James Gifford takes you to six of Botswana’s greatest natural landscapes and speaks of the classic wildlife encounters available in each today.
01 Okavango Delta
I sit motionless, eyes straining to pierce the murky, predawn curtain that has been drawn across this unique landscape. Towering mopane trees gradually emerge from the darkness, like statues in a dimly lit museum. A red-billed francolin pecks impatiently at the dust, announcing itself with a noisy squawk that might have been nature’s first alarm clock.
A soft rustle of leaves attracts my attention and the unmistakable face of an African wild dog peeks through the ochre vegetation. Cautiously approaching a bare mound of earth, she looks for danger in all directions before finally disappearing into a hollow. A chorus of high-pitched, excited yaps accompanies her as she leads nine tiny pups out from the den.
They clamour for breakfast just as the rest of the pack trot into view, their jowls stained crimson from the morning’s successful hunt. As the adults take turns to regurgitate food for the ravenous pups, who constantly jostle for prime feeding position, I find it impossible not to feel sorry for the runt of the litter who is repeatedly knocked out of line by his larger siblings and left scrabbling in the dirt.
After a long day of exploring the landscape and observing its other remarkable creatures, the dogs come back to the fore. I stop to listen to the beautiful chiming call of the hunting pack ringing out across the bush, and I imagine the blur of legs as a succession of dogs chase chaotically after their prey. In complete contrast, the world in front of me is completely still. The only thing moving is the setting sun – it is melting into its own amber reflection in a saturated pan. Although it is currently the dry season, somewhat counter-intuitively it is now that water is most plentiful here. It is the result of an annual flood that starts life as fat drops of rain in the Angolan highlands and culminates in one of the world’s most spectacular inland deltas.
The constantly changing water levels and their impact on the flora and fauna compel this extraordinary ecosystem to continually evolve: river channels and islands grow and shrink, concentrating both prey and predators with breathtaking results. Where else could you watch the following unfold: a cheetah pounces on an unsuspecting red lechwe, only to be chased off by a clan of spotted hyenas. In the confusion the grateful lechwe scurries away (cue you rubbing your eyes in disbelief), before being immediately ambushed by an opportunistic leopard who drags it up a nearby tree… Only in the Okavango.
02 Chobe National Park
My nose is the first to sense it. The pungent odour soon becomes so putrid that it fills my nostrils and threatens to spill over into the back of my throat. And then I spy it, the bloated, inverted quadruped floating in the water like a child’s oversized bath toy. We drift towards the dead hippo and see the menacing glint of teeth and emerald scales briefly surfacing above opaque ripples before disappearing like prehistoric, pelagic ghosts. The majority of the carcass is submerged, so the crocs dive underwater, tearing off chunks of flesh, eagerly taking advantage of this free iceberg-sized feast. It is a rather gruesome, unromantic face of Africa, but morbid fascination overcomes my olfactory protestations, particularly when the mammoth 5m-long giants lying on the bank slither into the water, sending their younger reptilian cousins scattering in their wake.
Continuing down river takes us to the other end of life’s infinite spectrum. Tiny, fluffy African skimmer chicks hop towards nesting parents on an island. With precious little camouflage, the chicks look dangerously vulnerable. But vigilant adults voraciously dive-bomb aerial predators to defend their young.
We turn down a narrow channel in time to watch a small family of elephants crossing back to the mainland. One young calf in need of a few swimming lessons is protectively sandwiched between mother and aunt; only its frantically waving trunk is visible above the water, like a gigantic bendy straw. The relief when the youngster finally reaches land is palpable. Close by, a fish eagle perches on a dead tree, flinging its head back to the sky to utter the shrill call that seems to epitomise Africa in just four notes. Within seconds, the call echoes back and the majestic avian departs in search of its mate.
It is the diversity of life along the Chobe that is so rewarding. In the dry season this broad, rolling river is the primary water source for the largest surviving elephant population on the planet, as well as for sizeable herds of buffalo, plains game and abundant predators, not to mention some prolific birdlife. A Chobe boat trip not only provides a fresh perspective, it is also the best way to maximise the spectacular game viewing that the park has to offer.
03 Central Kalahari Game Reserve
There is a bitter chill in the air as I gratefully warm my hands by the rekindled embers of last night’s campfire. A thin veil of mist hangs in the valley below, concealing the grazing gemsbok in an almost invisible cloak. As I venture into Africa’s second-largest reserve there is no other vehicle in sight.
Gigantic fresh pugmarks appear in the Kalahari sands, and before long I catch up with the perpetrator: a black-maned male patrolling his territory. He turns, staring at me with a fierce intensity that is simultaneously hypnotic and awe-inspiring, sparking a rush of adrenaline that quickly flushes away all remnants of the cold. I watch as he licks the dew from the tall grasses, his rough, pink tongue gently caressing each frond, savouring every drop in this harsh desert environment.
A few days later I have another frosty feline encounter, though this time it doesn’t have anything to do with the temperature. I have inadvertently interrupted a romantic liaison, hence the rather cool reception. Reversing gingerly, I wait for the lioness to instigate the next mating session. After some coaxing, her partner wearily obliges before climaxing with a snarl and collapsing prostrate on the grass. The pair will repeat the act every 15-30 minutes for the next three days, in a laborious attempt to procreate and guarantee the future of their genes and the safety of the species.
It is just a taster of the remarkable complexity of Africa’s only sociable cat – a vicious hunter and territory defender one day, a patient parent and co-operative pride member the next. To witness such behaviour at close quarters, often without seeing another vehicle for the entire day, ratchets up the intensity of the experience, making each sighting even more thrilling. Given the incredible array of desert-adapted species sharing this vast, untouched wilderness, it is no surprise that whenever I leave the Central Kalahari, it always seems a day too soon.
04 Makgadikgadi Pans
They stand perfectly still, propped up on their hind legs like a miniature terracotta army waiting for orders. Dappled early morning light filters through the branches of an ancient baobab, turning their fur golden, its warmth slowly breathing life into each individual. They move slowly at first, meticulously grooming each other, then the incessant chattering begins and the meerkats scamper away on their daily foraging mission.
I lie on the ground taking a photo of one industrious adult digging frantically, and I am amazed when he triumphantly emerges grasping a large frog in his jaws that must be over half his size. Trying to conceal his booty from the clan is a futile, albeit amusing task.
I feel a gentle tap on my shoulder and a soft claw on my head. Initially bemused, it is a few seconds before I realise I am being used as a lookout post. In this almost universally flat environment, any opportunity to gain a few feet is quickly seized upon by whoever is on sentry duty. It is a flattering display of trust made possible because the colony has been sensitively habituated to human presence, although the meerkats remain completely wild. The result is a rare insight into the natural intricacies of one of the animal kingdom’s most intriguing social structures.
A very different wildlife experience is just a few kilometres away, where 20,000 zebra and a few thousand wildebeest are making their annual trek eastwards to feed on the grasses that have started to sprout at the edge of the Makgadikgadi Pans after the first summer rains. This is the second largest zebra migration in the world, yet you are almost guaranteed to be the only spectator as you listen to the baying of the munching herds and watch the stallions keep their harem of mares and young foals in check.
A queue forms at a natural pan, a mesmerising maze of black and white crowding the incumbent drinkers. With predators on the prowl, this is when the equines are at their most vulnerable and it is only a matter of time before one is spooked. The domino effect is instantaneous: flashes of hooves are briefly visible amongst the splashing water as the herd gallops off towards the distinctive palm tree-lined horizon, a stunning backdrop that adds yet another dimension to this special place.
05 The Tuli Block
Huge eight hundred-year-old nyala trees dominate the banks of the river that I will always think of as ‘grey-green and greasy’, thanks to Rudyard Kipling. The Limpopo River is legendary in itself, but to leave the vehicle and start walking alongside it will awaken the senses even further. The change in perspective is dramatic: instead of watching as an outsider, you become part of nature itself. Without the security of a vehicle you feel vulnerable and insignificant, eyes and ears hungrily devouring every spoor and sound as your body automatically reverts to the self-preservation instincts our ancestors relied upon thousands of years ago.
The noise of twigs crackling underfoot is amplified ten-fold, while often overlooked species vie for your attention: dung beetles fascinate with their infinite patience; ant lions amaze with their cunning guile. An enormous creased circle stretching half a metre across suddenly dominates the ground and your eyes shoot up in a mixture of fear and excitement. Involuntarily, you hold your breath as six tonnes of elephantine bulk feed noiselessly 50m in front of you, before gracefully disappearing in one of nature’s greatest magic tricks.
As you walk there is an almost imperceptible change in scenery, until finally sandstone cliffs have replaced the riverine forest. Elephant shrews dart across basalt rock formations like hyperactive children, watched by raptors soaring overhead. Pebbles lie strewn across a narrow ridge, beyond which lies a cave. Thousands of years ago, the history of its inhabitants was recorded through paintings that still adorn the walls. In fact, very little appears to have changed here over the years. Ancient baobabs continue to watch over successive generations of the wildlife that still wanders amongst Tuli’s impressive geological and cultural past. It may be only a few kilometres, but a walk in Tuli takes you back to a different era.
06 Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park
Cotton-white puffs of cumulus cloud hang from the sky as if suspended from an invisible ceiling. A herd of springbok rest wearily in the cramped shade of a camelthorn acacia, watching the clouds gradually converge until they form one indeterminable mass of a dozen shades of grey. Silvery Bushman grasses begin to wave gratefully as a faint breeze provides welcome respite from the afternoon’s sultry heat, the first clue of what is to come.
It starts quietly, with a faint, innocuous rumble barely audible over the territorial squawk of the northern black korhaan. Far in the distance the rain is visible, leaking from the violet centre of the storm as if through a giant sieve. Clouds soon fill the sky in every direction, mushrooming with each minute that passes until they seem close enough to touch. Bright sunlight, which just moments ago was highlighting the grass-covered dunes, suddenly disappears, replaced by a crepuscular gloom.
Strong gusts of wind arrive, tearing at the branches of an umbrella thorn acacia, under which a female cheetah shelters her young cubs. Streaks of lightning race to the ground as a deafening clap of thunder sounds overhead and the first globules of rain splatter on the sand. The rain falls faster and faster, creating miniature rivers in the crevices and gullies etched into the earth, until finally it abates and the storm moves on.
A fresh, cleansing aroma permeates the air and the sun reappears, bathing still-dripping trees in a soft, magical glow. A black-backed jackal, caught without shelter, shakes its sodden fur, spraying a fountain of tiny droplets towards the ground. A few inches below the surface, grass roots thirstily drink their fill – the first step towards nourishing the herds of springbok and gemsbok which will in turn feed the predators that roam the Kgalagadi.
From Travel Africa 61 Winter 2012/13, Travel Botswana Supplement. To buy this magazine, click here.