Okavango Safari

Touring one of Africa's conservation success stories
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A beetle about the size of a tangerine makes its way across the linoleum floor of Sir Seretse Khama International Airport in Gaborone, Botswana, twiddling its antennae tentatively and causing cataclysmic disturbances in seating arrangements wherever it goes. It walks past the cases of camera gear brought by the impeccably dressed Spanish family, past the English schoolteacher's canvas bag, past the bow and arrow set the Peace Corps volunteer had bought from a Bushman. The locals, most of them dressed in the quasi-military khakis favored by game guides, remain buried in their paperback mysteries. But the eyes of the tourists are glued to the beetle, to every step of its wavering course.

We're on the brink of wild Africa, after all. We're waiting for a flight to Maun, a town on Botswana's northern frontier and the point of entry to the Okavango delta, which has been lauded as both the continent's greatest natural wildlife preserve and its largest and most beautiful oasis. This is Africa for experts: Far from the gridlocked national parks of Kenya, the Okavango Delta is a pristine network of rivers, marshes, and grasslands the size of Massachusetts.

I am on my way to several tented camps deep in the delta, from where I'll take game drives, walks, and canoe rides. Then I am going to ride into the bush on the back of an African elephant. This isn't a suicide mission; it is the only operation in which African elephants are being used to transport paying clients. It's a fantastic thing, and expensive. It is also the distillation of the nation's emerging tourism policy: to attract small numbers of visitors and large amounts of foreign currency. There isn't a backpack to be seen in the airport.

While much of the continent has been written off as beautiful but doomed, Botswana may not be. The country has been under the peaceful rule of the black majority for 26 years and is taking some concrete steps to conserve its environment. While elephant numbers elsewhere in Africa have been decimated, they have actually grown in Botswana, as well as in neighboring southern African nations like Zimbabwe. A controversial water project on one of the Okavango Delta's major channels has been put on hold in the wake of objections from a growing environmentalist community.

Botswana certainly has one thing on its side: Barely more than a million people live in this country, which is the size of France. I'd spent the previous night in a hotel in downtown Gaborone, next to the governmental buildings, the national museum, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and the cinema showing Terminator 2. Still, I was awakened by cocks crowing.

The next morning, after a pair of flights had taken me to a camp on Shinde Island deep in the waterways of the delta, I was awakened before dawn by something much bigger. It sounded like bad plumbing hooked to an amplifier. It was interspersed, strangely, with dainty grazing noises. It was a hippo. I woke the second time when a woman brought a tray of coffee into the tent.

Those two early-morning occurrences pretty much sum up luxury camping, African style. The natural world is a tent flap away, but your creature comforts are attended to with a lavishness that would corrupt a Calvinist. We ate fresh-baked bread and drank fine South African wine. We took hot showers and sipped afternoon tea. Still, a wild elephant bull walked right into camp one day, turning back only when the cook hit him broadside with an expertly-aimed ladle. A recent guest had found a deadly six-foot black mamba snake wrapped comfortably around the base of her toilet.

In the bush, the herbivores were either eating or looking around nervously, while the carnivores were sleeping off eating the herbivores. In the Moremi Game Reserve, we saw a young warthog. Little more than a baby, it ran behind a clump of grass and turned back toward us. Only half-obscured, it looked anxious and hopeful. Joseph Bayeyi, our guide, drove the Toyota Land Cruiser parallel to the warthog and demanded:"Where is your mommy?" A few hundred yards away we found a pride of lions in post-feast languor. They watched us levelly with their amber eyes and rolled over to work their spines into the dirt, their huge paws flopping in the air.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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