Out of

Into Botswana’s Oka­vango Delta

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Afloat - SU­SAN KURO­SAWA

OUR trusty boat­man Luke was born in the Oka­vango Delta of north­east Botswana and knows this snaking maze of wa­ter­ways inside out, but each jour­ney, he tells me, is dif­fer­ent.

It’s all to do with the play­ful­ness of the breeze, the sun’s de­gree of scorch, the un­know­able moods of Mother Na­ture, the skit­tish­ness of the wildlife, the flight­i­ness of birds. His eyes flick from side to side as we mo­tor along, ever alert for the prospect of bathing ele­phants, can­tan­ker­ous hip­pos and wa­ter-ha­bit­u­ated an­telopes that use mat­ted reeds as crafty pon­toons.

Ours is a mot­ley crew with sarongs draped around our heads and bare shoul­ders against the lively heat; we are thermo-reg­u­lat­ing, like crocodiles, and by the time we hit the Kala­hari Desert days later, in heat so dry it all but crum­bles our hair, we will also sleep in wet sarongs.

As Luke steadily drives on — past banks thick and high with ve­tiver, pam­pas, pa­pyrus and wa­ter chest­nuts — we flit be­tween the wel­com­ing shade of the boat’s bot­tom deck and climb­ing up a metal lad­der to the roof for the best van­tage points. It’s from this up­per perch we spy the rare si­tatunga, or marsh an­te­lope; we see a herd of seven swim­ming through reedy shal­lows, all gleam­ing and glossy in what Luke calls their ‘‘wa­ter coats’’.

Later, as dusk gath­ers, we will have an ea­gle’s-eye view from the top deck of a ver­i­ta­ble storm of birds, all com­ing in to roost, nest and mate on tiered branches in a grove of spread­ing trees. It’s an avian con­do­minium and, as the sun swiftly sets, they’ll ap­pear like bird-shaped wood­cuts against the ex­plo­sive orange of the hori­zon — great egrets, reed cor­morants, black herons and a pair of frankly ugly marabou storks that mate and rock in a great flurry of feath­ers and rat­tling of bills.

But for now it’s lunchtime, so Luke kills the boat’s engine. And where else would we be eat­ing but on a sand­bank in the caramel-coloured chan­nel on fold­ing chairs, our sub­merged bare feet worked upon by nib­bling fish, tif­fin trays of ex­cel­lent salad on our knees, cool-box drinks to hand. ‘‘Any crocs?’’ asks one of our city-slicker group. ‘‘Not here,’’ laughs Ralph Bous­field, a guide so ex­tra­or­di­nary that we trust his ev­ery word and move, ev­ery ca­sual wave of his hand to­wards a never-never of crocs. Botswana-born, fourth-gen­er­a­tion bush ex­plorer and con­ser­va­tion­ist, Ralph owns Un­charted Africa, a small, hands-on com­pany that’s one of the few to of­fer mo­bile sa­faris in this neck of the con­ti­nent. If you want in­ti­mate Botswana — pri­vate camps, a change of lo­ca­tions ac­cord­ing to the mi­gra­tion of an­i­mals and sea­sonal con­di­tions, and ap­pro­pri­ate bush com­fort rather than lav­ish luxe — Un­charted Africa is for you.

Our boat trip is day four of an ad­ven­ture-laden sa­fari and tonight’s sleep­over at a fly camp on a tiny is­land in the Oka­vango Delta prom­ises to be the most thrilling so far. We arrive in dark­ness and Luke edges the boat into a bank tan­gled with pa­pyrus. Ralph and his nephew, mo­bile camp man­ager John Bar­clay, lead us along a track lit by a parade of lanterns.

The crew from last night’s camp at Xini La­goon in the Moremi Game Re­serve has gone ahead and set up our tem­po­rary digs. In a glade of ebony and sausage trees lies an en­chanted sight — can­vas stools cir­cling a campfire, an arc of mat­tresses topped by mos­quito nets draped on twiggy stakes and the ul­ti­mate in pop-up bars. We wash our hands in warm wa­ter poured from pol­ished cop­per jugs and pre­pare to dine.

Wa­muka, our mo­bile sa­fari chef, is a man­u­fac­turer of mir­a­cles. With just four helpers, ev­ery morn­ing he con­jures muffins from a tin-trunk oven set on coals and cooks full English break­fasts; sub­stan­tial lunches and three-course dinners ap­pear as if spir­ited from the air.

Throughout this other-worldly car­a­vanserai of a sa­fari it’s as if there’s a por­tal just be­hind us that leads to a Miche­lin-starred kitchen. If, say, Alain Du­casse were to pop out from be­hind a bush and in­quire about our di­ges­tion and ask whether we’ve en­joyed our os­trich pic­cata, I would not be the tini­est bit sur­prised.

A can­vas-shel­tered bucket shower has been rigged up be­hind a hard old tree and there’s a long-drop loo (a wooden box as grand as a throne, no less) sur­rounded by a mod­esty screen of thorny bushes. We watch the moon and stars, as bright as pol­ished sil­ver, and tune in to the oc­ca­sional squawks from the nearby heronry as the campfire be­gins to die.

Seven hours later, we wake to busy birds, the drone of wild bees and the smell of per­co­lat­ing cof­fee from Wa­muka’s kitchen. Ralph is on a palm-nut whis­tle call­ing greater hon­eyguides, which re­ply with a tremen­dous chat­ter­ing. There’s enor­mous won­der among us city­fied in­ter­lop­ers that we’ve slept so soundly on the

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A herd of im­palas in the delta The boat’s ro ideal van­tage for spot­ting w Ev­ery journe dif­fer­ent for boat­man Luk Tem­po­rary d con­sist of ma with mosquit Fold­ing chair set up for lun on a sand­ban

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