On Safari in Botswana
The waters are rising in the Okavango, flooding shallow depressions and sandy tracks, part of an epic, annual inundation that continually recasts the dynamic delta—with a major assist from hippos. The two-ton herbivores play a crucial hydrological and ecological role across the virtually flat delta: The trails they tramp between streams and pans keep the channels free of vegetation and the water flowing into areas for fish and invertebrates to breed.
“Without hippos,” says Reed, “the delta would fail.”
I’m eager to spot a Pel’s fishing owl, but Reed says the bird is more common along the narrow panhandle of the Okavango River near the Namibian border. Our best chance will come in the early morning, he adds, before the rising light and heat compel the nocturnal birds into the jackalberry trees.
Reed is a fount of encyclopedic details and arcane anecdotes about every plant, insect, and animal we encounter. To protect their bark from elephants, marula trees grow football-sized calluses around their trunks, relates Reed.
He points out a yellow-billed stork hunting in a nearby pan. “Its Afrikaans name, Nimmersat, means ‘never full,’ ” Reed says. “They always seem to be feeding.”
We meander through mopane forest, cross a clear stream, and spot a vervet monkey pulling leopard-lookout duty in an acacia tree. And then, good fortune finds us under a jackalberry tree, in the form of a two-foot-tall, rufous-hued bird.
“Unbelievable,” Reed whispers, “there’s a Pel’s right here.”
It’s a fabulous sighting: a full-body scan that lasts several minutes before the owl takes wing. A lucky encounter, too: Reed says he sees the bird “maybe one in 10 times” inside Moremi.
On another circuit, we check a copse of feverberry trees for leopard after hearing a ruckus made by reedbuck and foot-tall, henlike francolin, then break for rooibos, or red bush tea, in the shade of an acacia. In a nearby pan, a solitary slaty egret stalks the shallows for frogs. A pair of stately, five-foot-tall wattled cranes take flight, banking so close to our vehicle that we can hear the wind surging through their black-edged wings.
We ford a stream where two large crocodiles slither across a hippo highway just in front of our truck’s half-submerged hood; somewhere in the trackless woods we warily ease through an elephant herd as twilight descends. Although extremely rare, fatal encounters do occur with Botswana’s untamed animals: an American boy dragged from his tent in the Moremi by hyenas in 2000; a South African woman fatally bitten by an Okavango hippo in 2003. One of the first European explorers to Botswana, 19th century Swedish naturalist Johan August Wahlberg, was killed east of the Okavango by a wounded elephant—“Run through with $80,000 worth of ivory,” in Reed’s colorful terms.
By the time we reach camp, a star-filled night spills across the southern sky. The frog-like chirp of an African scops-owl—at six inches the region’s tiniest owl species—serenades us over a hearty dinner of corn chowder and beef filet, only to be drowned out by the grunting and thrashing of two territorial male hippos in the nearby bush. We’re polishing off the chocolate mousse when Reed’s cook appears.
“There’s a hippo in the kitchen,” he solemnly states.
We drop our plates and follow him 20 yards to the outdoor cooking area. Sure enough, standing in the shadows lurks several thousand pounds of very glum, dejected hippo. After sulking for a few minutes, the vanquished animal turns and shuffles off to the nearest pool.
“For me, the attraction of the Okavango is sitting out in camp under the stars, having hippo passing through without actually feeling threatened,” muses Reed. “When we leave tomorrow, you’d never know there was a camp here. You just feel much more immersed in the wilderness than a lodge.”
I’d expected the Kalahari, the so-called “Great Thirstland,” to be a lifeless desert. But a two-hour flight south from Maun has set me amid a semi-arid savannah filled with herds of springbok, hartebeest, and gemsbok stalked by cheetahs and black-maned lions. There are scores of birds, including thrushlike dusky larks, a summer visitor found in freshly burnt grassland, and tawny eagles, an opportunistic omnivore that eats everything from termites to elephant carcasses.
I’ve wanted to travel here ever since reading Cry of the Kalahari, the adventure-filled 1984 book by Mark and Delia Owens recounting their seven years studying lions and brown hyenas in this epic, unforgiving wilderness where Bushmen have thrived for thousands of years.
In the cool of dawn, I leave Kalahari Plains Camp with Tshepo Phala, a young guide at the exclusive, 10-unit resort, for a 20-mile drive to Deception Valley, site of the Owens’ fieldwork. We find the paw prints of lion and brown hyena near the solar-powered lodge, and then cross a broad pan, where gemsbok joust and a pair of black-backed jackals tend two playful kits.
“Everybody’s happy,’’ says Phala. “It’s been raining.”
In the distance, two honey badgers dig furiously while a southern pale chanting goshawk hovers overhead. Phala speaks of their “special relationship”; the harrierlike bird waits to snatch the rodents and lizards bolting from the badgers’ excavation. From the flatlands we enter a rolling landscape of ancient sand ridges and riverbeds overgrown with giant speargrass and hoodia cactus, flushing a four-foot-tall, speckle-winged kori bustard. Weighing nearly 40 pounds, the world’s heaviest flying bird makes a slow, gravity-defying climb resembling the laborious takeoff of a fully fueled Boeing 747.