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?

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!

Feb 262016
 

Linda Stanek, Children's Author

Meet Linda Stanek. Yeah, that’s a snow leopard.

On the very same day that my book, Been There, Done That launched, so did Once Upon an Elephant, a picture book written by my critique partner and BFF, Linda Stanek. The book illustrates the enormous impact elephants have on their environment and how those impacts are vital to other species that share the ecosystem. Were it not for elephants, some species may not be able to exist. An animal (or plant) with this much influence on an ecosystem is called a “keystone species.”

To celebrate this new book, we’re going to sit down with Linda and share a cuppa while she answers some deep and difficult questions.

I happen to know that this is your second book about elephants. What’s with you and elephants?

I feel like my first elephant book was a gift from the Columbus Zoo. I learned so much about elephants and the conservation work that zoos do. But one thing that really stood out from me, from all that I learned, was this idea of keystone species, and all that elephants, in particular, are doing as keystones. I realized that the possibility of losing elephants—as tragic as that is—is an even bigger issue than, well, just losing them. This, then, became a writing goal—to explain the concept of keystone species to children, the inheritors of our earth. The concept wrangled around in my brain for quite some time before the words “Once Upon a Time,” and next “Once Upon an Elephant” came to mind. Once I had that phrase, the rest started to fall into place.

 

Once Upon an Elephant, by Linda Stanek, illustrated by Shennen Bersani

Linda and Shennen’s book, not mine.

 

What was the hardest part of writing this story?

There was some revision work to be done once it was vetted by the International Elephant Foundation. They were very particular about the wording so that it would be 100% accurate, and I appreciate that. They challenged my editor and me to wordsmith sections to make sure that we got the information exactly right, while keeping with the voice of the book. It was both challenging and rewarding.

If you had a pet elephant what would you name it, and what would you do with it?

Her name would be Bulky, and I would ride her, of course!

 

Elephant coming at ya.

Bulky coming at ya!

 

Are people keystone animals?

Goodness, I don’t think so! Keystones naturally support their habitats. My perception of humans is that we tend to destroy habitat. Loss of habitat due to human encroachment seems to be a commonality in most of our endangered species.

You didn’t interact with the illustrator during book production. Was there anything in the illustrations that surprised you?

I was amazed and wowed by most of it, but never more than when I saw the finished version of the savannah fire. The flames, there, are so striking and beautiful!

You have to choose a favorite illustration in the book. If you don’t, I will be forced to live in a tree with no ladder and no roof or even a tarp over my head. I really don’t want to live in a tree. What’s your favorite illustration?

This is a totally unfair question, Jen . . .

I know. That’s why I went all arm-twisty right out of the gate.

. . . but okay, I’ll play along.

You’re such a good sport!

As much as I’m drawn to the savannah fire illustrations, I’ll tag pages 19 and 20—the picture of the mice and the footprint-pools. I just love how Shennen distributed the color on this spread, with the frogs, and the insect, and the water. And the mice are so darn cute!

Where, how, and when do you write?

I can write almost any place, but I generally write in my office at home at a desk in front of a window that I gaze out of when I stop to ponder something. I write almost every day—it’s hard for me not to write. I get phrases or ideas in my mind, and until I put them on paper, they bug me.

Describe your ideal writing space.

My ideal writing space is spacious and tidy. My office is small and usually shockingly untidy. My ideal writing space has plenty of light—ideally natural light, and mine does. And, my ideal writing space has a cat or two (sometimes three) on the cat tree, and NOT on my desk, which happens . . . some days.

What’s a subject you haven’t yet written about but would like to?

I always have the next book project in mind. But if I told you what it is, I’d have to . . . um . . . muzzle you!

Name a book you wish you had written.

A Single Shard, by Linda Sue Park.

Ooooooo, that’s a good one! I’m a huge Linda Sue fan. She came to Alaska, you know.

What’s a word that you find really interesting?

Clobber. Maybe it’s funny to me because it sounds like slobber. To me, it’s just comical, and when I hear adults say it (and when I do, they say it in all seriousness), it sounds downright silly.

 

Elephant Face, Etosha National Park

Yeah, “clobber” is a funny word.

 

Pretend your next story is about a lamp with a problem. What kind of lamp is it, and what is its problem?

It’s a gooseneck lamp, and its problem is, it can’t turn itself off at night to go to sleep. It keeps lighting back up to look at one more thing. (This is me and my brain. Don’t ask me how this story resolves!)

You know . . . I think that has potential. There are not nearly enough stories about furniture.

 

Books by Linda Stanek

Note: Purchasing products by clicking through the links in this post might provide me a modest commission through affiliate relationships.

Once Upon an Elephant, by Linda Stanek

Once Upon an Elephant
Fireside
Amazon
Powell’s

Beco's Big Year, by Linda Stanek

Beco’s Big Year
Fireside
Amazon
Powell’s

 
Good Fun Sudoku for Kids, by Linda Stanek and Jen Funk Weber

Good Fun Sudoku for Kids: Supporting Feline Trap, Neuter, Return
Amazon

Good Fun Sudoku: Supporting Feline Trap, Neuter, Return

Good Fun Sudoku: Supporting Feline Trap, Neuter, Return
Amazon

A Single Shard, by Linda Sue Park

A Single Shard, written by a different Linda
Fireside
Amazon
Powell’s