Safari September 2019 ~ Day Three

I am not a natural early riser. In fact, I’m much more of a night owl than a lark. But when you are camping in the heart of the Okavango Delta there are much more important things to look at than the back of your eyelids. Excitement obliterates any thoughts of a snooze button.

Outside the tent it was a stunning dawn. There was not a hint of a breeze and the sky was a beautiful deep pink. The camp staff were quietly going about their duties getting breakfast organised for us. The campfire was still alive but only just. A tiny column of wispy smoke drifted upwards carried on the last of the fire’s heat.

As I looked around me, drinking in the idyllic, peaceful and tranquil scene, there was a sudden flash of light and a huge ‘woooomph’ sound. I spun on my heels and there was one of the camp staff bathed in bright light, holding an empty glass jar, and with a huge grin on his face. It is apparently an ancient tradition in the Okavango to bring you campfire back to life in the morning by pouring a litre of diesel over it. Where once there was a tiny wisp of smoke, there was now a 4 metres tower of flames. These traditions can be dramatic, quick, and highly effective, if a little dangerous.

Campfire brought back to life

There was a great sense of contentment, standing by the river with a mug of freshly brewed coffee watching the sunrise through the trees. Birds were starting to sing and the deep pink of the sky was giving way to the light of the day. Two black open-billed storks flew past, low over the water, having a heated discussion as they went. Even when they had flown out of sight their croaking argument carried in the still air.

Pre-dawn view from the dining tent

Breakfast over, we boarded the vehicle and Ace drove us out of camp. We had about a mile of twisting single track to negotiate before joining what would become known as ‘Dusty Road’. Ten minutes of hiding from the dust behind face coverings to facilitate breathing and we reached a bridge upstream from our camp. Ace stopped and explained the difference between the animal tracks leading onto the bridge. There were lots of hyena tracks and some left behind by wild dogs.

Our target was to visit a hyena den in the hope of seeing any cubs that might be there. But that plan would be put on the back burner if we had a chance of seeing wild dogs. As we made our way towards the hyena den, a message came over the VHF radio. It was frustrating not to be able to understand the local language, but Ace eventually explained that the clan of hyena’s had killed a baby elephant, not that far from where we were.

It is a difficult thing to deal with when an animal is killed by a predator. Do you feel pity for the creature that has lost its life, or do you feel happy for the predator that has been able to catch what might be its first meal in days? We were heading to a kill sight and for some onboard, this would be their first experience of such a thing. Undoubtedly, the fact that the victim was a baby elephant was going to colour the opinions of the more sentimental amongst us. But I suspect that we were all quietly bracing ourselves to witness something quite unpleasant.

Up ahead we saw a couple of other vehicles that had arrived at the scene before us. We pulled up beside them. In total there were seven hyenas and not a huge amount of baby elephant. The behaviour of the hyenas confirmed in Ace’s mind that the hyenas had indeed made the kill themselves rather than stealing it from other predators. The kill had maybe happened just before dawn. The bulk of the wee elephant had been devoured and large sections of the animal’s hide and a leg was all that remained. The hyenas seemed hyper and appeared to be quite pleased with themselves. They were incredibly vocal and rushed about squabbling with each other over the scraps. Their faces, jaws and necks were smeared with blood giving them a more fearsome appearance than normal.

Hyena listening for signs of danger

There was no sign of the elephant’s mother or other herd members in the area. But there was an edge to the hyenas as they constantly scanned around for any threat to them, or to what was left of their kill. Two hyenas picked up the elephant’s leg at the same time and a noisy tussle ensued. The elephant’s tiny foot dangled and flapped about while the two hyenas fought for possession in a cloud of dust. The drama played out right next to our vehicle, the sights, sounds and smells assaulting our senses in high definition.

Two hyenas scrap over the scraps

Whilst I definitely felt sorry for the wee elephant who might only have been a month or so old, I was elated to witness the hyena clan at close quarters. They have always been one of my favourite animals. They are intelligent, wily and resourceful. They get a lot of bad press and don’t rate too highly in the cute and cuddly charts, but they are superb hunters as well as highly effective scavengers.

Hyena makes off with the remnants of a leg

Many myths have evolved about these skulking, thugs of the bush, and nearly all are false. Many think they are related to dogs, but they are actually distant members of the mongoose family and as such are closer relatives of cats than dogs. It was also believed that hyenas were hermaphrodites, which was a misunderstanding of the bizarre nature of the female’s genitalia which resembles that of the male. They have a pouch which resembles a scrotum and a clitoris which can extend up to 8 inches long and resembles a penis. The must mate, urinate and give birth through this extraordinary organ. Sadly, up to 60% of cubs suffocate during delivery. These are just some of the things that make hyenas so fascinating. (But it was a shame about the baby elephant).

Our next encounter seemed to be a bit of a wind-up from Ace. A message came over the radio and he told us that a three-legged leopard had been sighted. As we set off to find this unfortunate animal, I was thinking to myself that a leopard with three legs would not be able to hunt and therefore would not be able to survive. Unless this was a cat that had lost its leg in some incident over the past couple of days, I was certain that some sort of joke was in the offing.

We arrived at an open area where several safari vehicles had gathered and at first, we could not see any animal at all. Then Ace spotted it and pointed it out to us. In the long grass a leopard was walking slowly towards some bushes. It paused and looked around and then continued towards the bushes. It definitely had a strange gait, but it was impossible to see its legs in the long grass. Then we caught a glimpse. This indeed was a healthy, three-legged leopard. There was no joke. It arrived at the bushes and flopped down in the shade. Ace explained that local guides knew this cat well. Despite missing its left rear leg, it was an effective hunter and was in healthy condition. It no longer hunted impala or animals of that size but specialised in catching smaller prey like scrub hares. None of us had managed to get a photograph of it before it lay down in the shade of the tree, and the grass was now preventing us from getting a clear view of this remarkable creature.

The three legged leopard

It soon became obvious that our three-legged leopard had no intentions of moving from it’s shady retreat under the tree, so we left her in peace and continued our explorations.

In a large expanse of open ground, we discovered a relaxed herd of red lechwe grazing peacefully along the edges of a meandering, slow moving body of water. Here and there, where the water was deep enough, the occasional hippo wallowed. One or two reed bucks dozed as storks busied themselves at the water’s edge looking for frogs or any other tasty morsel.

Red Lechwe running through the marsh

A lilac breasted roller bird perched atop a dead tree stump teased us for several minutes. It was scanning the ground around its perch looking for instincts. At the same time, seven cameras set to machine gun mode were trained on it ready to capture a ‘take off’ shot. It would move as if to fly down and catch some poor unsuspecting cicada, and the camera shutters would erupt. But the elusive ‘take off’ shot was not to be captured. This multicoloured bird was the subject of hundreds of hopeful photographs, but in each and every one, it remained on top of the tree stump.

Lilac Breasted Roller

Another colourful bird which posed for us was a Southern Carmine Bee Eater. With an iridescent green upper head and a bright red breast, it looked utter stunning as it perched on top of a ball of elephant dung. Not many things look resplendent perched onto of a heap of dung, but the Southern Carmine Bee Eater managed to pull it off with ease.

Southern Carmine Bee Eater

We meandered back through the bush in the direction of the camp as lunchtime drew near. About 150 metres from the camp we stopped to allow an elephant cross the track in front of us. It was then that we noticed several elephants amongst the trees to either side of the vehicle. With the track clear we continued the short distance into camp to find yet again masses of elephants all around.

As we disembarked from the vehicle, the camp staff handed us wet face towels and a chilled fruit drink. Both were welcome and refreshing after a long game drive. The elephants were also enjoying a refreshing time, feeding, and drinking in and around the river. Once again, we found ourselves dining with elephants, such a special experience.

After lunch we spent some time watching our pachyderm pals splash around and take mud baths. Then it was our chance to bathe with a bucket shower.

All onboard for another game drive, we headed out of camp just after 3:00pm. There was anticipation in the air as Ace had promised to take us on a bush walk. After about half an hour we parked up and gathered round as Ace laid down the rules. We had to walk in single file and keep any noise to a minimum. We had to learn a few hand signals which would tell us what to do in the event that we encountered a dangerous situation. All pretty straight forward stuff.

You would think the concept of walking in single file would be an easy one for seven adults to grasp. You would think that, wouldn’t you? My police and military background made it difficult for me to grasp why the other six wandered about at random with not a hint of single file adherence. Chatting continued at normal decibel levels, so it was no great surprise that the biggest creatures we saw were ants.

Nevertheless, it was wonderful to be out stretching our legs and enjoying the sights and smells at close quarters. Opening up balls of elephant dung in search of insects and examining termite hills did keep our interest, with the occasional glance over the shoulder to check for passing marauding lions.

Back in the Lancruiser, we went in search of creatures of a larger variety. The afternoon light was fading and low on the horizon an orange full moon started its gentle nocturnal transit across the Okavango sky.

A herd of tsessebe and several waterbuck relaxed in the still air of this peaceful evening, watched over by an African fish eagle perched on a high branch of a dead tree. Without warning, one of our group let out a loud sneeze which sent a startled tsessebe off on a short gallop. A giraffe entered the scene and slowly amble past with the moonlight now reflecting in some standing water.

Full moon reflecting in the waters

With darkness upon, us we made our way to the hyena den where Ace thought there might be some cubs. It proved to be a good call. As we approached, we could see two cubs in the gloom running back to the safety of the den. Ace switched on the spotlight with a red filter and we could see the two cubs by the entrance to the den staring at something in the bush. It was a family of warthogs who were hoping the den would be unoccupied and provide them with a safe place to spend the night. The cubs watched the warthogs. The warthogs watched the cubs and we enjoyed watching them watching each other.

Suddenly, a third cub came charging out of the den intent on a bit of rough and tumble with its siblings. That idea was quickly put on hold as it stopped to engage in some serious scratching. In the mouth of the den an ear twitched. The ear was almost half the size of a cub and belonged to an adult hyena who was on duty should the antics of the youngsters get out of hand. We sat quietly and watched as these cute cubs cavorted and played with one another, bathed in red light.

Hyena cubs in the red spotlight


It was hard to believe these tiny mischievous bundles of fur would grow up to become one of Africa’s most fearsome, efficient predators and eat baby elephants. But it was indeed a privilege to be able to watch them.

We left the hyenas in peace and started to make our way back towards camp looking forward to our evening meal. In the moonlight, the ghostly images of zebras could be seen slowly walking amongst the trees. Then we turned onto Dusty Road. We were the only vehicle moving in the area so there was no need for the usual face coverings to keep the dust at bay.

Up ahead, picked out in the beam of the headlights, a black backed jackal ran along the edge of the road. For a second, it looked like there might be two of them, but as we approached, we could only see one. Ace lowered the windscreen so that he could use the spotlight to follow the jackal’s movements without the light reflecting back off the glass. Initially, it seemed like the jackal was scared of us and trying to hide amongst the undergrowth. But it soon became apparent that it was darting around, on the hunt for food. His nose was to the ground as he scurried around looking for whatever tasty morsel was to be found. Ace was doing his best to follow him through the bushes with the spotlight, when he suddenly emerged into a clear area only to be joined by a second jackal.

Black Backed Jackal

Jackals are known for forming monogamous lifelong bonds with their partner and it is unusual to see a solitary animal. There was the briefest of greeting interaction between the two before they disappeared together into the darkness of the thick bush.

Hoops, cheers, and whistles greeted us as arrived at camp. The staff had arranged our camping chairs in a semi-circle around the blazing campfire and they were ready to bring us the drink of our choice to enjoy before dinner. As safari holidays go, this was turning out to a good one.

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