Lots and lots of death, both imagined and real

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Not the sort of line-up you want to see if you are the prey of a lion

As usual, I was hesitant to leave the last camp. As often, my next stop was glorious. Another car-with-wings transported me about an hour away to Wilderness’ Vumbura camp and this time I sat in the front seat with the pilot.

I’m getting less afraid of flying. Don’t get me wrong, I did spend the majority of my time in this cockpit thinking pretty carefully about my funeral.

Would Buzz do a speech or would she be too upset to? Mo probably would. Would any of my exes come? **** probably would but I bet **** wouldn’t. The Daily Mail would probably put it pretty high up the page and the headline would be something like, ‘Daily Mail journalist, 28, who was killed in African plane crash along with four others PROPHESIED her own death in travel blog just days before’. But who would write the article? Tamara, Charlie, Bianca maybe? That would be pretty dark, etc.

Another tiny plane, another photo of the back of a pilot's head
Another tiny plane, another photo of the back of a pilot’s head

But the key progress point here is that I was thinking about it wistfully, not fearfully, and enjoying the view. Also, my palms weren’t nearly as sweaty as usual.

The rules here at Vumbura are the same.

Bolt your doors, baboons are expert burglars. Never leave your lodge after dark on account of the big cats. And if an elephant or a buffalo charges you, don’t run away, but instead make lots of noise and stick your arms out so you look as big as possible.

You’re still never going to be as big as a buffalo or a bloody elephant, I should point out, but apparently it helps.

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A herd of buffalo, staring at me with their big horns and daring me to come just an inch closer so they can gore me gleefully to death

My lodge here is nothing short of jaw-dropping.

It’s vast, settled overlooking the Okavango Delta floodplains, inhabited by hippos, and has a gazebo and a plunge pool outside.

At the Daily Mail, I have to describe what people can clearly see in photographs all the time, to fill space, but I don’t have to do that here, so look… this is where I’ve been staying…

My next brief home, Wilderness' Vumbura camp overlooking the Okavango Delta floodplains
My next brief home, Wilderness’ Vumbura camp (left) overlooking the Okavango Delta floodplains

The first thing I did at my lodge was to take off all my clothes (a rare, rare luxury anywhere other than home), slither into the plunge pool with a glass of wine, and start writing things on my laptop, which was perched on the edge. I should really get travel insurance. 

At one point, a kudu (bit like a glorified deer) wandered past. I clambered out of the pool to say hello and inexplicably wrapped a towel around myself so as to be decent when greeting the mammal, who, let’s remember, doesn’t wear clothes either.

The Sad Bad Liquid Feeling in the glass vial is snapping much less frequently now.

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The palace that was my lodge

So onto the death. There has been much death.

I’ve been on three game drives here and have witnessed the devouring of a furry victim by a pride of lions, a leopard with cubs, and a 20-strong pack of wild dogs.

It’s kind of amazing. And it makes me proud to be a vegetarian.

When humans say ‘yeah but we are designed to eat meat’… they are talking shit.

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The blood-stained nose of a young leopard (with startling bluish eyes), who had recently taken down a kill
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A mummy and her teenage cub, on the prowl for some death
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The outline of a recently consumed victim sitting huge and fat in this leopard’s tum
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What a happy and full leopard, snapped just above our safari vehicle. And look at those chunky paws. Purrrr
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This is mummy leopard disciplining her baby leopard – crime unknown

You couldn’t drag down an antelope with your bare hands if you wanted to, and you wouldn’t want to, because you don’t tear raw meat off the bones of the recently deceased, like Proper Predators do.

We’ve got sissy molars for grinding food, we can’t run fast, we don’t have sharp claws, our digestive systems have nothing in common with that of a Proper Predator, and we have no instinct for attacking grazing animals.

Put a normal human in a field with a baby cow, they will either ignore it or go up and try to make friends with it.

No, we don’t eat meat because our bodies require it. It’s like wine. We consume it because we like to.

Big cats and wild dogs on the other hand…

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My, what big teeth you have
Another big cat, another blood-stained nose
Another big cat, another blood-stained nose
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We followed this pride of female lions with their cubs as they hunted all morning. Looks like a scene from the Lion King, doesn’t it? That’s Simba on the right
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On the left, a male lion cub, and on the right, a mother lion, both surveying the horizon for lunch options
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A teenage lion on the left, just starting to grow out his mane. Yes, we really were this close

The lions and the leopards we saw had already killed. All we really witnessed with them was some avid chomping and a collection of blood-stained paws and chins – the victims being a baboon and and an mpala respectively.

We saw more from the wild dogs.

I love these dappled, huge-eared, graceful, social, vocal, skinny-legged animals. I really have fallen in love with them.

African wild dogs are the most accomplished hunters of the lot, killing around 80% of the animals they target. Lions have a success rate of 25% tops, and leopards only average at around 15%.

The pack of African wild dogs we tracked on their early morning hunt
The pack of African wild dogs we tracked on their early morning hunt

So, we were all having breakfast sleepily on the front deck at the godforsaken hour of 5.30am when a squeal emerges from somewhere in front of us.

‘Wild dogs!’ yells one of the guides. ‘Abandon your food! Get into the vehicle immediately!’

Dutifully, we all spilled our coffee and made a dash for the 4x4s, vrooming off after the pack of dogs.

Obviously, before I had all the information, I thought they had a human, one of us, and was already drafting the headline.

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The is what a wild dog puppy looks like… very fluffy and harmless
This is what an mpala looks like, which is what the aforementioned leopard ate and also what the wild dogs were chasing
This is what an mpala looks like, which is what the aforementioned leopard ate and also what the wild dogs were chasing

I’ve seen wild dogs a few times already, but always snoozing under trees, cuddled up together in a mass of tangled limbs.

This morning, an entire pack of 20 were cantering across the plains at an astonishing pace, chasing a doomed pregnant mpala.

These Proper Predators work together and run like the wind. Once they’ve singled out their victim, it’s over in a flash. We didn’t see the moment of capture, but we heard it.

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Here is a wild dog, relishing in her lightening-speed kill. Yes, those are the entrails of her kill dangling from her jaws. And this is also what a proper meat eater looks like. Humans aren’t proper meat eaters
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My, what a nice ribcage you have there
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This is a photo of the other safari vehicle in front of us as we raced after the wild dogs, which I think is a Very Cool photo

Between the time it took for us to speed after the pack and stop beside them (less than 20 seconds) the mpala was long dead and torn half to shreds, the wild dogs yelping and chattering as they dug into their feast – puppies being served first while the mothers circled to make sure they were safe.

I’m sorry to say that I saw one of the dogs rip the skin off the mpala’s skull from the neck up in one clean swipe, the way you might yank a sock off your foot. Thankfully it was already dead, but still, a tear plopped down my cheek.

It was shortly before this that I took the best photo I’ve ever taken in my life. Not of all the death, but the moments before it, as we chased down the scene. Blog on that coming up next.

Below are some other photos I took that day, which are nice and not related to death…

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This is how lions sleep together, with reckless abandon
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Here are two cubs nursing from their mother
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Here is a kite, scanning the plains for… ok, death
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Here is a bird of beautiful colouring. He is probably having an existential moment
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This is an elephant leaning up against a tree with her front feet to reach a really important leaf

3 thoughts on “Lots and lots of death, both imagined and real

  1. I’ve been to south africa a crazy long time ago now but still remember the safari I did there ! Your amazing photos remind me of it 😉 traveling to Africa is an incredible experience, you are so close to the nature.

    Like

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