A Weekend at Mombo Trails Camp

Dream it, want it, visualize it, and make it happen. It doesn’t always work, but it worked for Mombo. I have been dreaming about this camp since before we moved to Africa. For anyone who is a safari junkie – Mombo is known as one of the premier wildlife viewing spots in the world. When you are watching national geographic footage of Africa – you can bet that a large portion of the most amazing shots come from the Mombo concession on Chiefs Island.

Chief’s is the largest island in the Okavango Delta. It is situated in the center of the delta which means animals concentrate on this land mass. When the delta floods in May – September the animals get trapped on the island and the game numbers increase even more.

I first learned about the camp from Peter Allison’s books – he was a guide at Mombo for about 10 years and through a couple books he has shared the most amazing stories. When we moved to Botswana, I thought that we would be hanging out at camps like Mombo all the time! How naïve! Mombo is not only insanely expensive but it is incredibly popular (for good reason) so it books out years in advance. This means that there are hardly ever any last minute discounts available….which is the only way Garrett and I can afford to go on safari in Botswana! I have been calling and calling to check for last minute availability….just hoping and wishing. I gave up a few months ago and decided that it just wasn’t going to happen for us. Then one of the staff at Abu Camp rekindled my obsession. He had been a long time manager at Mombo and listening to him describe his magical experiences there made me once again determined to get us there.

He also gave us some pretty key information. The old Mombo camp was being totally remodeled and thus closed for renovation. In the interim a temporary camp called Mombo Trails had been constructed. This is only camp in the Delta actually built on the ground, with no fences or boardwalks so you are completely “in the wild”. He described it as being one of the most unique lodges in Africa. It was basically a once in a lifetime experience because Mombo Trails was going to be dismantled when the new Mombo Camp opened in 3 months. He advised us to get into Mombo Trails before it closed – both for the incredible experience it could offer but also because the new Mombo was booked out for at least a year so we would have no chance of getting in there!

So I started calling again with new found hope and BAM! Found availability on one of the few weekends we could make a trip happen. It was not the most ideal time…literally two days after we got back from visiting the US for my sister’s wedding…but I jumped on it!

We had little expectations for what the camp would look like. I had never seen pictures of the old Mombo but I heard that it was overall pretty basic compared to the newer Wilderness Camps. I envisioned Mombo Trials being similar to Alex Walker’s temporary camps that we recently stayed at in the Serengeti. I thought we would be in pretty basic ground tents – but was quite surprised at what we found. For being a temporary camp that was set up in 2 weeks – they did an unbelievable job with Mombo Trails. The tents were simple yet artfully set up with all the accouterments you would normally find in a Wilderness Camp.

Aside from the unbelievable game, what really sets Mombo apart is the service. It was even better than at Abu camp. While driving in from the airstrip, Garrett for some reason mentioned that he really liked bloody marys. When we arrived to the camp a few minutes later – we were greeted with two amazing ice cold blooy marys! Our guide had radioed in an order for bloody marys as we were talking (in Setswana so we didn’t know!). We were immediately introduced to our private butler who would take care of our every need during the trip. He made sure we were never without a drink or basically anything else we would need. After the bloody marys we were quickly brought some sparkling wine because Garrett had also made a comment on our reservation that I love champagne!

We were incredibly spoiled during our time at Mombo. We somehow scored our own private car and the best guide at the camp. Doc has been guiding at Mombo for over 15 years so he knows everything about the area and is a wizard at finding animals. He even worked with Peter Allison and could attest to the truth behind some of his most outlandish stories. I loved getting to hear his first hand accounts of some of the insane stuff Peter did while guiding – like destroying 3 Defenders in a row within a few weeks time!

We were so excited for our first game drive, we could hardly contain ourselves! We headed out to find a cheetah mom and her babies. I was pretty pumped because baby cheetahs are my favorite!

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In no time we found the mom and her 4 babies. I’ve seen baby cheetahs before but these were younger and we were able to get much closer! We watched them for over two hours while the sunset dazzled in the background . All the while learning a ton about cheetah behaviors. The light was just perfect and we had the cheetahs all to ourselves. We drove back to the camp feeling like if that was the only thing we saw all weekend – we would have been really happy!

The next day we bounced from one amazing encounter to another. We told Doc we liked wild dogs and immediately he conjured up a pack of wild dogs facing off against a group of hyenas on the nearby airstrip. We learned that hyenas really pester the wild dogs and are continually causing conflict. The hyenas know that wild dogs make at least 2 kills everyday so it’s a safe bet that there will always be a chance to steal some leftovers. Anywhere the wild dogs were, hyenas were not too far behind. Sometimes they even come in right after the kill, trying to outnumber the wild dogs and push them off their kill. Even though the hyenas don’t have that much of a chance against the whole pack of dogs – the nuisance of constant fighting irritates the dogs so much that they basically try to avoid hunting when hyenas are close.

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We got to watch the wild dog pack play around for a bit before they went on their morning hunt. The pack had about 5 older puppies who were super playful – they looked just like domesticated dogs rolling around and wrestling with each other. It wasn’t long before they started to hunt. We were hot on the trail but man these dogs are fast! They were hunting in thick mopane brush so we couldn’t get a straight path and had to just weave in and around the trees. We saw some impala bouncing out of the brush which made it look like they missed their kill, however next thing we see is the pack piled on an impala carcass. In literally 1 minute they had taken the animal down, ripped it apart and were devouring it. It is like nothing we have ever seen before.We watched all the members of the pack take a piece. They were really good about sharing and making sure all the little pups got enough to eat. Wild dogs are known to be some of the best family units in the animal kingdom. They really work together to take care of each other and split up responsibilities.

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Next stop was a leopard we watched stalking and unfortunately failing to catch anything. I’ve never seen a leopard hunting so this was a really special sighting. We learned that leopards are not very successful hunters. One of the biggest problems is that they hunt during the day and are faced with pretty much every creature in the area working together to put out alarm calls to warn others that a leopard is in the area. The constant alarm calls make all the game stand on guard and totally ruins the element of surprise. We watched the leopard try to hunt a lone impala. He made it pretty close without the impala knowing but then missed when he lunged. The impala leapt out of the bush and the leopard stood down.

Then something really curious happened. A group of the impala approached the leopard and started snorting loudly at him…basically taunting him! Our guide said this is a typical occurrence. The impala are basically saying “ leave us alone you stupid leopard. You will not get us!” I actually felt kind of bad for the leopard – it seemed really emasculating.

We shared this leopard viewing with Alex Cooke – a national geographic photographer who lives in his car on Chief’s island. It was a totally open vehicle with a flat roof which he puts a mattress on to sleep at night. I just couldn’t believe how truly roughing it he was – I would have thought nat geo photographers would have a nice fancy set up! He eats food out of a can and gets to shower maybe once every few weeks! We felt so bad for him we gave him a beer and our packed lunch! He stays out in the bush for 3 months at a time, then spend a few weeks in Maun, then heads back to the delta. He had been doing this for the past year. He basically sits all day watching predators….hoping to get one amazing shot. Our guide said that he recently caught a leopard making a kill by jumping out of a tree onto an impala. What people don’t realize is that for every amazing shot or video – there are about 100 hours of time put in just scouting out and waiting for that one magic moment. We don’t ever have the luxury of waiting and watching all day because we are usually with other tourists who are NOT into this and we have such a short time on our trips that it doesn’t make sense to stay in one place all day. On our big Africa road trip we hope to really be able to capture some of these special moments because we will be able to do things on our own time.

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Other highlights of our game drives included getting to see baby lion cubs – the youngest ones I’ve ever seen. We had another magical sunset viewing where the light was perfect and we had the animals all to ourselves. The special part about this lion sighting was that we got to see whole family unit. Usually its just the mom with the babies and maybe some other males – but you hardly ever see the males interact positively with the babies. Only the actual father will be affectionate to his babies, other males will actually try to kill them because they see them as competition (we’ve seen this!). It was so special to see the a father playing with his own cubs. The dichotomy of sizes between the massive father and his tiny son was truly incredible.

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On our last morning, our guide wanted to take us to see the rhinos – which would be quite special because this is the only spot you can view rhino in the delta. They got poached out of the Okavango in the 90s and only in the past 5 years have been re-introduced into Chief’s Island. Although this would have been great to see….we told him we would rather go after the wild dogs again….and we made the right choice. We searched for them for about an hour….I was getting quite antsy that we might not be successful! But Doc never fails! He knew exactly how to find them. We spotted them in a large open field just getting up for the morning. They played around for quite a while and even came up to the vehicle to investigate us.

Finally, one of the younger males made an attempt at a Tsebe….which was a pretty stupid choice. Tsebe are the fastest animal on the plains. They call them “Ferraris” because they can really haul ass! The Tsebe being chased looked like he was just leisurely hopping away. It didn’t take much effort at all for him to be far out of reach. It took a while for the pack to come together and try again.

Finally they headed into a wooded area….which makes it so hard to watch and see what was happening. Once the hunt started, it didn’t take but a few minutes before a baby impala was taken down. We missed seeing the actual kill but didn’t realize this would just be the beginning…. What followed was a series of 6 kills! One after another the pack took down multiple baby impalas, totally devoured them…rested for a few minutes then carried on through the bush to take down another. We followed closely behind but it was quite difficult due to how fast the dogs move and how thick the bush was. Out of nowhere an impala jumped right at us in an effort to avoid being killed and almost ended up inside our vehicle! So amazing!

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It wasn’t until the 3rd impala that we actually saw the dogs make the final kill lunge. The alpha male broke the neck of the impala completely off in one bite and the rest of the pack ripped it to shreds within seconds. For larger animals they will begin tearing apart the flesh while the animal is still alive. Gruesome but so incredible. Wild dogs are some of the most unique and exhilarating hunters to watch. It is hard to see kills happen in general and very rare to see so many back to back. Doc said this set a record for the most kills in one day at Mombo! Some people feel that watching animals kills is inhumane or just really gruesome, but it is the reality of how the animal kingdom works. It is the circle of life. An in my opinion it is much more humane than the way animals that humans eat are bred and killed.

After the 6 kills we thought for sure the dogs would be tired and give up for the morning. But it seems these dogs have endless energy and insatiable appetites! We entered an open savannah area and saw a small family of warthogs. The dogs appeared uninterested at first but then the alpha female started slowly stalking toward the warthogs. The other dogs slowly followed. I couldn’t believe that the warthogs didn’t see them coming and immediately run away. When they finally saw the pack it was too late for them to make a getaway, so the male warthog made a brave choice. Instead of running away – he did an about face and ran directly towards the pack! The dogs were so startled and confused that it gave the warthog a head start. It wasn’t much of a head start but it was enough. He ran so fast it looked like he was flying! He dove into his hole and the dogs tried to jump in after but couldn’t get in. It was such a unique and hilarious encounter. We enjoyed watching the near misses even more than the actual kills!

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Our weekend at Mombo was even better than what I imagined. We feel so incredibly lucky to have experienced this once in a lifetime camp. There aren’t that many places where you can be fully enmeshed in a pristine wilderness while being spoiled with 5 star luxury!

More photos and videos from Mombo!

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