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  • Shila Desai

Back to Africa (Botswana)

There’s something primal about Africa that calls to all of us.

Although our November trip to Botswana was a dry-run, four friends immediately jumped on board. They couldn't resist Africa’s call.

There’s something primal about Africa that calls to all of us. It’s where we came from, and where we reconnect with our beginnings. A lioness bringing down a zebra, cheetah stalking an antelope, hyenas circling a dying elephant . . . images that burn into our ancient psyches while we leave the concrete jungle behind.

Drama on the plains, as only Africa knows how

Botswana’s Kalahari Desert may be one of the oldest lands on the planet. The San peoples (hitherto known as Bushmen) have inhabited its harsh environs for over 30,000 years. Fast forward to today, where Botswana is a rarity in Africa. Discovery of gem-quality diamonds and careful stewardship underpinned Botswana’s economic, social, and political stability. Having grown up in crime-ridden Kenya, I was eager to visit an Africa of safe city streets and mingle with a population that isn’t classified as either gilded fortress-owners or shanty-dwellers. I've wanted to visit Botswana ever since I discovered the quirky Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Private Ladies Detective Series and Mma Ramotswe.

Botswana’s riches extend beyond diamonds. Its 160+ species of mammals, 500+ of birdlife populate a renowned ecological phenomenon: the Okavango Delta, which is an inland delta that dries up to mere rivulets in the dry season and transforms into a watery paradise in the wet. It attracts a huge diversity of wildlife. Bonus: wildlife close-ups from the water-line, instead of from above in a dusty land-cruiser.

This, then, is the stuff of safari dreams.

Arriving in Maun, we were warmly welcomed by our tour ops Gerhardt and Jacob. They run a small family-operated tour company. We figured right away that these two were really good friends because Jacob ribbed Gerhardt incessantly, and G took it smilingly until he seized a perfect opportunity to strike back at his tormentor. Besides their engaging dynamic, Jacob had the eyes of an eagle with binos, and Gerhardt tireless in acquiescing to our every whim. Within the first few hours, we were certain we had a pair of gems. That’s important when you’re together almost 24/7 for eleven long days.

In Maun, we flew over the Okavango Delta in a six-seater turbo-prop. As we soared over the Delta, I marvelled at its resemblance to a marblized painting—you know, the one where you pour oil paints on water, plop a paper, and carefully peel it off to admire striations and undulations. The vista below marbelized emeralds of verdant vegetation, reds of undulating sands, and blues of water reflecting clouds, a flash of the sun, even the tiny silhouette of our plane. Add the thrill of sudden recognition -- a slow moving smudge was a herd of elephant; black pustules in the blue were a pod of hippo -- and the painting sprang to life.

Next we saw the delta was at eye-level.

In the middle of the delta’s many forks and twists lies an island camp, complete with an elephant that swims in for a munch at cottonwood trees. It was our destination. To get there, we had a game drive with a difference: on water.

Amidst expert navigation -- the shallow channels can be treacherous-- our skipper SK pointed out a hippo rearing up, mouth agape with brown teeth; elephant swimming; a rookery filled with big wading birds, and most exciting: a rare sighting of Africa’s most elusive antelope. The sitatunga has adapted to its watery world by developing webbed feet.

The camp itself was a treat of seclusion and a marvel of pampering in the middle of deepest Africa. Hot bucket showers, a sundowner under the huge cottonwood, and three course dinner with fine cutlery. Not to mention the stars. Oh, the stars of the African sky! Truly Out of Africa at its finest.

The next day we bade farewell to the delta and headed for Savuti, a drier region of Botswana. The drier it gets, chances increase of wildlife congregating at water holes and resultant prey-predator drama. Early on, Jacob spotted a pride of lionesses in a thicket, feeding on a hippo carcass. As we watched, a lioness sauntered and, facing the endless savannah, began lowing-growling for her mate to come to dinner. How different is that from when you’ve hollered for your man to get to the table? The lioness was joined by junior lionesses and they “hollered” in relay while cubs gambolled and their mothers swatted them down. Those growls echoing over the savannah were definitely an "Africa-moment", guaranteed to burn into our primeval psyches.

At dawn near a watering hole, we saw the Big Boy. He and his lionesses regally lounged while the sun sank over a landscape thrumming with birdsong and whirring cicadas. And we trade this for the office water cooler?

Our next stop was a photography game boat-ride on the banks of the Chobe River. From a wide hull photographic safari boat equipped with custom-made 360-degree swing arms, 150-600mm Sigma telephoto lens cameras we clicked away to our hearts' content. Patient professional instruction helped fill memory cards with incredible wildlife images. The late afternoon light bounced off the gold hued water for a luminous effect. On the bank, we chanced upon crocodiles feeding on a dead elephant. Gross alert: as we watched, the carcass' enormous belly undulated from the crocs' feeding frenzy inside.

Next, we were whisked away for an overnight on a luxurious houseboat. Over the next day, we plied the Chobe’s further reaches in search for elephant.

On the banks, the elephant numbers left us incredulous. Elephant feeding, drinking, swimming, bathing, rolling in the dirt, socialising. Young males jostled and bantered. We dined with one hand on the camera. Sunsets on the Chobe never disappoint but the one that evening is etched in my memory. Another Africa moment.

In fact the entire eleven days in Botswana were one big Africa Moment, to be treasured forever.

I was glad that we still had another three in Victoria Falls before bidding goodbye to Gerhard and Jacob with whom, by now, we were good friends.

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