Antelope are everywhere – along with big cats and the occasional foolish guest – in gorgeous riverine wilderness
Below the window of the Cessna Caravan that’s filled to the brim with happy safari-goers stretches the most amazing view, well known to anyone who’s set foot in this part of Botswana – the winding spectacle that is the Okavango Delta. As the mesmerised travellers haul out their phones to snap a few photos of this unforgettable landscape, the captain takes on the two-fold role of flying the plane while also informing the passengers of what lies beneath. Landing on a gravel airstrip usually involves a few bounces, but not this time – she approaches the narrow runway with such aplomb that her smooth touchdowns have garnered her an outstanding reputation among regular passengers.
In the far northern reaches of the Delta lies the enchanting Wilderness Vumbura Plains, where dreamlike vistas over the floodplains from each suite meet fiery sunrises and indigo skies. This contemporarily chic lodge is situated in the 60,000ha Vumbura Plains Private Wilderness Area and forms part of the Wilderness portfolio, merging spectacular lodgings, sublime cuisine and forward-thinking conservation tourism.
Opening after an extensive interior and exterior refurbishment in April 2022, the suites now have more patterns, textures and accents that create a true reflection of the habitat they exist in. A large screen divides the shower area from the rest of the suite, adding both colour and privacy. The sliding wardrobe doors are clad in enlarged underwater photographs by Andrea Crawford, further enhancing the sense of being immersed in the natural beauty of this extraordinary World Heritage Site.
Out on game drive with field guide Willie, we find that the expansive concession plays host to a variety of mammalian and winged species. Today is undoubtedly antelope day, and our first sighting is of the most adorable herd of young waterbuck feeding on the new greenery that has popped up everywhere. Next, we see a female kudu and her very large ears that attract oxpeckers in search of a snack. Shielded in the tall grass, the tiny shapes of a male and female steenbok become visible. Willie explains it must be a mating pair because they are solitary animals, after which we leave the ‘honeymoon couple’ in peace and quiet.
We encounter a large herd of sable antelope feeding on the long grass. These buck are characterised by their compact, robust build, with ringed horns that arch backwards. The most striking one is black in colour, with white underparts, cheek and chin, indicating thathe is older than three years. Edging over for a photo is one we dub ‘broken horn’, who looks like he’s cracking a smile! Even his side profile with his upright mane in his neck is his good side.
Saved by a snorkel
Every so often, Willie turns off the engine of the safari vehicle to stop and listen. “I’m doing that to hear if there are any alarm calls,” Willie explains to fellow guest Sue and me, “alerting me to the possible presence of a predator in the vicinity.” As the sun is starting to set, we are parked a safe distance away from a coalition of three sleepy male lions. They are completely nonplussed by our presence, when out of the blue, the lion closest to us rolls onto his back, tilts his head and looks me straight in the eye. The golden light catches the pupil of his left eye, sending a chill down my spine.
Making a splash behind them is a red lechwe, trying his luck with the fact that cats don’t have an affinity for water. Splish splash – he hops forward. He lets out an alarm snort, as if to say, ‘Look guys – I’m right here; catch me if you can.’ Much to our amusement, this goes on for a good while until the lechwe realises that he is the only one playing this cat-and-buck game.
Heading north on our morning drive through mopane woodland, Willie discovers fresh tracks of what he believes is a female leopard. He picks up his binoculars and points in her direction. She is making her way towards us. Seemingly tired, she pauses every few metres. Willie discloses that she is mother to a male cub and might start contact calling him at any given moment. Arriving empty-pawed probably doesn’t sit well with her, so she abandons vocalising for him and, instead, makes herself comfortable on a patch of semidry mud.
We stop for morning coffee in the shade of a jackalberry tree. Willie becomes pensive while he pours Sue’s tea. “I had a very challenging situation once when a pack of African Wild Dogs chased a leopard into a tree,” he tells us. “One of the guests didn’t follow the safety protocol of not standing up when we got close to the sighting. I always brief guests about being close to a potentially dangerous animal – no standing up and no part of your body may be outside the vehicle. She didn’t have agood view of the animal and decided to just stand up. I couldn’t see her because she was behind me. I looked up and saw the leopard trying to get away from the dogs – he jumped straight down towards my vehicle. I thought he was coming towards the snorkel of the car, but his main focus was the guest. Luckily there was no one on the passenger side, so I managed to dodge him by lying down. The snorkel probably saved my life because he was obstructed by it – he broke a piece off the top and then sped off. That’s why it’s so important that guests stick to the safety protocol in order to stay safe during wildlife sightings.”