THE FLIGHT FROM London to the Okavango Delta in Botswana is no short hop. It’s eleven hours down to Johannesburg (made easier, despite being in the ignominious rear of the ‘plane, by the genuine – as opposed to professional – charm of some of the flight attendants on SAA). From there, it’s onward for another ninety minutes on a smaller flight to Maun, a way-station somewhere in the middle of Botswana; and from there, on a toy aircraft, barely hovering above the tops of the trees, to our first stop at the Kanana airstrip, a flat piece of dirt, occasionally colonised by baboons.
The first thing you notice as you descend through the clouds and the night into the African dawn, is the colour of the land. For two hours as we flew across the seeming limitlessness of South Africa, the land was as brown as an impala’s hide, patched with tufts of green and embroidered here and there with the glitter of zinc-roofed shanties. The land folds away from you in a blue emptiness; a distant thread of horizon, forever unspooling.
The colour shifts as you veer north toward the wetter regions of the delta – a place where the khaki Kalahari sands are overlaid with a watercolour wash of flat green reeds and shrub, punctuated by ancient grey termite mounds, some as tall as fifteen feet, like the conical hats of giant wizards. These – highest points on the flatness of the land – are surrounded by haphazard clusters of trees, many (because of the season) leafless black fingers praying to an implacably cloudless sky and home to sharp-eyed African Fisher eagles.
This is the Okavango Delta, the final stop of the Okavango river, journeying full, dark and powerful for over nine hundred miles from distant Angola. Here in Botswana’s northern tip, the river fans out into a labyrinth of streams and channels, yielding its fertility into a game-rich oasis, where, exhausted after a journey of five months, it sinks, sighing into the sand.
Okavango. Kalahari: such rotund syllables, so robust with legend.
We came looking for game, and were richly bonused to discover a vastness of ever changing landscapes – of high, dry, golden grasses flecked with the quick stripes of
grazing zebra, that dissolve into the meandering curves of wide blue, hippo-hiding rivers, feeding canyons of bending papyri and bordered by an undulating filigree of olive green grasslands.
We stayed at three different camps (Kanana, Shindi and Savouti), each about twenty minutes’ flight from the other. But the word, “camps” belie their elegance. These are well furnished, high roofed, breezy mahogany and eucalyptus-timbered lodges where we dined (on a wide variety of well prepared, joyously presented international and local cuisines) and where we (dypsomaniacs all!) repaired to for our lunch-time and evening cocktails. Each camp has about seven or eight chalets, private and well ensconced in curtains of leaves. They are large, stylish, airy places with grand, sleep-welcoming, net embraced double beds crowned by ceiling fans; and African-print curtains that seem to float in the eddies of breeze that drift through them. The chalets all have private porches that overlook panoramas of animal-teeming grasslands.
In our first camp, on our first night, we could hear, late in the pitch blackness of the always starry African night, amidst choirs of frogs, the roars of (we assumed) copulating hippos having tons of fun barely feet away from the electrified protection of our chalet. In our third camp, at Savouti, a warthog – those almost comical-looking creatures, were it not for their nasty upturned tusks – was our closest neighbor, having decided to occupy its own mud spa retreat just outside our front door.
The routines were pretty much the same at all the camps: up early (5-ish) to be ready to head out in small clusters of four or five with a guide in an open Land Rover while the day was still cool and crisp. By midday, after four hours or so driving slowly through the untamed countryside, the sun’s heat becomes too ferocious and enervating to do much more than sink into the cool dark of the lodges and exchange the delta’s hot browns and greens for the chilly welcome of the bars’ Sauvignon Blanc. By about 4, we’d be ready – without too much beating around the bush – to head out again into the still brittle day. At six-ish, we’d stop for Sundowners. Such a good custom.
At this time, as the sun begins to fade and the earth cools, we’d stop at a location primed for prime sunset viewing, to relax with Gin and tonics and canapes. There’s nothing quite like a sun-set Gin and tonic or vodka martini, while awaiting the setting sun somewhere in the magical Kalahari. By this time, the sun, now shorn of its heat becomes a spectacular red disc, leeching its colour into its skirt of clouds.
But of course, though magnificent the landscapes and sumptuous the lodges, we were here for the animals.
And they did not disappoint. The visceral, existential thrill of seeing your first ever lion, casually sauntering past you or your first ever sighting of a leopard, scratching its head on a tree, or the serried ranks of impala and kudu and roan antelopes peacefully grazing next to the startling whiteness of egrets, like exclamation marks in the commas of green grass, or the memories of thundering elephants, ears flapping, protecting their mini-me offspring or a lumbering hippo, emerging like a phantasm from the brush for his spot in the water, are jolting and breath-taking.
We were there (October) at the procreative season, at the end of the rains, before the wall of summer heat slammed into town, as ‘half’ the animals seemed to be pregnant or protectively baby-sitting.
We saw, in a heronry – guano encrusted forests of reeds thick with screeching herons, storks and ibises – a ghetto of birds spreading their wings, puffing out their throats, cooling themselves, feeding their chicks, ever jostling one another for room in their overcrowded, but water protected world.
Our driver sneaked up on a family of hyena; three cubs, at first gamboling around near to their burrow. And then, as if summoned to the dinner table, suckling from the plentiful supplies of a bored mother.
As we were driving across a dusty plain, we came across one large, don’t-mess-with-me female baboon, who strutted snobbishly past her noisy, quarrelsome troop, small baby clinging dearly to her underside.
Though we only rarely encountered other trucks, the drivers/guides were in regular contact with each other, should there be an important sighting. And so it happened, as we were cruising one morning past a dazzle of tail-swishing zebra, our driver was alerted to a ‘kill’. A pack of wild dogs had apparently just taken down a pregnant impala. And as if shot out of gun, we made for the site with reckless Nascar-speeding abandon, swerving past cross-roads of trees, over undulating highways of flattened bush, through detours of shrubs, their branches like knives slicing at our ducked heads until we arrived just in time.
Just in time to see a huge pack of snarling, slavering, ravenous wild dogs, faces red with dripping blood, savaging the remains of what had been, not twenty minutes ago an impala. In this season of procreation, we saw the alfa mother rip some part of the carcass from her snarling kith and kin to bring it to her excited, snapping, yelping cubs who leapt upon it with a frenzy of carnivorous zeal. We later were told that the special treat she had so maternally brought over to her brood was the fetus of the dead, pregnant impala.
We sat, awed, hushed by the violence of the activity.
We sat, awed, as we were throughout the trip at our incredible proximity. We were amazed at the extent to which we were simply ignored by the game around us. At our first, heart-stopping, jaw-dropping sighting of a lion, we were stunned as it simply, casually, haughtily strolled past us, a mighty golden presence, a fearless Aslan, not ten feet away. It was as though we were invisible, as though we were all wearing Frodor’s magic ring.
The lion wasn’t the only animal to treat us with such total indifference, such cool insouciance. We parked and sat silently just outside the leap of a wandering leopard seeking shade to rest up before his night of culinary sport. It regarded us as beneath its contempt and not even worthy of flicking an ear in our direction. At one point, as it lay, softly breathing in the shade, we did see its ears twitch and its head raise languidly to look in the direction, way off in the distance of some grazing steenboks. “He’s probably become aware of an injured animal,” our guide – Tsepho – advised us. That’s one injured steenbok that won’t stay injured for long.
It would appear that far from being seen or even smelt as a threat to the game around us, we fellow-predators (which we learned all have forward facing eyes, as opposed to eyes on either side of the head) were invisible to the animals. The large, eleven seated, open sided Land Rover provided us with extraordinary cover: the animals only saw a large, unthreatening lump; and far from smelling us (all that adrenaline flooding the truck), they only smelled the diesel. It gave new meaning to putting a tiger in your tank.
But of course, for every wandering lion we spotted, every curling, sleeping leopard or prowling cheetah, there must have been dozens no doubt a heart-beat away, simply invisible to our lines of sight. For these animals seem to inhabit multiple universes, able to slip in and out of them at will. Now you see them, now you don’t. When they wished to do so, they seemed to be able to simply disappear in plain sight, folding back into the grasses, silently, stealthily, these magical, prestidigitory beasts.
Oh the fascination of it all! We’ve all probably seen elephants somewhere – in a zoo maybe? – and we all have a mental image of these large majestic beasts. The joy was in observing them as they went about their own routines: herding up their mates in some unspoken code, to jointly cross the dark forbidding, crocodile dense channels together; or shaking the slender trunk of a palm tree (long robbed of its fruit by chattering monkeys) in search of a quick slug of sweetness; or feeding off the tall miscanthus grasses by curling their mighty trunks to heave out clumps of grassy protein; or digging their own waterholes, which would later be occupied by hippos and which, when the river floods would eventually become new channels branching away from the mainstream.
And everywhere birds. On the back of a monstrously large, black hippo that crossed in front of our startled driver, slipping out of his universe of bush into his other universe of water, there were several Yellowbilled Oxpeckers happily taking a ride of their tick bearing host. Not far away, just past the ever-present Kingfishers, we heard the drums of some no-doubt obscure Tswana tribe. It turned out to be the mating sound of the tall, stately Kori Bustard. This is quite a boring looking bird, like a small ostrich. However he is able to transform himself into what seems in the distance to be an oddly dressed seventeenth century gentleman. Standing erect and looking around him with proud self- confidence, this bird puffs out its neck feathers (creating the drumming sound), turning them into a Cavalier’s collar, in an elaborate show of courtship. We never saw whether his undoubted sex appeal was able to woo a reluctant and blushing bride.
But enough. This drift of memory has traveled across too many paragraphs. It’s time the page folds on another cinema review…soon.