I am currently managing a horse riding safari in the Okavango Delta, Botswana with my main man. These vignettes are snapshots of my life here amid the great swathe of blue sky, the sand and scrub and gleaming flood plains.
They say it has snowed in South Africa, and its frosted breath has travelled creeping blue down south to us; tickling the Delta’s underbelly and slicing the temperatures in half. I’m rugged up; a silk scarf around my throat and layers that can be peeled off one at a time like an onion skin as the day heats up. Ahead of me trots the black domed head of guest Chuck; 86-years-old and in the saddle hard every day, a remarkable feat. Today he sports his quilted snow jacket, the hood pulled up and over his helmet. A rare contrast to the torridity of the previous week. We’ve barely been riding 20-minutes when the first sighting occurs. Rounding a bend in the ribboned elephant track we’ve been travelling on and there, a pack of Wild Dogs, on the trail of their first light hunt. Painted Wolves, with their sleek bodies and rounded Mickey Mouse ears. They pause and sniff in our direction before bounding through the flooded pan before them, at least 15 of them, leaping so the water splashes stiff white around them before finally swimming, black heads like a pod of furred, fanged dolphins. They’re remarkably fast swimmers, moving jerky quick like fleas, forging the opposite bank and melting into the bush. We canter after them but they have disappeared like mist in the face of sunshine, the ultimate bush babies. Chief, our guide with his tasselled leather boots and beaten up cowboy hat, shrugs at the inevitable and took another sandy path, eked out of the thorn scrub by something far bigger than us. My homebred Deanerys snatches a mouthful of the sweet green grass poking its head out of the molapos, before trotting to catch up. As the scrub clears a high-pitched yipping is carried to us on the wind; the eerie ‘twitter’ of the dog, their rousing cry of excitement normally reserved for spilt blood. And another low baying beneath it, a yowling that makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand stiff in the chill. It sounded like a death cry of a baited bear, cornered. “Quickly, come, it’s hyenas fighting wild dogs!” Chief said, his voice carried by the whistling wind. We canter down the track, our horses keen and straining at the bits, jumping at shadows as the racket continued.
There, hardly 10-metres away, two large Spotted Hyenas stand back to back as the pack of dogs run rings around them, like swirling black rice in the wind, ducking and weaving and snarling their high-pitched chorus. We watch as the wily wolves duck in to snap and snatch at their quarry’s haunches; the hyenas sitting down to protect their precious tendons, lashing out at the dogs with powerful jaws. “They’re mortal enemies,” Chief says to us as we watch the spectacle, Montagues v the Capulets. “If they come across each other’s pups they will kill them. There must be a hyena den nearby; see there, a young one.” He points his long riding whip to the right; there hunched in the long yellow grass, hardly visible, a hyena barely more than year old, with the soft furred hide of a youngster. It watches the show, its screwed-up face lopsided and bizarre, showing none of the hyena’s usual malcontent. The sounds of the showdown grow; the hyenas forced out of their central spot and running from their pursuers with their odd seesawing gait. “If they’re not quick, the dogs will disembowel them,” Chief shrugs as he watches. I feel a small squirm at the thought of watching an animal ripped to shreds before me. It’s the cross to bear for any safari goer, or wildlife documenter – to not interfere and let nature take its course. But to my relief it’s not forced upon me; with a final nip and growl the flurry of dogs grow bored and trot away, the shadows of the hyenas hunched and bobbing through the grass as they move in the opposite direction. We follow a stone’s throw from the pack, who slide through the grass like a hot knife through butter. Finally, they find a patch of sunshine and flop down, uncannily similar to their domestic cousins, their heads familiarly resting on each other’s bulk. I’m able to move slowly closer, snapping my camera from Daenery’s back, her ears flicking back and forth at the pack, coiled like a spring should they make a sudden move. But they’re utterly unfazed by us on our horses. We symbolise neither predator nor food, and couldn’t be less interesting. As I watch their prone forms, ears twitching at the occasional fly, their thick tan coats daubed with patches of sooty black and grey , eyes shining amber, I feel humbled. Small in the presence of survival, privileged to watch the encounter between two species whose existence runs parallel to mine. And extraordinary to think how easily it could be not to have seen it; for Chief to have chosen another path that morning, one that would have led us away and around the extraordinary showdown. A once in a lifetime moment that easily could not have been ours, greedily watched and stored in my memory. It peeled back the corner of the Delta to me; just how many of these astonishing moments are happening at any given time across the great crusted expanse of the Okavango. How lucky to clutch at them as they are offered to us.
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