Botswana Trip Report – Part 4

 

Giraffe on the plains of Mombo
Giraffe on the plains of Mombo. It is not unusual to encounter groups of up to 10 or more giraffe in one area.

Monday June 1, 1998
Our last two nights in Botswana were to be spent at Mombo, Wilderness Safaris’ flagship camp on the northern tip of Chief’s Island, in the Moremi Wildlife Reserve. We had heard so much about Mombo, and had looked forward to the visit for so long that disappointment was a distinct possibility. Would Mombo live up to its reputation? Were our expectations too high? Would we find cheetah and dared we hope for a sighting of that most elusive of African cats, a leopard? We’d been in Botswana for a week now and had still not seen a spotted cat… All these thoughts and more were tumbling through our minds as our Sefofane pilot, Neville, adjusted the trim and banked the Cessna gently on the final approach to the Mombo airstrip, a little after 2pm.

We need not have worried. Our duffel bags were still being retrieved from the small luggage pod under the aircraft when Garth, who had come to pick us up, mentioned that a Martial Eagle had just taken down a young impala, not far from camp. We were nodding our heads the moment he suggested an unscheduled midday game drive to go and take a look. The sight which greeted us was vintage Mombo: a magnificent adult Martial Eagle was perched on its freshly killed prey, wings spread open to obscure its meal from inquisitive airborne eyes. The Martial, which is Africa’s largest eagle, is a powerful-looking, long-legged bird with a markedly broad, flat head, and penetrating yellow eyes. Alternately glaring at us and at the steadily growing number of vultures which were settling in the open field a respectful distance away, the bird started tearing chunks out of the impala, the fresh blood turning its black bill a vicious red. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime sighting for all of us and I was not the only one shooting roll after roll of film, trying to capture the essence of this most rare event. Even the experienced Mombo guides had never seen anything like this before.

Around 4 that afternoon we revisited the scene. The eagle was nowhere to be seen. As our guide – Hayden – had predicted, the vultures had by now appropriated the impala and were scuffling over the remains. It was a good opportunity to brush up on vulture identification as there were four species cheek by jowl: a few massive Lappetfaced, some Whiteheaded, a solitary Hooded on the edge of the action, and a mass of Whitebacked vultures, all fighting and pushing like a bunch of soccer hooligans run amok.

From there we went off in search of cheetah. Hayden was on a roll and we found our quarry not far away, lying down in the shadow of a tree. There were two of them – the famous ‘Steroid Boys’, brother cheetahs who were improving their odds for survival by living and hunting in a coalition. The brothers were notorious for their size – hence the nick-name – and for taking down lion-sized prey such as adult zebra. They were literally lolling around, affectionately cleaning each other, before eventually ambling off. Within minutes, the two cheetahs were seemingly surrounded by giraffe, and at one stage we counted no less than 23 of the long-necked beasts, all staring intently at the cheetahs. Nonplussed, the cheetahs walked between them and settled on an anthill. After watching them for a while, we drove off to a nearby sighting of a hyena with two young, both suckling. Re-entering the scene from stage left, so to speak, the cheetahs then walked straight towards the bush behind which the hyenas were lying. From our vantage point we could see both sets of animals, who were unaware of each other’s presence. We were holding our breaths, anticipating a confrontation, but as soon as they spotted the hyenas, the cheetahs halted in their tracks, changed course, and disappeared into the bush. Steroid Boys or not, they weren’t at all keen to take on a hyena.

By radio, Hayden was then informed of a sighting of a leopard towards which we drove. In the fast disappearing light we had a brief look at our first leopard of the trip; a large male with a pronounced limp, no less magnificent an animal for it. Despite his physical imperfection ‘Limpy’, who had apparently come off second best in an altercation with a lion as a youngster, was the dominant male in the territory. Mentally, we marked off the leopard sighting with ‘better view desired’ in brackets. We had no reason for complaints though: the end of our first half day at Mombo and we had nailed both leopard and cheetah. It simply doesn’t get any better than this, we thought.

Time for tea at Mombo
Almost time for tea at Mombo: this corner of the deck in front of the dining room and bar complex is where early morning breakfast and afternoon tea are served, just before game drives.

Then it was back to camp. In comparison with Wilderness Safaris’ fabulous new camps elsewhere in Northern Botswana, the lay-out and design of Mombo, and the tents themselves are not quite up to par. The reason for this is that Mombo is an old style tented camp which cannot be changed in any way until Wilderness Safaris enter into a new lease period in 1999. Moremi park regulations do not allow them to make any changes until then. So, for the time being, visitors to Mombo will have to ‘endure’ the old-fashioned type tents, the fact that some tents are in line and relatively close to each other, and the inconvenience of unzipping the main tent to get to the bathrooms, which abut directly onto the tents. As long as you don’t expect the same superb accommodations offered at the newer camps, you won’t be disappointed. Mombo is a wonderful area with a comfortable rustic tented camp which offers good game-viewing year round.

Dinner on this day was particularly festive, with everyone in a good mood after such an eventful day. As is the practice at all the camps, the ‘menu announcer’ decided whether ladies or gents would have first shot at the buffet table. The men struck out again – I was now batting about .300 after six nights, the score being ladies 4, men 2. Anyway, the food was worth waiting for – roast fillet of beef, squash, broccoli with cheese sauce, potato au gratin, a lovely mixed salad and a superb lemon meringue pie. For those that care to, white and red complimentary table wine is served with the meal.

Tuesday June 2
Our morning game drive with Hayden was another winner. Winding our way through some spectacular scenery, in an area where the new water was slowly spreading over the dry floodplains, we bumped into two stunning male lions walking in a westerly direction on the floodplain. Like the two cheetahs which we had seen the previous day, they were also brothers and likewise the dominant males in a huge territory. About 10 years old , the two full-maned lions were just a year or so past their prime. Hayden referred to them as “Goss’ Boys” after Richard Goss, a well-known film maker. At one stage the two of them took a brief respite and then jumped over a stream, in order to avoid the incoming floodwaters. Even though we had advance warning, we still managed to fluff the photograph…

Elephant at Mombo Camp
Elephant at Mombo Camp. In addition to the big cats, for which Mombo is rightly famous, most of the other big game species are also present on Chief’s Island, on which it is located.

A little further on Hayden noticed a drag mark across the road, and we swung off to the left, following it in one direction around some low bushes and stumps in a lightly wooded area. The drag trail ended at the spot where the kill had obviously been made some time the previous night, as the contents of the stomach of an impala (or perhaps some other antelope) were right there on the ground. In case you were wondering, this consisted of a lump of moist, green, partially digested foliage.

We promptly turned around and followed the trail to the other end, back across the road, into more dense woodland with many fairly big trees. Again the drag marks ended, this time near a sausage tree. An observant guest spotted the remains of the impala in the tree, tucked into a main fork branch slanted at about 45-degrees. Almost immediately afterwards, Hayden spotted the leopard: it was our friend Limpy, partially hidden inside a bush, busy devouring a choice part of the impala. We watched him for a while and then heard via radio about a cheetah kill nearby. Off we went, winding our way along a narrow track, occasionally having to duck to avoid overhanging – thorny – branches.

On arriving at the scene, we witnessed an amazing sight of five young cheetah – about 4 months old – trying to overpower and bring down an adult impala. They were pulling it in all different directions, trying to take a chunk out of it at the same time. The adult female cheetah then grabbed the hapless animal by the throat and put it out of its misery. The young ones started feeding ferociously, the mother retreating to a shady spot under a nearby tree. For the next 40 minutes to an hour, we watched the young cheetah gorging themselves on fresh impala. Occasionally they would lift their heads, survey their surroundings, or they would get up and change places. Every now and then one would look straight at us for a moment or two, its bloody muzzle reflecting the morning light.

When some Whitebacked vultures, which had been sitting in a tree a short distance off, starting flopping down onto the ground and moving in, the adult female also started eating. One by one the young cheetahs, their rounded bellies indicative of their satiety, left the carcass and flopped down into the shade. We took our fill of photographs, saved the memories in the ‘just another glorious day at Mombo’ folder of our brains, and called it a morning.

Brunch was a little bit late, not that it mattered. After the kind of morning we had, food was the last thing on our mind. A walk-by at the buffet table soon changed that: bobotie, aubergine with tomatoes, chicken crepes with cheese sauce, omelettes to order (any combination of ham, cheese, tomato & mushroom), fresh fruit, toast, coffee… We tucked in.

For once, Kathleen and I had an opportunity for an early afternoon siesta, which we sorely needed by now. The one-day-here, next-day-there pace was starting to show, and combined with the very early mornings, we were starting to drag a little bit. If I had my druthers, I would spend three nights at any one camp, rather than just two. Slowing down the pace improves the entire experience: less stress, fewer flights, more opportunities to explore a particular area a bit better, and enough time to participate in all the activities offered at the camp. We had a ways to go on this day yet. At 3:30 it was time for tea or coffee, with cake, quiche and salad on the side. As if we needed another meal…

Barely into our afternoon game drive we had some nice close-up views of a female lion who had killed a young buffalo and had dragged it into a nearby bush. We were so close that we could see the flies she was trying to swat away from her muzzle, grimacing and squinting in the process.

From there, Hayden headed towards the floodplain, intending to take us back to the scene of the cheetah kill. En route, we stopped to enjoy a lovely view of the incoming flood. I made one of my favorite images right there. It was a typical Okavango Delta scene: two colorful Saddlebilled storks close by, a large group of lechwe splashing around in mid-distance, and a lush green fringe of palms and other vegetation in the background.

Serenity is not exactly part of the Mombo experience. None of us were surprised when the radio crackled with news of yet another leopard sighting, this time a female with two young, a daughter of about 18 months, and a small cub of about 4 months. When we reached them, they were close together in a relatively densely wooded area, the playful cub skulking around and peering at us from behind a tree stump. Nervous impala were snorting their disapproval from all directions, and when yet another leopard, a male, appeared on the scene, the tension was palpable. The sub-adult female – which was possibly in oestrus – quickly disappeared, following the male into very thick brush.

For the next half hour or so, we followed the mother and baby leopard as they softly padded their way through the bush. The cub would occasionally jump over obstacles – real and imagined, or dash up a tree only to come tumbling down clumsily. Once, the cub used its mother as a makeshift springboard, darting up from behind, bouncing once and plowing into the underbrush rather unsteadily. By this time, we were stationary, the engine had been switched off and we were enjoying our sundowners in silence, just enjoying the moment. The cameras had been put away, and it was too dark to use binoculars. Perhaps this absence of movement or activity in the vehicle helped to relax the cub even more, as it now approached very close to the Landrover, staring at us intently, its cute little face a mix of curiosity and audacity. A prince of stealth in the making, to be sure.


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