The Zambezi

Middle Zambezi River, Africa

Every river on this planet has a personality. Come along on a short journey as I share the beauties of the Zambezi in East Africa with you.

 

It’s a bold river that starts in Zambia and winds through six countries before emptying into the Indian Ocean on the east coast.

 

Zambezi.svg

Map of Zambezi. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

The fourth longest river in Africa, the Zambezi is 1,600 miles (2,574 km) long.

 

More info:  Zambezi River Wikipedia.

 

Due to its proximity to the Rift Valley, the geological formation of centuries of uplifts and fault movements have carved the Zambezi through hundreds of miles of mountains and gorges.

Victoria Falls, Africa

Divided into three sections, the Upper, Middle and Lower Zambezi provide much-needed water to this sun-parched inland landscape and its human and wildlife residents.

 

The Middle Zambezi includes Victoria Falls, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

 

Victoria Falls, Africa. Photo by Athena Alexander.

 

Also known as “The Smoke that Thunders,” for the constant spray and roar that the falls produce, Victoria Falls is the world’s largest waterfall. It has a width of 5,604 feet (1,708 m).

 

Where these African women and girls stand in the above photo, it is so loud that they don’t even bother trying to talk. Fresh river droplets are dancing in the air all around them.

 

Upstream from Victoria Falls, the Zambezi flows over a flat plateau of basalt extending hundreds of kilometers in all directions. (See aerial photo at end.)

 

Then, at the falls, the water suddenly plummets 260 feet (80 m) into a deep chasm.

Victoria Falls, Africa

The water volume in Victoria Falls varies depending on the season.  We were there in July, but I’ve been told the waters rage much more in the rainy season, February-May.

 

The Zambezi’s volume also varies by season, with regular flooding and ebbing, other waterfalls, and two hydroelectric dams. It also has many sizeable tributaries.

 

Some sections are pounding with water, attracting white-water rafting enthusiasts for the high volume of water and steep gradients.

 

Other sections of the river are calmer.

 

These next three photos are from a Zambezi tributary, the Luangwa River. Elephants and hippos, wading birds and many other animals gather at the water.

 

African elephant, Luangwa Valley, Zambia. Tributary of the Zambezi.

Hippos at Luangwa River, Zambia, Africa.

 

Locals are often seen on the water in dug-out canoes. Those humps in the water are not rocks…they’re hippos.

 

Hippos and Fishermen, Luangwa River, Zambia. Photo by Athena Alexander.

 

At the border of Botswana and Zambia, the Zambezi is 1,300 feet (400 m) wide and the current is strong. Relations between the two countries have been strained for years, locked in dispute over the construction of a bridge.

 

So instead of a bridge, a pontoon ferry system transports locals, tourists, trucks, and cars across the river. Two boats operate, like this one below, all day long.

 

Kazungula Ferry Boat, Africa

Even though it only takes about 15 or 20 minutes to get across, we spent several hours waiting in the line. Semi-truck drivers wait in line for days, sometimes weeks.

 

I read that recent bridge construction has finally begun.

 

Kazungula Ferry crossing at the Zambezi River, Africa. Ferry boat is left center.

Locals waiting to cross the Zambezi at Kazungula Crossing, Africa

 

Raging in rapids in some places, and too shallow to navigate in others, the Zambezi is a dynamic river. I’m glad you could join me for a short tour.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Zambezi sunset at Livingstone, Africa

The Zambezi and its river basin. Map by Eric Gaba. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Basalt plateau, Victoria Falls, V. F. Bridge. Courtesy Wikipedia

 

Giraffes Galore

Masai Giraffes, Tarangire NP, Tanzania

We are often introduced to giraffes as if there is only one kind. Technically, there is only one species, Giraffa camelopardalis, but there are nine different subspecies. Let’s take a look at a few.

 

Masai Giraffes, Serengeti, Tanzania

 

Male Giraffe, Zambia

 

The tallest terrestrial animal in the world, giraffes live only in Africa. Depending on where in Africa you are, their coat patterns differ. See maps and diagram at end.

 

This subspecies, in the two photos below, is known as the reticulated giraffe (G. c. reticulata). They get my vote for the most elegant-looking subspecies. It is named for its net-like, or reticulated, coat pattern with reddish-brown patches separated by white lines.

 

Reticulated Giraffe, Kenya

 

Reticulated Giraffes at Acacia tree, Kenya

 

I am always thrilled on safari just to see a giraffe. It was long after my first giraffe sighting that I started to notice they were different from one another, depending on where we were.

 

Compared to the reticulated giraffes we saw in Kenya, above, look how different this pattern is on the South African giraffe (G. c. giraffa), below. The spots are more jagged. This individual has several oxpecker birds on its back, eating the ticks.

 

South African Giraffe with oxpeckers, Botswana

 

Taxonomist hypotheses and genetic studies abound on which giraffe subspecies lives where, it has to do with mitochondrial DNA.

 

Thornicroft giraffes (G. c. thornicrofti), in the next three photos, have spots that are more notched. They are a race found in the Luangwa Valley in Zambia.

 

Three Thornicroft Giraffes, Zambia. Oxpeckers mid-flight.

 

Thornicroft Giraffe, Zambia

 

We were thrilled to come upon this mother and her two nursing calves, especially since there are less than 600 individuals left of this subspecies on the planet.

 

Thornicroft giraffes, mother nusing two calves, Zambia

 

When you come upon a giraffe they have always, 100% of the time, seen you before you see them. With their height comes perspective, an advantage in the African veldt where giraffes have many predators.

 

Here are two photos below of the South African Giraffe subspecies, G. c. giraffa. This first photo gives you a good idea of the giraffe’s height. They stand 14-18 feet (4-5.5 m) tall.

South African Giraffe and Zebra, Zambia

 

South African Giraffe, Botswana

 

Wikipedia Giraffe.

 

In addition to the subspecies coat variations, each individual has a unique pattern. Calves inherit some spot pattern traits from their mothers. There are many theories on the evolutionary purpose of the spots, including camouflage and thermoregulation.

 

Coloring is also variable.

 

We saw this pair of Masai Giraffes, G. c. tippelskirchi, in the Serengeti in Tanzania. They have jagged star-like blotches that extend all the way down to the hooves. The male, on the left, is darker due to age.

Masai Giraffes, male on left, female on right, Serengeti, Tanzania

 

Often one sees giraffes browsing, and it is usually on an acacia tree. They have a tough tongue that can master the acacia’s long, sharp thorns.

 

This tower of giraffes, however, are clustered under a mighty baobab tree, with no possibility of reaching the canopy.

Giraffes and Baobab Tree, Tarangire NP, Tanzania

 

There are so many remarkable aspects to the giraffe, their unique coats are only the beginning. And their perspective, hmmm, what a gift.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.
All photos in the wild by Athena Alexander.

Acacia Tree, Botswana

 

Giraffe Subspecies map by Creative Commons Attribution. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

Giraffa camelopardalis distribution2.png

Giraffe Distribution Map by Bobisbob. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

 

Bird Life in Africa

Red-billed Hornbill pair, Zambia

Like every continent on this planet, Africa’s weather and terrain are what define the bird populations. But Africa’s bird populations soar to the top of the continent list with the huge size of land area, big game and extensive wildlife, vast wilderness and undeveloped expanses.

 

Here are some of my favorites.

 

Lilac-breasted Roller, Botswana

 

Greater Blue-eared Glossy Starling, Botswana

 

Many bird species occupy the waterways of Africa.

 

The hamerkop is a medium-sized wading bird related to pelicans. They eat fish and amphibians, sometimes rodents and insects.

Hamerkop, Zambia

 

We watched this ambitious rufous-bellied heron struggle for over a quarter hour with a wiggly catfish. Seems impossible, given the size of the catfish, but eventually the heron swallowed it whole.

Rufous-belied Heron eating a catfish, Botswana

 

On sandy patches near the Chobe River, we came upon a flock of African Skimmers skimming the water for fish. Like all skimmer species, their lower mandible (bill) is longer than the upper mandible, enabling the bird to scoop up fish while flying.

African Skimmer, Botswana

 

Elsewhere in Botswana, the Okavango Delta is a swampy inland basin that is home to many species of water birds. Wading birds, with their typically long legs, could be seen everywhere.

Saddle-billed Stork, Okavango Delta. Photo by A. Alexander.

African Jacana

 

Flamingos are probably the most well-known long-legged wader. We found many colonies on lakes in Kenya and Tanzania. On different occasions, we watched a jackal and a hyena stalking and circling the flamingos…a good reason for this bird to stay in large, safe groups.

Flamingos, Tanzania

 

Kingfishers, a world-wide bird species always seen waterside, are in many parts of Africa. There are 18 species in Africa, here are two.

Giant Kingfisher, Botswana

Brown-hooded Kingfisher, Zambia

 

Another extensive aspect of Africa are the grasslands. The word “Serengeti” translates from the Maasai for “endless prairies.” Life here revolves around the grass.

 

Watching an ostrich run across the African grasslands is a supreme honor. They are the world’s largest bird and are prey to many hungry beasts, so their speed is paramount to survival. They run up to 45 miles (70 km) per hour.

Ostrich, male, Kenya. Photo by A. Alexander.

 

Other interesting grassland birds include the secretary bird and guineafowl.

Secretary Bird, Zambia

 

Vulturine Guineafowl, Kenya, Africa

 

Weaver birds build elaborate nests from the surrounding grass.

Weaver nest, Zambia

More about Weaver Nests in a previously written post.

 

In addition to water birds and grass birds, cohabitation between mammals and birds is fascinating. It is, after all, a land of extremes in terms of wildlife.

 

This goose and crocodile seem to have adopted the “live and let live” doctrine…at least for the moment.

Crocodile and Egyptian Goose, Zambia

 

Oxpecker birds, endemic to the savannas of sub-Saharan Africa, can often be found on the bodies of ungulates. They eat the ticks that annoyingly nestle into the mammals’ hide. Some sources say it is symbiotic, others say the birds are parasitic.

Oxpeckers on Sable Antelope, Botswana

 

This buffalo and oxpecker strike me as an unlikely pair.

African Buffalo with Oxpecker on the far left, Botswana. Photo by A. Alexander.

 

These cheeky cattle egrets were hitching a ride on hippos in the Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania.

Ngorongoro Crater, hippos and cattle egrets

 

Another constantly occurring phenomenon on the eat-or-be-eaten plains of Africa is the hierarchy of species that gather around a freshly killed animal. While lions, cheetahs, or hyenas are often thought of as the fierce predators, the birds inevitably line up for their share of the carcass too.

 

And with large prey come large predatory birds.

 

One day along the Chobe River we had the rare opportunity of observing a pack of wild dogs hunting. They killed an impala and celebrated around it for at least half an hour. After the dogs were satiated and had left, these vultures moved in. You can see how big they are next to the antelope.

Vultures with prey, Botswana

 

This group of birds came in after the wild cats had left, settled into what remained of a baby elephant.

Vultures and Storks on carcass, Botswana

 

In Africa, birds are not the harmless little fluttery creatures we see in the rest of the world…but then it takes a special creature to live in the wilds of Africa. Thanks for joining the birds and me on this incredible continent.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander.

Southern Ground Hornbill, Zambia. Photo Athena Alexander.

 

Hippos of Zambia

Zambia

Every sighting of a hippo is an absolute thrill. They have that huge 1.5 ton body on short, stubby legs, topped by a bulbous face with little eyes and tiny ears. Zambia, located in the central lower third of Africa, is home to the world’s largest population of wild hippos.

 

Found only in Africa, hippopotamus live in rivers, lakes, and swamps throughout the sub-Saharan countries. There are three major rivers in Zambia, and many sources of fresh water.

Zambia hippos at river, Luangwa Valley

Hippos and Fishermen, Luangwa River, Zambia

Hippopotamus, Botswana

Hippo hanging out with two bird species: the heron, and the oxpeckers on his back. Zambia, Luangwa Valley

Hippo, Luangwa Valley, Zambia

Poached for their meat and ivory teeth, hippo populations are steadily declining, and their conservation status is now listed as Vulnerable. See maps below.

 

Unlike many African mammals with fur hides, hippos have no fur and very little hair. They therefore spend much time under water or in mud, to protect their skin from drying out under the harsh African sun. They also secrete acidic compounds that act as a sunscreen, but they are not enough to prevent their skin from cracking.

Hippo luxuriating in mud

Hippopotamus amphibious. The name itself indicates amphibious qualities of living on land and in water. The Greek translation: river horse.

Hippo Pool at night, Zambia

Zambia

With nostrils, eyes, and ears situated high on the skull, they can continue breathing while staying under water. They can also close their nostrils under water and remain submerged for many minutes. I like to listen when they come up from under water; they take a breath of air, just like us humans, and whales.

 

Their closest living relative, in fact, is the whale, cetaceans. 

 

Hippos can walk on the river bottom; and they sleep, mate, and give birth in the water, too.

Hippo family

 

Wikipedia Hippopotamus

 

Being the third largest land mammal on earth (after the elephant and rhinoceros), they look like they’re not very fast animals. But they can run swiftly for short distances, clocked at 19 mph (30 km/h)…and are aggressive animals.

Scraped from fights, and sporting an oxpecker (bird) on its back

A typical day for a hippopotamus is to remain in the water during the hottest hours, then come out when it is cooler, to feed. During the day you’ll find them in and around water, grunting a lot, wallowing, and sleeping. Every once in awhile one will do a 360 degree barrel roll, to moisten any exposed skin.

Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania, hippos and cattle egrets

 

Then at day’s end when temperatures have cooled, they come onto land to graze.

Zambia

 

Hip-hippo-hooray for yet another incredible creature on earth.

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

Conservation organization for hippos: African Wildlife Foundation

 

Hippo distribution.gif

Range map African hippopotamus. Red=Historic range, Green=2008 populations. Courtesy Wikipedia

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Zambia, Luangwa Valley

 

Black (as Night) Friday

Spotted Hyena, Zambia

This is the day in America when shoppers are enticed into stores for big sales. But for those of us who find greater value in fresh air and nature scenes, I thought it would be fun on this Friday to take you into the black night of Africa.

 

Except for the light of the moon, the nights are pitch black.

 

Giant Eagle Owl, Botswana aka Verreaux’s Owl

 

Safari Night Drive. One night in Zambia we were slowly driving along in the dark when our guide stopped and told us to get ready. We couldn’t hear or see anything, but he told us which way to face. Cameras went up.

 

Then he turned on the spotlight and right in front of us was a pool with about a dozen hippos quietly grazing on the water plants.

 

Hippo Pool, Zambia

 

Most of the time, guides keep the spotlight turned off to avoid disturbing the animals; they slowly drive the jeep with just parking lights.

 

With the spotlight off, all you can see are the animals’ eye-shine piercing through the deep dark. It is eerie to look out over a grass field and see dozens of those colored eyes looking at you. You don’t know if it’s a snarling hyena or an antelope.

 

You never ever step out of the vehicle.

 

Leopard, Zambia

 

The metallic-like colored dots are at various heights. Low to the ground are the hares, mongooses, rodents, and night birds. Several inches higher up are the small wild cats like civet or genet.

 

Genet, Tanzania

 

Gabon Nightjar, Zambia

 

Even on the blackest, darkest night, a good guide can identify the animal just by the eye shine. Eyes can be close together, far apart, and different colors according to species. Animal identification also depends on where the eyes are:  in tall grass, on tree limbs, in water, running, or not running.

 

We came across this leopard pair in the Luangwa Valley in Zambia. We saw them a couple of times, and at one point the male had caught a bird that hung limply from his jaws. They walked off to enjoy their midnight snack, and we never saw them again.

 

Leopards, Zambia

 

Wild Cat, Botswana — Ancestor to the Domestic House Cat

 

The elephant was one of my favorite experiences in all of life. The photo is not the greatest, but the memory is. That night we were awakened by a stormy rustling.

 

It turned out to be a mother and her calf just outside our flimsy door. What sounded like a rain storm was the mother elephant tearing apart a tree, eating the leaves.

 

We remained silently watching, not making a sound.

 

Elephant, Zambia, the structure with windows on the left is our cottage

The story: The Night the Elephants Came to Visit

 

Here’s to enjoying the wild mysteries of the night.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

African Civit

 

Watching Elephants Eat

African elephant, Zambia

African elephant, Zambia

As the largest land animal on the planet, the African elephant spends a lot of time browsing. They are a fascinating mammal to watch eat because of the many ways they use their trunk.

 

The trunk is an extension of the upper lip and contains nostrils and two small finger-like projections at the tip for handling small objects.  They use the prehensile trunk to breathe, forage, touch, shower, grasp, drink, and amplify sound.

 

African elephant, Zambia

African elephant, Zambia

A very complex tool with an astonishing 150,000 muscle fibers, the trunk, or proboscis, serves the elephant as a fifth appendage.

 

The earth was once home to many members of the Proboscidea family (trunked mammals), but elephants are now the only surviving species.

 

African elephant, Zambia

African elephant, Zambia

The teeth of Loxodonta africana are so essential that they have several sets in a lifetime.  One molar weighs about 11 pounds (5 kg).

 

Upper incisors grow into tusks on both the male and female; and are used for digging, foraging, fighting, and defending.

 

Weighing (male) 11,000-13,200 pounds (5,000-6,000kg), they eat roots, grasses, fruit, and bark; and can eat up to 300 pounds (136 kg) of vegetation a day.

 

African elephant, grey heron, Zambia

African elephant, grey heron, Zambia

Read more about the African elephant here.

More about elephant teeth and trunk here.

 

One day we sat in our jeep under the hot midday sun, watching the elephants browse the surrounding forest and shallow lake bottom.  We were in South Luangwa National Park in Zambia, and we did this for hours.

 

Athena, Zambia

Athena, Zambia

They were relaxed and protected, the herd spread out around the whole lake. Grey heron, kingfishers, jacana, ibis, and other birds quietly foraged too.

 

The African elephant population, as everyone is aware, is dwindling and this is a sad fact. Much has been done to protect this distinguished creature.

 

African elephant adult and calf, Zambia

African elephant adult and calf, Zambia

But on this day under the African sun, they taught their youth and fed themselves and everything was right in the world.

 

African Elephant distribution map.svg

2007 Loxodonta distribution. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Written by Jet Eliot

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

 

Drinking Up Zambia

Victoria Falls, Africa

Victoria Falls, Africa

For a land-locked country, Zambia has a lot of water.

 

Not only do the famous Victoria Falls border this African country, but there are many rivers and lakes here as well.

 

Hippo Pool at night, Zambia

Hippo Pool at night, Zambia

With three major rivers, five lakes, 17 waterfalls and numerous wetlands, Zambia has so much water power that it sources the Kariba Dam.   (See map below).

 

Waterways of Zambia were also the attraction for David Livingstone in the mid-1800s, in his driving efforts to share the teachings of Christianity and abolish the African slave trade.

 

Fishing with Hippos, Luangwa River, Zambia

Fishing with Hippos, Luangwa River, Zambia

He determined that by mapping the Central African watershed, he would open the interior of Africa to “Christianity, Commerce, and Civilization.”

 

Livingstone was the first westerner to see the great falls of Mosi-oa-Tunya (“the smoke that thunders).  Eventually he would identify not only Victoria Falls but also many lakes and rivers, especially the Zambezi River, providing pioneering details and enabling large regions to be mapped.

 

Zebra in Zambia

Zebra in Zambia

For more information about Zambia click here.

 

Zambia has its problems from corruption to poverty, shrinking forests, poaching, and severe loss of habitat.  This has made it difficult for wildlife to exist outside the parks.

 

Zambia river tributary

Zambia river tributary

But within the roughly 20 national parks of Zambia water is flowing and wildlife flock to it.  More about Zambia wildlife here.

 

Waiting for the ferry at the Zambezi River, Zambia

Waiting for the Kazungula Ferry at the Zambezi River, Zambia

I saw more hippos here than I ever thought possible.  And water, a sought-after resource all across Africa, was refreshingly abundant.

 

It was on the banks of the Luangwa River where we had our midnight encounter with a mother elephant and her baby.  Read more here.

 

Water is a necessary resource for all of us, and fortunately Zambia is covered with it.

 

Zambia in dark green. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

 

 

Jet at the Zambezi River

Jet at the Zambezi River

 

 

 

 

 

Zambia-Map

Courtesy zambiatourism.com

On Being Busy

Beehive on Tree, Zambia

Beehive on Tree, Zambia

“Those who are wise won’t be busy, and those who are too busy can’t be wise.”

~~Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living

 

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Beehive, Zambia

Beehive, Zambia

African Civet

African Civet, Zambia

African Civet, Zambia

Found only in sub-Saharan Africa, this small mammal is about 16 inches tall (40 cm) and 30 inches long (76 cm).

 

 

Although the population of this weasel relative is not officially endangered, they are difficult to observe.  In addition to being nocturnal and solitary, they are prey to many African stalkers including leopards and lions.  The species has also suffered from habitat loss.  I have seen far more shining sets of civet eyes on nighttime safaris, than the actual animal.

 

An omnivorous  hunter, Civettictis civetta eat plants and animals including vertebrates, invertebrates, and carrion.  The African civet, unlike other civets, is also semiaquatic.  More info here.

 

Named for their musky gland secretion, both genders secrete civet, used for marking territory.  For hundreds of years this mammal has been hunted by humans for their secretion, used as a basic ingredient in perfumes (including Chanel No. 5).  Fortunately synthetic musk has replaced this.

 

We lucked out on the day we spotted one in daylight, and what a joy the civet was to behold.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

African Night Drive

Leopard, Zambia

Leopard, Zambia

On safari night drives one person usually sits or stands in the front seat beside the driver, that person is the “spotter.”  They are in charge of a strong spotlight tethered to the cigarette lighter.  The spotter scans the trees and grounds looking for mammals, while the safari jeep slowly traverses the grass.

 

Except for private lands, night drives are easier to arrange outside of Kenyan and Tanzanian parks.  Unlawful and dangerous poaching activities usually occur at night there, so the rules in many parks are understandably strict.

 

Zambia is a different story, and we had some great fun in the South Luangwa National Park.   Night drives are good for spotting numerous nocturnal species, solitary animals, and big cats hunting.

 

You keep the spotlight off most of the time, to avoid disturbing the animals.  With the spotlight off you can only see the animals’ eyes shining, piercing through the deep dark.  Great care is taken to avoid shining the light in the animals’ eyes, to not disturb their night vision.

 

The metallic-like eye shine is at various heights.  Low to the ground are the hares, mongoose, and others.  Several inches higher up are the smaller wild cats like civet or genet.

 

Leopards, Zambia

Leopards, Zambia

Even on the blackest, darkest night, a good guide can identify the animal just by the eye shine.  Eyes can be close together, far apart, varied colors, in tall grass or on tree limbs; animal sounds are identifiers too.

 

Then at an agreed-upon moment when an animal is near, the photographers get ready, the driver slows down, and the spotter turns on the light.  The spotlight is respectfully on for only a few minutes.

 

Hippo Pool

Hippo Pool

One of my favorites:  eye shine with sloshing sounds–hippos in a lily pond.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander