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Safari in Southern Africa: Part Two

Soar over Botswana’s lush Okavango Delta in a helicopter, and join a wildlife-viewing excursion by boat

By Alan Fox

Vacations Magazine: Safari in Southern Africa: Part Two

(Scroll down to see a slide show.)

Safari in Southern Africa: Part One

Over the Okavango Delta

We fidgeted as we stood by the small airstrip and watched the chopper pilot refuel. One day into the Botswana portion of our safari, we'd signed up for an optional sightseeing tour by air that was highly touted by other guests we'd met at last night's campfire.

The helicopter held four passengers, one next to the pilot and three in the row behind. We had drawn straws for seating assignments before we left camp: winner to sit by the pilot in the front row, loser in the middle of the back row and the other two getting back-row window seats.

I had drawn a window seat, but now on the scene I realized that there were no window seats in the back row because there were no windows -- or doors -- in the back row. Only the cockpit had doors.

We climbed in and fastened our seatbelts, and as the pilot came around to check mine, he shouted over the roar of the rotors, "It's okay to ride with your foot on the skid."

I was still wondering if I would even be able to ride without doors, so this new mental picture took me aback. I turned to my son, secure in his middle seat, with the raised-eyebrows sign we always use when one of us has just realized what he's gotten himself into. He smiled back without so much as a trace of pity.

Carefully, I slid partially off my seat, slipped my right leg out of the chopper and lowered a foot down to a runner that was about halfway to the ground. I held my camera with both hands, but as we lifted off I noticed that my seatbelt suddenly seemed quite flimsy, so I gripped the back of the pilot's chair with my left hand, white-knuckle style.

Our pilot was an intrepid young Kiwi named Trent, and with a bit of flair he followed the short runway to the end, like a bush plane taking off, then banked into a rising 180-degree turn to take us over our tented camp before sweeping out into the Okavango Delta.

The first animal we spotted was a showstopper, an adult giraffe wading shin deep across a pool of lily pads and casting a long shadow on the water. I took a half dozen blurry pictures as we sailed over his head, some shooting almost straight down, and gave thanks for having lost the draw for the seat in the cockpit.

For an hour, we soared above the emerald green foliage and royal blue water of the delta, literally never out of sight of the animals we had come to see. There were Nile crocodiles, zebras, elephants, impalas, kudus, waterbucks, eagles, wildebeest -- the list went on and on. We saw hippos sunning on islands and lumbering along underwater, single file, at the bottom of a crystal-clear canal.

There are countless islands in the delta, and our pilot would gain altitude as we crossed them and then swoop down low and fast across the lakes and channels, a major adrenaline rush that set our hearts pounding.

We arrived in Botswana yesterday, at the first of three tented camps we will visit, all run by Orient-Express. We flew over the Kalahari Desert for 90 minutes to get here and never once saw a city, a village, a house, a car or a road. "Off the beaten path" doesn't begin to describe it.

Our first camp is called Eagle Island and home to 12 guest tents on raised wooden platforms, each facing the water. We are completely surrounded by the delta, and the camp is accessible only by air for most of the year. There is a small gift shop, a dining room for breakfast on chilly mornings, an open-air dining area by the water and a communal campfire.

Unlike most safari lodges, game viewing here is done by mokoro -- a dugout canoe poled through the reeds by a guide standing in the back -- or by motorboat or on foot. On the water, crocs and hippos abound, along with giant monitor lizards and birds such as the brightly colored malachite kingfisher. On land, you never know what you might find. We saw elephants and herds of impalas and zebras and heard the distant roar of a lion on our treks.

One of the true highlights of this magical camp is a big, affable Botswanan named Onx, part naturalist, part guide and part storyteller. Among his many talents, Onx is an expert tracker, which requires not only the ability to recognize a footprint but also the knack for telling the origin and age of, for lack of a better word, poop.

"Hyena poop," he pointed out, on one walk. "Leopard print," he explained, a few minutes later. "Fresh elephant dung" -- well, even I could identify that one.

On one island, Onx walked up to an active, 8-foot-tall termite mound and broke off a piece of the hard, gray shell and plopped it in his mouth. "Termite mounds are made out of termite dung," he explained. "Some people think it is quite good. Who wants to try it?"

There are times in one's life when a golden opportunity to do something stupid presents itself, but good sense ultimately prevails. This was not one of those times. In the spirit of "when in Rome," I bit into a marble-sized chunk of termite dung, and now I can authoritatively report that there is no good reason for you to ever do the same.

Sunset in the delta brings its own special moments. Last night, through the thin canvas walls of our tent, we listened to hippos grunting from the water and baboons screaming at a leopard. Tonight, we dined by the water on crocodile and bream before retiring to the campfire to discuss the day's events and trade regrets about how quickly our time here had passed. Tomorrow we fly to a new tented camp.

Perhaps one day you will visit Eagle Island, and if you do, my wish for you is simple -- an hour with your foot on the runner.

Khwai River Lodge

When the world was younger, the Okavango River flowed forcefully through what is now Botswana en route to the Indian Ocean. Then shifts in the tectonic plates that form the Earth's crust changed the elevation of the land. Now the Okavango loses its momentum here in the Kalahari Desert and never finds the sea, creating instead a series of lakes and channels known as the Okavango Delta.

The delta is an amazing natural phenomenon, pristine and remote and virtually untouched by man. It is home to a rich array of rare and exotic birds and animals, plus Eagle Island Camp, which we left yesterday morning.

We took off in cloudless blue skies and crossed quickly from that lush, green oasis to brown sand dotted with camel thorn acacias and dried lake beds that looked like craters from the air. An hour later, our 12-passenger Cessna Grand Caravan touched down at our second stop in Botswana, Khwai River Lodge.

Technically, we're still on the very edge of the Okavango Delta, but the annual floodwaters that swell the delta and refill the vital water holes have not reached this far yet. There is enough water in the river, now a creek, to sustain the wildlife, but away from the river the land is dry, and game viewing is done not by boat but via open-air Land Cruisers.

We've had three game drives so far, and the highlights included an extended encounter with an old male lion that was calling to a hidden companion in the forest, and a photo op with a hyena suckling two pups. It's not necessary to venture out to see animals, however.

Today, between game drives, we watched elephants, hippos and impalas from our front porch. There was a troop of baboons in camp most of the afternoon, along with colorful birds including the yellow-billed hornbill and the spectacular lilac-breasted roller. Last night, we heard the roar of lions as they wandered through the camp, and hippos walked between our raised tent and the next one down.

Like Eagle Island, Khwai is a tented camp, but the reality of these camps is that they're five-star all the way, with excellent food served alfresco, twice-daily tent-keeping service, king beds, wood floors and heat at night until 11:30 p.m., when generators are turned off to conserve energy. When you finally make it to bed, you'll find it's been warmed by a hot water bottle, another nice touch considering the temperature will fall into the 40s on this crisp winter evening.

After sunset tonight, we piled into safari trucks and drove into the bush. As we bounced along the dirt road, our driver probed the trees and undergrowth with a spotlight, calling out the type of animal that went with each pair of eyes that shone back.

After a short ride, we arrived at a small, circular fort made of logs and lighted entirely by torches, called a boma. In Botswana, a boma is used for important tribal gatherings, but tonight we enjoyed a gracious buffet dinner and a serenade of traditional music by employees of the camp. There was nothing too familiar on the table, which was fine with me. The warthog was good, and the kudu sausage was even better.

We have one stop left on our safari, but it's already quite clear how the Botswana experience differs from last summer's East African adventure. In Tanzania, and Kenya as well, there are far more people, cities, towns and markets, and much greater interaction with the local people as you drive from one game reserve to the next. Last year, I enjoyed my visit to a Maasai school and village immensely.

Here in sparsely populated Botswana, where roads are few and rugged, travel is via small planes between intimate and isolated camps that house a maximum of 30 guests. At times, we feel as though we have the entire country to ourselves. It is a supremely peaceful, back-to-nature experience.

As far as wildlife, the game reserves of Tanzania and Kenya are more hospitable in terms of water supply and vegetation than the Kalahari, which is one of the world's largest deserts. There are still animals here at every turn, but we haven't seen the huge herds we saw last year in the Great Migration of East Africa.

Is one experience better than the other? I don't think so. Each is truly outstanding in its own way.

Savute Elephant Camp

As the light drains from the African sky, the stars appear, first one and then a hundred and then a thousand, until the heavens above Botswana are in full bloom. Staring up at this diamond-studded canopy on a cool winter night, with my back to the warm campfire, it's easy to appreciate what a small role we play on the big stage.

Maybe it's Africa itself -- untamed and timeless -- that's put me in the mood for a flight through the galaxy. Or maybe it's the Amarula -- a popular, South African after-dinner drink that goes down a bit too easily.

I am in the Savute Elephant Camp at Chobe National Park, our third Orient-Express tented camp and the final stop on our safari. Each flight in Botswana has taken us to an exotic new environment and a unique ecosystem.

Eagle Island was a lush, green water world in the heart of the Okavango Delta. Khwai River was a mixed wet-and-dry location with leadwood and fig tree forests. Savute is dry. Bone dry. Kalahari Desert dry.

We flew in yesterday from Khwai River, and as we entered the park we couldn't help but notice the rules posted at the game warden's hut:

Rule No. 1: Do not sleep outside your tent or you will be eaten by animals.

Frankly, that made the other rules seem a bit trivial.

Chobe National Park is known for its diverse and plentiful wildlife and for an elephant population that is estimated at 120,000, including the largest elephants on Earth.

Fittingly, less than 50 yards from where I stand and about 20 feet below the high ground we occupy, 10 enormous elephants are jostling for position at a man-made watering hole.

Watching the continuous struggle for dominance play out under a spotlight, I find myself wishing for a much larger water trough or for a traffic cop to intercede, as the big and strong chase away the meek and the undersized.

Smaller elephants try to slip in unnoticed but quickly back away when challenged. They return to the shadows, too thirsty to leave but afraid even to stare at the superior males.

Large elephants that approach usually attempt to force their way in and always draw the attention of another huge animal. That leads to a lot of head shaking and posturing -- ever been to an NFL game? -- and if neither backs off, they will eventually butt heads to determine which is stronger. Immediately, the vanquished will shuffle away.

Just after dawn this morning, I pulled on a couple of layers against the chill and stepped out of my tent to an unexpected treat. Two hundred yards straight ahead, moving from my right to my left, an adult male lion was crossing the sand toward the suddenly vacated watering hole. There is a nonchalant swagger in a lion's walk, and he threw a glance in my direction as if to say, "You'll be fine if you stay where you are," which I did.

That was the nearest I've been to a lion at this camp, but twice we've been so close to leopards that I could have reached my hand out of the truck and, well, had it bitten off. I didn't do that, but I did take a couple of hundred pictures of these sleek and beautiful animals.

This ends our final full day in the bush, and predictably, none of us are ready to leave. Anyone who's been here knows that Africa will steal your heart if you let her.

Tomorrow we'll chase the ostriches off the landing strip and board the smallest plane yet, a six-seater, for Maun, Botswana -- the nearest town, about 90 minutes away by air. From there, we fly south back to Johannesburg and a connection to an overnight flight to Cairo. This second leg of our vacation will be my family's first trip to the Middle East, and I'll be back in the next issue of Vacations with a report from the Nile.

Egypt is the northeast corner of Africa, of course, so we have to fly back over this area to get there. All of which means that by 2 a.m. our EgyptAir flight will be just another bright spot in the Botswana night sky. Too bad I won't be here to see it.

Until then, keep your eyes on the stars... and pass the Amarula.

Finding Your Safari

Click to see rates and departure dates for all African Travel safaris, including the customized itinerary described in this story ("Alan Fox's Botswana and Zambia Custom Safari"). Or, call (800) 291-3346 to speak with one of Vacations To Go's safari specialists.

You can view safari itineraries from a wide selection of tour companies ranging from budget to luxury at www.AfricaSafari.com.

The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in November/December 2007. Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 291-3346 for current rates and details.

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