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(Tim Johnson for The Globe and Mail)

It was the baboons that spoke to us first. Climbing out of our makoro, a small dugout canoe, and onto Baobob Island, part of the vast Kanana reserve in Botswana, my guide Paul Moleseng scrunched his face in concentration and looked around; left – to keep an eye on the big bull elephant that had greeted our arrival, and right – to figure out what was causing the raucous cacophony of baboon screeches. Wobbling out of the narrow boat, I asked him what was up. “Those are alarm calls,” he said, pensively. “There is something over there that threatens them.”

So I followed Moleseng as he followed the clues, a big .458 rifle slung across his shoulders. “I don’t know how many times I’ve been shown something by a baboon,” he told me, as we walked toward them, and discovered two giraffes that were acting strangely, too. The giraffes held their ground and cast a suspicious gaze the other way – indicating that whatever was on the other side was a bigger threat that we were. We continued onto a vast, arid, open plain and almost trampled by herd of impala, galloping at full tilt toward us. Beyond them, vervet monkeys picked up where the baboons had left off. “Those are serious alarm calls – those monkeys are going out of their minds,” Moleseng whispered.

(Tim Johnson for The Globe and Mail)

And then, I saw why. Popping out from some tall grass and trotting across the far end of the field, a mother leopard walked with her newborn cub, still black, perhaps only a week old.

It was a truly special sight – and a dangerous one, as leopards are especially aggressive when protecting their young. Moleseng, one of Botswana’s top walking guides, kept us at a safe distance, but even he was genuinely surprised. “This is a one-in-a-million experience,” he said, a hint of wonderment in his voice as he gripped the rifle. “Leopards are like ninjas – they see you, but you don’t usually see them.”

(Tim Johnson for The Globe and Mail)

While most wildlife tours in Africa take place in an open-backed jeep, I was in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, a vast, hand-shaped tract that covers much of the northwest portion of this arid, landlocked country, to take part in a walking safari – specifically, to track the continent’s biggest, baddest cats. This is, no surprise, one of the most thrilling places to explore on your own two feet, so safari operators encourage travellers to take in the wild spectacle at ground level. So far, less than 10 per cent of visitors dare to tread, even though Botswana has some of the best-trained guides in the world, who get their walking safari certification only after a rigorous qualification process that’s heavy on firearms training and recognizing animal behaviours.

Moleseng explained the difference between riding in a Jeep (a so-called “game drive”) and a walking safari (not to be confused with the short “bush walks” at many lodges). “A game drive is like watching a movie of nature. You sit, and it all takes place before you, but you’re not part of it,” he said. “When you take a walk here, it’s like reading a book. There’s a lot more detail. You’re part of the story. Your senses and imagination are engaged – you hear the bird calls, you smell the elephant dung.”

Our guide kept a close eye on the tracks in the sand. (Tim Johnson for The Globe and Mail)

It is, however, not without its risks. The Okavango teems with threatening animals. While safari vehicles are safe – all game, even lions, Moleseng says, see them as some sort of benign animal and remain calm when one packed with camera-clicking tourists gets close – being on foot is a whole different matter. Wildlife, many of which have been hunted here since prehistoric times, recognize humans as predators, and react accordingly. The hunted, such as zebras and antelope, often run away. The hunters, however, will challenge you, sometimes in terrifying ways.

Over our week together, Moleseng, a former game scout and park ranger who spent two years living among the country’s Kalahari Bushmen, regaled me with many near-disaster stories from his 12 years of guiding. Once he was even charged by an enraged male lion after accidentally stumbling upon a mating couple. “But I’ve never – not once – had to discharge my firearm,” he said. “Not even to fire a warning shot.”

But he came close during our last day at Kanana. We were tracking two male lions that we had seen the day before from the safari Jeep. As Moleseng kept a close eye on the tracks imprinted into the powdery sand, he showed me the difference between a fresh track and an older one. “Always remember, for every set of eyes that you see, there are 10 more staring back at you.” My heart beat faster as we forged through knee-high grass and I heard Moleseng muse: “It was vegetation like this when I came upon that mating couple.”

His eyes watched our every twitch. (Tim Johnson for The Globe and Mail)

He was convinced that the lions were close. Heading in the direction of the safari vehicle, we decided to make one more pass and immediately saw them – two males in their powerful prime about 50 metres away. The larger one, dark mane resplendent, popped up into a low crouch, his eyes watching our every twitch. His tail traced a slow back-and-forth motion (an indication, Moleseng told me later that he was considering whether to charge).

“This is a standoff, predator to predator,” my guide whispered, as – crack! – he popped a shell into the chamber. “He can cover this ground in about two seconds. If that happens, whatever you do, never, ever run.”

My heart beat hard in my ears as we remained like that for 10 minutes, us watching him and he watching us. I dared to snap a few photos of these beautiful, powerful animals. Satisfied, we walked a big loop designed to show the cats that we were not attempting to get closer, slowly but surely returning to the vehicle.

Bouncing back to camp, the adrenalin drained away, but I remained on a high. I had stared a deadly animal in the face and lived to tell the tale. Moleseng wore a big smile, too.

“We were fortunate that we didn’t get eaten,” he said with a laugh, then quickly grew serious. “No, but we were lucky. That was amazing.”

During the dry season, animals are easier to spot at the waterholes. (Tim Johnson for The Globe and Mail)

IF YOU GO

The best time to visit the Okavango Delta is during the dry season, which continues until early December. During dry season, wildlife often gather at the few remaining watering holes, so spotting animals is easier. As well, vegetation (which can hide predators) is sparse and low. Most of the Okavango’s approximately 60 lodges are serviced via small planes, which use Maun, a town of about 60,000, as their hub. Regular flights on South African Airways’ Airlink service connect the town with Johannesburg.

Where to stay

Britain-based Expert Africa offers tailor-made itineraries to Botswana’s Okavango Delta, including transfers and lodging. expertafrica.com

Ker and Downey Botswana operate four lodges, including Kanana Lodge, a full-service operation that sits on a 6,000-hectare private concession. kerdowneybotswana.com

Jao Camp, operated by Wilderness Safaris, offers a touch of luxury. You’ll find tented rooms, a full-service spa and two swimming pools. wilderness-safaris.com T.J.

The writer’s trip was subsidized by Expert Africa. The tour company did not review or approve the story.

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