When the tiny prop plane landed bumpily at Pom Pom “airport,” a 50-meter dirt runway in the African delta, I was greeted by a family of warthogs, caked in mud from a recent frolic in a nearby mud hole. This, I figured, was a good omen to start my week-long safari in Botswana as I feared booking during low season, though arguably cheaper, would limit the variety and number of wildlife.
A land cruiser met me, driven by my guide KB, and we commenced the 30-minute drive towards Xaranna Okavango Delta Camp, the first of three lodges I would enjoy over the next 10 days; fulfilling a life-long dream of seeing all the magnificent creatures I watched since childhood on National Geo in their natural habitat.
Usually, guests are taken to the camp by boat, but the waters that flow in high season from Angola had not yet arrived leaving the landscape bone dry except for a few patches. That first drive was an experience I’ll never forget as a huge herd of elephants made their way across the road in front of us. I watched in utter amazement, just feet away from these gentle giants who regarded our vehicle as just another animal and lumbered away.
After arriving at camp, I was kindly offered a refreshing cold towel and lemonade while being given the ground rules. Morning drives start at 6:00 a.m. and conclude by 11:00 a.m. in time for a needed siesta and (very delicious) lunch which is followed by high tea at 4 p.m..
Evening game drives start at 4:30 p.m. and conclude in time for dinner at 8:30 p.m. I would need to be escorted to and from my room in the early morning and late evening as there was a good chance of a close encounter with an animal. Uh huh, just that evening an elephant walked through the camp and instead of walking around the boat pier used in high season, tramped on the pier, leaving a huge hole and lawn ornaments galore in his wake.
I was trying hard to remember these and other details, but I was a little too distracted gazing at a deep pond in front of my room. At first, I thought it was merely a large boulder that was wet from some kind of recirculating water feature. That is until a huge hippopotamus head emerged causing great ripples in the otherwise calm waters then quickly submerged again. Did I mention that the pond was right in front of my room?
At 4:15 p.m., I barely had enough time before my first evening game drive. My companions are a family of three from Milan, a father and son from Germany, and an animal tracker in addition to our guide. The mother from Milan had a telescopic camera lens the length of a baseball bat, which made my little point and shoot Sony pale by comparison. I’m told this area of the Delta includes “The Big Five,” which is what big-game hunters refer as animals most difficult to hunt on foot: elephants, cape buffalo, lions, leopards, and rhinos.
Halfway through the drive, our guide stopped for what I would soon understand to be an evening ritual of cocktails and snacks Delta style. A collapsible table transformed into a makeshift bar complete with a red checked tablecloth, an assortment of liquor and savory biltong jerky, a South African snack. Giraffe casually grazed behind the delta café, stopping to stare. We stared back. The long day traveling, the alcohol, the incredulous sensation of it all made me burst out laughing, a deep, down from the belly laugh just to forget all my cares, my job, the crisis in the world. And share the sunset with a giraffe.
If that weren’t enough, on the way back in our open-air Range Rover, my jaw dropped as I noted that every star in the universe seemed visible. Jupiter was the first to show itself that night, the Milky Way soon to follow. I scratched my head wondering when was the last time I saw the stars like that. Five years? That time in Nova Scotia camping on my 18th birthday? Breathtaking in Botswana.
Back at camp, I was escorted to my tent, which featured a sitting area, four-poster bed with mosquito netting, a clawfoot porcelain tub next to an enormous shower. Just outside was a large porch with a private outdoor shower and plunge pool. “Glamping” heaven.
Subsequent drives included more of the “Big Five” and other creatures great and small. During dusk one particular night we came upon a herd of around 600 cape buffalo. The sight was dumbfounding as I had never seen a herd that size of anything. A thin layer of evening fog made the experience even more majestic. Add zebra, more giraffes, impalas, bushbucks, and tsessebe. On a very hot afternoon in which I savored my cold pool, I had an audience of vervet monkeys hanging from the surrounding trees, jumping off my tent onto the pool furniture, and entertaining me for several hours. Not something you’d find at my local swim club, that’s for sure.
Sadly, my time at Xaranna came to a close but I was excited to fly to camp #2 in Chobe. Little did I know what death-defying experiences would await me there.