Nov 182017
 

My Favorite Out-of-Maun Road

We are again house- and pet-sitting in Maun. While here, we aim to get out once a week for a day trip, what I call a “safari self-drive.” We don’t have to go far out of town to feel like we’re on safari. Wild animals are literally just around the corner—or even just beyond the garden gate.

We headed to what we call the “South Gate Road,” my favorite out-of-Maun road. It’s a sand road that leads to the South Gate of Moremi National Park. We don’t go into the park; we just drive to the gate and turn around. As with National Parks in the US, there are no fences, and the animals roam anywhere they choose, not distinguishing park land from non-park land. Last time we were here, we saw heaps of wildlife along this road, both a wide variety of animals and significant numbers of them—by our standards, anyway. Mind you, African wildlife guides may have different opinions.

Three years ago, we didn’t know what to expect from a day trip out of Maun, and we were blown away each time we ventured out. I’m sure our expectations were higher this time around.

Ch-ch-changes From Three Years Ago

This year, we’re here a bit earlier, more on the tail end of the dry season. Animals may still be congregated around reliable water holes in the park, rather than wandering farther afield. What were semi-permanent puddles along the South Gate Road three years ago are currently dry mud pans.

In addition, the grass, brush, and trees on the first half or more of the drive were recently burned in a wildfire. The terrain is black and barren. I suspect new grass will spring up in profusion when the rain comes, as fireweed does in Alaska, enticing grazers from miles around, but we’re not there yet.

So there wasn’t much wildlife on the whole first half of the drive. Disappointing? Sure. But it was also exciting to see what is now familiar turf, recalling animals we’d seen on previous trips.

And then the scenery turned green. The first large animal to make an appearance was . . .

Male ostrich, South Gate Road, Botswana

Male ostrich outside Moremi NP

. . . an ostrich! Three of them, actually. This guy had two females with him.

Ostriches

Ostriches are cool—and funny, in my experience. Skittish, so we’ve never been especially close. Some seem to have a hair-trigger panic button, which we’ve seen cause comical escape scenes. I think running ostriches are inherently funny. We’ll try to show you. These guys didn’t panic, though.

On the other hand, ostrich necks are a million times more flexible than a giraffe’s neck. They have an admirable grace sometimes. I imagine giraffes have neck envy, and then my brain takes off, making up silly stories where giraffes take ostrich yoga classes, hoping they can one day bend down to drink without splaying their legs. Or I imagine a gorgeous, sweet giraffe joining an ostrich dance troupe and being the much loved but gawky klutz of the group.

Three years ago, I don’t think we saw ostriches here, so this was a nice surprise.

And then there was a pair of . . .

Steenbok male and female, South Gate Road, Botswana

A pair of steenbok

. . . steenboks. These are small antelope, not the smallest of antelopes, but the smallest we’ve ever seen, just 22 inches high at the shoulder. That’s tiny! Imagine even smaller ones—ones half this size.

Steenboks

Steenboks are generally solitary, except during breeding season. That must mean they’re super-brave, right, to be tiny prey animals who forego the safety of herd numbers? And while the female here is looking scruffy, they’re generally sleek—friction-less for great speed. I love the dark lines in the ears that look like veins in a leaf. Lots of antelope have those ear lines.

And then there were the lovely but chronically undervalued impala, rendered common and un-special by their vast numbers and frequent presence. They can be like caribou in Denali NP.

Impala, males, South Gate Road, Botswana

Impala

Impala

But these guys are very cool, too. They wear their hearts on their ankles, for one thing; although, you’ll have to wait until we get a better picture of that particular feature.

What’s a safari without . . .

Elephants under a tree, South Gate Road, Botswana

Ahhh, blessed shade!

. . . elephants? Especially here in Botswana.

Elephants

Do you suppose that it’s still cooler in the shade when you’re smooshed together with a bunch of hot elephants? I suppose it must be or they wouldn’t smoosh like this. Most animals seem willing to smoosh for a bit of shade. The sun can be brutal.

Elephants under a tree, South Gate Road, Botswana

That calf is in good hands . . . or trunks

There were four calves with this group of cows. That seemed like a lot of young ones for a relatively small group. Then again . . .

Elephant cows and calf, South Gate Road, Botswana

Elephant cows and calf

. . . maybe we weren’t seeing the whole group of cows.

How to hide an elephant, South Gate Road, Botswana

How do you hide an elephant? Like this!

At home in Alaska, I’m amazed when a thousand-pound moose disappears in the brush. Here, we’ve got multi-ton and two-story animals disappearing in brush. How crazy is that?! It doesn’t seem possible, but time and again we see it happen.

Zebras

Just before the park gate, five zebras stepped out of hiding to round out our day. These are two of them.

Zebras, South Gate Road, Botswana

Zebras make an appearance

I love those piano-key manes!

The highlight of the day, however, came between the ellies and the zebras.

Sitting giraffe, South Gate Road, Botswana

It’s sitting down! On the ground!

A giraffe. Sitting down!

And not just one giraffe sitting down. In all, we saw four giraffes, three of which were sitting on the ground, legs folded beneath them; although, we couldn’t get all three in a single shot.

Giraffes

Two giraffes sitting, one standing, South Gate Road, Botswana

Two giraffes sitting, one standing

This is special. For starters, we’ve never seen giraffes sitting down. More significantly, they don’t do it very often, at least not in the wild. As with drinking, when they have to splay their legs to reach the ground, giraffes are vulnerable when they sit or lie down because it takes them some time to get up—time that is precious when a lion or leopard is pouncing.

As a result, giraffes spend little time sleeping and even less time sitting or lying on the ground. In the wild, giraffes average 30 minutes of sleep per day, usually getting only a few minutes at a time, and often standing while sleeping. Young giraffes get more sleep, of course. In captivity, a mature giraffe might sleep as much as 4.5 hours while sitting/lying down, head resting on its rump. Those lazy, coddled giraffes!

These giraffes sat for a long time; though, they weren’t sleeping. One was sitting when we arrived, sitting when we left, and still sitting after we’d gotten to the end of the road and turned around. We were probably with them for 30 minutes, at least.

Sitting and standing giraffes, South Gate Road, Botswana

One up, one down

We got lucky again. Not only did we get to watch the long and labored (not really) stand-up process, we caught it on video, so we can share it with you. Check it out—here or on YouTube. It’s 20 seconds long.

And there it is. A relatively slow wildlife-viewing day on a road that was 50% torched.

I can stand being disappointed like this. I wouldn’t mind being this disappointed for the next three-plus months!

Nov 132017
 

Eating elephants. Elephants eating. Say what? Watch and see! The video is less than five minutes long.

If the embedded video doesn’t work for you, you can watch on YouTube. You may want to do that anyway for a bigger image.

More on the Boro River

As I mentioned in the previous post, we got crazy close to some of these elephants—far closer than we would have gotten had Mike and I been on our own—that’s the benefit of traveling with experienced and knowledgeable friends. But the Boro River is narrow—at least it was on this day—so in some cases, closeness couldn’t be avoided. And, of course, we simply moved slowly and quietly and paid attention to the responses of the elephants, which is what we do around any wildlife. If the animals showed signs of discomfort, we moved on. If they didn’t care, we hung out and watched a while.

Man and elephant, Boro River, Okavango Delta, Botswana

It’s Right There! And it’s HUGE!

Up Close with an Elephant’s Trunk

Even though we were so close, I spent time watching the elephants’ mouths and trunks through binoculars. Those trunks are incredible! An elephant trunk has over 40,000 muscles, which scientists somehow divide further into 150,000 individual units. Compare that to human bodies that have a total of just 639 muscles—and no trunks at all! A human hand, which is wonderfully dexterous and maybe the most comparable thing we have to a trunk as it’s used here, does its work with just 34 muscles.

See? Calling a trunk “incredible” is not exaggerating.

Elephant trunk grabbing lilies, Boro River, Okavango Delta, Botswana

I’ll take this batch, thank you.

What we got to see was the trunk selecting batches of grass and/or lilies under water, yanking them out of the earth, aligning them, further preparing them by swishing and slapping them in the water and against their trunks, and then placing them into the mouth. I wonder how often an elephant bites its trunk. You know it happens, just like we bite the insides of our mouths.

Sometimes a trunk stripped roots off a grass bunch or leaves off lily stalks. The elephant at the end of the video ate the whole lily plant, roots, stalk, leaves, and all. Obviously, elephants have personal preferences, but that’s hardly surprising. Show me an animal that doesn’t.

Elephant Teeth

I’ve read that the “washing” is to remove dirt and rocks. Maybe that action is motivated by taste: Elephants don’t like the taste of dirt. Or maybe it’s hardwired: Elephants that do this survive and pass on their genes. Or maybe it’s something else: Cows like bulls that wash their food? Okay, I’m pushing it with that one. 🙂 One result of the action, though, is that the elephants’ teeth are not worn down by grinding dirt and rocks while eating.

Elephant swinging grass, Boro River, Okavango Delta, Botswana

Quit playing with your food!

Elephant teeth are also interesting. They generally rotate through 26 teeth during life. Two incisors, the ripping and tearing teeth, become tusks; the rest are molars or pre-molars, flat chewing teeth, used to grind vegetable matter. Four molars (or pre-molars) occupy the mouth at a time, two on top, two on bottom, so that means an ellie cycles through six sets of four molars in its lifetime.

I’m confused about what the “pre-molars” are. It seems to me that they refer to the first three sets of molars, but in a human mouth, pre-molars are present with the molars, in front of them. My understanding is that the first three sets of molars (12 teeth) take an elephant through the first 9–15 years of life. The latter three sets of teeth, then, must last the elephant the rest of its life, which could be another 50–60 years. They can’t afford to wear out their teeth chewing dirt, sand, and gravel.

Unlike human teeth, which grow upward and downward out of the jaws, elephant teeth grow forward from the back of the mouth. It’s like a conveyor belt of teeth.

Digging Up Roots

Some elephants used their feet to dig out the roots of the lilies. We could see them shuffling their front feet while grabbing with their trunks, and then pulling up a wad of white roots, like a pom-pom. I would expect them to use their tusks to dig, too, but maybe they don’t want to dunk their heads in this case. They certainly dunk them when swimming and cooling off, so it’s not unheard of.

Humans here also harvest lily roots, which are called “tswee.” I’d like to try them, but we’ve never seen them available in a store. We’ll have to look for them elsewhere.

Do you suppose that humans saw elephants harvesting the lily roots and decided to try it? Or might elephants have seen humans harvesting lily roots and decided to try it? Maybe an elephant scared away a human while she was harvesting lily roots and got to eat the ones she left behind, discovering they were delicious. Or do you suppose humans and elephants decided to try lily roots independent of each other, both concluding they were delicious? So many questions! And I have no answers.

Elephant in spray, Boro River, Okavango Delta, Botswana

Splash!

Blog Comments

I love it when you comment and ask questions here! Thank you for that! I’m sorry I was slow to respond to the last batch; apparently, I turned off email notifications for comments, but I think I’ve turned them on again, so I should see them sooner. And I’ll just pay more attention—or Mike will, anyway; he’s good at that. If there’s something in particular you’d like to know or see, don’t hesitate to ask.

Once you’ve had a comment approved here on this blog, your future comments will appear immediately, but I do have to approve your first one.

Many of you already know (Allen, I’m looking at you), but I should say it more than I do: Most photo credits go to Mike. He’s King Photographer, and he has sold photos professionally to the likes of National Geographic and Sierra Club, but it’s not a career he pursues. Some photos will be mine, but even then, at least a little credit goes to Mike because he taught me all I know about photography. I often shoot video while he shoots stills, but one of the clips in this series is from a video he shot. I don’t distinguish who shot what; sometimes we don’t know, and we simply don’t care. We tend to think of it this way: Words are mine; photos are Mike’s. But, really, you can’t be 100% sure in either case.

Nov 102017
 
African elephant ear, eye, tusk, trunk; Boro River, Okavango Delta, Botswana

Guess where we are.

Yopp!

We are here. We are here! WE ARE HERE!

In Maun, Botswana.

We were here three years ago. And now we’re back. It was a trip so nice, we’re taking it twice.

An Adventure Begins

We enjoyed our first foray into the wilds of Botswana, being treated by friends, Ali and Mark, to a boat excursion some 40 miles up the Boro River into the World Heritage Okavango Delta. We snuck in under the wire, as the flood waters are receding and sand bars are rising, which will put an end to boat travel for the season.

  • Knowledgeable, sharp-eyed, well-prepared-with-water-and-food, first-rate company. Check.
  • Expansive scenery full of secrets and surprises to keep a visitor alert and engaged. Check.
  • Shockingly comfortable weather thanks to kind clouds that played with the sun so it wasn’t inclined to play too harshly with us. Check.
  • Birds, reptiles, and mammals to fascinate and entertain. Check.

What a day!

Birds

Birds are Ali and Mark’s wildlife passion. It’s been three years since Mike and I have seen Botswana birds, and this was a nice refresher. I’m pleased to recognize many, though I may or may not remember their names. I especially like it when I see a bird and recall the scene of where and how we previously encountered it. If there’s a story to go with it, even better.

Two birds whose names I actually recalled, were the fish eagle and pygmy goose. The fish eagle reminds me very much of the bald eagles at home, and the pygmy goose is the smallest of Africa’s ducks and one of the smallest in the world. Apparently, it especially likes to eat seeds from the lily flowers, which may explain why there were so many here.

Fish eagle, Boro River, Okavango Delta, Botswana

The fish eagle looks a lot like the bald eagles at home.

Pygmy goose, Boro River, Okavango Delta, Botswana

Pygmy goose, which is really a duck.

The bird highlight of the day, amongst roughly four million sightings, was the Carmine Bee-eater. Bee-eaters may be my favorite Botswana birds: They’re colorful, and they sometimes have cool tails. And I have a story about them from our last visit. The Carmine bee-eaters are scarlet with turquoise on the head and rump. Brilliant!

Carmine bee-eater, Boro River, Okavango Delta, Jen Funk Weber

A carmine bee-eater along the Boro River in the Okavango Delta, Botswana

After lunch, Mark led us on a stroll through some trees, and across a dry, grassy plain to a Carmine nesting site.

Walking to the carmine bee-eater nesting site, Okavango Delta, Botswana

Walking to the carmine bee-eater nesting site, Okavango Delta, Botswana

Normally, these birds nest in banks, but the conditions here are just right for a colony on the ground. Dozens and dozens of adults flew in, beaks full of bugs, popped underground briefly, and then popped back out and flew away. Mark commented that many of the insects being brought in were huge, which suggests the hunters were feeding partners, not chicks. He thought it was too early for chicks.

Carmine bee-eater nesting area, Okavango Delta, Botswana, Jen Funk Weber

Carmine bee-eater nesting area, Okavango Delta

Carmine bee-eater nesting area, Okavango Delta, Botswana, Jen Funk Weber

Carmine bee-eaters. Look at that color!

On the way home, we came upon a flock of vultures perched in a tree. They didn’t look full, which means they were still waiting for dinner, which means the predators were probably still having their fill. We searched and searched, but, alas, could see no kill. It would be stupid to get out and walk around in search of an answer to the mystery, but, boy, that’s what I wanted to do. Oh, to be a hamster in a sturdy ball.

Reptiles

Reptile sightings included five smallish crocs and two monitors. The prehistoric look of crocs, and their potential to be dangerous, makes them fascinating, no matter the size. And the monitors, scrambling to disappear, are funny.

No pics of reptiles this day. Boooooo.

Mammals

Dozens of elephants and lechwe (an antelope partial to wet terrain); several hippos, monkeys, and babboons; and a single giraffe showed up to welcome us back to Botswana. Or they just showed up to eat.

Hippopotamus, Boro River, Okavango Delta, Botswana

A hippo ahead.

Giraffe, along the Boro River, Okavango Delta, Botswana

Ahhhh, the stately, two-story giraffe.

Many groups of lechwes milled and munched about the water’s edge. I said I wanted to see some graceful, athletic leaping, and, what do you know, a couple of groups indulged me!

A group of lechwe along the Boro River, Okavango Delta, Botswana

A group of lechwe along the Boro River, Okavango Delta, Botswana

Leaping lechwe line, Boro River, Okavango Delta, Botswana

Leaping lechwe line

Leaping lechwe, Boro River, Okavango Delta, Botswana

Leaping lechwe

The ellies were the mammal stars, allowing us to get quite close—I’m talking twenty-feet-away close—while they noshed on grasses and lily stalks and roots along the edge of the narrow river.

Female elephant and young, Boro River, Okavango Delta, Botswana

Female elephant and young.

Elephant trunk and lily flower, Boro River, Okavango Delta, Botswana

Advice from a wise elephant: Take time to smell the lilies.

We got close-up views (and video footage) of the tearing, washing, chewing, digging, and more. The sounds were as fun and interesting as the sights: splashing, slapping, chewing, and occasionally the low rumbling that is their talk, a sound that has a vibrating feel to it, too, even for my human ears and body. Unfortunately, the videos picked up more wind and boat sounds than ellie sounds, but there are some.

Elephant swinging grass before eating, Boro River, Okavango Delta, Botswana

Swinging grass and roots pulled from the water.

When the elephants ripped a batch of grass or lilies from the bottom of the river, they slapped the ends on the water and against their trunks and swished the stalks back and forth. When the grass had been thoroughly swung, swished, and slapped, it was ready to eat. I’ve read that they’re cleaning the dirt off the plants. Maybe they don’t like the taste of dirt, but it also helps preserve their teeth, as dirt and rocks wear them down faster than plant material. It’s like us keeping our chainsaw blades out of the dirt.

An Adventure Concludes

As we wound our way home, the day’s clouds gathered together over Maun, exchanging electric gossip and giving us a nice light show. Daylight faded and rain pelted down as we neared home.

We milked every second of light out of the day and were richly rewarded. That set the bar pretty high for our wild-land adventures this time around, but this is Africa. I’m not worried.

Wattled crane and lechwe, Boro River, Okavango Delta, Botswana

I love the many multiple-species-in-a-single-photo opportunities that Africa provides. This is a wattled crane hanging with some lechwe.