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?

Hippos

 Posted by  Africa 2017, Travel
Nov 282017
 

What do you do when you have hundreds of photos of hippos?

That’s not a joke. I’m asking.

Here’s what I’m doing with a few of them. Yes, Mike, just a few. You’re welcome, everyone else.

Hippo Habitat

Hippo habitat, Khwai River, Botswana

This is the Khwai River. It comes off the Okavango River and forms part of the northern border of Moremi Game Reserve. It’s not a very big river, at lease not here, but it seems like a good and reliable water source.

You can camp here in a community-operated campground, in actual designated campsites, but there are no amenities. We stayed here three years ago, but only for one night. I would stay here again for several nights, but I’m not sure it’s on the agenda this time around.

Hipposphere

Hippo, zebras, waterbucks, egret, Khwai River, Botswana

According to one source, hippos are the third largest land mammals, with elephants and rhinos out-sizing them. However, another source counts giraffes as larger than hippos. I’ll just say they’re enormous.

Multi-species photo: Hippo, egret, waterbucks, zebras

Hippo Hero

As in the hero of our tale.

Model hippo on land, Khwai River, Botswana

“Hippopotamus” comes from the ancient Greek for “river horse.” The Greek adjective follows the noun, though, so it’s “hippo” that means “horse,” not “potamus.”

River, yes. Horse? Hmm . . . I don’t think so, ancient Greeks.

More like τελμα λουκανικο, or telma loukaniko, or telmaloukaniko. According to Google Translate, that’s “swamp sausage” in Greek! Although, technically, I think it would be λουκανικο τελμα.

Howling Hippos

Hippo hollering at no one, Khwai River, Botswana

Okay, probably not howling. Singing opera, perhaps. Actually, I don’t know if this one is vocalizing at all; it very well might be standing there with its mouth open. They do that. Apparently, facing another hippo with your mouth open is a sign of submission. (So I’m likely to be seen as no threat when I get face-to-face with a hippo, right?)

But perhaps I should point out that this one isn’t facing anyone. It might be looking at us, or not. It is walking from Pool A to Pool B.

Open-mouthed hippos, Khwai River, Botswana

I’m unclear what constitutes an aggressive yawn and what constitutes a submissive open mouth.

Hippos sparring, Khwai River, Botswana

These two definitely seem to be sparring.

Hippo Hissyfit

Hippopotamus scooping water, Khwai River, Botswana

“Water scooping” is another common behavior that is said to be an aggressive display.

Hippo water scooping, Khwai River, Botswana

That’s a big scoop splash! Is this an exceptionally grumpy hippo?

A Fine Hippo How-Do-You-Do?

It started like this:

Two hippos traversing land, Khwai River, Botswana

Two pals strolling along . . . or so it seems

A Tale of Two Hippos turns into A Tail of One and A Tale of Woe.

See if you can make out what’s happening before I explain. Mike got a series of still photos, and I managed to make a bad (but mercifully short) video. In my defense, I was filming something else and had to swing over to this action while something else entirely was also screaming for my attention. Seriously, three things happening at once. It’s a wonder I got anything at all.

The still photos:

Hippo dung showering, Khwai River, Botswana

Can you see what’s happening here?

Fifteen-second video of the same, which you can see full-screen on YouTube.

Want to be a hippo?

Scientists have decided to call this “dung showering.” We have to call it something because it’s a common behavior. That’s right, everybody’s doing it, on land and in the water; although, not always in someone’s face. Sometimes they shower in solitude. Some people report watching two bulls standing head to tail do this to one another, and others have witnessed territorial males meet at a shared border and exchange excrement.

As always when it comes to animal behavior, we can only theorize about why hippos do this, but let’s do that, okay?*

  • to demonstrate dominance
  • to mark territory or announce one’s presence
  • because hippos that did this survived, and hippos that didn’t do this died
  • freedom of expression through exterior design

Hushed Hippos

Hippos resting peacefully, Khwai River, Botswana

All quiet on the hippo front. Huh. This may be the most rare sighting—and photo—of the lot.

*I might be joking about one of these.

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!

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.