Botswana – Duba Plains by ORYX Client Jeremy Peters
I’d never stepped foot in Botswana prior to my visit to Duba Plains Expedition Camp – I most definitely want to return!
Duba Plains is situated in the heart of the Okavango Delta – an ecological area famed for it’s natural beauty and abundant wildlife. It’s also fairly well known to be darn pricey. I timed my visit mid February which is in the heart of the rainy season in the Okavango and is classed as low season. Rates can drop by over 50% and make the prospect of a visit more of a reality.
Duba Plains sits on a 77,000 hectare concession which is surrounded by the Okavango Delta water, making it a huge island with an abundance of wildlife but most notably Lions & Elephants. Duba was made famous by National Geographic filmmakers Dereck and Beverley Joubert who made a series of documentaries about the Lions of Duba Plains famed for hunting buffalo in broad daylight.
I was slightly disappointed to hear on my arrival that the Lions’s habits have changed over the past couple of years. Buffalo had moved further north to the more remote area of the concession and the Lions had begun hunting Red Lechwe, and at night! That’s not on!
My Botswana photo safari guide at Duba was the incredibly friendly and knowledgable Kops who looked after me brilliantly. The daily ritual consisted of heading out at 5.30am returning at midday for a spot of lunch. Back out at 4pm to see if the wildlife community was stirring after an afternoon basking in the sun.
It was in the afternoon of my 2nd day at Duba that we returned to 6 Lion cubs that we had seen earlier in the day to see if they were waking from their afternoon slumber – negative! We went off in search of an Elephant herd which we had spotted in the distance. We must have spent an hour or so travelling to and admiring the Elephants before we decided to return to the cubs and then probably back to camp for a well earned drink. The cubs were where we had left them and little had changed – we sensed that was it for the day.
As we pulled up one other vehicle was watching the cubs and it had been sat there for 2 hours in the hope these lovely Lion cubs would do something other than sleep! Well at that moment we heard a noise about 300 yards to our left coming from behind a grassy mound but in the open beyond. It was the sound of 2 Red Lechwe’s fighting in the water. We were not the only ones to hear them. 3 Lion cubs instantly sat up and looked in the direction of where the encounter was coming from. Excitement levels rose in our vehicle! Kops was sure we were about to witness a kill. With that the three lions cubs started to move and the remaining three sat up to take note. We also started to move. Most of the time when you want to go from A to B in the Okavango you have to go via C, D and E as you have a host of natural obstacles in your way. We were very fortunate that our route to take us within 100 yards of the fighting Lechwe’s was direct and we got there within about 30 seconds! The Lions had made good ground and keeping low in the grass the Lechwe’s had no idea what was coming. The advanced party made their move which was also our signal to move from about 100 yards to 15 yards away.
I was photographing with my 300mm 2.8 on my 1DX but soon found that at 15 yards this was too tight so picked up my 5D which had my 70-200mm attached.
It was an incredible sight of Darwinism at work, the brutality of nature and survival in the wild. The three lion cubs who had made the initial contact were soon joined by the remaining three. Fortunately for one of the Lechwe’s the Lions could only focus on one and as such the other made a quick retreat. For his fighting companion 6 versus 1 made bad odds. There were several moments when despite being smothered by Lion paws with impressive claws this Lechwe summoned enough energy to make a concerted effort to break free. Unfortunately he was just outnumbered and each time the mass of 6 Lion cubs would manage to bring him back down into the shallow water. It was intense, powerful and also distressing as more than a few times the Lechwe seemed to look directly at me pleading for help. I soon realised I was running out of light and ISO on my 5D so switched my 70-200mm onto my 1Dx where the ISO capability on the Mk II is quite remarkable.
After some 15 minutes or so the Lechwe gave way to his injuries – unfortunately for him the Lion cubs at 15 to 18 months are not as efficient as an adult male or female would have been. What then struck me was the noise that these 6 Lions made as they fed. It’s quite incredible and no doubt could be heard for miles around….I thought my 16 month old daughter was a noisy eater! Sadly for them they only managed to enjoy the spoils for about 5 minutes before the male Lion and head of the pride arrived…clearly alerted by the racket they were making. There was no “well done kids” but rather an abrupt encounter which left no-one in any doubt that the cubs time eating was over and the rest was for the head of the pride. By this time it was getting quite dark and the cubs retreated into the darkness of the night. The lone Male Lion standing over the carcass with his reflection in the water was quite a striking image. Instead of feasting the male started dragging the remains of the Lechwe across the marshland to a safe place where it could be enjoyed as and when.
I had witnessed my first Lion kill during this Botswana photo safari. It’s not something to be celebrated but as a wildlife photographer you want to portray the reality of life in the wild and this is the reality of survival and the natural cycle in the Okavango and elsewhere. For me, it was an amazing experience but I completely understand for others it would be a somewhat disturbing one. I quickly checked a few of the frames I had taken and was happy to see that there were some telling pictures among them.
Thanks to Oryx for your guidance and organisation as per usual and to everyone else make sure the Okavango Delta is on your list of things to do before you die!