Travel: And there let us wallow ...

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The Independent Online
Mud, mud, glorious mud. Sharon Eckman came face to face with a large hippopotamus in Botswana - and lived to tell the tale.

"Take your shoes off," whispered Lovebo. He looked extremely scared. And if your ineffably cool local guide is scared, you may be sure that you are seconds away from Certain Death.

Certain Death appeared in the form of an overlarge hippo which, against all the odds, ignored the other dug-out canoes and concentrated on ours, turning the sunset-bright beauty of the Okavango delta into a potential scene from The Lost World.

The delta nestles in north-western Botswana, a breathlessly still, serene maze of lagoons and waterways flanked by papyrus and dotted with waterlilies. The Okavango river bypasses the sea, and pours out over the Kalahari basin, creating a delta the size of Switzerland - the largest in the world.

Our small group (seven Brits, two Germans and a Canadian modelling himself on Tarzan) had little difficulty in adapting to life afloat as we lay back in the dugouts, or mokoros (two people plus poler) and shut our eyes against the African sun. What with the soothing splash of oar on water, the soporific drone of nameless insects and the gentle rocking of the little canoe, it was not too hard to imagine ourselves on, say, the Norfolk Broads - until we rounded a corner to be confronted by an elephant directly in our path, grazing quietly on the plentiful vegetation. And then, of course, there were the hippos.

Sunset on the delta is a magical time, when the air still smells of the sun, and the noises off of roaming wildlife fill you with adrenaline. Reed frogs trill incessantly; distant elephants call imperiously to one another; countless birds chirp and coo.

Our little group had been joined by at least 15 other mokoros, much to our disgust. Logically, we knew that we were not the only humans in this timeless paradise, but until now we had had not a sighting of any other tourist. Still, all was tranquil as we raised our cameras to honour the night. Our equilibrium was only slightly dented by a hippo some distance away.

This harmony between man and nature was rudely shattered by the appearance of another hippo who took umbrage at the first hippo being in his territory. Hippo One, ousted, decided to vent its spleen on the hapless mokoros - which shot off at an impressive speed. Ours, though, got stuck on a mudflat. By this time, in accordance with Lovebo's instructions, bewildered but not yet petrified, we had removed our shoes.

We turned our heads to see Mr Hippo not 20ft away, cleaving through the water and leaving a wash like the QE2. Lovebo yelled "Run!" and believe me, when you are told to run, you don't hang about, even when you know that the water you are leaping into contains a crocodile every 30 feet or so. Lovebo grabbed my hand and pulled me so hard that I fell in. In that split second I was aware of my arm being pulled out of its socket, my feet sticking firmly in the mud and the hippo - 10ft away now - opening its mouth wide. It was at this point that I also remembered hippos kill more people than any other African animal. Mortal terror is a great incentive. Another hefty tug from Lovebo, and we were standing drenched and shivering in the reeds, listening to the hippo snorting. Eventually it got bored and, typically, headed off in the direction we wanted to go. We emerged from the reeds to find that no one else had even got their toes wet; they were staring at us as though we were mad.

Back at the camp, humiliation abated. After several drinks we were cheering up wonderfully. This was a safari on the cheap - which means basic, bush camping (you dispense with girlie things such as washing and sit-down toilets). There's a kind of "let's stop here for the night" attitude which is wildly exhilarating, if occasionally unnerving.

Guides who knew exactly what they were about added immeasurably to the experience. Lovebo could spot game well before we did - and in the case of a green water snake, almost plucked it out of its home so I could get a better look.

Each day brought myriad delights. The first elephant was greeted by breathless gasps from all of us. We waited, spellbound, as it grazed knee-deep in the water, then, with an uninterested glance in our direction, lumbered off. There's a mixture of joy and awe when you are face to face with Africa's wildlife. And not just the Big Five, either. On one bush walk we tracked an impala, utterly graceful as it leapt away, ears constantly twitching for the sound of a predator. Learning how to read spoor - giraffe, passed here about two hours ago, young male - these are things that resonate in the mind long after you leave. And the hippos, of course.

botswana bound

Getting there

If you book by next Wednesday and travel by the end of March, British Airways (0345 222111) charges pounds 399 return from Heathrow to Gaborone, the Botswanan capital, where you connect with a flight to Maun. Alternatively you can reach the Okavango Delta from Zimbabwe, travelling overland by bus through the Caprivi Strip of Namibia. Flights to Victoria Falls via Harare through Air Zimbabwe (0171-491 0009) cost pounds 614.

Sharon Eckman paid pounds 90 for a five-day safari with a Namibian company called Wild Dog Safaris (19 Johann Albrecht Strasse, Windhoek), but as she joined a proving expedition the cost was considerably lower than it would normally be.

More information

High Commission of the Republic of Botswana, 6 Stratford Place, London W1N 9AE (0171-499 0031).