The safari game drive was exciting with hushed laughter whilst searching for the big cats, but when we finally found them, at Marabou Pan, the whole experience quickly descended into tears and a near pee-on-pants situation for my travel mates. Staff Writer THALEFANG CHARLES narrates his latest safari experience at Savuti
The unpredictable Savuti Channel that pours on the lush Savuti marsh in the Chobe National Park is once again dry after the mysterious flooding that occurred in 2009, which ended, albeit temporarily, its 30-year dry spell.
'Ever since drying in 2016, the animals rely on government boreholes that pump water everyday into a number of waterholes. For most of the dry season, when it is scorching hot and the marsh is just a golden swath of grass, the wildlife of Savuti frequent these artificial waterholes to quench their thirst.
The busiest waterhole that draws hundreds of elephants all day, and many other wildlife species is the Marabou Pan. It is located on the west side of the marsh, south of Leopard Rock.
Marabou Pan waterhole is now world famous because it is the set for many nature documentary films. This is where many nature photographers made their careers, from the Joubert family, to Frans Lanting and James Gifford.
National Geographic’s latest documentary series Savage Kingdom, which took its cue from Beverly and Dereck Joubert’s Ultimate Enemies that showed the world how wildlife could be beautifully brutal, was filmed around the Savuti Marsh, as was the earlier film.
The Marsh pride of lions has become specialists in hunting elephants – some almost five times their size. It is said that at one point the pride comprised 40 lions before others broke out and formed the North pride that lives on the northern side of the marsh. National Geographic filmmakers Beverly and Dereck Joubert recorded that the Marsh pride killed 74 elephants during a three-year period between 1993 and 1996.
In the film Savage Kingdom, we discovered that the pride had broken into two – the Marsh Pride and Northern Pride. In both films the lions were depicted as savage, ruthless, fearless and merciless killers. In his book, Savute – Botswana’s Wildlife Kingdom, James Gifford described the Marsh pride saying, “…They reminded me of a family of mafia gangsters – arrogant, powerful and ruthless, in complete control of their destiny and afraid of no one”.
Last weekend I was on safari in Savuti with a few friends and we finally met the Marsh pride. But it was not just a usual lion sighting as it turned out to be an unforgettable ‘encounter’.
From Camp Savuti where we were staying, our guide Moffat Sebele took us on an early morning game drive with expressed requests from us, “Please find lions”.
Early morning is best time to find the predators when they are still highly mobile before they hide under shadows to avoid extreme temperatures.
The game drive was all exciting with hushed fun laughter while searching for the big cats, but when we finally found them, at Marabou Pan, the whole experience quickly descended to tears and near peeing-on-pants situation for my travel mates.
When we arrived at Marabou Pan, after a rather long search, there were already a dozen of vehicles with tourists. Interestingly, our vehicle was the only one with black tourists out of all the vehicles.
A pride of 16 lions, together with their cute cubs were lying under the shade of trees just a stone’s throw away from the pan. The dominant male, the king of the pride, was belly–up and alone on the other side, unbothered and completely oblivious
The guides were taking turns and giving way to get their tourists a better close up angle of the pride. It is always nice hearing guides using their Setswana codes working together to give tourists the best of the Botswana safari experience.
When our turn came to be given the best angle for the pride, the big matriarch of the pride, which is the lead hunter, was returning from stalking a wildebeest that was drinking at the pan. The wildebeest escaped because it spotted the lioness before she could get close enough to charge. Upon returning, the lioness (I’d like to think it could be Matsumi – from Savage Kingdom), which was in a hunting mood, came straight for our vehicle.
Well, a lion is beautiful on television and pictures, but facing a big wild lion can be something else. Its piercing yellow eyes with sharp tiny dots of pupils do not just look, but they bore deep into one’s soul. If it locks eyes on you, in that brief moment, whether you are a first timer in the bush or a seasoned bush traveller, you would feel like a delicious snack.
So when the lioness made its cold savage approach to our vehicle, while I was excitedly snapping away, my safari mates must have thought of themselves as lions’ meal for the day.
Considering that the safari vehicles do not have any side cover, which exposes occupants to danger, the situation became too tense. Mummers of scared pleas of “Let’s go. Let’s get out of here” began, but the guide tried to reassure everyone that the lioness would ‘normally’ not bother us. But this was a wild animal with its wild mind and even scary it was the lead hunter of the deadly Marsh pride.
It was therefore understandable that when such a well-documented dangerous animal makes its approach on us, tensions ensued. The lioness, as our guide had told us, did not bother us. It, however, sat down under the shadow of our vehicle, which did not help the situation at all.
“Do not make any sudden movements guys, if we stay cool, it will not do anything,” cautioned our guide. But we then had to deal with another, as another big lioness followed through to our vehicle.
The whole situation appeared like a trap by the pride. The increasing chorus of teary pleas begging saying, “Let’s get out of here” made even our guide uncomfortable and he finally started the engine and negotiated the vehicle out of that lion’s apparent trap.
I was really happy for the encounter that I even managed a few selfies with this iconic pride. When the lioness approached I felt Charles Dance’s voice in his eerie narration of Savage Kingdom saying, “The marsh is mine. All challengers be warned”.
Later in the afternoon game drive, we returned to the pride still at Marabou Pan and the king of the pride finally gave us a short walk of power. It was not enough; I wish I could have stayed longer with the pride.
*Thalefang Charles was a guest of SKL Camps and stayed at Camp Savuti at Chobe National Park and Crocodile Camp in Maun