Botswana: A Safari on the Okavango Delta
By Danielle Gerard
Hawaiians welcome guests by placing a lei around their neck. In St. John, a Caribbean cocktail is offered as a warm welcome to the island. Upon landing on the airstrip in the Okavango Delta of Botswana, my travel partner and I received a one-of-a-kind welcome from true local natives of the African bush. A trio of warthogs trotted along the airstrip.
As I watched from the window seat, the landscape was sensational. Tall trees painted the land various shades of green and brown, a herd of elephants grazed in the distance, and lazy lagoons and channels carved a maze amongst land. As we approached the airstrip, a 4X4 safari vehicle had cleared the way for landing.
Soon after our two-seater jet touched down, two local guides from Stanley’s Camp, Alan and Collin smiled to greet us. Dumela and welcome to Botswana.
An Enchanting Swamp
I immediately knew my stay in Botswana would be special. Botswana has a reputation for being one of the finest safari destinations in Africa. We were staying on Okavango Delta, where Africa’s third largest river, the Okavango, prominently spreads itself across the Kalahari sands, creating intricate waterways that weave through the plains.
The duet of rawness and beauty make this area unique. A desert feel, with tropical accents, and a swamp that attracts more than 400 species of birds, create a true oasis where humans are swallowed by nature and outnumbered by wildlife.
The sun, strong and very much a presence in Africa, warmed us as we began our drive to camp. The “road,” we traveled on was simply two tire tracks worn into the earth from the 4X4s riding over same route. This was the only clear path on the land, and it was the only way to access most of the camps. Within seconds, you could easily veer off the tire marks and enter into wild bush, marshland or desert sands; the land expressed a gamut of terrain.
En route to camp, we encountered our first floodway. Alan slowed the vehicle as we came to the edge of water that seemed to rise three to four feet from its deepest point. Obviously, we’d drive around the water… right? Wrong.
Our 4X4 continued straight on the path. The water rose up the sides of the doors, almost spilling in. As we cruised through, the water came within my fingertips’ reach.
“Hands in,” Alan warned. Every so often, there’s a croc spotting!
Our camp was situated amongst 260,000 acres of pure, untamed African bush. As we approached camp, our third greeting of the morning was delivered through song and dance from the staff.
Alan led us to our tent, which was tucked underneath a large sausage tree. Following our footsteps were two women who balanced our bags effortlessly on their heads. The front of the tent opened up into a vast savannah that appeared endless. There were chairs and a hammock on our deck, offering a lovely invitation to relax and watch giraffes roam the plains.
Alan took us inside and pointed out the horn on the nightstand. If at any point, we felt unsafe, we were to blow the horn to signal one of the staff members. He was clear to tell us that we must never leave the tent alone after sunset, and that we’d be escorted to and from dinner each night. He assured us that animals would visit around the tent, but we were safe inside. We doubted that we’d have animals knocking at our door, but Alan’s words would prove true later that night.
American Traditions Meet Botswana Traditions
Before we went on our evening game drive, the chef had prepared a marvelous meal for us. Fresh breads, sliced papaya, cucumber salad, beef patties, and stir-fried vegetables were generously offered on a large buffet table.
Knowing that beef is Botswana’s number one export, I opted for the beef rounds. Yes, they were round, so automatically the American in me thinks… hamburger! With two pieces of freshly baked bread, and I had just concocted the American burger in Botswana.
Alan looked befuddled when I sat down next to him. The hamburger was an unfamiliar, unappealing sight. To make us feel at home, or as a form of derision – probably the latter – he created his own variation.
Alan was a friendly man. He was warm and offered interesting conversation. Like most of the staff, he’d never left Botswana. In fact, almost all of his family lived in Maun, the closest major city to the camp, a 15-minute plane ride.
His schedule alternated between working (and living) on camp for three months, and visiting his family for one month. He missed his family, but it didn’t seem out of the ordinary to have a life structured in this way. This is how he supported his wife and children.
Keedo, another member of the staff, sat down to join us during lunch. She also had family in the city of Maun. Keedo spoke of her three daughters, and talked to us about life in Botswana as a woman. She made a point to say that women are slowly breaking out of their traditional roles. She continued to tell us that she “dated” her husband for 13 years, even having children in that time, before they were married.
Waiting 13 years to get married may have had something to do with the bride price. As Keedo explained, a bride price, otherwise known as a dowry, is a tradition that is still practiced in different parts of the continent. Perhaps it took 13 years for her husband to come up with a respectful bride price to offer her family, one that reflects his sincerity towards the marriage and his ability to be a good husband.
Keedo’s husband paid the dowry in the form of cattle. The number of cows a family owned was a symbol of their wealth and status, as the cows offered many resources for a family. After waiting 13 years for marriage, we had hoped Keedo’s family received a worthy bride price! She assured us it was a fair negotiation.
Keedo was quick to tell us that times have changed since she was married. Waiting 13 years to decide on marriage is unacceptable at this time. In fact, she explained a man is expected to make a decision after six months as to whether he wants to marry a woman, so that a woman’s time is not wasted. Talk about taking a leap of faith!
As we finished our lunch and wondered how much cattle we were worthy of in terms of bride price, Alan brought the 4X4 around. Time to head out on safari.
Time for a Game Drive
Games drives are why we traveled to Botswana. With the Okavango River fanning itself amongst the Kalahari, an array animal and bird species have found their paradise in this part Botswana. For this reason, the area is a safari hot spot.
It amazed me to see how well Alan knew the lay of the land. It was as if he had his own navigation system wired in his brain. Without roads, signals, stoplights, or posts, he navigated by sense and familiarity. Nature acted as landmarks.
Shortly into our drive, Alan turned off the engine of the 4×4 and revealed the magical silence of the bush. How rare to find a moment in our lives where there isn’t the sound of a car driving by, a machine drilling, a cell phone ringing, someone talking, background music, or our own minds incessantly racing.
There was a beauty behind the silence, and there was no choice but to pay attention to it. Here comes the opportunity to open the senses and connect with nature. The only noises that broke the silence were animal calls. We were listening for one bird in particular, whose call could easily be distinguished. This was the cape turtle dove, whose call translated into the chant, Bots-wana, Bots-wana, Bots-wana. For the rest of the trip, I never stopped hearing the cape turtle dove. The bird’s call was sharp against the silence.
As Alan drove, Collin’s eyes peered over the side of the Land Cruiser scanning the earth. He was tracking the animals, by prints or dung. He could pick out a fresh set of prints, or distinguish how old they were to the day. We found a fresh print of a lion; they were nearby.
We See Lions
After spotting tracks, we veered off course and navigated deep into the bush, traveling more than an hour from the “road.” We reached the lions, whose tawny fur popped from the green and brown coloring of the earth.
Our vehicle slowed alongside a pride. About three meters separated us. It was about 6:00 pm; they must’ve eaten already, right? The sun was going down, and the lions looked tired. As they would nod in and out of sleep, Alan would rev the engine, attempting to ignite some kind of response from them.
Simply watching the lions in their space left me under their spell. I stared with fascination as the lion’s jaw slowly began to open. His mouth widened and his tongue curled. As he showcased his teeth, he let out a low moan, which broke through the silence. It was then that the lioness strolled over to the male, nuzzling against him. The most ordinary of behaviors, a yawn or a nuzzle, was enough to cause a stir inside.
I did not expect to be so mesmerized by their beauty, especially given that there was nothing out of the ordinary about what I was observing. I could sense the connection between the lions and their home in the wild. They were a part of the landscape, and it was truly a fascinating sight to see them simply be.
Time for a Sundowner
As the sun set after a long safari, we pulled away from the sleepy lions and set up a small table with dried mangos, mixed nuts and biltong. Our guides, Alan and Collin, poured us sundowners and we spoke of our day’s success in tracking animals. We commended Allan on his good work, as he raced against time to find lions before sunset. We laughed and admired the sky.
The sky was my favorite part of Africa. You can easily get lost in it. That night, the colors were extraordinary. I looked up. A ribbon of pink cut through the light blue sky. Patches of florescent yellow were splattered within, delivering delicious shades of purple, blue and orange. I counted six colors.
A black mass slowly lurked in our direction. Within a moment’s time, an ensemble of thunder and lightning electrified the sky. Seconds later, rain streamed down.
The tone of the night quickly shifted, and all at once I tried to digest what was happening. There was only one certainty at this moment: we were a long way from camp. As I felt the rain get heavier, I looked around me.
I was a mere spec in the middle of an enormous landscape of beauty. Thunder rumbled and lightning cracked through the sky. Although I couldn’t see the animals, I sensed them all around us. I would never be able to recreate this scene and this would be a story I left Africa with. Here was my snapshot.
A Long Trip Back to Camp
We climbed into our Land Cruiser, savoring the last sip of South African wine. Alan turned around to remind us that there was a bottle on reserve in the cooler. Hint: we would need it. We all knew it was going to be a long trip to camp.
Torrential rain made the visibility terrible. Collin perched himself on top of the passenger door, with his spotlight in hand. Our eyes tracked the light that he flashed from left to right, attempting to find a gap in the bush. We couldn’t see more than eight feet in front of us. All the colors that had painted the sky moments ago had surrendered to black.
The spotlight would flash at an opening in the bush. We’d consider whether or not we could fit through. There would be another opening to the left, possibly wider? We’d wonder. Our guides consulted as to which way, their voices competing with the heavy rain. We chimed in from the back seat, as if our words carried some weight. They turned around, smiled and laughed at us. We found some comfort in their laughter. This couldn’t be as bad as it seemed.
We were driving slowly over rugged ground, sometimes making it through a clearing and other times driving into a downed tree that made it impossible to proceed forward. At one point we attempted to drive over a tree and were unsuccessful. The tree was stuck underneath our vehicle. Our tires were spinning wildly in the mud, as we tried to rock ourselves back and forth over the tree. All the while, we were soaked by the rain, and feasted upon by mosquitoes.
We drove through branches and bushes, and cruised through deep floodways. The guides’ hands would go up to signal, “lean in and duck,” because we were about to pass a tree whose branches would find a way inside the vehicle.
Prickers latched onto our pants, mud splattered from the ground and rain continued to soak us. I thought about my family and friends at home, and I thought about my students from school. I would share this story with all of them.
Teamwork in the Bush
In the distance we noticed another spotlight making circles towards the sky. It was another cruiser from our camp. Through radio talk, the guides teamed up and helped lead one another through the storm. After two hours of many wrong turns, spins outs, revving of engines and thoughts of having to camp with the hyenas, our team of two Land Cruisers finally reached the “road,” the path to camp.
After finding some relief in a shower, we were escorted back to the main tent for dinner. Several of the staff and other guests staying at the camp joined us. We sat as a family at a long table under the canvas ceiling, listening to the heavy rain overhead. We spoke of the storm, and the authenticity of the night.
At the end of the evening, we were offered a celebratory drink of Amarula, an African liquor, similar to Baileys. Amarula is made from the fruit of the marula tree, a tree that has been traced as far back as 10,000 BCE in South Africa. There are jokes about how elephants get “drunk” in the bush after eating the marula fruit from the tree. Tall tale or not, it’s easy to understand why elephants would take a liking to the marula fruit. After my friend took her first sip, a tasty smile followed. A sweet ending to the night.
Behind a Botswana Smile
I slept well that night, until I heard heavy footsteps on our deck. I stiffened up for a second and whispered to my friend, “Uhhh… do you hear that?” Then we laughed, because this was all a part of the experience. After a night like we had, we welcomed all of the spontaneous moments that nature had to offer us. We didn’t blow the horn; instead we listened to the animals’ movements. The footsteps became softer and softer.
I laid in bed, and continued to listen. The footsteps disappeared. I replayed the night in my mind, still amazed by the events that unfolded. I would journal in the morning, and I hoped that all the details would still be fresh in my mind.
Before I fell asleep, I had a clear flashback of Alan turning around during the storm to check on us. He smiled. Had it not been for his gentle smile, I’d have thought we were sleeping in the bush that night. There was something about his smile that dissolved the worry and fear I initially felt. It was his smile that allowed me to experience the moment.
In Botswana, I was drenched in beauty, with riches to experience and opportunities to open the senses. And there was the idea of silence that Alan pointed out. This allowed us to find treasures in Africa: the sun, sky and colors of the earth all moving together in silent harmony; the bold calls of nature in the bush bursting and breaking through the silence; and a source of comfort greater than words, a warm smile.
Danielle Gerard works as a teacher in Summit, New Jersey and enjoys sharing travel entries with her students. An avid runner, Danielle is likely to include a road race on her travel itinerary, most recent being the Two Oceans Half Marathon in Cape Town, South Africa.