Thursday, 4 September 2014

Southern Africa 1 - the Okavango Delta leopards and lions

In August we spent 3 weeks on holiday, split between the Okavango in Botswana, Victoria Falls and Hermanus in South Africa. We spent 11 nights in Botswana, in Nxabega, Shinde and Lagoon Camps. All were absolutely superb and I can recommend them highly. The trip was organised through Audley Travel, with Alex Cooke pulling it all together. We've used them loads of times before and i would recommend them highly to anyone looking to put together a bespoke holiday anywhere!
The days were the usual safari experience - up at 6, out at 7, back around 11. Then its brunch and photo-editing (or sleeping for other guests!) till you meet again at 3.30 to go out from 4 till 7.30ish when it's dinner time then an early bed.
In Botswana it's winter in August, the weather though is incredibly good - chilly at night (12-14C) and not too hot in the day (28-30C max). It's totally dry, so no rain, and the bush is brown and low so good for viewing game. The accommodation was "tented" but this is glamping with en-suite facilities. The camps all held about 8-12 tents, 18-24 guests. You could easily put on stones of weight and become and alcoholic as both food and alcohol were freely available at all hours and generally pretty good too!!!
So, what did we see. I wont go into each camp separately as there was a lot of overlap, although each had it's own character. All were a mix of water and plains/ savannah/ woodland. Nxabega has a lot of low vegetation with wild sage brush, Shinde was a bit more wooded and Lagoon was either drier semi-arid or swamp. I should add that the photos are all a mixture of ones from both Judith and myself. We were both using Canon 7d bodies with 100-400mm, 70-300mm, 16-40mm and 28-135mm lenses, all shot in RAW.
Big cat viewing was amazing. In all camps we not only saw leopard and lions but had close-up and extended views of them. Leopards especially seemed very confiding and were active during the day.
At Nxabega on our very first morning we had this one, sitting on a branch in the morning light for about 20 minutes. It's amazing the way their behaviour is just like our domestic cats, the way they stretch., clean themselves, move

We also saw leopards hunting twice, one stalking lechwe, one reedbuck. They lost the prey in both cases, but after 90 minutes to 2 hours stalking, which we had the fortune to follow. Generally they use a high position, a tree or termite mound to scan the area first.

 When prey is spotted they come down when it's either passed them or is not looking and gradually try to get within 20 yards. Unlike cheetahs they rely on being close and getting their prey quickly.

 Once in the grass they are incredibly hard to spot, even from our elevated position, so their prey is always very nervous.

The leopard is low in the grass in the photo on the right, invisible to the lechwe it is hunting because of the grass in between them.

Both times, as I said, the leopard waited patiently for the prey to come close, but they stayed out of what it considered a good range to go from.
We also had good views of lions. Being pack (pride) animals they hunt and behave in a very different way. Again, we didn't see a hunt but saw the outcome of it - the pride feeding on the evenings catch. This is normally one of the smaller antelopes, warthogs or blue wildebeest.
 Impala are the commonest of the small deer, referred to rather cruelly as "McDonalds". Red lechwe (below) are a speciality of the region, often seen near water. The two are commonly confused, especially as distance, but size, the red back/ white belly and separation of the horns are diagnostic.

 Warthogs occur widely, with the young dashing around after their parents, their tails held almost vertical.Wildebeest are not as common as on the plains in Kenya, and are difficult to approach probably due to the presence of so many predators around them.

The most confiding of the lion prides we met was in Lagoon camp. It was ruled by two brothers, christened Blondie and Darkie for the obvious reason of their very different manes. One evening we met them as they were waking up.

 Over the next 20 minutes or so they behaved just like our cats at home. They rolled around, stretching, yawning, playing with each other and getting ready for the evenings activities.

Once they were sorted they did what every male lion needs to do - mark their territory.

 Then, as the evening approached, they moved off to find the rest of the pride and see about getting some tea.

We met up with the pride the following day. They had killed a wildebeest overnight. As well as the two adult males, there were 3 or 4 adult females, several juveniles and 3 young cubs. The wildebeest was now no more than skin and bones which the adults and youngsters were picking over. The big males were lying a few yards off with big bellies, letting the more junior members pick over the remnants. 

 Between the three camps we had really intimate views of the two big cats and you got a great feel for how they, in different ways, dominate the landscape.