I ventured into Botswana with a bit of a heavy heart. Partly because I was leaving such a happy place at Monkeyland, and such warm people, but also because a Sad Bad thing happened.
The sort of Sad Bad thing which dissolves into a Liquid Feeling, which sits in a small glass vial and floats in your chest, and every time you remember the Sad Bad thing, the glass vial snaps and the Liquid Feeling floods your chest and it feels horrid.
I’m not going to divulge details of the Sad Bad thing, but because of its recentness, the bastard glass vial snaps very often. At least once every hour or so. Or it was, but is happening less now that I’ve found sanctuary in Botswana.
I took another Cemair flight from Plett up to Johannesburg and stayed overnight at a hotel about 20 minutes away from the airport, the African Rock, which is situated in a gated part of a pretty dodgy area but has the most unexpectedly superb food.
There I tore my way through a five-course meal prepared by a very talented in-house chef, before limping into bed and conking out with Rascal – the stuffed monkey I bought from Monkeyland who attaches round my neck with velcro.
Pathetically, he makes me miss my trio of real animals (dog, cat, cat) back home, who sleep with me every night, less.
The following morning, I was off to Botswana. I’ve come to trust these little hour-long flights. Firstly, because the planes are so small that everyone gets a window seat, and also, the pilots are reliably amusing.
This one politely asked us to hurry up disembarking because otherwise he would be late for a very important date (for reals). Comic relief.
Upon landing in Maun, I was shuffled onto another plane, this one even smaller. So small that I couldn’t bring my suitcase onto it (too big and hard) so had to re-pack some stuff into a weekend bag and take that instead.
My home for the next week is a succession of small safari camps dotted around in the bush and run by a company which is aptly called Wilderness.
Our tiny vessel – not unlike, as my friend Caroline describes them, ‘a Robin Reliant with wings sellotaped on’ – bobs through the vast, dry openness for about 15 minutes before making a wobbly landing onto a desert airstrip.
From there, it’s a half an hour drive in one of these heaving, spluttering open-air safari vehicles I’ve come to be so fond of.
My first camp is called Chitabe, where we (me and four other guests) are greeted by a wall of beaming staff singing traditional African songs and clapping their hands as we pull in.
Chitabe is a maze of individual, breathtaking, palace-like tented lodges, all built on stilts and connected by snaking wooden platforms.
The walls are canvas, fitted with beautiful glass windowpanes, the floor is polished hardwood, scattered with handsome rugs, and the enormous hotel bed is shrouded with elegant mosquito net curtains fit for a queen.
There are also armchairs, a sprawling bathroom, and a wooden desk complete with an outdoor shower – so while technically a tent, it’s nothing really like a tent.
This heightened setup was designed to raise the camp from the forest floor, because it’s an area of the Okavango Delta which is protected and unfenced, so you share it with whichever wild animals choose to pop in at any given time.
Local animals which are most dangerous to us include buffalo (who charge without warning), elephants (who do give you warning, but charge like they mean it) and big cats (for obvious reasons).
Lions and leopards, being nocturnal, prowl at night, so you aren’t allowed to leave your lodge at all after dark, because who knows who you might bump into.
Oh, and you have to bolt your doors because baboons are everywhere, can be very aggressive when they want to be, and can open sliding doors with ease.
During initiation, guests are informed that there is a foghorn located on our bedside tables which is to be used ONLY in the case of a ‘medical emergency’, and NOT because you are scared of the animal noises at night.
I suppose if the lion roaring outside your canvas walls actually does manage to slash its way in and sink its canines into your jugular, that would count as a medical emergency.
I awake at 4.45am the first morning to what sounded like a tank rolling its way under my lodge and a creature the size of a small horse catapulting into the side of my tent.
I emerge, shaking, from underneath my duvet, Rascal clinging to my neck, to see an elephant yanking branches from around my lodge, flapping its enormous leathery ears and throwing its trunk around with morning glee.
My theory is that the catapulting creature was probably a hungry baboon. Or it might have been a serval, the guide later suggests.
The day starts with a wake-up call at 5am, followed by breakfast in the main area at 5.30am, followed by the morning safari drive at 6am.
Every day its the same drill.
Due to the fact that I, like lions and leopards, am naturally nocturnal, being woken at this time of the morning makes me nauseous every single time, regardless of how much sleep I’ve had. Sometimes I do exaggerate things for dramatic value but in this case I’m not. I really am nocturnal.
Come 6am, despite being in a very jolty vehicle with no windows or seatbelts, bouncing past deadly animals, and trying very hard to be awake, my eyelids drop, my neck goes slack and I micro-sleep until about 8am. That is how nocturnal I am.
My guide, Doux, navigates the safari vehicle through the land – areas of tall grass, between Elephant-ravaged trees, over dry open wasteland and past sparse swamps of water – managing to spot seemingly-invisible, masters-in-disguise animals long before anyone else does.
He knows where lions might be lurking based on their tracks, the presence of their prey and by alarm calls from monkeys and birds in nearby trees. Lions generally follow herds of buffalo and wild dogs trail the lions with plans to pounce on their kills.
During three game drives, which I shared with a lovely New York couple (lawyers, on their honeymoon) I saw the following:
- Two leopards, spotted separately (ark ark) – one young female and one adult female.
- Several huddles of zebra
- Lots of mpala, kudus, buffalo and wildebeest – all grazing prey who roam in large herds.
- A selection of slow-loping giraffes
- A pair of enormous hippos who surprised us in the pitch dark only feet away, and were definitely planning to attack us before we sped away
- Two snoozing lionesses tangled up together under a tree, one snoring
- Several furious elephants, who flapped their ears and tooted us away if we ever got too close
- A pair of honey badgers trotting across the planes
- A smattering of warthogs
- A lone jackal snaking its way through the grass in the distance
- An energetic pack of dappled wild dogs, complete with 11 squabbling puppies
- An abundance of brightly coloured birds, large cranes, and soaring eagles
Relaxing and soulful as it all feels, your days are handled from behind the scenes with military precision.
Every time you go back to your lodge, there’s a surprise – a handwritten card, incense burning, clean laundry – and every time you return from a drive, you are greeted with a drink and a cold face towel.
Meals are taken in the candlelit restaurant tent, or in a bamboo enclosure down at ground-level, surrounding a crackling fire.
The food is sublime; sweet homemade bread, plump fruit, fragrant rice, spicy soups, served with copious amounts of wine.
Last night, one of guides told me spellbinding stories (the time he got his safari vehicle stuck in the mud and was very nearly attacked by a leopard, but had to pretend everything was fine so as not to freak out the tourists) and facts (Botswana is the only country in Africa to have banned hunting).
My only complaint about this two-night stay at Chitabe was the French couple who I had to sit near periodically at mealtimes. I have started a new page on this blog entitled the Awful Tourist Hall of Shame. You can read about them here.