We sat in a tiny 5 seater Cessna plane that hurtled up the runway and flew low over the Okavango Delta so we could marvel at the lush green landscape with tendrils of water snaking across the land, we could see herds of elephants stomping about in the swampy waters, their size not diminished by our high vantage point; giraffes nibbling at the top leaves of the trees and warthogs trampling pathways through the high grassy reeds. In the days preceding our arrival in Botswana we travelled thousands of kilometers across South Africa and up through Namibia, crossing the Namib Desert, the Savannah and now the Kalahari. So this lush landscape was a refreshing sight after days of endless heat and ceaseless desert landscape.
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After 20 minutes our tiny plane made towards the ground, it was the middle of no where and we could see nothing around us but jungle, was there something wrong, why were we landing here, as we came closer and closer you could make out a small dirt landing strip. The plane before us did a quick sweep down skimming along the dirt and back up into the air again. This was to clear the animals out of the way so we could all land. Thankfully we were only allowed to bring one small bag with us because we discovered that we would be hiking to our camp. We were told to strictly stay in a single file straight line as we were walked across the Okavango Delta flanked by men with guns.
We were told to strictly stay in a single file straight line as we were walked across the Okavango Delta flanked by men with guns
Out of nowhere our camp popped up in front of us. Out here there are no fences, the animals truly run wild and you are right in the middle of it all. There were wooden platforms with basic canvas tents pitched on them and while we were fully prepared to bunk down in one of these for a couple of nights, we were led to the honeymoon tree-house. There was a wooden deck built up in a tree with a large canvas tent with a mattress and a small verandah built off the backside that hung over the water looking out into the distant nothingness. It was nothing short of magical. Waking early of a morning to sit out here in the pre-dawn darkness and watch the sun rise with deep purples and reds and pinks slashing the sky above vivid green reeds as the morning swallowed the starry night sky and gave way to a strong blue was an unforgettable experience.
as the morning swallowed the starry night sky and gave way to a strong blue
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in the middle of Africa with nothing between me and the wild but a flimsy tent wall
At night, when the generators were shut off the camp was plunged into darkness and we were under instructions to not leave our tents until a drum was sounded in the morning, so with a small lantern and a bed pan we would stay there listening with baited breath unable to see anything outside in the murky darkness. My heart beat fast and I’m not sure if it was from fear or excitement. It was a dream come true to be in the middle of Africa with nothing between me and the wild but a flimsy tent wall. Warthogs snuffled about noisily below us, elephants tiptoed on padded feet almost silently through the camps narrow walkways, the hippos came splashing out of the water under the cover of darkness to munch on the green grass growing by the waters edge and to wallow gloriously happy in the muddy puddles. This is how I know what sound a hippo really makes, which makes it so much easier to read animal books to kids (FYI it is a deep short but successive grunting sound)! All of this happened, unseen in the dark of night, all we could see were the stars above us. And in the early hours of the morning before the sun began to heat the day you could hear lions roaring in the distance, a low roar that travels up to 8kms this is one of the loudest sounds any animal on earth can make. Despite the heat this sound gave me chills down the spine. We would lay there listening with rapture until sleep would finally overcome us.
Despite the heat this sound gave me chills down the spine
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In the morning, we would line up at the shower block, an open air mud-brick wall set-up. One morning, after a particularly long wait I skipped the line and bravely yelled out to the person in there to hurry up, there was no answer and we all exchanged furtive looks. One of our group of travellers had been strapped to a stretcher the day before and loaded onto a mokoro canoe and rowed slowly out of the camp towards the nearest operating emergency pick up point hours away, after having unusual seizures and fainting. I called out again, are you ok … no answer. I’m coming in I shouted and tentatively walked around the wall to find the shower running onto an empty floor and toilet paper strewn everywhere. Apparently the baboons enjoyed coming in to camp to play around in the showers. With a big grin I reported back to the others that everything was ok and we were all able to enjoy our exhilarating outdoor showers, complete with cheeky baboons watching and laughing at us from the massive trees towering above us.
There was a great common area in the small camp with a large deck where we could help ourselves at the bar and sit and watch the passing animal parade and swap stories with other travellers. During the day a drum would call us here for our meals and we would navigate warily past the grumpy mother warthog who had claimed one of the toilets to give birth to a litter of babies, such adorable little bundles for such a hideous animal. We often came across them scurrying around under the protection of the surrounding gardens and their mother. At night, we would gather on the deck here and stare in wonder at the night sky that was littered with stars. Our view of the universe beyond us was only rivalled (very closely) by the stars seen from the Namib Desert near Sousessvlei just days beforehand. We would happily sit here with the smoke from the mosquito coil curling around us and listen to the choir of the crickets and cicadas, the night was alive with a sort of music that was invigorating and soothing all at once. There is nothing quite like the sound of Africa. As the night got darker the fireflies would flicker across the expanse of the Delta in front of us, melding seamlessly with the star filled sky giving it the illusion of stretching on forever, right to our feet. If only our time here could last as long.
the night was alive with a sort of music
During the day we would be out exploring the surrounding wilderness. One morning we climbed into a Mokoro (a hollowed out wooden canoe) and the Pola (guide) would use a long pole to push us through the canals, very similar to what they do in Venice, though here we had tall grass looming all around us, beautiful lily flowers floating beside us, birds flitting about and the threat of accidentally paddling into one of the hippos we had heard playing here just the night before. The villagers and workers were genuinely afraid of these creatures and were very cautious at all times.
At one point we climbed out of our smooth-sailing little boat and up onto the banks to go exploring on foot for 3 hours. There was no flimsy tent between the animals and I any more, this was the wild. Our guide explained the uses of various different plants, though I’m not sure I would have remembered any of it had I gotten lost; we tracked sets of giraffe footprints and stood downwind of the grazing zebras and skittish impala’s; I learnt the difference between hyena and lion poo; we spied countless species of birds, including vultures; we watched a large wildebeest and marvelled at its speed.
making fresh footprints amongst the animal prints knowing we were the first to explore this area
After cooling off for some lunch we slid back into our Mokoro and headed back out in the opposite direction. As the thunder rolled and dramatically cracked overhead we made our way across mud flats pivoted with hoof prints to a nearby hippo pool where we stood breathless watching their little ears waggle before they would snort a spray of water and submerge themselves once again. Wandering off again into the bush we came so close to a herd of zebras that we frightened them into galloping away in a cloud of dust. We continued on, making fresh footprints amongst the animal prints knowing we were the first to explore this area (not ever, but certainly in days). We passed a rotting buffalo carcass and nearby we see a large footprint in the dust but our guide informs us it is a hyena print, though he not so discreetly changes directions. Over drinks later on we learned that others had come across lions with a fresh kill and that it was in the area we were walking and that it was highly likely that we walked right by without seeing them, but I have no doubts that they saw us!
Botswana has a special place in my heart and is one of the African countries I would love to return to in a different season to witness the diversity of the wildlife there. It is one of those places on earth that is still very raw.
It is one of those places on earth that is still very raw.
A note on the photos: After our time in Botswana we continued our travels across Africa including Zimbabwe which was in a very turbulent time. Upon leaving this country, we got on the wrong side of the border controllers at the airport by not tipping them enough, for reasons unknown, a long story short the full SD memory card from my camera was taken. I had stupidly left it in the bag I checked in at the airport and being in the middle of Africa with little to no access to the Internet I had not backed them up. Lesson learned. I never ever leave my memory card unattended now and always find a way to back up. Anyway, after many tears I am moving forward and living with just my memories of Africa and a few snapshots taken on our pocket camera. All the photos above are my own, except for the starry night sky which I found via Eagle Island Lodge.
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Do you know what sound a hippo makes or what to do if you come face to face with a lion?
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