A helicopter pilot and two of his safari guests were incredibly lucky to witness a rare scene of what Helicopter Horizons described as “a lion riding a hippo through the Delta”. Here, chopper pilot Tom Cunningham describes the once-in-a-lifetime sighting…
On November 7th I took off in our Robinson R44 helicopter with two guests, Kay and Lisa, from Mombo Lodge on Chief’s Island in the Okavango Delta.
It was an evening scenic flight which promises great lighting conditions for the enthusiastic photographer as well as a greater chance of seeing predators come out of their shaded hideaways in the subsiding heat.
We were immediately treated to a rather large sighting of black cape buffalo just Southwest of camp on the Eastern side of the Boro channel. Usually this is the best place to find a lion or two, following the herd in the hopes of finding a weak or old buffalo. On this occasion however we didn’t see any so we carried on West.
On our way we spotted herds of elephants bathing in the cool water. Even from our altitude we spotted banded mongoose, baboons, impala and red letchwee in abundance.
As we turned South along the channel I spotted something in a distant lagoon but I couldn’t quite place the figure as we were still several hundred metres away.
The closer we got the clearer the image got and to our surprise we saw that it was a male lion lying on top of a hippo that had recently died.
It is normally not long before crocodiles get the scent of an easy meal, but none were present yet.
The lion appeared very relaxed and as we approached he stood up to see us. We circled a few times to get a better look.
[In an amazing coincidence, Kay says she and Lisa instantly recognised the lion! “His nickname is “no tail” as he somehow had lost the end of it. We had seen him days earlier in another part of the Delta! When we saw him on the hippo we were like ‘OMG it’s no tail!’ What are the chances?”]
Doors are removed on our scenic flights so guests can have a better opportunity to take photographs and in general get a nicer experience during the flight.
The sun was just starting to go down to the West of us, so I positioned the helicopter with the sun behind us for a backlit shot.
The hippo was lying on his side in the middle of the lagoon so the lion had swum out to it.
I revisited the hippo the following evening to see that the crocodiles had gotten the scent eventually. Five crocodiles were feeding on the carcass and had even dragged it to the Southern bank of the lagoon.
There was no sign of the lion unfortunately.
By Tom Cunningham, Helicopter Horizons
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