A welcome blast of Africa

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Africa » Botswana » North-West » Okavango Delta
June 13th 2014
Published: June 21st 2014
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There were elephants in camp when we arrived. We didn’t need Sherlock Holmes to reach this conclusion. A small family group were playing in the water between cottages one and two as our boat buzzed round the corner towards the pier. Later, as Tess was showing us to our own cottages at the opposite end of the camp, the path was littered with wrinkled-plate prints of varying sizes and the air was redolent of the unmistakable aroma of fresh elephant defecation. The youngsters had clearly had a blast: most of the path’s night-light fittings were askew, and the occasional flex pulled free of its Delta-sand moorings. Tess shrugged resignedly: this was nothing new.

Keith was making his annual pilgrimage to Africa to check up on his PhD students and renew acquaintances in pursuit of further research opportunities. Tess, my not-quite-but-kind-of-pseudo-goddaughter, had been managing a very chichi safari camp in the Okavango Delta for &Beyond – formerly CC Africa – for the past year, and it seemed an ideal time to catch up with her – and him – before she moved on to pastures new, and he returned to Australia. When I put out feelers, not wanting to exploit the connection, Tess was effusive in her welcome. We’d be coinciding with the visit of her sister Jennie – another pseudo-but-not-quite family connection, and also now a work colleague – and her boyfriend. Wouldn’t we be intruding, I inquired. Not at all, came the prompt reply independently from both sisters… and so it transpired.

I couldn’t have organised a better set of connections had I tried. I flew down from Edinburgh one Monday morning and met Tess in the check-in queue for our Johannesburg flight (she was returning to Botswana after a couple of weeks’ sojourn in Italy and the UK). Jennie and Adrian met us in Johannesburg airport’s Mugg & Bean coffee shop for the flight to Maun. And Keith met us in Maun for the charter flight into the Delta. (While waiting for the Maun flight, Jennie and Adrian had even briefed me in detail about Istanbul, the first destination on my much-awaited Asian trip in July/August, of which more in due course.)

Xaranna Camp was out of this world. The last – and only previous – time I had been in the Delta, I had been a safari newbie, travelling overland from Johannesburg with Peter and Karen, and “roughing it” – in so far as they ever did (I seem to remember that we came back to Jo’burg with a case of red wine after three weeks on the road) – camping in the Makgadikgadi Pans and the Delta. Looking back on it now, I am aghast. Was I really so naïve as to shine a torch in the face of a (fortunately relaxed) male elephant, minding his own business under an acacia tree, as I wended my way back to the camp fire from the ablution block? Did Peter really wrestle a cool box with a hyena, dressed only in his boxer shorts (Peter, that is… lest there be any doubt), waving an axe and screaming blue murder that a mere beast should dare to make off with his alcohol supply? (We lost one bottle of gin on that occasion, smashed as the hyenas dragged the cool box down off the top of the trailer.)

Now, fifteen years’ on, and five years after my last wildlife-oriented trip to Africa, I was incoherent with excitement at the prospect of seeing animals in the wild once more. No, this wasn’t going to be the well-known elephants of Kaokoland, but it was pretty damn close in excitement terms. Not for nothing is the Okavango Delta revered by many as the be-all and end-all of African safaris.

To be pampered in the luxury of an &Beyond lodge was simply the cherry on top of the icing on the cake. I could have rough-camped very happily, had there been the wherewithal to do so. Instead, we had our very own charter flight into the delightfully named Pom Pom airstrip (Xaranna’s own airstrip having been washed out a few years’ ago), and we were then buzzed along the complex waterways of the post-rainy season Delta to a musical welcome on the pier at Xaranna. Here we were decadently allocated our own butler and guide – though, as befits staff “rellies”, we continually deferred to the needs of the “proper” guests of the lodge – and were shown into almost unheard-of luxury in our own tent-cottages.

Each morning we arose to the tantalising colours of pre-sunrise before us as we shiveringly sipped our coffee. The weather here has a glorious predictability at this time of year, even if it can be quite chilly at the beginning and end of the day. Mott, our attentive and knowledgeable guide, took us by track and river – the two not always clearly differentiated – to explore the area and see what we could find. We weren’t exactly Safari Class 101: apart from Keith’s twenty years’ in southern Africa and my on/off flirtation with the continent, we had the benefit of Adrian’s Tanzanian upbringing, and both his and Jennie’s experience working in camps in Tanzania’s Ruaha and Selous National Parks. We were interested in everything, and appreciated the value of every sighting. We joked with Mott about the “endangered” impala (the pretty, medium-sized antelope being just about everywhere). We scrutinised the bird books to confirm that this was indeed a Dickinson’s kestrel in the distance, and joked that every large solo raptor circling in the thermals was a battleur (oddly, it usually was). The highlight of the first day’s drive for us was not the nonchalant lone male elephant or the impressively large herd of buffalo, but a Verreaux’s eagle owl, blinking pinkly down at us from his otherwise camouflaged perch in an old dead tree. We spent most of one lunchtime watching a pair of striped kingfishers contemplating the world, then hopping down, unexpectedly, to hunt for insects on the ground in front of the camp (they clearly hadn’t read their own name-tag: most kingfishers are actually insectivorous). We knew the threat that hippo pose, and were combinedly nervous about getting too close to a group of eight or so grumpily lounging in the pools in front of us. We were similarly concerned as Max – Mott was away ferrying “real” guests to the airstrip that morning – pursued a couple of male lion and appeared to get too close to a wild dog den, but the animals here are remarkably indulgent of their human audience. One of the male lion walked towards the vehicle, but then passed behind it without seeming to give the eight would-be-breakfasts a second glance, and the understandably defensive alpha female wild dog growled when Keith waved her off from her inspection of the vehicle with his hat, but backed down and moved away. Perhaps the returning hunters of the pack would provide sufficient food without her having to investigate this vehicle any further, particularly if that hat was an indication as to their taste.

This will be one blog where I am unashamedly incorporating a lot of photographs. Both the wild dog and the male lion sightings were superb by any assessment. I’m extremely lucky to have spent time with lion in Botswana before, spectating a collaring exercise while staying at the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust’s Wild Dog Camp in 2009, so it wasn’t the handsome pair of males that won the trip trophy for me, but the half-hour we spent with a pack of wild dog at their den. I’ve only twice before seen wild dog: once fleetingly in Zambia, and once in the dusk of their captivity at Africat, a rescued year-old litter of pups that the conservation organisation was temporarily housing. On this occasion, we didn’t see the pups, but Max told us they were about four weeks old, and newly moved from their original den to this one. We chanced upon them – no, that’s not fair, Max and his tracker had worked hard following the spoor to get us there – just before the main pack returned from the hunt. The alpha male and female were lying, almost invisible, in the golden grasses, only a darkly twitching ear an indication that southern Africa’s most endangered predator and arguably most ruthless killing machine was a few yards in front of us. As the main pack began to return, the alpha female became very excited, squealing in a puppy-like manner for the adult dogs to regurgitate their food for the benefit of her and her pups. Twice this happened, and the tension was palpable, this extraordinary sound rending the air for a seemingly interminable time. Although each of us could have stayed longer, we decided to leave the dogs in peace, but this in itself was astonishing: the luxury of our being the ones to take the decision to end the encounter, driving away from such a rarity, rather than having the dogs run off and leave us behind.

Our three days went by all too quickly, as was sadly inevitable, but we couldn’t have asked for a more thrilling – or luxurious – sojourn in this most wonderful part of the continent. Neither of us had had the easiest few months in the run-up to this trip, but the real world kindly evaporated for a short while, and I for one felt just about ready to return to my responsibilities – albeit after a hectic few days’ socialising with old friends in Windhoek – as we set out by boat for the airstrip once again.

Additional photos below
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21st June 2014

An amazing trip. Glad you got up for sunrise! We really want to see this part of the world.
22nd June 2014
two-headed special

What a treat to see this! Great shots, great adventure!
23rd June 2014

When the devil did you disappear to Africa ? And how the devil are you ? Wonderful photos and chat as ever. Much love C & J XXX

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