The folk who travelled with me on this safari were repeat clients. We had last travelled together in Botswana early in 2010. Based on our experiences on that safari, we planned our 2011 very carefully with some specific photographic goals in mind. We were looking for strong elephant viewing, a good chance of big predators, and good bird photography opportunities.
We started our trip with two nights at Savuti Bush camp. Photo opportunities included the Linyanti wild dog pack late one afternoon, and spending time with a big male leopard known as the Dumatau male. He was resting in a dead tree when we got to him, but after waiting for while, rewarded us with a two mile walk through part of his territory. The solitary male cheetah also put in an appearance, and we were able to get some images of him walking through woodland near the Linyanti River. We also saw some big zebra herds, as well as buffalo and wildebeest.
We flew the 45 minute hop to Kasane and then transferred to Chobe Game Lodge for two nights. Here we ignored game drives and instead concentrated on boating the Chobe River. This decision paid off with some great photo opportunities for birds, as well as elephants and crocodiles. Some highlights included a clash between a fish-eagle and a goliath heron. African skimmers were plentiful. We were able to photograph them in flight, and also skimming along the water surface and even interacting with other birds. We also managed to photograph a wire-tailed swallow as it fed two chicks in their nest. Giant and pied kingfishers, yellow-billed storks, spoonbills, marabous and open-billed storks were all abundant.
From the mid-mornings onward there were numerous herds of elephant to be seen along the river banks. Operating from the boat meant that we were able to avoid the busier parts of the national park, which are the roads around this eastern entrance, especially around game drive times. The boats make for surprisingly stable photographic platforms, and also enable silent and smooth approaches to subjects that are in the water or close to the edge. One just has to be sure to shoot in continuous focus mode, or rather Ai Servo if you are Canon shooter.
Another 45 minute flight took us to Dumatau, in the west of the Linyanti private concession. Here we spent five nights, which is around twice as long as the average visitor stays, but it paid off for us handsomely. Game viewing pulses and ebbs from day to day, depending on where certain animals may be found, and depending on what we find.
For us, Dumatau was the right place at the right time on our trip. The local pack of wild dogs, the Linyanti pack, were in the vicinity of camp almost every day, and we enjoyed watching them hunt, socialize and rest, and even saw them being chased away by some bad-tempered young elephants. A bonus was a second pack of wild dogs, those known as the Zibadianja pack, also showing up, on the south bank of the Savute channel. On two days we had sightings of both wild dog packs. Two big male lions had killed a buffalo along the channel, and we visited them early one morning as they dragged the carcass under some bushes, and away from vultures hoping to scavenge on the carcass. Another photographic bonus was a good number of groups of huge bull elephants. Some of these giant pachyderms were extremely relaxed in the presence of our vehicle, and we were able to take full photographic advantage of their calm natures.
Ultimately though, it was the leopards that stole the show. We had numerous sightings of the big male leopard that dominates the area, including seeing him at close quarters resting on a termite mound with elephants all around him. There were female leopards too. An adult female leopard and her almost fully-grown independent daughter were sharing an impala kill high in a sausage tree. The younger female was dominating the food, and when she moved away from the food to a different part of the tree, the mother sprang up the tree trunk. To my surprise, instead of going straight to the carcass, the mother made an attack on her daughter, which resulted in a brief but violent scuffle in the tree, and a ten metre fall for the mother leopard. She thumped to the ground in a cloud of dust, and stood, back arched and motionless, for long minutes, just recovering herself before walking off. Later we followed the same female as she reunited with a pair of tiny cubs. First she interacted with them, licking their fur clean very diligently, and playfully moving them around. Then, when one cub followed her out of the hiding hole in the ground, she gently picked it up and carried it off to a new hiding place, a large, fallen, dead tree. This intimate sighting was extremely special to see, as female leopards are quite secretive with very young offspring.
A camp in the north-western Okavango Delta was our last stop for two nights. A small pride of lions attempting to hunt zebra was memorable. We also watched a young male leopard, recently independent, attempting to reconnect with his mother after a chance meeting, but with no success. The adult female rebuffed his affectionate behavior, much to the young males surprise. We had other good photographic opportunities at Tubu with a very big, very good-looking male lion resting on a termite mound, and herds of zebra, wildebeest and a good variety of birds. An unexpected bonus was being able to photograph a troop of chacma baboons crossing a shallow river channel.
Whilst northern Botswana may not be at its prettiest in a typical September, with hazy atmospheric conditions resulting from airborne dust and smoke particles, the photographic opportunities are many, and there is some element of predictability to the movements of the wildlife in some areas.
At the end of twelve days we all felt that the trip had been extremely productive, and had delivered what we had hoped for in all respects. Undoubtedly for me the highlight photographically was the leopard and her cub.