Each country has its own smell and the scent of Botswana is particularly intense. I sit in the open jeep and close my eyes for a moment. The afternoon sun is still quite strong, but the driving wind cools better than any air conditioner and I smell it again: the sweet, spicy scent of the wild basil, dried grasses, dung, earth and a touch of lemon.
Welcome back to Africa!
How long does it take to get to our lodge? I ask the guide. “Hmmm, anything between 20 minutes and two hours, it depends on what we see,” he replies. So I keep my eyes concentrated and the camera on standby, the safari can begin.
And how it starts: not five minutes from the stifling airfield stands an elephant bull on the edge of the road. The guide slows down the ride, it feels like 50 meters between the big animal and us, then he stops abruptly. An entire herd is pushing out of the thicket, between the adults little elephant babies, who are still so young, that they are a bit shaky on their four plateaus, and are very troubled to overcome the roadside ditch. Patient trunks of mama and aunt help across the way, the one supports from the right, the other one pushes from behind – managed. I am so fascinated that I almost forget to take photos.
The bull, on the other hand, is exactly in our sights, the trunk going back and forth, then the ears starting to slap, the guide goes into reverse and slowly brings a few meters more between us and the family clan. That relaxes the boss, he trumpets loudly once, trots across the street snorting and disappears in the bushes.
Wow, what a scenario. My guide tells me that this is about the comfort zone of elephants. The open jeep is really only a big, gray box for the animals that they are accustomed to and which is of little interest – unless it comes too close.
“And how do you know what is too close in the eyes of an elephant?” He laughs. “A good guide can interpret the body language of the animals”, he explains. “He knows the difference between a teenage bull, who simply makes a big theater but then runs away as soon as the jeep comes closer and a family leader who is serious and insists that the car evades.”
Well, I am relieved; I have an experienced guide who has been doing his job for years. Not that I am a newcomer to the African wilderness – it must be my 20th safari – but I can handle big cities and not wild animals … the next two days he is the boss.
After just two hours we reach the lodge “Sable Alley”. It is located in the private Khwai River area at the eastern edge of the Okavango Delta. This 1600 square kilometer concession is considered to be particularly rich in animals and has only a few camps. Therefore, the bush is almost untouched here and you rarely meet any other jeeps.
“Sable Alley” is a new lodge by Colin Bell. The man is a legend. In the eighties he was one of the founders of “Wilderness Safaris”, which today are one of the most successful safari companies in Africa. This was followed by the ambitious project “Great Plains” with luxury accommodation, whose revenues mainly finance the protection of the animal world.
Actually he could have retired long ago, but Colin is a bundle of energy. We’ve known each other for years and I’ve learned a lot from him about Africa, sustainable tourism and, of course, the protection of wild animals.
Last night, before I left for Botswana, we met in Cape Town. It was as chaotic as ever: Colin comes in and the room is filled with his presence. He talks with hands and feet, fascinates with stories from the bush and his energy captivates everyone. He is currently passionate about his newest project “Natural Selection”. This is a label that stands for owner-managed lodges with special experiences. All have a great common denominator, they support the local villages, are environmentally conscious and the wild animals are not only protected, but the goal is to permanently increase the stock of endangered animal species. Chapeau! We need more visionaries of this kind!
Now I sit here on the terrace of “Sable Alley”. Tastefully modern design and many comfortable sofas with views over the large waterhole, around which the twelve lodgings are grouped.
My welcome committee is quiet animalistic – a group of hippos gazes curiously at me from the lake and tear their mouth widely. This makes the matter clear: there are no solo walks allowed after sunset, because the ruminants come ashore to graze. Hippopotamuses look harmless and tame when they are lying in the water with their 1.5 ton heavy bodies. Supposedly they are very fast on their short legs. On land, they can reach up to 50 kilometers per hour and because they move outside their safety zone, they are easily excitable.
Somehow reassuring that my spacious tent lies on a plateau and the guide will convoy me from there in the evening for dinner …
10.00 pm – I’m finally in bed. A hot water bottle on my feet, I listen to the bush orchestra, which has a branch office next to my tent. The hippos are filling their bellies around my terrace. Sounds funny, first the rasping noise of the grass, then a chewing and sometimes a pleasureable smack.
06.00 am – everything is still dark outside and dusky and I hear a voice saying “knock knock.” Really? Yes, there it is again – “knock, knock. Mrs. Stephanie, this is your wake up call with coffee and milk. “Aaaaah, I’m in the bush, the tent neither has a door frame where you could knock nor a bell to ring. I like this way of waking me up.
Half an hour later I sit with a scarf, gloves and a cap in the jeep. In the African winter the temperatures go down to 5 degrees Celsius at night, then up to 28 degrees Celsius during the day. One wears ‘onion system’, which means to layer T-shirt, Fleecepullover and a warm jacket.
In the next two days, we judder through the wild landscape at sunrise and in the late afternoon over sandy field paths and sometimes also across the scrub, keeping an eye out for the animals.
The area is famous for its large population of the rare wild dogs, they are more or less promised to me from my guide. For two hours we are already on the road, the camera has turned hot, the memory card almost full of dazzling birds, zebras, elephants and now: wild dogs! 18 small puppies on a tangle, the parents on the hunt. The little guys roll and jingle on one another or cuddle yawning together, one finds the jeep highly interesting and poses almost in front of the radiator. I do not know what first, video or photo. Somehow I’m tired. When filming or photographing, you sometimes miss the crucial moment. I put everything aside and just look at the clumsy pack.
Tonight a new adventure is waiting for me. The Skybed. At a waterhole four small wooden towers are built on narrow stilts. On the first floor there is a bathroom with shower, on the roof, surrounded by a low balustrade, there is a comfortable bed with cuddly blankets, pillows and an open view, 360 degrees around the wilderness.
We have arrived just in time for Sundowners, which we take at the ‘bar tower’ with a view of elephants in the sunset. It is a bit like Rosamunde Pilcher African way. Dinner is served under a gnarled tree with fire and candles, our guide acts as the bartender, the cordial camp manager as a helping hand, and the kitchen chef as a magician. Fillet, pink to the point with vegetables and freshly mashed potatoes. I have no idea how the three managed that at two open fireplaces.
From my cosy sleep out I look directly at the sparkling Milky Way. What a moment! In the middle of the bush one looks into the universe and wishes for each shooting star that this moment lasts indefinitely. When I wake up in the morning, the magic is over, but the memory I will keep.
The discovery tour continues in the direction of the Kalahari to the South with an intermediate break in the lodge “Meno a Kwena. The crocodile’s tooth is translated as the name suggests: the lodge is like an eagle’s nest on a hill, right on the Boteti River, which separates the farmland from the national park, where the reptiles cavort. Sometimes you can also see swimming cows – quite brave!
The lodge is owned by Hennie Rawlinson, who sits in front of me on the veranda this afternoon and tells me that he has been waiting for this piece of heaven for many years. Just before sunset, hundreds of zebras and elephants meet at the river for drinking. The neighing of the zebras sounds like a long drawn laugh, the elephants are splashing with water and all of them seem to have fun. Hennie and I raise our glasses in a toast to them, with Gin Tonic, the medicine to all globetrotters in Africa.
My last stop is the Kalahari, here I was six years ago. I remember great moments, I fed the meerkats with alive scorpions by pipette. And my mother, I had taken her with me to show her “my longing for Africa”, stood with curlers in front of her safari tent watching out for the wild beasts at noon. We have been looking at the photo ever since, always with a big smile on our face.
Here in the south of Botswana are the Makgadikgadi Pans, one of the largest salt marshes in the world. On the edge is a huge private concession, with three exceptional little lodges: the rustic Kalahari camp, hidden in the bush, the romantic San Camp with only six white tents and a yoga platform overlooking the salt pan and Jack’s Camp, the original. Thus the English must have travelled in old times, with a billiard table, romantic poster beds and oriental carpets. In the bathroom velvety curtains, an old wooden toilet chair with heavy lid and traditional toilet flush with a metal string.
Now I stand here with my dusty trekking shoes on the Persian carpet and drink tea from the finest China Bone. In front of me a grassy landscape traversed by small lakes with flamingos. Already crazy. This year, the spring rain was unusually strong and came later than planned. That is why there is still water and many animals in the otherwise dry landscape around the pan. Elephant herds, zebras, antelopes. Here is really something going on, not like the area I used know at all.
„Give them what they never knew they wanted.“
This is the slogan of these lodges and it is true, because what one experiences here is the highlight of every safari in Botswana. “Stephanie, get warm clothes and do not forget your Kikoy”. Now it becomes serious, the Kikoy is a red scarf, which is wrapped around the head like a bedouin before you climb your quad and hum into the salt pan. Completely muffled, glasses on, gear engaged and the adventure begins. I lay a gap between myself and the quad in front of me, the dust is unbelievable. After an hour drive we stop. In the middle of nowhere! Here it looks like on the moon, the earth arches on the horizon, the ground is gray, there is not a single stalk, there are no animals either. Madness, I lay with my back on the still warm crust of salt and look in the lightning blue sky. The afternoon sun slowly fades, and the first star appears, then two then a whole group of them. Within 20 minutes it is as if the universe had opened all its doors and gave a magical look into the distant galaxies. The only noise is my own heartbeat, a few tears start rolling, it is simply poignant. Moments of a lifetime. There is a proverb from Botswana: “Silence has a tremendous noise,” I assume this was born here.
The sun has gone down, it is immediately cool, time to leave. In the distance a light, that is the goal. A fully equipped bar, a big fire place and a covered table. We enjoy a gourmet dinner in the moonlight and a shovel of glowing coal under the chair keeps us warm through the whole dine out.
Last Day, Last Blog Entry: Early birds see more, or better said in afrikaans “Meerkats”. They come out shortly after sunrise from their underground den and just in front of the exit I sit with my camera on standby. For a number of years there has been a meerkat family that has grown accustomed to humans. Supposedly, there was an incident in which the troop lost a baby while fleeing because of a raptor. The biologist, who at that time daily watched the small rodents, then safely took the lost baby back. From then on they became more and more tame.
And so it is today. The first two crawls out of the hidden lair and stand upright to warm up in the sun, gradually the whole family comes to daylight. One of them climbs on my knee, he uses the tail like a camera tripod so he does not fall over. How sweet! Keep your fingers to yourself – I mutter to myself. The temptation to caress the little, wild fur animal is great. After ten minutes this part of the show is over, the animals are warmed up and hungry. They eagerly jump through the grass and dig out insects.
The manager in the jeep is just approaching us: “There are lions on the way in front,” he says. Now it’s getting exciting. Fifty yards away … there they are. A couple in love, so exhausted, that they completely ignore our landrover and continue to falter. If lions love, they do it every quarter of an hour for several days, so we wait. And actually, 18 minutes later, something is happening. The lion yawns and shakes, the lioness jumps up, brief sniffing, then the act. He bites her into the ears, she bites him in the throat, a loud meow and a throaty moan, after 30 seconds everything is over. Both walk some hundred meters and fall in a deep sleep again, totally exhausted.
A cool farewell gift, because in two hours it goes back to the civilization by bush plane. Before I get onto the Cessna, I discover a small bush with wild basil on the field. I pull a few leaves off and put them in my camera bag, next to the memory card with 2561 photos.
Good by Africa! I’m already longing for you!