Written by Scott Womack 

Our 15th Anniversary was coming up and I was wondering what to do that would rival or compare with Paris (5th) or Rome (10th)? It needed to be closer to home and the Okavango Delta in Botswana sprang to mind.

I knew Julie would love it as we had camped in Moremi but both of us wanted, one day, to see the delta from the air and somehow spend time at a luxury lodge. Great idea but how was I going to spend that much money and get her onto an international flight and still keep it a surprise? Weeks later, after being quizzed regularly and dropping  hints that were both hot and cold, we pitched at Cape Town International Airport and I spilled the beans piece by piece as to how we were flying Air Botswana and where exactly in Botswana we were going. As we collected our boarding passes, had out passports stamped, the thrill of the adventure could be shared and enjoyed together and the anticipation bubbled over.

Julie had had her suspicions and hints, seeing of course, as I could not get away with not telling her what to pack or at least what likely scenarios she should consider for her wardrobe. I of course found out that I was not close, so guys make sure you consult another female when mumbling about what should go in that one small suitcase which is allowed on a Cessna flying into the delta.

Landing in a dry, dusty, blistering 30 something degrees at Maun airport, after leaving a comfortable but cold, grey, wet Cape Town, did not diminish the thrill of passing through this gateway to the Okavango. We were met by Boy Boy of Sanctuary Retreats and instead of us having to deal with bureaucracy and queues, we were whisked through immigration and baggage collection, straight into the steady hands of Hazel, our bush pilot. In spite of the hot thermal uprisings, it is a fantastic 15 minute flight out to Stanley’s airstrip. This is just a short hop into the delta but we were not disappointed as we sailed over bald islands, surrounded by channels of blue shimmering water, interspersed with larger pools of crisp, clear water and kilometres of swamp reeds, Mokolwane Palms, Acacia, Sycamore Fig, Sausage Tree, Raintrees and African Mangosteen. All the way to the horizon this jewel of the Kalahari beckoned and enticed us closer. Down in the reeds and water we saw our first elephants and wondered what other smaller, less formidable wildlife we would see over the next 4 days.

Making a circle round the airstrip to check for and ensure that any animals out in the heat of the midday sun would be encouraged to move along, Hazel delivered us into the hands of our safari guide for the 40 min drive to the lodge and our first game viewing along the way.

Our driver / guide ensured that all baggage was securely stowed high on the vehicles’ raised seats and we were encouraged to keep our feet lifted off the floor.While enjoying the return to the bush and our first sightings and encounters with the local game, it was the adventure of driving in the delta that put much sparkle in our eyes and a shrill note or two in our voices. At times there seemed as much water in the vehicle as was surrounding it and it made for some excitement and fun on the way as we threaded our way through patches of elephant grass. The routes followed by man and his machines have been tramped through the delta by hippos, elephants and other smaller game, which have no concern about the depth of the water. For the first-timer it may be a little daunting waiting to feel the vehicle bog down in thick sandy mud or splutter to a dead stop in a metre or thereabouts of water.

After a few crossings, through what we came to call “Okavango Carwash”, we arrived at the lodge and were welcomed by an enthusiastic choir, comprising the most friendly group of people, a few of whom we would get to know well and become firm friends. It was amazing that deep in the bush, a camp awaits all visitors, that is most comfortable, where the service is fantastic and the food awesome.

After a warm welcome and a chilled hand towel to wipe away all irritation and buzzing nuisances, we settled into our accommodation, enjoyed a refreshing drink and then set out to find the big five, the small five, the green five and any other fauna and flora, great and small.

Lions in the grass

Every game drive is an experience all of its own. The anticipation of seeing the exotic and the familiar, a possible lion or leopard sighting as well as the oh so abundant Impala. Each has its own excitement and even the docile placid look of Impala can reach into one’s heart and you begin to see the beauty and character and wonder of nature in all that you encounter.

Julie and I are avid birders and while this does drive our children round the bend as well as other game park visitors, it means that no day goes without its fun and excitement. A new animal, a new bird, a rare find, another piece in the puzzle of building a wonderful experience with the wild places and things of this beloved continent, Africa.

‘Birds of Okavango’ video. Display is dependent on access to YouTube.

Not only does one encounter the animals of the bush but as you travel and share the highlights and excitement, one is drawn closer to those travellers who have ventured from far and near, from within and beyond the shores of Africa. They have come from safe, secure places, with all the facilities and technologies to keep the wilderness at bay. Tourists who come to experience the fullness and richness of exploring our continent and learn about distant lands and customs, are most encouraging when they begin to tell their tales of what has excited them and touched them about Africa and how they will return or encourage others to step out and visit into this mysterious and in some cases feared ‘dark’ continent.

One thing we Africans must learn, is that while we may be complacent and lethargic about travelling in our own backyard, these foreigners from distant lands have braved the unknown to venture here and find that not all is as bad as they have been lead to believe by those who left these shores and carry dark stories. Yes, Africa is not a cheap holiday by anyone’s standards and some visitors may complain about the lesser value and service that they get for their money, but the magic that is at the essence of the African people and the land is magnetic and enticing, such that good food and welcoming, bright, broad smiles in shining happy faces soon convinces the dispirited traveller to keep going and to come back and to enjoy that which is on offer. Nobody can say that Africa leaves them untouched rather captivated to return again and again or even emigrate to share in the lifestyle and benefits of the place we Africans call HOME.

While I may be rambling, as does the conversation and the attention span when on a slow and seemingly fruitless game drive, this is easily remedied when our guide asks if we prefer to keep looking for the illusive African Wild Dog whose spoor was picked up a kilometre back or whether we would like to see the lions that the other vehicle has found, back that way somewhere. No option and immediately the heart rate soars and the eyes of everyone in the vehicle are sharpened and alert, hoping with renewed vigour that the lions do not move on too quickly or so easily become lost in the lengthening shadows of late afternoon and early evening.

Oh what magnificence, what a thrill it is to come close to two young male lions, manes full and bodies sleek and powerful, yet playful and relaxed as they slowly rouse from their extended siesta and if their stomachs are not too full  begin to anticipate another night of hunting and prowling in search of the next chase and the next meal. But No, they have fed in the last day and their stomachs are full and their eyes still heavy. They have no intention of moving on, so as the sun heads for the horizon we leave them to find our own quiet spot and lay out a table of drinks and nibbles to spark our own appetites for the evening meal that will be ready on our return to camp.

As we are greeted back at camp and words spill out of what we saw, there is an excitement and shared enjoyment of having been in the bush. At the same time though not voiced, there definitely is a sense of relief at being able to exit the bouncing vehicle and leave the Okavango back massages behind, take a quick rinse or hot shower and sit down in the fire circle and slake one’s thirst on an ice cold beer or glass of crisp white wine. The conversation flows. Stories of escapades and encounters far and wide are shared and noted for future reference and the next trip. Everyone wants to know where you have been, what you saw, what worked and what did not. For the moment everyone forgets who they are and what they do for a living. Whether home is a mansion in a metropolis far away or a hut or tent in a nearby village, visitors and locals share who they are and what they enjoyed that day and how they plan to enjoy life more fully and make each day just as satisfying as this one, ending as it is under a still, bright, colourful African sky, where stars still shine at night and shooting stars can still be seen streaking across the deep void. One’s breath is taken away at the vastness of the heavenly dome that both wistfully cuddles our small world and at the same time gives room for the expression of our hopes and dreams. For many this is a reprieve from the stress and anxieties of everyday life, a chance to unwind, relax and find a new spark for living. This sense of satisfaction and well-being fosters a drooping of eyelids and the dreamy slowing down of body and mind. Only one idea remains – thoughts of clean, crisp linen and beds beautifully decorated with local foliage, texture and colour, call the weary travellers and the stillness of the night closes in and envelopes the camp.

Close Encounters

Why do we humans keep pets, visit zoos, watch nature programmes and visit game parks? Many and varied are the answers but certainly amongst the reasons is the desire to get back to nature, to see and experience the wild side of life, enjoy its beauty and elegance. We also want to experience the thrill of getting close to wild, untamed animals and share in their power to master their environment. Oh yes and while we seek to get close to this wildness, there should be a healthy sense of self-preservation and respect that gives to each as wide a berth as it deserves or expects before any primal personal space has been invaded.

We stood on our veranda and watched as a resident bull elephant slowly and nonchalantly ate its way passed our chalet and allowed us the opportunity to photograph ourselves, outside of a vehicle, within a few metres of this behemoth. Even as we marvelled at the serene, calm manner of its passage, we were only to realise later that day when walking back to our chalet in the dark of night, how close one can come to such a large animal without being aware of its presence. On the lamp lit path later that night, we were none the wiser until we heard branches breaking beside the path to our front door. Taking a wide detour we approached our chalet from a different direction and then armed with torch and four walls we searched for the night stalker only to discover it had moved off just as quietly and had left nothing but a trail of enormous footprints that sent chills and thrills up and down our spines.

On a more humorous note, we came across a cousin of this camp visitor, which was not as silent and illusive. On entering a deep channel whilst on a game drive the following day, with water reaching to the level of the vehicles lights and beginning to flood the metal deck of the passenger compartment, a nearby female elephant took a dislike to us and expressed her dismay at our presence and made it known that we were not welcome. She paraded up and down on the far bank of the drift, causing our driver to halt the vehicle where he had not wanted, right in the middle of deep, flowing water. Stopping in such a place is not recommended, as very soon the vehicle begins to dig itself in and sink into the sandy bed of the channel as the water flowing around the wheels excavates around the tyres. Manoeuvring onto a shallower sandbar in the channel, our driver engaged reverse gear as the elephant made two or three feinting runs towards us. Eventually she was satisfied that we were going to keep our distance and turned to wander off. As a final flourish, just before disappearing from view, she turned and made a short charge at us and then turned for the bush. In her haste she slipped on wet grass and in a most comical but for her, a most humiliating and undignified manner, she ended up collapsing to her front knees. Only her trunk prevented her from ending with her cheeks in the mud. She recovered her footing and withdrew in disgrace. The manner of her departure was such that we could almost see her blushing and feeling most miserable at having ruined her early show of bravado.Who said animals do not have good and bad days and that they cannot display very specific personalities and teach us something about ourselves and how we behave.

Click on the photos below to enlarge.

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Diminishing returns or hopeful optimism

Now back to the African Wild Dogs. Having visited game parks from Kwa-Zulu Natal to Kruger, Etosha, Serengeti and Masai Mara, Julie and I have caught fleeting glimpses of Africa’s painted dogs but never had the fortune and the pleasure of photographing them up close nor been able to spend time studying them and marvelling. We live in hope and were enthusiastic to return next morning, to pick up the trail and search them out before they moved on. Allan, our chief guide and driver, weaved the vehicle through the bush, spotting spoor as the dogs cut across or used the relative ease of the track to navigate their way. The trail lead into a thinly wooded thicket but no amount of searching uncovered where they had exited and moved on. Then the voice over the radio announced that the dogs were sighted at the Stanley’s Camp airstrip. Final closure to what we had reluctantly begun to accept, the dogs had moved on. The airstrip was too far for us to get there quickly and unfortunately it was time to return to camp, to pack up and bid farewell to Okavango.

African Wild Dogs are known by a number of names, including African Hunting Dog, Cape Hunting Dog, Painted Dog or Wolf, Spotted Dog or Ornate Wolf. These highly social pack animals are on the verge of extinction, with between 3 000 and 5 500 remaining in Eastern and Southern Africa. Depending on terrain and vegetation each animal requires territories of between 25 and 200 square kilometres, making most of Africa’s game parks too small for them. They therefore overflow the park borders and multiply their chances of being persecuted, hunted and killed by farmers, as well as their natural competition, the larger predators such as lion and hyena, who compete for the same prey.

No matter how disappointing it is to not find and catch a glimpse of what one is searching for, it is for us and I presume for all others who return again and again to the bush, great fun to participate in the game of hide and seek. Where parks provide facilities for displaying information on game sightings, I have watched children and adults, noisily examining the coloured pins, marking wildlife sightings on a map. For both those watchers who are able to add a pin to the map and for those who want to know where to start their search, it is a fun exercise and an opportunity to swap stories and feed off the excitement and find renewed motivation to continue or renew the search.

Game viewing is not just a fun exercise. For the city dwelling visitors as well as the local human inhabitants and not least of all, the animals and the environment itself, nature conservation and wildlife preservation is an absolute necessity. For the animals and the environment, it is a matter of fighting for survival in an ever more densely populated and climatically challenged world. So too for the peoples whom we chastise so easily for poaching or when they eradicate wildlife that preys on their herds and flocks or strip their crops. So how does the tourist benefit from participating in the effort to preserve and renew, other than a few days away from it all?

Life for you and I is surely not just about office blocks and shopping malls or convenient modern technologies. How about enjoying and remembering those soothing and relaxing, quiet moments on the wilder side of life! Consider the wide open spaces. Think on and admire, savour the colours and textures of nature whilst driving through the countryside or drifting along in a dugout canoe, known in the Okavango Delta as Makoros. Listen to and marvel at the rippling effect of water as you dangle your hand in the stream. Enjoy the sound of birds and wind in the trees and grass. Marvel at the variety of aromas and scents that tantalise and disturb your nose as you pass on by, enhanced by the fingers of warm or cool air brushing your cheeks. Lean back, breathe in deep with a sigh of relief and contemplate what life would be like without the variety, majesty and beauty of creation to bring us back to sanity and give us hope and a future.

None of this could happen if we lose perspective and did not realise that to preserve our own sanity and ensure our own survival, we must help the local people make a living from nature conservation and eco tourism. They cannot survive except that we enable them financially, to preserve and renew the environment, rather than consume and destroy the herds as well as the myriad of smaller species that help to nourish and sustain the cycle.

How blessed we are in a world filled with the comforts of home. But then again, do we not dream of sitting by the fire, under the stars or eye-balling a leopard or docile impala. I cannot contemplate life with just one or the other. I love and embrace both worlds and so encourage you too, to come along and enjoy the other side, if you have not already done so or have been thinking of doing something different for a change.

See you there!!