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BOTSWANA NOV 2019 - Part 3 (Chobe National Park)


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INTRODUCTION TO PART 3 - Being a bit disappointed with the Moremi and Okavango portions of this trip, I was looking forward to three nights at the Savute Safari Lodge, located on the western side of Chobe National Park.  Despite this particular lodge being my least favorite of the lodging options on this trip (more on this below), my mood improved markedly at Savute due to one overriding factor - lions.  More specifically, lion cubs.  Every day.  Same cubs, but still . . . 




As with Camp Moremi and Camp Okavango, the Savute Safari Lodge is very nice.  But it is an established lodge versus a temporary (at least in theory) tent camp, so it has a very different feel to it.  Not quite as close to nature as the tent camps, if that makes sense.  Two other features of the rooms added to that feeling.  First, the decor uses a lot of charcoal gray, while gives the rooms a more modern and urban feel versus the natural colors used in the tent camps.  Secondly, and maybe this is because this location might get colder during its peak season, many of the glass windows and doors do not open to screening, so one feels a little more isolated from the outside environment.  This makes it harder to get any crossflow ventilation in these rooms, which would have been desirable as it was very hot here in late November.  To the lodge operator's credit, the rooms not only had a ceiling fan (as with the tent camps, the fan was operational all night), but also a free-standing floor fan.  Both were welcome touches.  






The main dining and lounge areas overlook a large waterhole, which sounds good in theory.  In practice, during the midday break when we were all back at the lodge, there was only a pair of resident Egyptian geese at the waterhole, and occasionally some yellow-billed kites circling overhead.  Elephants seemed to be reliable visitors at night, so guests enjoyed seeing them after dinner.  The sunken area for viewing and photography was consistently occupied by people drinking, but given the artificial lights used at the waterhole, I don't feel that I missed any great photographic opportunities.  There is a two-story building with a bar and lounge on the ground floor and a library on the upper level, but this building seemed to lack any good views and was generally empty.  Also, these public areas were pretty hot during the midday break, and I suspect most people spent their midday break under the ceiling fans in their rooms.  There seemed to be few users of the small pool (small pools were available at both tent camps and both lodges).




THE SAVUTE AREA AND CHOBE NATIONAL PARK - Guided game drives are the only activity here, with the exception of nighttime at the waterhole.  Compared to the game drives from Camp Moremi and the boat rides at both Camp Moremi and Camp Okavango, somehow it seems one does a lot more driving here, even though the vehicles don't leave for the morning drive until 0630 and return by 1100 for lunch, and typically left camp again at 1600 for the afternoon drive and returned by 1900. Maybe it is that we had to do a fair amount of driving in order to find any interesting game.  The nearby Savute Channel (west of the lodge) and Savute Marsh (south of the lodge) were both dry, and that undoubtedly affected the local wildlife populations.  


The first afternoon's game drive at Savute began on a promising note, with our guide Coca finding a solitary male leopard.  He (the leopard, not our guide) was pretty reclusive and did not stay out in the open for very long.




After a bit more driving time, Coca brought us to a group of lions from the Savute Marsh Pride, a pride that became famous (or notorious) for successfully killing a number of elephants over recent years.  The particular group seen this first afternoon included one large male, two adult females, and five cubs (maybe six months old). 










While the cubs were playing King of the Hill on a downed tree and chasing each other around, the large male didn't do much more than get up for a drink.










As it got closer to sunset, all of the group, including the adult lions, became a little more active and a bit more vocal.






This one female lion began calling to other members of the pride out of sight behind a wooded area.  The sound she made is best described a long low loud WOOF (apologies to both canines and felines, as I have probably insulted both families).  I love it when the sounds from the adult lions can make your insides vibrate.






We left the lions in peace and headed back to the lodge, as we needed to be back there by sunset.




This next photo is a view of a small group of elephants at the lodge waterhole.  




The first full day at Savute was also lot of driving, but it did come with a few nice payoffs.  We did encounter a couple of nice impala.






And a young cub just hanging out with his dad . . . 



A more interesting encounter was with a pair of female lions nearby, who were perched on a low mound watching two warthogs graze in the distance.   Eventually one of the females slunk off into the grass, slowly approaching closer to the warthogs when they were looking the other way, with the lioness using some dead tree stumps for additional cover.  Finally she had crept close enough, and maybe realized that the warthogs were about to become aware of herpresence.  So she sprung into action, racing after the closest warthog.  Both warthogs started running at full speed towards some woods off to the left of the frame, with the first warthog (i.e., the target warthog) pulling ahead of the pursuing lioness.  However, with both warthogs running towards the woods and the warthogs being faster than the lion, this brought the second warthog up much closer to the lion's right side.  








It is hard to estimate the distance accurately from this telephoto shot, but I would guess that the second warthog at this time was only 10 feet off to the right of the lion, much closer than the fleeing first warthog.  If the lion had only executed a hard right turn, she would have found herself directly in front of the second warthog. But it was not to be - she was fixated on the first warthog, and soon both warthogs outpaced the lion and escaped to safety.  Apologies for the quality of these photos - this chase happened pretty far away.






The rest of the morning game drive was through dry grassland, with hardly any larger animals.  There was a decent variety of bird life, including this magpie shrike up in a dead tree . . .




And down on the ground were a Swainson's spurfowl and a helmeted guineafowl.






The end of the morning drive was marked by the discovery of my latest favorite small African mammal, the yellow mongoose.  Apparently these are a social variety of mongoose, but we only saw a few solitary animals here.  It seems many safari visitors only want to see the larger animals, the Big Five, or the big cats, and yet there is so much to appreciate about the smaller mammals and birds.












The afternoon drive was marked by a pair of adult female lions and the same set of cubs.  All beautiful in the late afternoon light.










The next morning involved a lengthy drive into the Savute Marsh area south of the lodge, but still within the Chobe National Park.  It was very flat and very dry at this time, so game was pretty sparse until we got to the distant area with some small permanent waterholes.  Early in the drive, our guide found this young female lion (two years old maybe?) that had lost sight in one eye.  According to our guide, this was due to a bee sting that happened when she was a cub.  She seemed to be getting along fine for now, but unclear whether she will be a successful hunter once she reaches full adulthood.




This was the only black-backed jackal we saw on this trip; it does make one wonder where all the other predators and scavengers went.  Maybe the Marsh Pride lions tend to dominate the scene in this area, and everything else moves to a different area?




As we progressed from the bone-dry areas to the wetter places by the waterholes, it was interesting to see the change in the makeup of the local bird life.  We start with the seemingly ubiquitous lilac-breasted roller . . .




To the more unusual Burchell's starling (love those iridescenct feathers).




And from a yellow-billed hornbill . . .




To a black-bellied bustard.




One of the interesting inhabitants of this area is the little rufous-naped lark.  Larks are in general known for their melodious songs, but the male rufous-naped larks also perform this interesting little hop when trying to attract a mate.





The mating hop is more obvious when the lark is up on a tree branch, though it does seem that the hop runs the risk of attracting the attention of birds of prey as well as female larks.




In one of the small pools we found a pair of female knob-billed ducks.  The knob is not apparent on the females, but that little flash of brilliant blue-green feathers is eye catching.




The reason for naming this the knob-billed duck is more obvious in this photo of a male in flight:




The saddle-billed stork is a really large bird, with a wingspan of six or seven feet. I am not sure about the bright red patch on the breast, whether those are red feathers or a bare patch of red skin.





As we approached one of the permanent waterholes, there was a small herd of Burchell's zebra lingering on the edges.






However, within minutes a group of elephants showed up heading toward the same waterhole.  Without any drama, the zebra quickly gave up their place to the elephants.








It was interesting to watch how the elephants were careful to drink first, before they began muddying up the water and spashing the mud over themselves.








The afternoon found us back with the same set of Marsh Pride lions (one male, two females, and five cubs), and in the same place where had seen them previously.











Watching the cubs is endlessly entertaining.  While much of their play is undoubtedly practice for adult hunting behavior, some of it sure appears to be play simply for the joy of it.











As fascinating as it is to watch the cubs play with each other, I eventually got intrigued by the interactions between the cubs and the adults.  Despite an occasional snarl from a parent to keep an unruly cub in line, it is heart-warming to see how affectionate and tolerant the adults are with the cubs.














One more interesting sight before sunset, a small herd of large tsessebe antelope, somewhat similar in size and appearance to topi.




The last morning before departure from Savute offered a couple of different sights.  The very flat plain around Savute is broken by seven rock hills, called the Gubatsa Hills, home to kudu and the occasional leopard or two.  One of these hills is also home to some old rock paintings done by the San Bushmen.  The first time we attempted to do the short hike to view these paintings, we could not as a leopard had been reported on the trail. The paintings are visible just below the center of this first photo.  The second photo is a closeup of the area, with some effort in port-processing to minimize the sun-and-shadow lighting differences.






Near the trailhead to these paintings is a majestic lone baobab tree, and not too distant is a grove of 13 more of these giants clustered together.






Speaking of majestic, here is a large tawny eagle from the same area.




We'll end this report on Savute with one more large bird, though I am not sure that "majestic" is the right adjective here.  I think the word "comical" might be a better descriptor.  This is the mating display of the male kori bustard.  It reminds me of something from a children's cartoon, where a bunch of small animals have stuffed themselves into a costume attempting to impersonate a much larger animal - somehow, it just doesn't look real.  The nearby female kori bustard at least has at least looked up from eating, so it did grab her attention (as in "what the heck is THAT???").








PARTING THOUGHTS - There were many things that were done exceptionally well at Camp Moremi, Camp Okavango, and the Savute Safari Lodge.  Given that Botswana is significantly more expensive than other possible safari destinations (especially when traveling from the United States), I expected to find nice accommodations and good food.   But other aspects of the operations were quite frustrating when it came to photography, and those are distinct from the vagaries imposed by Mother Nature.  The key question is whether Botswana delivered a premium game-viewing experience in return for the premium pricing, and for my particular interests and priorities, my answer to that question is 'NO."  I fully recognize that this is just my opinion, as many other guests seemed perfectly happy with the experience, and the fact that Camp Okavango and Savute Safari Lodge were 100% full in late November suggests other visitors consider these destinations to be a good value.  In large part, my frustrations with the first three places in Botswana were highlighted by my stay at the Chobe Savanna Lodge, which operated in a very different and more guest-centric manner.  So stay tuned for Part 4 to understand what I liked about the fourth destination on this trip.  Thanks for reading this far.

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5 hours ago, KCAZ said:

The saddle-billed stork is a really large bird, with a wingspan of six or seven feet. I am not sure about the bright red patch on the breast, whether those are red feathers or a bare patch of red skin.

I read somewhere that this patch changes in colour during breeding season. Our guide in Ruaha told us that this spot is where they put their beak when resting. 

Sorry to read that Botswana disappointed you, but still you made beautiful pictures of the lion pride and the birds. I fully agree with what you wrote about appreciation for small mammals and in particular the mongoose (great pics!)

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5 hours ago, KCAZ said:

mating display of the male kori bustard.

This reminds me of my first safari in the Serengetti in 2008. I travelled with my mother who was 80 years at the time. We saw many kori bustards in their mating mood. Very dear memories.

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Stunning Kori Bustard display pictures, among many brilliant others. 

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You got some really great photos in this set! I especially liked the ones of the mongoose. How did you manage to photograph it at eye level? 

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Seconding the others, fantastic photos!

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Yes lovely lori bustard and mongoose pictures in particular @KCAZ

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Excellent pictures. Sorry Botswana, or to be more specific, the four camps you stayed at and their guiding, did not meet your expectations. But you are fully justified in your opinion given, as you correctly point out, Botswana charges and advertises a premium safari experience. However, based on your pictures and descriptions above, i have to say it looks pretty extraordinary to me. The lion cub interaction pictures in particular take me back to Duba Plains and a truly exceptional safari experience many years ago.
Thanks for sharing. 

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Thanks all for the kind words and encouragement.  To answer the question from @Zubbie15, the photos of the mongoose were shot pretty far away from the vehicle with a long telephoto (500mm on a crop-sensor Nikon D7500, which translates to a 750mm telephoto on a full-frame camera).  And then cropped significantly.  By photographing the animal so far away from the vehicle, it reduces the downward angle and gives a much better eye-level impression.  Shooting animals closer to the vehicle with a shorter focal length lens tends to emphasize that downward look, such as in my photo of the male lion with his cub.  An okay photo, but it lacks the immediate emotional connection of seeing these other creatures more or less eye-to-eye.


I just got Part 4 posted.  A weekend of American-style pro football games on TV kept me helped me stay home and get Part 4 done.

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What interesting (horizontal) pupils the Yellow Mongoose has @KCAZ.


I read somewhere that horizontal pupils almost always belong to grazing animals - I guess Yellow Mongoose is an exception.


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You raised a good question, @offshorebirder, and it got me wondering enough to go research the answer on the internet.  Found this interesting link:




This argues that animals which are likely to be prey tend to favor the horizontal pupil.  Which makes sense if the primary threat is coming from the horizontal direction.  But what if the threat to the mongoose is from the air, such as from larger raptors?  Wikipedia says its primary predators are birds of prey, snakes, and jackals, so maybe that horizontal pupil is optimized for two out of those three threats.


One of things I really enjoy about this kind of photography is discovering things that aren't readily apparent to the naked eye, such as the shape of mongoose pupil or the position of the wings in a flying bird.  Makes looking at the photos on the computer almost have the same anticipation as opening up a box of processed slides, or watching a print come up in the developer - the unanticipated results are sometimes magic.

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1 hour ago, KCAZ said:

One of things I really enjoy about this kind of photography is discovering things that aren't readily apparent to the naked eye


Yes indeed - I agree completely.

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17 hours ago, KCAZ said:

Thanks all for the kind words and encouragement.  To answer the question from @Zubbie15, the photos of the mongoose were shot pretty far away from the vehicle with a long telephoto (500mm on a crop-sensor Nikon D7500, which translates to a 750mm telephoto on a full-frame camera).  And then cropped significantly.  By photographing the animal so far away from the vehicle, it reduces the downward angle and gives a much better eye-level impression.  Shooting animals closer to the vehicle with a shorter focal length lens tends to emphasize that downward look, such as in my photo of the male lion with his cub.  An okay photo, but it lacks the immediate emotional connection of seeing these other creatures more or less eye-to-eye.


I just got Part 4 posted.  A weekend of American-style pro football games on TV kept me helped me stay home and get Part 4 done.


It was a cheap shot late hit on Carson that ended our season .... #flyeaglesfly

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2 hours ago, KCAZ said:

Look on the bright side, @madaboutcheetah.  At least the Patriots are done. 


Hahaha and possibly forever ....... 


Sorry Botswana didn't live upto the billing - loved your photography in all segments ........ 

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Personally I will not consider traveling to Botswana while the current president is in office. I will not support his new policies on reintroducing trophy hunting, limiting the effectiveness of his rangers with regard to the weapons they can carry, and possible elephant culls. However, after your limited game viewing and photography opportunities, it is doubtful I will pay premium prices even after his tenure. Kenya never fails to deliver amazing safari experiences. Awesome pictures though!!

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Concur with you 100%, @Kathi L.  I think Kenya is better on their politics with respect to protecting wildlife as well as a better experience for your money.  My latest Botswana trip had been in planning since early last year or I might have pulled the plug on it for the reasons you described.

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Lovely TR, but comon’ @KCAZ and @madaboutcheetah, lay off my Pats! Lol

At this point I’d say any team planning on beating Baltimore better bring their A+ game...


I will visit Botswana for the 1st time mid-late March. Hoping to find it enchanting and exceptional, even if it does not necessarily deliver the massive herds and consistent viewing of the Serengeti plains stretching from TZ to Kenya. I’m not a photographer by any means but do try to capture as many photos as possible and appreciate a good, photo knowledgeable guide to give me tips, but I mostly relish/live in the moment when on safari. Looking forward to Part 4. Thanks for sharing. As aforementioned, stunning images! 

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  • 2 weeks later...

@KCAZ   Hahaha, I LOATHE Baltimore, as I am a Patriots fan. I was actually pulling for the Titans. Love Coach Vrabel (ex-Patriot). Not a huge KC fan, either. I just thought after knocking through the last 12 games of the season Baltimore kept looking more and more solid. They had an uncharacteristic, bad game. Wrong time of the year for that. Still think Jackson should get MVP. 

I will be rooting  for SF =)

And getting set to head to Bots on March 13th, cheers!

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  • 3 weeks later...

Great to see you managed to find a lot more wildlife compared to the start of your trip. I completely understand your thoughts about a lodge like that. I've visited (not stayed at) a wilderness camp in Kafue that also had those glass windows separating you from the bush. Not something I would choose for, although I have to say the accommodation really looks comfortable.


Happy you got to see the attempt of a hunt and a lot of cub interaction. Also your mongoose pictures look great. Smart of you to photograph them from a far. I thought you might had stepped out of the vehicle to get on the ground.

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