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Botswana up close and personal

Those who visit Botswana’s lush Okavango Delta region are guaranteed some unforgettable big game encounters. In fact, you never know what you’ll see next.

Botswana up close and personal
Image: Sergio Pitamitz/Photolibrary

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As the jeep comes to a halt, we look out across the water at a procession of strange black shapes moving steadily towards the shore. At this distance it’s difficult to work out exactly what we’re witnessing. I make a few hopeful guesses, but none come close to the truth — it’s a herd of African elephants swimming over from Namibia.

I’d been told before that elephants could swim, but never really believed it. Yet through binoculars I can make out the unmistakable shape of an elephant’s head bobbing up and down. The herd is stretched out in a long line, which moves through the water, grass and reeds in a zig-zag so that the animals in front face us, while those at the back look to be heading in the other direction.

I jump down from the jeep, stretch my legs and gratefully accept a mug of coffee from our guide, Diwe. In the short time it takes the first few sips to work their magic on my sluggish senses, the elephants make remarkable progress. There’s no mistaking them now, and as the leading pack surface onto a little grassy island, I can make out several babies scampering along, their ears flapping to and fro in a wild imitation of their elders.

The frontrunners sink back down into the final stretch of water before the bank, and by now the herd seems much surer of its collective direction. Is it my imagination or are they heading straight towards us? I look at Diwe. If he’s worried he certainly isn’t showing it. Yet onwards they come, looming larger and larger with every paddle. Then, all at once, several trunks shoot straight into the air like periscopes.

“Ah, they’ve spotted us,” says Diwe. And it suddenly dawns on me that he’s stopped the jeep on this spot for a reason. A few yards to our left there’s a natural slope in the bank where our guide has no doubt seen these clever animals emerge many times before. Cameras in hand, we edge a little closer to the jeep as the head of the herd heaves its huge body up onto the bank beside us with a snort and several wafts of its enormous ears. It slows slightly, turns its proud head in our direction and samples the morning air with its trunk. We remain still, determined to give this mighty animal no reason to resent our presence. Then with a shake of its head it disappears into the trees.

The rest of the herd — stained near-blue from the water, except for patches of dusty, dry grey skin on the very top of their heads and backs — dutifully follow. One by one, they trundle past, infant and adult alike, each flashing us a brief warning glance, followed by a cursory sniff of the air. With every fresh encounter, our confidence grows, and as a particularly large specimen bounds up onto dry land, I dart sharply to my left to improve my camera angle.

I know instantly I’ve made a mistake. Erratic movements never go down well in the wilderness. The elephant stops abruptly, turns slightly but significantly in our direction and, with trunk and tusks aloft, lets out an almighty roar. I freeze. The air cools. All chatter stops. Cameras are lowered. The animal stares long and hard. And then, with a forceful flap of those enormous ears, it moves on.

On the drive back to the camp I reflect upon what I’ve just seen. Of course, the big fear on any safari is not close encounters like this, but the lack of them. Going days without seeing anything is the nightmare of all budding adventurers, so to have witnessed something so special within 24 hours of landing in Botswana had really eased the pressure of expectation.

Even so, I had high hopes for the rest of the trip, as the lush wetlands in and around Botswana’s Okavango Delta positively teem with animals. Already I’d seen giraffe, zebra, impala, warthog and wildebeest, and I was confident I’d see at least one big cat by the time I was through.

As we pounded well-worn jeep tracks through the bushes and trees, I wondered if we’d see any more elephants. Seconds later, rounding a sharp corner, I receive an abrupt answer. It is huge. The biggest yet, and my goodness it’s close. This time, though, all seems calm. With its trunk resting on one of its tusks, the elephant eyes the jeep, unsure of our intentions, but, as ever, Diwe’s relaxed body language and amused expression reassures us there’s little to fear.

We sit still, lower our voices, exchange excited glances and point our cameras. Then, after a short, respectful stand-off, we drive on. Behind us, the mighty animal triumphantly flaps its ears in the mistaken belief it has chased us away.

The laughing hippopotamus

My Botswanan safari had started with the smallest plane I’d ever seen. In fact, they’d been getter smaller all day. On the flight from Heathrow to Johannesburg we’d been buffeted around by almost constant turbulence, and the passenger plane that took us on to Maun, in northern Botswana, had been similarly shaky. So when I saw the tiny six-seater waiting for us at Maun airport, I feared the worse.

But I had no need to worry. Our pilot tinkered with a series of dials and switches and we were soon airborne, gliding just below cloud level, passing smoothly over acre after acre of bush and swampland. A small airstrip seemingly appeared out of nowhere. By its edge, in his jeep, sat Diwe, patiently awaiting our arrival.

For the next three days, he expertly guided us around the Linyanti private wildlife concession, on the edge of the Chobe National Park. The dry season had yet to arrive, which meant there was still plenty of lush long grass to provide predators with cover, and numerous watering holes to draw prey out into the open.

Linyanti is one of several concessions operated exclusively by Wilderness Safaris, which has established camps all over northern Botswana. This arrangement means visitor numbers can be controlled, which is better for the wellbeing of the animals. And, with no crowds to worry about, the guides can get their jeeps up close to the beasts with clear consciences, knowing the animals will then be left alone for the rest of the day.

In the Linyanti, there’s plenty to see, even if you stick to the jeep tracks — from the herds of twitchy impala and clusters of graceful giraffe to beautiful birds such as the lilac-breasted roller and ugly ones like the marabou stork. But the images that really endure are those unusual snap shots, the scenes that just can’t be recreated — like the warthog, perched on a termite mound as high as a tree, or the vultures picking over the bodies of two spitting cobras that had perished in a duel.

Our camp, King’s Pool, had been designed to ensure this close contact with wildlife can continue throughout the night. Its rooms sit at the end of a long, stilted walkway that skirts the edge of a lagoon. The walkway dips in two places — one to grant hippos access to the water, and the other extending the same courtesy to elephants. With lions and leopards also common visitors to the area, guests have to be accompanied by guides when they return to their rooms after dark. It all feels perfectly safe, and yet the prospect of a late-night animal encounter hangs in the air like a swarm of midges.

My room was classified as ‘tented accommodation’, but with its thatched roof, writing desk, four-poster bed and sofa, it felt more like a hotel suite. The walls, however, are mostly made from mosquito netting, which keeps the insects out and lets the sounds of the jungle in. On my first night, I lay on my bed with the lights off, tuning my ears to my surroundings, trying to distinguish the fireflies from the birds, and the exotic frogs from the shrieking baboons.

Then there came a sound I hadn’t been listening out for: a deep, guttural groan that almost shakes the bed. Sounding like diabolical laughter, it’s so loud I can’t be certain it hasn’t come from within my room. I turn on my nightlight, get out of bed and peer out towards the lagoon. Then it comes again, this time louder, longer and accompanied by a series of small splashes. I’ve just heard my first hippo, and it may as well have been sharing my bed.

The following morning, I start down the long stilted walkway, braced for an encounter, but as I walk along the boards, I see nothing but an impala, tentatively nibbling the grass.

At lunchtime, we sit on the terrace with cocktails and gaze out over the lagoon. Then the sound comes again, loud and near, but once more there’s no hippo to be seen. Later, after our evening game drive, we retire to our rooms to change for dinner. This time, I hear several of them, groaning and laughing, but again my journey back down the stilted walkway is uneventful.

Come dinnertime, these elusive hippos are dominating my thoughts, and I broach the subject with Diwe over dessert. He tells me King’s Pool is crawling with the animal, and that I’m very unlucky not to have spotted one yet. Then, right on cue, comes that diabolical laughter, louder than at any time before. We rush to the edge of terrace and turn our torches on the lagoon, but predictably our sweeps yield nothing. As I grapple with this latest disappointment, Diwe shines his torch directly beneath him, and, finally, there it is, munching at the reeds beneath our feet.

Fat and stocky, with short, stubby legs and a gigantic head, the huge, grotesque creature chomps away at the reeds with no obvious interest in its audience. We watch in wonder for around 10 minutes as it noisily devours the crop, until Diwe switches off his torch and invites us all to do the same.
“OK,” he says. “I think it’s time we gave it a little privacy.”

Killing time

The second half of our tour saw us transfer to a concession in the Moremi Game Reserve. Like King’s Pool, our new camp, Vumbura Plains, was also surrounded by water — the Okavango Delta floodplains — and leaving the camp often involved ploughing the jeep through puddles 4ft deep.

With the new camp came a new guide, S.T, and his mission was to find us a leopard. So far on the trip, we’d seen plenty of elephant, a huge herd of buffalo and a couple of sleeping lions, so, in the absence of rhino, that meant only leopards were yet to be ticked off on our ‘Big Five’ checklist. The Okavango Delta is something of a hot spot, so my hopes were quite high, but come the day of our departure we still hadn’t seen any.

We set out on one final game drive, splashing through the 4ft puddle and out into the bush in search of this elusive cat. An hour passes, and with it comes giraffe, wildebeest, baboon, elephant, even lizards, but not a single leopard.

Then suddenly the picture changes. As we emerge from a clump of overgrowth onto a jeep track, I hear myself shout out “there!” The jeep stops. The huge cat pads nonchalantly past the front of the vehicle, seemingly oblivious to our presence.  But it isn’t a leopard, it’s something equally exciting — a huge male lion, surveying its kingdom; a luxuriant mane framing its impassive face. We’d seen sleeping lions, but this was something else, and after keeping pace with this majestic animal for a few minutes, we drive away satisfied.

If that’s to be the grand finale, I think, then that’s good enough for me. But as we head back through an open plain, S.T abruptly stops the jeep. I look ahead, towards a distant watering hole, and see five impala and a solitary wildebeest grazing by its banks. But what I haven’t noticed are the two youngish lions — a male and a female — crouching low to the left of the jeep behind two small, sprouting clumps of wild sage. From the intensity of their gaze and the stillness of their pose, their intention is clear, and it occurs to me I might just see my first kill. But the impala and the wildebeest are all too far away, and could easily outrun these young predators if they were to show their hand too early.

Patience is paramount. To succeed, the lions would need to get closer to their quarry, and to do that, they’d need all six animals to look away at the same time.

We sit for what seems like hours, shifting our gaze between the cautious predators, creeping almost imperceptibly forward, and their suspicious prey, nervously sniffing the air between mouthfuls of water.

Suddenly, from the opposite direction, a warthog bounces jauntily onto the scene, pursued by three baby warthogs, following their mother in single file, like a procession of little ducklings.

At the sight of the crouching cats, the mother stops dead in her tracks, but by this point her offspring have bounced dangerously close and have been spotted. The lions now face an agonising choice — persevere with their patient stalking or gamble it all on a mad dash towards this new target.

If I was expecting a quick decision, I was deluding myself. Sometimes in the wild, things take an age to unfold, and the lions and the warthogs must have  exchanged stares for about 15 minutes. At which point, having decided the danger had passed, the warthog family turns and bounces merrily away.

I look back towards the lake. The five impala have abandoned their caution and are casually grazing, but the eagle-eyed wildebeest is still on full alert, staring in our direction. If only it would look away, the lions could resume creeping up to within striking distance.

Nearly 45 minutes had passed since we first found the lions, but every moment has been utterly enthralling, and I’m certain we’re close to seeing something spectacular. But time is running out. Our tiny plane would shortly be leaving for Maun. I lean forward and ask S.T how long these stand-offs can last.
“Oh,” he replies casually. “Often for several hours…”

ESSENTIALS

Getting There

British Airways, South African Airways and Virgin Atlantic fly from Heathrow to Johannesburg. Air Botswana operates a connecting service to Maun at least once a day. From Maun, Wilderness Safaris will fly guests to their camps in a light aircraft operated by Wilderness Air. www.ba.com  www.flysaa.com 

www.virgin-atlantic.com 

www.airbotswana.co.bw

www.wilderness-safaris.com

Average flight time: Around 14h, depending on connections.

 

Getting Around

Depending on the camp, guests have the option of game drives in a 4WD vehicle and wildlife-spotting trips by boat. In the dry season, walking safaris are also available.

 

When to Go

Game viewing is generally best in Botswana between May and November. In April/early May, the grasses are still long, so spotting game can be more challenging. From late May onwards, the landscape can look harsh and dry but it’s easy to spot game, as the grasses and foliage have withered or been eaten, and animals are reliant on more limited water sources.

November is the beginning of the rainy season, and while game viewing can still be excellent, certain animals (particularly elephant and buffalo herds) will start to disperse as soon as enough rain has fallen for them to survive away from the permanent water sources. The most challenging time of year to visit Botswana is from December to March.

The Okavango Delta floods annually from April to June, so the best wetland ‘Okavango’ experience is usually had between May and September.

 

Need to Know

Currency: Botswana Pula (BWP).

£1 = BWP10.5

Health: Consult your doctor about the usual jabs and precautions. Recommended vaccinations include hepatitis A, hepatitis B, typhoid, tetanus-diphtheria and rabies, as well as malaria tablets.

International dial code: 00 267

Time difference: GMT +2

 

How to do it

The Zambezi Safari and Travel Company is offering a six-night Botswana safari, staying at Wilderness Safaris’ camps, from £3,927 per person. This includes two nights at Kings Pool, two nights at Kwetsani, two nights at Vumbura Plains, all meals, drinks and activities, transfers, park fees and light aircraft charter flights. This is valid for travel from 1 November to 19 December 2011. www.zambezi.com

 

More info

www.botswanatourism.co.bw

Bradt’s Botswana Safari Guide: Okavango, Kalahari, Chobe Desert. RRP: £16.99.

Okavango: Jewel of the Kalahari by Karen Roos, available from online stockists.

Published in the Sept/Oct 2011 edition of National Geographic Traveller (UK)