Makgowa Ronald Manyanga – Ronald to all – is a talkative man who loves to spin a yarn, but not this morning. He sips his tea, hands cupped around the warm enamel to combat the morning chill, and then as he shakes the last drops of tea onto the ground, he points to a footprint in the dust beside his chair. It's a human-palm-sized print, a big indentation at the bottom and four smaller pads in a semicircle above, each with a claw at the end. "Hyena," he says. "The prince of darkness." The prints point in the direction of our tents. "He came by to check us out. Let's go find him"
We pile on board our Toyota safari vehicle, bundled up in scarves and puffer jackets – who knew Africa could be so cold – and drive through the Moremi Game Reserve and across the Khwai River. Just past the bushman village on the other side a solo wild dog trots across the road in front of us. It disappears in the scrub and for the next few minutes we play a game of hide and seek. Ronald hangs his head over the side, stops and looks at the dust without speaking, sees things we cannot see and then like a surface-to-air missile he's locked in. He spins the wheel sending the Toyota charging through the scrub, brakes and suddenly a hyena darts out from a clearing, the remains of a carcass in its jaws, with a posse of wild dogs in hot pursuit. The spectacle is over before we can even raise our cameras, but the sound of the wild dogs in the distance tells us it's still being played out.
I'm on a nine-day camping safari through the Okavango Delta of Botswana, the landlocked country to the north of South Africa. One of Africa's wildlife treasures, the delta is a vast freshwater wetland that covers most of the country's north. The delta is part of the Kalahari Desert, but the Okavango River transforms it. The summer rain that falls on the Angola Highlands drains into the Rio Cubango which crosses the border into Botswana where it changes its name and spills across this 15,000-square-kilometre wetland, the planet's biggest river delta.
Water brings life. So precious is water in sun-struck Botswana that the word for water, pula, is also the national currency. The water of the Okavango River is the pulse that sustains a complete ecosystem, from insects to birds and frogs to grazing antelope, crocodile, hippo, elephant, leopard and lion, turning the Okavango Delta into a wildlife wonderland and a UNESCO World Heritage zone.
Timing is crucial. The floodwaters arrive like a slowly rising tide over the months of July and August, the cool season in the delta. Channels spill their banks, floodplains become shallow lakes. Excursions aboard a moroko, a dugout canoe, are popular at this time. As the floodwaters cease and the temperature begins to rise in the second half of the year, the grass yellows and dries and game becomes ever more concentrated around shrinking water holes.
There are camps in the delta where $US1000 per person a night will get you a modestly luxurious tent with a flush toilet and hot shower, meals and game drives included. Double that and the experience acquires extra frills – Wi-Fi and a wood-burning heater in your room, a plunge pool on the deck, daily laundry service, bread freshly baked every day and a well-stocked bar.
The mobile camping safari I'm on – Wild Botswana – starts at just over $4000 for nine days and has none of the above. We're bush camping in sites that are open to anyone who pays the park entrance fee. We sleep on camp beds in two-person dome tents. There are two pit toilets, freshly dug, and two canvas shower cubicles, and a chef who can turn out beef Wellington with rosemary potatoes and broccoli, followed by a lemon pudding that's good enough to lick the bowl for, if manners were to take a back seat. But the game-changer is our driver and guide Ronald. In these surroundings he's worth his weight in gold. It doesn't take high-level skill to find most of the animals that you might associate with African wilderness: hippo, elephant, giraffe, waterbuck, impala, jackal, lion. Drive about in the bush at the right time of day and you'll find them. But for those who know how to read it, the African bush is full of nuances. To Ronald, it's an open book.
Early one morning on the plain along the Khwai River, Ronald turns suddenly off the track and drives into chest-high golden grass where four vultures are feeding on a carcass. "That's the red lechwe killed by the lionesses we saw hunting yesterday."
Oh? And how did our Sherlock figure this out?
"Because the lion we saw in the evening stole it from the lionesses and dragged it in here to avoid being attacked in the night. I knew there was something here because that vulture sitting in the tree we passed had blood on its head and I followed the drag marks through the grass."
The days quickly fall into a pattern. We wake at 6am for a quick breakfast of granola, toast, tea and coffee, then into the vehicle for a four-hour game drive. Back for lunch followed by a siesta and a shower – a canvas bucket of warm water with a shower rose – then another two-hour game drive and back to camp by sunset with dinner, campfire stories and bed by 9pm.
It's total immersion. We are there on Mother Nature's terms, and the perimeter of our camp commands no respect. One afternoon in the Moremi Game Reserve our siesta is fractured when baboons invade our camp. They make off with the scones intended for our afternoon tea and a bag of sugar. An empty plate comes back, flung from a tree, and nearby a young baboon with a sugar-coated face sits on a branch looking pleased with the world.
It could be worse. On one of Ronald's previous tours a buffalo fought a night battle to the death with two lions right in the middle of the camp. Ronald had to jump in a vehicle and make his way around the circle of tents getting all the guests to safety. The battle went on for more than an hour and when the lions finally won they were too exhausted to eat their prey. All they could do was lie down beside it and sleep.
Against a backdrop of a million insect voices, the nights are punctuated with animal sounds – the rrrr-rrrr of hippos when we're near water, like a motor turning over and refusing to start. There's the nickering, seductive crooning of a hyena and lion, a sound between a grunt and a yawn. "Lion don't like to fight," says Ronald, thereby kicking just about every wildlife doco off its foundations. "They call as a way of advertising their claim to territory so they don't have to fight. If they fight they can get injured, and a broken leg or a flesh wound can be a death sentence. In captivity a lion can live for 25 years but rarely more than 15 in the bush."
Over the nine days we drive in an upside-down letter "L", starting from Maun and camping at Moremi, Savute and Chobe National Park. It's a journey filled with magic. A hunting lioness brushes past our vehicle, we're close enough to lean down and stroke it. We watch a leopard stalking impala and wild dogs in their den, half-a-dozen pups biting and mock fighting and being cuffed occasionally by the adults. There's a bushman sacred site in a coven of enormous baobab trees and nights under a canopy of stars, like a black umbrella punctured with buckshot.
The trip ends at Kasane, close to where Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe intersect. Some of us are continuing to Victoria Falls, others flying out to Johannesburg. For Ronald it's a long and dusty drive back to Maun, about 12 hours, then a day off before another safari. He's on the phone to his young daughter as he waves farewell from behind the wheel. She's making him a cake to welcome him home.
That night, on the way back to our hotel rooms from dinner, there's a blood moon. It glows full in the night sky, darkens and turns red. It's the longest total lunar eclipse of the 21st century and Africa is one of the best places to see it. I hope Ronald is eating cake right now, under the blood moon, safely back with his family.
OKAVANGO'S TOP FIVE EXPERIENCES
The abundance of water means that the mokoro, the traditional dugout canoe, is used as much for wildlife viewing as the four-wheel-drive Toyota in the Okavango Delta. The mokoro offers spectacular game-viewing opportunities, particularly for the delta's many bird species and for hippo.
The Selinda Spillway is a narrow, snaking waterway in northern Botswana that draws hippo, elephant, buffalo, kudu, impala, baboon and their predators to its banks. Canoe safaris along the spillway offer a close-up look at Africa in the raw.
Scenic flights from Maun give you a whole different perspective on the filigreed wetland of the delta, with close-up views of elephant, rhino, buffalo and many antelope species. The sheer size of the herds is staggering. Best in late afternoon.
Botswana has more elephants than anywhere else in Africa. Chobe National Park has the greatest concentrations, which congregate along the Chobe River as the dry season progresses.
The Okavango is a dream destination for bird-watchers, with more than 400 species on the checklist. Hornbills, oxpeckers, the African fish eagle, Pel's fishing owl and the wattled crane are just some of the species that draw twitchers to this avian paradise.
Michael Gebicki travelled as a guest of World Expeditions and South African Airways.
South African Airways has non-stop flights to Johannesburg, with connecting flights to Maun and Kisane, the southern and northern gateways to the Okavango Delta respectively. See flysaa.com
World Expeditions' nine-day Wild Botswana is a camping experience that offers a close-up look at African wildlife in a natural setting. Prices start from $4290 a person.