Welcome to SKJ Travel ... my narrative blog where you can join me vicariously as I adventure around the world. In the archives you'll find posts from some of my travels ... these are very casual "letters to home" style accounts of what I did, with lots of photos. To read my formal articles, they're listed in each archive home page, or visit one of the blue buttons above: Articles/Guest Posts, Interviews, or Literary SKJ, or see the Travel Essays section (right side below archive -- mostly documentaries). Friday Photos are updated weekly, and Tuesday Tales are updated sporadically. You can follow SKJ Travel on social media at:
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Welcome to Part 2 of safari through the Nxai Pan national game reserve in Botswana. Get your safari shirts on, and let's get up in the pre-dawn to see what's out there! You won't need binoculars for this one. ;) All pics in this post can be viewed larger by right-clicking on them to open in a new tab.
So in Part 1, I shared mostly photos of lone animals we encountered. (we = me and my guide, Jane, of Ulinda Safari Trails) This time I'll present mostly groups of animals. Nearly all our elephant sightings were of lone bulls, and most of them were in musth at the time (full of hormones for the ladies, often extra aggressive, easily visible by leakage from glands on their temples -- you can see their skin is wet, like these glands are crying). But our first day, we did see this trio at one of the water holes. A drinking force! But the one guy must have scored some particularly delicious water, as his companions seemed eager to get in on his trunkful!
A few more waterhole elephants ... I just never tire of watching them interact with their environment. Using their trunks and feet and floppy ears .....
Here's something I hadn't quite seen before. These are the creatures that thrive on elephant poo: dung beetles. Sure, I've seen them rolling their dung balls all over Africa, but I usually see just one at a time cruising around on his peculiar mission (and they cruise at a remarkable speed pushing their balls along). This was the first time I'd ever seen a whole party of beetles swarming and digging through a huge pile of dung. This reminds me, when I participated in the Walking With African Wildlife census project, my friend and fellow volunteer, Conrad, said one day, "It should be called Walking Through African Poop." Or something along those lines ... because between the huge piles left by elephants and rhinos, and the copious animals in zebra, wildebeest and antelope herds, the ground really is covered in animal excrement. You can see why it is a dung beetle's paradise.
But on to some larger, less Juraissac creatures. Although, only a step further in time comes the explosion of our feathered friends. And ostriches do look like one of the more prehistoric specimens, walking around on such tall legs, not even bothering to fly. I have yet to score a guinely good photo of an ostrich. I can never get them in crisp focus, not sure why. But here are a couple hanging out near a waterhole whose behavior was amusing me. In the first pic, the male seems to be having some choice words with the female. And in the second pic, it looks as though the female has just given up in exasperation.
My first morning in the park, setting out before dawn, as is usual for game drives, we came across a pride of 13 lions sleeping near the road, with several of them sleeping smack-dab in the middle of it. We stopped and watched them for about 45 minutes even though they weren't particularly spritely, it was still awesome to me to watch even their slightest interactions, for I've witnessed very little of this in the wild. As I said in Circling the Nxai Pan Part 1, there were few other people in the small park, so even though this was pretty much the highlight going on, there were only half-a-handful of other vehicles watching them with us. One of them was a fellow from BBC who had been stationed there in the Nxai Pan for 6 months to film the big cats in the park. Lucky him, he had a special permit he could drive off the roads wherever he pleased. However, in this case, no off-road necessary! The accommodating lions came right to us.
Something of interest at the perimeter! This intrepid young one heads out to check it out. He has a lot of growing to do, judging by the size of his big, floppy paws!
This little guy was so adorable, the most sociable of the pride, at least on this morning, jonesing for some love and play time. He went up to each lion in the pride one by one and nudged their head with his. Then sometimes he pawed at the other lion and tried to get it to play with him. A couple young ones complied and they tussled about for a bit. But what was most adorable was just the affection you can see between the lions, just as clearly as you can see it between humans.
Here's a little lion with a great big roar! Or, well, maybe it was just a yawn. In any case ... he's growing a nice set of canines!
Someday he will be a big boy watching the sunsets all alone. I don't know if that's sad or not. It's nice to see the lions grow up, but then the males are so often alone. Well, this majestic fellow looks like he's having a pleasant enough evening all by his lonesome, watching the sun set in the Nxai Pan.
So off we went to dinner and bed as well. The following morning, we got up pre-dawn for the morning game drive, and it turned out to be one of the most magical mornings I've ever experienced. It was on account of the perfect lighting and still water at this waterhole where a herd of zebra were gathered around. We tried to repeat the experience the next morning, but it wasn't even close. This morning all the right ingredients came together to make a stunning pink light in the air with a dark blue, brooding horizon, and the water in the hole was perfectly still, casting beautifully-rendered reflections. It got a little chaotic at times with all the stripes both on land and on water.
And this below is perhaps my very favorite capture from my time in Botswana. A profoundly magical morning.
When we went back the next morning in hopes of finding another dream at the waterhole, not only was the light flat and the sky and water gray, but there weren't very many zebras near the water. They were clearly very spooked over something. They kept their distance from the water, then occasionally a few would step in briefly to drink and then run back, all skittish. We presumed there had recently been a predator there, provoking their caution. And eventully we saw the clear evidence that our theory was correct, as we could see a horrendous, fresh gash in the hind quarters of one of the zebras. I guess he's lucky he got away, but I imagine that wound stings a bit.
The zebras were entertaining to watch, as the males would abruptly get all rambunctious and nippy, and start little scuffles that most of the time were over before I could get my eye to my camera. This is probably the best action shot I managed, with the back end of an elephant in the audience in front of me.
This time I got the front end of an elephant framed by zebras on the sides. :)
And some deceptive zebra love ... it looks like they're all friendly and I just presumed that if they're touching their muzzles together, it must be out of affection. But then in the blink of an eye, two affectionate muzzles would be biting each other and whining, and then the zebras would start kicking and bucking, and I'd get all excited and get my eye to the camera, which was their cue to settle down again and be temporary friends!
And now may I have a drumroll, please. ............ Thank you. There was one animal in particular that I had particularly high hopes of seeing. I have seen them in the wild before, in South Africa and Namibia, but they were either brief or very far away. Cheetahs are my favorite of the big cats, and I was just really keen on seeing some close-up. From the descriptions of the Nxai Pan in the rainy season, it seemed not completely unreasonable to carry this hope. However, by the end of our safari time there, we had not seen any. We had packed up and were heading out to Central Kalahari Game Reserve. Neither Jane nor I was in "safari mode" with eyes peeled for wildlife. We were nearly at the park's gate. I was playing back in my head all the marvelous animals I had seen, comforting myself that the lack of cheetahs had not spoiled or lessened the safari in any way. Then Victor yelled out, "Cheetah! Cheetah!"
"What? Where?" I bolted upright in my seat and began looking around frantically. I presumed he had spotted one far off on the plains, and I was scrambling to find binoculars. "Where? Where?"
"Right there!" Victor said, sounding incredulous that I couldn't spot them. But neither had Jane.
"Right where?" I was desperate.
"Right THERE!" and then the other staff gasped. "To your left!"
There were two cheetahs to our left (my side of the vehicle), most likely brothers. And if I'd looked at them with binoculars, all I would have seen would have been a whisker or two. They really were right there. In the shade of some trees and bushes finishing up some springbok, blood still on their mouths. The springbok was not there; they must have drug some of the meat off from the kill into the shade. I squealed like a pig, I was beside myself with joy and excitement.
We stayed for nearly 30 minutes watching them. As we finally pulled away, my eyes literally began welling up with tears, I was so damn happy.
So a week of safari in the Kalahari region was stellar; I enjoyed every minute of it, even if those minutes weren't packed with the numbers of animals one might see in other game reserves and national parks. But there was one little episode that was highly unpleasant and could have been and should have been worse. I didn't deserve to be as lucky as I was ... near disaster for a vain photo of myself with my two cameras and new lenses. About a minute after this picture, the camera on the left with my 150-600 lens fell onto the ground.
If you can believe it, the only damage was to the battery door on the camera. I had a large hood on the lens, and the ground had some give, being the rainy season where it had some moisture in it. The camera continued to work for another couple days. But then the battery door was too loose, it couldn't maintain contact with the batteries. So I only had one working camera for my whole trip in Namibia (where I traveled to after Botswana), but at least I had one! Can't wait to come back to Botswana next year!
please note all photos in this article may be viewed larger by opening in a new tab (right-click)
I had heard about this relatively obscure, off-the-beaten-track park from a Facebook friend. He had posted a couple photos, and I thought to myself that if I ever found myself in the vicinity, I would have to go check it out. The Paint Mines Interpretive Park is located on the eastern plains of Colorado, pretty much due east of Colorado Springs, near the town of Calhan. It's a small affair and you can see the whole thing at a leisurely, discovery pace in three hours or less. From the highway near it, you would never guess such a magical little world exists a stone's throw away. (well, a pretty strong throw ... a pro in Scottish athletics could maybe manage, haha)
It's a fantastical world of colored clay beds capped in white sandstone. The canyons and the spires and hoodoo formations are relatively small now, but a million years from now, who knows!
For a sense of scale of most of the formations, here's Erik for a ruler. You may have to look kind of hard to find him in the first pic!
But the super cool parts are the colored, "painted" rocks of yellow and orange, pinkish-red and purple. It's kind of hard to believe it's natural geology and not actually painted by human beings like some elaborate outdoor art exhibit. Instead, it's nature's resource that humans have come here to use as a material for color in their own art and craftwork -- mining the paint, so to speak.
You can walk paths through the formations (if you are respectful, you'll stick to the paths and not climb all over the formations, as the park regualtions request). And I really thought this was a special brand of fun, exploring whimsical nature, imaginative nature. I know that I often refer to Mother Nature's exceptional imagination, but really, she knocked herself out on this one.
Here's what HistoryColorado.org has to say about the paint mines: "Archaeological investigation, funded through a State Historical Fund grant, has substantiated prehistoric and historic American Indian occupation as evidenced by the finding of stone dart tips, arrow heads, and petrified wood used in tool manufacturing. The local clay was mined for use in ceremonial paint as well as pottery making. A homestead site within the boundary confirms the use of the property by Euro-American settlers in the 1800’s. The significance of the site has led to the designation of the Calhan Paint Mines Archaeological District by the National Park Service. Used by hikers, birdwatchers and as an outdoor laboratory by geology students, the site has come under the protection of the El Paso County Parks Department."
A close-up view of erosion starting to take place beneath the white sandstone cap ... a miniature world from a lavish dream. Or from a Dali dream!
On the high ground above the mines (which have eroded from the land surface downward), there's a large wind farm. One can easily see why they chose that location, as there was a strong and steady breeze throughout our visit. They looked a bit majestic up there. Hopefully this little bird flying near was smart enough to stay clear! (he's between the pole and lower-right blade)
I've certainly never seen anything quite like this park in my life. I was truly enchanted. And we had a few critters for company, too!
please note that photos in this post can be viewed larger by right-clicking on them to open in a new tab
I had the hardest time deciding how to divide up the photos for two posts on the Nxai Pan, because to put them all in only one post would result in a behemoth. I could choose to include fewer photos, but what's the fun in that? I had such a good time with my new cameras and lenses, I see no need to restrain myself. So do I divide up into different types of animals per post? Chronological order of my three days there? Close my eyes and select a random assortment from my file folder with my mouse? Honestly, it's such an inconsequential decision, I mean it doesn't really matter at all, that I can't even admit the exact amount of time I spent thinking about it. In the end, I went basically with the last mode of selection. An assortment of different animals, but with a loose theme of lone animals, or at least alone in the photo.
The Nxai Pan (pronounced "nigh" pan) is part of the Kalahari desert region of Botswana. It's a relatively small national game park situated in a salt flat (a "pan"). The title of this virtual safari is "circling the Nxai Pan" because that's basically what we did every day, as there are only a few routes through the small park, unlike some places such as Kruger NP where you can drive for days without retracing your steps, we mostly just circled through the park over and over. Traveling as a one-girl private safari with my awesome guide, Jane, of Ulinda Safari Trails, Jane secured a private camping spot available only to guides who belong to a particular guiding association, far away from the public campground -- just a clearing in the trees in the middle of the bush. I can't tell you how refreshing it was not only to get back to Africa but to be out in the quiet bush in my little tent (well, actually the size was quite generous) with no people around save the safari staff (who were all there to cater just to little ol' me).
My first night, though, I spent in a hostel in Maun and Jane picked me up the next morning to begin the safari. It was a lovely place with huge tents for accommodations, and a river to view right outside the tent. So I spent that first evening split between drinking Tafel at the bar and testing out my new lenses. There was a pied kingfisher on a tree branch above the river that I tested my 150-600 on (below). There were hippos in the river, but too far away to get a picture of.
So off to the Nxai Pan. I had low expectations for seeing wildlife, which are not numerous in the Kalahari region to beging with, and in the rainy season animals are more scattered throughout the parks rather than gathered at waterholes as they are in the dry season. But there was reputedly a reasonable chance of spotting the big cat predators during this time, and also, unlike the Central Kalahari Game Reserve which was my other destination, elephants were said to be a possibility to see here as well. These are all of my favorite animals in Africa, so it was at least worth a shot!
And how pleased was I when we saw an elephant almost immediately?!? Well, I'll let you guess. And look how friendly he was, to boot! Erik captioned this photo that the elephant just needed a top hat and cane, as he looked like he was about to break out into song -- "hello my baby, hello my honey, hello my ragtime gal ..." He was easy to identify when we ran into him again in the future because of his lone tusk. And he really was a performer! I almost wonder if the animals have a Far Side-esque Broadway production unit, and this guy was at the waterhole practicing his performance for the humans before his big night on stage with the animal audience. Check out his dance moves in the second photo.
And then this fella came along, friendly as could be, as well. He was very interested in us, indeed, getting a right proper sniff of us at close range.
And then I was super excited to get a photo of a giraffe with oxpeckers on its face. It's not an original subject by a long shot (heh), but it's one that having seen other peoples' captures of this common scene, I have for whatever reason always felt envious and wanted a shot like that for myself. So, yay, I finally got one.
But the awesomeness only ratcheted up as time went by. I had seen few lions on my prevous safaris to that point ... which was a little disappointing, but not severely so, since I had seen at least a few. I had seen only one male, in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi National Park in South Africa, but he was old and emaciated and it was dusk and I only got one blurry photo of him. So I was a joyous little me to see this beautiful specimen standing underneath a tree looking at me. He walked on close enough to the road that we could follow him (he was still quite far in the distance, below, zoomed at 550mm and cropped in). He stopped to mark some territory.
Jane tried to predict his trajectory and we drove faster past him to a spot where she thought he might end up crossing our path. And so my joy meter just about maxed out and broke when indeed he did show up, and not just that, but came directly toward our vehicle in a slow, regal pace. A male lion at close range! I couldn't ask for much better.
Lionesses are regal creatures, too! We saw a pride of 13 lions, and I'll show more of them in another post. But what a beautiful couple the lion above and this lioness would make!
This young lion knows how to pose! He and his pal were snoozing in the road. And you might know by now that I love pictures of animals with their tongues out. I have no idea why, I just get excited everytime I see that I captured a tongue. :)
It's understandable why so many people call the lion "the king of the jungle." I always presumed it was an accurate title until I volunteered in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi national park in South Africa where we walked on foot through the park taking census data on the herbivores. Each volunteer was paired with an armed ranger to protect us from dangerous animals. One of the first things we were taught by the Zulu rangers was that there was another animal who trumped the lion. They would ask us, "Who is the king of the jungle?" And we quickly learned to reply, "The elephant!" One ranger was fired for telling the volunteer in his charge that if they came across an elephant, the volunteer was on his own, the ranger intended to run. (read another ranger account, "Run!" in my Tuesday Tales) No other animal would cause a ranger to call off a transect than an elephant. Lions they would walk by, no problem -- cautiously, but without any real hesitation. Elephants ... different matter.
So I had to laugh at this scene one evening at a waterhole in the Nxai Pan when a male lion was hanging out peacefully, all relaxed and chill. Then a male elephant came sauntering up to the hole while the lion eyed him warily, and it was as if the lion had an invisible line in his head that if the elephant crossed it, that was it for him. Well, the elephant crossed it, and the lion jumped up and walked away, a bit annoyed at having to leave his cozy spot. I wish I had had a wide-angle lens on so I could have captured both ends of the scene, with the elephant and lion in the same shot. But I couldn't, so here's the elephant approaching, and the lion leaving.
Now here are some more elephant performances. Allow me to recommend this troupe for top-notch entertainment whenever you are in the area!
Well since we're on the theme of solo animals ... here's one of solo traveler me beside an 800-year old baobab tree. We had to drive quite a ways from our campsite in the Nxai Pan to reach them, they're known as Baines Baobabs after a painter who made a famous painting of them in the 1800s. Pretty impressive specimens. Apparently, baobabs grow vigorously for the first 250 years and then slow down. This grove of trees looks almost identical to the way it looked in the 1862 painting. This grove isn't special to have lived this long, that's just the normal life span of a baobab if left alone. I've seen pictures of them on the internet so big that people have carved out of the trunk whole rooms such as a bar and a post office.
I'd never really seen a vulture up close until now. This is a lappet-faced vulture, whose head, although it spends its time inside of rotting carcasses all day, is rather pretty.
He had been hanging around waiting for another scavenger to finish his meal -- a black-backed jackal. Unfortunately I botched the photos of this scene, but it was interesting to watch the jackal with this fresh springbok carcass (probably eaten by lions in the night). He really wanted to drag it off, probably to his den, and he tugged and tugged at it and managed to drag it along for a short distance. But finally decided it was easier to just sit down and eat there.
There were many zebras in the park, and typically we saw them in close quarters with one another in sizable herds. But of course there are always the loners. But if the zebra below was hoping for a solo portrait, he was photobombed by the little zebra poking his head up behind him.
And we'll close out today's virtual safari with a look at my sweet digs, at our private campsite inside the Nxai Pan national park. Wherein I kept Jane up far too late drinking wine and chatting after dinner.
Goodnight! You can just glimpse my bed inside on the right where I fell alseep each night so peaceful and content, so free.