There are moments when the stars align and everything comes together and this is one of them. Above us, lounging in the crook of a sprawling
I’ve come to Selinda Explorers Camp in a remote region of the Okavango Delta within the private Selinda Game Reserve. It’s the second leg of my eight-day Botswana safari. The first being Duba Explorers Camp, a half-hour flight south. (You can read about it here.)
This leopard is the first sighting on my first night and I take it as a good omen. Nine times out of ten when you find a cat it’s asleep, in shadow, or hidden under a bush. But not tonight, this beauty is posing like a pro and radiating a wicked feline vibe that’s eating up the lens.
Guests in another vehicle, positioned where they cannot see her, are thrilled when she moves to their side of the tree; ten minutes later she returns to ours. Straight from the red carpet, she gives us all an opportunity to make a photo.
A half-hour into our session and sunset looming, she begins to climb down, head first, hugging the trunk with her claws until she’s vertical and flush against the bark. She launches herself toward a nearby termite mound, springing off the top in one graceful movement before silently hitting the ground. She disappears behind the
Nothing is going to top her tonight so we find ourselves a tranquil spot next to a wetland to indulge in a sundowner, a safari tradition of cocktails and nibbles while watching the last light of day fade. Reflected in the still water is an Ombre sky of blue, orange and yellow radiating from the sphere of fire sinking into the horizon. Cotton ball clouds seeming float on the surface . We couldn’t have asked for a better show.
I’m sharing a vehicle with four other guests (a pair from Detroit, the other two from Germany) who’ve been together for the last two days. They like to sing the chorus from Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” and “Who Let the Dogs Out” woofs and all.
There’s a private joke in there somewhere and I consider asking its origin but it really doesn’t matter, I just bark with them. When a jeep passes, we sing again but this time we add a wave.
You never know who you’re going to share a jeep with. I’ve had a few duds in my days but tonight I’m lucky.
Selinda Explorers Camp is an intimate retreat with three luxury guest tents and one two-bedroom family tent. As with Duba Explorers earlier in my trip, Selinda is owned by Dereck and Beverly Joubert, renowned for their Botswana wildlife conservation initiatives as much as their award-winning wildlife documentaries.
The Jouberts designed Selinda to harken back to the 1900s and the romance of early exploration when the wealthy traveled in the lap of luxury through the remotest locations.
Imagine a Bedouin-style expedition with two communal open-air tents (one acts as a lounge, the other a bar and dining area) situated on the edge of a white sand clearing shaded by Jackalberry and mangosteen trees.
Campaign-style furniture, Persian rugs, Moroccan pillows, and decorative brass accessories set the scene. The lounge is where we meet before each safari game drive which takes place in the early morning and late afternoon.
A large draped daybed sits to one side of the clearing, a hammock on the other. Both overlook a branch of the Selinda spillway, a historical channel linking the Okavango Delta with the Linyanti wetlands.
It’s November and very hot and dry. Ironically, it’s the beginning of the rainy season but only a few light showers have graced the plains and this tributary is dry. In May, guests will relax here beside a flowing river, all I see are grass and trees blowing in the wind. No matter the view, it’s beautiful.
Before dinner, we sit by the fire pit and chat drink in hand under starry skies. In the center of the clearing is a 20-foot termite mound, an awe-inspiring natural sculpture thanks to Mother Nature’s enduring creativity.
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I’m staying in the two-bedroom family tent at the end of a narrow sand walkway that snakes through the trees. Essentially, its two luxe tents side by side connected by a covered vestibule.
In keeping with Selinda’s mobile theme, the room is furnished with a king-sized bed, a campaign-style writing desk and side tables, and my favorite, replicas of vintage wardrobe steamer trunks for my clothes. (I have a thing for old trunks.)
There’s an attached open-air bathroom but to use it I must unzip the tent flap (all the flaps are heavy-duty mesh for maximum light and ventilation). It’s small but chic with a waterfall shower and two soft cotton robes ready and waiting. The indoor vanity features dual brass basins but no running water, however, there’s always a fresh pitcher of H2O for washing and brushing my teeth.
(Tip: The loo for the left-hand bedroom absorbs a lot of sun in the middle of the day, test the seat before you sit down. I learned the hard way.)
Selinda is an unfenced camp, meaning animals are free to walk through it. During the day, the noise and visibility are enough to keep me from running into anything dangerous but at night, every guest must be walked to their tent and picked up by a staff member.
A small herd of buffalo congregated on the path leading to my tent one night so when Doctor picked me up for dinner we took a detour through the trees.
As it turns out, the woods surrounding my tent is a buffalo favorite. Late at night, I hear the soft scratching of their hoofs in the sand and the sound of large animals sniffing as they eat. I love moments like this and I’m not afraid. As long as I don’t venture outside without a guide, I’m perfectly safe. In the morning tracks are everywhere.
Botswana Safari: Game Drive Diaries
Lounging by the Watering Hole
On a hot day, waiting by the nearest watering hole is always a good game drive strategy, they draw wildlife from miles around. Ergo, the pack of African wild dogs—the continent’s most endangered predator—lounging in the sand in front of us.
Beautiful, sinewy canines with black, brown and white-marbled coats and oversized ears. They are as adorable as they are vicious. Lions suffocate their prey before dining but not wild dogs, they start eating while their victim is alive. I’ve never seen such a kill in person but I’ve heard gruesome tales.
The pack of 12 has eaten already says Ngakaemang “Doctor” Ramakoba, my guide; currently on the agenda is playful hijinks. They run around tackling each other like puppies periodically laying down but they don’t rest for long. They have an inherent restlessness about them.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, it’s as if a silent bomb has gone off in the middle of the pack scattering the dogs in a starburst pattern. The alpha female is the only one who doesn’t move. She stares at the woods, rigid with adrenaline, her ears pricked forward, straining to hear. The others stop running 50 feet out and turn back.
What on earth?
A lone buffalo at the edge of the tree line. The dogs must have heard footsteps, perhaps a twig snapping, and in a flash before bothering to learn what it was, they ran. All but the alpha, she faced the black menace.
The buffalo sniffs the air. He sees the pack and freezes. The dogs, on the other hand, unimpressed leisurely walk back to where the alpha is standing. The horned beast five times their size is, evidently, not a concern. The buffalo uneasy with their numbers opts not to drink and disappears into the bushes. He won’t come back until their gone, and the way the dogs are settling in it doesn’t look like that will be any time soon.
The Circle of Life
Doctor and I are game driving it alone this morning. The Whitney Houston cover band left after breakfast, two to another camp while the other two start their long journey back to the states.
The morning has been quiet, we’ve seen nothing, not even birds. We joke the animals have gone on strike. Doctor spots leopard and lion tracks outside of camp and we track them, wondering which we’ll bump into first, if at all.
He spots the hind foot of a lion laying on its back, legs akimbo, 100 yards from our position. At the same time, our male gets up walks halfway toward his buddy and stops to drink from a puddle. “Let’s wait by the other lion,” Doctor suggests. “After this one drinks he’ll go to his brother.”
Like clockwork, the two lions reunite, nuzzle each other, then promptly pass out. It’s hard to imagine these big cats as dangerous when they’re curled up like housecats, but fifteen minutes later we find the evidence of their ferocity, an almost perfectly intact, picked clean to the bone, skeleton of a buffalo.
“It’s at least a week old,” Doctor says. The spine, head, and ribs are still connected. A miracle considering scavengers usually scatter the bones in every direction. An errant vulture feather tumbles in the wind a few feet away.
“It was a long hard hunt,” Doctor mutters gauging from the area in which the grass is flattened by the encounter. “This is where the lions ate him,” he says walking toward a huge patch of dried goo 20 feet away. “All this is from his blood and organs spilling out.” The sight is both sad and fascinating at the same time.
It’s not unusual for an old buffalo to end this way. When they get older, they’re shunned from the herd. Sometimes they hook up with other outcasts but often they are alone. Old buffalos are extra cranky because they know they’re more vulnerable. What a battle it must have been.
Night Drives are Fun Too
It’s early evening and I’m sharing the jeep with Jean-Louis and Elizabeth Evans, a delightful duo from London. The two lions we saw hours ago are still sleeping. They barely moved from where Doctor and I left them.
We watch the lazy boys for a spell while enjoying sundowners in the vehicle, hoping at some point they’ll get up and hunt. Only when the last bit of light leaves the plain do they bother to move, drinking from the puddle nearby before collapsing again in a heap. It’s time to move on.
A benefit to staying at a camp in a private reserve is the option to stay out well after sundown. If you’re lucky, you’ll see some interesting nocturnal species. Doctor, with his eagle eye, finds us a serval and a caracal, two small cats rarely seen during the day. It’s quite a coup.
We pass a hyena with a scavenged bone in its mouth. A few minutes later we come upon our friendly pack of wild dogs. The hyena must be following the predators in hopes of stealing a discarded morsel. On the other hand, the dogs don’t seem interested in food at all, they’re at it again, playing in the grass looking too cute. My heart is full.
I look to my right and two cheetahs are running full speed toward the vehicle. More accurately, they’re hunting the Tsessebe babies with their momma we just passed. (That’s the beauty of a safari, one second its business as usual and the next the scene goes from zero to 60.)
One male zooms past us five feet from the jeep—a beautiful blur in action.
By the time we turn the jeep around, the babies are nowhere to be seen. Four or five tsessebes have joined the momma in a show of solidarity. They stand with her and face off with two very bewildered predators.
“The babies are hiding in the grass somewhere,” Doctor explains. The cheetahs want to find them but the Tsessebes are much larger and plentiful and they’re prepared to fight. Stumped, the cats sit sphinxlike. For several minutes they all stare at each, eventually, the cats relax. Seeing an opportunity, the tsessebes run through the trees and out the other side. Instantly, the cheetahs are in hot pursuit.
To follow, we have to drive the long way around foliage to the other side. We find one brother calling to his sibling after having lost him during the chase. The high-pitched chirping sound is not what I expected a cheetah to sound like. It’s more bird than cat. Any machismo these two might have had evaporated as soon as this one yeeped. It takes another 15 minutes before the two find each other an unite. Unfortunately for them, without a kill.
Tsessebes 1– Cheetahs 0.