Okavango Delta: Encountering a sexually aroused bull elephant and a pride of feasting lions

It's enough to make writer Gill Harvey forget her vehicle's failing clutch

It's a mystery. In a landscape of flat Botswanan bush, the only landmark that will tell us we're on track is a log bridge that should have materialised several kilometres ago. We stop to pore over the map. It's not much help. It's covered in GPS coordinates, which would be very useful, if we had GPS. I chew my lip, staring at the odometer. "It's bound to register more kilometres, driving in sand," I say hopefully. My friend and I both know it's wishful thinking. She stares out of the window.

"Hmm. But the sun's in the wrong place."

She's right. The sun's behind us, and sinking fast. We're supposed to be heading west. I wipe the sweat from my forehead. It's our first afternoon in Moremi National Park, and we've managed to get lost. The network of sand tracks on the map look nicely straightforward, but the reality is a proliferation of minor offshoots and loops. We must be on one of the loops.

We're debating what to do when a miracle happens. Coming in the opposite direction: other vehicles! Two 4x4s, each loaded with Germans. We ask them where they're going. Silly question: the only camp within striking distance is the one we're looking for – beyond one log bridge, and then another, it's imaginatively named Third Bridge. We acknowledge that we're going there, too. The Germans, all smiles and condescension, offer to lead the way. Our bush credentials in tatters, we don't have much choice. I turn and we follow them sheepishly. But consolation lies not far off. We plough into deeper and deeper sand, and the Germans get stuck. They pile out to push. We hold back until they're through, then sail along behind them. Come the next stretch of sand, their wheels are spinning again.

"What on earth do they think they're doing?" I exclaim, in a superior tone.

So, I admit it: I'm feeling under pressure. Botswana's Okavango Delta is the greatest challenge I've faced on my three-month drive around southern Africa. The national parks have no roads, tarred or otherwise, in an area that is essentially the northern reaches of the Kalahari Desert. The river Okavango, which flows in from the north-west, hits the soft sands, fans out into myriad channels, then disappears. For the most part, tourism in this pristine wilderness is exclusive stuff. Botswana's policy is "high revenue, low volume", which, in real terms, means several thousand pounds to fly in and stay at a luxury lodge.

But there are alternatives. For instance, if you're willing to get behind the wheel of a 4x4, carry all your own provisions and fuel, share your camp with lions and hyenas and run the risk of getting lost, stuck or both, the Delta can still be your oyster. The costs of acquiring a suitable vehicle mean that this isn't exactly a cheap weekend in Wales, either, but it's a Girl (or Boy) Scout's dream. The camps are little more than allocated areas; they provide water, rubbish bins and nothing else.

We bump our way over corrugated sand into Third Bridge just after sunset. We've received two bits of advice about this place: on no account must we camp under a sausage tree (on pain of death by fruit); and we must beware the baboons. We remember the first but, in our haste to get organised, we're not prepared for the second. I open up a series of compartments and am just about to get our lamp burning when a massive male baboon leaps out of the dusk. Before I know it, he's grabbed a plastic bag and is running off with it; he then sits, at a nonchalant distance, to investigate his prize. I recognise that bag. It contains my dirty underwear; I'm about to lose most of my knickers. I draw myself up to full height, spread my arms and run at him.

"Rrrwooooaaahhhhh!" I roar.

He's ripped a hole in the bag and is pulling out the contents, which evidently aren't to his taste. He slopes off in disgust.

So. We're coping with the driving; we're coping with the wildlife, and the next day we discover that, if we take our compass more seriously, we can cope with the navigation, too. We head to the next camp, Xakanaxa (try replacing the first and penultimate letters with clicks), which is set close to the banks of a beautiful lagoon. There, we get chatting to Brian, a grizzled, bush-wise South African who is travelling in convoy with two friends, Fricki and Pete. Along with most southern African men I've met up to this point, he's surprised to find women out in the bush on their own (and to be fair, in three months I don't meet any others). He's keen to give us the benefit of his wisdom, and we're equally happy to take it on board. Before long, he's set us up to go on a drive behind Fricki and Pete. They have GPS, so we can trundle along without reference to map or compass, and do what Moremi is supposed to be all about: look out for wildlife.

We drive to a spot known as Dead Tree Island, so named after the mopane forest that drowned when the river channels were high, leaving a surreal landscape of skeleton trees. We get out of our vehicles to survey the view.

"What's that smell of petrol?" asks Fricki, sniffing the air.

"Oh," I say breezily, "it's just the pipe that connects our reserve tank to the main one. There's always a bit of vapour."

We set off again, encountering kudu and elephants, red lechwe, a majestic fish eagle and lots of bumpy, bumpy sand. Back at Xakanaxa I'm about to strike a match when I notice streaks down the side of our vehicle. I pause to think. We haven't come through any water. I panic: the jerry cans. I open up the compartment where they're kept and get hit with a blast of petrol vapour. A pin has worked loose with all the jolting, and the whole compartment's swimming with the stuff – about 15 litres in all.

Brian wanders by and sees us mopping furiously. Damsels in distress. Chortling merrily, he piles in to help.

"How d'you make a cat bark?" he asks us, wringing out a tea-towel. We shake our heads and shrug. "Douse it with petrol and light a match. Woof!" he says.

His advice is better than his jokes. He points out that we don't need the four-wheel option in any but the deepest sand; the key is to keep our tyre pressure low. It's quite a relief, because we've been guzzling fuel at an alarming rate. Now we've got 15 litres less, but at least we know what to do with what's left.

The next day we set out, but hit another problem. Every time I depress the clutch, it makes a horrible rasping noise. It still appears to work, so we carry on; not that we have much option. We're now about as far away from any exit as it's possible to get.

We try to pretend that everything's fine, but when we arrive at the tranquil Dombo Hippo Pools, they seem to have lost their lustre. We limp on to North Gate, our next camp, which sits on the banks of the River Khwai. The day gets worse. Some other campers invade our picnic spot, and a vervet monkey steals my lunch. In a foul mood, I grab my binoculars and head off to peer at woodpeckers in the trees. I'm just trying to identify a little black-and-white one when I spy something out of the corner of my eye; something that might be useful. A man. An industrious-looking man filling up a water container who, I'm convinced, will know all about the ins-and-outs of rasping clutches.

I'm not far wrong. Lloyd has his own mechanic in a private camp a little further upriver. In two shakes of a springbok's tail, we find ourselves in a luxurious camp with servants, cook and a posse of Lloyd's wealthy guests. They regard us with mild amusement as the mechanic gives us his verdict: it's not the clutch plate itself, it's the thrust bearing (we nod knowingly), and it'll last out if we head straight back to Maun to get it fixed.

"Well," says Lloyd briskly. "You can't drive any further today. Come with us on our afternoon drive – we'll throw a couple of mattresses on top of the Landcruiser."

There's something about Lloyd that won't take no for an answer. Everyone seems to treat him like royalty, even the guests; we feel uneasy in this sycophantic atmosphere, but it would be rude to refuse. We're soon sprawled on top of the vehicle while the guests take their more dignified perches within, and Lloyd starts bumping along the tracks that follow the river.

Despite its reputation, Moremi has seemed strangely devoid of wildlife up to this point; there have, of course, been sightings, but the dense mopane forests have seemed still, but for the heavy hum of insects. Here, the vista opens out into the Khwai floodplain, and suddenly it's all action. First up is a leopard, scorching across our path. It disappears into the bush: a thrilling glimpse of pure feline power. Then, further along the riverbank, Lloyd approaches a huge bull elephant. We do a double-take. It is sporting what looks remarkably like a fifth leg. I'm not terribly comfortable with this. Call me a coward, but we're vulnerable up on the roof, and my safari experience so far has taught me one important fact: when in a 4x4 (and not on it), you are pretty much safe from anything; other than elephants. And this one, given an absence of females, has the largest reason I've ever seen to be feeling a tiny bit tetchy.

My friend and I lie perfectly still, praying that Lloyd will see sense and back off. He turns off the engine and waits. I stare, incredulous, as the elephant walks straight towards us. We're eyeball to eyeball. The elephant lifts its trunk and waves it in our direction. What does he make of us? Are we a threat? A curiosity? Do we (heaven forbid) exude female pheromones? To our intense relief, he turns and lumbers into the bush. With a sigh we sit upright, and feel almost blasé about the two honey badgers that trot across our path. But we still have a little adrenalin left for the drive's finale, which occurs as the light begins to fade.

On the endangered species list, the African wild dog is one of the species I've been desperately hoping to see; and there on the riverbank, waking up as the cool of the evening descends, is a whole pack of them. Pups cavort in the long grass while parents stretch their legs and sniff the air in preparation for the night's hunting. They're stunning: elegant, with beautifully varied markings and big, sensitive ears. Then, to our astonishment, Lloyd produces a soft toy on a string – a little cuddly zebra – and hurls it out of the Landcruiser. He tugs on the string. Their ears pricked in curiosity, the dogs dance around the vehicle to Lloyd's teasing tune, for all the world like a pack of pet Labradors.

It's getting dark; we have to go. I watch as the dogs disappear into the bush, to begin hunting in earnest. I much prefer seeing them like that; however entertaining, I feel Lloyd's antics have somehow demeaned them. We return to camp, say our goodbyes with effusive thanks, and head to our own little spot.

One white-knuckle drive into Maun later, we laze by a swimming pool while the garage does its stuff. There, in my guidebook, I make a discovery. Lloyd is none other than the "legendary" Lloyd Wilmot, renowned for his unconventional approach and uncanny abilities with wildlife... He's the Botswanan Steve Irwin. No wonder his guests all worshipped him.

With a clean bill of mechanical health we set off for Chobe National Park, which for various reasons – not least our catastrophic clutch – we've decided to enter from Kasane, in the north. It's a pleasant little town on the Chobe river, and we take the opportunity to loll on a boat and survey hippos, vast herds of buffalo, more (four-legged) elephants and a splendid array of birds. Then it's back to our own devices. Feeling bush-hardened and clutch-wiser, we embark on a long, hot drive to our destination camp, Savute, where a river channel appears and disappears mysteriously for years at a time. The place has a big reputation for wildlife – more so when the channel flows, which it last did in the Eighties. At the moment it's dry, with just a waterhole in an otherwise arid landscape. So what we see surpasses all expectations; as we bump wearily along the final stretches of sand and sun-scorched earth, our understanding of this savagely beautiful world is suddenly shot to pieces.

A lioness wanders across our path. She's bloated, sleepy, with a belly the size of a watermelon. She flops down in the shade and stretches out. We spot a young male. Then another. We inch forwards. There's something lying in a dried-out pit of baked clay. We give a sharp intake of breath. There's a lioness in there, and she's eating... an elephant. It's young – was young – perhaps three or four years old; the tender underside of its ear lies upwards, exposed and pathetic, while its belly has been ripped open to form a black, Munch-like scream. It's difficult to take it in. It's gut-churning, somehow almost wrong. We've come to respect elephants as the true monarchs of the bush – creatures that nothing but armed men can touch. We turn off the engine and watch the drama unfold. Other lions appear to take their share of the kill. A huge, shaggy-maned male forms a partnership and begins to mate – a brief act of power and violence that is repeated every 20 minutes or so. Almost stupefied at the scale of the spectacle, we head off to set up camp (which is unfenced and a mere half-mile away), then return to see the next instalment.

The carcass, skin and all, slowly disappears. Jackals prowl at a distance; vultures hulk in the trees. The mating ritual goes on and on, while younger members of the pride sleep off their feast. Evening falls, and we head back to camp.

In the night, an elephant starts eating the tree above our heads; the roar of lions reaches us where we lie. And there is more to come. In the pale light of dawn we drive back to the pride to find there has been another kill. Another elephant, the same size as the last, lying half-eaten and surrounded by bloody-jawed lions. There are more than 25, which accounts for this freak of nature; we can only imagine the primeval battle that took place in the darkness as the adult elephants fought to protect their young.

We feel privileged, and awed. This is so much more than we could have hoped to see. It is humbling, too; despite all our own petty struggles with the bush, we are aliens here, wrapped up in a purring metal box. The real battles carry on without us.

Traveller's guide

GETTING THERE

There are no direct flights between the UK and Botswana. British Airways (0870 850 9850; www. ba.com) and South African Airways (0870 747 1111; www.flysaa.com) fly from Heathrow to Johannesburg.

Air Botswana (0845 838 7943; www.airbotswana. co.uk) flies the one hour 40 minute route from Johannesburg to Maun daily.

Alternatively, you can drive from Johannesburg to Maun, which takes around 11 hours; it is five hours to the border. British driving licences are accepted.

All major car rental companies operate in South Africa, although you will need to collect cross-border forms when you pick up your vehicle. Avis (00 27 11 923 3660; www.avis.co.uk) rents 4x4s in Johannesburg from £30 a day.

Driving in the Delta requires some 4x4 skills. You will need to carry sufficient food and fuel.

To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from Equiclimate (0845 456 0170; www.ebico.co.uk) or Pure (020-7382 7815; www.puretrust.org.uk).

STAYING THERE

Camping spaces in the Delta national parks are restricted and should officially be booked well in advance with the Department of Wildlife and National Parks, which has offices in Maun. This can be done by phone (00 267 686 1265), fax (00 267 686 1264) or e-mail ( parks. reservations.gaborone@gov.bw or dwnp@gov.bw). In practice, though, the system is more flexible.

Lloyd Wilmot Safaris (00 27 11 462 7766; www.wilmotsafaris.com) runs guided mobile safaris in central and northern Botswana. Prices available on request, which include accommodation, all meals, wildlife-watching activities, and a professional guide.

The Wilmots suggest allowing five to six days to visit one camp, or eight to nine days for two, with a minimum group size of six.

MORE INFORMATION

Botswana Tourism: 020-7499 0031; www.botswanatourism.co.bw

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