Part 9: Savute Safari Lodge
From Ghoha Hills it was an hour-long drive back to the Savuti Airstrip where a driver from Desert & Delta Safaris picked us up for the short trip to Savute Safari Lodge.
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The lodge had not changed much at all since my first visit here in December 2008.  The one big change was the state of the Savute Channel which runs right in front of the camp.  Back in 2008 there was an artificially maintained waterhole in front of camp and nothing else.  At the time the Savuti Channel had reverted to being an ephemeral river or linear oasis – the kind of river which occassionally collects some water from local runoff with a few pools here and there, and some spots where elephants could get their trunks into  clean water just below the surface of the sand.  The water hole in front of camp was a hive of activity, particularly in the dry season.
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By 2009 – for reasons that are still not entirely clear but likely the result of a heavier rainfall pattern over several years – also known as a wet cycle – the Savute Channel had started to flow strongly again and at least for a while the presence or absence of waterholes such as the one at Savute Lodge did not matter one way or another.  There was water all along the channel from its source close to the Zibadianja Lagoon, almost all the way to the Savuti Marsh.
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At least initially this made game-viewing in the area more challenging because it created more dispersal of big game species such as elephants and buffalo who did not ‘have’ to come to the few remaining waterholes in the dry season – they had access to water pretty much anywere.
Savuti 25By the time we got back to Savute late in 2014, the Savute Channel was still flowing but not very strongly – and the elephants were back at the original waterhole in big numbers, trying to get to the source of the fresh water which they prefer to the muddy stuff available elsewhere in the channel.  More about that later.
The rooms at Savute Safari Lodge are very comfortable with a large bed – in our case two 3/4 size beds next to each other enclosed in a mosquito net – a sitting area with a couple of stuffed chairs and a separate bathroom with toilet and shower.
The rooms are a bit dated and have a distinct 1980’s feel – for now they are okay but will have to be redone or upgraded soon.  In our room there  were a few minor issues with plumbing, doors not closing properly & oddly enough the overhead fan stopped working once the power went off at night.  Just when you need it most.  Clearly the fans need to be on a battery-operated power source.
The lounge and dining room are quite conventional and not very exciting by current safari camp design standards, but it really doesn’t matter that much.  Savute Safari Lodge offers an exceedingly comfortable stay at a reasonable price, and the management and staff are most welcoming and helpful.  Everyone made a point of introducing him or herself and maintained a high degree of interaction with all the guests for the duration of their stay.
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The grounds of Savute Safari Lodge are well maintained with good walkways and borders and several natural patches, resulting in an abundance of birdlife and small mammals such as dwarf and slendertailed mongoose and tree squirrels.
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There is also a very nice pool with a view over the channel and the elephant activity in and around it.  What made it even better was a cooler box close the pool with some soft drinks and cold beers.  The water was on the chilly side as the pool is mostly in the shade, but it was refreshing and we made good use of the loungers.
The focal point of the camp is the breakfast/dinner serving area which is elevated just above the electrified perimeter fence, overlooking a waterhole where fresh brackish water is pumped on a daily basis.  The many elephants in this area all seem to want to put their trunk right over the jet of cool, fresh water.  As a result, as many as 20 or more elephants would crowd into this relatively small space, taking turns at sucking up the much sought-after liquid.
From time to time, a spat would develop as one or more of the elephants would bar the entrance to another one, or warn off a rival on approach.  Often this would be accompanied by deep rumbles, growls and a lot of trumpeting, from short warning blasts to long, intense expressions of anger, frustration or aggression.
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It soon became evident that we had happened on upon a once-in-a-life time wilderness experience where the game-viewing was elevated to an almost surreal, hyper level.  Never before had we seen such a high density of elephants spread out in such a large area.   Not at Amboseli, not at Hwange, not at Chobe and not at Kruger Park.  The number of large bull elephants roaming around the Savute Marsh on this trip was simply astonishing, and there were dozens of large breeding herds around every corner.
Machaba 3Our driver-guide had to take evasive action all the time, either driving off road to avoid the lumbering animals, or stopping and waiting for them to cross or – once or twice – blasting them off the road with the noise of the revving engine.  The latter tactic was regrettable and we hope that he does not employ it too often as elephants have long memories and may exact revenge on (another) unuspecting driver elsewhere in Botswana, some day in the future.
In 25 years of going on safari, this ranked in the ‘top three’ of our ultimate elephant experiences, the other two being at Little Makalolo in early November one year and at Amboseli in June.   It was a confluence of factors which we realize is unlikely to happen again.  Possibly there was inadequate vegetation available in the Linyanti area with earlier rain creating ideal grazing conditions in and around the marsh itself.  For whatever reason it seemed like every last elephant in Northern Botswana was in Savute that week.
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What made the entire experience even more special, was the presence of so many other animals.  There were zebras moving into the fringes of the marsh in their tens and hundreds, kudu of all sizes and ages around everywhere, hundreds of impala with multiple hundreds of babies, many giraffes, plus good numbers of wildebeest and even a few roan antelope.
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On top of that we also found ourselves right in the middle of a massive herd of buffalo on the final afternoon, moving in the direction of a watering hole.  A while later, we relocated to a different spot where two lionesses were watching the approaching buffalo herd, seemingly weighing up the odds of making a successful attempt at bringing one down.  Ultimately they decided not to, which was a wise decision as they were totally outnumbered and would have been no match for the many large, powerful buffalo bulls at the waterhole.
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December 10 2014
The game-viewing at Savute Safari Lodge did not stop at hundreds of elephant, zebra and other plains game.
We had previously – on the all-day trip from Ghoha Hills – seen the Marsh Pride on the edge of the marsh (duh).  On the day of arrival at Savute Safari Lodge we went back to take a look at them and they were still in the same spot in the marsh, about 20 meters or so off the road.
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On this morning we were on our way back to the marsh when our guide Gwist received word of the presence of a pack of African Painted dogs near the Rock Painting site.  We promptly drove there, missed them on the first attempt and then enjoyed a very good – albeit brief – view of 5 or so of the animals moving from our right to left and eventually disappearing into the thick bush.
Just minutes later we were looking at a trio of mating leopards.  Usually leopards are found either by themselves or in a mating pair.  Or sometimes a female with youngsters.  This was an exception as an older male leopard was vying for the attention of a female with a younger, more enthusiastic and energetic male.
At first the older leopard was just resting up on a rock ledge but eventually he got into the action as well, displacing the young male towards the latter stages of the encounter.
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The previous afternoon, we had seen the three of them as well and at that stage the young male had seemed to be in control.  By this morning the tables had clearly been turned.
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We spent the remainder of the morning looking a several lions (part of the Marsh Pride) on a dead elephant carcass.  Only two of them were clearly visible – a very old female and one of her daughters.  The others were mostly obscured by thickets and bushes.
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Driving around the edges of the marsh, our vehicle was followed by several carmine bee-eaters, intent on catching the insects stirred up by our activities.  In the process I managed a fee decent pics of these colorful birds in flight – always something to behold.

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What we experienced at Savute in December 2014 was undoubtedly a once in a lifetime experience.  I know that we could go back there for the next 5 years on the exact same dates and never have the same experience.  Even so, I think that conditions at the Savute Marsh and the adjacent portion of the Savute Channel will be favorable for game-viewing for at least the next couple of years.  So if you are going to visit Botswana soon – or any time in 2015 or 2016 – by all means consider including Savute Safari Lodge or the nearby Belmond Savute property on your itinerary.  You can thank me later.
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