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BOTSWANA NOV 2019 - Part 4 (Chobe River)

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KCAZ

PART 4 - CHOBE RIVER AT CHOBE SAVANNA LODGE (NAMIBIA)

 

The 10-day safari trip wrapped up with a two-night stay at the Chobe Savanna Lodge, another Desert and Delta property but this one located on the north bank of the Chobe River, so it is technically in Namibia rather than Botswana.  It is situated within an oxbow bend of the river, so is surrounded by water on three sides, and it is very peaceful here.  Peaceful enough that a nice couple from Botswana came here for a quiet weekend to celebrate their wedding anniversary away from their children.  This lodge has an extensive open-air central lounge and dining area, and separate thatched-roof chalets to accommodate up to 26 guests.  This lodge was mostly empty the days I was there, but that was just the luck of the draw and not a reflection on the popularity of this lodge, as it would host a full complement of guests in the next couple days.  In large part, I found it delightful precisely BECAUSE it was so peaceful and uncrowded.  And having uncrowded vehicles or boats make a huge difference when trying to do long-lens wildlife photography.

 

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Getting here from the Savute Safari Lodge was, if not exactly an adventure, at least an experience.  It entailed a flight on Safari Air from Savute back to the main airport at Kasane, where you are picked up by a Desert and Delta representative for a short drive to a Botswana immigration office on the banks of the Chobe River.  Once clearing customs and immigration, you board a boat for a short ride upriver and cross to the Namibia side, where a brief hike up the sandy river bank brings you to the one-man Namibia immigration office.  Once clearing that step, you have a 45-minute boat ride upriver to the lodge itself.  Everything is done in reverse order on the way back to Kasane.  It is quaint yet
very inefficient, or maybe I should say it is inefficient yet very quaint.  Quite the contrast after waiting in the long lines at Johannesburg international airport, but it does add to the charm of visiting this part of Namibia and northern Botswana.  

 

There are several activities one can do here, and they all center around the river.  The primary game-viewing activity is doing a boat ride up and down the nearby reach of the Chobe River for a couple miles either upstream or downstream. Most of the game activity is on the steeper southern bank of the river, which is the Botswana side and represents the northern boundary of Chobe National Park.  There are some grazers (e.g., Cape buffalo) on the flatter northern/Namibia side of the river, and birds, hippos, and crocs are present throughout the area.  An alternative activity is to do a guided nature walk along one river bank (I assume this has to take place on the Namibia side of the river), but I did not try this option.  There is also a visit to a nearby local fishing village.  I did this and found it interesting, though this village has only been there for ten years, and it was never clear exactly where these villagers lived before they moved to the present location.  They make their living fishing, cutting and drying reeds for thatching, and hosting safari visitors.  It is possible this small village exists here primarily to support the safari lodges and camps in the area.   I gather one can also arrange fishing trips on the river through the Lodge, but I can't speak to those.  Realistically, most of your time when not back at the Lodge will be spent out on the river, which is a good thing.  Not being bound by the rules of the Chobe National Park, it is possible to get out on the river early in the morning to watch the sunrise, or to stay out after dark.  The aluminum boat used for moving passengers from one place to another is outfitted with swivel seats (nice idea!), but the primary excursion boat is a very stable pontoon boat with a central wooden table surrounded by eight or ten movable rattan chairs.  Very comfortable and convenient for food, drink, and photo equipment, sort of like having one of those recliner chairs at home with a beer cooler at your fingertips as well as the TV remote.  

 

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Food was very good, the lodging was comfortable (and with 24-hour electricity, hot water, and air-conditioning, thanks to being connected to the local power grid), and the public spaces were very comfortable.  It was not until I sat down at the computer to write this portion of the trip report that I could really articulate why I liked the Chobe Savanna Lodge so much better than the other camps and lodges.  Yes, it was uncrowded, which for an anti-social person like me makes for a better experience, and definitely makes wildlife photography easier.  But it was more than that, and it comes down to one simple thing that was different here - the camp manager and guide actually ASKED the guests what we would like to do during our stay there.  Now maybe some of those requests could not be fulfilled due to weather, or might be modified (e.g., better to visit the fishing village in the morning before it gets too hot), but the important part is that they asked the question, and gave the guests input on how to spend their time here.  I did not sense this this attitude and flexibility would change much with more guests staying here.  By contrast, the camps and lodges in Botswana did not ask, and did not show much flexibility, which contributed to the feeling that I was on an expensive and largely pre-scripted package tour.  Staying at the Chobe Savanna Lodge felt more like a custom, personalized safari experience.
 

The nature of a river and its riverbanks is that you can visit the same place every day and always see something different.  The first afternoon on the river with our guide Divine revealed a good variety of bird life and mammals, plus lots of smaller Nile crocodiles in the river.  A sampling of the water birds inhabiting the river banks, starting with an African wattled lapwing:
 

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Followed by an African spoonbill, and the elegant black-and-white sacred ibis:

 

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A small family group of Chacma baboons worked their way along the south bank of the river, with the young baboons scampering ahead of the adults.  Adult baboons have something of a primitive and savage look to them, but the little ones can be pretty darn cute.

 

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Soon thereafter, a large group of elephants with quite a few young ones came down to the river to drink.  It was interesting to watch the young elephants drink, as they would copy the adults and dip their trunks into the water.  But being so short, typically their mouths and half of their heads were also underwater at that point, which means they really did not need their trunks to assist in drinking.  Makes no matter, they were learning, and well-watered elephants are happy elephants.
 

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I mentioned in one of the earlier installments of this report that we would be re-visiting the reed cormorant.  This particular cormorant has caught a good-sized catfish but was attempting to swallow it whole, and not succeeding.  It tried on the water, it tried on land, it tried with different orientations of the catfish, all with no success.  If this is the variety of catfish that I think it is (Synodontus woosnami, the Upper Zambezi squeaker), it has bony plates on the head and bony spines on the pectoral fins, and these seem to be causing problems for the cormorant.   We watched for quite a while but eventually left the cormorant without ever knowing the final outcome.

 

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This is the cormorant-like African darter, also seen at other locations with water in Botswana:

 

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And a great egret hunting for dinner.

 

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Downriver from our lodge and near the Chobe Game Lodge on the Botswana side of the river, we came across this male lion drinking from the river.  Our guide pointed out that this lion had a substantial wound on his back, probably from a fight with another male lion, and he moved very gingerly, favoring one rear leg.  It was a little hard to watch him as he painfully worked his way back up the river bank and under the electric fence protecting the Chobe Game Lodge, presumably also providing him some protection through the night.  It is likely that he was old as well as injured, but our hearts went out to this scarred survivor and we hoped he would make it through another night safely.

 

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Being out on the river is the perfect way to watch the day come to a close.

 

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The next day, we took advantage of being able to get back out on the river at 530AM (a whole hour before vehicles would leave the other camps).  It was nice to watch the riverbanks come alive as the sun came up.  We shared the sunrise with this giant (and aptly-named) kingfisher.  It is approximately the size of a common crow.

 

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This was a very good location for seeing African fish eagles on both banks of the river, but especially on the south bank where the numerous dead trees provided desirable perching spots.

 

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Later in the morning, we were watching a large group of baboons, complete with adolescents and very young ones, working along the south bank, commingled with a group of impala.  Some of the animals like this baboon came down to the river to drink . . . 
 

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I was busy photographing this group of young baboons playing along the steeper part of the river bank when I saw some vertical motion off to my left, followed by a thump.  I immediately thought that one of the young baboons climbing in the trees had fallen, and would spring back up.

 

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In fact, it was a young impala that had apparently slipped and fallen down that 20-foot bank, apparently getting killed in the fall, maybe by breaking its neck.  I wondered how long it would take for the baboons to investigate, and possibly start eating the dead impala.

 

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Within ten minutes or so, a large male baboon (very likely the alpha male) came and rested a front paw on the fallen impala, claiming it for his own.  The baboon began to chew on the soft underbelly of the dead impala.
 

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Well, it turned out the young impala was not dead after all, as it began squealing loudly and trying to wiggle out of the baboon's grasp.  To no avail, and we did not stick around to witness the unpleasant and inevitable end for the little impala.

 

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On a more pleasant note, the purple heron is usually seen in the long grass and reeds at the water's edge, but its size becomes more obvious when it is standing out in the open like this one.  I would estimate that this one is at least 30 inches tall.

 

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Larger still is this goliath heron, which my birding guide says can stand  as much as five feet tall and with a wingspan of up to eight feet wide.

 

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Not quite as big but still a beautiful bird in flight is this sacred ibis.

 

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There is a nice little dining deck extending out over the grassland between the main lodge and the boat dock (presumably this area gets flooded during high-water season).  This was a good place to see some of the smaller avian residents, starting with this blue-cheeked bee eater, followed by a little bee eater.  The differences between the two are subtle - or my bird IDs are very wrong. 
 

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This next one is a mystery bird to me, so I will have to rely on help from the birding experts here on Safaritalk to point me in the right direction.  The bill suggests some kind of seed-eating bird.
 

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Similar colors, but this one I think I know (famous last words) - a grey-headed sparrow.

 

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And just a bit flashier is the village weaver (also called the black-headed weaver):

 

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After having passed by this lone tree on the riverbank several times, I decided I needed to try something different, more impressionist.  But maybe I had just been out in the sun too long . . . 

 

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The second evening out on the river was cut a bit short due to this ongoing thunderstorm.  Our guide Divine gave us the choice of staying longer or going in early, and we opted to stay only as long as it was safe for us and for our guide.  Still nice to be asked what we wanted to do.

 

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The final boat ride on the morning of departure back to Kasane, and to the international flight home via Johannesburg, offered a few more choice sights from the Chobe River.  This time the local fishermen were out in force, though I am not sure what kind of fish they were going after.

 

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And a few more of the local fisherman, starting with an African spoonbill and a glossy ibis.
 

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This is an African open-billed stork, which uses its large bill to eat small mollusks.

 

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This small three-banded plover generally feeds on small insects and worms along the shoreline.

 

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The even smaller white-fronted plover shares the same habitat and a similar diet.

 

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Hippos were ever-present in the Chobe River.  I was never certain whether they were swimming in the deeper part of the river channel or standing in the shallows.  It is always surprising to be looking at an open stretch of water and have a hippo come up like a submarine surfacing from the depths.

 

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As I mentioned above, the Chobe River was very good for African fish eagles.  A few more before we leave this species to fish in peace.

 

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One final photo for this trip report, to emphasize the peace and quiet of this part of the Chobe River.  This is of an animal most people on safari don't really appreciate very much.  Maybe I just have a soft spot for the unloved of the animal kingdom.

 

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Thanks to all for reading this trip report and putting up with all the photos and with me venting my occasional safari frustrations.  Have a very happy and safe 2020!

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michael-ibk

Thanks for all four parts - really enjoyed them. Your mystery bird is interesting, my best guess would be a Fan-Tailed Widowbird in some transitional stage, but I hope somebody else chimes in. Ahrgh, that poor Impala! I would have moved on as well, too softie for something grisly like that. That Lion does not look very happy indeed - but the Cormorant does. Wow, what a meal!

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KCAZ

Hi @michael-ibk, I was hoping you would chime in on this bird.  I think your guess of a fan-tailed widowbird is closer than anything I have come up with.  

 

Agree on the impala, sometimes sticking around for the end just leaves one with memories of sights and sounds and suffering that we don't need to carry with us.  I hope the cormorant eventually figured out to eat the fish piecemeal, starting with the soft tail parts.  Well, that and never try to eat anything bigger than your head in one gulp!

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TonyQ

This lodge sounds idyllic. Beautiful photos 

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Dawnvip

Thanks for the 4 trip reports. I really enjoyed the contrasts of the different camps, and your excellent photos!

 

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marirangwe

Is it just me or do some of those elephant at rivers edge look somewhat emaciated?

Thanks for the report and photography.

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KCAZ

I had not noticed that before, @marirangwe, but you are right about the elephants.  Maybe they came to the river from a drier location with less food and water farther south in the Chobe National Park.  At least it is good that they know where to find a reliable source of water.

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Alexander33

Thanks for all 4 parts of your trip. I’m glad the last lodge at least ameliorated some of your earlier disappointments. That’s a fantastic photo of the Giant Kingfisher, but, wow, I’m glad I wasn’t present for that baby impala slip-and-fall. Nature can be cruel, but it seems to have its ways, doesn’t it?

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madaboutcheetah

@KCAZ - Thanks for sharing your amazing set of photos ........ If I may ask, why did you choose these specific camps/locations for your safari?  Sorry botswana didn't live to the billing.

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KCAZ

Good question, @madaboutcheetah  I had looked a year or two ago at possibly doing a trip Botswana, and asked the U.S. representative for my camp operator for Kenya (Gamewatchers) which operator they recommended for Botswana, and they liked Desert and Delta Safaris.  At the time, I had tentatively zeroed in on Camp Okavango for the Delta experience and Camp Moremi as supposedly a good location for wild dogs, plus Moremi has the Paradise Pools and the Xakanaxa Lagoon.  Botswana did not happen that year (went back to Kenya in Nov 2018 with some friends), so I put it back on my agenda for 2019.  I did not see an advantage to dealing with Gamewatchers as a middleman who would in turn book my trip with Desert and Delta, so I looked to see if Desert and Delta had a representative in the U.S., and surprisingly discovered that a local company in Tucson (DSA Vacations) specializing in trips to Africa also represented Desert and Delta.  In talking with them, they concurred with choices of Camp Okavango and Camp Moremi, and suggested adding Savute Safari Lodge as the Savute area was reputed to be good for big cats and elephants.  I added the Chobe Savanna Lodge as a back-up location to be able to spend time on the water in case the levels within the Okavango Delta turned out to be really low (they were low, but not so much as to prevent getting out onto the water both at Camp Moremi and Camp Okavango).  In hindsight, more research on my part might have pointed me in some different directions for Botswana, though I am not sure any of those directions would have been less expensive.  And if the drought and low water levels affected wildlife abundance this past November, that might well have been true at other locations in Botswana as well. 

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Amylovescritters

Amazing images and great TR, despite the disappointment you felt. Definitely a hard to watch moment with the impala calf, but I would have been curious if anything else came along to intervene for a free, albeit small, meal. Safari often delivers difficult viewings in terms of suffering and natural selection I’m afraid. 

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KCAZ

On another grim topic besides your Baltimore Ravens, @Amylovescritterswe opted not to stick around long enough to see whether the large male baboon shared some of the young impala with any other members of the baboon troop.  From what I have seen elsewhere in Africa, dead animal remains do not go to waste.  But we had a strange experience early in the visit at Camp Moremi, when we came across the carcass of a young Cape buffalo.  It seemed to have died very recently (no swelling or smell), and no obvious injuries other than the eyes had been pecked out, probably by vultures, so our guide speculated that the animal had died of natural causes.  Normally, by the next morning not much would be left but skin and bones, but we drove by the same carcass two days later and nothing had eaten it.  Either the buffalo had died of some disease that the scavengers wanted no part of, or there were simply no scavengers (vultures, hyenas) around to consume the carcass.  Maybe having just the eyes pecked out but no other injuries did not release enough of a smell to signal the scavengers that there was a meal waiting here.

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Amylovescritters

Very interesting @KCAZ

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LarsS

Interesting ending of your 4 part report. Always nice to see ellies near a river. Especially a young one that can just keep his head and trunk above water :)

 

You were quite lucky on this trip with birds catching and feeding a prey. Although for someone the eye was bigger than the throat ;) 

 

Despite some frustrations, I do hope you have a good overall feeling about your trip?

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Kitsafari

excellent photos throughout your Botswana trip. I'm too squishy and wouldn't have remained for the baboon eating the poor impala alive. 

Thank you for sharing!

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