By Bert Duplessis, Fish Eagle Safaris
DUBA PLAINS CAMP
By March 23 I was enjoying the hospitality of the friendly staff and management at Duba Plains, a superb tented camp in the northern part of the Okavango Delta. Kathleen and I had first visited this property about 15 years ago and it remains one of our favorite Okavango Delta camps. The experience at Duba has undergone a complete transformation over the last few years. Visitors from earlier years may remember that buffalo herds used to be located by the pall of dust which they kicked up – not any more! Duba Plains is nowadays a much wetter camp and the vehicles spend a great deal of time ‘swimming’ on game drives.
The camp is still famous for interaction between buffalo and lions, but I would recommend a minimum stay of 3 to 4 nights in order to give oneself a decent chance to see this happening. We did find the Tsaro pride of lions on two occasions, and saw quite a bit of general game as well including some good kudu sightings. However over the course of our 2-night stay we never did find the buffalo herds who had moved into the Paradise area crossing a very deep channel in the process.
The best sighting of the lions was early one morning when they were well-positioned around a woodpile, in intermittently good light. Even though there was a little rain falling at the time, it did not hamper the photography. That afternoon a huge electrical storm passed right over the camp, with lightning striking a tree uncomfortably close to camp. Quite the experience!
On March 25 – with our indomitable guide James – we found the lions just as they were crossing the water into an unreachable spot. We turned around, and used a different route through a watery expanse where likely nobody but James could even attempt to find his way. Sure enough, about 20 minutes or so later, we were perfectly positioned just as the female lion and her cubs sloshed by us, wet and bedraggled and shaking their skins just like dogs would do. James’ ability to anticipate and predict the lions’ behavior and movement is nothing short of uncanny. Actually it is remarkable!
A little later on we followed a female lion in a solo attempt to stalk and attack a group of warthog. Lucky for them and disappointingly for us, the warthogs got wind of what was going down and beat a hasty retreat. Even though the attempt was unsuccessful, the stealthy manner in which the lioness stalked her prey, was really spellbinding.
BANOKA BUSH CAMP
From Duba I flew to the new Banoka Bush Camp via Vumbura. En route I saw many camps from the air including Xugana, Kwara, the various Xakanaxa Lagoon camps and also Khwai River Lodge. It was a long drive (about 90 minutes) from the Khwai airstrip to Banoka Bush Camp. When the new Banoka airstrip is complete this will change to a more manageable 15 minutes.
Banoka Bush Camp has a large and rather impressive lounge, bar and dining ara, as well as a pool and spacious deck area overlooking a typical Okavango Delta scene with reeds and riverine vegetation in the background. I liked the rooms as well: very nicely equipped with adequate lighting and plenty of space.
After lunch, we set off on a boating excursion on a tributary of the Khwai River. The river meanders through a very beautiful area and it was totally peaceful with no one else around. I could have just enjoyed the peace and quiet, but there were fish to be caught… It wasn’t long before we hooked a good sized Nembwe and a catfish. The guides were impressed and I was thrilled. Lots of fun. The fish went back in the water and we went back to camp for dinner, which was really special outside on the deck. The only downer was that the Proteas had lost a World Cup Cricket match to Australia.
The following morning I was taken on a mokoro outing. As always, this is one of the most enjoyable activities on an Okavango Delta trip. There is practically no sound to disturb the tranquil ambience of the Delta, no oars slapping – nothing. Just a few bird calls and some Jacanas noisily flapping their wings as they try to put some distance between them and the approaching mokoro. As is usually the case on a mokoro outing, I enjoyed some good photo opportunities particularly of the very colorful and quite striking water lilies, some birds and the painted reed frogs.
The game-viewing in the Banoka area was on the quiet side mostly because the mopane forest was very thick with lush undergrowth after abundant local rainfall. We did see some kudu, impala, elephant, zebra, giraffe and wildebeest and I had one of my best ever sightings of an African wild cat. I would recommend traveling to this area in the dry season only.
TUBU TREE CAMP
From Banoka we drove through a very heavy rainstorm to Khwai airstrip for the flight to Tubu Tree Camp. I liked this camp from the moment I set foot in it. The location is unbeatable with the lounge, dining room and bar overlooking a massive floodplain in front of camp. There was almost always something of interest to be seen in front of camp.
The rooms are elevated and built on a large platform several meters above the forest floor which makes them nice and airy. The beds have mosquito nets; the only thing missing was a fan. There were several baboons jumping onto the roof of the tent; as it turned out my room was right below a huge marula tree which the troop of baboons considered to be their territory!
On the first game drive out of Tubu we saw an amazing concentration of wildlife in the area around the airstrip; in fact just half a mile out of camp there were five species of mammals in one spot: baboon, impala, kudu, zebra and bushbuck.
Returning to a spot where she had been seen earlier that day, we re-located a young female leopard who had earlier killed an impala and dragged it into a thorn bush right by the side of the road. Our guide had an inkling that the local pack of hyenas might discover the kill. We took up a location close to the scene and waited for something to happen. We didn’t have to wait long: within 20 minutes or so there it was – a hyena with its head up, sniffing the air and slowly but surely honing in on the scent of the dead impala. The young leopard had to watch helplessly as the hyena started to devour her hard-earned meal. In frustration, she ran towards the hyena which reacted very aggressively, turning onto the leopard very rapidly. The young female just barely managed to escape without injury – she had no chance of prevailing over the hyena with its powerful jaws. Twenty minutes or so later, the hyena had devoured probably half of what remained of the impala, all the while staying dead quiet and not giving away its location to the rest of the hyena clan.
Our game drive from Tubu on 27 March was a winner. After some good views of zebra, kudu and impala we came upon a female leopard in a tree against the sky. At first, it was impossible to get a good photograph of the leopard due to the sky behind getting blown out. This was my first ‘leopard in a tree’ shot opportunity, so needless to say I was not thrilled with the situation! The sighting was great, but the pics totally useless.
Luck was with us on the day however: The leopard climbed down the first tree, moved through the bush while considering making a move on some impala, and then got into a different tree, this time in near perfect light with blue sky and palm trees behind! It posed for the camera for quite a while, adopting some totally relaxed poses with all 4 legs hanging down, and then climbed down and disappeared in the undergrowth. What a morning!
That afternoon we took a boat ride in a spectacularly beautiful area without the usual high reed beds obscuring the view. We moved past several pretty lagoons to a fishing spot, but did not have any luck with them. It was such a beautiful setting that it really didn’t matter: I did some bird-watching, tried to get some photographs of African Fish Eagles in flight (no luck this time!) and just enjoyed the tranquility of the Okavango Delta.
The following day was all about lions. Our guide Kambango Sinimbo found the tracks of a group of four lions – an adult female and three young males – a few kilometers out of camp and successfully tracked them to a spot about 10 meters of the road, where the youngest of the three males had been left behind by his mother. She was likely out hunting.
Acting a lot like lost puppy – or a child for that matter – the young lion kept anxiously staring in the direction towards which its mother had walked. He climbed on a termite mound, only to comically slide off. Then he climbed onto a log pile, looking very forlorn as he stared out into space. Soon enough his mother and two siblings appeared on the scene. In what amounted to a bit of dramatic irony from our viewpoint, the young male lion was looking in a different direction and when he finally turned around, his family members were less than 3 meters from him. If you’ve ever seen a startled pup, you can imagine the look on the young lion’s face. Surprised, joyful, shocked and maybe just a little bit embarrassed to be ‘ambushed’ so easily.
From there, we followed the lions as they walked along the road and through the woodland, creating havoc amongst the impala and other antelope who were snorting and barking loudly, fleeing by the dozen while birds and squirrels joined the party and banded together to create a very effective early warning system. There was not an animal around that did not know of the lions’ approach!
At this stage we drove around to a different vantage spot and as if pre-arranged, the lions picked the exact spot to leave the water, walking right by our car, one by one. I was firing off shots by the dozens and captured some of the best images of the entire trip right there.
After taking some photographs of the resident Peter’s Epauletted Fruit bats at the Tubu Camp office, I packed my bags and boarded a Cessna 206 for the flight across the Delta and on to the Selinda area, where I would spend the next two nights at Selinda Camp.
Of all the camps I visited in March, Selinda was definitely my favorite. The camp itself is very impressive with beautiful rooms complete with mosquito nets, complimentary port & sherry and a large bathtub, always a luxury on safari. The main lounge area rivals that of a premier/deluxe camp, with an ethnic touch, shades of Zanzibar décor, some striking lighting and high thatched ceilings. All making for a very pleasant setting – one could easily while away a lazy afternoon here just doing some reading or taking photographs of the myriad of birds in and around camp.
On this particular afternoon I opted for a boat ride as I was all ‘game-driven out’ by then. It was a good choice. I had tons of fun fishing with Moses and Lenti, and managed to get the ‘Selinda Slam’ which is awarded to guests landing a bream, African Pike and Catfish in one outing. I never did get my Selinda cap but no worries, the experience was enough reward.
On Tuesday 29 March I took a short trip by boat with David (co-manager) to see the Hide which is ideal for bush brunches, private candle-lit dinners and for sleepouts from about May every year. The Hide is only about 1 kilometer from camp, but it feels totally remote and isolated, with no lights visible and with gorgeous views from the front of the deck, over the Selinda Spillway.
The food at Selinda was amongst the best of any on the trip. Brunch this morning was delightful, including a hamburger with freshly baked sesame rolls, quinoa salad, an Asian-inspred cabbage salad, bean and nut patties (for the vegan hamburger), fresh green salad, fruit juice and of course eggs to order with bacon, sausage and more…
Then we were off to go and look at Zarafa, a premier camp about 30 minutes or so by boat from Selinda. It was a bit of an ordeal to get there – we had to find our way through some thick reed patches – but definitely worth the trip. Zarafa has very impressive massive rooms , essentially 3 different tents stitched together: it has an old-fashioned 1920’s safari feel complete with safari equipment such as a Canon camera with 100-400 mm lens & premium binoculars in a foot locker.
Our afternoon game drive was uneventful to start. Some giraffe, kudu, impala, zebra, wildebeest – the usual suspects. Then we drove into an area which looked very promising for cheetah and lo & behold during a short stop looking for something else I picked up a cheetah in the binoculars, while scanning the terrain! There they were, a coalition of 3 males: not at all fussed with our presence. We followed them around and watched them settle in, at least for a while, on a large termite mound. Soon enough the light started to fade and we headed back to camp. En route, we were treated to a very enjoyable bush sundowner, with David driving out the drinks and snacks and meeting us there.
March 30 2011 was one of my best days on safari yet in Botswana. We headed out fairly early that morning to see if the cheetah brothers were still around. With the help of some staring giraffe, we soon located them sleeping in a small depression not too far from where we had left them the previous day. We then proceeded to stay with the cheetah from about 0800 until past 1100. It was clear that the cheetah were – at least initially – not in a good position to hunt. There was a lot of open flat terrain between them and their prey species which included impala, young zebra and juvenile wildebeest. So if the cheetah commenced a hunt, the zebra would no doubt bolt and scatter all the other game as well.
As a result the cheetah took their time and it wasn’t until well after 11 that morning that they made their move. First they moved to a different position under a tree, and rested there for quite a while until the zebra had moved out of sight.
Then – as if by unspoken signal – the three cheetahs got up and started walking deliberately towards the line of vegetation where there were several impala visible. Suddenly the cheetah accelerated, the impala scattered and I momentarily lost the big picture, just catching a glimpse of a cheetah wheeling to the left, its tail wildly swinging to the right as it honed in on a fleeing animal temporarily obscured behind a bush.
Moses started up the vehicle and we raced to the scene. Just 20 seconds later we came up on the impala which been taken down. One of the cheetahs had it in a death grip with its jaws clamped around the impala’s throat, suffocating the hapless animal which was no doubt in a state of severe shock, unable to feel pain. Almost simultaneously the other two cheetahs started to feed on the impala which they had by now dragged into cover, so as to avoid being seen by other land predators or from the air by bateleur eagles or vultures.
We watched as the cheetah bit through the skin and fed voraciously on mostly muscle and sub-cutaneous fat. At first one and then another would act as a sentry of sorts. Interestingly they did not use their paws in the act of feeding; just their jaws, head and neck being in motion.
It was truly an awesome spectacle to behold and to listen to and we spent the better part of 20 minutes watching as they devoured a good chunk of the cheetah, occasionally lifting their bloodstained heads to momentarily stare outwards, before lowering them again and tearing away yet another mouthful. I could see one of the cheetahs considering opening a new spot on the impala’s yet unmarked shoulder. After one or two half-hearted bites he just walked away from the carcass, clearly having reached the point of satiety.
We were getting somewhat peckish ourselves by then, so we left the cheetah in peace and returned to camp for brunch.
Later that afternoon I took a short flight from Selinda to Dumatau where I was met by Grant Woodrow, Managing Director of Wilderness Safaris in Botswana. Since my last brief visit to Dumatau about 6 years previously, the camp had not changed much except that the lounge and dining room had been extended and re-aligned, making it more functional and attractive. The camp is to be relocated to a new spot at Osprey Lagoon, hopefully re-opening by the start of the 2012 season.
On the drive from Chobe airstrip to Dumatau, Grant mentioned to our guide Ron that the only signature Botswana species which I had not seen thus far on my trip, was wild dog. So, he said, ‘Ron, better find us some dogs…!’ It didn’ take long. Just after tea we headed out of camp to a spot where the wild dogs had been spotted the previous day. Within 20 minutes or so, I had my first view of what turned out to be a pack of about 7 of these magnificent animals. After negotiating some very rough terrain we stopped on the edge of a small seasonal waterhole where the wild dogs had been resting up and were settling in for the night. I got a few decent photographs and then we drove off to the Savuti Channel (bridge) for sundowners. It was a perfect spot looking out towards Zibadianja Lagoon. There were several hippos active on our left, birds flying overhead and sounds everywhere as a typical late summer Botswana sunset wrapped everything in its distinctive glowing pink sheen.
That evening, I was a guest at a very special bush dinner for all the guests at Dumatau as well as several Wilderness Safaris staff members and some contractors. It was a splendid evening with delicious food (special vegan bean stew for yours truly) and ended with a superb performance of some traditional Botswana songs. I got a little bit ahead of myself though: en route to the bush dinner we were alerted to a sighting of a pair of mating leopards close to Dumatau camp. Within 7 minutes or so, we were within sight of the amorous pair, who performed – in quick succession – three very public couplings within 3 meters of our vehicle, bathed in light. The third attempt seemed to be successful as there was much grunting and snarling involved. It was a bit like having one’s pet in the bedroom, except that this time the roles were reversed and we were the observers. Whatever. Mating leopards? How lucky can you get! A big first for me – the type of wildlife experience which one may only see once in 20 years of going on safari. No photographs I’m afraid. I learnt my lesson and will be taking the B900 flash everywhere in future!
The next morning’s game drive was not quite as amazing but it was very fruitful with several excellent sightings including kudu, a breeding herd of elephant, the first waterbuck of the trip, and curious behavior by a huge baboon troupe. At one point Ron saw a kudu stare at something on the ground and upon closer inspection, this turned out to be a truly massive 4-meter (12 foot!) African Rock Pything, which had clearly just recently swallowed a sizeable prey judging by its bloated mid-section. Initially it just remain stationary, totally extended. Then it started to move slowly through the grass, eventually curling up into a coil in some heavy brush.
We stopped off at Kings Pool camp for brunch, where I had a good look at the completely new lounging and dining room areas, which was open to the front and making the most of the oxbow lagoon view. It reminded me a lot of Shumba Camp in the Kafue Region of Zambia.Then it was back to the airstrip for the flight to Maun, back to Johannesburg on Air Botswana and finally boarding a massive new Air France Airbus A-380 for the flight to Paris. I would be back in Houston the following afternoon.
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