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Kwando - August 2013


Big_Dog

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Hey all,
My first attempt at a trip report! Taken from a mix of my camera and holiday journal. Pics are here naturally, but compared to others there is also a lot writing / thoughts too and I hope this will not put anyone off. Will update it with news day as time goes on! Hope you enjoy!

Day 1 - Lebala Camp

 

After dropping off everything, meeting the other residents of Lebala and gearing up, it was time.
Something that surprised me at first, in Botswana, was the lack of general game immediately. It wasn't like the compacted Ngorongoro Crater with Wildebeest or densely populated Kruger National Park with Impala. When first setting off it was quite a while until we first saw even a small group of warthogs. The game viewing overall couldn't be beaten though. You just had to wait a while for it to get ready, and not be drawn into the misconception that seeing a big herd of wildebeest instantly made it a better destination then having to wait an hour to see a rare carnivore.
It also surprised me how flighty a lot of others got about it. Everyone either complains or jokes about herbs yet as soon as they aren't as numerous people start fretting they won't see anything?

 

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After passing some time with twitching (apologies, as I am not really a birder!), watching turkey-like Giant Hornbills stalk through the grass and taking obligatory photos of Lilac-Breasted Rollers, the glorified Botswana pigeon, we took a sudden turn off the path. That's where our first, simple sighting of them was. For a second I wondered what exactly Tabo was doing, until five, dark heads with radar dish-round ears lifted up and we saw the dogs. From their rusty, matted necks I wasn't expecting a kill or 'action' but simply seeing them, lying there and panting and occasionally getting up to stretch and rub all felt worth it.
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After several minutes of happy watching we got the call that lions were back on an old kill. With plenty of good photos and the pleasure of seeing them we drove back to the path and swerved, sprung and blasted over sand and through grass to the kill on the border with Lagoon.
Upon getting there we were treated to a fine sight that treated the first explorers, the Victorian sportsmen and the dedicated wildlife biologists. A full pride of lions "poured out like honey in the sun."
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Surrounding them in the dead trees were enough vultures that their combined mass probably outweighed the lions themselves. Two adult females who had done most of the legwork in bringing the fine (from the visible, spiralling horns) Kudu bull, three subadult males who were still gnawing on the kill, only leaning around to swat one another off a particularly fine rib or shoulder, and two subadult females, who like a lot of sisters seemed to quite tired of their big brother's boisterous antics and napping under the bush.

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The first lion sighting and on day one. As I eagerly photographed them, listening to the crunch of bones or a rumbling yawn, there was another, unmistakable sound. I, and everyone else watching wheeled in their seats.

The pale form of an unlucky hyaena sprinted past, the twittering and snarls of a wild dog pack behind him and tearing at his heels. The lions, at their two most hated enemies, all suddenly sat bolt upright.
The dogs peeled off from the hyaena who made good his escape and smelled lion. They became uneasy. Three big, presumably lead adults ran to the front. They leapt up, spy-hopping over the grass and standing on their hind legs. They saw lion. Sharp, coughing barks burst from their chests, like the hoarse and serious growl of domestic dog but deeper, louder and throatier, compressed into a single sort bark.
The hostility and tension was palpable as the wide eyed lions rose. The two lead females - who, in hindsight, had probably suffocated unlucky dogs or snapped a pup's spine more than once in the past - rose and slunk silently to the dogs. A young male got up and followed, eager for a fight.
The dogs formed a semi-circle and stood strong in the face of opposition, aggressive barks and pricked ears ratcheting up the tension.

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Woken for a dog hunt.

 

As a training zoologist I know the score and I've read the figures. Lions are the biggest course of natural wild dog mortality and especially for the pups. I hope one day I'll study these animals and mortality is an inevitable part of that but in this encounter I didn't want to see a dog die.

The lions charged and the semicircle scattered, dogs fled everywhere and soon as they'd split they seemingly and magnetically reformed their ranks. The disappointed young male lion slunk back to the kill with empty jaws. The lionesses pushed on and the numbers evened out. Nine wild dogs and two lionesses. The lionesses charged again and the dogs responded, this time, with aggression. The split into two groups and each picked a big cat. They darted in, nipping tails and hocks and springing back out before the lioness could even grunt in frustration. Each charge she made on the dogs and they fanned out, instantly closing the gap again as soon as she slowed. As the lionesses began to pant the dogs got into it, white flag-tails whipping the air as they ran rings around the lumbering lions. Each charge turned into a chase and the both lion and dog were now in ball of confusion, frustration and aggression as neither side could make their mind up and who was actually dominating the interaction. The fight circle moved on into the setting sun with zero casualties. We later saw the dogs bedding down for the night, all nine of them unscathed.
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Sadly all I have of the encounter other than a few seconds of blurry video that is worth more as an audio clip.

 

With the sun down, it was time to observe the creatures of the night. Bats flittered in front of spotlight beams and the other group saw a leopard in a tree, feasting on cached Impala. We saw, nestled in the fork of two branches a Galago, or Bush-baby. A bundle of grey fur whose appearance is dominated by the two huge eyes and two huge ears.
And later we saw my favourite, as a Spotted Hyaena lopes out of the darkness. A young one, scouting for food, he raises his head to sniff the air in jerky fashion, as if a marionette is pulling the string attached to his nose. He stops and stares at something out or spotlight and so invisible to us. He makes a brief charge and Sand Grouse lurches from it's nest. The hyaena leaps and it's huge jaws clack empty by a feather. He looks briefly at us, perhaps giving the vehicle a once over for any food, before loping back into the dark.

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Back at camp I was saddened by most people simply nodding at this sighting and even many of the guides dismiss them too. They are hardy, successful hunters and rank only after lions in the predator hierarchy. At Lebala after I left, a hyaena killed an 18 month old leopard and similar kills of other predators by hyaenas aren't uncommon in the scientific lit. How is this predator any less worthy than the big cats or wild dogs? One that can hold it's own and hunt it's own prey.

Day 2 coming soon.

 

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Hey all, My first attempt at a trip report! Taken from a mix of my camera and holiday journal. Pics are here naturally, but compared to others there is also a lot writing / thoughts too and I hope thi

This isn't over just yet! Except now it is, as this is the last post. Cats and dogs seen, read on! Back out in the concession and to see the finest male lion yet. Found lying atop a termite mound ta

Thanks @@Soukous! @@madaboutcheetah - With a single old male left wandering around Lebala, could the two new youngsters there face a trial by fire? We're now at Kwara! And here is post devoted to sig

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Atravelynn

Fascinating lion-dog interaction. Their tussles leave no margin for error or miscalculation, especially for the dogs.

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Game Warden

I love looking at photos, I like reading reports. Keep at it. I'm the boss and what I say, goes... ;)

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madaboutcheetah

Awesome start.....

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Thanks for the positive words all! :)
I hope to have the next post up on Sunday.
@Atravelynn - Yeah, my heart was in my mouth as I watched. For the lions, a game. For dogs, survival. (Though in some rare cases the dogs do turn the tables!)

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madaboutcheetah

@@Big_Dog - apparently, last year there was a sighting by Spencer of a Hyena clan at Lebala take down a young elephant. Apparently, the struggle and the tug of war prolonged for almost a day!

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I've never heard of dogs pursuing lions, but I do know that in a large enough pack they are capable of even taking a leopard.

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madaboutcheetah

I've never heard of dogs pursuing lions, but I do know that in a large enough pack they are capable of even taking a leopard.

 

I'm guessing they were just goofing around with the Lions....

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@@Big_Dog

Great start - dogs, lions, and then... lions and dogs - amazings stuff

I am enjoying your photos and your writing!

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Kitsafari

Wow what a fantastic beginning to your trip. I'm sure the thrills didn't level off after that. You had me holding my breath in your lion-dog account. I was curious - was it possible for the dogs to get away in the first place? why did they decide to take the lions on, assuming they know instinctively that lions often come off top?

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Thanks guys! :D
@@madaboutcheetah - That sounds insane! Seeing a hyaena hunt would be epic.

@@optig - In rare instances there will outright kill and eat a lion, which has been reported in Kafue N.P and Serengeti by Mitchell, Shenton & Uys, and by George Schaller respectively. Pienaar reported dogs chasing lions and Gus Mills has sometimes reported them mobbing lions. Sometimes they can fight back!

@@Kitsafari - I wondered that too. I think in the quite tall grass they were in they could see the lions and didn't want to turn their back on them in the vegetation.
Day 2 coming up later today which is a slightly gentler one, but the dogs stole the show again in day 3 which should be coming on Monday! :)

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Dear Big Dog,

 

I'm a wild dog freak like many people on Safaritalk. I've been to Lebala, and Lagoon twice. I saw an incredible confrontation between dogs and lions in Lagoon this August. I'll be visiting Lagoon, Lebala, and Selinda to see wild dogs again. I'll also be visiting Little Kwara again because there has been a den this year in the concession. I've also seen dogs in Selous National Game Preseve once, and twice in Lakipia and Mana Pools.

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I used to post under my real name.

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@@optig - Always great to meet a fellow enthusiast! Will be uploading a trip report? Would be cool to hear of your encounter! :)

Here is the second round also!
Day 2

 

Setting out the next morning we saw another hyaena, not far from camp. Like us he was following dog tracks, hoping for the chance to pirate a kill. A nice thing about having guides who lived in and knew the area - and had done so for many years - was the enormous banquet of stories, all with past animal 'characters' from earlier in their career who had since moved on. We were told of one, late, huge female hyaena, missing clumps of hair and blind in one eye, who was a regular thief of kills no matter if it was a Cheetah coalition or a large male Leopard. They told us there was no number of dogs she would not steal from and only requested help from her subordinate clan members when taking on lionesses. What a sight she must have been in action!

Driving on, we saw more of her kind by the rotting, grey hide; draped like a fallen marquee over giant, yellow bones of a long dead elephant. At first sight I eagerly wanted to get a closer look and photographs, but a single sweep of wind from over a hundred metres away was enough to dissuade me. I am always at a loss for words to describe to stink of a dead elephant. For scientific reasons, or an exceptional sighting I would have willingly braved the fly clouds and stagnant pools of elephant ...'juice', but for just a few photos I decided against it so soon after breakfast.

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Sleepy Scops Owl

 

The sun rose higher in the sky and the less adaptable night residents began to search for places to rest. We (read: Tabo) saw a Scops Owl nested in the hole of a dead tree. Later we saw a Giant Eagle Owl, bleary eyed and tired in the daylight as it glared down at us from the Marula.

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Verreux's Eagle Owl - Africa's largest!

It seemed mammalian predators of the day were avoiding us though, but we did chance upon the most spectacular display of plant predation. Elephants, over time, had gnawed and tusked and worn down a Baobab tree to the point where it had come crashing down. The bulbous trunk is specifically designed to hold water and even in death it continues to do so. As one giant felled another, the elephant provided itself with moisture and a meal it could return to for weeks without end in the harsh dry season.
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An elephant buffet.

Herbivores proved to be main stars of the day. As we pushed through the mopane, a single snort announced that we were surrounded. Around us was a solid, black wall of African Buffalo. Beasts of every size filled the herd of over a thousand animals, from a small, chocolate-brown calf to the huge, mud-baked bulls. The embodiment of belligerence, we were awed by the sheer volume of animals around us. Despite the fragile Oxpeckers littering their backs and faced they reeked of power and like domestic bulls had an unpredictable edginess when the vehicle got too close. Before long the whole herd melted back into the mopane and the empty space left showed just how close so many animals could be just out of sight yet just a few metres away.
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The herd baby.

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And a big daddy.

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A hitchhiker's guide to ungulates.

 

The day heats up very quickly in the dry season and we were soon returning to camp, thinking of shade and iced drinks. But Botswana's herbivores guild had more to show us. At one dry pan, we saw a tall, horse-like Antelope. The Roan. A member of the family that contains the rapier-horned, desert-dwelling Oryx and Gemsbok and also aptly named by some as the Horse antelope for it's proud stature and beige colour, these antelope are apparentley only really seen in the dry season when water loss forces them to pans. Even without serious hunting for some time they were still wary of the vehicle and delicate caution was needed to get into photo range. But it was a sight worth having. Well-built, with a patterned face and dagger-like curved horns recorded to gore lion, the Roan and their family present one of the more impressive sides of only eating grass and shrubs.
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Roan Antelope

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A sly Black-Backed Jackal watches us from the shade.


If every dog has his day, then night belongs to the hyaenas. After the sundowners we drove slowly along the watercourse, an offshoot of the Kwando river. The spotlights hit a familiar set of eyes: emerald greed, wide-set and bobbing up and down with a familiar lope. We drove closer and hit another pair of hyaenid eyes. And another and another.

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Waiting for dinner.

Two young adults, two mature specimens and a large female. Lying down and nonchalant, she was enormous. Tufts of hair had been torn from her mane, no doubt in violent encounters, she was the largest hyaena we saw and bear-like in size and shape. Their attention had been grabbed by the huge and surprisingly fresh carcass of an adult giraffe lying dead in the flowing marsh. Hyaenas are better swimmers than many think and have no qualms of feeding in water. Originally it seemed the crocodile in the way might be the repellent but it wasn't a big one at all. Surely they could take it on?
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The big mamma.

As a subadult dipped it's paws in and looked as if it was about to take the plunge, the answer erupted in a surging wave and sent the youngster squealing out of the torch light. A huge bull hippo hadn't yet left for the nights feeding. Hyaenas will predate Hippo, including adults. Tabo told us that when Lebala was first built along the river side over ten years ago, there was a clan that actually specialised it and sometimes could even be seen killing this huge and dangerous quarry from camp.
But a healthy bull hippo in water isn't something any predator would consider, and considering a hyaena has been recorded to be decapitated by a retaliating hippo's bite, the small group were wise to wait.
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Hyaenas? Ugly?

 

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Alert and attentive.

 

Heading back we saw more of both species. Hyaenas of varying age trooping in lines to the carcass, and a small pod of hippos grazing in and around a pool. Hippos are a species that get restless under spotlights and so for this sighting they were switched off. The full moon was enough illumination to make out the shape of each hippo, but in a surreal experience it was sound over sight that was the dominant sense. The snorts as they bumped into another by harmless accident, the splashes of playful young and foraging adults, the almost clap-like sound of the rubbery lips cropping grass and reeds.

But before finally reaching camp, the final sighting was quite simply getting chased by an angry mother elephant.

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@@Big_Dog

I love the sleepy owl - and it is amazong how large numbers of animals can appear and disappear

Fascinating hyena

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Thanks Kitsafari. :)

@@TonyQ - Thanks! And yeah, whilst I said I'm not much of a birder the owls in particular gave some really nice sightings over the safari.

Next post hopefully up tonight!

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madaboutcheetah

You got that Roan posing for you!!!

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Soukous

Loving it @Big_Dog more please :D

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Yeah madaboutcheetah, we got some great views of him!
Next post is up...now!

Day 3 -
Out again early the next morning and on the trail of the dogs as we made our way from Lebala to Lagoon, and the first animals we ran into were buffalo. Not, however, the enormous herd of the day before, but the demographic of their population known as 'dagga boys'. When an old bull is dispelled from the herd by the younger bulls, he finds other outcasts of his kind and the group form a herd of two to ten individuals of old, bachelor bulls. It is these bulls, the cantankerous, mud-caked beasts with huge horns and full boss that gave rise to the fame of the African Buffalo in both African and hunting lore. 'Widow makers'. 'Black Death'. These animals are not hard to distinguish from younger individuals. Their hair is patchier and their face, throat and back will be rife with white scarring from thorns, the horns of their own kind and the claws and teeth of predators - almost certainly lions. Whilst the dagga boy type of buffalo has built the reputation of his kind as a killer of man and establishing buffaloes as perhaps the most dangerous of the big five to human hunters, their old age, the disabilities that come with it and smaller herds make them easier - and preferred - targets of lions. In George Schaller's landmark study he found these old bulls were the most frequent kill of lions in Lake Manyara, even reporting one incident were an old buffalo calmly left the safety of it's water hole to the four male lions waiting on the shore who swiftly killed it without a fight or any resistance.
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Dagga Boy

We left the dagga boys in the rising sun as they grazed not far from camp. I wondered if their reputation was deserved. What old animal wouldn't defend itself when shot at?

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Weary old men in the rising sun.

Or, it seemed, when they had a calf.
Not far from the meeting point to swap vehicles to Lagoon, we saw the unmistakable black mass of a herd of Cape Buffalo. Our tracker then surprised me, leaving his bonnet-seat to the passenger one in the cab. Why was this herd so dangerous he had to dismount?
"No", he said, pointing a reddish head with familiar radar dish-round ears poking from the grass, "Dogs!"
And there they were, bounding through the seas of grass. A pack of thirteen who had already fed, and yet, were chasing buffalo. A bull and a cow both left the herd to confront the pack but to little avail. Had the dogs actually been genuinely hungry for the calf the stiff resistance may have put them off, but the playful canids wanted nothing more than a game with the belligerent bovids. Kicks and horn tosses were effortlessly avoided as the two lead animals became increasingly harassed and outnumbered.
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Why not to attempt Rambo-style, one handed, leaning out the vehicle photography.

 

As they turned to run, herd mentality kicked in and every buffalo was suddenly on the run. There was the intense, earth-moving rumble when so many tonnes of large animal all go on the move together as the herd kicked up chunks of earth and cakes of dung. The gleeful dogs ran them into the reeds and through the trees, leaping with delight, white-flag tails wagging as they snapped at tails, hocks and fetlocks.

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Buffalo games.

Occasionally a buffalo would turn and face the pursuing predators, only to receive the full brunt of the fourteen-strong pack and wisely keep moving.
Before long the buffalo seemed to forget the danger and slowed to a halt. The dogs now circled the herd, taking minor interest in the young calf.

 

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Weighing the odds...

A large cow and a herd bull emerged from the black, dusty mass to confront the pack. I was surprised just how quick buffalo can both move and turn. A sudden charge would scatter the dogs and they could turn swiftly on a pivot. But it seems pointless to describe the comparatively bovid, bumbling antics of buffalo to the dodges and jinks executed by the dogs.

 

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Is now really the best time for that?

 

A dog would tug on the cow's tail and no sooner had she turned the confront that dog then another had rushed round and given another sharp-toothed yank. The bull ambled slowly to one of the large, pale-yellow males, who calmly turned and looked Africa's arguably most belligerent beast. The bull approached close enough that the two lead males were almost touching noses before he charged and by then the dog had already whipped around him.

 

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Getting bored

Before too long the dogs tired of the buffalo and let them be. We slowly followed them to a shallow, reed-laden pond and after a quick crocodile check (for wild dogs are understandably highly cautious around water to the point of dropping a guaranteed kill if it jumps in a pan due to crocodiles) we were treated to play.

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Wait, did something just move?

Watching such social animals under such persecution both natural and man-made, it was relieving and heart-warming to watch them take time out solely for the purpose of fun. Two wrestled and boxed on the shore whilst a large group played tag on and around a semi-submerged tree.

 

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Moments of relief in a harsh world.

 

Though as the pack frolicked in the water it became clear why moments of respite are rare: a hyaena approached. A thief of kills and potential killer of dogs, this animal however was on the opposite end of the competitive stick. In daylight, outnumbered greatly and with no major reward in sight, the presence of the alert and approaching pack made it and a sudden companion coyly back down.

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One look from the invading males and he turned the other way.

However it seemed the greatest threat to this pack had just been narrowly avoided and surprisingly it wasn't the hyaenas but the killers within. The four, large, sandy-pale males who had not been present earlier were a new band that had come down from the northern Caprivi Strip in Namibia. The lead male of this pack had died earlier in the year of old age - lucky for a wild dog. Though his death may have spared the pack great bloodshed; zoologist George and Lory Frame documented an instance in East Africa of the 'Falcon Trio' of males who found their resident pack, killed the lead male, the other adult male and a fifteen week old male pup to establish themselves in the group. Presumably the death of the old male here had saved the Lebala Lagoon pack from a bloody takeover from the Namibian Quadrant?
Whilst I mused zoo-politics the dogs grew tired and the day grew long - it was time to move on. So long to excellent Lebala Camp and hello to the impressive luxury of Lagoon Camp. The surprisingly facilities never failed to amaze in the bush. Lagoon had a well-stocked Library, dining room, bar, fishing deck and many simple relaxation rooms and observation decks too. All countless miles from the nearest city or civilisation other than fellow safari camps and right by the Kwando river and border with Namibia.

That evening it was a boat trip down the Kwando river. To be honest, it was indeed lovely. Rare and colourful birdlife was highly present in the reed beds, swimming elephants and hippos presented the authentic 'African waterside' views and we saw our first Red Lechwe: the highly aquatic antelope. Yet I couldn't relax. Most predators come out and hunt at night and as everyone else on the boat sipped cocktails and marvelled at elephants I was wracked with nerves and paranoia that in our absence on land there would be a spectacular Leopard stalk or a battle royale between hyaenas and lions over a freshly killed buffalo.

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A fine Red Lechwe

Back on terra firma I wasted no time in interrogated other guests on their nocturnal views. One couple had seen an African Wildcat. We hadn't. I sank into a chair, questions about when and whether we may see an Wildcat racing through my mind.
Jealous thoughts were interrupted by furious shouts of Setswana. I perked up in the seat and everyone else looked around. The chef charged across the dining room, pan in hand and being waved threateningly, something scampering along below his feet. It ran past the fire and skidded on the marble floor of the lounge, stopping right in front of our feet in what had been a ring of conversation. That was our first introduction to a wild Honey Badger.
Finding itself in a big, bright area with plenty of humans it swiftly turned and dived under the decking. I leapt to my feet and attempted to spy on it through the wooden boards as the enraged chef stamped on top. "Get out, GET OUT!" He roared at the kitchen thief. It burst forth from under the decking and made a break for the welcoming darkness of outside camp. The chef raised his pan and gave chase, the now alarmed Honey Badger living up to it's equally common South African name of 'Ratel' and gave rattling cries as the two disappeared into the night.

Honey Badgers were small fry compared to the more regular residents of Lagoon camp. Like all Kwando camps except for the Kalahari ones, elephant happily browsed through them and generally made of mess of the shrubbery. One morning when waking there, we swiftly set off to find two, large male lions nearby. But before we did - and large they were - we were shown the dinner-plate sized paw prints from where they had wandered through camp and rested outside our rooms when everyone else was asleep. Or were we?
It is common in Africa to bed down with the throaty roars of territorial male lions, the sawing grunts of leopards, mournful whoops or hyaenas or bellowing laughter of hippos in your ears. Such sounds can be heard from 3 or more miles away and one often simply assumes that's where they come from. But with the frequent tracks outside our room from jackals, lions and hyaena I wondered if 3 metres were closer than 3 miles...

Edited by Big_Dog
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Enjoying this report. Some excellent sightings so far...

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madaboutcheetah

Wow - so, you were amongst the first guests to see the intruders from Muvumbi ...... Lovely report - enjoying it and love your sighting of the dogs vs buffalo - Thanks for taking me on game drive with you at what appears to me to be - watercut area.

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ZaminOz

@@Big_Dog

Loving your trip report and photos.

 

BTW; if a lion was roaring 3m from your tent, you would not be in any doubt about its distance whatsoever! Trust me :)

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Thanks Geoff. :)

@@madaboutcheetah - I think we were, they said they'd only got there a few weeks before we did! Is the watercut area the place with a lot of open grassland with lots of lakes. ponds and lagoons? Lovely area for game viewing. I imagine from numerous trips there you know the concessions well!

@@ZaminOz - Yeah, it would probably send me shooting out of bed, hah!

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Soukous

Great stuff @Big_Dog particularly enjoyed the dogs v buffalo shots and story.

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