Next to nature in deepest Botswana
WE are gliding along a narrow, reed-fringed waterway in Botswana’s Okavango Delta in a flatbottomed dugout called a makoro when we come face to face with seven hippos.
Although seeing animals in the wild is one of the thrills of the delta, you do not want a close encounter with a hippo — it is among the most dangerous in Africa. So White, our quaintly named boatman, decides that discretion is the better part of voyeurism.
Motioning for silence, he poles our makoro until we are safely concealed behind a wall of phragmite reeds.
As we sit waiting, two in each makoro, gazing at the hippos cavorting in the water like carefree kids on holiday, one of our group pipes up, ‘‘How big is hippo poo?’’
I’m as fascinated by wild creatures as the next person, but there are aspects of animal life I definitely have no desire to know about. Still, there’s no accounting for tastes, and I’m travelling with three fervent nature-lovers who are endlessly curious about Africa.
Onour first game drive in Botswana’s Chobe National Park, one of them almost fell out of the vehicle, panting with joy. As our driver pulled up, I craned my neck to see what exotic beast had evoked such transports of delight. One of the big cats, perhaps? But the object of her rapt attention was a bird so tiny, I could hardly see it. Within seconds, her two companions were also hanging out of the vehicle. It was a carmine bee-eater, apparently.
Every bird we spotted, whether perched on an acacia branch or pecking on savanna grasses, evoked similar explosions of ecstasy, followed by discussions on every aspect of colouring, head shape and tail feathers.
I was astounded that in a world where elephants, rhinos, lions, giraffes and leopards roam, birds could evoke such worshipful attention. But bird-mania is infectious and, as we observe the hippos, I reflect that, thanks to my mentors, I’ve learned not only to appreciate the exquisite colours and infinite variety of African birds but to identify them.
I, too, hold my breath when I spot pastel-hued lilac-breasted rollers, glossy royal blue starlings, blood-red bishops and crimsonbreasted shrikes.
As the makoro plies through dreamy channels sprinkled with violet and white lotuses, I’m jolted out of my trance by a trumpeting sound. Just ahead, a family of elephants is sluicing itself with water, and snow-white egrets are riding on the jumbos’ backs. A flutter of russet wings distracts my attention and I point excitedly.
It’s a jacana, or Jesus bird, and in one of nature’s miracles it is walking on the water.
As we speed towards our houseboat after the makoro trip, golden-scaled crocs slip into the water right under our boat, while purple- feathered herons and African darters flit among the acacias and fish eagles soar overhead. By now the bird-crazy trio has toted up 81 species.
By the time we’re back on board, the setting sun is gilding the tips of the reeds, and I rush for my camera because a spectacular malachite kingfisher has j ust perched on a nearby branch.
That night, as I fall asleep to the sound of hippos grunting and snorting outside my cabin, I catch myself wondering about the size of their poo.
Give hippos a wide berth