Three days packed full with amazing lion sightings. That’s what awaited us during our most recent return to Vumbura Plains camp. From three massive males feeding on a buffalo kill, to a lioness nursing her cub beside her lechwe kill, to an adorable reunion between the cubs and mother lionesses of a pride, it was an action packed, lion filled stay, and we are bring you all the details of the various sightings below (and of course on this week’s episode of Safari Stories!).
As part of our Botswana safari in June we returned to Vumbura Plains, a lodge and concession in the north-eastern part of the Okavango Delta, that we have had the pleasure of visiting on numerous occasions now and which always delivers. It’s so nice returning to areas we know, as it allows us to reconnect with old friends such as Willy, who has been our guide at Vumbura on various occasions.
Willy has been guiding in the Delta for decades and his experience and enthusiasm for the bush is infectious. He loves talking about the drama that unfolds on a daily basis and the ever-evolving lion dynamics in particular are something Willy is always keen to share with his guests.
Vumbura's prime location at the edge of one of the main Okavango channels
Vumbura is well known for its great lion sightings and on this occasion we were in for a treat again as the coalition of three dominant males was in the area close to the airstrip. When we first came across the males, they were lying down in tall grass, completely stuffed as they had spent the afternoon feeding. Willy decided we would leave them as it was still hot, and they would likely be inactive until the temperature dropped later in the day. We drove around looking for the lions’ kill and sure enough found a large buffalo carcass, hidden from the baking sun underneath a bush, just out of eyeshot of the lion brothers.
One of the males had the most intense eyes
We decided to take the opportunity of sleeping lions and go for an early sundowner (the sightings this trip had been so good that we’d barely gotten a sundowner in) and only returned to the lion males when the sun was heading for the horizon.
When we got back to where we had left the three brothers, there were now only two. We hurried over to the buffalo carcass to find that one of the males was busy feeding. It’s an impressive sight, an adult male lion feeding on a buffalo. The lion’s claws were out as he held onto the buffalo while tearing flesh from bone.
One of the males feeding on the buffalo carcass
The noise was probably the most gruesome part. It was starting to get dark, but the male was soon joined by one of his brothers and rather than squabbling, which is something lions often do over a kill, the two sat next to each other feeding reasonably quietly before the fuller of the two moved off. We decided to leave the lions feeding as it was now dark.
Note the different kinds of teeth in herbivore and carnivore
The next morning we left camp, looking for a female leopard and her youngster in the vicinity of camp. We didn’t find the leopard but did see tracks of various lions. Tracking at Vumbura when the floods are in season is interesting as you drive through the water from island to island looking for tracks. While driving around these islands, we happened to spot a cheetah on a termite mound, looking around nervously. This part of the Okavango is certainly not known for having a dense cheetah population, so this was a lucky find. It was easy to tell how special of a sighting it was by how excited Willy and the other Vumbura guides were.
A rare find at Vumbura: this cheetah male basking in the morning sun
The cheetah was showing interest in some nearby tsessebe, yet decided not to give chase, rather opting to save energy for an easier hunt (the tsessebe were in the water making it very difficult for the cheetah to make a successful kill). He eventually walked into the tree line before lying down for the day in the shade.
Tsessebe are incredibly athletic antelope and by no means easy to catch in or out of the water
For much of the morning, we had been hearing baboons barking at something in the distance. Leaving the cheetah, we decided to go investigate and as we approached the barking baboons we spotted a lioness lying under a croton bush. Near her was a lechwe carcass and right next to her was a young cub of about 4-5 months old.
The lion cub and its mother stare at us as we carefully approach
Right after we got there, the lions happened to get active (lucky as it was already mid-morning) and went to a nearby watering hole to drink. The young cub drank from a water-filled old elephant track (a very cool size comparison to see).
Lion cub drinking from an elephant track that had filled with flood water
When the two had finished drinking, they walked back towards their kill, the mother laying down and the cub settling down to nurse and then take a nap on mom’s hind leg. Willy mentioned to us that this lioness was part of a group of three lionesses; both the other adult females also have cubs of their own that are slightly older than this cub and this female had not rejoined with the other two yet, likely a bit hesitant to re-join the pride until her current cub was a little older.
A different kind of drink
Taking a break from all the hard work
The baboons in the area were still making a racket and we decided to head back to camp as it was now quite warm. While driving back, Willy heard more alarm calls, this time of squirrels and francolins that were chattering very persistently. While these animals are not always consistent in alerting us to the presence of predators, their persistence this time made us curious and as we drove off the road into the bush we spotted two lioness walking in spread out formation through the thick bush.
We followed them for a while, Willy telling us that these were the other two lionesses in the pride that had four cubs and Hadley and I realized that we had seen these two (a mother and daughter) about two years ago while at Vumbura. The lionesses were likely slowing down after a few hunt attempts and, as it was now really warm, we decided to leave them and carry on…to a surprise bush brunch!
Bush brunch: a great way to round off a spectacular morning game drive
That afternoon we drove out to the boating station and embarked on a water-based safari. It is a really great way to experience the Delta from an entirely different perspective. We took the opportunity to concentrate on viewing and photographing some of the waterbirds like malachite kingfisher, white-backed duck, and pygmy geese while enjoying the beautiful scenery.
Up close and personal with a gorgeous malachite kingfisher
White backed ducks
A highlight was Willy explaining about the different variations of Lily pads and demonstrating how to use the stem as a straw.
Cap'n Willie: He loves the Delta as much as the Delta loves him
Driving the boat through channels formed by hippos was a unique experience in and of itself. Closer to the main channel we also came across a solitary elephant bull who was feeding on Lilly pads and walking through the water with his tail held out above it. Willy explained that he was likely doing this in an attempt to evade crocodiles that were more likely to be found in this area closer to the main channel.
Elephant in the water amongst lillies -a classic Delta scene
It was a glorious evening, with the beautiful light probably contributing as much as any of the animals we saw.
Another sighting we had the following morning was again of the two lionesses we had seen the previous day. When we came across them, the lionesses were flat and appeared very inactive. We noticed that their four cubs were with them and after a few minutes of us being there, the cubs, without any encouragement from moms, walked over to a nearby bush and lay down.
Willy explained that this was likely done in an attempt to entice the mothers to go hunting. Within a matter of minutes, both lionesses were up and, without checking on their cubs who were well hidden nearby, walked out of the area. Noses to the ground they followed some sort of scent trail, eventually stopping at a warthog burrow on a termite mound. It seemed the warthogs had left the burrow as the lionesses were walking with noses to the ground, following the scent trail the warthogs had left behind.
Nose to the ground and figuring out where the warthogs went
The trail eventually fizzled out and the lionesses started showing interest in some nearby lechwe, separating while attempting to approach the lechwe stealthily. During this process one of the lionesses walked straight down the road and past our land-cruiser. She was so close we could have touched her--But obviously didn’t ;)
As the lionesses became separated and hunting opportunities seemed increasingly sparse and difficult they began contact calling to each other to regroup, but to no avail. Eventually one of them decided to call the hunt quits and walked back to where the cubs were hiding. When she got to the area the cubs were in, she again made a contact call and the cubs bounded out of their hiding place to her. It was incredible to see the reunion and excitement. The second lioness also eventually returned and although the hunt had been unsuccessful, the excitement that the whole family showed at her return was touching to see.
Reunion with cubs 1
Reunion with cubs 2
Another glorious few days of safari. And there was more to come…Join us next time for part two of our Vumbura Plains safari.