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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!