Safari in Botswana

Botswana Travel Blog

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By Rebekah Pothaar

Squatting in the darkness over an earthen hole at the heart of the Okavango Delta in Botswana, my ears almost twitch from trying to penetrate the silence for unfamiliar sounds. The wilderness setting - full of myth and folklore - fuels the imagination until I see hungry beasts lurking behind every tree.
Orange, flickering light peeps through the bushes from the campfire at our solitary campsite.  The sounds of laughter are carried from the camp with the occasional babble of grunts from the nearby hippo pond.  This is what a prowling lion would see, peering through the bracken at the rosy-cheeked smiling faces, senses dulled from wine and stomachs stuffed with meat roasted over the fire. Considering my own situation, with a flashlight clutched in one hand and toilet paper in the other, perhaps I would be the first to go - my Canadian ass beaconing in the moonlight - a tasty butt roast and tender shank for some ravenous beast. This would be an indecent way to die, to be found half eaten by a lion with pants around my ankles: caught in the act of peeing in the wilderness of Botswana. 

“He even took the gramophone on safari. Three rifles, supplies for a month, and Mozart,” says the character of Karen Blixen in Out of Africa. The word ‘safari’ conjures up many a vision - from Robert Redford, as Denys Finch Hatton, and Meryl Streep, as Karen Blixen, sitting outside their tents in the Kenyan wilderness at a table laid with champagne, as Mozart plays on the gramophone - to well, the significantly less romantic vision of yourself squatting over an earthen hole waiting for your ass to get poached by a lion.
A safari is an overland journey, traditionally for a big-game hunt and in more modern times, a bush holiday to watching wildlife. Associated with adventure, khaki clothing, big guns, and animal skins, the word safari entered the English language in the late 19th century and comes from the Swahili language meaning 'journey' or 'to travel'. 

The long history of the safari trip into the wilds of Africa gives ‘going on safari’ pilgrimage status for visitors to the continent, if for no other reason then to show your return the obligatory wildlife photos �" the modern equivalent to 19th century leopard skins, ivory tusks and toothy heads. Safaris are considered so necessary that it’s difficult to get out of going on at least one, regardless of the hefty price tag. Legends are not cheap. The question I ask, is, are safaris over-rated? There is this pressure on the travelers to Africa, because of people’s cinematic expectations from movies such as The Lion King, Out of Africa, and Ghost and the Darkness that if you haven’t seen a lion and a herd of elephants, than you haven’t really ‘experienced Africa’. In this age of the Discovery and Nature Channel, from your living room, you can see fleas on a leopard’s back running at 50km per hour, you witness cheetah cubs being born and licked clean by their mothers -  you’ve seen it all at home, clearer, closer, and more dramatic then in nature. Camera crews live for years on Game Reserves to capture those rare moments �" the panoramic shots of ‘the big five’ all drinking next to each other and mating at the same watering hole, of a lioness chewing on the head of an antelope with a million times digital zoom. You see the rivulets of blood, the music emphasizes the moment, and the stern voice tells you exactly what is going on.  Yet we are somehow convinced that in real life, it will be better. Then there are the scary, action movies - the blood-thirsty man-eating lions prowling at night in the African villages, and a shirtless Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas step out with their big guns and save all the flailing, tribal women. And if cinema and TV just don’t do it for you, there is always the zoo. It’s a real experience. It’s contained. You can still get the close-ups you’re after or go grab them at the gift shop if you missed out and eat ice cream at the same time. Meh, the zoo! Nah, I wanted ‘the real thing’. Where’s my damn safari hat?

Seven friends -  2 Canadians, 3 Americans, 1 South African and 1 Irishwomen, planned a 10 day trip through Botswana: the
Chobe Game Reserve, the Makgadikgadi Pans, the Okavando Delta and the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. With the lack of tourist infrastructure in Botswana, chartering an overland truck and camping gear seemed like the best option. Delta Rain priced a trip including park fees, food, gear, a driver, a guide and 4X4 overland vehicle for R7500 per person. Our guide is a large, brassy Australian named, Natalie, with an accent straight out of “Muriel’s Wedding” and our driver, Johnno, a forty-something Brit with sun bleached hair and a snake-skin tan, resembles the spawn of Johnny Rotten and Crocodile Dundee.

From Chobe, we drive down to the Makgadikgadi Pans. We are bundled in jackets and hats, cocooned in our sleeping bags against the cold and wind of the open-air truck. We are not going to reach the camp before dark, so Johnno drives into a slightly wooded, wilderness area to set up camp. The initial lack of group support for this plan is palpable, but before long Dan and Johnno have built a fire, the tents are pitched and various people are chopping vegetables and marinating slabs of meat for dinner. Mairin has thrown on her Ipod with its little travel speakers and is dancing around the fire with a beer. Unimpressed with the music breaking the natural silence, Johnno is an old-school safari guy. He is a sport hunter accustomed to leading big game hunting expeditions. He skins elephants. She takes the hint and turns it off.

In the middle of the night, Mairin, Dana, and I peel out of our tent to ‘use the facilities.’ It’s cold tonight and all three of us have been wriggling for hours trying to avoid the eventual exodus from the sleeping bag. In the distance, we hear what we assume is the yowling of hyenas. Quickly back in the tent, we catch a few more hours rest before being awoke at the crack of dawn by a loud Australian. Nursing our fire-boiled coffees over breakfast, Natalie announces, “Girls, did you hear the lions last night, when you were out having your pee?” Johnno and Natalie had not bothered to pitch tents and slept outside on the ground. These safari people are deaf to complaints of the discomforts of sleeping in a tent. The calls of lions had kept them both awake and sitting in an upright position for most of the night. Lions do not roar in the night, but instead prowl around communicating with each other in low, repetitive grunts. We want safety tips. Natalie explains, “Animals do not see in 3D, so if you are in your tent, you are safe. They see the tent as one solid object, like a rock. It doesn’t matter if they can smell you in there. But if you leave your tent at night, you are fair game. They will see you move. They will be interested.” This explanation does little to ease our fears. It also comes as a surprise that Johnno does not carry a gun. The paper work as a result of firing on an animal is so lengthy that it is common practice not to carry weapons on safari. Even if an animal attacks and you kill it in self-defence there is a chance you can be charged. PETA, it seems, has done wonders for the safety of humans on safari. Finch Hatton wouldn’t go anywhere without his gun. What a let down!

The Lion King has a lot to answer for,” growls Johnno. If you want to start Johonno on a rant, refer to a lion as a ‘Simba,’ a meerkat as a ‘Timon’ and a warthog as a ‘Pumbaa.’ Apparently, many safari-goers perceive themselves as experts on African wild-life, flora and fauna for having seen the movie.  Johnno is constantly put to the task of de-bunking a history of Lion King mis-education. We drive through the thick sandy tracks in the Makgadikgadi Pans for several hours. Still no lions yet. We are apparently not taking their threat seriously enough when we exit the vehicle to stretch our legs. “In this tall grass, you would be dead before you even saw it,” admonishes Johnno. He checks behind every bush before allowing us to go anywhere. “Last year an experienced guide stopped for a pee and never came back. They eventually recovered what was left of his body,” he says menacingly.

Described as "the river which never finds the sea", the Okavango disappears into a 6,000-square-mile maze of lagoons, channels, and islands, forming the world’s largest inland swamp. The delta’s freshwater
provides a giant water hole for the larger animals of the Kalahari.  And inevitably with the attraction of wild-life, comes its attraction to the safari crowd with a number of bush camps in the lagoons and islands, most only accessible by boat.

We load our tents and enough supplies for the next three days into narrow, wood makoros �" a type of canoe dug out of a tree trunk and used to propel through the shallow waters of the delta by standing in the stern and pushing with a pole, in the same manner as punting. Makoro safaris are an ideal way for visitors to see the delta, but are still a practical means of transport for residents to traverse the swamp. Deep water occurs in only a few channels. With two passengers per boat and a poler at the stern, the makoros cut quietly through the vast areas of giant reedy grass dominating the swamp and often covered only by a few inches of water. Sitting low, the water is within inches of the edge of the makoro, and we sit in its bottom like a coffin with our sleeping bags, bedding and clothes made waterproof in black, plastic garbage bags. I am trying not to think about our vulnerability to hippo attacks. Hippos are reputed to have developed this behavior after the use of makoros for hunting. I am also trying not to think about the insurance waiver I signed at the start of this trip. Sorry mom. Belts of forest fringe the swamps with open savannah grasslands and tall trees lending shade to herds of larger game. But from the bottom of the boat, all the eye can see is a massive field of swamp grass. After two hours, the initial excitement of hippos and flipping the tippy makoro has worn off and I am lulled almost to sleep by the sound of the grasses brushing the boat and the intermittent sound of the poles spearing the water �" a gondola in canals of grass. Pulling up to an island by mid-afternoon, we unpack the boats and set up our tents under the shade of some large trees. A hole is dug with a shovel ‘for facilities’ not far from the camp behind some bushes. The beer and wine are chucked in the swamp to chill. The five local polers set up camp with us and stay for our three days in the isolation of the delta.

After a large lunch and a nap, we assemble to be taken on a walking safari with Disaster and G, who are both polers and guides. With a name like ‘Disaster,’ we are too afraid to ask how he got the name. He isn’t the smiling type. We follow Disaster in single file with G at the rear as we leave the camp. Before going further, Disaster briefs us on safety. “If an elephant charges, run away as fast as you can in a zigzag pattern,” he says sternly.  “If you are chased by a wildebeest, run straight as fast as you can, get behind a tree, and then climb the tree.”  “If you see a leopard in a tree and it sees you looking at it, it will jump on you.” At this point, Mairin and I cannot contain our giggles, imagining ourselves doing the zigzag run to evade elephants, then running away from wildebeests, climbing up a tree only to encounter a leopard. Disaster looks on grimly as we begin enthusiastically practicing our zigzag runs.  Continuing on, our path is blocked by three elephants. The closer we get to them, the more irritated they appear and we are forced to quietly retreat. After a half hour of waiting, the guides slap chucks of wood together, until annoyed by the noise, the elephants move off and we continue. Walking along, I am struck by the massive chucks of dried elephant dung �" each size of a soccer ball. At last I have come upon a fitting gift for my ex-boyfriend: he has since been recipient of a parcel with two large chunks of elephant dung and a note, “Dave, thinking of you in Africa.” My collection of elephant dung began a trend, as others began thinking of people deserving of dung: Tessa’s little brother, Mairin’s ex-husband, and eventually we return to camp carrying bags of dried elephant shit. Who needs a tusk to take home, when you can have the real, authentic Africa �" a true piece - manufactured organically in the intestines of the beast, straight from the ass of an elephant? At least a pile of shit is easier to get through customs. ‘Man, I’ve got elephant shit. Do I have to declare this stuff?’ Hey, at least PETA would be delighted.

Our days consist of animal watching, drinking delta water and cooking extravagant meals over the fire - from French toast and maple syrup to meaty stews to kudu steaks and roasted gem squash and potatoes in tin-foil. Leah is usually arguing with Aaron about something like who is to blame for using up the Ipod batteries. Dan is a decent bush chef, although Aaron thinks he is better. I argue that I am in fact the best. An Italian American, Aaron is constantly whining that as a chef and a Stanford graduate, he cannot properly cook over an open fire �" the temperatures are all wrong, the knives aren’t good enough and he is lacking fresh basil and the olive oil is not extra virgin enough.

In the evenings the campfire functions as the local pub, the place to drink, tell stories, socialize and stay warm. A freelance safari guide for over 6 years, Natalie entertains us with her stories. On our last night in the delta, we brew 10 litres of box wine into sangria and Natalie surprises us with a bag of Malawi grass as a farewell present since she will not be accompanying us on the reminder of the trip into the Central Kalahari. Recently she returned from a 7 month trip from Morocco to Cape Town with a group of fifteen. She told us of having her passport stolen in Nairobi, of a nineteen year old girl on her safari getting raped on a beach in Ghana, of her overland vehicle being stuck in sand in Nigeria for several days and of awaking to the sight of lions sleeping against several of the tents in the camp. Last year, a twelve year old boy left his tent during the night only to be found minutes later with a hyena eating his face.  They had to drive the vehicle over the body to get the hyena off him. These stories are just the kind of lore you need before heading off to bed after drinking a couple litres of sangria and knowing that some time during the night you are going to have to leave your tent for a pee. Tipsy and high off our heads, we are the perfect targets for wild animals.

Next stop is the Central Kalahari -
the second largest chunk of desert land in the world. Founded in 1961, this sandy reserve, was not established to protect endangered wildlife species but an endangered breed of man, the San Bushmen. A sea of shimmering pans, golden grasslands and other drought-resistant plants, this is a place of beautiful isolation. After traversing our 4X4 through thick, sand tracks most of the day, we set up camp in a place devoid of human life, as deserted as one would expect in, well, a desert.  After days of watching animals, all you want to see is something new. You have crossed each animal off the list and now its just repeats. Herds of elephants, check.  Zebras, check. Wildebeests, ostrich, giraffe, antelopes, hippos, cheetah, crocodiles, warthogs, baboons and monkeys, check, check. We have even witnessed the gore of a hyena fighting vulchers over a zebra carcass.  Ya, ya, whatever. Yawn. With only a few days left of our trip, we want lions �"lots of them- frolicking with their newborns, maybe even mating. The eventual point of all of this whole safari nonsense is to spot and provide photographic evidence of the king of the jungle. Just one damn lion or we will all have to yank photos off the internet. 

The sickness has set in. This is to be expected, even Karen Blixon got sick, but that was from an STI from her cheating husband, not the wilds of Africa. It began with Dana. Mairin is prone to sickness. I’m not. So I lay between the two of them like a firewall in our tent. Mairin is snoring. Dana whacks my leg to pass on the smack like the game of telephone. I smack Mairin, who cracks her eyes open and whines pitifully, “I can’t stop.” Dana has a lime green bowl outside our tent. Throughout the night, she unzips the tent and sticks her head out to vomit. Within hours, Mairin has her own lime green bowl. I lie miserably between them as they take turns spewing on either side. With my sleeping bag over my face, I wonder when I will catch the plague. We hear the lions in the night. Perhaps they smell the sickness. The two bowls outside will lead them straight to us. Dana will be a starter, then Mairin for main course, and hopefully they will be too full to bother with dessert.

On the first game drive of the morning, Dana and Mairin stay back at the camp lying on cushions and wrapped in blankets outside the sick tent. After driving for less than half an hour, we see them: lying in the shade of a copse of trees are two male lions.  Driving the truck as unobtrusively as possible, we arrive within 7 metres of them. They stare at us in the truck, mildly curious, but after several minutes, they flop back down on the ground to sleep. They don’t move, except to occasionally twitch a fly off their backs as we sit watching them expectantly for twenty minutes. We evidently are not that exciting. The temptation is to jump out of the vehicle and go poke them. Johnno looks at me warningly. He skins elephants. Nevermind. So there you have it. The point of all of this and Dana and Mairin missed it.

“Sssshhhhhhh. What was THAT?”Leah squeaks. The two of us decided to sleep on the roof of the truck for our last night in the Kalahari. It’s far more tempting an option then sleeping in the sick tent. I didn’t count on Leah’s American paranoia keeping me up all night as she lies next to me with sharp whispers every few minutes of “Did you hear that, what was that?” Leah is the kind of girl that should never been allowed to watch Ghost and the Darkness, the type who wilfully believes in the tooth fairy until the age of thirteen.  As Johnno consoled her earlier, the only animal that could munch on us from the top of the truck would be a giraffe. The sky is open above us, full of stars. The night is clear, the air fresh. We can hear the sounds of the night. It’s too perfect a moment to be sharing with Leah and all her questions. I should be lying in the arms of Finch Hatton, with his big gun cuddled up between us.

I drag Mairin out of our tent the next day. It’s our last morning, she must come on the last game drive. Dana is feeling somewhat improved and after a cup of tea, actually cracks a smile. In the truck, Mairin lies with her head in my lap, wrapped in blankets. It’s like the Children’s Wish Foundation: Mairin’s last wish is to see the king of the jungle. We drive back to the area where we had seen the two males the day before. Inexplicably as if on queue, the two lazy beasts are still lying in the same area. “Mairin, look, lions.” I prop her head up enough for her to see. She is too weak to even smile, but I snap the photo of her face with a lion in the background. She looks a bit confused. “It’s ok, sweetie, lie back down. We can go home now.”


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