Delta Dawn

An extraordinary lodge in the heart of the Okavango is a bucket-list paradise

 

Sprawling as far as the eye can see, the tributaries of the Okavango form channels of water, making it a unique experience, here within a sizeable private concession of over 33,000 hectares. Duba Plains is situated on this pristine piece of land in northern Botswana and with well-known owners Dereck and Beverly Joubert at the helm of Great Plains Conservation, a few days spent in the largest inland delta in the world is the ideal way to disconnect from everyday life.

The small aircraft starts its descent onto the dusty Omdop Airstrip and as the engine of the Cessna Caravan comes to a spluttering halt, the Great Plains Conservation vehicles are parked to meet disembarking guests. I am met by guide Gogontle Mokena, affectionately known as Gee, who transports me to the arrival area of Duba Plains. A lovely handwashing ritual takes me back to what must have been tradition in a bygone era – fragrant soap lathered onto my hands and rinsed over a basin with a copper jug filled with warm water.

Following a hearty lunch facing wraparound views of the swampy marshlands, Gee informs me that our first game drive starts a mere three-minute drive from the communal lounge area, so it’s back to my arrival point we go – the airstrip. Three opportunistic lionesses are looking for a mid-afternoon snack, but fortunately, the unscathed warthog gets away, squealing with delight. We continue our drive over a wooden bridge, fashioned in 2012 for ease of access between the camp and the plains. Gee is a delightful guide, and nothing is too much effort for him to go in search of. Born in the Teekae settlement in the north-western district of Botswana, this 36-year-old husband and father of two boys is clearly living the dream. “I started working as a waiter at one of the Great Plains camps in 2016,” he tells me, “which was a great stepping stone to what I aspired to become one day – a guide at Great Plains Conservation. I worked day and night to make sure I obtained my guide licences and went through the relevant training programmes in the guiding industry. Growing up along the panhandle of the Delta also served as inspiration, being in the company of like-minded people in the safari industry piqued my interest even more. Finally, my dream was realised when I started working at Duba Plains. I love the diversity of the area, from viewing the Big 5 to meandering through the papyrus reeds, every day is completely different and incredibly special.”

Treading water

Turning the corner during a late afternoon game drive, Gee slows the game drive vehicle down as we’re both pleasantly surprised by the once-in-a-lifetime sighting that greets us. Two tiny frames, lion cubs, are hardly visible through the tall grass, their short stubby legs obscured by the foliage. Newly found, they immediately lie flat in order to appear concealed from view. I’m so captivated by this scene that I fail to notice Gee has switched the engine off completely, killing any sound that could disturb these babies. The mottled brown spots add to their camouflage, indicating that they are still very young. Out of the corner of my eye, I suddenly notice a tall, imposing frame – their mother. I lower my camera and my gaze meets hers – she has a deep wound on her left cheek and is clearly a force to be reckoned with.

By means of identification, I suggest to Gee that we refer to her as Scarface. Crossing the watery channels of the Delta in search of sustenance, she has little choice but to get her feet wet, something most cat species have an immense dislike for. Navigating the waterfilled networks, this lioness literally has to sink or swim, and when the annual floods from Angola cause the water levels of the Delta to rise substantially, it becomes treacherous terrain for certain species, especially those who find swimming abhorrent. We find Scarface on three different occasions, the most surprising one is where she’s standing atop a tree, seemingly using it as a vantage point. Not appreciating their mother’s climbing skills, the cubs are complaining bitterly at the base of the tree, and eventually manage to clamber their way to the middle of the tree. The one cub hasn’t mastered the art of climbing down, and unceremoniously dislodges himself, luckily landing on his feet.

Buntle the Beautiful

Leopards are by far one of my favourite cats to see when on safari. It’s their beauty, the thrill of finding these mysterious creatures and the absolute delight to lay eyes on the most elusive of them all. Gee had tactfully enquired what my preferred animal is to see, to which I blurted out “Leopard, and first prize would be cubs,” which I appreciate is an almost impossible task, even under normal circumstances. Take into account a vast concession, dotted with little islands consisting of dense undergrowth, and finding a leopard seems out of the question.

“There are two cubs,” Gee discloses. “But we haven’t seen them in a few days.” My heart sinks and I try hard to hide my disappointment. His “We will try to find them” response is the fuel required to catapult me into searching every single tree branch. Then it’s sundowner time. We’ve driven past the same tree at least half a dozen times. But today is different. I blink. I blink again. Is this even real? Perched on the tree branch is the most gorgeous leopard cub I have ever seen. This is it. My dream sighting. “What is the word for beautiful in Setswana?” I ask Gee. “Buntle,” he replies. As if on cue, Buntle looks up, his long black eyelashes fluttering as pesky birds landing at the top of the tree are disturbing his beauty sleep, which he clearly doesn’t need.

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