The Selinda Spillway in the Linyanti gets water from both the Okavango in the south and the Linyanti wetlands in the west. Here you’ll find large herds of elephant and buffalo, as well as a healthy population of wild dogs. But our first day at Selinda Camp in this wilderness in northern Botswana was all about lions and their cubs.
Our tent was a sumptuous space with a large wooden deck overlooking the Spillway, where we could relax in the shade during the heat of the day. Inside was classic safari style, with a dark wood writing desk and tea chest, bright rugs and giant bed.
The excitement of lions
We woke before sunrise to the sound of coppery-tailed coucals and red-billed spurfowl, and joined our guides for muffins around the fire before leaving on the first game drive of the day.
One lioness walked off, eyes fixed, perhaps sniffing out some prey. When she came back ten minutes later all the cubs squeaked and chirped to greet her as if she’d been gone forever. Since three of them weren’t her own, it was a reminder that cub care for lions is a communal activity.
Then one of the smaller cubs hatched a cunning plan to take over from the mound king, scrambling up from the back through the middle of a bush where an attack wasn’t expected. The two were having a bit of a fisticuffs when a lioness bared her teeth at the first cub and yanked its tail so it tumbled down off the termite mound, leaving the smaller cub in smug possession.
After about an hour Donald asked what we wanted to do. The moms were still alert to every cracking twig and bird call, watching carefully. We would have liked to stay to see if they’d hunt one of the warthogs in the area, but our Canadian safari mates had seen the lions the day before and preferred to go off and see what else we could find.
The radio crackled to life – a fellow-guide telling Donald the lions had killed a warthog at Star Pan. Drat, just what we’d thought would happen and now we’d missed the action.
So back we went. We found the lions with bloody faces. One or two cubs were still feeding on the carcass, but most of the hind quarters were gone. Unlike males, who think they should be first at the trough whether they’ve made the kill or not, lionesses are good moms. If there’s enough food for all, they happily share with the little ones.
The cubs tugged on the white sinew, strong enough to move the carcass as they pulled. Two white-headed vultures swooped over and settled in a dead tree, startling the cubs off the carcass and back to their moms.
Once everyone had eaten their fill, the bigger cubs went back to wrestling and playing tag, rolling over and biting each others’ tails. The younger ones suckled and dozed. Although all of them were already eating meat, they’d only be weaned at 7-9 months.
Our drive in the afternoon was calmer, more varied, as it usually is when lions don’t take centre stage. The vehicle cast long shadows on the blond grass as we found a feast of birds – bateleur, Dickinson’s kestrel, brown snake eagle, African marsh harrier, openbill stork, African jacana and purple heron. Red lechwe and hippos moved slowly in a marshy area, and a forest of leadwood tree skeletons caught the late afternoon sunlight.
We had drinks at a pan and watched the sunset bring the day to a close. I looked away from the wild orange histrionics of the western sky to the east and found a much gentler palette – grey-blue at the bottom, then narrower bands of lilac and pink, fading to yellow above. It was an echo of our wildlife sightings that day – high excitement with the lions in the morning and the mellow harmonies of our late afternoon encounters with nature.