By John Griffin
Planning a safari takes time. You have to research the camp options available as well as the best time of year to travel. Most of all you have to decide the reasons you are going. Is it for the animals? The thrill of the kill?
I did none of these. I left it all up to Jean, my 84-year-old friend who gladly did all the work. She knew what she wanted to see, and that was the point of the trip. Her research was exhaustive and the planning part was almost as much fun as the trip itself.
Though I was along for the ride, I discovered that no amount of planning can provide you with a direct route from the United States to the Okavango Delta in Botswana, one of the most remote regions of the country and the world’s largest inland delta.
The trip there included six flights spread out over a few days to allow Jean, another friend, Virginia, and me the chance to recover from any jet lag that might interfere with our trip.
The last flight was on a rickety Cessna that seemed held together by duct tape and a prayer. The 70-minute jump from Maun, the country’s capital, to the wilderness, included bumping into every air pocket imaginable, leaving us jumpy as well as nervous about what lay in store.
It was like flying into Oz on a tornado.
All of us had been to Africa before. But the northern Africa of Morocco and Egypt is one of large cities teaming with a swarm of people. In the Delta, the only other people around are those who work for the safari camps. The rest of the area is populated with who knows what type of wild beasts.
Which ones would we see? Elephants? Lions? Zebras? Would they attack us? Or was our winter visit when all of the animals had left for better climes?
We were too tired to inquire further as we loaded our luggage into the jeep that took us to our first camp, Lagoon.
It was a quick drive from the airstrip, and the bumpiness of the sandy road added to our disorientation. We saw nothing, not even a bird, before reaching the facility, where we were told to wait until we had been briefed on how the camp operates.
The short lecture, when it finally occurred, included all kinds of useful information, none of which we in our exhaustion could comprehend. If the tents were only a few hundred feet away, why did we have to have a guide escort us to them after dark? And why couldn’t we go there now to relax for a while before our afternoon trek?
We finally made it to the tents, zippered from top to bottom to keep out mosquitoes and monkeys, we were told. But there was little chance for rest. Our afternoon drive was to begin shortly.
We trudged sleepily off to the jeep, where our guide, Alson, and our tracker, A.J., were waiting. They had packed a sundowner snack for us, and we would be gone for several hours.
It was all rather disorienting. The day was hot and humid, with temperatures in the upper 80s. A storm seemed to be brewing off to one side, with enormous bolts of lightening shooting off in all directions. Were we going to be caught in the rain? Were we going to bump all afternoon in the jeep, or would we ever stop for pictures?
The exhaustion melted away about five minutes later, as we spotted our first herd of impala, a graceful deer-like creature that becomes even more beautiful when it is in flight. This herd was largely female, Alson told us, because they had need of only one male. The rest of the males, often called “losers” by the various guides we would have, would form their own small herds.
We were all eyes and ears from that point on. No jangled nerves or droopy eyes. No more worries about jostling about in the jeep. We had found what we had come to Africa for: seeing amazing creatures in their natural habitat.
We could have stayed all afternoon watching the impala, but our guides had more in store for us. They received a call from another jeep that cheetahs were in the area. We were off. We soon came upon three brothers, fresh off a hunt. Their bellies were full, and they were ready for a nap. And that’s what they did, while we drove around them and snapped photos from every angle. The cats were as regal as you could imagine – and docile, too, because they had been well fed. No fears of being cheetah bait.
When they got tired of the attention, the cats slunk off, leaving us to drive around a bit further, where we discovered giraffes and zebras eating together with a pair of ostriches. We saw elephants and tsessebe, a dark, elegant antelope that is second only to the cheetah in terms of swiftness.
We would encounter dazzles of zebras (as groups of the striped animals are called) frequently thereafter, and we noticed something hilarious about their behavior. Though the striped creatures have been exposed to humans from the day they were born, they aren’t too fond of our kind, and they show it by turning their backs to us as soon as they’ve had enough of the cameras. As a result, I have dozens of pictures of zebra rumps, prompting one friend to suggest I start Buttbook as a means of commiserating with friends.
As the sun began to set, an enormous orange-colored moon began to rise in the sky. I felt as if I were taking Linus’ place in meeting the Great Pumpkin, and all I wanted to do was watch it ascend into the night sky.
I was in luck. The moon was our cue to stop the jeep and stretch our legs. Our guides set up an attractive display of snacks and cocktails, but they failed to bring along the right libation for my friends. Instead of the vodka they had requested – no, demanded — the bottle said gin. That mistake was never made again on the trip.
But my friends muddled through, more impressed with seeing elephants and giraffes and cheetahs than anything else.
Only one thing could make the day even more perfect in my book: I had wanted to see the Southern Cross. In all my trips south of the equator, I had never seen this constellation. Alson stopped on the way back to camp to point it out as well as the false Southern Cross that also appears in the night sky.
The storm still rumbled off in the distance, never moving near us, but it lit the sky on one side with brilliant pyrotechnics.
We made it back to camp in time for Jean to get a vodka martini before dinner, but only just barely. The dinner bell had rung, and we didn’t even have time to head back to the tents. So, we sat down to our dinner of beef and vegetables, all prepared in a classic European manner.
What? No local fare? Except for the vegetables that were in season – squashes, pumpkin and the like – the answer was no. The tourists over the years have decreed what they will eat, and the local penchant for chiles is not acceptable.
To please the guides, a couple of bottles of red and green Tabasco sauce could be found on each table. And they doused their food with it, as did I, to their amazement. No tourist had ever gone near a bottle, in their memory. I guess Texans like myself don’t make it to their part of the world regularly.
After dinner, we sat around a camp fire with drinks and dessert, swapping stories of how perfect the first day had been. But the exhaustion we had felt earlier settled in again on us, and we started off for our tents. A cry went up. We hadn’t waited for our guide. We couldn’t go back without him.
Alson quickly showed up with flashlight in hand, but he stopped after about 50 feet. We had to go back, he said. An elephant was in our path.
An elephant? All we could see was blackness.
Well, OK, we’ll go back to the fire and have another drink. Maybe this was just our lesson for not waiting for the guide, we said to one another.
The drink poured for us was Amarula, a sweet and creamy liqueur with an elephant on the label. The heady libation was made from the marula fruit, which elephants are said to dote on. Good story, great nightcap. But we really needed some sleep.
This time we were good to go. Or, so our guide said, as we were allowed back to our tents for a few hours’ sleep.
Guest writer, John Griffin, is editor of the food e-zine www.SavorSA.com and of the upcoming magazine, San Antonio Taste. Read Part Two of his safari here. All the photos in this article are by John, except the aerial shot of the Okavango Delta.