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On This Safari, Animals Get a Good Look, Too

Elephants stomp near your tent, baboons visit camp in Botswana's Okavango Delta

A BABOON had stolen the onions from the campsite kitchen; no one could bathe because a grumpy elephant was circling the outdoor showers. Down at the waterfront, a crocodile was lurking in the shallows, contemplating potential meals.

It was a typical day at Botswana's Okavango Delta.

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Among the world's last unspoiled wetlands, the swamps are a geographical oddity poised on the edge of the Kalahari Desert. Visitors camp on pristine islands and drift in dugout canoes called mokoros through the reedy canals. It is one of best places on the continent to spot birds - up to 200 species a day. As for the bigger animals, herds of elephants trundle to the water to drink, and kudus splash through the marsh with lions in hot pursuit.

Eager to escape Johannesburg's urban morass, a friend and I came here, one of the few places in southern Africa where one can explore the wild without a vehicle or an armed guide.

The marvel of the Okavango first hit as we took off in a six-seat plane from Maun, the only town in the area. Thousands of sun-bleached, sandy islands lay in the glimmering water below; herds of wildebeests and impalas sprinted among flocks of white birds.

Landing on a dirt airstrip on tiny, palm-treed Noga Island, we walk about 20 minutes with a guide to Oddballs, the main campsite. Just before reaching the camp, our guide stops and motions us into the bushes. We peer through the tall grass at a huge bull elephant nearby. He shakes a palm tree but apparently isn't happy with the quality of the nuts and knocks it down.

We proceed in the opposite direction.

At Oddballs, manager Nils de Vries advises us not to pitch our tent near low trees, high trees, medium trees, palm trees - basically, any trees. The only open space we find is by the cooking grills where a troop of 12 baboons with bared teeth are rummaging through someone's backpack. Our elephant friend saves the day when he saunters into camp, sending the primates scampering off, barking like dogs.

We spend the rest of the day gingerly exploring the island, trying to avoid the elephant. But he and three friends make a nocturnal visit, shaking trees with a noise like the roar of an ocean wave. At first light, we peer out of the tent to find footprints the size of kitchen sinks just outside. Mr. De Vries strolls by, mug in hand. ``They always seem to stop short of the tents,'' he remarks casually.

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After breakfast, our guide Katmalwano Morkwe (``Just call me KT'') takes us to a mokoro, and we set off, drifting for hours through lily pads and reeds. KT poles deftly past hippos and crocodiles. Only the cries of fish eagles break the stillness. As the day warms, we slip into the clear water to swim and watch the blur of birds - yellow, scarlet, violet, turquoise, white, black, brown, spotted, checked, striped. Some make sounds like fax machines, others like hammers or whistles.

At midday we stop at a nameless island and pitch camp, after KT ensures that there are no predators. As the heat falls, we pole to Chief's Island on the edge of the Moremi Game Reserve.

We wade, barefoot, knee-deep into the swamp in single file, just yards from dozens of impalas and gazelles who splash and leap through the marsh.

KT, several paces ahead, gestures for us to catch up quickly. It is lion spoor. ``Very fresh,'' he says animatedly. ``The lion is near.''

Though the lion eludes us, it is a rich day to spot other animals - warthogs, secretary birds, gazelles, springboks, giraffes.

At sunset - an awesome orange and salmon sky - we dine on impala stew and corn porridge. The fire burns all night to keep animals at bay. Wild dogs bark.

By dawn we are back on Chief's Island. More animal spoor alerts us to problems ahead - about 100 buffalos, perhaps the most dangerous animal in the bush. We duck behind a tree, ready to seek refuge in its branches in case of a stampede.

After an hour the buffalo move on, and we resume our trek. KT suddenly advises us to crouch behind a 10-foot anthill. Just 30 yards away, two lions and five lionesses stride through the grass. They are sated after a night's feast and ignore a couple of bucks nearby, who freeze like statues. We, too, sit motionless as the pride finds a shady spot under a tree to snooze.

After several hours the lions resume their prowl, and we make our way back to camp in the opposite direction, through columns of kudus, wildebeests, and giraffes. Our thoughts are solemnly contemplative - on dinner.

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