the soil, stunning zebra romping around and observing a leopard mother dragging her kill across the bush floor to her young made for the most amazing moments of the trip. Chadrick our guide commented on how privileged we were to experience that.
Top that off with unimaginable beauty and an endless string of Botswana sunsets that had us all convinced that nature was trying to one up itself. We all got lost in the lure of Africa, the bare beauty of the bush of Botswana and that seductive safari silence.
It’s easy to see why so many say I Do to Botswana.
The above itinerary was arranged by Aardvark Safaris: www.aardvarksafaris.com
You can follow Travel & Luxury Lifestyle Writer Karen Loftus and her travels on:
Her Global Gallery is Lofty Photography: http://loftyphotography.smugmug.com/ and her travel blog is on Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/karen-loftus/
We recently met with WWF Travel Manager Elissa Leibowitz Poma, an artist outside of work, who showed us her watercolor paintings made on a recent trip to Botswana. They were so lovely we just had to share one of them with you. Thank you Elissa, for giving us permission. We are delighted your visit to Botswana inspired the joy you felt and captured in this watercolor painting. Can’t wait to see more from your next trip!
“Most afternoons at the Xigera Camp on the Okavango Delta, the other guests would retreat to their water-view bungalows to escape from the afternoon sun and rest. I took advantage of the quiet to sit on the verandah overlooking a delta channel and make this painting. The fringing papyrus is what initially attracted me. One of Xigera’s guides, Onx, soon joined me on the deck. He had never painted before, so while working on this piece, I showed him how to paint. We sat for an hour, swatting at mosquitos and shooing away the vervet monkeys that kept trying to steal items from the bar. When we were finished, we exchanged paintings. I have his painting framed and hanging in my studio to remind me of that lovely, quiet afternoon in the Okavango.”
If you’d like to see where WWF travels in Botswana, go to: http://worldwildlife.org/tours/botswana-safaris
©WWF. Reprinted with permission.
Welcome back to the final chapter of Adrian Binns’ adventure in Botswana. Adrian, James Currie and the “Birding Adventures TV” crew traveled to Botswana to take in the sights, check out the birds and have an unforgettable adventure or two! If you missed any of Adrian’s recaps, feel free to check out his posts on Chobe, the Okavango Delta and the Makgadikgadi Pans. Read below to learn what the team conquered in the Moremi Game Reserve!
Botswana: Moremi Game Reserve, Chitabe
The last big stop on my tour of Botswana was on the border of the Moremi Game Reserve, in the southeastern part of the Okavango Delta. The lovely pristine wilderness featured a wide variety of habitats, with a corresponding diversity of birds and animals. Groves of dead Leadwood trees, likely killed by drastic changes in water levels, protruded from a mosaic of acacia and mopane bushveld, riverine forests and freshwater pools.
As our plane flew in for a landing, we were greeted by Giraffes feeding along the airstrip, perhaps unaware of the Red-billed Oxpeckers hitching a ride on their backs, and large numbers of Spur-winged Goose, Egyptian Goose, Comb Ducks and White-faced Whistling Ducks (above). We saw Yellow-billed Duck, Little Grebe, and Green-backed Heron in nearby ponds.
We had a relatively long, winding drive to our camp, fording streams and narrow plank bridges along the way. To our amazement and delight, we got clear views of a Lesser Jacana, a secretive species, feeding amongst some lilies as we crossed one of the bridges. Red-billed Francolins darted in front of our vehicle, unable to decide whether to go left or right to avoid being hit. We saw Burchell’s and Meave’s Long-tailed Starlings drinking from a small puddle of water along the track. We stopped to watch a male Southern Red-billed Hornbill (above) fly to it’s nest in a tree hollow. The cavity was nearly completely sealed except for a small slit from which the female took a katydid offered by it’s mate, likely to feed hungry youngsters inside.
Our luxurious accommodations at Chitabe camp featured spacious, comfortable tents built up on stilts, connected by a long, elevated boardwalk spread out along a narrow island. We congregated around an open, thatched-roof dining and lounge area that overlooked the picturesque floodplain.
This tropical savannah region teamed with wildlife of all kinds. Of raptors, we encountered Bateleur, Gabar Goshawk, Steppe Buzzard, and Yellow-billed Kite. A solitary Dickinson’s Kestrel (above) was seen well, a new species for me. Colorful kingfishers included Woodland, Brown-hooded and Grey-headed. Lilac-breasted and Broad-billed Rollers perched conspicuously. Little, Southern Carmine and Swallow-tailed Bee-eaters foraged actively. Nervous Jacobin Cuckoos flushed from trees, briefly alighting on shrubs before moving on. At dusk one evening, we inadvertently flushed a half-dozen Dwarf Bitterns from the reeds beside the track, while fording one of the many watercourses around Chitabe.
Botswana is home to expansive herds of Red Lechwe (above) living in perennial swamps. Being the wet season, the antelopes were not visible in large numbers, but we did see a dozen crossing a marsh. The local pools were filling with water, and hippos guarded their stakes with snarling tusks.
While “Chitabe” means zebra in the local setswana language, it is Wild Dogs that have made this destination famous. James and Robert were eager to film these critically-endangered carnivores for an episode of Birding Adventures TV, but the pack had traveled beyond the concession boundaries, and out of reach. Our crew remained cheerfully flexible, and focused on other subjects to film.
Five Wattled Cranes (above) feeding in shallow wetlands provided a reasonable photo opportunity – of course we wished them closer! Of all of Africa’s cranes, this handsome species is the tallest and most vulnerable. With an estimated 8000 individuals remaining, the Okavango Delta is one of their last strongholds, and we were thrilled to see them.
Big cat activity is always exciting, and we were thrilled with our encounters here at Chitabe. One afternoon, our driver Ebs received a radio call and promptly turned us in the right direction. We soon reached a spot where a pride of eight lions were laying close to a Wildebeest kill, having just eaten their fill. The lone young cub was busy investigating the beast from all sides. He crawled into the carcass belly, climbed onto the top, and licked blood off of various places. Finally he tumbled over to his aunts and promptly fell asleep. Patiently waiting Hooded and White-headed Vultures edged a step closer to the kill, as the pride started to slumber.
Notably, this experience was observed by parties in three vehicles – ourselves, plus two others – the most number we had seen at one time in all our safari travels. Three vehicles is the maximum allowed in Botswana’s remote concession lands, and we were all here together at this scene. Such low visitor quotas help maintain the pervasive feeling of serene, pristine wilderness in Botswana’s parks and reserves.
Another fascinating scenario unfolded when we followed two lionesses and their offspring, a male and female. The juveniles, nearly full-grown, tussled with each other, and gave Robert a scare when they approached from behind, unbeknownst to him. Unexpectedly, the adult lionesses began roaring, a deafening sound at close range. Male lions roar to communicate with their pride, and keep rival males away – why were these females roaring? Perhaps they had wandered into new territory and were proclaiming their presence, saying “don’t mess with us.”
Tracking Leopards proved to be as exciting as actually seeing them! Both Ebs and James (above), having spent extensive time in the bush, exhibited remarkable tracking skills when they spotted fresh Leopard prints running parallel to tire marks on the sandy road. James observed that this was the sign of a mother and her male cub, whose paw mark was slightly larger than his mother. Leopards are solitary animals, only coming together for mating, so this was not likely an adult pair. We saw drag marks on the sand, a sign that they had made a kill of something small. While on foot, James caught sight of the kill in tall grass, and immediately felt danger as he knew that the Leopards had to be hiding close by. He and Ebs retreated slowly back to the vehicle where Robert and I had been watching the scene unfold. We drove up to investigate, and sadly saw that it was an African Wild Cat, which Leopards recognize as competition and eliminate at any opportunity. The creature was stiff with rigor mortis, and we knew the kill must have occurred hours ago.
The tracking continued expertly, with Ebs and James following signs, losing the trail, then picking up on them again, often through grasses and mopane thickets. This went on for close to two hours before the alarm calls of a Red-billed Francolin (above) gave away the Leopards’ location.
Our last sundowner was bittersweet, but set the tone for a wonderful evening. A giraffe ambled over to see about our gin and tonics, as the sun set over spectacular delta scenery. In high spirits, Robert and Daws led an impromptu sing-along of Hotel California on the way back to camp. There, a campfire crackled as we devoured a delicious dinner.
Evening entertainment included a concert and dance by the staff choral society (above), and Daws with his guitar. James jumped up to join the dancing, showing some hilarious moves to accompany the lively rhythm.
Marluce (above), the jolly, portly camp manager, claimed to be the fastest runner in the area, and challenged James to a foot race. Enthusiastic banter and hype peaked as the details were discussed in earnest… the start time, distance, footwear, etc. Alas, Marluce’s doctor finally claimed he couldn’t participate for health reasons, but it was all great fun while it lasted!
Flying out of the Okavango for the last time, I could see a noticeable increase in the amount of water that had spread across the Delta since I first arrived over a week ago. It will take another 3 months before the majority of this wilderness is covered in a lush mosaic of green and blue waterways. The dry season, when it stops raining in Botswana, begins in about 2 months, though water levels continue to rise, being fed from the river 600 miles north.
It was an incredible experience to explore the pristine, wilderness areas of Botswana. I enjoyed every minute of my adventure, including brilliant birds, wonderful wildlife, luxurious lodges and amazing people at every turn. I am extremely grateful for the support and opportunity provided by Birding Adventures TV and the Botswana Tourism Organization. I look forward to exploring more of southern Africa in the future!
Want to see more? Check out the “Birding Adventures TV” episode where you may just witness a remarkable phenomenon whilst the team was watching lions!
We want to thank Adrian for taking the time to share his adventures with us. What an unforgettable journey. If you want to read more about Adrian, please check out his blog.
Along with Adrian, TV Host James Currie and “Birding Adventures TV” set out to explore the wide range of exotic birds. Currie’s travels and adventures throughout Botswana will be highlighted in a four-part series currently airing on NBC SportsNetwork through June 19, 2012. If you don’t get a chance to catch the episodes, check out Birding Adventures’ Youtube Channel which now features the four-part series:
Thanks again to Adrian, James, and the “Birding Adventures TV” crew. We can’t wait for your next visit!
Hope you all started your summer with a bang! It is never too early to start thinking about summer travel and Botswana is the perfect choice. But don’t let us tell you; take it from our friend and special guest blogger Adrian Binns. He recently traveled to Botswana with James Currie and the “Birding Adventures TV” crew. Check out his posts on Chobe and the Okavango Delta. Read on below to see what happened next in the Makgadikgadi Pans!
Botswana: Makgadikgadi Pans, Jack’s Camp
The wild, pristine beauty of Botswana shone brightly in the Makgadikgadi Pans, the third destination of my adventure. Contrasting starkly with the lush habitats of Chobe and the Okavango Delta, the Makgadikgadi Pans are the last remnants of what was once the world’s largest prehistoric lake, now reduced to salt plains fringed by grasslands and Mopane thickets.
Stephan the capable bush pilot dropped us into Jack’s Camp (above) in the nick of time, just before a strong afternoon rainstorm grounded most flights. The storm curtailed afternoon activities, but allowed ample time to relax in the remarkable, 1940‘s-style tented safari camp, set within a palm grove. A spacious, open-sided, pagoda-like tent served as the camp centerpiece, where we dined and enjoyed the bar. Our tents were scattered around the palm-fringed island overlooking grasslands that concealed roaring lions at night. Our host Kirsten and cheerful ranger Chuba welcomed us warmly, providing everything possible for our comfort and enjoyment.
The arid conditions of the Pans host an amazing variety of wildlife, including species not seen in our other travels. We found Rufous-naped and Sabota Larks calling from low-scrub vantage points to attract a mate. Eastern Clapper Larks and Desert Cisticolas displayed by taking to the air and calling, and Southern Anteater Chats busily fed their young fledglings. Rounding out small arid loving species were groups of Spike-heeled Larks (above), and a few Chestnut-backed Sparrow-Larks outnumbered by Grey-backed Sparrow-Larks.
At sunrise we paid a visit to the stars of the popular Animal Planet show, “Meerkat Manor.” This clan of 18 eagerly exited their burrow and stood on their tippy-toes to soak in the warmth of the sun’s first rays, and scan the landscape for predators. Well habituated to people, some of the Meerkats clamored onto James’ shoulders as he sat on the mound to gain a better view, while Robert filmed intently. In chain-gang style, they formed a line to excavate their burrow. Much to our delight, the last animal, the one well out of the burrow, seemed quite happy to dump sand over James’ legs, in his shoes and up his shorts!
I couldn’t take my eyes off of a particularly cute young pair of siblings, who were always together, holding each other for support and playing joyfully. We followed the clan as they scampered off in the short grasses in search of a morning meal. Interestingly, Meerkats forage only for invertebrates found just below the surface of the ground, leaving those on top of the soil for other predators. Perhaps the underground grubs are juicier? I wouldn’t know.
Our visit to the Makgadikgadi Pans coincided with the beginning of Blue Wildebeest and Zebra migration around the Delta – a lesser version of the grand scale Serengeti-Mara migration in East Africa. The calving season was almost done and we could see a number of youngsters in shorter grasslands, hugging close to their mothers for protection. At the thicket edges, male Impalas were forming harems and gearing up to defend their females for when the rutting season begins in earnest in mid-April.
There was never a dull moment back at camp, especially when an impromptu version of “Fear Factor” began with a plate full of Mopane worms. These colourful caterpillars, larger than your index finger, turned out to be a true culinary delight for natives Daws, Chuba, and South African James. Robert opted out of the live contest, but managed to down one of the cooked ones. Despite James’ cajoling, I was too squeamish to try worms prepared any style! The entertainment continued with amusing impersonations of famous personalities. We howled with laughter, pun intended, at Robert’s perfect impression of Bob Dylan’s dog – “woof, wooaf-wooaaf” in that iconic nasal drawl!
We ventured to the edge of the Makgadikgadi Pans (above) to view the vast, desolate landscape stretched as far as the eye could see. Beneath shimmering heat waves, we saw a number of Ostriches, and our first Wattled Cranes a distance away. A Leopard Tortoise crossed the track in front of us. The timing of our visit meant there was little water in the pans, and the spectacle of large congregations of breeding Lesser Flamingos would not appear for another month or so. We had to make do with a hundred or so Greater Flamingos!
Scattered pools of freshwater attracted Wood Sandpiper, Common Sandpiper, Greenshank, Black-winged Stilt, Ruff, Hottentot Teal, Red-billed Duck and an African Spoonbill. We had the good fortune to find not just one, but six pairs of Greater Painted Snipe, a great sighting of these wetland-edge skulkers. Their plumage is striking, albeit different for males and females. The female features a rich chestnut-coloured neck and chest, while the male shows earth-toned patterning. The female Greater Painted Snipe (above), like some other shorebird species, defies conventional gender roles, in that she lays her eggs then leaves her mate to incubate and raise the chicks.
The sparse grasses of this arid, desert region is perfect habitat for small flocks of Temminck’s and Double-banded Coursers, both of whom easily outran us to keep a safe distance away. Nomadic sandgrouse also thrive in dry, sandy areas, and we had the fortune to locate a pair of beautiful Burchell’s Sandgrouse (above) showing white-spotted, cinnamon bodies.
I was greatly intrigued by the Northern Black Korhaan, a beautiful bustard found in taller arid grasslands or savannah. This bird spends much of the day, and some nights, calling raucously to attract a mate. If the call was not compelling enough, it took to the air, circled it’s territory calling all the while, then parachuted slowly back down with its conspicuous white primary feathers in full display (above) – a marvelous sight to watch, considering it’s ample size.
Raptors were well represented in this environment, including Pale Chanting Goshawks, Brown Snake Eagle and Tawny Eagles, who kept an eye on the multitude of Southern Ground Squirrels, it’s favorite prey. We followed circling vultures hoping to find a kill, but all the White-backed and Lappet-faced Vultures (above) had already gorged on whatever they’d found, leaving only a small scrap of hide, and some individuals milling around on the ground digesting their meal.
Unique amongst raptors is the striking Secretarybird, a long-legged, terrestrial hunter of the grasslands. Chuba, our ranger guide, was delighted to see his first one in several months. In fact there were a pair, a testosterone-driven male in hot pursuit of a young female with a short tail. We followed the two, having a hard time keeping up as he chased her over the open landscape for well over 2 miles. Eventually he got the hint, she was just not ready, and he opted to go hunting. A Secretarybird’s long legs enable them to cover a great deal of territory on foot, in search of grasshoppers and other insects. When they find something, they employ a foot stamping technique (above) to flush and kill it. We were lucky to see this in action, when the male we were following began to stamp his foot and lift his wings at the same time. He had killed an olive-coloured snake about 3 feet in length!
A major highlight of my Botswana adventure was interacting with some native peoples of the Kalahari, known as San Bushmen. Four men generously spent time showing us various aspects of their culture and livelihood. They demonstrated game-tracking skills and hunting techniques utilizing compact bows with poison-tipped arrows (above). One man dug a tubular root from the ground, squeezed the thirst-quenching liquid into his mouth, than replanted the plant to live on. They showed us how to build a bush fire, and retrieve a scorpion from a hole, though they don’t eat them. They even played a fast-paced game of hand gestures, roughly based on “rock-paper-scissors,” but with a hunting theme. We couldn’t quite understand it all, but it ended with universally-recognized smiles and high-fives all around! One of the men spoke english, interpreting their fascinating language of clicks, sounds and sing-song inflections. Filming everything intently, Robert was shocked to feel a sharp cut on his knee when he kneeled down to focus at close range. For a moment he thought it was a poison arrow, and imagined the bushmen talking about how he was now a goner! Luckily, it was just the sharp end of a bow.
I felt extremely lucky and grateful to have experienced this amazing region of the world, and, as usual, wished we had more time to explore the vast habitats of the Makgadikgadi Pans. But I looked forward to the next and final leg of our Botswana adventure, a visit to the Moremi Game Reserve.
Makes you want to get away, right? Check out the footage from “Birding Adventures TV” here and watch as the team searches for the Secretarybird. Check back tomorrow as Adrian wraps up his four-part adventure in Botswana with a thrilling visit to the Moremi Game Reserve.
We are back with special guest blogger, Adrian Binns. He recently traveled to Botswana with James Currie and his “Birding Adventures TV” crew. If you missed his first post, check out Adrian’s adventure in Chobe here. Now sit back and discover the Okavango Delta with the group.
Botswana: Okavango Delta, a Watery Oasis
My Botswana adventure continued with a wonderful visit to the famed Okavango Delta in the northwest part of the country. Fed by the Okavango River, which originates some 600 miles north in the Angolan highlands, this is the largest inland delta in the world, and home to spectacular wildlife and scenery.
The short flight from Kasane provided a fascinating, air-borne perspective of this vast, lush region, seasonally awash in greens and blues, featuring countless courses of flowing water. Thin strips of palm-fringed islands remained a few feet above the water level, one of which served as a lone airstrip for our single prop plane. Flying low for landing, we spotted elephants bathing and giraffes standing in the shade – a welcome introduction to this exciting destination.
From the airstrip, we were warmly greeted by our ranger, Barobi. It was a short ride by Land Cruiser to a nearby dock, where we boarded a boat to bring us to Xigera, our water-based camp located at the western edge of Chief’s Island. Xigera, pronounced kee-jar-ah, could be considered the geographical center of the delta. The Okavango Delta spreads across 6,000 watery square miles, and the 30-mile long Chief’s Island is the largest bit of land that manages to stay above the waterline year-round. In stark contrast to Kasane and Chobe, where relatively easy access facilitates a number of tourists, we found ourselves in the middle of nowhere, a vast pristine paradise to explore and enjoy.
We were awed by the warm greeting of the staff, who welcomed us to camp with big smiles and a traditional bush song echoing across the watery marsh, as our boat pulled up to the rustic wooden dock. This luxury camp was superb, set amidst thickets of tall trees on a small island aptly named “Paradise.”
A raised wooden walkway led us to lovely, spacious safari tents set on platforms where the breath-taking view from the verandah overlooked the marsh. I noticed a band of Banded Mongoose scurried through the undergrowth and a Grey-backed Camaroptera was pinpointed by its bleating call.
Fruiting fig trees outside my tent attracted a family of Vervet Monkeys along with pairs of Black-collared Barbets, Black-headed Orioles, a plethora of African Green Pigeons (above) and Grey Go-away-birds.
Our hosts, Gabby and Mia and their joyful staff, ran a top-notch camp, with excellent food and service. We feasted on freshly-prepared meals under an open timber-and-thatch roof of the main reception lodge beside the lagoon. As daylight faded, a new moon rose in the crystal clear sky, accompanied by bright planets Venus, Jupiter and a clearly visible red Mars. In this remote corner of the world, the Milky Way splashed across the sky more visibly than I’d ever seen it anywhere before. The tinkling sounds of African Reed Frogs added background symphony. From my bed at night, I heard hippos grunting close to our tents. The sounds of Africa are distinctive, night and day!
One of Africa’s most sought-after owls is the huge, ginger-coloured Pel’s Fishing Owl (below). With just about a thousand pairs remaining, the Okavango Delta is the main place to find one, especially here at Xigera. James, Robert, Daws and I loaded our gear into a boat, for a short ride to the neighboring island, a likely location for this special species.
After a bit of searching amongst the dense thicket with stately trees, Barobi managed to spot a pair, which immediately flew into the upper reaches of the canopy. We let them settle, then tracked them down again, giving us a wonderful encounter with one of the largest and rarest owls. Robert filmed continuously, while James narrated enthusiastically about this magnificent bird, for a special segment of Birding Adventures TV.
We spent a full morning birding by boat, a wonderfully relaxing way to explore the rich landscape. Barobi, our guide, skillfully navigated us through a meandering maze of waterways lined with papyrus reeds and water lilies, always on alert for an unpredictable hippo.
We stopped at the sight of a Coppery-tailed Coucal, hoping it would perch at the top of grasses for a full view. Chirping Cisticolas showed well, singing cheerfully, and a bright African (Holub’s) Golden Weaver posed nicely on a papyrus. We spotted a brilliantly-coloured Malachite Kingfisher (above), and quietly approached for close views of this diminutive bird.
Ever sharp-eyed, James spotted a Lesser Jacana crouched among some lilies. Unlike their conspicuous relatives the African Jacana, Lesser Jacanas tend to be elusive loners, considerably shier, and well adapted to blend into vegetation. When we tried to get closer, the bird flew to another part of the lagoon (above). We followed it there, but it promptly flew back to where it had just come from. It was frustrating, as we knew it was a great sighting and James desperately wanted to get it on film. It was reminiscent of watching a tennis match, to the left, then the right, left, right, back and forth…… and finally, the jacana won and moved on.
The traditional way to enjoy this serene landscape is by calmly being poled through waterways on amokoro (dugout boat, above). Our limited time here meant that we couldn’t experience this as much as we would have liked.
In the afternoon, we ventured back towards the airstrip, taking the Land Cruiser to search for a Saddle-billed Stork (above) we had seen when landing. Standing 5 feet tall in the short open grassland, they were hard to miss with oversized, bright, red and yellow bill. Two youngsters followed their mother around, still in juvenile dull-brown plumage.
We focused on seeing a Slaty Egret, another specialty and highly-localized resident of the Delta. We finally found an immature feeding in a small, water-filled depression along with the larger Little Egret. The juvenile Slaty was eventually joined by an adult in full breeding plumage with picturesque head plumes, yellow legs and rufous-coloured throat (above). I am fascinated by the various feeding techniques employed by egrets and herons, and never tire of watching them. The Slaty Egret dipped its bill into the shallows, stirred the waters like stirring a cup of coffee, than snatched small fish trying to escape the turbulent water.
Traversing the floodplain, we admired Rufous-bellied Herons flying in to roost, and scores of Black-winged Pratincoles and Broad-billed Rollers hawking the last of the day’s flying insects. Our afternoon ended on high ground, where Robert and I alighted onto an anthill, then hastily brushed the bugs off of our legs. James sat atop the Land Cruiser basking in the glory of a wonderfully successful day, while enjoying the traditional sundowner, or three!
In two nights at the Xigera camp, we were thrilled to find our target species, Pel’s Fishing Owl and Slaty Egret. I was sorry to leave our friendly, luxurious camp, and wished that we had more time to explore this fascinating part of the Okavango Delta. I looked forward to the next part of our Botswana adventure, discovering Makgadikgadi Pans.
Sounds unforgettable, don’t you agree? Come see for yourself as the crew goes in search of the mysterious Pel’s Fishing Owl with the Birding Adventures TV episode. Now, go enjoy your holiday weekend. Unwind, relax, get ready for summer – Botswana in the summer sure does have a ring to it! Check back early next week to see how the group tackles the Makgadikgadi Pans.
Readers- do we have a treat for you! Adrian Binns, a member of the Nikon Birding Pro-staff, recently traveled to Botswana along with James Currie and his “Birding Adventures TV” crew, who were filming several episodes of the show. Since as long as he can remember, Adrian knew wildlife and birds would play an influential role in his life. Adrian has had the pleasure of serving as a keynote speaker at Birding Festivals, leading field trips and hosting workshops and was named one of the ‘upcoming leaders to watch’ in the 2006 issue of Wild Bird. However, all his hard work and experience could not prepare him for his adventure in Botswana. Adrian has taken the time to share his exciting Botswana journey with us. Grab some coffee and read on to learn more about Adrian and Birding Adventures TV’s quest in Chobe, Part 1 of this 4 Part guest blogger series!
My adventures in Botswana began with a flight from Johannesburg to Kasane, a small town on the Chobe River, in the northeastern-most part of Botswana, just 50 miles from Victoria Falls. A short distance to the east, the Chobe River meets the mighty Zambezi, whose waters swirl over the intersection of four southern Africa countries: Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Interestingly, this is the only place in the world where the boundaries of four countries come together geographically.
I was traveling with James Currie, host of Nikon’s Birding Adventures TV (BATV), Robert Oliver, his cameraman, and Dawson, “Daws” as we called him, representative from the Botswana Tourism Organization (BTO), the sponsors of our trip. Sharing a passion for wildlife and adventure, our small group enthusiastically embarked on our tour of northern Botswana. I was especially eager, as I’ve explored other areas of Africa, but this was my first time in this country.
Within hours of landing, we were motoring down the Chobe River on a sunset cruise aboard a large platform boat. Wire-tailed Swallows landed fleetingly on our craft, while a few Whiskered Terns hunted up and down the channel. We glimpsed an Allen’s Gallinule, and saw the first of many Pied Kingfishers (above), Long-tailed (Reed) Cormorants, African Darters, and Long-toed Lapwings.
Hippos swam close to our boat, while Monitor Lizards (above) and several Nile Crocodiles basked on the riverbank. Common Waterbuck grazed in the tall grasses on the banks, and several Greater Kudos jousted together near the water’s edge. Robert’s camera rolled non-stop, as James narrated about the wildlife and habitat of our surroundings.
A fierce afternoon rainstorm, not unexpected for this time of year, didn’t dampen our high spirits. We secured the side tarps to keep our equipment dry, and kept our eyes on the wildlife that utilize the river’s vast resources. At one point strong gusts pushed our boat into the shallows, temporarily mooring us. Daws and James, the ever-entertaining traveling companion, didn’t hesitate to jump into the croc and hippo infested water, and push us back into the gentle current!
During the return ride to the lodge, everyone imbibed on sundowners, a deliciously relaxing African tradition. We enjoyed this daily, evening ritual tremendously… occasionally too much!
We were based out of Mowana Safari Lodge on the banks of the Chobe River. “Mowana” means baobab in the local Setswana language, and our well-situated lodge, with a strong African motif, was built around a massive 800-year-old specimen.
I didn’t wander far to find plenty to capture my attention. The grounds hosted myriad colorful birds, including African Paradise Flycatcher (above), White-throated Bee-eaters flying sorties to capture butterflies and bees, Copper Sunbird, Grey-headed and Orange-breasted Bush-Shrikes. Family groups of Hartlaub’s Babblers and Retz’s Helmet-Shrikes flitted about the undergrowth and tops of trees, respectively. The reeds of the golf course pond was the best place to see male Grosbeak Weavers and Southern Red Bishops busily courting females to inspect their architectural creations.
Specialties of the lodge grounds included Collared Palm Thrush (above), easier to see here compared to anywhere else I have looked for them, and Brown Firefinch which we filmed building its nest within an old Spectacled Weaver’s abode.
At dusk, a pair of Barn Owls emerged from under the thatched roof eaves of the open upper lounge, and dozens of Trumpeter Hornbills (above) returned from a day of foraging to wrangle over prime roosting spots in the centerpiece baobab.
Chobe National Park is famous for its large herds of migratory elephants, but they were seasonally dispersed with so much water about, and we saw only a few of the great behemoths. However, the damage they inflict upon the trees was evident by the many standing dead trees, stripped bark and broken limbs.
Inside the park, we drove the main sandy track hugging the river, and enjoyed terrific birdlife including Marabou Storks, African Openbills, Spur-winged Goose, Blacksmith Lapwings, African Jacanas, Little Egrets and our target, the African Pygmy Geese (above). These skittish diminutive waterfowl felt more protected even amongst sparse stands of rushes. A Black Heron exhibited its unique umbrella shade-fishing technique, catching minnow-sized prey which it devoured off camera. At the top of a bare perch, a pair of African Fish Eagles threw their heads back and called loudly – this is the sound of Africa!
Further down the road we stopped to admire colourful Lilac-breasted Rollers (above), Blue-cheeked and European Bee-eaters, dueting Swamp Boubous, and an Amur Falcon. A Southern Ground Hornbill flew up onto a tree limb, showing surprising grace for a bird of its size. Southern Red-billed Hornbills foraged for grubs amongst the open grasses, and a flock of Helmeted Guineafowl milled around, pecking the sand for small invertebrates and seeds.
Baby animals always delight me, therefore I was thrilled to see a very young hippo draped across it’s mother’s head in the water, content to sleep in safety (above). We had seen this pair the day before, and I marveled at the baby’s instinct to seek it’s mother’s constant protection. A lone Buffalo, the only one seen on our entire trip, waded across a shallow channel in front of us, lumbering towards a small group of Pukus, a water-loving antelope. In dryer areas of the park, herds of impalas bounded, and a troop of mischievous Chacma Baboons roved through the scrub. A family of Warthogs ambled past, unconcerned with our presence.
We spent time searching for Racket-tailed Roller in a stand of pink-flowered Rhodesian Teak, the preferred habitat of this uncommon, secretive species that James wanted to feature in a show segment. We never did find the bird, but experienced a completely different kind of encounter. James and Robert were on foot when James heard a faint snap, a sign that elephants were in the area. He knew they were closer than they should be, and began retreating carefully to the vehicle. With all of us safely back in the Land Cruiser, a young bull decided to give a mock charge. Like the pro that he is, Robert filmed continuously without a twitch, only telling us later that he was scared as heck, that being his first experience of elephants charging at close range in the bush! The following evening we would encounter a pride of lions in this same area. The bush is indeed full of surprise and danger, to be approached with utmost caution.
Returning from the bush one afternoon, James discovered a young Flap-necked Chameleon (above) on his shirt. It had apparently fallen onto him as we passed under some low-hanging branches during our game drive. After long inspection and many photos, we released the interesting creature in the garden.
Traveling with James Currie means never a dull moment in the African bush. Always eager for adventure, the crazy antics of this seasoned TV-host kept us laughing often, like when he rode the Chobe river rapids on his arse, then spent ample time scrubbing the dirt off of his butt!
Bold and beautiful, wild and wonderful, Botswana was bigger than my dreams, and I was thrilled for our tour to continue on to the famed Okavango Delta!
Catch James and the crew of Birding Adventures TV in search of the elusive African Pygmy Goose in Chobe here! Check back tomorrow to read on and learn about their adventures in the Okavango Delta. Interested in more of Adrian’s work, visit his blog here.
Evan Schiller is a professional photographer and avid traveler and recently submitted the following article about a safari he and his wife took to Botswana. We hope you enjoy Evan’s story and photos as much as we did.
Botswana…A Photographer’s Dream
It happened on our first morning at Duba Plains! After torrential evening and morning rains, we came upon a mother and her three cubs. About two hours of watching their antics as they chased, tackled and romped with each other, is all that was needed…we were hooked! To the extent that on our next game drive we went searching for them! And, I must say, with great success thanks to our guide Solly!
We set out around 5:45am – 6:00am every day for our morning game drive. This particular morning I happened to notice hundreds if not thousands of these spider webs of various shapes and sizes covered with dew and all back-lit by the sun. I asked Solly to stop the vehicle immediately and began shooting away.
Baby elephants are like little children with a new toy when it comes to their trunks. They spend hours figuring out what this thing is and what it can do. In fact, it often looks as the trunk has a life of its own as it moves around in ways that seem complete disconnected from the baby. This guy was having a ball with a stick!
We spent nine hours out on our drive this morning and into the afternoon. Solly kept asking if we wanted to go back for some food. No way! Not with what was going on. One of the most amazing drives ever in Africa started by finding our mother and three cubs again. Mom set out to hunt on her own. Although barely audible, she signaled the three cubs to stay. On command, the three of them disappeared into a thicket of bushes, not to be seen for two hours until she returned. We followed her for about a mile and she made the kill and dragged it back 3/4 of the way. She then went to retrieve the cubs. At the sound of her call from about 300 yards, all three emerged from under the bush and ran to mom!
Sun Downers are a ritual on game drives in Africa. It is a time to stop your vehicle and enjoy a glass of wine and some snacks as you watch the sunset. Although we usually passed on the wine and snacks, we never passed on the sunsets. How could we…they were some of the most amazing sunsets I had ever seen. Every night the sky would be painted with this incredible array of colors.
It’s true…Botswana is a photographer’s dream. Interested in planning a safari adventure of your own? Click here for a list of travel special and start planning your trip today!
Want to stay “in the know” on Botswana Tourism? Click here and sign up for our monthly newsletter, Around the Camp Fire!
We often hear from travelers returning from Botswana that their trip changed their lives in a profoundly, moving way; whether it was bringing family closer together by this shared experience or by allowing them a special moment in time to view their world from a different perspective. The following story was forwarded to us by Diane Lobel, Owner of African Portfolio, a tour operator specializing in East and Southern Africa travel, from a journalist client of hers, Susan Farewell. Susan’s story explains how her Botswana safari was so much more than a vacation; it was a defining bonding experience for her and her daughter. We hope you enjoy Susan’s story as much as we did.
Call of the Wild ~ Parent and Child
When you travel to Africa, you inevitably hear someone make reference to having safari eyes. What that basically means is seeing more. Two people can look out at the same savanna. One might see only grasslands rippling in the wind. The one with safari eyes might also see a jackal sitting in the grass, an eagle perched on a treetop, and the long necks of giraffes in the woodlands beyond.
Getting safari eyes is not some natural aptitude or an acquired skill. It’s all about slowing down and paying attention to everything around you, using your eyes, your ears, your sense of smell. In general, your instincts—something we all have but kind of lose as we get tangled up in our packed day-to-day schedules, our ever-present electronics and our long-term agendas.
Last month, my almost-13-year-old daughter and I spent the bulk of our 10-day trip through Botswana and Zambia, getting our safari eyes.
We had gone to Southern Africa with the cliché safari expectations: to see lions, elephants, leopards, zebra, giraffe and other animals in their natural habitat. With the exception of the rhino, we saw all of the high-profile (the new name for the original hunter’s title, the big five) animals. In fact, we saw them all very early on, very close up.
What I didn’t expect is that we’d see so much more, not only in the way of wildlife and plant life, but of these countries and their people in general, and of each other.
We were on a Wilderness Safaris trip, which took us to four different luxury tented camps, via five Cessna flights and to and through some of the planet’s greatest wilderness areas. We visited the Kalahari Desert, the Okavango Delta and the Linyanti Reserve in Botswana and then moved on to Zambia, where we were based on the shores of the voluminous Zambezi River, not far from Victoria Falls, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.
Over the course of the trip, we found ourselves rambling over bumpy plains in 4 x 4 Land Rovers, racing along in speedboats through watery channels lined with papyrus, and watching some of the most spectacular horizon-filling sunsets I’ve ever seen.
Lions, Hippos and Honey Badgers…Oh MY!
It being spring in Southern Africa, we were able to observe many newborns and young animals. We watched lion cubs play, as the mom sat protectively nearby. We saw many baboons grooming their little ones and scolding them when they got out of line. We had a baby elephant try out his charging skills on us, by flapping his baggy ears, trying to look bigger than he was and rushing toward us—as his parents looked over. He got it all wrong. To really charge, you need to pin the ears back.
But it wasn’t just sweetness and cuteness. While we didn’t see a kill, we couldn’t help but notice how stressful it must be to live in a world where you’re on everybody’s menu. Living like that, you use all your instincts and your body language to control matters. One morning, our jeep must have woken a hippo sleeping in the bulrush. Surprised, he flared his nostrils and glared at us, warning us not to come any closer. We inched away. While his size was certainly intimidating, we learned that here in the plains, it’s not just the size of an animal you need to worry about. It’s how aggressive and confident they are. In fact one of the most frightening creatures of them all weighs less than 30 pounds. It’s hard to imagine, considering its name, but the African honey badger, will go face to face with animals 5 times its size. With Its four-inch claws and indomitable nature, nobody gets in its way. Even the lions are so afraid of them, that the bushmen used the small animal’s scent around their camps at night to keep the big cats (and snakes) away.
Learning from the Locals
The best example of “safari eyes” was made stunningly clear to us one morning on the plains when we headed out for an early morning game drive with Zee, our guide at one of the camps. Minutes into the trip, he slowed the vehicle down, spotting tracks on the dirt road ahead.
“Lions,” he said, rubbing his hands together, excitedly.
The next two hours, we witnessed an extraordinary ability to track these cats. At times, we wondered if he was crazy, as seemingly randomly, he would abruptly turn the vehicle into the bush and forge on. Periodically he would quickly turn off the engine and hold up his hand, stopping us from talking so he could listen to the baboons, the birds and other species giving clues. When lions are lurking about, the whole savanna is on alert. Occasionally, he would connect with his fellow guides on the radio, who were all tracking them in adjacent areas. After a while, my daughter and I started to think it was just a long ride and gave up on the idea of seeing them.
And then it happened…right in front of us, there they were. Five lions, looking at us as if to say, “What took you so long? “ It was as if knowing Zee was our guide, they knew it would just be a matter of time before we found them.
Mom and Daughter Time
Being away from the routines of home, the trip gave my daughter and me countless opportunities to learn more about each other. One night, in an hours-long thunder storm (which though beautiful, looked as if it was electrocuting the entire African continent), I learned that my daughter has a greater sense of humor than I thought. While I was ramrod tense through the entire event, she was completely energized and seemingly thrilled by the drama of it all.
I also saw that she was a bit tougher than I am in many circumstances. Another night, a growl (which turned out to be a baboon right outside the screen), catapulted me out of bed and sent me running for cover while she cooly said, “Mom, just go back to sleep.”
I also discovered that, if motivated, she will get up at 5:00 in the morning and not complain. Not sure if it had anything to do with the pre-dawn breakfasts, which—at some camps—were served around a bonfire, or the fact that the early game drives really did yield the most fruitful sightings.
Being alone together far from home also gave me the opportunity to help her process some of the “melancholies du voyage” or “the travelers woes” such as homesickness. One morning, about midday through the trip, we were driving along in a safari jeep through an area that looked almost biblical with sculpture-like leadwood trees, a couple of Greater Kudu with massive horns and wildly different birds everywhere. Though beautiful, home seemed very far away. Then we noticed the smell of sage in the air. As we both inhaled the piney scent, I casually mentioned that “When we get home, I’ll make a little sauce with sage, butter and garlic and we’ll have it over ravioli.” She smiled. But it wasn’t just the anticipation of a home-cooked meal that she was smiling about.
“Mom,” she said. “Thanks for bringing me here.”
Photo Credits: All of the above photographs were provided by Wilderness Safaris. The photo of the lions and the zebras was taken by Michael Poliza. The photo of the elephants was taken by Dana Allen.