Taking a simple walk had never seemed so dangerous. Gathered around a camp table set up with maps, field guides – and gin and tonics – we plotted our stroll into the late afternoon heat. Normally jovial, our guide Paul Ditiro looked around the group, fixing us with a serious look. “The first rule is no running – at all,” he said, his usual glimmer of mirth buried in the gravity of the moment. “And we will walk in a single file line, with me at the head. We have four of the big five out there – and you can easily stumble into them. This is the best way to truly encounter nature. You can smell and touch and taste and feel it. It’s a truly unique thrill.”
I was at Footsteps Across the Delta, a small, remote camp deep in the heart of Botswana’s famed Okavango Delta. As its name suggests, Footsteps focuses exclusively on “walking safaris”, small hikes that bring people out from the jeep – and their comfort zone – and onto the dry, African soil. Here, I would take two daily hikes, always accompanied by an armed guide. The Okavango surrounds travellers with a plethora of bird and animal life, but I was here seeking just one thing: big cats.
Our group was an unlikely band of adventurers – a middle-aged doctor-lawyer couple from Scotland, an elderly but able Spanish couple from Barcelona, and me: a tenacious – but slightly terrified – travel writer. As we ambled out of camp, headed for a small pond known as Paul’s Pan (so-named by our leader, after himself), poufs of dust billowed out from under our boots. The Okavango is part of the Kalahari Desert, and nothing but a thin layer of scorched grass and 300m of sand lay under our feet. Botswana is a perennially thirsty country, a place that’s 70% desert, where a drop doesn’t reach the ground for 10 months of the year. Perhaps to appease the gods of precipitation, the country has named both its currency and its national road system pula – in English, rain.
But being here just a few weeks before the start of the annual December rains gave us a strategic advantage in our search for felines. During the dry season, animals don’t have the luxury of shady, green hiding places. They’re flushed out onto the barren, brown savannah, and forced to gather at the few sources of water not yet sapped by the relentless and unforgiving sun.
Indeed, not 10 minutes into our first walk, we came across some wildlife – two giraffes, which we caught in the middle of a rather private moment. The jokes flowed naturally. “Ah, look at those two necking,” one of the Scots said. “She only wanted a back rub,” chipped in one of the Spaniards. Ditiro used this as a teachable moment. As the giraffes decided to make trails away from us – looking none too happy – Ditiro explained the humans have binocular vision, something that we share with all other predators. When prey animals (zebras, antelopes, giraffes) see eyes on the front of the head, they instinctually know that the animal (lion, leopard, or human) is a threat.
Ditiro then switched gears, kneeling down over a big, dry pile of scat. “You see, even elephant dung is fascinating,” he said, picking through it with a stick. He proceeded to open it up, showing us what the animal had eaten, and explaining how, in years past – and sometimes, even now – the stuff was used in the day-to-day lives of locals. “This dung can have medicinal qualities, and when you burn it, it keeps away mosquitoes,” he explained.
We proceed farther out from camp, skirting both Paul’s Pan and another small pond, the latter inhabited by a single, ornery hippo who snorted his displeasure as we passed. “He is showing us how tough he us,” Ditiro explained with a smile. As we walked, Ditiro shared stories from more than a decade of guiding at Footsteps – from the time their resident hyena, nicknamed Fat Albert, snuck in and sunk his teeth into a fire extinguisher, causing it to explode (he was fine, and back in camp scavenging again a few nights later) – to the night a leopard brought her kill into camp and ate it in a tree, right over top the campfire (fortunately, everyone was safely ensconced in their tents).
But the friendly banter stopped when Ditiro spotted something unusual: a couple of vultures in a nearby tree. Motioning to them, he said, “when you get 10 or 15 of those, then you know you have barbecue down below.” But as we walked toward them, more and more vultures gathered, landing on the leafless tree and swooping overhead. “We have a curious situation,” Ditiro said, suddenly serious. “Stay close, and single file everyone – no gaps.”
We passed the vulture tree – all of us keenly aware of the danger that may be all around us – and emerged into a large, open area that would be a meadow after the annual rains.
Disappointingly, there was nothing. No big cats or other predators in sight.
We ventured out on the plains and pans several more times over the next few days, but the encounter with the vultures was the closest we would come to seeing any big-time hunters at Footsteps. While lions and leopards are commonplace in the Okavango, sightings are never guaranteed, and these creatures can be fickle – staying and sleeping in one area for days, then stalking dozens of miles away, at the drop of a hat.
But Ditiro assured me that we would see one – there had been sightings at other camps reported over the radio network that connects these far-flung spots – so he and I left the group to visit another camp, Kanana, to continue our search.
Few of the Okavango’s more than 60 safari camps are connected by road, and access is provided by a handful of small Cessna airlines, which shuttle visitors from camp to camp, bumping down on grass or dirt landing strips and tarrying only long enough to drop one load of guests and pick up another.
We touched down at Kanana, quickly getting down to business. There, our excursions mixed driving and walking, taking a jeep deep into the hinterland, then hoofing it through tall, brittle grass and across vast, scorched savannah. Camp managers told us that lions had been spotted in the area – two males, in their prime. As we drove down the sandy road, Ditiro – one hand on the wheel – leaned a long way out of the open side of the vehicle, spotting and dismissing, one by one, different sets of tracks. “No, just baboon,” he would say, quietly, or “far too old”. But then he saw what we were looking for – lion tracks, fresh ones. “The tracks are the most important thing,” he said. “The tracks lead you to the animal.”
Ditiro parked the jeep and slung a big .458 rifle (sometimes inelegantly known as an “elephant gun”) over his shoulder as we trudged back into the long grass. At first, there was no sign of lions, but Ditiro read the behaviour of the animals around us – or lack thereof. The fact most of the prey had vacated the area was a good sign that the lions were here.
We made a big, crazy circle on foot – from the jeep, through several meadows, around a big pan and back to the jeep – but we still couldn’t find them. On a whim, Ditiro decided that we should turn back – and that’s when we saw them, two big boys hunkered behind a set of bushes. We had walked within a few metres of them earlier, completely unawares.
Ditiro cocked the gun as one of the lions sat up on his haunches, eying us with an intensity that I had never before encountered. I was now prey, and nothing but a bit of African savannah, Ditiro’s elephant gun and the whim of a cat stood between me and certain death. It was terrifying.
As the lion slowly waved his tail, Ditiro told me to hold steady. “He is deciding whether or not to charge,” he said, as my heart pounded in my ears. “He’s about 50m away. He could close this distance in less than two seconds.” I had never before felt so exposed – just a guy standing on his own two feet staring down one of the greatest predators in the animal kingdom.
“Look at those muscles, look at those claws,” Ditiro told me, in hushed tones. “He’s a pure killing machine.” After a few minutes – maybe five, maybe 15 – it was time to go, and the lion didn’t charge. Bumping back to camp, I felt the adrenaline coursing through my veins, a natural high that I will never forget. In the rosy glow of that rush, I felt eternally fortunate. Happy to have had such an amazing experience. And lucky to be alive.