During an early morning game drive we are delighted to come across three cheetahs, a mother and two grown daughters, who are out scouting for a meal. These elegant and graceful cats are poetry in motion. They are long legged, with a small head and a very lithe body that is covered in black spots on a soft golden background and a white tummy. They have a long tail which stabilises them when they are flat out during a chase. Their faces are distinct; with black tear stains that run down either side of their nose from their large alert eyes.
Cheetahs lead a solitary life. The females are accompanied by their cubs for up to 18 months. They typically hunt in the day and will stalk prey such as small antelope and other small mammals and birds. They sight their prey, stalk it and when they are within a striking distance, they run their prey to ground, sometimes over a distance of 600 metres and reaching speeds of 90 kph.
The cheetah is described as graceful, but the leopard is best described as ferocious. The most secretive and elusive of the large carnivores, the leopard is also the most shrewd. Pound for pound, it is the strongest climber of the large cats and capable of killing prey larger than itself.
We found a solitary leopard who had the ambitious task of claiming a carcass of large elephant for his own. He determinedly circled the carcass to see off any other interlopers. He would then retire to a nearby tree to keep watch and see off any other scavengers.
Sitting in the fork of the tree he is a handsome and elegant specimen. More gold in colour than the cheetah and with his spots forming rosettes over his coat, his tail is shorter and banded with black rings. Usually he hunts at night and after the kill he will haul his prize into a tree to secure it from other scavengers such as hyenas and lions who may take the opportunity to steal the kill from him.
By the third day he has lost the battle to keep the elephant for himself and the carcass had become a windfall to a pack of hyenas, a variety of vultures and marabou storks. These storks are sometimes called the “Undertaker Bird” due to their shape from behind: cloak-like wings and back, skinny white legs, and sometimes a large white mass of “hair.” They are certainly ugly, but amazingly reaching a height of 152 cm (60 in) and a weight of 9 kg (20 lb) with a wingspan of 3.7 m (12ft).
Everyone who comes on safari has lions on their watch list. We were not disappointed as we had our first sighting of lions on day three. Two young males were making their way purposefully across the savannah. They were not yet mature enough to be sporting the impressive black manes of large mature lions. These boys were living dangerously as they had intruded on the home territory of a resident pride. They were not to be deterred from their quest and were keen to find some new females who they could call their own.
While we were watching these two males, along came a lone female and it was evident that she was attracted to the younger of the two boys. However, the older of the two tried to impress upon her that he was the better choice. After much roaring, snarling and paw swatting, each of the three lions retreated to the comfort of a nearby tree to contemplate the situation in solitude. This standoff continued for about an hour, during which time, one or other the males would saunter over to the female and try his luck with her. These “beauty contests” were routinely rebuffed by the female who showed absolute indifference and a certain amount of aggression.
It was intriguing to watch their silent communication; tails moved in a series of patterns from slow waving to agitated twitching. There was a great deal of posturing, yawning and baring of enormous fangs. Finally, after a persistent charm offensive, the larger male had made some ground in wooing the female. She allowed him to mate with her but this appeared to be only a dress rehearsal for the real thing. When they finally get serious, they will mate about four times an hour over two – three days.
The lion is the most impressive cat and is the largest of the African carnivores. They are perfectly camouflaged for the grassy landscape as their coat is a pale tawny colour with white bellies. Their tail has a large black tuft at the tip. This king of beasts, weighs around 190 kgs and is the only predator of the dangerous Cape Buffalo and will take other large mammals such as a zebra and wildebeest and occasionally try his luck with hippos, giraffe and young elephants.
Unlike other cats they live in a pride with a dominant male, several females and cubs.
It is hard to spot a lion as they spend 20 hours of the day asleep and are most active at night and at dawn. The pride usually consists of three to six closely related females and their cubs. They are attended by one to six related adult males who have access to the pride’s females. However there are often savage fights to drive out these males by the dominant male.
The females are the hunters for the pride, and when successful, the male is the first to feed and their females and the cubs feed on what is left over.
During the afternoon game drives, as the sun sets, we stop for the traditional ritual of “sundowners”. This safari ritual has been carried out in Africa since white man arrived in pith helmets and armed with a gun and a bottle of gin. We stop at a tranquil spot with a clear view of the surrounding area to make sure that there are no predators in the nearby bush, a table is set up and drinks are poured. We then turn our attention to the glory of the African sunset – the most beautiful in the world! The sun increases in size as it nears the horizon and as it drops through the heat haze the colour changes to a dazzling shimmering gold with rays of red and orange streaking the deep blue and purple sky. This giant glowing orb sinks quickly below the horizon and nightfall descends on the landscape. There is an immediate chill in the air and a carpet of stars dot the sky as the night blackens. The heat of the day evaporates and coolness covers the land.
At this time there is an exchange of shifts in the Delta’s wildlife, the beasts and birds of the day find their beds and roosts for night and the animals and birds of the night stir. As we drive back to camp, we spot eyes in the night reflecting in the headlights. Sometimes the chase is on to follow these eyes in the night. It could be lion hunting, or other nocturnal critters looking for their next feed. Such amazing creatures such as honey badgers: they are notorious for their strength, ferocity and toughness. They have been known to savagely and fearlessly attack almost any kind of animal when escape is impossible, reportedly even repelling much larger predators such as lions. Bee stings, porcupine quills, and animal bites rarely penetrate their thick skin.
Back home in our tent we have a welcome hot shower and then, repair to the bar for pre-dinner drinks, a fantastic meal and finally nightcaps around the camp fire telling tales of the exciting discoveries of the day. Then we drop off to sleep with the sounds of the African bush loudly serenading us.