Lions in the Camp!
Copyright © Judith Shaw
The Okavango Delta is a huge alluvial fan in northwestern Botswana, where the Okavango river flows into the Kalahari desert. It’s a vast oasis in the middle of one of the driest places on Earth.
Maun is the gateway to the delta. It has a frontier air about it, with safari suits everywhere and open-air bars and cafes lining the main streets. Menu items don’t quite live up to their billing, but after two days of airline food it tasted wonderful.
It took three miserable days to get here, and I was braced for more of the same. It didn’t turn out that way.
The Lataka Safari staff showed up right on time. They took our luggage, introduced us to Disho, our guide, and shepherded us into the small plane that was to take us to our first wildlife area. There were only five guests, four women and one man, when the usual number was twelve. Everyone had a window seat.
We flew over a magical landscape, all blues, browns and tropical greens. Then someone yelped “Elephants!” and we all craned our necks to look. A herd of elephants wandered across a clear patch of ground near the water. A family of giraffes meandered after them, then disappeared into the trees. I had to force myself to breathe
The flight lasted about an hour. After landing, we were teleported to our first campsite in the Moremi Game Reserve. We’d opted for a mobile tenting safari to be closer to the animals. Every two days we’d pack up and move to another site, leaving bare packed earth behind.
The tents were basic army, with two cots in each and a dry toilet and solar shower out back. All food, water and firewood was trucked in, and meals were cooked over an open fire.
The daily routine: 4:00 wake-up call, coffee and toast at the campfire, then into the vehicle for the morning game drive.
I’d always thought a game drive was where beaters made a lot of noise to drive animals into the open, so we could see them and shoot film. Like hunting pheasants at Downton Abbey. No. A game drive is just what it sounds like. A drive to see game. And that’s what we’d do. Every morning at about 5:00 we’d pile into the vehicle and go hunting.
We hadn’t been driving more than a few minutes when I saw my first . . . animal. It was a large male antelope, a greater kudu, standing in a grove of bushes like one of the old gods come to Earth.
An 8 o’clock stop for morning tea and bladder relief. Disho would quickly scout the nearby bushes, then invite us to mark our territories. Disho and our single male guest discreetly averted their gazes, and we returned the favor.
That first morning we saw loads of impala, smallish antelope with white bull’s-eyes on their rumps, zebra families, wild pig and giraffes. It was all minor game—not the Big Five (lion, rhino, leopard, elephant and Cape buffalo)—but it didn’t feel minor to me.
Back at the camp for brunch, then it was time for the afternoon nap. After nap-time, a shower, more tea and cakes, and a late afternoon game drive. We’d stop for a sun-downer at 6 and get back to camp around 7 o’clock. If we were in a game management area like Moremi, there was an after-dinner game drive. In National Parks evening drives were not allowed.
On that first afternoon we drove for hours across a flat grassy plain with clumps of trees and rocky outcrops. I was straining to see just about anything when I blinked, and there, materialized out of nothing, was a female cheetah, hunting. A red hornbill, one of the local busybodies, flew around her head squawking out a warning, After a few fruitless snarls she shook her head, made a disgusted face and trotted away.
That morning Disho asked if we’d heard the lions roaring near the camp. I hadn’t heard a thing, so I told Disho to wake me if lions were roaring nearby.
We’d seen a pair of lions on the way back to camp that afternoon. A thin, scruffy-looking female was lying in the road, with an even scrawnier male keeping watch over her from about ten yards away. Every time the male made a move in her direction, the lioness snarled, telling him to keep his distance. After watching nothing else happen for a while, we left.
At bedtime I reminded Disho to wake me for lions, no matter what.
I hadn’t been in bed ten minutes when Disho scratched on the flap of our tent. “Come right away,” he whispered. Our scruffy lion from the roadway was stalking through the camp as if we weren’t there. Disho gave me a big flashlight. I plastered myself against his back, flashlight out, too excited to be afraid. He was on a mission, following his mate through the night. Humans were neither on his menu nor his agenda, but our two camp helpers were taking nothing for granted. They flew up the nearest trees and waited for the all-clear.
That night I heard the lions. To hear them, you have to be awake. Not a joke. Lions in the wild sound nothing like the Twentieth Century Fox film openers. They have a repertoire of roars, but what we experienced most often was a kind of cough, so low in pitch I felt it in my bones. It wasn’t easy to hear.
Day 2, much like Day 1. On the morning drive we saw a giraffe family picking off leaves in a grove of trees. The baby had a bleeding cut high up one leg. It was hard not to imagine the worst. Wounded young of any species don’t last long in Africa.
A family of wild pigs, piglets running helter-skelter through a clearing, made us laugh as we lunged for our cameras. And lots of birds, mainly the red and yellow hornbills that hang out around campsites, very boisterous and nosy.
Disho pulled up next to a thick clump of scrub. I didn’t see much of anything until a leopard took shape among the leaves. Once I saw him it was hard to remember how hard he’d been to see. He was behaving strangely. He’d sit up, pace a few restless steps, lie down again and close his eyes. Then he’d get up, look intently into the bushes, stretch, yawn, and take a nap.
We watched the leopard mooch around for a long time, but we didn’t move. Something was going on that Disho didn’t understand. We weren’t going anywhere until he figured it out.
We stayed with the dozy leopard for a while longer, then Disho drove the vehicle to the opposite side of the grove. A lioness lay in the sand, chewing on the head of an impala with a look of total bliss on her face.
Now we understood. The leopard had brought down an impala, only to have it stolen. Leopards do not stand up to lions, who kill them whenever they get the chance. What was odd—and I still don’t understand it—is why the leopard hung around. Any sensible leopard would have left her to it and made tracks for anywhere else.
We watched the lioness eat, sharing her joy of a good free meal, then moved on.
The rest of the day flew by. We saw elephants, buffalo (from a safe distance), gnu, assorted antelopes, baboons, and a mongoose family that Disho whistled up out of a fallen log.
After gin and tonics by a sunset waterhole, we went back to camp, almost too wrung out to eat.
Our day wasn’t over yet.
Our first night drive: The moon was bright and even in the dark details were crisp. An African wild cat, shy forebear of our domestic short-hair but patterned like a clouded leopard, nursed her babies on the lingering warmth of the dirt track. A family of honey badgers played in the grass, taking no notice of us whatsoever.
Honey badgers are small but incredibly tough. They are one of the most feared animals in Africa. In a fight they always target the opponent’s genitals. I saw video of a honey badger climbing a tree to take on a green mamba and kill it. It was bitten many times in the process and fell out of the tree with the dead snake in its mouth. The badger lay stiff and still for about five minutes, then shook itself, sat up and ate the snake.
After driving around for a few hours we came to a clearing in the moonlight. A lioness lay flat on the grass, eyes closed, her distended abdomen shining like a half moon. It was our lioness of the impala, obviously very heavily pregnant.
Her mate was not far off, watching her with an anxious look on his face. Every few minutes he’d walk over and sniff at her face. The caption under this picture would have read, “How’re you feeling, honey. Can I get you anything?”
After the third or fourth attempt, she levered herself up on one elbow and gave him a left hook that sent him flying.
We drove back to camp higher than kites.
At dawn we drove to the river looking for hippos. Our lioness, considerably deflated, was taking a long morning drink. Had her babies been born last night?
We heard low-pitched coughs and then a couple of full-throated roars. Two males, obviously from the same pride as our lioness, were patrolling the boundaries of their territory. Answering roars came from not so very far away.
One of the pair had a hard time keeping up. He’d walk a bit, then lie down and paw at his face. We drove closer and could see a hoof-shaped cut over his left eye. It looked like he’d taken a bad kick to the head. If strange males were nearby looking for a ready-made family, a weakened defender of the pride was not good news.
After a few stops to rest, the lions walked out of sight, following a shallow channel through the reeds. I hoped the wounded warrior would survive his injury and live to father many cubs.
Our last afternoon game drive in Moremi was a doozy. We drove into that same clearing. The lioness and her mate were still there. He sniffed the air, folding back his upper lip to catch more scent. She looked at us, frowned a little and then relaxed. By then we must have smelled like old friends.
In about thirty seconds the bushes parted, and out scrambled two very young lion cubs. Now we knew why the lioness had eaten to bursting. She wasn’t pregnant, she was nursing twins.
We watched the cubs play in the bushes, checking in with Mum every few minutes. One cub explored the grove, climbing over branches, chasing bugs, sometimes going up to his mother for a sniff and a lick. The other was less active—when he moved we could see something was wrong with his hind end. Maybe an injury, in which case he might recover; maybe a congenital abnormality, in which case he wouldn’t. It put the lion brothers’ border patrol in a whole new light.
Young homeless males are always on the lookout for a pride of their own. To get one, they have to kill or drive off the males of an established pride. Then they kill all the cubs. The females quickly come into season, and all future cubs are fathered by the conquerors.
The thought that these two beautiful babies could be killed by invading males was hard to contemplate. Yeah, yeah, survival of the fittest and all that. But, really, watching the cubs explore their little world for the first time, who cares about Darwin?
The rest of the safari was more than I could have hoped for. No matter where we looked, even when other guides were coming up empty, we had animals coming out of the woodwork. One morning game drive lasted eight hours instead of the usual four. Every time we turned to go back to camp, some rarely seen animal would saunter into view, and off we’d go.
Our last drive in Botswana was a reprise of all our game drives put together. All the animals we’d seen in the past twelve days paraded across our path. Ostriches and secretary birds, antelope large and small, zebra, giraffe, and many, many elephants. We even saw another leopard, lying on a tree branch, languidly waving goodbye.
But we didn’t see any more lions.