Safari Water World

Safari Water World

With elephants and hippos watching on, Danika Porter explores the swampy wetlands of Botswana’s Okavango Delta.

Camp rules dictate you cannot walk around unaccompanied after nightfall. Just the night before, a leopard had crept into camp and killed a bushbuck – the carcass is still there and everyone is certain the leopard will return for its prey. My guide, Onks, escorts me to my tent, then I am on my own. Lying in bed, with only an emergency air horn, I pray the canvas is a successful deterrent. The night, as it turns out, is far from peaceful – elephants trumpet, hippos grunt, baboons scream and there are plenty of other sounds I can’t recognise.

This is my first stop of three on the Okavango Delta. Each of the camps is isolated within the immense waterway and accessed by bush airline. Only from this aerial perspective can you appreciate the scale of this lush paradise in the otherwise arid Kalahari Desert.

That afternoon, I clamber into a mokoro (dugout canoe), the traditional method of transportation in the delta. Chris is the poler, expertly navigating channels hippos have trampled through the papyrus. Onks travels ahead to ensure we don’t hit a hippo speed bump.

Xigera Camp is a series of thatched huts and tents, all interconnected by raised boardwalks. But the 10 canvas castles are far from your average two-man dome. My accommodation is the size of an apartment, with separate bedroom, dressing room and bathroom, and an outdoor shower.

The dawn is freezing, but suitably rugged up, Onks and I head out on a game drive. We pass skittish impala, each face seemingly decorated with heavy-handed make-up. Onks teaches me how to gauge a giraffe’s age by the darkness of its markings. Zebras parade stiff mohawks and tattooed stripes, the pattern of each as unique as a fingerprint. We encounter a macabre scene of squabbling vultures devouring a baby elephant carcass. All that remains is the deflated skin with leg stumps attached.

We stop just metres from a solitary bull elephant and my heart starts racing. He flares his ears, curls his trunk and rocks his head in a warning to back off. I’m nervous, but Onks judges his behaviour and calmly waits. The elephant eventually walks over to a palm tree and repeatedly head-butts the trunk. Palm nuts rain down and he deftly uses his trunk to shovel the tiny rewards into his mouth.

Back in camp, I help myself to the open bar while Petunia squelches up beside the pool. He’s the resident hippo and is clearly not at all disturbed by over-excited tourists, ignoring me while hoovering up swamp grass, his huge jaws chomping nonstop like a Hungry Hippo playing piece.

Before my next flight, we have to clear the dirt runway of hazards. This sophisticated process consists of Onks scaring off animals by running with his arms waving comically. Today’s ride is a 12-seater Cessna Caravan and it’s a mere five-minute skip to Kwetsani Camp. Straight from the runway I’m off with Kwetsani manager Dan, along passages in the grass just wide enough for our tinny to pass through.

As if on cue, a herd of elephants is gathering at the water’s edge. The family of five could easily be missed, with only the tallest adults showing above the reeds. Dan cuts the engine and we float quietly as the footsteps approach. The matriarch wades across first and emerges with a distinct waterline dividing her body like Top Deck chocolate. A tiny baby slips right under, all but its periscope-like trunk disappearing into the water.

Where Xigera has a rustic Robinson Crusoe vibe, Kwetsani is styled like a fancy African hotel. An elegant restaurant and lounge adjoins a massive deck overlooking a vast dry plain. My tent is a dream treehouse with an interior equal to any luxury suite. Bi-fold doors open to uninterrupted views, so I can spy wildlife without leaving bed.

Meshack is my guide and we are on a leopard-spotting mission. A short boat ride takes us to Hunda Island, a haven for animals during flood season. Within 10 minutes Meshack locates a leopard and cub. The bub is a frisky kitten desperate to play, attacking its mum’s legs to little effect. It’s mesmerising to observe the mother’s beauty and intimidating presence from just a few metres away. We hit the jackpot with another female leopard lounging nearby on a rock. She dozes like a passenger on a plane, her head slowly sinking forward, then snapping back up.

My final stop is Savuti Camp, located north of the delta in the Linyanti region. From the air the scenery changes dramatically as floodplains seep into barren landscape. It’s a contrasting dusty transfer to reach Savuti’s open huts and decks layered above the Savuti Channel. The waterway is an animal magnet and the ‘bush television’ plays a constant wildlife documentary. Twelve elephants appear seeking a drink, then two hippos emerge from the reeds and sink into the river. A pair of giraffes meanders past to complete the scene.

Goodman, the guide here, has organised sundowners at the hippo bar. He sets up drinks on the bonnet of the jeep beside a pool teaming with the wallowing creatures. Just beady eyes, flared nostrils and teddy-bear ears breech the surface. The animals disappear then resurface, flushing nostrils like a snorkel, in a different spot. The big boys tussle for dominance, yawning their jaws wide to reveal weapon-sized tusks. Catapulting their bodies out of the water they knock their mouths together – it’s like an awkward first attempt at pashing.

I’m not long in bed that night when chaos breaks out. Trees snap like toothpicks and something is brushing my tent. There’s a massive silhouette at my door and two white tusks gleaming in the moonlight. My nonchalant guest lets off a sloppy fart that wafts through my tent. I lie back very, very slowly and consider futile escape plans. Instead I lie awake for hours as the elephant herd happily feeds. In the morning Goodman laughs at my tale and says a thirsty elephant once skewered its tusks through a tent while the guest was showering.

As I reluctantly farewell my hippo neighbours and close the tent, I nearly collide with a feisty male elephant blocking my boardwalk. His splayed ears and rearing trunk bar my passage, so I lower my bag and wait. Ten minutes pass and the stand-off continues. This is surely a sign I’m not meant to leave this surreal Eden. Isn’t it?

Get there

South African Airlines flies daily to Johannesburg from Perth with connections to Maun in Botswana.

Stay there

For overnight stays, Johannesburg’s luxury Michelangelo Hotel is centrally located on Nelson Mandela Square. Rates start from US$215.

Tour There

Encompass Africa offers incredible tours to Botswana and beyond. You can select from suggested itineraries or create your own.

Words Danika Porter

Photos Danika Porter

Tags: animal encounter, botswana, safari, unusual experience

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