Surrounded by elephants

Our next step of our Botswana tour was Elephant Sands [1], a place located over fifty km North of Nata, on the way to Kasane so, we needed to return to Nata and take the road North. Based on our previous experience with the arrangements for this trip, we had some misgivings on how the place would be as we suspected that this was another one-night stopover for the heavy tourist traffic that moves to and from Chobe National Park, Victoria Falls and Namibia. We agreed to give it a try as the travel agency again insisted that it was worthwhile and that we should spend two nights.

The entry sign says “Elephant Sands. Where elephants rule”. I confirm that this is true. The tented camp is built around a water hole that seems to be on an elephant highway between Botswana and Zimbabwe with little available water. We stayed in one of the tents that are built on stilts. It was very roomy and comfortable, offering an unobstructed view of the elephants at the hole.

Our tent.
The elephant highway passing between the tents.

It is in the main lodge area, next to the water hole, that people congregate to watch the elephants at close quarters. The latter are a few metres away, only stopped from moving into the camp by an electric fence. There we had our meals. Unfortunately, the place was very crowded for our taste. On the positive side, to have elephants very near and great weaver birds’ activity (mostly ignored by the tourists) offered a compensation, somehow.

The main lodge from our tent.

Water is the essence here. It is pumped to the water hole until 2200hs when it is closed so all water-related activities must be done before that time or the following morning. During the first night we had heavy elephant traffic and the available water was clearly not sufficient, so tempers became hot and there was quite a lot of pachyderm pushing and shoving to get to the trough where the clean drinking water was pumped to.

A close-up of the ellies.

After dinner we sat to watch the elephants, and both enjoyed their presence while, unavoidably, breathing and eating a lot of dust! Our Covid face masks helped but we remember them too late! After a while we decided to retire to our tent. Although during the day we walked to and from our tent, at night we brought our car to the main lodge to be safer.

There were elephants all around the tents, so we were pleased to be in the car. As it is natural, before sleeping we needed to get on with our natural needs. It was Mabel´s turn to use the toilet while I was getting dry after a shower. Suddenly, I heard some noise that I can only compare to the noise pipes make when you apply a plunger to clear an obstruction. It was almost instantly followed by a very loud “uuugh!” accompanied by some strong language coming from the toilet! Then I heard Mabel saying “This is disgusting, the toilet splashed me!”.

Unsure of what she meant I went to investigate and confirmed that the residual water in the toilet was not there and that she had already rushed to the shower, still abusing the culprit! Still puzzled by such a rare event, and trying not to laugh loud, I lowered the cover of the flush toilet and we agreed to leave it alone unless we had a truly urgent need later!

The noise coming from the pipes continued intermittently until I went to sleep, only to be woken up well after midnight by Mabel shaking me to tell me that there was an elephant rubbing against the car and that she had heard some loud noise! She had already chased it away earlier, but it had returned. She was worried that it had broken something in the car so she decided to call me. Half sleep, I offered to go out and chase it away but then, remembering where I was, I quickly withdrew my offer!

We decided that all we could do was to shout at the large beast and, funnily, every time we did, it stood still like a naughty child having been discovered doing something forbidden only to start again after a couple of minutes! Eventually, the large bull left us in peace. It had smelled something tasty inside our car or perhaps our water container and it wanted it badly!

The following day we checked the car and we were happy to see that it had survived. It showed signs of having undergone an elephant “inspection” and resisted its (I am sure, polite) attempts at getting at its contents. They, however, left behind not just dirt on the windows but also a small dent!

Our car showing signs of the elephant inspection.

That morning we had the lodge to ourselves for the whole morning and it was nice to leisurely watch elephants and the fascinating activity that weaver birds do when building their nests.

Watching the elephants we realized that the night before the pumped water had not been enough for all the elephants and the old ones resorted to syphon out the tents´ sewage system, causing Mabel´s unpleasant moment the night before! Reading some of the background books found at the lodge and talking to the people there, we learnt that it does not matter what they do to protect their pipes, the elephants will find a way to get to any available water, regardless of its origin!

Elephant sucking from the pipes. Note the anti-elephant measures (spikes and electric fence).

Late in the morning it started to rain, providing elephants with much needed water and us with some respite against the intense heat. Unfortunately, three busloads of loud tourists also arrived! We decided that we were going to stay away from the main lodge and walk around. The two somehow tame banded mongooses followed us during our walk, searching for food and showing a high level of activity. We were warned that one of them was naughty and it could bite so we were careful. Despite this, the “bad mongoose” picked on Mabel (usually is me they pick!) and gave her some trouble!

Luckily the rain provided enough water to the elephants that, at least that night, forgot about blowing the pipes and inspecting our car!

[1] For info on African Sands, see: and

Surrounded by baobabs

Our journey through Botswana took us to Nata, usually a one-day stopover on the way to some of the several national parks that Botswana has. We stayed at the Nata Lodge for the night and, before continuing our trip to Gweta, we visited the community-run Nata Bird Sanctuary, renowned for its birdlife, particularly the flamingoes. Usually a dry area, at the end of the rains it was very dry and the Sowa pan´s water had receded far away from the viewing platform. We spotted the pink ribbon a few kilometres into the pan, where there was still water. Through the binoculars we could appreciate that there were a truly large number that brought back fond memories of lake Nakuru in Kenya.

We continued our journey and we got to Gweta where we spent time sightseeing before it was time to check in our next lodge. Before we got there, we found the most amazing baobab, not because of its size but its shape. Clearly baobabs never stop surprising you.

It was truly hot, probably over 40°C. Luckily, before leaving Harare, preparing for the worst, I got the car air-condition fixed. Although, usually, we are quite indifferent to the air-conditioning in the car, this time we were defeated, and we used it all the time.

In Gweta we stayed at a weird place called Planet Baobab that we have seen before and avoided as; from the outside it looked rather odd. This time, following the strong recommendation of our tour agent we decided to spend three nights there. It was an error that we started regretting from our arrival.

For some reason, although we had booked the place, we had no written proof of it as they would not issue vouchers without an advanced payment. Uncertain of having a place to sleep in Gweta, we had -by luck- met the owner of the Gweta Lodge while in Nata and we had, tentatively, booked a room there as plan B.

So, we got to the Planet Baobab without knowing whether we would find a room! We were not too optimistic as the lodge seemed to be rather full. To our relief, we had a room for the night but the second night we were booked to sleep “under the stars”, somewhere in a pan (that we agreed that at our age would not be necessary as we have seen many starry skies before!) [1] Then, we could have our room back for the third night.

After some debate we managed to evade the second night outdoors and we got confirmation that all was well a couple of times before we accepted to stay and spent the rest of the afternoon walking about the camp and admiring the beautiful baobabs that surround the place. The room had two single beds and it was very hot at night. Unfortunately, the cord of the fan did not allow it to blow air to both of us that were in opposite sides of the room, so it was a hot night!

The following morning, we left early to get to the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park (MPNP) where we had been before, once in the late 90´s when the Boteti River was not flowing and, more recently, when it was. I have read that thousands of zebra and wildebeest migrate from the river to the Nxai Pan every year and calculated that they should still be at the western part of the area at the water of the Boteti River until the rains started.

We drove leisurely the 70 km that separated us from the park entrance and found lots of zebras crossing the road in the direction of Nxai Pan and hoped that they were not the tail end of the migration! We got to the entrance of the MPNP and found no one at the reception office. We waited for about thirty minutes and then decided to search for someone to charge us the entrance fee!

Eventually, Mabel spotted a really friendly lady brushing the floor at the back of the office and she came to tell us that there was no one so we should just enter and pay on return. This was a first for us and we did so (we did pay before leaving).

We drove through a sandy road for about 60km until we got to the river when the temperature was soaring. The view was truly spectacular as thousands of zebra and wildebeest were grazing at the river´s bed while elephants drank from the pools and hundreds of vultures rested at the water´s edge. Our enthusiasm made us forget the heat and start searching for the predators that were surely lurking at the river edge waiting in the shade for an opportunity.

We were contemplating this live documentary that rolled before our eyes when our musing was rudely interrupted by a loud bang. “A tire burst” said Mabel that was looking through the side window. “No, it was in the engine” I replied while I switched it off because I saw smoke coming out of the bonnet. We got out of the car and saw that the tires were intact. Luckily, there was no more smoke! So we could be in a tight spot as we had only met one more car carrying a single tourist lady!

I opened the bonnet to have a look and find what the problem was (not that I am any good at mechanics!). All large components of the engine seemed in place but we saw some yellowish stain around the radiator. Mabel spotted a burst hose that had clearly released whatever it was carrying! Seeing that there was no other damage, I started the engine, checking for some light that could indicate the cause of the problem such as “replace engine”.

All gauges were showing normal values, there weere no lights and we had the engine running smoothly. The 4WD, power steering and brakes were working so we relaxed and started our slow return to the lodge, still not knowing what had happened. After about twenty minutes driving, we started feeling hot and realized that we had no air-condition. We stopped and checked and confirmed that this had been the problem! Although it meant that we would have a hot journey back to Harare, the relevant bits of the car were fine.

We were hot by the time we got back to the Planet Baobab, much earlier than we had planned. On arrival, we were greeted by the same receptionist that had confirmed our second night. As there was no need for this to happen, it meant bad news, I thought. I was correct, he informed us that there had been a mix-up between the reservation office (in Gaborone) and the lodge. The result was that our night would be spent under the stars as our room was booked!

By now, following a similar incident earlier while at the Tuli block we had acquired some experience on how to deal with these situations and, aware of our Gweta Lodge booking, we refused! Our reply created some more consultations and, eventually we were allowed to stay and we cancelled our tentative booking at the Gweta Lodge.

The following day, without air-condition, it was too hot to attempt another trip, so we decided to relax at the swimming pool, getting ready for our departure the following day. While we were there, we witnessed the return of the open-air sleepers. They were mostly young tourists on their first trip to Africa. They looked rather battered, clearly dehidrated and sunburnt, and we congratulated ourselves for having avoided the experience.

[1] Later we learnt that we would have left at 1400hs, taken to one of the salt pans, allowed to drive quad bikes for 45min or wait in the car while the others did it, then visit a place to see tame meerkats, sleep in the open and return to the lodge at 1100am the following day. By then we would have dried up beyond recognition!

The Tuli block

For many years I have wondered how the Tuli block came to being. How could such a perfect semi-circle be added to the border between Zimbabwe and Botswana? Why not just follow the Shashe River all the way?

The Tuli block (tip of the pencil) at the south-west corner of Zimbabwe.

Apart from seeing it in the map, we had driven through the Tuli block a few years back when travelling to South Africa. So, we decided to go and explore it. With little knowledge about the area on the Zimbabwe side, apart from comments that it was a hunting block, we decided to return to visit the Northern Tuli Game Reserve (NTGR) in the eastern part of Botswana.

Briefly, based on the history of the block from, the first European explorers and missionaries arrived early in the 16th century and the area was used for hunting, trading and mission work among the peoples then living here. In 1890 Cecil John Rhodes commanded the “Pioneer Column” to annex Matabeleland and Mashonaland for the British Crown and established Fort Tuli (in Zimbabwe). At the same time, the Bangwato and Matabele tribes of the area were involved in a power struggle for the land until Chief Khama of the Bangwato tribe won control in 1895.

It was Chief Khama that, with other Chiefs went to England, saw the Queen, and stopped Rhodes ambitions. An agreement was reached that only the Tuli Block be given to the British South Africa company for their use to build the rail link and that later it would be divided into farms to protect the Bangwato and Botswana from the expansion of the Boers from the Northern Transvaal.

Much more recently, in the late 50´s and early 60´s, probably realizing that the area did not have much potential for livestock (my comment), ranchers in the area decided to literally “block” their lands into a large area for wildlife conservation and tourism. Today, 36 properties form the NTGR with an area of over 70 thousand hectares.

Clearly, the NTGR is much less known that the classic Botswana wildlife areas we had visited earlier such as the Makgadigadi and Nxai pans, Chobe National Park, Moremi Game Reserve and the Kalahari reserves, to name the main tourist areas. However, our aim was to see how the Tuli block was.

We usually are independent travellers but this time -strangely- we arranged the trip through a travel agency. Our search for accommodation quickly ruled out the well-known lodges such as Mashatu and Tuli for economic reasons but we found a much more reasonable place called Serolo Safari Camp located in the NTGR where we booked self-catering accommodation (see:

So, with the NTGR as our first destination, we put into practice one of the advantages we saw when we bought a house in Zimbabwe: to be able to travel to several neighbouring countries. We headed South-east, first to Bulawayo for the night and the following morning drove the 100 km to the border at Plumtree and then to Francistown, just a further 90 km into Botswana.

We were happy to see that very few people intended to cross the border that day and we made plans for an early arrival in Francistown that would allow us more time for shopping. Things did not work out as planned… However, before I give you more details, let me explain that, this time, I travelled with two passports: the old one that would expire while we were in Botswana and a new one that I obtained a few days earlier, aware that this would happen.

Our visa for Zimbabwe was expiring the very day we crossed, and it was in my old passport. I was not concerned as I expected that the immigration would have looked at my visa in the old passport and place my exit stamp in the new one. It was not to be! The officer, insisting that the old passport was still valid, placed the exit stamp in it and, immediately I knew we were in trouble!

My fears were confirmed when we arrived at the Botswana side of the border, sited after about 2 km of “no man’s land”. A kind immigration officer explained to us that the Zimbabwe immigration should have stamped my new passport! So we were sent back! We were about to know something I had always wondered: how do you go back half-way through a border crossing! Well, the answer is with difficulty!

We turned around and, of course drove against the flow of traffic all the way back trying to be extremely friendly and greeting people and saying “sorry” every time we faced a car coming head-on towards us, not expecting to find a car going the other way. Eventually we arrived back at Zimbabwe, did a completely illegal manoeuvre to get the car pointing towards Botswana again and, trying to appear as calm as possible, we entered the building, again.

We explained the situation to the immigration officer that was still reluctant to stamp my new passport until a higher authority gave its clearance. Clearly the answer was positive so, after quite a wait, my new passport was stamped, and we managed to complete our crossing without further difficulties.

We arrived at Francistown later than expected, and rushed to buy the essential stuff for our self-catering stay at Serolo Safari Camp as well as getting new Botswana SIM cards, an essential item these days! Despite being a Sunday, we managed and, after a restful Sunday night at Francistown and a good breakfast on Monday, we headed for the NTGR, located at about 290 km to the South-east. We drove up to Serule and we turned for Bobolong and later Mathathane. Soon after the asphalt ended, and we headed in the direction of Platjan, the border post with South Africa, and turned into our camp following the signposts.

The area was very dry but, unlike other areas of Botswana, it was quite hilly and rocky although some greenery in the distance revealed the passing of the Limpopo River, not that far off. We both thought that it would be difficult to spot game in this terrain, but we decided to wait and see and continued until we got to the camp a handful of km farther on.

It was very hot but the camp had some magnificent large trees that provided with good shade, particularly around the central part known as the lapa [1]. There were five not so shaded tents overlooking a ravine where we were told game passed and one concrete hut at the back, not so nice as it overlooked the tents’ car park! Our hearts sunk when we were told that this was the accommodation for self-caterers. We looked at each other and knew that we would not stay there. It was a change or looking for another place to stay!

We presented our concern to the manageress and, after a few phone calls a solution was found. Another couple would be moved from a tent to the self-catering unit with the lure of the latter having air conditioning and we could have their tent, provided we paid the difference between self-catering and full board that, luckily, was not very high. We accepted.

Our tent.

I would call Serolo a no-frills lodge that could host a maximum of ten people on full board and two more on self-catering so it was never crowded. Staff were extremely kind and attentive and we enjoyed the cooking of Kennedy, the Chef, that managed to produce some truly good food in the bush.

We were not allowed to go on game drives in our car, but the accommodation included two game drives per day. To our horror, we needed to be at the lapa by 05:30 hours for the morning drive. Luckily, the afternoon one started at the very civilized time of 16:00 hours, after having enjoyed a “high tea”.

We are not used to be driven as part of a tourist group, so we needed to adjust to the new methodology. We did this with some degree of difficulty as clearly the aim of the drive was to find big cats, particularly leopards. Elephants were watched from a distance and birds were almost ignored. Luckily the intense heat made driving on an open car very bearable.

By the second game drive it became apparent that the area was more restricted than we expected, and we just repeated our route day after day. Part of the drive touched the Limpopo River with its beautiful riverine forest. There we saw abundance of impala and greater kudu grazing under some truly large trees. Ficus and Acacia species were the outstanding ones and we contemplated them in awe while enjoying their dense shade during the heat of the day. As it was the dry season, the river was not flowing (at least on the surface), but we saw still some large pools and probably abundant water under the sand.

The rest of the driving was done through dry, often bare earth areas with patches of Mopani trees (severely damaged by the elephants). Several rocky formations were clearly ideal places to find leopards but, unfortunately, we had to be satisfied with klipspringers. Our drivers tried hard to find cats and they often drove through rough roads that involved a lot of low gear efforts by the aged Land Rover Defenders used by the camp.

A curious female greater kudu.

It was in the hilly area that we spotted five lion cubs, the offspring of two resident lionesses that were sired by one male lion. Later, we found one of the females resting by an old eland kill, showing signs of being very hot. Mabel caught a glimpse of the second lioness but the rest of us did not see it. During a later drive, we found the male lion resting and surrounded by the other members of the family. Probably the whole group was together, but we could not see them in great detail as they were far and hidden by both rocks and bushes on the other side of a gorge where we could not get to.

A young lion watching us from the rocks where they stayed.
A hot and sleepy lioness.

During the second day of game driving, we found an injured male impala. One of its hindlegs was in an unnatural position and it was unable to stand up. Interestingly, a black-backed jackal was lying down a couple of metres away. We agreed that the impala’s future appeared grim as it would have been an easy prey for a leopard or hyena, and we thought that the jackal was waiting for a larger predator to arrive and benefit from the leftovers. After waiting for a while, we left the pair and made a note to return in the evening, but we run out of time, and we did not know what happened until the following day.

First thing the following morning we returned to the impala and found it dead and the jackal (we assumed it was the same we saw the previous day) was feeding on it. Although we cannot know how the events unfolded, judging by the injuries that impala showed, I believe that it was killed by the jackal during the night. Jackals are ruthless killers, often tackling prey much larger than themselves.

The black-backed jackal feeding on the impala.

We saw elephants at a distance and our drivers seemed to be very wary of them keeping a good distance, perhaps because of the cars being open. Oone night a few elephants visited the waterhole adjacent to the lapa and leopards walked past the camp a couple of times but, of course, we were out on a game drive when that took place!

Elephants watched from a distance.

Oh, I forgot about the Tuli block semicircle. Well, it was not easy to find out the reason but, eventually I did. It happened in 1891 when then Mashonaland districts were established and Tuli was given jurisdiction over a 16km radius of the village, a perfect disruption to what otherwise would have been another river border between two countries!

[1] A lapa is usually an open structure that generally consists of a thatched roof sitting on wooden poles. These are usually used as entertainment areas in southern Africa.

What on earth?! (4)

My lack of posts is due to an on-going trip in Botswana with little access to internet. Although I will write about it in the coming days, I present you with an interesting shop being advertised at Nata.

I see it as quite an ambitious undertaking to which I would like to suggest soon adding a “” subsidiary!

Killer banana

The incident I will narrate took place during our last year’s trip to the Mabuasehube area of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in Botswana. As the observation was being published, I delayed its writing until this took place on 8 July 2018 [1]. For easy access I have also inserted the published document (Hornbill predation) as a PDF file under Pages in this blog.

Let me start by saying that if you find the Southern Yellow-billed Hornbills likeable, you may need to review your stand after you read this piece.

While at Camp No. 2 at Monamodi Pan in October 2017 we were startled by the dryness of the place. Birds from the surrounding area will immediately come to drink in any water that we had around the camp. Common visitors were Southern Grey-headed Sparrows (Passer diffusus) but Cape Sparrows (Passer melanurus), Violet-eared Waxbills (Uraeginthus granatinus) and Sociable Weavers (Philetairus socius) were present in large numbers.

Pic 1

There was a constant stream of birds drinking at the waterholes.

Pic 2

Birds looking for food and water around our camp.

In addition, a few Southern Yellow-billed Hornbills (Tockus leucomelas) were residents at the camp and were regularly seen on the ground.

Motopi spooky DSC_0187 copy

Southern Yellow-billed Hornbills scavenging around the camp.

At mid-morning during the second day of our stay some of the small birds suddenly flew off where they were foraging in a response usually observed when there detect danger such as an attack by a predator.

They all flew away but one! A Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill had caught one of the adult Southern Grey-headed Sparrow and it was in the process of killing it by violently shaking it and thrashing it against the ground. We were startled as we did not expect this to happen.

Pic 3F

Picture by Frank Rijnders.

Pic 4

The sparrow died fast and the hornbill started removing its feathers and then it took its victim up a nearby tree where it continued defeathering it by vigorously hitting and rubbing the sparrow against the tree. Interestingly, there was no panic reaction or mobbing of the predator by the small birds that returned to the water only after a few minutes.

Pic 5

Pic 6F

Picture by Frank Rijnders.

After about 30 minutes the hornbill decided that the victim was naked enough for it to be swallowed!

Pic 7F

Picture by Frank Rijnders.

Pic 8

Although it was known that the Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill’s diet included “a wide range of invertebrates and small vertebrates” such as nestlings of Red-billed Quelea (Quelea quelea) the list does not mention predation on adult birds [2].

It is possible that the observed behaviour was incidental. However it seems realistic to expect that the hornbill was prepared to take advantage of the chaos created when large numbers of birds gather at waterholes or are distracted when foraging together to catch their prey unaware.

So, like with the observed carnivory in hippos [3] the present observation may not be nice but, again, it goes to show how nature works.



[2] Hockey PAR, Dean WRJ and Ryan PG 2005. Roberts – Birds of Southern Africa. The Trustees of the John Voelcker Bird Book Fund.

[3] and


My thanks go to Biodiversity Observations for publishing this observation.

Smart cats

Before we even got to Twee Rivieren in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park last October, for some reason, Lola and Frank had convinced their Spanish friends that we were good at spotting lions! Although my wife is good at spotting any game -including lions if they are around- I was somehow taken aback by being attributed such a fame that generated baseless expectations… maybe I oversold myself…

So, when we arrived at Twee Rivieren there were anticipations and I was overwhelmed by the responsibility that had landed on my shoulders…

Luckily for me, it was the visitors themselves that found the lions. Well, at least they overheard the whereabouts of the lions! So, all we needed to do was to follow our visitors’ advice to find them and in this way avoid a sure embarrassment!

The lions in question (two males) were, of all places, about one hundred metres outside the camp gates and, according to our night safari guide, these pair come to this area every few weeks so we were fortunate to see them.

The predators were near the camp’s waterhole where they had killed a gemsbok a few days back so we set off to find them as soon as we had an opportunity.

It was not hard to find them as, in addition to the gemsbok that we did not see, the night before they had also killed a wildebeest and the latest kill was rather obvious!

DSC_0074 copy

The kill happened very near the camp. Behind is Twin rivers staff accommodation on the Botswana side of the park.

Apparently, the cunning cats have learnt to use the strong camp fence in their favour by cornering their prey against it. Clearly this had happened in this instance as the victim was still somehow entangled in the fence where first one and soon both were seen feeding.

Easy pickings

Last September, after a few early morning drives at the Kalahari Transfrontier Park, we took it easy for a couple of days, visiting the waterholes late in the mornings and afternoons. The day before our departure from our last camp, Twee Rivieren, I suggested to go for an early drive but my wife preferred to continue relaxing so I went on my own. It was a bad idea as, somehow, the whole camp shared this thought and the only road out of the camp was a dust cloud, despite the 50kph speed limit.

Aware that the morning had not started as I dreamt, I drove slowly until I found a waterhole to stay and wait for the travelers to quiet down as it usually happens. I stopped after about 20km at the Rooiputs waterhole. I was alone there and, as expected, soon the traffic died down and I could enjoy some dustless tranquility.

Apart from a few gemsbok staying a couple of hundred metres from the water and a lone jackal that was clearly mice-hunting in the dunes at the back, the waterhole had been completely taken over by birds. I spotted a good number of Namaqua sandgrouse on the ground and decided to take a few pictures of them.


The trees around the water were laden with small birds, mainly red-billed queleas, sociable weavers and red headed finches among others.

There were also a great number of laughing doves and ring-necked doves. The latter were in such numbers that it was like a curtain of moving birds that often obscured the water source as they flew in and out.


Hundreds of doves were “queuing” on the nearby trees to get to the water. Most of the time the available water was literally covered with birds and every now and then an explosion of birds flying in all directions followed a perceived threat. Often these were false alarms and the scared birds returned to drink immediately.

It was following one of these bird explosions that I saw a tawny eagle in the midst of the doves. When I spotted the eagle it had already caught a dove and it soon landed to eat it. “This is incredibly easy”, I thought and decided to stay there and wait for more action. When it finished eating it flew away but I was sure that it would come for more. It did.

Unexpectedly, the eagle did not return at great speed, just flew above the doves, lost altitude and then it entered the “dove cloud” and, almost effortlessly, grabbed another dove with its talons and landed to pluck it and eat it!


It all happened too fast for me and I only managed to take pictures of the raptor feeding about twenty metres from me. After eating, the eagle flew away again and landed on top of a nearby tree followed by a large retinue of small birds busy mobbing it.




I continued watching the birds’ drinking dynamics when, after about ten minutes, the eagle (or another one?) repeated the operation and, again, caught another dove! After its third dove, the eagle flew to the same tree and then I saw a second eagle. Further inspection revealed that the clever eagles were nesting about fifty metres away, taking advantage of the easy pickings that the waterhole offered them!


As they only need to fly a few hundred metres a day to get a full crop and feed their fledglings, I started wondering -like with the Scottish pigeons of my earlier post-about eagle obesity!

Luckily, my fears were dispelled as the next time one came for another pigeon it looked really mean and I did not detect any accumulation of fat round its waist!


Waltzing in the wild


At the last minute after leaving Moremi Game Reserve, we decided to spend the night at Magkadigadi Pan National Park. We managed to get a last minute booking at Khumaga camp as we knew that animals -mainly zebra and wildebeest- were migrating through that area at the time. Additionally, we had been there in 1999 and we were curious to see it again as we had good memories of the place, particularly the games drives along the dry Boteti river where we often saw lions as well as a huge crocodile that used to live in a water pool that somehow survived the prevailing drought.

Makgadigadi Bot kumaga camp dry boteti 99 small

A view of the Boteti river in 1999.

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A similar view to the above, but in 2014!

We noticed that things would be different when, after going through Khumaga town and just before arriving at the Boteti River, our GPS stewardess announced, “in 300 metres board the ferry”. “This machine is confused again” I said and there was general agreement in the car so we ignored her and continued driving. And then we saw a mighty river with very clean water and, surprise, surprise, a ferry parked at the end of the road, waiting for us! So we apologized to the GPS’ lady and approached the ferry.

While driving towards the water’s edge we remembered hearing, sometime ago, that the water was flowing again in the Boteti (later literature check up mentioned 2012 as the year that this happened). The view was totally different and new to us, suddenly making the idea of coming to Makgadikgadi National Park much more interesting! I am sure it was a great positive change for the wild animals (clearly also for the domestic stock as well!!!) that suffered water shortage for many years and their recovery must be on the way

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Waiting to board the ferry at the “new” Boteti river.

After successfully getting the car on the ferry, under the expert guidance of the ferryman, we crossed the river in 15 minutes and arrived at the gate of the park, located on the other side of the river. We passed through the gate, drove a few km and, after seeing a large herd of zebra clearly returning from their afternoon drink in the river, we arrived at the campsite. The place was the same but now it was on the bank of a normal river, with water flowing and surrounded by green vegetation, a sharp contrast with our memories! It was a bitterly cold evening so we lit a good fire and were in bed early without seeing much!

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Our campsite in 1999.

The following morning, the coldest I remember while on safari, we decided to go for a game drive before departing for Francistown and Harare. This time the drive took us along the now green river banks rather than through its dry bottom and we could not help but express our admiration for nature for having recovered so fast from what earlier resembled a bone-dry place.

The road afforded us the chance to drive closer to the water in some areas and observe its prolific birdlife. We did not see many mammals, as they were probably grazing on the plains. The exception was a beautiful Greater Kudu bull with great horns.

Greater Kudu bull near the Boteti river.

The Greater Kudu bull.

It was during one of these river loops that we saw the marabou storks (Leptoptilos crumeniferus). There were a few hundred adult birds. The first impression was of a group of elegant men in suits with coat-tails at a gentlemen’s club, getting ready for a ball and waiting for the ladies! However, the ladies were already there, dressed like men!

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The “waltzers” from far…

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They were well dressed… (Picture by Julio A. de Castro)

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The orchestra Director. (Picture by Julio A. de Castro)

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Showing off before finding a dancing partner? (Picture by Julio A. de Castro)

We saw a lot of interaction as birds were clearly courting and getting ready to nest. Apart from some birds trying their hand at various acrobatics and showing their superb flying and gliding skills, the more frequent activities were less spectacular. They consisted of offerings of grass to each other, accompanied by short jumps and beak clattering. The latter was a rather noisy activity, considering the size of their beaks!

After a long while observing their antics, a boat full of tourists approached and disturbed the birds, which flew away and landed again at a distance. However, the “magic” had been broken for us and we, unanimously, decided that it was time to get back to Zimbabwe while the bird spectacle was still fresh in our memories.

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A video snapshot of the birds moving off. (Picture by Julio A. de Castro)




Moremi Game Reserve has been on our list of “places to visit before dying” for several years. Although in 1999 we visited Botswana, we had limited time and focused on Makgadikgadi Pans National Park and then flew into the Okavango delta where we stayed at a camp known as Oddballs.

Fifteen years later in May 2014, and taking advantage of our son’s holidays, we re-visited Botswana with the main objective of seeing Moremi Game Reserve. We made an additional effort to adjust our accommodation to the itinerary of the President of Botswana, as his visit to the area coincided with ours and, for some reason (perhaps justified?) he had priority over us!

Our itinerary was:

Nxai Pan National Park, South Camp (29 – 31 May).

Moremi Game Reserve, South Gate Camp (31 May – 3 June) and Third Bridge Tented Camp (3 – 5 June). The earlier post “Tree Cheetahs” is part of this visit.

Makgadikgadi Pans National Park, Khumaga Camp (5-6 June).

As the trip was long, we included two nights at Nxai Pan. We remembered the place because of the very large baobabs known as Baines’ baobabs, found on an island in the saltpan with not much else!

Regrettably, during our trip we lost one of the camera’s memory cards so many pictures are lost to humanity!

An innovation during this trip was that the Department of Wildlife and National Parks of Botswana (the Department) has tendered the management of its camps to different private companies. While this may be good for the maintenance of the camps and other reasons important to the Department, booking and paying becomes cumbersome. In our case, we had to pay three different companies to secure our bookings! (here I will insert link to Department’s page with info on bookings)

Coming from Zimbabwe, the entrance to Nxai Pan is 65 km from Gweta. We registered at this first gate where we learnt that the President had been there in the morning and that he had left already, leaving a good impression among the staff there! After negotiating another 37 km, most of which over deep sandy tracks, you arrive at the final entrance gate. A note referring to this road on the Department’s web page puts things into perspective, so I should have been prepared:

“The sandiness of this track should not be underestimated and only 4×4 vehicles should attempt the journey, engaging 4-wheel drive before negotiating the deep sand – carrying a spade is also wise!”

Wisely we did carry a still uninitiated spade and arrived at South Camp without problems. The place was well shaded and all facilities were excellent.

When it was time to use the ablution blocks, we encountered a surprise. They were protected by a field of hundreds of cement blocks aligned at a 10 cm distance from each other. Each block ended in a 5 cm sharp iron spike. We had seen similar but simpler arrangements of concentric stones to deter elephants from damaging trees. However, this was an advanced version, almost resembling anti-personnel barriers seen in WWII pictures! As the use of showers and toilets was essential, crossing them was imperative! (pic of baobab with stones?)

Careful exploration of the barrier revealed a slightly wider gap, large enough to plant our feet toe-to-heel and make slow progress, taking care not to lose our balance. This was challenging enough during the day. At night it became a potentially mortal field where all senses needed to be focused on the task to avoid falling to what it looked like sure maiming!

We arrived at the campsite quite late and after putting our tents up (and surviving the visit to the ablution blocks) we went to the nearby water hole for a quick look. This is perhaps the focal attraction of Nxai . It is near the campsite, in the heart of a large grassy plain and dotted with umbrella thorn trees. Here, several animal species can be seen, drawn by the availability of water.

Nxai Pan’s is at its best during the rain season when a multitude of animals congregate there (including large numbers of springbok) and various species reside there permanently. Although it was the dry season, we were lucky enough to see a pride of lions made up of two adult lionesses with five cubs, together with two adult males. They were well fed and being their usual lazy selves, totally ignoring possible prey such as giraffe, zebra and greater kudu that came (in numbers) to drink.

Unknown to us, a surprise was waiting for us back at the camp. As earlier we were focused on the “spike-crossing”, we had not noticed that the camp was crawling with small stinkbugs. Although they were rather nice looking with a combination of brown and orange, crushing them released their strong and rather pungent odour. To our great consternation, there were hundreds of the smelly things!

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A green relative of the campsite invaders. Their pictures were lost with the camera card.

To make matters worse, like most insects, being attracted to light is in their genome! Protecting your glass of wine, cooking pots and dinner plates from their dive-bombing became a high priority, as there was not much else to be done about their presence! Despite our efforts, some drowned or got burnt to death in our pots. Fortunately no unexpected crunchy bits were found in our food!

Unlike dinner, achieving a stinkbug-free sleep was infinitely more complicated! The first alarm was sounded by our son when he discovered that they were getting inside the tents, despite the tight zippers: “my tent is full of bugs!” he said with a touch of exaggeration and adding a few epithets that I omit for the sake of the under-aged readers.

I was very pleased in my sleeping bag -having successfully negotiated the ablution spikes at night, so I decided to weather out the bug storm. I did so by adopting the ostrich trick of burying my head deeper in the bag, trusting that my poor sense of smell would not betray me. My companions did not join me in the use of this tactic, being of different genetic make up (my wife) and having inherited a lot of that (my son).

Although I believed it to be a fruitless procedure and told them so, they proceeded to methodically review all their belongings to remove the invaders from their clothing and shoes. This required a prolonged de-bugging session that was painstakingly achieved. They then proceeded to extract all the bugs from the tent. As this was all done with the aid of light and torches, it was a near never-ending exercise as new bugs kept getting in while others were being extracted.

Eventually an equilibrium that favoured the humans was achieved, the lights were turned off and calm was restored while I tried to keep first my chuckle and then my rude remarks to myself. The calm did not last too long as I heard my son say: “Shit, I just crushed another bug!” and opening the zipper to take it out. We spent a “perfumed” night, some of us resigned and others fighting the bugs to the bitter end!

Despite the rather “bugged night”, the following morning we left early for Baines’ baobabs. They were painted in 1862 by Thomas Baines, a famous painter and explorer of the last century during his journeys through southern Africa. Today, the same scene that entranced Baines is still there, unchanged as these trees take hundreds of years to grow! Perched on the edge of the large Kudiakam pan, dry for most of the year, they preside majestically over the salty flat span surrounding them. However, if the rains are good, the place becomes an island in a large sheet of water where water lilies appear, along with abundant waterfowl life. Needless to say that the place looked the same as in 1999…

Baines' baobabs in 1999.

Baines’ baobabs in 1999.

You get to the baobabs after driving a couple of hours over sand dunes on a rather rough and undulated road that eventually delivers you to the open area of the pan where you immediately spot the clump of trees in the distance. Luckily some pictures taken with the cell phone survived and I include them in this post.

The trees are rather dark and coppery, standing quite close to each other. One of the colossi has fallen but it is still growing on its side! I must confess that I did not count them and, judging by Baines’ own account of his discovery, he was not very precise either after seeing them for the first time when he wrote:

“… five full sized trees and two or three young ones were standing, so that when in leaf their foliage must form one magnificent shade. One gigantic trunk had fallen and lay prostrate, but still losing none of its vitality, sent forth branches and leaves like the rest.”

After watching a Secretary bird in search of snakes, a rather rare sight in this latitude, the trio of “stinkbug-wise” campers returned to the camp later in the evening. After an excellent shower to rid ourselves of the dust collected during our drive, and a hearty pasta dinner to settle us down, we soon were in our tents without bothering too much about our smelly foes.

The bugs were a real nuisance while we disassembled our camp, as the beasts contrived to find their way into all the folds of our tents, empty bags, chairs and any item that offered a crevice to be filled. It took a lot of work to remove them and, despite our efforts, we carried a few fragrant reminders of Nxai Pan with us to our next destination: South Gate at Moremi Game Reserve.


Note: Header picture by Julio A. de Castro.