Andrew Eames flirts with danger on a roving mobile safari in the heart of Botswana’s sprawling Okavango Delta wilderness
You don’t quite realize how vulnerable you are, a human being under big African skies, until your vehicle gets stuck in the middle of nowhere. And then you become hugely aware of just how far you are from any kind of civilization, and how all the animals you’ve photographed in the two preceding hours happened to be meat-eating predators. It’s a realization that sharpens the senses.
My fellow travelers and I are in Botswana, in the center of southern Africa, and in the heart of a most unusual river system. Despite its name, the Okavango Delta is more than 1,000 miles from the nearest coastline, but the river nevertheless behaves as though it’s reached its final destination.
Having started two countries away to the north in the mountains of Angola, the Okavango sprawls across Botswana like a teenager on a sofa. Here it gradually seeps away into a giant basin of Kalahari sand, but before it does, it creates a multitude of wetland areas that expand and contract with the changing seasons — and breathes life into everything from top predators to the tiniest of termites.
It’s something of a miracle of nature, the Delta, with its unique mix of grassland, forest, wetland and sand, but that doesn’t make it easy to travel through — as we’re rapidly finding out.
Most Delta visitors fly into specific camps and stay put, but my traveling group is part of a mobile safari, moving like the animals from water to water, in a fleet of three vehicles carrying our own tents and food. Only, unlike the animals, we aren’t quite as adaptable to ever-changing conditions, and when the lead vehicle becomes bogged down in a sandy track between the Moremi Reserve and the Savuti Marsh, there’s a lot of huffing, puffing and nervous glances over the shoulder. Fortunately, one of the Land Cruisers has a tow cable, and that, along with shovels and mats, gets us out.
It isn’t the first time we have that (slightly delicious) frisson of fear. Botswana has bravely banned hunting of its big game, and its predators are multiplying fast. On our very first evening we see lion, leopard and elephant on the short drive to our campsite, which is set up under a giant rain tree surrounded by scrubby mopane trees.
Later, sitting around our campfire, after a dinner of boerwoerst and beer, I can almost feel pairs of eyes watching us from beyond the circle of light. Moths are attacking the lanterns; there are monkeys in the trees above, mongooses in the shrubbery, hippos walking past en route to the river at the back, and bellyaching lions out beyond. The fire, and the presence of our crew, gives some sense of security, but anything can walk through the camp, at any time. As we troop off to bed, Gareth, our guide, warns us to “just stay in your tent” whatever the noises. If necessary, he has a gun.
In the morning, the memory of things going bump in the night is pushed aside by the benefits of this kind of safari camping: the crew bring bowls of hot water to our tents, and the breakfast table, decorated with flowers, is groaning with treats, including freshly made porridge, scrambled egg and bacon, and fragrant bread that our cook had just baked over a wood fire.
As if to show us how safe everything is, Gareth takes us off on a short walk to admire the sheer exuberance of the lilac-breasted rollers, birds marking their territory with free-fall dives, and shows us the incredible endeavor and architecture of giant termite mounds.
After a couple of days in the Moremi Reserve, we acclimatize to this tantalizing sense of being self-sufficient in the wilderness, traveling from place to place among herds of graceful impala, handfuls of curious giraffe, and tons and tons of elephants.
Even getting stuck in the sand proves a bonus, because shortly after we get under way again we come across a whole snoozing pack of African wild dogs, the second most threatened species on the continent, their puppies in a piebald heap in the shade.
When we finally reach the Savuti Marsh, released from the snagging sands, it turns out to be waterlogged grassland, with the water itself concentrated in what appears to be stripes of paint on a vast canvas of green. The horizons are smudged with huge buffalo herds, lined up along the edges of the plains like slow-moving freight trains. Closer to hand along the waterways are raucous hornbills in the branches of a dead feverberry tree. And right up close to us are warthogs, the lady-boys of Africa, with their mincing walk and wiggly rears.
Guide Gareth likes to tease us with a taste of imminent danger, so having previously got stuck in the sand, he now leads the convoy through the edges of the marsh. To his credit, he regularly steps out of the vehicle himself at crucial points to wade ahead and check the water doesn’t get too deep. It doesn’t, and our reward is the best sight of all — a leopard, beautifully camouflaged, resting high on a branch.
It is a safari full of memorable moments, but it’s mornings in the campsites I’ll recall the most, particularly those after long dark nights which are inevitably interrupted by a soundtrack of unknown and rather worrying noises. Just after dawn, with the sun up but not yet strong, the temperature is perfect, the light is sharp, the cicadas are starting their electric whine, vervet monkeys are chatting in the trees above and a family of graceful impala are scampering through the distant mopane trees.
Sitting among it all, we feel surprisingly secure, given that we’re pasty-faced bipeds completely out of our hemisphere. But the moments of anxiety are also very much part of the experience, and it’s only because of my Botswana mobile safari that I think I can now put words to the Okavango’s terrific dawn chorus, which I think goes something like this: ‘Hip hip hooray/ what a wonderful day/ at least I didn’t get eaten last night.’
PUBLISHED IN THE WINTER 2014/15 EDITION OF ASTAnetwork