Going to the wild dogs

While on safari in Botswana, Chris McIntyre finds himself on the trail of the rarest of Africa's large predators

"So you want to find dogs?" Newman said with a wry smile as we drive off along the sandy track from camp. Passing a herd of impala, close enough to see their finely-marked flanks, Newman digressed to discuss the shape of the arches formed by "cathedral" mopane trees nearby. A group of relaxed kudu picked their way in front of us: the bull with immense, cork-screw horns gently leading three cake-coloured females, heads rocking back and forth as they move.

It was September, in Botswana's Okavango Delta - the middle of the dry season and of my trip. Starting on an overnight flight from London, I'd hopped by successively smaller planes to the gateway town of Maun, and over a mosaic of islands and waterways to Jao, a palatial camp with nine wooden suites perching implausibly on high wooden stilts amid a small, palm-covered island. Think of what Tarzan would have built if he'd had a few million dollars and an imaginative architect, and you can picture Jao.

Inside was vast, while outside was a long balcony with a romantic little cushioned area with open sides and a roof. I could happily have stayed in my room and ignored the chic communal lounge and its long, slightly-too-formal dining table, but to visit Jao without going outside the camp would have been a waste. Close to camp are the Jao Flats, a vast area of the delta's amber-tinted water, covered in a fine hair of wispy reeds, punctuated by the odd palm-covered island.

I'd been introduced to this by Patrick Roendo, a maXanakwe man, or river bushman, who had lived in the delta all his life. Originally, he was a subsistence fisherman, like his father, but he'd laboured to build the lodge and now earned a living taking visitors around the delta in a dug-out canoe. Patrick would stand at the back and punt, pushing steadily through the photogenic reedbeds while spotting wildlife - lily-trotting African jacanas, camouflaged bell frogs that dominated the chorus at dusk, and the malachite kingfishers, which flashed an iridescent blue-green as they swooped inches above the water.

Pausing to cup his hand and drink from a faintly amber-coloured channel, Patrick inadvertently demonstrated that the Okavango isn't a stagnant swamp; it's a true river delta. Its waters start in the Angolan highlands, flow south-east across a geological fault and onto the pancake-flat sands of the Kalahari basin. There they spread slowly to form the Okavango Delta, which, at its maximum flood, extends over an area larger than Wales.

Jolting back to the dusty present, memories of the water evaporated as Newman stopped the 4WD and reached for his binoculars. The other two passengers, Delicia and Don, keen photographers from Vermont, were already straining to follow his gaze. "See the white dot near the fork in the dead leadwood tree," he began, as we realised that a leopard was ahead, reclining in a skeletal tree. We edged closer and soon became distracted by another, smaller leopard, probably the lounging female's cub, who was toying with the remains of an impala carcass.

We sat quietly, spoilt for choice with a content cat on either side. As is the norm in Botswana's private reserves, no other vehicles disturbed us. Chitabe Reserve stands next to Moremi National Park, and is one of many private reserves that have been used as hunting areas. Even in the last decade, the rights to limited hunting quotas in this area were regularly auctioned to the highest bidder. However, in recent years, the demand for safari camps has increased steadily, and photographic safari companies are increasingly buying the right to use such areas without hunting.

We agreed to forgo the traditional safari "sundowner" ritual of finding a vantage point to watch the sunset, and instead stay with the leopards. The cub, apparently disagreeing, took a chunk of meat and climbed onto the low bough of a sausage tree, enjoying it in the last, red rays of the day. After demolishing the meal, we watched the cub stalk a wily dove, and then roll over like a kitten when its prey flew away.

Soon, I too took to the air, arriving onto the grass strip near Lebala Camp in the Kwando Reserve to be met by the jovial Steve Kgwatalala and his tracker, Moeti Madibela. Bordered on its east side by the Kwando River, this reserve is only just bigger than Hertfordshire, but in the late dry season, more elephants congregate here than live in the whole of South Africa. As part of the government's "high revenue, low volume" strategy for tourism, this reserve is limited to just 28 human visitors at any one time.

Typical of Botswana's camps, Lebala is not cheap, but it is very good. You get a canvas suite the size of a good two-bedroom flat, plus great guiding in a pristine area. We drove out after afternoon tea. A quiet English couple from Bristol joined us, slightly horrified at Moeti's corner-seat on the 4WD's front corner. What happens if we meet a dangerous animal? "He sits very still," was Steve's semi-serious response.

Half an hour later, Steve and Moeti were studying spoor on the road. With scarcely a word they climbed back on board, spun the wheel and we bounced off the track and into the bush, following the spoor like bloodhounds as it snaked away from the river. It was almost sundown before we found our quarry. Apparently oblivious to our presence, seven wild dogs and about as many puppies lazed at the foot of a magnificent baobab tree. These are the rarest of Africa's large predators; estimates suggest that fewer than 3,000 are left. They're unique in running down their prey and need to range over enormous areas, so northern Botswana, with its continuous stretches of unfenced parks and reserves, is Africa's best place for them.

We sat and watched and waited: 40 minutes later one started to rise, then stretch, and within minutes they were all on their feet. There was great excitement and much commotion - yelping, licking and whining - before one by one they trotted off. We tried to follow, hanging on to our cameras at what seemed like break-neck speed, until the woods grew thicker and we had to abandon the chase.

Getting down from the vehicle, Steve tried to explain why we'd lost them but I was miles away. I was trying to remember what type of trees formed woodland with such lovely Gothic arches.

Chris McIntyre is the author of Bradt guidebooks to Botswana, Namibia and Zambia. He is also managing director of Sunvil Africa, a leading specialist tour operator to Botswana

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

WHEN TO GO

January-March is the rainy season and best for bird-watching. The game is better during the dry season, May-November, and prices are highest July-October. Book nine to 10 months in advance to get your first choice of camps.

GETTING THERE

Fly via Johannesburg, using regional connections to Livingstone, in neighbouring Zambia, or Maun.

STAYING THERE

Jao Camp costs £313-£500 per person sharing, and Chitabe Trails £224-£341. Both are run by Wilderness Safaris ( www.wilderness-safaris.co.za). Lebala costs from £221-£353 per person sharing and is run by Kwando Safaris (00 267 686 1449; www.kwando.co.za). Sunvil Africa (020-8232 9777; www.sunvil.co.uk/africa) offers a 12-day itinerary, including three nights in each of Jao, Chitabe Trails and Lebala, from £2,891 per person sharing; this includes scheduled flights from Heathrow, light aircraft transfers, all game activities (game drives, boating and walks), meals and drinks.

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