My Favorite River

Elephants in Chobe River

Our California winter this year has been blessed with abundant rain. As I walked in my neighborhood park last week, I marveled at the numerous rivers and streams.

 

I pondered what my favorite river on earth was, thought about it all week.

 

Rivers traverse all the continents. Over the centuries, cities have been founded on rivers for their power. They support large populations, and carry heavy loads of people and products. Rivers are the basis for the growth of civilization.

 

I have known so many rivers. How could I pick just one? Could you?

 

One favorite at the top of my thoughts: the Chobe River in Botswana. A popular watering place for African game. We watched wild dogs celebrating a kill, elephants crossing, and hundreds of ungulates.

Wild Dogs, Chobe River Nat’l Park, Botswana

 

Chobe River, zebra crossing from Botswana into Namibia

 

Waterbuck, Chobe River, Botswana, Africa

 

Then there is the Zambezi, another favorite. It is immense, and one of its most spectacular features: Victoria Falls.

 

Victoria Falls, Africa

Zambezi River

Zambezi sunset

In Zambia, where the Chobe and Zambezi Rivers converge, we had many lively experiences as we waited for the ferry to cross the river.

Waiting for the ferry at the Zambezi River, Zambia

Zambezi River crossing, Kazungula Ferry

 

And the Luangwa River, a major tributary of the Zambezi, holds the largest concentration of hippos in the world. Native residents share the river with crocodiles and hippos.

 

Hippos and Fishermen, Luangwa River, Zambia

 

 

Folks who fish rivers can read the water like a book.

 

Across the world in South America is the Amazon; we spent a week on the Madre de Dios River, a tributary.

 

It was buggy and humid in Amazonia, almost uninhabitable. I treasured the time we spent cruising this river, for the cool breeze and mosquito relief; and the myriad of wildlife species.

Boarding the boats, Manu, Madre de Dios River

 

Amazon river (near top) and jungle, aerial photo

Red and Green Macaws extracting nutrients from the river wall (photo by B. Page)

I have many favorite rivers elsewhere, too. My home country has so many rich riverways. The Yellowstone River, a tributary of the Missouri, brings frigid waters tumbling down from the Rocky Mountains.

Yellowstone Falls

The Colorado River, the Snake, the Columbia…and many more that I have had the opportunity to behold.

Colorado River, CO

In California, my home state, the Sierra Mountains deliver our highly revered water every day. We talk in winter about the snowpack, and every time officials measure the snow levels it makes all the newspapers, because this is the year’s source of survival. Dozens of rivers transport this liquid gold to us.

Deer Creek, CA; in the Sierra Nevada mountains

Drought and fires haunt us, and we revel when it rains.

 

What about the river of my childhood, the Mississippi? I was born and raised in the Midwest, where the Mississippi is integral. I’ve had decades of adventures on this river’s numerous branches.

 

Horicon Marsh sunset, Wisconsin

 

Could the Mississippi be my favorite?

Mississippiriver-new-01.png

Mississippi River basin. Courtesy Wikipedia.

As I continued to ponder the earth’s rivers, I remembered my times on the Rhine, the Danube, the Thames, the Amstel, and more.

Amsterdam bridge

 

Australian rivers, where I saw the rare Papuan Frogmouth (bird) from a motorboat; and my first wild platypus.

Papuan Frogmouth, Daintree River, Australia

Platypus

As I walked in the park beneath the California oak trees, I heard rambunctious acorn woodpeckers conversing, and red-tailed hawks declaring their territories.

 

I love it that every day the river here is different depending on the light, time of day, precipitation.

 

It is here that I finally got the answer I was seeking. For today, my favorite river is this one…

 

…where my feet are planted, where my eyes take in the ever-glinting movement, and my spirit is calmed by the whispering waters.

Northern California neighborhood park

This funny little river, a stream, really. Quiet, perhaps unnoticed by some, it is a wealth of life and bliss.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise indicated.

Male Kudu, Chobe River, Botswana, Africa

 

Sparring Elephants

Male elephant crossing the Chobe River, Botswana

Male elephant crossing the Chobe River, Botswana

We were on a small boat cruising Africa’s Chobe River.  Usually you see the wild elephants on dry land, or at watering holes…not with their 12,000 pound bodies half-submerged in a river.  The guide said they were agitated.

 

It was the dry season, a time when elephants are especially abundant here.  When their usual drinking spots are dried up, herds are known to travel 200 miles to this river.

 

Chobe-Elephants,-onto-NamibThere were three bull elephants having a territorial argument.  A male elephant is known to drink 60 gallons of water a day, and as much as 26 gallons of water at a time.  With that kind of thirsty water intake, you can imagine the territoriality that these massive beasts, the largest land animals on earth, must possess.  The three bulls were in single file crossing the river, and the Lead Bull didn’t like it.  He wanted the other bulls to bug off.  Our boat idled on the outskirts, waiting to see what would happen.

 

Over a period of a half hour the Lead Bull left the shore and got deeper and deeper into the water.  Then Bull #2 and Bull #3 followed.  The Lead Bull turned around and shook his head and raised his trunk, i.e., he told the other two to scram.  Sparring elephants on land confront each other by raising their heads as high as possible; they also swat and spar one another with their tusks or trunks.  Usually the taller one dominates, especially if his tusks are bigger.  We didn’t know what to expect with the bulls so deeply submerged.

 

Elephants sparring, Chobe River, Botswana

Elephants sparring, Chobe River, Botswana

The Lead Bull turned around several times, to scare them off, but the other two did not relent.  Then he turned and lumbered toward them.  After a few more minutes the Lead Bull didn’t back down and went directly to the closest bull.  They pressed their heads together, twisted their trunks a few times, and splashed about.

 

Eventually Bull #2 and then Bull #3 retreated and the dominant one proceeded.  He jubilantly crossed the river on his own, leaving the other two behind.  This argument had been settled.

 

BotswanaZebra

Chobe River, Zebra crossing from Botswana into Namibia

Meanwhile the zebra continued to graze on the shoreline, the strong wind blew our boat back a bit, the wading birds fluttered along the river’s edge.  Our guide started up the motor and off we went.

 

Written by Jet Eliot

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

 

 

Kudos for Kudus

Male Kudu, Botswana, Chobe River

Male Kudu, Botswana, Chobe River

Greater kudu are an antelope that live in eastern and southern Africa.  Although they are often hidden in the brush for safety purposes, if you are lucky you might find them grazing in woody areas at dawn or dusk.  This ungulate (hoofed mammal) is usually seen in small herds of a dozen or less.

 

Tragelaphus strepsiceros eat leaves, grass, roots, tubers, fallen fruit, and flowers; they prefer mixed scrub woodland and acacia on lowlands, hills, and mountains.  Kudus move around almost always at night in search of water and food, they are not particularly territorial.

Male at Sunset, Botswana, Africa

Male at Sunset, Botswana, Africa

 

Lions, hyenas, leopard, and wild dogs prey on kudu.  As the second-tallest antelope, male kudu weigh over 500 pounds.  Kudu predators, therefore, prey upon the smaller of the species:  the female and offspring.  Kudus are high jumpers which affords them some safety, easily clearing obstacles eight feet high.  They raise their chin to tilt their long horns back when leaping.

 

Male Kudu

Male Kudu

Only the males, or bulls, have horns.  The elegant spiral horns have two and a half twists, and if they were to be straightened would average about 47 inches long.  Males interlock horns during combat.   As you can imagine, the horns are a subject of poaching.

 

You may have noticed birds on the back of the female kudu photographed here.  These birds are called oxpeckers, and feed on the ticks and parasites living on the mammal.  They are a fun African bird that I will tell you more about another time.

Female Kudu with Oxpeckers

Female Kudu with Oxpeckers

 

While on safari it is always a special find to come upon a herd of kudu.  Their strong, solid bodies, long legs, thinly striped coats, elegant markings, and spectacular horns embrace you with a sort of magic.  A quiet, cool dawn spent with these magnificent creatures is heavenly.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

 

African Wild Dogs

Wild Dog, Botswana

Wild Dog, Botswana

We were lucky to find African Wild Dogs drinking from the Chobe River in Botswana.  For three safari weeks we had been looking for them, but Lycaon pictus are an endangered species and very difficult to find.

 

Unless they are in their denning phase raising pups, they don’t stay in one place, are always out hunting.  According to Wikipedia, there are only 6,600 individuals left on the planet.  But the good news is, a friend who recently visited this same park (Chobe National Park) reported the pack was currently denning in the area, and had young pups.  For more info about this fascinating mammal, click here.

 

Hunting Party

Hunting Party

After spotting the three individuals at the river, our skilled guide soon found the rest of the pack.  They were enthusiastically jumping around, snorting and sniffing, excited about their recent impala kill (which we also found).  This pack numbered about 8-10.  They devoured their hunted kill, frolicked in celebration of their outstanding success, and then ran off.

 

Wild Dogs, Botswana

Wild Dogs, Botswana

Thrilled at finally seeing the wild dogs, after the pack left us we got out of the safari jeep and took photos of the only thing that remained:  their feces.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

The Elegant African Sable

African Sable Antelope

African Sable Antelope

Of all the antelope in this world, the Sable Antelope is the most elegant I have ever seen.  I saw two rare individuals on a three-week safari, one day and one day only, grazing near the Chobe River in Botswana, Africa. 

 

Most antelopes are native to Africa, but there are also some in Asia, and one, the pronghorn, is native to North America.  There are over 90 species of antelope on this planet, and they’re in many sizes and shapes.  If you have the fortunate experience of going on an African safari, you will see hundreds and hundreds of gazelle leaping across the plains.  But even here in the United States we have a stunning antelope.  I’ve talked to many residents of Colorado, Wyoming, and the expansive states of the American West who love their native antelope, the pronghorn.   

 

In sub-Saharan Africa there are over 78 species of antelope.  The Sable is primarily in southern Africa, though there are also places in Kenya and Tanzania where they live as well. 

 

One day we were on safari in Botswana.  We had just had the most incredible experience finding a pack of wild dogs, a very rare and unexpected find.  (See earlier post:  African Wild Dogs.)  While our guide drove us around in the safari vehicle, our group of six was completely satiated by the wild dog experience.  So whatever came along next was just icing on the already-delicious cake. 

 

We were driving around in Chobe National Park, looking for whatever came along, with hopes of maybe finding a Sable that our guide had heard was around.  Driving around in Africa waiting for wild safari animals to appear is one of my all-time favorite things to do in this world.  To me, it is heaven on earth.  So we were driving around, and our guide spotted a Sable.  It was grazing under some trees several hundred feet away from the vehicle—too far for photographing, but not too far to admire. 

 

Sable,-Botswana

Sable bull with oxpeckers

 

We admired it, the guide gave us some background on this lovely animal, and eventually we drove on.  Soon after, we found another Sable.  This time it was pretty close, only about 200 feet away.  He positioned the vehicle perfectly so that we could see it, photograph it, and enjoy it.  And we did.  That is who you see here in the photographs.  A bull, he grazed quietly, while we snapped photos and watched. 

 

Sables are very shy.  Because of those long, strong, scimitar-shaped horns, they have been hunted, and are understandably reticent of the gun-toting human species.  Our guide said if we would be as quiet and still as possible, the skittish gent we were watching might stick around for awhile.  If only our guide had done that….

 

You can see in some of the photos that there’s a bird on the Sable’s upper mane and side.  These birds are red-billed oxpeckers.  They have a symbiotic relationship with many different African mammals.  I’ve seen oxpeckers on giraffes, buffalo, antelope and many other big game.  They hang out on the animal’s hide eating ticks, flies, maggots and other hard-to-reach pests.  It works out for the antelope because it cleans his hide. 

 

We were very contentedly enjoying this solitary, shy and rare Sable, seated in the safari vehicle, when our driver accidentally honked his horn.  Oh man, that didn’t really happen did it? 

Sable,-runningThat’s why the antelope is running here.  He’s just been totally spooked.  He took off running, oxpeckers upended, and we never saw this beauty again.  Our guide, of course, was mortified at his mistake. 

 

Our guide had been flawless up to then.  He had found us wild dogs where they hadn’t been spotted for five years, walked barefoot through a swamp to show us a rare butterfly, wrestled with a spitting cobra so we could get photos.  It was funny then and it’s funny now, his elbow accidentally hit the horn on the steering wheel.  Just another wild and wonderful experience on the African savannah. 

Chobe River, Botswana

Chobe River, Botswana, Africa

 

 

Spotting African Wild Dogs

Wild Dogs, Chobe River Nat'l Park, Botswana

Wild Dogs, Chobe River Nat’l Park, Botswana

Of all the exhilarating, extraordinary wildlife discoveries I have experienced on the African plains, there was none as unique as the African wild dog.

On safari for over two weeks already, we had been hoping to see a pack of wild dogs.  But because they never stay in any one place for long and there are very few of them left, we still had not seen them.  That day in August was our last possible day to have a chance to see them; after that we’d be in an area where there would be no dogs.

At that point we had watched lions stalking, elephants sparring, hundreds of zebra, a livid cobra, leopard, wildebeest, giraffe, hippos, hundreds of different species–in the perfect glory of their African world.  We’d been to South Africa, Zambia and were now in Botswana, but the dogs had still eluded us. 

We were slowly riding in the safari jeep on the banks of the Chobe River looking for the elegant sable antelope that our guide had heard was around.  Instead we came across a scary old buffalo bull hidden in tall weeds.  As he drove, our guide repeatedly and wordlessly opened his door, examining the prints and tracks below in the sand.  He was always searching for the dogs.  Although wild dogs had not been spotted in this park for five years, they could still show up. 

When our vehicle rose over a mound we spotted two, then three wild dogs, lapping water at the river’s edge.  Just as quickly as we saw them, they vanished into the weeds.  Staying quiet, we knew by this third week, was the only way to see more.  Our guide expertly turned the jeep around while he informed us in a whisper that following them was not the answer.  The dogs were notoriously fast; their method of killing prey is to outrun and tire them, so the dogs would streak off in an instant and disappear for good if we were to follow them.  “There must be more of ‘em” our guide in his Afrikaan British-sounding accent muttered to himself.  He told us he was going to head them off, driving in the opposite direction.

Meanwhile everyone in the jeep steadied themselves on the bouncing ride, while scurrying to get out the bigger camera lenses and get set up for what might be, with all our fingers crossed, another opportunity.  He zoomed around on hidden tracks and sand patches and within minutes we emerged in a grassy area, he slowed down.  After a few quiet minutes of searching, all of us scanning the dirt, sand, and pockets of weeds, we found the pack.

He turned off the motor.  There were six of them.  They were nuzzling one another, jumping on the backs of each other, breaking off then rejoining again, all in this small circle of dirt.

You can see from the photos that they look like a combination of domestic dog and wild wolf.  Their legs are really long and lean, they have a thin fur coat, round ears.  Their friendly frolic was familiar, but the fierceness, punctuated with bloody muzzles and manes, was wolf-like.  They were marking, yipping and celebrating; another defecated, and there was much sniffing and sneezing.

My human mammal comrades were equally as excited.  The camera clicks were rapid and continuous, with nervous and quick adjustments of settings among muted sounds of awe and wonder.

This went on for ten minutes before they ran off and vanished for the final time.  Once they were gone we all got out of the jeep and ran over to where they had been, curious and jazzed, looking for their prints, extending the thrill of the visit.  It is a funny thing to see mature adults bent down on the ground sniffing and examining the pile of you-know-what that one dog dropped.  We all wore big, broad smiles taking in the pure satisfaction of witnessing a pack of the elusive and rare wild dogs.

Impala prey, vultures

Impala prey, vultures

Eventually we climbed back into the jeep and decided to look for whatever it was that they had caught and killed.  A few minutes later we found a dead, half-eaten impala on the ground, surrounded by opportunistic vultures.

The uniqueness occurred to me later that day as I re-played this event of a lifetime in my mind:  that the dogs and us humans, we were all exhibiting the same behavior.  All of us, elated about the success of the hunt—shivering, ecstatic joy.