Mike Mockler

November 2013

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Below is Mike's account of the safari he recently led to Botswana ...

For over twenty years, I've been organising and leading safaris to Botswana but I still marvel at the sensational wildlife we witness.  Having said that, not all of Botswana is as wildlife-rich as the locations I favour - in fact, some areas I have visited are quite disappointing!  But in the right places and with the help of the best guides (plus some other secret ingredients in the planning!) the potential for the unforgettable and the incredible is massive

The most recent tour was a case in point: and what a safari it was!  There were many memorable encounters with different species, particularly with big cats and wild dogs.  With regard to the latter, it is a privilege to see wild dogs and many visitors are grateful for a single brief sighting.  After all, the wild dog is Africa's second rarest carnivore.  So to see wild dogs six times on one safari, as we did, is outrageous.  In fact, our six sightings involved four different packs, a total of 52 dogs, including 24 puppies.   That's just plain greedy.  Even so, that number was exceeded on our 2010 tour when we saw an incredible 66 wild dogs!   

What made these encounters so special was the terrific action we were treated to over and over again.  We followed one pack for some time as they hunted and we watched two other packs feeding just moments after they had pulled down their prey (in one case, the dust stirred up by the drama was still hanging in the air).  The speed with which these extraordinary predators devour their prey is beyond belief - a crucial survival strategy that ensures they eat as much as possible before losing their kill to other larger predators.

The most extraordinary sequence of events occurred when a pack of 14 wild dogs confronted a clan of angry spotted hyenas who were defending their den with cubs inside.  The hyenas were initially taken by surprise but they soon called up reinforcements and fought back.  However, the fleet-footed dogs were untroubled by the lumbering hyenas who were fearful of having their backsides bitten by their lightning-fast enemies.  It was great entertainment for the audience which comprised not only ourselves but also groups of zebras and giraffes.  Eventually, the dogs tired of tormenting the hyenas who were now able to sneak away, somewhat chastened.  The wild dogs finally trotted off - with something of a swagger, it seemed.

Leopards, though nowhere near as rare as wild dogs, are nevertheless secretive and elusive and therefore often difficult to see.   So for the group to see 13 different leopards during this tour was remarkable.  Of course, such statistics tell only part of the story and the real significance was that we witnessed so much interesting and dramatic action including fascinating territorial behaviour, tree-climbing and a mother in a boisterous rough-and-tumble with her male cub.  Most thrilling of all was a furious tree-top battle between two females.  One had been treed by a bigger, more powerful rival and was using a hamerkop nest as a comfortable couch to recline on.   Finally, the larger female on the ground could contain her rage no longer and rushed up the tree, snarling.  The treed leopard quickly moved higher to where she could defend her position on smaller branches.  The larger and heavier leopard was forced to leap back down to more substantial lower branches.  Realising she was unable to attack from below, she returned to the ground where she continued to spit fury at the leopard high above her.        

Other cats seen by the group included an impressive male cheetah and numerous lions who entertained us with their "touchy feely" bonding behaviour - playing, licking, greeting and cuddling each other. There was also an elderly female who tried to hunt but was thwarted when her large son began roaring, thus ensuring that all animals for miles around became aware of the lions.  The mother eventually slipped away, apparently trying to get away from her annoying son.  On another occasion, a large male lion had to beat a hasty retreat when he found himself being charged by a large bull elephant for no obvious reason - except the hatred that elephants have for lions! 

On occasions, we were able to enjoy the roaring of lions at point-blank range.  At such times, the vibration caused by the sound can be felt coming up from the ground through the vehicle - a really thrilling, goose-bumps experience.  Also, on most nights, we heard the deep, grunting calls of lions from our beds - surely the most awe-inspiring sound in the natural world.


The safari was divided into four sections and there was so much to see at each location: giraffes, zebras, elegant greater kudus, huge buffalo herds and many elephants, the latter often accompanied by small calves.  Occasionally, elephants strolled past our vehicle within touching distance, a humbling experience.   In fact, one female stretched her trunk into the vehicle to check the identity of the passengers.  On one night, a large bull elephant kept me awake for several hours as he slept lying on the side of a large termite mound beside my tent, snoring like a diesel locomotive.  

A magnificent bull white rhinoceros was another highlight: quite relaxed with the vehicle, he posed for a pleasing sequence of photographs.  Other notable sightings of uncommon mammals included herds of sable antelope, two African wild cats and a spotted-necked otter.

The first rains had fallen just days before we arrived in Botswana and more fell during the first part of our stay.  All this had the desired effect of settling the dust after a long dry season and cooling the high temperatures.  In fact, there were some mornings which were cool and grey - more typical of November in England than Botswana - and we even had to don waterproofs on occasions.

The greening of the African bush is something that never ceases to amaze me.   It happens so quickly, starting with a soft green haze that coats the ground, and continues with a miraculous burst of energy, Mother Nature at her most dynamic.   Dramatic dark storm clouds serve as fabulous backdrops to landscapes bathed in golden sunlight and cloud formations create the most photogenic vast skies.  Furthermore, there are sunrises and sunsets to die for.   

As the days went by, more and more new-born animals appeared: wildebeest and tsessebe calves, tiny warthog piglets and delicate impala lambs.  Even dwarf mongooses were seen carrying minute babies in their mouths.

Birds were prolific as usual, with their numbers hugely augmented by numerous  migrant species such as broad-billed roller, blue-cheeked bee-eater, woodland kingfisher, several cuckoo species and many raptors arriving from the north.  Resident species quickly came into breeding plumage as the rainy season got under way: weavers, whydahs and delightful paradise flycatchers.   We watched hundreds of carmine bee-eaters at a nest colony where the nest-tunnels, unusually, were dug into level ground and not into a cliff-face as is the norm.  Paired birds were flying around the colony "courtship feeding", creating a dazzling display of swirling crimson and powder-blue. 

Unexpected bird sightings included the enigmatic, scarce bat hawk, uncommon white-backed ducks and the iconic Pel's fishing owl, one of Africa's rarest and largest owls, two of which were found roosting in our camp.

Our final morning dawned with a stunning blood-red mackerel sky, a symbol of Africa's power to delight and amaze.  It was a suitable memento to take home with us and treasure until we return again.


I followed the above tour with a private extension to the Makgadikgadi Pans, a vast, arid wilderness deep in the Kalahari.  My main purpose was to reconnect with the local meerkats: I wanted to watch and photograph them again after an absence of seven years. 

As I lay on the ground for low-angle shots, the meerkats used me as they would a termite mound to achieve elevation for viewing their surroundings.  They really are the most engaging animals but despite the personas created for them by television programmes and advertisers, they are definitely not "cute" or "cuddly".  I witnessed a vicious battle when an intruding male meerkat was fiercely seen off by the resident group.  I also watched some of the meerkats foraging, ruthlessly digging up and devouring several large, juicy scorpions.  

Another target species for me was brown hyena, which I had not seen or photographed well on my previous visit.  This species is much rarer and shyer than the familiar spotted hyena; in fact, brown hyena is Africa's third rarest carnivore.  I was delighted to watch two cubs at the entrance to their den playing with a "toy", which looked like the tail of an aardvark.  Brown hyenas are very nocturnal in their habits so I had to wait until after dark to see the mother come to her cubs.  With great skill my guide gently manoeuvred us into a position where I could watch and photograph her nursing her cubs. 

Recent rain had kick-started the annual migration - zebras, wildebeest and a few springbok were trekking into the area in search of fresh grazing.  Unfortunately, there had not been as much rain as was necessary and there was insufficient water or fresh grass. As I left the area by light aircraft, below I saw lines of animals trekking back out of the area..     


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