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Pula Safari: Central Kalahari, Okavango Delta, Savuti - March 2011


Safaridude

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Safaridude

Itinerary:

 

March 14, 15, 16, 17: Campsite, northern edge of Deception Valley, Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Botswana

 

March 18, 19, 20, 21: Little Vumbura, Kwedi Concession, Okavango Delta, Botswana

 

March 22, 23, 24, 25: Campsite, north of Savuti Marsh, Chobe National Park, Botswana

 

 

Pula!

 

Pula! Everything revolves around Pula in Botswana. Pula is the primary subject of conversation anywhere at any time in the country. It is a national obsession. And at the moment, Pula’s presence looms even larger, if that were even theoretically possible. Botswana is in the midst of a “wet cycle”, and Pula is reshaping the country. The dry interior of Botswana is enjoying successive seasons of plenty; the Okavango Delta, already the largest inland delta in the world, promises to grow larger still; and the legendary Savuti Channel, which when last stopped flowing in the early ’80s was declared permanently dead by many, is flowing into the Savuti Marsh once again.

 

The adage, “over prepare, then relax and enjoy”, was in full force in planning this safari – especially the “over prepare” part. When would be the best time to tackle Central Kalahari, the Okavango and the Savuti Marsh during the green season? The Kalahari is better when wet as animals congregate in the fossil river valleys – the middle of the green season (January/February) is a safe bet, but the heat can be oppressive then. The game viewing tends to be better in the Delta when dry – the later in the green season the better, except floods arrive and inundate many game viewing circuits in April/May. Savuti? The big draw is the zebra migration moving up from Magkadigkadi, the timing of which migration is always uncertain, but especially so in light of the new “wet regime”. After much handwringing, mid-March was the call. Now it was time to simply relax and enjoy whatever Pula may dictate – and enjoy despite parting with heaps of Mula.

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Safaridude

Central Kalahari Game Reserve

 

Flying south from Maun, it is hard to imagine we are off to see animals in the Kalahari. Below lies a blanket of Terminalia woodland – thick and with no hint of four-legged life: “miles and miles of bloody Africa”. Then, out of nowhere, greenish/tawny (barren-looking from above) stretches appear, representing the various fossil river valleys and pans dotting the northern part of Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR). During the rains, this is where the Kalahari’s animals concentrate. Through Wilderness Safaris’ Adventure Exploration product, we are to camp on the northern edge of Deception Valley, made famous by Mark and Delia Owens’ book, “Cry of the Kalahari.”

 

We fly into the airstrip that is normally used by Wilderness Safaris’ Kalahari Plains Camp, located on a large pan well east of the central game viewing circuit in CKGR. The drive to our private camp is through monotonous woodlands comprised mainly of purple-pod terminalia, silver terminalia and Kalahari apple-leaf. Amongst the monotony, an interesting find: elephant dung. Exceptional rains of the last few years have encouraged wide dispersal of Chobe’s and Okavango Delta’s elephants into CKGR, where no elephants were ever known to occur. After more than an hour, we reach a gentle rise, beyond which lies Deception Valley. Deception Valley’s beauty defies description. This flat, slight depression appears as if a caretaker manages it – as if the grass is regularly watered, fertilized and cut. A most remarkable aspect of Deception Valley is how quiet it is. There is total silence, as hundreds of gemsboks and springboks appear to glide through the grass entirely unfazed by our presence.

 

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Gemsbok

 

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Springbok

 

For the next four days, we would explore the length of Deception Valley, Deception Pan (Deception Pan is a smaller, wetter and greener depression on the edge of Deception Valley and currently impassable by vehicle), Letiahau (where an artificial waterhole sustains animals all year), Sunday Pan and Leopard Pan. As a practical matter, there are no real differences between a “valley” and a “pan”. They both represent grassy depressions where trees are nearly absent. Occasionally, where the soil is soft enough to allow for root growth, tree islands form. The dominant tree species in these islands is Acacia tortilis, though it takes on an unfamiliar growth form here – perhaps due to the dearth of browsers in CKGR. One of the more attractive tree islands is where Mark and Delia Owens had their base camp. These valleys and pans are bursting with gemsboks and springboks, with the occasional wildebeest and red hartebeest. And more gemsboks and springboks… and then some more…

 

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Tree Island

 

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Springbok and Gemsbok

 

Gemsbok and springbok tedium? Not if you pay attention to their peculiar habits. The gemsbok (and its other oryx cousins) is the only member of the subfamily Hippotraginae to admit multiple mature bulls within a breeding herd. Only one dominant bull, however, is allowed to mate. In a large breeding herd with several mature bulls, it’s fascinating to try to identify the dominant bull, as satellite bulls exhibit deferential behavior toward the boss. Springboks entertain in an entirely different manner. Territorial rams try to corral visiting females within their respective territories. In so doing, a ram might successfully block a female from leaving his territory but in the process lose two or three who sneak out behind him.

 

Our home in the Kalahari is most basic: cramped dome-tents with adjacent bathroom tents comprising of bucket showers and long-drop toilets. A Kalahari thunderstorm rips through one evening, knocking over some of the toilets and flooding the mess area. The general rule of thumb regarding food on safari: the more basic the kitchen, the better the food. Thank goodness for the primitive kitchen. We take in a gourmet meal while sitting gingerly on rain-soaked safari chairs.

 

Impressively maned lions are what CKGR is known for, and each night we are serenaded (and frightened?) by their roaring. Otherwise uncrowded, Deception Valley is cluttered early morning with vehicles trying to chase down the roars of the previous night. One particular morning, after hearing roars close to camp all night, we press for a 5 a.m. wake up. We are rewarded with a viewing of two males from the Sunday Pan Pride visiting the northern edge of Deception, drinking from a puddle on the road at dawn. Later the same day on the southern edge of Deception Valley, two males and a female from the Deception Pride are found resting in the heat of the day.

 

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Lion

 

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Lion

 

The last couple of years, Deception Valley had been “the place” to see cheetah, but cheetah sightings are off to a slow start this year according to the locals. A male cheetah is seen by others on the day we arrive. Our last morning, we encounter fresh cheetah tracks, but we run out of time. CKGR is also known for some of the more obscure African animals, and we are indeed treated with sightings of honey badger, ground squirrel, and African wildcat. Meerkat, porcupine, and brown hyena elude us. Birding is surprisingly unspectacular. It doesn’t quite measure up to Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, which produces prolific raptor sightings.

 

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Greater Kestrel

 

On the way to the airstrip on our last day, we stop over for a drink at Kalahari Plains Camp (KPC). The camp design is a departure from Wilderness Safaris’ recent hyper-luxury model. KPC is merely luxurious. Being so far away from the central tourist circuit, KPC has in effect carved out a private concession within CKGR. When the pan in front of KPC is rocking, it must be a great place to stay. The downside, I would imagine, is that other productive game areas are far away.

 

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Gemsbok

 

At the end of the day, to most, CKGR will provide a nice contrast to other safari destinations in Botswana. To some, it will prove to be a bit one-dimensional. Regardless, CKGR belongs on the short list of ecologically significant places in Africa, and CKGR had to be “done” by our group of serious safari-goers.

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madaboutcheetah

MORE MORE MORE MORE MORE!!!!!!!!!!

 

Great start! A trip through memory lane with your description and photos from Deception Valley. Truly a fabulous destination.

 

Did you encounter any Lions that tried to sniff your vehicle? or try to get a bit fiesty? sorry, not sure if i've already asked you this question on a different thread .......

 

Cheetahs - we spent quite a while in the CKGR last year. Cheetah sightings were few and far between then, although we did manage to see 4 different ones.

 

Great text as always.......

Edited by madaboutcheetah
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twaffle

Wonderful start Safaridude, I'm sucked in by your words and beautiful photos. Thank you.

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Game Warden

I'm loving those Gemsbok images...

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Safaridude

Thanks everyone.

 

Hari, we did not encounter any cheeky lions. They were all just lazing around (so what's new...). 4 different cheetah sightings? Pretty good, I would say. It was early last rainy season (2009-2010), I believe, when CKGR was producing mass quantities of cheetah sightings. Every day that went by on this trip without seeing cheetah, we thought about you.

 

 please feel free to chime in any time.

 

Here is the one non-blurry photo of the honey badger we saw (he was quite active). The line "maybe they all drowned" (referring to the dearth of honey badger sightings) was the classic line of the trip.

 

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Edited by wilddog
Comply with requirements -COMPLETE
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Game Warden

Excellent, that's the kind of sighting I'd love to have...

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johan db

Very well written report :)

 

I remember while we were in the CGKR honey badgers were often accompanied by pale chanting goshawks.

 

Birdlife wasn't indeed that spectacular but we still managed to see a good variety of birds of prey. Don't know if you got a good picture of a lesser grey shrike?

 

Did you see any giraffes?

 

PS: don't really agree that the end of the green season is the better time of year to go as the vegetation can already be too dense. Also I prefer the water levels to be at their lowest.

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Safaridude

Johan,

 

I wonder why honey badgers and pale chanting goshawks would hang together?

 

I did not get a photo of a lesser grey shrike.

 

We saw giraffes... just once (but several of them) at the Sunday Pan/Leopard Pan area.

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johan db

Hi,

 

Thanks for answering my questions.

 

Have a look at this: http://www.honeybadger.com/factfile/Animal_associations.htm -> as I said we saw this a couple of times.

 

If I remember correctly, we saw a big journey (almost 30) at Letiahau.

 

I agree that considering the three different areas, March was a good compromise and there is always a great deal of luck involved.

 

 

Looking forward to read the next chapter :)

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Safaridude

Yes, about 6-7 giraffes.

 

Incidentally, I learned on this trip that camelthorn trees (Acacia erioloba) are actually named giraffes (who feed on the trees), not camels. "Kameel" is giraffe in Afrikaans, and the pronunciation morphed in English.

 

There is a place called Kameelsleep in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, where the last giraffe was seen years ago. Subsequently, giraffes have been re-introduced there.

 

Johan, thanks for the link.

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Safaridude

Vumbura (Kwedi) Concession, Okavango Delta

 

I was in Vumbura last in August 2008. Now in the green season, Vumbura is unrecognizable – from the air, on the ground, from the boat. A stretch of jackalberry-dotted plains between the airstrip and the main boat station, from which you normally embark on a short five-minute boat ride to Little Vumbura, is flooded and impassible by vehicle. A temporary boat station is set up just paces from the airstrip, from which a twenty-minute boat ride is now required to get to camp. Where there is dry land, grass reach six-feet, obscuring visibility. And all this in March already, a full month or two before the main floodwaters from Angola reach this part of the Delta. Luckily, we are told that Wilderness Safaris had the foresight and wherewithal to build new game loops further inland a couple of years ago.

 

The boat ride to camp is as quaint as I remember. We slow down for some red lechwes to cross and some hippos to clear. Little Vumbura is as relaxing a place as there is. Hurried movements at camp might as well be banned.

 

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Little Vumbura Boat Station

 

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Red Lechwes

 

Game drives during the green season is a team effort. It is “Sabi Sand-style”. Vehicles from Little Vumbura and the nearby Vumbura Plains Camp are in constant radio contact. This makes tracking a little less authentic, but given the green season’s visibility handicap, it is a necessary evil. Even so, our guide, Sevara, does an excellent job of keeping the radio contact as inconspicuous as possible.

 

During my last visit in 2008, one of the stars of Vumbura was a sable antelope named “Stompie” (so named for his missing tale). He was a most impressive bull with long, perfectly symmetrical, scimitar-shaped horns. Not shy, he was one of the most photographed sables in Africa. Sable bulls are highly territorial, staying put at home while females and young wander through. Stompie being so dominant, he held the most suitable territory, and the breeding herd rarely had reasons to leave this optimal habitat. Unfortunately, Stompie met his demise last year at the hands of a lion. On this visit, we catch glimpses of his replacements. The breeding herd is seen one day with a bull with noticeably asymmetrical horns and another day with a bull with short, diverging horns. These bulls don’t measure up to Stompie. Sevara tells the story of when Stompie was once cornered by a pack of a dozen wild dogs at a watering point: without any hesitation and full of pugnacity, Stompie turned toward his foes, walked a couple of paces backward into the water, knelt on his front knees, bowed his head as to expose the sharp ends of his horns, and began huffing and puffing. The dogs took turns lunging forward half-heartedly but each was deterred by the pure intimidation factor. Frustrated, dogs gave up a few minutes later, and Stompie went on to finish his sundowner. Long live Stompie!

 

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Sable Bull #1

 

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Sable Bull #2

 

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Stompie, August 2008

 

Speaking of wild dogs, they give us a surprise visit. It is the Golden Pack, so named because several of the members don golden coats, usually more at home in the neighboring Kwara concession. Radios crackle throughout Vumbura announcing their presence. After a fair amount of off-road bushwhacking, we find ten members of the pack lazing in the mopane. The alpha female is almost entirely golden. (Interestingly, Sevara tells us that he has observed golden-colored puppies in this pack bullying normal-colored ones.) Then, suddenly, a call (more of a loud shriek) from a mate perhaps a kilometer away interrupts the calm. All ten dogs rise up simultaneously looking in that direction with ears totally engaged. After a pointer-like freeze of a few seconds, the entire pack dashes toward the direction of the call. Apparently, their mate has killed a young kudu, and it was calling the pack to share the bounty. By the time we bushwhack through again, the pack is gone. Three spotted hyenas are found instead chomping on the kudu bones. We find the same pack the very next day, again lazing in the mopane. A lone hyena is resting merely 30 yards away from the pack, just keeping an eye on the dogs in hopes of following another hunt – with its accompanying free snack.

 

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Alpha Female, Golden Pack

 

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Male, Golden Pack

 

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The Golden Pack

 

Plains game is varied at Vumbura, owing to the diversity of habitat. Aside from sable, red lechwe and kudu, we spot impala, tsessebe, giraffe, zebra, wildebeest, southern reedbuck, warthog and buffalo. Several elephant families allow close encounters. Birdlife is excellent, with the rare wattled crane being a highlight.

 

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Cattle Egrets

 

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Zebras by Moonlight

 

The lion population continues to be strong at Vumbura. The Kubu Pride, which consisted of 4 impressive males at its peak, remains formidable even with one of the males missing. They are found on a wild sage-covered plain on the western side of the concession near Mapula. A male from the Eastern Pride is found nibbling on a zebra foal in the middle of the concession. A single male cheetah, who roams a huge territory in Vumbura, eludes us. A female leopard is tracked on our last evening drive, but we lose her in the darkness and Pula.

 

Pula’s reach really hits home as we head toward the airstrip on our way out. A crew is building a sand levee around the airstrip in order to prevent it from flooding. Many camps and airstrips in the Delta have been built in the last 10-20 years – during dry times. I wonder how many will withstand the onslaught of the real floods in the coming months. Operators in the Delta are going to have to squeeze every ounce of energy and ingenuity to deliver their product this year.

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twaffle

Safaridude, you have some beautiful photos. I especially love the clouds in the Little Vumbura boat station image, the zebra moonscape is lovely and those dogs are golden indeed. The sable bulls are magnificent, all of them. Looking forward to more.

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micmic

Great trip and great photos. Indeed, the sky on that Little Vumbura shot may be the most beautiful sky I've ever seen in a photo. What was the camera ?

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Game Warden

Cracking photos.

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Shreyas

Outstanding photos, Safaridude! The exposure on all images is just perfect, especially on the Sables!

Loving the report very much. I have never been to Botswana, but with this report, I can barely stop drooling :)

 

Btw, do you mind sharing what photo equipment you used for this trip?

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madaboutcheetah

Love the zebra moonlight picture ......... Thanks for the continued report!!!

 

Re Honey Badgers, I too recall a lot of them and the accompanying Pale Chanting Goshawks last year. I've also had some good viewing of them in really dry months in the Linyanti areas ....

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Pangolin

Great stuff, all. Also brings up memories from last year for me, from Kalahari Plains (which was indeed rockin - cheetahs every day and leopard along with many many honey badgers and bat eared fox) and Little Vumbura.

 

My understanding is that goshawks hang with honey badgers because the badgers turn up a lot of potential food items.

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madaboutcheetah

and I do believe Pangolin was lucky to see a really large journey of giraffe at Letiahou.

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Safaridude

Mimic and Shreyas, I use a Canon EOS 1DS Mark II. I carry 3 lenses: 300mm/2.8 (with a 2x extender); 70-300mm/4.5-5.6; and 17-40mm/4.0. I used to carry a 70-200mm/2.8 but I replaced it with the new 70-300mm which I loved on this trip (the loss of one to two stops didn't bother me).

 

The Vumbura boat station was taken with the 17-40mm. The camera equipment had nothing to do with anything. The photographer had nothing to do with anything (in fact, he was still groggy -- so early in the morning). That sky just appeared, begging me to walk toward the boat station and click. That's the wonderful thing about Africa, isn't it? Spectacular scenes unfold regularly...

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Safaridude

Savuti, Chobe National Park

 

We have no idea what awaits us at Savuti. Since its discovery, the Savuti Channel, originating from the Zibadianja Lagoon, has flowed and dried up in irregular, long intervals. When flowing all the way into the Savuti Marsh, the Channel provides perennial water next to the Marsh’s sweet grass, sustaining grazers through the dry season. The news that the Channel flowed into the Marsh last year (first time since the early ’80s) has gotten the entire safari industry in Botswana excited. The abundance of game at Savuti when the Channel was flowing is well documented: “When Savuti is in flood it becomes a migration focal point and then as far as the eye can see herds of antelope graze among the sedges. Sable, roan, impala, tsessebe, zebra… there can be 2,000 animals of more than a dozen species in sight at once… Prides of lion constantly patrol the edge of the bog, panicking the antelope, keeping them moving in their pastures, keeping vultures circling hopefully in the sky”, proclaims Creina Bond in "Okavango - sea of land; land of water."

 

Things start off with promise, as on our way to camp, our guide, Disho, points out a blood stained spot on the concrete bridge over the Savuti Channel where he saw a pack of five wild dogs kill an impala the previous evening. Indeed we get off to a hot start, as a female leopard is found casually walking alongside the road. She scent-marks several times during her stroll, and then plunks down to rest just a few feet from our vehicle, giving us an opportunity for close-up photos. Just when it appears that we are in for a long, intimate photo session, she, for no particular reason, rises, turns off and melts into the tall grass. Just a few hundred yards away, a dusty haze hovers over the ground – a big herd of buffalos, no doubt. It is a quintessential African sundowner with these great beasts, dust and insects backlit against the setting sun.

 

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Leopard

 

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Leopard

 

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Buffalo

 

This portion of the safari is subcontracted out by Wilderness Safaris to Letaka Safaris. The set-up, however, is almost identical to the one we had at CKGR. The tents are infinitesimally bigger, but the beds are creakier. More importantly, the kitchen is just as primitive. Our campsite is located on a bend on the Savuti Channel. Catfish are so thick in the Channel, I am awakened by their noise in the middle of the night thinking they were restless crocodiles.

 

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Verraux's Eagle Owl

 

One of the key reasons for visiting Savuti in the green season is a chance to view the famous zebra migration. A couple of weeks prior to departure, I received reports that zebras had begun their trek north from Makgadikgadi Pan. A very wet January had been followed by an unusually dry February, and the zebras had begun their journey to the wetter north as Makgadikgadi Pan began to dry up. Our luck would have it that heavy rains returned once again to Botswana in early March, and the migration stalled. A pilot later told us he had seen thousands of zebras piled up in early March in the Mababe Depression, an area just south of Savuti.

 

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Pula!

 

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Rainbow

 

Our search in vain for the zebra migration is a short one. The roads leading to the Savuti Marsh are too wet. The famous Rhino Vlei Road, which cuts across the Marsh, is completely under water. What we can see of the Marsh grassland is devoid of game except for a few bull elephants.

 

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Bull Elephant

 

The passable roads north of the Marsh meander around several of Savuti’s hills (collectively called the Gubatsa Hills), and this is where most of our activities take place. Open grasslands are interspersed with stunted mopane shrubs, russet bushwillows, and rain trees. Aside from the ubiquitous impala and impressive bull elephants, the game is spotty. A few wildebeests here, a few zebras (non-migrants) there… kudu, steenbok, tsessebe, giraffe, and spoor of a roan antelope. Birdlife, however, is varied and plentiful – including fish eagles that have returned to Savuti along with the flowing Channel.

 

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Kudu

 

Our last afternoon, we drive over a rise near Linyanti Vlei (which is nowhere near the real Linyanti swamps). A lion is found resting in the shade of a Kalahari apple-leaf. His thin mane suggests perhaps a young male. A look through the viewfinder reveals his protruding ribs and jet-black nose, however; his movement is labored. He is an ancient lion in poor condition eking out the last few days of his life. Is there a more pathetic sight on safari? He would be the only lion we encounter at Savuti.

 

In all, our timing at Savuti was probably a month or so too early in the season. Generous rains had dispersed the game and made the Marsh inaccessible. We leave Savuti with more questions than when we arrived. Will the game come back to the formerly prolific levels now that the Channel is flowing? How does the Channel now influence the zebra migration? The migration normally continued on to Linyanti after pausing at Savuti. Now with the Channel flowing, will the zebras still move on to Linyanti? What will the Department of Wildlife & National Parks do about the flooded roads in the Savuti Marsh? If indeed Savuti becomes “the place” again, what will the tourist traffic be like given that it is a very public area? It will be fascinating to follow the new wet regime, however long it may last this time.

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Safaridude

Postscript

 

In many ways this, my 14th safari, was conceived 14 years ago. A conversation with strangers on safari occurred over dinner and drinks in August 1997 at Kings Pool Camp in Botswana: an Italian guest (who spoke impeccable English), his father and I ruminated into the night over the drying up of the Savuti Channel and its effects. Their extensive knowledge of the subject matter made an indelible impression.

 

Fast forward to 2009… I had been posting on Safaritalk.net for some weeks and gotten to know (in cyberspace only) XXX, who happened to share my interest in, among other things, African antelopes. One day, I made a reply on a thread on Safaritalk about northern Botswana, in which reply I made a fairly innocuous comment about my visit to Mombo Camp, Botswana in August 1997. I soon received an email from XXX, who had just read my posting on Safaritalk, asking, “by chance did you also visit Kings Pool in August 1997? I have a feeling we have met before.” I immediately knew. I remembered him, his father, and our conversation at Kings Pool like it was yesterday.

 

So, when we heard that the Savuti Channel reached the Marsh early last year, naturally, we knew we had to see it together. We planned a safari for five: me, XXX, his father and two other veteran safari-goers. This was one serious group: combined, we had 66 safaris under our belts. In the couple of weeks in March in Botswana, we would push that number to 71.

 

 

Post-postscript

 

In the heat of the day in the Central Kalahari just a couple of days into the trip, XXX and I find ourselves discussing Chobe: the game density on the riverfront there, tree damage by elephants, Chobe Chilwero Lodge… “Chobe Chilwero? I’ve been there. When were you there?” “1993? Me too! What month?” “Did you see the buffalo kill?” “Just missed it. I was in the vehicle that came just after the kill.” So, it turns out that we actually first met in August 1993 – four years earlier than we had thought. We have no detailed recollection of meeting each other at Chobe Chilwero, but there is no doubt we did since all the guests dined together.

 

Absolutely floored by this, I instantly call my wife at home on the satellite phone from the middle of the Kalahari Desert (small world!). (My wife had not been on the 1997 trip, but she had been on the 1993 one.) “Hi Honey, guess what? You’ve met XXX before…” Small world indeed.

Edited by Safaridude
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Game Warden

One hopes that there will be many more to come. I can imagine the conversation round the camp fire was very interesting. We have to schedule an ST Safari at Ishaqbini...

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madaboutcheetah

Lovely reading your report on the Savuti Marsh. Again, a totally enjoyable read!!!

 

PS: Any chance your guide Disho was with Kwando at Lagoon camp before? same name, but, could be a total coincidence ..... small world, Botswana!!!!

 

Cheers

Hari

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