On Safari: The Wilds of Botswana

LEADBotswanaIn Botswana, the army of elephants stood stiffly, alert and imposing, their powerful gray silhouettes facing our open-air Land Cruiser. It was our second night on safari, and the sky was dark and foreboding as we drove alongside Botswana’s Khwai River, a tributary that feeds into the Okavango Delta, on the northern border of the Moremi Game Reserve.

Hundreds of elephants filled the river, bathing and drinking after the heat of the day had subsided. Seemingly endless herds continued to arrive, like phantoms, mutely making their way from the brush to the water. We had parked next to the river to quietly observe the herds.

I sat silently, wrapped in darkness, with three other safarigoers and our guide. The calm and tranquility was abruptly shattered when a vehicle careened down the dusty road, obviously in a hurry and with little interest in watching elephants or concern for startling them.

Our guide, Dave Carson, sensing the animals’ surprise and tension, remained calm, but on high alert. “Are you ready for a show?” he asked. I held my breath, not knowing what to expect. The elephants panicked and tore through the water, trunks in the air, trumpeting and screaming. Nearly 30 enormous animals stampeded toward us, looking like a wall of doom and sounding like a rushing waterfall.

My heart raced; I couldn’t breathe. Mere feet from a mass collision of flesh on metal, the tirade of elephants veered to the left, running behind our vehicle and disappearing into the bush.

A large and intimidating-looking female lioness prowls along Botswana’s Khwai River.
A large and intimidating-looking female lioness prowls along Botswana’s Khwai River.

I heaved a hot breath and sighs of relief were heard all around. Adrenaline coursed through my veins, and I realized then that African safaris are not for the faint of heart. Little did I know that this would be the first of many heart-racing adventures ahead.

It was my first trip to Africa, a land of dreams and Discovery channel shows, rugged and untamed. I wanted to witness one of Earth’s last wild strongholds — a feral frontier — before it’s gone. Botswana, in south-central Africa, I was told, is the place to do just that: a land teeming with wildlife, but few tourists.

A friend and I had planned our getaway for September, one of the best times to visit the area. The southern-hemisphere winter is nearing its end then, the weather is pleasant and it’s the dry season, which means that the remaining water sources are sure to be abundant with wildlife.

Our adventure began at a small airport in Maun, gateway to the Okavango Delta, the world’s largest inland delta, where the waters of the Okavango River meet the Kalahari Desert, transforming the landscape into a gigantic 5,000-square-mile (12, 950 km²) swamp. In the village of Maun we met the rest of the tour group and our safari guides. We boarded two Land Cruisers and departed on a rugged five-hour journey to Moghoto Camp, a private campsite near the Moremi Game Reserve.

As we journeyed through barren desert toward one of the delta’s wet, outstretched fingers, the landscape transformed from lifeless desolation to wildlife haven. I watched, mesmerized, as a monstrous, confident, wild-elephant bull sauntered across the dirt road mere feet away. He strutted slowly, with uncanny silence, his enormous gray feet kissing the earth without a whisper.

The spicy smells of sage and wild basil wafted through the dry air. Regal giraffes stretched long necks, browsing on acacia trees lush with yellow, fragrant blossoms. Impala gracefully leapt through golden grasses alongside grazing zebra and waterbuck. Within the marshy reeds and lilies of the waterway, a hippopotamus bubbled. Then eyes peeked out, slow, curious, intense. Purplish-gray nostrils breached, snorted, and then submerged, disappearing under a glassy surface.

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