The First Rule in Tracking Lions: No Running

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Taking a simple walk had never seemed so dangerous. Gathered around a camp table set up with maps, field guides – and gin and tonics – we plotted our stroll into the late afternoon heat. Normally jovial, our guide Paul Ditiro looked around the group, fixing us with a serious look. “The first rule is [...]

Taking a simple walk had never seemed so dangerous. Gathered around a camp table set up with maps, field guides – and gin and tonics – we plotted our stroll into the late afternoon heat. Normally jovial, our guide Paul Ditiro looked around the group, fixing us with a serious look. “The first rule is no running – at all,” he said, his usual glimmer of mirth buried in the gravity of the moment. “And we will walk in a single file line, with me at the head. We have four of the big five out there – and you can easily stumble into them. This is the best way to truly encounter nature. You can smell and touch and taste and feel it. It’s a truly unique thrill.”

I was at Footsteps Across the Delta, a small, remote camp deep in the heart of Botswana’s famed Okavango Delta. As its name suggests, Footsteps focuses exclusively on “walking safaris”, small hikes that bring people out from the jeep – and their comfort zone – and onto the dry, African soil. Here, I would take two daily hikes, always accompanied by an armed guide. The Okavango surrounds travelers with a plethora of bird and animal life, but I was here seeking just one thing: big cats.

Our group was an unlikely band of adventurers – a middle-aged doctor-lawyer couple from Scotland, an elderly but able Spanish couple from Barcelona, and me: a tenacious – but slightly terrified – travel writer. As we ambled out of camp, headed for a small pond known as Paul’s Pan (so-named by our leader, after himself), poufs of dust billowed out from under our boots. The Okavango is part of the Kalahari Desert, and nothing but a thin layer of scorched grass and 300m of sand lay under our feet. Botswana is a perennially thirsty country, a place that’s 70% desert, where a drop doesn’t reach the ground for 10 months of the year. Perhaps to appease the gods of precipitation, the country has named both its currency and its national road system pula – in English, rain.

Paul Ditiro, leading the pack, Botswana, Footsteps Across the Delta
Paul Ditiro, leading the pack. (Tim Johnson)

But being here just a few weeks before the start of the annual December rains gave us a strategic advantage in our search for felines. During the dry season, animals don’t have the luxury of shady, green hiding places. They’re flushed out onto the barren, brown savannah, and forced to gather at the few sources of water not yet sapped by the relentless and unforgiving sun.

Indeed, not 10 minutes into our first walk, we came across some wildlife – two giraffes, which we caught in the middle of a rather private moment. The jokes flowed naturally. “Ah, look at those two necking,” one of the Scots said. “She only wanted a back rub,” chipped in one of the Spaniards. Ditiro used this as a teachable moment. As the giraffes decided to make trails away from us – looking none too happy – Ditiro explained that humans have binocular vision, something that we share with all other predators. When prey animals (zebras, antelopes, giraffes) see eyes on the front of the head, they instinctually know that the animal (lion, leopard, or human) is a threat.

Giraffes at sunrise, Botswana
Giraffes at sunrise. (Cameron Spencer/Getty)

Ditiro then switched gears, kneeling down over a big, dry pile of scat. “You see, even elephant dung is fascinating,” he said, picking through it with a stick. He proceeded to open it up, showing us what the animal had eaten, and explaining how, in years past – and sometimes, even now – the stuff was used in the day-to-day lives of locals. “This dung can have medicinal qualities, and when you burn it, it keeps away mosquitoes,” he explained.

We proceed farther out from camp, skirting both Paul’s Pan and another small pond, the latter inhabited by a single, ornery hippo who snorted his displeasure as we passed. “He is showing us how tough he us,” Ditiro explained with a smile. As we walked, Ditiro shared stories from more than a decade of guiding at Footsteps – from the time their resident hyena, nicknamed Fat Albert, snuck in and sunk his teeth into a fire extinguisher, causing it to explode (he was fine, and back in camp scavenging again a few nights later) – to the night a leopard brought her kill into camp and ate it in a tree, right over top the campfire (fortunately, everyone was safely ensconced in their tents).

But the friendly banter stopped when Ditiro spotted something unusual: a couple of vultures in a nearby tree. Motioning to them, he said, “when you get 10 or 15 of those, then you know you have barbecue down below.” But as we walked toward them, more and more vultures gathered, landing on the leafless tree and swooping overhead. “We have a curious situation,” Ditiro said, suddenly serious. “Stay close, and single file everyone – no gaps.”

We passed the vulture tree – all of us keenly aware of the danger that may be all around us – and emerged into a large, open area that would be a meadow after the annual rains.

Disappointingly, there was nothing. No big cats or other predators insight.

We ventured out on the plains and pans several more times over the next few days, but the encounter with the vultures was the closest we would come to see any big-time hunters at Footsteps. While lions and leopards are commonplace in the Okavango, sightings are never guaranteed, and these creatures can be fickle – staying and sleeping in one area for days, then stalking dozens of miles away, at the drop of a hat.

But Ditiro assured me that we would see one – there had been sightings at other camps reported over the radio network that connects these far-flung spots – so he and I left the group to visit another camp, Kanana, to continue our search.

Few of the Okavango’s more than 60 safari camps are connected by road, and access is provided by a handful of small Cessna airlines, which shuttle visitors from camp to camp, bumping down on grass or dirt landing strips and tarrying only long enough to drop one load of guests and pick up another.

We touched down at Kanana, quickly getting down to business. There, our excursions mixed driving and walking, taking a jeep deep into the hinterland, then hoofing it through tall, brittle grass and across vast, scorched savannah. Camp managers told us that lions had been spotted in the area – two males, in their prime. As we drove down the sandy road, Ditiro – one hand on the wheel – leaned a long way out of the open side of the vehicle, spotting and dismissing, one by one, different sets of tracks. “No, just baboon,” he would say, quietly, or “far too old”. But then he saw what we were looking for – lion tracks, fresh ones. “The tracks are the most important thing,” he said. “The tracks lead you to the animal.”

Finding a lion's print, Botswana
Finding a lion’s print. (Tim Johnson)

Ditiro parked the jeep and slung a big .458 rifle (sometimes inelegantly known as an “elephant gun”) over his shoulder as we trudged back into the long grass. At first, there was no sign of lions, but Ditiro read the behavior of the animals around us – or lack thereof. The fact most of the prey had vacated the area was a good sign that the lions were here.

We made a big, crazy circle on foot – from the jeep, through several meadows, around a big pan and back to the jeep – but we still couldn’t find them. On a whim, Ditiro decided that we should turn back – and that’s when we saw them, two big boys hunkered behind a set of bushes. We had walked within a few meters of them earlier, completely unawares.

A lion on the prowl, Botswana
On the prowl. (Cameron Spencer/Getty)

Ditiro cocked the gun as one of the lions sat upon his haunches, eying us with an intensity that I had never before encountered. I was now prey, and nothing but a bit of African savannah, Ditiro’s elephant gun, and the whim of a cat stood between me and certain death. It was terrifying.

As the lion slowly waved his tail, Ditiro told me to hold steady. “He is deciding whether or not to charge,” he said, as my heart pounded in my ears. “He’s about 50m away. He could close this distance in less than two seconds.” I had never before felt so exposed – just a guy standing on his own two feet staring down one of the greatest predators in the animal kingdom.

“Look at those muscles, look at those claws,” Ditiro told me, in hushed tones. “He’s a pure killing machine.” After a few minutes – maybe five, maybe 15 – it was time to go, and the lion didn’t charge.  Bumping back to camp, I felt the adrenaline coursing through my veins, a natural high that I will never forget. In the rosy glow of that rush, I felt eternally fortunate. Happy to have had such an amazing experience. And lucky to be alive.

 

Source: BBC Travel

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Four Days in Australia’s Open Ocean, Great Barrier Reef

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Standing on the sun deck of the Spirit of Freedom, a live-aboard tour boat on the Great Barrier Reef, I noticed something was missing: land. The shoreline had disappeared overnight and now there was just sky and sea – nothing else – for 220km in every direction. Related article: The Great Barrier Reef, a fragile [...]

Standing on the sun deck of the Spirit of Freedom, a live-aboard tour boat on the Great Barrier Reef, I noticed something was missing: land. The shoreline had disappeared overnight and now there was just sky and sea – nothing else – for 220km in every direction.

Also missing were the crowds, a nearly unavoidable part of the more popular day trips that launch from Cairns, the gateway city to Australia’s most popular natural attraction. Every day, tour boats bring hundreds of holidaymakers to the mega-pontoons stationed on the reef, offering a Disney-fied experience of the world’s largest living structure.

I chose instead to board a live-aboard boat and tour the Coral Sea over a number of days and nights. It’s a holiday that evades the day-trip crowds, allows for more than a day’s diving on the reef and affords travelers a much closer look at the pulsating, psychedelic-looking, 2,300km-long ecosystem that scientists predict could be overrun by seaweed by 2050.

After a three-hour flight from Sydney to Cairns, and an hour-long flight to Lizard Island (so named by Captain Cook for its suitably large population of monitor lizards), I motored out to my new home for the next four days, joining 26 other passengers and 10 crew on the decks of the 37m-long Spirit of Freedom.

Lizard Island, Great Barrier Reef, Spirit of Adventure
A large population of monitor lizards earned Lizard Island its name. (Ethan Teas)

Once we settled in, the small cabins didn’t matter. Days were spent on the deck, with passengers draped over every available surface, napping or holding up a book to shade their eyes. The boat’s close confines meant making friends was inevitable.

Three Chinese students, a German veterinarian, an elderly Kenyan free diver – our group came from a wide range of backgrounds and cultures.

Of course, the one thing that most of us had in common was a love for diving and a desire to see the Great Barrier Reef like no day-tripper ever would. We got below the surface nearly five times a day.

Rarely did we dive in the same place twice. More often, each excursion explored a new section of the reef’s coral-covered walls, which dropped off into to unexplored shadows, the sea floor resting 2,000m below.

There was always something new and exciting to see – blue spotted ribbontail rays, clownfish nestled amid the noodle-like tentacles of their anemone, mind-bogglingly big manta rays and bursts of colour and light from schools of iridescent fish suddenly changing direction. Four dwarf minke whales appeared during a dive on our second-to-last day and lingered for two hours, passing improbably close to those of us who were suspended in stillness, staring.

Spirit of Freedom, Great Barrier Reef, Jessica Teas
Schooling trevally at the Great Barrier Reef. (Spirit of Freedom)

With the right currents, divers could drift along the wall, passively enjoying the changing scenery while surrounded on three sides by the unbroken blue of open ocean. Closer to the surface, sunlit pinnacles of coral pierced the gently sloping beds of sand.

Eventually, when our eyes just couldn’t take anymore beauty – and our tanks ran low on air – we would kick towards the light and climb back aboard the only dry surface for miles. After a shamelessly lazy hour on the sun deck, I was always ready to do everything all over again.

Practicalities
Spirit of Freedom
and Mike Ball Dive Expeditions offer four-day live-aboard trips to the outer reaches of the Great Barrier Reef and the Coral Sea year round. They also have the permits needed to bring divers close to dwarf minke whales – the whales migrate to the area between June and July to mate and calve in the warmer reef waters.

Cyclone season lasts from November to May. The wet season is from December to February but can offer up great visibility and calm waters because of low winds and warmer water temperatures.

Peak season is during the dry months of June to October. June to August is the winter season with cooler air and water temperatures (bring a jumper for brisk nights).

Source: BBC Travel

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6 Essential Reasons To Book A Trip With A Travel Agent

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When booking a vacation, we're obviously always trying to get the lowest prices possible on airline tickets, hotels and rental cars. But aside from the usual tips (book trips 54 days in advance, choose the right day of the week, etc.), there's one secret weapon to nearly always ensuring a good deal: using a travel [...]

When booking a vacation, we’re obviously always trying to get the lowest prices possible on airline tickets, hotels and rental cars. But aside from the usual tips (book trips 54 days in advance, choose the right day of the week, etc.), there’s one secret weapon to nearly always ensuring a good deal: using a travel agent.

Inspired by a recent Reddit “Ask Me Anything” thread with luxury travel agent Steve Shulem, we’ve put together a list of the 6 reasons why you should book through an agent for your next big vacation.

1. They’re likely to get you the lowest price possible.

George Hobica, travel expert and founder of Airfarewatchdog, says, “Travel agents have tricks up their sleeves that automated websites have never heard of.” That means knowing when a price is actually at its lowest point or using unorthodox methods (like ferries or trains) to get you to your destination for less.

2. They’ve got better connections than the Internet.

As Shulem points out in his Reddit AMA, travel agents have resources and connections that the Internet does not. “We have discounted air, we have over 800 hotels where we throw in breakfast and a $100 resort credit, (and) we have cruises where we can get you upgrades and cruise credits and many times a better price,” he wrote.

3. They’ve got the most “pull” with hotels.

Hotels are extra-careful to keep travel agents happy so that they’ll continue to book in the future, writes a travel agent who goes by the name of Tychonaut on Reddit. “A hotel can tell you (a private customer) ‘no’ without a problem. But if they are dealing with an agent they have a bigger incentive to turn that ‘no’ to a ‘yes,'” he writes.

4. They’re especially great at finding group discounts.

If you’re going to Disney World, taking a corporate trip, or planning a romantic vacation, it’s best to let travel agents do the work for you. They’ll research the best deals for 2+ people, find coupons for going out to eat, and try their best to upgrade your suite or hotel room to make it the best experience possible. Think of the time you’re saving… researching alone would take days.

5. They’ll rebook a flight for you.

Say your flight gets canceled unexpectedly, or you’re really, really unhappy with your rental car. Never fear, your travel agent is here! As Shulem explains on Reddit, “…the trend is to look to the travel agent to save you time and help you out should a mishap arise.” Travel agents act as a safety net and can sometimes get extra help regarding canceled tickets that you, acting alone, could not.

6. They can find the best cruises and cruise activities for you.

Need help finding a cruise ASAP, booking the perfect cabin or sorting through pages of off-the-boat excursions? Travel agents can get a cruise certification to help them navigate the cruise-planning waters like a total pro, and they’re usually the first to find out about the best cruise deals or activities.