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Exploring the Okavango Delta – Part 3

Last year I went to Africa in June. Their dry season. When all the green fades away and only shades of beige and golden hues remain. I was co-leading groups of undergraduate students who were eager to learn wildlife tracking and skills in collecting observational data on the Big Cats of Kruger National Park. Over the course of a month, we saw 101 lion, 33 leopard, and 7 cheetah, among a plethora of other fantastic african wildlife. I felt I had nearly seen it all.

This year, visiting Africa during the December wet season, proved to be equally spectacular but in a different way. The bush had become thick with green Mopani leaves and grasses extending all lengths. This cover allowed animals to better hide but despite the density of green, I was still impressed with the amount of wildlife we saw. Lions, leopards, elephants, and hippo. We did not go home feeling any sort of lack.

Early one morning, we sat with two female lionesses.  “Lions are lazy,” the guide said to us. “They lie around all day sleeping and only hunt when they have to.”

It sure seemed that way to us. Female lions are a pride’s primary hunters. They often work together to take down prey such as zebra, antelopes, and wildebeest. These lazy lionesses sure didn’t seem to be planning for any such activities that day.

Most of the time we saw lions, we either saw two brothers, two sisters, or a male and a female mating. The average size of a lion pride consists of five or six females, their cubs, and one or two males living in a family unit.  Extremely large prides are not typical, although last year, we did count a group of 29 individuals living together in Kruger National Park.

Lions are the only cats to live in social groups, and all of a pride’s lionesses are related. Female cubs typically stay with the group as they age, but young males eventually leave and establish their own prides by taking over a group headed by another male.

The story of one particular male roaming the area near Savuti had a sad beginning. Mr. Lion and his brother were a team. But one day, Mr. Lion met a Ms. Lion and the two went off to enjoy each other’s company. As a typical mating cycle lasts about three days, with the mating ritual taking place almost every 20 minutes, up to 40 times daily, the two would be busy for quite some time. Brother lion was left to wander by himself.Alone and unguarded, Brother lion ended up getting into some trouble. A band of  three other brother lions roaming the area challenged him to a fight. Without the help of his brother, he was no match for the three males and unfortunately did not survive the attack.

Mr. Lion had no idea this was happening. However, once the days had passed, and Ms. Lion’s interest wained, Mr. Lion went looking for him.

Nowhere to be found.

He called, and called. Through the night and day.

The guides suspect he eventually figured out his brother wasn’t going to come back. Without him, Mr. Lion wasn’t able to effectively hunt. They watched him slowly lose weight as time went on, and renamed him Mr. Skinny.

Each time we saw him, he barely moved. In the heat of the sun, you’d suspect he had died. Every now and then, though, he would stir, roll around, and clean himself off.  Then one evening, just before dusk, we saw Mr. Skinny in a rather peppy mood. We weren’t sure what was going on at first, but then we saw. Ms. Lion had returned. At first, she seemed rather annoyed he had started to follow her. She ran ahead, and he continued to slowly trot behind.

It became clear he was too weak to catch up with her. Exhaustion took over, and he lay down to catch a break. Surely Ms. Lion would be on her way?

Nope! She came back to him, rubbed her face against his, encouraging him to stand up and continue after her.  We watched as she played a flirtatious game of catch-me-if-you-can far into the sunset, past the hour of visibility to capture any of it on camera.

The guides were optimistic that Mr. Skinny could recover. Although, with the band of three brothers still roaming around and a flirtatious female visiting them all, his chances would be slim unless he stayed well hidden from the other males.

Each day our schedule was full of adventure, food, and relaxation.

Morning started with the 5:00 a.m. wake up call. At 5:30 a.m. we piled into the car for our first game drive of the day. At 9:30 a.m. we would find a nice place in the field to stop and have coffee and biscuits before continuing our drive.

By 11:00 a.m., we returned back to camp for breakfast with the staff and a lively recap of the morning’s sightings.

“The bar is open if anyone wants something to drink,” the host Sally announced!

“Join me in some champagne,” Eva, the German/South African would chime. Why the heck not?! We were on vacation, after all, and we had the best seats in the house!

After breakfast, we had a break in the day. Siesta time until 4:00 p.m. A perfect span of time to relax, journal, and nap. I don’t know if it was the heat of the day, or the fact we woke at 5:00 a.m., but a nap always happened.

Temperatures during December never got too cold, hovering between 60-80*F throughout the day. In June, nights would drop to 46*F and rise to 97*F by midday, so packing layers was crucial, however this time around, I never used my gloves nor hat.

At 4:00 p.m., we sauntered out to the main lodge where we sipped tea and nibbled on delicious snacks. All of the food prepared at Wilderness Safari camps was incredible.

At 4:30 p.m., we again piled into the car to begin our afternoon game drive. Every day we stopped at sunset to enjoy “Sundowners”, really just an excuse to drink and enjoy the colors of light playing off the landscape.

Tops offers Sarita a glass of Africa wine.

Eva holds a dung beetle to the light.

Unless an epic sighting kept us out late, we returned to the camp by 7:30 p.m. each night. A full course dinner and wine pairings began at 8:00 p.m. and we sat with the whole group, guests and staff.  Wine and conversation flowed as we recounted the day’s events and stories of our lives back home.  It truly felt like we were eating with family.

 

***

This story ends here! If you’d like to keep reading, be sure to subscribe to the newsletter and get immediate updates delivered to your inbox. For stories earlier in the trip, read part 1 and part 2.

As always, please share Woman Scientist with anyone you think may feel inspired!

Thanks for reading.

***

All photos taken by Allison Lee and Cynthia Cusick. Information obtained through personal conversation with Wilderness Safari guides.

 

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Exploring the Okavango Delta Botswana – Savuti Part 2

“Knock, knock, knock…”

“Helloooo…”

“Good morniiiiing….”

…It’s dark…

I sleepily open my eyes to the 5a.m. wake up call.

“Good morning!”

“We are awake. Thank you!”

In thirty minutes the sun would rise, which gave us just enough time to roll out of bed, throw on clothes, grab our bags, and slug back a cup of coffee and light breakfast before heading into the vehicle for our morning game drive.

In the wilderness, if you want to have the best opportunity for animal sightings, you wake up when the animals wake up .  And sunrise is actually one of my favorite times of the day.  It always feels like you are in on a secret the rest of the world doesn’t yet know about.

Elephant and a saddle-billed stork

Four of us piled into the rover eager to start exploring: Our guide and driver, Tops, a lovely German/South African woman named Eva, and my mom and I.

There is never a real agenda when you are on safari. You go where the animal signs lead you.

Tops began the morning meandering along the main roads, keeping an opportunistic eye out for fresh animal tracks.

Even when we didn’t see big game, there were plenty of other animals and birds to keep us occupied. Botswana has 75 larger mammal species and 593 bird species have been recorded. Because of the Delta’s dynamic watery woodlands, amphibians are also abundant.

Helmeted Guinea fowl

Coppery tailed coucal

Lilac breasted roller. My favorite.

White faced whistling ducks

Marabou stork

leopard tortoise

african bullfrog carcass

Southern carmine bee eater

Another lilac breasted roller

Sable antelope

Kudu

They joke that warthogs are part of Africa’s “Ugly Five”.  A play on the sought after “Big Five” game animals: African lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, African leopard, and rhinoceros. I found the warthogs to be endearing and my favorite site was them trotting off into the bush with their tails held high. A signal to other hogs to say, “Follow me if you want to live!”

Warthogs typically live in family groups of a female and her young. Female warthogs only have four teats, so litter sizes are usually confined to four young. Each piglet has its own teat and suckles exclusively from it.  After about 4 months, the young switch to receiving most of their nourishment from grazing.

Mama warthog and piglets

Baby impala

side striped jackal

Blue Wildebeest

Pair of jackals

A playful zebra

   Giraffes are probably one of my favorite animals. They’re so tall and slow. If you’ve ever seen a giraffe running, you know what I mean. They’re operating on a different timeline and for good reason. They have some of the longest nerves around. The sciatic nerve, which runs down each of its legs, is several yards long, so responding to a stimuli actually takes longer. 

Wilderness Safari’s Savuti Camp is located in the Linyanti concession. This 125,000 hectare area is rich with mopane woodland, floodplains, and riparian forests. The year round water source from the Savute Channel attracts wildlife including herds of elephant that can reach very high densities in the drier winter months (July/August).

“Never trust a hippo,” they say.

Here, you really get to appreciate the full circle of life. From the living, to the dead, as well as the breakdown process of decay. Everyone is hard at work surviving.

Tops holds up a Cape Buffalo skull. This was a female which you can tell by looking at the helmeted cap on the head. Males have larger more fused plates which help them in combat.

Tops explains to us the importance of elephant dung in the ecosystem.

Dung beetles ready for action.

Skin of an elephant. This one probably died naturally. Signs of poaching involve removal of the tusks and Botswana has a shoot-to-kill policy against anyone suspected of doing so.

One sign that decay is close by, is that of the Scavenger of Death. The Vulture.

Vultures are not known to kill their own prey. Instead, they wait near the scene of the crime for their chance to gorge. If you’re out driving and spot vultures circling on the horizon, there is a sure chance you’ll find something exciting if you get close.

Perhaps a lion has just made a kill? Or a pair of cheetahs has finished feasting on a zebra?

One day, we saw vultures circling around a tree, so we decided to investigate.

As we got closer to the tree, we noticed many of the vultures were sitting in its branches staring at the pond below.

Then, we saw it.

A dead hippo in the water!

Trying to get a better view, we decided to circle around the pond. Attempting to cross a water way in the rainy season is always a risk.  Depending on the soil type, the ground can turn into sticky mud within minutes. 

Our effort to get closer immediately failed. The mud pulled us in. 

Tops revved the engine trying to force the Land Rover free. We didn’t budge. The mud was too slippery and grabbed us, pulling us in further.

There was no escape.

That’s when we knew we were really seriously stuck. At first, I tried to play calm. Stuck? Its part of the Safari experience! … right?! 

Then my mind started working. Vultures. Dead hippo just lying there. Nowhere to go.

I couldn’t help think the lions would be there soon.  We were goners.

Tops radioed for help but we were more than an hour outside of camp.

As we waited, he cheerily offered us all coffee and biscuits. Coffee? Biscuits?? How can we eat right now?! WE MIGHT DIE!

“But Allison, if this is your last meal, you might as well enjoy it!” Eva said as she crawled to the back of the rover and lit up a cigarette.

“Mom? Are you scared?” I asked.

“No! We are fine,” she smiled. Calm. Too calm, I thought. A sure sign of denial regarding the imminent doom we were facing.

 I felt a mix of high anxiety and thrilling adventure while my mind played thoughts of lion attack. I also knew I could trust our guide, Tops. He grew up here. Surely getting stuck has happened before.  Right!?

Tops distracted us with jokes and stories while we waited. 

And waited.

The team, enjoying our last meal.

Finally, after an hour, our help arrived!

Pahlana and ST showed up with another vehicle and long tow straps.

After several attempts, a shovel, and lots of wood jammed under the tires, they eventually pulled us out and my nerves subsided.

We circled around to get a better look at said hippo.  That’s when we discovered it’s face had been chewed off, the entire body was bloated ready to explode, and we had luckily gotten stuck upwind from the wretched stench.

An adventure to remember for sure! 

I definitely slept well that night.

This post ends here. To keep reading, click here for part 3.

***

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Stay tuned for more stories of my adventures in Botswana and Zimbabwe….

If you missed the beginning of this journey, click here to start from the beginning.

*****

All information obtained through personal conversation with Wilderness Safari guides.

Photos by Allison Lee and Cynthia Cusick.

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Exploring the Okavango Delta in Botswana – Savuti Part 1

I still could not believe I was about to spend the next seven days soaking in the beauty of the Okavango Delta, enjoying the wildlife and hospitality of the people at Wilderness Safaris in Botswana. If you missed the post about how I came to book this trip, click here.

The Okavango Delta is the world’s largest inland river delta and the last remaining intact wetland.  In June 2014, it became the 1000th site to be officially listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The source begins in the Angolan highlands where myriad streams and smaller rivers combine to bring summer rains (falling between October and April) through Namibia before finally reaching the delta basin in Botswana (around March through August).

Simplified catchment flow progression. From Wilderness Safaris pamphlet

At this point in the season, the delta swells to three times its permanent size. Animals from miles around come to Botswana for this influx of water, thus creating one of Africa’s greatest concentrations of wildlife.

 

So how long does it take to travel to Africa from the west coast of the US?

FOR.EH.VER.

We spent nearly 26 hours in flight, totaling 38 hours of travel, including layovers. I left San Diego bright and early to fly to Washington DC,  where I met my mom and caught my overseas flight to Johannesburg. That distance took 18 hours to fly and the plane made a pit stop in Ghana to refuel.  Once we got to Johannesburg the flight to Maun, Botswana, was less than two hours. From Maun, we caught a small puddle jumper flight to our first camp at Savuti, which is in the Linyanti concession.

I was able to sit as co-pilot in the tiny plane and gaze at a spectacular bird’s eye view of the region.

Copilot with Trent in charge. (Trent also has hopes of flying with Kenmore Air for any of you Seattle folk! Although I’d say flying bush planes in Africa is WAY cooler.)

Can you see the elephant at the waterhole below?

Our pilot, Trent, warned us about slight turbulence and made sure we knew where to find the doggie bags. Down below we spotted elephants drinking at a watering hole, so to gain a better view he made a large circle around.  It was during that time my mom discovered airsickness. Luckily, the doggie bags were within reach.

We landed at the small dirt airstrip where ST greeted us with a big smile. It had been raining off and on so everyone was wearing dark green ponchos. ST drove us down a mud road to the Savuti camp where a group welcomed us with singing.

Greeting committee: Quest, Julia, Sally, Kelly,  Nkuma? (If you’re from Wilderness Safaris, help me fill in the missing names!)

We had no idea what to expect but were blown away immediately. The Savuti lodge is built rustic and beautiful with an open air plan, just the way I like my living! In the elements where you can feel close to nature, hear the sounds, and see the sites directly from your bedroom. Nothing like the boxed in cages of posh hotel rooms in the city.

Elephants could literally come through your front yard, and have in the past.

After our briefing with tea and cookies, we had the option to go out on a game drive or relax. Relax?! I dont think my family knows the meaning of relax. Even though it was raining, we emphatically said YES to the game drive! My mom and I were born and raised in the rainy city of Seattle, afterall.

Sally, me, ST, mom and Phalana wait in the rain for our guide to come.

The rain didn’t seem to bother the impala nor the elephants as they feasted away on the mopane trees…

Last year I had visited Kruger National Park in South Africa during the dry season of June, so I was not expecting there to be so much green. I suppose, when you think about it, that is the whole point of the rainy season in December! It was spectacular and made the bush lush and thick. A perfect place for animals to hide.

We left the thickets and opened into a large meadow. I raised my binoculars and started scanning the edge of the meadow. Thats when I saw it.

A lion!

Two lions!

It was amazing to be so close to the king of the jungle. Awe struck and slightly terrified.

The two males, brothers, were beautiful and relaxed. Sleepily watching a heard of elephants grazing in the distance. Every time the elephants moved away, the lions took a stand, stretched, yawned, and lazily sauntered closer to them.

Their amber eyes were stunning and had the magical effect of drawing you in while seemingly reading your mind. “Please don’t eat me!” mine pleaded.

As the sun set, the two started to roar in what sounded like a duet harmonizing. Deep, guttural groans that echoed through the meadow.

We stayed with them for a while as the sun set a brilliant hot pink, casting fluorescent green on the grass.  An excellent way to begin our journey in the Okavango Delta.

Botswana is approximately 224,610m2  (581,730km2) home to just over 2 million people consisting of many ethnic groups (Bayei, Bakalanga, Babugakwe, Hamkubushu, Bakgalagadi, Batswana, Baherero, Basarwa (San), European), each with its own ethnic identity and language. I was amazed that an entire country of that size held less than the population of my home region! To put that in perspective, Seattle and Washington’s Puget Sound alone contain more than 3.8 million people all crammed into just over 1,000m2 (2,642 km2)!

Retreating into wilderness treasures, like the one in Botswana, was a welcomed relief from the rush of city life.

Many of the indigenous communities are represented within Wilderness Safaris, employed as knowledgeable guides sharing stories of the dynamic ecosystem and their culture and life living in the Delta.  To travel through this pristine region, learning from the experts, was honestly the highlight of the experience.

I will end this post here but be sure to sign up for the newsletter to get alerts the day posts go live!

To continue reading more, click here for the next post in the adventure.

Thanks for reading.

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***

All information obtained through personal conversation with Wilderness Safari guides.

All photos taken by Allison Lee and Cynthia Cusick.

 

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Bidding High for the Okavango Delta

The dream started when I attended a National Geographic Live! event at Benaroya Hall in Seattle, WA on November 2, 2015.  South African conservationist, Steve Boyes, and Multi-disciplinary artist, Jer Thorp, led a “live-data” expedition across Botswana’s Okavango Delta in 2014 and presented the results with Seattle.

The team of baYei River Bushmen, scientists, artists, writers, photographers, bloggers, naturalists and engineers traveled from the Okavango Delta river source waters in Angola all the way through to Botswana documenting the numerous biodiversity they encountered, sharing it in real-time with thousands of followers. They recounted tales of discovery and danger, captivating the audience and stirring my wanderlust.

Photo Credit: National Geographic team

Fast forward a couple of months: January 7, 2016. A friend, Kirsten Gardner, tipped me off to a fundraising event  to help raise money for Dr. Gregory Rasmussen’s Painted Dog Research Trust in Zimbabwe. “It could be a good networking opportunity,” she said. Boy, was that a foreshadow for what was to come.

I had never been to a true auction before, much less bid on anything. And with the entry price being $50, and me being a non-profit scientist, I told myself I would bid on nothing, I was only there to network.

As nervous as I was, knowing no one in the room personally, I encouraged myself to sit down at the table in the front where sat the Woodland Park Zoo’s Vice President of Field Conservation, Fred KoontzDr. Lisa Dabek, a National Geographic Society/Waitt Grants Program grantee and founder and director of Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program, and wire artist Colleen with Colleen R. Cotey Studios.

The auction got started. I listened, intrigued as small items racked up high bids.  Then, the bigger items came. Weekend get-away adventures, wine packages, large wire sculptures.

I held fast. Nothing really interested me enough to actually make a bid. Then, the auctioneer said it.  The magic words: All-inclusive 7-day trip to the Okavango Delta.

Whaaaaaaat?! The Okavango Delta? Holy crap. Seriously?? I had dreamed about going there the day I heard the Nat Geo explorers talk about it in November!

Ultimate Africa has donated an all-inclusive 6 night / 7 day Botswana and Victoria Falls safari for 2 people valued at US $20,000. Two nights at their Savuti camp, followed by three nights at Vumbura Plains all ending at Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. Puddle jumper flights and ground transportation needs from Maun to Victoria Falls were included.

Photo credit: wilderness-safaris-vumbura

Photo credit: Allison Lee wilderness-safaris-savuti

Typically I don’t travel in luxury. I’m more of the camping/getting dirty/on-the-cheap/roughing it type of gal. But this. This, I had to bid on.

The bid started low: “Going for $1250, we have $1250, anyone for $1250, next at $2000, $2000, anyone for $2500? We have $2500, anyone for $3000, $3500?….

The bid crawled up to $5500. I quickly did the math for two: wait a minute, that’s only $2750 per person! I had to act fast.

I held my card in the air: ME!

$6000?”…

Another guy took the bid. Dammit!

The price climbed… $7000?  … $7500?

Trip for two. Six nights. Okavango Delta. All inclusive. High end (glamping) luxury safari. Got it. I knew that last year I had spent a month in Africa for $4000 so I set my price point and told myself I wouldn’t go over that per person.

$8000, do I hear $8000?” Prices were climbing fast.

Fuck it.

ME! I held my card high again.

$8000, anyone for $8500? $8500? Going once? Going twice? $8000 to the young lady!

Oh. My. God. What have a I just done?? I felt slight shock.

Everyone congratulated me and I held a smile on my face. Luckily, I had just paid off my credit card 10 days earlier, so there was room to go right back up to my credit limit. (Despite this story, I’m actually very good with money and have an above 820  top credit score. What’s money good for if you don’t spend it, right?!) Plus, it was going to a good cause. I already know adventure and conservation are my weaknesses financially.

Dr. Rasmussen approached me to thank me and I quickly told him I was also a scientist if he wanted help in the field. “Could I stay on after my trip and come visit you in Zimbabwe?!” I begged.

Absolutely!” he exclaimed. “But only if you like picking up poop.” (A comment only true wildlife biologists would get giddy over).

Phew. OK. My $8000 7-day trip for two would now become a month long trip for me. I would spend the safari in Botswana with someone (didn’t know who yet), then we would pop over to Zimbabwe to hang out with Dr. Rasmussen. I could handle that.

I sped home and furiously began to text anyone I knew if they wanted to join me on this adventure. I spent all night in a panic hearing “no” after “no” after “I would love to but can’t afford it”.

Then, I found her.

The lucky Partner in Adventure: my mom.

It was during the next couple of month’s that I found out I would be leaving my job at the Institute for Systems Biology to attend graduate school in June at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. I debated selling the trip since I would no longer have a salary, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I HAD to go. Africa was waiting.

We booked our trip for December 10, 2016 (during my school’s winter break), and planned for it to have three parts:

  1. Cape Town Road Trip in South Africa
  2. Okavango Delta Safari in Botswana
  3. Visit with Dr. Rasmussen and Painted Dog Research Trust in Zimbabwe

My mom would spend 15 days total in Africa, and I would stay for 24. Then, we waited patiently for the day to arrive.

Ultimately, the trip ended up being pretty costly after purchasing flights from US to Africa, and flights within the countries of Africa ($3100+ in flights and travel insurance). But it was all worth it in the end.

I’ll end the story here in this blog post as its getting very long.

Stay tuned for continuing stories of Okavango Delta, Botswana and Zimbabwe Adventures…coming soon!

To see the next post on Part 1 of the Okavango Delta, click here.

For those interested in what my packing list looked like, here is the run down with comments on what I used and wished I had packed.

  • sandals (luna)
  • flat walking shoes (Toms)
  • Running shoes (didn’t really wear)
  • warm socks (only wore one pair once)
  • bra (2 sports)/undies (10)
  • water bottle (used a lot)
  • cards (didn’t use)
  • book (read 2: Half-Earth by EO Wilson and Citizen Scientist by Mary Ellen Hannibal)
  • ziplocks
  • bug spray
  • small first aid kit
  • toiletries (toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo, dry shampoo, floss, glasses, contacts, moist wipes, kleenex, chapstick, sunscreen)
  • sunglasses
  • good binoculars
  • pretty scarf (dresses up any boring outfit)
  • gloves/hat (didn’t use, but if I traveled in their winter, might have needed)
  • allergy meds/ibuprofen/malaria pills (used! Don’t forget the malaria pills)
  • headlamp/batteries
  • down jacket (only used on frigid airplane)
  • zip up hoodie sweater (used to ward off mosquitos but was too heavy for heat in general)
  • african print sweatshirt (great! light weight but gave good coverage and comfort)
  • two light weight hiking pants
  • one pair of shorts with pockets
  • three light t-shirts (blue, black, and blue)
  • two tank tops (black and white)
  • Safari button down long sleeve shirt (loose fitting clothes are excellent)
  • poncho (used once in a downpour)
  • GoPro / cords
  • iphone / cords
  • 6-charge battery pack (VERY handy)
  • small foldable backpack (day bag also used as additional carry on item for books and airplane needs under my seat)
  • small coin/card purse (could fit passport and phone)
  • small notebook/paper/pen
  • quick dry towel (never used)
  • 26 Clif Bars, just in case food situation wasn’t good (only ate 4, gave the rest away)
  • one 44 liter/2650 cubic inch carry on backpack to fit it all in (mine is the very old version of Kelty Redwing 2650)

 

*Featured Image photo credit: Allison Lee

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