July 15, 2013

Close Encounter with the King of Beasts…Actually, Seven of Them

The following is a short excerpt from my safari journal. It was written in 2008 while conducting research in the Okavango Delta with Gannon, Wyatt and co-author, Patti Wheeler, for our book Travels with Gannon & Wyatt: Botswana.

Shinde Camp
Okavango Delta, Botswana
August 28

We arrive in Maun, Botswana by way of a Botswana Air from Johannesburg, South Africa. Two-hour flight. Completely sold out. All of the passengers are on safari. Today is the 2nd birthday of my daughter Delilah Rose. Ignoring onlookers seated nearby, I record myself singing “Happy Birthday” and plan to send it to her the next time I have internet access, which I was told will not be until we reach the Chobe Game Reserve two weeks from today.

Passing through customs in the Maun Airport, I am approached by a distinguished looking gentleman with a cane. “Would you be Mr. Hemstreet?” he asks, extending his hand. I confirm and we shake. He introduces himself as John Kingsley-Heath and insists I call him John. The former Assistant Director of Uganda’s National Parks and a veteran safari guide, John has spent about as much time in Africa as his native England. I understand he is in his 80s, but other than the cane John shows no signs of slowing.

Once we gather our bags, John and his son Nigel (a former anti-poacher) lead us outside to a group of small bush planes.

Our transportation to the delta

Our transportation to the delta

From Maun we fly to Shinde Camp on a small single prop Caravan operated by Safari Air. The pilot is a young man from New Zealand who claims to be 21-years old, but looks much younger. I ask what brought him to Botswana. “I’m logging hours on these little planes so I can fly bigger planes one day,” he says. He’s a nice kid, but I can’t say I’m thrilled to be flying over lion country with a greenhorn aviator. If you were lucky enough to survive a crash in these parts, I’d imagine predators would be on you before help ever arrived. With this pleasant thought, I climb aboard.

After a shaky take off, I do my best to ignore the pilot’s lack of experience and enjoy the scenery. From the air, I photograph the barren, dusty landscape of Maun, a small city fueled mostly by tourism and surrounded on all sides by small farms. Soon into our flight we were engulfed by smoke, as several brush fires are blazing in the area. As we venture deeper into the delta, the smoke subsides enough to allow for a view of the landscape 3,000 feet below.

Aerial view of the Okavango Delta

Aerial view of the Okavango Delta

It has changed in color from dusty browns to vibrant greens and blues. Thin, dark lines carve up the rich wetlands like arteries. “Elephant highways,” our young pilot tells us. Sure enough, Wyatt points out a herd of elephants marching along one of these arteries in a single file line. The flight is smooth and I eventually relax. As we touch down on the dirt landing strip, I see a large hippo sunning itself in the grass.

At Shinde Camp we are assigned tents. Gannon will be my Shinde tent-mate. These are no backpacking tents. They’re large and rather luxurious. Ours has two twin beds draped by mosquito nets, two reading chairs, a dresser, writing desk, washroom, small shower, and bathroom. I think to myself that I could spend an entire season out here—immersed in nature, observing wildlife, reading, and writing.

Now this is camping...our Shinde tent

Now this is camping…our Shinde tent

We settle quickly and meet everyone in the dinning tent for ham sandwiches and tea. After lunch, we set off on our first game drive. On the way to the jeep, John mentions to Patti that he was once mauled by a lion. Overhearing this riveting tidbit, I suddenly feel as though I’m in the company of a modern day Dr. Livingstone.

The afternoon air is surprisingly cool as we bounce around the roadless terrain of the Okavango in a safari jeep. The landscape is flat and green-brown with wide-open savannahs, areas of forested land, and crisscrossing waterways.

Our safari jeep moves through the high grasses of the Okavango Delta.

Moving through the high grasses of the Okavango Delta

Under a blue sky, we see an abundance of wildlife—wildebeests, giraffes, warthogs, zebra, Cape buffalo and a couple of elephants—making it easy to see why some call this one of the world’s most spectacular ecosystems.

About an hour into the drive, the jeep slows and comes to a stop. John instructs us to keep quiet. Just ahead are seven male lions, lounging in the grass. This, we are told, is a very rare sight. The sun is low on the horizon, casting a nearly perfect golden-amber light over the delta. Bee, a native guide and safari driver, puts his finger over his lips and turns off the jeep. I want to ask him why he would do such a crazy thing—I mean, we might need to make a quick get-a-way—but I am not about to draw attention to myself by speaking aloud.

A lion approaches the jeep

Tensions mount as a lion approaches

One by one the lions stand and move towards the jeep. Four of the lions walk in front of us and sit. The other three reposition themselves directly behind the jeep. Bee tells us that this is what lions do before attacking large animals. The situation suddenly seems grave. A couple quick steps and a leap and they would literally be in our laps. Holding my breath, I lift the camera and take some photographs. My movements are slow, methodical, extremely cautious.

Watching these lions at such close range, John Kingsley-Heath’s mention of being attacked leaps to the forefront of my mind and I begin to wonder how something like that might have happened? Was he on a safari? Surrounded by lions? In a situation just like the one we are in right now, perhaps? I make a mental note to ask for the full story over dinner. That is, if we don’t become dinner ourselves…

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