TRAVEL / Botswana: Buzzing with wildlife: The thrill of the unspoilt wild drew Anthony Gardner to southern Africa, but a disturbing encounter with the angry native bee proved a severe test of his frontier spirit

THE IMPORTANT thing to remember when you run into a swarm of killer bees is not to swat any of them. If you do, they will almost certainly sting you; they will also release a chemical which encourages the others to attack. Of course, when they are crawling over your face and buzzing in your ears, this kind of advice is not easy to follow.

Individual stings are not usually fatal, but in large quantities they can be, and African bees are famously aggressive. In his book The Lost World of the Kalahari, Laurens van der Post records an attack on his native village which claimed the lives of pigs, hens, sheep, goats, dogs, several horses and two children. It is probably as well that most of us were unaware of this when we met our swarm: the degree of panic was high enough without it.

We had spent the morning in Chobe National Park, exploring the dried-up Savutie Marsh and stopping to watch dozens of bull elephants drift in from the arid countryside to splash at a waterhole before withdrawing to stand motionless in the shade of broad acacias. On our way back to camp, we parked beside some steep rocks - a rare sight in Botswana - and clambered up to examine a group of ancient Bushman paintings. I was just focusing my camera when the bees emerged angrily from a crevice.

How our party of 10 got down from the rocks without breaking any bones is a mystery. The fact that the bees only targeted a few of us probably helped, though one of these - taking what footballers call 'route one' - shot past me at full speed on his behind. I was quickly stung on the neck, but the pain threw me less than the ferocious noise made by my attackers. I was amazed by my own sure-footedness as I scrambled towards the road, where - by some miracle - the swarm decided to leave us.

There were two other casualties - both honeymooners who had been stung half a dozen times - and we sat in the dust while our guide removed the stings with the point of a knife. (Fingers, he explained, would only release the poison in the sacs at the end of the stings.) We were smeared with ointment and dosed with anti-histamine tablets, and before long we began to see the funny side of our unexpected adventure.

It is easy to underestimate the dangers of a safari in the age of four-wheel drive and high-powered rifles; but there are always hidden aggressors like the bees, and the fact is that almost any predator in Africa can outpace a truck in the bush. In Botswana, where hunting is still allowed five months of the year, the animals can be particularly jumpy. (Our guide's brother had recently been gored by a buffalo.) But the knowledge that you are observing these creatures on sufferance is part of the excitement; and as the organiser of our safari pointed out, it is when people acquire a false sense of security - as they often do in tourist-heavy countries such as Kenya - that they are most in danger.

Kenya is a constant point of reference for people who travel to Botswana. One couple on our expedition had been there three times and enjoyed it less on each occasion: it was, they said, too crowded, and the movements of the animals were so well charted that there was little excitement in finding them.

Botswana - where we considered ourselves unlucky if we saw three other trucks in an entire day - was a different matter altogether. Those who don't mind sleeping in tents rather than luxurious safari lodges are starting to go there because it offers the kind of thrill that Kenya did 30 years ago.

The northern town of Maun is the safari capital of Botswana, and there is a palpable frontier spirit about it. The Duck Inn, across the road from the tiny airport, plays the role of Wild West saloon, drawing grizzled hunters and sunburnt travellers who swap tales, addresses and sometimes blows over cans of Castle lager and plates of deep-fried Camembert. The Swiss proprietress is a former lorry-driver and a karate expert. Twenty-five miles north of here the main road suddenly becomes a dirt track, along which you can drive for hours without meeting another vehicle.

Botswana is one of the richest countries in Africa, thanks to its diamond industry, and one of the most thinly populated, with just 1 1/2 million inhabitants. Despite this, the villages we passed consisted almost entirely of thatched huts - generally of mud, though occasional use is made of bricks and even tin cans (embedded end-on in the walls).

Wealth here is measured not in money or mod cons but in long-horned cattle, and the problem for conservationists is that the interests of domesticated and undomesticated animals are not always compatible.

Halfway to our first camp in the Mababe Depression we crossed the buffalo fence, which runs for more than a hundred miles across the country. Financed by the EU, which imports beef from Botswana, the fence is designed to stop the spread of disease between the wildlife on one side and the cattle on the other. Unfortunately, it has also cut off many of the animals' migratory routes, with a devastating effect on the wildebeest population.

Beyond the fence, the landscape changes immediately. The yellow grass is no longer grazed to the root, and the trees (which grow surprisingly plentifully in such a dessicated environment) begin to thin out - thanks partly to the elephants, which leave them broken and twisted into such fantastic shapes that at times one might be passing through a war zone. Termite mounds up to 20 feet high rise like Gothic citadels from the grey dust.

Then come the first glimpses of animals: giraffes cantering past with their strange, lolloping gait, and a flurry of wart hogs speeding away as though they were governed by remote-control signals through the antennae of their thin, erect tails.

The Okavango Delta, into which we gradually moved, is considered by some to be the best place in Africa to watch wildlife. When the river is at its height, the wetlands cover an area larger than England and Wales, and the contrast with the surrounding countryside is dramatic - a lush panorama of grass and reeds and trees in autumn colours with herds of waterbuck and lechwe splashing through the shallows. The idyll, of course, is deceptive: the animals are never so vulnerable to predators as when they come out into the open to drink, and one particularly beautiful pool was notorious for the crocodiles which lay waiting to seize unwary antelopes and drag them in.

One of the best ways to explore the delta is in a mekoro. This round-bottomed vessel is somewhere between a canoe and a punt, and the experience of gliding through the reeds at sunrise, with aquatic beetles skimming among the water-lilies beside you, is not easily beaten.

On our third day in the delta we came across a herd of 300 elephants grazing and sleeping in a wood. Many of them were females with calves, which meant that they were at their wariest; nevertheless, our guide drove the truck slowly into the midst of them, assuring us that if they were going to charge they would have done so as soon as they saw us. One young bull looked half inclined to attack, tossing his head and flapping his great ears tetchily, but thought better of it and went on with his breakfast. We watched in silence until they lumbered away through the trees, their ill-fitting skins sagging at the back.

The wealth of animals is matched by the birds: buffalo weavers festooning the trees with their intricate nests, deranged-looking kori bustards sidling through the bush, rollers with dazzling azure wings, pied kingfishers and painted snipe, adjutant storks and sand grouse, fish eagles and snake eagles and tawny eagles. The trees, too, are extraordinary: colossal baobabs; sausage trees with their heavy, comic fruit; and hopelessly unsynchronised rain-trees standing side by side - some in seed, some in leaf, some covered with dusty lilac blossom.

Our expedition finished on the edge of the Kalahari Desert, which covers more than half the country. Though not as sandy as one might expect, it was the definition of dryness: a monotony of yellow scrub, interspersed with thorn trees and mirage-like palms which seemed for ever on the horizon.

A parching wind blew across it, and there were few animals to be seen - a solitary gemsbok, a handful of impala, three ostriches stepping out elegantly in the distance. (It is, we were told, a different story in the rainy season, when plants spring up everywhere with almost visible swiftness.)

But seeing is not everything: on our last night we sat in darkness listening to a herd of zebra massing near a waterhole, with hundreds of hooves pounding through the darkness and the dominant stallions gathering their followers with a strange, whooping cry, and the effect was as thrilling as anything we had set eyes on.-

TRAVEL NOTES

GETTING THERE: British Airways (081-897 4000) flies Heathrow-Gaborone return, until 31 May for pounds 590, no advance purchase necessary. Campus Travel (071-730 8111) offers direct flights to Gaborone for pounds 547 until the end of May and then from Jun-Oct for pounds 601.

British Airways also has flights via Paris which depart from London, Glasgow, Bristol and Birmingham. These are valid until the end of June for pounds 601.

TOUR OPERATORS: Worldwide Journeys and Expeditions (071-381 8638), which organised the above trip, does two-week safaris to the Okavango Delta and Kalahari Desert from pounds 1,995 to pounds 2,120, which includes return flight from London with an optional extra stay at Victoria Falls.

Other companies that go to Botswana include Wildlife Safaris (0737 223903), which tailor-makes tours - a four-night package starts from pounds 910 excluding flights.

Safari Consultants (0787 228494) offers two weeks from pounds 2,700 to pounds 3,500, including the flight, and Southern Africa Travel (0904 692469) has 13 days for pounds 2,286 and 17 days for pounds 2,797, including flight.

FURTHER INFORMATION: Botswana High Commission, 6 Stretford Place, London W1N 9AE, tel: 071-499 0031. It will provide a tourist pack including accommodation and general information on Botswana.

(Photographs and map omitted)

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