BAM Safari

Kings of Savute

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After returning home from South Africa in September 2015, I had only a month to get ready for the mobile camping safari in the Okavanga Delta of Botswana. It was planned from October 14th to 25th. This was arranged for me by my friend in Maun, Steven Stockhall, early this year as there is a high demand for the camp sites in Botswana during the months of September/October, especially in Savute.

I came to know Steve in the year 2004 when I met him at a luxury camp in the Okawanga Delta during my first safari to Botswana. Since then, I have traveled with him on two occasions on mobile camping safaris organized by him. He is also a very good photographer and has a wide knowledge of fauna and flora in Botswana.

As planned, I boarded an Emirates flight from Colombo on the 13th October together with Suvi from my office, my good friend Tanky (we have known each other for over 50 years, from our school days and then at university and later as business associates) and his wife Kumari, who incidentally is an avid bird lover. We arrived at the O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg the following morning after a transit in Dubai. We had a fifth person joining the party at Jo’berg airport, having flown in from the USA and landed around the same time. This was Thinesh, a Doctor of Medicine who is the son of my good buddy from University Mahilal. We all boarded an Air Botswana flight late that morning, that took us to Maun in Botswana in two hours. Steve was at the arrival hall in the Maun airport to greet us. I was meeting him after eight years.

We stayed the night in Maun. At dinner, I presented Steve with my coffee table book “Odyssey into the Wild”, where I have dedicated some pages to the camping safaris that I did with him back in 2004 and 2006.

The following morning after breakfast, we hit the road with Steve at the wheel on his 4×4 Land Cruiser Jeep, a 9 seater, open type, well equipped for photographic safaris with a covering tented hood. We arrived at the south gate of the Moremi Game Reserve (MGR) just in time for the picnic lunch.

After lunch, we were back on the road, now on gravel passing through thickly wooded areas mainly consisting of Mopane trees (the Mopane leaf is a favorite food of Elephants), and at times with open Savannah’s of the eastern side of the Okavango Delta towards Xakanaxa camp site which is located 41km from the south gate. However, due to the sighting of various wild animals (not predators though) and birds including Birds of Prey en route, it took us almost six hours to reach the camp site.

Our first two nights in the Okawanga Delta were at the Xakanaxa camp. When compared to my previous stays at mobile camping sites with Steve in 2006, on this occasion, he provided us with improved facilities. Each tent had en-suite bathroom facilities while the linen, mobile lighting, the sleeping area and the service was all better.

The weather during the month of October in Botswana is very dry and hot where the temperature goes above 40 deg C. But for wildlife photography, it is an advantage since the chances are greater of sighting predators at water holes during this dry season.

On the 16th morning, we were ready by 5:30am before sunrise for the game drive. On that morning game drive, we saw a large herd of buffalo over 500 in number and many birds of prey including a Bateleur Eagle. Although this area is the home for Wild Dogs in MGR, we missed sighting a pack, though we did come across an Impala carcass with Vultures on it. This was a kill made by the dogs that morning. In the afternoon, Steve arranged a boat excursion on the Xakanaxa lagoon, to go  in search of water birds including herons and storks. It was a bird watcher’s paradise especially for Tanky’s wife, Kumari.

The next morning as usual we were on the road by 5:45am. As we left the camp site,  Steve’s service team was getting ready to remove the tents and equipment to move to our next camp site located outside the north of MGR, facing the Khawai river.

During the morning hours, we came across the first Lion on this trip and a second big cat soon after. It was the first time that Thinesh and Suvi had seen Lions in the wild and it was a memorable photo op for them. We also sighted a pair of Wattled Cranes in the water on the wet land of Xakanaxa. This is a rare bird and the species is believed to be vulnerable within the African continent.

The following two nights at the camp by the Khawai river area out side the MGR was interesting. Visitors are permitted to go off the road outside the park and this gave a significant advantage to get closer to the wild life for better photography.   Once again, we missed the opportunity of sighting a pack of Wild Dogs and a Leopard the following morning. We had a glimpse of a few Lions across the river on the MGR border late evening on the second day.

On the 19th October morning before sunrise we were on the road driving towards Savute in the Chobe National park (CNP) where we were going to camp for six nights alongside the Savute channel, close to the Savute main gate. As soon as we entered the CNP from the Khawai boarder, a young adult male Lion crossed the road ahead of us, possibly looking for the pride we had seen the previous evening. It took us almost four hours to get to Savute. The terrain had completely changed to open savannah from the wooded forest we had experienced before.

We arrived at the Marabou pan in Savute in the afternoon, a place of action in Savute especially in the dry months. A pack of Wild Dogs was lying down under a tall tree when a bull elephant chased them to take the shade. It was the first sighting of Wild Dogs for my friends. There were a few bull Elephants at the pan drinking water. Water was supplied to the pan through an underground pipe line from a nearby deep well powered by a diesel driven pump and this is the only place for several miles where water is available for animals during the months of September and October.

When we arrived at the Savute camp site, Steve’s staff who had come there earlier were busy assembling our tented accommodation. The Savute channel nearby was completely dry when compared to my previous visit there in October 2010 when we could not cross the channel due to the water flow. After unloading our luggage, we went in search of the Savute Lions, who are famous for ambushing medium sized elephants for their survival. I have seen this unique pride of Lions when they were featured on the TV channel Animal Planet filmed largely in Savute. But unfortunately for us, they are active mostly at night. On the afternoon safari we observed a few Lions who were focused on a herd of Buffalo near the road, but there was no action.

The following morning at around 6am, we saw a pride of Lions known as the “Marsh Pride”, busy sharing a dead Impala stolen from a Cheetah. At the site we met the film crew who are specialized in capturing the interaction between Lions and Elephants in Savute. They are known to Steve. This crew has a permit to go off road and to film at night. According to Steve, they had filmed a few Elephant killings by the Marsh Pride during the months of September/October before our arrival in Savute.  Most were in the night but there was an instance when the pride had hunted an elephant in the morning and another in the afternoon in the area surrounding the Marabou pan. They had titled the phenomenon as “Double Killing” and we will probably see the story on Animal Planet, soon. The Marsh Pride consists of twelve with two dominant males. Later, we sighted two Leopards, one of which was by the road, with good lighting for photography during the golden hour in the morning (at sunrise).

The focus of our attention during rest of our stay at Savute was on the Marsh Pride and their movements during early morning hours and late afternoons. Every day we met the film crew and advance information from them was useful for our safari. But they hadn’t seen an Elephant kill during our six night stay in Savute. However, on one occasion the pride hunted a Warthog in the Savute marsh and there was tremendous excitement when the pride came to the Marabou pan on the day before our departure from Savute. Elephants who came to drink water from the pan were uneasy when they saw the pride of Lions and they tried a few times to chase the Lions away. But the Kings of Savute were not intimidated and they waited patiently and watched the elephants who drank water from the pan. They were waiting for the right time and the right size of prey to come out from the surrounding Mopane bushes. We spent nearly five hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon, hoping that the Lions will launch an attack on an Elephant prey. But it was not to be. However, I was able to take some great images of the pride on that day including a shot of nine Lions drinking water in a single frame and on two occasions a Lion chase of a Warthog.

During our ten day camping safari in the Okavango Delta, Kumari had a count of over 105 bird species sighted. Tanky has a keen interest in trees and enjoyed observing and learning about the many varieties of trees that we came across during the safari. Steve was able to provide useful information on the plant species that were of interest to Tanky. This was the first time that Steve had met a guest with so much interest in vegetation while on safari.

On the 25th October, we took a chartered flight from Savuti to Maun in the morning, and that afternoon from Maun to Johannesburg. Tanky and Kumari extended their trip for a few days to visit Cape Town while Suvi and I returned to Sri Lanka on the

26th afternoon and Thinesh returned to the USA from Johannesburg.

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