Into Botswana’s Okavango Delta
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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