Okavango Delta, Botswana: Wild Cheetah Spotting

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The andBeyond lodge at Sandibe is a beautiful location in the Okavango Delta, on the border of the Moremi Wildlife Reserve in Botswana. Days involve morning and evening game drives with guide and tracker during the active hours for most animals in the region. Here is the story of my second game drive ever. Special thanks to Gee & Mr. James… edit: there is video that will be uploaded upon my return from Southern Africa, this is being posted from the Kalahari outside Ghanzi during a Botswana heat wave.

Game drive, day 2. Morning.

We spot 4 giraffes in the distance. They are running rather quickly, away from something. Seconds later, antelope are running in the same direction, a sure sign that a predator is near. Our guide, Gee, and tracker, Mr. James, drive in the direction the animals are running from.

The landscape changes from lush green to drier grass. 30 minutes later Mr James points… ‘CHEETAH!’ and right in front of us, nearly perfectly camoflaugued is a big male, walking through the dry grass, breathing heavily. I can hardly believe what I’m seeing, a cheetah in the wild, my first spotting.

We follow at respectable distance. The cheetah saunters over to a nice shady spot and flops down on the sloped earth at the base of a tree. His breathing is very rapid, like a dog that has been running, his belly looks full. We sit in the open air safari vehicle in utter awe. We’re only 20 – 30 feet away, but he doesn’t seem to mind, in fact he doesn’t look at us at all. The loud shutter on my camera doesn’t exist for him and I’m thankful for that. The last thing I want to be doing in Africa is pestering wild animals, for their sake and mine. Frankly, it’s a little hard to believe we aren’t pestering him but there is no evidence he gives a damn, for him we do not exist.

This cheetah is a rare sighting as they are not abundant in the Okavango Delta of Botswana. To see one is extraordinary and for this cheetah enthusiast, a high point for sure. The relaxed posture of a wild, not captive, cat and to see that its fed and content (for the moment) is a wonderful sight. He appears confident, healthy, and quite the bad-ass from my point of view as it was his presence that prompted hundreds of animals to run like hell in the opposite direction. And here he is, lounging, catching his breath.

We whisper to each other and take photos. It turns out that Mr. James’ favorite animal is a cheetah as well as all the visitors and we feel that its an honor to be sharing the open space with a predator. Eventually he rises, perhaps tired of our presence that he’s so far been ignoring. As he moves on, we follow. He’s walking slowly, it’s very hot out. Gee thinks he’s been walking for a while and is tired. This is the hottest time of year, not comfortable for any creature in the middle of the day.

As he walks he appears and disappears within the brush. We witness his spotted coat do its work as a cover in the grass. It’s easy to see how cheetahs blend and a real trick to keep my eye on him although he’s still just 30 feet away. Eventually Gee decides its time to leave him be and we move on, wondering what we’ll spot next that morning.

Game drive day 2: Evening

Minor miracle, the 2nd safari vehicle (there are only 2 vehicles driving around this large area) has spotted the same male cheetah that evening. Gee gets word on his radio and we turn around from our location deep in the concession (Chitabe range in the Eastern Okavango Delta) to find him again.

There he is, lounging in the grass, looking more content than before. His breathing has slowed from the morning and he is rolling on his back, paws up in what looks like the most adorable, playful gesture I’ve ever seen. Its hard not to giggle when he closes his eyes, puts his paws up, wriggles and rolls onto his other side.

The evening flies are out. It’s not easy to take pictures with a steady hand when I’m being assaulted by flying insects. The cheetah doesn’t like it either. Tail flicks, eyes open again in annoyance. Nice to see being pestered by flies is universal. I shake my lens by accident, swatting; he puts his paws to his face, tail twitching. We’re all perturbed.

Enough lounging and rolling, the cheetah yawns, rises, and walks on. We follow in the vehicle.

He finds another lounge, scent marks a branch (urine spray to announce he’s been there to other cheetah) and flops down again, his eyes lazily opening and closing, giant tail rising and falling. We all think of our housecats and the similarities.

Eventually the sun gets lower and lower, the light is dying. Cheetah hunt during the day so it is unlikely he will hunt tonight but if he hasn’t fed enough, it could be a possibility in the next hour or so.

He rises again and gets moving, either looking for prey or a safe spot to bed down for the night where lions, leopards, or other animals won’t find him.

Now we’re really challenged to keep track as he truly disappears from sight although just a few yards away. I think if I look away I’ll lose him forever so I stare hard through the fading light and find him again. We lose track a few times. The light is truly down now and we are driving out of the brush and into an open grass clearing.

Gee’s wife is visiting from Maun and joined us for the drive. Through some sort of amazing vision, she finds the cheetah again against an impossible backdrop of purple light, a quarter mile away, in the dark while we ride on a bumpy moving vehicle. ‘There!’ she points as we squint and see the outline of the cat on the horizon. We’re all silent. The full moon is rising above the delta, blood red from fires in the region, and a wild cat walks into the open plain, casually figuring out the rest of his night. He flops down in the open grassland, again waiting for us to depart, its truly dark now, and we leave him to the rest of his evening.

About the Okavango Delta:

Located in northern Botswana, the Okavango River is a unique natural phenomenon – flowing more than 1 000 km (620 miles) from its source in Angola, this river disappears beneath the sands of Botswana, creating a lush inland delta in the midst of this otherwise arid country. The Okavango Delta is in a constant state of flux, expanding and contracting according to the rainy season. While some parts of the Delta remain permanently flooded, others only experience high water levels from May to September, when rainwaters from Angola reach the outer stretches of the Okavango.

Covering approximately one third of the Delta, permanent swamp areas are lush and green, with groves of wild date palm, papyrus and water lilies growing around deep lagoons lined with riverine forest. Seasonal swamps, on the other hand, contain a network of small channels cutting their way through papyrus and reed beds to create islands of all shapes and sizes. As the floodwaters recede, the islands grow large until, eventually, water only remains in depressions in the landscape, which transforms into open grassland.

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CHEETAH WATCH
 

Currently I'm working on my new film, Chasing Cheetah, based in Namibia; a documentary road trip searching for the cheetah in the midst of human-wildlife conflict.