Savute

We’re back with Africa posts! Brace yourselves, this is going to be a long one, and loaded with pictures. We had 1400+ photos from the first two days alone. Needless to say, editing and sorting through the 100s of shots of the same animal took us a while! Anyway, let’s get to those animals, shall we?!

Africa. Our final continent (of five visited) on this trip around the world, and the last non-Antarctic continent left for Jenni to cross off her bucket list (Alan had already been to Africa, but none of the countries we visited this time). And something tells me this won’t be our last time on this incredible continent.

After a not-so-quick layover in Johannesburg where we met up with Alan’s mom and Rich who accompanied us on our visit to Botswana and Namibia, we were ready and amped up for some game viewing. To Savute Safari Lodge we went. And wow, did Savute come through with a phenomenal first couple days on safari! (Which, by the way, was my (though not Alan’s) first ever safari, and I walked away after two days saying, “even if that’s all the safari I ever do, I am happy!” Luckily there was even more to come on this trip, and I’m hoping more in my life down the road!!!)

It’s worth noting that just getting to these places is an adventure. After flying to South Africa we had to spend a night in Jo-burg in order to catch the early morning flight up to Maun, Botswana. From there we moved to the tiny planes (too close for missiles, switching to guns). This one was small for sure, but the 11-seater was just getting us prepared for the truly microscopic planes yet to come. Once I got over the initial fear on that tiny plane, I felt like a little kid. I might have had more fun on the plane than I did on the actual game drives. (Not really, but…) You guys, you see ANIMALS FROM THE AIR. It was one of the coolest things ever. As we were nearing the “airport” (read: strip of land with fewer trees and animals) I was yelling out almost every few seconds exclamations like, “Holy shit, an elephant!” “Oh my god oh my god it’s a giraffe!” “Alan! ALAN! That’s a ZEBRA! Do you see that ZEBRA?” The pure, unadulterated, uncontainable excitement of a three year old. And I’m not the least bit ashamed.

Also, the non-animal views were pretty spectacular themselves.

The airport, and I truly use that word lightly, was rustic. No chic to this shabby, folks. Though the animals quite liked it. There were a couple of hornbills to welcome us, hanging out alongside the runway as we unpacked our luggage. We spared no time getting out there to see the animals. Having arrived a bit late due to a delayed flight, we were transferred to a game drive jeep before even visiting the camp, and headed off for our first (land-based) game viewing.

We saw tons of game! Elephants, zebras, giraffes, antelopes, warthogs, galore!

But why hold out any longer. You guys, we saw lions. EATING an ELEPHANT. TONS OF THEM. AND BABY CUBS. Oh my god, if you’ve ever seen me turn into a non-communicative animal-obsessed being around puppies, you can kind of imagine how fixated I was. Granted I had to keep pretty quiet and not, you know, jump out of the jeep and run to cuddle these adorable little fluff ball killing machines, so it was restrained, but oh, was it joyful.

There was a whole family there. Lots of mamas, and a whole litter of oversized kittens.

And then there was papa. And he was a looker. He kind of hung out away from the rest of the family. And when he stood up and walked around it was just breathtaking.

We watched in awe as he downed some water and immediately peed it all out (ha!), and then just ogled him in his royal, powerful presence.

And they are all so unfazed by the presence of humans and these big ole jeeps coming right up to them. They barely bat an eye when the jeeps turn on. Though at one point a mama cat stood up from her catnap and started walking straight towards me, eyes locked. I’m not going to lie; I panicked a little and maybe started to maneuver in my seat so that I could hide behind Alan.

And can we talk about how insanely cool it is that we saw the one documented pride of lions in the world that stalks, kills and eats elephants?! Some of you may have even seen the film coverage (NatGeo or Animal Planet or something?). Well, that was shot here. We even saw a guy who films documentaries on these cats.

Of course lions weren’t the only highlight. We saw tons of elephants, the majestic beasts that they are. Good golly are they big in person.

And everything about them is huge. Sorry to be crude. But their man bits literally drag in the water as the cross!

One of the pleasant surprises was how many bird species we saw. This is the only type of animal I could not even remotely name with confidence or identify when we saw any. There are so many! I clearly don’t have the memory capacity required of a safari guide. So, there goes my back up plan of leaving the world of law for the Serengeti.

Of course, Pumbaa and his cousins showed up. Warthogs are cool little things. Never realized they get down on their elbows (do warthogs have elbows? If they did, that’s what they’d be leaning on) to eat.

Also, how cute are these mongoose? Adorbs.

I adored the giraffes. They may have been my favorite. Because they are weirdly at once graceful and awkward. They’ve got these gangly old limbs and crazy necks, requiring them to spread their front legs open in order to reach down and drink water, but when they run it’s stunning. It’s like watching movement in slow motion. They remind me of ballerinas. You just watch how they move and you have to stop to admire it.

But I also loved the zebras (too hard to really pick a favorite I guess). They are so beautiful and they look fake. It’s hard to believe you’re not looking at a hologram of a mythical creature, and that a rainbow colored unicorn is not going to pop up right next to them. Right? God, they are just beautiful, beautiful creatures.

But nobody is going to disagree that the leopard sightings were a MAJOR highlight. We thought we were lucky when we spotted the first one, off in the distance and lying down, camouflaged by the grasses around him. And when he stood up and walked toward the jeep I was kind of jumping up and down (in my heart, so as not to spook the guy). This was my first leopard sighting in the wild and I was blown away.

But it kept getting better. Later, we saw a leopard – super close up – stalking some guinea fowl! He never did make the move, but it was still neat to see, and the real-life suspense can’t be beat. The leopard even used one of the jeeps to hide behind as he crept up on his prey.

We followed him around for a while as he made his way through the wilderness. Though a freak 10-15 minute hailstorm (seriously!) eventually made us lose him. That was strange. One minute you’re dripping sweat in the 90°+ heat, and the next you’re shivering, struggling to get a poncho on as you’re being pelted by big cold pebbles being flung into your head at a 45-degree angle.

One of the things I hadn’t appreciated about African game is the number and types of antelope. There are practically millions. Impala are ubiquitous. The guides joke that they are McDonald’s for leopards since they are a quick meal and they’ve got an “M” pattern in white on their bums.

Wildebeest also abound. (Apparently one of the “ugly” five, but I argue they’re kinda cute!)

Waterbuck showed up occasionally as well. I thought these were neat because they have big white circles on the fur on their bum, which helps them to follow each other in a herd at night, given their poor eyesight, especially in the dark.

We also saw the tsessebe, known as the Desert Ferrari due to its speed. I thought their faces looked like leather. I know, I know. Leather is animal hide, but it looked like a piece of a leather jacket sewed onto their faces.

The littlest antelope we saw at Savute were definitely the steenbok. These minuscule little creatures would barely come up to a tall person’s knee. Alan and I joked that these are the prostitutes of the antelopes because it looks like they are wearing too much makeup. Look at those eyes!

One evening we saw an enormous herd of Cape buffalo walking in a line that seemed to stretch for miles and miles (farther than the eye can see). There were hundreds, maybe thousands of them, making their way back to a safer place to sleep for the evening.

But my favorite of the antelope was the kudu. These guys are beautiful with their lovely white fur patterns, and especially the males, with the curlicue antlers.

The lodge itself…Damn you guys. I’m writing this from the other side. From the real world side, where I now pay rent on an apartment and am facing the prospect of working a real Monday to Friday job again. And this seems like a distant memory already. Oh, that lodge felt like a honeymoon suite. Except for the combo of the lack of aircon and the sweltering heat. Oh, and the spiders the size of pancakes that seemed to like to pay me a surprise visit every time I used the shower. Ok, small pancakes. But big and terrifying to an arachnophobe like myself, all right? Anyway, I suppose nature is where it is. And it was worth it for the incredible experience amongst the animals. From our room we could see elephants coming to the water, and I woke up one morning to a view of Cape buffalo from the bed. Do I feel spoiled? I do.

And the dinner setting was unreal. There is a water hole formed from a borehole on the property, and the water in it is a bit salty so the elephants are really drawn to it. And they show up just as dinner is being served. From your table as you feast (on specialties like springbok carpaccio and impala pie!), the elephants come strolling through by the dozens to drink up from their watering hole.

Practical Info

Deciding where to go on safari can be quite a daunting task. Even once we chose Botswana, the options seemed overwhelming. There are several regions, and within these are various concessions and countless camps and lodges. And the nomenclature gets confusing because folks will talk about names as though they’re entirely separate, even if one lies within the other…such as the Moremi Game Reserve and the Okavango Delta. Some safari destinations vary greatly with the seasons while others are more consistent year-round. October tends to be the end of Botswana’s high season, and it is also the hottest month of the year.

Safaris are usually pricy, and Botswana usually falls on the very pricy end of that spectrum. Part of what you pay for is access, since Botswana’s safari areas tend to be less crowded and more remote than most others. In addition to the high costs of the lodging itself, you can expect to pay a bit for internal flights on bush planes.

We chose a six-night package with Desert & Delta, which allowed us to pick and choose from their several properties. We spent two nights each at Savute Safari Lodge, Camp Moremi and Camp Okavango. I would classify Desert & Delta as midrange, for Botswana. Which means it’s massively expensive (each night is the equivalent of an overwater bungalow in Tahiti or the Maldives at a nice resort), yet there are plenty of options that cost double and more. Our package included accommodation, all food and drinks (except premium brands, but e.g. Glenfiddich whisky was included so it wasn’t exactly well drinks), two activities per day (typically game drives), laundry, etc. It was all very comfortable and well done.

We picked these three properties because we thought it would be nice to see different areas. Wildlife and landscape can vary quite dramatically. Savute Safari Lodge is in Chobe National Park. Camp Moremi is in the Moremi Game Reserve. Camp Okavango is in the Okavango Delta. With the benefit of hindsight, we would say that Savute was amazing, Camp Moremi was good and could be great with better luck, and we would advise skipping Camp Okavango. I did not realize there were no game drives at Camp Okavango, but only walks or boat rides. Nor that it seems most water-based game viewing does not offer nearly the same prospects for big-game viewing. If your goal on safari is to see as much big game as possible, definitely do not go to Camp Okavango.

The game viewing at Savute was by far the best, and the river/watering hole adjacent to the lodge drew a steady stream of elephants and sometimes Cape buffalo.

Transportation: We flew from Paris (Orly) to Heathrow and then took a redeye to Johannesburg on an A380. Quite a plane, that is. In Johannesburg, we stayed at a hotel right by the airport (the Intercontinental is at the airport and a lot pricier) and just took the hotel’s free shuttle both ways. The Gautrain is well-regarded if you want to explore some of Johannesburg.

We departed from JNB for the ~2 hour flight to Maun, Botswana on a turbo-prop Air Botswana flight, which had four seats per row. There we went through immigration, and we were met by a representative of Desert & Delta Safaris and then transferred to an 11-seat Cessna for the 45 minute flight to Savute. From the Savute airstrip, it is perhaps a 20 minute drive to Savute Safari Lodge.

We departed Savute on a six-seat, single-engine Cessna 206 for the half hour flight to Xakanaka Airstrip to stay at Camp Moremi. This was a tiny plane!

Accommodation: Savute Safari Lodge may be called a “lodge,” but it felt more like a camp. Perhaps if the cabins are all wood/glass rather than permanent tent structures then one calls this a lodge? Anyway, each couple gets a very spacious cabin with en-suite facilities. Our room #6 was closest to the common areas, where there is a building with a bar and lounge, a small pool, and an outdoor covered area for lunch and dinner. There is electricity (from a generator) in each cabin during the day, but only battery power at night to provide enough light. So don’t forget to charge those camera batteries during your siesta break! Note that there is no air conditioning, and the fan only works while the generator is on.

In Johannesburg, we stayed at the Premier Hotel O.R. Tambo, which is very near the airport and has a free shuttle.

Food and Drinks: Hunger was not an issue. Breakfast is served at 6 am and is mainly cold fare, such as cereal, fruit, yogurt, excellent bread, juices, coffee, etc. Perhaps pancakes or crepes would be added. Then the morning game drive often includes a tea break with a light snack. Brunch is around 11 am, and this includes a lunch buffet plus eggs cooked to order. Afternoon tea is at 3:30 pm, and there are always snacks. During the afternoon game drive, sundowners are de rigeur. These take place around 6 pm (seasonally variable, I presume), where you imbibe a gin & tonic (or perhaps wine or beer) and have more snacks. Things like biltong (local jerky), cookies, chicken wings, whatever. Back at the lodge, pre-dinner cocktails with snacks are up around 7:30 pm. Dinner is at 8 pm, and this entails a plated appetizer plus a buffet and a plated dessert. In general, the breads were excellent and the food was very good.

Activities: At Savute Safari Lodge, everyone does a morning game drive (~6:30-11 am) and an afternoon game drive (~4-7 pm). At certain other properties, including our next stops, there could be game walks and/or water-based activities. Game drives are in open-sided Toyota Land Cruisers, and each guest gets a “window” seat.

October 11-13, 2014 (Saturday-Monday)

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