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TRAVEL: Tense times under African skies

Where hippos grunt like motorbikes, children play tag with crocodiles, and hyaenas eat your shoes, there seems little time for dreaming. Not so; dreams are all around

The first few minutes in a mokoro are always tense. The Bayei polers operating these strange craft—odd hybrids of dugout canoes and punts—glide them up to shore with deceptive nonchalance. But as soon as you try to load camping gear and backpacks into the mokoro you find out just how wobbly they are. Climbing into them is even worse—any sudden, untoward movement and it is into the water with the crocodiles.

As the poler pushed us out into the current, I concentrated on sitting still, keeping my centre of gravity low and resisting the urge to fend off the rushes and reeds which trailed over my face and body. I had to persuade myself not to jump when a hippo began grunting like a Harley Davidson engine, just out of sight among the swampy growth.

Once out on the wider channels, relaxation came. The smooth, calm glide of the mokoro is soothing. Sam, the poler, began pointing out game grazing on the banks: lyre-horned, russet-coloured lechwe and impala; elegant, slow-moving giraffe, which stood and watched as we drifted by; a bull elephant—seen from a nice, safe distance—tearing at a tree with an air of contemplative vandalism. A timeless scene—the Okavango has never been grazed, nor settled by anybody apart from River Bushmen and Bayei fishermen. This is primordial Africa.

Safari specialists dispute whether Northern Botswana or East Africa’s Serengeti offer Africa’s best game viewing. I favour Botswana—particularly the Okavango and Chobe National Park, where up to 30,000 elephant can crowd in during the dry season. The Savuti Corridor—a semi-dry watercourse within Chobe, linking the Okavango Delta with the Zambezi River Valley—is now probably the most reliable place in Africa to see lion. Other species congregate too: aquatic antelope, like the shy (and rarely seen) sitatunga, a small, spiral horned, striped creature whose specially adapted hooves allow it to walk where other animals would sink. Those who are lucky may glimpse a Pel’s fishing owl, or a palm nut vulture. The world’s only vegetarian raptor, this bird eats the fruits of the raffia palm, trees that grow in symmetrically ranked groves reminiscent of Moorish pillared halls.

Botswana’s contrasts in scenery are a delight for the eye: papyrus swamps, wooded islands, vast natural lawns and lagoons form the Okavango Delta. In Chobe, classic savannah, salt pans, wide river floodplains and forest merge one with the other every 20 miles. This is a savage Eden, one of Africa’s only unspoilt, yet accessible, wildernesses.

Almost all of Botswana’s safaris start in Maun, a dusty, ramshackle town that clings to the southernmost end of Okavango Delta—where its waters disappear once and for all into the dry Kalahari. My hosts, Okavango Tours and Safaris, arranged a first night in a quiet camp at the edge of town, set under big shade trees lining  a (mostly dry) river. That evening, wandering down to a small pool left by last year’s rains, I saw a flicker of movement and pulled myself up just in time to stop myself from blundering into a female crocodile sitting on a nest.

A group of children—who should instead have been herding their parents’ goats and cattle—started throwing sticks at the huge reptile, causing it to creep closer and closer until it finally lunged at its tormentors, sending them running back, screeching with fear and delight. Later that evening the camp’s barman told me that, every year, several of these children pay the ultimate price for their game, yet it never stops them.

With that sobering thought still in mind, I rose next day in the cool dawn to take a light aircraft into Delta Camp, whose small collection of luxurious cabins cluster around a central bar and restaurant. How civilised that sounds. In fact, Delta is utterly isolated in the wild. An elephant was strolling unconcernedly through camp when I arrived, snacking on the new leaves just sprouting on the great shade trees. All around was green, watery wilderness.

Only the first night was spent in the actual camp. The following day it was back into a mokoro with Sam, poler and guide, for four days of wild camping, boating, and walking—where the ground was firm enough. It was slow progress, but then the Delta is not a place for those who want to rush; it reveals its secrets slowly. Only on the third day was I lucky enough to hear a rustling in the reeds, and turn in time to see a shy sitatunga go flying through the marsh.

Not until the fourth day did we encounter big cats—a pride of lions seen, thankfully, from a good 50 yards off—we being on foot at the time. Another time we entered a woodland clearing and caught sight of the scimitar horns of a buffalo herd appearing over the tall grasses. Another moment, and we would have blundered right into them.

This sense of ever-present danger, combined with its luxuriant, tropical beauty, makes the Delta a seductive place. Pools of crystal water, an incessant background chorus of frogs and cicadas, bright birds and butterflies, big game round every corner: allow a minimum of four days, or you will kick yourself for having rushed through paradise.

Next stop Chobe, joining what the trade calls a ‘mobile safari’ run by Audi Camp. The one drawback to this region is that all Chobe safaris are vehicle-based. After the freedom of the Delta, one can chafe a little at being so confined. But it is the law of the land—and perhaps a wise one.

The Savuti area, for example, holds an unusually high concentration of elephant and lion—not a safe place to walk around in. We did, however, camp out in the wild each night, entertained by hyaenas prowling in giggling groups just outside the glow of firelight, ready to move in more boldly after everybody had retired to their tents (don’t leave shoes out—the hyaenas love to eat them). Some nights, the lions roared so loud and so close that it required enormous self-control not to leap out of the tent and go running for the safety of the truck.

The Chobe safari lasted five days. Next stop was the Tsodilo Hills, about four hours north-west of Maun, up in the Kalahari Desert. I hired a fully-equipped 4x4 for the trip, bumping slowly through the dry bush in low gear over one of the worst tracks imaginable. It was worth it—to watch the hills rise, ship-like, above the bare trees. All around was vast space, wide silence. Sacred to both the !Kung Bushmen and the Hambukushu—a black cattle-herding tribe —the three distinct, isolated massifs (known as Male, Female and Child) have more than 2,000 rock paintings hidden among their myriad caves and overhangs. Following the advice of an old Kalahari-hand in Maun, I made camp in one of these and waited for the !Kung to find me.

Sure enough, at dawn the following morning an English-speaking !Kung Bushman called Xau took me out to see the paintings, some of which date back 25,000 years. Rumour has it that the !Kung— whom the government has relocated (against their will) away from the hills to a new settlement out on the baking plain below—still occasionally add a figure here and there. However, Xau, when I asked him, smilingly denied it.

Most of the red-daubed figures represent animals, but a few have an obviously mystical purpose. There is a palpably sacred feel to the Tsodilos. Look out from the hillsides and the vast, silent, ocean-like landscape makes the viewer feel small. We climbed up to a small cave with a deep pool of water on the south side of the Female Hill. Under the water, Xau told me, a rain god in the form of a huge python lay coiled and sleeping. On the same hill were strange depressions in a large, flat rock, that looked like human and animal footprints—left, he claimed,  by the world's first animals and people when they descended from the sky. On my last night there, in the same cave (once inhabited by his own ancestors, according to Xau), I had an intense dream of flying—soaring up over the three hills and the wide landscape below like an eagle. When I told this to Xau the next day he smiled, went quiet for a while and then said, out of the blue: ‘Perhaps the ancestors are welcoming you.’ And, maddeningly, he would say nothing more.

¶ The above tours and many others can be arranged by Okavango Tours and Safaris (020) 8343 3283. email:

January 2001



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