Elephants at Splash

This post will be mainly pictures, and will not include the sad image of the mother and still born infant, which is in another post. We saw elephants on virtually every drive; some singles, some 2-3 and some larger herds. Their behavior is always fascinating. Going past one small herd elicited a very angry response from one elephant, saying essentially “leave us alone”. Shortly after that another herd paid no attention to us at all. And both had little ones!

Lions

Fortunately it is quite common to see lions in Botswana, and Splash Camp is no exception. This time we saw lions on almost every drive. In 2019, on the other hand, we only saw the brothers Puffy and Big Man, but a number of times. There were females with cubs hidden somewhere in the swampy area but we had no luck seeing them.

Tom tells us that Puffy and Big Man were chased away by a group of five males; they have been designated the “Bad Boys” because they killed an adult female upon arrival, a very strange event since the female is the male lion’s means of preserving his genes! We saw all five but not all together.

There are now three prides in the Kwando concession. The five males will control all three prides. The first we encountered was the “no name” pride which consists today of two females and 7 sub-adult males. Here are a few views – all nine were present one early evening.

We later encountered two of the Bad Boys searching for the “One Eyed Pride” of two females and three cubs. This group was again hidden in the swampy area somewhere, and it was getting too dark for us to follow the one male.

Here is a great shot taken by Karen of one of the Bad Boys. The lighting in the late afternoon was perfect.

And an attempt by me to texturize another of Karen’s pictures.

One morning we encountered an interesting scene. Three of the Bad Boys were lurking in the grass in different locations, all intent watching four females from the “Splash Pride“. Tom explained that one or more of the females were probably ready to mate, and each of the boys wanted to be the preferred suitor. At one point the vehicle came between one of the males and the female group, and the male leaped up and ran towards the female. No line of sight was to be lost!

On another morning we heard from another vehicle that they were watching a mating scene. As we arrived the female was walking away with the avid male in tow. After a few minutes she laid in the grass, as did he. At one point she stirred and coughed, and he leaped up and attempted to mount her – he learned quickly that she was not in the mood!

And to finish, a brief lesson on lion mating. When the female is ready, she will be serviced every 10 minutes for the first day, then every 20-30 minutes for the next two days. The mating continues for up to 5-7 days. Needless to say, she mates with two or three different males during this process – so all think they are the father!

It is quite well known that when new males take over a pride, any cubs there will be killed because they want the young ones to be theirs. A smart female with cubs can hide the cubs, mate, then expose the cubs 2-3 weeks later and all is fine!

Tracking Mr. Special

One particular cheetah in the Kwando concession has dominated the territory for his lifetime, maybe eight years. He is known as Mr. Special because he has demonstrated a proclivity to climb trees in order to enhance his search for prey. Usually this is a trait reserved for leopards.

We saw Mr. Special quite frequently during our stay at Splash Camp in 2019, but usually watched him for maybe an hour at a time. On this visit we were alone with Big Tom and AT, and decided to track him until he caught a meal. So we followed him though grassy plains, water and some treed areas, pausing frequently to rest and look around. Starting at about 9 am, we did not leave him until about four.

We presume he attempted to catch something before nine, but we watched him try to catch a red lechwe, made two attempts to catch and eat a small warthog and then made a half hearted try at an impala. Since we saw him the next morning and he was still thin, obviously he had a very unsuccessful day.

Out of curiosity we asked Big Tom what the cheetah success rate was at catching prey. Interesting comments. Per Tom, lions are successful maybe 1 in 10 tries, leopards 1-2, and cheetahs 2-3. He said the wild dogs are more like 3-4, probably because of the pack and their speed and stamina.

So when we first encountered Mr. Special this day, he was sitting on a small rise perusing an area of tall grass and water at a number of red lechwes about a hundred yards away. He eventually rose, stalked through the grasses and made his move. Unfortunately the lechwes ran into the water – they are much more agile in water than the cheetah.

Resting

Ready to Hunt

Stalking

Spotted Prey

The target – red lechwes

Looking

Resting and looking

He wandered around, crossed the airport runway and got on a rise to look around.

Then he spotted a mother warthog with her little one, gave chase, and actually caught the small warthog by the rear end. Then the mother went after him, he dropped the little one and took off., chasing the warthogs for a few minutes. Then he gave up. So he sat under a tree for about 45 minutes.

Then lo and behold, mama warthog decided to come back into the same area. And then the chase was on. First the cheetah chased after the two warthogs. Then mama turned the tables as she spun around and chased the cheetah for several hundred yards before giving up.

The cheetah by now is wearing down. After a rest he made a weak stab at an impala with no success. He then spent the next hour or so lying around and occasionally rising up to see if anything was around. Eventually he wandered away and paused to have a deep drink.

So while we watched for 7 hours, Mr. Special made four distinct efforts to catch his dinner to no avail. At this stage we also gave up and headed for the lodge. Tough day for a cheetah!

First Sightings at Splash

Even though we have been to Botswana five times, we always see new behaviors, do something different, experience firsts and so on. This trip we had a number of firsts.

Five Jackals

Normally ones sees a single jackal, or a pair. This time we encountered five jackals together, and we had a great time watching these animals play fighting, pushing and cavorting around.

Night Creatures

Night drives – with the tracker shining a spotlight around the 180 degrees in front of the vehicle – can be quite interesting. It is not unusual for an elephant to be right in the vehicle’s path, which results in a huge roar which startles everyone. There are creatures who are usually only seen in the spotlight at night, and we were fortunate to see three for the first time. The African wild cat looked just like your own house cat, with its’ ringed tail. Then the spring hare bouncing along was a treat to watch – Tom called it an African kangaroo! Thirdly we saw a caracal, which resembles a European lynx.

Spurfowl Family

We often see these spurfowls or francolins singly or in pairs. This time we saw mother and dad with two little ones in beautiful morning light.

Black Mamba

Driving along Tom and AT spotted a large bush containing dozens of screeching starlings. Tom said it might be a snake. Sure enough we spotted a seldom seen – and highly toxic – black mamba looking for a meal. The snake poked its’ head above the branches – Tom said they can raise up half of their total length! Then it quickly slid its way towards the base of a large tree and disappeared around it. The snake was at least 6″ long and quite big around.

Sadness

We spotted a large number of vultures circling around a certain area. So naturally we drove to that area. Sadly the vultures were circling above a female adult elephant who gad just given birth, and the infant was still born. The mother was pushing the little one trying to arouse it – to no avail. A very sad scene indeed.

Hawk-Eagle

Tom spotted a hawk-eagle high in a tree. Then we saw a monkey climbing up the tree toward the eagle, which eventually flew away, giving the monkey a long dirty glare. The hawk eagle was a first for us, and certainly the encounter was as well.

Bateleur Eagle

We have seen this beautiful bird in the past, usually flying in circles high above, or occasionally in a far away tree. This time was different. Tom spotted this one sitting on a branch on the other side of a smallish pond (pan) of water. It had its’ wings spread, and he guessed that the eagle had bathed and was drying out its’ wings. So we took a few images and waited for it to fly. No such luck. So Tom drove the vehicle across the pan to the other side. Now we had a great view of the eagle – but no flight. Eventually AT got off his seat and started to approach the bird – and it finally flew.

Overall some neat firsts. Each safari is different and always bring new experiences.

A Full Day at Splash

So what is a full day at a Botswanan safari camp like? Wakeup is at 5:30 am, followed by breakfast – usually around a campfire as dawn breaks – with muffins, porridge, coffee, tea and so on. Then at 6:30 our guide Tom says let’s go. And off we go to the safari vehicle, usually comforted by a blanket and a hot water bottle! Yes it can be cold in May – and gets colder as winter approaches in the southern hemisphere. So let’s take a look at the game we see.

First sighting is a pair of giraffes eating acacia leaves. Then we spot a ground hornbill, a rather unusual bird that prefers to not fly. Next a lone black-backed jackel striding across the grassland. Then several magpie shrikes in a bush – mostly black with white markings and a very long tail. A brief look at a bateleur eagle in a tree – often seen circling high above.

Then we spot a first for us – a family of four guinea fowl perched on a log. The little ones are super-cute!

Then we spot a monkey, then a fish eagle, both at some distance. And two Tsessebes – the “ferraris of the delta”, or the fastest of all antelopes. And several wildebeasts – members of the “Ugly Five” accompanied by several red-billed oxpeckers, seen often on many mammals eating ticks, flies and blood.

Next we get a really good look at an African hawk eagle in a tree, jumping from one limb to another, eventually taking off. Another first for us.

Next we meet several spur winged geese, the largest type of goose seen in this area.

Another first – we encounter five black-backed jackals together. Usually these are seen singly or in pairs. We enjoyed their play together. Then a dazzle of zebras – always fascinating to watch with their juxta positioning of stripes among several animals clustered together.

Tom then spots several hyenas running away from us, and we find a single hyena guarding the den.

And next we see a striped kingfisher, one of the few kingfishers that lives on bugs and lives far away from water. Beautiful birds!

The next bird is the well-known and very colorful lilac breasted roller, seen frequently in the delta, but sightings are never boring as this bird is so gorgeous.

We see several individual elephants, more rollers and other birds. Then another first. Tom sees a large bush with dozens of squawking starlings and guesses this activity is a sign of a snake. Sure enough we see the upper half of a dreaded black mamba poking out of the side of the bush. It then slides swiftly toward and around the back of a nearby tree. We are told that a bite from this snake can be deadly in less than an hour!

And then another beautiful bird – a little bee-eater.

Our next sighting is one most safari goers want to see. Two lions roaming the grasses in search of their hidden mates with their little ones. We enjoyed the sighting and following them for some time, but the sun was setting and they entered a swampy area that we could not. Maybe next time.

At this stage we found a quiet and safe spot to enjoy our “sundowners”, followed by some night driving and species spotting activity that I will cover in another blog entry. Finally back to camp for cocktails and dinner, followed quickly by an early bedtime.

A Visit to Splash Camp

We finally got back to our beloved Botswana after two years and COVID. Our primary goal was to spend several days at Elephant Havens, an orphanage for abandoned little elephants – I will write more about that in coming weeks. However we did take the opportunity to spend four days and nights at Splash Camp. Splash Camp is part of the Kwando Safaris holdings, and is located in the Kwando Preserve along with a sister camp, Kwara. We have been to this preserve on every one of our five trips to Botswana, and believe it is among the best in wildlife viewing and guide quality in Botswana. It is located adjacent to the NE side of Moremi, and in the heart of the Okavango Delta. Here is a map of Botswana, followed by a map of the Okavango Delta showing camp locations.:

Botswana
Okavango Delta Map

Let’s start in this blog episode with a brief tour of Splash Camp. First we left via small plane (four passenger) from the Maun airport. Our pilot did open her eyes to fly!

Our Pilot
Leaving Maun
The Delta

We landed at Kwara Airport – nothing fancy, just a dirt runway – after making sure there were no wildlife visitors on the runway. We were greeted by our guide Big Tom Nkwazi and his tracker AT. Tom was our guide in 2017 at Little Kwara, and AT our tracker at Splash in 2019. So both are old friends. We loaded the safari vehicle and headed to camp – with a game drive on the way of course. I will get to the wildlife later. But let’s check out the camp.

The Highway
Main Building – Lounge and Bar
Camp Building
Dining
Campfire
To Our Room
To #6
Our Room
View from the Shower
Dining
Lounge
Karen with Bino
Big Tom and AT
Lion Prints on Camp Deck
Ready to Go
Sunrise in Camp

So that’s Splash Camp in a nutshell. And yes there was/were lions in camp at night. Every night!

End of the World

We took a cruise in March of this year which went from Buenas Aires to Santiago – oops San Diego. But that is a different story about cruising and COVID! What we found fascinating about the trip was experiencing parts of the world seen originally by some of our bravest adventurers many years ago.

Cape Horn

We spent a limited time sailing to and seeing the “end of the world”. Cape Horn is the southernmost headland of the Tierra del Fuego archipelego of southern Chile, and is located on the small Hornos Island. This marks the northern boundary of the Drake Passage, and is the point where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans meet.

Cape Horn was discovered in 1616 by Willem Schouten of Holland. For years it was a major milestone on the clipper route, by which sailing ships carried trade around the world. The waters are particularly treacherous, owing to strong winds, large waves, strong currents and icebergs.

Ushuaia

Our first stop in this area was Ushuaia, the capital of Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, and the southernmost city of the country. It claims the title of world’s southernmost city. It is located in a wide bay on the southern coast of Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego, bounded on the north by the Martial mountain range and on the south by the Beagle Channel.

Beagle Channel

We cruised along the Beagle Channel on our way to Punta Arenas, Chile. The channel is a strait in Tierra del Fuego on the extreme southern tip of South America between Argentina and Chile. This channele, along with the Straits of Magellan and the open-ocean Drake Passage are the three navigable passages around South America.

The most interesting feature of the voyage along the Beagle Channel are a series of glaciers, each named after a European country. These images were taken at twilight.

Hill Country Rivers

There are several rivers running through the Texas Hill Country. These provide numerous interesting photographic opportunities for those who seek out scenic spots with flowing water and cypress and other trees. A small group of us recently spent a day and a half seeking out some of these areas.

Guadalupe River

The Guadalupe runs for 230 miles from Kerr County, near Hunt to San Antonio Bay in the Gulf of Mexico. It is a very popular stream for rafting, fly fishing and canoeing, and runs through larger towns like Kerrville, New Braunfels, Gonzales and Victoria. We found a couple of spots above and below Hunt, TX to check out the scene. Here are a few images.

Medina River

The Medina is sourced by springs in the Edwards Plateau, and runs for 120 miles through Bandera County, merging with the San Antonio River. We found numerous opportunities along the section that runs through the City Park in Bandera.

Frio River

The Frio starts with three tributaries near Leakey in Real County, and runs 200 miles to the Nueces River. The best photo location we found is in Garner State Park north of Uvalde, where there are wonderful opportunities just below the dam. The path winds along the river among numerous cypress trees.

 

Sabinal River

The Sabinal is a stream in Uvalde and Bandera Counties. The upper parts run through Lost Maples State Natural Area, a heavily visited area in the fall where there are numerous maples and other trees which offer pretty fall colors. This river runs for about 58 miles, sometimes underground.

 

Bird Photography

Many photographers – including this one – like to photograph birds. I have a number of ways to do this, including through the back window toward my bird feeders, at the local Hamilton Greenbelt bird blind (excellently done by Friends of the Park) in Lakeway, bird walks at Westcave Preserve, and our beloved Botswana. But I recently visited two ranches near Uvalde, TX, which offer wonderful access to a wide variety of birds, and close up.

Transition Photo Ranch

This ranch is located near Bracketsville, TX, and was a 19, 000 acre sheep and goat ranch. It is located in the transition area between two great ecological regions of Texas, Texas Hill Country and South Texas brush country. Sandy and Leslee Hurwitz have transformed the ranch into a Photo Ranch, with the installation of four wells, ten game feeders, five blinds and miles of access roads and riding trails.

La Lomita Photography Ranch

This ranch, owned and operated by Pliny Mier and his partner Sandy Hurwitz, is a 240 acre property with loads of mesquites, shrubs, cactus and grass. This is home to over 125 species of birds, along with deer, bobcats, armadillo, rabbit,  squirrels and coyotes. The facility has several bird blinds set up to enable the capture of wonderful pictures of birds in their natural state.

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Scrub Jay

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Female Cardinal

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Audobon’s Oriole

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Green Jays

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Cactus Wren

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Male Cardinal

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Black-throated Sparrow

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Titmouse

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Towhee

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Golden-fronted Woodpecker

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White-crowned Sparrow

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Verdin

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Rufus-crowned Sparrow

Painted Churches

When Czech and German immigrants came to Texas in the 1800’s, many settled in the central part of the state and named their towns after the places they had left – Praha, Dubina, Schulenburg, Fredericksburg. These thriving communities prospered by working hard, helping one another and praying together.

In an effort to make their new churches feel more like the ancient Gothic structures of their homelands, these early settlers painted the walls, altars, and arches of their simple wooden sanctuaries in colorful patterns and clever tromp l’oeil images. These buildings came to be known as the Painted Churches of Texas. They have been preserved and stand today in honor of those whose artistry and devotion created them.

Across the landscape of the Texas Hill Country, there are 20 unassuming churches. On the outside they are white clapboard or brick. In general they are in unassuming towns. The Chamber of Commerce in Schulenburg has made it easy to see four of these beautiful churches with local, informed volunteer guides. We recently had the privilege of taking this tour, which lasted about three hours. We visited painted churches in Dubina, Ammannsville, High Hill and Praha.

Sts. Cyril and Methodius, Dubina

Dubina was settled in 1856, and is known as the “mother of Czechs in Texas”. Its first church followed 21 years later but was destroyed by a storm in 1909. The current church replaced the original in 1912. After completion the interior was painted with frescoes and the entire church was stenciled. In 1952 the entire church was painted over. It was recreated by artisans in 1983.

 

Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church, High Hill

A few miles away (and across the fascinating Piano Bridge) is St. Mary’s. Built in 1906, the imposing structure has an exterior of red brick, but the interior is alive with color and pattern. Bold ceilings are gold, with decorative vines and flowers climbing the arches. Every inch of the building is painted, gilded or adorned in some way. The flowers, palms and stars that grace the ceiling and walls were painted by Swiss fresco artist Gottfried Flurry. His tromp d’oeil designs mimic vaults, relief and marble seen in the ancient churches of central Europe.

 

Saint John the Baptist Catholic Church, Ammannsville

The parish began in the late nineteenth century. The first church building, built in 1890, was destroyed by a hurricane in 1909. The present church was dedicated in 1919. The interior is designed in the Gothic-Revival style, emphasized by the repeated gothic arch. It departs from the traditional basilica plan in that it has no columns, opening the entire nave to the gothic arched ceiling.

 

St. Mary’s Church of the Assumption, Praha

The church in Praha was built in 1895 with a soaring steeple and a beautiful stone facade. Inside the polished floors reflect the grand chandelier. The entire arched ceiling has a soft blue-green background, and around the edges are painted foliage and flowers. On the wall behind the hand-carved altar are three angels clad in yellow, blue and pink.