Nov 242017
 

Our second day trip from the Maun homestead was to the Khwai River. We headed out toward the South Gate road, on the horrible, headache-inducing corrugated and soft-sand road, but went right at the Y instead of left and then continued on a good deal farther.

Getting There

Our first wildlife sighting was a parade of 13 elephants, marching one-by-one across the road, with the tiniest calf smack dab in the center of the procession.

African elephant crossing sand road, Botswana

Elephant crossing

As a species, African elephants are classified as vulnerable, with their numbers increasing. In this particular area, though, they are abundant. When we’re not seeing elephants, we often see elephant signs, like broken trees and tree crumbs strewn across the ground.

African elephant and broken tree, Botswana

Elephant and elephantized tree

When we were here three years ago, I marveled at surviving 4.5 months and I-don’t-know-how-many thousands of miles on rough roads and rocky/sandy non-roads without getting a single flat tire.

This time around, we didn’t survive two relatively easy out-of-town drives. The main sand road is rough, to be sure, but it’s sand. And the flat occurred after backing up in soft sand to look at an elephant.

Flat tire in Africa

Mike gets to work changing the flat

Thankfully, Mike is a champion tire-changer. If you ever drive with him up the AlCan or across the Lower 48 or around Alaska, he can and will point out the many places he’s had a flat. He’s done a lot of driving, and often on less-than-ideal American tires. African tires, by the way, are a cut above American tires, built to withstand extreme heat and tough road conditions. Notice, too, that there are two spares on this safari vehicle.

Now, don’t go thinking I didn’t help. Who do you think took the picture? And who do you think was watching out for lions and leopards? That’s right. I had an important job to do, too.

With two spare tires, we didn’t hesitate to continue on.

And then there were . . .

Waterbucks, Botswana

Waterbucks, the shaggy antelopes

. . . waterbucks, which are the peaceful, long-haired hippie antelopes.

A bit farther down the road, we came across this:

Dead elephant along the road, whole

What is that?

This thing was close enough to catch our eyes and be clearly visible without binoculars, but far enough away that we didn’t immediately know what it was. My first thought was that it was a giant gray rock, but there were no other such rocks around. “Is that a dead elephant?” I asked. “I think so,” Mike answered.

Further scrutiny confirmed that notion.

Dead elephant, head labeled

Can you make it out now?

Oh, how I wanted to walk over and get a good look. The skin and bones looked desiccated, so it wasn’t a fresh death or kill, but it was just far enough away, and there were just enough trees and brush around, that we didn’t feel completely comfortable walking away from the truck. (Lions and leopards, y’all. Remember?) I know there’s not a lion under every bush or a leopard in every tree. I walk around in the AK Bush where there are bears. But still. We didn’t go.

Now, if Ali and Mark had been there and thought it was okay, I’d have been out there in a heartbeat. Without running, of course. Whatever you do, don’t run. But we played it safe and enjoyed the view we had.

Just down the road, the stench confirmed again our conclusion, if you harbor any doubts.

A Certain Spot on the Khwai River

Soon, we arrived at our destination: a particular stretch of the Khwai River, which is a smallish river. Here, we found lovely scenery and a variety of wildlife.

Multi-species scene in Botswana, zebras, waterbucks, wildebeest

Lovely scenery and mingling species

Multi-species photos are quintessential Africa to me. Maybe you can make them out, or not, but this group is comprised of zebras, wildebeest, and waterbucks, with an egret in the foreground. And that’s just the background of the scene.

In the foreground, we have . . .

Hippos, Khwai River, Botswana

Hippos doing what hippos do

swamp sausages! Also known as hippos, or maybe hippopotami.

Enormous (up to 13 feet long, 5 feet tall, and weighing 3.5 tons), cranky, and fierce as they are rumored to be, they crack me up. The my-mouth-opens-wider-than-your-mouth posturing is awfully silly, don’t you think?

Twice as we watched the hippos, something somewhere startled the smaller, more distant ungulates. (Hippos are ungulates, too.) Several impala and a single lechwe charged right past us in their panic.

Impala individual, Botswana

Look at that skinny neck and head!

All right, this one’s not charging in this particular moment.

While we watched the hippos and enjoyed lunch, Mike considered reminding me of the close encounter we had three years ago with an elephant right on the curve ahead of us. Before he got the words out, though, an elephant strolled up, not too far in front of our parked truck. Do you suppose it’s the same one?!

Elephant drinking at the Khwai River

She dumps out the water from the top of her trunk

She just wanted a drink. Between each squirt-gulp, she dumped the last bit of water from her trunk. You know, like dumping remains from the bottom of the glass. It makes sense to me: Who wants to drink the water that’s been way up in your nose?

We pulled ahead to the next bend in the river, leaving this lovely lady to do her thing. When we turned around to leave not long afterward, we might have had another close encounter, but we spotted Ms. Ellie browsing on the road and took a detour.

One the way out to the main (awful) sand road, we passed an impala nursery and a few female kudu.

Impala nursery, Botswana

Nursery charges in front, adult supervisors in back

Kudu at the Khwai River, Botswana

Female kudu. See the frosting drips down her back?

On the Way Home

The bumpy ride home continued to offer up wildlife sightings.

Bateleur, Botswana

A bateleur, a medium-sized eagle

First there was a bateleur, which is a nicely colorful, medium-sized eagle. It’s endemic to Africa and parts of Arabia. Its French name translates to “street performer,” which I haven’t yet connected to any behavior. In fact, this is the first time I’ve had a decent view of one.

Ground hornbill, Botswana

Ground hornbills dining on something dead

At first, I thought these ground hornbills might be doing a sort of mating dance, but it seems they are merely eating. If bateleurs are street performers, then ground hornbills are dinner-theater performers.

Warthog, Botswana

A warthog who opted for whiskers over tusks

Then we spied our first-for-this-visit warthog. The tusks are less than impressive, but those sideburn whiskers more than compensate.

Roan antelope, Botswana

Roan, ready for action

And, finally, we drove past several special antelopes. They’re special because we saw them only a couple of times during our last visit. I recognized them immediately, but couldn’t get through the detritus in my brain to say their name. So I just bounced in my seat, flapped my hands, pointed, and said “eh-eh-eh.” Mike caught a glimpse, and in his excitement rattled off the antelope names on his mental list, top to bottom.

“Kudu!”

“No!”

“Gemsbok! (Say “hemsbok.”)

“No!”

And, then, just in time to prevent my head exploding and my hands flying off and out the window, he came up with “Roan!”

“YES!”

Beautiful roan antelope.

Roan, the superhero antelope

Roan are the superhero antelope. See their superhero, identity-hiding masks? And then there are those ears. Those gigantic ears! Those are another superhero feature. Roan have super hearing, and I’m pretty sure they can fly with those things.

And in Summary . . .

The flat tire was a bummer, and that shortened our time with the hippos, but what a day!

I call hippos “swamp sausages” because that’s what they look like on land. More on that soon. What nicknames come to your mind for any of these animals here?

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!