Our journey into the wilds of the Okavango Delta got off to a slow start with a fairly long wait at the immigration post at Maun Airport. Whilst this didn’t dampen the spirits of any of the four guests, it certainly made the excitement to get into camp and head out on our first afternoon game drive that much more palpable.
Boarding our little 12 seater Caravan we headed north east towards the Chitabe Camp and, after only 20 minutes in the air and having flown over herds of elephant , buffalo and Giraffe, we touched down at the Chitabe Airstrip.
Chitabe is situated south-east of Chief’s Island in a concession known as NG31 – an exclusive wilderness area of 28 000 hectares (69 000 acres). This concession borders the Moremi Game Reserve in the north and the east while the Santantadibe River and the Gomoti Channel are its western and eastern boundaries respectively.
Even though it is very flat and made up of homogeneous Kalahari sand, Chitabe Concession has large variations in habitat patterns over relatively small distances. Seasonal or permanent presence of water is the major driver of habitat types here: Small changes in elevation of just 1-2 metres represent large differences in the frequency and duration of flooding, which creates gradients from permanent rivers and lagoons and permanent swamps with reeds and papyrus, to seasonally flooded grasslands, occasionally flooded grasslands, riverine woodlands and dry woodlands.
It was immediately evident how much drier this part of the delta was compared to the earlier trip (click here to check out that trip reports for Chitabe, Pelo Camp and Little Vumbura) and I was excited to see what was in store for us. We checked into camp, grabbed a bite to eat, dropped our bags in our rooms and headed out on drive.
It wasnt longe before we bumped into our first cats of the trip, a lioness and her two youngsters not more than a kilometer from Camp. It was already fairly late in the afternoon and with the lions sleeping in a dense stand of Cotton Wool Grass we decided to sit and wait for them to get active. That plan was quickly thrown out of the window when we received an update that a female leopard had been seen not far from where we were.
We found and tracked the female for sometime and just as we were about to leave her on her hunting mission she hunted and killed a young impala fawn right before our eyes. We sat quietly in the depths of the night watching as she fed on the fawn which was not more than a day or two old. A harsh reminder that the city was left behind and we were now in the wilderness!
An early morning wake up call followed by coffee and a light breakfast was all that was needed before we once again packed the vehicle and headed out on drive.
This mornings outing took us to the far eastern side of the concession where we caught up with a pack of 30 odd wild dog. Finding them in the mid morning made for tricky photography as they lay in the deep shade but this was an obvious starting point for our afternoon drive.
With 30 odd mouths to feed and not showing signs of being full bellied, this pack was sure to get on the move and hunt once the heat of the day subsided. We left them in peace and went to relocate on a female leopard and her youngster who were seen nearby and found them with not one but two impala fawns in a tree.
The cub was quite playful and provided us with some great photographic opportunities as it moved the prey from the ground to the tree.
As the morning wore on and it became a bit warmer, the female leopard sought the comfort of the shade and made her way up onto a horizontal limb of the tree.
This was the perfect opportunity to work through the technique of shooting for a panorama-stitch given that we were positioned so close to the tree. usually one would need to pull back and shoot at something like 200mm for a scene like this but I encouraged the guests to make use of their prime lenses and maximum focal length to capture a series of images which would be stitched together in Lightroom later. This allows one to take advantage of the compression and shallow depth of field produced at greater focal lengths and also makes it possible for guests who were shooting with prime lenses to capture the entire subject rather than just a portion of the subject.
As a photographic safari is about learning new techniques, once everyone had banked their panorama we repositioned to shoot for a clean high-key Black and White image of the scene, overexposing intentionally by as much as 1 and 2/3 of a stop.
One of the things I love most about safaris in Botswana is that there is no rush to get back to camp. We literally returned back to camp between 11:30 and 12 each day during this safari where we were welcomed back with smiles and a massive brunch.
Anything that remotely resembled down-time was taken up by Lightroom sessions, helping guests get the most out of their images and safari experience. Heading out earlier than usual this afternoon in order to get back to the area where we had seen the Wild Dogs payed dividends as we found them still resting in the shade. We sat with them for a good hour or so before they suddenly got up and started to actively hunt.
It was incredible to see so many dogs on the move. The adults lead the charge with scouts breaking off and flanking left and right in search of anything that would bring sustenance to the pack. The pack moved swiftly through the palm thickets and floodplains before encountering a male impala.
His fate was all but sealed as we chased through the bush to relocate the leaders of the pack.
Even a fully grown male impala is hardly a meal for a pack of this size and with the impala successfully immobilised, the majority of the adults continued on the hunt leaving the pups and a handful of baby-sitters around to enjoy the spoils of a successful hunt.
We could not have asked for a better first 24 hours on safari!
Anxious to see what the new day had in store for us we headed out a bit earlier than usual in an effort to make the most of the good light and were rewarded when we heard the alarm calls of baboons right outside camp.
The focus of the attention was our lioness and her youngsters from our first afternoon. They had not killed yet and were clearly on the hunt.
The trio made there way along a watercourse and we continued north of the concession in an attempt to relocate on a cheetah and her cub who had been seen with an impala kill the previous evening.
Finding the kill was easy enough as a couple of vultures hung around the scene but despite our best efforts we could not find the pair. If it wasn’t for an update from one of the other vehicles we would have missed out completely as they had moved a fair distance to the west of the kill site.
We relocated them mid-morning in deep shade but, once again, managed to make the most of a very difficult sighting by shooting with intent and making the most of shallow depth of field to eliminate distractions from an otherwise very busy scene.
Our last afternoon in this spectacular concession was dedicated to finding one of the buffalo herds we had seen track and sign for. I love photographing buffalo in the later afternoon light as it often affords one with some incredible backlight opportunities as they kick up dust in the last rays of light.
Thanks to some great tracking (and off-roading) skills it wasn’t long before we found the herd resting on the edge of a permanent lagoon. Moving around to get closer I noticed something out of the corner of my eye and sure as nuts, our trio of lions were hot on the heels of the herd and the female was showing some serious intent.
We sat and watched as the three lions plotted their attack on the herd of 300+ buffalo.
It was a long shot to begin with but from an experience point of view, it was incredible to literally spend an entire afternoon watching the game of chess unfold before out eyes. Photographically there were only a few moments to punctuate the anticipation of a hunt but, photography was only one portion of this incredible wilderness experience.
Our final morning at Chitabe saw us once again catching up wit our resident lioness but, this time, she had stuck her youngsters away close to camp, presumably to increase her chances of a successful hunt. We found her bathed in glorious morning light and managed to grab a couple of backlight images before she made her way over to a nearby channel.
Now I would think it is safe to say that anyone visiting the delta dreams of seeing cats crossing flooded waterways, was this our moment?
Yes and no…
Our lioness crossed through the shallow channel but stuck close to the dense reeds and was also walking away from us. Close but no cigar – at least from a photographic perspective that is. Its easy to get so caught up in the moment that you forget about what you’ve actually just witnessed.
One of the amazing things about the animals that live in the delta is that they have adapted to this ever changing environment. Crossing water, as unusual as it sounds to us, is part and parcel of their every day lives out here. Whilst we may not have had an opportunity to capture the moment from a photographic perspective, the experience of seeing a lioness move through the shallow waterway was a memory that will be imbedded in every one of our minds for eternity.
Flights between camps in the Delta are timed so as not to cut into any of your morning or afternoon activities and, after a full morning in the field, it was time for us to head back to the airstrip as we headed north east for the next chapter of our adventure in the heart of the Okavango Delta.
A scenic 20 minute flight to the north east of Chitabe gave the group some great photographic opportunities and revealed even more of the Delta’s diversity.
Pelo camp is located in the 60 000 hectares (150 000 acres) Jao concession in the north-western area of the Okavango Delta, situated below the Okavango Panhandle. When planning this itinerary I intentionally chose to spend 2 nights at a water-based camp in order to give guests a real taste of the delta eco-system. Whilst chances of seeing cats in this part of the world are slim, there are other exciting species and experiences on offer.
Water levels had dropped substantially which meant that we drive for 45 minutes and then boated for 5 minutes in order to get to camp (In June it was the other way around).
Taking up 4 of the 5 rooms here at pelo camp we pretty much had the entire place to ourselves!
Activities here were all water-based and we spent afternoons out on the power-boats and mornings in the peaceful mokoros.
Game viewing from the boat was great as wildlife and birdlife concentrated along the remaining channels. Apart from the abundant Lechwe and a couple of elephant bulls, we were treated to n less than 8 different sightings of the rare and illusive Sitatunga Antelope – a first for me and all the guests!
Birding was also great with loads of Malachite Kingfishers, Pygmy geese (man are they hard to photograph), African Jacana and even a number of Lesser jacana.
One of the drawcards for many birders visiting the region is the Pels’ fishing owl. Earlier in the year we had been lucky enough to see a chick who was just starting to find its wings right out in-front of room 3 at Pelo. It wasn’t long before our guide David had found our feathered friend resting up in deep shade on the opposite side of the island.
Armed with our gear we made our way across the island and sure as nuts, there it was.
Again, for most of our guests, this was their first time seeing, nevermind photographing one of these spectacular birds!
Aside from these special sightings I would have to say that the highlights for the guests at Pelo came in the form of the morning Mekoro cruises. There is quite simply nothing as peaceful as gliding effortlessly and silently though pristine waterways…
The low level, I don’t think you can get much lower than shooting from a Mokoro, made for challenging but interesting photography.
This really wasn’t the focus of this part of the experience though, it was more about the experience than the photography. Stopping to admire the tiny Painted Reed Frogs, Day lilies, Snow-flake Lilies, Water Shields, aquatic grasses and fish nesting sites was far more rewarding than any photograph on offer.
The other highlight was simply kicking back and enjoying a special sunset sundowner on a sandbank in the middle of the delta. Not something that is often done on a photographic safari as this is usually the best time for photographing the big cats, but with none of those around here, we were able to relax and simply soak up the experience.
Whilst we were sad to be leaving this little slice of heaven, after 2 nights of a slighlty more relaxed pace, it was time to get back into action as we packed our bags and headed east to Little Vumbura camp.
Little Vumbura Camp
I was happy to hear that a legend in the industry would be our guide for our 4 nights at Little vumbura. Kay, or Madala Kay as he is affectionately known, has been with Wilderness safaris for more than 20 years and worked extensively as a tracker before becoming a safari guide. It didn’t take him long to show why he was a legend in the industry as we headed towards an area where a female leopard and her two youngsters had been seen the day before. Kay had a suspicion that they were in the same area and dodged and weaved between the thickets in search of some sort of sign giving away their position.
We had just about given up hope and were admiring a young bull elephant when the unmistakeable flick of a tail gave away the position of the female a good 300meters aheads of us. We caught up with the trio as they were making their way towards a nearby pan and made sure we got into prime position to capture the moment.
The light was poor, very poor, but it gave us a great opportunity to work on shooting in low light without a spotlight and we made a point to process these low light images together as a group during one of our mid-day Lightroom sessions.
One of the reasons I love this part of the Delta so much is that there is permanent water and lots of shallow channels that the wildlife move across. This means that there is good potential to photograph cats crossing the channels and that was the one image that was missing form an otherwise comprehensive and diverse Okavango Delta portfolio that I wanted the guests to call their own. We headed our early in the mornings to try and pick up on track and sign of the lions in the area knowing full well that we had a fairly narrow window in which to locate them doing something other than sleep.
On this particular morning we picked up tracks for 2 males heading north from the boat station and followed them for a good hour and a half, crossing through numerous channels and waterways, before eventually finding them passed out on an elephant path. We had come close but this was not our day. We made the most of the lion sighting before heading further north-west of the concession to where the wild dogs had been seen.
We found them finishing off an impala fawn – they really don’t last long out here!
Whilst we enjoyed great interaction around the kill site there wasn’t much photographically. The pack then moved into a almost completely dry pan where they drank what was left of the muddy water. This, for me, was the best opportunity we had had to photograph these beautiful and endangered creatures.
The clean foregrounds and backgrounds coupled with the textured mud made for a great photographic moment.
We caught up one last time with our female leopard and cubs as she lead them into a dense block of Kalahari Apple-Leaf where we are certain she had a kill stored away.
The cubs hadn’t eaten for a while and despite the best efforts of our legendary guide Kay, we weren’t able to find where she had lead her little ones . Whilst we may not have seen these leopards again, we did manage to see another leopard, tortoise that is.
On one afternoon, two of the guests had opted to take an hour long scenic flight over the delta and were treated to some incredible photographic opportunities and scenes. I’ll be sharing more from their flight when i get some images form them in the coming weeks but here’s an image to give you an idea of what they experienced.
The general game viewing in this region was also spectacular with our game drives being regularly interrupted by photographic opportunities.
The only scene which had evaded us so far was the iconic moment of lions crossing a shallow channel. On our second last morning Kay once again picked up on fresh tracks of two lioness. We spent a good hour or so working an area before we found the two lioness, accompanied by a beautiful male.
We watched them move through the long grass, intent on hunting.
The eventually rested up near a fairly deep crossing and, seemingly spurred on by a herd of 30 odd elephant who made their way across the channel, the lions followed suite.
We couldnt have asked for a better position or opportunity to photograph the scene. First we watched one lioness walk slowly and cautiously through the channel. The second followed suite shortly thereafter.
We sat waiting patiently for the male to do the same, surely he wasn’t going to let his ladies move on alone…
A couple of minutes passed before the male strolled confidently though the shallows.
He was far more bold than the two females and created spectacular splashes as he made his way through the channel.
As a guide, there is nothing more satisfying than seeing your guests brimming from ear to ear. As my heart raced I asked the guests to “show and tell”, suffice to say that there were fist bumps all round and that these two images I have shared here don’t come close to what the guests were able to capture. Three mornings of searching for lions and coming so close to seeing them crossing water had finally paid off.
With the sighting that had eluded us for 8 nights in the delta now firmly in the bag, I was confident that our group had captured images which would showcase the delta in all its glory.
Our final morning game drive provided two final little highlights in the form of little impala fawns and a Ground Hornbill and its kill.
Our 10 days exploring the Okavanago Delta had come to an end but the group left feeling privileged to have experienced this pristine wilderness region in all its glory. One of the stand out comments from all guests related to the fact that we had experienced such a diversity of regions, activities and wildlife in such a short space of time.
That, is what the delta experience is about.
I cant wait to return with our next group of guests in June 2018 and beyond!
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