Botswana Revisited

We recently returned from our fourth trip to the beautiful country of Botswana, where we enjoyed 16 days on safari at four camps, all basically new to us. Three were located in the Okavango Delta, close to different parts of the Moremi National Park. I thought an evaluation of the four camps might be of interest. I have included a few images, but all four camps can be reviewed in detail on various web sites.

It is worthwhile to explain the things that we value. Generally we stay in four star camps. If your interest is elegance and gourmet dining, go five star and stay at a Wilderness Camp. Or And Beyond. We like reasonable comfort in the “tent” we stay in – large bed, good bedding, separate bath, indoor/outdoor showers, double sinks, a little sitting area and ideally a view of some kind. The food needs to be basic home cooking; we saw less buffets this time and more featured menus but the food was good. We like smaller camps – no more than 20 people. But what is most important to us is the game viewing experience. So we like variety, variable terrain, good quantities of each species, different species, yes the cats, but also elephants, giraffes and for sure wild dogs. And the other key factor is the guide (and tracker if applicable). We want pleasant guides with experience and knowledge, those able to track and find dogs, a leopard and so on. Above all we want guides who are photography sensitive, and know how to place the vehicle to get the best visibility, lighting and so on. And guides who are sensitive to what their guests like to do. In fact we have several Botswanan guides who are now personal friends.

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Gomoti Plains

The first camp was Gomoti Plains Camp, part of Machaba Safaris, who also operate Machaba and Little Machaba Camps. This camp has capacity for 20 people. Gomoti was opened in 2017, and is located in the southeast part of the delta. This camp has a variety of habitats including mopane woodland and broad floodplains along the Gomoti River area. During our visit, the whole area was very dry, and the river extension normally in front of the lodge was totally dry. We found the camp itself clean and fairly modern for  a safari camp, with no particular distinguishing features. The individual units were classic tents on wood floors, with a zippered front access, a large bed, double sinks, indoor/outdoor showers and a commode. Overall the food was served at individual tables midday, and at a long outdoor table in the evenings. The food was reasonably good. Guides did not generally eat with the guests. The camp did provide a lovely evening outdoors in the bush with dancing, singing, great companionship, and a very good meal. We rated this camp as a 3.5/5.0.

The game viewing at Gomoti was average at best, probably because of the dry conditions. We saw lions and leopards several times; the primary focus of the guides seemed to be cats. Otherwise the herds of zebras, giraffes, wildebeest, cape buffalo and so on were sparse and smaller than normal. Bird-life was spotty, and our guide had little interest in the birds. Unfortunately our guide was not photography oriented at all; it is a good idea to stress your interest in photography when you make your booking. Positioning, lighting, visibility are all key. We would not return to this camp nor to this location on the south end of the delta.

Splash Camp

Splash is a new camp in the established reserve of Kwara; it has 12 rooms.  This reserve is located adjacent to the Moremi, north of the location for Gomoti. We had been guests at both Kwara and Little Kwara on several occasions; these two camps have been demolished and replaced at a different location within the reserve with Splash Camp. Kwando Safaris, the owner, is also currently building a new version of Kwara, scheduled to open this fall. Splash Camp opened last year, and has a 24 guest capacity with groups of six or more allowed to reside in Splash Enclave; this basically provides separate dining and lounging, ideal for families. Thus we were treated like a family, with dining at our own table in our own lodge. Food was very good, and our waitress Base was a delight. Our guide TJ and the general manager Pro ate with us every meal.

Individual “tents” were more like cabins, but well laid out and comfortable. A full deck and an outdoor shower provided very nice views of the local waterhole and usual game – elephants, baboons, impala and some dogs.

We return to this area for two main resons. One, we like Kwando’s practice of having a guide and a tracker on each safari vehicle. Two sets of eyes make for more successful game finding, especially when tracking cats or dogs. Two, we have found the wildlife quantity and quality always superb in this reserve. This visit did not disappoint. We saw Special, a “special” cheetah, several times. We saw leopard as well. And both female and male lions, including Puffy and Big Man. In addition the wild dogs were encountered on several drives. Elephants were numerous, as were giraffes, zebras, buffalo, wildebeast, kudu, tsessebe, waterbuck and of course the ubiquitous impala. While the area was fairly dry, there was enough water in places to attract game.

Sable Alley Camp

Sable Alley is also quite new, just in its’ second season, and has 12 rooms. It is located in the Khwai Private Reserve, east of Kwara and adjacent to the Moremi. The terrain is quite varied and interesting. Near the lodge there are extensive mopane forests and woodlands. Beyond that are substantial grasslands, and along the main channel great expanses of wetlands. The main facility is large, well appointed and very attractive. Each area offers great views of a natural waterhole, really an extension of the river system, which contained a good quantity of hippos.

This place had more of a Wilderness Safari lodge. Diners ate separately from one another, and typically the guides did not intermingle with the guests. Again the food was quite good. The individual lodgings were tented on wooden floors, each with a deck overlooking the pond.

Game viewing was quite good; we saw lots of elephants, differing species of antelope, giraffe, zebras, wildebeest, several lions but no leopard or cheetah. One group did see a leopard briefly one evening.

 

Muchenje Safari Lodge

This lodge offered a real change of pace, as it is located overlooking the Chobe River alongside Chobe National Park. It is located on the west side of the park away from Kasane, so the drive from Kasane is about an hour across the park on a paved road. The lodge and 11 individual casitas are located several hundred foot above the flood plain, and offer magnificent view. Built in 1996, the whole facility is African in decor and feel, and has high ceilings, lots of wood and stone floors. Decking is substantial, and the pool area is the best we have seen in Botswana. The managers are old friends from our first visit to Meno a Kwena Camp, so the comfort level here was very high. The food was excellent.

We love this area because one can do boat rides on the Chobe River, which offers wonderful, closeup views of elephants in the water, hippos and buffalo out of the water, lots of wonderful colorful bird life and a variety of reptiles like crocs and m=monitor lizards. One day after our three hour cruies, we drove along the park waterfront and encountered husge numbers of elephant, along with lots of giraffe, baboons, some lions, judu, waterbuck and other assorted wildlife. The closeness of the elephants to our vehicle was simply stunning.

We also did  an afternoon ride in the park itself, and encountered a pride of eight lions right along the highway. We also visited a local village and school, quite interesting.

 

 

A Visit to Elephant Havens

As many of you know, we have been an enthusiastic supporter of Elephant Havens, a charitable organization founded in order to create an elephant nursery near Maun, Botswana. We met Boago (Bee) Poloko, one of the co-founders, in 2015 at Abu Camp, where he was the elephant handler for their captive herd of then six elephants.  Bee is featured in the documentary, Naledi, which can be seen on Netflix. Bee introduced us about a year ago to Debra Stevens and Scott Jackson, a couple in Dallas who have done a heroic job in raising the resources to fund the dream of the founders of Elephant Havens. The goal of the nursery is simply to rescue orphaned elephants, provide love and nourishment to raise these little ones, and to ultimately release them back into the wild.

The orphanage is being built on 11 acres along the banks of the Thamalakane River about 20 miles NE of Maun. They have a staff of about 13 people, several of whom worked with Bee at Abu, and they all love elephants. Karen and I were thrilled to spend two days with the team at the orphanage on our recent trip to Botswana. We were able to get to know the team members, and to interface with Mmamotse, a two year old orphan who is the facility’s first resident – and she literally owns it and the hearts of anyone who meets her. Including us!

We were very excited and humbled that Mmamotse’s boma – the place where she spends her nights – was named “Grant and Karen John Boma”. To Bee, Debra and Scott – what an honor and a thrill!! Thanks so much, but Karen and I are among your most enthusiastic supporters. I had the privilege while we were there to take some drone pictures of the facility, some of which is still under construction. So in this post I want to introduce you to Mmamotse, to the Elephant Havens team and to the facility. My hope is to influence in some way both existing and potential donors to visit and support Elephant Havens on your visit to Botswana. Or you can visit their web site at http://www.elephanthavens.org and make a much needed contribution. And if you have not considered a visit to this wonderful and magical country, you must do so. Karen and I will – as often as we can.

Mmamotse

Mmamotse is a two year old female elephant who has resided at Elephant Havens since the end of 2008. She is warm, friendly, intelligent, playful, curious, beautiful, (somewhat) cuddly and a great kisser with her trunk. She has explored pretty much every square inch of the 17 acres, and is continuously doing so. She will make a wonderful big sister to future residents as they arrive. Words are not enough to describe her. Nor are pictures – although I will include a few in this blog. One must meet and get to know this little (?) creature.

 

Elephant Havens Staff

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The Facility from Ground Level

And from a Drone

 

Two Neat Things To Do In NYC

This is a post from the past. But I think that these two activities are in the category of pretty neat things to do in New York City. In one day or apart. The Brooklyn Bridge is a fascinating structure with interesting cable patterns. The Cloisters is a step into the past, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Try them both!

Brooklyn Bridge

The Brooklyn Bridge is a hybrid cable-stayed suspension bridge in NYC. It connects the boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn, spanning the East River. The bridge has a main span of almost 1600 feet and a height of 276.5 feet above high water. It is one of the oldest roadway bridges in the country and was the world’s first steel-wire suspension bridge.

It was built over 14 years beginning in 1869. The towers are built of limestone from Essex County, NY,  granite from Maine, and Rosendale cement. The bridge was built with numerous passageways and compartments in its anchorages. The city rented out the large vaults in order to fund the bridge; the vaults were used to store wine as they were always at 60 degrees!

An enjoyable hour or two can be spent strolling across the bridge on the pedestrian walkway, enjoying the views and admiring the bridge construction. Or take a bit longer, stroll across to Brooklyn, have lunch and then cross back to the city.

 

The Cloisters

The Met Cloisters, which opened to the public in 1938, is the branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art devoted to the art and architecture of medieval Europe. Located in Fort Tryon in northern Manhattan, on a spectacular four-acre lot overlooking the Hudson River, the modern museum building is an ensemble arranged in chronological order. Elements from medieval cloisters and from other sites in Europe have been incorporated into the fabric of the building.

Much of the sculpture at the Cloisters was acquired by George Grey Barnard, a prominent American sculptor and avid collector of medieval art. The generosity of John D. Rockefeller enabled the conversion of the collection into a modern museum structure which opened in 1938. Rockefeller donated some 700 acres along the palisades to preserve the spectacular view from The Met Cloisters.

Willow City Loop

A big event in the Spring in Texas are the outburst of wildflowers in many parts of the state. We all have Lady Bird Johnson to thank for these often splendid displays of bluebonnets, poppies, Mexican paintbrush, gallardia and several other species. Many enjoy driving through the  hot spots including Brenham, Hill Country, Ennis and many other areas of Texas. Some seasons are just OK, a few can be spectacular.

I have been visiting Austin for about 18 years, and living here for ten. Most springs we get to drive around viewing the wildflower displays at least once or twice. My perennial favorite area is the Willow City Loop. This is a 13 mile scenic drive that showcases the beauty of the Hill Country. Along Willow City Loop, gently rolling hills give way to textured rocks, deep canyons and phenomenal vista views. The rough road then drops down through expansive fields dotted with an assortment of old trees. Native live oak, pecan and mesquite trees can all be seen from the road.

The Loop is most stunning during wildflower season, which runs from March until May. Grassy green fields are transformed into sheets of color, populated by over a dozen different wildflower species. The location is along Highway 16 north of Fredericksburg to Willow City, where the Loop begins. It rejoins Highway 16 about ten miles further north towards Llano. Visitors are highly discouraged from stopping, parking and exploring as the road runs through privately owned ranch lands and property. Most of the photos in this blog were taken in 2019, with some from earlier years.

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Arizona Wildflowers

 

This is peak wildflower season in Arizona. I know I no longer live there. I know I took no pictures there – this season. But I did live there and took hundreds (or more) photographs between 2004 and 2008, and they look very similar. We lived in Carefree, and had easy access to my two favorite spots. One was on the west side of Lake Pleasant along Castle Creek Road and Pipeline Canyon.

My other favorite was along N. Castle Hot Springs Road adjacent to Bartlett Lake, a few miles east of Carefree.

And one other spot – the Superstition Mountains on the southeast side of Phoenix.

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Elephant Havens

 

As many are aware, we are Africa enthusiasts, especially the country of Botswana. We have been on extended safaris three times since 2013, and are headed back in a few weeks. We each have our favorites among the wildlife. Mine are the cats, especially cheetahs and leopards, and a sighting of these beautiful animals is a real thrill and a privilege. Karen, on the other hand, loves elephants – big, small, male, female, friendly…. or not, and we have seen them all.

In 2015 we spent three days at Abu Camp in the west Delta. They have a captive elephant population – six in number then, eight now. These magnificent creatures are “trained, not tame”, and spend their days in the bush and their nights in a boma. At that time the oldest at 50 was Cathy, the youngest at 16 months, Naledi (Star). Netflix has a documentary called Naledi, which is a fascinating story of this little elephant’s battle to survive. We were fortunate to ride (which is no longer allowed), walk, feed and interface with these delightful animals. Karen was quite adept at verbally getting Sharini to lift her trunk high, open her mouth wide and receive handfuls of pellets known as elephant candy. She was so adept that the main elephant handler, Boago (Bee) Poloko, offered her a job. We have since joked frequently with Bee via email and Facebook about her job, including through Bee’s nephew who we met at another camp in 2017.

About a year ago Bee and an associate left Abu to create an elephant orphanage, with the huge help of Debra Stevens and her husband Scott Jackson, who live in Dallas. They have been infatuated with Africa for many years, and Debra fell totally in love with Naledi early in the little elephant’s life; they are bosom buddies still today. So early last year Elephant Havens Wildlife Foundation was created, and funded via a active and successful funding drive by Debra and Scott.The mission of Elephant Havens is to preserve and protect the African elephant. Through habitat protection, community outreach and hand-rearing of young elephant orphans, Elephant Havens aims to become a leading voice in wildlife conservation awareness and wildlife protection.

A baby elephant orphaned in the wild simply cannot survive. Not only do they need milk from their mother often up to six years of age, they also need constant care and companionship. Elephant handlers care for their charges around the clock and sleep with them in their enclosure. The elephants are fed a special milk formula every few hours when they are very young. Gradually they are introduced to the grasses and other vegetation they will one day rely on.

 

The orphanage is built on 11 acres that are nestled along the banks of the Thamalakane River. It is an ideal place for young elephants to live and receive daily care and companionship until they are ready to be reintroduced to the wild. The site is only 35 minutes from Maun, a jumping off point for many safari excursions into the Okavango Delta, the Chobe, the Linyanti, the Kalahari and other wildlife rich regions. Besides welcoming visitors, the orphanage will be a venue for educational programs for locals and those passing through to the Delta. The elephants will bring income through jobs in the wildlife and tourism areas.

The orphanage has so far adopted three elephants. Two were quite ill when they arrived at Elephant Havens, and despite heroic efforts by the loving staff and a very capable veterinarian, they both succumbed to their illnesses. However, we have one beautiful young girl, Maamotse, and the facility and staff are positioned to accepting new arrivals any day. Let me introduce you to Maamotse:

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We encourage everyone with an interest in wildlife conservation to consider supporting Elephant Havens. You can help by making a donation to the foundation (a 501C3 charity) though the website at http://www.elephanthavens.org.

Pittsburgh Glass Center

If you have a little time to kill while in Pittsburgh a visit to the Pittsburgh Glass Center on Penn Avenue. This is a nonprofit, public access state-of-the-art glass studio dedicated to teaching, creating and promoting glass art. PGC was established by local artists in the 1990’s to create an innovative glass art center.  The center has a flame shop, a kiln shop, a cold shop and a hot shop. the hot shop houses two glass furnaces each holding 1000 pounds of molten glass. There are eight workstations each with a reheat station and a work bench. Visitors are welcome to sit in the workshop and watch the artists at work.

 

The Hodge Gallery presents critically acclaimed glass art exhibitions throughout the year. A wide range of work in glass is showcased. During our visit the exhibit featured works by Kelly O’Dell entitled All of the Suddens. Her focus was on endangered animals.

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Espanola Island

Last island stop before the trip is done! Espanola is the oldest and southernmost island in the archipelago, and holds one of the most diverse sea bird colonies. Because of its isolation, this island has a high level of endemism (uniqueness to a given geographical region), reflected in species such as mockingbirds, waved albatrosses, marine iguanas and others.

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We made a dry landing at this location near the lighthouse. The trail – about 2.0 miles in total – was very rocky and narrow with some climbing involved.

 

GARDNER BAY

We snorkeled in the area, then landed at Garner Bay, one of the most beautiful beaches in the Galapagos. We walked the beach, having a great time watching the sea lions, marine iguanas and mockingbirds.

Giant Galapagos Tortoises

These creatures were the feature attraction of our next stop at Puerto Ayora on the island of Santa Cruz. The town has a population of about 20,000 people, making it the largest city in the Galapagos.

We first visited the Charles Darwin Research Station, located just on the outskirts of town. This is a biological research facility established in 1964. It is focused on the conservation of Galapagos terrestrial and marine ecosystems. The center raises tortoises from eggs to adults, then releases the tortoises into the wild. They also operates a facility for raising iguanas. Both species have in the past been subject to human predators, but the role of the center has dramatically improved the population of both.

The center is a great place to visit, being well laid out with much information about the Galapagos, tortoises and other wildlife. There are restrooms, a museum with wonderful artwork and a cafe.

We also visited a privately owned tortoise sanctuary located about 13 miles from Puerto Ayora in the hills of Santa Cruz. The centers, adjacent to one another, offer a wandering tour of the grassy woods, inhabited by dozens of giant tortoises.

An interesting sidelight was the shopping areas and harbor of the small city. Many sea lions occupied the harbor benches!

Santa Cruz and Rabida Islands

 

BACHAS BEACH

Our next stop was Bachas Beach in the northern part of Santa Cruz. It consists of two beautiful beaches that combined are about one mile in length. The name originates from WW2, when the US Army left two barges discarded on the beach. The first settlers called it Bachas rather than barges.

We disembarked from our panga onto a beautiful white coral beach, a major nesting ground for the green sea turtle. we also visited a lagoon behind the beach where we saw flamingos, iguanas, a green heron and finches.

 

RABIDA ISLAND

Rabida, a short cruise form Bachas Beach, has a rich russet colored beach that gleams in the sun and gives everything on it a special quality of soft beauty. The reddish hue comes from the oxidation of the iron-rich lava that is the basis for the soil. We were unable to snorkel because of the windy conditions, but we did enjoy a late afternoon landing on the beautiful beach. There were lots of sea lions – young and old – and many small birds along the beach. Sunset with the red beach colors was fantastic.