London – Set on a private concession in the northern reaches of Botswana’s Okavango Delta, the six-tent Duba Plains camp is remote even by this region’s standards.
Interlaced by fine channels, which make the flat, dusty landscape look like a cracked crème brulee, it’s only accessible by light aircraft, and there’s no phone or wifi connection.
Leopards are seen here, but the most common cats are lions. National Geographic explorers and filmmakers Beverly and Dereck Joubert, co-owners of Great Plains Conservation (responsible for managing the camp), documented the resident pride who skilfully honed buffalo hunting techniques to feed their swelling number and have also learned to swim through the Delta’s waterways.
It was a soap opera story of turf wars, power struggles and cruel infanticide, but these days the pride has fractured and signs indicate that another group may soon take over.
Judging by the muscular physique of the lions I encounter – arguably the largest in Africa – it will be an almighty battle.
This year, there’s talk of reintroducing cheetahs into the concession and even rumblings of white rhino as part of The Great Plains/&Beyond joint initiative, Rhino Without Borders, to translocate threatened rhino from South Africa to the Delta. Their exact whereabouts though, is carefully guarded.
Botswana’s commitment to conservation and a successful anti-poaching strategy account for a big part of the country’s appeal. This is one of the most expensive safari destinations in Africa, but also one of the most and popular.
Another draw is the wealth of luxury accommodation on offer, including several options from the Belmond group where mod cons include hairdryers, air-con and fluffy white bath towels. Yet comfort isn’t at the expense of an authentic wildlife experience, as I discover during my stay at the Khwai River Lodge bordering the Moremi Game Reserve.
According to the World Wild Fund for Nature (WWF) there are an estimated 3,000 wild dogs remaining and one of the best places to observe the endangered species is Botswana. Unlike national parks, there are no restrictions on start times in community-owned land so we set off before dawn to beat an influx of self-drivers and tourists from nearby campsites.
It’s notoriously difficult to keep pace with wild dogs, but we give it our best shot when we find a pack chasing mpala. Hurtling off road through leadwood forest we chase the dogs, whose hunting strategy involves splintering into smaller groups and even rolling around in elephant dung to disguise their scent. Their stamina is outstanding, and even with a powerful engine we can’t keep up.
Much easier to track are the slow and graceful elephants who come in 100-strong herds to bath and drink in the Chobe River, bordering Namibia, during dry season (May to October). Operating a mobile camp that moves every five days, &Beyond offer an opportunity to avoid the crowds descending on Chobe National Park.
After a night spent camping beneath a canopy of acacia trees, we find a lion pride at the river which has reached it’s lowest level in 25 years. A young cub with a terrible wound in his leg is lagging woefully behind. His mother pauses and looks back at him, then continues into the thickets.
Not every story has a happy ending, even in paradise.