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It Was to be the high point of a journey round southern Africa; a trip into Botswana's Okavango Delta, poling along luminous waterways in a mokoro (dugout canoe), camping in the islands, communing with untouched Africa. And was going to do it on my own.

However, trouble began when the plane to Botswana, commandeered by some government heavyweight, was delayed for hours. I arrived as the airport was closing - lights being flicked off. A rapidly departing car-hire rep thrust a key into my hand and gestured to the left. I found the car, but where now?

Leaping into the headlights of the last car leaving the car park, I asked directions to my night stop. But these led, two anxious hours later, into a ditch. In despair I accosted two booze-breathing shades who got into the car (unnerving for a woman alone), directed me back on to the road to somewhere, then left me. Towards midnight a group of women rescued me. Oh they were kind! They knew where I wanted to go and stayed with me till I got there.

A few days later I flew into the Delta in a little plane: water, marsh, trees and animals moving below. A nice camp - tents, ablution blocks, a bar. Arrogant baboons sauntered among the tents and a hippo skull with gaping jaws lay on a little sandy beach. My tour operator had assured me that there would be other people at the camp to join up with for the mokoro trip, but they flew out on the plane that brought me in. The warden showed me to a solitary mokoro drawn up on the sand.

"Before you go would you just sign this..?" A waiver of responsibility for my safety and recovery should I come to grief. "The Moremi is the animals' territory. You are on foot and on your own there. You'll love it! See you in four days." I hoped so.

The guide poled off. Water seeped through the cracks in the mokoro, mended here and there with flattened Coca-Cola tins. He bailed out, I bailed out. Crocs and hippos appeared in the water. Still, it was magical, threading through the lilies on the honey-clear water, small animal sounds in the reeds, the crash of baboons in the trees, the cries of birds. But my guide was not happy. His few nouns, "Lion", "Elephant", "Hippo", came with adjectives like, "Bad" and "Big".

He was at ease on the water, but on land his nervousness fed my fright. "Lion bad here". His back was tense, his breathing shallow and his knuckles white round our talisman of safety, one small axe. I followed him with lurching heart through the long grass, relieved when the sightings were small game. I was not up to facing the Big Five in such timid company.

The last day, homeward bound, we visited his fishing lines, in the liquid, golden sunset. He smiled and said: "My island. No lion" as we drew up on a sand bar. He grilled his catch, we exchanged food and relaxed.

Elephant. Up leapt my guide, snatching a burning branch from the fire. "They coming." My knot of anxiety loosed in a rush of utter terror, bowels turning to water. I grabbed the spade and just made it behind the tent. I rejoined my guide, both of us in an agony of alarm, burning branches at the ready. The elephant moved off.

Even now my problems were not quite over. At the airport I was told that my plane was leaving three hours late. I went to the bar, returned in due time and found a surly woman in uniform barring the way. "What are you doing here? Your plane has gone! You are in Botswana illegally! You have overstayed your visa! Come to the police station!" Then she disappeared. No police came.

Two days later, on the first available flight and mighty happy to be leaving Botswana, I crept into the tiny jet bound for Namibia. Windhoek airport was the civilisation as I had yearned for - clean, common languages, professionally-correct personnel. Predictable. In fact, all that I had gone to Botswana to get away from.

Polly Loxton

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