SNAKE!

 Posted by  Africa 2017, Travel
Feb 162018
 

Then

Before I came to Botswana three years ago, one of my biggest concerns was snakes. I wondered if I’d feel comfortable just walking around the yard and garden. It turned out I was, even walking in flip-flops and barefoot.

For starters, Pip, the dog, dependably alerted us to any and all garden interlopers, those with two legs, four legs, wings, or none of the above. Add to that the fact that we saw precisely zero snakes in the yard week after week, and, yeah, I romped around freely.

Pip, sadly, is no longer with us.

Now

Today, Missy and Mister, the young dogs in the house, began playing on the deck beside the pool. Nothing unusual there. But then I noticed that while they were lunging and prancing, as they often do, they weren’t lunging and prancing at each other. They were focused instead on something below the bottom step of the veranda.

I got up to investigate, curious but not concerned.

SNAKE!

Cape cobra, young female, Maun, Botswana

SNAKE!

It was small, but the head and hood were up.

COBRA!

Preparedness

We’d been warned about spitting cobras. All the animals, save these two young ones, have had venom in the eyes and know a thing or two about snakes. Was this a spitting cobra? I had no idea. There are other kinds. All the same, I kept my distance and averted my face. Cobras can spit venom as far as three meters.

I ordered the dogs to “leave it” and come to me. Thankfully, with just a little firmness and/or persuasion, they did. Bandit, the cat, on the other hand, walked off the other way. I secured the dogs in the bedroom and alerted Mike, who just the other day commented on not seeing snakes in the yard.

We have a rubber tool like a short whip—a sjambok—that can kill a snake, but it’s probably not even a meter long, so you’d have to be awfully close to the reptile to do it. That’s a bit closer than I want to be to most snakes, but this thing was tiny enough that I actually thought we could handle it. But who wants to kill anything if you don’t have to? Certainly not Ali and Mark, the home owners.

Mark, the Nephew

In addition to having instructions about spitting cobras, we are also armed with a phone number for Ali’s nephew, Mark (not to be confused with homeowner Mark), who loves snakes and is willing to come rescue one, if he’s not out being a pilot or saving rhinos or doing something else interesting and useful. We got lucky. He was home and able to come right away.

Mike kept an eye on the cobra and I kept an eye on Mike while we waited for Mark. As soon as things calmed down, the wee snake put her hood down and slithered off. Not wanting a cobra wandering around the yard, Mike corralled it, preventing it from fully escaping.

So the snake opted for an upward path and slithered toward a nearby short tree . . . under which Bandit sat. Ack! I called for him to come to me, and I used my watch-out, hurry-up voice, but the stubborn cat just looked at me, bored and unconcerned. I didn’t want to lunge for him because I didn’t want to get that close to the cobra and because that would look to the cobra like I was lunging at it, possibly putting it on the defensive, or worse, the offensive. I remained as still as Bandit, and the the cobra slithered on by, not a foot away from the cat, and continued a short way up the trunk. Bandit got up and walked away.

The snake was still on the tree trunk when Mark arrived, and he smoothly and delicately grabbed the snake with his snake grabber. Cue the New Age music. Mark proceeded to gently lay the snake on the ground. It didn’t rear its head up or put up its hood. Everyone was calm and slow and quiet.

Except me, of course. My heart raced, and I wanted to prance and lunge as the dogs had done, but I didn’t.

Kneeling beside the snake, Mark pressed a skinny, insubstantial twig down, just behind the cobra’s head, and walked his fingers slowly up the stick to the cobra’s neck. Then he swapped his finger for the twig, and gently picked up the snake, which wrapped its tail around Mark’s wrist as though holding his hand. She appeared perfectly calm. I imagined her saying, “Thank goodness you arrived! These people don’t speak snake. How can you be in Africa and not speak snake?”

Mark Flatt with young cape cobra

Yeah. It was really that big!

Hey, I said it was small. Actually, it’s about 14 inches long. And it’s a young female. And it’s not a spitting cobra but a “highly venomous” cape cobra, which grows to be about five feet long. That wee thing could seriously hurt or even kill us and/or the dogs.

ZOIKS!

The guidebook also says it “readily bites.” I am so relieved the dogs escaped unharmed.

Mark slid the cobra into a pillowcase and tied the top in a knot. He will drive her out into the Bush to live happily ever after, away from people.

So, after about four total months or so living on this property, counting three years ago and this year, we saw our first snake in the yard. Exciting, eh? The story should end here, right?

Well, guess what: It doesn’t.

The Story Continues

The dogs and I were doing our before-dinner walk around the garden. The young ones were racing ahead as the old one and I cut a corner. My eyes were fairly glued to the ground as we walked, noting every stick and seedpod. When my eyes screamed at my brain, snake!, my brain thought it was a joke or a signal that had taken a detour through my imagination.

I stepped a wee bit closer, shielding my face with my hands, and looked harder. Told you so, brain, it’s a snake!

The young dogs were oblivious, but the old dog, Gib, who doesn’t move quickly anymore, was right by my side, determined to take the shortest way back to dinner, which was straight over the snake.

Once again, my fervent gestures (Gib is deaf) persuaded the dog to come to me, and we went around the snake. I whistled for the youngsters, who came obediently, as there was nothing curious competing for their attention, and all the dogs were contained, out of harm’s way.

“Mike, you won’t believe it, but there’s another snake in the yard.”

I called Mark again but got no answer . . . and no voicemail. A message after the series of rings said something like I had a bad number, but the voice was accented, and I didn’t fully understand the words. I dialed another two times, hoping to leave a message, but always getting the same result.

The snake was surprisingly mellow. In fact, we wondered if it was dead, but it moved slightly when poked with a stick. We decided we might be able to get it into a pillowcase ourselves, even without a grabber. I watched the snake as Mike rounded up a pillowcase and the sjambok. I suggested we put the pillowcase in a trash can or bucket, so no one was holding it while we dropped the snake in. The snake waited patiently while Mike rounded up a trash can.

On the third try, Mike had the snake balanced well enough on the sjambok to get it into the pillowcase. Now who wants to touch the pillowcase and tie the top in a knot? Neither one of us, but I picked it up and Mike gingerly tied the knot. We draped the pillowcase over the edge of a large trash can and put the lid on top, pinning the knot so the snake and pillowcase dangled over the edge on the inside of the can.

The phone rang. It was Mark. “I see I missed three calls from you.”

Ahem. Nice, patient guy, Mark.

I told him about our second snake, describing it as about 18 inches (46 cm) long, solid gray-black, small head. I said we had it snugly ensconced in a pillowcase for the night, and he promised to pick it up in the morning.

I swore I wasn’t going outside anymore today, but, of course, the dogs had to go out before bed, so I lied. I took the brightest flashlight we had for the night stroll, and stayed out only as long as it took Gib to take care of business.

In the morning, Mark opened the pillowcase for a peek at the new specimen. Only now did we attempt to get a photo, and it was a pretty lame attempt. Sorry, you get proof of a second snake, but no good look.

Purple-glossed snake, Maun, Botswana

The second snake of the day

Purple-glossed snake, closer

Same #2 snake, closer

On first glance, Mark wasn’t sure if this beauty was a harmless purple-glossed snake or its dangerous lookalike, a burrowing asp, which has long fangs and painful venom and cannot be held safely behind the head. Looking closely at the head scales, he thought it most likely the purple-glossed snake. My guidebook says the purple fellow is slow and rarely bites. He was certainly slow last night. (I don’t actually know it was a he. We didn’t look.)

Can That Please Be All?

And now the story ends.

With luck, we won’t have any more snakes in the yard, but you can bet I’ll be looking. And probably wearing sneakers instead of flip-flops.

Maun Oasis

 Posted by  Africa 2017, Travel
Jan 102018
 

In between weeks of travel and exploration here in Botswana and Namibia, we are fortunate to relax and regroup in Maun where we have friends. We call their home an oasis, and it really is. See for yourself here, or watch over on YouTube. The video is 3:17 long.

Music: Ode to the World, provided by Kai Engel.
Photos: All from Mike Weber
Oasis: Mark Muller and Ali Flatt

Jan 042018
 

A Daily Dozen Post

Twelve photos of our day, selected from 616 photos.

Last time we were here in Botswana, we didn’t spend a lot of time on the west end of Chobe National Park. This time, we’re spending several nights out here, so we can explore this area more thoroughly. We’re farther away from the Chobe River; the flood plain is now a plain plain, where zebra and giraffe play.

One theme of the west end is “fewer,” in a “less is more” sort of way:

  • There are fewer tracks to explore. Mike figured it would be a shorter day today. Mike was wrong.
  • There are fewer animals. Fewer than a gazillion, however, is still a lot.
  • There are fewer people. Awesome! In fact, we didn’t see another car until late in the day when we came back to the main track, and then we saw just a few.

Gate 1

The fun started as we signed in at the two gates. Not one, two.

The first gate is on the paved road connecting Muchenje to Kasane. It’s the main thoroughfare, but it goes through the park. The two officials stood outside the hut, and when we pulled up looking clueless, one pointed and made hand signs indicating we needed to go inside the hut and sign in. Mike and I both understood the signed message. I nodded and waved back.

Inside the hut were four books clearly marked to sign in or out; one set for residents; one set for tourists. The two workers remained outside while drivers self-served. I was alone when I entered the hut, but I met a crowd as I came out. They were all going the opposite direction; none were coming into the park.

I had to register and sign in again a very short distance away at the park. I also had to pay 290 Pula (Botswana currency). I asked if they had change; although, I was pretty sure I knew the answer already. They did not have change. Yep, that’s what I figured. So I plopped my Ziploc of change on the counter. Two of the three people in the building gasped and asked simultaneously, “Where did you get that?!”

In this place where I am dazzled by multi-ton elephants and hippos and two-story giraffes, the locals are stunned by a bag of change. I pretty much always have a change bag on hand, even at home. It comes in handy, especially in remote places. I’d been collecting change during our three weeks in Maun.

As a woman filled out my permit, a man counted out 90 Pula in change to go with my 200-Pula bill. He deflated when I tried to thrust 20- and 10-Pula bills on him, and I asked, “You’d rather have the change?” He brightened and said “yes,” so I took the small bills back and let him count some more. That put a major dent in my stash, but we’re headed to Namibia next and won’t need Pula for a while.

I’ll grant ya, Muchenje is some distance from a bank, but it’s no farther than Glacierview, AK, is from Palmer. And no one has change. They didn’t have change at the Park office on the east end—and there are banks there in Kasane. I’m willing to cut the west end some slack, but not having change on the east end is lame.

The Park!

And then we were in the park, exploring all the sandy and rocky 4WD tracks on the maps and our GPS.

We started with all the usual suspects: Impalas, warthogs, kudu, birds, etc. Just because I’m not showing pics of them doesn’t mean they aren’t important or appreciated, but the self-imposed 12-photo limit means I can’t show everything, so I’m sticking with the coolest and most important stuff. For instance, I’m sure you don’t want to miss this:

A Dead Giraffe

Dead giraffe, Chobe National Park, Botswana

Haven’t seen one of these before

Watching animals die in predator/prey situations can be traumatic, but once an animal is dead, I find the carcass interesting. I was thrilled to discover this dead giraffe; I hoped it would satisfy my urge for a good size assessment. I keep hoping one will stand close beside the truck—or beside me at something like an Elephant Sands for giraffes.

But this didn’t work at all to satisfy that urge. It turns out a prone giraffe does not present a good idea of the size of a standing one. Would someone please stand this thing up for me?

It was still fascinating, though, to see it so close. I’m thinking this one just up and died on its own, as opposed to being killed by a predator. The neck and legs were uneaten, and I would expect a prey animal to be pretty well consumed. But I’m just guessing.

Did you ever think that maybe an animal carcass could make a nice house?

No? Then I suspect you’re not a skink.

Striped Skinks

Striped skink in giraffe skull, Chobe National Park, Botswana

“Mornin’, Ralph.” “Mornin’, Sam.”

I have to say, I like the idea of a picture book with characters that live inside a skull, go to school in a rib cage, and so on.

Based on my animal guidebooks, these appear to be two male striped skinks in bright mating colors.

Double Dung-Beetle Balls

Dung beetles on dung ball, Chobe National Park, Botswana

Teamwork?

Say it out loud: “double dung-beetle balls.” It’s fun to say, no?

You met Sisyphus, the dung beetle, in a recent post. We see a good many dung beetles, and have been known to turn them over when they get stuck and flail about on their backs after crashing into lights or other mishaps, but today we saw dung-beetle pairs. This photo isn’t a one-off. We saw a dozen or more of these today: two dung beetles on a baseball-sized dung ball. In every case, one dung beetle did the handstand and rolled the ball while the other rode the ball, round and round, wobbling this way and that, and sometimes being rolled beneath the ball.

What is up with that?!

Are these mated pairs? Just friends? Will these dung balls feed twice as many young? Is the rider navigating? Do they take turns pushing?

Inquiring minds want to know, right? As a result, I think there will be a solo, more in-depth post all about dung beetles. Although, I don’t suppose the local in the parking lot of Spar (grocery store) who scolded me for turning a dung beetle right-side-up will care to read it.

I’m not the only one who thinks dung beetles are all right . . .

Banded Mongooses

Banded mongoose family, Chobe National Park, Botswana

They can’t see me—they can’t see me—I’m pretty sure they can’t see me . . .

. . . banded mongooses think they’re yummy!

None of these are actually eating a beetle in the photo, but all of them would.

You know who else dines on these giant beetles?

Lilac-breasted Rollers

Lilac-breasted roller, Chobe National Park, Botswana

Such cool colors!

Yep, these beautiful, bright birds snarf down dung beetles. I imagine that, like the mongoose, the bird doesn’t eat the crunchy exoskeleton, but rather breaks into the soft insides.

Ground Hornbill

Ground hornbill, Chobe National Park, Botswana

Down the hatch

Now check out this ground hornbill. See the black blob near the front of his open maw? This guy is throwing back a dung beetle, exoskeleton and all. Nom-nom-nom. Gulp.

Jackal

Jackal with prey, Chobe National Park, Botswana

Mmmmm, a delicious rat!

Since we’re on the subject of yummy food, including elephant poo . . . .

This is one of three pups following a mama jackal across the plain. The three little ones stopped for a few bites of fresh elephant poo, and mama kept moving right along. She disappeared in some brush and was gone for a while, returning with a long-tailed something—probably a rat—in her mouth. She dropped it on the ground in the vicinity of her offspring and trotted off again.

I don’t know how the three pups decided which one would get the rat—I didn’t see any rock-paper-scissors going on—but it was not shared.

Note: This also goes down as the first rat we’ve seen in Botswana! I wish I knew exactly what kind of rat it was.

Kudu and Babboon

Kudu and babboon, Chobe National Park, Botswana

“You kids kudus get offa my lawn!”

Okay, that’s just funny. Imagine this kudu in the babboon’s yard, browsing on lovely ornamentals.

This is a tiny babboon, not a giant kudu. I think the babboon looks Photoshopped in, but it’s not.

Hot Croc

Crocodile on the grass bank, Chobe National Park, Botswana

Hot croc

Not a hot pot or a crock pot, just a hot croc. The open mouth is a cooling action, but I have to believe it’s not as effective as submerging in the river, which, yanno, is Right There.

Giraffes

Giraffe standing, giraffe sitting, Chobe National Park, Botswana

Giraffe and a half

When it rains, it pours. Here’s another sitting giraffe! Did my book lie to me? Is this not as uncommon as the book made it sound? I’m watching, and I’ll let you know how often I see giraffes sitting. This is twice now, four giraffes, total, which, given the number of giraffes we’ve seen, isn’t all that many. Huh. Maybe my book didn’t lie, after all.

Get a load of the giraffe head, looking up from under its chin. It looks a bit like a puffer fish, don’t you think?

Zebras

Zebra stripes, Chobe National Park, Botswana

Plain stripes

Such cool patterns!

Babboon Baby

Chacma babboon baby, Chobe National Park, Botswana

Awwwwwwww

Jan 012018
 

Black-capped chickadees are year-round residents of Alaska. Those tough little birds survive our sometimes brutally cold winters by huddling together at night, same as penguins do in Antarctica, and many birds elsewhere. For years, I’ve been on the lookout for a huddled mass of chickadees on a cold winter’s night, but I’ve never seen one.

That’s part of the reason I was so excited when Mike discovered a small group of white-fronted bee-eaters roosting together on a flimsy branch in our campsite along the Okavango River.

Four white-fronted bee-eaters roosting at night, Okavango River, Botswana

Bee-eaters roosting on a skinny little branch

Mike was just looking around when he noticed a dark mass in the silhouette of a tree’s branches. A flashlight revealed this foursome. Shining the light around the rest of the tree revealed two more roosting pairs.

Those branches are long and skinny. When the wind blows, they wave and shake, and the wind blew, though never terribly hard.

The birds were still there the next morning when we got up. Yes, we get up early. And for the next three nights, at least one pair shared our campsite, usually in the same tree, but not always. We looked forward to seeing them in the evening.

White-fronted bee-eater pair perched for the night, Okavango River, Botswana

A pair of perched pals

Now, it’s not all that cold here at night, not at this summer time of year, so I would guess this is more social than necessary for warmth; although, I don’t suppose they mind the extra warmth. I wonder if they roost in larger groups during winter.

And I wonder how many chickadees are necessary for a huddle to get through an Alaska night. Does anyone know?

Dec 292017
 

A Daily Dozen Post

That means 12 photos from our day . . . out of the 551 we took. Plus 29 videos. Yes, I counted. This is our second day in Chobe National Park, which should make it easy, right? Because we saw it all yesterday. What could possibly be left?

Kudu (and Impala)

Kudu male, Chobe National Park, Botswana

Winner of the Best Antelope Horns Award

Kudu: The antelope with the milk mustache and pince-nez.

Many antelope have cool horns, but kudu have the coolest of the cool horns. They are popular decor items, as is, or incorporated into lamps and furniture. They are also hollowed out and polished into musical instruments and signal horns—a horn horn. Mind you, they’re not like antlers that fall off annually. Horns are on the animal until it dies . . . or is broken off, which happens.

Impala with broken horn, Chobe National Park, Botswana

Whoops! Crap, I’m going to be reminded of that mistake forever.

The barely-there stripes on the kudu’s back are either camouflage or frosting drizzles to make them more appealing to lions and leopards. Or maybe they’re . . . oxpecker (ahem) residue.

Male kudu with oxpeckers, Chobe National Park, Botswana

How the kudu got its stripes

The frequency with which we see oxpeckers on kudu makes this last explanation the most likely.

Impala

Wonder how that impala might have broken his horn? I have an idea . . .

Sparring impala, Chobe National Park, Botswana

It’s only fun until someone loses a horn

Or maybe he was kicked by a giraffe.
Or maybe he tripped over a log, got his horn stuck in an ant hill, and had to break it off to extricate himself.
Or maybe a croc bit it off while the impala was drinking.

We’ll just have to keep wondering, I guess.

And speaking of crocs . . .

Croc and Spur-winged Goose

Spur-winged Goose and Crocodile, Chobe National Park, Botswana

Shhhhhhhhh!

Tiptoeing past the crocodile on the bank. Silly goose.

We saw a ton of crocodiles! Huh. I was speaking figuratively, but that’s probably literally true, as well.

Waterbuck

Waterbuck, female, Chobe National Park, Botswana

Heart nose + Target tail = Waterbuck

A cow waterbuck. That seems like an oxymoron, and “bull waterbuck” seems redundant. Can’t we just call them waterboks, like steenboks, springboks, gemsboks, etc?

The “water” part of the name comes from the fact they they don’t wander far from permanent water sources, needing to drink daily. Apparently, they are also decent swimmers and will take to deep water sometimes when threatened. I’ll bet the crocs love that. We have, indeed, always seen them around water, but we’ve never seen them swimming.

Don’t you love the white heart around this lady’s nose?

Why are waterbucks always invited to birthday parties? So attendees can play Pin the Tail on the Waterbuck! Why do you think that ring is there? Du-uh!

Lions

As we cruised the Chobe floodplain, I recognized a dead and down tangled tree that I’d noted yesterday. It’s the kind of tree a gal can play on for hours, the kind of tree that ought to house some sort of animal, or perhaps an entire family.

I was so excited to see the tree, I might have missed . . .

Young male lion, Chobe National Park, Botswana

It’s a boy!

. . . the lion outside my open window!

Luckily, Mike spotted him.

We’d just been glassing across the river to where a single lion remained, tugging on the now flat, hardly visible elephant carcass. Yesterday, Mike wondered aloud how long that elephant might last the lions. We have our answer: one day.

This lion was probably one of the four “lionesses” we watched through the binoculars yesterday, but—surprise!—it’s not a lioness: It’s a young male lion. His mane is starting to come in.

Male lion licking paw, Chobe National Park, Botswana

Still a bit muddy

As we watched him, another lion—a lioness—strolled down from the brush and sprawled out near him, in the open. It was a coolish, somewhat cloudy day, so shade wasn’t imperative.

Snoozing lioness, Chobe National Park, Botswana

Check out those giant paws

We didn’t find the two small cubs.

Lion on camera, Chobe National Park, Botswana

Click

And we totally forgot to get a picture of that super-cool tangled tree, which I was asking Mike to do when he spotted the lion. Sigh.

Elephants, at Last!

Elephant pulling tail, Chobe National Park, Botswana

Get back here, you! I’m not finished!

Ha! Found ’em! The elephants are on the west end of the park just now. It’s greener out there.

The ones closest to the road were youngish sparring bulls. So much pushing and pulling and harumphing, but all in rather slow motion.

Enough!

When we were here three years ago, I occasionally found myself feeling worn out, saturated, overwhelmed with wildlife sightings. I couldn’t process them all.

That’s how I felt today. We drove through the entire park, east to west. After camping in Kasane as we explored the east end of the park, we pulled up stakes (literally) to camp in Muchenje while we explore the west end of the park. Today, we enjoyed nine hours of cool wildlife, beautiful scenery, and rough roads. Exhausting!

During the last stretch, when we thought we were past all the fun stuff, we happened upon a giant eagle-owl. Then, as we hurried to find our way in the last light of day to a not-well-signed place we’d never been, something ran across the road. We knew from the movement of the silhouette what it was, and of course we were going to stop and watch.

Muchenje leopard, Botswana

The thrills keep coming, even outside the park

But it was already hunting, watching the woods intently, never once looking our way. Then it dashed out of sight. We were okay with that; truly, it was enough.

Dec 102017
 

And we’re off for some sightseeing.

We got an early start but had to turn around before we got far down the road to return the keys that remained in my pocket.

Today we are headed to Nata Bird Sanctuary and Elephant Sands. We weren’t far out of town when we spied our first black-backed jackal and then giraffes on the road.

Giraffes in the road, Botswana

Giraffes on the road. We don’t see that in Alaska!

Nata Bird Sanctuary

Friends, Ali and Mark, launched their boat at the Nata Bird Sanctuary in May when the water was high and birds were nesting. Three hundred millimeters in rain in February was a boon that brought the water level up to an impressive level, and they were eager to see how far it has receded. About a meter, they figure, based on our photos.

When we stopped at the gate, the woman tending it said, “You won’t see anything; it’s too hot.”

We’ve heard that before . . . and then been gobsmacked by the quantity and variety of wildlife spotted. Of course, this woman is used to seeing the place full to the brim with birds and other animals, so to her what we saw probably was “nothing,” but we measure with a different scale. We have never seen the place before, and the few animals that remained were fun and satisfying to see. They kept us entertained for a quick two hours. Besides, we were partly there for research purposes, to see how much water was in the pan in early December.

The surrounding area was dry, dry, dry. In fact, a number of fires burned nearby, hemming us in with stacks of black smoke. We thought twice about our plan when we saw orange/red flames. The wind wasn’t blowing toward the road, so we kept going. I don’t know if those were wildfires, maybe caused by lightening, or if they were deliberately set to clear the land of dry brush. No one was attempting to put them out.

Wildebeest, Ostriches, Flamingos, and Pelicans

Winding our way through the parched, sandy landscape of the sanctuary, we first saw wildebeest in the distance. A steady breeze created a Krummolz effect on the mohawks of the wildebeest, which I thought was striking and funny. As we crept closer, one wildebeest walked apart from the group and stood huffing at us, making a sound like blowing across the skinny top of a whiskey bottle. I couldn’t decide if it was a sound made for us or simply a heat-related panting sound. He continued to make the sound as we moved off, so I’m leaning toward the latter explanation. We found yet another group enjoying a small pan of water.

Wildebeest at the water hole, Nata Bird Sanctuary, Botswana

Wildebeest at the water hole, Nata Bird Sanctuary, Botswana

We also spied ostriches, males and females. These are females.

Female ostriches, Nata Bird Sanctuary, Botswana

Female ostriches, Nata Bird Sanctuary, Botswana

None of the animals were doing much, conserving their energy in the heat of the day. As we watched the wildebeest and ostriches, we scanned the pan and discovered a bunch of flamingos and pelicans, as well as terns, stilts, and other water birds.

Flamingos feeding, Nata Bird Sanctuary, Botswana

Nomnomnomnom

Pelicans in Nata Bird Sanctuary, Botswana

A pod o’ pastel pelicans

Elephant Sands

The next stop and our destination for the evening was a private camp called Elephant Sands, which offers camping, chalets, a restaurant, bar, and pool. Oh yeah, and elephants. Wild elephants, but habituated to the place and people, to be sure.

According to rumors and advertising, there has never been a problem between the animals and people, and I find that amazing. Much credit to the elephants for their tolerance. Just driving in, we met two other vehicles also arriving. One was another group of self-drive campers and the other was a sedan with a large family. We came upon elephants in the road, and the sedan seemed flummoxed about what to do. Their windows were down and they were loud and excited, bouncing in their seats and gesticulating. I wanted to hush and still them. They backed up, seeming afraid to get too near, but when the other truck moved slowly by, the sedan followed. Except it sped by, or sort of lurched by, eager to get past the ellies ASAP, rather than moving slowly and smoothly. Oy. We watched a bit then slowly moved on. The elephants took it all in stride, loud people and uneven, unpredictable speeds, included.

The Elephant Sands water hole is human made and maintained. Right now, it’s a mud hole with a trough that is fed water. It seems the water-filling speed, however, is slow, slower than elephants can drink, anyway.

We arrived in the late afternoon, in the heat of the day. The dozen elephants milling about the trough seemed only able to drink from one end, in what appeared to be a small hole. Elephants—all of them male—jostled for position and access, rumbling, growling, charging, pushing, blocking, and intimidating others with stare downs.

Elephants sharing the water hole, Elephant Sands, Botswana

Sharing nicely. Or not.

As we watched from the open platform around the pool, just beyond the open-air bar and restaurant, one bull clearly dominated. He didn’t budge from his uphill position by the hole except to lean on someone else to push him aside, or to occasionally growl and swing about to force everyone else to back off a little. He drank and drank and drank. Others squeezed in downhill and from the sides as they could.

See the elephants vie for drinking rights, or watch on YouTube. The video is 1:20 minutes long.

And then a more dominant bull arrived and the first Big Bully stepped away. He put up no argument at all, just moved around to the downhill side and staked out a new position there.

How does it work?

Strategically placed concrete pyramids with re-bar sticking out of them prevent elephants from walking onto the platform or getting close enough to the ablution blocks to reach inside to toilet tanks and shower heads. The system is rather like the spikes people put on window sills, roofs, and moorings to keep birds off them: These are spikes on the ground that elephants don’t care to walk on.

Toilet with elephant outside, Elephant Sands, Botswana

I know there’s another water hole in there!

Other than keeping the elephants away from buildings, though, there are no barriers. Walking from the vehicle to the platform or a cabin or an ablution block, you can cross paths with an elephant. An elephant can park anywhere a car can park. Elephants can even sit around the campfires or use the braais (BBQs) if they have a mind to.

Mike at Elephant Sands, Botswana

No barriers between us and the elephants

Watch them come into the water hole here or on YouTube. The video is 1:12 minutes long.

We set up our tent with the truck on one side and a braai behind, giving us more solid barriers on two sides, in case, you know, an elephant couldn’t see the tent or something. On one hand, I was fairly confident that an elephant would walk around a tent rather than through it. We trust moose and bears to walk around tents in Alaska, after all. But we also own tents with bear prints and claw holes in them. Wild animals are a gamble.

Elephant in our campsite, Elephant Sands, Botswana

Yep, that’s where we camped, right behind this elephant

The other two campers had roof-top tents, as many campers here do. While it’s true that an elephant isn’t likely to walk on a roof-top tent, it wouldn’t be protection from an angry elephant. An angry ellie could push over a truck or pull down a tent from the top if it were so inclined. I do not believe ground camping to be comparatively unsafe. Not at all.

We took several breaks while setting up our tent to hold still and be quiet as elephants walked by to the water hole. A couple were a mere fifteen feet away from us at times. At one point, I was squatted inside the tent, laying out the bedding, when two elephants having a tiff shoved one another our way. Mike suggested I get out when it was convenient, until they moved off. Getting shoved into the tent by a pushy mate . . . well, maybe.

And for the record, no elephant took issue with our tent raising, but one did turn to face, stare down and shake his head grumpily at one of the roof-top campers when the noise of the hydraulic lid disturbed him. So there. Clearly, elephants prefer ground campers.

We set up our chairs in front of the truck and spent the evening watching the elephant channel. The main ellie highway went behind the ablution block, but ellies wandered in and out from every direction, between cabins and tents, around the restaurant and platform, and fifteen feet away from where we sat. Seriously. That’s close! At one point, I was stading by the truck with my arms full of water bottles and I don’t know what, and Mike was coming back from the ablution block. I was watching the highway behind the block when Mike nodded at something behind me. An elephant approached from the other side of the truck. He walked casually around the truck and turned to face me head on. He, too, was a mere fifteen feet away, so close I was compelled to talk in my quiet, calm, calming voice, “Hello there, fellow. It’s all right. Everything’s fine.”

Jen watching elephants arrive at Elephant Sands, Botswana

Watching elephants arrive on the highway

I wasn’t wrong. He appeared completely relaxed—more so than I, most likely—just checking me out, maybe saying hi. He didn’t pause long before turning and heading to the crowd at the water hole.

Elephant at rest, Elephant Sands, Botswana

An elephant at rest

As night came on, more and more elephants arrived and left, arrived and left, with over 20 at the hole most of the time. With more elephants present, the pushing and growling increased. While we watched, none of the elephants stumbled blindly into the tent, alleviating Mike’s concern, so eventually we brushed our teeth and went to bed. We continued to hear close footfalls, more distant stomping, growling, and occasional trumpeting well into the night, but by cool morning all was silent, and the elephants were gone. We broke camp leisurely and hung around a bit but saw just two elephants before we left; each had the water hole to himself.

The second fellow had either an injury or birth defect toward the end of his trunk. It looked as though something had taken a couple of big bites out of it, though it was well healed now. At the top of the gap in trunk was a hole that went all the way through so that liquid spilled out when the elephant sucked water in or blew it into his mouth. At first, we thought he was just a messy drinker, but closer inspection revealed the flaw.

Elephant who sprang a leak, Elephant Sands, Botswana

Old Leaky Trunk

Wow! What a treat to be so close to such enormous multi-ton wild animals. But I have a question: Why don’t other animals come into this water hole? Is the trough designed in such a way that only elephant trunks can access it? I should have asked someone there, but I didn’t. I’m asking you. Ideas? Anyone?