Travels in Africa

Fred and Donanne Hunter

TRAVELS IN AFRICA: Botswana #4, 2001

Botswana is great safari country.  Here’s a report of our stay at Savuti Elephant Camp.

As our plane neared Savuti we began to see below us individual elephants grazing.  “There’s one!  There’s another!  There’s two!”  Great sight!  As we started to leave the airstrip, a breeding herd of elephants – perhaps thirty of them – crossed at the far end of the strip.  Guide Joe – as young as Leopard with some of the social skills of Sello – drove us down to have a look.  Large bull elephants – like ushers posted at either side of the strip – made sure the herd crossed in safety.

At Savuti Elephant Camp our tents overlooked a pond, constructed and maintained by the camp with fresh water continually pumped into it.  The pond attracts elephants.  And so we had two ringside seats, the best in the camp, to watch the massive animals – lone bulls at first – come to drink, filling their trunks with nine to ten liters of water and squirting it down their throats, also flicking it onto their sides and backs to cool down and behind their great ears.  Watching from the porch D and I saw – through binoculars – blood veins on the back sides of the ears.  Cooling the blood by flapping the ears – especially wet ears – cools the whole body.

On our first game run it rained as we started out.  We wore raincoats and ponchos during much of the drive.  As we were barreling along, D called out, “Hyena on the right!”  We got Joe to slow down and stop and back up.  The hyenas turned out to be a pack of nine wild dogs going quite methodically about the business of a hunt.  Wild dogs are an endangered species – so we are told – apparently only the dominant female of a pack breeds.  The sighting was a real event.  Joe got onto Radio Savuti Elephant Camp – an intercom system between safari vehicles and home base – and alerted other drivers .  We followed the dogs along a road for a time and then were overtaken by other vehicles from SEC, one of which graciously pulled directly into our line of view.

Greeting the neighbors at Savuti Elephant Camp

We gave up following the dogs as they entered an impenetrable stand of trees and went instead to find the carcass of a cape buffalo killed the previous evening by a large pride of lions.  Joe got to the place where Radio SEC said the kill was, but there was no evidence of it.  I was skeptical that a kill made less than 24 hours earlier would have completely disappeared.  “Hyenas and jackals carry off bones, even skulls,” said Joe.  “I’d like to see a jackal carrying off a buffalo skull,” said Fred.

Savuti transport. Notice the roadbed.

Then sharp-eyed Bill spotted the lions, ears sticking up out of the tall grass and the occasional flicking of a black-tipped tail.  Yep, lions indeed were there.  Then we spotted the carcass as well.  (Just what it was that Joe brought to the proceedings – other than chauffeur skills – was unclear at this point, since Donanne and Bill had so far done all the spotting.)  We watched a jackal make a very circuitous path to the carcass and sit down to enjoy it.  We eventually went over to the lions – two lionesses with two almost mature cubs – lolling in full-tummied sleep.

A river used to run past Savuti Lodge and, in fact, our game drive took us along a section of its course.  It eventuated into a marsh.  All this has been dried up and the marsh has become a large plain of the sort where one can imagine cheetah hunting.  At the edge of the plain are a number of hill-sized rock outcroppings, on one of which apparently bushmen made paintings.

Elephants at Savuti

We crossed this plain seeing a variety of wildlife – many herds of impala, an occasional tsessebe (which we knew in Kenya as topi), zebras, solitary wildebeests (which seem to have an identity crisis here; there’s a lone male wildebeest that trails after a pair of tsessebe), giraffes, the occasional elephant.  Speeding back toward the Savuti Park gate – rules say all vehicles must be out by 7:00 p.m. – we were charging along when Bill cried out, “Lion in a tree!”

Had to see this sight!  Deadline or not!  Hadn’t seen lions in trees since Lake Manyara in Tanzania!  So we implored Joe to back up.  Sure enough two cubs – Joe estimated them as being ten months and three months – in a fallen tree.  Joe assumed the mother had left the cubs there while going hunting.  He thought the young one not yet weaned.  Knowing wild dogs were on the hunt, we wondered about the safety of the cubs and then it was time to speed on.

As we came along, we got stuck behind a Landrover driven by self-drive tourists.  It sped along pretty well, but in heavy dirt the driver seemed uncertain and would slow down.  Joe started to pass and with our encouragement did so.  The Landrover contained four shirtless South African males.

Dinner – delicious chicken – for which we were joined by Freddie, the senior staffer (late 20s) who seems to look after the plant.  At Khwai River we’d heard about Marianne and Freddie, the SEC managers, and, since Harold and Lee-Ann were married, assumed M&F were as well.  But Marianne’s parents are coming for Christmas and are following in our footsteps.  When D met Marianne’s mother at the airstrip, the mother said, “Marianne and boyfriend” were managing SEC.  They seem a nice couple, he probably an English-speaker, she definitely of Afrikaner background (which her parents – more than she – reveal).  They were at hotel management school together: great friends, but did not date.  Discovered each other later when both were working in Joburg.

Light breakfast.  Morning game drive.  Came upon a lion sitting up sleepily beside the road.  As we crept forward and stopped, we saw three lions asleep.  And a fourth (which I did not see at first because of tall grass): the unweaned cub left in the tree.  The lionesses – there were two – had obviously found them some dinner, had eaten well and were now sleeping.

Joe parked the vehicle so that I was hardly more than my own body length from one of the sleeping lions.  They look so charming!  Such big kitties!  But when you experience the strength and force one of those represents and think of Sello’s story of standing frozen during a lion’s inspection, it really makes you gulp.

Moving along we came upon two striped safari vehicles and lions on both sides of the track.  A single male crossed just behind us.  A group of lionesses and cubs, affectionately nuzzled each other off to our left and behind small trees.  Off to our right an amorous male and a female who declined to encourage his courtship behavior while we watched.

Radio SEC notified us of cheetahs.  We hurried to the spot.  I saw nothing.  Paul saw a head somewhere among branches.  We hung around a while and did catch a glimpse of the cheetah crossing between two bushes.  On the afternoon game run (which I skipped) the others saw two cheetahs hunting, some lions on a kill, a bush (or a thicket of trees) containing an invisible leopard and klipspringers on one of the rock hills.

Marianne joined us for lunch.  I told her that Freddie – whom I then presumed to be her husband – had reported that they’d been serious students in school and had not dated.  She said they had met at a party after they’d both moved to Joburg and were working in the tourist business.  “And magic struck?” I asked.  “Well, it was a party,” she said.  The friendship became a relationship.  I said Freddie had thoughts of South America.  She seemed less enthusiastic.  Fearing I’d said something wrong, D told me they were a couple, not a marriage, and presumably Marianne’s interest in South America might be enhanced by marriage.

An unexpected treat for Christmas Eve dinner.  As we waited for “starters,” we heard singing.  The staff, some 15 or 20 Tswanas, came from the kitchen area in a dancing line, led by one of the waitresses, a middle-aged woman.  The line snaked around the dining room and the song invited us to join the parade.

After we all sat down, the staff sang us several songs in intricate rhythms and harmonies.  Joe, our guide, said they practiced these and will sing and dance at their eventual Christmas party.  The song leader would establish a rhythm with one foot; the others would take it up and begin singing.  One song was: “We will never forget beautiful Savuti…, Bo-tswana… Africa.”   The singing was truly something to hear.

An early game run on Christmas Day.  Unremarkable except for one amazing event.  We had been traveling across marsh and saw several corey bustards with carmine bee-eaters on their backs.  I asked Joe if the carmines plucked insects from the feathers of the bustards as do the birds that sit on the backs of the cape buffalo, picking insects from their hides.  No, said Joe.  The bustards tend to stir up the insects from the grass as they walk and the bee-eaters ride on their backs in order to feast on the insects.

Christmas dinner at Savuuti Elephant Camp

As our safari vehicle drove along, it also raised insects from the grass at the side of the road.  Suddenly bee-eaters soared beside us, their lovely shimmering red-rust color penetrated with stabs of brilliant blue.  They flew beside us, around us, over us, hovered at our sides.  You watched their beaks and you’d see them open and snatch an insect and swallow it and prepare for the next treat.  Magical moments.  Reminded me of watching the dolphins that played in the wake of the tourist boat in New Zealand’s Milford Sound.  In each case the animals used human transportation for delight and feasting.

Lunch at one long table: the four in our party; the guides Joe and Killer; Guy and Lisl from O-E corporate; Freddie and Marianne and her parents and uncle (father’s brother) and aunt.  Held at 12:30 rather than 11:00.  Very nice.  Turkey with cranberry sauce and ham with homemade mustard.  And individual pecan pies.  And last night it was roast lamb and mint sauce as well as pork roast and apple sauce.

On the afternoon game ride we entered an area of scattered Kalahari apple trees with meadow interspersed and began to see an amazing number of individual elephants browsing on trees.  Stopped at a waterhole and elephants kept coming out of the surrounding trees to drink.  At this waterhole an elephant marched into the deepest part, squatted down and bathed himself, rolling from one side to the other to cover as much as possible of himself with muddy water (that protects against insects).  It even submerged most of its head, keeping its trunk end above water.  Another elephant unloaded a pile of dung at the very water’s edge.  (“Talk about fouling your drinking water!”)

We continued along, Joe moving us back and forth across this area.  It struck me as likely that we were seeing a herd of some kind moving along in a consistent direction – although the animals were spread out over considerable territory for a single herd.  We came upon two groups of young ones, one group grazing, the other heading for water.   We watched this second group drink.  Altogether quite a few animals.  Joe thought 40.

The guys wanted to return to the enormous meadow of the marsh.  Saw the usual wonders there.  No cats.  The guys wanted to see a leopard, but realized that spotting one would be difficult.  Joe kept driving us through the wooded areas leopards inhabit, but if they were present, they chose not to show themselves

Dinner again with the family of Marianne, a very sweet Afrikaner girl.  Her uncle sat opposite me, chatting easily with the two African guides, Joe and Killer, this latter named for his prowess on the soccer field.  Some of the things the uncle said struck me as very old Afrikaner rather than “the people we want to be.”   (“You want to do the senior job before you’ve learned the junior one, eh?”  The guides laughed.  What else could they do?)  Even so, the uncle seemed to have a real rapport with the guides.  He’s a very nice, easy, friendly guy, an executive in a chemicals business.  At one point he said to me of Kenya and Moi: “It took them 40 years to ruin that country.  They did it in 20 years in Zimbabwe.  In South Africa they’ll do it in five.”

Our last morning in Botswana.  The decision was for a short early morning game run to take full advantage of what was on offer.  We were off shortly after 6:00, all four of us.  Patrolled the wooded areas looking for leopard, that elusive critter.  Went out to the marsh.  Saw virtually nothing.  (There was a nice herd of impala with many young just outside the camp gate as we left, however.  These dominant males seem to make sure that every female in the herd bears offspring.  I asked Joe if dominant males mated with their own offspring.  He nodded yes.  I assume, however, that it’s infrequent for a male to preserve his dominance long enough for his female progeny to achieve sexual maturity.  But maybe not.)

Eventually we did come upon the lions.  The pride with the two cubs first seen in the tree two days before.  The two cubs, a lioness (whom Joe said was the sister of the cubs’ mother; mom was off hunting apparently) and a young male just beginning to sprout a mane.  Joe said he’d be pushed out of the pride soon.

Marianne had a full breakfast for us when we returned.  Her Freddie (with two staffers) was off buying a goat for the staff Christmas party to be held later that day.  On our ride out to the airstrip we passed another dozen elephants browsing.  Amazing sights!

Joe pulled the vehicle across the strip, then moved it into the shade of some low-growing trees.  “Nice of you to show us a snake at the very last moment,” said Bill (who is, in fact, a very adept spotter).  Joe laughed, thinking Bill was joking.  Bill pointed out a snake slithering along a branch very near Joe’s head.  It turned out to be a boomslang (boom = tree, slang = snake), easily recognizable by its large eyes, the deadliest of snakes.  Joe seemed truly shaken to recognize the snake.

An uneventful flight to Kasane, from which we were driven into Zimbabwe.  Chobe Reserve (Botswana) is treed up to the Chobe River.  Then across it in the Caprivi Strip (Namibia) the trees disappear, cut down, one assumes, to permit cattle ranching.  Botswana really seems to have its act together.   A most rewarding six days!

Next post: Come join us at Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe.

1 Comment

  1. Fred

    June 20, 2013 at 10:17 pm

    Hi, Michael,

    On this trip we didn’t do politics. For once. Hooray!


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