Over dinner on our last night together, I asked my parents what their favorite memories were from our six night trip to the Okavango Delta in Botswana. And, in no particular order this is what was mentioned.
There Is Such a Thing as a Dumb Question
Perhaps these are only truly funny if you were there, but if you want to reduce my parents or I to fits of laughter, just mention a fellow adult guest and her ill-phrased inane questions and our guide’s deadpan answers.
Guest: Are the vervet monkeys and baboons friends?
Guide: Not really.
Fish Eagle calling in the distance . . .
Guest: What is the fish eagle saying?
Guide: I don’t know. I don’t speak it.
Guest: Are the impala and wildebeest friends?
Guide: Sometimes they are seen together.
Elephants in the distance taking a mud bath
Guest: Do the elephants wash the mud off every night before they go to bed?
When you go to Paris, you learn to say merci. When you go to Mexico, you make sure you know the phrase, donde esta el bano? When you go to Botswana, you realize you can’t say a single thing in the local language. And then at dinner one night, your mom asks the butler how to order a glass of wine in the local language Tswana. This begins your language lesson.
The other couple at camp was having a romantic dinner in their room so our butler was free to spend as much time attending to our language immersion as was necessary until we had mastered a few phrases. She sat down and patiently repeated dumela (hello) and we repeated something that sounded liked bumbala. Once we succeeded in committing dumela to memory, we moved on to thank you, how are you, wine, teacher, and other words. The next morning we tested out our new found knowledge on every single staff member we encountered as well as our guide and tracker. Our efforts were appreciated and always resulted in peals of laughter. There is nothing like connecting with people over laughter and poor pronunciation. Even the woman at passport control cracked a smile and let out a hiccup of laughter when I said Kealeboga bo ma (thank you).
Bush Surround Sound
A male lion calling is truly a magnificent thing. The sound reverberates in your chest and echoes around you. I have woken up from a dead sleep at 3:00am heart thumping, adrenaline pumping by the sound of a roaring lion. The call of a male lion can travel up to 8 km and is a form of communication to mark territory or locate other lions. It’s one of the most amazing sounds you can hear on safari.
One night as the blood red full moon was rising, we happened upon three lionesses being trailed by a large male lion. We followed them for a distance until they settled into the tall grasses to do, presumably, what lions do best, sleep. There were two lionesses behind the vehicle, one to the left, and the male lion to the right. Then one of the lionesses started calling, another chimed in, and then the male lion added his booming call. In between their throaty roars there was an answer from another lion in the far distance. The light was gone and there are no photos to document the moment. Being surrounded by the intensely loud primal calls was incredible and a moment I doubt any of us are likely to forget.
Delta Tall Tales and Real Life Stories
Sometimes the game viewing just isn’t that great. This is the bush and the animals are free to roam huge tracks of land. When your guide and tracker aren’t coming across a lot of animals, they have to find something to talk about. Sometimes the conversation drifts to birds, trees, insects, grasses, or anything they can possibly think of to entertain guests.
At one of our lodges, our guide and tracker entertained us with their stories. The one about the old man who collected marula fruits and stored them in his tent while he was sleeping. Elephants adore marula fruits and the old man was a victim of an elephant raid. Apparently the elephant managed to hoist the man and his tent up into a tree and steal all of the fruit. There was the uncle who went out hunting (back when you could hunt) cape buffalo with his friends only to come across an old dagga boy (a buffalo bull who has left the herd). The uncle and friends were two frightened to shoot and ran to a nearby tree. There were lions sleeping outside of tents, elephants moving tents that stood in their way, lions raiding cattle, hippos killing members of their Okavango communities, and one about a terrified four year old (our tracker) being surrounded by a pack of wild dogs. They were animated storytellers and we learned a lot about their Okavango communities.
Umm, is That an Elephant
After five consecutive 5:00am wake-up calls, we decided to sleep in on our last morning in the bush. As I made may way to the main area for morning coffee at 7:00am, I looked to my left and saw one of the resident male kudus. We passed him and his small bachelor herd on most days and so I was on the look out for the other two males he was usually with, then I spotted the backside of an elephant about 20 feet to my right. I froze and had a 30 second debate about whether I should continue on, but ultimately I decided to retreat back down the path. I was relieved to see our tracker and another staff member on their way to the morning staff meeting and flagged them down for an escort. As we walked down the path, we came across four elephants, including a mother and her calf. It is terrifyingly amazing to see elephants that close on foot knowing they could trample you quite easily if they were upset. Luckily elephants usually signal their displeasure before charging. All of us were glad that we had skipped our morning drive as the elephants hung out in camp for nearly two hours.
Dinner Under the Stars
We had many memorable meals, including one where a disinterested hyena strolled several feet behind our dinner table. Since we were staying at &Beyond lodges all of the food was incredible and the complexity of offering three course meals with baked breads in a remote location where all fresh food produce had to be flown in on a weekly basis was a logistical miracle. Our favorite meal was on the deck overlooking the watering hole. The conversation was lively and we laughed and laughed.
An Elusive Animal
“In 43 years I have never seen an aardwolf,” one of the South Africans on our vehicle marveled as we watched an aardwolf and her four cubs nurse and play in front of their den. These are incredibly shy nocturnal animals that are seldom seen during the day and we were lucky enough to come across them outside of their den as the golden sunlight filtered over them. Aardwolfs are members of the hyena family, but they primarily eat termites – sometimes up to 25,000 in one evening with their long sticky tongues. We stayed with the aardwolves for nearly an hour and a half. The highlight being when a bird approached the den and the mother leapt out puffing up her coat so she would appear more menacing.
The Most Boring Game Drive Ever
I dreaded the moment we got back in camp and we were asked what we had seen. All we had seen were impala (loads and loads of impala), tsessebe, and two scrub hares. Even the birds were elusive. We were looking for leopards. No luck. Then we searched for lions. They had been spotted in the area, but the directions that came over the radio didn’t make sense to our guide. No lions. The sun set and we saw more impala and then some more impala. We finally headed back to camp having driven for over four hours. About five minutes before we reached camp we saw glowing eyes in a dead tree. It was the best sighting of a bushbaby I have ever had. It jumped from dead branch to dead branch completely visible even in the dark. Even the most boring drives can be transformed by one small moment – a mere glimpse of something you haven’t seen before.
To get to the Okavango Delta you fly to Maun and then connect to your lodge by bush plane. We spent three nights at the recently renovated Sandibe and three at Xaranna – both are &Beyond properties. Sandibe was luxurious with 24 hour power, air conditioning throughout the night, and a steady internet signal, but I think my favorite lodge was Xaranna. It was incredibly luxurious, but had a more lived in quality that made it more homey and comfortable.
Being January, the water levels were at their lowest even though it was the rainy season. The waters start to rise in March and are at their highest June – August. This is when the Delta looks like the iconic photos you see of water, lily pads, and hippos everywhere. Land activities and drives are more limited when the waters are high and are replaced with boat activities. At Xaranna, you arrive by plane and have to be transferred to boat to reach the camp. It is something that I hope to experience. I guess I need to call &Beyond and start planning my next trip.