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By Ute Junker
Take a walk on the wild side, on safari in Botswana.
It’s the start of the rainy season, and a baby boom is taking place in the Okavango Delta. There’s a good reason why animals give birth at this time. Large amounts of rain supercharge the growth of grass, which gives herbivores such as giraffe, antelope, and elephant plenty of fodder. The tall grass helps animals hide their young from potential predators.
However, this year the rains are late, and the grass is still low. That’s bad for the animals but great for us. Few travel experiences are as unforgettable as this safari, here in Botswana, in the wild heart of Africa.
Up close and personal
During our visit to the delta, we get to see sights that would normally be hidden from view, such as a sleepy hyena nursing her pup in a shady patch on a hot afternoon, or a newly-born impala, not yet licked clean by its mother.
Sometimes we don’t even have to leave camp to catch these magical moments. As I laze on the terrace of my villa one afternoon, a bird-like cheeping makes me look up. Two warthog mothers, accompanied by eight adorable cubs, are cropping the grass nearby. As I reach for my camera, the pups scatter in panic. The mothers graze on. They have seen it all before.
Okavango Delta is the natural habitat for more than 120 species of mammal – from lion and leopard, elephant and giraffe, to hyena and jackal – and 400 species of birds. To see as much as we can, we head out twice a day on game drives.
Our morning expedition departs just after dawn, to catch the animals as they wake from their slumber. Our second drive takes place in the late afternoon, after the heat of the day has subsided.
Each outing brings an encounter with the unexpected. On one drive, we come across a pride of 17 lions, shading themselves in a copse. On another, we find a hyena feasting on a freshly killed impala.
Even the often-elusive leopard seems determined to put on a show for us. One afternoon, we watch a heavily pregnant female, obviously hot and uncomfortable, cooling herself in a muddy puddle. The next day, we follow a male leopard for almost half an hour. He is far from shy; in fact, he does everything bar pose for the camera. Even armed with a basic point-and-click camera and rudimentary photography skills, I capture amazing close-ups of the elegant beast. My fellow guests are thrilled.
Comfort and adventure
We’re on a high, entranced not only by the wildlife, but also by the luxurious camps where we’re staying. Our two camps, booked through Bench International, each offer distinct experiences.
Sanctuary Chief’s Camp is a destination in its own right, a collection of 14 villas known for its spacious guest quarters, its superb food and arguably the best service in Africa. We are visiting just before the camp closes for a major renovation; when it reopens in June, the villas will have tripled in size, and each will have its own plunge pool.
Sanctuary Baines Camp has an entirely different feel. With just five suites perched on a reed-fringed bend in the Boro River, a stay at Baines is all about savouring the quiet moments. You can take a traditional canoe, or mokoro, down the river; soak in a bubble bath on your deck as night falls; or drift off to sleep to the sound of hippos grunting at each other.
The activities on offer are truly memorable. One night, instead of heading to the dining deck, we take our places in the four-wheel drives and head out into the bush. Following a long line of candles glimmering in the darkness, we come upon an alfresco bush feast. We enjoy a candlelit meal of delicious grilled meats and salads before retiring to the campfire with a warming drink.
At one point, I hear something moving in a clump of trees nearby – an unnerving experience when out in the African bush at night. I ask my guide what is out there in the darkness, and he points to a dark shape, barely discernible against the trees.
“It’s an elephant,” he says calmly. I freeze for a moment, and then I slowly relax. The elephant’s not interested in what we’re doing. Why should it be? Like us, it’s just enjoying its dinner.