The alarm on Jason’s phone went off at 5 in the morning to ensure that we could start our game drive as soon as the gate opened. The rain had stopped, and the only sound was a ground hornbill ‘booming’ in the distance, so we took everything out of the Cruiser that we didn’t need for the drive and got into the car. We were out of the camp by 5:45 and driving across the plain in the cool early morning light. The sun had still not risen but it was getting lighter every minute. Stewart decided to take the Mbomba Loop near the camp that we’d started exploring the day before. We found ourselves driving through an area of mature woodland with towering trees and dense thickets. Woodland kingfishers trilled from the trees while I searched the bushes for a glimpse of anything. Just as I was starting to get lulled by the sound of the engine, Stewart braked the car hard and said: ‘wild dogs’. For a second, I thought he was joking, then I saw one standing on the road ahead of us barely 10 metres from the car. Then about 8 more appeared on the road behind him, and even more from the bushes around the car. I actually teared up. The animal that wanted to see the most in Botswana and that I’d never seen before was suddenly right in front on me and all around me.
The dogs didn’t seem too bothered by the massive Land Cruiser in their path. They just walked right the car (it was almost unreal to have them so close). About 10 smaller dogs, grown up pups from the alpha pairs latest litter, brought up the rear. Once the whole pack had passed us, Stewart turned the Cruiser around and we followed them. At first we only caught up with a few of the pups who were chewing on dead palm fronds. Then we found the whole pack milling around. Some were lying down, others were walking to and fro while the pups playing tug of war with palm fronds that they found lying around. It was only now that the light was good enough for me to start taking decent photos. The markings on their coats were just beautiful and what’s more each dog has a different pattern, like a fingerprint. One of the dogs also had a collar on, which logically meant that it could be the alpha female (researchers tend to collar the alpha pair for tracking purposes). Then as if on some invisible signal the whole pack started moving. Soon we were struggling to keep up with them. We eventually saw them on the opposite side of a floodplain sniffing the ground. When we got closer we saw that the entire pack had gathered around something. As we got closer, we realised it was an old giraffe carcass. The dogs were transfixed by it, sniffing every inch of it. Now and then a dog would jump backwards as if it had been given an electric shock. We theorised that the carcass was an old lion kill and the dogs were picking up the scent of their most feared enemy. It was a incredible piece of behaviour to witness. Then one by one the dogs ran into the woods behind them in single file and vanished.
Completely blown away by what we had seen, we decided to explore the rest of the floodplain to try and find the dogs again. Two hooded vultures perched in a tree above the carcass while a white-backed vulture flew down to look for scraps, and on the other side of the floodplain three wattled cranes stood preening themselves. A Senegal coucal perched on a dead tree while four red lechwe stood in another clearing further off to our left. We turned around after the road we were taking ended in a deep river and we passed the clearing where the lechwe were, we saw zero lechwe but instead the wild dogs all running in one direction. We had just caught part of a hunt! We tried to follow the action but all we found were some members of the pack lingering in the clearing. We waited a bit to see if we could see or hear anything, but nothing happened. So we left the stragglers lying in the clearing and continued our drive.
First Contact: my first ever sighting of wild dogs was one to remember.
They may be big, but these pups will always enjoy a game (@Callum Evans).
Some of the pack decide to take a break (@Callum Evans).
To be able to spend time with a pack of wild dogs has got to be one of the most incredible experiences of my life (@Callum Evans).
Follow your nose (@Callum Evans).
At one point we found the whole pack in an open area surrounding an old giraffe carcass, most likely an old lion kill (@Callum Evans).
The dogs seemed absolutely fascinated by the carcass. Every now and then one of them would jump back as if it had been shocked (@Callum Evans).
Eventually, only a few dogs were left sniffing the old kill while the rest of the pack vanished into the forest behind them (@Callum Evans).
A Senegal coucal barely 50 metres from the dogs (@Callum Evans).
We decided next to take the loop past where we’d had the hairy encounter with the hippo bull the day before. We past a group of three pans surounded by dozens of marabou, yellow-billed and saddle-billed storks, great egrets, grey herons, sacred ibis’s and a spoonbill. A pair of fish eagles were engaging in a duet with their iconic call, a small crocodile rested on the edge of one pan and groups of impala rams were having sparring matches nearby too. As we drove past the hippo’s pool we stopped to watch a herd of lechwe rams that were grazing next to the road. We also found out that the bull hippo we’d seen yesterday was in fact part of a large group that lived in the lagoon. They were not happy with us driving so close to the water and kept their eyes on us the whole time. We explored the edge of the swamps for a while, finding several hamerkops, fish eagles, saddle-billed storks, a white-winged tern, groups of lechwe and a few more hippos. We stopped for breakfast at about 8 in the morning by a pan that was home to a couple of hippos, a spoonbill and few skittish impala’s. A black cuckoo called from the top of a tree close while we stood leaning against the Cruiser eating cereal. I think this must be one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever had breakfast in. How many people can say that they’ve had breakfast in the Okavango Delta while watching hippo’s and spoonbills and listening to cuckoo’s and kingfishers?
Marabou storks, great egrets, and grey heron gather around a pan (@Callum Evans).
A young painted stork reflecting (@Callum Evans).
A young lechwe ram, part of a bachelor herd of about 12 (@Callum Evans).
A mature lechwe ram with his magnificent pair of curved horns (@Callum Evans).
Impala’s are definitely one of the most beautiful antelopes (@Callum Evans).
Finally managed to get a good photo of a hamerkop (@Callum Evans).
A post-breakfast selfie (@Jemma Kieser).
After breakfast we decided to explore the loops around Second Bridge. We found a large troop of baboons around a pan on the edge of forest where groups of impala, warthogs and tsessebe grazed in between the dead trees that lilac-breasted rollers and carmine bee-eaters perched on. We came across a herd of giraffe feeding on the fruit of a sausage tree and the usual groups of zebra and wildebeest. We also found a large pan teeming with waterbirds, including great white and pink-backed pelicans, and a few enormous crocodiles. But the best part of driving that area was coming round a corner and bumping into a massive herd of buffalo emerging from the woodlands. They just kept coming and coming, moving right past the Cruiser and onto the plains surrounding a nearby pan grazing continuously as they went. Some of them glared at us for a few minutes before moving on, which is always a little bit unnerving. Eventually the whole herd, about 800 animals, were spread out across the plains and we decided to leave them in peace. On the way back to camp, the sun started beating down on us with a vengeance, and we didn’t see much except a large water monitor lizard and a flock of collared pranticoles.
Perhaps the most common bird of the entire trip, a lilac-breasted roller (@Callum Evans).
A buffalo cow takes a break from grazing to glare at us (@Callum Evans).
An entourage of yellow-billed oxpeckers (@Callum Evans).
Part of the 800 (+/-)strong herd gathering on the plains around a series of pans (Callum Evans).
A water thick-knee trying to be as inconspicuous as possible (@Callum Evans).
Back at the camp, we all went to go shower almost immediately. Having come from a city currently in the middle of a water crisis, it was such a luxury to have a long cold shower without the fear of running out of water! The next four hours we spent just relaxing and reading in our camp chairs in the shade of the sausage tree until four when we had booked the boating safari. I did walk around the empty campsites for a bit looking for birds. I found a comfortable log in the shade and sat on the edge of the reeds quietly watching. A monitor lizard moved off into the reeds as I sat down, and three black crakes tiptoed through the mud at the water’s edge. Red-billed hornbills and woodland kingfishers flew in between the trees in the campsites and a brown scrub-robin, red-billed firefinches, hartlaubs babblers, blue waxbills, a striped skink and a couple of tree squirrels all formed part of the support cast that moved through the bushes in search of food. After that it was back to camp for another shower before the boat trip.
A red-billed hornbill at Third Bridge Camp (@Callum Evans).
Just before 4pm, we walked down the jeep track through the reeds towards the jetty where the boats were. Our guide, KP, arrived a couple of minutes after us. He was full of knowledge and had a great personality and sense of humour (he kept saying that we’d seen river dolphins on the river!). After a quick safety briefing and getting the seating arrangements worked out for even weight distribution, we were pulling out of the jetty and heading down the narrow channel lined by walls of papyrus, bulrushes, elephant grass and ferns. We had entered the swamps of the Okavango, another dream come true. The channel became wider after a while and we began to see trails made by hippos and massive openings in the reeds created by elephants crossing the river. Whenever KP saw something he’d put the brakes on and wait until we’d seen enough. Throughout the whole drive up the river there was always this one squacco heron that would seemingly wait for us to get close enough before taking off and flying slightly further downstream but never quite out of the sight. He was almost acting like a guide to use, leading the way up the river. Not long after we first saw the heron, the rotten putrid stench of carrion hit our nostrils like a punch in the face. Two hooded vultures perched in a tree near the river confirmed our suspicions that there was a carcass just out of sight. Then suddenly the surface of the river exploded, and I turned just in time to see the head of a massive crocodile vanish under the surface. He seemed to be trying to find a way through the reeds to get at the carcass. We waited with baited breath to try and see him again, but we only caught another brief glimpse. Further downstream we began to see a whole variety of birds. We pulled up right next to a pair of pied kingfishers that were on the lookout for fish. I’d never been that close to a pied kingfisher before, and to make things even better one of them dived into the water next to the boat after a fish (he didn’t catch it though). Tiny malachite kingfishers shot in front of the boat like little shiny blue bullets and a black coucal took off from the reeds while its coppery-tailed cousins sang with their bubbling voices in the reed beds. Flocks of pranticoles and a herd of lechwe gathered on a plain that we could see through a gap in the reeds, and a grove of water berry trees yielded 5 stunning African green pigeons and, best of all, an elusive rufous-bellied heron.
Along the river we also stopped at two lagoons to see if there was anything interesting in or around them. The first lagoon was only home to a purple heron, and a few darters, reed cormorants and jacanas, but the second lagoon (which was the furthest upriver that we went) was full of surprises. As we rounded the bend in the river, the narrow channel became a wide flat expanse water with rafts of floating water lilies. And standing on the far bank was a massive elephant bull. I was so happy, because we hadn’t seen an elephant in over 30 hours and I had been starting to get worried. But just seeing that bull standing in the water, immense and confident, just made all of the feelings of doubt vanish in an instant. As we got closer, three more elephants appeared behind the bull. KP was brilliant, expertly manoeuvring the boat up against the bank barely a few metres from the elephants without spooking them. The bull looked at us for a few minutes, shook his head once, and then rested his trunk on his left tusk before following his three companions, who were slightly more nervous of us. The lagoon was also home to several hippos (the ‘river dolphins’ KP said we’d see!), who were not happy with us coming into their territory. As KP maneuvered the boat closer to the pod, the hippos would disappear under the water only to burst out a minute or two later. Leaving them in peace, we made our way back to camp, racing an African darter that was flying next to us as KP sped back into the channel. On the way back, we had a rare slaty egret fly overhead and we passed the place where the smell of carrion was coming from, only to see the massive shape of a crocodile swim under the boat. We got back to the boat station 15 minutes later than we should have been, but it was worth it! Before we got the fire going in our campsite, we decided to first go and watch the sunset. With no fences around the campsite, we picked a mound right on the edge of camp that overlooked the plains. Distant herds of wildebeest and zebra ran about in the distance while sun slowly vanished behind the trees. As the sun vanishes, hyenas began to whoop around the campsite and the hippos emerged from the river and the sounds of them snorting at each other echoed through the night. It’s makes really hard to focus on eating curry with that going on behind you!
Thick beds of bulrushes, elephant grass, papyrus, ferns and reeds lined the banks of the river (@Callum Evans).
A pied kingfisher, possibly the most widespread species on kingfisher in the world (@Callum Evans).
The same bird looking for fish in the channel below. A couple of minutes later, he dove into the water, but missed (@Callum Evans).
A purple heron on a mat of floating vegetation in the first lagoon (@Callum Evans).
A rufous-bellied heron: the most elusive resident of the reeds (@Callum Evans).
The elephant bull turns to face us (@Callum Evans).
He quickly lost interest in us though and followed the three females (@Callum Evans).
Three hippo’s in a row (@Callum Evans).
On his own (@Callum Evans).
A classic delta scene (@Callum Evans).
And another one (@Callum Evans).
A tiny malachite kingfisher trying to hide from our camera’s in the papyrus (@Callum Evans).
Our campsite in the evening (@Callum Evans).