After touring in Kenya for one week, Lilani and I arrived in Johannesburg on the 12th September while my youngest son Ishanga, joined us on the same day from Colombo. After an overnight stay in Joberg, we took a flight to Maun and on the 13th September morning. From Maun we flew to Savuti in a 6 seater plane where we were booked to stay five nights at the Savuti Safari Lodge.
Approaching Savuti by air, we could see the elephants congregating around water pans. This was the dry season and water was scarce. We landed at the Savuti air strip by 1 pm, and we felt that it was much warmer and drier than in Masai Mara and the vegetation was very different. At the lodge, we were allocated a room overlooking a man-made water hole. The pond was only a few meters away from the balcony deck of our room, and one could sit for hours watching the elephants at play on the water. One side of the lodge complex including the dining area faces the Savuti Channel and it was nice to see the channel full of water even in the dry season. According to the lodge manager, it was after a long time that they had seen so much water in the channel.
African Wild Dogs are a personal favorite of mine from the wide variety of wild life found in Africa. On this trip, I was keen to focus on finding Wild Dogs and if they can be seen hunting, it would be a bonus. Compared to parks like Masai Mara seeing animals in Savuti was difficult, especially the big cats. On the afternoon of our arrival, we had been out for about two hours without any success, when the driver stopped the jeep for a short break in an open area. While we were enjoying a cup of coffee our driver received a radio message from another jeep, and animatedly he told us that Wild Dogs have been seen heading in our direction. Almost immediately, we caught sight of a pack of five Dogs coming towards us. They appeared to be in search of food. Generally, they hunt together to be more effective. We followed the Dogs for a few minutes and returned to the lodge as the sun set. Since the water hole in front of our balcony was lit, we could see the Elephants enjoying a drink in the night.
On the morning and afternoon drives we didn’t see anything noteworthy. While we were getting ready for dinner, I heard a voice from the dining area shouting Dogs! Dogs!. I rushed to the dining room with my Nikon D3 camera together with a 400mm 2.8, telephoto lens. A Wild Dog had just killed an Impala that had come to drink water from the Savuti Channel, only about 100 meters from the dining room deck. Lighting conditions were very poor for photography and the portable flash torch light from the lodge was useful to see the wild dog feeding on the prey. However, I used my driver’s shoulder to steady my camera as I had no time to set up a tripod and the equipment was heavy as the lens alone weighed more than 4 kgs. I adjusted the camera settings for optimal quality images in the low light conditions (400mm, 2.8, shutter speed 1/50 sec, ASA 6400). Shortly thereafter, the Dog left his kill and abruptly moved away and we were all wondering why. Then we realized that a Spotted Hyena had appeared on the opposite side of the channel and as we watched, it swam across the waterway and started feeding on the Dog’s kill with gusto. Later, dragging the Impala carcass, it swam back across the channel and disappeared from our sight. I had clicked over 300 shots within a few minutes as this drama unfolded! Had there been a pack of Dogs feeding on the prey, then the Hyena would probably not have dared to challenge them for the Dog kill.
The African Wild Dog is highly intelligent and they live in packs of six to twenty. Of the large carnivores, Wild Dogs are the most efficient hunters. The Spotted Hyenas are famed scavengers but also skilled hunters with good hearing and very sharp eyesight at night. Unlike in Masai Mara, the food resources available for predators in Savuti are also limited.
On the third day of our stay, we were able to find the resident pride of Lions with some difficulty but noticed that the pride had shrunk in numbers since I last saw them in 2006. Out driver informed us that a part of the pride had moved away from Savuti. I was also able to capture a few images of a Black-backed Jackal carrying a turtle, quite a rare sight! That afternoon, we were able to see a Leopard with a grown up cub feeding on Thomson Gazelle probably hunted by the mother.
We didn’t have much success on the fourth day. But, Ishanga was able spot the African Wild Cat in the late afternoon. This Cat is slightly larger than a domestic cat, solitary and nocturnal; lives almost entirely on small mammals and insects. Although, I had seen the African Wild Cat in the past, this was the first time I was able to capture a good image of it and add it to bamsafari.com.
Having seen most of the big cats as well as the Wild Dogs, we didn’t have a particular agenda for the fifth day of our stay in Savuti. On the morning drive, we came across the same pack of five Wild Dogs we had seen before. On our way back to the lodge for lunch, we spotted a female Cheetah on the road side and as we followed her discreetly she gave chase to an Impala, but failed in her attempt to catch it. In the afternoon drive, we went in the same direction to for another sighting of this Cheetah. We did find her again but she was in a different area, quite a distance from place we had seen her that morning. As we watched, she did another high speed run in pursuit of an Impala but failed again. The Cheetah can maintain its speed only for short bursts before fatigue sets in and it has to give up the chase if it fails to catch the prey within a couple of minutes. They are sprinters, not long distance runners. On average, a Cheetah is successful in catching its prey one in every ten tries. Being a light and agile cat, it also struggles to protect its kill from bigger, stronger predators that often steal a hard earned meal from a hapless Cheetah.
We left Savuti by noon on the 18th September to Maun by air. Overall, it was an unforgettable trip where we experienced what I call Savuti Magic. From Maun we took a flight to Cape Town for the continuation of our African Safari 2010 – Blue Planet.