Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Botswana Camping Safari: Linyanti River

Following our Chobe River Boat Cruise in northeastern Botswana, we embarked on the 'real' safari portion of our adventure.

We piled into a truck and headed southwest, through Chobe National Park and onto a private wildlife concession on the Linyanti River. Not to make things too confusing, but the Chobe and Linyanti Rivers are the same river. It's also called the Cuando River up north.

Ten thousand years ago, the Linyanti River flowed due south, eventually joining the Okavango River and emptying into Lake Makgadikgadi, however tectonic uplift in the area caused the Linyanti to take an abrupt detour and head northeast, eventually meeting up with the Zambezi River. The Linyanti Swamp was formed in the area immediately north of the uplifted land and it was on the banks of this lovely swam that we found our camp. Thanks to that swamp, the area draws wildlife from thousands of miles and is known for large numbers of lions, elephants, and wild dogs. 

Image: Wilderness Safari Biome Map of Southern Africa. 

Rustic camping in Africa is not like camping that I've ever experienced in the pacific northwest. This is glamping at its finest. Think hot water bucket showers, raised cots, and delicious food. I decidedly prefer the type of camping that furnishes a personal chef, thankyouverymuch. That said, I was ready for a looong hot shower and some mosquito-free nights once we finally emerged from Northern Botswana. Nights are cold and days are blistering hot. In September there are clouds of mosquitos and the land is cloaked in dust. 

This wee bird is a Lilac-breasted Roller (Coracias caudata) and was probably the single most colorful bird we saw on the trip. Garish, no?

The lowly warthog (Phacochoerus aethiopicus).

Pretty he ain't. But at least he doesn't clothe himself in blindingly bright hues of red, purple, and blue. One would almost feel sorry for the poor warthog: Everybody in Linyanti finds him to be a tasty treat.

I'm partial to the giraffe. I was severely disappointed to learn that the big carnivores feast on these lovely animals. I was hoping that the threat of being kicked with a hoof the size of a dinner plate would have deterred a lion attack. But this is not the case.

How can you not love that awesomely awkward profile?

My Achilles heal of the trip: dust. In the car, in the tents, clothes, and hair. And worst of all: my eyes. Were I a well-heeled African Safari Person, I would have had lasik eye surgery prior to coming on this trip. Wearing dust-encrusted contacts was painful in the extreme.

The elephants liked it though.

One of the names of things that I could never remember. Guide Russell probably mentioned this tree a thousand times, but I couldn't tell you its name. Rather a nice picture, I think. But then again, I'm a sucker for a fuzzy background and clear forefront object.

Ah, the guineafowl. In this case, a Helmeted Guineafowl (Numida meleagris). Now this is a bird that I like, despite the flamboyant coloring. Maybe because the awkward proportions of this fowl render it so insanely comical. A tiny head upon a massively inflated body. Reminds me a bit of our chickens. I'll bet they're tasty, too.

The ever-present impala. A male, with the Linyanti Swamp in the background.

Another one, this one bathed in the early morning light. Called the 'Golden Arches' of the bush thanks to the lovely black 'M' on the toosh. Our guide's explanation: "Well, just like McDonald's, these beasties are plentiful and everyone likes to eat them."

I should talk about our surprise at discovering that the animals are quite unafraid of humans. Nowhere was this more apparent when we happened upon a pride of lions (as you'll see shortly). Were this a hunting concession, I'm sure it would be a different situation entirely. Here is Chris, taking a moment from some afternoon reading to keep an eye on a nearby herd of elephants.

This is another example of how I wished that I'd payed better attention to our guide. My faulty memory tells me that these are the casings of moth larvae that feed off of bone. In this case, the skull of a cape buffalo. Looks a bit like a buffalo with dreads.

I'm going to take a moment to discuss the circle of life here because I found it to be vaguely disturbing. In Linyanti, there are animals everywhere. You can't turn around without tripping over something big and bulky. [believe me, I was very careful when going off into the bush for a bathroom break. I didn't fancy a meeting with something big and bulky with my pants down 'round my ankles]. Anyway, with so many large mammals in the vicinity, I kept expecting to find hundreds of skeletons. They should be lying everywhere, right? Wrong. This skull was the only one I saw in Linyanti. Our guide Russell explained that hyenas are famous for eating bones, even the very thick skulls. They're after the marrow and a little ossified calcium phosphate won't get in their way. Which explains why they poo white bone meal. The bones that aren't devoured by the hyenas are used by moths, like the example above. A good example of the circle of life but for someone that lives in an area where bones stick around (and get mossy), their absence here was a bit unsettling.

Here are two young elephants roughhousing in the water. One of the elephants takes a quick breather and a nearby hippo takes a moment to surface and check out the situation.

Young Vervet Monkeys (Cercopithecus aethiops) at play.

Swamp fish.

The fearsome Cape Buffalo. Which always look to me like old women with Pipi Longstocking type hair-dos.

One of the guys in our group spotted a pride of six female lions and three cubs as we were driving along the water's edge. They were quickly dubbed Buster's Pride (in honor of their spotter, Buster). This picture was taken from a distance of about ten feet.

In the middle of the day, lions typically find a shady spot and park themselves, rarely moving from that prime location. When we arrived, they were relaxing among the trees. The babies were playing. Things were ducky. Until one of the girls noticed a herd of impala off in the distance. As a group they went off to investigate:

But it was hot out, so they sauntered. Slowly.

Look at how well this lion's coat perfectly blends with the dry desert grass.

One of the females was in charge of the cubs. The den mother.

At one point, the lead lion climbed a termite mound for a better view:

But the distance to the impala herd seemed like such a very long way. And it was so very hot out. So they found a nice bush and settled down to wait for nightfall. Those impala wouldn't stray very far from the water, anyway.

On this day, we were headed for the nearby Savuiti Channel, made famous by National Geographic filmmakers Beverly and Derek Joubert. The Savuti Channel connects the Linyanti River with the Savuti Marsh. It did, until one day in 1982 when the channel inexplicably dried up. I've borrowed the video descripton from Amazon :
Journey to Botswana, Africa, where the Savuti Channel slowly disappears. Reputed to have been a vast lake, the channel appeared in 1957, and then mysteriously began to vanish again in 1982. Seven years in the making, AFRICA'S STOLEN RIVER follows the gradual but unrelenting transformation of a one-time paradise into a land of struggle and competition for hippopotamuses, elephants, lions, hyenas, and countless other creatures whose very lives depend upon the plenty of the channel itself.

But we came in a very lucky year. For the Savuti Channel has started flowing again. The first time since 1982. The hippos are happy.

Ah, the ever-unfortunate looking Marabou Stork (Leptoptilos crumeniferus)

On our last day in Linyanti, as we were driving out to the airstrip for our flight to Selinda Camp, our guide gave a shriek and turned the truck off the road and headed straight for a lonely termite mound in the midst of the mopane trees. Evidently he had spotted something.

And what a prize: a young leopard. She was beautiful. And rather shy. She lounged in the grass for a while and then slipped away.

Aha! Some may prefer the fussy lilac-breasted roller but I fancy the comical Yellow-Billed Hornbill (Tockus leucomelas). Take a peek at that coloring. Doesn't he look a bit irate?

Northern Botswana is known for its packs of wild dogs (Lycaon pictus). Also called painted hunting dogs, they are designed for running, with long legs and a slime frame. Bailey looks like a fat tub o' lard next to one of these svelte pups. Don't worry Bailey, we love you just the same. Tubster.

They have been wiped out in Southern Africa due to to aggressive extermination efforts.  Northern Botswana is one of the few places where these canines can still be spied.

I'm borrowing a bit from Wikipedia here as the social structure of these animals is quite unusual:

In packs, there are separate male and female hierarchies that will split up if either of the alphas die. In the female group, the oldest will have alpha status over the others, so a mother will retain her alpha status over her daughters. For the males, in contrast the youngest male or the father of the other males will be dominant. When two such loner separate-gender groups meet, if unrelated they can form a pack together. Dominance is established without blood-shed, as most dogs within a group tend to be related to one another in some way.

And last but not least, the lovely zebra. How do you pronounce this word? I'd look at it and say: zee-bra. Evidently, I'm not like the rest of the world (aka Australians, South Africans, and Germans) as they pronounce it zeB-ra, with the emphasis on the 'zeb', not the 'ra'.