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Our scouting trip featured exclusive, private vehicles, with only three people per vehicle, and sole occupancy of whatever boats we used for floating the Chobe River or the Delta's marshlands. We also flew private charters from camp to camp in Botswana, so the usual weight limitations most folks suffer when flying in Botswana were avoided. We'll be doing the same -- private vehicles, boats, and air charters, when we do our first Photo Tour to Botswana, in the late summer of 2010.
One of the potential negatives to a Botswana trip is that each camp one visits has its own guides, unlike in Kenya and Tanzania where we have the same guides for an entire safari. In Botswana, where camps are often isolated by bad roads or flood waters, moving a vehicle from camp to camp would be difficult, if not impossible. Many years ago I did two safaris to Botswana, and one of the frustrations I had was with the guides, who felt that we were just tourists who wanted to see the Big Five. That attitude occured on this trip, too, but Mary and I must have learned something in the interim because that wasn't a problem after the first hour or so of our first game drive. We made it clear in words, and more importantly, in our actions, that this group was not the average tourist group and we were patient, and interested in capturing behavior and quality, not just seeing a bunch of animals. Several times, I had to reassure our guides that we were having fun and were contented, even though we were not shooting, because they worried that we were not doing photography.
One of the trip highlights was hearing from ALL of our guides, at every camp, that they learned from us! They weren't kidding, either, because with our group they also had the chance to sit and watch and let nature play itself out. They also learned how to see light and angles, and by the end of our visit at each camp the guides were doing a terrific job. They truly learned fast, were eager to learn, and had a great attitude. The guides of Botswana were extremely professional and had a work ethic that I wish some of our East African guides would share.
This trip encompassed three areas, all diverse, and worth visiting, but certainly not locations that we'd include on a typical trip. Our land outfitters in Cape Town can easily arrange personal tours of the South African and Zambian locations we included on this scouting trip, so, if you're interested in doing a trip with us in 2010, and you want to visit Victoria Falls or Lamberts Bay or Cape Town, it can be arranged.
For us, there were several real highlights. One, was doing the Great White Sharks, an activity I never thought Mary and I would ever have a chance to do. It was physically demanding -- I didn't realize that until the next day, when I realized how tired I was, but it was also very easy to do. Another highlight was finally photographing African Wild Dogs, which we haven't done since the dogs of Kenya's Masai Mara Game Reserve died off. Photographing elephants at 50 feet, at ground level at a water hole, was another wonderful highlight, as was photographing a large herd of elephants as they crossed the Chobe River, snorkeling at times when their heads and bodies were completely submerged.
None of this would have been possible without the 604 e-mails between Liza and Mary and without the help of Bernie in organizing all of the safari details. In addition, many thanks to all of our guides, from Cape Town to Moremi, and to all of the lodge and camp staffs who worked hand in hand with us throughout the trip as we altered and fine-tuned the trip's itinerary.
The following is my day-by-day account, which hopefully will give you an idea of what to expect on our trip. For a Photo Tour, however, the itineray we will follow will only include Botswana, not Victoria Falls or Cape Town. We might add another location in Botswana, and perhaps eliminate Savute, but either way, you'll get an idea of what Botswana has to offer.
Golden light and golden memories, the two synthesize as one to best express our first scouting trip to Botswana, with pre-extensions to the Cape Town area of South Africa and Victoria Falls in Zambia. In virtually every respect the trip exceeded our expectations, and we were unusually excited about this trip, since all of these areas would be new to Mary, and a new shoot for me with digital. Moreover, we were traveling with good friends and experienced African shooters, with this being Peter and Carol's fourth trip, and everyone else, Bob, Howard, Joe and Carolyn, and ourselves having been to Africa ten or more times. For Mary and I, this marks our twentyfirst year together traveling to Africa, with countless trips during that period.
Day 1- Left from home at 4:45AM for Harrisburg flight
to Atlanta, which went without hassle on the smaller commuter
flight. Likewise, flight to Jo-burg from Atlanta went smoothly,
with plenty of overhead space.
Day 2 - Arrived in Jo-burg rather exhausted, even with sleep from the 18 hours of flying. Transferred to domestic for transfer to Cape Town, arriving around 9PM that evening. Told, upon arrival, that our shark diving trip was scheduled for a 5AM pickup the next morning, but fortunately that changed, again, for an 8:45AM pickup for an afternoon dive trip.
Day 3 - Shark Dive, Gansbaai, The Great White Shark Capital
Cape Town is surrounded by a string of mountains and high uplands, and not just Table Mt., its most famous landmark. Our trip SE to the dive town traveled through an almost tundra-alpine habitat, with no native trees but plenty of low scrub, similar to the brushy countryside of southern California's coast, whose climate this area resembles.
Upon arrival at Gansbaai, we had a light lunch and a briefing that did not answer such basics as 'how does one breathe in the shark cage?' which is by mouth alone, as the cage is suspended in the water next to the boat at about neck height. The trip out to the shark diving area was only about a half hour ride, where we joined three or four other boats already in position, scattered around the bay. Out went the chum, down-current, and then we waited, but within 20 minutes the first shark, perhaps a 9', hit our tuna fish bait.
Four guys from NY dove first, as they had an early flight to catch and would later be ferried off the dive boat for a wet ride back to shore, and with one empty spot I quickly dressed and joined them, using my Ewa bag for the first time, and hoping that my $8,000 1Ds camera and $1,500 16-35mm zoom survived this initial plunge. I was told to watch for bubbles coming from the housing, but in the chop and bounce of the cage that was difficult, but all looked fine.
Sharks came, sometimes 4 or perhaps 5 meter long, sometimes
slipping under our cage, sometimes crashing into it as the tuna
bait used to lure the sharks close was literally dragged over
the top of the cage. Shooting was much more difficult than I had
expected - the finger insert for the shutter button on the EWA
bag was so thick that I couldn't feel the button, and, stupidly,
I did not deactivate CF 4-1, the thumb button for focus, so I
had to concentrate on pressing that button and keeping my finger
pressed hard against the housing to fire the camera. I shot a
lot of misses by pressing down when I didn't think I was doing
so, or test-firing, and with the 8gig card I eventually ran out,
forcing me to leave the cage and, while very wet, change cards
by opening up the housing once again. Fortunately no water ran
down my sleeve into the open CF camera card slot, and I resealed
properly and returned to shooting.
Mary was able to join me on most of my dives - I got three or four in since most folks stayed in the water a short period of time, and about a third of the boat didn't dive at all. The water was not as cold as I expected, although I heard 55 degrees mentioned, but the wetsuits, booties, and hood kept us warm enough that I could stay in without too much effort or suffering. Mary minds the cold even more than me, and she was fine, too, and ecstatic with the experience.
Some of the folks expressed at least a joking sense of trepidation or fear, and most were awestruck by the experience, but I think that might be a by-product of Discovery Channel's Shark Week than anything else. Mary or I never felt fear, even when a shark banged its nose through the cage or slammed the top with a tail as it struggled with the bait, but whether or not that was because we were so focused on trying to shoot, or just comfortable with the conditions, I don't know, but I'd guess more of the latter than the former.
When we returned back to the Hotel we learned that less than a month earlier a sneaker wave or swell had capsized one of the dive boats, while divers were inside the cage. The boat sunk, and the three divers inside went down with it, although the rest of the passengers apparently escaped. Shooting inside the cage was tough - there was a cage-length 8-inch high window that allowed you to place a lens through, and a 5x5 inch wire mesh elsewhere that accommodated a lens easily, so shooting access was easy. Three bars ran the length of the cage as well, one to anchor your hands, another your feet in front or in the back. Although we were cautioned to keep our limbs inside, both Mary and I often had our legs sticking out the back of the cage as we used the back brace against our lower legs to keep us anchored and locked in position as the cage swayed or jerked. Several times the cage whacked us on the head when we were floating up as the cage, and boat, dipped suddenly from a swell, and several times I gulped in seawater as I'm so used to breathing with a snorkel. It took a few minutes to get the timing right, and the pattern, for breathing and diving.
Whenever a shark approached the captain would shout, 'Divers, shark to the left, get ready!' Seconds later, another command, 'Divers down!' as the shark neared the bait. We'd gulp air and duck under, and for me, fighting an EWA bag too-air filled for easy use was a struggle. I'm not sure if, early in the shoot, I even looked through the camera's viewfinder but may have, instead, simply pointed the camera. Later on, I know I was clear-headed enough to use the viewfinder, but this statement illustrates how chaotic and fast-moving, and sensory-rich, the experience was.
Day 4 - City Tour and Robben Island
We slept in, exhausted from the flight and the strenuousness of the shark dive. The rest of the group went on a city tour, finding the diverse cultural areas of the city very fascinating. Since we didn't join them, enough said. But the afternoon proved very interesting ..
After lunch we did a late afternoon trip to Robben Island, a former leper colony, military base, and, most notoriously, the home for 19 years of Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned here. The tour was interesting, and bleak - Spartan conditions that were often overcrowded. Most notable, perhaps, was visiting Mandela's cell where we were told how the prisoners of that wing had to carry their slop buckets - their waste buckets - to meals in the morning to be dumped, and, should they forget it at any time, that was it for the rest of the day when they returned to their cell.
Communication between areas, for the prisoners, included lopping a tennis ball intentionally over the high walls separating one block from another. Inside, a note with whatever news could be shared. Upon opening the ball, the tennis ball would be sent back - again, with more news.
Day 5 - Penguin rookery at Boulders Beach and a trip to 'Seal Island'
Jackass penguins, now known as African penguins, have several nesting colonies around the cape, and all that we visited were, to my surprise, in the midst of development. Our first rookery was located along a beautiful granite-boulder strewn beach in Simon's Town, with smooth boulders reminiscent of Serengeti kopjes. The penguins nested in sandy areas in between the rocks, and a three hundred yard boardwalk snaked through the colony with birds on either side.
After lunch at Hout Bay we headed out to a Seal Island on a glass bottom boat no one bothered to look through, and we sailed out for twenty minutes to a rocky haul out where we idled, surf washing up over the seal-stinking rocks and bobbing our boat. The afternoon was overcast and the light was poor, so black sea lions on leaden water were not especially attractive. The visit was short, but enough, as it was very lame, and the source of jokes for the remainder of our time around the Cape.
Day 6 - Free Day and a visit to another penguin rookery at Betty's Bay
Bob, Howard, and Mary and I drove to another penguin colony, one that Bob and Judith had visited a few days before the rest of arrived. Peter, Carol, Joe, Carolyn and Judith stayed behind to shop. This colony was located along a rocky coastline with tiny sea stacks, reminding some of the hoodoos of Bryce. A more remote and far less commercial colony, this one also had a boardwalk that led along the interface between the rocky shoreline and the vegetated beach, where rock hyraxes scrambled over the low brush. Expensive homes overlooked the beach and colony and, we were told, a leopard had, a few years earlier, wiped out much of the colony as it had descended from the surrounding mountains and established residence here.
In the afternoon we watched Southern right whales spout, lob-tail, and breech as we eat lunch, and afterwards our guide, Badresh, chummed Hartlaub's gulls along the coast while we shot with wide angles as the birds circled overhead.
Day 7 - Lamberts Bay for Gannets
Now that our guide knew what we liked and needed, he felt that the gannet colony at Lambert's Bay would be our trip highlight, and indeed it probably was. The ride to the Bay was long, covering wine country, upland habitat, and vast stretches of low scrub, and en route we went from fog to clear skies to fog once again as we neared the beach.
A sea fog created bounced light with deceptively bright conditions that actually worked out fine for shooting, although our initial impression was rather dismal. The hide erected for the gannets was different from what I had seen - previously it was a wooden structure with an open roof, but now was a grander structure built to resemble a kopje, with a glass-fronted viewing area on the ground floor and a rather limited open viewing area on the upper deck. The shooting would have been very compromised but our guide, hearing my inquiries to the woman manning the hide's desk about what we might do, called the head office and arranged to have another naturalist join us. Yves was great, and allowed our group to shoot at ground-level right next to the hide, close enough for all the work we needed to do.
This trip could have been a bust. The day before, on the free day that Mary and I were originally scheduled to do our shark dive, the winds were strong enough that the sea causeway one crosses to reach the gannet colony was closed due to high waves. This causeway, a cement walkway lined by huge multi-dimensional cement blocks, occasionally is flooded by high waves, and in the past has washed people overboard. For safety, it was closed the day before, and a long drive for gannets would have been for naught. Just three weeks earlier only a few pairs of gannets had arrived, so an earlier trip would have been disastrous as well.
As it was, the shooting was great, with about 15,000 gannets now in residence, packed a beak's length apart as they gathered up mud to begin the construction of their elevated nests. Later into the season, these mud nests would be augmented by strands of algae, making for neat shots as the birds returned from the sea, but for now the nests were mud, and the birds, once landed, muddied and unattractive. But birds returning from the sea gleamed white, with buff heads and light blue bills, yellow-striped black, webbed feet dangling, and these made for spectacular photos as they circled the colony or braked, back-pedaling with their wings and feet akimbo as the birds settled into the nesting colony.
Our lunch, at a tiny wharf-front restaurant called Isabella's, didn't look promising, but proved to be one of our better meals, and certainly the cheapest, we'd experienced at the Cape. The line fish was great - the best we had anywhere.
We passed on dinner, as the next day was an early, 4:45AM departure for our next leg, Zambia.
Day 8 Zambia and Sussi Lodge and Chuma House in Mosi-Oa-Tunya National Park
Our flight from Cape Town to Jo'burg was uneventful, with plenty of overhead on the 737s and no hassles about our carry-on luggage, making me wonder if our concerns about weight were for nothing. Jo'burg to Livingstone was another large jet, and spacious, and we arrived in around noon, where a third-world Customs line slowed us down for nearly an hour.
Buttressed by two in-flight meals, no one was hungry, but the lodge manager had arranged a special bush lunch for us on Paradise Island, where I, for one, overate.
We barely had time to finish lunch before we headed back out for a sunset cruise, where we hoped to find elephant s at river's edge, or swimming across the river, but the best we had were some distant antelope grazing along the banks. The sunset was a fairly good one, however, with clouds that added color and some foreground palms, and on our boat ride back, bouncing upriver through rapids, rock practincoles zipped upstream, looking like terns as they flew through the increasing gloom.
Dinner, for me, was a struggle, and I nearly fell asleep several times as we waited for our courses. Mary and Howard were tired, too, but the rest were surprisingly fresh.
Day 9 - Victoria Falls
Winter in southern Africa means late sunrises, so an 8:30AM departure for the falls still got us there before any light entered this incredible gorge. And, at this time of year, the sun, traveling northeast to northwest, never fully illuminates the facing wall, so a morning visit, as our guide, Junior, assured us, works fine.
The day was clear, and as I write this one day later we all can appreciate how lucky we were, for the following day, our travel day, was overcast and we'd have missed the spectacular rainbows that graced the falls on our visit. The first overlooks were rather disappointing, although perhaps the most vivid rainbow any of us had ever seen arched out of the shaded depths. We shot rainbows and river scenes that disappeared over the precipice, the start of the falls.
The trail that skirts the falls alternates between cliff-side trails, overlooks, and varying degrees of wetness as mist rising from the cascade sometimes coated us with near-torrential intensity. At the far end of the trail, near the Zambezi Bridge defaced by a garish billboard-like Discovery sign, a steep-edged island or peninsula produced the most defining images, with a double-rainbow and separate, distinct plumes of water that crashed into the bottom, that was visible from this vantage.
After the falls we bargained with surprisingly polite, literate, and friendly shop-curio vendors, who were surprisingly cooperative for photography, and whose wares were incredibly inexpensive. We all parted from some money.
In the afternoon we visited the nearby village of Maramba,
home of the Lozi Tribe, where another guide named Junior, a village
resident, took us through, showing us homes in the making, a kitchen
in construction, mud-daubing, metal-work, and over-all village
life. We shot everything, from mothers bathing naked young kids
to women relaxing while a baby scooped down teaspoons of dried
cornmeal, teenage girls laundering clothes or hamming it up, unself-consciously
and natural, before our cameras, and kids everywhere and in tow.
For me, it was probably the most photographically rewarding and
fun, laid-back village shoot I've ever done, and a true highlight
of our time in Zambia.
Day 10 Zambia to Botswana, and the Chobe Game Lodge
We left our Zambian lodge at 9:30, and arrived at the chaotic border about an hour later where trucks, some parked for two weeks or more, queued up to cross into Botswana. At customs, Mary got jostled by a man being chased and beaten by a cop, and she escaped serious injury when the whip he was bashing at the guy just grazed her leg. We took a small boat across the Zambezi to meet our transfer to the lodge, which is the most spectacular and opulent of any I've ever been to in Africa, or indeed, anywhere in the world.
In the afternoon we did a river cruise, which we weren't too enthusiastic about doing, being anxious to do a game drive, but it proved extremely fruitful. We had two boats for our 8 people, four per, and our two guides, Lex and Nawa, were excellent, cutting the motor and drifting silently whenever we approached game. On our boat we worked close to great and little egrets, and reed cormorants, before spending the rest of the afternoon moored by a sandy bank where herd after herd of elephant rushed down through the dust and sand to drink at the river's edge, sometimes within fifty feet of where we stood. It was incredible, with at least 200, and perhaps 300 elephants coming to the river, as well as a small herd of impala, kudu, and crowned plovers. We had a celebratory drink as the sun began to set on the Chobe River, and headed back to the lodge.
Day 11 Chobe Game Lodge
5:30AM wakeup call, 6:30 departure, and the sun didn't begin to rise until around 7AM, and even then it was a dull yellow glow. My initial impression was that the area was pretty sparse with game, as indeed it is compared to Kenya, but I was ready to go with the flow and shoot whatever came along. And, as events unfurled, a lot did.
One of the morning highlights was a string of impala that extended for a few hundred yards, with scores, if not hundreds, of impalas walking along the shores of the Chobe River. Chacma baboons followed along as well, with some females carrying young. One youngster, annoying a mother for some reason I couldn't decipher, grabbed the youngster by the nape of its neck within her jaws and carried it a few steps. When she let the baby down it ran to its own mother and there, began to squall. It was so reminiscent of a human baby who cries, if paid attention to, or quickly stops crying if no attention is given to the fuss.
Impalas skirted the shoreline rambunctiously, hopping and stotting and running, with some jumping gracefully across a short channel, and others galloping alongside. Earlier in the game drive, when we were still trying to make things happen, all of us stopped at a small impala herd where a few males began jousting, and the herd, leaving the river ran up the bank and jumped gracefully over the edge.
Howard and I had great luck with several fish eagles, including one that launched itself from its perch and another that perched in an extremely open spot before flying to another perch where we shot the bird almost directly overhead. A lilac-breasted roller cooperated as well, as did a well-camouflaged Greater kudu, making a pretty complete morning for us.
Breakfast, including cereal, a hardboiled egg, ham, salad, and yogurt, was interrupted when a herd of elephants appeared within thirty yards of our vehicles. Bob spotted them, saying 'Elephants, over there,' and then emphasizing, 'Right over there!,' as they were literally right across from our vehicles. Our guides didn't panic, and we were able to shoot the eles at ground-level as they sauntered by, many pausing, with trunks upraised, as they scented us.
Our progress home was curtailed when a young bull elephant blocked the road, while a few other young males jousted around us. One came so close I thought it would put its trunk into the vehicle, but instead it simply wrapped the tip of its trunk around our vehicle's antenna and bent it, then flipped it forward. I thought I could have had it touch me!
The PM drive was a bit slower, but equally rewarding. Caroline
and I spotted a puku, a swamp dwelling antelope similar to a lechwe,
another good roller, and mating Southern giraffes that performed
dismally when it would attempt to mount the female, sans erection.
The female, unlike any I'd seen previously, actually backed into
the male instead of the usual, walking away with the male trying
to catch up.
We had a couple of good kudu females, a nice perched red-billed francolin, and another fish eagle, before finishing the afternoon with a sun downer and the nicest sunset we've had yet on this trip.
Day 12 Chobe Game Lodge
A 6:30AM departure with one thin string of clouds on the eastern horizon, marking another bright, sunny day. I was with Joe and Carolyn Hooper, and our morning, to start, was impossibly slow. In contrast to the many shooting opportunities the previous day, we saw nothing, not even subjects to simply say we didn't need to shoot them, with the exception of one group of impala deep in a thicket.
Around 8:30-8:40, a driver ahead of us pointed out a brown, rock-like lump on the side of a termite mound, an African wild cat. It was about forty yards off, and brush and trees separated us from the cat, with one window large enough for one shooter - and since the cat was doing nothing, J and C let me keep my lens on it. Over the next 45 minutes the cat moved off to stalk once, walking away from us, but returned to the same bed it had occupied originally. As the light got higher the cat moved its head about, giving us eye highlight and contact a few times, but otherwise it was pretty static until a mouse or bird drew its attention and it rocketed back into the brush. In my shooting window I fired, catching a tail end of the cat as it flashed through the gap.
Unfortunately, we had our first screw up of the trip with this cat, as our guide radioed the other drivers to tell them we had a wild cat, but the other drivers didn't pass that information on to Mary or Peter. Apparently the volume was too low for them to hear it, and, since we heard the message passed, and we assumed our guide said nothing much was happening, they elected not to come. Only after they showed up, and the cat ran off after the bird or mouse did we discover the message wasn't conveyed. We felt bad for that, and learned a lesson - make sure we pass on what might be important information in English, too, to make sure it is known by all.
A few minutes later we stopped for a roller that was in the perfect position for a flight shot, but most of us missed it when it blasted off. Minutes later, with my vehicle at the end of the three heading for breakfast, Carolyn and I simultaneously spotted a male leopard standing/sitting calmly on a game trail in the open, right next to the road! I had to grab our driver for a quick stop; we backed up, and I hand-held some shots as the cat stood facing us.
Over the next ten minutes or so we followed it as it paralleled
the game track, stopping occasionally to approach the road and
sniff a rock, or look at us quite calmly. Two more vehicles joined
us, and a jockeying match may have ensued but the cat chose to
cross the trail and headed off away from us, into the low bush.
After breakfast, now 10:30AM, we headed back to the lodge to take a boat trip on the river, stopping en route for a spectacular African fish eagle that preened on a branch nearby. We watched as it collected oil in its beak from the preening gland at the base of its tail, then combed through its primary and secondary wing feathers, and its tail. A great show.
Arriving back to the lodge, Mary and the group decided it was too late for the hippos we had hoped to shoot, and that a break might be in order, which gave all of us one of our few chances to have a few personal minutes to do, whatever, before lunch!
PM In hopes of filming hippos on shore, we did our second river cruise up the Chobe River, but aside from Mary's boat being charged by an aggressive mother hippo, we did poorly on this huge aquatic mammal. The consolation, however, was one of the most intense days of shooting we've had in a long while, and certainly for this trip, for the action never stopped.
In the course of our three hours of cruising we photographed great and little egrets, reed cormorants, African darters (anhingas), open-billed stork, yellow-billed stork, African jacana, white-faced whistling ducks, squacco herons, African skimmers, and pied kingfishers, as well as crocodiles, hippos, pukus, and elephants.
Three highlights stand out among the many. We moored just off-shore from a pied kingfisher colony, where juvenile kingfishers peered out from their burrow until spooked back inside, and adults hovered about or perched on the banks, giving us near minimum distance shooting.
An African skimmer colony challenged our focusing and framing skills as a dozen or more birds wheeled about, zipping by erratically like giant swallows.
Elephants fed along the river's edge, and we drifted close inshore, shooting many feeding elephants with 28mm lenses. But the highlight was a river crossing where 40 or so elephants waded into the Chobe and began to cross, with the light to our backs as a string of elephants swam to the opposite shore. The youngest snorkeled, and we saw, for the first time, that iconic image of a swimming elephant - the Nessie monster snaking itself above the water, the trunk of a submerged elephant. Once they reached the bank the youngsters played, dipping completely underwater and rising in a blast of sparkles, while on shore, in the dropping evening light, a few cows stood against the horizon, burnished in a patina of mud that gleamed bronze and shiny. It was, by any standard, an incredible afternoon.
Day 13 Chobe Game Lodge
We decided to maximize our time on the river, so after an early morning game drive and an early, 7:30AM field breakfast, we headed back to the Chobe to start a 9:30 river cruise, hoping for hippos on land.
The morning game drive, as expected, was fairly slow, with highlights being a trio of black-backed jackals playing and tugging and fighting over a tourist's lost hat, and a band of Chacma baboons that traveled past, with a few babies riding jockey-style. I fired a burst, twisting as I did so, and the AF did its job and I caught a nice close-up of a baby riding on mom's back. Later, AF would really astound me.
The river cruise, as expected, was productive, and Mary's boat got yawning hippos, plus the usual gamut of birds and elephants. I was hoping for another crack at pied kingfishers, and, at my first opportunity, my AF sensors were misplaced, being high, and rather than waste time toggling I just composed with a hovering kingfisher high in the frame, hoping that in a motor drive burst I'd catch some with the wings in the frame. I did, about 50% of the shots. Later, a kingfisher hit the water and caught a fish, and as it zoomed towards us I tried shooting it head-on. It swerved around the boat and my first frame was totally out of focus, but the second was right on - analogous, I think, to picking up a camera and aiming as a pitcher winds up to throw a fast-ball, and then catching the fast ball in focus. I was really impressed!
We also had great luck with crocodiles, including one that gaped, open-mouthed, as we drifted closer and another that formed a great foreground with an impala herd in the background - reminding me of a shot I've always wanted to get in Samburu, Kenya, but couldn't, since we're always looking down to the river and not from the river.
On the PM cruise we headed upriver, to the area that we visited on our first evening in Chobe. Tonight the sun was out and the light was angular and increasing sweet and golden, and several different groups of elephants came down to three different locations - one a general bathing and dust-bathing area, another a fantastic mud-bath spa, and a third a feeding spot, with another obliging crocodile in the foreground. We had some luck with an African fish eagle, too, framing it in the foreground, with eles in the background.
The evening finished up with a sundowner on the river and a toast to our two wonderful guides, Nawa and Lex, who did a fantastic job for us. Although most of our shooting was comprised of elephants and fish eagles, and our next two destinations promised more variety, we had had a great time on the Chobe. As I said to Mary as we had our personal sundowner in the growing gloom of twilight, with a Scop's owl tooting in the nearby trees, I don't even like shooting elephants, and I really, really enjoyed the work that I did here. We'll be sad to leave.
Day 14 Savute
We slept in, foregoing an early morning game drive before our AM departure for Savute. Nawa visited us after breakfast, and reported that we missed nothing, so it was a good choice. A 20 minute windy drive in our open vehicle took us to the airport, where our carry-ons and luggage were weighed, and where we went through X-rays, and where I almost had my pocket knife confiscated, despite our having a private charter. The Charter flight took 35 minutes, at around 6500 feet, and we had no problems with weight or carry-ons, so I know that our obsession with packing and the compromises we made with our equipment and clothing were worth it.
Savute is brush country, with Kalahari apple leaf trees and Mopani growing to about vehicle-roof height, and fairly dense. Finding game, as we drove in, looked difficult, and our first game drive certainly verified that as we searched for a cheetah that had been reported, but without success.
Savute is famous for its elephant-killing lions, but two years ago three wandering males came into the area, displaced the resident males, and in doing so destroyed the pride structure that was the stars of this show. Since then, elephant killing has been erratic, at best. Huge male elephants, however, are common, especially around the natural and man-made waterholes. Close to a dozen gathered around one pool, where my driver-guide, Captain, pulled quite close to the water's edge for shots as low to water-level as we could get. When I mentioned to Peter Bick that we've shot outside the vehicle in Tanzania, Captain said we could get out, and both of us did, shooting right at water's edge from almost water level. I lay flat, just skimming the surface, but in the low light I had to zoom tight enough so that our vehicle's shadow didn't interfere with the composition. It was a spectacular angle, and truly exciting to see elephants from that angle. A trip highlight, to be sure.
Birds occupied the rest of our shoot, and yellow-billed and red-billed (flying bananas and red peppers) hornbills being fairly common, although we saw several Bradfield's hornbills and a few magpie shrikes, but too late in the day to shoot. We ended with a sundowner at a huge Baobob tree, returning to camp around 6:30 or so, just as darkness settled in.
Day 15 Savute
Wakeup call at 6AM, a 6:30AM breakfast, and a departure at 7AM, which worked fine since the low, flat golden light of Botswana has such little intensity, and the shrub growth was so high, that we'd have had no light for ground-dwelling subjects. Shooting light began at around 7:30, and by around 9:30 it finally grew warm, for this was the coldest morning yet. High desert, at 3,500 ft, without a cloud canopy, the day's previous heat was nothing but a longed-for memory at first light.
We were headed towards the marshes, a misnomer since the area is just a vast grassland and the only standing water, in the wet season, lies on the tracks. The morning started slow, although we saw fresh leopard tracks in the dirt track, but we were headed towards where lions had been spotted, and indeed, we soon found one of the three new males. A good, black-maned lion, it gave low throaty growls, not quite a roar, as it walked by Caroline's vehicle. Although Botswana is known for its exclusivity, there was still a car-chase of about eight vehicles jockeying to get into the best position as the lion walked by, crossed the road, and headed off into a trackless expanse of high grass. We headed elsewhere for more game.
Our two other vehicles had already stopped for morning tea (this being low tea, as opposed to high tea at 3!) as we drove up to them and a waterhole where blue wildebeests were funneling in to drink. We got out of the vehicle and shot the gnus at ground-level and, after tea, repositioned ourselves closer to the waterhole in hopes that more herds would appear.
They did not, but several families of warthogs appeared, and one curious and incautious male approached us several times, giving us near headshots, and plenty of wonderful portraiture. While we waited a trio of bull elephants appeared - two from the left, one from the right, and they converged at the waterhole. We were still sitting on the ground and held our position, while Captain, one of our guides, moved his vehicle close to us so that he, and Gwist, our other guide, provided a safety net in case the elephants acted frisky. They didn't, but instead gathered mud for a bath, flinging mud that I thought might hit us at times. The distance, 80 feet, with three big bulls at ground level - a very exciting encounter!
Heading back to camp at 11:30 we encountered a pair of Southern giraffes that 'necked,' although it was a male-female pair and something I'd not seen before, and four young, including one with its umbilical cord still attached, and probably fewer than 10 days old. We got very close to a Tsesebe, Africa's fastest antelope and a near double to the Topi, and it obliged us by crossing the track into sunlight for some grooming portraits.
We also had luck with Steenbok, more yellow-billed hornbills, and some kudu females during the morning.
PM Mary and I teamed up in a small vehicle with only two rows, hoping to do the Bushmen rock paintings. Our original plans were changed when we learned that a leopard had been spotted earlier in the day, with an impala kill. We headed over but the leopard was gone, although an extremely cooperative gray lorrie was feeding on the winter-blooming flowers on an otherwise barren shrub, and we blasted away. We headed back for the paintings but a radio call for a cheetah on a kill diverted us again, but the shooting was poor - back lighted and a small window for shooting.
Later, two of our vehicles did encounter the leopard, which was fairly tame, but it did not offer much shooting, just a run across the road. On the way in, our first two vehicles were already in camp when the pack of wild dogs ran across the road by the lodge's soccer field, but our third vehicle was still too far behind to see them. It was a fleeting encounter for those who did report it.
Mary and I climbed up the smooth and polished granite kopje where the Bushmen paintings were located, on an east-facing wall that, in the late afternoon, provided great, even lighting. We only noticed the elephant, sable, and eland, but Mary saw on a visit the next morning that there were several other paintings we had missed. The climb up was a bit tricky, but the smooth-surfaced descent was even more so, and not a place to encourage most tourists to visit. The paintings, however, were extremely well done for primitive art.
Day 16 Savute
Same morning schedule, and perhaps even colder than the previous morning, and I estimate that there is at least a forty degree temperature change between dawn and mid-afternoon. Nothing was moving, and the game drive started very slow. We saw leopard and hyena tracks, and Mary saw wild dog tracks, and shot a good Steenbok, but my morning, with Howard, was slow until we reached the water hole that we had shot yesterday.
Today Southern giraffes dominated the scene, and the blue wildebeest stayed in the distance. At times as many as 13 giraffes congregated at the water hole, as well as three bull elephants, two of which were there for much of the morning. These two had located the pipes that fed this man-made pan, and they shared the two openings, sucking deeply and noisily like giant vacuum hoses. Warthogs appeared periodically, but the giraffes kept their distance as long as the eles were present.
Towards the end of the morning about a dozen giraffes were
drinking when one of the bull elephants returned. The adult giraffes
wandered off slowly but several of the juveniles stayed put, perhaps
not sensing the approach of the elephant. Suddenly the giraffes
spooked, and one of the juveniles ran into the water, and slipped,
crashing down upon its side. It righted itself in seconds and
bounded away, but it was exciting to see, and Carolyn was videoing
the entire time and caught the sequence.
The return to camp at 12:30 went uneventfully, where two of our vehicles joined up with Mary's, who had been doing a second visit of the rock paintings with Peter and Carol, confirming that this is an evening shoot.
PM Mary and I rode together again in the two-seater, and ended up at the pool where, on our first day here, Peter and I shot the elephant at ground level. A bull ele was in the distant pond, but it headed off into the brush when it finished drinking. We waited, spending almost two hours by the pool, watching slender and Yellow mongooses, various doves, and starlings visiting the pool, and finally, another bull elephant. By then the light was turning golden, and the elephant came to our pool to drink, bathed in a soft cast of orange-gold, but it didn't stay long and, after so many other ground-level encounters, it wasn't as thrilling as the first experience.
We all met up and decided to forego a sun-downer for a final try for wild dogs here in Savute, and although we covered a lot of ground, we were not lucky. We did see a leopard walking purposefully and surprisingly quickly along an elephant trail, but in the post sunset gloom it was hard to even make out its white tail tip, let alone spots. Had we seen dogs, it'd have been a visual only.
Day 17 Savute and Moremi
Everyone, except Mary and I, elected to sleep in and forego the morning game drive. Hoping to encounter wild dogs we tried a final time, while we expected that the group might have luck with a dog, or dogs, visiting the waterhole at our lodge (Savute Safari Lodge). In neither case did we have luck, although a nice herd of kudu came to the waterhole, and Mary and I enjoyed our separate lessons in the art of tracking, and feel, now, that we can identify a leopard print. We were extremely impressed with the guides, Gwist and Energy, and their tracking ability, and both of us were 'sold' when each, separately, pointed out the wet sand spots caused from water droplets that had dripped off a lion as it left a waterhole and crossed the road track.
After an early lunch we had a 35 minute flight to Moremi, passing from the scrub desert country to a maze of ancient water courses, oxbows, pans, and gleaming pools of water - the edge of the delta. Our first afternoon proved productive, although I think we all encountered the expected, usual treatment by the guides with tourists, and that is the narrative about the different animals we were seeing, which was sometimes a bit inaccurate. After an hour or so, however, I think the guides had our measure, the narrative decreased, and some serious shooting began.
That game drive started auspiciously, for Mary, Joe, and Carolyn followed a troop of Chacma baboons, one of which was a female carrying a recently deceased baby. The mother cradled the nonresponsive infant, and, when moving, carried it along, sometimes dragging the baby as a baby normally manages to hand-on to its mother unassisted. At one point another baboon approached the female and touched snouts, as if it was kissing, and it was easy to interpret this as an expression of grief or empathy. Whether or not that was so we can't be sure, but we haven't seen that behavior before. The female, we were told, would carry the baby until it began to decay when, clued by the increasing stench, the mother would finally abandon the corpse.
Several of us had luck with red lechwes, one of the swamp antelopes. My vehicle, with Peter and Carol, waited while Bob and Howard shot a nice buck that eventually crossed the road in front of them, passing beyond our range. Another buck lagged behind, and while we watched it defecating, I joked to Peter that perhaps it was thinking of taking off, as birds do that before taking flight. Only a few seconds later the lechwe did take flight, bounding rapidly to join up with the first buck, and it made me wonder if, indeed, an antelope may lighten its load before a planned run. Who knows?
Later, toward sunset, a herd of lechwe we were trying to get
ahead of started bounding across the swamp, and from our vantage
they sparkled golden in the backlight. Unfortunately we weren't
quite in position as they passed, but I was lucky to catch a couple
of OK jumps. Peter, with his marvelous 200-400, caught some closer
that were leaping high, and far too big in the frame for me.
As we drove back after a sundowner my guide, Frank, spotted fresh leopard tracks, and we scattered to try to find it. Minutes later Mary's vehicle had the cat, walking calmly down the track in front of her. We got shots, but at ISO 1600 they weren't keepers, but it was a good omen for Moremi.
Day 18 Moremi
The morning started slow, as we passed up the usual tourist shots of elephants, impalas, and waterbucks, but near the lechwe pool we spotted a side-striped jackal that was hanging about, feeding on an impala kill that still had plenty of meat. Mod, our guide, could only find leopard tracks, but we were puzzled as to why the leopard had eaten so little, and hadn't taken the kill away. He wondered if a cheetah, or perhaps even a lone dog, had made the kill.
We drove around looking, encouraged by alarm barks of tree squirrels, and a short time later we received a radio call that one of the big male leopards had been spotted. Mod informed us that the cat was slow and lazy and wouldn't climb a tree, so we weren't too worried about his pace as we drove towards the cat. We found it, and it was incredibly tame, walking right by our vehicle and continuing down the track. As it traveled it passed beneath a large tree where, incredibly, another leopard sat. We paused to shoot it, as the other looked like it would continue to be a chase, and luckily we did, for the cat climbed down the tree and posed nicely before settling in to begin a slow hunt on a pair of impalas.
That hunt was not successful but in the course of the next two hours or so we had spectacular opportunities with the leopard as it stalked towards the camera, while still hunting the impalas, charged up a tree after a squirrel, and posed on two huge termite mounds. It was one of the most laid-back and cooperative leopards we've ever filmed, and everyone was successful. A great morning.
In the afternoon we visited Dead Tree Island, where the built
up of salts has killed the trees, leaving spectral skeletons on
the flat, dusty pans and where, in the living trees in the islands
interior, Pel's fishing owls are found.
We searched several trees where Mod, our guide, often sees this elusive owl but without success. At one point I craned my neck to keep looking only to be told by Mod, 'it's not there,' so, tourist, don't waste your time looking - the latter unsaid but surely thought. Shortly after this Mod did spot one, a huge orange-red colored shape in a bare stretch of tree and for a few minutes we studied the bird with binoculars, until Mod told us they can be shy. I grabbed my lens then, and managed only three shots before the owl hopped up into some thick, screening vegetation. Fortunately the owl flew to another perch where it was once again clear, and where the entire group got shots.
We were hoping for red lechwes at the marsh edge but they were absent, and aside from an angry elephant that stormed out of the marsh and kicked a dusty plume across the pan, we saw little wildlife but the skeletal trees made for nice silhouettes against the clear orange western sky. I framed a small herd of lechwe against this strong backlight, the last shots I did that afternoon.
Left, Pel's Fishing Owl. This bird is one of the most sought-after and elusive for bird watchers. I've always watched for one along Africa's various rivers, in the Selous in Tanzania, in the Mara in Kenya, and elsewhere. I saw two at Moremi - this one, perched out in the open, and another, silhouetted against an orange sky at sunset along the edge of a marsh.
Day 19 Moremi
Lions have eluded us and I think everyone had hopes that we'd finally have some luck with this normally common cat, and we did, in spades. En route in the general direction to Dead Tree Island we passed a leopard a film crew was working - after yesterday's leopard we weren't too concerned about spending time with a cat we couldn't see, and Bob and I headed off into marsh country.
En route a trio of noisy pied kingfishers caught our attention, one of which had a long catfish in its beak which the others were either trying to steal or beg from the adult. We got a few shots before the birds took off, but the dead tree they were using was the only usable perch and the bird returned, perching even closer. It began to beat the fish on the tree limb, but dropped it and, upon retrieving it, flew even closer. Whether it was from the kingfisher's bill creating a spear wound or a weak joint, the fish was partially severed behind the head, and the kingfisher's smashes eventually dislodged the head, thus removing the potentially troublesome spikes and spines, and the fish went down easily.
We had some luck with a couple of lechwes that bounded across the marsh, some cooperative zebras and blue gnus, and passed up on the film crew's leopard when we got a radio call that a male lion had been spotted. As it turned out, Joe, Carolyn, and Howard had the male surrounded by five or six young that were jumping on and generally harassing the semi-tolerant father. Unfortunately, a privately driven vehicle drove right up to, and behind the scene, ruining the shot.
By the time we arrived the cubs had retreated to some grasses and the male was sacked out on its side. We drove on to the cubs, and were fairly successful while Mary and Peter remained with the male. Attracted by birds in the air that the lion may have mistaken for vultures, the male got up and proceeded determinedly across the marsh. Their vehicle kept pace, and shot the lion as it splashed its way across the waters. We got the call and were right behind, and eventually got ahead of the lion for some shots as it walked through the tall red grasses before climbing a termite hill right next to the road. From there, this huge, well-maned lion did a series of 360s as it circled about, watching or smelling, trying to locate a free meal. A 300mm was full-frame, and zoomed out the image was truly iconic - a great maned lion looking out across the grassland of the Delta.
Did more skeletal scenics of the dead trees, some more lechwes, and headed back for a very late brunch. En route, and no more than 10 minutes from camp, we encountered another leopard, stretched out on an open tree in nearly full sunlight. This delayed lunch, but after getting several angles we headed in from another great morning.
PM Our first relatively slow afternoon. We headed to Paradise,
an area of flooded trees, shallow lagoons, and marsh land, where
we filmed red lechwe and dead trees, with nothing for me being
very spectacular. As we headed to another location in the vicinity,
I spotted two wattled cranes which were fairly close to the track.
Unfortunately, while I went for my converter, the birds went through
a great wing-flapping display, which I mostly missed. Our other
two vehicles caught up, and between us, as we followed the cranes,
several shooters got some fairly close shots.
Afterwards we headed to the lion cubs, but we soon discovered that we were at the South Pole and the cubs were at the north, and as we raced against the setting sun we knew we'd not make it in time. Instead, we started driving other tracks, hoping to see leopard or wild dogs in the failing light, but we had nothing. One of our vehicles encountered the leopard from noon, but there was too little light to shoot.
Day 20 Moremi
I write this with cold, wet feet, for earlier in the late afternoon our land cruiser nearly sunk. We were crossing one of the several lagoons that comprise the vehicle tracks, but our guide, Captain, misinterpreted instructions and headed straight in the middle of the track, and not the left side which was higher and rut free. We were nearly across when our forward progress stopped, and our vehicle began settling into the water, backend first. Carolyn, in the back row of the two-seater, remarked, 'We're sinking,' and I looked back to see water floating up to the spare tire, and rushing forward. I had time to grab my camera lenses and clothing, but the swirl of water almost washed out our blanket and did take out an empty juice and water bottle, one of which Mary later retrieved.
Fortunately, Captain backed up and got us back to dry land, and after radioing for instruction got us on the right track and we made it across. Later, we almost bottomed out again in a soggy crossing, and by then we were getting a bit gun shy.
That little adventure marked the near conclusion of a long, all day game-drive Mary and Bob, and Carolyn and I, did, while the rest of the group did a morning game drive and afternoon boat trip through the channels. Our morning started rather productively, as we spotted two lionesses that looked intent on a group of common waterbuck. Nothing happened, so we drove over and spent some quality time with the four lionesses and three cubs, all of which were thin, and the young desperate for suckling, but the females rebuffed them.
After the lionesses we met Mary and Bob and continued the drive toward the South Gate, driving through the mid-morning and past noon, with game being scarce and the dry conditions agonizing. Our guides were a bit stressed, worried whether or not we were having fun, which we weren't, but as I explained to Captain, if there's nothing good to shoot we're not going to waste our time. We can live with it.
On the way back our luck changed, and Carolyn and I shot bull kudu, and a great troop of Chacma baboons that came to a waterhole where several baboons were mobbed by a group of blacksmith lapwings, apparently protecting chicks or eggs. I fired a lot on that! Mary and Bob had great luck as well with two sparring giraffes.
After nearly drowning the vehicle, we headed toward where we had red lechwes on our first evening, but they weren't at the usual spot. We did find them, however, and got some great shots of a mother and suckling fawn, and, just as we were about to quit, a group of 6 wattled cranes flew toward us, with the sun behind them like Japanese zeroes, before banking on the correct side for the light. I handheld my 500 and managed a bunch of good shots as they went by.
We finished with a sundowner at a lagoon, while several hippos yawned hugely in the growing gloom, marking the end of a long and somewhat exhausting day, but a good one for the four of us.
Day 21 Moremi
Our last day and, with the luck we had had, I didn't expect anything spectacular. Perhaps another leopard, but could it be as good as the stalking leopard we had on our first day? Or perhaps we'd have luck with the male lion and cubs, as Howard and Joe and Carolyn had had two days ago? I dismissed the idea of seeing wild dogs - we had our chance yesterday, without luck. I was so wrong.
Peter and Carol, the first vehicle out of camp, stopped for a shot of a reedbuck and, during that pause, a lone wild dog stepped out into the trail. Our guide, Mod, said I think there's a lion or a dog ahead, and I warned him not to joke about seeing wild dogs. A second later, I caught the distinctive white tail flash, and realized, we had a wild dog!
For the next ten minutes or so we played chase, following behind the dog as it loped down a trail, racing madly to get along side when the dog veered off on to a game trail, and then circling widely when the dog gave chase to an impala, and promptly disappeared. At that point, we were just happy to have seen and shot some images of the dog as it ran by, but fortunately Frank, Mary's guide, heard alarm barks and Mary spotted the dog sitting calmly on the opposite shoreline of one of the large ponds. All of us headed over to find the dog calmly lying on a mudflat, and the shooting began.
The dog moved to another location on the pond shoreline, giving all of our vehicles several views and opportunities, before it got up and jogged off, disappearing once again. We circled widely looking, and again, luckily, Mary's vehicle spotted the dog just as it put itself in fifth gear and charged a group of impalas. It disappeared, but one of the camp's other vehicles radioed in that they had found it again, and that it had made a kill. We arrived shortly afterwards and indeed the dog had killed a young female impala.
Over the next hour or more the dog fed, leaving the kill at least three times to circle the area, as if scouting the grounds to make sure a lion or leopard wasn't approaching, but each time the dog returned. We couldn't believe our luck, for the kill was just inside some rather open brush, and as it fed it dragged the kill increasingly out into the open. At one point it picked up the entire carcass and trotted right next to our vehicle, ending up near a log where it proceeded to finish the dismemberment of the carcass.
Finally the dog finished and trotted off, to lie at rest along the edge of the game track. Vultures and eagles descended upon the kill leftovers but Bob and I passed on those shots to work the dog one last time. This produced our best shooting as, for once, the dog was rather stationary, and we weren't fighting with other vehicles as we jockeyed for position. The results, some very peaceful, full-frame portraits.
After the dog we headed for the lion cubs, which had been reported nearby. The four lionesses had fed but the babies were thin, so whatever the lionesses had killed was just enough for the adults. One female looked as if she'd been nursing, so we hoped that the cubs had received some nourishment, but either way, they were lethargic. We shot some portraits and headed back to camp, extremely satisfied by the morning's shooting.
At 3:30 Howard, Bob, and I returned to the stork rookery that Howard, along with Carol and Peter, had visited yesterday afternoon. Maribou storks, yellow-billed storks, and several other species had begun nesting, including a few great egrets, purple herons, rufous-bellied herons, and African darters. Yesterday the birds were active, returning to the rookery with sticks, but on our visit things were slow, although we may have left too early - 4:30PM, before the flight show really started. Still, it was a nice recon visit, and was productive, if limited.
The afternoon concluded with a great sundowner with our guides, Mod, Captain, and Frank, and with several nice toasts as we celebrated a truly wonderful safari. Like our Chobe and Savute guides, our Moremi guides also commented upon how much they had learned from us, how much they had seen for the first time, and all because of our patience and desire to stay with game to get good shots. They appreciated it, and we, certainly, felt validated in the way we work.
Our evening recap of trip highlights and favorite shots, favorite locations, favorite parks, and more, was a lot of fun, and with it, I think all of us felt we'd done Botswana well, and we were ready to go home, satisfied.
Day 22 Moremi to Home
The trip home went smoothly. We had elected to take the early flight to Maun, thus missing a morning game drive, but in doing so we insured that we would make our flight from Maun to Jo'burg. Two days earlier, the afternoon flight to Maun didn't arrive into Maun until 5, which meant those folks would miss their international flights both to Jo'burg and to home.
The flight to Maun was the most interesting of all that we had done, as we flew over the Delta and swamplands, low enough that the shadows of zebra, giraffes, and elephants were clearly visible in the early morning light.
In Jo'burg we wrapped our luggage, worried as we were that items would be stolen, but since the gate check-in didin't open until about 3 hours before the flight, we didn't give any thieves very long to work. We arrived early in Atlanta, and said our final good byes to the group, and headed on to Harrisburg and home, concluding about 48 hours of travel!