The Big Cats of Chitabe
There’s really no thrill on safari like spotting a big cat. Powerful, graceful, elusive – there’s just something about their feline forms that’s incredibly exciting to see. No such thing as too many cat sightings! While there’s never any guarantee that you’ll see one, some areas are certainly better known for their superlative cat population. It’s unfair to measure a destination based solely on this, but I can’t help but have a soft spot for camps that have proven themselves. In a mere two game drives, Chitabe Camp in the Okavango Delta more than proved themselves worthy of being labeled a big cat paradise.
My first taste of how fantastic Chitabe’s wildlife was happened right as I was settling into my tented suite. After the usual welcome tour, I plopped down on the deck chairs, taking in the peaceful surroundings and scribbling notes about the layout and design of the tent. Not five minutes later, a veritable parade of elephants started wandering past right in front of me. It’s not unusual to see large herds of the elephants, but this was the biggest one I’d ever seen. I kept waiting for it to end as elephant after elephant lumbered past. There were at least 150 elephants in total – the perfect welcome to Chitabe.
During our evening game drive, the radio crackled to life with a guide calling in a leopard sighting.
“It’s a young male. We can see him, but he’s pretty skittish. May not be around by the time you get here,” the voice said.
We were close by, so we took off in hopes of catching a few glimpses before he disappeared. The grass was tall from the early rains and brushed the sides of our Jeep as we hurried along the narrow track. Midway through a sudden turn our guide slammed on the brakes, forcing us to make a split second choice between bracing against our face meeting a crossbar and our cameras meeting the floor. I chose my camera.
“Ayyy, I’m so sorry!” our guide hissed in a loud whisper as he looked at his guests in various states of upheaval.
His sudden stop and hushed voice needed no explanation. Two huge lions had jumped up, startled by our rude and abrupt interruption of their daily 20 hour nap. Their sinewy muscles were tensed with readiness, but their eyes said they hadn’t yet decided between fight or flight. These sizeable beasts are used to more or less getting their way in the bush – especially when there are two brothers working together to control a territory. Living in a safari reserve, they’re also used to the game drive vehicles rumbling around, but between our sudden arrival and their fog of sleepy delirium, they hadn’t quite decided what to make of us. After a few tense moments they relaxed, lying back down – this time safely away from the track – and starting the usual feline post-nap rituals. Paws were licked, manes were smoothed, and flies were intently swatted at – all punctuated by toothy yawns.
“I couldn’t see them with all this grass. They were lying so flat,” our guide said, demonstrating with a pancaked hand extended in front of his face.
“I don’t think these boys are going anywhere anytime soon. Should we try to catch the leopard before he gets away? We’re almost there,” our guide asked us. A quick consensus of nods and we were off. The lions hardly lifted their heads as we drove away.
The leopard must have gotten over his stage fright because when we pulled up he was weaving between trees, showing off his sleek form. We watched as he stalked from tree to tree, his head low and his tail curled up in an elegant arc. He disappeared silently into the brush, his distinctive spots camouflaging him with an efficacy that will continually astound me. The last we saw of him was the tip of his tail, rhythmically flicking like only a cat can do.
“The boys are probably just about ready for their night’s hunt,” our guide said as he swung around the vehicle, directing it back towards the brother lions.
“Maybe they’ll do more than yawn now,” came the bored whine of a teenager slumping across the backrow.
I rolled my eyes and wondered to myself how anyone could spend their evening toggling between lions and leopards and find it boring. Our guide slowed our roll as we approached the spot where we left them. I suppose he didn’t want to give the poor guys heart attacks twice in one day. But in true lion fashion, they hadn’t moved a centimeter since we last saw them. No one can out leisure a lion, although the teenager in the backseat was trying his damnedest.
After another ten minutes of what I can only assume is the lion version of mental preparation, they slowly pushed themselves into a standing position. Watching them try to stretch while sleepy was not dissimilar to the hungover girls I did yoga with on Sunday mornings in college – not quite balanced, but dedicated to the cause.
After a few moderately successful attempts to stretch, they padded down the track, pausing to sniff the air every few meters. We followed them for a bit, but decided not to impede their carefully choreographed brother hunt, favoring instead a sundowner of our own.
After a stunning sunset and a superb gin & tonic (the secret is two limes), we headed back to camp in complete darkness. With one hand on the wheel and one hand operating the spotlight, our guide drove slowly along, searching for some last minute nocturnal wildlife before we reached the camp. Uncomfortably soon after leaving our sundowner spot, the familiar form of the lions crossed the illuminated beam in front of our vehicle. Alcohol, predators, and guests without the slightest clue – what could go wrong there? The lions seemed fine when they were swatting benignly at flies in the sun, but with darkness narrowing my field of vision to a foot-wide perimeter around the Jeep, I found them unnerving. Years of evolution have honed these predators to be superior nocturnal hunters. The darkness makes them powerful. The darkness just makes me feel vulnerable. Safari has the power to remind you where you truly stand in the natural world when all the layers of human ingenuity are stripped away.
The following morning the sand was dimpled with layer upon layer of paw prints.
“The lions have been busy,” our guide said as he crouched low to the ground, reading the headlines of the morning bush paper.
We followed a few fresh-looking sets of tracks, hoping to find them sleeping (surprise!) next to the spoils of their evening hunt. We had no such luck, but did manage to find the final of the holy trinity instead – the cheetah. When you hear ‘cheetah’, most people think immediately of speed. They clock in at 65mph and have a 0 to 60 rate that sports cars have only recently started flirting with. When the cheetah sighting was called in over the radio, visions of sprinting cheetahs elicited shivers of excitement in me. I was finally going to check a big one off my safari bucketlist.
When we drove up, a lean cheetah primed for hunting was not what greeted us. Instead it was a cheetah so bloated from his last meal that he could barely move his tail. A sizeable potbelly protruded from his slender profile, making him look like an impala stuffed ravioli. A thousand tiny flies buzzed relentlessly around his head, feeding on the blood that coated his fur.
Biting insects drive me absolutely crazy, so I’ve always wondered how animals in the wild dealt with the persistent annoyance. It turns out, they hate them just as much as I do. The poor cheetah kept rubbing his head vigorously against the ground, trying to crush the little irritations en masse. When that didn’t work, he resorted to hefting his engorged body over, rolling aggressively against the swarms that continued to attack him. I swear there was a look of contented revenge in his eyes as he smeared them into the dirt.
Eventually we accepted that an exasperated roll was the best we were going to get out of him and moved on to our morning coffee break. We left him to his flies, wishing him all the best in his pursuit of peace and quiet.
All photos by Kelsea Lee