My daughter had warmly indulgent memories of a previous African Safari- luxury tents, days on a 4x4 with no exertion, luxurious meals, five-star hospitality- all topped by magnificent wild life views. So when Abel, our guide for this safari trip, collected his flock and announced with sadistic glee that breakfast tomorrow would be at 6 am but before being allowed a bite everyone would have to be packed, dressed, tents down………she looked at me with that glare that she has reserved for our many ‘active’ trips. They make an impressive list- Mt. Kenya, the Inca trail, hours on hot baked sandstone in Jordan. She always smiles at the end for a photograph though.
Trying to get best value for my money and in a spurt of impulsive adventurousness (not for the first time!) I had booked the family into a ‘semi-participation’ safari for a fortnight in Botswana. The concept is that you set up your tents, help with packing and unpacking, with the cutting and cooking, washing up afterwards, which enables the company to send out a group of 12 tourists with only 3 members of staff. What I had not completely grasped was the concept of ‘wilderness camping’- camping out in the forest where there is nothing but a natural enclosure of trees and bushes around a relatively flat ground-which also means that the toilet is a narrow but deep hole in the ground slightly distant from the circle of tents and washing comes every alternate day with a camp shower. Both matters of personal care are enclosed within a three wall tent which leaves an opening into nature so that one is aware of prowling wildlife…you do not want to be stepping blindly into anything predatory.
As a family we consider ourselves adventurous at heart! We have never camped before. But we learnt in Botswana as we fixed the poles, clipped on metal rings and learnt to put up a sheet of canvas to spend the night in. By the end of the fortnight we had even formed a bond with our three person tent- it felt like leaving home for a new address.
For 14 nights we travelled through a kaleidoscope of landscapes- tall grasses, thick forests, mighty rivers, dry waterbeds, the more civilized campsites; we rode narrow mokoros into Okavango’s labyrinth of narrow channels with hippos snorting within yards of our route, we watched rivers of red billed quelea swirl through the dawn and dusk skies, we watched three young lionesses chase a giraffe and give up, we got chased by a herd of grumpy elephants and we spent nights rent with the roars of lions and branches cracking under elephant trunks.
We would wake up around 5 am, with dawn breaking over the horizon, tentatively stepping out of our tents after making sure that the staff were up and the camp fire was roaring strongly. A quick wash at a canvas basin and a queue would form for the toilet which was to be visited with a spade. Packing done, tents would come down and all luggage would be piled on the plastic ground sheet. Breakfast done, we would form an efficient human chain to load the vans, climb into our own seats and off we would go into the wilderness for our next camp.
One day we returned to camp in Moremi tired and dusty, disappointed with no lion sightings. Three lionesses with a cub crossed our path, our hearts stopped- our cook KB was in the camp alone. ‘KB, KB, KAAABEEE…….’shouted Abel in palpable panic. The lionesses took their time to give us way. When we rushed in, KB was nonchalantly making preparations for dinner. The lionesses re-entered our vicinity in the meantime, eyeing us with smug interest and sharpening their claws on the bark of a tree hardly 10 feet away, no barriers in between. We clustered together, fascinated and terrified, clicking cameras at the same time.
That night camp was noisy and sleep difficult to come. Lionesses prowled, hyenas yelped, the canvas felt thin- we snuggled into our sleeping bags trying to dream of more marvellous sightings to come…………
We camped out for ten days in forests and grasslands with no fences; got woken at night by trees crashing near camp by elephants head butting them, lions roaring, had lunches interrupted by a passing elephants; our dinner had been witnessed by hyenas and honey badgers. A semi-participation safari is cheap, eco-friendly and packed to the brim with experience.
Our last adventure of the trip was a sunset drama on a Chobe River cruise. There was a hippo, a lioness and a giraffe near the river bank. My daughter remarked, add a zebra- and the ‘Madagascar’ zoo team would be complete. The evening was peacefully calm. Herds of elephant, buffalo and hippos; punctuated by the occasional crocodile and monitor lizard and highlighted by the gliding flight of long necked snake birds; grazed on the islands and banks of the Chobe River in Kasane. On one bank a yawning hippo in the water, a grazing giraffe near the bank and a stealthy lioness in the bushes seemed to enjoy a tranquil moment belied only in the tense muscles and sunken belly of the big cat.
The giraffe seemed blissfully unaware of the big cat watching it from the bushes. A flash of golden yellow fur would pass from bush to bush, the handsome head focused on the slender neck, bent on the ground munching away on vegetation.
Then the lioness turned towards the giraffe and chaRGED !!! In fluid motion she flew down the slope of the bank and came in line with its front paws and neck. The giraffe bounded with its long legs, directing its escape towards the protection of its herd.
Just as the giraffe had almost reached its herd, two more lioness, emerged in a concentrated move to join the chase-a knot of raw power.
A group of giraffes emerged from taller trees to accompany the loner into deeper bush. With the sudden advent of a larger group of strong, tall legs which could kick a lioness to death- the lionesses decided to give up.
The red African sun was setting on the Chobe River; for this evening the sunrays would be the only red painting the deep waters.