Safari September 2019 ~ Day One

It was a struggle not to start each sentence with, “The last time I was in the Okavango….” as I sat next to Malcolm onboard the overnight flight to Johannesburg.

I was so excited, not only because I was heading off on another camping safari in the Okavango Delta, but because my best friend was coming along to share the experience.

The Okavango Delta

At Johannesburg airport we transferred onto a flight to Maun, the gateway to the Delta. All my assurances that the transfer would be a breeze were based on my firm belief that I could remember my way around the airport. After all it was only four years since I was there.

However, my memory was not quite as good as I had anticipated, and we had to seek advice from the Botswana Airways information desk about where to go. Even then, we misunderstood what we were told and headed off in the wrong direction. But hey, we were intrepid explorers and I had qualifications in navigation. However, it was purely by chance that we stumbled upon the correct part of the airport.

Having cleared the security checks and found the departure lounge, I tried to reassure Malcolm that it would be easier to navigate in the wilderness, than in an airport that obviously messed with my internal compass.

Everyone in the departure lounge seemed to be going on safari. There was an abundance of khaki coloured clothing, Indiana Jones hats and cameras with big lenses. We did pick out one couple who were obviously newbies. Their safari clothes looked like they had just come straight out of the packet and they did not look at all comfortable wearing them.

Malcolm and I, on the other hand, thought we looked like we had spent most of our lives in the bush. Although others undoubtedly may have thought differently.

Two intrepid explorers at home in the bush… what could possibly go wrong?

It was not until we landed at Maun that we started to identify the five other people who would make up our safari group. From the information provided by the travel company, Naturetrek, I knew there was a single woman and two married couples. Having been before, I knew exactly where we would be required to gather, so I took Malcolm, with our bags, just outside the main airport entrance. I left him there and headed back inside to find the others. Maun International Airport being significantly smaller than Johannesburg’s sprawling complex, I was confident I was not going to get lost. By the look on Malcolm’s face, I’m not sure that he shared my confidence.

Amongst the chaos of departing passengers trying to check in and new arrivals trying to locate guides, I saw a tall, strikingly good-looking black man holding a board with ‘Naturetrek’ written on it. This was Ace, our guide for the next nine days.

I must concede that I thought ‘Ace’ was a bit of a naff name, but in the days that would follow, I would find out that it really was a well-deserved title. Between us, Ace and I found the other five and we all joined Malcolm outside at the entrance.

We loaded the luggage into a trailer hitched behind a Letaka Safari Landcruiser and then climbed on board. Malcolm and I claimed the raised seats at the rear of the vehicle. I asked Malcolm “What does it feel like to be in Botswana?”

“It is wonderful. The air smells different. It’s just wonderful.” Came the reply from an enormous grin.

Then the long drive into the Delta began.

From Maun we would travel into the wilds of the Okavango and that journey would double as our first game drive. As we sped along the tarmac road leading out of Maun, locals could be seen chatting in the shade of trees or walking along the dusty verges. Within a few miles, the houses became fewer and goats, dogs and donkeys wandered around, unperturbed by us rushing past.

Our route to the First Camp – map covers 230 miles from side to side.

The luxury of a smooth tarmac road would only last for the first 23 miles. Another 60 miles of rough dirt track lay beyond that, taking us to our first camp site on the banks of The River Khwai.

I could remember from my previous visit that the tarmac did not last for long before dirt tracks became the order of the day. What I didn’t expect was the dust. This was the September, the dry season. In 2015 I had visited in the month of April when everything was lush and green, and not at all dusty.

The view from the back seat

The track was covered in a white layer of dust several centimetres deep, and behind us it rose in great billowing clouds. Then we met the first vehicle coming the other way. We ploughed into a thick cloud of choking dust that made breathing incredibly uncomfortable. I struggled to tuck my camera underneath my top to protect it from the dust, and at the same time I was trying to cover my face with a buff.

Dust protection.. Photo by Malcolm Lind

It took about half a mile for the air to clear before we were able to see and breathe properly again. I knew just how long this drive was and I just hoped that we would not encounter too much oncoming traffic along the way.

The bush that lined either side of the track was almost devoid of foliage, and what foliage there was, was covered in the dust. It gave the landscape a ghostly, desolate, lifeless look that bore no resemblance to my memories from four years earlier. Back in 2015 the roads were lined with green trees so thick you could only see a few metres beyond the grass verge. Now, there was no leaves to speak of to obscure the view.

It may have looked lifeless, but this was the Okavango Delta, one of the richest wildlife habitats in all of Africa, and before long we encountered our first herd of elephants. They were gathered just off the left side of the track, and they were enjoying, what else, but a dust bath. As we stopped to watch them using their trunks to throw dust over themselves, it occurred to me that all they had to do was stand at the roadside and wait for a passing vehicle. That would have done just as good a job with minimal effort.

Elephant dust bath

Making our way deeper in the Delta we saw impala, zebra, giraffe, warthog, kudu and more elephants. As we stopped to enjoy the wildlife, the sun was getting lower and lower in the sky. We were undoubtedly heading west towards the end of our journey, with the setting sun directly ahead of us, it turned everything a dusky pink as it shone through the dust laden air.

Sunset on the Dusty Road

Everyone onboard was feeling the effects of sleep deprivation after our overnight journey from London, (or in the case of Malcolm and I, from Edinburgh) combined with the five hour drive on bumpy tracks. But as Ace navigated the Landcruiser by headlight along a twisting narrow track through thick undergrowth, we caught a glimpse of lights up ahead.

Our approach to the camp was met with a welcoming chorus of hoops, cheers and whistles from the three members of the camp staff. As we climbed down from the vehicle, feeling stiff from our long journey, we were handed damp face towels to wipe away the layers of accumulated dust and also a cool refreshing drink. After dumping our kit in our tents we congregated around the campfire before enjoying a welcome dinner.

Despite out weariness, the excitement of being in the heart of the Okavango Delta was overpowering and instead of getting as much sleep as possible, Malcolm and I sat and talked excitedly about what we had seen and what would follow over the next week.

Inside the tent we each had a comfortable camp bed, a small table and a hanging canvas shelf unit. Lighting was by a solar charged lamp. Outside the rear door of the tent was our bucket-shower area and long drop toilet.

We unpacked what we needed from our rucksacks and looked through some of the welcoming goodies supplied by Letaka Safaris. There were personalised welcome cards, information sheets and lists of animal and bird species to tick off. There was also a Letaka Safari water bottle each which would prove to be an important pieces of kit in the hot days to come.

Despite fatigue, our spirits were high with a sense that this was going to be a spectacular trip.

Laughter within tent

But eventually, it was time to sleep, and tomorrow couldn’t arrive quick enough.

One thought on “Safari September 2019 ~ Day One

  1. Malcolm Lind

    I am glad you remembered to include my thigh length leather boots. However, I am now worried. You have portrayed your humble travelling companion as a chap-oid of calm reason and unflappable sensibility. I just wonder in which instalment that all changes. Hey-ho. This and your previous diary are a “tour de force” (that’s a foreign language by the way, sorry). I admire and agree entirely with everything you wrote. You did miss the bit in the plane crossing over the Kalahari when the Okavango sputters to a halt. As we looked down, we discussed what the white new moon shaped features on the ground could be, unaware of how huge they were – the beginning of the salt pans from floods receding and the dry season in full heat. Mutually reinforced ignorance is a wonderful thing. And , aye, like yourself, I was thrilled to be fulfilling my teenage dream of visiting the Kalahari, the Okavango, and all the fabled wildlife, all with my best pal! Couldn’t have asked for more.


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