On a recent trip through the Delta, I visited Chitabe Lediba for a quick one-night stopover en route to Xigera. I had been to a number of camps and Mombo was the last stop on the list before Chitabe – so the bar was set very high!
The short flight from Mombo to Chitabe was very scenic as we flew over palm-fringed islands peppered amongst the myriad channels that weave through the Delta at the peak of the inundation. We flew low enough to see wildlife from the air, and this was amazing as we saw large herds of elephant, pods of submerged hippo walking in the waterways, and we even managed to get a bird’s-eye view of a flock of white-faced ducks as we flew above them – a fitting start to an action packed stay at Chitabe.
Once we arrived at the Chitabe airstrip, we immediately got to enjoy the 28 000-hectare concession as we drove to camp. The landscape was varied and diverse and changed in the blink of an eye from wooded islands to tranquil waterways to pristine floodplains. Once we arrived at camp, we were warmly greeted by the camp staff and shown around. Shortly after arriving, the tell-tale bellow of buffalo was heard in the palm thickets in front of camp – a herd of no less than 150 buffalo had just arrived at the waterhole for their midday drink.
I spent the early afternoon walking around camp looking for some avian treats, and that is exactly what I found, with some of the more interesting species being coppery-tailed coucal, Hartlaub’s babbler and wattled crane.
As we departed on the afternoon game drive, we were greeted by a small breeding herd of elephant down at the vehicle turning circle that were feeding on the palm nuts from the makulani palms. It was great to watch the larger females in the herd shake the palms, which subsequently dumped a rain of palm nuts to the ground, in turn eagerly snapped up by the younger members of the herd.
Our guide, Luke told us that the Chitabe Pride of lion had killed a large kudu bull the night before just outside the staff village at the main camp. As it was cooling down, we thought it would be a good idea to visit the vicinity of the kill as the lions would start to move out from the thickets. This theory turned out in our favour as we soon found the pride. They were resting up in some long grass, a mere 300 metres away from camp. When we found them, they were stretching and yawning – a sure sign that they were going to become active. After some head rubbing, greeting and playful interaction, five pride members made their way out of the long grass and headed towards the carcass that was well hidden under a thicket in a bid to avoid scavenging from the watchful and opportunistic vultures and hyaena. The entire pride walked right past one of the rooms at the main camp.
After enjoying this sighting, we headed out towards the western areas of the concession. General game was abundant, as we saw large herds of impala, lechwe, zebra and wildebeest. I was impressed with the good numbers of tsessebe, as they were often mixed in amongst the other species. The scenery was superb, and it was further enhanced by the golden afternoon light.
After being completely absorbed by the scenery, we came across a huge flock of wattled cranes of roughly 100 birds. This was a really special sighting given the fact that there are only an estimated 1 300 of these birds left in Botswana. Spur-winged geese, Hottentot teals and slaty egrets joined the impressive wattled cranes as they fed in the shallow pools along the floodplain.
The radio suddenly crackled to life and after a discreet discussion with the guide on the other side, Luke informed us that there was another pride of lion with cubs not too far away, so we decided to investigate. We soon found some fresh tracks and after some brief tracking, we found the Tsame Pride. The pride was made up of seven individuals – three lioness, two subadult males and two young cubs. The sun was starting to dip below the western horizon, and this is one of the best times to view lion as they generally awake from their slumber and begin their evening activities with vigour. The cubs were very boisterous and joyfully played with one another, right next to our vehicle. Both people and cubs were so absorbed in the playful antics that we did not notice the rest of the pride moving off until we heard a soft contact call emanate from a thicket behind us. The cubs immediately stopped rumpus time, their ears picked up and the look on their faces quickly changed to a concerned frown as they realised how far behind they were. The cubs then slinked off towards the thicket.
We drove around the fringes of the palm thicket and found some of the pride members standing amongst some vegetation. Suddenly, there was an explosion of activity from the thicket with a blur of black and white shooting out of the vegetation and down into a hole, with one of the subadult males in pursuit – we had just seen a very ambitious lion trying to catch a honey badger… very brave indeed!
Once the pride had regrouped, the lions turned their attention to a large herd of impala that had settled into an open area for the night. There was still enough light for us to see the impala, but a lion’s vision is estimated to be eight times better than ours in the dark – making twilight the ideal time to hunt, especially since the night was still and there wasn’t a single breeze in the cool air. In an unspoken and instinctive bond, the pride immediately sprang into action – every pride member knew exactly what he or she needed to do and what the next one was going to do – it was incredible to watch the cooperative hunting tactics that lion employ fall into place.
Two members of the pride began flanking the herd by circling around the left, using the vegetation as a cover. Two other lions began stalking along the other side of the herd and strategically hid behind a small clump of vegetation along the predicted flight path of the herd. Once the two flanking groups were in place, the remaining lioness began an intense stalk directly towards the herd. It became clear that the stalking lioness was going to make a dash at the impala, which would then run into the feline duo waiting on the left side of the herd. This would then force the herd to flee towards the lions crouching behind the clump of vegetation – a fail-safe strategy… if it wasn’t for a restless troop of baboons that had roosted in the surrounding palm trees. We were amazed at the patience and intensity of the stalking female, as she slowly and expertly stalked, one step at a time, muscles flexed and tensed, waiting to explode in to action when all of a sudden, a baboon alarm call rang out loudly from a palm tree. Mayhem broke out as the rest of the baboon troop ignited into a panic and started screaming and shouting, sending the shocked impala fleeing aimlessly in all directions. The alarm was sounded moments to early and the lions were not in place, but they had to try and capitalise on the panic. A single impala ewe was homed in on and a short chase ensued, but fortunately for the impala, the lion briefly lost its footing, giving the impala just enough room to narrowly escape. Both the impala and the lion quickly disappeared into the darkness – concluding one of the most memorable lion encounters I have ever had!
The following morning, we were all in high spirits and still charged up from the film quality sighting we had the night before. The plan for the drive was to try and find a small family group of cheetah that had been seen in the area two days before. After around an hour of fruitless searching, we found a tawny eagle feeding on a red-billed spurfowl in a dead leadwood tree. As the eagle flew off, our eyes settled on something out of the ordinary: we found the small family of cheetah sitting atop a termite mound! The mother relaxed on the ground, while her two young sons ran around and over the termite mound. We had the privilege of following this feline group for the best part of an hour while they walked to a suitable resting spot, stopping along the way for a drink and pausing on high vantage points to survey the area.
On the way back to camp, we took a short detour and found the two dominant male lions of the area – they clearly have a genetic link to the legendary black-maned lions of the Kalahari, and were huge and impressive – fitting kings for such a unique and productive kingdom!