By Harriet Hart
Declared one of the seven national wonders of Africa in 2013, the Okavango Delta is the size of Puerto Rico. Every year it fills with floodwaters originating in the Angola Highlands 1,000 kilometers away. The run-off makes a “pristine wetland dotted with islands and laced with a network of river channels, creating an oasis” for numerous species: 122 mammals, 64 reptiles, 444 birds and 1300 flowering plants. Botswana is a country rich in minerals and precious stones, but a well-known wildlife photographer remarked: “Okavango is the biggest diamond ever found in Botswana.”
In the 1985 film Out of Africa Robert Redford swooped down into Meryl Streep’s life in a small aircraft. In Botswana I descended upon the Okavango Delta in a series of Cessna’s, visiting Camp Moremi, Xugana Island Lodge and Savute Safari Lodge. Sadly, none of the pilots resembled Robert Redford, but my consolation was seeing elephants drinking at waterholes from 1200 feet up.
I learned about Africa’s wild life on vacation there, and even more about my own species, including myself. On safari humans are thrown together with total strangers who share the thrills, the fears and the excitement and become incredibly close. What do rich middle aged sisters from the Channel Islands, thirty- year -old honeymooners from Prague and a retired Jewish professor of racism from Boston have in common with me, a girl from the Canadian prairies? This motley crew came together and shared our life long dreams of seeing African wild animals in their natural habitat. Around the evening campfire we discussed how life changing it was.
I discovered that my tolerance for risky behaviors is next to nil. An open safari vehicle or a motorboat gets me as close to dangerous predators as I care to be. When I was told that we were being taken on a walking safari, I balked. Why would any sane person walk through lion country unarmed? When I said I would stay behind, guide Ken took it personally. He looked more like an academic than a safari guide with his wire-framed glasses and his well-trimmed beard. He seemed to think I was calling his competence into question and came close to beating on his manly chest in a display of public persuasion. I caved in temporarily, but the next morning I awoke and realized I could still say “no.”
My husband, in misguided masculine solidarity, took Ken’s side and marched off to what I felt was his certain doom. I stayed in bed; my reward was three extra hours of sleep and an unexpected encounter with a troop of baboons who visited my deck; apparently they frequently arrive at the lodge mid morning when all the tourists are out. Paul returned unscathed.
A recent issue of Safari magazine has an article about Africa’s most dangerous beasts. Which one ranks number one? The answer is the hippo, which is “responsible for more human fatalities in Africa than any other animal.” Particularly dangerous are the males defending their territories, but the females can be unpredictable, especially if they have young.
At Xugana Island Lodge the staff seemed determined to test my mettle. The day after I stayed in bed hiding from the lions, I was invited to climb into a motorboat and take a ride to the hippo pool. It was late afternoon when our craft reached its destination; there were about a dozen fully grown hippos taking the waters, and they clearly considered the pool theirs. We were intruders. One huge beast opened his jaws and showed us his incisors, canines and back molars, all yellowed and blackened with age and ground down by gnawing.
“That’s meant to scare us away,” said our guide.
“In my case it’s working,” I replied.
The hippo submerged himself; it was impossible to tell where he was. Would he emerge beside the boat, under the boat, or treading water where he’d last surfaced?
Later we poled down the Chobi River channel in a dug out canoe called a makora and guide Robert crafted me a necklace from a water lily.
“Our fathers and grandfathers had no money for engagement rings,” he explained, “so if they liked a lady and wanted to marry her, they made her a necklace.” He draped it around my neck and made me feel like a very special Okavango Delta lady.
Hippos rank number one as Africa’s most dangerous beasts; lions come in at only number six. One pride of lions in Savute has learned to kill elephants for their meat and is the subject of a BBC documentary titled The Giant Killers. All lions can take down a baby elephant or an old or sickly one, but this pride can kill an adolescent bull and they did just that one night during our stay at the Savute Safari Lodge. Over morning coffee the buzz was: “there’s been a kill,” and soon I found myself bouncing over the park in an open vehicle, heading straight for the scene of the crime.
The Papa lion had finished dining and was standing guard, very still, his muzzle covered with fresh blood. The females and cubs were taking their turns; the stench was indescribable, fresh but fetid, like a slaughterhouse in July.
“The corpse can’t be decomposing already,” someone said.
“That’s what elephant innards smell like,” said the guide.
Only yesterday the elephant had been living a life full of pachyderm promise and now he was breakfast. I’m the kind of person who identifies with the bull, not the matador, at a bullfight, and this was no different. I feel more like prey than predator, but the male lion showed no interest in eating us for dessert and walked off to find a shady bush for his morning nap.
Africa is full of dangers: hippos, malaria carrying mosquitoes, elephants, snakes like the deadly black mamba and the puff adder, crocodiles, lions, Cape buffalo, and black rhinos. A tourism magazine article titled Most Wanted Okavango Creatures told me so. And yet, I had gladly popped my malaria pills, packed my duffle bag and boarded a plane bound for Africa and I would do it again in a heartbeat. Why? Because it’s where we all came from; the savannahs, deserts and deltas were once our landscapes, the people are our ancestors and the beasts, endangered and dangerous, are our fellow travelers on this perilous journey called life.