Wednesday, January 16, 2008

On the trail of Wild Dogs

Tailor made guided tour to Zimbabwe and Botswana,September/October 2007

We are increasingly asked for special interest, tailor-made tours and the following personalised itinerary was put together for John and Zoe Dobbs. John is a wildlife artist, the couple had travelled with us before and so decided to draw on guide Alan Baird’s detailed knowledge of the area to find the best opportunities for subject matter for his paintings

One of his main interests is predators, but in particular, wild dogs. As any guide knows the chances of seeing these animals, particularly with world numbers decreasing to as few as 3000 individuals, is a very tall order. The territorial range of these animals is huge and the dog’s constant mobility makes sightings extremely difficult to predict in a short time span. With this in mind Alan suggested an itinerary for the guests that included Mana Pools in Zimbabwe and Chobe and Moremi National Parks in Botswana. Certainly Mana Pools seems to be the most reliable area for seeing this highly endangered species.

On arrival at Mana Pools the campsite at Nyamepi was struggling badly from lack of investment but the showers and toilets still worked. This provided a base to explore the game areas and look for dogs and any other predators in the area. Dog sightings had been very sparse and very few recordings had been made over the past month so optimism about seeing them diminished, especially as the game scouts had indicated that they might well be denning.

However on the very first game drive three of these elusive animals were seen, albeit fleetingly. Having found where they might be we concentrated on returning there during additional game drives. One of the great benefits of Mana Pools is that you are allowed to walk in the National Park. This adds an extra element of excitement and, with the knowledge provided by a local guide that the wild dog’s den was within two kilometres of the road, a walking trip into the bush was contemplated. One of the last things that Alan, the guide, wanted to do was disturb the dogs reproductive habits and cause them undue stress. With this in mind spoor was used to locate the precise area where the dogs were returning on a daily basis, from this evidence we could try and view the den from a distance. Fresh spoor was not too evident but occasionally footprints were picked up. After walking about two kilometres the sudden sound of puppies greeting the dogs was heard and we knew we had found our quarry.

Being extra careful not to encroach too closely, we managed to see one puppy raise its head from the den. The mother was closest to the den and she was obviously still lactating. One other dog was on patrol and caught our scent. A bark was enough to tell us that we should not go any closer and we respected completely their territory. John, however, was able to do some trial colour studies and coupled with photographs was able to source some good material for his paintings. The thrill of seeing these very rare animals on foot is a never to be forgotten experience.

Following on from Mana Pools the safari continued in Botswana having spent two nights at our property, Bushbuck River House in Livingstone.

In Botswana both Chobe and Moremi revealed many good sightings and virtually every game drive lions were seen. This included the familiar pride of nine on the Chobe River Front and a good pride of eleven lions with three very small cubs in the Khwai area of Moremi.

Wild dog sightings in Chobe and Moremi have definitely decreased in the last three years and it was gratifying to hear that recent sightings around Savuti and Third Bridge in Moremi had been made. Indeed dogs were missed by 15 minutes in the Third Bridge area, which again illustrates the difficulty in finding these very mobile animals.

However, an excellent close leopard sighting at Second Bridge compensated for, missing the dogs. The remains of impala horns were seen on the ground but very little of the body was left, however, a young male leopard was still hanging around and was beautifully positioned on a termite mound for excellent viewing and sketching. He then decided to scent his territory and came within two or three metre of the vehicle, making a splendid finale to the excellent game viewing and painting opportunities yielded throughout the safari.

If you would like a safari tailored to your specific needs please contact us.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Our first sighting of bush pigs

September 2007
Premier guided tour: 14days - Kafue National Park, South Luangwa and Livingstone.

Kafue once again provided some excellent sightings of leopard on night drive . The Chibembe Drive area proved to be most fruitful with a fully mature male prowling on his nightly hunting activity. He was clearly interested in puku, but was unable to get close enough for an effective strike. After his ‘cover was blown’ he decided to walk right past our vehicle at a distance of no less than five metres, completely unperturbed by our presence.

At this time of year it is often possible get right into the heart of the Busanga Plains. The Plains are a dramatic area of open grassland with networks of drainage criss-crossing it. The open habitat makes viewing of animals a good deal easier and some very striking herds of the rare Roan antelope, and also pairs of oribi, were observed. It was hoped that we might find cheetah in this area as well, but after much searching it seemed we weren’t going to be lucky.

However, on our way out of the park, we spotted a lone cheetah very close to the gate, near to Hook Bridge. After obligingly sitting on a mound for a while the shy animal moved into the bush, as we tried to edge closer for a better view.

One other particularly rare sighting as we headed out of the park was two bush pigs. These animals are quite different from warthogs and have dense, shaggy fur. They are nearly always nocturnal in their lifestyle and seldom ever seen during daylight hours, so to watch them foraging around in the Miombo forest undergrowth during daylightt was a rare treat.

The safari continued in South Luangwa National Park. The Luangwa River has returned to its normal levels after severe flooding last rainy season and the carmine bee-eaters were there in force and provided colourful sightings over the flood plain. The night drives in Luangwa were particularly productive with two excellent leopard sightings and also good lion viewing as the pride became active for a nights hunting.

After Luangwa our guests took a flight to Livingstone, the home of Victoria Falls, where they stayed at our own accommodation, Bushbuck River House on the banks of the Zambezi. From here it is easy to add on a few days at the Chobe River Front in Botswana, an area where there is excellent for game at this time of year. The game drives were particularly productive, after a very early start we were the first vehicle in the park and came across a female leopard right out in the open as she walked very close to the vehicle in the early morning dawn light. Needless to say she quickly moved off but had provided an excellent view for everyone to enjoy. Alan Baird, the guide, had seen this leopard often in the Sedudu Valley area and she was now becoming increasingly comfortable with cars.

Shortly afterwards in the same Sedudu Valley the pride of nine lions were spotted feeding on an eland. To see eland on the Chobe River front is rare enough but for the lions to have caught one was remarkable. Eland are one of the largest antelopes and the large quantity of meat was obviously a big incentive for the lions with their fast growing cubs. It seemed that the adults had had their fill and the young cubs were enjoying stripping the bones. ‘Stumpy’ the cub that has lost most of his tale, was at the forefront of the four hungry young cats as they fed. A further three lionesses were seen enjoying the remains of a buffalo, this kill was no more than a kilometre from the eland and food availability at this time of year was at a premium.

The variety of game, both in Zambia and Botswana, makes this an ideal safari for the connoisseur and the option of night drives in Zambia always makes it possible to view some rare species.

Our next Premier guided tour in Zambia starts in Lusaka 16th August 2008. This tour can also be offered on alternative dates as a tailor made tour, subject to availability.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Nomad Premier guided tour of Zambia, Botswana and Namibia

August 2007
16 days including Livingstone, Chobe, Okavango Delta, Popa Falls, Etosha and Windhoek.
For this tour we started in Livingstone and guests had the opportunity to engage in many of the activities available there, including helicoptor flights over the falls and elephant back safaris.

After crossing to Botswana we spent two nights based in Kasane, from where we explored the northern section of Chobe National Park, bordered by the Chobe River. In August this area is at it’s best, with high concentrations of game drawn to the remaining lush areas of floodplain. During all of our visits to this area this year we have been able to find the newly established Chobe River pride, complete with ‘stumpy’ the young lion cub with half a tail. In addition the herds of buffalo and elephant were at full strength, providing spectacular opportunities to view them, both from the land and from the boat trip on the Chobe.

From Kasane it is possible to fly directly into the Okavango Delta, and this was the location for the next part of the tour. Some of our guests spent three nights in luxury lodge there, all, whilst others spent four nights, with the middle two nights bush camping.

The flights out of the Delta were to Maun, where we all met up again for our onward journey to Popa Falls. Popa Falls is near to the Mahango Gmae Reserve and, although fairly small, this area has excellent bird life due to the proximity of the river. It is also one of the few areas where we see large herds of both Sable and Roan antelope. The Roan are the less frequently seen of the two and distinctive for their ears, which are like those of a large rabbit, and their face, which sports an almost clown like mask.

During the Etosha section of this safari the game viewing was exceptional. Having arrived at Namutoni, on the very first game drive Etosha offered us two leopards, a mating pair of lions and a black rhino. Astonishingly the two leopards different individuals, seen in two different areas within the first 45 minutes.

Leopards are now becoming increasingly easy to see in Etosha, provided of course, you know where to look and drive very slowly. Fortunately, Alan Baird, the guide, knows the best places to find these elusive animals and the first sighting was made close to Koinachas water hole. In the early morning and late afternoon leopards are frequently found in this area and here a female leopard was encountered, casually walking parallel to the road. She seemed totally unconcerned and after a good fifteen minutes viewing gradually drifted into the denser bush. Another area where leopards are seen is the thicker bush area just before Chudop waterhole and this time we were treated to a much closer view of a young male leopard crossing the road right in front of us. He seemed fairly unconcerned and gradually wandered into the thicker bush area again allowing us a good fifteen minutes viewing. You can imagine the buzz of excitement with two leopards in such a short space of time.

It was difficult to see how you could top this, but at Tsumcor waterhole, only an hour later, we had wonderful views of two lions, one male and one female. It was not clear if they were mating, as they didn’t copulate while we were present. They may just have finished their three days of coital activity, or perhaps the male was waiting patiently for the female to come into season. After sitting in the open for a while they decided to move off into the shade only to be replaced, almost immediately, by a lone black rhino, who nervously came in to drink at the waterhole. Whilst black rhino numbers are increasing well in Etosha they are still very shy and seldom seen during daylight hours so this provided another rare treat.

Lion sightings were numerous throughout the time in Etosha, but undoubtedly the best was at Goas waterhole, early one morning, where a pride of 10 were seen lying on the road, complete indifference to the vehicles that were gathered around. One young male was more than a little curious about our presence and decided to come right up to the vehicle for a look in, after weighing us up went to the rear of the vehicle and sharpened his claws on the rear mud-flaps before sinking his teeth into the rear step of the Landrover. Whether he just didn’t like Landrovers or perhaps fancied the excited occupants inside is anybodies guess.

Zebra are always abundant in Etosha and provide many opportunities for photographic composition. Although there are a selection of lodges outside the park it’s always a treat to stay at least one night at Okaukuejo, where the floodlit waterhole allows excellent viewing of a wide variety of species throughout the night. It is almost guaranteed that black rhino will come to drink, often with young and the old bull elephants are ever present and ever dominant during their lengthy and ponderous drinking time.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Leopard and lion in abundance in Botswana.

August 2007
19 days tailor made guided tour to Botswana, including Chobe, Moremi, Central Kalahari and the Okavango Delta.

We are often asked to provide personal guided tours for two people and on this occasion the guests wanted a wild, remote camping safari. Alan Baird, the Company owner, was available to guide our two adventurous animal enthusiasts and off they set into the depths of Botswana.

Botswana is different to other countries in Southern Africa as it allows camping to take place in completely unenclosed areas and, because there are no fences around the campsites, anything can walk through the camp. This is great for the excitement levels, but most guests have a few sleepless nights until they realise that the animals are far from dangerous, if treated with complete respect. In these situations an experienced guide is invaluable for reading animal behaviour and body language.

The tour started in the relatively comfortable environs of Chobe River front, where animals are very accustomed to seeing people and vehicles. The lion population early this year was worryingly sparse in this area but it seems a strong recovery has taken place and regular sightings of a pride of nine lions is now common. Amongst the nine are four cubs and one is instantly recognisable as having lost part of his tail. Needless to say he has quickly become known to us as ‘stumpy.’ The pride of nine are led by a very experienced lioness who seems to have little trouble killing at will and on this trip no exception was made. It seems that top of the ‘hit-list’ is sable antelope as these animals are being seen with increasing regularity on the Chobe River Front. On just two game drives along the river front we saw the lioness kill two sable. The hunting took place during daylight and the sable were taken as they made their way down to drink from the river.

A further group of four lionesses also seem to be making an alliance with the pride of nine and were seen remarkably close by, it is likely that they were related, as this level of tolerance between two adjacent prides could have lead to trouble and antagonism. Interestingly large mature male lions were conspicuous by their absence.

The safari continued through to Savuti, deep in the heart of Chobe National Park. This area, always renowned for its lions, didn’t fail to deliver. Four mature male lions were seen in one location. No doubt some of these males were part of the ‘super pride’ of over 30 that had their territory in Savuit a couple of years ago, but there seems to be no evidence of such a large pride existing any more. This Savuti pride were killing elephants to satisfy their heavy demand for food, this is a very rare event, but the newly established pride at Chobe were seen feeding on elephant on a couple of occasions this year and it may be that they have travelled up to the `Chobe area from Savuti to establish a new territory.

With less lions in the Savuti area it seems like leopards should be able to benefit and we were not disappointed in seeing one leopard in full-daylight in the afternoon, strolling past the rain trees which are a feature of the area. Not only did she pass close to the vehicle, she also treated us to a kill by catching and devouring an unfortunate red-billed francolin.

After exploring the Chobe area we drove into Moremi Game Reserve and excellent cat sightings continued. These included numerous lions, as well as a particularly obliging young leopard seen as Jesse’s pools near Xakanaxa. We couldn’t have asked for a more photogenic experience as the leopard decided to rest on a prominent termite mound.

Leaving Moremi we drove South and entered the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. In August there were very few people here and the game was not as profuse as earlier in the year, but we were not disappointed in our viewing. Undoubtedly some of the highlights were the huge number of honey badgers that we saw during daylight hours.

Also around dusk one evening we came across two female lionesses. It was obviously mother and daughter and the younger lioness was extremely curious about us. This seems to be feature of the lions here as they see very few vehicles. At one point she came right up to the vehicle to look in and then proceeded to chase us as we drove off. It didn’t seem that there was any malice intended, she was just very interested in our behaviour. Certainly the Kalahari lions behave in a very different way to other lions.

Not only did we see lions but also leopard on our last drive in the park. This made three leopard sightings for the safari, which is a startlingly good average during daylight hours.

Needled to say our intrepid guests were very happy as they left to spend the last three days of their safari in the luxury of the Okavango Delta, where they again saw some wonderful sightings, including lion, whilst exploring the area on foot with a local guide.

If you would like a guided or an unguided tailor made tour please contact us. We will be happy to work with you to develop the ideal itinerary and make all the arrangements for you.

Zambia in July equals leopard, lion, Pel’s Fishing Owl for the birders, and some delightful youngsters.

July 2007
14 day Premier Tour, visiting Kafue National Park, South Luangwa and Livingstone, with the option to add two nights at Chobe.

Zambia never fails to provide the unexpected and game viewing in Kafue National Park and South Luangwa led to some real highlights this July. One of the big attractions on a Zambian safari is the possibility of seeing leopard and other nocturnal species on the night drives, but when you see leopard during the day it is a real bonus. This was the case on our set tour where excellent close viewing of a leopard, just sitting by the side of the road on Chibembe drive near Lufupa, was possible. As is often the case in Zambia our two Landrovers were the only vehicles at the scene and we were able to watch this elegant, secretive and beautiful animal. After a short while we saw the leopard get up and slowly and walk deeper into the bush to gain the cover of a large termite mound.

Lions were also seen in Kafue in the very early morning. The lions of Kafue are a little more reticent to show themselves during daylight than in other areas and the fact that Alan Baird, the guide, managed to track and find them was very exciting. Having caught up with them on the road the group of seven lions were very interested in an adult warthog. The lead female was in stalking mode and two other lionesses were trying to close off an escape route for the completely oblivious warthog. The attack was set and the lead female made her move, but the warthog was just too quick for the hungry lions and got away by making a desperation run for the thicker bush. Shortly afterwards the lions disappeared into the same thick bush and were not seen again.

A particular highlight of Kafue was a boat trip, which took us slowly and peacefully along a deep chanel of water to pristine areas of forest edge. Hippo wallowed and grazed on the banks and these included some quite small youngsters. Crocodile and water monitor lizards lay along the branches of low, overhanging trees basking in the sunshine, and we were able to approach quite close to them. There were birds everywhere, and to the delight of the keen birdwatchers amongst us, these included some specialities of the area such as Bohm's beeater, black backed barbet, white backed night heron and magnificent views of a juvenile Pels fishing owl, full grown in size but creamy pale in comparison to an adult. The pilot of the boat was keen to show us all that he could, and was as delighted as we were to see the owl. Tea and biscuits were served, and as we headed back into the sunset, we were rewarded not only with glorious views, but with a
magnificent gymnogene gliding just over our heads. It made a perfect afternoon.

At South Luangwa National Park we stayed at Wildlife Camp, where some 60% of the camps profits are given back to the park authorities for maintenance of the area. This is a lovely camp, set on the banks of the Luangwa River and surrounded by bush. Expert guides from the camp took us out on early morning and afternoon drives into the Park, and, on our first drive on the afternoon of our arrival, found us a lioness with three small spotty cubs, who were a delight to watch. Later the same afternoon we found a mating pair of lion, the male very attentive to his lady whilst ignoring us completely. As the
afternoon wore on into evening and then night, there were other cats to be found, including civet and genet. The following morning, we were able to add leopard to our list, as a stunning male emerged from a dambo in front of us and disappeared into the forest. Family groups with young animals are always special to see, and Luangwa gave us a wealth on this trip. There were miniature giraffe with legs impossibly long for their bodies, small zebra with their brown tinged manes, but it must be the young elephant who win the prize, with their trunks seemingly not quite under control....! The birdlife was also there in profusion, with clouds of Lillian's Lovebirds racing between the bushes as we approached some of the small waterholes. On our final night at wildlife camp, we had the chance to go and bushcamp. This involved a walk with a scout and a guide who pointed out and identified spoor, described the local uses of plants and trees, and made us realise how much there is to miss when looking at wildlife from a vehicle only. Bushcamp was wonderful. Perched under the trees on the edge of a high bank overlooking the river, the tents each contained camp beds ready made up for us, the table was set for dinner and hot water ready for the bucket showers inside a thick grass screen and open to the stars. The experience of being out in the wilderness in a small group is one to be treasured, and sitting round the fire listening to the noises of the night in such a wonderful location, just too good to be true. We had a visit from a lone bull elephant who was keen to come along the bank where we sat rather than go down the bank and around us, but he was persuaded away by our lights and presence. When we woke in the morning, the whole of the camp was surrounded by a herd of elephant including some quite small babies, browsing on the branches of the trees around us. Alas, a plane was waiting for us and we had to leave this delightful scene behind.

At the end of the Zambia Set tour we returned to Livingstone and after three nights here there is an option toeither fly out, or extend the trip for a couple of nights by visiting Chobe National Park. The chances of seeing lions in this area used to be excellent but diminished during 2004 and 2005 as they established new territories. However this year a new pride has moved in and they are proving to be a very exciting addition to the Chobe River front. The pride consists of two mature females, both collared for research purposes, two sub-adult males, one large cub and four smaller cubs. Another group of three mature females is also in the area, joining them on occasions. What makes this group so exciting is the regularity with which they hunt along the riverfront, almost daily. They often take down sable, sometimes eland, buffalo and even elephant and this is invariably close to the game drive road that runs along the riverfront. During this short trip to Chobe the pride were found here in the early morning and one of the mature females started to show an interest in a lone sable, some distance ahead of her. There is no cover on the flood plain but this was not a deterrent to her and she swiftly moved in for the kill, soon to be joined by the rest of the pride. When the Chobe pride make a kill on the open floodplain they often drag it into the bushes on the other side of the road later in the day, here they will feed in the shade, undisturbed by the vultures. We made numerous return visits to see the beautiful sable becoming gradually less and less recognisable, whilst the bellies of the pride expanded. Eating was punctuated by play amongst the cubs and lengthy bouts of sleeping and this made a fascinating end to the tour.

Thanks to Richard Broomfield and Dane Blakeley for supplying photographs for this diary entry.

Cheetahs, Caracals, Meerkats and leopard but where were the lions?

April 2007
Botswana 18 day Nomad Premier Guided Tour – Central Kalahari, Okavango Delta, Moremi Game Reserve, Chobe National Park, Livingstone.

The 2007 safari season kicked off with a memorable Botswana guided safari from our set tour programme.

Concentrations of game were reasonably good, despite 2006 being a poor year for rains during the Summer months. The ground was already quite parched and brown in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve and consequently, in Deception Valley, we found reduced numbers of herbivores compared to those normally seen in May.

Springboks and gemsbok were still evident but the predators were difficult to find. However some rare sightings were made, including a caracal and kitten taking the late afternoon sun in Deception Valley.

Also at Deception Pan three cheetahs were spotted early in the morning. It soon became evident that it was a mature female with two sub-adult offspring. They were very inexperienced in hunting and allowed the mother to have a strike at a small herd of springboks, but she seemed to start her attack from too far away and missed the springbok by a considerable margin. They then sloped off looking for place to rest up for the day and later that day we found the cheetahs lying under the cover of shrubs in the middle of Deception Pan. We waited for them to spring into action but, despite springboks almost tripping over them, they seemed reluctant to hunt.

The meerkat numbers in the Kalahari appeared to be much less than the ground squirrels, but we were lucky enough to find a large colony of individuals late one afternoon, foraging for insects. Classic meerkats behaviour was in evidence, as they obligingly posed for photographs at the mouth of their burrows.

After the relatively dry environment of Central Kalahari we returned to Maun and took an onward flight, by light aircraft, deep into the Okavango Delta. Here we could explore the pristine enviroment, travelling by dug out canoe and walking on the various islands populated with wildlife.

After leaving the Delta we travelled further into Moremi by road. The lions were proving difficult to find, but we were compensated by an unbelievable sighting of a young leopard, around Jesse’s Pools near Xakanaxa.
The leopard was completely out in the open, asleep on a dead tree and oblivious of our presence. We watched the leopard for over an hour, during which time it didn’t move, but it became necessary to drive back to the campsite and so we left it in peace, to enjoy the rest of its sleep before a nights hunting.

At Savuti area the lions had been seen two days before, heading into the bush where there were no roads. They were not seen at all for two days so obviously had killed deep into the bush and were content to enjoy their food in seclusion, away from any game viewing vehicles.

The tour concluded with game drives along the Chobe River Front and a memorable few days at our property in Livingstone. At Chobe the elephants were seen in large numbers, along with buffalo, hippo and kudu.

The Zambezi water levels were at there best at this time of year and there had been ample rain in the Northern Zambezi catchment area and viewing of the Falls was consequently an awesome and extremely wet experience, both on foot and from a helicopter. A visit to Twabuka school meant many lively children had to pose for their photographs to be taken.

One of our guests on this tour kindly wrote the following on return home and we thank her for these comments:
“ Alan is a wonderful guide, good company and enormously patient. We saw so many fantastic and rare things. Our memories range from a deeply moving face to face encounter (15ft apart) with a bull elephant in our camp – splendid animal just looked us in the eye and went on his way – to a privileged view in daylight of a caracal and her kitten; a perfect classic view of a leopard snoozing on a branch; uncomfortably large crocs slipping into the water near our mokoro; discovery of how to chase off an over-friendly wart hog (apply tin spoon to tin mug and trot briskly behind her); breathless beauty of the African sky at night; the sound of hyena’s footfall and sniffing right outside our tent at night…there are so many terrific memories…”

If you are interested in this tour there are currently two spaces left on the 2008 tour, which starts in Maun on 27th April

Our thanks to Lorely Maskell for providing images to accompany this Africa Diary entry.