Beaten Back But Not Defeated

We did get some incredible footage in Deception Valley which fitted our story perfectly, the Kalahari lions are very good looking, one of which we'd christened 'Pretty Boy'.

Generally the Kalahari lions live in smaller groups than in other areas, and seem to fight less among themselves. Most of the lions we met are free of facial scars, and generally all looked in incredible condition.

Sunday morning, we packed up and drove to Maun - mostly a 5-hour slog along the dead straight sand road that runs alongside the veterinary fence*. Yesterday we moved on to Moremi Game Reserve, on the edge of the Okavango Delta. The lions here have a completely different prey base, with buffalo and zebra forming their main food supply. The groups of lions are generally larger, there are more roads and tourists which should make the lions easier to find. On the down side, the grass is longer and the landscape is generally more bushy which could be a problem.

* This is the fence that divides Botswana in two, and was put there at the insistence of the EEC, to ensure that there was no chance of foot and mouth disease or other livestock diseases infecting cattle to the North of the line - so meat products could be exported to the EEC. You should be able to see this fence clearly from space with Google Earth.

Economically, the fence has benefited Botswana, enabling it to export its excellent beef all over the world. It has in some ways helped protect natural areas from incursions by cattle. But the fence also has a big downside. It completely blocks migrations of many grazing animals, many thousands died shortly after the fence was built as their route to fresh grazing was blocked. The long term effects of the fence are still being assessed.


Leaving Deception Valley

It’s not called Deception Valley for nothing.

Camping in the bush is by far the best way to see African wildlife. Being able to examine lion footprints from the night before right outside your tent is exciting enough, but being able to meet some of the smaller creatures; desert mice which nest under the tents (and nibble cables), African wildcats which come to catch the mice, curious hornbills and the African stink ant, one of the largest ants in the world, all contribute to the experience and understanding of how the ecosystem works. But camping is usually best in warmer climates.

Two days ago, another Antarctic front arrived, not that it wasn’t already very cold at night. Now the temperatures dropped to below zero on the valley floor - and when the vehicle moved, the windchill dropped the temperature to as low as -15. This was itself is a major problem for us. The clothing we needed to stay warm was very restricting and batteries of all kinds ceased to function properly. But it was the lions which were our biggest problem now. We noticed with the thermal camera that the tops of the dunes on the valley* edges were a couple of degrees warmer than the valley floor. On very still nights (most nights), a clear thermocline (A clear boundary between gas or liquid of two different temperatures) was visible. Cats don’t like the cold, and it looks as if our lions had disappeared into the dunes - where we can neither film nor follow them - until either the weather warms up, or a breeze breaks up the thermocline and warms the valley floor again. For three days we found no signs of lions that we could film, heard no roaring (one of our main means of finding them), and saw no tracks or kills. It was time to leave the Kalahari...

*Using the term 'valley’ loosely here. The ‘valleys’ around here are usually about a kilometre wide and completely flat on the floor where short grass grows. On either side are fossil sand dunes covered in scrub, which rise as much as 20 metres, but are generally about 10 metres high

these images are made using our image-intensified camera, the 'starlight camera' can film clear images at night using only the light of the stars.


Damage Assessment

Yesterday morning, we sent the bushman and his new companion, a trainee Dutch reformist minister (the lawyer had to leave us and get on with his life) to see if they could find the other 4 female lions we've heard about.

Waiting for the lions we already have tabs on to digest their recent meals gives us a bit of semi-down time so we could get on with some vehicle to vehicle filming using the starlight camera and thermal cameras at night. In the daytime we fixed backfiring jalopies and counted the cost of lost/broken items:

1 sennheiser microphone is hanging in a bush somewhere in the thickest thorniest place we have yet visited.

1 new Canon EOS 5d mk2 suffered complete failure after a couple of drips of coffee fell on it (hopefully it’s a one off, and the rest of them are a little more robust – perhaps Canon could send us a replacement?).

1 battery charger which made a loud crack as rain fell through a leaking tent (during the storms),it hasn't worked since.

1 set of iphone headphones which were eaten by mice (no really, even though there is a well stocked kitchen area nearby).

1 burnt out 12 volt fridge which seems to have had 240 volts injected into it.

Never mind. Tonight’s a fresh night with the clearest stars you have ever seen. Shooting stars are two a penny and even if we don’t find the four other females we’ve heard about, the stars and other fascinating nocturnal wildlife will still be spectacular.



Last night started with some real hope. We located the big male and his two young females again, and they looked pretty hungry. Despite having wasted our time over the last few nights ineptly chasing potential prey, they were now in a great area for filming and hunting.

As night fell, they moved into a perfect position. Then the male stuck his big head up, roared and alerted all the animals to their presence, then the girls started chasing anything that moved. Round and round, backwards and forwards. The oryx were not surprisingly being extra vigilant and pretty much all moved off to somewhere quieter.

This strategy was only going to work if there was at least another lioness present, a strategy that needed a couple of chasers who push the prey towards a couple of catchers. It doesn’t work with just two chasers. But this young inexperienced duo weren’t getting it, and the male who clearly had big expectations wasn’t helping either, just wandering around sticking his big head up at the worst possible times. Eventually they all gave up and settled down for a long sleep.

We were running low on energy and batteries, and decided to return to camp.

Yesterday morning, we discovered to our shock that the trio, who had used up three of our filming nights chasing prey as if they were cubs, had actually brought something down, an oryx, about 3km away from where we left them.

The other lioness and cubs we had been looking for, had also killed an oryx on the road about 15 km to the south. That’s pretty much all of our useful lions used up for at least three days while they digest the 20 or so kilos of meat they’ve each put away.



Normal seasonal conditions have resumed. After a late night with the lions, we generally sleep until about 9am, that's when the tent, which has been sealed carefully against the cold, becomes an oven as the Kalahari sun fries the exterior. Outside it’s deliciously warm with a gentle breeze wafting through the camp. Smoke from the mopane (pronounced mopanee) wood that we burn on the camp fire drifts around as breakfast (porridge and coffee) is prepared. Hornbills cluck. All the lions are asleep.

The arduous bit of film making (well, modern film making) is the transfer and logging of all the digital files we recorded the day before onto something more permanent. Here we have a total of six computers, three for recording imagery, one for controlling a camera, and two for copying files from one drive to another. We also have to charge all the car batteries we used in the night – which means that the delicate and varied birdsong all around is wrecked by the sound of one, or even two generators.

The shower is water heated on the camp fire, put in a canvas bucket and then suspended from a tree. It always seems such a good idea, so refreshing. But every day, it’s a disappointment. As the hot water touches skin, the extremely dry air evaporates the water quickly, cooling it to 'cold setting’ in a matter of seconds. It’s a hot and cold shower.



We have seen two lionesses in particular who are great characters, we watched these girls last night, not quite fully adult, clearly lacking much real experience in getting dinner for themselves. They had most of the right moves, but lacked any strategy – they spent the evening chasing a bunch of savvy oryx around in circles while we did our best to keep up. After a few hours, they wore themselves out, and we left them in deep sleep at about midnight, we drove the hour-long, bitterly cold journey back to camp.

An open top car may seem an odd choice for filming lions, but it gives us greater flexibility with cameras and visibility – even though it is a problem in rain and cold. (There’s no danger from the lions, they just treat us like a part of the landscape, the only ones who ever chase us are cocky cubs out for a bit of fun – although we are constantly vigilant with infra red scopes and thermal cameras.

It is really really cold
Winter in the Kalahari is usually 25 degrees during the day and 2 degrees at night. After the warm weather that brought the rain, an 'Antarctic front’ has returned, and even the days aren’t hot anymore. Driving in an open topped vehicle, in this dry cold air increases the wind chill factor enormously. Without even a windscreen to protect us from cold, we are wearing 6 or 7 layers of clothing, gloves, balaclavas and blankets.

A warming fire and a large whisky soon compensate

Today is re-supply day – it must be Friday. Still no replacement battery charger for the one that exploded during the storms two weeks ago, but we should get fresh veggies, new car radio, whisky and most importantly, water. This is the Kalahari, and it is a desert.


Investigating Food Sources

The next day, we found a lioness with the 6 cubs, one of the females probably having gone off with the male we saw. And they had all eaten recently. Even so, the cubs were up for some fun, and raring to go. We followed them through some thick thorny stuff, and then through some long grass where only the thermal camera could see them properly. As they came out onto the grassy plain, the very last vestiges on daylight had disappeared, the moon still had a couple of hours before rising, allowing the whole family to revel in their complete invisibility to distant animals.

With the thermal and the starlight camera, we could clearly see a line of springbok and oryx in the distance, but couldn’t tell whether or not the lion family knew they were there. The cubs were just stalking, walking in different directions, and eventually all five lions were spread out over quite a distance.

After a time, some springbok came closer, holding their heads low to see where they were going against the starry sky, and the lions could hear the springbok feet moving through the grass.

Naturally a cub ran too soon and all the springbok ran for their lives.

The day before yesterday, we found a new family in the North of the valley, three females and a male. We got a very good look at this new group when two of them followed the Bushman and the lawyer’s car back into camp. Two lionesses wandered around the kitchen area sniffing stuff and trying to work out what it all was.


Chasing Cars - and Oryx

Last night we found our lion family again, they all did their usual pre-move stretch and yawn before moving towards one of the pans, but the cubs were clearly in a mood for some fun, and chased our car as we drove parallel but 100 metres away from the pacing lionesses up the sandy ridge by the pan.

The cubs hunted without purpose and after about an hour and a half of lopeing vaguely towards animals with the effect of frightening them off into the distance, a chance combination of a curious cub walking towards some oryx, and a well placed female and female cub, gave the oryx a good fast chase – and he was lucky to escape - we were so lucky, this is exactly the kind of behaviour we were after.

Since then, we haven’t seen any lions, we've seen aardwolves, cape foxes, leopards, jackals, eagle owls, porcupines and more, fascinating - but not why we’re here.

Let’s hope today the bushman and the lawyer come back with some news of lions.


The Cook, The Lawyer and the Tracker

We have 3 camp helpers working with us; a cook, a recently qualified lawyer from England having a few months of doing something different before he starts his career in earnest, and a bushman tracker. It seemed a good idea to send the lawyer and the bushman off to watch the lions* while we got some rest and prepared for a long night filming. We hoped that the lawyer’s grasp of logic combined with the bushman’s knowledge of animal tracks and behaviour would secure us the group of lions for the night shift. Unfortunately, neither of them had any mechanical knowledge – and the car promptly ‘broke down’ 5 minutes from camp. Someone had turned the petrol tap the wrong way.

* it is common to use trackers (or spotters) to find and then keep tabs on particular animals, by staying with the same family of lions we get to know them and their individual characteristics and habits.

When we found the tracking team later that day, they didn’t have the lionessses we'd seen yesterday, but instead a stunning big male – which while being a good find for the average tourist wasn’t what we were looking for. We wanted our 2 females and cubs.

As darkness fell, it looked as if the male was looking for someone – we hoped it was our family. We followed him through short grass and scrub as he roared, sniffed and trotted. He must have had a scent of something. For us to drive in these conditions, the driver of the car needs to be wearing night vision goggles, which can view the infra red light coming from the filtered car headlights. We can’t use visible light at all except moonlight and starlight.

A difficult trundling hour later, us having almost lost the male lion in the darkness, he found lionesses and cubs for us. One of the cubs ran up and greeted the male, but the females looked less than pleased to see him.

Eventually, they all did a group roar, one of the females finally acknowledged him – and the male walked off into the darkness.

As this was quite a bright night, with a two thirds moon, we were able to clearly see what was happening with the starlight camera, where the prey animals were - and that they looked as though they could use a meal.


Found Lionesses - Hurrah!

This morning was the first dry morning for three days, and despite low threatening cloud, we really needed to go out and see what the rain had brought. Practically at the first 'pan'* we saw a large herd of oryx and an even larger herd of springbok. They were frisky and moving west. At the next pan, it was the same story, but this time even more oryx, a few red hartebeeste (an animal that has declined dramatically in numbers) and about 20 giraffe. The next pan, the same story. We must have passed 300 oryx (compared to the 10 or so from before the rain) and 500 springbok. And then, with a massive stroke of luck we glimpsed an ear of a lioness. And she wasn't alone. With her were another adult female and four strapping half grown cubs - exactly what we were looking for...

*In this part of Africa, a 'pan' refers to a low flat grassy area which the grazing animals prefer. During the short Kalahari rains (normally November to January), water collects in these areas carrying nutrients. The animals also like it because the grass is short and they can see if anything is creeping up on them.


Here Comes The Flood

Our first night out was just before the full moon which gave us loads of light for the night-time cameras and some incredible images of oryx, aard wolves,and springbok.

3 nights later...
I’m writing this from camp in between reading one of the few books I have ever taken on location with me, The History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters by Julian Barnes. Anyone who has read it will know that the first part is all about Noah’s Ark and a great flood told from the point of view of a very small creature. Oddly, the only reason that I have time to read at all is because of a great amount of rain – in the Kalahari Desert, in the dry season. It’s been raining and generally storming on and off for the last 2 days. Just now the sun showed its face for the first time since the clouds arrived. The occurrence of rain here at this time of year is so unheard of that we didn’t bring any real protection from rain. Tents intended for dry sandy conditions leaked - any gear not in Pelican cases is now thoroughly damp.

It looks like we’ll be able to go out tonight regardless of the weather. And lions love a bit of a storm.