Travel: Botswana safari: wild but wonderful

Stephen Castle mixes it with lions, hyenas and hippos and manages to squeeze in high tea with some baffled Belgian tourists

Wildlife is no respecter of personal space. On my one previous experience of a safari holiday, I awoke in the game lodge, drew back the curtains and discovered a large male baboon on the other side of the window, displaying his private parts. It was only when he scampered off noisily that I realised that, in my undressed state, I had been reciprocating.

At Gametrackers in Botswana the warnings are more stern than "mind the baboons" or "don't leave your window open". You are instructed not to walk to your hut after dinner without a guide, and then not to leave it until morning, almost whatever. Hippos and elephants sometimes graze just by the pool and the odd lion has been known to amble through the camp. At River Khwai Lodge, on the grasslands of the Ockavango delta, you are on the animals' territory.

This spectacular area lies at the point where the Ockavango River meets the sands of the Kalahari, creating a vast, fertile region spread throughout the north-west of Botswana. Because of the variety of the terrain - waterways, wetlands and flat plains - the Ockavango can boast thousands of species of plants, birds and animals.

So deep is it into the bush that access from Victoria Falls is via road to Kasane and then by a four-seat Cessna light plane that bumps along over the cloud at about 3,000ft. Flying lower is more hazardous, as I discovered on my return, when the pilot, then cruising at 1,000ft, swerved dramatically upwards to avoid a vulture (apparently if you fly under them they have a habit of diving into you). Travel by road is possible but not recommended, especially during the rainy season. Three Canadians, who had spent 12 hours in a four-by-four vehicle were distinctly down on the experience.

At River Khwai Lodge, on the edge of the Moremi Reserve, the accommodation is in spacious whitewashed, thatched huts complete with shower and loo. The real attraction, however, is the game, and wildlife viewing is best early in the morning and at dusk. That means a dawn start at 5.30am with the drive beginning half-and-hour later. That is followed by a large brunch at 11am and a generous siesta until "high tea" at 3.30 (a meal which baffled a contingent of Belgian tourists at the second camp I visited and which, as it could vary a great deal in substance, was one of those supposedly English traditions rather difficult to explain).

My first game drive was no disappointment. It started rather quietly as we drove slowly around in our jeep for about an hour without spotting any big game. Then, suddenly, a massive crocodile crashed noisily through the undergrowth into the nearby river. From then on it was rather like a David Attenborough film in 3-D as we happened upon five female lions, four of which rolled around playfully in the grass while one maintained steely eye contact. There was more to come: 10 zebra and a hyena at close quarters before we returned to the camp.

Over a good dinner and coffee there were all manner of interesting tips and useful advice, particularly from a short, tough-looking white Botswanean who turned out to be one of two contractors installing a new pool at the lodge. Hippos, despite their rather cuddly image, are in fact extremely dangerous creatures with jaws powerful enough to bite a man in two. And if you happen to encounter an aggressive lion (particularly a wounded one) which is out for your blood, there is no point shooting at it in the early stage of its murderous charge towards you, because it will run in a sort of zig-zag. Your best bet is to wait until it is almost upon you, with its claws outstretched, blast it and then step to the side as it drops to the ground.

Faced with this ark of potentially lethal wildlife, only an idiot would want to leave the safety of the sturdy Land-Cruiser. So, naturally, at 6.30 the following morning, I found myself volunteering for the "walking safari'', a trip on to the plain on foot, protected only by the general manager of Gametrackers, Graeme Labe, and his shotgun. As we approached the river a hippo came into view, minding its own business and showing no sign of wanting to bite anyone in two. It was only when he was asked whether lions came down to this area, that our host and guide caused a few stirrings. "Without wishing to duly alarm you", he said gesturing to a patch of long grass a few feet away, " if a lion were hiding there you wouldn't see him". Fortunately he said this after a very similar patch of grass to our right had erupted in a massive rustling before a magnificent brown marsh owl took flight. But when, on sighting another hippo looking slightly more grumpy, Graeme abruptly moved in the opposite direction, adding with practised understatement "let's walk this way", we needed no persuading. On foot you see a different side of the bush (in January lush and green) its plant life, the animal tracks and the stunningly beautiful bird life.

Savuti South, in the Chobe National Park, may lack a pool, but it more than makes up for it with stylish accommodation. Technically this is a tented camp to comply with environmental regulations which stipulate that the settlement should, in theory, be possible to dis-assemble. But the elegant structure is not what you would recognise from school camping holidays. For a start it had wooden floors, a massive, white-tiled bathroom, rattan furniture and a veranda which looked on to what was the Savuti channel. This river dried up 12 years ago, transforming the area, annually defying the optimists who believe it may start to flow again. However the now dry banks of the channel remain rich in wildlife; during two days I spotted several elephants and a pack of wild dogs without moving an inch from my porch.

Of course, there was much more on the game drives. Again they often started quietly. But in Botswana the birdlife is stunning, even to those with no knowledge of or great interest in ornithology. One expects kingfishers to be a beautiful hue, but even the starlings are a rich, bright shade of blue. Other breeds are equally vivid greens, yellows or reds. Eagles and kites abounded. At one point a pelican could be seen sitting pensively at the top of a large tree, perhaps having visited the area to check whether the channel remained dry.

Even had I not been so absorbed by this constant spectacle, there is no way I would have spotted a dot on the horizon which Johnson, the highly knowledgeable guide, pronounced to be a lioness. For the first and only occasion of the visit he was wrong, but only about the animal's sex. Tracking it proved difficult because the youngish male of about five years was nervous, moving from his stately amble to a more purposeful walk whenever we got close. Through the binoculars, however, he looked a lean and majestic beast with a formidable mane and a long tale curling upwards.

During the following day there was a danger of becoming blase about lion- spotting when a solitary lioness proved happy to be watched as she made her way down one of the jeep tracks (animals find sticking to the path easier too). As we drove to within five foot, she lay in front of us slurping water slowly from a puddle.

That night, the most vocal of the Belgian fellow guests insisted that, by comparison with his previous safari, this was not really a remote spot. True, at Savuti, there are a couple of camps and it is not impossible to run across another jeep-load of game-spotters. It transpired, however, that the Belgian's earlier game-spotting had been in a mobile caravan in the Kalahari, which does not sound much like a holiday to me. Gametrackers in Botswana, on the other hand, seemed to strike an ideal balance. It is inaccessible, much more so than other locations in South Africa and Zimbabwe, and therefore unspoilt. Its wildlife and birdlife are stunning. It is also very comfortable. Overall, wild and rather wonderful.

FACT FILE

Getting there

The author travelled courtesy of Gametrackers Botswana, Private Bag 100, Maun, Botswana, or C/O The Mount Nelson Hotel, 76 Orange Street, Cape Town 8001, Republic of South Africa tel: 00 27 21 23 1000, fax: 00 27 21 24 7472. Also contactable through Southern Africa Travel in London Tel: 0171-630 0100, or Fax: 0171-630 9900

Gametrackers has three camps within the Okavango Delta region, two of these are adjoining the Moremi Wildlife Reserve and the other within the Chobe National Park.

Prices

The cost is per person sharing a room and includes accommodation, meals, game viewing activities, park entrance fees, intercamp flights from Maun return, emergency evacuation insurance, alcoholic beverages and laundry service. Gametrackers offer five, six, seven, eight, nine and ten day programmes as well as offering the facilities for a programme to be tailor- made to individual specifications. Prices range from pounds 900 for a five day tour in the green season to pounds 2,800 for the ten day Okavango Discoverer in the high season.

Other operators to Botswana include Union-Castle Travel, 0171-229 1411.

Return flights to Gaborone, Botswana cost pounds 704 + pounds 21 tax through Somak 0181 903 8526, though if you fly via Johannesburg (South Africa) you can get away with pounds 500 + 28.90 tax, from Trailfinders. Tel: 0171-938 3939.

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