Dispatch, Southern Africa: Dumb luck on safari


 Travel Weekly's Kenneth Kiesnoski is spent two weeks traveling in South Africa, Mozambique and Botswana. His fourth and final dispatch follows. Click to read his first, second and third dispatches.

One of the highlights of my safari in northern Botswana turned out to be spotting a dog. Not just any old, newspaper-fetching sort of dog.

This was an African wild dog, or Lycaon pictus, an extremely endangered, wolf-like species whose last strongholds are this vast continent’s thickly wooded "bush" landscapes.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources in Cambridge, England, only 3,500 to 5,000 of these small but ferocious predators survive, spread out across 15 or so central and southern African countries. That’s down from a historical population of perhaps 500,000.

Hunting, habitat loss and human encroachment are the main culprits in the wild dog's decline, as they are for many of the endangered animal species found in southern Africa’s game parks, such as Botswana’s Chobe National Park.

Even in the best of times, predators such as the wild dog — and lions, cheetahs, eagles and spotted hyenas — are hard to spot on safari, as they're naturally far outnumbered by comparatively plentiful hordes of their herbivore prey. When predatory species are teetering on the edge of extinction — and justifiably wary of Africa's apex predator, mankind — travelers on your typical safari vacation might very well never see any specimens in action.

In fact, my safari guide and tracker at Chobe — a Batswana (as locals are called) by the name of Sam — told me of one wealthy Australian safari junkie who’s made four trips in the space of as many years to the park specifically to spot a wild dog — and has never seen one.

I was luckier. In Chobe and the nearby Okavango River Delta, as a guest of luxury safari operator &Beyond, I spent four days on game drives through riverine forest and savannah, as well as pole-propelled "mokoro" dugout canoe cruises through floodplain swamps.

During those excursions, the trusty African guides and trackers had no trouble pointing out herds of elephants, giraffes, buffalo, hippos and antelope such as the red lechwe, impala and greater kudu. Not to mention troops of chacma baboons and vervet monkeys; flocks of marabou storks, slaty egrets and hornbills of both the ground and red-billed varieties; and scores of other birds, frogs, reptiles and insects.

But — apart from the odd Nile crocodile here or there — they were largely herbivores all. Trust me, I was thrilled to encounter each and every beautiful species — particularly, my favorites, the elephants and giraffes — born and living free in the bush. No zoo can compare. At the same time, I harbored an unspoken but urgent desire to see a big cat or two on the prowl.

The day before I was due to leave Chobe on an Air Botswana flight bound for Johannesburg, three of my fellow safari-goers and I, out on an early-morning game drive, were able to espy a small pride of lions and a pack of wild dogs from afar. Too far, in fact, to make them out in any great detail or capture them on film.

And we were surrounded by at least six other tourist-filled safari Jeeps, all noisily — and distractingly — jockeying for the best roadside predator-spotting position. Our guides told us we were very lucky to have seen the predators, particularly the dogs. I considered my wish fulfilled, if in a somewhat lackluster way.

The next morning, I rose at 5:30 a.m. — despite being told I could sleep in, given my 8:30 a.m. airport transfer — to bid my campmates at &Beyond’s Chobe Under Canvas site farewell before they set out on their morning game drive with another guide, Meier.

Finishing my breakfast alone and then packing my things, I was convinced that, relieved of me, they would, of course, spot all manner of lion, cheetah, leopard and wild dog first thing. At 7:30 a.m., I decided to hunt down Sam and tell him I was ready to go a bit earlier. Who knew, maybe I, too, would spot something new if I had more time.

The two of us hopped into a Jeep. We’d driven maybe 10 feet out of the campsite when the engine suddenly stalled. As Sam fiddled with the starter, I was startled to see, of all things, a wild dog trot up in front of the Jeep. (I recognized it up close by its mottled coat and bushy white tail, thanks to photos in my animal guide, "Wildlife of the Okavango," by Duncan Butchart.)

It stood there, surveying us and panting silently. “Sam, a dog! A wild dog!” I hissed. Sam looked up, clearly surprised. Soon, several of the dog’s pack-mates trotted into view, as well. There were 13, all told.

"Wow, you are extremely lucky!" Sam crooned, in his lilting, Tswana-accented English. "Looks like they're headed back upland. It’s unusual in this area." He grabbed his CB radio receiver and radioed Meier the news and location.

We watched, transfixed, as the dogs passed through the campsite, the camp's cooks and mechanics hooting and whistling to drive them away. I couldn't believe my good fortune. Thrilled, we revved up the Jeep engine and set out into the park, bound for Kasane Airport and my plane ride out. Hmmm, I wondered, would my luck hold? Would I spot another predator — maybe a leopard — on my way out of Chobe?

An hour passed with little, herbivore or carnivore, in sight as we slowly plied the park's dirt roads. Sam occasionally stopped and peered out of the Jeep, now and then pointing out cheetah or leopard tracks from the night before. I asked him to stop at the park comfort station, as we still had at least 90 minutes of driving to go.

After I jumped back into the Jeep, we drove slowly for maybe 100 feet when something caught my eye on the side of the road, 10 feet or so ahead of us to the left.

Sam was, as was his wont at that time of the day, looking for predator tracks to his right. I caught my breath. "Sam? Umm ... is that a lion?" I asked, not believing my eyes.

He slammed on the brakes. "I can’t believe it," he said. "So late in the morning. That's a young male, probably about to be ejected from his pride by the older males. I think he’s trailing the others, trying to catch up."

The majestic, mane-free young cat ignored us and slinked out slowly into the road, looking left and right, and then crossed to our right. It slowly made its way across the landscape, as I furiously snapped photos, cursing my digital camera for its slow recovery time after each shutter snap.

I never did get a full-on frontal picture, but got plenty of the lion's hindquarters as it disappeared into the bush.

"You are so incredibly lucky today!" Sam said. "I can't actually believe it." Neither could I.

Smiling ear to ear, I wondered if I dared speak my hopes aloud. "Hey Sam. Three for three? How about a cheetah now?" I said. We laughed.

And — my safari hopes filled beyond my wildest expectations — I decided that, as the classic Meat Loaf song says, "Two outta three ain't bad."

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