Lions, Leopards, and Cheetah, Oh My!

Vumbura Plains delivered on the big cats in a big way. Not only did we get to see the lion family with the buffalo carcass on a daily basis, but we saw several leopards, a couple of cheetah, and other lions, including some that were hunting. It was a big cat fest as far as we were concerned, and we realized just how lucky we were when we met an American man stationed in Gabarone, Botswana, who had been on safari numerous times, and still had never seen a leopard, despite his fervent wish to do so.

One of our leopard sightings was a beautiful female lounging in a tree. The light was decent for once, at least until she turned the other way! After watching her for a bit we got to see her climb down the tree and go hide in the bushes. An approaching troupe of baboons was the cause. You would think a leopard in a tree would not have reason to fear a few baboons, but in reality, she was in grave danger as they could easily have overcome her. Baboons can be fierce aggressors and a lone leopard is wise to seek cover. Here are some photos of that gorgeous lady.

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One of my favorite photos from the whole trip.

One of my favorite photos from the whole trip.

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On the way down.

On the way down.

Peaking out from her hideaway.

Peaking out from her hideaway.

We also came across two cheetah brothers who were having a siesta on a termite mound. We watched as they stretched and moved off through the grass to a different termite mound in search of more shade. Though they looked very relaxed, it was clear they were keeping a keen eye on their surroundings.

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Shade was the order of the day.

Shade was the order of the day.

Me and my cheetah friends!

Me and my cheetah friends!

There were, of course, other wonderful things to see besides the big cats. We had a lovely experience in a watery plain watching as two male kudu made their way towards us. With the engine off, we sat in silence, listening to the splash, splash of their steps and admiring the reflections of these magnificent beasts in the water. It was very peaceful.

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Another favorite photo.

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Another time, while out on the western edge of the concession that is used by Vumbura Plains, we had just spotted a secretary bird, which I was trying to photograph, when a sable antelope dashed out from behind a bush and ran away. I missed the secretary bird, but just managed to catch the sable. They are very rare so I was quite pleased to see one, even if only briefly!

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Here is a smattering of other lovely creatures we saw while at Vumbura Plains.

Mongoose living in a termite mound behind our tent.

Banded mongoose living in a termite mound behind our tent.

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A bachelor herd of impala.

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A bateleur

A bateleur

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A vervet monkey

A yellow-billed kite

A yellow-billed kite

Crocodile amongst the flowers.

Crocodile amongst the flowers.

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Cape buffalo

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Red-billed oxpecker

Red-billed oxpecker

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One morning after transferring our English companions to another vehicle so they could go to the airstrip, we had Ben all to ourselves. He had heard there were some lions who had been following a herd of buffalo for some time, so we went in search of them. First we found the very large herd of buffalo who were accompanied by many birds taking advantage of the bugs stirred up by their passage. Then we found the lions. There were three of them perched on a termite mound keeping an eye on the herd, or more likely the older male stragglers.

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As we sat and watched them, a couple of older male buffalo got closer and closer. Ben told us that if the lions took off in pursuit, we should be ready to hold on tight as he would try to follow. Not long after, the lions got up and started off into the long grass. It was hard to believe the buffalo weren’t aware of their presence as they were so close. We saw them spread out and slink through the grass, incredibly well camouflaged.

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The males watch as the female closes in.

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Finally, it all happened in a flash. The lions charged, the buffalo took off, and so did we. That was a wild ride! – two hands on the roll bars and big grins on our faces. The lions missed and the buffalo lived to graze another day, but it was very exciting to see first hand.

After the chase.

After the chase.

The next day we came upon yet another male lion waiting out the heat under the shade of a tree. He was a splendid sight and posed quite obligingly.

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Next time I will share some photos of the incredible elephants we saw and heard and other fun things from our time at Vumbura Plains. Until then, be well and thanks for reading.

Variety at Vumbura Plains

Here is what I wrote while at Vumbura:

“Chitabe was lovely, but Vumbura Plains is a step up in luxury and comfort. Our room is huge, with a large deck, plunge pool, indoor and outdoor showers, as well as lounge areas. It’s all done in a somewhat rustic but tasteful manner, with tall screen doors and sweeping views of the waterways.

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The view

The view from our deck.

You definitely feel you are out in the middle of it all as the hippos and elephants graze just outside your room at night. There are LOTS of bush sounds and a constant chorus of birds chirping, or frogs croaking, or insects etc. You often hear the elephants calling to one another or the hippos making their grunting noises right from your room. Warthogs parade through camp and the mongoose are everywhere. Chitabe had very concentrated game and Vumbura is a bit less so, but there have been some pretty dramatic sightings–lots of lions, leopard, cheetahs, large herds of buffalo, many hippos, and plenty of antelope, zebra, giraffe and elephant. The roads are a bit smoother, which is nice as it means less bouncing around in the Land Rover. Lovely trees abound and there is more water here but strangely, we’ve seen fewer birds, or perhaps fewer at one time. I think it’s a matter of concentration. This feels more spread out than Chitabe was.

The food at Vumbura Plains is terrific. The service is excellent and they go out of their way to make you feel pampered. It is truly amazing to be this far out in the wilderness and have this level of luxury. Camping this is not, although you do feel cut off from the rest of the world.

This frog is real. He was perched atop a bottle stopper and I had to look closely to see if he was breathing!

This frog is real. He was perched atop a bottle stopper and I had to look closely to see if he was breathing!

Our guide here is Ben. He is a lovely, gentle giant who has done a nice job of showing us the area. We’ve had various companions including Germans, Brits, and Americans who live in Botswana. I have to say we’ve seen far more Americans in Botswana than we ever did in South Africa. I’m not sure how I feel about that as I didn’t really come all the way to Africa to spend my time with Americans. We’ve really enjoyed meeting people from other countries.

One interesting adventure here at Vumbura involved going out in a mokoro on the water instead of doing the usual game drive. A mokoro is a type of dugout canoe. Traditionally they were made of wood from the local trees, but Wilderness Safaris uses fiberglass ones because it’s more sustainable. They are quite narrow and propelled by a poler. So Michael and I both sat in the mokoro while Johannes stood at the back and used a pole to push us around through shallow waterways filled with reeds and lily pads. It was lovely to have everything so quiet– no engine noise. We enjoyed seeing a herd of elephants crossing the water in the distance ahead of us.

The view from our mokoro

The view from our mokoro

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Tiny frogs at eye level on the reeds. Look closely!

A tiny frog at eye level on the reeds. Look closely!

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Little green frog

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The view at sundowners that evening.

We also were treated to some entertainment before having a traditional dinner in the Boma one night. The entertainment consisted of singing and dancing and drumming performed by the staff and it was really fun. They are such good singers with nice harmonies. The staff at Vumbura are delightful, friendly, and welcoming. Our first evening here happened to be Michael’s birthday and they brought out a cake to him and sang for him which was all a surprise.

Another fascinating adventure was a walking safari. We were taken out into the bush by a guide to walk around on foot instead of riding in a Land Rover. This allows you to see the small things you don’t see from the vehicle and learn more about the plants, and ecosystem. Lazarus was our guide. He is very experienced and knowledgeable and usually does private guiding for Wilderness Safaris. In between those trips, he fills in at various camps where he is needed. At thirty-two, he is the youngest to qualify for this level of experience and knowledge. Since he works at many different camps around Botswana, he must know the labyrinthine road systems at all of those places, which in itself seems a huge feat. But he also knows all the nuances of the various habitats and the animals that share them. We had a wonderful 3 hour walk in the bush, enjoyed the quiet, and learned a tremendous amount. And we even saw some animals too, such as zebra, impala, giraffe, tsessebe, wildebeest, kudu and water buck. It was a totally different perspective to be on the ground. The animals in this area are mostly accustomed to the shape and sound of the Land Rover and know it is not a threat. However, humans are a different story. They are quite skittish of anyone on foot, so it was gratifying to have the opportunity to quietly observe some of them on their own terms, so to speak.

Heading out with Lazarus leading the way.

Heading out with Lazarus leading the way.

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The weather in Botswana has not been nearly as hot as we expected. We had a bit of sun and heat at Chitabe and beautiful sunsets, but also some rain. And here at Vumbura, it’s been cloudy most of the time with a few showers and good breezes. It’s been cool and easy, not sweltering as we expected. The high cloud cover makes all the difference in the temperature, but it also makes the lighting a bit tough for photography.”

One of the first things we encountered on our first game drive at Vumbura was a pride of lions. We discovered a male lion looking very full and panting with a bloody muzzle. Clearly he had eaten very recently.

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Look at that fat belly!

While we were looking at him, we heard a loud growl from somewhere in the bushes nearby. When we went to investigate, we discovered the rest of the pride just the other side of some bushes. They were just tucking into a cape buffalo that must have been killed very recently.

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There were four lionesses and some young cubs. It was a bit gruesome, but fascinating to watch them beginning the process of devouring the buffalo. Everyone got in on the act, including the cubs. Over the course of the next four days, we were to see the various stages of destruction of the carcass and get a chance to see the pride resting and playing between feedings.

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These lions became a familiar sight. They didn’t move far from the carcass the entire time we were at Vumbura, so it was easy to find them. The cubs, in particular, were adorable and fun to watch. There were six of them from two litters and they nursed at the two lactating females indiscriminately. That’s how it works in lion society. The large male was not their father, but rather more like an uncle. The dominant male of the pride was not with them at that time.

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Sorry if this seems gruesome.

Sorry if this seems gruesome.

nap time for everyone!

nap time for everyone!

Another thing we enjoyed seeing at Vumbura were the baboons. We had not seen as many before and found them fascinating. There was a troop of baboons near the camp that we saw several times, including their baby. Here are some photos of the baboon family.

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With four days and abundant wildlife to view, I have many more photos to share from our time at Vumbura Plains, as you can imagine. Next time I’ll chronicle some of the more memorable sightings and share some more photos.

Until then, thanks for reading!

Chitabe In Pictures

At Chitabe camp in the Okavango Delta of Botswana we saw so much wonderful wildlife it’s hard to pick only a few photographs to post. There was a huge diversity of animals and birds and it seemed that new and exciting things were around every corner. One morning we came to a water hole where quite a few marabou storks had gathered along with egrets, white pelicans, herons, and other water loving fowl. There was a hippopotamus carcass nearby which probably accounted for the storks as they are scavengers. We also saw many living hippos at the water holes.

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Marabou stork

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It was the beginning of baby season in the bush and we saw beautiful wee creatures wobbling around after their mamas. In fact, we happened upon a wildebeest with her newborn calf mere seconds after she had given birth. We watched for about ten minutes as the baby struggled to stand up and take its first steps. That’s all the time it took before they were making their way back to the herd.

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Piglets!

Piglets!

The whiskers on this young warthog are to fool predators into thinking he has big tusks!

The whiskers on this young warthog are to fool predators into thinking he has big tusks!

Tsessebes with youngsters

Tsessebes with youngsters

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Giraffes get darker as they age. This young one is quite light colored.

Giraffes get darker as they age. This young one is quite light colored.

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On the way back to camp one morning we heard a ruckus in the bushes next to the road. When we went to investigate it turned out there was a python moving about under a tree. A very brave dove was keeping an eye on things! When there is a snake nearby, birds and squirrels will make a lot of noise to let the others (and the snake) know it’s been spotted.

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Another morning we spent some time trying to find some lions that had been spotted in a certain area. Having been unsuccessful in finding them and having nearly gotten stuck in the mud in the process, we were headed back to camp for breakfast when we just happened upon two leopards lying in the shade on a termite mound by the side of the road. How convenient! It was a mother and her son. They were panting from the heat and posed very obligingly for us.

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We also saw more wild dogs at Chitabe. On the first occasion they were relaxing in the evening before rousing themselves and setting off on a hunt.

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Play time

Play time

Setting off into the bush

Setting off into the bush

The second time we saw them they had just gone for a cooling dunk in the mud at a waterhole and were settling in for a late morning nap. They looked very strange with the mud plastered over parts of their bodies!

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There were many beautiful birds and we were able to see many of them enough times to start to learn their names.

Lilac breasted roller

Lilac breasted roller

One of my favorite birds

One of my favorite birds. So colorful!

Ground hornbills

Ground hornbills

Grey louries, also called the go away bird because it makes a sound like someone saying "Go Away!"

Grey Go-Away-Birds so called because they make a sound like someone saying “Go Away!”

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Crested barbet

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Hammerkop

Hammerkop

African fish eagle

African fish eagle

Here are some pictures of our first Baobab tree. They are enormous, but not immune to the damage that elephants can do.

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We also saw more leopards including a female lounging in a tree who decided to come down, and a young male cub also in a tree who was hanging out waiting for his family to come back.

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When I first spotted this young guy he was watching us from the crook of a tree.

When I first spotted this young guy he was watching us from the crook of a tree.

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There were plenty of cape buffalo as well as elephants to provide us with exciting encounters.

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I will leave you here with the spectacular sunrise we saw one morning. Next up will be lions and traveling to our next camp.

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Ngala Safari Lodge

Ngala's accommodations were very nice. We had the front half of a duplex cottage. They were arranged so that you really weren't aware of the other half. I trust that was true for the other side as well. The bed was comfortable and the bathroom spacious. Though not as luxurious as Londolozi, it was delightful and far more than adequate. I really enjoyed the porch. Ours looked out across a grassy area toward the watering hole and the dining and lounging decks. The watering hole drew many visitors, most notably herds of buffalo who came to drink and warthogs that grazed on the grass. There were monkeys in the trees as well as squirrels, and a small antelope called a Duiker which grazed on the forest floor. Here are some pictures of our room and the camp.

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Baboon on the roof

Fever tree with green bark

Vervet monkey

At the watering hole

Duiker

The food at Ngala was also very good. We enjoyed the buffet at lunch time which always included some wonderful salads. It's hard when you are traveling to try to keep a handle on one's diet. At the safari lodges they feed you so often it's very easy to over indulge. And then when you are traveling elsewhere, you eat out a lot. So salads were appreciated.

Each night we had a different experience at Ngala. The first night we ate dinner in the courtyard. This was a walled area lit with lanterns. It was quite beautiful, but as we discovered, Ngala does a nice job with the ambiance for every meal. The second night we were treated to a bush dinner. On the way back from our evening game drive, in the dark, Bernard detoured to a clearing in the bush where the staff had set up a bush dinner for all the guests. The clearing was lit by lots and lots of lanterns and there were wood fired barbeque's in use cooking our food. From a distance you just saw twinkling lights appearing out of the bush. It was quite a feat to set up a full dinner service buffet in the middle of the bush and it was executed flawlessly. One can't fault the staff for the the flying beatles attracted to the lights. We were protected from the hyenas by armed guards who patrolled just on the edge of darkness. It all felt very safe.

On the next night we returned from the evening game drive to find a romantic, lantern lit table set up on our porch for a private dinner. Given served us and it really was quite nice. He had already provided our preferred beverages waiting for our arrival. Our last evening turned out to be a Boma dinner. This was another enclosure off the main dining area and Bernard joined us for dinner. With a fire pit going and another buffet it was yet another lantern lit feast.

Our romantic dinner

Ngala has a nice pool which we used one afternoon. There were lovely chaise longues and umbrellas, bottled water and towels, all provided. Michael went over a bit sooner than I and he said an entire family of warthogs paraded past the pool before I arrived, one after the other like a little train. I enjoyed seeing them later on the grass by the watering hole. The warthogs kneel on their front legs while they root around in the dirt and grass with their bottoms sticking up in the air. They move around on their knees without getting up while they're doing this. A lot of times the most common view of the wildlife is from the backside, so I decided to start a collection of “African bum shots”. I'm working on photographing the backsides of as many animals as I can. The warthogs are quite obliging with this.

Warthogs!

The people at Ngala were uniformly friendly and some of the most genuine and warm people we've met. Given, our butler, was always smiling. Mama Connie, whose official function I'm not quite sure of, was always making sure people were happy and cared for. The Rangers were all professional, polite, and eager to please. I would highly recommend Ngala Safari Lodge for a wonderful experience with superb game viewing. Their standards are vey high.