Botswana’s Savute & Khwai Photo Safaris with Penny Robartes
“Africa is mystic; it is wild; it is a sweltering inferno; it is a photographer’s paradise… an escapist’s Utopia.”
~ Beryl Markham
There is much to be said for this tour of visual and experiential contrasts. I have just returned from leading ORYX’s brand new tour offering to Botswana and I am still in a world of thrill from the experiences we had.
As a wildlife photographer, we look for photographic opportunities where we can craft a strong portfolio – personal or for public review -, potentially encounter new experiences, further explore our unique visions, and learn. Learn, learn, learn.
This education stemming from your professional ORYX Photo Tour Leader comes in many forms and is all dependent on you. I share what my overall vision is and how that tailors each and every image I create from the different sightings we come across. It may be learning why I suggest certain compositions and techniques, why you are gently encouraged to be pushed in a photographic direction you may have not known or considered. It may just be how I tie up each image in post-processing and why.
How we see the world upon which we collectively, but uniquely, gaze upon has a massive impact on us all. The formula for how I conduct each photo tour I run is really quite simple but very powerful; it is about connecting with each individual on their terms, for once you connect and learn what they need from you, you can inspire.
How I use this to further inspire your craft, offer tips for processing your own, and of course, how together we craft your vision into a higher form that what it was is sewn into every action, reaction and time spent on tour. It is not only about the photography, but the experiences, the laughs, and the connections of like-minded and passionate photographer.
“There is a candle in your heart, ready to be kindled. There is a void in your soul, ready to be filled. You feel it, don’t you?”
October 2018 saw me leading 2x ORYX Botswana photo safaris where we spent 4 nights in Savute area of the Chobe National Park, and ended with 4 nights in Khwai Private Concession. The two areas as standalone destinations were, and are, incredibly powerful in terms of being game-rich, the type of sightings seen, and the photographic opportunities were just immense.
Add them together? You are in for a wildlife photo safari that will blow you away.
The temperature in October is very hot and whilst it may get a bit uncomfortable when you are not in the game vehicle or taking a bit of a siesta in your airconditioned room, this month is fantastic for game-viewing. With the high temperatures combined with the lack of rainfall during the winter months, there are very few water sources available. Wildlife and birdlife are drawn to the wide scattering of pans that attract thirsty animals and make for interesting sites for photography.
The Savute is located in north-eastern Botswana’s Chobe National Park. It holds a beauty of its own with its dry landscapes, rocky-outcrops, woodland areas, and light-coloured grasses that catch the golden light and create oh-so soft foregrounds to our subjects. Its status as an incredible wildlife destination was cemented by multiple documentaries on it. One such documentary featured its famed Elephant-killing Lions, and the Northern Pride – a coalition of 3 males and 2 females – held on to this reputation when they made an Elephant kill a day or two before our first photo tour departure. As their kill was made not too far away from our Lodge, we were guaranteed Lion sightings whenever we went in and around that area.
For our second departure, a good 2 weeks after the first, this pride was still in the area and we had amazing photography experiences with them.
The Southern Pride, or Marsh Pride, is made up of 17 individual Lions with 2 being the dominant males. It is an immense pride and truly spectacular to see all together! From drinking at a waterhole together, to feasting on a kill, interacting with one another, and heading into the Marsh during twilight to hunt, this super pride is a true highlight of Savute and a big cat photographer’s dream!
Huge numbers of Elephants are seen here and fill scenes with an abundance of noise as they communicate with one another and splash in the remaining water. These sites do become filled with tension for the Elephants as they draw multiple breeding herds and bulls to it. Our Lodge continuously held an Elephant show for us as their waterhole right in front of their deck is a hotspot for Elephant and other game. Grumbling, trumpeting, screeching…everything was heard as Elephant streamed in from the surrounding bush towards the waterhole! At night, we had special sightings which included a Leopard coming to drink 2 of the 4 nights we were there, Buffalo herds, Hyena, Verreaux Eagle Owls and more.
Savute is home to local African Wild Dog, Spotted Hyena, Lion, Leopard, 2x Cheetah brothers, and plains game. My first group was lucky to see all of the above, including the weird and wonderful-looking Roan Antelope! I have seen one or two before in my time spent in Kenya’s Masai Mara, but here we saw 6 females all together at one time, and then a male and another female in two separate occasions. This is a special destination, that is for sure!
Whilst my second group did not see Roan Antelope or African Wild Dog at Savute, we had spectacular sightings of the beautiful Painted Wolf in Khwai.
The Savute area truly is a wonderful place to photograph!
A complete contrast to the dry, colour-washed Savute, Khwai Private Concession is centered around water and the life and colours it holds. Nestled on the edge of the Okavango Delta, our Lodge is based on the Khwai River, a vision of green and blue dotted with calm Elephant Bulls, a Hippo here and there, Letchwe grazing… It is as beautiful as Savute but in a vastly different way. The Khwai River and its tributaries offers a visual and game-viewing experience so unlike Savute.
And man, oh man, do these two destinations complement each other perfectly.
Elephants exist in abundance in this Concession due to the nutritious and soft grasses around the river. The flowing water provides endless respite for thirst and a good bathing, and breeding herds are seen coming out of the bush to the water’s edge en masse.
Both of the Botswana Photo Tours to Khwai saw us with an Elephant carcasses and activity around it. The chaos provided by Hyenas and Vultures feeding always provides endless photographic opportunities, and we only moved away once it died down, or the stench of the carcass broke even the strongest of us!
Whilst Savute is famed for its Lions, Khwai takes the award for its high sightings of African Wild Dog and Leopard, both of which, as you know, are highly sought-after photographic targets!
We were lucky, as with all wildlife sightings, to see the pack of African Wild Dog when we did, as they only stayed in the Khwai area for a day or two before heading into the Chobe National Park. We met up with the sleeping dogs one hot morning and decided to come back to them during the afternoon game drive. We were in for a wonderful sight! All dogs including their couple of month-old puppies were on the move! If you have ever photographed and followed African Wild Dog on the move, you will know how difficult it really is. There is no seeming direction that they take, rather weaving back and forth, side to side, making us truly work hard for out shots of them.
Finally, we caught up with the pups that ended up lying down in a wooded, sand-covered area. Grabbing some wonderful shots of them, the adults arrived, and we were treated to one of Africa’s most beautiful sights and sounds; Wild Dogs greeting one another. High-pitched chirping erupted from the puppies before the pack settled down to rest. True to the nature of these busy dogs, they were soon up again and all on the hunt. The light had faded from the sky and we followed them well into the night until they were swallowed up by the darkness.
Covering kilometres at a time, this was the last time we saw these captivating creatures before they made their way to the Chobe National Park.
On both Botswana photo safaris, we witnessed several Leopard sightings which we spent quality time at. We met the famous Blue Eyes, a truly stunning female Leopard, as well as the son of Matsebi (Khwai’s famous female Leopard) an incredible male who is a specialised hunter of the March area and is going to grow into a very big male.
Did I mention that we saw Matsebi’s daughter, a young female known to hunt Squirrels? Whilst we didn’t see her hunting on the first photo safari, we photographed her at the most spectacular time the second time we were there. She was on the move, looking to hunt.
Khwai allows off-road driving, but where she was walking was tightly packed with trees and bushes, making it hard for us to navigate a good position to photograph her. Our amazing guide made up his mind, took quite a bit further down the way with the hopes that she will move in that direction – she was walking a very erratic path – and we wedged ourselves in close to a growing tree filled with lots of small branches.
She came towards us. A Squirrel in the small tree was going berserk with its alarm calling. Normally this puts predators off as they have lost the element of surprise, but with this female, the squirrel would have been safer if it was silent.
The female leopard looked up this scraggly growing tree and, in a flash – as well as within mere meters of our vehicle – she was up the tree and all alarm calling came to an abrupt halt.
This was my guests and my first time to have ever seen a Leopard hunt a squirrel!
Whilst Lion do frequent Khwai, they are more often than not seen in Moremi if they have not crossed over the Khwai River to the Concession. This is not a problem however, as Savute gave us our daily injection of Lion sightings and our focus at Khwai was tailored to the beautiful spotted cats and dogs.
This Botswana Photo Tour was insane in terms of the portfolio’s we were able to create from both Savute and Khwai, and it truly is a winning combination.
This is what a few of my guests from both photo safari departures had to say:
“Penny, I really had a fantastic holiday in Botswana thanks to you and ORYX team for sure! I am still on a bit of a high. Even though this was my third time to Southern Africa and second to Botswana, and each trip has been special, this time having a focus was brilliant and your guidance was invaluable to achieving some excellent photos.” – Clarissa Young
“We had an absolutely marvellous trip away with Penny, she taught and guided gently with our new cameras so much. The trip was just right, great lodges, driver guides and the beasties and birds were on show or gently coached into view.
Thank you to the whole ORYX team for a terrific tour and to Penny especially for her skills with the camera and helping us get started with new eyes for the shot.” – Fiona Stoker
“Absolutely, outstanding Oryx photo safari!” – Mark & Katie Andrews