24 Hours At Mombo…

Jan 8, 2013 |  Conservation & Wildlife
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5Am. As I pull on my shoes, I hear a shuffling noise outside, and poke Callum to let him know that there are probably buffalo outside our house. He mumbles at me to be careful, and goes back to sleep. I am in a hurry: there is a breakfast to be taken to Room 3, and coffee to another. I grab the tray from the kitchen and Lizzy and I stumble along the boardwalk holding thermos flasks, plates of toast and cookies. Our coffee-drinker takes a long time to wake up, and only emerges after some serious banging on the door. I see a genet creeping through the grass. It is an eerily quiet morning.

5:15Am. I’m laying out croissants and cereal, fetching cutlery and napkins. Then I hear it: a chesty, guttural growl that no buffalo can make. Before I even swing around to shine my torch, I know what that noise is. There in the darkness are six sets of accusatory eyes. My breath catches in my throat. They are lions; and they are feeding on a buffalo.

5:30Am. After rushing to get Lizzy and the chefs, I stand floundering like an idiot, wondering what to do. I wake up the GM on the radio (he’s surprisingly good about it): now to warn the guests. As we walk gingerly across the deck, we see that there are, indeed, 6 lions, with their heads buried in what appears to be a fresh kill. The buffalo lies on the ground, its head flung backwards in a final, dramatic gesture. I realise that the ‘leader’ of the pride is Mmamoriri, the maned lioness who visited us at this very spot recently. She stalks towards the main area and we shuffle backwards out of sight. She then emerges, running from under the deck carrying the long pool brush in her mouth like a playful dog, and proceeds to chew it noisily under a bush. I can only stand there speechless: I have no idea how to explain this to the guests, who gape in equal astonishment.

6:30Am. Other guests have arrived to view the spectacle. As it grows lighter, we can distinguish more lions that are moving away from the kill to flop in the grass. The younger lions paw the ground, trying to hide the scent of death so as to prolong the inevitable arrival of greedy scavengers. Suddenly, two tiny cubs emerge from underneath their growling elders. They are already covered in blood and have clearly been gorging themselves. The guests decline the offer of a morning game drive and remain in camp to spend hours watching the lions as they grow fatter and lazier.

12:00Pm. The maned lioness and two other pride members take shifts at guarding the diminishing carcass. The vultures are descending: scores of hooded sentinels, prowling about in the grass in their comical hobbling gait. Every now and then a brave one sneaks towards the buffalo and is given a quick charge by a protective female who watches, almost hidden in the nearby grass. At one point, the lioness leaps into the air and paws at a vulture whilst vertical, missing him by the tip of a feather. The two cubs, now only able to roll about with their swollen tummies, are still drunkenly climbing in and out of the carcass.

09:00Pm. I say goodnight to my guests after dinner, and leave the main area with the distinct sensation of a looming confrontation. The lions have guarded their kill all day, and the cubs are well-fed. The vultures that have watched, patiently, all day, are symbols of what is to come. The darkness holds other, deadly foes of the lions, and both they and we know what is coming.

02:00Am. They arrive, in their masses. The whoops begin distantly, and from al directions grow stronger and nearer. Then we hear the first battle lines being drawn, and the cackles are answered by defensive grunts and growls. Before he even announces that he is awake, I know what Callum is going to say.

“Let’s go.”

02:10Am. In our pyjamas, we creep along the boardwalk towards the commotion: I am sticking close to Callum, feeling my heart pounding as the shrieks of the hyaenas grow louder. Suddenly, Callum tells me to stop and points to the right. A male lion, not one of the buffalo’s killers, is striding towards the sounds as well. He trots under the boardwalk between us and Room 1, and we notice a beam of light coming from the room. We spot Alex’s face peering out of his shade cloth window, and beckon him to us. Together we install ourselves by the pool once more, and settle down to watch the action.

02:30Am. The ground is crawling with hyaenas. In every direction that we shine the torch, there are those glowing eyes. There is no sign of the original pride, but we hear them calling in the forest nearby. The lone male is an old lion with several missing teeth, and although he holds the carcass for now, surely the hyaenas must overpower him.

But they don’t. For an hour, we watch as they skirt around the edges, not daring to approach as the male tosses the buffalo about to find the remaining morsels of meat. Then as suddenly as they appeared, the hyaenas seem to disappear into the bushes.

2:45Am. To our right, hidden by the darkness, the air is rent with blood-curdling snarls and eerie cackling, in amongst the trees where the original lions fled. We sit in silence, as the fight echoes across the floodplain: it is a terrifying clash of infamous, vicious adversaries. Callum voices what we are all thinking.

“It’s the cubs. They are trying to protect the cubs.”

We listen as the hyaenas’ whooping ebbs and flows, the lions’ roaring responses rolling across the open grassland and shuddering us to the core.

3:15Am. After a time of quiet, we almost leave, but decide to give it 5 more minutes. The battle in the trees seems to have died down: the fate of the cubs is unknown, but with adults like Mmamoriri protecting them, they stand a solid chance. The hyaenas begin to return to the scene in front of us, hungrier now, and fired up by their exploits. Gradually, the two largest females move closer and closer to the still-defiant male lion.

Without warning, he snaps. Roaring, he launches himself back at the encroachers and gives us a show of his dominance, announcing his presence in deep and rumbling voice.

3:45Am. The hyaenas have not gained any ground. The floodplain is quiet again, and the lone male continues to eat, unperturbed by his spectators. We all look at each other, and decide to call it a night. As we go our separate ways on the boardwalk, Alex’s parting words are: “Good luck getting back to sleep.” We grin, shaking our heads. It has been quite a day.

Jemima

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By Jemima Middleton

Meet bloggers Callum Sargent and Jemima Middleton. Take one South African with over six years of guiding and photography experience, add a bright-eyed Cambridge undergraduate, put them in the bush and, well, strange things happen! They are based in the heart of the Okavango Delta at the legendary Mombo Camp, where they share their love for the wilderness with visitors from all over the world.

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