Next to na­ture in deep­est Botswana

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & In­dul­gence - DIANE ARM­STRONG

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

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