Kim, the interim manager at the Macatoo Camp in Botswana's Okavango Delta, said, "You never know what you'll miss unless you go."
I'm glad I listened to her as I planned my last day in camp. I had been waffling about whether to ride in the morning or go for a boat ride in one of the dugout canoes, called a mokoro, before catching a plane to my last stop in Botswana. I wasn't able to go out with the regular group because of my early flight time, so I went on a private ride with Wabongwa "Bongwe" Makate, African Horseback Safaris' head guide. My chaperone Paul had left the previous afternoon to spend time with his family in Maun before heading to Durban, South Africa, for Indaba, Africa's largest travel trade show, so I was on my own.
I enjoyed the one-on-one time with Bongwe, having an opportunity to ask a million questions about his life in Botswana, the flora and fauna of the Okavango Delta and the many challenges that come with horse care there. I was fascinated watching Bongwe use all of his senses to track: When we spotted African buffalo tracks in the sand, he gently waved his hand in front of his face, capturing the scent riding on the slight breeze in his palm. He immediately turned his horse left, and it wasn't long before we came upon the herd of nearly 100 buffalo with their flat, curving horns that reminded me of a Dutch milkmaid's hat.
I hadn't yet seen buffalo on my trip, so I was quite engaged with photographing them. Bongwe then pointed to the tree that was surrounded by the herd. We'd nearly missed a lioness who'd been treed by the buffalo! She was having a rough morning; if she came down from her safe perch in the crotch of the tree, chances were good that the buffalo would kill her. Lions will prey on single buffalo, but she was outnumbered that day.
About a minute later, the lion looked up and caught sight of us. I could nearly hear her weighing the options in her feline brain: Hmmm. do I chance getting killed by the buffalo in the hopes I will have a nice lunch, or do I stay up here and hope these guys will go on their merry way? For a moment it looked like she was going to chance coming down but then thought better of it. Bongwe led me in a businesslike walk in the other direction so as not to change her mind.
Breathing in the sweet scent of wild jasmine, we retreated to a safer area out of the lion's sight. Bongwe told me he'd never seen a lion treed by buffalo before. He was very excited that we'd both captured it on camera, too. I knew it would have been a great story to tell around the dinner table in camp that night, and I was sad to think I wouldn't be there. However, all it took to get past that regret was thinking about the previous night:
After my lovely evening ride on Karimba, a Thoroughbred, through water up over his chest, our group dismounted, untacked and started walking back to our tents when Matt, one of the staff members, intercepted us. He told us to hurry back to our tents, change our shoes, grab a jacket and meet him at the boat. He said there had been a buffalo herd sighting on the road heading to the airstrip. I swapped out my waterlogged riding boots and socks for sandals, flipped up the cuffs of my soggy breeches and made a beeline for the dock. I met Matt and fellow guest Hannah while we waited for Michelle and Brenda.
We hopped in the boat and Matt powered us across to the opposite shore, skimming past marsh grasses and lily pads in the waning light. As we neared the shoreline, I could see flames through the trees. I wondered if there was a fire. As Matt docked the boat, we saw that the "flames" were actually about 20 white candles, lanterns and the fire pit used for cooking. The Macatoo staff had hauled everything by boat from the main camp and raised it 15 feet in the air onto a platform built in the canopies of several large trees. Candles beckoned us up the steep wood staircase to the deck where we were greeted by the staff, a linen-covered table and a lovely dinner under the stars. The camp's cooks presented a beautiful meal of kudu stew, potatoes, butternut squash--and vegetable dishes for Kim and me--that had been cooked entirely in Dutch ovens over an open fire. I wiped away tears when I thought about the special evening they'd arranged.