Having experienced the Savuti Channel at its driest, James Gifford was perfectly placed to revisit and observe the remarkable transformation taking place while the waters are flowing.
stop at the edge and stare, mesmerised by the crystal-clear ripples rolling over the static, baby-smooth pebbles. It is almost two years to the day since I was last here and the difference could not be more dramatic. In front of me then was a dustbowl riddled with a maze of tyre tracks, each one digging deep into the dirty, grey-black sand like an encrypted message. I remember my squealing engine, its revs at the max, and my hands clenched on the steering wheel as I ploughed through the sand in the hope of maintaining enough momentum to climb the opposite bank – I dearly didn’t want to slide helplessly back into the empty chasm of the dry riverbed. Although I knew I’d see the river flowing here today, I can’t quite get my head around the incredible change in the surroundings. Can this really be the same location?
The place, located in the southwest corner of the Chobe National Park, is Savuti. For the past twenty years it has been a sideline attraction, perpetually in the shadow of the park’s much-visited northern sector along the Chobe River near Kasane, which is a mere stone’s throw from the famous Victoria Falls. But now, thanks to the resurgent water, it is said that Savuti is about to re-stake its claim as one of the premier wildlife viewing destinations in Botswana.
The Savuti River, better known as the Savuti Channel, is born from the confluence of the Linyanti and Kwando Rivers. Forty years ago the water in the channel flowed southwards through scrubland dotted with camelthorn acacias and silver terminalia until it spread across the grassland plain of the Savuti Marsh, providing nourishment for thousands of herbivores. As the rains diminished year after year, the channel eventually dried up in 1981, forcing many of the herds to return north to the Chobe and Linyanti Rivers. The subsequent annual migrations of thousands of zebra during the rainy season from the Linyanti to Savuti Marsh, merely teased tourists with a glimmer of what this area offered in the past. But now, after successive years of good rains, the channel is flowing once again. I’ve returned to see if the animals have followed suit.
A few well-placed boulders facilitate my fording of the river and I swiftly make my way towards the aptly (but rather unimaginatively) named Pump Pan. During my last visit, which was at the end of the dry season in November, this artificial pan had been the only major water source in the whole area. It became a melting pot of wildlife species, with up to twenty bull elephant at a time thirstily draining its contents, their dried dung covering the ground in a soft ochre-coloured carpet. I watched warthogs scurry between the elephants’ tree-trunk legs, scrounging the undigested nutrients in the elephants’ waste in a perfect (albeit distasteful) illustration of nature’s efficiency. A handful of tawny eagles perched like vultures on an overhanging dead tree, waiting for flocks of red-billed quelea to make their move. When the tiny birds yielded to their thirst, the eagles would fly amongst them, battering them with their large, vertically-beating wings. The off-balance prey was then an easy take-away meal for the swooping predators.
Two years later, the artificial pan is now a natural waterhole, and although it remains a periodic haunt for the pachyderms, the sheer choice of drinking options has spread the game further afield. So for now Pump Pan is all but deserted. Rounding the bend, I quickly discover it is a different story there. Out of the corner of my eye I spot the flick of an ear between the blades of green grass. My heartbeat quickens and I edge closer to discover my most optimistic hopes realised in the form of five wild dogs dozing lazily in the afternoon sunshine. Their sedentary state of course belies the fact that they are vicious predators capable of taking down prey many times their size.
As I wait for their temporary lethargy to dissipate, a rustling in the trees just a few metres behind them causes all ten ears to prick simultaneously. Seconds later, several tonnes of grey elephantine mass stride purposefully towards them, followed by the rest of the matriarch’s herd in ever decreasing sizes, much like a set of Russian dolls. The look of surprise on the dog’s faces is a treat to behold. As the elephants head for their evening drink they appear oblivious to the canines who are now fully awake and excitedly greeting each other as if they hadn’t seen each other in weeks. Before I know it, the dogs are gone, wandering off for their own nocturnal activities.
Despite the elephants’ size, they cannot afford to be similarly nonchalant with all the area’s predators. For the drying of the Savuti Channel had a profound impact on the resident lion population. With food scarce in the dry winter months, the lions became specialised hunters of one of the few readily available food sources – elephant. The numbers necessary to hunt down an adult elephant led to the development of a ‘superpride’, consisting of up to 30 members, and their legendary and unique behaviour drew natural history filmmakers from around the world. They eventually split into several factions, and most moved north to the Linyanti. However, on the final morning of my first trip to Savuti, I was lucky enough to see the remnants of the pride: an adult male and female with two boisterous cubs.
This time around, it is again the final day when I catch up with the felines. Although there are no adult males with them, the pride is healthy and has grown with the birth of three more cubs. Two particularly recent additions are inescapably adorable, their heads scarcely bigger than the ubiquitous elephant dung which seemed to cause them endless fascination.
It isn’t just the predators who seem to be thriving along the flowing river. Giraffe, impala, tsessebe and blue wildebeest all seem to be flourishing. And although the larger zebra herds have yet to adapt their migration movements, there are a few harems who have opted to stay on the marsh during the dry season. Even more impressive is the prolific birdlife: pied kingfishers hover over the river; fish eagles perch on dead trees and scrutinise the flowing waters for potential targets; hammerkops wade through the shallows; Egyptian geese waddle on the nearby shore; and juvenile yellow-billed storks entertain with their primitive fishing techniques, which involve them immersing their entire heads underwater.
As I progress further south the trees eventually give way to the marsh, an evergreen expanse of luscious grass speckled with elephant bulls. Here the river splinters into a series of trickling streams that feed a rich ecosystem in an area which resembled a wasteland just two years ago. The bone-dry roads I had previously used to cross to the other side were now impassable for all but the brave or foolhardy (and I was neither).
It’s clear that the flowing channel has had a huge impact on both the wildlife and the vegetation. The appearance of the breeding herd of elephant earlier was an exciting phenomenon in itself. Previously, the lack of water had ensured that Savuti remained the domain of lone bulls – a fact that further emphasises the feats of the lion superpride. Now it is hoped that the extra water here will attract more breeding herds away from the congested Chobe River banks in the north of the park, alleviating the immense pressure that one of Africa’s densest elephant populations has brought to bear on the environment there.
I am keen to learn about how other species might react to the changing dynamics, so I decide to meet up with one of the few people who knew Savuti before the channel dried up. Although you wouldn’t guess it from his modest demeanour, Lloyd Wilmot has been guiding safaris since 1967.
“During the late ’70s, the marsh was crawling with game: hundreds of reedbuck, 2000-3000 tsessebe, and huge herds of lechwe,” he recalls. “In 1980, on one game drive we saw six different groups of lion.” I asked if he thought the game would return to those levels now that the channel was flowing again. “It may take some time, but we are still a few years away from last cycle’s peak.” (Flood experts talk of a 20-year cycle, meaning 20 years from peak to trough.) “If the floods continue, it will happen,” he promised. I couldn’t help being reminded of the classic Field of Dreams quote, “If you build it, he will come.”
Lloyd’s zebra memories were even more exhilarating. “The migration used to be from the Linyanti southwards towards Mababe via Savuti, and the zebra migrated even when the channel was flowing. But the water levels and topography of Savuti had a funnelling effect, so the herds were effectively running the predator gauntlet. There was one main crossing point for around 10,000 zebra.” He paused, clearly reliving the memories from decades ago. Then with a wry smile, “It didn’t take long for the lions to catch on.”
Vivid images of Serengeti-Mara wildebeest crossings immediately sprang to mind, but I was jumping the gun. With so many factors involved, it would be impossible to predict exact water levels and zebra herd movements. There was certainly no guarantee that future animal behaviour would mirror the past. Nevertheless, it did seem safe to assume that the herbivore herds would mushroom in time, attracting more predators of all shapes and sizes.
As if to prove my point I am rewarded with the exceptional sighting of a leopard with her two sub-adult cubs on my next visit to Savuti. The wild dogs also make another very fleeting appearance – quite literally in fact, as we catch them mid-hunt. Each time one of the pack leaps across the road in front of us another hurtles past in the opposite direction seconds later. Keeping up with them becomes impossible, but the watchful gaze of a wary impala herd we see later suggests the pack was successful. Herbivore numbers certainly appear to be growing, and a passing herd of a few hundred buffalo provide another compelling illustration of the powerful impact of nature’s purest liquid.
With the channel flowing, Savuti’s wildlife populations will only continue to multiply and diversify. Given the relatively small number of vehicles, the exceptional game and the unique, spectacular scenery, I believe it already outclasses Moremi Game Reserve (the part of the Okavango Delta accessible to the public). It is simply a matter of time before the rest of the world catches on.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
Most visitors heading straight for Chobe National Park fly into Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe or Livingstone, Zambia. Transfers are easily arranged, but you need to take into account visa fees for each country. If you’re coming from the Okavango Delta, Air Botswana (www.airbotswana.co.bw) flies between Maun and Kasane.
When to visit:
With the channel now flowing Savuti has quite good wildlife all year round. During March and April, which sit at the tail end of the wet season, Savuti also attracts several thousand zebra migrating south from Linyanti.
Most visitors do not require a visa to visit Botswana and will receive a free 30-day travel permit upon arrival.
In a country renowned for its flat topography, don’t miss out on the rare opportunity to garner a three-dimensional perspective via the short, easy ascent up Bushman Painting Hill. Besides fascinating ancient artwork, the hill offers spectacular views down over the vast expanse (it’s particularly grand in the late afternoon sun).
This article was published in Issue 58 (Spring 2012)