The only interest I've ever had in animals is in eating them. Looking at them, petting them, taking them for walks - who needs all that? I've seen an elephant at the zoo: very nice, but I made no plans to see another. They're all the same, aren't they?
Then our daughter met this bloke from Botswana when she was doing a degree in the USA, they fell in love, tra la, got married, and are now living happily in Botswana. Ronald is in computers; Caitlin started as a teacher, on a two-year British Council scheme, but she is now a journalist, working for the Francistown Voice. Much to my pleasure: I always hoped one of the children would join the media. Not quite Fleet Street, but one has to start somewhere.
They're very big on meat-eating in Botswana, so that was good news. Cattle raising is vital to their economy: no use being a veggie in Botswana. But the other news that came through, as we made plans to visit them, is that Botswana's big attraction for the outside world is wild animals. They have the best safaris in all Africa, so it is said. Places such as Kenya have let their safaris become mass-market and overcrowded, but Botswana has concentrated on low volume and high quality, keeping it refined, discreet, tasteful. All very commendable, I'm sure; but it's still gaping at animals, isn't it. Do I have to? Yes, said my wife. Caitlin will be upset if we don't properly experience her adopted country.
Botswana is big, the same size as France. But the population is titchy - about 1.5 million. It's just north of South Africa, but has no connection with it. Not to be confused with Bophuthatswana. It's a country that works, unlike many African states: proper democracy, no civil strife, no racial conflicts, and a healthy economy, thanks to its diamonds and other minerals.
We started off in Maun, Ronald's home town - or large village, really. From the air, it looked amazing, all these huddles of rondavels (circular thatched huts, made of mud and cow dung), each with its little circle of reeds. There seemed to be dust everywhere, dried-out river beds, but hardly any sign of a tarmac road. The little airport was buzzing, baby planes whisking people off to safari camps, bigger ones bringing in tourists and business folk from Gaborone, Botswana's capital, or from Johannesburg.
The centre of Maun reminded me of the Wild West. OK, so I've never been to the Wild West, but it does have this frontier feeling, a jumping little boom town on the edge of the true wilderness. There really were big game hunters, in all their gear, going off to shoot things, and massive, tank- like overland trucks, kitted out for survival on the Moon, not just Maun.
Ordinary cars are few and almost all are four-wheel-drive, ready for the rough, knowing that once you leave Main Street you are likely to hit desert, bush, swamp or wild beasties.
We stayed at Riley's, the only hotel, simple but ever so romantic, with a small pool, pretty gardens, nice restaurant - sort of low-key colonial. It is Maun's social centre, so at weekends it gets busy, with locals hanging out, kids trying to sneak into the pool. Very reasonable prices, considering it has all mod cons, such as air conditioning. We were in room 25, the best (I had a look in the others).
One of the fascinations of Maun is the Hereros - black African women dressed top-to-toe in Victorian clothes. Amazing. They walk about in full-length bustle skirts, sweeping cloaks and elaborate headgear in stunning colours. They must swelter under all that stuff, but that's how they always dress. They were originally refugees from Namibia, chucked out by the Germans about 100 years ago. They look suspicious and haughty, should you want to photograph them, but will usually agree for a couple of pulas. That's the local currency. Pula is also the word for rain. Very significant. They don't get enough of it so it's just as precious as money.
Then we went off to see the animals, flying to Kasane on the edge of Chobe National Park. We stayed first at Chobe Game Lodge, right in the park. We were not exactly roughing it: it was decidedly swish and exclusive. Hurrah for that - you can keep your tents and no mod cons. Elizabeth Taylor honeymooned there with Richard Burton, and you can't imagine her tenting it, can you? Moorish design, lots of space, excellent food, well managed, and among the 43 rooms are four suites with private pools. That's the way to do it.
First day, we did a late afternoon game ride, and it was surprisingly interesting, even for an animal agnostic. Coming across two lions lying sleek and sated just a few feet away, yawning and stretching, so relaxed, so superior, yet deeply menacing - it was, I admit, pretty interesting. But aren't giraffes ugly? No, really. They can't walk properly, as if they're in someone else's high heels.
Zebras are a fine sight, especially on the run, and I came round to elephants. We chanced upon 200 of them along the river bank, quietly drinking and grazing, plus a bit of pushing. Mr Kodak and Mr Sony got a huge amount of business. I think the world's camera and film manufacturers should sponsor all safaris, thus making it free for the rest of us. Also khaki shorts and shirt manufacturers: people do love dressing the part. You can put in days getting all the gear; then, if there are no wild animals, you can photograph yourself in the gear, looking wild.
But I do see the attraction. People on safari experience a more concentrated pleasure than on any other holiday. On a beach holiday, for example, you don't have a moment of absolute bliss. (Well, they'd arrest you, if you tried.) But on a game drive, there is a point when people stand up in wonder, mouths open, muttering 'awesome, awesome'.
However, one game drive was enough for me. What I saw was lovely, thank you, especially the cold drinks. Caitlin felt the same, but then she's a scaredy-cat. My wife and Ronald loved all the drives, but I preferred the boat trips on the Chobe River, a much less bumpy way of creeping up on nature. It was well awesome when a fish eagle swooped down beside our boat to catch a fish. It was a dead fish, thrown by a boat hand, with a piece of wood stuck inside to keep it afloat till the fish eagle spotted it. You can't have everything, not if everyone's camcorder has to be pointing the right way.
We then moved to Mowana Lodge, a bigger, more splendid hotel, just outside the game park, recently built and architecturally stunning, using African timbers and thatch, but on a theatrical scale. My wife preferred staying inside Chobe, as you have the wild animals on your doorstep; but I like to stretch the old legs and explore local settlements without fear of being eaten alive. Caitlin and I hitch- hiked into the little town of Kasane and she got a good story for her paper, all about a massive baobab tree that used to be the local gaol.
We ended the trip in Victoria Falls, just over the border in Zimbabwe. We stayed at the Victoria Falls Hotel, a wonder in itself, the second oldest hotel in Africa, built 1904. 1 don't think I have ever come across nicer staff. You get efficiency in a posh London or Paris hotel, but grow to hate the staff, just as much as they seem to hate you. Here there was good service (as there should be, with 325 staff for 138 rooms), but also a staff at ease with themselves, charming, going out of their way to please.
The Falls, about a mile wide, make my beloved Lake District waterfalls look titchy. The rainbows are constant and so is the spray, a veritable cloud that floats on high and can be seen miles away. Once within viewing distance you get totally soaked, which is part of the fun. Wimps hire umbrellas and raincoats.
We woke early on the last day, a fresh, clear, tropical morning. I said, 'How about walking to Zambia?' On the map, it didn't look far, just over the border. At this point, in central Southern Africa, you can't move for countries. Be neat to grab another one, I said, if just to fill our passports.
We walked across the Victoria Falls bridge and there was another awesome sight - bungee jumping. I was scared even to look over the bridge, which is 110 metres above the raging Zambezi, but there were people paying pounds 60 for the pleasure of throwing themselves off it.
Once in Zambia, we got a taxi to Livingstone, the nearest town. I'd met a couple in Chobe who said Livingstone was well worth seeing. It was a dump. We had a look at the town's museum, inspected David Livingstone's coat, letters and medical instruments, then got a taxi back sharpish to the Vic Falls Hotel.
On the last evening at dinner I had crocodile fins. Very tasty, like chicken, but with fishy overtones. Earlier at Chobe I ate ostrich, which was jolly nice. At Mowana I had impala strogonoff, which was terrific. See, animals do have their uses.
Hunter Davies booked everything himself, but many safari package holidays are available. Contact the Tourist Division, Botswana High Commission, 6 Stretford Place, London W1N 9AE (071-499 0031).
Riley's River Lodge Hotel, from pounds 80 per night, bed and breakfast for two (PO Box 1, Maun, Botswana; telephone 660 320).
Chobe Game Lodge, from pounds 150 per night, bed and breakfast for two (PO Box 32, Kasane, Botswana; 650 340).
Mowana Safari Lodge, from pounds 160 per night, bed and breakfast for two (PO Box 266, Kasane, Botswana; 650 300).
Victoria Falls Hotel, from dollars 222 per night for two (PO Box 10, Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe; 4203 4751).
BA flies Heathrow-Gaborone, pounds 590.
(Photographs and map omitted)
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