The Skies of Africa — Part 3, Savute

The overland trip from Khwai to Savute is a day full of adventure. The road is long and dusty, often trapping the tires of self-drive visitors whose rented SUVs don’t have the suspension to handle the very deep sand.

Rescuing a self-driven couple stuck in the deep sand

In April, as the rainy season that brings storms and high waters to the Okavango Delta trickles to an end, the landscape progresses from fresh and green in Khwai, through thick mopane forests with their odd butterfly-shaped pairs of leaves, and then into the dry beige grasslands that Africa usually brings to mind.

Mopane shrubs studded with tent caterpillars

The journey is essentially a day-long game drive. Elephant paths criss-cross the road, and you’ll often find yourself waiting patiently as one of the big grey creatures leaves the brush on one side, lumbers across unconcerned with the trivial presence of motorized vehicles, and disappears surprisingly quickly into the scrub on the other side.

A stop for morning tea might be overseen by a curious troop of Chacma baboons, romping up and down the trees around the clearing where the safari staff have set up the cups, thermoses and plates of cookies. We watched a trio of youngsters play ‘king of the termite mound’ until a big adult male chased them off and claimed the throne for his own.

In the heat of mid-day, the guide will choose a shady spot to stop for lunch, where there’s still enough visibility to make sure no predators are resting under the shrubs.

Lunch is a picnic in the bush, where you can watch a large monitor lizard slink through the grass or a herd of wildebeest graze in the shade of acacias while you enjoy dishes like roasted chicken, potato salad, buns, three-bean salad, cold cuts, creamy rice salad and other amazing food, cooked by the camp chefs that morning and packed in metal containers for the trip.

Finally, in the late afternoon, you arrive at the Savute Channel, one of the strangest places in Botswana. The channel is a deep valley that links two sets of marshes, Savute and Linyanti. The first time we were there, we drove along the bottom, swerving between the tree-lined sides as we spotted banded mongooses and searched for that elusive leopard. The channel had been dry for about 20 years.

Three years later, the channel had experienced one of its mysterious flows and was full of water. Decades of research have failed to reveal the reason for this strange phenomenon, but geologists attribute it to some kind of tectonics that sometimes block the flow of water, and other times let it through.

Camp is set up on the top edges of the channel where it’s always dry, and there are always flat plains to enjoy all the wildlife and the spectacular sunsets.

That first safari, we arrived at the channel in the late afternoon. Our guide decided to explore the bottom of the channel while we still had some daylight. He said that, with all the rocky outcrops, it was a place where leopards liked to hang out so they could lurk on the rocks and look for prey. We drove from one end to the other and up the other side – nothing. It was getting late, so our guide decided to cross back and head for camp, and was nearly at the bottom when a fellow guide radioed the exciting news: a leopard sighting! It’s one of the advantages of a guided safari – all the guides from the different safari companies will share the location of sightings with each other.

The sometimes-dry bottom of the Savute Channel

Our guide screeched to a dusty stop, made a quick three-point turn and tore back up the hill. We were all hushed, holding our breaths so we wouldn’t make any noise to spook the creature, and scrutinizing every shrub and shadow right along with our guide. I was at the back on the right side of the vehicle, camera ready and repeating “Don’t scream, don’t scream” silently over and over in my head. While I’m not normally a screamer, it’s hard to stop yourself from at least a tiny shriek of excitement when you see something special.

We rounded a curve in the road and suddenly I spotted the leopard, lounging in the sparse grasses of a little clearing just off to the side! I whispered as softly/loudly as I could to the people ahead of me, “It’s over there! It’s right there!!”, and pointed frantically. It felt like forever as word made its way up to our guide and he carefully pulled over into the dust, slowly approaching the animal.

It was a small female, lying quietly in the dusk. She was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen, even more stunning in person from just a few feet away. She didn’t seem to be bothered by our presence at all, lying there graciously for about 20 minutes while we quietly snapped photos. Eventually she got up and calmly licked herself a bit – as if displaying all her elegance just for us – and then faded away into the brush.

My hubby looked over at me at one point incredulously. “Are you crying?!”

We had done it. We had found a leopard, all lethal beauty and grace, lying right out in the open for us. By that point I’d been fully convinced that we’d never see one. And I’d been the one to spot her first. I was incredibly moved by the experience. That evening in camp we all cracked open a special bottle of wine at dinner to celebrate.

The amazing sightings continued.

One morning an entire flock of ostrich paraded across the savannah as we had morning tea.

In another section we watched two male impalas lock horns in a deathly battle. One of the males flipped the other so hard it crashed into the side of our vehicle. We were sure it was dead, until it suddenly leapt up and sprinted away, the other male hot on its hooves.

Around a bend we surprised a big male lion courting a female right at the side of the road. He let out a massive aggravated roar, making every single one of us jump in our seats. Our guide told us that he was one of three brothers, any of whom would happily dethrone him. Through three days of prolonged, repeated and exhausting mating needed to stimulate the female into conception, the male had to be constantly on alert lest one of his brothers attacked, so he was a bit testy.

A muddy pit held the heartbreaking remains of an old elephant who’d got caught in the muck and hadn’t had the strength to get out. We sat there in respectful silence for a few minutes. No one took any photos, and we left it in peace as we continued on our game drive.

A flooded road in the water-filled Savute Channel

Three years later, the abundant waters of the full channel had changed the migration – now large herds of animals remained in Savute instead of moving on to Linyanti, and we were overwhelmed at the sight of so many zebra forming a crazy piece of op art with their dizzying clusters of stripes. Scientists believe that’s the  purpose of the stripes, to confuse predators so that they can’t tell where one zebra stops and the next starts. In such groupings, it’s easier for the vulnerable babies to disappear between dozens of legs.

Beyond the zebras the landscape was full of herds of giraffe loping along the ground and elephants taking dust baths.

Guinea fowl supplied comic relief, with their fat speckled bodies topped by long necks and small red and blue heads. When they’re disturbed, they dash in absurd clusters through the grasses. The guides call them ‘running teapots’.

There was an impala run behind our camp, and every day at tea time in the afternoon the antelopes seemed to get their own version of cat-crazies, bounding back and forth along the base of the hill until they’d worked off their energy.

On one afternoon game drive we drove to an area high up in the Savute foothills where hundreds of years ago San bushmen painted rock art of the animals they hunted, best seen in the golden light of late day, after some steep scrambling up the boulders!

As the sun began to sink, a pair of lionesses on the hunt prowled through the grasses right in front of us.

And then there were the sunsets.

We all loved Savute and were as sorry to leave it behind as we were excited to move on to the Serondela region and the Chobe Reserve with its world-famous elephant herds. The reserve runs along the wide Chobe river, and would give us the opportunity to take to the deeper water amid crocodiles and big pods of hippos. Join me next week for our surprisingly dangerous venture into Serondela!