January has been a typical summer month here in the southern Okavango Delta: quite unpredictable weather with variable temperatures and welcome rains. Over the last few weeks, the afternoons have been punctuated by repeated classic Botswana thunderstorms, dazzling natural spectacles showcasing the power of continental weather patterns and the beauty and majesty of this land’s untrammelled skies. In the past weeks we have been seeing wave after wave of afternoon thunderstorms. While December’s rains were almost a little disappointing, January saw a healthy 201 mm (8 inches) of rain fall on Chitabe, rejuvenating every area of the concession. Although Okavango summers are noted for their high temperatures, we have seen a maximum of only 30°C (90°F) although the lowest temperature we recorded was a far from chilly 17°C (65°F).
During January we also hosted our Chitabe Children in the Wilderness Programme – two days of fun-filled activities for the children of our staff, in recognition of the vital roles that our staff members all play in the Chitabe success story, and to give these children opportunities that they might not otherwise have. Each year we choose 12 of the staff’s children to come to the camp and spend time with their parents or relatives. It is one of our missions to raise awareness for the environment in which we live and to create a knowledge and appreciation for the work that is done to sustainably manage these special wild places and the wildlife and people that depend on them. Both educational and fun activities are planned and even the “grown-ups” enjoy the festivities (if that is anyone who works in the bush can truly be described as a grown-up!)
While the summer rains signal an annual renaissance in the bush, they are also the time traditionally chosen for refurbishing the camps and during January both Chitabe and Chitabe Lediba were closed for a few days to allow us the time to carry out maintenance duties that cannot be done with guests in camp.
During this maintenance period, the Chitabe guides attended a guiding refresher course to make sure that they keep their skills current. Walking in the bush is always a pleasure, but our guides had strict taskmasters this time around in the shape of instructors from one of the top regional guide training companies. This emphasis on guide training has helped Chitabe have one of the strongest guiding teams in Botswana. The guides gain enormous value from these courses as well as enjoying the camaraderie.
The January rains have given the bush a new lushness, with many areas almost unrecognisable due to the rapid grass growth. The tall, swaying grasses provide perfect cover for our resident animals but our guides, their eyes sharpened still further by the recent training, and their spirits refreshed by the rains, have been recording some fantastic sightings. At this time of year many predator sightings result not from acute vision, but the other finely honed senses of the guides: alarm calls from birds and nervous prey species assist in this process, and paw prints stand out nicely on newly wet sand or mud. Being attuned to these small details certainly increases the chances of seeing predators during summer, and can help bring the wonders of the bush alive for our guests.
Our female cheetah has achieved the rare feat of successfully raising four of her cubs to adulthood. Sadly, mortality among cheetah cubs is often high – being fleet of foot is unfortunately no guarantee of survival in a world where speed is not all you need. The threats to their survival do not at all seem to be preventing these rapid cats from loving life in Chitabe and we’ve been lucky enough to see them regularly playing, resting and hunting. A highlight was watching their morning pursuit of a baby impala, but such a small meal did not stave off their hunger for long as the tiny antelope had to be divided five ways and it was all over in a matter of seconds.
The younger cheetah, following their mother’s example, are becoming more relaxed in the presence of our safari vehicles. They have lost none of their natural wariness when it comes to the Tsame and Chitabe lion prides, and regularly travel the length and breadth of the concession so as to avoid encounters with the much larger, more powerful cats. The single male cheetah has been scarce this month but on the few occasions that we have seen him, he seems sleek and well-fed so has obviously been hunting successfully. To the delight of our guests, he seems to rather enjoy the limelight, conveniently lying on top of the termite mounds for photographs. Of course he is really just basking in the sun to dry damp fur after a downpour, or using the mound as a vantage point – especially now that many smaller animals which could be of considerable interest to a hungry cheetah are hidden in the tall grass.
Sightings of plains game have continued to be excellent, such as zebra, large groups of giraffe, including one delightful journey of youngsters continue to roam near the airstrip and other acacia-dominated habitats, supervised by a few adult females. They are quite approachable and calm and guests have been able to get good close-ups of these beautiful and elegant creatures! Not too close, however, for as Karen Blixen observed, a giraffe is so much like a lady that one should not look at her legs.
Elephants tend to disperse throughout the Delta and beyond once the rains truly start, with an abundance of food and water everywhere they no longer feel the need to remain in any one area and can cover huge distances at this time of year. We have though seen large breeding herds occasionally moving through the concession, ambling from tree island to tree island.
The plethora of game has resulted in regular sightings of our two lion prides who have both had very successful starts to 2014. This is an opportunity for them to maximise the return on their hunts before the leaner months of January, with zebra attracting the bulk of their unwelcome attention.
Report by T L Moalosi