Botswana painting safari – a diary by our Artist of the Year 2012 winner

Heather Irvine won the BBC Wildlife Artist of the Year 2012 competition and a 10-day painting safari in Botswana with Pip McGarry, courtesy of Elephant Trails Safari Company. Here, she describes the holiday's most amazing wildlife encounters. 

Male lion and cub © Heather Irvine

Heather Irvine won the BBC Wildlife Artist of the Year 2012 competition and a 10-day painting safari in Botswana with Pip McGarry, courtesy of Elephant Trails Safari Company. Here, she describes the holiday's most amazing wildlife encounters. 

Friday 12 October: Journey to Moremi

After a comfortable night staying at the Sedia Hotel in Maun, we were picked up by our guides, Guy and Steve of Elephant Trails Safaris. Sat aboard our open-sided vehicles, we travelled through vast mopane plains towards South Camp in Moremi. 

We soon got very excited as we saw our first giraffes and zebras. We were greeted by a classic delta floodplain, flat swathes of ochre grass and low bushveld fringed with palms - and, of course, game on all sides. It was a true Eden. 

A delicious dinner was served under a canopy beside a large lagoon in Xakanaxa. Reed frogs serenaded us during the evening - I soon discovered they were surprisingly loud for such a small amphibian!

© Heather Irvine

Giraffe and zebras © Heather Irvine

Saturday 13 October: Stargazing and bull elephant encounter

I rose at 5.30am and we headed to a beautiful spot where the elephants drinking at the watering hole created striking silhouettes in the early morning light.

A large family group meandered past right next to the vehicle rumbling to one another, a primeval, resonating sound that binded you to the earth. 

Further on, a herd of over 40 elephants, including several youngsters encouraged along by their mothers, crossed our path to join the lechwe, impala, wildebeests, zebras and giraffes.

Here we also saw several bird species; red-necked falcon, bataleur, marsh harrier, senegal coucal and the painterly carmine beeeater. Spoonbills, yellow-billed storks, ibis and great white, cattle and black egrets were feeding in the shallows. 

Being allowed to sleep on top of the vehicles at night was a great opportunity to stargaze. It made me feel very small – even more so when a huge bull elephant strode past during the night - at touching distance - to feed.

© Heather Irvine

Bataleur © Heather Irvine

Sunday 14 October: Wild dogs

This morning, an enormous bull elephant in musth greeted us, swaying his broad tusks. We were extra quiet and our patience paid off as we were rewarded by the sight of a very tiny week-old elephant calf, walking beneath its proud and protective mother. 

On the grasslands, a family of lions provided a highly unusual sighting of a male affectionately greeting his cubs. It was a noble and symbolic gesture - without total co operation his extremely small pride would not survive.

At the Third Bridge yellow hornbills performed their ritual mating display. 

When the other group - nicknamed the 'A-Team' - spotted the wild dog pack we had been hoping to see, we all raced to a small pond where they were washing themselves after making a kill. 

The youngsters were in an exuberant mood and playful mood, chasing vultures for fun. My sketchbook soon filled up with swift studies of them stretched out in the shade. It was truly magical to witness, a privilege. 

© Heather Irvine

Wild dog © Heather Irvine

Monday 15 October to Tuesday 16 October: Kwai and feeding lions

This morning Guy heard an old, scar-faced male lion he knows calling close to camp. The cat was resting just across the water from us. 

Lurking crocodiles and a monitor lizard made drinking a risky prospect for a herd of female kudus – they skittishly decided to live with their thirst. 

On the way to Kwai and North Gate we passed through mopane forest, the colours of the falling leaves were so striking – auburns and intense ochre shades. It is incredible to think that these trees remain dormant until the rains come.

At an oasis, we saw Egyptian geese with goslings, a ground hornbill and even some turnstones. Then we got our first sighting of a buffalo – curious and menacing as it sussed us out through the branches of nearby vegetation. 

Pip McGarry, our leader, spotted a lion at the water’s edge later in the day and, on closer inspection, we found a hippo carcass. The whole pride was feeding, including some small cubs that reluctantly crossed the mire. Shoulder deep in mud they cheekily tried to steal the hippo’s tongue from one of the lionesses. 

Suddenly, another call came in from the ‘A-Team' to tell us that a 'nkwe’ (Setswanan for leopard) had been found. A beautiful young female lay stretched out on the ground, impossible to see were it not for the occasional twitch.

As the sun set, she sat, yawned, stretched and then nonchalantly walked past our vehicle on her way to hunt. Over an hour passed without us noticing - we were completely transfixed. 

© Heather Irvine

Beautiful leopard © Heather Irvine

Wednesday 17 October: Drive to Savuti

It was a hot day when we started driving to Savuti and we ate lunch in the shade jealously watching elephants wallowing in the river.

But the Mababe depression had a surprise in store: vast dust eddies (generated by angry bull elephants on the edge of the ancient lake bed) mutated into an aggressive, hailstone-ridden thunderstorm, which pelted us for an hour. Even our undergarments were wet! Guy said he'd never seen anything like it so early in the season.  

Fortunately, my cardboard-box camera lens case survived and the washing lines in campe were put to good use when we got back.

© Heather Irvine

Elephant and buffalo © Heather Irvine

Thursday 18 October: Plentiful birdlife and another leopard sighting

Woke up to a wonderful view. Our camp is located on the Savuti Channel, which is now flowing again after being dry since 1982.

On the floodplain, we were greeted by a plethora of birdlife - hundreds of pelicans, storks, herons, ibis, spoonbill and geese feeding companiably with elephants and vast herds of buffalo. Everywhere you look you see abundant life.

But all is not as it seems. Hundreds of dead pelicans litter an island - is it the handiwork of a serial-killer leopard or a more insidious virus, as our guide suggested.

The lions are playing with one dead pelican, taking turns to throw and catch it. In the middle of the game is ‘Stumpy’, an individual  easily recognised by its half a tail. 

The evening brought the gift of a second leopard sighting, posing enigmatically on a dead tree stump. It hissed at the increasing number of vehicles around it and decided to head for a quieter spot. 

© Heather Irvine

Pelicans in flight © Heather Irvine

Friday 19 October – Saturday 20 October: Chobe and roan antelope photography

The majestic Chobe River provided us with a fleeting glimpse of the elusive roan antelope and the chance to photograph a beautiful bull sable.

Waterbucks, zebras, warthogs and elephants came to the floodplain and, in the afternoon, we found ourselves in the middle of more than 2,000 ruminating buffaloes. 

Guy suggested that we stayed put and wait, as the buffalos were likely to cross the river to find safer pastures for the night. Sure enough, one stood up and the rest of the herd followed.

To be in the heart of the cacophonous bellowing and hectic river crossing of so many mammals is something I will never forget - the melee and congestion on the far riverbank was utterly captivating.

Later that night, we celebrated Pip’s birthday in camp. It produced a flush of ‘bush fever’, a condition where too much wine is consumed, inhibitions are lost, and you feel compelled to sing (badly) and crucify well known songs... cue a grumpy head in the morning!

© Heather Irvine

Grazing zebras © Heather Irvine

Sunday 21 October – Monday 22 October: Victoria Falls

Our last morning in Chobe produced two separate elephant herds meeting and greeting one another before going to drink. The sounds of recognition and joy they made were unlike any elephant communcation I had heard before.

Back on tarmac, goodbyes were said reluctantly to Guy and Steve on the banks of the confluence of the Zambezi and Chobe (Kuando) rivers before crossing on a small Kazungula ferry to Zambia.

The Zambian side proved a bit of a culture shock compared to the rest of the holiday as hawkers and long lines of huge trucks made their way down through Africa.  

Victoria Falls, though in low flow, provided us with a great sense of place and surrounded the group with magical clouds of mist.

In fact, its abundance of water provided the ideal scenario for our last adventure – white water rafting. Being propelled into a wall of thrashing colossal water using our oars enthusiastically to the strict instructions of a screaming Zambian was, to put it mildly, madness... but, in retrospect, huge fun!

Thank you Pip McGarry, Elephant Trails Safari Co. and BBC Wildlife Magazine for a fantastic prize! 


© Heather Irvine

Lilac-breasted roller © Heather Irvine

Heather Irvine won the BBC Wildlife Artist of the Year competition in August 2012 with her image 'The Last Winter'.

In October, she took her prize holiday and joined leading artist and judge, Pip McGarry, on a painting safari in Botswana, courtesy of Elephant Trails Safari Co.

Heather's winning artwork was displayed at the Marwell International Wildlife Art Society exhibition in September 2012, and at the SWLA Natural Eye exhibition in London in November 2012.

Find out more about the BBC Wildlife Artist of the Year competition 2013 for your chance to win a place on the same fantastic painting safari to Botswana. 

View Heather's winning painting, plus more brilliant artwork from the 2012 competition in this gallery.


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