Every Dog has its Day

It may be elephant, leopard and lion that draw travellers to the Okavango Delta, but it’s the ‘painted’ dogs that drive Sue Watt wild as she discovers the less heralded species of Botswana.
February 2023

As dusk falls over the Delta, I’m transfixed by an enormous elephant heading straight towards me. He comes so close I can see the dense lashes shielding his reddish-brown eyes, the wiry hairs on his trunk and myriad scratches on his tusks. I swear I could reach out and touch him without taking a single step forward — yet he has no idea that I’m here.

Neither do the other 20 bull elephant slurping and splashing around the muddy waterhole. That’s because I’m safely tucked away in a hide, a semi-submerged container with windows just above ground-level, and I’m watching all this unseen. Mesmerised, we stay here for an hour.

It’s one of many magical ‘Big Five’ encounters I get to experience in Botswana’s famous Okavango Delta. Traditionally, the term referred to the five most dangerous animals to hunt — elephant, rhino, Cape buffalo, leopard and lion — but today, it denotes the most iconic wildlife species to tick off (by spotting not shooting) while on safari, the ones that pull in the crowds. Here in the Delta, though, there are no crowds.

Our first stop is Sable Alley in Khwai Private Reserve, a 25-minute bush flight from Maun, the gateway town to the Okavango. With an emphasis on affordable luxury, it’s part of Natural Selection’s portfolio of small, owner-run camps, brimming with character.

The Delta’s cold, clear nights are ideal for stargazing and a night at Natural Selection’s Skybeds is the perfect way to do this. An intimate, rustic camp deep in the bush, it has just three ‘rooms’ — five-metre-high wooden towers like treehouses, open to the elements with the starlit sky for a ceiling.

Our two-hour drive from Sable Alley includes that mesmerising encounter at the elephant hide, and we arrive at Skybeds in time for sundowners. Sipping G&Ts in the bar treehouse, we realise that elephant have joined us, drinking their own sundowner at a waterhole just beyond camp. Dinner is cooked over the campfire, then we head to bed on the top floor of our tower, snuggling up under thick duvets and that fabulous twinkling sky. But sleep doesn’t come easy — I’m too busy taking in the cosmos and counting shooting stars.

Our next Delta destination is Chief’s Island in Moremi Game Reserve, a half-hour flight away. Renowned for its high density of wildlife, the largest island in the Delta was once the royal hunting ground of local ruler Chief Moremi, who gave it to the reserve in the 1970s.

Our home on this beautiful and bountiful island is Sanctuary Chief’s Camp overlooking the Piajio floodplains in the private Mombo concession. Chief’s exudes relaxed luxury: it’s all cream and wood with sumptuous leather sofas and chairs in the lounge under a high thatch roof and sunbeds shaded by calico umbrellas surrounding the pool. Chief’s 12 spacious suites have private plunge pools and all the mod-cons you need, from Nespresso coffee machines and aircon to well-stocked mini-bars and wifi.

The island certainly lives up to its reputation as a predator paradise. On game drives, we see hardly any other vehicles but plenty of lion, either alone or in prides of up to ten, prowling the plains or sleeping in the afternoon sun. We come across a huge dark-maned male lying by the track. As he gets up, he roars then stalks towards a herd of impala. The tension in the air is palpable but the antelope defiantly stand their ground, rooted to the spot as their predator walks past.

But it’s not all about the big beasts. On a mokoro, a traditional dug-out canoe, we glide blissfully along a lily-strewn channel spotting tiny frogs clinging on to grasses and dragonflies fluttering all around us. It’s a classic Okavango scene as the floodwaters arrive from Angola. We head back as the sun sets, reflected perfectly in the mirror-like waters.

And for all the thrill of the Big Five, the animal I really love to watch is the wild dog. The following morning, we leave at a chilly 6am, aiming to reach their den before they go hunting. We find these super-efficient killing machines snuggled up together against the cold, with sated bellies and blood-stained faces. There are 10 in the pack, their huge saucer-shaped ears popping up now and then amid their palette of unique brown, white, gold and black patterned hides — no wonder these canines are known as ‘painted’ dogs.

These fascinating, family-focused beasts may not be in the exclusive clique of the Big Five, but they’ve long intrigued me and my time in their company was truly special.

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