Botswana 2016: Mini-Blog
In 2016 we fulfilled a long held ambition; to journey to and through the Okavango Delta in Botswana. I've been fascinated by the Okavango, ever since I heard of a river that never reaches the sea but ends in desert creating a great oasis of open marshland that is refreshed by annual floods that arrive 6 months after the rain falls hundreds of miles away in the uplands of Angola.
Our journey took us through the delta and up to the Chobe river over a period of some 14 days, visiting a variety of the different habitats from the arid savannah that borders the Kalahari desert to the marshlands and channels of the delta itself. We travelled in a small group of 9 with the help of two fantastic and expert guides (Stanley Dubh and Mr Fish) and a team from Capricorn Safaris. A quite excellent and specialist operator of tented safaris based in Maun on the edge of the delta. I can't recommend this form of travelling the delta and other areas of Botswana or Capricorn Safaris enough.
This page is the mini-blog covering all the different animals we saw, watched and, in my case, spent a lot of time photographing. As you browse through the different animals below, click on the title links or the images to go to the full gallery page for that subject.
If you want to skip the mini-blog bit you can use this link to go directly to a list of all the species photographed.
If you want a bit of an orientation to Botswana and the places we visited, see here.
There is, due to a request or two, a blog item here about the photography gear I took on this trip.
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One of the rarest and most endangered species of carnivores in Africa. Consequently, seeing and spending any time with these in the wild amounts to a special and very precious experience. Only distantly related to the modern domesticated dog they are a completely unique and exquisite species. Once widely spread through Africa, Botswana perhaps now provides the best refuge for these remarkable animals.
This was the 'only' cheetah we saw on the trip. The 'only' deserves the inverted commas because they are still pretty rare in Moremi due to past hunting pressures plus they are generally solitary and pretty shy. Nevertheless, the morning light was beautiful and it's great to see them patrolling in their natural grassland environment.
The 'Big 5' of Rhino, Elephant, Buffalo, Lion and Leopard have more to do with the era of big game hunting than they rightfully do with conservation or the objectives of a photographic safari. Unfortunately the Black (and White) Rhinos are critically endangered as a result of hunting and, more recently, large scale poaching. There are Black Rhino in Botswana but not in the areas we travelled to so we never expected to see one on this trip. However, we had the opportunity right at the end of the trip to visit a private reserve in Zimbabwe. Here small number roam free but are heavily, if unobtrusively, guarded. It was a great conclusion to the trip, especially seeing a mother and calf pair browsing and playing in the bush. Despite the measures taken to protect them in this and many other reserves, I couldn't help but feel that with the ongoing war on poaching (and that's not hyperbole) that a 'Last Chance to See' was playing out in front of us. I sincerely hope I'm wrong.
Today, the 'big 5' animals remain powerful, large creatures. They deserve our respect and protection and not fear or misplaced desire to 'conquer the wild' with a large calibre rifle. What made me more optimistic was the number of local people in Botswana and also Zimbabwe who seem to believe the same thing.
For some reason, I'd imagined Leopard's spend a disproportionate amount of their time lounging in the upper branches of spreading Acacia trees. Perhaps that's down to other photos I've seen. It certainly isn't true from our visit to Botswana, We were fortunate to see a total of 5 Leopards in a number of situations; three single individuals and a mother and (large) cub pair but not one in a tree. During the day, they rest and it's only near sunset or sunrise that action begins. In every case, it is both exciting and enthralling to see the largest of Africa's solitary cats.
Just to give an insight to the photos here (notes are also given on the captions), they are spread across these 5 animals and, in order were:
- Moremi reserve, male shortly after sunrise and post kill. It seems that this male and our first sighting had been chased off a kill very recently by Hyenas.
- Khwai Concession, mother and male cub. This pair were resting up with the nearby kill. They seemed to have had no trouble defending it because they were still with it two full days later when we returned. They must also have been well fed as they had not eaten much more of it in that time.
- Moremi reserve, Khwai river. We (well, our guide was) alerted to the presence of a Leopard hiding between a tree and termite mound at dusk by an Impala 'barking' an alarm call at it. As it was spotted, the hunt was over before it began and the Leopard yawned and moved off shortly.
- Savuti Marsh. Another young Leopard hiding in the shade of a tree. It spent a good while resting there before melting into the grass in the cooling late afternoon to, presumably, begin its work of the evening / night.
With looks and an attitude like this, I defy anyone to get bored with seeing 'yet another' leopard.
The Okavango Delta and the Chobe River systems are not just about big animals. They are an amazing haven for birds and spectacular birds at that both large and small. Consequently, this is a break from the 'photogenic mega-fauna' for something a bit smaller and colourful. Hopefully this will keep at least one of our fellow travellers engaged; you know who you are ;-)
This also slots in here because Kingfishers are one of my favourite groups of birds and one that has far more variety in Africa than in the UK. Though that seemed to be true of pretty much everything!
We move on swiftly to African Herons and their close cousins the Egrets. Well, not just African in this case because at least three of these Herons and two of the Egrets (the Grey, Purple, Night, Great and Little) can be seen in the UK. I've only seen three (Grey, Great and Little) before; you will find quite a few UK Grey Herons elsewhere on this site.
Nevertheless, Herons and Egrets are another favourite. Striking birds with a penchant for fish; there is some logic in following Kingfishers after all. Here is a good selection of the different types we saw in the region.
Before we go back to the Big-5 (sorry if you have been waiting), here is a bit of a treat; the Large-Spotted Genet. They are nocturnal so not that easy to see. This one is a pretty regular visitor to a particular tree at one of the lodges so gave me the opportunity to photograph it there without having to roam around the bush at night (generally considered as ill-advised).
With Lions, we get back to the Big 5. This is in two parts because we saw Lions in several places. A little curiously, we didn't see a Lion in our visit to the southern part of Moremi so it wasn't until we reached the northern part near Khwai that we got our first sighting. We saw more in the Savuti Marsh area and then again at the Chobe River. This first group come from those initial sightings at Khwai and Savuti.
A couple of observations here. First, Lion's might be pretty large, but they like to rest in deep shade. Second, contrary to the song, they spend most of the day asleep and resting. Those factors alone mean they are not necessarily that easy to spot. Hence the photo below as a typical intro to your first Lion sighting. We had spent about 20 mins trying to pick out the prostrate sleeping form of these two lions before we got a little action. The action amounting to moving back out into the sun for a bit.
To see things happen with lions, even yawning and stretching or getting a glimpse of acknowledgement rather than complete indifference takes a bit of time and patience. It's time well worth spending though rather than dashing off in the hope of seeing the 'next' thing on the safari list; its probably going to be having a kip anyway!
After a slow start in seeing Lions we saw, we estimate because we lost count a little, over 30 lions and quite a bit of action. The best of the action came at the Chobe River where we saw two attempted hunts, both unsuccessful. The unsuccessful Unfortunate, from my and the Lions' perspectives; no doubt, fortunate from that of the various involved Zebras.
The first hunt, from which the photos here are drawn, occurred at the end of the day at dusk. Typical time for lions to begin hunting. The second was something of an opportunistic ambush that occurred the next morning when three Zebra and a Giraffe almost walked into two resting Lions. Had it not been for the Giraffe spotting them, it's very likely that one of the Zebras would have been lunch. As it was, when a big cloud of dust that obscured the action cleared, revealed was a large, Giraffe frustrated, Lioness standing erect.
I headlined 'Rollers' on the blog when I initially spoke about this journey and there is also one at the top of this page so it felt like I should add a dedicated spot here for them. I wasn't quite sure if there were a couple of roller species in my many photos of these exquisite birds but, it turns out, all the photos are indeed of the Lilac-Brested Roller. It's a common bird in the Botswana savannah but one that it's rather too easy to pass by while looking for the rarities. I think it's always a good idea to take some time out to enjoy the common animals too. Even making the effort, it turns out that I took less photos of these than I'd thought; it's really quite difficult to catch them with the light right.
Talking of common animals that are easy to overlook, here we have the Warthog. The first time you see these animals they are quite a sight and you will be regaled with stories of their extraordinary aggression should you order one. Thereafter, you tend to bypass them as a curiosity. Well worth a look and they are, after all, Mr Fish's favourite; they are apparently very good eating!
From a smallish greyish aggressive animal to a biggish greyish aggressive animal. We move onto the Buffalo. Fourth in our lineup of the Big 5. I'll admit to being a bit ambivalent to the buffalo. We saw a good number across out travels though herds are smaller here that the massive numbers that occur in other parts of Africa. I suspect that, were it not for the fact that these 'beasts' only get any attention because they are so dangerous and aggressive (if interfered with) that they made the game-hunters big 5 dangerous animal to hunt on foot list.
I'd probably quickly change my view though if lucky enough to see them defending themselves or their young against their prime predator - Lions.
We spent an interesting morning tracking buffalo in the hope of catching up with them and some Lions we had heard the previous night. Unfortunately they had moved too far and we ran out of time without seeing either. I'd have to note that, while our guides were expert trackers, I couldn't help but think that Buffalo are far from the toughest tracking challenge. The hardest part in following them was avoiding stepping in the very fresh and somewhat sloppy dung.
The introducing image below is noteworthy because it also shows Red-Billed and Yellow-Billed Oxpeckers on the same animal. We had speculated that they keep apart. Perhaps they do as this is the only shot I have of the two oxpecker species on the same animal and the red left just after the yellow arrived.
Back to big spectacular birds again. This time it's Storks and three species that we saw during the course of the trip. In particular, we saw two of these storks species at heronries, sometimes in big mixed heronries, on the delta where they were completely oblivious to the boat approaching far closer than would be tolerated at heronries in the UK. They just got on with the business of guarding their patch and attracting a mate. Not infrequently a crocodile or two would be awaiting a young fledgling falling into the water.
We saw these spectacular birds everywhere where there was open channels or lagoons on the delta and at Chobe river. I'll never tire of watching big eagles doing their stuff. Unlike the storks, these eagles always seemed a bit more wary of humans. Certainly, on the wing, these and other raptors tended to fly around us giving a decent berth. Perhaps it is because they have such fantastic eyesight and know there is little chance of prey if we are blundering about.
Back to the big guys again with the Hippopotamus. As the delta and other waterways dry through August and into September then the hippos tend to group together. But even so, there is plenty of space still for the hippos to spread out. Another big animal that is mainly active and, in their case out of the water, at night. Consequently, although we saw many hippo, it's quite a treat to see any out on land during the day. Really, they are one of the iconic animals of the delta; you know they are there, even if you can't see them.
I'm a bit surprised to find I've got through this far on this mini-blog without mentioning antelope. They are of course, collectively, the most seen large animals of the savannah, woodlands and marsh/river habitats. So here is a selection of 11 species of the antelope herbivores with a few images of each. I've left out Giraffes as they deserve a separate entry.
One day turned out a bit curious in that we saw three owls in a single day. Of course, we didn't just see owls that day, they were sprinkled through a 'normal' (though it's strange to use that word too) safari drive day. The first was at morning coffee (around 9:30), the second around 4pm and the last at nigh on 6:30 probably just after sunset after we had given up on some lions doing anything before nightfall.
We saw mongooses a number of times while out but they tend to be inquisitive but pretty shy and would tend to disappear pretty sharpish with the arrival of a 4x4 truck. The best sighting of Banded Mongooses we has was the resident family living in the middle of the splendid surroundings of the Victoria Falls Hotel but it's hardly fair to share those! Of the three in this set, undoubtably it's the Yellow Mongoose. Our guide had only see these a couple of times before in 16 years.
First entry on the blog for a primate and it has to be the most common one on the savannah and woodlands, the baboon. We would see baboons quite frequently. In the mornings it would be groups waking up in trees or strung out and moving across the grasslands foraging for food. In the evenings, they would be congregating near roost trees and there would be social grooming and squabbling until they retreated to the trees at dusk.
The big scavenger, we saw the Spotted Hyena at all the open savannah sites we visited. It has the air of a menacing ferocious animal and indeed it is. They will challenge leopards or cheetah for a kill and, in numbers, are a match for a single lion, though generally not a pride, with a kill. Watching a hyena in the dying light of the day cantering across a grassland is a visceral experience.
There is simply no getting round it, it was time to stop avoiding the big guy in the corner and sort the nearly 1600 photos I took of Elephants. We saw elephants in the mophane savannah woodlands, in the delta itself, in Sauvati Marsh (which was very dry and not a marsh at all) and at the Chobe River going down to drink. With 130,000 odd elephants in Botswana there is a problem with increasing over-population of elephants. They can be pretty destructive to the woodlands and have deforested areas turning them from from woods to dry scrub. It has become a topic for discussion: do you manage elephants, if so how, or will there be a natural solution to this? It's not the spot to go into the complexities of that debate but isn't it encouraging to have such a 'problem' of an abundance of these spectacular creatures.
You might also imagine that with that many animals and the photos here that you cannot help but see an elephant. Well, yes you can and do see elephants - quite a lot at times (we saw about 200 or so in one group in Moremi which is massive) but they have an uncanny ability to melt into the woodlands. You can be peering into the mophane trees when, seemingly, an elephant just condenses out of the ether in front of you without a sound. Likewise, they can evaporate into the shadows. Truly awe inspiring. They say you will never forget your first elephant sighting. It's true, it's etched into my memory now.
Another of the heavy brigade, this time the largest antelope. Again a common and unmistakable animal of the plains and woodlands they go about their business largely uninterested in anything else but they do keep an eye out for lions. It was a giraffe with several zebra that raised the alert and stopped a zebra becoming an opportunistic lunch while we watched on.
We switch back from the herbivores for a moment to a couple of carnivore / scavengers. The jackal was a quite common if wary sighting on the various legs of our journey. Unlike many other of the carnivores, it didn't seem to like to approach the trucks closely. By contrast, the Honey Badger is a reputedly fierce animal that is known to have killed / injured buffalo and lions will give then a wide berth. We were keen to see these somewhat elusive nocturnal animals. The first occasion turned out to be in camp as one came in on the scavenge. We were then lucky enough to see them on a couple of further occasions, usually towards dusk; though one of the groups say a couple mid-morning on one occasion.
Well, two of them. The Water Monitor and the Nile Crocodile. The water monitor was definitely on my 'to see' list and we did, thought the opportunity of a decent photo was a bit limited. On one occasion on the Chobe River we got very close to one in a bankside burrow but could only see a curl of it's tail and it wasn't moving anytime it seemed. The crocs were more accommodating and we saw a good number generally basking. Although these are ancient and, I think, mysterious animals (no way you can begin to understand a croc's intentions from looking into its eyes) they are quite spectacular. The skin of the nile croc is particularly spectacularly patterned with greens and yellows.
There are relatively few primates in Botswana, well two if you discount the ubiquitous Homo Sapien. So we conclude the set here with the Vervet Monkey. We saw a good many of these but usually at a distance because they are somewhat wary. This group had been feeding on the fruit (the Jackal Berry) of the African Ebony tree. Having tried it, I can see why. The berry is sweet and has a dry crunchiness but the inner seeds are very hard and inedible. These fruits are a favourite of many animals including humans.
We finish the tour of the 'big' animals and mammals, in appropriately alphabetic order, with the Zebra. If you have any affinity for horses, you can't help but be immediately attracted to the Zebra. So alike the domesticated horse except in two respects. First is the 'dazzle camouflage' pattern hide which is reputed to help confuse predators like lions pick out individuals from the herd. I'm not, having watched lions stalk them, that I'm entirely sure I buy that explanation. Second is that the Zebra has never been domesticated or ridden. We heard that one reason is that they have much weaker spines than horses and can't carry the weight a horse can. Perhaps! Curious fact number 3 is that you never seem to see a hungry zebra. They always seem to have fine fat bellies; reason being is that they are busily fermenting away to digest that grass.
Lots of Birds
The thing about the Okavango, and for that matter the Chobe River that really sets them apart from many other African safari destinations is the shear number and diversity of birds. Now, I'm not a dedicated birder by any means. I think I actually qualify as a 'bad birder' in that I enjoy watching and photographing them but I'm not that good at identifying them and I don't keep records. I'm totally pants at recognising anything from a drawing I saw in a book a while back. But, once seen and watched in the wild and I'll remember it again. I think it has as much to do with the movement and behaviour. Mind you, I much prefer big or spectacular birds. Little brown jobs just don't do it for me, even if they are a challenge. Now, we did have a couple of properly expert birders with us and to give you an idea of the proliferation of birds in this area, they recorded over 150 bird species in Botswana in two weeks. I won't claim to have seen all of those but I couldn't have helped but seen a very large proportion as new ones were being kindly pointed out every few minutes. So, in celebration of that proliferation I'm going to put up a somewhat random further collection of bird galleries just to show that diversity. Here goes...
Ah, not so fast to the group galleries... I very nearly put the four species of vultures we saw into the general gallery of birds of the savannah but then I realised that they deserved their own slot. This is because there is a problem with vultures. No, not the fact that while they are very big birds they are, to most people, both butt ugly and live by scavenging on carrion which itself is a fairly unattractive activity. They and therefore we, have a problem because they are declining rapidly mainly through the action of man. There is more on what's happening in the gallery intro so please don't skip over that bit when you take a look.
Ugly scavengers they may be but they are also fascinating and spectacularly well adapted to their lifestyle in their in their own way so that's another reason they get their own slot.
Here we have a selection of birds not featured elsewhere that live and feed near the water's edge. Many of these are quite large birds like Ibis, Spoonbills and Cranes. But there are smaller, typical wader sized birds to be found here too like the African Jacana (Jesus Bird). Browse and enjoy this selection.
Another collection, this time of birds that live on the open grasslands and in the woodland areas of Botswana. They range from the heaviest flying bird (Kori Bustard) down to the small but ever vibrant bee-eaters. Browse and enjoy.
You made it through to the end of the journey and to a sunset over Chobe. I hope you have enjoyed this voyage through some of the highlights of northern Botswana and a corner of Zimbabwe. If you enjoyed it or had the patience to look through everything that's 29 galleries in total featuring some 90 species and some 325 pictures! By no means is that everything that we saw or you can see in southern Africa and here, I've pretty much completely managed to overlook Tswana, the people of Botswana, and their culture. That's quite a big oversight as Botswana is a pretty special 'beacon' country that we would do well to learn from.
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