Operation Oysterhood: 10-15 December

Botswana.

WildEarth live safaris have kept me sane during the entire lockdown, but it was finally time to experience the real thing. My love organised everything. Passports and negative Covid-test results in hand, we drove out to the ghost town that was Cape Town International in the beginning of December and began the long trek north to Joburg, Maun and Khwai. Although we were there mid-morning, O. R. Tambo International felt like an airport long after midnight: shops closed or empty, hardly any people or planes to be seen anywhere. But everything went smoothly. The safety protocols in place at the airports and during the flights (Airlink and Mack Air) were excellent, with staff everywhere adhering to and safeguarding the rules as well as trying to make one feel comfortable despite the challenges. But: fellow travellers leave a lot to be desired. I don’t want to exaggerate, but it is difficult to forget the stupid, careless, occasionally vicious, behaviour we have witnessed en route.

(If you want to wilfully get sick, suffer and die, fine with me – really – but you are not alone on this planet and don’t start f@#$%^ breathing down my neck when you are meant to stand in a queue one-and-a-half meters behind me.)

Sorry.

Deep breaths.

We were supposed to stay at two Natural Selection camps in the Okavango Delta and arrived at the first one, Tuludi, with the only other guest, a British travel writer who turned out to be a fascinating travel companion. The three of us were the first – let me repeat that: the first – guests at the lodge since the lockdown in March. And tourism, like water, is the region’s lifeblood. There were four other local guests at the second camp, Sable Alley. And we met a German couple travelling through Botswana during our unexpected visit to the third Natural Selection camp, Meno A Kwena, a two-hour drive south of Maun, on our last night in Botswana (yeah, you guessed it – we had to go back early to Maun because of the local government’s confusing messaging around Covid testing for the return trip home; instead of planned rapid testing at the airport just before our flight, we had to go the more conventional route and do the ordinary test one day in advance – but the staff at Natural Selection handled the entire thing with such efficiency that we did not feel that we were losing out on anything, just gaining an additional amazing experience). These camps are not meant to accommodate two, or three, or six visitors only, and it is heart-breaking to see them – with all of that glorious wonder that they have to offer all around – nearly empty. I am not even going to start on the totally empty camping areas we saw on game drives. It was devastating.

Again, all the places we visited had excellent safety protocols in place. I never felt that I was putting myself at any additional risk while being there. I don’t know how they remained optimistic during all this time, but the staff members we encountered at these camps were not discouraged – they just put on their masks, kept appropriate distance, measured our temperatures and monitored everyone for symptoms religiously. On one of the drives, our fantastic guide, Russell, took us to the village of Khwai, where the first thing we noticed was a selection of masks drying on a washing line outside of one of the traditional homesteads. What we did not see until the fourth day of driving around was another vehicle on safari …

Russell told us that they had used the time of the lockdown to upskill people and upgrade infrastructure and did drive around as much as possible to assure that the animals would remember us humans when we returned one day, but it was quite obvious that, despite the local rangers’ efforts, some of the animals were not as relaxed around us as usual. And now, more and more young are being born who have no opportunity of getting used to these strange gawking creatures with their cameras and binoculars – new ones, nogal, a gift for the trip from my love – always pointed at them.

Wildlife highlights for me were: squirrels in the mopane forests, red lechwes, dwarf mongooses, all hornbills of the area, a blue waxbill, Southern carmine bee-eaters, lilac-breasted rollers, jacanas, coppery-tailed coucals, saddle-billed storks (Russell taught me to tell the female and male apart), wattled cranes, an emerald-spotted wood dove, go-away-birds, monitor lizard, tsessebes, a leopard tortoise, zebras, warthogs, crocs, giraffes, elephants, Southern banded groundlings, kingfishers, The Vultures, and then, of course, a leopard, a hyena, a sable antelope in the distance and the two male lions right next to our vehicle (they were too lazy to move after a huge feast – those bellies!). No leeches. No scorpions. Thank all goddesses! A truly rare sighting instead: a black coucal.

Personal safari joys of note: passing a copse, I noticed a feather falling from one of the trees and then pointed it out to the others, who then spotted the beauty it came from, a Verreaux’s eagle-owl. And I was the one who first saw a side-striped jackal slinking away through the tall delta grasses, but Russell identified it for us.

I am totally and completely in love with hippos. Their grunts always make me smile and seeing a hippo sail through the air like a ballerina on its outrageously ridiculous legs is a sight I will never forget.

A moment of despair: a lechwe mother fighting off vultures wanting to feast on her dead baby. She could not walk away from the small corpse for nearly an hour, giving up only when a pair of lappet-faced vultures arrived on the scene. No one can tell me that this was pure instinct only (instinct would have told her to leave because of the predators lurking). It was loss and grief and a mother’s brave heart on display …

A trip like this is physically exhausting – early wake-ups, long drives, heat, rain, vigilance – and yet, there is a part of you that rests in a way that allows the batteries to recharge even within a few days.

I did not know how to imagine the landscape before arriving, but the moment we landed I felt at peace with the world. The rains had started and we witnessed spectacular thunderstorms in the afternoons and evenings. During our mokoro excursion, we had two violent weather systems painting brooding clouds, lightening and rainbows on both sides of the water channel we were traversing, but between them, all was calm and so beautiful, I just wanted to lie in the canoe and look out and forget about the entire world – thunder, crocs, hippos and all. And this before the G&T sunset on one of the delta’s stunning islands.

I had Amarula coffee with a warthog and giraffe watching. I made Okavango rainbow wishes that I hope will come true. And I had one of the most luxurious baths of my life.

Throughout, I slept like a stone and thought that it was the malaria medication, but I continued taking it for a week after the trip and stopped sleeping properly again the moment I got back home, so it wasn’t the pills – it was the state of mind induced by this astounding place on earth, the Okavango Delta.

Writing a paper diary while travelling :)

Thank you to Colin Bell and the entire Natural Selection team, and my love – the best (travel) companion – for making lifetime dreams come true.

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